Category Archives: Crime Fiction

The dead man had been killed by a shot from a revolver. So what was the prussic acid doing there?

The Murdered Banker, by Augusto De Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

Piazza San Fedele was a bituminous lake of fog penetrated only by the rosy haloes of arched street lamps.

So far there seem to be two very distinct strands to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. On the one hand there are intense psychological thrillers like Vertigo and She Who Was No More. On the other are highly traditional cosy crime/whodunnit novels like The Murdered Banker, only written by European authors less well-known to an English-speaking audience.

I’m not a huge fan of whodunnits in English so I’m probably not the best audience for them in translation. Despite that I was tempted to try a De Angelis and quite frankly I got the titles mixed up and forgot this was the one that the ever-reliable Guy Savage didn’t particularly rate. Oh well.

the-murdered-banker

Inspector De Vincenzi is relaxing on a foggy night at his Milanese police station with a pile of books kept carefully out of the public’s view. He’s reading Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and has Plato’s Eros and the Epistles of St Paul standing by in a drawer. Already we’ve established the kind of man he is: an intellectual, but not one indifferent to the impression he presents to those seeking his help.

Unexpectedly, his old friend Aurigi walks in claiming to have spent the past few hours wandering the streets in the freezing fog. Shortly after comes a call: a dead body has been found in Aurigi’s apartment. De Vincenzi is convinced that his old friend couldn’t be a murderer, but he has no alibi and when it turns out that the dead man is a banker to whom Aurigi owed a substantial debt that he couldn’t pay the case starts to look open and shut regardless of De Vincenzi’s doubts.

The problem is that while the police have a corpse, a motive and a suspect with no alibi there are facts at the scene that don’t add up. Why was a full bottle of prussic acid left at the scene given the victim was shot? Why would Aurigi commit the crime in his own apartment and leave himself without alibi? Why is the clock running one hour fast?

The oddest thing with The Murdered Banker is that early on De Vincenzi and another officer comment on how horrifically mysterious and inexplicable it all is, as later do De Vincenzi and Aurigi:

“You can’t trust appearances,” Maccari said, looking at him and shaking his head. “I have a feeling there’s something behind this that’s escaping us at the moment. Something horrible and unnatural. Too awful to contemplate.”

“I’m afraid—do you understand? I’m frightened of knowing what happened in here!

Both men stood looking beyond the door of the room to the door of the apartment. It was opening. From that moment on, the door took on the function of Destiny, determining the course of events each time it swung open like a terrible Nemesis.

I could quote more on those lines. It’s all terribly dramatic, but it quickly turns out that while the facts are complex and need a fair bit of investigation to untwine there’s nothing horrible or unnatural here nor ever any hint (other than the characters’ own statements) that there might be. To add to a slight sense of melodrama there’s also a bit of the stage-play to it all, with almost all the action taking place in Aurigi’s apartment with the characters wandering on and off-stage but returning each time to the same few rooms.

De Vincenzi soon determines that this is a murder with too many clues and, after a while, too many suspects (and more than one doubtful confession). He resignedly observes:

if one dismisses the idea of premeditation in this crime, it couldn’t have happened. And if one allows for it, it couldn’t have been carried out the way it appears to have been.”

It’s mysterious, but at the end of the day it’s still a man shot in a front room and several people who might be guilty (each for fairly understandable reasons). De Vincenzi oversells the horror in a book that (rightly) contains nothing horrific.

It’s all very clearly inspired by Agatha Christie, acknowledgedly so since one character quite directly says to De Vincenzi  “Oh, you have only to get the little grey cells of your brain working!” which is about as clear a shout-out as every you might hope for.

The character that quote comes from is the sadly underused Harrington – a flashy local PI brought in to shadow De Vincenzi’s investigation who adopts an English name for professional purposes. Harrington doesn’t really do much and the story would be much the same without him, which is a bit of a shame since to be honest I’d be more interested in following the adventures of a rather spivvy private investigator than yet another unusually insightful police inspector.

As always with this kind of novel there are some apparent coincidences that turn out to be anything but, and some others that really are coincidences. Arguably it’s a bit arbitrary that so much happens on the same night, but then the novel is about a case that’s tough to crack and if part of the reason its tough is a chance muddying of the investigative waters that’s fair enough. Besides, as De Vincenzi rightly observes: “wasn’t everything about real life and reality a bit arbitrary?”

In the end this is a rather slight affair which doesn’t quite fulfil the dramatic expectations it sets up early on. It’s fun and I may still read The Hotel of the Three Roses (great title if nothing else), but it shows that it’s De Angelis’ first try and I think readers who aren’t completists could happily skip on to some of his hopefully more polished later outings.

Other reviews

Guy Savage’s review, which I really should have read afresh before buying this since I entirely agree with it, is here. If you know any others please do let me know.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Being a man was too difficult.

She Who Was No More, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

A year or so back I saw Clouzot’s superb Les Diaboliques, a film which beats Hitchcock at his own game. What I didn’t know then is that it’s based on this novel, by writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who also wrote the novel Vertigo was based on.

The plot of Les Diaboliques is pretty well-known now, despite the film famously having a plea before the end credits asking audiences not to spoil the ending for others. Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it though I’ll avoid spoilers here. Boileau-Narcejac meant the reader to be uncertain what was going on and if you get the chance to read this cold I suspect it’ll be much more effective.

SheWhoWasNoMore

I love these Pushkin Vertigo covers.

Ravinel is a travelling salesman. He sells fishing gear, and is so good at making artificial lures that there’s an entire page in his company’s brochure dedicated solely to his creations. It’s the only thing he’s good at.

Ravinel is married to the pretty and pleasant Mireille. There’s no great reason they shouldn’t be happy enough, save for their doctor Lucienne who’s having an affair with Ravinel and has persuaded him to kill Mireille for the insurance money. Ravinel is too weak to say no or to ask why he’s planning to kill a perfectly decent woman at the behest of another he doesn’t even particularly like.

Lucienne is the driving force here. She’s cold, ambitious and greedy. When Ravinel has sex with her it’s hasty and functional. He has a poor heart and afterwards she often checks how his pulse is faring. Personally I’d find that a little off-putting. There’s little sense she loves Ravinel.

The plan is a simple one. Ravinel and Lucienne drown Mireille in a bathtub then place the body in a lavoir, an outdoor wash-hut, so that it’ll look like she had an accident. The next day Ravinel will come home and discover her there. After a suitable period of grieving he’ll claim the insurance and he and Lucienne will go off into the sunset.

