Friday, May 19, 2017


I still remember my surprise, when I came across this book 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. Reading them again a couple of years ago, I found them better than I remembered, but still not great.

The tale that impressed me most on that last reading (according to a blog post) was “Too Many Have Lived.” Well, I read it again yesterday, and it did nothing for me. In fact, I found it the weakest of the trio.

This time, my favorite was “They Can Only Hang You Once,” and particularly to the following paragraph, which is vintage Hammett:

"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."

“A Man Called Spade,” the longest of the three, was also enjoyable, despite the fact the entire story takes place in an apartment with Spade, Dundy and Polhaus sitting around until Spade solves the case.

It was nice to see Spade again, and Effie Perine, and Homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus, but there's really nothing in these stories setting them apart from other pulp characters. Other than a few nice turns of phrase and sharp character descriptions, they could have been penned by other hardboiled writers of the time and gone unnoticed. 

And the resolutions of the cases in “They Only Hang You Once” and “A Man Called Spade,” as deduced by Spade, seem a little over the top. I had the feeling Hammett was flaunting his acquired distaste for the genre. Detective stories are silly, he seemed to be saying, so people who insist I write them deserve silly endings.

But what the hell. The prose was still Hammett’s, and he couldn’t spoil that.

The Spade stories originally appeared in American Magazine and Colliers in 1932. They were first collected in Bestseller Mystery No. 50, published by Lawrence E. Spivak in 1944, under the title The Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Stories. Its contents were as follows:

"Too Many Have Lived" from The American Magazine Oct. 1932
"They Can Only Hang You Once" from Collier's Nov. 1932
"A Man Called Spade" from The American Magazine July 1932
"The Assistant Murderer" from Black Mask Feb. 1926
"Nightshade" from Mystery League Magazine Oct. 1, 1933
"The Judge Laughed Last" from Black Mask Feb. 1, 1924 (as "Night Shots")
"His Brother's Keeper" from Collier's Feb. 17, 1934

That edition featured a cool introduction by “Ellery Queen,” which began thusly:

     Meet Sam Spade.
     Meet the rough, tough dick of THE MALTESE FALCON.
     Meet the man with the V-for-Victory face who looks like a blond satan; the man who hated his partner's guts but who tracked down his killer; the man who believes it's bad business to let a killer get away with it, no matter who gets hurt, even if it's the woman you love.
     Meet the private agency detective whom Casper Gutman (The Fat Man) called wild, astonishing, upredictable, amazing - a most headstrong individual who's not afraid of a bit of trouble - an uncommonly difficult person to get the best of - a man of many resources and nice judgment; a man who can mix Bacardi, Manhattans, and knockout-drops, and still land on his feet right side up; who is a son of a gun when it comes to plain speaking and a fair understanding; whose dialogue can telescope to two words, the first a short guttural verb, and the second "you"; who can play both ends against the middle, have his pie and eat it, outwit, outfight, and outbluff, whichever way the cards fall.
     Meet that rough-and-tumble operative who is most dangerous when his smile flickers with a dreamy quality; who hates to be hit without hitting back; who won't play the sap for anyone, man or woman, dead or alive; who can call a $2,000,000 rara avis a dingus and who, when asked in the latest movie version what the heavy lead falcon was made of, answered: "the stuff of dreams."
     Meet the wild man from Frisco who always calls a spade a spade.
     Meet Sam.

Next up, in January 1945, was the Tower Books cheap hardcover edition (pictured far above) with the same stories, minus the EQ intro.

That same year, Dell issued the first mapback edition, titled A Man Called Spade, omitting “Nightshade” and “The Judge Laughed Last.”

Spivak reissued the complete collection under a new title in another digest, Mercury Mystery No. 131 in 1949, this time called They Can Only Hang You Once.

Dell followed with another edition of A Man Called Spade in 1950 (Dell 411), featuring a new cover by Robert Stanley. This was one reissued not long after as Dell 458.

Since 1999, the three Spade tales have resided in the Vintage Crime collection Nightmare Town. They can also be read online, apparently courtesy of some Russians, here:

All of which brings us to the reason for this post. It kicks off a week of Spade-related stuff, leading up to next Friday, when the Almanack will begin presenting the 1946 comic book adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, one chapter a day. Stay tuned, Falcon fans.


Rick Robinson said...

Queen always was too damn wordy. Nice post with the various covers and information. Looking forward to the future posts.

Oscar Case said...

Thanks for the review. I never knew there were that many stories.

Cap'n Bob said...

Queen lets loose a spoiler for FALCON. You'd think he'd know better.