Little Caesar by WR Burnett (1929)

Rico was a simple man. He loved but three things: himself, his hair and his gun. He took excellent care of all three. (p.22)

Apparently one of the pioneering gangster novels, which was then turned into the ‘first’ gangster movie.

William Riley Burnet was a civil servant in Ohio where he wrote over 100 short stories and five novels, all unpublished, before moving to Chicago at the age of 28, getting a job in a seedy hotel where he came into close contact with hoodlums, nightclub performers, boxers, all the colourful underworld, and drew from it to write this, his breakthrough novel.

Little Caesar propelled him to fame and to a successful career as a novelist and screenwriter: he wrote some 38 novels, the best known of which are probably High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle, and worked on some 50 movie scripts, from the noir adaptation of Graham Greene’s This Gun For Hire in 1942 through to adventure classics of my generation like The Great Escape and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Little Caesar

The plot is simple. Chicago, New Year’s Eve, a small gang of hoodlums led by sleek fat Sam Vettori, who has picked up the short violent Rico to be lieutenant, plan the armed robbery of a night club, the Casa Alvarado. Vettori found Rico, ‘an unknown Yougstown wop’, brought him to the big city and into his gang but, as a result of the robbery, Rico triumphs in the battle of wills and makes himself leader of the gang. He has a devoted follower in Otero, the Greek, and his ally, the Valentino-handsome ‘Gentleman’ Joe Massara, who acts as the inside man on their jobs. All of them are doubtful about cowardly Tony Passa the driver who, after crashing the getaway car, holes up with his mother and threatens to talk to understanding Father McConagha. Which is why Rico gets Bat Corelli to drive down and shoots him dead on the steps of the cathedral…

Supporting cast

The dynamics of these core characters, the basic plot (the rise and fall of a gangster) are fairly interesting but what’s more striking is the portrayal of the wider network of people they’re involved in: a net, a web, presumably based on the characters Burnett observed in his Chicago hotel. It’s their range, the fullness of this vision of gangster society, which gives the book its persuasiveness.

  • Bat Carillo, once a light heavyweight then leader of one of Vettori’s gangs of hooligans
  • Blackie Avezzano who manages Sam’s garage and is a sneak
  • The Big Boy, overall gang leader, higher than Vettori (James Michael O’Doul)
  • Blondy Belle ‘the swellest woman in Little Italy’, ‘big, healthy and lascivious’
  • Bugs Liska, Steve Gollancz’s lieutenant
  • Captain Courtney, the police captain Rico is foolish enough to shoot dead
  • Carillo who works at their nightclub and drives the ‘can’ from which Rico shoots down Tony on the steps of the cathedral
  • Chesty, doorman of Sam Vettori’s club
  • DeVoss, manager of the Bronze Peacock, the nightclub where ‘Gentleman’ Joe works as a dancer who dances with older rich women for money
  • Tony’s mother who disapproves of his hoodlum friends
  • Father McConagha who offers Tony sanctuary
  • Little Arnie (Arnold Worch) ‘ran the biggest gambling joint on the North Side’
  • Jew Mike, has his joint trashed by Rico’s men, tougher replica of his boss, Little Arnie
  • Jim Flaherty, amiable plain clothes policeman
  • ‘Gentleman’ Joe Massara, good-looking dancer, dragged into crime, ends up serving life
  • Joe Pavlovsky, drove the car which tried to hit Rico
  • Joe Peeper, ‘Arnie’s boy’, a stool pigeon or spy for Rico in Arnie’s gang
  • Joe Sansone, ‘a stickler for clothes’
  • Kid Bean ‘a Sicilian dark as a negro’
  • Kid Burg clears out after Little Arnie’s fall
  • Killer Pepi and his woman Blue Jay; Killer and Kid Bean rob 25 filling stations in 2 weeks
  • Kips Berger, sold his failing gambling den to Little Arnie
  • Limpy John, ‘they bumped him off’
  • Ma Magdalena the fence and her son Arrigo who keep a fruit store
  • Monk De Angelo, former gang leader
  • Olga Stassoff, a beautiful dancer, Joe’s girlfriend
  • Ottavio Vettori, 21 and already famous as a gunman
  • Pete Montana, gangster controls vast swathe of the North Side (Pietro Fontano)
  • Pippy Coke, one of the Detroit assassins who tried to shoot Rico
  • Rico (Cesare Bandello)
  • Ritz Colonna, Pete Montana’s lieutenant
  • Sam Vettori, fat gangster boss who takes in Rico and is overthrown by him (and eventually hanged)
  • Seal Skin, Otero’s old lady
  • Scabby
  • The Sheeny, unlicensed doctor
  • Spike Rieger, policeman, assistant to Flaherty
  • Squint Maschke, one of Little Arnie’s three lieutenants, scrams
  • Mr Jack Willoughby the millionaire, might back Joe in a show

Elements of the text

This is a short book (158 pages), largely because there’s relatively little description, and almost no psychology or characterisation. There are maybe six places in the text where Burnett stops to describe or analyse a character in more detail or to situate the action. For the most part this sort of thing is omitted, and certainly doesn’t appear until well into the text. For the first 30 pages or so it is nothing but action and dialogue, throwing you right into the mix.

