The Hog’s Back Mystery: Freeman Wills Crofts

The excellent, clever innovative Antidote to Venom–illustrates how a decent, conscientious man can be led, by bad choices and the pressure of circumstances, to murder. This novel was so good, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I picked up a second book from author Freeman Wills Crofts, and that brings me to The Hog’s Back Mystery, another crime entry in the British Crime Classic series. Published in 1933, this novel from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, precedes Antidote to Venom by 5 years.

The Hog’s Back Mystery concerns, at least initially, a disappearance, and the novel opens with the arrival of Ursula Stone who has travelled to Surrey from Bath to visit some friends she’s known for decades. She stays with Julia Earle and her husband, a much older retired doctor, and also visiting is Julia’s sister, novelist, Marjorie. The visit promises a great deal of catch-up conversation especially since Ursula has other friends who live by–the sisters of Doctor Campion, the man who has taken over Dr. Earle’s practice.

The Hog's back mysteryThe visit is almost immediately clouded by domestic discord. The Earles haven’t been married for very long, and this is Ursula’s second view of the Earles’ domestic life. By dinner time, Ursula “realized with some small feeling of regret that what she had anticipated during her previous visit had come to pass.” Fondness and affection has morphed into “little consideration,” and Ursula concludes that the Earles “had missed a companionship which they might so easily had.”  The next day, events at the Earles’ home take on a more sinister hue:

It was indeed on that very next day that the first of those small incidents occurred which were to lead up to the awful culmination which spelled tragedy for the party and gave a thrill to the entire country. 

An unpleasant occurrence causes Ursula to conclude that Julia Earle, a woman who “couldn’t live without male attention,” is having an affair with her much younger, unmarried neighbor.  Ursula tries to mind her own business, but Julia’s sister Marjorie also expresses concerns about the Earles’ marriage along with her fear that Dr Earle won’t tolerate Julia’s behaviour much longer. With this troubled domestic climate established, Ursula then has reason to believe that Dr Earle may also be involved in a dalliance with another woman. It’s a difficult position for Ursula as a house guest, but the situation heats up when Dr. Earle inexplicably disappears. …

Detective Inspector French from Scotland Yard (who is also in Antidote to Venom) is called in to investigate, and in his usual, methodical way he approaches the mystery logically. He concludes that there are “three possible solutions to the mystery: Earle had either disappeared voluntarily, or he had met with an accident, or he had been kidnapped or murdered.” Without a body, French quite quickly dismisses the accident theory, so that leaves him with the possibly of murder or voluntary disappearance. Taking those two possibilities, French approaches the case trying to disprove one and prove another.

One of the key elements to be investigated is the identify of the mystery woman seen with Dr Earle. The discovery of her identity involves some painstakingly methodical, geographical calculations as well as a train timetable thrown in for good measure. Author Freeman Crofts Wills was, at one point in his career the Chief Assistant Engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, and in the introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that the author’s “love of railways meant that train timetables often featured in the unravelling of his culprits’ alibis.”

While French agonizes over the details of the disappearance of Dr. Earle, the case suddenly takes a much more sinister turn….

The Hog’s Back Mystery is a much more traditional detective novel than the later Antidote to Venom, and it’s clear that with the later novel, Freeman Wills Crofts was experimenting with the genre. While The Antidote to Venom builds a story which shows how a decent, conscientious man gradually finds murder an acceptable option, The Hog’s Back Mystery is a police procedural complicated by questions of just how various crimes were carried out. While I guessed one of the fundamental elements of the mystery (no spoilers so I can’t explain) French did not, and I wanted to haul French back to this point and show him a connection I’d made.

The Hog’s Back Mystery is painstakingly methodical in its execution, and it could be used as a textbook for detection, so it should perhaps come as no surprise that when the mystery unravels, the author actually gives us page numbers which correspond to key elements of the investigation. While the details are occasionally exhaustive, it’s clear that the author intends us to follow French every step of the way and perhaps even solve the mystery ourselves. French is a wonderful character, and it was easy to relate to his frustrations, his inability to concentrate on a book, and that dreaded acknowledgment that it was possible he’d made a mistake. I enjoyed the images of French borrowing a bicycle as he rode down country lanes to question witnesses, catching trains and all the labour intensive methods of investigation in an age when cars and phones were scarce and our modern technology nonexistent. To French, a crime is first and foremost a puzzle to be solved, and it’s a puzzle that eats away at him until he has the precise solution.

He was not like an inventor working on what might really be an insoluble problem. He was more like a man trying to solve a crossword puzzle, the antecedent condition of the work being that the puzzle had a solution. Equally certainly, this case had a solution: more certainly, in fact, because in the crossword there was always the possibility of a misprint. In real life there was no possibility of error, unless such error as he had made himself.

With The Hog’s Back Mystery, it’s also easy to see how ‘cozy’ mysteries evolved from The Golden Age of Detective fiction. We have some of the elements of a cozy mystery here–a gathering at a country house, and a genteel cast of characters but The Hog’s Back Mystery doesn’t contain the assurances or humour  of a cozy mystery novel. There are some very dark factors at play here and hideous, heartless crimes I didn’t predict.

Review copy

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Among the Ten Thousand Things: Julia Pierpoint

“He hummed to himself, to the night. Things would turn out okay. For him, somehow, they always had, and so they always would.”

Among the Ten Thousand Things, a debut novel from American author Julia Pierpoint, is the story of the disintegration of a family after infidelity is revealed. The ugly revelation sets the marriage and family into freefall, but in reality decay was already set in place–the big difference is that the acknowledgement of infidelity forces the lid off this fractured marriage.

Deb has been married to successful New York artist Jack Shanley for years. They have two children: Simon, 15 and Kay 11. Deb was once a ballet dancer, but now she teaches ballet. She finds that she can’t encourage her pupils to sacrifice all for a career in ballet as to do so “would feel like a lie.”

At twenty-two and twenty-three, at parties with regular people, nondancers–they’ll coo over you like a rare bird. Which you are, to them. You are sinewy grace and bone, everywhere tight, from your tied hair to your pointed toes. And you’ll feel yourself a liar there too, because in the corps you are one of so many. Your own mother needing binoculars to pick you out.

