Captured by Neil Cross

The extraordinary novel, Always the Sun was my introduction to British author, Neil Cross, the author/creator of Luther. I’d been meaning to return to Cross for some time, and my second novel by this author was Captured–a huge disappointment as it turned out. The premise of Captured is simple and yet fraught with problems: middle-aged Kenny is diagnosed with terminal brain  cancer and with just a few short weeks to live, he decides to make a list of people “he’d in some way let down. He’d decided to use the time he had left to put things right.”  This is the sort of scenario many of us consider–just what would we do with a few weeks if we are given a death sentence. Kenny makes his list, a rather short one I should add with just 4 names on it, and then sets out to contact those on the list. Soon there’s just one person left, Callie Barton, a woman he knew years ago, but when he tries to track her down, he discovers that she disappeared years ago, and that her abusive husband was the main suspect in the case.

Kenny begins by breaking into Callie’s former home and gets a sense of the sort of man her husband is. Things go rapidly downhill from there…..

capturedCaptured is extremely violent, and it lacks all of the subtlety of Always the Sun. If I’d read Captured first, it would have been my last Cross novel for the violence alone, but there are also problems with plot credibility.  Would a man with six weeks or less to live spend it tracking down a little girl he knew way back in his childhood? And would he spend most of those few weeks in a no-holds barred way to discover the truth? And then, really stretching, would there only be 4 people on the list? The small number seemed plot driven more than anything else and allowed a number of pages to rack up before Kenny got down to the real business of finding Callie. In answer to all those questions, there’s always the argument that loner Kenny might be crazy. After all, his father was, and then we know nothing about Kenny before we learn of his diagnosis. Sympathy for the terminal illness washes away any possibility, at least at first, that this might not be a very nice man…. So there are some physiological complexities here if you don’t mind wading through, violence, blood and the odd bit of torture to get to the end.

So a disappointing read. Anyone else read Neil Cross?

Review copy



Filed under Cross Neil, Fiction

Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido

“It beats me,’ said my Aussie, as we watched the oncoming drizzle, “why nobody thought of turning this place into a penal colony and exporting the British populace en masse to Australia.”

Barbara Trapido’s novel Brother of the More Famous Jack, originally published in 1982 has recently been reissued. I’ve seen the book described as a coming-of-age novel, and that’s a good description, but at the same time, if it fits, then the ‘coming-of-age’ is a long slow process for the main character as she moves through three major love affairs from age 18 to her 30s. Life is seen through the eyes of a very impressionable young woman from a modest background who’s propelled forward by education into the exotic, eccentric and chaotic world of the Goldmans–a large, sprawling family headed by Professor Jacob Goldman. Eighteen year-old Katherine first meets Professor Goldman when he conducts an interview with her for a University place. Katherine’s deceased father was “a modestly comfortable local greengrocer” and her narrow-minded mother insists on a “genteel North London day school” in order to “acquire the right accent and be fit to mix in the right circles.” Goldman, an outspoken, confident, and bombastic intellectual isn’t what Katherine’s mother had in mind as the sort of person to help shape her daughter. “An impressive and powerful left-wing philosopher up from the East End,” Goldman is an overpowering individual who shows kindness to Katherine, and over time she becomes a part of the Goldman extended family.

Brother of the more famous jackYou never know when you first meet someone what sort of role he or she is going to play in your life. In Katherine’s case, when she meets the Goldmans and falls in love with the entire family, she has no idea that she’s taken a very specific life course, one that will have profound impact on her choices.

It was a marriage characterized among other things by the fact that Jacob was alternately infuriated and enchanted by Jane’s resolutely playing the country wife. There is no doubt that it influenced the paths that I chose to tread.

Shortly after meeting Goldman for the interview, Katherine finds herself at his home, as the guest of a mutual friend, architect John Millet, a man who plays a strange game with the Goldmans–flirting outrageously with Goldman’s heavily pregnant wife Jane, a “neglected Burne-Jones in Wellingtons” while planning to seduce Katherine under their roof. Katherine suspects, and she’s spot on, that she’s being used as some sort of jealousy tool by Millet. While Goldman dominates the family and rules the roost, Jane, who shares the same opinions with Katherine about Austen’s Emma, is quietly fascinating:

I find her wonderfully gossipy and conspiring. We are drawn together into an intimacy not only by the melodrama in the onion patch, not only by a happy accidental affinity of mind, but because I believe that I answer a need. As women do, she has sacrificed distant female friendships on the altar of a contented marriage. She has been assimilated into her husband’s tribe of male academics, male bohemians, male politicos, and predominantly male children. She makes rapid commitments with the logical clarity of hallucination. She tells me at once that she jacked in Oxford after knowing Jacob for three days and went to live with him instead.

The weekend at the Goldman’s Sussex countryside home seals Katherine’s fate. As an only child from a sterile, confining social-climbing home, she’s entranced by the Goldmans and their boisterous, argumentative and disinhibited children. Professor Goldman’s unabashedly gropes his wife in front of everyone, and his continual references to sex rubs off on the entire family in one way or another. Unlike his father Jacob, the eldest son, Roger, conventional and never comfortable with sex, is destined to become a pillar of the establishment. In another scene Jacob’s small daughter has decided suddenly to inform guest John Millet about physiology:

“Jane’s baby is going to get born through a very stretchy hole,” she says. “And only girls have them. If you’re a boy or a girl you stay a boy or a girl, you know.’ There is more sex education about than I have encountered in my whole life.

That short quote says a lot about the Goldmans’ family dynamic: the children refer to their parents by their first names, and no subject is taboo. Katherine, whose home life is restrictive and conservative, doesn’t see the pathological implications under the surface of the Goldman family and instead she’s entranced by the foreign experience of candid behaviour which we can see borders on rude and abusive at times.

This simple weekend sets Katherine on a course that defines her life well into adulthood–through three major love affairs–all influenced by the Goldmans. It’s not until Katherine is in her 30s that she has occasion to re-evaluate her impressions of the family.

When I picked up Brother of the More Famous Jack, I thought I was going to read a book set in Academia. Although Jacob is a professor, there’s very little here about academic life, and instead the novel is much more about Katherine’s three major loves affairs (which include one disastrous relationship with a very macho, fascistic and bombastic Italian–and am I the only one who thinks that he shares some characteristics with Jacob?). Like most coming-of-age stories, this is a bittersweet tale, and yet also at times quite funny. There’s one wonderful scene when Jane Goldman wants to persuade her son, Jonathan, the “flower child” to take the Oxford Entrance Exam and she’s not getting much help from her husband. Here’s a scene between Katherine, Jane and Jonathan:

‘Katherine is going abroad,’ she said. ‘She’s got herself a very nice job. There’s a moral in that, somewhere, which you might pick up.’

