After the Circus: Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s moody novel, After the Circus is narrated by a much older man who recalls a mysterious time in Paris when he was eighteen years old. Many authors would have turned this tale into a predictable coming of age story, but Modiano’s novel remains a sad elegy to an all too brief, haunting time.

The novel begins with the narrator being questioned at police headquarters about his life and activities. Right away an air of confusion enters the narrative. The man who asks the questions names a café that the narrator is supposed to frequent, but he’s never been there. Does the interrogator have the wrong man?

Then he mentioned the names of a man and a woman and asked if I knew them. I answered no. He told me to think very carefully. If I didn’t tell the truth, there could be serious consequences. The threat was delivered in a calm, indifferent voice. No, really, I didn’t know those two individuals. He typed my answer, then handed me the sheet, at the bottom of which was written: “Seen and agreed to.” I didn’t bother looking over my deposition and signed with a ballpoint pen that was lying on the desk.

This sense of indifference and disconnection which begins immediately with this interview continues throughout the novel and permeates the story. The narrator asks why he’s been questioned and he’s told that “your name was in someone’s address book.” Again that vagueness which nonetheless determines the narrator’s fate–a randomness which, as it turns out, becomes a major incident in his life.

after the circusOn the way out of the office, the narrator spies a young woman in her twenties. She’s next to be interrogated, and the narrator makes the snap decision to wait for her in a nearby café. They meet and chat, and then she asks a “favor.”

At Place du Châtelet, she wanted to take the metro. It was rush hour. We stood squeezed together near the doors. At every station, the riders getting off pushed us onto the platform. Then we got back on with the new passengers. She leaned her head on my shoulder and said with a smile that “no one could find us in this crowd.”

At the Gare du Nord metro stop, we were carried along in the flood of travelers heading for the commuter trains. We crossed through the train station lobby, and in the checkroom she opened a  locker and pulled out a black leather suitcase.

I carried the suitcase, which was rather heavy. It occurred to me that it contained more than just clothes.

And so begins the mystery of Gisèle who soon moves into the narrator’s apartment. She proceeds to introduce the narrator to a stream of new acquaintances, and she begins gathering up a range of belongings which are scattered in various locations. As she takes the narrator through her circle, more questions emerge about Gisèle, and it becomes clear that she’s mixed up with some shady characters. But Gisèle isn’t the only mystery here. The narrator’s father has moved to Switzerland “to live out his days,” while the narrator’s father’s mysterious business associate, Grabley, is busy destroying papers relating to some peculiar shady business dealings. Grabley is considering dumping these files “down a manhole he’d spotted on Rue de l’Arcade.” All these trappings of mystery, disorientation, and flight yield the sense of flux, that time is running out.

After the Circus (and the meaning of the title is finally revealed) is a wonderfully atmospheric book. Don’t expect all the answers here, for the book mirrors life–everything is not tied off neatly. Instead this tale, which is told years later by a now middle-aged man, effectively recreates how things sometimes don’t make sense when we’re young. We don’t know the right questions to ask; our naiveté hobbles us. Now the narrator looks back at this period of his life, it’s too late to ask the questions that emerge in retrospect. Those with the answers are dead. The narrator doesn’t offer explanations to fill in the gaps. We can only speculate.

I was the traveler who boards a departing train and finds himself in the company of four strangers. And he wonders whether he hasn’t got on the wrong train. But no matter … In his compartment, the others start making conversation with him.

With its interrogations and hints that the narrator’s father lived a life that “in certain periods resembled a hunt in which he was the prey,” at first the story could seem to be set in WWII France and yet it’s not; it’s the sixties. This lack of firm grounding in time just adds to the mystery of Gisèle and her relationship with the young, impressionable and naïve narrator who is forever shaped by this brief time.

What I had lived through in my childhood and the few years following, up to my meeting Gisèle, gently peeled off of me in strips, dissolved; now and then, I even made a small efforts to retain a few scraps before they vanished into thin air.

This won’t be my last Modiano novel. Suggestions for another are welcome.

Review copy. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.



Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

Dark Corners: Ruth Rendell

In common with many of this author’s other stand-alone novels of psychological suspense, Dark Corners traces the destructive connecting paths of a handful of characters. In this book, Rendell’s characters connect over a large house in Falcon Mews, Maida Vale inherited by 23-year-old writer, Carl Martin. Carl can’t believe his luck when he inherits the house; he’s just published his first crime book, Death’s Door, and hopes this is just the beginning of a long career. Renting out the top floor of the house, which is located in a very desirable area, will allow him to fund his life until his writing career takes off. Without much care, faced with twenty applicants, he accepts the very first one–Dermot, a rather unpleasant character who works at Sutherland Pet Clinic. Although Dermot seems to be the perfect tenant, quiet and single, Carl doesn’t particularly care for Dermot, but then he has no intention of being Dermot’s friend.

The plot thickens when Carl’s childhood friend, Stacey Warren, now a sitcom actress who has put on a lot of weight, begins complaining to Carl about her figure. Stacey, who has begun a cycle of eating to fill an emotional void, doesn’t want to “starve” herself and instead wants to try diet pills. As fate would have it, Carl has a stash at home:

For many years Wilfred Martin collected samples of alterative medicines, homeopathic remedies, and herbal pills. Most of them he never used, never even tried because he was afraid of them, but he kept the lot in a cupboard in a bathroom.

Carl never got around to throwing out all this old “junk” and on page one we’re told that this was a bad decision.

If he had known how it, or one particular item among all the rest, would change his life, transform it, ruin it, he would have emptied the lot into a plastic bag, carried the bag down the road, and dumped it in the big rubbish bin.

So right away Carl makes a couple of bad decisions (keeping the diet pills, and picking a creepy tenant), and he continues to make bad decisions throughout the book. Some of these bad decisions can be chalked up to youth and inexperience, and Carl, faced with an untenable situation in his home, becomes increasingly paranoid. Through a series of missteps which are permeated with guilt, he sinks into isolation, a dark corner,

Dark cornersStory threads that connect in some way to Carl include various secondary characters. There’s a pathological liar, the opportunistic Lizzie who has a slight acquaintance with Stacey, the sitcom actress, and Lizzie’s retired father, Tom, whose new hobby, riding buses on his free bus pass leads to some difficult experiences. There’s also Carl’s girlfriend Nicola, and Dermot’s creepy fiancée. The threads concerning Tom seemed a little disconnected to the main storyline–although Tom’s recognition, and avoidance, of his daughter’s behaviour are well done.

Since her late teens, when Tom had expected Lizzie to change, to grow up and behave, he had viewed his daughter with a sinking heart, only briefly pleased when she got into what she called “uni.” But her degree in media studies was the lowest grade possible while still remaining a BA. Gradually, as she moved from one pathetic job to another, ending up with the one she had now–teaching assistant, alternating with playground supervisor of after-school five -year-olds killing time until a parent came to collect them–he felt for his daughter that no father should feel: a kind of sorrowful contempt. He had sometimes heard parents say of their child that they loved her but didn’t like her and wondered at this attitude. He no longer wondered; he knew. Walking into the house in Mamhead Drive, he asked himself what lie she would tell that evening, and how many justifications for her behaviour she would trot out.

The novel examines Carl’s growing paranoia and the utter loneliness he experiences. Hugging a nasty secret to himself, he becomes convinced that murder is the only option. Dark Corners argues that the corrosive qualities of guilt are unbearable–at least for the normal person who has any sort of conscience. Committing murder is a solitary path to take–other crimes (such as those committed by Lizzie) offer a return ticket, but murder is an irrevocable one way trip for both the victim and the killer.

It’s a bitter-sweet experience to read Ruth Rendell’s last novel, Dark Corners, published after her death. We’ll never again read an Inspector Wexford novel and return to those much loved characters from Kingsmarkham. While Dark Corners is certainly highly readable and completed, there’s a feeling that it’s not quite as polished as her other novels, but for fans, this novel is still a last gift. Ruth Rendell has provided millions of readers with wonderful crime books for decades. Here in this final novel, Rendell includes topical subjects such as the last book shop “for miles around“, the demise of small business, the prevalence of questionable supplements, and terrorism.

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Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.


Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

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Filed under Fiction, Starr Jason

Shriver: Chris Belden

Chris Belden’s satiric novel Shriver is set at a writer’s conference at a small mid-western liberal arts college and takes aim at academic pretentiousness. Shriver, who lives alone in an apartment with his cat, Mr Bojangles, receives an invitation to appear as one of the main speakers of  a literary conference, all expenses paid. What’s the problem you ask? Well Shriver isn’t an author–the only thing that Shriver has ever written are letters to his favourite newscaster, but thinking this is some sort of joke, Shriver agrees to attend and finds himself flying to the conference.

Peculiar things begin to happen to Shriver the minute he leaves his apartment. He doesn’t recognize the lobby in his own apartment building, and then when he’s actually on the plane, he grasps that the invitation is not a practical joke. A very real writer named Shriver exists. The real Shriver is a recluse who disappeared from public life upon the publication of his only book twenty years before. Looking at a blurry photo on the book jacket of the real Shriver’s book, Goat Time, Shriver, the imposter, realizes that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Shriver. Goat Time is a book that everyone in academia seems to have started but never finished, and although the book’s meaning seems murky at best, for some reason, it has an established, much-coveted place in that ever-prestigious literary canon.

shriverOnce at the conference, titled Reality/Illusion, strangely enough, Shriver manages to fool academics, readers and adoring fans alike. Everyone expects enigmatic comments from Shriver, and since the imposter Shriver doesn’t have a clue as to what anyone is going on about, his murky comments only serve to endorse his reputation as a canny cultural observer. Plus then there’s the short story he penned, “The Watermark,” (inspired by the watermark on his ceiling) which convinces Shriver’s rapt audience of his complete genius. Shriver argues that academia embraces, worships and perpetuates the careers of those already crowned by gatekeepers in an emperor’s-new-clothes fashion.

While one of  Shriver‘s themes, the authenticity and merit of literary academia is subtle, the execution is not, and that includes the names of some of the characters: Delta Malarkey-Jones, a morbidly obese author whose titles include: Harem Girl: My Life as a Sex Slave, boozy professor Watzczesnam (pronounced Whatsisname), Lena Brazir (“a busty redhead,”) Gonquin Smithee (whose bio “broadcast the information that she had been sexually abused by her father,”) and the radical Zebra Amphetamine. The author takes some risks when he skewers these characters, but he succeeds and shows how in the world of academia, epic experience somehow is equated with talent:

Ms Smithee was now reading from her epic poem Menstrual Show: 

” ‘You have finally killed me, I thought

when you pulled out your blood-drenched sword

but then disgust spread across your face like a shadow

and I knew it was I who had somehow done wrong.'”

Shriver wondered if perhaps he should compliment her vivid imagery but worried that this was not original enough for a writer as sophisticated as the real Shriver seemed to be. He rehearsed to himself various comments–“I particularly enjoyed your comparison of semen to wood glue,” or “How did you come up with some many striking rape metaphors?” –as Gonquin Smithee brought her performance to a well-received climax.

“‘Remember this,'” she read. ” ‘ Though I cannot murder you

though I cannot yank the ragged fingernails from your hands

though I dare not take a razor to your dangling scrotum

my words will tear you limb from limb

and I

and thousands of readers

will applaud that some sort of justice has been served.'”

The novel’s tone is gentle (in spite of the above quote,) quirky, and overall the tone is reminiscent of Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. The plot thickens when one of the conference attendees goes missing, Shriver becomes aware that he has a stalker, and then a man who claims to be the real Shriver appears.

A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required from the reader to swallow that anyone would accept, and then attend, a conference, knowing that the invitation is meant for someone else–a published author, no less. Once you get over that hump, then the mis-adventures of Shriver assume a pleasant, humorous tone, but satire seems difficult to maintain at a consistent level. The novel wobbles around the halfway point, loses momentum and turns farcical. I have a fondness for books with an academic setting, but I prefer biting satire, not farce.

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Filed under Belden Chris, Fiction

Henri Duchemin and His Shadows: Emmanuel Bove

Lost, desperate, isolated characters inhabit Emmanuel Bove’s short story collection Henri Duchemin and His Shadows (1928). While the characters are sometimes isolated due to circumstance, it’s primarily their inner thoughts and private fears that separate them from mainstream society.  The dominant threads here are broken relationships, absorbing disillusionment and coming to terms with a less-than-satisfactory life. Naturally, most of the disillusion occurs in relationships between men and women.

Night Crime is set on Christmas Eve with the title character, Henri Duchemin, mired in a life of poverty turning desperately to a stranger for sympathy, but he’s told that if he’s that unhappy, he should just kill himself.

He closed his window and, motionless in front of the only armchair, he saw women everywhere, in the depths of the walls, standing on his bed, languidly waving their arms. No, he would not kill himself. At forty a man is still young and can, if he perseveres, become rich.

Henri Duchemin dreamed of supplicants, of owning houses, of freedom. But once his imagination had calmed down, it seemed the disorder of his room had grown, in contrast as it was with his reveries.

This is a nightmarish, surreal tale in which Duchemin is tempted by a stranger to commit a crime which will supposedly solve all of his problems.

In Another Friend, a poor man is befriended by a wealthy stranger. The poor man imagines that he has met someone, finally, who will be an understanding friend, only to discover that the stranger collects poor people and gets some strange satisfaction from giving them a meal and listening to their tales of woe.

Henri ducheminIn Night Visit, marital woes between Paul and Fernande spill over on to Paul’s friend, Jean. Paul worships Fernande and describes her in the most glowing terms, but Jean finds Fernande to be a “rather corpulent, rather common woman.” Who can explain why we love some people while we ignore others who are far more suitable? Here’s the story’s final passage which, on the surface, would seem to have little to do with the subject.

