Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Flat Lines

I wonder when we stopped empathising with characters who are shocked by murder. Or did we ever empathise with them, really? I suppose it depends how it was written. I finished reading The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett's excellent 1929 novel yesterday. It's a first person narrative, from the perspective of The Continental Op, an unnamed narrator in Hammett's early work, a detective who seems to have grown emotionally calloused by his years of exposure to murder and the worst of human behaviour. This detachment serves him in his work as it allows him to manipulate characters to their doom and to process crime scenes on an analytical basis. But I didn't really think about what kind of guy he is through Red Harvest, Hammett's first novel, and I might not have paused to in The Dain Curse before a young woman suddenly calls him a monster.

When we're talking about fictional characters, we all start from the perspectives of psychopaths. Why should we care if some hypothetical person gets killed? Whether or not we care is on the artist, whether he or she reveals the character in ways we empathetically respond to. In Hammett's work, characters are usually drawn so broadly that their deaths usually only serve the certainly engaging plot. The first guy killed in The Dain Curse, Leggett, had been fleeing from a blackmailer for years, at one point taking a raft with one other man across the Atlantic ocean, at one point being forced to eat the other man in order to survive the journey. He's also some kind of a chemist--we don't really get to know him.

But then a lot of the distance from the characters is due to the Op's voice, the voice telling us about all of them. Before finding him dead, the Op had described Eric Collinson as a guy who got in the way, but was basically innocent and good. When he finds Collinson dead on a beach below a cliff;

It was Eric Collinson's body. Bones showed through flesh and clothing on his shattered back. The back of his head--that half of it--was crushed. I dragged him out of the water and put him down on dry rocks. His dripping pockets contained a hundred and fifty-four dollars and eighty-two cents, a watch, a knife, a gold pen and pencil, papers, a couple of letters, and a memoranda book. I spread out the papers, letters, and book; and read them; and learned nothing except that what was written in them hadn't anything to do with his death. I couldn't find anything else--on him or near him--to tell me more about his death than the uprooted bush, the hat caught between rocks, and the position of this body had told me.

I left him there and went back to the ravine, panting and heaving myself up it to the cliff path, returning to where the bush had grown. I didn't find anything there in the way of significant marks, footprints, or the like. The path was chiefly hard rock. I went on along it. Presently the cliff began to bend away from the ocean, lowering the path along its side. After another half-mile there was no cliff at all, merely a bush-grown ridge at whose foot the path ran. There was no sun yet. My pants stuck disagreeably to my chilly legs. Water squunched in my torn shoes. I hadn't had any breakfast. My cigarettes had got wet. My left knee ached from a twist it had got sliding down the ravine. I cursed the detective business and slopped on along the path.

Those sensory details at the end help bring us into the scene at the same time they reinforce the Op's hardboiled personality. In a sense, I'm reminded of how the thieves and lowlifes in Oliver Twist seem more human than the "good" characters. There's a certain pretence of morality we don't have anymore, maybe. And yet there is something sad when Gabrielle rejects the idea of a relationship with the Op because of his evident monstrousness. The scene's quoted in the Op's Wikipedia entry;

"You came in just now, and then I saw -"

She stopped.


"A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you're in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and - What's the matter? Have I said something I shouldn't?"

We sense the Op has opened up a Pandora's Box in himself we all posses. That's what Gabrielle senses, I think--a monster isn't something mindless as an avalanche, or some brutality out of left field, it's something you can kind of understand, and it's an understanding it's frightening to acknowledge. It's no wonder noir really took off during World War II, then. Hammett's next novel, The Maltese Falcon, was made into movies three times, but the one everyone remembers is the third, the one made in 1941.

This seems to mark a turning point in Hammett's fiction, as after The Dain Curse comes novels that focus more on interpersonal relationships and are more about the sad observation of dysfunction between these hardboiled men of action and the women who are like them and who aren't like them.

This adherence to a certain morality about death in pulp fiction continued for decades, as was shown in the 1968 movie I watched on Saturday night, Bullitt. Which is a good movie, its car chase in the middle of the film deservedly one of the most famous of such scenes ever filmed. There's such a wonderful messiness about it, these cars seeming like they're about to come apart as they bound down San Francisco's famous hillside streets.

Bullitt, too, featured a woman horrified at Detective Bullitt's (Steve McQueen) casual behaviour at a murder scene. Just as I was thinking I'd finally found a cop movie from the 60s where the female lead wasn't portrayed as an unreasonable thorn in the side of the detective. But, to be fair, she's not the rabid chihuahua seen in a movie like Madigan. She's just upset at what she's seen, yet we feel, I think, a reflexive impatience with her. We don't see that any more in this world of CSI. I'm not sure if this is because we don't buy into the reality of fictional characters as easily, or if we're all a little more psychotic.

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