Rain Dogs: Adrian McKinty

Cathy at 746 books hosted Reading Ireland Month during March 2016, so it seemed like the perfect time to pick up Rain Dogs, the 5th book in the Sean Duffy series from author Adrian McKinty. As a police procedural with just a few references to other cases in the past, it’s possible to read this as a stand-alone.

rain dogs

Rain Dogs finds Detective Inspector Sean Duffy still working in Northern Ireland, in the Carrickfergus CID. It’s the late 80s, and we’re in the so-called ‘Troubles,’ —a misnomer if ever I heard one. Duffy is on the point of a break-up with his live-in girlfriend, Beth, who basically tells Sean that he needs to find someone his own age (ouch!).  Duffy is called out on a very petty incident to locate the missing wallet of a visiting Finn VIP at the toney Coast Road Hotel. The theft turns out to be a wild goose chase, and yet it’s also the incident that opens the door to murder, conspiracy, intervention from higher-ups and even the deepest betrayal from an unexpected direction.

Duffy is subsequently called to Carrickfergus Castle to investigate what appears to be a suicide. An attractive British journalist, Lily Bigelow, who caught Duffy’s eye at the hotel the day before, is found dead on the castle grounds. She appears to have jumped to her death, with depression over a broken relationship as the root cause, but there are two elements to the case which trouble Duffy: her notebook has vanished, and her shoes were placed on the wrong feet. Could this be a homicide? And yet if this is a case of murder, who is the killer? The castle grounds were locked down for the night, and while it’s theorized that Lily hid somewhere on the grounds in order to commit suicide (and CCTV shows her entering but not exiting the castle,) several searches and even tracking dogs do not reveal the overnight presence of a possible killer other than the highly respectable, responsible caretaker who swears that he didn’t see the girl–let alone murder her.

The case haunts Duffy and recalls the Lizzie Fitzpatrick case (Book 3: In the Morning I’ll be Gone)–a case in which a young girl was murdered inside a locked pub. Rain Dogs explores how the random, explosive violence of everyday life during The Troubles is a dance with death and just how easy it is to slip a murder in under sectarian violence. This is also the first time I’ve heard of a mercury tilt bomb.

McKinty brings these troubled times alive with a sense of disturbing reality. Duffy is Catholic which puts him outside of his Protestant CID department, his girlfriend Beth is a Protestant, and he lives in a Protestant neighbourhood. Although he’s surrounded by sectarian violence, Duffy rises above it–labels don’t exist in Duffy’s mind–even though he must survive in a chaotic, violent society in which labels are enough to get you killed. Duffy is intelligent enough to realize that while labels may offer a degree of identity, they certainly don’t guarantee much more beyond that. It’s clear that while Duffy is an excellent detective, he’ll never rise above a certain rank–he’s too much of an independent thinker and while his investigations are intense, he doesn’t have any respect for lines of class, power or money.

Duffy is an interesting character–definitely someone we want to hang out with, and while McKinty keeps Duffy well within the bounds of his well-established fictional creation, Duffy remains surprisingly and pleasantly unpredictable. Something occurs during a trip to England which made me even fonder of this character. As tough as Duffy’s environment is, he’s still humane.

There’s one great scene where Killian, a gypsy is arrested for car theft. He coolly brags that juvenile facilities make escape easy:

“We could charge you with conspiracy. I suggest to Special Branch that you’re part of a car-theft ring that aids paramilitaries, I get you sent to an adult prison. Special Branch will keep social services out of it.”

“Why would you do that?”

“To teach you a lesson and stop you stealing cars,” I said, switching back to English.

“That seems a bit of a disproportionate response,” Killian said.

“Maybe I’m the disproportionate response type.”

“You don’t seem the disproportionate response type,” Killian said, blowing a smoke ring up to the ceiling.

“Why’s that?”

“You speak Irish and you’re Catholic, I’d say that you’ve had your fair degree of shite from the RUC and are probably on the side of the underdog, which, in this analogy, would be me.”

I bit down a grin and thought about it. Not a completely unlikeable kid.

By the time the novel ends, it’s clear that Duffy has personal and professional problems in his future. This really is a great crime series and is certainly worth investing in.

Over the past few years, my dislike of finding real people making appearances in fiction has grown. I can’t mention the name of the infamous person who appears here without giving away a major part of the crime factor, so I’ll just say that this is a pet peeve of mine, but at the same time, I understand that McKinty was showing just how absolutely insane a particular situation was. Having powerful friends literally gave this person carte blanche. How disgraceful.

review copy

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Case of the Vanishing Beauty: Richard Prather (1950)

“She looked hotter than a welder’s torch and much, much more interesting.”

Strip for Murder gave me so many laughs, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to another Shell Scott mystery from Richard Prather. Case of the Vanishing Beauty is the first in the series, and why not go back to the beginning?

case of the vanishing beauty

Shell Scott is hired by a young woman named Georgia to find her missing sister, Tracy. For mysterious reasons she refuses to discuss, she insists that he accompany her to a nightclub, a “Mexican dive” called “El Cuchillo.” The floor shows aren’t that hot until knife thrower, Miguel and his shapely partner, Lina start their routine. Shell has eyes for Lina:

She was slim. but with hips that were amply high, full breasts that she was careless about but nobody else ever would be.

Shell isn’t sure why he’s been dragged to the nightclub by his new client and his this “screwy case.” But the visit to El Cuchillo stirs up a hornet’s nest, and by the end of the night, Shell is deep in the case to find the missing Tracy.

Case of the Vanishing Beauty was published in 1950, six years before Strip for Murder. Both novels of full of Shell’s unbridled lascivious view towards women, but the setting of a nudist camp in Strip for Murder allowed plenty of opportunity for Shell’s self-deprecating humour. In Case of the Vanishing Beauty, pouty, explosive, sultry, Lina doesn’t develop beyond her stereotype even though her character appears in several scenes in the book. Venezuelan Lina, who calls herself a Mexican dancer, plays a fairly big (jealous, possessive, explosive) role in the book far beyond the floorshow, and, unfortunately as a stereotype, she’s not that interesting–although Shell Scott seems fascinated. Still, this is the first in a long series of over 40 books, and the tale includes some great riffs on California life and being a PI:

Southern California is a mecca and melting pot for half the cults and societies of the civilized, and sometimes uncivilized, world. Maybe you live here or maybe you’ve been here and know about it and maybe you don’t. I was born in this town. A quarter century ago, when I was a towheaded kid starting kindergarten, Los Angeles  and Hollywood weren’t what they are now. Pepper trees lined Hollywood Boulevard and the movies were silent, flickery things. L.A.’s city limits were a fraction of what they are today, and the population was only about half what it is now.

I’ve watched it grow, and as it grew, and as people from all over the States and even the world poured in, a rash of religious, vegetarian, mystic, and occult healers and savers sprang up like no other part of the States ever saw. Messiahs sprang up out of the ground, milked the suckers dry, then faded out of sight. Healers laid on hands, read the stars for propitious signs, and stood on their heads to save the downtrodden and, incidentally, make a fast buck.

That’s a long quote, but it illustrates Prather’s breezy, yet punchy style; plus it includes the info that Shell Scott is a native-born Angelino which gave certain bragging rights back in the day.

While I didn’t enjoy Case of the Vanishing Beauty nearly as much as the very funny Strip for Murder, this first book introduces a great character: Shell Scott, who carries a 38 Colt and drives a yellow 1941 Cadillac convertible–he’s obviously not trying to keep a low profile around town. This is 50s Hollywood written in the 50s and not a writer trying to catch the right ambience. Prather successfully maintains a dream-like quality to the book that morphs into Shell Scott’s living nightmare:

After so long a time you get a little sick of violence. You see guys gasp and bleed and die, and it makes you feel a little funny, a little sick while it’s happening, when it’s right in front of your eyes. But it isn’t ever quite real when it’s going on, when you’re in it. Maybe a muscle man slugs you, or a torpedo takes a shot at you, or you’re pulling a trigger yourself or smashing a fist into a guy’s face, and you’re hurting or crippling or killing some trigger-happy hood. But when it’s actually happening, you’ve got adrenalin shooting into your bloodstream, your heart pounds, your breath comes faster, pumping more oxygen into your veins. Glands and body organs start working overtime to keep you sharp, keep you alive, and you’re not the same, you’re not thinking like the same guy. It’s all kind of a blur like a picture out of focus jumping in front of your eyes

 

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The Last Weynfeldt: Martin Suter

“If he had lived in the world of his much-loved Somerset Maugham, he would have been one of those unmarried governors on a far-flung island who put on a tuxedo each evening for his solitary supper.”

The Last Weynfeldt from Martin Suter is the story of a wealthy middle-aged man named Adrian. While Adrian is the last of his family, he’s also the last of a certain kind of man, and that is evidenced by his very precise organized lifestyle, and his relationships. He believes that “regularity prolonged life.”

If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the difference become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them.

Repetition slows down the passage of time.

So for this reason, Adrian patronizes the same tailor, visits the same restaurants and never changes his routine–this includes refusing to learn how to use a computer or a cell phone. Although he has no intimate relationships, he has two distinct sets of friends:

One was made up of people fifteen or more years younger than him. Among them he was seen as an exotic original, someone you could confide in, but also make fun of sometimes, who would discreetly pay the check in a restaurant, and help out occasionally when you had financial difficulties. They treated him with studied nonchalance as one of their own, but secretly basked in the glow of his name and money.

Adrian’s second set of friends “was composed of people who had known his parents, or at least moved in their circles.” These friends range in age from 60-80–in other words Adrian has no friends his own age.

the last weynfeldt

Adrian’s set of younger friends mostly sponge off of him. My personal favourite of these parasites is filmmaker Agustoni who’s milking Adrian for 100s of thousands of francs for a film project which has taken him all over the globe while being fully supported by his rich patron’s money. Agustoni plays the role of temperamental, creative artist to the hilt, refusing to be pigeonholed into such a ridiculous thing as a script. In spite of the fact that Adrian continues to shell out money, he never complains, but in typical human fashion, Agustoni’s hostility rises as his gratitude plummets.

Adrian is an interesting character–like many people who are born into a very structured upper class environment, he has never developed his own separate life, and we already know that he’s a sap with a fat wallet for the ‘friends’ who use him. He lived with his mother until her death, and the same elderly retainer who worked for his mother still cooks his meals. He had one great love in his life, Daphne, a woman who left but would have probably stayed if he’d just made the right gesture.

Adrian didn’t have enough talent to become an artist but as an expert in Swiss art, he’s an art evaluator and works for a big auction house in Switzerland. He lives in a 5,000 sq. foot Zurich apartment which is composed on an entire floor of a nineteenth century building. The rest of the building is leased by a bank which works to Adrian’s advantage as the bank’s security is a protection for his art collection.

Adrian has a life with certain enviable aspects. He’s well-respected and wealthy, but then again, it’s easy to see that this is a sterile existence–comfortable yet empty. Secure yet boring. And we, of course, are all waiting for the catalyst who will disrupt and disturb Adrian’s peaceful life.

The catalyst is, of course, a woman. A femme fatale of sorts, Lorena, a model on the verge of middle age who picks up Adrian in a bar. ..

Lorena is, at first, a fascinating, damaged woman, neurotic as hell, and prone to grand, self-damaging gestures–definitely a Kamikaze, and Adrian cannot resist. She resembles his lost love Daphne, and since Lorena is always in trouble, he’s only too happy to keep bailing her out of various messes–no questions asked. As the tale continues Lorena becomes less interesting, an opinion I share with Gert.

This is a tale of blackmail, art forgery, second chances and deceit that seems plotted for cinema. I liked this, but didn’t love it.

My imaginary film version stars Andre Dussolier as Adrian and Isabelle Huppert as Lorena (the real film stars other names).

Review copy

Translated by Steph Morris

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All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage

The thing about houses: they chose their owners, not the other way around. And this house had chosen them.”

Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel All Things Cease to Appear begins with a horrendous murder that takes place in the 70s. Catherine Clare, the wife of an art history professor, is found murdered in her Upper New York remote countryside family home. She’s been killed with an axe, and her husband, George, who soon becomes the main suspect, claims she was still alive when he left that morning. Did he murder his wife? If not, who committed this crime? What did the child, Franny, left alone with the corpse of her mother for the entire day, witness? In some ways the locals aren’t surprised that something awful happened in the remote farmhouse once owned by the ill-fated Hale family. The house, still full of the belongings of the previous owners, was neglected for years until George bought it at auction for a rock-bottom price. This is a house full of the echoes of tragedy, and according to Catherine, it’s haunted by the presence of Elly, a woman who died there.

There was something odd about the house. A chill flourished in some rooms and an odor seeped up from the cellar, the rotting carcasses of trapped mice. Even in gentle summer, when the world outside was singing its bright song, an oppressive gloom prevailed, as if the whole house had been covered, like a birdcage, with velvet cloth.

The book’s first chapter is simply amazing, and then the novel shifts focus from George and the crime back to the past as Brundage introduces various characters who all have some part to play in this cerebral tale of murder, adultery, lies and deceit. Each character is part of Brundage’s mosaic, so we see Justine, a woman who works with George, George’s boss,  a man who’s fascinated by the work of Swedenborg, Mary Lawton, the real estate agent who sold the farm to the Clares, her husband, the local sheriff who struggles to solve the murder, Willis, a young unstable woman whose presence triggers tragedy, and the three Hale boys who find excuses to hang around the Clare home.

all things cease to appear

Even though we know almost immediately that Catherine has been murdered, the step back in time moving forwards towards her death is fraught with tension and eerie suspense. There’s a poignancy as the days draw closer to the date of Catherine’s murder, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness that we cannot prevent the crime.

The day was overcast, the field thick with fog. She stepped outside and walked out into the field, and the humid air clung to her. She stood there alone in the middle of it. She could feel her outlines blurring, as if she could fade into the opaque landscape and disappear.

While this is the story of a murder, it’s also the story of how a community failed to help Catherine and the impact of the murder on various characters. This is an impoverished area, a farming community hit hard by economic realities.  The Clares are outsiders who don’t fit in with the locals, and this seals Catherine’s tragic isolation.

Elizabeth Brundage weaves a well-crafted and credible story around a murder while boldly defying genre expectations. Her interest here is the moral complexities of the situation, how violence impacts a community, a family, an individual, and in this tale we have two families damaged by violence: the Hales and the Clares. The novel’s length allows a satisfactory exploration of all the characters involved and the roles they play in Catherine’s murder, so we see the impact of the crime on the sheriff:

Over the years he’s seen just about everything–every twisted machination, most ill-conceived or plain stupid–but you get to the point, you get to the fucking point where you don’t want to see it any more.

And Willis trained to detect sociopaths, but who is nonetheless vulnerable to one. Her moral compass is scrambled thanks to her father’s career as a top defense attorney in New York:

In his boxy suit and shined shoes he meandered over to the stand like a man approaching a slutty woman in a bar, but he’s ask his questions with the voice of a priest. It didn’t matter what they were thinking now, because he knew the defendant and eventually the jury would too.

Her father could make you think he understood you, even if you’d done things that bordered on the surreal. Somehow, he justified it in his mind that, under certain circumstances, you could be driven to do anything.

If you take a look at Goodreads, you will see that readers are sharply divided. Some people loved the book and others found it meandering. Some of the reason for the diverse opinions may reside in readers’ expectations. This is not a past-paced crime book–rather this is literature that wraps itself around a murder. I’ve read Elizabeth Brundage’s other novels:  The Doctor’s Wife, Someone Else’s Child (I didn’t care for A Stranger Like You) so I knew that this wasn’t going to be just a crime novel. This is a complex novel centered on a crime, heavy on character, an exploration of the sociopathic mind and with hints of the supernatural. I have a few minor quibbles with some details of the ending, but overall, I really enjoyed this.

(there is one scene of animal cruelty but it is portrayed as such)

Review copy.

 

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The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon

“My life seems full of husbands who suggest I ‘see someone’, when all that happens is I see something others don’t.”

Fay Weldon’s novella, The Ted Dreams begins with an unforgettable sentence: “It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except a clot of blood, creeping up from Ted’s leg to his brain, to kill him as he slept…”

the ted dreams.jpg

Phyllis was married, rather miserably, to art gallery owner Ted for twenty years when he died, unexpectedly, in bed one night. When Fay Weldon’s wonderfully funny book, The Ted Dreams opens, Phyllis is remarried to Robbie, an American neuro-pharma-scientist after an indecent interval of just ten months of widowhood. Phyllis was warned by her grief therapist not to “embark on a relationship,” but arguing that “a good man is hard to find” and that “they don’t just hang about on trees like ripe fruit waiting to be plucked,” Phyllis plunges ahead into matrimony once again. Phyllis is now happily married to Robbie, getting plenty of sex, and marriage to Ted with its many problems is buried in the past. Of course, it’s just possible that Phyllis’s bovine contentment could be explained by the pills she’s given by Robbie to fix those “hormonal issues.”And since Robbie has a top-secret job at Portal Inc. where he works on psychotropic drugs, he’s in a perfect position to provide her with all the experimental mood-altering drugs needed to keep her happy and content.

Phyllis remembers that Ted used to complain about her moods: ” ‘I know it’s your hormones’ was all Ted would say, thus maddening me the more. ‘ I just sit it out.’ ”  But Robbie takes his work home. “One little pink pill night and morning,” and Phyllis is  “generally benign and tranquil.”

But since this is a Fay Weldon novel, fans know that domestic bliss is a mere façade, and behind Phyllis and Robbie’s seeming domestic bliss lie some ugly dark truths. The first crack in Phyllis’s happiness is a result of all the Ted dreams she has. In Phyllis’s dreams,  Ted “grown no older, just a bit sadder and recently more resentful” appears to be stuck in a dark wood, and in the latest dream she sees him brushing off mud from a shoe. What a nasty shock, then, when Phyllis wakes up and discovers a lump of mud next to the bed. Can it be that Ted still exists somewhere in another dimension? Is there ‘life’ after death? Why is Robbie so fascinated by Phyllis’s dreams of Ted? Is Ted trying to break through to the other side, and if so what are the implications for Phyllis and Robbie?

As Fay Weldon’s wickedly funny plot unfolds, Phyllis begins to ask questions about her marriage to Robbie, and she talks to the poisonous Cynara who may or may not have had an affair with her business partner Ted and who was, according to Robbie, “just a bed buddy.” Can it be just coincidence that the marvelously bitchy Cynara had sex with both Ted and Robbie? The ‘visits’ from Ted turn out to be the most recent events in Phyllis’s life that defy rational scientific explanation. She’s given to visitations from ‘beyond,’ episodes of telepathy, and is known to be a ‘sensitive’ with telekinetic powers.

With ever growing paranoia, Phyllis begins to question the fabric of her entire existence: what exactly was her neighbour’s involvement in her husband’s death, is Phyllis the subject of a sinister experiment, and is Robbie’s sperm laced with psychotropic drugs designed to narcotize? With alarming speed Phyllis’s ‘perfect’ new married life begins to unravel, but then after we meet her creepy identical twin daughters (who could have stepped out of The Shining,) Martha and Maude, we realize how weird her life really is:

their bickerings often end (and they do bicker) just because one of them is using the other’s lines and they get confused.

Fay Weldon is in top form here with The Ted Dreams, and she proves she is as relevant as ever with this tale of spying and psychotropic drugs.  I loved this book for its subversive humour and for its tongue in cheek look at conspiracy theories, life extension and the ‘Great Beyond.’

That’s right, I felt like saying: when in doubt, fucking blame the woman.

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Death on the Riviera: John Bude (1952)

“You’re sure… you’re quite sure it isn’t another woman?”

“Good God! before breakfast? Don’t be crazy.”

In 2015, I read John Bude’s 1936 novel  The Sussex Downs Murder, and Death on the Riviera, published in 1952, came much later in Bude’s writing career. This later novel is much more confident, and Bude (Ernest Elmore 1901-1957) seems much more relaxed with his characters, even throwing in a little light humour. Bude’s series detective, Inspector Meredith, pursues a case of forged currency in France, and this allows Meredith to enjoy the climate, deal with French police, British expats, driving on the right side of the road and language obstacles.

The novel opens with Meredith and Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang travelling to France via ferry in hot pursuit of a team of currency forgers. Scotland Yard recently seized a note that contains the signature elements of master forger, Chalky Cobbett. Chalky who “was pulled in just before the War after flooding the West End with spurious fivers” has been out of prison now for 4 years but suddenly vanished. Then “a flood of counterfeit thousand franc notes” appeared on the Riviera with “Chalky’s touch.” Since the forgery ring preys on wealthy tourists and their “hundred quid travel allowance,” Meredith’s investigation indicates that the Riviera may be a hot spot of activity.

Death on the Riviera

Action centres on Menton and the Villa Paloma, owned by wealthy socialite and widow Nesta Heddderwick, a middle aged woman with a soft spot for “many improvident young men.” Is it then any wonder that her home has become a no-cost refuge for a handful of males raging from artist Paul Latour and dissipated Tony Shenton? Meredith and Strang arrive in Menton to liaise  with French police, and as luck would have it, Strang’s amourous adventures lead to suspicions about the inhabitants of the Villa Paloma.

Murder does occur, but it occurs relatively late in the novel, and this gives the reader plenty of time to enjoy the humour to be found in Nesta’s despotic treatment of her mousy companion, and artist Paul Latour’s latest “masterpiece.”

But, mon dieu! a cod’s head capping the naked torso of a woman balanced on two cactus leaves and garnished with a motif of lemons and spaghetti.

One of the characters references the fact that it’s ten years post Dunkirk, and there’s the feeling that the post WWII boom has created a new sort of crime wave with affluence feeding various types of crime. Not only are forged notes floating all over the “gilded coastline” of the Riviera, but smuggled American cigarettes, a new problem for French police, are also a hot item. Bude explores the tight-knit ex-pat community and the way in which simply being British seals relationships that would not exist in England. At one point, Meredith visits a British Major who lives on the Riviera

it was like stepping out of France into an infinitesimal but unmistakable scrap of the British Empire. It was as one would have expected–regimental groups; a rack of sporting guns; a couple of stuffed salmon; a mantelshelf crowded with silver cups and trophies; and everywhere about the room the indiscriminate lares et penates of the Colonel’s extensive sojourns in the Orient.

This is a novel of its times, so there are a few comments about women being more gullible etc., when there’s a male character who’s every bit as gullible but who is seen as trustworthy, reliable, and a rock solid bastion of society. Bude feels confident enough with his characters to even introduce the question of whether or not Meredith has “been reading too many detective yarns.”

I didn’t quite buy the motive for murder, but in this well-paced tale, the author effectively shows how crime and bad behaviour invite murder into the mix. There’s a great intro from Martin Edwards which includes biographical details including the author’s writing routine and his favourite holiday destination: Menton.

Review copy

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Young Once: Patrick Modiano

“Something-he wondered later is it was simply his youth-something that had weighed upon him until that moment broke off him, the way a piece of rock slides slowly into the sea and disappears in a spray of foam.”

Recently I read Patrick Modiano’s After the Circus, the story of a young man whose life in Paris is being uprooted for mysterious, possibly illegal reasons when he meets a driftless young woman. It’s a strange, timeless story, told, obviously, in retrospect by a much older man who is looking back on a brief, yet memorable period in his youth. That same description could apply to Young Once, a story which opens with Odile and Louis living in Switzerland, facing their 35th birthdays, and about to make a career shift–modifying their residence from a children’s camp to a sort of tea shop for tourists. They sound like a young couple who’ve done well for themselves, and then we’re back in the past.

Louis is in the army when he meets Brossier, a much older man in a Saint-Lô bar. There’s something not quite ‘right’ about Brossier who claims he “worked ‘in cars.’ He even ran a garage in Paris.” Is he just a shady salesman or is he a criminal? He takes an extraordinary interest in Louis, and once Louis’s stint in the army is over, Brossier finds him a hotel, foots the bill and even buys him a pair of new civilian shoes. Brossier tell Louis he “would introduce him-as he had promised-to ‘important friend of mine who will give you a job.'”

young once

Odile is just 19 and alone in Paris when she meets Bellune, a fascinating, sophisticated man in his 50s, who says he’ll help her with her recording career. He scouts out amateur talent for a record company, and he’s convinced that Odile can become a singer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he convinces Odile she can become a singer. He funds the making of a flexidisc, but Odile soon finds that becoming a singer isn’t a smooth road.

Of course, Odile and Louis meet and become a couple. Louis has a job as some sort of ‘security guard,’ but just what he’s guarding isn’t clear, but as he becomes increasingly trusted by his strange employer, Roland de Bejardy, Louis assumes much more dangerous work. Meanwhile Odile has a tenuous gig in a nightclub.

There are some commonalties between After the Circus and Young Once. Both stories are about youthful main characters who don’t understand a great deal of the world that swirls around them. In Young Once, Odile doesn’t quite ‘get’ the nuances of her employment, and Louis, although warned increasingly about Roland de Bejardy, doesn’t ‘get’ just how crooked his employment is. Both novels also maintain an overriding disconnect from the characters, so we never know exactly what it going on in their heads–although Modiano conveys a sort of dreary disappointment when Odile collects a paycheck.

Nothing was left of the dream she had chased for so long except for an envelope, in which they had slipped her “the rest of your fee,” as the manager said.

There are several distinct worlds created in this book. Brossier, for example, is attempting to return to his youth by hanging out with his much younger girlfriend on a university campus, and at another point, Odile and Louis assume the roles of students attending a language course in England. We see glimpses of Roland de Bejardy’s world–some through interactions with his disaffected girlfriend and other views from those who know de Bejardy and warn Louis to move on while there’s still time.

I liked Young Once but didn’t love it, and this I think comes from the deliberate distance Modiano creates between us and his characters. Louis and Odile’s naïveté simultaneously makes them vulnerable and yet also acts as a protective seal. This young couple prove useful in the world of the older, the more sophisticated and powerful, and Modiano skillfully creates an atmosphere of imminent chaos while showing how Louis and Odile don’t understand the risks they are exposed to. The sense of emotional distancing is also apparent between the characters and their own lives. At one point, for example, Bellune describes the squashing of his music career “indifferently, as though it had happened to someone else,” and there’s the sense that de Bejardy’s  high-maintenance girlfriend would be with any man who could provide her with the lifestyle she desires.

I’m interested, very interested in Modiano’s characters, but we never get inside them. They remain remote. Perhaps this distance mirrors the distance all of us have between our youthful selves and our middle aged selves. This is a story about youthful dreams, innocence and naiveté and once those things are lost, it’s hard to recall how we used to see the world. If it’s Modiano’s goal to recreate that haunting sensation of lost youth, then that is achieved.

Review copy

Translated by Damion Searls

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Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze

“After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this you know the very day you’re going to die.”

I read Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1953 novel from Elliott Chaze in 2012. It not only made my best-of-year list, but it also became one of my all-time favourite books. Not many books crack that well-established list at this stage of my game.  Black Wings Has My Angel is perfect noir. It’s perfect in its set-up, it’s bleak, doom-laden outlook, and its characterisations of the soulless prostitute Virginia and the war damaged, escaped convict ‘Tim.’ These two people connect in a pact of distrust, lust and mutual greed, and although their heist goes as planned, their relationship with each other brings fate hurtling down upon them with a vengeance. When I saw that NYRB reissued the book, I decided to read it again and see if it was indeed as wonderful as I remembered. It was.

Our narrator, an escaped convict who calls himself Tim has taken a break from society by “roughnecking” on an drilling rig. He’s amassed a pile of money, has a plan to pull a heist, and when the novel opens, he’s in a hotel soaking in a tub when the bellboy delivers a prostitute. But this just isn’t any prostitute: this is Virginia, a gorgeous woman with a killer body who shouldn’t be turning tricks in this rinky dink town. Tim plans to whoop it up with a hooker for a few days and then move on, but his plans change and he finds himself moving on with Virginia.

Black wings has my angel NYRB

Ten dollar tramp” Virginia is beautiful, and she quickly shows she can’t be trusted, but she gets under Tim’s skin. Before long, he thinks he loves her, in spite of her telling him, “But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.” She’s like some exotic perfume that clings to his skin, and he convinces himself that they can pull a heist together. Although initially we don’t know much about either Virginia or Tim, over time, their pasts are revealed. While Tim, haunted by various experiences, appears to have been unable to readjust to society after life in a Japanese work camp,  Virginia is soulless, hard and empty. Perhaps that explains why Tim can never get enough of her. There’s simply nothing to get.

As smiles go, the one she’d given me was a fine one, but it was cold, too, if you know what I mean, plenty of stretch in the lips but no eyes or heart in it. Like her lovemaking. Mechanically splendid, yet as though the performance was the result of some remote control and did not really involve her. 

As so often happens with noir, we try to pinpoint just when things go wrong for the characters, at which point, Tim could have pulled out and moved on. And is always, we see a tangled path, years in the making that brings these two people–one damaged, and one soulless together. Initially it’s a physical fusion but their relationship is fated for entropy. While they plan a heist and live as a ‘normal’ suburban couple, they have a mutual goal to work for, but once their goal is achieved, they’re not happy, and begin to implode as fate waits, patiently, in the dark corners. There’s a circular quality to this noir story, a balance between crimes, murder and fate which is served up, finally, as a sort of rough justice.

For this re-read, I paid more attention to Tim’s attitude towards society and just where he started to go down a wrong path. Embittered by his father’s experiences as a dentist who rarely got paid, he sees society as grinding down men until they’re lobotomized into being grateful for life as a wage-slave, a humble clapboard house and a sparse lawn. And while it’s easy to think that his first mistake was taking Virginia along for the ride, that’s not true. I think of a quote from a Laurie Colwin short story: My MistressShe is the road I have travelled to her, and I am hers.”

Elliott Chaze’s skill creates sympathy for Tim, and this is in spite of the fact that he murders in cold blood. But perhaps part of our sympathy germinates for Tim when we compare him to Virginia. He has a lifetime to replay scenes in his head:

She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian , still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.

Review copy/own a copy

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The Murdered Banker: Augusto De Angelis

“Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.”

Last year, I read and review a few titles from the new Vertigo Crime imprint from Pushkin Press. Naturally Vertigo had to make the list–along with She Who Was No More and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia. 2016 brings me to The Murdered Banker (1935), an Italian crime novel from Augusto De Angelis. This novel features series detective, Inspector De Vincenzi, who’s working late one night when an old friend, former classmate, Aurigi, unexpectedly turns up at the police station in an agitated state. Aurigi’s visit seems to be a curious coincidence when De Vincenzi receives a call regarding a murder that has taken place in Aurigi’s apartment…

the murdered banker

The murdered man, who has been shot, was a banker, and Aurigi was deeply in his debt. Aurigi should, by rights, be arrested for the crime, but for Inspector De Vincenzi, that solution seems too easy. Yet there are many reasons that Aurigi should be implicated in the crime. After all the banker was shot in Aurigi’s apartment, and Aurigi was heavily in debt to the victim and apparently had no means to settle his debt. Aurigi’s engagement to society beauty Maria Giovanna was predicated on his wealth which makes Aurigi an even bigger suspect. Yet when a  small golden phial of poison is found in the kitchen of Aurigi’s apartment, Inspector De Vincenzi starts to believe that more than one tragedy lies in the murder….

In that room, in that apartment, a heavy, gloomy atmosphere hung over everything like an invisible weight-something monstrous, inhuman. And not only the mystery of the body, but some other unthinkable thing. He felt it. Not only was Aurigi mixed up in it–the friend with whom he’d studied at school and who was a poet like him-but everything, all of if felt strange.

That’s a promising quote, and it’s easy to imagine that the solution to the crime is going to be something intriguing, different, memorable. Unfortunately, the solution, while involving a complex chain reaction between various characters, never quite lives up to the quote.

The Murdered Banker is the first in the Inspector De Vincenzi series, and although the series character is interesting and has a unique humane approach to crime, this is not a particularly strong novel. The book starts strongly but then weakens as attention is focused on the various characters who live in or visit Aurigi’s apartment. As the plot unfolds, the scenes could be stage sets for a play. One of De Vincenzi’s methods, for example, is to lead various characters, without warning, to the dead body, so that he can monitor their reactions. This may have more impact on the stage than it does on the page.

This is one of those crimes where the reader doesn’t really know what is going on, and the inspector seems to have ideas which he hugs to himself and doesn’t disclose. The stage is set, however, for some interesting series characters, including Maccari who troubled by the dead and is only three years away from retirement. Still The Murdered Banker is the first in a series, and the first novel is often the weakest, so I’m looking forward to the next title: The Hotel of the Three Roses.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

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The Good Liar: Nicholas Searle

“No, on reflection disclosure is not a good thing, thinks Roy. It doesn’t salve the soul. It invites questions, not least from oneself, and upsets the certainty at which one has arrived. At his age he can do without such perturbations.”

Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, The Good Liar, begins with an elderly man preparing for an appointment with a woman he’s ‘met’ through an internet dating site. Roy prepares for the meeting with a feeling that the woman who calls herself Estelle is “heaven-sent.” Are we about to get a little geriatric romance in the vein of Last Tango in Halifax? No, fear not dear reader… we are about to get something much nastier, and that becomes apparent as Roy thinks about all the time wasters who lie about themselves and their means:

With this transitory reflection comes a momentary weariness. Those dreadful meetings in Beefeaters and Tobys around the Home Counties with frumpy old women in whom the bitterness of their long unfulfilled marriages with underachieving and uninspiring husbands has in widowhood seemingly become the sense of license to lie at will. For them there is no legacy of happy memories or the material benefit of platinum pensions in leafy Surrey mansions. They reside in poky terraces that no doubt smell of fried food, eking out an existence on government handouts cursing Bert, or Alf, or whoever it may be, and contemplating a stolen life. They are out for what they can get now, by whatever means. And who can blame them really?

Roy, who for the purposes of this first date, calls himself Brian, is on the lookout for a rich widow. It’s a “professional enterprise,” and he’s used to wading through lies from women who present themselves positively before he uncovers the truth. He refuses “to let them down gently” and enjoys “dismantling them forensically.”

“I thought you said you were five foot six and slim,” he may say with incredulity, but is delicate enough not to add: rather than a clinically obese dwarf. “Not much like your photos, are you? Was it taken a few years back, dear?” (He doesn’t add the postscript: perhaps of your better-looking sister.) “You live near Tunbridge Wells, you say; more Dartford really, isn’t it?” Or “So what you mean by ‘holidaying in Europe’ is a package trip once a year with your sister to Benidorm?”

Roy isn’t a nice man. If fact, even though he may appear to be a well-dressed, harmless elderly man, he’s a predator, and he’s about to meet a well-heeled widow, a retired professor named Estelle….

the good liar

Estelle turns out to be Betty, an attractive, spry, slender, independent, intelligent woman and more to the point, a widow with a sizeable nest egg. She’s just the sort of mark Roy is looking for, and as for Betty, well she appears to want a companion. But what is she really after?

The plot goes backwards in time with episodes from Roy’s opportunistic life and the crucial points (the 90s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s and all the way back to the 30s) at which he’s been able to use other people and step into different identities. These episodes are set against Roy’s present day life with Betty. He moves into her home and generally seems oblivious to how unpleasant he can be under sustained intimacy, but then while sociopaths are natural chameleons and so good at mimicking human emotions, sustained contact can reveal anomalies.  I asked myself why on earth Betty tolerated such a bore, but all is gradually revealed under Nicholas Searle’s controlled narrative.

Episodes from Roy’s sordid past are contrasted with the various fictions he tells Betty, so we are taken through the looking-glass to the real events–events which Roy has chosen either to forget or to gloss over. There are amusing moments when, for example, Betty tries to pin Roy down about his family. When he mouths the typical thing that he “bitterly” regrets losing contact with his family, and Betty offers to help him find them, he then says “they’re all dead.” But then later he invents a fictional son who conveniently lives in Australia and never travels to England.

“Would you like to see him?”

“Not really,” says Roy. “We have so little in common. And I’m afraid I’m unduly rigid when it comes to my moral standards.”

Ultimately, The Good Liar argues that we cannot change other people, and neither can a sociopath ever grasp a sense of his responsibility when it comes to his actions. The only thing we can carry away from a brush with a sociopath is the knowledge that we have survived.  This debut novel is well constructed, well paced and a page turner. I thought I was going to read something with an unreliable narrator along the lines of Get Me Out of Here or The Truth and Other Lies, but The Good Liar is a much more serious book, and Searle never allows Roy to control the reader’s vision.

Perhaps Roy should have asked himself why Betty picked the name “Estelle” for the first meeting. Although this is never addressed in the book, Great Expectations and its connotations came to mind.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Searle Nicholas