Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Let’s Start a Gumshoe Revival - #39 – PLUS, LIBRARY MONTH BEGINS!

STORY: "Zigzags of Treachery" by Dashiell Hammett


BASICALLY: Classic detective fiction. The narrator, an unnamed Continental Op, uses a combination of diligence, smarts, and guts to get proof of a doctor's suicide before his sickly widow--falsely accused of murdering him--dies in police custody.

The other day, with the indoor summer air warm and unmoving, and the late afternoon sunlight streaming in through the high windows, and the few fragments of conversation muted by the walls of dusty books, I wandered the Fiction shelves of my local public library. I was searching for something, though I couldn't have said exactly what. Listlessly, I picked up this novel and that one, finding titles I've always meant to read sooner or later, but nothing struck my fancy. One book had always been fascinating when it wasn't in front of me, but exceedingly dull whenever, like now, I held it in my hands. Another reminded me of someone I'm doggedly not thinking about for the time being. What I really wanted was a book that would thwap me upside the soul in absolutely delicious irresistibility—something light, but still solid and meaningful. Something that would make me feel better about life, but without resorting to treacle. I've read a couple of really great novels recently, and I'm almost through another round of the Alice books, and I've actually started what promises to be another very good read, but something still was wanting.

Alas for me, I was unable to locate this mythical high-flown ineffable idea of a novel. Instead, what I kept finding were short story collections.

Winding my way through the rows, I piled volume after volume of stories into the crook of my arm, wondering what the hell I was going to do with them all. I do already have an entire groaning shelf-ful of books of short stories, you know. Plus, the blog is my best excuse yet for acquiring more books. But it seemed like such a pity—here were stories of all sorts, many of which I knew zilch about, let alone whether I wanted to go to the trouble of owning the books they were in. And that is how, then and there, YoOHS's celebration of Library Month was born!

But waitaminute, a disclaimer first: I actually have no idea how long Library Month will last. Might be two weeks, might be six. Let this fill you with a proper sense of carefree adventure rather than, say, annoyance. The duration depends on what I find to read and how long I want to keep going without breaking back into the books I already own and pretty much that means it's anyone's guess. I'm a Ouija-style reader—I can try and plan out my reading all I want, but it's fruitless; wherever the spirit/psychotic break takes me next is where I am compelled to go. I don't control this stuff, people. Truthfully, I don't know how others manage those impressive TBR piles and organized reading goals. But anyway, I couldn't very well name this the Library Event To Last An Arbitrary and Unpredictable Period of Time, could I?

So, I hereby dedicate a month-ish to singing the praises of public libraries in general and my library in particular and we'll get to more of that with the Next! Episode! Of! Year Of One Hundred Stories!

And oh yeah, did you want to actually hear about story #39?

Okay then. I happily oblige. This story's so much fun—though, with a name like "Zigzags of Treachery," I think it's contractually required to be cool. Over the years, I've read a decent number of novels and stories containing Raymond Chandler's version of the hard-boiled detective, but Dashiell Hammett (whose name is rather harder to spell than you'd think) is very different. With Chandler, everything is steeped in nostalgia and gin and passion and sorrow. Cynicism wars with romantic illusion in a baroque world of decay. It's heady and poetic stuff. While I wouldn't want to draw too many conclusions from reading just one story, Hammett clearly goes in another direction. His unnamed narrator is dispassionate, clinical, logical. The crime is a puzzle to be solved, a knot to unravel. Emotional reactions are consciously rejected. In that sense, maybe there's more of a kinship with that Victorian favorite, Sherlock Holmes.

But one of the things I really liked about "Zigzags of Treachery" is how Hammett uses his first-person narrator. In Sherlock Holmes, mysteries are solved supposedly through the application of logic, but really through inscrutable, almost otherworldly calculations that take place in a the mind of a singular genius, and are revealed to the audience only as they become understood by the narrator, Dr. Watson. Hammett's story, on the other hand, lets us see directly into the mind of the detective. The emphasis is not on genius, but on method: "[S]uch results as I get are usually the fruits of patience, industry, and unimaginative plugging, helped out now and then, maybe, by a little luck." We see the Continental Op narrator spend hours waiting for a suspect to leave her apartment, and we see him choose a suit that's just shabby enough but not too shabby to blend in to a particular set of people, and we even get the benefit of his own guesses about the case's outcome—though, as he says, "I don't gamble too much on my guesses." Even though there are still plenty of unrealistic/impossible elements in "Zigzags," as there are in pretty much every mystery I've ever read, the narrator's voice helps carry the whole thing off as plausible.

I could talk about a lot of other aspects of this story, but, yikes—this entry might go on forever. An analysis of the ticking clock aspect, in particular, could reveal some juicy writerly secrets. I will say that Hammett's use of a time limit is good though imperfect (even if I love how he ties it into characterization)—but I really want to make the argument that you, my fellow aspiring writer-friends, should read stories like this one even if you're not remotely into detective fiction. They are useful as all get-out, and here's why: a detective story is something that can be understood right off the bat. Its purpose is always clear because its purpose is always the same—to create a sense of mystery that pulls the reader along until the secrets are revealed at the very last minute. As such, it's a wonderful tool for thinking about how to use particular techniques.

"Zigzags of Treachery" is a veritable textbook of ideas for distracting a reader's attention, inserting a ticking clock, upping the stakes for the protagonist, including details that lend a powerful sense of realism, and grounding a piece of fiction in a particular place. And it's got its flaws—particularly, the long-ass ludicrously detailed criminal confession that takes place near the end, but also the artificiality of the ticking clock and most especially the whirlwind trampling of the basic civil rights of every single suspect the narrator comes into contact with. But that's fine. Like many works of this genre, "Zigzags" is an entertaining story that's still simple and imperfect enough to break down into its component parts and learn from.

Of course, you could also just read it for the fun of it.


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