Reviews. The Big Sleep, Red Harvest, Ghormenghast, From Hell.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

I’ll try to say something other than “Dashiell Hammett is better.” (He is.) Here goes…Chandler is better at classical plotting: the ending delivers what the beginning promises. Chandler is better at making vivid characters, sometimes garishly so. I could go on…but it’d be an effort. The Big Sleep is genre writing, very good genre writing, the way Agatha Christie is good genre writing, and Asimov is good genre writing. But. I’m a Dashiell Hammett fan.

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammet.

D.H. is bona fide. He spent umpteen years as a detective for Pinkerton’s, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was in the Army. The thing about crime fiction is that it likes to sneak philosophy in, more so than any type of mystery or suspense fiction. (Chandler, by the way, does it, too.) Hammett’s philosophy is dark and strange: you can’t believe anything that anyone tells you. You shouldn’t let anyone know everything you know. You can never get at the truth, if there is a truth. And, in the end, no matter how good your intentions, the violence gets to you. If Chandler is about plot twists, Hammett is about surprise, a differnt thing: with Chandler, you have a chance to guess the ending, but you probably won’t. With Hammett, it doesn’t matter whether or not you guess the ending, because even if you do, there’s something….surprising about the way it ends. Hard to describe. Red Harvest, even more so than Maltese Falcon, is my favorite out of all of his stuff that I’ve read so far, the best written and developed.

I’d recommend Hammet to anybody of a philosophical bent that thinks most philosophers can’t write for crap. But I’d recommend both to anybody that likes crime fiction, mysteries, suspense…that sort of thing.

The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake.

This was a real pleasure to read. I’ve also seen the BBC miniseries of it, and I’d recommend that, too, for a select audience. Please note that neither I nor the BBC bothered with the last book of the trilogy…if you’d seen the end of Ghormenghast, the second novel, you’d understand.

Have you ever heard of these books? No? Have you ever heard of Stephen King? It seems pretty obvious to me that S.K. has heard of Ghormenghast; I’ll have to ask him the next time I see him. The series was written after WWII, the same era as 1984 and The Lord of the Rings. It reads like a scathing criticism of European culture pre-WWII set in a fairy-tale kingdom, written with consciously and tastily purple prose and tongue in cheek names (Flay, Swelter, Prunesquallor, Steerpike, Groan, etc.). I believe this is the original story–or at least the archetypal story–about disfunctional families, and disfuntional cultures. I can’t say just how much of an understatement that is. The author, Mervyn Peake, is also an illustrator, and the edition that I read had sketches of some of the characters in it. His powers of description were merely amazing until I saw the sketches of the characters: the sketches were exactly what I’d imagined. Yes, the guy described them that well.

The only warnings I can give you is that the wrong people die, and the books are much more over the top than the miniseires. (For example, in the BBC series, one of the characters, a man of the education field, dies by falling out of a wheelchair onto a flagstone court two stories below. In the book, he flies straight up out of the wheelchair, turns 180 in the air, and lands head-first on the floor, crushing his skull so that his body stands up–er–downright. His assistant throws himself out the window into the midst of a poetry reading below.) This is one of those library books that I considered “losing” — except that I do NOT want to piss off the books gods. Put it on my Christmas list, I guess.

From Hell.

I haven’t read the comic/graphic novel.

I recommend this movie as a thriller-mystery. As horror, don’t bother. I could tell what the writers–at least of the movie script–intended for me to feel this or that emotion (pathos, horror, etc), but it never came. On the other hand, at one point in the movie, Lee stopped the tape, we turned to each other, simultaneously said, “So…” and proceeded to guess the plot. Precisely upon pressing play, one of the characters shot our theory all to hell. What timing!

The weirdness of the movie was increased by the poor quality of the tape we got; the soundrack warbled constantly after the first fifteen minutes, sparing us for what was probably an unbearably cheesy soundtrack. My nerves were shot by the end of the movie, and I think anybody making horror movies should seriously consider laying down a constant level of near-subliminal distortion to the soundtrack.

And Ian Holm (I think that’s his last name, anyway, the guy that played Bilbo in Fellowship) was in it; I’ve liked him ever since I saw him in The Fifth Element.*

*Quintessence means, literally, “the fifth element.” Cool.