Head Count: Ingrid Noll

“I didn’t yet know at that time that Cora regarded men as just some kind of mouse that you played with for a while, the way a kitten does, before satisfying your hunger.”

November 2022 and it’s German Literature Month XII. Here’s my first (possibly only) pick: Ingrid Noll’s Head Count–a title that has a double meaning. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Cora and Maya who meet at school when Maya is 16. Maya has an unpleasant home life; her delinquent father absconded to pursue the life of an artist, leaving Maya’s mother in the lurch with two children to support. Maya’s mother, lacking compassion, is a nurse who works in “the most unsuitable job possible for her.” There’s never enough money and they live in poverty. Maya is not popular at school; in fact, she’s subjected to cruel teasing, but Maya’s life changes when Cora (Cornelia) appears in her class. Cora seeks out Maya and they become firm friends.

Cora’s family is well off, and her home life is everything Maya could dream off. At first it would seem that the two girls are very different from each other but the underlying commonality is delinquent behavior.

Cora wants to be an artist:

Cora revealed a slight tendency towards revolting subjects. In an attempt to impress her, I confessed my kleptomania. She was thrilled to hear it.

Soon Cora and Maya are inseparable and together their delinquency escalates from shoplifting lipstick to more more expensive items. Maya’s brother, Carlo, develops a crush on Cora, and much to Maya’s distress, Cora doesn’t seem to discourage Carlo. The book follows Cora and Maya’s exploits as they become young women. Before long there’s a whiff of the Parker-Hulme case to Cora and Maya’s relationship, and more than one man meets a grisly end.

Noll’s female characters make short work of men who drift into their lives. Cora finds herself a rich sugar daddy and marries him while Maya falls pregnant and marries a dull lump of a man who has no idea what he’s dealing with. Maya’s delinquent father drifts in and out of her life and he’s sometimes used as a tool to weigh Maya down. This is the third Ingrid Noll book I’ve read, and sadly most of the titles from this author don’t make it to translation. Of the three books, this was my least favourite.

Translated by Ian Mitchell



Filed under Fiction, Noll Ingrid

Case Study: Graeme Macrae Burnet

Some pages into Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel I decided to look up the term Case Study, and this is what I found: “a research approach that is used to generate an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context.” Keeping that definition at the back on my mind, I understood the aptness of the title.

The story is told by GMB, a writer who is fascinated by the work of Collins Braithwaite the “enfant terrible of the so-called anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s.” GMB stumbled across Braithwaite’s book, Untherapy in a used bookshop, and he finds the book, a collection of case studies to be “salacious, iconoclastic and compelling.” When GMB attempts to research Braithwaite’s work, he finds “scant information” on the internet and disappointingly, the Braithwaite archive at the university of Durham contains just a “couple of cardboard boxes” of manuscripts some newspaper clippings and a few letters. But then GMB receives an email in response to a blog post about Braithwaite. The email is from a man who calls himself Mr. Grey, admits that this is not his real name, and that he has in his possession notebooks written by his cousin. Grey states that the notebooks “contain certain allegations about Braithwaite.” So Mr Grey, refusing to meet GMB, posts the notebooks. GMB reads them and the content of these notebooks constitute a large portion of the novel.

So now to the notebooks: a young woman named Veronica visited Braithwaite a number of times. She later committed suicide and Braithwaite’s notes pertaining to Veronica appear in his book, Untherapy, but he cloaks her identity by calling her Dorothy. Dorothy’s sister blames Braithwaite for her sister’s suicide, so she too begins visiting Braithwaite assuming the name Rebecca Smythe. And Rebecca is not a happy camper:

In this spirit, I shall begin by stating the facts. The danger to which I have alluded comes in the person of Collins Braithwaite. You will have heard him described in the press as ‘Britain’s most dangerous man’, this on account of his ideas about psychiatry. It is my belief, however, that it is not merely his ideas that are dangerous. I am convinced, you see, that Dr. Braithwaite killed my sister, Veronica. I do not mean that he murdered her in the normal sense of the word, but that he is nonetheless, as responsible for her death as if he had strangled her with his bare hands.

Rebecca, since she is seeking sessions with Braithwaite, decides to appear as a disturbed young woman. But a few pages into her journal, and it’s clear that Rebecca is disturbed. Intriguingly, while ‘Rebecca’ adds a few trivial touches to her pretense of being disturbed (holes in her stockings) in reality it becomes clear the Rebecca has many issues and had a troubled relationship with her now deceased sister. Rebecca finds that her newly created persona offers her a freedom from her usual/daily self. (Here I thought of Belle de Jour–a bit of an extreme example but in essence the same thing.)

The novel explores therapy and the dangers of an unhinged therapist. We all know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ doctors, and we know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ therapists. Damaged people seeking therapy from an egomaniac of a therapist who seems more interested in flouting the established schools of psychotherapy than actually helping patients is a formula for trouble. Braithwaite is, in many respects, an appalling human being: his treatment of the women in his life for example. Yet he had some interesting ideas:

To embrace the idea that a person is not a single self, but a bundle of personae, all of which should be valued equally.

The novel is set in London in the 1960s and splits between sections of Braithwaite’s bio and Rebecca. The book’s preface and postscript introduce and extend the novel’s amalgam of fact and fiction. The author goes into the term Case Study on his website. Th

Reading this was like watching a prolonged loop of that famous scene from The Lady from Shanghai. –disorienting but you can’t turn your eyes away.

The Gerts’ review.

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Filed under Burnet Graeme Macrae, Fiction, posts

Miss Hargreaves: Frank Baker

Some readers may remember the 1985 film Weird Science and its premise that two high school nerds create the ‘perfect woman.’ Weird Science was a hit at the time of its release and is now considered a cult classic. And why not–the film reflects Hollywood’s obsession with high school (high school sexuality) and it’s also a buddy film. And that brings me to Frank Baker’s 1939 novel, Miss Hargreaves. In Weird Science, the two high school teens created, using a computer programme, a sexy, scantily dressed woman. In Miss Hargreaves, Norman Huntley and his friend, Henry create an ancient, indominable, eccentric elderly lady using just their imagination.

It happens like this: Norman and Henry go on holiday to Lusk, a small village in Ireland. They had a “grand month” in spite of the rain, mostly in the countryside around Lusk. One day they decide to visit Lusk church and Norman feels a reluctance to go inside. Unfortunately, the sexton, a man with a squint and a “grave-digging manner” lets them inside the locked church. As the sexton shows Norman and Henry around the church, both young men experience a sort of dread, and as a way of alleviating the mood, they start making up a story about a fictitious woman named Miss Hargreaves. A lively repartee is exchanged between Norman and Henry as they add colourful details about the eccentric Miss Hargreaves whose hobbies include writing poetry and painting watercolours. The merriment continues even after they leave the church and soon the two young men have created a vivid portrait of Miss Hargreaves, along with her pet parrot named Dr. Pepusch and a Bedlington terrier called Sarah. At the apex of the gush of creative joking, Norman dashes off a letter to the fictitious Miss Hargreaves and invites her to stay at his family home in the town of Cornford. And this is when the trouble begins. …

Norman returns home to his family. Oddly, very oddly as it turns out, Norman’s father, an eccentric bookshop owner, finds a book of poems for sale in his shop, and to Norman’s horror, the poems are the work of Miss Hargreaves. The appearance of the book of poems should be a warning of things to come. Imagine his astonishment when Miss Hargreaves arrives–along with her cockatoo and her Bedlington terrier. She is everything that Norman imagined. On one hand, he’s amazed and proud of his creation, but on the other hand, she’s so demanding that she causes a great deal of trouble in Norman’s life.

A shrill, imperious voice had cried, “Porter! Porter! Porter!” Simultaneously the cockatoo, with a sepulchral growl on a low D, stopped singing. By now everybody else had got out. A porter sprang to a first-class carriage and opened the door. With his assistance, slowly, fussily, there emerged an old lady. She was carrying two stick, an umbrella and a large leather handbag. Following her was a fat waddling Belington terrier, attached to a fanciful purple cord.

With no small difficulty, Norman persuades Miss Hargreaves to take a room at the local inn instead of following him home. At the inn, Miss Hargreaves wreaks havoc, demanding food that is not on the menu and buying up vases she thinks are so ugly, they must be destroyed. Norman tries to tell a few people that he ‘made up’ Miss Hargreaves but no one, apart from his completely dotty father, believes him. Henry leaves Norman in the lurch at crucial moments and Norman’s young lady becomes extremely jealous of Miss Hargreaves. Norman finds that he must be very careful what he says about Miss Hargreaves as the slightest thing he adds to her imaginary bio comes true. Sections of the story have a certain frantic energy, but this is in contrast to other sections which are overly wordy. Ultimately this is a romp which explores the power and danger of imagination.

“Calm,” I said, “be calm, Norman. You’ll have her in a straight jacket in no time if you play your cards properly.”


Filed under Baker Frank, Fiction, posts

The Miranda: Geoff Nicholson

It sounded like flattery. I never liked or trusted that.”

In Geoff Nicholson’s novel, The Miranda, Joe, a divorced psychologist whose work in cognitive behavior therapy led to employment with a government agency, buys a house solely for its 100 yard circular pathway. He intends to “act out a script that in some form or other, I’d had in my head for my entire life.[…] I would walk around the world, and I would do it without ever leaving my own yard.” He appears to be removing himself from society, but all of his neighbours begin to pester him in various ways.

Joe is no longer employed but in the not-so-distant past, he started treating torture survivors for PTSD and then that gradually morphed into becoming a torturer who prepped “volunteers” for torture. No pictures, diagrams or slideshows: Joe actually did the torturing.

I won’t go into the precise details of what I did. For one thing, I’m not allowed to, but the fact is, I don’t believe I did anything to the volunteers that would surprise you. I was going to say I did everything you can imagine, but that couldn’t possibly be true. Any of us, even the most innocent and vanilla, can easily imagine forms of torture that are far, far beyond anything that I did, that I was allowed to do, to the volunteers. I stayed within limits. I was constrained by laws and decency, and to an extent by my own inherent squeamishness.

A point came when Joe, after ‘breaking’ volunteer after volunteer “couldn’t stand it any longer,” and he walked away from the job, but it’s the sort of job that gets under the skin. At first he lives in a flophouse motel, but then crawling back from that low point, he decides to buy a house, and that decision grows into a project:

If your garden, by some chance, happened to contain a circular path that was exactly 100 yards long, you would need to walk around it 440,000 times in order to cover a distance equal to the circumference of the earth at the equator. To put it another way, you would need to make 17.6 circuits of your garden path in order to cover a mile. Repeat that 25,000 times and the job would be done. And that was exactly what I intended to do. That was my plan, my grand project.

Joe decides to set a goal of 25 miles for 1000 days, stating that “in other words, my entire journey [around the world] would take just 95 days less than three years.” It is his “grand obsession.” And while Joe spends his days walking, seeking solitude, various annoying neighbors and even the postman find creative ways to pester Joe. Soon he’s employed an eager woman whose bartending ambitions include creating a timeless drink called “The Miranda.” Trouble looms in the form of violent neighbours who move in the rental behind Joe.

In fact, over the next few days, evidence appeared that the new guys were practitioners of various marital arts. An old-school, leather punching bag appeared, hanging from a tree branch, and they set up one of those rubberized torsos on a spring-loaded base that you can kick and punch to your heart’s content and it always bounces back for more, and (probably more important) it never retaliates. There was much shadow boxing and sparring and the whiling of nunchucks. The boy’s training regime seemed undisciplined, though highly enthusiastic, and it required a lot of shouting.

Before long I also noticed that these new inhabitants had spray-painted the abandoned cars in the driveway with various tags, patterns and symbols, and again from what I could see, it appeared the work was more enthusiastic than skilled, though this was by no means my area of expertise. The boys played their music loud, and they owned a number of big, energetic, brutal dogs; about half a dozen of them, somewhere between mutts and monsters.

These new obnoxious neighbours begin a process of intimidation, but they have no idea what they are dealing with.

In general, I’m not one of those people who worries too much about things that haven’t happened yet. Worrying about what might happen strikes me as a waste of time, because absolutely anything might happen and absolutely anything might not. You can’t be prepared for an infinite number of events and outcomes. The skill, as I see it, is not trying to foresee every possible situation in advance, because that’s impossible, but rather be confident that you can handle any situation as and when–and if–it arises.

I laughed and marveled at the way Joe handles his neighbours, the nosy ones and the violent ones. He is, after all, a therapist specializing in cognitive behaviour therapy. Underneath Joe’s grand walking project there’s the idea that this scheme, while admirable, is just a way to pass the time. Joe is waiting for his past to catch up with him. …

In The Miranda, we find the classic elements of Nicholson’s novels: mania, obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. The novel explores the theme of walking (one of Nicholson’s personal hobbies/obsessions), specifically “walkers who turned their geographical constraints into virtual projects.” Joe describes how Albert Speer “paced out a walking path” at Spandau Prison where he walked seven kilometers a day “virtually” from Berlin to Heidelberg. Later, Speer’s virtual walking goals expanded but he “fretted that any route he chose [to Asia] would involve walking through some dreaded communist countries. He couldn’t face that. Not even in his imagination.”

Joe discusses some famous walkers, walking as therapy, walking as meditation and even compares walking to sex.

Sex and walking are things that some people like to do alone, that some people like to do with just one other person, and that some people like to do in groups of all sizes. Some prefer the company of men while doing it, some prefer the company of women, some are prepared to do it with either. Some will only do it if certain very specific conditions are met. A few require special clothing and equipment. Others are eager to to do it anywhere, any time, in any conditions, at the drop of a hat. A certain number, perhaps a surprisingly large number, really don’t like to do it at all.

Joe’s ex wife and his neighbours find Joe’s project troubling, unsettling and even looney. This witty, entertaining novel mines the idea of neighbours as a special kind of hell. We can’t choose who we live next to, unfortunately, and occasionally neighbours give us insight into our patience (or lack thereof) and what we appreciate and accept as ok behavior. simply to get peace. There’s irony here as Joe knows the intricacies of torture and understands the significance of intimidation and now himself becomes the target of bullying. He craves privacy yet interest in his solo walking in his own back garden makes people curious.

There are several virtual walking sights on the internet. Some cost, some are free, some require membership. Anyway, thanks to The Miranda which will make my best-of-year-list, I have started walking circuits in my back garden.

Virtual walking


Filed under Nicholson, Geoff, posts

First Love: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms takes a cold analytical approach to the narrator’s toxic relationships with her parents. Children can’t escape their parents’ mind games until they learn the rules of engagement, and then they should refuse to play. Through shared features, First Love could be considered a tangential novel to My Phantoms. Both novels are narrated by young women, and the mothers in both novels share characteristics and geographic locations. The mothers in these two novels could be the same person, seen through a less critical eye in First Love, and it’s a toss up whether the father in My Phantoms is more repugnant than the father in First Love. The major difference between the novels is the emotional territory. The narrator in My Phantoms focuses primarily on her mother. In First Love, the narrator has two major relationships–both toxic, but the narrator’s relationship with her mother seems like party-time compared to her toxic intimate relationships.

The novel begins with the narrator, Neve, a writer/teacher who has moved to London, to live with Edwyn. When the novel opens, they have been living together for 18 months. There’s the sense that perhaps things were good earlier in the relationship (“I’d watch for Edwyn in the evenings.”) But the relationship has declined and consists of a barrage of emotional abuse. Edwyn is now a sick man; he’s middle-aged, is post-heart surgery, and is in constant pain. Neve remains in the home living under a barrage of insults. Neve and Edwyn even marry at one point on the advice of his lawyer. The scenes between Edwyn and Neve are dreadful–not just the insults, but the slow torture of one person slicing into another’s every word. There are times when Neve begins to chat, as one does to one’s partner, but Edwyn isn’t having it:

I was casting around for something to say, and then as soon as I’d said it–“Lonely”–I knew what was coming. Finding out what you already know. Repeatedly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why? I wonder how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I didn’t believe he did notice. That was the lesson, I think. That none of it was personal.

Over time and some very painful, spiteful scenes, Neve learns how to cope. Numbed to the point of compliance, she knows when dealing with Edwyn, not to try and clarify. Instead she learns how to placate:

So it was both strange, and dreadful–I knew it–to feel that I was managing him, in a way. Beyond bringing him out of himself, or my genuine interest; that I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like –I don’t know–throwing some sausages at a guard dog.

Post Edwyn, Neve’s life is better for his absence, but still her life seems flat, stark and joyless. In the past is Neve’s ‘great’ love, a man named Michael. The affair did not end well, and for some reason, Neve reconnects with Michael when he drifts back into her life. Michael is a strange, self-focused man, and his relationship with Neve has fuzzy edges. Neve’s friendships seem more successful. Loved her friend Bridie whose texts leave Neve with a feeling of missing out, but when they finally meet, it seems that Bridie is prone to exaggeration and her life is a mess.

Neve’s mother is very like the mother in My Phantoms–a woman who throws herself into a frantic round of social activities while not enjoying it in the least. Her mother’s relationships with men are problematic–she invites herself to visit a younger man in America, and so the trip is destined to disappoint in a life full of disappointment and exclusion. The behaviour of Neve’s father, a man who ate himself to death, probably goes a long way to explaining why Neve stays with Edwyn. She has no idea what is normal, and there are no doubt financial reasons behind Neve’s continuing to live under Edwyn’s abuse. Sharp, dark and bitter, First Love makes my best-of-year list.

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Filed under Fiction, Riley Gwendoline

Please Join Us: Catherine Mckenzie

Catherine Mckenzie’s suspense novel Please Join Us takes the reader into the life of lawyer Nicole Muller. At 39, she has sacrificed a great deal for her career, but after losing a major client, one of the firm’s senior partners delivers a warning that her billing hours must soar or she’s out the door. With depressing speed, the news ricochets around the office. Minor law firms suddenly know that Nicole is on her way down and send recruitment emails. But right at the same time, she receives a cryptic invitation also via email inviting her to join an exclusive club, Panthera Leo for women. Dan, Nicole’s husband advises against the trip and, evoking the example of NXIVM suggests that Panthera Leo may be a cult.

Nicole, thinking that there’s nothing to lose, takes the bait, and then she’s off to attend a Panthera Leo retreat in Colorado. Always with these sorts of scenarios there’s a slippery slope. Is it when Nicole signs over 5K to attend the retreat? Is it when she’s told to hand over her cell phone for 5 days? Or is it when the two female leaders: Karma and Michelle, chant phrases that must be chanted back, over an open campfire?

Nicole identifies with the Pathera Leo spiel and list of grievances:

Putting men charge of women’s companies is one of our specialties. Diversity this and diversity that and sensitivity training and you know what’s changed? Exactly nothing, that’s what. If you have a vagina then you’re handicapped. God forbid if you have a kid or show an emotion at work.

Post retreat, everything in Nicole’s life goes swimmingly …. until it doesn’t. I had never heard of NXIVM and so dug up that name. Even watched a documentary about it. After that, I found the plot much easier to accept. Not that this book is about NXIVM.

I have read Catherine Mckenzie before and while this is not my favourite book of hers to date, I enjoyed parts of it. Initially I had problems accepting that Nicole, who seems hard boiled, would succumb to the Panthera Leo pitch, but she does. I couldn’t quite align Nicole’s narrative voice with the character. Plus Nicole is not an appealing character, and that goes for most of the characters in the book. I was interested in Nicole’s initial plight but after she drank the Kool-Aid, well… not as much.

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Touch: Olaf Olafsson

In Olaf Olafsson’s Touch, during COVID, Reykjavik restaurateur 74 year-old Kristófer must close his popular and once successful business. He tried to adapt with delivery and takeaway services, but his attempts have failed and the twenty-year-old restaurant is no longer viable. The novel opens with Kristófer finalizing financial matters for the restaurant, paying bills, paying staff. He checks Facebook and there finds a friend request, which he accepts, from Miko Takahashi, a woman he knew, loved and lost more than 40 years before. …

Perhaps thinking he has nothing to lose, and perhaps because he wants to find out why Miko disappeared from his life, Kristófer decides to fly to Japan to see her. She has COVID, was hospitalized but is now home, and Kristófer books his flight without telling his hostile brother Mundi or his prickly stepdaughter Sonja. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that these are both problematic relationships.

Kristófer has a stop in London, and uses the time to visit the scene of the crime–the place where he met Miko, whose father owned a small but successful Japanese restaurant. Part of the novel is a trip down memory lane–an easy to understand action–so Kristófer stands outside of what was once the restaurant and finds instead a tattoo parlour. Talk about getting a sense of one’s own mortality. All this brings back memories for Kristófer. As a student studying Economics he was infected with the 60s bug, and aware of his own lack of interest inn his studies and haunted by the spectre of mediocrity, he dropped out of university and in a moment of sheer bravado decide to enter the restaurant business.

Touch is the examination of a depressing life filled with regretted decisions. There’s Kristófer’s spur-of-the moment decision to begin a restaurant career, his tepid marriage to his now dead wife, Inga, and his dis-spiriting intellectually intimidating relationship with fellow student Jói. The passage of time hammers a bitter reality into these decisions–simultaneously magnifying and diminishing their importance. But the central mystery here is why Miko disappeared.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. I closed my restaurant and traveled halfway across the world. What for? To get back what never existed? To make myself feel better–to search for something that will justify my life?

For this reader, the most interesting sections of the novel explored Kristófer’s flawed personal relationships. He somehow managed to bypass understanding his now-dead wife’s inner life, which goes a long way to explaining his annoying stepdaughter’s alienation. He managed to miss his faithful long-term employee’s dream. Kristófer’s renewed contact with Miko was the least interesting part of the novel, which is unfortunate as it is central. This may be due to my failing/quirk as a human being who fails to see/questions the advisability of picking up a social media friend request from someone who dumped you 40 years before. But perhaps that’s just me. …I’m more of a ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ ‘the past is a foreign country,’ you made your bed...’ kind of person. Call that living in the moment.

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Filed under Fiction, Olafsson Olaf, posts

Shrines of Gaiety: Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety is a change of pace. Set in 1920s London, the novel opens with the release from Holloway of Nellie Coker, “Old Ma Coker,” a middle-aged woman who presides over an empire of London nightclubs. It’s taken a lot of hard living for Nellie to climb to the top of this world, and it takes even more to stay on top.

Nellie’s brood of children feed off the empire in various ways. She has 5 total: Niven, Edith, Betty, Shirley, Ramsay and Kitty. The “three eldest girls were the crack troops of the family,” with Edith her mother’s “second-in-command.” Edith “understood business and had the Borgia stomach necessary for it.” Nellie’s eldest son, Niven, was conscripted into the army, and survived. Stepping outside of the family, he is now part owner of a car dealership and has various other business interests. With a German Shepherd as his constant companion, Niven is an “enigma” to his family. The youngest son Ramsey feels he’s left out of the family inner circle and is “continually beset by the feeling that he had just missed something. ‘As if,’ he struggled to explain to Shirley, his usual confidante, ‘I’ve walked into a room but everyone else just left it.‘”

One day, Niven assists Gwendolen, a young woman new to London who is mugged on the street. She gets a job managing one of Nellie’s clubs, the Crystal Club, but Gwendolen is a woman on a mission. She’s in London to discover the whereabouts of her best friend’s sister, Freda, who ran away to London with dreams of being a dancer. Gwendolen has connected with Inspector Frobisher to work undercover. The delinquent Coker empire is a house of cards that Frobisher aims to topple.

The filthy, glittering underbelly of London was concentrated in its nightclubs, and particularly the Amethyst, the gaudy jewel at the heart of Soho’s nightlife. It was not the moral delinquency–the dancing, the drinking, not even the drugs–that dismayed Frobisher. It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London. At least 5 he knew about had vanished over the last few weeks. Where did they go? He suspected that they went through the doors of the Soho clubs and never came out again.

Shrines of Gaiety presents a giddy, tawdry world of 1920s London. Post WWI society craves fun, and dour Nellie Coker, a woman who doesn’t appear to know the meaning of the word, is there to provide it for those who can pay.

We get Nellie’s hard-scrabble back history which goes a long way to explaining the woman she has become. Atkinson based the tale on the real-life Kate Meyrick “The Nightclub Queen.” The novel introduces a lot of characters right away and the novel is best read in large chunks in order to keep the juggling points of multi plot and time lines in the air. The novel’s strength is in its recreation of the times and the atmosphere. And while there are a dizzying number of characters, the novel doesn’t do a deep dive on character but instead the narrative remains on the surface of life: light, dense and expository.

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Filed under Atkinson Kate, Fiction

The Complicities: Stacey d’Erasmo

Stacey d’Erasmo’s novel The Complicities looks at the fallout of financial fraud through the lives of a handful of characters. When the novel opens, Suzanne is beginning a new life following the imprisonment of her white collar criminal husband Alan for fraud. She moves to Chesham, a Massachusetts beach town, changes her name and tries to find a way to support herself. Suzanne’s new life isn’t easy, plus “her entire life vanished” when her husband was arrested and subsequently imprisoned. The money, the status, the mansion–all gone.

People have lots of opinions, and they say you destroyed their family’s future, but did anyone care about our family and what was happening to us? Why were we suddenly the bad guys?’

Suzanne, while professing not to ‘understand’ money matters, asks herself “how big was his [Alan’s] crime?” Suzanne doesn’t think about Alan’s victims yet she expects people to think about her position:

I’m not saying he didn’t commit a crime; he did things with people’s money that you aren’t really supposed to do, he’d been doing it a long time, and he got caught.

With a “little money” and two suitcases, she trades in her expensive, flashy car for an old Honda which “provided great cover.” She uses her maiden name, rents a dump, prints out a fake certificate from the internet and starts a massage business.

I mean, look: sure, you can call me complicit, but there’s complicit and complicit, isn’t there? It isn’t only one label than explains everything in every situation. There isn’t complicity but complicities, errors of different sizes, plus there are other factors, choices that in hindsight maybe weren’t right, but in the moment it seemed different. Other people have done a lot worse things. Pol Pot. Drug cartels. Sex traffickers.

Hmmm… Suzanne comparing herself favorably to Pol Pot. …

Part of the novel is Suzanne’s new life, her rejection of collect calls from Alan, and her son’s rejection of her. Her life is a slow hard climb just to pay the bills and keep the lights on. As time passes, Suzanne, as narrator, adds Lydia to the tale, the woman Alan meets when he is released from prison. Just as Suzanne skirts the details of her knowledge and involvement in Alan’s crimes, Alan has a constructed a narrative, for Lydia, for what went wrong:

That was when he crossed some lines, but basically, it was all a slow-motion cry for help. He’d had a lot of time in prison to think and read the great philosophers again (again?), and he could see that now. He had always spent so much time taking case of other people, trying to fulfill their expectations even to the point of going to prison himself for it. His need to please, to be the hero, had cost him everything.

Boo hoo. Alan knows how to pick ’em. Later in the novel, the story moves to include Alan’s mother and her role, or complicity, in her son’s approach to life. Ultimately, tangled associations stain and mold our lives and decisions. I enjoyed the novel for its complex approach to moral responsibility, and how love, trust and loyalty are elastically stretched until complicity takes over. I love to read books about how characters deal with money–not just how they spend it, but how the promise of money, the thought of money, lots of it, influences actions and makes people run off the rails.

review copy.


Filed under Fiction, posts

The Chill: Ross Macdonald (1964)

People who don’t believe in divorce sometimes believe in murder.”

In Ross MacDonald’s The Chill, PI Lew Archer is hired by newlywed, Alex to find his missing bride. Alex and Dolly were on their honeymoon at the Surf House when she was visited by an older, bearded man. After that meeting Dolly disappeared. Archer takes the case and begins digging into the identity of the mystery visitor and Dolly’s past.

According to Alex, Dolly had no family, but Archer discovers that that isn’t true; Dolly’s mother was murdered and her father went to prison for the crime. It doesn’t take much digging for Archer to find Dolly’s mystery visitor: Dolly’s father, fresh out of prison for killing Dolly’s mother. It’s not too surprising that Dolly’s father sought his daughter as it was Dolly’s testimony, as a child, that put him behind bars. Why did she disappear? Is she frightened of her father?

While Archer may have found Dolly’s father, he has yet to find Dolly. His search takes him to the college campus where Dolly enrolled as a student. Vampish Professor Helen Haggerty, Dolly’s academic counselor, invites Archer home for a drink and then begs him to protect her from the mysterious threats she has received. …

The Chill takes Archer back over 20 years and several murders which seem to be inexplicably linked. As the body count rises, Archer runs into an interesting cast of characters: the ex-detective twisted by grief and guilt, the rigid society widow who is happy to bury the truth, and the college dean who doesn’t take a step without mummy’s approval. While I did not guess the solution, when it arrived, it was implausible. Interesting but still implausible. Macdonald’s novels twist on the sordid complications of broken family, and that is true here. When Archer closes his cases, he probably swears he will remain single. Not the best in the series; this is number 11.

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