Monday, June 19, 2017

the rare true-crime post: Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, by Peter Graham

9781634505185
Skyhorse Publishing, 2013
originally published 2011
341 pp

paperback

A long time ago, I watched Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures for the first time and found myself captivated by the murder that inspired the film; since then I've watched it a number of times and just recently discovered the uncut version which I watched during a week when my husband was away on business. I'm not really a major true crime person, but there are some cases, like this one, that stick in the mind.  This case took place in the early 1950s in New Zealand, where, as the author tells us, "murder of any kind was a major event," and that at that time, there were maybe two, three murders a year.  He also says that Women who killed were rarities" and "As for teenage girls, matricide -- it was unheard of."

Lately my interest was reopened after reading Beryl Bainbridge's fictional take on the case, Harriet Said (1972), which changed the story but was most certainly loosely based on the Parker-Hulme case of 1954.  Then, one insomniac night a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on a documentary about the case, which made me want to watch Heavenly Creatures again, which then made me look for a true account of the murder, which led me to this book.  I will say that as long as Graham sticks to the subject at hand, it's a book worth reading; it's when he goes off on tangents of details that I could have cared less about that I found myself tuning out.

Graham starts his story in the hours leading up to the actual murder itself, stopping at the point just before poor Honorah Parker's head is bashed in by a brick at Victoria Park in Christchurch.  Honorah Parker (known as Rieper at the time), her daughter Paulette, and Paulette's friend Juliet Hulme had just finished having tea at a tearoom before venturing off down the "east side bush track"; later the woman who served them, Agnes Ritchie, would say that the girls were polite and that there was "Nothing out of the ordinary." Some 30 or so minutes later, Mrs. Ritchie was shocked to see the girls again, this time
 "breathless, greatly agitated, with bloody hands and clothing. One girl's face with spattered with blood and the other's finely speckled."
She then learned that there'd been some sort of terrible accident and that the woman who'd been with them not too long before was now "covered with blood" somewhere "Down in the bushes -- down the track," according to the girls, having slipped on some rocks.  Mr. Ritchie and his assistant went to find the woman but obviously it was too late when they arrived, since Honorah was dead.  While the girls had called it an accident, Ritchie realized that there were "no rocks anywhere near," and not too far from her head lay a "half-brick with blood and bits of hair on it."  The girls were taken to Juliet's home while police examined the scene; the investigators soon knew that this was no accident, but that "the deceased had been attacked with an animal ferocity seldom seen in the most brutal murders."   What was worse, however,  was that they also realized that  "this savagery was the work of two teenage girls," a "thought too shocking for words."

After this beginning, which, coincidentally, mirrors that of Heavenly Creatures,  Graham goes on to examine the lives of the two girls, both separately and together, in order to come to a conclusion as to why Pauline's mother had to die that day.  While I leave his findings for other readers to discover, using a number of different sources, most pointedly Pauline's own diary,  he paints a chilling picture as to what may have led up to that particular moment; he also goes on to look at the aftermath of the crime and its effects on the girls, the families, on the people in Christchurch, and its interest as the "murder of the century" that would later lead to plays, books, much debate, and a movie.   While he's focusing on all of that, the book is captivating and hard to put down, and there are great photos in this book that help bring it to life.  But I started finding my interest waning here and there as he throws in superfluous details that I could have cared less about (for example, the athletic prowess of the Hulme's attorney at his high school and then Cambridge, or the Hulme's psychiatrist's wife's love of theater etc., etc., and more unnecessary stuff down to what people were eating for lunch),  and it became a major skimathon to get back to the meat of the story.  Another thing: this book could have ended some 50-something pages earlier which would have, I think, made it a stronger piece of writing; my final niggle is that there are no footnotes. Sources are listed in the back but there are several spots where quotations are left unattributed and it drove me nuts. I know -- nerdiferous people such as myself are probably the only people who appreciate footnotes, but to me they're important and should be included in investigative pieces.  

from AZ Quotes

My biggest issue here is that I was not at all impressed with the change of title of this book, and in fact thought it a sort of cheap, exploitative publishers' trick. When originally published in 2011, it was called So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World;  when it came to the US it became Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, which sort of bypasses the fact that there were two girls involved. It's also highly misleading: we don't discover the modern-day of Juliet Hulme as Anne Perry until very late in the book, at which point we also discover the post-prison identity (Hilary Nathan) of Pauline Parker. But where's Hilary Nathan in the title? Obviously the title change was done to sell more copies of this book since there are thousands of Anne Perry fans out there; personally speaking, I think it's a cheap tactic. 

Having said all of that, however, while on topic  it is a book I'd recommend for anyone with an interest in the case who wants to know more about it -- Graham has done a pretty thorough job here that will answer pretty much any question someone  might want answered. It's actually one of the most chilling true-crime stories I've read. 


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

back now to my history of mystery project with *Hargrave, by Frances Milton (Fanny) Trollope.

When I decided to read early crime literature this year, I picked up all kinds of nonfiction books on the topic to help me figure out what exactly to look for.  I came across Hargrave, Or the Adventures of a Man of Fashion in an excellent book by Lucy Sussex called Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre.  

the author, from www.trollope.org 
 Frances Milton (1779-1863) was a most prolific author with some 34 novels under her belt and seven works of nonfiction.   She married barrister Thomas Anthony Trollope in 1829, and they had seven children, including Anthony Trollope, who would go on to become "one of the most successful, prolific and respected novelists of the Victorian era."  After the family fortune went from bad to worse, Fanny, son Henry and her two daughters left for America in 1827, returning to England in 1831. Her travels and experiences led her to write her famous Domestic Manners of the Americans," which as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) notes, "launched Fanny's career as writer."  (Just FYI - the link will take you to a subscription-only page, but I will give the reference anyway -- article 27751.)  After her Domestic Manners, she began trying her hand at fiction, publishing her first novel in 1832. The ODNB article notes that she "experimented with several different genres," including Gothic fiction, social themes, including an anti-slavery novel, Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw, which was published in 1836.  Later she would go on to write books with "melodramatic plots," aiming to "hit the somewhat lowbrow taste of the circulating library," seriously right up my alley.   And so now we have Hargrave, published in 1843,  her sixteenth novel. As with so many of the authors I read, her work has mostly been forgotten, but thanks to one of my favorite publishers, Forgotten Books, I was able to pick up Hargrave complete in three volumes.  


9781330856727
Forgotten Books, 312 pp

Anyway, to get down to it, the story focuses on Charles Hargrave and his family, who are living in Paris as the story begins. Hargrave is a widower with one daughter from his marriage, Sabina, and a stepdaughter Adèle de Cordillac.  His dead wife's sister, Madame de Hautrivage,  also lives with the family, along with a number of servants. Hargrave's reputation is such that he is a man with a gigantic fortune, well known for his huge gala balls that run into the wee hours of the morning, his fine taste in clothes, etc., and he is at the top of the social ladder of the city.  It isn't too long though until we discover that it's all a sham and that he's become desperate for money, in debt to several people and having bills he's having trouble meeting.  He keeps his secret from the rest of his family and the rest of society, however, and goes on living the high life.He knows that he must get his daughters married off to wealthy suitors and depend on them to take care of him.    Meanwhile, the police are looking for answers as to who's been robbing high rollers coming out of a local club called Riccardo's.   While Adèle and Sabina are meeting the men of their dreams (the plans of which are thwarted soon enough),  Hargrave has a huge fete (another one of his gala extravaganzas) and has invited a certain Madame Bertrand along with her husband to attend. She is rich and flaunts her wealth by wearing diamonds sewn onto her dresses, but at the end of the party around 4:30 a.m. or so, she turns up missing.  Hargrave's opinion is that the young lady has eloped, gone off with a lover.

9781333070342
Forgotten Books, 311 pp

There's a big problem brewing, though, and that's Adèle, who had heard and seen things both during the fete and afterward from her bedroom window.  She decides to investigate on her own, and discovers certain evidence that leads her to believe that Hargrave is involved, and decides that the family should make a run for it.    However, before all of this plays out, at the same time Mme. Bertrand had gone missing,  Adèle had sent her servant Roger Humphries on a personal mission that will later come back to bite the pair of them, since the police are out in force looking for Mme. Bertrand's abductor; Roger just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The family makes up some rather stupid but credible excuse to feed to the chatty aunt about why they're leaving and establishes a false trail in case anyone comes after them.

9781333334048
Forgotten Books, 325 pp

In Volume three, our fugitives are safely ensconced incognito  in the forest near Baden, and while Charles is missing his once-great life, Adèle has begun to hate him, knowing exactly what kind of man he really is. Things come to a head when she learns that Roger's been imprisoned for the kidnapping and supposed murder of Mme. Bertrand and she realizes that she has the power to save him.  Charles is too caught up in worrying about his own reputation and his own future to let her go and threatens to lock her in to prevent her leaving.  While I won't reveal how things play out , I have to say that Trollope has spun a cracking good yarn with this book, which over the space of its full 900-plus pages gave me hours of sheer, lowbrow pleasure.

 To be fair, this is not strictly one hundred percent a crime novel. Sussex says that it is  "a romance plot yoked to a crime mystery," and it may be that, as  Kate Watson notes in her book Women Writing Crime Fiction, 1860-1880: Fourteen American British and Australian Authors, Trollope


 "simultaneously uses the conventional trappings of sentimental romance in Hargrave; this incorporation suggests the social and literary limitations place upon women writers; they had to conceal both crime in their fiction and the crime of writing about such an unsuitable subject." (20)
 So far in my own explorations, Hargrave seems to be one of the earliest works of crime literature written by a woman, which makes it beyond noteworthy, although Watson makes the point that Catherine Crowe's Adventures of Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence (which I should have read but  forgot that I actually own until this very second) came out two years earlier in 1841. The real point here, stated so eloquently by Kate Watson, is that even at this early date, 
"...women were writing crime, and it seems that their texts have somehow been repressed or dismissed in favor of the male canon." 
Once again I've picked up a novel that not very many people will want to read, and that's okay. I wouldn't have even known about it before starting this project, but as it turns out it was a fine novel, easy to read, and above all, fun.

Black Water Lilies, by Michel Bussi

9780316504997
Hachette, 2017
originally published as Nymphéas Noirs, 2011
translated by Shaun Whiteside
419 pp

paperback

Midway through this book something came up in the reading that made me think about tossing it across the room, but then I decided to give it a chance because I was at the point of being heavily invested. Oh my gosh -- I'm so glad I did! It's  one of the most seriously twisty crime novels I've read in a very long time. Note I said "twisty" rather than "twisted" -- big difference.  Black Water Lilies is another one of those rare books where I was just plain speechless, overwhelmed, stunned, blown away and other words describing my complete surprise by the time I got to the end when I realized exactly what the author's done here.  And while I had some issues with the writing here, on the whole I say well done!!  People -- put this  book on your tbr pile right now.

It's a tough novel to summarize without giving anything away so I won't say too much more than what someone could find on the back cover blurb. The novel is set in the small village of Giverny, France, site of the home and gardens of artist Claude Monet, who had moved there in 1883.  There are three major players in this book -- an "octogenarian" widow through whom we get most of the story,  a beautiful young schoolteacher, and an eleven year-old girl,  Fanette, who is a gifted artist in her own right.



The story spans thirteen days, over which the secrets of this small village slowly come to light.  We don't wait long  at all until the body of opthamologist Jérôme Morval is discovered in a brook that meanders through Monet's gardens  -- he'd been stabbed, hit on the head with a rock and pushed into the water.  All the police have to go on is a postcard of Monet's painting Water Lilies on which was written "Eleven Years Old. Happy Birthday" with a strip of paper glued to the card saying "The Crime of Dreaming, I agree to its creation," which police later discover comes from Louis Aragon's Aurélien.  The police also discover that the married Morval was quite the ladies man, and begin to wonder if somehow his penchant for the ladies was cause enough to kill him.  Inspectors Laurenç Sérénac and Sylvio Bénavides also look into rumors that Monet may have secreted as-yet undiscovered paintings in his former home as a possible motive.  Speaking of Monet, read very carefully as you go through this novel  -- it's  not called Black Water Lilies for nothing.

There are parts of this book that tend to be boggy and I think a lot could have been left out to make it much tighter, but really, it's all about the ending.  When the reveal comes it comes in a big way, and I had to rethink every single thing I'd just read. My first thought was "holy crap -- that's genius!" and that's all I'm going to say about this book's plot. Any more would absolutely ruin things, and one of my online groups will be reading Black Water Lilies this month so I'm keeping shtum. Trust me, this is not your average police procedural, for which I am grateful.  It takes a strong writer to make this much of an impression, and I'm so damn picky about what I consider good crime reads, so that says a lot.

Would I recommend it? Hell yes!



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

from Mexico: Silver Bullets and The Acid Test, by Élmer Mendoza

Two novels from Mexican writer Élmer Mendoza are the topic of this post, and while they are both admittedly quite difficult to get through, hanging in there brings great rewards to the most patient readers.   First up is Silver Bullets

997816881446165
MacLehose Press, 2015
originally published 2008 as Balas de Plata,
translated by Mark Fried
222 pp
hardcover
which is set in Culiácan, the capital city of Sinaloa,  the "cradle of the biggest traffickers Mexico has ever known."   It is in this book that we first meet Detective Edgar "Lefty" Mendieta, who as the dustjacket blurb notes, 
"has been abandoned by the woman he loves, continues to be demoralized by the his city's (and his nation's) ubiquitous corruption, and is dire need of some psychotherapy."
Very briefly, Mendieta indeed has some psychological issues stemming mainly from childhood;  he's also snarky, sarcastic, likes old music (in chapter one he's listening to Herman's Hermits) that seems somehow appropriate to his situation at any given time,  and he studied  literature, which is often put to use via the sarcastic comments he makes now and then that sometimes had me chuckling.  He says about himself that
"I'm a drunk weighed down by memories, a poor idiot who fell in love with the wrong woman, and to fall in love is to dream, to imagine a future that rarely comes to pass." 
He lives alone in his brother's house in the Col Pop, where he is looked after by his housekeeper Trudis who has her own issues.  He's not someone particularly interested in justice, but he does have integrity;  long-term, deeply-rooted connections, familial and otherwise that are important to him as a person,  and this trait applies not just to people on his side of the law where it's often tough to tell who if anyone is actually in control.  He'll also work like a dog to get a case solved despite his superiors' (and others') ideas to the contrary and often crosses into the underworld to do so.

Silver Bullets revolves around a number of killings that have in common the use of silver bullets in the gun that does the killing. As the bodies start to pile up, Mendieta becomes frustrated trying to make connections between the victims, and he also wonders what motivates the killer to use such a bizarre method of doing away with his victims.  Aside from all of the vampire and werewolf jokes people make, it seems that the local hitmen have nothing to offer in the way of help  -- as one of them notes, it's not their style, since they mainly get  "requests" from the rich who want their "target cut to pieces, drawn and quartered, castrated..."

As Mendieta carries out the investigations, we the readers are taken on a journey through the world that is  Culiácan, through the lives of Mendieta's colleagues (especially his partner Zelda), corrupt cops, politicians, the reigning and not-so reigning narco families, hard-assed mercenaries, and regular citizens, many of whom are fed up "with all this violence," and realize that
"in this country justice is in the hands of criminals and as long as you people from the government whistle and look the other way that's how it's going to remain."
At the same time, no one can deny that along with the bad, drug money has brought a lot to the area in terms of the economy, and also that connections run deep here.

Moving on now to The Acid Test,

9781681442884
MacLehose Press, 2016
originally published as La Prueba del Acido, 2011
translated by Mark Fried
284 pp
paperback

in which Mendieta is caught up in a case that nearly sends him over the edge. As the story begins, the president of Mexico has just declared war on the narcos, which not only means that "badges are going to die," but also that the cartels will be gearing up to fight each other as well as the government to come out on top. But that's really the least of Mendieta's worries at the moment, since he caught the case of the murder of Mayra Cabral de Melo, a gorgeous Brazilian dancer/stripper with whom Mendieta had earlier spent some time.  Her murder is extremely personal to him and now he's devastated. As he says, while trying to "understand the abyss into which he had fallen,"
"What's wrong with me? I wasn't even in love with her, I didn't see her for more than a few days; neither did she make love any differently. But she was the one who brought me back from the brink."
Not only was she murdered, but she had also been mutilated, marring her perfect body in death. He wants to know who killed her and why,. and he will go to any lengths to find out, including tapping his connections in the criminal realm to gain information. As part of his investigation, Mendieta has to question not only criminal suspects, but politicians, high-level cops, Americans and others, and he is told that he needs to drop the case.  Around his search to find Mayra's killer,  the cartels go at it with each other and with the DEA, but even there, trust is only a matter of opinion.

As I said earlier, Mendoza's work is very difficult to read because of his writing style, for which "challenging" as a description is an understatement.  At the same time, because it was such tough going, I found myself having to read at snail's pace and it paid off. As it turns out, these books are not simply just two more books about drug cartels filled with lots of violence -- of those there are plenty, a dime a dozen these days.  Instead, they're much more about living and functioning in a place where drugs (and the resulting violence) aren't going away any time soon, since they  mean big money for the economy.   The books also shine a spotlight on the very human character of Mendieta, who kind of does his own thing less as a member of the police force than as an individual who wants answers and who knows how to find them. 

I genuinely loved these books once I figured out that I needed to move through them uber-slowly, and I seem to be swimming upstream from many readers who were stuck on style.  Yes, they're difficult, and yes, it's not easy getting through them, but in the long run, they are so worth it for readers up to a major challenge.

*****

One more thing -- the blurb on the front cover of Élmer Mendoza's  The Acid Test says that the author is "the godfather of narco-lit."  At the bottom of the cover, author Arturo Perez-Reverte writes that Mendoza is "One of the biggest names in Mexican literature ... A true novelist" without invoking the term "narco-lit." In fact, the term itself is causing no small bit of controversy.  Feel free to read more about this controversy 

here: in a short piece in PEN Atlas by author Juan Pablo Villalobos, 
here: in an article in the Latin American Review of Books  

and about "narcoliterature" in general here at The Conversation


crime fiction from Mexico


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy Hughes

184195277x
Canongate, 2002
originally published 1946
248 pp

paperback

(read earlier)

Dorothy Hughes was a writer for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect. Ride the Pink Horse is the third novel of hers that I've read, following The Expendable Man and In a Lonely Place, and quite frankly, she's never failed to wow me.  She is probably best remembered for her In a Lonely Place, since it went on to become a major film starring Humphrey Bogart, and I think that that book tends to eclipse her other work, which is a shame, especially in this case.  Ride the Pink Horse is one of the most intense books I've read recently, and while the plot is very simple, the book as a whole is definitely not.  Like Patricia Highsmith would do a few years later in her first book, Hughes manages to get us inside the head of her main character and keep us there for the duration.  No matter how much we may want out, it ain't happenin' until the last page is turned.

the author, from Women Crime Writer of the 1940s & 50s

The main character here, Sailor, has come from Chicago to what he calls a "hick town" along with his fellow bus passengers who he refers to as "yokels," "hayseeds" and "sheep."  He's here on a mission:  his old boss he calls the Sen, aka "the dirty, double-crossing, lying whoring Senator Willis Douglas,"   had set up his wife's murder, a guy was arrested and convicted by the Sen's testimony, and was then killed himself.  There are only two people who know what really happened to the Sen's wife, and Sailor, who is the other one, had been paid off.  The problem is that Sailor was given only a third of what he was owed, so now he's come to collect the rest.  He's tired, a mess in rumpled clothes after traveling forever, and when he hits the streets, he comes face to face with his first dilemma: there is nowhere to stay  in the town because it's the time of Fiesta.  After being told repeatedly at hotel after hotel that there are no rooms, he is forced to count on a low-end hotel "next door to a pool hall," where he was sure they'd take him in.  Again -- nothing available.  As he walks toward the La Fonda Hotel where the Sen is staying, he's a  "ashamed" to ask for a room, since  "it was class," and "He wasn't class."  His anger grows -- he blames his bad luck on the Sen, resentful and envious that he was "Playing it big, fine clothes, fine car, fine hotels, society blondes."   The money he'd get from the Sen would help him start a life where he would be somebody and "live like a prince,"  -- the plan is to set up his own business in Mexico and "get himself a silver blonde with clean eyes."  In fact, knowing that the Sen got a $50,000 payout from his wife's life insurance, Sailor decides that he'll demand more money, and figures the Sen can't refuse.   Vowing not to be put off any longer, he plans on doing his business and getting out of this town the next day.  Of course, since this is a noir novel, it's not going to be that simple -- and things begin to get complicated when Sailor discovers that the Chicago cop in charge of the Senator's wife's killing is also in town.

While the plot seems simple, the book is actually quite complex.  I could seriously talk to anyone about this novel for hours just because there's so much here.  Sailor is used to being wronged, used to having doors slam in his face, used to taking a back seat to others, and this has caused to him to become a hateful, spiteful person. His hate extends from people of "class"  to people he thinks are beneath him -- the "spics" for example, as he labels the Mexicans who have come to the town for Fiesta. However, he is surprised to find  that these people are the only ones in the entire town who actually show him a modicum of kindness. He strikes up an acquaintance with a Mexican man whom he calls "Pancho Villa," who runs the old merry-go-round with the pink horse. Pancho offers him a place to sleep, companionship and other help. Sailor also meets a young Native American girl called Pila,  who reminds him of his own past and he does what he can to help her maintain her innocence and her childhood.

   Hughes uses the words "loss of identity" and "trapped" more than once here in describing Sailor's inner fears -- he is a man who wants to be somebody, and now that the opportunity is so close he can taste it,  he aims to take it and let nothing stand in his way. He feels himself an "outsider who'd wandered into this foreign land; all he had to do was finish his business and get out."  For him, the town is an
 "alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even the cool-of-night smell unfamiliar"
that's causing him "panic,"
"The panic of loneness; of  himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity." 
  But first he has to collect from the Sen and deal with the cop MacIntyre,  a man Sailor actually respects, but when it comes to giving Sailor advice, he isn't in the mood to hear it.  The Sen, MacIntyre and Sailor eventually find themselves the players in what will be a three-way game of "cat and mouse" , where only one of them can come out the winner.

The titular pink horse, as I said comes from the merry-go-round -- which is a great metaphor for Sailor's life and the future he so desperately wants. How that is I'll leave to others to discover, but to reiterate, this is definitely NOT a book where plot takes center stage. It is not a full on action-packed thriller, and it moves a bit slowly because Hughes invests her time in her people rather than just focusing on crime -- just my kind of book. There are a lot of racial slurs in this book, so beware -- it's very ugly, but then again, I just sort of accept  that writers of the 1940s didn't write with modern sensibilities in mind.

Hughes is an excellent writer, and in my opinion, she holds her own against  any male author of the time, making it a complete shame that she is not more widely read or appreciated.  For readers of vintage fiction written by women, it is an absolute must; I also recommend it for readers of classic noir.  I loved this book.


Friday, May 19, 2017

*an 1840s double feature: A Murky Business, by Honoré de Balzac and The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories, by Edgar Allan Poe

Well, I am so scatterbrained at the moment that I can't remember where exactly I'd read that I shouldn't miss Balzac's A Murky Business (Une Ténébreuse Affaire) as part of examining crime literature of the 19th century, but it really doesn't matter.

0140442715
Penguin, 1981
originally published 1841
223 pp

In his Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes that 
"The crime story as a literary form has developed alongside other fiction in a way shaped largely by social events, and its course has run roughly like this..." (283)
and proceeds to describe six different categories in the "progression."  The first of these is about "crime as a form of radical social protest," and here Symons mentions "Godwin, Lytton, Balzac." In this group, he says, "the criminal is seen as a hero, or a victim of social injustice."  Spot on for all three.  Balzac also has an entry in Encylopedia of Mystery and Detection (eds. Chris Steinbrunner & Otto Penzler), telling us that
"Balzac had no affection for the police..and never presented a detective sympathetically; on the other hand, criminals and murderers are often the heroes of his books." (18/19)
Balzac was also a close friend of Vidocq, and according to Graham Robb's 2004 London Review of Books take on Vidocq's memoirs, he used to "pump" Vidocq "for information on organized crime and political espionage."

It's 1803, and Napoleon is poised to crown himself  Emperor before beginning his long European campaigns.  A "royalist plot" has supposedly been discovered and  two police officials (Peyrade and Corentin) seek four noblemen who are accused of being behind it. By their own machinations, Peyrade and Corentin (who are noted in the introduction as "perfect examples of the cunning and malevolent police spy"), carry out what can only be called a miscarriage of justice by setting up these four men along with an estate steward to be framed for a crime that merits the death penalty.  I think that's about all I'll say -- a) it's way more complicated than just that and b) well, it's a good historical fiction novel that covers political intrigue that deserves a full reading.  As for how it stands up as a crime novel, well, Herbert J. Hunt in the intro does note that "We may find some fault" in how it fares as a "whodunit," citing three major issues re various plot elements, but concludes by saying that "it may be accepted as a fair example of an early mystery story...," and I have to concur.  There is certainly a mystery to be found in and among the police machinations here, one which is not fully solved until just toward the end.  More importantly though, the book reveals much about the courts and the system of justice of the time -- and is very much worth reading.

****

And now, to what is supposed to be the grandaddy of all modern detective fiction, I turn to the three stories by Poe featuring his detective C. Auguste Dupin in Leonaur's The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories.  

9781846776991
Leonaur Books, 2009
131 pp
paperback


Oh dear. With this book I have once again become that fish swimming against the tide of opinions of practically everyone else who's read these three stories contained in this book, the sum total of Poe's Dupin stories. While I get their importance in the history of detective/crime fiction, quite frankly, this book bored me silly.   I love Poe's gothic/supernatural-ish works to be sure; his somewhat cryptic Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was weird but kept me flipping pages, but I just can't stand Auguste Dupin nor do I care for Poe's writing here. 


 First in this collection is the blockbuster "Murders in the Rue Morgue," followed by "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and last comes "The Purloined Letter." All of these stories reflect  Dupin's method of  "ratinocination, a cerebral method of combining intellect, logic, imagination and the transference of self into the mind of the criminal," (7), and I sort of get it in the first and last stories, but what killed me was reading "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt."  Evidently, Poe's logic behind writing it was that he wanted to tackle the real-life case of the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers; as he notes, 
"The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, at New York." (54)
[As a sidebar, if you want to read about the case and Poe's interest, there's an interesting article from The Smithsonian here.]

In all three of these tales, it's Dupin's thought process that solves the crimes -- other than a brief visit to the crime scene in "Murders of the Rue Morgue" and a short visit to the home of the known thief in "The Purloined Letter," Dupin turns out to be the epitome of the armchair detective, letting his mind do all of the work.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's the way these tales are written that made me wish I'd saved the book for a night of trying to battle insomnia. Don't get me wrong -- I'm very used to reading nineteenth-century prose, and if I could survive Lytton's writing in Eugene Aram, well, Poe should have been a cakewalk.  However, "Marie Rogêt" just about did me in and in "The Purloined Letter," I counted a five-page rundown of "the particulars" of a search made by the Prefect of the Parisian police.  Five pages just noting every potential hiding place for the missing letter -- that's just uncalled for, really.

But, as I said, readers seem to love this book, so it's probably me.

I'd say give it a try simply because of its place in crime/mystery/detective fiction history -- now I can say been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.  Not one of my favorites at all this year.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Death Going Down, by María Angélica Bosco

9781782272236
Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as La muerte bajo en ascensor, 1955
translated by Lucy Greaves
151 pp

paperback

"What do you do when you're standing in front of a painting? You adopt different positions until you get the best perspective."

Originally published in 1955, Death Going Down begins with Pancho Soler's return to his apartment building on Calle Santa Fe in Buenos Aires in the wee hours of the morning -- at two o'clock to be precise.  He's a bit smashed, nauseous, and unsteady on his feet, but all of that changes when he sees that there's a dead woman  in the elevator.  Now he's alert and really shook up.  Luckily he doesn't have to face it alone -- just moments after his gruesome discovery, he is joined by another tenant arriving home, a Doctor Adolfo Luchter.  Luchter realizes that the police will have to be called in, and that the victim seems to have been poisoned.  Thus begins the investigation, but it won't be easy for the detectives to unravel this one -- with six floors of occupants, there are certainly plenty of suspects from which to choose.  The investigators certainly have their work cut out for them, since the apartment building houses a number of  people who harbor a variety of secrets that they are reluctant to divulge.  Yet, as Inspector Ericourt notes, "There is always a truth, even if it's hidden." His task is to find it.

While Death Going Down works along the lines of a police procedural/detective novel, it is neither a cut-and-dried nor a routine detective story. After finishing it, I have to say I was surprised not only at the identity of the murderer but also at the assumptions I made as a reader while following the case.  When I turned the last page, it dawned on me just how very clever the author had been here precisely in how she used reader expectations while developing this story.  The book is well worth reading for several reasons (including the fact that the apartment building is home to a number of European refugees from World War II - very nice move), but for me it was all about the fact that I was completely caught off guard while expecting one thing and ending up with  something completely different. Sorry to sound so cryptic, but I really don't want to divulge anything.

The story moves a bit slowly and may not be for readers who like fast-paced crime; it's really not cozy material, and it's not at all your average police procedural. However, it's quite good, nicely done, and as I said, the solution threw me for a loop.  Suffice it to say that any author who can do this in a whodunit earns my great respect, since I've been reading mystery/crime novels since I was about five.

  From the back-cover blurb I learned  that María Angélica Bosco was known in her day as "the Argentinian Agatha Christie," but I have to say that her writing style (at least as evidenced here)  is most definitely her own.  Readers of translated crime fiction really do not want to pass this one by.

Friday, April 21, 2017

* Eugene Aram, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

9781934555194
Valancourt Books, 2010
originally published 1832
516 pp

paperback

"I looked on the deed I was about to commit as a great and solemn sacrifice to Knowledge, whose Priest I was." 

 Edward Bulwer-Lytton isn't exactly a household name, but in a way, everyone has some teensy measure of  familiarity with this 19th century author, since he was the guy who coined the famous phrase "It was a dark and stormy night," in his novel Paul Clifford (1830), which gained fame via Charles Schulz (see cartoon below) and via the annual (since 1982)  Bulwer-Lytton contest, a
" whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." 

As a word of friendly warning, I should note that Bulwer-Lytton's style of writing has been labeled as "florid," "turgid," and one of my online friends referred to it as the "paid-by-the-word" style -- in short, he's extremely verbose, a yammerer extraordinaire, and devoted to wordiness to the point where reading is a chore.   I consider myself to be a very patient reader but I almost lost my cool after reading six pages devoted to absolutely nothing but one man trying to convince another to look after his cat while he was off on his travels. I knew this was going to be rough going pretty much at the outset.


However, in spite of the extreme verbosity, Eugene Aram turns out to be a pretty decent book, a tale very loosely based on the real-life story of the titular character.   According to the Newgate Calendar, aka The Malefactors' Bloody Register,  the real Aram,  was "A Self-Educated man, with remarkable Linguistic Attainments, who was executed at York on the 6th of August, 1759, for a Murder discovered Fourteen Years after its Commission."  Bulwer's Eugene Aram is just one example of the body of work known as the "Newgate Novel,"
"so-called because the characters of its stories might have been found in the pages of Newgate Calendars, a collection of criminal biographies that first appeared in 1728."
This sort of book "focused on the lives of real or invented criminals,"  and are of huge  importance to the history of crime fiction, since as stated briefly in a blurb for chapter eight of  The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 3: The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880,  
" These novels and others like them set in place themes and tropes that shaped early fictional narratives of crime.They incorporated factual events, revolved round the figure of the criminal, and promoted a didactic political and social message."   
In other words, according to one literary scholar, the Newgate novel "emerged in the 1830s as a response to contemporary issues within the social, legal and penal systems of Victorian London." For further information, there are all sorts of resources online and in print about the Newgate novel; now it's on to Eugene Aram. 

 Aside from the overly-excessive verbiage here, the novel isn't half bad.  Divided into three volumes, the first few chapters introduce us to the main characters of this book, and situate us somewhere in the English countryside, in the village of Grassdale.  The backstory to what is to come is also introduced, concerning the disappearance of one Geoffrey Lester, brother to squire Rowland Lester and father of Walter Lester. Geoffrey had married a woman with a "competent and respectable fortune," stayed with her a few years even though the marriage wasn't a good one, and then just took off leaving young Walter behind to grow up in the home of his uncle Rowland. Every effort had been made to find Geoffrey, but to no avail.

As he grew older, Walter fell for his cousin Madeline, but she only has eyes for the mild, reclusive scholar who lives nearby,  Eugene Aram.  With the handwriting on the wall regarding that relationship, and with no love lost between Walter and Aram, Walter decides it's time he goes out into the world.  While he's out there, he plans to seek news of his long-lost father. As we're told,
"The deep mystery that for so many years had hung over the fate of his parent, it might indeed be his lot to pierce; and with a common waywardness in our nature, the restless son felt his interest in that parent the livelier from the very circumstance of remembering nothing of his person."
Off he goes and it isn't too long after he begins his quest that he finds the first clue having to do with his missing father; following that up sends him on to yet another place and so on until he is ready to return to Grassdale, as it just so happens, on the day set for the marriage between Madeline and Eugene Aram. But the wedding plans are off after Walter reveals everything he's learned over the course of his travels -- as the back-cover of my copy reveals, Walter's quest will "lead to the discovery of a long-hidden and horrible crime and the trial of Eugene Aram for murder!"

the real Eugene Aram, from Wikipedia

The story goes back and forth between Walter's adventures and scenes between the Lester family and Eugene Aram back in Grassdale, until both come together with Walter's return.  That's really all I'll say about plot, because while it was fun traveling along with Walter through all of his adventures (and there are many), of greater interest to me was Aram's motivation for his role in the crime. He's a complicated man, a closed-off, quiet, yet very respectable scholar and as Walter discovers, there are few in this book who have anything but great things to say about him. Yet, as we know from the real case, Eugene Aram turned out to be a murderer.  So what made Bulwer-Lytton's Aram tick?  I actually struggled with that question right up until I got to to page 400 something when the turning point/aha  moment  for me came as I read the following from a statement given by Aram, in which he says that he
"looked on the deed I was about to commit as a great and solemn sacrifice to Knowledge, whose Priest I was" 
at which point I was actually sort of floored with the conceit of this guy.   How this is so I won't reveal, but it's a somewhat twisted logic Bulwer-Lytton uses here, and I'm afraid that I'm in agreement with many of his contemporaries who called him out for turning his Eugene Aram into sort of  as Winifred Hughes says in her The Maniac in the Cellar,  a "criminal-hero."

I've noted above the hazards of the writing style in this book, but I will also say that despite the testing of my endurance, Eugene Aram turned out to be a good read for me.  It takes a very patient reader to make it through this book, but it's worth it for many reasons, none the least of which is that it is a part of crime-fiction history.  When  earlier I posted my thoughts on Richmond I said that "it's a narrow circle of readers who will be attracted to this book, making it what I call an "NFE" read -- not for everyone..." and I will say that the circle  of people who would be attracted by Eugene Aram is probably even narrower.  I would, however, certainly recommend it to readers who are interested in the evolution of crime fiction, and for those readers who are interested in pre-Victorian British fiction as well.


Friday, April 14, 2017

The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding: A yes in my book.

9781903155325
Persephone Books, 2009
originally published 1947
231 pp

paperback

"The walls of her home were falling down; there was no refuge." -- 75

It's not surprising that a number of regular crime fiction readers have never heard of Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding (1889-1955), but it's certainly a shame.  According to the Publisher's Note in this book, in 1950 Raymond Chandler wrote to his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton asking if "anybody in England" published her work, noting that
"For my money she's the top suspense writer of them all."
He went on to recommend three of her books: Net of Cobwebs (1945),  The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and this one, The Blank Wall.   The publisher's note also states that although a number of her books were published in the UK in the 1950s,
"Elisabeth Sanxay Holding vanished on this side of the Atlantic and all-but vanished on the other."
In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock reprinted the complete The Blank Wall in his anthology called My Favourites in Suspense, and a reviewer at the time described Holding as an "astonishing artist" and called upon "reprint publishers" to take notice, but sadly, no one did.  As late as 1981 Maxim Jakubowski writing in The Guardian also said that for publishers, perhaps "the time has come to take up Raymond Chandler's challenge" and to "resurrect the exemplary books" by this author, but  no one did.  Holding is another sadly-neglected author, but now that I've read two of her crime novels, trust me, the home library will be hosting many, many more.

I consider myself lucky to have found this novel, because it's so nicely done I couldn't stop reading it once I'd picked it up.  It reminded me so much of the work of Patricia Highsmith, but Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, didn't come out until 1950.  The Blank Wall is a book where there are crimes, cover-ups and consequences, but like so very many of Highsmith's books, the focus here is much more on character rather than simply crime.  In that sense, it's not what I'd call a typical suspense/crime novel, so anyone who may be considering it might want to make note of that fact. In other words, the plot is not nearly as important as what's happening around it.

from Early Bird books

Lucia Holley is a mother of two, keeping the  home fires burning while her husband Tom is away, "somewhere in the Pacific,"  doing his duty during World War II.  Her father lives with the family, and she's got a gem of a housekeeper named Sibyl to help her out.  Lucia writes Tom "very dull letters" every evening, letters meant to provide her husband with "a picture of a life placid and sunny as a little mountain lake." And in fact, life had been pretty dull at the Holley home, up until the time seventeen year-old daughter Bee began seeing a much older man named Ted Darby.  Lucia knows he's no good for Bee, and even made a trip to nearby New York City to confront him, but her visit had been "utterly useless," and ultimately harmful, since Ted immediately turned around and told Bee about it, setting up a confrontation between mother and daughter. Lucia, for whom there is nothing she wouldn't do "to stop this thing" makes several threats (cutting off Bee's allowance, for example), but inside she feels as though all of this was her fault -- that she'd made "several mistakes with Bee, even when she was a little girl."

 Lucia's father (Mr. Harper) echoes her concern about Ted Darby, and matters come to a head one evening when Darby shows up at the boathouse.  As Lucia is writing Tom and considering how "badly" she'd done with Bee, Harper reveals that he'd gone to the boathouse and "dealt with" Darby, pushing into the water and sending him off with a "flea in his ear."  The next morning, Lucia wakes up "extra early," and decides to take out the rowboat and go for a swim, "to think of some new and better way to talk to Bee."  As she steps into the rowboat, she looks into the nearby motorboat and discovers Darby's body -- "fallen, on a spare anchor, half upended on the seat, and it had pierced his throat."  Her first thought : "Father did that."
"Of course it means the police, she thought. Then Father will have to know that he did this. They'll find out why Ted came here, and Bee will be dragged into it. And I shan't be able to keep it from Tom. Not possibly. It'll be in the tabloids."
Deciding that she must do anything "to save us all," she decides to hide the body.  But Darby's death  is only the tip of the iceberg:  it's not long until she finds herself targeted for blackmail by a crook who has gotten hold of letters from Bee to Ted, leading to a sequence of events that will reveal exactly how far and to what costs this woman will go to protect her family.

So that's the plot in a nutshell -- suspenseful, definitely, and also twisty along the way to the end, but as I said before, there is much more than merely plot to this book, and Lucia is at the center of it all.  Lucia is a passive, highly-insecure woman  and with Tom away, her "little world," as Lucia puts it, consists solely of her children and her father, for whom she will do anything. Her life since childhood has been relatively uneventful; she married young  at eighteen, directly out of her parents' house, then had her first child. Up until Tom went away for the war, she's rarely had to cope with things by herself, and her life is rather humdrum and dull. She depends heavily on Sybil, who often covers up Lucia's absent-mindedness and sloppy housecleaning; Sybil makes the best deals at the markets to get the most out of their ration coupons, and keeps things on track within the home. But as things begin to threaten Lucia's "little world," Holding does a brilliant job here in slowly bringing out a Lucia who somehow manages to go deep within herself to find the strength she needs to protect it; she also makes us privy to Lucia's thoughts in which she comes to terms with how she really feels about herself and her life.

As Sanxay-Holding lets us into to Lucia's head, we also get a glimpse into how women with domestic responsibilities  like Lucia  are viewed outside of the home. As just one example, while in New York City,  Lucia decides to take out a loan from a company that advertised it would "lend money on a note," with  "no delay" and "no red tape." With no income of her own, the promises don't hold true for her. Thinking about her frustration while in a cab, she notes
"If one of those reporters stopped me in the street and asked me what I thought about Russia, or something like that, he'd put me down as Mrs. Lucia Holley, Housewife.
Why is it 'housewife'? What would I call myself if we lived in a hotel? Nobody ever puts down just 'wife' or even just 'mother.' If you haven't got a job, and you don't keep house, then you aren't anything, apparently."  
There's a lot  happening here outside of plot, as this book takes a look at (among other things) motherhood, family expectations, the true meaning of friendship, race, class, and domestic disruption on the home front due to the war.  At the same time, the focus on the criminal aspects here are very well done, and the suspense ratchets constantly through the novel.  It is so very well done on both inner and outer fronts, and I was so impressed with it that I couldn't put it down. It is highly intelligent and as I said earlier, I feel fortunate in having discovered it completely by chance.  I can seriously and highly recommend this novel to readers of vintage crime, and to readers who enjoy crime fiction written by women.  I promise - it's a story that will not be forgotten.

*****
I'll be back with an update on the film based on this book,  "The Reckless Moment" (1949)  after I've watched it. There was another adaptation, "The Deep End" (2001), but I'm going to pass on that one.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

*Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner, by "Richmond," (ed) E.F. Bleiler

0486232794
Dover, 1976
originally written 1827
266 pp

paperback

Continuing on with my look at crime fiction history, I discovered this book, which the front cover says is "the first collection of detective stories (1827) in English."   According to E.F. Bleiler's introduction, true authorship of this book is unknown (well, at least it was in 1976 when this volume was published), although the names of two different men (Thomas Surr or Thomas Gaspey)  have been floated about as having written these tales.  Bleiler dismisses the possibility of either one having done so.

I'd say that for modern readers, it's definitely a book for a niche audience -- for people like myself who can't get enough of this sort of thing, for people interested in the popular side of 19th-century British fiction, for readers looking into the history of British crime fiction, for people interested in the Bow Street Runners (and so on).  The writing is thick, meaning a bit archaic for today's reading audience, and there is a lot of narrative yammering by  both narrator and other characters which can drive a person crazy. Then again, the author realizes this here and there, as in Richmond's fourth case when he notes during a scene in the courts:
"The magistrate soon grew tired of this stuff, as I fear the reader has been long ago..."
or in scenes in which Richmond tells people to, as translated in our modern verbiage, cut to the chase and get on with the story.  That sort of thing is only annoying for me every so often here, and doesn't really bother me too much -- in short, I had great fun with this book.

Originally published in three volumes, here Richmond is divided into two parts, complete with labels as to the ending of each original volume.  The first part is composed completely of "Richmond's Early Life," which follows him from school days on to as he says,  "the period of my education for future duties at Bow-street." It's his love for a woman that, among other things,  sends him on the run, lands him in a small theater group, sends him to live with the "gipsies" for whom he develops sympathy, great respect and true friendships.  The second part consists of five of his cases, throughout which his
"fame travelled in company, waxing, like the moon, brighter and broader as it rolled on"
so much so that his services were in great demand and in "much request for enterprises of 'great pith and moment.' "

There is a wide range of cases for him to solve here.  He begins by looking into the disappearance of a little boy whom, it is feared, has been the victim of a "resurrection man" who kidnaps and kills in order to make money from bodies by selling them to anatomists. Next up is my personal favorite, in which an attorney turned rector via a fake degree decides to make his home among villagers who hate his tithe policies and try to drive him out using some very funny tricks (fake ghosts, fake earthquakes, a rat in the house with a bell attached to it, and more); while he's settling this one, he becomes involved with graverobbers.  In fact, each case is not focused solely on just one crime -- Richmond uncovers others and continues his pursuits throughout the book, so a bad guy from one case may turn up in another.  Moving on, the third case is a bit more complicated, involving smugglers, racing fraud etc., but it is here that he meets the woman he will eventually marry. In case number four, his services are required to rescue a man's daughter from a husband who is driving her mad and treating her terribly, and finally, in case five, Richmond spots a well-dressed woman trying to pass forged bank notes, leading him to bigger fish when he saves the life of a naive young man who tries to drown himself.

Not only are these stories fun in the reading, but they move in and out of social, economic and class divides, exposing the best and the worst among all kinds of different people; it also moves between city and countryside so that we get the idea that crime happens everywhere.  Richmond's detection skills are first rate; at the same time, having lived with the "gipsies" and gaining an understanding of how need and want can sometimes drive people into crime, he often turns his head to ignore some illegal activities that he feels are not as heinous as others.

As I said earlier, it's a narrow circle of readers who will be attracted to this book, making it what I call an "NFE" read -- not for everyone, and that's okay.  For me it's another window into the history of crime fiction, and I'm very happy to have discovered it. For any reader deciding to take a look, Bleiler's introduction covers a wide range of topics not just connected with Richmond -- it also includes a brief history of the Bow Street Runners and how they were perceived as well as many other subjects of great interest to nerdy people like myself.  I found Richmond fascinating -- then again, I could make a steady diet of books like this one.


Friday, March 31, 2017

* The Rector of Veilbye, by Steen Blicher

9781500384753
CreateSpace, 2014
25 pp

paperback

"Oh, what is man that he shall dare to sit in judgment over his fellows! God alone is the Judge. He who gives life may alone give death!" 

One would think that a book of only 25 pages would be a no-brainer, easy read with not much to say, but that's just not the case here. First published in 1829, this little pamphlet-sized story kept me up well past two a.m. this morning thinking about what I'd just read.

The Rector of Veilbye  has often been touted as "the first crime novel,"  and is based on real events.  According to the back-cover blurb, "The trial of Pastor Søren Jensen Quist of Vejlby took place at Aarhus in 1626," and involved the disappearance of a farm laborer in 1607 employed by the rector.  Evidently, over a decade later, bones were dug up on the rector's land that were believed to belong to the missing man and the rector was blamed. Also noted on the cover is the fact that this little book was "selected for inclusion in the Cultural Canon of Denmark," and that one official noted the "elegiac pain and discomfort in an eerily intense drama."   It may actually be the first Scandinavian crime novel -- obviously I can't say that for sure, but 1829 is still quite early in the crime fiction game so it's entirely possible.  The story is revealed through journal entries from two different people -- District Judge Erik Sorensen, who outlines the main events of the case as well as his own involvement and how it affects him personally, and then a pastor from Aalso, who lets us in on a most harrowing aftermath some 21 years later.  Sorensen has a role here other than just district judge -- he happens to be betrothed to the daughter of the titular rector of Veilbye, Soren Quist, who has been accused of murdering one of his servants "in a fit of rage," and then burying the body in his own garden.

To tell is to spoil, especially in this very short but powerful work, so I'm not going to give away any plot details other than what I've said above.   At the same time, a note to readers: don't be fooled by its size -- there is a lot going on in this little book.   Not only is it a no-frills story of a crime (and I'll leave it to readers to decide which acts here are actually criminal),  but it also provides a great argument against capital punishment,  while also examining the links between religious beliefs and the law.  It's also, I'll argue, a book that puts the reader in the unhappy position of judge -- considering the evidence as it's given here,  it's simply impossible not to find yourself trying to make up your mind one way or the other, just as Sorensen had to do.

For readers entrenched in modern, fast-paced, violence-laden crime fiction, this book may seem to be a nothing sort of work. That certainly wasn't my reaction though -- it actually became an incredibly sad and thought-provoking story as I considered  the moral implications vs. the legal, and as I said earlier, it kept me awake long after having finished it.  Considering that it's not even thirty pages long, well, that's power. I have to wholeheartedly agree with the Danish official noted above who said that "the story is difficult to shake off" -- there is definitely a lot of truth in that statement.

Anyone who is at all interested in the history of crime fiction needs to read this book, but really, given what happens in this story, well, it's actually a book for everyone.  Amazing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

a Graham Greene double (well, triple really) play: The Ministry of Fear, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol


"But he didn't understand a thing; he was caught up in other people's darkness."




The Ministry of Fear was, according to Greene himself in his Ways of Escape (1980), written after he'd read a particular book by writer Michael Innes.   Greene was not a huge fan of  English detective stories but as he notes, Innes' book was a "surprise and welcome change...a detective story both fantastic and funny."  Greene decided he could do the same, and he chose his plot thinking that it would be "a funny one," but after having finished the book, he realized that it really wasn't funny at all.  The Ministry of Fear, he also notes in Ways of Escape, is his "favorite" among what he termed at the time his "entertainments," which he said "distinguished them from more serious novels."  

Since I've got three Greene stories to cover, these little synopses will all be brief.

The Ministry of Fear is an excellent spy novel with a number of truly remarkable twists and turns, but even more importantly, it is an excellent character study. Here his focus is on widower Arthur Rowe, who after some time away (I won't go into the details here) returns to the outside world. As we get to know this man, it seems that Arthur's inner turmoil is a reflection of the outer turmoil of the world he's come back into  -- for example, as the country  "has a war on," so too does Arthur in his head; there are "gaps between the Bloomsbury houses," which continuing the image, will also reflect Arthur's psyche, as  the "sound of glass being swept up" reflects his shattered self.  He is happy to find himself at a local fête on a "late summer Sunday afternoon" --  it "called him like innocence; it was entangled in childhood..."  -- where he is asked if he would like to guess the weight of a cake.  Guessing off the cuff, he later makes his way to the fortune-teller's tent where he learns that he should actually give the weight as "four pounds eight and a half ounces." He changes his guess, wins the cake and on leaving, is told that a mistake had been made, that someone else had actually guessed correctly.  Arthur refuses to hand it over, and it is this one decision that changes his life. Following an attempt on his life, he is framed for a crime in which his own knife is the weapon, and finds himself not only at odds with the people trying to get him out of the way, but also with his own mind and especially his past.  


The movie is a bit of a conundrum.  Greene's depictions of the blitz and the atmosphere surrounding it move nicely from page to screen, the spy vibe is definitely out in full force,  and the sense of dread is palpable throughout.  However,  Fritz Lang left out some pretty vital scenes from the novel to make his film, and like Greene, I was not happy about it   -- as he said, the omission of the scenes that find Rowe in a mental clinic made "the whole story meaningless," and I concur. The depth underscoring Ray Milland's character (who now becomes Stephen Neale) is not brought to life as fully in the movie as it is in the book, which sort of misses the entire point.  So read the book first, for sure -- it is so much better than the movie. 

Book number two is The Third Man and The Fallen Idol.  Both stories once again blew me away, especially The Third Man which is just genius storytelling.  Turning again to Greene's own words in Ways of Escape, the author states that this story "was never written to be read but only to be seen."  


However, he also says that
"For me it is impossible to write a film play without first writing a story...I must have the sense of more material than I need to draw on."
Luckily for me and for fans of Greene's work, he felt as though it had to start as a story first. And oh my god, what a story it is.  It is set in a divided, "smashed dreary city,"  postwar-Vienna,  which at the time was occupied by the four powers, and is a tale of black-market corruption and racketeering.  The book begins with the arrival of Rollo Martins, a hack writer of western novels, who has come there to work for his friend Harry Lime. Lime has offered him a job in a charity he supposedly runs, but when Martins arrives, he finds that Lime has been killed in an accident in which he was run down by a car.  Martins, who "worshipped Lime"  is resentful that Scotland Yard's Colonel Calloway has pinned "some petty racket" and murder on his now dead friend, and swears that he will make Calloway "look the biggest bloody fool in Vienna" for doing so.  What Martins doesn't know, and what Calloway doesn't explain until it's necessary, is that Harry was not involved in just a "petty racket going on with petrol," but rather something so heinous that it beggars belief. Martins knows that there were two witnesses to Harry's death, but as he continues his quest for the truth, he uncovers evidence of a "third man" who was there as well, making Lime's death a murder and not an accident. Who was this third man? And why did he not come forth to give evidence? As Martins tries to discover answers, he finds himself caught up in something so much bigger than he'd ever expected. All eyes on Martins here -- Greene once again gives us a character who has to come to terms with a reality that will test everything he's ever known or believed.


The film is just over-the-top excellent -- once again Greene fleshes out the characters in much more detail in written form than the film can convey, although the movie comes very close. Once again, I'd say if possible read the book first because you will get a lot more out of the film.

And now to the third story, "The Fallen Idol," which started life in 1935 as "The Basement Room." After having finished it, I understand the logic behind the original title, but even so, the story is just so damned good that it hardly matters.  Book and movie are quite different -- as Greene explains, what started as a story about "a small boy who unwittingly betrayed his best friend to the police" ended up as a tale about "a small boy who believed his friend was a murderer and nearly procured his arrest by telling lies in his defence."  I'll go further: reading carefully, we find that this is a story of a suppressed memory based on childhood events -- there are interjections throughout that reveal Philip in his sixties still traumatized and by then psychologically damaged.

In the story, young Philip both adores and pities his friend Baines, the family butler.  As we're told, it had "occurred to him how happily they could live together in the empty house if Mrs. Baines were called away," since she is always harping on her husband and making life just plain miserable in general. Philip stumbles onto a secret that Baines has been keeping regarding another woman, which pushes him into a world he doesn't quite understand and is not ready for;  he then unwittingly betrays Baines prompting a series of events that will trouble and color Philip's psyche for the remainder of his life.



I have to say that I love this movie. This is my second time viewing the film, and it was better this time around than the first.  Even though Philip stays a little boy here and there is no hint of the older Philip as in Greene's original story, it is so suspenseful that I was mesmerized. The casting of Bobby Henrey as Phillipe was so perfect that his is the face I saw while reading the story; the same is true in the case of Mrs. Baines, who in the book is described by Philip as being "so like the witches of his dreams."  The scene with MacGregor, the snake, the one that really sets Philip against her (not in the novel, by the way), says everything a person needs to know about this character.

Sadly, with two books/three stories at once under discussion here, there's really no time to dig deep, but careful readers will definitely find a LOT going on in these stories aside from plot. The quotation I began this post with is from "The Fallen Idol," and this one short sentence to me embodies much of the essence of all three of these stories. For me, it ties these diverse tales together in a way that makes complete sense.    In The Ministry of Fear the main character accidentally stumbles into a serious case of espionage, The Third Man focuses on a man who refuses to believe that his best friend in the world might possibly be guilty of  horrific deeds in postwar Austria, and in "The Fallen Idol" young Philip finds himself plunged headlong into the messy adult world with no understanding of how it works.  For me all three are also scenarios of a sort of lost innocence that can never be reclaimed, all have to do with secrets and lies, and all are frankly quite brilliant.  As I keep telling people, it's just a shame that this author is not read very widely any more.  He is a master storyteller as well as an author whose works go well beyond simple plot into deeper, darker places -- in short, my kind of writer.

I highly, highly recommend these two books as well as the movies -- I'll be revisiting Greene here shortly.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

oh! RIP Colin Dexter -- one of my all-time favorite authors.

from The Independent
I've just heard that Colin Dexter passed away today.  I cut my crime-novel reading teeth on his Morse series,  which gave me hours and hours of pleasure,  and I will remember him as one of my favorite crime writers of all time.

Perhaps it's time for a Morse reading retrospective.

Requiescat in pace