Friday, September 25, 2009

Hammett Mapback: A Man Called Spade

I still remember the surprise, when I came across this paperback back in the 70s, that Hammett had written three Sam Spade short stories. And I still remember the disappointment that they were not absolutely fabulous. This time around, though, I had lower expectations, and was once again surprised. The stories were better than I remembered.

Two of the Spade tales, the title story and "They Can Only Hang You Once," were still just average. It was nice to see Spade again, and Effie Perine, and Homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus, but there's nothing really setting them apart from other similar pulp characters. These stories could have been penned by other hardboiled writers of the time and gone unnoticed.  The only thing that really jumped out as vintage Hammett was this paragraph from "They Can Only Hang You Once":

"The butler - his name's Jarbo - was in here when he heard the scream and shot, so he says. Irene Kelly, the maid, was down on the ground floor, so she says. The cook, Margaret Finn, was in her room - third floor back - and didn't even hear anything, so she says. She's deaf as a post, so everybody else says. The back door and gate were unlocked, but are supposed to be kept locked, so everybody says. Nobody says they were in or around the kitchen or yard at the time." Spade spread his hands in a gesture of finality. "That's the crop."

But there was something different about the third story, "Too Many Have Lived." It started off with a little Hammett magic, and held up well right to the end. I had the feeling Hammett was enjoying himself with this story, while the other two seemed a chore.  Here's the opening paragraph:

The man's tie was as orange as a sunset. He was a large man, tall and meaty, without softness. The dark hair parted in the middle, flattened to his scalp, his firm, full cheeks, the clothes that fit him with noticeable snugness, even the small, pink ears flat against the sides of his head - each of these seemed but a differently colored part of one same, smooth surface. His age could have been thirty-five or forty-five.

Another major difference in this story is that Spade is on the move, seeing the case and the characters from different angles. The other two stories are basically talkfests, where Spade figures things out after the real stories are over. This is illustrated quite well on the map above. "A Man Called Spade," (the longest of the tales) takes place almost entirely in this apartment.

The Spade stories originally appeared in American Magazine and Colliers in 1932. This 1945 paperback was a reprint of the Mercury Mystery digest collection published a year earlier, but was a more attractive package. It also includes "The Assistant Murderer," a fine 1926 Black Mask story about a P.I. named Alexander Rush, and another Collier's story called "His Brother's Keeper."

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