This over-clever, rapid-fire tale bears the marks of the author’s tutelege both in the law and in pulp-magazine writing. It pivots around Donald Lam, a scrawny would-be lawyer who had fallen on hard times. No sooner does Lam find work as an operative in the Bertha Cool Detective Agency than he’s thrust into a rollicking adventure that culminates in his narrow escape from a homicide rap. The adventure begins innocuously enough, with an assignment from Cool—his huge and hugely eccentric boss—to serve divorce papers on the husband of a new client. But the case immediately heats up. In the process of completing his ostensibly mundane task, Lam impersonates a bellboy, falls in love, buys a stolen gun that turns up later as a murder weapon, and entangles himself with a gang of racketeers who kidnap him and give his dimunitive frame a thorough going-over. Not bad for his first day on the job. On his second and third days, he tops that set of exploits by unraveling a knotty murder problem and by then tying the police of two states in knots as he proves that it’s legally possible to get away with murder. Lam narrates the story, and Erle Stanley Gardner, the author behind the A.A. Fair pseudonym, gives him a clean and witty voice that has echoes of Archie Goodwin in it. Yet the Fair style, true to its pulp origins, is more glib than fresh. Similarly, although Gardner excels at planting ingenious clues, his plotting is complex without being tight. Like the beating that Lam receives, and from which he recovers with astounding ease, this first Lam and Cool novel comes on strong but leaves no lasting impact.
Category Archives: Hard-Boiled
Every fictional private eye reflects a private fantasy—that of the writer, who projects onto his intrepid gumshoe all of the attributes and attitudes that he prizes in himself, along with a slew of heroic qualities that he can only wish upon himself. Which is fine, as far as it goes: All writing is part therapy. But before taking his fantasy public, a private-eye writer does well to armor it with a keen, compelling voice and with a commitment to storytelling that’s equal to his hero’s commitment to crime-fighting. Crais falters on both counts. He gives to his sleuth and narrator, Elvis Cole, a coyly sarcastic voice that charms briefly but soon wears thin, and then throws Cole into a series of actions that never quite gathers itself into a well-crafted plot.
The building blocks of this tale are straight out of Chandler and Macdonald: a detective hired to recover a stolen rare object (in this case, an ancient Japanese tome called the Hagakure ); a troubled daughter in flight from an affluent, emotionally warped family; a beautiful ice queen who eventually melts in the face of the hero’s charisma; a climactic shift from the sin- and sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles to the false idyll of a mountain hideaway. Crais adds a couple of pieces that have a contemporary feel to them—the specter of child sexual abuse, a threat from Japan (in the form of Yakuza gangsters)—but the structure as a whole remains underdeveloped. Elvis Cole is a smart-ass with a heart of gold, and it’s hard to dislike him. Likability, however, does not always translate into readability.
[ADDENDUM: I’m repeating myself. I felt about this book pretty much the same as I felt about Robert B. Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace, and here I express the same kind of disappointment as I did just a few weeks ago about that earlier private-eye tale. Too often, I think, these latter-day exponents of the PI tradition conjure up the attitude of Philip Marlowe, but they lack the wit of Raymond Chandler; they fashion bleak plots that recall the work of Ross Macdonald, but the heroes that they create lack the humanity of Lew Archer. Is it just the case that PI tales that take place more or less in our own time don’t appeal to me? Not quite. I’ve read a few recent books of this kind that are also very good books. I’ll try, before long, to post a review of one such tale.]
This fairly early installment in the saga of Boston-based P.I. Spenser is also among the most admired books in the series. Spenser, as critics have noted, is not so much a private detective as he is a private avenger. He doesn’t break alibis; he busts heads. Instead of tracking down clues using his intellect, he vanquishes bad guys using his fists. Which isn’t to say that Spenser lacks wit. His first-person telling of this tale, about the kidnaping of a lesbian-feminist writer whom he had been hired to guard, abounds in clever dialogue and wry patter. That, along with Parker’s high-octane ability to move briskly from scene to scene, is what distinguishes the Spenser canon as a whole and this entry in particular. Far less impressive is Parker’s approach to plotting and characterization. In this instance, the story and the people who drive it are too thinly drawn to be compelling in their own right, and too rudimentary to generate a worthy challenge for Spenser. Even his sparring with Rachel Wallace—she assails the male protective instinct; he defends it—has a stagy (and now-dated) quality. Parker endows Spenser with a brute mastery of everything and everyone around him, and thereby stacks the narrative deck all too clearly in the avenger-hero’s favor.
