Check out Honest Jim’s review of Dana King’s The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of. Then go grab a copy.
It’s risky business for a crime fiction author to use elements of a well-known and beloved mystery to tell their tale — there’s a tendency to borrow too much and lean too heavily, turning the story into a mawkish homage.
With a deft touch, Dana King avoids this trap in his masterful novel, THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF, using just the little dab that’ll do you to keep the hairs of this Nick Forte mystery in place.
Of course, the dab is from the Dashiell Hammett’s classic, THE MALTESE FALCON, with the title coming from Humphrey Bogart’s closing line from the immortal movie.
Sam Spade called the mysterious black bird, with its accompanying legend of jewel-encrusted gold from the Knights of Malta under black enamel, a “dingus.” Alfred Hitchcock would call it a “McGuffin,” an object that helps drive the plot, often misleadingly so.
In King’s hands, the falcon is all that and a stage prop — perhaps one of several used to make the Bogey movie. A corpulent actor who makes Sidney Greenstreet look like Charles Atlas uses the prop in a one-man play that IS the very sort of homage the author avoids.
King’s detective, a rough-and-ready ex-cop, is first hired to be the actor’s bodyguard after a series of threatening notes are sent. The actor is a reluctant client who has thrown away the notes and doesn’t much care to have an armed baby-sitter. In equal measure, he tries to charm and use his intellect to bully Forte, failing both ways.
The actor is also a glutton and a sexual predator — the younger, the better. Suave and decidedly unsavory instead of svelte. At first, Forte thinks the notes are a publicity stunt to boost sagging ticket sales. He wants to take a walk, but needs the money.
Turns out, the threats are real. There’s a legend of newer vintage that a wealthy donor to the Irish Republican Army procured one of the black birds and lined it with pure platinum — a tribute that never made it to its final destination, one that aligns with the legend of Hammett’s book.
Forte is ambushed by IRA gun thugs who knock him around quite a bit until they overplay their hand. Not a happy ending for them. Earlier in the book, Forte confronts a muscle-bound bone crusher the detective thinks is tailing the actor. He slams Forte into brick walls and concrete sidewalks. A sideshow — he’s the jealous ex-boyfriend of Forte’s Gal Friday. The smackdown doesn’t hurt any less.
The author also introduces other richly developed characters, including a femme fatale that has Forte’s number and a high-dollar call girl who regularly services the actor.
The action shifts into a higher gear when the actor is murdered and the threads of this “dizzy” affair — Bogey’s words to Mary Astor — start to make sense to Forte.
All in all, a winning and well-told tale, served up with a subtle hat tip to Hammett, Bogey and the black bird.