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Category Archives: Hard-Boiled

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

 

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

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Long Goodbye (1953).

This is quite a long book, as detective novels go—longer than it needs to be, but not longer than it should be. Viewed from the perspective of narrative economy, it contains a great deal of waste. There are scenes that extend for a beat or two (or three or four) more than is necessary, and scenes that hardly seem necessary at all. It’s a loose and shaggy affair, with a generous supply of Chandleresque lyricism but without the staccato narrative drive that marks the author’s best earlier tales (and, interestingly, with fewer dazzling similes than his most devoted readers might expect). It is, of course, a lavish bid by Chandler to combine a standard private-eye caper with a straight literary novel. As a detective novel, it’s much less tightly woven than it could have been. As a study of mood, of character, of modern social life, it lacks a clear sense of focus. Unlike The Big Sleep, this work doesn’t create a template that other writers could (and did) eagerly follow. It’s a one-off accomplishment. Yet, even so, it’s a real accomplishment.

LongGoodbye.jpgAs in a traditional detective story, specific problems that involve concrete events are what drive the investigative action. What happened in the guesthouse of the Encino estate where the heiress Sylvia Lennox joined the ranks of the naked and the dead? (She was found there without clothes and with her face smashed in by a bronze statuette.) What happened in the hotel room in Otatoclán, a remote Mexican town, where Terry Lennox passed his final days? What happened in the writer’s den of the Idle Valley house where Roger Wade died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot on a lazy, lonely Southern California afternoon? Philip Marlowe arrives at answers to these questions—but only after following a convoluted series of deductions (some accurate, some not) and confessions (some true, some false),

Marlowe also explores a murkier problem: What makes people tick? And what sometimes causes a spring to snap inside them? Many scenes in the book appear to exist only to cast light—sometimes harsh and sometime mellow—on Marlowe’s relationships with the Lennoxes, the Wades, and a few others in the same upscale social set. Chandler indicates that Marlowe is 42 years old when the events here take place, but he confers on his otherwise robust hero an outlook that’s typical of late middle age. (When he wrote the book, Chandler was past 60.) The tone is one of dyspepsia and disappointment, and the perspective is that of a man who has seen the bottom of too many glasses of whiskey. For Chandler, a craving for booze is both the most predictable cause and the most telling symptom of a human spirit that has gone sour. In The Long Goodbye, he manages the rare feat of making alcoholism (a very dull subject, in the main) a convincingly integral trait of two superbly drawn characters. By implication, he sketches an effective portrait of another alcoholic man: himself.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

ROBERT SILVERBERG. Blood on the Mink (1962).

“Vic Lowney,” the wise-guy hero of this trim thriller, is about as real as the counterfeit $5 and $10 bills that his nemesis, a Philadelphia crime boss named Henry Klaus, has begun to put into circulation. To be sure, the man himself is real enough: He’s an agent of an unspecified federal department, charged with bringing Klaus to justice and with securing the engraving plates used to print Klaus’s funny money. But for nearly the entire tale, the agent remains incognito. (We learn his first name, but only that, in the final pages of the book.) The real Vic Lowney is a high-ranking operative in an LA crime syndicate. In the opening scene, the feds kidnap this thug during a cross-country flight to the City of Brotherly Love, so that their agent can take his place in a planned negotiation to distribute Klaus’s home-made cash on the West Coast. BloodMink.jpg The agent, who narrates his adventure in the snappy manner that typifies mid-century crime fiction, dons the “Vic Lowney” guise and proceeds to improvise his way into a dark corner of the Philly underworld. He tangles violently with Klaus’s right-hand man; he tangles romantically with the Klaus’s kept woman; he tangles conspiratorially with other mobsters who want a piece of Klaus’s counterfeiting operation. The risk that someone will blow the Lowney cover looms over every scene, but the agent maintains his subterfuge just long enough to complete his mission. From start to finish, he conducts his exploits in the ersatz currency of tough talk and brute action.

Somewhat disappointingly, Silverberg doesn’t do much with the rich theme of fakery. A writer with grander ambitions for this work might have leveraged its core plot to explore the metaphysics of imposture—to evoke the quandary of a good guy who must act in bad faith, or to probe the ironies that surround a counterfeit crook who pursues counterfeit money. Instead, Silverberg plays it straight, generating a story that functions almost wholly at the level of action. According to an afterword that Silverberg penned in 2011, he wrote the novel back in 1959 for a magazine publisher that went bust before the story could appear in print. A few years later, he yanked it out of his files to meet the needs of another publication, a magazine called Trapped. “Too Much Blood on the Mink” (as that magazine titled it) was an object of mass production, pure and simple. That fact is particularly evident in Silverberg’s prose, which is awkward in some places and flat or clichéd in others. Nonetheless, the style here is equal to the substance of the narrative. Blood on the Mink (as Hard Case Crime titled its soft-cover version of the book) offers a worthy sample of the wares that a fictioneer like Silverberg could churn out during his prime, and it embodies a casual professionalism that would do “Vic Lowney” proud.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Noir, Novel

 

MICKEY SPILLANE. I, the Jury (1947).

Mike Hammer made his famous, and in some quarters infamous, début in this brisk and bumptious private-eye novel. In some respects, it’s standard fare of its type. Hammer is a lone-wolf operator in New York City who, in the tradition of Sam Spade, has a loyal and fetching secretary, an adversarial relationship with local authorities, and a way of working a case that focuses less on interviewing suspects than on riling them up. From the start, however, many critics took exception to Spillane’s harder-boiled variation on themes first sounded by Hammett and Chandler. “Able if painfully derivative writing and plotting in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in Gestapo training school,” wrote Anthony Boucher in a brief notice in the San Francisco Chronicle. By the early 1950s, the Hammer series had become a cultural phenomenon that appeared to signal a big shift in what readers sought from the detective genre. At bottom, I, the Jury offers a tale not of crime and detection, but of revenge.
ITheJury.jpg

The essence of the story is right there in the title: Hammer (who serves as both narrator and protagonist) sets out to deliver his own brand of justice to a killer, and he intends to relish every moment of that violent quest. A vigilante spirit was hardly new to detective fiction. Many works of the interwar period end with a scene in which the protagonist either goads a murderer into committing suicide or finds some other way to dispatch the culprit without the encumbrance of a trial. But such maneuvers are typically an afterthought, executed by a sleuth who acts more in sorrow than in anger. For Hammer, anger isn’t just a driving force; it’s a positive value. After Jack Williams, a cop and a wartime buddy of Hammer’s, turns up dead—someone had pumped a bullet into Williams’s stomach and then, it seems, cruelly watched the man’s life ebb away—Hammer launches into a soliloquy that outlines his plan and celebrates the primitive ethos behind it. “I’m alone. I can slap someone in the puss and they can’t do a damn thing … ” he says to the city detective who oversees the Williams case. “I hate hard, Pat. When I latch on to the one behind this they’re going to wish they hadn’t started it. Some day, before long, I’m going to have my rod in my mitt and the killer in front of me. I’m going to watch the killer’s face. I’m going to plunk one right in his gut, and when he’s dying on the floor I may kick his teeth out.”

Spillane’s writing ranges from “able,” as Boucher calls it, to sub-literate, yet it has a blood-simple authenticity that carries a certain charm. The killer isn’t hard to spot, at least not for anyone who has the barest exposure to stories of this kind. Spillane works up a couple of nice clues, and he shows Hammer going plausibly through the motions of drawing conclusions from them—but solving a puzzle rates as a distantly secondary concern. To Hammer, every problem is basically the same; what matters is whether he can nail his quarry.

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