Occult Crime: The Dain Curse

In Satan’s Sorority, I wanted to explore the idea of crime that uses occult connections even if there’s nothing supernatural happening (it’s open to interpretation, of course — the characters certainly believe something diabolical occurs). Admittedly my forthcoming story Elf Prefix, which again mixes up crime and the occult, is a little more beyond acceptable reality, but I’m interested in the ways the occult has been used to cover up or shield crime.

You don’t think of Dashiell Hammett as a ‘fantasy’ writer, though he did pen a short supernatural tale of a magician and his assistant (‘Magic’). But he was aware of how the occult could be used to con people — he was always interested in how people manipulated one another. After all, many cults are just a way to swindle folks — another big con.

The Dain Curse has a fascinating occult motif in the middle of it. California has long been the hotbed of strange cults so it’s not surprising the Continental Op would run up against one. The Temple of the Holy Grail supposedly resurrects a sort of druidic practice of Arthur’s Britain. While guarding Gabrielle Leggett, inheritor of the curse, the Op discovers her blood-soaked with a dagger in her hands, confessing to murder.

Entering the temple itself through a ‘small iron door’ he sees ‘dim stars in a night sky’ as they walk over ‘a floor of white marble, or pentagonal tiles that imitated white marble…The light glittered and glistened on a wide altar of brilliant white, crystal and silver.’ The victim lay upon the steps pooling blood.

Later as the Op tries to protect Leggett in her room, he’s aware of the persistent smell of dead flowers intensifying. Then he sees something weird:

Not more than three feet away, there in the black room, a pale bright thing like a body, but not like flesh, stood writhing before me. It was tall, yet not so tall as it seemed, because it didn’t stand on the floor, but hovered with its feet a foot or more above the floor. Its feet—it had feet, but I don’t know what their shape was. They had no shape, just as the thing’s legs and torso, arms, and hands, head and face, had no shape, no fixed form. They writhed, swelling and contracting, stretching and shrinking, not greatly, but without pause.

The Op figures things out eventually–and as you might suspect, the cause of the seemingly supernatural vision has a lot to do with the strange smell and suggestibility, but it’s worthwhile thinking about how even the hard-nosed Op can be thrown off kilter by what appears to be inexplicable. You might breathe a sign of relief when the Scooby-Do ending gets revealed, but for a time even the hard-boiled reader might be willing to suspend disbelief for a time.

See all the overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s blog.

 

Readings for the Noir(ish) Course

I’m teaching our crime fiction course in the spring, which hasn’t been taught in a while. This is a reading not a writing course. I’m still deciding on the three films I can squeeze in (I’ve yet to write up the syllabus) but I’ve had to fix the readings because the students need to order them soon. In other words, I’m not looking for a debate about the choices made. The clown is down.

My own peculiar tastes show here; I envision my role as ‘gateway drug’ to more of the dark stuff. Also, I plan to persuade some of pals to chat to the class, either in person or via tech (cough, looking in your direction!). I balk at having all 20th century readings, and Poe is a necessary place to kick off the idea of ‘detective fiction’ in English language literature, though I quickly focus on that period.

Films? At the moment it’s Double Indemnity, The Third Man and Night of the Hunter, but I’ve not made my mind up. I have also considered choosing films of the books to compare and contrast, however at the moment I’m leaning away from that, tempting though it may be. Maybe Mildred Pierce to slip in Cain after all or something with Ida Lupino — I have to decide soon. It’s tough to choose. So here’s the choices if you want to read along —

Edgar Poe: The Purloined Letter (available online for FREE)

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Blank Wall

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place

Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train

Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Me

Chester Himes: Cotton Comes to Harlem

Another class would be another set of choices: I dropped Margaret Millar and James M. Cain when I knew I was overloading the reading. There’s just too much great stuff. I’d love to do a Brit Grit or international noir course. Maybe soon.