In the footsteps of Sam Spade

Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye, by Josiah Thompson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 320 pp. $17.50. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Berkeley: North Point Press. 291 pp. $9.95, paperback.

`SPADE, wooden-faced and nimble....''

Samuel Spade, private detective, lives. Tough, courtly, patient, impulsive, romantic, stoical, this ``blond satan'' (as his creator Dashiell Hammett says) has fans all over the world, and none so devoted as the private eyes of the Bay Area. When San Francisco's Arion Press produced its edition of ``The Maltese Falcon'' (later republished in inexpensive formats by North Point Press), Arion called on David Fechheimer, a San Francisco private eye, to help document the book. The photographs that grace this volume bring out the ambiance of those few days in 1928 that can be compared with June 16, 1904, the day celebrated in Dublin tomorrow and every year because James Joyce re-created it in ``Ulysses.''

In the preface to ``Gumshoe,'' Fechheimer relates that when he read ``The Maltese Falcon'' in graduate school, he called the Pinkerton detective agency (Hammett's old agency) and asked for a job. He got one - and never looked back. Now we learn from another literary private eye, Josiah Thompson, that Fechheimer was instrumental in his own retread from academia to detective work.

In ``Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye,'' Thompson tells of his personal odyssey from literary studies at Yale in the 1950s, to antiwar activism in the '60s, to the security of Haverford College, where he taught philosophy, to a personal crisis in 1970 that broke up his marriage and forced him to rethink his priorities. Professor, husband, father, still ``...by 1970,'' he says, ``I'd come to think of myself as superfluous. Sartre would have liked that, I thought: de trop at thirty-five.''

Enter Fechheimer. He helped interview Thompson for the Lipset Service. In the '70s Hal Lipset was gathering ``a cadre of overeducated operatives.'' Thompson fitted right in, but not right away. As he describes it, in his humorous opening chapters, his initiation into the real world of detective work challenged everything he had learned from the existentialist philosophers, from Kierkegaard to Heidegger. (He has written a biography of Soren Kierkegaard.) When Thompson had his job interview, he was supposed to be on sabbatical writing a book on Nietzsche. Needless to say, he never wrote it.

Thompson's long words and long thoughts amused his colleagues at the agency. Though he was named ``Best Detective of 1979'' by the Bay Guardian, from the evidence of ``Gumshoe'' the struggle to free himself of academic abstractions was a long and hard one.

``Gumshoe'' is many things. It's a memoir of coming of age in the '60s. It's a study in the history of ideas (Thompson carried his philosophers around with him when he traveled and continued to jot down notes on the phenomenology of surveillance, for example). It's a combo of cases with all the suspense of fiction. And it's part of the ongoing testing of fictional hypothesis called Samuel Spade.

Throughout ``Gumshoe,'' Thompson struggles with Spade as model detective. ``The Maltese Falcon'' gradually replaced the books he'd always used to help him sort out his life, starting with Hemingway in the '50s. It was not until he was well into his apprenticeship that Thompson became hooked on it, but it ``became a kind of original text against which I kept comparing my own experience.'' It helped him see ``how to survive in a world where there are no valid theoretical or general principles to guide action.''

Thompson learns from Hammett that the detective is ``no hero of reason.'' Rather than the cerebral machinations of the British mystery novel tradition, the real private detective has to work with the ``awful ambiguity'' (Thompson quotes Robert Penn Warren's phrase) of things. In place of reason, Thompson came to accept the standards of accuracy that govern the report of investigation filed by the detective as he works on the case. The literary ego is replaced by the impersonal, third-person constructions of the report.

But not for everything - not indeed for the bulk of ``Gumshoe,'' which is irreducibly personal and even romantic. And Thompson can write! At times the book grips and holds you fast like the big hands of Spade himself.

Thompson is especially deft at keeping a number of balls up in the air. In one of the finest passages of the book, a moment's calm in the midst of a particularly dangerous caper finds him on the coast.

``The tires sizzled on the gravel as I parked on the bluff. Below and to the right was the extended crescent of Stinson Beach, with Bolinas beyond. It was a hawk I'd seen, a red-tailed hawk whose tail feathers glinted in the light as it sailed upward, gyre upon gyre. Several hundred feet above the bluff, where the thermal faltered and died, the hawk broke out of its spiral, wings stretched, circling. I sat on a granite boulder and watched.''

The hawk is a metaphor for the predatory in human nature. The scene is sustained for pages as Thompson's past, the present danger, and the moral ambiguities of his work take turns dominating his mind, with hawk always hovering in the background. Thompson will try to avoid responsibility for his enemy's fate. The potential of the scene is fulfilled 30 pages later when he decides to meet the eyes of the old man he'd been chasing halfway round the world.

Whether in such extended passages or only half a sentence, Thompson's details often burn with symbolic energy. They help us get into the nooks and crannies of his moral awareness.

Still, compared with the elegant economy of ``The Maltese Falcon,'' ``Gumshoe'' is a baggy bear of a book. Compared with Hammett's superb control of his subject - the up and down sides of Spade's magisterial ``disinterest'' - Thompson is all over the place. One of the last scenes involves an epiphany-of-self in the surf off Hawaii. It would not have amused Samuel Spade. Finally, ``Gumshoe'' is more than an act of homage. It's a good and courageous book written as if Spade himself watched the proceedings as of old, ``with the polite detached air of a disinterested spectator.''

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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