Remembrance of gumshoes past

Just back from some rest and relaxation—a little time on the beach, literally, in Monterey, and a sweet indulgence I haven’t made time for in many years—a mystery novel. This one, Spade and Archer by Joe Gores, is the recently-published prequel to the great Dashiell Hammett classic, The Maltese Falcon.

Back in my adolescence, I doggedly pursued pure geekdom by becoming a passionate fan of all things Humphrey Bogart, including and especially The Maltese Falcon movie, which in turn led me into the detective genre, especially Dashiell Hammett’s work. Years later, as a professor, I would have the delicious chance to resurrect these childhood faves and teach them as exemplars of 20th century popular fiction. There is a wonderful history to the detective novel, including Allan Pinkerton’s post-Civil War business, which often infiltrated unions or worked as scabs to break up strikes. In an effort to counteract the negative public opinion of this activity, Pinkerton and his operatives wrote cliffhanger tales of their heroic deeds.

Gores’ attempt to recreate the world of 1920s San Francisco and the early years of Sam Spade was very gutsy given the immense popularity of Hammett’s work. I loved the opportunity to read this book without having to think as a critic or a teacher. I loved feeling immersed in a San Francisco both familiar and lost to time. But what I loved most about this novel was moving through the city with Sam Spade as he gathered information from his various informants. Flirting with cute waitresses and librarians, pouring whiskey for the stevedores, dago red for “portagee” bootleggers out of Sausalito, lighting cigars for wealthy, gorgeous widows, roughing up the cops, Spade’s search took the path of taxis and streetcars, bribes, drinks, and the occasional chuck on the chin.

After finishing the novel, it dawned on me that detective novels are not only great “everyman” stories of the smart anti-hero, but maps of the pre-internet world of information gathering. Today, would-be Spades sit at their computers, romancing the keyword rather than the night-shift waitress. But back in the day, getting the kind of information needed to catch the crook was the art of the social network. It also strikes me that men of my dad’s generation, raised on pulp fiction, learned from these novels useful skills for business transactions: not only how to gather information, but also how to generate trust and loyalty, how to know when someone was lying, when you were being taken for a ride, how to seal the deal.

Now that Google and the internet have deprived us of the need to cultivate our “people skills” in order to gather information, along come social networking sites to give us the illusion of those connections. But more and more businesses are recognizing that face-to-face (not Facebook) communications are far more powerful than virtual ones. This is all well and good, but how will we teach this to the kids and teenagers, who are more hooked in to electronic and online communication than ever? A study just came out indicating that kids are online up to 11 hours per day—texting, listening to music, Twittering, etc. A separate study documented that people talking on cellphones while walking are more likely to injure themselves because they are so much more focused on the virtual world of their conversation than the telephone pole in their face.

I’m not against the internet, but I believe it needs to be balanced with the ability to communicate face-to-face. How to master that task, though, is a mystery for the likes of Mr. Spade to solve.