[ADDENDUM: For many years, I lived in or near Boston, and I’m generally drawn to fiction that conveys a strong sense of any place where I’ve lived or that I’ve visited. So I very much wanted to like the Spenser novels. I tried a few of them, and they were a disappointment. I once read a line by John Updike, in a review of a book by J.D. Salinger, that struck a chord with me. “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. … He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation,” Update wrote. That captures my response to a fair number of detective-genre writers who use series heroes, and none more so than Parker. He just loves Spenser too much. And for me, at least, it’s tiresome to spend time with a character who is so plainly a creature of authorial wish fulfillment.]
Don’t you know there’s a war on? Mike Shayne certainly does. He’s the raw-boned, redheaded super-sleuth who makes the center hold in this tale of multiple murder and antically multiplying suspects, all set against the backdrop of the World War II homefront. Clem Wilson, an acquaintance of Shayne’s, phones the Miami-based private eye late at night from the filling station that he owns, out on the Tamiami Trail. The call has barely begun, and Shayne has barely woken up, when he hears a shot ring out on the other end of the line. Driving through dimmed-out streets, he rushes to the filling station and finds its proprietor dead. What ensues is a daylong, harum-scarum adventure in which Shayne follows a big, fat hunch: Wilson’s killing, he surmises, can be traced to various shenanigans that surround the black market in ration-limited gasoline. Shayne despises gas racketeers, just as he despises an army deserter who figures in the plot, and his commentary on those subjects reads like government-issue propaganda. Halliday’s prose, likewise, is mostly a blunt instrument. Yet it serves to move his hero swiftly through many complications and several violent encounters, and finally to a neat, satisfying wrap-up.
[ADDENDUM: Postwar editions of Blood on the Black Market appeared with the title Heads You Lose, presumably so that it would seem less dated—less a relic of the early war years. But this book appealed to me precisely because of its title, and precisely because it so well evokes a very specific moment in history. I don’t have the Dell Mapback edition pictured here (which is too bad, since this tale is one in which having a crime map would definitely come in handy), but I do have a nifty Detective Book Club edition that also includes novels by A.B. Cunningham and Dorothy B. Hughes.]
Carter Campbell “turns on” a chemically assisted high whenever his wallet and his dealer will accommodate him. He “tunes in” to the frequency of a long-defunct 1960s counter-culture. And quite clearly he has decided to “drop out” of the world that he sees through the window of the taxi that he drives—the high-tech, money-mad world of San Francisco in the late 1990s. Campbell has an old flame who’s now a hotshot lawyer at a tony Market Street firm, and he has a daughter who thrives in the city’s computer-geek culture. But he’s just a grad-school refugee (he studied English literature at U.C. Berkeley many years ago), and time seems to be passing him by. He has no career per se; to keep his ill-kempt body and his misanthropic soul together, he hacks a cab. Then, one day, an old friend presents Campbell with a problem and spurs him to take up a new calling: He becomes an unlicensed private investigator.
He is not, as it happens, terribly good at that job. Or, to be precise, he’s not consistently good at it. Brasse, at key points in the story, paints Campbell as an out-of-touch buffoon—as a feckless and cowardly stoner who hardly inspires confidence as a solver of mysteries or a righter of wrongs. That’s a real flaw: The lead character in a detective novel doesn’t need to stay one step ahead of the reader at all times, but he shouldn’t appear to be stumbling behind the reader in a drug-fueled haze, either. All the same, it’s a flaw that detracts only somewhat from the overall quality of the work at hand, a novel smoothly and cleverly riffs on the structure and style of a classic private-eye tale. Like many such tales, Sirens takes its hero on a latter-day odyssey through the social, economic, and emotional terrors that lurk at the edges of a recognizably contemporary world. Campbell, despite his sub-heroic sleuthing activity, performs well enough in his role as a burned-out Odysseus. He’s a castaway, a man in exile from the true home of his spirit, but he manages in the end to survive his trek through alien territory. Like his forebears in the P.I. genre, moreover, he recounts his adventures in a strong, smart-alecky voice.
