Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Blue Room, by Georges Simenon

9780141399041
Penguin, 2015
originally published as La chambre bleue, 1964
Translated by Linda Coverdale
156 pp

paperback

"How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more -- and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle...?"

A hot sunny day in August, a hotel room, and two people have just finished making love, "bodies still flushed with sensation and minds slightly dazed."  Caught up in his own sort of post-sex floatiness, haze, afterglow -- whatever you want to call it -- Tony Falcone is dabbing at the blood on his lip where his lover/mistress over the past eleven months, Andrée Despierre has bitten him, barely listening to her and quietly responding as she asks him a series of questions, words that to him "hardly mattered," since for him, "They were talking for the pleasure of it, as one does after making love..."  and
"Right now, nothing seemed important to him -- he felt good, in tune with the universe."
Still in this frame of mind, where "only the present mattered,"  halfheartedly listening to Andrée, she asks him if he could really spend the rest of his life with her, and he, in a non-thinking sort of way answers "Sure..."  But his happiness is interrupted when looking out the window overlooking the Place de Gare in the town of Triant, he sees something that causes him to grab his clothes, run out of the room and head to his car -- Andrée's husband Nicolas, who is heading right for the hotel.  It may seem that Tony's managed to escape, but in reality, he's already trapped in a nightmare. He just doesn't know it yet. 

However, we know that something has happened just three pages in as Tony describes a "psychiatrist appointed by the examining magistrate" asking him questions about that day, and "studying his reactions."  It's that series of questions, the conversation between Andrée and Tony that he is asked to remember, but why we don't exactly know.  It is that scene which he will be called upon to "relive ten, twenty times and more -- ... every time in a different frame of mind and from a different angle." And indeed, the conversation crops up several times throughout this story, and as we begin to learn what has happened that puts Tony in front of an examining magistrate, it takes on more meaning each time.

But Tony, who is married to a wife he loves and has a young child, struggles to make everyone understand about his affair with Andrée and the blue room, where for him,
"nothing was real. Or rather, its reality was of a different nature, incomprehensible anywhere else." 
Outside of that space they'd never been a couple; as he says, "they were an 'us' only in a bed" there.  For him, their lovemaking was intoxicating; both shared "an animal pleasure" he'd never known with any other woman.  She is, to Tony, the fulfillment of his sexual desire and passion.  But more importantly, as things progress, we hear from Tony that no one can really understand the present without an understanding of the past.  As he says,
"They thought, all these people in Poitiers, policemen, magistrates, doctors, even that unnerving lady psychologist, that they were going to establish the truth, when they knew nothing about the Despierres, the Formiers, and so many others who were important in their own ways."
As in most of his work, Simenon launches us quickly into the past, which ties directly to the present while the principals try to get to the truth.  But we are quick to learn that truth here isn't exactly absolute -- although Tony tries to be as honest and candid as possible, past and present circumstances are "True and false, like all the rest of it."   But the author does something more here, taking us beyond the past and present into the future, and does it so skillfully that it just becomes part of the flow even as he makes the shifts.

 With Simenon's gift for detail, his focus on human nature and his characters, his ability to produce a sort of claustrophobic atmosphere that only becomes more confining as time goes on, and his excellent economy of prose where every word, every phrase is carefully measured and never wasted, The Blue Room  offers an intense study of a man who unwittingly creates his own hell and becomes trapped, with no possibility of escape;  as he is continuously questioned, he is also forced to face his own role and his own responsibility for what has happened.

The length of this book might fool you into thinking that you can buzz through it in a day, but don't do it.  There is so much going on here and it needs to be given your utmost attention because everything, and I do mean everything in this story matters.  I did about 40 pages per day just to absorb it all, and even after a second read, I'm sure there's much more that I could get out of it.  It is, quite frankly, genius writing, but then again, most of Simenon's books are.

Beyond highly recommended, especially for readers who want a challenge and who want to take the time to get underneath what seems to be a fairly cut-and-dried story. Trust me -- it is anything but.




Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding x 2: Widow's Mite and Who's Afraid?

9781944520342
Stark House Press, 2018
263 pp

paperback

As always, I have to begin by thanking the lovely people at Stark House Press for my copy of this book.  The work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is not very well known among today's crime/mystery readers, but Stark House has made a great effort to get her work out there, publishing a whopping sixteen of her mystery novels (of which I plan to buy the eleven I don't have) in volumes consisting of two novels each. 

It is genuinely a shame that this author's work has been left to fade into obscurity.  She was championed by the great Raymond Chandler who said, as we learn from The Guardian,  that for his money, "she's the top suspense writer of them all," and that "Her characters are wonderful."   Writing in the introduction to this book, Gregory Shepard notes that Holding is
"the precursor to the entire women's psychological suspense genre, and authors like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell owe her a very large debt of gratitude."  
And indeed, we do.  I was looking over Amazon reviews of some of Holding's novels, and there was one that complained that Holding should "show, not tell," which sort of threw me for a loop for a minute, since evidently the reader didn't read carefully or just plain missed the point.  Holding shows plenty, but it's what goes on in the minds of her characters that holds the most importance in her stories -- as the intro says, it's the "psychological underpinnings" that "form the basis of the mystery."  I easily figured that out on my own while reading, since I didn't read this book's introduction until I'd turned the last page.  And without getting too deep into either, both novels in this volume center on the old adage of "oh what a tangled web we weave ..." with  the respective main characters hedging about telling the truth about what they know about the crimes.   They each have their own motivations for doing so and their lies send them down a rather slippery slope, but again, while they know that (quoting the introduction again) that " 'There ought to be simply a right thing to do, or a wrong thing,' ..." Holding knows human nature well enough that she also realizes that "this is never the case, that it's never that simple."



from Pop Sensation


In Widow's Mite (originally published 1953),  single mom/widow Tilly MacDonald is at the home of her cousin Sibyl Fleming with her young son Robert.  Sibyl is high strung, she isn't the nicest of people, and Tilly is dreading the thought of being alone with her, especially after Sibyl knocks back a few drinks when she would
"either cry, about the ingratitude, the treachery, the intrigues against her, or she would become arrogant and domineering."
 On the particular day that begins this novel, Sibyl decides she needs a nap, and despite Tilly's warning to the contrary, also decides that she needs to have one of her pills to help her sleep.  There's one left, so Tilly hands it over and Sibyl falls asleep pretty much right away.  Tilly's surprised that it took so little time for the pill to work, but she goes out to be with her son Robert before the arrival of other guests at the house.  But later, in the middle of the party, when someone goes to check on Sibyl who hasn't come downstairs yet, they discover that Sibyl's not asleep, but dead.  When the police arrive, and  Tilly learns that Sibyl's death came about as a result of cyanide poisoning, she's in a quandary -- if she reveals that it was she who gave Sibyl that last pill, the police might believe she had killed her, and then who would be left to take care of her little boy?  It doesn't help that other weirdness is going on all around her, done by someone intent on putting the blame on her shoulders.  And of course, there's much much more in this novel that touches on other issues, with parenting high on the list.


from Pop Sensation

This old cover of Who's Afraid (1940) says without words exactly what's going on this book, expressing what I thought the main character was going through during the course of this story.  Never mind that once again we find ourselves with a woman who has information relevant to a murder and doesn't speak up; in this book, deception is the rule of the game.  Miss Susie Alban,
age twenty-one, hasn't had much luck in finding a job; that all changes when she responds to an advertisement for a "Young lady, with unquestionable social and cultural background."  She is found by her prospective employer, Mr. Chiswick, to be "exactly the type he had had in mind" for the job, which was to sell his correspondence course, which "offered to the Women of America a system for developing the individual charm that lies dormant in each of you."  Gateways is the name of program, and the job requires Susie to travel to different cities and sell the program to the more prominent women of the area.   On her first outing, she is on the train to South Fairfield where she meets four different men who show her attention; she is convinced to change hotel plans and instead stay at a local boarding house.  All seems well, right up until the moment when the group leaves the train, when we read this:
"I'll have to get rid of this girl, one of the four men in the car was thinking."
And oh, did I ever perk up here.  Note -- there's no name, no description except for "one of the four men in the car," so we have our first mystery. Who is speaking, and why does he feel a need to "get rid of this girl?"  But wait, there's more.  The first appointment scheduled for Susie is at the home of a Mrs. Person, who along with her husband Mr. Person, doesn't seem too put out to see her, that is, right up until she mentions the name of her employer, Mr. Chiswick.  At that moment, Mr. Person screams at her to get out, threatening to kill Mr. Chiswick before he slams the door. Walking home in the dark, Susie meets up with one of the men she'd met earlier on the train but only after she stumbles upon a body lying near the trees on the side of the road, whom, it turns out, is the same Mr. Person that had so rudely thrown her out.  While the landlord of Susie's boarding house gets pinned for the crime, Susie holds information that she decides against giving to the police, and makes her way to the next town on her schedule, where once again her prospective client goes crazy with the mention of Mr. Chiswick, and once again she meets up with the men she'd met on the train.  But which of them is the killer? Why is he following her?  Why will she not believe that she is in some sort of danger even though she is told more than once?  And what's up with the mysterious Mr. Chiswick?   The answers to these questions will absolutely not be divulged until the very end.

Who's Afraid? is my favorite of the two, although both seriously and most intensely held me until the last pages.  I'll admit that in the cases of both women, I found myself almost yelling at the pages because I was so completely frustrated at times, thinking "why don't you just listen?" or "just tell and get it over with."  But Sanxay Holding's not going to let us off so easily here and that's the key to reading her work -- it's all about what's in our characters' heads and all about how their decisions take them nearly to the point of no return, usually at some sort of personal peril or some sort of consequence to the people in their immediate orbit.   Quite honestly, I love her books so far -- they may seem somewhat tame in comparison of those of Highsmith or Rendell, but then again, it's very easy to see how she laid the foundations for their work with her own. And now that Stark House Press has made her books once more available, serious crime readers are fortunate to have easy access to them.  This woman's legacy and her books deserve much more than to remain  sadly forgotten and unread.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Cult X, by Fuminori Nakamura

9781616957865
Soho Crime, 2018
originally published 2014
translated by Kalau Almony
505 pp

hardcover
The key word is patience with this novel; my own was sorely tested more than once but in the long run, once you get what's going on underneath all of the action here, it's definitely worth the read.  I'm going to just spit this out -- I've enjoyed other books by this author much more than I did this one; for example, his The Thief is the novel that kept me buying books by this author;  Evil and the Mask is just plain great,  and Last Winter We Parted  is also excellent.  Then again, Cult X takes a decidedly different turn than Nakamura's other books, so it's sort of unfair to line it up with its predecessors. 

As the story begins, Toru Narazaki is at a bar with another guy, Kobayashi, who we learn very quickly is a private investigator.  It seems that Kobayashi was hired to find a missing woman by the name of Ryoko Tachibana, who had
"vanished from Narazki's life, who had hinted at suicide and then disappeared."
 Some weeks earlier, he'd seen her, but rather than actually talk to her, he opted to tail her, and she'd led him to an old apartment building.  Now she's gone again and Narazaki is looking for her himself. One thing he knows for sure is that Ryoko had been part of a group that "seemed to be some sort of religious organization," though not registered as such. He makes his way to the mansion where the group meets with a plan to "pretend I'm interested" while asking questions about the missing woman "a little at a time." The group is headed by Matsuo, whose group is focused more on eastern philosophical teachings and pondering such questions as "Is there a god?", not at all the "religious fringe organization"  Narazaki had imagined.  He also realizes that it was likely that the missing woman wouldn't have been "involved with this kind of group" and wonders why she "had to vanish."  But we learn something very interesting here as well, which will have a bearing on later events:  he'd actually
"hoped to stumble into something wilder, something that would change him completely. Something that would make him lose all concern for morals and ethics and the confused human condition. Something that would obliterate him and the life he had lived until now."
Eventually he is led by a woman in the group claiming to know Ryoko's whereabouts to a sort of rival group without a name, known only as Cult X. The journey there was strange enough, complete with sheets over the car windows so he couldn't know his final destination, but once he gets there, he finds a group that prefers more earthly, fleshly matters to those connected to the spiritual.  It isn't too long until Narazaki is taken under the wing of the leader who tells him somewhat cryptically  "I need you."   It's here that things truly begin in earnest; it is the beginning of a what could become a long descent into hell.  And then, there's a revealing twist to look forward to about the leader himself....

Buddhist hell painting,  Jigoku, from Gokuraku as depicted in the inside covers of Cult X,  For more details, you can go to Yokai

The barebones outline here might lead you to wonder why there are over 500 pages if that's all there is to it, but trust me, I haven't even begun to approach what's in this book.  For one thing, there are Matsuo's lectures, which reflect how his approach to the philosophies he's teaching stem from an earlier period of his life.  In contrast with the peaceful, soul-searching approach taken by his group, we also come to understand why the leader of Cult X has chosen his way, with stories also linked to his past.  Contrasts also appear in the members of each group, which also lead to an understanding of why people would be so willing to join cults in the first place.   All of that is wonderfully done, and weird person that I am (and it also might have something to do with the fact that I had a minor field of religious studies with an emphasis on Asian religions and philosophy), I actually enjoyed the backstories and the lectures much, much more than the elements that eventually turn this book into a thriller; having said that, I did find the story of the leader of Cult X kind of long in the telling.  But what I enjoyed most was the focus on religion and nationalism, and what Mr. Nakamura has to say about predatory capitalism,  because he's totally spot on.    Reading what some other readers thought about this book though, I see I am somewhat of the lone stranger here in that sense. 

I also have to give space to parts of the book that seriously infuriated me.  My biggest issue is that while I understand sex is a commonly-used tool of submission in many cults, a point that is hammered home here again and again, do we seriously to be witness to a rape, or do we really need six and a half pages describing wet lady parts, finger sucking, etc. etc.?  I mean, jeez, I'm not a prude and sex is part of most novels these days, but I found it all to be so unnecessary.    One more thing: I'm not a huge fan of thrillers because usually some of the elements involved are pretty out there, and I found that to be the case in this book.   And while I could buy some of the thriller elements here, and I did get somewhat caught up in the building suspense, there was one part of the plan in particular that was just too much, that made me do the internal eyeroll while thinking "yeah, like that could happen," with the sarcastic tone very loud in my head.  However, I did think that the author made his point about why people are drawn to extremism, and did an excellent job of it. 

I will recommend this book, but a) prepare to be in for the long haul and b) beware of the male-dominated mindset that permeates Cult X that is not at all pretty.





Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Syndicate, by Clarence Cooper, Jr.

9781948596046
Molotov Editions, 2018
originally published 1960
140 pp

paperback: my many, many thanks to  Dominic Stansberry at Molotov Editions for my copy of this book.


"It was no use trying to get around the facts: something was wrong with me. And whatever it was was scary as hell..."


June 15th, three days from now, the small press Molotov editions will be releasing The Syndicate, by Clarence Cooper.  It's highly likely that regular readers of crime fiction have never heard of Clarence Cooper, who wrote this book in 1960 under the pseudonym of Robert Chestnut.  He had written another book prior to this one, which, as the back cover blurb reveals, "was a literary sensation."  The Syndicate, however, was seen as "too raw,"  a negative that would have been "possibly damaging" to Cooper's writing career, hence the name change.

 Clarence Cooper has also been neglected among scholars of African-American crime fiction,  because even in a quick survey of four different reference books I have that pertain to the topic,  Cooper's name turns up in only one.  And even there, in Justin Gifford's  excellent Pimping Fictions: African-American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, Cooper is acknowledged only as one of a "number of black crime fiction authors who were contemporaries of Chester Himes," who have "remained off the radar of most literary and cultural scholars" (180).   That is a shame, really, since if The Syndicate is an example of what came out of this author's head, he should be much better known than he is, by readers and especially by scholars in this field.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, The Syndicate is beyond raw, reaching down into the grittiest depths of darkness as it pulls us into the mind of an extremely troubled and damaged man, Andy Sorrell.  He's been called on by his boss to take care of three men who have double crossed "the Syndicate," an organized-crime group out of New York.   Andy will be paid ten grand for his work, once he finds these crooks who had  made off with half a million dollars "rightfully" belonging to the Syndicate after a "bank job" in New Jersey.  He is then supposed to recover the money and return it to his boss.  After making his way to the coastal town of Hollisworth,
"... a solid little city, with the exception that it belongs to the syndicate, lock, stock, and barrel"
complete with crooked cops, Sorrell begins his quest at his contact's club where he literally beats the information out of a stripper,  Tina, who knows the whereabouts of one of the men he's looking for and won't talk.   Afterwards, he has a moment of regret for hurting her, but he has to focus on his targets.

His anger at Tina actually has very little to do with his anger over her not talking, but stems from the death of his pregnant girlfriend, Carolyn.  As Sorrell reveals, it was Tina
 "so closely resembling Carolyn, that's what got me. She had not right to look just like her, or to say those things like Carolyn might have said! No right!"
Sorrell is constantly haunted by Carolyn.  Early on in the story he hears her talking to him, her voice coming from the sea, telling him that he's "horrid and brutal and a murderer."  She also tells him that when he kills, he's killing "more than one person."  As she puts it,
"You're trying to kill that thing within you."
Exactly what "that thing" inside of Sorrell is is fleshed out more as the story goes along, but it's evident early on that Carolyn's death two years earlier has wounded him to the core and it has played havoc with his mind. 

The Syndicate is a twisty, brutally dark novel.   It is one of those stories where it's difficult to know who is telling the truth or who is trustworthy, since betrayals abound.  Although it's laced with violence that is hard to read at times, the plotting, the pacing and the story are all solid -- not a misstep anywhere.  Yet, aside from the plot it's what's happening within that is utterly fascinating.  We find ourselves inside the mind of a brutal killer, who knows that there's something wrong with him, and that whatever it is,
"it was getting closer and closer to me, ever since two years ago and Carolyn."
I think it's this mix of Sorrell's battles with his own inner demons and the external forces that for reasons I won't spill here want to keep him from finishing the job he's been sent to do that makes this book unique in a big way.  It's definitely not just another dime-a-dozen, enforcer-goes-looking-for-who-screwed-the-mob sort of novel -- it's the author's simultaneous attention to what's going on inside of Sorrell that elevates this book to an entirely different level.

I'll be honest here -- The Syndicate is not an easy book to read because of some of things that happen between its covers;  there were times when I had to put the novel down for a while because of incidents of brutality against women that crop up a couple of times.  However, looking at it from the point of view that there is something in Sorrell's psychological makeup that causes these things to happen makes it a bit more easy to deal with on an emotional level.

This lost crime classic that is about to reappear shortly is well worth the attention of any crime fiction reader that enjoys dark, deep, and gritty -- the back cover likens him to Jim Thompson so that pretty much tells you what you need to know regarding what you might be getting into here.

One final note:  there is an excellent article about Clarence Cooper Jr. at The Guardian , where author Tony O'Neill notes that with some of his books coming back into print, "Clarence Cooper Jr., ignored and reviled in his own lifetime, is gradually being recognised as the great American novelist he is."  Let's hope that's the case, and let's also hope that there will be more of his books made available in the near future.  I hadn't even finished this book before I went and bought his The Farm. and my hat is off to Molotov Editions for bringing this novel back into print and rescuing it from its current state of "pulp oblivion." 


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

*Detective Muller: Imperial Austrian Police, Volumes 1 and 2, by Augusta Groner

In the early 1890s, a woman in Austria who had only started writing crime in her 40s introduced a new detective, Detective Joseph Müller, a very different sort of sleuth than his British contemporary Sherlock Holmes.   His first case, "The Golden Bullet," revealed that Müller is a policeman with a heart; a man who, if he sees something worth salvaging in a criminal, he is likely to "warn his prey, once he has all proofs of the guilt and a conviction is certain"  ("The Golden Bullet", Vol. 2, 305).  His superiors despair; they know he is an excellent detective, who is "without a peer in his profession," but his "weakness" doesn't sit well with police authorities.  Strangely enough though, his talents are so valued by the very institution that won't take him on full time that they often hire him privately when a "particularly difficult case" arises.  Luckily for Müller, this very last case in his "public career" left him a man of means, because his boss had to let him go; he becomes, as the back-blurb reveals, "a member of that secret and shadowy organisation," the secret police.

It is incredibly difficult to find out much about Auguste Groner (1850-1929), which is strange, as a) she has been labeled, as Leslie Klinger tells us in his In the Shadow of Agatha Christie (2018), the "mother" of Austrian crime writing,   and b) her Müller stories remained popular for about 30 years. Even the review of Klinger's book at Open Letters Review neglects to mention her, while instead focusing on Australian and British women authors.  I went though my own collection of nonfiction books about crime writing including Barzun and Taylor, Haycraft, and even Lucy Sussex's Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre, and there is nothing written about this woman.  The only time she's even mentioned in any of my books is a brief bit in a paragraph by Stephen Knight in his Crime Fiction Since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity (2010) where he lists Groner's name (here Grüner) among contemporaries of writer Carolyn Wells, "who are now quite forgotten." (82)  Internet searching brings up little, so we just kind have to roll with what we've got, which is not much.






9780857062833
Leonaur, 2010
331 pp
paperback

Volume 1 of this "special two-volume collection" (so named by the publishers), introduces Müller before launching into four of his cases: "The Man With the Black Cord," which is actually novel length; "The Pocket Diary Found in the Snow," "The Case of the Pool of Blood in the Pastor's Study," and "The Case of the Registered Letter."  My pick for favorite in this lot is the first story, as it involves the disappearance of an elderly man right out of his own bedroom, a truly-impossible situation; an old house, an inheritance, a strange neighbor, and of course, it is a great introduction to the detective, who, as we learn here knows exactly when and what to say to a villain that "gave him his power to touch the heart of even the most abandoned criminal."  We also see him at work, learning how he plies his craft -- including using a disguise, hiring a would-be prisoner as an assistant, and lots of foot time.   My least favorite story was "The Case of the Registered Letter," but the others are challenging little puzzles that left me scratching my head, wondering how the heck our erstwhile detective was going to figure them out.




9780857062864
Leonaur, 2010
326 pp
hardcover


Volume two offers three stories: "The Lamp That Went Out", "Mene Tekel: A Tale of Strange Happenings," and ironically, the last story is actually the author's first Müller tale,  "The Golden Bullet."    The first story involves the death of a stranger, found in an area of Vienna "known to be one of the safest spots" in the city.  "The Golden Bullet" is a locked-room/impossible crime mystery, in which the murder of a prominent man drives Müller to appeal to the criminal in a most unusual way, one with which his superiors do not appreciate.   My favorite in this volume is the second story, "Mene Tekel: A Tale of Strange Happenings," which actually reminded me much more of an old, pulpy adventure tale leaning a bit on the edge of sci-fi.  Here, Müller is called upon to watch over a Scandinavian scientist (without him knowing, of course), as he sets out on a journey to test his newest invention.  This story will take the reader from England to the ruins of Babylon before it's all over, with plenty of surprises all around.  Where all of the other stories in both volumes fall more along the traditional lines of whodunits, this one requires some suspension of disbelief, and it would certainly not be out of place in an anthology of archaeological adventure-pulp fiction.  I have a deep and abiding fondness for that very thing, so this story was right up my reading alley.   Other readers may not be as happy with  it as I was, because in more than one way it roams headlong into the valley of sheer farfetchedness (I know that's not a word, but it works), but its difference from every other story in this collection (and my keen love of the strange) was the biggest draw here.


Some of Groner's Müller tales are available online and in e-reader crime collections here and there on Amazon, but as someone who prefers the feel of book in hand, I'm grateful to Leonaur for publishing  this two-volume collection of her work.   I'll look forward to hopefully finding more of her work translated into English -- Auguste Groner is sadly neglected by modern crime readers, which is an absolute shame. 

recommended for readers who enjoy discovering the work of forgotten female writers, as well as people who enjoy early detective stories that feature a different sort of sleuth.  I personally thought these books were wonderful.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter, by Lis Wiehl with Caitlin Rother

9780718092085
Thomas Nelson, 2018
336 pp

(arc: my copy from the publisher -- thanks!)

Next year it will have been fifty years since the grotesque murders that shocked America were committed by members of the Manson family.  Although five decades have passed since these killings, interest in Manson and his people hasn't waned a bit -- there are numerous books, websites, movies, tv shows, podcasts, and blogs that have captured public interest and will probably continue to do so long after the fifty-year mark has passed.   And now there's another book on the topic that is about to make its appearance, Hunting Charles Manson, written by Lis Wiehl, a very well-known legal analyst, attorney, author and reporter, along with Caitlin Rother, author, journalist, and noted crime expert.  It is the first book in a planned series of what are being called "nonfiction thrillers" that take a close look at "the awful crimes and acts of terror" of some of the worst criminals ever. 

 Briefly, Wiehl and Rother, who spent countless hours going through a multitude of sources, sitting through interviews and sifting through evidence with "fresh eyes," begin by taking their readers back through time before the Tate-La Bianca murders in 1969, introducing us first to "Charlie the Guru," where we learn that he "began collecting impressionable young women, one at a time," since his parole in 1967.   It also seems that between his release in 1967 and 1969, he had managed to completely con the Los Angeles federal probation office and everyone else up to the US Parole Board in DC, and nobody had the foggiest idea of "what he was up to", including his regular probation officer with whom he would meet repeatedly.  Even though during his meetings with his PO he admitted to several arrests for "minor offenses,"  nothing was done regarding Manson violating his probation until 1969, after the murders had occurred and Manson was hiding out in the desert, out of reach of the authorities.  As the authors note, had someone paid more attention and picked up Manson sooner for even one of these violations,  his nine victims might still be alive.   The story continues on through the investigations into the murders of Gary Hinman, the horrific killings at the house on Cielo Drive, and the La Bianca murders; it also takes us through mistakes made by the Los Angeles police and the LA Sheriff's Department (failure to coordinate information, or to even see patterns connecting the murders even though the press pointed them out),  the arrests and information that led to the trials, and finally on into the sentencing and the parole hearings, and the lingering effects on the families left behind.  The authors also examine various theories that were rejected in favor of the "Helter Skelter" motive that ultimately had its day in court. 

Considering that this book is the first in a series that examines the cases of some of the worst criminals in the world, I think it's fair to say that readers expecting a new,  in-depth, minutely-detailed account of the Manson Family and their crimes should realize that this book doesn't really go there.  One reason they give for writing this book the way they do is to  "bring readers to the present day with as much new information as possible,"  so that they can "tell the story afresh, not rehash the prosecution's narrative as relayed by Vincent Bugliosi in Helter Skelter."  They manage this very nicely, in part, by examining a number of factors that collided within this group of people such as mental illness, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and most especially the vulnerabilities in the lives of the young women and men  who were involved with Manson that allowed him to gain so much control over their lives.  We still may not grasp the "whys" of it all, but the story as related here by these two women still has the power to chill even though it all happened nearly fifty years ago. 










Tuesday, May 22, 2018

I dare you to come out of these unscathed: The Factory series, by Derek Raymond

"The black novel ... describes men and women whose circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed.  It deals with the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle -- the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfillable, and where defeat is certain." 
            -- Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files, as quoted by James Sallis in the introduction to He Died With His Eyes Open (x).


note:  My editions, with the exception of Dead Man Upright are all from Serpent's Tail (bought eons ago), but Melville House has them all as part of their International Crime Series.

