Reading Material: March 2008

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Cairo, speaking with difficulty because of the fingers on his throat, said: “This is the second time you’ve put hands on me.” His eyes, though the throttling pressure on his throat made them bulge, were cold and menacing. “Yes,” Spade growled. “And when you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” He released Cairo’s wrist and with a thick open hand struck the side of his face three times, savagely. Cairo tried to spit in Spade’s face, but the dryness of the Levantine’s mouth made it only an angry gesture. Spade slapped the mouth, cutting the lower lip.

The Maltese Falcon is widely considered not just a high-water mark in the history of mysteries and crime fiction, but a first-of-its-kind example of the hard-boiled detective novel. Hammett certainly has the stuff for literary fiction — the language is blunt but reflective of fairly complex psychology, the story dense and detailed. The impact of the story is softened somewhat by a necessary familiarity with the circumstances — film buffs already know the story behind Miss Brigid O’Shaughnessy (née Wonderly), the big Mr. Gutman and the effeminate Mr. Cairo. It’s hard to get Humphrey Bogart’s iconic portrayal of detective Sam Spade out of mind, but the character on the page is a somewhat rougher, more tightly wound tough guy than Bogie’s generally relaxed portrayal suggests. (“He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” Hammett explains in the opening paragraph.) The book’s most shocking passage, for me, involves Spade’s sadistic beatdown of the homosexual Mr. Cairo, quoted above — I can guess how that played to readers in 1930, but fortunately, there’s nuance to the gay-baiting. Spade is badly frustrated by his woman problems — he suffers from the fallout from an affair with his partner’s wife, and maybe already from the creeping notion that chahe’ll eventually have to send Brigid up the river — and asserts himself sexually in part by lashing out at the token queer. (Despite treatment that borders on outright mockery, Mr. Cairo is eventually developed as an honorable and likable character.) That twisted idea of what it means to be a man contributes to an intricate, surprising, and well-crafted novel with a quiet but harrowing emotional climax.

After the jump: Chandler, Bulgakov, and (Laurie) King

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler


to Hammett, Chandler is a minimalist (and compared to Sam Spade, Philip

Marlowe is a humanist). Though the plots are similarly complex,

Chandler’s pages flit past your eyes at breakneck speed, punctuated by

terrific witty dialogue, characterized by a splendid sense of place,

and inhabited by a decidedly more sympathetic private dick. The Big Sleep is among the greatest of all films noirs,

and even though that movie had a killer screenwriting team, it’s

interesting to see how much of its charge was already present in the

source material — immortal movie lines like “I don’t mind if you don’t

like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve

over them long winter evenings” are pure Chandler. Some passages sneak

up on you, culminating in a wicked turn of phrase or a startling turn

of events that demands an immediate re-reading. I wouldn’t be surprised

if The Big Sleep, is Chandler’s unparalleled triumph of form

and content, but it’s pretty satisfying to see him making a conscious

decision in the follow-up, Farewell My Lovely, to stretch out

and explore new territory. It includes a long, druggy scene in which

Marlowe must recover quickly after having a heavy-duty mickey slipped

to him, as well as a lengthy departure from the L.A. city streets for a

midnight rendezvous aboard a big, dark, and dangerous gambling ship

floating in the Pacific Ocean, secure from the long arm of the law.

This section of the book, in which Marlowe gains passage from a helpful

gentle-eyed mammoth of a man who knows his way around the water, is

relaxed and evocative, perfectly descriptive and transporting — an

immensely satisfying curveball thrown about seven innings into a

perfect game.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov’s dark, magical fantasy recounts the epic havoc

visited upon Moscow during a five-day-long visit from the devil and his

retinue. The devil goes after the writers first, foretelling an atheist

literary-magazine editor’s death under the wheels of a streetcar,

teleporting the deceased’s roommate to Yalta, and then moving into his

apartment with a posse that includes the fat black cat Behemoth — who

walks on his hind legs, speaks, and enjoys vodka. Turns out the devil

puts on a bloody good magic show and throws one hell of a party. During

the first section of the book, Bulgakov uses an avuncular, ingratiating

prose style — you can imagine the narrator sitting scross the drawing

room from you, scrunching up a cherubic face and grinning as he details

the devil’s antics, by turns amusing and gruesome and sometimes both.

But those sections are interspersed with chapters from a historical

novel dealing with Pontius Pilate and Jesus written by the book’s

titular master, now consigned to rot in an asylum, that are more direct

and descriptive, if no less lyrical. And the book’s second section is

largely the story of Margarita, the master’s forlorn mistress, whom the

devil turns into a beautiful witch who acts as hostess for Satan’s

grand ball.

Bulgakov’s satire of life in Communist Russia is

fairly broad, with his general contempt for the artists who bought into

state-sponsored atheism easy to parse. But subtleties abound — his

extension of Soviet-era paranoia into the master’s politically charged

retelling of the Jesus story is both sly and potent, with intriguing

parallels developing between the contemporary story and the

quasi-Biblical narrative. The novel hits its powerful stride in the

long section dealing with Margarita’s nude flight over Moscow and the

Russian countryside — maybe its most vivid and fanciful passage — and

her duties as the devil’s hostess, standing atop an impossibly long

staircase to greet a parade of notorious murderers. The book’s final

chapters were unfinished by Bulgakov in his lifetime, but they still

provide a powerful emotional climax that ties the two worlds together.

It is, finally, a work of immense imagination, with its wide-ranging

vision of lives lived in the shadows of private heavens and hells

offering an ornate frame for the highly sardonic political satire at

its core. It’s tempting to imagine the movie that could be made of

this, but doing it right would take big Hollywood money and probably

demand an R rating — a PG-13 would require a fairly light touch with

the violence and a panoply of fig leafs — so I won’t hold my breath. A

recent 10-part miniseries created for Russian television adheres

closely to the letter of Bulgakov’s text, but it’s obviously limited in

its budget and unimaginative in its staging.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

If I had known such a breezily entertaining,

page-turning latter-day Sherlock Holmes novel was already on bookstore

shelves, I never would have bothered with Caleb Carr’s faithful but

dramatically inert Arthur Conan Doyle pastiche, The Italian Secretary.

The main character here is Mary Russell, a nerdy teenager who discovers

that a quasi-retired Holmes is her neighbor in the English countryside.

The fussy Holmes is intriged by Russell’s smarts and keenly analytic

mind, and becomes her mentor; before long, of course, they have

embarked together on a great and dangerous adventure. King successfully

reimagines Holmes as he might be seen today, of a piece with the

original stories but somewhat apart from his original portrayal through

the eyes of sidekick Watson. It’s been a while since I read such a

rousing mystery yarn — reading

the final chapters, I was pawing breathlessly through the pages —

especially one with not one but two completely compelling protagonists.

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