The Glass Key – Dashiell Hammett’s fourth novel is arguably the most ambitious of his books. It works both as a traditional mystery and as a political thriller. It is also one of the finest novels about loyalty and friendship that you’re ever likely to find.
The hero, Ned Beaumont, investigates the death of a senator’s son not because he is a detective – he isn’t, he’s a political fixer for his boss and friend Paul Madvig – but out of loyalty. Initially Beaumont wants to use the murder to sink Senator Henry, but Madvig is in love with the senator’s daughter and wants him to do what he can to interrupt the investigation. From here it takes the reader on a lot of detours, false trails and political intrigue, and sends Beaumont on a chase for the victim’s hat (I won’t bother to explain, better for you to actually read the book).
The third person narration style that Hammett developed in The Maltese Falcon comes to its zenith here; the prose is tight, hard-boiled, camera-eye stuff (you never learn what a character is thinking), and the only physical descriptions (something Hammett was always brilliant at) are those that serve the novel, with not a word wasted. The character of Ned Beaumont was groundbreaking for the time. He’s an everyman, not a tough detective. He’s got brains but no luck. He’s got attitude but he’s not exactly handy with his fists (which explains the many beatings he gets during the course of the novel). He’s got loyalty to Madvig, but has enough moral ambiguity to take something that Madvig desperately wants from him before the novel is over. This is joint fifteenth with Falcon because it’s practically impossible to separate them – it’s just as brilliant. It should be compulsory reading for all those who are interested in crime fiction. And not because it’s a piece of hard-boiled ‘history’, but simply a bloody fantastic read.
At the beginning of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine its anti-hero narrator, Billy Lafitte, is in serious trouble; he’s in prison on charges of being a traitor, a murderer and a terrorist. His interrogator, Agent Rome, seems to have a personal beef with him and his options are less than zero. From here the novel moves back in time to what got Lafitte in prison in the first place, other than himself.
Lafitte is a very bent cop. Kicked out of the force in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he gets a second chance in the very different environment of Minnesota. Here he doesn’t change so much as get worse. He takes backhanders from meth cookers and dealers, he’ll quite happily lean on those who get in his way. He gets asked by a previous sexual conquest, who he would like to turn into a more permanent thing, to help her drug dealing boyfriend with some trouble from what appears to be outside dealers looking to muscle in on the local action. Lafitte agrees but soon finds out that what he’s dealing with is something more horrific than this, an enemy that cares little for the rules, an enemy looking to do a lot more than just muscle in on the drug scene, an enemy that knows exactly how to push Lafitte’s buttons; leaving him flailing desperately to try and dig himself out of an ever deepening cesspool…
Yellow Medicine has superb pacing and is served up in choppy, stripped-back prose, which serves the story excellently. Lafitte makes for a complicated anti-hero. He’s happy to bribe, steal and coerce and gain sexual favours from his profession, but at the same time he’s the kind of guy who won’t miss an alimony payment to his wife and kids. He’s a man almost without a home, but at the same time he’s prepared to defend his country from a much worse threat than drug dealers when pushed. My favourite character though is actually Lafitte’s brother-in-law, the sheriff who offers him a second chance. At the beginning he seems a bit of a ‘pussy’, but at the end is prepared to risk it all to help Lafitte and his family when things go very badly. He’s an excellently realised character.
The one character who didn’t quite do it for me was Agent Rome. He seemed a bit one-note, but it’s a minor complaint, because everything else is so nicely handled. Plus, I think Rome’s character will undoubtedly be fleshed out further in Hogdoggin, the sequel. I enjoyed Yellow Medicine and recommend it to all those who like their crime fiction served dark and as cool as a Minnesota field in winter.
Seriously, how good is this cover? If this was the cover for your book you’d love it, right?
A couple of women (one scantily clad, the other not so much), some Jack Palance-looking geezer with a machine gun and a dodgy barnet, an exploding car, the Miami coastline and a humungous fucking 8. You have no idea how much I love seventies book covers. And this one rocks!
The Maltese Falcon – How does one come back from a novel that, in terms on quality, was a bit of a flop. Well, in Dashiell Hammett’s case you turn round and write one of the greatest crime novels ever. Hammett followed up the only duffer in his back catalogue, The Dain Curse (which isn’t a bad novel, not by any means, it just isn’t a patch on Red Harvest), with The Maltese Falcon. Written in highly cinematic prose, which gives no indication of what the characters are thinking other than via facial expressions, it tells of… Well, you probably know the story by now, so there’s no need for me to recount it here, and if you haven’t I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It also introduces in Sam Spade the archetype for every detective who followed in his wake. However, unlike many of the detectives who followed in his wake, Spade isn’t a good guy. In fact, if he wasn’t a detective he’d probably be a bad guy. He manipulates, happily sleeps with his business partner’s wife and has a very flexible approach to the law. The one thing that keeps him relatively straight is his code of ethics, which he reveals at the very end. It’s brilliant stuff. And on level par with the next book in my list, another Hammett, The Glass Key.
I’m probably the world’s worst sufferer of manfluenza, which I have now. I’m afflicted with about ten of these bastards a year. And I swear their number increases with age. I’m currently laid up on the sofa, waiting to be fed, with a cup of hot Lemsip cooling on the arm of the chair. The one pleasure of being laid up at the moment, apart from imminent food, is my copy of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine, which I’m about to open now. Thus far it’s a rip-roaring read. If you haven’t read it yet, do so.
…about a particularly hectic weekend that means you end up with the beginnings of a bloody cold on Monday? This thing’s been creeping up on me all day. I wouldn’t mind so much, but I’ve got a serious week of designing ahead of me and I can do without the inevitable tiredness and head fog that will make things twice as hard as they need to be.
Just finished Charlie William’s Deadfolk today. It’s the second time that I’ve read it and even second time around I still enjoyed it immensely. It is superbly written, in English vernacular, and is also a great indictment of small town life, without the kind of nasty middle-class bigotry that runs through a book like Crap Towns. More than that though it’s also a fantastic page-turner of a thriller and is as close as a British writer is likely to get to the spirit of Jim Thompson without actually being him. For a start it does the classic trick of taking a thoroughly unpleasant character like Royston Blake (bouncer and Ford Capri aficionado) and making you like him with the kind of narrative slight of hand that Thompson pulled off so well in The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 – a drip feed of information that shows how unpleasant the narrator is only in the latter half of the novel, by which point the story has you well and truly hooked. Williams also seems to understand how much of small town life and small town thinking is ripe for vicious black comedy, because this novel has it in spades. For those of you wishing to get an idea of where the British crime thriller is at buy it today. It’s an absolute steal at 99p on Kindle.
The Prone Gunman – Jean-Patrick Manchette, like Georges Simenon, has that very great skill of packing a lot into very few pages. The prose is icy-cool, camera-eye stuff and the action unrelenting. The basic story is about a professional hitman called Martin Terrier who tries to quit his life and return to his home town to be with the woman he loves. But basic story be damned, it’s a more potent brew than that, which is to be expected of a writer who called crime fiction the ‘great moral literature of our era’. Still, don’t get me wrong, it is also a cracking, fast-paced thriller, but if you look beneath the surface it is also a lot more than that. The hero is a poor boy made good and a superb assassin, but he is also emotionally a bit of a child, not surprising considering that he’s a sociopath, and not half as bright as he likes to think he is. The woman he loves is now a very damaged alcoholic who finds Terrier to be a bit of an idiot and the organisation he works for have no intention of letting him leave, at least not alive. From here on in everything starts to fall apart for Terrier and the bodies mount up. The twist at the end is beautifully done; so much so that I’ll not give it away, but Terrier ends up becoming what he wanted to escape from in the first place. It’s a truly bitter pill, but as grim joyrides go The Prone Gunman is one of the best there is! Read it. Now!
There’s a real problem that comes with the day after the night before. That’s right – bloody hangovers!
Why is it that the older you get the worse the hangovers become? Today’s hangover is one of those evil bastards that starts badly and gets worse the longer the day continues. It is one of those special pains that makes me want to curl up in a foetal ball beneath my desk. Sadly, work haven’t yet brought in a policy that allows me to do that, so I guess I’ll just have to sit at my desk and suffer instead.
‘Tis days like this that make me seriously consider giving up drink.
White Jazz – The last novel in James Ellroy’s LA Quartet is like a literary kick to the swingers. And what a way to sign off one of the great series in all of crime fiction. The formal language experiment that Ellroy began with LA Confidential, with the use of staccato sentences that get rid of all those pesky adverbs, really came into its own here. Hell, Ellroy pretty much invented his own language in this novel. White Jazz is like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. It moves at a rate that makes LA Confidential seem like a slow-burning cosy in comparison. It meshes a complex, satisfying plot (and Ellroy is the supreme plotter in crime fiction) with a captivating anti-hero in Dave Klein. It also sets the groundwork for Ellroy’s next great novel American Tabloid. Pure brilliance.