Gabriel Blackwell, Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer, Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2012
Reviewed by Nathan Huffstutter
How well do we really know Miles Archer? Thick-necked and heavy-jawed, the gumshoe barely has a chance to crack wise before being rubbed out in The Maltese Falcon’s opening fog. We needn’t shed any tears at Archer’s expense—Sam Spade certainly doesn’t, assessing the lean emotional costs of his partner’s death: "(he had) ten thousand insurance, no children, and a wife who didn’t like him."
Unmourned, but not inconsequential: Archer’s murder acts as an axial origin, the inciting incident that set The Maltese Falcon into motion, set Dashiell Hammett’s career into motion, and set into motion an un-Sherlockian tradition of hard-boiled, everyman P.I.’s. Determined to plot the missing pieces of Archer’s story, Gabriel Blackwell "edits" Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer, puzzling an ekphrastic text out of found documents, archival research, and a supposed secondhand manuscript. Shadow Man’s epigraph—Eadem Mutata Resurgo—offers our first clue and our first test: Bernoulli had the principle engraved on his tombstone, but those unwilling to do the legwork and dig up a Latin translation are sure to get left in the novel’s dust. Meaning is at our fingertips (a mere two clicks to "Although changed, I shall arise the same"), and through Shadow Man’s exhaustive study Blackwell uncovers a miraculous spiral of composites, homages, lookalikes, aliases, alter-egos, quick-changes, reiterations, and boldfaced thefts.
It’s easy enough to be seen when you want to be. Easy enough, too, to not be
seen, if that’s what you’re after. But to be both at the same time?
To be both there and not there, to be in step without being made, Blackwell uses the tricks of the "tail" and shadows Archer through the avenues and alleyways of pulp mystery, reimagining a narrative in which Samuel "Dashiell" Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald (not his real name) exist as characters in their own double and triple-crossing plots. Triangulating on three benchmark novels, Blackwell stays hot on Archer’s heels through an alternate retelling of The Maltese Falcon (1929), discovers the Shadow Man’s fingerprints all over The Big Sleep (1939), and—at that same recurring interval—roots out his trail in The Moving Target (1949), the novel during which Ross Macdonald (not his real name) introduced his own career-defining detective: Lew Archer.
Initiated as a meta-critical biography of "Lewis Miles Archer," Shadow Man’s search into Archer’s backstory proves a red herring, an angle to put a human face on what is neither the story of a fictional individual nor even that of a literary composite, but rather an account of the universal seeker, those tasked with pulling together and presenting the "facts"—even as those facts morph and blur and flat-out vanish before our eyes.
How well do I really know Gabriel Blackwell? Gabriel Blackwell wrote a book and mailed a copy of that book to my house in San Diego, the Portland return address presumably the envelope’s point of origin. Gabriel Blackwell sent that book after editing several reviews I wrote for the online journal where his name appears on the masthead, and Gabriel Blackwell also once posted an essay I wrote for the literary blog where he’s listed as a contributor. In order to add the illusion of immediacy to that blog post, I wrote Gabriel Blackwell into the text, reproducing words comparable to those he’d typed in an e-mail and presenting that dialogue as if it had occurred in casual conversation.
Initially, I feared I lacked the critical distance to write about Gabriel Blackwell. I feared I was too close to the subject to see it with absolute clarity. Too close? Gabriel Blackwell and I have never met. Never spoke. Unless we plastered author photos over our grinning mugs, Gabriel Blackwell and I wouldn’t recognize each other if we crossed paths in the street. Shadow Man is a novel about chasing smoke: the moment the insubstantial takes shape, the figure changes suits and disappears around the next switchback.
Only to be rediscovered again. Although changed, the form will arise the same.
"I work the angles on the glass of the storefront," writes Blackwell, writing as Archer writing in one of his "recovered" surveillance logs. "Trying to catch my reflection in the glass before it catches me."
As a peephole into his process, Gabriel Blackwell (perhaps the real Gabriel Blackwell?) includes an "Editor's Note" as an afterword, providing a glimpse into the grueling research and pure serendipity that brought Shadow Man to life. Gabriel Blackwell (perhaps the real Gabriel Blackwell?) exposes the strain those endless hours of analysis, travel, and composition placed on his relationship with his then-fiancée, now-wife. None of these personal revelations are credible on their face—though, if anyone were looking for the real Gabriel Blackwell, Gabriel Blackwell the author may have located the ideal place to bury his secrets: out in the open, in a space where no one trusts what they see.
"You tail someone long enough, you know where they’re going to be before they do," writes Blackwell, writing as Phillip Marlowe speaking with his creator Raymond Chandler. Staying in step without being made—by now the braided essay is a form as shopworn and predictable as a dime thriller. Even when the beats and moves aren’t telegraphed, the ruts are firmly set. Easy enough to expand outward; easy enough, too, to aim the angle inward, if that’s what you’re after. But to execute both at the same time?
Ample avenues exist to track another’s virtual footprint, but is it necessary to interrogate whether Gabriel Blackwell drew his Editor’s Note from personal experience? On the few occasions I’ve typed "Gabriel Blackwell" into the address field of an e-mail, I could in fact be contacting any of a dozen individuals who fulfill an equivalent role. Or, this entire time I may have actually been writing again and again to a single busy Oz who happens to reply to a dozen separate web addresses. Composing my side of the message, I am communicating to a perception—an outline. Identity is in my fingertips, and when I type out a conversation of zeroes and ones, I am speaking to myself.
How well do you really know Shadow Man? That depends—the plot interposes Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald (not his real name) with their biographical wives, their detective alter-egos, and their truth-challenged femme fatales; pen names and the names of the authors’ lesser-known, less successful detectives slip into the mix; grifters, heavies, and stock characters from the three principal books are liberally reshuffled; the only solid object in the narrative is the Maltese Falcon, itself a fake, a MacGuffin that propels Shadow Man to a climax that just might involve Daddy-daughter action straight out of Chinatown.
"Trick was, the bird was covered in a kind of lacquer to hide its value, and so you had to know what the bird was about to know what it was worth," writes Blackwell, perhaps appraising the iconic statuette, perhaps slicing into the self-referential. Or, perhaps doing both at the same time. The unknowing is written into the game—the library of the world is at your fingertips, but you’ll never read the exact catalogue another author has covered. You may spot certain influences, pinpoint certain references, but paths diverge. Playing the seeker means trusting the pattern, trusting that although changed, the object will arise the same.
Shadow Man rewards that trust with more than just satisfied "A-ha’s"—the novel unfolds like Miller’s Crossing as scripted by Tom Stoppard, with the daily call sheet penned in disappearing ink. The era offers a perennial kick, a romp through pages where Pinkertons eventuate no discussion of Raditude and Pabst pops the top on Pandora’s Box. Start to finish, Blackwell serves up his humor like a chophouse Gibson: bone dry and full of onions. Genre-appropriate similes glide from tongue to cheek, and though Shadow Man’s patter may not snap with the ring-a-ding of the slickest jazz-age argot (my favorite Chandler-isms include an old man "using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings" and a femme fatale flashing "one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes"), Blackwell masters the patois well enough that you’ll end up plugging lines into your preferred search engine, checking whether some bygone sharpie has already turned phrases such as the one Blackwell uses to note a gap in Archer’s history:
Like a tramp holding two pieces of bread and praying for cheese, it would be
nice to have something to put there in between…
Shadow Man’s silhouette moves from Hammett’s San Francisco to Chandler’s Los Angles to Macdonald’s Santa Teresa, a fictionalized Santa Barbara established by the pseudonymous author. The faux town appears as closed off to outsiders as the actual, the perfect grid of streets empty as a soundstage after final cut. From Santa Teresa, Blackwell leaves off before taking the next leap—following Macdonald’s long run of books, the decidedly non-thick-necked, non-heavy-jawed Paul Newman stepped onto the big screen to star in a pair of films as Lew Archer (only changing the detective’s name to Lew Harper and shifting the home turf to Louisiana). With a few clicks, you can find Gabriel Blackwell’s own online essays about returning to visit family in New Orleans and New Iberia—seems he too has roots in the state. How far you go from that nexus is entirely up to you. I can’t tell you anything about Gabriel Blackwell or Shadow Man you wouldn’t be able to discover on your own, but I can whisper one secret of the pattern: it goes on forever.