‘Piss off,’ Jonathan said to her. ‘Where are you going, Katherine?’

‘Rome,’ I said. ‘I got some Italian money today. Can I show you my Monopoly money?’ I pulled out of my purse my wad of wonderful lire. We gazed at them, the three of us. Jane started suddenly with new inspiration.

‘You wouldn’t stoop to bribery, would you, Jontikins?’ she said.

Jonathan, who had relaxed over the banknotes, returned to his hostile stare.

‘It’ll take you a lot of fucking Smarties to get me to write that exam, lady,’ he said.

‘I was thinking more of something like six hundred pounds,’ she said. ‘Stay and write the exam and I will give you six hundred pounds. You could have a better time in Europe with the money, you know.’ Jonathan left the room, but suddenly he was there again.

‘You haven’t got it,’ he said.

Although never overplayed, there’s a subtle thread of feminism in this tale–mostly seen through the strong connection between Jane and Katherine and the choices & sacrifices they make in their lives. Katherine’s quiet, steady narrative voice is one of the book’s stronger attractions as she wades through identity, love, rejection and loss in a life full of characters whose dominant personalities vie with her meeker ways.  Author Barbara Trapido was born in 1941 in South Africa but now lives in the U.K. I’d never heard the name before seeing this book which, incidentally comes with a glowing review from author Maria Semple. While I didn’t love the book, I liked it a lot and would definitely try another book from this author. Loving the book may hinge on whether or not the readers are as beguiled by the Goldmans as our heroine, Katherine.

Review copy




Filed under Fiction, Trapido Barbara

Woman with a Gun: A novel by Phillip Margolin

“Any picture you’ve seen do not do her justice. She is every teenage boy’s wet dream and she also has a very high IQ. That’s a perfect combination for a gold digger. I assume you know what a leech is.”

American author Phillip Margolin has a large fan base, and a long backlist of published novels, but for some reason I’d never heard of him. The eye-catching cover of his latest book, Woman with a Gun demanded attention, and since a brief look at the plot yielded the possibility of a femme fatale, I was in for the duration.

Woman with a Gun is a story within a story, moving backwards and then forwards in time but always centered on various characters connected to the unsolved murder case of a millionaire. The plot begins with would-be novelist, Stacey Kim who has relocated from the Midwest to Manhattan. She took a job as a receptionist in a legal firm thinking that the mind-numbingly boring job would give her time to ‘think’ about the great novel she intends to write, and opportunities to mingle with law clients and cherry pick through their “witty comments.” One lunch time, she heads to an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and once there she finds herself at an exhibit of photography by Kathy Moran. There’s one photo that dominates the exhibit: Woman with a Gun. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, taken ten years before back in 2005 and depicts a woman in a wedding dress facing the ocean but holding an antique “long-barreled, six-shooter” behind her back. Stacey is intrigued by the photo, and certain there’s a story behind the strange setting, she “vowed to discover it.”

woman with a gunThen it’s back to 2005 and “the Cahill Case.” This section introduces one of the main characters, Jack Booth, employee of the Oregon Dept. of Justice District Attorney Assistance Program who is called to the crime scene at the cliff top Pacific Palisades mansion owned by now dead millionaire businessman, and renowned collector, Raymond Cahill. Cahill was married just the day before to Megan, the former wife of a professional football player. Now Raymond is dead, beaten and shot, and the vault housing his collection has been plundered. Meanwhile his bride, Megan, is found on the beach, still in her bridal gown, staring at the ocean, murder weapon in hand and with a head injury which could explain her complete loss of memory for the event…..

Local photographer, and former attorney, now waitress Kathy Moran captured the moment of Megan’s disorientation of the beach, and while that photo went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the case was never solved–although to Jack Booth, Megan, the person who benefitted the most from her husband’s death– a gorgeous woman who, according to her ex-husband’s divorce attorney is nothing less than an extremely intelligent and manipulative gold digger, was the main suspect.

Then it’s back to a third time zone: this time it’s 2000, and we’re back in Jack Booth’s past as a hot shot prosecutor of murder cases and the episode that “marked the end of Jack’s ascent in the district attorney’s office” when he prosecuted a vicious criminal named Kilbride–“the type of guy who’ll take a few punches and give up. Then he’ll set your house on fire.”

Of course all these time periods: 2000, 2005, and 2015 are connected. Stacey Kim dumps her job and travels to the scene of the Cahill murder in order to gather research for a novel based on the crime. Her present day interest in the murder of Raymond Cahill wakes up the sleeping, unsolved murder case.

In spite of the time shifts which were not complicated and are clearly delineated, this was a quick easy read. I’ll admit that I was annoyed on page one by the description that Stacey “toiled” from 9-5 at the law office, for as tedious as it may be answering phones all day long, it’s not exactly the same as slaving in the mines. The choice of verb was unfortunate and threw me out of the novel almost immediately. Author Phillip Margolin is a New York Times Best-Selling author and taking a look at Goodreads, there are a number of loyal fans there who enjoy his work. Woman with a Gun is a page turner, no argument there, and while it’s well plotted the earlier sections of the book involving Jack Booth in 2000 & 2005 are riveting, so dropping those sections and picking up the story in the present cost the plot a great deal of momentum. Unfortunately the sections with Stacey Kim poking around town and stirring up memories were much weaker. Stacey is a shallow and not a particularly interesting character, and yet she’s required to pull 15 years of history and several unsolved murder cases behind her. Jack Booth, Megan and particularly Kathy Moran are much more interesting and flawed characters, and shifting the focus to Stacey–a character whose depth does not match the others–weakens the novel overall.

