Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Cult X, by Fuminori Nakamura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Syndicate, by Clarence Cooper, Jr.

9781948596046
Molotov Editions, 2018
originally published 1960
140 pp

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

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

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

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






9780857062833
Leonaur, 2010
331 pp
paperback

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




9780857062864
Leonaur, 2010
326 pp
hardcover


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


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

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


Sunday, June 3, 2018

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

9780718092085
Thomas Nelson, 2018
336 pp

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

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

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

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