hard-boiled

BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL BY ELLIOTT CHAZE

You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.

“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”

Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett,  Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.

One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.

Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.

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I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.

It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?

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RED HARVEST BY DASHIELL HAMMETT

I often get asked why, as someone who appears to be politically switched on, I try and avoid the news media as much as possible. Well, the thing is, the truth of the world is too much for me these days. I can’t take it. Call it cowardice if you like, but I hate feeling angry or upset all the time. I’m not a masochist. A while ago I learnt that the UK government has agreed to sell arms to countries that have been blacklisted for human rights violations, countries that – as in the case of Libya, for example – our politicians will then go on TV and condemn. And that’s nothing new, you know. This has been happening for years [Saddam, the Taliban], but, still, the two-facedness is extraordinary; it doesn’t become any easier to swallow the third, fourth, fiftieth time. But this is only one example, a dribble of spit in a vast ocean of thick snotty phlegm.

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s character talks about how ‘someday a real rain will come,’ a rain that will wash all the scum – the corrupt politicians, the pimps, the crooked businessmen etc – off the streets. I don’t advocate violence of any kind, but the film’s popularity attests to how powerful and attractive a fantasy this kind of ‘clean up’ is. It is, moreover, something that is at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, although it takes a little time to warm up to all that. The early stages of the novel are mostly concerned with what appears to be a relatively straightforward murder investigation. The Continental Op has been asked to come to Personville by Donald Willson, yet Willson is offed almost as soon as he arrives. A number of suspects are quickly identified, including Willson’s wife, his father, a local tough and his gold digger girlfriend.

“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.”

However, before too long the Continental Op has collared the culprit, sown up the investigation, and really should be intent on getting the hell out of dodge. Yet he isn’t. Indeed, one gets the impression that the author was eager to get all that stuff out of the way, that he himself wasn’t particularly interested in who shot Donald Willson, and that once it is all neatly tied up the real fun can start. It is from this point onwards that one truly comes to understand why Personville is nicknamed Poisonville, as Hammett embarks on a convoluted, twisty and twisted, tale of backstabbing, corruption, power games, homicides and attempted homicides, dirty secrets and double-dealing, involving just about every prominent person in the town.

In the centre of this maelstrom of violence and immorality is the Continental Op, who appears, despite his irascible manner, to be having a whale of a time. In fact, he could be said to be the director of events, as he takes it upon himself to smoke out all the rats, play them off against each other, and, in one way or another, put them out of action. However, one should not make the mistake of thinking he is the hero of the piece, or some kind of avenging angel; his ethics are far too sketchy and dubious for that. In fact, at one point he openly admits that he wants to clean up Poisonville as revenge for the attempts upon his life during his stay, and gleefully talks about opening it up ‘from Adam’s apple to ankles.’ At times the plot comes across as being little more than a bunch of psychopaths being rounded up and manipulated by another psychopath; and the overall effect is of a grim dance, one that will never end.

“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”

It’s interesting that Red Harvest helped to pioneer the hard-boiled genre, because it only bears a superficial resemblance to the classic works that came after it. Certainly those by Raymond Chandler, who is probably the most famous titan of noir, seem safe and cosy in comparison. First of all, the Continental Op is overweight, apparently ugly, and, at 40, relatively old. He is tough, sure, and he cracks wise [although most of his one-liners are laced with spite, rather than humour], but he isn’t suave and is certainly no babe magnet. Moreover, he has absolutely no qualms about putting a slug in someone.

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[Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is generally thought to have been inspired by Red Harvest]

The femme fatale, Dinah Brand, doesn’t conform to one’s expectations either, being more fatal than femme. She is described as having stains on her dress, badly applied lipstick, and an untidy hairdo. She isn’t, it is fair to say, Jessica Rabbit. She’s also unscrupulous, with dollar signs in her eyes and just about any other place you could mention. In fact, outside of one of Balzac’s or Dickens’ misers, I’ve not encountered a character like her, i.e. one who would happily sell out her grandmother for a tarnished nickel. She does, however, have a strange kind of charm, in that there is something child-like about her attitude, her honesty vis-à-vis her motivations, and her insistence that it is only right and natural that she get paid for every service she renders. In this way, she reminded me of Undine Spragg, the villainess in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

“You’re drunk, and I’m drunk, and I’m just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That’s the kind of girl I am.”

