Small Hours: Jennifer Kitses

Small Hours from Jennifer Kitses examines 24 hours difficult hours in the life of a family of four. The novel argues that with both parents working, juggling job demands, conflicting schedules, no support network and the high cost of child care, it’s inevitable that internal tensions and external pressures make daily life an obstacle course to be overcome, repeatedly,

Helen and Tom were New Yorkers who decided to move to Devon, a small town that seemed to promise the sort of life they wanted. Devon, “an exurb,” is “in the Hudson Valley, but farther out than most commuters were willing to manage–ninety five minutes to Grand Central.” Add that up, and it’s more than a three hour commute daily for this pair.

Helen was the one who iniatated the idea to move to Devon, and at first the town seemed idyllic and affordable:

On their first trip out here, he’d browsed in the used bookstore; Helen wandered along the little street of art galleries. There was a dive bar, a nice bar, and a vegetarian restaurant. Even the stores that sold bespoke denim and artisanal fennel products had seemed like a good sign.

The reality is far different. Now two years later, in the economic downturn, many businesses in town have closed, and both Helen and Tom’s NY jobs were impacted. Helen who was a full-time graphic designer is now working “on contract and off-site, for a lot less money.” Tom lost his job, and after being unemployed for a few months he now works for a newswire service.

Small hours

Tom and Helen managed to hang onto their home. Barely. Their home is still underwater, and Tom realizes that they’re a pay check away from this house of cards tumbling. Meanwhile Helen, who’s been putting the preschool fees for their three-year old twins onto a series of credit cards, is desperately avoiding the school administration as she can no longer pay the fees. Of course, this cannot continue; something is going to happen, and over the course of 24 hours, Tom and Helen each face a crisis.

We follow both characters over the course of a day: Tom, whose job isn’t exactly secure, begs off some time to take care of some personal business. I won’t say what that is, but I will say that Tom made a horrible mistake some time before and now he has to either ‘put up or shut up’ as the saying goes. Tom’s crisis is very concrete: a horrible moral dilemma and a situation which is going to cause a lot of unhappiness before it’s resolved.

Helen’s crisis, on the other hand, is much more existential. She doesn’t have questions about her marriage, but she does have questions about her entire life. While she loves her children, she’s not exactly enamored with the role of motherhood. She works from home, and this conflicts with the needs of her children. At one point, she plops the twins in front of the television in order to work and carries on. Helen as a character is the more problematic of the two. She seems to be more of a neurotic mess than anything else, although I can accept that the family’s situation may partially have driven her to that point. She is very unhappy: she hates the town she insisted that they move to, she hates most of the neighbours…. There’s no easy fix here.

Helen and Tom, as created, are two individuals who happen to share the same house. After reading the book, I wondered why these two were married to each other as they haven’t so much grown apart as become emotionally distant roomies. Tom and Helen are in their 40s, and their lives are depicted as joyless drudgery. If this is a fair depiction (and I suspect it may be) then Small Hours is a commentary on the sad empty lives of America’s middle class young families who struggle from day-to-day like frantic hamsters on activity wheels that go nowhere.

Small Hours is being compared to the works of Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta and while I understand such comparisons are helpful when trying to attract an audience to a debut novel, such comparisons can also backfire and not be much a favour to a new author who should be appreciated on their own terms.

For animal lovers: I immediately disliked Helen for firing a water gun at squirrels for entertainment, and later a lost dog in the neighbourhood meets a sad fate. Yes a spoiler, but some readers, including me, want to know about situations involving animals. The neglect, actual and possibly symbolic, of the dog was just another contributing factor which made me ask: what the hell is wrong with these people???

Review copy

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Paula Spencer: Roddy Doyle

“And the good things kind of glide past you. You can take them for granted. But the bad things, the regrets. They fuckin’ sting.”

After reading Roddy Doyle’s wonderful novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, I turned to the book’s sequel: Paula Spencer. We met Paula in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors on the day she heard about her estranged husband’s death, and most of the novel, told in the first person was a retrospective look at Paula and Charlo’s violent marriage. Fast forward almost a decade, and Paula is a widow, still living in the same house she lived in with Charlo, still making a marginal living as a cleaner. The lives of Paula’s children have changed: Nicola is successful, Leanne is an alcoholic, Jack, a teenager still lives at home, and John-Paul, who was mostly just a memory in the first book, is a recovering heroin addict.

So between the spousal abuse, the alcoholism and the drug dependency we have two novels that tackle some tough issues, but in spite of the weighty issues, Paula’s story is told with a light humour.

Paula Spencer

When this ultimately optimistic sequel novel begins, Paula is now 47 and dry. That’s not to say that she doesn’t think about drinking … she does .. all the time, but accompanying the longing for a drink are shameful memories of her vomiting, passing out dead drunk in the house, and even being drunk in the supermarket.

She remembers going through the supermarket with a trolley full of six-packs and mixers and the rest. She couldn’t make the trolley go straight. Jack was in the carrier part. She was afraid the whole thing was going to topple over. Leanne was pulling on the other side of it, asking for every biscuit and family pack they passed. And she actually-did she?-she smacked Leanne, until she let go of the trolley.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the question raised about guilt: Paula feels guilty for the sort of mother she was, but occasionally she chafes against the guilt. She knows she’s right to feel guilty about being a drunk, but at times her children seem to forget or ignore the fact that Paula was driven to douse her fears in alcohol. Is there ever to be an end to the guilt? And what of Charlo whose absence, violence and irresponsibility somehow has removed him from the guilt equation?

Paula Spencer is set during the Celtic Tiger, so we see a different Ireland. Paula’s sister who owned a caravan on the coast in the first book is now talking about about buying a place in Bulgaria. Paula, however, is still on the bottom of the economy, still stuck as a cleaner–although now she’s a manager, managing foreign workers who seem to pop up everywhere.

That’s another big change, maybe the biggest. The men do the cleaning work. Nigerians and Romanians. She’s not sure if they’re legal. she doesn’t want to know. She’s not paying them. They come and go. They’re grand. They’re polite. She feels sorry for them. It’s not work for a man; she’ll never think different. The African lads come in dressed to kill, like businessmen or doctors. They change into their work clothes and back into their suits before they go home. Ashamed. 

The world is changing and Paula makes the decision to move along too. She makes the gigantic move of opening a bank account, has a television, a giant fridge, and in one wonderful scene she makes a list with “a mad woman’s pen.”

It’s a good fridge, though. It takes up half the kitchen. It’s one of those big silver, two-door jobs. Ridiculous. twenty years too late. She opens it the way film stars open the curtains. daylight! Ta-dah! Empty. What was Nicola thinking of? The stupid bitch. How to make a poor woman feel poorer. Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser. The stupid bitch. What was she thinking?

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was told in the first person, so we entered Paula’s mind. For some reason Paula Spencer is told in the third person so we lose that intimacy, and Doyle’s elliptical style is quite marked here. On the down side,  Paula Spencer is quite disjointed. Time and space can leap from one sentence to the next, so the sequencing of events is disorienting at times. One minute we’re in Paula’s house, and in the next sentence, she’s in a caravan going nuts, pacing up and down obsessing about a drink. But that aside, it was well-worth revisiting Paula’s life and her problems.

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Hotel Iris: Yoko Ogawa

In Yoko Ogawa’s novel, The Hotel Iris, run by a mother-and-daughter team, is a third-rate hotel in a dull seaside town. The mother manages the shabby hotel which has been in the family for over 100 years with a rod of iron and more than a streak of mercenary nastiness. Daughter Mari, upon the death of her grandfather, was forced to leave school and begin working at the hotel. With long hours and the nonstop demands of the hotel guests, Mari is almost a slave to her domineering mother.

The Iris came into being when my great-grandfather fixed up an old inn and turned it into a hotel. That was more than a hundred years ago, In that part of town, a restaurant or hotel was either supposed to have an ocean view or to be right on the beach. The Iris didn’t qualify on either count: it took more than half an hour to walk to the sea, and only two of the rooms had views. The rest looked out over the fish-processing plant. 

Hotel Iris

There are corners of darkness in Mari’s life: a kleptomaniac cleaner who can be blackmailed, the excruciating death of her grandfather whose agonising groans heard by the guests were explained as caused by cats “in heat,” and a pedophile sculptor who “nearly raped” her. There’s no life beyond the hotel for Mari, so perhaps that partially explains why she’s fascinated when a scene occurs at the hotel involving a prostitute and a male guest “past middle age, on the verge of being old.” There’s something about his voice, “giving an order,” which strikes her as beautiful, and the ugly scene provides Mari with a memory she can’t get out of her head. Months later, she spots the man again, follows him, and they strike up a relationship. …

The man, a widower, who later becomes known as ‘the translator’ translates commercial material for a living, and is translating a Russian meganovel in his spare time. He lives alone on an island, and it’s rumoured that he murdered his wife. The translator represents many things to Mari: perhaps he’s a father figure, perhaps the air of mystery which surrounds him intrigues her, perhaps his tenderness towards Mari fills a need, but whatever the reasons behind the attraction, before long the translator and Mari, who sneaks away from the hotel with various excuses, engage in a relationship that begins with a little B&D and then morphs into the very dangerous territory of S&M.

For those interested, there are some B&D/S&M details here, and while the story is told through Mari’s eyes, the details are precise but not overly salacious. The hours Mari and the translator spend together are catalogued so that it’s easy for the reader to see a steady progression of pain and humiliation told with almost clinical care. What’s so interesting here is that while Mari is definitely under the spell of the translator, she never loses sight of his aging body, the wrinkles, the sagging, and his ears “no more than a limp sliver of dark flesh.”

This is a deeply disturbing, yet fascinating novella about obsession and a twisted relationship that, with its escalating violence, can only end one way. It’s fascinating that Mari, who at 17 could be in the power seat here, instead abdicates that power to a much older man on the teetering point of frailty. And yet…  does Mari abdicate that power or does she subtly remain in control?

For readers and animal lovers: a warning about the fate of an unfortunate mouse who inadvertently becomes a witness to one of the more unpleasant scenes between Mari and the translator.

Translated by Stephen Snyder

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Grief Cottage: Gail Godwin

In Grief Cottage author Gail Godwin describes a place: an abandoned decaying cottage on the edge of an island, but Grief Cottage also has a non-literal presence in the minds of more than one emotionally troubled character. This is the coming of age story of eleven-year-old Marcus, who following the accidental death of his mother, bounces briefly into the foster system before being sent to live with his Aunt Charlotte on a small South Carolina island. Aunt Charlotte is an artist, used to a solitary life, and Marcus, concerned about being underfoot, quickly becomes fixated on the story of a boy about his age who drowned along with his family, tourists staying at Grief Cottage, in a hurricane fifty years earlier.

Grief Cottage

Marcus never knew his father, and his identity, if it’s known, is shrouded in mystery. Gradually Marcus’s history unfolds; it’s a life spent in poverty with Marcus and his mother eking out a living, and Marcus, unable to understand his mother’s sacrifices and concerns, instead feels ashamed of her and their living conditions. Once Marcus’s anguish erupted in rage, and the incident that led to a rapid move, but now the rage is buried and wrapped with guilt and grief.

Aunt Charlotte battles her own demons, and while she makes a good living with painting, she also struggles with her past. It’s not too long before it’s obvious that Aunt Charlotte is an alcoholic, but of course, Marcus doesn’t understand this, and after Aunt Charlotte suffers a fall during a binge, he’s proud to be able to open several wine bottles at once.

Since this is a coming of age story, most of the plot concerns Marcus. Left to his own devices, he’s both fascinated and repelled by Grief Cottage, a picturesque but ramshackle dwelling near the shore. Here, Marcus feels the presence of a ghost, the boy who went missing in the hurricane:

I don’t know how long I sat with my back to the door before I felt a change in the air that caused me to tense up. The tension was close to fear, but not the usual kind of fear. This was a brand-new sensation. The longer I sat there straining to stay alert, the stronger the sensation became, until it felt like something was coming closer. Then something made me stand up, as though I was being challenged to show more of myself.

As Marcus punctures the membrane between the living and the dead, this becomes a story of how we deal with death, dying and grief. This is a languorous melancholy tale, beautifully told with an emphasis on the damage we endure and the fragility of life (underscored by the survival struggles of the loggerhead turtles). Over the course of one summer, Marcus explores the island, connecting with various locals, occasionally constructing relationships in his hunger for a father. Marcus is an interesting child: solitary and thoughtful–although occasionally this thoughtfulness strains credulity even given that this is a tale told in retrospect.

Review copy

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The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Inheritance from Mother: Minae Mizumura

“You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties.”

The Japanese novel Inheritance from Mother from Minae Mizumura examines shifting Japanese culture and society through a double lens: middle-aged Mitsuki Katsura’s troubled relationship with her aging, infirm mother Noriko and Mitsuki’s increasingly difficult marriage to her remote, academic husband, Tetsuo.

Inheritance from mother

Inheritance from Mother opens with the death of Noriko, but don’t expect grief from either of her daughters. They are relieved that their mother, following a long illness, is finally dead, and in Mitsuki’s case, her mother’s death means she’s finally ‘free’ from a heavy burden. In the year before her death, Noriko had the second of two bad falls, the latest fall left her in a wheelchair, and from there it was a “private, exclusive nursing home” called (somewhat cruelly) Golden Years. She lived there briefly before contracting pneumonia which eventually led to her death. And here is how the novel opens shortly after the death of Noriko with both sisters feeling “liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical-keen and palpable.”

“So how much do we get back from Golden?”

Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. “Around seventeen million yen.”

17 M yen converts to around $154,000 or close to 121,000 pounds. So divide that between the two middle-aged sisters, and it’s a not-too-shabby sum. But given the title of the book, Inheritance from Mother, we’re not just looking at the money these women inherit from their mother; we’re looking at a lot of other less tangible things including grief (a lack of), and a burden of emotional baggage.

Inheritance from Mother was serialised in a Japanese newspaper from 2010-2011, so keep this in mind when you pick up the book. This is not a tight, terse plot, but a leisurely exploration of Japanese society, class, mothers and daughters, aging, and death and dying in an age when the medical community can prolong life. This is a society where daughters take care of mothers or in the case of sons, caregiving of the elderly “fell to the wife of the firstborn son.” 

The first section of the book goes back in time and includes the family’s history, so we see a post WWII Japan with its strict class system and its worship of Western culture. We see the less favoured daughter, Mitsuki, whose grandmother was a geisha, living in Paris, where she met her husband.  In middle age, Mitsuki is an underemployed part-time lecturer who’s passed up translating opportunities in order to support Tetsuo’s standard of living. Bouncing between Noriko’s neurotic demands, Mitsuki doesn’t have time to confront Tetsuo’s infidelities or their failing marriage, and while he’s on a sabbatical in Vietnam, Mituski remains in Japan to care for her mother.

Wisely, the author does not dwell on Noriko’s slow decline but instead uses the illness and death to springboard into how these characters find themselves at these points in their lives.  On one level, this is a story about three generations of women with two generations making marital decisions that impacted their children. Mitsuki’s grandmother, the former geisha  “in her long life experienced everything from virtual slavery to luxury and pomp to gritty poverty and more,” so perhaps that explains why Mitsuki’s mother, Noriko, had such a love of luxury and expensive tastes. Mitsuki, Noriko and Noriko’s mother always carry the shining, yet elusive example of the wealthier branch of the family as an intellectual ideal. We see glimpses of Mitsuki’s father who was “warehoused” when he became ill, and his wife refused to care for him–a decision that still haunts Mitsuki and fuels her determination that her mother will receive adequate care.

Readers who come to this novel will have their own opinions about Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother. Noriko, who was already using a cane, fell for the second time when she picked up sheets from the dry cleaner, and for this reader, Mitsuki seemed unnecessarily harsh. (As an aside: the mother in the Isabelle Huppert film, Things to Come was equally impossible, but was managed much better). There’s not an ounce of sentimentality here, so with a total lack of grief or anguish, there are times when Mitsuki wishes her mother would just die, and not for humanitarian reasons. While reading Part I, I realised that Mitsuki has made her mother a receptacle for her own unhappiness, and it’s inevitable that once her mother dies, Mitsuki will no longer be able to avoid some unpleasant truths.

Once she had her mother squared away, she would sit down and think about what to do with her marriage.

In Part II, following the death of Noriko, Mitsuki, now with time on her hands, must confront some ugly truths about her own life. The situation with her needy mother has caused Mitsuki to delay making decisions, but now she no longer has any excuse to ignore her husband’s infidelities and his ongoing, serious affair. Mitsuki travels to a hotel to rest and recuperate and meets a man who mourns the loss of his wife deeply. This grief is something that eludes Mitsuki, and we are left with the question of whether or not grief, which is another form of inheritance, is something we should regret not having.

One minor quibble: there’s a subplot which involves guests at the hotel that pushed credibility and seemed unnecessary–even if it served to underscore mortality. The novel’s form allows the author to take some leisurely, circuitous paths during the story, so the plot echoes back to the 19th century Victorian form more than anything else. For the reader who is willing to take the time, Inheritance from Mother is a rich, rewarding read, a look at an ever-changing Japan, but also a look at the eternally difficult relationships between mothers-and-daughters.

Review copy

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

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The Woman Who Walked Into Doors: Roddy Doyle

The protagonist of Roddy Doyle’s 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is 39-year-old Dublin mother of four, Paula Spencer. When the novel opens, a Guard arrives at Paula’s door. This is not an unusual event as the police frequently come knocking at the door looking for Charlo, a man with a criminal past, but this time is different…

From that moment, Paula recalls her story of life with Charlo, how they met, their torrid courtship, her father’s strong disapproval, and the highlight of Paula and Charlo’s life together: the wedding. From here, things go downhill, and reader, I’m going to insert a spoiler here, the novel includes some flashback details of domestic abuse.

The woman who walked into doors

The novel goes back and forth from the present to the past as Paula recalls her marriage. In the present, Paula, an alcoholic (and we gradually learn how that happened) is a cleaner. She cleans a bank in the early evenings, and during the day, she cleans the houses of women her age who are considerably better off.

I like seeing into other people’s houses. Funny, I hardly ever feel jealous. And I should, because some of the houses are incredible. Huge. Some of the stuff in them, I wouldn’t want most of it myself but it must have cost a fortune. Dark furniture, flat-screened tellies, CD players with tiny little speakers. I love music. There’s one house I do on Mondays, in Clontarf; they’ve a great collection of CDS, all the seventies stuff. I got her to show me how to use the CD player. There was no problem. I like her, the owner. Miriam. We’re the same age. We both went to the same dances when we were kids. I don’t remember her. She married a doctor. I married Charlo. 

Paula’s story is intimate: she talks to us of her adolescence, burgeoning sexuality (you were either a “slut or a tight bitch,”)  her harmless married fantasy life (at one point, she had a crush on a bus conductor), her relationships with her family,  Charlo’s intimidating family, and her children. All through these memories, Charlo appears, almost as though he enters and exits the door, looking for his meals, his clean, ironed clothes and someone to absorb his violence. Author Roddy Doyle convincingly shows Paula’s reluctance to admit how bad her marriage became, how she lost an entire decade somehow.

Paula tells her story with vibrancy, tenacity, and intense humanity. There’s also the sense that it’s an underground voice, swelling from behind closed doors, and emergency room visits that hide the true nature of her injuries. She meets other women shepherded in to the ER by their supposedly caring, concerned husbands. Yes the number of ‘clumsy’ women at the emergency room are legion. No one asks awkward questions, no one looks directly into the eyes of the victims, but everyone goes along with the stories that these women have fallen down the stairs or, as the title states, ‘walked into doors.’

A word on style. I read some reviews complaining about the author’s style. This was very readable, but without quotation marks if that bothers anyone. The sentences are sometimes very short as they mirror speech, and Paula is speaking to us here, so sometimes she corrects or expands her thoughts with one word. The domestic abuse is recalled with a surreal quality that echoes the rapidity and illogical circumstances of Charlo’s violent rages. So in other words, it’s not blow-by-blow but rather the violence is impressionistic.

Finally, a quote about the wedding day which was one of my favourite scenes in the novel.

The Spencers were in charge now. My crowd were huddled in a corner, sipping their drinks and waiting for going-home time. The Spencers had taken over. They even took the instruments off the band, got in behind the drums and started messing with the knobs on the amplifiers. The brothers. Liam, Thomas, Gregory, Harry, Benny and Charlo.

The wedding was over. I was married now, one of them. They were finished with my family. Not just the brothers. His mother and father, all his aunts and uncles and cousins. They took over the whole place. they kept on singing.

-I’m in lurve-huh-

I’m all shook up-

My crowd started leaving. They crept along the walls. there were cousins whispering behind me; a fight going on in the men’s toilets. Harry started bashing the guitar on the floor. The Virginians stood beside their gear and pretending it was a real gas. 

Of course, we all cheer for Paula, a likeable woman who feels very real and who’s survived adversity with the scars to prove it.

 

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Family Matters: Anthony Rolls (1933)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read quite a few titles from British Library Crime Classics, published by Poisoned Pen Press. The delightful Family Matters from author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) is one of the strongest titles in the series. Yes there’s a murder, but the structure and content of this highly entertaining tale is quite different from the usual. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives an overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, and mentions that he wrote his crime novels during two very specific times of his life. Sadly all of his other work (apart from Scarweather) is oop and used copies are either impossible to find or pricey.

Family Matters is a domestic crime novel and concerns the troubled household of the Kewdinghams who live at Number 6 Wellington Avenue in the town of Shufflecester. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, a man from a solid middle class background, married Bertha, the daughter of a Canadian Wesleyan minster and a French governess. The Kewdinghams, with a couple of exceptions, are not happy about the match (especially the French part), and don’t consider Bertha good enough. Robert and Bertha have one child, and also living at Number 6 is Robert’s crotchety elderly father who looks at his daughter-in-law with dislike and writes her nasty notes with very pointed quotations.

family matters

Following the economic collapse, Robert, an engineer, lost his job. The Kewdinghams have modest independent means, but there’s never enough money. Robert, now unemployed, has turned to his many hobbies: The Great Kewdingham Collection, cabinets and “precarious piles of cardboard boxes” litter the house.

Inside these receptacles there was an astounding medley of junk: bits of coral, broken pots, beetles and butterflies impaled on pieces of cork or stuck on cards, odd fossils, bones, brasses, dried flowers, birds’ eggs, little figures in soapstone and ivory, ushabtis from the tombs of Egypt, fragments of uncertain things, weird scraps of metal, badges, buttons, mouldy coins and innumerable varieties of suchlike trash.

These days we’d call Robert a hoarder, but poor Bertha must tolerate other ‘eccentricities;’ her husband’s political activities (he thinks Shufflecester is “full of Bolsheviks“), he’s a hypochondriac who medicates himself with bizarre potions, and he has a “vast library of occult books and magazines, which he was constantly reading.” Add this to his belief that he lived an earlier life as “the High Priest of Atlantis, Keeper of Wisdom.”

He was now in middle age, without a profession, impecunious, full of absurd notions, a wretched hypochondriac, irritable, silly and resourceless. 

Life at Number 6 is fraught with “incessant bickering,” and several outsiders, including the dapper little Doctor Bagge, and relative John Harrigall, feel bitterly sorry for the attractive Bertha who is trapped in an insufferable marriage to a selfish, egomaniac who has long passed the label of eccentric to mental case.

Friends of Robert, Mr and Mrs Chaddlewick also visit, and Mrs Chaddlewick with her cooing flattery and seemingly “amiable vacancy,” both encourages Robert’s foolishness and fosters domestic strife. It’s testament to Bertha’s tenacity and arguably her inflexibility  that she refuses to ‘manage’ Robert in the same way.  With criticism from Robert’s relatives and vicious notes from her father-in-law, it’s not surprising that Bertha should seek solace from the handsome John Harrigall. As Robert’s tirades escalate and become more violent, Bertha begins to consider murdering her husband.

Family Matters is an unusual crime novel for its structure and its conclusion, but it’s also separated from the herd by its attitude towards women. The court at Shufflecester, for example, is “bleak and hideous,” and we are told that “it is only possible to find this degree of squalor, of neglect and of ugliness, in courts of law–places where the sane influence of women has not yet penetrated.” There’s also mention of sex with a hint dropped of “three hours in a disused gravel-pit.” Anthony Rolls seems to understand the lonely, treacherous path to murder trod by the otherwise respectable member of society:

The inception of the idea of murder is not immediately recognised. Such an idea enters the mind in disguise-a new arrival in a sinister mask, not willingly entertained and yet by no means to be expelled. Or, in more scientific terms, it is introduced by a sort of auto-hypnosis, the mere repetition of the thoughts or words not immediately connected with personal action. Between the highly civilised individual and the act of murder there are so many barriers, so nay conventions and teachings-or so many illusions. 

In the introduction, Martin Edwards argues that Rolls had good ideas but sometimes couldn’t sustain plots. That weakness is not evident here. With its caustic look at society, marriage and norms Family Matters is an impudent, lively novel,  a delight to read.

Someone .. please bring The Vicar’s Experiments back into print.

review copy.

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Scarweather: Anthony Rolls (1934)

Scarweather is the first of two titles from Welsh author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) in the British Library Crime Classics series, published in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The story concerns a mysterious disappearance and is unusual for its structure. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, a prolific author whose career in crime fiction can be divided into two distinct parts.

Our narrator is a barrister, John Farringdale, and he tells a retrospective tale that began in 1913 and then unfolds over the next 15 years. We know immediately that this is a tale of criminal activity, remarkable for its “singularity of horror and [in] perversity of ingenious  method.” We also know that Farringdale’s great friend, Ellingham, takes the role of amateur sleuth, and it is Ellingham who “unravelled the mystery,” while Farringdale assumed the “traditional and honorable part of a Watson.”

Farringdale tells of his cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, a young man roughly the same age and of similar family circumstances. The difference between the two men can be found in Eric’s romantic nature and his readiness to fall in love. Eric’s hobby is archaeology and it’s through this that he meets Professor Tolgen Reisby, a notable expert in the field. Reisby’s attractive wife is 30 years younger.

scarweather

Foster spends a summer with the Reisbys at Scarweather, their remote coastal home and returns singing the praises of Mrs Reisby. Foster introduces Farringdale and Ellingham to Reisby, and soon all three men travel to Scarweather to enjoy the hospitality of the Reisbys.

Even before Farringdale meets Reisby,  Ellingham seems to have information, or an impression of Reisby. It’s easy to smell a mystery forming.

“And what have you heard?” I asked him.

Ellingham chose to ignore my question. He drew a golden toothpick from a case in his pocket and lightly tapped it along his lower teeth; it was an offensive habit which always annoyed me. though I knew it was the prelude to cogitation.

“I may have met him, or I may have seen him,” he said. “I’m not quite sure.”

Foster admires Professor Reisby, but the reality is far different. He’s a rather unpleasant fellow. Farringdale says Reisby’s face is “like that of a benevolent Jupiter,” and yet he also senses that Reisby is “a man whose retaliation would be cruel and unscrupulous.”

Arriving at Scarweather, Farringdale soon feels “the shadow of a quite intangible menace, the dim foreboding of something not yet recognised on the conscious plane,” but after a fortnight at Scarweather, the holiday ends. Later, in 1914, Foster visits Scarweather again and goes missing while swimming. Ellingham is immediately suspicious, and the discovery of a bizarre letter in Foster’s coat serves to fuel the theory of foul play. The police, however, are satisfied and refuse to conduct “further investigation.”

WWI intervenes. Farringdale and Ellingham survive. Other people around Scarweather disappear….

Scarweather is unusual for its structure, but it is overly long. Ellingham’s manner of holding information close is frustrating and something I find annoying when it comes to crime books. The author’s interest and expertise in archaeology comes into play here, and while it adds authenticity to the book, it also bogs the plot down with detail. I liked the structure of a mystery taking place years earlier. Foster disappears but global events intervene, so we see the lives of Farringdale and Ellingham continue while Foster’s life freezes in time. The friends of Foster never forget him–murder never goes away, and the author shows that well even if the route to that conclusion is overly long.

Kate from Crossexaminingcrime also reviewed the novel. 

Review copy

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The Long Drop: Denise Mina

“He doesn’t say anything compassionate about Isabelle or Anne, two dead seventeen-year-old girls. To him they are no more than skin-covered stage flats in a play about him.”

I knew very little about the murders committed by Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel, who was hanged for some of his crimes in 1958, and while I tend to avoid fiction written about real people, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop sounded intriguing.

The Long Drop is both a reconstruction and a re-imaging of the case. The book opens in December 1957 with a businessman named William Watt who attends a meeting with career criminal Peter Manuel. The meeting has been brokered by celebrity lawyer Laurence Dowdall who, on the way to the meeting, gives Watt, his client, various pieces of advice about how to handle Manuel. This advice is needed as Peter Manuel is a slippery customer, manipulative, cunning and extremely dangerous.

The Long Drop

Dowdall, trying to hang onto professional integrity leaves Watt and Manuel alone. But why are Manuel and Watt meeting? For those (like me) who know very little about Manuel’s bloody, violent career, he was accused of, convicted and hanged for (as the book’s title suggests) murder. Watt’s wife, sister-in-law and daughter were three of the victims. They were shot in the Watt home, and initially Watt was the main suspect. The meeting between Manuel and Watt, brokered by Watt’s lawyer, is ostensibly for Watt to ascertain specific, secret information Manuel has regarding the murders.

The meeting morphs into a nightlong pub crawl with Manuel and Watt hitting many dingy, dank pubs of Glasgow. At this point, I put the book down. Could this have really happened? If you suspected that a man murdered your wife, daughter and sister-in-law, could you spend a whole night with him, buying him drinks? Truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of the Speed Freak Killers, for example, a large sum of money was promised to the killers in exchange of information about buried bodies. It’s possible that if you were desperate for information, you could put your personal feelings aside and make a pact with the devil. Possible if you had great personal restraint.

And William Watt was a desperate man. Although he was on holiday the night his family members were murdered, he’d taken the family’s dog, his wife’s dog with him–something he’d never done before, and eyewitnesses (who were later discredited) placed him on the road traveling back to Glasgow in the wee hours. Plus Watt had a mistress and his wife was an invalid. There was a lot at stake for Watt who was initially arrested but later released without charge.

Back to the book….

The Long Drop goes back and forth from the night (11 hours) in 1957 when Watt and Manuel went on an epic pub crawl to the trial of Peter Manuel in 1958. The night Watt and Manuel spend together reveals the dark side of a long vanished Glasgow. The smoke filled pubs habituated by the underworld in a city that will be renovated:

The coal smog is heavy and damp here, it swirls at ankle height. This dank world is peopled with tramps and whores from Glasgow Green and clapped out street fighters. A burning brazier lights men with fight-flattened noses slumped against a crumbling black wall.

Although this is a long dead case, with a terminal solution, Denise Mina brings the story to life while raising some intriguing questions both about the night Watt and Manuel spent together and about subjects raised during the trial. While Watt, who decides to “turn detective,” is seen as out-of-his-depth, a bit of a bumbler, Peter Manuel “is in a very different film. His would be European, black and white, directed by Clouzot or Melville, printed on poor stock and shown in art-house cinemas to an adults-only audience. There wouldn’t be violence or gore in the movie, this is not an era of squibs or guts-on-screen, but the implication of threat is always there.” 

Manuel is a sly, cunning psychopath and we see the various sides of the man. There’s the Manuel he’d like to be: a writer, a man about town, the man who’s courteous with women, but then there’s the sexually frustrated, violent son who intimidates his mother, and then there’s the charmer who tries to project his charisma and intelligence to the unbelieving jury. Manuel is a fantasist, a psychopath whose narcissism leads him to fire his defense counsel and conduct his own defense. We see Manuel’s staggering misreadings in the courtroom–evidence of his stunted emotional projection.

Peter Manuel does not know how other people feel. He has never known that. He can guess. He can read a face and see signs that tell him if someone is frightened or laughing. But there is no reciprocation. He feels no small echo of what his listener is feeling.

There’s a reimagining here–a fiction element of the novel which I cannot address fully without spoilers.  I understand why the author became so obsessed with this case, and why The Long Drop was created. For this reader, Denise Mina offered a possible explanation in a fill-in-the-blank way. As a work of fiction, it’s an excellent read, but while the author’s version is plausible, there’s an ethical position to this imagining. Those involved cannot challenge the book.

I follow the reviews written by fellow crime addict reader Cleo, and she also reviewed Denise Mina’s book, The Long Drop favourably.

Review copy

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