Rico lived at a tension. His nervous system was geared up to such a pitch that he was never sleepy, never felt the desire to relax, was always keenly alive. He did not average over five hours sleep a night and as soon as he opened  his eyes he was awake. When he sat in a chair he never thrust out his feet and lolled, but sat rigi and alert. He walked, ate, took his pleasures in the same manner. What distinguished him from his associates was his inability to live in the present. He was like a man on a long train journey to a promised land. To him the present was but a dingy way-station; he had his eyes on the end of the journey. This is the mental attitude of a man destined for success. But the resultant tension had its drawbacks. He was subject to periodid slumps. His energy would suddenly disappear; he would lose interest in everything and for several days would sleep twelve to fifteen hours at a stretch. This was a dangerous weakness, and Rico was aware of it and feared it. (p.71)

As you can see, nothing special about the prose. Functional. Which might be why either Burnett or his editor decided to keep this kind of thing to a minimum. Instead, for the most part the story is told through dialogue, as in a movie. And the dialogue is crammed with gangster slang. On one page there’s more thieves’ patois than in a whole Dashiell Hammett novel. Hammett’s books are, on the whole, about people outside the criminal milieu, who enter it, who explore it, but who aren’t part of it, ditto Chandler. By contrast, this novel is deeply immersed in the mind-set, the psychology, the dialogue and the vocabulary of 1920s Chicago gangsters.

1920s gangster slang

  • beat it = depart
  • beefing = complaining, beef = complaint 87
  • berries = dollars 107
  • bird = man 116 – not, as in English slang, a young woman
  • bracelets = handcuffs 117
  • do it up brown = do it properly
  • to get brushed = hit by bullets, shot
  • bull = policeman
  • bump off = kill
  • bunk = rubbish, short for bunkum 101
  • burg = the city in this case Chicago108
  • can = car
  • can it = shut up
  • chin = to chat 140
  • a cinch = an easy or obvious thing 137
  • crack/wisecrack = joke, often insulting 144
  • cush = money
  • cut = percentage of the take on a job
  • dick = policeman
  • dope = information, story, situation
  • double-cross = betray
  • dump = home 106
  • gat = gun 133
  • graft = illegal business
  • (give the) go-by = get rid of, kick out 144
  • the goods = the right stuff, the real McCoy 104
  • gyp = deceive or cheat 87
  • harness = smart clothes 108
  • hit the hay = go to bed 87
  • hit the pipe = smoke drugs (opium? marijuana?) 112
  • hook = to steal 135
  • hop = drugs, morphine
  • jack = the money, specially the loot 12
  • Jane = woman
  • joint = gambling or rinking establishment 104
  • lead = bullets as in ‘ a hunk of lead’ 100
  • lit up = smartly dressed 108
  • monkey suit = evening dress 108
  • mosey = go away, flee 109
  • mug = face as in ‘mug-shot’ = portrait photograph
  • nut = head, as in ‘you’re off your nut’ 96
  • pinch = arrest 117
  • piker = vagrant, loser 110
  • give somewhere or someone the once-over = visit in order to examine, check out 104
  • pop, as in ‘pop him’ – kill someone 128
  • go press the bricks = take a walk 89
  • plugging = shooting
  • roll = wad of cash 135
  • the grand rush = big confrontation, shootout 92
  • spring = release someone from prison 122
  • on the square = straight, honest 109
  • stogie = cheap cigar 125
  • the racket = life of crime
  • red = (red) cent, as in ‘didn’t have a red’ 110
  • rig you up = give you clothes to wear 106
  • the ropes = how things are done
  • rod = gun 95
  • a rush = shootout, violent event 108
  • sap = idiot 97
  • to say a mouthful = tell the truth, put it in a nutshell 104
  • put the skids under = betray 97
  • skirt = woman
  • spill the beans, spill the works = tell secrets, talk about what should be kept secret 126
  • spill it = talk
  • split = arrangement, agreement
  • squawk = spill the beans, confess, to the police 126
  • stand = hold-up
  • stir = prison 106
  • the wrong steer = to be misinformed 103
  • stringing = lying to, ‘someone been stringing you’ 96
  • swells = rich people
  • talk turkey = serious conversation 102
  • that’s the talk = you said a good thing
  • tickler = moustache 139
  • on the up and up = on the right side of, OK 103
  • wised up = in the know, aware of the news 127
  • yaps = crooks, killers 95
  • yegg = small-time crook 109

Dapper

Burnett notes people’s clothes very thoroughly. Rico himself is very proud of his appearance and careful what he wears.

Rico was wearing a big ulster like Joe’s and a derby also like Joe’s. He had on fawn-coloured spats drawn over pointed patent-leather shoes; and a diamond horseshoe pin sparkled in a red, green and white striped necktie. (1974 Kaye & Ward hardback edition, p.60)

Rico unbuttoned his ulster to display his finery. He had on one of his striped suits. It was dead black with a narrow pink stripe. The colour scheme was further complicated by a pale blue shirt and an orange and white striped tie adorned with the ruby pin. (p.79)

Jazz

There’s a jazz band playing almost permanently in the bar under the room where the gang make their plans. It counterpoints their dialogue and double-crossing. It’s amazing the speed with which jazz – generally credited as coming into existence around 1917 – spread completely throughout urban America to become the soundtrack to the 1920s. Even tone-deaf Rico likes it.

Rico had no ear for music; he couldn’t even whistle, or distinguish one tune from another. But he liked rhythm. There was somthing straightforward and primitive about jazz rhythms that impressed him. (p.72)

Movie

The book was an overnight sensation, a million-seller. It was snapped up by Warner Brothers film studio and made into a film starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior as handsome Joe Massara, and giving Edward G Robinson his breakthrough role as the vicious little gangster. ‘The picturization of one of America’s greatest novels.’

Related links

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

‘You’ve got a flighty mind. That’s no good in this business. You don’t catch murderers by amusing yourself with interesting thoughts. You’ve got to sit down to all the facts you can get and turn them over and over till they click.’ (p.320)

In retrospect Red Harvest seems a rather delirious fantasy: an entire town populated only by rival gangs of gangsters and their molls and armies, set at loggerheads and wiping each other out in a mounting frenzy of violence. More parable than fiction. The red in the harvest is a harvest of blood; almost everyone dies, should have been titled The Slaughterhouse.

The Dain Curse starts out much more restrained and sober, as a traditional crime story: research scientist Leggett has borrowed some diamonds from a merchant because he thinks he might be able to improve the look and appearance of sub-standard stones. One night they are stolen. The Continental Detective Agency is asked to investigate by the insurance company and our friend, the Continental Op, is assigned the case. We find him rooting through grass outside the burgled house then interviewing various witnesses and suspects. Routine detective work. Only slowly does it, also, unravel into a murder fest…

A back story

Early on we discover Leggett is not at all who he pretends: he commits suicide and leaves a long and improbably detailed account of his improbably colourful life of crime in remote foreign lands – reminiscent of the way the Sherlock Holmes novels rely on long back stories in India (The Sign of Four, 1890) or among the Mormons (Study In Scarlet, 1887) or Buchan will rely on the long-past vow which lights the action in the final Richard Hannay adventure, The Island of Sheep (1936). But maybe the suicide note is not all it seems… and so on…

A partner

It’s just so convenient to have a partner, someone to deploy on missions when you can’t do everything yourself, to act as dummy or decoy but above all, someone to discuss the case with while it’s in mid-stream – and someone to mull over the loose ends with when it’s over, and who can make sense of it all for the reader.

Dr Watson is the archetpye because he fulfils all these roles so well. the Op was able to confide in Dinah Brand in Red Harvest, until, that is, he woke up holding the domestic ice pick which was embedded in her dead chest. In this one the Op conveniently runs into his old mucker the novelist Owen Fitzstephan who helps out with a few minor errands but whose real purpose is the epilogue chapter at the end of each of the three parts, where they sit and piece together what happened and why, for our edification. Until Fitzstephan himself becomes part of the story…

Three parts

The text is divided into three parts, each one dealing with a cluster of deaths and the rather far-fetched explanations which are concocted to account for them:

  • The Dains A few bodies turn up before Leggett is found dead with a note. In an extended revelation scene the Op moves through several theories of who did what to arrive at a sort of truth, that the current Mrs Leggett is one of two Dain sisters who, back in Paris, before the War, were in love with Maurice Pierre de Mayenne. He married the other sister, already pregnant with the daughter Gabrielle. The current Mrs elaborately arranges for the little girl to shoot dead her mother; Leggett takes the rap and goes to Devil’s Island until he manages ot escape and works his way to California and a new identity; the current Mrs brings up Gabrielle, tracks Mr L down, surprises him by arriving on his doorstep then, when Mrs L kills not one but 2 private dicks she’s hired to track him down but were now blackmailing her, she a) kills them both b) persuades Mr L to shoot himself (!). At which point she makes a break for the stairs, is tackled by the Op and Gabrielle’s thick hunky boyfriend Collinson, and in the scuffle, guess what, the gun goes off and she is dead. Among the many facts and fictions thrown around during this mayhem, Mrs Leggatt née Lucy Dain, says there is a Curse on all the Dain family; which now amounts to young Gabrielle.
  • The Temple Ten days later the Op is called off another job by the family lawyer who is uneasy that Gabrielle has insisted on going to stay at the San Fran headquarters of a religious sect. The Op is installed there, with the sect owners’ agreement, but that night all hell breaks loose. The Op is drugged by dope fed into his room by secret pipes, encounters a weird physical illusion, bumps into Gabrielle almost naked holding a blood-stained ornamental knife (see illustration, below) saying ‘I killed him’, finds the famiy doctor stabbed to death by said knife on the religion’s ‘altar’, returns to find Collinson and Gabrielle gone, goes into the servant girl’s room and is overcome with fumes again, then attacked, then nearly knifed, then clubbed, then rushes back down to the altar to find the doctor gone and the lady of the house & cult (Mrs Haldorn) tied up on the altar and her husband, Joseph, having chosen that night of all nights to go beyond the cult they’d cooked up with theatrical robes, hypnotism and dope fed into the followers’ rooms, purely to make money, but on this night he’s finally flipped, thinks he genuinely is God, and is about to sacrifice her on the altar; the Op has to shoot him six times and then stab him through the throat to kill him. Then the Op and Owen the novelist have another session piecing it all together.
  • Quesada the Op is called off another case (again) by an urgent cable from Eric Collinson who has hurriedly married Gabrielle and spirited her off to a secluded cottage in Quesada, rural California. He finds Eric’s body fallen off a clifftop path. A lot then happens. there are car chases and car smashes. The sheriff’s wife is doscovered to be unfaithful to him with another police official, tells our guys her husband did it, but is then discovered murdered, we go out in a small boat round hidden coves round the coast where a bad guy is discovered who has kidnapped Gabrielle but is shot down before he can reveal who put him up to it… A small bomb goes off in the Op’s apartment, injuring him, the crim who brought it, and mangling to a pulp his friend the novelist. The main thrust of this section is the Op helps Gabrielle go cold turkey to get over her morphine addiction, and manages to protect her from potential killers, including Mrs Haldorn from the cult, the Mexican maid with the knife, the crooked lawyer who tried it on with her once, and Fink, the helpmeet at the cult who made and placed the bomb. Quite a few more people get killed before the Op/narrator explains it in a detailed 7 or 8 page finale, packed with detailed explanations of everyone’s outlandish motivations and wildly improbable schemes, which caused so much death and, in the end, changed so little. Gabrielle walks clean and free – there is a Happy Ending.

Four short stories

In fact, as with Red Harvest this ‘novel’ started life as four connected stories in the ‘pulp’ magazine, Black Mask. Seperate short stories, or a conscious novel published in the serial method which dates back to Dickens and beyond?

  • Black Lives’ (November 1928)
  • ‘The Hollow Temple’ (December 1928)
  • Black Honeymoon’ (January 1929)
  • ‘Black Riddle’ (February 1929)

The Continental Op

Striking that the protagonist of these stories is described as short and stocky:

  • ‘He was a man past forty, I should say, rather short and broad – somewhat of your build… ‘ …’ (Picador Four Great Novels edition, p.197)
  • five foot six (p.223)
  • ‘a middle-aged fat man’ (p.284)

Compared with the tall, dark, handsome strangers Sam Spade ‘quite six feet tall’, Philip Marlowe ‘slightly over six feet’, Sherlock Holmes ‘rather over six feet’ etc etc.

Fast

As I noticed in Greenmantle (1916), almost as soon as the motor car had been invented it was getting stolen, hijacked, caught up in high speed pursuits, presumably acting out our unconscious desires for speed and flight and brainless excitement.

He had a Chrysler roadster parked around the corner. We got into it and began bucking traffic and traffic signals towards Pacific Avenue. (p.222)

This ride ends, as any traffic policeman might have predicted, in a bad crash where all the cars’ occupants are injured. Bit more realistic than Harvest in which there are innumerable car chases and high speed shootouts.

Underworld slang

Similarly, now I come to look for it, there is less underworld slang and thieves argot in Hammett than you might expect.

  • dinge = black person
  • dark meat = black person
  • rats and mice = rhyming slang for dice
  • the nut = earnings, income
  • a gallon of the white = alcohol
  • chive = knife
  • heap = car

Style

In this novel the prose is less crunched and abbreviated than in Harvest, maybe because that one was set in a rather comic-book way among hard-talking gangsters, and this one is set among the more civilised professional classes starting with Dr Leggett the scientist, taking in the upper-class devotees of the Temple and including the Op’s pal, the novelist: all very literate and civilised types.

He takes a while to do detailed, rather laborious descriptions of characters. Chandler, Greene or Deighton would have nailed the following character in a few lines. Hammett is surprisingly verbose.

[Edgar Leggett] was a dark-skinned erect man in his middle forties, muscularly slender and of medium height. He would have been handsome if his brown face hadn’t been so deeply marked with sharp, hard lines across the forehead and from nostrils down across mouth-corners. Dark hair, worn rather long, curled above and around the broad, grooved forehead. Red-brown eyes were abnormally bright behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His nose was long, thin, and high-bridged. His lips were thin, sharp, nimble, over a small, bony chin. His black and white clothes were well made and cared for. (p.196)

There are occasional outbursts of jazzy prose, some smart-alec sentences, but not much. A dozen or 15 sentences like this out of a 200-page novel. Nowhere near the stylistic jazz and sparkle of Chandler.

We went outside and asked all the people we could find all the questions we could think of. (p.327)

I piled up what facts I had, put some guesses on them, and took a jump from the top of the heap into space. (p.353)

Go get

The Op is sardonic about the pushy District Attorney in Querada, describing him as ‘very conscious of being a go-getter’ (p.306). I was interested to see the Online Dictionary dating this term to 1920-25, making it very new when Hammett used it; though the Etymological Dictionary dates it further back to 1910.

Author’s message

‘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 wrangle yourself out another to take its place’ (p.331)

Related links

Saucy cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Dain Curse

Saucy cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Dain Curse

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930)
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

People like inside stuff.

Hammett was born in 1894 and had a series of jobs before joining Pinkertons’ Detective Agency. After serving in World War I he returned to the detective business and also began writing short stories for pulp magazines, writing some 50 through the 1920s and into the early 30s. In the later 20s and into the early 30s he wrote the five classic detective novels upon which his reputation rests.

He introduced the character of the Continental Op – an unnamed operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency (based on the Pinkertons) – in a story for the ‘pulp’ magazine Black Mask magazine in 1923 and went onto write nearly 30 short stories featuring him. After a few years he experimented with writing linked or connected stories. His first novel, Red Harvest, consists of four of these linked short stories, published in four consecutive instalments of Black Mask.

  • Part 1: ‘The Cleansing of Poisonville’, November 1927
  • Part 2: ‘Crime Wanted – Male or Female’, December 1927
  • Part 3: ‘Dynamite’, January 1928
  • Part 4: ‘The 19th Murder’, February 1928

The complete ‘novel’ with its 27 short chapters was published in February 1929.

Mentality

‘People like inside stuff.’ (p.66) They sure do. They like to feel there’s secret levels, hidden depths, concealed meanings, conspiracies, behind our mundane lives. Religion is just another kind of conspiracy theory. Our minds, evolved to suss out our fellow apes’ intentions, overcompensate and find meanings everywhere, anthropomorphise thunderstorms or bumping into doors, making the world full of intentions which aren’t actually there. Freud explained how our fears and drives, twisted and repressed by childhood traumas and social conventions, emerge as bizarre and florid obsessions and neuroses and behaviours. Everyone has them, everyone comes to their own settlement with their animal natures.

A fiction is an artificial self-contained world, a device, for generating complex meaning designed to entertain and gratify our meaning-sense.

There is, obviously, a wide range of styles or genres available to convey that meaning, to please the meaning-sense in our minds, from crack-the-case detective fiction at one edge to esoteric literature at another, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, romance scattered around, with a large lake of more or less plain story-telling in the middle.

Along the way there are countless incidental pleasures to be enjoyed, at innumerable levels: I’ve been there, I recognise that character, oh my God is Batman going to escape? oh my God is Elizabeth ever going to win Mr Darcy? look at those pretty dresses, wow is that how a Walther ppk works – from appreciating the skill of the overall narrative arc down to the level of the way individual sentences are handled; from wonderful description/word painting to  a sequence of snappily handled dialogue; the revelation of new and fascinating insights into human nature, to the vicarious thrills of physical trials and endurances.

Hammett’s novels offer the following fundamental pleasures:

  1. There is a dark violent world of crime beneath our boring everyday world. Ooh.
  2. It is complex, convoluted, a challenge to unpick and understand.
  3. But there is One Man who can unpick and understand it and explain it to us. Our guide through the Underworld, our Virgil. He suffers setbacks, maybe even wounds – to remind us he is human, to make him a better representative of the reader – but he knows everything and he will win. Stick with him, kid.

Plot

In Red Harvest, to feed the crossword and puzzle side of our minds, the plot is agreeably complex, boiling down to a fast-paced web of continually shifting alliances and betrayals.

There’s a detective agency called the Continental Detective Agency. Employees are Continental Operatives or Continental Ops and the (unnamed) narrator is one. He is called to Personville by a newspaper editor. He arranges to meet him that night but the editor is shot in the street. The Protagonist (the Continental Op or CO) discovers the crime and corruption lying behind the suburban streets of Personville. The whole town was created by Elihu Willsson, the archetypal old bed-ridden patriarch. During the Great War there were strikes in factories, the lumberyards etc. Willsson called in some tough guys to sort it out through violence and intimidation. But the tough guys liked the easy pickings and stayed. Willsson brought his son back from skylarking in Paris to run the Personville newspapers with a remit to uncover crime. But his son soon began to discover just how deep Daddy was involved in the badness. The chief of police, Noonan, is corrupt. Willsson Junior’s own wife appears to have been having an affair. The gangsters, including Whisper and his blowsy moll, Dinah Brand, reveal some of the dope, not least because the CO gets Whisper off the Willsson Junior murder rap.

The CO extracts a huge sum from the Old Man in exchange for ‘clearing up Dodge’, er, I mean Personville. After being shot at twice, the CO begins to take it all personally and, when the Old Man tries to call him off, announces he is going to go through with his mission and make this town clean again.

And that’s just the first forty pages or so…

Style

Hammett is famous for inventing the wisecracking detective and, since the tale is told in the first person, this means the wisecracking, street smart narrator. Compared to conventional English English the style and vocabulary are off-the-scale alien. To readers at the time it must have seemed the revelation of a whole new world, where a whole new language was spoken. To a reader in 2014, 85 years after publication, the experience is at several removes: set in a foreign country,  which has its own language, nearly a century ago, there are multiple layers to delve through, to get anywhere close.

So Hammett is credited with inventing the wise-cracking tough guy style – upon the chassis of a the ‘cool’, nothing-flaps-me attitude are built clipped, functional, no-nonsense sentences, larded with a large amount of (presumably) street patois, leading to a uniquely immediate and jazzy affect.

Criminal patois

Makes you feel clever, makes you feel part of the gang, on the inside, in the know:

  • Now I yanked the gun out and snapped a cap at Thaler, trying for his shoulder. (p.97)
  • bull = police officer
  • gat = gun
  • heap = car

Understatement

Combines the puzzle effect (ie can be so clipped you have to pause a moment to work out what’s happening) with tough manliness (ie I’m used to fights, shootouts, sudden death, nothing throws me!).

The grey-moustached detective who had sat beside me in the car carried a red axe. We stepped up on the porch.
Noise and fire came out under a window sill.
The grey-moustached detective fell down, hiding the axe under his corpse. (p.111)

Humour

Crucial ingredient. On one level the entire text is a kind of joke, with its comic book heroes and villains. It’s as plausible as a Jimmy Cagney caper, all wise guys and wide lapels and a steady diet of gags.

He stood at the foot of the bed and looked at me with solemn eyes. I sat on the side of the bed and looked at him with whatever kind of eyes I had at the time. We did this for nearly three minutes. (‘A New Deal’)

Dialogue

Hammett and Chandler are often praised for their snappy dialogue but it’s questionable whether anyone has ever spoken like this.

‘I don’t want to brag about how dumb I am, but this job is plain as astronomy to me. I understand everything about it except what you have done and why, and what you’re trying to do and how.’ (p.108)

It is more than contrived, it is as elaborately stylised, in its way, as Elizabethan blank verse.

Related links

Pulp cover of The red Harvest

Pulp cover of The Red Harvest

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus individual murders. Strangely, the CO himself says the violent atmosphere of personville has made him go ‘blood-simple’, becoming infatuated with murders and killing.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929)
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930)
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

The Man Within by Graham Greene (1929)

Andrews’s mind pierced its maze of vague thinking in a flash of fear, and he half ran across the room to the door through which he had entered the night before. A sense of overwhelming desolation passed over him, a wonder whether he would ever know peace from pursuit. (p.27)

This book is tripe. A rich slice of teenage angst, narcissistic self-obsession and histrionic emotions hung on the scaffold of a lurid and melodramatic plot stuffed with ludicrously stereotyped and clichéd characters, spouting long speeches of Victorian bombast.

Never before can a ‘major writer’ have started his career with such a pitiful production and left it in print for everyone to identify the adolescent attitudes and self indulgent self-pity which were to inform all his later work: the thumping repetition masquerading as meaning, the sentimental religiosity masquerading as theology, the addiction to pornography and prostitutes masquerading as ‘daring’, and the continual pull towards despair and suicide masquerading as ‘living on the edge’.

Author’s apology

In an Author’s note Greene apologises for the republication of such an immature work, begun while he was still 21 and published when he was just 24. He had already had two novels rejected by Heinemann and was to forbid the republication of the two novels he wrote after this one, well aware they were rubbish.

