Category Archives: Crime Fiction

‘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.

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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.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Dashiell, Hammett, Hardboiled

Freddy reviewed his life and realized that altruism had been his major fault.

Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford

If you’re even slightly a crime fan, I can save you some time on this review. You’ll like this one. Go pick up a copy.

If however you’d like a little more detail, read on.

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That’s the Penguin Modern Classics cover, which I think is pretty good. Unfortunately it’s not the one I have, which is below. This one’s fine, but more generic and there’s nobody remotely like that woman in this book:

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In my review of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane I commented on his opening sentence and paragraph. Barry knows how to start a book, there’s no question to it, but Willeford’s no slouch in that department either. Here’s Willeford’s opener:

Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials. She brought him a cold half-bottle, uncorked it and left it with him, and returned a few moments later with some Pan Am writing paper and a white ball point pen. For the next hour, as he sipped champagne, Freddy practiced writing the signatures of Claude L. Bytell, Ramon Mendez, and Herman T. Gotlieb.

As soon as I read that I knew I was in good hands.

It’s the early ’80s. Freddy has headed to Miami to make a new life for himself. He’s new out of jail, armed with three wallets stolen back West before he got on the plane. Willeford uses Freddy’s examination of his loot to neatly establish his essential lack of empathy:

As he looked through the three wallets he found himself wondering about their owners. One wallet was eelskin, another was imitation ostrich, and the third was a plain cowhide billfold filled with color snapshots of very plain children. Why would any man want to carry around photographs of ugly children in his wallet? And why would anyone buy imitation ostrich, when you could get an authentic ostrich-skin wallet for only two or three hundred dollars more? Eelskin he could understand; it was soft and durable, and the longer you carried it in your hip pocket the softer it got.

Freddy has no concept of why a man might have a cheap wallet when expensive ones are easily available at knife or gunpoint. He certainly has no idea of why a man might have photos of children if the children don’t look good. Freddy, it’s fair to say, is not a people person.

On arriving at Miami airport Freddy gets accosted by a Hare Krishna guy trying to collect money for charity. The Krishna-guy pins a piece of candy to Freddy’s lapel. It’s a new suit, and Freddy doesn’t like having a hole made in it. He casually snaps the guy’s finger and leaves him lying on the carpet unconscious from pain. Nobody cares, the Krishna-guy was a pest anyway. Freddy isn’t the only person in Miami lacking empathy.

Soon Freddy’s shacked up with Susan Waggoner, a student originally of Okeechobee who found nothing in Miami but work as a mediocre hooker and English lit classes she doesn’t understand. Freddy’s dreaming of the big score and Susan wouldn’t say no to a slice of that, but Freddy just isn’t a big picture guy and he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

Freddy’s actions leave a trail, and before long Miami detective Hoke Moseley is looking very hard at Freddy convinced there’s something badly wrong about him. In another neat scene Freddy claims to be at college with Susan, but Hoke notices that Freddy’s upper-body muscles are a lot more developed than his lower, indicating working out in a cell, and that when Freddy eats some pudding he puts his free arm around the bowl to stop anyone from trying to grab it.

Miami Blues hums along with a nicely black sense of humour and a fondness for running jokes. Hoke has dentures, and keeps having thugs take them from him leaving him literally toothless. He ends up in hospital for a while with a broken jaw, and everyone who visits brings him a box of gift fudge. When he gets out he grows a beard, too sore to shave, and everyone he meets criticises it saying it makes him look like some actor or other but a different one every time.

The jokes might sound a little cruel, seeing them off the page and set down in that paragraph above, but they’re not. It’s more that Hoke’s life isn’t neat and the people around him are mostly trying their best but get things wrong.

The plot depends on a massive early coincidence, one so huge that you just have to accept it and move on. It gets things moving, but as with the jokes it underlines that this is crime with a comic twist, more Columbo than Law and Order. Willeford’s here to entertain rather than to depress.

Miami Blues is of course filled with snappy dialogue. Here Hoke talks to his partner:

“Is the governor a Jesuit?” “That’s a Catholic, isn’t it?” “An educated Catholic, the way it was explained to me.”

Here, later, Hoke’s been assigned a new female partner. His old one comments:

Marie would have a fit if I had myself a female partner.” “I thought Marie was liberated.” “She is, but I’m not.”

The focus shifts between Freddy and Hoke, contrasting the two. Hoke is Freddy’s opposite, crumpled and beaten down but full of messy humanity. They spar, but where Freddy has the edge in strength and viciousness Hoke’s much, much smarter.

In many ways, on paper at least, Freddy has the better life. Freddy has money; Hoke’s broke, paying alimony and his daughter’s orthodontist bill. Freddy lives in Susan’s beautiful and clean apartment on an unfinished housing development, quiet and private; Hoke lives in a free room filled with unwashed socks and empty bottles in a cheap hotel where he acts as unpaid security, surrounded by pensioners and Cuban-exiles. Freddy spends his evenings with his girl, getting home cooked meals; Hoke spends his evenings helping dementia-afflicted neighbours back to their rooms.

Hoke though has friends, and people whose lives he makes a difference to. Freddy only has people he transacts with, and while it’s true he makes a difference to peoples lives, it’s not a difference they generally welcome. There’s no glamourising of the psychopath here. Freddy gets the immediate rewards, sure, and given the kind of man Freddy is there’s no way he’d ever envy Hoke’s life. Me though, I’d rather be Hoke any day of the week.

Other reviews

None I know of, but Guy Savage has reviewed a whole bunch of Charles Willeford novels here and is clearly something of a fan. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Guy’s reviews I probably wouldn’t have read this when I did, so thanks as ever to Guy.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Willeford, Charles

fields of mud crushed under the weight of of the impending dark

The A26, by Pascal Garnier and translated by Melanie Florence

I’ve long wanted to read Pascal Garnier. He’s been well reviewed on the blogosphere, I love noir and his books sounded punchy and darkly funny. The A26 was my first. Unfortunately, I absolutely hated it.

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Bernard and Yolande are brother and sister. Bernard is in advanced middle age, Yolande is elderly and hasn’t left their house in decades. They’re hoarders, nothing is ever thrown out; Yolande never leaves and she and Bernard inhabit a bizarre twilight world of their own creation. Bernard however is dying.

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up to it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blocked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

Yolande’s only interaction with the outside world is peering at it through a small hole in the door. There’s a new road being constructed nearby, progress continuing in the wider world while utterly resisted in their private one. Bernard used to go out to work, but now he’s retired so mostly he just goes out for shopping and to kill strangers.

Yup, Bernard’s a serial killer. There’s no particular reason he is. He starts killing for no obvious reason other than that the plot kind of demands it, and the fact that the entire book wallows in horrible and pointless deaths. At one point one poor sod happens just to drive past a character and moments later is described as being killed in a terrible car crash. It’s post-bleak, absurdly so (but not for me comically so).

Yolande is a solipsistic narcissistic delusional psychopath. Bernard isn’t particularly narcissistic or delusional, but he still does ok on the solipsistic psychopathy front.

In the sky the dark was spreading like a pool of ink. A sprinkling of stars appeared. Bernard aimed his finger and rubbed out a few. Every second, some of them died, people said. What did that matter when four times as many were born in the same time? The sky was an enormous rubbish tip.

His attitude to people reflects his attitude to stars. We don’t matter, and there’s always more where any of us came from.

I found the characters and story here a parade of grotesqueries, utterly artificial and contrived. It reminded me in some ways of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, with his (in that case initially credible) characters tortuously contorted, prodded and pulled into the shape demanded by his improbable plot. I also found it rather sexist (“A woman, even if she’s in her pinny and wearing a black eye, always tidies her hair in the rear-view mirror.” – seriously?).

Anyway, I hated this one too much to give it a fair review. For me it had no real redeeming features but was just 100 pages of relentless ugliness, but I’m in a minority and it’s been very well received on the blogosphere as has Garnier more generally. I’m not therefore arguing that this is a bad book, simply that it was a (very) bad book for me.

It may be that I’m not just not Garnier’s reader, or it may be that I am but not for this book. I will note however that the Melanie Florence translation read well, quite simply it wouldn’t be possible to dislike it as much as I did if the translation were weak (odd as that may sound).

Other reviews

There’s a good few, but I’ll link to two in particular and invite anyone reading to link to others in the comments. This is from Stu at Winstonsdad, because Stu is always good value and there’s nobody better informed on translated literature, and this from Tomcat of Tomcat in the Red Room because I love his blog and I don’t get to link to it as often as I’d like since we often read different books.

I suspect most reading this already know Stu and don’t need me to recommend him further. Tomcat though you may not know, in which case I’d encourage you to take a look over his blog generally as his level of analysis really is very good indeed. Frankly here I think he just gets the novel better than I did, I simply bounced off it and that was that, but Tomcat’s review is sophisticated and well-informed and a great example of why I follow his blog.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Garnier, Pascal, Noir, Novellas

Girls get murdered all the fucking time.

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I’m sick of serial killers. Serial killers are what we replaced our monsters with. We don’t believe in ghosts or goblins, so we looked to our real life monsters and gave them mythic qualities.

On TV and film serial killers are often brilliant, geniuses even. Sometimes they’re superhumanly strong, sometimes charming. Their victims are generally attractive young women with good jobs, women the audience can relate to and sympathise with. It’s rare a serial killer in fiction is a social inadequate preying on the marginalised because then the whole thing just becomes too ugly for a Saturday night’s entertainment.

Lauren Beukes is an intelligent writer, one who couldn’t write formula if she tried. When she writes a novel featuring a serial killer then it’s no surprise that the result is interesting and well written. In The Shining Girls she uses the familiar figure of the serial killer to make a wider point about how society crushes women who stand out, the murderer as an extreme manifestation of something that happens every day. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

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The Shining Girls is high-concept. Harper Curtis is a drifter in Chicago in 1931, a despicable wretch of a man, weak and full of petty hate. His crimes are about to catch up on him when he discovers a house, the house, and the house exists outside of time.

He goes to the window to pull the curtains shut, but not before he glimpses the tableau outside.

The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, recolors itself, strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled with leaves blowing down the street. Windows are broken, boarded over, spruced up with a vase of flowers that turn brown and fall away. The empty lot becomes overgrown, fills over with cement, grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts, rubbish congeals, the rubbish is removed, it comes back, along with aggressive snarls of writing on the walls in vicious colors. A hopscotch grid appears, disappears in the sleeting rain, moves elsewhere, snaking across the cement. A couch rots through seasons and then catches fire.

He yanks the curtains closed, and turns and sees it. Finally. His destiny spelled out in this room.

Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

When Harper finds the house there’s a dead body in the hallway, a recently murdered man. There’s a suitcase full of money, but some of the notes are wrong and the issue dates haven’t happened yet. When he looks out the window he looks out on different Chicagos, and when he opens the front door he can walk out into them. He can walk out into any time between 1929 and 1993. He goes out in 1993 to dump the body far from his own time, and finds a corpse he recognises from his own time already stuck in his chosen hiding place. A cleverer man might wonder how that was possible, but Harper isn’t that man.

In 1992 Kirby Mazrachi is a young woman who some years back survived a terrifying and brutal assault. She was disembowelled and had her throat slashed, but her attacker hadn’t planned on her dog trying to save her and ended up having to flee the scene, leaving her for dead. Now she’s an intern with a burnt-out former crime reporter, Dan Velasquez, who’s now working the sports desk for the Chicago Sun-Times. When Dan meets her for the first time he sees her as:

a girl barely out of kindergarten, surely, with crazy kindergarten hair sticking up all over the place, a multicolored striped scarf looped around her neck with matching fingerless gloves, a black jacket with more zips than is conceivably practical, and worse, an earring in her nose. She irritates him on principle.

He’s even less happy when he works out she’s only doing the intern job so she can get inside dirt on her own story, a story he worked on back on the day.

Ok, maybe Beukes can write a little formula when she tries. Kirby and Dan are pretty familiar sorts of characters. Still, there’s enough originality in the time travel concept that it’s probably for the best if some of the other architecture of the story is a little more standard.

Kirby and Dan soon realise that her attack wasn’t the first. That doesn’t surprise them, but what does is the discovery that similar crimes are spread out over the past six decades. Slowly they come to realise they’re dealing with something much stranger than just another serial killer.

Meanwhile, back in 1931, Harper has found his trophy room in the house; the artifacts in the quote above. Each item is something he took as a souvenir from one of his killings, except that when he first sees them he hasn’t yet committed those crimes. The house though is outside of time, the souvenirs he’ll take are already on the wall before he’s taken them, are always on the wall both as markers of what he did and instructions of what he must do.

He picks up a piece of chalk that is lying on the mantel and writes on the wallpaper beside the window, because there is a space for it and it seems he must. He prints ‘Glowgirl’ in his jagged sloping script, over the ghost of the word that is already there.

Although it sounds it, this isn’t really a science fiction novel. The house is never explained (though it follows an absolutely clear logic in how it works); Harper isn’t bright enough to ask questions and his obsessions are too strong to really let him examine the house’s implications. The house simply is, and it’s never explicitly stated whether it’s directing Harper or, as I interpret it, reflecting back to him his own future decisions. What the house does though is let Harper pick his victims through history, and therefore let Beukes range through history showing different women in different parts of Chicago’s past.

The house is one unusual aspect to this novel. The other is Beukes’ focus on the victims. Her attention here isn’t so much on the beautiful corpse, as on the beautiful life brutally cut short.

Harper picks his victims when they’re young, selecting girls who have a spark in them, who seem special. He calls it a glow. When he’s found a girl who glows for him he comes back when she’s grown up and kills her, snuffs out her light. As Beukes shows each woman’s life though it’s soon apparent that Harper isn’t the only one who sees a shining girl and wants to smother her. Harper is a metaphor for how our society treats women more generally, how women who stand out are cut back, forced to blend in for safety.

Beukes is keen too to show that these women don’t exist in a vacuum. They have families, friends, lovers, children. Their deaths ripple out. Here’s an example:

The dead girl’s name was Julia Madrigal. She was twenty-one. She was studying at Northwestern. Economics. She liked hiking and hockey, because she was originally from Banff, Canada, and hanging out in the bars along Sheridan Road with her friends, because Evanston was dry.

She kept meaning to sign up to volunteer to read textbook passages for the blind students association’s study tapes, but never quite got round to it, the same way she’d bought a guitar but only mastered one chord. She was running for head of her sorority. She always said she was going to be the first woman CEO of Goldman Sachs. She had plans to have three kids and a big house and a husband who did something interesting and complementary – a surgeon or a broker or something. Not like Sebastian, who was a good-time guy, but not exactly marriage material.

She was too loud, like her dad, especially at parties. Her sense of humor tended to be crass. Her laugh was notorious or legendary, depending on who was telling. You could hear it from the other side of Alpha Phi. She could be annoying. She could be narrow-minded in that got-all-the-answers-to-save-the-world way. But she was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.

Her father will never recover. His weight drops away until he becomes a wan parody of the loud and opinionated estate agent who would pick a fight at the barbecue about the game. He loses all interest in selling houses. He tapers off mid-sales pitch, looking at the blank spaces on the wall between the perfect family portraits or worse, at the grouting between the tiles of the en-suite bathroom. He learns to fake it, to clamp the sadness down. At home, he starts cooking. He teaches himself French cuisine. But all food tastes bland to him.

Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she relocates into the spare room. Eventually, he stops hiding her bottles. When her liver seizes up twenty years later, he sits next to her in a Winnipeg hospital and strokes her hand and narrates recipes he’s memorized like scientific formula because there is nothing else to say.

Her sister moves as far away as she can, and keeps moving, first across the state, then across the country, then overseas to become an au pair in Portugal. She is not a very good au pair. She doesn’t bond with the children. She is too terrified that something might happen to them.

The passage continues. It explores the impact on Julia’s boyfriend, on her best friend, on a girl across town that Julia never met who only reads about the case. It’s powerful stuff. I went for such a long quote because this is the heart of the book. The time travel stuff is taut, logically worked through and entirely internally consistent, but Julia and the other women like her in the book shine, which of course is the point.

The women though are also why the book in the end doesn’t work for me. How do you read that passage above, and read too the forensically detailed description of how she was killed and how Harper makes his victims suffer and the joy he takes from that, and then enjoy a tale of a determined young woman and her worn-down sidekick bravely tracking down a time-travelling murderer? It’s too much horror for such a story. Beukes wants to show that horror, she wants to show how terrible this is and how much of a loss these women’s lives are. The problem is that she succeeds.

So in the end I come full circle, back to where I started this review. The Shining Girls is interesting and well written. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

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Filed under Beukes, Lauren, Crime Fiction, Science Fiction

May nobody call me an unreliable narrator.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell

Some books are just delightful. The other day I finished a rereading of The Illiad, an epic poem over 3,000 years old full of tragedy and loss and extraordinary humanity. It’s hard after something like that to know what to read next. Then I happened to read a review at JacquiWine’s Journal, here, and there was the answer. I bought Where There’s Love, There’s Hate immediately on finishing her review; started it that night and drank it down over the next couple of days. It’s a Tom Collins of a novel, refreshing and a perfect palate cleanser.

Here’s how it opens:

The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly. To my left, on the desk, I have a copy, a beautiful Bodoni, of Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon. To my right, the fragrant tea tray, with its delicate chinaware and its nutritive jars. Suffice to say that the book’s pages are well worn from innumerable readings; the tea is from China; the toast is crisp and delicate; the honey is from bees that have sipped from acacia flowers and lilacs. And so, in this encapsulated paradise, I shall begin to write the story of the murder at Bosque del Mar.

The narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, and he starts his tale with him en route to a much-needed holiday and writing retreat by the seaside. As he assures the couple he shares a train carriage with, he is not only a respected physician but also a writer of screenplays, currently writing a contemporary film treatment of Petronius’ Satyricon. How could any reader not put their full trust in such a companion?

The arsenic by the way is not Dr Huberman committing suicide, it’s a daily medicinal dosage for Dr Huberman prides himself on having seen past the limitations of mere conventional medicine; Dr Huberman is a homeopath and it’s surely only my own prejudices that had me seeing him within a handful of pages as essentially a self-important quack.

As Huberman is carried through the night, he reflects to himself:

When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality? When will we return to the path of the salubrious picaresque and pleasant local color?

When indeed?

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Huberman has a romantic dream of a seaside idyll and a secluded private resort. It’s certainly isolated: “The building, white and modern, appeared picturesquely set in the sand like a ship on the sea, or an oasis in the desert.” What he finds though is a failing hotel with windows that can’t be opened due to endless sandstorms; where heat and flies make the inside intolerable and treacherous terrain makes the outside positively dangerous.

The other guests include one of his patients, Mary, to whom he had recommended a rest cure at the same resort. With Mary is her sister Emilia and Emilia’s fiancé, Atuel, as well as a Dr Cornejo. The only other guest is an older man named Dr Manning who spends most of his time quietly losing at solitaire.

The hotel’s run by Dr Huberman’s cousin Esteban which soon explains why Dr Huberman’s really staying there – he’s not paying. There’s also Esteban’s resentful wife Andrea and her oddly sinister nephew, Miguel, a boy with a fondness for killing and embalming animals and a marked fixation on Mary. Finally, there’s an elderly and possibly simple typist who wanders about swatting flies and ringing the bell for meals.

Before long it’s apparent that not all is well in this sandy paradise. On his first day Dr Huberman overhears a seemingly needlessly bitter argument involving Mary, Emilia, Atuel and Dr Cornejo. At dinner that night Emilia has evidently been crying, and Mary rather than sympathise bullies her into playing the piano for everyone. Later Dr Huberman sees Mary throwing herself passionately at Atuel. Something is most definitely up.

In the morning Dr Huberman is woken early by Andrea calling through his door, asking for help:

Andrea looked at me with weepy eyes, as if preparing to throw herself into my arms. I kept my hands resolutely in my pockets.

Mary has been found dead, killed by strychnine poisoning. There’s no strychnine bottle in her room, and no apparent shortage of people who might have wished her harm. It’s fortunate for everyone really that Dr Huberman is there to take charge of the investigation until the police come, and to assist them once they do.

In a more ordinary novel Dr Huberman would be a Miss Marple, a Poirot, and in a sense he is. The difference is Miss Marple and Poirot are actually genuinely gifted amateur detectives, keen psychologists ever attentive to the smallest detail. Dr Huberman by contrast is in love with the idea of finding himself the hero in a real-life detective novel, misses virtually every clue and repeatedly shows a near complete indifference to the feelings of others (particularly when they get between him and his meals, which are his real focus of interest):

Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable. I decided it would be prudent not to speak until it had been served.

What follows is hilarious. The police soon arrive and begin their own investigation, and once they’ve cleared Dr Huberman as their initial chief suspect they bring him on board to assist, though whether it’s because his help is wanted or because it keeps him quiet isn’t entirely clear. When the Victor Hugo-quoting chief detective moves to arrest Emilia, Dr Huberman becomes convinced she’s innocent and sets out to identify the real criminal.

Dr Huberman though isn’t the only amateur detective present. The police surgeon, an apparent drunk, shows signs of being a Columbo-esque figure whose insight is masked by a feigned bumbling exterior; Manning, who seemed a harmless old man concerned only with his cards, turns out to have a sharp and perceptive eye for clues; it goes on. Soon it seems there are more detectives than suspects.

What’s wonderful here is Dr Huberman’s utter incompetence, irrelevance even. At one point he deduces where some missing jewels must be based on where they would be were this a novel. He’s wrong, but not even momentarily daunted. He interprets everything according to his own prejudices, for example describing Atuel at various points as behaving slyly, as having unnatural composure, the manner ” of an overly debonair tango crooner”. Dr Huberman though has half-convinced himself he’s in love with Emilia (as the hero of a novel would be of course), and it’s fairly obvious that mostly he’s just jealous of Atuel.

As an aside, sometimes when a mediocre blockbuster movie or romcom comes out I see people argue that you should just turn your brain off as you enter the theatre and have fun. It’s just entertainment they cry, just enjoy it. Why should we have to do that though? Why should we have to turn our brains off to have fun? Why can’t a blockbuster or a romcom be smart? They can be of course. Anyone who’s seen His Girl’s Friday would never dare argue that a romcom for example can’t be both funny and almost cuttingly clever.

I see the same argument made for books every summer in the broadsheets, which should know better. They start recommending “beach reads”; the suggestion again is that you should just switch off your critical faculties and ignore dull prose and clichéd plotting. Why? Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is an utter refutation of that. It’s pure entertainment, but it’s good entertainment, it’s well written entertainment, more to the point it’s intelligent entertainment.

This is a hugely fun book. It’s incredibly silly, knowingly so with Dr Huberman even flat-out stating that he’s not an unreliable narrator. It’s a perfect choice for a beach or flight; it’s not remotely taxing, but nor does it once ask you to turn your brain off. It laughs with you, not for you.

As I said at the opening I discovered this through Jacqui’s review, which in turn was inspired by 1stReading’s Blog’s review here. Another interesting review is at the mookseandthegripes here.

18 Comments

Filed under Argentinian Literature, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Comic Fiction, Crime Fiction, Ocampo, Silvina

safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to you

Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France

The thing about recessions is that people tend to assume they’re bad for everyone, maybe not equally bad but generally not good. That’s not true though.

You might lose your job, have your wages frozen or slashed, be asked to do more work for the same pay. In any recession a lot of people are hurting, some very badly. Not all the pain’s visible. If someone’s now unemployed their friends and family likely know about it. If someone’s struggling to pay the bills though, having to cut back on luxuries and perhaps reevaluate what counts as a necessity; if holidays are being cancelled and purchases postponed, it’s quite possible that from the outside everything still looks fine.

On the other side of the coin though, some people do very well out of recessions. If you’re still in work and making good money (and generally plenty are even in the worst of times) then prices are likely falling or stagnant, restaurants are easier to get into, there’s good deals to be had and you’re in a position to take advantage of all of it. If you’re an employer you can squeeze wages and conditions and the chances are your employees won’t complain too hard about it.

There’s even an argument that recessions are necessary, part of the engine of capitalism, and that provided they don’t turn into extended slumps they ultimately make the majority of us better off. Poorly run companies go bust (as do some well run ones of course), questionable projects get cancelled, shaky business ideas abandoned. A recession on this view is like a forest fire that burns away dead wood, clearing room for fresh new growth. Of course, how much you agree with that view may well depend on how likely you think you are to find yourself dead wood or new growth.

What’s all this got to do with Claudia Piñeiro’s excellent Thursday Night Widows? Quite a lot as it happens.

thursday-night-widows

Cascade Heights is a gated community outside Buenos Aires. It’s an oasis for the well-off, a place where for the residents everything is exactly as it should be. The outside world might seem dangerous and uncertain, but in Cascade Heights you’re secure and the only time you see poverty it’s wearing a uniform.

As a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear it’s a domestic servant or gardener.

Every Thursday a few of the men of Cascade Heights get together for cards and a drink. As the book opens though, in late September 2001, something happens and three of those men are found floating dead in a pool. The only survivor left early, or at least that’s what he says.

That survivor is Ronie, and his wife Virginia Guevara is the book’s chief narrator. Ronie lost his job a few years back, so Virginia had to step-up and became the estate agent for Cascade Heights. She helps the residents sell their homes when time comes to move or money gets tight, and matches new buyers to the right properties inside the fence (or gently discourages them if they’re not what the community would see as the right sort of buyer, this is not an ethnically diverse community and there’s a distinct strain of quietly spoken anti-semitism).

Virginia’s position is unusual in Cascade Heights, unique even. She’s a woman, but she works. Everyone else, their husbands make the money and they spend their days shopping, decorating, organising charity functions and taking classes.

In 2001 of course Argentina is deep in recession. It wasn’t always that way though and after that opening, those deaths, the book quickly backtracks to show Cascade Heights in better times. Most of the ’90s were boom years, a time when everyone seemed to be making money and the whole economy was spiralling dizzyingly upwards. It didn’t last of course. It never does.

The bulk of the book then isn’t about the dead men in the pool, and it would be a mistake to read this as a whodunnit. This is an examination of the Argentinian boom and bust, seen through the lens of a small group of particularly well off people. Cascade Heights is intended by design to shut out the wider Argentina, but however high you build your fence the world always still creeps in.

Inside the Heights is a tightly knit social world where local status depends in large part on how well you play tennis and where strict rules ensure that everything is just so. There are rules on how long your grass should be, what paint colours are permitted, where fences are allowed. Everything is harmonious, on the surface at any rate. Underneath though, lives can’t be made as neat as lawns and there are failing marriages, rebellious children, affairs, secrets and lies.

In well under 300 pages Piñeiro paints a sharply defined portrait of a range of characters. She dissects what passes for their moral structures, their hypocrisies and their utter near-wilful ignorance of the realities of life for most outside the fence. At the same time it’s not a crude satire, and there’ real sympathy here for some of the characters’ situations even if they’re not necessarily particularly easy people to like.

A wife whose husband leaves her risks losing everything. She has no career, she likely has no independent income or capital to speak of. This is a 19th Century world preserved at the end of the 20th where divorce can quite literally mean ruin, can mean being forced from your home and since that home’s within the fence being forced out of your community. Life here is comfortable, but it’s a comfort that can quickly curdle and the women live in large part at the mercy of the men. Lose your looks, get old, and you could find the world suddenly a much colder place than you were raised to expect. If the husband loses his job, dies, well that’s another home for Virginia to sell because this is a paradise with a definite price tag.

During the boom years though few think about this. Everyone’s making money, so nobody asks questions. These are utterly shallow lives, particularly for the women who have no jobs but still must outsource care of their houses to maids and their children to nannies leaving them with no possible contribution of their own. People take pleasure in sport and parties, and in their own ever-increasing wealth:

When we multiplied the surface area of our homes by the value of a square foot, we experienced a euphoria unequalled by almost any other: the pleasure principle of an algorithm. Because we weren’t planning to sell our houses to anyone. It was the maths alone, that simple multiplication, that caused us joy.

The good times don’t end overnight, and they don’t end for everyone either. As the end of the century approaches though things start to creak, cracks start to appear (“1998 was the year of suspicious suicides”):

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned for ever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, looking up at the shower head, from which not a single drop of water falls any more.

At times the critique here is absolutely biting. There’s a simply brilliant section where the wives (calling themselves the “Ladies of the Heights”) have a jumble sale in which they sell their cast-off clothes to their maids for charity. Normally the maids would just be given the wives’ old clothes, or could retrieve them from the rubbish. Now the maids have to pay from the wages the wives gave them so that the wives can give the money to the poor, ignoring the fact the poor are right in front of them. It’s utterly credible, unfortunately.

For all that the book’s never heavy handed. This is an easy read, cleanly written and full of sharp observation, and while I can’t speak to how accurate the translation is I can say that if I didn’t know it was originally written in Spanish I generally wouldn’t have guessed.

Occasionally of course there’s a social detail which might not make sense to those outside Argentina, and here the translator has taken a slightly unusual approach by including some very sparingly used brief explanatory footnotes. By way of example, the word asado can’t easily be translated, but a footnote flags that it’s an elaborate barbecue. Obviously the translator could just have said that, but it would have disrupted the flow of the sentence in a way the footnote doesn’t. Later on a separate footnote provides more detail, when it becomes important, on what an asado typically involves and the role it plays in Argentinian culture.  The footnoting works extremely well, and I wish more translated novels adopted this approach.

Thursday Night Widows is crime novel as social critique, but done so well the crime is almost forgotten and by the time you realise that’s what’s happening it doesn’t matter because while the deaths are interesting, the lives are fascinating.

As with so many other books, I learned about Thursday Night Widows from Guy Savage’s blog. His review is here. There are also a nice review at a blog I’m less familiar with called A Work in Progress, here.

11 Comments

Filed under Argentinian Literature, Crime Fiction, Piñeiro, Claudia

“How is it you keep ending up in the middle of everything?”

The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott

I last read Megan Abbott back in 2008. Die a Little was a solid slice of 50’s-style noir and an exploration of the darkness lurking under the suburban dream.

It wasn’t original, when isn’t there darkness lurking under the suburban dream? Originality though is overrated. Die a Little was good, and that’s much more important.

The End of Everything is set during an indeterminate 1980s summer. We’re back in the suburbs, and 13 year old Lizzie is about to find her world turned inside out when her best friend Evie goes missing. What follows is a claustrophobic heat-haze of adolescent anxiety and desire as Lizzie inserts herself ever-more into Evie’s home and into the police investigation into her disappearance.

Abbott

Like most adolescents Lizzie doesn’t get on that well with her (single-parent) mother. She’d rather live next door, she’d rather be Evie’s sister and live with Evie’s glamorous older sister Dusty, and with Evie’s father, Mr Verver, who is fun and cool and who Lizzie has a bit of a crush on.

Mr Verver isn’t like the other adults, he’s not boring. He’s mischievous, full of laughter, he plays boardgames with the kids and cheats openly and outrageously, he teases Dusty about her boyfriends and their shy hopes to get further with her than she’ll let them. He’s the nicest man Lizzie knows. She’d give anything to be in Evie’s place, to live with Dusty and Mr Verver.

All I could think was how wondrous it was—oh, the two of them. Everyone wanted to fall under their enchantment, her gaze hard and appraising, his so soft, so welcoming.

That was how it was in that house, and there was so much fun to be had. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I remember thinking—was it just five days ago?—to talk about boys with Mr. Verver? To play Uno with Evie for hours and watch Dusty try on her pastel dresses and listen to music with Mr. Verver until dawn?

With Evie gone though the laughter’s gone too. Mrs Verver is upstairs sedated, rarely seen. Mr Verver spends his days desperately hoping for some word from the police, some clue to what happened. There’s an Evie shaped hole in his house, a hole Lizzie could perhaps fit into. Evie and Lizzie were so close after all that they were almost the same person, or at least looked they were.

We shared everything, our tennis socks and stub erasers, our hair elastics and winter tights. We were that close. Sometimes we blinked in time.

Back in second, third grade, all the parents always saying, Do the dance, do the dance. The first time was at the tap recital. “Me and My Shadow,” in our matching silver leotards and shiny top hats, our hair the same muddy color, the baby curls sprayed to shellac by Madame Connie, our teacher. Then everyone made us do it again and again, at birthday parties, on Easter. A hundred times in the Verver basement, my living room, at school, step-shuffle-back-step, step-shuffle-back-step. Over and over, cheeks painted red. Until I grew two inches and Evie’s hair went dark and finally we never did that dance again.

But I bet I still could do it. I bet I could do it right now. These things, though, they end.

At 13 you’re still a child, but perhaps no longer entirely so. Lizzie and Evie used to have no secrets, but adolescence changes you, it gives you things to be secret about. It lets you see things you used not to, and gives you new things to want.

“He was rubbing on you like it was Boy Scout camp,” Evie said later. “Like if he rubbed hard enough he could start that fire, get that merit badge.”

Arguably that’s not actually an apposite quote for this bit of the blog, but I found it too funny not to include.

Lizzie remembers a car following her and Evie the last time they were together, and when she tells the police it’s the first real clue they’ve had. Lizzie’s briefly at the investigation’s heart, and soon after she’s searching her memory for any other clues she might have forgotten that she can throw out and in doing so make herself all the more important, all the more the thin chain of hope linking Mr Verver to the possibility of Evie being found. She’s at Mr Verver’s all the time now, comforting him, chasing memories, so often present that Dusty starts to resent her.

As so often, what’s interesting here isn’t the crime, what happened to Evie and whether she’s alive or not. What’s interesting is Lizzie – her desire to take Evie’s place, her own investigation of Evie’s absence which owes more to her need to come up with new clues that she can take to Mr Verver and the police than it does to a desire to find Evie.

Lizzie then is a young Nancy Drew, but though her point of view narration is full of talk of love, purity and the desire to help her motives aren’t justice or truth. Sex is never described directly in this novel, but it runs through it, seeps through the pages. It’s a book suffused with sex, but inchoate and indirect. Of course it is. Lizzie is only 13 and this is still just the 1980s. She doesn’t know enough to describe it any better.

Child narrative voices are notoriously difficult to get right. Lizzie’s worked for me, her frustration with the adult world and her simultaneous pull back to the certainties of childhood and forward to boys and freedom and biology, but I have seen other reviewers query if at times she’s perhaps too adult and knowing.

“Why was Mrs. Verver throwing up?” I’d asked my mother, who’d sighed and said, gravely, “I don’t think you understand what’s happening.”

And that’s when I stopped listening, shut my ears from the gloom and murk of her. It’s almost like she savors the terribleness—everyone does. Like it does things for them, makes everything seem more exciting, more momentous, more real.

Then again, I found Adrian Mole utterly unpersuasive when I read him around age 14. Perhaps it’s a question of our own experience, I was more a Lizzie than an Adrian which may be why one rings true for me and the other not (or perhaps Adrian Mole is an adolescent boy as depicted by someone who never was one, whereas Megan Abbott was once an adolescent girl).

The prose here is often beautiful in a slightly breathless endless-summer way (quite different in style to Die a Little, Abbott is good at reflecting character through description). I remember the book through a golden haze, not precisely, but impressionistically (in fact, I had to remind myself of some of the details in order to write this).

In the end though prose alone can’t carry a crime novel. Character is key. End stands or falls with the depiction of Lizzie, whether you believe in her. Abbott is the author of the unusual viewpoint character, crime seen not by a hardboiled detective but by a housewife or a teenage girl. That’s what makes Abbott an interesting read.

Looking back, I’m surprised it took me so long to return to Abbott. She’s not a literary writer, but she’s not trying to be. She’s an extremely good crime writer and a refreshing one. If I had to make a comparison it would be to Joe R. Lansdale, not because they write anything like each other (they don’t), but because they write within genre but in new ways. I could live a long time without meeting another maverick detective who has a troubled home life and doesn’t go by the book, but I’ve always got space for a Lizzie.

For those who may be interested and based in the UK The End of Everything is 99p on UK Kindle as at the time of writing.

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Filed under Abbott, Megan, Crime Fiction

Fundamentally, this is political.

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fatale is under 100 pages long, and that’s including a Jean Echenoz afterword. By page two the protagonist has coolly murdered a man without hesitation or warning. Soon after she’s on a train out of town, she’s dyed her hair blonde and she’s carrying a briefcase full of money. That’s the thing with Manchette, he doesn’t mess around.

Fatale

Love that cover.

Here she is, still on the train. She’s ordered food:

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall on the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, the pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

Next she’s rubbing banknotes on her naked body while sniffing choucroute and champagne. She’s an animal, unrestrained. Come morning though, as the train pulls into the small town of Bléville, “she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance”.

In Bléville she claims to be a young widow, interested in buying a large property. She’s pretty and she has money. In no time at all she’s part of Bléville society such as it is. All the worse for Bléville.

Manchette’s work is always political. Aimée, as the woman now calls herself, is a predator disguising herself among the capitalist classes as one of their own. Is she really disguised though, or is she simply an example of their philosophy taken to an extreme? Aimée is buttoned-down, controlled and manipulative. When she’s not working though she’s an animal, her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume.

Bléville is a tediously typical small French town with little to particularly recommend it. The town’s bourgois-elite guard their privileges closely, smugly comfortable and resentful of those just below them on the social ladder (who else do they have to fear after all other than those who could most readily take their place?).

The town’s rich take Aimée as one of their own. She blends in, attending their parties. In her spare time though she practices martial arts and prepares herself. She’s all business.

Lying in her hot bath, she opened the crime novel she had bought. She read ten pages. It took her six or seven minutes. She put the book down, masturbated, washed, and got out of the water. For a moment, in the bathroom mirror, she looked at her slim, seductive body. She dressed carefully; she aimed to please.

Aimée isn’t the only outsider. Baron Jules is a local, but outside the town’s rigid social heirarchy. He’s privileged by birth, but has no money. He detests the town’s old guard and he knows their secrets. He’s perfect for Aimée, who aims to bring chaos and to profit from the creative destruction that ensues. Baron Jules has never known how to strike back against the class he both belongs to and loathes. Aimée though, the perfect capitalist, can find profitable use for a man who spends his day trying to live outside of capitalism.

It’s not long before Aimée’s at the centre of the town’s tensions. As she observes to herself, it’s always the same (she’s done this before). “Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes.”

Bléville has its old crimes, like everywhere else. One of those old crimes involves the local canned goods factory and a poisoning incident that led to the deaths of a “baby, two or three old people, along with thirty or so cows”. The incident was a major local scandal:

Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled.

Business, however, continued.

This is a blackly funny book. Aimée regularly passes a sign that exhorts the locals to “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, because Aimée’s passion for profit is going to wash right through and carry the town’s corruption with her. She is the logic of bourgois greed made hungry flesh.

This being Manchette it’s no spoiler to say that the final section of the book turns into a tightly-written bloodbath. Then again, how could it not? The locals can’t compromise with Aimée any more than an ailing company can compromise with a vulture fund that’s just bought up a majority holding of its stock. Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the people currently holding those assets like it any.

I haven’t (couldn’t) read the French original, so I can’t of course say how faithful this translation is. It reads smoothly though and the sheer punch of the novel suggests that not too much has been lost crossing over into English. Certainly if I saw Nicholson-Smith’s name on the front of another book I’d count it as a positive. The NYRB edition also comes with an excellent afterword by Jean Echenoz, as I mentioned above. It sheds light on the text (not least that Bléville could be roughly translated as “Doughville”, making the town’s name a shout-out to Hammett), and is a very welcome addition. It’s also welcome to have it after the book, as opposed to Penguin who have a tendency to put essays up front even though they naturally tend to contain massive spoilers.

Guy Savage has reviewed Fatale, here, and has as ever some great insights – particularly on the politics. He’s also got a great quote regarding the town’s newspapers that I wish I’d thought to write down myself. I also found online a very interesting review from a blog I wasn’t previously familiar with, here, which is also good on the politics and on some of the background around the novel and Manchette himself.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Frank Chambers is a drifter with itchy feet who needs a meal. Nick Papadakis, “the Greek”, runs a roadside diner and needs a handyman. Nick’s wife, Cora, is a lot younger than he is and is starting to regret a marriage she made for security rather than love.

the_postman_always_rings_twice

That’s not the cover I have, but it captures the book well so I thought I’d use it.

At first, Frank’s got no plans to stick around. He just wants to grift some lunch and get on his way.

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Half an hour later Frank has a job, Nick has someone to help round the diner and Cora has a lot more reason to start questioning her marriage.

This is classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way. On their own Frank and Cora aren’t saints, but neither is malicious. Frank’s a petty crook and womaniser, but nothing worse than that. Cora is smouldering frustration in a dress, but she’s resigned to the life she chose. The Greek? He’s a nice guy, none too bright, who loves his wife and has small dreams for his diner.

I didn’t realise until I came to write this post that almost every quote I picked was describing Cora. The novel is written from Frank’s viewpoint, and it captures beautifully Cora’s dangerous allure for him. There’s some lovely phrasing here, such as “When she spoke, it was in a whisper that sounded like a snake licking its tongue in and out.” Cora is Eve and serpent both. Frank doesn’t have a chance, but then nor does Cora, and certainly not the Greek. Nobody does.

Nobody sets out here to do anybody any harm. It’s just the situation. Frank and Cora have a connection, they have chemistry. In a very noir sense they’re just unlucky. Frank would rather just walk, but how do you walk from this:

She got up to get the potatoes. Her dress fell open for a second, so I could see her leg. When she gave me the potatoes, I couldn’t eat.

Soon Frank’s convincing Cora to leave Nick, but that would mean being poor and she’s not up for that. The diner isn’t much, but it makes money and run well it could make more. The only thing in their way is the Greek …

I’m not going to spoil the plot for those who’ve not seen the 1946 movie (Lana Turner on top form). All I’ll say is that Frank and Cora know that people will get suspicious if the Greek dies and they’ll likely get investigated for it, so they come up with a plan for the perfect murder. Do Frank and Cora though sound to you like the kind of people who can do anything perfectly?

I hadn’t seen the movie, so the story was new to me. It’s obvious from the opening that Frank and Cora are going to end up trying to kill Nick, but where that leads and how it comes to poison them I hadn’t anticipated at all. This is as much a psychological novel as a noir one. Are Frank and Cora in love, or just in lust? Nick loves Cora and counts Frank as a friend, so how do Frank and Cora trust each other given that they each know the other is perfectly capable of killing someone who wanted nothing but good for them?

Postman is tightly written coming in at around 114 pages in my version. It doesn’t need more because Cain packs depth into the detail. Nick is referred to through most of the book as “the Greek”, but of course this is Frank’s viewpoint and Nick stands in Frank’s way. Is it any wonder he prefers to objectify him? To give him a noun instead of a name?

Similarly, it’s easy to see Cora as a femme fatale, and of course she is but that’s a question of perspective too. If Cora were narrating Frank would be an homme fatale, an attractive stranger who won’t let her push him away and gets her thinking things she might otherwise never have thought. If Frank just left and never came back Cora would be unhappy, but she wouldn’t be dangerous.

That’s perhaps the most noir thing about Postman. This is a black hole of a novel where weak people do terrible things because none of them have the strength to resist their situation. This is a novel of an ugly crime carried out by small people. It’s brilliant, and if you have any interest in the noir genre at all you owe it to yourself to read it.

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Filed under Cain, James M., California, Crime Fiction, Noir

I don’t have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler.

Watch Me Die, by Lee Goldberg

Sometimes you just plain need something fun to read. When I want a break from more serious reading, I turn to crime. Crime fiction that is. I might also turn to actual crime, but if I do I’m not admitting it on a publicly posted blog.

I heard about Lee Goldberg’s Watch Me Die from reading Guy Savage’s review, here. Guy reveals that the novel’s original title was The Man with the Iron-On Badge, which is a much better title than Watch Me Die and a vastly better fit to the tone of the book.

WatchMeDie

Harvey Mapes is a 29 year old security guard who sits nights in a little booth at the entrance to a gated community. I’d call him underachieving, but that would imply he’d achieved something sometime. As it is Harvey spends his time reading and watching private detective stories and fantasising about being the hero of one. His sex life consists of occasional encounters with one of his neighbours, when she’s feeling particularly desperate. His social life is drinking on the sofa with the same woman and sitting alone watching TV.

Then, one night, one of the residents drives up to the booth and stops.

Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look how easy-going I am, it’s because I’m rich and damn happy about it. He was in his mid-thirties, the kind of tanned, well-built, tennis-playing guy who subscribes to Esquire because he sees himself in every advertisement and it makes him feel good.

Parkus wants his wife followed, and he wants Harvey to do the following. Out of nowhere Harvey’s getting to be exactly what he always wanted to be, and if it comes with some ugly deaths, brutal beatings, and secrets that would have been much better left buried then that’s all to be expected.

Someone finally needs Harvey, and as he reflects:

It’s nice to be needed, especially at one hundred fifty dollars a day plus expenses.

I loved this. The plot is absolutely standard detective novel stuff. It has to be, because that’s Harvey’s dream. What makes it work then isn’t what happens, it’s about seeing Harvey finally get his chance. As a general rule I couldn’t care less whether the characters in a novel are sympathetic or not. What makes this book work though is that as it went on I really did start wanting things to turn out ok for Harvey.

A huge part of why Harvey makes for a good character is that while he may not have done anything with his life,  he’s not an idiot. The book is full of his dryly astute observations on his dingy world of cheap diners and lousy motels, and the mismatch between these and the glamorous lives of the detectives who inspire him. Here’s a couple of examples:

I live in the Caribbean. I love saying that, and I knew that I would, which is the only reason why I chose to live in that stucco box instead of the Manor, the Palms, or the Meadows. All the buildings in that area charged the same rent for a one-bedroom with a “kitchenette,” which is French for a crappy Formica counter and a strip of linoleum on the floor.

There were also plug-in air fresheners in every electrical outlet, which made the whole apartment smell so strongly of pine sap, I felt like I was visiting an upscale tree house.

I could open near any page at random though, and find a usable quote for this review. 

Goldberg apparently wrote the Monk series, which I’ve not seen but on the strength of this might start watching. He knows his genre, he knows how silly it can be and he’s fine with that. This is satire, but deeply affectionate satire born out of love, not disdain. It reminded me a bit of Donald Westlake’s wonderful Somebody Owes Me Money, and as I think Goldberg would know being compared to Westlake is high praise. As Westlake’s protagonist says “… there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us, or anyway the desire to be Robert Mitchum in all of us.” This is Harvey’s chance to be Robert Mitchum.

I’ll end on one final quote, from this hugely quotable book. Here Harvey finds the trail has led him to Seattle:

I discovered I could tell the tourists from the locals pretty easily. The tourists were the ones hiding from the drizzle under umbrellas. The locals were the ones who only needed a lid for their espressos. Just about everybody, except the obvious tourists, seemed to have a cup of coffee in one hand and a novel in the other. Apparently, there was a city ordinance that required everybody to join Oprah’s book club and declare a favorite coffee blend. Even the bums were sipping Starbucks and reading Barbara Kingsolver.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Goldberg, Lee, US Literature