Tag Archives: Dashiell Hammett

Shelf Examination: Mystery

When the poor sap stumbled into my office, I could see he was desperate. “You’ve gotta help me,” he rasped. “You’re the only one who knows.”

I eyeballed his lanky form and decided he was more sinned against than sinner.  “Have a seat,” I said, and gestured to the battered computer chair where all my clients tell me their troubles.  “What’s your pitch?”

“I need…” He gulped, then glanced nervously behind him, as if he expected the reading police to show up at any moment. “I need a good mystery.”

A good mystery to idle away a summer afternoon?  I should have known.  Thoughtfully I leaned back in my chair and crossed my legs, inhaling deeply on my cigarette. I could try to brush him off with something simple, like a premade booklist, but something in his haunted, blood-shot, baby blues told me it wouldn’t work.   Not that booklists aren’t swell. But there was more going on here than met the eye, and if I wanted the mystery man to trust me as a professional librarian, I was going to have to give him a personalized list…and it was going to have to be a good one.

I sighed heavily, sat up straight, and fixed the stranger with my steely gaze.  His face brightened as I pushed a piece of paper and a pencil across the desk. “Here,” I said, “listen up good, and write this down.”

 classy dame

 

The Book: The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, ed. Otto Penzler.

Check this out if you like: Short stories, pulp fiction, men’s adventure magazines, danger, suspense, dark alleys, dames both classy and treacherous, gumshoes, shysters, shamuses, double-crosses, or any of the other noir-y tropes common in Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.

The Book:  Big Boned, Meg Cabot.

Check this out if you like: Wrongly-accused protagonists, celebrity/fashion namedropping, stories set on college campuses, love triangles, heroines of realistic size, loyal friends, cute shoes, or other chick-lit elements.

book jacket          book jacket          book jacket

 

The Book:  Casanegra, Blair Underwood et. al.

Check this out if you like:  Hollywood highs and lows, street lit drama, heroes with troubled pasts, father-son conflicts, tales of redemption, celebrity authors, African American film history, the seamy underbelly of the rap business, or erotic fiction.

The Book: Death of a Cozy Writer, G.M. Malliet.

Check this out if you like:  Cozy mysteries, English country houses, family feuds, dry humor, a hint of self-conscious parody, drawing room scandal, secrets and lies, or stories reminiscent of Agatha Christie.

mysterious library

 The mystery man, visibly relieved, tucked the booklist into the breast pocket of his jacket and beamed at me from under the brim of his shabby fedora.  “Thanks to you, miss, I’m feeling a lot more literate and entertained.  How can I ever thank you?”

I smiled.  This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, I could tell.  “For starters,” I said, “how about you open up that briefcase you’re carrying and show me what kind of McGuffin you’ve got there?”

Cue the saxophones! And don’t forget to tune in next time for Shelf Examination!

–Leigh Anne

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Pulp Fiction: H. P. Lovecraft

 

 

Back in the day, libraries, like dictionaries, were prescriptive rather than descriptive.   Dictionaries, such as Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary, told you what words to use and how to use them.  Slang, when not excluded entirely, was largely discouraged, grammar just so, and obscenities were verboten.

No longer.   Today’s dictionaries are descriptive of all manner of words and how we use them.  Slang, obscenities, and incorrect grammar are all welcome.  They reflect the language as it is, ever changing, ever evolving, as is the culture from which it grows.

Similarly, libraries, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, recommended the best, and collected that which was considered of historical and cultural significance.  Today libraries, like dictionaries, act as virtual cultural mirrors; they reflect who we are, what we do, and what we like (and dislike).  Libraries and library collections describe the culture, they don’t dictate it.

Which brings us to the pulps.

Pulp fiction was largely ignored by libraries for the above stated reasons, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was certainly no exception.   As the culture changed, so did the libraries.  Like many other libraries across the country, the Carnegie has gone back retrospectively and filled in the gaps.  Welcome now, with open arms, are Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Philip K. Dick, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Clark Ashton Smith, Erle Stanley Gardner and many, many more.

And, of course, most welcome is the grandaddy of them all, H. P. Lovecraft.

I’ve been a huge Lovecraft fan since my teen years, which coincided with the first resurgance of interest in HPL in the early 60’s, via mass market paperback editions from Ballantine Books.  What could be better?  They were flat-out horror: lurid, forbidden, suggestive, and, most of all, great fun.  Here is a list of my personal top ten favorite stories by Lovecraft:

At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are both novellas, both as close to writing a full-length novel as Lovecraft would ever get.  Prior to reading At the Mountains of Madness, I would suggest reading his literary mentor Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket .  If you do, you’ll be hard put to forget the phrase “Tekeli-li.”   The rest of the above list is comprised of short stories which vary only in degree of shock and explicitness; it goes without saying, that compared to today’s splatter horror, they are mild in execution.  However, the archetypal elements in Lovecraft’s stories provide a deeper strain of psychological horror that can be hard to shake long after the story is finished.

Ironically, after many years of being ignored, a few pulp authors, including Lovecraft, have found themselves accepted into the canon of contemporary literature by way of publication by The Library of America.  Besides Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick have received this cultural imprimatur.

Unlike many a trapped protagonist in their stories, this recognition of the lasting value of pulp fiction is better, much better, late, than never.

 – Don

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