The tenth of November, 2010: they think an Existentialist did it

Browsing The Best of SJ Perelman (Reprint Society, 1961) today, I revisited one of my favourite examples of one of my favourite sub-genres. Or perhaps meta-genres.

Perelman’s ‘Farewell My Lovely Appetiser’ is a pin-sharp spoof of the detective genre. Dashiell Hammett, as the genre’s undisputable-if-you-don’t-count-Chandler champion, is the main target.

“Her face was veiled, watchful. I stared at her ears, liking the way they were joined to her head. There was something complete about them; you knew they were there for keeps. When you’re a private eye, you want things to stay put.”

Perelman’s Mike Noonan is on the case of a secretive blouse-maker and some strangely tinted herring fillets (Perelman employing his usual method of using excerpts (from newspaper columns, advertisements or anything else that tickled him) as a jumping-off point – Alan Coren later did the same thing only slightly less brilliantly).

What’s great about this piece is how evident it is that Perelman is a Hammett fan. Leaving aside the textual clues (Noonan shares his name with the police chief in Hammett’s Red Harvest, and Perelman’s ‘Lloyd Thursday’ is a nod to The Maltese Falcon‘s Floyd Thursby), only a writer who’s read a lot of Hammett could nail the tone and vocabulary so neatly.

“The thin galoot outside Gristede’s had taken a powder when I got there; that meant we were no longer playing girls’ rules. I hired a hack to Wanamaker’s, cut over to Third, walked up toward Fourteenth… At Thirteenth somebody dropped a sour tomato out of a third-story window, missing me by inches. I doubled back to Wanamaker’s, hopped a bus up Fifth to Madison Square, and switched to a cab down Fourth, where the secondhand bookshops elbow each other like dirty urchins.”

It’s so good it’s only barely a parody.

Re-reading Perelman propelled me towards Woody Allen’s two Kaiser Wolfowitz stories (I think it should be illegal for anyone to form an opinion on Woody Allen without first reading his prose). Kaiser is essentially Mike Noonan with the usual Allen flavourings mixed in. In one story, he cracks an undercover prostitution ring for guys who are after a little intellectual stimulation (“They bugged the motel room. They got tapes of me discussing The Waste Land and Styles of Radical Will, and, well, really getting into some issues”). In another, he’s hired to track down God, which leads to a tense encounter in an Italian restaurant:

“It was the Pope, all right. Sitting with two guys I had seen in half a dozen police line-ups. ‘Sit down,’ he said, looking up from his fettucine. He held out a ring. I gave him my toothiest smile, but didn’t kiss it. It bothered him and I was glad. Point for me.”

It might all sound a bit undergraduate, and it would have been if Allen wasn’t such a thoroughly excellent parodist. As it is, though, by leaving no trope unspoofed Allen keeps the momentum going and stops each piece reading like a one-gag sketch stretched three pages too far.

I was going to finish today’s entry with a third New Yorker spin on detective cliché: James Thurber’s great little piece about the tourist who reads Macbeth as a whodunnit, and concludes that Lady Macbeth’s father is the guilty man. But I can’t find my copy of The Thurber Carnival, so I’ll finish with this, from Steve Martin’s long-lamented ‘funny’ period, instead:

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