The Road to Ithaca: Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor’s novel, The Road to Ithaca, from Bitter Lemon Press is the 5th novel in the Martin Bora series (Goodreads lists it as number 10). This book finds Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora in Moscow in June 1941 (the period of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact is about to dissolve), hobnobbing (somewhat nervously) with the likes of Stalin, Beria and Erskine Caldwell, when he is ordered to Crete to pick up 60 bottles of “choice Cretan wine” for the monstrous Beria. It seems like a fool’s errand–a lot of bother just to curry favour with a Russian ally  but once Bora arrives in Crete, he’s diverted to the investigation of the murder of a Red Cross representative who was a friend of Himmler’s. With the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau fearing the “potential repercussions,” Bora is assigned to investigate and solve the “grave incident involving the illustrious citizen of a neutral country.” 

On one hand, it looks like an open-and-shut case. During the recent German invasion of Crete, German paratroopers apparently approached the home of Swiss national Dr Professor Alois Villiger and murdered everyone inside–the professor, his housekeeper and other employees. This was observed and photographed by British Sgt Major Powell whose whereabouts are currently unknown as he’s hiding in the mountains. POW Lt Patrick Sinclair is in possession of the camera. Sinclair subsequently reported the incident to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

the road to ithaca

Accompanied by a coerced American woman as a guide and a local police inspector, Bora approaches the crime knowing that “the conquest of the island had been a bloodbath,” with the German paratroopers hostile to the combative Greek civilians. Bora is under pressure to close the case “before the International Red Cross intervenes or Reichskommisar Himmler sends someone,” and he’s given just one week to come up with answers. …

Martin Bora is a morally complex character who is shown to be caught in a knotty labyrinth of treacherous shifting political allegiances, and unbeknownst to Bora, the war is about to take a dramatic turn. Bora is torn between duty, honour, integrity and loyalty, and in order to survive “the habit of hiding his thoughts had become second nature.” This explains why Bora’s ruminations are not vocalised, so we read this character’s internal dialogue. Bora possesses a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as the title suggests, many of Bora’s thoughts centre on Greek mythology. Part of the interest I felt was in knowing that the things Bora struggles with will shortly overwhelm him. To paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘he has miles to go….’

This is a crime novel, and one that captures a tragic moment in human history:

More and more, the street resembled a funnel of liquid sunlight; its narrowness crowded with litter and vehicles dissolved, human shapes malted into it. Purgatory must be something like this, Bora thought, a cramped pass that is we only slide through it leads to the Throne of God. But there’ll be no stench of death there. 

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a problem feeling sympathy for Bora, but I did feel interest. On another note, Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

Note: Although this is Book 5, other translated books in the series take Bora farther ahead in the war. Tin Sky is set in 1943, Liar Moon is set in 1943, A Dark Song of Blood is set in 1944. At some point, I’d like to go back and read these books in order. (Lumen is set in 1939)

Review copy

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I Found You: Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell’s novel I Found You is an engaging pageturner which centres on two men–one lost and one found. In the Northern town of Ridinghouse Bay, Alice, a single mother of three finds a man on a beach and, feeling sorry for him, takes him into her home. Meanwhile in London, newlywed Lily, fresh from Ukraine, is devastated when her husband, Carl doesn’t return from work one day.

If you think you’ve just connected the dots, then the novel has a few surprises in store.

I found you

The novel, which never lags at 342 pages, follows three narratives, and it’s the strength and connections between these narratives, particularly the two from Lily and Alice, that make this an intense, absorbing read.

Alice Lake scrapes together a living and supports her three children, all from different fathers. They live in a cramped little seaside cottage which is also shared by three rescue dogs. Alice’s life and circumstances are chaotic and shaped by her character. This is a woman whose positive characteristics–she’s loving, generous, open, trusting–have also led to her downfall. “Her whole life has been shaped, virtually destroyed, by her sexual desires.” Alice is an open, messy, book:

I’ve totally failed in the providing-a-conventional-family-unit-for-my-children department. Jasmine’s dad was a holiday romance. Brazil. Didn’t know I was pregnant until I’d been home for two weeks and had no way of tracking him down. 

Kai’s dad was my next-door neighbor in Brixton. We were-excuse the expression-fuck buddies. He just disappeared one day, when Kai was about five. A new family moved in. That was that. And Romaine’s dad was the love of my life but …” She pauses. “He went mental. Did a bad thing. He lives in Australia now. So.” She sighs. 

When walking her three out-of-control dogs on the beach in the rain, Alice approaches a man she’s already spied from her window. He’s just sitting, soaked, on the sand. After a brief conversation, Alice discovers that the man doesn’t remember who he is or how he got there. Later, Alice, takes him home and let’s him stay. Alice’s eldest daughter and Derry, her best (protective) friend, roll their eyes with concern at Alice’s latest stray male, but shortly it becomes clear that this man, nicknamed ‘Frank’ is in a fugue state.

Meanwhile in London, newlywed Lily, fresh from Ukraine, is beginning to realise what an idiot she is. She married Carl in Kiev and they returned to London. The honeymoon is still a glowing, fresh memory, when one day Carl simply disappears. At first the police don’t take Lily’s complaint too seriously, but then after they examine his passport, Lily is told that Carl Monrose, the man she married, doesn’t exist.

The third narrative takes place in 1993 and concerns a family  of four who go on holiday to Ridinghouse Bay. These three narratives rotate and eventually weave together to solve the two central mysteries of a nameless man found on the beach and a missing husband who lived with false ID. The plot is very cleverly structured and flows very well, so much so that I kept reading in the wee hours. Sometimes fragmented narratives can be annoying and manipulative, but here, the flow and tension was perfect.

Both Alice and Lily are shown to be women who took chances: Alice has made a series of poor decisions involving men, and those who care about Alice see ‘Frank’ as the latest in a long chain of mistakes. Lily has made the mistake of marrying a man outside of his environment–without meeting his family, his friends, his workmates, and she discovers, the hard way, that none of these things exist.

I had a bit of a problem with the character of Kitty, but then decided to accept her in the larger context of ‘women making bad choices,’ and the denoument wasn’t quite as smooth as the rest of the novel. Those niggling elements aside, if you like domestic suspense and are looking for a gripping read, then I Found You is recommended. Here’s Cleo’s review.

Review copy

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German Stories and Tales: Robert Pick Ed. (part II)

Following on from the first post about German Stories and Tales ed. by Robert Pick, I’m going to cover a few more of my favourite selections from this stellar collection. The three stories described here (I’m not counting Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach) explore various scenarios regarding tragic love.

An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a story told in retrospect by a man who’s attracted to a beautiful French shopkeeper. She has formed the habit of standing outside of her shop and greeting the narrator as he passes by on his horse. The woman’s interest is so noticeable, that the Marshall de Bassompierre sends a servant to secure an assignation with this beauty.

The assignation is a bit tawdry with the meeting taking place at a procuress’s grubby establishment. Since there’s plague in the city, the Marshall takes along (by his servant’s advice) his own mattress and sheets. Bassompierre’s new mistress, it turns out is married, and the assignation, while enjoyed by Bassompierre, clearly means a great deal more to the woman who has given herself freely but may suffer consequences. The couple make another assignation. …

There’s a gothic feel along with an accompanying sense of dread to An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre. What means so much to the young woman is clearly less meaningful to Bassompierre, yet the incident haunts him for years to come. (Translated by Mary Hottinger)

Lukardis by Jakob Wasserman has a similar theme of a woman who sacrifices a great deal for a man. This story is set in Russia and concerns a young dragoon named Evgen who, when he hears that his sister has been deported to Siberia for subversive activity, revolts when he’s ordered to suppress a protest in the streets. In the skirmish that follows, Evgen joins the protestors and is shot by his fellow dragoons. Subsequently, Evgen is smuggled into a network of sympathetic people, but with the police on the hunt for Evgen, hiding this badly wounded man is a liability that most households won’t risk. Enter Anastasia Karlovna, an influential woman who agrees to hide Evgen, but finds that she soon runs out of options until she comes up with a brilliant plan. But she needs a respectable young woman who is willing to make a sacrifice.  … (Translated by Lewis Galantière)

For animal lovers, I’d recommend passing on Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. It’s a short story that shows that we humans mostly don’t deserve, or understand, the animals in our lives, and it has scenes of  animal cruelty.

Cardiac Suture from Ernst Weiss is an unusual story for its depiction of an operation. The story begins in an auditorium where students attend lectures, but the auditorium converts into an operating room when, mid-lecture, a young woman who stabbed herself through the heart, is rushed into the room. The lecture turns into demo, and as fate would have it, one of the students is the love interest of the dying girl.  It’s a strange story which leaves the reasons for the suicide attempt vague, but instead focuses on the doctor who lectures and then operates on the girl in front of his students. While the doctor (he’s known as the General) who operates dehumanises his patient, he’s nonetheless efficient–all business while the girl’s lover, who assists, is patently disturbed.

Upon reflection, the story is terrifying as the silent, anguished emotional drama between the student and the girl is subsumed by the efficient process of the operation. We know that the operation, in full view of a class full of students, will conclude, but what will happen afterwards? (Translated by E.B. Ashton)

Operating time: seven minutes and a half. A hundred years ago Napoleon’s personal physician could amputate a leg in that time, including everything, blood-stilling, et cetera. But those were other masters than we are. Well, pick the patient up carefully and lift her into the bed-or rather, let me do it. That’s it-that’s the way. Hot-water bottles ready? Cover her. Cover her! Everything all right. Everything else we’ll leave to luck. Good morning, gentleman, good morning. 

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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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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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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction