A McGuffin For The Age Of The Anti-Hero


Fiction tends to wear its age either poorly, as does science fiction predicated on the assumption that by the 1990s we’d have achieved faster-than-light space travel and racial harmony — or well, as is the case of the best of hard-boiled detective fiction which grows over the years to be more representational of its era, more evocative and less self-conscious.

And then there’s the rare third way of novels that would be arguably better books if they were written today, like The Maltese Falcon.

Dashiell Hammett produced in 1931 a book that, when initially serialized in the Mask, probably struck readers as a particularly good and remarkably original example of the genre and I’m guessing when I say that most probably didn’t realize just how much harder the author had to work to so quietly and thoroughly evolve the medium.

It could be argued that the anti-hero dates back to at least Don Quixote — so some 400 years before Sam Spade — and the concept is probably appreciably older than that but as a staple of American fiction it was unheard of before the 50s. And this was the uniqueness of the challenge facing Hammett — Spade’s no anti-hero but to make the revolutionary plot work the reader needs to be convinced that’s exactly what he is twenty years before anyone’s heard of such a thing.

Hammett wasn’t inventing the anti-hero, he was moving the utility of misdirection in detective fiction onto a whole new plane. He was preoccupying the reader with a McGuffin and a colorful cast of self-serving characters and a multi-threaded plot about the Knights Templar and Spanish Kings when the real crime takes place on page 11. And to pull it off he had to convincingly present his main character, who would have been universally expected to be law-abiding and moral and chivalrous, as corrupt and mercenary and lascivious.

And he certainly succeeded but a lot of readers probably instinctively saw justice coming, one way or the other. The plot twist as it would be received in the context of today’s books and movies about happy and successful crooks and murderers is that the main character is in fact strictly, selflessly and, indeed, heroically moral.

Writing today, Hammett wouldn’t have to work quite so hard to convince us that Spade is looking out for his own best interests and a modern reader has the luxury of focusing on just how blithely cold-blooded the detective apparently is as he removes his partner’s name from the door the day after his brutal murder and scoffs at the man’s widow. None of that would strike us as strange or suspicious or misleading, all of which it turns out to be, so it would be merely entertaining and we’d fall much more easily for the trick than would have Hammett’s initial audience.

So apart from the obvious handicap of being universal common knowledge the plot twist at the end of the Maltese Falcon works better now than it did in its own day.

Then or now or a hundred years from now The Maltese Falcon will always have been the first detective book to present a narrative that’s mostly one extended charade meant to distract the reader and, for that matter, most of the characters, from the real story, and to teach us to love being fooled.

The Record of Currupira, Robert Abernathy

When a writer comes up with a single genuinely good idea, be it for science fiction or detective fiction or high concept fiction or wedding invitations or whatever else, the temptation is to stick with it. To expand on that idea and make it pay and should another idea join the first, as it inevitably will, to save that one for another pay-off sometime in the future.

The frenzied mind of pulp great Robert Abernathy either suffered no such sense of economy or was so overwhelmed with great ideas that he just didn’t have the bandwidth for it. Either way this now largely forgotten master of the genre advanced science fiction in a way that has yet to be fully embraced by his successors both great and otherwise.

Abernathy subscribed quite evidently to the school of fiction writing that holds that a good story has a good backbone, a subtext or philosophy upon which to hang the actual narrative. His stories appeared mostly in Planet Stories and Astounding and similar anthology magazines in the forties and fifties and like the best of the science and speculative fiction of the time they were founded on well-researched and/or well-considered philosophies. Among his more well-known works is a musing on the single most important geo-political conflict of his era which ostensibly kept the world on the brink of nuclear war for decades and, in Heirs Apparent, eventually destroyed everything and reduced the ideologies to their fundamental pointlessness in the face of more immediately existential disputes. It’s a good read, too, which showcases Abernathy’s keen and Harvard-educated mind and knack for positing original ideas in an original manner.

But it’s in the The Record of Currupira that Abernathy strikes his zenith as a craftsman of stories built on a reverse-pyramid of progressively bigger ideas. The initial proposal, on its own, is manifestly one of the most original and fertile ideas in short science fiction – humanity, finally exploring Mars, discovers that tens of thousands of years earlier Martians explored earth and what’s more they brought home and preserved records of mankind’s past that had been long lost to earth science. That’s already a sufficiently compelling idea from which Abernathy could have easily woven a thrilling tale but it is, in fact, the introduction. This intriguing concept is just the platform on which he presents his next theme, the origin of language (the subject of the author’s PhD).

And the alluring and instructional treatise on the respective theories of the foundations of human language is, too, just the next of what turn out to be several more layers of device and guile, each more bold and ambitious and terrifying than the last. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment that the initial notion, as brilliant and self-contained as it first appears, is eventually thoroughly overshadowed by what turns out to be an almost entirely unrelated and much bigger and better and more absorbing idea for a story.

How is this not a movie?

The Record of Currupira is a short and thrilling and high-velocity story set in distant 2001, after man has begun exploring Mars (so not actually that far off) and the rich plot dashes from the red planet to an archeological museum in New York to the Amazon jungle and leverages a fascinating theory of the origin of human language and obscure Brazilian mythology and in spite of it all is an accessible and simple story of man confronting a mystery from his own past. This is a pulp fiction masterpiece and available from the fine people of the Gutenberg Project. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31762/31762-h/31762-h.htm

Chester Himes’ Wild Ride

The Harlem Cycle, Chester Himes


Chester Himes was born in Missouri in 1909 and began writing during an excessive prison sentence for armed robbery in 1928 and hit his stride in the mid-fifties as a giant of hard-boiled detective fiction with a series of books now called The Harlem Cycle. And if he had written any of the nine novels in the cycle today they’d still be revolutionary.

The books of the Harlem Cycle, starting with A Rage In Harlem, are classic examples of the genre – there are hard-bitten characters in extreme circumstances, vain and bloody murder and reluctant witnesses, twisted and arbitrary morality, vested interests corrupting the unfolding of justice and above all there’s Himes’ particular take on the poetry of pulp fiction. The effusive metaphor is a staple of the genre and the evocative analogies drawn by Himes are so rich they elevate the very concept:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.

                A Rage In Harlem, 1957

It’s pretty much all like that and that should be all the recommendation anyone needs to read at least A Rage In Harlem. But it’s not the main way in which The Harlem Cycle goes from thoroughly satisfying and entertaining to genuinely great. The main way is pacing and anyone who picks up the first book in the series will know exactly what that means as they’re nearing the end of the last and wondering where the time went.

The events of the series follow one another with subplots often overlapping from one book to the next and they occur in real time. In fact they occasionally occur faster than real time as time folds into itself in a manner that would be awkward and oblique handled any less deftly but in The Harlem Cycle the trick either dazzles with its simplicity or passes unnoticed altogether.

Among other consequences of this unique pacing, such as a feral drive to know what’s on the next page, is the slightly surreal sensation that this is all actually happening – as though Himes has squealed up next to you on the street and given you a single second to jump on the running board before tearing off into the night pursued by sirens and mobs and gunfire and something intangible and foreboding. Hence the story structure is unorthodox and unpredictable and you’re not quite sure if the homicidal detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are on your side or the side of the law or even how long they’ll last as main characters.

Doubtless when these books were first published they were revolutionary for other reasons related to Himes’ race and background and of course they still bear this legacy with pride and poise, but they’ve nevertheless emerged from that dark era of American history as sui generis classics.

The Family Corleone, Ed Falco, 2013

Some people call me a Godfather purist because I refuse to recognize that a part III was ever made. Well, I’m not a purist and it’s important to settle that issue before reviewing Ed Falco’s prequel novel, The Family Corleone.

But I’m not a fantasist either. I know that a film was made by Francis Ford Coppola and several other whores  with some connection to the original two movies and that they called it Godfather III but it’s no more part of the original canon than David Soul’s ill-advised eighties television series Casablanca was a prequel to the other greatest movie ever made.

Now that’s settled, the Family Corleone takes place roughly ten years before the first Godfather begins and tells the story of Vito Corleone’s rise from a middle-level capo to the powerful don of the original book and movie. It’s based, if you choose to believe it, on an unproduced screenplay by Mario Puzo but if I were trying to give credibility to a new contribution to such an entrenched legacy that’s exactly the sort of story I’d make up.

America is in the grips of the Depression, Prohibition is coming to an end and Sonny Corleone is a 17 year old hothead as the action opens on a story which draws heavily from the historical events which ended the reign of “boss of bosses” Salvatore Maranzano and facilitated the rise of the Genovese crime family, in much the same way that the original Godfather borrows from the rise of the Gambino mob. This adds a degree of predictability to the story but that’s rather in the nature of a prequel. In any case the historical inevitability detracts not even a little from a book so self-aware that it reads like devoted fan-fic. Sonny even at one point says “bada-bing” with reference to shooting someone in the head and, frankly, I cringed.

And the book is mostly like that. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that Falco was under contract to include a minimum number of references to Michael’s quiet intelligence and Fredo’s weak stupidity and there are aspects that appear to betray the heavy involvement of a committee of stake-holders and accountants and lawyers. Which of course means that there’s little controversial in the Family Corleone. There’s not a lot to quibble about for purists and that means, sadly, that there’s not a lot recommend it to anyone else.

This narrow path charted by Falco also means that there are few unfamiliar characters or motivations and almost no surprises. The story manages to revolve mainly and improbably around Sonny, Tom Hagen and Luca Brasi and the few risks the plot does take only serve, for me at least, to undermine aspects of the original book which are better left alone and aloof from explanation and exploitation.

Stylistically Falco hits the nail directly on the head and reproduces the hurried, under-edited prose of Puzo to a nicety. He switches with blind ease between conversational and formal, misuses words and even in one instance refers to the reader as “you”. Like Puzo’s watershed work, details are selected for inclusion randomly rather than by measure of relevance and everyone speaks perfect English but resorts to the most popular Italian expletives from the film. And I’m going to say that this is the most authentic aspect of the book because as important as it is and as excellent a foundation as it served for a great movie, the Godfather is not a good book. In many ways, chiefly the absence of any bizarre subplot concerning the unique medical complaint of one of Sonny’s many lovers, The Family Corleone is the better book.

And it’s satisfying. Much like reading the decidedly imperfect novel by Mario Puzo is a pleasant manner in which to revisit the Godfather without abusing the movie, this faithful homage is simple and satisfying and safe.

The Cherry Tree Genre

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He's on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He’s on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

It’s been decades now since Chandler and Hammett and, to a lesser degree, Spillane were elevated in the gallery of American letters to a level similar to the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and so one could be forgiven for assuming these days that categorizations like pulp fiction would be merely that – categorizations – and no longer pejoratives.

But of course that’s not the case and the pioneers of pulp fiction weren’t so much recognized for their contribution to their genre as co-opted by the gatekeepers of high literature who recategorized them into the unfamiliar halls of academia by virtue of some arbitrary measure of staying power in much the same way that populist mainstream movies like Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon are now art because they’re in black and white and we’ve still heard of them.

And of course this heartless appropriation occurred post-mortem because no Spillanes nor Himes nor Chandlers would have otherwise gone without a very entertaining and unequal fight. Particularly when they came to get the resolute everyman Chandler, who once wrote in a letter to the editor of The Fortnightly Intruder:

The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.

And nobody doubts that. The debate isn’t over whether or not Chandler and his contemporaries are giants of American literature but whether they rose above their genre or are simply very good examples of it. Academia at some point cast an imperious eye over pulp fiction, saw an untapped source of overlooked genius and selected a few authors from the ranks for icon status. Well you know what? You can’t have them. They started as pulp fiction writers and they’ll remain pulp fiction writers and what’s more you missed a few. Rather a lot, in fact, and we’re not telling you where they are.