Love in a Mask: Balzac

Love in a Mask or Imprudence and Happiness; a hitherto unpublished novel  (L’Amour Masque) was written by Balzac and given as a gift to the Duchesse de Dino. The handwritten manuscript, “incased in finely tooled binding,” remained in the library until gifted and finally published in 1911. Imagine Balzac giving you a handwritten story as a gift.

Love in a Mask is predominantly a romantic tale of a young captain in the Sixth Horse, Léon de Préval, who, when the novel opens, attends a ball on the eve of Mardi Gras. It’s midnight and he’s about to leave when he notices a richly dressed masked woman. They fall into conversation, and the woman, it turns out, is a young widow, who’s enjoying her newfound freedom. Soured by her experiences as a married women, she spurns Léon’s murmurs of sympathy at the death of her husband:

Constancy is but a chain that we pretend to wear in order to impose its weight on another. Now that I am free, perfectly free, I intend to remain so; no man living could induce me to forswear myself.

Léon tries to discover the woman’s identity, but she refuses to give it. She does agree, however, to a meeting at yet another ball in three weeks time. They meet again, and once more the woman wears a mask. He asks for a third meeting and an opportunity to “lay my heart and my hopes at your feet.” (is this a euphemism for sex?) She arranges a third meeting but only if Léon agrees to certain conditions…

While I dislike romances, Balzac creates a well-balanced tale, complete with a coincidence that we could believe is the guiding hand of fate, in which he once again examines the plight of married women who are at the mercy of their demonic husbands. He also argues that this young widow, soured by marriage, is wrong to close herself off to the possibility of love. All men cannot be measured by the experiences with one rotter.

Translated by Alice M. Ivimy

The novel can be read online on Dagny’s blog


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

The Invaders: Karolina Waclawiak

“We were far away enough from New York to feel like we were in a different world, but close enough to have successful commuter husbands. In the evenings, I’d see a row of pursed-lipped wives idling their cars in the parking lot of the commuter rail station, watching their bar-car-riding husbands stagger off the train.”

I am fascinated by housing estates, preferably gated communities, for the conformity, and equally bizarre behaviour environment seems to imprint on residents, and this explains my decision to read The Invaders, a second novel from Karolina Waclawiak. The novel is set in an exclusive Connecticut housing community, and unfolds over the course of a summer through two narrative voices–the 40-something once trophy wife, Cheryl and her troubled stepson, Teddy. Through these two voices, we see Little Neck Cove, a paranoid, affluent community which on the surface appears to be sedate, orderly, and enviable, but underneath the parties and the fashions shows runs fear of aging, affairs to establish continued desirability, backstabbing, and various addictions–all against the threat of invasion from the dreaded plebs.

The novel begins intriguingly with Cheryl’s abashed confession that “when Jeffrey’s first wife told me he had a voracious appetite for women, I assumed she was just trying to be vindictive.” That’s a natural enough conclusion, but it’s a statement that comes back to haunt Cheryl. Married to Jeffrey for almost ten years, Cheryl still walks in the shadow of his first, now dead wife, Joanne, and Cheryl has every reason to find herself thinking about Joanne–the woman she replaced. Cheryl and Jeffrey once had a passionate relationship, but now they exist in a “state of indifference.” They no longer have sex, and Jeffrey, with long unexplained absences from home, sees Cheryl as an irritating presence more than anything else. Cheryl, now 44,  senses that the marriage is over and that her status as trophy wife has morphed into an imminent expiration date. Suffering from insomnia, Cheryl has taken to long solitary walks along the private beaches or the community nature trail.

the invadersIn spite of the fact that Cheryl has tried to conform to the standards of behaviour and dress set by the other wives of Little Neck Cove, she’s never quite belonged. We see her at the Little Neck Cove fashion show which is attended by the wives of the community, women who shop for sherbet-coloured clothing they don’t need in desperate attempts to retain their youth. The older the women become, the more chunky jewelry they wear to hide their wrinkled skin and blemishes.

We were now transitioning between desirable and undesirable–that sad moment when a woman realizes that absolutely no man is looking at her, not even a passing glance. It made us all paralyzed with fear.

We battled the decline with bright, exotic colors and bold prints–anything to draw that attention back to the curves of our bodies. Even if various parts had begun to hang or droop, at least men were looking. Men were easy after all, weren’t they?

Possibly the other wives resent that Cheryl replaced one of their own or possibly they sniff that Cheryl comes from a hardscrabble background. Affairs are a common occurrence that wives chose to ignore; that’s just one of the silent ‘rules.’

Christine found what she was looking for at the bottom of her purse. Her husband was a doctor who medicated her so she’d turn a blind eye to his side projects. We all knew it but didn’t say anything. No one took Christine’s hand and asked her if she was okay, we always just smiled politely and ignored her confused ramblings when we realized the dose for the day was too high. Although we were complicit in her humiliation, we were all concerned with ignoring our own.

Cheryl’s voice alternates with her stepson Teddy who arrives on the scene after being kicked out of college. Rather refreshingly, he likes his stepmother–although he notices her absorption into the community standard:

You’re looking more and more like the rest of them. All you’re missing is that leathery tan and a fluorescent onesie like old Elaine.

As the summer wears on, Teddy, who takes certain privileges for granted, is expected to begin a job that his father arranges. Cheryl keeps avoiding the subject of divorce, and ultimately both Teddy and Cheryl sink into self-destructive spirals. Teddy’s rebellion takes the form of a drug habit and chasing after one of the young mothers while Cheryl begins making anonymous dirty phone calls to various male neighbours. Meanwhile when a stray Mexican fisherman wanders onto the private beach, all hell breaks loose in the neighbourhood as paranoia reigns. Ironically, of course, while the residents see “being poor meant desperation, it meant being a criminal,” the threat against the community comes from somewhere else entirely.

Author Karolina Waclawiak creates a portrait of an affluent, conformist community, where women’s self-worth is rooted in their ability to attract, and hold, men. Cheryl, who was an assistant manager of the men’s department of an outlet store before she met Jeffrey, gave up her job, and even her family, in order to marry ‘up.’ Now at 44, that decision isn’t looking so good to Cheryl. The words of advice her mother, an expert on the subject, gave her regarding the fickleness of men float back into her consciousness at crucial moments.

The character of Jeffrey never came alive–even though he moved in and out of the novel, and his actions towards the end didn’t seem to mesh with his earlier stance. While I disliked the ending which was too surreal for my tastes, I appreciated what the author is doing. There’s so much going on in the book–including tantalizing unexplored information about Joanne, a young Mexican girl, and Cheryl’s rogue mother, I asked myself if the book could possibly have been stronger if just written solely from Cheryl’s perspective. At times I had very little sympathy for her and at other times, I liked what I saw when she broke out with some aberrant behaviour.

“Here was me, wanting it everywhere.”

Review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Waclawiak Karolina

Nothing in Her Way: Charles Williams (1953)

“There’s always a warning, if you’ll listen to it. It buzzes when you’re playing cards with strangers and get an almost perfect hand.”

Nothing in Her Way, American author Charles Williams’s fifth novel is completely different from his earlier work. In common with Hill Girl, River Girl, and Hell hath no Fury, the narrator is a lone male whose life becomes complicated by a woman, but  Nothing in her Way, is primarily about an elaborate con which begins when narrator, Mike Belen crosses paths, once again with his red-headed ex-wife, a knockout called Cathy. Mike had almost forgotten about Cathy, but now she’s back and once more in her presence, her former power over Mike returns. Mike acknowledges “she was a whirlpool I was trapped in,” and while he thinks he knows this woman better than anyone else, she still manages to deliver some surprises–none of them pleasant. Cold and calculating, Cathy always plays the long game.

The novel opens in New Orleans with Mike losing heavily at the track. He’s in a bar, drowning his sorrows, when he’s approached by a con artist named Charlie. Then Cathy, now using the name Elaine Holman, appears on the scene and persuades Mike to join in an elaborate con scheme which will exact revenge against a couple of old enemies. At this point, Mike isn’t sure who’s conning who here, and he’s not particularly interested in finding out. Although he and Cathy have been divorced for two years, he wants her back and against his sense of self-preservation, he finds himself going along with her scheme. It’s primal desire mixed with jealousy, and a probably unwarranted need to protect her.

It was strange, the way you couldn’t escape from the past. Or was it the past? Maybe she was the thing I could never get away from. I lit another cigarette and tried to think objectively about it.

Cathy/Elaine is part of a gang formed to con a wealthy San Francisco businessman who’s “paying chunks of alimony to two wives already and number three is getting ready to push up to the trough.” But that’s only the second stage of their Grand Plan. First they need seed money, and for that Mike, now co-opted into the plan, travels to a bleak little desert town and poses as a chemical engineer. …

To say more about the story would spoil the tale for other readers. Let’s just say that there are more twists and turns here than a bowl of spaghetti with the double crosses and the triple crosses continuing until the last page. You have to pay attention to the action as no one is playing a straight game. As I can’t say much about plot, instead I’ll give a quote about Cathy:

The thing I could never go along with was her preoccupation with confidence games. She collected them. She studied the way some people study chess, or Lee’s campaigns in the Civil War. She read everything she could find about them, and devised endless ones of her own, and always she’d lose patience with me because I couldn’t keep up any steady interest in them.

While the earlier novels from Charles Williams include a large chunk of love and lust, love–or at least a sense of deep bonding–is here too, but it’s definitely subordinate to greed. Williams shows how the con-gang reel in their marks through greed, and this involves research into the circumstances and weaknesses of their potential victims.  Since part of the novel takes place in San Francisco, there’s mention of Alcatraz and San Quentin– certainly destinations on the mind of any criminal in those days:

The apartment was on the ninth floor. I stood by the big windows in the living room and looked out over the bay. It was sparkling and clear in the morning sunshine, and I could see a boat going out to Alcatraz. They’ve got a view over there too, I thought, but they don’t like it. A whole rock covered with tough guys and wisenheimers who knew more than the cops. And just beyond, out of sight up the bay, was San Quentin, where the state of California kept its smart characters who could never be caught.


nothing in her wayWhile Nothing in her Way is not the author’s best novel, it’s still an excellent read and is available as a two-fer through Stark House Press. River Girl , the second novel in this volume, is vying for top place as my favourite Williams novel along with Hell Hath no Fury.


Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles

The Z Murders: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

People who snore annoy me, Inspector, but I don’t shoot them.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve recently been reading books from The British Library Crime Classics series. They’ve all been quite different for various reasons, and this brings me to The Z Murders, the story of a serial killer, written by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1883-1955).

The book begins one autumn at the “cold grey hour” in London’s Euston Station. Young Richard Temperley exits the all-night train from Glasgow in a dark mood. We’ve all been trapped in situations with unpleasant fellow travelers, and in Richard’s case, he’s been cursed with the company of an elderly snoring man. Richard, exhausted and hoping for sleep, “elevated his travelling status by transferring to a first-class compartment,” but he was shortly joined by another passenger who turned out to not only be an epic snorer but was “ungracious” to boot. After a very unpleasant journey, Richard is happy to leave the man behind and exit the station.

It’s 5 a.m and Richard had planned to stay with his married sister in Richmond until his own flat, occupied by tenants, becomes vacant in one more week. Due to the hour, he decides to visit a hotel, go to sleep in the smoking room, and then later have a bath and breakfast. Imagine his annoyance when he enters the hotel and discovers that his grumpy fellow traveler from the train is in the smoking room–but perhaps there’s a consolation as Richard takes note of the presence of an attractive young lady he’d noticed also exiting from the Glasgow-London train.

Z murdersWithin a few minutes, the Z Murderer claims the first victim, and Richard is left as a witness to the crime. Strangely the young lady who was in the smoking room at the time of the murder vanishes, and Richard, after talking to the police, goes off in hot pursuit of the mystery woman and becomes embroiled in the case.

Since I already mentioned that this is the story of a serial killer, it should come as no surprise that the body count rises. The killer leaves round tokens bearing the letter Z at each crime scene while creating fear and mayhem across the country. This is essentially a fast paced chase novel with relentless action which takes place over the course of just two days.

The Z Murders begins with a very strong start indeed, but ultimately this is my least favourite of the collection so far. While Death of an Airman, for example, allows the reader plenty of opportunity to solve (or try to solve) the mystery, we are clueless as to what is happening in this book. Richard, enamored with the mystery woman, knows that she holds crucial evidence about the case, and yet at the same time, he doesn’t suspect her of the crimes. Richard is chasing the young woman, Sylvia Wynne, and Detective Inspector James chases the pair of them. Richard, with faith that a young woman who is so beautiful couldn’t be bad, has no idea what is going on, but primed by a desire to protect Sylvia, he withholds essential information and evades the police too.

“There was a time when I, like you, rebelled against the idea of coupling crime with beauty, But facts beat us, sir.”

In a sense, Richard’s journey is also the reader’s journey. The essential information pours forth at the end of the book, and it’s a lot of digest all at once.

As I have a fondness for books set, or partially set on trains, I particularly appreciated those scenes. Worthy of specific mention is the book’s most memorable character, the policeman, Dutton, an intrepid master of disguise. He pops up all over the place in various incarnations.

Dutton’s methods were the reverse of soothing. Sometimes he stuck close. Sometimes he pretended to lose himself. His absence was as nerve-racking as his presence, because you could never depend on it. Just when you believed you had shaken him off, you would spot him up a by-street, or find his reflection on a shop-window. he was never disturbed by discovery. He merely smiled or winked.

“You think you’re winning, don’t you?” Richard growled once, as they met on the top of a bus.

“Bound to win, sir,’ he replied. “I’ve got the whole of the law behind me.”

“If only you had the sense to see that I’m not against the law!”

“Then why not join up with the law, sir.”

“We’ve already discussed that.”

The Z Murders is a bit of a curiosity in terms of the evolution of the police. These days Richard would be arrested for obstruction of justice, but in this 1932 novel, Detective Inspector James comes to some sort of gentleman’s agreement with Richard by granting a lack of cooperation for a period of time. At several points in the novel, Dutton laments that Richard doesn’t trust the police, and there’s the implied idea that Richard, as a gentleman, is above the law, or at the very least, must be handled differently.

“Well, it’s a pity some of these nice young chaps with good faith can’t trust a bit more in ours, and fall into line,” observed Dutton, feelingly.

Whereas Death of an Airman, written by Marxist author Christopher St John Sprigg, was refreshingly devoid of class attitudes, class plays an immense role in Farjeon’s novel. Plus then there’s the issue of victims–Farjeon makes them all unpleasant or of no-account–which in one case is a bit distasteful. Obviously we’re not supposed to waste time on sympathy, and as I mentioned, in one case, this reflects the attitudes of the times.

In spite of the novel’s faults, I’ll be trying Farjeon again soon as most of the book was an addictive read. He’s the brother, by the way, of children’s author Eleanor Farjeon, and nearly all of his books (a huge list) are OOP.

Review copy.


Filed under Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction

Prelude to a Certain Midnight (1947): Gerald Kersh

“But the sort of men that do jobs like this Sabbatani job, they’re lone wolves.”

I’d been meaning to read Prelude to a Certain Midnight since reading the fantastic Night and the City from the same author, Gerald Kersh. You can read Night and the City and know that this novel was meant to be made into one of the all-time great noir films. Reading Prelude to a Certain Midnight renders a completely different result–the book, its moody, sordid setting, the characters on the fringes of society, and the crime under examination–the rape and murder of a ten-year-old-girl, all get under your skin, and it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

The book opens by discussing a East-End London pub known as Bar Bacchus–an establishment that has endured a fall from popularity. “For twenty-five years it was one of the three most popular meeting-places in London,” but now it’s mostly empty, and the old regulars claim that the atmosphere of the place changed. Only one of the old crowd still haunts the premises–Amy Dory known as “Catchy” hangs out there, and Kersh gives us pages of description of this piece of human wreckage.

But the Bar Bacchus lost its soul and Catchy lost her body. If you had known her then and could see her now you would see what I mean when I say that she has gone through the years like a woman dragged backwards through a thicket hedge. Time has made a sad mess of her–time and trouble. She had had trouble, she will tell you a few minutes after meeting you. Those bright brown eyes that used to be so steady and candid against the baby-blue whites may now be likened to a couple of cockroaches desperately swimming in two saucers of boiled rhubarb. her magnificent hair has acquired a coarse texture. There is something Bohemian about it: it will not lie down; it resists the comb: it is hair in revolt. She is too tired, now, to fight against it.

After a couple of pages of this sort of thing, Kersh began to seem a little harsh to this character, but he’s just paving the way for the book’s central theme–the lasting impression of an unsolved crime that occurred ten years earlier.

Prelude to a certain midnightCatchy rents a room (but hardly ever pays rent) to Mrs. Sabbatani, the mother of the murdered girl, Sonia. Mr. Sabbatani, a local tailor, died not long after his daughter’s murder, and while Catchy appears to avoid Mrs. Sabbatani (perhaps due to the issue of past rent), she seems to respect her landlady. Mrs. Sabbatani, who has a good, generous heart, won’t throw Catchy out because Sonia liked her.

Then the tale travels back ten years, and Sonia’s murder, still fresh, is unsolved, yet there’s hope that the person responsible will be caught. Little Sonia left school one afternoon in the middle of thick fog and was later found raped and strangled in the cellar of a condemned slum. Although Detective Turpin is on the case, there are few clues–except that Sonia said she was meeting ‘a friend’ of her father who was “going to show her a secret.” This seems to indicate that the killer was a local man–possibly one of Sam Sabbatani’s many customers.

The cusp of the story hinges on the actions of independently wealthy do-gooder, Asta Thundersley, aka the Battleaxe: a “fuss pot, a busybody, with a finger in every charitable pie; a maiden lady of diabolical energy.” Asta is always on the rampage for one cause or another, and if she asks for help in her quest for social justice, and is refused, then the person who declines, or hesitates, “becomes her enemy, in which case his life will be made a burden to him.”  People who stumble into Asta’s path either love her or hate her–there’s no in-between. So while she often butts heads with various figures in authority, she also becomes the champion of the downtrodden. But Asta isn’t all bluster and noise; she puts her money where her mouth is. So for example she employs a broken down fighter, “The Tiger Fitzpatrick” as her butler, and her gruesomely made-up housekeeper is Mrs Kipling: “who had, in her day, danced suggestive dances and sung lewd songs in East End music-halls.”

Asta’s latest cause becomes the quest to find Sonia’s killer….

While the stain of this hideous crime contaminates everyone involved, there’s also the sensation that the crime was spawned by the unhealthy atmosphere of the area. In a very creepy section, Asta, with lurid fascination, begins poking around the crime scene:

Near the kitchen there was an ancient wash-house, with a copper boiler built in a round cylinder of half-rotten brick that had once been whitewashed, and a window as big as a pocket handkerchief that was not designed to open. The smell of five generations of filthy linen hung in the thick grey air of the wash-house. As Asta hurried out of it she saw an archway. It was the opening of a malodorous little vault, the roof of which was the pavement of the street. Looking up, she saw the rusty under-surface of the lid of the coal-hole. There was coal dust under her feet; and now her feet were as sensitive as teeth-she walked on her toes. In the coal-cellar there was a crushed tea chest of peeling plywood, a few shovelfuls of wet coal dust, and a demolished leather sofa.

This was the love nest of the undiscovered murderer. Here the beautiful child Sonia Sabbatani had been ravished and found dead, with her head in a puddle, some lengths of knotted string about her wrists; gagged with abominable rags.

As the police surgeon lifted Sonia, one of the fat grey insects had run out of her ears.

Frustrated about the lack of progress made in the murder investigation, Asta questions (bludgeons) the unflappable Detective Turpin about the case:

“Ask yourself, Miss Thundersley,” said Turpin, “if it’s as easy for us as you seem to think. As you say, sex is a motive–beastliness as you said just now, and quite right too. Well now, you see, almost anybody might commit a crime like that. Respectable fathers of families have been known to, er, commit certain offences against children. People you’d never suspect are always strangling ladies of easy virtue with silk stockings, for instance. This sort of murderer is the hardest sort of murderer to lay your hands on, because he’s not a habitual criminal. He is not known to the police. A burglar, or a forger, or a confidence trickster–he leaves, as you might say, his autograph on his work.”

Some passages, from the mind of the murderer, made very gruesome reading–not so much for the details, but for the pure callousness. Prelude to Midnight argues very effectively that the residues of a crime never leave the minds and the lives of those involved. Everyone connected to the crime is haunted by the event in one way or another. Keeping in mind that the murder is ten years old when the novel opens, Kersh shows that the horror remains and even spreads through the pages to the reader. If Kersh wanted to convince us that he recreated a time, an atmosphere and a killing, then he certainly succeeded.

Finally, a note on my edition from Blackmask. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Blaskmask books, but this publisher puts books in the hands of its readers, so I can’t complain. There were just a couple of typos, and one completely out of place sentence, but that was it.


Filed under Fiction, Kersh Gerald

Death of an Airman: Christopher St. John Sprigg (1935)

“Hard cash is more than coronets.”

Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg is an original, lively, witty crime tale set in an eccentrically managed flying school. The book, published in 1935, is another entry in my current fascination with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Sprigg, a Marxist, and a member of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, was killed at age 29, and he wrote just a few books during his short life. The introduction from Martin Edwards mentions Sprigg’s works which flounder in “obscurity” and the expense of rare used copies. We’re lucky to see Death of an Airman republished by the British Library Crime Classics/Poisoned Pen Press, and I hope that we will see more of Sprigg’s books in the future. Death of an Airman was delightful–light, funny and yet also ingenious–a perfect example of the intellectual exercise generated by crime fiction of this period.

death of an airmanThe story opens with the arrival from Australia of the Bishop of Cootamundra, Edwin Marriott. He’s in Baston, England and plans to take flying lessons in order to reach the outer reaches of his Australian diocese. The manager of the Baston Aero club, Sally Sackbut is a bit worried that the Bishop hails from Australia:

“I hope you don’t get fighting drunk? Our last Australian smashed every glass in the place the day he went solo.”

On the day that the Bishop arrives at the air club, he witnesses a strange event involving the club’s best instructor, Furnace, performing an “alarming manoeuvre” in a plane. The atmosphere at the club, already established as eccentric, morphs into something a little more troubling. But then the very next day, a horrible crash occurs. A question remains: did the pilot commit suicide or was this a tragic accident? The dead man seems an unlikely candidate for suicide but all the evidence states otherwise. Then the Bishop, left alone with the corpse for a short period of time, notices something peculiar…

Inspector Creighton is called to investigate this possible suicide, and his quest yields some strange evidence. Soon Inspector Bray from Scotland Yard becomes involved, and the crime takes on international proportions with Creighton investigating in Baston, and Bray travelling to France….

The author obviously had lots of fun writing the book, and this is clear from some of the descriptions of the cast of colourful characters and their tangled relationships.  There’s the club’s manager, the frazzled Sally Sackbut, Lady Laura Vanguard who advertises beauty products, eager pupil Tommy Vane, the bombastic Lady Crumbles, long-distance flyer Captain Randall and his rival, the Transatlantic flyer, Dolly Angevin. Dogmas of class superiority can sometimes weigh down and ruin detective novels from this period, and while class issues exist here, they’re treated lightly–after all the author was a Marxist. So Lady Crumbles, for example, is largely seen as some sort of archaic being whose operations have little to do with the ‘real world’ or commerce and money making. Bray and Creighton, two men from vastly different backgrounds, make a good investigative team. Whereas Creighton had a “long apprenticeship in the ranks,” Bray was “intended for the law,” but “the post-war slump had made it impossible for him to support himself during that long probationary period of brieflessness which every barrister undergoes” :

Instead he had joined the C.I.D., which then, for the first time in its history, was endeavouring to get into its ranks men of the professional classes. Bray might have been a mediocre success in the legal profession–he certainly had a lucid and logical mind, even if he lacked other of the qualities of a great advocate–but he made a first-rate detective.

The humour creeps in through several characters including with the formidable Countess of Crumbles who promotes the Air Fairies–“a particularly repellent breed of Girl Guide”:

Now Lady Crumbles lived in a passionate whirl of organization. Charity matinée succeeded to hospital ball with the inevitability of the seasons, and people instinctively (but vainly) put protecting hands over their cheque-books when she approached. Vainly, because Lady Crumbles’ masterful and obtuse personality had the effect of a tank, and to be perfectly candid, her figure was planned on similar lines, which made the joint effect the more overpowering

As with the Hog’s Back Mystery, the novel begins with one character as central and then as the crimes escalate, the focus changes. It appears at first as though the Bishop, who is the first person to notice that “there is some evil canker at Baston Aero Club,” is going to be our amateur detective, and while he’s seminal to the investigation (at both the beginning and the end), his importance ‘slips’ as Creighton and Bray take over the case. Some important clues appear within the first few pages, and since we follow the investigation, step-by-step, we become armchair detectives with the means to solve the case if we put in the brainwork.

Finally, of course, the setting of Death of an Airman is unusual, and the book includes some glorious sections which describe flying. I don’t know if the author, Christopher St John Sprigg, was also a pilot, but this passage led me to suspect that he was:

The clouds soon parted and rippled below them like a loosely-woven counterpane. Roads, railways, streams, suddenly appeared sharp-edged across a gap in the billowing clouds. Or perhaps there loomed a firmly-rounded dark green of a copse. The windscreen in front of Lady Laura spattered suddenly with beads of moisture and rain. Water began to trickle steadily, flying backwards in a curve from the trailing edge of the upper wing.

Soon the aeroplane was hung suspended in a world of its own. Below, a white sea of cloud rippled. Around it other clouds flew past, tattered, ragged, and allowed frequent glimpses of the sun, which, when it appeared, painted the vague blue shadow from the aeroplane in fantastic magnification on the grey screen of the more solid cloud-banks below.

review copy


Filed under Fiction, Sprigg Christopher St John

The Big Heat: William P. McGivern (1953)

“You couldn’t plant enough flowers around here to kill the stench.”

I’d hazard a guess that most noir film fans have seen the Fritz Lang film version of The Big Heat. Starring Gloria Grahame (one of my favourite noir actresses), Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin, The Big Heat makes many Top Noir Film lists, and it certainly makes mine. That brings me to the book, inspired by a true story, by William P. McGivern. The book, published in 1953 first appeared in serial form; it took the author just three weeks to write it, and that same year, the film rights were sold. My copy sat on a shelf for years, and while I picked it up every few months, I always put the book down. Now after finishing the book, I realize that my reluctance to read it stemmed from a concern that I’d be disappointed. Guess what… I wasn’t.

Set in Philadelphia, The Big Heat is a hard-boiled, moody tale of police corruption, how one brave solitary detective tries to solve a murder case, and the very great personal cost he pays for his integrity.

The big heatOn a night of heavy rain, detectives in the homicide department receive a call from a Mrs Deery that her husband, a police clerk who worked in the Superintendent’s office, has committed suicide. Although two detectives are playing cards when the phone rings, the atmosphere in the office is one of palpable disquiet, and that sensation only deepens with the news of Deery’s death.

A cop’s death is one thing; it means black bunting looped over the door of his station house for a week or so, a few paragraphs in the papers, and a note to his family from the Mayor and his captain. A cop’s suicide is another matter. It can mean that the man was a weakling, a neurotic, a fool–in any case no one to have been safeguarding the lives and properties of other citizens, or it can mean something even less wholesome, something potentially dangerous to the entire, close-knit fabric of the department.

Bannion goes to the Deery home, and although the case seems to be a cut and dried suicide, there are some elements to the situation that are troubling. Deery, a meticulous man, shot himself in his study, and one of things that catches Bannion’s attention is that Deery read travel books–a choice that strikes Bannion as “curious.” Bannion, already sensing that something doesn’t add up, then meets the smiling, composed widow–a woman whose careful grooming seems a little out of place:

Everything about her was meticulously arranged and ordered: her small black patent leather pumps shone glossily, her sheer nylons lacked even the suggestion of a wrinkle, and her nail polish and makeup looked as if it had been applied, and with great care, within the last fifteen or twenty minutes. And possibly it had, Bannion thought, with an odd quirk of annoyance.

The unknown reason behind Deery’s suicide rankles Bannion–although the grieving widow mouths a few words about her husband being worried about his health. The case is apparently closed, but then Bannion gets a call from a woman called Lucy Carroway claiming she has some information about Deery. Lucy, Deery’s one-time mistress, saw Deery 5 days before his death, and according to Lucy, “he was never happier in his life.” Bannion, a decent, hard-working, relentless homicide detective, goes to talk to Mrs Deery again, and tries to align the version of Deery given by his respectable, middle-class widow with the concerns of Lucy, a seemingly sincere woman with a tarnished past. Suddenly Bannion’s off the case and Lucy disappears….

There are several times when Bannion, a truly fascinating character, knows that he’s at a “crossroads […] either he went along and took orders, or he changed jobs.” Surrounded by corruption at every level, Bannion must make a choice, and he understands that there will be a great price to pay if he tries to buck the system. Still mulling over the question of which path to take, the decision is taken out of his hands when the stakes change.

The heat was on, the fix was in, call it what you like. Bannion had been nosing around something safe and protected, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, and so to hell with honest police work

In many ways, The Big Heat has the feel of a western with the lone hero seeking justice in an overwhelmingly corrupt world. Bannion, spurred on by tragedy, soon finds himself seeking revenge against violent gangsters as “the big heat” encompasses the city. As Bannion begins to stalk his quarry, he sets off a struggle within the criminal hierarchy of Philadelphia. Bannion is a character we like immediately–partly for his acknowledgment that “there was nothing more potentially revealing, he felt, than a man’s honest, impulsive reactions to a book.” He’s a tall, quiet man, respected by his colleagues and yet underestimated by his boss and the brutal gangsters who control the city:

Bannion shifted slightly in his chair. “You’d better listen a bit now,” he said. He felt anger surging up in him, pounding for release. This had always been his cross, a violent, hair-trigger temper that tore the control away from his judgement and reason. He fought it down now, as he had fought it for years. Bannion permitted himself no excesses of anger; he refused to pander to his buried need for violence, for unmotivated destruction. Bannion was known as a kind man, a gentle man, but only he knew the effort it cost him to play the role.

The book’s beautifully crafted dark mood is maintained throughout, not only by twists of plot but also by subtle references to the weather and the relentless rain. McGivern paints a portrait of  a corrupt city populated with greedy politicians, brutal gangsters, and a handful of good people who stand up for Bannion. Along the way to justice, Bannion meets Debby (Gloria Grahame in the film), the girlfriend of classless gangster, Max Stone (played by Lee Marvin), and in a very peculiar, yet brilliantly unexpected way, Debby becomes a sort of salvation for Bannion. For this reader, the best scene in the book occurs when Bannion confronts Mrs Deery and we see just how awful this seemingly-respectable widow really is. The roles given to the women in the book are fantastic–there’s Kate, Bannion’s wife who is the exact opposite of Mrs Deery, and then there are two women who exist on the fringes of society, Lucy and Debby, who both make incredibly strong moves and pay the price.

gunIf you’re going to buy a copy of The Big Heat, then try to get your hands on the version pictured here from ibooks. This edition contains an afterword from the author in which he explains some fundamentals about the book and the film, and a very significant meeting he had with Fritz Lang in Rome in 1962. This great director explained to McGivern exactly why he connected with the film and its depiction of a man standing up to evil. There are just a few differences between the book and the film, and it’s a classic case of the film version capitalizing on the visuals implied by the book.

204 pages including afterword


Filed under Fiction, McGivern William P

The Fall of Princes: Robert Goolrick

I couldn’t pass up Robert Goolrick’s The Fall of Princes, the story of a former BSD (“big, swinging dick“) trader from Wall Street who soared the heights in the 80s only to plummet to the lows of working in Barnes and Noble. This is his story, and this long, detailed mea culpa AA/NA style confession of a louse’s fall from the pinnacle of success, a story of excess, sex, and drugs, is morbidly fascinating. And I’ll note here that Goolrick, to his credit, approaches his material with restraint, not crudity, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, so while we read about lines of cocaine and hordes of bedmates, throughout the tale there’s the sense that these young traders, running out of speed, are damaging themselves more than anyone else. The mayhem carries a heavy cost from the outset and doesn’t look like a great deal of decadent fun.

fall of princesThe chapters alternate between the narrator, using the collective ‘we,’ who tells the story of the aggressive, young bull trader lifestyle and the first person narrator who recalls specific incidents.  The narrator lands a job at ‘the Firm,’ where clients “had to have $20 million” in their accounts “at all times. That’s a lot of toys to play with,” and these young traders repeat the words “forty or forty.”

That’s when you retire, they reply with that bland smile. When you reach the age of forty, or your portfolio reaches forty million. That’s when you can get away clean and get your life back. What’s left of it

It’s an adrenaline-fueled life where sleep is a low priority, and rowdy nights are spent drinking, taking drugs, and bedding nameless women. Then when the narrator runs out of steam, he periodically boomerangs to rehab. There’s also a brutal competitiveness amongst the traders which begins with the bodies most of them develop.

Thousands of hours in the world’s most expensive gym, with the world’s most skilled trainers, had brought my body to such a state of perfection that the women who rushed to take off their clothes in my bedroom could only gasp at the luck that had put them into my line of sight, that had made them, even for one night, the most beautiful creatures on earth, with their lithe arms and their skin like chamois and their scents.

The narrator, occasionally referred to by the name Rooney, started out his trader life after various failures as a bad artist and a bad writer, but then turns to trading when he decides that he does not want to end up as one of the “gray masses.”

the place they would end up, neither richer or wiser, filled only with regret and second-tier liquor and the shreds of the dreams they no longer remembered, surprised to wake up one day and be shown the door with a tepid handshake and a future on the edge of old age and death that held only pictures of the kids and grandkids, a cruise to some out-of-season destination every three years, and the notion, which they somehow managed to believe, that this was comfort, that this was all the splendor they got for forty years of relentless drudgery and obsequiousness.

And to all this we said fuck you, we want it all, we want it now, you can drain us of our blood for all we care, but we want impossible things of impossible vintage and provenance. We want salaries equivalent to our ages multiplied by 100,000. We want to live life in a rush of fury and light, to rampage, to pillage our neighbourhoods and rape and demolish our best and closest friends

The collective ‘we’ sections, which at times felt like a Greek chorus describing the ebb and flow of money easily gained and easily lost, are not as powerful as the details of Rooney’s golden life before he ran out of steam just as AIDS swept through his world. There’s a no expense spared summer in the Hamptons … $200,000, a weekend in L.A. … $50,000, and, of course, a bachelor weekend in Vegas. While Rooney bedded and dumped countless women, he finally marries one very high-maintenance woman named Carmela, and he describes their turbulent, short relationship not “so much a marriage as it was like a long, drunken date.”

At times Rooney apologizes for the person he used to be. Sometimes the apology sounds sincere and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s impossible to tell where the remorse ends and the self-pity begins;

Forgive me for thinking that I was better than you will ever be. Forgive me for thinking that money equaled a kind of moral superiority

Rooney picks at the most shameful moments in his life–scabs that won’t heal. There’s one moment when he recalls a game he used to play with his hard-drinking workmates called “To Have and To have Not.”

The idea was you had to think of something you had done that nobody else at the table had done, or something you had never done that everybody else had done.

As the evenings wear on, “the vagaries of human behaviour” are revealed and then Rooney reveals that a girl killed herself when he dumped her. While he mulls over how heartlessly he treated her, a great deal of the regret seems to dwell in the self-pity Rooney wallows in. There’s also the sense that he’d be the same person again in a heartbeat if he got the chance, and we see that aspect of his character in the way Rooney, now in his 50s, dresses in the last of his expensive clothing and spends his days off using  a false name and address and masquerading as a high-flying apartment seeker.

People’s relationship with money is fascinating. Note the films stars who’ve earned millions only to declare bankruptcy, lose homes, or commit suicide when faced with financial disaster and a late life lack of earning power. Money works most of us, not the other way around, and people go the grave never understanding just how finances, and such tedious but necessary things as budgets, work. Of course I was fascinated to read this ‘rise and fall’ tale of a trader–surely, you’d think, someone who would understand money but who ultimately didn’t. All those millions that passed through his hands must have given him some sort of contact high. No authors handle the subject of excess better than Americans, IMO, and it shows here. Yet Goolrick takes the high road when describing the high roller lifestyle rather than sinking to titillation.

(Finally,  I couldn’t help wondering if anyone could survive in NY on Barnes and Nobles wages and save for a foreign trip every year.)

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Woolrick Robert

Eileen: Ottessa Moshfegh

“That is what I imagined life to be–one long sentence of waiting out the clock.”

Eileen, from author Ottessa Moshfegh is a novel that could described in many ways, yet I doubt if any single description would give a potential reader an accurate impression of this book. It’s a crime novel, a bildungsroman, a character study, a story of a dysfunctional family–all these things wrapped into a dark tale of how Eileen, a complicated, repressed young woman, locked into a pathological home life and employed in a job she dislikes, breaks free. After reading about Eileen’s miserable home life, within a few pages she tells us:

In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.

The story is told by a now elderly Eileen who relates a week in her life 50 years earlier in 1964. And here is how this extraordinary book begins right before Christmas in a “brutal cold town” Eileen masks as X-ville:

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse, or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window.

Right away one of the book’s themes creeps in: appearances vs reality, and 24-year-old Eileen is quite aware that she’s frumpy, painfully thin, and extremely unattractive. Yet Eileen, who describes herself as “ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world” courts this look by wearing her dead mother’s far-too big clothing. She lives with her cruel alcoholic, widowed ex-cop father–a man plagued with booze-fueled paranoias, in a filthy three-storey colonial, and she sleeps on a cot up in the unfinished attic. With a poor diet, and obsessed with her body functions and their associated odours, she’s become addicted to laxatives in order to produce regular bowel movements.  There are hints that Eileen may be anorexic, chewing sweets to get the flavor before spitting them out as she curls up on a mattress in the squalor of her attic room.

Within a few pages we know that sexually repressed, “always furious,” Eileen toys with fantasies of death and suicide. She imagines stepping out of her house and one of the large icicles “plummeting through the hollow” of her collarbone or even entering “the vacuous center” of her body “like a glass dagger.” But there are other fantasies too–fantasies of escaping her horrible, suffocating home life in the small Massachusetts town.  Perhaps if you saw frumpily dressed Eileen, you’d think, as she suggests, that she’s a “shy and gentle soul for afar,” but that impression would be wrong. Eileen is a hard drinker and a chronic shoplifter. Her father’s constant cruel barbs bounce off her armour and fail to penetrate. She likes books about “awful things–murder, illness, death,” and she keeps a dead mouse in the glove box of the old Dodge Cornet she drives.



There’s also what Eileen calls the “death mask,” the expression she wears to hide how she really feels, and it’s also what she recognizes in other people–especially the young offenders at the juvenile correctional facility for boys where she is employed as a secretary of sorts. The prison is run with a religious bent, so the boys, many of whom look like sad angels, are forced to read the bible and are punished for masturbating by being thrown in “the cave.” Just as Eileen moves through the motions at home, she goes through the motions at work, noting the broken-hearted mothers who visit, and the damaged boys, the youngest is 9, who shuffle through the system. Some of the young prisoners are guilty of horrendous crimes against family members, yet Eileen acknowledging, in retrospect, that she was too self-focused for empathy, mostly likes the inmates. In spite of her inexperience, she understands that many of the boys wear the same “death mask” as she does; that they too have perfected the art of hiding their thoughts, their feelings, their real selves. One prisoner in particular, Leonard Polk, a boy who murdered his cop father, catches Eileen’s attention:

There was a strange bounce in his step. His face was bright and relaxed, and serene in a way that no other boy’s face had ever seemed, a loose reservedness which I found myself admiring. He looked pleased, impenetrable, and cold as though nothing could ever disturb him, and yet still as innocent as the silent creature I’d seen earlier touching himself absentmindedly on his cot in the cave. I searched for something in his face, anything his mask of contentment might betray, but there was nothing. He was a genius in that sense–a master. His was the best mask I’d ever seen.

Eileen’s main interest at work is a former inmate, the brawny guard, Randy, and while Randy seems oblivious to this mousy girl, she sneaks peeks at his crotch, tries to catch a whiff of his sweat, and spends nights and weekends stalking him, parked outside of his apartment.

In spite of Eileen’s measured, calm voice, this tale is tension packed. We know that something bad happens; we’re just waiting for that catalyst, “her destiny” to appear. …

What’s so beautiful about Eileen’s story–a story about escape, crime and survival are the moments when she injects comments into the narrative as she looks back on her old life, says goodbye to characters in the story she never saw again, and mulls over the person she used to be.

Funny the things one remembers. I spent most Sundays holed up at home or driving to and from Randy’s house while my father was out communing with god or whatever he thought he was doing at church.

What happened in X-ville was just the beginning of Eileen’s journey and that experience was often bitter:

So you seem what came after this story ends was not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks

Eileen seems to be a book that divides opinion. Many reviews on goodreads state that readers never liked or felt close to Eileen. While for me, this was never the point, I have to say that I felt the opposite. Ottessa Moshfegh’s skillfully woven narrative takes us into Eileen’s intriguing, dark, complex mind, and Eileen doesn’t spare or excuse herself while categorically refusing victim status. As a character, shaped by her environment, she makes sense, and in a ‘what if’ sort of way, it’s easy to predict what Eileen would have become if she’s stayed trapped in X-ville.

You know you really love a book when you create reading opportunities. I’m still thinking about this book which will end up on my best-of-year list, so it’s highly recommended if you like an extremely dark read full of twisted and unpleasant characters. Eileen has been compared, justifiably, to Alfred Hitchcock, and I’ll go one further and say that Eileen should appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith. In Eileen, crime isn’t seen as a prelude to punishment, or a tool in the battle between good and evil; it’s seen as a liberating event. And that’s wonderfully, remarkably twisted.

Review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Moshfegh Eileen

The Prank: Chekhov

Leave it to New York Review Books to present The Prank: the Best of Young Chekhov, in its first ever English translation. This collection of 12 stories shows early Chekhov still maturing, still seeking his style. In the introduction, translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that in 1882, Chekhov “decided to gather together what he deemed to be the best of these early exuberant stories between a single cover,” but thanks to the censor Federov, the stories were not published. Following the assassination of Alexander II the year before in 1881, came a “massive political clampdown,” and while these humourous stories seem mild, there’s enough criticism of Russian society here for the stories to fall short of the censor’s approval. Two of the stories are parodies of Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, and as Maria Bloshteyn points out, the stories are a “critique of the triumphal follies of Russian imperialism.”

the prankHere’s a list of the contents:

  • Artists’ Wives
  • Papa
  • St Peter’s Day
  • Chase Two Rabbits, Catch None
  • A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya
  • A Sinner from Toledo
  • The Temperaments
  • Flying Islands by Jules Verne
  • Before the Wedding
  • A Letter to a Learned neighbor
  • In the Train Car
  • 1001 Passions, or, a Dreadful Night

If there’s a general theme to be found here in most of the stories, then that theme would be Russians Behaving Badly in their personal relationships. Artists Wives (Translated … from the Portuguese) is set in Lisbon’s Hotel of the Venomous Swan and it’s clear to see that this farcical story isn’t really supposed to be about the Portuguese but instead parodies Russian bohemians. We see the domestic lives of various artists who live in the same hotel. These artists–a painter, a writer, a sculptor and a musician may be suffering for their art, but their wives are suffering a great deal more. Here’s the painter Francesco Butronza trying to persuade his poor German wife, Carolina to pose in the nude “for the sake of art.”

“I clean his brushes, his palettes, his rags. I soil my dresses against his painting, I give lessons so that I can  feed him, I sew costumes for him, I put up with the small of hemp oil, I model for him days on end, I do everything, but …naked. Naked? I can’t!!!”

“I’ll divorce you, you red-haired she-harpy! shouted Butronza.

“But where am I to go?” gasped Carolina. “Give me enough money to get to Berlin, from where you’ve taken me, and then divorce me!”

“Fine, I’ll just finish Susanna and I’ll send you right back to that Prussia of yours, the land of cockroaches, spoiled sausage, and roundworm!” shouted Butronza

Papa has no small degree of domestic farce with the wife of the family seeking to talk to her husband about their son’s grades. The maid who’s been sitting on the husband’s lap, must spring off and hide behind the curtains. This may be a 19th c story, but when it comes to parenting, some things apparently never change, so we see parents (including a father with a comb-over) stressing about their son’s success in school.

A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya is the story of a man who failed to find lasting love in his life, and St Peter’s Day contains scenes of cruelty towards animals so once I hit that, I dropped the story.

Chase After Two Rabbits, Catch None is a story of domestic strife with Major Shchelkobokov, married to a much younger woman asking for marital advice from his “valet, hairdresser and floor scrubber” Panteley. A Sinner from Toledo is another story of twisted marital relations.

The Prank shows a different Chekhov than most of us are familiar with. In some of these stories, I saw shades of the zaniness of Gogol. Translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that “anthologies of humorous stories were selling well at the time” Chekhov wrote the stories in this collection, so he was writing to sell, and he was writing for a definite audience. Readers intimidated by 19th century Russian literature need not fear–these energetic, funny stories are very accessible and are written to entertain. For Chekhov fans, the book is well worth catching but they cannot compare to The Duel, for example. This is a young Chekhov before he matured into the incredible writer whose legacy grants him a firm place on the list of the greatest Russian writers.

Review copy


Filed under Chekhov, Fiction