Truth and Lies

Let’s Discuss — The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

But I thought everybody was supposed to be considered innocent until they were proved guilty and if there was any reasonable doubt–

That’s for juries, not detectives. You find the guy you think did the murder and you slam him in the can and let everybody know you think he’s guilty and put his picture all over newspapers, and the District Attorney builds up the best theory he can on what information you’ve got […] come in and tell you things about him and presently you’ve got him sitting on the electric chair (195)

In speakeasies and small social gatherings centered around alcohol, conversation is placed on hold by the blur of drinks, playful banter and hints of sexual innuendo.  Nick and Nora Charles, our investigative couple are “too cool” for the shenanigans they encounter. Their back-and-forth is cute, urbane and reasonably detached from the acquaintances that bring drama to their doorstep.

When Nick (former detective) and Nora (his wife) get mixed up with the disappearance of a man named Wynant and the murder of his assistant, Nick wants nothing to do with it. This attitude permeates the pages.  It’s almost overpowering. Nick doesn’t appear to give a damn–so why should the reader?

The characters and their interactions–that’s why!

The other characters (almost all are suspects) are solid. Common sense gained from other forms of crime fiction, more likely than not derived from Hammett’s prose, tells the reader the estranged, bitter and broke ex-wife would be the obvious perpetrator. But it’s too obvious. It’s not her. Mimi is so snide and phony it’s entertaining. Her coquettish, aggressive, borderline violent interactions with Nick are worth the read.

The same applies to Gilbert, Mimi’s son–what a weirdo! His obsessions are peculiar but believable. Nick indulges his forensic fascinations and they establish a bond. Gilbert is written so the reader believes he’s up to no good, and he’ll either be a detective or an infamous wrongdoer one day.

“When the murders are committed by mathematicians,” I said, “you can solve them by mathematics. Most of them aren’t and this one wasn’t.” (195)

But going back to the plot, it’s nothing special. More thought is put into portraying intricacies of detective instinct than solving the murder case. However, it’s clear Hammett’s work is an original.

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Let’s Discuss — Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the elderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth’s green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body’s obliteration in the Lap of the Lord (221)

There are two central narratives in this piece of metafiction.  One narrative belongs to John Shade, a poet who leads a relatively uninteresting life. The most striking element of his narrative (which is confined to four lengthy cantos of poetry) is his lifelong preoccupation with death.

The other is Charles Kinbote.  Kinbote is Shade’s neighbor and self-proclaimed editor of Shade’s work. His narrative starts with the foreword, continues with the commentary and ends with the index. The reader will quickly learn Kinbote is not exactly what he seems.

Shade’s work, while at times morbid, is actually very interesting. As the “editor” of Shade’s work, I expected Kinbote’s commentary to be an explication; a means to delve deeper into Shade’s intent. But instead of discourse, readers are given huge chunks of Kinbote’s life and philosophies. You will read about the escape of a self-exiled King Charles of an imaginary country named Zembla, and wonder how peculiar it is for the commentary to not be exclusively about Shade and his work. Especially, since I think Shade’s upbringing and encounters with death have more gravity than Kinbote’s stories.

This is one of those books that could be read more than once and with each reading, something different will stick out to the reader. I have to say, I didn’t read Pale Fire in order. I read the poem first, then the foreword, and then the commentary/index. I needed to read Shade’s work without Kinbote’s influence because it’s obvious Kinbote’s intentions aren’t to put Shade in the spotlight. He reaches beyond the space of the foreword—and so I think there’s criticism about literary criticism here.

There is something to be said when a poet has reduced his life to 999 lines of poetry and his “editor” takes it upon himself to insert his own self-serving memories into the mix.