Archive » February 19, 2009
By Shelly Lowenkopf
The Hammett-Chandler Syndrome
When Dashiell Hammett’s iconic mystery novel, “The Maltese Falcon,” appeared in a 5-part serial in “Black Mask Magazine,” he had little need to watch his use of the vernacular language he’d picked up from his daytime job as an investigator for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. But the fame of “The Maltese Falcon” had spread to the point where the legendary American publisher, Alfred Knopf, wanted to see the bird in book form, under his Borzoi label, and so began a glorious game.
One of the rascally antagonists of “The Falcon,” Casper Gutman, has a bodyguard, Wilmer Cook, working for him. Early into the labyrinthine search for the legendary jewel-encrusted statue, Sam Spade, the private detective protagonist, embraces Cook, his intent to rattle Cook and get some information from him. “How long you been off the Gooseberry lay, son?” Spade asks Cook, to which Cook is annoyed.
Hammett knew the innocence of “gooseberry lay,” which simply meant stealing clothes from clotheslines. But in adding the question to the manuscript sent to Knopf, Hammett was gambling that it would be deleted and thus satisfying the copy editor’s need to “watch the language of the streets,” allowing the appellation “gunsel” as applied to Wilmer Cook to remain. It did. And for the next 50 years, the term “gunsel” was thought to mean a hired gun. Nope. Ask around. Ask, say, H.L. Mencken in his encyclopedic “The American Language.” Ask the hobos that rode the rails in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Truth to tell, Casper Gutman had a thing for young men. Wilmer Cook was Gutman’s gunsel.
Hammett’s overall use of language in general and vernacular in particular was his strong suit, the salient reason why “The Maltese Falcon” holds up after nearly 80 years; its descriptions and evocations of San Francisco a significant reason why (with some later help from the columnist Herb Caen) San Francisco remains to this day everyone’s favorite American city.
“The Maltese Falcon” brought the crime and mystery story out of the English manor, the Agatha Christie assemblage, and the tea cozy atmosphere of the Cotswolds into the living rooms and installment-plan autos of the working classes, complete with jealousy, betrayals, upward mobility, crooked pawnshop dealers, missing husbands, and Chinese “paper children.” In the Falcon, blood was real, had splatter patterns, stained carpets, would not wash up neatly. For anyone who thought Hammett could plot as opposed to merely complicate, all one had to do was read such Hammett classics as “The Dain Curse” or “The Gutting of Couffingal,” or even the more perfect “The Glass Key.” You might get caught in the labyrinth of details, but there was always an intense narrative thrust to Hammett’s complications that drew you onward, into the tangle of human affairs. Even when his characters sat about, recounting events at a restaurant where meals cost 45 cents and the bootlegged booze was served in coffee cups, the talk reeked of hidden agendas and Depression Era plans to get a foothold on the American Dream.
In many ways, the world about us has dichotomy: a dog person or a cat person, coffee or tea, bourbon or scotch, Dodgers or Yankees. Into that calculus comes the Hammett or (Raymond) Chandler choice of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, which begs for a fuller brief. For now, let’s leave it at this: Chandler admired Hammett’s work, they were both “Black Mask” boys; each in his own way set the momentum for the noir realism that ran through the ‘30s, picking up steam after WW II, defining new generations of loners, losers, and seizers of the moment at hand.
This Hammett-Chandler Syndrome is a tough act to follow, one so tough that you have to give Joe Gores credit for even sitting in on this game. In “Archer & Spade,” Gores ventures forth with a prequel to “The Maltese Falcon,” beginning in 1921 when Sam Spade, working the docks of Tacoma as an agent for the Burns agency, solves a case, resigns, and moves to San Francisco to strike forth as a one-man office.
If earlier discussion about Hammett’s mastery of vernacular and landscape impresses you, then as an earlier reader of Hammett and an about-to-be of Gores’, you might be amused by the title of Chapter One of the Gores book and, in it, the name of the case Spade worked on. A 1913 mystery, “Trent’s Last Case,” by E. C. Bentley, was the same kind of satire on the gentleman detective as Stephen Colbert’s routine at the Bush Press Club Dinner. Gores titles his Chapter One, “Spade’s Last Case.” The last case Spade worked on for the Burns Agency was tracking down a missing person, a man named Flitcraft which, further to the cognoscenti, was the name of a famous digression from “The Maltese Falcon.”
Gores has done his homework; he knows the trivia and details of Spade’s San Francisco, indeed of Hammett’s San Francisco, reciting where Spade takes his meals, what bus or cable car routes he uses getting from place to place, knowing and using the terrain beyond San Francisco, knowing the very sounds of the fog horns in the Bay, guiding ferry boats and cargo ships through the misty darkness. He knows that Spade smokes hand-rolled Bull Durham cigarettes, fancies Bacardi rum, and lives in an apartment with a day bed on Ellis Street. Gores is also the plotter Hammett was not, weaving an intricate pattern of events that include the details of his partnership with Miles Archer, his affair with Archer’s wife, and his relationships with the San Francisco Police Department, including his enmity for Lt. Dundy.
Gores even leads Spade on a trial run of the fabled black bird encrusted with jewels from “The Maltese Falcon,” a missing treasure once intended for the Chinese revolutionary leader, Sun Yat Sen. The trial run involves Spade in an intense romantic relationship with a Greek mystery woman named Penny, and throughout the 300-odd pages of text, has Spade grasping for and missing a master criminal set on avenging previous costly encounters with Spade.
We come away from “Spade & Archer” thoroughly prepared for “The Maltese Falcon,” and if you have not yet tasted Hammett, this is a plausible, satisfying order in which to approach the considerable Hammett opera. It would be difficult to find a better-prepared writer than Gores to undertake such a project; after all, he too was a detective, he too has written mystery fiction (including one in which Hammett was the lead), and he too knows San Francisco. But in the final analysis, Gore falls short of cigar range; his excellent plotting is no substitution for the raw, thriving presence of Hammett’s language and his complications. The Sam Spade of “Spade & Archer” has all the props of the same Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” but he has neither the gravitas nor the ironic humor of the man who described the falcon as the stuff dreams are made of.
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