Archive for June, 2008

The Maltese Falcon (1930) – Dashiell Hammett

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dashiell Hammett, Mysteries with tags , , , on June 29, 2008 by cshmurak

The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930, first in The Black Mask magazine and later in book form, but it still holds up fairly well for the contemporary reader. The true mystery in the book is not what or where the Falcon is; the mystery is Sam Spade, its principal character. What kind of man is he? Is he as amoral as he would lead his acquaintances to believe? Does he follow some personal code of honor? Hammett never lets the reader into Sam’s head, so not until the end do we know what Sam is thinking or why he decides to join the chase for the “black bird.”

One of the problems with reading The Maltese Falcon today is how familiar it seems. Many of us have seen John Huston’s classic film version of the novel, so it difficult not to hear Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet speaking the dialogue as one reads. (Huston used most of Hammett’s dialogue verbatim.) But more than that, so many of the private eye novels that came after the Falcon were influenced by it, so it seems less special to us than it did to its original audience. Hammett’s lean prose and use of slang, in fact, helped initiate the “hard-boiled” detective genre.

The depiction of women in the book may also cause some readers to groan. There are three major female characters; Brigid, the femme fatale who gets Spade involved in the case: Effie, the Girl Friday who helps and encourages Spade; and Iva, the unfaithful wife of Spade’s partner. Spade doesn’t treat any of them very well; it’s likely that his actions toward the likeable Effie would today be grounds for a sexual harassment suit. But again, one has to keep a historical perspective: Not till the 1980s would writers like Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky turn the hard-boiled version of women on its head.

Nevertheless, Sam Spade and company lead us on a merry chase as they bargain and scheme (and murder) to get their hands on the priceless treasure that is the Maltese Falcon. And this reader still enjoys that chase.

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The Daughter of Time (1951) – Josephine Tey

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Josephine Tey, Mysteries with tags , , on June 29, 2008 by cshmurak

Josephine Tey, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, was one of the grandes dames of the Golden Age of British Mystery. The Daughter of Time is considered her greatest masterpiece by some critics, while others have deemed it highly overrated.

Written in 1951, this is the fifth book that Tey wrote about Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Alan Grant. No ordinary policeman, Grant is the darling of maitre d’s and sophisticated theatre people. In the hospital with a broken leg, he grows bored with reading and staring at the ceiling, until actress and friend, Marta Hallard, brings him a pile of portraits with which to amuse himself. Grant, who is an expert at reading faces, becomes obsessed with one portrait, which turns out to be that of Richard the Third, the villain of the Shakespeare play, supposedly responsible for the murder of his two nephews. Grant is sure that the face cannot belong to a man capable of such evil, and, with an American graduate student to do his legwork, he sets out to find who really murdered the two young princes five hundred years earlier.

There is a great deal of conversation, most of it witty, and an almost total lack of action in this book. For the contemporary American reader, there is also the daunting challenge of following the events of the War of the Roses that Tey assumed her British readers would have learned in school; keeping all the Edwards and Henrys straight is no easy task, despite the family trees included in the book.

Many question the accuracy of Tey’s history, but members of the Richard the Third Society, with chapters in both Great Britain and the United States, applaud her work in redeeming Richard’s good name. The Daughter of Time has so much charm, with its perceptive observations of the tedium of hospital life and its vivid (and funny) characterizations of even the most minor characters, that it hardly matters to the reader whether the book is historically accurate. My experience with mystery groups is that readers either love this book or find it unbearably tedious. (And while people say they enjoy Christie and Sayers, “love” is the word that I hear most often about Tey.) I count myself among those who love it.

Mysteries, I love them!

Posted in Mysteries with tags on June 27, 2008 by cshmurak

Mysteries have been my passion for 40 years! Sure, I read Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton as a girl, and Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot as a teen, but then college and grad school intervened. It wasn’t till I was an adult and discovered Dorothy L. Sayers that I was hooked. Sayers’s essays guided me to earlier classics like Trent’s Last Case; suggestions from others led me to Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey, then to Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin – all of whom I still enjoy. My own mysteries owe a lot to those writers, as well as to Gillian Roberts’s Amanda Pepper series.

On this blog, I’ll be talking about mysteries that I’ve read and enjoyed. I hope you’ll join me and make it a conversation.

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