The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism

I’m reading the memoirs of Baron Wrangel, and you know, just from the dates in the title, that this man lived through some fantastic, turbulent times. Wrangel was to live through a number of Tsars, but when the book opens, Emperor Nicholas I ruled Russia “like a gamekeeper.”

Under his administration of the empire, based as it was upon a system of flogging, imprisonment and exile to Siberia, the great could indulge their caprices with impunity, and my father, like most men, was cast in the mould of his period. He carefully concealed his feelings under a mask of harshness.

The author argues that although society consisted of master and serf, ” in reality… the masters were also slaves.” People still remember the Décemberistes, but this is not a topic for discussionIn this culture of extreme censorship and conformity, Lermontov fell foul of the Tsar and was exiled to the Caucasus twice and there he eventually met his tragic death in 1841.

The memoirs begin, naturally enough, with Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. His mother died when he was four and he only has a few fragmented memories of her.  It’s  a large household–four boys, three girls, many serfs, and two aunts. Aunt Ida is “shrewish and spiteful,” but Aunt Jeanne is completely different:

Aunt Jeanne, on the other hand, was a kind soul, simple-minded and good-hearted. Brought up when the Emperor Paul was still alive, at the “convent of Smolny for daughters of the nobility,” she retained the traditions of that period. Through fear of being thought “shameless,” she never spoke to young men, and would blush and cast down her eyes when replying to gentlemen of ripe years. She usually kept to her own apartments, and preferred playing with her pugs and listening to the song of her canaries to taking part in conversation in the drawing room. The amount of sweets she was able to devour was unbelievable. Even to watch her was enough to give one indigestion.

Our great delight was to ask her the time. The answer was invariably the same. “Thank God, I have never been compelled to learn that. For such things I have my women.” And she would ring for her maid.

“Tell me what time it is by this watch.”

What a culture of contrasts. A member of the nobility who calls her maid to tell the time, a nursemaid who faces down Nikolai’s father in order to spare the children a whipping, and serfs married to those “allotted” to them while the idea of free choice is a subject of hilarity.

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn

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The Crime at Black Dudley: Margery Allingham

I’ve been meaning to read Margery Allingham (1904-1966) for years, and what better way to start than with her first Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).  The best way to describe the story is as a romp; there are elements of thrilling adventure in this tale and lots of humour introduced through the bizarre character of Albert Campion.

Most of the novel is set inside an isolated gothic country mansion–the Black Dudley of the title, and it’s here that guests gather for a weekend houseparty. There’s a small handful of guests: George Abbershaw, who turns out to be the main character, is a famous doctor who specializes in pathology “with special reference to fatal wounds.” George is there to pursue the attractive Margaret Oliphant, another member of the party. Also attending is actress Anne Edgeware, newly qualified doctor, Martin, his fiancée Jeanne, Cambridge rugger player, Chris Kennedy, a “stray young man” named Martin, and Albert Campion, who, according to Margaret is “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.” The party is hosted by the Black Dudley’s owner, scholar, Wyatt Petrie, the “head of a great public school, a First in Classics at Oxford, a recognized position as a minor poet, and above all a good fellow.” Wyatt’s wheelchair bound elderly uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe co hosts the event, and he encourages his nephew to bring young people down to the country in order to enjoy their company.

the crime at black dudleyWhat should be a jolly weekend in the country is immediately overshadowed by the atmosphere of the remote forbidding house and its unwelcoming grounds:

The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.

The grey-green stretches were hayed once a year, perhaps but otherwise uncropped save by the herd of heavy-shouldered black cattle who wandered about them, their huge forms immense and grotesque in the fast-thickening twilight.

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting.

But while Black Dudley is a daunting setting, there are definitely other bad vibes in the air, and Abbershaw with a “presentiment–a vague, unaccountable apprehension of trouble ahead” almost immediately senses that two “foreigners” who never leave the Colonel’s side are very unpleasant types who seem out-of-place with the rest of the company.

Well what entertainment is there to be had at night in a vast, forbidding mansion? Someone has the brilliant idea to play a game involving the Black Dudley Ritual dagger which was used to murder a guest back in 1500. Legend has it that the dagger “betrayed” the murderer by appearing to be covered in blood when placed in the guilty man’s hands. But nowadays, the dagger isn’t used in a superstitious way to discover a man’s guilt or innocence; it’s “degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. All the lights are put out, and then the dagger is passed around in the darkness for a period of twenty minutes. The person left with the dagger at the end paid a forfeit.” And so the game begins:

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room.

It’s fairly easy to guess that something horrible is going to happen in the dark, but what isn’t so easy to guess is all that happens afterwards. Crime is blended with suspense and thrilling adventure, so this isn’t a standard who-dun–it.

Since The Crime at Black Dudley is the first Albert Campion novel, it would be reasonable to expect that this character takes centre stage, but no this is primarily Abbershaw’s story. There’s the sense, since Campion is not the main focus, that author Margery Allingham didn’t quite know what she’d created with this character. He comes off initially as a buffoon, a man who performs pathetic little magic tricks which seem to be more for his own amusement than anything else. That mask slips later on, and yet we still don’t know the real Albert Campion, a man whose talents and resourcefulness, under pressure, seem endless:

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason–for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar–quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

This is a novel which features the upper classes of British society, so servants are mostly invisible and the one we see in any detail is as nutty as a fruitcake.  This is 1929, so German phobia–that dreaded “hun” reigns supreme, the women are frail creatures to be protected by the men, and the one bobby who appears towards the end of the book drops the ‘h’s in his speech. All these class, sex, and ethnic prejudices go with the territory, so they must be endured as relics of the age. I read some reviews by readers who found Albert Campion’s character annoying. I didn’t, but I will admit that I was a little surprised when he was initially introduced as a member of the party as he comes across as an upper-class twit, but this is a partially fake persona and Campion really comes into his own when things heat up.

review copy

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The Sudden Arrival of Violence: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 3)

“You live your life with big secrets and they come to define you.”

