Archive for Dashiell Hammett

The Book Cover Challenge

Posted in Biographical, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2019 by telescoper

Over the past week I’ve been participating in the Book Cover Challenge on Twitter, in which you are invited to post every day for a week an image of the cover of a book you love without any further comment or explanation. I’ve now finished the challenge and I thought I’d put the seven books I selected up here.

Since the challenge is over I am absolved of the requirement not to add comments, so I’ll make a few brief observations here. One is that I found it very hard to select just seven books. I love far too many books to do this in any systematic way. The seven picked are just meant to be vaguely representative of the sort of books I read, but they are not really the seven I definitely consider the best. On a different day I could easily have picked a completely different seven.

Anyway, here are some comment on my selections.


Book 1 is A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. I read this as a teenager, and it had a profound effect on me. It’s the story of an adolescent boy coming to terms with his sexuality in the American mid-West during the 1950s. It is as frank about the description of gay sex as it is truthful about the confusion that goes with being a teenager. When I bought it I didn’t realize it was going to be so sexually explicit or so unflinching in its description of the selfishness of the central character.

Book 2 is a collection of poems by R.S. Thomas. I had to include at least one book of poetry and found it hard to select which. I feel a bit ashamed to have omitted T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, but there you go. I only discovered R.S. Thomas when I moved to Wales in 2007, and still cannot understand why his poetry is not appreciated more widely, and I included this collection to encourage more people to explore his verse.

Book 3 is A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I bought this soon after it came out in 1993 and although it is almost 1500 pages long I devoured it very quickly. The novel follows the story of four families over a period of 18 months, and centres on Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter, Lata, to the `suitable boy’ of the title.  Lata is a 19-year-old university student who refuses to be influenced by her domineering mother or opinionated brother, Arun. It’s beautifully written, weaving together the protagonists stories against a vividly painted backdrop of post-Partition India.

Books 4 & 5 are both from the Golden Age of detective fiction, but from either side of the Atlantic.  I’ve cheated a bit with Book 4, as it is actually 4 novels in one book but I had to have something by the greatest American writer of the period, Dashiell Hammett. By contrast I have also included a fine example of the English detective novel, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Both Hammett and Sayers managed to transcend the genre of crime fiction and produce genuine works of literature. The Nine Tailors, has an extraordinary sense of detail and atmosphere and a wonderfully imaginative ending. Among the many ingenious features of this novel is the very prominent central theme of bell-ringing (campanology).


Book 6 is The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. This book describes the scientific discoveries of the polymaths of the late eighteenth century, and describes how this period formed the basis for modern scientific discoveries. It focuses particularly on the lives and works of such characters as Sir Joseph Banks, the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, and chemist Humphry Davy and also explores the interaction between science and the art and literature of the period, especially poetry. It covers a lot of ground but it’s very wittily done and never gets bogged down.

Book 7, my last choice, is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. You would probably describe this as True Crime, a genre that is generally typified by crudely sensationalistic works of very little literary (or other) merit. This one is in a very different league, and some regard it as the first ever non-Fiction novel. Based on the real-life murders of four members of a family in rural Kansas in 1959 by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith (for which they were later executed), In Cold Blood has been lauded for its eloquent prose, extensive detail, and simultaneous triple narrative, which describes the lives of the murderers, the victims, and other members of the rural community in alternating sequences. The psychologies and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith are given special attention, as well as the complex relationship that existed between them during and after the murders. Not a comfortable read by any means, but a masterpiece by any standards.

The Sad Tale of Veronica Lake

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on December 8, 2013 by telescoper

A few weeks ago I indulged myself by watching, during the same evening, a couple of class examples of Film Noir, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia The first of these is based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett and the second has an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Both feature the same leading actors, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, The Glass Key being the first film featuring this pairing.

There’s a pragmatic reason why Paramount Studios chose Veronica Lake to star with Alan Ladd, namely her size. Alan Ladd was quite a small man, standing  just a shade under 5′ 5″ tall, and the casting directors consequently found it difficult to locate a leading lady who didn’t tower over him. Veronica Lake, however, was only 4′ 11″ and fitted the bill nicely:

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd

It wasn’t just her diminutive stature that propelled Veronica Lake to stardom; she was also very beautiful and managed to project a screen image of cool detachment which made her a perfect choice as femme fatale, a quintessential ingredient of any Film Noir. She’s absolutely great in both the movies I watched, and in many more besides. Her looks and screen presence turned her into a true icon -a vera icon in fact- appropriately enough, because the name Veronica derives from that anagram. The cascade of blond hair, often covering one eye, became a trademark that later found its way into, for example, the character of Jessica Rabbit in the animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

However, her success as a movie star was short-lived and Veronica Lake disappeared from Hollywood entirely in the 1950s. She was rediscovered in the 1960s working as a waitress in a downmarket New York bar, and subsequently made a film called Footsteps in the Snow but it disappeared without trace and failed to revitalize her career. She died in 1973.

So why did an actress of such obvious talent experience such a dramatic reversal of fortune? Sadly, the answer is a familiar one: problems with drink and drugs, struggles with mental illness, a succession of disastrous marriages, and a reputation for being very difficult to work with. Her famous screen persona seems largely to have been a result of narcotics abuse. “I wasn’t a Sex Symbol, I was Sex Zombie”, as she wrote in her biography. She appeared to be detached, because she was stoned.

It’s a sad tale that would cast a shadow over even over the darkest Film Noir but though she paid a heavy price she still left a priceless legacy. Forty years after her death, all that remains of her is what you can see on the screen, and that includes some of the greatest movies of all time.

What, no Hammett?

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on October 20, 2013 by telescoper

I just took a break from work to have a look through the Sunday newspapers. In the Independent on Sunday I found an artincle about a new poll by the Crime Writers’ Association, which invites the public to vote on the best crime novel ever written.

I’m not going to quibble with the entire shortlist of ten books as such things are never going to generate a consensus. I will, however, admit being a bit annoyed with it for two reasons.

The first reason is the presence on the list of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Chandler was a fine novelist. This particular book, though, is very far from his best work. It is notable for being the first novel to feature his detective Philip Marlowe, but the plot has too many gaps for it to be considered a great example of the genre. Perhaps the shocking nature of the plot, which revolves around drugs, pornography and sexual exploitation, has drawn attention away from these flaws. Anyway it wouldn’t be in my top ten. Chandler’s other book on the shortlist, The Long Goodbye is another story – it’s completely marvellous and thoroughly deserves its place on the list.

The second reason is the absence from the selection of any of the great novels by Dashiell Hammett. The Dain Curse, The Glass Key, Red Harvest and of course The Maltese Falcon are all contenders, in my opinion.

I just can’t understand why the Crime Writers’ Association picked an inferior Chandler over a brilliant Hammett.

Incidentally I don’t think Raymond Chandler would have disagreed. He was well aware of the failings of The Big Sleep and of Hammett he wrote:

Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

There. I’ve said my piece. At least Hammett is on the list for the best Crime Writer. And by way of protest I’m going to have a glass of wine and watch a DVD of The Glass Key starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a classic film noir adapted from Hammett’s great novel.