Tag Archives: crime fiction

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

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Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction, Fremlin Celia, Highsmith Patricia, Hughes Dorothy B., Jackson Shirley, Millar Margaret, Neilsen Helen, Sanxay Holding Elizabeth

There’s a Hippie on the Highway by James Hadley Chase

Even though I have completist tendencies, I seriously doubt that I will read all the books written by British author James Hadley Chase (1906-1985). Chase whose real name was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond wrote under a number of pseudonyms, and there’s an extensive list of over 90 of his novels on Wikipedia. With that many books, that leaves the reader to select a) copies that are still available and b) titles that appeal. So with that in mind, it should be easy to guess why I picked: There’s a Hippie on the Highway,  a title I couldn’t resist.  The book is as strange as it sounds.

there's a hippie on the highwayAfter three years in Vietnam, paratrooper Harry Mitchell returns home. He has a job waiting for him in New York but decides to spend the summer in Florida. Perhaps he’s too restless to settle into the 9-5 rut, so he takes to the freeways and decides to hitch his way down to Paradise City on the coast of Florida. Big mistake.

The novel opens with a truck driver giving Harry a lift and warning him that “this district is about as unhealthy and as dangerous as your paddy fields in Vietnam.” Mitchell, who’s used to everyone having an opinion about Vietnam, tends to think that the truck driver is exaggerating, so he can’t accept that the backroads of Florida are as deadly as the jungle he just left. The truck driver, however, insists that what he says is true and proceeds to tell some stories about the aggression of hippies who’ve descended on Florida. Soon, Mitchell witnesses some of this behaviour first-hand. After a run-in with a bunch of crazed hippies, Mitchell meets a young man named Randy who’s coincidentally also heading down to Paradise City. Randy hooks up a job for Mitchell as a lifeguard at a beach restaurant, and Mitchell, who appears to be easy-going and content to go with the flow, agrees to take the job.

Randy and Mitchell still have to get to Paradise City, and they plan to hitch the rest of the way. A mysterious young woman driving a Mustang and towing a caravan stops and offers the two men a ride. She insists that they drive while she sleeps. The offer seems too good to be true, and Mitchell sniffs that there’s something wrong about the situation. Unfortunately, he doesn’t listen to his instincts, and the next morning Mitchell and Randy have a stiff on their hands….

The Paradise City restaurant is owned and operated by former safe-cracker, Solo Dominico. It’s a “snazzy” place that attracts the “Cadillac crowd,” but that’s not the only element buzzing around the restaurant, and Mitchell comes to the attention of ambitious cop, Lepski and also becomes mired in a war between gangsters bent on revenge and retrieving some valuable merchandise.

Part of the novel’s problem is that the question of “hippies” is never really addressed. The ‘hippies’ in the novel are mostly more of your Charles-Manson-knife-wielding psychos, and not the-make-love-not-war harmless types . Mitchell’s travelling companion, Randy, who has long hair, a guitar, and who has burned his draft card is closer to the hippie ideal. Truckers on the road can’t seem to tell the difference between harmless Randy and the nut-jobs that stalk the freeways wreaking havoc in Florida. There’s a Hippie on the Highway was published in 1970, post Charles Manson, and the book’s somewhat cloudy approach to hippiedom is never addressed or cleared up. It seems that anyone young with long hair is a hippie, so we see the drama unfold through the eyes of those citizens who are suspicious and terrified of those they don’t understand. This is a minor blip, and probably reflects the prejudices of the time more than anything else.

Another blip is that the novel is, at times, an uncomfortable blend of styles: snappy, hard-boiled 50s dialogue which drifts in and out into late 60s lingo:

She sat down, spread her legs so he could see her pink nylon crotch and regarded him with her sexy look that seldom failed to get results. “Come on, tough cop. Before we talk business, reduce me to a jelly.”

“That will be a pleasure,” Lepski said.

He crossed the room and paused before her. As she began to pull up her sweater, he swung his hand and slapped her hard on her right cheek.

She reared back, her head slamming against the back of the chair. She recovered her balance and her face turned into an angry, snarling mask.

“You stinking, goddamn …” she began when his hard hand slapped again, jerking her head back.

Lepski eyed her and moved away.

“Listen, baby, I take nothing from any whore. I wouldn’t touch you wrapped in plastic. I’m busy. I’ve spent a buck. So sit up and stop acting like a whore in a 1945 movie.” He suddenly grinned. “And let me remind you you are now talking to a cop who is a better animal than you, but not much better.”

She drew in a long breath, touched her face tenderly, stared at him, then the rage slowly died out of her eyes.

“You’re quite a man,” she said huskily. “Let’s go to bed, damn it! I think you could launch me off my pad.”

“Let’s talk.” Lepski sat opposite her. “When I’m on police duty, there’s no count down for my rocket.”

Of course, this may also not be a fault of the narrative as much as Lepski’s underlying desire to be a noir-type hero (he even admits that his 40s style works), but still there’s the sense that this is a novel that sometimes uncomfortably straddles the decades. The idea of the Vietnam vet who’s survived jungle warfare only to return to a mess back home appealed to this reader, and there are some great characters here with lowlife cop, Lepski topping the bill. The interactions between the cops as they jockey for favour in the department and Lepski’s search though the seedier dives of Florida are a lot of fun. Looking around on the internet, this doesn’t seem to be considered one of James Hadley Chase’s best, but hey… what a great title, right?

I’ve read and enjoyed No Orchids for Miss Blandish, so if any James Hadley Chase fans have any other recommendations, I’d be happy to hear them.

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

How much is one man worth? What price a human life? To know what one is worth is like knowing the date of one’s death. I’m worth twenty million dollars. It’s a lot. But much less than I thought. I must be one of the most expensive men in the world. To be so valuable and to live a life as shitty as mine–that’s the worst misery. If I had that twenty million dollars, I know what I’d do with it. I’d give the whole thing away in exchange for going back to my previous life, before I was worth that much. The man who blows my head off, what will he do with the money? He’ll put it in property and go off to hang out in Barbados for the rest of his life. They all do that. 

These are the thoughts running through the head of former top mafia figure, hitman turned informer for the government, Giovanni Manzoni, now Frederick Blake living with his wife Maggie (Livia) and two children 17-year-old Belle and 14-year-old Warren. Under the watchful eyes of the Witness Protection Programme, they’ve been living in France for 5 years. They’ve had several moves and now they’ve washed up in Normandy, along with their dog Malavita, in the small town of Cholong-sur Avre. The family must integrate and not draw too much attention to themselves–after all Giovanni was a top government witness in a case that busted the Mafia wide open and generated long prison sentences for some very pissed off men. The FBI team members who babysit the family know that the Mafia back in New Jersey have not forgotten Giovanni, and if he’s ever found, he’s a dead man.

malavitaThe attempts to blend in with the locals by the four family members are really very funny, and the best part of the book. There’s Frederick, who’s become depressed since the trial, and who spends his days unshaven and “trailing around in his slippers all day,”  feeling useless. After finding an old typewriter, “obsessed with the idea of telling his version of the truth,”  he decides to write his memoirs–something of course the FBI isn’t too happy about, and his new profession as a writer, gives him the perfect excuse to lounge around on the balcony all day and reminisce about the good old days. Meanwhile Maggie/Livia also think of the good old days when she was a top Mafia wife, “dizzy” with power and feeling like “the First lady of the whole area,”  a woman who could get whatever she wanted with a snap of her fingers. Now she’s decided to do penance by throwing herself into charity and volunteer work.

As for the children, well they speak excellent French. Belle has grown into a beautiful young girl who’s not as vulnerable and naïve as some of her schoolmates think, and Warren’s ambition is to become the godfather of his school–a lofty goal he achieves within days of arriving. An admirer and student of Capone and Lucky Luciano, Warren’s motto is “Give them what they need the most.”

It was just a question of time and organization. In order to achieve synergy and increase complementarity, all he needed to do was to know how to listen, discover each person’s limits, spot the gaps in their lives, and decide how much to charge for filling them. The more solid the base he could build up, the quicker he would rise to power. The pyramid would build itself and raise him to the stars.

Some of the book’s humour comes from the culture clash generated from Americans living in France, but of course, these are not ordinary Americans–this is a crass, violent and dangerous Mafia family who don’t take ill-treatment and insults well. One incident occurs when Maggie asks for peanut butter in the local shop and then overhears the shop owner bitching about Americans to some locals:

I’ve got nothing against them, but they certainly make themselves at home wherever they are.”

“Of course, there were the landings. But we’ve been invaded ever since!”

“In our day, and for our generation, it was nylon stockings and chewing gum, but what about our children?”

“Mine dresses like them. Enjoys the same things, listens to the same music.”

“The worst thing is the food they eat. I cook something they like, and all they can think of is to leave the table as quick as they can and rush off to McDonalds.”

Maggie is “hurt” by the exchange, but what happens next illustrates how the family won’t take insults lightly. We see each family member attempting to integrate with mixed results: an opportunistic plumber finds that his usual sales pitch doesn’t work, and a BBQ (in which the typical American menu of steak, steak or steak is discussed) for some of the locals almost ends in violence. The emphasis is on humour–with the locals oblivious about exactly what they’re dealing with, and Giovanni/Frederick using all his willpower not to exact vengeance against those who insult his BBQ skills. These scenes are all very funny, but some of the other humour, when stone-cold killer Fred, who’s slotted into the life of a harmless writer, imagines his past crimes grates uncomfortably with the humour.

I’d been meaning to read Malavita (aka Badfellas) for some time, and the knowledge that the book’s been made into the Luc Besson  film The Family made picking up the book mandatory. After reading the book, however, I’m not sure that the film will ‘work’ quite as well as the book, but I’ll try it anyway. The book’s alternate title: Badfellas refers to the film Goodfellas, and there’s one wonderful scene in the book when Frederick attends a film night and provides commentary on Goodfellas.

Fred knew the film almost by heart, and he hated it for a thousand reasons. In it gangsters were reduced to what they really were: scum, whose only aim in life was to park in forbidden places, give the biggest fur coat to their wife and, above all, never have to live the lives of those millions of idiots who get up each morning to earn a miserable crust, instead of sleeping in a gold-plated bed. That was all a Mafioso was, and Goodfellas told it like it was. Without the myth, all that was left was stupidity and cruelty.

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Filed under Benacquista Tonino, Fiction

Sudden Fear by Edna Sherry

“Be as romantic as you want about me but don’t be romantic about money.”

Fans of noir film will be familiar with Sudden Fear–a 1952 woman-in-distress film starring the fabulous Joan Crawford in the title role of Broadway playwright and wealthy San Francisco socialite Myra Hudson, a middle-aged woman who falls hard for the much younger, penniless actor, Lester Blaine, played by Jack Palance. Lester is a homme fatale who’s after Myra’s money, and he has an impatient girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame) who can’t wait for Lester to dump his wife and marry her. Given that Sudden Fear is a great favourite, it was only a matter of time before I turned to the 1948 novel written by Edna Sherry. There’s always the concern, of course, that having seen the film, the novel won’t be interesting, and this is especially true when it comes to crime fiction. After all, are there any surprises left?

Gangsters take their victims for a ride, shoot them with an economy of effort and steel, deposit them in a lonely spot and drive coolly away. Crooked trustees of estates and sinister family physicians (mentioned substantially in their victims’ wills) hatch ingenious plots and carry them to a fatal conclusion. Half-mad lovers–male and females–strike in the heat of passion, and if they control their hysteria after the event, sometimes get away with it. These gentry operate with smooth regularity between book covers.

But for the run-of-the-mill, upper middle-class, law-abiding, convention-ridden public–in short, for you and me–murder is a tough chore. Psychologists maintain that at one time or another, the best of us has murder in his heart. What holds us back? Why aren’t there as many murders in the average household as on the average bookshelf?

So you’re planning a murder? For love, hate, revenge or money? Let’s go.

This is how Sudden Fear begins with a fantastic introduction and the idea that for the average person, murder isn’t easy to commit, and it’s even harder to get away with–especially if you stand to directly benefit.

sudden fear iiThe novel opens with playwright Myra Hudson arranging to fire an actor during the rehearsals of her new play. According to Myra, 27 year-old Lester Blaine is just too good looking, so he’s fired with no more thought than if Myra were tossing out a set of unwanted curtains. This is very typical behaviour for Myra–she doesn’t think of people as human beings with feelings and needs, and she tends to objectify everyone in her sphere. She’s a  42-year-old intelligent, driven woman–a woman who “had practically everything except youth and beauty.” Myra isn’t an easy person to get along with; she’s critical, arrogant, possessive, demanding, and controlling, and while she has no apparent weaknesses, she’s intolerant of weaknesses in others. She’s a rather formidable person, but there’s also a lot about her that’s admirable. After all, she inherited fabulous wealth, but she’s also written seven “brilliant” and successful plays in the last 15 years. Myra surrounds herself with a New York set of friends who are completely loyal to her, and that includes Eve, her faithful secretary who admires Myra’s talent and intelligence but finds her “intolerance and self-absorption [were] repellent.” Myra also maintains social relationships with several males–including her long-time admirer, Dr. Edgar Van Roon. Roon is the kind of soft-spoken gentle man that Myra “lorded” over, but she seems to like his company for the reflective image of herself in Van Roon’s worshipful , docile eyes.

sudden fearEveryone in Myra’s social set is astonished when she enters into a whirlwind courtship with Lester Blaine that results in marriage. Naturally, gloom is predicted with Lester as a cheesy gold-digger who’ll make Myra regret her impetuosity. But months pass, and Lester, who’s treated rather like an exotic pet–pampered and spoiled, yet dismissed at Myra’s whim (“run along like a good boy”), eventually gains everyone’s respect. But then one day, fate throws a beautiful young woman, Irma, into Myra’s path, and Myra, intrigued by Irma’s complete, unashamed amorality and naked social-climbing invites Irma into her home and into her circle of friends….

If you’ve seen the film (and it’s highly recommended if you haven’t), then you know what happens. The book handles the story differently, and Myra and Irma are much more extreme characters than their celluloid counterparts. The book’s plot couldn’t be transplanted to film as there are elements that would not have survived the censor. As a result, the film makes Myra a brittle victim who finds the inner strength to fight back for her survival. Edna Sherry’s Myra is something else entirely.

Myra likes to watch and study people for her plays–hence her fascination with Irma–a “type” she hasn’t met before. Myra sees Irma as a “primitive” with  “uninhibited appetites,” and by adding Irma to her social circle she intends to study Irma for creative inspiration. Myra’s secretary, Eve isn’t keen on the idea, and there’s a shade of naiveté and arrogance to Myra’s attitude that Irma won’t cause her any personal trouble. Myra “sensed the girl’s possibilities for evil,” but can’t imagine Irma being evil enough to bite the hand that feeds her–although she predicts that Irma will “leave havoc all round in her wake.” Myra tells Eve:

“Get the idea of deliberate wickedness right out of your head, She wouldn’t hurt a fly if it didn’t get her something. But if it did–she’d massacre without a backward glance. She’s a force–like wind or tides. Even Les felt it.” 

Myra is attracted to beauty, and Lester and Irma are both extremely good looking:

Myra watched them together with a smug gusto. Her ego took credit for their looks. Others might surround themselves with charming men and pretty women, but she attracted the cream. Nothing less was Myra Hudson’s due. She looked on them almost as creations of her own hand. It never occurred to her that if they had not been outwardly superlative she would never have given either a second thought. Lester’s radiance covered a weak, greedy inanity, and Irma’s, a cheap cold calculation. But Myra’s voracious love of beauty blinded her to their intrinsic worthlessness.

In many ways, Myra and Irma are a lot alike: they both see people as objects, the disposable means to an end. Both Irma and Myra will go as far as necessary to get what they want, and they both lack some key element to their emotions. Irma is cold and reptilian, bent on clawing her way to the top while Myra uses her money and power to destroy people. Are they very different? Myra has so much power and money that she doesn’t need to use people to get ahead, but she does use people to feed her ego. Remove Myra’s money and privilege, and toss looks her way– it’s not that hard to see Myra acting a lot like Irma to get ahead. There’s a story early in the novel regarding what Myra did to a man who betrayed her trust. It isn’t pretty, but it opens a window into Myra’s unforgiving relentlessness. Here’s Miles Street, Myra’s lawyer, warning her secretary Eve about the kind of enemy Myra can be:

“You don’t know Myra. She’s got her good points, so long as she isn’t crossed. But let anyone tweak that oversized vanity of hers and she shows all the gentle traits of a jaguar. I’ve known her to ruin a woman socially because she said Myra looked like a purse-proud walnut. Even as a kid, she had to be cock of the walk or else.”

The celluloid Irene isn’t as thoroughly evil as her counterpart, Irma in the book version. Interestingly Sherry pits Irma against Myra, and both of these women are frightening, ruthless creatures–especially when crossed. Sherry’s Lester is the weak, none-too-bright man toy stuck in the middle, and there are several indications in the book that Lester might stick with Myra if she’d occasionally let him off the leash to take an acting role she could so easily wrangle.

sudden fear filmSudden Fear is a superb crime novel but it’s also an excellent character study. Deceit, infidelity, passion & greed collide in this tale of revenge, and although I’ve watched the film many times, the book was full of intense surprises and gave me a deeper appreciation of the various plot twists. Sudden Fear is currently out of print, but used copies are out there.

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Filed under Fiction, Sherry Edna

Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal

In 2012 I read The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (pseudonym for Jamal Mahjoub), and here to follow-up is the second novel in the series, Dogstar Rising. The first novel in the series introduced us to Makana, a down-on-his luck PI, former policeman, a refugee from Sudan who now lives in Egypt. Dogstar Rising finds Makana, who’s a bottom feeder in Egypt society, still having trouble making ends meet, still mulling over his past life in Sudan (which ended with the loss of his wife and only child) and taking a case for the owner of Blue Ibis Tours. The case comes to Makana via Talal, the son of an old friend from Sudan. Talal is courting ‘Bunny,’ the daughter of the man who owns the tour company.

Blue Ibis flew tourists down to the Valley of the Kings on whirlwind tours of the hot and dusty resting places of long-dead pharaohs. They took them on camel treks  into the Sinai Desert in the footsteps of Moses, before depositing them on a beach by the Red Sea where they could roast nicely for a few days and feed themselves on lavish buffets or dive in clear blue water among coral reefs. The nights shook to the uninhibited pulse of dance music that provided them with the hedonistic lifestyles they associated with being on holiday. They ran them up and down the Nile in luxury boats with belly dancers and live folklore shows every evening. The food was all prepared to European standards so that nothing as inconvenient as indigestion might come between those and their once in a lifetime experience.

That passage gives a good sense of the author’s slightly sardonic tone–along with the implication that tourists float on the surface of Egyptian life and rarely see what is going on underneath the fabricated veneer of the lavish holiday experience.

Dogstar risingThe owner of Blue Ibis Tours, a very harassed character, Mr Faragalla, has received what he perceives to be a threatening letter which contains a quote from the Quran. To Makana the quote seems harmless, but to Faragalla, the quote is a threat for bringing foreigners into the country–foreigners who “drink wine and beer … and throw off their clothes and display themselves publicly.” Although Makana doesn’t see much harmful in the letter, he takes the case, posing as an efficiency expert who’s been hired to pull the struggling company out of the red.

In another story thread, the bodies of young mutilated boys appear in the city, and the victims are from the thousands of homeless children living on the street. They appear to have been kept captive and tortured over a period of time. The deaths stir religious fervor, and in a country divided by intense feelings, the murders become a rallying call for Sheikh Waheed, a “controversial iman” who blames the city’s minority Coptic community. While there’s a political value to be gained from stormy rhetoric regarding the callous murders of homeless children, there’s also something extremely poignant about the fact that these children are murdered in obscurity. No one claims them–no one except a priest who seems to have known all the dead boys at one time or another as they sheltered temporarily at his church.

Religious fanaticism doesn’t just concern the case of the dead children. Makana makes friends with Meera, an employee of the Blue Ibis Tour company. She seems somehow out of place amongst the disorganized mess, and she too is a victim of religious intolerance. Makana, whose early life was marred and permanently shaped by fanaticism, knows just how dangerous it is to become an object of retaliation, and yet he seems powerless to stop forces determined to stir hatred.

Bilal brings Cairo alive, and his interpretation of social, religious, and political life in Egypt is fascinating, and in this second book in the series, the introduction of a dying tourist business meshed very well with the idea of minority integration. If you like your foreign crime to reflect the particular turmoil of the country in which it’s set, then the Makana series is for you.  The first book in the series The Golden Scales (and I suggest reading this first as the second volume contains several repeat characters) managed to balance Makana’s private life with the case he investigated, and some of this private life included scenes of his past in Sudan. Any series character needs to have a private life to keep us interested and reading, and I’ve read books in which the balancing act of private life vs. investigation has been perfect while in others the private life of the series character dominates or even stagnates. In Dogstar Rising, there doesn’t seem to be enough quite forward motion in Makana’s private life. He still lives in the same place and has the same friends (and that’s all very enjoyable), and while there’s a major development regarding Makana’s past, somehow it’s not quite enough.  It’s a problem: Makana is a widower, haunted by his past, and tormented by his decisions. This results in his inability to move on, and yet, Makana, as a character, will have to move on and develop. It’s a challenge, and one I hope the author tackles in his next entry in the Makana series.

Review copy

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No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase

“From now on, you’re going to wear mink, baby.”

No Orchids for Miss Blandish  (1939) by James Hadley Chase has been on the reading radar for some time. I saw the film version in 2010 and then Emma, from Book Around the Corner reviewed the book here. After seeing the film version, and reading the controversy about the book, I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. The book is far darker, far more unpleasant, so if you like your crime books bleak, nasty and downright unsavoury, then you might want to check out No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

No orchids for miss BlandishThe story begins with a couple of cheap crooks, Bailey and Old Sam, stopping at a gas station on the way to Kansas City. Old Sam is sleeping, so Bailey, worried about money and even contemplating robbing a bank if things don’t look up soon, steps inside the diner for a Scotch. Bailey and Old Sam form an ad-hoc gang with a sleaze ball named Riley as the brains of the operation. It’s slim pickings for these trio of bottom-feeders. The lucrative jobs are too big and complex for their slipshod 3 man operation, and that leave the petty jobs that don’t yield much. It seems to be a lucky break when tipster fat Heinie, a “leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side” waddles into the diner and mentions that multi millionaire Blandish is throwing a party for his daughter’s 24th birthday. Her gift will be the family diamonds and after the party at the Blandish mansion, she’ll move on to the Golden Slipper nightclub with her boyfriend, Jerry MacGowan. Bailey keys onto the fact that the couple and the diamond necklace will be alone and vulnerable. Heinie warns him off any thoughts of knocking off the necklace as Bailey and Riley “aren’t big enough to handle a job like that.”  But to Bailey, the job sounds like a cinch: Waylay a society dame and her cream puff escort then grab the diamonds. Simple.

Bailey takes the idea to Riley, the head of the gang, and a man in Bailey’s opinion who spends “too much time in the sack with that broad of his,” a cheap, mouthy striptease dancer named Anna. The plan is to go to The Golden Slipper while Miss Blandish is slumming and then follow the couple, waylaying them along the route, and making a fast smash and grab. But the plan goes wrong and morphs into a kidnapping, and then bad luck sends members of the vicious Grisson gang into their path….

The Grisson gang, considered by other crooks as “good third-raters,” is led by Ma Grisson–a tough as nails, “big, grossly fat and lumpy”  woman  who sounds as clever, mean and evil as the FBI fabricated-for-the-media version of Ma Barker. (This can’t be coincidence as the author, James Hadley Chase was supposedly influenced by the tale of the Barker Gang when he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish.) Ma Grisson sees the Blandish heiress as means of becoming the “richest, the most powerful, and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City.” In other words, the Blandish girl is a ticket out of the small-time, and with a prize like that Ma Grisson is willing to take some risks.

Some of the novel includes the dynamics between the various gang members. There’s an unlicensed alcoholic doctor, “Doc” who comes in handy when the boys need stitching up, Eddie who “wouldn’t have been bad looking, but” for the cast in his eye, Flynn, Woppy and finally Ma’s son, the dysfunctional, psychotic, and none too clean Slim Grisson, the man with a taste for knives.

He was tall, reedy and pasty-faced. His loose, half-open mouth, his vacant, glassy eyes made him look idiotic, but a ruthless, inhuman spirit hid behind the idiot’s mask.

Slim Grisson’s background was typical of a pathological killer. He had always been lazy at school, refusing to take the least interest in book work. He began early to want money. He was sadistic and several times had been caught torturing animals. By the time he was eighteen, he had begun to develop homicidal tendencies. By then, his mental equipment had degenerated. There were times when he would be normal to the point of being quick-witted, but most times he behaved like an idiot.

Slim is barely held in check by his mother who “refused to believe that there was anything wrong with him.” So there’s an inherent, festering sore in the gang’s power structure: Slim is out-of-control and yet his mother refuses to reign him in. It’s with the introduction of Miss Blandish into the equation that the power balance within the gang changes.

More gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops.

The novel’s violence is swift, merciless and sadistic. The 1948 film version of the novel played like some sort of deranged love story, and that glamoured up what’s really at play here. After all, there are some things worse than death….

No orchids for miss Blandish 1961James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was British but chose to set this, his first novel in America, a country he’d yet to visit. Now to the question of versions:  Chase revised the novel in 1961, and I have two versions: a kindle version and a print version which are quite different. The kindle version, originally from Harlequin books, refers to television and Slim being a television addict (“He never grew tired of watching the moving pictures on the twenty-one inch screen.“) The kindle version says 1939 on the front but the Harlequin edition was published in 1951.  The out-of-place reference to televisions in the 1930s is absent in my Bruin Crimeworks edition, and the Amazon description of this book says it’s the 1961 updated version, but inside the book there’s a page “note to the reader” which says that this version is “yet a further update” to the 1961 update. So how many versions are there?

The revised print version from Bruin Crimeworks is even nastier (read “embellished,” and here’s just a taste–a scene which isn’t so detailed in the earlier kindle version. BTW, I blotted out the victim’s name in order to not spoil the plot suspense for potential readers:

“I’m giving it to you there,” Slim said, pricking the shuddering flesh with his knife. “Right in the guts, *****, and you’re going to take a mighty long time to croak. I know just where to stick you.”

“Come on, Slim! You wouldn’t do that to me. I’m a stand up guy, don’t I keep telling you? You know me. You ain’t gonna cut me like that. No! Slim! …No!… For Christ’s sake…Jesus, God…Don’t do me, Slim!”

Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below *****’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. ***** drew his lips back. His mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of ***** like a horrible malformation. ***** began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.

Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes and squinted at *****.

“Take your time, Pal. We ain’t in a hurry.” He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. “Ain’t them clouds pretty?”

And here’s the same scene in the kindle version:

Slim looked over at ***** who shut his eyes. A horrible croaking sound came from him. Slim cleaned his knife by driving it into the ground. The he straightened.

“*****…” he said softly.

****** opened his eyes.

“Don’t kill me, Slim.” he panted. “Gimme a break! Don’t kill me!”

Slim grinned. The moving slowly through the patch of sunlight, he approached the cringing man.

The book has been made into two film versions: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and The Grissom Gang (1971). Pick your poison.

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

Matador Serial by Ray Banks: A Novel Idea

Partly because I’m a fan of Ray Banks, and partly because I want to see how this plays out, I signed up for MATADOR: a 7-part serial available on the kindle. Total cost: $1.99. Beginning on November 20th 2012, one episode out of seven will be published, and the subsequent six episodes will be sent in two-week intervals. Subscribers receive e-mail notification when each new episode is available.

According to Amazon, episode one is 55 pages and the blurb says this:

A man wakes in a shallow grave next to a corpse to find himself shot, amnesiac and in deep trouble. Meanwhile, an expat drug runner finds out that he’s not the killer he thought he was.

In some ways this has been done before. I’m thinking of the Cornhill Magazine which in 1860 (according to some sources) began featuring the works of many notable writers in serial form, but the reading of novels in carefully parcelled out sections has been passé for years. The world of the ‘printed word’ is changing, and here’s someone grabbing an opportunity in the new still-shifting paradigm. Perhaps I’m easy to please, but I can’t help but be excited about this new serial. Since e-readers open up worlds of possibilities for readers and writers, will we see more of these in the future?

Watch this space…

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Filed under Banks Ray, Fiction, publishing

Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

One good reason for readers to blog is to pick up book tips, and this exact scenario occurred recently when I visited Kevin’s blog and noted that no less than two other bloggers: Kim and Max both recommended Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (and yes it’s been made into a television film!). Kim compared Dirty Tricks to Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, and since that book was one of my favourite reads of 2011, that sealed the deal.

Dirty Tricks is narrated by a forty-year-old Oxford EFL teacher who pedals his “tenth-hand push-bike” from his shared flat in the slums of East Oxford to his pathetically underpaid job at the Oxford International Language College. It’s here that the narrator meets a married couple, the upwardly mobile and socially pretentious Parsons, accountant Dennis, “a wine bore of stupendous proportions,” and his sexually rapacious, PE teacher wife, Karen–a pencil-thin woman with a “large, predatory mouth, like the front-end grille on a cheap flashy motor.” After feeding Dennis’s wine snobbery, the narrator finds himself invited to a dinner party at the Parsons’ suburban home with the “lumpenbourgeoisie,” and he embarks on a sordid affair with Karen in which the biggest thrill comes not from orgasm but from the thrill of blatant coupling right under Dennis’s nose. After rubbing elbows with members of the consumer-driven middle-class, the narrator gets a taste of the good life, and following a holiday with the Parsons in a villa in the Dordogne, he decides it’s about time he moved up in the world…..

I wanted the lifestyle which other people of my age and education enjoyed but which I had forfeited because of the wayward direction given my life by the humanistic propaganda I was exposed to in my youth.  I didn’t crave fabulous riches or meaningless wealth, I simply wanted my due.

And just how Dibdin’s unnamed sociopathic protagonist decides to get his “due” is the subject of the novel, and since the tale is told by an unreliable narrator of classic proportions who refuses to play by society’s rules, Dirty Tricks is both transgressive and darkly comic.  The opening paragraphs of Dirty Tricks resembles a confession, but it’s not of course; this is a justification:

First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race–or at least pretend to pretend.

Thus begins the narrator’s hilarious confessional narrative in which he explains and justifies his actions. He tells us his side of this sordid tale of adultery, murder, and social-climbing while waffling on the precise version of events until he creates one he intends to stick to.  Part of the reason the novel works so well is that all of the characters are unpleasant, and when the homicidal EFL teacher, a seething mass of envy with a self-admitted “yen for married women” is unleashed in suburbia, the results are explosively funny and wicked. Dibdin takes us deftly into the mind of the sociopathic narrator, and here he is applying grandiosity to murder

It is striking that at a time when just about every other human value has been called into question, the value of life is still universally accepted as an absolute. Despite this, I have no qualms about admitting to men of your culture and experience that the demise of Dennis Parsons seemed to me to be jolly desirable.

With this narrator, Dibdin creates an awful human being who’s always full of unpleasant surprises and whose base actions are unspeakably low and self-serving. Now matter how awful the narrator is, I found myself laughing out loud at his twisted, sick thinking. Just when I thought the narrator had sunk to his lowest behaviour, there were endless disgraceful actions in store.

I’ve always made a point of borrowing money from women early in the relationship so as to give them a hold over me. It also helps when the time comes to break off the affair, because you can talk about the money instead of feelings and love and messy, painful stuff like that.

In true sociopathic style, the narrator ambushes the reader with his twisted logic. Here he is discussing the past of one of his EFL students, Garcia:

Trish had given me a brief account of the allegations against him, but just to be on the safe side I phoned Amnesty International, posing as a researcher for a TV current affairs programme. Their response was unequivocal, a detailed catalogue of union leaders, students, newspaper editors, civil rights workers,  Jews, feminists, priests and intellectuals tortured and murdered, a whole politico-socio-economic subgroup targeted and taken out. I was dismayed. With a record like that, Garcia might well regard the menial task I had to offer him as beneath his dignity.

In this extremely entertaining novel, our narrator leaves a trail of revenge, death and disaster and yet always sees himself as the victim–a simple man who merely tried to turn his life around, and as the crimes rack up, his justifications become more complex, skewed and hilariously wicked. Author Michael Dibdin’s journey into the mind of a sociopath would be chilling if not for the humour, and for this reader the very best parts of this terrific novel occur when the narrator mimics the emotional responses he knows society expects of him.

For Kim’s review, go here. Kim also liked Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

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Filed under Dibdin Michael, Fiction

The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal

Parker Bilal is the pen name for Jamal Mahjoub–an author who has already published a number of novels, and now with this pen name, the author introduces an intriguing new character for what promises to be an excellent series. The Golden Scales is set in Cairo, and the protagonist is low-rent PI Makana. Makana, a political refugee, just barely manages to eke out a living while haunted by memories of his past life as a Sudanese police inspector.

It’s 1998, and shabbily-dressed Makana lives on an awama–a type of tiny ramshackle houseboat which in reality is a “flimsy plywood construction nailed haphazardly on to a rusty pontoon.” He’s behind on his rent and his landlady, Umm Ali is growing impatient. He’s lived a sort of twilight existence working the occasional PI job now for seven years after fleeing from Khartoum.

Usually his clients thought they could get him to work a little more cheaply and discreetly than a local investigator might. Still, in recent months he had found himself struggling. The work had dried up, no one had any money, and Makana was faced with the fact that if things did not improve soon he would have to think about finding some other kind of gainful employment. His needs were not excessive, his one vice being tobacco; other than that he lived the kind of frugal existence that would have shamed a wandering Sufi.

Luck seems to turn to Makana’s favour when he receives an unexpected visit from an employee of Saad Hanafi–one of Egypt’s richest men. Hanafi has his finger in almost every conceivable industry–real estate, construction, and he even owns a wildly popular football team known as The DreemTeem. A number of legends surround the mystery of Hanifi’s ugly past, and while it’s difficult to ascertain just how much is true and how much is fabricated, it is clear that as a young man, Hanafi was involved in major criminal enterprises. These days, however, Hanafi has gilded his reputation with generosity and “The DreemTeem was part of his PR makeover.” Hanafi has discovered a unique way to gain popular support in a country wracked with horrendous poverty:

In this world, it seemed, if you wanted to assure yourself of a seat in the temple among the great and godly, owning your own football team greatly improved your chances. And whereas most teams were associated with one particular part of the city or another, the Hanafi DreemTeem represented the aspirations of millions. This was what he really offered : a dream that everyone could share. In a draw held once a month, he gave away an apartment to some fortunate person. On television you could watch them screaming and fainting as they were given the news. They wailed and howled and fell to the ground. They tore at their hair, and jumped up and down. People supported Hanafi’s team because they wanted something to believe in.

Makana is summoned to Hanafi’s palatial home because the DreemTeem‘s star player, Adil Romario is missing. Just as there’s a legend about Hanafi’s ill-gotten gains, there’s a legend about Adil’s success which involves a story in which Hanafi discovered Adil as an urchin on the streets of Cairo. Hanafi claims he loves Adil like a son, but that after a row, Adil went missing. Makana’s job is to track Adil down and make him return. To Makana, something doesn’t feel right about the case, but he needs the money and takes the job.

Makana’s search for Adil takes him to the DreemTeem‘s manager, a corrupt Italian with mafia connections, Adil’s love interest the actress Lulu Hamra, and to the shabby film studios belonging to Salim Farag. Adil had an ambition to leave the pressures of the DreemTeem behind and become an actor instead. He certainly has the looks for it, but film clips at Faraga Films reveal a lack of talent. And then there’s a predatory Russian in the background. What is his involvement in Adil’s disappearance?

As Makana hunts for Adil, he meets Liz Markham, a British woman who’s searching for her daughter who disappeared in Cairo 17 years earlier. Makana, who mourns for his own lost daughter, experiences a moment of empathy with Liz, and later, he becomes convinced that the mystery of the missing Markham child is somehow connected to the disappearance of Adil Romario.

While Makana investigates the disappearance of Hanafi’s prize football player, an embedded narrative slowly reveals Makana’s past in Sudan.

Then one day the country awoke to find a new regime had arrived, announcing that the solution to all their problems lay in a more rigorous embrace of Islam. The self-styled government of National Salvation promised to overturn the hierarchies of class and ethnicity to make all equal under the sun of religious faith. 

Makana’s memories reveal a country plunged into religious fanaticism, and this story line, slowly parcelled out over the course of the novel,  reveals just how those who formerly enforced Sudan’s laws are subverted and corrupted. In his role as a Sudanese police inspector, Makana was supposed to investigate murders, but when purges and murders are committed by the people running the country, he finds himself in an untenable situation.  

Makana’s department was placed under the command of Major Idris, a stiff-necked military man who not only knew nothing about police work, but didn’t want to know. He didn’t have time for it. To Major Idris, it was all a matter of filling out the right forms and keeping his nose clean. A party member, he was on his way up. Nothing else mattered. Catching criminals was certainly not a priority. Praying was a priority. Keeping his superiors happy was a priority. With Idris came a flood of similar types, Makana had no idea where from. He had never seen them before. They seemed more concerned with flushing out potential critics of the regime than pursuing law breakers.

It wasn’t just the formalities which had changed, it was the very nature of crime itself. You picked up a victim by the side of the road with a bullet in his head, or a man with water in his lungs lying in the middle of the desert, and you asked yourself, how could this have happened? Nobody really wanted to know. As Major Idris reminded him more than once: “You’re a smart man, Makana. Smart enough to know that if I tell you these things are out of our hands then there is no need for you to worry yourself further.”

For those who like their crime fiction to take place in foreign locations, The Golden Scales holds great appeal. Not only is there plenty of local colour and a strong sociopolitical context, but the story takes us from the unrest in Sudan, to the marketplaces of Cairo, to the Pyramids, a swanky casino which bans locals, and the private estates of the fabulously wealthy. Throughout the tale, we see a nervous Cairo determined to facedown Islamic fundamentalists and reassure tourists in spite of the ever-present threat of political instability. In The Golden Scales–which is, by the way–a reference to justice, the author has created a unique PI–a character whose story is yet to be completed.  It’s refreshing to read a tale of a PI who’s not alcoholic and not unhappily married for once.

In spite of the story’s serious political issues, there’s a light sense of humour which balances the tale. Here’s Makana making an observation about Hanafi’s tacky decor:

Two giant glazed ceramic leopards stood guard by the entrance. A reminder that when you had all the money in the world, you didn’t need taste. 

Review copy from publisher.

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Filed under Bilal Parker, Fiction

The Colour of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy

“This is not a girl,”  he told himself. “This is a little chemical time bomb standing here in front of me, waiting to go off.”

One of the best things about blogging, is that I get tips about books that I might not have found otherwise. So for Irish author Conan Kennedy’s The Colour of Her Eyes, I owe a big thank you to Tom at A Common Reader. Tom posted a review of the book a few months back. I read the review, had a (generous) sample of the book sent to my kindle, and then ordered a copy. For N. American readers, this book came at the ridiculous give-away price of $2.99.

