Recent Reading in Crime Fiction

May 13, 2022 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Of late, I’ve read much and written little. So here’s a corrective, of sorts.

This one was a bit of a hyperintellectual brain teaser, infused with mathematical theorizng ad literary speculation. The plot revolves, almost inevitably, around Lewis Carroll and the questions surrounding his affinity for young girls. Recommended, if you desire a brisk workout for your ‘leetle gray cells..’

And this is quite the opposite. Alexander McCall Smith is incredibly skilled at writing about the human side of his characters without waxing sentimental. Theft of painting, a terrible injury to Ulf’s dog Martin – the only dog in Sweden that can lip read, by the by – these stories and more are interwoven seamlessly in this novel. Ulf is a detective with a heart as big as the great Scandinavian outdoors, yet with it , a brain as sharp and knowing as any policeman could need or desire.

C.J. Box is on a roll, with his Joe Pickett series now being made for television. These novels combine fast moving plots with characters you care about. The writing about the West, with all its problems and promises, is outstanding. Shadows Reel is a worthy addition to this series. And if you’ve never been to Wyoming…well, drop everything and go. What a gorgeous place!

DI Vera Stanhope is driving home in a blizzard when she spots a car at the side of the road. It appears to be empty. The driver’s side door hangs open. She pulls over and stops for a closer look. Suddenly she hears a soft, mewling noise from the back of the vehicle. Like a kitten. But not a kitten. A baby.

Vera gathers the child in her arms and trudges to the nearest dwelling. And here, more surprises await…

Ann Cleeves is a wonderful writer, And the Vera Stanhope series has been brought vividly to life on television. I highly recommend it.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

April 10, 2022 at 8:12 pm (Art, books)

To begin with, the word ‘Secret’ should have been plural: Lady Audley had several, any one of which, if revealed, could have torpedoed her status as ‘My Lady’ within the staid rigors of Victorian society.

I first encountered information on this novel in the pages of Kate Summerscale’s riveting book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. One of the things that made that book so fascinating was the telling of the various ways in which the contemporary culture reacted to news of the grotesque murder at the center of Summerscale’s narrative. During the heat of the high profile investigation, both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins caught ‘detective fever’ and found themselves speculating on possible solutions. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Braddon‘s response to the hubbub was to write Lady Audley’s Secret.

From the viewpoint of plot, the two books have very little in common. But from the standpoint of character, they have one commonality: both feature a woman at the center of a maelstrom, a woman whose moral compass has malfunctioned, with predictably disastrous results. Braddon’s novel falls into the category of literature called ‘novels of sensation.’ Allow me to quote myself, from the post I linked to above:

‘According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the busy London lodgings.’” Summerscale elaborates: “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”‘

In other words, if your feelings are somewhat numb – try one!

This was actually my second reading of Lady Audley’s Secret. Why did I decide to reread this novel at the present moment? I was having trouble finding reading matter that adequately matched my mood. In particular, I was experiencing one disappointment after another with new so-called ‘literary fiction.’ I’m sure some of it is very good; it just did not seem to be written for me.

When I descend into doldrums of this sort, I tend to reach back to the classics for consolation – and inspiration. My first attempt was a novel I’ve always meant to read but have never gotten all the way through: Crime and Punishment. I’ve always found Dostoevsky tougher going than Tolstoy. I recently read, for the first time, the latter’s short story “Master and Man” and found it powerfully moving. So, how did I do with Dostoevsky this time around? Better…but not completely. These days, due to the magic of Kindle, I could tell precisely how much of the novel I got through: eighty-one percent. I was reading the Constance Garnett translation; possibly a more recent one would have worked better for me. At any rate, I may go back to it, at some future time….

In contrast, reading Lady Audley’s Secret was a breeze. I was engrossed from the outset and stayed that way until the end. In addition, at the time of this reading, I was taking a most pleasurable Lifelong Learning class on the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Just before the final session of this course, I happened upon a passage in which the author describes a portrait of Lady Audley:

Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. 

It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. 

Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.’

I immediately copied this text and sent it to our instructor. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. Lady Audley’s Secret came out in 1862. The edition at the top of this post features a painting by Dante Gabriel Rosetti entitled Monna Vanna.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Monna Vanna, 1866.

Meanwhile, I had recently read of a new book by Christine Emba, one of my favorite Washington Post columnists. Here it is:

The cover image is by yet another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Frederick Sandys. It is called Love’s Shadow.

Love’s shadow *oil on panel *40.6 x 32.5 cm *1867

There really is something witchy about the way in which the Pre-Raphaelite painters depict certain women…

Permalink 1 Comment

Four favorite songs from past decades

March 30, 2022 at 11:19 pm (Music)

‘Chelsea Morning’ by the incomparable Joni Mitchell:

The whole song is marvel of terrific lyrics and infectious melody. The line that particularly stays with me is “The sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses.”
***********************

Two songs that tell a story. First, ‘Hotel California.’ This song tells a disturbing yet compelling story and ends with this ominous line: “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” According to Don Henley. the song is about “…a journey from innocence to experience … that’s all” You can make up your own mind.

I’m no expert, but that virtuoso guitar playing, especially at the end, seems pretty extraordinary to me.
*****************

How can we ever thank Gordon Lightfoot for writing a ballad that could have come out of a previous century. In simple, straightforward language, he tell a heartbreaking – and true – story:

‘The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.’
**********************

Finally, Linda Rondstadt with The Eagles, a band she helped found. ‘Desperado,’ it seems to me, is a song she was born to sing:

Permalink 1 Comment

‘100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present’ ( actually 2005), according to Time Magazine

March 20, 2022 at 8:57 pm (Uncategorized)

I love lists like this! With this one, in particular, I found myself careening between books I could not get through to books I loved.

Here’s a link to the list.

And here are some (totally subjective) examples:

Books I couldn’t get through:

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Light in August and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I’ve had my struggles with Faulkner…

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. …and with Virginia Woolf as well.

Possession by A.S Byatt. Yes I know: All my literary friends and relatives – including my mother – eagerly pressed this book upon me. What can I say? It just didn’t work for me. I found something about her writing oddly off-putting. I think I prefer her sister Margaret Drabble.

Love the cover, though:


****************

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

******************

Books I loved (and still love):

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Not my absolute favorite McEwan, though – that would probably be Enduring Love.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. listened to this on CD in the car, and II remember having to pull over at on point because I was laughing so hard!

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – though my favorite work by this author is The Quiet American

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. Instead of The Maltese Falcon – really? But I do love those subtle pulp fiction covers:
************

******************

I decided on a special category for books I especially revere:

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. One of my favorite novels ever. A beautful, beautiful book.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. To quote myself from a previous post: ‘Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.’

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”
(I was going to add something, but I don’t think I really need to.)

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

And a novel from Australia that is, in my opinion, one of the great under appreciated masterpieces of 20th century literature: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. And after you’ve read the novel, watch Peter Weir’s brilliant realization of it on film.

Permalink 1 Comment

‘He was determined, deliberate, canny, and manipulative.’ – Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free, by Sarah Weinman

March 18, 2022 at 12:29 am (Uncategorized)

That was Edgar Smith, all right. He was also a husband, a son, and a father.

You’d think he’d know better, wouldn’t you?

In the year 1957, Edgar Smith of Bergen County, New Jersey, was arrested for the murder of 15-year-old Vickie Zielinsky. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death. Their followed a fourteen year struggle to escape the snares of the death penalty, all the while steadfastly maintaining his innocence. Ultimately he managed not only to avoid execution but to gain release from prison entirely. This was by way of entering a plea of non vult, or no contest, in regard to the murder. In 1971, he admitted before a judge that he in fact did commit the crime. This should have resulted in a further prison sentence, but the judge gave Edgar credit for the over fourteen years he had already served, took into account his good behavior while behind bars, and suspended the remainder of his sentence. (Part of this ‘good behavior’ consisted in the writing of several books, the first of which, Brief Against Death, won him considerable acclaim.)

Thus Edgar Smith, although on probation for several more years, walked out of court and into the wide world a free man, still maintaining his innocence. ( The terms of the plea stipulated that before the judge, he had to confess his guilt.)

Sarah Weinman acquaints us with the numerous individuals who believed in Smith’s innocence and fought alongside him for exoneration. The best known of these was William F. Buckley. His role in this drama is fascinating to read about, especially for those of us who vividly remember his dominating presence on the scene as a conservative spokesman in mid twentieth century America.

Upon his release, Edgar Smith appeared with Buckley on his TV show Firing Line:

Sarah Weinman has been involved in the crime fiction scene in this country for quite some time. I was a fan of her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. She left off blogging for other activities in the field, most notably working on anthologies such as Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives and he two-volume set, Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s. In these endeavors, one of her goals has been to bring some of the excellent women crime writers from that era back before the reading public. In this, she has succeeded admirably. (And I can’t resist extolling the virtues of one particular novel to be found in the 1940s volume. It’s called The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It is both a vivid portrait of wartime America and a gripping crime story. Above all, it’s the story of one woman’s struggle to raise her two teen-agers alone while her husband is fighting abroad.)

Sarah Weinman has now turned to writing true crime. The Real Lolita (2018) was a revelation and an enjoyable read. Scoundrel is, in my opinion, even better. For a while now, I’ve been looking for a true crime narrative as compelling and as memorable as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Found it!

Sarah Weinman

Permalink Leave a Comment

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

March 11, 2022 at 5:43 pm (Uncategorized)

Just a quick note before I return this to the library: Five Winters in Tuesday is wonderful! It’s a collection consisting of ten stories. They’re about ordinary people coping with the unexpected – sudden love, sudden lust, or lack of sudden anything. They’re about the curves life throws at you and the way that, while you’re thrashing about in a sea of uncertainty, your coping mechanisms keep you afloat – sometimes, barely. The writing is beautiful, and the characters spring to life with astonishing vividness.

I kept putting off finishing this book. To my dismay, I found that this is the author’s only short story collection. But there is a novel by Lily King, Euphoria, that I’ve heard good things about. That will be next read.

Meanwhile: More stories, Ms King, please – and soon!

Permalink Leave a Comment

Hans Holbein the Younger

March 9, 2022 at 12:13 am (Art, Music)

An exhibit featuring the works of Hans Holbein the Younger is currently to be seen at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. The exhibit is entitled “Holbein: Capturing Character.”

The artist’s famed portrait of Sir Thomas More has been conveyed downtown from the Frick Collection in order to be part of this showing.

I’ve known this painting my whole life. I’ve spent many hours in front of it, gazing intently, hypnotized. It has always been for me a sort of summation of the endlessly fascinating history of England. (I was especially delighted to encounter Holbein himself in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s magnum opus, Wolf Hall. )

And by the way, Holbein Senior was no slouch either, as I learned from Franny Moyle’s biography The King’s Painter.

Death of the Virgin by Hans Holbein the Elder c.1490

Peter Scheldahl, who writes about art – wonderfully – for The New Yorker, covered this exhibit in the magazine’s February 28 issue. In particular, he describes a work that is not part of the installation at the Morgan. He first saw it where it resides in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. It made an unforgettable impression him, as it has on many others, including myself:

Tantalizing hints of unfulfilled potential attend much of [Holbein the Younger’s] tyro work, notably one of the most indelibly shocking images of all time, “The Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521-1522). The painting, measuring a foot high and six and a half feet wide, depicts a gruesomely putrefying corpse that, if unearthed, could present only a sanitation problem. Famously, Dostoyevsky’s encounter with the picture, in 1867, shook his Christian faith and obsessed him thereafter, figuring as a philosophical provocation a year or so later in his novel “The Idiot.”

Scheldahl adds parenthetically: “The work is not in the Morgan show but I will not forget, no matter how hard I try, my own first look, in the Kustmuseum Basel, at that…what? That thing.”

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1520-1522

But the portraits for which Holbein is best known are those he made in England, of King Henry VIII:

1536 or1537

Now, go back and gaze once more at these extraordinary images while you listen to some music of the period: Ave Maria by Josquin des Pres and Cantate Domino by Claudio Monteverdi. The Monteverdi is a bit later than Holbein’s time, but I love it and wanted to include it here.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Need for the Solace of Beauty

March 5, 2022 at 5:59 pm (Art, Music, Spiritual)

This work resides in the Groeningenmuseum in Bruges, Belgium. It was painted between 1434 and 1436 by Jan van Eyck. To me, it is somewhere beyond beautiful, even approaching perfection. Art historian Carel Huydecoper offers an enlightening explication. You can enjoy his talk, or simply stare, and be mesmerized – or both.

While you are gazing on the painting, you can listen to Panis Angelicus, an exquisite short piece of sacred music by César Franck. I’ve long known about the version with Pavarotti and the children’s choir of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. But the version below came as a surprise to me – and a pleasant one that I wasn’t expecting:

Here is Pavarotti at the Notre-Dame Basilica:

Permalink Leave a Comment

Noir Fiction and Film: Sources

February 19, 2022 at 9:17 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I’m looking forward to the beginning of my Osher class on Noir Film and Fiction. Meanwhile, I’m assembling a short – really short, and very subjective – presentation on this topic for my friends in Usual Suspects.

Below are four books which for some time now have been my go-to sources for topics touching on noir:

Let’s start with Sleuths, Inc. The book is subtitled Studies in Problem Solvers. Eames includes five storied names in this volume: Conan Doyle, Simenon, Hammett, Ambler, Chandler, in that order.

In the section on Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, there are a number of memorable quotes. Here’s my favorite. It’s from The American Commonwealth, a work by James Bryce, penned at a time – -1888 – when Lord Bryce was the British Ambassador to the U.S. It concerns California in general and San Francisco in particular:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

Hammett once commented to a reporter that in California, politics were the most corrupt in the world. Later there’s a quote attributed to James J. “Sonny” Rolph, mayor of San Francisco while Hammett was living there:

“You make a buck, I make a buck.”

The entire section on Hammett is well worth close attention. In fact, I ought to sit down and read the entire book by the somewhat mysterious Mr. Eames. It seems to be filled with startling insights I have not encountered elsewhere.
**************

Black Mask Boys is a collection of stories that first appeared in the justly famous magazine. Hammett and Chandler are present, and there’s one story each by Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Horace McCoy, and Paul Cain. That’s the whole of it.

It’s a small volume. But William F. Nolan’s introduction is the main attraction:

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

‘The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.’

‘In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.’

**************

I’ve had Guilty Parties for a long time. Published in 1997, the book breezes through the history of the mystery genre starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin tales and going right up to a lengthy chapter on “The State of the Art.” (I just chanced on a discussion of Colin Dexter’s Morse series, in which author Ian Ousby describes the tv version of the protagonist as “alternately dyspeptic and urbane.” To think that we have by now lost both the inimitable John Thaw as Morse and his creator, Colin Dexter.…)

In Guilty Parties, you will find pithy summations of novels and stories plus wonderful visuals, from the outrageous pulp covers to screen shots from tv series. One of the most enjoyable source books in my voluminous library.
**************

Finally, A Girl and a Gun by David N. Meyer. Published in 1998, the book is subtitled The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video. (Were it to be re-issued, I imagine those last two words would be dropped.) In the introductory section, Meyer describes what happened in the 1940s when the clipped, deadpan prose and cynical tone of writers like Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane met up with the heavily ironic, refined sensibilities of refugee film directors like Robert Siodmak, Anatole Litvak, and Fritz Lang:

“The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of American middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.” Meyer then concludes: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

Meyer sums up the characteristics of noir in this way:

“No good deed goes unpunished.
A detached, ironic view is the only refuge.
Crime doesn’t pay, but normal life is an experiential/existential straitjacket.
Character determines fate.
Though love might seem to be the only redeeming aspect of human existence, it’s not.
Kicks count for something.
Alienation rules.”

Meyer names seventeen films that he believes comprise ‘Noir 101-The Canon.’ I won’t list them all here, but several are among my favorites, and possibly yours too: Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Night and the City, Vertigo. He then proceeds to traverse a much larger group belonging to the noir genre. The stars and directors of the respective works are named, and brief but illuminating descriptions of each are included.

Ron and I have used A Girl and a Gun as a guide for our own home film noir festivals. Writing this post has reminded me that we need to do this again. These films are more available now than they ever were – through streaming, off course, but also via DVD from your local library.

Speaking of which…

None of the four titles I’ve just written about are owned by our local library. Three out of four, however, are available through interlibrary loan. Which one isn’t? A Girl and a Gun. This is unfortunate, because it is a book well worth obtaining – well worth owning, in fact. You can try for a non-network referral through the library, or you can purchase it used on Amazon for as little as $2.23.

Two other titles that are available locally and worth mentioning in this context:

The first of these I haven’t had a chance to look at. I read the Chandler biography when it came out in 2016 and enjoyed it very much. The title, by the way, comes from a passage that appears toward the end of The Big Sleep:

Outside the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light. I got into my car and drove off down the hill.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep

February 2, 2022 at 10:48 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

It was with some trepidation that I returned to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” – namely, to the novel that some say started the whole noir thing:

I am doing this because I have signed up for a Lifelong Learning course called ‘Trouble Is My Business: Hardboiled Fiction & Film Noir.’ It begins in late February. Fact is, I signed up for it and promptly forgot about it. Then I received an email informing of the reading list.

Reading list? Oh my…

The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
The Postman Always Rings Twice

A couple of years ago, Usual Suspects discussed The Maltese Falcon. I wrote a blog post on the occasion. I began the post with a quotation from The American Commonwealth by James Bryce, aka Viscount Bryce:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

Well, we derive plenty of knowledge concerning that ‘dangerous constituent’ in Hammett’s novel.

So, on finishing this rereading, what’s my overall take? First off, from the get go, I found the writing to be, for the most part, rather pedestrian, with a few flashes of hardboiled brilliance, as in this pitiless description of Casper Gutman:

‘The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all of his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped gray worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.’

At least he’s decently dressed.

As for the plot, it quickly becomes so complicated that by the back stretch of this slender volume, I was pretty well lost. Into the bargain, I was having trouble caring about any of the dramatis personae in the whole tangled mess. And as for the desired object itself, it’s an egregious example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – and not a very intriguing one at that.

There is one thing in The Maltese Falcon that I find fascinating. It has nothing to do with the plot; it’s a story that Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy while they’re waiting for something, or someone. It’s actually more of a parable than a simple tale. It’s about a man called Flitcraft:

Richard Layman, a Hammett biographer, delivered a lengthy and very interesting speech at The Library of Congress in 2005 on the history of The Maltese Falcon. Click here to read it.

I just watched a video on Hammett from 1999. It’s called Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer. I found it very interesting. His daughter is interviewed; several other people who knew him also appear:

So, on I go to The Big Sleep. Right off the bat, I’m startled by the difference in the quality of the prose. Chandler’s irreverent wit and colorful figures of speech – perhaps too colorful, at times? – come at you. The carefully crafted sentences – too carefully crafted? – are striking in their precision. You almost want to say, okay, Big Guy, you’re laying it on a little too thick, but it’s such fun, so keep going!

I love the opening paragraph:

‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue socks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.’

The eponymous four million dollars refers to the lavish Sternwood estate, where trouble is brewing, courtesy of two out-of-control daughters. What’s needed is a P.I. to make that trouble go away swiftly and silently, without involving the police.

Philip Marlowe has been summoned to take on the job, if he’s willing and/or able. He’s led by the butler – the Sternwood establishment possesses a surfeit of servants – into a ragingly hot greenhouse, where the aged paterfamilias, known simply as the General, spends his remaining days.

Here’s the greenhouse:

‘The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom….The light had an unreal greenish color like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.’

And here is General Sternwood:

‘Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall. The rest of his face was a leaden mask, with the bloodless lips and the sharp nose and the sunken temples and the outward-turning earlobes of approaching dissolution….His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.’

Well…yikes. This passage puts me in mind of Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming:’

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…That seems to describe Marlowe, as he takes in the sight of this bare wreckage of a man.

Eventually – sigh – the novel settles down to the kind of plot -driven mania that I found so challenging in the Hammett novel. I’m now on page 104 of 231, and I’m darned if I can tell you who’s doing what to whom. Still, it’s fun – good, harrowing, knuckle-biting fun. And the dialog is,, of course, very entertaining. Actually, my favorite snippet of dialog by Raymond Chandler occurs in the film version of Double Indemnity. James M. Cain wrote the novel and Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay. I believe that the famous “How fast was I going, Officer?” exchange was Chandler’s invention:

I think it’s fair to say that as the years have passed, both The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep have been overshadowed by the films they inspired.

Click here to read a review I wrote of a biography of Raymond Chandler that came out several years ago. And finally, I can’t resist showing once again Raymond Chandler’s Hitchcock-like cameo in Double Indemnity. His presence in the film was detected separately by two film scholars in 2009. He’s sitting outside the office of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson:

Michael Grost’s site A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been a great help in guiding my forays into older works in the field. He’s not a great fan of Raymond Chandler’s work; nevertheless, he admits that Chandler can at times rise to great heights. This is never more striking than the concluding passage of The Big Sleep. Of the writing there, Grost allows: “This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610).”

Here it is:

‘What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.’

Permalink Leave a Comment

Next page »