noir

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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LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

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Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.

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.

ROADSIDE PICNIC BY ARKADY & BORIS STRUGATSKY

His career as a master criminal was short-lived. He was twelve or thirteen, and bored, bored with his life, with being poor, with having no prospects or anything to look forward to except the day when he could leave the stinking shithole where violence and misery stalked his heels like a pair of dark dogs. He had walked to Meadowhall, a large shopping centre that resembled a hellish doll’s house, and was kicking his heels. He had no money, but didn’t really want anything anyway. He just wanted to be somewhere away from what he knew, where, to his immature mind, people were living differently. He took a turn around a bookshop, lifting books from the shelves, and, without making any kind of conscious decision, put one of them under his t-shirt, tucked it down his jeans. He expected to be caught, to be nabbed at the entrance as he walked out, but he wasn’t.

He was more scared when he got outside, when he had got away with it, than he was in the act of stealing. He knew he had done something wrong, that it should not have played out like that, and that is why he went back. He realised afterwards, that he wanted to be caught, that being caught was part of it. Something had to happen, of that he was adamant; he wanted something important to happen to him, something momentous, to give his day some sort of meaning. So he went back in, and he came back out again. Another book. No one batted an eyelid. Three, four more times. Nothing. The situation had become absurd. He was untouchable, or so he felt. Why will no one acknowledge me? Am I really this insignificant? And then, eventually, they did notice him. He had become more and more reckless; he made no effort to conceal what he was doing, and, in fact, could barely walk for all the books he had hidden on his person.

He was relieved when the security guard touched him on the shoulder. He wasn’t rough, he simply requested that he turn around and accompany him. He took him ‘in the back’ and the police were called. Only he didn’t think they were really the police. They didn’t have on uniforms and they don’t send out non-uniformed officers to deal with teenage shoplifters. It was a ruse, a way of scaring him straight. He was already straight, they didn’t get it. He wasn’t going to steal again. He had done it and had got what he wanted, which was their attention, and a new experience. Something different. No matter how negative. The policemen drove him home. He sat in the back of the car swearing to myself. They threatened to arrest him. He smiled.

Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart is a stalker, a criminal. He stalks the Zone at night, without permission. The Zone is what the aliens left behind, after the Visit; it is a dangerous place, full of alien litter, which can kill or mutate the people stupid enough or greedy enough to enter. However, this litter is valuable, and that is why Red is important. Schuhart is an average kind of guy, street-smart, but relatively poor. He has spent time in prison for stalking, which is illegal. He drinks a lot, swears a lot, and smokes a lot; he delivers wise-cracks like a hard-boiled, tough-talking PI; he is an irascible, but likeable anti-hero. On the most basic level, Roadside Picnic is a pulp novel, a noir, about an ex-con trying to go straight. Red frequently alludes to wanting to get out of the game, to become a normal citizen, and yet he never does.

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[A still from Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of the book]

It is suggested that Red became a stalker, i.e. someone who enters the Zone and steals and sells objects from it, for money; he says himself that he requires money so as to be able to live without having to count every penny. Therefore, sure, you could see Roadside Picnic as being about what people feel forced to do in order to survive, in order to live comfortably, but for me that is too simplistic. It struck me that Red is just like the kid I wrote about in my introduction, that he continues to be a stalker, even after being arrested and doing time in prison, even after the birth of his daughter, when he has so much more to lose, because he needs the excitement, he needs to feel like someone. The Strugatsky’s write about the ‘surrounding, indifferent chaos,’ Red himself talks about life being ‘gray,’ and this is, I think, most telling, most significant. Some people don’t want to go straight because that would mean they are just like everyone else, working for a cunt of a boss [Red is antagonised by authority and frequently rebels against it], plodding towards extinction.

“I lock myself in the stall, take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech. I’m sitting on the bench, my heart is empty, my head is empty, my soul is empty, gulping down the hard stuff like water. Alive. I got out. The Zone let me out. The damned hag. My lifeblood. Traitorous bitch. Alive. The novices can’t understand this. No one but a stalker can understand. And tears are pouring down my face—maybe from the booze, maybe from something else. I suck the flask dry; I’m wet, the flask is dry. As usual, I need just one more sip. Oh well, we’ll fix that. We can fix anything now. Alive. I light a cigarette and stay seated. I can feel it—I’m coming around.”

Roadside Picnic is not, however, simply a character study. While it isn’t as relentlessly philosophical, or thought-provoking, as, say, Solaris, there are many points of interest outside of the protagonist. The objects, for example, that are smuggled out of the Zone are, as previously noted, valuable to humans, both scientifically and criminally. However, one character, Doctor Pillman, states that as these objects are alien, we therefore cannot truly understand them or utilise them properly, not yet anyway. Stanislaw Lem makes a similar point in many of his novels, which is that if you can only bring human reasoning, understanding etc to an alien life-form or object or message then you cannot fail but to misunderstand it. Humans and aliens are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible; and contact, genuine contact is, therefore, impossible. Like in His Master’s Voice, the Strugatsky’s show humans misusing and misinterpreting the alien. The aliens are far more advanced than we are, and so when we try to interact with their litter, when we try to utilise it, we are, essentially, like monkeys using an ipad as a dinner plate.

There is also something darkly funny about the nature of the alien visits. I’ve long thought that we are interested in aliens coming to earth, in alien-human contact, not because we want to study the creatures or learn from them, but because, in our arrogance, we think that we are worthy of their attention. The Strugatsky’s brilliantly burst this bubble, by having their aliens visit earth, only to make a mess of it, then skidaddle without ever saying a word or doing anything of note or paying humans any attention at all. The upshot of their visit is that the aliens couldn’t give a monkeys about us, and why should they? They are, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, far more advanced then we are, so why would they want to hang around with the likes of us? This is, of course, where the title of the book comes from, which is to say that the aliens came to earth almost as a kind of stopover to somewhere more exciting, almost by accident, as though they had a brief picnic and then carried on on their way.

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

I wrote in my review of Solaris that Sci-Fi doesn’t really do it for me, and maybe I ought to revise that opinion, because I enjoyed this novel very much. However, the Strugatsky’s, again like Lem, are more concerned with us than they are aliens. There are no intergalactic battles, no spaceships, we don’t even see the creatures that created the Zones. Roadside Picnic is a [broadly pessimistic] study of human nature. Think about how what is discovered in, or retrieved from, the Zones creates a black market and an industry whereby people are trying to snaffle up the stuff for themselves to serve their own ends. The message here seems to be that whatever man comes into contact with he will seek to exploit it, corrupt it, make money out of it. Furthermore, one could also point to the picnic idea as being a hint at environmentalism, as being a critique of the way that we treat our planet, and the animals that share it with us. The truth is that we are pretty disgusting, and we are making a big fucking mess of this eternally spinning globe. So, sure, there may be something out there, but is it any wonder that they have turned their backs on us?

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 DAY OF THE OWL BY LEONARDO SCIASCIA

It is an often expressed opinion that overtly political novels become dated very quickly; in fact I read just that the other day in relation to Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge. Things change, is, I think, the general idea. Yet, while there may be some aspects of political fiction that, if you were not around at the time, or you’re not an expert on the subject, will be confusing or seem alien to your experience of the world, I do not accept that this means that it is unable to resonate with you. Yes, things do change, but one thing that doesn’t change is humanity. As far as I am concerned, behind all political systems, ideologies, and conflicts are pretty basic, universal, human motivations, such as greed and a desire for power. So, for me, political novels, or the good ones anyway, which would include the work of Leonardo Sciascia, are as much a study of humanity as anything else.

Sciascia’s Il giorno della civetta, or in English The Day of the Owl, is a short literary crime novel that deals with multiple murders in Sicily, Italy. It starts, quite literally, with a bang, as Salvatore Colasberna, the owner of a small construction company, is gunned down while running for a bus. The first hint that things are not going to be easy for those charged with investigating the crime is when the passengers on the bus flee before the Carabinieri [Italy’s national military police] arrive, and the conductor and driver play dumb when questioned. Something has them spooked. That something becomes clear [if it isn’t already] when the weapon used in the murder turns out to be a lupara, or sawed-off shotgunthe kind traditionally used by Mafia hitmen.

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[From the film Il giorno della civetta, dir. by Damiano Damiani] 

What is strange about Sciascia’s novel is that the point at which all the tension goes out of the work is when it becomes most compelling. What I mean by this is that you know, especially if you have read any of his other novels, that as soon as the Mafia are fingered [or at least suspected] as the perpetrators of the crime that they will not be punished for it, that people will be paid off or things will be covered up. In an ordinary crime thriller the mystery, the clues, the pursuit, and expectation of the eventual reward of seeing the bad guys getting their comeuppance, are the things that pull you along; the reader is essentially manipulated in order to create excitement. However, The Day of the Owl pretty much dispenses with all that; as a mystery, as a thriller, it is a total anti-climax. The Mafia will not be brought to justice, because, well, it’s the Mafia, and they are more powerful than the Carabinieri.

In the absence of traditional crime-thriller dynamics, what The Day of the Owl becomes is a book about futility. Bellodi, the investigating captain, is either naïve or an idealist. He thinks that the people responsible for a crime ought to be punished for it; and he isn’t afraid to arrest and interrogate members of the Mafia. The flaw in this admirable approach is that most people refuse to acknowledge that the organisation even exists. Indeed, throughout the novel it is described as the so-called Mafia; the native Sicilians, either due to a fear of reprisals or because of wanting to protect their own financial interests, consider the Mafia to be akin to the loch ness monster; it is a myth, a legend, and even a borderline racist slur. I found all this stuff fascinating. How can you challenge something that does not exist? That is Bellodi’s biggest dilemma.

In this way, The Day of the Owl, like 1984 and many great Russian novels, explores the nature of reality and truth; it shows how one’s understanding, one’s experience, of those two things – reality and truth – are not as concrete as many people believe. If you have read my other reviews you will know that this is something that plays on my mind quite a lot. As far as I am concerned there is no reality, or no concrete, unchangeable, unchallengeable reality, merely perception and interpretation; what you are told, what you are allowed to see, that is your reality. Furthermore, not only are many of the characters in Sciascia’s novel keen to disparage the idea that there is such a thing as the Mafia, they are equally keen, in an act of misdirection, to blame the murders, and in fact nearly all murders, on affairs of the heart. Indeed, Bellodi is criticised, at the end of the novel, for ignoring this possibility and instead going in search of a mythical bogey-man. The key point is, of course, that the murders are not affairs of the heart; but if the police, politicians, and the media push that interpretation then that is, in a sense, what they become. It may not be exactly the same thing, but this put me in mind of recent articles about manipulation of statistics in this country, about how a crime is only a crime, or only a certain kind of crime, if the police actually decide that it is.

In terms of Sciascia’s style, it is mostly tough and straightforward, but does also have lyrical moments. It is not, however, in any way similar to the classic hardboiled noir of Chandler or Hammett, or even Simenon, but that, for me, makes a refreshing change. Also unlike the work of those more famous authors, there is no charismatic central character; in fact, there really isn’t any great character depth or development at all, to the point that I was sometimes confused as to who was speaking, as everyone is essentially interchangeable. This is, of course, more of a problem, but not every writer is Tolstoy, and, besides, I think the Italian would have himself admitted that character wasn’t really his concern. He wanted to highlight what he saw as the problems facing Sicily, and Italy as a whole, with corruption and violence and avarice, things that, as I pointed out in my introduction, are by no means particular to a certain time or place. In this way, Sciascia’s small, potent anti-thrillers are the cold showers that are sometimes needed in order to wake you up not only to what has happened in the past, but what is still happening right now.

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.