Category Archives: Hardboiled

… he moved like a man whose conscience was clear, or lacking.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald

Raymond Chandler once said that Dashiell Hammett took crime out from the drawing room and back into the streets. Ross Macdonald in turn took crime out of the streets and into the hills and valleys of California.

I wrote about Ross Macdonald’s background and first Lew Archer novel here. It was a strong novel, but too derivative of Chandler and Hammett. Macdonald hadn’t found his own voice yet.

In The Drowning Pool I’d say he’s already much closer to finding that voice. I liked Moving Target enough to buy the sequel, but The Drowning Pool is better written and tighter and a distinct style is emerging which isn’t just a rerun of Macdonald’s inspirations.

There’s a line early in The Drowning Pool which though a little overwrought captures something key to the hardboiled crime genre: “Sex and money: the forked root of evil.”

Sex and money. There’s more to the hardboiled genre than that, but in terms of the crimes the genre explores those are the only two motives that matter. That’s Hammett’s legacy. The plot may be tangled, but what drives events is very simple indeed.

The Drowning Pool opens with Lew Archer being hired by a beautiful woman (naturally) who has received a poison pen letter alleging infidelity. Archer takes the case, and investigating the woman’s family finds a husband who may prefer other men, a mother-in-law who controls the family purse strings and keeps that husband emasculated and dependent on her, a daughter perhaps unhealthily fond of her father and family friends not all of whom seem all that friendly.

Archer also learns that the whole family are sitting on a fortune in oil. A fortune nobody can get to as long as the mother-in-law (who owns the land) refuses to sell up. When she is found floating face down in the family pool the question isn’t who benefits from her death, it’s who doesn’t.

I’m not going to talk further about the plot. It’s well crafted and satisfying and the various twists and turns are convincing. The plot is what makes this an easy read, it’s what keeps the pages turning, it’s not though what makes it worth reading.

What makes it worth reading is the sense of place, more particularly the sense of California. I said in my writeup of The Moving Target that I was impressed by how vividly Macdonald brought California to life. That’s if anything even more true in this novel. Here Archer goes for a swim in the sea:

I turned on my back and floated, looking up at the sky, nothing around me but cool clear Pacific, nothing in my eyes but long blue space. It was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I ever got from all the people. They had jerrybuilt the beaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate, bulldozed super-highways through the mountains, cut down a thousand years of redwood growth, and built an urban wilderness in the desert. They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted.

And here, later on that same page, Archer reflects on the oil town that’s sprung up not all that far from that beach:

The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since ‘thirty-nine or ‘forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores, There was a new four-story hotel, a white frame gospel tabernacle, a bowling alley wide enough to house a B-36. The main street had been transformed by glass brick, plastic, neon. A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all.

That’s a long quote above, but I think it’s a great one. The town’s expanding, sprawling, it’s capitalism made physical in steel and glass. It’s America changing as it always has changed, with the orange groves and the farms making way for yet another gold rush. It’s money, one half of the forked root of evil, and it’s irresistible.

As so often in the hardboiled genre, there’s a sense of corruption under a glittering surface. California is beautiful, the sea and the sky are both blue, but you don’t need to dig very deep or go very far before you find something much darker. Like the pool itself the surface of California is inviting, but it’s far from the whole story.

The underwater lights of the pool were on, so that the water was a pale emerald depth with a luminous and restless surface filming it.

And with that, there’s not a lot more to say. Macdonald tries less hard here than in the first novel with the zingy one-liners. He still manages a nice line in short sentence descriptions (there’s a couple of examples below) but he’s not trying so hard to mimic Chandler’s polish and the snap of Marlowe’s comebacks. It makes for a less forced style and plays better to Macdonald’s own strengths. Here’s those examples:

There were dark crumbs on the oilcloth-covered table beside the burner, and some of them were moving.

… my hood was still hot enough to fry the insects that splattered it.

I could easily have found more.

In the end, crime fiction is moral fiction. The people Archer encounters are motivated by sex and money, that’s why their actions lead to misery and death. Archer himself though is something quite different. The key difference for me between hardboiled and noir is in the morality of the protagonist. In noir, the protagonist is one more person driven by sex or money or both. In hardboiled, everyone else may be like that, but the detective isn’t that smart. He’s motivated by something else, something more noble, something which frankly the world he’s in has no use for. The hardboiled detective is motivated by the desire for truth, whatever the price, even if the price is paid by him. He’s a paladin, a paragon of virtue in a virtueless world. I’ll leave Archer the final word:

“I don’t know what justice is,” I said. “Truth interests me, though. Not general truth if there is any, but the truth of particular things. Who did what when why. Especially why. …”

The Drowning Pool. That’s the Vintage Black Lizard press imprint, a series I’m very fond of as the covers are generally good, the layout clear and the paper and bindings of good quality.


Filed under California, Crime, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross

We all have our weak moments

I was Dora Suarez, by Derek Raymond

Noir fiction is moral fiction. Noir is the examination of the horror under the surface of society, and a condemnation of the society which permits that horror.

I was Dora Suarez is the fourth of Derek Raymond’s factory novels, it’s the novel that reportedly led to his publisher vomiting on his desk when he read it (a story that, having read Suarez, I can believe) and refusing to publish it, it’s also the book that Raymond said broke him. It’s as black as noir gets, powerful and revolting in equal measure.

Suarez opens with a killer’s eye view of the murder of an eighty-six year old woman – Betty Carstairs, hurled through the front of her own grandfather clock, having interrupted the killer at the gory scene of the death of a beautiful young woman named Dora Suarez. There’s a terrible physicality to the scene, as Betty’s head hits the clock and the chamber pot she was carrying spills over the floor. There’s a sense too of the profound wrongness of her death. The narrator reflects on her life, lonely, filled with pain and illness, a small life with few pleasures. For all that Betty had little to live for, there’s the clear sense that she had the right to what little that was.

From the aftermath of Betty’s death, the novel moves to the killer’s reminiscences of Dora Suarez – whom he has just hacked apart with an axe and who while dying and afterwards he subjects to abuses that the book details but I won’t. After fully enjoying the results of his work, though self-critical for the messiness of the murder which wasn’t to his desired standards, the killer stops off on the way home at the house of a gangster named Roatta, a man who is unwisely looking to blackmail the killer for reasons yet unexplained. Flush from the deaths of Dora Suarez and Betty Carstairs, the killer makes short work of Roatta:

He produced a big 9mm Quickhammer automatic with the tired ease of a conjurer showing off to a few girls and shlacked one into the chamber. He told Roatta: ‘Now I want you nice and still while all this is going on, Felix, because you’re going to make a terrible lot of mess.’
Roatta immediately screamed: ‘Wait! Wait!’ but his eyes were brighter than he was, and knew better. They had stopped moving before he did, because they could see there was nothing more profitable for them to look at, so instead they turned into a pair of dark, oily stones fixed on the last thing they would ever see – eternity in the barrel of a pistol. His ears were also straining with the intensity of a concert pianist for the first minute action inside the weapon as the killer’s finger tightened, because they knew that was the last sound they would ever heard. So in his last seconds of life, each of them arranged for him by his senses, Roatta sat waiting for the gun to explode with the rapt attention of an opera goer during a performance by his favourite star, leaning further and further forward in his chair until his existence was filled by, narrowed down to, and finally became the gun.

When the trigger is pulled, the logistics of death are described in merciless detail – the brain, blood and bone marrow spattering the walls and furniture, a fragment of snot impacting on a table, what’s left of the corpse is described in all its horror and absurdity – Raymond refuses to look away. His gaze is forensic, as merciless to the reader as the killer is to his victim. In a sense, our faces are rubbed in the horror. It’s the same for the deaths of Carstairs and Suarez. Raymond denies the reader the luxury of a fade to black, we have to walk through the horror with him, making this in places a genuinely difficult novel to read.

Shortly afterwards came a passage which had me literally nauseous, a testimony to Raymond’s power as a writer and an effect I’ve (perhaps thankfully) never had before from a novel. Raymond again wants us to see it all, to understand everything, because only from that understanding can the deep moral outrage that fuels the novel emerge.

In the main, Suarez is narrated by Raymond’s usual unnamed protagonist of the factory novels. Suspended indefinitely after the last novel, he is brought back in to investigate the Carstairs and Suarez murders, and for once works with a colleague, an officer named Stevenson who is like a younger version of the nameless detective and is working the Roatta case. Suspecting a link, a suspicion confirmed by a photo showing that Suarez had worked at a club part-owned by Roatta, they work together to unravel the full monstrosity of Suarez’s death and indeed of her life.

In the first factory novel, the murder victim (Staniland) had left a series of tapes detailing his thoughts and philosophy. Here, in a similar device, Suarez has left a diary. The diary reveals that she was terminally ill, in extraordinary pain, that the night she was murdered she was planning to commit suicide – that she was interrupted in that goal by the arrival of the killer. Like Betty Carstairs, she was frightened, in pain and with little time to live.

The fact Dora Suarez was going to die anyway, and that her existence was filled with pain, is critically important to this novel. That’s because, by reducing the life she lost to a matter of a few hours spent in agony, Raymond makes the point that it doesn’t matter how much life was lost or what it’s quality was. The crime of murder is not a robbery of someone’s potential, to apply that test is to create a hierarchy of human worth, but murder is just as wrong whatever life a person had before them. The crime is that life matters, humanity matters, and the reason it matters has nothing to do with its quality or utility.

Raymond is excellent on the banal emptiness of the killer, on how his own lack of humanity leads him to destroying that of others. He is a sociopath, an empty shell driven by desires he cannot understand to relieve his own inadequacies in the blood of others. He is pathetic, and all the more dangerous for that.

… he was silent and well behaved in the boozers they went to only because he was trying to understand what natural behaviour meant through watching the people around him with exactly the same purpose and intensity as a bad actor, in an effort to make a copy of what he could never become.

The novel is, to a degree, a work of its time. First published in in 1990, AIDS looms large. Dora Suarez was in the final stages of it (and that too is described in all its ugliness), but her illness may have been inflicted on her, because it soon becomes apparent that Roatta’s club conceals a brothel catering to the wealthy and visibly infected who pay to sleep with infected women, as uninfected ones will not now go near them. The customers are in bad shape, often indulging in voyeurism (or the use of strategically placed gerbils), their own organs no longer reliable.

As ever with Raymond, there’s an element of excess to the novel. I saw it described somewhere as almost Jacobean, and that’s pretty fair, I’d go further and say Websterian (though I prefer Raymond to Webster). There’s a clear desire to shock, there’s a moral point being made and the gore isn’t simply gratuitous, but it is also gratuitous. It needs to be there for the points being made, but I had the distinct feeling Raymond also wanted to push boundaries, to write as repugnant a novel as he could. There’s a glee to his portrayal of the macabre that, while it doesn’t undermine his points, isn’t really necessary to them either.

As the novel continues, the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with Suarez, she becomes a symbol to him of that which drives him, of the quest for justice itself. As he reflects:

I thought as I drove that even though I was too late to save her, if I could solve her death, I might make some contribution to the coming of a time when such a horror would no longer be possible, a time when society would no longer throw up monsters.

I don’t know that I was Dora Suarez is better than He Died with his Eyes Open, but it is a return to the quality of that novel. I definitely enjoyed the intervening two, The Devil’s Home on Leave and How the Dead Live, but neither had the philosophical complexity of the first. I was Dora Suarez is good detective fiction, as they all are, but like He Died it’s also a lot more than that.

In Suarez, Raymond considers again the sheer beauty of life, its importance, and how that beauty is attacked not just by monsters and killers but by the small-mindedness of people who deny others what they haven’t the imagination to want themselves. There’s a vast anger running through this novel, but much of it is directed at those who take pleasure in the petty exercise of power. With so much beauty around us and life so fleeting, what is truly horrific is how many people do nothing with their own existences save live conservatively, hide within habit and bureaucracy and habit and refuse to see beyond their own routine. Our empathy for each other helps make us human, the killer having no empathy is no longer truly human, but the sometimes lack of it in the rest of us makes us all less than we could be.

In the end, if underneath the blood, fluids and horror Suarez has a message, it’s captured in this comment by our nameless protagonist:

… everything usefully done is done for others

I couldn’t agree more.

I was Dora Suarez


Filed under British crime fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, Noir, Raymond, Derek

You’re the neon type, aren’t you?

The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald

It’s a curious thing how writers come in and out of fashion. A writer can be a great success in their lifetime, critically acclaimed, popular perhaps too, yet after a few years be largely forgotten. Others languish in obscurity, are even ridiculed, but years later come to be seen as masters in their field. There’s little pattern to it that I see, literary immortality is a crapshoot.

Ross Macdonald hasn’t fared so well at the tables the last few decades. In his day, Macdonald was a major writer of hardboiled fiction, he was referred to as belonging to the holy trinity of crime, along with Chandler and Hammett. Now, he’s little known, undeservedly so because while I don’t (so far anyway) put him next to Chandler and Hammett in terms of ability he’s an enjoyable read with a fine line in snappy dialogue and sense of place.

I heard about Ross Macdonald through a Tobias Jones article in the Guardian, which can be read here. Jones argues that Macdonald surpasses the other hardboiled greats, but that this took time with the early novels consciously imitating his predecessors. That’s interesting, and in a way reassuring, because I started with Macdonald’s first and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but notice quite how derivative of Chandler in particular it is.

Macdonald’s protagonist is private detective Lew Archer, the name a reference to Miles Archer – Sam Spade’s partner in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Archer operates out of LA, mostly doing divorce work, but in this first of fourteen novels he is hired by a Mrs. Sampson to find her husband who has failed to return from a trip. The Sampsons, naturally, are rich, and Mrs. Sampson is determined to outlive her husband and inherit his wealth. She’s concerned that he might be with another woman, which could mean she could get squeezed out of the inheritance, it soon becomes apparent though that the truth is more likely to involve kidnap.

As you’d expect, matters soon complicate. Sampson’s daughter, Miranda, is young and beautiful and in love with Sampson’s private pilot, handsome young Alan Taggert, but Taggert doesn’t love her back. Who is in love with her is Albert Graves, a lawyer and old friend of Archer’s, but to Miranda an old man of 40. Mixed in too are a has-been film star, a California guru operating a mountaintop temple, a piano bar singer with a background in jazz and drug-induced psychiatric problems, a smooth and silver haired hood and many more. It’s not original, these are all pretty much stock characters for the genre, but it’s well written and moves along speedily.

Normally, I like to quote passages from works, so as to give a feel for the writing. Here though, the one-liner tends to be king. Hardboiled fiction loves snappy dialogue, Chandler can maintain it for whole passages of glittering beauty, Macdonald isn’t that good (yet anyway), but he still has his moments. I thought this line, from the first page, quite marvellous:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money.

I also liked “unripe oranges like dark-green golf balls”, and generally was impressed by how vividly California was itself brought to life, a character in the drama. Archer goes from rich and secluded estates, to downtown dives, to grimy shacks, and throughout it all Macdonald has a nice eye for the California landscape.

From the summit of the pass we could see the valley filled with sunlight like a bowl brimming with yellow butter, and the mountains clear and sharp on the other side.

There’s a lot of nice little character descriptions too, a telephone operator who “was a frozen virgin who dreamed about men at night and hated them in the daytime.” “Her tone clicked like pennies; her eyes were small and hard and shiny like dimes.” A thug is described as follows “I didn’t like the way he moved toward me. His left shoulder was forward and his chin in, as if every hour of his day was divided into twenty three-minute rounds.” That’s very easy to picture, and tells you all you need to know of the thug in two sentences.

The Moving Target is an easily read book, which of course it should be. It was hampered for me by my reading it during a week when I’ve had a cold nasty enough to kill my concentration (though not so bad as to keep me from work), which meant it took days to read what should have taken an evening, even with that though I found my interest sustained and the pacing held up well. As it goes on, it gets nastier, as Archer gets further into the twisted lives of Sampson and his associates, a world of jaded sex, drugs, new age beliefs (not that they called it that then, but it’s what they are) and of course money.

The most unusual element is a focus on psychology, something I understand gets much more pronounced later in the series. The piano bar singer sings a song about her psychiatric issues with “decadent intelligence”, Archer early on asks if there’s “a psychological explanation for my being here”, Archer’s a form of secular priest, a therapist even, bringing the truth to light and encouraging confession (which may be good for the soul, but it’s lousy for your chances of avoiding the needle). Of course, hardboiled detectives always have that element of clergy to them, that feeling of being agents of a higher justice in a world that feels no need for it, what’s unusual here is the way the references tend to the psychological, the psychiatric even. So far it’s an interesting twist, I’ll see in due course if it gets too much in later volumes.

As I noted above, this is Macdonald’s first, and though at times there are some lovely bits of dialogue (“I wouldn’t trust him with a burnt-out match.” is another), at others he slightly overdoes it. The line between inspiration and pastiche can be a thin one, and once or twice Macdonald crosses it. Here, I thought the tires element just a metaphor too far:

“You want to go there?”
“Why not?” I said. “The night is young.” I was lying. The night was old and chilly, with a slow heartbeat. The tires whined like starved cats on the fog-sprinkled black-top. The neon along the strip glared with insomnia.

That’s just too hardboiled. I couldn’t take it entirely seriously, it was too studiedly Chandler-esque, too plainly an imitation. Macdonald also has a habit of describing all the female characters’ breasts, which have nipples that look at Archer like eyes or point out at him (going on the films I suspect 1940 bras were a bit pointy actually) or generally tend to be a bit noticeable – giving me at least the slightly unfortunate impression that Archer was one of those men who speak to women’s chests rather than their faces.

Plotwise, this goes as you’d expect, Archer gets beaten up and sapped a few times (“His fist struck the nape of my neck. Pain whistled through my body like splintered glass, and the night fell on me solidly again.”), has guns held on him more than once, people get killed and the whole thing turns out more complex than it looks. This isn’t a novel that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it’s rather a novel by an author drawing heavily on what went before and writing firmly within the genre his predecessors created. It’s enjoyable, but it’s a novel for genre fans, not so much for those looking to take a dip outside their usual literary waters, for whom I’d recommend going back to Chandler or Hammett just like Macdonald himself did.

Still, for all that I am a genre fan, so I’ve ordered the next. For me, the jury’s out whether the psychological elements coming more to the fore will make it better or worse, it’s good Macdonald later finds his own voice but I may not of course like that voice. Still, there’s only one way to find out and this was good enough to make it worth sticking with Macdonald a bit longer while he finds his feet.

The Moving Target. I read this in the Black Lizard edition, a range published by Vintage. Black Lizard tend unfortunately only to be available in the US, I like them as they’re physically light with good paper and printing making them an easy and pleasurable read. Hopefully we’ll see more of them in the UK going forward, as there’s a bit of a paucity of good imprints for works of this kind right now in the UK (which is, in part, why I’m so fond of Serpent’ Tail).


Filed under California, Crime, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross

Pity, terror and grief

At its best, crime fiction is moral fiction. It is a forensic examination of the relationship between the individual and society, of our obligations to each other and of the gap between our image of ourselves and our shabby truth. It is a mirror held up, showing us the truth.

How the Dead Live is the third of Derek Raymond’s four factory novels, written in 1986 it is a scathing diatribe against the Britain of its day, married to an analysis of what it means to be conscious of mortality in a universe without purpose, and of the implications that has for our treatment of each other. As ever with Raymond, it is a novel obsessed with death and the knowledge of death, and of how that knowledge both grants and denies purpose to life. It is crime fiction at its best.

I read How the Dead Live in an edition published by the ever excellent Serpent’s Tail, here with a far from excellent foreword by Will Self who mentions that he only read the novel in order to be able to write the foreword. Despite his usual intelligence, Self bizarrely manages to miss much of the point of the work, to the extent that his main criticism of it “[Raymond] simply isn’t aware of the social context within which things happen” is about as wrong as it could be – the book is in large part precisely about that social context and about how in 1980s Britain it was undergoing radical change.

How the Dead Live was written only a few years after race riots became headline news in Britain, when debates were raging in the press and Parliament about how to deal with the widespread alienation Britain’s Black and Asian population were experiencing. More than once in the book, almost as backdrop, we see the racism these new arrivals face – an Asian man chased by Whites at chucking out time, an Indian told to his face he can’t buy property because the area he wants to buy in is for Whites only.

Meanwhile, in Raymond’s Britain, the old order is literally dying. The men and women who fought in World War II are the last of a generation of Britons who had a purpose, who had a place in a society that valued them. As they die, they are replaced by Thatcherite businessmen hollowing out dying communities, and by young men with neither jobs nor a sense of personal worth. Here the unnamed narrator describes an unemployed petty criminal living in a derelict squat:

Men like him had been part of our protection once. They were the descendants of men who had sat still, stroking their horses’ necks as they waited for the cannon to open up across ravines very far from Thornhill but whose spirit, stil the same, was now unneeded and abandoned.

A page later, the young man is singing “Over the Hills and Far Away” to himself, perhaps in case we missed the point.

Raymond’s narrator describes indifferent politicians who “blag serenely on, as though poverty, since they have no policy for it, didn’t exist”. He describes endemic corruption, greed and squalor, town centres filled with violent drunks and crass new money. His Britain is not a naturalistic place – it is ultimately a touch too extreme for that and the counterpoints between the old guard and the new disaffected too marked, but it is an image that I remember well from living through the time. There is a sense that Britain had come unglued, lost its way, and that all the future held was further decline. For some, Thatcher’s vision promised a way forwards, for many others however it represented instead a new viciousness and selfishness that cast aside what little good remained.

Raymond’s is a bleak and furious vision, but what it is not is a vision uninformed by the social currents of its time. Rather, Britain’s decline and the perceived moral vacuity of the new order is one of the book’s central motifs.

Another key theme of How the Dead Live, is a classic Raymondian argument about the nature of mortality and consciousness. For Raymond, being intelligent is a curse, allowing one to understand the inevitability of death and the futility of life, while the stupid continue without that burden and simply enjoy themselves. To be stupid is a desirable state, as the intelligent cannot avoid the truth and the truth is insupportable.

Sometimes I wish my mind would go away and leave me in peace; I would give all that I understand and feel and know, my very existence, to get out of my situation. I would grovel for the superb gift of stupidity, to be able to smile at my own death without knowing what it was, like the sheep did that I saw killed with my father when I was small – I don’t know what I would pay not to see through what I sense, know through what I know, finding only the rottenness of others. All our agony is a short wonder to be forgotten like a day’s rain, as when the lights go down after a play and it begins to snow outside the theatre. But in my role how can I ever say what I intend – for language, like life itself, has become irretrievable, hobbling after what’s left of nature.

Once again, the slaughter of an animal (here a sheep, in He Died With His Eyes Open a pig) becomes a key symbol of the horror of death, but here the sheep is to be envied for not understanding its fate.

In He Died With His Eyes Open, the murdered Staniland voices through his taped thoughts ideas of the horror of existence, of the overwhelming beauty of it too and of the terror of understanding it all. Here, the unnamed sergeant has in a sense become Staniland, the voice after all throughout is really Raymond’s and both Staniland and the sergeant are his instruments. Less successfully, near the end another key character, Dr. Mardy, voices thoughts on existence, death and the burden of intellect that are essentially indistinguishable from those of Staniland or the sergeant (I would have preferred the character to remain a little more distinct).

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, a woman has gone missing in the village of Thexton, has been missing now for six months. Local police conducted no investigation, no missing person reports were filed, the case then somehow came to the attention of the Chief Constable who ordered an investigation. Our unnamed protagonist is therefore dispatched to the countryside to find out what happened to the missing woman. In no short order, he has uncovered local police corruption, blackmail, extortion and (this being a factory novel) existential horror and, for a change of pace, gothic horror too.

I mention gothic horror above because, although How the Dead Live is very much crime fiction, it also borrows from the tradition of the gothic novel. The husband of the missing woman lives in a vast mouldering pile, a decaying house hiding a terrible secret, a place once bright and full of life but now decaying and foul. Parallels with Britain itself are I think not accidental.

As the sergeant investigates, he uncovers of course the rottenness pervading Thexton, the corruption in this New England. But he also uncovers something more, the truth of the house and of what happened there. As the house’s secret is revealed, I found myself feeling both horror and loathing, an effect all the more impressive in that it was born of understanding and compassion, not the simple fear of the unknown so commonly employed. The true horror in this novel, as in Raymond’s others but here so much starker, comes when we know the truth and realise how terrible and how pathetic it is. The horror is born of pity, not fear.

My conception of knowledge is grief and despair, because that has been the general matter of my existence.

Raymond’s prose continues to be precise and excellent, I loved descriptions like “his face was pinched and tired, his lips like a machine that refuses a credit card.” There is also a lengthy sequence near the beginning where the sergeant and his sister talk, Raymond here capturing the flow of dialogue in a very natural way. Descriptions too such as “The windows all had the same mail-order leer that made a flat, to its family, whatever its colour, seem falsely safe, and each was whitened by the eyeball of a Japanese lampshade.” show a nice eye for detail – when I left home those lampshades were so common that even though I didn’t like them I couldn’t find anything else for my first flat. In Raymond’s hands of course they become yet another symbol of decay, a blind eye staring out of a place order has left behind. For Raymond, the corpse is never far away.

By all accounts I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth and final of the factory novels, is the best of the series. If that’s true, I have an extraordinary book still ahead of me.

How the Dead Live


Filed under British crime fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, London, Noir, Raymond, Derek

The coke sweat had been dutifully airbrushed from the mayor’s forehead; only a contaminated grin remained

A Firing Offence is the 1992 first novel of George Pelecanos, later to become (relatively) well known as a scriptwriter for The Wire. It forms the first of his three part Nick Stefanos series, a trio of novels dealing with the exploits of (apparently fairly autobiographical in terms of character) D.C. based private detective Nick Stefanos.

After finishing the Stefanos series, Pelecanos went on to write his “D.C. Quartet”, an apparently much more ambitious and accomplished series of novels. It is not, therefore, the Nick Stefanos novels for which Pelecanos is now best known, they rather represent him finding his voice as a writer. That said, while it’s fair to say A Firing Offense isn’t terribly ambitious in scope it is a solid and enjoyable work of crime fiction and having read it I do intend to read the other two in the Nick Stefanos series before moving on to the D.C. Quartet and his other works.

So, enough of what it’s not. What is it? A Firing Offense is the story of how Nick Stefanos, a bored Advertising Director for Nutty Nathan’s chain of consumer electronics stores, agrees to help find a missing employee – a 19 year old kid who Nick briefly knew and who reminded him of his own pre-corporate self. Along the way, in fine hardboiled tradition, Nick gets beaten up, beats someone up, gets in a firefight and generally asks a lot of questions of a lot of people, some of whom aren’t too happy about answering. In terms of structure, it’s very much in the Chandler/Hammett vein, Nick asks around, puts two and two together, and knows he’s on the right track because people beat him up for being on it.

Where A Firing Offense is unusual however, is in its pacing and in its portrayal of the world of work – in particular the worlds of crummy office jobs and of working a salesfloor. This is a 216 page novel, for about the first hundred of those pages Nick is pulling down his job at Nutty Nathan’s and his enquiries into the missing boy are very much a sideline, we therefore spend a great deal of time seeing what it’s like to be an advertising director. In order to free up time to look for the kid Nick goes to work out of a local branch outlet, and so we see what it’s like to work a sales floor. Almost half the book then is not so much Nick running after bad guys, as Nick drinking too much and putting in a mediocre performance at a mediocre job, while his friends and colleagues mostly do likewise.

Generally, fiction deals poorly with the world of work, I’m not sure why, perhaps few authors have experienced it and those who did hated it, after all had they loved it they wouldn’t have left to become authors. Here, however, we have overpromoted management, bored employees, people watching the clock until they can go home, the world of work in all its tedious drudgery. It’s a marvellous portrait, not least when Nick reaches the sales floor and we see the various ruses and scams the salesmen pull to ensure they get the plum customers (those looking for TVs or steroes rather than say radio alarms) and how they convince them not to buy the best TV for them but the ones with the highest commission for the salesman, then making some extra on top by selling unnecessary warranties and parts insurance.

Lloyd was still with his customer, an older woman who seemed to be edging away from him in fear. I walked over to McGinnes, who was scribbling seemingly unrelated letters and numbers onto the sales tags.
‘You remember the system?’ he asked, continuing his markings.
‘Refresh my memory.’
‘The first two letters in the row are meaningless. The next set of numbers is the commission amount, written backwards. The final letter is the spiff code [a sales bonus], if there is a spiff. A is five, B is ten, C is fifteen and so on. So, for example, the figure on this tag, XP5732B means twenty-three seventy-five commission with a ten dollar spiff. That way, you’re pitching the bait that doesn’t pay dick, you look right beside it on the next model, you see what you get if you make the step, in black and white. ‘ He stepped back to admire his handiwork.
‘Just in case one of these customers asks, so we keep our stories straight, what do we tell them the numbers mean?’
‘Inventory control codes, he said with a shrug.

Shortly before this little exchange, we spend over a page and a half watching McGinnes, the best salesman on the floor, convince an old man who’s come in to buy the advertised special offer to upgrade to a much more expensive set, in part on the basis that it has a high IS (internal spiff, the customer obviously having no idea what that means) and by such tricks as putting a lousy aerial on the set the customer had originally intended to buy – all paired with a folksy patter and an ability to come from whatever part of the US the customer hails from. It’s a marvellous sequence, fun to read and really brings to life the sleazy ambience of the Nutty Nathan’s salesfloor.

The salesmen themselves are from the Glengarry Glen Ross school of charm, swearing heavily, drinking extraordinary amounts (including during the working day) and in the case of McGinnes taking copious quantities of drugs as well. It’s a vision of a sort of retail hell, a working environment so unbearable that only by mocking their customers and deadening their senses can they make it through the day. Competition for commissions is high, with the hapless Lloyd kept on primarily to deal with the low value items nobody else wants to touch, it’s a profoundly ruthless environment and Nutty Nathans becomes a sort of microcosm of the wider city of DC, a place drowning in drink and narcotics in which nobody is really clean.

As noted above, Pelecanos spends around 100 pages of the book, almost half, on Nick’s life at work and the people he knows there. During this half, pacing is carefully gradual, with Nick starting to get deeper into his investigation, but the bulk of his activity still centring around his normal life. All this comes, however, with undertones of menace because on page 2 we are told how the story will end: “with the sudden blast and smoke of automatic weapons, and the low manic moan of those who were about to die.” That means, during this entire 100 pages of quotidiana we’re aware that by the end of the book people will have died in terrible violence, once we’re past the halfway mark we start to accelerate to that end, but it’s a measured acceleration and the drive from normal life to automatic weapon fire and painful death is always a controlled one (for the reader anyway, not so much for Nick).

Pelecanos then brings the world of work to life, and shows a real skill at pacing, where he also shows real skill is in his descriptions. Here we have Nick’s favourite lunch spot:

In the Good Times Lunch an industrial upright fan stood in the rear, blowing warm air towards the door. Malt liquor posters hung on the walls, showing busty, light-skinned women held by mustachioed black movie stars. Of the eight stools at the counter, three were occupied by graying men drinking beer from cans, and a fourth by a route salesman in a cheap suit.

And here we have Nick, getting changed to go to head office rather than the sales office:

I finished shaving and undid my tie, switching from an Italian print to a wine and olive rep. I changed my side buckle shoes to a relatively more conservative pair of black oxfords that had thin steel plates wrapped around the outside of the toes. I put on a thrift shop Harris Tweed, secured the apartment, and drove to work.

Note the relatively spare, hardboiled, prose style there.

Generally, Pelecanos brings early 1990s D.C. to life, the drugs, the racial tensions. There is a palpable sense of place through the whole novel, and given that to me a sense of place is key to writing good crime fiction, it’s an important element of the novel’s success.

Not everything, however, is quite so successful. The characters are incredibly hard drinking, Nick clearly has an alcohol problem, not yet fully developed but plainly there, that’s fine but so does almost everyone else and it’s fair to say that almost every character of note in the novel spends their time drunk, stoned or both. That may be a fair reflection of early 1990s D.C., but I wasn’t wholly persuaded. Worse though is that’s a symptom of a problem with Nick as a character. Generally, he is convincing, he is part of a Greek community that feels real (as it should, given Stefanos himself comes from such), he feels as if he has a life beyond the book, but he is also portrayed as being a bit cool and for me that didn’t wholly work.

Nick has great taste in music (I actually dug out my old Elvis Costello discs on finishing the book, apparently a common reaction to it), he can hold his own in rough clubs aimed at men ten years his junior, he is popular with women, the two times he gets in fights knowing that’s what’s about to happen he basically kicks ass, he is a fine shot too. Basically, he’s a bit badass.

Now, in part that’s all good hardboiled stuff. Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op can all handle themselves in a fight, Spade and Marlowe are both handsome fellows and well dressed. Pelecanos is writing a hardboiled crime novel. It’s just that Spade, Marlowe and the Continental Op were professional PIs, Nick is an advertising director slightly past his glory days. He’s cool, but he’s cool in a slightly sad way for a character the wrong side of 30.

