Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Pale Horse, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins, 2008
originally published by Dodd, Mead in 1962

"Evil is not something superhuman, it's something less than human."

And Agatha Christie should know, since she spent her illustrious career writing stories about the evil that men (and women) do.  In this later book, there is no Poirot, there is no Marple, no Tommy or Tuppence, but there is still a decent mystery at the core of this tale.

A priest takes a confession from a dying woman in a boarding house, and walks out of there wondering exactly how much of what he's just heard is true and how much is to the delirium brought on by high fever.  He also knows that he must write down a list of names the woman has given him before he forgets them.  He does this at a small cafe (with terrible coffee) then puts the strip of paper in his shoe, due to a torn pocket lining in his cassock. On his way home, he is most cruelly murdered.  The only clue the police have is the list of names and a witness statement from someone who says he saw the murderer on the night in question.

Mark Easterbrook, who is working on a book about the Moguls, finds himself involved rather peripherally at first, then after a few mysterious coincidences is drawn fully into the case. His part of the story begins in a Chelsea coffeehouse with a fight between two women and then a chance meeting with a friend of his, a forensics specialist who has given up private research to make a living; and then it moves on to a mysterious inn known as The Pale Horse, which is run by a trio of Macbeth witch-like women who run the place.  His narrative parallels and then joins that of the police until a cruel murdering maniac is brought to justice.  And the person who provides him with the missing link -- that oh so critical bit of information that is needed to piece it all together -- is none other than Ariadne Oliver, friend to Hercule Poirot, often-scatterbrained mystery writer and probably Agatha Christie's tongue-in-cheek fictional alter ego.

 The reader clearly gets a feel for place and time here --  you can just imagine the coffee houses of Chelsea in the 1960s complete with their "cool" clientele: the "teddy boys;" the young girls who wear birdsnest-type hairdos and sweaters even though it's warm inside, and the young of both sexes who seem rather "dirty" in their overall appearance.  Many of the characters are well imagined and developed, and the plotline is better than just okay. The best compliment I can give for this book is that I did NOT guess the identity of the killer. At one point I thought I had it figured out -- the who and the how, but I was dead wrong, which is always a good thing. There were also a few nice red herrings for the reader to become temporarily sidetracked.  And while The Pale Horse may not one of the better examples of Christie's work,  it is still quite good, and it will keep you entertained trying to figure out the who and the how of the crimes. It's a bit different than any of the other Christie novels in terms of a few members of the dramatis personae involved, and the end came a bit too quickly, but if you're a fan, you'll definitely want to read it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

*Here Comes a Candle, by Fredric Brown

Millipede Press, 2006
Originally published 1950, by E.P. Dutton
297 pp.

"Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head"

The above couplet is taken from the rhyme called "Oranges and Lemons," and serves as a centerpiece of this awesome noir crime novel written in 1950. The main character of Here Comes a Candle is young Joe Bailey, who has a phobia of candles and axes based on an early childhood trauma associated with that rhyme.

Joe worked as a numbers runner in Milwaukee for a thug named Mitch until a police investigation put that racket on hold for a while, and now just kind of hangs out, supported by handouts from Mitch.  He's kept on the payroll because Mitch might need him later, and everything moves along as normal until he meets Ellie, the niece of the owner of a local diner.   Ellie is a nice girl, who has moved to the area to work for her uncle, and she and Joe hit it off.  But there's another dame in the picture: Francine, Mitch's girlfriend. She's the kind of woman Joe can only aspire to, but it doesn't matter...he wants her, or at least someone like her, but it takes the kind of money that buys a robin's-egg blue convertible and Joe doesn't have it. But he may get his chance when Mitch comes up with a proposition for him that might put him up in the big time.

The story itself is good, but what makes this book unique (well, at least for the 50s anyway) are the various techniques used by Brown throughout the novel in telling Joe's backstory.  Flashbacks and dreams that enter in Joe's psyche are experienced via different "media":  a radio broadcast of "The Adventures of Joe Bailey" starts off these odd chapters, and from there we get a glimpse into Joe's earliest childhood traumas. Then there's "the screen," composed as a screenplay complete with  fade ins, dissolve tos, cut tos, etc.  A sportscasts of a game of cops and robbers is the next format, and a telecast of one of Joe's dreams is also presented. In between each one is straight narrative so that the story continues.  It was probably very unusual for its time, but it works.

The book has a nice little twist at the end and is a bit on the pulpy side.  The characters are rather stereotypical but it hardly matters. Brown also offers the reader a look at prevailing attitudes of the time (life in the shadow of the atomic bomb, for example)  and his experimental cuts into Joe's psyche are incredibly well done. Here Comes a Candle is really a lot of fun as well as a good story. There are also (in my edition) two added entries: a short story entitled "The Joke," which reads like an episode from the old Twilight Zone series, and what Brown calls a "bitch piece," about the foibles of Christianity and religion.

I'm looking forward to more of Fredric Brown's work.  If you like noir or like your crime fiction with a doosey of a twist at the end, you may enjoy this one.

After finishing this book very early this morning, I trotted on over to the website for Millipede Press, only to discover that they no longer are in business.  According to the fans who keep the website going, Millipede is now Centipede.  So off I went to the 100-legged site and discovered that they do reprints of "out of print classics of the horror, crime, and science fiction genres." I've already got my eye on Brown's The Far Cry as a possible splurge purchase in the near future.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

*Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo

Bitter Lemon Press, 2010
Original Spanish title: La aguja en el pajar, 2006
translated by Jethro Soutar
190 pp.

Needle in a Haystack is set in the late 1970s during Argentina's "dirty war," when a military junta has seized power and the regime is constantly on the lookout for anyone opposed to its rule.  Anyone the government considers subversive is picked up and is either killed, imprisoned, or simply disappears.  As the book notes prior to the beginning of the novel, Ernesto Mallo was one of these "anti-Junta activists" who was "pursued by the dictatorship," so I realized right away this was going to be a readworthy novel: it is factually based from someone who actually lived through the terrors of the time.  And I was not disappointed -- considering this is the first in a planned series, it's a definite winner.

As the story opens, detective Superintendent Lascano is assigned to look into a case of two bodies found on the riverside.  When he arrives, he actually finds three bodies, two of which he immediately ascertains are the victims of the military death squads, leaving the mystery of what happened to the third.  Eventually the body is identified as one Elias Biterman, a Jewish moneylender who survived Auschwitz and eventually arrived in Argentina, toughened by his life experiences. But this book is not really a mystery; the reader knows who Biterman's killer is -- the author explains who and why as he moves backward and forward through time up through the 1970s present.  The death of Biterman and the who and the whys really serve as a vehicle to explore this time in Argentina's history.  This is not to say that the book is not an intense novel of crime fiction, because it is -- but it's also much much more.

What really strikes me about this book is the characters and the well-evoked sense of place and time. Mallo has created an incredible conglomeration of people in this book whose stories come together to form the whole of this novel:
Lascano, whose wife recently died in a car accident, and who believes in justice and yet knows when to look the other way;  Eva, a political dissident accustomed to danger who survives a raid only to be found and taken in by Lascano, who is taken aback by her resemblance to his dead wife; callous Giribaldi, a major in the army who believes in helping out his old friends  yet at the same time won't let anyone or anything such as the law get in his way, creating his own justifications for getting rid of those who do; Amancio, who grew up rich, spent his childhood on the family's 20,000-acre ranch or on vacation in Europe, now living on his family's prestigious name but without a penny in his pocket as a result of a dwindling fortune and living the life of a playboy; Lara, his wife, who married into the family but is now looking for escape and more money no matter what it takes; the Biterman brothers -- Elias, the tough moneylender whose life has left him bitter toward the moneyed classes and Horacio, who grew up in Argentina and never really knew hardship.
And always running through the  background of this novel, the author never lets the reader forget that a) it's difficult to know who to trust under these conditions, b) the power over life and death lies in the hands of the military, and c) anyone, at any time, can become a victim:
In the street below, the army has just set up one of its checkpoints. A jeep blocks the entrance to the street. Two soldiers with machine guns are positioned on each corner in the shadows. Three others have placed themselves a few feet further back and three more stop any car that happens by.  The soldiers search the vehicle thoroughly, demand to see the identification papers of the passengers, split them up and bombard them with questions.  The officers hunt for inconsistencies in their stories, for firearms, documents, evidence of something whatever. The slightest grounds for suspicion means being thrown in the back of a van and driven to one of many clandestine military prisons spread across the city, to undergo a deeper, more pressing interrogation....Time passes by, ...the streets are empty, the soldiers, trained for action, grow bored and distracted, until at last the approach of a car brings them to attention. They aim their guns at the heads of the civilians in the car, their trigger fingers twitching as they feel their own fear levels rise, fear being the food that nourishes the soldier.
Although the book is not lengthy, it is extremely compelling and one you won't soon forget. Mallo's writing is excellent and more to the point, realistic: he is able to communicate this brief episode in a horrible period of Argentine history succinctly yet powerfully.   I'd recommend it to people interested in this time period, or readers of translated crime fiction or translated fiction in general.

 fiction from Argentina