Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Wodehouse, 1939

UncleFredInTheSpringtimeUncle Fred in the Springtime is the fourth time that Wodehouse has sent imposters to Blandings (the first being Something Fresh, in 1915) and the third time he did so on behalf of thwarted romance. He would go on to spirit imposters into the castle on no fewer than ten occasions, eight times in aid of joining sundered hearts.

This was the Wodehouse formula: set the scene with familiar problems, tweak the details, rotate the cast of clever, eccentric, or simple-minded characters, and let them sort themselves out in the most entertaining manner possible.

There’s almost always at least one fragile romance, an imperious sister, and an intransigent peer, and there’s always an Uncle Fred. It’s not always Lord Ickenham, as it is here and in Service with a Smile. In fact it’s usually not the witty, urbane, fun-loving, fast-talking bon-vivant. It’s usually Galahad Threepwood, but the effect is invariably the same — an absolute delight.

Galahad and Uncle Fred are interchangeable in the same way that Connie and the rest of the (eleven and counting) sisters to the beleaguered Lord Emsworth are effectively the same person. Fred and Gally embody an attitude manifest in quick and quick-witted, irrepressibly optimistic dialogue, indifferent to the originality or lack thereof of the underlying plot.

Which is just as well, because of all solutions that Wodehouse has applied to the same problem, Uncle Fred in the Springtime is the least inventive. The strategy of “stout denial” is employed again and again and, while it’s every bit as funny as any solution that Wodehouse has ever thrown at thwarted romance, it’s a little shiftless compared to the infinitely creative dissemblance of, say, Full Moon, in which Galahad introduces a minor painter into the castle as Edwin Landseer, or Leave It To Psmith in which the title character (another proxy for Fred) appropriates the identity of an obtuse Canadian poet so that he might steal Connie’s necklace in the cause of, obviously, thwarted romance.

My personal bias transcends even that — it doesn’t matter if there are pigs or broken hearts or clever plots and ploys and, in fact, it doesn’t even matter all that much that there’s a Blandings. The single pillar of the castle for me is the persona of Galahad/Fred/Psmith that gives voice to the free-wheeling, free-thinking, and fast-talking flippancy that inspires Anty Boisjoly. This is my answer to the problem of not enough Galahad, even within the books, which I find myself wishing were in the first person and entirely infused with this happy character in the same manner that the Jeeves & Wooster stories are told from the perspective of Bertie.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs, Ben Schott, 2018

jeevesAndTheKingOfClubsJeeves and the King of Clubs by Ben Schott has been received with such fanfare that I find myself in the ironic position of struggling to find something new to say about something which struggled to find something new to say.

There’s been a rush to observe that this daring departure from the beloved Jeeves and Wooster series by PG Wodehouse is not an extension of the canon. Mister Schott himself describes it as an homage, which seems safe enough (although we here at Indefensible have wrapped ourselves in an extra layer of dissemblance in referring to our own The Case of the Canterfell Codicil as having been “written in the style of an homage to Wodehouse”). Nevertheless, there’s plenty here to which a purist could take offence, if offence is what said purist is looking for.

Above all, there’s the rehabilitation of Bertie Wooster, who in Schott’s parallel take on Wodehouse’s world has experienced an intellectual renaissance. The loveable, affable, dependent and dependable Wooster is, in this book, a sort of a cross between Noel Coward and, I suppose, Jeeves. He’s witty and urbane and he regularly and handily gets the better of the dangerous and devious Roderick Spode (Lord Sidcup, to you), who himself has been recast, ham-handedly in some cases, as a Trumpian oaf.

Consequently, the role of Jeeves is rewritten as well. It’s also diminished, not inconsiderably, and the title character has been largely reduced to a supporting technician, working behind the scenes to advance the plot in improbable ways.

Improbable and, rather often, inscrutable. For instance, there’s an entirely extraneous scene set in Eulalie Soeurs, quality foundation garments for discerning ladies, and Spode’s dark secret from The Code of the Woosters. The sequence is so unfunny and awkward that it’s tempting to assume that it’s a genuine editing oversight, something left in from a frivolous early draft in which The King of Clubs was initially going to be written as a Kafkaesque allegory. It’s when encountering these digressions that it becomes most valuable to recall that you’re reading an homage, because as comical and theatrical a scene might be in a Wodehouse plot, it’s always at least tangentially related to the story at hand.

Some and probably most of these departures are unavoidable and predicated on one of the pillar assumptions made by Schott — that readers want to see Jeeves and Wooster address larger threats than crossing Aunt Agatha or marrying Honoria Glossop or facing twenty-eight days without the option. In this variation of Wodehouse’s Britain, war is looming, and his majesty’s government must call upon the wily duo to foil Fifth Columnists already operating within the borders of the kingdom. The theme is a provocative mashup — like those literary exercises that ask how Pride and Prejudice might have unfolded if Netherfield had been besieged by zombies. In Jeeves and the King of Clubs, however, nothing seems to actually get resolved, which may be on its own the single greatest liberty taken by Schott.

Which might leave someone who has yet to read the King of Clubs wondering when all this homaging starts. The answer is the very first line, which is a delight, and representative of a slew of rapid-fire crackers that Schott sets off with not merely an uncanny impersonation of Wodehouse’s voice but a more than passing resemblance to the Master’s apparent ease of execution. There are some clunkers — not the least of which is the jarringly bad joke about Marx and Engels which literally caused me to put the book down for a day — but even they serve to give the breezy narrative style a foundation of confidence, a plucky indifference to the gravity of drafting two beloved icons into the fight against fascism and parachuting them, metaphorically, behind enemy lines.

In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks carefully and gently nudged the canon over the line that Wodehouse dared never cross. That was homage. Jeeves and the King of Clubs is more daring than that, more exhaustive, more to My Man Jeeves as Robert Downey Junior’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is to the Hound of the Baskervilles.

It’s helpful to think of Jeeves and the King of Clubs as an homage to Wodehouse, but it’s even more helpful to read it as a reboot of the Jeeves and Wooster franchise.

The Review of the Case of the Canterfell Codicil

There’s a literary niche for all tastes including, as of October 30, those who think that either Agatha Christie wasn’t funny enough or PG Wodehouse didn’t include anywhere near as many locked-room mysteries as he should have.

The Case of the Canterfell Codicil is a clever whodunnit written in the style of an homage to the master. The result is a hilarious farce in which Wodehousian gadabout Anty Boisjoly (pronounced “Boo-juhlay”, like the wine region) takes on his first case when his old Oxford chum is accused of the impossible murder of his wealthy uncle.

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Like a Metaphor

The Big Sleep

The three-word titling metaphor, seen here in its natural habitat.

The source of the charm of pulp fiction is its freedom from the manners imposed on high literature leaving it, like the imagination of a child, unfettered and unfiltered by any notion of shame. Popular fiction is as free as beat poetry to be as absurd and exaggerated as its readers will stand, and the limits of what readers of pulp fiction will stand have never been plumbed.

The phenomenon reproduces like rhizomes, popping up in improbable plots as outrageous characters and gaudy dialogue and, most particularly in the case of American crime fiction, the effusive simile.

The simile and her abstract sister metaphor have been with us for as long as it’s been helpful to describe something by comparing it to something else, which probably literally predates language itself or at the very least adjectives. Statistically, this is probably a bad thing, but for occasional passages of spun gold it’s objectively not.

It’s in American crime fiction where, like Braque’s tableaux of found objects, this handy instrument is elevated to an art form. Yet its utility and ubiquity mean that the device largely goes unnoticed in context, like shoelaces and every line in this article so far.

The etymological wellspring of the practice is the word “hardboiled”, so succinct that the rest of the metaphor isn’t even necessary to encapsulate the stoic cynicism of the private detective as twenty-minute egg. The best of them are like that, hard and hurting and, ideally, humorous.

Arguably the first hardboiled fiction is The False Burton Combs, by Carroll John Daly, and it builds a good case on tough-talkin’ street jargon of dames and dicks and a sparse but convincing distribution of juxtaposition:

“There ain’t nothing in governments unless you’re a politician. And as I said before, I ain’t a crook.”

“One of the others was fat and looked like an ex−bartender.”

“He paints up those three crooks like they were innocent young country girls.”

These were early days, though, before Hammett really got going and nearly ten years before Chandler would give up the oil game and bring us…

“He collapsed like a half-filled sack of sand.”

“ It glittered like a Ziegfeld chorus.”

and

“His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past”

which is a respectable showing for the first time out of the gate (Blackmailers Don’t Shoot, Black Mask, 1932).

The best of them paint a picture too big to be seen in anything but the abstract, composed of jungian touchstones and communal memory…

“Waves rose like apparitions at the surf-line and fell like masonry.”

Ross MacDonald, The Barbarous Coast

“The rain was hitting the streets as though fired from a machine gun.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. I sneaked over to the side entrance and pressed a bell and somewhere a set of chimes made a deep mellow sound like church bells.”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

“It was ten minutes by foot, if you were on your way to church, about two and a half minutes if your old lady was chasing you with a razor.”

Chester Himes, All Shot Up

“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.”

Ross Macdonald, The Drowning Pool

Or they sketch a character in the present with the full pallet of past and personality…

“As far back as Lieutenant Anderson could remember, both of them, his two ace detectives with their identical big hard-shooting, head-whipping pistols, had always looked like two hog farmers on a weekend in the Big Town.”

Chester Himes, A Rage In Harlem

“…the stigmata of the trouble-prone.”

Ross MacDonald, The Chill

“His nose spread itself across his face like an inadequate police cordon trying to hold back an ugly mob.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Of course it’s the danger, deception and desirability of the inevitable femme fatale that test the distance between cynicism and sentiment…

“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.”

Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

“She was all legs and hair with a pleasantly hilly terrain in between.”

“Her lips were full and quivery. When she talked she looked like she’d been dubbed into English from a language that had 900 words for ‘foreplay’.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“She ran the tip of her red tongue slowly across her full cushiony, sensuous lips, making them wet-red and looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes.”

Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem

“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

But it’s arguably when the poetry of the pulp fiction simile stays close to its hard boiled roots that it’s at its sad, cynical, psychological best…

“…as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again. “

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

“In wine was truth, perhaps, but in whisky, the way Hoffman sluiced it down, was an army of imaginary rats climbing your legs.”

Ross Macdonald, The Chill

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

“She visibly weakened when she said that. She always visibly weakened when she said that, and the feisty went somewhere quiet to have a good think.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“He looked around at the daylight as if it had betrayed him, again.”

Ross MacDonald, Black Money

Lightly On Sacred Ground

black_eyed_blonde_coverRaymond Chandler’s dead so he won’t object if I speak for him with regards to how he’d react to The Black-Eyed Blonde, the second effort to appropriate his voice and most famous creation, Philip Marlowe. I’m quite certain that he wouldn’t give a shit.

Chandler was an iconoclast, unimpressed and unintimidated by what were considered the giants of literature, even when he was forcibly inducted into their number, so he could hardly have objected to an irreverent cannibalisation of his own canon.

However that’s not what this is. The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (the nom de pulp of high concept Irish writer John Banville) is a meticulous homage, and it shows. It’s not a rip-off nor a convincing forgery. It doesn’t take Philip Marlowe into uncharted territory and it doesn’t subvert the genre. And all that would be fine with both me and Mr. Chandler, I’m quite sure, if it achieved the only goal that could logically remain — to read as though it was written by Chandler.

The inventory is fully stocked. There’s a knock-out dame, naturally, and ruthless heavies and even a MacGuffin imported wholesale from The Long Goodbye. There’s a mystery within a mystery that has Marlowe searching for a man that’s supposed to be dead and turning up improbable links to those that definitely are. There are killings and beatings and a vibrant sexual tension between the main characters. Above all Chandler’s narrative style, punctuated with original and evocative similes, is faithfully duplicated.

But the Black-Eyed Blonde doesn’t try too hard, it tries way too hard to sound like Chandler, and the result is inorganic and arrhythmic. If you’re familiar with the original lore the constant reminders of people and places and events from previous books becomes quickly tiresome and heavy-handed, and if you’re not you’d presumably be misled into thinking that these diversions are in some way relevant to the plot. Why is Marlowe arguing with this random doctor that he called to discreetly look into an apparent overdose? Well obviously because some animosity remains from the affair that Marlowe had with the doctor’s wife in the Long Goodbye.

The narrative never rises to heights of “…a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” (The Long Goodbye) or “She had eyes like strange sins.” (The High Window) but it’s not for lack of earnest effort. So instead we get overwrought exhibitions like “the rain was making the water in the lake look like a bed of nails.” and “the rain was coming down now like polished steel rods.” It’s not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation.

So the relationship between Marlowe and the sad-eyed Clare Cavendish is forced and inexplicable, the villains lack clear motivations and the inevitable similes are sterile and unrelated to the story. And the plot pays dutiful respect to this gallery of artifacts, even to the point of taking literally Chandler’s advice: “In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”*

Having said all that, Chandler and I are going to have to lean toward recommending The Black Eyed Blonde. It’s definitely Chandleresque and so long as you’ve already read everything else in the canon plus Hammet, MacDonald and Himes, it’s the closest thing you’re going to find to a new book by Raymond Chandler published in 2014.

*1950 April 15, Saturday Review of Literature, The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler (There’s a 1944 version that doesn’t include the quote “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”) http://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1950apr15-00013

Cheaters And Their Readers

By 1944 Raymond Chandler had written The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely and the line “She had eyes like strange sins” and he was accordingly at the top of his game when he wrote “The Simple Art of Murder” for Atlantic Monthly and sank the sturdiest and most explicit signpost at a major turning point for pulp fiction.

Since then the essay has held its ground as an important and seminal summary of what’s good and bad in fiction in general and detective fiction in particular, at least from the perspective of one of the genre’s recognised greats. It amounts to a declaration of victory for a certain type of rigorous realism and American-style iconoclasm, especially with regards to the insufferably mannered, formulaic and imperious English forbears of detective fiction. Chandler takes on Dorothy L. Sayers and an editorial he describes as an “essay in futility” as representative of the pompous view that detective fiction can never be real fiction.

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.

Chandler also takes issue with E.C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” and condemns Freeman Wills Crofts, S.S. Van Dine and, naturally, Agatha Christie for the lead-handed cop-out that is “Murder On The Orient Express”.

They do not come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.

And he’s particularly merciless with the progenitor of Winnie The Pooh, AA Milne, for his crime against fiction “The Red House Mystery”. The problem with the Milne Story is that it’s implausible and relies on far too many very unlikely or unnatural or irregular occurrences. Chandler picks the story to pieces, in fact, and the best he can say about it is that it’s “not a deliberate fraud”.

In short, Chandler dislikes a cheat. And this is the meat of the essay for any writer who cares about adding to the modern canon as begun by Hammett and sustained by Chandler and MacDonald (but clearly not Spillane). It needs to be realistic. This doesn’t mean that mad things can’t happen and that character and morality can’t be tested to limits beyond that which most readers will ever see, but it has to be logically consistent and you can never go back and try to fill in a litany of plot-holes with the cheap pitch of coincidence and oversight and the assumption that your readers are lazy or stupid.

That means no deus ex machina, no sending Hastings down to London in chapter three to return at the denouement with evidence of a secret twin or a second will or true likeness of the deceased, no squadrons of policemen too stupid to notice that which the amateur detective picks up on instantly. It means, simply, that your reader has to stand a chance to solve the problem with the evidence presented. You can misdirect your reader, as Hammett does so originally in the Maltese Falcon, or shock him as Chandler does so cynically in the Little Sister, but you can’t lie and you can’t cheat and you can’t deprive the reader of a fighting chance.

You don’t need to like the advice or follow it to be a good writer unless part of your take on that means being a good writer according to the harsh and authoritative definition of Raymond Chandler. Or if you simply agree with the hypothesis that rigour in writing inevitably surfaces as quality then you could certainly choose a worse measure than an obligation to reward your readers for their attention all the way through to the end.

Just Another Twist

GangsterStories193112Margie Harris might on her own represent two or three of the most intriguing unsolved mysteries in pulp fiction.

The first and most confounding is simply this — why is Margie Harris not an icon of pulp fiction? And indeed why did her entire share of the genre — gangster fiction — have such a short and incandescent golden age before dying out altogether?

Harris wrote prolifically for shamelessly and deliberately provocative monthlies with names like Gangster Stories and Gangland Stories and Racketeer Stories and Conflict, many of which regularly fell foul of government censors and had to be reminded that crime doesn’t pay or at any rate must never be shown to. Her career paralleled these pioneering anthologies and she contributed to them from their start in 1930 to their demise in the middle of the decade and short-lived comeback in 1939 and she was a natural:

Jimmy should have remembered that Smooth, before going to Ossining for a ten spot jolt, had been known as being stingy with words, lavish with action.

The crater made by the heavy slug gave him the look of some particularly obscene and horrible monster in human form; one possessed of three eyes, all leering with a hellish tolerance on the combined sins of the world.

Margie Harris, Facing the Mob, Gangland Stories, February 1931

Thematically, Harris’ specialty was the over-the-top mob thriller with quick tempers and quicker justice. Stylistically her specialty was the idiom. She employed what may or may not have been legitimate street jargon lavishly and yet somehow accessibly — you just know without ever before seeing it in this context that a yard is a hundred dollars and a ten spot jolt is a ten year sentence in Sing Sing (the idiomatic name, incidentally, for Ossining State Prison in upstate New York).

Harris deployed her gats and gunsels and molls and meat wagons with an unselfconscious fluency in much the same way that Hammett and Chandler would employ the hard-boiled simile and to similar effect. Her narrative has a lyricism and tempo that accompany the high-octane, revenge-driven plots like a saxophone.

The second great mystery of Margie Harris is who was Margie Harris? All that’s known of her for sure is that she didn’t exist. Margie Harris was the pseudonym of someone who almost certainly wrote gangland stories as an aside to another, possibly more prominent career as a journalist and/or police officer and/or gangster. And the closest thing we have to a clue is a letter Harris wrote to pulp innovator Harold Hersey, publisher of Gangster Stories, in response to the growing curiosity of his readership and their doubts that a woman could write such gritty material.

A biographical sketch of Margie Harris?
Scram, Baby; whaddyuh think I am, a canary —yelpin’ on myself?
I got your slant, though, somebody’s maybe asked “Who’s this frail who cracks wise from the inside?”
Just another twist, sisters and brothers — maybe, but look out for my lipstick. You know some of the sugar Molls carry one for their own use, one for “the other Jane” — and that one has cyanide in it. So look out for my lipstick, too.
How did I get that way? Maybe newspaper work; maybe just associates…

Gangster Stories, June 1931

The complete letter can be found in in City of Numbered Men, the Best of Prison Stories and Queen of the Gangsters: Vol 1: Broadwalk Empire (sic: yes, Broadwalk) along with author John Locke’s compelling and convincing analysis implying that Harris acquired at least some of her facility with gangland culture by association with genuine mobsters.

Harris wrote her last story under the name in 1939 and then left us forever. Maybe she went on the lam or took a powder. I sure hope she wasn’t deep-sixed and I like to assume that we continue to admire her work under her other aliases.

The Strange Case of Klinger v Doyle

Holmes5-Inspector_Lestrade

On December 23rd a federal court in Chicago declared Sherlock Holmes public domain in America, striking down the last obstacle to my dream of writing my contribution to the canon in which Holmes teams up with Dr Who to recover powerful scriptures which have been stolen from the library of St John the Beheaded only to discover that the fiend behind the plot is his own brother, Sherrinford, who is in fact a member of a cult led by a telepathic slug whose plan is to turn all its followers into insect people. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it had been done.

Holmes fell into the Swiss ravine of public domain in the UK in 1997 with the death of Conan-Doyle’s last remaining direct descendent, the accomplished air force commander Dame Jean Conan-Doyle, who had employed her last years and remaining influence on the Sherlock Holmes industry in the UK to encourage quality world-wide. Now U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo has opened the floodgates entirely to the sea of untreated fan-fic that will doubtless follow his ruling.

And what dross there’ll be. We’ll probably see modernizations about a mental patient who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes being treated by a psychiatrist named Watson, except that, too, was done in the 1971 play and film, They Might Be Giants. And of course the series Elementary, in which Holmes is a recovering drug addict in current-day New York has been in production for several seasons before Justice Castillo’s landmark decision. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as a Holmes who relies on text messaging and Youtube has somehow found audiences in the US under the dark restrictions of pre-Castillo era.

So it’ll be in the wild-west frontier of electronic publishing where most of the offenses will multiply like rats with no regard to the canon, unlike considered homages like A Time For Sherlock Holmes (1983) in which Holmes and Watson are able to battle Moriarity into infinity thanks to a youth serum. There’ll be no way, now, to distinguish the strictly compliant pastiches that pit Holmes against Dr. Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, 1979) and Fu Manchu (Ten Years Beyond Baker Street, 1984) and Jack the Ripper (The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, 1978) and, of course, Dracula (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, 1978).

Note that there’s one caveat to the ruling and it’s to be the foundation of the appeal to be launched later this month — US copyright has yet to expire on the entirety of the original Sherlock Holmes library. There remain ten final stories released in the US after 1922 which still belong to the remaining Doyle estate. For those planning their own take on the great detective, this means that only features and characteristics established before then are fair game. So you can refer to Watson and Holmes, of course, and 221B Baker Street and Mrs. Hudson and Moriarty and LeStrade and Mycroft and Toby the crime-fighting Spaniel/Lurcher mutt, but you’ll have to craft a plot that somehow steers clear of Watson’s second wife.

So if you’ve been waiting for the legal all-clear to write your Sherlock Holmes/Captain Nemo mashup now you have it. Just try to take an original perspective, if you can find one remaining, and show a little respect for the time-travelling monster-fighting detective who’s kept us safe from the evil machinery of Dr. Moriarty and his space-invaders.

Indefensible Publi…

redhandWe weren’t initially going to do Twitter. Not because Twitter’s not the state-of-the-art in delivering pointlessly curt messages to people who don’t care what you think, but because it feels a little late in the game. There are zoo animals with over 100 000 Twitter followers and as much as we might like a piece of that pie we don’t know that we’re prepared to do what it takes to get it.

But the age of Twitter, for better or worse, is still upon our throats like a career oriented jackal and we’re led to understand that it can get you a few extra sales on Amazon which, in the future, is all anyone will care about and it’ll probably be the only way to get a desirable mate.

So please follow us on Twitter. In return we’ll follow you, of course, but we’ll also only tweet things which are relevant and helpful – specifically we’re going to tweet when we publish a new blog or book and whenever we find a clever bit of pulp fiction writing that we think isn’t already widely known.

A McGuffin For The Age Of The Anti-Hero

Image

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.