Friday, August 06, 2010

the beginning is the end

Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett

The more I find of Hammett and Chandler, the more I like them. They bear little resemblance to today's mystery novels, but still built the foundation for them. The hard-nosed tough-guy investigator? The weird twists? Hammett and Chandler. Sadly, while newer books show great improvements in technology and investigative techniques, they've lost some of the qualities that made the older books so great, like Chandler's descriptions, and the matter-of-fact badassery of both authors. What's more, you can reasonably assume that Hammett's stuff is pretty accurate, because he was a Pinkerton man for many years (and served in two World Wars).

The Thin Man of the book's title is an inventor, and despite being the title character, we don't actually see him until the book is nearly over. Letters are received, notes passed, but he has no direct contact with the reader for several chapters. Meanwhile, his secretary is murdered, a suspect takes a shot at Nick Charles (among Hammett's most popular characters, Nick and Nora Charles debut in this book, which takes place several years after Nick has retired from sleuthing), his entire family turns out to be a bunch of loons, and his lawyer calmly manages his business affairs, contacting the Thin Man through newspaper ads while he goes on the lam as the police's number one suspect in the secretary's death.

Nick and Nora deserve their fame. Despite a July-November marriage, they have a great rapport. Nora is not quite a full partner in Nick's investigation, but she often has ideas that inspire him to make the necessary connections, and backs him up well by tending to several minor crises along the way. They seem to almost have the sort of telepathy developed only after decades of marriage. There is also an entertaining ease with which they handle the more bizarre events of the book. When a gunman appears in their hotel room, Nick carefully calculates, and cold-cocks his wife to the side to get her away from the line of fire before receiving a grazing wound and taking out the gunman. When she comes around, Nora is upset that Nick hit her so hard not because it hurt, but because she missed all the action. Later, when five men beat the hell out of someone coming to accost Nick in a bar, she drunkenly tells him, "I love you, Nicky, because you smell nice, and you know such interesting people."

Hammett is full of sly, dark humor that would make the book worth reading even if the story were dull--and it isn't--and the characters boring--and they aren't. The caper is only convoluted enough to work, stays believable, and tracks well. Long live the greats.

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posted by reyn at 1:00 PM



Title: Big Fish
Author: Daniel Wallace
Bookmark: Hard to say. Finished it a month or two ago somewhere above the western states.

I've forgotten the names of all the characters, but as with all fairy tales, the general story and important details are still lodged firmly in my brain. That's probably the most important aspect of the book: not that it's a story about a son trying to find a place in his father's life, or a father trying to be a "big fish in a big pond," or about a father slowly dying (though it is also all of those things), but a fairy tale. Maybe.

The son has grown up with stories of his father's life. Tall tales and spun yarns about how the father could talk to animals, or how every woman wanted him, or how he tamed a giant, or saved a water nymph, or escaped his seemingly mythical birthplace by passing through a shadowy duplicate of the same town, populated with those who tried to leave before him, broken dreams, and a mysterious, vicious dog. It is a story of the father's life, told by the son as a series of stories his father had told him, and since the one thing his father always wanted to be was important, a man of great impact, a "big fish in a small pond," there is some question as to the reliability of this second-hand narrative of his life. Did he really offer himself to a giant to be eaten? Did he really buy an entire town? Did he really have a second wife there, rescued from a pristine home in the swamp and... maybe... who brought the swamp with her?

It doesn't really matter. Maybe it's more a story of how children always see their parents as mythical, mysterious, powerful beings. Maybe the father in this story really is. Maybe his son, seeing his father slowly dying, just needs to believe in a power that seems to have left him.

Maybe, as the ending reveals, that power is still there.

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posted by reyn at 12:44 PM