“I want a little sugar in my bowl”: narrative deconstruction in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”
Earlier this year (Link), we presented the first half
of our takedown on the sugar bowl mystery. Now that we’ve gotten all the plot
elements out of the way, it’s time to approach the solution in on a literary
level. If there is, indeed, a solution to the sugar bowl mystery, what kind of
solution a writer such as Daniel Handler would choose? Studying the series on a
more thematical level gives very interesting results. If there’s one thing “A
Series Of Unfortunate” does well, it’s making sure that the narrative fits the
narration, that the plot fits the style (and vice-versa). Lemony Snicket uses
absurdist humor, and his characters live in an absurd world.
We can’t prove that the sugar bowl really is
empty, of course. What we can prove, however, is that an empty sugar bowl
wonderfully suits the hallmarks that made “A Series Of Unfortunate Events” such a
The Dain Curse. Dashiell Hammett. New York: F.H. Horvath, 1929. First edition. Original dust jacket.
Everything about the Leggett diamond heist indicated to the Continental Op that it was an inside job. From the stray diamond found in the yard to the eyewitness accounts of a “strange man” casing the house, everything was just too pat. Gabrielle Dain-Leggett has enough secrets to fill a closet, and when she disappears shortly after the robbery, she becomes the Op’s prime suspect.
An Introduction to 3 Foundational Authors of Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction, With Several Digressions
Dashiell Hammett was one of the only pulp detective authors to have actually worked as a detective, with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, back when it was basically a countrywide mercenary police organization. The Pinkertons were actually closer to modern police than their official contemporaries in the machine politics era, who tended to fall somewhere between patronage-hire watchmen and the mayor (or sheriff)’s sanctioned gang. The establishment of the FBI was in many ways a nationalization of the Pinkertons, with key figures brought on as advisors, replicating the network of local bureaus with focuses on both investigation and the infiltration and undermining of labor radicalism. Big city police forces then remodeled themselves after the FBI - famously the LAPD under William Parker (the NYPD had professionalized already under Teddy Roosevelt, and Chicago managed to preserve its machine structure).
This process continued into the early 1970s, as the RFK/FBI-led attempt to shatter the Mafia shook out. This was part of the mid-20th century American centralization of power. If you’re ever tempted to look with contempt upon modern African states, or pre-Mao China, or pre-unification Germany, keep in mind that America was largely structured as a loose coalition of local bandit-warlords until the 1960s. At the national level, civil rights laws and the attempt to merge the two (black/white) American nations were as much a cynical front for advancing this centralization as they were an honest idealism. And not without cost - organized crime, and the permeable borders between that and urban politics, were one of the major mechanisms by which immigrant groups were integrated to and advanced within the American system, a way to translate sheer numbers and cultural affinity into structural power. American blacks largely fit the immigrant pattern, if you date “arrival” to the Great Migration, but then stall out in the ‘70s-‘80s, and a lot of that has to do with RICO laws, post-60s reformist idealism, and the nationally-sponsored “war on crime” blocking this path. In an earlier world, black local politicians and street gangs would form alliances, eventually using patronage to co-opt and take over police forces, and extract rents that would be partially redistributed down the machine ladder. As is, you still have corruption, but it accrues to politicians, pastors and other organizers, and white property developers, without trickling down to street level.
You can quote me on that - the sorry state of American blacks is because criminal gangs are too weak and police aren’t corrupt and brutally extralegal enough.
What was I saying? Dashiell Hammett. Lived in San Francisco and set his fiction there. Was an actual private investigator, and accordingly has a strong focus on tradecraft, especially with the nameless “Continental Op”, employee of a fictionalized Pinkerton, protagonist of some of his books and most of his stories. Though the climaxes could get colorful, the Op’s assignments - quietly track down a runaway heiress, locate a fled embezzler - and methods - use 3-man teams to tail people on the street, question and dig up background on the target’s acquaintances, sit around and eavesdrop on conversations - were true to actual practice. (Hammett said the major difference is that what his characters accomplished in a week would in reality take several months, while they worked multiple cases in between).
While the Op was proudly professional (a recurring theme being his contempt for hotel staff “detectives”) but otherwise opaque, Hammett pioneered detective characterization with other characters. Where the Op was based on actual detectives he worked with, Sam Spade (protagonist of The Maltese Falcon) was based on those detectives’ romantic self-image, and his stoic facade, cynical chivalry, and romantic entanglements were a *huge* influence on later writers. Nick and Nora Charles, based on Hammet and his beloved, playwright Lillian Hellman, mixed investigation with screwball banter in a more lighthearted tone, and can be considered the predecessor of Maddie and David (of Moonlighting), Mulder & Scully, and even non-(explicitly-)romantic buddy partnerships like Crockett & Tubbs.
Hammett’s real-life experience exposed him to less picturesque aspects of the private investigator’s role in society as well. He complained that employers doing background checks were interested in issues of moral character that, gambling debts aside, had no correlation to trustworthiness, and he especially disliked working to suppress labor agitation. Starting as a Pinkerton agent, Hammett ended up being blacklisted and imprisoned as an enthusiastic communist activist.
Next is Raymond Chandler, the most literary of the detective greats. Where Hammett had been an actual PI, and reflected it in his writing, Chandler was a cuttingly observant man who retreated into drink because he was way too intelligent and cynical for Los Angeles, and reflected it in his. His Phillip Marlowe inhabited a thinly-to-the-point-of-pointlessly veiled LA, and passes through it with gimlet eye and poison tongue, all backhanded compliments and sideways insults. Hard-boiled fiction’s love of brilliant turns of phrase, of meandering digressions that end with a surprise punch to the gut, largely comes from him.
While at first glance Marlowe might seem to perform the duties of a detective same as the Op, on close examination you realize that none of what transpires has anything to do with his intentions, and that the plot is moved along by coincidences he encounters while out on assignment, with the ultimate plot of a tale usually about as unrelated to the inciting incident as in golden age Simpsons. This is equally true of The Big Lebowski, which is a loving Chandler tribute, and Chandler himself parodies this (and his/Marlowe’s booziness) in one of his later stories in which the plot is advanced by the things his protagonist literally runs into while drunk driving around LA.
Chandler’s novels are usually composed of the plots of 3 or 4 of his short stories banged together, but that’s fine, because the plot was never the thing, the meat being the wonderful language, setting, and characterizations, which were crafted anew. You can still to this day drive around LA and discover most of the places he described, looking exactly as stated. And while I can’t speak to his period accuracy, I was myself once a too intelligent, cynical Angelino writer for a while, to the point I avoided leaving home sober, and I can confirm that the kind of person who inhabits LA, their nature and motivations, are exactly as he laid out back then.
Chandler’s output eventually trailed off. One story, appearing years after any others, reads like absolutely terrible Chandler pastiche. Scholars disagree whether this was the product of an alcoholic wreck of a man who had known better than to try to publish anything for years but needed the money, or his wife pretending to be him because he was an alcoholic wreck of a man incapable of even writing anymore but needed the money.
If you’re only going to read one of these three, read Chandler.
Finally, a bit of a contrast in Mickey Spillane. Spillane’s famous recurring detective character was Mike Hammer. Given the name, you might not be surprised to learn he spent less time in cautiously piecing together mysteries than punching communists in the jaw, in much the same way Captain America spent a lot of time punching Nazis in the jaw. Actually, Spillane had been a writer for Captain America in the ‘40s. Actually, the character was originally written as a comic book protagonist named “Mike Danger”. Beyond communism, Hammer often found himself arrayed against such other corrupt and corrupting trappings of the decadent elite as drugs, psychotherapy, and trial by jury.
Spillane’s writing was, I’ll say, not up to the level of Hammett or Chandler, though he has been favorably cited by prominent writers like Ayn Rand and Frank Miller. If you look at pulp of the time though, he’s appreciably above average. Pulp… basically the closest parallel we have to pulp today is fanfiction, in terms of its average quality, low cost of production and consumption, sheer volume, and the rate at which it produces critical and commercial successes. And dear god, the smuttiness. Mike Hammer banged a lot of the broads he ran into. Before barefacedly honest pornography became as ubiquitous as it is, pulp filled the role of mainstream erotic product, with much detective pulp serving the same “drugstore-available erotica” role for men that romance pulp did for women. (Appreciating this makes the “Seduction of the Innocent” comic book scare about drugstore-available pulp for kids a bit more comprehensible).
This crossed over into other formats like cinema - Deep Throat, Beyond the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones were all received as at least in the same ballpark as mainstream releases, and up into the ’80s, pornographic movies had plots and runtimes that roughly approximated Hollywood product, and even in the ‘90s, softcore product at least had narrative framing devices. Between gonzo and DVD nonlinearity and the internet and the collapse of obscenity prosecution against which to offer artistic content as defense that’s faded, though as the Valley studio system’s share of the industry shrinks you’re seeing them play to their strengths in production values and plot (particularly with parody content, Tijuana Bible/H-Doujinshi-style).
On the other hand you had whole parapornographic mainstream subgenres as the erotic thriller, the rape-revenge drama, the teen sex comedy - American Pie was released in 1999, which was really pushing the limit at which it was worth it to watch 90 minutes of material for the chance to briefly see a bare-chested girl masturbating. (It’s still worth it to hear Alyson Hannigan talking dirty, though.)
The one thing that pulp still has a hold on is violence. (In addition to the jaw, there are many loving passages of Hammer battering guys in the crotch.) While splatter-horror may be a flourishing niche genre, with regular DVD releases, it’s still that, a niche genre, and not the mega-industry of pornography. Video games yes, but detective pulp and “true crime” genres have mostly just migrated to another medium and become hourlong police procedurals like CSI or Law & Order, offering the same thrills of vicarious brutality masked by the fig leaf of nominal identification with the forces of law and order. (Though cable antihero dramas and serial killer procedurals like Dexter and Hannibal seem to be moving a half- to full step beyond that.)
Mickey Spillane. Ah, fuck it, I don’t have anything else to say about Mickey Spillane.
Dashiell Hammett (May 27, 1894 – January 10, 1961)
American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, screenwriter, and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse).
Hammett “is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time”. In his obituary in The New York Times, he was described as “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction." His novels and stories also had a significant influence on films. (Wikipedia)
From our stacks: Dust cover detail from The Maltese Falcon By Dashiell Hammett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945. Jacket design by Warren Chappell.
“The Maltese Falcon”, 1941.
The office of ‘Spade and Archer’.
“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s-it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.” ~ Spade
Sleuthing in the ‘70s: ‘The Long Goodbye’,‘Chinatown’, and ‘Night Moves’ by Steven Goldman
“There’s a body on the railing That I can’t identify And I’d like to reassure you But I’m not that kind of guy.” —Robyn Hitchcock, “Raymond Chandler Evening,” 1986.
At the conclusion of John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) turns the woman he has come to love (Mary Astor) over to the police for murdering his partner. She refuses to believe he’ll betray her, asking, “How can you do this to me, Sam?” He responds:
You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once and give it up… When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere… I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that’ll pass… I won’t [let you go] because all of me wants to, regardless of consequences.
Spade is giving voice to the ethos of the hardboiled detective, the uncorrupted man who patrols the margins of a fallen world. The genre, which Hammett and Raymond Chandler helped found, would prove to be enduringly popular. They transformed the effete sleuths of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers’ drawing rooms into the tough shamuses of the alleyways. The crimes their characters investigated were not unrealistic locked-room murders but the basic, impulsive cruelties that human beings commit out of greed, anger, and corruption. In other words, they embraced realism in all its uncompromising sordidness. As Chandler, whose own signature detective Philip Marlowe would be embodied by Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), wrote in his 1950 exegesis of the detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder,”
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.
The problem is that the definition of realism—and sordidness—is always changing as we uncover new layers of perversity. Chandler wrote that the successful detective story did not merely surrender to reality:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption… Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.
Within a quarter of a century of Chandler writing these words, this great cynic would seem naïve. It wasn’t his concept of the detective that dated, but the idea that the man of honor could defeat evil, or even contain it.
From the time of The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe not only solves the crime (mostly; neither Chandler nor the filmmakers knew who committed one of the murders) but gets the girl to the revision of the genre that came with The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), and Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975), a great deal had changed. The American Century that had supposedly begun with the successful prosecution of the Second World War and the United States’ monopoly on the atomic bomb had quickly unraveled. It is difficult to overstate the nation’s confidence in the immediate postwar period, with the economy surging, the Baby Boom bringing a burst of youth and optimism, and pristine towns and cities when a good chunk of the world had been bombed into rubble. During a September 1945 conference with Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov protested his opposite number’s inflexibility saying the American negotiated as if he had, “an atomic bomb in his side pocket.” Byrnes replied that that was indeed the case, and, “If you don’t cut out all this stalling and let us get down to work, I’m going to pull an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it.”
By 1949, the Russians had the bomb, and the difficulties mounted with accelerating speed as the 1950s and ‘60s passed. By the 1970s, every confidence had been eroded. As the ‘60s closed, the most shattering items were the ongoing Vietnam War and the Kennedy and King assassinations, but the first years of the new decade offered little respite. In the years immediately preceding and including the release of the aforementioned trio of films, the national mood was tobogganing into the abyss. The war continued, joined by Watergate, the greatest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War. Mixed in were the Kent State massacre; the Attica uprising and resultant slaughter; the trials of Lt. William Calley and Charles Manson; the Boston bussing riots; serial bombings by the Weathermen and other domestic terrorists; the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the government’s ongoing deceptions regarding the war; the revelation that the FBI and CIA had engaged in illegal surveillance of American citizens; the first OPEC oil embargo, producing shortages and long lines at gas stations; and runaway inflation and unemployment. Also, the Beatles broke up, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison died, and disco rose to the top of the charts. This list is by no means inclusive of the misery that kicked off the Have a Nice Day! decade. In 1972, when the radical professor Angela Davis was acquitted of murdering a judge, she was asked if she felt she had received a fair trial. “The very fact of an acquittal,” she said, meant, “there had been no fair trail, because a fair trial would have been no trial at all.”
That was the 1970s: It would have been fairer to have skipped the whole thing.
Given the mood, it’s unsurprising that a certain atmosphere started to manifest itself at the movies. There was a great deal of nostalgia, whether for the 1930s, such as with Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973), The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), Dillinger (John Milius, 1973), and Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974), or the more innocent phase of the 1960s, as with American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973). Simultaneously, there was the rise of the “paranoid thriller” with films like Executive Action (David Miller, 1973), The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), and Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975).
A handful of films tried to straddle the difference, creating the paranoid nostalgic detective film, and it is to this peculiar genre that The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and Night Moves belong. They subvert Chandler’s prerequisite for a successful story. These deeply cynical films say there is no possibility of redemption, the man who is neither mean nor afraid is a fool and honor has no value. The famous last line of Polanski’s film (the ending he insisted upon over screenwriter Robert Towne’s ending, the ending of a Holocaust survivor), spoken to the hero after his journey of 130 minutes has ended in tragedy and disillusionment, is, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Chinatown here stands in for an open-ended list of other places. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Los Angeles” or “Forget it, Jake. It’s everywhere.”
At first, the movie-going public wasn’t quite ready to reconsider whether the mean streets might triumph over the man of honor. The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of Chandler’s novel of the same name, was initially to be filmed by Peter Bogdanovich, who envisioned Marlowe portrayed by Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum—in other words, a traditional take. Altman preferred his MASH star Elliott Gould. He and scriptwriter Leigh Brackett, who had been one of the writers (along with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman) of Hawks’ Big Sleep, conceived of Marlowe as an anachronism, a Rip Van Winkle awakening into ‘70s Los Angeles. The offbeat casting of Gould added to the viewer’s sense of dislocation. As Gould later told Mitchell Zuckoff for his biography of Altman, “I love Robert Mitchum and I love Lee Marvin, and I couldn’t argue with them. But you’ve seen them and you haven’t seen me.”
Indeed, Gould’s Marlowe had never been seen before, but only because the character had never been placed in such high contrast to his surroundings. This Marlowe is as insouciant as Bogart’s, although his quips aren’t nearly as polished, but unlike Bogart’s version thinks he’s still the first-person narrator in Chandler’s novel; whenever Gould doesn’t have another character to talk to, he talks to himself. Sometimes even when he does have another character to talk to he talks to himself. The effect is not unlike that of the original Fleischer Popeye cartoon series, where William Costello’s mumbling vocalizations comprise a stream of consciousness that doesn’t necessarily match the action on the screen.
In a story only loosely based on Chandler’s novel and set in the then-present day, Marlowe is confronted by three concurrent mysteries. His friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton, the erstwhile 21-game winner for the 1963 New York Yankees) has supposedly murdered his wife and committed suicide after absconding to Mexico. Marlowe doesn’t believe he was the murderer. Simultaneously, he is engaged by Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her missing husband, the eccentric, alcoholic novelist Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden, going big). Finally, brutal mobster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) thinks Marlowe knows the location of the $350,000 of his money Lennox was carrying and demands he return it or face a fatal reprisal.
Looming over all of the above is the problem of Marlowe’s cat, who has absconded after Marlowe is unable to furnish his or her preferred brand of canned food. As the mysteries unfold, overlap, and cohere (at least to an extent), Marlowe finds that even his ostensible friends can’t be trusted, not even the cat, and that rather than being the investigator, the protagonist, of these mysteries, he is merely a puppet on someone else’s string.
Neither Gould nor Altman play Marlowe for comedy, but let the film’s settings and situations emphasize the absurdity of the character’s conception; a detective who dealt in the dirty business of the underworld but remained above it would have to be so out of synch with the world around him that his level of detachment would border on the surreal. Finally, the film forces Marlowe to recognize the impossibility of his position and he rejects the limits his creator placed on him. This leads to a jarring final note, especially for devotees of the character, while opening the door to a world in which detective fiction can serve not only as escapism but can cope with the world as we experience it.