You’re a son of a gun, Sammy

maltese falconThe Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve been meaning to read this for years. As a fan of Raymond Chandler I figured I should read the original gritty noir American detective, so I was pleased when my book club picked this for one of our “classic” reads. I was late to the book club discussion but I think we all felt the same way: this is worth reading but not as good as Chandler!

I guess I was hoping for that luscious purple prose that Chandler is such an expert at – it’s ridiculous and yet in a way beautiful. Hammett has none of that. Which isn’t to say this is badly written, it’s just a bit plainer, but still very entertaining and with moments of beauty.

The story centres on San Francisco private detective Sam Spade. He’s cynical, a womaniser, good at depriving villains of their weapons and on first-name terms with most local police, the DA and the DA’s secretary. And he sees a lot of his lawyer. The plot begins on page one, with a new client arriving in his office. Miss Wonderly wants Spade and his partner to follow a man for her, a simple enough job that predictably is neither as simple or as safe as it should have been. The maltese falcon of the title takes a while to come into play and is an appropriately mysterious unusual object around which to centre a plot that brings together a variety of criminals.

Continue reading “You’re a son of a gun, Sammy”

Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times

The Days of Anna Madrigal

The Days of Anna Madrigal
by Armistead Maupin

I thought quite hard about what should be my first book of the new year and this felt like a really good choice. I was really excited to be sent a copy of this, the latest Tales of the City novel, having loved the first book in the series. And this ninth instalment is just as funny, touching, well observed and eye-opening as that first one was for me. Those who haven’t read the whole series might find spoilers in this review.

Anna Madrigal was the eccentric but beloved landlady of the legendary 28 Barbary Lane. Now she is very old and, feeling that her time is near, takes a trip to her childhood home in Nevada, hoping to come to peace with the actions of the boy she once was. At the same time, several of her dearest friends are heading for the annual Burning Man festival, also in Nevada, and they have their own gremlins to deal with. Will Shawna take the biggest step of her life and become a mother? Will Michael find peace with his younger, hipper husband? Will Jake’s painstaking plan to honour Anna come to fruition or fall apart in the desert dust?

“‘Chillax? You don’t say chillax.’
‘I’m saying it now. Because you’re acting like you’re twelve and hormonal.’
If only he knew, thought Michael. Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.”

This book was, perhaps inevitably, a little more serious than the start of the series was. It’s certainly not without humour, or lighter moments, but the overarching themes include ageing, death and betrayal, and when the death that’s most imminent is that of a character who has been beloved through eight previous books over 35 years, well, you can’t be flippant about it.

There are also more positive themes such as renewal and acceptance. Which all sounds remarkably worthy, and that’s one thing this book isn’t. It’s touching, moving even, but never overly sentimental. In fact, I found Anna just as hard to get inside the head of as ever. But then the other characters have the same problem with her so I guess that’s just how she is.

“Summer had been warmer than usual this year, but the heat that throbbed in the East Bay was already coaxing pale fingers of fog into the city. Anna could feel this on her skin, the chilly caress she had come to think of as ‘candle weather’.”

There’s quite a broad cast of characters here, most of whom (though not all) are LGBT, and I like how the sheer number of people he’s created allows Maupin to not stereotype or pigeonhole any one character. They are all human and interesting. They have realistically complicated relationships with one another, which I know is partly a result of having several previous books about most of these people. But it’s also an accurate reflection of how the world is. Couples break up and move on but often still have mutual friends. Sometimes if you examine how you met your best friend you realise that to begin with they were your ex-boyfriend’s boss’s landlady, and you’re no longer in touch with your ex but that tenuous connection became the most important friendship of your life.

It’s hard to write much more about this book without giving away the events in it, but I really did find it charming and enjoyable, and I am glad to have been reminded to go back to this wonderful series.

Published January 2014 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

You’re gonna get screwed but good in this town

Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin

After hearing this book praised left, right and centre since I started book blogging I figured I had to give it a go. And what a joy it is!

This is the first in what has turned out to be a very long-running series about a large cast of characters in San Francisco. In this book (I don’t know if this is true of any of the rest) the focus is on a boarding house on Russian Hill run by the inimitable Anna Madrigal (who grows her own weed and claims to have been raised in a whorehouse), and in particular her tenant Mary Ann Singleton. Mary Ann has newly arrived in the city from Cleveland and her sweet naivety is in for a shock. Or several shocks.

According to something I heard on Radio 4 (I think it was on A Good Read) the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which this started life as a serial, kept a tally of straight versus gay sex scenes because there was a concern about it being “too gay”. Which tells you a little about the book. It is outrageous and wickedly funny but also intelligent and insightful. The characters lean very slightly into the larger-than-life category but they are not stereotypical or predictable. It really is an achievement that so much silliness can be so lovable.

There are dozens of storylines at work, only a couple of which are wrapped up by the end of the novel. The characters are introduced separately but their lives quickly overlap to the point where I was hard-pressed to remember who knew who from where. I’ll just have to read it again!

The extra character is, of course, the city of San Francisco. Maupin lovingly describes its streets and views and bars and people with all the little details of someone who calls it home. It is very much a tale of 1978, with an undercurrent of the politics and social nuances of the time. I was (perhaps naively) surprised by how much of the “pretentious” of middle-class life today (organic food, over-earnest attempts to appear not racist or homophobic, caring about global warming) was considered pretentious back then too. It is satirical but somehow firmly on the side of the people it satirises. Both prudish innocent (Mary Ann) and sexaholic (most everyone else) are celebrated in their own way.

I can see why it has been called a literary soap opera and it is indeed both those things. It isn’t literary in floweriness but rather in insight and cleverly spare language that gives you just enough, while finding room for some fantastic little jokes with words and meanings. So that’s six more books to add to the wishlist then, I guess!

First published in 1978 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Published in book form in 1980 by Corgi Books.