Hardboiled: Motherless Brooklyn

Belonging, without question, within the lineage of the hardboiled, Jonathan Lethem‘s moving Motherless Brooklyn is an example of the way hardboiled tropes can be tweaked to make sense in a contemporary context. Not a revisionist book per se, Motherless Brooklyn stays true to its generic inspirations while also exploring new modes.

Published in 1999, reviews at The New York Times and Salon, described Motherless Brooklyn as “better than the average hip post modern novel” and working under “the guise of a detective novel” to achieve loftier goals, respectively. The problem I have with these analyses is that they dismiss how cleanly the novel stays within hardboiled genre conventions. Lethem clearly, to me at least,  set out to write a detective novel first, and the subtext and twists on genre followed after.

The story is entirely from the main character’s point-of-view, Lionel Essrog, an orphan who grew up with a close group of three other Brooklyn castoffs, Tony, Danny and Gilbert; later to be taken under the mentoring of a shady local businessman Frank Minna. As “Minna’s Men” the four eventually become a detective agency/limo service, with some sketchy additional responsibilities doled out by Frank with little context. Despite some occasional rough treatment at all of their hands, Lionel loves Frank like a father and the other Minna Men as brothers. A subtext in Motherless Brooklyn about the way we, sometimes desperately, create ersatz families out of friends is essentially text.

The primary plot driver of the novel is an investigation Lionel undertakes—of his own volition with no support and rife with obstacles—of the mysterious fate of Frank Minna himself. This investigation eventually destabilizes and recontextualizes Lionel’s understanding of almost all of the people and situations he has lived with most of his adult life.

What sets the novel apart from other hardboiled detective fiction is the unique interior mental landscape of Lionel Essrog. Lionel has struggled all his life with Tourette’s syndrome, in a social environment that is by turns dismissively cold or actively hostile to the different and unexpected. But while Lionel’s syndrome is the source of a wide range of injuries to his self-esteem and a daily challenge, it’s also shown to be part of what makes him a natural detective. Lethem turns Lionel’s Tourette’s into a kind of secret—admittedly hard to control and potentially damaging—super-power, like an X-Men-style mutation. Given Lethem’s well documented love of comics, this approach to explaining Tourette’s to the lay person is organic and strangely relate-able. I had never understood Tourette’s as a collection of discreet compulsive behaviours until I spent time in Lionel Essrog’s mental landscape.

Lethem tries to capture what it must be like to compulsively turn an idea, word or image over-and-over in your head until it has to explode out of you in a outburst—like venting steam to release pressure—the outward expression of rapid and compulsive thought processes. I have no idea how accurate Motherless Brooklyn is to the interior life of a Tourette’s sufferer, but to an outsider like me there seemed to be an emotional honesty and genuine empathy to the depiction. Lethem also makes a compelling argument that the compulsions at the heart of Lionel’s syndrome make him the only one in the book capable of following through on the truth behind the fate of Frank Minna.

In hindsight, it’s hard not to see Motherless Brooklyn as the precursor (inspiration?) to so many television shows about brilliant characters with diagnosable mental problems, which seem to help make them better at their jobs, such as Monk, House and even the recent Sherlock.

While engaging and heartfelt throughout, Motherless Brooklyn is not without some minor issues. In particular, a love interest for Lionel begins as an intriguing personality sketch but quickly thins out into inscrutability. This was probably a deliberate choice on Lethem’s part as it either helps show the challenges someone with Tourette’s must face in cultivating romantic relationships, or the challenges Lionel faces in specific because he basically inhabits, and is largely comfortable in, a world of thugs and gangsters. Either way though, the net effect is to turn an initially promising character into stock. This is a little disappointing in that the lack of positive female influences—particularity mother figures—in all the Minna Men’s lives (implicit even in the title of the book) is an interesting bit of subtext that could have been explored further. Lethem pokes at the idea with his depictions of Frank’s mother and wife, but the concept feels slightly under-served.

Flaws aside, Motherless Brooklyn is a refreshingly entertaining read: a tense, driving, hardboiled detective story with heartfelt and truly moving pathos and a unique point-of-view—it’s also full of lovingly rendered Brooklyn details that ground the proceedings.

Motherless Brooklyn helps to reinforce that hardboiled writing can have a place in contemporary fiction, and not just as a curio of the past. Motherless Brooklyn feels as fresh and interesting today as when it was written, and I suspect it will age very well.

Hardboiled: Pronto

This year, a legend in the hardboiled genre passed away, Elmore Leonard. When I heard the news of his death, I was reminded of a copy of his novel Pronto that I had picked up a few months earlier, along with a small lot of other used paperbacks. Pronto had caught my eye because it features a character named Raylan Givens, who is the focus of one of my favourite television shows, Justified, which Leonard was involved with as a producer until his passing.

Pronto is both an excellent example of Leonard’s style and functions as a de facto prequel to Justified—the novel’s climax is a key scene early in the pilot episode.

Raylan emerges gradually as the hero of Pronto, but the character the reader begins and ends the story with is Harry Arno, a Miami bookie in his middle sixties who has been skimming from his mob bosses for years as part of a plan to flee into retirement in Ripallo Italy. Ripallo holds a special place in Arno’s heart due to a Word War II encounter he had there with poet Ezra Pound. But in the way of most of Leonard’s protagonists, reality rarely, if ever, matches the vision in their heads—of either the past or the future.

Years earlier, Arno had given U.S. Marshal Givens the slip in an Atlanta airport. The dogged Raylan sees Arno’s latest flight to Italy as a chance for him to redeem himself with the Marshal service, and hopefully secure a promotion. At the same time, Arno, vaguely dissatisfied with life in Ripallo, has called his ex-stripper wife Joyce to join him, using American ex-pat Robert Gee, a former foreign legionary, as intermediary and security. Joyce is pursued by Raylan, Tommy ‘The Zip’ Bucks—a cold-blooded hitman working for Arno’s mob boss Jimmy ‘The Cap’ Capotorto—Nicky Testa, The Cap’s assistant, and several other Italian confederates of Tommy Bucks. All of these vividly drawn characters converge on Arno’s decaying villa in the hills of Ripallo.

But the events of Ripallo will lead to an inevitable final showdown between Tommy Bucks and Raylan Givens back home in Miami. In Raylan, Leonard found an engaging balance of traditional western* and contemporary crime heroes—extravagantly flawed, but attempting to make the right decisions, to do good, within a limited frame of reference.

Arno, in contrast, is a perfect example of a Leonard protagonist who is incapable of understanding his own motivations—not stupid per se, but too myopic and narcissistic to fathom the impact his choices might have on those around him. He is entirely driven by trying to satisfy needs he is unable to effectively articulate or even enjoy when he meets them.

Better than any other writer, Elmore Leonard understood the intersection between criminality and stupidity. Not that all of his criminal characters are idiots, but even the smarter ones make bad decision after bad decision as a result of greed. Rather than a simple “crime doesn’t pay” morality though, Leonard’s novels are often overtly sympathetic to the way average people can be lead astray by greed. Even his heroes are drawn as complex individuals who make bad decisions due to flaws—like Raylan’s temper and stubbornness.

Pronto is classic Elmore Leonard, clean hard prose** with ultra-sharp dialogue, but the novel is also an interesting read if you’re a fan of JustifiedJustified captures the essence of Elmore Leonard’s writing in a way no other adaptation, some of them very good, has managed—a specifically Leonardian combination of black humour and gripping crime drama. Although published back in 1993, Pronto contains a number of scenes and characters that appear throughout Justified, albeit often in reconfigured fashion. Raylan’s back-story in the tv show is very close to what appears in Pronto, with some minor variations—for example he mentions two young sons in the novel, but starts the tv show childless. As a fan of the show, the variations become a bit distracting, but the novel definitely merits attention on its own terms.

It’s striking how clearly Leonard’s characters and dialogue translate to the screen. Twenty-six of his novels and short stories have already been adapted into movies and television,*** starting in the 50s. But this natural affinity film and television has for Leonard’s strong dialogue and plotting shouldn’t obscure the overall quality of his writing. His ability to convey rich characterization with a minimum of highly readable prose sets his work well apart from many of his hardboiled contemporaries. Elmore Leonard’s books aren’t just entertaining, they’re very good.

*Leonard began his writing career with westerns, including the seminal 3:10 to Yuma.
**Leonard was influenced by Hemingway, but found him too humourless—nicely summarizing Leonard’s appeal as a prose stylist.
***Apparently even Pronto in 1997 with Peter Falk!—thank you for your generous bounty wikipedia.

Hardboiled: The Maltese Falcon

Since our launch last month, we have shortchanged part of our mandate by not talking about hardboiled lit with the same enthusiasm we’ve shown other genres. As a corrective, I’ve provided below a reworked version of a review I put up last year on Goodreads of The Maltese Falcon.

I’ve chosen Dashiell Hammett as the first hardboiled author to highlight on Albino Books because he is one of the first true writers in that subgenre and because of his influence over an important subgenre of science fiction: cyberpunk.

There’s a lot of loose talk about the noir influence in cyberpunk, and the most common reference tends to be Raymond Chandler. No disrespect to the marvelous Chandler or his admirers, but I think Hammett is a clearer influence on cyberpunk and in particular the ground zero that is the William Gibson novel Neuromancer.

Hammett’s best work is clean, diamond-hard and unsentimental—the core of what it means to be hardboiled writer.

If you spliced together the DNA of Red Harvest, The Stars My Destination and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress* the resulting hybrid would be Neuromancer.


Reading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I’ve seen the beloved third film version many times since I was a child—it was also the first movie I watched in the first film studies class I ever took—so my expectations going in were that I would find little in the way of fresh experience. There’s a distancing effect that happens to me where I compare what I’m reading to my recollections of a film adaptation. And those recollections aren’t always accurate, despite how many times I’ve seen the movie, so the distancing is multiplied while I simultaneously interrogate myself about my memories.

Look, I’m not going to argue with you that I’m not too introverted sometimes.

Roughly halfway through reading The Maltese Falcon though, I became fully engrossed and achieved the highly sought after Nirvana of total escapism. Mr. Hammett was that good.

From the first page, I was surprised by the differences from the 1941 film. In the book, Hammett describes his main character Sam Spade as looking like a tall “blonde Satan.” Like most people, when I hear the name Sam Spade, I think of Bogart, who was neither tall nor really devilish (at least in appearance), and certainly not blonde.

This was where I was still wrestling with my preconceptions. At about the point where Spade roughs up “the Levantine” Joe Cairo, I was fully immersed  in Hammett’s morally grey world of tough guys and femme fatales. I stopped seeing Peter Lorre and Bogart and started seeing the characters as Hammett described them.

Part of my ability to lose myself in the book is the slightly different tone it takes. Probably as a result of censorship at the time, Hammett’s novel seems harsher and darker than the movie. The book is not elaborately violent or sexy, but it definitely has more edge than the film. And Spade as a character displays an even more dubious morality than his film counterpart.

Do I need to recap the plot? It doesn’t differ that much from one of the most popular films of all time. Sam Spade, a detective, and assorted criminals including one legendary femme fatale scheme and swindle each other over a rare historical object from Malta.

Hammett gets into a surprising amount of detail about the history and provenance of his MacGuffin—I felt like I was watching a lost Indiana Jones movie. It’s a startling effective passage in the book and provides an interesting resonance to the proceedings that might otherwise be lacking if the characters were squabbling over more conventional spoils. It’s easier to imagine everyone becoming obsessed with the Maltese Falcon because Hammett provides it with more back-story than some of the main characters—which is not at all a criticism on my part.

But what’s really striking about the book, as opposed to the movie, is the ambiguity of Spade’s moral calculus. There’s some suggestion that Spade makes the decisions he makes in the course of the book because he believes in criminals being brought to justice, but it could just as easily be interpreted as Spade favouring that side of the game—just slightly. In fact, his calculated approach to life ends up alienating his loyal to a fault secretary Effie. She comes late to realize what the reader has a few scenes earlier: Spade is basically a bastard, who may or may not have some rudimentary motivations left related to issues of justice.

The Maltese Falcon, the book, expresses a deeply nihilistic worldview that the movie only hints at. The movie is unimpeachably a piece of classic film noir, but it only touched on the blackness of the novel—still a bracingly modern read, even over 80 years later.

*I readily acknowledge the importance of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to the development of SF, but think it’s mostly a terribly written book with some great concepts littered throughout.

Albino Books Now Up & Running

Welcome to Albino Books. For more information on your hosts, please visit the About page.

Albino Books

Albino Books was founded by booksellers and fans who love Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Weird Tales, Hardboiled and everything in-between—as a venue for freewheeling discussion, genre-related news, reviews, criticism, and dealing in books & ephemera.

Worldcon '09 books display

The first sale we’ll have a booth at will be the next Geek Market in Ottawa, Canada this upcoming October 19th and 20th, 2013. Please come by and say hello.

As the site ramps up, we’ll have more information on how to buy books from us, but a significant portion of the content here will always be dedicated to news, reviews & editorials. Many of the books, comics, posters et cetera , that we show you pictures of will be for sale, unless otherwise attributed, so if you’re interested in purchasing something, just use the Contact page to let us know.

We we also be featuring the work of a select group of other contributors with a variety of of different approaches to genre culture—we’re trying to jump-start some conversation.

There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.
—Franz Kafka