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Category Archives: Hard-Boiled

DASHIELL HAMMETT. Red Harvest (1929).

Hammett, according to Raymond Chandler, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” At a time when detective fiction was replete with high-society types who concocted elaborate killings and did so for obscure or highly contrived motives, Hammett introduced readers to thugs like Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Reno Starkey, and Max “Whisper” Thaler. RedHarvest.jpgThese crooks are professionals, with appropriately professional motivations to kill, and they form part of the murderer’s row that the nameless hero of this novel must confront as he strives to clean up the dirty streets of Personville, a midsized mining town in the Mountain West. It’s a relentlessly corrupt town—locals and outsiders alike call it Poisonville—and the task of defeating its many bad guys requires a deep reserve of moxie more than it does a refined intelligence. “Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to do it,” the Continental Op explains to one of the colorfully named thugs. (Nowhere in this book does the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator, refer to himself as the Contintental Op. But he’s an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, so that’s how he’s come to be known.) As Hammett’s title foretells, the “harvest” that the Op carries out assumes a grimly sanguinary hue. By the Op’s own tally, there are 19 murders that take place between the opening and the closing of this case. Indeed, he commits a few of them himself, and he does it for a reason: As he says, it’s his job.

In that way, Red Harvest differs fundamentally from a standard mystery tale. Far from chronicling the orderly pursuit of truth and justice by a sleuth who embodies the power of human reason, this début novel depicts a random and cruel world in which circumstances can push even the otherwise noble Op to become (in his words) “blood-simple.” Where order does exist, as in the bureaucratic regimen followed by the Old Man, who runs the Continental office back in San Francisco, that mode of order bears no relation to the real business of fighting crime. When bullets are flying and bodies are falling, the Old Man’s expectation that the Op will file regular reports on his activity in Personville carries a whiff of the absurd. For the Op, detection is chiefly a matter of disruption. “Plans are all right sometimes,” he says to Dinah Brand, the femme fatale in this proto-noir effort. (With her, as with the menfolk of Poisonville, the Op follows a cagy, keep-your-enemies-close strategy.) “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes out on top.”

Even as Hammett charts new fictional terrain with this book, he also annexes features from established genres. He updates the classic western saga, for example: The Op acts the part of an outsider who brings the law to a far-flung outpost where ruffians had previously held sway. RedHarvest2.jpg He contends with bootleggers rather than cattle rustlers, and he relies on a flivver instead of a horse to get from place to place; nonetheless, his every move reflects the spirit of frontier justice. Traces of the classic mystery form are evident here as well. Despite his commitment to hard-boiled naturalism, Hammett displays a penchant for abrupt plot twists that reveal unlikely suspects to be surprise killers. Red Harvest originally appeared as a four-part serial in Black Mask magazine, and several times—at what would have been a climactic moment in one of those four segments—the Op manages to pull a trick rabbit out of his snap-brim hat. In each case, the guilty party has committed murder “for a reason,” but that reason isn’t what readers are inclined to expect. With sleight-of-hand plotting of that sort, Hammett pays homage to the very tradition of classic detection that he aims to transcend.

What results is partly a tale of (new) Old West derring-do, partly a clue-laden puzzle story, and partly a study in modern existential sensibility. It is, in addition, a feat of true literary art.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2014 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

RICHARD ALEAS. Little Girl Lost (2004).

The Aleas name is an alias—a nice touch, that. It belongs to Charles Ardai, publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint, a line of neo-retro paperback originals. (The pseudonym is also an anagram of Ardai’s real name.) This début novel is a product of that line, but it’s hardly a vanity publication. Paying homage to the wise-guy style and grim worldview of mid-20th-century noir fiction, Ardai shrewdly updates an old noir story: A private eye, bent on avenging the murder of a former lover, plunges into a grimy underworld that slowly reveals itself to be a hall of mirrors.LittleGirlLost.jpg The setting is New York City, circa 2003, a place where the hum of cell-phone talk and cable-news chatter threatens to drown out the sweet melody of doom that provides noir characters everywhere with their theme music. In Ardai’s arrangement, though, both the hum and the melody are perfectly audible.

