Joe Gores on The Maltese Falcon
Bay Area crime fiction writer Joe Gores passed away on Monday, January 10, 2011, at age 79—50 years to the day that Dashiell Hammett died.
Joe will be remembered for many things. He’ll be remembered for being only one of three authors to receive Edgar Awards in three separate categories: Best First Novel, Best Short Story, and Best TV Series Segment. (Donald E. Westlake and William L. DeAndrea were the other two). He will be remembered for winning Japan’s Maltese Falcon Award and for being entrusted by the Hammett family to write 2009’s well-regarded prequel to The Maltese Falcon, Spade & Archer. And he will be remembered for being the very knowledgeable Hammett scholar that he was.
As part of a fall 2007 event associated with the National Endowment of the Arts’ “Big Read” program, I had the opportunity to interview Joe on the subject of the Falcon at the public library in Pleasanton, east of San Francisco. If you want to learn about The Maltese Falcon, and just as importantly, appreciate Joe Gores at the top of his game, you can do no better than read the interview transcribed below.
Penny Johnson (Programs Librarian, Pleasanton Library): Thank you for coming out this afternoon to yet another Maltese Falcon Big Read program. By the end of this, you’ll know everything there is to know about Dashiell Hammett and the life of a private investigator. And certainly, we’ll learn we’ll learn a lot this afternoon because we have two writers here with us today, Mr. Joe Gores and Mr. Mark Coggins and Joe Gores is an expert on Dashiell Hammett. Mark Coggins has a detective series that is set in San Francisco also. So, gentlemen, I’m going let Mark take it from here.
Mark Coggins: Joe Gores is the author of the acclaimed DKA Series of street-level crime detection, as well as Hammett, a novel featuring Dashiell Hammett as a private eye protagonist.
He was educated at the University of Notre Dame and Stanford and spent twelve years as a San Francisco private investigator. The author of dozens of novels, screenplays, and television scripts, he has won three Edgar Allen Poe awards and Japan’s Maltese Falcon award. He lives in Northern California. He’s also working on a very special project that is germane to this conversation, and I hope that we’ll get him to talk a little bit about that later on.
But to start out, Joe, there’s a raging debate going on a newsgroup or a mailing list called Rara Avis, which of course is a reference to The Maltese Falcon, about whether or not Sam Spade really loved Brigid O’Shaughnessy. What do you think about that?
Joe Gores: Yes. That’s it.
Yeah, I think he did. He was a guy who fell for women. I mean, there’s no doubt about that. And as he says to Effie, I only know one way to relate to a woman. And he related to just about everybody that way.
She fascinates him the moment she enters his office. And you only can infer this. It’s not implied in the way Hammett wrote the novel because we never know what Sam Spade thinks. We only know what he does and how he reacts to things that we see. He feels deeply for her. He doesn’t trust her. He knows that– I don’t know if she is the original femme fatale or not, but she sure is the best one I’ve ever seen because she is a hundred percent immoral and is only interested in her own affairs, her own feelings, her own satisfactions, her own pleasures, her own wealth. Yet I think that she feels also for Spade.
So, there is a real spark going on there between the two of them. But I guess I do think that in his way he loved her.
Mark Coggins: Another question about her and their relationship—at the final scene where he accuses her of having killed Miles, he points out that Miles had his gun on his hip underneath his overcoat and he knew that Miles wouldn’t be that dumb to do that. So that’s sort of his tip-off that something was wrong in the whole set up. Do you think that he knows that from the beginning then that Brigid has killed Miles, or do you think that’s something he comes to realize later?
Joe Gores: I think it’s something he comes to acknowledge later. I think that at the very beginning, the very fact that you say this– Hammett used that scene once before in a short story called “Who Killed Bob Teal” where he’s killed behind–this Continental Op is killed behind a billboard. And a billboard figures in Archer’s death too because he rolls down the hill and ends up behind a billboard. But in “Who Killed Bob Teal,” both the Op and the Old Man, who runs the Continental Detective Agency, understand that the person that the detective is investigating would never be caught that way by the person he’s after.
But he could be caught that way by the client because after all the client is paying him. So, you’re going to trust the client. The client’s going to say, “Hey come back here I gotta talk to you.” He would go up the alley–or behind the billboard. But there is still a question because three or four or five times in the novel, Hammett says that Archer was as dumb as any man ought to be, which means that Archer could have been that dumb.
