Category Archives: Fiction

The Executioner Weeps: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“She’d sprung from the night, just for me.”

Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint continues to impress with The Executioner Weeps from Frédéric Dard. This latest Dard novel follows on the heels of Bird in a Cage, The Wicked Go to Hell, and Crush. The King of Fools is due to be released in the US in September, 2017.

In The Executioner Weeps, Daniela successful French artist is in Spain on a working holiday when late one night, on a remote lonely road, his car hits a beautiful young woman. She has no identification, no luggage–except for a now crushed violin. Daniel suspects that this young woman may possibly have thrown herself under the car. Since he’s miles from civilization and the woman’s injuries are fairly superficial, Daniel decides to take her back to Casa Patricio, a modest beachside hotel located near Barcelona, and proceed from there. When the woman wakes up, she’s suffering from amnesia.

The executioner weeps

For the first half of the book, Daniel spends time trying to discover the woman’s identity. He knows that her first name begins with M, and together they try various M names on for size. Eventually as shards of memory return, the woman settles on Marianne which she is sure is her name. Thrown together by circumstance, it isn’t long before Daniel falls in love with Marianne–even though common sense should tell him otherwise.

I was living the dream that all men have of loving a woman without a past.

He contacts the French embassy, the police, every institution he can think of, but everyone is disinterested in Marianne’s plight and Daniel’s dilemma. The consensus seems to be that someone will eventually come looking for this stunning young woman…

Daniel’s dilemma deepens when he receives a letter concerning an upcoming exhibition is America. He decides to stop waiting for something to happen and using the labels in Marianne’s clothing, he sets out to discover her past himself. Soon he wishes he hadn’t.

This is as much of the plot in this splendid, tightly written noir that I’m going to reveal. The tale begins with a central mystery–the identity of the young woman–Daniel spends half the novel trying to discover the truth and half the novel trying to evade it. The plot, with its sense of creeping dread and impending doom, raises many questions about the nature of love: idealisation, self-deceit, corruption and the love object. Is Daniel protecting Marianne or is he protecting his ideal?

Significantly Daniel decides to paint a portrait of Marianne:

What I set out to show was what I could see in her. She surrendered slowly, easing herself out of her own personality to become what I wanted her to be. I no longer separated my creation from my model. I took a human being and spread it out on a surface that had no limits. 

But when the painting is finished, Daniel is disturbed by the results:

From a painterly point of view, it was first rate. Yet I didn’t like it, because with this particular canvas something strange had happened. I had succeeded in capturing Marianne’s most unguarded expression so well that I could read her character better in my painting than in her face. Now, in the come-hither look in her eye with which she stared at me I detected a bizarre glint which quite disconcerted me. There was a sparkle in it which didn’t seem to belong with the rest of her: it encapsulated a level of sustained attentiveness which was almost disturbing in its intensity.  

The truth, when Daniel finally discovers it, is devastating, and every step he takes just draws him into a sticky web from which there is no escape. There’s a thematic connection here to Vertigo in the way the author explores just how far we will go to maintain fictional narratives that feed our desires and egos.

For  those interested, here’s my Dard order of preference so far:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

Review copy

Translated by David Coward

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German Stories and Tales: Ed. by Robert Pick (Part I)

As part of my 2017 TBR project, I committed to read 48 books that I’d bought any time prior to January 1st. One of the books that made the cut is German Stories and Tales edited by Robert Pick. This paperback was given to me in 1987, but it was published more than 20 years prior to that: 1966. I mention the date of the publication as a couple of the authors whose stories appear in the collection were still alive in 1966. It was eerie reading about Alexander Lernet-Holenia in the present tense, living in “Vienna and Sankt Wolfgang, Upper Austria,” and Hermann Kesten living in NYC.

German stories and tales

So here I am thirty years after being given this book, finally reading it. This is such a modest looking little paperback but what treasures it contains:

Youth, Beautiful Youth by Hermann Hesse
Kannitverstan by Johann Peter Hebel
An Episode in the Life of the Marshal de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Lukardis by Jakob Wassermann
Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Cardiac Suture by Ernst Weiss
The Message that Failed by Moritz Heimann
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter
The Bachelor’s Death by Arthur Schnitzler
Unexpected Reunion by Johann Peter Hebel
Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
The Picnic of Mores the Cat by Clemens Brentano
Zerline, the Old Servant Girl by Hermann Broch
The Friend in the Closet by Hermann Kesten
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
A Little Legend of the Dance by Gottfried Keller
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
The Hussar by Johann Peter Hebel

I’ve never read Herman Hesse although I’ve looked at, and passed on, his books many times. Youth, Beautiful Youth is a wonderful bitter-sweet short story that captures the feeling of lost youth. The story is told in retrospect, by Hermann, a man who recalls his visit home. He’s been away for a few years and has employment lined up for the autumn. This then is his last summer before settling down, possibly permanently, so this is an auspicious visit home:

With creeping caution the train descended the hill in great winding curves, and with each turn the houses, streets, river, and gardens of the town below came closer and grew more distinct. Soon I could distinguish the roofs and pick out the familiar ones; soon, too, I could count the windows and recognize the stork nests. And while childhood and boyhood and a thousand precious memories of home were wafted toward me out of the valley, my sense of arrogant triumph at the homecoming slowly melted away. My desire to make a big impression upon all the people down there yielded to a feeling of grateful astonishment. Homesickness, which in the course of the years had ceased to trouble me, assailed me powerfully in this last quarter-hour. Every clump of broom near the station platform and every familiar garden fence became strangely precious to me, and I asked each to forgive me  for having to be able to forget it and get along without it for so long. 

It’s a wonderful carefree summer with the narrator taking long walks, reading, setting off fireworks with his brother Fritz, and falling in love. The summer stretches out far ahead, and yet it ends all too soon.

And as all loveliness and sweetness is mortal and has its destined end, day after day of this summer, too, slipped through my fingers-this summer which in memory seems to have brought my youth to a close.

This summer is a moment in time–a moment that will never be repeated. Hermann presses memories and scenes into his mind where they remain even though the world Hermann knew passed away. There’s the sense that something happened after the narrator left–was it WWI? And here is how the story ends.

As the train approached our garden, I caught sight of a powerful blood-red flare. There stood my brother, Fritz, holding a Bengal light in each hand. At the very moment that I waved to him and rode by, he sent a skyrocket shooting straight up into the air. Leaning out, I saw it mount and pause, describe a gentle arc, and vanish in a rain of red sparks.

Translated by Richard and Clara Winston.

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Filed under Fiction, Hesse Hermann, Wasserman Jakob

Endgame: Ahmet Altan

“Anybody else but me would have left. He would have shrugged off these strange twists of fate and left. But I chose to stay. A chain of coincidences. God creates them, but lets you decide how to live through them.” 

In Ahmet Altan’s brooding noir novel, Endgame, a crime writer on the hunt for a mountain home that will provide him with inspiration finds more than he bargained for. This frame story begins with the nameless writer sitting on a bench in a small remote Turkish town in the aftermath of a murder. Endgame then goes back in time to provide the back story to just how and why a man who writes about crime commits murder.

Our narrator isn’t a particularly successful writer, and his career, such as it is, has stalled when he travels to the Taurus Mountains “hoping to find a mountain village” where he could live and write. On the first leg of the journey, while flying in a plane, he meets a gorgeous woman named Zuhal. Later while driving on mountain roads he stops at a restaurant, and is served by the owner, Remzi. It’s a conversation with Remzi that seals the writer’s decision to stay in this coastal town: it’s a hot bed of crime with rival gangsters, including one named Oleander Ramiz, fighting over turf, murders occurring in broad daylight, a thriving marijuana industry, and rumours of buried treasure. And of course, since Zuhal lives here, her presence is an added incentive.

ENDGAME

Over time, our narrator, thanks to his innate and we could say reckless curiosity, becomes involved with local society and its secrets. He’s definitely drawn to trouble and part of that is fermented in his desire for women. Before long, the writer has hot online sex with Zuhal (there’s an entire online subculture that the locals disappear to every afternoon), and the online sex develops into same-room sex. Of course the writer is courting disaster with Zuhal, the former mistress of the local mayor–a man who has ties to organised crime.

Above ground the men were engaged in disputes over land, power struggles and murder while women ruled the town with their urgent, uncontrollable sexual desires. 

As if having sex with Zuhal isn’t dangerous enough, the writer also begins a tawdry sweaty affair with the mayor’s wife, a femme fatale figure who would definitely play one of those tacky bad blondes if this were film noir. But to complicate things even further, the writer also has sessions with the local prostitute, who because of her gangster customers, has been converted into a police informer.  In between juggling these three women, the writer still has the energy to eyeball his housekeeper when she bends over.

I have always sought the dark side of a woman’s heart, and when I find it I indulge, prepared to pay the price later on. 

Reading Endgame takes us into a different world, and yet the novel still has many of the signature elements of both crime and noir stories. There’s one scene when the writer is in Remzi’s restaurant, reading the newspaper and minding his own business (a habit he should learn to cultivate) when a murder takes place right in front of his eyes. The corrupt police chief, who drives a telltale Mercedes, conducts a cursory investigation, and it’s through this incident that the writer begins to grasp that life in this mountain town is conducted not by legal means but by those who have the power and the violence to enforce it.

Remzi acts as an interpreter of subtexts. At first the writer is ignorant of the local customs–since he’s stepped into a hotbed of murder and corruption, it takes him a while to work out who is on whose side and who is sleeping with who, but Remzi, a man who sees everything and understands the unspoken rules and the subtexts of seemingly innocuous or off beat remarks, interprets:

“I saw a sign back there, sea for sale,’ I said

‘Oleander wants to sell the beach.’ 

‘It’s his?’

‘How could the beach be his?’ he said. looking at me as if I was a fool.

‘Well, how can he sell it then?’ 

‘He can’t … But he wants to’

There are a lot of characters here, and it wasn’t initially easy to keep them straight–especially since the word ‘Bey’ popped up several times and it took me a while to understand it’s a form of Turkish address.  Once I got that, I stopped tripping over the names so much. The email exchanges between the writer and Zuhal were hard to wade through, and I found myself skimming over these.

Endgame allows a glimpse into a culture that is so foreign to the west, and yet oh so familiar when exploring greed, lust and murder. This is a slowburn novel, not a thriller, so be prepared to sit back and just enjoy the ride. The narrator’s commentary is laced with his laments to god. If this were an American noir novel, these railings to god would be our western railings at the cruelties of fate. I was initially bothered by these interruptions, but once I put them in their context, it made sense.

Translated by Alexander Dawe

Review copy

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The Devil and Webster: Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel The Devil and Webster is a witty, wise and topical look at life on at a small, prestigious college campus. Dean Naomi Roth, the first female president at Webster College, “one of the most selective colleges in the nation,” made her career by the delicate handling of a potentially explosive situation. She came to the attention of the Board of Trustees for the manner in which she dealt with the uproar among the residents of the all-female Radclyffe Hall. Problems began when a female resident, Nell changed her name to Neil, and started undergoing gender change treatments. The female residents wanted Neil out, but he wanted to stay. It was a hot subject, the press became involved and while Neil argued discrimination, according to the female housemates:

This is a case of male penetration of a designated women-only space.

With disaster diplomatically averted, Naomi, Webster’s “first dedicated professor of feminist and gender studies,” had all the proper credentials, including past activism and was subsequently made the next president. She loves her job, and her large mansion (courtesy of the college) but there are rumblings on the campus which grow into a major PR catastrophe, disrupt her life and bring her deepest beliefs under scrutiny and into question.

the devil and webster

Naomi’s troubles begin when students begin camping out at the Stump–historically the location for Webster student protests. The cause this time is student discontent over the very popular Professor Gall (a notoriously easy grader) not receiving tenure. Normally professors who don’t get tenure just quietly pack their bags and leave, but in the case of Professor Gall, students begin championing his cause by a building a camp at the Stump. Naomi knows that Gall hasn’t been granted tenure because he’s failed to publish and also because he’s committed the cardinal sin of plagiarism, but according to the legal department, she’s can’t publicly air these reasons.

The number of protestors at the Stump grows with students flooding in from other campuses. Parents begin complaining, the media gets involved and then all hell breaks loose….

In The Devil and Webster, author Jean Hanff Korelitz shows there are no sacred cows in academia. On one hand we have a college with a past which includes institutional racism and massive hypocrisy–an elite school in which money talks to the unacknowledged competitive admissions process, and a number of disenfranchised students are admitted and yet are not supposed to feel ‘token.’ Also addressed, very subtly, is the way in which sometimes violent (even murderous) revolutionary cred can trump academic achievements–this in the most established of establishments.  And there’s another issue of ‘genteel’ protests–protests that make everyone (the participants and the establishment) feel enlightened and ‘involved.’

Whatever cause or grievance brought Webster students to the Stump, what happened once when they got there was always pretty much the same: a clear statement of purpose, a plainly identified leader, and lines of communication smartly established with Webster’s president, whoever he was at the time, after which that president would at least pretend to consider the students’ demands or sympathize with their feelings. But then, once the protesters had picketed a trustees’ retreat or a commencement to emphasize their point, the students would always just … go away.

In the protest under scrutiny, student leader Omar doesn’t play by these genteel rules; he plays dirty, and Naomi finds the old methods of dealing with students doesn’t work in Omar’s case. …

This rich and topical novel skewers academia, its highly competitive selection process, along with the wealthy who buy an ‘authentic,’ culturally aware experience for their children that raises consciousness but only safely within their economic boundaries. The book argues that in the current campus culture of identify and identification, division inevitably results:

A basketball player from Georgia or a robotics whiz from northern New Jersey? An equestrian who’d bring her own horse (and a strongly hinted at donation to campus) or a waif from Bangladesh who was being sponsored by a famous tech philanthropist? How could you weigh innovation against opportunity? How could you put a value on simple security-the experience of growing up in a stable society with guaranteed schooling-when others had no such thing?

The author has fun with all sides of the debate here. From Naomi listening to NPR and Garrison Keillor’s “narcotic” voice while serving her daughter “humanely euthanized fish in good conscience, to old-school Professor Russell who believes the protest is “the inevitable result of years of capitulation to liberal idiocy.” While the figures of both Omar and Gall remain disappointingly murky, the author raises many issues pertinent to the nepotism, privilege, politics and mission of university campuses.

Review copy

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Strangers: Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novel Strangers weighs the value of loneliness and the solitary life against relationships that are full of compromise. The main character is Paul Sturgis, a man in his 70s, who “loved too unwisely in his youth.” At this point in his life, Paul, who has retired from banking, has no friends and no family apart from Helena, the widow of a deceased cousin. Although he visits Helena weekly out of a sense of duty the visits are awkward and one-sided with him as the listener as Helena brags about her friends and how concerned they are for her.

So he usually resigned himself to a coolheaded appraisal of her folly (and of his), would listen to her accounts of her many friends, among whom was one she referred to as ‘my tame professor,’ and whose function in her life was unclear; there were also her partners at the bridge club–‘the girls’-and the neighbours who invited her to dinner (‘They make such a fuss of me I don’t like to let them down’).

With Christmas looming, Paul decides to avoid Helena  and instead takes a trip to Venice. On the journey, he meets an attractive, divorced woman in her fifties, Vicky Gardner, and although she’s a stranger, in his loneliness Paul encourages the relationship into an acquaintance. After a meal together Vicky promises to look Paul up when they are back in London, and to his surprise, she does.

Strangers

But while Paul longs for a friend or a companion, Vicky is neither of these:

Her determination not to be fully questioned was all of a piece with her sense of freedom, a sense which usually evaporates as one reaches the age of maturity. This she had somehow retained. On first encountering her on the plane to Venice he had thought her agreeable, no more, an ordinary woman on her way to friends, whose way of life appeared normal. In time, however, those friends had multiplied, and although anonymous, were somehow omnipresent. Her evasiveness was a way of exculpating herself from obligation: it was preemptive, in the sense that it proclaimed her to be guilt free

Then Paul runs into the love-of-his-life, Sarah, the woman who dumped him years earlier….

Although Strangers is a very calm, mannered undramatic novel, the plot revolves around Paul’s quiet crisis of confidence. Should he pursue the elusive Mrs Gardner or the acerbic Sarah? Mrs Gardener is much more fun to be with, but then again Paul and Sarah have a shared history and are more-or-less the same age.  Or then again, should a bachelor of 74 avoid matrimony altogether?

Thematically, Strangers is close to A Private View since both novels concern retired, lonely bachelors who find their lives invaded by females. The opportunistic (and unpleasant) Katy from A Private View could well have matured into the slightly more sophisticated but still eminently selfish Vicky. Interesting how people as volatile and restless as Vicky and Katy gravitate to the well-moored males they discover. I had a lot of sympathy for Paul who seems destined to be a perpetual sounding board for the women in his life. Although Paul has been made to feel ‘boring’ by women, he’s quite complex, hungering for the home and childhood he couldn’t wait to escape, and finding himself always haunted by what-might-have beens. Paul is very found of Henry James, and he’s very much a Jamesion figure–detached but watching the action; unfortunately he longs to be something else.

Here’s my order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

Strangers

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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The Will to Kill: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

Where there’s a will …

In The Will to Kill, Mike Hammer is back in a tightly-woven PI tale of greed, dysfunctional siblings and a legacy of millions of dollars. When the novel opens, it’s past midnight and Mike Hammer has a quiet moment watching the Hudson River. A slab of ice caught by the pier carries strange cargo–half of a body. Hammer asks himself “what was it about me that attracted death? What turned a reflective moment at the waterfront into a damn crime scene?”

The half-a-body is identified as Jamison Elder, a bachelor and a butler in his sixties. The official story, according to his employers, the four wealthy Dunbar siblings, is that Jamison’s sister was ill, and he left the family estate near Monticello, to rush to her side. Somewhere along the way, his car ploughed into a snow bank, and then the story gets blurry. Police speculate that somehow or another Jamison fell into the river and suffered extensive injuries that caused his death.

the will to kill

Captain Pat Chambers, Mike Hammer’s old friend, finds Jamison’s death suspicious. Add that to the death a few years earlier of Jamison’s employer, ex-cop turned inventor, millionaire Chester Dunbar. Chester Dunbar was Chambers’ precinct captain when Chambers graduated from the academy, and now Chambers feels a sense of moral obligation to investigate both Dunbar and Jamison’s deaths. Since the case is outside of Chambers’ jurisdiction, he hires Hammer reasoning that “if Mike Hammer can’t sniff out murder, nobody can.”

Hammer contacts the four Dunbar siblings who live together at the family estate. There’s Wake and Dex adopted by Chester Dunbar when he married their widowed mother, and Dorena and Chickie, Dunbar’s own children. According to Chambers, “two are bums, one’s beautiful and one’s a congenital idiot.” All four Dunbar offspring are waiting for their generous inheritance which only comes their way as they each turn forty.

Hammer stays at the estate, and curiously the three eldest Dunbar offspring welcome an investigation into the death of their father while 20-year-old Chickie is too busy playing with his toys to have an opinion. There’s a lot of dirt and scandal under the surface of the Dunbar estate. Wake is married to a beautiful gold-digger, and Dex is a compulsive gambler. Dorena, a budding playwright, seems to be the only normal one of the bunch, but with millions of dollars at stake in the will, Hammer reasons, “no wonder there’s murder in the air.”

Although this tale is lean, Hammer’s observations, always laced with a bitter humour, give a strong sense of time, place and character. Here he is meeting the Dunbar family lawyer in a low-rent diner:

I went down and slid in opposite him in a high-backed booth, tossing my hat on the table. He had what must have been a sturdy frame before time and pie–he was halfway through a piece of coconut crème-caught up with him. His charcoal worsted would have been too good for the place if it hadn’t looked slept in. The black-and-white silk tie seemed fresh enough

The tale, full of snappy dialogue and Hammer’s wry, cynical wit, rips along with very little down time as Hammer moves from one corpse to another, meeting a number of beautiful, seductive women along the way. A Will to Kill is another product of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished work now seamlessly completed by Max Allan Collins who inherited Spillane’s unfinished manuscripts upon his death. As usual, it’s impossible to tell where Mickey Spillane ends and Max Allan Collins begins, so fans should be pleased.

review copy

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The Dead Stay Dumb: James Hadley Chase (1941)

The Making of a Gangster’s Moll …

“From now on I’m givin’ the orders and you’re takin’ em, see? We’re getting into the dough, an’ no one’s stoppin’ us. If they get in our way it’s goin’ to be so much grief for ’em–get that? In a little while I’ll be running the town. You can get in at the ground floor or you can stay out. You stay out an’ one dark night someone’s goin’ to toss a handful of slugs in your guts.”

The Dead Stay Dumb was published in 1941, just two years after No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and while the thematic connection is clear (gangsters running amok), of the two novels, I preferred No Orchids.

The Dead Stay Dumb is the story of Dillon, a hood–a cheap, violent, brutal hood so riddled with inchoate ambition that he brings about his own destruction. This is by far the most violent James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read so far (out of six). The violence, which comes with rapid, unrelenting speed was shocking. This is a novel without heroes or heroines, and our main character, Dillon, who let’s his Tommy gun do the talking for him, survives encounter after encounter simply because he’s the most vicious character in these pages.

the dead stay dumb

When Dillon arrives in the small town of Plattsville, he’s a “long, starved shadow of a man.” He looks like an average hobo, shabby and dusty, but there’s something about his aggression and the dead expression in his eyes that convinces some of the local bullies to give him wide berth. Store owner Abe Goldberg offers him a meal, but when he turns down booze and cigarettes and thwarts a bullying customer, Abe also offers employment to Dillon. But men like Dillon, whose former employer was Baby Face Nelson,  don’t want 9-5; they want money, lots of it, and they want it faster than they can earn it.

Within a short time of landing on his feet, Dillon organises a criminal enterprise by bullying the local thugs into becoming his underlings. Seventeen-year-old Myra Hogan, the local hottie, sets her sights on Dillon, and finding herself turned on by his brutality, she makes the mistake of thinking she can control it and turn violence into sexual passion.

Dillon said, “Skip it. I ain’t listening to big-mouth talk from a kid with hot pants. Get what you want and blow.”

Myra took three quick steps forward and aimed a slap at Dillon’s face. She was nearly sobbing with rage. Dillon reached up and caught her wrist. “Be your age,” he said, “you ain’t in the movies.”

Myra, who rapidly becomes an adept gangster’s moll, hits the road with Dillon, eventually teaming up with another crook called Roxy who is the least repulsive character in a book full of repulsive people. Dillon doesn’t see the point of women, and he isn’t impressed with Myra’s looks or sexuality. The way he sees it, she doesn’t have anything different from every other woman on the planet, so what’s she got to brag about? While women serve a purpose for Dillon, they’re not much use as living, breathing human beings, and at one point, he advises a fellow crook to use the Neanderthal approach: “if you gotta lay this bitch, why didn’t you knock her cold first?”

I’m not going to include a clip of the descriptive violence because it really is over-the-top, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s digestion, but I will add that The Dead Stay Dumb includes one of the longest, most violent fights between two women that I’ve ever read.

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The Cheltenham Square Murders: John Bude (1937)

Regency Square, with its “Georgian origins,” is a prestigious neighbourhood in the town of Cheltenham Spa. It’s composed of a mere ten houses in a quiet-cul-de-sac with all the houses facing a “central communal square of grass.” The area sounds so peaceful, and there’s the sense that this is a “quiet, residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch.” But of course, as any self-respecting crime readers know, appearances are deceiving.

The Cheltenham Square murder

When John Bude’s crime novel The Cheltenham Square Murders opens, the residents of this elite neighbourhood with its forced intimacy are quarreling over whether or not an old elm tree should be cut down. The residents are divided on the subject, but while this may seem the overriding issue in the neighbourhood, there’s actually a few scandals afoot. The dashing “floridly handsome,” car salesman Captain Cotton, who rides in and out of the Square on his very loud motorbike, is conducting an affair with Mrs West, and the residents are scandalised and appalled. In the meantime, Mr West not only seems in danger of losing his wife, but he’s also lost his fortune after taking the investment advice of his neighbour, stockbroker Buller.

When Captain Cotton is shot through the head with an arrow, there is no shortage of suspects since several residents of the Square are proficient members of the Wellington Archery Club. But of course, since Captain Cotton had an affair with West’s wife, West immediately becomes the prime suspect.

As luck would have it, Aldous Barnet, “writer of detective stories” happens to be staying in his sister’s house in the Square and he’s invited Inspector Meredith to spend part of his holiday in Cheltenham Spa. Although the local coppers are called to the scene for Captain Cotton’s murder, both Aldous Barnet and Meredith can’t resist becoming involved.

John Bude gives us a lively assortment of residents to spice up this police procedural including the militant Miss Boon who believes that “dogs were the only sensible housemates,” two elderly spinster sisters, the “aloof” Sir Wilfred Whitcomb and his wife Lady Eleanor, the fussy Reverend Matthews along with his sister Annie, “a faded, anaemic creature in nondescript clothes,” who acts as his housekeeper and who has been “agreeing with him for over forty years.” 

With West as the very obvious prime suspect, we all know that the case can’t be so simple, and Barnet and Meredith begin digging under the surface of life in the Square to capture the real culprit.

Even though I guessed the identity of the real killer before the real sleuths did, the fun here is twofold: the assortment of residents and the liberal humour in so many scenes. Bude clearly had fun with this tale and intended his readers to put their feet up and enjoy the ride. The crime takes place in a very small neighbourhood, and it’s clear that the forced intimacy has festered and fostered murder. While this is not the strongest entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, its intention is to be a fun, diversionary read, and in this, it succeeds

Review copy

 

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The Rules of Engagement: Anita Brookner

Back to Brookner with The Rules of Engagement, and what an interesting and yet somewhat frustrating main character we have here in Elizabeth.

The book opens with Elizabeth describing how she met another Elizabeth in school. To keep everything from being too confusing, the non-narrator Elizabeth chooses to switch her name to Betsy. Immediately there’s the idea (at least to me) that these two are somehow tied together but with Betsy branching off into her own zone. If we keep to that idea, then we see Elizabeth marrying Digby, a staid, responsible man, 27 years her senior, while Betsy goes to Paris and marries the radical Daniel.

Betsy fades in and out of Elizabeth’s life: appearing at her wedding (and obviously shocked by the groom’s age), but eventually returns to London years later. The two women aren’t exactly friends–although they call each other by that title. Rather they have a shared history buried in childhood. They have very little in common: Betsy longs for a family, while Elizabeth is all about clinical detachment.

the rules of engagement

This is the most introspective of Brookner’s novels I’ve read so far. Not a great deal happens, so I can’t talk much about plot without giving away the central dilemma. Instead I’ll focus on Elizabeth who really is a very strange character. At times I wondered if she were quite sane, or at least how she became so damaged. She marries a man old enough to be her father (which makes sense given her home life) but then very quickly begins an adulterous affair.

Elizabeth is a mass of contradictions, and there were times I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. For example, their wedding night would seem to be sexless:

He was tired, and it showed in his face. He looked nearly as old as my father, whom I had not managed to thank for all the fuss. As we drank our tea the strain we both felt slowly dissipated. We had baths, changed into simple clothes, decided to go out for dinner, and let the rest of the day take care of itself. We were due to catch an early plane the following morning, and would probably appreciate an early night. That was what Digby said. I envisaged a succession of early nights, in which nothing very remarkable would take place. In this I misjudged him, and was pleasantly surprised. 

I read that passage over several times and interpreted it to mean that her predictions of early nights did not happen. Hints of evenings out, lively conversations or sex? After all Brookner is subtle. But then as the plot develops, we see Digby time and time again falling asleep in his chair.

I knew Digby would take the evening paper into the other room, switch on the television, and fall asleep. He slept heavily, more heavily than I did, and seemed unable to invest any energy into keeping awake. 

and later:

After we had eaten he went into the other room as usual, and switched on the television. When I joined him I found him asleep, a scene of passion beaming out unnoticed. When two characters joined in a violent embrace I switched it off.

I really wasn’t sure how to align these two impressions: the sexless marriage and the part about being “pleasantly surprised.” But this was not the first time I was confused by Elizabeth. Here she is talking about the hairdresser:

For this was an establishment not favoured by the young: I liked it because it was so close to home, and because Alex, who did my hair, was so soothing and deferential. In my normal state of mind I found this irksome; in my reduced condition it felt like balm. 

Early in the book Elizabeth mentions that both she and Betsy were born in 1948, and that “the sixties took us by surprise.”  These two women were raised in one set of expectations but were then ambushed by the shifting nature of society, and this idea works well.  I liked some parts of the book–especially Elizabeth’s introspection about her affair, but she seems very critical of poor Betsy (and tough on Digby too). On one hand, this is a very focused novel, but at the same time, it’s also blurry. I had no real indication of poor Digby as a living, breathing human being, and he remains a rather cardboard figure.

One of the criticisms I read of this book is that Elizabeth is too clinical and analytical, but the story is told in retrospect. Also Elizabeth really is a casebook for study, so much so, I began to wonder about her reliability as a narrator. She’s happy putting marriage and sex into different compartments, and while it seems that she married Digby as a father figure, there’s also the argument that she married him in order to avoid any sort of normal relationship. As the plot rolls on, that argument just strengthens. Ultimately, Elizabeth is a few cards short of a full deck–something happened in the emotion department.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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Filed under Fiction, Maupassant, Guy de