It ought to be clear by now that Red Harvest is at the grittier, darker end of the noir spectrum. There are a lot of savage and unpleasant crime novels these days, and while it cannot compete with those in terms of sheer graphic [or pornographic] brutality, there is a great deal of bloodshed, and, by the final page, the book has racked up a body count that would give Jeffrey Dahmer a stiffy. It is hard to say whether I find it admirable or not, but at no point does Hammett flinch. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, however, is just how odd this book is, how surreal almost. Bullets seem to constantly be in the air, people go to prison and then minutes later are walking the streets, bodies pile up and no one bats an eyelid [at one point the Op enters a house and steps over an unexpected corpse without even breaking stride], etc, until Poisonville stops looking like a dirty old town, and more like a Boschian Hell from which it is impossible to escape.

I got to the end of this review and realised that I hadn’t at all engaged with any potential flaws or criticisms. I enjoyed Red Harvest a lot but the book, as is the case with all books, is certainly not perfect. Therefore, so as to not ruin the structure of what is written above, I’ll note a few things here, which may be construed as negatives.

I wrote earlier that Hammett’s novel has a convoluted plot, and, well, some might actually call it ridiculous, or unbelievable, or at least hard to follow [the pace is breakneck, which gives you barely any time to catch your breath]. Moreover, the characters have very little substance, all of them being a type or one sort or another, but, having said that, I don’t know if you turn to noir for character depth. It is also worth pointing out that the book is almost entirely composed of dialogue, so that at times it reads more like a play. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, or it didn’t bother me at all, but I imagine that it might put some readers off.

THE LONG GOODBYE BY RAYMOND CHANDLER

Tom was a quiet, reserved kind of guy. Which at the time was unusual within my circle of friends. Most everyone I knew back when I first returned to Sheffield was a lush, a druggie or just plain crazy. I made friends in pubs and clubs. My friends didn’t exist in the daytime. Except Tom. He was 24/7. Normal. I was in a bad way myself, although I couldn’t see it. Perhaps the company I kept gave me a false sense of my emotional and physical well-being. When J is getting the sack because he has been on a Ketamine binge and can’t stand up for two days, and Alison is turning up for lectures with semen in her hair, you don’t feel so crummy. Everything is relative.

And everything pointed to Tom outlasting every one of us. You didn’t talk about it. You just knew. Only a fool would have thought otherwise. Yeah, Tom made fools of us all. He didn’t dance in clubs, and so you thought he was shy, standing off by himself most of the evening. He made comments about his appearance, and you credited him with a dry, deprecating sense of humour. He didn’t do drugs, didn’t take nameless girls home, and you didn’t judge, you admired him for it. What a sensible guy. If only we could be like him.

Yet sometimes I would wonder. And in my wisdom would take Tom for a drink. It was all I knew how to do. I hoped that would help somehow, that he would see it for what it was: an inadequate but heartfelt gesture of solidarity or empathy. I didn’t know what he was really thinking. You didn’t ask; he didn’t tell. That is just the way it was. And all the while he carried on slipping. A little at a time; almost imperceptibly. Until one day he was gone. The guy we thought would go places, did. And he didn’t come back.

I think about those times a lot. About Tom in particular. Mop-haired Tom, so unassuming. If his name ever now comes up people like to say his situation was hopeless. That is their comfort blanket. That he couldn’t deal with the things that were bothering him, and he couldn’t have been saved. I guess it makes them feel better to think that way. All I know is that whatever he was up against, whatever he was grappling with, he lost. That no longer surprises me. Life is a dirty fighter, I’ve found. Of course, I wish I could have done more. I wish I had. It hurts to know I failed him. Maybe there is nothing I could have done. Some people are not made to endure. But futile effort is like a shot of whisky, it can calm the nerves.

Raymond Chandler once wrote that to say goodbye is to die a little. Well, I never even got to say goodbye. It was a surprise to me that reading The Long Goodbye brought all this back up. It is not something I had expected. I was ready for wise-cracking PI’s, sultry dames, tough guys, and all-round dumb fun, but I wasn’t prepared to be so moved, to have some of my personal sore spots fingered so aggressively. I guess guilt is like a blood stain, it takes a long time to fade. But I don’t want to give the impression that the book is only worthwhile as a kind of Proustian madeleine. The truth is that many of the characters  – including Eileen Wade, strangely enough – got to me on their own terms, just like they got to Philip Marlowe. And the credit for that goes to the author.

“The tragedy of life, Howard, is not that the beautiful die young, but that they grow old and mean. It will not happen to me.”

The novel centres around the lives, and deaths, of two men, Terry Lennox and Roger Wade. As introductions go, Terry’s is one of the best. Marlowe first encounters the man hanging out of a Rolls, blind-drunk. Also in the car is his beautiful ex-wife. Immediately one gets a sense of each character’s personality, or role-to-be in the novel. The ex-wife is hard-nosed, unsympathetic, dispensable; Marlowe is, against his better judgement, and for no personal gain, drawn to Lennox and wants to help him; and Terry is vulnerable, in need of help, and likely to bring in his wake a whole lot of trouble. One understands very quickly that he is one of life’s perennial losers [a word I use without any negative connotation].

Lennox’s physical appearance is also significant. He’s a young man with a shock of white hair and comprehensive scarring on his face [which a doctor has attempted to fix with plastic surgery]. The scars were picked up during the war [and this is also significant, but I’ll touch upon that later]; they act within the novel as a physical representation of his emotional, inner life. Lennox is, both emotionally and physically, damaged goods. Marlowe isn’t in much better condition himself. He’s getting older [he’s 42], wearier. His wise-cracks, which readers seem to so cherish, struck me as angrier, or more bitter than usual, rather than admirable bravado or swagger.

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[Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe, in Robert Altman’s film version of the book]

What ties Marlowe and Lennox together is that both are, essentially, alone and feeling it. They drift towards each other out of a pretty basic human desire for contact or friendship. It is worth noting that Marlowe doesn’t know why he cares about Lennox. The men do not share interests, they do not really talk to each other all that much, but they could be said to need each other. At the beginning Terry is described by his ex-wife as ‘a lost dog,’ which is apt, but that phrase could also be applied to Marlowe too; in fact, it could be applied to every character in the book. It is interesting that the focus throughout is on moneyed people, privileged people; Chandler seems to be at pains to point out that being flush doesn’t stop you from fucking up, or getting sad. Indeed, The Long Goodbye is a terribly sad book, bleak even; its overriding message is that, as a result of two wars, the world is quickly going down the toilet, that humanity is starting to collapse under the weight of its own faeces. The wars, Chandler suggests, have taken our innocence, and left us worn-out, seedy, cynical and self-obsessed.

I’ve read elsewhere that Chandler intended for The Long Goodbye to be different from his other books. Apparently, he did not set out to write a Marlowe novel, but eventually lost his nerve. Wanting to ditch his famous narrator would indicate that the author was aching to spread his proverbial wings, was perhaps gunning for something more personal and with more depth. If that is so, then one might look to Roger Wade, the alcoholic writer, as the most obvious example, for not only is he different from what one would usually encounter in Chandler’s stuff, but he could even be said to be a stand-in for the man himself. Chandler’s own problems with drink are well-documented, but the parallels between him and Wade are not restricted to that. Both are writers, of course, but both are also struggling with their work. Wade considers himself to be a hack [he writes genre novels, historical bodice-rippers] and is tired of conforming to a formula. He even mentions his reliance upon similes, which is something that Marlowe [and by extension Chandler] also relies upon. Yet if he was taking a shot at himself here, I think Chandler is wrong to put himself down; for me, great similes are an art, and he was something of a master [he describes one man as having a face like a collapsed lung, for example]. In any case, it is clear that he felt dissatisfied with the writing process, that he found working within the PI, hard-boiled genre restricting.

“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can’t predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”

To this end, one finds the author experimenting a little. For example, during the Wade storyline one is allowed to read something he wrote while drunk out of his mind, which turns out to be a strange, stream-of-consciousness self-pitying ramble reminiscent of Gass’ The Tunnel or Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s great masterpiece. In fact, all the Wade chapters reminded me of Lowry, and that is a big compliment. This is not to say, however, that there isn’t any of the dumb fun I mentioned earlier. There are still dames, and femme fatales; there are murders and mysteries; there are crooks and hoodlums; and there are plenty of great one-liners, and square-jawed, big-balled machismo. It is simply that these familiar, well-worn things run alongside broader, more satisfying existential, moral concerns, while also delivering characters that we feel as though he get to know and care about.

Having said all this, it would be remiss of me to finish this review without mentioning some of the book’s less successful aspects, because it is certainly not flawless. It is episodic, and the structure is pretty poor, but then structure was never Chandler’s strong point. Nor was plot, which, here and elsewhere, is plodding and anti-climatic [although I think that is less of a problem with this particular novel]. A bigger issue, however, is the ending. Indeed, it would be a service to the author to quit about ten pages before the finish line, because the ultimate twist, the reveal [quite literally] is more than a bit silly. It is such a shame that the book ends in disappointment [for the reader and for Marlowe, I guess], because what precedes those final few pages is fantastic. In any case, The Long Goodbye is fit to stand beside any novel you care to name; it is a Shakespearean tragedy, with a two-day hangover and old lipstick smears on its pillow.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME BY JIM THOMPSON

S’not a good time time to be a killer. DNA technology has made it mighty tough, I’d say, to get away with nothin, these days. Jus ask serial murderer Gary Ridgway, who avoided arrest for some odd twenty years until science caught up with him. You might ask me why ahm thinkin about all that, killers and whatnot. Well I’ve been reading The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and I guess it’s the kind of book that leads you to thinkin some. An I suppose you wanna know how I got on, how I liked the book an all. I don’t know if I can say as I enjoyed it, but, well, it sure went down easy. Like a fifth of whisky or a two dollar whore. An it left me feelin much the same way: kinda satisfied and warm but dirty too. Theys say that readin these hard-boiled, these here noir novels is some kinda escapism, like they’re a holiday from reality, but that don’t make a whole heap of sense to me. I guess it depends what you escaping, but from whats I see these here typa novels are the most real of all. Jus look in a newspaper, folks; do that an the reality of the world hits you square in the jaw, an it takes a lotta effort not to fall to the floor. Now I’m not sayin that murder and violence and darkness is all the world is, but it sure is a big enough slice of the pie, all told. Certainly these hard-boiled novels are as least as real as something like Madame Bovary; more real I’d say despite everyone falling over themselves to call Flaubert a realist. This particlar book is a lil’ bit diff’rent to most of the classic noir I’ve read, as the bad guy is the sheriff, is the law. A dirty cop is not exactly something I find it difficult to believe in; I’d wager there’s more corruption in law enforcement than bristles on my chin. Anyways I liked that about this particlar book. I thought that wasa neat twist of things. An like all good noir the writins sharp an thrilling, like a brand new knife. There’s always so many quotable lines in something like this that you sometimes gets to thinkin maybe it’s the best kinda writin there is. An then there’s that about Lou, the dirty deputy, an how he speaks in cliches all the time because it’s his way of thrillin himself. Well i liked that about the book a whole bunch, I must say. Lou speakin in glib an trite phrases, makin all the folks think him some kinda simpleton, jus because it amused him to do so, while in actual fact he’s a card-carrying Sadist. Woo boy some of that made me laugh, ‘though ahm not sure you should admit as much in polite company. Good thing you’re not all that polite, I guess. But anyways ahm makin it sound as though I loved the book, an that would be real unfortunate. Thing is, The Killer Inside Me is like a pretty girl with no brains. You might not notice it in the beginning, what with all the lipstick an painted nails an such to take in, but on the third date you’re at the point where you’re kinda like gee, she looks fine but we’ve been speakin now for hours and all I can think about is how my ass has gone numb. Lou was certainly in’eresting for a while, but he’s basically a mess of a character. Like how can he be a Sadist, a murderer an a child molester? There was no psychological or criminal consistency. I gots to feelin like Thompson was jus throwing crimes at him, throwin evil at him. I was surprised he didn’t have him killin JFK. An there was the mighty dumb plot about the brother, who once took the wrap for Lou, but then gots murdered hisself. Well I guess my expectations were screwy because I wanted somethin dark, I didn’t want vaudeville; I wanted edgy not American Psycho in the deep south. Kubrick called it believable and chillin, an well I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, specially not one who directed Dr Strangelove an Full Metal Jacket, which are fine movies, but Stanley was talkin out his ass.