Friday, April 17, 2015

FFB: Five Books Reviewed by *Guest Blogger* DASHIELL HAMMETT

This piece appeared in the July 15, 1927 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature.

Poor Scotland Yard!
FALSE FACE By SYDNEY HORLER. New York: George H. Doran Company. 1926. $2.
THE BENSON MURDER CASE. By S. S. VAN DINE. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1926. $2.
THE MALARET MYSTERY By OLGA HARTLEY. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. 1926. $2.
SEA FOG By J. S. FLETCHER. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1926. $2.
THE MASSINGHAM BUTTERFLY By J. S. FLETCHER. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. 1926. $2.


In some years of working for private detective agencies in various cities I came across only one fellow sleuth who would confess that he read detective stories. "I eat 'em up," this one said without shame. "When I'm through my day's gum-shoeing I like to relax; I like to get my mind on something that's altogether different from the daily grind; so I read detective stories."

He would have liked "False Faces;" it is different from any imaginable sort of day's work. Scotland Yard promises to "safeguard the safety" (page 29, if you think I spoof) of an American inventive genius who has business with the British government. Arrayed against him and it is a medley of scoundrels—a "shuddersome" Communist with "a smile that revolted," a hyphenated "brute-beast" of a German, a Russian Baron who has "the air of a world cosmopolitan," and so on, including a nameless skeptic who doubts that a certain blueprint is an original drawing. Everybody moves around a good deal, using trains, motorcycles, automobiles, airplanes, submarines, secret passages, sewers, and suspended ropes. Most of the activity seems purposeless, but in the end dear old England is saved once more from the Bolshevists.

I don't think it will stay saved unless something is done to Scotland Yard. It is, if this evidence is to be believed, a scandalously rattle-brained organization: trivialities are carefully guarded while grave secrets are given out freely; no member ever knows what his coworkers are up to. But we aren't in a position to criticize our cousins: here in the same book is an American Secret Service operative occupied with stolen necklaces and red plots, when he should be home guarding presidents, or chasing counterfeiters, or performing some of the other duties of his department, and in "The Benson Murder Case" the New York police and district attorney are not a bit less haphazard.

Alvin Benson is found sitting in a wicker chair in his living room, a book still in his hand, his legs crossed, and his body comfortably relaxed in a lifelike position. He is dead. A bullet from an Army model Colt .45 automatic pistol, held some six feet away when the trigger was pulled, has passed completely through his head. That his position should have been so slightly disturbed by the impact of such a bullet at such a range is preposterous, but the phenomenon hasn't anything to do with the plot, so don't, as I did, waste time trying to figure it out. The murderer's identity becomes obvious quite early in the story. The authorities, no matter how stupid the author chose to make them, would have cleared up the mystery promptly if they had been allowed to follow the most rudimentary police routine. But then what would there have been for the gifted Vance to do?

This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he manages always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong. His exposition of the technique employed by a gentleman shooting another gentleman who sits six feet in front of him deserves a place in a How to be a detective by mail course.

To supply this genius with a field for his operations the author has to treat his policemen abominably. He doesn't let them ask any questions that aren't wholly irrelevant. They can't make inquiries of anyone who might know anything. They aren't permitted to take any steps toward learning whether the dead man was robbed. Their fingerprint experts are excluded from the scene of the crime. When information concerning a mysterious box of jewelry accidentally bobs up everybody resolutely ignores it, since it would have led to a solution before the three-hundredth page.

Mr. Van Dine doesn't deprive his officials of every liberty, however: he generously lets them compete with Vance now and then in the expression of idiocies. Thus Heath, a police detective-sergeant, says that any pistol of less than .44 calibre is too small to stop a man, and the district attorney, Markham, displays an amazed disinclination to admit that a confession could actually be false. This Markham is an outrageously naïve person: the most credible statement in the tale is to the effect that Markham served only one term in this office. The book is written in the little-did-he-realize style.
"The Malaret Mystery" has to do with a death in Morocco. The reader is kept in rural England and the clues are brought to him through two or three or more hands. The result is a tiresomely slow and rambling story altogether without suspense, but this method does keep the solution concealed until the very last from those readers who have forgotten the plot, which is an old friend in not very new clothes. The motivation, if you are interested in that sort of thing, is pretty dizzy.

"Sea Fog," in spite of its rather free use of happenstance, is by far the best of this group. To the coast of Sussex comes a boy bound for the sea. In a deserted mill he spies on Kest and his map, in the morning fog he sees Kest killed, in the days that follow he sees more dead men. If toward the end these dead men turn up with almost mechanical regularity, Mr. Fletcher's skill keeps it from being too monotonous a process. But even that skill doesn't quite suffice to make the forced ending plausible. Poor old Scotland Yard is put up to silly tricks again. However, "Sea Fog" offers more than two hundred decidedly interesting pages.

Most of the fifteen stories in "The Massingham Butterfly" deal with crime in its milder forms. They are all mild stories, some of them obviously written long ago. There is no especial reason for anyone's reading them.
Scans of The Saturday Review, along with many other magazines, are online for your reading pleasure at the thoroughly amazing That's HERE


Rick Robinson said...

Pretty cool. I might consider reading Sea Fog if a copy fell in my lap.

jhegenbe said...

I thought about doing a review of your re-view of these reviews, but I went cross-eyed. Seriously, thanks for sharing the insight from the Old Master, man.

Stephen Mertz said...

Wonderful! Hilarious. Thanks for posting.

Oscar Case said...

Refreshing, calls a spade a spade, I think.

Dan_Luft said...

If he hadn't made it as a fiction writer, Hammett would've made an excellent columnist.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm glad to see Dash and I agree on the van Dine book.

Barry Traylor said...

Always interesting to read anything Hammett wrote. Many thanks for finding these.

Unknown said...

He -- oh, columnist, right.

I read the van dine book and looked up its author just on the strength of Hammett's review. Not only is it as silly as he says, but the author is a poser, and so is his creation, assuming all kinds of knowledge he does not have. If you want that kind of thing, read Sayer's Peter Wimsey stories; she is genuinely knowing about what she writes. Also, I think the detection makes sense. Van Dine, on the other hand, fancied himself as some kind of Nietzechean superman and created a hero to match, never mind if his deductions hold water or not.

Here is another, very brief contemporary review by Ogden Nash:

Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance

I am no Nash but I can try:

When Dashiell Hammett
Saw shoddy work, he'd slam it

Thanks for posting this. I see Hammett did four more reviews for that magazine in the first half of 1927. Till they are printed, I must print them out and put them in my library.