Make Me by Lee Child (2015)

We can’t fight thirty people. To which Reacher’s natural response was: Why the hell not? It was in his DNA. Like breathing. He was an instinctive brawler. His greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. (p.136)

Make Me is the 20th novel in the series featuring tough ex-U.S. Army Military Policeman-turned-investigator, Jack Reacher.

The series is immensely popular, with every one of the novels having been optioned for movies, and two – One Shot and Never Go Back – made into ‘major motion pictures’ starring Tom Cruise. Which is odd since Cruise is famously on the short side (5 feet 6 inches) whereas the whole point of Jack Reacher is that he is a hulking bear of a man (six foot five).

Lee Child

The single most interesting thing about the Jack Reacher novels and their star, the tall, street wise, intelligent and bullet-proof American tough guy, is that their author is English.

Lee Child was born in Coventry and grew up in Birmingham. You can hardly get less glamorous and more provincially English than that. What turned him into an international publishing phenomenon? Eighteen years working with Granada TV, writing trailers, introductions, commercials and news stories. This honed his skills for getting to the point. (In fact Lee Child is a nom de plume: his real names is James Grant.)

Praise

The cover of the book is festooned with praise from his peers in the thriller-writing business, such luminaries as James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Ken Follett, Stephen King and Frederick Forsyth. It is noticeable that all the women writers describe Reacher in terms of physique and sexual attractiveness.

Patricia Cornwell says she picks up Reacher ‘when I’m in the mood for someone big to solve my problems.’

Karin Slaughter says Reacher is ‘one of the sexiest characters in fiction.’

Joanne Harris says reading Reacher is ‘one of my essential guilty pleasures.’

The most revealing comment is from British journalist Lucy Mangan:

I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can’t shag him, then I want to be him.

(The bold is in the originals.) Reacher is tall, blonde and handsome, He is strong and silent. He protects women and the vulnerable. He doesn’t start trouble but if there is trouble he can more than handle himself in a fight. ‘What do women want?’ Freud is said to have asked. Jack Reacher, apparently.

Slow buildup

I was surprised and then amazed at how slow-moving this novel is, very slow, very slow-moving indeed. It has 492 pages divided into fifty-nine short punchy chapters (8.3 pages per chapter, though each one manages to feel much briefer because of the snappy writing).

By half way through, the following has happened: Reacher has stepped off a train at a remote and minuscule settlement in the American mid-West, intrigued by its incongruous name, Mother’s Rest. A woman steps out of the shadows as he strolls towards the central strip of town, clearly expecting him to be somebody she knows, then realises he isn’t.

They get chatting and it emerges that she is Michelle Chang (a name as tokenistically ethnic, but really as bland and commonplace as his own). Chang is ex-FBI, now a freelance investigator, having set up a detective agency with a few other investigators in the same situation. One of them was named Keever. He called in to tell the others that he was investigating something here in Mother’s Rest, then disappeared. She’s come to find out why.

We, the readers, know why – because Child opened a novel with a description of ‘them’ – an unnamed group of men – burying Keever. He’s dead. They killed him. This much we know. But why?

Very slowly Reacher gets drawn into Chang’s problem, not least because he is irked by the unfriendliness of the guys in town. (All men are referred to as ‘guys’ throughout.) The one-eyed owner of the only motel in town is twitchy and nervous, refuses to answer questions about Keever, keeps an obvious eye on Reacher and Chang.

As Reacher moseys round the small town he realises he is being followed by a kid and that various store owners lift the phone as he walks by – phoning in his progress to a central figure, who goes unnamed – we only know that he wears pressed jeans and has blow-dried hair. Ooh. Creepy! They are all nervous about the way Reacher is snooping around. They all talk about ‘us’, and how ‘we’ will have to take some action…

Reacher and Chang decide to drive to Keever’s apartment in Oklahoma City to find out more. Some guys from Mother’s Rest follow them as they drive. Reacher stops the car, gets out, confronts them and, as they go for their guns, kicks one in the nuts and smashes the other’s cheekbone with his elbow. He’s so tough. He’s so strong. Men want to be him. Women want to shag him. The appeal really does seem to be as primitive as that.

Reacher’s ‘technique’ is thoroughness

Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are clever and unexpected. Reacher’s feel far more obvious. He and Chang find a scrunched-up note in Keever’s room with a phone number and a name on it. They ring the number. It’s a science journalist in LA named Westwood. He agrees to meet them. They fly to LA. The science journalist explains that he gets calls from cranks all the time. Reacher guesses that whoever had hired Keever might be one of these cranks. They check Westwood’s database of calls. They systematically ring them all and eliminate all the obvious fruitcakes or unanswered calls. This narrows it down. One particular caller made lots of calls from Chicago, from a number they identify as the public library. They fly to Chicago. They take a taxi to a hotel. They check in.

By this stage Reacher and Chang have got beyond edgy camaraderie, progressed to sharing theories and hunches, and have had dinner together. He is tall, blonde and handsome with eyes of Arctic blue. She is lean and fit with curves in all the right places. Go on. Guess what happens.

Yep. They go to bed. What do women want? To be wined and dined, to be respected and courted. And then to be shagged senseless by a tall, super-capable man. Repeatedly. In hotel rooms across America.

They visit the public library in Chicago where the calls came from. They interview the librarian who knew the old, sad man who they now think was the caller, Keever’s client, the instigator of Keever’s investigation, name of McCann.

As I mentioned, Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are deliberately made outlandish and improbable. By contrast, at every step of the way Reacher is shown working through the possibly scenarios with very clear logic and application. If Reacher has a method, it is extreme thoroughness. At every stage, almost on every page, there are options and alternatives. He considers them rationally and logically. He works through them. He chooses the best one. It generally proves to be correct.

There is more than a touch of Mr Spock about Reacher.

Lucky man

But one of the things that makes this an example of genre fiction is the easiness, the fluency and the luck. Reacher is lucky, continually lucky.

He speculates that it was Keever’s client who called the LA journalist – and is proved right.

He speculates that the caller will have called in a specific time window 3 to 4 months earlier – and is proved right.

He guesses that the caller, having been blocked by the journalist as a nuisance, will change his name and continue calling, but call from the same number or area code. He does, and that’s what helps them recognise the fake name he uses second time round, which in turn leads them to his real name – McCann.

(It helps that Chang has a contact in the US telephone system who does her favours and helps them identify the various numbers.)

All this evidence narrows the search down to Chicago so they fly there, check into a hotel, have sex, then visit the library. All of which proves to be the correct deduction.

Similarly, the polite lady librarian at the Chicago public library won’t give them the address of the man they have now identified as McCann, out of a sense of confidentiality – but Reacher asks a series of tangenital questions about whether he drove or took public transport to work (walked) and his health (poor) from which they deduce that McCann’s home must be among the surrounding three blocks. Which is correct.

A block away from the library is a dusty old pharmacy which sells the kind of temporary cell phones (known as ‘burners’) which they speculate that McCann used. So Reacher guesses that the old boy walked past it on his walk to the library – so his house must be in that general direction. Which turns out to be correct.

The librarian had said that McCann gave the impression that he was ashamed of where he lived. So Reacher guesses it’s not a nice house but an apartment, probably in a rundown block. And so it is that after half an hour of working along the street, looking at nameplates to every flat on every apartment block, Michelle finds one with ‘Peter McCann’ on it.

They pretend to be making a delivery in order to get buzzed into the block, walk up to the apartment in question, to find the door is open.

And so on.

At every juncture Reacher makes reasonable enough guesses based on the odds, working things through steadily and methodically. But he is always lucky. The cards always fall his way. The time period of calls to the journalist turns out to be dead right. Chicago turns out to be the right hunch as location for the mysterious client. Guessing the pharmacy is the one where McCann bought his disposable phones turns out to be right. His apartment has a nice legible name label (unlike most I’ve ever visited) – and it gives McCann’s real name. The door to the apartment is unlocked.

Same with women. Reacher’s guesstimates about how to pace things in his relationship with Chang turn out to be picture perfect – when to hold off, when to be polite and professional, when to be slightly more personal, when to take her to dinner, when to wait for her signal, when to make a first move (a kiss) and when to take her to bed – all turn out to be right. He is right all the time. About everything.

Tall, tough and handsome, and always right.

Fighting

This supernatural skillfulness comes into its own in the many scenes of violence, fighting and shooting.

When he gets out of the car he and Chang are driving to Oklahoma City to confront the two toughs who have been tailing them – the reader partakes in his expert assessment of the situation, his estimate of where best to stand in order to a) kick one in the nuts and still have time to b) smash the other in the face.

When an assassin confronts them outside Keever’s apartment, we once again share Reacher’s immensely detailed calculation of the best way to handle the situation, and a literal blow-by-blow account of the fight.

Later in the book, Reacher and Chang go to visit McCann’s sister to find out more about his motives for hiring Keever. She’s married to a rich doctor and they’re supervising wedding celebrations for their grown-up daughter when three assassins hired by the Mother’s Rest people burst in. Three assassins with guns. Once again Child gives us an extremely detailed account of how Reacher thinks through the problem, works the angles, creates a diversion, and ends up killing all three and saving himself, Chang and McCann’s sister’s family unscathed.

We see his careful planning and calculations, so it’s not dumb luck. He thinks the problem through, calculates the angles, waits for the right moment, and so on.

Still pretty lucky, though.

When they figure out that the assassins were sent by ‘the fat man’, who is the head of the organisation of hitmen and which has been sub-contracted by the Mother’s Rest mob to rub them out – Chang and Reacher:

a) easily identify the nightclub which is a front for the gang
b) find the gate to the fenced compound around the club conveniently open
c) find the fat man sitting inside the compound, so that
d) Reacher can walk up to him, shoot him in the head, turn and walk away.

No bodyguards protecting him, no-one comes bursting out of the club firing at him. Lucky, huh?

Reacher is always right, about everything.

No wonder men want to be him. No wonder women want to shag him.

Characteristics of a Jack Reacher novel

Simple Child’s prose style is pared right back in the standard thriller style.

1. Partly because all modern American prose is pared back – generations of American creative writing teachers have told all their students to go over and over their manuscripts to remove unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, to keep it simple. So now American prose is simple. Doesn’t mean it can’t be thoughtful, though. Imaginative. Evocative.

Three Rugers [a type of gun], three guys. Black clothes, scalped hair, pale skin. Big enough and heavy enough, but also somehow bony. Tight cheekbones. Hard times in their DNA, from not too long ago. From Europe, maybe. Far in the marshy east. Every man against his neighbour, for the last thousand years. (p.330)

2. Partly because over the past hundred years the masculine world of crime fiction with its strong silent types has been associated with tough, no-nonsense prose for tough, no-nonsense guys. Hard boiled. Nothing soft or wishy-washy. True since the 1920s at least. Dashiell Hammett. Keep it simple.

Simple sentences. Short sentences. Sometimes three words. Or two. One. Limited vocabulary. Repetition.