Jack arrived on the scene at the time when Deb, in her mid twenties, was finally accepting that she was stuck in the corps and didn’t have the presence to rise to stardom, unlike her friend, Isabel who is about to publish her memoirs. So marrying Jack and taking the route of marriage and family was a way of saving face rather than acknowledging that she was giving up.  Now Deb is 41, and Jack, who has just trashed his second marriage, is 55.

among the ten thousand thingsWhile it’s easy to like Deb, a woman who’s learned to compromise, it’s also easy to really dislike Jack. He’s had many affairs, and his fame in the art world yields the usual fans, wannabes and groupies. His latest affair is with a much younger unstable woman–someone who unpredictably decided to strike back against Jack by sending all their correspondence to his home:

 In some other context, he could have gotten hard, reading it all over. He thought if she had only sent the letters straight to him, he might even have fucked her again. But that wasn’t what the girl wanted, sex. Probably it wasn’t ever what she wanted. Women were always deceiving him about that. He was always lowballing their demands.

The novel follows the fallout of the affair, and author Julia Pierpoint creates an interesting structure within the novel when the couple part, possibly temporarily, by including a segment that gives a synopsis of the future, and then the novel segues back to the present before adding another segment in the future. This eloquently adds a poignant historical dimension to the destroyed family, and we see their home left empty in their absence, gathering dust and crumbling like some lost, ancient civilization–a sign of things to come:

For eighteen days the apartment sat empty. Fine dusts and pollen collected on the windowpanes, and the mirrors stood with no one in them. Nothing in or out of the closed-circuit space. Only the wireless went on invisibly complicating the air.

Deb and the children depart to a vacation home in Jamestown while a glum Jack dumps the family cat at his mother-in law’s and heads, in some sort of primeval move to his mother’s home in Houston where his step-father sniffs that there’s something wrong. The novel follows Jack in Houston and then Arizona while other sections follow Deb and her children in Jamestown.

This is a promising debut novel, an age-old story of adultery and break-up with some modern angles to the tale. Simon for example retreats into a problematic relationship of his own, and Deb, who has absorbed the emotional impact of the affair alone, feels that she has to ask her children’s opinions on the subject of where their father should be allowed to sleep.

As a reader, I’m not keen on tales of teens or children, so the parts of the novel which followed Simon and Kay was less interesting to me than the sections which focused on the adults: Deb’s tricky compromises, and Jack’s slippery, destructive morality. These are two individuals who live in the same home but have very distinctly separate worlds. Deb is a believable character–a disappointed woman who is trying ignore Jack’s behaviour and make the best of a fractured marriage, but self-focused Jack, whose career is in freefall, doesn’t make it easy:

Jack liked to hammer a lot of thoughts out on the train. The hardest part of a marriage–of living with anyone–was those first ten minutes after walking through the door. Questions about his work, his lunch, his trip home, which in his mind had barely ended, and answers to questions he’d not asked, so many words flooded him

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One Boy Missing: Stephen Orr

Stephen Orr, the author of One Boy Missing also wrote The Cruel City: Is Adelaide the Murder Capital of Australia? The latter book covers the more infamous cases that occurred in Adelaide, and one of those cases is the 1966 disappearance of the three Beaumont children. And it’s one of the reported sightings of the Beaumont children I thought of when I read One Boy Missing, for the novel begins with a man witnessing a strange occurrence; he sees a small boy, dressed in pyjamas, being thrown into the boot of a car. The man, a local butcher, is so stunned by what he sees, at first he can’t compute it, wrestling various scenarios around his head until he calls the police.

one boy missingDetective Sergeant Bart Moy is the small coastal town of Guilderton’s only detective, so he’s the man who starts investigating the event. Orr depicts Guilderton as a dull, oppressive, poverty-stricken town–the sort of place you can live for forty years and still be considered an outsider. Right away Moy struggles with inconsistencies about the case–no one is reported missing; all boys in that age group are accounted for. The case begins to eat away at Moy for personal reasons. Moy has returned to Guilderton, a ruined, depressed man, after the death of his only child and his divorce. He’s there, ostensibly, to take care of his aged father George who lives in independent squalor, and since this is a small town where everyone knows each other, Moy’s neighbor persists in bringing over unappetizing casseroles in a relentless “Catholic mission” to make sure Moy eats.

Moy glimpsed his face in the wing mirror. He was getting fat, he knew; he’d lost his chin, gained a blush on his cheeks. He didn’t care anymore. He’d passed into his forties with little or no fuss: the stomach had arrived, the trainer-bra boobs along with a sort of giblet effect under his arms, but his legs were still strong, his buttocks tight, his mind sharp. Growing old didn’t bother him; the glib childhood promises of career and wealth had long since given way to gas bills and self-pollution. Now life was just movement–a slow progress through the world in the dawning realization that you were stuck with your own company for the rest of eternity.

Moy is seen as a “curiosity, a ‘boomerang,’ “–someone who managed to get out of Guilderton but who has now returned. The narrative creates an incredibly strong sense of place; this really is a miserable town with a depressive atmosphere, and at one point, Moy acknowledges the best course of action for outsiders who live in Guilderton, is to embrace one’s fate.  To him, “the message was clear: just do your time. Survive, marry a local girl and buy something decent, or piss off.”

As Moy left the town behind the road turned to gravel. The houses along Creek Street started spreading out. Dead orchards and wrecking yards; chooks, and a few sheep. These were the backblocks: fences overgrown with prickly pear, goats that hadn’t been shorn in years, whole yards full of door-less fridges and lidless washers, children that ran mostly naked through forests of salvaged fence posts.

Moy had visited a family on Creek Street a couple of months back. There was no father and the mother would tie a rope around the three-year-old boy’s leg and tether him to the front porch when she went out. A neighbor, sick of the crying, had eventually called the police. Inside the house Moy had found an old box with a rug, a bottle for the boy to piss in and a scattering of shit left by the family of rodents that helped him eat the food left for him every second night.

Moy is initially mystified by what he calls this “non-case.” No child has been reported is missing, yet from the above quote, we understand that what some families consider ‘normal,’ is far from it, so is this case a domestic abuse scenario rather than a stranger abduction? Moy begins to wonder if the butcher really saw what he thought was an abduction, but then the boy is found, silent and obviously terrified. Where did he come from? Why has no one stepped forward to claim the child?

It would be wrong to say that One Boy Missing gives the sense of the Wild West because there’s no ‘wildness’ here–but the strong impression of an isolated town with a sole detective evokes a tamer, yet more dysfunctional version of the old cowboy West.  Moy’s superior, Superintendent Graves, is just a disembodied voice on the phone. This is a town where the social and cultural gravity of the place overpowers any individual ambition. Moy lives in neglected and decaying government housing that you don’t want to fix as repairs only increase the rent. With almost no social services, and without the spectre of inspection and investigation, standards have slipped into oblivion. The Chinese restaurant is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with this town: even though people know that there’s a good chance they’ll get food poisoning if they eat there, they still, in a despairing acceptance, patronize the place. They accept the risk and plunge ahead as though food poisoning is normal and acceptable.

Guilderton had nothing resembling a health inspector. Apparently teams were sent from town to spend their days trawling the pubs and takeaways. Ineffectually, since he always got sick.

Just as Moy gets food poisoning from the local Chinese restaurant, it also strikes the town’s social worker, so with her down for the count, Moy takes the boy home. Because the boy is close in age to Moy’s dead son, the case is close to the detective’s heart, yet it’s a fine balance between questioning the boy for information and possibly damaging him further. The novel loses some of its pacing when Moy is forced to bide his time in the hopes that information leaks from the boy gradually, and the conclusion seemed a little rushed. But apart from that, this is a riveting crime novel for its incredible sense of how the environment impacts the town’s inhabitants.

He cruised the length of Gawler Street, a succession of creambrick government houses full of teachers, nurses and coppers who’d come from other places, marooned in the wheatbelt, biding their time, planting vegetable gardens to soak up weekends with absolutely nothing to do. The smart ones loaded their cars on Friday night and drove to town, returning in a semi-depressed state every Sunday night, deadening the rest of week with overwork and alcohol. But mostly it was just the hum of harvesters, conversations about reflux and milk teeth, the taste of microwave means and snowdrift CSI, no matter how big your antenna.

Review copy.

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Wylding Hall: Elizabeth Hand

“The house was a glorious wreck. Like some drunken grande dame who’s lost everything except the clothes and the jewels she’s wearing and refuses to leave the after-party. I’ve known a few of those girls.”

Point me in the direction of a novel about a rock band and chances are I’ll want to read it, so the blurb from Elizabeth Hand’s novel Wylding Hall caught my attention. This is the story of an “acid-folk” band (not quite sure what that is) who, after their first album and the firing and subsequent suicide of their former lead female singer, were persuaded by their manager to hole up in an ancient country mansion and record their next album. It’s the album (named Wylding Hall) that makes the band soar to fame, but during its creation, some unexplained events occur which result in the disappearance of the band’s 18-year-old enigmatic singer/songwriter/lead guitarist, Julian. The novel begins years later, and the narrative takes the form of one-sided interviews with band members, friends, lovers and the former manager as they each relate the events of that summer.

Sounds fascinating, and I couldn’t help remembering the mystery surrounding the death of Brian Jones. But of course, in the case of Wylding Hall, there’s no body floating in the pool.

Wylding HallWhen the band arrives at Wylding Hall, there’s already an aura of tragedy. The band’s singer, Arianna was replaced with an American, named Les Stansall, and Arianna didn’t take the news well. Her death lingers over the band members and petty rivalries threaten to splinter the group further. The new singer Les has hooked up with Julian, arguably the more intelligent member of the band. Les and Julian break up however when a new, strange woman comes on the scene.

That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss. The novel’s format–the transcripts of several one-sided interviews, sometimes just a few lines in length, is interesting and feels authentic. We don’t know the questions being asked, and all we get are the responses, so, for example, various interviewees give their opinions of Arianna:

He never talked about what happened with Arianna. The police report said she fell from a third floor window to the pavement. There were no bars across the window in Julian’s flat; I do know that. She was depressive–that’s what they’d say now–her and Julian both.

Suicide? How could it possible matter all these years later, whether I think she killed herself?

When the band arrive at Wylding Hall, their presence sets yet another tragedy in motion. Julian, already into “magick” and alchemy wants the album to be “a kind of spell.”  He seems to already be familiar with the house–or perhaps the house is familiar with him…

As for the plot, I’d say this book, with its emphasis on the occult, ancient rituals, and creepy villagers who know more than they’re saying, may appeal to fans of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service . While I enjoy a good ghost story or even a plunge into the supernatural (thinking of Frank Tallis’s The Sleep Room), Wylding Hall pushed credulity too far, and its emphasis on a period spent in an old house bypasses any deeper analysis. Perhaps if the band members had been a little wilder, more stoned, let’s say, the almost blasé acceptance of events at the time would have been more believable. There’s one point when one of the band member’s girlfriends, Nancy, comes to visit. She’s sensitive to atmosphere and at the point of the interviews, she’s become a psychic.

Wylding Hall was a bad scene. Or, no, scratch that. “Bad” isn’t the right word. We’re not talking good or evil, Christian morality, sort of thing. This went much deeper than that. There was a sense of wrongness of things being out of balance–again, not something you would necessarily be aware of if you were just to walk into the house.

For this reader, Wylding Hall with its lack of character development and a reliance on the supernatural seemed more for the Young Adult age group, so that counts me out. And if I’d known the band was called Windhollow Faire, I’d have passed, but in all fairness, there are plenty of glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads from people who enjoyed this story.

Review copy.

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Joyful: Robert Hillman

“You see how the powerful in purpose trample the lives around them, like titans at a picnic.”

Joyful from Australian author Robert Hillman follows the paths of two grief-stricken men, both “mortal wreckage, washed up on the same beach.” Through these two characters, who descend into madness, the book examines some fundamental questions about the nature of love and grief.

Joyful begins with the death of Leon’s wife Tess, once a beautiful woman, but now all of that beauty has been stolen by cancer. A Catholic priest hastens to her deathbed, and Tess’s husband, a seller of rare books and a man of wealth finds himself wondering if the vigorous, handsome Father Bourke was yet another one Tess’s lovers.

joyfulLeon first met Tess at his bookshop, when she was married to a Turkish man, and a friendship ensues between Leon and Tess with Tess gradually opening up and confiding about her many sexual exploits. Leon, who worships Tess as an object of beauty, and not as a potential sex partner, then invites her to his home where he has stored a remarkable collection of stunning gowns along with shoes and jewelry. Tess goes through a rapid corridor of emotions: first she thinks Leon wants an affair, then she thinks he’s a crossdresser, so she has to modify her emotions considerably when she understands that he wants to dress her up in these clothes and watch her in various poses.

She was about to speak but Leon held a finger to his lips. Tess raised one eyebrow for a second, then submitted. Leon walked around her in an arc, taking in every feature of her form. He stepped back three paces and asked Tess to walk across the room, past the Ungaro, returning to her position by the windows. He asked her to turn her back to him and gaze out the windows. He found a pale grey silk scarf in the wardrobe and suggested to Tess that she wear it across her back and loosely draped over each forearm. Then he asked her to walk across the room again, taking more care with posture.

‘In what way?’

“More erect, but not stiff. Let your shoulders hunch just a fraction. As if the weight of your breasts burdens your shoulders, but only slightly, as if you’re resisting.’

When Tess had crossed the room, he asked her to do so once more, without smiling.

‘I wasn’t!’

‘I’m afraid you were.’

Tess crossed the room again.

‘Can I ask you to try the Bill Blass?’ said Leon

Freud would have had a field day with Leon. Later on we learn that Leon’s lack of sex drive is related (unsurprising) to his first exposure to sexual desire, which in his case, morphed into a distant sexual worship. Tess is the only woman who can match up to Leon’s memories, and so they marry with Tess becoming, to Leon, a fetish object. Since Tess is a woman of strong sexual passions, she has an agreement with Leon–one surely destined to bring unhappiness. She is free to “roam,” and have “adventures,” while Leon doesn’t ask questions.

Her persistence in holding Sunday sacred to her needs was backed by potent reserves of willpower, and the knowledge that she was morally in the right. It had been agreed she would roam. Her husband had conceded the necessity.

After Tess’s death, Leon discovers letters and emails sent to a lover–no shock there, but then he learns that Tess intended to leave him and that she has deposited her Polish lover, Daniel, in Leon’s unseen country property, Joyful. Leon, overwhelmed by grief, and loathing Daniel, travels to Joyful to confront the man he sees as a rival.

The book blurb focuses on Leon as the grief-stricken, jealous husband, and that’s the trajectory of the plot for a good portion of the book, but there’s a second trajectory, also concerning grief, but in this case it’s the loss of a daughter. Iraqi Professor Emmanuel Dalli’s daughter, Sofia commits suicide, and with the earlier death of her brother that leaves the professor and Daanya, his doctor wife, now childless. While Daanya returns to religion, Emmanuel plummets, like Leon, into madness. His grief turns to anger and hatred and his behaviour becomes more and more bizarre.

There is a comic element to the behaviour of both Emmanuel and Leon, but it’s tragicomic. Leon retreats from society and attempts to purge the memories of Tess from the lives of other people while Emmanuel makes a public spectacle of himself. At one point he visits his wife’s clinic and complains loudly at the reception desk that he has a pain in his penis, but then he becomes the town nuisance obviously trying to provoke someone into violence–violence that will perhaps end his suffering or at the very least convert his tortured mental state into physical pain.

While I began the book thinking this was the story of Leon, it gradually became the story of grief–arguably the inevitable end of love. We all grieve in different ways and who is to say what is enough, appropriate or over the line, yet in Emmanuel’s case his grief verges on self-indulgence. The relatively minor character of Emily, the owner of a drab second-hand shop wistfully named Enchanted, is another character who like Leon, loves someone unsuitable for her. Through Hillman’s characters we see how some people destroy with love and how others are destroyed. Sofia is one of those destroyed by love–too frail to withstand life’s stormy waters, and according to Sofia’s mother, “love shook the sense from her.” We are told that love and hate are in natural opposition, and while that’s true, Joyful argues that those we love leave us–either by death or by design, so love and grief go hand in hand in a world in which we seek the elusiveness of perfection.

Joyful appears to have a certain lack of focus. Initially this seemed to be Leon’s story, but then it became Emmanuel’s story. Both Professor Dalli and Leon connect over the issue of Joyful, a house that, as it turns out, was a social experiment, a Utopian society established by Leon’s ancestor, his maternal-great-aunt back in 1942. The journal entries written by Leon’s ancestor great-aunt were a distraction, but by the novel’s conclusion, the plot’s seemingly split trajectory drew focus and a powerful message. I appreciated that Leon, a member of the Thomas Hardy Society, had a wife named Tess–as wild and passionate a character as one could hope to find within the pages of a Hardy novel.

Review copy.

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Antidote to Venom: Freeman Wills Crofts

Time for another British Library Crime Classic: Antidote to Venom from Irish author Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957). Published in 1938, Antidote to Venom is a gem from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. For brilliant plotting, structure, characterization, and sheer ingenuity, Antidote to Venom is a marvelous read–a book I was loath to set aside, so for readers out there who have any interest in crime fiction of this period, do yourself a favour and grab this book.

In the introduction, Martin Edwards describes Antidote to Venom as “ambitious and unusual,” and the book is certainly both of those things, and yet when a book is described as ‘ambitious’ there’s often a subtext of failed effort. There’s no failure here in this highly readable, engaging, inventive, and unpredictable crime novel.

Edwards explains that in the years before he wrote this book, Crofts had been experimenting with his detective fiction, “trying to escape from the predictable.” In Antidote to Venom Crofts used what he called “an ‘inverted story’ in which events are seen at first from the perspective of the culprit.” Crofts’ structure is sheer wizardry, for the book begins with the story of George Surridge, the Director of the Birmingham Zoo. The zoo, which boasts a phenomenal snake collection, is moving onto more modern enclosures for the animals, and one of George’s headaches is concern for safety. He’s given permission for an elderly professor, who’s experimenting with venom as a cure for cancer, access to the most poisonous snakes, and when the book opens, George has the painful duty of firing a night watchman for leaving the zoo unattended.  George is a decent man, devoted and conscientious with his work, but married to an unpleasant society woman whose constant demands have worn George down to plodding unhappiness. He meets another woman, falls in love, and driven by an ever encroaching financial need is drawn into murder.

antidote to venomThat’s the basic plot, and the book’s focus in on George and his predicament for about 2/3’s of the book, and then at that point, Crofts’ Inspector French enters the scene and the action focuses on the investigation. Antidote to Venom is full of twists and turns–not the least of which is: who is George going to murder? His obnoxious wife, Clarissa? Or his aged Aunt– who has left almost her entire estate to her nephew upon her death? But remember this book is unpredictable, so the crime isn’t the one you expect.

While drawn slowly into George’s life, Crofts shows us exactly how George finds himself on a path towards crime, and as is so typical with a man who considers himself ‘decent,’ and ‘law-abiding,’ George doesn’t start his journey in crime with its conclusion in mind. Instead he takes one step on a slippery moral slope, and gradually finds himself increasingly compromised. It’s fairly easy to have quite a bit of sympathy for George, at least initially, although for me, sympathy wore off as he began wishing his aunt dead:

 But really, when people reached a certain age their usefulness was over. And in his opinion she had reached and passed that stage. She could not enjoy her life. If she were to die, what a difference it would make to him!

Of course, George tends to feel bad after these sort of thoughts, but nonetheless, it’s true; his aunt is elderly and ill and once she dies his inheritance will ease all of the financial pressure he feels. Or so he thinks ….

The novel explores the psychological side of murder. George finds himself in a position of thinking that murder is the only acceptable alternative. He knows that he is “faced with one of the major decisions of his life“– an act that cannot be reversed, and yet at the same time he’s trapped and under a great deal of pressure. George can’t confide his problems to anyone and while he rationalizes his acts, he can’t imagine the post-crime burden of guilt or the many places this seemingly perfect murder can go wrong.

Here’s a quote which illustrates how skewed George’s thinking has become. Here he is pre-murder trying to simplify his problems down to a) losing his mistress and facing financial ruin b) murdering some innocent person. And at the same time he avoids the fact that his choice, “the lesser of two evils,” involves the death of an innocent person. Somehow that doesn’t even enter the equation.

The sweat formed on George’s forehead as he considered these alternatives. It was not, he told himself, a question of doing right or wrong; whatever he did would be wrong. It was a choice of two evils. Which was the lesser?

The solution to murder involves discovering 3 essential things: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. In the murder under investigation, the police while sniffing that they are investigating a murder rather than an accidental death, cannot tie all three elements: Motive, Means, and Opportunity to the most likely suspect, and so the inquest closes the case. Then Inspector French from Scotland Yard becomes involved, and the book shifts to his investigation.

All too often when police investigate a past crime, a great deal of the book is given over to the detective’s wordy explanation of exactly how the crime was committed. Not so here. When Inspector French arrives on the scene, he must convince the Birmingham police that his skepticism  about the case’s solution has merit, and he argues logically, laying out all possibilities for each step of the crime, so much so, that we can only admire French’s logical and methodical thinking. Once he’s convinced the Birmingham police that his doubts are valid, he moves forward into the investigation, going over the details of the case once more, and instead of sticking with the inquest conclusion, French toys with various ways a murder could have been committed. Character and psychology play important roles for French in any investigation, so he asks himself questions such as: is it likely that a certain person would have acted in such a manner? Who stands to profit from the death? But above all, for French, the solution to a crime is an intellectual exercise, a puzzle to be solved.

Inspector French, a series character, is admirable indeed. A bloodhound on the trail of any murderer, nonetheless, there’s humanity there too:

This was a part of his job which he absolutely loathed. The running down of a criminal was a different matter. There was the intellectual problem, the slow search for facts with which to build up and prove a theory and the excitement of the chase, all throughly interesting, if occasionally somewhat exasperating. But when the affair became personal, when instead of dealing with a factual jigsaw, French found himself bringing terror and despair into human eyes, he wished he was out of it. There was no use reminding himself that his victims had usually done the same thing to someone else and with less cause: he was always distressed by their distress.

Sometimes with detective fiction from this era, class snobbery plays a role, and while it’s true that the less advantaged members of society have their moments of being under suspicion, that suspicion makes perfect sense. The novel’s only weakness is the unconvincing religious redemption at the end.  Antidote to Venom, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1938, is fresh and adds a great deal of ingenuity, originality, and craftsmanship to the genre.

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The New Neighbor: Leah Stewart

“I can’t believe in heaven. Even now, as death grows ever harder to unimagine.”

In Leah Stewart’s novel, The New Neighbor, Margaret Riley, a ninety-year-old retired nurse whose only hobby is reading mystery novels lives in a remote area outside of a small town in Tennessee. She is fiercely independent, has no relatives nearby, no friends, and is not exactly the easiest person to get along with. One day, while out reading on her deck, she notices she has a new neighbor. Snooping through the mailboxes, Margaret discovers her new neighbour’s name and curious, she soon creates a way to invite this stranger into her life.

the new neighbourWhile Margaret’s antisocial personality certainly explains her choice of location, just what masseuse Jennifer Young and her 4 year old son are doing living in the middle of nowhere can’t really be explained. In Jennifer, Margaret “recognized a mystery” and encouraged by the reading of crime novels, she is driven to solve the puzzle. Yet “Jennifer is a cave that blocks the entrance,” to the solution. Margaret recognizes that she and Jennifer have much in common: the desire for isolation, the deliberate avoidance of society, and yet Margaret refuses to respect Jennifer’s privacy.

She is so careful, so guarded. There are locked doors in conversation  with her, and no way to tell when you’re approaching one.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Jennifer and Margaret (with a few chapters from a third character right at the end of the book). This format, as I noted in an earlier post, seems to be a popular trend these days. But whereas the format annoyed me in Disclaimer for the way in which the reader is thrown red herrings, here, author Leah Stewart uses the dual chapters to move the story forward but also allows Margaret and Jennifer to speculate about each other. Gradually we learn what Jennifer is running away from, and also through Margaret’s narrative, we see her horrendous WWII experiences.

Without a doubt, Margaret is the marvelous character who claims and dominates this novel. She recognizes that as a ninety-year-old woman, she has a certain invisibility and that she’s marginalized into a stereotype, so she can be grumpy and rude to people and in return they basically pat her on the head, treat her with false gaiety, and chuckle. No one ever calls her to account for her churlish behaviour and any kindness directed her way isn’t personal–it’s a generic act based on:  ‘be nice to the old lady who may croak any day.’ Margaret is drawn in such a way that we see a woman who was shaped by her WWII experiences, trapped inside her body, and yearning to tell someone her story. While Margaret intrudes into Jennifer’s life in order to discover her neighbour’s secrets, instead she finds herself discussing her own.

I picked up The New Neighbor expecting a crime novel, and while crimes take place, this is much more the story of two women at different stages of their lives whose paths cross and connect. Jennifer and Margaret have a great deal in common for they both have secrets, and that’s what Margaret recognizes in Jennifer.

There’s a lot going on in The New Neighbor and it’s a much more complex novel than it at first appears. While I have to tread carefully around the issue of secret pasts and plot spoilers, I will mention Jennifer’s complicated relationship with university lecturer, Megan and her husband Sebastian. Jennifer begins taking her son, Milo to preschool and Milo’s friendship with a boy named Ben places Jennifer in the position of having to befriend Ben’s parents. At first her relationship is with Megan and through her, Jennifer gains a rather negative impression of Sebastian, and yet later, in a very cleverly constructed fashion, Jennifer has reason to reevaluate her impression of Sebastian and Megan’s position in the marriage. It’s one of those moments when we see Jennifer’s maturity, fed by bitter experience, of just how one spouse always generates a surge of sympathy from society while the ‘killjoy’ does not.

The fact that Margaret is a very well drawn character both works for and against the book as Jennifer and her story pale in comparison, and here are a few tart, choice quotes that bring Margaret to life:

What a pleasure it would be to really piss somebody off, just to see my existence fully register on someone else’s face.

And:

You might imagine that being an old lady I like the cozy mysteries, but you’d be wrong. Spare me the cats and the knitting. It was Sue’s idea to start picking out books for me–perhaps she gets bored–and the first stack she presented me, two or three years ago, was full of such nonsense. I don’t need my murders made adorable. Death in a book is still only death in a book, but give me an author who doesn’t flinch. If a mystery doesn’t walk you up to the abyss before it rescues you, it’s a shallow form of comfort.

Here she’s referring to the Wordsworth poem:

The world I can more or less get away from, as I think I’ve proven, and there’s so much of nature around me I’d be hard pressed to long for more. Sometimes I wish the birds would shut the hell up. It’s not the world I can’t escape but my body. Not its demands so much at this stage, but its complaints and limitations. It’s resistance and pain.

The New Neighbor argues that, as outsiders, even living in the same house, we can never fully grasp the inner politics of a marriage, and we can never understand what it’s like to be another human being. In the Acknowledgements, the author notes that she wanted to write a novel based in the WWII experiences of her grandmother. And that’s the feeling I had when I read this novel–that the author had tapped some powerful real life experiences and that ultimately, this is Margaret’s story and not Jennifer’s. While this is not a perfect novel as its ending felt a little forced, I’ll check this author’s backlist.

I thought I had seen some things. I’d never seen anything like this. Our next patient required an amputation. The strangest part was not the cutting through but the moment when the limb actually came off. That first day I carried a whole arm away from the table. I held it by the elbow. The fingers on the hand were still flexed as though reaching for me, saying, Hold on a minute, wait, wait. The arm was surprisingly heavy. You don’t think about what an arm weighs when it’s still a part of the body. And then when it’s cut off, it’s waste. It gets burned with the rest of the waste.

Parts of your body can come off. Jennifer. You can have a hole in your back so big a man can out his fist inside it.

I hadn’t seen anything.

Later I’d see all of this, do all of this, many times, without sparing a thought to the oddity of it all. The time I’d moved into the extraordinary but hadn’t learned to live there. This wasn’t even a hospital as I’d ever known one, with hallways and wards and nurses in white, but a tent full of blood and guts and screaming. There should have been some other name for it, but we didn’t have one and so we applied the old one, and after a while when I thought “hospital” what I pictured was a tent or an abandoned schoolhouse, sawhorses for the stretchers and  patients boys.

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Hill Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

As a fan of the crime novels of Charles Williams, I’ve reviewed a few for this site, and here they are, so far, in order of preference for anyone interested:

River Girl (1951)

Hell Hath No Fury (The Hot Spot) (1953)

Big City Girl (1951)

River Girl is the story of a corrupt, married small-town deputy sheriff who gets in over his head with a woman he meets in a remote cabin. This is a tense, desperate noir novel that somehow managed to beat out Hell Hath No Fury as my favourite Williams novel so far. Hell Hath no Fury is the story a criminal who drifts into a small town, takes a job as a car salesman and cases out the local bank with plans to steal the cash and split. The main character here makes the mistake of getting mixed up with not one–but two women: Gloria Harper, the boss’s bookkeeper and Dolly, the boss’s trashy wife. Big City Girl is the story of a family of poor sharecroppers. One of the sons is in prison and Joy, his trashy wife who’s addicted to the attention of men decides to leave the city and join the family on the cotton farm. Bad idea…

With these three books, there’s a common theme: women are trouble–even if they don’t mean to be which is certainly true in the case of Doris, the woman hiding in the cabin discovered by deputy sheriff Marshall. Big City Girl and Hell Hath No Fury feature femme fatales who use men and sex to further their aims–although Hell Hath No Fury’s Dolly (played by a sultry, very naughty Virginia Madsen in the 1990 film version) wins hands down in the Evil department.  And that brings me back to Hill Girl (1951) the first novel Charles Williams published. Williams saw three of his novels published that year: Hill Girl, Big City Girl, and River Girl so I’m wondering if he had a backlog of manuscripts when he was finally picked up by Gold Medal.

Then take a look at these vintage covers which certainly reinforce the idea that women are evil seductresses, but Williams is a much more sophisticated thinker than that. In his world, women, some women, use their looks and sex to move ahead in society–men after all, have the power, the wealth, and the career choices, so women use other means to gain control.

Hill Girlvintage big city girlriver girlhell

The Hill Girl of the title is a bootlegger’s daughter named Angelina, and that name seems a little ironic the first few times we see Angelina with her long honey-coloured blonde hair, more or less dressed in rags that do little to cover her figure. She’s bad-tempered, unhappy and more importantly, as we see as the plot plays out, she’s jail-bait or even worse … shotgun bait. But let’s back up a little. Hill Girl is the story of sexual obsession, two very different brothers, Lee and Bob, and the woman who comes between them. Yes, you guessed it … Angelina.

Bob, the younger son, moves back to his family’s hometown to take over and run his deceased grandfather’s farm. You’d think, initially, at least, that Bob is the black sheep of the family since the eldest son, Lee, who’s married and lives in the family home, inherited everything from his father who was known somewhat dauntingly as The Major. As the story unfolds, the ‘good son’ and the ‘bad son’ designations shift around, and we see that Bob, the younger brother, although he fought with his father and was persona non gratis in his father’s home, is actually the ‘good’ son while Lee, who inherited his entire father’s estate worth around $30,000 (Bob was left $1) and married a wonderful, kind woman named Mary, is the bad seed. He’s just smooth enough to hide his rottenness.

The book opens with Bob’s return and his auspicious, as it turns out, meeting with bootlegger Sam Harley who lives along Black Creek bottom. Then failed pro-boxer Bob returns to the family home which is now owned by Lee. Brief homecoming over, Lee drags Bob out to get some moonshine from Sam, but his real reason for going to Sam’s is Angelina. Lee lusts after the bootlegger’s daughter and there is a very tense scene with Lee bound and determined to have Angelina in spite of the threat of Sam’s shotgun. The roles of the brothers are very quickly delineated. Lee is hellbent on pursing Angelina and Bob, the only brother with a conscience, is determined to save him from being shot….