The PI in this rendition of the story, a fresh-faced NYU lit major named John Blake, reads in the Daily News one morning about the killing of a stripper at her place of business, an East Village joint called the Sin Factory. He recognizes her face as well as her name: Miranda Sugerman. Miranda was his high-school sweetheart, and he hasn’t seen her since she went away to college as a pre-med student about ten years ago. How, in one short decade, did she go from such an innocent start to such a squalid end? To retrace her journey, Blake delves into the silicone-inflated stripper subculture, befriends a Sin Factory “professional” who develops a soft spot for him (in a heart that might or might not be of gold), and lands a client in the form of an Armenian-American drug dealer who wants him to find $500,000 in cash that Miranda might have helped to steal. Along the way, as he asks what became of Miranda, Blake ends up wondering what has become of himself.

Sure-handed plotting, clever but not too clever writing, and a classic twist ending—hidden from view by an equally classic diversionary move—make this Hard Case title easy to like.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

WADE MILLER. Uneasy Street (1948).

The name Max Thursday carries a whiff of satire; it seems to emanate from the same source that gave Garrison Keillor a name (Guy Noir) to call his comic radio private eye. But Thursday is the real deal, a tough and breezy operative who plies his trade in San Diego much as his fictional colleagues Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe ply their trade in those great cities to the north, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He’s a figure of pastiche, not of parody, and this sophomore outing in the Thursday series borrows competently from the twists and tropes that drive earlier classics of the P.I. genre—The Maltese Falcon, in particular. Here, as in that story, the sleuth-hero falls in with a crew of schemers who sometimes work together and sometimes work at cross-purposes. UneasyStreet2.jpg Either way, intrigue ensues, and killings ensue as well. What unites these shady characters is their quest for a certain object of desire. Uneasy Street, in fact, is a tale of two such MacGuffins. First, there is an antique music box that Thursday receives from an old woman at the start of the book. No sooner does he take custody of the item than someone comes along and stabs the woman to death. Thursday flees the scene, keenly aware that what he’s carrying is no mere trifle. Second, there is a painting by Velázquez, El Bobo de Coria (“The Fool of Coria”), which not only serves as an eminently chase-worthy “dingus” but also also nods toward a theme that underlies every tale of this type: Desire, the yearning to acquire, is folly. A subsidiary theme, of course, is that we need a wise fool—a jester who appears in the form of a detective—to reveal that truth to us.

The case unfolds over the span of less than two days and culminates early on the morning of Christmas Day. Most of the action, including two murders, occurs on Christmas Eve Day, and Miller punctuates his fast-moving narrative with references to the last-minute shopping frenzy and the holiday merry-making that occupy ordinary San Diego folk. Miller doesn’t have anything terribly new to say about life and death and love and greed, but he—or “they,” since a pair of writers lay behind the Miller pen name—delivers his wisdom with the requisite casual noir poetry. (Concerning an art collection owned by a client of Thursday’s, the author observes: “Here was no museum resulting from love of art or even precious things. It represented mere possession. The result was the same as emptying a small boy’s pockets except that the great vault laid bare an old man’s soul.”) Miller also delivers a solid trick plot; like the music box that Thursday lugs around with him throughout this adventure, it contains a seamlessly hidden secret.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Thin Man (1934).

This last of Hammett’s five novels partakes of an old myth—that of the retired hero forced back into action by the flowering of an evil that only he can stamp out. The hero is Nick Charles, a onetime private detective who has escaped the fleshpots of New York and now manages his wife’s fortune in the Golden West. The evil involves the disappearance of a former client of his, a wealthy inventor named Clyde Wynant, and the murder of Julia Wolf, Wynant’s assistant-cum-mistress. ThinMan.jpgCharles, who’s back in New York on a short trip with his wife, Nora, finds time amid a regimen of cocktails and wisecracks to interview suspects and to spot the killer among them. He is a reluctant hero; Nora, who craves adventure, has to goad him into taking on the case. But he demonstrates that he hasn’t gone soft, after all, and he puts the world aright.

