Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #15

Nightmare Town – Dashiell Hammett

This is a collection of 20 short crime stories that Hammett published in magazines like Black Mask and Saucy Stories from the early 1920s to the early 1930s. I usually expect uneven quality in collections. But not so here.

Readers of noir detective tales will enjoy the prose. This is from the title story, which features a kungfu-type hero who wields an ebony cane:

Behind his stick that had become a living part of him, Steve Threefall knew happiness - that rare happiness which only the expert ever finds - the joy in doing a thing that he can do supremely well. Blows he took - blows that shook him, staggered him - but he scarcely noticed them. His whole consciousness was in his right arm and the stick it spun. A revolver, tossed from a smashed hand, exploded ten feet over his head, a knife tinkled like a bell on the brick sidewalk, a man screamed as a stricken horse screams.

As if the role of blind chance and accident didn’t loom large enough in the course of life, it’s a corrupt world too in these stories. Cops and judges are on the take. Gangsters run whole towns. National crime syndicates design and operate elaborate scams. And ordinary people are ground down, going along to get along.

Low-lives are cunning and effective at the felonies they commit and scams they pull off. Experience makes them good at their jobs, but their criminality is also a manifestation of personality kinks. This reminds me of John Bingham’s heartless malefactors – neither the basic rules of decency nor the damage they do to the lives of other people means anything to them. This doesn’t mean they are not empathetic – their ability to see things from others’ point of view is keen enough to enable them to manipulate other people like tools. In these stories when they fess up to crimes, they do so with relish over their accomplishments.

Readers of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald will enjoy these stories

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