Wednesday, December 15, 2010

History of violence


"Going on hands and knees into the bathroom when he had regained consciousness after the last of these beatings, he saw, on the floor behind the wash-stand's pedestal, a narrow safety-razor-blade red with the rust of months. Getting it out from behind the pedestal was a task that took him all of ten minutes and his nerveless fingers failed a dozen times before they succeeded in picking it up from the tiled floor. He tried to cut his throat with it, but it fell out of his hand after he had no more than scratched his chin in three places. He lay down on the bathroom-floor and sobbed himself to sleep."

***
All right, crime fans, when do you think that passage was written? (No peeking)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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24 Comments:

Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

based on the type of razor, I'll guess around the 1940's, probably way off the mark though

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Sam said...

Totally Glass Key. There's a scene you won't see in the Alan Ladd film.

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're off by a decade, Sean. The author was apparently ahead of his time in razors as well as in the area I had in mind when I made the post.

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Totally Glass Key is right, Sam, as disturbing a scene of violence as any in today's crime fiction, and without the extravagant torture that some current authors feel compelled to resort to. That a scene written in 1931 can still hit so hard today is astonishing. That its tone and substance feel so thoroughly contemporary seventy years later is a not-so-minor miracle.

Funny you should mention the Alan Ladd film (and here are some clips from it.) An article I read while preparing this post said that the 1935 and 1942 films greatly simplified the story. This scene was apparently one of the targets.

One odd example of simplification: Both movies change "Ned Beaumont" to "Ed Beaumont."

December 15, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

My first thought was to be outraged at the blatant sexism of this query, which is clearly directed at male readers...

But then I wondered "when was the safety razor blade introduced?" And I found this pre-Glass Key info in the Gillette company history at fundinguniverse.com:

1901: American Safety Razor is founded by King C. Gillette.

1904: King Gillette's safety razor is patented.

1918: Gillette manufactures razors and blades for soldiers during World War I.

And the passage you quote is just the end of the description of Ned Beaumont's brutal beating!

1942's Glass Key, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, was popular enough that the two were paired again in The Blue Dahlia, (1946), the only Raymond Chandler (solo) screenplay to be filmed. So, Alan Ladd, like Humphrey Bogart, got to portray both a Hammett and a Chandler character. TGK will air on Turner Classic Movies on Sat., Jan 8, and some interesting info about the film may be found here.

And you can view a trailer for The Blue Dahlia here.

Chandler on Ladd: "Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy's idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article..." (1946)

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not sexist in any way I can see, unless one thinks I intended the straight razor as a clue. In fact, I intended no clues. The passage was one big piece of misdirection. I hoped to trick someone into guessing the passage was much more recent than it is.

I could have quoted any number of bits to reflect the brutality of the beating. It's an amazing sequence of scenes from an astonishing book, surely a worthy contender for best crime novel ever.

December 15, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I hoped to trick someone into guessing the passage was much more recent than it is." Ah, but the ref to safety blades was a bit of a giveaway, the "misdirection".

I would have to take TGK and The Long Goodbye in my limited book bag to that mythical desert island. The level of sustained tension in TGK is almost too intense at times: I remember I couldn't read it in one go. Mid-century author Peter Rabe is the only other crime fiction writer I can think of offhand who can create the same anxiety in me. Just finished his Kill the Boss Goodbye (1956); terrible title, wonderful book.

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the picture of a Hammett cover was a bit of a giveaway, too, but only to the most perspicacious of readers.

The Glass Key has just earned a place on my desert island, and I did just about read it all in one go. (I was up far too late last night finishing it, and I'l have to read it again to figure out why it was so good.)

I read Peter Rabe's A House in Naples some time ago. It didn't do all that much for me. He's someone I'd like to read again, though, because he is spoken and written of so highly in all the best crime-fiction circles.

December 15, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

A House in Naples is definitely one of Rabe's lesser works. Sorry that minor effort left you with a bad taste for Rabe! His novels are very hit-and-miss. The Box and Journey Into Terror are 2 of my faves.

Unlike amateur psychoanalyst Ross Macdonald, Rabe really did have a Ph.D. in psychology and, I think, wound up teaching it when he couldn't make a decent living writing.

Oh, and I wasn't really "outraged"... minor joke.

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A House in Naples seeemd tendentious, Rabe's effort to show he could be literary -- take a man and a woman, stick them in a warm climate where nothing happens, and see what happens.

Hard Case Crime has reprinted Stop This Man, and I'll certainly take your recommendations into consideration.

And I knew you were not outraged, not even a little.

December 15, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...take a man and a woman, stick them in a warm climate where nothing happens, and see what happens."

That's interesting you should make that observation because the same applies to the semi-autobiographical book Sicily Enough, 1976, by Rabe's wife, Claire Rabe. And, man, what happens!! Nothing like that happened to me in Sicily! Phew! It's apparently considered a modern minor masterpiece of erotica. If you are interested, Google Books has some excerpts. Titillating tidbits aside, she really captures the sense of place. The heat, the fruit, the dust, etc. And the ennui.

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds a bit like what I recall of A House in Naples, though without quite all the erotica. Of course, I could be misremembering the book in a big way.

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Cozy in Texas said...

Interesting post.
Ann

December 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. It's not exactly cozy, but it is an interesting commentary on the history of crime writing, I think.

December 15, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born


Yeats was talking about easter 1916 but he might just as well have been taling about the introduction of sadistic violence into crime fiction.

That's a cool passage you quote, Peter. You might also have quoted:

The apish Man said, 'Now there, Houdini,' and with all his weight behind the blow drove his right fist into Ned Beaumont's face.
Ned Beaumont was driven back against the wall. The back of his head struck the wall first, then his body crashed flat against the wall, and he slid down the wall to the floor.

Or else:

He scooped up Ned Beaumont's legs and tumbled them on the bed. He leaned over Ned Beaumont, his hands busy on Ned Beaumont's body.
Ned Beaumont's body and arms and legs jerked convulsively and three times he groaned. After that he lay still.

If those passages lack explicitness, it's not down to Hammett, it's down to publishing standards of the day. What you call the 'extravagent torture of current authors' is simply hommage to the master. With that scene in The Glass Key Hammett was the pathfinder for every artist that wanted to explore sadism and 'massacrism.'

Yojimbo and later A Fistful of Dollars dramatised that scene on film. Clint Eastwood more or less built a career on having the characters he played being sadistically beaten to a pulp, right up to his last western Unforgiven.

Anybody who enjoys watching or reading about extreme violence has Hammett to thank for leading the way.

December 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born


Yeats was talking about easter 1916 but he might just as well have been taling about the introduction of sadistic violence into crime fiction.


In crime fiction, the beauty is not always terrible, it's just banal or, worse, calculated. I first thought about this when I came upon scenes of dismemberment (OK, just a couple of toes, but still ...) in a novel by one much-acclaimed writer. I was appropriately shocked. I was also not sickened, and I did not stop reading. But I did think Why? What did the torture add that the scenes could not have accomplished without it? And I concluded: Nothing. (I should add that I've never felt the same way about anything by Stuart Neville or Adrian McKinty or Roger Smith or Allan Guthrie or Ken Bruen.)

I realize I might have quoted any number of other passages from the Hammett scenes. I had considered quoting the second one you cited, which is especially chilling because of Jeff's declaration that "I got something to try."

"Massacrism" is a nice malapropism, isn't it, with its undertones of all the force of a massacre being concentrated on a single victim. You're probably right that Hammett was the pathfinder (I hedge my declaration with a "probably" only because I'm unaware of other landmarks in the history of violence in crime writing). The scenes certainly do feel contemporary. But some writers get lost following the path and wind up in some strange places.

Yojimbo and later A Fistful of Dollars dramatised that scene on film. Clint Eastwood more or less built a career on having the characters he played being sadistically beaten to a pulp, right up to his last western Unforgiven.

(And don't forget what Ian Fleming puts Bond through in Casino Royale.

December 16, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I once lived in a house that had the name St. Jude inscribed over the door; St. Jude, of course, being the patron saint of lost causes.

In that spirit, let me offer praise to Alan Ladd. I know Elisabeth looks down on him, OK, even midgets look down on him, but I still think he's a good actor.

So much of the business of acting comes down to speaking the lines, and Ladd spoke the lines with a wonderful baritone. Small man, maybe, but a big voice. His voice was as good as that of any other actor, and was better than most. If you were blind, listening to Ladd would make you think you were listening to a giant.

Perhaps, Hollywood could have found a better actor to represent Ned Beaumont, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't have found anyone to say the lines better than Ladd did.

The casting of The Glass Key might have been a lot worse.

December 16, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Last night I was reading some of Hammett's letters about what he was reading at various times over the course of his life and out of nowhere came the thought that this post and the quote from TGK is a kind of prologue Because TGK preceded TLG)to the Chandler quote in a previous post:

"'He's not soft,' I said. 'He's hurt. Any man can be hurt.'"

Indeed.

Naturally I'm angered and exasperated at solo's comments re Hammett being to blame for all the sado-masochism, torture, über-violence, and other assorted ills in contemporary crime fiction but A) knowing the delight he takes in playing the provacateur seemingly for its own sake at times and B) with getting ready to go on Christmas vacation, I will forgo the long rebuttal I'd normally be inclined to make. And Hammett wouldn't give a shit anyway.

December 16, 2010  
Anonymous Half-smart bastard said...

Yikes, I seem to have upset Elisabeth. What can I say. I'm a heel.

December 16, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Coincidentally my friendly neigbourhood postman just dropped off the DVD of 'The Glass Key' just a couple of days ago; and I haven't read the novel in at least 30 years
(I'd actually thought it might be 'The Dain Curse')
I must update myself, on both.

Peter, do all these Hammett threads now confirm you as more of a 'Hammett man' than a 'Chandler man'?
and which of them is more likely to growl "gernourr", and in which circumstances?

completely off topic: Any of you lot remember an actor called Monte Markham?

December 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I've seen Alan Ladd in a few movies, and I've liked him. Sure, he's not Bogart, but who was?

Without having seen the movie of The Glass Key, I'd guess that if it falls short of the book, the casting is not responsible. I'm not sure anyone in 1935 or 1942 could have translated Hammett's toughness to the screen. That's more a tribute to Hammett than a knock on the movies.

December 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: Interesting you should be reading about Hammett's reading, perhaps seeking clues to the books. I'm reading The Little Sister now, and I find myself thinking that it must reflect some of Chandler's disillusioning experiences in Hollywood. It contains some acid comments about California and the movie business.

I found Solo's provocation useful in this case. Here's why. The effect of the Ned Beaumont beating is very similar to that produced in violent scenes by today's best crime writers. It's agonizingly slow for Beaumont. It drives him to despair. His escape is relatively believable. It does what the best of Adrian McKinty or Stuart Neville or Allan Guthrie does. It makes the violence hurt.

Inferior writers bastardize this legacy with gratuitous sadism. Superior writers know, as Hammett did, how serious an issue violence is and treat it accordingly. It is no insult to Hammett to recognize that some of his successors misused the gifts he bequeathed to them any more than it would insult Giotto, the greatest dramatic painter in the history of the world, to recognize the shmaltzy overacting of Spanish Baroque religious painting.

December 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

H.S.B., you're no heel in this case, just provocative -- at least as long as you agree with what I posted in the comment immediately above.

December 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter, do all these Hammett threads now confirm you as more of a 'Hammett man' than a 'Chandler man'?
and which of them is more likely to growl "gernourr", and in which circumstances?

completely off topic: Any of you lot remember an actor called Monte Markham?


TCK, careful reading of the preceding comments will reveal that I'm a Chandler man, too. If pressed, I'd probably call Hammett the greatest crime writer who has ever lived, but by God, Chandler is fun to read, too, and he's at least as fertile a source for modern crime fiction as Hammett is. What about this recent Chandler thread, for example? Or this one?

My very recent reading has included The Long Goodbye as well as Chandler's stories "Try the Girl," "The Curtain" and "Mandarin's Jade," and I'm reading The Little Sister now. On the Hammett side, I've read Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in the past few weeks.

Monte Markham's name seems vaguely familiar, but I couldn't tell you anything about him.

December 17, 2010  

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