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Happy Hour: Marlowe Granados

“You should always keep old friends happy because they know more about you than you’d like.”

Add Happy Hour from author Marlowe Granados to the sub-genre: New York novels. This episodic novel, in diary-form, covering just a few months, is written by 21-year-old Isa Epley who arrives in New York followed by her friend Gala Novek. It’s a chaotic beginning with the two young women moving in on the night their apartment neighbours decide to throw a party. In an informal arrangement, they rent the top apartment from another young woman who is spending the summer surfing. Gala and Isa survive by selling clothes on a market stall–that’s their day job, but life really begins at night in the bars, clubs and parties as these two young women coast through life. Making various contacts, and Gala has a particular talent for this, they tell everyone they meet that “we’re trying to find little jobs here and there.” Cash of course. And so they swim their way through various New York opportunities to make a little cash.

At one point they attend a talk with a “French economic theorist” who has written a best seller. They are out of their depth–it’s not the right crowd. Gala “tried to accommodate a dress code. Her version of business casual was a loose white linen suit with a sheer shirt underneath the jacket, buttoned so one could see her belly button.

During the talk, Gala asks Isa “Do you think they have a list of who’s in the One Percent?” which really cuts to the heart of the matter. They work on a movie set, fill seats in a new club to flesh out the crowd, attend parties with the rich and famous, attend castings, and with any luck food and drinks come with whatever gigs they pull.

Overall, due to the subject matter, I found it hard to maintain my interest. I had hoped for something along the lines of Tana Janowitz or Jay McInerney. Isa and Gala are two resilient young women who hustle to survive, and it’s very tenuous. They are young, and beautiful, but won’t be forever. A glamorous life is fine if you can afford it, but a poignant, tinsel effort if one cannot.

On the upside, I liked parts of it, when, for example, Isa wonders:

whether my memories should stay only mine, or have they ever been? Each time I tell someone a story over a watery pernod, it opens that someone to the possibility of the memory.

And

In the end I know I am passionate about glamour–because it is illusive, hard to define, yet identifiable.

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The Way We Die Now: Charles Willeford (1988)

“That’s my life’s ambition, to grow old and be a burden on someone.”

In The Way We Die Now, Hoke Moseley is back for the fourth and final (sob) novel. This is a phenomenal, hard-boiled crime series from Charles Willeford, and The Way We Die Now is the darkest, most violent and bleakest of the novels. Hoke’s world vision hasn’t improved with the years spent with Miami homicide. His career has spanned some incredible changes in Miami: gentrification of Miami neighbourhoods, inflation and the influx of Cuban refugees. But the changes have also been personal for Hoke: first a female partner, Alita Sanchez in the second novel, New Hope for the Dead. Then his ex-wife departs for California with her new husband and dumps Hoke’s two daughters on his doorstep. Professionally, affirmative action begins in the workplace and Hoke rolls with all the changes, but the hardest of all … laws about cigarette smoking.

The Way We Die Now finds Hoke still working cold cases. When the book opens, he’s chewing over the cold-case murder of a doctor. 3 years ago, the doctor’s garage door opener was stolen, and about a week after that, the doctor was shot as he exited his car. The murder seemed like a professional hit, and the case quickly grew cold. But the doctor’s widow married one of her husband’s partners, and that, to Hoke, seems to point towards motive. On the personal front, Hoke is still living with Alita Sanchez, her baby son, and his two daughters. Trouble arrives in the form of a convicted murderer who, thanks to a technicality, has been released after serving just a fraction of his sentence. The man, Donald Dutton, who was accused, tried and convicted of murdering his brother, swore to get even with Hoke, the homicide detective on the case. In the time that has passed since Donald’s conviction, Hoke hasn’t aged well. He’s lost most of his hair, all his teeth, and he has a paunch. Donald, on the other hand, is dashing and loaded. When Donald moves in across the street from Hoke, you know that revenge is brewing.

As with all Willeford novels, nothing is ever predictable, so what happens with Donald blindsides Hoke. Plus he’s too busy working homicide and going undercover as a favour to Major Brownley investigating missing Haitians who worked picking melons in a remote area. The novel begins with horrific violence which is then connected later to Hoke’s explosive undercover gig. Hoke discovers the hard way what happens when you are dropped in rural Florida with just a few dollars, tatty clothes, no gun and no teeth. As for what happens to Hoke, think those banjoes in Deliverance and you’d just about have it. Mention is made earlier in the tale about burglars who break into empty homes that are tented for termites and then drop like the cockroaches thanks to the poisonous fumes. This tidbit of valuable information seems random, but again it ties into Hoke’s undercover gig later.

In the earlier novels, Hoke had an anemic sex life, and at one point in The Way We Die Now, he’s offered a hand-job by a trailer park hooker. He turns down her offer. His reply: “If I wanted a hand job, I could do it myself. Women don’t do know how to do it right anyway” And somehow this mirrors Hoke’s narrow, meagre sex life which has declined and become increasingly difficult as the series continues. Hoke is an incredible creation: overweight, balding, no teeth and as we would say these days, a fashion victim, but he’s an excellent detective.

The humour in this dark, gritty novel comes partly from Hoke’s conviction that anti-smoking laws and fines in the workplace will never work. But since Charles Willeford died in 1988, at age 69, the year this novel was published, the anti smoking rifts were not meant to be funny. This is only in hindsight. But there’s other humour: Willeford twisted humour: I’ll call them Hokeisms: from yuppies, parenting, voting, marriage, and women. Also there’s the continuing saga of Hoke’s false teeth which he must part with due to his undercover gig. The trailer park hooker keeps a small coke-drinking handicapped child stuffed in a box in a cupboard inside her trailer. At one point, Hoke calls in a favour to have the child removed. Thank god, you think as a reader. But then Hoke follows the request with his opinion that the child is ruining his mother’s life. That’s a Hokeism for you. The World According to Hoke. … There are some loose ends in the novel, and yet there’s also the sense of an ending. Sadly this is the last we see of Hoke and his bleak outlook on life.

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Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

“Intimacy became a ghastly thing.”

Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the third Lucy Barton novel; Lucy’s story begins in My Name is Lucy Barton, and she also appears in Anything is Possible. In this third novel, Lucy, a successful writer living in New York, is newly widowed following the death of her much-loved second husband, David. In the aftermath of David’s death, Lucy finds herself thinking back over her life–in particular her complicated relationship with her first husband, William.

My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a–oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.

Lucy and William were married for almost 20 years, and they had 2 daughters together. Lucy came from “terribly bleak poverty,” and from snippets she drops, there’s a past of horrible abuse. The feeling of security and love that her relationship with William initially gave her was blasted into outer space when she discovered his serial infidelities which ended with William marrying, and subsequently divorcing, the ‘other woman,’ Joanne. William and Joanne had an affair for at least 6 years and were married for just 7 years. William “understood this about Joanne, that her intelligence was moderate and his attraction to her all those years had simply been the fact that she was not his wife, Lucy.”

For many years William, who works at NYU, has been married to his third wife, Estelle, 22 years his senior, and they have a child together. Lucy, who has the occasional social contact with William at social events held at his home and sometimes meetings with just William, begins to sniff that there are issues afoot. She notices that at 69, William is beginning to show his age, and at first attributes this to the night terrors William is experiencing– night terrors that are connected to his mother, Catherine. William confides in Lucy–not Estelle– about the night terrors, but perhaps he’s motivated by the fact that Lucy knew Catherine who was long dead before wife number 3 popped up. Later, Lucy overhears Estelle making an odd comment to a party guest; it’s a remark that causes Lucy a vague disquiet. Lucy’s husband dies and so Lucy shelves concerns about William, but later, Estelle, who has the most sanguine temperament, departs, possibly for younger pastures. Hardly a shock given the huge age difference. Suddenly it’s all hands on deck as both of Lucy and William’s adult daughters and Lucy begin to be concerned about William’s mental and physical well-being.

William’s mother, Catherine, was a strange creature, and while Lucy says “we loved her. Oh, we loved her; she seemed central to our marriage,” I can’t help but wonder if Lucy loved the idea of loving her mother-in-law. Catherine, who also came from harsh poverty and seemed to ‘get this’ about Lucy, didn’t always use that knowledge well. She patronized Lucy and occasionally acted in ways that could be construed as deliberately cruel. Loved the bit about how William and his mother dumped Lucy with the two small kids while they sat “somewhere else on the plane.” But that’s the thing about Lucy, her great ability to forgive and to understand people. Catherine is long-dead when the tale begins, but some great mystery from her past rears its head and causes William to ask Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to Maine. Meanwhile William and Lucy’s 2 adult daughters wonder if their parents will get back together,

While I really enjoyed the novel, I felt some frustration with Lucy, so I was glad when, on the Maine trip she pushed back on his swollen sense of self-importance. William turned out to be such a dick during their marriage, and still seems oblivious about that, so there’s a lot to forgive. Lucy manages to do just that. With William’s latest crisis, Lucy comes to the rescue and it’s all about William. Lucy is newly widowed and devastated but William’s troubles selfishly trump all in the manner emotion eaters apply to dominate the lives of others. Things are only important if William thinks they are important. No one else’s problems register–only William’s problems. William is lonely. Well, boo-hoo. Lucy is lonely too, but William is always the only important person–according to William, Lucy and their daughters. Of course, these things happen in every family. Emotional hierarchy: Handle someone with kid gloves as they are sensitive, make sure you call so-and-so as they will be put out if you don’t blah blah. Back to one of my favourite all-time quotes from Amy Witting:

This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.

This may be William’s story, but I think it’s more Lucy’s. She weaves in so many marvelous memories, and one thing that comes through loud and clear is that this woman who could be bitter and hard, instead has managed to cherish the positive in her life. The door is closed on many painful subjects, and I’m all for that. She tells her tale tentatively, creating a sort of intimacy with the reader, as if she’s still working out things in her head, so she uses phrases such as ““I need to say this,” and “please try to understand this.” She comes to revise her opinions about several people she thought she knew. I have to add here–the horrible comment Lucy made to Catherine as she was dying. Was this revenge? Or naivety?

Probably not the best idea to go on a road trip with one’s EX. Especially if he spent years deceiving you and now expects you to hold his hand and give him moral support:

As we drove I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at time those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filled up the room, your throat almost clogged with the knowledge of the other so that it seemed to practically press into your nostrils–the odor of the other’s thoughts, the self-consciousness of every spoken word, the slight flicker of an eyebrow barely raised, the barely perceptible tilting of the chin; no one but the other one would know what it meant; but you could not be free living like that, not ever.

Finally this wonderful scene illustrates William’s incredible ability to see himself as the centre of everyone’s universe.

“Did you ever have an affair with Estelle? I mean did you ever have an affair while you were married to her?” I was surprised that I asked this, that I even wondered this.

And he stopped chewing the toast he had just bitten into, and then he swallowed and said, “An affair? No, I might have messed around a few times, but I never had an affair.

“You messed around?” I asked.

“With Pam Carlson. But only because I’d known her for years and years, and we’d had a stupid thing way back, so it didn’t feel like anything–because it wasn’t”

“Pam Carlson?” I said. “You mean that woman at your party?”

He glanced at me, chewing. “Yeah. You know, not a lot or anything. I mean I knew her from years ago, back when she was married to Bob Burgess.” “You were doing her then?”

“Oh, a little.” He must not have realized as he said this that he had been married to me at the time. And then I saw it arrive on his face, I felt I saw this. He said, “Oh Lucy, what can I say?”

Indeed.

The upbeat, life-affirming conclusion brings an epiphany to Lucy, and she deserves it. She experiences many shifting emotions throughout the book and finds still at this late stage in life, there is always new knowledge to be gained about people:

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

Olive Kitteridge (I must bring Olive into this) and Lucy are opposites in many ways. Olive is caustic while Lucy is loving and generous. But both Olive and Lucy are outsiders for different reasons. Olive Kitteridge should have had dinner with Lucy and her EX. I would have liked to have been there for the fireworks.

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Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: Steven Petrow

“Throw it in the fuck it bucket.”

I almost passed this book over as the synopsis sounded…. well… judgey. After finishing Steven Petrow’s Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old, I’m glad that I read listened to this audiobook. It is amusing but more than that, it made me think. The author starts with, as the title suggests, a list of things he swears he will NOT do when he is old, and this was generated by watching his parents age and grow ill. After the death of his parents, he reread his list and realized that the motivations behind the list were complex. He added that he sees “more clearly now that I meant the list to serve as a pointed reminder to me to make different choices when I eventually crossed the threshold into my senior, sunset or silver years.” The short chapters are infused with humour, anecdote, and then backed up with facts and figures.

My attention was almost immediately pulled into the author’s quest to understand aging and its challenges when he asks at age 63 “am I old?” So he begins asking friends on Facebook ‘when are we old?’ The answers were varied–some amusing, some poignant. Physical limitations were mentioned a lot, and I suspect that those markers were significant for those who define themselves by their physical ability. I wonder if this cohort will have a harder time aging–I suspect so. I was, then, interested to hear that “old is not synonymous with ill, disabled or even injured.” Researchers state that the old-age “threshold” in America is 71 for men and 74 for women, and that “our true age” contains many factors, including how happy we are.

In one chapter, “I Won’t Colour My Hair,” Steven Petrow describes his “unfortunate adventure in hair colouring.” After spending 100s of $ trying to fix a bad dye job, Petrow still ended up looking like a “trashy secretary from Staten Island.” It gets guts to publicly point out one’s mistakes, laugh about it, and move on. Other chapters include discussing habits that “mark” us as “geriatric” and “Elder Abuse of Technology“–phrases and habits that scream: “Old Person On the Loose Online.” (OPOTLO)

Another chapter, “I Won’t Lie About My Age–Even on Dating Apps” discusses the author’s experience with online dating. After separating from his husband, the author Joined Tinder, Match and OKCupid and here he learned that many people lied about their age while admitting he “used to be one of those people who shaved a few years, or more, off their true age. either to avoid appearing like a dinosaur or to improve their odds of finding a match online.” He joined in with the “fudging” but then was outed by his Wikipedia page. It’s funny, but not surprising, to hear how age cheaters on dating sites are prolific and that users screen for age-cheaters by lie-detecting questions, such as “where were you when…?” Petrow describes how an age-fibber created a “cheat sheet.” It’s really hilarious and sounds like so much work. Too much work.

Another chapter discusses sexuality. Petrow had testicular cancer in his 20s and so had to confront sexual difficulties early. Discussing sexual issues segues into the idea of how we all too often obsess on our health/issues/illness as we age in the chapter called “I Won’t Join the Organ Recital.” Recently, in line at the pharmacy, I noticed a few older customers, strangers, discussing their colonoscopies much to the disgust of a few thirty somethings also waiting–a trapped and horrified audience. This is a perfect example of exactly what the author means by talking, sometimes exhaustively, about health issues, which, let’s face it, younger generations must find boring and embarrassing. Hoarding, driving, falling, hearing loss, personal cleanliness, grumpiness all come up for discussion.

Ultimately this is an extremely positive, life-affirming book. One chapter that stuck with me is: “I Won’t Stop Enjoying Myself,” for its great outlook. This book has a target audience, and while most of the content can be applied to all of us–some things are considerations for those who have the extra funds to apply to life (wardrobe, assisted living, reconsidering employment options). This is not a criticism of the book–just an observation. I’m also going to add that some of this is easier said than done. It’s one thing to be old but still be able to go sit in the garden and smell the roses–literally or figuratively, but quite another to keep up one’s spirits if you’re the 90 something wheelchair bound lady with oxygen in her nose who’s parked in the doctor’s office by her family who will “send someone to pick her up” tout suite (and yes, I just observed this to my horror). Finally Steven Petrow kept me entertained and engaged. I’d already started Swedish Death Cleaning (without knowing the term) and I’d already committed to embracing and enjoying my old age. But then some of us have a high happiness set point, and some of us don’t. In other words, some of us are destined to be old misery guts/ratbags. You know who you are. … Obviously the author is NOT one of those people: he’s a fan of Mel Brooks and stresses the importance of laughter. So here’s to enjoying ourselves: After all, we’re only old once.

The late great Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles

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The Small House at Allington: Anthony Trollope

Back to Barsetshire for the 5th novel in the 6 book series: The Small House at Allington. From the plot description, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this book as much as the others in the series, but this book, while it has one subplot that’s rather sad, is also full of humour. Plus some characters get their just desserts, and that’s always satisfying. The theme of marriage dominates here, and there are many aspects to the subject: young women compromising men into marriage, a toxic marriage between two combatants, a man who thinks he’s been cheated by the absence of a dowry he expected, and a couple of old bachelors who have managed to avoid marriage.

At the centre of the novel are two sisters: Lily and Bell Dale. They are the daughters of Mary Dale, a widow whose husband died and left her with little means of support. She has accepted the ‘small house’ at Allington from Squire Christopher Dale, her dead husband’s brother, who lives at the big house. Squire Dale did not approve of his younger brother’s marriage to Mary Dale, and while he loves his nieces and allows the widow and her daughter to live on his bounty, there is no love lost between the squire and his widowed sister-in-law. Squire Dale is unmarried and his nephew Bernard will eventually inherit his uncle’s estate. Squire Dale hopes that Bernard will marry Bell, his favourite niece.

Bernard brings a friend, Adolphus Crosbie, to stay at Allington, and while the Dale sisters at first make gentle fun of Crosbie, even thinking he gives himself “airs,” he all too soon wins Lily’s heart. Crosbie proposes to Lily assuming that she will receive some sort of dowry from her uncle. Crosbie, playfully nicknamed “Adonis” by the two Dale sisters, is a bit of a dandy. He earns 800 pounds a year and while he lives well on that amount as a bachelor, it’s insufficient income to support a wife–at least not without significant sacrifices: such as Crosbie’s clubs and clothes, and Crosbie, a self-worshipping creature, winces at the idea of any self-deprivation. Getting cold feet, Crosbie asks the Squire flatly if Lily is to receive a dowry, and when he discovers that she will not, Crosbie feels that he’s been tricked, or deceived somehow into making a proposal. His ‘love’ for Lily is overshadowed by his resentment, and he immediately starts backpedaling. He accepts an invitation to de Courcy Castle and there, feeling resentment about the lack of Lily’s dowry, he’s lured into the snares of Lady de Courcy and one of her unmarried daughters. …

Continuing on the theme of the turbulent layers of matrimony, John Eames, another young man who loves Lily, has become embroiled with his landlady’s wily daughter, Amelia Roper, while fellow lodger Cradell has foolishly fallen into the snares of Mrs Lupex, a conniving married woman who also lives at the boarding house. Mrs. Lupex is married to a drunkard, but there are indications that he’s been driven to drink. The prompt for Mr. Lupex’s vice is of little importance as both Mr and Mrs Lupex are trouble and are only too happy to drag others into the drama of their marital torture chamber.

On the subject of marital torture chambers, mention must be made of the ghastly Earl de Courcy. Before Trollope gives us a peek at the de Courcys’ miserable marriage, Lady de Courcy is not a sympathetic character at all. She manipulates and mistreats Crosbie (not that we mind that much) and pokes fun at Lily Dale (a low blow). Lady de Courcy is seen primarily as a snob who rides high on local society when in reality the de Courcys are an awful family–one might even say trashy. Lord de Courcy is a nasty old man, a tyrant, who insists that he has an audience with his wife every morning. These conferences, which are ostensibly to discuss the household, were “almost too much for her,” as her spouse shouts and gnashes his teeth. She tells her daughter that sometimes she is “going mad” while she listens to his tirades. Here he is exploding about his son, George.

“How long is George going to remain here with that woman?” he asked.

“I’m sure she is very harmless,” pleaded the countess.

“I always think when I see her that I’m sitting down to dinner with my own housemaid. I never saw such a woman. How can he put up with it! But I don’t suppose he cares for anything.”

“It has made him very steady.”

“And so he means to live here altogether, does he? I’ll tell you what it is–I won’t have it. He’s better able to keep a house over his own head and his wife’s than I am to do it for them, and so you may tell them. I won’t have it. D’ye hear?” he shouted at her.

Yes, of course, I hear. I was only thinking you wouldn’t wish me to turn them out –just as her confinement is coming on.”

I know what that means. Then they’d never go. I won’t have it; and if you don’t tell them I will.

The de Courcys create the idea of the power of hierarchy within relationships: Crosbie could lord it over Lily Dale and act as though he’s doing her a favour by agreeing to marriage, but the de Courcys act as though Crosbie’s lucky to share their oxygen. In other words, some characters are nice when subordinate and they have to be pleasant but then they are nasty when off leash. Lady de Courcy treats Crosbie like some sort of peasant go-fer whenever she gets a chance, but then she stands there and takes it when her husband rails at her daily just for fun. Gazebee is in awe of the de Courcys, his in-laws, and yet when it’s his job to reel Crosbie into the family web, he relishes the role, and Crosbie, who used to look down on Gazebee, finds that he’s lower on the de Courcy ladder than even Gazebee.

Crosbie, leaning on the questionable models of Lothario, Don Juan, and Lovelace, abandons Lily in favour of an alliance with the de Courcys. He erroneously thinks he’s made the better bargain but all too soon finds that he is firmly on the “grindstone of his matrimonial settlement.” Serves him right. While some characters dive to the lowest depths of their characters, others rise: Squire Dale learns some painful lessons, and Johnny Eames has his heart broken but grows up in the process. And the de Guests, who are bystanders on the sidelines of others’ lives, become involved in the fallout of Crosbie’s scandalous behaviour, but in their case, it turns out to be a fortuitous arrangement. The de Guests, Bernard’s relations, are not particularly interesting characters–in fact Trollope tells us that Lady de Guest is a “tedious, dull, virtuous old woman” and yet she has a heart. Her brother, the Earl de Guest, has great sympathy for Lily and considers Crosbie to be a blackguard. The initially uninteresting de Guests rise in the reader’s estimation while the de Courcys plummet.

I was a little annoyed with Lily after she is jilted. I wanted her to be angry. I wanted her to heal. But then I decided that perhaps she’s a little mad. Her behavior rings alarm bells in spite of her outward serenity (or even because of it?). There’s also a subplot concerning Plantagenet Palliser and Griselda Dumbello which is a segue into the Palliser series. Towards the end of the book, the Battle of the Manure which involves Hopkins the loyal, territorial, irascible, gardener is very funny, and his character emphasizes the good, true, steady side of life.

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The Dark Remains: William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin

Glasgow’s crime world of the 70s has three main crime boss figures: John Rhodes, Cam Colvin and the up-and-coming Matt Mason. When lawyer Bobby Carter, money man for Cam Colvin, is found stabbed to death behind a pub in Rhodes territory, naturally suspicion falls onto Rhodes and his men. Carter was a “career criminal. Or rather, a venally clever lawyer who didn’t so much rub shoulders with criminals as steep in the same polluted bathwater.” Carter’s death could be a message, a signal of war, yet to D.C Jack Laidlaw it’s just too obvious and he suspects that there’s more to the murder. Given the power-grab ramifications of the murder, it’s a sensitive case that must be handled carefully. Laidlaw already has a reputation for ‘rubbing people the wrong way,’ and he isn’t easy to work with. His skill as a detective though is respected and it’s acknowledged that he “seems to have a sixth sense for what’s happening on the streets.”

As Laidlaw investigates, he learns that Carter, with a gorgeous wife Cam Colvin is all-too happy to console, was a womaniser. And one name in the harem sticks out: Jennifer Love, a go-go dancer at Whiskies. The crime world is tightly-knit and it’s hard to penetrate when it comes to solving this murder, but Laidlaw, obsessive when it comes to his cases, keeps digging, and the same names keep floating up.

All cities are riddled with crime. It comes with the territory. Gather enough people together in one place and malignancy is guaranteed to manifest in some form or other. It’s the nature of the beast. In the awareness of the citizens the condition usually lies dormant. The preoccupations of our daily lives obscure any dramatic sense of threat.

The Dark Remains is a prequel to the other Laidlaw books. This was unfinished at the time of author William McIlvanney’s death and the book was subsequently finished by Ian Rankin. The gloomy world of 1972 Glasgow, divided into separate worlds by crime territory, is full of seedy pubs, low-rent hotels, lonely, neglected wives, and violent crims hoping to do their boss a favour before the boss even knows he wants one. Laidlaw is a troubled character who does everything possible to avoid his home life and family responsibilities. But the division of the two worlds, home and crime, are created in such a way that’s it’s understandable (but not forgivable) that Laidlaw finds it uncomfortable to straddle both worlds in one day. Going domestic takes the edge off of Laidlaw’s predatory drive plus it’s much easier to check out of his troubled domestic life, avoid those difficulties, and submerge himself into the dark side of Glasgow. I’m not a huge fan of police procedurals but the case kept my interest here. Laidlaw is a strange one–he likes to cowboy his cases solo, and then he tends to philosophize about human nature. This is tedious to Laidlaw’s workmates, but Laidlaw’s approach, when applied to human nature, works.

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Rider on the Rain: Sèbastien Japrisot (1992)

First: Rider on the Rain, the book was published in French in 1969 (per Goodreads), but Sèbastien Japrisot also wrote the screen play for the 1970 film which featured Charles Bronson with Jill Ireland in a supporting role. They met during filming while she was married to David McCallum. Bronson married Jill Ireland in 1968, and they were together until her death in 1990. The film showcases Bronson “at his brutal best,” and this period was the beginning of his film heyday, with the cult film, Death Wish still in his future in 1974.

So now onto the book: 25-year-old Mélancolie Mau, Mellie, lives in the dreary seaside resort town of Le Caps-des-pins. It’s the sort of place with one road in and one road out.

A peal of thunder, a grey river spattering in a downpour, a horizon blurred by autumn. And then the wheels of a bus send up great glistening sprays of water, and the river becomes a road running the length of a desolate peninsula, somewhere between Toulon and Saint-Tropez.

There’s the idea that not much happens here–at least it doesn’t until a stranger gets off the bus. Mellie sees the man, a man with a shaven head, carrying a bright red bag, get off the bus. Later, she tries on a dress in a shop owned by a friend. In the casual atmosphere, Mellie neglects to close the cubicle curtain and she catches the stranger staring at her through the shop window:

She is transfixed, as if mesmerized by his own fascination.

The stranger breaks into Mellie’s home and brutally rapes her. Mellie, who seems like a fragile young woman, calls the police but changes her mind. When she discovers the rapist in her basement, she strikes back. …. From this point, life changes for Mellie. She has discovered exactly what she is capable of, but in spite of this incredibly powerful knowledge, she chooses to sink back into her role as a wife, a rather docile wife to her macho dickhead of a husband. But then another man arrives on the scene, an American, Harry Dobbs. He’s looking for the stranger, and the bag he carried, and he knows that Mellie is hiding something. …

The dialogue is written in screenplay format, and the descriptive passages evoke images of the film. The novel is probably going to mean more to you (it did to me), if you’re a fan of the film. Harry’s relationship with Mellie, which becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse, is intriguing. It’s also fascinating that Mellie chooses to NOT tell her husband about the rape. On one level, this seems logical as her husband would go ballistic and probably start accusing her of somehow inviting the incident and ‘liking it.’ So ultimately it’s just easier not to tell him, but then also there’s the idea that Mellie keeps a certain section of herself submerged and secret. She has a “serene and well-groomed appearance” and yet “her nails are bitten to the quick.” There’s a level of protection, especially when dealing with a husband such as Tony, of withholding part of the self. He has no idea who she is–he’s constructed a version of her in his mind and then demands she conform to that. Yet Harry penetrates Mellie’s wall, her defenses. He intuitively knows that her outward fragility is a disguise, a bluff, a method of dealing with her surroundings. Ultimately: do we ever want people to know what we are capable of ?

Review copy. Translated by Linda Coverdale

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Trap for Cinderella: Sébastien Japrisot (1962)

Sèbastien Japrisot’s mystery novel starts like a fairy tale with that familiar phrase: “Once upon a time, long ago,” but this is no fairy tale. The first chapter, following the fairy tale format but with the title, I Would Have Murdered, describes the relationship between a godmother, Aunt Midola, and three little girls, Mi (Michèle), Do (Dominque) and La. Mi, the godmother’s favourite is “the prettiest, and Do is the most intelligent. La will soon be dead.” The godmother leaves and returns rich. Again that fairy tale mythos as it’s revealed that all the trappings of the story may simply be the way in which the children rationalise things in the adult world that they cannot understand. The chapter ends with a touch of reality and the information that Mi is the rich one while Do, the less favoured girl, grows up seeing pictures of Mi in “glossy magazines.”

Then the novel segues into the real story when a young girl wakes up in a hospital room. She has amnesia and is told by her doctor that she was horribly burned in a fire 3 months previously. She is told that Domenica is dead, killed by the fire in the villa that also burned her (Michèle). She is told by a woman named Jeanne that the two girls, Michèle and Domenica, grew up together with Domenica’s mother the laundress for Michèle’s mother. Right away, of course, it’s all very creepy. Imagine you recover from some prolonged drug-induced period to be told who you are, to have your character explained to you. Michèle remembers nothing and she’s ‘fed’ her past by Jeanne, the woman who claims to have cared for Michèle since she was a baby.

In spite of the gaps, I gradually formed an image of myself which did not tally with the person I had become. I was not so foolish, so vain, so violent. I had no desire to drink, to hit a stupid maid, to dance on top of a car, to fall into the arms of a Swedish runner or the first boy who came along with a pretty face. But all that might seem incomprehensible to me because of the accident; that was not what bothered me the most. Above all I could not believe myself capable of the lack of feeling that had enabled me to go out drinking the night I learned of my aunt’s death and even to miss her funeral.

Jeanne removes Michèle from the hospital; she’s taken to a house and kept in isolation with just a handful of servants in attendance. Shaking off Jeanne’s constant presence, Michèle decides to confront her past and try to understand why Jeanne is keeping her in isolation. Is it for her protection as Jeanne insists? Or is something else afoot? Trap for Cinderella is one of those mysteries that doesn’t have a simple conclusion. It would have been a perfect book for the Pushkin Vertigo line as the main character sinks into a personal hell from which there is no escape. The burn/amnesia thing is not an uncommon plot device, so there was little freshness there, but the ending, if it can be called that, was intriguing.

Review copy

Translated by Helen Weaver

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People Who Knock On the Door: Patricia Highsmith (1983)

I tend to associate Patricia Highsmith with crime novels, but People Who Knock on the Door is a study of human behaviour. This is the story of how one man, a husband and father becomes a religious fanatic. So a story of obsession, self-righteousness, intolerance and hypocrisy. First the disclaimer: I am not religious, but if religion:

1. helps someone be a better/happier person,

2. helps deal with life

3. keeps someone off the streets

4. keeps someone from various deviant behaviours

5. gives your life meaning or structure

then more power to you..

Just don’t come knocking on my door selling your beliefs. It could get ugly. So now that I’ve got that out of the way, onto the book.

The Alderman family consists of insurance salesman dad, Richard, his wife Lois and their two sons: Arthur, who is about to head off to college and Robbie. Richard hasn’t done in well in life as he’d hoped and maybe.. just maybe… there’s a tad of resentment that he married young. Well no matter. Shortly after the novel opens, Robbie has a health crisis and almost dies. He recovers and Richard decides that god intervened. The next thing you know Richard’s a born-again Christian. It’s not so bad at first, but then Richard starts laying down the law regarding Arthur’s love life, and when Arthur won’t bend to his dad’s demands (this involves his girlfriend, Maggie Brewster, getting an abortion, just FYI), Richard closes the purse strings and Arthur’s college plans for Columbia collapse.

There’s the sense that home life chez Alderman wasn’t that much fun before Richard’s conversion, but after that happy event, the domestic atmosphere becomes strained. Lois, who volunteers at a children’s home, becomes Sweden, trying to keep everyone happy (impossible) and Robbie goes along with his dad’s new found faith. And what’s up with Robbie hanging out with all those middle-aged men? (why do I hear banjos?) And why is Irene, a former prostitute, now a born-again waitress, constantly pestering Richard to come over to her place as she’s in desperate need of counseling and may revert to turning tricks if Richard doesn’t come to her house pronto.

And the Brewsters,” Richard went on with faint contempt. “Are they any better? No, Money doesn’t gloss over their life-style. Nice clothes, a fine house, doesn’t hide anything. And you hang out with them.”

His father was maybe jealous, Arthur thought, as well as off the beam. “They’re certainly not the richest people in this town,” Arthur said.” I don’t think they flaunt their money. Not at all.”

“I’m saying that money doesn’t make arrogance look any nicer. What they flaunt is a lack of human decency, basic morals. I wouldn’t have the Brewsters as my clients. Just tonight, I’m looking through my list again, getting rid of two families, one of them every bit as well-off as the Brewsters. I’m suggesting they go to another insurance investment in town.

Everything in the Alderman house goes downhill. I must say that Arthur showed remarkable restraint towards his father especially after other members of the church, and the ex-prostitute, keep popping up with advice and salient bible quotes. The plot shows how when one member of the family takes the moral highground, using religion, their position becomes unassailable. This story resonated with me as I once worked with a woman whose husband had an affair. Their marriage ‘survived’ but in the aftermath she became born-again and was constantly quoting her pastor at her husband. He was never going to be allowed to forget what he did. I don’t know how he kept sane, but then again perhaps it was their private purgatory. Why knows? I didn’t care for any of the characters at all with the exception of the boozy neighbour next door. Not my favourite Highsmith. Not even close.

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The Drowning Pool: Ross Macdonald (1950)

“Sex and Money; the forked root of evil.”

Back to Lew Archer for Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool. This novel is the second in the series, following on the heels of The Moving Target. In this novel, Lew Archer investigates a case involving threatening letters, but the case quickly devolves to murder. The very attractive Maude Slocum visits Archer’s office and shows him a short vicious letter which was sent to her husband, James. The letter, which Maude intercepted, accuses Maude of adultery. Maude denies that she has been unfaithful, but Archer isn’t so sure. Maude argues that another letter might reach James and he would give it to his mother. That would ensure an ugly divorce. Archer agrees to take the case, although he thinks there must be more to the accusations of adultery. And, as usual, Archer’s instincts are spot-on.

Archer travels to Nopal Valley, to the home of the Slocums. James Slocum is an amateur actor with the Quinto Players , and Archer, catching a rehearsal, watches James Slocum hamming it up as the dramatic lead in a pathetically bad play written by pompous Francis Marvell.

It was the kind of play that only a mother or an actor could love, the kind of stuff that parodied itself. Phony sophistication with a high gloss, and no insides at all.

While Archer watches a few scenes from this awful play, he also catches a dramatic scene, offstage that takes place between teenage nymphette Cathy Slocum and the man she’s been practicing on, the Slocums’ hunky chauffeur, Reavis.

He turned and smiled wide, full in my face, and I had my first chance to study him. The teeth were white. the black eyes frank and boyish, the lines of the features firm and clean. Reavis had quantities of raw charm. But underneath it there was something lacking. I could talk to him all night and never find his core, because he had never found it.

Then onto the Slocum home where matriarch Olivia Slocum rules with an iron rod. James, Maude, and their teenage daughter Cathy live there too, with mummy holding the purse strings. Her property, which sits on oil, is worth a fortune. She refuses to sell for sentimental and moral reasons, but the property and her fortune keep James tied to her. Olivia is one of those mothers. According to her, James is a Renaissance Man, a veritable genius at everything he turns his attention to. And what is going on between Marvell and James? And why does Ralph Knudson, the Chief of Police, a “tall and thick, a bifurcated chunk of muscle” hang out at the Slocum home? And why is Maude Slocum so tense when Knudson shows up? It’s obvious that the relationships between the Slocums are unhealthy and twisted. Maude hates her mother-in-law, Olivia hasn’t forgiven James for marrying Maude, and Cathy flirts with the help. Add to that the very sick and twisted relationship between Maude and James….

With the discovery of a body floating in the pool, the case becomes more and more complicated. The Drowning Pool is my least favourite Archer so far, but it is still better than most crime books out there. These were unforgiving times for homosexuality, and the characters queasily reflect the attitudes of period. But the family dynamic–people who hate each other yet stick together for money–rang all too true. Packed with atmosphere and MacDonald’s signature hard style, the story packs a powerful punch.

The reflection of a stop-light made a long red smudge on the asphalt where 101 Alternate crossed the foot of the town. Four or five heavy trucks had gathered at the truck stop on the corner like buffalo at a waterhole. As I turned right onto the freeway, I could see the drivers bent over an early breakfast, and a thin-browed, pug-faced waitress smoking a cigarette by the kitchen door. It would have been very pleasant to stop and eat three eggs and talk for a while and then go back to bed in the motel. I cut my wheels sharp left at the next crossing, and the tires whined in self-pity: so late, so weary.

And then there’s the marvelous character of Lew Archer: a man who spends too much of his life exploring the darker side of human nature. This case does nothing to elevate Archer’s opinion of people.

The man in the mirror was big and flat-bodied, and lean-faced. One of his gray eyes was larger than the other, and it swelled and wavered like the eye of conscience; the other eye was little, hard and shrewd. I stood still for an instant, caught by my own distorted face, and the room reversed itself like a trick drawing in a psychological test. For an instant I was the man in the mirror, the shadow-figure without a life of his own who peered with one large eye and one very small eye through dirty glass at the dirty lives of people in a very dirty world.

Usually with series characters, we get the crime on hand and a continuation of the private life of the series PI. Not so here. As Archer notes, he’s “without a life of his own.

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