So Greene had a very shaky, uncertain start to his writing career and, this novel clarifies, never shook off the profound misery, the suicidal despair, the outsize theatricals of his adolescence. His later Catholicism, far from being a carefully evaluated intellectual position, merely gave him permission, an acceptable outlet for the extreme feelings of rejection, alienation, damnation and despair which haunted him from his earliest years and are all-too-evident here:

To Andrews the falling clods were a measurement of time, recording the vanishing moments of his peace. He would be happy to stand in the cold and the mist through eternity watching the shovelling spades. Fear was pressing in upon his mind. (p.39)

He felt no fear of death, but a terror of life, of going on soiling himself and repenting and soiling himself again. There was, he felt, no escape. (p.167)

The plot

Set in a vague, undefined eighteenth century, the novel opens pell-mell with one Frances Andrews fleeing through woods somewhere on the South Downs near Shoreham, his consciousness saturated by terror and dread of his pursuers, stumbling through trees in a dense fog until he stumbles on a cottage in a clearing, raps on the door and collapses as it opens, glimpsing an attractive young woman pointing an antique rifle at him. He is being pursued by a man named Carlyon who he has a supernatural dread of. And dread and fear are very much the keynotes:

Loneliness and fear were like the emptiness of hunger to his belly… a friend who would pity him and understand his fear… he forgot his danger and his fear… the mere abstract fear of light…in almost continuous fear of Carlyon… it seemed incredible that he should so fear Carlyon… he found it impossible even in flight and fear… in the dark of the wood and far from Carlyon he had feared him… torn between his fear, precipitate, unreasoning fear… as he stared into the orange glow, fear was given an opportunity to assert itself… (pp.40-45)

Elizabeth

The young woman is called Elizabeth. When Andrews blundered into her cottage she had the corpse of her guardian, Mr Jennings, laid out in a coffin between candles. Andrews barges against it, almost hallucinating with fear, then passes out. Next day, through Hammer Horror mist, Andrews attends the dead man’s funeral, suspended in a strange equivocal relationship with Elizabeth, herself, it turns out, an outsider among the mute villagers who attend the funeral.

On the way back, in thick fog, Andrews is paralysed with fear at the sound of Carlyon’s voice in the mist, calling to a henchman. Heart racing, he inches away from the voice. Back at the cottage Andrews finally spits out his life story – his dad was a big bad smuggler who made enough money to send him to school, but then interrupted interrupted his education and bullied him into the family trade ie forcing him to take ship with the smugglers. When his dad died, Andrews was alone with them.

Stuck on board Carlyon’s ship he was mocked by the smugglers for being a coward and a mummy’s boy. And after three years of bullying he finally snapped, wrote to Shoreham Customs and betrayed the latest run of Carlyon and his crew. Customs intercepted them on the beach, there was a shootout, six of the smugglers were captured and one excise man – or ‘gauger’ – was shot dead. Three escapees made off in a boat while Andrews escaped up the beach, over the hills and is now running in fear of his life from his employer and former friend, Carlyon.

Then Elizabeth shares her story: the dead man is the lodger, a Mr Jennings, who moved in with her mother and her when she was a child, then bought the house. When her mother died, Mr Jennings looked after Elizabeth and sent her to school until the fateful day when he realised she had become a woman and made a pass at her. She fought him off and there was a year of tension in the little cottage until Mr J abruptly died, was laying out in his coffin, and Andrews comes blundering through the front door.

As she winds up her tale there is a knock at that same front door. Andrews slips behind the door to the stairs and listens as Elizabeth confidently holds off the dreaded Carlyon, for it is he! Eventually Carlyon leaves, persuaded by Elizabeth’s brave lies that there is no-one else there, and Andrews re-enters the small living room with its fire and kneels down to literally worship Elizabeth, overcome with maudlin images of her purity and honour etc. She takes advantage of his feeble devotion to insist that he goes to the Lewes Assizes, where the six captured smugglers are going on trial, to tell the full story.

Part two

So next day, very reluctantly, Andrews drags himself away from Elizabeth’s cottage, up onto the downs and walks to Lewes. Here he is overcome with fatalistic self pity, determines to get drunk in a low tavern and gets chatting to an intense little man who invites him back to his hotel for a meal. Instead, however, he introduces him to Sir Henry Merriman, the prosecutor at the forthcoming trial of the smugglers.

With phenomenal improbability Sir Henry is described as being accompanied by a lazy, sensuous ‘lady of easy virtue’ named Lucy. Sir Henry tells Andrews he must be a witness for the prosecution, Andrews dithers, and they argue, while Lucy provocatively, stagily, mocks the men and their self-importance. On the stairs outside she tells a flustered Andrews, ‘Be a witness and I’ll sleep with you.’

Surprisingly, disconcertingly, the trial is told in a completely different voice and style from the first part. Unlike the self-pitying murk of part one, with its impressionistic portrayal of Andrews’ frenzied dread, the trial is told in a brisk factual style, with a dollop of satire (the various clerks of court are described as nodding off asleep after each one performs his brief duty) and an ironical portrait of the judge, Sir Edward Parkin literally playing to the gallery which is full of attractive women.

Andrews is called as the star witness for the prosecution, bringing with him into the text his localised zone of self pity and ineffective anger and self hatred, but almost every other character in the scene – the barristers for prosecution and defence, the judge and the angry defendants, the six smugglers – are more vivid, vibrant, memorable for just being depicted as they are, without the vast Greene-ish despair. If Greene can leave out the teenage emoting, when he’s just describing people not labouring under fear and loathing, he can be quite funny. Almost a decent writer.

One by one the defendants go through their alibis and are backed up by wives and sweethearts. Then, to his horror, Andrews’ credibility as a witness is adroitly undermined by the defence counsel who brings up the whole matter of him recently staying under the same roof as a notorious ‘loose woman’ who lives in a cottage under the downs. He is, of course, referring to Elizabeth. Despite his feeble protestations that she is a Lady of Shining Honour and Unstained Virtue, the jury snigger and titter and Andrews’ reputation is shot.

Back in the witness room, Andrews is appalled to be told by the sergeant of the court that the smugglers have all been found innocent and are walking free. Andrews is not a popular man and the officials smuggle him back to the inn. Here a) one of the smugglers that had not been caught and who had watched the trial from the public gallery – and who Andrews had spotted but didn’t betray during the trial – enters his room and warns him that Carlyon and the others are likely to go to Elizabeth’s cottage and pay her back for harbouring Andrews. Obviously, he should race off to warn her. But then b) he is handed a note from Sir Henry’s lady friend, Lucy, saying she is waiting for him upstairs, bouncy bouncy.

Of course this plunges Andrews into black pits of despair and uncertainty: Should he stay true to the bright star of pure undefiled Elizabeth, shining in his memory as a symbol of purest Womanhood? Should he rush off at top speed back along the downs to warn her? Or should he pop along the corridor to Lucy’s room and enjoy rampant sex with her, wantoning among her soft breasts and warm thighs etc etc? He thinks of God, he thinks of his mother, he thinks of the saints, oh Hell, oh Fear, oh Despair.

He imagined her naked and in disgusting attitudes and tried to whip his body into a blind lust which would forget for a time at least the dictates of his heart. (p.159)

‘The dictates of his heart’. Even Mills and Boon would be embarrassed.

At moments like this you realise Andrews’ agonising is simply immaturity and ineffectiveness. He needs to man up and make some decisions. And you realise how much of the tortured, self-inflicted agonising, the hand-wringing and despair, the self-centred, self-dramatising self-loathing of almost all Greene’s protagonists, are variations on this central failure simply to think and act like a mature, responsible adult.

The religion, the Roman Catholic dogma which was to spread like a cancer through all Greene’s mature fiction, is a way of justifying the continuing deployment of the same adolescent, narcissistic wallowing in self-pity and self-obsession which are so nakedly on display here, only dressed up in a socially acceptable phraseology of ‘sin’ and ‘betrayal’ and ‘evil’ and ‘redemption’.

After a great deal of delay, even after he’s gone into her room, even after he’s sat on her bed, even after he’s stroked her bare breasts – continually soliloquising about Hell and Damnation and Sin and Faithfulness and Betrayal and Loyalty and Devotion and countless other Victorian proper nouns – even while he’s vowing his faithfulness to distant Elizabeth, oh Elizabeth shining like a Beacon of Purity, my angel, my saint, my Eliz – oops, he finds himself fucking Lucy.

Shag shag shag. Then – guess what? – immediately afterwards he feels wretched and miserable, as if he is damned, as if Trapped By Sin, as if he is a Wicked, Soiled, Sullied Evil Man. What a pathetic loser. He colloquises with Lucy. Women are devils, you lure us to our doom. No, it is men who are devils, you shape us to your lusts. It’s not just like reading a Victorian melodrama, it’s like reading a really bad Victorian pamphlet about Fallen Women and the Sins of the Flesh.

He was disgusted with himself and her. He had been treading, he felt, during the last few days on the border of a new life, in which he would learn courage and even self forgetfulness, but now he had fallen back into the slime from which he had emerged. (p.166)

Part three

Andrews gets dressed and finally hurries back along the downs and into the little valley where the picture book cottage nestles with a frail column of smoke drifting from its adorable little chimney. The door is ajar, oh have the Foul Fiends come to despoil his True Love? No, she’s there perfectly alright, and there are twenty pages of the most excruciating prose ever written, describing how the two young people shyly and bashfully Declare Their Love for each other. I love you. I love you too. Oh Victoria! Oh Albert! He admits he slept with this other woman, a ‘harlot’. Elizabeth forgives him. Oh, but she is a saint.

‘You were right. You are holy. I don’t see how I can ever touch you without soiling you a little, but, my God,’ his voice became vehement and he took a step towards her, ‘I’ll serve you, how I’ll serve you.’ (p.201)

Schoolboy sentimentality. He warns her the smugglers may be coming for her. She fetches out the antique rifle. He loads it. She picks it up. ‘Oh but we’ll need water, go and get it from the well!’ He goes to the well but when he turns, sees a man in the doorway. One of the smugglers! Oh fie fie!!

Petrified, Andrews runs runs runs to the nearest house ten minutes away, and stands arguing with the peasant owner to go fetch the Revenue or the Watch, and lend him an old nag so he can gallop back to rescue Elizabeth like, er, he should have done in the first place. But he didn’t because the whole plot is contrived so that when he enters the cottage – the door now swinging ajar – he finds his nemesis, Carlyon, sitting at the table and Elizabeth slumped in the chair opposite him, dead, dead I tell you, dead!

Allegedly the figure he saw in the doorway was one of the other, rougher, smugglers who began grappling with her and she killed herself with Andrews’ own knife before Carlyon arrived on the scene, just too late.

In a dizzy psychofantasia a dazed Andrews skips past his own (evident) guilt and instead starts blaming everything on his father, his bullying, harsh controlling father, who wore his mother out and dominated the poor boy, it is his father who drove him to a life of smuggling and whoring, his father who made him run away and abandon Elizabeth but now – hahaha – he is going to take revenge on his father, now he is going to kill his father. And as the appalled neighbour and other helpers arrive at the  cottage, apparently catching Andrews red-handed, his knife in Elizabeth’s body (Carlyon has tactfully slipped away) Andrews takes the knife and plunges it into his own panting breast etc etc.

Orchestra reaches a climax. He staggers forward across the stage, reaches his hands up towards the cruel heavens and then falls – oh Tragic Victim of a Cruel World – to the floor. The curtain comes rushing down while the audience bursts into applause. — Actually it’s not quite like that. The book ends as the now demented Andrews reaches forward to sneak a knife out of the belt of the villagers marching him through the wood with the strong implication he is about to put an end to the father-in-him by topping himself.

Immature style

The prose is unbearable: larded with abstract, pseudo-philosophical terminology, every time preferring portentous vagueness to concrete detail, dealing oh-so-casually with really big ideas and feelings as if they were smarties, reducing them – through endless and casual repetition – to the cheap jingles they will become throughout Greene’s prose.

With unexpected resolution he turned his back on the way he had come that morning and half ran as it were into an obscure future. (p.41)

At the thought the dry, strained despair in which he dwelt gave way before a kind of blessed grief. (p.215)

At his own words his heart became a battleground between exaltation and fear. (p.209)

Even extinction was not so dread as the continuance of this aching nightmare. (p.218)

It is as if Lord Tennyson lived on into the 1920s and started writing novels, or Edgar Allen Poe had been reborn in Berkhamsted. Not just the language but the histrionic emotional attitudes, the violent lurching between fear and despair and exultation and release and doubt and despair and fear and exultation and release — round and round like a hamster in a cage the prose hopelessly circles, ringing the changes on the same, narrow, obsessive, neurotic vocabulary:

Over for ever friendship, poetry, silence at the heart of noise; remained fear and continual flight. (p.48)

He advanced cautiously, with one arm of his spirit raised to ward off a blow. (p.49)

It touched his hot brain with cool fingers like the fingers of a woman and the ache and restless longing and despair were at an end. (p.219)

Fear and peace

To stop myself throwing the book across the room in disgust I concentrated on looking for structures and patterns, first in the language (fear/peace, hope/despair), which quickly led me on to realise that the narrative itself is underpinned by a system of binary opposites:

  • whore (Lucy) / Madonna (Elizabeth)
  • strong manly father (his father) / weak cowardly son (Andrews)
  • sea / land
  • law (the lawyers) / criminals (the smugglers)
  • agitated fear / dreamy peace
  • doomed adulthood / innocent boyhood

Something so immature about this worldview which casts every human situation as black or white, a habit of mind which explains – or mirrors – the mad veering from heights of exultation to depths of despair in the protagonist’s wretched consciousness, a failure to experience the world as a hugely more complex tapestry of multiple moods and colours, as a spectrum, as a variety.

It feels as if the ‘story’ with its lurid extremities is a cack-handed fantasy created by Greene to funnel and control the intense and extreme emotions he suffered from. It reminds you in almost every sentence that the author spent his teens in a profound misery which led to numerous suicide attempts and that Greene eventually underwent prolonged psychiatric treatment. ‘Why don’t you write about how you feel?’ his therapist suggested. And the result is a huge bibliography, an unstoppable outpouring of novels, short stories, plays, articles and reviews, one of the most extensive psychological exorcisms on record.

Running away

The topos of the Fearful Flight, a heart-stopping running-away from a menacing enemy, provides a narrative structure and justifies the melodramatic atmosphere of much of Greene’s fiction of the 1930s – A Gun for Sale, Brighton Rock, The Confidential Agent, The Power and the Glory and The Ministry of Fear all feature a man on the run.

In a sense, the mature post-war novels describe the ongoing problems of men who have run away, far far away – to Vietnam (The Unquiet American), Cuba (Our Man In Havana), Congo (A Burnt-Out Case), Haiti (The Comedians), Argentina (The Honorary Consul) – but still can’t escape the crushing sense of failure and despair which dogs them just as much as it cripples this, his very first protagonist. What a wretchedly unhappy man. And what a sequence of desperately unhappy books he created.

The movie

The Man Within was made into a movie of the same name, quite a lot later, in 1947, directed by Bernard Knowles and starring Ronald Shiner as Cockney Harry, Michael Redgrave as Carlyon, Jean Kent as Lucy, Joan Greenwood as Elizabeth and Richard Attenborough as young Andrews.

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Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme And Ancre, 1916 by Frederic Manning (1929)

25 March 2012

“These apparently rude and brutal natures comforted, encouraged, and reconciled each other to fate, with a tenderness and tact which was more moving than anything in life.”

Frederic Manning’s novel of the Great War follows Bourne, an educated man who prefers to stay with his small group of uneducated pals in the ranks, and not become an officer. There’s action at the start and end but the majority of the novel captures the mundane daily life of rough, sweary squaddies, thinking only about the next meal, getting tanked every evening, smoking fags, philosophising about their crappy lot and despising the swanky officers who implement pointless rules and cock up the big battles.

Officers like Graves, Owen, Sassoon admire the cameraderie and care of the men from the outside; but Manning brilliantly describes it from the inside and captures the embittered, resigned heroism of the army which went on to win the war. A marvellous book.

‘The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme And Ancre, 1916’ on Amazon

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

In Northumberland I reread ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves, in an old Penguin paperback with a wraparound cover of a mud-brown John Nash painting.

A delight, endlessly entertaining. Graves has polished his anecdotes till they gleam like pebbles in a stream, sparkling with his dry sense of humour, a shining eye for detail, and his crisp, clear, modern prose. The same style which makes ‘I, Claudius’ and his other novels so compelling, so damn readable.

The first 50 pages are about his childhood and miserable schooling at Charterhouse; the final 50 about his subsistence as a poor, hastily married poet living outside Oxford; the middle 150 pages about his lengthy Great War service. By the end of the book you can understand why he was thoroughly sick of England and all its values and keen to flee to Majorca, where he spent the rest of his life.


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All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

While away in Northumberland I read All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, in fact I read it twice, in a good, fluent 1994 translation by Brian Murdoch.

It’s not a memoir but a novel with all that means in terms of compressing and simplifying events. There’s a handful of characters, from the narrator’s schooldays, and one by one they are killed off. Scenes are cinematically vivid, like the famous artillery attack in the graveyard. Most of all, the narrator, Paul, is continually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, oppressed by the horror and the meaninglessness of war but also by his own miserable, poverty-stricken family life.

A grim, intense read.


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Other blog posts about the First World War

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