Or does he? Hammett tries to marry two genres, each of which marks a departure from his earlier work: the traditional whodunit, complete with clues and suspects, and the sophisticated comedy of manners. And in that attempt, he doesn’t quite succeed. His outlook was ultimately too grim for either genre—too nihilistic, too full of moral despair. Unlike his prose, his view of what motivates people wasn’t in any way clean. (The classic movie version of the novel, by contrast, succeeds winningly. In the translation of the story to the silver screen, the plot becomes at once leaner and more clever, and each character takes on the safe outlines of a satiric type.) Beneath its glossy finish, The Thin Man anticipates the seedy fictive world of Raymond Chandler: It contains intimations of incest, and it hums with contempt for a moneyed class that the author depicts as being indistinguishable from a class of criminals. These are evils that a hero might subdue but that he is powerless to dispel.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

JOHN D. MacDONALD. Darker Than Amber (1966).

DarkerAmberNew.jpgSalvage jobs come to Travis McGee in all sorts of ways. Sometimes a client approaches him in the standard fashion, with a hard-luck story about something valuable (a pile of cash, an honorable reputation) that has been lost or stolen, and he or she will hire McGee to recover it. Sometimes a friend will introduce McGee to another friend who happens to need the services of a guy like him—a beach-bum Paladin who works only when his finances are low or when his blood is up. And sometimes the job simply drops onto him. On this occasion, the job plummets from a bridge with a slab of concrete tied to her curvy, long gams and lands near the spot in the Intercoastal Waterway where McGee has parked his fishing boat. McGee rescues the damsel from the deep, whereupon he and his fishing pal, an economist and eminently worldly philosopher who goes by the lone name Meyer, nurse her to a semblance of health. Along the way, they learn that her name is Evangeline (“Vangie”) Bellemer, that she was a top-dollar call girl who had recently widened the scope her criminal activity, and that notwithstanding her evident charms (she has eyes flecked with a yellow that’s “darker than amber”), she’s a vulgar lass whose short, fast life has cast her beyond the reach of even McGee’s powers of redemption. Still, McGee retains a soft spot for Vangie, so when her comrades in crime succeed in their second attempt to eliminate her, he resolves to avenge her death. True to form, he also has an eye on salvaging a lode of ill-gotten cash that Vangie had hidden in her South Florida condo.

There is no mystery here. In this novel, as in other entries in the McGee saga, the identity of the bad guys is plain almost from the get-go. So is the fact of their badness; there are no shades of moral gray here, either. Nonetheless, McGee practices the art of detection to a notable degree. Along with Meyer, who plays a strong supporting role, he assembles the stray pieces of information that Vangie had let slip about her cohorts, and about the deadly scam that they are running against the clueless tourists who hit the Sunshine State as relentlessly as ocean waves. That scheme involves persuading lonely, well-off men to embark on what ends up being a fatal one-way Caribbean cruise. McGee and Meyer not only divine the nature of the scam, but also engineer a counter-scam that unfolds aboard a cruise ship and that enables them to nab Vangie’s killers. These heroes definitely know their way around a boat, just as they know their way around the highly fluid social dynamics that make Florida what it had already become by the mid-1960s—“a sunny place for shady people,” as the saying goes. DarkerAmber.jpg MacDonald, for his part, knows his way around the written word: He gives McGee, who acts as narrator, a voice that is street-smart yet soulful and a style that is pungent (albeit sometimes overwrought) yet precise.

[ADDENDUM: I’m not generally a fan of this kind of book. But recently I spent a week on the South Florida coast, and I figured that I had to give the Travis McGee series another try while I was there. I’m glad that I did. Years ago, I read the début installment in the series, A Deep Blue Goodbye, and wasn’t at all impressed by it. But maybe I’ve changed since then, or maybe this tale is just a cut above the earlier book, or maybe it helps to read about McGee while taking in the sunny, seedy, sad world that he inhabits. No doubt all three of those points are pertinent. At any rate, I’d now say that I view the McGee series much as I do the Nero Wolfe saga. In each case, you get classically sharp American prose, and you get a winning pair of protagonists (McGee and Meyer, Wolfe and Goodwin) who retreat from the world into an idealized haven (a Manhattan brownstone, a Fort Lauderdale houseboat), where they conduct what amounts to a never-ending symposium on the follies that mark the passing scene. What you don’t get is any real complexity of plot, any real depth of mystery. And every so often, I’m quite happy to make that trade-off.]

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2013 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

STEPHEN GREENLEAF. Book Case (1991).

John Marshall Tanner falls comfortably—perhaps too much so—within the tradition of the American private eye. Hardboiled yet guardedly sensitive, a man of culture who also knows his way around a mean street or two in his stomping ground of San Francisco, he tangles with rich and powerful foes whom he cannot really defeat and looks out for victims whom he cannot ultimately save. BookCase.jpgHe’s a hero, in short, but not too much of one. World-weary and even somewhat lazy, Tanner has a job to do and he does it, all the while gliding on a stream of sardonic observation. He goes farther in pursuing truth and justice than duty demands of him, but not to an unseemly degree. In this outing, he must find out who wrote a novel that was delivered anonymously to a tony local publishing firm. What seems like a simply matter, and hardly a dangerous one, turns into a dense puzzle that involves at least one imperfectly buried scandal, an accusation of sexual abuse and an intimation of incest, and a homeless ex-convict who appears to have violence on his mind. Heading each chapter is an excerpt from “Homage to Hamurabi,” the book within a book that yields many of the clues that Tanner must follow. Greenleaf’s use of this material is the high point of his novel and also its chief flaw. The excerpts delight and entice; they give this tough-guy tale an attractive literary gloss. But Greenleaf handles the final revelation of who wrote “Hamurabi,” and how Tanner arrives at that knowledge, and what that knowledge may mean, in a lamentably huddled way.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

WILLIAM CAMPBELL GAULT. The Day of the Ram (1956).

Brock “the Rock” Callahan, a gumshoe who operates outs of West Hollywood, muses to himself: “I’m not a private eye. … I’m a private I. I am what I am and it hasn’t cost me too much yet, except for the lump on the head, the sore ribs, the puffed lip. And, of course, the bad knee.” The bad knee he got from his brief, unillustrious career as a guard for the Los Angeles Rams.DayRam.jpg The lump on the head, along with the damaged ribs and lip, he got from working his latest case, which involves the murder of the Rams’ new star quarterback, a Beverly Hills–bred golden boy named Johnny Quirk—a case that has Callahan trading blows with slick gamblers and their henchmen, trading barbs with obstreperous cops, and trading sharp looks with would-be starlets. The muscular yet beleaguered sense of self, meanwhile, is something that Callahan gets from the ethos of his time. The 1950s were an Age of Conformity, or so pundits of the era said, and weaving one’s way around the blocking and tackling of other selves was a tough job, even for an old football pro. Callahan, who also narrates this very compact tale, makes most of the right moves; he licks the bad guys and preserves his sensitive soul, too. He also proves himself to be at once a man’s man and an able protector of women. (He’s an arrow from Lew Archer’s quiver, rather than a misogynistic tool like Mike Hammer.) In a case that pivots around addled young swains and the damsels they love, that’s a nice pair of qualities to have.

[ADDENDUM: Link-wise, I couldn’t find much quality writing on the Web either about this book or about the its series detective, but there are a few meaty online articles about William Campbell Gault. In the last of those three linked pieces, for example, Bill Pronzini refers to Gault as “a writer of the old school, a consummate professional throughout a distinguished career that spanned more than half a century.” According to Pronzini, Gault’s publishing career lasted from 1936 to 1995—in other words, from the pulp-magazine era to the dawn of the Internet.]

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2013 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel