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Black Lamb

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Shamuses, horses, & queers — oh, my!

June 1st, 2012

The Black Lamb Review of Books IX

BY TERRY ROSS

As editor, I have often taken advantage of our mid-year book issue to comment on my own reading since the previous Christmas, and this issue is no exception. Between that holiday and the New Year, I reread Jaimy Gordon’s She Drove Without Stopping (1990), a novel that had mightily impressed me when I read it shortly after its publication. Then I gobbled up her The Lord of Misrule, which won the National Book Award in 2010. Ms. Gordon can write: She Drove is rather a tour-de-force, demonstrating a lively narrative gift with a fresh use of language. Misrule is a brilliant, vivid evocation of the world of small-time racetrack claiming races: the characters, the horses, the barns. At the center is a female who doesn’t belong, Maggie, who spends a season or two experiencing the crookedness, violence, and fascination of the track. Gordon’s writing, garnished in a few places by “literary” quotations and often by bits of writing that say “See how much I’ve read?”, is nevertheless remarkable. Her use of slang and Negro dialect and low-class elocutions seems sometimes extremely authentic and sometimes superimposed. This is a very curious book but above all a genuine page-turner, centered on four races, four horses, and a very well delineated cast of characters.


In the spirit of reading authors whom I’d never read, I took up Russell Banks’s Lost Memory of Skin, his latest book, which is about a young man (The Kid) who has been busted for a sexual crime that he didn’t commit and finds himself a homeless man wearing an ankle transmitter and obliged to stay 1,000 yards away from anyplace where children may gather, which means living under a highway bridge in a town on the Gulf of Mexico or florida coast. A professor of sociology doing research on the homeless intrudes into his tent town of sex offenders, and this prof has a past of his own. The writing is very accomplished, except that Banks tends to jump around a lot with point of view, sometimes awkwardly, which is surprising in such a capable author. The tension and suspense are skillfully maintained until the end.

I’d been meaning to read Elizabeth Taylor (the writer, not the film star) for several years, and finally jumped in with the eleventh of her twelve novels (she died in 1975 at the age of sixty-three), Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. This is the brief story of a widow of some means who moves into a residence hotel for retirees in London. The unsentimental portrayal of her and her four or five fellow residents is nevertheless very poignant: their dependence on visits from relatives, on “treats” like outings or picnics, their difficulties in getting around, their fear of falling. Mrs Palfrey, a stout, somewhat mannish, but very well-mannered and honest woman, invents a fake grandson to take the place of her real one, who ignores her. She then encounters a young man, a budding novelist, who plays into the game and becomes genuinely fond of her. Although she dies of pneumonia after being hospitalized for a fall, her last months are made more bearable by this “grandson.” Hers is a small, quiet, sad, and lovely story.

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. Having never read anything by this much-praised author, I picked up the book for a buck at the Cupertino Library sale and got 165 pages into its 438 before I gave up. Yes, the writing is often very pretty, and apropos for its setting, but the world of bumfuckers is just not my cup of tea. I’m sure some readers find this book sexually exciting, but I don’t care for the details of homo sex between men, especially the bottom bits, and I don’t care at all for the world of gay men with its overtones and practices of random sex, with its air of everyone being perpetually in heat and/or ready to swoon with desire, nor the implication that just about every man in the world is at some level a homo and just needs the right approach to succumb. When the sensitive hero, only recently devirginized at twenty-one, takes himself to men’s exercise clubs and gay swimming pools, I found myself putting the book aside with a bad taste in my mouth.

As a heterosexual man, I’ve thought about my reaction to this type of scene, and I don’t think it means very much more than that I don’t find obsessive rutting worth thinking about, except as an example of perverse behavior. In women we used to call this sort of promiscuity nymphomania; in males the term is satyriasis. Why it should be thought permissible in men and not in women is a puzzle to me. Cruisers, whether male or female, certainly have a right to act as they wish, but this hardly makes their actions laudable, or interesting.

The bulk of my winter and spring reading, though, has been in a genre that I had never explored before, the detective novel. As a newcomer, I decided to start with Sherlock Holmes and tackled A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, which I had last read, and enjoyed, when I was twelve years old. I enjoyed it again, not so much for Holmes’s ability to get to the bottom of things as for the depiction of the early Mormons as the merciless and vindictive zealots that they were. This is the best and the most exotic of Doyle’s four Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialized 1901-02), and The Valley of Fear (serialized 1914-15).

The worst is The Sign of the Four, which I read next. It’s worst because a great deal of the action is merely narrated in retrospect at the end, after Holmes has ingeniously captured his man and the man decides there’s no reason not to spill all the beans. Without this implausible finale, the story would remain incomplete. It’s all about a fabulous treasure, which is lost at the bottom of the Thames, and a plot hatched in faraway places. The best thing about it is that Watson meets his wife here and they become espoused. This brief look at the emotional life of one of the Holmes tales’ two main characters is notable, and welcome, despite its rarity.

In fact, subtle examination of the characters seems to be one thing that separates so-called “literary” from so called “genre” fiction. In his essay in this issue, Toby Tompkins says that the Scottish detective writer Ian Rankin is an exception to this rule, and I look forward to getting my teeth into at least some of Rankin’s seventeen Inspector Rebus novels. But the next author on my recent reading list, Dashiell Hammett, can hardly be said to have been much interested in the personality of his shamuses. I read The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Thin Man (1934) and dipped into Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, serialized in 1929. The character of the Continental Op, the detective Hammett based on his own experience as a Pinkerton “operative,” comes across in Red Harvest in a minimal way, as a collection of attitudes without any interior life to speak of. The same is true of Nick Charles, although he is much more amusing, as are the other characters in The Thin Man. Poor Sam Spade got the worst of it, though, because Hammett chose to narrate in the third person, rather than let the detective tell his own story. In the first person, the shamuses describe their worlds, or rather characterize the people and events in their stories, with much more color and wit than Hammett’s third-person. The language is fun in these other books; in The Maltese Falcon, which I’m guessing is the worst of Hammett’s five novels, it’s hackneyed, sometimes embarrassingly so.

The casting for John Huston’s famous movie, by the way, the third(!) film made of this book, was brilliant in most respects, especially the crooks Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr. The dame, Mary Astor, was too old-looking and not sexy enough; she’s about twenty-five in the book, and a knockout. And Bogart was nothing like the book’s tall, muscular, physical, and blond Sam Spade, except in his impassivity.

In these two Hammett books, the various cops and underworld types are well done, if more than a shade on the schematic side. But I am astonished when readers celebrate the sense of place in Hammett, because there is almost none, just the barest occasional detail (fog in San Francisco). In The Thin Man, for example, the New York City setting and the Christmas season figure not at all in the story: there are no cityscapes or holiday plot twists, the New York cops are like San Francisco cops, and the New York cabbies are like San Francisco cabbies. The focus is on plot, plot, plot, with some small attention paid to colorful characters.

Next on my list was Raymond Chandler, whom some, including himself, have regarded as the master. I started with The Big Sleep (1939), my first-ever Chandler and also the first of the novels he wrote. He apparently put it together over a period of three months from stuff he had written for the pulp mags. It made his reputation. I found it similar to Hammett’s The Thin Man, if occasionally more forthcoming about the physical surroundings of its characters. I reckon that Chandler thought he created better, more rounded characters than most other crime writers, but I don’t find the characters here any better in this way than Hammett’s, although they may very well be superior to the ones in Erle Stanley Gardner. The figure of Philip Marlowe is tough, resourceful, extremely clever although poorly educated, and so forth. He also shows a moral side in caring more about his client (an aging retired General) than about money or strict justice.

My second Chandler was The Lady in the Lake (1945). It’s exactly the same sort of thing: another complicated plot, plenty of murders, hard women who know how to wrap men around their fingers (not Marlowe, though), police patter. I found no reason to distinguish it from any other such book. And at this point Chandler’s bon mots and clichés, which are often (but not always) expressed as colorful similes, were beginning to wear on me: “This is the ultimate end [aren’t all ends ultimate?] of the fog belt, and the beginning of that semi-desert region where the sun is as light and dry as old sherry in the morning, as hot as a blast furnace [wasn’t this already a cliché in 1945?] at noon, and drops like an angry brick at nightfall.”

I also read some of Chandler’s writing about writing and writers; it seems he fancied himself a cut above the Hollywood hacks and classed himself, perhaps with Hammett, as also a cut above the other pulp writers. This can be funny, as when a character,
a tough cop, in The Lady in the Lake, marvels at someone using the word “whom” (correctly), says he’s never heard anyone use it before, and wonders why it’s needed. Chandler is endlessly dismissive of Hollywood’s products and thinks good films are all about good screenplays and not much else. But in fact his books, however skillful, are perfectly analogous to Hollywood’s films: they’re flip, shallow, contrived, and have almost nothing to do with real life as most people live it. They’re entertainments, pure and simple. I imagine that half the thrill of these crime books is figuring out the plot and the other half getting a bang out of the slang and tough talk, which the reader has to take for granted was actually ever spoken in America.

Cross the pond to England and you can say goodbye to the tough talk, especially if you restrict your reading to the the Big Two of British detective fiction, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Just for the hell of it, though, I started with another woman, frequently mentioned, apparently, as the third of a triumvirate with Sayers and Christie, Gladys Mitchell, whom I encountered through Lee Randall’s encomium in February’s Black Lamb. I chose St. Peter’s Finger (1938) and read it with interest. The lead characters are amusing: Mrs. Bradley (Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley), Mitchell’s sleuth, and her driver and helper, George. This book, all 330 pages of it, consists of minutiae of the murder case in question, which involves a young girl as victim, stolen art works, and a child (the victim’s cousin) as the murderess. There are no diversions: no bits of historical or cultural information, no pauses to go off in directions not strictly relevant to the plot. In the main, it’s a very entertaining book, but with little actual substance, no matter how cleverly the murder is discovered by Mrs. Bradley, and no matter how interesting it is that Catholic beliefs and the details of nunneries are important to the story.

I next took up Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party (1969), my first-ever Christie/Poirot book, in fact my first-ever Christie. I found it enjoyable. Christie had a good ear for dialogue, and Poirot’s a hoot with his prissiness, his tight shoes, and his outrageous moustaches. The plot here focuses on a murdered girl and an affair between an upright older widow and a devious, beautiful landscape gardener. It all gets rather Attic at the end, or Druidic or something, but after two children are murdered, a third is saved at the last minute by Poirot’s having figured out a tangled web. A major character in the book is one Miss Ariadne Oliver, a well-known writer of murder mysteries. At this point in my limited mystery reading, I’d put Christie ahead of Gladys Mitchell.

And then, Dorothy Sayers and her Strong Poison (1930). This is far from the first of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but it’s the one that introduces Harriet Vane, who will become, presumably, Lord Peter’s wife in future adventures. This time, she herself is accused of murder, and Wimsey gets her off by doing some very arcane research into arsenic. This is my first Sayers, and I love her way with dialogue and her willingness to leave the story for short diversions into arcana. Wimsey is a classic, a sort of slightly less goofy Bertie Wooster who is also very intelligent and well-read. His man, Bunter, is a rather more voluble Jeeves, although just as clever and useful.

Finally, I made a bow to perhaps the most successful detective novelist of all time, Georges Simenon. I chose Maigret’s War of Nerves (1940) almost at random, my only criterion being that I wanted to encounter the famous inspector. Here I found that the real center of at least this Maigret book is Maigret himself. Simenon spends plenty of time on what I found to be awkward descriptions of Maigret’s mental moods: how he broods, how he then becomes “himself” again, how he misses nothing, etc. In this skimpy little book — 150 small pages — there is a sort of sense of place; we have many descriptions of Paris in October, as yet unoccupied by the Nazis. Simenon is completely different from the Americans in that there is no real hard-boiled style or gaudy cop-world patter, just prose as spare as Raymond Carver’s.

Now I know that ten detective novels do not me an expert make. Still, I’ve learned something. I’ve learned that the best of the detective books, or at least those by the most respected writers of such books, can sometimes be better sources of entertainment than watching television. I’ve learned that the English lady writers write a lot better than their American male counterparts: no fake argot, far fewer clichés, no attempt to hide their education, as Chandler, for example, was at some pains to do. I’ve learned that so-called “genre” fiction is a world apart from the so-called “literary” novel, and that comparing them, is, as Toby Tompkins says, like comparing apples and oranges. Still, why this sort of book should be considered good “beach reading” escapes me. For me, taking a break from “literary” novels is better achieved by reading non-fiction, especially journals and diaries and books about nature and oddball classics like G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). I’d rather take a break from Melville by reading Philip Hoare’s The Whale (2008) than by polishing off a couple of Dorothy Sayers’s books. For that matter, I’d rather reread The Great Gatsby or Miss Lonelyhearts or The Turn of the Screw than read, for the first time, something analogous to TV crime shows.

A matter of taste, I admit. But taste is all. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Ross | Link to this Entry

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