Lucienne does all the hard work. All Ravinel has to do is drug a decanter Mireille drinks from so that she passes out. After that it’s Lucienne who has to push her down into a bath, load weights on her chest to keep her under, make sure she’s dead and then wrap the body in a rug for transportation. Ravinel doesn’t even have the strength to admit what they’ve done let alone do it himself.

It wasn’t he, Ravinel, who was guilty. No one was. Mireille had drunk a soporific. A bathtub was filling up. That was all. There was nothing terrible about it, and nothing which had anything to do with crime.

The murder comes off. The next part is down to Ravinel. He has to discover the body and he has to do so without Lucienne as if she’s there it’ll raise suspicion. The problem is, when it comes time to discover the body it’s gone missing. Left trying to explain the inexplicable Ravinel’s mind begins to unravel. The structure of the lavoir means it couldn’t have washed away, but there’s no reason for anyone to have stolen it and it could hardly have wandered off on its own…

As theory after theory passed through his mind, he became once more overwhelmed by a sensation of helplessness. After a while he decided that the body hadn’t been stolen after all. But it wasn’t there. So it must have been. But nobody could possibly want to steal it… And so it went on, round and round in a circle. Ravinel felt a little pain beneath his left temple and rubbed the spot. No question of his falling ill at this juncture. He simply hadn’t the right to! But what was he to do, Bon Dieu, what was he to do?

It gets a lot worse, a lot more puzzling, from there.

She Who Was is very much a novel of psychological suspense. It’s an intensely moody book, with noirish lines like “she lifted her little veil, in which raindrops had been caught as in a spider’s web.” Ravinel though is the one caught. Boileau-Narcejac fill the book with fog, thickly but effectively laying on the atmosphere. The fog lies so heavy that Ravinel can barely drive his car or find his way down the street, but it’s the fog in his head he’s really lost in.

She Who Was clocks in at a little under 200 pages making it a concentrated café noir of a book. Ravinelle is weak and confused and Lucienne’s not the sort you’d look to for comfort. She practically bullies Ravinel into murder and he never has the wit to question what his fate is likely to be once they’re married and she’s set to inherit all that insurance money. There are also hints that he might not be the only one she had an affair with – when he looks at photos of a holiday he and Mireille took with Lucienne all the photos are of the two women happy together, none are of him. Mireille’s body isn’t the only thing Ravinel can’t see.

There’s no denying that She Who Was would be a stronger book if you don’t know what’s actually going on, which I did. The ideal reader would be as lost in the fog as Ravinel himself, only emerging from it as he does. It’s still effective even so and features a particularly chilling final line which ties the book up as neatly and disturbingly as one might wish.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at His Futile Preoccupations here as effectively as ever and there’s a very good review at the Pretty Sinister blog here that goes into a lot more plot elements than either Guy or I do (if you know the movie there’s no spoilers, if you don’t you might prefer to read that review after). My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo is here.

 

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Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Vertigo

It was how the place made you feel, like it was alive and biding its time before it crushed you.

Death is a Welcome Guest, by Louise Welsh

Death is a Welcome Guest is the second in Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy. It’s not so much a sequel to her first in the sequence, A Lovely Way to Burn, as a companion piece. The apocalypse unfolding from another perspective.

Death_is_a_Welcome_Guest

That perspective belongs to Magnus McFall, a stand-up comedian who as the novel opens is on the way to the gig of his life. He’s the warm-up for a popular tv comedian playing the O2 Arena in South London. Warm-up might not sound like much, but the O2 is a huge venue and any comedian who finds themselves performing there in any capacity is doing ok for themselves.

The problem is that as the first novel established the UK and much of the world is coming down with the Sweats, an influenza-like illness which is spreading rapidly and causing huge disruption. Magnus isn’t feeling too well himself as he heads to the O2, a sensation made worse when he sees someone evidently suffering from the Sweats pass out and fall under a train. Things are coming apart, he just doesn’t know yet quite how bad they’ll get.

On his way home Magnus sees a woman being attacked in an alley and goes to help. He drives off her assailant, but when more help comes they think he’s the attacker and he finds himself arrested for attempted rape. Magnus is in serious trouble. He was drunk, there’s no witnesses as to exactly what happened and the woman he saved was too drunk or sick to know what happened. He’s given a uniform marking him out as a vulnerable prisoner so the guards know not to mix him with the general population and then put in a cell to await trial. You’d think it couldn’t get much worse, but his cellmate falls seriously ill and the guards don’t seem to care. They only move Magnus when his cell mate, who’s received no medical attention, dies. Magnus gets moved, the body doesn’t. Something is very much up.

Magnus’ new cell mate, Jeb, is a quiet but violent looking man who apparently doesn’t normally share his cell with anyone. Jeb’s another vulnerable prisoner, generally a sign of a serious sex offender who other inmates might attack on the (usually correct) assumption that they’re a rapist or child molester. As the guards stop coming round Magnus and Jeb start getting hungry and realise that their cell could soon be their tomb.

The first third or so of Guest takes place in the prison and is incredibly tense (once the stage mechanics necessary to get Magnus in there while being innocent are done). It’s a bit of coincidence that Magnus ends up with another Sweats’ survivor, but not hugely so since presumably they were put together since neither was sick. Once they get out of their cell Magnus has to rely on Jeb’s prison-savvy to get out of a building expressly designed to stop people leaving and now overrun with other escaped prisoners all desperate and many dying. All this while wearing a uniform that marks Magnus out for attack by any prisoner who sees him and accompanied by a man who might well be a killer or worse.

Once they finally emerge the apocalypse is in full swing, indeed it’s mostly over. There are still soldiers trying to keep the peace and prevent looting, but not many and they’re clearly losing interest. Welsh easily evokes a devastated and empty England:

Almost all the shop windows that lined the road had been smashed. New clothes, some still on their hangers, lay scattered in heaps at the edge of the road, piled like storm-blasted seaweed at low tide. Trainers spilled from cardboard boxes inside a ransacked branch of Foot Locker and mobile phones were scattered like hand grenades outside EE Mobile. The bank sandwiched between the two plundered shops stood strangely intact, as if looters had decided they preferred solid merchandise to cash.

A nice touch here is Magnus’s own overheated imagination. He’s seen too many zombie movies and with corpses lying everywhere keeps imagining them getting up and coming after him, as if the reality weren’t bad enough. I found that stupid enough to be credible and it added a nice touch of absurdity which I thought very human.

Magnus is originally from the Orkneys and hopes that somehow his family might still be alive there (a pretty forlorn looking hope as several characters point out). He and Jeb head north, travelling together and slowly learning if not to trust each other at least to co-exist. Jeb’s close-mouthed about his past and doesn’t particularly believe in Magnus’s innocence (every prisoner claims they’re wrongly imprisoned). They’re together by necessity, not choice.

Welsh’s debt to the 1970s tv show Survivors is even more evident in this book than the last. Magnus and Jeb come to a country house where a small group are trying to re-establish a community. Among them is ex-army chaplain Jacob who rescues Magnus and Jacob from an attacker but seems perhaps a bit too ready to shoot to kill when facing challenge. Magnus and Jeb need to rest up so they temporarily join the community. Jacob hopes to persuade them to make their stay permanent.

As anyone familiar with the genre knows, the true threat after the apocalypse is other people. Two of the community have recently died, apparently through suicide. Jacob has his doubts. The first death he found credible, a distressed young woman who hanged herself, though the chair was a long way from the body. The second died from cut wrists but with no signs of hesitation marks and no prior indications suicide was likely. Anyone might do anything with the world ending, but if suicide is possible so too is murder.

Murder in a country house is as traditional as it gets, but when the murderer is one of a handful of survivors of a global apocalypse there’s nowhere to look for help. There’s no police and no backup. Just a random group of strangers every one of whom is going through enough trauma to turn anyone insane.

I did work out who the killer was, but that wasn’t remotely fatal as Welsh has plenty more story yet including rival groups of survivors and deeper questions of trust, morality and justice. What do you do with dangerous people when there are no police or prisons left? What prices are worth paying to reestablish community? Crime fiction is moral fiction, and by putting crime in a post-apocalypse context Welsh is able to strip these questions back and to force her characters to come up with their own answers.

Other reviews

My review of the first in this series, A Lovely Way to Burn, here. Credit for pointing me to this series at all belongs to Grant of 1st reading, and his review of this one is here.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Science Fiction, Welsh, Louise

“Somehow, the idea of the devil in a motor boat sounds too utterly fantastic,” remarked the Inspector.

The Secret of High Eldersham, by Miles Burton

After finishing my #TBR10 (which I’ll post separately about) I found myself intensely busy at work and in need of lighter reading. Guy Savage had recently reviewed Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham which sounded a fun change from the sort of book I’d normally read. Besides, just look at that cover:

Eldersham

I adore the British Library Crime Classics covers. It’s a shame I don’t generally enjoy vintage cosy crime, because they all look quite wonderful.

This one’s a bit of an oddity. Miles Burton was a hugely successful writer in his day and his series character Desmond Merrion was a popular hero. Merrion takes a while to arrive though, with the book opening with the retirement of a village pub landlord due to failing trade and his replacement by a retired police officer who takes on the lease. A short few years later and the new landlord is found dead in his own pub, stabbed to death.

The local police aren’t used to investigating murders and Scotland Yard is called in, in the form of Detective Inspector Young. After making some initial headway he finds his investigation stalled. Young was warned by the local bobby that “strangers don’t never prosper in High Eldersham” and that odd things happen to outsiders. Increasingly he feels “himself surrounded by impalpable forces beyond his power to combat.” Spooky stuff, but perhaps it’s just isolation and imagination getting to him.

Detective Inspector Young does what any sensible professional police officer would surely do in such a situation. He calls on an amateur to help him out.

Desmond Merrion is an independently wealthy war veteran with a sharp mind and a sizable independent income. Young captures his attention with the mysterious claim that “High Eldersham holds one of the most remarkable secrets of recent years.” Intrigued, Merrion makes his way to High Eldersham incognito so that he can make unofficial inquiries alongside Young’s official ones.

It’s no great spoiler to say there’s a folk horror element to the Secret of High Eldersham. Young quite quickly becomes convinced that witchcraft is being practised in the town. He finds a makeshift wax doll with a needle stuck into it in a suspect’s home, and on a return visit Merrion gets a closer look and discovers that the doll was marked with the dead man’s name. Neither Young nor Merrion believe in magic, but the villagers might and someone could be using that local superstition as a cover for wider crimes.

Merrion, aided by his indefatigable batman Newport, poses as a holidaying amateur sailor and by that means gets closer to some of the local gentry. Among them is an odd sort named Laurence Hollesley that Merrion knew from the war. Hollesley’s in love with the local magistrate’s beautiful daughter Mavis and soon Merrion is too, but evidence points to her father as being involved in the various nefarious goings-on. Can Merrion find out what’s really going on? And if Mavis’s father is involved, can Merrion protect her from that terrible truth?

High Eldersham is something of a blend between detective story, thriller and folk horror tale. There are multiple story strands, all of which of course tie up together in the end (somewhat coincidentally so to my mind given at one point Young goes off to investigate a totally separate case in London which then turns out to be connected to the events in High Eldersham). There’s murder, London drug dealers, Hollesely and his sinister butler getting up to curious deeds off the coast, a romance sub-plot, a mysterious coven practicing dark rituals. It all gets a bit much to keep track of and while I never got confused I did find myself thinking there was perhaps a little too much packed in here.

Burton (a pen name) has a lovely eye for description. Much of the action takes place off the coast, between a battered old boat Merrion hires, Mavis’s prized speedboat and Hollesley’s yacht and Burton clearly relishes descriptions of the sea and sky.

Saturday turned out to be a bright, cold day, with a fresh breeze from the north-westward. Towards the evening, however, the wind backed to the south-west and the weather grew considerably milder. At the same time, fleecy masses of cloud began to float slowly across the hitherto clear sky.

Burton’s persuasive familiarity with the sea works well in a particularly notable scene where Merrion finds himself stranded on a fog-shrouded sandbank with water rising up on all sides and no idea which way to swim to find the shore. The witchy scenes are also suitably creepy:

… he came to a stretch of smooth and level turf, set in the centre of the coppice. He explored this with considerable care. It seemed to be roughly circular, with a diameter of rather more than a hundred feet. In the centre was a burnt patch, upon which lay a few ashes and charred pieces of wood. Having looked very carefully at this, Merrion crossed the open space to its boundary, which was formed by the trees and a mass of rough brushwood growing among them. Making his way slowly round he came upon two tall trees growing some five yards apart, their interlaced branches forming a canopy above his head. And half-way between the two trunks stood a huge stone, which had at one time been roughly hewn. The top of the stone was hollowed like a saucer, and into this depression Merrion cast the rays of his torch. Beneath a layer of fallen leaves and pieces of bark the surface of the stone showed smooth and worn. But upon it were spots of candle grease, and between them dark stains as of dried blood.

In the end though while I enjoyed High Eldersham it is fair to say that it would be a better novel with a little less going on. It all gets a bit unlikely. Young and Merrion quickly work out that someone has resurrected a centuries old declining witch cult and then pretended to have magical powers so as to control the locals, but I couldn’t help thinking that there might have been simpler ways for the villains to carry out their nefarious plots that might have involved less effort. The characterisation is pretty straightforward which meant that I worked out who was responsible pretty quickly, and while the why was more elusive it wasn’t really quite interesting enough to justify the extraordinary means employed.

If you’re a fan of folk horror this is worth reading. If, however, you’re more a fan of vintage crime I suspect you can give it a miss.

Other reviews

Guy brought this to my attention which his review here. Other reviews worth noting are at the Past Offences blog here and the Cross Examining Crime blog here. Both Past and Cross picks up on the potential stylistic connection to The Riddle of the Sands, another yacht-based thriller which I think benefits from a considerably tighter focus than High Eldersham.

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Filed under Burton, Miles, Crime Fiction

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.

Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train is one of my favourite Hitchcock movies. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is one of the finest psychological thrillers I’ve read. Patricia Highsmith’s original Strangers on a Train novel seemed then an absolute certainty for an entertaining read.

Strangers

Guy Haines is a gifted young architect travelling by train to see his ex-wife Miriam. I say ex, but they’re just separated and Guy needs a divorce so he can marry his new love Anne. The problem is that Miriam’s a schemer and Guy doesn’t expect to get free of her without paying some kind of price.

A tall blond young man in a rust-brown suit dropped into the empty seat opposite Guy and, smiling with a vague friendliness, slid over into the corner. Guy glanced at his pallid, undersized face. There was a huge pimple in the exact centre of his forehead.

That tall young man is the idly rich Charles Anthony Bruno. Guy is serious and hard-working; a responsible fellow with a bright future ahead of him who’s earned his many achievements to date. Bruno (as he’s mostly referred to) is Guy’s opposite; diffident and drunk and born to privilege.

Bruno engages Guy in reluctant conversation. He’s one of those people you run into on a long train journey or flight who won’t shut up, but Guy finds himself drawn in and eventually the conversation turns to murder. Bruno you see hates his father and likes to dream perfect plans for killing without getting caught.

Despite the warning signs Guy ends up having dinner with Bruno and then drinks in Bruno’s cabin. Bruno needs to vent, but so in his own way does Guy who has his own problems and who finds himself telling this “stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget” about the grasping Miriam.

By the end of the evening Bruno has suggested his latest scheme for a perfect murder – that two strangers swap victims each killing the other’s. Since in each case the actual murderer would have no motive for their crime the police would surely be lost trying to work out who was responsible. Naturally Guy doesn’t bite, but when a few weeks later he hears that Miriam has been strangled to death he begins to wonder…

The narrative shifts between Guy and Bruno’s perspectives, so the reader knows for certain what Guy only suspects – Bruno murdered Miriam. However, initially at least Bruno’s motive isn’t the murder-swap that he proposed. He just wants to help Guy. Bruno is like a feral puppy, desperately seeking Guy’s friendship and approval but capable at any moment of turning on those around him. Bruno expects Guy’s gratitude, but when Guy works out what’s happened he reacts only in horror and Bruno finds himself spurned. Bruno doesn’t take rejection well.

Guy finds himself in an impossible position. He has an alibi for Miriam’s murder, but he also has a clear motive and Bruno keeps showing up. Worse it turns out that Bruno and Anne are in the same social circles making it ever easier for Bruno to make himself part of Guy’s life. The more Guy pushes back the more Bruno gets upset, and Bruno decides that if Guy won’t be his friend the least he can do is fulfil his part of the bargain and kill Bruno’s father.

Bruno clearly is a narcissistic psychopath. He’s fixated on Guy and there’s a strong implication of sublimated attraction. What about Guy himself though? Why didn’t he break off that initial conversation? Why does he let Bruno get under his skin so easily? Guy’s successful and brilliant in his profession but he’s also weak, easily dominated first by Miriam and now by Bruno. Even with the sensible and loving Anne he finds himself the junior partner, with her driving their relationship and helping push forward his career.

The ugly truth here is that for all the revulsion he feels Guy likes Bruno, and something about Bruno resonates with him. They’re both part-men, each completed by the other. That cover image above isn’t from the edition I have, but I liked it and its byline does capture a truth of the book: an evil man, but also a weak one.

Later, as their plans inevitably start to unravel, Bruno asks a private investigator sniffing into the links between him and Guy whether he understands the calibre of man that Guy is. The PI replies “‘The only calibre ever worth considering is the gun’s’”. When they first met Bruno said something similar telling Guy that anyone, given the right circumstance, could find themselves capable of murder.

Guy Haines has a glittering career, a beautiful and rich new wife, good character and a clear path into the establishment. The PI was right though, and so was Bruno on that fateful first meeting. The only calibre that matters is the gun’s.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at his, here.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Highsmith, Patricia

What we won’t do to hang on to a relationship that’s slipping away from us, an image of fading love.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara and translated by Jill Foulston

Back in 2009 the director Carol Morley made a documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who lay dead in her apartment for a month before anyone discovered her. Morley explored how a woman who had had friends, a good job, a life, could somehow slip through the cracks and at less than forty years of age find themselves dying without anyone noticing they were gone.

There’s nothing in the plot or characters of The Disappearance of Signora Giulia that brings Joyce Vincent’s story to mind, and referencing Joyce Vincent is in no way a spoiler for anything in this book. The connection is of mood: a haunting sense that something important has happened but without knowing exactly what or how; of having questions to which there may never be an answer.

Disappearance

It’s 1955, Northern Italy. Giulia is a beautiful woman married to a much older man, the respected lawyer Esengrini. Every Thursday morning she takes the train to Milan to visit their daughter. One Thursday she doesn’t arrive. Back at home there are signs of a robbery, and there’s no evidence she ever even got on the train. She’s vanished.

Esengrini asks Commissario Sciancalepre to look into the case. Both men suspect the visits to the daughter may have been cover to an affair, but did Giulia run away or did something happen to her?

