July 1, 2009

Hounds and Beasts: Catching Up on Some Classic Mysteries

The most frequent suggestion in the course evaluations for Mystery and Detective Fiction over the years has been "more Sherlock Holmes." I've never been that engaged by Holmes, which is why I've always been content to represent him in the syllabus with just a short story or two, but there's no denying his importance to the genre, so for the 2010 version of the course I added The Hound of the Baskervilles--without actually having read it first (shhh!). It seemed an obvious choice, and is certainly acclaimed enough that I felt confident taking it on faith. Now that I've actually read it, I have no regrets about having assigned it: of its kind, it is certainly good. I remain, personally, not that interested in its kind, but it is suspenseful and clever, and well-written, too, particularly in its evocations of the brooding moors on which the mystery plays out:
'It is a wonderful place, the moor,' [says Stapleton], looking around over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges. 'You never tireof the moor. You cannot think the wonderful secrets which it contains. It is so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious.'
Or there's this, from Dr. Watson, who gets more than his usual share of this novel:
In the evening I put on my waterproof and I walked far upon the sodden moor, full of dark imaginings, the rain beating upon my face and the wind whistling about my ears. God help those who wander into the Great Mire now, for even the firm uplands are becoming a morass. I found the Black Tor upon which I had seen the solitary watcher, and from its craggy summit I looked out myself upon the melancholy downs. Rain squalls drifted across their russet face, and the heavy, slate-coloured clouds hung low over the landscape, trailing in grey wreaths down the sides of the fantastic hills. In the distant hollow oon the left, half hidden by the mist, the two think towers of Baskerville Hall rose above the trees. They were the only signs of human life which I could see, save only those prehistoric huts which lay thickly upon the slopes of the hills.
Though the competition between natural and supernatural explanations plays out just as we expect it to in a Sherlock Holmes story, the powerful atavistic forces evoked by this landscape with its stone relics of an earlier pre-scientific age give additional thematic resonance to Holmes's eventual unveiling of the truth behind the ghostly hound. Even knowing there must be a rational explanation for this apparition does little to take away from its chilling description--the stuff of nightmares:
A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have evern seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.
As is conventional in "Great Detective" stories, we are spectators to Holmes's work here: there are clues, of course, but there's a lot we can't know. Having Watson in charge for several chapters gives us the illusion of greater involvement for a while, but as ever, Holmes controls crucial information, and the conclusion is a typical display of his superior knowledge and ability. It's a polished performance--for both Holmes and Conan Doyle. I think my students will enjoy it.

I'm not as convinced about The Big Sleep, which I similarly took on faith as the obvious alternative to The Maltese Falcon (I've done Falcon in this class five or six times running and have felt it getting a bit stale). I recall that it took me a while to work up an interpretive apparatus for Falcon, so before I give up on The Big Sleep I should certainly read around a bit. But my first impression is very negative. The plot is extremely confusing, for one thing. Mind you, the plot of The Maltese Falcon gets pretty convoluted too, but it gets a lot of momentum from the relationship between Sam and Brigid right from the start. Also, Falcon has a sense of humour: parts of it are fun, even funny (Sam's first meeting with Joel Cairo, for instance, or pretty much every scene with Gutman), and I can't think of any fun parts of the Big Sleep. Almost everybody in it is nasty, and though I know Marlowe is supposed to stand for a higher, more chivalric code (yes, I noticed that knight in the window trying to rescue the lady with the "convenient" hair), it wasn't easy to see what he was fighting for. General Sternwood seems to get his loyalty, but not because he's especially admirable or worth protecting, that I could see; there's Harry Jones, I guess, but that's setting a pretty low standard. And the women! At least Brigid is really in the game, and much of her 'femme fatale' posturing is theatrical. I'm not sure what to make of Vivian Sternwood's play for Marlowe (Carmen, of course, is a psychotic nymphomaniac). Brigid at least never has a line quite as bad as Vivian's "'Hold me close, you beast.'" Is Vivian the damsel who needs rescuing? I guess her loyalty to her sister has a grain of something worth saving in it. Overall, anyway, I found the novel tiresome: sexist, homophobic, convoluted. Maybe I'll warm to it--or maybe I'll make a frantic call to the bookstore and see about changing back to The Maltese Falcon. Tips welcome on how to appreciate it!


Nicholas said...

I grew up on both The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon in equal measure, along with the respective Bogart films. I read Chandler again about a month ago and found that one of the great pleasures, for me, is all the plotting that comes off as convoluted the first (or second) time through.

Namely: the dissatisfaction with the case when everything is "solved" and in order by the halfway point (except we still don't know who killed Owen Taylor, and neither did Chandler); Marlowe's willing involvement in a police coverup, a recurring element in Chandler's short stories; the accidental nature of the villainy, where everyone is too busy panicking over Rusty Regan to stick to a coherent master plan. Aside from two things - 1) Owen Taylor, and 2) the clarity of what, exactly, Marlowe was doing for General Sternwood at about the halfway point - I found it to be an airtight book on close inspection.

It's clear to me from essays like "The Simple Art of Murder" that Chandler was consciously modelling his plot design on Hammett's trick of making The Maltese Falcon about virtually anything and everything but "who killed Miles Archer", although you're right: Chandler really does skip out on any pulpy-fun characters in the vein of Joel Cairo. And it's striking just how incidental Vivian is in the novel next to Lauren Bacall in the film's 1946 theatrical cut.

So The Maltese Falcon may be a better introduction to private eye fiction that students won't hate... but for all the confusion, I find The Big Sleep to be the better document of the initial "realist" thrust of the hard-boiled. And one shouldn't discount that the Marlowe novels are really the model for the hard-boiled first-person prose everybody seems to remember and/or parody, although I can see why readers would struggle with the heavily idiomatic language today.

I don't think there really is a good analogue for Falcon, personally... but I don't know my James M. Cain.

LB said...

I agree with Nick's comment above - I think The Big Sleep really did set the standard for the hard-boiled detective story and the move away from the classic puzzle mystery.

I am also very fond of some of the dialogue. Just to cite one example, his comment to Eddie Mars' wife as he waits for the killer, Canino, to return, "You know what Canino will do - beat my teeth out and then kick me in the stomach for mumbling."

If I had to choose, I think I too would prefer Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, but Chandler is such a powerful influence on the genre that I don't think you can ignore him - and certainly The Big Sleep probably was his best.

Les Blatt

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thank you both for your comments. I know you're both right about the importance and influence of the novel--that's why it seemed such a good alternative to The Maltese Falcon. I just expected to enjoy it more--but I'm going to work on appreciating it for what it is, or does. LB, I agree that there are some real gems in the dialogue, and in the language more generally, and in fact what humour there is certainly comes in Marlowe's own laconic voice (the first-person narration is a real difference from Falcon, and one that will be interesting to work with in teaching the novel). And Nick, I take your point too about the novel (like Falcon) not really being about its central case. I think that with The Big Sleep the location or milieu is even more important than in Falcon (where the universal quest for something of value, or to value, is so important).

Rebecca H. said...

What a fun class that must be! I've enjoyed learning about the genre with my mystery book group, but I have yet to get to Chandler and haven't read much Hammett. I must get to Chandler soon.

Rohan Maitzen said...

It is a fun class--for me, at least, and usually (I think) for most of the students. I enjoy getting outside "my" area, though detective fiction is a natural extension of Victorian literature, as it really began in the 19th C. I love teaching The Moonstone, and it has often been a useful trick for convincing students who would not otherwise think they were interested in 19thC fiction to come and try one of my other courses. Students are often surprised that a genre they typically read just for fun can provide a lot of intellectual substance.