Willful Disregard: Lena Andersson

“It’s all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel.”

In Swedish author Lena Andersson’s novel, Willful Disregard, thirty-one-year-old Ester Nilsson, freelance writer, a “poet and an essayist” is asked to give a paid lecture on artist, Hugo Rask, a man “rated highly for his moral fervor in a superficial age.” Through her research, she begins to feel a strong interest in Rask, “her sense of affinity with its subject grew,” and when she meets him that interest blossoms into a strong attraction. From the very beginning, Ester confuses Rask’s “frequently quoted assertions,” as an artist “obsessed with morality in his work,” and his apparent sensitivity with the flesh and blood man.

Ester, who has led a fairly quiet and sheltered life, is in a “quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs,” and unfortunately, she’s never met a man like Rask before. After the lecture, Rask approaches Ester, grabs her hands, kisses her cheeks and tells her:

No outsider has ever understood me so profoundly and precisely.

A more experienced woman would probably regard Rask’s comment with suspicion, but from that moment on, Ester is a goner…

Willful disregard

Unfortunately for Ester, she can’t stop thinking (or talking) about Rask.  She thinks she can “develop a friendship with Hugo, an elective affinity.” She tells a friend about Rask and says, “we’ve made contact at a deep level and we’re going to be friends.” Consequently, Ester’s friends and acquaintances realize she’s falling in love before she does:

Before you understand where the emotion is going to lead, you talk to anyone and everyone about the object of your love. All of a sudden, this stops. By then the ice is already thin and slippery. You realize that every word could expose your infatuation. Feigning indifference is as hard as acting normally, and fundamentally the same thing.

Ester takes a casual invitation from Rask seriously and begins hanging around his studio which also serves as his home. Although the warning signs are flashing that she’s one of several women in Rask’s life, she thinks they have something ‘special.’  A few texts from Rask later, and she’s losing weight and ignoring her partner of 13 years.

As the plot spins out, there’s Ester, a woman who’s a stranger to casual sex, convinced that she has this special connection with Rask–after all Rask, himself, even said that. Rask, who maintains a coterie of worshippers, is a slippery character, and even though the story is told in the third person, with its necessarily limited point of view, it becomes screamingly obvious that Ester is the only one interested in a relationship.

This is the story of an obsessive relationship. Ester doesn’t even get the courtesy of a brush off–her life is full of unanswered texts and unreturned phone calls, but there’s some quirk to Ester’s personality that will not allow her to walk away with dignity. Most women would, I think, get the message. Instead Ester, infected with “the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cells,” conjures up the notion that “there was something holding him back. Perhaps there were unknown obstacles.” She frequently consults “the girlfriend chorus,” an invisible collective group who urge Ester to move on, but she can’t and consequently she humiliates herself repeatedly.

If we wanted to be cruel, we would call Ester a stalker, or at least let’s say that’s what Rask would call her, but he is a game player and in one marvelous scene in the novel, we see how when Ester appears uninterested, his vanity demands that he reel her back in.

Willful Disregard is the sort of book which will spark various arguments and debates about relationships and for this reason it’s a perfect book for book groups. I always feel a bit divided about making a comment that a particular title would be a good choice for a book club as I tend to shy away from book club choices, but in this case, Willful Disregard is practically guaranteed to encourage opinions–I even argued against myself at a few points in this excellent, thought-provoking novel. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Ester at first, and I found her obsessive nature rather unsettling, but as the novel played out, it became easier to see how Rask brought out Ester’s vulnerabilities.

It’s possible to read this as a book about obsessive love, but on another level the novel has a definite philosophical tint to it, and asks questions such as: is there such a thing as responsibility in relationships? How much of an explanation is owed to a sex partner? In a perfect world, a couple would sit down and discuss just what sex means before it happens, and in this case, Ester, who looks as sex as a serious commitment, could have really used such an occasion. Think of a pre-nup, well this would be a pre-sex. I’m thinking of a neighbor who, after his wife dumped him, would bring home a string of young women for the night. In the morning, he’d lower the boom, and when the women, invariably asked when they’d see him again, he’d explain he didn’t want a relationship right now. My personal favourite was that he was ‘too fragile’ for a relationship. So I’d see these young women drive off Were they disappointed? Did they care? Would they wise up?

There are occasions when Rask and Ester debate about various philosophical subjects and it becomes quite obvious that they are talking about their own relationship. There are a couple of points when the novel pushes the philosophical too hard–for example, Ester writes an essay and the extensive details of this rejected essay bog down the reading. That very minor complaint aside, I really loved this novel and hope that more of the author’s work makes it to translation. I’ve seen Rasks in action, and author Lena Andersson nailed it.

The one who wants least has the most power.

Review copy

Translated by Sarah Death

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Calamity in Kent: John Rowland (1950)

“First of all I did what I always do when I come into a strange room-I looked at the bookshelf.”

Journalist Jimmy London is recuperating from an unnamed illness on the Kent coast at the small seaside town, Broadgate. Jimmy, out walking before the rest of the guests at the boarding house are awake, finds the operator of the cliff lift stumbling, in the state of imminent collapse after finding a dead body inside the locked cliff lift. While the operator, a rather peculiar, dense character named Aloysius Bender, goes off to get the police, Jimmy guards the body.

Jimmy, who was forced to resign from his last job for health reasons, seizes the opportunity to sell a story as a freelancer. Alone with the body, he rifles the clothes of the dead man and grabs a notebook. This behaviour is the first sign that we are dealing with a delightfully unscrupulous character who justifies himself throughout the story as he skirts between his self-interest and remaining in the good graces of Inspector Shelley from Scotland Yard.

calamity in kent

John Rowland’s 1950 novel Calamity in Kent is an interesting entry in the British Library Crime Classics. Inspector Shelley and  Jimmy are old friends, and these two characters work their own parallel , co-operative investigations with Shelley acknowledging that people will talk to a newspaperman whereas a uniform will often result in a witness clamming up. And this indeed proves to be the case. Jimmy digs into the past of the dead man and befriends a couple of young people who are mixed up in the case by association.

With many of the books in this series, following the investigation with a main character brings the reader in as a sideline detective. Take Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel, for example–whenever Inspector Arnold and his friend, amateur sleuth Merrion meet, they exchange theories and alternate scenarios, and the reader inevitably enters into the detective dynamic and the puzzle of the crime. In Rowland’s novel, the same dynamic doesn’t exist. Inspector Shelley allows Jimmy to collaborate but the reporter is definitely not an equal–Shelley doesn’t divulge exactly how and where he gets his information.

In Calamity in Kent, the emphasis is on the murder victim’s business dealings in Broadgate, and while the number of murder suspects are limited, these aspects, along with the fact that the body is found inside a locked lift, are both subsumed and sidelined by the victim’s possible black market connections. So the emphasis is not so much who-dunnit as why, with Inspector Shelley obviously rationalising that if he can solve the puzzle of the victim’s criminal life, all other parts of the puzzle will fall into place. If you are the sort of reader who wants to solve the puzzle–in this case, how was the victim inside a locked cliff lift, then you may feel a little disappointed that you can’t run with this aspect of the tale. If, however, you are content to be inside Jimmy’s head, then you will sit back, relax and enjoy his story.

Jimmy balances his desire to deliver a salacious story to the paper that’s hired him against his promise to Shelley that he’ll keep some aspects of the case confidential. When presented with moral dilemmas regarding his responsibility towards the case, Jimmy’s self-interest rules, but there’s always a little moral quibbling:

I know that this was something in every way reprehensible. I ought not to have tried to keep anything to myself. But I salved my conscience by telling myself that Shelley had not told me by any means all that he knew.

It’s clear that Jimmy is first and foremost a newspaper man. He has a nose for character and behaviour and acts rather -un-detective-like upon occasion. For example, he decides that a couple of suspects are innocent and treats them accordingly. His view of the crime is always light-hearted, and he’s content to be Shelley’s bloodhound as he knows this will, ultimately, profit his career.

“I suppose that even the discovery of corpses is something which may become more or less normal if it happens often enough.”

Review copy

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War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

“White blouse and a pink skirt, I’m wearing with a roll-on underneath and my best undies just in case I do turn out to be loose”

I came across Liz Jensen’s book: War Crimes for the Home by pure chance, and attracted to the cover, perversely reminiscent of J. Howard Miller’s WWII war poster,  I bought a copy.

we can do it

And here’s the cover of Jensen’s book:

war crimes

While the ‘We Can Do It’ poster implies female strength and determination geared towards the war effort, War Crimes for the Home shows a WWII era female factory worker applying makeup. It’s a subversive image, and it’s a portent of what’s inside the covers.

The story is narrated by the elderly, demented wheelchair bound Gloria, who finds herself, following an unspecified operation on her duodenum, parked at an “old folk’s home” called Sea View. You can’t really blame Gloria’s family for leaving her there. Her only son, Hank, works on oil rigs and is gone half the time, and there’s a long standing feud between Gloria and her daughter-in-law, Karen. According to foul-mouthed Gloria, who refuses to call Karen by her name, her daughter in law is a “crap mum,” and has a lover, who “comes and gives it to her every Thursday.”  To make her point, Gloria periodically demands a DNA test to prove the paternity of her grandson, Calum.

Gloria claims her memory is ‘like a sieve,’ and she uses her old age and her various infirmities as a refuge from accountability and her son’s probes into her past. Gloria is a tough old bird, but she’s definitely fading, and after the death of fellow resident, “half-dead old drooler,” Doris, Gloria lingers in a place between the dead and the living, memories of a murky past and a present in which she protects herself by vulgarity, dementia (which Gloria uses as a weapon) and uncouth jokes.

Gloria’s mind jumps from the past to the present, and WWII finds Gloria and her older sister Marje working in a Bristol munitions factory. They were originally a cockney family who moved to Bristol, but “things got buggered,” and now the two sisters live alone and are running wild following the death of their mother from cancer and with their father missing in Singapore. Marje has a fiancé, British airman Bobby, and then Gloria meets Ron, an American GI from Chicago.

Several big questions loom over Gloria’s spotty version of the past. What is the significance of The Great Zedorro and the Slut Fairy? Why is she haunted by images of a little girl, “dripping water and pond-weed” ? Did Gloria ever go to America? Here’s a conversation Gloria has with Doris:

-Hank?

-My son. American connections. Chicago. The windy city. I always said to Hank, if you shut your eyes, you’ll remember it. Skyscrapers and blueberry muffins and all that. I call him Hank from those days, it’s what his dad would have called him, it’s what Americans call their children.

-How long were you there? she goes.

-What, Bristol?

-America.

-Never been there.

-What?

-Seen it on TV, Chicago and that. I had a GI boyfriend once. He fought in Tunisia and then he bombed Germany. Had a big scar on his thigh from shrapnel.

Doris looks at me.

-One Yank, she says. -Remember that? One Yank and they’re off.

Gloria is a fascinating character–fascinating because she uses her old age and dementia as both a shield and a weapon. She can be as rude and as crude as she wants, and then when her son Hank tries to pin her on her past, Gloria submerges herself in her various diagnoses. Here’s Gloria’s daughter-in-law Karen visiting with a present:

-Are you going to have a look then, Gloria?

The bag’s made of fake silk which is red and Chinesey. There’s stones in it.

-Semi-precious, she says.-Healing stones, they’re the latest thing. I’ve ordered some for the shop. You hold them in your palm and they calm your mind. Re-energise you. I’m so glad you settled in. It’s a lovely home, isn’t it? Nice carers, lovely view–

-Do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energizing? It comes out loud, louder than I thought I could shout, because the blood’s rushing about now. No stopping it. -Handful of bloody pebbles is all they are, look! Load of old rubbish!

I’ve chucked the lot at the window, and it splits across with a big crack. Then all the air from the outside is whoosing in, it smells of frankfurters from the harbor, there’s a van does them.

-Healing my arse. Healing, my flaming arse.

Next thing the little pregnant nurse is on the scene saying

-Calm down, please Gloria, all she do, she come give you nice present, you go break window! I tell Mrs M!

Calum starts screaming the place down like a spoilt brat. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a baby.

On some level, Gloria as sharp as ever; she knows how to wound people and always scores a direct hit, but then occasionally she bumps into a disturbing memory and verves off. Gloria’s family members want her to give them the truth about the past before she dies, but she fights her memories of life during WWII,  a time when the men are out there fighting the war, but at the home, the enemy takes a very different shape, and the women are left to fight their own battles for survival.

While War Crimes for the Home is a story about memory, on another level entirely, this is a story about aging. We are expected to engage in age-appropriate behaviour and Gloria who is, above all, a non-comformist is fighting against being scripted as the ‘little old lady.’ No wonder she strikes up a relationship with fellow resident “dirty old monkey,” Ed who gropes the nurses and plays with himself in public.

-That old boy she’s seeing to, I tell him, name of Ed Mayberley, he’s pushing ninety, he was a POW in Japan like Dad. He can’t keep his hands to himself, he can’t. Yesterday I saw him grabbing one of the foreign girls. She nearly screams the place down and slaps him. It’s abuse that. Someone should report her.

We all inhabit roles in this life, but as we age the roles narrow, and yet people’s characters don’t fundamentally change.  How often do we see our parents as individuals who have loved and lusted? Parents are advised to let their children be individuals and find their own paths in life, but does this advice trickle up the generations? Gloria refuses to be pigeonholed by her relatives and that’s part of the problem here. The elderly residents of Sea View who are frequently treated like children are fighting back against these rigidly prescribed roles with bad behaviour that’s cloaked by “Mad Cow,” dementia and age.

War Crimes for the Home will make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, touching, and original. This book comes recommended for fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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Moral Hazard: Kate Jennings

Australian author Kate Jennings sets her short novel, Moral Hazard, in New York. My Text Classics edition states that Jennings moved to New York in 1979, married an artist and designer in 1987, but when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, Jennings gave up her freelance work and began working as a corporate speechwriter. I didn’t read these details until after finishing the book, but this certainly explains why the novel feels like a memoir of a short period of the main character’s life.

This is 93-94, New York’s Wall Street before 9-11, before the dot-com bust, before the Madoff investment scandal, before the real estate madness that gripped America for the first part of the oughts. I’d like to think that we’ve all learned something about money and finances, but I know that we haven’t. As long as there is money, people will take risks, riding that theoretical elevator to wealth and success.

moral hazard

In Moral Hazard, Cath, our narrator, gives up her freelance writing job and takes a job as a speechwriter for the investment bank, Neidecker Benecke, “whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas.”  It’s an unlikely job for someone who “disapproved of bankers on principle,” and who’d much rather be reading Sylvia Townsend Warner or Muriel Spark. But Cath needs money, so like many other people, she packs away her principles from 9-5 in exchange for a paycheck. Her husband, designer and collagist, Bailey, twenty-five years her senior, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and so this leaves Cath as the sole breadwinner, paying rent on an Upper East Side apartment, working and returning home to her rapidly disintegrating husband.

The plot follows two different paths–Cath’s care for her husband as his disease progresses and her job at Neidecker Benecke (“in the modern day equivalent of the court of Louis XVI,”) where she befriends Mike, the head of the risk-management unit, a man who’s fond of Frank O’Hara. This is a casual friendship with moments shared over cigarettes, and Cath asking questions, at first so that she better understand her job, and then, later, so that she can better understand Mike. Mike is a very intelligent man who understands the central paradox to the financial markets, and it’s driving him crazy.

Mike, though, was like a married man who falls in love with another woman and plots to kill his wife to gain freedom, when the obvious solution is to drive off down the road to another life.

There are two distinct worlds here: Cath’s dreary, surreal life in the corporate world, and her life with her husband. You come away from this book wondering how Cath kept her sanity. There’s a very definite corporate speak at Neidecker Benecke with exchanges that could very well be delivered by a dead pan Bill Murray as evidenced in a scene between Cath and her boss, Hanny:

“You can write, but you can’t handle complex arguments.”

Generous of him.

“Absolutely. You’re so right. Thank you for sharing that with me. My reasoning powers definitely need developing. I’ll work on it. I’ll work on it very hard,” I replied. Mike had taught me this trick. When someone says something preposterous, agree with them, even heighten the idiocy.

Cath initially tries to keep her husband at home, but as his disease progresses to diapers, temper tantrums and violence, she’s forced to place him in a home, and it’s here that her private misery becomes a matter for the American health system. Both Cath’s job at Neidecker Benecke and her husband’s continuing decline are madness in different forms. The madness of derivatives and the madness of Alzheimer’s–the corporate disease and the human decay.

“Once upon a time, it was commodities, then futures, now derivatives,” he’d opined, delicately shooting his cuffs. “It’s all structured finance. It’s all aimed at neutralizing risk by parceling it up, selling it to someone else.”

While this may sound all very depressing, author Kate Jennings manages to step outside her subject, looking with a wry, unsentimental eye at corporate eye and even Cath’s husband’s last months of life. Faced with corporate malfeasance and assisted suicide, Cath, who’s long since fallen down the rabbit hole, faces ‘moral hazard’ on both professional and personal fronts. Moral Hazard, by the way, has a very specific meaning in the world of finance (a rather ironic one, I’ll add) but the term has multiple instances of significance in the novel.

That first summer, after work, I took to wandering the aisles of Century 21, not shopping, only relieved to be where nothing was demanded of me. I was commuting, it seemed, between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder’s value.

This is a lean, finely sculptured novel, crafted with twin strains of the surreal feeling of corporate life and the overwhelming melancholy of watching Bailey’s inevitable decline. Various corporate employees spring to life with venomous alacrity: “enthusiastic bigot,” Hanny and Horace, the unpopular yet powerful cipher “wreathed with gossip.” And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the employees at the care home, hard-working caretakers with dreams of becoming middle class.

Review copy.

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Death in the Tunnel: Miles Burton (1936)

“This case of yours seems to get more and more involved, the further you go.”

In Miles Burton’s 1936 novel, Death in the Tunnel, Sir Wilfred Saxonby travels home by the 5 pm. train from London’s Cannon Street to his home in Stourford. He pays the guard a pound to make sure that he is alone in his first class compartment. On the journey home, as the train enters the Blackdown Tunnel, the train driver applies the brakes after seeing a red light swinging above the tracks, but then the train picks up speed when the light changes to green. About that time, the guard stops to speak to Saxonby and finds that his passenger has been shot through the heart.

Death in the tunnel

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard takes over the case from the local constabulary, and initially Saxonby’s death appears to be a clear cut case of suicide as a gun bearing Saxonby’s monogram is found at his feet. But there are a few aspects of the case that trouble Arnold. Where is Saxonby’s train ticket? And what about that mysterious light in the tunnel?  There were twenty-four additional passengers in the first class compartments (with the doors locked between the first and third class sections in case the riff-raff tries to crash in), and what of the mysterious, elderly twenty-fifth passenger? Although all the evidence points towards suicide, Arnold has this nagging feeling about some aspects of the case which don’t quite add up, and as he says, “Details like that have a way of mattering.”

As for Saxonby, although he “was a man of temperate, not to say frugal habits,” he was also intolerant, “respected rather than liked,” and as a magistrate may have made a number of deadly enemies. …

Death in the Tunnel is an intriguing book from the Golden Age of Detective fiction and comes recommended especially for fans of ‘train crime.’ There’s no CSI–just painstaking, logical police work, and in this book, the troubling aspects of the case are easy to grasp. Arnold has to follow the traces of the case that don’t add up, and he consults his friend, the wealthy amateur sleuth Merrion for his opinion. The two men work together and apply their various theories to the possible suicide or hypothetical murder of Saxonby.

Merrion laughed. “What I like about this case is the delicate balance of evidence,” he replied. “To begin with, there is at least as much evidence in support of the theory of suicide as there is against it.”

The relationship between Merrion and Arnold is subtly portrayed. There’s no obsequiousness on the part of Arnold, and no condescending revelations from Merrion. They see each other as peers and so treat each other accordingly with mutual respect–often dining while they discuss the case, presenting various theories and seeing how those theories hold against the clues. Even though they certainly don’t always agree, they make a good team–Merrion, for example, believes that the identification of Saxonby’s wallet is central to the case while Arnold thinks this is a trivial detail.  This case is fascinating for as Arnold pursues one clue after another, and seems to be perhaps closer to solving the mystery of Saxonby’s death, instead of narrowing down suspects and theories, the case widens.  All of this is quite clear logically although I’ll admit that I did get confused when it came to the forger section.

British Library Crime Classics has another title from Miles Burton (real name Cecil John Street, 1884-1965) due out in North America shortly: The Secret of High Eldersham. This is another author whose books are almost entirely out of print, so it’s marvellous to see a publisher bringing Burton back to be read and enjoyed all over again

Review copy

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Too Close to the Edge: Pascal Garnier

Too Close to the Edge  is classic Pascal Garnier; it’s dark, it’s nasty, full of bitter ironies and the plot takes aim at some very specific societal taboos.

too close to the edge

Widow Éliette has finally, after a year of mourning for Charles, her husband of forty years, arrived at a place of some contentment. They’d bought a former silk farm thirty years earlier and spent “every spare moment” fixing it up while planning to retire to this imagined peaceful, bucolic life. “They had already started packing for their move from the Parisian suburbs to this Saint-Vincent house in the Ardèche, where life was supposed to be a never ending holiday” when cancer hit, and Charles died just two months before his retirement. Éliette, against the advice of her children, Sylvie and Marc, went ahead with the retirement plans and now lives alone. They think she’s courting disaster; she can’t drive and the nearest village is 8 kilometres away.

Part of the reason that Éliette decides to move to the country is to establish a life for herself and not just be ‘the mother’ or ‘the grandmother’ to her children and their offspring. In fact relationships with her family have become an obligation, an annoyance more than anything else. She’s dreading an upcoming visit which she knows will be as tedious to her as it is so her children. She even makes excuses to get off the phone:

Of course she loved her children and her children’s children just as she might love the sky, the trees, the mountains, life in general–but after two days in their company she could no longer stand the sight of them.

Éliette relies on her neighbours, the Jauberts who own a farm 2 kilometres away. They see themselves as Éliette’s “protectors,” and in time the relationship has become “burdensome” to Éliette who finds the forced socialization boring.  Shapeless Rose Jaubert wears “disgusting” nylon overalls every day because they’re so easy to hose off, and Paul Jaubert is a veteran of the Algerian war who harbours, as it turns out, violent homophobic behaviour.

It’s due to the dependence on the Jauberts that Éliette finally decides to buy an Aixam (I had to look this up,) which gives her independence and “changed her life.” In a novel full of black ironies, this “microcar” is the factor that opens the floodgates to the hellish events that occur for the rest of the book.

At 64, Éliette is still an attractive woman–slim “as though time had polished her with beeswax,” and she’s feeling a little frisky in the supermarket in Montélimar “convinced that every man in the shop was staring at her.”

In the vegetable aisle, she blushed as it dawned on her she had filled her trolley with courgettes, aubergines, carrots, cucumbers and even an enormous long white turnip weighing nearly 300 grams, which she struggled to make herself see in a culinary light. It was stronger than she was; a kind of inflammation of her mind was slowly turning the supermarket into a sex shop.

After buying some sexy underwear, she’s driving home when the Aixam has a puncture. There she is stuck on a country road in a rainstorm, miles from anywhere when an attractive middle-aged man in a three-piece suit, carrying a briefcase trudges up the road:

It was like a scene out of a Western: beneath a low sky, a stranger walks calmly towards his widescreen destiny.

Is the stranger going to be the man of Éliette’s dreams, or is his arrival the beginning of a nightmare? For those of you familiar with Garnier’s work, that’s a rhetorical question. I particularly liked this Garnier novel because it reminded me of Simenon’s Romans Durs (although much darker and much more perverse) for the way we see a main character who takes very little encouragement to go off the rails. I’m always fascinated by this sort of behaviour as it generates so many questions about human motivations.

Too Close to the Edge will probably make my best-of-year list. This is not a novel that would ever get the Booker, but if you’re at all familiar with Garnier, you know what to expect. I’ve read several Garnier novels so far, and here they are listed in order of preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory.

Garnier is merciless with his characters, and in Too Close to the Edge, the sheltered Éliette, with her gardening plans and her new recipes, is the character who’s about to receive some painful lessons in life. Garnier seems to delight in stripping away bourgeois conventions and morality as he brings on the ‘true’ realities of his dark, amoral world: murder, greed, lust, and violence.  After now reading 7 Garnier novels, it’s a good time to make some generalized comments about his themes.

  1. Don’t retire to the countryside
  2. Don’t pick up strangers
  3. Don’t wish for anything, because you’ll get it and wish you hadn’t.

Review copy.

Translated by Emily Boyce

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The Wicked Stepmother:Michael McDowell & Dennis Schuetz (writing as Axel Young)

“I’m thinking of murdering him in front of a large crowd of strangers. I have to do it myself,” Verity explained, “because hit men don’t take plastic.”

Authors Michael McDowell (1950-1999) known primarily for horror fiction and Dennis Schuetz, published the campy, over-the-top The Wicked Stepmother in 1983, and thanks to Valancourt books, this title is back in print. It’s full of spiteful, grasping people behaving badly, and I don’t know if it was the author’s intention for readers to find this entertaining book funny in a nasty sort of way, but that’s exactly what it is.

The book opens with spoiled trust fund brat Verity Hawke Larner, the eldest of the three Hawke children still asleep in bed at noon when she’s woken by Louise Larner, her mother-in-law calling from Boston. Verity is married, but separated from Louise’s ne’er-do-well son, the good looking, sleazy low-life drug dealer Eric, but to complicate matters, Louise is also a partner of the real estate company owned by Verity’s father, Richard Hawke, which “handled some of the most exclusive properties in Boston.”

wicked stepmother

This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Verity struggles from sleep, she tries to remember the name of the man in bed next to her (“It starts with a B,”) and claims she quit her most recent job due to “burnout,” which is a euphemism for too many nights partying on cocaine. Louise insists that Verity drive from Kansas City where she settled two years earlier (as that’s “where the car broke down,”) and return to Boston for a family party.

Verity doesn’t make the party but shows up a few days later at the family mansion in Boston to discover that her father is dead. He collapsed in Atlantic City “slumped across a Blackjack table” just a few days after marrying Louise, and as Louise sniffingly explains to her new step-children, “We only had four days together–but they were perfect days.”

So that leaves Louise as the “wicked stepmother” of the title inheriting, what she imagines, is all of Richard’s estate. At the reading of the will, Louise is stunned by the revelation that although she inherits a decent amount, she doesn’t get everything, and that includes the Hawke mansion, and the eight million dollar trust fund to be divided between Verity and her siblings Jonathan and Cassandra. Louise, who is driven by avarice, then reasons that her stepchildren must die… one by one…

The private lives of the Hawke siblings are explored as part of the plot, so we see promiscuous Verity downing screwdrivers for breakfast and snorting cocaine every chance she gets while Jonathan follows his punk rock band girlfriend, and Cassandra moves on from being a magazine editor.  The lives of these three siblings who never have to worry about a paycheck or having a place to live are in direct contrast to Louise and her son who are both rotten, but also dangerously rapacious, to the core. There are a couple of scenes which are shocking in their complete heartlessness when these two loot the belongings of the dead.

Wicked Stepmother smacks of the 70s with its references to a Lime green Toronado and a yellow Cadillac, and the plot has the feel of a fictionalized tacky ‘true crime’ novel, with the bones of the novel being the lurid crimes fleshed out by the authors’ imagination. Some of the scenes and the dialogue are completely over-the-top, but in spite of the lack of subtlety in characterizations which feeds the novel’s theatricality, the violence, when it occurs is unexpected, shocking and chilling. Living under the protection of money, high society and the looming trust fund fails to prepare the Hawke siblings from the determined greed of Louise whose desire for the Hawke mansion has no moral bounds.

If this were made into a film, I’d place it in the very capable hands of one of my cultural icons, John Waters. He’d be the right person for the job–an assault of the rapacious, murderous self-made on the unprepared, upper classes of Boston.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, McDowell Michael, Schuetz Dennis

Hush, Little Bird: Nicole Trope

Hush, Little Bird from Australian author Nicole Trope brings together two vastly different narrative voices that are tied together by place (a low security women’s prison) and their shared pasts. One of the voices belongs to a 33-year-old woman nicknamed Birdy by her fellow inmates for her knowledge and love of finches, and her job at the prison is to maintain an aviary of Gouldian and Zebra finches. Birdy is someone we would describe as ‘slow’ and although she’s separated in prison from her small daughter, she has managed to establish a firm place for herself amongst the other inmates. There are four women to each bungalow, and one of Birdy’s housemates, the very tough Jess, has taught Birdy how to manage her violent temper. It’s also through Jess that Birdy learned the word “agenda,” and now that a new prisoner is about to arrive, Birdy understands that she has an ‘agenda’ to complete.

I learned that word from Jess. She told me an agenda is a plan that you have to keep secret. Sometimes your agenda can make you do things that no one else understands. Whenever anyone is cranky with her, Jess says, ‘Tell me, love, what’s your agenda?’

What’s your a-gen-da?

The new inmate is a wealthy woman in her 50s, Rose Winslow; she’s the mother of two adult daughters, Portia and Rosalind, and she was married, for 40 years, to Simon, an “icon” of Australian television. Most of the other inmates have been transferred to ‘the Farm’ for their extended good behaviour at other institutions, but Rose’s lawyer managed to pull some strings to get her sent there while he lodges an appeal.

hush little bird

When the novel begins, we don’t know the details of the crimes Birdy or Rose committed, but we’re told that Birdy is there for some act of violence and that Rose claims that whatever she did is ‘an accident.’ While Birdy recognizes Rose, and plans some sort of terrible revenge,  Rose, due to the passage of time and Birdy’s weight gain, doesn’t recognize Birdy. These two women’s stories are gradually parceled out in alternating chapters with tension created by Birdy’s ever-encroaching plan for revenge, and the gradual revelation of each woman’s past.

This is one of those books where to discuss the plot will ruin the experience for other readers, so that’s as far as I will go. As always with alternating narratives that form the novel’s central puzzle, the author must balance tension with information. Sometimes this structure, especially when the reader is deliberately thrown red herrings, can be annoying. Here, in author Nicole Trope’s hands, the structure worked well. The biggest problem I had to overcome as a reader was believing that Rose wouldn’t have pulled out all the stops when it came to her murder trial, but then this book, while it is the story of two women, is fundamentally Rose’s story–how she must come to terms with not just some horrible truths about her life, but also some ugly truths about her passivity, her malleability, her gullibility.

“hindsight–oh, the delights of hindsight–“

This book was recommended to me by Kim at Reading Matters, and her review is here

Review copy

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Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes Ed. Martin Edwards

Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes is another selection in the British Crime Library Classics series. I knew that this was a selection of short stories, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the crimes within these pages are not all murders. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so here’s a list of the stories:

  • The Black Doctor: Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Murder by Proxy: M. McDonnell Bodkin
  • The Fad of the Fisherman: G. K Chesterton
  • The Genuine Tabard: E.C. Bentley
  • The Gylston Slander: Herbert Jenkins
  • The Long Barrow: H. C. Bailey
  • The Naturalist at Law: R. Austin Freeman
  • A Proper Mystery: Margery Allingham
  • Direct Evidence: Anthony Berkeley
  • Inquest: Leonora Woodhouse
  • The Scarecrow: Ethel Lina White
  • Clue in the Mustard: Leo Bruce
  • Our Pageant: Gladys Mitchell

Martin Edwards provides a wonderful introduction to these tales, and this includes a quote from Sherlock Holmes:

It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that that lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.

Edwards also ties in Auden’s feeling that crime in the countryside has a particular quality to it: “the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder,” and also discusses Colin Watson’s term “Mayhem Parva” to describe the subgenre of crime in the English village which Edwards argues is personified in the extremely popular Midsomer Murders.

It’s here in this aptly-named collection that you can definitely see the roots of the cosy. In Margery Allingham’s A Proper Mystery, for example, the crime involves the possible sabotage of the village flower show and the judging of just who’s grown the best vegetables. E.C. Bentley’s The Genuine Tabard involves some gullible American tourists while The Glyston Slander is the story of the damage wrought by a chain of anonymous poisoned pen letters–hard to imagine Scotland Yard these days dropping whatever else they’re doing to go chase the anonymous letter writer in a sleepy little village, but that’s exactly what happens in Herbert Jenkins’ story.

serpents in eden

I’ve said it before, so here it is once again–short story collections are a great way to discover ‘new’ authors, and this collection contains some gems. I’d heard a great deal about R. Austin Freeman and Anthony Berkeley so I was delighted to find a short story from each of them here. R. Austin Freeman’s The Naturalist at Law is the story of a man who is found, apparently drowned, in a shallow ditch. There are a couple of things wrong with the scenario–the victim’s dental bridge and his keys are missing. Series character Thorndyke notes a third element of the puzzle that doesn’t add up, but to mention this will give away too much of the story– our sleuth holds this key piece of evidence back until the big Reveal.

Another favourite story, Direct Evidence from Anthony Berkeley (1893-1971) features the author’s series character, Roger Sheringham, and involves a case in which Sheringham can apply one of his pet theories: that “a grain of circumstantial evidence […] is worth a ton of direct evidence almost every time” although “it’s the fashion, of course, to sneer at circumstantial evidence.”

But circumstantial evidence eliminates the human factor. Circumstantial evidence is the only evidence by which a case can really be proved, logically and irrefutably.

Sheringham is busy arguing his point with his sidekick Alec, when a damsel in distress walks in and asks Sheringham to help her brother, James. James was known to be involved romantically with a married woman, a “scalphunter,” named Mrs Greyling, and according to a dozen eyewitnesses who witnessed a quarrel between the two, James shot Mrs Greyling and killed her. James will likely hang for the crime unless Sheringham can prove that a dozen witnesses were wrong.

There’s also a very unusual story, Inquest, from P.G Wodehouse’s stepdaughter. A country doctor steps into a train bound for London, and distracted by the fact he’s forgotten his shopping list, he can’t quite place his fellow passenger. But when the passenger coughs, then the doctor remembers that he met this man, a clerk, at the house of an unpleasant man who may have been murdered but whose death was ruled, ultimately, as a suicide.
I have to mention Ethel Lina White’s story The Scarecrow which features a woman-in-peril (White’s forte) whose former lover, a man who attempted to strangle her, has escaped from a mental hospital.

review copy

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Filed under Allingham Margery, Bailey H. C., Berkeley Anthony, Fiction, R. Austin Freeman, White Ethel Lina

The Nest: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

“How had they raised children who were so impractical and yet so entitled?”

When “self-made” Leonard Plumb created a trust fund for his four children, he knew, from his own bitter family history, that “abundance proffered too soon led to lassitude and indolence, a wandering dissatisfaction.” He didn’t intend to leave his children rolling in money, so he delayed the disbursement until the youngest, Melody, was 40 years old. He wanted his children to make their own way in life and not count on a cushy payout, and reasoned that a lump sum coming in their 40s would be:

“a little something to sit atop their own, inevitable financial achievements […] and pad their retirement a bit, maybe help fund a college tuition or two. Nothing so vast as to be truly significant”

Unfortunately, Leonard’s well-intentioned plans didn’t work out the way he reasoned. He could not have predicted that “as the fund grew so, too, would his children’s tolerance for risk.” Leo, the eldest, at forty-six, has made and wasted millions and is about to be cleaned out by his avaricious soon-to-be ex-wife, Victoria, a “world-class spendthrift.” Jack, a gay antique dealer, has secretly been paying his bills by using a line of credit against a vacation home he owns with his husband. Bea, a “formerly talented” writer can’t finish a novel and now works for a literary magazine called Paper Fibres which may appear to be keeping afloat but is really financed by the owner, Paul’s elderly maiden aunts. After years of scrimping but still living beyond their means, Melody whose “fortieth birthday glowed like a distant lighthouse, flashing its beam of rescue” plans to use her money to send her twins to expensive schools and pay off her house loans. All of the siblings, with the exception of Bea, have counted on “the Nest” to bail them out of their self-created financial woes.

the nest

A few months before Melody’s 4oth, a drunk and wasted Leo, a “narcissistic sociopath” (according to Victoria) ditches his wife at a wedding and causes an accident which leads to a permanent disability for the 19 year old waitress who is the passenger in his careening Porsche. Terrified of scandal, and wanting to avoid any financial involvement, Leo’s mother, the widow Plumb, always remote, “disengaged” and now remarried, but with power of attorney over the trust account, decimates “the Nest” by paying off the waitress and her family. After all, Leo, she reasons, is “the least needy and therefore, the one she thought of with the most fondness.” Leo, who’s been holed up in rehab, returns to New York, to the remains of his ruined life and to face his angry siblings. All that remains of “The Nest” is a fraction of the amount the four Plumb siblings expected. This is a disaster that everyone must face and one that has lasting repercussions for all involved.

Set in New York, the literal ‘nest’ for the siblings, the novel manages to capture the nuances and recent history of the city–the incredibly high cost of housing, the aftermath of 9-11, and the impact of AIDS on the gay community.

The Nest, a debut novel from Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is caustically funny, and most of the humour comes from the self-destructive behaviours of the Plumb family–most notably Leo who is a charming philanderer always managing to step away from disaster while others mop-up. Sweeeny has a sharp eye which focuses on the subtleties of sibling relationships, and how dynamics established in childhood never really alter with the passage of time. While the tale’s focus is humour, there are a lot of painful truths here. The promise of a generous mid-life inheritance has done little for the Plumb siblings other than cause them to plan for the big payday, and as a result of the money they think is headed their way, they’ve all (with the exception of Bea) made horrible financial moves, delayed maturity, and have refused to face some realities.

The book’s humor keeps up a good pace throughout the novel, which, given the content– squabbling, desperate siblings and a depleted inheritance, is no small feat. I particularly loved the scenes of the Plumb parents–long deceased patriarch, Leonard Plumb and his inappropriate enthusiasms for his work, and his widow Francie who can’t keep her children’s birthdays straight, thinks Melody needs Botox, and when it comes to the matter of using “The Nest” to bail out Leo has to “contend with this execution squad of her own children.” The scene in which Melody recalls her only childhood party is priceless. It’s lamely organized by her mother, Francie, who’s furiously downing martinis wearing a silk kimono which “this early in the day was a very bad sign.”

But then Francie started singing “Over the Rainbow” and only a few verses in she started to weep. “Mom?” Melody said, weakly.

“It’s just so, so sad,” Francie said. She turned to them. “The studios killed Judy Garland. They killed her. That voice and what a tragedy. They made her and then they killed her.”

The girls were sitting quietly, nervously giggling. “Uppers to work all day. Downers to sleep at night. She was just a kid.” Francie stood now, facing them, her robe gaping a little in front. “I wanted to be an actress. I could have gone to Hollywood.”

One of the criticisms I read about the novel is that while readers enjoyed it, they considered ‘light.’ I recently read Tessa Hadley’s The Past, another novel about siblings and inheritance, and while The Past is a deeper novel with stronger characterizations and a gorgeous sense of the passage of time, The Nest‘s delightful humorous approach should not eradicate the serious messages here regarding our frequently unhealthy relationships with money.

Review copy

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Filed under D'Aprix Sweeney Cynthia, Fiction