Category Archives: Fiction

Nothing to See Here: Kevin Wilson

“I felt like the only sane person, and I was in my underwear, holding a ruined muumuu that I’d stolen from a sleeping old lady.”

Kevin Wilson’s quirky, entertaining novel Nothing to See Here is the story of two very different women who collided as teens and now reconnect in adulthood under bizarre circumstances. I have not read The Family Fang, but after watching the film version, Nothing to See Here caught my eye. Through a small set of quirky characters, this engaging, funny novel explores the themes of the families we are stuck with and the families we choose for ourselves.

Twenty-eight year-old Lillian, whose life is a train wreck, gets a letter from Madison Billings. They’ve kept in touch over the years in a desultory way after they met at a “fancy” girls’ school. Lillian was a scholarship pupil who roomed with Madison Billings, the cosseted daughter of a wealthy man who owns a chain of department stores. Lillian is the daughter of a single mother, a woman with a lot of miles:

I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god has assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated her before returning to his home atop Mount Olympus. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned.

That quote is a good example of the strong narrator voice of this novel, a voice strong enough and tart enough to carry the plot in spite of its flaws. The plot centres on two emotionally damaged children who spontaneously combust. Yes that’s right. You read it correctly. Spontaneous combustion. The plot description put me off to be honest but a sample convinced me that I liked the narrator voice.

But back to Madison and Lillian, two girls who met beyond the social divide. It was an improbable friendship that shouldn’t have happened. As a child, Lillian realised that education was the ticket out of the confining, poverty-stricken life she had with her mother:

I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.

So Lillian makes it to the fancy boarding school and her mother, who tells Lilian that she doesn’t belong with this crowd, goes along with it, but then she goes along with whatever life throws her way. Madison takes Lillian under her wing, but when Madison is caught with drugs, her father pays Lillian’s mother a bribe; Lillian takes the fall, and from that point on, Lillian’s life is all downhill. But since she loves and admires Madison, Lillian never blames her friend. Fast forward 15 years: Lillian is “working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, and smoking weed in the attic,” while Madison is married to an extremely wealthy older Senator, Jasper Roberts. They live in a mansion in Tennessee with their son, Timothy, but that may change soon as Jasper is slated to be the next Secretary of State. Imagine Lillian’s surprise when Madison sends $50 for a bus ticket and tells her that she has a “job opportunity” for her old friend. Of course, something is rotten in the state of Tennessee, but Lillian, who has a curious innocence, or perhaps she just believes in Madison (even if we don’t) doesn’t see the troubles coming her way.

Lillian is awed by Madison’s gorgeous home and seemingly perfect life, but in spite of its glossy perfection, something is definitely off. Timothy, who dabs his mouth with a napkin after eating, seems to be the perfect little gentleman, and Madison, as attractive as ever, is edgy. Then to complete the picture there’s Jasper Roberts–a politician with a grubby past, but he’s shining up nicely under Madison’s iron tutelage and ambition.

He looked a little weary, like being important was a Herculean task. If any aspect of his appearance had been off by even a few degrees, he would have seemed evil.

Jasper has two children, 10 -year-old twins, Bessie and Roland, with his first wife (now dead), and the kids are according to Madison “sweet kids.” Madison asks Lillian to be a governess of sorts for the twins; they are currently living with maternal grandparents but will be relocated to the newly renovated guesthouse on Jasper’s estate. The pay is generous, but Lillian isn’t exactly the world’s most responsible person. It’s doubtful that she could take care of a goldfish, so why is she being given this job? What’s the catch? …. The children spontaneously combust when they are upset. And they get upset a lot.

Lillian’s first reaction is to reject the job, but then with no other prospects on the horizon and her (misplaced) devotion to Madison, Lillian accepts. Visions of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins float in her head, with the thought that she’d “just stand next to them for the whole summer and gently direct them toward good decisions. I thought I’d just sit in a beanbag chair and they’d read magazines.” All those fantasies disappear when Lillian meets the children for the first time. Accompanied by Jasper’s fixer, Carl, Lillian picks up the children from their grandparents:

We walked into the cabin, which was dark, not a single light on, but we could see activity in the backyard. The sofa, some flowery abomination with plastic covering it, was burned black on one side, the ceiling above it dusted with soot. Carl slid open the glass door, and we saw Mr. Cunningham in a tiny swimsuit and some flip flops, cooking a steak on a rickety old charcoal grill. His wife was dead asleep in a lawn chair. “Carl!” Mr. Cunningham said. He was in his seventies, but he had curly gray hair like a wig. He looked like he was in the process of melting, his skin sunburned and sagging everywhere, hanging in folds.

So Lillian takes over the care of the children. With Carl wanting to drug the kids with Mickey-Finn’ed Kool-Aid, slimy Jasper only concerned about his political career, and Madison eager to keep up appearances (but ready to ship the kids out as the nuclear option), Lillian, unexpectedly bonds with the children. The children have been rejected and have lived through horrible, emotionally damaging situations. They’ve received no support, no love, and they continue to be rejected. The proximity to the main house, the way Jasper and Madison avoid the twins, and Timothy “looking at us through his own little pair of opera glasses, like he was in a grand theater house in London” underscore the ostracism, the human zoo, of the three outcasts. Lillian tends to self-destruct or smash something when she loses it, and so she finds that she admires the power that pours from the twins when they burst into flames. They can’t control the process, but the ability to spontaneous combust certainly dictates that the children have to be handled with care. The twins need Lillian and she needs them:

I’m not joking when I say that I never liked people, because people scared me. Because anytime I said what was inside me, they had no idea what I was talking about. They made me want to smash a window just to have a reason to walk away from them. Because I kept fucking up, because it seemed so hard not to fuck up, I lived a life where I had less than what I desired. So instead of wanting more, sometimes I just made myself want even less. Sometimes I made myself believe that I wanted nothing, not even food or air, and if I wanted nothing, I’d just turn into a ghost. And that would be the end of it.

Madison remains a murky figure and Lillian’s devotion to her isn’t credible–especially given Lillian’s anti-social tendencies, and if I mentally deducted the swearing (swearing in a novel is a plus imo) the novel, sadly, loses a lot of its transgressive feel. So scrape away the swearing and there’s a lot of sentimentality. Think a decent, but not wonderful film, with an incredible acting performance that makes the film seem superior, and that’s how I felt about this book. I liked the humour and the narrative voice which appears to push those transgressive buttons, but ultimately, a few swear words don’t add up to a transgressive novel or character. It’s just custard on the pudding. On the up side, Lillian’s sense of humour and observations are well worth catching. Spinning into Madison’s orbit once more creates a sense of resolution for Lillian. She realizes that wealth “could normalize just about anything.” And being around the children gives Lillian perspective about her own mother:

And this was what I finally realized, that even as we sank deeper and deeper into our lives, we were always separate.

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Mrs Martell: Elizabeth Eliot (1953)

“There ought to be a law against women like her.”

Elizabeth Eliot’s novel Mrs Martell is the study of a self-focused, vain, shallow woman who gets by on her looks and her studied charm. With an overly indulgent mother (and a wealthy disapproving aunt who foots the bills) Cathie grows up with an inflated view of herself. With women as “her natural enemies,” Cathie finds that her relationships with men “were also inclined not to last.” Although Cathie “never considered” a man who was not “completely bowled over,” these relationships went through very specific phases until “the man got sick of it.” Fancy that. … When, at age 24, she met Maurice Martell, “she had begun to be afraid that perhaps she was losing her flair.” She aggressively snared Maurice. He quickly seemed too insignificant, too uninteresting and too dull, and WWII opened the floodgates for affairs. Always considering herself above her circumstances, somehow the wonderful future Cathie imagined for herself never materialized. She has learned a few tricks however; in society, she has honed her behaviour and mannerisms to glossy perfection–so much so that she even knows just how to position her hip for photographs.

When the book opens, now at age 38, Cathie, divorced and living in a London flat above an antique shop, is desperately trying to seduce Edward, the husband of one of Cathie’s distant cousins, Laura. Cathie was unaware of Laura’s existence, but after Laura’s marriage to the very affluent Edward, Cathie wheedles her way into their lives, making herself “useful.” She cultivates Laura, and “advised her about clothes and about soft furnishings.” But she takes a different approach with Edward, and seeds poison into the marriage, indicating that Laura is somehow inadequate for her role as mistress of Abbotsmere:

How sad it was that Laura, partly due to her rather secluded upbringing and partly due to the war, should have so few friends.

Edward and Cathie have a relationship–so far unconsummated–but Cathie has her hooks firmly into Edward’s psyche and she’s convinced that it’s just a matter of time before he comes to his senses and dumps Laura. As far as Cathie is concerned, Laura doesn’t deserve Edward and she‘s far more suited to be the mistress of Abbotsmere. In the meantime, though, Cathie keeps newspaper reporter, Richard Hardy, on the back burner. A petty conquest in her mind but his successful seduction is proof of her potent powers. It’s funny how Richard Hardy throws over a much better, nicer woman for Cathie–even though “instinct” tells him to run.

Here Mrs Martell had interrupted to say ‘Richard’ in a low clear voice, and she put her head on one side and listened to herself saying ‘Richard’ as though she as considering all the implications of this most beautiful and unusual name.

Mrs Martell is a study in female predatory behaviour. To Cathie, people are means to an end …. or they’re not. It’s funny in a rather nasty way that Cathie, who has zero self-awareness, sees Laura as “utterly, utterly selfish,” and not good enough for Edward while of course, she would make the perfect wife. In Cathie’s mind, she is doing them all a favour if she liberates Edward from the yoke of matrimony. And maybe she is. …

Other women can see that Cathie is a horrible person and no true friend to Laura, but Laura, who’s struggling with the knowledge that she can never seem to do anything right in Edward’s eyes, doesn’t see Cathie for the female piranha she truly is. The book includes a few scenes of Cathie’s reveries of imagined parties with royalty. She also imagines a sad, dull future for Laura, pensioned off in the country somewhere breeding dogs. When it comes to people who ‘count,’ Cathie stages everything. She knows how to show herself to advantage–It’s almost as though she’s an actress starring in her own play. Good take away lesson: You can always tell what a person is really like by the way they treat social ‘inferiors.’ Cooks, cleaners, shop assistants, receptionists etc.

The scenes of the ‘real’ Cathie are priceless and in complete contrast to the sugary sweet cooing to poor, poor long-suffering Edward whose wife doesn’t understand him..

Mrs Martell registered this fact and registered, with annoyance, that the sitting room had not yet been ‘done’. She looked around the bedroom; the breakfast tray; her underclothes hanging over the back of a chair; the dressing-table, not quite tidy; the room did not have an attractive appearance.

And of course it’s terribly tiring to maintain a pleasant face to the world when really you are a horrible person. No wonder Cathie’s real personality slips out.

This is one of the titles from Dean Street Press from their Furrowed Middlebrow line. Mrs Martell is a subtle story which echoes long after the last page. This long forgotten book deserves a new audience. 

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Loitering With Intent: Muriel Spark

“Truth is stranger than fiction.”

In Muriel Spark’s lively, witty novel Loitering with Intent Fleur Talbot is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase. It’s 1949, and Fleur, living in a London bed-sit, is in need of employment when a friend points her to a job as a secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, the founder of the Autobiographical Association. The Association is composed of ten members, or VIPs, supposedly all Sir Quentin’s friends. The object of the association is for its members to write their biographies, but due to libel laws, the biographies are, according to Sir Quentin, “top secret,” with the plan that publication will take place at least 70 years in the future. Right away, Fleur feels a “vague uneasiness,” and suspecting that the whole scheme is a “racket,” wonders if Sir Quentin is a blackmailer, a “psychological Jack the Ripper.” Fleur is not to be a mere editor. Sir Quentin tells her that “you should easily be able to rectify any lack or lapse in form, syntax, style, characterization, invention, local colour, description, dialogue, construction and other trivialities.” Trivialities indeed. …

The plot has two trajectories: Fleur’s short lived employment with Sir Quentin and Fleur’s private life. Fleur has been conducting a somewhat lackluster affair with Leslie, but her attraction to him is rapidly waning. Leslie’s desperate wife, Dottie, is aware of the affair and yet has a somewhat tangled relationship with Fleur. Are they friends? Rivals? When Leslie moves on to yet another lover, Dottie intrudes into Fleur’s life and becomes a nuisance as if the two of them now belong to some sort of ‘abandoned woman club.’ Fleur suggests that Dottie join the Autobiographical Association as a diversion. While this is presented as a helpful suggestion with the caveat that Dottie should “not on any account [to] give herself away,” Fleur’s motives, since she already suspects Sir Quentin of some sort of shenanigans, are open to interpretation.

Over time Fleur continues her novel but right after it’s accepted for publication the fictional world of Warrender Chase collides horribly with the machinations of Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association. Fleur admits that the creation of her characters is “instinctive,” and “the sum of my whole experience.” And that sometimes she seems to meet her “characters” long after she’s written and published. How much are characters based on “types” or pulled from personal experiences? As Fleur becomes more embroiled with the Autobiographical Association, fact and fiction blend and blur. Where does fiction end and truth begin? Even Fleur seems confused and acknowledges that Sir Quentin “was conforming more and more to the character of [my] Warrender Chase.” Why do the characters in Warrender Chase seem an awful lot like the members of the Autobiographical Association? This lively novel is packed with eccentric characters, Mrs Beryl Tims, Sir Oliver’s intimidating housekeeper, Sir Oliver’s completely perennially overdressed “aged mummy,” the boring yet devious Dottie, and various peculiar VIPs from the Autobiographical Association.

You have to keep on your toes when reading this tale of literary skullduggery. Loitering with Intent is bitingly funny but under the surface lurk serious questions regarding artistic inspiration, plagiarism, the all-consuming, intense creation of a novel which can be compared “like being in love,” and, drawing in Cellini and Cardinal Newman, the nature and vagaries of autobiography. Fleur’s tart, confident and unapologetic voice is a delight.

Now the story of Warrender Chase was in reality already formed and by no means influenced by the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, but the interesting thing was it seemed rather the reverse to me at the time. At the time, but thinking it over now, how could that have been? And yet it was so. In my febrile state of creativity I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character.

Here’s Jacqui’s review.

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A Long Way Off: Pascal Garnier

“When exactly had he lost it? We wake up one day and all our toys which were so magical and full of life are suddenly nothing but inert, futile, useless objects …”

In Pascal Garnier’s darkly funny novel, A Long Way Off, a middle-aged man and his estranged daughter embark on an aimless road trip. Other authors might turn this into a Buddy novel–or even worse (gag) a novel of redemption with the father finally realising just what a dick he’s been while his daughter slowly comes to appreciate him and then … sob… forgives him. Hand me the hanky. But … no wait.. this is Pascal Garnier we’re talking about, so leave those sickeningly sweet platitudes at the door and embark on a nightmarish trip of madness, murder and decay.

It’s at a dinner party that Marc first shows signs of going off the rails, but then again perhaps it’s been a long time coming and no one ever noticed before. After “17 years of purgatory” Marc’s first wife absconded with an “absolutist Chilean poet.” She returned occasionally only to leave again, and Marc mainly raised their child Anne alone. But Anne:

“had in turn put him through the wringer until both women eventually left home for good, devoting themselves to dubious experiences somewhere else, where he was not. Marc had been thrown by the wayside, rusted, dented put out for recycling.”

His second wife, Chloé, an inexhaustible salvager of discarded bedside tables, seems to have renewed Marc in a similar fashion. She “picked him up after his divorce. She had stripped him down, polished him up and found a cosy place for him in her home.” There are signals that Marc, well into middle age, is disconnecting from his life, and then one day, on a whim, he adopts a decrepit cat named Boudu. Shortly after this, Marc decides to go visit Anne who now lives in a mental asylum. He decides to take her on a trip, and once he signs the necessary paperwork acknowledging the risks of taking Anne outside of the asylum, they hit the road.

Really Marc knows better than to take Anne anywhere, but there’s some horrible, magnetic force that pulls him to his fate. And let’s not forget that self-destructive streak. As he disconnects from his old life, he imagines that he has newly-gained freedom, but he rapidly succumbs to Anne’s domineering personality. It’s obvious that sexually voracious Anne, who’s very aggressive, is dangerous, and yet Marc still doesn’t wake up to the truth. Marc accedes to the force of Anne’s demands. Imagining that Chloé may have the police on their tail, Anne and Marc sell the car and buy a camper van, establishing up a bizarre domestic unit.

He felt like a trapeze artist bouncing into the net after a failed trick, caught in a spider’s web he could no longer escape from, lumbering, ashamed, in a trap of his own making. Perhaps there was still time … He could leave some money for Anne at the hotel, jump in the car … he could-but already he knew he would not. He was lacking that one small thing that save a man from drowning, the kick of rage that lifts you up from the bottom and propels you to the surface. It was still a long, long way off. He was not there yet.

There are not many taboos left in literature but there’s one here. So be forewarned. Garnier’s The Islanders is a trip into how two seemingly normal, somewhat functional people combine and fuse into murderous, toxic, self-destructive isolation. There’s some of the same elements here: two people who suddenly partner up with bad results. Garnier’s typical humour pierces and skewers notions of family, mining images of death and decay as Marc and Anne proceed on their road trip to hell.

There were a lot of people on the beach, little blots of colour that grew bigger as you drew nearer. It made you wonder where they had come from, these people you saw nowhere else. The sun had probably just conjured them up, Their average age was quite high. “Must be open day at the cemetery.”

Translated by Emily Boyce

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë (1848)

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a reread. I’m not quite sure what drew me back–perhaps the thought that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a great favorite of mine, reveals new dimensions with each reread. Perhaps I thought the same would happen with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--my belief is that reread revelations say more about the change in the reader–not the book.

The plot is fairly simple. The first part of the novel is in epistolary form with letters sent from Gilbert Markham to his friend Jack Halford. Through these letters, Markham recounts events that took place many years earlier in 1827. As a young man of 24, Markham leads a quiet country life with his mother, annoying younger brother, Fergus and sister Rose at Linden-Car Farm. Their social circle is small, and Markham is attached to Eliza Millward, the daughter of the local vicar. Although Eliza is penniless and not beautiful, Markham sees Eliza’s good qualities, and considers her a “very engaging little creature,” with “irresistibly bewitching eyes.” He seeks out her company, and his preference for Eliza is noted by both families.

The quiet life of the community begins to stir with the arrival of a mysterious tenant, a young widow named Helen Graham. She takes up residence, along with her small son, Arthur and surly servant Rachel, at the dilapidated Wildfell Hall which belongs to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence. Of course, with a new person in the neighbourhood, social visits must be made and soon tongues (female tongues) are wagging about Helen Graham. Markham’s first encounter with Helen is not promising; she’s prickly, and standoffish to the point of rudeness. Helen’s solitary situation combined with her anti-social behaviour, her blunt refusal to bow to the opinions of others (including the vicar) win no friends, and the rumours about Helen grow. Eliza, sensing a rival in Helen, is the main offender when it comes to gossip, and in this she is aided and abetted by the very ambitious, sly Jane Wilson. Jane has her eyes set upon marriage to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord, and since Lawrence’s name is linked to Helen’s (in a most unsavory way), Eliza and Jane both have their knives out for Helen. Eliza’s behaviour repels Markham and he realises that everything positive he once saw in Eliza is non-existent. She’s unkind, cruel and petty. Still … she has lost Markham’s attentions and so the lady must be excused to some extent. Markham’s passion for Helen grows and he also becomes attached to Arthur. Markham presses his suit, and Helen, already aware of the gossip surrounding her lonely existence at Wildfell Hall and the condemnation she will receive for the visits of an eager bachelor, finally gives Markham journals of her life which explain exactly why she is at Wildfell Hall. (There’s another reason she gives him the journals which I won’t reveal here.)

Helen’s sections are, therefore, in journal form. The journals begin when she is a young single woman in London. Abandoned by a neglectful father and raised by an aunt and uncle, she is at first pursued by an older suitor. Helen’s aunt approves of the match but Helen wants to marry for love… then she meets Arthur Huntington. Despite warning signs that he is a thorough rotter, and also against her aunt’s dire warnings, Helen insists on marrying Arthur, and it’s a terrible mistake. …

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was considered shocking for its time: and no wonder–alcoholism, domestic violence, adultery, corruption of a child. Is there no end to the wickedness?? There were moments when I laughed out loud (inappropriately) at poor Helen’s naïve belief that she could ‘improve’ Arthur and stop him from all the wicked pursuits he had squandered most of his fortune on during his raucous bachelorhood. The marriage of Helen and Huntingdon is that prototype of the ‘good woman’ determined to save the ‘bad man’ from himself. And of course it’s doomed to failure as we knew it would be. Helen should have married a clergyman and Arthur should have married a thoroughly bad woman (like Annabella Lowborough)–a woman who would have kept him on his toes in the competition to see who could be more unfaithful. But that’s the point isn’t it? Arthur Huntingdon wanted and needed someone like Helen–a disapproving figure who made his exploits all the more fun. And Helen went into marriage wanting to ‘fix’ Arthur. An older, more experienced woman would have known there was no fixing to be done. …

Arthur hones his cruelty in the first few months of marriage, and then quickly tires of his new toy. He abandons Helen for months at a time, and then brings his dissipated friends for fun and games. Yes he wants to indulge in every vice, but it’s so much more fun to do it in front of Helen. Helen reminds me of the character of Jane Eyre in her strong morality and backbone, and I liked Helen a lot for the first part of her story. While I had great sympathy for her situation, her naiveté, her economic and legal plight, eventually I grew tired of her lectures. Since all she did was provide Arthur with cheap, cruel entertainment, why is she wasting her breath, I asked myself? (Course it’s that classic abuse cycle repeated ad nauseum.)

I’m not going segue into a PhD discourse about why this novel is important or the character of Branwell Brontë, etc. etc. The novel is amazing for its time and its scandalous, revolutionary approach to inheritance, education, divorce, and woman and child as property. Helen’s refusal to bow to the ‘authority’ of the pompous clergyman is another rejection of the patriarchy in which she is drowning. Her individual morality soars over any formal notion of religion. Some of Helen’s speeches are jaw-dropping when she speaks upon the rights of women, and yes this is Feminism before there was such a word. It’s impossible to read this novel and not feel that laws must be changed. As it is, Helen must endure all humiliations heaped upon her by her husband. She has no recourse to the law, manages by the skin of her teeth to support herself through painting, and is shunned by society for finally leaving her abusive, dickhead of a husband.

Arthur was already a boozing whoremonger when he married. Helen bored him with her otherworld goodness and her preaching, and any appeal to his conscience had the opposite result. It merely urged him on. This is why Helen and Arthur were the worst possible partners for each other. I’m going to add that by the time the novel ended, if I had been Arthur Huntington, it would have been a nightmare to wake up to Helen by my side telling me to prepare for my maker. Payback’s a bitch–there he is a helpless invalid in bed (yes serves the bastard right) and Helen delivers the coup de grace. He probably croaked just to get away from her. Here he is asking if he will survive:

“I’ve had a dreadful time of it, I assure you: I sometimes thought I should have died: do you think there’s any chance?”

There’s always a chance of death; and it is always well to live with such a chance in view.”

“Yes, yes! But do you think there’d any likelihood that this illness will have a fatal termination?”

I cannot tell; but, supposing it should, how are you prepared to meet the event?”

“Why, the doctor told me I wasn’t to think about it, for I was sure to get better if I stuck to his regimen and prescriptions.”

“I hope you may, Arthur; but neither the doctor nor I can speak with certainty in such a case; there is internal injury, and it is difficult to know to what to what extent.”

“There now! you want to scare me to death.”

“No; but I don’t want to lull you to false security. If a consciousness of the uncertainty of life can dispose you to serious and useful thought, I would not deprive you of the benefit of such reflections, whether you do eventually recover or not. Does the idea of death appall you very much?”

“It’s just the only thing I can’t bear to think of: so if you’ve any–“

“But it must come sometime,” interrupted I, “and be it years hence, it will as certainly overtake you as if it came to-day,– and no doubt be as unwelcome then as now, unless you–”

“Oh, hang it! don’t torment me with your preachments now, unless you want to kill me outright. I can’t stand it, I tell you. I’ve suffered enough without that. If you think there’s danger, save me from it, and then, in gratitude, I’ll hear whatever you like to say.”

I would have liked Helen more if the death and religion lectures had been delivered with an acknowledgment that she was enjoying the reversal of power. In other words, if she’d not been such a saint and was just a little bit wicked.

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Appointment with Yesterday: Celia Fremlin (1972)

“What happened to Milly was what happens to most people when they are confronted by mistakes or disasters too big to be borne; they let in the reality of it inch by inch, as it were, a little bit at a time, avoiding at all costs the full, total shock of it.”

Celia Fremlin’s suspense novel Appointment with Yesterday is packed with the author’s signature theme: the suffocation and claustrophobia of domestic life. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother who feels inadequate (nosy neighbours, nasty critical husband) but her biggest threat is the woman who rents a room in her home. Uncle Paul is the story of very different sisters who go on holiday together but find that the past catches up to their present. Listening in the Dusk is the story of a woman who takes a room in a third rate boarding house after being kicked to the curb by her husband. So that brings me to Appointment with Yesterday, my favourite of the lot so far. Yes, it’s definitely Celia Fremlin–here she’s in top form and … there’s humour.

The novel opens with a middle-aged woman who is on the run. Just what she is running from .. what and who … becomes apparent over the course of the book as hints slide into memories and flashbacks. At first the woman who, like a hunted animal, is so terrified she’s not rational, spends a day riding the Tube. She’s certain the police will be looking for her, so she fabricates a name, Milly Barnes. She has no possessions, no luggage, just a coat, and a handbag containing a little over 2 pounds. Eventually she calms down enough to make a decision of sorts; she takes the first bus that comes her way and ends up in the small coastal town of Seacliffe.

Milly’s survival instants kick in. Soon she’s rented a room in a drab boarding house and she starts cleaning houses–at least she can eat and pay the rent. Gradually over time, we learn Milly’s story. She was, at one point Candida Harris, a plump, plain little nurse who caught the eye of a “promising young house-surgeon,” good-looking egotistical Julian Waggett. Many nurses tried to get his attention, “wear[ing] their sober uniform[s] as if it were part of a striptease.” But Julian shocks the entire hospital community when he marries dumpy little Candida (aka Milly).

Milly, of course, knew why. She had known all along, but had no intention of allowing the knowledge to mar her joy and excitement over her extraordinary good fortune. She had known right from the start that what Julian wanted–nay, needed–was a wife who would serve as a foil for his own brilliance. A woman so retiring, so inconspicuous, that in contrast to her dullness his own wit, his own charm, would shine out with redoubled radiance. A woman who never, ever, in any circumstance, would draw attention away from him and on to herself.

Well it worked for a while, but as Julian goes up in the world, the poor dowdy little Mrs. can’t keep up with his glittering peacock image. Milly “had seen it coming.” It happened a lot “in their sort of circle.

The brilliant, ambitious husband rocketing his way to the top and discarding his dowdy, middle-aged wife en route, like a snake shedding its outworn skin in springtime. She’s met the wives, too, after the amputation was over: drab, dejected creatures moaning on and on about the meagerness of the alimony, and about ‘his’ ingratitude after all they had done and all they had sacrificed for him during the early years of struggle.

Milly is humiliated, of course, when she’s dumped for a young movie star, but not ready to be defeated, she marries again. The scenes of Milly’s new life in Seacliffe are splintered with memories of the tortured path that led to her panicked, desperate escape. Two young men who also live in the boarding house adopt Milly and their haphazard chaotic lives spill over into Milly’s terror-ridden loneliness. In Seacliffe, her first cleaning job is for a ridiculous, desperate, harried, upper middle class woman. The job is supposed to be cleaning, but the woman suddenly produces a baby, and dumps the neglected child into Milly’s care. Like Drums Along the Mohawk, word of Milly, a domestic savior, echoes around Seacliffe, and with dizzying speed, other women flock to poach Milly’s services. These harried wives frantically juggle the demands of their cluttered lives with appeasement of sulky, peevish spouses and each household has its own miserable pathology and chaos. It’s through these jobs, each which presents a window into a variety of unpleasant, tortured marriages, that Milly begins to put her own life, her own marriages, with the constant conditioning of appeasement, into perspective. Victimhood may be instant, but all too often it’s a slow process–confidence and courage slowly chipped away for weeks… years…. It’s through Milly’s views of various versions of dreadful home life that the humour appears:

Already she had sized up Mrs. Lane (or Phyllis, as she must remember to call her) as one of those employers who have at the back of their minds an imaginary dream-home: one which has no relation to the one they are actually living in, but which they believe –and continue to believe–will one day suddenly materialize if they only go on faithfully paying someone forty pence an hour, like sacrificing enough sheep at the temple of Athene. With an employer of this type, a Daily Help’s first task is to get as clear a picture of this imaginary dream-home as she possibly can, so that she can then make all her efforts tend in this direction, or at least appear to do so.

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The Living is Easy: Dorothy West

From the Harlem Renaissance, Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy is set in early twentieth century Boston. Cleo Judson, one of 4 daughters of black Southern sharecroppers, is the much younger wife of Banana King, Bart Judson. Immaculately dressed and constantly admonishing Judy, her 5 year-old daughter, in matters of deportment, Cleo is on a mission to move out of her current home–three rented furnished rooms “and the use of a kitchen and clothesline” in South Boston. With Judy “nearing school age,” Cleo has “no intention” of sending Judy off to school in the South End. She’s passed the schools often and doesn’t even want Judy to see these children–let alone mingle with them:

These midget comedians made Cleo feel that she was back in the Deep South. Their accents pricked her scalp. Their raucous laughter soured the sweet New England air. Their games were reminiscent of all the whooping and hollering she had indulged in before her emancipation. These r’aring tearing young ones had brought the folkways of the South to the classrooms of the North. Their numerical strength gave them the brass to mock their timid teachers and resist attempts to make them conform to the Massachusetts pattern.

Armed with forty-five dollars for upfront rent she wrested from her husband, Cleo is determined to leave South Boston behind. After all, “the nicer colored people, preceded by a similar class of white, were moving out of the South End.”

For years these Northern Negroes had lived next door to white neighbors and take pride in proximity. They viewed their southern brothers with alarm, and scatter all over the city and the suburbs to escape this plague of their own locusts.

Bart isn’t ready to easily discard their currently home with its modest rent, but Cleo argues that the rental is a great opportunity as they can send Judy to a school without “hoodlums.” They can also rent out rooms and make money. But Cleo’s private plan is to install her three sisters and their children in the home. She has no intention of running a boarding house. This act, this decision, is emblematic of Cleo’s relationship with her indulgent husband and her drive to leave her poverty-stricken roots behind. Brookline is a much desired neighborhood, and it’s here that Cleo meets the white owner of the ten-room house he intends to rent to a “respectable colored family.

Cleo’s potential landlord, the supposedly enlightened Mr. Van Ryper is moving from his current home due to an influx of Irish. To Van Ryper, “the Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians,” and he “refuse[s] to live in a neighborhood they are rapidly overrunning.” When Cleo misunderstands the motives behind Van Ryper’s White Flight, he gives Cleo a lecture about his family’s involvement in the Underground movement, but acknowledges that he can’t stand the Irish.

Once Cleo gets a rental agreement, we soon get the measure of her “secret life” when she inflates the cost of the rent and begins fabricating any expenses she can think of. In spite of the fact that all three of her sisters are in relationships, Cleo finagles the situation to get those sisters in Boston and away from the husbands she considered worthless. Poverty shapes people and race shapes people too. Here’s Cleo so determined never to be anyone’s slave that she keeps her husband, a man who adores her at arm’s length. There’s so much to admire in Cleo, a woman who’s come a long way, but the scars of gender and race inequality have crippled and blinded her emotionally and those nearest and dearest pay the price.

It had never occurred to her in the ten years of her marriage that she might be his helpmate. She thought that was the same thing as being a man’s slave.

She had told Mr. Judson on the night of their marriage that she wasn’t born to lick the boots of anybody living. It was dawn before she got through telling him what she would and wouldn’t do, and by then it was time for him to get up and go downtown to regulate the heat in his banana rooms.

The tale shows Cleo’s sharp nature–especially when she deals with people who stand in the way of what she wants and judges best–even if those decisions involve the personal lives and loves of her sisters. There’s a great scene which involves Miss Johnson, a former maid and the Judsons’ soon-to-be former landlady. The elderly Miss Johnson, who has no children of her own, loves Judy but Cleo considers Miss Johnson to be a contaminating influence and is horrified to think that through Miss Johnson, Judy may have learned about slavery. Cleo wants her daughter to “hold her head up first,” before she has to learn about the recent past. There are a few overly sentimental scenes involving “the Duchess,” and a marriage based on business which seemed a little out of place with the rest of this tart tale of the clash of races, classes, and gender.

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The Zebra Striped Hearse: Ross Macdonald (1962)

“She was waiting at the office door when I got back from my morning coffee break. The women I usually ran into in the rather dingy upstairs corridor were the aspiring hopeless girls who depended on the modeling agency next door. This one was different.”

California PI Lew Archer is hired by the inflexible retired Colonel Blackwell to investigate his only daughter, Harriet’s fiancé, painter Burke Damis. 24-year-old Harriet, who is due to inherit a “half-million-dollar trust fund” in just a few months time, met Burke in Mexico. After a couple of meetings with Burke, the Colonel is convinced that his prospective son-in-law is a fortune hunter. Archer had a preemptive visit from the Colonel’s much younger wife, Isobel, who argues that the Colonel is overprotective, so Archer takes the case with some misgivings–first Harriet is a grown woman and she can marry whom she pleases. Secondly Blackwell’s huffy attitude is opposed to Archer’s methods, but he agrees to take the case as long as the Colonel, who’s used to giving orders, understands that “the chips fall where they fall.”

Harriet and Burke currently reside in the Blackwell family beach house, so this is Archer’s first stop. Apart from an initial subterfuge to get through the beach house door, it’s a full-frontal approach. Archer doesn’t believe in working in the dark, following people or spying on their secret lives–at least not in this novel. After a few minutes in the company of Harriet and Burke, Archer concludes that the lovers’ relationship is one-sided, and that the Colonel’s suspicions are probably correct. Harriet is a “lot of girl.”

I saw why her father couldn’t believe that any man would love her truly or permanently. She looked too much like him.

Archer travels down to Mexico, to the remote town where Burke was living when he met Harriet, and here he discovers that Burke’s past is blurry. Archer must penetrate the sometimes hostile American ex-pat community–people who want to forget their lives in America and have chosen “a sealed-off past.” The case, which should be fairly simple, becomes increasingly complicated, more circuitous, and Archer finds himself pursuing the truth even though his employers don’t like his methods or his attitude.

Isobel Blackwell spoke behind me as I hung up: “Do you doubt everything and everyone?”

She had washed her face and left it naked of make-up. Her hair was wet at the temples.

“Practically everything,” I said. “Almost everyone. It’s a little habit I picked up from my clients by osmosis.”

In this quintessential detective novel, Archer has his own set of ethics. He wants to believe there’s good in the world, but his experiences tell him otherwise. He has a gut feeling about some people.

I lit a cigarette and considered my answer. Between my duty to the law and the man who trusted me, and my duty to a client I no longer trusted, my ethics were stretched thin.

Lew Archer, with his wry dry humor, is a great series detective, and the novel is peppered with great characters–most of them liven up and open up when they hear it’s unpleasant news about someone else. There’s little human charity. We meet a washed up actress, a toupee wearing desk clerk, a policeman’s wife, and parents who live in denial about their daughter’s past. We may only get a sliver of a glimpse into their lives, but that toxic sliver is enough:

But it’s hard on an older woman having a younger woman in the house. A younger woman with all those troubles, it puts a strain on the marriage.” She ran her fingers over her curlers, as if they were holding the marriage precariously together.

And here’s Fawn, a second-rate lounge singer hoping for the big time, and in the meantime she pays her rent with “dates.” She has a hardier morality than most of the women in the book.

The song broke off when I knocked. She appeared at the door, her face still softened by music her brown eyes held a puzzled innocence. Perhaps she was puzzled by her body and its uses. It was full and tender under her sweater, like fruit that is ripened too quickly. She held it for me to look at and said in a semiprofessional voice: “Hello, I was just practicing my Blues style.”

“I heard. You have a nice voice.”

“So they all tell me. The trouble is, the competition here is terrif. They bring in recording stars, and it isn’t fair to the local talent.”

“You’re a local girl?”

“This is my third season. My third fabulous season which makes me an old-timer.”

“And you want to be a singer?”

“Anything,” she said. “Anything to get out of the rat race. Do you have any suggestions?”

My usual line was ready. The one I used on aspiring starlets and fledgling nightingales and girls who hoped to model their way into heaven: I was from Hollywood, knew movie people, could help. Her puzzled innocence stopped me.

“Just keep trying .”

She regarded me suspiciously, as though I had flubbed my cue.

At the conclusion of the novel, I had to puzzle out some of the meetings and some of the timelines of this complicated murder case. And I haven’t even mentioned the zebra-striped hearse. After working out the timelines, I stewed on the cesspit steaming and bubbling under the plot–the things Archer suspects, the things hinted at but not proved. The twisted aspects of this case grow rapidly and wrap around the plot, but always Archer understands that there’s a beginning and end of this case–of every case. He just has to find it.

I was thinking that you never could tell what murderers would do.

Marvelous.

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A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin (1953)

One of the most enthralling, creepiest books I have ever read, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is a chilling journey into the mind of psychopath, Bud Corliss, a good-looking, decorated WWII veteran who returns to his hometown as a hero but then finds that the normal, difficult slow paths to money and success are ‘beneath’ him. Starter jobs aren’t good enough and college “would only be an unnecessary stopover on the road to the success he was certain awaited him.” He moves to New York, but the world does not shower him with the recognition he thinks he deserves. 5 months and 6 jobs later there’s a period of “serious self-analysis,” (Levin’s ironic touch adds to this tale) with the result that Bud “took out his fountain pen and made what he considered to be a completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents.” He finds a rich, older widow and easily slips into the role of gigolo, but the widow has a series of toyboys all with a short shelf life. Following that experience, Bud plots to snare a wealthy young bride and moves to Blue River, Iowa to attend Stoddard College: “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.”

It looks as though Bud’s plans will be successful when he finds the insecure, needy Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper manufacturer. But there’s a hiccup in Bud’s plans when Dorothy announces she’s pregnant. Bud knows that Dorothy’s father is strict and that in light of the unexpected pregnancy, Dorothy will most likely be cut off from the family coffers. Bud decides his choices are: 1) to marry Dorothy, lose the fortune and end up working menial jobs with a wife and baby dragging him down, or 2) ditch Dorothy in which case he’s sure Mr Kingship will hunt him down and ensure Bud’s ruin. Then Bud decides that there’s a 3rd scenario: first come pills to bring on an abortion, but they don’t work (“why hadn’t the goddamn pills killed the girl?“) His anger at Dorothy builds as Bud sees his plans thwarted, and in his narcassistic mind, it’s all her “fault.” His justifications pile on like speed dominoes–after all he hadn’t really wanted sex… it was just to “seal” the deal. From this line of thought, murder is the next step. …

Bud is a list-maker, so throughout the novel he faithfully, coldly and calculatingly lists his plans with pros and cons, and it’s through these plans we see the twisted logic of the psychopathic mind. After Dorothy’s murder, which is ruled as a suicide due to Bud’s cold-blooded staging, Bud is at first thrilled by his own brilliance and the “flawless success of his plans. He should be walking on air, smiling at strangers, toasting himself with secret Champagne. Instead there was this dull, leaden letdown feeling. He couldn’t understand it.” Of course the letdown feeling is caused by the slowly dawning realization that without Dorothy, he’s back at square one. And after all that hard work too. “All that planning hadn’t advanced him in the slightest.”

Bud returns home to his doting, indulgent mother to lick his wounds. He works another boring job, but internally he’s advancing to the next stage of the game. Of course this all takes ‘study’ and preparation. Although the Dorothy ‘episode’ may have been a failure, he turns it into a brilliant success; he can’t help himself–it’s the self-love kicking in, and so he keeps a collection of his twisted plans. His depression begins to evaporate:

Towards the middle July, however, he began to slough off his dejection. He still had the newspaper clips about Dorothy’s death locked in the small grey strongbox he kept in his bedroom closet. He began taking them out once in a while, skimming through them smiling at the officious certainty of Chief of Police Eldon Chesser and the half-baked theorizing of Annabelle Koch. He dug up his old library card, had it renewed and began withdrawing books regularly; Pearson’s Studies in Murder, Bolitho’s Murder for Profit, volumes in the Regional Murder series. He read about Landru, Smith, Pritchard, Crippen. Men who had failed where he had succeeded. Of course it was only the failures whose stories got written–God knows how many successful ones there were. Still it was flattering to consider how many had failed. Until now, he had always thought of what happened at the Municpal building as Dorie’s death. Now he began to think of it as Dorie’s murder. Sometimes, when he had lain in bed and read several accounts in one of the books, the enormous daring of what he had done would overwhelm him. He would get up and look at himself in the mirror over the dresser. I got away with murder, he would think. Once he whispered it aloud. “I got away with murder!” So what if he wasn’t rich yet. Hell he was only 24.

When Dorothy’s guilt-ridden sister, Ellen suspects that Dorothy was murdered, she quietly begins an investigation. She uncovers a few male suspects and the wolfish behaviour of these young men sound alarm bells when in reality the danger is closer than she can imagine. Perhaps the greatest character here is DJ Gordon Gant, a man who meets Ellen and can’t forget her. His dogged persistence eventually costs him his job.  Although Gant has nothing to gain, and at great personal cost, he insists on giving Dorothy’s father, a man who has abdicated his parental role, a wake-up call. Bearers of bad news are typically seen as more trouble than the threat they report. Sometimes we want to bury our heads  in the sand and we must be dragged into reality kicking and screaming. While this is certainly true in this tale, it’s also true that the average person cannot conceive of the nature of Evil. An average person cannot imagine how a psychopath thinks, and this is one of the reasons this book is so powerful–we are privy to Bud’s twisted thinking, his objectification of other human beings and his monumental self-worship.

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Miami Blues: Charles Willeford (1984)

Frederick J. Frenger Jr., career criminal and a “blithe psychopath,” freshly released from his latest prison sentence, heads to Miami with a wallet full of stolen credit cards. He arrives at Miami airport with plans to steal luggage and hold up in a hotel room while he plans his big heist. When he’s hassled by a zealous Hare Krishna, Frenger reacts with violence and the Hare Krishna dies. So there’s Frenger’s explosive entrance into Miami, and when you see someone enter like that, you know they’re going to exit with a bang. Once in the hotel, Frenger, with the assistance of a ‘helpful’ bellman named Pablo, orders up a hooker, and this second action by Frenger tangles him in a cord of Fate. The waif-like hooker’s name is Pepper, and although she looks underage, she’s a 20 year-old college student named Susan Waggoner.

Why, Freddy wondered, is she lying to me? No college would ever accept this incredibly stupid young woman as a student. On the other hand, he had known a few college men in San Quentin. Although they usually got the best jobs there, they didn’t appear to be any smarter than the majority of the cons.

Needing a car and a place to stay, Frenger decides to play house with Susan, claiming they will have a platonic marriage. Susan is a lousy prostitute and the stupidest one Frenger has ever met. Still she suits his plans and she’s disposable. In the meantime, Homicide detective Hoke Moseley begins investigating the murder of the Hare Krishna. It’s an odd murder and Hoke is interested in how it occurred. As he approaches the investigation, Hoke inadvertently and unknowingly spins into Frenger’s path. Frenger hates cops and so he decides to ‘fix’ Hoke.

Miami Blues has Charles Willeford’s signature dry savage wit. The humour here comes partly from Susan’s naivety and stupidity. She’s pimped out by her brother, and there’s a whole back story here I won’t give away, but I could swear I heard the background music from Deliverance whenever Susan tells her sad story. With her offer of free blowjobs and giving Pablo a 50/50 cut, it’s clear this career is not for Susan. She’s a bizarre mix of character traits: naïve and innocent–yet utterly corrupted, stupid and yet a survivor. Sometimes innocence opens the gates of hell and sometimes innocence gives you a free pass:

Freddy unwrapped the bath sheet and dropped it on the floor. He probed her pregreased vagina with the first three fingers of his right hand. He shook his head and frowned.

“Not enough friction there for me,he said. “I’m used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?

“No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much, I just can’t do it. I can give you a blow-job if you like.”

“That’s okay, but I’m not all that interested anyway. You really should learn to take it in the ass You’ll make more money, and if you learn to relax–“

That’s what Pablo said but I can’t.”

The sardonic humour comes from the telling of this tale and in the portrayal of Hoke, a great series character whose life is a wreck. He’s divorced, handing over half his paycheck in alimony, living in a flophouse motel, trying to hang onto his false teeth (his abscessed teeth were removed in the morgue by the local pathologist). The teeth have quite a role to play in this violent tale. Hoke isn’t a humorous character, but it gets to the point that he’s beaten down so far you can’t see the nailhead. The novel spins around these three characters: Hoke, the slow-moving, low-key thorough detective, Susan, the world’s stupidest prostitute, and Frenger whose vicious acts carve a path of destructive violence. This is a man who is capable of the most brutal acts and the brutality isn’t relative to the provocation–Frenger, who thinks all his mistakes in life can be chalked up to his “altruism,” doesn’t possess a ‘scale of response.’

It took Hoke twenty minutes to find his teeth, but they had landed in a cluster of screw-leaved crotons and weren’t damaged. He put them into a fresh glass of water with another helping of polident and wondered what in the hell he was going to do next.

This is hard-boiled detective fiction: violence and sex. But in this novel, they are the same thing.

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