Friday, 14 October 2011

The Big Knockover and Other Stories

Things have gotten a bit behind here at Pointless Philosophical Asides due to visiting relatives, other projects and my search for a new job. I finished The Big Knockover about six weeks ago, and so that's quite a gap between reading and blogging, but what can I say, events intervened.

This book is one I took with me on holiday in late August. I have a Kindle now, which I'd loaded up with holiday reading (although I read much less on holidays these days than I used to, a situation exacerbated this time around as we had my mother with me) but I took this hard copy book with me because I was a little nervous about the combination of a beach or pool, an expensive electronic device and my own general cack-handedness.

It was also nice, I suppose, to have an old fashioned book with me that I could turn to while I got used the New Age of Publishing. Perhaps this will be the last print book I ever review? Hm, that seems unlikely, given the growing pile of hard copy books that sits by my desk. In fact, the Kindle has just become a sort of portable pile as it fills up with bright ideas from Project Gutenberg, and sudden “oh yes, I'd love to read that!” moments on amazon.

Anyway, I've been turning to Hammett recently in my ongoing quest to get a good grip on the detective genre for a project I'm working on. Hammett's stories are great, with just the right mix of sardonic wit, real danger and human insight. It's been a while, so I won't address too much in detail, but there are few general observations that I think are helpful to me.

These stories all feature the same narrator hero, an unnamed operative for the Continental Detective Agency. It's interesting how little we learn about this guy, not even his name. A couple of times we meet an old stooge (as the plot requires) and he briefly mentions taking the night off and playing poker with his pals, all detectives or cops it seems. He also mentions, if I recall correctly, being over forty. He has little in the way of distinguishing quirks, as opposed to the eccentric savants of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, who still survived in the pulps, although perhaps these outlandish figures were slowly being replaced by the super-powered pulp heroes. This lack of pretension on the part of the protagonist is a vital part of being “hard boiled” I think – no silly waxed moustaches or fancy-pants violin playing here!

The stories are not about him, though, but about the characters who inhabit the underworld of San Francisco (and occasionally more far flung places). Each story builds up its own situation, sets up its cast and its up to the Continental Op to sort things out. He's very much a “competent man” figure, to borrow a term from from another genre, who is tough, and perceptive, whiles also somewhat humane and good humoured. He doesn't reflect a lot on what he does, although he does make judgements about the people he meets and their eventual fates, some deserved and some not.

He's like Sam Spade in this regard, although Spade is far more an agent within the plot. The Continental Op may exercise some latitude about who gets punished and who goes free, but his role is generally to unwind the problem that he's gotten mixed up in rather than to act on his own desires. It's tempting, also, to see Nick Charles in The Thin Man as the Continental Op five years or so down the line. He's got the same laconic voice (Hammett's own, surely) and tough guy competence, and the same easy alliance with the police (compared to Philip Marlwow's more difficult relationship with established law enforcement).

Fly Paper is a fairly typical tale, beginning with our hero being commissioned to track down the wayward daughter of a wealthy family, leading into the seedy underbelly of small-time shakedown artists and the grotty lives of petty crooks. There's something very convincing about it – the small scale, the stupidly unambitious and bungled capers, the sense of squalor and loss of hope. The realism comes from Hammett's own time as a private investigator with Pinkerton's (a big agency just like Continental) but the sense of degradation and misery comes, I think, from his socialistic beliefs. These people aren't glamorously wicked, they are waifs and strays living with a life of desperation and poverty. The Gatewood Caper has a similar theme.

Speaking of realism, The Scorched Face (another one that begins with wayward daughters) is quite interesting, as it felt a lot like a Dennis Wheatley devil thriller acted out in real life. Here there are  no spooks or devils, just a lot of sordid goings on and jaded thrill-seekers. Somewhere between these two there's another interesting story to be told, perhaps, although maybe the twin poles of Wheatley's active evil and Hammett's social conscience aren't easily reconciled.

This King Business is slightly unusual, being set in a turbulent central European state between the wars, a kind of tin pot republic set up by the great powers after World War I (the Op is a vet) and tearing itself apart with corruption and power struggles. It's a great story with the sort of comic opera shenanigans you would expect, but there's a kind of democracy at work in the actions of the power players trying to establish a regime that suits them all without too much bloodshed, self-serving and corrupt, perhaps, but better than the unworkable balance of power they had forced upon them.

The title story forms a short novel alongside the story $106,000 Bloodmoney, probably almost as long as the Maltese Falcon. While it's short in length, it's a fairly substantial piece of work in regards to the plotting and execution. The gangsters' plan is carefully thought-through, and the consequences are played out with convincing precision. A lot of the stories, in fact, are caper stories (The Gutting of Couffignal and Dead Yellow Women, for example, and complicated capers lie at the heart of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon) and Hammett is excellent at working the details of these schemes through and then finding and working on their weak points.

An oddity in this volume is the story Tulip, a fairly large fragment of an unfinished novel. Rather than the Op, the narrator is a writer more explicitly modelled in Hammett himself (although, as I say, the line between the Op and Hammett is not totally clear) but the main character (at least in this fragment) is really Tulip, some sort of dodgy character from the narrator's past. There's nothing explicitly crime-based here and this reads more like a mid-20th century mainstream, literary novel. The writing is good enough, but suffers from the lack of focus that the criminal plots give the other stories here and, of course, the lack of resolution. I suppose it would have been interesting to see what Hammett might have done away from crime, but this entry sits a little uncomfortably in this volume.

I've really enjoyed all the Hammett stuff I've read so far, but I've only got a few novels to go now, which inevitably makes me sad. It's the same realisation I had when I realised I'd read 99% of Philip K Dick's output, or all the stories of H P Lovecraft. Still, I've got quite a bit of Chandler yet to read, though (The Lady in the Lake is on the hardcopy pile) and then I'd like to read some of the Parker novels by Donald Westlake, and then maybe some Agatha Christie, just for a look at a different take on the subject matter. Arrgh, so many great books, so little time...

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