Friday, June 19, 2015

FFB: Four Books Reviewed by DASHIELL HAMMETT

This column appeared in the April 12, 1930 issue of the New York Evening Post.

By Dashiell Hammett

THE NOOSE. By Philip MacDonald. Dial. $2.
BLUE RUM, By Ernest Souza. Cape & Smith. $2.50.
THE BLACK DOOR. By Virgil Markham. Knopf. $2.
FOLLOWING FOOTSTEPS. By J. Jefferson Farjeon. Dial. $2.

The materials of "THE NOOSE" are not in any way novel. Anthony Ruthven Gethryn is the usual gifted amateur who stands high in the graces of Scotland Yard because in the past he has helped the Yard solve mysteries that had it stumped. He is a drawling gentleman who is sometimes whimsical, sometimes facetious, and says "y’know" and "p’r’aps." His wife is beautiful and admires him, as do most women. His current task is to keep one Daniel Bronson from being unjustly hanged for the murder of a man named Blackatter in Bellows Wood. Bronson, ex-pugilist proprietor of the Horse and Hound, has had the misfortune to be found lying on the ground —apparently he stumbled while running away from the scene of his crime and knocked his head against a stump —with a discharged shotgun in his hands not far from where his enemy Blackatter lay with some of his head blown off. There was plenty of other evidence against the unfortunate Bronson: in his pocket was a letter from Blackatter making an appointment with him to Bellows Wood that night; a witness had heard him threaten Blackatter in the Horse and Hound earlier that day. All that happened months ago. Now Gethryn, convinced of the condemned man's innocence, has from Thursday to Monday to save him from the gallows. He sets out to save him by finding the real murderer. With his wife, Chief Detective Inspector Pike and two reporters from the paper of which he is part owner, Gethryn goes to Farrow and
begins to re-examine clues that are months old, to question witnesses, to stir up the neighborhood. The two principal witnesses are feebleminded Tom Harrigan and the unattractive Dollboys. Gethryn learns something new and pertinent from Harrigan and hopes to learn much more from Dollboys, but Dollboys disappoints him by getting himself murdered early Saturday morning. This, you can see, is all familiar stuff, stuff that can be found in dozens of detective stories now stacked on bookshop shelves, but what lifts Mr. MacDonald's book above those dozens is the deftness of his carpentry. "The Noose" has the neatest plot I have seen in months. It is logical, it is simple and it is baffling.

"BLUE RUM,” on the other hand, has a lot of good material in it and fresh backgrounds, but both are so ineptly handled that the result is very faintly exciting at first and something less than that further on. Roy Overton, mining engineer, young, out of work, nearly penniless, lands in Lisbon in search of a job. His poverty leads him to a room in the weird Penaao Juliana. Shocking things happen then. When Overton can stand them no longer he leaves to take lodgings with Ericson, a fellow American. That night pompous Senhor Alfonso, proprietor of the Penaao Juliana, and his wife are murdered. The Lisbon police suspect Overton. Later he and Ericson return to the house to hunt
for a paper that tells where the Fortinha Diamond is hidden. They find, instead of the paper, another corpse— the remains of repulsive Doctor Pedro. Pursued by the police, they become unwilling stowaways aboard a ship that presently sinks. They are picked out of the Atlantic by another ship and work their way to Brasil and to Carvaihoa, where the Fortinha Diamond is supposed to be hidden and where Senhor Antonio Medico rules his district with an iron hand while his cohorts drink the blue rum he distills. Thus it goes, on and on for 463 pages, too many of them filled with descriptions of places and bits of local color that seem authentic enough, but do not help the story along at all; too many of these filled with explanations that deprive the story of every least trace of the mystery that might have given it glamour, too many of them filled with expositions of the obvious. The identity of "Ernest Souza" seems to be no longer a secret. That is too bad. She was well advised when she put a pseudonym on "Blue Rum's'' title page

“THE BLACK DOOR" deals with adventures of Tom Stapleton—another young American abroad—in Kestrel Eyrie, the ancestral castle of the Veryans on Ramsay Island near the coast of Pembrokeshire. Gathered there are Sir Anthony, the head of the family, Arthura and Robert Veryan, Hector Brasonby, and James Mottram, to await the doom that has already struck down four members of the family. Later they are joined by Charles Norshire, who claims kinship with them, but is murdered before his claim can be proven false. Then a poet comes to
them—chiefly to Arthura—and is slain. Things happen mysteriously, as is their wont in ancestral castles and in the country roundabout. There is an aging woman to whose cottage window a candle burns every night, a definitely odd curator searching for a stolen missal, a locum feverishly interested in polycythemia, and in the end one more fiend brought to some sort of justice. Mr. Markham is an American who has been living in Wales. He has been living there long enough to forget his native tongue: young Stapleton’s Americanisms are amazing.

There is no mystery in "FOLLOWING FOOTSTEPS.'' John Trestle, a diluted-Locke sort of character, saves a pickpocket named Mary from arrest, tries to save her from a life of crime, stands between her and the former accomplices who pursue her, and, through her nobility, is finally reunited to the lovely lady Beatrice Warrener, It is all pretty thin.

Recommended: "THE NOOSE."


George Kelley said...

I'm always intrigued by reviews written by famous authors. I'm reading a collection of Saul Bellow's book reviews and I'm struck by his reaction to several famous novels.

Rick Robinson said...

I love these. Too bad more of them aren't good books!