Recommended Reading: My Darling Detective, by Howard Norman

Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective* is a delight, a blend of noir and family drama set in 1970s Halifax.

Jacob Rigolet works as an art buyer for an eccentric collector in Halifax, attending auctions in London and Amsterdam. But it’s at an auction in his hometown that something very, very strange happens: his mother, a former head librarian who’s been recovering in a “rest hospital” after a nervous breakdown, walks straight up to the photograph on the docket (which depicts the a dead American soldier in Leipzig at the end of the Second World War), and throws a bottle of ink at it.

Police detective Martha Crauchet, Jake’s no-nonsense fiancee, is assigned to the case, which becomes more intriguing as time goes by. Jacob learns, among other things, that he was born in the Halifax library, that his father isn’t who he thought he was, and that his biological father is a suspect in a 1940s murder in case that wasn’t closed. Somehow, Nora links these facts and cases together. Slowly, Martha and her partners, the gruff Tides and Hogdgon, begin to pull the picture into focus. Jacob catalogues the shifts in the story, his straightforward, almost archival accounting of events suggesting his background as a researcher and his desire to keep his shifting life under control.

All of the characters, from Jacob’s particular, meticulous employer to his long-suffering mother to Martha’s partners, are memorable, but I loved Martha best. She has excellent taste in poetry, we learn early on; she keeps Jake’s coffee warm by covering it with a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie** . Martha is one of Mr. Norman’s women who know what they want and don’t mind saying so. She shares quite a bit in common with Leah, the heroine of her favorite radio program, a noir-style detective show set in the 1940s (by way of time travel; as the novel goes on, the radio show and the novel’s plot begin to echo each other); both women are capable, skilled, and deeply in love with men who are looking for answers. My Darling Detective is a story about old family secrets, detective work, and the power of art, but it’s also a gloriously homey vision of a relationship that works. Take this passage:

So many of Martha’s and my declarations of love, bewilderment, moods, and, on rare occasions, doubt, all the human stuff orchestrated by intuition and the desire to keep us honest with each other, took place at her kitchen table.

A wonderful sentence, isn’t it?

Though My Darling Detective includes some of the elements you might expect to find in one of Mr. Norman’s novels—eastern Canada, murder, radio, plainspoken people—it’s a bit more hopeful, I think, noir with a spring in its step and a lilt in its voice. As I said, delightful, and highly recommended.

Related: Reviews of Next Life Might Be Kinder and I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place.

**(I happen to own a first edition myself, which Margaret Atwood signed at an appearance in Boston, one of the highlights of my literary life.)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

IMG_6012You might have noticed, Dear Readers, that while I read omnivorously, I hardly ever read horror novels (come to think of it, can’t remember the last time I did). I don’t enjoy being frightened, though I know a good many people are devotees of monsters, atmospheric creepiness, or gore (or all three). By the same token, you won’t often find me reading anything that features child endangerment (didn’t care for it before I became a parent, and now even less so) or perusing the true-crime shelf.

But I love classic noir. Plenty of suspense and hard-boiled writing with none of the drawbacks of horror or modern crime fiction (though, to be fair, it has plenty of its own problems, like racism, homophobia, and misogyny; this is one of those cases of loving something despite its flaws, not because of them).

Generally I take my noir in straight-up film form—The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, The Big Heat—but occasionally I dip into the print canon (here’s my review of The Big Sleep). Enter Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), apparently a classic in the genre that’s been languishing out of print for decades, but now revived by NYRB Classics.

Black Wings Has My Angel is noir in the mode of Double Indemnity: nobody’s a good guy, the narrator is the male protagonist, and that narrator is stuck on a blonde femme fatale.

In this case, the femme fatale is Virginia, a “ten-dollar tramp” with cream-colored hair, lavender eyes, and a Wellesley accent, whom Timothy Sunblade meets after he comes off a job (and, apparently, a prison escape) in the Deep South. Though he intends to cut her loose as he makes his way out West to plan a big heist, he finds, time and again, that he can’t do it. She’s beautiful, mysterious, and damn, can she drive a Packard.

So she becomes his partner, even though he’s half in love with her and half inclined to murder her (she’s not trustworthy, and she’s got capital-L law problems of her own). From Denver to New Orleans and back again, the duo suffer reversals and get everything they think they want (and Virginia wants to bathe in cold hard cash—literally), driven by greed and fear and a determined plan. Eventually, though, the ride comes to an end, as it must in a noir, with unexpected violence.

One of the impressive things about the book (and quite a bit of classic noir, film and print), is how much violence and sensuality come across without heaps of gore or, as they say, blue language. Here’s an example, after Virginia tells Tim just how much she hates gentlemen: “I threw her on the bed and she smiled up at me. For the next three hours I applied myself to proving I hadn’t become, and wouldn’t become, a gentleman.”

Not that it’s all sex and violence. Chaze has a way of vividly bringing a setting to life. I love the description of Virginia “out there on the thin green grass, watering, the high altitude sunlight making silver hyphens of the droplets.” And his is one of the few novels I’ve read that’s set exclusively in the West and South (I recently read Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, or Carol, which makes use of the road trip West in a very different way). Chaze sets up the two regions in sharp contrast:

I kept comparing the rocks and the sky with what we have down South and kind of gloating to think that the South, though lacking in chamber-of-commerce promotion, has the subtlest colors and teasingest smells a man could want. Out West all the smells are sucked up out of the baked land by the sun. And it’s as if all the colors in the ground are gobbled up by their sunsets, and so is the blue of the sky. The sky is high and pale and impersonal and you get the feeling it doesn’t belong to you at all, but that it is the property of the chamber of commerce. In the South the sky is humid and low and rich and it’s yours to smell and feel. In the West someone sees a flower growing on a mountain and he writes a whole damned pamphlet about it. In the South the roses explode out of the weeds in the yards of the poorest shanties. Blood red ones And pink ones–pink as that new girdle.

It’s the South, of course, with its “teasingist smells,” where Virgina and Timothy meet and later find themselves in the most trouble, the West where in the thin air the two seem to lose their oxygen—and their minds.

If you’re a fan of noir, I highly recommend Black Wings Has My Angel. Great pacing, snappy writing with memorable description, and a plot that’s surprising to the end.

P.S. Shoutout to the Cleveland Museum of Art, from whence comes the cover photograph by Erwin Blumenthald.


Checking Off My Classics Club List: The Big Sleep

Forget Brangelina. Forget Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. The best on-screen/off-screen chemistry of all time goes to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Big Sleep

Seriously. Watch the first half-hour of To Have and Have Not (1944) and you’ll be floored when you hear Bacall deliver her first line (it was her first movie, at 19). Wow-za.  Plus, you can feel that you’re doing something literary, since the film is based (very loosely, I admit) on Hemingway’s novel of the same name, and the screenplay was co-written by William Faulkner. Yeah, THE Faulkner.

Anyway. I love all the Bogie & Bacall movies, but The Big Sleep (1946) is far and away my favorite. It’s dark, it’s scary, it’s engrossing. So naturally I put Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), his first novel, on my Classics Club list.

I knew the contours of the plot from the movie, but I was surprised just how much darker in tone the novel is.

Here’s the set-up:  A dying millionaire calls in private detective Philip Marlowe to investigate some “gambling” debts accrued by the younger of his two wild daughters, Carmen. Marlowe’s investigation spins outward to include men and women caught up in blackmail, pornography (the movie elides this one — thanks, Hollywood censors!), murder, gambling, and disappearances. Nobody’s innocent.

Marlowe’s a great character: a cynic trying to do the right thing, curious to a fault, more interested in solving a puzzle than preserving his personal safety. A perfect fit for Bogart. Marlowe narrates, and the prose matches his style — keenly observant, hard-boiled, thorough. Never, ever florid or sentimental.

There’s some squirm-inducing material from this vantage point, nearly seventy-five years later. Marlowe isn’t overly fond of women, for one thing. Carmen may be a psychotic, drug-addled brat, but slapping her around just seems wrong. And the novel brings up homosexuality (very well hidden in the movie), but only in the context of scorn (“queen” and “fairy” is standard language in the novel). Unpleasant, very unpleasant. Here’s a telling line: about a character who’s committed murder and who was another man’s lover: “He was afraid of the police, of course, being what he is” (110).  Homosexuality is clearly coded as deviance, as “other,” as part of the criminal underground that Marlowe finds himself caught up in.

These issues aside, it’s a great crime novel, great writing, and highly recommended.