It was a cold and stormy night. A steady rain turned the New York streets slick and pattered the spring leaves. Cabs sloshed past office workers huddled in raincoats hurried home. The rain kept on, in streamlets down into the subway stations and turning the air into a glistening haze.
Perfect night for spies.
Or, in my case, perfect weather for launching an anthology about spies. On April 29, I was privileged to attend the official launch of MWA‘s Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War at Otto Penzler’s The Mysterious Bookshop. Editors and collection architects Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson hosted a wonderful night of conversation and signing. And more book signing. After which we signed more still. It was a dream to meet fellow mystery lovers and share a table with such accomplished talent as Deaver, Benson, Gayle Lynds, John Sheldon, Alan Cook, Brendan DuBois, Katia Lief, Vicki Doudera, Jonathan Stone, Gigi Vernon, Joseph Wallace, and Katherine Neville.
Official pix here. The signed copies available for purchase here.
Yes, it was a cold and stormy night…that this guy will never forget. My enduring thanks to MWA, the folks at Hachette, and the Mysterious Bookshop.
Dashiell Hammett earned his place in literary lore many times over, for amazing fiction but also for presenting the quintessential “lady walks in” opener. The Maltese Falcon kicks off with a scene borrowed into cliché. Secretary Effie Perine leans into PI Sam Spade’s office and says:
“There’s a girl out here who wants to see you.”
Plot summaries barely mention Effie, and when they do, usually it’s about her loyalty. As wholesome. Her Goodreads character profile is blank. The Wikipedia entry mentions her all of three times.
Wholesome? Afterthought? Effie commits at least that many felonies:
- She harbors Bridgette, a suspect in the murders of Archer and Thursby.
- She aids Sam in tampering with a crime scene and not reporting a murder (Captain Jacoby).
- She conceals key evidence in multiple homicide investigations – the Falcon itself.
Tack on abetting Sam’s affair with Archer’s wife, the jealous Iva, and the biggie: lying to her own mother. Loyal? Too loyal for her own good.
Dig into the story, and Effie becomes more than someone to light Sam’s smokes. Without her, Sam is locked up for Archer’s murder in Act Two, or if he cracks foxy enough to beat the rap, is offed by any of several conspirators with no reservations about killing over the Falcon.
Is she still sounding wholesome?
Effie could not exist in Sam’s world if she were wholesome. She’s a good person trying the best she can. For me, this provides the novel’s moral touchstone: Effie’s tortured and wavering morality highlights the raging amorality of the other characters, most of all Sam. He grows more excited, and entangled, as his grand game progresses, but Effie grows more horrified. She takes any opportunity to remind him of the risks and the costs he’s piling up. After Sam gives her a glimpse at his scheme, Effie makes a pitch-perfect reply:
“You worry me.”
The end of the novel leaves her faith in Sam shaken. The greatest price Sam pays for success may not be a dead partner or a lost chance at fortune or love forsaken.
Maybe it’s Effie.
I wish I had discovered Donald E. Westlake years earlier than I did. He is a writing hero for his ability to tell a story and to make it zing. His The Ax is as terrifying a novel as I’ve ever read. His Parker character is legendary, but it’s the Dortmunder crew I love most.
Here are some favorite examples of his distinctive wit:
They, all of them, the men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy was no longer an option. In short, the place looked like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.
– Watch Your Back (2005) Continue reading “Masters of Voice: Donald E. Westlake”