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Archive for October, 2013

I thought I will read a crime novel for Carl’s RIP event and while looking at old books that I had in boxes, I discovered that there were a couple of Dashiell Hammett novels that I haven’t read yet. So I picked up ‘Red Harvest’ to read first.

RIP VIII

‘Red Harvest’ is Hammett’s debut novel. It features one of his most famous creations – the unnamed narrator who works in the Continental Detective Agency and who is referred to as the Continental Op. He is described as ‘short, squat and as stubborn as a mule’ and ‘his only enthusiasm was doing his job’. In ‘Red Harvest’, our hero, the Continental Op, is hired by a newspaper editor called Donald Wilsson to do some work for him at the town of Personville. The first thing our hero discovers is that Personville is called Poisonville by its natives. This doesn’t augur well. When the Op arrives to meet Donald, he discovers that Donald has gone out. His wife asks him to wait. Then she leaves the house, goes somewhere and comes back after a while and tells the Op that her husband won’t be coming back that night. The Op notices that there is blood in her shoes. He leaves Donald Wilsson’s house and while walking back to his hotel he discovers that Donald Wilsson has been shot and killed. He also discovers that Donald’s father Elihu used to own the town and all the powerful people in it, but in recent times, outsiders have come and claimed a bit of his turf. The important ones out of these are Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Max Thaler and the chief of police Noonan. And because of the infighting between Elihu and the others, Donald was probably killed. The Op goes to meet old Elihu the next day. He discovers more about the city and he finds that there is no honest man (or woman) around. At one point Elihu hires him to clean up the city. The Op tries to do that in his own way – befriending one person and then the other and making them work against each other. And then one thing leads to another, we don’t know who is good and who is bad, people get shot and killed and the bodycount starts going up. At one point, the Continental Op gets two more men from his agency to help him out, which makes one think of a similar scene in ‘Desperado’ where Antonio Banderas’ character gets two more men to help him clean up the town. Whether our hero is able to come out of it all alive is told in the rest of the story.

Red Harvest By Dashiell Hammett

I enjoyed reading ‘Red Harvest’. It can be regarded as a modern ‘western’ as there is a lot in common between the story it tells and the archetypal western story in which a lone sheriff or marshall uses his gun and his wits to clean up the whole town. Hammett’s prose is stylish and there are cool dialogues like this :

 

‘Who shot him?’ I asked.

The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said :

‘Somebody with a gun.’

I wanted information, not wit.

 

And this :

 

‘Let’s us go down to SaltLake. It’ll do you good.’

‘Can’t, sister. Somebody’s got to stay here to count the dead.’

 

And stylish sentences like this :

 

Tears were in her eyes. Through the water her eyes studied my face, apparently trying to learn how I took the story.

 

And this :

 

It took the referee half a minute to count ten seconds.

 

And this :

 

Our speed hung around forty, fast enough to get us somewhere, not fast enough to get us a lot of attention.

 

The Continental Op is probably the inspiration for many other future tough-guy detectives. But he also has a sense of humour behind his tough guy visage. At some point the plot becomes chaotic and we struggle to keep track of who killed whom and who is currently the bad guy and who is the good guy. But it all doesn’t matter as the book hurtles with frenetic pace towards the end. The story and the writing style looks quite contemporary till we encounter a scene where the Continental Op says ‘I am Lillian Gish’. (In case you haven’t heard of Lillian Gish –  she was one of the greats of the silent movie era, has been called the ‘First Lady of American Cinema’ and acted in D.W.Griffith’s pioneering silent movie ‘Birth of a Nation’).

 

We are used to tough, cynical detectives, stylish dialogue and beautiful sentences in crime novels today, but in 1929, when Hammett published this book, it must have been a pioneering effort. I know this comment is coming eighty-four years too late, but I will say it anyway – ‘Red Harvest’ is a stunning debut by a wonderful new writer. I have read four Hammett novels now – ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘The Glass Key’, ‘The Dain Curse’ and ‘Red Harvest’. Except for ‘The Dain Curse’, I liked them all. I have one more left – ‘The Thin Man’. And a collection of shorter pieces – short stories and novellas – ‘The Big Knockover’. I don’t know what I should do now : Should I do what Jane Austen fans normally do – ration each of the books and read them slowly and make them last for many years? Or should I do what we do with Christmas cakes – read all the Hammett books I have got one after the other? Right now, my heart says that I should read them all now. .

 

Have you read Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Hammett novel?

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I first saw B.M.Croker’s ‘In Old Madras at a friend’s place, years back. It looked like a colonial era novel set in my city. I had never read a colonial era novel set in my city. So I was curious. Then, after a while, I saw it at the bookshop. I thought I will get it. Since then it has been lying in my bookshelf. Last week an impulse seized me to get the book out and read it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

In Old Madras By BM Crocker

The story told in ‘In Old Madras is set in the early years of the twentieth century. Geoffrey Mallender comes from England to India in search of his uncle who used to work in the army in India and disappeared one day thirty years back. The odd thing is that the army assumed that he was killed in an accident. But Mallender’s father received a letter from his uncle a year after his supposed ‘death’, stating that he was still alive and was living in India and no attempt should be made to trace him. In return, Mallender’s uncle promised to send a considerable amount of money every year to take care of his brother and later his brother’s son. Mallender’s uncle also says that if they come in search of him at any later time, he will stop the allowance that he is giving them. Mallender’s father is depressed at hearing this news but decides to follow his brother’s wishes. But years later, when he is on his deathbead, he tells Mallender that he should go to India and search for his uncle and find out why he disappeared. Mallender goes to India, makes enquiries around but he reaches a dead end. The company which handles his uncle’s affairs refuses to entertain any queries and warn him that his allowance will be stopped. Other people around have heard of his uncle, but they think he is dead. Mallender stays with his cousin Freddy, who is in an important position in the army, and his cousin’s wife Fanny. Though Freddy is his cousin he is quite older to him and Freddy and Fanny treat Geoffrey like their own son. He also meets a distant cousin Nancy who also treats him like a son and friend. Freddy and Fanny feel that the endeavour that Mallender has embarked on is dangerous and so they try to distract him by inviting him to dances, getting him to join the polo team and asking their friends to keep him company and distract him. Especially, Fanny recruits her friend Lena Villars to keep Geoffrey occupied and distracted from his quest. Fanny also hopes that she can get him married to one of the eligible women in the local British community so that Geoffrey will drop his quest. Mallender meets a young, beautiful woman, Barbara Miller, and he is attracted towards her. She shows equal interest in him too, but after a while she gives him the cold shoulder. Though Mallender enjoys the fun activities he refuses to give up on his quest. One day he gets information from his agent (who he has hired to find out information about his uncle) that his uncle has been discovered. So he leaves his cousin and his friends, much to their dismay, to find his uncle. One adventure leads to another. On his travels and adventures he meets a fascinating cast of characters and becomes part of their lives and influences them and helps them in pleasant ways. But his uncle is nowhere in sight. Will Mallender find his uncle? What is his uncle’s secret? Will Mallender declare his love for Barbara? Will she accept him? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

The description of the story on the back cover reads like this :

 

Captain Mallender comes to old Madras in search of his uncle, once a reputable officer in the Blue Hussars, who disappeared mysteriously about thirty years ago. The blood-curdling reality that awaits Mallender at the end of his hazardous mission is beyond human imagination.

 

The words ‘disappeared mysteriously’, ‘blood-curdling reality’, ‘hazardous mission’ and ‘beyond human imagination’ were what pulled me into the story initially. I was hoping to read a fast-paced adventure mystery with one clue leading to another and a terrifying secret being revealed at the end. But ‘In Old Madras didn’t turn out to be like that. Though the book has a gripping start, interesting adventures and a happy ending, it is more of a gentle mystery. It book is more about the India of that time, the way the British expats of that time lived their lives, the complexities and eccentricities and beauty of the India of that era, the different people that Mallender meets and the secrets they harbour and the conversations and gentle adventures that he has with them. It was a pleasant book to read and it read more like a memoir or a travelogue than a novel (Croker must have used her own experiences to write the novel – she lived in Madras for many years). I liked most of the characters – they all had a likeable side, though some were more likeable than others – but my favourites were Fanny, Nancy, Mrs.Bourne (who runs her own estate and helps Mallender for a while when he is not well), General Beamish (he is in his nineties and the correct word to describe him is ‘living history’), Lena Villars (Fanny’s friend who becomes close friends with Mallender for a while) and of course Mallender and his sweetheart Barbara.

 

I enjoyed reading this gentle book – gentle inspite of the ‘blood-curdling reality’ it purports to reveal. This was probably the kind of book that India fans of that era would have read and would have enjoyed reading. I did some research and discovered that Croker has written more novels set in her favourite Madras and other parts of India and one set in Burma. I hope they are in print. I would love to read them.

 

Have you read B.M.Croker’s ‘In Old Madras or other books by her? What do you think about her books?

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I first saw a Nicci French book at the bookshop a few years back. I can’t remember which book it was. What I remember was that when I read the plot summary on the back cover, I found it quite gripping and I wanted to read the book. For some reason I didn’t get the book, but I made a mental note to read a Nicci French book when I was in the mood for a gripping thriller. Sometime back I was in a book sale and out of the rows and rows of books, out popped a Nicci French book trying to catch my attention. I thought I had waited long enough and got the book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Catch Me When I Fall By Nicci French

‘Catch Me When I Fall’ is a story of two parts. But it is mostly about one person, Holly Krauss. Holly narrates the first part of the story, which runs to two-thirds of the book while her friend Megan narrates the second part. Holly runs a company with her friend Megan. They organize weekend retreats for corporates. The work is exciting and promising but it is still not making a lot of money. Holly is the creative, hot-blooded one while Megan is the calm mind of the partnership. Holly is married to Charlie who Megan also liked once upon a time. One evening after leaving work, Holly and Megan go to a bar with a client called Todd. Holly gets into an adventure there, while Megan and Todd leave. Holly hangs out with strangers then she goes bar hopping with one group of strangers and then another and then ends up in a stranger’s place at night. As she describes it :

 

After that, there are things I remember and don’t remember at the same time, like something happening to someone else, in a film or in a dream you know you’re having but can’t wake up from. Or, rather, it was like something happening to me, but I was someone else.

 

When Holly gets up the next morning she doesn’t even know which part of London she is in. She sneaks back home in the morning. At work, Megan realizes that something is wrong, but Holly doesn’t want to talk about it. Holly thinks that she went wild for a night and it won’t happen again. Unfortunately, it does. A few days later she catches up with an acquaintance and before she knows it she is in a house in the middle of strangers playing a poker game and she loses a huge amount of money. She doesn’t have the money to pay and the collectors start stalking her. It is even worse when the man she spent the night with, during her first wild adventure, also starts stalking her. When the wild side of her life crashes with a thud into her everyday safe boring life, Holly doesn’t know what to do. Her friends and her husband think that she has got a psychiatric problem. Her doctor says that she is a manic depressive. What happens next to Holly? Will she be able to come out of all this with her sanity intact? Did she just have a series of wild nights which got her into trouble or is she really a manic depressive? Or worse, is there a sinister plot afoot and does someone want to harm her? Can she trust herself and her near and dear ones? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

‘Catch Me When I Fall’ is a gripping fast paced novel. It kept me wanting to turn the page till the end. I don’t know how it is classified – probably as a psychological thriller – but for me it was difficult to classify because the portrayal of events was frightfully realistic because it could have happened to us or to anyone we knew. Holly’s manic depressive state is very realistically portrayed and when we read the first part of the book our hearts scale the highs and plumb the depths alongwith Holly. Holly was difficult to like in the beginning when she hurtles into one wild adventure after another putting herself and her near and dear ones into danger. After a while, though, I warmed up to Holly. Megan is a good counterpoint to Holly and her calming influence is beautifully portrayed in the second part of the story. I could more-or-less guess the surprise which is revealed at the end – in a thriller there are only so many suspects and the least suspected one is typically the bad person, this is what Dame Christie taught me – but it in no way diminished the enjoyment of the book.

 

And did I tell you that Nicci French is really the wife-and-husband couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French? This must be one of the coolest partnerships in the literary world. And one of the very talented ones too – I checked out the plot summary of the other Nicci French books and they are all very captivating and make one want to pick them up and read them immediately. I can’t wait to read my next Nicci French book.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

That’s one of the things about life. The times you really want it to go well, it’s a disaster. When you don’t care, everybody loves you.

 

I’d written a ‘to do’ list that covered two sheets of paper. It was a mixture of calls to be made, messages to be written, meetings to be held, arrangements to be made, decisions to be taken, ideas to be had. It was like a malignant alien creature in an old science-fiction film. The more you chopped bits off, the larger and more aggressive it became.

 

It’s easier to think when you walk, and easier not to think, as well. You just stride along, your feet hitting the pavement and the cold air rinsing through you. You can see things without seeing them, hear them but take no notice.

 

The thing about an anaesthetic is that it doesn’t abolish pain. It just picks it up and puts it away in the corner where it doesn’t bother you. You can even feel that hurting is going on somewhere.

 

I also knew that every time we didn’t talk, putting off the hour of reckoning, delaying the explanations and the confessions, our relationships unravelled a little bit more, until there would be nothing left to knit up again, just a string of memories.

 

Have you read ‘Catch Me When I Fall’ or other books by Nicci French? What do you think about writing partnerships like theirs?

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I have read a couple of Neil Gaiman books before – ‘Neverwhere’ and ‘Coraline’. Actually the edition of ‘Coraline’ I read was the graphic novel adaptation of the novel, but the prose in it was very similar to that of the novel (I checked, before buying). I liked both of them. I didn’t know that Gaiman’s new book had come out this year till I started seeing it in bookshops and in Goodreads and on friends’ reading lists. I like Neil Gaiman – very much – but I don’t love him. He is not my favourite writer. This is a very odd thing. Because I liked both the books of his that I read and I also enjoyed the film version of ‘Stardust’ and I spent a fortune acquiring the fancypants edition of ‘The Sandman’ (it is one of my alltime favourite unread editions (I hope to remedy the ‘unread’ status sometime) – I, who don’t really take care of my books well and allow them to gather dust, have kept it carefully, wrapped in cellophane paper in a dust free environment – and I hope, one day, to read ‘The Graveyard Book’ and ‘American Gods’. All this should be enough for a writer to become a favourite, but for some reason Gaiman hasn’t made that invisible leap across that vague, deep chasm which separates my ‘likes’ from my surprisingly-near-but-impossibly-hard-to-reach ‘loves’. It is very difficult for me to articulate why. I can only hope that as I continue to read Gaiman, one day he will make that leap.

The Ocean At The End Of The LaneByNeilGaiman

So, to cut a long story short, when I got to know about ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ I didn’t really go out and buy it and read it on the same day. I knew that I would read it sometime, but I postponed that moment and forgot about it. Then I read Delia’s (from ‘Postcards from Asia’) charming, unconventional review of the book and then I realized that I had to read it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

The basic story told in ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ goes like this. A middle-aged man, who is the narrator of the story, returns to the place of his childhood. Then he stops by at the house of his old neighbours, the Hempstocks. Surprisingly they still live there after all these decades. He is looking for a woman who is closer to his age, called Lettie, who he used to know when he was a boy, but she doesn’t seem to be there. Her mother (or is it her grandmother – our narrator is not able to tell) asks him to wait near the duckpond at the back of the house, while she makes tea. And then, suddenly, his old memories start coming back and he remembers the time when he spent a few days at the Hempstocks’ place when he was a child and the strange things that happened then – how the paying guest staying at his home committed suicide which opened a Pandora’s box and brought otherworldly beings to earth and how they played havoc and how one of them entered his own home and how he had to escape her and go to the Hempstocks’ home and how he discovered that though the Hempstocks – a grandma, a mother and a daughter – looked like simple farm people they had magical powers which he couldn’t explain and which they used to help him – well to know what happened next, you should read the story.

 

Gaiman’s story is an interesting, fast paced, gripping fantasy. It can be read by readers of all ages and depending on the way we read we can enjoy it in different ways. I was happy to see references to the Big Bang, wormholes, creation of the moon and girls born without biological fathers (is Gaiman getting feminist here?). It is also about how strangers help us in very important, life-altering ways when we are children and how we seem to forget about them when we grow up. The three women characters in the story made me think of the three women in Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. In between, Gaiman offers his own commentary on the child and adult way of doing things, and not surprisingly, inspite of being an adult for quite a while, we identify with the child’s way of doing things. I loved the Hempstocks and I loved the black kitten / cat with the white mark on her ear. The story is gripping from the beginning to the end and makes one want to turn the page to find out what happens next. It made me think of Stephen King. The book is short, at 243 pages, and I was sad when it got over.

 

Well, now I should get another Gaiman book to read, or maybe open that wrapped package of ‘The Sandman’. It is time, I think.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

‘That’s the trouble with living things. Don’t last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together…’

 

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

 

      ‘I bet you don’t actually look like that,’ I said. ‘Not really.’

      Lettie shrugged. ‘Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.

 

She really was pretty, for a grown-up, but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative.

 

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.

 

      ‘How old are you, really?’ I asked.

      ‘Eleven.’

      I thought for a while. Then I asked, ‘How long have you been eleven for?’

      She smiled at me.

 

Have you read Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’? What do you think about it?

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