Posts Tagged ‘vintage crime


The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The Lady in the Lake The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

I’ve written here before about my love of pulpy, gritty noir fiction. There’s Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Edward Anderson’s bleak look at life on the lam and, my favourite, Raymond Chandler’s series of LA novels.

Later in his life, Chandler’s writings got bitter. A while back, I covered The Little Sister, where Chandler’s resentment towards Hollywood and Los Angeles boils over in a famous section about neon lights. But that was still to come: during the early 1940s, Chandler was still working as a scriptwriter and banging out detective fiction. Released in 1943, The Lady in the Lake is a good example of mid-career Chandler, a noir that’s blunt and brutal, but never veers over into outright cynicism.

It opens in the offices of a perfume magnate Derace Kingsley. His wife’s gone missing and he wants Marlowe to try to track her down. It’s an unusual circumstance; Kingsley professes no great attraction to his wife, who comes and goes as she pleases with whomever she wants. And people say poly relationships are a new thing! Soon Marlowe’s up by San Bernardino and caught up in a death there and dealing with crooked cops, jealous ex-lovers and a sheriff running for re-election.

As far as Marlowe stories go, this one is less angry than The Little Sister. He’s cynical towards the establishment, but he makes even the crooked cops sympathetic. Likewise, it doesn’t drip with smartass cool the way The Big Sleep does: by now, Marlowe’s set in his ways, lipping off to cops, drinking all the time and driving at high speeds. It’s starting to feel like an act, although I’ll admit enjoying scenes like this:

“Degarmo lunged past the desk towards an open elevator beside which an old man sat on a stool waiting for a customer. The clerk snapped at Degarmo’s back like a terrier.
“One moment please. Whom did you wish to see?”
Degarmo spun around on his heel and looked at me wonderingly. “Did he say whom?”
“Yeah but don’t hit him,” I said. “There is such a word.”

Another thing I didn’t like about this one was how telegraphed it felt at times. The big twist is heavily foreshadowed pretty early in the book on two different occasions, stripping some of the suspense from Marlowe’s big monologue at the end. And elsewhere, things get pretty corny: there’s a part where one man shoots a handgun out of someone’s hand, like in an old western.

Rating: 6/10. Sure, Lady in the Lake isn’t Chandler’s best, but it’s still a nice slice of vintage noir: raw, ornery and just about every time the action slows down, someone whips out a gun. Like pizza, even an okay Chandler is still pretty good!


The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

The Killer Inside MeThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Welcome to a small dusty town in Texas, where there’s not a lot of crime and the local sheriff is a cliche-spouting guy who loves his work whom the community respects, if finds a little slow.

Welcome to hell.

Jim Thompson made his mark with dark, gritty crime novels like this. On the surface, they’re not dissimilar from the usual hardboiled affairs. Once you get a few chapters in, things take a turn for the weird and spiral out of control; take the physical deformities of Carl, the psychotic, paranoid killer in Savage Night.

Things start banal here and quickly go to hell. It follows Lou Ford, a small-town cop in a dusty Texas oil town, who struggles with what he calls The Sickness: his compulsion to kill people. As cover, he plays the fool for the locals, dropping hammy clichés like “Well yes, I guess the son is father of the man, yessir,” with a regularity that fools most of the people, right down to his good-natured girlfriend. But not all.

He starts seeing another woman outside of town, someone who doesn’t just see his darkness but gets off on it. He starts off savagely, violently abusing her; she loves it. It’s all downhill from there for Ford: the more he sees her, the more he succumbs. Soon, he starts murdering. One leads to another, which leads to another and so it goes until there’s a big body count and The Sickness Ford keeps mentioning early in the book fades from view. It’s already taken over.

But the weirdest thing about this book isn’t its violence  (its especially graphic in its violence towards women) but the dark charms of Ford. Thompson lays him out as a good guy, someone the reader doesn’t just trust but wants to see overcome his sickness. It’s a trap: by the time one realizes the good front was all a facade, they’re already ear-deep in this story and like Ford, they’ve got to let it run it’s course. It’s a little reminiscent of other literary monsters like Humbert Humbert: he too spends most of his time trying to seduce and charm readers, tries to convince them he’s really a good guy at heart. And it’s easy to fall for it; god knows most of Central City, Texas did.

As a writer, I’m not sure Thompson ever got more cynical than this. You can read deep into it, wondering exactly what drives people to authority and what darkness they’re trying to hide from view. Alternately, you can read it as a forerunner to more recent, less successful examples of this type: Brett Ellis’ American Psycho or Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter series. Neither protagonist is starkly vicious as Ford and neither writer has Thompson’s restrained, tight prose.

Rating: 6/10. Personally, I’m more of a Savage Night guy, which is darker, bleaker and weirder than The Killer…, ending in a biblical frenzy of paranoia. But I’m not selling The Killer… short, either: it’s a good read by someone who wrote some of the best (and most disturbing) crime thrillers of his time. Recommended, especially the Library of America volume that includes this with several other great noir stories.


Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Red HarvestRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Before he wrote novels, Dashiell Hammett worked as a private investigator for Pinkerton. There’s a story about his last case: someone had hidden stolen goods on a ship headed out of the country and Hammett was supposed to find them. On the night before the ship left, Hammett did one final search of the ship, finding the goods hidden in a smokestack; if he’d waited just hours later, he’d have gotten an all-expenses-paid vacation. But, honest detective he was, he turned over the goods.

More than most of his trade, Hammett earned his cynicism. And his novels brim with it, especially those featuring the Continental Op, his nameless hardboiled detective who’s not above manipulating people or evidence and double-crossing to get a desired result.

Pretty quick, very dark and exceptionally violent, Red Harvest is the first of Dashiell Hammett’s novels. It’s also my favorite. Here the Op goes to Personville – poisonville, as he calls it – and is immediately confronted with a murder. From there, his work spirals out of control and soon he’s taking on an entire crooked-to-the-core town, basically by himself. Figures pop in and out of the narrative: crooked cops, shady union men and a rich guy who may or not own everything, including the citizens themselves.

It’s easy to read this novel straight-up, as a violent murder/mystery. It works like that on one level, but keep in mind that this is a book about corruption and what happens when money gets in the way of things. His Personville has literally been poisoned by wealth, with everyone crooked and only in it for themselves. Hammett’s saying some interesting stuff about society below the surface here and it’s worth reading between the lines a bit to listen to it. It’s not hard to see some of the same problems in today’s society, when mega-zillionaires own so much and fight to keep things that way.

Also remember that with this, Hammett was basically creating a genre as he went along. He more or less invented this genre, a style of writing that inspired everyone from Raymond Chandler to Bill Watterson. In a famous essay in The Atlantic, Chandler wrote how Hammett took murder out of the drawing-room and dropped it into the alley; he transplanted a stately English genre (think Sherlock and his refined tastes) and Americanized it, making it gritty, pulpy and ultimately, closer to you and I. Red Harvest is an early stab at it: it’s rougher, darker and more violent than anything Chandler wrote, but don’t let that distract you: it’s as good as anything either of them ever wrote.

Rating: 9/10. A roller coaster of a read, a book that keeps amping up the tension between wild jags of action. It’s about as fun a read as anything Hammett ever wrote and as cynical as anything in detective literature. Recommended.

Related: Cleaning Out the Vault: Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town

Related: Raymond Chandler and Hollywood: The Little Sister


Raymond Chandler and Hollywood: The Little Sister reviewed

The Little Sister (Philip Marlowe, #5)

Today he’s best remembered for his Marlowe novels, but there’s a lot more to Raymond Chandler than you might expect. In his younger days, he went to the same school as PG Wodehouse (not at the same time, though), wrote poetry and journalism and fought with the Canadian Army in World War One. Later in life, he gained fame as a novelist but also spent time as a screenwriter for Paramount Pictures.

During his time in Hollywood, Chandler helped write (or wrote himself) the scripts to Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, among others. He was even nominated for a couple of awards. He didn’t like it there. In a 1945 essay for The Atlantic he wrote:

I hold no brief for Hollywood. I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored… The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.

These years in Hollywood helped inspire the most savage and ruthless of his novels: 1949’s The Little Sister.

Savage, cynical and Hollywood to the core, this is one of his more underrated books and a full bore blast at the movie industry. When a guy goes missing in the outskirts of LA, his sister hires Marlowe to track him down. Before long, Marlowe’s sucked into the underbelly of Hollywood: drugs, gangsters, tabloid photographers and blackmailers. Here, Chandler takes shots at agents, stuffy Hollywood big wigs and even studio bosses.

Still, this is one of his darker reads, too. Everyone is corrupt, from hotel dicks to agents, and there’s a pretty high body count, even for a Marlowe novel. It’s a dark story where everyone is lying, covering for themselves and don’t care about anyone. In a word, it’s cynical. And it doesn’t hold back.

There’s a theme of bitterness here which pops up once in a while, coming to a boil when Marlowe goes on a rant about how hollow and phony LA is, with him raging on shallow people with “windblown hair and sunglasses.” It’s one of the most bitter moments in anything of Chander’s books, closing with this reflection on the city:

I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that’d been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. (pg 81)

Rating: 7/10. A short but intense read, straddling the line between outright cynicism of the movie industry (something Chandler knew well) and a dark sense of humor, poking fun at the trappings of the detective genre. Recommended for crime fans.