Some topical advice from “The Thin Man”

The stream of “alternative facts” from the White House over the last few days reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, which I’d like to share (no spoilers, but mild 1930s sexism):

We went into Mimi’s bedroom. She was sitting in a deep chair by a window looking very pleased with herself. She smiled gayly at me and said: “My soul is spotless now. I’ve confessed everything.”
            Guild stood by a table wiping his face with a handkerchief. There were still some drops of sweat on his temples, and his face seemed old and tired. The knife and chain, and the handkerchief they had been wrapped in, were on the table. “Finished?” I asked.
            “I don’t know, and that’s a fact,” he said. He turned his head to address Mimi: “Would you say we were finished?”
            Mimi laughed. “I can’t imagine what more there would be.”
            “Well,” Guild said slowly, somewhat reluctantly, “in that case I guess I’d like to talk to Mr. Charles, if you’ll excuse us for a couple of minutes.” He folded his handkerchief carefully and put it in his pocket.
            “You can talk here.” She got up from the chair. “I’ll go out and talk to Mrs. Charles till you’re through.” She tapped my cheek playfully with the tip of a forefinger as she passed me. “Don’t let them say too horrid things about me, Nick.” Andy opened the door for her, shut it behind her, and made the o and the blowing noise again.
            I lay down on the bed. “Well,” I asked, “what’s what?”
            Guild cleared his throat. “She told us about finding this here chain and knife on the floor where the Wolf dame had most likely broke it off fighting with Wynant, and she told us the reasons why she’d hid it till now. Between you and me, that don’t make any too much sense, looking at it reasonably, but maybe that ain’t the way to look at it in this case. To tell you the plain truth, I don’t know what to make of her in a lot of ways, I don’t for a fact.”
            “The chief thing,” I advised them, “is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another one, and so on. Most people—even women—get discouraged after you’ve caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.”

So, let’s do our best to take Mr. Charles’ advice and not get tired. We need to keep calling Trump on his lies each and every time. It will be exhausting and often seem pointless, but I think it is important to keep reminding ourselves what the truth is and reminding him that we won’t be exhausted into believing him.

The Fabulous Clipjoint

By Fredric Brown

Let’s talk a little bit about Pulp Mysteries. I LOVE them, even though they are deeply offensive by most of today’s standards, and the mindset of a hardboiled detective is about as far from my own as it is possible to be.

Book Cover: The Thin ManI was first introduced to them in high school, when my family went through a phase of watching movies from the 40s, including The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Thin Man. I went from there to reading Dashiell Hammett, who I absolutely love, and a little Raymond Chandler, who threw around the n-word enough to make me too uncomfortable to read most of his books.*

For a while, I looked for contemporary authors who also used the hardboiled style, and found Robert B. Parker (entertaining fluff that my mom accurately criticized for never allowing his characters to grow), Bill Pronzini (who has a nice gimmick of having a narrating detective who is never given a name), and my then favorite Joseph Hansen (featuring a gay insurance investigator who is as tough and stoic as any Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe).

Book Cover: Detective DuosSeveral years ago I picked up a collection of short stories titled Detective Duos, and was introduced to Fredric Brown’s Ed and Am Hunter, who immediately supplanted all other pulp mysteries in my heart forever. He wrote seven novels and one short story about the detective pair, all of which were published between 1947 and 1963 and are currently out of print, as far as I know. Tracking down each precious copy might have added just a little bit to my love of the series. (Much thanks to my wonderful sister for finding the seventh and rarest novel for me as a Christmas present a few years ago!)

In my opinion, Fredric Brown has not gotten the recognition he deserves as an author in any genre, though he is more known in the science fiction genre. I haven’t actually read any of those, but my impression is that they fit in fairly well with other contemporary science fiction novels, while his pulp mysteries really stand out from the rest.

The first book of the series, The Fabulous Clipjoint, introduces us to Ed Hunter, who is just 18 and teams up with his uncle, Ambrose “Am” Hunter, to solve the murder of his father. They live in gritty noir-ish Chicago, and feel the bitterness and cynicism of every other pulp detective, but Brown writes them with honesty and vulnerability that makes them more relatable and likeable than any other pulp mystery characters I’d read. I knew this book was something special when Ed makes a speech about wanting to have a drink of whiskey in honor of his dad, downs a hefty shot of whiskey, and promptly throws up.

Funny story, though: My first copy of The Fabulous Clipjoint ended with a plot dead-end with the detectives stumped, and I was a little taken aback but impressed at Brown’s moxie at showing that real-life mysteries don’t always end in tidy packages. Then, I ran across another copy in a used book store, and realized that my first copy was missing the last third of the book. The actual ending isn’t as bravely unusual, but is a lot more satisfying as a reader.

*Rereading The Fabulous Clipjoint, there are more casual racial slurs than I’d remembered, which is very unfortunate. They never actually describe a specific character, which is something of a poor salve for my conscience, but one I have to hang on to or else quit pulp mysteries forever.