Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Dangerous D@ta...by lury_gibson (2001)
How much do you want to know? Every move you take, every payment you make creates data. Personal data about you. Facts that exist in a timeless present, because nothing can ever be truly erased. Maybe it seems like individual facts don't matter. They're just a set of unrelated data, right? Dream on. Someone's looking through them. Sifting. Data-mining. Putting them together, discovering your secrets. Someone like Dogg. Data Detective. The best there is. Give him someone's name and he'll sell you a life story. That's what happens. With one little fact, Dogg unravels a hidden world. What starts as an innocent investigation becomes an intimate intrigue of drugs, sex and suspicious deaths. All Dogg had to do was start looking. You could be his next client - or his next victim. That intimate little office e-mail you penned last week - you think it has disappeared? Not a chance. Welcome to the end of privacy.
-- Corgi paperback back cover blurb
Lury_gibson (est. 1999) is a collaboration. Coincidentally, one of the partners is named Gibson, because this is a cyberspace detective novel, in a sense. It is a mystery of a simple and sordid
kind, but what makes it fascinating is the methodology. The detective/PI, Arthur Dogg, is a 'data detective' who works for hire like any traditional private eye ('250 pounds for basic search, the
Home Truths Package, 500 pounds for missing persons, all other work on application') -- but he does it all over the Internet using his laptop. The book is brilliant and pertinent to our times, not a
new 'gimmick' really but a reductio ad absurdum. The premise is that Dogg is a great hacker -- not in the sense of being a computer nerd, but being experienced in breaking into data bases, tracking down information, and putting it all together. Given that he can access all of anybody's credit-card transactions, e-mail, cell-phone logs, health records, banking accounts, even police reports -- you name anything that ever gets recorded and stored electronically -- he can not only detect a crime where none was ever suspected, but deduce anything about a person without ever meeting him/her (EXCEPT to suss out motivation, the prime emphasis of the usual 'transcendental' mystery writers of today -- Dogg just doesn't care, as Joe Friday would say, 'just give me the facts'). In this case, he is hired to investigate three people who happened at one point to be living in the same flat (he gets hired by an e-mail message stating only: "Garden Flat, 81 Bryanston Road, London NW6. Check it out. -- Sam Collier [email@example.com]"). What he discovers, and how, is fascinating. It is all revealed in a novel narrative technique involving one page (recto) consisting of e-mail, expenditures, and other printouts of data he has discovered on the Internet followed (verso) by Dogg's conclusions and comments -- back and forth, back and forth. It works, and actually succeeds both in building suspense, defining the characters without your ever 'meeting' them, and also letting you participate in the detective process, all without any described 'action'. As a reader you become adept at spotting the clues, such as from a list of phone calls, credit-card transactions, etc. that person A did this, person B did that, and therefore they spent the night together in a hotel in Brighton. A brilliant book and highly recommended. It has not appeared in the US yet (July 2003), but it should.
Gerald Keatring is 6'2", weighs 190 lbs and has a taste for violence and strip clubs. And Arthur C. Dogg, data detective, is being paid to follow him around. He doesn't know why -- as far as Dogg's concerned, it's just another job. It's what he's paid to do: track people through their data trails.
-- Corgi paperback back cover blurb
Lury_Gibson is a collaboration between Adam Lury and Simon Gibson, two British authors who certainly know their high-tech stuff. This is the second of these rather frightening thrillers (the first was Dangerous D@ta, published in 2001). They have an unusual style -- instead of chapters they provide gobbets of stuff from the Internet (e-mail, police reports, credit ratings, etc.) on a recto page, with Dogg's commentary and analysis on the verso side, all very trim and seemingly minimal as storytelling. Yet it works very effectively. There is true detection in this, based on Dogg's analysis of the gobbledegook he finds searching and hacking through the Internet (and of course he is a superb hacker), although it is provided mostly by on-the-spot deductions based on what turned up in his on-line inquiries. (For example, I wouldn't have a clue how to analyze some of the data he comes up with, let alone know how to find it in the first place.) The premise is simply based on the fact that EVERYBODY leaves some record of their life on some computer system or other, and to those who know how to dig it up, it can be found and utilized -- hence this new form of armchair detective, Arthur C. Dogg, call him a keyboard detective. He never seems to leave his house (in fact seems to have no personal life at all except via e-mail with his clients, normally wives investigating their husband's infidelities by having Dogg track down their credit-card payments at country hotels and their e-mail records, cell-phone charges and numbers dialed, etc. -- but he does sometimes get involved against his own rules).
This book, as is the other, is a mixture of R. Austin Freeman's forensic legerdemain and Michael Crichton's high-tech thrillers. In this case, it involves DNA research where a scientist 'discovers' a gene that predisposes a person to go berserk. She hires Dogg to check out the behavior of several newly released jail prisoners who had tested positive for this DNA sequence in her genetic blood testing. Turns out she has doubts about her employer (who also tested positive when he volunteered to be a test sample), and she is right of course. He is plotting to sell her discoveries to an armament conglomerate specializing in 'battle management' so that they can suppress it (obviously any 'cure' based on gene-therapy would hurt their profits). 'Nuff said about that. Let me digress with an analogical perspective. Apparently (and I don't know this for a fact, but it's probably true), biotech companies can patent their genetic discovery, in effect blocking out research into its applications by potential rivals. Let's say some company finds the gene that predisposes one to Parkinson's Disease or Alzheimers. They can patent that, block all use of that information by anybody else, then sell it to, say, a pharmaceutical company that makes billions dispensing a drug that alleviates the symptoms but doesn't cure the disease; obviously the drug company doesn't want anybody to come up with a cure involving gene manipulation. This is not only frightening but obviously immoral -- and if this is happening, which wouldn't surprise me at all, then it should be banned by International treaty.
These Lury_Gibson books are fascinating, and they really provide true detection, although of a very strange nature. (This Blog entry is a combination of two reviews from MysteryList.)
I discovered this site from an article in "Time Magazine." I am not into Blogging, but do have this Blogger Site and need to publicize it more!
Here is the Technorati posting link: mystery novels.
Monday, May 30, 2005
This is one of the best of the Ellery Queen mysteries, although it is rather schizophrenic in structure as well as theme. It starts out with a classic ABC murder plot (a series of killings where the intended real victim is 'disguised' by being one of a group of apparently random murders by some maniac). Halfway through, the murderer is revealed by a bit of luck -- his mistake plus meticulous observation by EQ -- and then the book becomes a cat-and-mouse story with the police trying to trap the killer. And finally, there is a surprise revelation in characteristic Queen manner, including Ellery's typical irritating angst attack, leading him to go off to Vienna on New Year's Eve to consult with an ancient and rabbinical old psychologist. (Note EQ's difficulty in accomplishing the trip -- this is post-WWII, when Austria was still partioned amongst the Allies.)
The serial-killer plot is a good one, with a truly novel solution based on what really connects a bunch of victims with apparently nothing in common. Also, the setting in late 1940s New York City is very well done, with its set piece about the effect on public morale of a random killer called The Cat by the tabloid press. This is effective, if overdone as is usual with an author who indulges in hyperbolic prose -- some could argue very pretentious and overwrought. In some ways, it is interesting to compare this with a real case, the Son of Sam business of the 1970s, where the media frenzy is accurately and amusingly shown, but the fictional events are totally improbable and overdone, with 39 dead after a panic riot during a vigilante meeting and press conference with the Mayor and Police Commissioner.
The entrapment section is more thrillerish, although it is well handled with suspenseful elements, creepiness, and the irresponsible behavior of a couple of Ellery's cohorts (who are typically irritating as a type often used by the author), and Ellery himself bumbling along -- he is not very effective as a man of action. This would make a fine movie, if it were done by a director like Hitchcock. The killer's own frustrations are nicely shown, as are his clever machinations.
Finally, the author has a trademark resolution where it turns out the first solution was mistaken for the most part, at least as to whodunnit. This is effective but it does not quite ring true based on the way the characters had been presented, and it suffers from EQ prose mannerisms such as one-sentence paragraphs consisting of a phrase. Ellery is characteristically guilt-ridden over his perceived 'mistake' and needs to indulge himself with a mea-culpa to a guru figure.
In all, I would rate this as one of Ellery Queen's two or three masterpieces. (A reader must be prepared to put up with his flaws as a writer and accept the book as written.) As mentioned, the New York setting is superb and there are some very ingenious plot elements and clues.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
"The Cat's Eye" (1923)
are two mystery novels by R. Austin Freeman with Dr. Thorndyke as the detective. Freeman is noted for pioneering 'scientific' detection, that is, forensic examination of the clues, and is really superb in doing that, although many readers complain that Thorndyke's encylopedic knowledge in all areas ranging from biology to archeology does not 'play fair' because the information is not known generally and hence does not lend itself to deduction on the reader's part. This is not quite fair as a criticism, since Freeman at least lets you know that something is afoot when Dr. T. starts sniffing around on some obscure trail, so you can rightly suspect that the solution depends on identification of some local form of pond life or whatever -- you don't really have to know what. His formula for presenting a mystery is consistent, and as with Sherlock Holmes adds interest for the aficionado of the author -- you know what to expect: a first-person narrative by a young lawyer or doctor (a sort of smart Watson) who has some association with Thorndyke, a damsel in distress (often) with whom the narrator falls in love, a bizarre opening to the case involving some mysterious events such as a murder, a theft, or something inexplicable involving an eccentric character. Thorndyke then listens to the narration and picks on some obscure clue, usually enlisting the aid of his manservant/lab-assistant Polton ('crinkly like a walnut') who devises strange and ingenious apparatuses for analyzing data. Expect something esoteric in the solution, involving deductions that Thorndyke is always cagily unrevealing about, usually with the excuse that 'suspicion is not proven fact and should not be spoken about until the facts are interpreted properly.'
[* The House of Stratus, who published the edition I just read, has an annoying habit of omitting copyright dates, possibly because the book is already in the public domain. By internal evidence, this book came out soon after "The Red Thumb Mark," a very early Thorndyke, and is pre-WWI. According to E.F. Bleiler, "31 New Inn" was serialized first, then later revised to add references to the latter.]
Of the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, these do no measure up to the classics, such as "The Eye of Osiris," "The Stoneware Monkey," "Mr Pottermack's Oversight," or "The Penrose Mystery," but they are interesting in their own right.
To start with the worst ("Cat's Eye"), it must be pointed out that there is very little 'fair' detection in it, and the villains are rather obvious once motivations are established, or revealed actually, as this is more of a thriller than a detective story. Worse, it has a bad practice that Freeman often indulged in, a rather mawkish love story with barely a hint of any sexual nature, full of prim and proper dialogue and the typical misunderstandings one finds in a romance novel. S.S. Van Dine could very well have been thinking of Freeman when he wrote as one of his Rules of Detection that there should be no Romantic Interest beyond the necessity of the plot. But apart from the weak plot, the major fault of the book is that it shows Thorndyke in his most close-mouthed mode, not revealing anything beyond hinting to the frustration of the narrator (and the reader) that 'you have seen all the evidence, work it out for yourself.'* For example, he immediately figures out that a charm made from an animal bone is from the neck vertebra of an echidna, or 'porcupine anteater' (that means ultimately that the prime suspect must have an Australian connection). A redeeming feature, however, is a methodology for faking fingerprint evidence, and also an effective and atmospheric setting on Hampstead Heath. There is also a nice legend, backed up by ancient documents, in the "Hound of the Baskervilles" manner, regarding an amulet and the Jacobite Rebellion.
[* 'I have no exclusive information. You are in possession of all the facts that are known to me.'
'That is not strictly true, you know, Thorndyke,' I objected. 'We share the mere observed facts of this case, I admit; but you have a body of general knowledge which I have not, and which gives many of these observed facts a significance that is hidden from me. However, we will let that pass. You are the investigating wizard, I am only a sort of familiar demon.']
There are also some classic asides in Freeman's usual manner, having little to do with the story but very diverting for the reader:
"The modern London suburb seems to have an inherent incapacity for attaining a decent old age. City streets and those of country towns contrive to gather from the passing years some quality of mellowness that does but add to their charm. But with the suburbs it is otherwise. Whatever charm they have appertains to their garish youth and shares its ephemeral character. Cities and towns grow venerable with age, the suburb merely grows shabby."
The prose, as usual, is dry as dust and very precise, almost pedantic, but the observation is excellent. When Freeman does this, his commentary can either be applicable to any time, or in many cases even more interesting in that it is dated to the period in which he wrote. At his worst, however, he can indulge in irredeemable cuteness as in the following:
"In the minds of many of us, including myself, there appears to be a natural association between the ideas of tea and tobacco. Whether it is that both substances are exotic products, adopted from alien races, or that each is connected with a confirmed and accepted drug habit, I am not quite clear. But there seems to be no doubt that the association exists and that the realization of the one idea begets an imperative impulse to realise the other. In conformity with which natural law, when the tea-things had been, by the joint efforts of Miss Blake and her brother, removed to the curtained repository -- where also dwelt a gas ring and a kettle -- I proceeded complacently to bring forth my pipe and the bulging tobacco-pouch and to transfer some of the contents of the latter to the former."
Oh, la-di-da, please spare us!
"31 New Inn" by contrast shows Thorndyke at his most typical, and starts out with an intriguing opening, when a young locum is called out to visit a patient and is taken there by secret in a closed carriage; the patient is obviously suffering from opium poisoning, but the man who called Dr. Jervis in insists it must be sleeping sickness. Why they called in a doctor in the first place is not really explained, if they were poisoning the poor chap -- but maybe they didn't want him to die right away. Well, this would be suspicious even to the dumbest of Watsons, so Jervis goes to Thorndyke in his apartment in King's Bench Walk and tells him the tale, later clues in the police who say they can do nothing without more evidence of a crime. He uses a simple means of estimating his track in the closed carriage on his next visit, with a compass and clock, with notes as to external sounds -- suggested by Thorndyke and very ingenious (in fact, a method actually used by Freeman when he was in Africa) -- but does not follow up on it right away, as he should have, but is distracted by an influenza epidemic. Hiatus then for a few weeks, then a new case crops up -- which of course connects up with the unsolved mystery. When Jervis's stint as a locum is over, Dr. T. hires him as an apprentice 'medical jurist', a strategem that allows for the detective's irritating habit of saying 'figure it out for yourself', as Jervis is being trained -- these lessons being rather fun, and educating to the reader too.
As a pure detective story, the novel is rather weak (the author then being a novice), because the two apparently unconnected mysteries -- Jervis's odd patient, and a matter of a suspicious will -- obviously are connected; both Thorndyke and the reader know this to be the case, but the narrator and other people involved are very obtuse about this. The story's roots as a novelette are apparent in its expanded form, probably a misjudgement on the author's part, since he excels in the short-story form. One of Dr. T.'s recondite clues is that a photograph of a cuneiform tablet is mounted upside-down on a wall. How on earth would anybody know that (in general knowledge)? Still, once you know that fact, it is a perfectly fair clue as to the deductions you can make from it. The crime itself is particularly nasty, and all the more so in that it is presented without all the explicit gore and horror one would find in a modern author.
As usual, there are some nicely quotable passages. For example:
[ Regarding Mr Weiss and the odd patient] -- "The attitude of the suspicious man tends to generate in others the kind of conduct that seems to justify his suspicions. ... The inexperienced kitten which approaches us confidingly with arched back and upright tail, soliciting caresses, generally receives the gentle treatment that it expects; whereas the worldly-wise tom-cat, who, in response to friendly advances, scampers away and grins at us suspiciously from the fancied security of an adjacent wall, impels us to accelerate his retreat with a well-directed clod. ... Now the proceedings of Mr H Weiss resembled those of the tom-cat aforesaid...."
[ A chewing out of his apprentice by Dr. T.] -- "You ought not to have carried this [a poisoned sugar cube] loose in your pocket. For legal purposes that would seriously interfere with its value as evidence. Bodies that are suspected of containing poison should be carefully isolated and preserved from contact with anything that might lead to doubt in the analysis. It doesn't matter much to us, as this analysis is only for our own information and we can satisfy ourselves as to the state of your pocket. But bear the rule in mind another time."
There is also a nice set-piece, too long to quote here, where Thorndyke elucidates his methods, starting out 'when I began this branch of practice and had plenty of time on my hands'; he would work out elaborate crimes, thinking as a criminal, then consider the 'case from the standpoint of detection'.
"The exercise was invaluable to me. I acquired as much experience from these imaginary cases as I should from real ones, and in addition, I learned a method which is the one I practise to this day."
"Do you mean that you still invent imaginary cases as a mental excercise?"
"No; I mean that, when I have a problem of any intricacy, I invent a case which fits the facts and the assumed motives of one of the parties. Then I work at that case until I find whether it leads to elucidation or to some fundamental disagreement. In the latter case I reject it and begin the process over again."
"Doesn't that method sometimes involve a good deal of wasted time and energy?" I asked.
"No; because each time that you fail to establish a given case, you exclude a particular explanation of the facts and narrow down the field of inquiry. By repeating the process you are bound, in the end, to arrive at an imaginary case which fits all the facts. Then your imaginary case is the real case and the problem is solved."
When the murderer escapes during a chase (by suicide -- often a simple solution in those days when capital punishment and the scandal of a trial was an issue for some authors and readers), Supt. Miller of Scotland Yard has a parting shot at the divisional Inspector Jervis had reported his suspicions to (about which the doctor for whom Jervis was 'locuming' said when he reported the events "They like to have everything pretty well cut and dried before they act. A prosecution is an expensive affair, so they don't care to prosecute unless they are pretty sure of a conviction. If they fail they get hauled over the coals"). Miller says: "I wish Dr Jervis had given the tip to me instead of to that confounded, over-cautious -- but there, I mustn't run down my brother officers; and it's easy to be wise after the event." The ultimate word comes from the stick-in-the-mud lawyer Winwood, who was dubious about Thorndyke's methods: "But I shall enter a caveat, all the same."
This book is as good a place as any to start a Freeman library. But it is as a short-story writer rather than as a novelist, that Freeman really shines. (The novels tend to be padded with extranea.) In particular, he devised what is called the 'inverted detective story', where you are shown the crime in Part I, then Thorndyke's solution in Part II -- an interesting, if limited, approach to mystery writing. Freeman actually only wrote a few stories in this vein, mostly collected in "The Singing Bone." He started out as an Edwardian detective story writer, but reached his peak in what is considered the Golden Age of Detection, in his middle age (but even then, in the 1920s-1930s, was considered rather old-fashioned, in spite of the praise of Raymond Chandler, who disliked English 'cosies', detective stories that did not take place on Mean Streets). A detective story fan will either love or hate most of his works -- it's all a matter of taste.
Dec. 1, 2004
Tuesday, July 06, 2004
This main object of his discussion is also the most controversial. In effect, he says that all attempts to provide atmosphere, characterization, and setting in a true detective story are irrelevant and distracting, that the most important element is the duel between the author and the reader in providing a solveable puzzle analogous to the crossword. Only the detective can show distinctiveness as a person, the more the better. What is also interesting is his historical background of detection up to the date of composition. It is quite comprehensive and well-written, even when many of the writers are all but forgotten these days. One will note that he mentions Christie -- including his famous condemnation of Roger Ackroyd -- and others (including himself as Van Dine) who were later on to consolidate the Golden Age of Detection. The fact that he published this under his own name as an established art critic is an indication of how he considered this to be a serious study, along with his books Modern Painting, The Creative Will, What Nietzsche Taught, and Misinforming a Nation, listed in the front matter. There is also quite a bit of emphasis on the Continental, mostly French, detective novel (esp. Gaboriau, and somebody called Boisgobey, whom I have never heard of), which is a welcome thing to those of a chauvenistic mind apt to ignore anything not English or American. His main argument, quite right, is that Poe is the founder of detection as a distinct genre with its own rules, even though there are some detective elements in Herodotus, the Bible, The Arabian Nights, and other sources.
All aficionados of detective stories should have a copy of this book, along with Sayers's Omnibus of Crime and Queen's 101 Years' Entertainment. This is not a huge book -- 483 pages -- but is quite representative for 1927. The contents of the anthology are as follows (his approach was to present them chronologically):
American and English
E. A. Poe: "Murders in the Rue Morgue" -- (* murder by an animal)
W. Collins: "The Biter Bit"
A. K. Green: "The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock" -- (* no detection)
A. C. Doyle: "Boscombe Valley Mystery"
A. Morrison: "Lenton Croft Robberies" -- (* no murder)
R. A. Freeman: "Pathologist to the Rescue"
M. D. Post: "The Straw Man" -- (* prime suspect)
E. Bramah: "Knight's Cross Signal Problem"
G. K. Chesterton: "Oracle of the Dog"
J. S. Fletcher: "Murder in the Mayor's Parlor" -- (* secret passage)
B. Copplestone: "The Butler" [?]
E. Phillpotts: "Three Dead Men"
H. C. Bailey: "The Little House"
M. Leblanc: "Footprints in the Snow" (French)
A. Chekhov: "The Swedish Match" (Russian)
D. Theden: "Well-Woven Evidence" (German) [?]
B. Groller: "Strange Tracks" (Austro-Hungarian) [?]
[?] = Never heard of these authors
One can cavil over particular stories by a given author, or even question why Copplestone and Phillpotts are incuded, even if it is pointless to do so (but I am thankful that the over-rated "Doomdorf Mystery" by Post was not selected, nor Poe's silly "Purloined Letter"). At the end of the Introduction he lists a number of cliches and other things that he recommends not be used in future detective stories, but his proviso accepts those that went before, that made them cliches in the first place. These are marked by me (* --xx) in the list above, including some he didn't mention, because many of the stories break his own rules, including the ones about 'excessive drama'. As Emerson put it, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds," so one does not have to agree with Wright's choices, just accept them.
If you read the Philo Vance novels, you would think that SSVD was an incredibile poseur. That was just the way he presented Vance as detective by his own rules of the game. In fact, Wright was a New York aristocrat (of the old school, not meaning new filthy rich like Trump or Steinbrenner or Bloomberg) and even if he lacked what we would call a sense of humor -- viz. the abominable "Gracie Allen Murder Case" -- he was a very cultivated man. I'm sure he was not a priss but could guzzle down illicit gin with the best of us.
Wyatt James (July 2004)
Monday, June 28, 2004
[This is not a thought-out review but a work in progress as I plod through this very long but fascinating book. Warning: Parts of this give away the mystery. If enough is said to encourage you to read the book, then don't read this entire critique until you have. -- Wyatt James]
I am in the process of re-reading this unusual novel after some 30 years. So far I am really impressed. Collins was such a superb writer. The plot is very contrived, but that apparently was his intention, some sort of view-point that denies coincidence and attributes everything to Fate. Just finished the section where one of the Allan Armadales has a 17-point dream with 3 'visions' (having been stranded overnight on the wreck of the very same ship the other Allan Armadale's father murdered his father on some 25 years before). The local doctor conducts a rational analysis of the dream, based on what had happened the previous day that could have inspired the sub-conscious memories relived in the dream. Naturally, we know better than that and will see what happens over the next 400 pages! That chapter alone is brilliantly done, as are the 'set-pieces' occurring in an Alpine spa (Wildbad), Barbados and Madeira (some 20 years before), and the Isle of Man. I wish modern mystery writers, who are just as prolix these days, would be more economical and to the point and not push all this psychological rubbish on us. Collins's psychological explorations of his characters' minds are actually very well done, and totally relevant.
Lydia Gwilt, one of Collins's wonderful female villains, has not yet made her stage appearance, while I am reading this book, but has certainly been introduced behind the scenes.
Has this book ever been made into a movie? It would certainly do well as a TV mini-series of the Masterpiece Theatre sort.
Note that as this progresses, I will be giving away parts of the plot. That won't matter for people who don't have the patience to slog through this brilliant but flawed novel. Any high-school kid who sees this is welcome to crib from it for a book report -- not that I encourage that sort of behavior.
Just to set up, the basic plot involves two men in their low twenties both named Allan Armadale. Their fathers had been rivals for the same woman, Miss Blanchard (a rich heiress from Norfolk), on the island of Barbados; one murders the other by leaving him locked in his cabin in a supposedly sinking ship off the coast of Madeira, which is salvaged after he had drowned. The 12-year-old (clever beyond her years) housemaid of Miss Blanchard's had acted as a go-between during the romance, by forging letters, etc., helping the victim (some sort of Armadale cousin who posed as the 'real' Armadale to elope with Miss Blanchard, hence their son took that name, as the impersonation was never publicly revealed); her name was Lydia Gwilt. The murderer Armadale, who had the plantation on the island, ended up marrying a native woman of mixed race and siring the other Allan Armadale, who by complicated means ended up as a gipsy using the name Ozias Midwinter. Years later all these characters come together again in a nicely twisted plot that depends heavily on coincidence. Lydia, one of Collins's great hard woman characters, takes it into her head to marry the Blanchard Armadale to get hold of his money....
Ah, I have now met Lydia (through letters only so far) and thoroughly enjoyed her correspondence with the old procuress Mrs Oldershaw as they 'plot their troughs' in regard to the Armadale fortune. What a pair! In the meantime, the first Allan Armadale -- the one who has inherited the Blanchard estate by the convenient deaths of the closer heirs (Gwilt has something to do with that too, but it's not clear yet how) -- has taken up his grand home in the Norfolk Broads and forsaken his yacht in Bristol. This Allan is a direct forerunner of Bertie Wooster, impetuous and fat-headed but basically a nice guy. His namesake, an octoroon who goes by the pseudonym Ozias Midwinter given him by the tinker he hooked up with when he ran away from boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, is in a constant state of anxiety, based on his father's death-bed confession in Wildbad to the murder that was given him by lawyers when he came of age, and the admonition that he has to avoid any contact with the Armadales at the risk of catastrophe -- sort of like the Sphinx's advice to Oedipus, yes? He is definitely a manic-depressive, or whatever they call that disorder now. He is also, apparently, a closet homosexual, but this is not a subject dwelt on in Victorian novels, so I just mention it in passing. Gwilt and her crony are seemingly just plotting for Lydia to marry Allan for his money (she is a beautiful 35-year-old woman at the height of her powers, and he is just a 22-year-old airhead), but the way they go about it is very professional in the con-game line -- they know all the tricks, even to the extent of being able to divert investigation by leaving false trails (the investigator being Rev. Decimus Brock, Allan's guardian, who knows lots but reveals little).
To continue what seems to be the underlying theme, Collins again has his characters make major decisions with great repercussions based on random acts such as flipping a coin to decide who's going to rent Allan's gate lodge, going for a moonlight sail because it's nice out tonight and a little too much drink has been taken, basing whether to proceed with a scam on where an advertisement for a governess will be published, in London or locally (if the first, cut losses, if the second, continue as planned). I don't think Collins was a Calvinist -- in fact he was probably agnostic or atheist -- but he is handling this predestination theme with relentless brio.
The plot both thickens and bogs down.... These middle bits of the book tend to drag on, although there are some nice comic interludes, such as Midwinter's disastrous meeting with the Armadale's tenants the Milroys (and the Major's ridiculous clock) and that dreadful picnic on the Norfolk Broads with the deaf old Mrs Pentecost and her dyspeptic clergyman son with the green-tinted eyeglasses -- this has a nice argument about the wording and playing of a Tom Moore song:
Mrs Pentecost elevated her [ear] trumpet, and Allan elevated his voice. "Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen's Bower ----" He stopped; the accompaniment stopped; the audience waited. "It's a most extraordinary thing," said Allan; "I thought I had the next line on the tip of my tongue, and it seems to have escaped me. I'll begin again, if you have no objection. 'Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen's Bower'-----"
"'The lord of the valley with false vows came,'" said Mrs Pentecost.
"Thank you, ma'am," said Allan. "Now I shall get on smoothly. 'Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen's Bower, the lord of the valley with false vows came. The moon was shining bright'------"
"No!" said Mrs Pentecost.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," remonstrated Allan. "'The moon was shining bright'------"
"The moon wasn't doing anything of the kind," said Mrs Pentecost.
Also some funny stuff about Allan's attempt to ingratiate himself with the local upper class neighbors, his quibble with lawyers, and his dealings with Miss Milroy, the 16-year-old flirt who hasn't learned yet how to handle men -- all resulting in disaster, to his bafflement. While overlong, the middle section is a nice forerunner of the British 'cosy' mystery, with a village full of gossip and scandal. Much ado about nothing, but important as income tax liens to everybody concerned.
Some things to note about Collins: (1) His language is surprisingly modern (not slangy but idiomatic enough to read well a century and a half later) -- no 'prithees' or anything like that, though that would not have been used in the 19th Century anyway, except by medievalists like Scott; (2) he is into 'modernity', what we would call high-tech or state-of-the-art, loving new-fangled things like railways, also the early stages of psychology as it was developing; (3) his straightforward and knowing approach to sleaze and con-games. (4) The main action of this book takes place in 1850 or thereabouts, with much going back 25 years from then, yet it is strikingly 'modern' in its one could almost say cynicism about human morality, as well as technology. (5) There is another important innovation, if that's the word: he has a Private Investigator (Bashwood) at the "Private Inquiry Office in Shadyside Place" -- almost forty years before Sherlock Holmes's debut on Baker Street. One shouldn't be surprised, really, that such things existed back then because there has always been a need for the non-official tracking down of adultery, insurance fraud, absconding debtors, and embezzlement. Still, it's interesting to see this in such an early setting, and also to see that it was regarded as a rather disreputable business. Bashwood is expert at his job, and personable, but is as venal and greedy as they come.
He also has a Dickensian way of describing people. Here is his introduction to the elder Bashwood, who is Allan's lawyer's clerk, estate steward, later Lydia's dupe (and detective Bashwood's father):
The figure came on, clad from head to foot in dreary black -- a moving blot on the brilliant white surface of the sun-brightened road. He was a lean, elderly, miserably respectable man. He wore a poor old black dress-coat, and a cheap brown wig, which made no pretence of being his own natural hair. Short black trousers clung like attached old servants round his wizen legs; and rusty black gaiters hid all they could of his knobbed ungainly feet. Black crape added its mite to the decayed and dingy wretchedness of his old beaver hat; black mohair in the obsolete form of a stock, drearily encircled his neck and rose as high as his haggard jaws. The one morsel of colour he carried about him, was a lawyer's bag of blue serge as lean and limp as himself. The one attractive feature in his clean-shaven, weary old face, was a neat set of teeth -- teeth (as honest as his wig), which said plainly to all inquiring eyes, "We pass our night on his looking-glass, and our days in his mouth."
That is way too long for what it is saying, but is amusingly written. Note again the sheer chancedness that isn't, getting the Bashwoods involved with the Armadales. Midwinter was just lost at a crossroads when he encountered the old man and asked directions. And Bashwood Sr. becomes a deus-ex-machina in his own feeble way. Random stuff like this plays a major theme in this fugue of a novel.
One can only admire the Pedgifts, however -- Allan Armadale's lawyers. They, especially the old man, are in the best of the Rumpole tradition if you will forgive the anachronism. Pedgift's Postscript, his habitual parting shot, is justly famous and has had many successors, such as Columbo. It's that 'by the way...' as he is just about to leave after losing his argument that always turns things around.
Several people are looking after the naive Allan Armadale (who in my opinion doesn't deserve such attention) and carry on investigations during the story. It has now been telegraphed, i.e., not explicit, that Lydia Gwilt was an adventuress, and Mrs Oldershaw's 'line of business' is as a ladies' hairdresser, an expert in disguising the ravages of old age and bad hair, who makes discrete arrangements for her clients with the abortionist Doctor Downward (a wonderfully slimy character), whose office is in the same building. Racy stuff for the period. There is another 'racy' aspect unusual for the time this book was written -- that is, Ozias Midwinter, the other Allan Armadale, is of mixed blood, his mother having been a Barbadian quadroon who as a widow marries an awful Scotsman introduced in the first chapter, and he drives the poor lad into gypsy-dom before he disappears from the novel. The Mr Neal/Mrs Armadale encounter in the beginning is an understated masterpiece of implied sexual attraction. When he wasn't just churning out words to fill his publishing contract, Collins was a really marvellous writer.
But as mentioned, the opening scenes are wonderfully gripping, maybe the first 100 pages, especially the prologue in the German spa, where old man Armadale makes his deathbed confession to Mr Neal (who doesn't want to be involved, except that he is attracted to Mrs Armadale), and the tale of the murder at sea. In fact I can hardly list the novels I've read that have such great openings. I'd love to see this book properly done as a mini-series for television. But the middle sections really drag. As I say, the protagonists behave like idiots and keep the plot going by that alone. Nobody but naifs would have been fooled by Lydia for long. (We used to make fun of the had-I-but-known approach to suspense, although it is a good if primitive method.) Much of this section, as in the rest of the novel, is conveyed in epistolary style (letters and diaries); however, the best parts are done in author's omniscient voice. A real mixture of points-of-view -- something that later became important in literary art, that consistency thing, but is really less important than the lit-crit folks would have you believe. It works here even though Lydia's diary is somewhat overdone. (As always, the reader can't but wonder how she has time to write all this stuff when she is either in the middle of plotting or in a laudanum daze.)
The plot thickens, and the coincidences pile up as the facts are revealed with the help of Bashwood's investigation into Lydia's past:
Be it noted that Lydia was heavily involved as a young servant girl in the original Armadale/Blanchard conspiracy in Barbados that resulted in the murder on the ship; I won't go into that -- read the book! Miss Blanchard was Allan's mother, and heiress to the huge Norfolk estate. A snake-oil doctor and his wife Mrs Oldershaw had come into town with the little orphan Lydia, who catches the eye and compassion of Miss Blanchard and is 'bought' off the couple to become her personal maid.
After the murderous events in Madeira, Lydia is sent off to a convent on the Continent to get rid of her and suppress the scandal, gets into trouble with men (teachers, monks), at an early age, since she is beautiful and has striking red hair, gets involved with a Russian Baroness who is actually a card sharp who preys on the aristocracy of sophisticated European cities, marries a brutal rich Englishman the Baroness tried to cheat, poisons him with the help of her Cuban lover, is convicted of murder but pardoned by the Home Secretary after a journalistic sob-story orgy results in public demand for her release from the gallows, goes to prison for two years for theft instead as a sop to justice in that event, on release marries her Cuban who turns out to be a bigamist and steals all the money she inherited from her first husband, then hooks up again with Mrs Oldershaw. When Manuel left her, she tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Thames, and the Blanchard heirs die in the rescue attempt, leaving the fortune open to Allan to inherit. Nice juicy stuff and totally absurd -- but it all works given Collins's Fate methodology.
Lydia comes up with an idiotically complex scheme to marry Midwinter (under his real, legally recorded name of Allan Armadale), kill the other Armadale, then claim his fortune as his widow. And probably have to kill Midwinter too, although she can't make up her mind about this because she actually falls in love with him. He's besotted with her and they do get married (so much for my closet-gay theory, although he becomes alienated with her after the honeymoon for no explicit reason), staying one step ahead of the sleazy Bashwood Jr., the P.I. who has been hired by his Lydia-besotted father (he, too, doesn't know about the two Armadales), and they go off to Naples, where Ozias has got a job as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper. She doesn't know quite how to kill off Allan, but is glad to find out that he will be sailing his yacht to the Mediterranean to meet up with them, and hopes a convenient storm will come along. Well, it does, and wrecks his yacht on the coast of Portugal (but he survives). Then she tries to poison him with laudanum in his lemonade (she is an addict, by the way), but laces it with brandy to hide the taste, not knowing that he is allergic to brandy and can't drink it. Allan finds another yacht for sale in Naples and decides to take it out for a test cruise but can't find a crew. Lo and behold, guess who is a member of the chorus in Bellini's opera Norma and spots her in her box seat? It is her old nemesis Manuel. He tries to blackmail her, but she persuades him instead to sign on as captain of Allan's yacht (Manuel, of course, has the proper credentials since he has done everything in his nefarious life) by telling him about Allan's cash box.
That yacht is lost in the Adriatic during another storm (storms involving ships occur several times in this book) and she slips away from Ozias, now in Turin, to go back to London because of a health crisis involving her fictitious sickly mother -- but really now to claim Allan's money as his ostensible widow. The marriage license is fine, but the signature on the registry doesn't match -- how will she get around that? Mrs Oldershaw has had problems with the law, along with Dr Downward, and has become a born-again Christian and will not cooperate. Well, re-enter Dr Downward in his new identity as Dr Le Doux, who comes into his own here as a really fine crook, an early version of Caspar Gutman of Maltese Falcon fame; he undertakes to claim to have witnessed the marriage if she gives him half her inheritance. The doctor has changed his specialty and now is setting up a bizarre Sanatorium in Hampstead, catering to nervous disorders of rich hypochondriacs -- a quack spa Collins has a lot of fun satirizing: very funny set-piece where he gives a guided tour to the local ladies, while at the same time cluing in Lydia as to how to commit the murder of Allan (but I've jumped ahead!).
[Gwilt] "You seem strangely depressed this morning. What are you afraid of now?"
[Downward] "The imputation of being afraid, Madam, is not an imputation to be cast rashly on any man -- even when he belongs to such an essentially peaceful profession as mine. I am not afraid. I am (as you correctly put it in the first instance) strangely depressed. My nature is, as you know, naturally sanguine, and I only see today, what, but for my habitual hopefulness, I might have seen, and ought to have seen, a week since."
[Gwilt] "If words cost money, the luxury of talking would be rather an expensive luxury, in your case."
Allan has survived the ship-wreck faked by Manuel although his money was stolen (his luck is always incredible -- this time the first-mate feels guilty and lets him escape by jumping overboard as the yacht is scuttled and getting picked up by a Hungarian tramp steamer that puts him incommunicado for a month or so suffering the inevitable brain fever so convenient to 19th Century authors). He writes to Bashwood the elder, his steward, who hands the letter right over to Lydia, who then plots to entrap Allan in Dr Downward's private loony bin and arrange his death there, since his obituary has already been published in the Times, the executors have been notified about Lydia's claim, and only Bashwood knows different. What Downward was leading up to in the quotation cited above is that their original plan to lure then just to shut Allan up in the asylum has to become murder. There is to be a tragic accident involving the doctor's state-of-the-art oxygenator device equipped for claustrophobic patients in Room 4. All the patients' rooms are fitted up with trick door locks and windows, opening up the possibility for a locked-room murder, but Collins does not pursue this line except in a minor way.
The ending is melodramatic and fast, with Lydia finally repenting when she nearly kills her husband instead of Allan; she rescues him from the infamous Room 4 then shuts herself up in the gas chamber and thus perishes. I will let Downward provide her epitaph (from an observation he thought earlier):
"It's been a harder struggle for her than I anticipated.... Good heavens, what business has she with a conscience, after such a life as hers has been!"
PS. In the 'happy' ending epilogue, it turns out that Downward becomes successful with his Sanatorium after all that publicity about Lydia's accidental death as a patient, Mrs Oldershaw becomes an evangelist for fallen women, Manuel gets murdered in a bar brawl in a falling out of thieves, old Bashwood gets committed to an old-age home, Allan marries the silly Miss Milroy (they deserve each other), and who really knows what happens to poor Midwinter, although he does have a small income from what's left of his Barbados estate? Presumably he sticks around in the Armadale household, although it is hinted that he so impressed his newspaper employers that he went on to become a famous journalist. He was definitely cured of his superstition about fate and prophetic dreams.
I hinted that Collins was pre-Freudian in his description of Ozias Midwinter, but it is very obvious why such a person would be screwed-up the way he is, even before Freud could explain it. Our very first view of him (in the original illustration in Cornhill Magazine) is as a small boy sitting on his father's deathbed with awful people surrounding him, while the dying man confesses to murder. Too young to remember that? Well, ask Freud (who is too dead now to ask). You also have to take into account his mixed-race and his travels on the road after he ran away from school after his mistreatment by his stepfather. Collins didn't play up the racial thing (good for him!), but it is there buried in the story. Just as Collins didn't say Dr Downward was an abortionist, but we know damn well he was, as well as being a quack. It isn't as though Ozias lacks street-wiseness -- in
fact he shows it on several occasions, as you'd expect from his background -- it's just that he is a 'psychologically damaged' personality subject to manic depression, and starving for any affection that comes his way.
I have to give Wilkie Collins credit for taking melodramatic characters, such as were necessary for his plot, and adding some depth to the ones that matter, even that sleazeball Bashwood Jr, the private investigator, who is one of the first P.I.'s ever shown in fiction. Bashwood is totally competent, in fact expert, in his profession, but lacks any of the morality of later P.I.'s such as Chandler's Marlowe; those sections involving his investigation of Lydia Gwilt deserve attention for private eye fans, and her cleverness in spotting 'tails' and sneaking out back entrances of stores and changing residence overnight in a way only somebody who is used to doing that could do
it, and don't forget that this took place in 1851!
In fact there were lots of good characters in this book, but they were thrown away in the process of its lengthy publication: Brock, the Pedgifts, Major Milway, for example. Others, like the flighty teenager Neelie, were brought in then put spinning on a plate (you've seen those jugglers who get a lot of plates spinning on flexible sticks), tapped down when necessary, otherwise left spinning up there, occasionally stroked. You have to admire Collins for his skill at that. On the other hand you know it's just a fine performance, little more than that in the long run.
It is Lydia Gwilt who outranks them all, an adventuress who has learned her stuff, but is more victim than villain. Her cynical opinions of everybody she encounters is a delight, yet when it comes to her plotting for personal aggrandisement you feel sorry for her ineptness -- she will exploit any ass like Bashwood Sr or Mrs Overshaw to achieve her aims, but one gets the impression that she would much rather be a 'nice' person. Her life story, as revealed by
Bashwood Jr, is briefly presented and shows a person who has learned to be hard-assed through awful adversities, not by basic nature. Starting from when she was suborned as a 12-year-old child to be a go-between in an undercover romance, actually before that when as an orphan girl she was a shill for a snake-oil doctor pushing cosmetic creams. It was actually an act of justice for the Home Secretary to pardon her death sentence for the murder of her first husband, on what would now be called wife-beating grounds, and totally perverse that she should then spend two years in jail for stealing his jewels when she'd been told she was being disinherited of all but a pittance.
With a little pruning, this would be an even better book. Some of the characters, especially Lydia Gwilt, are wonderfully described -- even 'throwaway' types such as the Pedgifts and Mrs Oldershaw.* Still, it is very important in the history of mystery novels, and it is surprising undated to read, even though it takes place in 1851. The lack of consistency -- what is this novel trying to prove? -- is its biggest flaw, along with its long-windedness. What was most famous about it when it came out was the elaborate dream, with all its points, which comes true bit by bit. That is really just a sideline in the novel, and becomes something like Collins's personal plot outline to keep him from diverging too much.
* I should prune this essay too, since I said that already. Still this was all written in sections, as I proceeded through the book, so we will leave it as is.
Another aspect of the book is what one could call social realism, not a critical part of classic detection but often of great interest to the curious reader who enjoys some 'local color' or an interesting setting beyond what is presumably his/her personal milieu. In this, Zangwill resembles his contemporary mystery writer, Arthur Morrison, who wrote stories about Martin Hewitt, a 'rival of Sherlock Holmes', but is more famous for his novels about London's East End slums (Tales of Mean Streets, A Child of the Jago, etc.). Zangwill was more famous as a Zionist and socialist, and as a novelist of the Morrison sort -- Children of the Ghetto, for example. In both cases, this leads to a style that is surprisingly modern in its attitude and avoids what some consider the stodginess of the Victorians and Edwardians (on the surface at least). A dry wit is not the least of his virtues: "But it is difficult for saints to see through their own haloes; and in practice an aureola about the head is often indistinguishable from a mist."
The plot of The Big Bow Mystery involves the murder of a well-known 'Union Agitator' (Arthur Constant), his throat being cut in his East End bed-sit flat, door locked and bolted and the windows inaccessible, no weapon to be found, hence not a suicide. An obvious suspect is his rival in labor politics and in love, but he (Tom Mortlake) has a good alibi, supposedly on a train to Liverpool when the murder was committed, even though he had had a fight with deceased the night before. The details are revealed in an amusing coroner's inquest that covers the forensics, establishes various identities, and comes up with a strange open verdict: "It seems clear that the deceased did not commit suicide. It seems equally clear that the deceased was not murdered. There is nothing for it, therefore, gentlemen, but to return a verdict tantamount to an acknowledgement of our incompetence to come to any adequately grounded conviction whatever as to the means or the manner by which the deceased met his death." After this, follows a nice set-piece about Press Frenzy, including letters to the editor providing solutions, some reasonable, some off the wall. Two rival detectives are heavily involved in trying to solve the case, the retired policeman George Grodman (who discovered the body in company with Constant's landlady Mrs Drabdump) and Inspector Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard. ["The two men were always overwhelmingly cordial when they met, in order to disguise their mutual detestation."] Wimp, of course, has his own conclusion, regardless of mere facts, and ends up arresting Mortlake at a Liberal rally in the presence of Gladstone himself; Mortlake escapes during the resulting near riot. A key character is Mortlake's friend Denzil Cantercot, a reporter for The New Pork Herald (!), hack writer -- and in fact the ghost-writer of Grodman's Memoirs, for which he hasn't been paid.
Mortlake turns himself in, cleverly at a local cop shop, so as to deny Wimp the credit, and is duly committed for trial -- another nice set piece, ending in a travesty guilty verdict after the judge's summing up. ["Having thus well-nigh hung the prisoner, the judge wound up by insisting on the high probability of the story for the defense... The jury, being by this time being sufficiently muddled by his impartiality, were dismissed... 'Guilty'. The judge put on his black cap. The great reception arranged outside was a fiasco; the evening banquet was indefinitely postponed. Wimp had won; Grodman felt like a whipped cur."] There follows, a week or two later, the dramatic rescue of Mortlake from the gallows and the ultimate solution, which of course shall not be revealed here.
All in all, this is a delightful mystery with a full complement of puzzle elements. One point not to be neglected is that it is also a novella -- 100 pages or so -- but still manages to pack in as much detail as a much longer detective novel such as is produced routinely these days would do. A model of concision, good plotting, and sufficient background and characterization to maintain interest at a high level.
Friday, April 23, 2004
Hammett's most famous detective is Sam Spade, who appears only in this novel and three rather trivial short stories produced on demand from his publishers. This mystery became John Huston's classic movie with Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet, et al., and lifted dialogue intact from this book -- that's how vividly written it is. One of the early but hardly surpassed (if ever) hard-boiled detective stories. The mood of this masterpiece puts it right up there with the best of the 'noirs' (cf. Ambler and Thompson). [It can be fun to point to later movies like 'Chinatown', 'Bladerunner', and yes, 'Batman', that sort of capture a similar mood.] Like all Hammett books, it is short (some 200 pages), but its terse and economical style contains enough detail for a much longer novel. It is crammed with details and events. Hence the movie necessarily crops a lot out of the sub-plots and other incidentals. Most scenes hold up remarkably intact in spirit, including word-for-word reproduction of the dialogue. And Sam Spade, described as a 'blond Satan', built like an Easter Island statue and defined by the letter V as to his facial features, is not Bogart, quite -- he is also somewhat sleazy, not just hard-boiled but venal. He also hand-rolls his cigarettes, which like pipe-tamping adds a casual deliberation to scenes, insouciance that cannot be conveyed as well by somebody just taking one out of a pack. Lorre, of course, was perfect as Joel Cairo, and Greenstreet as Casper 'By-Gad-Sir' Gutman (though in the book Cairo is more blatantly homosexual and Gutman far more grossly fat, defined by 'jouncing bulbs' as Hammett puts it). Sex is something that was of course downplayed in the movie because of the time it was made, but the book makes it clear (though not in as much explicit detail as would be written now) that Spade slept with Brigid and that he had an adulterous relationship with his partner's wife Iva -- that sub-plot mostly glossed over in the film although it makes more explicable the reason why the cops are on Spade's case so vehemently.
Also eliminated, or cut back, were the amusing scenes involving Spade and his lawyer, Sid Wise ("Just one more client like you and I'd be in a sanitarium -- or San Quentin." / "You'd be with most of your clients..."). A fine scene where Spade is called in to the DA's office, where the latter is trying to make a connection between murder victim Thursby's involvement with a missing gambling mobster and Spade's client -- a traditional mystery red herring not even mentioned in the movie. (Spade's whole ethic throughout is to protect the privacy of his clients from meddling law folk, a theme that is basic to the book.) Gutman's drugged daughter. The affectionate relationship with his pip of a secretary Effie Perine. Spade's burglary of Brigid's apartment. Spade's relations and friendships as a professional private eye with the like of hotel dicks and other aides and informers and his cop friend Polhaus -- he is no Lone Ranger. The full and fascinating history of the Falcon itself. Above all, the 'parable' Spade narrates to Brigid about Mr. Flitcraft (pointed out by Steven Marcus in his introduction to The Continental Op), a man who abandoned his prosperous and humdrum career and his family after nearly being killed by a falling piece of construction work while walking to lunch, having an epiphany that life is a crap-shoot and subject to randomness, so do as thou wilt, then in another place established an almost identical life-style as somebody else: "He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling." This defines Spade's existential attitude and explains, in a sense, his basically honorable final action, a kind of return to normalcy, to what standards he has at base.
As a mystery plot, i.e., involving detection, this book is not in the Golden Age of Detection vein, more like pure pulp thriller, because nearly everybody in it is basically treacherous, including the hero; there's that wonderful scene toward the end where Spade and Gutman deliberate on who to shop for the murders, the palming of a thousand-dollar bill, the gyrations of treachery worthy of the old Romans or the Borgias -- one of the most cynical and dramatic endings in all detective fiction. The wise-cracking style later improved on by Chandler et al. became part of the genre after Hammett, such as this minor but typical example where Cairo comments: "You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready" and Spade replies "What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?" A throwaway exchange with the driver of a borrowed car: "Your partner got knocked off, didn't he, Mr. Spade?" / "Uh-huh." / "She's a tough racket. You can have it for mine." / "Well, hack-drivers don't live forever." / "Maybe that's right," the thick man conceded, "but, just the same, it'll always be a surprise to me if I don't." Certainly at a higher level than the gangsterese popular at the time. Note too that Hammett has the gunsel Wilmer utter "two words, the first a short gutteral verb, the second 'you'" -- even "Black Mask" drew the line in those days.
Wednesday, April 07, 2004
A comment by Barry Ergang of the Golden Age of Detection News Group:
"The most effectively brutal and wrenching scene I've ever come across in ANY piece of fiction I've read so far is the one in which Ned Beaumont and Eloise Mathews flaunt their carnal interest in one another in front of Eloise's husband, after which he commits suicide. I've only read the book once -- a long time ago -- but I've never forgotten that scene. Adding to the book's overall power is Hammett's use of the objective third-person viewpoint. He never goes into the mind of any of the characters, conveying emotion solely through their actions and dialogue, but the impact isn't any the less for it. This is the work in which, for what my opinion is worth, Hammett outdoes Hemingway at his own over-touted game."
In case you are curious about the title, it derives from a dream the 'heroine' Janet Henry narrates to Ned Beaumont, in which they were together in the woods, Hansel and Gretel or Goldilocks fashion, lost and starving. They find a locked cabin and spot a table laid out with food through the window, and finding a key under the doormat they open the door only to find the floor crawling with poisonous snakes and quickly relock the door.... At the end of the book she finally admits, "In that dream -- I didn't tell you -- the key was glass and shattered in our hands just as we got the door open..."/ He looked sidewise at her and asked: "Well?"/ She shivered. "We couldn't lock the snakes in and they came out all over us and I woke up screaming." This sort of metaphorical dream sequence is something Hammett used fairly frequently (as in "The Dain Curse") and it works quite effectively without being overwhelmingly 'literary'.
Saturday, April 03, 2004
padded out with kinky sex, bloodthirsty insanity, and protagonists
crippled by angst, I found it a pleasure to pick up "The Dain Curse"
again (the other four Hammett novels will follow in quick
order). 160 pages or so of beautifully contrived workmanship. If
you'll allow the analogy, it is like the old mechanical Timex watch I
had for twenty years as compared with my new answering machine. The
watch that never failed vanished into the hands of a mugger many years
ago -- one does not sentimentally hang onto something like that when a
knife is being held to your throat by a drug-addicted kid who'd kill
for a Big Mac hamburger. The answering machine, bought to replace the
one that recently died of old age at the age of five, which is about
the life expectancy of modern miracle machinery, is about the size of a
paperback book and has one button that does all (meaning it does
nothing any reasonable person would expect it to do -- the Timex, of
course, only needed to be wound, and adjusted when the clocks changed
for summer time); I've persuaded it at least to answer messages, but
at the expense of having a working telephone that can be used when the
machine is on: compromise deal with it now is to disconnect it when
I'm home, put it on when I go out, which means unplugging and
replugging all the different connection wires each time, now done with
ingenious if sloppy operational skill, making sure all those carefully
set out wires are covered up to keep the cats from playing with them.
Is that business about 'technology' a pointless diversion? No, I don't
think so. "The Dain Curse" is both thriller and mystery, and
hard-boiled of course. The difference between hard-boiled and
traditional detection becomes a moot point when dealing with great
writers like Hammett and Chandler who purposely denigrated 'cosiness'.
You will find the same literary elements and narrative skills in both
approaches to mystery writing when they are well done -- and quite a
lot of overlap when it comes to fair clueing and a reasonable level of
erudition. But what I most admire about Hammett is the stripped-down
and straightforward narrative, spiced with excellent dialogue of a
terse and often witty sort. Yes, the plot might be absurd, as is
"Silence of the Lambs" as a modern example, yet works not by
overwhelming the attention span by long passages of obfuscation and
psychology but by punching and jabbing like Ali in his heydey. The
'rope-a-dope' style of detection. Within the first hundred pages you
get a full murder mystery, solved with improbable but perfect logic by
the Continental Op (whether modern police methodology would allow a
private eye to walk all over procedure these days the way he did is a
matter of societal and cultural changes); then follows the aftermath,
two more murder mysteries involving the poor 'cursed' Dain girl, all tied together
by the overriding plot involving a superbly rendered villain, with excellent
provision of clues. The economy and complexity of this process is inspiring,
everything that needs to be said is said or presented, there's no
nonsense or unnecessary diversion. Characterization? Bah! Enough is
presented to make the people live, even poor old Leggett, the French
escapee from Devil's Island who has made a new career in San Francisco
as a research chemist, but is all too soon a murder victim. Gabrielle,
the morphine junkie with the elfin, foxlike face, who thinks she is cursed,
is a marvellous character.
A comment on customs: As we all know, sex, drug addiction, passion,
and greed have existed throughout human history. That they are not
presented graphically in this book is a matter of the editorial policy
of the time -- any adult reader can fill in between the lines. What is
more interesting for people with an interest in such things is the
'periodicity', for example, the Op having to take a ferry from San
Francisco to Berkeley because the Bay Bridge hadn't been built then
(let alone BART). Prohibition was in full swing and the casual flouting
of the law taken for granted. This adds appeal in the way the Philo Vance
books do for New York. Then of course there is always the behavior of the cops,
and also what would be considered blatant racism these days -- Civil
Libertarians would have a fit now. I know some NYC cops, and their
attitudes are really no different from what they would have been in
the 1920s; it's just the procedures and the way of expressing opinions
that have changed.
Appearance: The Continental Op is the anonymous precursor to Pronzini's
Nameless Detective. But little things leak out. Did you know, for
example, that he was only five-feet-six tall, but weighed in at 190
lbs.? Somehow one's first impression is that he's the Incredible Hulk, the way
he comes across (but doesn't behave, always being very polite), but he is
actually a generic version of George Smiley or Father Brown. Lorre, not Bogart.
This was intentional on Hammett's part, I think, before Sam Spade. He was just
trying to represent a 'real' detective of the Pinkerton sort, not Sherlock. I
have never met a private detective, but in reality they probably
resemble bank clerks. Seedy, but not excessively so, plodding but not
jerks by any means. Inconspicuous, but capable of displaying power
when needed. This would fit the times -- likely nowadays a PI would
more resemble a computer nerd with goggle glasses and a dirty T-shirt.
(Apart from the boss of the agency, of course, who would dress like a
professional basketball coach to impress the customers.)