Monday, January 16, 2012

Review - The Crab with the Golden Claws by Hergé

Short review: A meeting with Thompson and Thomson leads Tintin to an opium smuggling ring and Captain Haddock. Tintin does no reporting.

More opium smugglers
But now there's Captain Haddock
A new lifelong friend

Full review: The Crab with the Golden Claws is the first Tintin book that Hergé wrote while Belgium was occupied. Although he had begun writing Land of Black Gold (read review) just before Belgium was invaded and occupied, he shelved that book for the duration of the war and tried to write less "controversial" books. What is noticeable about this and the subsequent five books written during Belgium's occupation is the lack of political themes criticizing the Axis powers, whether the explicit criticism of Japan found in The Blue Lotus (read review), or the implicit criticism of the Third Reich found in King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review). It seems as though Hergé deliberately turned away from making any political statement during the occupation years, and instead tried to focus on more fantastical stories. This book is also noteworthy as the first in the series in which Captain Haddock makes his appearance, introducing the character who will become almost as iconic a member of the Tintin books as Tintin himself.

The story starts with a somewhat unusual twist for a Tintin story: rather than stumbling into a mystery and having the villains wildly overreact and try to kill him, Tintin is talking with Thompson and Thomson concerning their most recent investigation into a ring of counterfeiters when he spots a small collection of items in their office that reminds him of a can Snowy had found in the trash earlier that day. It turns out that the object came from a drowned body, and the scrap of paper torn from the can has very faint writing on it. We see a brief scene in which an Asian man inquires after Tintin, and then Tintin figures out that the scrap of paper says "Karaboudjan", the Asian man is abducted when he tries to call on Tintin, and the adventure is underway. And all of these clues are strung together without a single threat to Tintin's life or an attempt by gangsters to warn him off.

This doesn't mean that Tintin is left alone, but at least in this story the gangsters wait until he has at least some information and is actively poking their nose into their business before they try to drop a huge crate of canned sardines on his head. Apparently gangsters can sense the inherent incompetence of the Thompson and Thomson, because when they join Tintin to search the Karaboudjan, the villains leave them alone but whack our hero on the head and tie him up in the ship's hold. This development results in Tintin making two discoveries - the first of which is important to the plot of the book, the second of which is important to the future of the series. First, Tintin discovers that the cans of crab don't hold crab at all, but rather are filled with opium (which Tintin recognizes on sight). Second, while making his escape from the Karaboudjan, Tintin comes across Captain Haddock, at this point a pathetically drunk ship captain kept a virtual prisoner by his evil first mate Allan. But even at this point, with Haddock so looped on whiskey that he stutters when he talks, his fundamental goodness comes through when he learns that his ship is being used to smuggle opium and the smugglers have kidnapped Tintin. He immediately jumps in to offer his inebriated assistance to Tintin, helping him make his escape in a ship's boat.

Once the pair have escaped the Karaboudjan, Haddock quickly establishes what will become a regular pattern for the series: although sobered up, he comes across a bottle of alcohol and even though he knows he should stay sober he decides to have "just one". Before he knows it, Haddock has polished off the whole bottle and then does something destructively stupid that creates a plot complication that Tintin must overcome. Through the series, Haddock is mostly helpful, and it seems like Hergé does understand something about alcoholism, given Haddock's inability to control himself when presented with liquor. However, Haddock's alcoholism is played for laughs - because as has been established in previous books with Snowy, in Hergé's world, getting uncontrollably drunk is funny. And in this book, it is often destructively dangerous.

After some improbable escapades involving an airplane (and I will note that it seems absurdly easy to get hold of an armed civilian airplane in Hergé's fictional reality), Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock wind up on their own in the North African desert with no water and no supplies. (I'll note that the crashed airplane they leave behind should have had a fair amount of water in its radiator, and also that the captured pilots seem to have acquired Tintin's amazing resistance to fire). After some comedy involving mirages, Snowy's love of bones and Haddock's love of spirits, the three are rescued by a Foreign Legion detachment, and soon set out for the coast after hearing that the Karaboudjan had sunk with all hands. This sequence provides the cover for the book, and also provides more alcohol-related humor as Haddock's supply of liquor is shot up throwing him into a frenzy.

Eventually they arrive in the port city of Bagghar, and the coincidences fly thick and fast leading to a resolution of the mystery. Tintin runs across Thompson and Thomson, who have been assigned to track down opium smugglers. They all run across the Karaboudjan, which has been disguised, and Allan, who has not. Eventually their investigations lead them to Omar Ben Salaad, a prominent citizen of Bagghar who they suspect is the ringleader of the opium smugglers. Haddock is kidnapped, and Tintin manages to rescue him, whereupon Haddock clumsily messed everything up, both of them get inebriated, and they still manage to solve the mystery and capture the villains. Although the plot wraps up in a moderately contrived manner, the artwork in the book displays the steady improvement that has been characteristic of the series, with the regular panels regularly punctuated by beautifully rendered full page artwork. In addition, the series continues the tradition of Tintin not actually doing any reporting, despite his job title of "journalist". Despite breaking up yet another international opium smuggling ring, Tintin doesn't appear to file any story, or actually do anything related to his job. I suppose, given that this is the third smuggling ring Tintin has foiled, that perhaps he considers this to be a not particularly newsworthy event.

A decent chunk of this book was used to make part of the plot of the Steven Spielberg movie The Adventures of Tintin, lifting the portions in which Tintin is abducted onto the Karaboudjan, meeting Captain Haddock, and the subsequent adventure leading to the North African desert. Some elements were altered - in the movie the Karaboudjan is not smuggling opium, and Omar Ben Salaad is no longer an opium smuggler but rather a minor potentate who is tangled into the story via a model ship. In a small Easter egg for fans of the books, in the movie, the courtyard of Salaad's palace has a prominently placed fountain with a golden crab decoration. In addition, Haddock's character is slightly changed, making him a little bit less destructively dangerous when drunk and more comically dangerous.

Overall, this book represents both a substantial step forward for the Tintin series, and a sad stagnation. The introduction of Captain Haddock as a foil for Tintin represents an important turning point in the series. No longer does Tintin have to bounce his ideas off of Snowy. No longer do Thompson and Thomson have to fill both the role of Tintin's investigatory collaborators and comic relief. From this point forward, Haddock will become as integral part of the Tintin stories as Tintin and Snowy. On the other hand, the "Tintin foils a smuggling ring" has, by this point, been done to death. For fairly obvious reasons, the political bent that the stories had been taking is conspicuously absent from this volume, with the one exception of the appearance of a bit of appeasement thrown to the Axis powers in the form of the mysterious Asian man who turns out to be a Japanese detective hot on the trail of the opium smugglers - marking a turnaround from the positioning of the Japanese as the ringleaders of the drug trade in The Blue Lotus. Despite the "been there, done that" nature of the story, the introduction of Captain Haddock into the series makes this book a memorable one, and makes it worth reading.

Previous book in the series: King Ottokar's Sceptre
Subsequent book in the series: The Shooting Star

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