Friday, August 30, 2013

Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff (Other Press 2013)

Hazel Scott had been deemed uncooperative; she named no one. She was now performing in Paris. Others testified freely and the Committee publicly applauded their cooperation. These were the more widely acknowledged Weasels. Hammett kept the distinction between victim and Weasel very clear; he always had sympathy for human weakness. To Lillian anyone who gave a name for any reason whatsoever was pure Weasel.

All of this is old hat now, relegated to a brief, unfortunate period of American history by most historians, but certainly not by the Committee’s victims. The damage done was far more widespread than history records; it devastated many thousands of un-American American lives. Hammett addressed the situation in a speech he gave at Cooper Union on “The Cop and the Criminal,” ostensibly a talk about his approach to the detective story, but in fact a public defiance of what the Committee was doing to America. Hammett was no longer an effective public speaker.
Lillian made herself inconspicuous at the fringe of the audience. A cold sober Hammett began:

Let’s get this straight from the start. The cop is paid by the state. The state gives him his badge, his gun, his billy club, and permission to use them, his uniform, and, if he’s lucky, a police car to drive around in. His job is to protect the law-abiding public from criminals. So far, so good. There are times, however, when the crooks and the cops and the state are indistinguishable from one another, when they are all mixed together and aligned against the interests and guaranteed rights of those same law-abiding citizens.
We are in one of those times now. Those of you who may have had the ill fortune to have stumbled upon my Red Harvest or even The Glass Key probably know that I have dealt with just this sort of corrupt situation before in fiction. In both cases—I must tell you Red Harvest was based on a real miners’ strike in Montana in which the company, the cops, and the government ganged up on the miners—in both cases my lone detective character is successful in combating the corrupt cops and turning the tide. Remember, though, that’s just what happens in novels. In Montana, the bums mopped up the miners.

Lillian noticed Hammett’s hand begin to tremble. He needed a drink. No way for her to get him one. He sipped some water.

In America today the cops and the crooks and, of course, the judges and the pols are all in cahoots again. It happens periodically, usually around union busting time, which for them is all the time. They like to send very dramatic, unmistakable messages. What else is this preposterous Committee deciding who is American and who is not, but a shot across the bow? Sometimes the legal criminality even reaches the level of political murder.

For a moment Lillian thought he might talk about Jerry Waxman. She held her breath.

What else was Vanzetti and Sacco if not precisely that? These new thugs dressed up as Congressional cops are surely nothing new. They crawl out of the woodwork whenever they have the chance. But every time they appear, we must each become detectives and reveal that they are really the crooks and not the cops.

Lillian scanned the crowd and picked out four men at least she was sure were government agents. Two were taking notes. She also recognized a legit guy from the Times, a gal from the Trib.

If I was trying to turn this current mess into a detective story, I’d see it as an old-fashioned protection racket. I’d set it in Mom and Pop’s grocery store. Gunsels come in and want fifty bucks a week to keep trouble away. Pop tells them he’s never had any trouble. They smash his front window. That’ll be fifty bucks. Pop goes to the police. They’ll watch his store when the thugs return, but they can’t promise anything more. Next week the gunsels return for their fifty; a cop watches from across the street while the thugs break the other front window. The cop across the street smiles.
So what’s to be done? And who is there to do it? Certainly not the likes of Nick Charles. He’s too tipsy for the task. He and Nora hobnob in the wrong social circles. A society murder is one thing. The protection racket is a very dirty, roll-up-your-sleeves business. Sam Spade? I don’t think so. There are no beautiful dames involved and no big money to be made in a Mom and Pop grocery. No, the guy I need—the guy we need—is the Op. He’s far tougher than either one of the others and breaking up this protection racket’s going to take a bear of a man, a courageous brute. That’s the Op. He’s also a working stiff, and for me that counts for an awful lot when it comes to a matter of integrity.

As Hammett continued, his quiver became more pronounced. Lillian wanted to hold him, steady his hand. Hammett was never at his best in front of an audience, but he accepted this engagement as a necessary first skirmish in what he knew was now to be a long, difficult battle with the U.S. government. During the question period after his talk he really began to come apart, but he knew to keep his answers brief and somewhat cryptic. He needed a drink badly now, something the cops in the crowd could not miss. Hellman loved her Hammett very much at that moment.

In the cab uptown she took his hand and offered him a flask. He accepted it gratefully with a growl and a slow smile. Traffic was heavy. They didn’t talk. He continued to shake, so she held his arm hard with both hands and tried to absorb his tremor.

They were almost at Columbus Circle when he said, “I could have done it better. But I had to take the first shot. I want them to know I’m ready.”

“We’re ready.”

“My guess is they’ll do me first. You’re the bigger fish to fry.”

“I beg your pardon.” She made a pronounced huffy face and then smiled. “I hope that’s not how they see it. But I’m ready for them too.”

1 comment:

Darren said...

pages 328-331

A longish excerpt from the book but, I'm trust you'll agree, that it's a good one.