‘Sciancalepre, you’re a southerner and can understand certain things better than I can. I can’t say that I’m not up to it, but I’m definitely getting there. In recent years, our twenty-year age difference has really created a gap between my wife and me. Did you notice that even though our rooms are next to each other, they’re separate? It’s been like that for more than a year. Signora Giulia wants nothing more to do with me in bed. She says that for me, bed is a branch of the office: I read trial proceedings, take notes and look through legal journals until late. I’m sixty, you know, and I’m like any other sixty-year-old man. But my wife is only thirty-eight, to be exact…’

It doesn’t take long for Sciancalepre to find evidence of adultery, a possibly criminal matter in post-Fascist Italy. The clues however soon dry up and the case becomes unsolved. Years pass, with the question of what happened to Signora Giulia nagging at Sciancalepre. Eventually Esengrini and Giulia’s daughter grows up and comes into her trust fund and possession of the house where Giulia was last seen, which brings new evidence into light and means Sciancalepre may be able to solve the greatest mystery of his career after all.

Sciancalepre makes a likable protagonist. He’s intelligent and sympathetic, but professionally sceptical and he’s quite aware that Esengrini might only have initiated the investigation in order to divert suspicion from the possibility of his own guilt. Better yet however, Sciancalepre is thoroughly Italian:

They started their search in the office. At twelve-thirty the operation was suspended for lunch. Sciancalepre couldn’t do without his pasta,

This is a slim novel, just 120 pages or so, and yet it has enough twists for a book easily twice its size. I guessed around the three-quarters mark who must have done it, and sure enough Sciancalepre duly arrested them, but the novel doesn’t stop there and more complex questions of proof and guilt arrive undermining both my and his certainty. The novel becomes slippery and truth elusive.

Disappearance partly draws on the cosy crime and locked room mystery genres (there’s no locked room here, but there is a puzzle about how exactly Signora Giulia disappeared on that otherwise ordinary Thursday morning). Neither are genres I care for, and I’m not therefore a particularly good reader for this book. Even so, I enjoyed it and I think it makes an interesting addition to the Pushkin Vertigo lineup as it’s ultimately a disquieting and unexpected read.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say much without spoiling it for others (which hopefully the small discussion I’ve had here won’t do). It’s short and cleanly written and translated and if you’re anything at all like me it’ll still trouble you after you’ve turned the final page. What more could one really ask for?

Other reviews

I was sold this by reviews from David Hebblethwaite at David’s Book Blog, here; and from Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations, here.

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Filed under Chiara, Piero, Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Italy, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Who was it who invented coffee? He must be a cousin of the genius who invented the bed. Nobel Prizes for both of them. For them, and for the person who invented Nutella.

Game for Five, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis

Game for Five was the last book I read in 2015. I read it in the run up to New Year while feeling slightly under the weather from a cold and from the usual Christmas excess. I wanted to lie quietly in a room digesting and recovering, and knew I wasn’t up to anything too serious or dark.

One of the advantages of following book blogs is that you’re never short of recommendations for any kind of book you might wish (it’s also one of the disadvantages). Need a book for a post-Christmas slump? Not a problem.

GameforFive

The classic Italian neighbourhood bar isn’t somewhere you go just to get drunk. Instead it’s a mix of social hub and of breathing space between work and home. A good Italian bar is civilisation with an espresso machine.

Massimo is the owner and barman of Bar Lume, a neighbourhood bar in a seaside town near Pisa. His regulars include a group of four old men, one of them his grandfather Ampelio, who like to while away their day sitting outside chatting and playing cards. When he’s quiet he joins them and if he’s called away they cover for him. The Italian for to chat by the way is chiacchierare, isn’t that great? So onomatopoeic.

The tourist trade keeps the bar busy, but mostly at predictable times of day leaving Massimo with a lot of free time and an easy life. That all changes when a late night drunk stumbles across the corpse of a murdered girl, and the first place he goes to for help is Massimo’s bar. Massimo ends up second on the scene and first to call the police, and to his dismay it’s local cop Inspector Fusco who heads up the investigation.

Fusco isn’t exactly Inspector Morse, and he quickly latches on a local boy who hasn’t got an alibi but who hasn’t much to link him with the crime either. Reluctantly Massimo realises that if the truth’s to come out he has to lend a hand and do a little digging of his own. Massimo doesn’t have the limited resources of the town police department, but he does have something much better – he has his elderly regulars and through them the entire town’s rumour mill:

How the hell is it that people always know what’s going on? Massimo thought. What do they have in their homes, satellite receivers? “Listen, we’ll tell you what O.K. told us . . . ” “That seems only fair, and I’ll tell you what Fusco told me.” Four timeworn necks craned towards the counter. “I don’t believe it!” Ampelio said. “Has he found something?” “But keep it to yourselves as long as possible, please.” Believe us, the four faces said, while Massimo’s face made an effort to keep as deadpan as possible. The important thing, when you gossip, is to maintain a formal structure. The person spreading the gossip has to demand the maximum secrecy, and the listeners have to grant it. Obviously, they’ll broadcast the news as widely as they can later. It’s just a matter of time. If someone says, “Keep it to yourselves as long as possible,” he doesn’t mean “Tell it to the fewest possible people,” but “Resist for at least a little while before coming out with it, that way it’ll be harder to trace it back to me.”

Massimo’s a genial and basically good-natured sort. People like him and they’re happy to talk to him. Soon even Inspector Fusco realises that Massimo might actually be useful and that there are doors that open easily for a barman that remain firmly closed to the police.

What follows is a fairly classic amateur detective novel. I worked out whodunnit a little bit before the reveal, but it’s not one of those books where the point is to treat it like a crossword puzzle and see if you can beat the mystery. Instead it’s an utterly charming slice of small town Italian life, with a murder thrown in to give everyone something to do.

The real joy here is the interaction between the characters. Massimo’s grandfather, Ampelio, is on a restricted diet due to health issues and so is constantly sneaking in illicit ice-creams and lying about how many he’s already had. In between, he manages to give Massimo an affectionate hard time:

“Nice to see you, son,” Ampelio greeted him. “We’ve been waiting for you for two hours. I guess you were scared they’d take away your pillow and you were hugging it for safekeeping.”

Massimo and his regulars are all hugely entertaining to spend time with. The rest of the cast are generally fun and well (if lightly) drawn, and even the omniscient narratorial voice gets in a fair few knowing asides:

“The man’s a lecher. They say he once got a sixteen-year-old girl pregnant and made her have an abortion. I was told that by Zaira, whose grandson works at the Imperiale.” (Another basic rule, when sticking your nose into the business of people you’ve never seen or known, is to back up your statements with specific references to people or, better still, the relatives of people whose knowledge of the subject is guaranteed by some connection or other with the person in question. This makes even the most utter bullshit sound reassuringly logical.)

There’s also a wonderful running gag where Massimo refuses to serve drinks he doesn’t approve of. Massimo has strong views on what drinks are appropriate to any given time of day or temperature; asking for a cappuccino after breakfast is more likely to result in a lecture than a coffee.

It’s fair to say that Malvaldi is stronger on his male characters than his female. Massimo is slightly old school, having chosen his barmaid as much for her breasts as her brain (though she is pretty competent). I got the sense that perhaps Malvaldi himself wasn’t greatly different, since the narrator at one point comments on women who look gorgeous but ruin everything when they open their mouths to reveal crass local accents (“Don’t speak, girls, just let yourselves be looked at.”) At the same time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know what he meant, so perhaps I’m just being a little Guardian-readery there.

Otherwise, this is a warm and likable novel. It’s a book to sink into after a crappy day with a generous glass of wine close to hand. It was perfect for what I wanted when I turned to it, and that’s no small thing.

As the cover suggests, this is the first of a series. The real test for me always when someone reviews a series’ novel is whether they plan to read another. Well, these aren’t all translated yet, but I absolutely intend to pick up the sequel, and I look forward to meeting Massimo and his regulars again. Mine’s a Negroni.

Other reviews

I heard about this from JacquiWine Journal’s review, here. Jacqui did her characteristically great job of describing the book. In fact, on this occasion I made the mistake of rereading her review before starting mine and found myself without actually that much to say since she rather seemed to have covered it all.

Postscript

Some readers may notice that this wasn’t actually my next scheduled review. Basically I’ve just got too much of a review backlog currently and I’m reading books faster than I’m writing about them. Later in the year there should be slower periods while I’m reading big books like the next Proust, so my plan is to skip a couple of reviews now and hopefully come back to them later.

The books I’m skipping for the moment are Hawthorn and Child, which is excellent, and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing which is fascinating though I’m slightly less enamoured of it than many others are. Both absolutely merit a review, but both are already very widely reviewed so it’s not like people are struggling to get views on them.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Malvaldi, Marco

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

Vertigo, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Like I suspect a lot of people I had no idea Hitchcock’s Vertigo was based on a book. The film, if you’ve not seen it, is easily among Hitchcock’s best and is a masterpiece of mood and obsessive desire. I’m a big fan of it.

When Pushkin Press recently launched their new crime imprint they named it Vertigo, after this book (or more properly after the film, since the book’s title roughly translates as Among the Dead). No surprise then that it was one of their initial release titles.

It’s classic Pushkin material. We’re talking mid-20th Century underappreciated European fiction here, and if that’s not Pushkin’s beat what is?

I’m going to write this review on the assumption you’ve not seen the film, though anyone reading this probably has.

Vertigo

Before I start, that photo above doesn’t really do the book justice. The new Pushkin Vertigo range have a simple but very effective graphic design – relatively few elements but with a nicely judged off-kilter sense of unease.

Paris, 1940. Roger Flavières is a former policeman turned lawyer. His practice hasn’t taken off and his life hasn’t gone as he’d hoped. “He was one of those people who hate mediocrity without themselves being able to scale the heights.” He’s a damaged man, crippled by guilt over a colleague’s death that he blames himself for and which caused him to quit the police.

As the novel opens Flavières  is contacted by old acquaintance Paul Gévigne, a successful industrialist who needs somebody he can trust to watch his wife, Madeleine. Gévigne claims that Madeleine has become oddly distant, that she seems to go into increasingly frequent trances and extraordinary as it might seem that she may be being influenced by the spirit of a dead ancestor. Gévigne wants to take care of her, but with war in the offing he’s too busy expanding into the arms trade and putting himself in position to profit from the coming conflict.

Flavières finds Gévigne repugnant and is reluctant to get involved, but he agrees at least to take a look at Madeleine. From the moment he does so he’s sunk.

… his thoughts lingered over her eyes, intensely blue, but so pale that they didn’t seem quite alive, eyes which certainly could never express passion. The cheeks were slightly hollowed out under prominent cheekbones, just sufficiently to harbour a faint shadow which suggested languor. Her mouth was small with hardly any lipstick on it – the mouth of a dreamy child. Madeleine – yes, that was undoubtedly the right name for her. […] She was unhappy, of course.

Flavières begins to follow Madeleine, but soon moves from being an investigator to a sort of paid companion. Gévigne encourages Flavières to spend all his days with her, even when Flavières admits he’s developing feelings. Gévigne doesn’t care, argues that’s to the good as it’ll make Flavières all the more diligent. The situation reeks, but Flavières ignores the warning signs as the more time he spends with Madeleine the more he idolises her and the less he can bear the idea of being apart from her.

Let’s look back at that quote above. Flavières’ never been good with women, and now he has Madeleine with her “eyes which certainly could never express passion” and her “mouth of a dreamy child”. He loves her, but his love is worship of a goddess, not desire for a woman.

Meanwhile in the background the war continues. Early on nobody takes it that seriously – the press is full of opinion pieces about how the German army is hopelessly ill-equipped to advance and of the folly of German aggression. Both France and Flavières are in denial, but the sun is shining, Flavières is in love and the German menace is distant and not to be taken too seriously.

For me easily the most audacious part of the novel was the mirroring of Flavières’ fortunes and those of France itself. As he begins to worry how long he can protect Madeleine from herself and her increasingly otherworldly moods, the news from the front becomes more disquieting. The press remains upbeat, yet the fighting keeps getting closer to Paris. Neither situation can last.

It was known now that the German armour was advancing on Arras, and that the fate of the country was in the balance. Every day more cars drove through the town, looking for the bridge and the road to the South. And people stood in the streets silently staring at them, their hearts empty. They were more and more dirty, more and more ramshackle. With a shamefaced curiosity, people would question the fugitives. In all this, Flavières saw the image of his own disaster. He had no longer the strength to go back to Paris.

The novel then jumps forward four years, to a ruined France and equally ruined Flavières. The personal and the public are here inseparable; one a mirror to the other. Flavieres believed Madeleine long dead, but then sees her in a post-war newsreel; he’s already lost her once, he won’t let it happen a second time.

