‘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.

‘A Bespoke Murder,’ by Edward Marston

A historical mystery set in an intriguing time and place. I figured I’d take a chance on A Bespoke Murder, by Edward Marston.

It’s 1915, and England is at war. In the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania, anti-German sentiment is boiling over in England. Even in London’s posh West End, Jacob Stein’s fashionable tailor shop is smashed up by a mob, and set on fire. Mr. Stein himself is left dead. And his daughter is raped.

But Stein’s death was not random violence. Someone stabbed him, and made away with the contents of his safe. That makes it look like premeditated murder. Particularly since Stein was not merely German, but Jewish.

Inspector Harvey Marmion and his assistant Sergeant Joe Keedy are assigned to investigate. From the beginning, their work is hindered by the meddling of Stein’s blustering brother, and by the fears of the traumatized daughter. They will have to descend into the dark world of antisemitic political groups to unmask the true villain.

In spite of an interesting mystery and an interesting setting, I found A Bespoke Murder a disappointment, for several reasons. First of all, the characters weren’t very vivid. The good characters acted and spoke very much as people do today – even sometimes using neologisms like “hassling” for “bothering.” A fair amount of research must have been done on this book – why not throw in some contemporary idioms in the dialogue? Not a lot, but a sprinkling would have added verisimilitude. And the “good people” were just so pleasant. Very little friction or conflict between them, and few attitudes expressed that would make 21st Century people uncomfortable. The book seemed to me overwritten, and aimed at an unsophisticated audience.

I finished the book to find out whodunnit, but although there are several sequels, I’m not interested enough in these characters to read them.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.

‘Turpitude,’ by Pete Brassett

I’m always pleased by the appearance of a new Inspector Munro novel by Pete Brassett. The latest installment in the series, set in Ayrshire, Scotland, is Turpitude, and it was as enjoyable as its predecessors.

Inspector Munro is no longer a working police detective. He’s overage and recovering from a heart attack. But he can’t keep away from the office, and frankly his old team, led by female detective Charlie West, is happy to have him on this one.

First of all, a couple garbage workers find three severed fingers in a tin of dog food. Oddly, nobody seems to have been treated for the injury in a hospital, and when they find the victim he’s not much interested in preferring charges.

Then a man walks into a jewelry store and bashes the owner over the head with a hammer. CCTV and witness statements provide few clues to the police.

It’s only Munro’s experience and intelligence that gently lead the detectives down the right paths to finally identify the culprits, uncovering an improbable conspiracy with bizarre motives.

As I said already, any time spent with Munro & Co. is time well spent. I recommend Turpitude, in spite of a measure of political correctness.

We Can Read Anything, But Do We Read Well?

Imagine there’re no novels
No books for us to buy
No bargain basement deals
Just notes to apply
Imagine no one reading more than daily tweets

Sings the would-be profound poet in the corner coffeeshop.

Has the virtually infinite access to written resources improved or inhibited our reading? To put it another way, are we wiser as a society for having so much more information? Author Sven Birkerts doesn’t think we are, and he’s written a book that celebrates reading and warns us against forgetting how much fun it is.

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. . . .

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Photo by Perfecto Capucine from Pexels

‘Moorings,’ by David Blake

When a decorated World War II hero is found drowned in his bath – not by accident, according to the coroner – Detective Inspector John Tanner and his partner (both personal and professional) Jenny Evans are pulled from missing persons duty to look into it. There are two surviving sons, and a pair of adult twin grandchildren. None of them seems to need money enough to kill the old man for the value of the decaying boatyard he owns. That’s the premise of David Blake’s novel Moorings, third in his Norfolk Broads police procedural series.

People kill for motives other than money, however. The suspect pool gradually shrinks as one by one the heirs are murdered, and in the end Tanner and Jenny will face the irrational fury of someone who has suffered an old, unpunished crime.

Moorings was an enjoyable, fast-paced mystery with appealing characters. I thought the plot had some weaknesses – there are a whole lot of coincidences, and the police procedures seemed kind of loosely observed to me (though perhaps their rules of evidence are different from the American). Also, Tanner and Jenny witness a particularly harrowing death that seems (to me) to affect them rather less than it should.

As in all the books, there’s a Bible passage at the beginning. And we are told that Tanner is weakening in his agnosticism. Which is always nice.

Recommended, for entertainment purposes. Mild cautions for the usual stuff.

Brief Review of History Books

SOME TRADITIONAL Christian publishers don’t do much in history. After years of reading overstatements from both left and right concerning America’s founding, I enjoyed the calm and thorough analysis of Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Those who read minds and extrapolate diaries may still fight over questions of sincerity and personal faithfulness, but Hall clearly shows what’s most important: that Christian ideas profoundly influenced the Founders, and through them all of us.

World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky offers many quick evaluations of new history books in this week’s issue, pointing out trends from select publishers like the above. He notes Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, which we highlighted earlier this year.

‘St. Benet’s,’ by David Blake

Book 2 in David Blake’s Norfolk Broads police procedural series is St. Benet’s. As you might guess, this novel takes its name from a church, and the issue of religion gets touched on.

Detective John Tanner is now cohabiting, at least much of the time, with his partner, attractive DC Jenny Evans. This is against regulations, but nobody’s called them on it yet.

Jenny in particular is appalled when they’re called to the ruined abbey adjoining the Catholic church to which she (technically) belongs, though her practice has lapsed. A man has been found on the site of the old altar, his head nearly severed and a knife in his hand. It looks like suicide, but if so it’s an extreme one, and John isn’t certain about it. The dead man was the former priest of the parish. Years ago he was accused of the rape and murder of a teenaged girl. He was acquitted, but excommunicated. After that he became the head of his own Satanic cult, and wrote a bestselling book. In that book, he suggested that he might be able to kill himself and rise from the dead, through diabolical power.