Book 1 in the Glasgow Trilogy, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter introduced main character, the meticulous, laconic freelance gunman, Calum MacLean. In this first novel, Calum is hired by crimelord, Peter Jamieson to kill lowlevel drug dealer, Lewis Winter. Lewis has been part of the Glasgow drug scene for years, but he’s started poaching on Jamieson’s turf. His execution will be a message to Winter’s powerful new friends.

Book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye heralds the return of the Jamieson’s organization’s aging gunman, Frank MacLeod to the job following his convalescence in Spain for a knee surgery. Both books examine the individual within the criminal organization with a solid argument to support that a gunman is destined to have a lonely, solitary life due to the nature of his chosen profession. Both Calum and Frank’s stories of how they operate and conduct business are set against the simmering turf war between Jamieson and car dealer Shug Francis, an ambitious man who wants to seize Jamieson’s business concerns. Jamieson is a mid-level gang lord–not a particularly good place to be. It’s easy to be cannibalized by another upward moving competitor.

the sudden arrival of violenceBook 3: The Sudden Arrival of Violence begins with Calum now under the yoke of the Jamieson organization. No longer freelance, he cannot pick and choose his jobs, and the book opens with Calum completing a very unpleasant hit against a civilian. The job confirms Calum’s decision: to leave the business while he still can…

While Calum plots his escape, Jamieson is plotting to bring down Shug Francis and his operation. This involves concocting a story that will implicate Shug in a violent crime, and using key people, carefully placed, to make sure that the police swallow Jamieson’s fiction. On the outside looking in is DI Fisher, busy putting two and two together and coming up, repeatedly, thanks to corrupt coppers, with the wrong numbers. Underneath the murky surface of both Shug and Jamieson’s organization are betrayals, mixed loyalties, and double crosses, and Fisher is picking up the pieces of gingerbread which lead him right to the conclusion Jamieson wants him to make.

Writing a review of the third volume in a trilogy presents a challenge as you can’t say too much about the plot without revealing spoilers from the other books, so instead, I’ll concentrate on characters and quotes.

There are two ways of playing the situation that Calum’s in. The subtle way, and the sledgehammer way. From where Calum’s standing, the subtle way looks like a waste of time. They know he’s running and they’re making moves against him. They must know that he’ll work out what they’re up to. Playing subtle achieves nothing. Can’t trick them, when they know more than he does. So you go down the sledgehammer route. You go aggressive, confrontational, none too subtle. You let them know that they’re in a bloody great big fight. Let the bastards know that if they want to take you down, they’re going to have to work for it. Few people can play that part well. Most aren’t intimidating enough. Calum is one of the few who is. They know how dangerous he can be.

The first two books in the trilogy examine the role of the individual in the criminal organization, and that theme continues here. The organization’s success rests on brilliant strategic planning but also loyalty to the organization plays a crucial role. In these uncertain times, both Jamieson and Shug Francis must appear to be in control, for some gang members may jump ship if they sniff weakness or disaster ahead. Jamieson’s right hand man, the strategical brain of the operation, is Young, an unpopular man, but Jamieson’s trusted lieutenant. Shug Francis has a similar relationship with Fizzy–a man he’s known since his boyhood. In this novel, both Jamieson and Shug question the decisions of their right hand men–can Fizzy grow with Shug’s big new plans? Does Young make a terrible mistake when he tries to block Calum’s exit strategy? Friendships within the organization are not encouraged as loyalty to the organization comes first before any personal feelings, and in book 3, that makes a difficult choice for muscle man, George–a man who’s accompanied Calum on many a job and even took orders from Young to sabotage Calum’s relationship with a woman.

Both George and Calum, still young men, are prime examples of how you ‘can’t be a little bit criminal.’ Both men want to pick and chose their jobs, but by this third volume, they are both being sucked down into the criminal vortex of the Jamieson organization. Here’s Shug mulling over his decision to get into the drug trade:

That’s the problem with things being easy. You think it’s going to stay that way. You think that if you can put together a car-ring, then you can put together a drugs network. Control it top to bottom. You become used to that level of control when you have an untouchable operation. So you plot. You organize. You employ. You identify the weakness in others. Identify the target and the mechanisms you can use to bring it down. Take the target’s share of the market. The  move onto the next. The next one always being slightly bigger than the last. Keep working it that way until you get to the top.

Peppered with memorable, strongly drawn, vivid characters, this excellent, hard-hitting series is highly recommended for crime fans who like their crime novels bleak and dark. This third volume of this gritty, hard-driving trilogy leaves the possibility of a fourth book (removing the ‘trilogy’ from the series) wide open….

Review copy.

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Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

Review copy

 

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The Sussex Downs Murder: John Bude

The usual assault by a homicidal maniac.” 

Since I already own a few of the British Library Crime Classics titles, I was delighted to hear that Poisoned Pen Press is publishing this vintage series here in America. Vintage crime titles are great fun–after all there’s very little in the way of forensics, and you can forget high-tech crime lab stuff, and that just leaves us with plot and character.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore (1901-1957) belongs to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Inspector Meredith appears in many of his crime novels, and he’s here in The Sussex Downs Murder, from 1936, quite a lurid story for its times–although it’s handled with a de-emphasis on the lurid, and stresses more village life and various local personalities. The murder concerns John Rothers, one of two brothers who jointly own a farmhouse, Chalklands, considerable farm land and also lime-kilns based near the farmhouse. Now if your ears pricked up, as mine did, at the mention of lime, well you’re onto the scent already.

The Sussex Downs MurderThe Rothers were once much more affluent and titled, but they’ve come down in the world, and with the “shrinkage of a considerable family fortune,” a “certain antagonism” existed between the two remaining descendants: John and William Rother. Perhaps it’s because they’re so different, or perhaps it’s because they must share their inheritance. Or perhaps it’s something to do with Janet Waring who married William while it’s rumoured that she preferred John….

So there’s our recipe for murder, and so the story commences.

John drives away from Chalklands for a holiday in Harlech, but his bloodstained car is later found abandoned, and Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate.

Bude sets the scene for this tale of murder against the “little parish of Washington“:

It is a typical village of two streets, two pubs, a couple of chandlers, a forge, an Olde Tea Shoppe, and a bus service. Although the parish is bisected by the main Worthing-Horsham road, it has managed to retain in the face of progress all those local peculiarities which have their roots in the old feudal system of government. There is still a genuine squire at the Manor House to whom the group of idlers outside the “Chancton Arms”, whatever their politics, instinctively touch their hats; whilst the well-being of the church rests in the conservative hands of the Reverend Gorringe, as typical a parson as ever trod the pages of Trollope.

Bude very carefully maintains this image of the tranquility and quirkiness of village life throughout Inspector Meredith’s investigations, so that the gruesome tale of murder is seen as a pathological, atypical incident. One harmless villager chases butterflies and eats at the vegetarian guest-house, The Lilac Rabbit. The constable has to bicycle around with news as very few people have a telephone in their homes, and servants who see everything but say little play a considerable role.

Even though the modern reader will be well aware that crime detection in the 30s was an entirely different matter from today’s CSI, nonetheless it still shocks the sensibilities to read about people casually picking up bones or shoes and there’s never a whisper about preserving the integrity of the crime scene. The crime solution comes down to Inspector Meredith’s wits, and John’s disappearance is initially thought to be, perhaps, a kidnapping, “an unfortunate criminal habit which has been imported” from America. This reflects the attitudes of the times and the fear that the gangster-ridden streets of America might become a fixture in Britain too.

While I guessed the solution very early in the novel, accompanying Meredith through his investigations was great fun. My favourite sections were the scenes between Inspector Meredith and local crime writer, Aldous Barnet, who is also a close friend of William Rother. Barnet makes an enthusiastic audience for Meredith, and there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek jabs about the profession of writing about crimes with Mr Barnet deciding that he “could work this case up into a novel.” Barnet and Chief Constable Major Forest act as sounding boards for Meredith’s various, sometimes elaborate and lengthy theories about the crime throughout various phases of detection. Meredith is an interesting, albeit low-key character–a family man who hates to miss his high-tea and discusses his cases with his family. While many aspects of the story are quaint (at one point, Meredith ask who cleans Janet’s shoes), and while crime detection is so low-gadget, one wonders how any crimes were solved, it’s clear that human nature remains the same throughout the centuries:

You see, Mr Barnet, crime is bound up with human weakness, human greed, human misery–at every turn in an investigation you come up against the human element.

Review copy

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The Children’s Crusade: Ann Packer

“I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.”

You can’t approach Ann Packer’s novel, The Children’s Crusade without evoking images of the 13th century and the disastrous (and possibly exaggerated) historic event in which thousands of children participated in a crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity. In Ann Packer’s novel, the crusade in the title concerns the desire of four children to try to include their mother in their lives–something that’s far more complicated than it first appears, but I want to back up a bit before going further.

The Children’s Crusade begins in 1954 when Michigan native Dr. Bill Blair, freshly discharged from the navy, discovers the wonders of Portola Valley. He buys a 3.1 acre property, begins a second residency in pediatrics at UCSF, and marries a woman he meets, Penny, when taking in a watch to be repaired. Eventually Bill and Penny have 4 children together: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, and the children are brought up in what should be an idyllic location in an enviable home. The children's crusadeThe novel goes back and forth in time, so in alternating chapters, we see the children as they grow up and what they have become in adulthood. Robert is a doctor specializing in Geriatrics–married with children, but now middle-aged, depressed and unhappy, he can’t really understand where his life went wrong. Rebecca is a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatrics. Ryan is a teacher happily married to a French-Canadian woman, and the youngest, James, is the black sheep of the family who returns home when things go south in Oregon.

The novel’s main dilemma, wrestled with in the chapters set in the present, is what to do with the family home now that Bill Blair is deceased. The house and the land, worth millions, is currently rented to a wealthy man who wants to buy the property, tear down the original house and build a mega-mansion. It’s tempting to sell it and divide the money, but that decision also involves demolishing the myth of a happy home life and will also involve some agreement between the children and their mother, Penny Blair.

This is a profoundly sad, yet moving novel, for while dysfunctional family stories pop up like weeds, the Blair family is functional–they get by and cope even though things, under the surface, are far from normal. Bill Blair is a wonderful father, but as one of the children’s friends note, he’s more like a mother. Where does the rot in the Blair family begin? Does it begin with Bill Blair’s choice of a wife? His own mother is an excellent housekeeper, but for Penny raising four children, producing meals and cleaning the house are beyond her interests and capabilities. But since this is the 50s, it takes some decades for Penny to break out of the mold. But then what about Bill Blair–a man who cares so much about his patients that there’s very little left over at the end of the day for his wife.

As we read the narrative from each child’s perspective, the Blair family history is gradually revealed with each child assuming some sort of important role in the family’s structure. Always anxious, Robert, for example, lives to make his father proud, but James, the youngest child, becomes the one person who openly acknowledges his mother’s choices, and because he speaks while everyone else is silent, he becomes the family scapegoat and the family mouthpiece who states the things that everyone else avoids. As an adult, James cannot settle down, “a seeker who was seeking the identity of his own grail,” and yet now he returns to the scene where everything went wrong. James’s return heralds a period of discomfort and realignment for the siblings as they each confront their own history.

It’s the female characters here who are the most interesting. First there’s Penny Blair–who hated being a ‘homemaker’ but endured that role, with questionable success for decades, and then there’s her daughter, psychiatrist Rebecca, who enjoys a surprisingly supportive marriage, and who thinks she can pinpoint the moment in her life when she chose her career. She was waiting, along with her mother and siblings, for their father when he stops at the hospital to check on a patient:

I told my mother I wanted to leave, and she said we couldn’t leave, but if I promised to be quiet I could go over to the window. On the other side of the glass window people were moving quickly: doctors in white coats, nurses in caps, regular people in regular clothes. They were alone or in pairs, talking or not. I didn’t know why or how, but I knew they were different from the people in the cafeteria. And to get closer to them all I had to do was be quiet. Was this the moment when the seeds of my vocation were planted? I’ve always thought so. I wanted to be on the other side of the window, away from the sick and the worried. And to get there, I should cease talking. I should listen.

It’s interesting that James, the child who has the most problems with his mother, and the one who is the most confrontational with her, should also be the one who fails to find his way in life. Robert, Rebecca and Ryan all seem to find their vocations, and yet James, the family’s last child, is totally lost.

The Children’s Crusade argues that our characters are shaped in childhood, but there’s a deeper, more troubling question here and that is Penny’s behaviour. At what point do the considerations and desires of the individual exceed the demands of the family that a parent has committed to raise? Is Penny’s behaviour selfish? How difficult is it to be married to a man who gives everything to his patients and has little, emotionally, left to give his wife?

One of the most interesting and arguably the most difficult aspects of marriage is establishing boundaries between the entity of the couple and the individual. Packer’s tale explores the invisible boundaries between the individual, the couple  and the parent. Given that these people live very privileged material lives (the estate to be divided between the four children is worth several million) this  has the strange result of making us conclude that if these people have problems then what chance do other, less materially advantaged people have, and that thought can at once be comforting and disconcerting.

Many people have far worse childhoods than the Blair children, and those readers may find the tale underwhelming. The main dilemma of whether or not to sell the family home and carve up over 3 million is a problem most of us wouldn’t mind dealing with, yet material privilege cannot trump all other deprivations. That brings me to the other issues at play here regarding the terrible burden of Bill Blair’s dream and how his dream didn’t mesh with his wife’s desires. And here’s a quote that defines Penny’s problematic role in her family’s life when she’s found by her husband and children in her private space:

“Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was.”

Review copy.

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A Dilemma: Joris-Karl Huysmans

How delightful to discover a newly-translated work from Joris-Karl Huysmans. It’s A Dilemma from Wakefield Press, and clocking in at 79 small pages, this is a long short story, but what a story. Dripping with obvious disdain for the bourgeoisie, Huysmans shows how, in late 19th century France (the story was published in 1888), the bourgeoisie ruled and woe betide any person who gets in the way of a comfortable life or a good meal.

The story begins with two men, both widowers, Maître Le Ponsart and his son-in-law Monsieur Lambois, discussing Jules, Ponsart’s grandson, the son of Lambois, who has recently died after a brief, unexpected illness, in Paris. Are these two men, one elderly and the other middle-aged mourning, or shedding a tear? No. They’re deciding how to carve up Jules’s estate, so according to the Civil Code, they anticipate getting “fifty thousand francs apiece.”

a dilemmaThere’s already something distasteful about this scene. The implication is that the two men have just finished a meal. Little details say a lot:

In the dining room, which was furnished with an earthenware furnace, cane chairs with twisted legs, and an old oak sideboard, made in Paris at Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, that held behind glass panels gold plated chafing dishes, champagne flutes, and a complete white porcelain dinner set edged with gold that had never once been used–there, beneath a photograph of Monsieur Thiers, weakly lit by a hanging ceiling light that glowed down on the tablecloth, Maitre Le Ponsart and Monsieur Lambois folded their napkins, signaled with a glance for the maid to bring them coffee, and fell silent.

I loved the mention of the dinner set that had never been used for it reminded me of how people cover their couches with plastic which seems to arise from the desire to preserve the precious furniture while making it simultaneously uncomfortable and ugly.

But the delicious details continue. Ponsart, a notary, takes a penknife with its mother-of-pearl handle and cuts the tip of a cigar while he coolly discusses the death of his grandson. It’s immediately clear that these two men, initially tied by marriage, share a great deal in common. They’ve both lost their only children, they’ve both lost their wives (there’s something very cold about these two connections) and even more importantly, they are bonded by their shared bourgeois values, and nothing is going to shake their comfort and privilege.

