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Category Archives: American

ROSS MACDONALD. The Moving Target (1949).

A strong ending caps what is otherwise a diffuse and disappointing tale of misspent love, runaway greed, and multiple murder. Lew Archer, in his debut appearance, signs up to look for a missing millionaire named Ralph Sampson, and in tracking that quarry he travels through a Southern California version of Dante’s Inferno—a realm where lost souls writhe under a hot, unforgiving sun. Moving Target.jpg This world, of course, will be familiar to readers of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald’s Virgilian predecessors. Among its denizens are Sampson’s emotionally and physically crippled young wife, his alluring but aimless daughter, a cult leader who half-believes his own doggerel, an aging screen star who turns to astrology when her beauty starts to fade, a golden-boy war hero who can’t quite fit into a peacetime role, a honky-tonk piano player who can’t catch a break (and who doesn’t deserve to), and several others. The characters are incisively drawn, but there are too many of them, each with a sad and convoluted story to tell. As a result, the plot fails to yield a dense weave of meaning of the kind that would mark the later Archer novels. Macdonald’s prose misfires here as well, throwing off empty similes and leaden turns of phrase; it would improve greatly in subsequent books. In sum, The Moving Target is a rough sketch of much finer things to come.

[ADDENDUM: While scanning the Web for material on The Moving Target, I learned that J. Kingston Pierce—all-around mystery fiction maven and chief chronicler at the wonderful Rap Sheet blog—had written a brief remembrance of his initial encounter with the book. As it happens, the maiden Lew Archer adventure was the first detective novel that Pierce read, and it seems to have left him with a taste for gritty, gut-punching fare. The book stood out as being “a vigorous, thoughtful, often compassionate tale of love and greed with an ending that questioned whether anyone was truly trustworthy,” he writes. Pierce was a better, more mature young reader than I was. My introduction to the detective genre came via the adventures of Encyclopedia Brown (boy detective!) and the Three Investigators, and it was quite a few years before my reading expanded much beyond formal puzzle tales in the tradition of Agatha Christie.]

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

ANTHONY BOUCHER. The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937).

Many decades after it appeared, this début work by a pivotal figure in the history of detective fiction exudes a wonderful sense of ripeness. Boucher was a mere lad of 25 years when he wrote it, and a precocious, fully formed sensibility—a clear perspective on what the detective novel could and should offer—is evident in its pages from start to finish. Implicitly and on a few occasions explicitly, he pays homage to predecessors such as Edgar Allan Poe and to peers such as John Dickson Carr. AnthonyBoucher2.jpg In doing so, he signals his allegiance to a tradition that prizes fine gamesmanship no less than it does great storytelling. He even includes a clue-finder device, complete with references to the pages on which he has smuggled in telltale facts.

Boucher also structures the book, in an earnest yet knowing fashion, around classic genre tropes—from the use of a Watson-like figure, who holds the reader’s sympathy while offering assistance to a master sleuth, to the final scene in which the sleuth marches through all of the steps (cognitive and otherwise) that led to the discovery of a culprit. The chief driver of the story is Martin Lamb, a graduate student in German at the University of California, Berkeley, and he functions more or less like the juvenile-lead types who play a supporting role in many of Carr’s novels. (Unlike a true Watson, he does not narrate the tale directly.) The master sleuth is Professor John Ashwin, a teacher of Sanskrit whose store of knowledge extends well beyond that language. Ashwin remains offstage, for the most part, but makes a strong impact in the scenes that feature him.

The setting here—UC Berkeley, during what now seem like halcyon days for that institution—poses a challenge for Boucher. The milieu that he depicts pulses with optimism, with a buoyant faith in the value of rational thought and pragmatic activity. It is not, in other words, a venue where homicidal passions and dark secrets are likely to find a natural home. And so, to add intrigue and gravitas to that sun-dappled milieu, Boucher draws on the lore of an ancient and treacherous (and wholly fictional) religious sect: the eponymous Seven of Calvary. This plot element allows him to summon the menacing specter of Old World conspiracies, and it recalls another classic trope. Indeed, one character in the book alludes to this trope explicitly by likening the Seven of Calvary back-story to “early Doyle.” (It also anticipates a common theme in recent works such as The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, as in this one, early Christian heresies resurface to animate contemporary political machinations.)

The dramatis personae present a similar quandary. Most of the key characters are denizens or associates of International House, a residential center that serves both overseas students and American students with cosmopolitan affinities. They are bright young adults, each of them so apparently full of healthful energy and honest goodwill that it’s hard to imagine that they harbor bloodthirsty emotions. SevenCalvary.jpg Boucher, therefore, must play a clever game of misdirection to hide the hole where one or more known motives for murder would typically be.

The first killing takes place in a quiet residential precinct that lies between the campus and the Berkeley Hills—a sylvan realm where Lamb and other characters go for long, romance-nurturing walks—and the victim is Dr. Hugo Schaedel, an emissary of peace from Switzerland. The second killing occurs at a dress rehearsal for a student performance of Don Juan Returns, an old Spanish play that Lamb has translated into English, and the victim is Paul Lennox, an instructor in history who was part of the International House circle. The means of killing in the first instance is an ice pick; in the second, it’s a dose of strychnine. The shift in murder methods furnishes a clue that proves to be a decisive link in the chain of reasoning that Ashwin will forge when he presents a solution to the case.

This solution, together with the twists and turns that precede it, distinguishes Seven of Calvary as a prodigious display of Golden Age plotting—as a marvel of ingenuity that bears comparison with best novels of the same era by Carr and other virtuosos of the puzzle tale. The book’s only noteworthy flaw lies in its young author’s over-eager playfulness. Boucher brings to the proceeding a jaunty and sometimes flippant mood that lessens, just slightly, the weight of this freshman achievement. Solving a murder is serious business, or at least it should be.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DENNIS LEHANE. Darkness, Take My Hand (1996).

Lehane, in this second book to feature the sleuthing duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennarro, has put the Dorchester section of Boston on the map of places that have a presence in myth that no region could ever attain in mere space. In his Dorchester, killer clowns rule the night, cruising Savin Hill Avenue in an ominous-looking white van and laying the groundwork for a vengeful murder spree that will occur twenty years later. DarknessTakeHand.jpg In his Dorchester, the sins of fathers and mothers, born of the vigilante passions that roiled white working-class Boston during the school-busing crisis of the 1970s, linger as a curse upon their progeny.

Through artful storytelling, Lehane makes us want to believe in that Dorchester—and makes us need to believe in his two homegrown heroes, who winningly demonstrate their ability to transcend the violence that marks their neighborhood. He does less well in other respects. An air of Hollywood-inspired banality clings to much of the dialogue and to some of the characterization. The byplay between Kenzie and Gennaro, which swerves from the fraternal to the sexual and back, is cutesy and obvious rather than clever. (One critic shrewdly hears in it an uninspired echo from the TV show Moonlighting.) And the plot, though powerful as a whole, does not work as smoothly as it might; it has a couple of hard-to-ignore holes, and its final sequence goes on too long. But for a novelist, it’s no small thing to transfigure a humdrum patch of earth into an arena of epic adventure. In creating a fit place for Kenzie and others to confront their demons, internal as well as external, Lehane has achieved that feat.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2018 in American, Noir, Novel

 

PATRICK QUENTIN. A Puzzle for Fools (1936).

A strong, genial prose style, a couple of sharp late-inning plot turns, and a charmingly contrived rendition of psychiatric illness and treatment, circa 1936, help to salvage this poorly paced chronicle of murder at an asylum for the not-quite-sane. Alcoholism has led narrator and hero Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer by trade, to check himself into a bin for the moderately loony, and his fellow inmates include a kleptomaniac Boston dowager, a spacy but beautiful heiress, a narcoleptic Anglo-Indian pukka sahib, and a famous conductor who just can’t stop conducting. PuzzleFools.jpg Despite the relatively benign nature of these patients’ disorders, it becomes apparent that someone at the institution suffers from an impulse that’s anything but harmless. First a warden at the asylum turns up in a straight-jacket with his wrestler’s body contorted into the shape of a corpse. Then one of the patients, a Wall Street tycoon, falls victim to a stolen surgeon’s knife. Duluth plays detective, somewhat ineffectually: Although he unravels a few layers of the mystery, only the sage Dr. Lenz, director of the sanitarium, sees through to its core. Duluth also plays Romeo, and does so to much greater effect. Alas, his climactic departure from the drunk tank with a winsome Juliet in his arms makes this “puzzle” seem like a mere trifle.

[ADDENDUM: My hunch is that I’d like this book more today than I did back when I read it and wrote this review. I had a much higher regard for two other books in the Peter Duluth sequence that I read subsequently (A Puzzle for Puppets and Black Widow), and I’ve enjoyed a couple of that titles that Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler—the men behind the Patrick Quentin pen name—wrote under the pseudonym Jonathan Stagge. The Duluth character, in my first encounter with him, probably threw me off. Unlike most Golden Age detective heroes, but very much like their counterparts in our own era, Duluth operates not as a dispassionate observer of criminal activity but as a man who is desperately implicated in it. Nowadays, I’m readier than I used to be to welcome a sleuth who plays a “fool” within the puzzle that he bids to solve.]

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

RAOUL WHITFIELD. Death in a Bowl (1931).

An early product of the tough-guy school of crime writing, this tale of greed, ambition, and murder in Tinseltown exhibits a besetting flaw of its type: It mistakes brute action for dramatic tension, and offers mere confusion in place of genuine mystery. The basic riddle that private eye Ben Jardinn must crack—Why and how did someone shoot musical conductor Hans Reiner during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl?—has merit both in its setup and in its solution. But the path that Whitfield carves between his crisp, provocative opening and his intriguing conclusion is strewn with narrative non-sequiturs. DeathBowl.jpg In dialogue, characters throw comments at one another that are either random or opaque. At the level of plot, scenes of violence, revelation, or reversal occur with no discernible connection to the scenes that precede or follow them. (One chapter, for example, starts with Jardinn entering a hospital where a key suspect, whom readers had last seen being put under arrest, will soon die. There is no narrative preparation for this event—no explanation of how the suspect arrived in that parlous state—nor any effort to link this plot turn to the story as a whole. It just happens.)

Thematically, too, the novel makes broad leaps but lands nowhere in particular. Are women, even the best among them, duplicitous by nature? Do clients always lie? Is there something inherently problematic about having a “business partner”—a fellow who operates as neither a true colleague nor an open competitor? And if the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then how can a fellow trust anyone but himself? In this respect, as in others, Whitfield bulldozes across essentially the same terrain that Dashiell Hammett explores in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike Hammett, he charts a course that seems arbitrary rather than inevitable.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

WALTER MOSLEY. Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).

In his début work, Mosley embraces many of the stylistic trappings and plot devices that define the Southern California private-eye adventure. And he adds a decisive twist: His hero, Easy Rawlins, is black. The case starts when a white man named DeWitt Albright—a slippery fellow whose motives are dubious but whose cash is quite real—hires Rawlins to locate a woman named Daphne Monet. She’s a white woman, Albright explains, but she “has a predilection for the company of Negroes.” DevilBlueDress.jpg Little by little, an apparently straightforward skip-trace job draws Rawlins into a vast whirlpool of corruption, and he will need to work fast and smart in order to escape the ordeal with his life, and with a remnant of his dignity. Broadly speaking, then, Rawlins confronts practical and existential challenges that would be familiar to any number of fictional gumshoes. Yet he isn’t just another lone knight on the model of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Along with his dark skin, Rawlins bears a dark outlook that reflects his position in American society. He has meaner streets to ply than his white counterparts do, and the dangerous women who cross his path are all the more dangerous because they (most of them, at any rate) are on the other side of the color line from him. Rawlins had known violence and tasted freedom during the Second World War—the action takes place in 1948—and he has come home to find that in postwar Los Angeles violence is all too common and freedom is all too rare. By offering a stark glimpse into the mind and spirit of Rawlins as he carves out a life in that time and that place, Mosley elevates the tale above most works that follow in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald

The plot, however, exhibits the kinds of defects that often mar the hard-boiled form: It’s ridiculously complex, and it relies more on frenetic action than on thoughtful detection. As if to obscure the lack of clues that he provides, Mosley serves up a half-dozen corpses; in effect, he substitutes a process of elimination for one of investigation. As a result, in a reversal of what the best detective novels offer, the buildup proves more compelling than the payoff.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

HOWARD BROWNE. Halo for Satan (1948).

Self-referentiality—the tendency to make knowing nods to the fictive nature of fiction—is endemic to the detective genre. The habit goes back at least as far as the gibes made by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson about the latter’s published chronicles of the former’s exploits. It can be a charming tic, now and again, but it can also test a reader’s capacity for suspending disbelief. Practitioners of the private-eye form often seem especially self-conscious about the highly constructed myth that lies beneath their works’ aura of gritty realism. Perhaps in that spirit, Browne peppers this tale about the Chicago-based shamus Paul Pine with references to other authors who specialize in mean-streets fare. At one point, he makes Pine interrupt his sleuthing chores to read a novel by William T. McGivern. A good guess here is that Browne knew McGivern from his work as editor of the pulp magazine Mammoth Detective. In any event, the shout-out comes across as a clunky bit of log-rolling. Such moves disrupt, ever so slightly, the spell of enchantment that this kind of story requires. Pine’s literary forebears knew better than to give up the game in that way: One struggles to imagine Sam Spade kicking back to peruse a copy of Black Mask while he waited for the black bird to turn up.

Browne’s novel, as it happens, follows the template that Dashiell Hammett created in The Maltese Falcon—a narrative framework that was, in turn, a clear tribute to mythic stories about knights in search of the Holy Grail. HaloSatan.jpg The quarry in this case is as fantastic as can be: a manuscript purportedly written by the hand of Jesus of Nazareth. As in the Hammett novel, the hero searches for clues and jockeys for position amid a cast of characters who all yearn for the same elusive object. The adventure starts with Pine going on a call to visit Bishop McManus, whose flock includes all of the Catholic souls in Chicago and who has an obvious professional interest in securing the manuscript. Thereafter, Pine tussles (and occasionally collaborates) with a pair of fetching women, Lola North and Constance Benbrook, either of whom might pass an audition for the femme-fatale role; with Frank Tinney, a homicide cop who is no fonder of private investigators than he should be; with Louis Antuni, a big-time mobster whose heyday was during the Prohibition era; and with a few other tough cookies. Topping off the confection is the looming presence of a mysterious master criminal named Jafar Baijan. (Both the spectral nature of the character and the ethnically indistinct name appear to prefigure Keyser Soze, the ostensibly invisible villain who haunts the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. Presumably it’s a coincidence. Or maybe the film’s creators had read this mid-century thriller.)

Although the plot borrows chiefly from Hammett, the tone and ambience of Halo for Satan point to a more profound influence: Browne, by virtue of this book and others in the Paul Pine series, was arguably the best of many would-be successors to Raymond Chandler. By transporting the Chandleresque tale and its tropes—the offbeat similes and the on-target social observation, the vision of an urban jungle in which upper-crust types mix with underworld figures—to a Midwestern metropolis, Browne shows that the formula could deliver its magic even in the absence of Southern California glamour. At the same time, he exerts tighter control over his characters and his plot than Chandler was typically able to muster. Through the sheer excellence of his craft, Browne achieves something that goes beyond mere pastiche. (It’s too bad that, instead of letting the craft speak for itself, he occasionally tries to get cute.)

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle