YouTube film: ‘The Silent Passenger’

The other night, on a sudden whim, I went to YouTube and watched a film I’d only read about. It’s a 1935 English mystery called The Silent Passenger. It has the distinction of being the first cinematic depiction of Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Miss Sayers wrote the story especially for the film. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I’d heard bad things about this film, and it generally lived down to its reputation.

Actually, that’s kind of unfair. For its time and environment, it’s not a badly done film. It’s a clever, complicated story about blackmail and mixed-up luggage. It’s atmospheric, and the final showdown in the railroad repair facility is fairly exciting.

What’s wrong with it – and the reason Dorothy Sayers hated it – is the portrayal of Lord Peter. Peter Haddon, a well-respected actor of the day, seems appallingly miscast. He has a long nose – which is right – but otherwise he’s too tall and too dark – and kind of oily, like a gigolo. Instead of a monocle, he sports a repellant little mustache. And instead of playing Lord Peter as we love him – as an affected, amusing twit in the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel, he walks around with his mouth gaping open like the village idiot.

Still, it has its place in history. You might find it amusing.

‘Chasing Shadows,’ by Jason Richards

It isn’t often I like a book without considering it well written. But that’s the case with Jason Richards’ novel Chasing Shadows, first in his Drew Patrick private eye series.

Drew Patrick works in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He gets hired by a single mother named Bonnie Ross, who is concerned about her teenaged daughter Tina’s relationship with a young man named Aaron. Aaron is a college student and a promising football player, but Bonnie doesn’t trust him, and Tina has changed and grown distant since they started dating.

There’s nothing criminal about that, but Drew agrees to check the boy out. Turns out Bonnie’s concerns are justified. Aaron has been working as a collector for a loan shark, and is being pressured to commit murder. But Drew, assisted by his girlfriend Jessica (also a PI), a couple friendly sheriff’s detectives, and his faithful beagle mix, Dash, will do his best to get between the kids and disaster.

Okay, about this book. It’s not very well written. There are proofreading and spelling problems. The dialogue is often turgid – a lot more contractions could have been employed, for one thing. The author’s attempts at wit are hit and miss – more often than not he presses his jokes where a lighter touch would have been more effective.

But I appreciated what he seems to be doing here. He seems to be trying to recreate the magic of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books – Spenser worked not far away in Boston. The Spenser books were refreshing in their time. Unlike past hard-boiled shamuses, Spenser was optimistic in attitude and took care of his health. He also had healthy relationships with women, and eventually connected with a regular girlfriend. I really liked those books until Parker allowed Spenser to become totally whipped.

Similarly, Drew Patrick is a positive guy with a healthy attitude. He is devoted to his girlfriend, cheerfully rejecting all passes from other women. He even has a dog – something often useful in breaking the ice with people, and (for most of us) a sign of good character. Also, perhaps, a nod to the Thin Man.

But he isn’t entirely believable. He doesn’t seem to care much about paying the bills, and pursues “justice” even when not being paid. And the regular cops seem happy to have him meddle in their investigations (something I find hard to believe).

So I can’t give Chasing Shadows my highest recommendation. But I won’t deny I kind of enjoyed the book. You might too. Only mild cautions for adult content.

‘The Night Fire,’ by Michael Connelly

I’ve cut out buying the pricey books for the time being. But it turns out I’d pre-ordered Michael Connelly’s new Harry Bosch/Renee Ballard book, The Night Fire. So I read it, and now I’ll review it.

As you may recall if you’re following the books (not the Amazon Plus TV show), Harry Bosch is pretty old now (about my age), and is retired as an LAPD detective. But his old motto, “Everybody matters or nobody matters,” still drives him, so he finds ways to keep involved. Mostly by providing help (off the books) to the young detective Renee Ballard. Renee works the night shift, which she likes, because it allows her to work alone. (She can generally call on Harry if she needs backup.)

One night Renee gets called to a scene of death by fire. A homeless man has burned to death in his tent. It looks like an accident, but investigators say no. However, the case is assigned to Robbery-Homicide, and Renee gets shut out. But she doesn’t forget about it.

Then Harry Bosch receives a surprising legacy. An old cop, once his own mentor, died recently, and he left something behind for Harry. It’s a “murder book” – a ring binder containing all the case notes for an old homicide investigation. The thing was police property, and should not have left police custody. The case involves the murder of a drug addict in his car in an alley. For the life of him, Harry can’t figure why his old friend stole this book, or kept it. There’s no sign he ever investigated it on his own.

What follows for both Renee and Harry is a case of what I call “retro-telescoping prioritization,” a situation where you set out to do one thing, but can’t do that until you do another thing, but there’s something else you have to do before you can do that. The plot of The Night Fire gets fairly complicated, and I lost track of a few threads now and then. But it all comes together in the end, and there’s a suitably suspenseful payoff.

The Night Fire was not the best book in the Harry Bosch saga, but it wasn’t bad. Cautions for language and adult situations, and a brief public service announcement about gay rights. Connelly fans will enjoy this new installment in the series.

I am concerned about Renee Ballard, though. She’s surviving on a diet of coffee and surfing. If she doesn’t resolve some of her personal issues, she’s gonna crash hard.

Why Endorse White-Cain’s Book?

When noted speaker Paula White-Cain, “the spiritual advisor to President Donald Trump,” released a book several days ago, there were a number of endorsements from Baptist ministers and ministry leaders who, many of us thought, should have held their tongues. This is not a teacher promoted in orthodox churches. She is a heretic on the level of Benny Hinn; in fact, she allegedly had a relationship with him at one point. She’s also a pastor of her church, and female pastors are a point of heated argument among Southern Baptists this year. Why then would someone like the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas endorse her book as a refreshing story of God’s redemptive power (taken from his words printed in the book)?

Professors Leah Payne and Aaron Griffith say evangelical leaders have sided with their theological opponents for years. Many times these partnerships make sense; we join together as diverse citizen groups in support of a moral or community good. No one would balk at Christians and heretics building a playground together, but when Christian pastors endorse the books and teaching of a heretic, that’s when we have problems.

Payne and Griffith describe the lure of celebrity among most evangelicals and their tendency to use self-help arguments similar to those they condemn from White-Cain. They are “not that different from the soft prosperity exhortations of other evangelicals, including many in the SBC, who claim that following biblical principles improves marriages, lowers anxiety, and creates extraordinary lives of success and significance” (drawing again on words from the pastor of First Baptist Dallas).

That’s a broad explanation that doesn’t quite work for some of the endorsers of this book, so to fill it out a bit more we could say that a book endorsement is not an evaluation of its content. It’s more of a business move or pandering.

Maybe they’ve learned this lesson from White-Cain’s book: “Find your passion in life and figure out a way to make money.”

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

‘The Last Gig,’ by Norman Green

Having now become a pretty confirmed fan of Norman Green’s novels, I figured I’d try out his series character, Alessandra “Al” Martillo. As you know, I’m no big fan of hard-boiled female detectives, but I took a flyer on The Last Gig, the first book in the series.

I’ll give author Green credit for facing honestly some of the inherent problems of the female action protagonist. “Al,” he informs us along the way, is a sort of genetic anomaly – a throwback to more ancient humanity. She’s stronger than most women and a lot of men, and she heals at an astonishing rate.

She’s also – of course – gorgeous. But she’s as emotionally maladjusted as she’s physically exceptional. Raised by an indifferent aunt after her mother’s suicide, and then taken in by a sympathetic gay uncle, she keeps to herself and pushes off every man who shows interest. She’s got a chip on her shoulder for the whole world – especially her distant father, whose only contribution to her upbringing was to teach her to fight.

She works for peanuts for a sleazy private eye, who keeps trying to get into her pants. She can handle him, and she needs the work.

Then her boss gets approached by “Mickey” Caughlan, an Irish-American gangster who has (he claims) gone straight. Somebody has been smuggling drug components in Caughlan’s trucks, and he wants to find out who.

As Al investigates, she grows curious about a part of Caughlan’s story that may or may not be related to the crime. Caughlan had a son who was murdered, and he seems oddly unconcerned about it. Supposedly it’s because the boy wanted to be a musician, a career choice Caughlan opposed. But Al thinks there’s more to it.

So she jumps into the case with both feet. She will deliver beat-downs and receive them, and be challenged to move outside her personal comfort zone. Very dangerous people will threaten her, but Al is the most dangerous character in the city.

I didn’t love this book as much as the previous Green books I read. It wasn’t a bad book, but I didn’t identify with Al as I did with other Green protagonists, and I didn’t find here the fine passages of writing I’ve so enjoyed in the other books. A small public service announcement for gay marriage was included in the plot, but there was nothing really unfair there.

I’d probably go on with the series, if the later books were cheaper, but for now I’ll hold off. Moderately recommended, with cautions for language, sexual situations, and mature themes.

‘Way Past Legal,’ by Norman Green

I could easily have gone my entire life without really noticing the night sky at all, let alone wondering if it had anything to tell me. We’re so smart now, we know at least something about everything, but still, nobody can tell you which of those pieces of information are important.

Mohammed “Manny” Williams, the main character of Way Past Legal, is not a Muslim, in spite of his name. He doesn’t know what he is. Abandoned in a garbage bag as an infant, he grew up in the foster care system and became a successful thief. He’s always been looking for that big score, but is not prepared when he and his partner Rosario knock a place over and find themselves with a cool two million on their hands. Then Rosey tries to cheat Manny out of his half, and Manny feels no compunction about stealing it all back from him.

One thing is certain – this kind of money will bring a lot of heat. So Manny has to get out of New York. But he makes one stop on his way out – he picks up his little boy Nicky, who’s been languishing in a group home like his dad before him. Nicky adores his father, and is just happy to be with him.

Manny knows everyone will expect him to run south, to someplace warm. So he heads north. He’s near the northern tip of Maine when their car breaks down. A kindly local farmer gives them a ride to a garage, and he and his wife put them up while they’re waiting for repairs.

This town is like no place Manny has ever known. He’s never met friendly, generous people like these before. He helps them and is helped by them, and grows fond of them. Nicky loves it there, and the weight of paternal responsibility begins to bear down on Manny – how can he give his son a secure future when he’s on the run? How can he help him to grow up when he’s immature himself?

And when outsiders start showing up in the area, hunting for the money, Manny will have to take big risks and make hard decisions, because it’s not just him now – and not just him and Nicky – but it’s him and a whole lot of people he’s started to care about.

Beautifully written, exciting, suspenseful, and wholly engaging, Way Past Legal is now one of my favorite crime novels . It’s as good as Shadow of a Thief, which I reviewed yesterday, and lacks the occult element. The main Christian character in Way Past Legal is a very sympathetic fellow. I need to caution you about a lot of obscene language, and there’s violence, of course, but no explicit sex. Highly recommended for adults.

‘A Terrifyingly Ordinary Man’

I picked up Ray Bradbury’s The October Country at the library some days ago. Originally published in 1955, “the Dubliners of American Gothic” is a story collection that leans into twilight subjects, potentially unsettling tales touching on darker matters. At least that’s how the book is billed, but I want to talk about a light-hearted story that might should be on all the college reading lists.

“I met the most astounding bore. You simply must see him! At Bill Timmins’ apartment house last night, a note said he’d return in an hour. In the hall this Garvey chap asked if I’d like to wait in his apartment. There we sat, Garvey, his wife, myself! Incredible! He’s a monstrous Ennui, produced by our material society. He knows a billion ways to paralyze you! Absolutely rococo with the talent to induce stupor, deep slumber, or stoppage of the heart! What a case study. Let’s all go visit!”

“The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is a tale for a new generation. The in-crowd discovers Garvey, whom the narrator describes as “a terrifyingly ordinary man” who had lived alone with his wife for twenty years. Though she was a delightful woman, he was so boring no one would accompany them to anything. This group of seven would-be elitists think he’s a gas, and after a few weeks he comes to enjoy their attention. Their subtle mockery turns to genuine admiration, and Garvey takes steps to keep them enthralled.

The prejudices of the in-crowd are remarkably dated, but their attitude is contemporary. They see through everything; they love to be unimpressed as their tastes flit from fad to fad. They embrace common entertainment only ironically, unless they can spin it into a superior, sophisticated pleasure. “Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.”

Would Garvey or his wife be better off with or without the attention of this self-righteous crowd? Let the reader judge for himself and decide whether he has in-crowd attitudes that should look just a foolish today as the Garvey fan club does decades after their story was written.

‘Shadow of a Thief,’ by Norman Green

So like a man who has settled for order instead of law, eventually I gave up on peace and contented myself with what moments of quiet I could find.

If you told me about a mystery story containing a supernatural element which is essentially syncretistic, and in which the main character is possibly demon-possessed during the climax, I’d probably tell you “Not my style. I’ll pass.”

But I got Norman Green’s Shadow of a Thief through an Amazon Prime deal, and I’m hoarding my pennies these days, and the writing was extremely good. So I stayed with it. And you know what? I’m a fan now.

Saul Fowler used to be a burglar, both free-lance and under contract to one of those shadowy US government agencies that so heavily populate fiction. But he succumbed to drugs and alcohol. Then he got clean through Narcotics Anonymous and fled to the northern tip of Maine, where he replaced his old addictions with a new one, to fishing. For his future he has no plans.

Then he’s approached by a man from his past – Reverend McClendon, who was his stepfather, and possibly his natural father. McClendon was the closest thing to a father figure Saul ever had, and he taught him his trade – the confidence game. But he’s a TV preacher now and – he claims – he’s turned his life around. He genuinely believes, he says, in Christianity (though his theology appears pretty pathetic).

He had (he says) a daughter, who might have been Saul’s half-sister. She has been cruelly murdered, and McClendon thinks Saul has the skills to look more deeply into the mystery than the cops have. They blame it on gang warfare (the girl was Chinese-American).

Saul agrees, not entirely sure why. But he has nothing better to do, and maybe he owes McClendon something.

His investigation will take him back home to New York, into the worlds of gangs, prostitution, the NYPD, and urban voodoo.

Theologically, I could criticize this book quite a lot (though I noticed there was no Christian-bashing). But as a story, it worked magnificently. Norman Green is as good a writer as I’ve come across in years – I’m amazed I’d never heard of him before. His prose is elegant, his characters fascinating, his dialogue snappy, his plotting riveting. My interest never once flagged as I read.

I highly recommend Shadow of a Thief, if you can handle some heterodoxy in a fictional setting. Cautions for language and violence.

Leftist vs. liberal

Note: The following is probably twaddle. I’ll think of five ways to say it better by Monday.

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a couple weeks, and in that time I think I’ve found several different angles on it. Let’s see what comes out when I write it down here and now.

What’s the difference between a liberal and a Leftist? It’s an important distinction, I think. I’ve been trying to avoid lambasting liberals for a while now, and targeting Leftists instead. Because there’s a distinction.

A lot of us conservatives call ourselves classical liberals, and I consider that an important point.

Leftism, I think, goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher. (I’m not an expert on Rousseau, but he’s come up a lot in my reading – mostly in Allan Bloom and Paul Johnson.) Rousseau was one of those people who, regardless of their own merits, tipped the historical scales. After him, everything was different.

I used to help out with the History and Aims class at the seminary where I worked. And one point I always emphasized was that, regardless how conservative our church body is today, our denominational forebears started out as flaming liberals.

But liberalism was different back then.

What liberalism meant in the 19th Century, I told them, had nothing to do with sexual ethics (at least in the realm of Christian liberalism – secular liberalism was different, thanks in large part to Rousseau). Liberalism had nothing to do with one’s view of Scripture. It had nothing to do with the size of government.

Liberalism was about the place of the common people in society.

Conservatives back then believed in social class. There were the “better people” and the “common people.” The better people, the nobility and the higher clergy, were ordained by God to run the world. They were wise and educated, and deserved to call the shots. The common people should pray, pay, and obey.

Liberals, on the other hand, believed that the common people were every bit as good as their betters. All the common people needed was good moral and practical education.

America, as a social experiment, was based on that belief.

Rousseau was the guy who popularized that view. He differed from Christians in having his own myth of Creation and Fall. Originally, he said, Man was a Noble Savage, living in a State of Nature. He was virtuous without effort.

Then along came civilization. Civilization brought rules and laws and social differentiation. And somehow (he never explained how) Virtuous Savage Man became Corrupt Civilized Man. It was all the fault of the laws and customs that came with civilization. (The Greens hold a variety of this doctrine today.)

I’m not sure Rousseau was looking for the kind of revolutionary uses the French would make of his theories. The whole French Revolution was an attempt to tear down the old corrupt order and replace it with a new rational order, in which the virtue of the Noble Savage might flourish again.

They got the Savage part right.

As the Rousseauean experiment in liberalism made its bloody progress through history, there was also a parallel kind of liberalism. This was the liberalism of Evangelicalism.

John Wesley was its prophet in England. England (it has been argued, and I believe it) avoided a revolution like the French largely because of Wesley. The converted Methodists carried on a practical experiment in social advancement through virtue – and it worked. His followers gave up gambling and drinking and vice in general. They worked and saved. And they prospered. “I can’t keep these people poor,” Wesley is supposed to have complained.

For a long time, the Evangelicals and the Rousseaueans were able to work together, against a common enemy – the classist old order that wanted to keep the commoners down.

But as the commoners were liberated, and moved into the middle class, the two strains parted.

The Evangelicals and classical liberals believed that Man was created in the image of God. They believed (or learned) that liberty was a divine gift, and that government should be limited, because government is made of sinful men, and neither the people nor the rulers should be left unchecked.

The Rousseaueans believed that Man was a corrupted noble savage. All that was needed to restore the State of Nature was a rational reordering of society, so that Man’s natural virtue might blossom. The government that promoted this reordering would automatically be wise and virtuous. Therefore all power could be trusted to it. Marx was an apostle of this view.

The Rousseauans took a while to abandon their old belief in personal freedom – “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” as Voltaire didn’t say (but it’s commonly attributed to him).

But they found that personal freedom is like a monkey wrench thrown into the machinery of the Ideal State the Rousseueans envision. Individual thinkers are hard to regiment. So personal freedom has to go (as the Communists decided early on). As personal freedom has lost its appeal to them, the liberals have become Leftists.

And that’s what I mean when I criticize Leftists. I mean people who hold such faith in the potential of the State for good that they consider freedom too dangerous to permit.

Which leaves us in an odd reversal. The Left, which once championed freedom of thought, now promotes the criminalization of all unsanctioned views. And the Evangelicals, who have now stepped into the space formerly occupied by conservatives, are (generally) championing freedom of thought. Not perfectly, I’m sure, but far more than the Left.

And so genuine liberals need to re-evaluate the situation, and decide whether they will follow freedom of thought, even if it leads them to the Right.

‘Hardcastle’s Runaway,’ by Graham Ison

Divisional Detective Inspector Hardcastle of the Whitehall Division of the Metropolitan Police is summoned to the office of the head of CID himself at the beginning of Hardcastle’s Runaway. He’s never met the Commissioner before, so he knows the matter at hand must be important.

But in fact it’s not. The Commissioner wants him to look for a missing girl, the daughter of a friend who’s a member of Parliament. It’s 1919, the Great War is newly over, and many young women like this one have bobbed their hair (and their skirts) and become what’s known as “flappers.” Inspector Hardcastle puts men on the job to find her, but after a few days she pops up of her own accord. That seems to be the end of the matter.

But the girl disappears again. Inquiries among her gentlemen friends, veteran military officers all, reveal that she was present at a party at a country house, and nobody has seen her since.

There are many influential men who do not wish their relationships with this young girl revealed. But Hardcastle has the Commisioner’s support, and he proceeds with his customary bluntness and tactlessness. In the end, a tragic secret will come to light.

The DDI Hardcastle novels were recommended to me as well-researched books, providing an accurate and realistic picture of London life around World War I. And this book provided that. A lot of research has been done, and it shows. Hardcastle’s Runaway was excellent as a time excursion.

What did not delight me was the main character. I like curmudgeonly heroes just fine (I flatter myself that I’m a curmudgeon myself). But Hardcastle seems to have nothing underneath the crust. He’s crust all through – bullheaded, opinionated, thoughtless of others. He seems to be a type rather than a character. I finally decided all this rudeness was meant to be comic. But it didn’t make me laugh. Maybe it’ll be more to your taste.

I recommend this book from an educational perspective, but as a work of fiction I found it wanting.

‘The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains,’ by Owen Wister

“Is it too far to drive there to-night?” I inquired.

He looked at me in a puzzled manner.

“For this valise,” I explained, “contains all that I immediately need; in fact, I could do without my trunk for a day or two, if it is not convenient to send. So if we could arrive there not too late by starting at once—” I paused.

“It’s two hundred and sixty-three miles,” said the Virginian.

The scene above, (involving lost luggage) near the beginning of Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian, seems to me to foreshadow a major theme of the novel. This is a panorama painted on a canvas a thousand miles wide. The landscape itself is a character in it. It’s a slow book, episodic and discursive, but that’s because everyplace is a long way from everyplace else, and travel takes time. There’s plenty of space in the intervals for serious thought or deep conversation. You get a real sense of the vastness of the Old West.

Built on a series of previously published short stories, some narrated by a character (unnamed, like the archetypal hero) who comes on stage only when needed, The Virginian has traditionally been regarded as the first serious Western novel (though recent critics have advanced the claims of some book nobody ever heard of, written – of course – by a woman).

I read it in high school, but my memories of it were vague. I was mostly surprised at how different it was from the TV show, which was being broadcast in those days (they made Trampas a good guy, for some reason). What I didn’t remember – or was too young to appreciate then – was what a beautiful novel it is (in spite of its antiquated style), nor did I imagine how it would move me.

The Virginian is a young Wyoming cowboy, tall and athletic and handsome. He works for Judge Henry’s ranch out on Sunk Creek. He’s a man of few words (setting the style for cowboy heroes ever since, from Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood). He is a natural man of principle. He has a sly sense of humor, and delights, with his rowdy friends, in practical jokes and taking people in with tall tales. (The tall tales are an interesting plot element. They serve as a nonviolent means of asserting rank in cowboy society – though they might lead to violence in any case.)

When an eastern schoolmarm from a respectable but impoverished family arrives in the area, the Virginian decides from the moment he sees her that he will marry her. She resists, attracted by his appearance and rough chivalry, but repelled by his low birth. His courtship takes years, and is resolved in an unexpected (and somewhat deus ex machina) manner. But win her he does.

The plot conflict centers on the struggle between the ranchers and the rustlers, whose leader is the scoundrel Trampas, who hates the Virginian mostly because he’s the better man, and they both know it. (Historically, the book was inspired by the Johnson County War of the 1880s and ‘90s. In those terms it’s remarkably biased and unjust. The “rustlers” the Virginian despises were actually often small ranchers fighting the high-handed tactics of the big operations. For a fictional treatment from the other side of the fight, check out Shane, by Jack Schaefer).

The final confrontation with the evil Trampas takes place (anticipating High Noon) on the Virginian’s wedding day.

Once that’s out of the way, movie treatments of this book tend to wrap the story up pretty quickly. But Owen Wister (once again) takes his time, bringing the reader along on the Virginian’s and his wife’s honeymoon (discreetly, of course). That section, which could have been anticlimactic, instead consummates (if I can be excused for using that word) the main theme of the whole book, it seems to me.

Because the Virginian and his bride become Adam and Eve in a new Eden – or perhaps Wister (whose opinions on religion, judging by the book, were not very orthodox) had Rousseau’s Noble Savage and the State of Nature in mind. I think he was expounding a vision for America’s future – that the New Man being formed in our wilderness would transform the earth through siring a new, wiser, more natural race of mankind.

Or so it seemed to me.

In any case, I found it deeply moving, even if I didn’t believe it for a minute.

The Virginian is a challenging book for modern readers, accustomed to fast-paced narratives, to tackle. But if you give it a chance, it’s worth it. I rate it very high.

‘Return of the Thin Man,’ by Dashiell Hammett

If you’re one of those underprivileged citizens who’s never enjoyed the Thin Man movie series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, you really owe it to yourself to watch them. The first two, at least, are almost perfect of their kind – a hybrid of hard-boiled crime story and screwball comedy, centering on a sophisticated, charming couple who adore each other and excel at repartee.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammet’s last and most successful novel, and was adapted (mostly by lightening its darker elements and cutting some stuff the censors wouldn’t approve) into a classic movie by film writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, themselves a married couple. It was so successful that the studio wanted a sequel, and offered Hammett a nice payday to come up with a story. Though delayed by drinking and blackouts, he delivered on time. The “story” he produced – basically a paragraph outline – became the movie After the Thin Man. Hammett’s story, combined with Hackett’s and Goodrich’s initial adjustments, constitute the first half of Return of the Thin Man. The second half is a similar story for the third film, Another Thin Man. At the end, Hammett’s proposal for a third sequel is included – it’s incoherent, inconsistent with the previous stories, and appears to show signs of Hammett’s advancing alcoholism.

The original Thin Man movie ends with our heroes, Nick and Nora Charles, in a Pullman car headed home from New York to San Francisco. After the Thin Man opens with them getting off the train (fans have chuckled for years over the fact that the trip took two years, so that clothing and car styles have changed). Arriving at their home, they find the place packed with Nick’s low-life friends from his days as a private eye – it’s a welcome home party, but nobody even notices their arrival for a while. The party is dampened by the appearance of a dead man on the doorstep, but Nick and Nora are summoned away to her grandmother’s grand mansion on Nob Hill. Her cousin’s dubious husband has disappeared, and she’s suspected of murdering him. Nora’s family strongly disapproves of Nick, but since he’s around, he must make himself useful by locating the errant husband and keeping the police off the premises. There is a murder, and the mystery that follows will involve a shady night club owner and multiple confidence games, before Nick can gather the suspects for the “payoff” scene, revealing the true culprit.

In Another Thin Man, Nick and Nora head back to New York state at the request of Nora’s father’s old business associate. He’s been threatened, and demands that Nick chase off the disgruntled former employee behind the threats. Nick also takes this opportunity to try to learn more about Nora’s family business – something he soon regrets (just out of boredom). Again, murder happens in spite of Nick’s efforts, but he will beat the police to the true solution.

I had looked forward to reading a couple of Thin Man novellas – which is what the publisher’s description calls these works. But that’s not what they are. “Stories” for movies are meant to be brief and spare and devoid of sparkle. Just the facts, ma’am. As such, these stories make rather dull reading.

I was surprised that I have no memory of Another Thin Man. It’s possible I’ve never seen it – or that it’s been so long I’ve forgotten it. Must remedy that.

I didn’t waste any money on Return of the Thin Man, since I got it free from Amazon Prime. But I can’t really recommend it, except to the hard-core Nick and Nora fan, who’ll be interested in the minor ways in which the narratives changed in the transition from story to screen.

‘Murder at the Flood,’ by Bruce Beckham

I’ve lost all the sequence in the Inspector Skelgill series of novels, having jumped forward at some point and now needing to fill in the books I missed (I think I’ve caught up now). It doesn’t really matter, though, the basic formula doesn’t change – Inspector Skelgill, the crusty, misanthropic Cumbria policeman whose two passions are crime solving and fishing, supported by the attractive female DS Jones and transplanted cockney DS Leyton. In the background is always the unspoken attraction between him and Jones, which he’s too obtuse to follow up. But then women are always throwing themselves at him, and he generally doesn’t bother his head about them either.

In Murder at the Flood he has more than his share. Roger Alcock, a local kayaking outfitter with a reputation as a lady’s man, disappears during a freak flood. When his body is found a couple days later, it looks like he hit his head and drowned, but the pathologist says no. It was murder. Roger Alcock’s widow is an obvious suspect, but Skelgill is reluctant to believe it of her. He knew her as a girl, when he dated her older sister – who has now returned from Australia and taken direct sexual aim at Skelgill. There’s also a female TV reporter who’s willing to scratch his back if he’ll scratch hers – probably in more senses than one.

Skelgill will sort it all out in the end, as he always does.

Good entertainment in a good series. The disturbing stuff happens offstage, and the author happily admits that he edits out the worst language. Recommended, as is the whole series.

“As Individuals, We Can Never Be Happy”

To label [novelist Marilynne] Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and [Peter Augustine] Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

J. L. Wall writes about the big ideas behind Robinson’s stories and essays and how she and Lawler both believe we have lost the language to communicate our deepest longings. We can still ask the right questions, but our attempts at answers fall short.

Also on this subject: “So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them.” From a review of The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture