Love and Death on Long Island: Gilbert Adair

“With each day now came an intensification of my secret life.”

Character is fate, as the saying goes, and yet how to explain the behaviour of a middle-aged British author, a recluse from the crass elements of modern culture,  who goes off the rails with his obsessive infatuation with a youthful American heartthrob?

Giles De’Ath, a middle-aged widower, has penned four novels decades earlier, and he’s earned “the ungrateful epithet of writer’s writer.” All four books, read mostly in France “shared the theme of sacrifice,” but ultimately not one of the sacrifices “is shown to have been justified.” In academic circles, various theories float regarding the meaning of De’Ath’s work, and over time, the author, who has steadfastly turned from public life, “returned to fashion.” De’Ath is writing again; this time it’s a non-fiction book called The Gentrification of the Void which is about to be published. It’s easy to call De’Ath a snob for eschewing modern values and tastes; he certainly looks down on most of the population  and believes that the “stupidity of the world is rivalled only by its ugliness.

love-and-death

One day, circumstances lead to De’Ath walking along an unusual route. He takes shelter in a cinema, and enters the showing for the wrong film. It’s a horrible, cheap third rate teen film called Hotpants College II. He’s about to walk out in disgust when a shot of a young male actor catches his attention, and this is the beginning of Giles De’Ath’s obsession with American heartthrob, Ronnie Bostock.

Soon, De’Ath can’t think of anything else but Ronnie. He stalks London newsagents for imported fan mags, deeply ashamed of his purchases but unable to squash the need to buy anything he can that features Ronnie. Next he buys a television (after learning the hard way that he needs one to play VHS tapes), and then it’s off to the video rental shop for Ronnie Bostock’s meagre backlist: Tex Mex and Skid Marks

I would rerun these two precious tapes of mine until scarcely a heartbeat was struck that I failed to anticipate the instant before. A film viewed this many times, I discovered, however mediocre may appear its point of departure, must always end by acquiring unto itself a special kind of beauty, the beauty of things that are or have come to seem inevitable. Each negligent and certainly unrehearsed gesture, each fortuitous element have swum unsuspecting into the camera’s ken–a face in the crowd, a fleeting, half-glimpsed landscape, some irrelevant, ‘non-signifying’ message just legible in a drugstore window or on an extra’s teeshirt–would by the umpteenth viewing have been branded into the film’s textures, its grain, its very pores, as though all along it had to be so and no other way, as though it were one of the cinema’s vocations, and perhaps its most elevated vocation, thus to statufy spontaneity, to render the incidental indelible, to hold the random to account.

De’Ath, who considers himself “asexual” studies Ronnie Bostock rather as someone studies a foreign language. He intellectualizes his obsession and comes to the conclusion that, even through the somewhat questionable lens of the sycophantic fan mag, there’s something pure and innocent about Ronnie when compared to the other actors of the same age range and status with their “haunched hips and shamelessly flaunted crotches.”

After De’Ath reads some distressing news about Ronnie’s future plans, De’Ath decides to travel to America to meet his idol. ….

The novel is written in the first person by De’Ath, and since this is a man who delights in being inaccessible (both literally and figuratively through his work), the narrator’s voice reflects the pedantic De’Ath through labyrinthine sentences. Imagine De’Ath’s voice as someone who prides himself in being apart from the common herd in a tribe of One. (I’m not going to detail the novel that De’Ath is trying to write but it shows how out-of-touch he is to even contemplate such an idea.)

We follow De’Ath’s mordantly funny journey as he descends into obsessed fandom, slyly buying teen mags and disposing of the unwanted pages far from home.  But De’Ath is never a figure of fun, for although he’s obsessed, he only once loses control; his fixation is systematic and directed.

I loved De’Ath’s perceptions of America. He’s very much the outsider but looks at America rather as a killjoy looks at an amusement park–understanding the allure while denigrating its attractions:

The remainder of that same afternoon I spent at the town’s hairdressing salon, where my hair was trimmed and my nails finely manicured by an obsequious little fusspot of a man who, with his own elaborately crimped and wavy locks, was the very image of a barber in a French farce; in the more expensive of its two men’s shops in search of a ‘stylish’ silk tie that might set off to advantage the pale grey, slim-waisted suit I had not yet worn in Chesterfield as it had been bought and laid aside for exactly the present occasion; then in a chic and overwhelmingly fragrant flower shop–located, possibly as the result of someone’s drolly irreverent sense of cause and effect, next door to the gun store-where I purchased a vast bouquet of white ‘long-stemmed’ white roses.

I thought I’d be writing a post about whether or not De’Ath benefited from the experience with Ronnie, but the novel is much deeper and darker than that, and I’m still mulling over the last few sentences.

There’s a wonderful film made of this book, and that’s what brought me to the novel.

18 Comments

Filed under Adair Gilbert, Fiction

Take Me to Paris, Johnny: John Foster

“He was like an exotic bird, the only one of his kind.”

The title of John Foster’s memoir, Take me to Paris, Johnny, is emblematic of the character and life of Juan Céspedes, the author’s lover until Juan’s death from AIDS in 1987. The two men met in New York in 1981 when John, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, travelled to America to research a book.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

The memoir begins when John Foster travels to Guantánamo to visit Juan’s family. The visit which took place a year after Juan’s death should have been the end of Juan’s story, but in Foster’s hands, it becomes the graceful introduction.  It’s a moving, powerful beginning: travelling to a beautiful foreign country of “red earth, banana plantations and hills that were crowned with a darker canopy of royal palms,” eventually to arrive at a landscape that has a “desolate air; it was brown, scarred and smudged with a confusion of railway marshalling yards. The end of the line.”

Deeply interested in dance and loathe to follow his state assigned career, Juan struggled under Cuban culture in which individualism was not encouraged, and like other young friends, Juan “more charmed than ever by the forbidden music from the radio station ar the base,” decided to seek political asylum by escaping to the US naval base at Guantánamo. And it was in this fashion that Juan finally  landed at age 15 in Hell’s Kitchen in 1969 “where the Catholic agency had installed its Cuban refugees in a cheap apartment house.”

The other residents, according to Juan ‘s calculation, consisted of 25 per cent ex-cons, 25 per cent drag queens and 50 percent addicts.

From 1969 until 1981, when Juan met John Foster, Juan’s history is patchy but involved attempts at establishing a professional dance career and a series of patrons–including a priest, but the relationships ended perhaps because Juan’s “tastes [were] too expensive or his occasional tantrums too exhausting.” Juan carefully constructed narratives around these relationships:

They each occupied a space in his memory, and he referred to them habitually, and most fondly, as if they were a line of popes or kings in whose reign an event could be located. That was the way he ordered his memories, very tidily, in much the same way that he arranged his life, in little compartments, so that there would be no unnecessary confusion or unpleasantness

Foster met Juan when the latter was homeless, and a one-night stand morphed into a long-distance relationship. Finally Juan, already ill with various mysterious ailments, moved to Australia where his tenuous residency teetered on a bureaucratic foundation. Some of the details regarding the illness were difficult to read, but Foster powerfully brings home the times and the fears. I’ll mention the Grim Reaper ad here and luckily and coincidentally I saw it recently on an Australian television programme. I’m glad I saw it as I wouldn’t have understood Foster’s reactions to the ad; it’s one of those things you have to see for yourself.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is Juan’s story, as the author intended, but ultimately it’s the story of a relationship. We see Juan through the eyes of Foster: an exotic figure with a taste for drama, engaging, entertaining, a man whose very existence defies his humble hard-scrabble beginnings.

We walked home, stopping off at the corner store to buy a bottle of Lucozade. According to the label  Beecham Bros supplied this energizing drink by appointment to HM the Queen, which Juan imagined she probably swigged in large quantities to fortify her in her battles with Mrs Thatcher.

While Foster remains in the background, refusing to assign blame or guilt to Juan, their relationship most effectively holds a mirror up to reflect back Foster’s character to the reader. Author John Foster wanted to create a story that transcended death and decay (the afterword by John Rickard goes into some explanation on this issue), and it’s through this afterword that Foster’s character shines through. He was a remarkable human being–full of love, tenderness and grace.

Review copy

3 Comments

Filed under Foster John, Non Fiction

Mystery in White: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)

“Do you feel the horror in this house?’

mystery-in-white

J. Jefferson Farjeon’s novel, Mystery in White, takes the idea of Christmas being a pleasant time spent with family and friends and subverts it into entrapment with strangers–possibly dangerous strangers. The story begins in a third-class compartment on the 11:37 train from Euston. It’s Christmas Eve in the middle of a historic snowstorm, and the passengers are travelling to their destinations all with definite time restrictions. There’s a good assortment of characters:

  • Jessie Noyes, a young, platinum blonde chorus girl who’s travelling to Manchester
  • a brother and sister, David and Lydia Carrington
  • shy clerk, Robert Thomson, a man with a “negligible personality,” on his way to visit an aunt for Christmas
  • elderly “bore,” know-it-all, Mr Hopkins
  • Mr Edward Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society off to interview the ghost of Charles I in Naseby

The passengers in the compartment are all heartily sick and tired of comments from the “elderly bore” Mr Hopkins. According to him, he’s been everywhere, seen everything, and there’s a certain oneupmanship to his comments. Then horror of horrors, the train stops on the tracks.

The solid guard, passing along the corridor at that moment, was turned to with relief, although he had no comfort to offer.

“I’m afraid I can’t say anything,” he replied to inquiries, repeating a formula of which he was weary. “We’re doing all we can, but with the line blocked before and behind, well, there it is.”

“I call it disgraceful!” muttered the bore. “Where’s the damned breakdown gang or whatever they call themselves?”

One of the passengers floats an idea of walking in the snow to the next closest station, at Hemmersby, five or six miles away. This seems a foolhardy idea, so the passengers are stuck in the carriage, and an atmosphere of gloom descends. Mr Maltby takes action:

Then a startling thing happened. The old man in the corner suddenly opened his eyes and sat upright. He started straight ahead of him, but Jessie, who was in his line of vision, was convinced that he was not seeing her. A moment later he swerved round towards the corridor. Beyond the corridor window something moved; a dim white smudge that faded out into the all-embracing snow as they all watched it.

Mr. Maltby grabs his bags and exits the train with a parting”merry Christmas” to his fellow passengers. The bore thinks this is madness, but when the rest of the passengers light out, he, later, joins them. At first they are able to follow Maltby’s footprints, but then they realise that there’s more than one set. Everyone underestimated the volume of snow and the cold.

The snow had ceased falling, and the motionless white scene was like a film that had suddenly stopped.

The snow begins to fall again, and Jessie hurts her ankle.

Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.

Just as the situation becomes desperate, the travelers find a house: the door is unlocked, a fire is lit, and tea is laid–almost as though the house is waiting for them. …

Of course, there’s something very strange afoot, and Mr. Maltby leads the investigation into the murder that apparently occurred on the train and the doings at the abandoned house where all these passengers are trapped by the sheer volume of snow. It’s an intriguing premise for crime buffs, and the set-up and atmospheric descriptions of snow create a very strong beginning to the book. Unfortunately, the plot lagged after the initial set-up, the wrap-up was overly complicated (some mental juggling is required to keep up with the plot,) and the characters are ‘types’ as befitting this sort of mystery. Nonetheless Farjeon gives us some observations about human nature: here’s Jessie the chorus girl:

She was well aware of both her power and the limitation of her power, and while the power, despite its small thrills, gave her a secret dread, the limitation was a secret sorrow.

Review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction

Malice: Keigo Higashino

“It comes down to character.”

Police procedurals are not my favourite type of crime book; I’ve said that many times, but then I read the Japanese crime novel, Malice from Keigo Higashino with contains a plot that managed to do something entirely different from the typical procedural. Malice, with its emphasis not on the perpetrator (we know who committed the crime around the first third of the novel,) but on the psychology of motive is a fascinating read as the detective in charge of the case refuses to take the case’s solution at face value.

So here’s the plot: best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is murdered in his home the night before he leaves for Vancouver with his wife of one month, Rie. Everything was packed and ready for the move, but Hidaka, alone at the house, was working on a serialized novel. Hidaka was found dead inside his locked office inside his locked house. Yet someone entered the home, bashed Hidaka over the head with a paperweight and then strangled him with a telephone cord. Both Hidaka’s wife and his best friend, a writer of children’s stories, Osamu Nonoguchi have alibis for the time of Hidaka’s death. On the day of Hidaka’s murder, he was visited by a young woman, Miyako Fujio, who was trying to persuade Hidaka to rewrite his novel, Forbidden Hunting Grounds as it portrayed the life of her brother (stabbed by a prostitute).  Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga begins his investigations. ….

malice

Malice is told, mainly, through the two voices of Osamu and Detective Kaga. The two men were teachers at the same school together, briefly, but Kaga gave up teaching to become a police detective while Osamu eventually became a full time writer. Osamu, for his own purpose, has written down accounts of the crime including the last time he saw Hidaka. Osamu visited Hidaka on the day of his death as did Miyako Fujio, so Detective Kaga requests Osamu’s accounts in order to help him piece together the crime.

With a couple of slips made by the killer, it doesn’t take too long for Kaga to solve the crime, and while he’s pressured to close the case, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. A mental duel begins to take place between the detective and the perp–a lazier detective would walk away, but Kaga isn’t satisfied with the solution to the crime. Determined to discover the truth, Kaga keeps digging. Eventually he uncovers a simmering resentment, so evil, it’s staggering in its ambition.

Malice was another foray into Japanese crime, and it was an intense, ingenious, deeply psychological read which showed this reader that the police procedural can be full of unpredictable twists and turns. The witness statements and the detective’s speech at the end of the book were a little rough, but apart from that, Malice is highly recommended. The plot interested me, in particular, because it argues that the victim has no one to speak for them.

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Higashino Keigo

Death Going Down: María Angélica Bosco (1955)

“That’s what happens to people who go out at night. Just look how they end up.”

I’ve posted previously on the crime books from Pushkin Vertigo. So far there have been some marvelous reads for crime fans: She Who Was No More, Vertigo, The Disappearance of Signora Chiara and several Frédéric Dard titles (all highly recommended by the way). Vertigo has also released a number of a number of novels from Augusto de Angelis–all much more standard police procedurals. Given the rather dramatic division between the book types (makes me think of Simeon’s Romans Durs vs. his Maigret novels), I’ve formed two figurative piles of books with the Augusto de Angelis on the left and all the other Vertigo titles on the right. That brings me to Death Going Down (original title: La Muerte Baja en Ascensor) from María Angélica Bosco–a police procedural that I’m going to place in the left stack with the Augusto de Angelis novels. However, I’ll add a caveat to that decision later.

death-going-down

Death Going Down opens on a cold night in Buenos Aires as Pancho Soler arrives home drunk to his apartment house. It’s an atmospheric scene as Soler stumbles from his car into the lobby of the building. He has just three minutes of light in the lobby (a regulation we’re told) and he makes it to the lift but sees it’s already in use.

All of a sudden he noticed that the lift shaft had filled with light and at the same moment, as if choreographed, the lobby plunged into darkness.

Someone had come down in the lift. He could make out a blurry shape on the other side of the door. Still leaning on the wall, Pancho moved to one side to make way for the person in the lift but the door remained stubbornly closed. All he could see was the shadow puppet outline of a shape curled up in the corner.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Soler opens the door and discovers a dead blonde in the lift. The police arrive, the residents gather, and the investigation begins. …

Death Going Down, a prize-winning crime novel, was published in 1955, and the story’s emphasis is the duplicitous lives lead by those in the apartment house along with the idea that the investigation is clouded by the number of immigrants involved. These relative newcomers to Argentina from Europe have lives shrouded in mystery. Are they victims of the nazis fleeing for their lives or do they have pasts they wish to escape from? And herein lies my hesitation in placing Death Going Down in that figurative left pile of Vertigo titles. Yes it is a police procedural but the refugees & immigrants, flotsam and jetsam from WWII still bring the war to Argentina’s shores a decade later, and that’s a nice twist.

There’s a solid assortment of suspects: playboy Pancho Soler, Dr Adolfo Luchter, caretakers Andrés and his bitter wife, Aurora Torres (she hopes the murder victim is the resident she likes the least,) the invalid Señor Iñarra and his family, the abrasive Bulgarian (former resident of Germany) Czerbó and his long-suffering sister Rita, and of course, the murder victim’s husband who married his wife by proxy.

There are three police figures in the book: Inspector Ericourt, Superintendent Lahore, and detective Blasi (my favourite of the three). That’s rather a lot of policemen for a 160 page book, and the result was that I was unable to get a firm grasp on any of their characters–although Blasi is the strongest drawn of the three. Here’s his approach to crime:

What do you do when you’re standing in front of a painting? You adopt different positions until you get the best perspective.

These days a common complaint about crime books is that they are too fleshed out with extraneous detail. In Death Going Down,  the opposite is true, and while I can’t give away spoilers, the plot would have benefitted from further explanation of the past connections between the characters.

Finally, the author made mention of what happened to the victim’s dog, and this was a nice little touch to the tale.

Review copy

Translated by Lucy Greaves

12 Comments

Filed under Bosco María Angélica, Fiction

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly comic novel Sweet William is the story of the sentimental education of a young woman named Ann who lives in London and works for the BBC.  The novel opens with Ann saying goodbye to her stuffy fiancé, Gerald. He’s leaving for a university position in America, and although Ann and Gerald lived together in London, he’s decided that it would not be appropriate to have Ann join him. He’s promised to ‘send for’ her though, and he’s fobbing her off with excuses while she resents him for his lack of commitment. Entwined with Ann’s resentment is the uncertainty of the engagement to a man she doesn’t know well. Ann is feeling a bit lost when she meets William McClusky, a blonde, curly-haired playwright, a chronic philanderer, who invades and then takes over her life, persuading her to give up her job and enter into some slippery domestic arrangement with him:

In ten days she had encouraged adultery, committed a breach of promise, given up her job, abetted an abortion. She had not been aware, throughout these happenings, of any unease of distress. She had become like one of those insect specimens under glass, sucked dry of her old internal organs, pumped full and firm with an unknown preservative. She was transfixed by William. 

William, at least initially, appears to be an attentive, caring man, railing at Ann’s lack of ring on her finger, asking if her fiancé is unemployed (and thus can’t afford a ring) while he states, the very first day he meets Ann:

‘If you were my woman,’ he said, ‘You’d have a ring for your finger.’

Amidst a few gentle protests that she’s an engaged woman, Ann passively accepts William’s ardent, urgent attentions. William stakes out his claim in Ann’s life like an explorer marking his territory with the arrival of a television set so she can watch him on a talk show.

sweet-william

This book could so easily have been a tragedy but in Bainbridge’s hands a terrible comedy ensues as William’s many lives, countless lies and his innumerable women gradually, and messily tumble out of the closet. He’s married (still) and there’s a violent divorce somewhere in his past, but his present is also peppered with women, a fluctuating sea of women, some of whom are known to Ann, and some of whom are his most ardent supporters and defenders. Ann’s life disintegrates into chaos as William comes and goes, leaves her pregnant, he pops back, floats away, and makes promises which he rarely keeps.

“I’ve never,” he said, ‘felt like this about anyone. You’ll just have to believe me. I do have compartments  to my life, I can’t deny that, but I’ve never loved anyone like this before.’ He looked at her smooth face, the small wanton mouth, the gullible eyes that watched him greedily.

Later Ann asks herself, “what kind of compartments did he mean–air-tight ones or the sort on railway trains? Was she locked away on her own, or was he in the compartment with her?” Many of the things William says with such intensity sound good at the time, especially to the innocent Ann, and it can be argued that William, a rather nebulous figure, could mean what he says at the time he says it, or he could just be a heartless, serial adulterer. He says he visits the children from his ex-wife to read them bedtime stories every night, but when he’s caught in a lie, the story shifts to his obligations to his current wife:

‘she doesn’t want to be done out of cooking for me. Who am I to deny her that?’

He bent his head humbly. There was a flaw in his argument, she knew, but she couldn’t put it into words.

He claims to have plenty of money, and his current, much older wife confirms that, yet many of the presents William brings or sends to Ann have questionable origins. He’s a playwright, and that’s confirmed, and yet his plays appear to be almost parodies of working class woes. Is he talented or not? Does William take advantage of women or does he simply fill each need as he comes across sadness and loneliness? Is William just a conman wrapped up in tinsel prose and cheap tenderness? Are the many women he meets and beds his victims or his muses?

But I can’t finish the review without mention of one of the book’s most marvelous characters-another fuzzy around the edges person–Mrs Walton, Ann’s mother. She interferes, criticises, and behaves inappropriately at all the wrong moments in Ann’s life. At one point she hears William moaning outside trying to get into Ann’s flat:

‘What’s wrong with the fool’ hissed Mrs Walton. ‘Does he think he’s Heathcliff?’ She had never known anything like it. Not even during the war when things were more casual.

Ann makes a visit to Brighton to visit her parents and somehow their warped domesticity connects to Ann’s acceptance of William’s behaviour and his dreadful lies. Even William seems to attain some new dizzying heights of deception with his incredible story of how one trip to the dentist ended with the dentist assaulting him and throwing away William’s clothes.

Beryl Bainbridge based the character of William on Alan Sharp; they had a child together.

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books

Review copy

17 Comments

Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Fiction

City of Strangers: Louise Millar

In Louise Millar’s thriller, City of Strangers, newlywed Grace Scott returns from a two week honeymoon in Thailand to her new flat in Edinburgh only to find a dead man in her kitchen. The man’s shoes are poorly fitting, he has no socks, and later, according to the autopsy, it’s revealed that the man, who had no ID was starving. The police chalk up the body to a burglar who died accidentally in the process of a break-in, but Grace has a vague dissatisfaction with the verdict which becomes amplified when she finds a scribbled note amongst her wedding presents.

With the signed note as a clue, and propelled by the uncomfortable knowledge that her own father died alone, Grace decides to pursue the man’s identity and find his family. What begins as a fairly simple connect-the-dots mission soon spirals out of control as Grace begins to learn two very different versions of the dead man’s life. She travels to London, Amsterdam and Paris with questions that lead her into the violent underbelly of the criminal world.

city-of-strangers

There’s a second story strand back in Edinburgh involving Ewan, Louise’s former journalism classmate and his boss, Sula, at Scots Today. Sula is chasing a story which concerns two bodies found in a pit cave: one man was an Australian hiker, and the other was a drug dealer, and Sula asks : “why would an Australian tourist be buried on top of one of Edinburgh’s finest drug dealers?” Of course these two story strands eventually connect.

Ewan and Sula are wonderful characters, and yet they are secondary figures in this tale. Their dynamic and dialogue sizzles and altogether seems much more real than that of Grace and Nicu the hunky prize-winning photographer she meets in Amsterdam. There’s one point when Sula pumps an unwitting PC  for information. He’s been guarding a crime scene in the cold, and she wanders up to him with a spare bacon roll. At another time, she borrows a greyhound as a prop to join other dogwalkers. The touches of humour which underscore how far some reporters will go to get a story help balance the darker, sadder aspects of this tale.

City of Strangers begins as a crime story but then morphs into a more complex, fleshy thriller. While I chewed up the story involving Ewan and Sula, my two favourite characters in the book, I had a much harder time with Grace, who dumps Mac, her newlywed husband without a word to pursue the photojournalist career she knows she wants. I found myself mulling over other plot scenarios: would it have been better if Grace’s husband Mac didn’t exist at all (but then he becomes integral to the plot later,) or what if Grace and Mac had already had longstanding marriage problems when the novel begins? I’ll land on the latter as Grace as a newlywed just didn’t work for this reader. She was too happy to sail off and ‘find herself’ which smacked much more of an unhappily woman than a newlywed–even one with a long-standing relationship such as Grace had with Mac. Grace is essentially drawn as a woman in the midst of a personal crisis having to choose career over domesticity, but the newlywed tag doesn’t mesh, and every time she ignores Mac’s texts or drops his calls, her actions push that post-honeymoon credibility.

Review copy

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Millar Louise

Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

till-death-do-us-part

The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

7 Comments

Filed under Dickson Carr John, Fiction

Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions: Mario Giordano

“Fragrantly, in a white caftan and gold gladiator sandals plus dramatic eyeliner and plenty of rouge, she used to sail into the bar like a cruise liner visiting a provincial marina.”

german-literature-month-2016Yes it’s German Literature Month 2016 and what would this event be without a crime novel? Last year for GLM, I reviewed Thumbprint a 1936 novel from Friedrich Glauser; this year it’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano. The author, a child of Italian immigrants was born in Munich, and this first crime novel was originally published in German. Interestingly, the novel’s protagonist, Auntie Poldi is a German woman who decides to move to Italy. …

auntie-poldi

The novel’s narrator is Auntie Poldi’s nephew, a would-be writer who plans to write a “big, epic family saga spanning three German-Sicilian generations” but, so far, has made little progress. He relates how Auntie Poldi, at age 60, decided to move to Sicily “intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.” The nephew comes to visit once a month, living in his aunt’s attic ostensibly to work on that great novel, but also to keep an eye on his aunt. Auntie Poldi, a “pig-headed Bavarian,” is a sort of larger-than-life Auntie Mame figure; her hobby is to collect photographs of “good looking traffic cops from all over the world.”

My Auntie Poldi: a glamorous figure, always ready to make a dramatic entrance. She had put on a bit of weight in recent years, admittedly, and booze and depression had ploughed a few furrows in her outward appearance, but she was still an attractive woman and mentally tip-top-most of the time, at least. Stylish, anyway. 

Auntie Poldi (Isolde) had a career as a costume designer, and married a tailor, Peppe (Giuseppe).

Poldi and my Uncle Peppe had shared a grand passion, but alas, a few things went badly wrong. Two miscarriages, booze, my uncle’s womanizing, divorce from my uncle, my uncle’s illness, my uncle’s death, the whole issue of the plot of land in Tanzania and sundry other unpleasant twists and turns, setbacks and upheavals of life had stricken my aunt with depression.

Poldi’s retirement to Sicily has her relatives concerned, but she refuses to move closer to them in Catania, and instead moves to Torre Archirafi (found photos of the place online, and it is spectacular). The novel goes on to include some unpleasant realities about living there along with details that bring the location to life.

Poldi, in common with those who have strong personalities, has theories on just about everything, and while she may think she wants a quiet retirement, it’s clear that that will never happen. This indomitable woman turns into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of a young handyman she employs, and she rapidly gets in much deeper than she expected.  Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions would be easy to classify as a cozy mystery, but I wouldn’t place the book fully in that subgenre: it’s too tangy a book for that classification. It’s definitely an amateur sleuth book, on the light side of crime, with an emphasis on humour and irrepressible figure of Auntie Poldi, but the book is also a statement about being comfortable in one’s own skin.  The appeal of the promised series will depend very much on how the reader connects to the character of Auntie Poldi. If you are looking for light, amusing crime set in an exotic location with a confident, older protagonist, then this book is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Review copy

Translated by John Brownjohn

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Giordano Mario

Black Widow: Christopher Brookmyre

“Just because you’re a psychopath doesn’t mean you can’t have emotional intelligence.”

Black Widow is the page-turning story of a talented, female surgeon who falls into disgrace through social media, only to recoup her life with a whirlwind romance with the seemingly perfect man. But six months later, he’s dead and she’s accused of his murder. …

black-widow

Diane Jager once had a job as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital, but she led another life, online, as Scapelgirl, running a blog in which she revealed the sexism she endured as a female surgeon and the difficulty of balancing personal and work lives. The problem is, when anonymity is used to push a personal agenda, well sometimes people go overboard, and that is certainly the case with Diane. Her blog became a cause celebre amongst other female doctors, for Scalpelgirl as an anonymous agent tackled issues (and people) she would not have wrestled in person. The rage of the blog took over, and Scapelgirl becomes known as Bladebitch by her detractors, her identity was revealed (along with some of her sleazier moves) and she was forced to resign. She takes a job at Inverness, her “penitential northern gulag.”

Despite the baggage she brought, she was too valuable a prospect for them to pass up, like a provincial football team happy to take on a flawed talent who had fallen from grace at one of the major clubs.

At her new place of employment, Diane meets IT tech, Peter, and against all the odds, they hit it off, rapidly becoming absorbed in each other. With Diane’s biological clock ticking away,  there seems no need to slow down.

Six months later, Peter’s car is pulled out of a freezing river. Peter’s sister Lucy contacts investigate reporter, Jack Parlabane, and tells him that she thinks her brother may have been murdered.

Black Widow is a very cleverly structured tale which begins in a courtroom and then goes back over time through several points-of-view. We see events through the eyes of two constables: Ali Kazmi and Ruben Rodriguez who are the first on the scene of Peter’s accident–the ones who break the news to Peter’s not-so-grieving widow. Then there’s Parlabane’s view. He’s still bruised from his divorce and a catastrophic dip in his career, so the Bladebitch case offers not only distraction but also possible career redemption. The third viewpoint comes from Diane aka Bladebitch herself; there’s a lot to like there (she’s driven, talented, extremely intelligent) but there’s also a lot to dislike: she’s cold, unapproachable and prickly.

This is someone you do not want to fuck with. This is a woman who will make it her purpose in life to settle the score. They say payback’s a bitch? Then believe me: you don’t want payback from the Bladebitch.

The novel’s clever structure (which is just a teensy bit manipulative but forgivable and within the realms of acceptability–unlike Gone Girl which crossed the line IMO) is bolstered by a certain synchronicity, so we see PC Ali Kazam concerned about a possible pregnancy while Diane longs for a child. We see PC Rodriguez leaving London for exile in Inverness (echoing Diane’s trajectory), and one chapter in which Diane comes to an important revelation is immediately followed by Parlabane experiencing a realization of sorts. The portions narrated by Diane are the strongest and the most compelling in the book; she’s a terrific character, and over the course of her narration, we begin to see exactly how her character became crafted by experience.

I guessed the book’s solution and that’s probably due to all my crime reading, but I still enjoyed the book very much indeed. Work-life balance, sexism in medicine, the mirages often encountered in relationships, all these issues are tackled rather well here, so combine that with a page-turning crime novel, and you have an excellent read.

Black Widow is the seventh in the Jack Parlabane series, and in spite of the fact that this is the first one (so far) that I’ve read, I had no problem reading this as a stand-alone.

Review copy

19 Comments

Filed under Brookmyre Christopher