Wednesday, November 30, 2016

a downright delicious double dose of Dard, from Pushkin Vertigo: Crush and Bird in a Cage

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Les scélérates, 1959
translated by Daniel Seton
156 pp


"I sincerely believe you have pulled off the perfect crime." --  Bird in a Cage  

The good people at Pushkin Vertigo tell me in a short section at the back of this novel that this book is one of Frédéric Dard's " 'novels of the night', -- a run of stand-alone, dark psychological thrillers written by Dard in his prime, and considered by many to be his best work."  It's good, all right, as is his Bird in a Cage, both of them read over the course of one night while I was once again wide awake.

 What I find interesting about both books is that somewhere toward the beginning of each, the main characters say or think little things that sort of grate on the mental ear, cluing me into the notion that there may just be something very off with these people who are telling us their stories. It's nothing big, there's really nothing anyone can put his or her finger on at the moment,  but that little mental niggle picked up on by my inner radar has come back to me in both books at some later point, leading to the "aha - I knew it!" moment in my head.

Let's start with Crush, which has a bizarre but good ending that in hindsight I should have seen but actually never saw coming.  The "I" here is 17 year-old Louise Lacroix, living at home in Léopoldville, in a neighborhood that's "all stunted little houses, lined up any old how on a plain surrounded by chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke..."  She lives with mom and her "mum's man" Arthur (having never known her dad)  in a rented "ramshackle, barely furnished house" that hasn't seen repairs in years,  even though the "walls are crumbling like nobody's business." She's also always hated the town, because she saw it as "artificial and sad."   Louise has a job in a local factory, but we soon discover that she needs a change, starting with her route home from work each evening. 

Changing her way home takes her through the center of town, where "you can feel the money round there," where she discovered the home of the Roolands, a couple known locally as "the Yanks"  existing "on a sort of desert island all its own... where the natives seemed to live bloody well..."  Returning home late one evening, she gets into it with Arthur, and runs to the Roolands' where she offers her services as a maid. Eventually Jess and Thelma agree and Louise convinces them that it would be better if she lived in.  While Thelma drinks away her day while listening to music, Jess works at NATO, and soon enough Louise is happy in her new situation.  One incident drives her home, but the American couple provides enough financial incentive to Louise's mother to bring Louise back. It isn't long though until tragedy strikes, and suddenly we're left wondering exactly what the truth is behind the events that follow.  Dard does such a good job here that as I said, I should have seen what was coming and absolutely did not.  Once I'd finished, though, I was in awe of just how well the author had set things up, and I didn't mind at all that I'd been so cleverly manipulated. Au contraire - I actually appreciated it.

Moving onto the next book, Bird in a Cage, another of Dard's romans nuits, I was a bit worried at first that I was reading something along the lines of Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady, because in many ways Bird in a Cage begins with just that sort of feel.  As things turned out though, I was entirely wrong.  

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Le Monte-Charge, 1961
translated by David Bellos
123 pp

It's Christmas Eve, and Albert has come back home to Paris and to his mother's apartment after being away for six years. Mom has died, and he has returned to an empty, but still unchanged place.  After laying back in his old bed for a while, thinking he'd give anything to see his mom "just for a second, standing behind the door," and to hear her asking him if he was awake, his sorrow takes over and he needs to get out.  Off into the night, into his old quartier he wanders, after having stopped in a shop to buy a Christmas decoration, a "silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust" with a blue and yellow velvet bird inside on a perch. Next stop is Chiclet's, a "big restaurant" where as a child he'd stop and look through its windows "at the opulent part of humanity holding court inside."

 It's there that he runs into a woman who reminds him of a woman from his past named Anna, but this woman has a small child with her, and Albert suddenly feels the tragedy of the "shared loneliness" of the two.  After a short stint at a movie theater, Albert walks the woman (still nameless at this point) home; she invites him up for a drink and some impulse drives him to hang the birdcage on the woman's Christmas tree.  The little girl is put to bed, after which the woman reveals that she would really like to go out for a while, and they talk about her marriage which is extremely unhappy.  Returning her to her home, Albert realizes that they're not alone -- there's now a coat hanging on a hook that belongs to the woman's husband, who is lying on the sofa dead as a doornail. Albert quickly tries to remove traces of himself from the apartment, cleaning up fingerprints, etc., but when he goes to get the birdcage, he discovers that it is no longer hanging on the tree.  It's at this juncture where the story really takes off, as Albert is forced to make a confession to this woman, who promptly throws him out after telling him she'd get in touch with the police about her husband's death.   But he just can't leave, so he waits, hiding outside and watching as things get weirder and weirder before he steps in once more and gets the surprise of his life. 

When I finished this novel, to say I was blown away is to very much understate how I felt about it.  Frankly, I thought it was just genius. I think my insomnia may have been caused by a) first the tension that kept ratcheting up throughout the story and b) just laying there thinking about the book and  about just how cleverly Dard  put things together here. It's like I was expecting one thing and then out of nowhere, it became an entirely different ball game altogether, where everything changed completely.   

Passing on this book because it was written in 1961 would be a shame -- it's absolutely perfect for vintage crime readers, for readers who enjoy French crime, and for readers who are looking for something different in their crime fiction. My advice is to run, do not walk,  and pick up a copy ASAP. This one I just loved.  Absolutely.    

Monday, November 14, 2016

*and back to the movies we go with In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes

Feminist Press, 2010
originally published 1947
250 pp


"Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn at sea. Lost in a lonely place."  -- 171

First and foremost: anyone who's seen the movie and hasn't read the book and is planning to do so may not want to read the rest of this post, since  there's certainly no mystery in this novel about main character Dix Steele here, revealed very early on in this book.

Power, exhilaration, freedom -- three words from the mind of a man who stands on a cliff overlooking the ocean on a foggy evening, not exactly sure of why he's there that night.  His quiet reverie while enjoying his wartime memories,  the sea air, and the darkness is shattered, however,  when a bus stops to let out its passenger on the street behind him. As he turns to look, he sees a girl get off and starts to follow her,  "entirely without volition."  Luckily for her, she makes it home safe.

I say "luckily for her," because she could have become yet another victim of the strangler who is preying on women in Los Angeles.  The police are baffled, a point which becomes clear to Dixon Steele when he meets up with an old friend from the war who is now, to Dix's surprise, one of the detectives working on the case.  Afterwards, Dix realizes that there's something "amusing" about the situation, since it's Dix himself who is the killer.  His feeling stems from the fact that his friend, Detective Brub Nicolai, would be "able to lay hands on him whenever he wished;" something Dix views as
"Amusing and more exciting than anything that had happened in a long time. The hunter and hunted arm in arm. The hunt sweetened by danger." 
Amused though he may be, Dix is not a happy man.  He sees himself as "The lone wolf," from which he takes "a savage delight"  even though he believes that "it wasn't happiness," but "the reverse of the coin."  He is also a person who "hated women," especially Brub Nicolai's wife, Sylvia. He feels that she is "conscious of him," but fighting it; she had been "burrowing beneath his surface since the night he had come out of the fog into her existence." While he resents it, he plans to enjoy "the game" of breaking down her withdrawal, especially since she's his best friend's wife. As we're told, it "stimulated" him, as did the idea of heightening the game by teaming up with Nicolai, waiting to hear the latest developments in the strangler case.

While we hear that
"His life was good, a slick apartment, a solid car; income without working for it, not half enough but he could get by. Freedom, plenty of freedom. Nobody telling him what to do, nobody snooping,"
Dix soon finds himself in a relationship with Laurel Gray, the gorgeous redhead who lives in his apartment complex. With Laurel around,  Dix feels like he was "meshed in a womb he called happiness."  But when she's not there, doubt begins to creep into his mind, and things start to take a turn that no one could have foreseen, with an incredibly powerful ending that I wasn't at all expecting.

What we have here is a story about a man in whom the cracks begin to show pretty much from the outset, and  I see from looking at what some readers think about this novel that they are a bit frustrated that there is very little in the way of an actual mystery.  I don't think that was the point, actually, since it seems obvious that Hughes is much more about character here. After having read two of her books now, I'm inclined to agree with Christine Smallwood in a 2012 article she wrote for The New Yorker, where she says that Hughes is not after "whodunit, but who-ness itself..." and that for Hughes, it's not the crime that is her interest, but rather "evil," making "that evil a sickness in the mind a landscape to be surveyed." That is precisely what happens in this book, so reading solely for plot just sort of misses the point. Then again, surveying the "landscape" of the mind is the biggest raison d'être of my reading life. And then there's the ending, unexpected to be sure, but just brilliant.  There's much more to find while reading carefully, and Hughes is definitely a master of her craft in this novel.

and now to the film ... 

