After a long time away from blogging, I’ve had an unexpected impulse to take it up again.
I’m writing a mystery novel, of sorts. Though I’m proceeding in my own uncomfortable way. My idea is simply to jot down a few notes about what I’m reading or thinking as I go through it.
This week I started reading my Library of America edition of the novels of Dashiell Hammett, starting with Red Harvest. What an amazing opening:
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.
Red Harvest has a ridiculously high body count. (One chapter is called “The Seventeenth Murder,” and that murder only serves to set in motion many more.) The gunplay is so constant, the details of who dies, when, by whose hand become immaterial. A lot of the fussy stuff in mysteries of solving things become background – the narrator is often too busy dodging bullets – so what floats to the top is a breathtaking hardboiled style.
On Hammett’s style, in this essay, “Tough Guy” in the New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont writes:
Silence was always at the edge of Hammett’s style. The white space on many of his pages nearly equals the quantity of print, the short lines of dialogue snapping off as soon as the necessary thing is said, if not before. He made inarticulateness into a style and a heroic mode of being; few American writers—not even Gertrude Stein—came so close to the radical purity of words stripped down to their far from routine nakedness.
I’ve often fallen for books and movies that build a style around violence and for a long time I admired a hardboiled aesthetic. Now I realize it’s the sort of thing I could never attempt with a straight face. Still, it’s interesting to see Hammett create this style with its rules that Chandler picked up later. And there’s a lot of things to like and aspire to in Red Harvest – beautiful, brisk movement and confident economy. And humor.
Here for instance is the narrator’s colleague, Mickey Linehan, a fellow operative in the Continental Detective Agency, who’s newly arrived in Personville to help the investigation:
“After I take this Finnish gent,” Mickey said, “what do I do with him? 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.”
I laughed because I felt very much in the same position as Mickey, although he was no doubt more clued in than I was and his confusion was just part of his act. Only a page earlier, Hammett has summed him up in a few quick strokes:
Mickey Linehan was a big slob with sagging shoulders and a shapeless body that seemed to be coming apart at all its joints. His ears stood out like red wings, and his round red face usually wore the meaningless smirk of a half wit. He looked like a comedian and was.
Reading that description, I think of Jay Landsman, the homicide sergeant in The Wire (rewatching during shelter-in-place), who’s overweight, comic relief, but someone it’s best to watch out for. It’s an enduring character type that I’ve seen millions of places, although Mickey Linehan still feels fresh and enjoyable. Kudos to the writers who can create a character from a couple sentences and have them linger in memory.
Listening to: I love these survey playlists Matthew Perpetua (Fluxblog) has created. Right now, working through the one for 1979, pretty amazing to think one year saw Rapper’s Delight, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Highway to Hell, and California Uber Alles, just to name a few.