However, “A Dilemma” has presented itself in the form of a young woman named Sophie who lived with Jules and endured the fiction of being his ‘maid’ when Jules’s father visited just prior to his son’s death.  Lambois has received a letter from Sophie stating that she is pregnant with Jules’s child and asking for money. Ponsart and Lambois interpret the request to be blackmail. Since Lambois is ill with gout (which according to Wikipedia is also known as “the rich man’s disease,”) Ponsart agrees to go to Paris, remove all of Jules’s furniture and shake the girl free of any claims against the family. The two men discuss the enemy:

“She’s a tall, beautiful girl, a brunette with fawn-colored eyes and straight teeth; she speaks very little, and her discreet and artless demeanor leads me to think she’s a crafty and dangerous person; I fear you have a tough opponent, Maître Le Ponsart.”

“Bah, bah, that little hen would need strong teeth to bite an old fox like me; anyway, I still have that police commissioner friend in Paris who can help me if necessary; as crafty as she may be, I have a number of tricks up my sleeve and I’ll bring her to heel if she makes any fuss; in three days my expedition will be over, and I’ll come back and claim from you, as a reward for my successful endeavors, another glass of this old cognac.”

I’m not going to say a great deal more about the plot, but it’s intriguing to consider the basic premise of this story: two men, one elderly, one in late middle age who’ve survived their children and their wives, and who are now presented with a future illegitimate grandchild. How would this scenario play out with let’s say Dickens, Hardy or Balzac? How will it play out with Huysmans?

The publisher describes this as a “nasty” little tale, and I can’t think of a better word. There’s something so inherently wrong, so distasteful about these two bourgeois men going to battle against a penniless, pregnant girl. While the young woman, Sophie, obviously loved Jules and nursed him through his illness and death, her selfless acts (having sex with Jules and later nursing him without money in the equation) are interpreted in the worst possible light by Ponsart who projects his own materialism onto the unfortunate, defenseless Sophie.

Ponsart fancies himself as a bit of a ladies’ man but really that interprets to Ponsart using the services of prostitutes, and this trip to Paris, far away from the gossips of his home town may afford another opportunity for vice–a repetition of how he spent his youth when studying in Paris.

His instincts already well honed, he wasn’t too stingy in spending his money up to a certain point; if, during his Paris days, he let himself squander all he had on lavish orgies, if he did not scrimp unduly with a woman, he expected to get from her in exchange a dividend of tariffed pleasures prorated to an amorous scale drawn up for his use. “Equity in all things,” he would say; and as he paid out the coins in his pocket, he thought it only fair to apply a penal rate in pleasure to his money, collecting from his debtress such and such percent of caresses, but only after first deducting a carefully calculated number of considerations.

Ponsart salivates over visions of Sophie as he already knows that she’s not a virgin and considers her a “slattern“:

“If I’m to believe Lambois, she’ll be a big, appetizing girl with fawn-colored eyes, a plump brunette; heh, heh, that would prove that Jules had good taste.” He tried to picture her, conjuring up, to the detriment of the real woman whom he must inevitably find inferior to the imagined one, a superb hussy whose burgeoning charms he itemized, trembling.

Huysmans appears to have quite a bit of fun with the character of Ponsart–a man who remains oblivious to, and well-insulated against, the tragedy that plays out under his nose.  Huysmans, while ridiculing the trappings of the bourgeoisie lifestyle also illustrates how complex and hypocritical a value system they measure their behaviour against, so we see Ponsart completely unscrupulous when dealing with Sophie and yet worrying about the minutiae of keeping up the appearance of immaculate conduct. And finally I have to mention Madame Champagne, a stationer who rises to Sophie’s defense:

He was surprised, when he entered the room, to discover a large lady behind Sophie.

This lady stood up, gave a slight bow, and then sat back down. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked himself looking at that paunchy woman fit to burst in a dress of hideous ultramarine, upon whose neckline fell three layers of buttery chin.

Seeing the pink coral beads dangling from her crimson earlobes and a Jeanette cross twitching under the to-and-fro of an oceanic bosom, he thought the old lady was a fishwife dressed in her holiday clothes.

While this is a story of the bourgeoisie closing ranks against the poor, it’s impossible to miss that this is also a world managed and dominated by men.

Translated by Justin Vicari who also wrote an informative introduction.

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This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

“There it was again, the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges. Surely, I thought, Freud was closer to the mark when he said, ‘We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.’ “

On the evening of the 4th of September, 2005, Robert Farquharson, who’d separated from his wife, Cindy, the year before was driving his three sons back to their mother after a visitation. It was Father’s Day. On the drive home, Farquharson’s car veered across Prince’s Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. Farquharson survived. His children did not.

In spite of the fact that initially Cindy didn’t blame Farquharson for the deaths of her children (this later changed), Farquharson quickly became a suspect for the murder of his sons. Was it his behaviour at the dam when he insisted that two young men who arrived at the scene take him to see Cindy rather than try any rescue attempts? Was it his insistence that the children were dead? Was it his behaviour in the hospital when he was interviewed by police? Or… was it all of the above?

This house of griefAustralian author Helen Garner attended the grueling trial and also attended Farquharson’s subsequent 2010 retrial–a decision she admits that “often, in the seven years to come I would regret” and the book This House of Grief is an elegant, elegiac account of the case as it unfolded at these two trials.

This House of Grief should not be confused with any sort of reportage-style sordid true crime book. Rather the book is a very individualistic approach to this horrific tale which is primarily a study of human nature with anecdotal observations about the court system as a secondary focus. Helen Garner doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the narrative, and this is a woman whose sensitive emotional antennae are permanently scarred by this grueling trial. Her descriptions of the often shell-shocked witnesses brought the trial to life in all its immense pathos, and she makes it clear that no one walked away from this trial unscathed. At the same time, Garner’s emotionality sometimes drove me around the bend (more of that later)–so much so that I have many ‘WTF’ notes made for certain passages. But let me be clear here–even though I have fundamentally different emotional responses from Garner This House of Grief is an extraordinary, haunting book .

Helen Garner begins attending the trial with an open mind; she wants to “think like a juror,” which is certainly one approach, but it’s also one fundamental difference between me and Garner–darker pathways I suppose–I read the book’s basic synopsis and thought Farquharson was guilty. Admittedly, though, it’s a far more interesting book because of Garner’s ‘open mind,’ so there’s always that argument. Near the beginning of the book, Garner presents a cacophony of voices which represent many of the prevailing attitudes towards the case, and this one quote jumped out.

I don’t get these guys, said a feminist lawyer. Okay, so the wife dumps them. Men don’t have biological clocks. Why can’t they just find a new girlfriend and have more kids? Why do they have to kill everyone?

Well that’s the fundamental question isn’t it?

Garner’s emotional involvement in the case mostly pays off, but there were a few sections that were annoying. At one point early in the trial Cindy’s then boyfriend, Stephen Moules testifies. Garner admits that she “was not the only woman in the court who shot Farquharson a furtive glance of comparison.” A nice touch as this can only be relayed by someone who was actually there, but then IMO Garner goes too far when she dives into her imagination regarding Stephen Moules, who later married Cindy, and the pouring of a concrete slab:

But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight on a young woman in Cindy Farquharson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect.

That section drew one of my WTF notes.

Similarly after a particularly grueling day at court, Garner finds herself cuddling her grandson and then later chasing down the hall about to whack another when she pulls herself up short. Garner doesn’t expand this section while explaining that she “got a grip” on herself, but this anecdote seems to be there in order to make some sort of statement about inappropriate parental response and rage. Is Garner saying she frightened herself at that moment? Is she saying we can all lose control with children in stressful moments? Again, time for another one of my WTF notes as there’s simply no way that this incident can be compared to the actions of Farquharson, and while this is Garner’s experience, it’s placement here seems unfortunate.

As noted earlier, I found myself at odds with Garner on many occasions within the book particularly regarding her emotional reactions towards Farquharson. For example, at one point she “flinches” at thinking about Farquharson “stumping home sore-footed” from his cleaning job. At another moment she’s “too embarrassed” to look at Morrissey (defense) after he makes a remark, and later, she expresses a thought regarding Farquharson during the second trial when she says she “pitied him simply for the fact that he had to sit there and endure it all again.” Well if he hadn’t done it, he wouldn’t have had to sit through the trials would he now? But these are examples of me arguing with Garner, and honestly these differences paled in significance to the book’s overall approach and Garner’s attention to meticulous detail that can only be rendered by someone with Garner’s deep sensitivity and desire to understand. I found myself applauding Garner’s intelligent, insightful observations even though we have different, basic emotional responses. Garner’s remarkable coverage of the trial is extensive but goes far beyond the evidence and the facts and figures. And I have to mention the writing which is well paced and exquisite as exemplified in a quote regarding the judge speaking of Farquharson during the sentencing:

He forms a dark contemplation…

I watched the thought, to see what it would do. It firmed up, like a jelly setting. And there it sat, quivering, filling all the available space.

But in spite of my differences with Garner, this is a beautifully constructed, extraordinary book–one that will continue to haunt me. Just as grueling days in court and gut-wrenching evidence leaves Garner “beyond speech,” the book, which isn’t the story of a crime but, importantly, the story of  two trials, shows how everyone involved is impacted by this horrendous experience.  Garner notes how excessive evidence regarding marks left by Farquharson’s car exhausts the jury, the evident pain felt by some witnesses who are emotionally battered by the trial and their testimony,  and also noted are the various personalities involved in the trial: Jeremy Rapke Acting Crown Prosecutor and his “casual coups,” and Peter Morrissey SC for the defense. Finally there’s Cindy herself who emerges from this crucible of pain and grief a warrior woman. I was surprised that the theory of premeditation didn’t appear as much as I would have expected–although of course it’s implied through the tortured testimony of Greg Rice whose wired conversation with Farquharson appeared to reveal a different side of the accused’s personality. I liked Garner’s intuitive theories about memory as it related to the conversation between Rice and Farquharson that took place at the Fish and Chip shop.

As a secondary focus, Garner explores the dynamics of the courtroom and especially zeroes in on witness statements.

The repeated order ‘Just answer the question’ came to sound like a gag or a bridle. How crude, how primitive were the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the face of questions on which so much hung!

Similarly on the subject of cross-examination.

So you get a grip on her basic observations, and you chop away and chop away, and squeeze and shout and pull her here and push her there, you cast aspersions on her memory and her good faith and her intelligence till you make her hesitate or stumble. She starts to feel self-conscious, then she gets an urge to add things and buttress  and emphasise and maybe embroider, because she knows what she saw and she wants to be believed; but she’s not allowed to tell it her way. You’re in charge. All she can do is answer your questions. And then you slide away from the central thing she’s come forward with, and you try to catch her out on the peripheral stuff–“Did you see his chin?”–then she starts to get rattled, and you provoke her with smart crack””Are you sure it wasn’t a football?” She tries to put her foot down–“Oh don’t be ridiculous”– and then judge gives her a dirty look and she sees she’s gone too far, so she tries recoup, she tries to get back to the place she started from, where she really does remember seeing something and knows what she saw–but that place of certainty no longer exists because you’ve destroyed it.

And finally here’s Garner’s partial synopsis of a taped conversation between Cindy and Farquharson two weeks after the death of the children. Cindy is medicated and Farquharson calls to “say g’day.”

Anything she says, in her thick drawling voice, he tops, or appropriates. She’s had a bad week. So has he. She has to make a statement to the police? Imagine what he’s had to do. She has calm days and then really shitty days? That’s like him. Her mum’s been having panic attacks, can’t face going back to work? That makes it hard on him. All those things affect him, ’cause he’s affected everyone’s lives and it’s on his shoulders too. How much more torture are they going to put him through?

Garner’s insightful, detailed recreation of the trial, told in her unique way made me feel as though I was there along with the jury and the witnesses. Due to the subject matter, it was sometimes hard to carry on reading. There’s so much raw pain here.  

I have to thank Gummie at Whispering Gums for bringing Helen Garner to my attention in the first place. In spite of the fact I had my differences with Garner, I know I want to read all of her non-fiction books hoping that they’ll be as extraordinary, intelligent and as thought-provoking as this one. Considering the quibbles I had with some of Garner’s points, but still predict this will be one of my best-of-2015, I think that shows the immense, power of This House of Grief. The murder of children is a tough subject for any writer to handle, and yet Garner treats her material delicately, with great respect and grace. Ultimately the result is a book that shows the best and the worst of human nature and the methods we, as a society, have devised to cope with our darkest behaviours.

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How a Gunman Says Goodbye: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow trilogy 2)

It’s the kind of industry where you have to be shockproof. People do things that logic can’t explain.”

In Malcolm Mackay’s crime novel How a Gunman Says Goodbye, the second book in the Glasgow Trilogy, we’re immediately back on familiar territory with a familiar character, hitman Frank MacLeod. In book 1: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, Frank MacLeod, the aging hitman for the Peter Jamieson crime organization is temporarily out to pasture with a hip that needs surgery. It’s a bad time for him to be out of commission as small-time drug dealer, Lewis Winter, treading on dangerous ground, starts selling on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson, and his right hand man, the reptilian John Young, suspect that Winter wouldn’t take this step unless he had some powerful friends, so they conclude that Lewis Winter must be killed as both a statement and damage control. Since Frank MacLeod will soon be sunning himself in Spain for the recuperation period, Jamieson and Young take Frank’s advice and hire freelance hitman Calum MacLean to kill Lewis Winter. According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” and while Jamieson and Young consider that Frank is irreplaceable, they understand that they need to step outside of their organization for the hit and also that eventually, Frank will have to be replaced. That day hasn’t come yet…

How a gunman says goodbyeHow a Gunman Says Goodbye finds sixty-two-year-old Frank back in Glasgow with the Jamieson organization, and the turf war continues. This time the trespassers are two young men:

‘There’s a kid named Tommy Scott,’ Jamieson’s saying. ‘Wee bastard of a thing. We didn’t think much of him. He used to be a peddlar. Street stuff. Ran with a gang, sold to them–shit like that. Used to do deliveries on a bicycle. A fucking bike! I guess I underestimated the bastard. I’ve been getting complaints. The kid cutting into out market, up Springburn way. I tried sending a warning, but the little bastard’s tough. Determined, too. Got one of his gangs providing security for his peddlers. Only has three of four guys delivering for him now, but a couple of months ago he had none. He’s growing fast, and stepping on toes. I’m fed up of hearing people complain. I need my people to know I’ll protect their patch. I need Shug-bloody-Francis to know his men aren’t safe.’

Tommy Scott and his childhood mate, the hyped-up, irrational and compulsive, Clueless live together in a tower block, just one floor below the top.

Well, that’s just bloody brilliant. Very few places worse than that. Having to make an exit from a tower block is never ideal. You’re always a long way from your getaway.

Right. And a tower block, which can serve as a veritable fortress for the criminals who live there, is always a hostile environment for those who don’t belong. But Frank is confident and considers this a “soft job.” What can go wrong?

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, the focus is the individual within the criminal organization, and that theme continues in the second book in this gritty trilogy. Whereas relative newcomer, freelancer Calum MacLean was the focus in the first book, old-timer, the legendary Frank MacLeod is the focus of How a Gunman Says Goodbye. Peter Jamieson considers Frank a friend, someone he will always trust, but Calum thinks Frank’s best days are over. For his part, Frank considers Calum, a kid who’s too slow with his contracts, “takes too long in the scouting,” a time waster who doesn’t understand the meaning of deadlines. It’s a crucial time in Jamieson’s crime organization; Jamieson must either be prepared to grow or be cannibalized by the suddenly hungry and aggressive Shug Francis. Jamieson must have a reliable gunman and he’d like to add Calum to the organization, but Calum wants the independence of freelance work.

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, author Malcolm Mackay shows the benefits and the drawbacks of being part of a criminal organization, and again those issues have relevance in this second book in the series. Being part of an organization gives you protection if you ever need assistance, and in theory, you should have more value, but there again, if you’re freelance, you can walk away any time you feel like it. Gunmen Calum and Frank are on opposite ends of their respective careers–Calum is gearing up to be the best hitman in Glasgow while Frank’s career is winding down. Looking at a lonely ‘retirement,’ Frank suddenly realizes that he has no life outside of the organization–no wife, no family, no friends, no hobbies:

You spend decades as a gunman, which few do, and you think of the world from a different angle. It’s all about secrecy and self-preservation. A lifetime of hiding the things you do. It changes you. It must have changed Frank, too. … He’s a gunman, and that’s all he’ll ever be. You spend so long teaching yourself to be that, you simply can’t become any other kind of person. You become so tied to your work it dominates your life. Destroys it.

On the other end of the spectrum is D.I Michael Fisher–a devoted, hardworking copper who’s trying to fit together all of the puzzle pieces of the Shug Francis-Peter Jamieson war. Fisher is a lonely man who’s every bit as isolated as Frank MacLeod:

He has to take action or see this all fall through his fingers. He’s not going to let another chance go. You spend years getting good results, doing your job the right way. You have a couple of failures, and people start to point the finger. They think you don’t have it anymore. He’s been guilty of that himself in he past. He knows how it works. A cop getting older–you start to question their ability to close a case. Are they still in touch with modern crime and policing techniques? Did they still have the hunger? Some do lose it. They’ve done their bit, now they’re looking towards the end. He’s not that kind of cop. His ending will be forced on him, he knows it. The hunger’s still there, but nothing is falling his way.

Mackay builds an argument for the similarities between two parallel organizations: the criminals and the police, and then, of course, there are those snitches and bad cops, spurred on by desperation, cynicism or compromising need, who traverse between both organizations.  D.I. Fisher feels the pressure to produce and feels himself near the brink of a career move–one that could make or break him, and both Frank and Calum’s careers are also on the brink of change. Mackay doesn’t belabor the comparisons between hit men Frank and Calum, one on the way up and one on the way down, but the connections are there, and in this novel both men face tough personal and professional choices. Told in a terse, unemotional style, again the emphasis is on the individual within the criminal organization with issues such as loyalty, friendship, and trust challenging the vital security of the Jamieson empire. While we see the ‘human’ side of our protagonists, Calum and Frank, Malcolm Mackay never allows sentimentality to intrude on the narrative.

Those who’ve read the first novel in the trilogy will not be disappointed by the second book in the series. Tense, dark and with a merciless gritty reality, Calum’s story continues. …

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Demons: Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley’s novel, Demons, is set over the course of one winter weekend and concerns a groups of friends who gather together at a remote coastal house and, there, without the distractions of children, computers and televisions, they plan to “stop time,” by just enjoying each other’s company, fixing group meals, and swopping stories. It’s supposed to be a time “to get back to something real.”

Gathering together for the weekend are film-maker Megan and musician Evan, “lately gone a bit to seed,” who have “five kids between them, late teens to early twenties,” lawyer Adam and Lauren whose career is “in advocacy,” retired journalist Leon (Megan’s brother), “he’d beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga, and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease” and Hannah, his new girlfriend– the youngest in the group.

demonsPolitician Marshall and his wife, Jackie are also expected but Marshall arrives late and without Jackie:

Is he with Jackie? said Megan. Evan looked out, and shook his head. If he thinks he can still get something to eat then he can go fuck himself, she said. Marsh! said Evan, waving, but Marshall was already at the door.

That short quote gives you an idea of the author’s style, and while the tone and the conversations are startlingly realistic, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is saying what since this conversation-heavy text is completely devoid of quote marks.

As the weekend wears on, members of the group, a rather privileged cross-section of Australian society, take turns telling stories, and of course telling stories about other people and their problems allows those listening to make various comments about what they’ve heard. But in between these disturbing stories, which range from the deadly serious to the trivial, various problems between these people begin to emerge, and soon, the planned weekend takes a different turn…

It’s Marshall’s arrival that begins to change the atmosphere. He arrives after abandoning his wife during a family tragedy, and his decision to leave his wife and join his friends at the coast says a great deal about Marshall, and while the characters focus on story-telling as entertainment, it becomes clear that the characters also fabricate a kind of fiction around their own lives.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters much, the dialogue and interactions seemed very real indeed, but overall, I carried away the feeling that this might be one of those rare instances in which a film version could be better than the book. I found myself enjoying the stories told by the characters more than the interactions between the friends. In particular, I enjoyed Leon’s story which he claims is true: The Broken String. Leon prefaces the story with the announcement that it’s “about the death of idealism … and the growth of expediency.”

These entertaining stories reveal a great deal about the storyteller, and yet… there’s the sense that Macauley’s characters have fabricated these stories to make salient, social commentary in order to impress one another or to impose some sort of moral message. In other words, there’s no small amount of posing going on as one might expect from this particular, privileged cranny of Australian society. We all know people like Macauley’s characters, and while reading about them & listening to them talk sounds very real, at the same time, I know I wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with this lot.

Ultimately, the stories these characters tell were, for this reader at least, the best part of the book. Megan’s story about a nurse who fights against the bureaucracy of Australian health care hits a nerve even as it uncovers the absurdity of managing recovery :

There’s not much time for any of the Florence Nightingale stuff. Key Performance Indicators, that’s the mantra: people are numbers, even sick people. Especially sick people. It’s an obsession. I don’t know when it started–it’s already lost in the mists of time–but someone at some point decided that the way to improve a screwed-up health system was to ask the bean counters to make it more ‘efficient.’

It became a numbers game. The government put a carrot in front and a stick behind: move the patients through faster and you’ll be rewarded, slower and you’ll be punished.

But when the novel reverts back to its characters, there’s the feeling that we’ve seen these types before–shallow, selfish, self-focused people facing the terrifying void of middle age and discovering that their lives haven’t turned out the way they planned. Naturally the weekend implodes, but the implosion was a storm in a teacup, and the Demons aren’t much more than time-worn, middle-age, middle-class angst.

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