Posts Tagged ‘hammett’

In 1941, the similarities between Brett Halliday and Dashiell Hammett are more pronounced. It’s easy to read Mike Shayne as Humphrey Bogart, though I didn’t cast the rest of the book and he doesn’t have red hair.

Mike Shayne is a private detective with two apartments – one on a higher floor where he lives with his wife Phyllis, and one on a lower floor that he uses as an office. As he and Phyllis are preparing for a vacation in New York, he gets an urgent professional call. Some drugged girl wanders into his office, vaguely connected with an upcoming local election. As he’s getting his wife to the train station without her finding out about the girl, someone sneaks into the office and kills her. He does a decent job of pretending she’s just asleep when the police come with his reporter friend Tim Rourke, but then the body disappears.

The rest is as you’d expect. Menacing thugs, car chases, car wrecks, reappearing corpses, an insane asylum, a maid who desperately wants both to divulge some information and to ride Shayne’s ginger cock, and all the Miami politics that I’m beginning to see as a vital part of the Mike Shayne universe. If it isn’t organized crime and crooked politicians, Halliday doesn’t care.

One of the things that really struck me in this novel is the way Mike Shayne’s peers police his sexuality. It reminded me of Private Romeo, a not-that-great LGBT movie that locates Romeo and Juliet in an all-boys military school. We expect parents to guard their children’s behavior, but when Lord Capulet’s lines are suddenly coming from a seventeen-year-old, it gets sort of weird. Why is this boy acting in loco parentis? Is he homophobic, or is he trying to save Juliet for himself? But here, the police and Rourke aren’t trying to bed Mike Shayne; it’s as if somehow marriage is a fragile concept, and if Shayne has extramarital sex then the whole thing is fake. His infidelity would make their unrelated relationships mean less to them. He got the fairy-tale ending they all wanted in a previous book, and now they need him to live up to the Prince Charming role that they assigned to him. To be clear, Shayne doesn’t want to cheat on his wife with either the drugged girl or the maid – he loves his wife, and really is the white knight everyone needs him to be. But he needs the police to think he’s screwing the dead girl so they don’t look closely enough to realize she’s dead and start an investigation, and he accepts the fact that he might need to give it to the maid to get the information he wants. Of course, Halliday makes the maid disappear so Shayne is freed from temptation, but still. Everyone has an opinion on Mike Shayne’s sex life, and they all act as if their opinion should matter to him.

“It just goes to show,” Rourke went on, “what damn fools we all are when we pretend to be so tough. You and Phyllis were a symbol of some Goddamned thing or other around this man’s town. While you stayed straight it proved to all of us that the love of a decent girl meant something – and that was good for us. Every man needs to believe that down inside.” Rourke was talking to himself now, arguing aloud a premise which his cynicism rejected.

“That’s what distinguishes a man from a beast. It’s what we all cling to. There’s the inward conviction that it isn’t quite real – that it doesn’t mean anything – that we’re marking time until the real thing comes along – like Phyllis came along for you. And when that illusion is shattered before your very eyes – like with you today – it’s ugly, Mike. It’s a shock. It doesn’t laugh off easily.”

It does make me wonder about my relationship, and what I’m doing here. He’s convinced that we’re going to get married and live happily ever after, but I’m not convinced. I love him, and I’ll give him what time I can, but I don’t have that sense of finality. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time believing that anything endures, but I don’t see this as the last relationship I’m ever going to have. I’m getting what good I can out of it, but I’m not expecting forever.

KISS KISS BANG BANG

This movie claims to be based on the Halliday novel, but it’s more homage than picturization. Harry (Robert Downey Jr) is a small-time thief who blunders into an audition and gets shipped to Los Angeles because he can do the part and he looks sort of like Colin Farrell. Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is hired to give him detective lessons, and they stumble into a plot that also has car chases, car wrecks, disappearing and reappearing corpses, and an insane asylum. Honestly, that part of it is straight out of Victorian sensation novels, especially The Woman in White. Being in Hollywood instead of Miami, the politicians are replaced by movie people, and some other plot points are adjusted to match 2005’s version of gritty (more severe than 1941’s). Also being in Hollywood, there’s an aspiring actress played by Michelle Monaghan. I think she’s pretty great, in this and in her other films. There’s actually a lot of conversation around the ethics of consent in the first part of the movie, RDJ being the good guy of course. But still, despite the occasional naked woman, my favorite sexy bit is when Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr make out in an alley. Gay Perry is my hero.

New Guy has been moving in with me over the last couple of weeks (one more reason to be behind in writing about books – I’m three behind again), so when I watched the movie to remind myself of it before writing here, he was there with me. He started to like it when MM cuts RDJ’s finger off halfway through; so afterward he felt like he had to tell me how boring he thought the first half was. Several times. And when I told him that I had gotten the message and he could stop saying that, he still had to say the word two or three more times. I didn’t feel like I needed to explain this, but apparently I do: when I say that I like this movie and I really want to watch it, a part of me identifies with it. When you insult my favorite movies, you’re telling me that I have bad taste – you’re insulting me. I’m ready to be lovers again, but I’m not quite as peaceful about it as I have been.

Brett Halliday’s novels are turning out to be just what I need in terms of reading during grad school: untaxing, relaxing, exciting. This is one of the first – Halliday (a pseudonym) began writing Mike Shayne novels in 1939, and in 1941 this is the fifth. He continued writing them until 1958, but other writers took over and continued writing the series until 1976. It’s a bit strange to think of Shayne’s career lasting almost forty years; he doesn’t seem to age. In terms of physical fitness and prowess, he’s just as good twenty-five years later as he is here, and his hair is never anything but red. I suppose we don’t like to see characters growing old, even though I think it’s a good thing. We all age, so we need healthy models to learn to do it well. No one learns to be healthy from reading Mike Shayne books.

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I do thoroughly enjoy a Dashiell Hammett story. That being said, Go watch the movie for this one. It’s unusually faithful to the book, so you’ll actually get a good impression of what Hammett is about in a shorter period of time. The only major difference is in how Spade looks – Hammett’s isn’t exactly Humphrey Bogart.

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.

Spade is also more given to outbursts of temper.

So, this is the story of a San Francisco private detective. He’s partners with Miles Archer and lovers with Miles’s wife, though he doesn’t seem to like either of them very much. A young woman comes into their office and asks for help locating someone. Miles agrees and gets killed immediately, along with the man they were supposed to find. Over time, it becomes clear that the girl is part of an international gang of jewel thieves who are all trying to double-cross each other and take the prize for themselves, the prize being a falcon encrusted with gems and painted black. The leader is Mr Gutman, and they don’t body-shame him in the book as they do in the film. There’s a kid named Wilmer who demonstrates the elegance of early twentieth century euphemism:

The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second “you.”

There’s also an effete Greek named Joel Cairo that everyone assumes is gay. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but he doesn’t actually make a grab for anyone, so who’s to say? Add the girl and her missing, quickly murdered bodyguard and that’s it. Rather a small cast for the amount of lying and backstabbing, but I suppose it doesn’t take a big group if you’re committed to your work. Also, Gutman has a daughter who plays a very minor role in the book who was dropped from the film.

In some ways, all mystery novels are dedicated to the search for truth. If the Maltese Falcon represents truth, or beauty, or whatever it is we’re all supposed to be looking for, then the search is stupid. These characters dedicate their lives to searching for the bird, and most of them die before they find it. The quest eats up people’s lives, and just when you think you’ve found it, you find you’re holding a fraud. Kind of a bleak message, but this was 1929. Bleak was in.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I’ve been in the mood for mysteries lately, and this is a good one. The movie is good too.

I’ve been having trouble with the books I’ve been reading lately. I just don’t have much to say about them. Even if I sit down to write a simple plot summary, I feel absolutely uninspired. I think this one’s going to get me out of the rut, so let’s give it a go.

At this point in his career, Hammett had been publishing short stories for six or seven years. Many of them featured a private investigator with the Continental Detective Agency, San Francisco branch. The Continental Op is never named, but he’s been played on the screen twice, by James Coburn and Christopher Lloyd. Though I’m familiar with them, Coburn from Charade and Lloyd from Back to the Future and The Addams Family, I read the entire book in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. For some reason, every hard-boiled detective I read turns into Bogart, even though I’ve seen more films with William Powell in that role (my favorite is Star of Midnight, with Ginger Rogers). Red Harvest is Hammett’s first novel. Like The Dain Curse, published later the same year and also featuring the Continental Op, it was published serially, which gives it a choppy feel, like Cranford or The Pickwick Papers. But this one is not as choppy as Dain. There’s a nice stop at the end of the first section, but after that it flows pretty well.

The Op never meets his client. He’s supposed to meet a man named Donald Willsson, but Willsson dies before they can meet. Willsson’s father Old Elihu then hires the Op to investigate the death, but the Op tricks him into paying him to clean up the town. You see, Elihu Willsson used to own Personville (aka Poisonville), but then he couldn’t hang onto it, so he brought in some organized crime to keep everything in his own pocket. But the gangsters preferred things in their own pockets, so he lost control. At the time of the story, there are three principal gangs, those belonging to Whisper Thaler, Lew Yard, and Pete the Finn. Then, of course, there’s the police, but Chief Noonan is as bad as the other three. Cleaning up a town like this takes a lot of killing, and this book has a chapter titled “The Seventeenth Murder,” and that’s not the end of the book (or of the murdering). It’s a bit like watching Game of Thrones; if there’s a character in the book, he’s probably dead by the end.

This is 1929, and the writing is more commercial than artistic, so comments on sexuality are kept to a minimum, but some things got me thinking.

On the edge of this congregation I stopped beside a square-set man in rumpled gray clothes. His face was grayish too, even the thick lips, though he wasn’t much older than thirty. His face was broad, thick-featured and intelligent. For color he depended on a red windsor tie that blossomed over his gray flannel shirt.

You see, back when I was a student, I read an article on The Sound and the Fury that claimed that in the late 1920s red neckties were a signal for gay men to recognize each other. The author makes a convincing case for the circus guy that Quentin runs off with, but I haven’t really seen any evidence of it outside of the one book. And then the Op:

I put out a finger and touched a loose end of his tie. “Mean anything? Or just wearing it?”

It turns out that the guy is a leader of the IWW, so communist instead of homosexual. But still, it got me paying attention to some of the other descriptions.

I looked past the beefy man and saw Thaler’s profile. It was young, dark and small, with pretty features as regular as if they had been cut by a die.

“He’s cute,” I said.

Another description of Thaler:

A smallish young man in three shades of brown crossed the street ahead of me. His dark profile was pretty.

He just keeps reminding us that Thaler is pretty:

There were five of us. Thaler sat down and lit a cigarette, a small dark young man with a face that was pretty in a chorusman way until you took another look at the thin hard mouth. An angular blond kid of no more than twenty in tweeds sprawled on his back on a couch and blew cigarette smoke at the ceiling. Another boy, as blond and as young, but not so angular, was busy straightening his scarlet tie, smoothing his yellow hair. A thin-faced man of thirty with little or no chin under a wide loose mouth wandered up and down the room looking bored and humming Rosy Cheeks.

Which sounds more like the opening scene of a gay porno than the eye of the storm in a shootout. Maybe the red tie means something after all.

And another guy:

At the First National Bank I got hold of an assistant cashier named Albury, a nice-looking blond youngster of twenty-five or so.

And him again:

The flush in his pleasant young face deepened and he spoke hesitantly.

So there are all of these handsome men running around, all orbiting around a single female star:

She was an inch or two taller than I, which made her about five feet eight. She had a broad-shouldered, full-breasted, round-hipped body and big muscular legs. The hand she gave me was soft, warm, strong. Her face was the face of a girl of twenty-five already showing signs of wear. Little lines crossed the corners of her big ripe mouth. Fainter lines were beginning to make nets around her thick-lashed eyes. They were large eyes, blue and a bit blood-shot.

Her coarse hair – brown – needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking.

This was the Dinah Brand who took her pick of Poisonville’s men, according to what I had heard.

The Op’s description of Miss Brand is lavish, detailed, voluptuous even, more so than that of any of the men, but what is missing? There is no appraisal. The Op doesn’t tell us she’s beautiful, or pretty, or cute, or any such thing. He scans her for clues, not for attraction. You could read some scenes as implying that he sleeps with her, but there are equivalent private drinks with Albury and other men. I’m not saying that either the Op or Hammett was gay; I’m just saying that it’s a possibility, and that bisexuality was a lot more common before we put a name to it.

This is not a book for people who grow attached to their characters, nor is it a book for people who are uncomfortable with books about people dying left and right. People die, sometimes because the protagonist shoots them. Them’s the breaks, kid. On the other hand, Dashiell Hammett is a monolith of detective fiction, and this, his first novel, is on a few lists of “Best American Novels.” It’s good, gripping, and despite all the death, Hammett’s prose seems to live. There is something vital and compelling about his work. It’s hard to let go of one of his stories. Fortunately, they’re not that long. Short and suspenseful; good adjectives for detective fiction. It’s what makes him one of the best.

It’s a Dashiell Hammett mystery. What else is there really to say? Go watch The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. That’ll tell you what you need to know.

Well, actually, it’s three or four Dashiell Hammett mysteries. Gabrielle Dain Leggett is one of those pretty girls that other people keep dying around. The first sense of closure comes when her parents reveal their truly fucked up situation, with murder and suicide and family curses and all that. Then she goes to live in a cult, there are a few more murders, and then another sense of closure, but this one less certain. Then she goes off on a honeymoon for even more death. After a while you get inured to the idea that everyone in this book is going to die except for the Bogartesque narrator. After a while, the killer has to be the last man standing.

One of the things that I really appreciate about this book is the attitude that everyone is crazy. Curses are nonsense because they don’t actually make families unique; we all have bad things happen to us. We’re all mad here.

It sounds normal as hell to me. Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.

Life is crazy. Everything is connected, just like in real life. You can try to keep one part of your life separate from the rest, but it’s not possible. Your life is your life, and it all bleeds together and rolls up in a big old ball of weird. It’s like facebook, which I think of as a box of unlabeled photographs all mixed up and stirred together. It can be a little difficult keeping track of how people are related, who knows whom, both in Hammett and in real life. The different settings give the illusion of separation, but there is none. The speech-language pathologist in Salt Lake City is friends with the social worker in Chapel Hill, and it seems like everyone ends up in New York and Paris at some point. Hammett’s California criminals all seem to know each other too, whether they’re in San Francisco or not. It’s really just one case with a lot of false solutions, and our ersatz Bogart ends up using all the detectives in the agency with barely a client to justify the expense, but he solves the case. Too bad there aren’t enough living good people to make a happy ending.

And this is where I diverge from the hard-boiled detective genre. I see good people everywhere I go. If I were dropped on an island of cannibals and tossed into a stewpot, I would look at the people’s interactions and find enough love between them to feel that the world I was leaving is a good place. The detective would save his own skin more effectively than I would, but it wouldn’t make him happy. He wouldn’t be at peace with the world. The dissatisfaction is so prevalent and yet so unspoken that I wonder if Dashiell Hammett was depressed or excessively pessimistic. I don’t see how he could have been happy. Maybe I need to focus on finding something happy for my next read.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It is a joy to read an author who knows her tradition, and no one understands two hundred years of Gothic fiction like Daphne du Maurier. Stephen King also knows the tradition he’s writing in, but somehow when I read his short fiction I start recognizing his plots from old episodes of The Twilight Zone; not an issue with du Maurier. She’s more likely to draw from Radcliffe or Brontë. This book is a collection of shorter pieces, but since they’re each around fifty pages (or a little more), I have a hard time calling them short stories. Maybe novellas? Each story involves travel, the fear of being in an unfamiliar place, sometimes finding strangely familiar things in the unfamiliar, sometimes the self itself becomes strangely unfamiliar. While Stephen King sometimes mixes in stories that are sweet – ghost stories about love beyond the grave or something of that nature – du Maurier’s collection is all spooky, uncanny, and while the stories end ‘correctly,’ with a feeling of fitness, there’s no sense of good things continuing. The transformations don’t make the protagonists happy.

DON’T LOOK NOW

Tourists in Venice meet a stranger with psychic powers. She tells them of a vision of their recently deceased child, then warns them to leave town. There’s a bit of that familiar British fear of Italians and distrust of the Scottish. Difference is weird and bad. According to the cover of my paperback, this story became “a spine-chilling film!” starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. A more complete treatment of a similar theme can be found in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

Very Dr Moreau-ish. The only story to take place primarily in England. Down on the east coast, a conventionally mad scientist is working on psychic machinery, communicating between minds at long distances. His principal experiment involves capturing a person’s soul, the electrical impulses of the brain that determine identity, at the moment of death and thus preserve the soul indefinitely.

NOT AFTER MIDNIGHT

A good old mystery, in the vein of Dashiell Hammett or John Franklin Bardin. Things do become a bit supernatural at the end, but most of the story is very realistic. A misanthropic teacher goes off to Crete on vacation, hoping to do some painting. With the way he describes himself, he sounds kind of gay, but that’s never pursued.

I am a schoolmaster by profession, or was. I handed in my resignation to the headmaster before the end of the summer term in order to forestall inevitable dismissal. The reason I gave was true enough – ill-health, caused by a wretched bug picked up on holiday in Crete, which might necessitate a stay in hospital of several weeks, various injections, etc. I did not specify the nature of the bug. He knew, though, and so did the rest of the staff. And the boys. My complaint is universal, and has been so through the ages, an excuse for jest and hilarious laughter from earliest times, until one of us oversteps the mark and becomes a menace to society. Then we are given the boot. The passerby averts his gaze, and we are left to crawl out of the ditch alone, or stay there and die.

If I am bitter, it is because the bug I caught was picked up in all innocence. Fellow sufferers of my complaint can plead predisposition, poor heredity, family trouble, excess of the good life, and, throwing themselves on a psychoanalyst’s couch, spill out the rotten beans within and so effect a cure. I can do none of this. The doctor to whom I endeavored to explain what had happened listened with a superior smile, and then murmured something about emotionally destructive identification coupled with repressed guilt, and put me on a course of pills. They might have helped me if I had taken them. Instead I threw them down the drain and became more deeply imbued with the poison that seeped through me, made worse, of course, by the fatal recognition of my condition by the youngsters I had believed to be my friends, who nudged one another when I came into class, or, with stifled laughter, bent their loathsome little heads over their desks – until the moment arrived when I knew I could not continue, and took the decision to knock on the headmaster’s door.

The story ends a little abruptly, so when I got to the end I flipped back to the beginning to read these first two paragraphs again, to fix the sequence of events clearly in my mind. I had to do the same when reading du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the aftermath of the final crisis is alluded to in the first chapter, and the final resolution is tucked away in the middle of the book.

A BORDERLINE CASE

Shelagh Money is a nineteen-year-old actress preparing to play Viola in Twelfth Night when her father dies. She decides to go see her father’s old friend from whom he has been estranged for years. She goes to Ireland and finds that Nick is even more eccentric than she had thought. He’s into practical jokes, including photographic fakery, and he also organizes bombing raids to protest the English occupation of Northern Ireland. He stays on his side of the border and warns the locals so there aren’t any casualties, but buildings go up in smoke. Shelagh learns the dangers of deception, and there’s a little gender-bending, as in the Shakespeare play. Nick doesn’t jump straight into her pants, so she jumps to conclusions a bit. What can you do? She’s rich, pretty, and nineteen, therefore accustomed to getting what she wants.

Nick was a homo. They were all homos. That was why Nick had been sacked from the Navy. Her father had found out, couldn’t pass him for promotion, and Nick had borne a grudge ever afterward. Perhaps, even, the dates she had copied from the list referred to times when Nick had got into trouble. The photograph was a blind – homos often tried to cover themselves by pretending they were married. Oh, not Nick . . . It was the end. She couldn’t bear it. Why must the only attractive man she had ever met in her life have to be like that? Goddamn and blast them all, stripped to the waist there down by the megalithic tomb. They were probably doing the same in the control room now. There was no point in anything anymore. No sense in her mission. The sooner she left the island and flew back home the better.

Of course, less than ten pages later he’s proving just how very wrong she is.

She could see nothing in the darkness of the van, not even the face of her watch. Time did not exist. It’s body chemistry, she told herself, that’s what does it. People’s skins. They either blend or they don’t. They either merge and melt into the same texture, dissolve and become renewed, or nothing happens, like faulty plugs, blown fuses, switchboard jams. When the thing goes right, as it had for me tonight, then it’s arrows splintering the sky, it’s forest fires, it’s Agincourt. I shall live till I’m ninety-five, marry some nice man, have fifteen children, win stage awards and Oscars, but never again will the world break into fragments, burn before my eyes. I’ve bloody had it . . .

There is some fear of mental illness, but in the end, I don’t think that’s the problem. You don’t need nonstandard brain chemistry to rebel against society, to do questionable things just because you can. I mean, visiting your best friend’s wife while he’s out of town, getting her drunk and date-raping her simply because she doesn’t like your jokes, is criminal, not funny. And while some of that can be explained by the possibility of Nick being mentally ill, explaining it does not excuse it.

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

A group of people come to Jerusalem to see the holy sites. Unfortunately, their minister becomes ill and has to stay on the boat in Haifa, and they adopt another churchman to guide them. However, Jerusalem is a disorganized mess, and so are they. People get lost, overhear things about themselves they weren’t meant to, make mistakes, nearly die. These aren’t humble pilgrims, they’re vacationers (there’s even a couple on their honeymoon), and they’re almost all wealthy and proud. So the story is a course of humiliation, crowds, danger, fear. Many of the important events of the Biblical story of the Passion are parodied. This story is less straightforwardly Gothic than the others; it’s more often sad than scary.

So, not only am I fond of reading Gothic stories, but I’m also fond of watching scary movies and TV shows. It’s given me a lot of time to ponder fear, and what our culture is afraid of. It seems that the answer is, death. We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know or understand, and death is fundamentally unknowable. Culturally, we turn to the supernatural in order to cope with the fear of death. Religions have grown up as a way of helping us handle fear and grief. The ancient mythologies are full of assurances that life continues after death, with a system of rewards and punishments for the activities of our current lives. I heard someone saying recently that she’s not too upset about her twelve miscarriages because she believes that she’ll raise those children in the afterlife. Her version of Christianity negates death altogether. It makes sense, then, that Gothic experiences a revival when faith is in recession. It seems a human trait that we need some experience with the supernatural, whether it’s God or the devil or the spirits of nature or vampires or zombies or mummies or whatever. We don’t need to believe in it; we need to experience it, either for ourselves or vicariously through fiction. The desire to elude death through supernatural powers seems to be a human trait. At least in Western cultures, we can’t get away from the need to get away from death. If we become comfortable with the idea of our own mortality, we’re called a danger to ourselves and others and prescribed medication. Death is natural and inevitable, so I try to accept it with the same equanimity with which I accept my same-sex attraction.

Du Maurier writes some beautiful stories. These aren’t exceptions, they’re just shorter than the pieces I’m used to working with. Each one can be read in the length of time it takes to watch a movie. So, bite-size du Maurier, like a little snack. Enjoy it.

This is not the kind of book I willingly pick up at the store. It’s hugely thick and tries to unite several genres, all of which represent humanity and the world as darker, scarier, more evil than I believe them to be. But when a student says, “I know you like novels, so I got you one as a going-away present,” I can’t refuse.

The last time I read a book this long from beginning to end, it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Seriously, this book is fucking massive. There were a few times I mentally edited his prose to eliminate unnecessary words (I don’t believe in coincidences, especially in fiction, so the phrase “it just happened to be” really irritates me), but it’s not something I could do much of. His prose is fairly tight, and he keeps the story moving pretty quickly. Every now and again you get a glimpse of a lovely bit of figurative language, like

But there was nothing, just a gale of fear blowing down the lonely corridors of his mind.

but normally he avoids anything that isn’t literal. It is what it is, as it is, and there’s not much to say about it. What commentary there is, is often cynical and snarky:

nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.

Which happens early on, when it’s still a murder mystery, and sounds so very Dashiell Hammett that I can’t fault him for it.

We start with murder, then go on to spy thriller, end up at 9/11 conspiracy theory, then they all sort of get jumbled up together. It may seem that this genrebending might be the biggest narrative problem, but I think it’s his sequence. The first half of the book is weighted with flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, so that the order of events is rather confused.

I have the most difficulty forgiving Hayes for his first-person narrator/protagonist. The first problem is at the linguistic level. Pilgrim’s speech is almost entirely British, which is almost wholly nonsensical. He’s an American. He spent a number of years living in Europe, but as the leader of a supersecret spy organization, he wouldn’t have spent that time hanging out with Londoner chums or watching Doctor Who. For their linguistic patterns to rub off on him, he needs either to be interested in language for its own sake or to spend a great deal of time talking with Englishmen he likes well enough to want to blend in with them. Neither of those things is true for him. He’s so insulated and ethnocentric that the Britishisms just don’t make sense. My occasional British usage is more logical because most of my friends for the last two years are British, and I tend to adopt the speech patterns of the people I love; I’ve also been teaching English from British texts, so I’ve been confronting the basics of the language from a British perspective. Still, I know to use only one l in words like traveled or canceling (Brits use two).

The second problem is with his supposed identity as the agent so secret that no one can touch him. He makes so many mistakes that it’s kind of embarrassing. Most of them are necessary to move the plot forward, but if the plot demands that you make your superagent an idiot, maybe the plot needs to change. Pilgrim retires from the spy business and writes a book about his cases, changing the details and his identity to preserve state secrets. A New York policeman reads the book, finds the tiny hints he drops about his personal life, tracks down his real name, and follows him to Paris where he has been living in hiding for a few years. Really? Really? What kind of crap intelligence agency would let this book be published, or not track down their supposedly greatest asset when he is careless enough to publish all the clues you need to get at him? Seriously. If a homicide detective were better than the combined powers of the CIA and the NSA, then their entire personnel rosters would have been eliminated a long time ago.

Problem Three is misogyny. It’s a little like being in a modern James Bond movie, where all women are either useless or evil. There are one or two good competent women we don’t see much of, but the rule is that women are not to be relied upon. I should probably throw homophobia into the mix here, because there’s a killer lesbian (no gay men, sorry). She outsmarts Pilgrim, but she’s unremittingly evil. The book is largely about relationships between straight men, lots of father-son mentoring stuff and never-leave-a-man-behind-unless-he’s-dead values. The phrase “I love you man, no homo” practically drips from the pages.

Number Four is with the ethnocentrism I mentioned earlier. Pilgrim has a fairly extensive education, which normally has a tendency to decrease the belief in superiority based on nationality, but no luck for him. He then spends his adult life living abroad, and contact with other cultures also usually has a tendency to make people think better of them, but again, no luck.

These were the same guys Carter had described as garbage wrapped in skin.

He points this out not to contest it, but to agree that all Saudis are worthless. I’ll admit that his portrayal of Saudis angers me the most, because I’ve spent the last two years living among them and despite the systemic injustices, I’ve seen that they’re really very kind. I don’t think any person is really garbage; we’re all a mixture of good and bad things. Saudi men have been raised in a culture that values adherence to tradition over critical thinking, but that doesn’t make them bad men. They benefit from society without putting any thought or effort into it, much like white American men of the upper middle class (and by that I mean Protagonist Pilgrim). When you take into account the assumptions about the world that they have never thought to question, I think most of them are actually more worthwhile than their Western counterparts. Seriously, America/Europe: stop judging the rest of the world for not sharing your cultural ideals.

Another bit that’s kind of funny, but shows that the guy we’re reading is a bit of a dick:

On one particular evening he left a message while I was attending one of my regular twelve-step meetings. By this stage, I had switched my patronage to AA – as Tolstoy might have said, drug addicts are all alike, whereas every alcoholic is crazy in his own way. This led to far more interesting meetings, and I had decided that, if you were going to spend your life on the wagon, you might as well be entertained.

The Moriarty to this American anti-Holmes is called The Saracen. He’s a conservative Saudi disgusted by the laxity of Jeddah and Bahrain, so as a teenager he fights the Soviets in Afghanistan. He becomes a doctor too, then works for the advancement of his people. He’s very much like Pilgrim, only he has a family and faith in God. Unfortunately, those loves in his life lead him to engineer a vaccine-resistant strain of smallpox and unleash it on the United States, to weaken the enemies of Allah, obviously, but also to weaken the power of the al-Saud family, who had his father publicly beheaded. He wants to get back at them for what they did to his father and, in his eyes, what they continually do to weaken the nation’s devotion. He’s an extremist with a personal vendetta that involves killing entire continents full of people. He’s not typical, but despite comments like

At last the West had encountered an enemy worthy of our fear,

there aren’t any counterbalancing characters. The Saracen is compared to the guys who performed the September 11th attacks, but any typical Saudis/Arabs/Muslims are seen through his eyes, so Hayes can represent them as weak and compromising. Or through Pilgrim’s eyes, when they’re either comic relief or incompetent and corrupt.

Hayes seems to see corruption everywhere. I suppose there’s more of it than I imagine, but I don’t choose to believe that it’s the only constant in the world. Here’s the highest level of American government (only six or seven people are in the room):

The only thing they agreed on was that there should be no change to the nation’s threat status: it was at a low level and, in order to avoid panic and unwanted questions, it had to stay there. But in the two hours that followed, the atheists and the God-botherers took to each other’s throats on almost every idea, then suddenly teamed up against the president on several others, split among themselves, formed uneasy alliances with their former opponents, returned to their natural alliances and then sallied forth on several occasions as lone gunslingers.

Okay, so that isn’t the best example of corruption, but it doesn’t make the government look particularly effective or praiseworthy either.

Even when Hayes is writing about a concept I like, like love, he manages to make it seem bad.

People say love is weak, but they’re wrong: love is strong. In nearly everyone it trumps all other things – patriotism and ambition, religion and upbringing. And of every kind of love – the epic and the small, the noble and the base – the one that a parent has for their child is the greatest of them all.

That doesn’t seem bad, but love is the tool that Pilgrim uses to manipulate people. He’s a bit like Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin – to bring down your enemy, strike at the heart. Pilgrim doesn’t just use it on his enemies, though; he uses it on his friends and colleagues too. Love is strong, but it makes people vulnerable, and vulnerability can be exploited by an unscrupulous covert agent. It doesn’t affect him as much because the people he loves are dead. He’s loveless and cruel, but with a sarcastic sense of humor and an exciting story that keep us reading.

I suppose one of the baselines for the love of books is, Would you read it again? I don’t think that I would. I just don’t want to spend that much of my life in Pilgrim’s violent, corrupt world where America is everything and the rest of the world is only important in its interactions with the United States. Once was good, but once was enough.

John Franklin Bardin wrote mystery novels in the 1940s and ’50s. If The Last of Philip Banter is any indication, he wrote very good mystery novels. One of the nice things about Banter is the way that Bardin breaks with tradition; the murder comes at the end instead of the beginning. The primary mystery is something quite different.

The first few pages feel like we’ve dropped in on Mad Men: Philip Banter is a womanizing alcoholic advertising executive in 1945. All the office girls are susceptible to his charms except his own secretary, Miss Grey, who is in love with Tom, a guy in a different department who wants Philip’s job. However, today, when Philip gets to his office, he finds a manuscript titled Confession that he himself seems to have signed. It recounts events that are meant to happen tonight. Philip is a little freaked by finding an apparently time-traveling confession, or a prediction written in the past tense, or whatever this thing is. He’s especially derailed by this because he’s been getting blackout drunk (and hearing voices) with increasing frequency, so he can’t actually remember what he did last night. He really could have written this thing himself.

That night, Philip and his wife Dorothy host their old friend Jeremy and his new girl Brent. The confession predicts this, but it represents him suavely seducing Brent, which in reality becomes a complete failure. Philip is probably thrown off a bit by having seen Dorothy and Jeremy making out; he can philander all he wants, but this is her first minor infidelity, and he’s really uncomfortable with the idea that she could treat him the way that he treats her.

On Day Two there’s another installment of the confession, predicting Dorothy breaking up with Philip over lunch. So of course he doesn’t meet her. She does run off with Jeremy for a little bit, but it’s unsatisfactory for both of them.

It was very inappropriate, too, they both realized, for what they were doing in actuality was endeavoring to escape the cage of the present by admiring and reconstructing the bars that had made the cages of the past.

Even though they had both spent the entire length of Dorothy’s marriage to Philip wondering what would have happened if she had married Jeremy instead, that moment has passed. They’re in love with other people now, and not even running off together for averagely-good sex can help them live up to/live out their what-if fantasies.

The detective in all this is a psychiatrist friend of Philip’s. He doesn’t figure out what’s going on until after someone dies, and he never figures out the creepily Oedipal thing going on with Dorothy and her father, but at least he admits

Even psychiatrists sometimes make mistakes.

which is an impressive confession for a fictonal psychiatrist, I think. I don’t know enough of the real ones to say whether they fit the I-am-the-voice-of-God stereotype.

The psychiatrist gives the author the opportunity to talk explicitly about the main emotional drive of the novel: inadequacy. As in his conversation with Philip:

The young boy who has never experienced sex and the old man who doubts that he will ever experience it again share common feelings of guilt and inadequacy. They both spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about exploits they don’t have the courage or opportunity to make real. Sometimes this happens to a man in his maturity, and then his fears are often false. They are only symptomatic of a deeper wound, a hidden conflict. Some men never get over adolescent feelings of inadequacy and guilt, and with such men, every time they have a new relation it is a fresh trial of their ever-doubted prowess – you might call them sexual athletes since they are always trying to break their own records. These men often become psychically impotent prematurely. They day-dream compulsively – you do it on paper! – about imagined triumphs and then force themselves to make them real.

I don’t know if I feel guilt exactly, but I spend most of my life convinced of my own inadequacy. Being a teacher tends to feed these feelings. No matter what I do, my students are never going to speak or write perfectly. Teaching is like seeing a leak in a dam that prevents your hometown from flooding. You stick your finger in the hole. Then there’s another one, so you stick another finger there. If the leaks are close enough, you may be able to reach a third. Then you look around and realize that all your neighbors are sticking their fingers in leaks too. We know that someone needs to repave the dam, and sometimes we get very angry about that. But we just keep sticking fingers in the holes and wait for someone else to fix the systemic problems. There’s never any question of success; we just try to fail the least. Most of the time I think I’m good at what I do, but I’m never free of the uncertainty. Educational supervisors tend to work on the assumption that if nothing’s wrong, they don’t need to say anything, so in most teaching situations I’ve tended to feel isolated and underappreciated. The job where I have felt the best about my work was at The Home Depot. I worked in freight, so there was some paperwork in receiving and some forklift operating and a lot of taking things out of boxes and putting them on shelves; it satisfied the same need for order that tempts me toward library work. But my supervisor worked with me for a night every few weeks, and he always told me I did a good job, and every night he thanked the entire team for the work we did. I know that many people (like Deborah Tannen) say that women are better at giving praise, but in my workplaces I’ve found that not to be the case.

OccMan, you’re drifting. Bardin wasn’t writing about professional inadequacy; it’s pretty clear that he meant sexual inadequacy. Yes that’s true, but I don’t believe the two are so easily separable. Those people who have a proven record of romantic success tend to have the confidence and ambition necessary to succeed professionally; they’re used to a world that says Yes to them, so they go after everything they want in whichever area of life that might be. That’s why so few ugly people become rich. Then there are people like me, who have been taught their whole lives that they can’t have anything worth having, so it’s hard for me to try hard to get either a good job or a good boyfriend, because deep down I don’t think I deserve one or the other. Failure in one area of life leads to failure in the others because I feel Failure like a label printed on my skin.

Philip Banter is a good representative of this idea. He’s married to a woman he cares about, but has a number of one-night stands on the side. It looks like he has success, but he’s a shit husband, and he sees the hookups as failures rather than conquests. He’s looking for a feeling of strength, power, desirableness, puissance, but he only ends up feeling guilty, so he drinks until he can’t remember, his hands start shaking, and he has periodic blackouts. His job is similar: he has a great job as an ad writer, but he doesn’t put in the work to be good at it. He writes terrible repetitive copy, losing client after client, until his boss/father-in-law fires him and tells his wife to divorce him. There are a number of episodes of the Twilight Zone that fit this schema as well (including all of those featuring bachelors who fail at business).

One of the striking things about this novel is the structure. I don’t mean that it’s divided into three installments, one for each section of the predictive confession (which are also days); I mean the precise moment that the last chapter ends and the epilogue begins. You’re familiar with the final scene from Dashiell Hammett pictures: Nick Charles or Sam Spade gathers all the suspects and victims into one room, goes on explaining how each of them could have done it, dismissing each suspect in turn until someone does something stupid, like confessing. In the last chapter, Philip has everyone gathered in like fashion, he starts his detective monologue, but then he gets interrupted, he runs out, and someone kills him (not a spoiler; read the title again). The book proper ends with Philip’s death, and the audience still doesn’t know who the killer is. While most detective novels are about the successful search for the truth, Banter reminds us how inadequate we are to discover it. Even the psychiatrist can’t figure it out in time to save his friend’s life. Nothing gets wrapped up until the epilogue, when we have to repeat the detective monologue scene, getting it a little more right this time. Bardin hits us with it again in the last line of the book:

But there was nothing he could do about that . . .

Ending on the ellipsis, as if even the writer, who stands in the place of God, can’t bring about a satisfactory conclusion. There’s nothing the characters can do to right some of the wrongs of the world. Lives have been ended, others destroyed, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In the end, in some way, we are all inadequate.