Fans of detective fiction might recognize the name Lewis Miles Archer, the titular “shadow man” of Gabriel Blackwell’s novel. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), a Miles Archer was Sam Spade’s partner, though he was killed off in the book’s early going. The writer Ross Macdonald named the protagonist of his own hardboiled novels Lew Archer as an homage to Hammett.
Both Hammett and Macdonald make appearances in Shadow Man, which posits Archer not as a fictional character but the real, flesh-and-blood proprietor of Archer Investigations—the employer of one Dashiell Hammett, a detective who would later spin his real-life cases into fiction, using Sam Spade as an alter-ego. But Hammett’s novels got a few things wrong, Shadow Man tells us, including Archer’s death—reports of which, as the saying goes, were greatly exaggerated.
It’s a promising setup, and it allows Blackwell to playfully blur the line between fact and fiction, biography and urban legend, as the “real-life” Archer—believed by all his associates to be deceased—heads south to Los Angeles and cycles through a series of false identities, several of which will be familiar to fans of the detective genre. The book itself is billed as a “biography,” and Blackwell its “editor” rather than its writer, which is just one of Shadow Man’s many sleights of hand.
Archer’s story is told in the rapid-fire, just-the-facts style of a beat reporter, a stylistic choice in keeping with the book’s conceit, and an homage to those great crime novels from which is draws its source material. But that voice also proves to be a limitation; the book races through complicated plot points so quickly it sometimes reads more like synopsis than fully realized fiction. The most rewarding moments are when the narration slows down, or gets out of the way entirely, as when we’re given glimpses of Hammett’s or Archer’s notebooks, in which they record their wry observations about gee’s, suckers, Pinkertons, and the ins and outs of being a shadow man:
It’s there all the time, but you almost never notice it…. Your shadow’s got a jump on you, because it really is walking in your shoes—if you look down, there it is, coming up out of your wingtips, like a pair of pants you just took off and haven’t got around to hanging up yet.
An introductory author’s note warns that “[t]here are enough names in this book to fill a Chinatown directory, but that’s history for you. The suckers out there might stumble a few times, but it can’t be helped.” Indeed, the cast of characters is long enough to require an index (helpfully provided), and the book’s dense plot could provide fuel for several novels. Readers may find themselves wanting to take notes to keep up with it all. Though some amount of readerly confusion is almost certainly intentional; the book’s main character, after all, thrives on misdirection, his life like a hall of mirrors. And there are real payoffs to be had for those who stick with it.
The shadow man, Hammett himself says in one of the book’s opening chapters, “is meant to blend in, to disappear by always being there.” Which is a particularly apt description of Archer himself, who in the book’s pages would seem to disappear again and again, slipping through our fingers just when we think we have him in our grasp, until by book’s end, we’re left wondering how we didn’t notice him standing there, right next to us, all along. [End Page 25]
Mike Ingram is an assistant professor in the English department at Temple University, and a founding editor of Barrelhouse Magazine. His stories have appeared, most recently, in EPOCH, The Southeast Review, and Monkeybicycle.