I sort of wish I hadn't read the novel before watching this movie (1950); within the first ten minutes I'm sitting on my sofa with my mouth hanging open thinking "wtf?"  I get that screenwriters always take some kind of liberties when moving from page to screen but I was expecting the movie to at least sort of mirror what happens in the novel.  If I consider the movie without trying to tie it to the book, it's a damn good film providing lots of tension, having its say about postwar Hollywood, and certainly keeping me on the edge of my seat until the end.  This is a movie where pretty much everyone involved asks the same question -- is Dix Steele actually capable of murder? This question becomes even more alarming for the new woman in his life, Laurel, who has in many ways become Dix's muse, prompting him to make a success of himself and work hard at writing a winning script which he hasn't had since before the war. Even as they grow closer together,  she  can't help but tap into the  undercurrent of suspicion that Dix may have killed a girl, even though she was the one to provide him with an alibi of sorts.  Everyone  knows he has a history of violent confrontations; Laurel sees him at his worst when he beats up a guy whose car he slams into one night. Heck, even I wasn't sure, wondering right up to the very last minute whether or not Dix Steele was actually a cold-blooded killer. And in my opinion,  it's this ambiguity that drives the film as the possibility of his guilt continues to mount, as the cops and others put pressure on him, and as the seeds of doubt start to take hold in Laurel's mind.

While there are a number of major differences from page to screen, in the novel, the major difference is that there is no ambiguity whatsoever; we know Dix is a killer almost from the very beginning. One of the best parts of the novel is the game that Dix plays with Detective Nicolai Brub, even going along to a crime scene with the cops, feeling superior and laughing smugly to himself inside.  He also eventually makes future plans, revealing to readers that he has no intention of being caught, and he's extremely clever in beating the cops at their own game.    Book Dix pretends that he's writing a detective novel, he lives in another man's apartment, and depends on an uncle for an allowance.  When he falls for Laurel, he goes crazy with thoughts of her with other men whenever she's not around.   Book Laurel, who eventually becomes doubt riddled for her own reasons,  is much more of hard-edged woman than movie Laurel, and the character of Sylvia is much more present and has much more of an active, crucial role in the novel than her on-screen counterpart.  

So here's how I see things:  book and movie are really two different entities, so I can understand how, if someone sees the film first and then reads the book, disappointment might set in.  The same is true vice versa -- I read the novel first and expected something much different than I got from the movie.  I ended being crazy about both of them, but for me it's definitely the book that has the edge.  Bottom line: you won't be sorry either way -- both book and movie are excellent. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Riddle of Monte Verita, by Jean-Paul Török

Locked Room International, 2012
originally published as L'Enigme du Monte Verita, 2007
translated by John Pugmire
193 pp


The Riddle of Monte Verita  is an obvious homage to the work of John Dickson Carr, who was a master of the craft of the locked-room mystery; it's also a product of the author's desire to
"write an impossible crime novel that obeys the rules of what is often called Golden Age fiction; to write it in a manner faithful to the French language usage of the time; and to end the story with the last sentence of La Chambre ardente, the French translation of Carr's The Burning Court..."
An admirable project, yes indeedy, but well, for reasons stated in the author's note section at the end of the book, things didn't come quite off as planned, but I admire the author's passion.  As it so happens, I'm a huge fan of locked-room mysteries; for me, first and foremost  it's all about the shock of the actual "impossible" crime that makes me wonder "how could that have possibly happened?," followed by scouring for real clues while trying to sort through the red herrings that find their way into the investigation. My experience has been that sometimes the solutions to these crimes have been pretty ingenious, while sometimes they're a bit on the silly side, which is a bit disappointing.  Here I enjoyed the central mystery;  there were enough red herrings to keep me highly satisfied, and enough places where I said to myself "this might be important" that I marked with page tabs. In the long run, though, while I enjoyed it for a while, I ended up feeling a bit let down. More on that soon.

Ascona, Switzerland, 1938.  Sorbonne professor Pierre Garnier has just arrived to attend a symposium on detective fiction that is being held at the Albergo Monte Verita. Accompanied by his wife Solange, he makes the acquaintance of another participant, Professor Lippi, on the way to the conference's inaugural cocktail hour.  Lippi gives him a rundown on the original "riddle" of Monte Verita, involving a turn-of-the-century colony of "gentle cranks" whose leader had "stuffed his head with esoteric theories" and went by the name of Rosenkreutz.  Not only did he call himself by that name, but insisted that he was the reincarnation of Christian Rosenkreutz, the imagined founder of the order of Rosicrucians.  It seems that the first Rosenkreutz is said to have entombed himself in a grotto, so his namesake at Monte Verita decided to seal himself in a "natural cave"-slash-grotto very close to the Albergo hotel to meditate and pray.   The legend is that his "flock" saw him go in, sealed him in with boulders, then stood guard for three days. On the fourth day, they opened the cave and their fearless leader had disappeared, never to be seen again.

Don't worry -- even though it sounds as if I'm leading you toward some sort of esoteric, Dan Brownish type novel -- the history of Monte Verita is definitely relevant to this tale.

Lippi's theory, as he presents in his symposium session, is that people who view the locked-room mystery as improbable are wrong, and that "it's not important that these kinds of situations cannot occur in real life." He is challenged by a certain Doctor Hoenig,  prompting remarks by Lippi that make the audience laugh and turn Hoenig purple with anger.  Then Lippi adds that no one would commit murder in real life in the manner of locked-room mysteries, since taking the time to set up such a crime is a "horribly complicated way to kill someone," drawing further ire from Hoenig who swears that he has evidence from "impossible crimes" he's investigated personally that he will present during his own lecture. But since Hoenig's "ingenuity of ... interpretation" won't enough to satisfy Lippi, he challenges Hoenig to "submit to a conclusive experiment" by shutting himself into the grotto and making himself disappear.  Well, these days the grotto is barred so no one can get in, but strange things begin happening that lead to murder and ultimately leave Garnier wondering just who he can trust.

Great premise, actually, and for a while there the story was on the plus side of atmospheric, pages were flipping at a fast rate, and my interest remained high for some time.  But what kind of soured me here was that when we get to the (for lack of a better word) alternative solutions, they've been done before, something I spotted well before the "spoiler" page where the author spells it all out.   It's one thing to write a book like this to pay tribute to an author, and indeed to an entire subset of mystery fiction, but to use scenarios that any major fan and serious reader of locked-room/impossible crime would recognize right away is not what I'd call original.   I won't discuss them here in case someone wants to read this book, but you've been warned.

I'd say don't shy away from it -- it was fun for a while -- but if you're looking for something new and original as far as a locked-room/impossible crime mystery story, well, this just might not be that book.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino

Minotaur Books
originally published as 白夜行, Byakuyakō, 1998
560 pp

arc, my thanks to the publisher!

Under the Midnight Sun hasn't even been officially released yet (that's tomorrow, actually),  but it seems to be taking the crime-reading world by storm. A brief perusal of the usual places shows that readers are all over it, with reviews on a 5-star scale coming in just about at the 4.5 level.  I have a feeling it's going to be selling like hotcakes.

If there's anyone out there who doesn't know Keigo Higashino, he's the author of the popular Detective Galileo series that so far has three entries:  The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint, and A Midsummer's Equation.  (I've read and enjoyed the first two, and surprise of all surprises, my husband actually liked the first two books as well. I say surprise because we don't usually agree on crime novels.)  He's also the author of another series of nine novels featuring Tokyo detective Kyochiro Kaga, of which only Malice has been translated, and three standalones: Naoko, Under the Midnight Sun and coming soon, The Name of the Game is Kidnapping.  He's obviously a man devoted to his craft, and has been a finalist for two different crime-writing awards here in the US.  

Under the Midnight Sun I'd label as "epic psychological crime drama", since it takes us through nearly two decades of time before we're through here.  It begins in 1973 with the murder of a pawnbroker by the name of Yosuke Kirihara, who was found dead in an abandoned building, leaving behind a wife and young son Ryo.  Osaka detective Sasagaki is on the case and as he's beginning to get somewhere with the investigation, there are two more deaths: first, that of a wholesaler named Terasaki who is connected somehow to  Kirihara's death or at least knows something more than he's saying,  and second, somewhat later, the suicide of a woman whom the detective has been considering as his prime suspect in Kirihara's murder. She also leaves behind a child, Yukiho, who is later adopted by a relative.  Sasagaki fails to make any traction on the pawnbroker murder, a fact which, as we later discover,  has haunted him over the years.  However, after these three deaths, we say goodbye to our erstwhile detective for about nineteen years as the author moves the story forward around the lives of  Ryo and Yukiho. 

I think that's about all I'm going to give away as far as plot, because a)  a story that unfolds over nearly twenty years really can't be summarized very neatly, b) it's much more character driven rather than plot driven, and c) there are a number of twists and turns as the years roll by before our detective makes his way back into the picture.  And while a lot of nefarious things happen throughout this story that left twists in my gut, the main emphasis turns out not to be the actual 1973 case itself, but rather on the two kids left behind, with betrayal and obsession as two main themes that run throughout the book.  

The deaths at the beginning pave the way for what follows, and most of what happens over the next two decades is enough to keep anyone reading.  The situation is never pretty and there's no happy happy anywhere in this book, but that's all in keeping with the author's psychological focus here. Along that particular trajectory, the author is quite successful as he reveals the very warped and darker side of human nature.  At the same time, my personal preference is for more streamlined crime fiction, and this book piles subplot upon subplot upon subplot, goes into a lot more dialogue than I felt was necessary, and while I get where the author's going with all of this characterwise, in my opinion, it could have been a much tighter and stronger story had a lot been left out. One more thing: whoever wrote the back cover blurb (it's probably on the dustjacket of the finished copy) really does readers a major disservice by referring to the "obsessed detective" since really, he's there at the beginning and doesn't actually reappear for the next nineteen years. If he's that obsessed, he should have been worth at least a mention here and there but basically he's forgotten until close to the ending.  Still, the strength of this novel is much more in its psychological underpinnings, and that's actually done quite well.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Okay. October's over so it's back to the business of crime: The White Devil, by Dominic Stansberry

Molotov Editions, 2016
250 pp

paperback, courtesy of the author - thanks!

"There is no such thing as a secret life."

Domenic Stansberry, you are one clever man. The entire time I was reading this novel, I'm thinking that I'd read something along these lines before and was racking my brain trying to remember where.  Then when I got to the Author's Note at the back, I read this:
"...this novel borrows many elements from John Webster's older play (1612) of the same title..."

then Ah! The light bulb goes off over my head. It wasn't Webster, but Stendhal's Vittoria Accoramboni that I read, a bit different, but based on the same subject matter.  Now I need to look at the play, which was written by the author of Duchess of Malfi. There's nothing like a good Jacobean revenge story.

[One minor point and I'll be going on with this tale -- at Publishers Weekly, whoever reviewed this book  evidently didn't read it very carefully, calling the narrator "unnamed," when in fact she has a name which is mentioned more than a few times.   Hello. Wakey wakey.]

Relating her tale from a second-story flat off the Avenida in Rome, the narrator of this story takes us along with her on a tour of her life up to the present.  Vicky Wilson aka Vittoria, hailing from Texas, has married Frank Paris, a writer whose career has seen better days and whose uncle, Cardinal Whiting, is supporting him. Now in Rome, her brother Johnny introduces her to an Italian senator named Paolo Orsini, whose wife Isabella is a wealthy celebrity, adored by the paparazzi, the tabloids, and the people. It's an instant attraction, and after a few trysts between Vittoria and Orsini, Isabella, who has gone to New York for work, ends up dead. It obviously wasn't Paolo -- he had left New York prior to her death,  but later, after Vittoria's husband Frank meets an untimely end while out horseback riding, followed by the election of a new pope, the situation begins to take a major turn, leaving the fates of several people to spiral out of control as they find themselves stuck, as the author says at different points, "in a kind of limbo."

Aside from the links between corruption, money, power, the influence of the Catholic Church in more secular affairs, the political/legal system, and above all, the often-linked duo of murder and revenge,  what's really interesting here is that this story is told completely from Vicki/Vittoria's point of view, so when we look back at her past, which is very closely linked that of her brother's, things tend to get a bit hazy here and there. Aside from little bits and pieces of her past, we're never quite sure who we're dealing with here.  For example, in one hazy recollection during which she tells us that she'd been to a psychologist at school, she reveals that
"The shrink was concerned about certain blank spots, emptiness, memories I skittered around, dissociative tendencies typical of certain kinds of trauma," 
but aside from a few clues here and there, we don't necessarily have a complete picture of who this rather enigmatic woman really is.  There are a few times where we get the idea that she knows she could have done things differently (If I'd ... this, If I'd ... that), but didn't, because of "certain loyalties" she had. It's those "certain loyalties" that are at the heart of it all, and which drive our narrator,  but I'll leave exactly how for others to discover.   For  me, she is the real draw here, and I think the author does a really nice job detailing her inner turmoil throughout her entire ordeal, right up until the very last moment when she has to face a grave reality.

There's more of course -- the various sources of media -- bloggers, newspapers, and especially the tabloids whose lurid titles spark conspiracy theories -- which keep suspicion floating in the air and a desire for any sort of private life a joke; family ties also play a huge role here, and more.  It's a really good book, and beyond the story itself, I love Mr. Stansberry's  writing voice -- it's refreshingly subdued, never overplayed or overly dramatic but at the same time able to tell a very haunting story.  These days, that's difficult to do, so I don't mind saying that I'm highly impressed.

You can find more about this author (who is no stranger to the crime fiction game) here -- I have to say that I love when something different hits my mailbox and this book is definitely (and most gratefully)  not in the category of same old same old.  Human nature is so bizarre sometimes, and here, its dark side is writ very large.