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Archive for the ‘Dashiell Hammett’ Category

If you’re looking for a good, general, all around anthology of short story detective fiction then I’d recommend the Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction edited by Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois A. Marchino. It will give novice and experienced mystery readers a good foothold into detective fiction.

LongmanAnthology

The book is divided into three sections: The Amateur Detective, The Private Investigator and The Police. Each section begins with  a critical essay and commentary (which I skipped). There are also two appendices: Notable Annual Awards for Mystery and Detective Fiction and a Bibliography of Critical Essays and Commentaries.

But the heart of the book is stories. Each section contains stories by some of best authors, classical authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe, pulp authors of the 1930s-1950s such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ed McBain and current authors such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Peter Robinson.

There is a short author bio before each story, suggested books by the author and suggested read-alike authors. Granted, there are some great mystery authors not included in the anthology, but if all the greats were included it would be a thousand pages, just like Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard books.

The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction is an entertaining way for mystery fans to spend some time. It also makes readers appreciate the art of the short story. Go for it.

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The Continental Ops stories by Dashiell Hammett, originally published in the various pulp mystery magazines of the 1920s through 1950s, are collected in four different books, with some overlap. There is The Continental Op, The Return of the Continental Op, Nightmare Town and this volume, The Big Knockover.

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Having read the first, I stumbled across the last at The Strand bookstore and decided it was worth a try since I liked the stories I’ve read. But I agree with Lillian Hellman’s comment in the introduction to the extent that some of the writing is good and some not so good. The good thing about the book is Hellman’s introduction from which we learn a bit about their relationship.

Regarding the 10 stories in the book, however, one in particular, Tulip, was indeed strange. Tulip, is actually an unfinished novella to which Hammett apparently wrote the last paragraph but left a big gap in the middle. A rambling conversation between two ‘friends’, it goes nowhere.  If it’s a Continental Op story (which I thought all the stories were going to be), I’m stymied, since detecting is not mentioned once.. It sounds more like a semi-autobiographical story aimed at the glossy, ‘literary’ magazines to which Hammett aspired, than a mystery.ContinentalOps

The namesake story, The Big Knockover is an imaginative, intricate story about a huge, coordinated bank heist. It contains Hammett’s typical, descriptive prose and a gaggle of gangster names reminiscent of the era. The story merits kudos. However, the followup story, $106,000 Blood Money, seems like an afterthought, with a strange ending that comes out of nowhere. It’s almost like nowadays when sequel upon sequel is issued to squeeze every last nickel out of a story.TheLostDetective

There’s Corkscrew, a ‘western’ in which the Continental Op is hired as sheriff of a small desert town. The story has horses and shoot ’em ups. The Scorched Face, which I read before and liked, is about two missing daughters, and This King Business is an odd story taking place in a foreign land. The remaining stories are relatively ‘normal’ Continental Op stories.

If you’re a Dashiell Hammett fan or a Continental Op fan, be sure to read both books, The Continental Op and The Big Knockover. If you have to choose one, or you want to whet your teeth and get a taste, The Continental Op is the better book.

Other good books on the subject of Hammett include The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett (which is up for an Edgar Award this year) and The Hunter and Other Stories, which tends more towards his literary writings. The first is definitely worth the read as it goes into Hammett’s days as a Pinkerton Detective and how it might have influenced his works, especially the Continental Op writings.

And of course, you can always fall back on Hammett’s classics, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man series.

In conclusion, you can’t go wrong reading Hammett. It’s that simple.

 

 

 

 

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While there have numerous biographies of Dashiell Hammett, TheLostDetectivenone of them try to relate his writing to his Pinkerton detective days. Until now, that is. In The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, Nathan Ward’s primary goal is to describe how being a Pinkerton shaped Hammett’s writing. While there is some general biographical data, the majority of the book is dedicated to Pinkerton.

DashiellHammettWard describes how Pinkerton had a standard, concise format for reports that detectives filed, which infiltrated into Hammett’s fictional writing. He also discusses both cases that Hammett might have been on as well as ones he would have heard about, which also impacted his writing.

It appears that all Pinkerton files relating to Hammett have disappeared, so much of Ward’s descriptions and conclusions are suppositions. But that doesn’t negatively impact the story he is telling.

Ward spends a good deal of time trying to determine who Hammett’s ContOpunnamed Continental Op detective  and his boss are based on. Hammett himself varies the story, at times saying the boss is James Wright (which is actually a name regularly used as an alias by operatives themselves) or a composite of several people. Ward speculates that the model for the Boss is James McParland, head of the agency’s Western division who apparently resembles the man Hammett describes as the Boss, “A tall, plump man in his seventies, this boss of mine, with a white-mustached, baby-pink, grandfatherly face, mild blue eyes behind rimless spectacles, and no more warmth in him than a hangman’s rope.”

TheThinManHe also speculates on the source of the Thin Man, portrayed by William Powell with Myrna Loy as his wife. He makes note that the dog was changed from a schnauzer in the book to a terrier in the film.

Ward provides many interesting morsels of Hammett’s life. He touches on Hammett’s relationship with his wife and with Lillian Hellman. He talks about Hammett’s contracting tuberculosis during World War II and how that affected him.

However, it is the snippets of his writing that make this great book even more worthwhile. Each chapter starts with a quote from a letter or book, such as this from Hammett in 1929, “I decided to become a writer. It was a good idea. Having had no experience whatever in writing, except writing letters and reports, I wasn’t handicapped by exaggerated notions of the difficulties ahead.” There are samples of Hammet’s writing, footnotes at the bottom of most pages, extensive notes and a selected bibliography, so Ward really did his work. At a mere 168 pages (before addendums), it’s a fast read. But you might want to slow down and savor it.

I’ll leave you with this 1934 quote from Hammett, for all you budding novelists, “The contemporary novelist’s job is to take pieces of life and arrange them on paper. And the more direct their passage from street to paper, the more lifelike they should be.” I think we can say Hammett mastered his craft.

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When Mortimer Angel decides to change careers from IRS Agent to PrivateGumshoe Investigator he envisions himself a modern day Sam Spade spouting smart repartee, meeting gorgeous girls, seeing plenty of action and solving murders. But, aside from the numerous gorgeous girls he’s met, including one mystery girl who breaks into his house, appropriates his bed and leaves him notes, being a P.I. isn’t what he thought it would be.

He seems to have only one talent. In his first two days on the job he’s been able to find the severed heads of two people who had disappeared, Reno, Nevada’s mayor and district attorney. Unfortunately the third severed head he found happened to belong to his P.I. and new boss nephew, Gregory, who had gone searching for the killer and bodies of the first two heads. In order to salvage a P.I. career on the brink of disintegrating, Angel realizes he has to solve the murders. However, his inexperience is a major drawback, so he hires experienced private detective Jeri DiFrazzia, who is herself gorgeous, to help him.

The tone of Angel and DiFrazzia is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man series. Angel’s cavalier but determined attitude is offset by DiFrazzia’s all business demeanor making them a likeable and effective team. Readers will find themselves chuckling at Angel’s wry observations, especially about himself. The gorgeous women who come in and out of his life including his ex-wife Dallas, Jeri and the mystery girl are quite the crew. No dumb blonde in this group.

The somewhat implausible ending (maybe I should say plot) does not diminish the reading enjoyment. I’m not a big fan of the ‘humorous’ mystery–not a Carl Hiaasen fan–but I thoroughly enjoyed Gumshoe. By the way, this is not humorous in the Lisa Lutz (the dysfunctional Spellman family series) or Janet Evanovich (the Stephanie Plum with the old grandmother series).

Should Angel and DiFrazzia morph into a series, mystery readers will be well served.

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TheBigSleepThe Big Sleep–The Book: We all know the movie The Big Sleep based on Raymond Chandler’s book. The main story in the movie basically follows the book so I won’t repeat it. Here are my thoughts on the book. (I’m going to watch the movie tonight and compare.)

I love the way Raymond Chandler writes. His descriptions are unique. Such as the way he describes approaching General Sternwood’s house.

“The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and I thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”

Or the way he describes Carmen Sternwood’s teeth, “…she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.”

While his dialogue can be captured on film, his descriptive language cannot, even if sets were created that mirrored his thoughts.

However, his use of similes throughout the 231 pages of The  Big Sleep became somewhat monotonous towards the end. (I never thought I’d say that about Chandler’s writing.) I will also admit that the story was confusing at times. This took nothing away from my reading enjoyment, however.

The characters in The Big Sleep run the gamut of pulp mystery stereotypes; the rich Sternwoods, the sophisticated racketeer and the grungy low lifes. The Sternwood sisters are described to perfection, the more adult, manipulative Vivian as compared to the childish, naïve Carmen, the old dying General Sternwood confined to his hot house and wheelchair and, of course, Philip Marlowe, wisecracking as always. BigsleepTheMovieThe casting of the film was perfect and since we’ve all seen the movie, readers will picture Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers as the sisters. Charles Waldron is a perfect General Sternwood. Philip Marlowe is Humphrey Bogart (or vice versa), the wisecracking, honest, ethical private detective.

One thing I did notice, in this age of enlightenment, the manner in which Chandler refers to homosexuals would cause a major backlash among the gay community. (All references to homosexuality were absent from the movie.)

All in all, reading The Big Sleep one realizes why it is pulp mystery classic as well as a classic mystery, in general. An all around enjoyable time was had by this reader!