The Colour of Her Eyes is a crime novel, a hell of a suspenseful page-turner (or should I say button pusher since I read it on the Kindle). When the novel begins, we know that a crime has been committed, and we also know that it’s something quite ugly. The story unfolds through a series of interviews conducted by D.I. Harris, a member of the Sussex police with John Stanley Dexter, a well-to-do married, middle-aged businessman who 15 years or so earlier worked, unhappily,  as a teacher at Walthamstow  School. The interviews–written in the form of transcripts–alternate with Dexter’s memories of his past and Harris’s mordant ruminations as he investigates the case. Just what that ‘case’ is unfolds in time as the combative interviews play out. Here’s Harris interviewing, or should I say, interrogating Dexter about a girl who attended the school:

“I’m a tit man. And I’m telling you she was wearing a skimpy little top with her tits poking out one end and her belly the other. Am I right?”

“Not quite.”

“Where did I go wrong?”

“Well in those days you wouldn’t see their stomach. It wasn’t the fashion.”

“Ok. You’re the  expert. On underage girls. I’m only the amateur here. But I bet I’m half right. I bet her tits were falling out of her top.”

“It was pretty low cut, yes.”

“You in the fashion business, the rag trade?”

“You know I’m not.”

“Well stop saying things like it was pretty low cut. What we both mean is her fucking tits were falling out of her fucking top. Am I right?”

“Ok, you’re right.”

“Good. Now. So what do we have here. This little teenage poppet. Tits all over the shop. With nice thighs.”

“I didn’t say that. Didn’t say anything about thighs.”

“No you didn’t, but you said she was wearing a skirt.”

“That is not the same thing.”

“Did she not have nice thighs?”

And so it begins again.

Dexter’s memories take him 15 years back into the past to 1996 when he briefly worked as a 25-year-old teacher:

Six months teaching and already he hated the little fuckers. Oh ok, put it a bit more diplomatically, he just didn’t trust teenagers.

He’s chaperoning a disco, feeling he was “too fucking old to be at a teenagers’ disco”   when he meets a 15-year-old teenage jailbait of a temptress who calls herself Moonshine–a girl with remarkable green eyes:

She still didn’t smile, but looked at him intensely. A lot more intensely that he would have expected, with the vodka and drugs and whatever else. That look reminded him of some animal behind bars, in a zoo. There’s a moment when it suddenly catches your eyes. And you realise that you haven’t a clue who is in there. This was that moment. It shook him up a little, unnerved him a bit.

I don’t want to look into this girl’s eyes, he realised.

She’ll draw me in. And I’ll drown. And I’ll end up on a sex register.

As it turns out, and it comes as no surprise, teaching just isn’t Dexter’s calling. He moves on to the business world and as would fate would have it, 5 years after the disco, as a sales manager, he runs into Moonshine (real name Ruth Taylor) who’s waitressing, supporting a child and who’s been on the game. Dexter eventually becomes a rather well-heeled executive who owns a large country home with the baggage of all the material accoutrements–including a pony for one of his children and a wife who demands some ridiculously pretentious social markers. While Dexter may be comfortable financially, there’s something missing from his life. Meeting Ruth again is a momentous occasion which changes Dexter and Ruth’s lives for ever, and then, rather strangely, fate seems to throw them together again in five-year intervals.

These meetings–which may or may not be chance–occur over the years, and Dexter discusses them partly through the police interviews, and partly through memory. Perhaps due to Ruth’s cynicism and life experience, gradually the age gap between Dexter and Ruth appears to shrink. Meanwhile Dexter’s discontent with his wife, Yvette grows:

No, Dexter couldn’t really stand Yvette.

But she was good with the children, and he loved her for that. And he had loved her for all sorts of things too, once. So he loved her for that too.

“She’s volatile,” he said to his boss that night, that particular night after Yvette had stormed out of the room. Not that it had to be any particular night. Yvette stormed out of rooms quite a lot. But disagreement about EU politics was her starting gun for the current storm. Yvette thought most countries should be like Belgium. Only more so.

Due to the novel’s clever structure in which gems of information are parcelled out through police transcripts and memories, author Conan Kennedy creates intensity, suspense, and an irresistible desire to get to the truth. The truth however, proves to be elusive, and Harris’s frustrations with Dexter grow exponentially. When the story begins, Dexter seems to be the main character, but as the plot plays out, that role seems to shift to Harris. There’s no small amount of envy directed from Harris towards Dexter:

A bloke turning fifty with a good job seems to have most things already. Apart from time, and youth, and young women in the bed. Yes, apart from that sort of thing.

Harris looked at women. Pretty. And pretty much out of reach, to a detective inspector turning fifty. Glass between me and the stuff in the windows, he decided, and too much time between me and the girls. Out of reach. Well shit, maybe not completely out of reach. But much like the stuff in the shop windows. He didn’t really want them an awful lot, or need them much. But he watched them anyway.

Harris, who’s fifty, looking at a quiet retirement, and attracted to a young female PC is aware that some of his behaviour crosses or least comes dangerously close to the borders of sexual harassment. Perhaps this explains his barely camouflaged resentment of John Dexter because his suspect is a man who’s crossed the lines of various taboos more than once. Kennedy creates a massive amount of tension–tension between private and public lives, tension between what is desired and what is attainable, and tension between the haves and the have-nots. With this much tension, something’s got to give, and that’s where murder enters the picture. As Harris notes:

That’s a bad triangle. Women and money and revenge.

A great deal of the novel is set in the drabness of the seaside town of Bognor Regis, and somehow the descriptions of the deserted beach and its “long rows of empty deckchairs” suit the atmosphere of this moody psychological crime novel.  I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed in the ending and found myself with a lot of questions, but then, as I clicked to the final page….there’s a sequel! And no doubt some of the questions I have will find answers there. So… Conan, if you read this, where’s the sequel?

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Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Conan