Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

My Seven Deadly Sins Reading List

On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I took a little literary trip through the Seven Deadly Sins. I chose one book for each sin – something that gives a good example for each one (though, it should be said, not all these ‘sins’ are condemned in the books I chose – far from it!). You can catch the show again on the player below, but – as promised – here are the details of all the titles featured on my Seven Deadly Sins Special.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

Hammett’s 1930 hardboiled detective novel about Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy and the hunt for the eponymous black bird is now probably better known through the 1941 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. But it seemed like a pretty good example of book about avarice (given that most of the characters are purely and simply motivated by a desire for material possessions).

Sam Spade is a cynical detective, who works with his partner Miles Archer. When a woman calling herself ‘Mrs Wonderly’ comes in to the office and asks for help tracking down the man who has run off with her sister, Spade (and Archer, for a short time) are drawn into the duplicitous web of the Maltese Falcon, a valuable gold and jewel artefact worth an unspecified, but very high, amount. Spade has to keep his head in a world of lying, cheating – and sometimes seductive – bad guys and gals, and he has to try to resist the lure of wealth over law and order.

While the 1941 film is the best known adaptation, Hammett’s novel was made into two earlier films. A 1931 pre-Code adaptation starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and the 1936 comedic adaptation (entitled Satan Met a Lady) starred Bette Davis and Warren William.

Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School by Frank Richards (1947)

What better example of literary gluttony than a character who is near synonymous with greediness? Billy Bunter is a fictional schoolboy created by Frank Richards (a pseudonym of Charles Hamilton) for his Greyfriars School series, which ran in The Magnet from 1908-1940. Originally created as a minor comic character, Billy Bunter soon became the central character (and is undoubtedly the best remembered), and he appeared in 1670 of Hamilton’s 1683 Greyfriars stories.

Bunter is a greedy character – that’s probably his most famous characteristic – but he’s also lazy, self-important, conceited and deceitful. Throughout the series, he’s frequently seen on the cadge (promising his peers that’s he’s due a postal order from a relative… which never appears), and he’s particularly fond of cakes and sweets (often pilfered from his classmates). After the short stories came to an end, Hamilton (after a bit of a copyright battle) gained the rights to collect the stories into a series of novels, beginning with Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, which were published between 1947-1965. The stories have been adapted several times, most notably in a BBC TV series starring Gerald Campion, which ran from 1952-1961.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)

Hemingway’s short novel features Spanish-born Cuban fisherman Santiago, and his proud fight to defend his reputation, affirm his identity, and reel in a giant marlin. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, and contibuted to Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

I’ve chosen this book as a classic example of the sin of pride, as it presents a man who embodies both the positive and negative aspects of the emotion. At the beginning of the novel, Santiago has failed to catch a fish for 84 days. He has gained a reputation as unlucky (salao), and his young assistant Manolin has been banned from working with him. On the one hand, Santiago’s pride refuses to allow him to accept these slurs, and his story can be read as a man’s courageous battle to reaffirm his identity (and his masculinity). On the other, Santiago’s refusal to accept the reality of his situation leads him to undertake a dangerous fool’s mission. Is he valiant? or is his hubris blinding him to folly? Critical readings of the book differ on their interpretation of Santiago’s battle with his ‘brother’ marlin. But perhaps the two meaning of pride aren’t as antithetical as they at first seem.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie (1940)

Of course, there would be a bit of Golden Age detective fiction on my list, wouldn’t there? Sad Cypress is a Hercule Poirot novel, and it features jealousy and its effects so prominently that I thought it was a good example to include for this sin.

The novel is a bit unusual for a Poirot story, as it’s (at least in part) a courtroom drama. It also eschews Christie’s standard meticulous clues and ingenious puzzles for a really strong focus on characterization and the effects of envy. The novel introduces us to Elinor Carlisle, who is engaged to Roddy Welman, and who is warned that ‘someone’ is sucking up to her aunt Laura Welman in the hope of gaining an inheritance. Elinor quickly discovers that young Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter, is the subject of the warning – and then, in quick succession, Laura Welman dies, Roddy leaves Elinor for Mary, and Mary herself is poisoned. Elinor is arrested for the murder, and Dr Lord (a family friend) calls in Hercule Poirot to try and clear her name. But Elinor’s jealousy of Mary is palpable throughout – was it strong enough to lead to murder? Just how dangerous is the green-eyed monster?

Like all Christie’s Poirot novels, Sad Cypress was adapted as part of the ITV series starring David Suchet. The adaptation had Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh as Elinor and Rupert Penry-Jones as Roddy.

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)

The next choice is a short story, and it’s perhaps debatable how much it contains an example of sloth. But it’s certainly a story about someone who chooses to do nothing rather than something – so I think it counts.

Melville’s story was originally published (anonymously) in Putnam’s Magazine. It’s narrated by an unnamed lawyer in Manhattan, who employs the eponymous Bartleby as a scrivener in his firm – joining his other two scriveners, Nippers and Turkey. While Bartleby begins as a hard worker, he one day simply refuses to proofread a document, saying only ‘I prefer not to’. As time goes on, Bartleby does less and less – eventually spending most of his days staring out of a window at a brick wall. The narrator dispairs of his formerly industrious scrivener, and determines to find a way to break him out of his inertia or jettison his forlorn employee. Without giving too many spoilers, it doesn’t end well for poor Bartleby. But is his condition caused by sloth and idleness? or rebellion against a system that has crushed him? or is it both? One of the reasons why I’ve chosen this story is because it so clearly illustrates how difficult true slothfulness can be. It takes an incredible effort of will to do nothing.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (1998)

Okay, so lust was a difficult one to choose. I hovered between choosing an example of contemporary erotic fiction, and choosing a classic literary fiction exploring sexuality and sexual relations. The first was tricky – how would I choose just one example from so many genre publications? But the second was also tricky – so many of the ‘classics’ are written by men, objectifying (even dehumanizing) female sexuality as a plot device for exploring male identities. And, of course, I was very aware that punishments for the ‘sin’ of lust are always meted out more brutally on female characters. In the end, I chose Tipping the Velvet, because it’s a great example of how these concerns can be addressed and subverted. At once erotic and literary, Waters’ debut novel foregrounds female sexuality, but without using it simply as a plot device or ending with the punishment of lustful women (though there’s plenty of indications of how society might do this).

Waters’ novel follows the adventures of Nancy ‘Nan’ Astley, as she develops from a sheltered 18-year-old to a young woman who knows what (and who) she wants. Nan sees a male impersonator, Kitty Butler, perform at a local theatre and becomes instantly infatuated. Eventually, Kitty reluctantly admits she feels the same way, and the two become both lovers and performance partners. Thus begins Nan’s escapades across London – disguising herself as a man, having her heart broken, working as a male prostitute, being hired by wealthy widow Diana. The story has been described as ‘a high-octane narrative’, which is part picaresque novel and part fairy tale. It’s also very erotically charged and unabashed in its representation of lesbianism and sexual behaviour – an aspect of the book that was surprisingly (and memorably) retained in the 2002 BBC adaptation, which starred Rachael Stirling, Keeley Hawes and Anna Chancellor.

And Tipping the Velvet brings us to the end of my list.

Wait… does that mean that I promised you seven deadly sins, but only talked about six? So I was lying about the seventh book? Grrrr… doesn’t that make you feel…

To find out more about all of these titles and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show here:

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