Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

Brett Halliday wrote a series of popuar mystery novels back in the 1950s and 60s featuring detective Mike Shayne. Shayne is a tough, sexy redhead, and his books are full of naked women and murder. Of course there were a few films. Of course there was a television series. Of course hardly anyone remembers him now. Halliday was a pseudonym, and when he got good and sick of writing Shayne novels, he retired and the publisher got a few other people to carry on the franchise. Guilty as Hell is post-retirement.

I was in the mood for a little mystery, cheap and easy. That’s exactly what this is. I know that I often go for the enduring and timeless, but the only reason this one has survived fifty years is that they used to print on higher-quality paper. But I enjoyed it, and I’m planning to look for more.

Mike Shayne is a private eye, the classic hard-boiled detective. The only thing that distinguishes him from any of the others is that after a gang beats him up, he has to wear a cast on his broken arm. The orthopedist implants brass knuckles and a scalpel blade in the cast so that Shayne can keep fighting. It seems like overkill, as ridiculous as anything out of Army of Darkness or that movie with the cyborg with the glowing blue cock that had to be started with a pullcord like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. People who feel guilty find him intimidating. Some women find him attractive, but he resists the naked teenager and finds her some clothes.

Candida Morse is the real antagonist, even though she’s not the killer. Her official job is secretary to the president of a corporate recruiting agency, but she has all the brains and does all the work. Many of the executives funnel secrets back to her, so she’s really running a city-wide ring of corporate spies. Candida knows that in Miami in the 1960s, women don’t have a lot of power, directly. But if a girl is beautiful and intelligent, she can make a man do whatever she likes, so her indirect power is only limited by her ambition. She also knows that if a woman isn’t that intelligent or ambitious, she can still be useful. Candida also employs a number of girls who get secrets by sleeping with the right men. I suppose this makes them sex workers, but they’re not the streetwalking type. These ladies are by appointment only.

So, someone gets killed in a ‘hunting accident’ and the typical hard-boiled tropes ensue. Candida keeps trying to trap Shayne one way or another, but he slips out of all the traps and finds the real killer. He takes a page out of the hippies’ book – he saw them having lock-ins, trust-building through forced physical proximity, kind of like churches have now only with lots of marijuana and sex. He forces all the suspects to stay in and talk, nobody sleeping, all night until the right someone confesses.

Well, well, Mr Bill of Rights in person, the guy who thinks queers and floozies are covered by the United States Constitution.

Wait, what? This minor character unexpectedly drags the book into contemporary issues. There’s a vice cop with a rather small part, mainly because Shayne is so good at dodging him. Like many Americans, he believes that people who are suspected of crimes lose their rights. This is why we have the Bill of Rights – to protect citizens from a legal system that jumps to conclusions and is quick to be cruel and unusual.

Ever since I saw you tonight, I’ve been thinking about some of those uncalled-for remarks of yours about frame-ups. Somebody’s a hooker, or a flagrant fag. Everybody knows it. They’re guilty as hell, and we can’t bring them in unless we catch them in the act.

It really bothers him that sex workers and homosexuals exist in the world without being in jail. I understand that it’s his job, and the work we do shapes our thinking, but really. What harm are these people doing to society? You don’t have to be gay or paid to pass along STDs, and the fact that they are available doesn’t force innocent straight men away from their wives or girlfriends. I’ve never understood why homosexual activity was a crime punishable by law – how is it anyone else’s business? I first considered the sex worker industry when I was in college, and I stand by the decisions I made then: the women are victims of an economic and education system that leaves them with few options for independent living, and social problems often leave women with little education, no income, and no safety at home. Don’t imprison the women; imprison the men who objectify them and limit their access to the resources they need to be independent and successful.

It was the vice-squad detective named Vince Camilli. He was tieless, but he wore a jacket over his gun, which he used far too often. He had a handsome dark face, a loose mouth. He was the department’s top scorer in both homosexual and prostitution arrests, and Shayne was sure that the total included many entrapment cases using fabricated evidence, as well as shakedowns that had failed to pay off.

Don’t be like Camilli, whose job is to convince people to have sex with him and then arrest them for it. He also tries to extort money in exchange for their freedom. He’s a bad guy, and he kind of symbolizes the hatred of average citizens for the people who are marginalized by the social systems the average citizen benefits from.

Just to be clear, there are no out-and-proud homosexuals in this book. They’re only brought up to show how rotten Camilli is.

Another minor point is the carphone. Were this book not actually written in 1967, I would have screamed about anachronistic technology. However, people were putting telephones in automobiles in the 1940s, so the fact that a private detective has one in the 60s actually makes sense. You don’t see them anymore because they can’t be tracked by the 911 service. In the United States, 911 is the number for emergency services. They need to be able to position phones so that if there is an accident and the person calling can’t speak or doesn’t know where they are, they can still get help. If you dial 911 and set the phone on the floor and don’t speak into it, the police will come directly to your home and assess the emergency, whether it’s an intruder or a health crisis. They can globally position cell phones, but not carphones. Because they can’t find where you are, you don’t get to have one.

So. Sexism. Racism. Homophobia. Murder. Drugs. Statutory rape. It might seem that the only logical response to this type of a world is to burn it all down. I don’t really fault Candida for her crimes; they seem the only reasonable way for a woman to get ahead. Things are different now, and I’m glad for that. Not necessarily better, but different. This was an entertaining little read, full of things that offend me now but were fairly normal at the time. Halliday’s writing isn’t especially beautiful, but it’s clear and communicates the story well, which is what’s required in this genre.

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It seems strange to admit that I hadn’t really heard of this book, when I consider how devoted its fan base is. In my studies, I’d run into Carmilla, but Uncle Silas is apparently not much considered in this country, not even in academia, not even in the small circle of literary scholars who study Gothic. The publisher and editor, of course, make a number of claims to the book’s singularity, but please, set those aside and remember that they’re trying to sell a product. Le Fanu is heavily indebted to Ann Radcliffe, which he acknowledges through several references to The Romance of the Forest, and he follows her strategies fairly conventionally.

Maud Ruthyn is a standard Gothic heroine. Probably beautiful, but that’s not really important. Brought up in isolation by an emotionally distant father, so most of her life takes place inside her own head. She narrates the story several years after it’s finished, so our experience comes through the lens of her perception and memory. They’re likely to be flawed, what with the constant gaslighting and other terrorist tactics used on her.

But the valley of the shadow of death has its varieties of dread. The ‘horror of great darkness’ is disturbed by voices and illumed by sights. There are periods of incapacity and collapse, followed by paroxysms of active terror. Thus in my journey during those long hours I found it – agonies subsiding into lethargies, and these breaking again into frenzy. I sometimes wonder how I carried my reason safely through the ordeal.

Maud’s father is a Swedenborgian, and the occult religion provides a rationale for the isolation so Maud doesn’t question it. Unlike most Gothic novels, though, this one doesn’t use religious difference as a sign for evil. The Swede club is composed of good guys who might be a little weird and antisocial but are also essentially kind and concerned for Maud’s well-being. The evil comes from someplace else.

Volume I is largely concerned with Madame de la Rougierre, Maud’s new governess. The book was written in 1864, so of course being French makes Madame evil. She’s drunk and careless about Maud’s education; her primary concern seems to be manipulating Maud’s father. She lies and steals and at a couple of points tries to put Maud in compromising situations. Maud’s good sense pulls her through, relatively unscathed.

Along with the bad female role model, we also have the good, Monica Knollys, a cousin of Maud’s father. Cousin Monica is older, but fun and affectionate and sometimes a little shocking. She doesn’t see through the conspiracy instantly, but she knows when things aren’t right. She doesn’t have the power to fix everything, no one person does, but she has a position in society that could really help Maud understand the social class she belongs to. The sight of Monica shocks Madame out of her French accent for a couple of sentences, so while we never explore her past, I’m inclined to think her nationality is not all it’s presented to be.

In Volume II Maud goes to live with her Uncle Silas, the secret head of the conspiracy. She’s never really met him before, but she spent her entire childhood in a house with his portrait, and as an isolated teenager she thought he was pretty sexy. There was also a mystery surrounding him, which Cousin Monica finally explains to her. It’s the now-classic locked-room mystery setup, where someone was murdered in Silas’s house but no one could figure out how. The official ruling was suicide, but everyone knows he did it, except his brother. Maud’s father thinks that he’s innocent, so Maud’s residence with him is intended to prove to everyone that Silas is no murderer, even though if she were to die he would inherit a fortune that would relieve his debts, because of which he’s about to lose his house and possibly end up in prison. In Volume II he’s rather similar to Frederick Fairlie of The Woman in White – of too delicate health to abide the stimulus of other people, so he isolates himself and throws occasional tantrums. There’s a marked change in Volume III, when he becomes more of the Count Fosco type.

Silas’s daughter Milly is Maud’s companion for most of Volume II. She’s been given almost no education, and while her father frequently insults her for her ignorance, he does nothing to remove it. She runs wild, wearing dresses short enough to climb trees in, and uses the broadest country dialect she can manage (Derbyshire).

‘Will you tell – yes or no – is my cousin in the coach?’ screamed the plump young lady, stamping her stout black boot, in a momentary lull.

Yes, I was there, sure.

‘And why the puck don’t you let her out, you stupe, you?’

Despite their obvious differences (the Gothic heroine is always dressed fit for an aristocrat’s drawing room and has a natural elegance of mind that makes her a welcome addition to the highest social circles, whether her education and experience make that realistic or not), Maud and Milly become close friends very quickly. Milly gets sent to a boarding school in France for Volume III so that the conspiracy can assault Maud more easily. If Monica and Madame are contrasting mother figures, Milly is Maud’s reflection, the example of what she could have become in different circumstances.

Silas also has a son, Dudley. He’s quite as rustic as Milly, but rather more threatening because he’s a man. As her cousin, he’s entitled to more intimacy than most men, but he’s also a viable marriage partner. His role in the conspiracy is to attract and marry Maud to save his father and himself from financial ruin, but unfortunately, he has no idea how to attract a girl like her. She’s not impressed with his bragging about himself, nor is she pleased with his prowess in fistfights or hunting. I mean, if a girl doesn’t swoon over your muscles, what else can you do? A hundred and fifty years later I can shout, You can get a job and pay your own bills, but Dudley doesn’t have the training to do any mental work, and he is too proud of his position in society to do the work he is fit for. He’s one of the idle no-longer-rich, an aggressively useless sort of person.

Rounding out the conspiracy are Dickon Hawkes and his daughter Meg, because apparently Le Fanu was caught up with alliterative names. Dickon is a one-legged abusive father; he’s the real muscle in the group. Meg gets sick and Maud takes care of her, so Meg’s loyalty to the conspiracy’s intended victim makes her the weak link. She does her best to warn Maud, even if she gets beaten for it later. She’s a good kid, but unused to kindness or even civility.

Some people have called this the first locked-room mystery, but I’m disinclined to agree – Maud is no detective. She makes absolutely no effort to find clues or solve the mystery; she only discovers the truth because the conspiracy puts her in the same locked room and tries to kill her the same way. Speaking of genre conventions, the Gothic is a bit different here than it was in Radcliffe’s time. Le Fanu spends dramatically less time describing the scenery, so I guess the picturesque nature books were out of fashion seventy-five years later. In No Name, written only a couple of years earlier than Uncle Silas, Wilkie Collins describes the scenery in the different places we go to, but it seems like he’s working for a tourist commission rather than being artistically Romantic. Le Fanu’s story takes place in more private places, but Radcliffe would have been much more rhapsodical. While there’s a general air of mystery and vague threat, the real standard plot points don’t really happen until Volume III – secret messages crying for help being discovered, servants disappearing, heroine getting drugged and taken on a mysterious journey that ends in being concealed and imprisoned inside her own house, threats of bigamy and murder, that sort of thing. In Volumes I and II there are other possible interpretations of events, but in Volume III we finally make it all the way Gothic.

Maud doesn’t go into this question, but the narrative makes me wonder: Is reform possible? Do people ever really change? It depends on what you mean by change. For example, in the last six years I’ve worked through a lot of emotional stuff, and I’m happier and more confident than I was. But I think that at bottom, who I am is still the same. I am the same person I’ve always been, but my expression of my self is less clouded by fear, pain, and shame. I am freer to be who I am. But what about murderers? I think it depends on who they are and what circumstances led to the murder. For example, I think the man who killed my uncle did it as a consequence of fear and desperation, not out of hatred or anger. They didn’t even know each other. Fear and despair can be healed and managed, so that killer learned to deal with the mess of himself before the state killed him – or in other words, they reformed him and made him no longer a murderer, and then they killed him for what he had been before. The fictional murderers seem entirely different to me. Silas spends fifteen or twenty years not growing or changing, so he deals with problems the same way he did before. Two locked-room murders in the same house, in the same room, might be a little hard to explain, but he’s not concerned about that. Hawkes doesn’t change either – some people are so self-justified that they don’t see why they should. His daughter’s bruises are no one else’s concern. Maud, on the other hand, frequently refers to her own ignorance and stupidity, leading us to believe that as an adult she’s a lot wiser and less Gothic-heroine-y than she was at seventeen. Maybe the capacity for growth is a signal for moral quality. After all, Milton’s Lucifer is defined by his refusal to grow or change, so Le Fanu made his villains adopt the same quality. In real life, people are seldom so easy to define and categorize.

In some ways, you could argue that Uncle Silas is transitional, looking both backward and forward, like Disney’s Little Mermaid. There are some allegorical touches in the film that hark back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there’s also a psychological realism and a modern representation of the female protagonist that foreshadows Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Uncle Silas relies heavily on the Radcliffe tradition, but that wave of Gothic fiction belonged to the 1790s and was pretty much finished by 1820. The locked-room mystery aspect also looks forward to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the modern mystery writers. There were other Gothic heroines after 1864 (I’m thinking of Gwendolen Harleth and Mrs de Winter), but Le Fanu’s book occupies this weirdly anachronistic limbo, of not being quite one thing nor quite another. It is very enjoyable, for those of us who enjoy the Gothic fiction of previous centuries, but not as easy to categorize as scholars might desire. The strange thing is that it is so determined not to be a sensation novel, even those were so popular at the time. I think it’s better than East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret, but why insist so hard on not being Wilkie Collins that you end up being Radcliffe instead?

The Glass-House Murder (T. Neilson)

Posted: March 28, 2018 in fiction
Tags: , , ,

When I finished Berdyaev over the weekend, I really wanted a novel I could devour quickly, preferably in one day, a book that wouldn’t tax my mind too much. This book was precisely what I needed. A quick little gay-themed mystery, set sometime vaguely in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Our protagonist is Lord Hal, a younger son of the aristocracy who spends his time in London as a promiscuous homosexual and part-time amateur detective. The story-to-sex ratio is such that this isn’t erotica, so during his time in the country he’s less active than it is implied he is in the city. He doesn’t really have any quirks that would make him memorable; it’s like being gay is his gimmick. His servant Beagle is perfectly correct in all possible ways. He likes to read Wodehouse in his spare time. Beagle is not sleeping with Hal, but he does create opportunities.

Hal’s parents are a little more symbolic than present, the aged lord and his mystery-novel-reading wife. Hal and his mother share books, but he seems not to have anything in common with his father, who wants to see him well married. Hal’s sister Vivian is also a homosexual, but she conducts her affairs in Bath. She’s most notable for her absence. The murder victim is a poor relation who lives with the family as Vivian’s companion, in more than one sense, but with Vivian running up to Bath all the time they don’t see each other as often as that title would suggest. Hal and Vivian have an older brother who is stiffly conventional and whom Hal successfully avoids for the duration of the mystery.

The son of a local clergyman is on the household staff, and he and Hal have some history. He also has a girl in the town, so while the two men do reconnect, there’s no happy ending to be expected. An injured soldier and his sister recently moved into a neighboring house, and Hal spends more narrative time with them than with his own family. Charles is badly burned over a large portion of his body, and the pain keeps him in a bad mood. Hal penetrates the shield of pain and bad manners, but the two do not hook up. Several people rumor that Hal is after the sister, but of course they’re just friends. He talks the mystery over with them in rather more detail than I think is wise. Detectives should be discreet, and promiscuous gentlemen of the homosexual persuasion would have been well schooled in discretion.

The police inspector William Sayers seems pretty conventional at first, so I imagined him as having a stern demeanor and a big fluffy mustache starting to go grey, but then it’s revealed that he and Hal were at university together, so I had to refigure the ages. Sayers has worked his way through the ranks of the police service, which usually takes more years than most men use being promiscuous in London. People who can get sex whenever they want it seem to get bored with it after a while (I’m going off what I’ve been told – I’ve not been so fortunate in that area), so the combination of the two men’s stories makes it difficult for me to gauge just how old they are. They met at a gay orgy and didn’t seem to interact afterward, so it seems unreasonable to me that Will is angry at Hal for not recognizing him immediately. Again, I’m imagining him to have grown a big fluffy mustache since uni (completely unauthorized by the author), so that might explain it.

Here’s the story (all spoiled): Caroline is probably what we’d today consider a transman (it’s hard to project contemporary labels into the past) – s/he feels more comfortable dressed in men’s clothing, and goes about town in a suit pretending to be a schoolteacher from a neighboring town. There’s a brief courtship of a local widow, until the beloved figures out the whole gender-bending thing and kills him/her. We then sift through layers of secrets and confusion because the storyline is unthinkable in that time.

There are a few graphic gay sex scenes, but of the type that makes me think that the author is a woman. The lovers use only one position, and the movements are either poorly described or anatomically impossible. If your characters are doing it doggy-style and you want to stifle their cum-screams by sealing their lips together, your bottom has to be able to turn his head all the way around like The Exorcist Girl. Yes, we can kiss in that position, but out of the corner of the mouth, not with that kind of lip-lock. Or, your lovers shifted position and you didn’t tell us.

Speaking of poor editing, the proofreading is fairly awful. It’s clear that several sentences were revised, but revised poorly, so that traces of the original are still present, like using ‘a children’ – in one version you used a child, but then you wanted to make the child plural and didn’t delete the article. This seems to be a pervasive problem with small, LGBT-themed presses. It reminds me of all the awful Christian music and movies out there – making art for a minority group does guarantee you an audience, but that’s no excuse for doing poor work. It makes me want to write a letter to the press demanding a job as an editor.

It may seem odd that I assumed the author to be a woman, but it is an odd fact that most gay male romances are written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women. Gay men tend to both write and read either super-graphic erotica or self-consciously literary fiction. Genre fic with a gay romance subplot is a female thing. I can’t explain to you why. I guess it’s like all those men watching supposedly lesbian porn (I say supposedly because it’s not targeted at lesbians), but I don’t understand that either. Why watch or read sex between two (or more) people when there is no place for you in the scenario? Where is the enjoyment in that? The author has gone on to write four or five more gay romances, dropping the period mystery thing and going for contemporary society. If she’s writing more straightforward romances, though, I hope her sex scenes have gotten better.

As I said earlier, this book was precisely what I was looking for – short, untaxing, disposable. The details are vague enough to imply inconsistency, but I didn’t care enough to read closely to determine how consistent the author was being. There’s very little memorable about this book, so I’m glad it didn’t become a series. It’s like the piece of peppermint candy you get at a restaurant after your meal – sweet, but insubstantial, best not examined too closely.

If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have told you that the best cupcakes  were dark chocolate with chocolate cream cheese icing, that dancing in a crowd of magic wielders – the Adept – was better than sex, and that my life was peaceful and uneventful. Just the way I liked it. That’s what twenty-three years in the magical backwater of Vancouver will get you – a completely skewed sense of reality. Because when the dead werewolves started showing up, it all unraveled … except for the cupcake part. That’s a universal truth.

Sometimes you just need something fluffy and sweet to counteract all the stress in your life. I’ve been going through an emotionally complex time, and this novel is a big fat marshmallow. And by marshmallow I mean paranormal murder mystery with a headstrong heroine. The vampires and werewolves make me think of True Blood, as does their tendency to ask the protagonist, “What are you?” I’ve never read the Sookie Stackhouse books, so I can’t speak to similarities in style, but I can attest to the obvious similarities in subject matter.

In an answer to the question, the protagonist is a small business owner in Vancouver, the big city in BC and not the tiny one in WA. She runs a bakery that specializes in cupcakes, and though business stuff doesn’t seem a big part of her personality, baking things is. She is a compulsive maker, so she collects odds and ends and makes them into jewelry, and she bakes to calm down. Thinking back to Fromm and productive work, this is what makes her feel the most herself. Her mother was a witch, so she has some magical abilities, primarily the ability to see the magic of others. At least, that’s the magic she practices. There are several allusions to abilities that are not being explained yet, but this is the first in a series, so I imagine that will come in later installments. She calls her jewelry trinkets, which is a word that minimizes their importance to herself and others, but they’re actually fairly significant. I share this tendency to treat my own needs as frivolous – one of the reasons I identify with the protagonist. I have a hard time calling her Jade because the name doesn’t seem to match her personality. She should be called something warmer, softer.

Another thing I share with the protagonist:

No, I chided myself – scary monster men are not sexy.

A thing for evil. And I’m not talking about your garden-variety serial killer here: I get turned on by supervillains and actual monsters, like the guy in Misfits who turns into an ape. Even as a child, I thought that Princes Phillip, Eric, and Charming were vacuous, but I was enrapt with Jafar and Maleficent. And much as I identify with Belle, Rapunzel, and Princess Anna, Jafar is still my favorite Disney character. He’s almost as great as Megamind. When I’m watching a show, I have to keep reminding myself of the ways that the male characters limit women’s ability to choose, even when it comes to their own bodies (thinking of Bitten), because I guess I find emotional abuse all wrapped up in muscles an irresistible combination.

The other day I was trying to work through why I’m afraid of moving back to North Carolina, and one of those voices said, “Are you done punishing yourself?” “For what?” “For your . . . imaginary crimes!” And the answer was, “No . . . .” So I guess that’s what I’m doing here in the Midwest, accepting scraps and crumbs of happiness instead of insisting on my place at the table. Harking back to Perks of Being a Wallflower, I’m accepting the love I think I deserve. I even bought him flowers yesterday, even though I’ve got one mental foot out the door. I’ve got to do something about this, but it’s hard to keep myself motivated enough to make any changes because I think I deserve this grey, windy, life without mountains.

Doidge tells a cute story, full of cupcakes and monsters and murder. The tendency to split infinitives unnecessarily (i.e. to unnecessarily split infinitives) really gets to me, though – I gave up on Patrick Rothfuss because he does the same thing, to excess. I’ll probably keep reading the series, especially when I’m in the mood for something light and fluffy. It’s like when I got obsessed with reading all the Anne George mysteries, but instead of old ladies in the South, it’s witches in the Northwest. And witches are good. We like witches.

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

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.