1. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
I wanted a page-turning mystery and I figured I couldn't go wrong with The Maltese Falcon. It's a classic! So all the reviews said. Naturally I had the image of Humphrey Bogart in my mind when I pictured the main character, a private detective named Sam Spade. Because of the movie. The movie of The Maltese Falcon is also considered a classic. Who decides these things?
Anyway, I pretty much never knew what was going on. Characters would come in and out without introduction or back story. Spade's partner dies right away and I thought the two of them were friends, but then Spade is having an affair with his partner's wife. Ick. Spade constantly rolls and smokes cigarettes. Ick. He flirts with/sexually harasses his poor "young" secretary. Gag. (For example, he keeps his hand on her thigh when they're having conversations about the business. WHA...???) The female client, Brigit O'Shaughnessy, comes in to hire Spade to tail a man she thinks is going to kill her. Her eyes are moist and her lips are full and she can't tell him anything about herself but he's got to trust her. Booo. That whole scene was nothing but her saying, "You've got to trust me! You're my only hope!" And him saying, "Why should I trust you?" A dozen different ways, but the same stupid conversation for 10 pages. Then Spade seduces her and they sleep together. Gag and SHIVER.
I just looked up what I highlighted and got annoyed all over again. Here is an example of a typical conversation in this wretched book: "I don't know how come he left that shelter, but they got him once in New York for knocking over a row of stuss-games - his twist turned him up - and he was in a year before Fallon got him sprung. A couple of years later he did a short hitch in Joliet for pistol-whipping another twist that had given him the needle, but after that he took up with Dixie Monahan and didn't have any trouble getting out whenever he happened to get in." Know this, that instance is the only time Fallon or Dixie Monahan are mentioned. Who are they? Am I supposed to know? What on earth is everyone talking about?! It's a mystery only because we never know anything. Spade figures some things out, but we never get to know what he's figured out.
There is a lot of strange homophobia and racism in The Maltese Falcon. I understand it was a different time, but it's still very uncomfortable. The ending, which is supposedly awesome, was by far the dumbest part for me. All the principle characters are in the same room with guns pointed at each other waiting until morning when Spade can call someone to get the Maltese Falcon out of a mailbox. BO. RING. Once all the supposed criminals leave and Spade is left in his apartment with Brigit, they have The Worst Conversation in History. "If you love me you won't turn me in..." "I'm not your patsy, baby. How do I know I love you." "You do love me! Don't do this!" "I won't be a patsy!" On and on for way too many pages.
Man. I hated this book so much.
2. Fever: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane
I listened to this one on my iPod. It took a long time because I would forget about it when I was doing chores. Also, Bridget was home a lot more, so I figured it was rude to put headphones on when she was talking to me as the boys napped. Listening here and there probably made me enjoy this less than I would have normally.
Soon after the turn of the century (1900), Mary Mallon was a cook in New York City. She'd come from Ireland about twenty years earlier. Mary worked for many prominent families and made good money because she was a good cook. Dr. George Soper had a theory that someone was spreading typhoid by being a carrier of the disease without ever getting symptoms him or herself. It was a new idea at the time. Dr. Soper traced cases of typhoid fever in the New York City area and discovered Mary was the link between all of them. It made sense - she was the cook and she often licked spoons and put them back into pots and she rarely washed her hands while she was cooking. Soper tracked her down at a house where she was working and tried to force Mary to come with him - accusing her immediately of spreading typhoid fever even though it was just a theory. What would anyone do in that situation? She pulled a knife (already in her hand) on him and told him to get lost.
The whole book was from Mary's perspective and sometimes, inexplicably, from her live-in boyfriend, Alfred's. After Mary was taken from her place of work (she tried to hide and then she fought them when they put her in the paddy wagon) and quarantined in a hospital for three months without being able to contact anyone, the book lost steam. Mary was taken to North Brother (an island?) to live in a small cottage by herself for a few years, getting her urine tested every day. It's as boring as it sounds. When she was finally released (the trial wasn't even interesting) and allowed to live her life, she was instructed to never work as a cook again. She became a laundress - like my sister, Katy! :) Mary tires of the laundry (much less money than cooking) and gets a job at a bakery (it's not cooking!) and Dr. Soper finds her. She escapes and ends up as the head chef at a ritzy maternity hospital, where she starts another typhoid fever epidemic. Mary ends up back on North Brother for the rest of her life.
In trying to figure out where this book went wrong for me, I think it was because I was only getting Mary's side of the story. Dr. Soper was totally The Villain in this version of events. But he was right. Maybe he went about it the wrong way and definitely Mary should not have been quarantined for so long (at first without cause) while other carriers were allowed to continue living at home and working. But! Soper was painted as such a bad guy. It's kind of brilliant that he figured out that Mary was a carrier of typhoid, even if he was a jerk. I don't know. The book was just boring. Well performed, though. Especially the Irish accent for Mary.