Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Good Book, Bad Version

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, Read by Michael Prichard, 1980

There are at least two types of novels that fit the description of what is called a "mystery." There are the conundrum stories in which clues are dropped here and there by the author, trying to gently confuse and befuddle the reader. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot tales are of that category. These mystery stories are quintessentially summed up in the Poirot tales. A murder, often a variation on the theme of "locked room;" a detective who everyone thinks is a bit potty; red herrings to get you thinking it isn't the butler after all; and a big summation at the end where the completed puzzle is thrust in your face with triumphal flourish. The heroes of this are often projections of the armchair detective authors and they are often elderly, in wheelchairs, paralyzed, or cats.

The second kind is done by a different kind of practitioner. These are detective stories. And they aren't quite the same things as mysteries. What we get in these stories are enigmas not generally solvable by the reader, as often it isn’t the whodunit that’s most important, but rather the existential questions of good versus evil. It is not the enjoyment of working the puzzle that is the allure of these stories. It's the hard-boiled protagonists, the walk on the wild side of the seedy underbelly, the existential angst of a corrupt world in which only tough guy ethics, tarnished though they are, can be relied upon. Most of these detectives are wounded with broken hearts, are alcoholics, or are turned off by the world. They can also be jaded cops if the novel is the type referred to as “police procedural.”

The pinnacles of this second category are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Chandler worked over the City of Angels with Phillip Marlow while Hammett brought a changing cast of characters to San Francisco, the only real repeat being The Continental Operative. His most well known character, Sam Spade, only has one novel to his name, but it's a good one.

Like most good detective stories, The Maltese Falcon has a complicated plot that would take too much time to retell here. I won’t bore the reader with the ins and outs and double- and triple-crosses going on throughout the course of the book, suffice to say that Hammett was a master of multiple characters’ multiple goals. His plots often feature a main character who tries to thread these various impulses and desires, pitting one character off of another, playing both ends against the middle until he alone comes out on top.

Hammett’s writing style is spare and precise with very little digression and very little embroidery. He writes the details exactly as he lived them working as a Pinkerton man. As such, there are rare moments of gaunt poetry sewn through the text, lines like “‘He went like that,’ Spade said. ‘Like a fist when you open your hand.’” The only exception to this I found were in two instances. In one, at the beginning of Chapter Two, there is (to me) an exceptionally long and not terribly informative passage detailing how Spade rolled his cigarettes. As such:

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth.

Um, okay. Thanks.

Now, to be fair, Spade rolls and smokes a lot of cigarettes in the course of the novel, but surely cigarette rolling was terribly common in 1929 and the readers didn’t need a step by step lesson in how it’s done.

The second passage is a curious story Spade tells of a Mr. Flitwick who disappears only to be found living a new life somewhere else. This doesn't seem to have much connection to the rest of the book. Spade sums up the moral as this “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.” The best possible connection to the rest of the story is Spade’s rather mercurial ability to roll with whatever twists the story contains.

I have to admit that I had a harder time enjoying this book than I would have expected. I was constantly distracted by two major problems. What makes for a distracting listening experience, however, isn’t the fault of the book itself. Hammett’s work is almost perfect. Rather, the first problem is my fault in that I’m rather a fan of the filmed version of the book. As such, it is almost impossible not to see the various characters from the movie speaking the lines as they are read. “Spade stared at her with bulging eyes.” How can you not see Humphrey Bogart and his expressive eyes bulging in glorious black and white? And the part of Kasper Gutman reads like it was written expressively for Sydney Greenstreet.

That is not, however, an endorsement of the reader. Michael Prichard has the thick voice of NPR's Carl Castle but without his warmth. It is a full-mouth reading and his surly voice is an imperfect fit with the material. The reading is done fairly monotonic with little effort made to flesh out the individuals in the novel with characterization.

It’s my understanding also that most recordings are done in bursts, the reader putting, say, half an hour on tape before breaking. At the point where the new patch starts readers' voices are often fresher and crisper. For Prichard, this makes him sound like a completely different person altogether. The smooth opener then slides into a nasal gruffness and bluster.

Plus, the sound quality on this recording is for shit. The recording is copyright 1980, and it sounds like they didn't go back to the original masters for the CD reissue, but just tried to record off of a heavily listened to audiocassette copy. Prichard’s voice warbles at some points, the recording goes in and out like a well listened tape, and the whole recording lacks the crispness that was evident in even older recordings that I reviewed previously.

It’s a disgrace too. The soon-to-be anachronistically named Books On Tape has all five of Hammett’s books which means it’s unlikely that there are too many other versions circulating out there. That’s a damn shame that such a good author should be so ill served.

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