In the particulars of its plot, Sirens is very much a book of the 1990s. A decade and a half later, its up-to-the-minute details seem almost more dated than the Summer of Love mind-set of its protagonist. Consider a few of the clues that Brasse weaves into his tale: a computer floppy disk that appears mysteriously in an office break-room coffee canister; a VHS tape that shows an ordinary guy performing a series of drably ordinary actions; vials of a medicine that may or may not successfully treat AIDS, a disease that is otherwise assumed to be terminal. A floppy disk? A VHS tape? Oh, shades of yesteryear! Other elements in the case are less time-bound. There are two murder victims, a man and a woman, and Campbell’s investigation focuses extensively on the two surviving spouses—a woman who might have loved her husband too little, and a man who might have loved his wife too dearly. Campbell also devotes a lot of time to prowling around a large Bay Area shipping company where both victims worked. There, he encounters a crew of office drones (Brasse renders them in amusingly satiric terms), and wonders whether corporate skullduggery led one of them to become a killer.
Brasse apparently self-published this effort (it was issued by Rough Magic Press, an outfit that publishes books only by him), and thus it flies well below the literary-commercial radar. Nonetheless, as a work of smart entertainment, it soars to an impressive height.
In a strong, clean prose style that occasionally borders on being overwrought, Ellroy constructs a fast-moving, complex private-avenger saga that falls just short of being overcooked. The author, in this second of the monumental L.A.-based crime novels on which his fame rests, is plainly forming the contours of a powerful private mythology, and yet his debt to the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald is equally evident. A tough-sensitive hero-narrator who has an uneasy relationship with the forces of official order, and an all-too-easy way with women. A cast of female characters who are lonely, needy, and (ostensibly) doomed. A child of uncertain paternity whose safety and future hang in the balance. A Southern California landscape in which every sunlit vista ends in disillusionment and death. A story line whose trail of blood and tears leads back to a gothically imagined Midwest. Ellroy incorporates those classic elements into a tale set in the early 1950s—the very moment when Chandler and Macdonald were putting the finishing touches on a classic genre. Here, the memory of that golden era has congealed into a mix of nightmare and nostalgia, providing an apt, cartoon-like backdrop for melodramatic action. (Unlike the world of noir fiction, this world includes no shades of gray. That which is dark is solid black; everything else appears in the blinding primary hues of Fifties-era Technicolor.) For Ellroy, a connoisseur of hyperbole, it’s never enough to let well-enough alone. Like his hero, the once-and-future cop Fred Underhill, he is obsessed by “wonder,” by an apprehension of the beauty that lies hidden on the far side of life’s horrific extremes.
Subtitled “Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” this unorthodox experiment in biography throws a wan but illuminating light into precisely those corners of Chandler’s life where the sources of his unique social and literary vision are to be found. What sets his corpus of novels about private eye Philip Marlowe apart from other varieties of detective fiction is the way that it blends acute strains of both cynicism and romanticism. Chandler saw bottomless corruption everywhere. He saw it not only down those “mean streets” that he famously wrote about, but also up in the Hollywood Hills and behind the neat hedges of wealthy Pasadena estates. At the same time, he summoned the hope that a man might rise above that corruption—and that, somewhere in this tarnished realm, there might be a woman who was worthy of that man’s heroism. Freeman organizes her book around two areas of inquiry that other chroniclers of Chandler’s life have explored with less than complete thoroughness. First, she looks closely at the long string of dwellings (most of them furnished rental units) that the author occupied over the course of his time as a gimlet-eyed resident of Southern California. That pattern of rootless, restless living, she suggests, forms the experiential background to the wounded-lover’s contempt for Los Angeles that hangs over his work like a sheet of smog. Second, she gives particular focus to Chandler’s wife, Cissy, the twice-divorced older woman with whom he forged a troubled yet enduring domestic alliance that spanned three decades, from 1924 to 1954. That period encompasses the prime years of his writing career, the years when he produced the series of classic titles that begins with The Big Sleep (1939) and ends with The Long Goodbye (1953). In Freeman’s telling, Cissy came to function as the unlikely muse who inspired her husband to create the hard-boiled (albeit soft-hearted) Marlowe.
A novelist in her own right, Freeman treats this project as an encounter between one imaginative intelligence and another. Here, autobiography supports—and occasionally supplants—biography. Like Chandler, Freeman emigrated to L.A. as an adult, and for her, too, the city presents a kaleidoscopic array of doleful signs and strange wonders. In recounting her efforts to visit his numerous places of residence, she repeatedly draws links to the coordinates of her own residential history. At times, her narrative descends to the level of coyly sketched trivia (as when, for instance, she discusses her internal debate on whether to bother the current resident of an apartment that Chandler rented sixty-odd years ago). In the main, though, Freeman succeeds in aligning the spirit of a place with the soul of a man’s art. From the Bunker Hill neighborhood in downtown L.A. to the city’s Wilshire District, from Santa Monica to Redondo Beach, from Big Bear Lake to Palm Springs, she follows the points that marked her subject’s wandering journey, and she connects those dots by offering a wry and perceptive account of how Chandler emerged as the ambivalent bard of his adopted city. (A frontispiece compiled by Freeman features a map of greater Los Angeles on which she has tagged and labeled each of the sites that he called home.)
In the end, however, it’s not a place but rather a person who provides Freeman with her core theme. Before Chandler dreamed up Marlowe—that knight-errant sleuth, that latter-day Sir Galahad, that would-be rescuer of wronged womanhood—he lived out an actual rescue adventure by (as he saw it) rescuing Cissy from her unhappy second marriage. Chandler’s relationship to Cissy, according to Freeman, played a hitherto under-appreciated role in his gestation as a writer. Old enough to be his mother (she was 53, and he was 35, when they married), Cissy salved the yearning for a secure human connection that he hid within his very private and often very querulous temper. She served as a queenly presence in his home, wherever that home happened to be, and she gave him a reason to keep alive his aspirations of valor. Chandler, like Marlowe, held fast to a chivalric ideal that was out of sync with the tempo of mid-century L.A. Unlike his detective hero, he was able to yoke his life to that of someone he loved.
Heroes, alas, are a lonely bunch. It goes with the territory.
[ADDENDUM: This past weekend, I was in La Jolla, California, where Chandler resided during the final decade or so of his life, and I made a pilgrimage to the oceanside house that he bought there in 1946. In the yard outside the house, there’s a dedicatory plaque; I snapped a shot of it, and I’ve inserted that image in this post. A few years back, as Freeman explains in her book, the house underwent extensive remodeling. But while the structure is apparently quite different from the one in which Chandler lived and wrote, its setting—it faces the great gray Pacific, at a slightly cockeyed angle—remains the same.]
By the mid-1960s, McBain had adopted an approach to titling his 87th Precinct novels that became a recurring feature of the series. He’d pick a single word (Ax, Fuzz, Shotgun, Jigsaw), and he’d braid the word literally and thematically into the fabric of his narrative. In works that follow this pattern, the appearance of variations on that title word gives shape and color to what might otherwise be a grim, rote depiction of big-city violence. It’s a technique that confers the promise of poetic redemption on the cycle of death and detection that characterizes life in Isola, McBain’s fictional counterpart to New York City.
“Doll,” in this tale, refers to Tinka Sachs, a high-end fashion model. People dress her up and show her off; they use her to construct fantasy visions of what they want to look like, of how they want to live. In the book’s opening scene, a knife-wielding visitor to her apartment transforms this dream-doll into a nightmare figure—a lifeless, blood-spattered corpse. “Doll” also refers to a toy owned by Anna Sachs, Tinka’s five-year-old daughter, who sits quietly in her room and holds fast to her little dolly while the last anguished cries of her mother echo across the apartment. And “doll” refers generally to any sort of plaything, and to the way that one person can turn another into a mere toy, an object to be manipulated. (McBain pointedly remarks that modeling-industry types often use the word “mannequin” to describe women like Tinka.)