This is going to be a long post since it's going to be about five books. There are no spoilers at all, beyond what's already on the cover blurbs.  And since I don't really write reviews, I'll point you to people who know what they're doing and who are good at it:

Derek Raymond's Factory Novels, by Jeff VanderMeer
Doors Closing Slowly: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels, by Patrick Millikin
The Visionary Detective, by Joyce Carol Oates

Ah, to have the talents of these writers, but such is not my lot, so on with my own take on these dark, unflinchingly raw, heartbreaking and excellent novels.




These five books are collectively referred to as the Factory series, based on the fact that their main character works out of a police station on Poland Street nicknamed "The Factory."  This detective sergeant has no name (becoming "the nameless one" in my head),  and works in A14, Unexplained Deaths.  It is "by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service," and the nameless one explains in He Died With His Open he and his colleagues there work on
"obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don't matter and who never did."
At Unexplained Deaths, "no murder is casual, no murder is unimportant," and our detective sergeant prefers to work on his own without interference from the higher ups.  He refuses promotion, and in The Devil's Home on Leave, the point is addressed from the detective's end as to why, after one of his superiors tells him that if he remains a sergeant, he'll "always get the shitty end of the stick."  His answer:  "Maybe ...,  but I think that's the end where the truth is."  He knows he is not "inspector material, or Branch material, but just Unexplained Deaths material," and he is completely okay with it.  (29; 123)  The people at A14 "didn't see death" like others did, and certainly not in any kind of "civilised prepared way:
"We saw it without the church, without the priest, without the funeral parlour; no hymns, just the dead body stiffening, sometimes in one, sometimes in more than one piece; we saw death suddenly, when we had a hangover, called out to the raw dank place where death was when we weren't in the mood, like a cabbie picking up a client obliterated by the dark on an empty road." (Dead Man Upright, 24). 

Reading through these books we also come to realize that Raymond has given us an ongoing commentary about contemporary British society and politics.  As Paul Oliver reveals over at the Mobylives blog, 
"Raymond was a writer of great complexity, who wrote with a nearly unmanning combination of fury and compassion as he chronicled the austerity of Margaret Thatcher's England." 
His work here in the Factory series, as whoever writes the back-cover blurbs for Melville House says, is  an "unrelenting investigation into the black soul of Thatcher's England," but really, it's not difficult to see in these novels that Thatcher's England has become pretty much soulless; it's not just the buildings that are in decay and left to rot, but also the souls of some of its inhabitants.

That "fury and compassion" is alive and well here, transferred into the form of Raymond's detective, whose  work at A14 often takes him into the "sad, narrow streets" in which live
 "the desperate last fugitives of a beaten, abandoned army, their dignity, rights and occupations gone (or never known), their hope gone, tomorrow gone."
He often encounters those "made invisible in their misery by the frozen night," for whom he could not get any justice "until they were dead" (How The Dead Live, 25-26); and as the series progresses, we learn why justice is so important to him and what it is that motivates him to solve these cases that are sent his way. 



In the first book of this series, He Died With His Eyes Open, the nameless one takes on the case of a man found dead in "a ghastly lonely area," laying there with his eyes open, severely battered; it looks like the work of two people.  The dead man has been identified as Charles Staniland, 51, and the sergeant's superior from Serious Crimes, Bowman, calls it a "derelict death," but when the detective begins his investigation, he realizes pretty early on that the "cheap suit" on the body belied someone "educated, reflective, intelligent."   After he listens to a number of cassettes and reads papers left behind by the dead man,  our nameless detective realizes that he had "started to think, dream, almost be Staniland by proxy."  In short, he has established a connection with this man who, while living, had suffered a tragedy leaving his life to take a turn for the worse, sending him as well as his  hopes and dreams into a downward spiral.  And now he wants justice:
"Though Staniland had died at the age of fifty-one, he still had the innocence of a child of six. The naive courage, too -- the desire to understand everything, whatever the cost...The fragile sweetness at the core of people -- if we allowed that to be kicked, smashed and splintered, then we had no society at all of the kind I had to uphold... I knew I had to nail the killers...Not just know them. Nail them."

 It is the detective's ability to establish this connection between his victims and himself that is at the heart of these five novels; it is also this particular quality which makes these books so emotionally taxing to the reader, since as the detective uncovers what it is that has brought these people to where they are now,  we simultaneously learn more about what it is about him that has brought this man to do what he does.   We also come to understand just how much the past continues to haunt the present, another idea that runs throughout this series.





The Devil's Home on Leave takes a bit of a different path, since at the beginning of his investigation of a most brutal, grisly crime, the killer's MO narrows down the identity of the suspect.  What's left in this case is for the detective to gather proof against the perpetrator, which is going to be challenging since this man has no conscience, no fear, and nothing to lose.   And while I didn't particularly care for the direction that this story ultimately took,  we learn much more about the detective's heartbreaking past and how it is that he has come to "understand murder" so well.




By the time I'd finished book three,  How the Dead Live, and book four, I Was Dora Suarez,  I was sort of wishing I hadn't read all four in a row.  I felt much like I did the time I binge watched the TV version of David Peace's Red Riding Quartet, after which I was like completely gutted. (Do NOT make that mistake; trust me on this one).    There is the deepest sort of pain to be found in both of these books; different, but pain all the same, and there's so much here that it takes its toll.   In How the Dead Live our detective is sent to look into the case of a missing woman, a doctor's wife whose absence had gone unreported.  His efforts are stymied as he  runs into a wall of silence from just about everyone in the small village of Thornhill, but when he finally learns the truth, it's his compassion that takes over in an extremely sad and tragic situation.  Meanwhile, his uncomprehending and unwanted superiors, sensing the headlines to be made over the case,  decide to bulldoze their way in, and the nameless one goes to great lengths to see the right sort of justice through, even at the potential cost to his career.




 While looking for reviews about these books, I came across an article in  The Australian mentioning that  crime novelist Ian Rankin once called Raymond's  I Was Dora Suarez "`English crime fiction's equivalent to Edvard Munch's The Scream."   I'd say that's about right.  He also notes in that article that Raymond's books are not only novels, "but also reports from a front line of casual cruelty in a world lacking empathy," again, spot on, and while that idea is apparent in each and every book in this series, it is especially true here.  Not only does the title character, Dora Suarez, live in a "world lacking empathy," she also inhabits a world where  the sickest, lowest, and meanest people lack any sort of conscience.

 Once  that book was over, not only had I had enough of  Derek Raymond for the moment, but I had to sit and regroup for two days before I could move on to the last book, the first night with sizeable portions of bourbon in hand.   James Sallis, in his intro to He Died With His Eyes Open, referred to I Was Dora Suarez as a book that sends electric shocks through your system (see below), which it did -- it is so powerful in fact, that I don't want to say too much about it.    It is not only tragic because of the horrid death of Dora Suarez and of  her older housemate but reading further into it, it's also a case that will drive the nameless detective further than ever in his quest for justice.   And how sad is it really, when a lonely, haunted man finds the woman of his dreams only after she's dead?   There's much much more indeed, but let's leave it there.  Of all of the books in this series, this one is best experienced cold, with not much known about it ahead of time.  What I will say is that in my opinion, in I Was Dora Suarez we find everything Raymond has written about in the previous novels fully realized in a way they hadn't been before to this point, and perhaps that's why I found it to be the most powerful of all of the Factory books.




And finally we come to the end, with Dead Man Upright, which is a bit of a departure from the rest of the series in some ways, but in others, not really.  For just one thing, there isn't a specific crime that brings the nameless one into the case, but rather a potential crime.  In a pub and drinking beer with a friend, our detective  hears from his old police buddy about the strange behavior of an older man, a certain Henry Cross,  in his building, whose dealings with different women have captured the interest of the detective's friend.  As he puts it, "there's something that smells dead off about it."  Once the nameless one assures his friend he'll look into it, he searches the older man's apartment, and finds some pretty chilling signs that his friend's intuition was right, and that the man most likely dangerous and needs to be off the streets.   But what he doesn't find is a body or any sort of evidence at all that points to a specific crime -- all he can do is warn the potential victim while he tries to catch what he believes to be a serial killer before it's too late.   But she's having none of it, since for her, he's her only chance at happiness in an otherwise dreary life.  And while I won't give away the rest, Dead Man Upright delves into one of the darkest places there can be -- directly into the mind of a psychopath. It is my least favorite of the five, but still very, very much worth the read.


As James Sallis says in his introduction to He Died With His Eyes Open,
"Five or six times in a life you come across a book that sends electric shocks skittering and scorching through the whole of you and radically alters the way in which you perceive the world." (vii)
 After finishing the entire Factory series  I can certainly attest to the "electric shocks skittering and scorching" that not only went through the whole of me, but also sort of imprinted themselves into my brain in their wake,  probably to leave a mark forever as to how I approach and engage with crime writing.   They are, as the back cover blurb from He Died With His Eyes Open notes (again quoting Sallis), "literature written from the edge of human experience," and they indeed seem to exceed the "limits of the crime novel and of literature itself."   The fact that the main character is a detective working for the police in London might make anyone believe that Raymond's novels are yet just another series of police procedurals, but that is absolutely not the case and reading them as such is just plain folly.    These books  are among the darkest of the dark in the realm of crime fiction,  and are not for everyone, and for those who do read them, beware the toll they take on your wellbeing for the duration.

I loved these books and there will never be anything like them again, I'm sure.