[The detective Arnold Magnuson is visiting the Lincoln Athletic Club, ‘one of Chicago’s most fashionable clubs’]
On the second floor of the club is the great, high-ceilinged Tudor lounge. Instant old-world age and venerability. A comfortable and respectable distance from peasant immigrations and wild frontiers. A décor demanded by the founders of the club, wealthy men of English and Scottish ancestry who, like the city they ruled, has strong isolationist and anti-British feelings. At present the few men sitting in the lounge, lost in it like some handful of commuters dispersed about the lobby of Union Station, are reading newspapers in the black leather chairs, writing at the large oak tables, staring out the windows, or, as in the case of the narcoleptic man, trying to write and keep from dozing, or, as in the case of Magnuson, thinking and while thinking brooding. They are all old. Sunshine pours through the high narrow oriel windows and ripples on the panelled walls, sneaks into the hearth of the carved fireplace, sprawls across the royal red carpet and floats up to the ceiling where it glistens on the dark oak ribs and beams. Quiet here, like a library of monks sworn to silence. And motionless, as though motions, which are often the cause of sounds, are banished just in case. Only the sunlight wandering along the walls.
observations: I first came across this book over at Col’s Criminal Library – he was logging one of his tubs of unread books, and casually remarked that this was supposed to be the best detective book ever. That grabbed my attention, given that I’d never heard of author or book, and after some discussion with Col, and some research online, I got hold of a copy – it has just been republished by Brash Books, and is now easily available after years in the shade.
My one-sentence summary when I’d finished would be: It drove me mad, but I couldn’t stop reading it – although over a period of time, it’s a huge commitment at around 700+ closely-packed pages, and I could only read so much in a session. (This blogpost is correspondingly longer than normal.) It is the Great Chicago Novel, that’s for sure – entirely set in and around the city, apparently very recognizably so, and painting a picture of life there in the round. It’s written in the present tense, which sometimes annoys me, but in this case seemed to fit the slice-of-life feel.
Chicago details would, apparently, tell you that it is set sometime before 1967, but that’s not overt. The detective, Magnuson, is a former policeman, now the head of a private security/investigation firm. He is successful, wealthy and influential. A former client, a very rich man called Farquarson, gets in touch about a long-ago problem with his wife. The POV changes with each chapter – sometimes we are with Magnuson, sometimes with Farquarson, sometimes with others of the cast of characters. It is clear that a man is prowling around the city wanting to take his revenge on Farquarson. There isn’t much mystery or crime-solving involved in this book – the characters don’t know what’s going on, but the reader does, there aren’t many surprises. Some of the chapters are straightforward and very readable, and push the plot onwards; others consist of long elaborate impressionistic descriptions of lives, of people, of places. It’s like moving from Dante to Dickens to Dostoyevsky and back again.
There is a lot of blood, violence, dead bodies and inhuman attitudes. A lakeside resort is described as ‘resembling some Bosch vision of humanity’ and that could apply to the whole book: it’s rather gloomy and has little humour or hope for the world. At one point an anthropologist tells Magnuson ‘I’m south of the Sahara’, referring to his field of study:
At first Magnuson took this remark as some slang expression he was unfamiliar with, that meant something like ‘I’m on cloud nine.’I was so grateful for any kind of joke that that made me laugh a lot.
But despite all these criticisms and complaints, I am helpless before this book – it is long, boring at times, and lacks surprises. Nothing much will happen, and then a sudden lump of plot turns up, like an undigested short story. But it was an extraordinary feat of the imagination, it did keep me reading, and it made me think I was understanding another world.
There are flashes of character – beautiful sketches of people who only appear on one page: ‘an air about her of night courses … taken and abandoned before the final grade’. About another woman ‘in the dark from a distance she looked like a Hungarian baroness, up close in the light like a lady wrestler.’
There are memorable turns of phrase: ‘I used to shine shoes when I was a little gentleman…’ I loved the thrown-in fact that the madman (driving force of the book) has been locked up for years, but had regularly ‘demanded to be released on national holidays, and on the Fourth of July and Columbus Day most of all, and also whenever there were Polish-American picnics in the Forest Preserves.’ Smith then goes on to give us a lengthy and nightmarish description of black deeds at the Polish-American picnic.
The book reminded me somewhat of John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy in its length and thoroughness, but I enjoyed Detective a lot more.
The picture is the actual waiting room of Union Station, Chicago, in the 1940s, and comes from the Library of Congress: the photographer was called Jack Delano and this is his most famous shot. Although the reference above is, plainly, a simile, once I saw this photo it matched the description, and seemed ideal for the book – in which traditional Chicago policemen feature a lot - and is just an outright beautiful image. So I could not resist using it.