Category Archives: Noir Crime Fiction

Appetite for Destruction: So Many Doors by Oakley Hall

So Many Doors by Oakley Hall

“Do you love her?” Gene whispered.
“No,” Jack said. “No, I guess I hate her.”

I’m fascinated by destruction. Enthralled. I crane my neck as I pass the smoking ruin of a car on the highway; I peer past the flashing lights hoping to glimpse the nucleus of the disaster. What happened? Give me the gruesome details. Don’t sugarcoat it. Most are like me. Whipping around the periphery we’re held in orbit by forces we can’t explain. How can we not know? When the knowledge of a tragedy migrates from the recesses of our mind, rolls rough past the lump in our throat, and punctures the flowing curtains of our heart, the tears well unbidden and remind us of our humanity, our fragility. Tragedy in others stirs gratitude in ourselves. We’re grateful we weren’t chosen…this time.

So Many Doors by Oakley Hall is a tragedy. The accompanying catharsis of the novel is a welcome guest, like greeting a friend after a long bout of loneliness. For me, it was less a work of noir crime fiction than it was a romance novel, minus all the beauty and eroticism; an ode to human suffering on behalf of love, lust, & ego. Life & death permeate the pages. The touchstone of a great novel is its ability to convey something true of the human experience, and Mr. Hall’s work meets the criterion.

Is all noir tragic in nature? I’ve oft written of the inevitability of the noir plot: the way the protagonist careens toward painful endings as if drawn by pitiless gravity. So frequently is the hero punished we cease blaming fortune and instead call it fate. “He was meant to suffer.” (Perhaps it’s easier to explain our own daily suffering by assigning it meaning?)

Oakley Hall, Author of So Many Doors

Oakley Hall

The novel revolves around two lovers, Jack & V. They’re no good for each other.

“He’s got that something women like,” she said. “Those eyes and those big shoulders and those little-bitty hips, and when he looks at you sometimes you know you ought to slap him but you don’t really want to.”

The Anti-Hero

Jack is a beautiful man-piece. A hard-working, good looking, road working man known as a “cat-skinner” – he has everything going for him. His confidence is astounding. Other men simultaneously admire him and hate him. He’s a ladykiller. The only problem is, he’s killed the wrong lady. He first meets V while removing stumps on her daddy’s farm one summer. She’s a teenager. She’s naive. She’s easily won. What could have been, and should have been, a beautiful relationship is cheapened by his selfish behavior and lack of commitment. He uses her. He takes her virginity, gets her kicked out of her home, and eventually dumps her. Only, she won’t leave him alone, not after she discovers that she has all the tools to win him back and the wherewithal to use them.

As she passed him he saw her face. It shocked him. It was as though it had been, for a moment, agonizingly contorted into the shape of everything inside her. But there was no grief there now, no fear; there were only the hard, cold angular lines of complete determination. It was as though every quality but this had been suddenly wrenched out of her; as though all there was left was an iron and single-minded resolution. Revenge, he thought, and with the glimpse of her face, the thought frightened him; but then he knew it was not revenge. Knowing what it was he felt tired and wrung, and all at once the feeling welled up in him that he had to get away from this. He was going to get away from this.

The Femme Fatale

V is a dime. A vivacious cowgirl budding into glorious womanhood. She’s curious, rambunctious, and loyal to a fault. She falls hard for Jack, and almost loses herself in the falling. But at rock-bottom, she’s greeted by an epiphany: Jealousy can be a weapon as real as any blade, a bond as real as any rope. V becomes a peddler of jealousy. Half-desperate, half-crazy, Jack loses himself in her pursuit only to find that the lovely rose of their love is now only a stem of thorns. Only one conclusion is possible, and it’s punctuated by a gunshot.

She’d had the tools. He’d told her she had the tools, if she only knew how to use them. He said, half to himself, “I didn’t know you’d learn to use them this well…You didn’t know when to quit hitting him.”

Oakley Hall is a magnificent author. So Many Doors is a wonderful book. Read it.

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Noir as Religion: Steranko’s Chandler

Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko

my lil’ copy, published 1976

An Illustrated Novel: CHANDLER… a tough, new detective in a new kind of mystery thriller that explodes with the fury of a lightning bolt!

When Chandler by Jim Steranko was published in 1976, it was cresting the neo-noir wave in which many of the great artists & storytellers of the decade were paying homage to the hard-boiled past. Released just 2 years after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, even the title (and protagonist’s namesake) is a wink at one of the “big three” noir crime fiction authors, the Holy Trinity of noir to which we offer humble obeisance: The Dashiell Hammett, the James Cain, and the Holy Raymond Chandler.

The book is a sermon. Steranko pounds the pulpit with all the good stuff we’d expect from the gutter genre we’ve come to worship. How’s this for a hook: A dead man named Bramson Todd comes to Chandler looking for revenge. He’s been poisoned and doctors have given him 72 hours to live – 3 days for Chandler to find whodunnit. Chandler’s plot doesn’t disappoint. The hook is a promise that’s delivered like a haymaker; it’s a head-spinning, ears ringing, nose breaking race from one revelation to another.

Chandler Red Tide by Jim Steranko 1

“I’ve got 72 hours to live, Mr. Chandler. I want you to find my murderer.”

Steranko certainly flexes his storytelling muscles, but it’s his art that makes you stop and stare. 2 vertical panels per page, with all the quality of an ad you’d see on an easel at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. These images have a limited color palette & limited space, but there is nothing limiting about their impact. Sexy silhouettes, mean mugs, fisticuffs, wet city streets, & deadly docks are framed with a director’s eye. Steranko is a master stained glass artisan in the Cathedral of the Night.

The Femme Fatale

Our goddess, Ann Crane, is worthy of our devotion. She’s full of lies we want to believe, and she’s got her hooks so deep into Chandler that he believes every one of them. Her shadow looms large over his past and sends us all spinning into the darkest abyss of his pain (the pain of what could have been). I want to tell you that in the end, she doesn’t win. I want to tell you that, but I can’t. She’s femme fatale incarnate; a truly deadly woman.

Chandler Red Tide by Jim Steranko 2

“Stay out of it Ann,” I said. “Promise me. There’s a red tide coming that’ll drown all of us.”

The Anti-Hero

Chandler is the priest of these cold streets. He’s intimate with the prayers of the hard-boiled and more than familiar with the scars of the flagellants. His god insists he work alone; outside of the system, apart from the herd – a shepherd of the sinful hiding their sins. “I’m not a hired gun.” He tells a client, “I don’t like to be shot at.” But his profession often makes him a target anyway, because he gets paid for doing “what other men couldn’t do— or wouldn’t do.”

My Advice: Get you some religion. Read Chandler.

Chandler Red Tide by Jim Steranko 3

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The Fragile White Man in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” by Horace McCoy

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy

“What’s the matter with you?” he said suddenly. “What are you shaking about.”
“Shaking?” I was. I hadn’t been aware of it, but I was. I was shaking all over.

My relationship with the noir crime fiction novel Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy is complicated. In brief, I’ve started it 3 times over the last decade. I just couldn’t seem to get through it. What does that mean? …I dunno, but it ain’t good. Not that the story isn’t worthy, it just never wounded me deeply enough to keep my focus. (You know those books that mess you up some, and you have to see them through in order to heal? Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye wasn’t that kinda book for me).

I’m exhausted even thinking about tapping out a synopsis for this one so I’ll leave it at this: It begins a bit like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and ends a bit like The Great Gatsby. BUT, it’s not as funny as “O Brother” and lacks the finesse of Gatsby. Don’t let that scare you away; it’s still got all the tough guy pulpy bits in between.

Horace McCoy

The fragile, fearful, furious white male anti-hero in the novel is Ralph Cotter. He’s a lot of things. Here are some of my favorites:

Ralph Cotter is a Racist

“Tell him to get out, goddamn it, tell him to get out,” I said. The black boy stood there, tensed like a goddamn tiger, his eyes riveted on Mandon now, just waiting for the signal to spring. I was scared of him. I knew goddamn well that I could bring him down with a bullet, I knew what a bullet could do when it hit you in the middle of the stomach, but I was still scared of him. “Tell him to get out,” I said again.

…the Negro had disappeared. I felt better with him out of sight.”

Hmmm… racist. In a different passage, he speaks to this man’s “master” and coaches him on how he should train the “boy.”

Ralph Cotter is a Homophobe

Hurry up, you son-of-a-bitch, I was thinking, but I confess that I felt some admiration for his poise. He seemed entirely unaware that another man was standing beside him. How any man can go into a lavatory and be unaware of other men, impervious to them, fully at ease, untortured, I do not understand, but this one was.

Afraid of men in the men’s bathroom? What does he expect to happen? Later in the novel, he has to chase down a contact in a gay bar. Here’s a gem from section:

I made a sudden and extraordinary discovery. The noxiousness and disgust I had felt a few moments earlier were gone, my own strength and virility, of which I was so proud when I entered, with which I could prove our difference, now served only to emphasize our sameness. We all had a touch of twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency, but in me these tendencies were not being stirred, even faintly, they were there, but this was not stirring them. No.

Who are you trying to convince, Ralph? Yikes! Be comfortable in your own skin for once in your life!

Ralph Cotter is a Misogynist

I could not hope that I had aroused in her what she had aroused in me, I could not hope that she was even interested… I resolved then that before I got through with her she’d be interested…

Ralph has just met this woman, and he finds her irresistibly attractive. The problem is she doesn’t reciprocate. He finds this unacceptable (yuck).

I knew why she was belligerent; nobody had given her a tumble. She had put the rises and falls of her body on exhibit and nobody had paid the slightest attention… That is why she was belligerent.

Of course. She’s got an attitude so that means she must be craving sexual attention. Riiiiiggggghhhhhttttt… More of the same:

She was thinking of the first time she’d seen him, when she’d put her body on display for him in that pleasant predatory way that women have, and he had disregarded it, showing no interest in the rises and falls and curves of her body… This was what had burned her up…

Ralph Cotter is a Narcissist

“I came into crime through choice and not through environment. I didn’t grow up in the slums with a drunk for a father and a whore for a mother and come into crime that way. I hate society too, but I don’t hate it because it mistreated me and warped my soul. Every other criminal I know – who’s engaged in violent crime – is a two-bit coward who blames his career on society. I need no apologist or crusader to finally hold my lifeless body up to the world and shout for them to come and observe what they have wrought… Use me not as a preachment in your literature or your movies. This I have wrought, I and I alone.”

I absolutely LOVE that he anticipates that his career will make him SO famous that literature and movies will be created about him. ‘What a piece of work’ I think as I complete an article ALL about him…

Ralph Cotter is Afraid

I couldn’t turn it off, I did not want to remember it, I had been a lifetime learning to forget, but I could not turn it off.

Goddamn that radio, I wasn’t listening for anything in particular, I just turned it on to kill time, and this was what I had heard. And this was what it had dug up. Get out of my mind, you ghosts, I told them, I’ll remember you later…

Afraid of the past, afraid of women & minorities, afraid of marriage, & so so much more.

The book was published in 1948, but the character is terribly recognizable in 2018. Fragile, fearful, furious white men are everywhere. Are we witnessing the death spasm of this deeply embedded, American mindset? Or the rebirth of the same old stuff?

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“Quarry” by Max Allan Collins Review

Quarry by Max Allan Collins

Quarry by Max Allan Collins

(Tip for newbies: The book is never as risqué as the cover suggests, but they know what sells)

Here we are again Quarry, I’m giving you the second chance that should have been your first chance. Huh? So the last Quarry novel I read by Max Allan Collins was NOT my favorite (I didn’t care for it).  To be fair, it probably wasn’t the best place to start with Quarry, so here I am at the beginning. This reprinting was originally titled “The Broker” and was released in 1976 as the first glimpse of Mr. Collins recurring hitman character. In this iteration, it’s more appropriately titled “Quarry” and serves to kick off the pulpy serials.

For the first few chapters I had a serious chip on my shoulder (bias from the previous book I’d read) but I shortly ditched the attitude. “Quarry” is good. The narrative follows him on two jobs in the midwest, both of which are outside of his comfort zone. When things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, he has to adapt and make several dangerous decisions. Ultimately, the book is about his professional relationships; not only with his ‘boss’ the Broker but also with his partner Boyd. Both relationships are fraught with potential landmines, which Quarry detonates more frequently than diffuses.

I realized that the reason I liked Quarry this time around is because he reminded me of Parker. The only difference is that Quarry is more vulnerable and accessible to the reader (primarily due to the first person narration) whereas Parker is a sonuvabitch. In the afterword by Mr. Collins, he actually talks about how Quarry is different than Westlake’s famous criminal:

I thought Parker and Nolan were to some degree cop-outs. They were “good” bad-guy thieves– oh, sure, hardbitten as hell, but they stole mainly money and only killed other bad guys… Also, “Richard Stark” and I both wrote our crook books in third person. Safe. Detached.

I wanted to take it up a notch–my “hero” would be a hired killer. The books would be in first person. In the opening chapter, Quarry would do something terrible, giving readers an early chance to bail; late in the book he would again do something terrible, to confront readers with just the kind of person they’d been easily identifying with.

I actually can see the logic of what he’s saying, but I actually feel like Parker is more of a ‘bad-guy’ than Quarry. This isn’t a statement based on fact, because as Mr. Collins said, Parker “only killed other bad guys.” I think that the reason I feel more inclined to forgive Quarry is based purely on narrative technique; Quarry allows us in his head, allows us to be convinced by his reasons for doing what he is doing. Thus Mr. Collins accomplishes what he set out to accomplish; he confronts readers with their acceptance of a baser brand of criminal.

Noir Crime Fiction Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins

The femme fatale archetype makes a splendid appearance– a woman who causes Quarry to question his vocation; to actually consider a life outside of his profession. She is a light of hope that must compete with the long shadow of his actions. But, in true misogynistic fashion, Quarry says,

She was getting dangerously close to being a person in my life. Women hasn’t been persons in my life for a long time. Women were pretty receptacles for pent-up biological and psychological waste material. An extension of self-abuse, nothing more.

This statement creates two effects: 1) it causes the feminist within me to sound the war cry, and 2) it connects the novel with the long tradition of misogyny in noir crime fiction before it. This may seem a shocking viewpoint from the main character, but it’s a symptom of textbook noir.

Pick up “Quarry” by Max Allan Collins if you want a quick, squirmy read, sure to entertain you as well as any classic pulp shoot-em-up.

(I just realized that the last few books I’ve reviewed have all been by Max Allan Collins– I need to switch things up a bit) (But I have pre-ordered Quarry’s Cut already….)


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“King Of The Weeds” Review

(King of the Weeds is a noir crime fiction novel from the legendary duo: Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins)

Book Cover of King Of The Weeds

Book Cover

King of the Weeds is the latest in the long line of heavy-hitting Mike Hammer novels, the iconic former cop turned private eye, whose cynical world-view is only matched by his tenacity in the face of peril. The central plot is dominated by greed, a hunt for hidden mob treasure, billions in cash laid away by the five families. Mr. Hammer knows where the lost cache is sequestered, and knowing is becoming more and more deadly. Add a healthy dose of conspiracy, expert assassins, and familial strife– King of the Weeds is a tasty layered cake.

How does it measure up? Here is the noir definition run down:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Big city living, New York City diners juxtaposed with back country Appalachian roads. A world where the doorman knows  everything that happens in his building and on the street, and the local bag-lady is an undercover cop.

2) The Anti-Hero

Mike Hammer is an undeniable constant (like one of Newton’s Laws)– he never pulls a punch, never backs down, and never hesitates to shoot up the place. But, time catches up to everyone eventually, and age may turn out to be the only enemy he can’t back down. (Plus, the opening page pits him toe to toe with a professional hitman– is there any other way to begin a Mike Hammer novel?)

3) The Femme Fatale

Velda, the once secretary turned partner turned fiancé, is and ever will be the femme fatale of Mike Hammer’s world. Not because she’s evil, but because she’s so good. In all the twisted sinews that comprise Mr. Hammer’s character, she’s the soft spot, the purple bruise that will eventually cost him his life or force his retirement. She’s the only character in the novel that doesn’t take Mike’s crap, and he knows better than to try it with her.

4) Misogyny

Misogyny is one of those inseparable themes from noir, but King of the Weeds, like most neo-noir, isn’t as guilty of it as the old greats from the 30’s and 40’s. Here was one of my favorite ‘give and takes’ between Mike and Velda:

“Let me mull that,” I said. “Meantime, better call Pat, then make us some coffee.”

“Woman’s work never being done.”

“I’m not chauvinistic, I’m wounded.”

“You’re a wounded chauvinist.”

5) Redemption

One of the central plot threads is tied to Mike’s best friend Pat, and a killer that he put away as a young cop. New evidence surfaces that points to the killer’s innocence, and the revelation could destroy Pat’s reputation as a policeman. Mike spends much of the novel striving to redeem his friends reputation in the face of shocking evidence.

6) Loss of Innocence

This theme typically refers to something horrific being inflicted upon something or someone who is innocent and pure. I didn’t really see that in this novel, but I did see an intense struggle to define innocence and guilt, particularly in the scope of justice. When justice is dealt unjustly, what are we left with?

7) Smoke

Present and accounted for.

8 ) Emasculation

Mike Hammer will not be emasculated (thematically or otherwise)– he is a picturesque titan of machismo, but with Velda he becomes a kitten. She has a softening effect on Mike, and provokes a complexity of character that we’d be missing without her.

I enjoyed King of the Weeds– it’s a swell addition to the Mike Hammer mythos, and I enjoyed seeing the immortal private eye grappling with his own impending mortality.

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“The Wrong Quarry” Review

Cover Image of The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins was my first experience with the enigmatic character “Quarry”, a hitman of hitmen as it were. I’ll commence with a disclaimer: I’ve never read any of the other Quarry novels, so I can’t fairly place it in relation to the others or speak to any backstory I may have missed. This review is purely my understanding and opinion of this novel as it stands, alone. Disclaimer aside, I didn’t really care for the book.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of Max Allan Collins, and I greatly respect and admire his work. My problem with this book wasn’t with the plot, the pacing, or even subject matter. I simply don’t like Quarry.

As an anti-hero, I understand that he is flawed (he’s supposed to be). Simply, he’s a loner with a penchant for women who kills for money. But that doesn’t mean he’s likable.

Quarry has severed ties with someone called ‘the broker’– a middle man between hitmen and the individuals who pay for their unique services (I assume this happened in a previous book so sorry for the spoiler).  As a part of this ‘severance package’, he obtained the real names and addresses of all the hitmen then working for the broker at that time. He now uses this list to track hitmen and determine who their targets are before they kill. Quarry then approaches these unsuspecting targets and offers them his services: ten thousand dollars to ‘remove the threat’– and an additional ten thousand to determine the source of the contract and kill them as well. As far as hooks go, this one is dynamite. So why wasn’t I satisfied?

One reviewer said: “I rank the Quarry novels with Westlake’s Parker novels. The two series and characters share a few similarities of a lone criminal. The most important difference between Parker and Quarry is that Parker is not human.” — if this is true, then Quarry’s humanity is what made me hate him. But I disagree. Parker and Quarry are similar only in their operating preference: alone. Beyond that, Parker is a sonuvabitch and Quarry is a horndog with a heart.

Internally, Quarry instantly objectifies every female character in the book, but he wears the facade of someone who genuinely cares for those around him. Perhaps it’s this two-faced nature that peeved me. Additionally, he won’t stop talking to the reader– I understand that he’s the narrator but it drives me nuts when he interrupts a thought to remind me that he’s chatting with me or to make a wry joke of a situation. The book has some wonderful surprises, twists, and turns, but it was like being stuck at the movies next to an annoying acquaintance–  and that acquaintance happens to also be the star of the film.

Noir Crime Fiction Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins

The noir definition line up (anyone sick of this? or should I keep at it?) :

1) The Seedy Underworld

A small town in Missouri; run down bars, big-sky hikes, a highschool parent-teacher night, and a dance studio filled with pageant-bound girls.

2) The Anti-Hero

Quarry. Everything I’ve already said. (appended: he’s an ex-sniper).

3) The Femme Fatale

Two femme fatales in The Wrong Quarry: Jenny Stockwell and Sally Meadows. The former a mid-aged wild-child heiress who survived her riotous adolescence, the latter a teenage nymphet dancer with an eye for trouble. Both put the screws on Quarry, exposing him to greater risk throughout the novel.

4) Misogyny

I can’t imagine reading this book as a woman and not being offended. Every female character is a sad regurgitation of a man’s desire; each carefully shaped to look and pander to a predominantly male readership. Sadly, the holy grail of noir crime fiction is for a male author to create a convincing female character. I don’t know that it’s happened very often in the history of the genre, and it certainly didn’t happen in The Wrong Quarry.

5) Redemption

Much of the novel revolves around the disappearance and likely murder of Candy Stockwell (Jenny’s niece and Sally’s best friend)– the powerful Stockwell family is desperate for resolution. Thus the redemptive theme is present, but not through the protagonist.

6) The Loss of Innocence

Candy and Sally are representations of the lost innocence of youth in modern society– children eager to participate in the adult world, who quickly become stained by the sins of maturity.

7) Smoke

Ever present in the lips of each femme fatale, a smoldering cigarette tribute to former authors and film-makers in the noir art.

8 ) Emasculation

Roger Vale, a homosexual dance instructor in east central Missouri, is the sole threat to Quarry’s masculinity. His role is that of the effeminate victim, the emasculated shell of a threat, now victim of prejudice and violence. Yet, his overly flamboyant mannerisms serve as a smokescreen to a much more complex psyche. Mr. Vale is the unknown; the bizarre hermaphroditic anomaly that portends danger.

I’ve loved a lot of Mr. Collins novels, but this wasn’t one of them. I may give the other Quarry yarns a look, but if the character has the same irking veneer I’ll skip him in the future.


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Web of The City by Harlan Ellison

Web of the City by Harlan Ellison

my copy (cover art by Glen Orbik)

Web of the City by Harlan Ellison is the author’s first novel, beautifully republished in Hard Case Crime’s definitive collection. From the jump, it’s obvious that Harlan is a skilled wordsmith– and his prose has all the bleak accoutrements of the most skilled hard-boiled writers. Yet initially the book reads like “West Side Story”, with Jets and Sharks (now Cougars and Cherokees) dancing down the paragraphs. But any resemblance to the musical classic is brutally shattered by horrible (and frightfully realistic) violence mere pages into the work.

Russell “Rusty” Santoro was the leader of the Cougars, but now he wants out. In his neighborhood, he’s a traitor and a chicken- to his mother, a disappointment- to his sister, an embarrassment. As he copes with unexpected loss and the inner turmoil of his shifting morals, he’s filled with the hope for a future that he may never obtain.

Today had taught him something. The break had to be a violent and final one. No one gradually grew away from the streets.

Web of the City vs. the Noir Definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The setting for Ellison’s creation is the gritty crime-centric streets of New York City. Almost post apocalyptic in its rendering, the violent youth  control their progenitors with the looming threat of chaos. Drugs, sex, money, and power drench the streets with the portent of ‘rumble.’

It was a gaping hole in a line of apartment buildings. The street was run-down. The houses had once been stately brown-stones, but refugee owners had divided each apartment into dozens of minor one-room closets and had rented them to Puerto Ricans, fresh to New York. It was a dirty, noisy street with cardboard milk cartons crushed flat in the gutters, battered garbage cans on the sidewalks and obscenities chalked on pavements and walls. Laundry hung from windows. The smell was oregano and some sweet, the odor of cigarettes and pine cleanser fighting a losing battle with dirt-caked corners. It was a depressing street. It was all too familiar to Rusty.  It was typical.

2) The Anti-Hero

Rusty is a Salinger-esque creation– a hard-nosed kid who understands the language of the streets yet despises the dialect. He’s a dynamic anti-hero who you’ll applaud even as he drowns in the slime of his own poor choices. He despises his father for abandoning his family, yet he obliviously imitates this behavior. I was pleased with his complexity and irked by his weaknesses– he not only moves through the drama, he creates it as well.

But there seemed no way out, no way to escape being dragged in. It somehow, terrifyingly, seemed predestined. He was forging his own chains.

3) The Femme Fatale

Rusty’s girlfriend Louise “Weezee” seems the obvious cast for the femme fatale, but she doesn’t fit the part. The real femme fatale is Dolores “Dolo”– Rusty’s younger sister. Introduced to the gang world by her older brother, she becomes the embarrassed sibling of a ‘chickie’ traitor– and her shame drives a painful wedge between the two. When her anger and recklessness places her in danger, Rusty must plunge himself back into the gangland to pull her out. Her actions are fatal to his newly woven moral fiber.

4) Misogyny

The women in the plot are sexual play-things– possessed by the strongest ‘studs’ in the gang. Rusty’s view and treatment of females is challenged and altered throughout the text, but the changes are neither easy nor swift. The older women in the Puerto Rican community demand more respect, yet it’s seldom given. The tradition of abuse, marginalization, and disloyalty are too ingrained; a culture of heartbreak.

He took her with him in the way the rules decreed. Not by the hand, gently, as he wanted to for that would have left her confused– but with the hand at the back of her neck. Commanding, leading, directing, roughly, the way a mean stud did it to his broad.

5) Redemption

Redemption is the strongest theme in the novel– Rusty’s desire to redeem himself from his past, and to redeem his sister from her present, motivate his every action. The central conflict orbits about his struggle to utilize his new morals in world that lacks them– and the guilt that grips him when he fails to do so.

Harlan Ellison Web of the City

Harlan Ellison

6) The Loss of Innocence

Rusty feels the most anguish over inducting his sister into the gang world. He feels as though he robbed her of her innocence, and destroyed the only pure influence in his life. This guilt knits his fate to hers, and drives him to desperation. (Love and guilt are his slave masters).

7) Smoke

More reefer than tobacco, the silky signal of addiction hangs thick over the streets and crawls across the minds of the indifferent youth. They’re inoculated from their guilt by both druggy haze and habit.

Rusty dragged out a cigarette, lit it by snapping his thumb against the head of a kitchen match. It flamed abruptly, casting a bloody shadow over his face.

8 ) Emasculation

As Rusty surrenders his leadership of the Cougars, his masculinity is immediately challenged by his former friends and allies. He’s ruthlessly teased and abused until he’s willing to stoop to their level of violence again (the only language they understand). His journey through the piece is fraught with constant challenges to his self-constructed definitions of masculinity as a basically fatherless loner in the ghetto.

Web of the City is not the best work of noir crime fiction that I’ve ever read– but it sure was fun to read. Harlan does come across as a novice, but his passion more than makes up the difference. You can get it here.

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Noir Crime Fiction | Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Noir Crime Fiction Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Kefauver held up a copy of a Suspense Crime Stories comic book whose cover depicted a terrified woman in mid-air, having fallen from a window where the silhouetted hands of her assailant could still be seen in push mode. The woman was screaming, staring wide-eyed at us as she looked through us at the oncoming (off-camera) pavement. Terror-struck, screaming or not, she was very attractive, in a skimpy night-gown, that showed off her shapely legs and, of course, her…headlights.

Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins is a sexy addition to the Hard Case Crime catalog. Glen Orbik greets us at the door, a pin-up darling tediously composed and falling out (in more ways than one) of a shadowy high-rise; the black palms of her killer splayed in the windows above. She’s only a moment from impact, and so are we. I love Max’s work, and devoured this pulpy meal in a handful of hours. His prose style is always inviting, but some of the tastiest bits within belong to the great Terry Beatty, who lends thematic comic-strip intros to each chapter. At its core, Seduction is a fabulous mixed-media approach to noir crime fiction.

The tale follows Jack Starr, a stake-holder in the comics syndicate in the mid ’50s, as a respected child-psychiatrist named Dr. Werner Frederick leads the witch hunt against the comics industry. Convinced that comic books are causing destructive behaviors in America’s youth, Dr. Frederick releases a book of research sure to destroy the literary medium. However, the good doctor has underestimated the stakes of such a vendetta, and the  desperation of the enemies he’s creating…

Seduction of the Innocent vs. the noir definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

New York City in the mid ’50s. Pre-Mad Men but post-McCarthyism (nearing the tale-end of it anyway). It’s a setting ruled by gents and dames, and bucks under the pressures of mass media. The labor pains of widespread television and easier access to information causing the bad guys to hide in plain sight.

2) The Anti-Hero

Jack Starr is a wise-ass with a private investigators license. He got it primarily for background checking the writers, artists, and other key-players he and his step-mother contract with, but lately its had other uses. Jack is constantly on clean-up, dealing with messes and defusing scandal. Ladies love him, but his charm gets him into as much trouble as not– he’s our suspiciously confident anti-hero.

“She’s a woman. And you’re a charming devil.”

3) The Femme Fatale

Two dames make a play for femme fatale, Dr. Sylvia Winters and Lyla Lamont, but Lyla is much more convincing. The former is a young psychologist, quickly falling for Jack (who is initially pumping her for information). And the latter is a curvaceous comic book artist, noted for her naturalist tendency to pose nude for her own work. Neither of the women put Jack’s life in danger, but they definitely increase the pressure. Max’s flirtacious dialogue is a breezy counterpoint to the hardboiled scenario and had me cracking grins throughout.

4) Misogyny

Pacing the modern trend in noir crime fiction, Max keeps the text relatively free of lady-hating. The only argument you’ll get from me is a repeat (you’ve likely heard it before): all of the women are male defined. They’re curvy, pin-up worthy, vixens who play sexual mind games with our lead man Jack. The female characters, though at various extremes of this, are largely one-dimensional as a result. The one gal who appears to be self-actualized is Maggie Starr (Jack’s stepmother) who has become a manipulative and shrewd business woman. But, she didn’t get there without being a strip-tease artist first…

In that glance, however, I noticed that she was smiling– blood trickling from the corner of her mouth down her cheek, but smiling as two men fought over her in a stairwell. There was something evil about it.

5) Redemption

As you’d expect, the book reads like a redemption narrative for the comic book industry, yet it’s ripe with characters who seem to counter this end. We meet a dozen or so suspects with powerful motives for murder, and each are stained with enough strangeness to dispel all faith in their innocence. I was amused to see the thematic hypocrisy and satyric layers played with in Seduction. For how can we believe that the comic book industry is not harmful to juveniles when the people at the helm of the behemoth are untrustworthy psychos with violent proclivities?

Noir Crime Fiction Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins

6) Eroticism

Lyla Lamont, Chapter 8. Textbook eroticism from a master noir author. The dialogue is near perfect, timing flawless, and the imagery an enticing delight. SPOILER*Jack Starr wakes on her couch, Lyla playing nurse sans uniform.*SPOILER From beginning to end, its a incredibly provocative scene in the spirit of the greats; Hammett, Chandler, and Cain.

7) The Loss of Innocence

Seduction is a study of the loss of innocence as a whole. As children throughout the country become perpetrators of increasingly violent and horrendous crimes, society seeks a scapegoat. Comic books today, television tomorrow, and video games beyond. This thematic mourning of the loss of innocence is the cream filling of the novel.

“I had a twelve-year-old boy here tell me he admired ‘tough guys.’ I asked him, what’s a tough guy? And he replied, ‘A tough guy is a man who slaps a girl.”

8 ) Smoke

Smoke is tenderly observed throughout the book. It occupies the now-banned locales it formerly graced; offices, restaurants, and any other seedy haunt you can remember.

9) Emasculation

I have to return to Chapter 8 (see Eroticism, above): Jack Starr honors the legacy of the white-male loners before him (Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer) and retains his masculinity from a female aggressor. Conversely, although pinned beneath the painted thumbnail of his luscious stepmother, for the most part he is a free-thinking independent; content with Maggie’s rule because in business she’s essentially a gent, and there’s no shame in working for a good boss.

The odor that always greeted you upon entering Bardwell’s domain, however, was something unique, if peculiarly so, even in this city of smells good, bad, indifferent. This was the middle one. Part of it was cigars. Another part was perspiration. But the secret ingredient, as the ad boys put it, was monkey shit.

The novel is a fast read, hedged by a bevy of hilarious characters and culminating in a delicious ‘whodunit.’ I loved the pacing, and am grateful that Max has given us another classy peak into our own bizarre history. Get a copy for your shelf. 

Terry Beatty Seduction of the Innocent

A page from Terry Beatty (via

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Noir Crime Fiction | Horse Two by Anita Dime

Noir Crime Fiction Horse Two by Anita Dime

Horse Two by Anita Dime

Horse Two by Anita Dime is a noir crime fiction short. Currently available only as an e-book, this nine-chapter gallop explodes out of the gates, Anita’s first stab at noir. She’s a gifted writer, fitting in the genre with enough imitation to be recognizable without regurgitation–her voice and style completely her own. I was grateful for her confident prose; it’s unapologetic and real, and never winks at the audience in an amateur sort of way. We’re never reminded that we’re reading noir, and the story is devoid of dross ‘filler’ garbage that clutters so many failed attempts from others.

“The Number Two horse. You bet the Number Two. That’s the one you bet, right?” I stammered. This isn’t happening. My temples were pressing the veins to burst.

“Anita Dime” is actually a sexy pseudonym employed by Julia Huff– an equally talented artist. Horse Two is accompanied by seven original linocuts from Ms. Huff, that lend a concrete visual to an already cinematic tale.

“They’ll kill me to make it even.”

Horse Two is really a story about Carl, a downtrodden gambler, and the worst week of his life at the horse track in the 1930s. Here is the noir definition scorecard:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The setting for Horse Two is most often the track– the visceral tension of the contest clouding the grandstand, while crowds of hopeful dopes throw money at their problems. The power and beauty of the animals is perverted by the depravity of their spectators, all loveliness destroyed by desperation.

2) The Anti-Hero

Carl is the anti-hero of the noir short– he’s filled with hope, but it only serves to increase his torment as his situation worsens. He seems to desire a life away from the track, a life with Lillian perhaps (his on-again, off-again), but he’s waiting for the ‘big-win.’ He’s plunged into the noir filth when he decides to force luck’s hand.

3) The Femme Fatale

Lillian is a strong-willed femme fatale– she’s left Carl before, and she won’t hesitate to do it again if he can’t get his life together. Carl has hidden much of his life from her due to shame, and it’s his lust for a future with her that drives him to desperate ends. In this way she’s fatal; she’s his deadly incentive.

She put the bag down, reached over, and took a long drag from my cigarette. “That’s the closest you’ll ever come to kissing me again.” She flicked it and walked on.

4) Misogyny

The only misogyny in the tale stems from Carl’s dishonesty with Lillian. He keeps her uninformed, and even when he’s in danger (and he’s endangered her), he still treats her like a child; he believes her incapable of helping him or protecting herself. This ‘damsel-in-distress’ theme is further insulting to Lily because she’s unaware of the danger.

“Whatever. It’s done. You better move, and now. Lose your name. Don’t forget the Missus; I’ve seen that blonde. They’ll take her out too.” He smiled.

Horse Two Linocuts by Julia Huff

Linocuts by Julia Huff

5) Redemption

The redemption theme is heavily employed in Horse Two— We meet Lily in the second brief chapter, and it’s apparent that Carl is almost out of chances. His entire motivation stems from his desire to redeem himself in her eyes.

6) Eroticism

Eroticism never makes an appearance. Their sexuality is implied but never addressed; the audience kept aloof save for quick kisses the morning after.

7) Loss of Innocence

I won’t spoil the sick punchline of Horse Two, but Carl becomes desperate enough to do something for which the reader hates him. In this way, we lose our innocence with him, and perhaps more than we’re comfortable acknowledging.

My life’s love–I’d killed it. I would never again watch a race with joy in my heart.

8 ) Smoke

The obligatory homage to smoke is paid in full– beautifully rendered by Ms. Anita Dime.

9) Emasculation

All nine chapters are descending steps of masculinity and Carl plummets down them. As a failure, Carl can never be with Lily– he is constantly trying to define himself but can never attain his ideal (or hers). Horse Two is the story of his emasculation.

“Just, please, I can’t explain.” I didn’t want to tell her that I was not the man she thought she was seeing– certainly not the one she met.

I was only disappointed in the ending– it was good, but I wanted a more brutal conclusion to Carl’s journey. I felt that the consequences should have been more severe. Perhaps I’m wrong– read it for yourself and shoot me an email. Anita Dime AKA Julia Huff gave us a wonderful piece of noir crime fiction; drop a couple of bucks and download it for your collection.


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Sam Spade: Masculinity Under Threat

*I wrote this essay over the last few weeks for a 300-level English course– It’s an example of the scholarly work in the noir genre I hope to do when I begin post-graduate studies. Enjoy.

Noir Crime Fiction The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett

Cover designed by Megan Wilson

“You won’t need much of anybody’s help. You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.’”

Sam Spade: Masculinity under Threat
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is a definitive piece of the hardboiled noir fiction genre. As such its protagonist, Sam Spade, is the subject of frequent discussion and review, particularly those studies pertaining to modern masculinity. Current scholarship topics tend toward definition, although “noir is notoriously difficult to define,” and speak of the genre and The Maltese Falcon as a “symbolic stage upon which crisis is negotiated via changes in gender paradigms” (Entin 86; Dietze 645). As a result, the book’s sexual dynamics and threatening femme fatale are the central topics of most Spade-centric discourse. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the veiled villainess, wages a manipulative battle with Sam, each hungry to serve their own ends at the expense of the other. Ultimately, Sam Spade is the victor, but the cost outweighs the benefit of such an outcome. The ‘hero’ is reduced to despicable ends in his quest to define and defend his masculinity throughout the novel, demeaning each female character with oppressive, sexist behaviors. He relies on ‘illusions of order’ and ‘intellectual control’ to defend his masculinity from the onset of ambitious women, and becomes an archetypal example of the fearful white male chauvinist in modern society.

Hammett’s 1930 magnum opus is burgeoning with gender friction and social commentary. By connecting Sam Spade’s fear of emasculation with his detective fueled ‘will-to-know’, we find a man plagued with insecurity. As Sam’s masculinity comes under threat, he lashes out with his greatest tool, his insight and detection, to menace what he perceives to be encroaching and dangerous females. Thus he exerts his intellectual control over these women to restore his illusions of order, or preserve his masculinity. Regardless of its fame, The Maltese Falcon appears to be free of detailed scholarly analyses that speak to these themes. The authority of Hammett’s words and my inquiry will hopefully solidify these proposed ideas as the essay develops. Additionally, sources are provided severally which prod the margins of this previously untreated issue: The first, that of Sam Spade’s fear of emasculation and his resulting misogynistic backlash, and the second, that of his need to preserve his illusions of order in an increasingly disordered social realm. At the convergence of these two complications, wonderful analytically uncharted territory is apparent.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett, Author of The Maltese Falcon

Mr. Spade is a hard-edged force of masculinity, an unbending bastion of iron-wrought will, and an estranged loner from society. Sara Paretsky explained his over-the-top persona, saying “because crime fiction focuses so strongly on issues of justice and society, characters have to be exaggerated to make social points” (12). Simply stated, Sam Spade is a social statement. He is “the world weary non-hero, betrayed from within the institution that once nurtured and protected him, who discovers that no prospect pleases, and that all men (and women) are vile” (Winks 8). In addition to his already volatile psyche, Sam’s chauvinism and sexual anxieties create a plethora of gender conflicts within the text. Priscilla Walton tells us that “the originary hardboiled narrative arose in an era fraught with sexual tensions, since the advent of the Great Depression generated a backlash against shifting gender roles” and “in the matter of misogyny, hardboiled detective fiction undergirds the whole system of Western patriarchy” (127). She speaks to the complex social issues of the era in which the book was written, issues that may not appear as widespread contemporarily as they may yet be. Sam Spade is an ideal contender for gender conflict as a misogynistic hallmark of female repression and abuse. Yet he’s believed to be “the genre’s ideological model of male self-containment,” which begs fearful questions about independent men and their role models (Cooper 24). If men since the 1930s have viewed Mr. Spade as a role model, what implications does this portend for society? Especially a society founded on a patriarchal order? If hardboiled detective fiction undergirds the whole system of Western patriarchy, then how vital a foundational strut is Sam Spade?

Accepted gender role paradigms were shifting as this novel was being distributed, and men were fighting insecurity and estrangement in a society that no longer defined their masculinity for them. Modern Masculinity, at its core, had always been defined by strength, self-control, success (especially in the workplace), and individualism. As women’s roles in society began to evolve and change, many men felt displaced. Paretsky pointed to the 19th Amendment as a possible cause for the gender inequality present in The Maltese Falcon when she said, “After widespread agitation for the vote, the image of active women changed. Now they were seen as a species of monster who wanted to strip men of all their rights” (12). She concluded that “[men] believe that when a woman moves into a masculine domain their very masculinity is under attack” (13). Fear of this threat is a defining theme in The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is consumed by his fear of emasculation, and it causes him to react in oppressive ways towards perceived female threats.

Yet at his core Sam Spade is a detective, personally and professionally, and defines his masculinity by his success in this arena. As an independent working man, he is completely reliant upon his ability to accurately re-construct means of injustice and crime perpetration through deductive reasoning, logic, and investigation. When his masculinity comes under threat, he uses these same finely tuned methods to preserve and restore his manly dominance. Mr. Spade is constantly striving to obtain and maintain order, or at least the illusion of such; for his masculinity to remain intact, he must successfully ‘solve’ each potential affront to it. In his article, “Lead Birds and Falling Beams,” Dean DeFino explains:

The detective enters the scene of the crime after the fact and, through a feat of analyses, constructs a chain of effects and causes back to the source of the crime – mode and motive – which, while not annulling the deed (the body is still dead), gives the reader a sense of intellectual control over it. The story redeems that sense of order and control by (fictionally) exposing its logic, its cause–and-effect chain, how one thing leads to another (74).

Sam re-orders a crime scene to achieve the same equilibrium that the readers of detective fiction enjoy, the illusion of order or intellectual control. His sense of order is not only dependent upon his success as a detective, but his dominance as a man. When his masculinity or his accepted gender role paradigms are threatened, he reacts by an attempted return to his perceived order. Both forms of order hinge on Sam’s ability to control the object of threat; for crime, as he exposes its means of execution he gains intellectual control over it. With women, as he imposes his will upon them and hedges their advances into his social sphere he restores his emasculated authority. Sam’s already intense reactions are further enhanced when his illusion of order is challenged by secrets or dishonesty. His ‘will-to-know’ entirely consumes him, for his fear of emasculation is inexorably tied to the possibility of a woman besting him intellectually.

Three female characters star opposite Sam in the novel, and each seemed no better than a prop for his advances. All of his interactions with these woman teeter anxiously on the edge of flirtation and raw sexual lust, a balance as dangerous as it is unlikely. He touches their bodies, plays with their hair, coddles them, scolds them, kisses them (yes each of them), and in the case of Miss O’Shaughnessy sleeps with them. Sam keeps these women emotionally distant from his true desires and feelings, even when they express interest. For him, they are simply ‘girls’; too silly or inexperienced to offer him anything worthwhile. When his impenetrable nature is challenged by Brigid, he reacts harshly—perhaps in denial of real feelings too awkward or uncomfortable to confront. Ironically, he dismisses these women as naïve, immature, or flighty when such adjectives more accurately describe himself. Mr. Spade’s relationships with the opposite sex are tainted by his need to defend his perceived masculinity—were he to surrender any level of control, his illusion of order would be compromised.

Film Noir The Maltese Falcon 1941

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Gladys George as Iva Archer, and Lee Patrick as Effie Perine

Although examples abound, three particular scenes from The Maltese Falcon will be presented and unpacked as indicative of the illusion of order in defense of masculinity argument. Throughout the novel Sam Spade seems to grapple with his misogynistic impulses, which are a common symptom of backlash due to shifting gender paradigms. I would not go so far as to say that he hates women (as misogyny is typically defined), but that he fears and distrusts them so much that it corrupts his interactions with them. His manly impulses drive his lusty sexual attraction for them, while his misogyny simultaneously attempts to protect him from them. Here is the first scene that illustrates my argument, when Brigid O’Shaughnessy pleads with Mr. Spade for help:

“I’ve given you all the money I have.” Tears glistened in her white-ringed eyes. Her voice was hoarse, vibrant. “I’ve thrown myself on your mercy, told you that without your help I’m utterly lost. What else is there?” She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”
Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious (Hammett 57).

Aside from being one of the most memorable exchanges in all noir fiction, this scene is grossly sexist. Sam’s face is “hard and furious” because he wants her to buy him with her body, and he hates her for it. His response is perfectly calculated to preserve his illusion of order (which is based on control) and retain his power over her. By telling Brigid that he would “think it over” he keeps her offer available and places himself in the position of deciding when or if it will be accepted. Sam believes that if he were to succumb to her offer initially, he would be fully in her thrall; a failure that would surrender his masculine power to her feminine usurpation. But Sam succeeds in retaining intellectual control over Brigid, and thus preserves his illusion of order (and his masculinity). We can only guess what Sam Spade is thinking as he denies Brigid’s advances, but it clearly seems linked to the fear of losing something other than virtue; my money’s on masculinity and his illusion of order.

The second interaction that illustrates this thematic formula occurs between Sam and his personal secretary Effie Perine (the second of three females in the novel). For contextual purposes, they are discussing Iva Archer (the third), the widow of Sam’s dead partner Miles (whom Sam had been sleeping with up until Miles’ murder). Sam is sitting at his desk resting his head against Effie’s hip, who stands at his side:

“Are you going to marry Iva?” she asked, looking down at his pale brown hair.
“Don’t be silly,” he muttered. The unlit cigarette bobbed up and down with the movement of his lips.
“She doesn’t think it’s silly. Why should she–the way you’ve played around with her?”
He sighed and said: “I wish to Christ I’d never seen her.”
“Maybe you do now.” A trace of spitefulness came into the girl’s voice. “But there was a time.”
“I never know what to do or say to women except that way,” he grumbled, “and then I didn’t like Miles.”
“That’s a lie, Sam,” the girl said. “You know I think she’s a louse, but I’d be a louse too if it would give me a body like hers.”
Spade rubbed his face impatiently against her hip, but said nothing (Hammett 27).

Effie begins by trying to ascertain Sam’s intentions with Iva. She has obviously seen some signs of a serious relationship between them, yet Sam dismisses all of it as “silly.” The reader gets the subtext that Effie herself is interested in Sam (why else would she be asking?), and then it becomes more apparent when she calls Iva a “louse” and says she’s jealous of her figure. Perhaps she believes that if she looked like Iva she could demand Sam’s affection, instead of being firmly caught in the role of confidant. You will note that Sam admits that he doesn’t know how to deal with women except in “that way,” which is the way that plays with their feelings and teeters between flirting and disgust. The more you examine this passage the sadder it becomes, because you can feel the pain that Sam is inflicting on Ms. Perine when he nuzzles his face against her hip. Basically, he is confirming his desire to “play” with her when he wants while remaining un-entangled romantically. She means nothing to him. Once again, Sam has felt his masculinity come under threat; the threat of the widow Iva’s expectations (now that she is untangled from her marriage), and the threat of Effie’s jealousy, and on both counts he has rebuffed them by straddling his barren stretch of intellectually controlling ground. By remaining aloof to the desires of these women, he not only spurns their advances but also denies responsibility for his actions. In this way, his masculine independence is unmolested and his accepted gender paradigms are unaltered. He successfully avoids the emasculation sure to accompany marriage to his partner’s widow or a relationship with his young secretary.

The final (and most important) scene that illustrates the relationship between Sam’s fear of emasculation and his reliance upon intellectual control and illusions of order occurs near the end of the novel. At this point, Sam is led to believe that Brigid has stolen a one hundred dollar bill. He takes her into a bathroom at gunpoint and they share this interaction:

In the bathroom Brigid O’Shaughnessy found words. She put her hands up flat on Spade’s chest and her face up close to his and whispered: “I did not take that bill, Sam.”
“I don’t think you did,” he said, “but I’ve got to know. Take your clothes off.”
“You won’t take my word for it?”
“No. Take your clothes off.”
“I won’t.”
“All right. We’ll go back to the other room and I’ll have them taken off.”
She stepped back with a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were round and horrified. “You would?” she asked through her fingers.
“I will,” he said. “I’ve got to know what happened to that bill and I’m not going to be held up by anybody’s maidenly modesty.”
“Oh, it isn’t that.” She came close to him and put her hands on his chest again. “I’m not ashamed to be naked before you, but–can’t you see?–not like this. Can’t you see that if you make me you’ll–you’ll be killing something?”
He did not raise his voice. “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve got to know what happened to the bill. Take them off” (Hammett 196). (Italics added)

The Maltese Falcon Pulp Cover

A pulp cover that illustrates the shower search scene

The bathroom search scene is the most degrading and misogynistic in the novel. Hammett does not go into perverse detail, as if Brigid were performing some kind of strip tease, but the cold manner in which Spade deals with her is shocking. Remember that this exchange takes place after they have slept together. Once again we can see that the woman in the scene has misinterpreted Sam’s behavior. She thought that her relationship meant something to him, and he assures her that it does not. Just like the scene with Effie, the more we dwell on what is happening here, the more painful it becomes; for Sam really is “killing something,” he is killing the part of Brigid that loves him, and killing the part of himself that she loved. This ‘murder scene’ hinges upon Sam being unable to sacrifice his illusion of order. He is tortured by the prospect of not knowing and having to place his trust in a female. In order for him to retain his illusion of order and defend his perceived masculinity, he must force her to strip so that he can know with a certainty that she does not have the bill.

In the end, Sam Spade is a formulaic male chauvinist; a victim of self-inflicted, brutal individuality that hinges upon successfully defending his illusions of order. His inability to cope with supposed threats upon his masculinity estrange him further from society, instead of fortifying his desired place within it. The result is a man bereft of human kindness, and so distracted by the fear of emasculation that he cannot escape his own poisonous illusions. The real damage is done to society and modern masculinity when Sam Spade is viewed as a pinnacle of male achievement. As an icon, Mr. Spade is a powerfully negative image for men to idolize and imitate. His insecurity fueled behavior, if imitated, will create a venomous social climate based on rigid gender roles and perceived masculinity. Although some aspects of his individualism and self-reliance may be applauded, his objectification and emotional abuse of women is horrendous, and such behavior has no claim upon a man’s masculinity.

A central problem with this novel (and possibly the entire noir fiction genre) is that all of the female characters are viewed through a patriarchal, misogynistic lens. Thus they act out the roles that a male author and audience require of them, not necessarily the roles they would actually play. Johanna M. Smith defined it this way: “texts by [Dashiell Hammett] subscribe to a gender-based, individualist ideology in which women are male-defined” (Smith 80). This ideology is dangerous because it reinforces incorrect stereotypes about gender roles and relationships with women. Men can develop unhealthy attitudes and beliefs about women based upon the fictional characters and scenarios portrayed in these revered novels. Much of the social strife and gender paradigm backlash since the 1930s seem to orbit the central issues presented in The Maltese Falcon—it’s because of these themes that the femme fatale archetype is possibly the most recognizable element in the film noir and noir fiction genres (and is continually found in many others). Each story presents another woman to vilify and then defeat, propelling countless misogynistic heroes onto victory. Sadly, The Maltese Falcon is a beloved classic novel that has perpetuated gender conflict for most of the last century.

A parting thought: Stephen Cooper, in his article “Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre,” said that “Spade is the genre’s ideological model of male self-containment. [Female figures] function primarily as sexual foils to the detective, [and] also as initial obstacles to and ultimate resources for the detective’s inquisitive/acquisitive will-to-know. Notwithstanding the high profile given to “romantic interests” by the genre, such service suggests the exploitable continuum between, on the one hand, sex and knowledge, and, on the other, knowledge and power” (Cooper 23-24). The point is that all the power in both sex and knowledge rests in Sam Spade. The female characters are expendable victims of his occupation, both detective and male. For in the noir world Mr. Hammett created, Sam must either victimize them or he himself will become the disillusioned victim of robbed masculinity.

By: Chad de Lisle

Works Cited

Abbott, Megan. “”I Can Feel Her” The White Male as Hysteric.” The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity and Urban Space in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. N. pag. Print.
Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder An Essay.” The Simple Art of Murder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. N. pag. Print.
Cooper, Stephen. “Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre.” Film Quarterly 42.3 (1989): 23-31. Print.
DeFino, Dean. “Killing Owen Taylor: Cinema, Detective Stories, and the Past.” Journal of Narrative Theory 30.3 (2000): 313-31. Print.
DeFino, Dean. “Lead Birds and Falling Beams.” Journal of Modern Literature 27.4 (2004): 73-81. Print.
Entin, Joseph. ““A Terribly Incomplete Thing”: No-No Boy and the Ugly Feelings of Noir.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 35.3 (2010): 85-104. Print.
Evans, Verda. “The Mystery as Mind-Stretcher.” The English Journal 61.4 (1972): 495-503. Print.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
Horsley, Lee. Twentieth-century Crime Fiction. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Malmgren, Carl D. “The Crime of the Sign: Dashiell Hammett’s Detective Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 45.3 (1999): 371-84. Print.
Paretsky, Sara. “Private Eyes, Public Spheres.” The Women’s Review of Books 6.2 (1988): 12-13. Print.
Porter, Joseph C. “The End of the Trail: The American West of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.” Western Historical Quarterly 6.4 (1975): 411-24. Print.
Smith, Johanna M. “Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction: Gendering the Ganon.” Pacific Coast Philology 26.1/2 (1991): 78-84. Print.
Walton, Priscilla L. “The Agency of Detectives and the Venue of the Short Story.” Narrative 6.2 (1998): 123-39. Print.
Winks, Robin W. “American Detective Fiction.” American Studies International 19.1 (1980): 3-16. Print.


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