And then his tomb is struck by lightning, and another young girl is murdered on the site. And the priest’s corpse disappears.

Tanner’s and Jenny’s working relationship is strained when he makes some disparaging remarks about religion, which offend her. But they have to keep their eyes on the puzzle, because more murders are coming, and they are very cruel murders. Of course they can’t have been committed by the dead priest… can they?

St. Benet’s was a fairly engaging mystery in which religious questions were handled more or less even-handedly (though some very poor theology gets expressed, but that may just be the individual characters’ voices). My biggest problem with the book was that I figured out the murderer fairly early on.

Still, it was entertaining.

Walking Back, Never to Return

Poet Jessica Hornik says she remembers January in her poem “Recuerdo, January,” but they sound like October words nonetheless.

Walking back to the ferry in the evening chill,

they knew they’d never have reason enough
to return to this place, which made the leaving
as sad as a paradise gained and lost

in the space of two hours.

This year has been one to remember. No paradise gained, only loss. I feel I’m reluctantly slipping into the autumn of my life; I don’t know if I can turn around somewhere.

Photo by Jairph on Unsplash

‘Broadland,’ by David Blake

The “local color” mystery seems to be an established literary tradition by now. David Blake kicks off this particular new series with Broadland, the first in a series featuring Detective Inspector John Tanner of the Norfolk police in England.

Tanner is newly arrived from London. Burned out after the murder of his daughter and his subsequent divorce, he hopes the quieter atmosphere of the “Norfolk Broads” country will bring him some peace. He moves onto a friend’s sailing yacht and reports for work.

His hopes for peace are frustrated, however, by the discovery of a young woman’s body, mutilated in an encounter with a boat’s motor. Everyone assumes she merely fell into the canal and drowned, but Tanner is unsatisfied with that explanation. On top of that, another detective, with less experience but more local knowledge, is put in charge of the investigation.

This will prove to be a tragic decision.

When another woman is found drowned and mutilated, Tanner gets his own case. Partnered with a young female detective (with whom he soon begins a not-entirely-appropriate relationship), he follows the clues to a shocking and nearly disastrous final showdown in an abandoned windmill.

The Norfolk Broads series (I’ll review the next two in the next couple days) is a competent, entertaining police procedural series. It’s not a standout at this point – the characters are a little shallow, I’d say, and Tanner has a suspicious habit of being right all the time – but I enjoyed the book.

One interesting point – which I’m not sure how to interpret – is that each book is prefaced by a Bible passage – not just a single verse, but a paragraph or so. The books are not particularly “religious” in the Christian publishing sense, but the verses are there. Make of them what you will.

Recommended, with the usual cautions.

Motel, Miracles May Be Likely to Occur

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a new documentary on the making and lasting influence of Fiddler on the Roof. It first appeared on Broadway in 1964, was released as a movie in 1971, and has been on stages around the world ever since.

Through cast, crew and luminaries’ commentary, [Max] Lewkowicz examines the play’s time-transcending magic as he wonders why “mainstream America is interested in a bunch of Jews living in a pale of Russia of 1905.”

“Tevye is from the shtetl, but his message is universal,” Lewkowicz told The Jerusalem Post from his New York home. “He could be a family man in Honduras, or anywhere in the world for that matter – a father whose children rebel and want to go a different way against his will. He is a man whose tradition is being seriously challenged.”

Motel may have believed marrying Tzeitel to be a miracle of miracles, but many smarter-than-thou philosophers have argued against miracles being a thing (FWIW, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is now playing on my Your Classical stream). Michael J. Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary has a post about a popular view on miracles, that “given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur.”

But we must remember the context of every “miraculous” event. If God is living and active in our world, then miracles will occur. They may even be likely.

‘Threshold,’ by G.M. Ford

Fenene looked even bigger indoors than he had in that alley. Like being in a phone booth with a freezer.

Not a book that will make a fan out of me, Threshold by G.M. Ford is nevertheless a very well-written mystery novel, offering many pleasures. I’ve become pretty shameless at discarding books I disagreed strongly with in recent years, but I stuck with this one (perhaps because I’m tightening my belt these days), and I don’t really regret it.

Grace Pressman is a beautiful albino with a mystical gift. In some cases, she can bring people back to consciousness from deep comas. The problem is that she’s not always sure she did them a favor. On top of that, she dislikes the limelight, and so she keeps hidden. This is also advisable in that she assists her mother in running a shelter for battered women. Right now, they’re even conspiring to break the law – hiding a bipolar woman and her daughters from a powerful husband who is rich enough to get custody in spite of evidence that he’s been abusing the girls.

Meanwhile Detective Mickey Dolan, just returned to work after a divorce and temporary suspension, is assigned to find the fugitive mother and her children. When he meets Grace and learns the true story, he’ll be faced with a crisis of integrity, one that forces him to choose between his career and freedom, and his soul.

Threshold was a compelling mystery with a (possible) touch of the supernatural. It worked very well. The writing was classic hard-boiled of the highest quality. Author Ford did a good job, I thought, portraying his (mostly liberal) heroes as flawed human beings. He was less successful (I thought) with his villains, who are generally crude stereotypes of right-wingers.

I imagine Ford wouldn’t want someone like me for a fan anyway, so I won’t read more of his books. But I will say that Threshold was an extremely well-written novel. Cautions for language and disturbing themes.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture