FFB: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

I know, I know — when you suggest a classic author for FFB a lot of people will roll their eyes. “Forgotten by whom?” but I’d make an argument for Red Harvest very much being out of favour in the traditional canon of crime classics. I admit to not having the love for the Continental Op the first time I read those stories. The Maltese Falcon is just so good and I so adore The Thin Man and the films based on both those books, classics in their own right, too.

And no kidding, there are classic films associated with Red Harvest too — no less than Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, too. Plus the Coen brothers swiped the title and concept for Blood Simple from the book and while Miller’s Crossing isn’t exactly an adaptation, it pulls a lot from this novel. The Big Lebowski is more Chandlerian, but the love they have for the noirish grit is plain.

I’ve been trying to make the hard choices for the crime course in the spring (argh) and have finally made my peace with not trying to overstuff the reading list but to offer them a sort of gateway drug into the noirish side of crime. I was deciding which Hammett to use, going back and forth between Falcon and Thin Man when I considered whether to use this one instead. Re-reading it on the train down to Grand Central, then finishing it on the train to Dundee, I knew why it had taken on such a magnetic pull.

It has such a contemporary feel. The Continental Op battles the effects of early 20th century corruption: a town boss who crushed labour, then found his violent new bedfellows had — gasp! — no compunction about muscling into his world and filling their pockets, too. The oligarch Wilsson initially funds the investigation (after the Op’s original client, his son, has been murdered) in hopes of knocking out the competition. The extra S in his name allows Hammett just enough leeway to make him hosting peace talks just enough of a joke for a chuckle. As we seem to be returning to the age of robber barons and town bosses, the pervasive miasma of corruption smells all too familiar. Even the Op knows the deeper he wades into it, the more he risks picking up the stink himself. The last part of the book benefits from the tension that provokes, as we too wonder just how far he will go to take them all down.

Some great lines, starting with the opening sentence, a killer:

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” How’s that for a kick off? Each word perfect, specific but not too over the top and the book maintains the tone throughout with gangsters named Reno, Whisper and Pete the Finn.

Dinah Brand — described by the chief of police as “A soiled dove, as the fellow says, a de luxe hustler, a big league gold-digger” — becomes the linchpin of the novel and the Op’s uneasy colleague in a few capers. One of her conquests tells the detective: “I suppose you’ll see her. You’ll be disappointed at first. Then, without being able to say how or when it happened, you’ll find you’ve forgotten your disappointment, and the first thing you know you’ll be telling her your life’s history, and all your troubles and hopes…and then you’re caught, absolutely caught.” With all the vamps and dishy dames that fill so much wannabe noir, she’s a real standout. Brand ends up a complicated and fascinating character and Hammett works on the reader the same way.

The Op certainly thinks so: “She looked as if she were telling the truth, though with women, especially blue-eyed women, that doesn’t always mean anything.” Heh, you know I love that.

Dinah tells him at one point: “Polly De Voto is a good scout and anything she sells you is good, except maybe the bourbon. That always tastes a little bit like it had been drained off a corpse.”

Meanwhile he could provide a good test subject for a sleep deprivation study: “I went back to my hotel and got into a tub of cold water. It braced me a lot, and I needed bracing. At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”

There aren’t enough Finnish gangsters in early crime lit. I love his description of the fate of Pete the Finn: “Reno called him a lousy fish-eater and shot him four times in face and body.”

The toll taken: “This damned burg’s getting to me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”

In the end the most appealing aspect of the Op is that none of us are too sure just what he’ll do, including himself. Even his colleagues don’t trust him completely: “McGraw was trying to look through my eyes. I let him look, having all sorts of confidence in my belief that, like a lot of people I looked most honest when I was lying.”

Check out all the overlooked tomes at Patti Abbott’s blog. Click the picture to buy yourself a copy.

On the Road Again

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Nu är det jul igen!

Yes, I am Scotland bound once more, arriving in Dundee for my birthday tomorrow by way of Dublin and Edinburgh. Bertie and I got a tree this weekend from the farm around the corner and decorated it while watching Fanny & Alexander in accordance with tradition. There was some akvavit and monster king crab legs, too. Yum!

I expect to arrive jetlagged but happy to be spending my birthday with loved ones I have been away from far too long. Who knows? I may even get to all the things I should have done a while ago but was too crazy busy to do. Or not. I may just play video games, watch movies and sing along with “Let It Go” a few more thousand times with a certain four year old.

It doesn’t really matter. I do my best to enjoy where I am all the time, but it’s easier to do when it’s somewhere you long to be and with the ones you love. May you all be with the ones you love at this dark time of year. And if you want to wish me a happy birthday tomorrow? I don’t need expensive gifts or grand gestures, but I could always use some reviews. If you don’t have time for that, please consider sharing links to my stories (yes, even the freebies!) on social media. Every bit helps my little voice to be heard in the cacophony.

Be Kind to a Writer

Music Not to Miss

Give the gift of music this holiday season (or all year long!) Some suggestions:


I was sold on the packaging before I heard the first note. Of course I’ve been sold on Godard for ages but this is such a bright swinging disc that it hasn’t been out of rotation since I got it. From the first note to the last there’s not a moment’s boredom. People use the term ‘infectious’ all the time, but there’s just no other word to describe it. It’s clever and light-hearted, genuine Northern soul. After the bouncy intro, ‘Holiday Hymn’ is just that:

We can have a day to remember
Forget about the mid December
Bring about a change of the weather

Typically, what seems like just a bit of fun masks the melancholy depths behind it:

Today all the girls
Are feeling sad but they don’t let it show
With a tear in your eye, smile on your face
I know that you know
More than you let me know
Your eyes would melt the snow.

It’s all just that good. I defy you not to dance to ‘Happy Go Lucky Girl’ — or for that matter ‘Born to be a Rebel’ or — well, you could dance to all of it. Devils and demons cavort with the lost and the nearly hopeless just looking for redemption, or a beast who could be saved by your love. For all its authentic 1979 sound, what keeps this from ever feeling like nostalgia is the world-weary good humour in Godard’s voice. Love this.

Buy it!


There’s a connection here: Edwyn Collins. He co-produced Godard’s album and he produced another of my current faves, Paul Quinn & the Independent Group’s Will I Ever Be Inside You? (which I also cannot recommend enough though it will break your heart). I just got the soundtrack to this film which I will be ordering, too. It follows Collins on his path from huge pop star to stroke to recovery and return to music. I saw the short half hour film on the BBC some time back and it was amazing so I can’t wait for this. The soundtrack is wonderful.

Buy it.


I know I’ve mentioned this one before, but it’s worth a mention again. Julie is a woman after my own heart, throwing herself into her creative muse with curiosity and no preconceived notions about what it should produce. We have ongoing conversations on Twitter about that process, about how pop music doesn’t get any respect — a perfect pop song like Julie’s ‘Hollyhocking’ is a thing of genius more so than some dull bum-faced mugging ‘perfect’ guitar solo — and of course various rants about the way the world ought to be ;-) And she recommends great stuff to me, like Ex-Hex, because good stuff leads to more good stuff.

Buy it.


My pals The Autumn Stones have a new single out called “Endless War” (a tune for our times, indeed); Mr B recommended Colorama and I’m grooving on them a lot. Check out their Welsh tunes, Dere Mewn. And this morning the Queen of Everything (AKA S. L. Johnson) got my feet moving with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings (the latter even backed up Amy Winehouse, so you know they rock). Jones has an awesome voice. There’s a whole lot out there — find your muse.

It’s Krampus Eve!

So it’s time for my favourite holiday offering:

Don’t forget; there’s an audio version, too:

Don’t let the Krampus get you!

Interview with Paul D. Brazill: Guns of Brixton


Interview with Mr B up –

Originally posted on Graham Wynd:

There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants…. The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled he walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken.
~Jack London

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Paul D. Brazill has a wicked sense of humour and a lot of gritty stories that make you wince even while you’re laughing. His stories follow the lot of broken down, last chance guys, tough dames and would-be swindlers who might be just a little too clever for their own good to…

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Choose Books

Renton FBBut why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got books?” [with apologies to Irvine Welsh]

This holiday season give the gift that gives forever: books. Give new worlds, give real people, give fictional people who seem more real, give adventure, give heartache, give joy, give celebration, give life.

Give books.

Kinski Butterfly

Richard Sanderson is doing another one of his free-for-all projects Two Minutes Left over at Linear Obsessional Recordings (Submissions open until December 15th). I took part in last year’s Button Box with a spoken word piece from my story “Carlos” that appears in the second Fox Pockets anthology, Shapeshifters. That recording is free to download:

So I thought I’d do another piece, which came about in the usual sort of odd way. There was visiting the Kinski Bar, which I loved so very much and which still fills my head. There’s Fitzcarraldo and its mirror Burden of Dreams, or what you might call the magic and how mad the magic making is. And there was this video of Kinski with a butterfly, which comes from Mein Liebster Feind, Werner Herzog’s singular tribute to his frequent collaborator. Then I found that the German for ‘butterfly’ (der Schemetterling) according to the Wicktionary (well…) comes “from Schmetten (‘cream’) due to old belief that witches transformed themselves into butterflies to steal cream and other milk products.”

Well, that was irresistible.

So I came up with a submission–and in German! “Kinski Butterfly” is more of a poem than a song, I fear. It stole a bit from thinking about opera because of Fitzcarraldo, and from Marlene and Weill — trying to do something in that sort of vein with my, erm, very limited abilities. But that’s how my brain works (if it does). Once I see a thing in my head, I want to make it real. Every random thing that’s caught my attention might show up. It’s all part of the process. Everything, however seemingly random or insignificant (or immense and significant), that goes in my head becomes part of the creative process. And I end up doing rather frightening things that I never thought I’d try — I know it’s not exactly leaping from a tall building, but sometimes the little braveries have a big impact on one’s own life.

We’ll see how it turns out once Richard releases the collection on Xmas Eve.