Reacher listened hard, and heard nothing.
He stepped around the desk to the private side.
He glanced at the ledgers. And the files. And the notebooks. Routine motel stuff. Accounts, orders, to-do lists, percentages.
He listened again. Heard nothing.
He opened a drawer. Where the guy kept the room keys. He put 113 in, and took 215 out.
He closed the drawer.
He stepped back to the public side.
He breathed out. (p.73)

It gives a bleached-out, empty effect. Obviously designed to be tense and taut. Minimum perceptions. Human as robot, as terminator, stripped of all uncertainty and hesitation. Human as pure knowing, calculating machine.

A gated community. Rich people. Taxpayers. Political donors. The Maricopa County sheriffs on speed dial.
They waited at the kerb, a hundred yards short.
It was three in the afternoon. Five, in Chicago.
There was one guard behind the glass.
Reacher said, ‘We should have figured.’
Chang said, ‘If she’s heard about her brother, we’ll never get in.’ (p.291)

Said When characters talk they never question, answer, reply, respond, smirk. They never do anything with any colour or inflection. They just ‘say’. She said. He said. The guy said. They said.

Chang said, ‘He could be a brother or a cousin…’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said…
Chang said, ‘We have to be certain…’
Reacher said, ‘Did your contact mention family members?’..
Chang said, ‘We don’t know of any family members.’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said… (p.352)

The deliberate reduction of the complex and multi-faceted human activity of speaking, questioning, answering, discussing and joking down to one monotonously reiterated word – ‘said’-  typifies the general strategy of simplification.

All men are ‘guys’. All roads are blacktop. Taxis are taxis. They took a taxi to the hotel. It was part of a chain. The Mothers Rest hard goods store is like hundreds of others. The pharmacy in Chicago is the type you see everywhere.

Hardly anything is really described, certainly not given any detailed vibe or atmosphere. That would require invoking an element of subjectivity on the part of the narrator, that would involve soft, wishy-washy feelings and perceptions and these – in this genre – are banned.

Instead, atmosphere is almost entirely implied by Reacher’s reactions to a situation, sizing up the guy, weighing the odds, calculating the angles.

Paused a beat Hence another characteristic: characters often pause in speaking — pause a beat or, in another common phrase, pause until the silence becomes uncomfortable.

He paused a beat… She was quiet for a long moment, five or six seconds, right to the edge of discomfort. (p.492)

During these pauses the characters – mostly Reacher – are calculating the odds, thinking the problem through.

Which Another mannerism is, after anyone has made a decision or acted a certain way, to have a short sentence starting with ‘which’ and approving it.

Which made sense. (p.349)

Which was a good question. (p.468)

Which was good. (p.457)

If you say it out loud, in a slow tough guy drawl, you can see how it conveys laconic, wise approval. One pro nodding approval of another pro. Good choice. Wise move.

The bloody climax

In the end, you won’t be surprised to learn that the sleepy little ville of Mother’s Rest does indeed contain a gruesome and disgusting secret, a secret so sordid and violent that the townspeople are all jumpy whenever a stranger arrives, and have outsourced ‘protection’ to a Ukrainian mobster, Merchenko, and his hitmen.

(These are the hitmen Reacher deals with in the scene where they invade McCann’s sister’s house in Phoenix – referred to above – which prompts him to track down and coolly execute Merchenko.)

In fact, there turn out to be two secrets, a secret within a secret, which is very effective, in narrative and thriller terms.

As the plot moves along, Westwood introduces Chang and Reacher to a geek who can access the so-called Dark Web, the vast cyberspace with hidden websites and transactions, mainly used for pornography and crime. He is referred to simply as ‘the guy from Palo Alto’ (p.378).

This guy uses the evidence our team have assembled to tell the following story – a middle-aged man named Peter McCann had a 30-year-old son, Michael, with mental health issues who he was concerned about and who had gone missing on a bus journey through Mother’s Rest. McCann made repeat calls to Westwood asking for his help tracking his son down. Why? Because McCann had written an article way back, one he’d more or less forgotten about, on the subject of the Dark Web, and McCann wanted Westwood’s help in delving into it to find out what happened to his son. McCann had discovered that his son was a frequent visitor to dark websites concerned with suicide.

The guy from Palo Alto confirms all this and goes on to discover that it looks like Michael made a pact with someone he met on the Dark Web to go to Mother’s Rest and be euthanised.

In other words, the dark secret behind the sleepy little town, is that a dozen or so of its inhabitants have set up a euthanasia centre on a remote farm a dozen miles outside of town. Here customers can commit suicide in a number of ways. The guy from Palo Alto tracks down a hidden brochure which lists the methods: injection of poison, carbon monoxide piped into a peaceful room to nice music etc.

Having discovered all this Reacher and Chang return to Mother’s Rest along with Westwood, pretty sure there will be a welcoming committee and there is. The ten or so men in the euthanasia syndicate have posted lookouts around the town and are waiting with guns.

There is a very bloody shootout. Reacher and Chang lure out of the stronghold, cosh and tie up five of the baddies, before the situation degenerates into a prolonged shoutout with the other five.

Despite being trapped in a large shed-like building with the baddies firing rifle bullets through the thin walls, our heroes survive unscathed, while despatching all five of the armed baddies. Lucky, eh?

It is only during the shootout that they discover there is an even darker side, to the euthanasia setup than they had originally thought. I won’t give it away, partly because it’s so disgusting, partly because… you should read it yourself!

Reacher is a calculating machine

By page 492 – in among the violence, the pared-back prose style, the inevitable championship sex between Chang and Reacher and the incredible fluency and mobility of American life (on one level the book is a blizzard of planes and trains and coaches and taxis and hotels and gold cards) –  I kept being struck by the surprisingly Darwinian nature of its worldview.

The longer it goes on the more you realise that Reacher is a calculating machine – not doing sums, but calculating the odds of everything. What is really going on in Mother’s Rest, why does a shopkeeper glimpsed through a window move his arm (phoning someone?), what are his chances with Chang, how will the assassin in the doorway move next, how accurate will the shooters with their M16 rifles be – and so on. He never stops. He is permanently calculating the odds and possibilities of everything.

Some of this is unconscious. On a number of occasions Child tells us that Reacher is calculating something with the frontal, conscious part of his mind – but meanwhile, the unconscious back part is making its own split-second decisions – what he refers to several times as ‘the lizard brain’.

A forty per cent chance, the back of Reacher’s brain told him, immediately and automatically… (p.332)

Then the guy in the yard opened the slider and stepped inside, and the back of Reacher’s brain showed him the whole chess game right there, laid out, obvious, in flashing neon arrows, in immense and grotesque detail… (p.327)

Meanwhile the guy [Reacher has just shot] was going down vertically, as if he had stepped into an elevator shaft, and Reacher was turning fractionally left, from the waist, shoulders braced, looking for the third-base guy, the furthest away, because some back-of-the-brain calculation was telling him the guy had a better line of fire… (p.337)

It’s like being inside the brain of a cheetah or a leopard, stalking its prey on the savannah, permanently calculating, continually alert to its next move.

At one point Reacher is described as a predator poised above the waterhole. This is exactly what he feels like all the way through. When not being pressed he is gentlemanly and courteous, to old ladies or women like Chang. But when at all pressed, he turns into super-predator, an unrivalled calculator of the odds for fighting and surviving and beating all the opposition in sight.

He’s not just tall and strong and trained to kill in twenty ways. He is a super-predator, a quintessence of the hunter-killer instinct which the biologists tell us is inside all of us.

Which, according to the blurbs, men want to be, and women want to shag – in order to have babies by him, in order to be protected by him.

The heartlessness of American life

Where does Reacher get his money from? There seems to be no end to the train tickets, hire cars, airplane flights, hotel rooms and taxis, taxis everywhere. Credit cards, cell phones, the internet, shiny hire cars, the rich doctor in his gated community, the party by the pool, power breakfasts, brunch in diners, dinners in restaurants – to me there is a sickening surfeit of wealth.

In their films and fictions, Americans seem to take it for granted that they can go anywhere, do anything, eat anything, shoot anyone. By and large Americans don’t realise how rich and privileged they are.

Which makes the contrast with the sickening sadism, violence and general heartlessness of almost the characters so upsetting and disturbing. The novel opens with a murder, there’s a lull while Chang and Reacher slowly uncover the powder trail leading to the gruesome truth – and then a steady increase in tempo of the opponents Reacher has to blow apart, behead, execute and generally eviscerate.

For me there’s an umbilical connection between the two: The casual way they accept the train tickets, plane flights, hire cars, identikit hotel rooms, everything is described in solely functional terms, as expressions of wish and desire. I wanna go there. I’ll getta plane. I’ll hire a car. I’ll getta taxi. I want, I get.

The characters apply the same instrumental mindset to each other. You’re in my way. I gotta kill you. Sorry it ain’t personal, it’s business. I’m being paid to execute you, sorry but a job’s a job.

In the scene where the assassins burst in on Chang and Reacher talking to McCann’s sister and her family, the assassins – once they’ve lined the good guys all up on the sofa – proceed to share the fact that they’re upset: they were paid to kill three people (Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister) and now they’re confronted with five people. Well, that’s just not fair, is it? If they gotta kill five they want more money. I mean you would too, right? Am I right?

Presumably this scene is meant to be funny. In fact it’s the delay while the assassins try to figure out which of the five people in front of them are the three they’ve been sent to assassinate – Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister (well, Chang being Chinese is easy enough, but they’re uncertain about the other two) that allows Reacher, with his lizard brain, to contrive a strategy which evens up the odds enough for him to tackle all three assassins and – lucky as usual – to go from sitting on a sofa completely unarmed, to getting the better of three armed assassins. What a guy.

It’s possible to enjoy books like this for the thrill of the narrative, for its tongue-in-cheek hard man prose, for its ridiculous love scenes – but still be appalled by the insight they give into a society which has been hollowed out and lost all its humanity.

Every possible facility of advanced twenty-first century life is laid on for these Americans. And yet, with a kind of tragic inevitability, books like this show how having everything has somehow withered Americans’ humanity and turned them into killing machines. Not every American is a soulless killer, obviously. But our time does seem to be witnessing a plague of mass shootings by Americans with plenty of guns and no soul whatsoever.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1934)

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘You made it up. There aren’t any people like that. What’s the matter with them? Are they the first of a new race of monsters?’
‘I just tell you what happens; I don’t explain it.’ (p.100)

After four novels of hard-faced no-nonsense brutality and cunning (as well as the fifty or so short stories he wrote from 1922 to 34 or so) who’d have expected Hammett’s fifth (and final) novel would be a comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that. It’s a return to the first person narrator (as in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse) but transformed into the voice and character of Nick Charles who is an affable forty-one year-old ex-detective who lazes round in top hotels on the money of his charming and loaded wife, Nora, going to parties and drinking almost continually.

He is reluctantly dragged back into the detective business when the daughter of a former client turns up (Dorothy Wynant), helplessly drunk, her mother (Mimi) is revealed as a violent hysteric, her stepfather (Jorgensen) tries to hit on her and the aforementioned client (eccentric inventor Howard Wynant) is implicated in shooting his secretary (Julia Wolf) to death and, to cap it all, a hoodlum sent by a former client, bursts in to their luxury hotel room and tries to shoot him. It’s the she secretary shooting that becomes the core of a standard murder mystery.

Whodunnit? Nick has to find out and the text consists of decreasing amount of action and increasing amounts of theory-spinning as all the characters behave suspiciously while weaving complicated theories implicating each other. The plot itself is relatively simple but the theory spinning eventually becomes rather tiresome. But it’s not the plot, it’s the nonchalant savoir faire and humorous banter, particularly between Nick and Nora, which make this a genuinely amusing read.

Nora screwed up her dark eyes at me and asked slowly: ‘What are you holding out on me?’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you. Dorothy is really my daughter. I didn’t know what I was doing, Nora. It was spring in Venice and I was so young and there was a moon over the – ‘
‘Be funny. Don’t you want something to eat?’ (Penguin 1961 paperback edition, p.18)

Hammett uses the same approach as the previous novels ie little or no direct access to the characters’ thoughts instead deploying predominantly dialogue or the description of externals – rooms, clothes, appearances, facial expressions. But whereas in the predecessors the dialogue was hard-edged and designed to show the characters’ alienation from each other, indifference to each other, here the tone – even if venturing for spells into tough guy stuff with cops or crims – always returns to the comfy banter between the married couple at the heart of it, or to Nick’s deadpan jokiness.

So far I had known just where I stood on the Wolf-Wynant-Jorgensen troubles and what I was doing – the answers were, respectively, nowhere and nothing. (p.28)

The confidante

It is just so damned handy to have a partner or confidente, someone the protagonist-hero-detective can share his thinking with, who can pick him up and dust him down and encourage and support. A sidekick, someone to spar with. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Holmes has Watson; pairing wise guy Nick who knows his way round the underworld with smart socialite Nora, for whom the dark underbelly is a revelation, is a clever manouevre. Violence or plot twists which just seems random and therefore alienating in Falcon and Key, can here be situated and contextualised by being explained to Nora. Even if there isn’t an exact explanation – at least we know there isn’t an exact explanation, instead of being puzzled by random and often brutal violence as we often were in the previous novels.

Nora was wide-eyed and amazed. ‘It’s a madhouse,’ she said. ‘What’d they do that for?’
‘You know as much about it as I do,’ I told her…
‘Listen, you’ve got to tell me what happened – everything. Not now, tomorrow. I don’t understand a thing that was said or a thing that was done.’ (pp.118-119)

Movie versions

When it’s not disappearing into more and more complicated theory-spinning, The Thin Man has the feel of the wisecracking movies of the period, all fix-me-another-drink-dahling. It comes as no surprise to discover it was not only made into a movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (1934) but that the movie was so popular it spawned no fewer than five sequels which were appearing well into the 1940s.

American boozing

Part of the humour – or the humorous backdrop to the comedy – is the couple’s continuous and compulsive drinking, partying and eating out. Reminds me of F Scott Fitzgerald.

‘My nice policeman wants to see you,’ she said. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober.’ (p.47)

‘Where’d you get the skinful?’
‘It’s Alice. She’s been sulking for a week. If I didn’t drink I’d go crazy.’
‘What’s she sulking about?’
‘About my drinking.’ (p.104)

‘How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?’
‘Why don’t you stay sober today?’
‘We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.’ (p.143)

Must have been an incongruous vibe during the depths of the Depression to be putting out fictions about humongously rich people leading boozy lifestyles, parties, opening nights, jazz… Then again, taken as a consumer product, this novel is more like the fantasies of Hollywood which were at their most silken and sparkly when the Depression was at its bleakest. Entertainment. Distraction. Fantasy.

She laughed… ‘Still want to leave for San Francisco tomorrow?’
‘Not unless you’re in a hurry. Let’s stick around for a while. This excitement has put us behind in our drink.’ (p.189)

The Thin Man

Turns out the missing scientist they’re all looking for, who remains elusive despite his phone calls, letters and fleeting visits: he was always very tall and thin but Nick is the first to realise he’s dead.

‘What was that joke about a guy being so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?’
I laughed – not at the joke – and said: ‘Wynant’s not that thin, but he’s thin enough, say as thin as the paper in that cheque and in this letters people have been getting.’
‘What’s that Guild demanded, his face reddening, his eyes angry and suspicious.
‘He’s dead. He’s been dead a long time except on paper.’ (p.179)

Songs mentioned in the text

“Though her life was merry (though her life was merry)
She had savoir-ferry (lots of savoir-ferry)”

Related link

Stylish Penguin paperback cover of The Thin Man

Stylish Penguin paperback cover of The Thin Man

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett (1931)

Ned Beaumont did not say anything. His face was expressionless. (p.153)

Narrated in the third person, this feels like a further move away from Hammett’s origins in that, yes it involves crime and murder, but it is not focused on a detective solving the crimes and leading us through the maze of misleading information to a clear understanding of events, as were his first three novels.

It’s more an exploration of the world of Ned Beaumont (‘Im a gambler and a politician’s hanger-on’ p.155), a tough fixer for gang-leader-going-straight Paul Madvig, who’s running an election campaign when the son of the Senator they’re supporting is found dead and all his enemies start blaming it on Madvig. Beaumont:

  • follows a crooked bookie who owes him money to New York, gets beaten up before framing the bookie & getting his money
  • tries to get to the bottom of the murder of Senator’s son Taylor Henry
    • finding out who’s sending anonymous letters blaming Paul
    • dealing with the newspaper editor who’s going to print a front page exposé of Paul
    • when the editor commits suicide, going to extreme lengths to get the next day’s revelations canned
  • gets kidnapped and badly beaten by the thugs of rival gangster Shad O’Rory
  • manages the spineless District Attorney’s handling of the case
  • deals with the Senator’s daughter, Janet, who Madvig loves but who hates him
  • goads the psychopath Jeff into strangling O’Rory

Style

Again there’s an odd discrepancy between the street slang of the characters and the sometimes ornate vocabulary and rather mannered style of the narrating voice.

1. Slang terms

  • buzzer = police badge (p.31)
  • licked = beaten (p.31)
  • take a Mickey Finn = leave in the lurch (p.32)
  • unkdray = too much booze, hungover (p.46)
  • drop the shuck on someone = frame them (p.49)
  • keysters = (p.83)
  • ducat = ticket (p.83)
  • smeared = closed, shut down (p.85)
  • iron = car (p.127)
  • it’s a pipe that = it’s a certainty that (p.169)
  • roscoe = gun (p.197)
  • screw = depart (p.198) cf blow

2. Mannered narrator

His walnut desk-top was empty except for a telephone and a large desk-set of green onyx whereon a nude metal figure holding aloft an airplane stood on one foot… (p.58)

Farr smote his desk again. (p.63)

Ned Beaumont’s mien had become sympathetic when he transferred his gaze to the shorter man’s china-blue eyes. (p.66) Alarm joined astonishment in her mien. (p.123) Though he was attentive there was no curiosity in his mien. (p.148) The round-faced youth to whom he said it left the outer office, returning a minute later apologetic of mien. (p.163) There was as little of weakness in her voice as in her mien. (p.202)

Silence was between them awhile then. (p.86)

Ned Beaumont looked, with brown eyes wherein hate was a dull glow that came from beneath the surface, at the card players and began to get out of bed. (p.94)

When it became manifest that he was not going to speak she said earnestly… (p.107)

She drew away from his hand and fixed him with severe penetrant eyes again. (p.119)

Her blue eyes wherein age did not show became bright and keen. (p.123)

These are deliberate choices, out-dated vocabulary, Victorian phraseology. It’s odd that a style which goes out of its way to be like this can be considered the father of the hard-boiled style when it is in fact a little ornate and mannered.

What does ‘hard-boiled’ mean?

The plot isn’t particularly violent (to be precise: Ned gets hit in New York, then imprisoned & badly beaten by Shad’s men; Taylor Henry is knocked over, fractures his skull and dies; the newspaper editor Mathews shoots himself; the drunk psychopath Jeff strangles his boss O’Rory; Opal, Paul’s sister, slashes her wrists – it’s nothing compared to the earlier bloodbaths).

It isn’t a formal detective story at all since there are no detectives involved (though the mystery of Taylor Henry’s death does come to dominate more and more).

The style doesn’t have the dazzling panache, the tough guy charisma, of Raymond Chandler.

What Falcon and this one have in common – and what ‘hard-boiled’ may mean in practice – is that they both completely and utterly exclude any insight into the minds of the characters. Everything psychological is rigorously excluded for the text. When I compare it with the hundreds of pages of Graham Greene’s novels devoted to nothing but the characters’ thoughts and memories and feelings and impressions and anxieties and fears – Hammett’s novels seem like fleshless skeletons. There isn’t a flicker of warmth or humanity about them.

Instead of any of the thoughts and feelings you associate with the novel, you get minute and detailed descriptions of the outside of the characters: of the precise movements of every part of their bodies; exactly how they roll a cigarette or open a door; exactly what every part of their body does in a fight, with lecture-hall anatomical precision; and minute descriptions of their faces, especially the changing expressions of their eyes.

Mechanical habits: Thus Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon has a way of pinching his lower lip between thumb and forefinger (a mannerism portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie); in Key Ned is given the habit of brushing his moustache with a thumbnail (eg p.175, 187).

Robots

The reader is challenged to figure out what is going on in everyone’s minds from this external evidence alone. Initially this is a challenge but quite quickly I relapsed into the odd sensation that I was observing robots. They talk. They move. But they appear to have no insides at all.

Ned Beaumont’s face, after a grimace of rage at the closed door, became heavily thoughtful. Lines came into his forehead. His dark eyes grew narrow and introspective. His lips puckered up under his moustache. Presently he put a finger to his mouth and bit a nail. He breathed regularly, but with more depth than usual. (p.116)

He became thoughtful. But we are not told what he is thinking about. We are never told what he is thinking about. Nowhere in the entire novel do we learn what Ned is thinking about. Instead we are given details of his breathing patterns. This epitomises the No Depth, Only Surfaces modality which Hammett has adopted. Is it this, this deliberate rejection of the humanist tradition of the novel which developed over three centuries to explore people’s feelings and psyches with growing subtlety and insight – this rejection which makes these books ‘hard-boiled’?

Ned Beaumont’s eyes widened a little, but only for a moment. His face lost some of its colour and his breathing became irregular. There was no change in his voice. (p.119)

It could be said that Hammett is more interested in his characters’ physiology than in their thoughts. Their thoughts are concealed within the black box of his prose. All we get is unnecessarily detailed descriptions of their precise physical movements. Sam Spade attacking Joel Cairo or pulling Wilmer’s coat down over his arms to get his guns are good examples from The Maltese Falcon. Here, Janet Henry has just heard her father accused of murder.

For a moment Janet Henry was still as her father. Then a look of utter horror came into her face and she sat down slowly on the floor. She did not fall. She slowly bent her knees and sank down on the floor in a sitting position, leaning to the right, her right hand on the floor for support, her horrified face turned up to her father and Ned Beaumont. (p.211)

Not now or at any other time are we told anything about her feelings at this devastating revelation. We simply see her crumpling like a broken marionette described very precisely.

Nothingness

Again and again and again the narration emphasises that these people acting like robots have no feelings, no emotions, no investment in what they’re saying or doing. Is it this emotional coolness, this nullity of affect, which makes these novels ‘hard-boiled’? It is as if the text is hypnotised, rotates around, gravitates towards, and is continually trying to achieve this state of emptiness. Blankness. Nothingness.

He rose from the sofa and crossed to the fireplace to drop the remainder of his cigar into the fire. When he returned to his seat he crossed his long legs and leaned back at ease. ‘The other side thinks it’s good politics to make people think that,’ he said. There was nothing in his voice, his face, his manner to show that he had any personal interest in what he was talking about. (p.149)

Ned Beaumont was looking with eyes that held no particular expression at the blond man and his voice was matter-of-fact. (p.169)

Ned Beaumont nodded. His face had suddenly become empty of all expression except hard concentration on Madvig’s words. (p.171)

Jack said nothing. His face told nothing of his thoughts. (p.186)

Janet stirred, but did not rise from the floor. Her face was blank. (p.212)

Related links

Pulp cover of The Glass Key

Pulp cover of The Glass Key

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) Drastically different in feel from the previous two murder-fests and told in the third person: detective Sam Spade solves the mystery of three murders surrounding a mysterious jewel-encrusted medieval statuette, and deals with the colourful trio of crooks who are prepared to kill for it: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman.
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931) The adventures of Ned Beaumont, fixer for reformed gangster Paul Madvig, as he copes with a rival gangster, a corrupt DA, a pliant newspaper editor, and various difficult dames in the run-up to an election Paul must win.
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

‘You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, “Be generous, Mr Spade.”‘ (p.404)

He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretence that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. (p.421)

Like its two predecessors, Hammett’s third novel The Maltese Falcon was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask (between September 1929 and January 1930) before being published as a one-volume novel later the same year. Unlike its two predecessors it doesn’t feature the unnamed Continental Operative as detective-hero, instead introducing Sam Spade.

Third person

The Continental Op stories are told in the first person. We overhear the Op thinking through his cases or explaining that he’s putting on this or that facial expression for his interlocutors, we watch him figuring out, guessing, taking a punt, speculating.

In contrast, the Falcon is told in the third person and this makes a real difference. We are on the outside and Hammett doesn’t give us any of the characters’ thoughts. Instead we get much more detailed descriptions of their faces and expressions and eyes than in the earlier books. Lots more. And we have to figure things out for ourselves.

For example, in the second part of the second chapter, ‘Death in the fog’, the police lieutenant, Dundy, and the detective, Tom, make an unwanted call on Spade’s apartment at 4 in the morning to push him about his partner’s murder. If it had been the first-person Continental Op we’d have been overhearing all his thoughts and calculations. But it’s in the third person so all we get is dialogue, the disposition of bodies and detailed descriptions of faces, as the two men try to outplay each other.

This approach allows much more scope for our interpretation of what’s going on, more scope for ambiguity and uncertainty, making it a much more complex and stimulating read. I’ve read comments praising Hammett’s dialogue but it’s more than a question of dialogue alone, it’s the sentences which describe the facial expressions around the dialogue which give it its power. It’s like a rally in tennis or a ballet. Thus:

The Lieutenant looked at his glass for a dozen seconds, took a very small sip of its contents, and put the glass on the table at his elbow. He examined the room with hard deliberate eyes, and then looked at Tom… Tom moved uncomfortably on the sofa and, not looking up, asked… The Lieutenant put his hands on his knees and leant forward. His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button… Spade smiled and waved his empty glass a little… ‘What do you want, Dundy?’ he asked in a voice hard and cold as his eyes. Lieutenant Dundy’s eyes had moved to maintain their focus on Spade’s. Only his eyes had moved… Spade made a depreciative mouth, raising his eyebrows… He stopped smiling. His upper lip, on the left side, twitched over his eyetooth. His eyes became narrow and sultry… Placidity came back to Spade’s face and voice… Lieutenant Dundy sat down and put his hands on his knees again. His eyes were warm green discs… He smiled with grim content… The wariness went out of Spade’s eyes. He made his eyes dull with boredom. He turned his face round to Tom and asked with great carelessness… Spade nodded. His face was stupid in its calmness… ‘I know where I stand now,’ he said, looking with friendly eyes from one of the police detectives to the other… Spade looked at him and smiled, holding the finished cigarette in one hand… Dundy looked with hard green eyes at Spade and did not answer him… Spade looked at the Lieutenant with yellow-grey eyes that held an almost exaggerated amount of candour… ‘We’ve asked what we came to ask,’ Dundy said, frowning over eyes hard as green pebbles… (Picador Four Great Novels edition pp.388-393)

Having a third person narrator, being on the outside of the characters and limiting himself to only reporting, in detail, the changes in their faces, expressions and eyes, paradoxically makes Falcon a much more psychological novel. Whereas the Op told us what he was thinking and when he was lying, here we have to piece it together from the outside, only from what Hammett shows us, which gives the whole text a much greater sense of psychological depth.

The merits of the respective plots play a part (Falcon is just a much better story), but I think it’s also the new-found depth derived from this approach which make the Falcon so much more appealing, more read, better known and more frequently filmed (three times) than the first two novels.

More literary?

In Harvest and Dain a lot of the reader’s effort went into, was designed to go into, trying to figure out the complexities of the plot and the characters’ motivations, before – that is – they were laid bare by the narrator in the concluding, Wind-Up chapter (in the classic detective novel style). This put them towards the pulp, genre end of the spectrum, with its focus on outlandishly complex plot machinations.

Here there is still a lot of plot, but the interest has shifted to trying to suss out the characters moment by moment in scenes which are written with much more interest in the detail of moment by moment flickers of emotion, feeling, intelligence over faces described only from the outside. Sure there’s an overarching crime plot – but there’s a lot more going on in each individual scene, a lot more portrayal of mood and personality and psychology. And this puts Falcon towards the literature end of the spectrum.

The eyes have it

I wrote a long post about the importance of eye imagery in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The same conclusions are true of this novel. Deprived of information from a first person narrator or the knowledge that comes from free indirect speech (where the text depicts the character’s thoughts as if reported by a narrator; Greene uses it all the time) we are put in the same position as the characters, having to suss out the other’s motivation from their facial expressions alone, of which the most acute and revealing facet is the expression around the eyes – smiling, hard, crying, cruel, cold etc.

So, chapter four describes Spade’s visit to Mrs Wonderley aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy who slowly reveals a bit more of the secret, and their sparring is depicted in the dialogue, of course, but also in their facial expressions and particularly in the state of their eyes.

His smile brought a fainter smile to her face… Her eyes, of blue that walmost violet, did not lose their troubled look… Spade smiled a polite smile which she did not lift her eyes to see… she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes… Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes… Her eyes suddenly lighted up… Her face had become haggard around desperate eyes… She squirmed on her end of the settee and her eyes wavered between heavy lashes, as if trying and failing to free their gaze from his… (pp.401-403)

The same happens at every dialogue, that is throughout the book, on almost every page: the play of facial expressions and especially the state of the eyes reveals/conceals just as much as the spoken words. There was less in the first two books because there was so much action, shooting and blasting.

  • Sam Spade: yellow-grey eyes (p.408) ‘His eyes were shiny in a wooden satan’s face.’ (p.423)
  • Effie Perine: brown eyes (p.396)
  • Brigid O’Shaughnessy: cobalt-blue eyes (p.375) ‘Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.’ (p.423)
  • Lieutenant Dundy: hard green eyes (p.392)
  • Casper Gutman: dark and sleek (p.466) ‘The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.’ (p.469)
  • Joel Cairo: black eyes (p.538)
  • Wilmer Cook: small hazel eyes (p.456) ‘The boy’s eyes were cold hazel gleams under his lashes.’ (p.534)
  • Luke the hotel detective: crafty brown eyes (p.457)

Spade is sexy

The Continental Op emphasised to twenty-year-old Gabrielle Leggett that he was old, middle-aged, forty, and past making a pass at her. He is very close to Dinah Bird in Harvest but never makes a move on her or even contemplates it for a second.

By contrast Sam Spade is sexy, looking ‘rather pleasantly like a blond satan’. He is the regulation six foot tall and

  • he has a comfortably flirtatious relationship with his secretary
  • he has been having an affair with his partner’s wife
  • he handles Miss O’Shaughnessy’s passes at him with savoir faire until he decides to go ahead and sleep with her
  • he pats the secretary at the hotel’s shoulder in a calm confident way

He is portrayed as knowing his way around women, how to manage and handle women, in a way the Op couldn’t. He has a free, easy and confident way with women as with men, as with life. However, he himself says there is a problem with his attitude which is that he only really knows how to flirt with women, implying he doesn’t know how to treat them as just people; whether his Miss Moneypenny-ish relationship with his secretary Effie proves or disproves this is open to debate.

If you were to indict him, central would be the way he betrays Brigid after sleeping with her (and making her strip naked in his apartment to search her) – though he has by that time established that she shot his partner dead in cold blood. And then there’s his shabby treatment of his partner’s widow, Iva – though that seems realistically messy. Nobody’s claiming he’s a saint.

From the outside

Over the course of the novel it becomes very striking how deliberately Hammett describes all the humans in it from the outside as if they’re robots. He describes their movements as if observing animals, pedantically noting every move and flicker. This has a very unsettling effect. Take this, Spade furtively unlocking his office door in case there are intruders inside:

He put his hand to the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no further; the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in. (p.490)

Maybe it’s meant to be building up tension, but the basic idea – he unlocked the door carefully – needn’t have been described this meticulously nor stretched out to this length. Why do it? For the immediacy? To make the reader feel like they’re watching every minute movement? And the same technique is applied to scenes with no tension, when he’s kissing Brigid or rolling a cigarette or sitting on a chair. All described in pedantic and very externalised detail.

If the above is a description of a purely physical act, the following is a small example of what happens in almost every dialogue ie Hammett not only records the words spoken, but describes in minute detail the physical behaviour of each of the participants.

 Spade said, ‘Yes,’ very lazily. His face was sombre. He touched his lower lip with a finger, looked at the finger, and then scratched the back of his neck with it. Little irritable lines had appeared in his forehead. He blew his breath out heavily through his nose and his voice was an ill-humoured growl. ‘You wouldn’t want the kind of information I could give you, Bryan.’ (p.506)

Vocabulary

There’s two or three slang terms in the novel (‘fog’ = kill p.537) but the switch to the third person has allowed Hammett to drop a lot of the patois which the Continental Op used in his racy narration. The slang now only occurs in the dialogue of the characters. Something that stands out on a handful of occasions is Hammett’s use of unusually formal, technical and Latinate vocabulary. It’s as if he wanted to distance himself from his pulp milieu, or was experimenting with a more detached vocabulary, complimenting the more detached, external, objective style of description mentioed above.

  • an ellipsoid p.513
  • incoordinate steps p.518
  • in her mien was pride p.551

Related links

Edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Cover of the September 1929 edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

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) Drastically different in feel from the previous two murder-fests and told in the third person: detective Sam Spade solves the mystery of three murders surrounding a mysterious jewel-encrusted medieval statuette, and deals with the colourful trio of crooks who are prepared to kill for it: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman.
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

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)
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