Monday, December 03, 2007

Back to Black, Part V

(Previous installments of author Mark Coggins’ look back at The New Black Mask magazine can be found here.)

The fifth issue of The New Black Mask came out in 1986, but features a previously unpublished cover story that was written more than 50 years before: Dashiell Hammett’s original treatment for the 1936 movie After the Thin Man. More on this great Hammett “rarity” in a moment, but coming before “After the Thin Man” in the issue is an interview and story by William Haggard, a now-deceased British spy/thriller writer.

Haggard’s interview has as much to do with what Wikipedia charitably calls his “idiosyncratic points of view” on politics, international relations, and England’s place in the world as it does with his writing. Someone less generous might call those opinions jingoistic or possibly even xenophobic. Sample quotes are in order. On who’s who in the world, Haggard says: “I much prefer Turks to Greeks. I don’t like Greeks ... So far as the Indian martial races are concerned, I have great admiration for them ... But apart from them, the rest of India is a four-letter word ... [The Swiss and French are] infinitely bribable. The French are merely a nuisance. They’ve never forgiven the Anglo-Saxons for saving them. I don’t like Germans, but I greatly admire them.” And when asked about Britain’s class system, the author remarks: “[I] uphold it strongly, but I’m not a snob. I know which class I was born to.”

Haggard’s story is titled “Timeo Danaos,” the first part of the Latin expression timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, which translates as, “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.” Set in Cyprus around the time of the 1974 Turkish invasion, it’s the tale of a Dutch woman married to an upper-class Englishman, who gets into trouble with the Greek authorities on the island. The husband finally rides in to save her, executing an unlikely stratagem, and Haggard has the opportunity to run down the Greeks a bit more. In commentary after the story, he takes a parting shot. “At the first sign of real trouble,” Haggard pronounces, “Greece will let both Britain and the United States down, as I privately fear that France will too.”

If you’re getting the sense that I was surprised Haggard and his story were included in this issue, you’re right. But the real treasure in NBM No. 5 is the first installment of Hammett’s “After the Thin Man.” It continues the adventures of the characters Nick and Nora Charles, who Hammett introduced in his 1933 novel The Thin Man. But getting Hammett to produce this film treatment was evidently not an easy undertaking. To quote from NBM’s introduction to the story:
After the success of the movie The Thin Man in 1934, a wire was sent from the Culver City office of MGM to the New York office requesting that Hammett be hired to write a sequel ... Hammett arrived in Culver City on October 29, 1934, rented a six-bedroom penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and proceeded to astonish Hollywood regulars with his profligacy ... He drank the nights away in the company of a variety of female partners and then complained about being harassed by starlets ... [A]t the end of his ten-week contract, he had only a thirty-four page plot summary to show.
For a description of what Hammett could be like on one of his benders, read this blog entry of mine, describing a Hollywood incident that recently came to light in Charis Wilson’s book Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston.

Although Hammett was a slow and unreliable worker, studio executives liked what they saw in the plot summary. They hired him to flesh out the story to 115 pages of typescript, and then Hammett friends Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich translated it into screenplay format.

In the first part of the story, published in NBM No. 5, Nick and Nora return from New York City to San Francisco to find a welcome-home New Year’s Eve party in progress at their house. That party is interrupted, however, when the body of the former gardener for Nora’s family is found on their doorstep. The discovery of that corpse and the later disappearance of the husband of Nora’s cousin, Selma, conspire to pull Nick into another investigation. The stakes are raised even higher when the husband is shot to death by a person or persons unknown and Selma is found holding a gun.

Although this isn’t Hammett’s traditional hard-boiled fare, I enjoyed the piece quite a bit, particularly the deadpan humor he sprinkles in. For example, when a police detective named Abrams asks Nick why he didn’t tell Selma and her family about the gardener’s death, Nick replies, “This is my wife’s family. They’d think I did it.” And when Nick and Nora leave the family home, Nick asks Harold, the chauffeur, “Where’s a good place to get the stink of respectability out of our noses?” Harold reels off the names of several joints, ending with the statement, “None of them three ain’t apt to be cluttered up with schoolteachers.”

The tale that follows “After the Thin Man” is a highly inventive one by an author with whom I was not previously acquainted. The piece is call “Action at Vicksburg,” and its author is Irvin Faust. I may not be alone in my unfamiliarity with Faust. Herb Gold, in his 1985 New York Times review of Faust’s book The Year of the Hot Jock and Other Stories, poses the question, “Why are other urban wits famous and why is Irvin Faust not?” His answer is that Faust tends to go his own way, and after reading “Action” I can understand what Gold means.

The yarn’s narrator is a Japanese tourist who observes a drug deal gone bad at Grant’s Tomb, in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, while he’s snapping photographs and engaging in an internal narrative that makes mistaken assumptions from afar about the motivations and the conversation between buyer and seller. These assumptions stem from an incompletely digested study of American history and culture--particularly black culture--and tend to be hilarious. For example, this is what Mr. Ito, the tourist, says to one of the men at the end of the story to distract him from firing another bullet into the man who lies wounded by a tree: “Well, twirl my turban, man alive, can this be Mister Five by Five.”

A Time magazine reviewer said of Faust’s characters, “[They] are consumed by a world of mass-produced trivia and popular mythology ... They generate authentic obsessions about the inauthentic.” That just about nails Mr. Ito.

The next story in this edition of The New Black Mask is a fun one called “Shopping Cart Howard,” by first-time author James Lee Snyder. I can’t find any references to other publications by Snyder, so this may have been his one and only. Like other NBM fiction, “Shopping Cart” features a private eye, but the story is told from the perspective of the individual that gumshoe has been hired to find: Howard, a homeless person in New Orleans. Snyder provides a great characterization of Howard and has a little fun with the conventions of P.I. tales, all at the same time.

“Rain in Pinton County,” by Robert Sampson, follows and it is the first and only New Black Mask work to win an Edgar Award--the 1987 one for short fiction, to be specific. Although he has published a number of other short stories, Sampson is perhaps best known for writing Yesterday’s Faces, a five-volume study of pulp magazines. In “Rain,” Sampson gives us the tale of Ed Ralston, “Special Assistant to the Sheriff” of Pinton County, and his quest to avenge the death of his sister. It’s a noirish yarn with a slam-bang ending that plants a heavy, ironic thumb on the scales of justice.

British author George Sims, who also had a story in the first NBM, comes next in the line-up with a very well-written story called “Family Butcher,” involving a well-respected butcher in a picture-postcard village in England’s Hambleden Valley, who discovers that his younger wife is cheating on him. His solution to his predicament suggests a second, sardonic meaning to the title of the story and also proves the wisdom of the aphorism “look before you leap.”

The penultimate tale in this issue is one from a heavy hitter--James Ellroy--featuring a character he made famous in a book that was still “in progress” in 1986: The Black Dahlia. The character is Lee Blanchard, the “fire” half of the “fire and ice” Black Dahlia detective team of Blanchard and Bleichert. The story is set in Los Angeles in 1945, right after World War II ends, and is titled “High Darktown,” which is a reference to an upper-middle-class black neighborhood in L.A. In “Darktown,” Blanchard has to track down a paroled convict named Wallace Simpkins, who had earlier “voodoo-hexed” Blanchard, after he (Blanchard) sent him to prison for “clouting markets and juke joints on West Adams.” The chase takes Blanchard into the aforementioned neighborhood, where he’s in for an appointment with fists, .45s, a tommy-gun, and a shiv.

Chet Williamson contributes the final story in NBM No. 5, “Some Jobs Are Simple.” I think he actually should have titled it “Inside Job,” but you’ll have to read the story to understand why. It’s the shifty, hard-hitting tale of a young wife who cooks up a scheme to get a little extra money by staging a jewelry robbery in her own house. However, things don’t end exactly the way she sketches them out to the “Joe” she hires to do the job.

(To be continued)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Haggard was a typical English bigot. Thanks for letting people know never to hunt down this issue. The French never forgave them for saving them? How arrogant. The Anglos never forgave the French for not kissing their butts after the war, which is what Haggard really meant. But he's gone, and one less xenophobe in the world can only be a good thing. Good riddance.