BreadtagSagas ©: Author Tony, April 2015
A confessional background
I’ve been an avid reader of fiction all my life. My sister and I were fortunate that our mother read to us when we were young. She read in an over-dramatic style that we loved as kids. I remember in particular Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs, Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Faraway Tree was a favourite and possibly others in the series, but our all time favourite was The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley. I remember being shocked and scared by the wicked Princes Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud threatening to boil the hero Abu Ali in oil.
Later, I remember one period of time at seven years of age spending long periods in the Penrith, NSW primary school library at recess and lunchtime reading. I always had a tendency to be a nerd, I’ll admit. I began with a series of omniscient viewer type books of the lives of various wild mammals and then somehow started to read Jock of the Bushveldt and persevered, despite the large words until I finished. Fortunately, for my sanity and survival at school this behaviour did not persist and I reverted to being a normal school boy.
I studied literature at school and read it afterwards. But, I was always more likely to read popular fiction for pleasure and insatiably. Indeed, when I learned of it I decried the split in the early twentieth century between literary and popular fiction. And, I’ll defend this against all comers, with rare exceptions the journeymen and women of the latter are better writers.
As a digression (sadly a common occurrence), I remember when I was studying science in Canada becoming overly enthused with literature and deciding to read erudite writers of literary criticism to get some hints, as to what professionals thought of the novels I was reading. I have adopted a similar approach with film and have found it is mostly a good way to go.
I began perusing literary criticism, as I have throughout my life —though it is probably a vanishing skill, like writing by hand —by randomly browsing the shelves in the appropriate area. I quickly discovered to my horror that the writers of English literary criticism in universities, didn’t write in English or not the English that I was familiar with, or could understand. In science you are punished for not writing clearly, though sometimes some people do get away with obscurity, but the best and brightest tend not to. In this case, although I could have blamed myself for not being bright enough, I didn’t; I dismissed them as wankers and moved on. Although, I’m surprised that one finds the tendency to obscurity or language so full of jargon that only peers can understand quite common in the humanities, whereas in the sciences much effort is expended in attempting to teach students clarity in writing. Although some examples of obscurantism do slip through.
Similarly, I once audited a postgraduate course in Russian literary criticism at The Australian National University, because my friends were enamoured and the lecturer encouraging, but I was shocked when these same friends presented their tutorial papers. They just read them out verbatim. There was no presentation style or summarised verbal rendering of the work, and no discussion or encouragement of questions from the audience during the presentation. As a postgraduate science student this was the complete opposite of what we were being taught in biology.
Detective and crime fiction
Back to popular fiction, I have always read widely and avidly but my favourite areas in my youth and at university were science fiction and crime fiction. Science fiction has almost disappeared as a genre, swallowed by fantasy and perhaps anti-science attitudes, but crime fiction is as popular as ever. I tend to read authors that I like and search for more when I run out.
In my youth and at university, I liked Dashiell Hammett and though it took me a while also Raymond Chandler. I’ve read all of Hammett and some of Chandler and would highly recommend them, if you’ve somehow missed out. The movies are excellent as well.
The Maltese Falcon is to my mind almost the perfect detective novel but Red Harvest and The Thin Man are almost equally good, as are many of his numerous short stories. Hammett’s detectives are gritty and hard-boiled, as are Chandler’s, but there is an underlying reality and experience to Hammett’s fiction that makes you believe and to learn from his stories as examples of ‘real life’. This is not altogether surprising as Hammett worked for the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency for seven years.
In the middle of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy the story of Flitcraft, a man who left his real-estate-office to go to lunch one day and never came back. It turned out that he was nearly killed by a beam falling from a high building and he simply walked out of the life he was in. The Flitcraft parable is a brilliant small story in its own right, but it is also a message from Sam Spade to Brigid that could have provided her salvation, but she doesn’t pay enough attention to get it, Flitcraft’s wife didn’t either.
The John Huston directed 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor is also brilliant and true to the novel.
Dashiell Hammett the man is interesting in his own right. He served in both world wars. He was an alcoholic and womaniser. Nevertheless, he had a deep relationship and a thirty-year affair with Lillian Helman who wrote some powerful biographical pieces about him. He was one of the very few artists who stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy and was imprisoned for a year for doing so. Helman writes passionately about this in Scoundrel Time. Several good biographies have been written about Hammett. A recent one is Dashiell Hammett: man of mystery by Sally Cline. I haven’t read it and the reviews are mixed, but it is supposed to be a lean, fast-paced, memoir, with salacious details in abundance and plenty of new information.
More recently, I have read too much serial killer fiction. One feels soiled by one’s interest in serial killer fiction, but perhaps that extends to police procedurals and detective fiction in general. It is all vicarious thrills and often salacious to boot.
I got sick of the serial killer books eventually. The Silence of the Lambs is to my mind the most perfect novel in this genre. I admire Christopher Isherwood and Graham Greene at his best for their technical mastery of the sentence and paragraph, but it is popular fiction and even pulp fiction that the true craftsmen of writing exist. The novels of Dick Francis an ex-jockey are a prime example of extremely well-crafted and well-written formula writing.
Hemingway attempted the mastery of the short sentence but to my mind didn’t quite achieve the measure of Isherwood or Francis. Hemingway knew what he wanted to achieve and said that what is left out is more important than what is kept in.
Thomas Harris wrote good but middle of the road books until The Silence of the lambs. In Red Dragon he revealed too much of the mind of the serial killer one gets his viewpoint and this is always dangerous. His main protagonist Will Graham is not especially likeable.
In Silence of the lambs by contrast, the killer is a shadowy figure and enough is revealed only to expose the horror for his victims. Clarice Starling is a wonderful, likeable character with a difficult childhood catastrophe, which she had to transcend. Hannibal Lecter is equivocal, a monster but also civilised and helpful to Starling, a moral dilemma to the reader. The criticism of Red Dragon regarding point of view is perhaps why Lecter is so chilling, you learn just enough to fall into his point of view, whilst at the same time being horrified. (Vicarious, salacious ‘killer porn’ of the type promoted by Quentin Tarantino.)
Jack Crawford Starling’s mentor is a manipulative hard character, but his driven nature and liking for Starling, and the information that he is caring for his wife Bella at home who is terminally ill with cancer, soften this.
Silence of the Lambs is a great book. It is written in the best formulaic style, but it transcends this. It is a very lean book. There is not a misplaced sentence. Everything that needs to be written is, but anything extraneous has been left out. A tour de force. The film is also very tight because it sticks very closely to the book.
More recently still, whilst I have been travelling extensively, I have read quite a deal of new and not so new detective fiction, perhaps leaning towards police procedural novels. I hope I’ve read enough in these areas to provide an interesting and coherent account of what I’ve enjoyed, rather than trying to survey the entire field.
Books in the last decade
Of the crime fiction that I’ve read in the past ten years and particularly in the last five years, I’m including only those books and authors that I’ve liked or was at least impressed by, not the mediocre. But, of course, this is only my opinion. I admit that I am more prone to whimsical prejudice in reading than in any other part of my life. Some of the books I have picked up overseas as travel reading during extensive trips over the past four years, quite a number whilst in Hyderabad, India or Chiang Mai in Thailand.
The authors include: Harlan Coban, Chelsea Caine, Michael Connnolly, Robert Crais, Arnaldur Indridason, Michael Dibdin, Tana French, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, Michael Robotham, John Sandford, Peter Temple.
Key Words: Snugglepot and Cuddlepie , May Gibbs, Enchanted Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton, The Land of Green Ginger, Noel Langley, Jock of the Bushveldt , literature, literary criticism, science fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, crime fiction, popular fiction, pulp fiction, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, The Thin Man, Lillian Helman, Scoundrel Time, The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris, Christopher Isherwood, Dick Francis, Hemingway, Red Dragon , Will Graham, Clarice Starling, Hannibal Lecter, Jack Crawford, Hyderabad, India, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Harlan Coban, Chelsea Caine, Michael Connnolly, Robert Crais, Arnaldur Indridason, Michael Dibdin, Tana French, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, Michael Robotham, John Sandford, Peter Temple