“Things that have happened are never over and done with,”

Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, and translated by Eric Mosbacher

Early 20th Century Vienna has to be one of the most fascinating periods and settings in literature. The end of the Austro-Hungarian empire saw an explosion in talent: Robert MusilJoseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Weiss; Stefan Zweig (and that’s just the ones I’ve personally read). Vienna in particular was a hotbed of ideas: Marxism and Freudianism offered new models of society and the individual, each of them challenging established traditions and philosophies.

It’s a natural setting for a crime novel, so much so that author Frank Tallis has set a successful series there with a disciple of Freud as his detective. Long before that though there was Master of the Day of Judgment, written in 1921 by a Viennese author steeped in the passions of his time. It is, quite simply, brilliant.


Baron von Yosch is a soldier and aristocrat. He is setting down, for who knows what audience, his recollection of a terrifying series of events that occurred some years previously in 1909. He insists on the accuracy of his memories, down even to remembering minor newspaper stories of the day on which everything started. He insists so strongly in fact that immediately I began to wonder, why is the Baron so keen to persuade me he has forgotten no detail no matter how small?

Among the newspaper stories that day was a bank failure. Baron von Yosch had already moved his funds, but he knew his friend Eugen Bischoff had not. The Baron could have warned Eugen of the impending collapse, but as he reflects:

… would [Bischoff] have believed me? He always regarded me as a retailer of false information. Why meddle in other people’s affairs?

The Baron seems then a somewhat cold individual. A man whose friends don’t trust him, and who cares so little for them in turn that he won’t even try to warn one of possible ruin. This is our narrator; our guide to the events that claimed several lives. The Baron’s foreword gives us a premonition that whatever happened must have been truly terrible, and I found myself briefly reminded of Perutz’ contemporary H.P. Lovecraft:

Thus the whole sinister and tragic business lasted five days only, from 26 to 30 September. The dramatic hunt for the culprit, the pursuit of an invisible enemy who was not of flesh and blood but a fearsome ghost from past centuries lasted for just five days. We found a trail of blood and followed it. A gateway to the past quietly opened. None of us suspected where it led, and it seems to me today that we groped painfully step by step down a long dark passage at the end of which a monster was waiting for us with upraised cudgel. The cudgel came down twice, three times, the last blow was meant for me, and I should have been done for and shared Eugen Bischoff’s and Solgrub’s dreadful fate had I not been snatched back to life in the nick of time.

Sometimes sheer terror seizes me and sends me to the window, feeling that the dreadful waves of that terrible light must be rushing across the sky, and I cannot grasp the fact that overhead there’s the sun, concealed in silvery mist or surrounded by purple clouds or alone in the endless blue and round me wherever I look are the old, familiar colours, those of the terrestrial world. Since that day I have never seen again that fearful trumpet red.

It sounds like a work of gothic or cosmic horror, but it’s soon apparent that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, despite coming in at comfortably under 200 pages, nothing in this novel is simple.

Eugen Bischoff is a famous actor whose best days are past. His career is sharply in decline and now he has lost his life’s savings. The morning’s newspaper has been hidden from him so as to ensure he doesn’t get the news cold, and his friends have gathered round to support him, the Baron among them.

We know of course that Bischoff will die, the Baron’s foreword listed him among the victims. What we learn quickly is that Eugen is married to the Baron’s former lover, a woman the Baron still has feelings for. It’s a source of tension, and matters worsen when the Baron accidentally makes reference to the day’s events in ways which might give the game away. Well, the Baron’s writing the story and he says it’s accidental, but everyone else present seems to think he’s toying with Bischoff and amusing himself by seeing how far he can push the frail actor.

Bischoff leaves the room, and shortly afterwards two shots are heard. The Baron rushes to the scene where he finds Bischoff dying, a mutual doctor friend present but too late to save him. Bischoff casts a final gaze at von Yosch filled with pure hatred and speaks his last words – a reference to the day of judgment.

Almost everyone concludes that the Baron followed Bischoff, told him of the bank’s failure and gloated over him until Bischoff in panic and despair took his own life. The Baron however swears on his honour that he only entered the room after Bischoff already lay dying. Only the engineer Solgrub believes the Baron, and he sets out to discover what truly led to Bischoff’s death.

There are two mysteries here. One is why Bischoff killed himself. The other is why everyone who knows the Baron is so quick to believe he could be responsible. His former lover clearly blames him for her husband’s death, and her brother Felix demands that the Baron should take his own life as payment for his crime. Whether the Baron forced Bischoff into suicide is up for debate, whether he was capable of such an act however seems to be much more clear-cut. Even he is not entirely certain, at times remembering himself in the room and then dismissing the memory as false and produced by the stress of the situation (but notably not as out of character).

Solgrub’s investigation soon leads him to suspicions of another agent in the drama, a mysterious Dr Mabuse-like figure able to force men to suicide simply by forcing his will upon theirs (interestingly the novel Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler was also published in 1921). Solgrub and Felix agree then that Bischoff’s suicide was prompted by a third party, they just differ on whether that was von Yosch or this mysterious stranger. The Baron meanwhile reckons that he can solve the mystery himself, but soon finds his investigation overlapping with Solgrub’s.

At various points this moves from being a tale of gothic horror to a locked room mystery, to an amateur detective story and back again, but in truth it’s more than all of those. It becomes like so many good Austro-Hungarian novels a tale of psychological suspense. Solgrub is racing against time as the Baron, without even consciously realising what he’s doing, begins to make preparations for his own suicide. Society’s judgment demands that the Baron satisfy the demands of honour, and Solgrub is the only man truly convinced of the Baron’s innocence.

After a young failed artist connected with Bischoff also commits suicide, Solgrub strives to find a connection between the victims and to persuade Felix that there’s a common culprit. A hypothesis emerges that the slain may have willingly risked insanity and death for artistic inspiration; that creativity and terror draw from the same deep interior wells and that their own ambitions were the cause of their destruction. Now Solgrub wants to know what the dead knew, and we know from the foreword that before the story’s out he’ll join them.

That foreword casts a shadow over the whole narrative. We know the Baron lives and Solgrub dies, but not how or why. We don’t know what that “trumpet red” that von Yosch so cryptically referred to could be, or what exactly still terrifies him years later as he writes his account. As I raced towards the end I found myself asking more and more what kind of book I was reading, whether this was supernatural horror or psychological or something else altogether.

I’ll leave that last puzzle for each of you to answer for yourselves. The journey and the destination both are too satisfying to be lightly spoiled.

Other reviews

Only one on the blogosphere that I’ve found, by David Auerbach here. The Auerbach review gives away a bit more than I have, but not remotely fatally. I’ll also caution against the review in The Independent, which while positive I think rather misses the point of the book.


Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Perutz, Leo, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Kitty Finch was mental.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

One of the weird things with fiction is how even the most tired of ideas can work in the right hands. In Swimming Home Levy writes about a group of middle class Brits on holiday in the South of France, and how the introduction of an ambiguous newcomer brings out all the tensions that were simmering below their comfortable surface. Put like that, it sounds awful.  As ever though, it’s the writing that matters. Levy had me from the first sentence:

When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.

Swimming Home

Joe Jacobs is a famous poet who draws on his past as a Jewish exile who fled Nazi-occupied Poland as a child. Before he was Joe he was Josef; to his readers he’s JHJ; to family friend Mitchell he’s the “arsehole poet”. His several names reflect his own act of self-creation.

Isabel, Joe’s wife, is perhaps more famous still. She’s a highly regarded war correspondent; cool under pressure. Isabel knows that Joe is repeatedly unfaithful to her; how she feels about that is less clear.

Staying with Joe and Isabel is their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, and friends Mitchell and Laura who own a shop together selling exotic knickknacks. Mitchell is an obsese glutton who has lately taken to hunting with antique guns, some of them clearly Chekhovian. His twin passions are consumption and extinction. Like Isabel, Laura is a loyal wife let down by an errant husband, but Mitchell’s indiscretions are financial rather than sexual and their business is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Into this uneasy mix comes Kitty Finch, human catalyst, found floating face down in the villa’s swimming pool which is “more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures.” Her hair splayed out around her, at first they wonder if she might be a bear. It would be better for them if she were.

The setup is pretty conventional. The execution isn’t. Swimming Home is an uncertain text, fluid and Freudian and brimming with sex and death. Kitty claims to be the victim of a mistaken double booking of the villa, but that’s fairly obviously untrue. Even so, Isabel offers her a spare room, a curious act given Joe’s history with available young women. Isabel is seen by others as controlling, by giving space to Kitty is she relinquishing control or is this some form of extension of it?

Kitty is thin and intense. She’s prone to standing around naked at times of stress, a distracting habit but one everyone rather puts up with. She has a history of depression, but then so does Joe – it’s something they have in common. She becomes the whirlpool around which they all spin, even the supporting characters: the villa’s hapless caretaker Jurgen who is besotted with her and the elderly next door neighbour Madeleine who is convinced that Kitty is distinctly dangerous. Kitty is a catalyst. Her nudity and youth suggest sex, but her skeletal frame suggests a different kind of annihilation.

Kitty’s presence isn’t an accident. She’s there for Joe, because she writes her own poems and she tells him that she writes every one of them for him. She’s an obsessed fan, and naturally she’s brought a poem of her own for him to read. This happens to him a lot, but if he wants her body the least he can do is read her poem even if he would much prefer not to. Levy shows a wry sense of humour here, though disquiet is never far away:

‘Why are you shaking?’ He could smell chlorine in her hair. ‘Yeah. I’ve stopped taking my pills so my hands are a bit shaky.’ Kitty moved a little nearer him. He wasn’t too sure what to make of this until he saw she was avoiding a line of red ants crawling under her calves.

The narrative switches perspective between the various characters, not all of whom are equally well developed. Joe and Kitty obviously stand out, as does Isabel caught as she is between the expectations of her role as wife and mother and her exposure to the horrors of the world. Laura, 6’3″, is uncomfortable in her own body but otherwise it’s fair to say she doesn’t get anything like the development Joe, Isabel, Kitty and Nina do (even if Nina’s voice sometimes felt a little young for a 14-year-old to me). Even less so does Mitchell, who comes dangerously close at times to one-dimensionality.

Although Swimming Home is a short book, it’s a dense one and it’s not a particularly quick read. It’s often dreamlike, filled with fragmentary repetitions and foreshadowings. Like Greek drama it unfolds according to its own inexorable logic, not always as we would expect it but with the inevitability of hindsight. It brings in to the mix the burden of history (Joe’s past and Isabel’s reporting), art and literature (Joe), commerce (Laura and Mitchell), marriage, sex, old loves and new ones. It’s a rich brew and while I’ve only read it once I have a suspicion that if anything it would work even better on a reread.

I’ll leave the last words with Kitty, a sentence spoken to Joe in a scene we visit repeatedly in the text, each time revealing a little more detail.

‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.’

Nobody here is getting home safely.

Other reviews
I’d like here to point to John Self’s review for the Guardian, which he links to from his blog here, Trevor’s review at themookseandthegripes here, and savidgereads’ review here. Edit: I also missed a review by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here.

I mentioned above the neighbour, Madeleine. A thread here is her birthday, which everyone is ignoring. At various points she loses clumps of hair in drinks and food. I wondered if all of this was a Mrs Dalloway reference, but only The Independent seems to have picked that up, here. I’ve not yet read Mrs Dalloway so I’d be grateful for any comments on that front from tose better informed.


Filed under Deborah, Levy

They’d made less than a mile. It was 12:10 p.m.

Dead Calm, by Charles Williams

Dead Calm is as tightly written and tautly constructed a thriller as you could ever hope to read. I don’t even like thrillers as a rule, but if this is what the genre can do I may have to reconsider that position.

Newlyweds Ingram and Rae are on their honeymoon – a leisurely yacht trip aboard the Saracen, sailing the Pacific with no set destinations or deadlines. Ingram’s an experienced sailor and Rae’s a quick learner, and the days are long and beautiful and it’s good to be alive.

As the novel opens they’re becalmed – no wind and no sign of how long until they get some. They don’t mind – they’re not in any hurry. As they sit there though they see another vessel far in the distance, and between it and them a single dinghy with a man on it rowing towards them with all his strength. Someone’s in trouble, and before long that someone is them.


The man in the dinghy is Warriner. He’s a strikingly handsome young man who claims that the other boat, the Orpheus, is sinking; that everyone on board is dead from food poisoning; and that he’s spent days trapped on a vessel filled with corpses and slowly rising water. It’s no wonder he seems traumatised, but to Ingram something about his story seems off.

Ingram’s suspicions grow when a bottle falls overboard, an ordinary incident but one to which Warriner reacts with startling horror:

Warriner was staring past him with an almost frozen intensity, apparently at something in the water. Ingram turned, but could see nothing except the bottle, which was about to sink. It had rolled onto its side again as another swell upset it, and water was flowing into its mouth. A few bubbles came up, and it went under. Puzzled, Ingram glanced back at Warriner. The other had risen from his seat and leaned forward, clutching the port lifeline with a white-knuckled grip as he stared down at the bottle falling slowly through sun-lighted water as clear as air. Drops of sweat stood out on his forehead, and his mouth was locked shut as though he were stifling, with an effort of will, some anguished outcry welling up inside him. The bottle was six feet down now, ten, fifteen, but still clearly visible as it continued its unhurried slide into the deepening blue and fading light beyond. Warriner’s eyes closed, and Ingram sensed the effort he was making to tear himself away from whatever hell he saw in an innocent and commonplace bottle falling into the depths of the sea, but they came open again almost immediately, still full of the same hypnotic compulsion and horror, like those of a bird impaled on the freezing stare of a snake.

Warriner is intent that nobody go over to the Orpheus, but when he goes to sleep Ingram decides to check it out anyway, troubled by a suspicion he can’t quite pin down. On board he finds it true enough that it’s sinking, but everyone most distinctly isn’t dead – there are two people locked in one of the staterooms and left by Warriner to drown.

In the meantime however Warriner has woken up, seen that Ingram has gone to the Orpheus and in a frenzy has set the Saracen fleeing with all the strength of its engines. Ingram tries to row back to it:

Saracen, in a hard-over right turn, was on his left now. He could see Rae fighting to reach the ignition switch. Warriner, holding the wheel with one hand, threw her back. She fell to her knees on the short section of deck aft of the cockpit, but sprang up and flung herself on him again. Ingram’s eyes stung with sweat, and the oars were bending as he threw the dinghy forward. The engine roared at full throttle; Saracen’s bow was swinging off faster now than he was gaining, but the stern was still coming down toward him. Twenty yards … fifteen …The locked and struggling figures in the cockpit suddenly burst apart. Warriner’s fist swung, and Ingram saw her fall. She lay in a crumpled heap on the afterdeck, unmoving, one arm dangling over the stern as if she were calling out for help. Ten yards… four … three …The turn was completed now, and the stern was beginning to draw away from him. He gave one more desperate heave on the oars, stood up, and flung himself at the rail. The dinghy kicked backward under him. His outstretched hands were two feet short, and then he was in the churning white water under the quarter.

The essence of horror is isolation, and the Pacific is very isolated indeed. Ingram has to return to a boat that’s taking on water faster than it can be bailed out, with two survivors he has to try to turn into a crew if he’s to have any chance of ever seeing his wife again. He doesn’t even know if she’s alive, and while the others gradually tell him Warriner’s story what that mostly tells him is that Rae is trapped alone and possibly badly injured with a dangerous lunatic.

He put the glasses back to his eyes. The little point of white thinned and disappeared, then came up again. Was she still on there? What was happening now, or had happened already? He closed his eyes for an instant and prayed. When he opened them and looked through the glasses again, Saracen was gone over the curvature of the earth. He looked around at the slickly heaving, empty miles of the equatorial Pacific shimmering under the sun without even the suspicion of a breeze and felt sick. Automatically he glanced at his watch to note the time. It was 9:50.

That’s just the setup – I’ve barely scratched the plot here. The tension ramps up fast and Williams makes you feel every bit how dangerous the situation is. In this part of the Pacific the odds on finding another vessel to help you are very remote. Warriner got lucky, and Ingram and Rae the opposite. Now the weather’s closing in and Ingram knows his only chance of seeing the next morning is somehow to catch the Saracen without instruments or radio while hoping that when he finds it Rae will still be alive and he can somehow overcome Warriner.

The key question at the heart of Dead Calm, the one both Ingram and Rae ask themselves, is how they can second-guess Warriner. When you’re “Dealing with a deranged mind—what was the use even trying to guess?” As the book progresses though Williams reveals the nature of Warriner’s psychosis, and with it a moral dilemma that makes this a subtler story than I’d expected. Warriner’s madness has roots, and it may be that with proper treatment and a different context he could be helped. He’s dangerous, but he’s not a monster. He’s ill, not evil.

Dead Calm was made into a moderately indifferent movie, and the key difference between film and book (besides two additional characters – the other survivors aren’t in the film) is psychological depth. In the movie Billy Zane plays an effectively scary Warriner, but the character is essentially no different to an orc or a predatory alien. He’s a remorseless killer, a Hollywood psychopath. The movie asks how Ingram and Rae will survive, but not what they’re justified in doing to survive.

In the book though both Ingram and Rae realise quite quickly that Warriner isn’t simply a deranged mind but also a damaged one. He’s no less dangerous – he’s left Ingram to his death after all and Rae’s not at all safe from him – but it’s not that he actually wants to hurt them. At one point Rae remembers there’s a shotgun on board the Saracen, but the question  isn’t just can she get to it and can she use it, but should she if she can? Would it be right, even with Ingram’s life in the balance?

That subtlety and depth is what makes Dead Calm more than just a competent thriller, but for me a great one. The chase across the sea; Ingram’s efforts to keep afloat and catch up and Rae’s to stay alive and turn around; both their efforts to find some way of saving the other; all that is gripping stuff. Couple that drama though with a moral heart and with characters who’re more than just plot vehicles and you have something really quite special.

I’ve no real criticisms here. Williams writes both Ingram and Rae as intelligent and resourceful people, but not unbelievably so and the nautical detail is utterly convincing. At times the jargon is a little hard to follow, for example:

He got the genoa snapped onto the stay, shackled the halyard to its head, and hoisted it. He didn’t know where the sheet was, but grabbed up one of the lines littering the deck, made it fast to the clew, led it out around the port shrouds, through the block on the port side of the deck aft of midships, and back to the winch near the cockpit. Orpheus swung off to starboard.

All of which I think means Ingram did something with a sail, but while I couldn’t follow the technical details the book isn’t too thick with them and they did help persuade me that Williams and Ingram both knew what they were doing. It’s an absolute winner and while I wouldn’t recommend it to someone with no interest in crime or thriller fiction, if those genres do at all appeal this is a bit of an overlooked classic.

One final note. To its absolute credit the book, unlike the film, never puts Rae in any sexual threat at all. There’s no hint that Warriner might rape her, no suggestion that being a woman puts her at any greater disadvantage or danger. Threatening female characters with rape is too often used as cheap drama, but not here. Frankly, it makes for a refreshing change.

Other reviews

None that I know of, but Guy Savage has reviewed several other Charles Williams’ titles here.


Filed under Williams, Charles

“Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

The Man in a Hurry, by Paul Morand and translated by Euan Cameron

Way back in 2009 I read and loved Paul Morand’s memoirs, Venices. It’s an elegantly written book that’s held up well in memory and that I still recommend.

Venices is notable among other things for skipping Morand’s years as a collaborator in the service of the Vichy government. It was written in 1971 when Morand’s fascist sympathies were distinctly out of fashion, and when his pro-Nazi and openly anti-semitic views of the 1930s and 1940s were perhaps from his perspective best glossed over.

The Man in a Hurry however was written in 1941, and is therefore a rare example of a comic novel written by an open supporter of the Nazi and Vichy regimes. It’s actually pretty good, though far from flawless. Still, it’s interesting that a man could hold such horrific views, be an advocate of such evil, and yet be a talented writer. Perhaps the art and the artist truly are separate beasts, or perhaps not. I’ll return to that near the end of this piece.Morand

Pierre Niox is a Parisian antique dealer. Despite his profession he epitomises the modern man, or perhaps better the Futurist man, for Pierre is obsessed with speed above all else. He lacks all patience, drives fast and devises elaborate time-and-motion techniques to speed up his morning routine. All his trousers are fitted with zips to avoid wasting time fiddling with buttons and naturally he puts his shoes on at the same time as doing up his tie.

Here’s how he’s introduced:

At the point at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. He went into one of those suburban taverns where in the summer you can have lunch with a view and where you can dine in the cool of the evening. With an anxious step, he charged down the path lined with box hedges and rushed over to the terrace. […] He took a seat at  a metal table and clapped his hands. Twice, he glanced at his watch, as if it were friend. Nobody chose to bring him a drink. Finally, a waiter in his seventies whose rheumatism was aggravated by working at night came to wipe the table with a duster. Why, since he had achieved his aim, did the visitor appear disconcerted?

Pierre falls into conversation with a Jewish psychologist who sees him and takes interest in this curious case of accelerated development. Their conversation sparkles, as do all the conversations in this book. Morand is nothing if not witty.

“Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you talk with God?”

“I reckon that, having tricked me by bringing me into the world, it’s for Him to get in touch first.”

Here is a later exchange with Pierre’s friend and business partner, the aptly named Placide:

Quickly and badly, that’s my motto!”

“An epitaph more likely.”

“Epitaphs are the mottos of the dead.”

Over the course of around 350 pages Pierre manages to irritate all those around him through his obsession with pointless velocity. Placide tries to balance Pierre’s mania with his own taste for leisure and the good life, but without success and so has to part ways. Pierre’s comically bad servant (servants always seem to be comically bad in novels of this sort, which strikes me as a form of snobbery) quits, and even Pierre’s cat moves on to find an owner less prone to constantly rearranging its environment.

Pierre seems a hopeless case, but then he meets the beautiful Hedwig of the Boisrosé clan, and the Boisrosé never do anything quickly. Will love redeem Pierre where all else has failed?

This then is a satire on modernity, and in many ways is still a surprisingly timely one. Pierre today would be hurrying down the street checking his emails on his Blackberry while making calls on his bluetooth headset, duly proud of his ability to multitask. You probably work with him; quite possibly you occasionally are him. I know I occasionally am.

In the  Boisrosé Pierre meets his nemesis. Madame de  Boisrosé lives with her three daughters, the four of them a tightly knit and self-reliant unit. The eldest married, but her husband soon found his home mostly empty with his wife preferring to spend her days with her mother and sisters than with him. Can Pierre adjust his speed enough to win Hedwig, the second daughter? If he does, can he keep her by his side or will she too be lured back to the comforting  Boisrosé bosom? The family matriarch is a formidable opponent, “unparalleled in her ability to use her weakness in an intimidating manner.” Hedwig won’t be prised easily away from her…

Morand couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried, and the book is filled with neatly crafted set-pieces and encounters. Pierre is absurd, but not so much so that he isn’ t recognisable, and the satire largely hits the spot. It’s a fun little tale, and a good choice for a lighter holiday or airplane read. There are however two key problems it suffers from.

The first issue is that while I describe it as a fun little tale above, it’s not actually that little. It’s ironic that a book satirising speed should take 350 pages, and it would frankly have been more effective at 250. A friend suggested that the length was perhaps itself a comment on Pierre’s haste, but I think that’s too kind. The book sags a little in the middle and while I never got bored I did find myself thinking that less might have been more.

The second issue is more problematic. Morand isn’t, here at least, a writer of great psychological subtlety and characters tend to be somewhat stereotyped. The Boisrosé for example are Creoles with a mix of French and Caribbean blood, and that Caribbean ancestry is the reason given for their lassitude. The Boisrosé aren’t lazy and part-black, they’re lazy because they’re part-black.

Stereotyping in a comic novel isn’t of course a mortal sin any more than it is in a pulp novel. When you’re aiming for broad strokes it’s hardly surprising characters get a little simplistic, and carefully nuanced psychological portraits would have sat oddly against characters like Pierre and Placide. Still, there’s something a little ugly in a 1940s novel portraying mixed-race characters as less energetic by virtue of their blood, and generally this is a somewhat cold novel with Morand’s characters being types rather than people.

I wouldn’t describe The Man in a Hurry as a racist novel – it’s a product of its age and its author’s sensibilities and the racial elements aren’t central to it. It was however flawed for me by some of its attitudes. A surprised character is at one point described as having “wide-open eyes [that] resembled those of a Negro being taken to the circus”. Much worse, when Pierre visits New York late in the novel he discovers that “In Harlem, the centre of the darkest idleness, the Negros slept all day long.” It’s just one sentence, but it’s an unpleasant one.

That brings me back to the art and the artist. Morand is an excellent stylist. He’s funny, graceful and writes superb prose. Here at least though his art is compromised by a lack of sympathy with his characters and with a tendency to typecast them in a rather racially essentialist way, which given his real world views seems perhaps a fault not just of the work but also of the man.

On a final note, I received this as a review copy from Pushkin Press. It’s their first hardback release and it is physically one of the most beautiful and pleasing to hold books I own. They’ve done marvels with it, and Paul Morand I’m sure would be delighted with it (if not perhaps by all of my review).

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, or at least not the blogs I follow. Please feel free though to link in the comments to any you think particularly interesting.



Filed under Comic Fiction, French Literature, Morand, Paul

And I’m back.

I’ve been on holiday for a week, diving in Gozo which was marvellous. Unfortunately, I then had an unrelated back injury immediately on my return which has led to be being pretty much entirely offline the last week and in a fair bit of pain, which was (and for another week or so will continue to be) less marvellous.


Not my photo I hasten to add, but I had views like it while there. Lots of fish to see, good visibility and the water was generally fairly warm. I’ve not posted a photo of someone with a bad back as it mostly involves lying on the floor and grimacing a lot while trying to get mobile again (which I now am thankfully).

Apologies therefore if I’ve missed any particularly interesting posts (and feel free to flag anything specific to me in the comments), but as I’m still recovering I’m probably going to have to be fairly ruthless in terms of what I read from when I’ve been offline.

On the more positive side, I have read some bloody good books while away. I’m now on the strength of A Glass of Blessings a confirmed Barbara Pym fan, and Charles Williams’ Dead Calm is much better than it has any right to be. Also, Clarice Lispector, OMG! as the kids used to say about ten years ago.

I’ll start posting up some reviews over the next two or three days, and start to catch up on some of the many posts I’ve missed while offline, but it may be a bit slow at first since I’m still not 100% and am now back at work and need to catch up on that first of course.


Filed under Personal posts

#TBR20 and how I buy books

I’m off on holiday soon, returning the week of 7 September. Before I go I thought I’d post a quick update on how I’m getting along with #tbr20.


In one word the answer would be slowly, given I’m currently only on book seven of my 20. To be fair I did interrupt the 20 for one reread (The Maltese Falcon) and one exception purchased for my last holiday (Gods without Men), making nine books total since I started. Still, it’s been an active summer and so a slow reading summer.

That’s fine, and I’ve no particular problem with how quickly I’m getting through the pile. It has though made me pay attention as to how books come into my life and how my TBR pile keeps growing even though I’ve been trying for some time now to reduce how much I buy.

I have a general no review copies policy, but I occasionally break that. I’ve broken it twice during my #tbr20, once for In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González and once for Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things.

On the purchases front, I’ve not been entirely virtuous either. I bought a hardcopy of Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities in response to an appeal on behalf of its publisher who were in a financial squeeze and needed to shift some units to make the end of the month. I don’t regret that – I was going to buy it anyway so all that changed was the timing.

How I interact with my kindle is more problematic, particularly Amazon’s constant offers. I’m generally fine avoiding overbuying hardcopy books – I have to go to a shop, pick up the book I’m considering, decide to buy it and then to carry it home. It’s all very there, very physical. You can’t be unaware that you’re doing it and once you have the evidence is now in your home taking up space.

Peter Watt’s Echopraxia, sequel to his groundbreaking SF novel Blindsight, has long been on my radar as a book to pick up. When Amazon dropped the price in a daily deal to 99p it seemed a no-brainer, and so without engaging my brain I bought it. I’ve no plans to read it soon but there it is on my virtual bookshelf.

Similarly, I’ve long planned to have a go at Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetratology. Amazon dropped My Brilliant Friend to 99p as part of a monthly deal and I grabbed it. I was going to buy it eventually and at that price it was practically free. Again though, I’ve no plans on reading it soon and yet I have it.

So, that’s how the books come in. I notice myself buying physical books and give real thought as to whether I should or not. What #TBR20 has taught me is that I don’t apply the same logic to virtual books. I thought I did, but I don’t. Instead I wishlist a book and Amazon runs constant sales and so when something I’m interested in (or potentially interested in) gets reduced I pick it up.

Every individual purchase made on this basis makes sense. Every 99p book, or £1.99 book or whatever, is a noticeable saving on the price I’d otherwise have paid. I don’t buy anything I wouldn’t at least otherwise have considered buying. I can only read so fast though, and those sensible purchase decisions add up over time to hundreds of unread books. They’re intangible, digital, so you don’t see them piling up as you would physical books, but they’re there all the same.

When I noticed this I stopped looking at Amazon sales. Savings make sense, but not as much sense as not accumulating vast numbers of books I may never read. It turns out book buying is like many other things – it’s not the conscious choices that catch you out, it’s the choices you didn’t realise you were making.

On a last note, #tbr20 itself is a bit risky. I thought the other day about what I’d put on a new #tbr20 after this one and ten of the books were ones I would have to buy. From reading other blogs I’m increasingly wondering if #tbr20 is the literary equivalent of a crash diet, with the same consequence that once you stop you put back on more than you lost.


Filed under Personal posts

Polite, intelligent: guys like that are my meat.

The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson

This is about as black as noir gets. 240-odd pages inside the head of a brutal and manipulative psychopath. Couple that with a scathing critique of small-town American life and it’s a definite and deserved classic, if a rather depressing one.


Published in 1952 and set about the same time, The Killer Inside me is the first person narrative of Lou Ford, a Texan deputy sheriff living in the comically misnamed small town of Central City. Lou’s well liked locally and known to all as an upstanding and dependable man, if a little slow and prone to cliché.

From inside though Lou is a very different beast. He’s coldly watchful, observing the world around him analytically but without empathy. He enjoys hurting people but he’s too smart to show it so instead he likes to play with them, like a cat with a mouse it can’t be bothered to eat. In public at least he maintains a plausible cover of virtue at all times:

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”

“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggondest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky–the boy is the father to the man. Just like that. The boy is the father to the man.”

The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a bore, it’s a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d give you his shirt if you asked for it?

Central City is a Christian town where people work hard and look out for each other, but without prying into one another’s business. Respectability is important here and if you lose your reputation you’re never getting it back again.

Underneath the unruffled surface the town is riddled with hypocrisy. Lou has his girlfriend over regularly to stay the night. Everyone knows they’re sleeping together, but it’s assumed they’ll get married which will make it retrospectively ok, and in the meantime to speak of it would be to ruin her reputation and that wouldn’t be a gentlemanly thing to do.

Similarly, nobody talks of the fact that Chester Conway, local big man around town, might have had Lou’s brother murdered. Lou’s brother had spent time in prison for assaulting a little girl so nobody mourned him too much anyway, certainly not enough to take on the richest man in the area.

Things have been stable for years, but then Lou’s asked to see off a hooker named Joyce who’s set up on the outskirts of town. He ends up sleeping with her instead, able once out of public sight to finally indulge his taste for sadism with a woman who turns out herself to have a taste for masochism.

The trouble Lou now has is that once he’s finally able to let his inner desires off the leash he can’t contain them. He decides he needs to kill Joyce if he’s to keep his own appetites in check but to get away with it he needs someone to blame for her murder, and he needs her apparent murderer to be dead too so nobody can question them too closely, and if that story doesn’t stack up he needs a third body to take the blame for the first two…

It was funny the way these people kept asking for it. Just latching onto you, no matter how you tried to brush them off, and almost telling you how they wanted it done. Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill themselves?

Early on in the narrative Lou seems like the kind of genius-psychopath so beloved of modern film and tv. Quite quickly though Lou’s account of himself starts to be undermined. He’s convinced that he’s cleverer than anybody around him and that nobody can see through his cover, but several characters ask him why he pretends to act so hokey or what he gets out of pretending to be stupider than he is. He’s clearly right in thinking himself intelligent, but it’s not so obvious he’s right in thinking that means that everyone else is an idiot.

It’s also not clear that Lou is always as careful as he thinks he is. Early on in the novel a bum asks him for a handout, figuring he’s an easy touch. Since nobody’s around Lou stubs out a cigar on the man’s hand, taking pleasure in casual cruelty. Nobody would believe a bum’s word against Lou’s, but it raises a question about how often Lou steps out of character and indulges his true nature, and if he’s right that nobody ever notices. Central City is after all a town where people keep what they know about their neighbours to themselves.

Lou’s mind is not a nice place to spend time in and Thompson doesn’t shy away from describing Lou’s crimes in ugly detail. Lou kills men when he has to, but he kills women from compulsion and while he might use a gun for a man for a woman he likes to use his fists and his boots.

As the story continues it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that while Lou has a rationale for each of his crimes it’s just that – a rationale. The reality is that he’s a sadistic killer who enjoys hurting women and having power over men and who increasingly can’t keep his impulses under control. Lou reckons himself a careful predator, but he’s more akin to a rabid dog.

Thompson’s first great achievement here is to make Lou’s mind convincing while still keeping him horrific. Perhaps more than that however is how he shows that Lou’s malevolence has gone unnoticed not so much because of Lou’s own cunning but because of his town’s desire not to probe too deeply into matters that might not bear too much public inspection.

Things run smoothly in Central City if respectable people stay respectable, if those on the outside stay on the outside, and if everyone plays along as if the surface of things were the reality of them. Lou undermines that, not just by being a killer, but ironically by not being as good at hiding his inner rottenness as everyone else is.

Other reviews

Guy Savage, naturally, has reviewed this along with many other Thompsons at His Futile Preoccupations. His review is here. Also worth reading is this review by Emma at bookaroundthecorner here. If you know of other blogosphere reviews, please let me know in the comments.


Filed under Noir, Thompson, Jim

Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.

Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson

It’s strange that a book can be simultaneously beautiful yet profoundly untrue. So much for Keats.

Jesus’ Son is a series of eleven loosely connected short stories all featuring (probably) the same unnamed narrator. He’s a junkie, or a recovering junkie, or a relapsing junkie, depending on the story. He lives as best he can, drifting through casual jobs and even more casual friendships. He’d be a loser, except he’s not particularly trying to win anything.

The prose is, quite simply, beautiful. It’s elegant, unexpected, at times surprisingly funny. It’s graceful, which isn’t a word I use often when describing a book. Jesus’ Son is superbly well written. In fact, and I’ll return to this, that’s precisely my problem with it. It’s so well written I think it loses the truth of what it describes. It’s too beautiful.


The first story, Car Crash While Hitchhiking, sets the mood. The narrator is describing an accident he was in, the events leading up to it, the people he hitchhiked with before getting in the car that crashed and the varied booze and drugs and stories they shared with him. It’s disordered, but then if you were drunk and high and involved in a fatal collision so would you be.

The tone is matter of fact. The narrator believes he knew it was going to happen anyway, a post-accident assertion of foreknowledge which you could read literally if you wanted but which seems much more a symptom of the narrator’s fatalism. To him it was as unavoidable as gravity. That’s what his life is – things happening, one after another, without much by way of causal links.

He ends up in hospital, still hallucinating. It’s not the first time reality’s hold has been a little shaky. It certainly won’t be the last:

Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.

“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.

“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.

“Not exactly,” I said.

That quote comes shortly after a passage where the narrator wanders dazedly through the crash scene holding a baby that like him was left seemingly miraculously unhurt while others were so injured it’s hard to tell who’s dead and who’s alive. None of it surprises him, nothing is given greater weight than anything else.

The individual stories blur together, making it hard now to pick out what happened in one and what in another. That reflects the narrator’s own experience. In one titled Two Men he tells an anecdote of how he and some friends find a guy sleeping in their car and spend the evening trying to get rid of him, driving him around in the hope they can drop him off somewhere.

It’s a slightly random shaggy-dog story (they’re all slightly random shaggy-dog stories), but what’s noticeable is that it only features one man, the guy sleeping in the car. The narrator completely forgets whoever the second man was, and it’s not until I got to the end of the story I realised I had as well. Then again, who cares about a second man when you have dialogue like this?

“Are you still at all worried about Alsatia?”

“I was kissing her.”

“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.

“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”

What makes Jesus’ Son brilliant though isn’t its occasional comic dialogue, great as that is. It’s that a little over 70 pages later a story titled The Other Man opens:

But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one, whom I met more or less in the middle of Puget Sound, travelling from Bremerton, Washington, to Seattle.

The narrator may not be in control of his life but Johnson is absolutely on top of his material. This is writing as fine carpentry: perfectly joined, no glue required.

In another story, the narrator is working in a hospital emergency room (he spends a lot of time around hospitals, perhaps because that’s where the drugs tend to be). In what by this point seems a classically Johnsonian incident (and it’s a testament to this book that by page 73 it has classic incidents) a man is admitted to hospital with a knife buried deep into his face penetrating the brain:

[The doctor] peeked into the trauma room and saw the situation: the clerk—that is, me—standing next to the orderly, Georgie, both of us on drugs, looking down at a patient with a knife sticking up out of his face. “What seems to be the trouble?” he said.


Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. The talk just dropped off a cliff. “Where,” the doctor asked finally, “did you get that?”

It’s funny stuff, and with most authors it would be the end of the story, but the narrator has no sense of narrative and meanders on for another 12 pages dealing in the same detail with the time he and Georgie went for a drive and accidentally ran over a rabbit. It shouldn’t work, at the level of the individual story it doesn’t always work, but here the whole is much greater than the parts.

Almost every quote I’ve picked above is comic, which is a little misleading as this isn’t a comic novel. In a later story the narrator takes work as an orderly in a facility for people with profound disabilities. He takes a certain comfort from being there for people even worse off than himself, and sees in them an unvarnished reality that everyone else is hiding from. He sees society tucking the disfigured out of sight, hiding human reminders of frailty and mortality. People like him and his friends, they’re invisible too. They’re lost at the margins, inconvenient and irrelevant, living parallel lives with the wider world.

All of which takes me back to the beginning of this piece, and why I think this book though beautiful is untrue. I’ve mentioned before here that my mother and stepfather were part of the counterculture, and that for them as for many others for a while it went quite badly wrong. I spent much of my teenage years surrounded by adults who were junkies, drunks, damaged people.

I recognise the absurdity of the scenes here and I recognise the characters. I don’t though recognise the beauty. Galley Beggar Press have published some shorts by Tony O’Neill which also tell tales of people living on the margins. O’Neill’s world is one I recognise. It’s squalid and ugly and it’s true.

The trouble with wrapping this world in this prose is that it makes it a thing of grace, but it’s not. The reality of a junkie narrator is some guy off his head in a fetid room talking bollocks that makes sense only to him.  There’s nothing elegant about it, and nothing particularly comic. At the extremes it’s desperately, horribly sad. O’Neill captures that. Johnson elides it.

Still, he elides it well and with language so neatly turned that I’ve every intention of reading more by him. Here’s one final quote, showing quite how well Johnson can control tone even within a single sentence.

I was after a seventeen-year-old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way.

Can’t it just? That sentence? That sentence is true.

Other reviews

John Self of Asylum first put this on my radar. His review is here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes also reviewed it here. Finally, here‘s a review by a blog new to me that I also thought interesting. If you know of more, as ever please tell me in the comments.


Filed under Johnson, Denis, Novellas

Everything seemed to be linked to everything else

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

As a teenager I had a copy of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. I read it over and over. I loved the Norse gods particularly; tales of Thor sleeping in a strange five chambered hall and waking only to learn he had spent the night in a giant’s glove, of Loki’s envy for Baldur and how it led to the death of the most beautiful of the gods.

In myth the ordinary and extraordinary mix without comment. Gregory of Tours starts his History of the Franks at the beginning, with Adam and Eve and the fall of man, and proceeds from there to then-current events mixing the miraculous and the prosaic without distinction.

Today myths are often read crudely literally – as no more than pre-scientific attempts to explain the world in the absence of better analytic tools. There’s an element of that of course, but myths are profoundly comfortable with ambiguity. A thing can be true without ever having happened; the myth of Icarus still speaks to us even though it never looked likely, not even to the Greeks, that we’d one day find his remains.


Gods without Men is a work of contemporary US mythology; an exploration of true things that mostly never happened. It opens in the myth-time when animals were men, with Coyote driving out into the desert to cook up some meth. It’s a discomfiting opening, one that left me unsure quite what I was reading, so it was almost with relief that I reached the second chapter set in 1947 with an aircraft engineer named Schmidt setting off into the Mojave desert to live as a recluse and concentrate on his life’s work, contacting the benevolent aliens he believes will come down in their saucers and set the world to rights.

From there Gods travels back and forwards in time: to 2008 when Sikh-American Jaz and his Jewish-American wife Lisa travel out to the desert on a desperately needed family holiday, their marriage strained by the arrival of their severely autistic child; to 1778 and details of a (real life) Franciscan missionary and his attempts to convert the indigenous peoples of the area; back to 2008 where an English rock-star is staying at the same motel as Jaz and Lisa while he hides out from his band’s disastrous attempt to make their great-American-album; then 1958 and a teenager tempted by the contactee-cult commune that’s springing up not far from her dreary home town.

It sounds chaotic, but if you trust Kunzru (and you should) it starts to come together. The common character is the desert itself and a rock formation named the Pinnacles that looks like three fingers reaching into the air – a shape so distinctive that it seems almost meaningful.

Slowly, the different periods start to fit together. Schmidt in 1947 makes his camp near the Pinnacles and attracts followers, who become the UFO-contactee cult of the 1950s and in later chapters from ’69 through ’71 take a darker turn down the hippy trail. In 1920 an ethnologist studies a dwindling tribe of native Americans living near the Pinnacles, desperate to preserve their culture from being entirely lost but unable to see it clearly through his own prejudices and assumptions. His story leads to disaster, but connects through to the contactees and ultimately to Jaz and Lisa and their own disastrous trip into the desert on their misconceived family break.

Everything in this novel seems to be linked to everything else, but that doesn’t mean any of it is meaningful. We’re dealing here with “the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world.”

The core narrative, or perhaps simply the strongest, follows Jaz and Lisa. Jaz is a mathematician working in Wall Street for a computer trading desk. His boss, Bachman, has created a new program that analyses endless oceans of data and finds seemingly unconnected correlations enabling arbitrage trades at near the speed of light (all that really exists by the way). Jaz however has grown concerned that the program may be too sophisticated, and that as it trades it no longer merely analyses the world but may in fact be changing it.

For Bachman though, the program is about much more than just making money. It’s a method for mapping the world. He believes that the correlations it finds are meaningful, not mere inevitable coincidences arising out of a vast dataset:

‘We’re hunting for jokes.’ Bachman spoke slowly, as if to a child. ‘Parapraxes. Cosmic slips of the tongue. They’re the key to the locked door. They’ll help us discover it.’ ‘Discover what?’ ‘The face of God. What else would we be looking for?’

Communication and comprehension are key themes here. Jaz and Lisa can’t communicate with their child or understand him, and the strain of coping with a kid who never smiles and seems to hate being hugged has led to them being almost as inaccessible to each other as their son is to each of them.

Schmidt and the contactees who follow him are trying to commune with higher intelligences that they believe will save the Earth; Bachman thinks he can find meaning through an algorithm; the rock star takes peyote in the desert trying to get in touch with the inspiration that’s eluding him. Each character is faced with something vast and unknowable, and each tries to make sense of a world that doesn’t so much resist their attempts as simply not notice them. The title is a reference to a Balzac quote, that the desert is god without men, and here the desert is full of human attempts to impose meaning and empty of any of its own.

In 1920 a witness sees a Native American with a white boy out in the desert, leading to a manhunt and savage interracial violence. In 2008 a child goes missing, triggering a national media and internet frenzy, but months later is discovered near a fake-Iraqi troop-training village in the Mojave desert (another true thing), but with no clue as to how it could possibly get there. Are these events linked? Another child goes missing in the fifties, a contactee’s daughter, who turns up years later unharmed and claiming to channel alien intelligences.

Did the child in 2008 travel in time? Was it hidden in the land of the dead only to return to the land of the living as mysteriously as it vanished? Was the child in the fifties taken by aliens to be made an interstellar messiah? Or alternatively, did the child in 2008 get kidnapped by a childless couple living in the desert and released once they realised it wasn’t “normal”? Did the girl in the 1950s just die in a fire, replaced years later by an imposter “discovered” by the cult’s leader so as to help him control his followers? The novel doesn’t tell us. Things happen and we all try to make sense of what facts there are as seems best to us.

This is my second Kunzru, after his My Revolutions (which I loved). It’s almost 500 pages and needs to be given how much is packed in here, but it’s a light and intriguing read which managed the interesting trick of being philosophically dense and yet something of a page-turner.

The characters vary in depth. Some, the English rock star or Schmidt are lightly drawn since they exist more as catalysts or people caught in the narrative than as central figures. Others, like Lisa and Joanie (a local teenager who joins the contactee cult) have much more depth and are convincingly and messily real.

Jaz however stands out as perhaps the best creation in the book. He’s in many ways a classic second-generation immigrant caught between the culture he grew up in and his parent’s culture transplanted from a place he’s barely seen and that has no resonance for him. When his parents realise Jaz is bright enough to have a shot at MIT they align the entire family around his potential future (“His mother and sisters moved around like ground technicians on an immigrant moon-shot.”). When he gets there he cuts his hair in contravention of Sikh-tradition and marries a white girl, his family struggling to comprehend his choices or even to talk to him about them.

Jaz becomes an immigrant of sorts himself as he leaves behind his past as a geeky outsider-kid and relocates to Brooklyn, takes a job in Wall Street, shops in Whole Foods. Jaz is living the American dream, or was until the world deposited a deeply damaged child on his lap instead of the perfect family he expected.

Above all though, Gods is a novel of place. I read this as a break from my #TBR20 while on a driving holiday in the US, and you can tell Kunzru put in time on those roads, seeing for himself the desolate parts of America where the scale of the landscape and the sheer breadth of the sky almost stuns you, and where you find towns nobody would ever detour to see:

Soon the only signs of life were rows of giant white wind turbines and billboards advertising casino resorts. An outlet mall rose up at the roadside like a mirage. Then nothing. Miles of rock and scrubby bushes.


Cars sped along the highway, pulled in and out of the parking lot, disgorging more meaningless forms. Later she found herself driving through town, past plate-glass storefronts. Computer supplies. Weight Loss Club. She turned on to a side street, then another. Cracked concrete and chainlink fences. A collection of self-storage units fronted by desiccated palms. A community whose landmarks were laundromats and 7-Elevens, trailer parks for the unlucky and for the slightly luckier, subdivisions of low, mean-looking ranches, bunkers with double garages and dead brown lawns strewn with children’s toys.

I’ve already written more than I really wanted to for this review, and that’s even with my skipping entire characters and situations which lead to other perspectives on the text (one review I saw thought the entire book an allegory about the Iraq war, which I think is a misreading but there’s a lot here on that topic that I’ve not even touched on). The more I write however, the more connections I see. Now it strikes me that Jaz’s inability to understand his wife or his son has parallels with his own family’s inability to understand him. Maybe that’s intentional, or maybe this is just a large book and it contains echoes that seem meaningful but are just patterns in the noise.

I’ll end then by returning to the beginning: Coyote driving into the desert. Later, one of the hippy-contactees is named Coyote and still lives in the area decades later in the 2000s when he may or may not be involved with the missing child. Coyotes crop up at other points too, the trickster-spirit appearing in many guises through the book. Or possibly not, coyotes are native to the area and one person’s divine apparition is another’s coincidence.

Other reviews

Many online, naturally, but not in the blogosphere that I know of. There are though two interesting interviews with Kunzru at The Paris Review here and at the New Yorker here.


Filed under Kunzru, Hari

‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

What is there to say about this one? This is as classic as classic gets, and I say that as someone who’s reviewed Don Quixote here. This is one of the ur-texts of hardboiled fiction, source for one of the greatest film noir movies of all time. It’s also bloody good.


I’ve read The Maltese Falcon before, so while it wasn’t on my #TBR20 list I thought I could allow a read of it while I was in San Francisco last month. How can you not read Dashiell Hammett when in San Francisco? It’s half the reason I wanted to go there in the first place.

Here’s how the book opens:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Right away Hammett has put Sam Spade front and centre, while at the same time making him slightly questionable. He sounds lupine; he’s “pleasantly like a blond satan” which makes him sound charming but not particularly reassuring.

Moments later Sam’s secretary is showing in a woman named Wonderley, “a knockout”, a femme as fatale as any that ever lived on the page:

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

What follows is a dizzying tale of murder, betrayal, and above all greed. Miss Wonderley tells Sam that her sister has fallen into bad company with a man named Floyd Thursby. Now the sister has disappeared, and Miss Wonderley fears Thursby might harm her, even kill her. She wants Thursby watched and her sister brought safely home.

By the start of chapter two Sam’s partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered and the case has become personal. Sam didn’t like Miles any and he was sleeping with Miles’ wife, but even so a man can’t let someone shoot his partner and do nothing about it, particularly when the police start poking around looking for someone to blame. Whatever’s going on, it’s much more than a runaway sister.

‘That – that story I told you yesterday was all – a story,’ she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes. ‘Oh, that,’ Spade said lightly. ‘We didn’t exactly believe your story.’ ‘Then—?’ Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes. ‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’ ‘You mean—?’ She seemed to not know what he meant. ‘I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,’ he explained blandly, ‘and enough more to make it all right.’

The Maltese Falcon has some of the finest characters in any crime novel I’ve read. Miss Wonderley is really Brigid O’Shaugnessy, and by her own account in the past she’s been “bad – worse than you could know – but I’m not all bad”. She’s in serious trouble, the worst kind, and she’s dependent on Sam Spade to help her out of it but what exactly it is is far from clear. For a damsel in distress she’s surprisingly hard to get a straight answer from, but then being a knockout is all the explanation she’s ever needed in life.

Sam gets visited in his office by Joel Cairo, a small-boned Levantine dressed in rich clothes and armed with heavily scented handkerchiefs and a small-calibre pistol. Joel’s looking for an ornament, “the black figure of a bird”, and he’s not the only one because the fat man is out there too and he has a vicious street thug bearing twin .45s watching Sam wherever he goes.

The fat man, actually named Gutman, is another memorable character. He’s loquacious, jocular, well mannered and well groomed. He’s appetite in a bulging suit, polite but determined. The thug, a gunsel named Wilmer, is a bitter little killer full of anger and resentment at the world. The two of them make a dangerous combination.

I should at this point make a small aside and note that this is not a particularly gay-friendly novel. Cairo is an effeminate gay and portrayed as ugly and unwholesome in part because of that. Wilmer is a gunsel, a term that today because of this book and the film means a gun-thug but that originally meant a catamite – Hammett used the term so that he could get the gay subtext into the book without being too explicit and it worked so well that when I first read it and saw the film I had no idea of the implications.

Above all of them though there’s the character that’s by far the greatest in the book – Sam Spade himself. Spade changes his mood and his manner to the occasion: dumb when he wants to be underestimated; angry when he wants to intimidate; charming when he wants to persuade; sharp-tongued when he wants to put someone back in their place. He’s quick-witted and poker-faced, and the real crime is that Hammett never wrote another novel featuring him. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest fictional detectives ever written.

The chances are almost everyone reading this knows the plot, the secret of the “black bird” and what’s really going on with O’Shaugnessy, Cairo and Gutman. It’s possible though that some of you may not, and just in case of that I won’t say anything more about what happens. I will say though that while Chandler remains my first and greatest hardboiled love, Hammett knew how to write a plot and the plot here is one worthy of the characters.

This is probably as close to a love-letter as I’ll write in a review, until at least I reread The Big Sleep at which point I’ll likely gush to a level that makes this look restrained. Still, it’s The Maltese Falcon, and to quote Spade from the film in a line he never says in the book, it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of”.

I’ll finish up with a quick comment on the film, which I rewatched while out in San Francisco. It’s amazingly close to the book, with large chunks of dialogue taken straight from one to the other. It’s as well directed as you’d hope from John Huston at the top of his game, but above all it is incredibly well cast.

Bogart of course makes a definitive Sam Spade. He looks nothing like the book’s description of the character, but that simply doesn’t matter as he completely inhabits the part and in doing so pretty much defines the iconography of the cinematic private detective. Mary Astor matches him in a career-defining role as Brigid O’Shaugnessy – a woman who is varyingly vulnerable, bold, affectionate, manipulative, seductive, dangerous, terrified and more.

Sydney Greenstreet seems to have stepped out of the book as Gutman; Peter Lorre is a marvellously questionable Cairo (though I’ve never seen Lorre disappoint); and perhaps most impressive of all is character actor Elisha Cook, Jr who captures Wilmer in all his petty viciousness so well that at times I almost sympathised with him. The supporting actors are equally well chosen, the whole film crackles with talent and is just an exceptional joy to watch.


Filed under Crime Fiction, Dashiell, Hammett, Hardboiled