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Margolin Phillip

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós

Tristana from Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is a subversive novel that takes a sly look at the power structure in the relationships of its three main characters: Don Lope, an aging, dissolute roué, his ‘ward,’ the beautiful Tristana, and the handsome, wealthy young man she falls in love with, a painter named Horacio. This is the sort of novel guaranteed to elicit a range of responses from its readers, and that would make this relatively short book, clocking in at just under 200 pages, a great choice for book groups who’d like to sink their teeth into complex characterisations and slippery morality.

tristanaWhen the book opens, one of the main characters Don Lope Garrido, now well past his prime, is living in “cheap plebian rooms, with, as noisy neighbors, a tavern, a café, a shop selling milk fresh from a goat, and a narrow inner courtyard with numbered rooms.”  That wonderful quote creates a cacophony of sounds surrounding Don Lope as he emerges from his surroundings as a rather slippery character:

The first time I encountered this gentleman and observed his proud, soldierly bearing, like a figure in a Velázquez painting of one of Spain’s regiments in Flanders, I was informed that his name was Don Lope de Sosa, a name with more than a whiff of the theatre about it and worthy of a character in one of those short tales you find in books on rhetoric; and, that, indeed was the name given to him by some of his more unsavoury friends; he, however, answered to Don Lope Garrido. In time, I discovered that the name on his baptismal certificate was Don Juan López Garrido; so that sonorous Don Lope must have been his own invention, like a lovely ornament intended to embellish his person; and the name so suited the firm, noble lines of his lean face, his slim, erect body, his slightly hooked nose, his clear brow and lively eyes, his greying moustache and neat, provocative goatee beard, that he really could not have been called anything else. One had no alternative but to call him Don Lope.

Even though Don Lope Garrido (and the name is explained in the footnotes) is 57, it’s still possible to see this dapper aging womanizer as the dangerous threat he used to be. Some of the measures he takes to hang onto the shadow of his vigour are laughable.

The age of this excellent gentleman, in terms of the figure he gave whenever the subject came up, was a number as impossible to verify as the time on a broken clock, whose hands refuse to move. He had stuck fast at forty-nine, as if an instinctive terror of the number fifty had halted him on the much feared boundary of the half century.

He’s spent his lifetime pursing women while evading the consequences of his actions, but now living on an “ever-decreasing income,” he floats on his past glory as a supreme seducer of women with a manufactured morality “which, although it seemed to have sprung solely from him, was, in fact, an amalgamation in his mind of the ideas floating around in the metaphysical atmosphere of the age, like invisible bacteria.” The situation with Tristana is perfect for Don Lope. She’s beautiful, innocent enough to fall for his manipulative arguments and as his ward, she’s entirely dependent upon him.

Don Lope Garrido–just to whet  your appetite–was  a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity that he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: ‘You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier.’

So there, in a few quotes, is a lot of information about Don Lope, who, IMO is the main character of the book–in spite of the fact that its title is the name of Don Lope’s ‘ward’ Tristana. The term ‘ward’ is applied sarcastically as beautiful, young Tristana, who fell initially into Don Lope’s power through the poverty of her parents and Don Lope’s generosity, is her guardian’s mistress.  Locals theorize that Tristana is Don Lope’s niece or even his daughter (“there were even some who claimed to have heard her say ‘papa’, just like one of those talking dolls”), but in time  it becomes clear that “she was nothing […] an item of furniture or an article of clothing, with no one to dispute his ownership.” Tristana, who has a great deal more power than she realizes (or is able to exercise) is, however, the celestial body that the other two main characters, Don Lope and Horacio orbit. Too young and naïve to initially understand her vulnerability, she grasps her situation in her guardian’s home too late, and when she begins to put up resistance to Don Lope’s despotic power, he, a lifetime seducer of women, unscrupulously checkmates her at every point.

The domestic situation in Don Lope’s house is at once bizarre and pathological, and gradually as the story develops we see how Tristana was initially under Don Lope’s thumb and how she now chafes under his control. Don Lope, once the great seducer, entranced women with his words, his wiles and his caresses, but now he alternates various roles to keep his control on Tristana, his “last and, therefore, dearest trophy,” so in one moment, he sits her on his knee and fondles her, and in the next he’s her caring, but authoritative parent who sends her to her room. This leaves Tristana, who’s a neophyte when it comes to manipulation, always one step behind her aging lover/protector/guardian, and while she knows she’s being manipulated and used, she can’t ever quite challenge the various arguments that seasoned seducer Don Lope sends her way. As a result, her resentment and desire for freedom grows, and then she meets Horacio, a young painter who understands her plight….

There were so many ways this novel could have ended, but Benito Pérez Galdós delicately constructs the most subversive route to his story’s conclusion. There’s love and tragedy but there’s also irony, domestic comedy and the massive egos of two of the three main characters, and that’s as much of the plot as I’m prepared to discuss.

A section of the novel takes the form of an epistolary as mushy love letters pass back and forth between Tristana and Horacio. At this juncture the novel lost some of its momentum, and yet at the same time, these letters were essential to question the nature and authenticity of love while showing how the three characters inhabit necessary roles for each other. Tristana and Don Lope eventually become almost caricatures of themselves while Horacio, always a lesser player in the game, does not.

Balzac was an enormous influence on Galdós and you can see this in Tristana in the way the author gently dismantles the layers of his characters with each new event as jealousy, rivalry, and tragedy challenge the triangular relationship between Don Lope, Tristana and Horacio. In this parable of power, self-deceit and ego, who will emerge the victor? And what will victory look like? Don Lope, the seducer, Tristana, his victim, and Horacio the lover begin by inhabiting the lives stock characters, but as the tale continues and the layers of this tale unfold, Galdós does not let his reader make easy moral judgments.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Galdós Benito Pérez

Whom Gods Destroy by Clifton Adams

“The Blue Star was one of those cement-block and stucco buildings that you seen thrown up along highways around towns like Big Prairie. In the daytime they look like misplaced chicken houses, but at night, with their neon trimmings and their tinted floodlights bathing false fronts in soft blues and purples, they take on a kind of cheap glamour.” 

Death’s Sweet Song, is the story of Hooper, a WWII vet saddled with a mortgaged gas station and five cabins which theoretically are supposed to be filled with tourists. Many people would envy a man who owns his own business, but to Hooper, the gas station is a trap which threatens a lifetime of hard work and very little recompense. When a man and his blonde sexy wife drive into the station, Hooper throws himself headlong into a life of crime, hoping that he can escape to the type of life he longs for. After reading, and thoroughly enjoying Death’s Sweet Song, I quickly turned to Whom Gods Destroy as both novels come in a double-bill from Stark House Press.

Death's sweet songWhom Gods Destroy, also from Clifton Adams is an examination of the corrosive nature of hate and revenge as seen through the rise and fall of Roy Foley, a man who returns home to Oklahoma following the death of his father. Foley, born in an Oklahoma slum in the small town of Big Prairie, once had dreams to attend college on a football scholarship and become a doctor or a lawyer, but taunted by wealthy teen beauty, Lola, Foley ran off rather than face his humiliation. When the novel opens, Foley is working as a cook in some hash joint when he gets the news of his father’s death.

I was in Bakersfield, California when the news came. It was the busiest part of the lunch hour and I was slicing tomatoes to go with two orders of cutlets when the Western Union kid came back to the kitchen and said, “You Roy Foley?”

I said I was and he handed me the telegram and a pad to sign.

Somebody was dead. I knew that much because, in my family, that’s the only thing a telegram can mean. For a moment I held the envelope in my hand, looking at it, knowing what was in it, and feeling absolutely nothing. Not even curiosity. The orders were piling up and it seemed more important to get those orders out than to see what was in the telegram.

So I went ahead and fixed up the two orders of cutlets and dished up the vegetables and put the two platters in the service window. Then there was a little breathing spell so I took out the envelope and opened it. It said; “George passed away today. Funeral Friday.” It was signed “May Lou Smothers.”

So help me, it took a full minute or more before it finally came to me that “George” was my old man.

About that time Charley Burnstead, the counter man, put his head in the  service window  and said, “Burn two on one!”

I put the two hamburgers on the grill and split the buns and put them on to toast. That was the way I  got the news.

Foley sells his car and heads back to his small hometown of Big Prairie, Oklahoma where he reconnects with Sid, a man who once lived in very similar circumstances. Now Sid, although almost perpetually drunk, has managed to climb the rungs to success. He drives a flashy car, lives in a nice house, and appears to have hit the big time. His secret…Prohibition. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, Prohibition was not appealed in Oklahoma until 1959, and when Foley meets up with Sid, Sid is making sure that the voters keep Prohibition alive and well in Oklahoma. Hell, it’s good for business!

Foley takes one good hard look at boozed-up Sid and decides that if this idiot can make it, so can he, and he expresses interest in learning the bootlegging business. Sid is only too happy to throw a carrot his friend’s way. Soon Foley, starting at the bottom of the ladder as a humble runner, is learning the business and plotting to take over the town.

While Death’s Sweet Song is the story of a heist, Whom Gods Destroy is the story of how hate and revenge fuel one man’s rise and fall. Foley arrives in Big Prairie and decides that he wants some of the sweet money action for himself, but he’s initially a powerless punk. He makes a grab for a higher rung on the ladder but continually finding himself thrown out of the game, he scrambles to find a way back in in an ever-repeating cycle of creating bargaining chips. In Death’s Sweet Song, there were two women on opposite ends of the decent-rotten scale. The two women in Whom Gods Destroy,  Vida married to Sid and Lola now married to the county attorney, aren’t so easily defined. Foley has a love/hate thing for Lola, and those two feelings are so twisted together, they can’t be separated.–at times his desire for her blinds him to all other considerations, and it seems as though with his obsession to ‘show’ Lola he can’t make a move without being reminded of his humiliation, back in high school, at Lola’s hands.

Just as Hooper in Death’s Sweet Song lays bare his raw justification for murder, Foley painfully, and unsparingly rolls out his humiliations and the rage that carries the seeds of his own destruction. Lola is the first and most significant person to humiliate Foley, and then the novel comes full cycle when he learns just what a coward he is in an incident involving Vida. In between these two events: Lola at high school, and much much later with Vida, a lifetime has passed. Foley has beaten and murdered his way to the top, but what has changed? Absolutely nothing, and that is the moral abyss that faces Foley–not what he has done, but what he failed to do. I can’t praise this little known noir novel enough.


Filed under Adams Clifton, Fiction

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole’s much referenced, ghoulish and unrelentingly grim The Castle of Otranto is considered the first gothic novel. Published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto purports to have originally been printed in 1529 and found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England.” The preface to the first edition, included in my copy, includes a facsimile of the title page along with the name of its fictional translator (William Marshal, Gent.) and its fictional author, Onuphrio Muralto. This is followed by the preface to the second edition which acknowledges the deceit and Walpole begs his readers’ pardon “for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator.”

castle of otrantoThe extensive introduction by Nick Groom  in my Oxford World Classics edition provides a lot of background information about “eighteen century discussion and debate about the Goths and ‘Gothick.‘” If I’d read the book without the intro, I would have missed a great deal of the novel’s historical and political context, and probably scratched my head a lot more as I read the archaic language. In this edition, there’s a chronology of Horace Walpole’s life in the context of his times and extensive explanatory notes. The Castle of Otranto, a story set in Medieval times and laced with lust, incest and the supernatural, explores the question of legitimacy and succession–a most relevant topic for Walpole & his peers.  The book turned out to be nothing like I’d expected; a little background info goes a long way.

The book’s plot is simple enough: Manfred, Prince of Otranto has two children, a son Conrad and a daughter, Matilda,  by Hippolita, an obedient, now aging woman. Manfred, in order to secure his title, has arranged a marriage between the orphan Isabella and his sickly son, Conrad. Manfred managed to persuade Isabella’s guardians to hand her over, and she’s in his castle so that Manfred  “might celebrate the wedding as soon as Conrad’s infirm state of health would permit.” Hippolita occasionally objects at the haste, but she’s rewarded with “reflections on her own sterility.” So the wedding day is fixed even though the match seems incongruous given Conrad’s youth and poor health.

On the day of the wedding, as everyone gathers for the ceremony, Conrad is missing, and a search leads to the discovery of Conrad squashed under a giant helmet. Isabella is secretly relieved that the marriage will not take place, but her relief is short-lived when Manfred summons her to his chamber and announces his intentions to marry her himself. Isabella, horrified, and basically at Manfred’s mercy, flees into the subterranean passages, a “long labyrinth of darkness,” under the castle and eventually finds sanctuary at a convent.

All of this is on the back of the book, so I’m hardly giving away any plot secrets here. The rest of the book includes various twists, turns and complications in the plot as relationships are dramatically revealed and several characters are unmasked. One of the features of the plot that must be mentioned is the use of archaic language:

Madam, said Manfred, what business drew you hither? Why did not you await my return from the marquis? I came to implore a blessing on your councils, replied Hippolita. My councils do not need a friar’s intervention, said Manfred–and of all men living is that hoary traitor the only one you delight to confer with? Profane prince! said Jerome: is it at the altar that thou choosest to insult the servants of the altar?–But, Manfred thy impious schemes are known. Heaven and this virtuous lady know them. Nay, frown not, prince. The church despises thy menaces. Her thunders will be heard above thy wrath. dare to proceed in thy curst purpose of a divorce, until her sentence be known, and her I lance her anathema at thy head. Audacious rebel! said Manfred, endeavouring to conceal the awe with which the friar’s words inspired him; dost thou presume to threaten thy lawful prince?

That long quote gives not only a sense of the language used in the book but also the formatting–a complete lack of quotation marks and line breaks in the dialogue.

Written in 5 chapters, this gothic story is packed with strange events, unexpected, shocking, dramatic revelations, mysterious sounds and dark, secret passages. The morbid, eerie atmosphere of the castle reinforces the plot elements–we know, as dread builds, that anything can happen, and whatever it is, it will be bad. On the question of Manfred’s marriage to Hippolita, and his desire to divorce her (with the help of the church) and marry Isabella (thus producing, he hopes more male heirs), it’s impossible NOT to think of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and with the tricky questions of inheritance and hidden/mistaken identities, of course, it’s also impossible not to think of Shakespeare. The macabre castle itself becomes almost a central character as the tragic events unfold.

To the modern reader, The Castle of Otranto presents a challenge, and the more fantastic events which occasionally occur with a generous dollop of deus-ex-machina seem almost laughable were we not to consider that this is a ground-breaking tale which no doubt shocked the 18th century audience for which it was intended. Any book should stand on its own merits without an explanation to make it readable, and standing on its own The Castle of Otranto possesses the gloomy melodrama you’d expect from a Jacobean tragedy but in this instance, the tale is seeped with the Gothic. Reading the introduction reinforces the political nature of the novel and the author’s intentions.

The brutal Battle of Culloden (anyone seen the brilliant film by Peter Watkins?) in which the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the loyalist troops commanded by the Duke of Cumberland took place in 1746, and it was this battle that decisively ended any hopes for the Stuarts to regain the throne. This significant battle took place less than two decades before the publication of the Castle of Otranto–a book with a plot mostly concerned with legitimacy and succession.  The excellent introduction delves into the politics of the time and argues that “Walpole was [therefore] perhaps positioning the text to be read in its first incarnation as a Tory justification for Stuart rebellion against the House of Hanover, as ‘Jacobit Gothick. The revelation that it was written by a Whig, however reverses the politics of the novel, which then becomes a study of usurpation and the corrupting extension of a sovereign’s power.” Nick Groom’s illuminating intro also analyzes Walpole’s social, financial and political position at the time of the novel’s authorship. I liked The Castle of Otranto because it was so over-the-top, shamelessly melodramatic, milking every opportunity to twist the plot into further knots, but the introduction argues for the novel’s subversive intent. Political background aside, this is the novel that jump-started a fantastic genre, and it’s certainly clear that the Gothic novel had to exist before the Sensation novel made an appearance. …

Review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Walpole Horace

See You in Paradise by J. Robert Lennon


See You in Paradise is a wonderful collection of short stories from American author J. Robert Lennon. His novel, Familiar, a story of a woman who trips into an alternate universe, made my best-of-year list in 2012. I loved this novel because its premise was unique, and I also really liked the way that the author concentrated on plot and didn’t try to explain what happened to his main character. Ultimately we are left not knowing whether or not the novel is about a woman who falls into a parallel universe or if she’s just so wracked with regret and guilt that she has a psychotic break.

In 2013, I read Lennon’s novel Happyland, a very funny take on what happens when a wealthy businesswoman begins buying up a small new England college town and turning it into a cheesy tourist destination for her tremendously successful doll company. And to give the full J. Robert Lennon background here, I’ll also add that my introduction to this author was in 2011 through Castle, a psychologically  intense story of a man who returns to upstate New York and buys a home which includes some acreage. After investigating the title to the property, he discovers that there’s a small section of land right in the middle that he doesn’t own, and that the owner’s name which should appear on the title has been blacked out. The key thing about this book, an exploration of memory, is exactly where fantasy and reality split…

see you in paradiseThe descriptions of those three novels (and there are more I’ve yet to read) should give an idea of this author’s scope. J. Robert Lennon has a reputation as a writer of speculative fiction, and that’s a very broad term. Not all the stories in See You in Paradise can be classified as speculative, but if there’s a recurring theme here, it’s the unexpected. Take Zombie Dan, for example, a (speculative) story that made me wince when I read the title, but which rapidly became one of my favorites.

They figured out how to bring people back to life–not everybody, just some people–and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen. He had died falling off a yacht, and six months later, there he was, driving around in his car, nodding, licking his pale, thin lips, wearing his artfully distressed sports jacket and brown leather shoes.

Dan’s indomitable mother enlists Dan’s friends to man shifts at his bedside during the crucial phases of the “revivification process,” and we get a little background on this.

The discovery of the revivification process had resulted, initially, in great controversy. Surely, the naysayers wailed, not everyone who died could be brought back to life. What would separate the haves from the have-nots? Science offered one answer. To be eligible for revivification, you had to die in a certain way. Drowning was best. Suffocation. Anything that resulted in a minimum of harm to the body, other than its being dead. Freezing wasn’t bad, and a gunshot wound, if tidy, could be worked around. Electrocution was pushing it, as was poisoning. Car crash, cancer, decapitation. old age? Right out.

But still, who then? Who among the drowned, the frozen, the asphyxiated, would get to come back?

The rich. Naturally.

The narrator explains that the news that revivification was an option for the wealthy dead under some circumstances was initially expected to have catastrophic results:

Riots had been predicted, the burning of hospitals and medical schools, the overthrow of the government. None of it materialized. The rich had been getting the goodies for millennia.

But there’s another reason for the lack of class resentment.  “Revivs” or zombies (both considered politically incorrect terms) as they are known are a “little bit off.”

So if you asked a random person from the street whether, if they choked to death on a Jolly Rancher, they would like to be revived, the answer was generally yes. But not an especially enthusiastic yes. “Sure,” accompanied by a shrug, was the common response. By and large revivification was thought to be something weird rich people did, something along the lines of hymenoplasty, or owning an island.

That’s quite a few quotes from a short story, but they convey the tone of the story and also how the author approaches speculative fiction. We aren’t given a date in the future or the nitty gritty details of the process itself–revivification is a given, and now both the reader and the author, having accepted the premise, must deal with the results which are both hilarious and terrifying.

The collection’s title story, See You in Paradise was also a great favourite. This is the story of  “nice guy” Brant Call who still works at the college he attended. He’s the managing editor of the business school’s alumni magazine, and one of his tasks is to solicit donations. It’s in this capacity that he meets Cynthia Peck, a horsey, libidinous heiress. Their relationship becomes quite serious and then he meets her ruthless father:

Peck took Brant’s hand, but took it limply, making Brant’s strong grip, intended to express a marriageable masculine confidence, instead seem like a withering critique of the old man’s waning virility. Peek actually winced, and Brant jerked his hand away. “Uh, I ought to thank you, sir, for the—“

“Please,” Peck said, secreting the hand back under the table, “there’s no need to grovel. Now Brant.”

“Yes sir.”

“You’re diddling my daughter.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re thinking of marrying her, right.”

“Uh, yes.”

“Get yourself a piece of the family fortune?”

The interview with Cynthia’s father doesn’t go as expected and Brant can never get control of the conversation. After calling Brant’s motives into question, Mr Peck gives Brant Hobson’s Choice: he can agree to a job in Bermuda or ….

“If you say no, you can get the hell out of my daughter’s graduation party, and if you ever again fondle so much as a tit I’ll have all your arms broken. And don’t think I can’t do it.”

Brant takes the job….

See You In Paradise is another very funny story, but the most fascinating aspect of this story is that you ever really know what game Cynthia and her father are playing. The ‘job’ in Bermuda initially seems to be a test of Brant’s devotion to Cynthia, but when the story concludes, we have reason to think otherwise.

Many of the stories explore the danger in everyday life. The story Portal, for example, tells of a gateway to time and space discovered in the back garden and used repeatedly with mixed results by a family. Do they travel to other worlds, back in time, or to hell? With each successive use of the portal, the trips become increasingly surreal and dangerous. In The Wraith, a woman appears to split in two, leaving her anger and depression at home in the form of a wraith. While the wife becomes absurdly cheerful, the wraith, embodying the negative, lurks in the home and shows an unhealthy interest in the husband. In Hibachi, a husband and wife exact revenge against their friends, while in No Life, two couples find themselves competing to adopt the same child. In this excellent, disquieting and unconventional collection, J Robert Lennon delivers the unexpected. These darkly imaginative tales hint at an undercurrent of unease through the limitless of possibilities–even in the most mundane situations. Finally just a word on the book’s title: See You in Paradise–a phrase that holds a threat and also the hint that paradise, perhaps, isn’t so great after all.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert

Death’s Sweet Song (1955) by Clifton Adams

“Strangely, I felt nothing. I stood there and the pale sky became suddenly bloody as the violent sun lifted into a widening sky.”

American Pulp writer Clifton Adams (1919-1971) is primarily known for a long list of westerns written under several pseudonyms, but he also wrote a few noir titles. This brings me to Death’s Sweet Song–my copy comes in one of Stark House’s double releases along with its sister title Whom Gods Destroy which I’ll be writing up shortly.

Death's sweet songDeath’s Sweet Song is set in Oklahoma, and it’s the story of Joe Hooper, a WWII veteran who’s now back in the poky town of Creston, Oklahoma trying to squeeze a living from a gas station and 5 drab little cabins located at the back of the property. That iconic highway–Route 66–runs right in front of Hooper’s mortgaged property. Location was probably a selling point, but ironically now it’s a point that rubs a festering, open sore in Hopper’s mind as he watches the tourists drive by in a steady stream on their way to … somewhere else. The 5 crude cabins that he imagined he’d fill with tourists, stand empty and unrented, and with the endless flow of traffic passing by, it’s as though Hooper’s life is draining away along with all of his broken dreams.

The thermometer on the east side of the wash rack had reached an even hundred. I opened a bottle of Coke and stood in the doorway, watching the endless stream of traffic rushing by on the highway. License tags from everywhere–Nebraska, California, Illinois…. Where do tourists go, anyway, in such a hell of a hurry?

Depending on tourists for business is a particularly depressing prospect. As they drive by on the road to somewhere better, somewhere more interesting, the lack of business is just another painful reminder that there’s a big, bright world out there that Hooper’s not a part of. Is Hooper’s luck changing when a well-dressed couple in a blue Buick pull in and ask for a cabin for the night? Hooper can hardly believe the request:

There were five cabins behind the station and they were all vacant. Most of them would remain vacant, even during the tourist season. That’s the kind of place it was. I wondered about that while I put gas into his car. Here was a tourist with a new car, wearing expensive clothes, so why should he want to put up in a rat trap like mine when there were first-class AAA motels all along the highway?

The tiny, shabby cabins with their “cracked linoleum” cause the pouting blonde from the blue Buick to open her mouth in protest, but her complaints are ignored, and the couple, Karl & Paula Sheldon remain.

Hooper is right to suspect why this well-dressed couple should want to stay in one of his cabins when much more appealing accommodations are just down the road. In spite of the fact (or perhaps even because of it) that he has a long-term, patient girlfriend in town, he’s drawn to the ripe, skimpily-dressed, elusive blonde with the bone china skin. After another boring, predictable date with his girlfriend, Hooper finds himself creeping around the Sheldons’ cabin trying to get a glimpse of the hot blonde. He overhears Karl and another man planning a heist, and while Hooper initially plays with the idea of calling the sheriff, he decides, instead, that this is his opportunity to get ahead, and get the blonde in the process.

There are two ‘stories’ or examples that bolster Hooper’s decision to rehabilitate his life through crime–one example is Hooper’s father, a local doctor who’s worn down by work, all night house calls, and very little money to show for his labour. The other example is Herb, a local man who took tremendous financial risks, but eventually hit $5 million in oil. These two characters sit on opposite sides of the see-saw inside Hooper’s head. He doesn’t want to have a life like his father and he wants to hit the big time like Herb.

Death’s Sweet Song is written in a plain unadorned style–it’s the sort of book you could read and then imagine is easy to write, but there’s real skill in the way Clifton Adams develops his character of Joe Hooper. At first we make the mistake, as we’re meant to, of measuring Hooper’s character by his circumstances, but as events unfold, and the layers of well-known local small businessman fall away from Hooper, we see the simmering, bitter resentment seething underneath the surface. Oklahoma native Adams also reproduces the monotony of small town life in convincing ways while reinforcing Hooper’s boredom and festering desperation. Every time Hooper meets someone or talks to someone on the phone, they ask him ‘how’s the tourist business?‘ For Hooper, this is a particularly painful and ludicrous question which he avoids with trite answers, and yet the sense is conveyed that every encounter Hooper has with other locals just digs deeper into that festering sore of resentment that exists in his brain. Another recurring question–an unspoken one this time–is when is Hooper going to marry the very decent, sweet and understanding, Beth. Hooper’s relationship with Beth is another sore spot as far as he is concerned as everyone in town knows his business–how long he’s been dating Beth (too long), where their dates are (at the movies), and that Hooper isn’t playing fair by not popping the question (too bad).  Another interesting small-town tidbit included here is that Hooper knows that outsiders underestimate the locals, and yet he does the same thing himself.

Hooper is a perfect noir character–bitter, bored and trapped in a mundane life, he’s propelled into the undertow by the resentment of the respectable working life which has brought him nothing, and he’s fueled by his desire for an evil woman, and plenty of money to fund a new start. While the recently read German crime novel Silence is an exploration of guilt, Death’s Sweet Song is an exploration of the justification of crime & murder, and Hooper’s 1st person narrative gives us a ringside seat into one man’s dead-end life in which an opportunity to escape, a sex-lined exit appears–except that exit takes him straight to hell.

The out-of-the-way roadhouse is an iconic noir staple, and there’s just a slight variation here which reminds me of the setting of They Don’t Dance Much from James Ross. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank was the man who walked into Cora’s life and set the chain of tragic events into motion, but it was a chain of events that were waiting to happen. The day Paula Sheldon showed up changed Hooper’s life, but similarly  it was a fate that was waiting for Hooper. He just didn’t know it.

The one word that kept hitting me was “murder.” To me it didn’t have the usual meaning. It was like thinking of cancer or TB. You get yourself branded with it and it kills you, only with murder you die in the electric chair instead of in a bed.


Filed under Adams Clifton, Fiction

His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

“I found myself thinking that, in the space of a generation, thousands of people south of the equator had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer for the fatal gale that had precipitously taken them all?”

The ironically titled, His Own Man, from Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro, follows the dubious career of Marcilio Andrade Xavier, otherwise known as Max, a Brazilian diplomat, over the course of several decades. The narrator, a younger diplomat, just a step behind Max in his career, begins the tale as one of Max’s “lunchable colleagues” in 1968. Unknown to the narrator, Max is already on a certain bloody political path chosen back in 1964 after the military coup. Throughout the rest of the book, the narrator pieces together Max’s career as Max is posted to Uruguay and Chile–countries which slide into military dictatorships. Max’s arrival in these countries at critical junctures in their history is, of course, no coincidence, and Max, although deeply involved in decisions related to political dissidents, is not directly involved in torture & murder. All of the dirt, the evil, the cruelty seems to slide off of the very well-educated, very polished Max who continues to move, elegantly, through the corridors of power thanks to his reptilian nature, natural duplicity, ruthless ambition and complete absence of conscience. The story of Max’s career is set against the backdrop of State Terrorism, Dirty Wars and Operation Condor waged by various right-wing governments of South America towards political dissidents, their friends, families, and sympathizers–in reality, anyone vaguely related to Socialism:

Writing a country’s history may be difficult, but tracing a man’s story presents its own challenges. For a country, there is a vast array of information in the form of books and treaties, maps and image, leaders, legends, and archives. But a man? What kind of history does he have? Where would his secret maps be found? Or his boundaries? What might be hidden beneath his façade or detected in his gaze should he give in to temptation and study himself in the mirror one night?

When the narrator meets Max in 1968, Max has a diverse reservoir of friends “of assorted leanings ranging from idealism to full-blown alienation,” and yet even these friendships are formed for reasons that are part of Max’s “master plan.” As the narrator follows Max’s career, usually from a distance, but also from occasional meetings, he realizes that clues to Max’s career and intentions existed all along–he just didn’t know what to look for.

His own manThere’s a mystification that obscures Max. Part of the mystification includes the disbelief that anyone who is refined, loves literature and discusses Flaubert, Proust, Chomsky and Chekhov is capable of throwing in his lot with right-wing governments who oppress anyone who poses a perceived threat or an independent thought. It takes the narrator some time, and he’s still reluctant at that, to grasp that Max is a chameleon–a man who uses friendships as disguises, who watches and mimics behaviour,–a man who delights in deceiving others, always  operating under cover. Of course the crucial question for the narrator, constantly compelled by “the urge to dig deeper,” is: does Max have a conscience about his involvement in the heinous crimes against humanity enacted in various South American countries?

The more we learn about Max, the more elusive a character he becomes:

He had split his personality in 1964 and, apparently unsatisfied with that particular accomplishment, had subdivided it further in Montevideo, as though trying to progressively reduce his individuality into less and less visible niches.

Through the eyes of the narrator, we see Max’s wife, Marina–a woman who’s driven to extreme measures just by her dawning suspicions of her husband’s duplicity and involvement in state crimes. It’s witnessing the fear of others, including her own father, that finally drives the truth home.

Given the subject matter, it’s probably not too surprising that the book occasionally reads like non-fiction:

The same was happening on the Chilean end, even though the local economy was still weak. But Max relied on a few solid ties in the country, derived from the contacts he’d kept with certain local upper-middle class groups over the twelve months preceding Allende’s downfall. These connections ran deep given that, on his successive visits to Chile, Max had shared with these groups the plan crafted by the CIA in Montevideo and carried out in Brazil ten years earlier–by force of which the government had been systematically destabilized.

Following the Brazilian model and, later, the Uruguayan one, the Chilean business community had operated in a way that was at once light-and heavy-handed. First, it funded strikes that paralyzed the productive sectors, creating panic among the middle class and immobilizing the labor and farmers’ movements. These actions were backed by investors who in many instances received support from the CIA. As a result, nearly all the crucial sectors of the Chilean economy had crossed their arms at one point or another, most notably the truck drivers. Without transportation, essentials wouldn’t be distributed, except with great difficulty.

While this is a novel, there are some very real political figures here–including Allende. Max and his wife arrive in Chile in 1973 right in time to witness the CIA sponsored military coup, and at one point there’s a character who sounds remarkably similar to Dan Mitrione. I couldn’t help but wonder if the name of Max’s one-time secretary, Esmeralda marked the floating torture ship used by the Chilean government during its years of military dictatorship.

It will help the reader to have some background knowledge of the period in order to understand the corrosive consequences of Max’s actions. At one part in the book, towards the end, the narrator meets with a retired spook–an ideologue whose deep belief in the Domino Theory seems not only antiquated but also dwarfed and patently ridiculous in light of the terrorism of the 21st century–a whole new war. As the novel concludes, the overwhelming theme, at least for this reader, is Max’s motivation. He’s hardly an ideologue, and the narrator’s meeting with the former spook argues that some of the participants in the heinous Operation Condor at least had political beliefs–however misguided or fear-driven they were. Max had nothing except ambition, but even this does not seem to adequately explain Max. According to a colonel, a character who knew about Max’s activities and is ready to render his opinion, Max can be summed up like this:

His actions were those of a strategist with a personal agenda. Max’s team had only one player: himself. Our friend realized very early on that his superiors, within and outside the ministry, would come and go and lose power and prestige, gradually disappearing, whether from age or ill-formed alliances, while he advanced in his career. So he used them strictly for his own needs. No more, no less. he gave each an amount of attention proportional to his potential usefulness. And he knew better than anyone else how to buy low and sell high.

Max ultimately is arguably a hollow man whose complete absence of morality and conscience explains his choices, and with each step, he seems to splinter apart until there’s nothing left but a walking suit. He seems oblivious of the damage he’s caused:

Did Max notice how doleful these people were? That they had no radiance, not to mention mundane qualities such as flexibility, malice or a sense of humor? Did he ever regret having helped–even indirectly–to liquidate the country’s intellectuals, the artists, the teachers, the students, the liberals?

Or was he so bedazzled by his own splendor that he’d become immune to such doubts, content to shine on a now deserted stage?

In spite of its low-key approach, His Own Man is an incredibly moving book which traces a shameful period in South American history. The plot explores how this time provided a stage for ideologues, the ambitious, the psychos, and the amoral, and while this is a large stage, there’s also the very small personal stage between Max and the narrator. Part of the novel’s power comes from its Hall of Mirrors approach to the main characters–the narrator is fascinated by Max, and we’re fascinated by that fascination–the cobra fascinates its prey. It’s also intriguing to read how the narrator is continually reluctant to acknowledge how bad Max really is–we are so often tempted to ascribe our own morality to others. Parts of the novel, just brief entries, introduce victims of the repression, and these sections are understated but pack a powerful punch. This is a solid entry into the canon of South American political fiction and should appeal to fans of The Secret in their Eyes.

translated by Kim M. Hastings

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Ribeiro Edgard Telles

A Coffin from Hong Kong by James Hadley Chase

The prolific author, James Hadley Chase, is probably best known for No Orchids for Miss Blandish. That book was my introduction to this British crime author. Then followed There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a much later Chase novel I couldn’t resist for its title and cover. There’s a Hippie on the Highway, the story of a Vietnam vet looking for work in Florida and stirring up some violent hippies, was a bit of a strange read, well come to think of it, so was No orchids for Miss Blandish, but of the two novels, No Orchids was a better novel, IMO.

So this brings me to A Coffin from Hong Kong, my third excursion into James Hadley Chase territory. This is a fairly standard, but good, PI tale of low-rent investigator Nelson Ryan, a man who takes it personally when he’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit.

A coffin from hong kongRyan gets a call one day from a man named John Hardwick who wants to hire Ryan to follow his wife. Hardwick claims he’s leaving on a business trip and that the timing is perfect for Ryan to stake out his house that night. Ryan initially objects as he likes to meet his clients in person, but Hardwick is leaving town and sends a courier over with $300 to seal the deal. Now Ryan, a man who it turns out does have a moral compass, feels obligated to take the job–in spite of the fact that something doesn’t smell right:

I had been working as an investigator for the past five years, and during that time, I had run into a number of screwballs. This John Hardwick could be just another screwball, but somehow I didn’t think he was. He sounded like a man under pressure. Maybe he’d been worrying for months about the way his wife had been behaving. Maybe for a long time he had suspected her of getting up to tricks when he was away and suddenly, as he was leaving for another business trip, he had finally decided to check on her. It was the kind of thing a worried, unhappy man might do–a split-second impulse. All the same, I didn’t like it much. I don’t like anonymous clients. I don’t like disembodied voices on the telephone. I like to know with whom I’m dealing. This setup seemed a shade too hurried and a shade too contrived.

Ryan should have listened to his instincts….

I liked the set-up for A Coffin From Hong Kong as it shows the inherent vulnerability of the PI, a train of thought I’d been following after a recent re-watch of The Maltese Falcon, and the scene when Humphrey Bogart’s partner, on a lonely stake-out, is abruptly snuffed out by an assassin. Both James Hadley Chase’s character, Nelson Ryan and The Maltese Falcon’s (Dashiell Hammett) Sam Spade are loners who discover a moral compass while investigating their respective cases. Both stories also illustrate that PIs mine territory on the fringes of police work. Lacking the protection of a badge, they are bottom feeders with shadier cases that frequently nudge illegality.

Ryan finds himself stitched up for the murder of a prostitute from Hong Kong, and he’s subsequently hired by a reclusive millionaire to discover who killed the girl. Ryan takes the case because he’s involved in the murder up to his neck, and in a bid to solve the crime, he travels to Hong Kong to try and trace the life of the dead woman.

There’s a lot of snappy dialogue between Ryan and the police detective on the case, Detective Lieutenant Dan Retnick. Everything points to Ryan as the killer of the prostitute, and while part of the detective would love to nail Ryan for the crime, part of him recognizes a frame.

He brooded for a long time, then he took out his cigar case and offered it to me. This was his first friendly act during the five years I had known him. I took a cigar to show I appreciated the gesture although I am not by nature a cigar smoker.

We lit up and breathed smoke at each other.

“Okay, Ryan,” he said. “I believe you. I’d like to think you knocked her off, but it’s leaning too far backwards. I’d be saving myself a hell of a lot of trouble and time if I could believe it, but I can’t. You’re a cheap peeper, but you’re no fool. Okay, so I’m sold. you’re being framed.”

I relaxed.

“But don’t count on me,” he went on. “The trouble will be to convince the D.A. He’s an impatient bastard. Once he knows what I’ve got on you, he’ll move in. Why should he care so long as he gets a conviction?”

There didn’t seem anything to say to that so I didn’t.

There are some racist remarks in the novel from the police–but Ryan obviously doesn’t share their views. I liked this novel, and while I guessed one element of the plot, I didn’t guess the identity of the killer. I also really liked the character of Ryan. He’s a bit sleazy–taking the case when he knows better because he needs the 300 bucks, taking whiskey on a stakeout and eyeing every female he encounters, but still at his core, there’s a sense of right and wrong, and even though he’s embroiled in the case initially because he’s framed for a murder, there’s a sense of justice at the base of his search for answers. Chase’s style is spare and unadorned, and goes well with the subtly understated moral undercurrents. The novel, a good place to start for those who’d like to try Chase,  concludes simply and yet very very poignantly.


Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction