Author Archives: Guy Savage

Bad Debts: Peter Temple

“One thing practicing law gives you is a feeling for some kinds of truth.”

I’ve been meaning to read the Jack Irish novels for years, but then I watched the series which featured the marvelous Guy Pearce as the title character. Guy Pearce IS Jack Irish–he’s excellent in the role, so good in fact that I started to wonder if I should skip the books.

Jack Irish

Roll on to Bad Debts, the first book in the series: I was in the mood for some light crime, and Jack Irish seemed the perfect choice.  First for those who haven’t seen the series, Jack Irish was a successful criminal lawyer until his wife was murdered by a pissed off client. Then he sank into an alcoholic haze. It was the beginning of the forgotten zone,” and when he hit rock bottom, Jack’s former law partner, Andrew Greer “pulled strings” to get Jack “off a variety of charges.”  Jack lives in Fitzroy and only does very minor legal work; most of his income comes from “collecting serious debts or finding witnesses.”

I found Edward Dollery, age forty-seven, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was in a new brick-veneer suburb built of cow pasture west of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.

Eddie Dollery’s skin wasn’t looking good. He’d cut himself several times shaving and each nick was wearing a little red centered rosette of toilet paper. The rest of Eddie, short, bloated, was wearing yesterday’s superfine cotton business shirt, striped, and scarlet pajama pants, silk. The overall effect was not fetching.

This is how the novel opens, I swept right into Jack Irish’s world and was delighted to hang out in his company for the course of the novel. The plot involves the death of an ex-client, McKillop, a man who approaches Jack pleading for help, but before Jack makes contact, the man is shot dead by police. Jack begins digging with a low grade curiosity and a twinge of nagging guilt. The dead man was one of the last people Jack represented during his black alcoholic phase; he remembers little of the case and so it’s with a sense of tenderly, tentatively probing this awful time in his life that he begins to ask questions. Soon he’s warned off the case which, of course, only fuels Jack’s quest. In a way Jack feels as though he owes McKillop something and this feeling, a debt not paid, propels Jack forward.

As always with a series PI (and that’s basically what Jack is at this point–that and an amateur woodworker) the story vacillates between the character’s personal and private life. In Bad Debts, the story moves between Jack’s various jobs, so one plot thread finds him digging into lucrative gentrification contracts, while another plot thread finds him hanging out with Cameron Delray, the understated “enigmatic footsoldier,” who works for diminutive Harry Strang, a horse racing enthusiast. Wily Strang frequently employs Jack Irish for a range of jobs.

Bad Debts is loaded with marvelous characters: there’s the three senior citizens who appear to be glued permanently to the stools of the local pub “nursing glasses of beer and old grievances.” There’s also Stan the publican and Senior Sergeant Barry Tregear–a man who constantly eats fast food messily, and “looked two slabs of beer away from fat.” All these characters appear in the series. It’s in this novel that Jack meets reporter Linda. She was a character I disliked intensely in the series: too holier-than-thou for my tastes, and she seemed a bit mismatched for Jack’s low-key, understated, damaged yet slightly slippery character. In the novel, she’s more relaxed and interesting. If you enjoy horse racing or football, you will have additional plot elements to interest you, but for me, Jack’s world vision is the best thing in the book. There’s something about that sense of humour that lets you know what lowlifes people really are without that sort of reflected back judgement which always taints:

He was an ex-cop called Col Boon, pensioned off the force for extreme hypertension after shooting another cop during a raid on an indoor dope plantation in Coburg. A tragic mistake, the coroner said. I suppose in some ways it’s always a tragic mistake to shoot the man who’s rooting your wife every time you’re on nightshift and he’s not. 

Review copy.

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The Body of Jonah Boyd: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s The Body of Jonah Boyd is narrated by Judith “Denny” Denham, a secretary who’s having an affair with her psychology professor boss, Dr. Ernest Wright. It’s the 60s and the story is told in retrospect thirty years later by Denny, and while it’s her story, it’s also the story of the Wright family.

It’s sticky enough that Denny is having an affair (one in a long series of affairs) with her married boss, but the entanglement doesn’t stop there. Nancy Wright, Ernest’s wife, “found” Denny at the hairdresser’s and insists on inviting her home as a “four-hand partner” for the piano. The idea is that Denny is supposed to replace Nancy’s former piano partner and best friend Anne. Denny accepts and so begins her relationship with the Wright family. Denny is frequently a guest at the Wrights’ home, and her invitation to Thanksgiving is secured. On weekends, Ernest and Denny often scurry up to his office above the garage for some gropey sex, while Nancy and the Wright children: Mark, Daphne and Ben are in other parts of the house. Denny doesn’t have a problem with all these complications and claims to keep her relationships with Nancy and Ernest cleanly separate, stating that “my friendship with Nancy was in certain crucial ways remote from my relationship with her husband.”  But is that true?

When Thanksgiving 1969 rolls around, the Wrights’ oldest child, Mark is a draft dodger in Canada, and that’s the Thanksgiving that Nancy’s best friend, Anne and her second husband, Jonah Boyd come to visit.

Denny, whose role was to replace Anne at the piano, has heard so many nauseatingly positive things about Anne that the reality is a shock.

Anne was wearing a wool coat that had been torn near the pocket and then clumsily restitched, and she carried an enormous, shapeless handbag. She had shaggy red hair that was graying at the roots, nicotine-stained teeth, a thick middle. Also her eye makeup was smudged in a way that suggested she had been weeping. 

All at once, a sensation of misplaced triumph welled up in me. This Anne was a far cry from the willowy creature Nancy had described. Certainly they could never have shared clothes! I admit, my rival’s sordid demeanor–not to mention the expression of concern and disappointment that claimed Nancy’s face as she gave Anne the once-over–sparked in me an unexpected confidence, and I shook Anne’s hand heartily. 

There are obvious marital problems between Jonah and Anne, and while Anne seethes and drinks too much, Jonah sets out to charm everyone. The fact that he succeeds so easily seems to bother Anne, and so she airs some of the marital dirty laundry. It’s not a particularly pleasant evening–especially when, after Jonah gives a reading of his soon-to-be-published novel, teenager Ben insists on reading some of his angst-ridden poetry.

It’s an evening to remember, and as Denny narrates the story we learn about the terrible things that subsequently happened to several of the people who attended Thanksgiving that evening. Years pass and then Denny runs into Ben again. …

Every story must begin somewhere and end somewhere. The author (or the narrator) takes a cookie cutter to life and offers readers just that piece. A large portion of Denny’s time must have existed outside of the Wrights but it seems that they are the most important part of her life. And what a tangled relationship she has with this family. At times she seems to wish herself Nancy’s daughter, and she admits “yearning” “to have been Daphne.” But when you put that in the context of Denny’s affair with Ernest, it seems rather incestuous–especially when there are a few times she sees her affair with Ernest as a sort of revenge against Nancy’s slights. Then there is another time Denny admits that she’s “besotted” with Nancy.  The Wrights seem to have various “needs” for Nancy too, so the relationship between Nancy and the Wrights isn’t a one-way street.

This was a reread. I was struck this time by Ernest’s philosophy to life. Ernest believes that “what people get, most of the time, is what they want,” and this philosophy seems to work itself into the later relationship between Danny and Ben. I wasn’t as convinced by the character of Denny this time around. This is a young woman who has a series of affairs with married men, yet asks nothing from them. Given her feelings about various members of the Wright family, somehow she seems  needy and not the cool I-need-my-space serial mistress type.

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The Execution of Justice: Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel, The Execution of Justice opens with our drunk narrator, lawyer Felix Spät offering the reader an explanation of past “events that led to the acquittal of  a murderer and to the death of an innocent man.” He says he needs to “think through the steps I was lured into taking, the measures I took, the possibilities left undone.” It soon becomes clear he’s questioning the justice system and he’s preparing for a “just murder.”

Execution

Back in time to what seems an open-and-shut murder case. Retired from both law and politics, Dr Isaak Kohler is in a taxi accompanying a British minister to the airport. He asks the chauffeur to make a sidetrip to a restaurant. Leaving the dozing politician in the taxi, Kohler walks into the restaurant and without saying a word, shoots Professor Adolf Winter. Then with no evidence of panic, he walks back outside, gets into the taxi and leaves. Later, with the police on the hunt for a presumed fugitive from justice, Kohler rather coolly attends a concert.

Naturally since there are dozens of witnesses, it seem as though there’s no doubt that Kohler is the killer (that or he has a twin). At first it seems that the plot will explore not ‘who-did-it’ but why?

Kohler is tried and convicted. Thriving in prison and claiming his life has improved considerably, Kohler sends for down-on-luck lawyer Felix Spät and hires him to investigate the murder “under the presumption” that Kohler was  “not the murderer.”

“I want you to reinvestigate my case.”

I flinched.

“Meaning you want me to appeal it, Herr Kohler?”

He shook his head. “If I were to pursue an appeal, that would necessarily imply that there is something wrong with my sentence, but there is nothing wrong with it. My life is a closed case, it’s been led away. I know that the warden sometimes thinks I’m a fraud and you, Spät, probably think so too. That’s understandable. But I am neither a saint nor a devil, I’m simply a  man who’s discovered you don’t need anything more to live than a cell, hardly more than you need to die, a bed will do for that.”

Kohler also employs a retired professor, Knulpe, to research “the consequences of murder.” He adds, “the idea is to plumb the depths of reality, to measure exactly what effects one deed has.” Given the plot (and the title) ‘Justice’ is under examination here. It’s really a clever title which could mean a) the death of Justice or b) the implementation of Justice. Kohler tells Felix to create an alternate scenario, an alternate reality to the crime if you will, and of course while defense lawyers often assume that tactic, in this case, Felix’s relationship with his client is fraught with moral dilemmas. Kohler isn’t saying he didn’t do it.

“You are to create a fiction, nothing more.”

“But you are, in point of fact, the murderer, and that makes you fiction quite meaningless,” I declared. 

“That’s the only thing that gives it meaning, Kohler answered. “You’re not supposed to investigate reality at all–our good old Knulpe is doing that–but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality.”

Yes Kohler is a smooth talker….

With Kohler playing mind games, Felix takes the job and lives to regret it.  In spite of this somewhat convoluted approach to the case (or perhaps even because of it) the plot’s premise has allure. Unfortunately, in its execution, there’s that word again, this rather metaphysical crime novel is a chore to read. After finishing it, I read that this book was started in 1957 but was not completed until 1985. Perhaps this explains the listless plot which could have been good if given some different treatment.

Review copy

Translated by John E. Woods.

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Little What’s-His-Name: Alphonse Daudet

“He did not foresee that, all through his life, he should be condemned to drag about, in the same silly way, a blue cage, the color of illusion, and a green parrot, the color of hope!”

It’s an odd experience to move from reading Daudet’s brilliant, funny, and worldly-wise stories: Artists’ Wives to Little What’s His Name (Le Petit Chose). I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that these two books sprang from the same author. Little What’s-His-Name was Daudet’s first published book, and it’s autobiographical.

Little What’s-His-Name is Daniel Eyssette, and the story opens with his birth. Daniel, one of three sons, is born in Languedoc, to a successful man who owns his own silk factory.  Daniel says he was his “parents’ unlucky star,” as right after his birth “incredible misfortunes assailed them from all quarters.”

First there was the customer from Marseilles who stole 40,000 francs, then two fires, a strike, a family quarrel, a lawsuit, and the coup de grace … the Revolution of 1848.  Within a few years, the business is finished and the family leave the factory and their splendid home and move to Lyons (Daniel/Little What’s His Name loses his beloved parrot on the way.) Chapter II is called The Cockroaches for the family’s humble home is plagued with the insects who proceed to make hell for the Eyssettes.  The education of the two youngest boys, Jacques and Daniel, takes a hit due to lack of funds, and the boys attend a school for choirboys. Later a scholarship is offered for one of the boys and the father, who doesn’t seem to think that highly of Jacques, selects Daniel.

It’s a rather sad childhood marked by death, poverty, and memories of a better life. But there’s worse to come; within a few years, with their fortunes tumbling even further, the remaining members of the family split up with “each one to seek his fortune independently.” Daniel is sent off to be a schoolmaster thanks to the recommendation from a family friend.

By this point, Daniel has earned the name “Little What’s-His-Name” thanks to his diminutive size and I’m guessing also because of his ability to sink into the background. Working at the boys’ school is hell for Daniel as he’s smaller than the bigger students, but at least he gets half a bottle of wine at meals!

It’s at the school that Daniel learns some painful life lessons. Daniel is trying hard in his job, and likes teaching the younger boys, but he runs into problems when he punishes the unpleasant son of a Marquis. This incident, with its humiliating results, throws Daniel into bad company at the local inn. It’s a bitter experience to learn that the man you thought was your friend is using you and considers you an idiot, and that’s exactly what happens to Daniel. Without giving away arguably the best part of the plot, Daniel finds himself in Paris.

The first section of the book is the tale of Daniel’s early life and the time spent at the school. The second half concerns Daniel’s move to Paris (he lives with Jacques) and his attempts at a literary career.

Daudet has the habit of moving, in his narrative, from first person to third which I found a little odd. This seems to be driven by sentiment/emotion when Little What’s His Name is embroiled in an emotional scene or is humiliated. Almost as if Daudet is only comfortable imparting these scenes when moving further from the character.

The man with the mustache looked like a good fellow; on the way I learned that his name was Roger, that he was a teacher of dancing, riding, fencing, and gymnastics in the school of Sarlande, and that he had served for a long time in the African light horse. This was enough to make him entirely attractive to me. Children are always inclined to like soldiers. We separated at the door of the inn with much shaking of hands and the explicit promise of becoming friends. 

And now, reader, I have a confession to make to you.

When Little What’s His Name found himself alone in his cold room, in front of his bed in that strange and vulgar inn, far from those whom, he loved, his heart burst, and the great philosopher weep like a child. Life terrified him now, he felt weak and helpless to meet it. He cried and cried. 

I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second half. The first half is powerful in its depiction of the innocence of youth, the battering, humiliating experiences that must be endured, and painful lessons regarding treachery. The second half lacks the same power. It’s too sentimental for my tastes, and that’s the problem with using autobiographical material. My copy comes from Mondial books with an introduction from W P. Trent who was also the translator,

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Splitting: Fay Weldon

“Women tend to be more than one person,” said Angel, “at the best of times, Men get just to be the one.”

Fay Weldon’s novel Splitting is a story of marriage, divorce and lost identity.

Sir Edwin Rice is divorcing Lady Angelica Rice, and what a messy divorce this is. Sir Edwin’s divorce petition includes accusations ranging from “lesbianism to bestiality. Bad cooking to adultery.” Lady Rice fights back and “claimed physical assault; over-frequent and perverted sexual activity which led to her humiliation; drunkenness, drug-taking and financial irresponsibility on the part of her husband; she asserted that her husband’s relationship with his dogs was of a sexual nature.” This divorce is going to be dirty.

splitting

When the book opens, Edwin’s lawyer, Brian Moss is dictating to his new secretary, Jelly White. Jelly White is none other than Lady Angelica Rice. It’s a strategic self placement, and it’s a position that comes in handy when you want to stack the deck in your favour.

While the novel begins with the ugly divorce, it then slips back into the past: when middle-class Angelica first meets Edwin, the youngest son of Lord Cowarth. Edwin marries Angelica and they make their home at the “dilapidated manor house” Rice Court. How fortunate that Angelica has a Savings and Loans balance of 823,000 pounds generated from a single hit “Kinky Virgin.” Angelica dutifully hands this sum over to the Land Agent, and then the marital games begin.

A few years into the marriage, cracks begin to show, and the problems erupt over money. Angelica, now Lady Rice, manages her home well, but Edwin is critical. Fissures in the marriage widen when adulterous relationships evolve between the Rices and their friends Rosamund, Susan, Humphrey, and Lambert. This section of the novel seemed to be deliberately confusing. I couldn’t keep track of the bed hopping, and this is partly because everyone lies and they all accuse each other of various affairs possibly to obfuscate the truth.

The “Splitting” of the title occurs though matrimonial discord.

“How dare he!” says a voice in Angelica’s head. “How dare he!” Another one says “don’t rock the boat,” another says “take him upstairs and fuck him,” and Angelica shakes her head to be rid of them, which works.

These voices, which offer conflicting advice lead to a “perforated, split personality.” Not in the strait-jacket lock-up sense, but in the sense of a woman who’s carried a role for years but then with doubt and rebellion gnawing at her mind, loses any formed sense of self  (loyal wife) and ‘splits’ into other possible selves–an “internal war.”

“Pull yourself together, for God’s sake, “Jelly said to Lady Rice, out of the mirror. But she added more kindly, “It’s been a long, hard day.”

“In future,” said Angelica. “we’ll go home by bus, not Underground. It’s easier on the nerves. And do stop crying, before our eyes get red and puffy. Jesus! What a sight!”

“Let’s do downstairs to the bar,” said Angel, “and make out with some rich businessman. Have a fun night out, some sex-good or bad; I grant you that’s a risk. We’ll score if we can and make ourselves some money.”

“Score?” said Lady Rice.

“Drugs,” said Angel.

Lady Rice uttered a little scream.

Lady Rice found herself looking out her best lingerie and trying it on, while Jelly agitated.

Marriage is a union of two people. The ‘me and the we’ positions are the hardest to negotiate, and in Splitting, Angelica gave up her class, her home, her friends, her identity to marry Edwin. She became Lady Rice–a totally different person, and when the marriage falls apart, the identity crisis in which Angelica fights with various splintered aspects of herself, is alarming, funny and bitterly real.

This isn’t my favourite Weldon novel. The affairs were confusing and difficult to follow, and the novel’s premise: a woman whose personality splits into various warring selves adds to the mayhem. That said, the novel is a strong cautionary tale: women who give up their personalities, friends, family, environment and career to adopt a marital role will have issues with identity.

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Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)

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The Hours Before Dawn: Celia Fremlin (1958)

Celia Fremlin’s Uncle Paul explores the relationships between sisters, a past crime and a threat in the present. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother, Louise Henderson, who is so overwhelmed by motherhood, nosy, nasty neighbours, and a critical husband that she ignores the warning signs about her new tenant.

the hours before dawn

Louise has two little girls and a baby boy named Michael. The novel opens with Louise saying:

I’d give ANYTHING-anything-for a night’s sleep.

Louise is so sleep deprived that she even nods off in the waiting room before the baby’s checkup. She tries to tell the nurse that she can’t get the baby to sleep at night; she’s probably hoping for advice, but all she gets is a disinterested, patronizing woman who doesn’t want to hear complaints.

And the patience in Nurse Fordham’s voice was like the swell of the sea, in which a thousand boats can sink unnoticed.

“You see, Mrs. Henderson,” she was explaining, choosing her words carefully, as if Louise could understand human speech little better than the writhing baby in her arms–“you see, as I’m always telling you mothers, you mustn’t worry. He’s gaining splendidly–

Poor Louise. Her husband, Mark, comes home expecting cooked meals (including cooked lunches) and a clean calm house. It doesn’t occur to him to pitch in and instead he complains constantly telling her to keep the children quiet. One of the neighbours hints that she might take her concerns about Louise’s capability as a mother further, and Mark’s mother makes it clear she’s not lending a hand. According to Louise’s mother-in-law, “the most wonderful moment in a woman’s life is when her last child clears off and leaves her free.”

Amidst all the domestic chaos, the sleepless nights, and a husband who acts like the kids are nothing to do with him (I wanted to smack him upside the head), Louise rents out a spare room to a single woman. The new tenant is a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. It occurs to Louise that there’s something off about Vera Brandon. She’s a little too old and successful to be renting a room, “not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.” Why would anyone want to rent a room in a house when the baby cries and fusses all night long–especially if the prospective tenant has options? While the warning signs flash in the periphery of Louise’s brain, she’s overwhelmed, living in perpetual distraction and exhaustion so doesn’t act on her instinct.

This is a domestic crime novel published in 1958 long before the genre became popular. While some novels rely on glamour to whip up the plot, The Hours Before Dawn (the title makes me think of an execution) concentrates on Louise’s life and her isolation in domestic hell. The claustrophobic nature of the plot is alleviated with humour–mostly found in the other characters who either commiserate with Louise or condemn her. She forms a relationship (and I’m using the term loosely here ) with another  mother, the delinquent Mrs Hooper. Mrs Hooper, who believes in letting her children be ‘independent,’  frequently dumps her neglected children (Christine and Tony) on Louise, and Louise can’t say ‘no.’ Louise finds that she likes Mrs. Hooper but can’t quite articulate why.

“Hullo-I thought you were in such a hurry to get to your pottery class,” remarked Louise. “Look-can you get your pram out first? No, -Turn it a bit sideways-that’s right.”

A violent jolt form her mother’s rather heavy-handed manoeuvres sent Christine’s cauliflower bouncing on to the gravel, and her shrill, peevish wail silenced further conversation until the cauliflower, rather battered by now, had been restored.

“I always think that’s such a natural way for them to get their vitamins,” beamed Mrs Hooper, as a muddy, mangled bit of stalk dangled from Christine’s mouth on to her knitted jacket. “She got it all by herself. you know, out of the end of the pram. When Tony was a baby, I always used to let him help himself to the shopping on the way home. I remember once he got hold of a mutton chop. Raw. People were terribly shocked,” she added wistfully, with the far-way look of one recalling past triumphs. 

The novel is its strongest in the depth of the domestic details of Louise’s life as she tries to cope with constant criticism, no help and very little sleep. The crime element of the plot is not shabby either–after all we’ve all read stories of similar sorts of things happening. But it’s the claustrophobia and Louise’s desperation that rings true here.

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Killer in the Rain: Raymond Chandler (1935)

I wasn’t too far into Raymond Chandler’s Killer in the Rain when screenshots of Humphrey Bogart began popping into my head. Yes! This short story was adapted ‘(‘cannibalizing’ as Chandler called it) into The Big Sleep. The story is atmospheric, and certainly inspires visual images as you read it, and the film … well, the film is unforgettable.

Rain beat very hard against the windows. They were shut tight and it was hot in the room and I had a little fan going on the table. The breeze from it hit Dravec’s face high up, lifted his heavy black hair, moved the longer bristles in the fat path of eyebrow that went across his face in a solid line. He looked like a bouncer who had come into money. 

The story is narrated by a PI, a shamus who is hired by a self-made man, a wealthy Serbian named Dravec. Dravec has been sent to the PI by homicide detective Violets M’Gee. At first Dravec claims that he wants the PI to find his daughter, Carmen, but within a few minutes, Dravec, who is one of those physically powerful but emotionally immature men, admits that Carmen isn’t his daughter.

I just picked her up in Smoky, a little baby in the street. She didn’t have nobody. I guess I steal her, huh?

Carmen isn’t exactly faithful to Dravec who admits that “all the time some new guy and all the time a punk.” Dravec paid one punk 5 grand to clear off, but since there’s no shortage of creepy men, Carmen is now involved with Harold Steiner, a so-called “dealer in rare books” which translates to pornography.

So the narrator takes the case and the next night, during another rain storm, he tails Steiner from his business to his home. Carmen soon arrives, and some time into the stake out, shots are fired. The narrator bursts into the home and finds Carmen drugged, dressed (or undressed) for porno pix, and Steiner dead. Carmen may be the damsel in distress here, but Dravec is the only one who thinks he can ‘save’ her. She gives the narrator the creeps. There’s something not right about this woman:

If she had screeched, or turned white, or even keeled over, that would have been fairly natural. But she just giggled.

I began to hate the sight of her. Just looking at her made me feel dopey.

Her giggles went on, ran around the room like rats. They gradually got hysterical. I got off the desk, took a step towards her, and slapped her face.

“Just like last night” I said.

The giggling stopped at once and the thumb-chewing started again. She still didn’t mind my slaps apparently. I sat on the end of the desk once more. 

A few bodies later, the case is solved but not before the narrator gives us a glimpse into the ugly side of humanity. In this case he steps into a group of people whose behaviour leaves a rotting stench. There’s no joy in the solution of this case; just darkness, hopelessness, an inevitability, and yet at the same time, a determination not to slide down into the sewage with the lowlifes.

Philip Marlowe appeared as a character in the 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. His name does not appear in this short story, but the feeling of Marlowe is still there.

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Little Sisters: Fay Weldon

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

Little Sisters from Fay Weldon was published early in the author’s career before the wonderfully wicked Lives and Loves of a She-Devil . Little Sisters is classic Weldon, full of the author’s signature style, and includes themes of sexual politics, infidelity, the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ and fate.

Little Sisters

18-year-old Elsa is shacking up with middle-aged married Victor whose mid-life crisis led to him dumping his wife, Janice, daughter Wendy and his career as a tax accountant. Now he’s an antique dealer, and he and Elsa sleep in the back of his London shop. She also cooks (marginally), deals with customers, types (barely) moves furniture and works around the office. Nothing is said about wages or insurance stamps. What a deal for Victor. One weekend, Victor takes Elsa along to visit millionaire Hamish “manufacturer of flowerpots,” and his wheelchair bound wife, Gemma at their country estate. The invitation is ostensibly for Victor to buy antiques from Hamish, but Gemma, wicked Gemma, has other plans. She’s also invited Janice and Wendy for the weekend.

With Victor and Hamish haggling over the cost of various antiques, Elsa is assigned to type various things for Gemma, typing which is given in the evening to be completed by the next day (think Rumpelstiltskin). During the day, Gemma commandeers Elsa and tells her a cautionary tale–the tale of how, in 1966, she arrived at age 18, penniless and alone, in London and began her employment as a typist at the trendy firm of jewelry makers. Fox and First.

So there are two storylines here entwined together. Gemma tells her tale of being young, naive, and falling in love with her employer, Mr Fox. Gemma’s predecessor left under mysterious circumstances and her departure may have had something to do with the violent death of a woman who fell, or was perhaps thrown out of the office window. Gemma’s co worker, the plain, dowdy Marion Ramsbottle, takes Gemma under her wing, offering her a room at her parents’ home. Marion drops hints about danger, death and a missing finger, but is Marion stable? Some of the book’s funniest scenes take place at the Ramsbottle home. One evening with the Ramsbottles, a family who belong in a Monty Python skit, and Gemma is longing for a life that’s more glamorous:

“She’s having one of her fits, Marion’s mum,” said Mr. Ramsbottle urgently.

“We’d better give her a pill, Marion’s dad, the way the doctor said. One of the strong ones.”

“I’m not taking any pills!” cried Marion. “It will be shock treatment next.”

“That it will,” said her mother,”if you don’t stop it, you naughty girl.”

“Look!” cried Gemma, trying to ease the situation. “Here’s a picture of Mr. Fox in Vogue.”

The second storyline concerns Elsa, Victor, Gemma and Hamish in the present. Hamish wants to strike a hard bargain with Victor, and Victor isn’t above a little negotiation. …

Fay Weldon’s razor sharp, acidic wit dominates the novel, and most of the dark humour comes from Gemma. When Victor and Elsa first arrive, the games begin when Gemma shows her talons within the first few moments:

“Don’t you see many real people?” enquires Victor, taking her hand. It trembles within his, which moves him.

“Anyone with any spirit,” complains Gemma. removing her hand, “stays away. They either like me and Hamish is rude to them; or they like Hamish and I am rude to them. But you know what marriage is like. And you’ve brought Wendy! How lovely to meet you , Wendy. How were your A-levels, after all that? Your father was so worried.”

“This isn’t Wendy,” begins Victor. Wendy is Victor’s daughter. She failed all four A-levels. Art, English, Latin and Sociology.

“No, I am sorry. It must be the concealed lighting: one can’t see a thing, really. But Hamish likes it. Of course, it’s Janice, looking absolutely wonderful, and young enough to be her own daughter. You’ve put on a little weight, Janice. I’m so glad. You were looking ever so thin, as if you had some secret worry. Is it over?”

Fay Welson’s signature themes are present including the competitiveness between women as they fight over the spoils: men who are unfaithful, selfish, egomaniacs, cruel, neglectful or crazy.

Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.  M

So who are the ‘little sisters’ in the novel? Perhaps the title refers to Marion’s relationship with Gemma, or perhaps it refers to Gemma’s relationship to Elsa. Both relationships are complex, and while Marion mostly helps Gemma, there’s also hostility and envy. Gemma’s relationship with Elsa is bitchy and spiteful, but underneath her brittle, damaged surface, Gemma identifies with Elsa on some level. But then again, perhaps ‘little sisters’ refers to Wendy and Elsa? Gemma discovers that the two young women share a birthday and she rather spitefully (and hilariously) insists on throwing a party for ‘the twins.’

Little Sisters is written with the author’s inimitable style, so it has a fairy tale quality to it. But as readers know, all fairy tales contain elements of horror. Also present is another of Weldon’s favourite themes: the prevalence of fate in our lives.

Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine. 

en are

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Big Little Lies: Liane Moriarty

I watched season 1 of Big Little Lies, and while it was entertaining, there were a couple of things that bothered me. How could someone in Jane’s income bracket afford to live in affluent Monterey? And I couldn’t see Rich-Mos like Renata and Celeste making friends with Jane, so I decided to see how the book handled these troublesome details. The book, it turns out, is set in Australia. 

Big Little lies

But for those one or two people who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll start at the beginning. Big Little Lies (the book) is set in the coastal town of Pirriwee, and begins with some horrible event. At first it’s not clear what has happened but we are given clues through the narrative and also through a series of interviews with the police. It’s then we learn that a murder has occurred on Trivia Night–an annual fundraiser which takes place at the school. Murder at an elementary school fundraiser? It boggles the mind. (Well there was that cheerleading thing in Texas….). Then the book goes back in time to six months before Trivia Night and moves forward. 

The main gist of the story is the arrival in Pirriwee of Jane, a young single mother who has moved to this Australian coastal town with her 5 year old son Ziggy. On Orientation Day she meets Madeleine, the driven, outgoing alpha mother who’s married to Ed and has three children: 14-year-old Abigail (from a failed first marriage to Nathan). Fred and Chloe are her children with Ed.

All the trouble starts when Amabella, daughter of the wealthy Renata Klein says someone choked her, and then in front of the entire class, when prompted by the teacher, she points at Ziggy as the culprit. When school begins, Amabella is continually bullied, unobserved by the teachers, and one parent organizes a petition to boot Ziggy from the school. Opposing factions coalesce on the for/against side. 

While the furor surrounding Ziggy is ostensibly the main thrust here, it’s a segue into the lives and culture of the parents. Certain children are popular. “Walking into school with Chloe was like walking arriving with a golden ticket,” and those sort of status relationships continue into adulthood; Renata for example has Harper for a groupie. Main characters are Jane, Madeline, Renata, Celeste (a woman who seems to have it all),  and if we drop back a bit there’s Bonnie, Nathan’s new wife. As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that Jane isn’t ‘just’ a single mother–her child Ziggy is the result of an unsavory encounter Jane had with a stranger–an encounter which has permanently damaged her. 

The novel tackles the subject of female friendship and competitiveness. Renata and Madeline, who are complete opposites, are natural antagonists. You have to laugh at the mothers who organise a support group for “parents of gifted children.” And of course, the group rubs those who don’t belong the wrong way.

Madeline imagined them all sitting in a circle, wringing their hands while their eyes shone with secret pride.

For those who’ve seen the series (I’ve seen  series 1 & 2) there are some differences in the storylines. The book-version of Madeline is not as well off as she’s portrayed in the TV version, and her screen story is much more developed than in the book. I can see why Madeline’s screen story is developed as she’s a fantastic, witty, tart-mouthed character. Jane’s encounter with the father of Ziggy is also quite different. I’m not sure why the series version was altered from the book version–possibly because the book’s version of events is rather more complex.

Anyway, this was an entertaining read and my favorite sections concerned Madeline’s observations of Nathan and his new wife. It’s particularly galling for Madeline to see her ex Nathan and his second wife and their child at Pirriwee school. He walked out on Madeline when Abigail was a baby and provided no support. Now he appears to be a nauseatingly “upgraded version,” of a husband and father, going to Yoga, volunteering for the homeless. To Madeline, Bonnie who is into “yoga and chakras” and who probably gave “organic blow jobs,” doesn’t seem like a real person:

Even though she’d known Bonnie for years now, even though they’d had a hundred civil conversations, she still didn’t seem like a real person . She felt like a caricature to Madeline. It was impossible to imagine her doing anything normal. Was she ever grumpy? Did she ever yell? Fall about laughing? Eat too much? Drink too much? Call out for someone to bring her toilet paper? Lose her car keys? Was she ever just a human being? Did she ever stop talking in that creepy, singsong yoga teacher voice? 

While this may seem like a ‘beach read’ (and it is highly readable, btw) there are a lot of truisms here. Bullying, dominance, status, parenting and control are all examined here, and author Liane Moriarty knows how to weave suspense. When the book opens, it seems entirely possible that the violence on Trivia Night exploded between some of the mothers, and the tension between Renata’s supporters and Madeline’s supporters could certainly, plausibly, reach the level of violence, but for those of us who’ve seen the series, we know the violence has another root cause. 

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