The Big Sleep–The Movie: The Big Sleep is still another case of the book being better than the movie, regardless of how great the movie is. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t capture Chandler’s descriptive language on film…despite the fact that the movie script was written by William Faulkner. There were also a few puzzling points. (Have to have seen the movie or read the book to understand most of my comments.)

1. In the book, Vivian is married to Sean Regan who disappears, supposedly with the wife of Eddie Mars. However, in the movie, Vivian is married to a Mr. Rutledge, who never appears in the movie, nor is he mentioned. Sean Regan, who still disappears, supposedly with Eddie Mars’ wife, is hired help at the Sternwood mansion. I can’t imagine why this change, since it affects nothing.

2. In  the book, Mr. Geiger, who held gambling notes signed by Carmen, was in a seamy business, running a pornography lending library. Thus when Marlowe notices that after Geiger’s death someone was moving all the books to take over the business, it made sense. This was quite confusing in the movie, as Geiger’s occupation was just hinted at.

3. Regan’s ultimate demise in the book was explained quite nicely while in the movie it was obscure.

4. And finally, with stars like Bogart and Bacall, one realizes they had to be a love interest in the movie. However, in the book, they were quite cool to each other and there was no hint of them running off into the sunset. I like the book better on this score. Even an ending like that in the Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade might be in love with Brigid O’Shaunessey but she’s got to pay for her crime would have been a better ending than Vivian and Marlowe declaring their undying love. It would have been a more fitting pulp mystery ending.

So, if I had to rate the book and the movie, The Big Sleep, the book, rates a 5+ and the movie a 5-. Both first rate, but in different ways.

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TheThinManIf an accomplished writer of hard boiled mysteries, one who set the standard, wants to write a satire on the exact same subject, then who are we to say “No.” And so the author of the Maltese Falcon, the creator of Sam Spade, has also created his alter ego, the rich, classy Nick Charles, his wife Nora and little dog, Asta.

The Charleses are in New York for the Christmas holiday season. A retired detective who is now managing his wife’s money, he’s approached by the attorney of an eccentric inventor and former client, Clyde Wynant, to find the murderer of his former secretary, Julia Wolf. All fingers seem to point to Wynant, who left town shortly before the murder.

The Thin Man is populated by Wynant’s comically dysfunctional family. Mimi, the ex-wife and a schemer, and Dorothy, the daughter, both have crushes on Nick. There is constant bickering in the family. The son is just plain weird.

The police detective is somewhat bumbling, but again, not in a hard boiled way, like those in The Maltese Falcon. Think more in line with Lt. Tragg in the Perry Mason series.

The Charleses are constantly going to dinner parties, speakeasies and the theater. They are having “cocktails”, not shots of bourbon, at all hours of the day and night (even upon awaking at 2 PM from the previous nights’ revelries).

There is no darkness to the movie. If you remember the opening scenes of The Maltese Falcon, the foggy San Francisco night, well forget that in The Thin Man. The most you’ll get here is a bit of rain.

Having watched the movie several times (although I don’t remember it being one of my favorites), TheThinManMovieI constantly pictured William Powell and Myrna Loy as the Charleses. But, I’m going to watch it tonight, again, since I just finished the book and we’ll see what I think. Stay tuned!!!!

Well, it was better than I expected, but not great. It was almost slapstick. The movie stuck reasonably close to the book, but there were some differences, as you would expect. The addition of a fiancé for Dorothy negated the need for a Mr. Quinn, who throughout the book falls for her. However, he is brought in at the end of the movie and one wonders who the heck he is.

Another part of the book that was neglected was Mimi’s second husband, Chris Jorgenson. In the movie, he didn’t play a major role, whereas in the book, he was a critical character. I realize that you must leave things out of a movie unless you want to make it hours long, but leaving characters sort of hanging does little to improve the story.MyrnaLoy

I think the two things that stole the show were the costumes, especially Myrna Loy’s and Asta. Ms. Loy wore some outrageous, some sexy, some plain costumes, but they were all noticeable. There was a style and sexiness back in the day that we just haven’t captured now.

So, in conclusion, The Thin Man book is a great satire on the hard boiled detective and the movie is enjoyable but nothing to write home about.

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HardBoiledWhere else can you read this kind of great description but in pulp mysteries? “I was sitting at my desk, wondering about the office rent, when the door opened and in walked in the most beautiful assemblage of female parts that ever shrugged into a mink coat. She had hair the color of burnished copper and dead white skin and her eyes were as green and as hard as emeralds.” They just don’t write them like that anymore.

Hard Boiled Detectives: 23 Great Stories from Dime Detective Magazine is another wonderful anthology of pulp mysteries by the masters: Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and more. These stories range from the 1930s to the 1950s. I personally can’t get enough of this stuff.

So, if you’re looking to expand your mystery horizons and you don’t want to tackle Otto Penzler’s 1,100 page anthologies The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps and The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, then this is a good staring point.

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