Funny how stuff can sneak up on you. I was a youth when I first read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and therefore didn’t really understand its significant place in American literature. Nor did I have any notion of how deeply and pervasively it would affect my life and my professional career. Only now, upon reflection, have I become fully aware of this last.
On one level, I simply enjoyed the hell out of the book. But some things about the story grabbed me in a special way – not least Hammett’s account of the Black Bird’s history, part fact, part fiction, that greatly heightened the romance of the fictional story – the possibility that the McGuffin everyone in the book was pursuing still existed somewhere in the real world. The mixing of a dollop (or maybe more?) of fact with fiction. Exciting stuff for a thirteen year-old, growing up in Chicago’s not-very-exciting South Side. How much was real, and how much was Hammett’s creation?
That question, plus Hammett’s vivid cast of characters and his terse, unembellished style hooked me enough that I re-read the novel. Over and over, at yearly or semi-yearly intervals. By age 20, I had read it at least eight times. And discovered something new each time. It never disappointed.
Along the way, I read a lot of other books, including Hammett’s competition in the mystery genre, both old and new. And it gradually hit me that in many ways, Falcon differed from virtually all the mystery and detective fiction that had gone before – dramatically breaking the patterns set by Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and Agatha Christie (Miss Marple & Hercule Poirot, among others). It also became apparent that most of the mystery fiction written since was largely derivative-if-not-downright-imitative of The Maltese Falcon, with very very little even close to equaling it. Of course there has been, and continues to be, some terrific writing done in the genre, but for me, while Raymond Chandler’s wonderful, literate Philip Marlowe novels came nearest, along with some newer contributions by Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, Falcon has never been surpassed.
One of the ways Hammett’s paradigm novel was so singular was that while it contained a murder mystery – Who killed Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer? (three murders, actually, the others being those of Captain Jacoby of the SS La Paloma, and tough guy Floyd Thursby) – it was surprisingly, for its time – and even today, a detective story that was not about clues or suspects. Another difference was that the tale took the reader on such a fascinating, entertaining journey through rascal-and-double-cross country that one almost forgot the murder mystery part of it.
In the end, Hammett delivered satisfying closure in the matter of Archer’s killer (and Jacoby’s and Thursby’s), but in truth we almost didn’t care, the rest of it being so thoroughly gripping, introducing us to such a variety of wonderful, skewed characters – especially his enigmatic hero, private eye Sam Spade, and the lying, seductive Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who was to become the model female antagonist of novels and films noir for decades. The superb, classic movie version of The Maltese Falcon (Scr. & Dir. John Huston) is, by the way, almost scene-for-scene and word-for-word, Hammett’s book.
When I was invited to write for the Murder, She Wrote TV series (Cr. William Link & Richard Levinson and Peter Fischer), before it went on the air, I asked Peter what kind of stories he planned to do. His response, delivered with a shrug: “I dunno – sort of you know Agatha Christie puzzle mysteries.”
I pointed out to Peter that as a boy I had read a few Christies, plus a couple of locked-room mysteries by others, wherein the suspects were invariably gathered at the end in “the drawing room” or its equivalent, and they had bored the hell out of me. “I won’t write that kind of stuff.”
“Okay – so what will you write?”
“I’ll write The Maltese Falcon.”
Peter’s reply – without missing a beat – was “That’ll be fine.”
The cool thing – he knew exactly what I meant. And that’s what I wrote for the next twelve years, coming to realize that that approach was probably my signal contribution to the series – in effect a weekly play about a bunch of fascinating characters in conflict – in which a murder invariably happened.
Without my ever being entirely conscious of it, Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon have profoundly influenced all of my writing, both pre-Murder, She Wrote, and since. Has my storytelling been shaped by other writers, other books? Of course. But I love having come to a fuller understanding of and appreciation for The Black Bird’s place in my life. It has always been for me, and still is, the Gold Standard.
I’m just back from Bouchercon (and for the uninitiated, that’s pronounced Bow-cher-con, not Boo-cher-con, as I originally thought when I first heard of it eons ago).
Bouchercon is America’s largest mystery writing and fan conference, where herds of writers graze near pools of liquid (yes, that’s a metaphor for the hotel bar), swap news, see old friends and meet new ones, connect with publishers, agents, editors and reviewers, and spend time signing books and meeting readers. Awards are given (Macavity, Anthony and Shamus); parties are thrown (Norb and I ran into each other at the party given by our publisher, Minotaur Books); and most importantly, we are collectively thrown out of our solitary writing cells and thrust into hyper social connectivity.
I love Bouchercon; it never fails to inspire me, spark new ideas, and generally make me feel warm all over, because honestly … the crime fiction community is such a wondrous, wonderful bunch of people! We are, in fact, a family … like the original Algonquin, except on a larger scale.
The conference changes location annually. This year, we got a chance to meet Cleveland (a lovely city with great hospitality); in 2013, it’s Albany. Last year, we gathered in St. Louis, where I had the great good fortune of meeting our own Douglas Corleone.
See what I mean? It’s a table.
This year was made particularly special by the launch of BOOKS TO DIE FOR — an anthology of which I’m extremely proud to have participated in. Billed as “the world’s greatest mystery writers on the world’s greatest mystery novels”, the book has been a labor of love for its editors, John Connolly and Declan Burke, and certainly for the contributors. The US version released at Bouchercon, and we signed more than 500 copies for more than two hours … giving many of us a chance to feel like Michael Connelly (who is a contributor and was sitting across the room from me). We missed Declan, who was originally slated to be there, but hope to cage him next year in Albany.
I had the opportunity to write about one of my more unexpected influences: Agatha Christie, and Murder on the Orient Express in particular. Every one of the essays was a labor of love, modern writers writing about authors they admire, authors that taught them something, authors that convinced them to try it themselves.
And our honorarium … well, as if getting to foist our opinions on an unsuspecting world wasn’t honor enough, we had a choice of money or rare Irish whiskey. Guess which one most of us chose.
John and other East Coast-based authors will be touring the area in support of BOOKS TO DIE FOR, so make sure you pick up a copy. It’s an entertaining, insightful reference/recommendation work that will have a place at “the table” for many a year to come!
When you think about any mystery series that you love, it’s all about the characters. Sure, you pick up that first book because the story sounds intriguing, but you keep coming back for your new best friends. Think about the classics – Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael. In a lot of ways, the mystery is just the vehicle that lets you watch your favorite characters in action. Sort of like the bun is really just the transportation device for the hot dog. You hope it’s a really good bun, accompanied by cheese, relish and ketchup, but you’re really there for the hot dog, aren’t you?
Okay, that’s a terrible analogy. But the best hot dogs…I mean, characters …drive the story and keep you coming back for more. They are real and sometimes extraordinary people with their own concerns, problems, relationships, and jobs. As a reader, I’m there to find out how the story unfolds, but I’m riveted by the personalities of the players. Waiting for Sherlock Holmes to insult Inspector Lestrade or hurt Watson’s feelings is big part of the experience. Watching Brother Cadfael work in his herb garden or discover the existence of his son is as fascinating as learning about the crime. Knowing Miss Marple knits and watching her hide a razor sharp mind behind a façade of “fluffiness” is what makes the mystery come alive…and keeps me thinking about the book long after I’ve closed the cover.
I love all kinds of characters, but I have a soft spot for amateur sleuths. Murder is not part of their “real” lives, and they aren’t paid to go to a crime scene or figure out whodunit or put their lives on the line. In these stories, the murder is an extraordinary and unpleasant event – and not just for the dead guy. In my novels, Jocelyn Shore is a high school history and French teacher who has better things to do than to go around looking for killers, but who finds she just doesn’t have much choice. In DEATH ON TOUR, her Egyptian vacation is interrupted by the murder of one of her fellow tourists, and she has to figure things out in self defense. In DEATH MAKES THE CUT, the murder is more personal. When a close friend is killed and is suspected of drug dealing, Jocelyn has to get involved to clear his name. But she also has classes to teach, kids to protect, school politics to navigate, and a faltering romance to resolve.
The trouble with amateur sleuths in a series is that, after a few books, you have to start wondering why bodies like piling up like firewood in autumn wherever this supposedly average, normal person goes. It’s one reason I put Jocelyn in somewhat different locations in each book. (In the first, she’s in Egypt, in the second, she’s back home in Austin, and in the third, she’s visiting a ranch in central Texas.) However, when I really love a character, I’m willing to forgive the Jessica Fletcher syndrome. (For those of you who don’t remember the television series “Murder She Wrote,” Jessica Fletcher was a writer who lived in a small town – a very small town – and yet who managed to stumble over a body every week. In fact, Cabot Cove probably had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation.) To me, that’s a very small price to pay for the pleasure of spending more time with my favorite amateur sleuths.
Besides the classic characters I’ve already mentioned, some of my newly discovered amateur besties are G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor (WICKED AUTUMN), Hilary Davidson’s Lily Moore (THE NEXT ONE TO FALL), and my fellow Algonquin Redux pal Rochelle Staab’s Liz Cooper and Nick Garfield (WHO DO, VOODOO?). I know there are more wonderful new amateurs out there – who are your new favorites?
Reading Doug’s excellent post about the original Algonquin Round Table got me thinking about writers I’d love to have lunch with. (Served with a few rounds of cocktails, of course.) I pictured a circular table, covered by a crisp white cloth, with place settings for six. One of the chairs is mine. The other five are for writers I admire for one reason or another. Who would be excellent company? Who would I want advice from? Who could I listen to for hours? Since this is my debut at Algonquin Redux, I thought it would be fitting to share my guest list — and to hear yours.
Because my list of living writers is too large for only five chairs and one blog post, I limited my invitations to authors who are no longer with us. Still, winnowing down the guest list was a tough task. Hemingway or Fitzgerald? Dickens or Austen? Will Capote be an attention hog? Will Salinger be too shy?
Finally, after much internal debate, I came up with my final five and a few compelling reasons why they belong at the table.
Really, this is a given. One of America’s greatest writers (not to mention greatest humorists) should be on every guest list, and he probably was during his heyday. No one combined common-sense wisdom with erudite wit better than Twain, and I have a feeling he would own the conversation from the moment he sat down, looking dapper in one of his trademark white suits. It would be thrilling to get his opinion on American life today — Imagine what bon mots he’d drop about Twitter and Bravo reality shows! — and hear him talk about what the country was like when he was around. I suspect it would be like reading his LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, only better.
The queen of mysteries was no slouch in the humor department. (She famously said her archaeologist husband grew more interested in her the older she became.) But I want to lunch with Dame Agatha to hear about her work ethic. How does one write mystery after mystery without it getting stale or tiring? How do you keep the ideas coming? My guess is she’ll tell me in that stiff-upper-lip manner the British are known for to just sit down, write and not think so damn much about it.
H. A. and Margret Rey
I know, I know. I’m cheating with this one. But if you asked me to name my favorite character in all of literature, I would most likely say Curious George. This means both of his creators deserve a place at the table. Besides, the Reys have more to talk about than just illustrated monkeys. The pair met in Brazil, when H. A. was a salesman in the Amazon. After getting married, they returned to Europe and were forced to flee Paris on bicycles as the Nazis approached. One of the few possessions they took with them was a manuscript of CURIOUS GEORGE. It’s a compelling tale I would love to hear in person. I’m sure Twain would, too.
Every party needs a wild card, and the author of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS would be it. I imagine her swanning in fashionably late, dressed in her loudest Pucci minidress, already tipsy from the three bloody Marys she had for breakfast. She will fawn all over the host (yours truly) and snub Dame Agatha for selling more books than her. As the lunch wears on and the cocktails continue to flow, she’ll reveal confidences about the guilt she feels about institutionalizing her autistic son and how her marriage was a sham. Then she will pass out discreetly in the ladies room, but not before admitting she’s insanely jealous that she didn’t write FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Wild indeed.
Henry David Thoreau
This is the man I turn to as the lunch winds down. Twain is outside, smoking a cigar. Christie and the Reys are chit-chatting. Jackie Susann is still in the aforementioned ladies room. Now it’s just me and Mr. Thoreau. He speaks quietly yet with conviction, talking about nature, the government, philosophy. I’ll ask a few questions, mostly embarrassing ones like, “At Walden Pond, weren’t you afraid of snakes?” But mostly I’ll simply listen, hope I can retain just a fraction of his knowledge and, eventually, become a better person.
Well, that’s my rather eccentric list. But, like the Reys’ tiny monkey, I’m curious to hear what authors would be on your guest list. Write ‘em if you got ‘em in the comments sections.
Todd Ritter is the author of two mysteries, BAD MOON and DEATH NOTICE, and an e-novella, VICIOUS CIRCLE. Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, he now lives in New Jersey. Visit him online at www.toddritteronline.com.