Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Red Harvest [1929]

Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, written based on his experiences with Pinkerton Detective Agency, and first serialized in the now defunct pulp magazine Black Mask, was so influential on the hardboiled school of literature and so definitive of the genre, that Time magazine selected it ahead of his most iconic work, The Maltese Falcon, in its list of 100 Greatest Novels of 20th Century. And, though Sam Spade was certainly the more appealing character, in the Continental Op, the story’s nameless protagonist – a short, overweight, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, world-weary, cynical, jaded and amoral detective who prefers real politik over conscience, we have nearly as brilliantly etched a character. The Op, employed with Continental Detective Agency, arrives in Personville, a Western mining town which he immediately renames as “Poisonville”, at the behest of one Donald Wilsson, only to find his client murdered before he even gets to meet him. On one hand he begins investigating the case, while on the other he literally arm-twists Elihu, his deceased client’s profane, domineering and powerful father into employing him to clean the insanely corrupt town of its filth. And thus he jumps headlong into his relentless fight against crooked cops, gangsters, bootleggers, gamblers and other hardened criminals, by slyly playing each party against the others. He also develops an affair based on quid pro quo with a self-serving seductress. What follows, inevitably, is mayhem as people start dying all around as no one leaves unscathed, and takes Op to the edge both professionally and personally. The outlaw town and its low-lives came alive courtesy Hammett’s superb prose marked by terse language, wit, cynicism, wisecracks, black humour and a thoroughly pessimistic outlook. The result was a rich and complex tale of violent power struggles, deceits, treacheries, blackmails, gang-wars and whatnot – a bleak and nihilistic reversal of the American Dream, if you will. Interestingly, despite being tailor-made for a noir and/or gangster film, its closest adaptation, albeit not formally acknowledged, was a samurai film, viz. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.






Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Thriller/Roman Noir/Gangster/Detective Novel/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, November 30, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird [1960]


There aren’t many books in the Western canon that are as universally loved and admired as the Pulitzer Prize winning classic To Kill A Mockingbird – it is one of those rare books that everyone has either read or has at least heard of; yet, quite incredibly, this was the 1st and only completed novel of its author Harper Lee. Filled with warmth, humour, belief in the fundamental equality of every person, and autobiographical touches, it dealt with the themes of racial and class discrimination and bigotry, ghettoization of the marginalized, and the importance of empathy in the deeply divisive societies we live in. Lee, in an inspired choice, distilled the proceedings through the eyes of a child, which made it all the more affecting, accentuated its profound simplicity, and added the themes of lost innocence and coming-of-age to it. Set in a fictitious Southern town during Great Depression, it is narrated by Scout, a perceptive 6-year old girl whose father Atticus Finch, a polite, level-headed, rational and middle-aged lawyer with a rare sense of right and wrong, decides to defend an impoverished black guy accused of raping a white girl, against the town’s sentiments. Interestingly, the trial covered an important but only a small portion of the book, as Lee spent significant time and love portraying the minds of children through Scout, her older brother Jem, their friend Dill, their fascination with their reclusive neighbor who they name “Boo”, and the way the trial so deeply affects them. And in Atticus we have a legendary character who has become a symbol for justice, compassion, fairness and the courage to stand by one’s convictions. Even though the narration, at times, seemed too matured to be emanating from a 6-year old, that was just a minor blip in this novel which has been recognized by Time magazine as one of 100 Greatest Novels of 20th Century, and continues to remain relevant even today.






Author: Harper Lee
Genre: Drama/Legal Drama/Social Drama/Family Drama/Coming of Age
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Maltese Falcon [1930]


Sam Spade was to Dashiell Hammett what Philip Marlowe was to Raymond Chandler or Sherlock Holmes to Arthur Conan Doyle; further, along with Marlowe, Spade easily remains the most influential and enduring character of hardboiled American fiction. Yet, most interestingly, this iconic literary character appeared in just one full-length novel, which in turn has been voted by Modern Library as one of 100 Best English-Language Novels of 20th Century, viz. The Maltese Falcon. First serialized in the defunct pulp magazine Black Mask, the novel, with its staccato narrative style, racy dialogues, tar-drenched cynicism, an underlying romantic spirit, labyrinthine and lurid tale of greed, betrayals, double crosses, violence and murder, pungent sense of ironies and humour, and crime-ridden underbelly of a thoroughly corrupt city – in this case 1920s San Francisco, flexible moral codes, tough male characters, and duplicitous femme fatales, literally set the tone for this distinctive school of literature. Spade, a tough-as-nails, chain-smoking and hard drinking gumshoe who believes in ends justifying means, gets the case of a lifetime when Brigid O'Shaughnessy, an enigmatic and coquettish lady who knows how to play men by their balls, hires him to follow a man. However, what starts as just another job quickly escalates into something far more complex and twisted than Spade had ever imagined. Before long, more shady characters and facets start getting introduced in the form of the unctuous and effeminate Joel Cairo, the obese and sweet-talking but dangerous Casper Gutman, and the invaluable "black bird" that everyone is after. Hammett created an incredibly arresting and sordid atmosphere through the kind of typewriter prose that grabs one by the collar, thus elevating this far beyond standard genre writing, and in Spade we had a fascinatingly etched character who takes to sex and violence like a duck takes to water, yet with a strong but barely perceptible moral code. Among its 3 movie adaptations, the the 1941 film noir by John Huston with Humphrey Bogart as Spade remains a towering classic.






Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Thriller/Roman Noir/Mystery/Crime Thriller/Detective Novel/Hardboiled
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Last Picture Show [1966]


The Last Picture Show, the first edition in American novelist Larry McMurtry’s ‘Duane Moore Series’, was that rare book for which the movie adaptation, by Peter Bogdanovich in 1971, was better as well as more popular, something even the author himself has gracefully acknowledged. In fact, few writers can boast of as many famous adaptations, and that too with so many having superseded the source novel’s reputation, as him – Hud (from Horsemen, Pass By), Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove are the ones that immediately catch attention along with this. With a prose and narrative style that was disarmingly simple and lucid – at times even to the book’s detriment by making it appear slight, the novel espoused such universal themes as loneliness, unrequited love, friendship, craving for physical intimacy and companionship, and growing up through a process of falling down and picking oneself up. In addition, it also touched base upon such aspects as social hypocrisy, moralistic stands on sex and relationships, and stark rich-poor divide that invariably brews contempt. Thalia is a dusty, windy and conservative one-horse Texan town where nothing much happens, and the place provided the perfect backdrop for its ensemble characters. Teenagers The shy Sonny and the hot-blooded Duane are best friends stuck at the placid place; Duane is madly in love with the pretty, rich and spoilt Jacy; Sonny gets into a illicit and liberating affair with the bullying football coach’s neglected middle-aged wife, while silently being in love with the teasing Jacy; Louise, Jacy’s mother, is a beautiful and independent-minded woman – aspects that are bound to alienate the town’s conservative folks; Sam the Lion is a compassionate and world-weary father-figure for the 2 boys and owner of the town’s pool hall, movie theatre and cafĂ©. Despite its share of flaws and shortcomings in terms of character layers, narrative strength and subtlety of depictions, the book managed to be a gently affecting, quietly melancholic, and scandalously frank coming of age story.






Author: Larry McMurtry
Genre: Drama/Rural Drama/Coming-of-Age/Buddy Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, May 27, 2013

Cogan's Trade [1974]


George V. Higgins continues to enjoy cult following among low-end gangster literature aficionados, and Cogan’s Trade, his third book, perhaps remains his best known work alongside his debut novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. This tough, grimy and formally daring book that portrayed an authentic and no-nonsense picture of the Boston low-life also served as the source material for Andrew Dominik’s excellent film Killing Them Softly. The story begins with an audacious hold-up of an underground poker joint planned by a smart criminal and executed by two delinquent young guys, with the hope that Markie Trattman, who runs the place, would be held responsible for the act. However, unbeknownst to them, the mob hires Jackie Cogan for locating those responsible, and Cogan, despite his seemingly casual nature, is darn good at his job. It doesn’t take long for him to find out that Markie, despite the beating he gets for an offence he never committed, was essentially the fall-guy, and the ones who actually did it. After that it’s only a matter of time before those responsible find themselves at the wrong end of Cogan’s gun. Higgins however didn’t take the conventional route of chronicling the story; rather, he used an atypical approach wherein the book was given an episodic feel and each chapter, based on casual conversations filled with non-sequiturs between various characters, took the story forward – an approach that Dominik more or less preserved in the film adaptation. The style, consequently, was interesting on account of its managing to give a real feel of those populating it, what with their slangs, accents, ways of speaking and their blue-collar lives in general. However, as the novel progressed, what initially seemed refreshing started appearing tad repetitive and tedious on account of overuse. Nonetheless, Cogan’s charismatic character, and his winding conversations with, among others, a washed-out hitman, formed the highlights of this book filled in most parts with wry humour, dark ironies and casual violence.






Author: George H. Higgins
Genre: Crime Drama/Urban Drama/Gangster
Language: English
Country: US