Author Archives: Guy Savage

The Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

“You think police work is all about brainwork. It’s not. It’s about telling a story.”

Police detectives must, by the nature of their jobs, drop into the messy points of people’s lives. This is certainly true in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A-35. Bertrand Barthelme, a prominent lawyer in the town of Saint Louis, is found dead at the wheel of his green Mercedes. It’s a rainy November night, and the simple explanation is that the driver fell asleep at the wheel and careened off the road colliding with a tree.

The accident on the A35

Chief Inspector Gorski, who always contemplates the methods of his much more popular predecessor, is determined to keep an “open mind” about the accident. Gorski decides to break the bad news to Barthelme’s family himself–partly due to the status of the deceased. Saint Louis, “a place of little note, situated at the Dreyeckland, the junction of Germany, Switzerland and eastern France,” is a small, suffocating town, where everyone knows everyone else, and a few families, the old money families, pull a lot of strings.

The town’s twenty thousand inhabitants can be divided into three groups: those who have no aspiration to live somewhere less dreary; those who lack the wherewithal to leave; and those who, for reasons best known to themselves, like it. 

Gorksi visits the Barthelme mansion which is guarded by the housekeeper, Thérèse, an unpleasant woman who has been with the family for years. Ushered into Lucette Barthelme’s bedroom to break the news, Gorski is surprised to discover that the new widow is young and attractive, but then, after all, she was Barthelme’s second wife. When Gorski breaks the news of her husband’s death, to Lucette there’s “something curious in her subdued response.” Ditto the son, Raymond, who has been listening to the movements of the late night visitor.

Even though no one (except perhaps Thérèse) mourns Barthelme’s death, Lucette asks Gorksi to look into the accident that killed her husband. According to Lucette, he was at his club and would not have been on that particular road at that time of night, and so Gorksi begins to poke around ….

The death of Barthelme should be an open and shut case, but Gorksi isn’t quite satisfied.  After questioning the dead lawyer’s acquaintances, Gorski hits a brick wall, but then he begins to make a connection to a high profile murder in another town.  Influenced by his desire to keep contact with the lovely widow, a damsel in distress who meets Gorksi in her negligee,  Gorksi, who finds any excuse to knock back alcohol, embarks on an investigation that appears to be blocked at every turn. He’s the object of disrespect at the police station and only has the job because of his father-in-law, the Mayor. Then there’s Gorski’s marriage which has long since been flushed down the toilet–even if Gorksi hasn’t quite grasped that. Gorski vacillates between thinking he misses his wife and enjoying the luxury of a sort-of holiday from her.

While this sounds like a police procedural, that is too inadequate a description for this unusual, engaging crime novel. The novel has a feel of Simenon, but ultimately The Accident on the A-35 cannot be filed away quite so neatly. Two marriages are under scrutiny here: and in both cases, people married ‘up’ and lived in oppressive circumstances. The death of Barthelme frees his widow and also unleashes Gorksi to indulge in the ultimate investigation mistake: squeezing a crime into a created narrative. This is a compelling tale which captures the oppressiveness of small town life, the lure of distractions, career and marriage frustrations and yes, also, the death of a prominent lawyer. There’s one brilliantly created scene that takes place at a restaurant between Gorksi and his wife. When it seems that Gorksi has been stood up, with simmering resentment and deep humiliation in front of the other smirking customers, he orders for himself.

Gorski got up, knocking the table with his thigh. The wine bottle teetered for a moment, before Céline reached out and steeled it. She allowed him to kiss her on both cheeks. In her heels, she was half a head taller than him. 

He mumbled an apology. “I assumed you weren’t coming. The kitchen was closing.”

Céline looked at him. “You’re drunk. she said.”

This is, of course, a power play, a marital maneuver, in which Céline takes revenge for earlier humiliation, knowing that her husband will polish off a bottle of wine before her grand entrance.

The novel purports to be written by the now deceased Raymond Brunet and translated by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I was only annoyed by these diversions and thought the novel stood strongly without that extra wrapping.

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this.

Review copy

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Burnet Graeme Macrae, Fiction

An Untouched House: Willem Frederik Hermans

an untouched house

An Untouched House from Willem Frederik Hermans covers a brief period in 1944 during WWII. The novel opens with the protagonist, a Dutchman, one of a group of partisans, trudging through the ravaged countryside when the men stop for a rest. Immediately the author sets the scene for war as spectacle when the narrator notes a dogfight that rages in the skies above:

All of the combatants seemed to be taking it easy as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine. The only thing happening: a high altitude dogfight, two against one. I watched it, a blade of dry grass stuck between my teeth. Like skywriters the fighter pilots were drawing a pattern of white loops on the blue background, as if for our entertainment and no other reason.

There’s also a sense of chaos. The narrator cannot communicate with anyone else in his unit as the partisan band is composed of mainly Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians. Even though the Germans are the common enemy, after a friendly fire incident, the Russians hauled off, and executed, five of the partisans. As the raggle taggle band of men, thirsty and tired, continue to forge ahead, they enter a spa town which appears to be abandoned. After slaughtering any Germans who stand in their way, some of the partisans enter a bar and start drinking. The narrator isn’t allowed to join them; he’s shoved away with the words “Booby Trap” shouted at him repeatedly.  And so the narrator keeps walking. He discovers a house, standing in the middle of a “sloping, dark green law,” an oasis of calm, civilization and peace, that appears to be untouched by the war.

Imagine never having been anywhere other than here, or having conquered this house, this hill, as the solution to a riddle. 

He wipes his feet on the mat, and with a feeling of reverence, he enters the house.  There’s a pot of soup simmering on the stove. Whoever lived in the house left in a hurry:

Draped over a sofa was a lady’s coat. It spoke like the objects in detective stories. It said: although I am expensive I am lying here carelessly bunched together. Someone who was about to put me on and step through the door dropped me here. She’s noticed she’d forgotten something.

The temptation just to take a few moments of peace and quiet … to linger … and to have  a bath is simply too much, and so the narrator strips off his uniform and takes a bath.

I stood before a mirror in which I could see myself from head to toe to shave. If I had a room lined entirely with mirrors I could stay in it forever without getting bored like Robinson Crusoe on his island.

Those who fight wars have an entirely different reality from those who stay at home. This is especially true for the wealthy, and whoever lived in this house obviously led a pleasant life of plenty right up until the moment they fled. The contrast between the life of the narrator and the life he steps into is startling, so it’s perfectly understandable when he lingers.

This is a dark, brutal, haunting portrayal of war. Human nature is reduced to its most basic level: survival, but there’s also great cruelty here, a confusion of loyalties and values.  Many war novels emphasize camaraderie between men, especially WWI novels, but there’s no camaraderie here. The partisans are fighting the Germans, but that’s as far as the ties go. There are no relationships between the men, only aggression, and the aggression, when it occurs is vile, explosive, base and primal.

Review copy

Translated by David Colmer

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hermans Willem Frederik

The Lady Killer: Masako Togawa (1963)

Earlier this year I read Masako Togawa’s The Master Key–a rather claustrophobic novel set in a decaying apartment house. Time to try The Lady Killer also from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo line of crime novels. This novel which pivots on revenge concerns a married Lothario whose approach to casual sex and one-night stands assumes nightmarish proportions as a serial killer hunts women in post WWII Tokyo.

Unhappy, overworked, 19 year-old Keiko Obana is not used to bars or drinking alcohol, but one night, with life stagnant and despressing, she makes the fatal error of entering a bar and drinking too much. She’s easy prey for a man who picks her up, has sex with her and then walks out of her life. It’s a simple one-night stand, casual sex with no repercussions, right? IMO casual sex is an oxymoron–not from a moral point of view, but from a consequences (long-term, short-term) viewpoint. Yes I’m sure that many people manage it effectively but other people are far too brittle and Keiko, a virgin, is one of those brittle people.

the lady killer

Fast forward six months and Keiko, pregnant and alone, commits suicide. Meanwhile the man who seduced her, married Ichiro Honda, continues to lead his double life. With his affluent wife safely stashed in Osaka, he lives in hotel rooms and hides his various disguises, all aimed at the seduction of young, lonely women, in a rented apartment.

Honda had a way with women. He had the faculty of penetrating their psychology at the first meeting. Was the woman interested in the arts? Very well, he would be a musician or a painter. 

Honda is a narcissist. He keeps a detailed journal, “The Huntsman’s Log,” of his conquests and he’s adopted the methods of a killer. He stalks women, and then frequently presents himself as a foreigner, faking a coy vulnerability to catch his prey off guard. When some of the women from his past are murdered, Honda, who really wants to think it’s a coincidence, finds out the hard way that his actions have consequences.

The novel’s premise is intriguing: Honda is a predator who thinks what he does is harmless. He gives women what he decides they want by filling a void in their dull lives. He has no clue about the damage he does, and the serial killer seems to deliver the coup de grâce.

The Lady Killer creates two predators: a serial seducer and a serial killer. The author creates similarities between the Modus Operandi of both emphasizing Honda’s calculated approaches such as “drinking the stale blood” of one woman’s “missed romance” and seeing women as “no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair.” The killer is on the heels of the seducer, and Honda is soon in so deep, he can’t see a way out.

While The Master Key examines the lives of spinsters and widows, The Lady Killer takes a cold hard look at the lives of the lonely women who step out into social life. The novel is strongest for its descriptions of Tokyo night life with its tinsel attractions, where “the aroma of Tokyo seemed to be compounded of darkness and neon.” Unfortunately, for this reader, the story became rather lurid and distasteful in its details and concluded with a long exposition which wrapped up the story.

Review copy

Translated by Simon Grove

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Togawa Masako

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

“It is a dreadful misfortune not to be loved when we are in love, but it is a very great one to be loved passionately when we have ceased to love.”

My Penguin Classics edition of Adolphe includes a long introduction from translator Leonard Tancock regarding the life of its author, Benjamin Constant and his relationships with three women: Mme de Charrière, Madame de Staël and Anna Lindsay. Tancock notes that Adolphe’s Ellenore is an “amalgam of Benjamin’s experience with women,” and no doubt that explains why this novella is so powerful.

 

Adolphe is not a particularly appealing protagonist, and this is in spite of, or perhaps even because, he has control of the narrative, so that we only see things from his one-sided view.  The story begins when Adolphe is 22 and has just concluded his university studies. He’s bored and in society, he feels that nothing is “worthy of attracting” his attention. Influenced by his father’s attitude towards women, and in a “state of vague emotional torment,” he longs for a love affair. He is invited by a friend of his father’s, Count P, to visit, and it’s here that Adolphe meets Ellenore, a Polish woman “whose family had been ruined.”  In spite of the fact that Ellenore is the Count’s mistress and they live openly together, she is socially accepted by the Count’s circle. Ellenore and the Count have two children together, and it’s mainly due to Ellenore’s persistence that the Count’s fortunes have been restored following a successful lawsuit. So Ellenore is an unusual prospect for Adolphe–a woman of high station who has risked everything for love.  Because of scandal and social stigma, Ellenore would normally have the sort of ignominious position that demands that she be stashed away from society, but no, she’s rather unusually not hidden–accepted yes but with a stain.  This makes Ellenore an intriguing and also a vulnerable prospect for seduction.

Adolphe lays siege to Ellenore. At first his attentions are pleasant:

I did not think I was in love with Ellenore, but already I could not endure the thought of not pleasing her. She was continually in my thoughts: I made countless plans and invented countless ways of winning her, with that callow fatuity which is so confident of success because it has never attempted anything.

When Adolphe is rejected, instead of taking the hint and cooling down, he doubles down on the pressure:

I was stunned. Inflamed by this setback, my imagination took possession of my whole life. Suddenly I found myself racked by the torments of love which but an hour before I had been simulating with such-self-congratulation.

Poor Ellenore, Adolphe is determined to have her and so he resorts to the ultimate threat. Ellenore is moved, gives in, and so the affair begins. It’s a relationship that’s doomed from the start, and the road towards that finality begins with a bump or two but then becomes tortured, troubled and loaded with self deceit. There are times when Adolphe deceives himself (not the reader) and there are times when he’s blisteringly honest. It becomes all too easy to see that one person is the root of all your problems. One person is holding you back from the brilliant career you know awaits you.

Nearly always , so as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other. 

This wonderful novella explores the crucial issues of any relationship: where exactly the ME and the US begins and ends and how novelty adds glitter to an affair while routine and obligation bury the thrill.

And yet the affairs of ordinary life cannot be forced to fit in with all our desires. It was sometimes awkward to have my every step marked out for me in advance and all my moments counted. I was obliged to hurry through everything I did and break with most of my acquaintances. I did not know what to say to my friends when they invited me to take part in some social activity in normal circumstances I should have had no reason for declining. When I was with Ellenore I did not hanker after these pleasures of social life which had never appealed to me very strongly, but I would have liked her to leave me freer to give them up of my own accord. It would have been pleasanter to go back to her of my own free will, without telling myself that time was up and she was anxiously waiting, and without the thought of my happiness at rejoining her being mingled with that of her displeasure. Ellenore was a great joy in my life, of course, but she was no longer an objective, she had become a tie. 

For its focus on a turbulent dying relationship Adolphe reminded me of  Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Une Vieille Maîtresse.

7 Comments

Filed under Constant Benjamin, Fiction

Sentimental Tales: Mikhail Zoshchenko

“No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands.  For his own peace of mind, the author prefers to plop down with a foreign book.”

Sentimental Tales from Columbia University Press contains six of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s stories. I was attracted to this selection mainly due to the period in which the stories were written: The NEP period (The New Economic Policy 1921-1928), and the introduction gives an explanation of this era “Lenin introduced with the main aim of stabilizing a war-ravaged economy” and which “brought elements of capitalism–including, inadvertently speculation and profiteering into the workers’ state.” I’m not an expert on Russian history, but I’m fascinated by it–the revolution, the civil war, and then this rather bizarre short-lived NEP period which began before the death of Lenin (1924) and Stalin’s rise to power.

sentimental tales

Again I’m quoting from the introduction:

Into the fraught sociocultural landscape stepped Zoshchenko, a satirist who hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.

After reading these stories in which Ukrainian Zoshchenko (1894-1958) takes swipes at everyone, I am amazed that the author survived the Purges. Again, the introduction goes into the subject of Zoshchenko’s “gallows humor,” his “devastating indictment of Soviet life, and of life in general,” and the critical responses to his work.

Kolenkorov is our rather chatty narrator, and while no one escapes his scathing wit, still these stories, in spite of their focus on human frailties, are poignant:

Apollo and Tamara

People

A Terrible Night

What the Nightingale Sang

A Merry Adventure

Lilacs in Bloom

Apollo and Tamara is a love story. Apollo, a “pianist-for-hire, musician, and freelance artist,” is “graced with the countenance of a Lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families,” but, in reality he’s timid around women, and uses his devotion to Art to avoid any commitments. Apollo falls in love but is drafted into the army. Apollo’s life goes downhill. …

People is the story of Ivan Ivanovich Belokopytov whose father is obsessed with French culture.  Belokopytov inherits a large estate, and “always rich and secure” he gives away his most of fortune believing that “human beings should make their own way in the world.” Besieged by relatives, peasants and a revolutionary group, Ivan starts writing “his first little book of poems for publication, under the title, A Bouquet of Mignonette.” After being placed under surveillance for his political sympathies, Ivan leaves Russia in 1910 but returns, after marrying a Russian Ballerina, as the Revolution rages on.

Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev is the main character in A Terrible Night. In many ways, Boris appears to have landed on his feet when he marries his landlady and becomes: “lord and master of the entire estate. The wheel, the shed, the rake, the stone–all these were now his inalienable property.” Boris becomes obsessed with the idea that Chance has played a huge factor in his life and so “he tried to avoid it.” Thanks to his belief that Chance can break or break a life, a series of events takes Boris to a “former teacher of Calligraphy” who has fallen on hard times. This meeting seeds unease in Boris which cannot be shaken.

In When the Nightingale Sang, a love story, the narrator imagines what people will say in a hundred years, and there’s a passage that seemed very true.

And will it really be wondrous, this future life? That’s another question. For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we are living. 

This tale concerns a middle-aged civil servant, Bylinkin whose “stock began to rise” in middle age. His hair may be thinning, but his “figure had filled out. He had reabsorbed. so to speak, the vital juices of which he’d been drained.” Fate leads him to take a room at the home of the elderly Daria Vasilyevna Rundukova “who was afraid that, due to the housing crisis, their living space per person might be reduced with the forcible introduction of some crude and superfluous individual.” 

A Merry Adventure, which contains a long chat from the narrator to the audience, the subject of Russian literature is raised

Now let’s look at our precious Russian literature. First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in characters’ faces all the time. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Always flinging curses at each other. Badly dressed. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep.

No, the author doesn’t agree with this kind of literature. Sure, there might be lots of good and brilliant books in it, and who the hell knows how many profound ideas and various words–but the author just can’t find emotional balance and joy in any of it.

I mean why is it that the French can depict all these excellent, calming aspects of life and we can’t? Come on comrades–for pity’s sake! What–is there a shortage of good facts in our life? Are we lacking in light and cheerful adventures? Or are we, in your opinion, low on ravishing heroines?

In Lilacs in Bloom, after assessing her living arrangements, profession and income, Volodin marries Margarita. His material comfort increases, but after three years of married life, he falls in love with another woman. …

The connections between the stories of love, life and regret are the absurdities and meaninglessness of life. Love, success, comfort are all set against the instability and unpredictability of Russian society. One can strive for decades and it will all be for nought. Reading these reminded me of Dostoevsky’s lighter work. Wonderful.

Review copy

Translated by Boris Dralyuk

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction

So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighborhood: Patrick Modiano

After reading several Modiano novels, I decided to take a break, but a recent foray into the TBR stacks led to me selecting So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. This is a short novel (my copy runs just over 150 pages) and it’s a typical Modiano novel concerned with memory and identity. The book opens with a strange phone call to the protagonist, Jean Daragane. We are dropped into Jean’s isolated life with no explanation, and the phone call (it’s the first time the phone has rung in months) is from a man who says he’s found an address book that belongs to Jean. The man, Gilles Ottolini, insists on meeting Jean to return the book, and there’s something here that makes Jean uncomfortable. Gilles has a slightly threatening manner, and he’s certainly pushy, but then again perhaps Jean, who isn’t used to human contact, feels that his space and privacy is invaded.

The two men meet and it soon becomes clear that Gilles wants something from Jean. Gilles begins asking about a name in the address book, a “certain” Guy Torsel, but Jean has no memory of the man that belongs to the name, and a glance at the outdated telephone number in the address book “means nothing.” Gradually over the course of a short time, Jean begins to recall, slowly, how he met Guy Torsel and the significance of the man and a circle of other long forgotten people.

Gilles and a young woman begin to penetrate (invade) Jean’s life. There’s a surreal quality here as Gilles hints that Jean knows more than he’s letting on, and Jean seems to have no idea what Gilles is talking about. Of course all the answers lie in the past, and the path to the past is through memory. As Jean’s memory gradually peels back time, details emerge from the forgotten recesses of his mind, and this is where the novel is strongest.

These words had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to begin with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane. 

Jean has forgotten chunks of his past and along with those memories, he’s also let slip thoughts of people he once knew, people who inhabited Jean’s life, or perhaps passed through briefly. There’s a point at which Jean tries to search on the internet for people from his past, but he can’t find them.

The rare people whom he would have liked to trace had succeeded in escaping the vigilance of this machine. They had slipped through the net because they belonged to another age.

Modiano’s approach to memory is fascinating. He chews over this subject, noting every nuance, every angle, every sensation. Rather uncannily, I recently came across an old address book, and found a name or two I couldn’t tie to anyone I remembered. For a brief moment, I thought I was living in a Modiano novel. The author certainly nails the descriptions of memory, shards of memory, and how sometimes, in order to remember, we have to burrow into a time and a place that have long since been forgotten. Still at the end of the novel, I was left wanting a bit more plot.

On a final note, remember that Hemingway parody contest? 

Not to denigrate Modiano, but has anyone heard of a Modiano parody contest?

In the end we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful. We just lie back and allow ourselves to float along calmly over the deep waters, with our eyes closed.

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

Early Work: Andrew Martin

“Most of my friends were superficial and unpleasant.”

I’m a sucker for certain literary themes: and the flailing writer/academic is a great favourite, so Andrew Martin’s debut novel, Early Work, drew me in.  Protagonist Peter Cunningham is supposedly working on a novel, but … it’s not working out well.

Early work

The novel opens with Peter attending a party at the home of a “New Age-leaning woman named Anna whose family, through what specific brand of plunder I don’t know, owned a gigantic house out in horse country.”

Anna was magnificently curly-haired and just shy of troublingly thin, with a squished cherubic face that seemed to promise PG-13 secrets. She’s grown up in the area and had recently moved back for somewhat mysterious reasons, possibly involving a now ex-boyfriend’s arrest for dealing prescription drugs. She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely suppressed rage.

Anna’s “family compound” has the look of a “nouveau hunting lodge,” and Peter, who arrives solo as his long-term girlfriend, medical student Julia, is working, gets a good look at one of the guests through a kitchen window. The woman, Peter soon learns, is Leslie, and once they meet, an immediate banter flows:

Leslie grinned at me, the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call, it. Love.

Leslie is also a writer, and so the connections between Peter and Leslie are solidified. Peter disregards his current relationship and finds himself competing for Leslie’s attention over the dinner table. Quite soon, it’s clear that Peter’s relationship with Julia is problematic. He doesn’t care if she’s “thinking about someone else,” during sex, and while Peter considers that he’s “intellectually compatible” with Julia, he admits that “neither of us quite expected not to” have sex with “anyone else for the rest of our lives.” 

Dig a little deeper and there are failed ambitions on all sides here. Julia writes poetry, but has plunged into a medical career. Peter met Julia in college, but then he later moved onto Yale and discovered that the PhD program was, for him, a horrible mistake. Deciding “novelists don’t need PhDs. They don’t need shit,”  he dropped out and moved to Virginia to join Julia who was attending med school. The plan was that Peter would write the Great Novel, so as a couple, they’ve become each other’s complex excuses: his drop-out school war chest money supported Julia, and he will have the literary career Julia has turned away from. But as we all know, it’s just not that easy to write a novel let alone sell it:

the book was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of fire and ice that were they imagining.

So this is why we find Peter teaching at a women’s correctional facility and chafing at his relationship with Julia.

I enjoyed parts of this novel and its take on career failures and failures in love. Peter’s voice was sharp and witty but occasionally grating. The main problem was that I really disliked the foul-mouthed Leslie and failed to see her charm. She’s a walking disaster (one of Woody Allen’s Kamikaze Women), but then when was love ever logical? Beyond that, the ending was wobbly, and it was difficult to connect with the characters who are a fairly privileged, vacuous spoiled lot.

review copy

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Martin Andrew

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

“The slivers of ice which were her buried resentments against Leonard strangely hardening rather than melting in her astonishingly found new climate.”

I can’t remember where I first heard the name of author Celia Dale, or how I came across her books, but a recent dig through the TBR stacks led me to grab Helping With Inquiries, a novel from 1979. At first I thought I was reading a police procedural, but no, this is a deeply psychological character study–a tale of bitterness, isolation, control and motivation for murder.

helping with inquiries

Helping with Inquiries (and what a great innocuous title that is) begins with Leonard Henderson, a married man in his 60s, a creature of absolute rigid habit, an advertising manager at an old-fashioned dying company, arriving back home after a day’s work. Leonard and his wife, Enid live in a pleasant, semi-detached home in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood. It’s a terrible shock, then, for Leonard to return home to Cherrywood Crescent and find his wife Enid, a woman that no one seems to really know or talk to, battered to death in the front room.

The Hendersons have lived next door to the their neighbours, the Thorpes for over 20 years, and although they share a “thin party-wall” the two couples only ever exchanged a nod or the few odd words. The Thorpes heard nothing, saw nothing, and are in a state of shock that something like this could have happened in their quiet street.

D.S Simpson and DI Hogarth, two very different men with two very different styles investigate the case. There’s a definite good-cop-bad cop game afoot with Simpson’s strong social skills and affability and the laconic Hogarth who prefers to ambush suspects and witnesses with rudeness. Whereas Simpson is “delighted” by human nature “as intriguing manifestations of the bizarre,” Hogarth is interested in motive only in as much as it furthers the investigation

This view of his profession gave him a majestic insensitivity which was often useful, outraging or stunning people into shows of emotion that under gentler handling they might have controlled. While they erupted or collapsed, a mind as shrewd if not as intelligent as any judge’s ticked away inside Hogarth’s balding head. If there were something to be noticed, assessed, slotted into place, Hogarth would do it.

As the police detectives poke around the Henderson home, they discover that while no one seems to really know Enid (she has no friends, no social life) she was a magpie, “her untidiness had been concealed, stuffed into drawers and cupboards.”  According to Leonard his wife was “a middle-aged woman, –a domesticated, simple, not very clever housewife,” and yet someone hated her enough to beat her to death. But is this a random crime? There’s an alley that runs along the back of the houses. Did some “maniac” wander into the home and murder Enid? 

As the novel unfolds, a couple of suspects emerge. Leonard is required to make a written statement, and Leonard’s short, succinct sentences are then juxtaposed with the history of Leonard’s miserable childhood, dominated by a cold, cruel and domineering woman while Leonard’s father cringed in the background. As Leonard’s statement later continues to explain how he met Enid, author Celia Dale cleverly reconstructs their courtship and married life. Enid is dead when the book opens, and yet her character is constructed in detail, so that just who she really was is clearly evident.

Yes, this is a crime book, but it’s brilliantly constructed with Dale showing just how much can be accomplished by a crime novel, and while bulky DI Hogarth may not care about motive, readers do. Dale creates a fascinating picture of domestic life and an inexorable case of murder.

Finally, Dale can write. There are some marvellous moments here–most I can’t include due to spoilers. At one point, Leonard lands a job, after the war, at Forbes’ for Furnishing.

Behind their majestic frontage decline and fall could be sensed. The Board was ageing, the holding company impatient for them to be gone; real estate was more real now than Forbes’ for Furnishing. There was no future there and Leonard knew it with a bitterness that burned deeply behind his cool facade. The Advertising Department consisted of no more than Leonard himself, whatever trainee youth was going through the store, and a typist. The advertisement copy was written by an outside agency and appeared mainly in appropriate local and provincial newspapers. It was, he knew sourly, a dead end job. But at least, he was, at last, Manager.

Enid’s happiness was tactlessly great. She brought a bottle of sparkling white wine with which to celebrate his first week, kissed him and pressed her face against his for a moment. ‘I’m so glad for you Lenny darling. It’s such a relief. I know how anxious you’ve been all these months. And being in an old-fashioned firm’s much nicer really, isn’t it. even if it’s not quite so important.’

In a way she was right. Shutting his mind to everything he might have preferred, he sank himself into the work, treating his tiny department as though it were the most important in the firm, himself its ruler. So the years settled in Cherrywood Crescent, muffling all sounds. 

The book is also a snapshot of its times with reference to Mrs Woodhouse, Women’s Lib and bottom-pinching considered normal behaviour at work.

7 Comments

Filed under Dale Celia, Fiction

The Bear and the Paving Stone: Toshiyuki Horie

“There is nothing more dangerous than a stupid friend. A wise enemy is far better.”

In The Bear and the Paving Stone Japanese author Toshiyuki Horie gives us three tales which explore friendship, the importance of shared memories and the elusiveness of human motivation.

The Bear and the Paving Stone

The Sandman is Coming

In the Old Castle

In The Bear and the Paving Stone, a young Japanese translator meets his friend Yann in Normandy. The two men haven’t seen each other in some time, and Yann, a “perpetual freelancer, unbound by a company schedule,” works part of the year and uses his wages to travel and take photographs. Yann has the tendency to drop out of sight, and this time the translator catches Yann, who is living in a remote cottage miles from the closest village, just before he leaves for Ireland. The two young men spend some time together reminiscing about their shared past, and discuss a range of topics including Bettelheim, Littré  and the holocaust. At one point, Yann puzzles over the question why people don’t flee when war moves close to their homes, and the narrator ponders on the subject:

In the limited reality that I knew, I’d never have to flee for my life, and it was unlikely to happen now. If I went somewhere, I always returned. I left Paris and came to this village; soon enough I would go back to Paris, then I would go back to Tokyo. But in a way I was always at home. If you were to make a contact sheet of all my journeys. and looked at them retrospectively, it would be clear that all my travels were return trips, and that I never drifted anywhere. In that sense, Yann and I were different. Even though there’s something about us that’s connected, we’re moving in different directions, and we’re never going to collide. 

The Bear and the Paving Stone is a philosophical novella which captures conversations between two men who share values. The talks not only reveal shared opinions but also reveal, possibly, the reasons behind Yann’s restlessness and his interest in war photography. In arguably the novella’s best scene, Yann offers his guest a photograph as a gift, but it’s a gift the translator doesn’t want. He would prefer “a quieter image.”

When Yann travels to Ireland, the translator spends time with Yann’s landlady,  and again a few casual conversations reveal a great deal of pain. By the conclusion of the story, the translator begins to understand why his friendship with Yann works so well.

The bear and the paving stone

In The Sandman is Coming, another very interior tale (even though it’s set on a beach), the narrator meets a woman walking on the beach with her daughter. The narrator used to be a friend of the woman’s brother, but 18 years have passed, and during that passage of time, the brother has died after a long illness. The woman, who once seemed to have the possibility of a good career, dropped out of school and married, but the marriage ended in divorce.

It’s the second anniversary of the death of the narrator’s friend, and he’s come to visit the family, and he finds himself taking a walk with his friend’s sister on the beach. There’s something melancholy about a deserted beach–especially if the day isn’t bright.

The third story: In the Old Castle, a translator takes a train to meet an old friend. The friend. “had always had trouble finding a girlfriend,” but now he supposedly has found “the one.” The new girlfriend isn’t quite what the translator expected. For one thing, she’s ten years older and rather shabbily dressed, but she’s also interesting. The friends decide to explore an old castle which is undergoing a restoration. Even though the place is overseen by a grumpy, antisocial groundskeeper and a Doberman, the narrator and his friend climb over a fence into the ruined castle, and of course, things don’t go well.

Of the three tales, The Bear and the Paving Stone was easily my favourite. It’s much deeper and stayed with me long after the conclusion. In this rich story, the author explores a range of subjects including how our choice of friends says a great deal about us, but it’s only in the best of friendships that we learn more about ourselves.

Translated by Geraint Howells

Review copy

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Horie Toshiyuki

The Murder of My Aunt: Richard Hull (1934)

Murder has several sub-categories: there’s the Crime of Passion, murders for monetary gain, murders for revenge, and the list goes on. When the victim is known to the murderer, naturally, the possibility of motive (or motives) can help solve the case. So the dilemma arises, then– how to murder someone if it’s obvious that you are the most likely culprit?

The Murder of my aunt

Edward Powell lives with his Aunt Mildred just outside of the Welsh town of Llwll (which Edward pronounces ‘Filth.’) Edward prefers Surrey, but if he could choose to live anywhere, he would move abroad. The novel opens with snobbish, pretentious Edward launching into a long vitriolic attack on Wales.

There is a high street. It has a post office, from which the letters are occasionally deviled and occasionally not–some grocers, dealing almost entirely in tinned food of the most elementary and obvious kind at fifty per cent more than the proper price; and some butchers, selling mainly New Zealand lamb, Danish bacon and Argentine beef, which is ridiculous in a countryside which, whatever its defects, is full of sheep–peculiarly stupid sheep–and very inquisitive pigs.

There’s one cinema in town but Edward does “not consent to be seen” there as the locals smell. But then does Edward like anything? Yes he does, he loves leisure, loves his car which is named “La Joyeuse,” loves his Pekingese So-So, and loves his French novels

Edward and his Aunt Mildred are more like each other than they’d care to admit, and the two embark on a contest of wills concerning Edward’s smutty (according to his Aunt)  French novels. Edward wants the latest shipment delivered to his aunt’s house and she wants him to start hoofing it to town to pick up the package. A power struggle ensues over petrol with Edward planning to siphon petrol from his Aunt’s car, but she’s so intent on making him walk, that she actually siphons the petrol off herself.

With just a tiny amount of petrol salvaged from his Aunt’s sabotage attempts, Edward tries to drive to the town and then is forced, when the car runs out of petrol, to walk. He realises that he’s the laughing-stock of the townspeople and is so angry, he swears he will kill his Aunt. This is where Edward’s problems take a turn: how can he kill his Aunt, who is both the guardian and trustee of the family nestegg, when he is her heir, and her death will, naturally,  leave him as the only suspect? Edward reasons that her death must be an ‘accident,’ and so he proceeds to create one … or two …or three.

The story is mostly narrated, unreliably, by Edward, so we get his side of things: his victimhood, his loathing of all things Welsh, etc, and yet reading between the lines, Edward is a lazy, good-for-nothing, who sponges off his Aunt. She wants him to get a job, horror of horrors, which he feels is “degrading,” although he toys with the idea of being a poet. At one point in the book I thought that Edward’s sole redeeming feature was his love for his Pekingese So-So, but one of my favourite sayings is : “sometimes you don’t want to be the object of someone’s affection,” and this is certainly the case with poor So-So, so reader beware. I think the passages concerning So-So’s involvement with one of the fabricated accidents is meant to be ‘funny,’ but it really isn’t.

The book presents a ‘pressure cooker’ murder (a term I use to describe a murder that is created by enforced proximity–a situation so intense that murder of one of the parties seems to be the only solution–when it isn’t in fact. The real solution is that one of the parties involved should move away … asap.) For its structure the novel is sound, and its psychological aspects fascinating, but it is a mostly interior tale which involves Edward’s long complaints: Wales, his aunt, the locals, etc. They all get a sound whipping, and while these passages are witty and entertaining, the lack of action makes the novel drag at some points. Plus I can’t forgive the incident with So-So.

Review copy.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hull Richard