Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Three Books

David Karp – HARDMAN

One of the many ways in which the Onion’s “AV Blog” annoys is that its the default authority for hipsters – if you want to know what the Consensus Hipster View is of this or that cultural artifact, that’s the place you want to go to. Its annoying partly because Consensus Authorities are smothering in general, and partly because there’s a lack of self-awareness in the very conception of the Approved Hipster Position. Whatever else a hipster is supposed to be, he’s really not supposed to be Roger Ebert in a finely turned-out leather jacket.

They’ve recently started to doing a reoccurring series called something like “Gateways to Geekery”, where they try to show you how to enter various cult phenomenon like Japanese horror movies or French cabaret music. Or crime fiction, which brings us to Karp. Or rather, the lack of Karp; I looked at this one and it was full of the same routine choices – Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson. Not anything against any of those guys, everyone should read them, of course, but there’s nothing particularly edgy about these picks. This isn’t the sort of thing a crime fiction geek is going to looking to be introduced to.

He’s more likely to be looking at Karp, an extremely obscure author who’s Lion pb originals are in high demand nowadays among the cognoscenti. This one isn’t a Lion, but obscure enough in its own way, and actually the first Karp I’ve ever been able to lay my hands on. A rather traditional “writer makes good/then declines” sort of story, not particularly different from many of its type, although much tighter and a bit better told. It does suffer from the usual problem of shoehorning a romance, of sorts, into it, although Karp does an amusing thing with it (more about that in a second). In general, as I think I’ve mentioned before, writer’s lives are not particularly interesting, and most stories about them have to whip up something to actually just talk about.

What’s amusing about HARDMAN is the Spillaine influence. It is hard for people nowadays to understand this, but in the early Fifties Spillaine was an immensely important and divisive cultural figure. His great success, combined with the type of stories he was successful telling, convinced a lot of people that the end times were actually upon us. Our hero, “Hardman”, is a pure Spillaine stand-in, or at least who a lot of people feared Spillaine was – a sadist who got off on torturing women. The “romance” is all caught up in that, and comes to a fairly amusing end…although I don’t think its intended to be amusing at all.

Poor old Mickey. Actually a straightforward reading of Spillane suggests a diehard Romantic and a guy who’s rather deeply religious. And most of his books hold up pretty well – I think Spillaine is too well-known for this blog, but I agree with Kingsley Amis on him: the fact that you don’t want to live in Spillaine’s universe doesn’t mean that its not well-presented.

As for HARDMAN, not really that great, more an amusing cultural artifact than anything. Although I do very much like this notion that a popular writer can be a screwup, not something you much see in books of this type but probably very true to life.

Joel Townsley Rogers – THE RED RIGHT HAND

This is basically the second best Cornell Woolrich novel Cornell never wrote. Which is only middling praise from me, as I’m not a fan, really, of Woolrich, finding his vision curiously limited and his endless vamping in most of his novels tiresome, after awhile.

For a while I used to think Woolrich was better in the short story form, but I’ve read enough of those now to not really believe that, either: the short stories tend toward the gimmicky twist endings of their time. Woolrich is in a curious position of generally needing length to broaden his vision…but he couldn’t go too long or it all gets repetitive. This is why I think his best work, by far incidentally, is RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK, the structure (four interrelated vignettes) cannily works to Woolrich’s strengths, plus for whatever reason this seems to be the purest, darkest expression of his vision.

But anyway, HAND is pretty obviously inspired by Woolrich, it has many of the same notions – the idea that the world is in conspiracy against you, fragility of identity, the notion that love and happiness is fleeting. Rogers manages to vamp it up for a very long time, although the final reveal was a little less shocking to me than I think it was intended to be. Interesting, but I don’t think its worth a tremendous amount of bother to search out.


One of the ways you can distinguish a good minor writer from a major writer is that they really only have one thing to say – the trick is to get the best expression of it. Its a tricky criteria – I think sometimes the perfection of a minor writer looks a bit better than the sloppiness that you often find with major writers But taken as a whole (I think the best way to approach writers all around, through their career) Dumas, for example, strikes me as a major writer – Lord Knows he had his faults, but there’s a kind of drive there and creativity that’s undeniable. Many of the modern action adventure tropes we value were invented by Dumas.

While Buchan, despite his great merits, really strikes me as a minor writer. A good minor writer, to be sure, but a minor writer nonetheless. Once you get past the puffery (Buchan is often praised for his descriptive abilities for instance, I think JOHN MCNAB retains its readership, such as it is, soley for that, but his descriptive passages, while admirably complete, strike me as beyond tedious – I genuinely am amazed that anyone’s made it all the way through WITCH WOOD, which is all description, very literately presented but not very exciting.) Buchan really had only one thing to say – “Romance still exists in the world, you simply have to look for it” – and as I type this I am reminded that was also one of G.K. Chesterton’s ideas, too. Maybe it was simply in the air in those days? Anthony Hope’s PRISONER OF ZENDA (which we’ll probably get to one of these days) also believed much the same thing. But Chesterton is a major writer, I think, he had a lot more going on than Buchan, who only really has this.

The trick then is to get the best expression of it, and HUNTING TOWER is it. The book is literally a fairy tale, complete with a princess trapped in a tower, a noble knight (actually a couple), a treasure, a scurrilous villain, and a rousing battle at the finish. Buchan had always jabbed in this direction, that’s really what the Hannay novels are intended to be, up to date knight errant romances, but he tends to get distracted there either by political points or by a certain belaboredness. I admire MR STANDFAST, for instance, which I think is a fairly polished piece of work in much the same form as this, but HUNTING TOWER just has a kind of appealing sprightliness that STANDFAST lacks. It may come down to simply Buchan’s willingness to have fun here, while STANDFAST is Very Serious; it may have something to do with taking PILGRIM’S PROGRESS as an inspiration instead of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA; it may just be that HUNTING TOWER is shorter and that helped. I don’t know. HUNTING TOWER is tighter, funnier (the comic relief here is, wonder of wonders, actually amusing), makes it’s points in a much lighter way that ensure they stick better. It even has a better climax and a better ending – like a lot of early adventure fiction writers Buchan had trouble with climaxes but this one could actually be filmed as stated, and has a good bit with dramatic reversals and ironic moments.

Anyway. Recently reissued by Oxford U Press, this is a gem, definitely my favorite Buchan book (pretty much in a walk, actually), and like I said, pretty much the summit of his career, I venture. What you want out of Buchan – a modern day romance, a celebration of the British middle class, evocative locales that don’t overwhelm you, some notions about the magic of life – you’ll find here, without the awkwardness or heavy-handedness that a lot of his books run into. Highly recommended.

Next Time: John O'Hara's Short Stories