As a whodunit, Doll doesn’t amount to very much. The suspect list includes Dennis Sachs, the victim’s husband, and Art Cutler, owner of the agency for which Tinka Sachs worked, and it seems to stop there. But the suspense on offer here revolves less around figuring out which of the men in her life killed Tinka than around finding out what will happen to the trio of cops who work this case. Bert Kling, still in mourning over the brutal death of his girlfriend Claire (which took place in an earlier novel, Lady, Lady, I Did It), has a nasty temper that undermines his effectiveness on the job. Yet that residue of emotion also drives him track down a pivotal clue. Meyer Meyer, who functions mainly as a source of light comedy (he’s bald, and he has a funny name, and he comes across as a perpetually put-upon soul), nonetheless moves the investigation forward by dint of his humble professionalism. As usual, though, it’s Steve Carella who serves as the lead actor in the piece. He makes the first big break in the case—and then finds himself in a situation that will almost break him. While each of these detectives travels along a different investigative path, they all converge upon the guilty party in fairly short order.
Doll is a middling effort, a thin tome that doesn’t stand up very well as a stand-alone work. That said, it’s a perfectly adequate installment in the unfolding saga of Carella and his 87th Precinct cohorts.
Marshal Lane Morgan, keeper of the peace in the Colorado community of Skylar during the final decade of the 19th century, embodies the taming of the West. Not only is he an agent of the law, charged with pacifying that onetime wide-open mining town, but his demeanor and his voice—he narrates this western-mystery hybrid—reflect the softer, more civilization-friendly impulses within the American spirit. That’s not to say that he lacks the capacity for rip-roaring action. In one scene, he leaps from the window of a saloon-hotel and onto a buckboard. In another, he heads off to rescue his kidnapped wife, Callie, only to find himself bound and gagged, and staring into the barrel of a gun. Yet the story that he tells, pivoting as it does around a formal murder investigation, belongs to the world of settled society. It starts when Callie’s former husband, one David Stanton of Chicago, comes to Skylar and pursues a scheme to blackmail Morgan and Callie. Stanton soon turns up dead, and Morgan sets out to interview people who might have had reason to kill the interloper. Suspects include a farmer woman who had slept with the victim; the husband of that woman; the town potentate, who believes that he’s above the law; and, of course, Callie. To conduct his sleuthing rounds, Morgan uses a horse rather than a beaten-down roadster, but otherwise he operates essentially in the same mode as Philip Marlowe. The frontier way of life, and the fabled passions that it arouses, have all but vanished. Even Morgan’s effort to clear his wife of suspicion comes across as controlled and stately; by the standards of modern pulp entertainment, it’s hardly “relentless.” Similarly, Gorman’s prose is stolid and whip-smart, but largely devoid of raw emotion. The emphasis here is on the rule of law, not the law of revenge, and the marshal’s tin star, battered though it may be, stays firmly in place on his chest.
This novel, the fifth full-length account of Philip Marlowe’s knightly ventures into the Pilgrim’s Regress landscape that is Southern California, has an almost decadent feel to it. One might even say that with this book Chandler has reached the Mannerist phase of his career, the phase in which the natural vigor of earlier work gives way to an emphasis on achieving highly stylized effects. The very choice of a name for the client who sets the case in motion—Orfamay Quest, of Manhattan, Kansas—signals that we’re dealing with a writer for whom exaggeration has become the only available response to creative exhaustion. It’s a name that evokes both the crude conditions of a fallen world (Has any real woman ever called herself Orfamay?) and the promise of transcendence that will beguile our hero (but of course: a quest!), and it sets the tone for the mock-allegorical festivities to come.
Hollywood, aptly enough, provides the setting as well as the subject matter for the story of Orfamay and the quest that she initiates. Marlowe had always made his professional home in the place called Hollywood, but in this adventure he reckons directly with Hollywood as a subculture of professional fantasists, and that confrontation pushes Chandler’s writing toward a kind of surrealism. All of the standard Chandler gestures still work—the similes resonate, the dialogue throws off sparks—but they now seem outsized and out of perspective. A great many of the characters whom Marlowe encounters, for example, aren’t just corrupt; they soliloquize about the depth of their corruption and then, to reinforce the point, perform over-the-top displays of corrupt behavior. The mystery plot is also over-the-top, with about two and a half twists more than it strictly needs.
Which isn’t to say that the book fails to satisfy. Even when he skirts self-parody, Chandler knows how to turn a phrase, and how to keep his readers turning the page. In this instance, his final pages yield a sharply etched epiphany: The distance from innocent Kansas to sin-ridden Hollywood, we learn, is not pathetically long but tragically short.