Friday, February 04, 2011

Three characters who stay true to their natures

Trent Reynolds of the fine Violent World of Parker site mixed criticism and high compliment last month when he wrote of my Dashiell Hammett memorial post that "The Maltese Falcon is the greatest crime novel ever written. Not mentioned in this otherwise excellent post on Hammett."

I'd just read The Glass Key for the first time, so that book dominated my thinking about Hammett. And testimonials from crime writers, including Reynolds' own Donald Westlake, that I included in the post indeed did not mention Hammett's most famous work.

But I'd like to reassure Trent and everyone else that I love The Maltese Falcon, that it induces just as chilling an effect in the reader as does The Glass Key, and that I regard it as at least as great a book. (I'd also suggest that The Maltese Falcon's greatness is so universally acknowledged that the novel may simply be taken for granted in discussions of the best crime novel ever.)

And I'd like to add a thought to the discussion based on my recent rereading of the novel (I finished it last night.)

It's a commonplace that a Hammett hero is defined by his job, and that the job is more than just a way to bring in money. Here's Joe Gores, for example, in Dashiell Hammett Lost Stories:

"Hammett saw the private detective as a manhunter. ... The Hammett hero is on the side of the law but not particularly law-abiding. He has a job to do."
When it came to Sam Spade or the Continental Op, in other words, Hammett made his plan, and he stuck to it.

I realized last night that he did just the same with Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. Brigid is a liar from the beginning, her rigid cleaving to her nature reinforced by Spade's early, pointed, and repeated assessments: "You're good." "You're very good." "You're a liar." "That is a lie." She adheres as rigidly to the degenerate moral code that Hammett has drawn up for her as Spade adheres to his more upright one.

Gutman, his composure only fleetingly shattered when he finds the falcon is a fake, is positively joyous when he realizes this means he can resume his globe-hopping quest for the real falcon. He is as true to his nature as Brigid O'Shaugnessy and Spade are to theirs. (Of course, his global quest extends no further than a few blocks from Spade's apartment on Post Street; he gets blown to hell and gone by Wilmer Cook a few pages later.)

But consistency of character, that sense that there is no escaping from one's nature, is part of what makes the book so gripping.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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46 Comments:

Blogger Yvette said...

Characters who stay true to their nature from beginning to end - is that always a good thing? Don't we like characters that bob and weave and change and grow? Is inflexibility a good thing?

Do you mean, Peter, that a good man, i.e. Sam Spade - (even if cynically good) must stay that way so we can grasp him better in the reading? The writer must be on his toes to make sure the character doesn't strike a false note. Probably this is harder to do than to have a character bending with the wind every time a breeze blows.

A few characters who stay true to their various natures no matter what:

Sherlock Holmes
Phillip Marlowe
Hercule Poirot
Nero Wolfe
Archie Goodwin
Joe Pike

February 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, let me try to figure out what I mean. I mean that Hammett manages to keep the tension high without resorting to cheap surprises or having characters act out of character -- precisely what you suggest, in other words. A character may surprise a reader, but the reader should still think, "By God, of course he or she would act that way."

Nero Wolfe acted out of character once or twice: He left his brownstone.

February 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Great examples, Yvette. It's interesting to think about what this all means. I think even the most archetypal characters do sometimes, perhaps against their authors best intentions, grow. Sherlock has Irene Adler to help him rethink the feminine realm, for example. I think more contemporary crime series have perhaps even an overemphasis on growth at the expense of their own original premise. It's similar to what happens to successful television series. Janet Evanovich has somehow successfully avoided this, but I think it's because she has the true comic gift, and in comedy, there is no growth.

February 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you chose some interesting examples. Janet Evanovich has sucessfully avoided growth, but I'm not the person to ask about this. You'll know how much I admire her writing chops and her comic gifts -- and also that I grew tired of the Stephanie Pumb books after the first four.

Of course, someone told me that one of the features I complained about was a staple of romance fiction, which Evanovich wrote before she turned to crime, so what do I know?

Hammett was saved from having to confront the growth problem because Sam Spade was a one-shot, with the exception of some late, short fiction that I don't think is terribly highly regarded.

February 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I do wonder if psychological growth is somehow more expected in series now, other than comic ones. Poirot could possibly be said to develop over time, but I don't think Miss Marple does. But most of the series I've read lately do try to track some aspect of change in the character's life--marriage, divorce, sobriety, children and so on.

I don't think I'd read too many Evanovichs in a row, but they are fun spaced out, and at least with the numbered series, you certainly do know what you're getting.

February 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're probably right that such growth is more expected now. I wonder how old this phenomenon is, who originated it, and why.

Who was the first to have a character marry, divorce, have a child, start drinking, give up drinking? Sayers aged Lord Peter Wimsey and married him off, but I've read just one of the books, so I have no sense of what these changes meant for the character.

February 05, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter: Wolfe left the brownstone, famously, on several occasions. But always in keeping with who he was. He left always for personal reasons if he had to: to hunt down rare orchids or eat fabulous food with his fellow group of gourmands, usually out on Long Island. Or one VERY special occasion: he left to save his own life and that of Archie when Stout gave him an arch enemy to foil.

And occasionally when the cops arrested Archie and wouldn't let him go for any one of several frivolous reasons, Wolfe would show up at the cop shop and cause a ruckus.

So Wolfe was not totally LOCKED into his own oddity. But he always behaved exactly as who he was. Some surprise is allowed even with these sorts of characters, I think. In fact, it's good that Wolfe was still, after so many books, capable of surprising me.

Seana:
As for Evanovich: well, I've read all the books except the very latest and I kind of wish Stephanie would grow a little bit.
I think it's about time. The problem with her is that she's STOPPED surprising me. Now, if she ran off with Ranger - THAT would be surprising. And very welcomed.
Ha!

Joe Pike is, perhaps, the finest example I can think of, of a character who despite being incapable of real change is still capable of holding my interest. Though he does not surprise me, he is so well written, so well created that I see no reason for him to change even one little bit.

Can't say the same for Lee Child's Jack Reacher to whom he is usually compared. (Nothing against Reacher, I read Lee's books and loved the last two, especially.)

Sherlock Holmes: He claims that Watson is the one fixed point in a changing world. He may be right. I see Holmes that way myself. Even in Laurie King's books, where Holmes marries his intellectual equal, Mary Russell, Holmes is still Holmes. Yes, I was surprised by the marriage, but not really. Not after the author set it up to seem inevitable.

There is no growth in comedy. Hmmm, I'll have to think hard about this one. :)

February 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There is no growth in comedy. Hmmm, I'll have to think hard about this one. :)

So will I. Comedy, in classical or at least Shakespearian terms, ends in marriage or pairing up with the appropriate partner, certainly a kind of growth. I'm not sure what this has to do with crime fiction, but it applies to some of Hitchcock's crime movies -- Rear Window, for instance.

February 05, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Other memorable characters do change, however, without (from this reader's perspective) diminishing in the least.

Block's Matthew Scudder goes from alcoholic to AA attendee.
JD Robb's Eve Dallas goes from loner with one friend to an ever-expanding extended group of friends and colleagues, and she often expresses mild disbelief that it's happened.

Travis McGee changes in the sense that his reflexes slow down and it takes longer to get back in shape after his periods of indolence. If ever a series unexpectedly ended (due to MacDonald's death) with the principal character having change forced on him, it was McGee in "The Lonely Silver Rain." I'm not sure where MacDonald could have taken McGee after that shocker.

February 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I'm beginning to wonder whether my question is applicable to series characters. You wonder what MacDonald would have done with Travis McGee in the next book. In The Maltese Falcon, one does not have to wonder; everything is right there. To match that accomplishment over a series, an author would have to have his characters act strictly and at all times according to their nature (and isn't that what we all do in real life?), and at the same time sustain narrative interest over a number of novels. That would be no easy task.

I asked recently which crime writers deserve biographies. I found when I looked up The Lonely Silver Rain that John D. MacDonald was the subject of a splendidly titled one.

February 05, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Romantic comedy may be different. I'm thinking more of Wodehouse, or from television The Honeymooners, or Punch and Judy. Maybe the problem with Evanovich is that on the one hand it's a comedy with stock characters but on another it's a romantic triangle sort of set up. If she chooses, she loses some of the stock elements, presumably. In television especially, once the characters marry or worse have a baby, the show almost always goes downhill. It's more realistic, but it loses by becoming so. So probably until she's really done,
Evanovich should not marry Stef off.

February 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, one could never picture Bertie getting married, could one?

If Steph marries, then there goes a good chunk of Evanovich's suspense, I suppose.

February 05, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I could see Plum and Joe getting married over a weekend in Vegas and then her pulling a Britney Spears "oh no this must be annulled" stunt.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

The only person Bertie could possibly marry is Jeeves.

Linkmeister, yeah, that could work, but it wouldn't really solve anything except for that book. I don't really think there's a need for the series to go on endlessly at this point, though. Maybe she'll hit twenty and end it. Although I assume Sue Grafton is going for 26. Pretty close by now, anyway.

the v word is obviously some sort of clue to the problem: expair

February 06, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone hasn't really changed, has she? Her elderly neighbor and a bar owner are her friends. She lives alone. She is smart, competent and brave.

Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone has gone through a lot of career and personal changes, acquiring new skills, a husband, a ranch, horses, a investigation firm, a nearly fatal gunshot, recovery, etc.

And Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski has gone through some changes, although not as many as McCone, and not as shocking.

I got tired of Stephanie Plum awhile ago, although for a laugh with no mental energy, Evanovich can be helpful.

But Montalbano offers laughs, but one has to think a bit to read Camilleri's series. I don't think Montalbano really changes, but the series is lively and interesting anyway...a great way to spend an afternoon.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, that would be a fine way of doing it. I can envision Stephanie slowly regaining consciousness and trying to rememember if she really did what she dimly suspects she might have done. And then Morelli having similar doubts -- and then Evanovich contriving matters so the reader shares those doubts.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Bertie narrowly escaped marriage a time or two, if I recall correctly. Janet Evanovich's decision to title her books by number certainly left her with an infinitely greater range of opportunities for continuing the series pattern than did Grafton's alphabet titles.

Is an ex-pair a live-in child-care worker in a country other than her own?

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I haven't read Sue Grafton, but I have to disagree with you about Camilleri, even though we both enjoy his work. I can say without hesitation that Montalbano has changed in the most touching way of any crime fiction character I have ever read about. He has become more vulnerable as he ages, more aware of his own mortality and of the fragility of his relationship with Livia. This may be the Montalbano series' most impressive and beautiful accomplishment.

February 06, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Okay, you twisted my arm. I'll agree on Camilleri.

I haven't read as much of his early work, but I found him to be quite sensitive in the first book, "The Shape of Water," where he protected someone and also wasn't shocked by gay characters.

And the early on, "The Smell (or Scent) of the Night," Montalbano has sympathy for the troubled murder suspect.

So, I wasn't saying Montalbano doesn't change as you mention, as he ages, but that I found him to be a sympathetic and sensitive guy to start with, with human compassion and understanding--as well as that incredible wit, which bowled me over.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

An expair is really just an au pair of a couple that gets divorced.

Actually the Plum Vegas wedding could just be resolved by having both partners realize that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas".

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I liked the Camilleri books from the start, through they weren't at the top of my list. That increasing awareness and sensitivity in the later books is what knocked them way up.

If Montalbano changes in ways that nonetheless make sense in light of what we have previously known about him, then Camilleri is doing something like what Hammett did in The Maltese Falcon. He's creating a memorable character.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, if Janet Evanovich ever follows James Patterson and starts hiring people to write her books for her, you could get the job.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Well, thanks. Except...those books are supposed to be pretty bad.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Am I the only one who wants Stephanie and Ranger to run off to Vegas? Joe's okay, but...

And now that the movie with Katherine Heigl (??!!!) as Stephanie is coming out - who knows evil lurks in the hearts of Hollywood. Yikes!

February 06, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Frankly, I can't see the next book in either scenario, Yvette. Which is I suppose why most romantic comedies wisely end with marriage.

I don't think either man is quite enough for Ms. Plum. They'd be happy for awhile, but she'd wear them out.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, thanks. Except...those books are supposed to be pretty bad.

Seana, you can show them how it's done. I like the comic elegance of your Vegas solution.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Maybe they could have their children in Vegas too.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I left Evanovich when Ranger still pretty new on the scene. So I guess I think of Morelli as the man for Stephanie.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Stephanie could wind up having to skedaddle out of Las Vegas, leaving Morelli and Ranger to eye each other warily.

Or if she does have children in Vegas -- Granny let loose on the Strip!!!

February 06, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Scary.

February 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rich with possibilities, I'd say. I'd also say that this little game we're playing is an indication that Evanovich is doing something right -- that she created characters whose lives we want to prolong.

February 06, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Many people like Stephanie Plum.

However, readers all know what they're getting--complete zaniness. Some folks may be in the mood for exactly that.

I quit reading about Plum years ago, having found other humor in the book world. But if I picked a book up about her in a doctor's or dentist's waiting room, I'd read it, for the distractions.

And on Camilleri, I'll have to look for changes in Montalbano. As I said, I found his human side right away in the series, when he protected a witness and gay men from the public.

And in his second book, he protected a troubled culprit, not arresting her, but getting her medical help.

Montalbano is a bit of a mensch, although in a loud and boisterous manner, but underneath he has compassion. I'll have to read more books to see this develop more.

In the second book, Montalbano is already aware that aging has given him physical limitations, and he's annoyed with that.

February 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Janet Evanovich is good at the zaniness. I would laugh out loud when Stephanie's grandmother would commit some outrage, and Stephanie's father would mutter between gritted teeth, "Jesus!" I knew what was coming, but I laughed anyhow.

Montalbano treats troubled, illegal-immigrant prostitutes with kindness, among his many admirable acts. He is almost entirely a mensch, one of the most admirable characters in all of crime fictions. His only consistent bad attributes are his inability to make up his mind about Livia, and his poor driving.

February 07, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Speaking of books set in Italy which we weren't, really, well...maybe a little. Over the weekend I found an Aurelio Zen book on my shelves. Forgot I had it. (Happens a lot to me.) DEAD LAGOON by Michael Dibdin. Going to give it a look when I have a moment. Of course this series is finished because the author passed away, I think last year. Anywayway I've heard praise of these books so maybe that's how one of them found its way onto my shelves though where or when I have no clue.

As for Grandma Mazur: I love when she goes to the funeral parlor - treats it like a neighborhood social event. All the old ladies play catch-up on gossip and view the bodies. So looney and so fun.
Most especially, with Stephanie, I love the whole idea of this Trenton NJ that never really was. It's like Wonderland, Jersey style.

February 07, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I may have mentioned here before that on another forum I used to frequent, there were a lot of Evanovich fans, many of whom didn't live in the U.S. I always found it amusing when one of them would travel over here and say that a high point of the trip was that they were able to visit Trenton, New Jersey.

February 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, Michael Dibdin died four years ago. He was one of the cleverest of crime writers, and very rarely too clever.

In Trenton, Janet Evanovich has given an identity and an image to one of the more anonymous state capitals in the the U.S.

February 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I don't remember having read that, but it's wonderful. I would love to able to quiz some of those overseas Evanovich fans and ask them what they thought of Trenton.

February 07, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Maybe Janet Evanovich has done more for tourism in Trenton than any other artist of any kind.

I can't believe tourists going to Trenton. Although this is probably an anti-Trenton comment, to me that is as funny as Grandma Mazur and her friends going to funerals for their fun and to socialize.

I have also found Stephanie Plum's grandmother and father to be among the wittiest characters and to have the wittiest scenes.

I also got deja vu--the Jewish families and relatives of my childhood are not so unlike the elderly relatives in Trenton...some similar humor and characteristics.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Grandma Mazur could sometimes get a bit over the top. But Stepahnie's father saying: "Jesus!" would almost always get me laughing.

I wonder if the city of Trenton has recognized her in some way. Her books are probably its most famous export these days.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'm not sure this answers the question, but I thought this was nice.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The barbarians have just invaded the P&P, so I'll listen and watch when I get home. Thanks.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I'm listening to the program. It's good, though I could do without the damned NPR announcer with her perkiness, her trying too hard, and her misuse of the word penchant.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, well, actually I just read the post.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The piece is fine except when the reporter is talking. I have considerable sympathy for producers of radio documentaries. Reporters have to paint word pictures, and not every reporter can do that well. Also, since the producers can't rely on images, they play up the sound, and producers seem to think that loudly clicking footsteps are just the thing to make the listener feel that he or she is right on the scene.

But I liked hearing Janet Evanovich talking with Trentonians who had found their way into her books.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I should probably listen to it just to hear that true Trentonian accent, although I think I've probably heard as good as over the years.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll hear some good accents. You'll also learn, if you didn't know already (as I did not) that Janet Evanovich is not from Trenton, but rather from a nearby town.

February 14, 2011  

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