Friday, September 10, 2010

"The Barber and his Wife" by Dashiell Hammett

Source: CrimeWAV (mp3)
Length: 28 minutes
Reader: Seth Harwood

The story: This was the first published story for Dashiell Hammett, author of such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. While this story doesn't feature the same hard-boiled detectives as in those books, it does include some classic Hammett themes: violence, deception, and infidelity. The barber of the story's title, Louis, is the type of man who enjoys watching boxing, going to burlesque shows, and eating red meat. He is having troubles in his marriage, but he thinks he's secure in everything that really matters to him: respect, health, and above all, manliness.

This story, published in 1923, has much in common with many of the other pulp stories I've read from this decade. I think what Hammett was struggling with in this story, like in the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, was the role of a man in a society that had given up its agrarian model of manliness. Being a strong traditional man no longer meant that one could get ahead in American society, not when strong, manly men could be easily cut down by machine gun fire in the trenches of World War I or left without a job through the dealings of effete bankers on Wall Street. As Hammett points out at the end of this story, "Why, a man might as well be just a weakling."

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Seth Harwood, as I've mentioned before, is an excellent narrator. He uses a tough voice for the character of Louis and a nasal Northern accent for his wife, Pearl. The story is told in a matter-of -fact tone that reminds one of Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Hammett's most well-known character, Sam Spade. Breaks in the story are marked by a film noir trumpet blast that fits in well with the story, but is a bit jarring if you're not expecting it. The podcast includes a short introduction and concluding statements from Harwood, putting the story in context.


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