It’s no secret that Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s sneaky and rather nasty partner, dies early on in The Maltese Falcon. The fact has been homaged and even parodied, and anyone who has seen the Bogart movie (where actor Jerome Cowan did a fine job on the short-lived Archer) or read the book knows that Miles met his maker before Spade could say an ironic “So long, buddy boy.” Joe Gores, himself a former private eye who gave it up to write dozens of fine books, including 1975’s Hammett and the sadly out-of-print Interface, has been trying to do a prequel to Hammett’s most famous book for years. He finally got permission from Hammett’s family in 2004. And what a splendid job he’s done, bringing alive the smells and tastes of San Francisco during three well-defined periods — 1921, 1925, and 1928 — to illustrate the way Spade’s character changed and developed. Spade at first is a young, less abrasive new boy opening his own detective agency. Gradually, he toughens — largely because of Archer’s bad deeds. Sam’s assistant, Effie Perrine, begins as an ambitious but naive teenager with lots of natural smarts and graduates to a valuable asset. We also soon see how Spade’s partner earned his reputation as a crafty bastard, romancing Sam’s wife — a favor which Sam later repays, in spades. You’ll come away from Gores’s amazing book with new awe and respect for the depth and breadth of his talent. And even more than in Hammett’s own books, the city of San Francisco takes on a refreshing zest in its pre-tourist past.