Vertigo is a clever and psychologically astute examination of desire and obsession. Flavières’ character is expertly realised, and the slow unravelling of what’s really going on with Gévigne and Madeleine is masterfully handled. If you have seen the film you’ll know much of the gist, but the film changes a lot too and there are subtleties here which it can’t equal (much as I love it).

The afterword explains that writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wanted “to develop a new kind of crime fiction”, less whodunnits and more victim-focused nightmares. On the strength of Vertigo they succeeded, and while I received this book as a review copy I’ll definitely be buying Pushkin’s other Boileau-Narcejac.

I’ll end with a small note on the translation. Generally it reads smoothly and the language is effective and evocative. I can’t say how true it is to the original, but it reads well. Very occasionally however translator Geoffrey Sainsbury leaves a phrase in French, presumably for flavour but I found it slightly jarring as in my imagination at least the whole thing is in French (and on one occasion I actually didn’t know what a phrase meant which seemed needlessly irritating). Still, despite that complaint if Sainsbury has translated the other Boileau-Narcejac I’ll still be pleased to see his name (tucked away in the copyright page as it is).

Other reviews

Lots and lots of them. I noted both Jacqui’s review from her Jacquiwine’s Journal, here and Guy’s review from His Futile Preoccupations here. Both of those are sufficiently good as to make mine rather redundant. However, I’m sure I’ve also read others which I’ve since lost the link to so as always please feel free to link me to them in the comments.

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Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

It was the action of a shit, and Bobby wasn’t that, except that he was and apparently always had been.

9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Bobby Zha is a down-on-his-luck San Francisco cop, unpopular with his colleagues and the top brass but with a knack for the street which makes it just about worth their while keeping him in the job. He’s divorced and his teenage daughter barely talks to him. Doesn’t sound original does it?

Don’t worry though, because within about 30 pages Bobby Zha will be gunned down in a deserted alley with his partner suddenly nowhere to be seen. Bobby’s been set up. As he lies there dying he sees standing over him the Jinwei hu, the celestial fox of Chinese folklore that his grandfather used to tell him about:

The fox was pure white and carried its tale high and curled like flame over its back. Its eyes were red as coals, fierce with anger. White canines showed on either side of its mouth.

Bobby, an atheist who’s long since run out of good reasons for living, finds “the appearance of the celestial fox far more shocking than the thought of his death.” Getting killed in the line of duty is a risk of the job. Seeing a celestial fox though? That’s just plain strange.

9tail-fox_1_med_hr

Bobby wakes up, which he wasn’t expecting. Even more unexpected is that he doesn’t find himself recovering from being shot or in some undreamt of afterlife. Instead, he finds himself in the body of coma victim Robert Vanberg who’s spent the last twenty years a vegetable in a New York private clinic. Fortunately for Bobby, Vanberg has access to a substantial trust fund and before too long he’s on a plane back to San Francisco to investigate his own murder.

Grimwood sets up expectations of a science-fiction explanation early with an intercalary chapter set in 1942 Stalingrad (inserted between the early chapters where Bobby is Bobby and the later ones where Bobby’s come back as Vanberg). In that a boy assists a Russian scientist experimenting with keeping heads alive separate to their bodies, and before his death Bobby was investigating a shooting at the home of an aged Russian scientist. Could the technology have advanced over the intervening decades? Has someone for some reason has transplanted Bobby’s memories and personality from one body to another?

Perhaps, but none of that explains the fox, nor does any of it explain the faint psychic abilities Bobby seems to have picked up since his death. Now, when he touches someone, he gets a sense of their character and even some of their memories. Perhaps it’s just intuition, perhaps it’s something more.

We’re talking genre mashup, or perhaps it would be better to say genre fusion. 9Tail Fox has elements of police procedural and hardboiled detective story combined with science fiction or supernatural thriller (but the reader can’t be sure which). Cleverly, Bobby’s ignorance of how he ended up in Vanberg’s body is matched by the reader’s uncertainty as to whether the explanation will be technology or magic.

This isn’t my first Grimwood, though it is my first since starting this blog. I’m used to him being strong on description, on a very concrete sense of place (even where the place is one he’s made up), and this is no exception:

The building which gave the quay its name had been elegant and even beautiful, in a strict utilitarian sort of way, with half pillars flanking its doorways and art deco plaster work framing each window. But someone had kicked holds in a wall painted to look like stone, leaving a savage wound now colonised by pigeons, who cocked their heads and stared suspiciously at the three men stood in front of them.

More interesting though is the character study. Bobby starts out something of a cliché, but that’s in part because that’s the role he’s cast himself in. Now he’s been recast. Bobby was overweight, something of a slob, ethnically half-Chinese and not particularly attractive. Vanberg by contrast is younger (he went into the coma aged only eight), good-looking, white, and very rich. Bobby’s moved race, class and income bracket, and people treat him very differently as a result.

Not being dead is only Bobby’s first big surprise. His second is learning what people really thought about him.

Bobby put two fingers of whisky in a glass and splashed with water from a carafe. ‘Here.’
‘Pour one for yourself,’ said Bea. ‘While I deal with the curtains …’
She paused. ‘Did you really know Sergeant Zha?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bobby. ‘Pretty well.’
‘What did you think of him?’ Curtains done, Be a flopped into a chair to take off her shoes, flashing stocking as she did so.
‘He was okay,’ said Bobby finally.
Bea tossed her shoes onto a carved table. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Believe me, he was a shit.’ They sat in silence after that, Beatrice slowly sipped her whisky into ice and emptiness, while Bobby thought about what she’d said and the viciousness with which she said it.
‘What kind of shit?’ he asked eventually.

Bobby thought of himself as a man who bent the rules. He learns that others just thought he was corrupt. He thought he had a special knack for dealing with kids and the homeless. That bit’s true, but he didn’t know he was widely considered incompetent at pretty much everything else. He thought he’d caught some bad breaks over the years. He didn’t realise that for everyone around him he was the bad break. He thought his daughter hated him. It turns out she was about the only person who didn’t.

The investigation itself is classic crime novel stuff. Bobby pokes his nose where it’s not invited, asks unwelcome questions and uses his inside knowledge of his own death to suggest he knows more than he does. He knows for example that his partner was there when he died, but nobody else does as his partner’s report said that Bobby had gone out on his own. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

At the same time, Bobby enjoys his new body and sudden wealth. He sleeps with a variety of women who wouldn’t have looked twice at him before, including a policewoman assigned as his liaison officer who he realises (slightly too late to avoid hurting her) wants something more serious than a one-night-stand. Old Bobby, and for a while new Bobby, would have cared more about what he wanted than the consequences his actions have for others. New Bobby has a chance to be a better man and that may be more important than finding his own killer.

9TailFox raises some interesting questions about outsider status and social hierarchies, with people who should know better deferring to Bobby now he’s rich and white in a way they never would have back when he was just himself. Ultimately though, this is not a philosophical novel. It’s a hardboiled body-swapping murder mystery with enough depth to avoid it being disposable but not so much as to make it indigestible. I should probably read one of the five or so novels he’s written after this one…

Missed references

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that not having read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margherita (shameful I know) I completely missed the significance of a character being named Persikov and the inclusion of a black cat named Lucifer. There may well have been other references, but if there were and if they had any deeper significance I have no idea. I only picked up on the connection at all because Grimwood mentions it in the afterword, though possibly the book being dedicated to Bulgakov should have been a clue. So it goes.

Other reviews

None in the usual blogs I frequent, but there’s a good review at the Strange Horizons website here and one by Paul Kincaid here.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Grimwood, Jon Courtenay, Hardboiled, Science Fiction

‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

What is there to say about this one? This is as classic as classic gets, and I say that as someone who’s reviewed Don Quixote here. This is one of the ur-texts of hardboiled fiction, source for one of the greatest film noir movies of all time. It’s also bloody good.

maltese_falcon_book

I’ve read The Maltese Falcon before, so while it wasn’t on my #TBR20 list I thought I could allow a read of it while I was in San Francisco last month. How can you not read Dashiell Hammett when in San Francisco? It’s half the reason I wanted to go there in the first place.

Here’s how the book opens:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Right away Hammett has put Sam Spade front and centre, while at the same time making him slightly questionable. He sounds lupine; he’s “pleasantly like a blond satan” which makes him sound charming but not particularly reassuring.

Moments later Sam’s secretary is showing in a woman named Wonderley, “a knockout”, a femme as fatale as any that ever lived on the page:

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

What follows is a dizzying tale of murder, betrayal, and above all greed. Miss Wonderley tells Sam that her sister has fallen into bad company with a man named Floyd Thursby. Now the sister has disappeared, and Miss Wonderley fears Thursby might harm her, even kill her. She wants Thursby watched and her sister brought safely home.

By the start of chapter two Sam’s partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered and the case has become personal. Sam didn’t like Miles any and he was sleeping with Miles’ wife, but even so a man can’t let someone shoot his partner and do nothing about it, particularly when the police start poking around looking for someone to blame. Whatever’s going on, it’s much more than a runaway sister.

‘That – that story I told you yesterday was all – a story,’ she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes. ‘Oh, that,’ Spade said lightly. ‘We didn’t exactly believe your story.’ ‘Then—?’ Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes. ‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’ ‘You mean—?’ She seemed to not know what he meant. ‘I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,’ he explained blandly, ‘and enough more to make it all right.’

The Maltese Falcon has some of the finest characters in any crime novel I’ve read. Miss Wonderley is really Brigid O’Shaugnessy, and by her own account in the past she’s been “bad – worse than you could know – but I’m not all bad”. She’s in serious trouble, the worst kind, and she’s dependent on Sam Spade to help her out of it but what exactly it is is far from clear. For a damsel in distress she’s surprisingly hard to get a straight answer from, but then being a knockout is all the explanation she’s ever needed in life.

Sam gets visited in his office by Joel Cairo, a small-boned Levantine dressed in rich clothes and armed with heavily scented handkerchiefs and a small-calibre pistol. Joel’s looking for an ornament, “the black figure of a bird”, and he’s not the only one because the fat man is out there too and he has a vicious street thug bearing twin .45s watching Sam wherever he goes.

The fat man, actually named Gutman, is another memorable character. He’s loquacious, jocular, well mannered and well groomed. He’s appetite in a bulging suit, polite but determined. The thug, a gunsel named Wilmer, is a bitter little killer full of anger and resentment at the world. The two of them make a dangerous combination.

I should at this point make a small aside and note that this is not a particularly gay-friendly novel. Cairo is an effeminate gay and portrayed as ugly and unwholesome in part because of that. Wilmer is a gunsel, a term that today because of this book and the film means a gun-thug but that originally meant a catamite – Hammett used the term so that he could get the gay subtext into the book without being too explicit and it worked so well that when I first read it and saw the film I had no idea of the implications.

Above all of them though there’s the character that’s by far the greatest in the book – Sam Spade himself. Spade changes his mood and his manner to the occasion: dumb when he wants to be underestimated; angry when he wants to intimidate; charming when he wants to persuade; sharp-tongued when he wants to put someone back in their place. He’s quick-witted and poker-faced, and the real crime is that Hammett never wrote another novel featuring him. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest fictional detectives ever written.

The chances are almost everyone reading this knows the plot, the secret of the “black bird” and what’s really going on with O’Shaugnessy, Cairo and Gutman. It’s possible though that some of you may not, and just in case of that I won’t say anything more about what happens. I will say though that while Chandler remains my first and greatest hardboiled love, Hammett knew how to write a plot and the plot here is one worthy of the characters.

This is probably as close to a love-letter as I’ll write in a review, until at least I reread The Big Sleep at which point I’ll likely gush to a level that makes this look restrained. Still, it’s The Maltese Falcon, and to quote Spade from the film in a line he never says in the book, it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of”.

I’ll finish up with a quick comment on the film, which I rewatched while out in San Francisco. It’s amazingly close to the book, with large chunks of dialogue taken straight from one to the other. It’s as well directed as you’d hope from John Huston at the top of his game, but above all it is incredibly well cast.

Bogart of course makes a definitive Sam Spade. He looks nothing like the book’s description of the character, but that simply doesn’t matter as he completely inhabits the part and in doing so pretty much defines the iconography of the cinematic private detective. Mary Astor matches him in a career-defining role as Brigid O’Shaugnessy – a woman who is varyingly vulnerable, bold, affectionate, manipulative, seductive, dangerous, terrified and more.

Sydney Greenstreet seems to have stepped out of the book as Gutman; Peter Lorre is a marvellously questionable Cairo (though I’ve never seen Lorre disappoint); and perhaps most impressive of all is character actor Elisha Cook, Jr who captures Wilmer in all his petty viciousness so well that at times I almost sympathised with him. The supporting actors are equally well chosen, the whole film crackles with talent and is just an exceptional joy to watch.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Dashiell, Hammett, Hardboiled