And we get a little clue to Archer’s not getting it when he first sees Brigid and he licks his lips and looks at her. And Spade goes like this on the arm of the chair: no, knock that stuff off. This is a client. But Archer is a guy who acts first and thinks later, I think.
So, I think he did have a question at the beginning and he was hoping against hope as his feelings for her deepened that she was not the one who killed Archer because he knew he couldn’t let it go by. He would have to do something about Archer’s death.
A thing that may be out of your range of questions here, but the novel is called The Maltese Falcon, but the novel is not about the Maltese falcon. The novel is about who killed Miles Archer.
That’s what the whole thing is about. The rest of it, wonderful as it is, is the byplay over here in the corner that is going to intrigue everybody, and of course that’s what we like to think the novel is about, but that really isn’t what it’s about.
I have a question. I’m sure many of you will get this, but between the novel and the movie version, there’s a difference in the ending. And, I always like to ask people, what’s the last line of the movie? The last line of dialogue in the movie.
Audience Member: “The stuff that dreams of made of.”
Joe Gores: That’s what everybody thinks. The last line of dialogue is, “Huh?” That’s Tom Polhaus. Spade says, “The things that dreams are made of,” and Polhaus says, “Huh?” And then the elevator door shuts, and we see the bars on Brigid’s face as the elevator goes down and that’s the end of the movie.
Mark Coggins: You had mentioned that—speaking of the fact that we never know what’s going on in Spade’s head: we are sort of distanced from him—what in your opinion really are his motivations: is it personal loyalty to his partner, does he have some code about professional integrity or is he out to make a quick buck?
Joe Gores: No, he is not out to make— He is always out to make a quick buck. I’ve never known a detective who wasn’t out to make a quick buck. But Hammett talking about Spade in the introduction to one of the editions says that Spade is the ideal private detective. He is what all private detectives wished they were and in their cockier moments think they are. And a few times in my life during my professional years as a private eye, I thought, “Yeah, I nailed it!” “Yeah, I did it.”
There’s a guy named David Fechheimer who is the best private investigator I’ve ever, ever met. He says that too. He says Spade is it. That’s who private detectives should be. The other end of the scale is the Continental Op. He is also what a private detective should be if they worked for a large organization.
There’s a story called, “The Scorched Face,” about the Op, and in there there’s a brilliant little half a page where he and the other operatives and the police are trying to find out some facts: how many women have died by suicide in a certain period of time? In those number of women, how many knew each other? Well, this is the kind of puzzle you do get as a private detective.
And in this brilliant little half page, he just talks about what they did and what they did is dig and dig and dig and dig and dig and never give up. And then he finally says— the last sentence of that little section is, “We got something.” And that’s what private eyes are all about.
And Spade is certainly the man. He’s going to get something. He’s going to find out what’s going on. He’s not going to back off. And he makes it up as he goes along as any good investigator does.
I remember many years ago, I was trying to pop a post office box in the Peninsula and the post office people won’t tell you the address of somebody who has a post office box. I was trying to get the guy’s car, so I had to get the address. All I had was a PO box number. So, I go down there to San Francisco and stopped along the freeway where you could hear the trucks going by, use the pay phone and call the post office and said, “I’m out here at the freeway. I’ve got 4,000 chickens from Petaluma and I have to deliver them Mr. Jones. Where do you want ’em? I’ll bring them down there and we’ll put him on your loading dock.” And the PO guy says, “Oh, just a minute, just a minute. I think we’d have an address on this guy.”
And so that’s what private eyes do. That’s what Spade is the master of: that kind of game.
Mark Coggins: That’s great. Speaking of Spade, some have said–at least this is what I’ve read–that Spade was intended to be Hammett’s projection of himself. I even read that somebody felt that the physical description of Spade–the V’s and the Satan, the blond Satan—was supposed to be at least Hammett’s face. Where do you think Spade comes from? And do you think that Hammett would really model him after himself.
Joe Gores: Certainly that physically– Hammett used himself several times. The Thin Man is Hammett, physically. You know it’s absolutely, right down the line. In The Dain Curse, Owen—the bad guy in that—is modeled on Hammett physically.
Again, the sorrel hair before he turned white hair. And it was–it was his daughter, Jo, Hammett’s only surviving child, Jo Hammett, Jo Marshall, who first said to me, “Look at this picture and read the description.” And it’s one of the pictures of Hammett where he’s in profile and you see—and it is, pretty much. I think Spade is a huskier guy than Hammett was. Hammett was very, very skinny—tubercular and all of that. So emphysemic. And a boozer. And so, but, physically, yes. Where did Spade come from? Spade I think came—quite obviously—he came from Hammett’s own experiences as a private detective over a five year period off and on or an eight year period, depending on how you measure it.
He wrote a letter to his editor at Knopf and he said sometime somebody is going to take this form—the tough private eye guy—somebody’s going to take that and turn it into the literature and I am just egotistical enough to think I might be able to do it. And if I’m going to do it, it’s going to be this book, The Maltese Falcon.
So, he was shooting for the moon when he wrote it. He—I won’t say idealized—he perfected the persona of the private detective and then made Spade that guy. So, I think that’s where Spade—nobody knows for sure. I think that’s were Spade came from.
Mark Coggins: I reread the book for probably the fifteenth time—something like that—and then I—
Joe Gores: Piker.
Mark Coggins: I can’t keep up! Then I read some biographies and some critical discussion of the book and some things came up, one of which I’m just going to ask you about that I hadn’t even heard—about the relationships between people in the book. We all know that Spade is having an affair with Miles Archer’s wife and of course he has a relationship with Brigid, but it’s also been suggested that he slept with Effie. What do you think the nature of their relationship was?
Joe Gores: It’s the hero worship. And she’s crazy about him. But she knows that he is— would be too much, would be destructive for her. If she ever really—she’s just a kid. When he first hires her, she’s a kid. I know.
Mark Coggins: You have some special insight. [Editor: because he wrote the prequel.]
Joe Gores: Not special, but just my idea anyway. But no, I don’t think that he had an affair with her. She was his—he was her hero, flawed hero. She was his safety valve. He’ll put his head against her hip and rub it irritatedly against her hip. He knows that here, at least, is someone who can merit his complete trust, and she might not always do the things that he wants her to do, and he gets irritated with her, all of that stuff. But he knows that here is safe haven. Here’s the one person in this rotten world that we live in from his viewpoint that is not rotten—that he can trust. That’s how I see them.
Mark Coggins: We’ll talk about Spade more in a little bit, but let’s talk about Gutman. I personally think Gutman is one of the great villains in fiction. Would you agree with that? And if you do, what do you think makes him so fascinating a character?
Joe Gores: He’s a 19th century man in the 20th century, for one thing. Gutman is an almost Edwardian character. He—I don’t know as he is a great villain. He is a tremendous character. I once said to myself, is he such a great villain because he wants to get the Maltese falcon. He’s invests 19 years for this little item. And he accepts a worthless lead substitute from Kemidov. And then he gets shot dead. So, I mean, is he such a great villain? He is great villain, but he doesn’t have a core that will—the way that Spade has a core: a core inside of himself here.
Gutman is all about the acquisition of this thing. He is so in love with the history, with the idea of a gold, jewel-encrusted bird that he can see nothing else in life but that. And he will have no loyalties except to that. He will betray anybody to get that. And so in those terms, he is a great villain. And he’s the most–the wonderfulest villain. And of course, Sidney Greenstreet: I mean, my God. When he realizes—first when he realizes that Wilmer has disappeared: that look on his face. And then when he starts cutting the lead off the falcon and realizes it’s a phony. It’s just like a little like a pig grunting you see. And of course, everything—all his bulbs are jostling. So, he’s tremendous. You gotta love the guy. You see fog in San Francisco, and you see him scuttling down the alley with this thing under his arm.
Mark Coggins: Now here’s a question for you and the audience to think about before Joe answers: when you saw the word gunsel in the book, what did you think it meant? And what does it mean, Joe?
Joe Gores: Anybody? Gunsel started out—the term gunsel means a boy cut out for pederastic purposes. But Hammett uses it as a gunman. He’s a gunsel. He’s a guy who has a gun. In the years following The Maltese Falcon, that went into the underworld argot. So, after that, a gunsel has always meant a gunman, not a boy kept for pederastic purposes. So, he changed–he changed the language there when he called him a gunsel.
There’s another thing in there when he says to the kid—sits down by him, Wilmer Cook, in a hotel lobby and says, “Are you still on the gooseberry lay?” And he had a heck of a fight with his publisher to keep that phrase in because they thought gooseberry lay—I mean, that just suggests all sorts of nasty things. Somebody on the gooseberry lays is a guy who’s broke and he’s stealing laundry off people’s laundry lines to have clothes to wear. So, he’s hiding in the gooseberry bushes until people put their clothes up and go in the house and then he runs out and steals the clothes. So, he’s on the gooseberry lay.
Mark Coggins: This is another thing that didn’t occur to me until I read some of the criticism, but it’s clear in the book that Joel Cairo is gay. Given the question about gunsel, are we supposed to understand that Wilmer is Gutman’s lover as well?
Joe Gores: I don’t know. It can certainly go either way. I know Joel Cairo is mad for Wilmer and Wilmer is based on another character in one of the Op stories.
Hammett when trying to create a character would try it several times in his stories, in the short stories, and would be perfecting it each time. There’s very much this guy—what is the name that story?
Mark Coggins: “The (somebody) Kid?”
Joe Gores: Yeah, yeah,”The Whosis Kid.” And he was a tough kid, punk gunman out of Philadelphia or somewhere that they ran across years later in San Francisco. And he was sort of a blueprint for Wilmer Cook who was the gunsel.
And Wilmer is so meticulous, and clean with cleanliness. Everything is meticulous with him. I’m not terribly familiar with the gay scene, but he seems to me a character very much of a certain kind of homosexual male. You keep yourself nice.
And of course, Joel Cairo is the most effete degenerate kind of guy you would ever meet. He’s a—when Spade asks the house dick about Joel, Cairo and the guy lifts his brow and says, “Oh him. A guy like that loose in the big city.” He’s got the perfume—Spade smells his handkerchief.
So, I can’t answer. I don’t know. Wilmer Cook. It could be either way. Cook and Gutman.
Mark Coggins: Another thing I heard reading all this criticism which I’ll submit for your feedback, is that—well one difference actually between the movie and the book is you don’t have the character of Gutman’s daughter. I’ve heard it suggested that that book daughter is not really the daughter but is another of Gutman’s lovers.
Joe Gores: I don’t know. I had never thought of it until you said it. She’s just one of those things that Hammett that throws into all of his books–the Flitcraft incident in The Maltese Falcon, which is central to the book by way. In The Thin Man, the whole chapter about the Donner party eating each other, that apparently has nothing to do with the book, and yet in a way, has everything to do with the book.
Hammett loved that indirection. He would sneak up on you, go around the corner and tap you on shoulder when you are looking for him over there.
So, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I can’t assign any purpose to her except to move the plot along because she is there just to give Spade the phony information—to send him on a wild goose chase. So, I don’t know. These anomalies are things that—that’s one of the reasons I am always so fascinated by The Maltese Falcon because you never get to the bottom of it all.
Hammett was an intensely complicated, private, proud Southern gentleman. A proud guy who had the morals of a cat but kept his word. I am sure he never told a woman he loved her unless he did. At one point, the doctor tells him in his later years you’re going to die if you keep drinking. He says, “Okay, I’ll quit.” The doctor didn’t believe him, but he quit. He never touched another drink because he gave the guy his word. So, in that way, he’s sort of like a career military man: he has that strict thing you go by. You follow the rules as you see them, not as society sees them.
Sam Spade is a very strict moralist, but society would say he’s immoral because his morals aren’t society’s morals.
Mark Coggins: I knew I forgot one question when I prepared these. Let’s talk about the Flitcraft episode. What the heck is that doing in there and what does it mean?
Joe Gores: Okay, the Flitcraft episode is central to the novel. Those you who have read the book would remember the Flitcraft Episode. It’s a story that Spade tells Brigid suddenly. When she’s in his apartment, he launches into this story.
Oh, and by the way, just as an aside, Jo Marshall told me that when she was about 17 or 18, she was in the backyard with Hammett. He was in touch with his family, although he was separated from Josie, he was in touch his whole life—they never divorced. And he told her the Flitcraft story, and she said it was word for word as it was in the novel. So, it is obviously very important to him.
And the Flitcraft story is Spade is working for the Pinks in Seattle. And he’s assigned to find a guy who was a businessman—extremely successful—who makes a date to go to golf one afternoon and then goes out to lunch and is never heard from him again. He disappears. He drops out of sight.
They’re hired—the Pinks are hired to find him, and they never do—or don’t at that point because he just disappeared. He didn’t get extra money out of the bank. He didn’t make any secret travel arrangements. He didn’t have a lover. He wasn’t broke. He doesn’t have anything that would make him disappear.
A number of years later, he turned up in Spokane—he was recognized by somebody. And Spade was assigned to go talk to him—see if he was indeed Flitcraft. And it was. And Flitcraft said he went out to lunch when he was walking down the sidewalk, there was a construction project and a steel beam fell from the project and hit the sidewalk right beside him. Pieces of concrete came up and gouged his cheek.
When he told the story, he rubbed his cheek sort of affectionately and he said he had lived the good life. He was a good father, a good husband, a good businessman, a good member of society, and it meant nothing at all because everything was chance. A beam could fall and kill you. And that was it. What did all of this goodness and order in your life mean? It meant nothing. So, he just kept going from that moment. He went to San Francisco, he bummed around for several years working any kind of job you could get.
He ended up finally coming back up—ended in Spokane, met a woman, got married, started a business: very much like the business he had had before. Became quite wealthy and quite successful. His wife didn’t look anything like his first wife, but she was very much like her. As Spade said in telling the story, bridge club and cookie recipes.
And so Spade said the thing that he liked about the story was that Flitcraft had to adjust to falling beams. No more beams fell. So, he adjusted to that. He went right back to who he had been. And that is the point of the story from Spade’s point of view: that it is all meaningless. In other words, there is no order.
There is no good guys get paid off good, bad guys get paid off bad. I read a novel the other day where a guy says, “Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” And the other guy said, “Whoever’s alive at the end of the novel, that’s the good guys.” And so, in a way, that’s what you got here.
And so, this is Spade at that point telling Bridget: watch out. I’m not taken in. You can’t escape me; you can’t fob me off. You can’t—there’s no tale you can tell that will deter me. Because all we’ve got is what we do and who we are. Everything else is meaningless.
Now this—I’m not—that’s not me talking. That’s maybe not even Hammett talking, but I think it probably is. It’s certainly Spade talking. And so, it’s absolutely essential to the novel—the Flitcraft story. And Flitcraft by the way is the name of… I dug it out by sheer chance. I was looking at books at the library that were for sale for a dime one day, and there was a thing from the 1920s—the Flitcraft insurance tables. And Hammett, being a private detective, would have known about the Flitcraft insurance tables so he took the name and used it for that story.
Mark Coggins: That’s great. Do you think that Bridget got the message? Did she understand why she why she was being told the story?
Joe Gores: No, Bridget didn’t have the depth of mind. She was very smart and tricky and talked very fast, by the way. Hammett was very deliberate in making her a fast talker. And in the movie if you notice she’s a very fast talker. Hammett got this from a German criminologist. Hammett studied his book on criminology. And in there he said that all pathological liars talk very fast because they are trying to cover their lies all the time with words and words, so you don’t stop and think about what they’re saying.
Mark Coggins: Let me ask this question next question very slowly. You did a lot of research on real locations in San Francisco that are described in the novel. Can you tell us how you came to do that and some of the things you learned?
Joe Gores: The whole novel Hammett, that I published in 1975. My agent, Henry Morrison, was out from New York. We had dinner in Sausalito. This was like 1973—two or three. I was working on a novel called Interface. And we were driving across the bridge—and the foghorn, the Golden Gate Bridge foghorn: woo-hoom. And I said—the fog was in, it was misty, wet, cold, beautiful weather. And I said to Henry, “It’s a Sam Spade—it’s a Dashiell Hammett kind of night.”
And Henry just said, “I wonder what would happen if somebody ever wrote a novel about Hammett.” It passed right over me. And a few days later—I was at that point living in Mill Valley—I couldn’t get it out of my head: this idea. Wow. A novel about Sam Spade–about Dashiell Hammett.
Put him back in the days when he was a detective and put him under sort of fracturing stress and see what happens. And so, I called Henry up and I said, “Henry, I can’t get that idea about a novel about Dashiell Hammett out of mind. He said, “Joe, forget about it. Hellman would never let you write that novel. She would never let it be published. Forget about it.” I said, “Oh, okay. ”
Three weeks later, Henry called up and said, “Listen, Joe, I have a contract for you on that Hammett novel of yours.” So then suddenly I have to do the research. You know, the only book out then on Hammett was A Casebook by Nolan. William F. Nolan. And that was the only source book there was. But there was a professor named Godshalk who was working on a book about Hammett that he never wrote. He’d done a lot of research—contacted a lot of people. He just said, “I’m never going to write that book, Joe. Here, take all my research.” So, that gave me a big leg up.
Then I did a cross directory search at the phone company records building which is down where AT&T Park is. They have a big long warehouse full of records. I went in there and sniffed around and I tried to look up Hammett’s addresses where he had lived while in San Francisco.
He didn’t have—he usually didn’t have a telephone, but they list all of the addresses even if you don’t have phone–they cross reference them. The pulp directory lists the addresses. And so, I hit on something. Hey, wait a minute: 891 Post Street. What years were those? Well, those were the years he was writing The Maltese Falcon.
And in The Maltese Falcon there are some references that led people astray. Fritz Leiber thought that he lived on Geary. It says he caught a Geary car and went up to his apartment and he thought it was upstairs to a Geary Street apartment. But no, it was going up the hill: Post Street. Because in the novel, when Brigid is in his apartment, she wants to know if the gunsel is still outside. It’s says Hammett—or Spade— issued from Post Street. And so, then I started my own research: wandering. I just used to wander the streets hours at a time. Things that he mentioned: he sees two guys that working in the garage. I found a building across the street and down a half a block that still had Garage upstairs in faded letters, even though it’s now an apartment house, but the front of the building still had Garage. So, stuff like that.
His office: by just taking a map of the—from the air and just checking every reference that he gives, you come up with the Hunter–Dulin Building. It has to be—It’s the only place it could be. It was the only place when he has the falcon after the sea captain brings it and dies in his office and he goes out by a side door to an alley through a court. And at that time, that was the only building that had an alley in the court that lead you to another street where he could get a taxi cab down to the stage depot—the bus depot at 5th and Mission—the Pickwick bus depot— and leave the Falcon off there and get a claim check. So, things like this.
Mark Coggins: Is it true that Lillian Hellman tried to block publication of Hammett and the movie that’s based on it?
Joe Gores: She couldn’t do anything about the book. I set it in ’28, and she had not met Hammett then. You can’t malign a dead man so she couldn’t do anything about the writing about Hammett. But then when Coppola bought the movie rights, she wrote a letter to him that he passed on to me with his reply. She wrote a letter to him saying, “I, understand that a man named Joe Gores has written a novel about Dashiell Hammett. I have not read it, of course, but I know that it must be terrible.” And she said, “And I’ve heard that you have bought the movie rights,” and she said, “I can’t believe that you would ever make this movie about the Dashiell Hammett. It is such a terrible thing to do.”
And Coppola wrote back said, “Yes, you know Lillian that I have the highest regard for you and always have had.” And he said, “And I did buy Mr. Gores’s–the rights to Mr. Gores’s book option. And you certainly could talk me out of making this movie, but if you did, the rights would go back to Mr. Gores. Then he would sell them to some other producer. And you could perhaps talk that producer into not making the movie Then Mr. Gores would get his rights back and he would sell it to another producer.” He said, “Eventually he would sell those rights to a producer who doesn’t give a damn what you think. Isn’t it better that I make this movie who holds you in the highest regard than have a producer make this movie who doesn’t give a damn about you? Sincerely.”
Then he made the movie.
Mark Coggins: Now Joe, I understand you are undertaking a special project involving Sam Spade. Can you tell us about this and how it came about?
Joe Gores: Oh yeah, I’m just finishing up—oh God let me finish up—a novel called Spade and Archer that is a prequel to The Maltese Falcon. The thing started out in 1999. I wrote Jo Hammett—I met her just once and her daughter who was very active in all of this. And I wrote and said, “I would like to do a prequel to The Maltese Falcon.”
Jo didn’t want to do it and her daughter wrote me back and said, “We just don’t think it would be a good idea. We don’t think this would honor my grandfather’s name.” And then about, let’s see, February two years ago, three years ago, the family was up here for a thing at the Civic Center—at the Moscone Center. And Jo said—Jo Hammett said, “Joe, come here,” and we went and sat a table. And she said, “I had a dream last night.” She said, “I dreamed that you wrote that novel.” And she said, “I suddenly thought when I woke up, why in heaven’s name did I oppose Joe writing that novel?” And then she said, “I would like you to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon.”
And I said, “Jo I can’t write a sequel.” She said, “Why not?” And I said, “They’re all dead. At the end of the book, they’re all dead.” I said, “I could write a prequel. I want to write a prequel, and I want that prequel to try and address all of the things in The Maltese Falcon that had fascinated the hell out of me for all these years. How did he meet Archer? How did he meet Iva? How did he meet Effie? Why doesn’t he like guns?” All of these questions that flow through this novel, if you get hooked on it like I have been. I just want him to address them and tell a story that started in 1921 and ended in 1928, which is the year that The Maltese Falcon starts.
So I wanted to tell who Spade was, how he got to be this kind of tough, hard, slippery character that he is. Nobody’s born that way. What are the things that happened to them over the course of a number of years that gradually darkened his view of light and turned him into this hard nut that nobody can crack?
So that’s what I’m trying to do in the novel. Whether I succeed or not is another question.
Mark Coggins: Have you done more research? Can you talk about the kinds of research you’ve done?
Joe Gores: Well, I do a lot of research up in the Seattle area and the Spokane area because Hammett said that the woman who inspired Iva worked in a bookstore in Spokane, so I put that in there. And I have it that Spade and Iva were an item in 1917 and then Spade went to war. And while he was gone, she married Miles Archer. So, you know, this brings everybody in all at once—and like that, Things like that.
A lot of research—a lot more research in San Francisco. Tremendous amount. Research into the Chinese immigrant situation: paper daughters and paper sons, which is a fascinating, fascinating history. A chapter in San Francisco history of the people who could not—there was a Chinese exclusion act of 1879 that excluded all Chinese except clergymen and scholars and a few other categories. So people who were Chinese American citizens but who had a wife in China would go back there and then they would come back and say, “I’ve got six children.” They might have three children, no children or six children, but those children would of course be American citizens because their father was an American citizen. So, then they would sell the names of these supposed children to people who wanted to come into America and make them citizens.
And so they had a whole setup out on Angel Island to screen all of the immigrants who came from everywhere, but the Chinese were especially harshly treated and they had a whole set of trick questions and all sorts of stuff went on. So, things like this. Yeah, I researched that. I researched the Greek community in San Francisco because I touch on that.
The chest of Bergina, which was a—Bergina is actually when you read it is spelled with a B said with a V so it’s Vergina, and this was a chest made for Alexander the Great’s sister. And so that comes in. It’s not a central part–this kind of research.
Mark Coggins: Can you tell us the title again? Who the publisher is?
Joe Gores: Spade and Archer and Knopf will be the publisher, which was Hammond’s publisher. The family wanted Knopf to do it. And they of course, gave me permission to write the novel. I couldn’t write it without their permission. They own all the rights to the character.
So, I’m hoping to finish the thing this week.
Mark Coggins: So, we might see it sometime next year?
Joe Gores: Yeah, yeah, they are sort of talking about Father’s Day if possible. If possible.
Mark Coggins: Well, I think we have about five minutes left. I have a lot more questions, but maybe I should give you all a chance to ask any questions you may have.
Audience Member: I just want to say, I loved the book, but after this discussion, I love it so much more. So, thank you.
Joe Gores: Yeah, it’s a very deep, interesting, intricate book and the characters are so interesting.
Audience Member: Yeah, I want to read it again. I was surprised when you were talking about the relationships, why Effie the secretary was so confident that Brigid is a good egg?
Joe Gores: Well, Effie is young, and she is impressionable, and this woman just got to her. She got to Spade. She was a woman who got to people, enlisted their desire to help her. She came across as soft and needful and afraid. And of course, she’s just a bag of steel ball bearings, but we don’t know that.
I’ve been asked a question a couple of times about the scene where Spade is searching Brigid’s apartment. And then he sits down and makes a cup of coffee and drinks it. And there’s been a lot of discussion about this. Why the hell did he do that? It’s another one of those meaningless things.
Having been private detective, I said, no, no, I understand that perfectly. As a private detective, I was mainly repo man and if I repo a guy’s car and his lunch was in it, I ate his lunch. Because literally I’m eating your lunch, buddy. I’m establishing dominance. I control you. And that’s what Spade is doing, drinking a cup of coffee in her apartment. His dominance.
Mark Coggins: Marking his territory.
Joe Gores: Yeah, marking his territory.
Mark Coggins: Other questions?
Audience Member: I wanted to ask about the relationship between Spade and Archer. At one point it says that Spade hated Archer.
Joe Gores: Yes, he said we were in business for a week, and I realized he was the son of a bitch. And in my novel, I tell you why.
Archer was not very bright. He was a betrayer. I have him working for Burns, a detective who ferreted out communists in the Seattle waterfront area. So, he was a guy who wormed his way in. And betrayed them. And Spade found this out too late. So, he stuck with him for a year. And he said, after the year is up, he’s gone. But then he got killed before the year was up so Spade was saved the problem.
Mark Coggins: Other questions?
Audience Member: Was the book recognized as a good book as soon as it came out? Or did it take a long time?
Joe Gores: Absolutely instantly. Almost everybody realized this was—the only thing that came before… Hammett didn’t invent the tough private eye. That was a guy named Carroll John Daly who invented the tough private eye: Race Williams. Dreadful stories. What is interesting, if you research Carroll John Daly, he lived with his mama back in New Jersey and he had never raised a hand in anger. And so, his things were all of this blood and guts and gore.
But then Hammett came along with the Op and suddenly the private detective was real. He was a real flesh and blood human being. And there he was. So, yeah, it was recognized right away as— Matt Bruccoli is a great Hemingway and Fitzgerald fan and also a Hammett fan. And he says that from the day The Maltese Falcon was published, it was the most influential book in the field that has ever been written or ever will be.
You cannot write—I challenge any writer… You cannot write a mystery in the American style—and very few in the British style—that does not owe a debt to The Maltese Falcon. It’s almost impossible because it’s like Poe. It’s like Doyle.
Poe invented the detective story. Doyle invented the ratiocination story. Nobody will ever be able to supplant these guys because they were the first. And Hammett is so good at what he did because he had been a private detective. He had been in that field. He had been shot at. He’d been kicked around. He’d fallen off roofs. And so, his stuff was so real.
Fred Dannay who was half of Ellery Queen—he once remarked that Hammett was what he called a romantic realist. The events in his stories, the characters were flesh and blood and guts. But the stories themselves were romantic. A gold encrusted bird. And that’s why it works so well because it isn’t just Micky Spillane. It’s Micky Spillane with P.D. James. There’s an overlay of—a little rose overlay over things.
Mark Coggins: Anything else?
Audience Member: A question about The Thin Man.
The Thin Man is a spoiled book. It’s a wonderful book, it’s fun. Remember Nick Charles has quit. He’s not a private eye anymore. And those are only options open to the private eye as defined by Hammett. Either you hang in there and do it or you quit. You don’t do it badly. And he had quit and then he’s dragged back into it.
In my novel Hammett I owe a lot to that idea: Hammett being a private detective who turned writer. And I did the same thing and that’s why I thought in my hubris I could write a novel about Hammett because I had gone through the same process. You love both things. Being an investigator is so gripping but being a writer is more gripping. You get hung up.
I once said to somebody that the difference is detectives browse around in the garbage of people’s lives. Novelists create people and then browse around in the garbage of their lives. They are very similar professions. Except in one you don’t get shot at, unless you are playing around with somebody’s wife.
(Thanks to Penny Johnson at the Pleasanton Public Library for making and editing the tape of the interview.)
Mark Coggins is the award-winning author of seven novels featuring private eye August Riordan. If you enjoyed The Maltese Falcon, you may like his latest effort, The Dead Beat Scroll, a modern retelling that was called a “Glorious potpourri of violence, black humor, … sex, and a hunt for a lost manuscript” by the New York Journal of Books.