Saturday, October 02, 2010

"He ... talked liked a Scotchman's telegram"

Raymond Chandler was known for his extravagant descriptions of persons, but Dashiell Hammett was no slouch either. Here's the Continental Op on Dick Foley in "The Big Knockover":

"He was a swarthy little Canadian who stood nearly five feet in his high-heeled shoes, weighed a hundred pounds minus, talked like a Scotchman's telegram, and could have shadowed a drop of salt water from Golden Gate to Hongkong without ever losing sight of it."
The week's other good bit comes from Lisa Brackmann's debut, Rock Paper Tiger. I neglected to note the page where it occurs, so I can't quote it exactly, but it has the protagonist walking into a Starbucks in China, where "the latest Brazilian retro was playing."

That captures nicely the comfortable/creepy feeling of Starbucks (Well, comfortable as long as the baristas don't mispronounce doppio macchiato too badly), where the music is almost always good and is never a surprise. Starbucks is the Holiday Inn of coffee, though with Hilton prices. Or is it more like an upscale McDonald's?

What are your favorite bits of literary description?
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(Lisa Brackmann will be a member of my "Flags of Terror" panel at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 15, at 10 a.m. Dashiell Hammett will be at Bouchercon in spirit, as convention attendees seek out the Continental Op's and Sam Spade's favorite haunts.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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11 Comments:

Blogger Amy said...

Do I have to quote exactly? In Vanderbes' Strangers at the Feast, one character wonders if her adopted granddaughter came with any "guarantees" or a return policy. Says so much, doesn't it?

October 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I couldn't quote my example exactly, so I won't hold it against you for doing the same with yours.

One hopes the character uttered that line with at least a bit of rueful humor.

October 03, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Following the Scotchman ref: from PG Wodehouse (somewhere and something approximately like this)

It is not difficult to tell the difference between a Scotsman and a ray of sunshine.

October 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine," from Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, my sources tell me.

As much as I love Wodehouse, I'll give Hammett the edge here, at least in his quotation's abbreviated form, as given in this post's title. Its clipped form suits its content, and its scansion is delightful.

I have ordered a copy of the Library of America's edition of Hammett's Crime Stories and Other Writings. I look forward to hours of reading pleasure, given my recent conclusion that Hammett is the greatest crime writer ever.

October 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I also realized that Hammett's description was no mere exercise in wit; it was also a solution to a tactical problem.

Dick Foley was a regular in the Continental Op stories, and readers probably expected him and wanted him just the way he was. But an author must run the risk of growing stale or bored bringing back the same characters. So Hammett's solution? Keep Foley's trademark clipped speech, only find a delightfully new way to describe it. Nu, so everyone's happy.

October 04, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I dont know how you can make such a bold claim for Hammett as the greatest crime writer when you have admitted on this blog that you haven't yet read The Girl Who Played With Fire or The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest (Hornet's Nest for our American readers).

Did a Hammett hero ever get breast implants or shoot her own pig rapist Russian mafiya tycoon father?

October 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Often, though mostly in the early pulp stories he published as Dashiell Håmmettson.

In fact, the original drafts of both The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest opened with the pig-dog Russian mafiya tycoon father thinking about Salander and musing: "It was a wandering daughter job."

October 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

By the way, about two hours after I finished reading Rock Paper Tiger, I visited a Starbucks for a cold one, and the sound system was playing a vibes-heavy contemporary version of an Antonio Carlos Jobim song.

October 04, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

BTW I'm not sure that you're as interested in literary necrophilia as I am, but since you'll be in the neighborhood... a couple of years back the owner of Hammett's apartment on Post Street was kind enough to let me in to have a look around. Dont know if the same chap still owns the place, but it might be a fun outing if you have the time.

October 04, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

that is if its not covered by the tour...

October 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember you mentioned that, and I am in a good position to make inquiries. I have exchanged e-mail this week with Don Harron, who offers the Dashiell Hammett walking tours. He normally stops the tours in September, but he plans to offer abbreviated, two-hour versions for Bouchercon attendees.

I wouldn't mind following in some of the Continental Op's footsteps.

October 04, 2010  

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