Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Westlake on Hammett and The Thin Man

The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany began with a single essay, "The Hardboiled Dicks," which Westlake originally delivered as a talk at the Smithsonian on May 13, 1982. It's an extended look at Westlake's chosen genre--interestingly, at a branch of it that he barely bothered with a writer, the detective novel--and it reveals Westlake to be a careful, attentive reader and a thoughtful critic of his fellow writers. Even now that it's been surrounded by another 65,000 or so words of Westlake's writing in what will eventually become the book, it remains a standout, full of history, analysis, and opinion, all backed up by extensive quotations from the writers in question.

Over the weekend, while I was making my final edits to the manuscript before turning it in, I found myself particularly drawn to Westlake's thoughts on Hammett. No writer was a more obvious influence on Westlake's style in the early years, which makes his acute analysis of Hammett's relationship to his material, as seen by reading between the lines of The Thin Man (1934), particularly interesting.

Westlake's essay traces the movement of hardboiled fiction from its roots in some sort of actual experience through its increasing stylization and eventual shift into ritual and pastiche. (Had Tarantino been making films in 1982, Westlake could have used him as an oblique example.) Hammett he locates at that point on the arc when experience (which Hammett had with the Pinkertons) was beginning to give way--and his argument is that Hammett knew it and didn't want any part of it. The Thin Man, he claims, is Hammett's exhausted riposte:. After quoting a scene where a low-level hood gets beat up for no explicable reason, Westlake writes,
This sequence doesn't come out of anything, and it doesn't lead to anything. Its only reason for existing at all is to show that Nick doesn't know what's going on any more, he's become a visitor to the scene he used to live in. And when I say Nick, I mean Hammett.

Hammett was a major writer, for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the texture in his writing comes so very much from himself. Writing inside an action genre, where subtleties of character and milieu are not primary considerations, he nevertheless was, word by word and sentence by sentence, subtle and many-layered, both allusive and elusive, delicate and aloof among all the smashing fists and crashing guns. He put himself in his writing, and that makes The Thin Man a very strange read, in that singular way that The Tempest is strange; inside the story, the writer can be seen, preparing his departure.
As Hammett's own experience of hardboiled characters faded into the past, Westlake argues, he was unwilling to take the next step, into the baroque and ritualistic and stagily imitative--that would be left to Chandler. (Whom Westlake never thought much of.) In the Library of America edition of Hammett's novels, there's a quote from an interview tucked away in the notes that backs up Westlake:
I stopped writing because I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.
Westlake sees the result--which he elsewhere included among his ten favorite books in the genre--as an unusual thing for the genre: not a disappointed, or cynical, or world-weary book, but a sad one:
You notice also the passing reference to literature that will or will not last. The Thin Man is a very sad book, made even sadder by how bravely and smilingly the narrator hides his sadness. Hammett is not leaving the hardboiled detective story. The genre is leaving him.
My interest piqued, I re-read the novel for the first time in a dozen years. And whereas the first time I read it, I saw it as a slightly cockeyed comedy, a slightly less fizzy kin to the William Powell-Myrna Loy version, this time I couldn't help but see what Westlake saw: it's a novel about confusion, where everyone expects Nick Charles, returned to New York and (reluctantly) to detecting after seven years away, to step right in and be the detective he was, to know things the way he used to know them . . . while all around him is oddity and incomprehensible behavior and incompetence and uncertainty. Friends aren't friends, while enemies aren't even worthy of the name; the closest Nick comes to camaraderie (Nora aside) is when a gangster he once sent up the river insists on reminiscing a bit--at least those memories are honest.

This is what good criticism does: it makes it hard to read a book the same way you read it before you encountered the critic's take on it. I would have read The Thin Man again eventually, but would I have seen in it the sense of dislocation and loss that Westlake showed me? The book ends with the expected closure, but it's closure rooted largely in conjecture, which Nora finds frustrating. She wants to know for sure, and she wants to know what will happen to the people left behind by the murders. Nick replies:
"Nothing new. They'll go on being Mimi and Dorothy and Gilbert just as you and I will go on being us and the Quinns will go on being the Quinns. Murder doesn't round out anybody's life except the murdered's and sometimes the murderer.

"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
The first time I read the book, I took that as one final joke, an expression of Nora's ever-amused, ever curious arm's-length relationship to Nick's work, and to crime itself. Now I read it as Westlake did: as a hand waved in irritated farewell. How can I not?

If you like Westlake, you're going to like this book, folks. I'm really proud of it, and I'm champing at the bit. A year. That's all we've got to wait now!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Visiting Japan with Dr. Johnson

In 1772, the year before their tour of the Hebrides, James Boswell mentioned to Samuel Johnson that he was thinking of buying St Kilda, the most remote island of that chain. "Pray do, Sir," Johnson replied. "We shall go and pass a winter among the blasts there. We shall have some fine fish, and we shall take some dried tongue with us, and some books." To which Boswell, who, one suspects, had mentioned the prospect more as a form of boasting than in seriousness, answered, "Are you serious, Sir, in advising me to buy St Kilda? For if you should advise me to go to Japan, I believe I should do it."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I read that passage on a thirteen-hour flight home from Japan earlier this month, and all I could think was how sad I was that Dr. Johnson--perhaps hoping to rid himself of the presence of Boswell, who, much as their friendship seems to have been genuine, surely was nonetheless an irritation at times--failed to order his friend to hie himself to Tokyo posthaste. What would Boswell have made of eighteenth-century Japan, utterly foreign to British sensibilities? I realize the journey's not truly to be wished, for it could only have come at the cost of the Life of Johnson, but that doesn't stop me from imagining a parallel universe Boswell visiting temples in Kyoto, telling tales of his bravery in support of Corsica (then explaining what and where Corsica is), and picking up ladies in the seedier districts.

On our trip, we took no dried tongue, but we did have some fine fish, and of course I took some books. Last time we visited Japan, four-and-a-half years ago, I read The Tale of Genji, which was a very good choice as reading material, but, at nearly four pounds, a lousy choice of a physical object to lug around. So this time I chose more wisely: I packed a similar number of pages, but spread across more books--among them books that I could leave behind when read, including a couple of disposable mass market paperbacks, a galley, and a copy of Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, which, fortunately, I can always get again at the office.

Young Men and Fire, which I was re-reading for the first time since it was first published, in 1992, was my company in Kyoto, and its quiet, meditative tale of loss and attempts at understanding it suited that ancient city. And finishing it there allowed me to improve the meager bookshelf in the Shunkoin Temple guest room, which, when we arrived, looked like this:

That's a Lilian Jackson Braun cat mystery; John Gardner's novelization of the Bond film Goldeneye; Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a fine book but not exactly a vacation read; Less Than Zero; a forgettable thriller; and--the one book in the stack that would be a pleasure to find in a guest room--Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo Rising. May Maclean find a new reader among the Americans and Aussies who seem to be the bulk of the temple's guests; may they be surprised to find a lost little bit of Montana in Kyoto.

Our return to Tokyo for one last night was the occasion of the trip's other book-related venture: meeting an online literary pal. Julian, one of three people behind the Only a Blockhead blog (its name keeping nicely with the Johnson theme), is an Englishman who's been living in Japan for decades, and I've been enjoying his thoughts on Japan and books both for years now, but this was our first actual meeting. He led us to the Park Hyatt Tokyo, high above the city, where he was kind enough to buy me and rocketlass drinks while we all talked books. It was a sheer pleasure, especially talking favorites and trading recommendations. Take my advice and meet your Internet friends, folks: I've yet to find that anyone I like through their online presence doesn't live up to that impression in reality.

{Note the book that Julian was reading when we walked up to him on the street: Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity!}

We three--worn by late-summer heat, dressed casually for travel--didn't exactly reach the elegant heights of the 1950s Tokyo party described by Edmund de Waal in a memorable passage in The Hare with the Amber Eyes (a favorite shared with Julian):
Back in the corridor we move through an open doorway, under a Noh mask and into the sitting-room. The ceiling is of slatted wood. All the lamps are on. Objects are displayed on spare, dark, clean-lined Korean and Chinese furniture alongside comfortable low sofas, occasional tables and lamps, and ashtrays and cigarette boxes. A wooden Buddha from Kyoto sits on a Korean chest, a hand raised in blessing.

The bamboo bar holds an impressive quantity of liquor, none of which I can identify. It is a house made for parties. Parties with small children on their knees, and women in kimonos, and presents. Parties with men in dark suits seated round small tables, loquacious with whisky. Parties at New Year with cut boughs of pine trees hanging from the ceiling, and parties under the cherry trees, and once--in a spirit of poetry--a firefly-viewing party.
But the drinks were splendid, and the fellowship of books was with us, so what more could one reasonably ask for?

Elsewhere in The Life of Johnson, Johnson assures Boswell that "he never passed that week in his life which he would wish to repeat, were an angel to make the proposal to him." Having closed my trip by experiencing something along those lines in a peculiarly modern way, arriving home on a Saturday morning two hours before we'd left Tokyo, I can understand Dr. Johnson's sentiments. But two weeks in Japan to live again through the agency of an angel? Well, it would be hard not to be tempted.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Beware of the lions!

My computer has been returned to me safe, sound, and much cleaner than before. But this week finds me yet again scrambling for time, so, with an eye toward late-week equilibrium, I'll offer just a short extract today from Priscilla Napier's charming 1966 memoir of growing up as British national in colonial Cairo, A Late Beginner:
"Can we go round by Kasr-el-Nil? Can we go round by the lion bridge?"

Foam from the horses' nostrils blew back at us in the river breeze. "Please, lions, can we come on your bridge?" Any neglect of this formula would of course have caused the huge bronze lions at either end to descend from their pedestals and devour us. When nothing frightening is happening it is sometimes necessary to invent something frightening that might happen.
I'm reading Napier's book in one of Slightly Foxed Editions' lovely, small-trim hardcovers, and it's a perfect Slightly Foxed book: a charming, funny, minor memoir of an English childhood. One couldn't think of a more narrow niche, nor a more reliably rewarding one. I've pretty much committed to buying every book they publish in this series; I've not been disappointed yet.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

McGee and Maqroll?

I was all set to jump right back into blogging this week after a lovely two-week holiday in Japan . . . but then my computer broke. So while the fine folks at Apple are busy restoring it to life, I'll just share one thing, this brief passage from John D. MacDonald's tenth Travis McGee novel, The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper:
He wanted a confidential errand done, for a fat fee. He said he had been involved in a little deal abroad. He said it involved options on some old oil tankers, and some surplus, obsolety vehicles, and all I needed to know about it was that it was legal, and he wasn't wanted, at least officially, by any government anywhere.
I don't know about you, but it sounds to me like Travis McGee just ran into Maqroll el Gaviero.

Friday, September 06, 2013

J. F. Powers makes the effort

I'm a bit pressed for time today, so I'll just share a passage I like from Suitable Accommodations the new collection of J. F. Powers's letters, which I'm enjoying very much. This one closes a letter of June 11, 1956, to Father Harvey Egan, a friend and literary patron:
I took a bath tonight and put on a clean shirt and drove own to the Press Bar for a glass of beer. It was formal like that, and something I've never tried before. Bless me, Father, I was trying to give St Cloud a chance. I was in the mood, Father, and I was prepared to take a certain amount of pleasure in it. The choice was Cold Spring or Pfeiffer's (Schmidt's), because I wanted no bottle beer in my mood. I wanted it from the keg, or ex cathedra, if you understand my meaning here. Well, I drank the bitter draughts and departed after one glass, returned home, and that, I'm afraid, was, and is, it. The Press Bar was dark pink inside, and I was alone at the bar.

It's such a compact assemblage of Powers's good traits as a writer: wry humor, self-deprecation, an ability to turn a phrase--and, especially, to turn the phrases of the Church to new, amusing ends--and a satisfactory melancholy suitable to a fallen world.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Pity Him Afterwards

In my slow attempt to read all of Donald E. Westlake's novels (and thus catch up to Ethan Iverson), I recently made it to Pity Him Afterwards (1964). Westlake's fifth novel, it's interesting but still feels very much like journeyman work--oddly, it's not as well-conceived or executed as his excellent first novel, The Mercenaries (available now from Hard Case Crime under Westlake's preferred title, The Cutie.) Nonetheless, for a novel that starts as unpromisingly as this one ("The madman clung to the side of the hill"), it's far from uninteresting: a crazed killer, escaped from an asylum, attempts to hide within the newly assembled cast of a summer stock theater, and the mix of actors, local officials, and the remote setting all offer pleasures.

Westlake knew summer stock from his first wife, an actress who spent at least a couple of summers at upstate theaters like this one. The speech the theater's manager gives a hungover new arrival seems likely to have be lifted from reality:
I want to get you interested in this theater, and I want to get you interested in this season. I want total commitment from you, Mel, for the next eleven weeks. We have an impossibly tough schedule here, a new play every week. You'll have a major role in only four or five of them, but you'll be working in all of them. You'll be a stagehand, or you'll run the flies, or you'll work props. You'll help build sets, and you'll help strike them. You'll work a seven-day week, and you'll work a fourteen-hour day most of the time. You can't do that and last the season if you don't give a damn about what's happening here.
Mel Daniels, the actor to whom this speech is addressed, feels like a prefiguration of Grofield--a Grofield whose straight life is his only life, and who hasn't yet figured out just how good he is with women. On his way to the theater, he enters a diner:
The little man in the white coat came over and asked him what he wanted. He asked for coffee, and then changed his mind and asked for iced coffee. The little man said, "No iced coffee. Iced tea."

He was going to go into a Hemingway routine from that--repeat everything the little man said, and ask when the Swede came in for dinner--but he didn't have the energy. And the little man wouldn't get it, he'd figure Mel for a smart aleck. So he said, "All right, iced tea."
Westlake's other characters include an actress with ambition to direct, a vigorously rude director ("shaped like a bag of lard, soft and sagging, with a petulant jowly face and pudgy hands"), and a self-doubting police chief who spends his winters as a college professor. It's a promising cast, and--the problems with crazed killers aside--an effective plot structure, as Westlake contrives to prevent the reader from knowing which actor is actually the madman for most of the book. But ultimately the book is less than the sum of its parts: after all this set-up, Westlake rushes to the end too quickly, and since we're less interested in the madman's fate than in the characters he's threatening, it's unsatisfying.

Westlake explained in a couple of interviews that Pity Him Afterwards was the quickest writing he'd ever done: start to finish, it took him something like fifteen days. And while it doesn't feel in any way slapdash--did Westlake ever write anything that did?--it does feel like a book the more mature Westlake would likely have continued poking away at until it opened up into something bigger and better.

I'll close with a couple of notes that tie in to particular interests of this blog. First, an explanation of the title. It comes from Samuel Johnson, via Boswell:
If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.
And, finally, one more indication that Westlake at this point in his career was just getting his feet under him: the book includes the first of what would be many uses of Sydney Greenstreet as a point of comparison (Huzzah!) . . . but he's not quite there yet:
He was a stocky man who looked to be about thirty, five foot, ten inches tall, with a heavy face that could become Shakespeare's Falstaff or Hammett's Casper Gutman with equal aptitude.
Within just a few years, Westlake would cut to the chase, moving beyond Hammett's character straight to the actor who played him, and the universe of similes would never be the same!