Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Now let's talk about the bird

I'm back. Sorry for the absence. Did your heart grow fonder?

Probably not. I know how annoyed I get when I click over to my favorite bloggers and find they haven't posted anything fresh. (Where have you gone, Barry Eisler?... a nation turns its lonely eyes to you...woo woo woo. And let's start a petition to get Miss Snark back while we're at it. )

Blogging is like flossing. If you don't do it every day, your gums bleed, your teeth go bad and start falling out, bacteria enters your bloodstream, you get a horrible debilitating disease and you die alone and in great agony. Probably without a will.

Okay, that's just what my dental hygenist tells me to scare me. But it works for blogging, too. If you don't do it with regularity and conviction, you die.

So I am back, if you'll have me. And today, I want to talk about the black bird.

You know which one I mean. Literature's most famous MacGuffin. The "fairly interesting statuette." The stuff dreams are made of. *

This year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon." This deceptively simple detective story first saw the light of day as a serial in the old pulp magazine "Black Mask." But here we are decades later, still talking about the bird. Today, I was on a panel as part of our library system's "Big Read" program, talking about Hammett's book with three talented crime writers: Jonathon King, Anthony Gagliano and Christine Kling. And while we had great fun yakking about such tangential topics as femme fatales, the Depression and Humphrey Bogart, we kept coming back to the same thing: What is it about this book that still pulls at us?

Jonathon started things off by saying he appreciates the book mainly through his writer's prism. "To me, it's all about the writing," he said. Jon is a splendid writer (James Lee Burke no less said of his stuff: "He captures the intrigue, lyrical beauty, and darkness of the Florida Everglades better than any other writer I know of.") But it was kind of cool to hear Jon say he wishes he could get away with using words like "heater" in his books.

Anthony made an interesting point that Sam Spade was a new type of hero on the American landscape, a guy who can trace his lineage back to the Shanesque saviors of the American western. To which I had to respond that Spade reminded me most of Palladin -- a black knight who drank good whiskey, frequented the best San Francisco hotels and meted out justice according to his own moral code.

Chris had many points to offer -- there was a lively discussion of Spade's treatment of women -- but she was at her best in interpreting for us the famous Flitcraft parable , the theme that throbs at the dark heart of Hammett's story. It takes an English teacher to make stuff like that clear.

And what a great audience. One gentleman was so knowledgable about Hammett's life that he could have written a credible biography. A woman argued passionately that Lillian Hellman had written much of Hammett's best stuff -- and vice versa. But my favorite was the little elderly lady in the front who had read "The Maltese Falcon" as a girl during the Depression and reminded us it was "good entertainment, something to make us forget about things."

And that it is. Still. Critics and scholars will continue to dissect this book. Here's one essay in January Magazine I particularly liked written by Richard Layman, author of "Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett." And experts will continue to praise it: E.D. Hirsch, author of "New Dictionary of Cultural Literary" lists it as one of the 102 significant writers. (Hammett is only one of four crime writers listed, the others being Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Raymond Chandler).

But the bottom line? I have to side with the elderly lady in the front row. "The Maltese Falcon" is just a helluva good yarn.

* This line never appears in the book. Just the movie.


Blogger Mark Terry said...

Your arguments for blogging and flossing sound similar to the arguments men ( who me?) might use to convince their wives/girlfriends/significant others to have more regular sex.

I'm just sayin'.

Anyway, I've tended to find Hammett a tough read (specifically Red Harvest) and prefer Chandler for approachability, but that may just be me.

There's something iconic about the P.I., just as there is about the cowboy. These are probably just American versions of Joseph Campbell's mythical archetypes, and this one would typically be: OUTSIDER WHO COMES INTO THE COMMUNITY TO SOLVE COMMUNITY PROBLEM.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I'm glad Hammett gave us the bird. know what I mean.

2:10 PM  

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