An automobile on its way to Les Halles passed very close to us. In the pure, freezing air, it left such a circumscribed scent of vegetables that when we took one step to the side, we could not smell it any more. In the middle of the sleeping city, beneath the sky, we were alone. The moon had disappeared. And without it, as if they lacked a leader, the stars seemed to be in disarray.

In What I Saw  the narrator, Jean (possibly the character from the previous tale) tells the story of his girlfriend, Henriette. While the narrator stresses how much he loves his girlfriend who is “as sweet as an angel,” we get the impression that beneath the surface, there’s an undercurrent of problems. Some of these problems are manifested in the narrator’s insufferable attitude towards females in general: “One shouldn’t ask too much of a woman,” for example.  There are hints that he’s been unfaithful perhaps, but he’s always forgiven, and when he tests her love with questions, she always gives the right responses.

 Even though she is beautiful, she recognizes that a man’s lapse is not as great as a woman’s.

Through the narrator’s description of his girlfriend, a picture of Henriette gradually builds. There’s nothing to fault in what she says or what she does, but somehow, once again, there’s a feeling of unease.

Candy, cake, fruit-she always goes without in order to offer them to me and, if I don’t take them, because I know how fond she is of them, she insists with so much love that I would be hurting her if I continued to refuse them. Nothing exists for her. She sees all of life through me.

Is this woman a saint? Or has she honed her manipulative skills to a fine point? Or is she merely holding her own in this relationship in which the narrator completely underestimates the female sex?

In Is it A Lie?, my favourite in this collection, a much older husband, Mr. Marjanne must confront his wife’s infidelity when she provides a very flimsy story excusing an overnight absence. This short story takes us through Claire Marjanne’s ridiculous version of events, and as a result we become both witnesses and participants in her fabrication. Taking the moral high ground, she grasps the power in the marital relationship and then Claire manipulates her husband, drawing him into her web of lies, liberally casting details and logic as though these will base her story in reality.

“None of that tells me where you spent the night. You had to sleep somewhere, after all.”

“If you interrupt me one more time, I’m warning you I won’t tell you another thing. You think it’s amusing to recount everything in such detail? Listen to me now. So I leave Le Printemps. It was exactly six-thirty and I say to myself “Robert must be waiting for me, I’ve got to hurry.” But instead of taking a cab in front of the store–you know how crowded it is there, I would have waited for an hour–I go on foot to boulevard Malsherbes. And right then, when I am on the corner of rue du Havre, I run into–you’ll never guess who. Who do you think?’

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, guess.”


“No, no. I told you a moment ago that I had left her at Madeleine’s “

In Mr. Marjanne’s mind Claire was only trying to give the illusion of truth. To be less alone with her lie, she wanted to make her husband participate in it. But he was determined not to let himself be dragged into it and simply answered: “I don’t know” and “What can I say?”

Is he wise to accept his wife’s ridiculous story and ignore her suspected infidelity or has he just opened the door to future misery?

Bove is not a first tier writer–well at least not for this book. Some of the narrators, who suffer from a sameness in tone, ramble, repetitively before getting on with their stories. One of the blurbs connects Bove’s stories to the female characters in the novels of Jean Rhys. I’d disagree, and if you’re hoping to find Jean Rhys-type stories here, you’ll be disappointed. Bove’s main characters are lost males, and if there are women in their lives, then the women are lying to them, cheating on them, or simply moving on. The story Henri Duchemin and His Shadows gives a glimpse of café culture, reminiscent of Rhys, and a hard, acid-tongued woman who tells the title character to stop whining and just kill himself. Ultimately the women here are the tough ones–they survive and move on leaving their men wondering just what went wrong.

Resurrected by New York Review books. Translated by Alyson Waters

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Filed under Bove Emmanuel, Fiction

Trouble on the Thames: Victor Bridges (1945)

“Wait till Hitler’s in Buckingham Palace and these darned Britishers are crawling around on their bellies.”

Trouble on the Thames, a short, thoroughly engaging spy thriller published in 1945 by Victor Bridges finds Naval Lieutenant-Commander Owen Bradwell in a funk. After receiving the news that he’s become colour blind, Bradwell, a young man, with a brilliant career in front of him, consults a Harley Street specialist. The bad news is that “chances of recovery were about one in a thousand.”  This means that Bradwell’s naval career is over, but then he’s recruited by the British Secret Service for a recon mission. With Britain very likely to plunge into war with Hitler, it seems that the country is awash with spies.

According to the Secret Service official who recruits Bradwell, a Lieutenant Medlicot recently committed suicide rather than face charges of treason. Medlicot was “conducting experimental work on some new gadget in connection with submarines,” when he became entangled with the owner of the Mayflower, a nightclub in the West End. Medlicot most likely had extensive gambling debts which were then leveraged to persuade Medlicot to hand over a “complete copy of the plans.” The sleazy owner of the Mayflower club, a certain Mark Craig, is suspected of being a spy for the Germans.

These are delicate times. German diplomats reside in England, and with a government that “still believes in the possibility of appeasement,” the Secret Service wants a “cast-iron” case against the spy network suspected of operating within the Mayflower Club before moving to make arrests or expulsions from the country. This is where Bradwell comes in. He’s given ten pounds for expenses and told to travel to the countryside where Craig owns a private island. There under the guise of a fisherman, he’s to collect information about Craig’s visitors.

trouble on the thamesTrouble on the Thames is an adventure story, and since we have our dashing hero, of course we have to have our heroine. Romance appears in the form of a plucky young woman, Sally Deane, an interior decorator who, on a mission to save her sister from blackmail, stumbles into the nest of Nazis.

This is the sort of book that races along with very little down time. Spies, blackmail, an escaped prisoner, amnesia and murder all roll in to this short novel. With the action moving from the hubbub of London to the quiet beauty of the countryside, there’s the strong sense that the British way of life is under threat. This is an ultra patriotic novel, but that’s by no means a fault–rather it’s an indicator of the times. Against the backdrop of an ever-encroaching war, the characters are either black or white with those “in the pay of the Huns,” portrayed as opportunistic, morally weak, societal outsiders. At one point for example, German sympathizer Olga Brandon tells Craig, “I’m all for the Germans. I’d love to see them smash the hell out of these stuck-up swine.” German diplomat,  Count Conrad von Manstein is an “unpleasant mixture, a cross between a Prussian junker and a genuinely fanatical Nazi, about the worst abortion that nature has yet produced.” And at one point there’s a reference made to an “epileptic house-painter.” It took me a minute to absorb that this was a reference to Hitler.

The respective roles of the sexes and the ethnocentrism are problematic. Bradwell is the dashing hero, and of course there must be a scene where he saves the female romantic interest. While Sally Deane is a plucky character, an independent businesswoman breaking the mold for her sex, nonetheless, she gushes at the appropriate moments. Bradwell makes a great new recruit for the Secret Service–although perhaps a trifle loose-lipped. At one point the issue of whether or not women can keep secrets emerges, so that grates–especially since Bradwell didn’t hesitate to tell Sally and her partner who he was working for. And here’s a quote about Olga which is supposed to explain a lot about her character

Having a dash of the dago in her, however–we have discovered since that her mother was a Romanian dancer–she was already beginning to panic.

The book, which really is great fun, is an entry from the British Library Spy Classics series, and includes another wonderful introduction from Martin Edwards. Prolific author Victor Bridges (1878-1972)–real name Victor George de Freyne Bridges set his novels “among the tidal estuaries and rivers of Kent, Essex and Suffolk.” (Harald Curjel, Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers.) Trouble on the Thames is a very cinematic novel, so it came as no surprise to read that several of Bridges’ novels made it to film. It did come as a surprise, however, that this author, once so popular in his day, has almost completely faded from view.

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Filed under Bridges Victor, Fiction

Dinner: César Aira

César Aira’s Dinner is a delightfully strange, genre bending novella narrated by a bachelor in his sixties who lives in the Argentinean town of Pringles. We don’t know the details of what’s gone wrong in this man’s life, but he’s bankrupt, washed up and living with his elderly mother–a very undignified position to find oneself in at any age, but the narrator, with old age looming, cannot kid himself that life will ever improve.

I was dead broke, they’d repossessed my house and my car, I’d taken refuge in my mother’s apartment and was living off her retirement income (if you can call that living.)

The narrator and his mother spend an evening with an eccentric friend–a wealthy building contractor who owns a splendid large home which is stuffed full of bizarre, expensive collections. The narrator has sought this invitation as he hopes to hit up his last friend, a self-made man, for a business loan. While the host shows off his fantastic automatons, the conversation veers towards various residents of the town. For the host and for the narrator’s mother, it’s all about names, “the conformations and genealogies of all the town’s families.” And as the evening progresses “each name was a knot of meaning wherein converged many other chains of names.” These are discussions which do not interest the narrator. While he has “real memories, full-fledged memories,” there are also “inexplicable memories” from his childhood. The narrator’s memories don’t quite mesh with the memories of his mother, and while his mother jumps from memory to memory by the use of names, the narrator notes that for him, there are “pits” in his memories which symbolize  ” ‘holes’ in memory.”

The shifting nature of memory then morphs into a question of what is true and what isn’t. When the narrator and his mother return home, the conversation shifts to their host. The narrator sees their host as a wealthy man, but the mother argues, vehemently and with detail, about massive debt & failure. Soon the narrator begins to doubt the affluent version of his friend’s life.

dinnerAlone, and only with the television for company, the narrator channel surfs and finds himself spellbound over a programme on the Pringles channel in which news reporter Maria Rosa zooms around on her scooter tracking the nightlife of Pringles. The programme is supposed to seem, “improvised, informal, youthful,” but with a cameraman in pursuit of the intrepid Maria Rosa, instead each episode is amateurish and almost laughable. But the narrator finds himself glued to the set as Maria Rosa takes her scooter to the cemetery to confirm the story that “the dead were rising from their graves.”

At this point, the story shifts completely from the narrator watching the programme to the assault on Pringles from the Dead who exit their graves, descend upon the town and, in the pursuit of endorphins, suck the brains from the living….

Is this a nightmare brought on by the evening’s discussion of “pits” and the cemetery? Did the Dead rise and kill many of the inhabitants of Pringles or is the event a publicity stunt? Or is the event about something bigger–symbolic of memory, the truth and “representation“? You decide.

César Aira’s prose is poetic, smooth, and slides like honey. This is how the book begins:

My friend was home alone, but he invited us over for dinner anyway; he was a very sociable man, liked to talk and tell stories, though he wasn’t any good at it; he got the episodes mixed up, left effects without causes and causes without effects, skipped over important parts, and dropped anecdotes right in the middle. This didn’t bother my mother, who at her age had reached a level of mental confusion equivalent to what my friend had been born with; I think she didn’t even notice. In fact, she was the one who most enjoyed the conversation–and it was the only thing she enjoyed that evening–because there was a constant mention of the name’s of the town’s families, magic words that distilled her entire interest in life. I listened to the names drop, as one listens to the falling rain, whereas for her, each was a treasure full of meanings and memories.

The dinner is an elegant occasion, leisurely in nature, with the host proudly showing his guests some delightful, intricate, miniature automatons. But the evening is a contrived event–a representation of the subtle unspoken politics of class, wealth and business acumen. While the evening appears to be composed of two old friends reconnecting over dinner, it’s an occasion in which the narrator cannot help but compare his failure to his friend’s phenomenal success. Perhaps this partially explains the narrator’s mother’s irritation. The narrator sees that his mother, who loves him, is in “complete denial” of the facts. “And her life was reduced to that denial; I had reduced her to that.”

Perhaps she sees the host displaying his expensive toys as more than the actions of an enthusiastic collector:

Her idée fixe was that I was not a failure, that I had no reason to be dissatisfied with my life, that I could be happy, and that in fact I was. According to her, I had always done the right thing, and I continued to do so; I was an exemplary man, a role model, and moreover, I was young, good-looking, and intelligent. The objective facts contradicted her categorically: I was approaching sixty; I was fat, wrinkled, stooped; I was alone. without any family (except her), money, work, or future. Mama overcame this discrepancy by closing her eyes to reality, and since this didn’t suffice, she blamed the rest on humanity.

Automatons, zombies, representations, perceived wealth and failure, slippery truths and memory holes–all very clever ways of asking that age-old question:  what is truth and what is reality?

Translated by Katherine Silver

Review copy


Filed under Aira César, Fiction

Murder by Matchlight: E.C.R. Lorac (1945)

Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.

The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives  & calls out “anyone about?”:

Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.

A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.

murder by matchlightThere’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.

the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements. for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:

A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?

There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting,  Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Lorac E.C.R.

Boxes: Pascal Garnier

Pascal Garnier’s book Boxes opens with the illustrator Brice moving from Lyon to St Joseph, a village in Valence. It’s November and Brice is miserable and “furious with [his wife] Emily for having left him helpless and alone.” In time, we learn that Emily, a journalist, fell in love with this house two months earlier, and even though she’s absent, Brice has continued with their plans to move.

All Brice could recall of that visit were fragments, like those which come back to you from a long-gone dream. It was dark, and he was hungry and tired. The estate agent, squeezed into his cheap little pinstriped suit, had followed them round like a poodle and, since he had no sales pitch, turned on all the electric light switches-clickety click-to prove that everything had been redone.

That quote is a perfect example of Garnier’s style and bleak, darkly humorous vision. We see the estate agent, plump, pitifully eager and hopeful that he will make a sale. There are no personal details about the estate agent, the colour of his hair or eyes, and Garnier couldn’t care less about his marital status–he’s just a pathetic sad little man on his hamster treadmill, desperately trying to make a living.

But back to Brice… Garnier gives us a few pages of that special kind of hell … moving from one home to another–underscored by Brice’s thoughts that he made a mistake.

Now stone walls and ceilings weighed down by enormous beams were leaning in on him, menacingly. It was extremely cold, and dim like in a cave. He opened the blinds in the dining room and living room, but the dishwater-coloured light which poured in did nothing to warm the atmosphere. It was like being in an aquarium without the fish.

‘A burial plot for life, that’s what we’ve bought ourselves.’

The move  “put an end to ten years of a life so perfect that it seemed it would last forever.” But the house in Saint Joseph was Emily’s choice and Emily’s project, and so Brice is going along for the ride. But where is Emily? Clearly he expects Emily to return and their happy married life to continue. The big question becomes … where is Emily? Is she dead? Has she left Brice, a man clearly teetering on the edge? Emily’s parents call occasionally to check to see how Brice is faring alone, and there are some badly connected phone calls from Emily. The story behind Emily’s absence is slowly pieced together over the course of the novel.

boxesAuthor Pascal Garnier also wrote children’s books. It’s not easy to mesh Garnier’s dark novels with the children’s author side of his career, but perhaps Brice is Garnier on the other side of the mirror. Brice creates the illustrations for a series of Sabine novels and now loathes the fictional child, the fleshy author who created her, and children in general:

Children are ogres, vampires. You only have to look at their young parents–the mothers with their dried-up breasts, the empty-handed fathers–to grasp the sheer greed of these merciless cannibals. They get us in the prime of life and ruin our secret gardens with their red tricycles and bouncy balls that flatten everything like wrecking balls. They transform our lovers into fat women, drooling blissfully as they feel their bellies, and turn us into idiots numb with exhaustion, pushing supermarket trolleys overflowing with bland food stuffs. They get angry with us because they’re midgets, obliging us to punish them and regret it. On the beach they play at burying us or dig holes to push us into. That’s all they dream of: taking our place. They’re ashamed of us, are sorry they’re not orphans, but still ape us horribly. Later they ransack our drawers, and become more and more stupid as their beards grow, their breasts grow, their teeth grow. Soon, like past years, we no longer see them. They’ll reappear only to chuck a handful of earth or a withered rose on to our coffin and argue over the leftovers. Children are Nazis; they recognize only one race: their own.

Boxes is not my favourite Garnier novel. Plot wise, Boxes seems weaker than the other Garniers I’ve read, but the malicious joy found here resides in Garnier’s unique world vision. The picturesque village, for example, according to Garnier, is something grotesque and diseased; from one central house, the village appears to have spread “developing like secondary tumours.” There is one hilarious section involving Brice’s opinion of Meccano, and it’s a perfect example of Garnier’s skill. The passage sums up the author’s way of capturing the collective disappointments of humankind as we struggle to survive in this merciless world.

Boxes is a story of madness and just what happens when one vulnerable person meets someone who is deranged. It’s a topic touched on in Garnier’s  Islanders–a story in which two functional (or semi functional) people connect and descend in a self-destructive spiral- a folie à deux.

For those interested, I’m listing Garnier novels in my order of preference, and that means that some have to go towards the bottom of the pile; but even the bottom of the pile is damn good.

Moon in a Dead Eye

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

The Panda Theory


Cleopatra Loves Books reviewed Boxes

Translated by Melanie Florence

Review copy/personal copy


Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him by T.J. English

“Was the Bulger story about one very crafty psychopath who had corrupted the system? Or was it about a preexisting corrupt system into which one very wily gangster insinuated himself and then played it for all it was worth?”

Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him, a non-fiction book from T. J. English explores the trial of Boston’s notorious criminal and asks some tough questions about how Bulger continued his criminal operations for so many years. English, a journalist and screenwriter is the perfect author for this book. With The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob and Paddywhacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster to his credit, T.J English is well-versed in the American organized crime scene. It should come as no surprise that English’s reputation preceded him, and doors that would have remained closed to others, opened for this author.

With the recent release of the film  Black Mass which stars Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, many film watchers will turn with curiosity to a book on the subject. Where the Bodies Were Buried is not for the Bulger novice, for English examines Bulger’s trial and crimes, so anyone coming to this book had better already have an idea of what Whitey Bulger was all about and also have knowledge of the major players in this story of just how organized crime flourished in Boston for decades.

where the bodies were buriedT.J. English worked hard for this book, attending the trial, driving through Boston neighbourhoods and interviewing Bulger’s former associates and families of Bulger’s victims and alleged victims. The title refers not just to Bulger’s many victims, a number of whom ended up buried in the basement of a house in Boston but also refers to the many skeletons in the cupboards of this astounding story of how Bulger ran his criminal world. Bulger squashed and murdered rivals with the support of his handler, former, now incarcerated, FBI agent John Connelly and allegedly, according to the defense, with the nod from other figures in the U.S Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice.

The book covers the trial of Whitey Bulger who was finally captured in 2011 after going on the run in 1995 following a tip from Connelly about an impending indictment, but unofficially on trial here is the entire Top Echelon Informant programme, run by the FBI with the Justice Department responsible for oversight.

While ostensibly it makes sense to recruit informers from within (since civilians aren’t going to know anything about the mafia or organized crime), the realities of the programme stir some very muddy waters regarding the collusion of criminals and law enforcement. English scatters FBI memos and interviews with Bulger associates against coverage of the trial.  Bulger was indicted on thirty-two counts of racketeering and nineteen murders. He was “the last of a certain type of old-school gangster, with a criminal lineage that stretched back at least to the 1950s.”

English argues that the historic precedent for Whitey Bulger can be found in the case of Joseph “Animal” Barboza, a “renowned mob hit man” who testified in the murder trial of Edward “Teddy” Deegan. Deegan’s killer was Vincent, “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi, an FBI informant, and thanks to Barboza’s fabricated testimony, other men were framed for the crime with the “acquiescence of many people in the criminal justice system, including field agents, prosecutors and supervisors–all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover.” And here I’m going to quote a 1965 memo regarding Jimmy Flemmi from an FBI field agent to Hoover:

“[Flemmi] is going to continue to commit murder, but informant’s potential outweighs the risk involved.”

One of the men framed for Deegan’s murder was Joe Salvati, who suffered “one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States” and served 30 years for a murder he did not commit. Interestingly, “the same FBI agents who originally recruited Bulger and Flemmi had played a role in framing Joe Salvati and his codefendants back in 1967.” Stephen Flemmi (brother of “Jimmy the Bear,“) was “Whitey’s criminal partner for twenty years.” and part of Flemmi’s defense at his trial was :

he could not be prosecuted for crimes that he had committed, because he and Bulger had been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their serving as informants in the DOJ’s war against the mafia. 

The account of the trial is fascinating–not only for what’s said but also for what’s left buried. Law enforcement witnesses expressed frustration at attempts to investigate Whitey which were “sabotaged by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office,” while Bulger’s defense argued that he was never “an informant for John Connolly.” Yet before the trial, Bulger argued that he’d been given immunity from prosecution for his crimes by a now-deceased federal prosecutor. Were Bulger and Connolly friends, “a corrupt team,” with Connolly “creating a fictional informant file to justify his relationship with Whitey,” or was being a Top Echelon Informant a great gig for Bulger and the Winter Hill gang? The biggest and toughest question this book tackles is just how far the Justice Department was involved in giving Whitey Bulger carte blanche when it came to his criminal activities. Was John Connelly, now in prison, some sort of rogue FBI agent who accepted “thousands of dollars in bribes,” or was the Boston office uniquely corruptible? Or is the Whitey Bulger case just part of a bigger picture of how the Top Echelon Informant programme, in a culture of collusion, really works in an ends-justifies-the-means approach:

There would no longer be good guys and bad guys, just one big criminal underworld in which cops and the criminals were all merely co-conspirators in an ongoing effort to manipulate the universe to suit their needs and the needs of their overseers.

If you’re not a cynical person, then Where The Bodies Were Buried will shock you. If you’re already cynical, then like me, you’ll know that Whitey Bulger’s trial isn’t the end of this ongoing story. Recruiting informants from within criminal organizations is problematic. It doesn’t take brilliance to understand that an FBI informer will commit further crimes as an informant. How can they inform unless they are privy to or a participant in crimes? As one of the interviewees, Pat Nee tells English:

“You do things you don’t want to sometimes because it’s all part of the life you’ve chosen. It’s not always possible to just say no and walk away. People get killed when they try to walk away from a situation like that.”

Where should the Justice Department draw a line? What sort of moral imperative gives a nod to wiping out one criminal crew by allowing another to continue operations? How far should the FBI/Justice Department go when handling informants? What is acceptable ‘collateral damage’?

On a final note, I’m fairly sure (being sarcastic here) that FBI agents who are handlers of Top Echelon Informants aren’t supposed to be accepting thousands of dollars from their criminal informants, so that aspect of the complex Bulger case muddies the waters even further….

Review copy


Filed under English T. J., Non Fiction