Sunday, July 29, 2012

No Good From A Corpse

The best thing about this book was its cool cover. 

I have to be frank that part of the reason why this review is delayed is because I had a hard time getting through this 200-odd page book. If it hadn't been written by Leigh Brackett, I probably wouldn't have finished it. Brackett, of course, was one of Howard Hawks' favorite screenwriters and has an origin story that can't be beat: upon reading No Good From A Corpse, Hawks supposedly said, "Get me that Brackett fellow!" to finish the script for The Big Sleep. When I heard this anecdote years ago, I immediately had respect for this woman who wrote like a man, who impressed Hawks enough to get hired as a scriptwriter, and who could transition back and forth from sci-fi to hardboiled without breaking a sweat.

Then I actually read the thing.

And suddenly everything I had prematurely admired about the book struck me as awful. Let's start with the most two most salient: the easy transitioning between genres and the whole "writes like a man" thing. Well, the more I read this book the more I felt that Brackett had written it on a bet. Like she said, "I've read a few Chandlers, I bet I can bang out a hardboiled in two weeks." I haven't found any evidence to this effect but reading the book, that's certainly what it feels like. The whole time I was reading the thing I just felt like I was sliding over surfaces; there were no real points of entry into anyone's head, nothing felt urgent, just rote. The detective, Ed Clive, has his moments, particularly his childhood reminiscences about Arcadian, unspoiled Los Angeles, but overall he just seemed sketched in.

As for the gender thing, well, Brackett has some issues. She tries way too hard to come off masculine, to the point of peppering the book with casual misogyny ("A woman driver pulled onto the road, blocking traffic on all lanes") and general tough-guy posturing. This just strike me as kind of sad, like those women who claim they don't like other women. Or -- and I hope this is closer to the truth -- Brackett was taking the piss out of tough-guy hardboiled detectives. For her sake, I hope so. Anyway, I just found all the posturing a little tiresome.

There just wasn't nearly enough going on in NGFAC to make me want to churn through it, and even the little asides about LA's oil-spoiled beaches weren't enough. Though the plot wasn't particularly hard to follow, many parts of this book felt opaque because characters and events were just dropped in without context or explanation -- I'm all for making the reader work a little, but to be honest it was a bit extreme, so much so that I often felt like I was reading a sequel or a second installment in a series.

What say you, other readers? Am I being a priss? Was this a hardboiled masterpiece and not a little bit of pastiche?  Did the sassy dialogue make up for the fact that it wasn't always clear what was happening to whom, or why? Did anyone else find Ed Clive to be a bit of a hollow man? Argue with me! I can take it -- I'm smart and tough, and really not like a girl at all.


Flicker said...

Oh yes, I agree, it was awful. I didn't actually buy the book -- the file is available for free online, so I was working my way through a Word file full of typos (bad scan, I think), and that didn't help. But the story is so cliched, it's painful.

I think it was in Chapter 3 that I started to get annoyed by her use of the word "did." In the first scene we meet Sugar (I thought for the longest time that was just what Clive called her, not her name), and Clive's dinner jacket "did things to him. Sugar liked what it did." Then, later, in Laurel's dressing room: "She pouted at him and went and did things with lipstick and a comb." Then, in the next chapter (still at the nightclub) we have: "Samuels came back and did things with towels and disinfectant and gauze." OK, enough, it's making my teeth hurt.

The "dimout" aspect was interesting, reminding you that the war was going on (except then why were all these potential servicemen/women walking around leading normal lives in LA?). Did I like anything else, hmm. There was a bit of real atmosphere, as you point out, when we get down to the beach. That's about it, though.

I will admit that Brackett knows how to write. You can see her talent hiding behind the story. I'm prepared to believe that she went on and wrote some good science fiction. But this novel is just embarrassing. Still, it's probably better than a lot of what was being published at the time. I'm now reading (slowly) a biography of Ross Macdonald and it talks about how the mystery novel exploded in the 1930s and 40s, and everyone was writing them and probably most of them were drivel.

I'm looking forward to the next one, though I don't have it yet. Dorothy B. Hughes is supposed to have been a truly good mystery writer, right?

Andrea Janes said...

You know what's funny? I know next to nothing about Dorothy B. Hughes, from an biographical or literary standpoint! But I've now read In A Lonely Place twice and I can tell you it's a darn sight better than No Good From A Corpse! (Nice job pointing out the "did"s... I didn't -- ugh -- notice those!) Lonely Place is basically just the portrait of a serial killer's mindset, and makes no pretensions to being a mystery (it runs far more along the suspense lines) but it did this quite early on in the genre. There is also a fascinating similarity to a certain other book I've read recently and, frankly, I cannot WAIT to blog my brilliant new theory to the world....
Anyway, thanks for the insightful comments. You hit it on the head -- Brackett's talent is hiding there behind the story. And one does get the sense she did it a bit as an experiment (as per the Macdonald comment). Thanks again!