In fairness, that slightly pathetic quality is in part intentional. Nick’s ex-wife left him because he wasn’t accepting adult responsibilities, an element made interestingly ambiguous given that it’s clear she’s accepted them herself but that in doing so she’s lost along the way an essential part of her own character. Pelecanos gives the impression that much of Nick’s motivation in looking for the missing kid is seeking his own youth which is slipping away from him. The trouble is, those elements of ambiguity, of whether accepting adult responsibilities is simply a form of surrender, are slightly undercut by Nick later on taking down a bad guy in brutally effective fashion. It’s also undercut slightly by Nick’s success with women. Put another way, Nick’s traits that come from his status as hardboiled hero sit slightly oddly with Nick’s traits which come from him being an ageing scenester who’s sold out and isn’t sure he got anything worthwhile in return.

Still, those criticisms aside, it’s a well written and well paced crime novel. It’s not more than that, but that’s nothing to be sniffed at, it’s an enjoyable read and Nick is ultimately an interesting character to travel some of America’s backways with. As I said at the outset, I intend to read the sequel, and I look forward eventually to reading George Pelecanos’s more ambitious works, the ones he wrote when he finally felt free not to follow a hardboiled template that at times seems to work against what he’s trying here to achieve.

A Firing Offense


Filed under Crime, Hardboiled, Pelecanos, George

A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o

Chester Himes is a new author to me, one that I had never heard of until I saw A Rage in Harlem recommended in a Waterstone’s Staff Pick.

However, that reflects more on me than it does on Chester Himes, because some investigation reveals that he is in fact a highly regarded African-American novelist with some forty years of output, not least among which is a series of detective novels collectively referred to as the Harlem Detective series. Himes’ fiction often dealt with issues of race and justice, issues he was perhaps unusually qualified to speak to having spent eight years in jail himself for armed robbery.

A Rage in Harlem is the first of the Harlem Detective series. Written and set in 1957, in it we first meet his two detective characters, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. In later novels I understand they take a more central role, but here they are closer to plot elements than characters, larger than life forces of nature the presence of which drives the actions of others. The real protagonist of A Rage in Harlem is one Jackson, a “square” and churchgoing man, honest and with a profound faith in his girlfriend Imabelle.

As the novel opens, Jackson has been introduced by Imabelle to men who claim to be able to raise ten dollar bills to hundred dollar bills, using a secret technique they possess. As they proceed, they are raided by a man claiming to be a police officer, Jackson is apprehended but the other men run taking their equipment and Imabelle with them. The policeman asks for a bribe from Jackson in return for letting him go, and to get the money Jackson is forced to steal money from his employer’s safe. To get that back, Jackson goes gambling, and loses everything he has (in one of the better written gambling sequences I have read). By the end of this, fairly short in terms of the novel, sequence of events Jackson is penniless, a thief and believes that he is pursued by the police.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that the policeman is one of the gang of swindlers, that Jackson is the subject of a grift, and that he may well be one of the most gullible men in Harlem. All that said, he decides that Imabelle would not have gone with the others willingly, and so with the aid of his brother, a con man and junkie who cross dresses as a nun to swindle the poor by selling modern day indulgences, he sets out to rescue her.

A Rage in Harlem then is a novel of extremes. Goldie, Jackson’s brother, is an extraordinary character. He lives with two other professional criminals who cross dress as part of their own grifts, and they inhabit a world that squares like Jackson cannot comprehend (if they could, they wouldn’t be squares). Many characters are grotesques, many scenes are grimly comic, absurd even with unbelievable elements happily thrown in. At the same time, all this sits with a convincing depiction of life in Harlem in the late 1950s, a life often of grinding poverty, poor education and remarkable isolation from the wider New York City.

The language of the book is vivid, as you would expect, here we have an exchange between Jackson and a taxi driver:

A black boy was driving. Jackson gave him the address of Imabelle’s sister in the Bronx. The black boy made a U-turn in the icy street as though he liked skating, and took off like a lunatic.
‘I’m in a hurry,’ Jackson said.
‘I’m hurrying, ain’t I?’ the black boy called over his shoulder.
‘But I ain’t in a hurry to get to heaven.’
‘We ain’t going to heaven.’
‘That’s what I’m scared of.’

Similarly, here Jackson trades remarks with a shoe-shine boy:

‘Man, you know one thing, I feel good,’ he said to the shoe-shine boy.
‘A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o,’ the boy said.
Jackson put his faith in the Lord and headed for the dice game upstairs on 126th Street, around the corner.

As the novel progresses, Jackson essentially falls through a crack in his world, moving from the realm of god fearing and church going people to the world of hustlers, con artists, pimps and killers. He moves from the world of prey, to the world of predators, and since he is by nature prey he spends a good part of the novel running from people and desparately hoping not to be brutally killed, for brutal death is rarely far away in Himes’ Harlem and in the course of the novel a fair number of characters do die – as often as not from sheer bad luck or meeting the wrong people at the wrong time.

Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson move through this world of casual violence and relentless criminality as part of the forces devoted to keeping some kind of order in place, they are both themselves black, coloured detectives as the people of the time term them. The police department is largely white, the white officers whenever depicted have neither understanding of nor sympathy for the blacks of Harlem, Jones and Johnson don’t have much more sympathy than their white colleagues, but they do understand and that coupled with their remarkable capacity for violence makes them effective and feared men.

They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket.

Discussing the attitudes of the police, takes me to the depiction of race in the novel generally. As is common in novels of this period and earlier dealing with issues of race, black characters are routinely described in terms of how black they are. One may have a coal coloured face, another be an ordinary brown, all of which is essentially merely descriptive, but then a sharp line is drawn between black people who are variously brown skinned and those who are “yellows” or “high yellows”, people whose skin is light in shade. High yellows are seen as more attractive than the brown skinned, and characters (including black characters, almost everyone in the book is black) will refer to others as a “high yellow” making distinctions as finely honed as would be found in any caste system. At one point a bystander quotes an old folk saying, as follows:

Black gal make a freight train jump de track
But a yaller girl make a preacher Ball de Jack

I have seen this distinction made before, in the works of writers such as Hammett and Spillane and in the songs of artists like Leadbelly (who in one sings of his “yellow girl”). A fairly formal differentiation between people according to the degree of blackness present in their skin tone appears to have been fairly common in American life in this period. For all the distinctions drawn, however, between the brown skinned and the yellow skinned, the key difference is with the white skinned. In this book blacks and whites barely communicate, the black characters occasionally interact with white policemen and that unwillingly, their world is a self-contained one and points of contact between black and white experience are few.

Life in Harlem is difficult, poverty is endemic, the police are feared and never assisted – which given they spend most of the novel arresting anyone in sight who looks a bit out of place is hardly surprising. At one point Jackson flees through an alley, slipping in mud, tearing his clothes, getting covered in blood and filth and reduced to rags. When he hits the street, he is not the worst dressed man in it, his appearance is not of itself remarkable enough to attract the near constant police attention.

Colored people passed along the dark sidewalks, slinking cautiously past the dark, dangerous doorways, heads bowed, every mother’s child of them looking as though they had trouble.
Colored folks and trouble, Jackson thought, like two mules hitched to the same wagon.

With poverty comes violence, at one point Jackson goes to a rough bar, where he is surrounded by whores and grifters, marked out by muggers, a whole ecology of crime clustering around an obvious mark. A fight breaks out, to the entertainment of all (the people of Harlem here love watching the troubles of others), and swiftly descends into farce:

Two rough-looking men jumped about the floor, knocking over chairs and tables, cutting at one another with switchblade knives. The customers at the bar screwed their heads about to watch, but held on to their places and kept their hands on their drinks. The whores rolled their eyes and looked bored.
One joker slashed the other’s arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes – two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer’s ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped around him to keep warm. They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood.

As well as race, poverty, brutality and violence, A Rage in Harlem is also full of almost slapstick humour. A car chase in which multiple squad cars pursue a fleeing hearse, which proceeds to careen through a central market scattering livestock, vegetables and meat in its wake and which en route loses its contents including the corpse of a freshly murdered man becomes a form of comic sequence, over the top, grim in that the driver is genuinely terrified but funny because it becomes ludicrous in the extremity of the description. Himes himself described his detective series as “absurd”, his Harlem becomes at times a grotesquerie, filled with freaks and morbid humour. Jones and Johnson are barely people, closer to caricatures of grim law enforcement, Jackson is astonishingly and continuingly gullible, Goldie so unredeemable he spends a fair time drugging Jackson so he can look for Imabelle without interference as Goldie has come to believe she has a wealth of gold on her person. Characters here are not subtly crafted portraits from life.

Well, except one character, Harlem itself. Harlem convinces, Harlem is really the main character of the novel, it is a novel about Harlem, its absurdities and cruelties. And it is in the descriptions of Harlem that some of the book’s best passages are to be found:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desparate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The farther east it goes, the blacker it gets.

I’m not sure where I’ll go next with Himes. My (perhaps incorrect) impression is that he wrote what he considered serious fiction, and separately his detective fiction. I enjoyed the detective fiction, perhaps despite and perhaps in part because of its grotesque elements, his serious fiction is doubtless enjoyable too and it would be interesting to see how it compares. Still, I would not wish to give the impression that the crime fiction is not worth reading, it is, and it is that for which he is most famous. There is real skill here, the occasional extremity of description is intentional, not inadvertent and Himes has things to say which are I think worth listening to.

I link here to an essay I found online on Himes work, I particularly liked the reference to him “coupling craft with a searing and sometimes brutal black-humored “fabulism,””, a line I wish I had come up with myself as it definitely captures something of this work.

A Rage in Harlem


Filed under Crime, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, New York, Noir

I knocked at a second-floor flat in a dreary house, one of two hundred in a dreary Catford street.

So starts the second of Derek Raymond’s factory novels, The Devil’s Home on Leave, uncoincidentally enough the second Derek Raymond novel I have read and while for me not as interesting as his first (He Died with His Eyes Open, which I have also written about here) I did enjoy it enough to order the two remaining factory novels on finishing this one.

He Died with his Eyes Open was an investigation into how one lives with the knowledge of personal mortality and the instrinsic meaninglessness of life. It’s answer, in large part, was that it didn’t much matter as any answer was itself meaningless. The Devil’s Home on Leave addresses some similar concerns, but looks more at questions of the banality of evil and at the sheer ugliness of much of humanity. Like its predecessor, it is a pitiless novel, one in which we are deeply flawed animals fuelled by guilt, greed, lust and fear. This is a theme that will later be picked up by authors such as David Peace, and Derek Raymond strikes me very strongly as a natural precursor to Peace.

Devil is a crime novel. It’s nameless protagonist is a police sergeant working in the Unexplained Deaths department in a police station known colloquially as The Factory. The department investigates deaths nobody cares about, here a murder of an unknown victim who was left neatly boiled and jointed in five stapled carrier bags in a disused warehouse. Within a handful of pages, the protagonist has worked out that this would have been a professional hit and who given the nature of the scene the hitman would have been. This is not, therefore, a whodunnit. It is, as is often the case with intelligent crime fiction, a whydunnit and even more it is an investigation into the nature of the sort of person who could do something of this kind.

Raymond’s protagonist is a man motivated by the desire for truth, by the desire to give voice to the nameless people whose deaths he investigates, and by his own crushing guilt over the death of his daughter at the hands of his mentally ill wife. He is a man utterly without personal ambition, notably so to the frustration of his superiors given his evident talent. Early on, as he once again argues with a superior we have the following exchange:

‘Anyway’, he added, ‘ if you will stay a sergeant you’ll always get the shitty end of the stick.’
‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘ but I think that’s the end where the truth is.’

The Devil’s Home on Leave is a reference to the novel’s other main character, the killer himself, a brutal and vindictive sociopath who as portrayed is profoundly human and yet who also is profoundly damaged and outside the normal range of human behaviours and emotions. This is no Hannibal Lecter, the killer in this novel is in many ways pathetic and violence for him is in part a way of avoiding acknowledging his own inadequacies. Much as He Died with His Eyes Open was a study of the victim in that novel, The Devil’s Home on Leave is a study of the mind of the killer. In He Died, we examine why a man lived in such a way as to lead to the terrible death he experienced. In Devil’s Home, we examine why a man lives in such a way that he can commit such a terrible crime. In neither case is the reader provided with much by way of comfort in the answers to these questions.

A key early entry into the mind of the killer comes through our protagonist, who on surveying the scene of the crime imagines himself as the killer and thinks in his voice (it’s worth noting that this was a much more unusual concept in 1984 when this novel was first published than it is today). This leads to a six page stream of consciousness, almost a prose poem, in which the protagonist deduces the identity of the killer (who is already known to the police and therefore whose file the sergeant has previously read in relation to other matters) while observing the scene. The killer thinks he is smart, indeed thinks he is brilliant, but his obsessive regard for detail and his desire to show how clever he is has led to his being as easily identified as if he had left his fingerprints at the scene.

The investigation then is why, why this victim was killed and who paid for that killing. This investigation takes the sergeant into a network of connections between traditional East End villains, high-security research facilities and ultimately connections into government itself as our protagonist finds that his crime is but a small part of a much larger offence. The investigation is interesting in itself, but it is far from the most interesting thing about this novel.

As this investigation develops, we learn of the sergeant’s own relationship with his ex-wife Edie, now incarcerated in an asylum where she barely recognises him and where the inmates are stripped (more by their own madness than any cruelty of the staff) of any trace of human dignity. After a painful encounter in which she screams and in which he notices, when the nurses lift her dress to sedate her, that she has traces of her own excrement smeared on her buttocks:

I went back to London. I thought, what’s the point of going to see her any more? She doesn’t know me.
She murdered our daughter back in 1979. Her name was Dahlia, after Edie’s favourite flower. Edie pushed her under a bus, like that, in the street, because the child had picked up a bar of chocolate as they went past the shelves in the supermarket and hidden it, and there had been a stupid row with the manageress. Dahlia was nine.
I choked on my grief behind the windscreen as soon as I was alone, a vague face among other faces in other cars in the heavy traffic.

The sergeant’s guilt at the death of his daughter, at the sheer pointlessness and stupidity of it, runs through the novel. A few pages later, haunted by the image of his daughter as he tries to sleep, he reflects:

Yes, there used to be dignity in life, and I would die if I thought that would bring it back. I often wonder what people think a police officer is and how he thinks, or whether they believe he thinks at all. They just see the helmet, or the warrant card, and trouble. But we take risks. Some of us go into places because we must, whatever’s waiting there. I would give my life to have my little girl back again, but all I can do in the anticlimax that life is without her is to do what I believe to be right in the face of evil. So old fashioned! But I have only dreams and memories of my daughter to fall back on now – dreams where I see her like a bird, flying free and happy in the face of my trouble.
Yes, I used to pick her up and sing to her before I had to leave and report for duty – at Old Street, that was. But I never managed to protect her and love her as I should have because I was too anxious for my career. So now I feel the arms of others round me in the place of her arms, and know that, because of my ambition, I went off to work that day and so let Edie kill Dahlia because I was too proud ever to admit to myself that I knew Edie was mad.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Raymond’s protagonist then is driven by guilt, a guilt that has consumed him driving him to find the truth of lonely deaths and causing him to put aside all desires he might have had for his own life. He feels guilt for the death of his daughter which he failed to prevent, and guilt for all the other deaths before and after that he also failed to prevent. In contrast, quite intentional contrast I believe, the killer is a man wholly without guilt. A man without any conscience at all, touchy and proud and sensitive to every slight to the point that he will kill a man over an insult. He is in some respects the antithesis of the protagonist (though not neatly in all respects, the novel is not that pat), and conversations between him and the sergeant form much of the heart of the work as the sergeant gently applies pressure in the hope of eliciting a confession or a lead to evidence that could help prove the case.

As ever, I do not intend here to disuss the plot of the novel, in any event in this work the plot is hardly the point. Instead, as is typical of the roman noir, this is an exploration of frailty and ugliness. A banal brutality which can sometimes evoke pity (in the character of the killer’s own ex-wife, a drunk who lives in terror of his return, his relationship with her in some ways the mirror of the protagonist’s with his wife), but all too often merely prompts loathing. This is a work of profound moral disgust, disgust with humanity and with what we do to ourselves. Even minor characters are unsympathetic, a WPC is described as follows:

She was a hard-looking woman in her thirties with about as much pity in her face as an empty plate.

The landscape the characters walk through is as brutalist in its way as the people who inhabit it. The view from the killer’s wife’s window:

Outside it was raining bitterly across a barren park where the grass had been trudged away by the aimless feet of the unemployed until the ground was just mud. I got up and went to look out through the rain. Below me a man spread his rags to show his chest as if it were a really fine day. His red lips gaped open inside his curly beard; the mouth closed only when it encountered the neck of the bottle that he kept picking up from the bench beside him. Rain ran over him, sliding down his ribs, subtle as a blackmailer.

The few alleviants to the ugliness are themselves not exactly pretty. Early on a conversation between two officers about a man who murdered his girlfriend, ex-wife and daughter becomes a morbid joke due to the council failing to clean up the scene after the bodies were removed:

Anyway, nobody did clean up; that was why, when two squatters, a girl and a feller, broke into the flat, the girl had a heart attack.
‘Teach the bastards to respect council property,’ Bowman said when I told him about it.

Later a desultory conversation with a now crippled ex-officer reveals a common interest in literature between him and the proganist, an interest that only the ex-officer really has time for now that without his legs he is no longer able to serve on the Force.

As moments of light relief go, it is fair to say they are not as light as they might be. The novel also contains a moment of quite unintended black comedy, as two characters at one point discuss the possibility of the police being granted the power to hold suspects for seven days without charge. This is portrayed (rightly in my view, but I digress from literature there) as a massive breach of civil liberties. The unintended comedy is that today police can hold suspects for 28 days without charge and that powers of indefinite house arrest without trial exist and have been used in the UK. I suspect Raymond’s intent with the seven days scene was not for the reader to look back at what would now seem a blow for civil liberties rather than a blow against.

Which takes me to the part of the novel which is most interesting and which sadly I cannot really describe without ruining it for anyone who might read this and then read the novel itself. The end. Raymond has much to say about guilt and culpability, about responsibility, and much of what he has to say he works into the end of the novel in a way that has great power because of all that has gone before, much of which until then may have seemed reasonably standard crime fare. Unfortunately, and unsatisfyingly, I can’t really disuss how he achieves this, as to do so could damage its effect. Suffice it to say then that this is a work about human evil, and the killer’s evil so painstakingly examined during the course of the work is but one example of such and perhaps not the most terrible.

It’s hard to say one enjoys a novel like The Devil’s Home on Leave, and yet it is a satisfying work. Raymond has an excellent eye for his characters, which are convincing and drawn from life (unsurprisingly, given Raymond spent much of his life with villains of the sort he depicts). The portrait of the killer is detailed and persuasive, unlike say in Patricia Highsmith one never feels the slightest sympathy with the killer, rather he is a horrific figure that provokes loathing in the reader (well, in this reader anyway). The terrible guilt of the protagonist seeps through the pages, making him comprehensible while keeping him as far from the normal world of the reader’s experience as the killer himself. All this is accomplished stuff, and while I did not find it as intriguing as I did He Died with His Eyes Open my time on it was well spent. For the curious, by all accounts the fourth of the factory novels is the best regarded, and with that to look forward to I intend to continue exploring Raymond’s work (including, in due course, his non-factory novels).

The Devil’s Home on Leave

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Filed under British crime fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, London, Noir, Raymond, Derek

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Neuromancer is the first, and arguably best, novel by William Gibson. Originally published in 1984, it is a work that helped reinvigorate the science fiction genre in part by bringing in many elements more conventionally found in noir. It also spawned a wave of imitators, few of which come close to the immediacy of the original.

Unfortunately, due to pressures of work I’m blogging this book a week after finishing it, and that’s a shame as what impressed me most on rereading it (I had read it before some years ago) was how fresh and intense it still was, and it’s hard to capture that freshness and intensity a week after the event.

The novel opens with its apparent protagonist, Case, living in the Japanese port of Chiba (adjoining Tokyo). Case is a 24 year old hacker, a trade known in his time as a cowboy, but after a deal gone bad has been neurologically altered so that he can no longer access cyberspace – the virtual environment in which hacking takes place in Gibson’s future. As such, Case is now just a small time hustler making a living as best he can, his money blown on unsuccessful medical treatments and his death an outcome he seems to be seeking as he takes increasing risks on the streets.

In other words, Case is a classic noir character. A man on the skids, a small timer looking back to glory days now gone. A man hooked on chemicals and left with no greater ideals than making it through the night.

The noir tone is established right on the first page. Apart from the opening sentence, quoted as the title to this blog entry and in fact a personal favourite of mine, we have the following description:

Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of African scars.

Here we have our first encounter with futuristic technology, but it is battered and faulty. Clearly the future is not going to be an improvement on the present. We have vice, sharp dressed sailors engaged in unstated (but perhaps obvious) business in a bar of prostitutes and hustlers. Case is living in a transitory shadow world, on the margins of wider society. This is not a dystopian future, it is today, depressingly unchanged save for a few of the details.

Which takes me to what I regard as a classic misreading of this novel. Neuromancer is often seen as dystopian fiction, the above paragraph itself gives that impression. However, in my view that is not really supported by the text itself. Rather, it is noir fiction in an sf context. Case inhabits a criminal underworld, he barely interacts with normal society, and as the novel progresses he spends the bulk of his time with a profoundly psychiatrically damaged special forces veteran, an alienated professional enforcer (referred to as a “street samurai”, a phrase that will later become badly cliched in large part due to Gibson’s imitators), a sadistic police informer and a virtual reconstruction of the personality of a dead hacker. The world Case inhabits seems dystopian, but the novel does not imply that most people in Gibson’s future live in Case’s world. Indeed, if anything it seems clear as one progresses that most people do not, that this is a novel about grifters and outsiders and it refers only in passing to the relatively normal lives most people appear to be living, working at fairly ordinary jobs, taking holidays, living much as we live today (but with somewhat higher technology).

Case’s Japan is brought vividly to life. I consider crime fiction to be in large part a literature of place, more precisely of evocation of place, and Neuromancer although a work of science fiction draws heavily on crime fiction in this regard. Case is a product of his environment, and when we first meet him, as he embraces the nearing end of his downward descent, that environment is alienating and inhuman:

Now he slept in the cheapest coffins, the ones nearest the port, beneath the quartz-halogen floods that lit the docks all night like vast stages; where you couldn’t see the lights of Tokyo for the glare of the television sky, not even the towering hologram logo of the Fuji Electric Company, and Tokyo Bay was a black expanse where gulls wheeled above drifting shoals of white styrofoam.

Coffins refers to Japanese capsule hotels, sometimes referred to as coffin hotels, some good pictures of one can be found here Having myself stayed in one, I can honestly say that they’re actually more comfortable than you’d expect, but they’re designed for the occasional night stuck in town, you wouldn’t want to stay in one on a regular basis.

As in the first passage quoted, Gibson combines a scene which could easily exist today, a disreputable bar, a heavily industrialised first world port, and adds to it small and fairly credible details of things we do not have today – functioning prosthetic arms, holographic logos. Nothing here is extreme, nothing terribly unlikely within my own lifetime, and by embedding these futuristic elements within scenes of essentially contemporary urban blight Gibson creates a sense of verisimilitude and a sense of a living world which much science fiction struggles to achieve. His world feels real because it is, at this point in any event, simply our world with a few minor changes none of which seem all that unlikely. By this method Gibson helps us buy into his creation, so that later on as things depart more radically from our own world he already has our trust and we are happy to go with him to see at its edges quite how much his new world has changed from our old one.

All that said, this is a work of science fiction, not simply of noir. As such, although Gibson is generally sure footed in his evocation of place, his future remains to a degree a product of its time, a 1980s future. In some ways this dates the novel to an extent, in a way straight noir fiction avoids by being written in a world that actually existed at the time of writing. Neuromancer plainly reflects some fears of its day, it contains huge and faceless Japanese corporations, cutting edge technology is increasingly a Japanese rather than Western competitive edge. Similarly, characters play video games very reminiscent of those I played myself as a child in the 80s, at least one of which is pretty clearly based on Dungeons & Dragons (a game arguably more influential today than then due to the rise of computer games based on it, but which I think unquestionably had a greater presence in the public consciousness back when this novel was written).

In many other senses however Neuromancer still holds up pretty well, and remains reasonably current. Gibson’s world of indifferent big money, obscure private money, unlicenced free ports and people so rich they belong practically to a different species is not only still relevant but would have been a world perfectly recognisable to Raymond Chandler. As science fiction, I still consider this a successful and relevant novel today.

Another area where I thought crime and noir elements influenced the novel was the role of violence. This is a violent novel, characters suffer broken limbs, are beaten, poisoned, shot. But the violence is in the main unpleasant, unglamorous. The female bodyguard Case acquires is beautiful and deadly, yes, but has her leg broken by a security guard all the same and spends much of the rest of the novel struggling (without great success) to recover from the injury. Case at one point buys a small and vicious sounding metallic bludgeon and then trades it in for a gun he acquires on a temporary hire basis, but uses neither. The characters in this novel live with violence, use violence, accept violence as part of their lives and in the main expect violent deaths, but violence itself remains a profoundly ugly affair leading in most cases to suffering and loss. Death, when it occurs, is squalid – bleeding out in an alleyway or killed among yakitori stalls and beer vendors with a sneaker thrown off and lying nearby. To read this as an almost video-game-esque celebration of stylistic aggression is I think quite wrong.

Stylistically, Gibson is often at his best when creating impressionistic scenes which appear fully detailed and described, but which in fact are fairly lightly sketched. Often passing comments imply detail which is not actually provided, creating a sense of a richer world than on analysis is actually present. That’s not a criticism, this is a novel, not a guidebook to an imaginary future, and I consider it a strength of the novel that Gibson uses this particular technique. An example:

The four of them were booked on a THY flight out of Yesilkoy airport. Transfer at Paris to the JAL shuttle. Case sat in the lobby of the Istanbul Hilton and watched Riviera browse bogus Byzantine fragments in the glass-walled gift shop. Armitage, his trenchcoat draped over his shoulders like a cape, stood in the shop’s entrance.
Riviera was slender, blond, soft-voiced, his English accentless and fluid. Molly said he was thirty, but it would have been difficult to guess his age. She also said he was legally stateless and travelled under a forged Dutch passport. He was a product of the rubble rings that fringe the radioactive core of old Bonn.

Here we have the establishment of the contemporary quotidian, waiting around browsing tourist tat at bland hotels while waiting to depart for flights. We have implied detail, at some point Bonn clearly has suffered nuclear attack but how or when is never explained, Gibson’s world gains apparent but not actual detail. We also get once again an impression of rootless internationalism, just like the bar filled with East-European prosthetics, expat prostitutes and African sailors here we have an English speaking stateless German who when first encountered lives and works in Istanbul. These characters are separated from society, in the next paragraph (unquoted) some Japanese tourists and an Italian woman enter the same shop and the main characters plainly struggle to engage with these more conventional people.

The passage above also flags one of Gibson’s less admirable traits, in that it contains a fair bit of exposition. In the main, Gibson’s expository passages worked for me, his talent for description compensating for the fact I was essentially being told by the author what characters were like and what was happening. Not all passages work so well though, and Neuromancer contains one of the most notorious infodumps in science fiction where Case briefly watches a children’s tv programme which explains how Cyberspace functions before turning it off on the basis he already knows everything it is speaking of. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal flaw, that said those who have a particular aversion to exposition may find parts of this novel a chore as a result.

Returning to noir themes in the novel, the other main theme I wish to draw out is that of dehumanisation. Many characters in this novel have become essentially tools, objects used to achieve the ends of those richer or more powerful than themselves. The virtual reconstruction of the dead hacker repeats himself in conversation, he wishes to be erased, having enough consciousness to be aware that he is lacking but not enough to have a full range of human responses. Molly, the enforcer, has a backstory involving work as a prostitute whose higher brain functions were shut down when she was with clients and replaced with software running preselected programs chosen by those clients – “renting the goods” as she calls it. An ex-boyfriend of hers had a shunt built into his brain so that information could be stored in his memories that he could not himself access, making him a highly secure courier. In each case, technology has led to dehumanisation, but it has done so because other humans have found it a convenient tool to that end. The poor are essentially disposable, tools to an end, the technology of Gibson’s future merely makes their exploitation more efficient and on a surface level more bearable for those exploited (the prostitutes remain such, and remain driven to it by abject poverty, but their knowledge of what they do is removed).

Against this exists the glamorous world the characters do not belong to, a world depicted as full of expensive hotels, luxury stores (“Gucci, Tsuyako, Hermes, Liberty”, each of them in a street literally named Desiderata, and note that the only one made up by Gibson is a Japanese label). The characters are players, not gentlemen, and the world they inhabit – the world of the professional criminal, could as well be an alien planet from the perspective of the worlds they penetrate in the course of the book, the worlds of the rich and privileged.

And this takes me to the last comparison I intend to make in this blog entry, and that is a comparison with The Big Sleep and with the works of Chandler more generally. The Observer, in its quoted reference to Gibson, calls him the “Raymond Chandler of SF” and although Gibson’s prose does not approach Chandler’s it is a fair comparison. As in Chandler, the real sins here are not those of the criminals and grifters we follow, they are the crimes of the rich so secluded by their money that they have turned in upon themselves and become from our perspective quite mad, or post-sane if you prefer. The rich are not like us, the Sternwood family and the Tessier-Ashpools (of Neuromancer) are cut from the same cloth, the Tessier-Ashpools so far removed from the bulk of human experience that they have literally moved into space.

All this and I haven’t mentioned the interesting thoughts on AI contained in the novel, thoughts picked up and developed in Ian McDonald’s recent and excellent River of Gods which depicts AIs in a very similar way in some regards. I haven’t, perhaps thankfully, talked about the Rastafarian space colony particularly, I haven’t discussed the more unlikely technological elements (most obviously, Cyberspace itself which reflects more than anything else Gibson’s admitted utter ignorance of computing), I haven’t discussed the technothriller-esque sections where the heist is actually carried out. But what I shall mention by way of close is that the protagonists of this novel are not really who they seem. We barely meet the real protagonists, the instigators of the novel’s plot, one we never meet at all, and we certainly do not understand them. Case and his companions are tools in the machinations of others, and to the extent they achieve protagonist status in this work it is only insofar as they sieze it for themselves by departing from the scripts others have written for them. This too is Chandlerian, like Marlowe they are tools chosen for a purpose but possessed of greater volition than those selecting them had given credit for, the rich have not only left the poor behind, they also have no understanding of them and that would be their undoing but that their money protects them no matter how grave their errors of judgement may be.


Filed under Gibson, William, Hardboiled, Noir, SF

Every time we say goodbye

Die a Little, by Megan Abbott

Die A Little is a work of noir fiction by Megan Abbott, an American author with three fiction titles released in the US, of which Die a Little was her first and which is also her first to be released in the UK.

Die a Little is an unabashedly genre novel, not so much an homage to the golden age of noir fiction as a deliberate attempt to write a classic noir novel in a style that would have seemed perfectly in place had it been published back in the 1950s. Largely, it succeeds, Abbott plainly knows her genre and delights in it, and indeed her website (also a good source of noir links) reveals that her first major work in print was a study of White masculinity in hardboiled fiction and film noir.

However, Die a Little departs from the traditional noir template in one very interesting way, it is written from the point of view of a female character. Noir protagonists, generally speaking, have tended to be White men. By adopting a female narrative perspective, Abbott does not subvert the noir genre (and does not I think intend to subvert it), but she does succeed in adding something fresh to it, and for any genre as old as this one that is very welcome.

Abbott also shows a great affection for the golden age of noir/hardboiled covers, with the cover art for Die a Little and for each of her other novels (see the front page of her website, linked to above) being rather gloriously lurid. Lurid because golden age noir is of course a deeply lurid genre, full of sex, jealousy, intrigue and murder. The original covers reflected that, being reminiscent of the pulps in which many of the early authors first got themselves published, and I rather like to see the garish tradition of the pulp cover embraced by at least one contemporary author.

Moving to the book itself, Die a Little is set in 1950s Los Angeles. Lora King is a schoolteacher who lives with her brother, Bill, who is in turn a junior investigator with the DA’s office. The novel is written in Lora’s internal voice, she is speaking directly to us, and she is speaking to us after the fact (though after the fact of what is not initially clear). The very first words of the novel are “Later, the things I would think about”.

Lora and her brother are close, indeed although nothing untoward is happening or has happened between them, they seem rather too close in some regards. By just page 2 Lora is reminiscing how she used to cut Bill’s hair, remembering:

“Hours afterward, I would find slim, beaten gold bristles on my fingers, my arms, no matter how careful I was. I’d blow them off my fingertips, one by one.”

A passage which seems more sensual than perhaps a sister’s memories of her brother entirely ought to be. The very next paragraph she refers to his honeymoon with his new wife, in Cuba, a destination Lora seems not wholly to approve of (we later learn that it was an expensive choice, but the objection seems more to the fact of the marriage than the choice of vacation).

So, by the second page it already appears that Lora is fonder of her brother than perhaps is entirely healthy, that she is jealous of his new wife, and that she has been displaced in his affections and his life by this interloper whom we soon learn is glamorous and beautiful. Bill is a handsome man, tall, with razor cheekbones and square jaw, blond and well built. His new wife is thin and dark and full of nervous energy. She is Lora’s opposite, Lora being herself blonde and though perhaps beautiful a homebody whose love life is a quiet matter of occasional trips to the movies with other teachers, dates which never seem to get past an occasional kiss in the car on the way home.

Lora then, like her brother, is a shining piece of 1950s virtue. She a teacher, he a fighter against crime, they each serve society in their own way and each lives a life of quiet honesty and decency.

Bill’s new wife is named Alice Steele, she is a Hollywood wardrobe assistant, already a profession a world away from those of Bill and Lora. She comes apparently without family, without a past, the only guests from her side at the wedding being a few coworkers. Thus we have the three central characters of this work, Bill, Lora and Alice. But really, this is a novel about Lora and Alice, Bill has no narrative voice, he is bordering on a mere McGuffin, it is Lora’s jealousy of Alice’s usurping her place in Bill’s life that drives the narrative of this novel. Alice is Lora’s antithesis, or at least seems to be such, as the novel progresses however it becomes increasingly apparent that the women have more in common than perhaps Lora is willing to admit.

Abbott evokes the 1950s in a number of ways, but one of the key methods she uses is by reference to the things which Alice acquires as wedding gifts and in her attempts to be the perfect bride and perfect housewife. Alice is hungry for normality, to belong to the perfect world which Bill represents, and the purchase and consumption of things is a key part of how she pursues her goal.

So, by way of wedding gifts and objects Alice orders for her new home with Bill, we have:

“A full set of smooth pink and gray Russel Wright everyday dinnerware, my mother’s Haviland china in English Rose, a series of copper fish Jell-O Molds, a large twelve slice chrome toaster, a nest of Pyrex mixing bowls, a gleaming bar set, tumblers, old-fashioneds, and martini glasses with gold-leaf diamonds studding the rims, a bedroom set with soft, dove gray, silk quilted coverlets, matching lamps with dove gray porcelain gazelles as their bases, a vanity with a round mirror and a silver deco base, a delicate stool of wrought curlicues holding up a pale peach heart seat cushion, a tightly stuffed and sleekly lined sofa, love seat, and leather wing chairs in the living room, with its green trim, jungle-patterned curtains, and a large brass cage in which a parrot named Bluebeard lived.”

A few pages later, as Alice settles into her new role as Bill’s wife, we get a similar list – this time of presents the neighbourhood wives buy each other. Much later, as Alice throws an oriental themed party, we see Japanese paper lanterns, vases with moon lilies and bamboo stalks, hanging temple bells and much, much more. What is noticeable about the sentence quoted above (and it is just one sentence), and the similar description a few pages later in the novel, is the sheer volume of goods and the way in which as a reader one starts to get lost in the description. There are no full stops, no pauses, simply a wave of consumer desirables washing over and representing a life which can be bought and which being bought is made perfect. It is the 1950s dream, a litany of sorts, it is also of course written from the perspective of Lora and as such is also a litany of that which another woman has and which she does not. Additionally, for a woman of the 1950s and with the choices available to women in that age, the acquisition of these objects is a form of success – a form of achievement which other women will envy and which forms one of the few tangible goals (beyond children) open to them.

At the same time as we encounter these lists of objects, we also see Alice settling into her new life, a life she throws herself into with a level of energy and enthusiasm which soon makes her the most popular and arguably the most successful wife in the neighbourhood. Alice appears driven, being the perfect wife is everything to her, her very ambition to be so perfect itself starts to make us suspicious of what she is driving away from and as she chats with Lora she makes passing references to a childhood which seems far from the perfection she now seeks to establish.

We also encounter what will be one of the most commonly recurring elements of the novel, the gap between surfaces and interiors, the divide between the façade presented to the world and the decay which it masks within. We first see this one evening when Lora has slept over in the spare room, rising during the night she encounters Alice reading in the living room:

“I stop suddenly at the archway and find myself stifling a tight gasp. Under the harsh lamp, in sharp contrast to the dark room, her eyes look strangely eaten through. The eyes of a death mask, rotting behind the gleaming façade.”

Later, after they have spoken for a while, the conversation turns to Alice’s past and an anecdote of childhood which turns uncomfortably to past horrors:

“As Alice tells me this, I turn away from her. I stare hard at my hands, wrung around each other. I am afraid to look over at her because I know what I will see. I will see her eyes turning, always turning to rot.”

Eyes feature large in this novel, eyes which are “glossy, dark like brine, fixed and waiting”, eyes “like bullet holes”, “twitching, blinking eyes”, “guilty eyes”, the wide open and beautiful eyes of a murdered woman who had seen far too much in her life. Characters stare out of photos, eyes lock together, eyes act as reflective surfaces behind which nothing can be seen or as apertures to the fearful and decayed interiors that people do not wish the world to see.

Similarly, mouths become “like a wound”, “give way to a gray-blackness like something has crawled inside them and died there”, lipstick becomes the “bleeding edge of her painted mouth”.

Abbott describes characters not just in terms of physical appearance, but also in terms of the clothes they wear (which generally reflect the way they wish society to perceive them, teacher, executive, good-time girl) and on more than one occasion the colognes they use. Lora notices how men smell, the warm and peppery scent of Bill’s aftershave, the (also) peppery cologne of Mike Standish – a studio publicity man that Alice introduces Lora to and with whom Lora embarks on a physical affair.

And that takes me to another key strand of the novel. Just as we see Alice embracing Lora’s world, the world of clam bakes and good neighbours and ultimately even getting a job as a teacher at Lora’s school, so too Lora starts to be drawn to Alice’s world. Alice wants a life like that Lora possesses, and acquires it to a degree with the acquisition of Lora’s brother. Lora was happy with that life, but has more in common with Alice than she admits to herself and is increasingly drawn to the darkness that Alice introduces her to.

Until Alice, Lora’s life has been one of propriety, but with the arrival of Alice she meets some of Alice’s old friends and acquaintances, many of whom are distinctly disreputable. She meets Mike Standish, a “clean and cool container of a man”. By a short distance into the novel, Lora is sleeping with Mike, but shows no interest in advancing their relationship on to any deeper or more conventional footing. Lora meets Lois, a minor actress and B-girl and an old friend of Alice. Joe Avalon, a Hollywood fixer though exactly what he fixes is not too clear. As Lora becomes embroiled with these people from Alice’s world, so too Alice starts to have an impact on the people in Lora’s.

As the novel progresses, we see then two worlds colliding, the world of Hollywood sleaze and corruption and the world of suburban virtue and public service. We see too that Lora, for all she starts in the world of virtue and service, has darkness waiting within her and we become uncomfortably aware that Lora is not a heroine, that in fact there is no hero or heroine. Alice is a femme fatale, a classic one, fully formed and quite traditional in that. Lora is more interesting, in her we see the birth of a femme fatale, something I don’t recall seeing in any other noir or hardboiled novel, we see Lora moving from being a girl next door to a woman who wants to meet “men with smooth cheeks smelling of tangy lime aftershave, who would order you a gin and soda before you even knew you wanted one.”

Glossy surfaces, whisky with soda from a “smooth green bottle”, men in sharply pressed suits who smell as good as they look, consumer goods in abundance, Hollywood and suburban perfection side by side. And, at the same time, eyes and mouths that open only on to decay, rot and emptiness. In a sense, this is a depiction of a cancerous society, still beautiful on the outside but rotting away inside with reeking breath that is increasingly difficult to conceal.

I have, deliberately, said little about the plot. It is giving away little to say that Lora sets out to investigate this new woman in her brother’s life, that she becomes a sort of amateur (very amateur, happily she doesn’t suddenly transform into Sam Spade) detective and that she does not like what she finds very much. But really, it is a novel about two women, both of them passionate and intelligent and both of them with very firm ideas of what they want and few limits as to what they will do to achieve it. It is noir, there are no heroes, no paladins fighting for an elusive justice. Here there are simply clever animals driven by lust and greed and fear.

All that said, Lora does of course present the story, and in doing so though she does not quite make herself the hero she does manage to show a tremendous talent for self-justification in respect of every decision she takes, no matter how questionable some might seem. For all that I would not call her an unreliable narrator, it is true that there are times we see more than she might wish us to and perhaps more than she is willing to see herself, but there is also always the suspicion that she understands herself in ways that she is not prepared to directly voice.

Die a Little is a quick read, I read it in one sitting while flying between London and Madrid and I am not persuaded it would benefit from being spread over many days (I’m not persuaded many good pulp novels would actually, it’s not the nature of the form). There are places where I felt the technique possibly a little obvious, where I could see as a reader how Abbott as a writer was looking to achieve certain effects, but that may be as much a fault of this blog (in making me overanalytical) as it is of Abbott and certainly I intend to buy her other novels when they reach the UK (not least given that the same criticism could easily be made of Spillane). Only once did I feel jarred from period, when the word “homemaker” was used when I would have thought housewife still the period expression, but that’s a harsh quibble and generally I thought the period well evoked and brought to life, as indeed was LA itself in all its seedy glory.

Above all, I found it interesting to read a noir novel from a female perspective, a novel of constrained lives and choices, lives defined in large part by relationships with men, a novel of female desire and female ambitions and of determined women unwilling to compromise. It is a novel which includes dark pasts, illicit pornography, sex (which is never directly described, classic noir referred to sex but did not depict the act itself, the importance is in the passion and its consequences, not the practical detail), death and all manner of vice, but in which the most terrible truth of all is that “The hardest thing in this world is finding out what you’re capable of.”

As I said at the opening of this blog entry, this is a genre novel. However, it is a novel which understands the genre it is part of, which embraces that genre and which celebrates it. James Ellroy helped reinvigorate the classic noir of novelists such as James Cain or the extraordinary Horace McCoy. Ellroy’s novels are brutal, staccato affairs full of casual violence and graceless lives. Die a Little is not that sort of novel, these characters would not fit well into an Ellroy novel and the focus is more on the personal than the historical, but this does share with early Ellroy an immediacy and a paciness which marks good pulp noir and which I found refreshing and which reminded me of quite why I am as fond of pulp literature as I am.


Filed under Abbott, Megan, California, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir

When a bullet enters a human being, it has hysterics. As if it knows it shouldn’t be there.

My desire to avoid biography in this blog continues to prove impractical, so it goes.

When I was about 16 or so, I ran into a boy in my school that I didn’t normally spend time with. We chatted briefly, and he mentioned that he was reading the then latest Martin Amis novel. He made references to other Amis’ novels, and in so doing exercised an effortless literary superiority over my own, less cerebral, reading. Nobody is as status conscious as an adolescent.

So, keen not to appear uncultured I started reading Amis, and happily I enjoyed his work. Dead Babies, Success, The Rachel Papers, Money – which was a complete tour de force, I read pretty much everything he had then written (save possibly Other People, I can’t see why I wouldn’t have read it, but I have absolutely no memory of it). After Money, five years passed before Amis published his next novel (London Fields) and during that time I lost the habit of reading him and came to view him (quite unfairly) as a writer associated with adolescence, an English JD Salinger. That wasn’t a conscious judgement, more an association.

Fast forward more years than I could have imagined when I first encountered Amis, and I saw a review of Night Train on Trevor Berrett’s excellent literary blog The Mookse and the Gripes Trevor’s review caught my attention, and left me wondering if I had wrongly been ignoring a writer with much still to commend him.

For those losing patience with this biographical discursion, the short answer is that Amis still reads well and that Night Train specifically is a good novel but not I think a great one, due primarily to flaws in its narrative voice. Incidentally, I’m presently reading Caledonia Sputnik, which contains references both to Rothsea and to Ayr, both locations closely associated with my childhood. I may not be seeking to write any biography here, but biography appears to be seeking me.

Moving back to the novel itself, Night Train is a work of hardboiled/noir fiction, playing (as noir so often does) with ideas of meaning and existence. Those who know me will know that I tend to distinguish fairly firmly between hard boiled and noir fiction as separate sub-genres, this genuinely straddles the two and indeed I suspect this may be intentional as a hardboiled protagonist discovers to their horror that they are in fact in a noir novel.

In essence, Night Train is the story of an investigation into an apparent suicide which may in fact be a murder. Jennifer Rockwell, daughter of a senior police officer, has a life of as near to perfection as one can imagine. She is beautiful, she is brilliant, she has rewarding work as an astrophysicist, she has a fulfilling relationship with a near-perfect man working on many worlds theory (a point, among many, which may or may not be relevant to her death). Jennifer’s life is ideal, as good as a human life can be, which raises the question of why she is found naked in her bedroom apparently having shot herself three times through the roof of her mouth. Jennifer’s father, Colonel Tom Rockwell (generally referred to as Colonel Tom), asks old friend of the family Detective Mike Hoolihan to investigate his daughter’s death, “Because any outcome, yes, any at all, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, cannibalism, marathon tortures of Chinese ingenuity, of Afghan lavishness, any outcome was better than the other thing. Which was his daughter putting the .22 in her mouth and pulling the trigger three times.”

As ever, I don’t intend to write here anything which would constitute a serious plot spoiler, although I can (happily?) reassure you that the denouement is as bleak and depressing as one would expect from a work of noir fiction. Although this is not really as much of a plot driven novel as are many works of crime fiction, the plot is still important and Amis skilfully paces out developments within the narrative in a way that could still potentially be damaged. I don’t think, however, it is giving much away to say that this novel moves quickly from a whodunnit into a whydunnit. The question is not really how Jennifer met her death, it is why. Equally, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear to Detective Mike Hoolihan that she herself is as much a part of the narrative of Jennifer’s death as anyone else. This is a novel where the why becomes disturbingly personal, where Jennifer’s death carries a message which if not intended expressly for Detective Hoolihan nonetheless becomes increasingly directed at her.

My use of her in that last paragraph is quite intentional, Detective Mike Hoolihan is a woman. We discover this in the first paragraph, and though the fact of her having a male name is explored briefly in a (thankfully short) element of Hoolihan’s backstory it’s never really explained. Hoolihan does not just have a man’s name, she has a voice that sounds male due to years of heavy smoking and hard alcoholism, she has a heavy frame and from behind is mistaken as a man. She is a woman, but she seems like a man, and seeming is important in this novel. As such, there is to some extent a thematic purpose to the odd choice of name, but for me it was nonetheless a jarring element and the naming of characters in several parts of the novel proved something of a barrier to me in engaging with it. I didn’t really buy a woman detective called Mike, Jennifer’s perfect boyfriend is called Trader Faulkner and Trader seemed to me a bizarre first name (and one with no evident thematic elements I noticed), Colonel Tom seemed an odd thing for Mike to call Jennifer’s father, I could have seen Tom or Colonel Rockwell or just plain Colonel but Colonel Tom seemed unlikely. It’s not a major point, but to some extent it created a slight air of falseness to me, a reminder I was reading a novel.

And, to stick to criticisms for the moment, it is the voice of the novel where most of its problems are found. Martin Amis is an English writer, here writing from the point of view of an American character. For me, he didn’t always wholly succeed in convincing. For example, and I may be wrong in this, at one point Hoolihan uses the epithet “shite” which for me is a profoundly Scottish swearword. Do Americans actually use that word? Perhaps they do, but I have never heard one do so and whether they do or not when I encountered it I was thrown out of the novel wondering at the accuracy of the narrative voice. Worse yet, at one point in a conversation between state raised and ill-educated Mike Hoolihan and the urbane and highly educated Trader Faulkner I lost track of which character was speaking. I had to reread the passage, and it was only by noting which sentences referenced concepts in astrophysics I was able to work out which character had which lines. Falseness crept in at other places too, a Detective Sergeant who praises a report by saying “it’s goddamn Cicero versus Robespierre” – I have no issue with a Detective Sergeant who knows both, but I doubt many would address a squadroom with comparisons of that kind.

In general then, the narrative voice didn’t wholly persuade me, at times I was reminded I was reading a novel (a big sin in my personal book of literary failings) and at times I found the literary elements of the novel directly clashing with its success as a genre work, and this is not a book which could fail as genre but succeed as literature in my view.

All of which sounds fairly damning, but overall I liked the book and thought it worth reading. Partly because although some stylistic elements I thought failed, others worked far better, and partly because it is an ambitious book which deals in some large and serious themes in a short space and I found that ambition in itself refreshing.

Returning to style, at his best Amis is a spectacular writer of prose. His style in this book is suitably pithy, sentences are brief and to the point, descriptions short and precise, his prose is hardboiled and (unlike recent Ellroy novels) he knows to keep the work short so that the brevity of his prose does not become in itself predictable and so a barrier to the story. From time to time I noted page references for text I might quote as examples of his skill, about half way I stopped bothering, Amis is too good a writer for that to be a worthwhile approach. Some examples:

Hoolihan’s early refutation of loneliness: Is that Tobe now, starting up the stairs? Or is it the first rumour of the night train? The building always seems to hear it coming, the night train, and braces itself as soon as it hears in the distance that desparate cry.
I don’t live alone. I don’t live alone. I live with Tobe.”

A detective on the presumption of suicide: “You shoot yourself once in the mouth. That’s life. You shoot yourself twice. Hey. Accidents happen. You shoot yourself three times. You got to really want to go.”

A description of Colonel Tom: “He is shrinking. His desk is big anyway but now it looks like an aircraft carrier. And his face like a little gun turret, with its two red panic buttons. He isn’t getting better.”

At a funeral: “We held each other – partly for the warmth, because the sun itself felt cold that day, like a ball of yellow ice, chilling the sky.”

Amis is an accomplished writer. The failings of this novel described above are real, but they are only part of the picture. The novel is full also of superbly written prose which is in keeping with the genre Amis is writing within but which does not compromise his talent in the process of adapting to that new genre (adapting to genre can be peculiarly hard for literary fiction authors, whose prose style often struggles to work within the new framework).

Perhaps more interestingly, the novel is also an exploration of ideas. Issues such as the meaning of life and of existence itself, of our place in the universe, of our desire to impose a human meaning on the universe, of the gap between what we are and what we imagine ourselves to be in the personal narratives we craft of our lives.

Taking that last point first, a constant theme in the novel is that of appearances, of how things are and how things appear to be, of how what we expect determines what we do and say. The police in this novel are influenced by generations of films and tv shows, their conversations warped by their own expectation of their parts drawn from those media. Hoolihan seems at times almost to consider herself on tv (or in a novel), and police act in ways informed by their own expectations of how others expect them to act. Similarly, Jennifer’s boss is looking for data in star charts which may not be present, his own expectations of the universe and his desire to outperform Princeton being of more relevance to him than the actual data itself. We impose pattern in accordance with the stories we tell ourselves.

As well as the world of appearances, the novel also speaks to the world of actuality, the final third of the novel is titled “The Seeing”, a reference to Jennifer’s work in astrophysics and the desire to bring clarity to the sky, to see reality as it really is and to see in that reality where we fit within it. Jennifer’s boss speaks of how she was comfortable viewing the universe as it really is, the vanguard of a revolution in consciousness, that she was liberated by the possession of a truth from which most prior generations of humanity were barred, a truth about the nature of the universe and an understanding of how petty our everday concerns are in the light of that.

This is big stuff, material alien to the traditional concerns of the crime novel and more commonly addressed within sf. It is ambitious material to address in this way, and for me I found much to enjoy in finding these classic sf themes addressed in a new way and within a new genre.

Indeed, and at risk of giving much away to those reading this who know their sf, the novel reminded me strongly in places of the Larry Niven short story All the Myriad Ways about a detective investigating a string of seemingly motiveless crimes (available online in full at and also of the Stanislaw Lem detective novel (again a writer operating outside his normal genre) The Chain of Chance in which a former astronaut investigates a series of mysterious and again apparently motiveless deaths (the Lem novel is in my view the better written of those two, Lem is a literary great deserving of wider recognition – I don’t think he is now that well known outside of his native Poland, but the Niven story is fun and makes its point in very little space, a strength of Niven’s). If Night Train interests you, these others may also (the Niven is workmanlike in its prose, but is brief and to the point. The Lem I recommend highly).

Another comparator is Dashiel Hammet’s 1923 short story The Tenth Clew (available in full online at In the Night Train, Hoolihan finds many clues to Jennifer’s death and its causes, really too many. There is the many worlds research, Jennifer’s work on physics and cosmology, a possible affair, a possible drug connection, a book on suicide hidden in her bedroom, an out of character act at work, clues abound, but none are very helpful. Hoolihan’s job is the same as Jennifer’s was, she has to sift through an ocean of data in order to achieve the seeing, in order to see past the data and the patterns it suggests to the underlying reality. As a detective, Hoolihan is recapitulating Jennifer’s work as a physicist, a parallel which Amis very clearly intends to draw out. It is also clear that the truth may not be palatable, that the act of seeing is a dangerous one, that it may be safer to exist within the patterns we ourselves impose upon the data.

For a 149 page novel the above is plenty, but there are of course (as always with good books) elements I have barely touched upon. The use of the night train itself as a constant metaphor (for a variety of things) through the book, the skilfully drawn relationships between Hoolihan and the various men in her life, Hoolihan herself (despite the brief problem with the dialogue with Trader I discuss above) is a well drawn character who fits comfortably within the hardboiled canon. The tragedy for Hoolihan, as I noted early in this blog entry, is that she is good at her job and that she is not in fact in a hardboiled novel. Hoolihan follows Jennifer’s trail, sees through the patterns and uncovers the truth, she takes a ride on the night train and it is as Hoolihan tells us from the beginning a train on which there are only one way tickets.

As a final aside, the cover of the version I read is that pictured in the Book Depository link below (as at the time of writing anyway). It is one of Vintage’s covers, which sometimes succeed and sometimes fail (and I applaud Vintage for choosing to take that risk with their covers). Here, for me, it succeeds with a cover that looks hand-written in cheap biro, begrimed, ink-smudged and with a doodled cigarette beneath Amis’ name. It is a bleak and dreary cover, the letters of the title suggestive of forward movement but also looking vaguely as if cut from a magazine. I rather liked it.


Filed under Amis, Martin, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir