Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett

Book #664

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

RHI have been lucky enough to get hold of an omnibus of Dashiell Hammett’s work and Red Harvest was one of the novels included in it.  With uncharacteristic hours at my disposal I whipped through the 160 pages of the story in less than two days, enjoying every minute of it.  Published in book form in 1929 it is apparently based on Hammett’s own experiences working as a Pinkerton.

In Red Harvest I get to meet The Continental Op for the first time.  He is the unnamed narrator of the story and works for The Continental Detective Agency, based out of San Francisco.  He is a repeat character in Hammett’s stories and is apparently one of the first major hardboiled detectives.  He becomes something of a template from which Sam Spade and others develop.

We join the Op when he arrives in Personville to meet with Donald Willsson, a local newspaper publisher, and to receive instructions for work he wants carried out.  The locals call the town Poisonville and as we progress through the story it is quite clear why.  The Op has walked in to a town with a power struggle about to play out.  Willsson is shot dead while the Op waits to meet him, and that sets him off looking in to his death.  Willsson is the son of the industrial magnate who once ran the city but through his own making handed over much of the power to competing gangs of criminals.

The Op ends up working, sort of, for Elihu Willsson – looking in to his son’s death, and cleaning up Poisonville for him.  This allows us to follow the Op on a trip through the underbelly of the city – corrupt police, criminal gangs and all of the unsavoury behaviour they indulge in.

There is much murder, mayhem and playing of dirty tricks.  The Op clearly being a master at manipulating people and situations, some of his actions are questionable at best.  It is a brutal story, with plenty of “lead” being thrown about, snitching, gangland violence and it only escalates as the story goes on.  Remarkably, it is quite readable, with no really gruesome descriptions.  The scale of the violence is pretty damning and the Op is certainly not a saint in any sort of guise.

Hammett’s language and writing style is very easy work.  I still feel like I’m watching an old Bogart movie as I read.  Here are a couple of examples of the sort of writing that peppers the story.

Describing the hurtling of a police car through traffic, with the Op ensconced amongst officers in the back seat:

Pat twisted us around a frightened woman’s coupé, put us through a slot between street car and laundry wagon – a narrow slot that we couldn’t have slipped through if our car hadn’t been so smoothly enameled – and said :
“All right, but the brakes ain’t no good.”
“That’s nice,” the grey-moustached sleuth on my left said. He didn’t sound sincere.

Out of the centre of the city there wasn’t much traffic to bother us, but the paving was rougher.  It was a nice half-hour’s ride, with everybody getting a chance to sit in everybody else’s lap.  The last ten minutes of it was over an uneven road that had hills enough to keep us from forgetting what Pat had said about the brakes.

While trying to escape a group of gangsters following a shoot-out at a remote location:

I spread the blanket there and we settled down.
The girl leaned against me and complained that the ground was damp, that she was cold in spite of her fur coat, that she had a cramp in her leg, and that she wanted a cigarette.
I gave her another drink from the flask.  That bought me ten minutes of peace.
Then she said:
“I’m catching cold.  By the time anybody comes, if they ever do, I’ll be sneezing and coughing loud enough to be heard in the city.”
“Just once,” I told her. “Then you’ll be all strangled.”
“There’s a mouse or something crawling under the blanket.”
“Probably only a snake.”
“Are you married?”
“Don’t start that.”
“Then you are?”
“I’ll bet your wife’s glad of it.”
I was trying to find a suitable come-back to that wise-crack when a distant light gleamed up the road.

As you can see, we’re back in to the same style and territory as The Thin Man, only this time with more violence and dubious ethics.
All up I’d say it was a good retro read.  Quick and easy; the perfect short read if you love noir and tough guy detectives.

Happy reading everyone!


The Time Machine – H.G.Wells


Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TTMThe Time Machine was first published in serial format in 1895 and was subsequently collated as a book.
This, to my embarrassment, is the very first of H.G.Wells’ works that I have read despite having seen many screen adaptations of his various stories since childhood.  It is a short work, my edition being 81 pages in total, and takes very little time to read.

The story starts with a weekly meeting of men over dinner in an unnamed scientist’s home.  Most of those attending are described by their profession.  The scientist himself is described as the Time Traveller.
The others are the narrator, who is never identified by name or profession; the Psychologist, the Provincial Mayor, the Medical Man, the Very Young Man, and a man called Filby. The discussion is about things scientific and especially the dimension of time.
One of the men states, “And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.” To which the Time Traveller replies, “My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.”

As the conversation continues the Time Traveller then presents the men with a model – a metal framework containing ivory and crystal parts, the size of a small clock – which he proclaims to be his plan for a machine to travel through time. He then demonstrates it to the men, “We all saw the lever turn. I am absolutely certain there was no trickery. There was a breath of wind, and the lamp flame jumped. One of the candles on the mantel was blown out, and the little machine suddenly swung round, became indistinct, was seen as a ghost for a second, perhaps, as an eddy of faintly glittering brass and ivory; and it was gone – vanished!” After a small discussion the Time Traveller invites his guests to see the actual, full-sized, machine in his laboratory and states to the assembled group, “Upon that machine,” said the Time Traveller, holding the lamp aloft, “I intend to explore time. Is that plain? I was never more serious in my life.”

The men, unsurprisingly, are more than a little dubious of the scientist’s claims and leave for the night in varying senses of humour over the disappearing model and claims of the impending exploration of time.

The following Thursday evening the narrator travels again to Richmond and the home of the Time Traveller. By the time he arrives there are several fellows already present, the Medical Man, the Editor, the Psychologist, a quiet man and a certain journalist. The Time Traveller was absent but had left a note saying to begin without him should he not be there. Just as dinner is about to begin, in staggers a rough and tumble version of the Time Traveller, shocking those assembled. Like a good middle class Victorian, he throws back a couple of glasses of wine to revive himself and begs off to wash and dress for dinner. Upon his return he begins the remarkable tale of his journey to the future.

The journey takes him to the year 802,701 where he meets the “Eloi”, tiny and beautiful humans all alike.  He describes his experiences with the less enticing Morlocks. The story muses on the future of man and society, reflecting a late Victorian view of the rich and the poor or the upper and lower classes translated into a future decay. It also retains a measure of the adventure story about it; a brave traveller exploring new territory – in this case, the future – and despite the story aging it is still intriguing to follow the Time Traveller’s story to its end.

I found the novel to be incredibly easy to read.  Although by the end I thought perhaps he could and should have used the word “incontinently” a little less frequently. Also, naturally, over a century later many of the ideas are dated, but as an early science fiction story about time travel it is well written and certainly puts out the some initial ideas of utopia and even dystopia in the same small volume.

It is a quick and untaxing way to spend a few hours.

Happy reading!

The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L. Sayers

Book #632

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TNTA goodly number of years ago I was mildly obsessed with 1920s and ’30s British crime fiction.  Specifically the grand dame, Agatha Christie.  When I had dispensed with her canon, I was left rather wondering what to do.  Thankfully for me, I learned about Dorothy L. Sayers and her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey.

I happily sat down to re-read The Nine Tailors recently and it was like walking in to a past world all over again.

The book opens with Wimsey driving his Daimler into a ditch on New Year’s Eve, having missed a rather nasty turn.  There is little else to do, but get out and walk in the miserable snowy landscape of the Fens, so that is what Wimsey and his manservant Bunter do.  They make their way to the village of Fenchurch St. Paul and become the guests of the local rector – Mr Venables – and his wife.

It turns out that there is something of an influenza epidemic going through the local populace and this threatens the good Reverend and assorted parishioners’ attempt at an impressive 15,840 Kent Treble Bob Majors.
The church of Fenchurch St Paul is a fine one, with eight bells.  Yes, this mystery is to be laid down in the most English of activities – change-ringing – and because of that I shall introduce you to the bells.

Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul.

Naturally Lord Peter is a bit of a dab-hand at bell ringing and takes the place of the ill man – Will Thoday.  Nine hours of ringing later and the goal is achieved.  Sadly the wife of the local squire, Lady Thorpe, dies the next day and as a result of her death Wimsey is acquainted with the tale of the theft of an emerald necklace of a distant, wealthy, and eccentric family member some twenty years earlier.  The Thorpe family having been haunted by this unsolved and unresolved case ever since it occurred in their home.

While all this is going on Wimsey’s car is hauled out of the ditch and repaired.  He thanks the good Reverend for his hospitality and heads on to his original destination in Walbeach.

Some months later, just after Easter, Sir Henry Thorpe joins his wife in the hereafter and is due to be buried with her.  Unfortunately when the sexton, Harry Gotobed, and his son are preparing the ground they come across something rather unexpected in the grave.  A body.  Or as Harry refers to it when talking to Mr Venables, ‘a corpus’.

“Well, sir, it’s about this here grave. I thought I better come and see you, being as it’s a church matter, like.  You see, when Dick and me come to open it up, we found a corpus a-laying inside of it, and Dick says to me —”
“A corpse?  Well, of course there’s a corpse.  Lady Thorpe is buried there.  You buried her yourself.”
“Yes, sir, but this here corpus ain’t Lady Thorpe’s corpus.  It’s a man’s corpus, that’s what it is, and it du seem as though it didn’t have no right to be there.”

As you can see, Sayers has a lovely turn of wit, even with the discovery of the body.  It is this body that begins the mystery, and the Reverend requests Lord Peter’s aid and advice in Fenchurch St Paul over the matter of ‘the corpus’.  From here we follow the trail of the Wilbraham jewel theft in tandem with the murder investigation.  In the process we get to know a little more about a few key villagers and perhaps less appealing, we also learn a bit about change-ringing.  And as is nearly always the case with this genre of crime fiction, the hero solves the puzzle of the dead man and the missing emeralds.

I will be honest with you, the change-ringing jargon is quite hard going if you are not an aficionado.  Luckily it does not extend too much past the first few chapters of the book in any great detail.  Each section is begun with a nod to it, and there are more understandable references scattered throughout the remainder of the story.  The bells are almost like eight extra characters, showing up throughout the story.

The writing is crisp, clear and often full of sly humour.  The solution to the mystery is not given away too early, but lead up to, and yet the ending is not completely predictable either.  Here are two more examples of Sayers’ writing style and humour.  The first, when she is introducing the subject of change-ringing and elaborating on it.

By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations.  When he speaks of the music of his bells, he does not mean musician’s music – still less what the ordinary man calls music.  To the ordinary man, in fact, the pealing of bells is a monotonous jangle and a nuisance, tolerable only when mitigated by remote distance and sentimental association.

The second occurs when the local policeman, Jack Priest, arrives on the scene of the exhumation of the unexpected body.

“Half a minute, half a minute, sir,” interrupted the policeman. “What day was it you said you buried Lady Thorpe, Harry?”
“January 4th, it were,” said Mr. Gotobed, after a short interval for reflection.
“And was this here body in the grave when you filled it up?”
“Now don’t you be a fool, Jack Priest,” retorted Mr. Gotobed. ” ‘Owever can you suppose as we’d fill up a grave with this here corpus in it? It ain’t a thing as a man might drop in careless like, without noticing.  If it was a pocket-knife or a penny-piece, that’d be another thing, but when it comes to the corpus of a full-grown man, that there question ain’t reasonable.”

So, if you enjoy the golden age of detective fiction but have not yet come around to Dorothy Sayers, then it’s about time you did.  It is a great read.

An explanation:

The title The Nine Tailors comes from an old tradition in small villages of ringing the church bell to announce the death of a person.  From Wikipedia:

In some parishes in England the centuries old tradition of announcing a death on a church bell is upheld. In a small village most people would be aware of who was ill, and so broadcasting the age and sex of the deceased would identify them. To this end the death was announced by telling (i.e. single blows with the bell down) the sex and then striking off the years. Three blows meant a child, twice three a woman and thrice three a man. After a pause the years were counted out at approximately half-minute intervals. The word teller in some dialects becomes tailor, hence the old saying “Nine tailors maketh a man”.

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett

Book #652
Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

The Thin ManI have discovered a love affair with the hard-boiled detective fiction from the 1920s and 1930s.  The stories are snappy, the dialogue is pithy and sometimes full of colourful, outdated idioms. The Thin Man fits in beautifully, showing all of these features.

We meet Nick Charles, retired detective, and his younger, glamorous wife Nora in New York for the Christmas season.  While waiting in a speakeasy for Nora to finish her shopping he is approached by a young lady, Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a man for whom he did some work eight years earlier.  And there starts the downward spiral of the Charles’ quiet Christmas in New York.

Meeting Dorothy eventually embroils the couple in multiple murders, an absolutely dysfunctional family and some very interesting police and insalubrious ex-convicts.

We are taken through the process of trying to find Dorothy’s father, Clyde Miller Wynant, thought to be responsible for the murder of his assistant Julia Wolf.  He is the eponymous Thin Man of the title.  We learn all about Clyde’s manipulative ex-wife Mimi and her new husband Chris Jorgensen, and his two very odd children – Dorothy and Gilbert.  Throw in Wynant’s lawyer Herbert Macauley, police detective John Guild and ex-con Studsy Burke and an array of other minor characters and we have a very colourful story in the making.

It is quite an eye-opener looking in to life in the 1930s with the speakeasy culture and the pithy language.  The idea of  characters that wake up at lunchtime and stay out till the middle of the morning is quite decadent in an era of deprivation and poverty.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and at a little over 200 pages in my Penguin Classic version, it was fairly quick even for a slow reader like myself.  I certainly plan to read the remainder of Hammett’s books on the 1001 Book List.

To give you a taste of the style of writing and the sorts of characters to be found in the novel here is an excerpt of Mimi Jorgensen (the ex-Mrs Clyde Wynant) trying to manipulate Nick Charles:

‘Nick, what can they do to you for concealing evidence that somebody’s guilty of murder?’
‘Make you an accomplice – accomplice after the fact is the technical term – if they want.’
‘Even if you voluntarily change your mind and give them the evidence?’
‘They can.  Usually they don’t.’
She looked around the room as if to make sure there was nobody else there and said: ‘Clyde killed Julia.  I found proof and hid it. What’ll they do to me?’
‘Probably nothing except give you hell – if you turn it in.  He was once your husband: you and he are close enough together that no jury’d be likely to blame you for trying to cover him up – unless, of course, they had reason to think you had some other motive.’
She asked coolly, deliberately: ‘Do you?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.  ‘My guess would be that you had intended to use this proof of his guilt to shake him down for some dough as soon as you could get in touch with him, and that now something else has come up to make you change your mind.’
She made a claw of her right hand and struck at my face with her pointed nails.  Her teeth were together, her lips drawn far back over them.
I caught her wrist. ‘Women are getting tough,’ I said, trying to sound wistful.  ‘I just left one that heaved a skillet at a guy.’

Well worth the effort and a nice slice of early 20th Century writing. Happy Reading everyone.

Veronika Decides To Die – Paulo Coelho

Book # 90

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published January 2014)

VDTDThis is my second Paulo Coelho book after reading The Devil and Miss Prym a couple of years ago.  It is book #90 on the 1001 Book List.

The novel is set in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the eponymous Veronkia is a beautiful young woman who seemingly should have the world at her feet.  Instead she decides to die.

Veronika is loved by her parents, she has a steady job as a librarian and has had a string of boyfriends.  She is not, however, happy with this life.  She decides, in quite an organised way, to end her life.  Her preference is by overdosing on sleeping pills, which she takes one day in her rented room in a convent.

Unfortunately for Veronika her attempt fails and she wakes in Villete, “the famous and much-feared lunatic asylum”.   Not only does she find herself in this hospital, but she also finds that she has damaged her heart with her suicide attempt and will die within the week.  The remainder of the novel follows her last week in Villete and her interactions with some of the other inmates.

She meets Zedka who has been in Villete for depression, Mari who suffers from panic attacks and Eduard who is a young schizophrenic.  Each of these individuals has something to teach Veronika about the state of life and a way of viewing what life is about.  Mari has the most influence on Veronika’s thinking during her last week and in return Veronika’s situation impacts profoundly on these three people.

The discussion centres around how we look at life, what we make of it and our time living it.  It really talks about the constriction of following the herd to the detriment of your own personality and needs; about cramming that square peg in to that round hole and the damage that does to a mind.  I think this passage pretty much sums up Veronika’s feelings about this as she comes to terms with the idea that she is now dying slowly.  She is talking to Eduard one night while he waits for her to play the piano.

‘No one should let themselves get used to anything, Eduard.  Look at me, I was beginning to enjoy the sun again, the mountains, even life’s problems, I was beginning to accept that the meaninglessness of life was no one’s fault but mine.  I wanted to see the main square in Ljubljana again, to feel hatred and love, despair and tedium, all those simple, foolish things that make up everyday life, but which give pleasure to your existence.  If one day I could get out of here, I would allow myself to be mad, because everyone is, indeed, the maddest are the ones who don’t know they’re mad, but keep repeating what others tell them to.’

In a ‘madhouse’ it is normal to be yourself because it is expected.  You have no need to conform and squash your square peg in to that round hole anymore.  It’s quite an interesting idea, I thought.

On the following page, in another setting, there is a visitor telling a Sufi story about Nasrudin in which he puts his audience through trial after trial of waiting and bad behaviour on his part until the 1700 people who originally wanted to hear him speak is reduced to the final group of nine.  At this point all of his bad behaviour ceases and he is himself again.  I think what he tells his nine person audience is quite profound with regards to patience and acceptance.

“Those of you who stayed are the ones who will hear me,” he said. “You have passed through the two hardest tests on the spiritual road: the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what you encounter.  It is you I will teach.”

And, to be honest, the inner thoughts of Mari regarding punishment (she’s a lawyer) were cracking too and made me smile.

It was a shame that Allah, Jehovah, God – it didn’t matter what name you gave him – did not live in the world today, because if He did, we would still be in Paradise, while He would be mired in appeals, requests, demands, injunctions, preliminary verdicts, and would have to justify to innumerable tribunals His decision to expel Adam and Eve from Paradise for breaking an arbitrary rule with no foundation in law: Of the tree of knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat.
If He had not wanted that to happen, why did He put the tree in the midst of the garden and not outside the walls of Paradise? If she were called upon to defend the couple, Mari would undoubtedly accuse God of administrative negligence, because, as well as planting the tree in the wrong place, He had failed to surround it with warnings and barriers, had failed to adopt even minimal security arrangements, and had thus exposed everyone to danger.
Mari could also accuse him of inducement to criminal activity, for He had pointed out to Adam and Eve the exact place where the tree was to be found.  If He had said nothing, generation upon generation would have passed on this earth without anyone taking the slightest interest in the forbidden fruit, since the tree was presumably in a forest full of similar trees, and therefore of no particular value.
But God had proceeded quite differently.  He had devised a rule and then found a way of persuading someone to break it, merely in order to invent Punishment.  He knew that Adam and Eve would become bored with perfection and would, sooner or later, test His patience.  He set a trap, perhaps because He, Almighty God, was also bored with everything going so smoothly: if Eve had not eaten the apple, nothing of any interest would have happened in the last few billion years.

This musing does go on a bit more, but you get the idea.  It is very clever and very thoughtful.  The writing, as always, is a pleasure to read.  It seems to translate very well and is easily enjoyed.

I think I prefer The Devil and Miss Prym, but this is still a very interesting read and a good reminder to focus on what you make of your life – not what others want you to make of it.

Highly recommended.