Thursday, 13 August 2009

Revelling in the style of The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

What’s it all about, Quirky?

Where the hell to start – private eye Sam Spade is approached by an alluring young woman, Ruth Wonderley, and asked to track down her sister. His partner, Miles Archer, volunteers for the job, but is dead before the night is out, leaving Spade to fend off some awkward questions from the police, particularly as Miles’ wife and Spade have been, well, pulling a few 'late shifts' together. When the enigmatic Joel Cairo, and later the flamboyantly sinister Kasper Gutman – ‘the Fat Man’ – appear on the scene, offering Spade small fortunes to retrieve a legendary jewel-encrusted figurine of a bird, our hero realises Miss Wonderley isn’t all that she might seem. In fact, no one is, and Spade is left trying to piece the puzzle together while dodging the double crosses, triple crosses and red herrings. Is the Falcon real, or is it simply a MacGuffin...?

This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?

It sure is. Hammett’s punchy, slick writing style is in complete contrast to Hemingway’s endless meanderings. The Maltese Falcon is considered one of the finest American detective novels ever written – if not the finest – and it’s a reputation that I think owes as much to the classic John Huston movie, with Bogart as Spade, as it does to the novel, even if Bogart was considered too short and dark to play Spade. The book is short – just over 200 pages – but Hammett packed it with a plot so intricate and cunning, Edmund Blackadder could have stuck a tail on it and called it a weasel.

What lifts The Maltese Falcon above the norm, though, is the characterisation. Spade is a right piece of work – a cool, tough womaniser, who at times seems as corruptible as the creeps he’s trying to best. Hammett had great fun with those villains – Cairo appears first, and you can feel the slime creep off the pages and onto your fingers, and Gutman is pure theatre. Wonderful stuff. Miss Wonderley – or Brigid O’Shaughnessy as she reveals herself to be – is the kind of femme fatale you want to step out of the pages and take you out for dinner. And yet, it’s the creepy Wilmer, the young pup lackey of Gutman, an emotionless killer who looks like he couldn’t beat up a corpse, who really gets under the skin.

On my signal, unleash hell:

Eyes. Hellfire. Hammett was obsessed with them. He couldn’t mention a character in a scene without telling you the colour of their eyes (for the fortieth or so time), what those eyes were up to and what colour they were glowing. At the end of chapter nine, Spade’s eyes glow ‘yellowly’. Seriously. It’s a shame, because it plays havoc as a reader, stopping you in your tracks, throwing you out of the story all too often. A bit of eye description is fine in moderation. I don’t think Hammett knew the meaning of the word. In fact, it wasn’t just the eyes that Hammett got carried away with; facial features in general took a battering.

There is also a nagging feeling that the plot, while beautifully structured, could have stretched its legs a touch. Complex though events are, not a huge amount happens, particularly in terms of action. And then there’s the narrative mode used – third person objective, which doesn’t allow you anywhere near the inner mechanics of Spade’s mind. Hammett most likely employed this because Spade, it turns out, knows more about what is going on than the reader believes him to know, and he may have felt it would be easier to not delve into his detective’s viewpoint. It’s a shame, because it could have been a richer experience had Hammett taken the plunge and gone for third person subjective, or indeed first person.

The Verdict:

A fine, page-turning read. Is it better than Chandler’s The Big Sleep? Probably not, but I’m about to re-read The Big Sleep for a book club, as it’s been several years since I first read it. I’d also suggest that Ross Macdonald’s The Doomsters is superior to The Maltese Falcon, not to mention a few of Macdonald’s other books. But that’s nitpicking. Hammett, his eye obsession apart, constructed a beautiful tale of treachery which is as much a page-turner now as it was on its release in 1930.


Straight in at number one, bumping Hemingway down to second (and, thus far, last):
  1. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
  2. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

For whom the bell toils...

So, here we are - the first 'review'. It took longer than expected to plough through Hemingway's first entry on the list, but I've caught up some time with The Maltese Falcon and, currently, Treasure Island. Falcon review to follow soon. Here we go, and feel free to have your say at the bottom:

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

What’s it all about, Quirky?

In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a young American volunteer, Robert Jordan, a man with an uncanny ability to blow the hell out of bridges, is sent high into the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra. His mission, to dynamite an important strategic bridge. Guided by an old man, Anselmo, to the guerrillas’ hideout, he has a few days to win the approval of the men, kill their leader, Pablo, before Pablo kills him, and fall in love with Maria, a beautiful girl haunted by her rape at the hands of Franco’s rebels, all the while avoiding capture and planning the blowing of the bridge.

This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?

No. An ‘important’ book, perhaps, but it sure isn’t pleasant. There are weighty issues here – death, freedom, independence, loss of innocence – and Hemingway didn’t hold back. The story is shrouded with a sense of impending doom, albeit one with a little hope and love trying to break through the darkness. When he got going, Hemingway created some powerful scenes. The account of Pablo’s gang taking a town by brutally massacring every single fascist, some shot by firing squad, some beaten to death, others chucked off a cliff, is almost, in itself, worth the reading of the entire 490 pages.

Perhaps the book’s biggest strength is the depth of its characters. Jordan isn’t the kind of protagonist you can instantly relate to, but he seeps into your subconscious as the story unfolds, much in the same way as Pilar, Pablo’s wife, does. Pilar is a vicious, foul-mouthed bitch at times, but she’s also proves to be a staunch ally to Jordan. Pablo is delicious – you want Jordan, hell, anyone, to take him out early on. But he proves somewhat difficult to dispatch, as does the book from one’s mind.

On my signal, unleash hell:

For Whom the Bell Tolls is hard going. Make no mistake. And the reason it’s hard going is down to Hemingway. There are too many issues with his style of writing that kept pulling me out of the story, such as his insistence in spelling out Robert Jordan’s full name on each and every time he is referred to; writers tend to shorten their characters to either their Christian name or surname when referred to outside dialogue, and more often than not within dialogue. But not Robert Jordan. He got the full treatment. It might sound petty, but it was damn annoying. If he’d called him Jordan throughout, he’d have probably knocked 50 pages off the book’s seemingly interminable length.

Hemingway also took to repeating himself. Endlessly. And don’t get me started on the archaic dialogue, with all of its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. He was, apparently, trying to convey the Spanish tongue, and much of the dialogue is, I’m told, a direct translation from Spanish, but it does make some unusual and awkward reading. Another irritating choice was Hemingway’s decision to shy away from using foul language, instead replacing all choice words with, for example, ‘obscenity’ or some such substitute. That may have been very noble, but it doesn’t work.

Point of view is a problem, too. Hemingway used third-person omniscient, which is fine, but frequently switched to long stretches of first-person internal monologue from Jordan (that’s Robert Jordan, to you), and the changes are often clumsy, with little flow. Dare I say it, an editor with more ink in his red pen might have done the trick. I’m sure I will be burning in some literary hell for daring to raise such criticisms of such an acclaimed writer, but there you have it.

The Verdict:

As I’ve not read any of Hemingway’s other works, I don’t want to judge him on the strength of one book. However, he was, by all accounts, held up at the time as a shining example of an economic writer, his journalistic background creating a sparse writing style. Apparently. But it doesn’t come across as very economic in this day and age. If he was alive today and wrote news stories and features akin to his writing in For Whom the Bell Tolls, I doubt he’d last a week on the Isle of Man Courier.

The story itself is fine, the themes important. The characters, by and large, are engaging. And some stretches of writing are beautiful. But the book is hamstrung by Hemingway’s use, and style, of internal monologue and his need to repeat himself ad nauseam. Not to mention the spelling out of Robert Jordan in full. Every. Bloody. Time. That said, it is a story that lingers long in the mind, despite its faults.


As it’s the first book on the list to be read, I guess it has to go straight in at number 1. But don’t expect it to stay there.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Book two - The Maltese Falcon

I'm closing in on the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, so have been scoping out the list of 113 books for the second to read.

I've settled on The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, for two reasons. One, Hemingway's Spanish Civil War epic has taken a little longer than expected, and I'm already running a couple of weeks behind. Hammett's only entry in the list is relatively short, so the hope is to claw back some of the lost time. And, two, it's one of the novels lining our bookshelves, which means I don't have to fork out any more hard-earned just yet...

Views on For Whom the Bell Tolls should be up on the blog soon - till then, anyone who fancies reading The Maltese Falcon with me has a few days to root out a copy.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The somewhat terrifying launch of a two-year reading odyssey

Ask any successful author, publisher or agent for tips and advice on how to get published and, by and large, the responses will have a common theme running through them.

They’ll talk about taking your time and not firing out your first draft to all and sundry, but hiding it away in a desk draw for a month or two and then going back to it. And rewriting it. And polishing it. And then polishing it again. They’ll talk about researching the industry, about the need to create and develop your ‘platform’, and, vitally, they’ll all say you must write. Often. Every day if possible.

There’s another point they will all agree on – the need to read widely, and not just in the genre in which you write. To develop as a writer, you must read how others write, not just to know what the market is looking for, but to learn.

I don’t read anywhere near as widely as I should, and I suspect I’m not alone among other would-be novelists. I can plough through a book in a few days, if I have a clear run, but books tend to find a home on my bedside table for anywhere between a week and a month. It’s not good enough, but I’m a busy lad. Family, with two young kids. Work. Writing. Starting a publishing business. Trying to exercise regularly and get fit. Learning to speak Manx. Having some vague excuse for a social life. Reading, I’m afraid, is something of a luxury, although I always try and read a few pages, no matter how few, each day.

But it’s not just the length of time it takes me to finish a book. I mainly read crime, adventure and, more recently, young adult novels because they are the areas in which I write, and they tend to be on the contemporary side, usually within the last twenty years. For a long time I’ve known that I’m severely lacking when it comes to those authors whose books are considered to be the best works of fiction ever created. We’re talking Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, Tolstoy.

I was thinking about this the other day and before I knew it I was googling the ‘top 100 greatest ever books’ to see just how lacking I was. The number of top 100 lists was dizzying, but it soon became clear I was way out of my depth. So I had a thought – I’d print off a list and start making my way through them.

But which list to go for? There was nothing bang up-to-date, and some focused on readers’ favourites (with every Harry Potter book in the top 30), while others were compiled by reputable publications and looked very high-brow. Some focused on works in English, others widened the net to include books translated into English.

I was lost, until I stumbled across a list on that was compiled by adding together a book’s appearances on other greatest book lists. The more times it appeared on a list, the greater its reputation, and thus the higher its position in this table. For want of anything better, I printed out a copy and made a mark by all those I’d read.

There are 113 books on the list, as those who were tied on three appearances could not be separated to give a round century. After a quick scan, I came to the embarrassing conclusion that I’d read just ten of the books, and several of those at school.

So, here we are. Those books I’ve read, I’ll tackle again. I’m going to make my way up the list, starting with those tied on three appearances, and I’ll keep going until I reach the seven books that made seven appearances on these so-called ‘greatest books ever written’ lists.

With this blog, I’ll be passing comment/judgement on each of the books. The bottom line - are these books any bloody good? I don’t know how long it will take. If I can bang out a book a week, it will take just over two years. So I’ll aim for getting them done within two years. There’s nowt like a bit of pressure.

The aim? To become a better-read writer. The hope? That it will, in some small way, make me a better writer.

Let’s see where the journey takes me. To start, I’ve picked one from the bottom of the list that I’ve been meaning to read for years – Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I have a half-memory of seeing the Gary Cooper film as a young lad, but I could be mistaken.

If you have any thoughts on the books I mention here, please join in the discussion by leaving a comment. Hell, if you want to read a particular book - or several - at the same time, feel free to join in the fun. I might even buy a sofa.

So, here goes nothing. Page one, chapter one:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest...