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Friday, November 28, 2014

The Thin Man (1934) by Dashiell Hammett


The Ngram embedded above compares the popularity of four Golden Age of Detective Fiction Mainstays: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett

Book Review
The Thin Man (1934)
 by Dashiell Hammett

  The above Ngram has no surprises.  Agatha Christie, with her huge general audience, is first by a mile.  Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett both peaked in the mid 1980s, and Dorothy Sayers has remained flat since her glory days in the 1940s.  The Ngram chart for Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett probably reflects the ongoing canonization process in the United States, with a growth of secondary literature "filling up" during the 1980s and thereafter diminishing as there remains less to be said.

  Chandler's rebound since the early 1990s (vs. Hammett's flat line) probably reflects a revival of popular interest in Chandler as the true literary stylist of Detective fiction.  If you are looking for a point to distinguish between the collected work of Chandler and Hammett, The Thin Man, Hammett's succesful gentleman detective whose exploits were taken over by Hollywood, would be that point.

  Read back to back with Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey gentleman Detective, it is hard not to draw a firm conclusion that Nick and Nora Charles were his attempt to move up in the market, and perhaps a calculated move to sell books. There is no shame in that game by the standards of pulp fiction, but it is a literature no-no.  Rampant success aside, The Thin Man degrades Hammett's authenticity in comparison to that of Chandler, who has no similar work.

  Another facet that jumps out about the Ngram is that Raymond Chandler started later and lower than the other three.  He remains in last place until 1960, when he passed Hammett (and stays more popular than Hammett from then on.)   The Thin Man was Hammett's last novel, although he didn't die until 1961 he didn't really write much between 1934 and his death, and no more novels.  Thus, the corpus of Hammett full length novels stops at five.  The only one not to make the 1001 Books project is The Dain Curse (1929).

   The Glass Key (1931), with its plot of urban politics, is the densest of the four.  The Maltese Falcon(1930) is the most enduring in terms of a general audience, likely because the film is such a classic.  However, I would recommend the other book- Red Harvest, which involves activity in a far Western mining town.  For me, Red Harvest was the most memorable- only because I've seen the film version of Maltese Falcon so many times that reading the underlying book felt duplicative.  Another appealing aspect of Red Harvest is that it stars his early, anonymous Detective "The Continental Op" and this use of the nameless protagonist almost seems like high literary modernism rather than a pulp fiction derived convention or lack of imagination.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling, professor and critic.


Book Review
Sincerity and Authenticity (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures)
by Lionel Trilling
Published 1972
Harvard University Press

  This slim volume is a must read for anyone interested in literary criticism or aesthetics.  A half century after publication, the prose is still fresh and Trilling's arguments are still lucid.  In discussing the two terms of the title in a literary and philosophical context, he ranges across a half millennia of thought in several different national traditions (English, French, German.)

  Trilling argues that the concern with sincerity emerged as a priority in the 17th and 18th century alongside the development of Protestantism, as "plain spokenness" became a secular value, and Artists and thinkers turned against the flowery descriptives of court culture. The word sincere was first used in the 16th century, but in a physical sense, as a kind of synonym for "pure" or "unspoiled."  The motivation behind supporting sincere behavior stemmed from believing that individuals were responsible for living moral lives.

 A concern with authenticity developed later, as Artists and thinkers struggled with the influence of money on art.   In the original discussion, authenticity was compromised by the influence of money, pure and simple.  The emergence of authenticity as an aesthetic value is also tied to the rise of romanticism in the 18th century.  As a concept, authenticity is more challenging for the individual than sincerity.

 Sincerity simply requires one be honest and forthright in ones relations with others, don't lie, don't scheme, don't be duplicitous.  On the other hand, authenticity requires a kind of inner sincerity, and is less evident to an outside viewer. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Murder Must Advertise (1933) by Dorothy Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsy, gentleman detective of Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy Sayers.

Book Review
Murder Must Advertise (1933)
 by Dorothy Sayers

  Dorothy Sayers was a charter member of the so-called "Golden Age of Detective Fiction."  This Golden Age of Detective Fiction lasted between 1920 and 1940.  Typically thought to be ended by the onset of World War II, The Golden Age of Detective Fiction canon includes Sayers, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.  The two main branches which descend from this period in the field of the crime fiction genre are neatly parallel by the two nationalities of the four leading exponents.  Christie and Sayers gave rise to the "cosy" style- characterized by genteel detectives and country house murder plots.  Chandler and Hammett developed the "hard boiled" styled.  Not only have all four authors inspired legions of fans and authors writing under their influence, they have also maintained a place for their own characters via film versions and, especially, television series.

   If I had to distinguish Sayers from the others, I would say that she is more on the posh side, with Oxford credentials, and a Detective who is literally an English lord.  Lord Peter Wimsy, or as he is known in Murder Must Advertise, "Death Breedon."  Wimsy is the most famous example of the "gentleman detective" and his DNA is in evidence in comic books characters like Batman.  Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who simply appears to be indifferent to money, Wimsy is a thorough going participant in the between wars aristo lifestyle, with a mansion, cavalcade of servants, and wicked fast automobile.

  My sense is that Wimsy's aristocratic character has hurt his staying power, and his viability as a candidate for remakes.  It's easy to see how a post Lord would come in second to an irascible Belgian detective, or a hard boiled private eye.   In Murder Must Advertise, Wimsy is called in to investigate the "accidental" death of a copy writer ad a London advertising firm.  While investigating, he stumbles into an enormous, London based, cocaine distribution network, which has an uncanny ability to murder people immediately before they are questioned by authorities.   Both the milieu of advertising and the cocaine distribution plot make Murder Must Advertise a well aged narrative.   I was surprised to see no film or television versions since the 1980s.  That's probably due to the fact that Sayers work is still under copyright (unlike Sherlock Holmes and Poirot.)

  

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