The Detectives’ Book Club

he second time I saw Sam Hammett, he strode toward me with an unwarranted rancor, crumpled with a surly air into the chair opposite me, and dropped onto the table a hardback book. The sound of it striking the rosewood made a wizened crone browsing the non-fiction splash coffee on the carpet tiles.

Hammett was greying. With the occasional stripe of black reaching back across the bristles, his hair was the half-used eraser to his pencil-thin body. His mustache draped his upper lip in a great arc. He seemed nonetheless to be sneering.

“This,” he said, stabbing the book’s dust cover with a narrrow finger, “is not what I asked for, Mr. Archer.”

The Second Murderer is a classic work of detective fiction, Mr. Hammett.” I paused, under the illusion that silence might be the solution. But he leaned forward, opened the book to the first chapter and proceeded to read:

Ray Delaney’s coffee smelt like the underside of a bus. As the heat dissipated into the early morning sky, he could hear the counterpoint of city wildlife bubbling just beneath the veneer of civilisation. Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky Californian soil.

The ice in Hammett’s stare burned my face. “Like the underside of a BUS?” he said. “What the hell kind of writing is that?”

“That is, Mr. Hammett, one of the most famous opening paragraphs in detective fiction. Charles Thornton is not quite our best-selling author here at the Mysterious Bibliophile, but we certainly make a healthy profit on this novel alone.”

“It’s about as elegant as as…” He fumbled at the air between us. “As a… tarantula choking down a piece of dog food!”

A cough hybridised with a burst of chuckling escaped from a figure seated in the far corner of the store. He stood, reached with a glabrous hand a black wooden pipe to his mouth, and stepped toward us around a tower of Erle Stanley Gardners. His suit was better upholstered than my couch.

“Good to see you in such festive spirits, Sam.”  In spite of the pipe he enunciated each syllable with an Ivy League exactitude. His jacket and vest were of a heavy tweed, and though his chin was weak he concealed it with copious puffs of smoke. He seemed to have punctured Hammett’s pomposity.

Hammett stood. “Ray,” he said. “I didn’t realize you frequented this place. Is this where they keep your poetry these days?”

Chandler smirked, his eyes watery but keen behind round, thin-rimmed glasses. He said: “I’ve circumvented the need to demean myself in the world of poetry, Sam, and so have you. In fact, much like Mr. Thornton—I’m terribly surprised you’re not a fan—we can bask in the glory of popular success without the expectation of  critical praise.”

Still seated, I watched this Homeric struggle. Hammett’s gaze seemed to soften in the face of this raffishness, while Chandler—quieter, smaller and trying his best not to seem flustered in spite of it all—puffed a perfectly-twisting curl of oak-flavored smoke into the air.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “Please take a seat, I’m sure I can find something to both Mr. Hammett’s and Mr. Chandler’s taste.” I rose and went to the back of the store. A stack of titles as yet unsorted teetered between two leather armchairs. I removed a soft cover and returned to my seat, perched my glasses on my nose and turned to the opening paragraph:

Her features, soft like wax, are half-hidden in the darkness. I wait until the train crossing the bridge screams into a corner and fades before I ask her why she is here. She speaks in riddles, fractal sentences, misappropriated phrases and English half-wrapped in her native tongue. I sputter in German, consonants and vowels spill beneath the underpass and flicker for a moment in the midnight air before obscurity snatches them. We talk like broken glass before, finally, her face leans toward mine and I see a wisp of warmth on her lips vaporise between us.

I could neither gauge their reaction nor draw a deep, well-earned breath before Hammett sprang to his feet and said: “Wonderful, that IS more like it, Mr. Archer—The Laconic German, correct?”

“Yes, one of J. Ford Hadley’s more pop…”

“Good God, Sam!” crowed Chandler, pulling the pipe from his mouth and swinging it in an arc as though dispensing incense. “He just spat at the alphabet and hoped for the best. There’s nothing there that one would be unable to express in a single sentence.”

“What sentence would you suggest, exactly, my dear Raymond?” he said, arching a bushy black eyebrow.

Chandler, now twisted in his chair the better to address Hammett, replaced his pipe and said: “I kissed her,” he paused. “Like she was my last drink of the night.”

Hammett raised a hand to his forehead and his blazer ballooned out from his sides. If he were any thinner he would disappear, I thought. He began to pace like a tiger enclosed, vivacious yet centered, appropriating with embracing gestures of his arms words from the book-dust around him. “All you’re interested in, Ray: Adjectives and nouns. Try some verbs some day.”

“Nouns and adjectives are all that this country is interested in, Sam,” said Chandler.

The words bounced off Hammett as he paced toward the non-fiction. The old woman, now sipping lukewarm dregs from a Mysterious Bibliophile coffee mug, squinted up at Hammett, blind to the author’s stare.

Chandler creased back to face me in his chair and placed his hand on the dust cover of The Second Murderer. He said: “Do you know, Mr. Archer, that Charles DeForest Thornton appropriated this title from me.” It was not a question. “My first novel was, in the original draft, going to be called The Second Murderer. But the agents, second only to actors in their finite wisdom, did not appreciate the reference.”

“Sometimes reference is all we have left,” I said. Chandler nodded sourly, eyes obscured in the glint of his lenses, chin hidden in a wreath of smoke. He rose slowly and traipsed past me toward his corner, and toward his miniature stack of books.

I looked back to Hammett. He was stood in a shaft of light at the front of the store, eyeing the shelves despondently. The sun—creeping in from the steps that led to the curb outside—shone onto the white streaks in his hair to form an afternoon halo. Behind me, Chandler was puffing like an irregular steam train and making notations on a battered copy of Eliot’s Waste Land.

I picked up The Second Murderer.

Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky red Californian soil.

Delaney was focused intently on the sunlight catching the right-angles of his filing cabinet. It was a dry, stubborn heat that had been many times his savior. Heat always drew from others an unexpected candor.

Delaney did not know it, but today was the first time he would see Sylvia Munroe…

Aching Atlas

Shelves that imitate life
in a collapse of hinges,
in a spluttering of book pages
like white flags on the floor.
Sighing wood planks
that have refused to bear
the crinkling binding, a workload
of ancient words that
mean as little to them as they
do to the sun that swims through
their dull covers.
Shelves that collect dust
while they ponder their
suffering away,
flecks of gray
fainting on their scratched surfaces.
Shelves that find
no reason to
remain obedient,
they laugh in splinter of plaster,
plunging wide-eyed to the floor.