Sunday, February 28, 2010
Literary biographies are a peculiar form of torture. I suppose their purpose is to see if the reader is still capable of mustering the same affection for the author’s work after reveling in every personal flaw the biographer was able to uncover. Biographies are the ultimate way of evening the score with those whose talent we will never equal. They reassure us that the gifted individuals who gained immortality through their work were certainly no better and frequently even worse human beings than those of us who admire them. Thanks to literary biographies, many view the father of sword & sorcery as a clinically depressed mama’s boy angry at the world and the father of hardboiled fiction as…well, let’s face it…there was nothing you could ever say about Hammett he didn’t already tell you about himself. The latest literary biography to pass through my home was Judith Freeman’s recently published biography of Raymond Chandler, THE LONG EMBRACE.
I would not say that the book is unworthy of attention. Judith Freeman is an exceptional writer. She traces Chandler’s footsteps (even though it has been more than half a century since his death) by visiting every place he lived, worked, and vacationed and describes what she finds in a voice that Chandler fans will frequently recognize. It is a voice that is as evocative of Chandler’s work as the book’s title. The trouble is that Freeman isn’t writing a new Philip Marlowe mystery so much as transposing herself in Chandler’s shoes as a fellow author and kindred spirit. As the book unravels, she comes to share Chandler’s devotion to his wife and muse of over thirty years. The result is a bit like watching Otto Preminger’s classic film noir LAURA in that THE LONG EMBRACE shifts its focus and unfolds into a growing love story between a living person and a dead woman the narrator never met. Some readers will find the result enchanting, others will find it creepy.
As a rule, literary biographies tend to take a sensationalistic view of their subject’s sex lives. The Long Embrace spends a lengthy chapter arguing that Chandler may have been a closeted homosexual based on speculation from a former friend and an acquaintance of the late author. Freeman weighs the pros and cons to this longstanding theory with cleverly-selected passages from Chandler’s fiction that seem to support both sides of the argument only to conclude weakly with the dismissive suggestion that we should just mind our own business. This is unfortunate because it reduces the book to the level of a salacious celebrity bio. I would have preferred that Freeman had reached a conclusion and argued that the author’s work is better understood as a result of better understanding the man. Instead the entire section reads like a literary equivalent of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
I’ve read numerous Chandler biographies and despite Freeman taking the trouble to visit the actual locations, she uncovers nothing new. It comes as no surprise to the reader that the current occupants of the homes have either never met or never heard of Raymond Chandler, but Freeman keeps searching for clues even though she’s several decades too late. No one beats her up along the way, although she gives her subject a few good jabs and bruises. She is seduced by a femme fatale, but it’s only her subject’s dead wife and sadly she is denied the satisfaction of even a fade to black.
The truth is that Raymond Chandler was an intensely private man. His marriage and his personal life remain beyond the reach of anyone who isn’t interested in speculating without the benefit of facts. His work survives because of its excellence in spite of the fact that the author was a curmudgeon and might have been a hypocritical philanderer or a closet queen or maybe he really was what he always claimed to be — a man who didn’t give a damn about anyone except his wife. After her death, he destroyed her letters and most of her photos. His fame guaranteed they would sniff around and sully his reputation as best they could and there was nothing he could do to stop it, but Chandler made sure that he took every last vestige of his marriage with him to the grave. The more biographers dig for the weaknesses in these men who gave the world tough fiction, the more you realize it wasn’t the toughness that set their fiction apart so much as the honor and dignity they upheld. That’s something few biographies will ever replicate. “No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”
Sunday, February 21, 2010
SAM SPADE AND THE PURSUIT OF EMPTY DREAMS
Much of what has been written about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon focuses on the novel as groundbreaking in its realistic portrayal of detective work. More in-depth literary studies tend to focus on the significance of Hammett’s shift in protagonist from the incorruptible and nameless Continental Op of his earlier work to the jaded self-portrait of the author as Sam Spade. In my view, this transition is primarily noteworthy in that Hammett’s protagonist changed from an idealized conception of the man he might have become had he remained a Pinkerton Operative (the Continental Op is based on Hammett’s boss during his stint with the Pinkerton Agency) to a more self-reflective portrayal of a man mired in moral conflict. Hammett’s own moral crisis would color his fiction from this point until he resolved his dilemma and settled into a life alternating his celebrity status with reclusiveness - a life whose one constant was Hammett’s complete lack of creative output for remaining 27 years.
Many have speculated why Hammett’s creativity dried up when he and his muse and mistress Lillian Hellman had settled comfortably into something approaching unwedded bliss as the Nick and Nora Charles of the real world. My own opinion has been that once freed of the conflict of whether or not to walk a path of integrity or give in to the encroaching corruption that constantly assailed his world, Hammett had nothing further to draw upon for inspiration. Resolution was tantamount to becoming a spent force and Hammett was finished as a writer. The fact that he realized this fact was inescapable lies at the heart of both The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in their pursuit of empty dreams incapable of satisfying the characters whose lust is so great they are willing to die for or kill in their futile quests.
Hammett’s characters are marked as slaves of their appetites by their very names from Casper Gutman, the silver-tongued Fat Man of The Maltese Falcon to the murder victim who leant his moniker to The Thin Man. Hammett’s Fat Men and Thin Men are doomed by insatiable appetites for the empty objects of their desire. Whether starved or bloated, their hunger for that which will never grant them the sustenance they seek is unending and proves to be their undoing. The Maltese Falcon’s prized Black Bird with its mythological history is nothing but a worthless forgery beneath its shiny exterior. Those who have pursued the bird and have not forfeited their lives or liberty in its pursuit by the book’s conclusion do not learn from their folly, but simply continue to follow the next false trail.
What of Sam Spade and his moral dilemma? Surely, the detective protagonist is above such base temptations? While Spade is embroiled with those who seek the Black Bird, his own conflict is dealing with the murder of his partner, Miles Archer and dealing with Archer’s wife, Iva. Spade has been sleeping with her behind Archer’s back and she expects Sam to make an honest woman of her now that her husband is no longer around to stand between them. What most literary critics miss in focusing on the gritty realism of Hammett’s story is that Iva Archer represents Spade’s own Black Bird, his empty object of desire that threatens to be his undoing. The novel begins and ends with Sam and Iva. There is no mistake that the book’s opening description of Spade as a blond Satan (Hammett is describing himself at the time of the book’s writing) and the story concludes with Spade finally ready to face Iva and make the decision that will determine his fate for better or worse. That Hammett keeps Spade’s ultimate choice outside the story’s parameters is essential to a book built on moral dilemmas.
It is the role of the detective in mystery fiction to identify the root cause of the chaos that has set the story in motion and to restore order to an unjust world. The police in hardboiled fiction are stereotyped as corrupt or stupid (and frequently both), so the best hope for the few honest victims out there lies in the form of the private detective who eschews the organizational corruption of both City Hall and the Mob and chooses instead to live hand-to-mouth from one client to the next. This is how Hammett the union-buster for the Pinkerton Agency is the same Hammett who did a prison term for refusing to testify against his fellow Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts while still staying true to himself throughout his adult life.
Spade, like his creator, knows right from wrong every time unless it involves his libido. Miles Archer isn’t as smart or as trustworthy as Spade, but Spade still feels he has wronged his partner by sleeping with his wife and that makes him even more determined to see that Miles’ killer is brought to justice. When Archer’s murderer turns out to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the client Sam has been sleeping with, the central point that Sam’s libido is the source of the chaos in his world is brought home to him again and makes the book’s final scene where Sam faces Iva Archer all the more powerful as Spade has no choice but to accept that his own lust has made him a morally destructive force comparable to Casper Gutman, the Fat Man he so understandably despises.
As is the case with any true classic, this is but one aspect of what makes The Maltese Falcon a contender for the finest detective novel of all time and a book whose literary merit will make it the subject of discussion and a source of influence for decades to come. I remain a dedicated follower of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer stories, but like Hammett’s own subsequent Sam Spade stories (“A Man Called Spade,” “Too Many Have Lived,” and “They Can Only Hang You Once”) or Joe Gores’ recent prequel novel (Spade & Archer) or even John Huston’s classic 1941 film adaptation with Bogart, none of them are the Black Bird we’re seeking.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
It has long been my belief that pulp fiction not discovered by age thirteen was beyond my ability to appreciate later. A certain amount of nostalgia seemed essential to enjoying the material once age and responsibility have got the better of you in life. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule in the rare instances where genuine literary talent was on evidence as is the case with the Holy Trinity of Hardboiled Detective Fiction: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Given that my first two Seti Says posts concerned Bram Stoker's Dracula, I decided to revisit Peter Tremayne's three Dracula novels and one short story that I enjoyed so much as a teenager to see how they held up three decades on.
Peter Tremayne is best known today for his long-running Sister Fidelma mysteries. His medieval detective series is sort of a lightweight version of an Umberto Eco doorstop. Although Tremayne's real world credentials are quite impressive as both an academic and scholar, his fiction is strictly populist in its appeal. Turn back the clock 35 years and one would find Peter Tremayne as a dedicated pulp pastiche writer trying his hand at extending the lifespan of H. Rider Haggard's She Who Must Be Obeyed, deliriously combining Shelley's Frankenstein with Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, and delving deep into Stoker's Dracula for a trilogy of loosely connected books published by Bailey Brothers in the UK.
The first of the trilogy, DRACULA UNBORN (US title: BLOODRIGHT) was written in 1974 and first published in 1977. Tremayne starts the story off with the author himself discovering a manuscript belonging to Stoker's fictional Dr. Seward at a swap meet in Islington. The manuscript is a translation by Professor Abraham Van Helsing of a late 15th Century memoir of Mircea Dracula, the youngest son of the historical Vlad Tepes. From there the story moves rapidly from the modern world referencing Stoker and actual Romanian history to Mircea's autobiography which reads, in the first few chapters, like a pastiche of a classic swashbuckler. Mircea is living a nobleman's life in Rome as Michelino. He has been raised in Italy after his mother fled Wallachia when he was a small child. Michelino is just the sort of rogue favored by Dumas or Sabatini in the fiction of the past two centuries. He is an excellent swordsman lacking in all scruples who thinks nothing of seducing a married woman as a means of settling a score with her husband. Fleeing an assassin set on his tail by the cuckolded husband (it's an unwritten rule that such characters never consider consequences of their actions), Michelino reverts to his true identity as Mircea Dracula and returns to the family home in Wallachia and Tremayne is ready to switch genres on the reader yet again.
Moving from the splendour of Roman villas to hoary old Transylvania with it's superstitious villagers and cobwebbed castles, Tremayne fails to evoke the effectiveness Stoker demonstrated in contrasting the New World with the Old. Instead the reader is given the awkward feeling of channel surfing between old movies. Part of the problem is the overall familiarity with the material. Tremayne recycles incidents and dialogue from Stoker's book and evokes scenes from Universal Horrors of the thirties and forties and from Hammer Horrors of the fifties and sixties. It must be said, to his credit, that upon publication DRACULA UNBORN was virtually unique. It may very well have been the first novel to fully integrate Stoker's vampire with the historical despot known as The Impaler. Today, the well-read Dracula aficionado will recognize Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally's research on Vlad Tepes is regurgitated nearly word for word in the pages of Tremayne's book. Its greatest interest lies in spotting the similarities (likely coincidental) between it and Jeanne Kalogridis' DIARIES OF THE FAMILY DRACUL trilogy from the nineties (books that are far too derivative of Anne Rice's LESTAT series for my taste despite Kalogridis' talent as a writer).
Tremayne improved the second time out with THE REVENGE OF DRACULA. Despite the rather silly title and even more raiding of lines and incidents from Stoker and monster movies of decades past, this is a great pulp novel. I would go so far as to say that I was sorry Tremayne tied Dracula into the proceedings at all as it would have stood alone easily as a thrilling weird mystery with no need for the vampire count to make an appearance. Once again, Tremayne starts the story with the author himself receiving the manuscript. This time, the story originates with a psychiatrist who takes the author to task for writing horror fiction by demonstrating the negative impact such work can have on impressionable minds in the form of a 19th Century memoir by one Upton Wellsford, a Vicar's son who toils in a lowly clerical position in the Foreign Office.
Upton has little use for God or country and consequently, is destined to pay the price for his arrogance. Of course, before the natural order is restored we get plenty of fun along the way. Upton buys an antique at a curio shop. A carved dragon that he suspects is Chinese in origin and, more importantly, pure jade despite the shopkeeper's ignorance. Gloating upon his valuable find, Upton is troubled by insomnia and strange dreams from this point forward in the narrative. Upton's recurring dream is that he is a Pagan priest set for sacrifice by a beautiful Pagan priestess. Of course, Upton is the reincarnation of an honorable Egyptian priest, Ki who was sacrificed to the demon, Draco by his lover, Queen Sebek-nefer-Ra centuries before. In due course, Upton meets his dream girl, Clara Clarke and falls in love. She is the reincarnation of Sebek-nefer-Ra and has been sharing the same recurring dream as Upton. Along the way we meet Upton's best friend, an amateur occultist who foolishly thinks he can contain the power held in the jade dragon and the Foreign Office sends Upton packing to Romania to attend a Coronation. By the time, Dracula turns up you're actually resentful. Tremayne does such a great job evoking the weird fiction prevalent in the first half of the last century that the vampire Count isn't needed. Tremayne takes the reader along on an emotional roller coaster as Upton and Clara barely escape Dracula with their lives only to suffer hardship in later years before coming to a tragic end. It's a bit of a downer, but a nice sting at the end with the psychiatrist's letter to Tremayne deriding horror fiction as utter nonsense worthy of scant attention.
A peculiar postscript of sorts exists with Tremayne's short story, "Dracula's Chair." He definitely suffered for poor titles early in his career. This short piece is largely unintelligible to the reader who hasn't read THE REVENGE OF DRACULA, but it would have been one wrinkle too many had it been included as a further epilogue as Tremayne originally intended. Once again, Tremayne places himself in the story as his wife picks up a Victorian chair for him at an antique shop. Once seated in the chair (which belonged to Upton Wellsford, ironically), Tremayne and Wellsford mystically switch souls with Tremayne fated to die at Dracula's hand in Wellsford's body at the horrific conclusion of THE REVENGE OF DRACULA with the knowledge that Wellsford has escaped death to live his life as Peter Tremayne, bestselling author in the 20th Century.
Tremayne's final visit to the character was with DRACULA, MY LOVE. Once again, his predilection for dreadful titles hampers him. The cover art and jacket blurb for the UK edition promise a Victorian version of TWILIGHT with Dracula falling in love with a proto-feminist. Happily, the book isn't quite that bad. This is really a novella rather than a full-length novel. Tremayne is back to introduce the novel as he is visited by Serban Mitikelu, a Romanian monk who shares with him the memoir of Morag MacLeod, a Victorian Scotswoman. The monk is killed by a vampire after leaving Tremayne's apartment. This is revealed at the end of his introduction instead of saving it for a suitably creepy ending.
Morag's life reads like a bowlderized version of Victorian pornography as she suffers rape and maltreatment at the hand of one cruel lord and squire after another. Happily, these details are not explicit, but are still unpleasant enough to make the reader feel queasy that it is being used as entertainment. Of course, if there's one thing Tremayne can be counted on for it is giving his libertine characters a proper Victorian comeuppance and Morag is no exception. When she falls in love, you can bet she will become pregnant, the father will die before they can wed, and his family will disown her as the harlot who seduced their son. Inevitably, Morag finds her way to Transylvania and Castle Dracula. The third time round, Tremayne's take on Stoker's household is so familiar that the over-familiarity kills it. There is a romance between the two, but it is not as much Barbara Cartland as the jacket blurb scares the reader into expecting. What really kills the book is Tremayne's insistence on shoehorning the historical Countess Elisabeth Bathory with Abraham Van Helsing into the proceedings. I know he's trying to set up Stoker's book (Kalogridis took much the same tact with her trilogy), the trouble is (as with Kalogridis) they make too much of Dracula's family and homelife. The sheer number of characters and knowing their muddled history (Dracula is actually Egyptian, not Transylvanian) makes you wish he had decided to use all original characters because in the end, Tremayne's take is his own and bears little resemblance to Stoker outside of what he chooses to steal. I happily choose pulp fiction over literature any day, but much as it pains me to say, Tom Wolfe was right, sometimes you can't go home again. Despite a near perfect pulp novel in the second book, Tremayne's trilogy (and one odd story) are not worthy of Dracula's noble title. I'll give his efforts two out of a possible five Mummies.
The remainder in