Lee, of course eventually gets his way with Angelina, and in some rather crude descriptions reveals how little he values Angelina, and as it turns out, how little he understands her. While Williams creates some fascinating female characters in his books, Angelina is the weakest-drawn character here, first she’s bad, bad, bad, and then she turns into a completely different person. Angelina first appears to be a savage, surly, empty-headed teen nymphet who is Trouble, “a sex crime looking for somebody to happen to,”  but later Williams moves in on this character with generous sympathy, so we that we are now supposed to see Angelina as kind and naïve. Cooped up on the farm and kept as unpaid labour she longed for simple items such as shoes or a dress that fits, and her rebellious, self-destructive behaviour is aimed at her father and loathing of her life more than anything else. So Angelina as ‘bad,’ vanishes. While the character shift isn’t convincing, Williams shows how women are forced to operate in a world dominated by men, so there are some interesting observations on the subject of how men treat women as though they’re owned like any other possession. Here’s a scene in which Angelina wants to get her hair bobbed–something forbidden by her father:

You’ll like hell do what you please,” I started, and then caught myself and shut up. After all, it was her hair, and Sam Harley had been telling her she couldn’t cut it all these years and trying to browbeat her, and look where he had wound up in her eyes. You couldn’t get anywhere by trying to bully her. She didn’t bully worth a damn. You might get your way if you overpowered her, but it wouldn’t be worth what you lost in the process.

This is a remarkably sensual novel with descriptions of physicality–the nature of uncontrollable sexual desire but also the joy of working hard and enjoying nature.

The days are long in April, longer in May, and longer still in June, but they are never long enough. They begin with dew on the grass and the long-legged shadows of sunrise and end with whipoorwills calling in the darkening bottoms and swallows circling and diving at dusk. And all day long, through the hot sweaty  hours, the work goes on.

With Lee’s crude descriptions of Angelina’s sexual appetites, the book was no doubt ahead of its time, but now it seems dated. Stylistically, Hill Girl seems a lot less smooth than River Girl; it seems to be a much earlier novel even though they were both published in 1951. Back to that question of manuscript backlog. Definitely not the author’s best work, but fans will want to read this–although copies are not cheap.

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Guys Like Me: Dominique Fabre

“There are no second acts.” The narrator of Dominique Fabre’s novel Guys Like Me is a 54 year-old-year-old office worker. Due to a lack of personal details, the narrator remains throughout the story, an Everyman, gray, balding, a little out-of-shape, a little overweight, one of the many anonymous divorced, solitary men we see at work, at the supermarket, or on the streets every day.  Once he was married but he made a lot of mistakes and was divorced years earlier with the usual acrimony; move on to middle age and he’s still alone. There has been a string of women but none of the relationships were serious–except one that lasted two years and which left our narrator damaged and wary of involvement. So here he is full of regrets, a sense that he’s failed as a father, living alone in a three room apartment in Paris. He’s employed, more or less going through the motions, and with occasional contact with his twenty-six-year old son Benjamin. Guys Like MeUnmoored from any structure in his life, finding common ground in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator has attempted to create some meaning to his existence.

It started when I turned forty, like most guys I know. I sponsor a little orphan, a little Haitian boy as it happens, and every year I keep the letter he sends me, a completely stereotypical letter to the white man who sends him a check for twenty-five euros ever month. A year after my divorce I also started volunteering in a hospital, but that way of doing good didn’t suit me all that much, because often, the next day, I’d start to feel symptoms, and more than once I fell ill. How can you give a hand to someone who’s dying anyway? I never figured out the answer to that. There were support groups too, with shrinks, only it bored me, and I stopped, it wasn’t my thing. Then I met a woman I was hoping to get love from, but nothing like that happened. I was forty-four when I discovered that you can hope to get love in return for a washing machine, two installments on a car, and other things like that, I was cured of that woman, and of others in the long run.

The narrator has a good friend, Marc-André, a man he admires a great deal because although he too was divorced, he’s somehow managed to throw himself back into the game, remarried and has a patchwork family with this second wife. Marc-André pulled the narrator out from his depressive slump, and the narrator acknowledges that Marc-André is “braver than me, he’d been strong enough to start all over again from scratch.” Marc-André has a philosophical approach to life:

We talked some more about guys, old friends we’d lost touch with, after a while it became painful to live with too many of these memories, it’s age, Marco said. And time. You can’t do anything against time.

Another main male character here is Jean–a man the narrator bumps into on the street when the book opens. And here’s a quote that gives a good sense of the writer’s style:

He looked familiar, from where I was. From where I was it might still have been possible, somehow to turn around and walk away, even though obviously I would never have turned around and walked away of my own accord. But a car might have started, in which case I’d have had to get out of the way, or I might have looked the other way and not seen his reflection in a shop window. I’d have reacted by saying to myself what does that guy want with me? And I’d probably have ignored him, I’d probably have forgotten him. His face looked drawn, but his hair wasn’t gray. I’ve almost lost my hair. Sometimes I run my hand through it, and there’s nothing there. My ex-wife used to laugh when I did that, and I don’t think I took it well. I don’t like taking a wrong turn, but it’d be right to say that when we met again we’d both taken a wrong turn. Maybe our lives, too: lots of wrong turns placed end to end, you can never reconstruct the whole journey.

Jean, a man whose “good times were already behind him” before he was thirty, is also alone but he’s unemployed and desperate for work, so the narrator and Marc-André pull together to help Jean out of his slump. Although author Dominque Fabre doesn’t overwork the connection between the three men, Marc-André, Jean and the narrator, it’s easy to see that there’s a hierarchy of social functionality. Marc-André has successfully managed to build another life for himself from the debris of his first marriage, but Jean is a total failure–the sort of man any rational woman would run from, and that leaves our narrator in the middle of this totem pole of functionality. He occasionally wobbles near the cliff edge (gluing together and mounting business cards for a room decoration) and he struggles with despair, but at the same time, he knows he must make some sort of effort to form interests and relationships. And this is where the book’s central motif comes into play: there are millions of middle-aged men divorced, lonely and adrift, and while the narrator notices Jean’s decline and asks himself “how could a guy like that get to this point?” it’s clear that the narrator could so easily become as dysfunctional as Jean. The narrator belongs to a dating site but finds that his dates are “pretty dull,” and that the “women [are] obsessed with their age, in a hurry to rebuild their lives.” An interesting comment since he posts a younger photo of himself in his profile. Of course, we don’t get an opinion from the women the narrator meets, but since he says he “soon stopped putting on a show,” I’d imagine that his dates find him dull too, but then he meets a woman, whose screen name he initially dislikes, through the site. It’s through this tentative relationship that we see the awkwardness of a middle-age romance between damaged lonely people who juggle need with fear and who consequently set boundaries as a safety net, balancing the desire for intimacy and love with the fear of rejection and disillusionment.

Of course, there was an enormous loneliness there, it was like a kind of ocean, the messages people sent each other hummed with it. These last few years I’d met two or three women who were real culture vultures, and I’d run away after the sixth exhibition or the fifth museum. There had also been a woman I liked, ten years younger than me, but she’d taken off after three dates and I couldn’t blame her. She sent me a long recorded message two weeks later the gist of which was that she was looking for somebody better than me, a younger guy who could be the father of her children. Three women I’d slept with, without hope or despair, just like that.

In this loosely plotted novel, we follow the narrator through his life, his relationship with his son, his friendship with Marc-André, his attempts to help Jean, and his dating experiences. All of this is very well done indeed, and I loved the author’s melancholic, yet ultimately optimistic style, and the way in which the narrator’s voice, at times almost hypnotic, is created in such a way as to appear to be from a man who is used to his own solitary company. The excellent central motif of  “guys like me” which has the paradoxical result of making the narrator simultaneously one in an anonymous crowd and yet highly individualistic is occasionally overworked, but that’s a minor quibble. Regret is an emotion felt at every age, and yet during the 50s, regret rolls in with the accompanying realization that it may be too late to fix our lives; Fabre captures that feeling perfectly.

I’d pass guys like me, you also see us, younger ones, waiting at the ends of platforms, in large stations, at the beginning  and the end of the school vacations.

French title: Les Types Comme Moi Translation: Howard Curtis Review copy.

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The Truth and Other Lies: Sascha Arango

But first he sat down in his wing armchair and leafed through the Forensic Journal–an extraordinarily informative periodical about evil. Anyone planning a crime or in the process of committing one should read special literature. It provides information on the risks of discovery consequent upon developments in forensic technology. At the same time it makes clear the futility of battling against human evil, for no science or punishment can contend with the bloodthirstiness innate in us all. From a historicultural point of view, greed, vengefulness and stupidity are all natural causes of death, just one facet of the human condition.”

I’ve read a few books lately that sounded good but then, in one way or another, failed in the execution. And that brings me to The Truth and Other Lies from Sascha Arango–a book that sounded so good, I was sure I’d either be terribly disappointed or absolutely love it. There was never any doubt with this book–I loved it.

the truth and other liesWhen the story opens, author Henry Hayden has the sort of life most of us would envy. He’s a world famous, immensely wealthy author with a string of bestsellers to his credit. He has a quiet, reclusive wife, Martha who adores him, he drives a Maserati, and he has a beautiful country estate near the coast. Yes, Henry leads a wonderful life. So let’s take a step back from first appearances. … Henry also has a mistress, well there have been innumerable affairs to be honest, all those adoring fans on the book promotion circuit. After all, what’s Henry to do when a grateful fan throws herself at him? Martha, a remarkably self-contained and intuitive woman knows that there are other women, but chooses to ignore any evidence that may come her way.

The book’s first pages find Henry in the throes of a crisis. His current mistress, gorgeous blonde Betty, his ambitious editor at Moreany Publishing House, has just handed him a picture of an ultrasound and announced that she’s pregnant. Henry finds himself in a dilemma when Betty asks him what they are going to do:

The right answer would have been: My love, this is not going to end well. But that kind of answer has consequences. It changes things or makes them disappear altogether. Regrets are of no more use then. And who wants to change anything that’s good and convenient?

“I’ll drive home and tell my wife everything.”

“Really?”

Henry saw the astonishment on Betty’s face; he was surprised himself. Why had he said that? Henry wasn’t given to exaggeration; it hadn’t been necessary to say he’d tell Martha everything.

So that’s the plan. He just has to break the news to Martha

Yes, he would be a great man. He would drive home and put truth in place of falsehood. Reveal everything at last, all the nasty details. Well maybe not quite all, but the essentials. It would mean cutting deep into healthy flesh. Tears would flow and it would hurt dreadfully, himself included. It would be the end of all trust and harmony between Martha and him–but it would also be an act of liberation. He would no longer be an unprincipled bastard, no longer have to be so ashamed of himself. It had to be done. Truth before beauty–the rest would sort itself out.

He put his arms around Betty’s slender waist. A stone was lying in the grass, big enough and heavy enough to inflict a lethal blow. He had only to bend down to pick it up.

You can see where the story is going, but there’s an added complication. Henry isn’t the author of that string of bestsellers. He’s just the front man for Martha. Henry, who was once a homeless drifter, met Martha on a one-night stand. After sex, he planned to steal from her and split, but he found one of her manuscripts, read it (“the story was not unlike his own,”), and sensed he’d found the golden goose. So here they are years later, a strange couple, and yet they’ve managed to map out a life together that is composed of very specific geography and terms on which they agree. The reclusive, former psychiatric patient Martha sees color auras around people and lives in another zone. Disinterested in fame and fortune, she writes at night, content to allow Henry (who spends his time building gigantic matchstick drilling rigs) to have all the fame and the glory as long as they maintain their contained, quiet private life together. So while Henry plans to break the news gently to Martha “in her hermetically sealed world,” in reality, it’s not so easy to do….

Lively, wicked and packed with dark, treacherous humour, The Truth and Other Lies is the story of a devious man who has the perfect life until he’s forced to choose between his wife and his mistress. Driven by pure self-interest devoid of any moral restraints, Henry makes an entertaining, nasty protagonist. He doesn’t hesitate to consider murder–but which woman should he kill? Martha, who can “read the X-Rays images” of Henry’s “guilty conscience” is boring but she does write those books, yet Betty, as equally a self-interested person as Henry, “deep down, she was as spoiled and unconscionable as he was,” won’t be shaken off lightly.

While the three main characters are enough to intrigue any reader, author Sascha Arango populates this novel with fascinating, troubled and equally intriguing secondary characters. There’s Claus Moreany, founder of the publishing house, a dying man whose last wish is to marry Betty. Claus is blissfully ignorant that his long-time secretary Honor Eisendraht nurses unrequited passion for her employer and hatred for Betty, a woman she sees as her usurper. Honor reads Tarot cards to assist her in her mission and nurtures a dragon tree for its promise of “grant[ing] unspoken wishes.” Hot on Henry’s tail to uncover his secret past and to exact revenge is Gisbert Fasch, and how does Obradin, the anti-social Serbian fishmonger, known for “berserk” rages which end with a tranquilizer gun come into the scheme of things?

Henry is a completely despicable character whose self-interested drive dominates–ameliorated in hilarious ways by moments of grand gestures that appear to be kindness but which in reality either cost him nothing or contribute in some devious way to the scheme of things. This is a wickedly nasty tale of deceit and murder with many twists and turns which include an unfinished manuscript that’s missing its final chapter.

While The Truth and Other Lies doesn’t quite hit the supreme pitch of biting nastiness achieved by either Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s superbly smooth A Pleasure and a Calling, the book should appeal to those of us who crave this sort of book. After all, nasty, self-interested people are always great fun to read aboutDistance and all that.

Translated by Imogen Taylor

Review copy

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