Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins

Valancourt Books, 2015
197 pp


My hat is off to Valancourt for bringing this book back into print. Originally written in 1934, Harriet is based on an actual British murder case from the 1870s known as  "The Penge Murder Mystery." It is  one of the more disturbing books I've read, although I must say it is also one of the best historical crime novels I've had in my hands in a very long time.  While information is widely available online about the Penge Murders or The Staunton Case (the real name of the fictional title character), I held off reading the facts of the actual case until I finished the novel, because I didn't want to have any expectations at all going into this book.

The titular Harriet is an only child and still living at home at age 32. She is rather simple, as the novel says, what would have been called "a natural," which in an afterword by Catherine Pope is explained as "having learning difficulties." Harriet's  "continued presence in any household was a strain."  After her mother remarried,  Harriet was often sent to stay for a time with "various relations," who were paid to have her at their homes.  As the novel opens, Harriet has been sent to stay with her mother's cousin Mrs. Hoppner, who has two daughters. Unlike Harriet's family, which is very well off, with Harriet having her own money and a future inheritance, Mrs. Hoppner and her daughter Alice have need for the eight pounds a month they'll get from having Harriet stay there. She shows up just after the arrival of Mrs. Hoppner's daughter Elizabeth and her husband Patrick Oman, who are on the verge of moving to the country for both economic reasons and because living there would be "more suited to the pursuing of Patrick's profession" as an artist. Patrick, "made scarcely a penny and kept Elizabeth in a poor way."   Patrick's brother Lewis, who is particularly fond of Alice, is also at chez Hoppner, and is warned by Alice to be nice to Harriet because they don't want Harriet complaining to her mother and going home.  Once Lewis finds out exactly how much Harriet's worth he is beyond nice to her and it is not long before he comes up with a plan to marry her for her money.  A rift forms between Harriet and her mother over marriage plans because Mamma has seen right through him, and eventually, without her family there with her, Harriet becomes Mrs. Lewis Oman. And that's when the trouble begins.

At this point, I found myself totally  unprepared for what happens next, and I'm not just talking in terms of  events.  Here I am sitting at my breakfast table, reading in between bread risings, and I was so taken aback that when the timer beeped I literally could not move from the chair.  It's bad enough that the principals take advantage of Harriet for her money; even worse is how conscience, compassion  and basic morality fall by the wayside when self interest is involved. It's absolutely frightening how these seemingly ordinary people can sink to a subhuman level, all the while able to  justify their actions to  themselves. The author's strength in this novel is showing exactly how this sort of thing can happen -- how festering resentments,  lack of money, a need for control  and other factors can easily change seemingly decent people into monsters.  She employs the use of contrast and irony to great effect, she spends a great deal of time in her characters' heads  so that the reader can see exactly how such behavior is justified, and through it all, she never has to resort to graphic detail to get Harriet's horrific situation across to the reader.

To say I walked away from this novel completely floored is an understatement.  One the one hand, it was extremely disturbing in the sense that it's amazing how anyone could do what these people did for the sake of money without ever batting an eye.  On the other, this book was so well done that even without knowing anything about the case, I could see it all happening right in front of me.

I love these old books and I am in awe that Valancourt continues to find such great works to bring back into print. I highly, highly recommend this novel to anyone who is appreciative of good writing, to anyone who reads and enjoys writers of the Interwar period, and to anyone who wants something far above ordinary crime fiction. It's also a great choice for people who enjoy crime fiction based on real cases.  Oh my god, people, this is one of the best historically-based novels ever.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson

upstart press, 2015
287 pp

paperback, thank you, Shannon!

This book was sent to me some time back, but I've held off posting since it wasn't due to be released until this month.

Where the last book I posted about was more of a manly man's kind of read,  Swimming in the Dark is absolutely focused on strong women.  No kickass heroines here, although the power, the determination, and the actions of the main characters once they all come together toward a unified purpose is quite amazing.

Swimming in the Dark is set in Ms. Richardson's home country of New Zealand and it begins with a local family with a bad reputation.  Mom goes through men like water, the boys are into criminal activities, and then there are the two sisters. The older one is Lynette, who left home early on to make something of herself and has succeeded quite nicely.  The younger is Serena who is still in school.  Because of the family's reputation, Serena has very little in the way of friends, but she's not there to win any popularity contests. She's bright, and with the encouragement of one of her teachers, Ilse Klein, she studies hard and reads widely, and starts believing that perhaps she might be the one member of her family that makes it to university.  But, of course, trouble strikes, and Lynette finds out during a phone call with her mom  that Serena's gone missing and has been gone for three weeks. Mom figures she just ran off, so didn't call the police for two weeks, but the law didn't take Serena's disappearance too seriously; nor did anyone else. Lynette returns to her troubled family and is understandably angry:
"...if it had been a dentist's daughter or a lawyer's daughter or the fucking mayor's daughter it would have been different. And if it was one of those kids missing, they'd be doing something, all right. The fucking TV cameras would be there. They'd be out in their thousands, there'd be fucking church prayer meetings. 'Oh, we're so concerned, oh, this wonderful girl, oh, we're doing our very best. We'll bring her home.' "
But nobody is really looking for Serena -- except her sister and the person who caused her to disappear. What he doesn't know is that she's been found at a most critical moment -- and that's a good thing because life could start getting very much worse for her and for her protectors  if he ever finds out.

The basic story here is a good one and really emphasizes how women can find strength from deep within themselves when they must.  It also explores the abuse of power, especially when that power is in the hands of someone a person, and most especially a child, should be able to count on for help.  It also reveals that regardless of family background, and despite the past that never leaves you,  it is possible to dust off one's boots and pull yourself up by the straps to carve out a new life for yourself.  All of the above comes through loudly and clearly.  Yet at the same time, this novel has way too much focus on the past, bringing in way too much backstory for it to flow as smoothly as it could have. Take the case of Gerda Klein, Ilse's mother. I totally understand that the author uses Gerda's very troubled past to serve her well in the present, but in doing so, she offers page after page after page of Gerda's horrific past, so much so that it actually tends to detract from the contemporary story.  And that's such a shame! This book could have used some judicious editing -- as it stands, it's so muddled with long-lasting flashbacks -- I probably would have broken things up differently so things were a little more organized to make the story flow.

If you enjoy stories about strong women and how they surmount their personal obstacles, Swimming in the Dark will be right up your alley. Don't expect the usual straight narrative, and it does get to be a bit boggy here and there, but even so, I love how Ms. Richardson managed to create worthwhile heroines without resorting to the typical badassness that seems to be the norm since Lisbeth Salander made her first appearance in print.  Cheers to the author for doing it her own way!

Monday, March 9, 2015

when revenge is needed, call The House of Wolfe -- by James Carlos Blake

Mysterious Press, 2015
248 pp

hardcover, thanks to Mysterious Press

The Wolfes are a "tolerant, liberty-loving bunch," a prosperous family whose interests include shrimp boats, a realty company, and a law firm.  They also believe that "there are certain natural rights that transcend statute law," and the right to self-defense is at the top of their list.  From their point of view, the Wolfes see it this way:
"...any law that denies you the means to defend yourself against others armed with those same means is an unjust law and undeserving of compliance, albeit compliance makes you a criminal by definition."
Viva la frontier justice. To ensure that people have the means to defend themselves, they also have a lucrative gun-running business, a part of their "shade trade" of illegal enterprises.  The family organization is split between Texas and Mexico City; the home of the Mexican side of their family (known as Los Jaguaros),  and the two come together in this book when one of the American cousins is kidnapped as part of a 10-person wedding party in Mexico City.  An ambitious leader of a small Mexico City gang wants to be recognized for his evil talents, so he demands a ransom of five million dollars from the parents of the bride and the groom. He figures this will put him on the map with the Zetas, the infamous cartel -- maybe he can buy his way into their favor with part of the money. Kidnapping the Wolfe girl was, unbeknownst to him,  pretty stupid on his part because both sides of the family are coming to get her back. The gang leader has no clue what he's in for.

Macho and manly are the words that ran through my head while I was reading this briskly-paced revenge-thriller told from multiple points of view -- yes, that's a bit sexist, but it's the truth. One of ours has been taken -- screw the cops, we'll go get her ourselves. The Wolfes certainly have the resources to do it, and the family takes care of its own. In fact, House of the Wolfe is part of an entire family saga (which I haven't read) that goes back in time while exploring the family history.  There are two women who feature prominently in this novel -- both are kickass Lisbeth Salander types, likely there to draw female readership -- but the people with the biggest roles are definitely the men, and overall it's a book that I think will draw way more male readers than female.

As far as thrillers go, anyone who loves them will find House of Wolfe irresistible. It's filled with action:  kidnapping, daring escape attempts, chases, explosions,  lots of gunplay, death in fiery pits, feral dogs, even torture -- everything a diehard thriller reader could possibly want.  It speaks to the need to be self-sufficient and to have enough money to buy your way into positions of power and control -- in that sense, both bad guys and "good" guys have the same goal, the "good" ones having achieved it long ago.  And to his credit, the author had one major storyline and didn't go off the rails (unlike so many authors do) trying to incorporate everything under the sun in this book.

Here's another case for me where book does not match reader -- I'm just not a thriller person.   I thought by the description of the novel that it was going to focus on Mexican cartels along the border (a topic that interests me), since its subtitle is "A Border Noir." The cartels that work along the border are sort of sidelined except in terms of one man's ambition to get a foot in the Zeta door, and with the exception of the first chapter, the action takes place in Mexico City, which is nowhere near the border. Nor is this book what I'd call noir.  When all is said and done, it comes down to a story of family justice -- and it's  a showcase for mega amounts of violence.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

misreading A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1991
originally published 1957 as For Love of Imabelle
159 pp


A Rage in Harlem is a novel that should NOT be read just for plot.  Let's face it -- the plot in this story is kind of a comical farce that combines humor with violence, a scam that backfires and leads to all sorts of mayhem (complete with requisite crazy chase scene throughout Harlem), a naive central character named Jackson and his brother who tries to protect him from some very bad people who are completely out of his league.  Sadly, I'm discovering that few people who read this book care about what's going on outside of the plot, and in my opinion, this is a freakin' travesty.  In all honesty, the plot is just so-so; the focus should really be on Harlem of the 1950s, the people in this place, and above all, race.  I think reading it as a photograph of Harlem and its people is more of what Chester Himes had on his mind, although I realize I'm not a medium who can speak to the dead and pick his brain.  All anyone would have to do is to google "Chester Himes" and find even the briefest biographical reference and come up with something like this:
"Chester Himes was born on this date in 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri. He was an African American writer whose novels and autobiographies explore the absurdity of racism,"
absurdity as in daily life played out in streets of Harlem as the "theatre of the absurd" -- as he notes:
 "realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.”
But no. Reviews from a large number of readers come back to "a must for Chandler enthusiasts," or parroting the back blurb by John Edgar Wideman re "surreal, grotesque, comic, hip," etc. I can't begin to count the number of reviews I've read that use the word "surreal" without any explanation as to why the reader thought so, or how Himes is like Chandler.  Again, another cover blurb parroted, this time from Newsweek.  Then there are the readers who bring up the movie as if the book was an afterthought, or those who can't find anything original to say so they just stuff a bunch of quotations into a review.

People, you are missing the boat big time here.

This is Himes' Harlem:

"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 desperate 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."
That is Harlem.  So where is it readers talk about Himes' cynical approach to Harlem? About writing about Harlem from the point of view as an exile in Paris? About the borders between the white world and the black world and about how the few (exemplified in the character of Goldy's wife, who we never see) who cross the border on a regular basis do so only as domestic servants to wealthy white people? About  the violence, the scamming, the people feeding like sharks on each other -- preying especially on the more naive folks like Jackson or the more religious-minded people who buy fake "tickets to Heaven" for their deceased relatives or themselves?   About the alcoholism, the drug use, about a reality that in itself is something, as even Himes notes, "stranger than fiction?" About how some of these people lived in places virtually unfit for habitation?  Where are the mentions of police violence being okay when directed at African-Americans? And above all, what about even a brief mention concerning the message running throughout the entire novel that things are not what they seem to be on the surface in this little slice of the city?

How a 5-star review can include absolutely NONE of these elements is just beyond my scope of comprehension.  A Rage in Harlem is an incredibly important novel of its time but no one seems to care -- and that is just a shame. A genuine shame.