Tag Archives: crime

The Tower by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Tower, a hard-boiled, stand-alone crime novel is the collaborative work of Irish author Ken Bruen and American writer Reed Farrel Coleman. Framed with a short prologue and a very brief afterword, the story is divided into two parts: one told by gangster, Nick and the other told by his best friend Todd. Nick is a low-grade criminal, the son of a former policeman, when he is introduced by Todd to “small-time racketeer” Boyle,  and the two friends become part of Boyle’s crew. Boyle is into “cards, hot goods, intimidation, muscle,” and although Boyle is violent and unpredictable, he appears to take a “shine” to Nick, offering him more work and better perks. At the same time, Todd seems to separate himself from Boyle, but perhaps there’s an ethnic basis to these loyalties. Todd is Jewish while Nick and Boyle are both Irish extraction. Boyle is third generation Irish, “stage Irish” according to Nick, who because he’s visited there a few times, sports a false brogue and thinks he’s the ‘real’ thing.  On the other hand, Boyle’s main thug, Griffin, from Belfast, is the real deal, and it’s rumoured he was a Provo. Boyle, who seems to think it’s all about presentation, is “an ambitious prick who had worked his way up the sewer pipe to the toilet and from the toilet to the gutter.” Boyle is prone to moments of unpredictable violence but sports a false gregarious, even generous veneer which is somewhat theatrically accompanied by bible quotes. Griffin, on the other hand, is impenetrable, shifty and psycho. They make a good pair. Biblical Boyle (as he’s called behind his back) would be easy to underestimate:

My life was crammed with Micks, my family and most of the guys I knew. Boyle was one of the most irritating. Third generation, he’d been to Ireland a few times and had more than once told me to get my arse over there, touch my roots. I assured him it was one of my goals but the only place I wanted to go was Miami. The warehouse had posters of Dublin and Galway, Galway with that Bay, and Boyle wasn’t above singing a few bars of that song, “If I ever go across the sea to Ireland” and he sang like a strangled crow. In his late fifties, he had that barroom tan, the bloated face from too much Jameson, the busted veins along his cheeks. Small eyes that darted like eels and it would be a big mistake to think the booze affected his attention. If anything, the drink seemed to work on him like speed for anyone else, got him cranked.

In spite of their ethnic differences, in many ways Todd and Nick have always been on the same path,  and problems begin when they split up. Todd goes off to do some work for Boyle in Boston, and while he’s gone, Nick, initially the more violent of the two friends, gains more and more favour with Boyle. He’s rewarded with a gold rolex, and then an apartment in Tribeca after persuading Boyle’s faithless girlfriend that it’s in the best interests of her health that she move out. Now.

towerThen Todd returns but he’s not the same; his new-found taste for violence stuns even Nick. Events spiral out of control with Todd seeking vengeance and Nick, snorting Cocaine every chance he gets, caught in a cobweb of conflicting desires and loyalties.

Boyle’s time was at hand. Nick and Todd’s as well. From the second they chose the life, they chose their deaths. I used to talk to men I guarded about this stuff. A lot of them were not so different than Todd and Nick, guys who, for whatever reason got swept up in the world of violence and easy money. Some were stone killers, Griffin prototypes. They were easier to understand. The guys like Todd and Nick, they never had much to say. It was as if they were at some destination, but vague on how they got there or why they had gone in the first place.

Tower, a tale of alliances, loyalties and revenge unfolds quite cleverly through its two narrators, and while we get a solid sense of just who Nick and Todd are, this is primarily a plot-driven tale. My copy has 172 pages and looking back over the plot, it’s easy to see that there’s very little fat here. Some of the events that occur are seen in overlap through the two different perspectives, and so some unanswered questions are explained by Todd’s version of events in part II. As a hard-boiled crime novel, this is a very dark, sharp, tight tale–bleak and doom-laden with scenes of horrendous violence, so the squeamish need not apply.

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Filed under Bruen Ken, Coleman Reed Farrel, Fiction

Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell

“Many people lead virtuous lives not because they resist temptation, but because temptation never comes their way.”

As a long-time fan of Ruth Rendell, I am always ready to grab her latest book, so fast on the heels of Portobello comes another stand-alone tale, Tigerlily’s Orchids. Just as Portobello focused on the occupants of a particular neighbourhood, Tigerlily’s Orchids concentrates on the residents of the flats of Lichfield House in the outer suburbs of London.

The newest resident of the flats in Stuart Font, a fortunate young man in many ways. He has the looks of a male model (and the vanity to match) and he’s just inherited 400,000 pounds from an eccentric great-aunt. While Stuart’s parents urge their son to get a job (and even send possible employment his way), Stuart has other plans. Against his parents’ advice to wait out the falling home prices, he spends half the inheritance on a flat in Lichfield house. With the rest of the money, he intends to be a gentleman of leisure and perhaps take a year or two before seeking employment. His plans are complicated by the fact he has an expensive lover–Claudia, a deputy fashion editor for a newspaper. She expects to be taken to the best restaurants and even at one point manoeuvres the purchase of a necklace for a mere 1000 pounds. One of the reasons Stuart is disinclined to work is so that he can continue his complicated affair with Claudia, and that means he needs to keep his days free so that they can spend them in bed together while her husband is at work.

When the book begins, Stuart is planning a house-warming party, and he’s drawing up a guest list that will include all the other residents: three single female students, Dr. Michael Constantine and his wife, a couple of middle-aged singles,  Marius Potter, Rose Preston-Jones, and Olwen, a sixty year old alcoholic. Also in attendance will be a couple of Stuart’s friends, the building’s caretaker and his buxom wife and an assortment of neighbours. As it turns out, the party is a significant occasion that ends badly.

The novel establishes a growing sense of malignancy which is coupled with the idea that no one will emerge unscathed from the events that take place. To describe Tigerlily’s Orchids as a crime novel is to ignore the subtle nuances of the plot, for while many crimes take place in these pages, not all of these crimes can be labelled neatly with a perp and a victim. Rendell’s characters are considered normal people–the sort of people we know and work with. A fair number of the characters have something or another to be ashamed about, and the crimes in these pages run the gamut from murder to enabling addiction. In Portobello, addiction played a role (the main character was addicted to diet sweets), and in Tigerlily’s Orchids we see the same sort of behaviours: addiction coupled with obsession. While Olwen’s addiction to alcohol moves blindly forward, gathering momentum as the book continues, it becomes clear that many other characters suffer from dangerous obsessions. Stuart is obsessed with his lover, Claudia, but eventually those roles as reversed, but there are several other obsessions afoot. And these obsessions, as Rendell so deliciously shows, blind the various characters to reality with catastrophic results. Dr. Michael Constantine, for example, is a non-practicing physician who writes a column. His obsession with crushing any sort of non-medical treatments through his writing takes him on a one-way ticket to unemployment as he refuses to even consider any other point of view.

By far my favourite character is Olwen:

Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren, and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly, for various reasons, stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.

Olwen has given up on relationships and humanity in general. She doesn’t want human communication. Instead she’s locked in a tango of death with alcohol. She’s devised a way of coping with people–especially people who preach to her or try to get in the way of her addiction. Her main, practically only, response to anyone is “not really”:

Olwen had long ago discovered that this was a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including “Are you well?’ and “Are you free on Saturday?” Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible.

Rendell proceeds to show just how that phrase “not really” works so well for Olwen’s desire to alienate people. Think I might try it out.

The lives of Rendell’s characters are set against the economic downturn, and the action reflects the changes. As shops close or hold desperate sales, the characters respond accordingly. The recession impacts the characters’ relationships, and it certainly turns up the heat. In one scene, Stuart loads up on furniture from a local shop. He doesn’t particularly like the stuff he buys but it’s on sale, and he can’t resist buying a mirror for the vanity feedback it offers.

Tigerlily’s Orchids explores the horrors of suburbia, and here Rendell creates a neighbourhood crucible, adding just enough of the ingredients–passion, jealousy, and obsession until she achieves combustion. While The Tree of Hands is my favourite Rendell (and I doubt it’ll ever be supplanted), Tigerlily’s Orchids is a welcome return to this author.

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Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal

Somehow or another I missed all the headlines about the man who posed as a Rockefeller for over a decade, so when I came across a non-fiction book on the subject, I decided to read it. After all, it taps into my crime fetish, and I was curious to see just how a penniless German teenager managed to pretend he was a Rockefeller while he mingled with the upper-crusty set in America.

For those who know nothing about this case, Christian Kark Gerhartsreiter, a 17-year-old German came to America in 1978 on a tourist visa and stayed. How he morphed into Clark Rockefeller, and more importantly how he convinced everyone in his social orbit that he was one of the members of this famous family, is at the heart of this incredible tale.  As author Mark Seal notes, Gerhartsreiter’s story is “more bizarre that any gifted writer of fiction could possibly invent.”

Seal painstakingly tracked down people who knew ‘Rockefeller’ in all of his many manifestations and various personas, and he also actually went to the places that Gerhartsreiter lived. The book begins with the July 2008 parental kidnapping of Rockefeller’s daughter, and then tracks how the FBI got involved, and how the FBI discovered that Clark Rockefeller did not exist. From this point, the author goes back in time covering Gerhartsreiter’s life in Germany, his relocation to America in 1978, and just how his identities began shifting once he arrived. This really is an amazing story, and for anyone remotely interested in this particular story or shapeshifters in general, I can heartily recommend this well-researched, highly-readable book.

One of the points that the author makes repeatedly is that the fake ‘Rockefeller’ (and I’m going to refer to Gerhartsreiter as that) was like a “human sponge.” From the moment he arrived in America and started being obnoxious with his “host” family (he pretended to be a student), he soaked up everything he saw or watched on television. It wasn’t long before this shapeshifter moved onto California which makes perfect sense as he was thrilled with film. In California,  Gerhartsreiter developed what was to become his MO. Given Gerhartsreiter’s intelligence, it can’t be a coincidence that he picked San Marino for his hunting ground. It’s a wealthy community and here from 1981-1985 with the new name “Christopher Chichester” he hung out at the churches of the rich and lied, smarmed, and name-dropped his way into everyone’s homes:

It made sense that Chichester had chosen to live in a city with one of the foremost libraries in America, since libraries were a key part of his existence wherever he went. He spent much of his time in them, studying how to become someone else.

Seal painstakingly tracked Chichester/Gerhartsreiter/Rockefeller’s adventures in America and the various aliases and personas he adopted as “he tried on various names for size,” and there’s a very long list: Dr. Christopher Rider, Chris Crowe, Charles Smith, Chip Smith, Christopher Chichester, Christopher Chichester XIIIth baronet, Christopher Mountbatten Chichester (my personal favourite), and of course, the biggie–Clark Rockefeller. The fake names were accompanied by the most fantastic stories of his background; he was  “passing himself off as a computer expert, film producer and stockbroker,”  related to British Royalty, the son of a silent film star, blah, blah. These are just some of the creative and fictional details added to the tall tales he told. And the crazy thing is that some of his stories didn’t even make sense; at one point for example, he claimed to have inherited a medieval cathedral and that he wanted to relocate it to San Marino. The preposterousness of this plan didn’t even raise any eyebrows!

At one point, Gerhartsreiter/Crowe was bragging about the Ferraris, the Alfa Romeos, and the Lamborghinis he owned, but then he showed up with a ’65 chevy that was “belching more smoke than Mount St Helen’s.” He certainly wasn’t short on audacity. The author emphasizes Rockefeller’s “customary uniform,” the particular outfits he wore: “he dressed exclusively in the uniform  of the Wasp aristocracy,” and the props he used that convinced the people he met that he was a stray yachtsman:

Well-worn khakis, a sky blue Lacoste shirt with the crocodile embroidered over the heart, Top-sider shoes (as always without socks), and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word Yale. He adjusted his heavy black-framed glasses, which some people thought brought Nelson Rockefeller to mind.

Chichester/Gerhartsreiter moved on from San Marino rather suddenly, and as the book reveals, in 2011, he was charged with an 1985 murder that occurred in a house in which he lived. In 1985, leaving San Marino behind,  Gerhartsreiter headed back east, and then became Christopher Chichester Crowe who’d managed the mythical Battenberg-Crowe-von Wettin Family Foundation. Apparently just hanging out at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, showing off photos of the fantastic houses he claimed he owned, our man pretended to be a bond trader/ TV producer and landed a $125,000 a year  job (not counting “perks and bonuses.”). Apparently no one checked to see if Christopher Chichester Crowe (also known as CCC) was who he claimed to be or if his credentials were legit. He was eventually fired BTW. And in 1988, CCC disappeared….

But no matter, because CCC now morphed into Clark Rockefeller, and what a succesful deception that turned out to be. As Clark Rockefeller he wooed and in 1993, he  married a talented, ambitious woman who was soon earning millions a year. My favourite part of the book takes place when the author travels to Cornish, New Hampshire where the “Rockefellers” settled. Big mistake–the Cornish natives didn’t exactly take to Rockefeller’s notion of being landed gentry. The people of Cornish seem to operate on the principal that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or what your last name is, you still can’t go around acting like a dickhead.

In spite of all the tall tales Rockefeller eagerly told, NO ONE checked him out or tried to substantiate the wild fantasies that spewed forth regarding his background. He was invited into people’s lives, their homes, their businesses and was handed high-paying jobs, free meals, you name it.

Ultimately The Man in the Rockefeller Suit tells us a lot about America, and the attitudes and protections afforded to those who claim the so-called great names and/or wealth (Not that it’s much different anywhere else, but there’s this myth that America is supposed to be a classless society). As the author interviews those duped by Rockefeller while he operated under various aliases, he reinforces the idea that “Rockefeller had the kind of peculiarities” that were expected from the very rich, so people accepted Rockefeller’s at-times bizarre behaviour as the sort of normal eccentricity of the filthy rich. Here’s one example: Rockefeller invited people to lunch at expensive restaurants but then they had to pay as he didn’t carry cash!!!

In many ways, the story of this serial imposter reminds me very much of the man who impersonated Stanley Kubrick. There are some glaring similarities in the two cases when it comes the imposter’s ability to wedge himself in and exploit people, and also the fact that in both situations, people really wanted to believe that they were rubbing shoulders with Kubrick and Rockefeller. It’s important to keep in mind that the many, many people fooled by Rockefeller and then interviewed for this book operate in hindsight. A few people noted that his accent wasn’t quite right, but it’s rare that anyone interviewed says something along the lines of ‘I was an idiot,’ or ‘the clues were staring me in the face.’ Instead for the most part, those who knew this faker state that he was very credible, “brilliant” and carried himself like a blue-blooded New Englander.  Author Seal is very generous to those who granted him interviews, and he doesn’t ask some of the hard questions that I found myself asking.

The fake Rockefeller comes across as a terrible snob, and he deliberately mingled with the sort of people who went all gooey about the Rockefeller name. You can almost hear those he fooled falling over themselves, and if I had to carry away just one thing from this incredible story it’s that if you can convince people that you’re a Vanderbilt, a Getty, or a Rockefeller, doors will open wide for you, and you will be able to get away, quite literally, with murder.

Review copy courtesy of netgalley and read on my kindle.

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Filed under Non Fiction, Seal Mark

The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part II

The other day I urged someone to watch the film, Animal Kingdom. He was concerned that the film might be too violent. Actually, given the subject matter, the film doesn’t show a great deal of violence, but there’s a sense of menace pulsing throughout the film. Anyway, the point I want to make is that whatever you see happen in the film, isn’t a tenth of what really went on in Dennis Allen’s Richmond, Melbourne empire.

To recap: In my last post (part I), I noted that the Pettingill family seemed more like a tribe. They had their own rules of conduct, their own belief system, and definite dos and don’ts, and none of these things had anything to do with societal expectations, societal norms, or legality. Another point I made was that the book, The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story, presents an incredible picture of crime running amok in Melbourne, and as I read the book, I was astounded (no exaggeration here) at the tales of drug-use, rampant crime, and police corruption. This is a story in which the excesses of De Palma’s  Scarface mesh with the deeply embedded police corruption of Scorsese’s The Departed. But the shocking thing here is that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it’s also much worse.

The book charts Dennis Allen’s criminal career, and I obviously can’t detail his life in its entirety, but here’s a few significant markers: In 1973,  22-year-old Dennis Allen along with his younger brother, Peter and two accomplices were involved in a murder-for-hire scheme. They’d been paid $500 to kill the operator of a massage parlour. When the target didn’t show up as expected at a flat, violence exploded instead on the flat occupants. Dennis was later convicted of rape with a 10 year sentence. Peter received 14 years for his role in the crime and a two-day rampage which included shooting several people and attempting to shoot police officers.

Dennis Allan was released in 1977 and he moved to Richmond. According to the author, the years 1977-1982 “were marked by a further decline into violence and lawlessness.”   He was involved in a number of fights and confrontations which resulted in short jail sentences.  In 1981, he was sent to Pentridge Gaol.

Dennis Allan’s peak crime period appears to have extended from 1982-1987– years which, according to the author, were “the period [that] marked the flowering of pure evil within Dennis Bruce Allen.” In 1982, Dennis was released from prison, and he joined his mother who owned and operated the Gaslight Massage Parlour at 108 Stephenson Street. Dennis and Kathy began buying properties in the neighbouring streets–several others on Stephenson Street  while Dennis also owned 41, 43, 45, 47, and 49 Cubitt Street and another house on Chestnut Street. In all, Dennis owned 8 houses while Kathy owned two. Dennis lived in 37 Stephenson Street. His enforcers lived in some of the other houses, and one house was given over for the use of Dennis’s builder (who later was a witness against Dennis in a murder).

Dennis was addicted to speed. With limitless money and connections, Dennis was able to indulge his habit to excess. He “used seven grams of pure speed a day.” Tame states:

His usual method was to inject the drug into his arm, tying a dressing-gown sash around it, as often as every half hour. Sometimes he didn’t bother to remove the sash between hits.

The speed increased Dennis’s paranoia and also resulted in days without sleep. Kathy remembers the longest period without sleep was 14 days, but states that 10 days wasn’t “uncommon.” The book indicates that these periods were extremely difficult for those who lived around Dennis. It seems as though they just waited for the tension to erupt into violence:

In this condition Dennis was every bit as volatile and dangerous as unstable gelignite–primed and ready to explode. You didn’t cross Dennis at times like this. You didn’t go near him if you could possibly avoid it.

Several murders are recalled, including the various versions of the murder of former Hell’s Angel (he’d been “kicked out”),  Anton Kenny. On another occasion Kathy recalls deciding to “drop in” on Dennis one night after working at the Gaslight Massage parlour only to find a wounded youth with a meat cleaver in his head. On another occasion, she was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to clean up after the murder of Wayne Stanhope.  All of this is quite gruesome reading, so be prepared:

He was going to kill Stanhope right from the start. But I didn’t think he’d shoot him in the house in front of all those people. But that’s Dennis. He shot everybody in front of people. He always wanted an audience. Anyway there was a load of shit written about the clean-up, about dragging the body onto the tile floor. He died in one small square of carpet which the police took up later for forensic reasons. But he’d had my vacuum cleaner which had a tin base. And that’s what he used to vacuum up his brains and that. And then he burnt my bloody vacuum cleaner, which he didn’t have to do because it was tin.

 Kathy asserts that she could not control or influence Dennis & that he was simply too far gone into drugs. Tame describes Kathy’s relationship with her eldest son like this:

 Their relationship had had many aspects–mother and son, brother and sister, partners in crime–but it was always intense and almost claustrophobically close.

As I read the book and the incredible story unfolded, one question repeatedly came to mind. Here’s this volatile career criminal under almost constant police surveillance, and yet nothing happened to him. He seemed untouchable.  Why? Herein lies the crux of the matter.

The police used an abandoned factory for some of their surveillance, and Dennis would, according to Tame, “occasionally pepper the building with gunshots.” Kathy relates an incident that took place the day after Dennis used a machine gun on the factory. She states that the police visited her and told her: “you’ll have to stop him taking pot shots.” An enforcer relates a similar incident in which Dennis “blew out all the [factory] windows” with a .22 automatic and a Colt .45. This resulted in another visit to Kathy by the police with yet another request that she make Dennis stop shooting at the factory they used for surveillance. On another occasion, a police helicopter was circling above, and Dennis ran out and started firing at the helicopter trying to bring it down until the enforcer nervously pointed out that if Dennis succeeded, the helicopter would crash on their heads!

If something about this sounds terribly wrong to you, well it’s all part of the murky relationship which existed between Dennis Allan and the police. Kathy states he was an informer, and that at one point he bragged that he paid $25,000 for the documents pertaining to the so-called Operation Cyclops (the surveillance mounted beginning in 1984). The seven-month long operation did net arrests and drugs, but how did Dennis continue to operate?

To call Dennis an informer is, I think, putting it mildly. Kathy describes an occasion when Dennis arranged to meet a drug courier who flew in from Asia with a stomach full of smack-stuffed condoms. When Dennis met the courier, the police swooped in and arrested both men. Dennis was let go with the smack and the police got the money. On another occasion, the police “supplied their prize informant with an official-issue bullet-proof vest.”

Kathy argues that police are nothing but “gangsters with badges,” and the book certainly paints a murky picture of crime and crime-fighting in Melbourne. Yes, those two things go hand in hand, but the book paints a portrait of a deadly partnership. With the drugs combined with his special status, it’s probably no wonder that Dennis appears to have felt invulnerable and untouchable–so much so that he even arranged to bomb the inquest concerning a death of a prostitute. As Dennis spiralled out of control, it became inevitable he’d burn out, but a lot of people suffered and died along the way. The details here are nothing short of mind-blowing, and when Kathy gives her side of police intimidation and interrogations, by this point the actions of some of the Melbourne police appear to have little credibility. To sum it up, as Tame states, this case &  this book offer  “rare insight into the murky business of what can happen when police are obliged to weigh the merits of an informer against the gravity of the offences he may be committing.” That’s a great line that does indeed raise a lot of questions, but I  think the use of the term informer is wildly understating what took place in Melbourne.

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The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part I

The phenomenal Australian crime film Animal Story was one of my favourites of 2010, and it’s a film I first heard about on Whispering Gums. When I found out that it was loosely based on a true story, well, I knew I had to read the raw material. I managed to track down a used copy of The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame. The book is OOP and looking at the cost of used copies, I’d hazard a guess that the book has achieved cult status.

If you’ve seen the film, then you know that it’s about a disaffected young man, Josh,  who, after the death of his mother from a heroin overdose, goes to live with his grandmother. Ok, back to the safety of the family nest?…. No it’s not like that at all. Josh lands head first into a major Melbourne crime family, and he’s expected to take an active role. When he unwittingly plays a role in the killings of two young police officers (known as the Walsh Street Killings), Josh discovers that he’s in over his head.

Ok, that’s the film, and if you haven’t seen it, watch it.

Now the book, and I should start by saying that the film is loosely based on the Pettingill family, so there are some major differences. More of that later.

Author Adrian Tame has known Kathy Pettingill, “the matriarch” of the Melbourne-based family for some time, and they first met when he was a journalist on Melbourne’s Truth newspaper. Over the course of his career, Tame wrote stories about the Pettingills and gradually had a relationship of sorts with Kathy. Tame eventually left journalism but in 1995, after he was contacted by Kathy, he began the book The Matriach: The Kathy Pettingill Story –a story which grew from a series of interviews.  The book is, as the title suggests, Kathy’s story–her version of events. 

The book begins with some riveting information about Kathy’s background and stretches back to Kathy’s mother and grandmother. This isn’t the story of a family–this is the story of a tribe. If Zola were alive, he would be fascinated by Kathy Pettingill’s story and the issues of hereditary. He’d be on the first plane to Australia collecting material for his next series of novels. This series would be called the Pettingill-Allen Cycle or some such thing, and instead of a history of France’s Second Empire, Zola would write a stunning series of novels about Australia told through the various generations of this extended family.

The book begins with substantial material about Kathy’s background, and there’s a family tree included to help see the relationships between the various players. There’s Kathy’s mother Gladys and grandmother Kathleen. All three generations of women were married to men but had “ex-facto” relationships that produced other siblings, so the family tree is quite tangled. Some of the extended branches of the family were eminently respectable while others had long histories of crime and “anti-establishment” views. (Back to that Rougon-Marquart cycle again.) It’s all very complicated, but as the material unfolds, some trends develop. The men come and go (sometimes to jail or war in the case of Kathy’s father), but the women are, as the title infers, the matriarchs of this tribe. Tame relates how Kathy grew up thinking her dad had died during WWII in the Middle East. Years later, it was discovered that he’d committed suicide “because of hate letters he received almost certainly” from his wife, Gladys.  

Kathy and her two sisters were raised by their grandmother, Kathleen while Gladys moved on to a series of bigamous relationships “generally with merchant seamen … largely for their pensions.”  Kathy, at age 16, met Dennis James Ryan and bore the first of ten children–this was Dennis Allen, one of the most notorious criminals in Melbourne’s history.  Then came a second son, Peter, but when Kathy was pregnant, Dennis Ryan signed up and was shipped out to the Korean War. Shortly after Peter’s birth, Kathy met Billy Peirce and the couple had six children–three of the six were put up for adoption. At this point, Kathy’s mother, Gladys, who’d mostly disappeared during Kathy’s childhood, reappeared and took over the care of Kathy’s first two children, Dennis and Peter. When Billy Peirce was in prison for burglary, Kathy met Jimmy Pettingill, and she later had two children with Pettingill. So that’s ten in all just in case you are having trouble following the final tally.

One of the things that’s so curious here, and this is where the idea of a tribe, rather than a family comes into play, is that there appears to be no traditional idea of a firm, immutable family unit. Pettingill was married with a family when he met Kathy. In fact Pettingill’s children by Kathy represented his third family. Kathy’s relationship with Billy Peirce was somewhat similar. He married another woman in between Kathy bearing his fifth and sixth child. And, according to the author, these “de facto” relationships also occurred for Kathy’s mother and grandmother.

With men coming and going, Kathy didn’t have an easy time of it. She worked as a prostitute for years, she also later ran a bordello, and she served time in prison. She touches on those “interesting days in the parlours.” One bordello was known as The Black Rose and another was called Vampirella’s. Tame states that “Kathy’s experiences in the seamy world of prostitution and massage parlours led her deeper into the underworld.” Kathy apparently had a “better reputation than most of the madams.” It should come as no surprise that Kathy’s children (excluding the ones that were adopted into other families) grew up with a range of problems. Kathy’s sons were involved in lives of crimes, but it’s Kathy’s eldest son, Dennis whose crimes stand out as the most heinous.

It is fairly easy to judge Kathy, but that’s something the book tackles head-on. Tame argues that Kathy’s reputation as “Granny Evil” is largely rooted in two things: the reputation and crimes of her eldest son, Dennis and the notorious Walsh Street Murders in which two young police officers were lured to their deaths when they responded to an abandoned car call. ( I should add here that the book was published in 1996. In 1989 Wendy Peirce, the “de-facto” partner of Victor Peirce went into witness protection and was prepared to testify against Victor in the Walsh Street Murders. She later refused to testify in court, but in 2005 gave an interview to Australian media in which she admitted Victor’s role in the murders).  The majority of the book addresses Kathy’s relationship with her son Dennis (and hence her culpability) and also her version of the Walsh Street Murders. With the emphasis on those two subjects, Kathy’s relationships with her other children are not much of a point of discussion.

While Tame asks Kathy some pointed questions about her involvement, her honesty, at times, can be disarmingly direct. She readily admits that her sons were involved in certain crimes, but denies others, and she argues that her sons were not responsible for the Walsh Street Murders. At other times some of the versions of events seem foggy at best, and we can speculate all sorts of reasons for that. The controversy about the infamous Walsh Street Murders continues to this day.

The book presents an incredible picture of crime running amok in Melbourne, and as I read the book, I was astounded (no exaggeration here) at the tales of drug-use, rampant crime, and police corruption. The excesses of De Palma’s  Scarface mesh with the deeply embedded police corruption of Scorsese’s The Departed. But the shocking thing here is that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it’s also much worse.

To be continued in Part II

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The Shark-Infested Custard by Charles Willeford

Is it an exaggeration to call Charles Willeford The Pope of Psychopulp? I came across this description the other day. It’s one I’d never heard of before, and yet somehow it fits Willeford’s sick and twisted transgressive fiction. Don’t get me wrong: I think Willeford is FANTASTIC, but his characters always manage to surprise me with their amoral world view and deviant actions.

The Shark-Infested Custard is my fourth Willeford, and during this bleak January, it seemed the perfect time to dip into Willeford’s sordid world. For anyone interested, I’ve also read The Burnt-Orange Heresy, The Woman Chaser, and Wild Wives (placed in the order of preference). According to the blurb on the back cover, Willeford considered The Shark-Infested Custard his “master work,” and here’s a quote from its author:

The Shark-Infested Custard says a good deal about the brutalization of urban life–at least in Miami. It’s written in the hard-boiled tradition of James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and, I suppose, it is a fairly nasty picture of so-called ordinary young  men who are making it down here. But such was my intention…”

The Shark-Infested Custard was written in 1975, but it was not published in its entirety until 1993 a few years after Willeford’s death in 1988. Part I of The Shark-Infested Custard was published as Strange in the story collection Everybody’s Metamorphosis in 1988 (446 copies from the private press of Dennis McMillan). Part II was first published as Kiss Your Ass Goodbye (442 copies from the private press of Dennis McMillan).  These details are included here to help anyone interested in buying Willeford books. Several of the books have more than one title, and I spent some time looking for Kiss Your Ass Goodbye until I realised it was part of The Shark-Infested Custard.

The Shark-Infested Custard is the loosely knit tale of four young men living in Miami in the 70s. While this is a novel, the book reads like four interconnected stories with each story focusing on a different character. When the novel begins the men are whooping it up in Dade Towers, a singles-only apartment building. The men form a sort of friendship based on the fact that they are the first four tenants of the new building. They are:

Larry “Fuzz-O” Dolman:

Larry was a policeman but his bad temper and the lack of promotion now finds him as a senior security officer with a large nationwide company.

Hank Norton:

Hank has an A.B. in psychology. He’s a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, and while he rates as a top salesman, he has the job down to just 10-15 hours a week. According to Larry, Hank “probably gets more strange in a single month than the rest of us get in a year.” Hank’s success with women can be partly attributed to his dashing good looks but his confidence also plays a huge role. He applies his psychology background to the women he ‘dates.’ I’m using the term ‘dates’ loosely. Hank doesn’t ‘date’ women in a long or even a short-term way. He has sex with them–plain and simple. The date part is the time leading up to the sex.

Eddie Miller:

Eddie is an ex-air force pilot. He’s a sociable cipher for much of the book, but then when we discover a bit about what he’s thinking, it’s all rather unpleasant covered by this polished veneer. For a portion of the book, Eddie lives the life of a gigolo with a much older woman named Gladys–a “well-to-do widow” who lives in a magnificent house in Miami Springs.

Don Luchessi:

Don is married is separated from his wife, Clara, and he has an unpleasant child named Marie (more of that later). He works for a British silverware company, and since he’s their man in Miami, he has a lot of freedom when it comes to his work schedule.

The novel begins with Larry’s narration. It all starts with a few martinis:

We were on the second round of martinis when we started to talk about picking up women. Hank being the acknowledged authority on this subject, threw out a good question. “Where, in Miami,” Hank said, “is the easiest place to pick up some strange? I’m not saying the best, I’m talking about the easiest place.”

A debate takes place with the topic of V.D clinics being a great place to score, but then the talk moves on to “the hardest place in Miami to pick up a woman.” Hank, who is the most successful man in the group with women, finally reveals that the most difficult place is the drive-in. The casual talk moves to some serious bets, and before the evening is over, Hank commits to picking up a woman at the drive-in within a two-hour time frame. The other three men agree to wait at the Burger Queen across the street from the drive-in. Here’s Hank, freshly showered and dressed for the kill:

Hank came into the living room, looking and smelling like a jai-alai player on his night off. He wore white shoes with leather tassels, and a magenta slack suit with a silk blue-and-red paisley scarf tucked in around the collar. Hank had three other tailored suits like the magenta–wheat, blue and chocolate–but I hadn’t seen the magenta before. The high-waisted pants, with an uncuffed flare, were double-knits, and were so tight in front his equipment looked like a money bag. The short-sleeved jacket was a beltless, modified version of a bush jacket, with huge bellow side pockets.

To complete the 70s picture, Hank drives his Galaxie to the drive-in while the other men follow in Don’s Mark IV. If you want to discover whether or not Hank wins his bet, well, read the novel.

The men, and think of them as predatory hunters, spend a great deal of time tracking down women for sex, and so it should come as no surprise that some of their energies are devoted to escaping from women. Women are, of course, one of the big topics of conversation, and the men have various theories on what they term: stewardae. Apparently, in Miami in the 70s, there are plenty of stewardae floating around, and the fact that the men have given women who work as stewardesses a collective name should give the indication of how they view women:

Stewardesses never wanted to screw; with them it was all A.C.F.–analingus, cunnilingus, and fellatio.

In part II, Larry has joined a dating service after devising a way to deduct the dates on his income tax. Narrator Hank admits to once being on a “stewardess kick,” but he’s bored with stewardesses and nurses when he meets Larry’s date, Jannaire. Larry dislikes Jannaire because of her body odours and her unshaved armpits, but to Hank, Jannaire is incredibly attractive, and so he sets out to bed her.

Part III concerns Don who has returned to his wife and now leads a miserable, controlled existence living on an allowance. Larry narrates part IV.

If I had to pick a favourite section of the novel, it would be Don’s birthday party. Well actually Don has two birthday parties in the book; I’m talking about the first one. At this point Don has reconciled with Clara–mainly to have access to his child, Marie. Don “still detested his wife,” and the fact that he returns to her seems to diminish Don in the eyes of his friends. Not that this is discussed, but he’s treated derisively as though the appeal to guilt and morality that sets Don back in the domestic saddle is an indication of his weakness. Clara has the upper hand in the relationship, and she’s very effectively hobbled Don financially and mentally. To Larry, Eddie, and Hank, that’s breaking some sort of unspoken rule, and they see Don as weak and pathetic.  The collective but unspoken attitude towards Don shared by his friends goes a long way to explaining what happens later, and again, if you want to know what happens, read the book.

So here’s a paragraph from Hank at the party scene:

And little fat Marie was also there, never more than six inches away from Don. When he was behind the bar mixing drinks, she was back there with him, “helping” him. If he sat down, she sat in his lap. He had a pool table in his Florida room, but she spoiled the games we tried to play. She always wanted to play, too, and Don let her. If she missed a shot, she cried and he had to comfort her. If she made one, she crowed. She also cheated, and Don let her get away with it.

If that’s not bad enough, here’s Clara:

Clara was a great cook, one of the best cooks in the world, but even her wonderful dinners were ruined for you because she had to tell you exactly how each dish was made, and where the ingredients could be obtained. No one else could get in a word, or force her to change the subject. During Clara’s vapid monologue, delivered rapidly in a shrill high-pitched voice, Marie made ugly faces, got down from the table from time to time to play terrible children’s records on the stereo, and greedily finished her food as soon as possible so she could sit on Don’s lap for the rest of the meal.

There is much to be said for the old-fashioned notion of having women serve the men first, and then eat their own meals at the second table in the kitchen.

These few paragraphs show the book’s flavour. If you’re offended, then you’ve been spared reading the book. If you think it’s funny, and want to read more, well you are a budding Willeford fan.

The four main male characters from The Shark-Infested Custard are intelligent, personable and employed. They carry all the markers of so-called healthy productivity, and yet scratch under the surface, and we have four unpleasant predators capable of horrendous acts. If these men are the “sharks” of the title, then it’s easy to extrapolate that the custard is the mores of conventional society through which they coast–lurking and unseen. At times they commit crimes and yet they are not what we would consider ‘criminals.’ This is Willeford’s subversive look at the culture of predatory males on the make. The novel includes some mini-lectures which seemed to be more from the author than the character at hand. Easy to forgive a minor fault when it comes from The Pope of Psychopulp.

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Three Crimes by Simenon

“Is this where our taste for mystery and squalor comes from?”

Simenon is perhaps best remembered for his Maigret novels, but I prefer the edgy, darker realms of the romans durs (hard novels). I’d like to think that I will read everything Simenon wrote, but according to David Carter, who both translated and wrote the introduction to Three Crimes, this might be an impossible goal. Carter states in his first sentence that Simenon “acquired a reputation for excess,” and Carter gives credence to that reputation by listing some of sheer numbers attached to Simenon’s name: “sexual relations with about 10,000 women,” 19 Maigret novels “in the space of three years,”  “Twenty two volumes of memoirs,” and “scholars still argue about the precise number of books he wrote…at least 230 works in his own name … and a further 200 under various pseudonyms.”

Now I’m no longer sure that I will be able to read everything Simenon ever wrote, but I have a shelf full of unread romans durs ahead of me. And this brings me to Three Crimes–written in 1938, this is a must read for the Simenon fan. It’s not the best thing ever written by Simenon, and it’s certainly not his usual style, but it’s a really important novel for devotees of Simenon who’d perhaps like to gain some insight into what made this phenomenal writer tick. This new translation is dated 2006 and is published by Hesperus Press.

If you’ve read a few Simenon’s romans durs already then you’ve probably experienced that moment of putting aside the novel and wondering what sort of man created these devious little tales. Three Crimes goes a long way to answering that question. The book, which is nonfiction by the way, examines a fairly short period in Simenon’s life. According to Carter, Simenon “considered” the book to be a novel stressing that “nevertheless all the details in Three Crimes come directly from his own experience, including the names of all the characters. The work is novelistic, however, in its evocation and dramatisation of situations and events.”

Three Crimes takes place in Liege, Belgium, Simenon’s birthplace and it’s the story of crimes committed by people Simenon knew well. At 16, Simenon worked in a bookshop as a “colleague” of the unsavoury Hyacinthe Danse, an obese bookseller who “specialised in so-called saucy works” and who coerced under-age girls into sex acts at the back of his shop. Then, Simenon (still 16) became the youngest reporter on a local paper, and this job brought him into the company of fellow reporter, the dandy and pimp, Ferdinand Deblawue. Simenon and Deblawue later operated the small rag, Nanesse, and here Simenon unwittingly became an accessory to blackmail. A few years later, both the slovenly, perverted bookseller Danse and the vain Deblawue became murderers. The book isn’t a mystery–the murders are mentioned very quickly and then Simenon, always intrigued by “the why and the how” of crime goes back over time to detail the  events.

One argument Simenon includes in these pages is that war had a negative influence on the people who endured those years. I’d say that war offers situations for the opportunistic (I’m thinking Dr. Petoit here), and certainly Danse took every advantage of the war. Here’s Simenon talking about his childhood and the merging of crime and anti-German activities.

“They taught us to take advantage of shady corners, to live in the semi-darkness, to whisper. As we could not move around in the streets after such and such an hour of the night, we went to each other’s houses via the roofs, in the moonlight.”

Three Crimes is a strange book, and it goes a long way to explaining Simenon’s psychological make-up and his fascination with the criminal mind. He describes his early life in Liege and mentions Danse and Deblawue often, obviously looking for signs that he missed that these men would murder in the future. Similarities and differences between the two men and their lives are noted frequently. Of the two murderers in these pages, Danse is the most repulsive and the most dangerous. The lumpish Danse builds elaborate fictions about himself, and like a bloated cobra, he both fascinates and repels his victims and acquaintances.

The story has a fragmentary quality–almost as if Simenon jotted down notes with the intention of returning and refining those notes later. The writing is rife with exclamation points and ellipsis (which the translator purposely kept in order to remain faithful to Simenon), and these stylistic peculiarities emphasize  Simenon’s reaction to the events that took place. Simenon still very clearly has a sense of incredulity about what happened; not just that he knew these men–murderers in embryo, but that they committed crimes that included incredible luck. Simenon meditates on the question: “when was it he [Deblauwe] started to become a murderer?” Simenon still seems to feel a sense of shock–even years later, and this brings other issues to the fore–Who is capable of murder? Can we predict the course that leads to murder? These are issues that echo throughout his novels. And then there’s the issue of the victims…why do victims sometimes accompany their own murderer willingly, knowingly….

Now I’m using the ellipsis. It’s contagious.

Here’s Simenon noting the influence of the real-life crimes on his novels and the difference about the real crimes of Danse and Deblauwe and fictional crimes:

“The three crimes of my friends resemble all the crimes that I have related. Only, due to the fact that they are true, and that I know their perpetrators, it is possible for me to write: ‘He killed because…’

Because of nothing! Because of everything! At certain moments I think I understand everything and it seems to me that, in a few words, I will be able to…

But no! A moment later this truth that I touched upon almost vanishes into thin air and I see again a different Deblauwe, and a smiling plump Danse behind his counter, I hear a phrase…Or is it the characteristic lingering odour of the Fakir, which rises up in my throat and I think I am wandering under the lamps daubed with blue in the wartime.

It is impossible to relate truths in an orderly and clear way: they will always appear less plausible than a novel.”

The translator, David Carter argues that the title–Three Crimes–is misleading as it refers to four murders (two at one time counting as one incident). obviously Carter knows a lot more about Simenon than I do, but my interpretation of the title, Three Crimes is this: The three murders committed by Danse, the murder committed by Deblauwe, and the death of Little K. Simenon continually refers to the death of Little K throughout Three Crimes, and it’s an incident that both haunts and intrigues Simenon. On one level no punishable crime has been committed, but a man is dead due to the collective actions of others.

Three Crimes is so intriguing, I bought Simenon’s bio written by the translator David Carter, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Anyway, if you’re a Simenon fan, then Three Crimes is highly recommended. It’s not his best, but it’s certainly one of his most fascinating.

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Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro

“Are we shutting ourselves in, or are we shutting out other people so they can’t come in?” 

I just finished the very impressive novel, Thursday Night Widows written by Argentinean novelist, Claudia Pineiro. The story is set in Cascade Heights, an exclusive gated country estate thirty miles from Buenos Aires. The novel begins in September 2001 with the discovery of three dead men at the bottom of a pool, and then the novel backtracks over the past decade. Ultimately,  Thursday Night Widows is a scathing psychological analysis of a class and a country seen through the narrow vision of one group of families who enjoy bloated, materialistic lives while ignoring the collapse of their society.

Told partly through the eyes of real-estate agent Virginia Guevara, the novel explores life in Cascade Heights–a walled in estate which encompasses 500 acres and 300 homes, and the worth of those homes increases with proximity to the perfectly manicured golf course. Naturally only Argentina’s ‘best’ families live there with most of the wives becoming avid consumers at home while their husbands travel by luxury car to work in the city. Marooned in “The Cascades”  the families are divorced from society and develop relationships with each other based on status and strict hierarchy. The high perimeter wall and dozens of guards keep out undesirables, crime and poverty, while creating a false world inside the estate. Lawns must ‘match,’ no fences or barriers are permitted, certain colours are ‘allowed,’ but these are all only external signalments of conformity. As the couples mingle and socialize, certain behaviour (excessive drinking, spousal abuse, subtle and not-so-subtle rascism) is largely ignored. Everyone adheres to the unspoken agreement of conformity and pack behaviour with El Tano Scagli, one of the estate’s most affluent men, and owner of one of the largest homes, dominating the other subordinate males.

Virginia Guevara, one of the rare Cascade wives to be employed, works to keep the family afloat, and notes the up-and-coming newcomers, along with the decline in fortunes of those forced to leave this fabricated, upscale Eden. The novel covers the affluence of the 90s and the rapid decline of Argentina’s economy through the ripple-out consequences felt in Cascade Heights. To the wives who live there, the outside world doesn’t exist, and while the perimeter wall and the guards manage to keep the poor and undesirables out of sight, nonetheless the social problems of Argentina still manage to creep through. In this fashion, the history of Cascade Heights becomes a reflection of Argentina’s problems, but with Argentina’s economy becoming a ‘reality’ only as it impacts the Cascades. At one point, Virginia mentions the “Antieri episode”–the suicide of a military man. Virginie and her husband, pick up the Antieri house “for next to nothing” when they move to The Cascades in the late 80s. Suicides, divorces, and bankruptcies all take their toll as the financial systems of Argentina wax and wane. Here’s Virginia talking about Argentina’s boom years:

“It was about two years later that I sold a plot of land to the Scaglias. This was a few days after the Minister for Foreign Affairs became the Finance Minister he had always been destined to be and persuaded Congress to pass the Convertibility Law. One peso would be worth one dollar: the famous ‘one for one’ that restored Argentines’ confidence and fuelled an exodus to places like Cascade Heights.”

Covering the late 80s until Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse, Thursday Night Widows is a stunning analysis of a social class. The smug upper classes flock to The Cascades, creating a sleek, affluent Utopia in which the poor are only allowed in wearing uniforms; “as a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear, it’s a domestic servant or gardener.”  Every ugly reality is either hidden, ignored or ejected from this well-heeled paradise. Couples move in and then sell out–usually due to some horrible misfortune, and the novel records it all from the cluelessness of most of the wives, to the rebelliousness of some of the children:

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned forever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, covered in soap, looking up at the showerhead, from which not a single drop of water falls anymore.”

The scenes which include interactions between the Cascade wives and their servants resonant with bitter cynicism. In one section of the novel, some of the bored wives decide to form a charity and call themselves “The Ladies of the Heights.”  In one great scene the tanned, spoiled wives organize a jumble sale for charity, selling their cast off clothing and underwear. The jumble sale is  “exclusively for the maids”  and the maids are then expected to come and buy the discarded clothing they’d normally be given as handouts. You’d think the wives’ hypocrisy would stick in their throats but it doesn’t, and the wives consider they are better people for throwing crumbs to their maids and then making them pay for the privilege. But even though the wives are mostly clueless about their selfish, crass behaviour, the author still maintains sympathy for some of her characters–the wives are kept like exotic pets and then discarded as they age or deteriorate. Some of the Cascade wives have husbands who refuse to work, and so these women juggle the affluent lifestyle with debts and a lot of pretense.

I expected a crime novel, but Thursday Night Widows is much more than this–primarily a compelling tale, and at no point did the tale seem forced to fit an agenda or a point of view. Upscale, exclusive (and excluding) housing estates such as The Cascades don’t just exist in Argentina, and wherever they crop up, they tend to condition residents into conformity and homogenous pack behaviour. You couldn’t pay me to live in one of these sorts of communities, but I’ve seen them, and I’ve seen the sort of people who live in them. People of similar material circumstances prefer living with others who enjoy the same standard of living. It may be natural, but as the novel shows, add a wall, guards, and a few rules, and the result isn’t  healthy.

Thursday Nights Widows  by Claudia Pineiro is translated by Miranda France. With any luck director Marcelo Pineyro’s film version, Las Viudas de los Jueves, should make DVD release soon.

For those interested in the subject of gated communities, I recommend a short documentary film call The Forbidden City by filmmaker Matt Ehling. It can be ordered directly from the website: www.prolefeedstudios.com

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The Murderer by Simenon

“The longing of a middle aged man to kick over the traces , to break out of the rut.”

I first came across the novels of Belgium author Simenon a few years ago. I’d heard the name before but had never felt compelled to read any of his work. Then after reading a little background on this author, I suspected that I’d really enjoy his novels. Simenon is probably best remembered for his  Maigret series, but I am more interested in his Romans  Durs (literal translation=hard novels), which are mostly out-of-print. Considering how prolific Simenon was during his lifetime–producing nearly 200 novels and more than 150 novellas, it seems unlikely that I will ever read them all. Still I have a respectable number of Simenon novels on my shelf and from time to time, I am more than ready to sink into the dark world of the romans durs: the sleazy side of life, a bleak sordid world of violent, meaningless crime, inhabited by bored prostitutes, brutal pimps and the middle-class businessmen who stumble into their midst.

The Murderer is not Simenon’s best romans durs, but even so it contains some of the essential, satisfying elements. Set in Amsterdam, the novel’s protagonist is Dr. Hans Kuperus a middle-aged man who receives an anonymous note stating that his wife, Alice  is having an affair with the town’s most notorious bachelor, Herr de Schutter. At first Kuperus is stunned. Alice, at least on the surface, doesn’t seem the sort of woman who would engage in a love affair. She’s a plump woman who looks “like a bonbon. She was sugary to the core. She stuffed herself with pastries, and her skin was as pink as sugar icing. For a week at a stretch she could fuss and fiddle with samples before buying a new pair of curtains.”

When the novel begins, the doctor buys a gun and has a vague, ill-conceived plan to commit murder. Fate hands him an opportunity, and the crime is emotionless and startling in its swiftness. Then the novel concentrates on the aftermath….

Following the crime, Kuperus begins to undergo a transformation “as though the bonds that held him down to earth had suddenly snapped.” The small, gossipy town of Sneek rocks with the crime and Kuperus delivers a crafty, believable performance to his colleagues and friends at the local billiard club, but as time passes Kuperus becomes giddy with his success and begins to change his habits. Formerly a much loved town doctor, he imagines that people secretly fear him, and he begins abusing patients, drinks too much and scandalizes the town’s matrons with his behaviour. One of the most disturbing and blackly amusing parts of the book occurs when Kuperus realizes that he has killed Schutter not for cuckolding him, but because Schutter was elected as the president of the local billiard club–a position that Kuperus covets.

Simenon often explores the psyche of the middle-aged, boringly respectable bourgeois male unleashed by some bizarre twist of fate who then derails somewhere along the way to a passive, meek old age–Popinga  in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, for example. The underlying message in the case of Kuperus (and his fictional ilk) is that we are not ‘good’ or well-behaved as much by choice as by conditioning, and when Kuperus commits a heinous crime, he gets a taste of life without restrictions and goes wild with his perceived freedom.  These characters, such as Kuperus, startle with their seemingly inexplicable aberrant behaviour. Simenon creates worlds in which these characters don’t explode but simply, and silently change direction, and Kuperus is more intriguing and much more dangerous for the sea change that seems to be wrought from nothing whatsoever but begins when routine habits slip just a fraction….

What did it all amount to? That Kuperus was wrong. That he’d been wrong all his life. That he’d been led up the garden path–the straight and narrow path, into the bargain–and been led nowhere.”

 My edition of The Murderer is translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.

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An Easy Thing by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

“After all what self-respecting film noir detective would share an office with a sewer expert, an upholsterer, and a plumber?”

While An Easy Thing is not the first novel from author Paco Ignacio Taibo II to feature PI Hector Belascoaran Shayne, the novel is Taibo’s American debut. And it’s in this novel that the detective, who’s already survived six attempts on his life, loses an eye.

Taibo’s marvelous fictional detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne is based in Mexico City. He lives in a tiny apartment in the Roma Sur and shares a “grimy” office with a plumber, an engineer and an upholsterer. Belascoaran used to be an engineer by trade, but after gaining a “certificate in detection from a Mexican correspondence school,” he now makes a marginal living solving the bizarre cases that come his way. The novel is set in 1977, and Belascoran’s Irish mother has just died. As Belascoran and his siblings Elisa and Carlos discover, her death opens up secrets about their long-dead father.

While Belascoaran struggles with personal problems–the death of his mother, new knowledge about his father, and the occasional letter from a woman he may or may not love, Belascoaran takes on no less than 3 PI cases. The first case involves the murder of an engineer at the Delex factory, the second involves the daughter of a sexy soap opera actress, and the third case involves an investigation into rumors that Zapata was not killed in 1919. Each case reflects some aspect of Mexican society. The Delex factory, for example, is in the middle of an ugly labor dispute, and Belascoaran sniffs that the management wants to frame workers for the engineer’s death. The soap opera star, Marisa Ferrer has risen to stardom on her looks and the liberal use of her gorgeous body, and Belascoaran notes that her clothing shrinks as her fame grows. And the detective’s pursuit of the rumors of Zapata’s escape reiterates the legends created when any great revolutionary is murdered, and “Wild rumors [are] produced in desperation by a people deprived of their leader; it was a natural defense against an enemy that controlled both media and myth.”

Since Belascoaran was an engineer before he became a PI, the Delex case hits a chord with memories of his past life as a bourgeois husband with a wife whose “foremost thought was to get a new carpet for the dining room.” Solving the Delex case and making sure that innocent workers aren’t framed for the crime becomes a matter of importance for the detective:

“It was a debt that came out of his willing submission to the status quo, his disdain for workers, all the times he’d driven through a disaster zone. He needed to go back to where he’d come from and prove to himself that he’d changed.”

Juggling the cases with his personal life, Belascoaran recruits his office mates as unpaid detectives, and as usual Belascoaran adopts unorthodox methods to solve his cases, often using a shotgun approach to flush suspects out into the open. In this novel, Belascoaran spends many lonely nights with his “nocturnal” office mate sewer expert El Gallo Villareal who shares his philosophy on sewers. In one great scene the detective and the sewer expert spend an evening calling in over 100 threats to dynamite hotels, and El Gallo, who turns out to be a natural at this sort of thing,  becomes increasingly animated and inventive with each call.

Scarred and one-eyed Belascoaran is a marvelous, intriguing literary creation and certainly deserves a place in the fictional detective Hall of Fame. In some ways he reminds me of Sam Spade: laid back, living in a tatty office, not getting excited about too many things, disdainful of authority, and a man who believes living independently means more than making a fortune. Belascoaran is all these things, but he also has a self-deprecating humour, is vulnerable and has very human faults (his sweet tooth manifests itself in his addiction to Mexican soda pop, and he also makes a lot of mistakes). He’s not a ‘tough guy’ in the traditional sense, and he’s certainly not a methodical detective. But in spite of his faults–or perhaps because of them–he’s an endearing and enduring character.

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