Monthly Archives: March 2011
Raymond Chandler, The High Window
There is something vaguely unnatural about Raymond Chandler novels. Although they’re generally very bleak, being noir detective stories with a greater than usual dose of personal trauma above and beyond the murder-for-money motives, I tend to read them through with a huge grin on my face. I know what it is, it’s the constant wisecracking and world-weary self-aware irony of Philip Marlowe. I still find it vaguely unnatural. But I adore them nonetheless.
Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man
Despite my love of noir (and I have been indulging it greatly the past few weeks, I should post a list of the movies I’ve been watching, too), I have never before actually read any Dashiell Hammett. But I grabbed a copy of The Thin Man while stocking up on Bogie movies at the library last week, and I adored it. It’s not as gritty as Chandler, but Nick and Nora are wonderful, as are all the minor characters. (I was surprised at how much I ended up liking Gilbert, the morbid teenager; his fascination with cannibalism was what cemented it for me, I think.) It’s a pity Hammett didn’t do sequels, I’d love to read more of them. Perhaps I will investigate the movies.
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
This is the best book about invalids doing research that I have ever read. Okay, that sounds like damning with faint praise. I loved it. A Scotland Yard investigator is laid up in the hospital and decides to try to figure out just what the hell Richard III was doing, murdering the princes in the Tower, and comes to the surprising conclusion that he wasn’t. It’s all the best parts of doing historical research without any of the boring bits. Not a strictly noir mystery, except for the way that the accused doesn’t manage to regain his besmirched reputation — which might be close enough, actually — but extremely satisfying nonetheless.
Steven Brust, Tiassa
And a break from the detective stories for the latest Vlad novel! I have to say, I know he’s cranking these out at one a year, but it’s still not fast enough for me. I’ll just have to be grateful for what we get. Unlike last year’s Iorich, I think this would be a great introduction to the Vlad stories. You get a little bit of all the main characters (except for Morrolan, he’s been strangely absent for a while) and a little bit of each of the narrative styles: first-person Vlad POV, third person straight narrative, and Paarfi. The story itself is easy to follow if you don’t know all the background, but there’ll be plenty in there you’ll still want to find out about, to make sure you go back and read the other novels. But then, how could you not?
Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited
I picked this up while wandering randomly through the lovely Rosemary Garfoot Public Library in Cross Plains one day. (I live in Madison, but I’m working part-time in Cross Plains until one of the libraries I’ve applied to finally notices that I’m completely awesome and hires me.) The original edition of the book is from the 60s, and the rewrite from the 90s, but it’s still a startling expose on the funeral industry. It’s easy to see how corruption happens; it’s not like you’re in the mood to comparison-shop for funerals. But wow, talk about price-gouging. (Not to mention the lying: apparently it is not a legal requirement to be embalmed before cremation. I honestly did not know that, but it’s going in my will.) Also, I now understand the reference to Forest Lawn thrown out in a Raymond Chandler novel. I kind of wish I didn’t. Apparently Bogart is buried there, how depressing.
Maggie Stiefvater, Ballad
I hated this book for the first five chapters, which was terribly disappointing, but there’s not much I dislike more than “boy pines over his best friend but can’t tell her he’s in love with her.” Fortunately the teachers at Thornking-Ash (and what a name to give a music school in a faerie-infested universe) were fascinating enough that I kept going. Then the pining stopped. And then it started to get good. I stand by my assessment that these books (including the prequel Lament) are Twilight for people who hate Twilight, but they also have some of the best faeries I’ve read in a long time. They’re properly inhuman, horrifyingly selfish and violent, and charming and compelling nonetheless. Also, there was an in-universe explanation for the name of the school, which I hadn’t expected and made me deliriously happy.
Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter
While the official subtitle of this book is “The True Story of the Manson Murders,” it’s really much more the story of the Manson trial. Fair enough, for a book co-written by the prosecuting attorney. If you believe this book, the entire case was single-handedly saved from the LAPD by one Vincent Bugliosi. Which may be true, I don’t know. The stories of the trial are surprisingly fascinating, all the wrangling over testimony and cutting deals with Family members and Bugliosi’s thwarted determination to get Manson to take the stand. Manson and the girls who were tried with him were sentenced to death, but California suspended the death penalty before they could be executed, which is probably just as well. Ted Bundy was a celebrity until the day he was executed (giving a totally ridiculous deathbed interview to Jerry Falwell), while Manson wastes away in prison becoming more and more a cliche’d parody of evil. The book ends with the customary notice that Manson would be eligible for parole in 1978; as of today, no one has been willing to risk their career to give it to him. (Hey, and here’s a transcript of his 1992 parole hearing.)
Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard
This is one of the most interesting and original true crime books I’ve ever read, and undoubtedly the least exploitative. Mary Bell, along with a co-defendant, was tried for the murder of two toddlers when she was eleven years old. The other girl was acquitted; Mary was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. This book is written by a woman who had covered the original trial with cooperation from Mary herself, now a grown woman with a teenage daughter of her own. Most of the book is in fact about what happened to her after her conviction: the places she was sent, the reform schools and prisons she lived in, the ceaseless media attention that has uprooted her family dozens of times. Sereny argues that children who kill are not the same as adult murderers and we should not treat them as such. They are severely damaged children, and they need help. The stories of Mary’s life, and especially the sense one gets of her as a responsible and moral adult, are extremely compelling evidence in her favor.
China Miéville, Kraken
Oh China Miéville, I forgive you for Iron Council. This book is marvellous, the best kind of thriller — the kind where you start out with no idea what’s just happened, three quarters of the way through the book you realize that everything you’ve learned so far still gives you no idea what’s happened, and in the last quarter you get an explanation that is nothing like what you expected but makes perfect sense. It’s gloriously masterful writing, and that’s even without introducing the wonderful scenery of Kraken’s mystical London. Every bit of it is spectacular, from the Londonmancers to the familiars’ strike to the horror of the Tattoo and his minions. And the characters, everyone with a startling amount of depth and sincerity, even the people who start out seeming to be nothing more than scenery. I loved it, and I wanted to read it again as soon as I was finished. Alas, library New Book loan times…
Marjorie M. Liu, A Wild Light
Third in her Hunter Kiss series, an urban fantasy series by a paranormal romance writer. I’ve never read any of her romance novels, but I’m tempted to, because one of my favorite parts of the series is Maxine’s relationship with Grant, her long-term boyfriend. They’re together when the series starts, and their mutual support and understanding is wonderful. None of this “I have to lie to you to protect you” crap with them. Their relationship is a focus in this book, for the first time, when Maxine loses her memory of the past few years along with her memories of what happened the night her grandfather was killed. (Well, the body that her grandfather was living in was killed, actually. Her grandfather is…complicated.) And then it starts to get epic. I swear, every time I read one of these books I think, It can’t possibly get any more epic than this, and then in the next book, it does. I’m loving it.
Berton Rouché, The Medical Detectives
This is the book the TV show House is based on. You can tell, because almost every single story in this book is an episode from one of the first couple of seasons. (It’s possible some of the other stories were made into episodes later; I stopped watching partway through season three.) These are, of course, real-life stories of epidemiologists — specialists whose job it is to determine how an outbreak of a dangerous disease or medical situation occurred, so as to prevent it happening again. The story about the pesticides on the jeans (also an episode of House) has made me paranoid about new clothing for quite a while. The book is excellently written; at times Rouché constructs a narrative almost devoid of direct quotations that nevertheless allows the perspectives of the individuals involved to shine through, but when he’s got a patient or doctor who’s a good storyteller, he’ll just quote them directly, sometimes for pages at a time. I admire a nonfiction writer who knows when to get out of the way of the people they’re interviewing.
Ellis Peters, St. Peter’s Fair
Still more Cadfael — possibly the last for a while, as I’ve gone on a noir kick and Cadfael is not really compatible with Phillip Marlowe. My favorite part of these books, I think, is the strength of the characters. Like any mystery series, there’s a strong focus on the one-off characters in each story, but they’re always interesting, powerful, and strong in their own way. I particularly like Peters’ ability to write strong female characters who nevertheless fit perfectly into their role in a society that offered them fairly limited options. Strength of character isn’t in opportunities, it’s what you do with them, and the young women in these books are always holding themselves up high.
So a couple of weeks ago I realized that I needed a plot for a story I was writing, and that the plot of Chinatown would work perfectly well. “Hey Jen,” I said to myself, “aren’t there sequels to Chinatown that you’ve been meaning to watch?” And there are. So I had a Chinatown marathon last week. It was awesome.
Film buffs don’t need me to say anything about Chinatown, it’s a classic, and deservedly so. Non-film-buffs, particularly people like me who distrust the “classic” label on movies, should know this: it’s amazing. I mean, enthralling and mindblowing and a really, truly excellent piece of noir fiction. Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective in 1930s Los Angeles, who stumbles upon something a little bit bigger than his usual divorce-investigation cases. And, being the heart-of-gold kind of bastard that he is, he just can’t let it go. If you like hardboiled detective stories and have never (for some unfathomable reason) seen Chinatown, go out and see it right now.
And it’s technically perfect, too. Say what you will about Roman Polanski (and there are a lot of things to say about him, many of them horrible), he’s a brilliant director. Chinatown is an amazingly taut piece of filmmaking; there is not a single frame, not a single line of dialog, that isn’t necessary. It makes it a little brutal to watch – particularly with that ending – but unmistakably genius. I have to say I didn’t realize how excellent it was until I started making notes on the plot structure. It’s seamless, despite the severe tone shift in the last third of the movie that turns it from a noir to a gothic piece. (That was where I first saw Chinatown – in a class on Gothic literature.)
Much less well-known are the sequels to Chinatown. The first is The Two Jakes, starring and directed by Jack Nicholson some sixteen years after Chinatown was released, and it bombed in the theaters. I can see why, to be honest. The problem with The Two Jakes is, like the rest of its structure, twofold. First is that it makes no sense unless you’ve seen Chinatown, and fairly recently. It’s a direct sequel, and most of Jake Gittes’ reactions are meaningless unless you recognize his flashbacks. And the second problem is that The Two Jakes can only suffer by the comparison. It’s not nearly as tight as Chinatown, rambling a little more between its converging plot arcs and incorporating more characters. And Gittes is, if anything, much less likable than in the first movie, and he wasn’t that charming to begin with.
That’s a problem with the movie qua movie. The other problem I had with it was that I just didn’t care about the two main characters at all. It is, at heart (without spoiling too much of the story), a movie about two guys trying to protect a woman by not telling her anything. And I keep looking at the woman and thinking, She deserves better than this. I have to say, at least it is a solid enough piece of writing that you don’t have to ignore anything or do damage to any of the characters to read it that way; everyone in the movie is a very realistic person. But the movie wants you to sympathize with the men, and I just can’t.
Enlightened readers are now looking at the title of the post and thinking, really? Really. The third planned film in the trilogy was to be called Gittes vs. Gittes, and follow both Jake’s divorce and another Los Angeles public works nightmare – a land grab. This second plot was turned into the villain’s motivation in the spectacular Disney live action/animation squish Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(The clerk laughed at me when I checked all three movies out at the library, saying I was going to have a noir movie marathon. I was serious!)
I have to say, although Who Framed Roger Rabbit? isn’t strictly a noir picture (it has too happy of an ending), it does a credible job. You’ve got your seedy detective with a tragic past, your femme fatale, your ignorant but useful client, and an over-the-top villain with a wonderfully mundane evil plan. Using the third Chinatown plot for a movie about cartoon characters at war with one another? Genius. And then there’s that ending. Sure, it’s a happy ending in the world of the movie…but the evil plot they subverted there is one that came to pass in the world we live in. It’s nothing like as brutal as the end of Chinatown, or even The Two Jakes, but it does have a little sting in the tail, nonetheless. If you haven’t seen this movie since you were a kid, I highly recommend checking it out again.