The A-26: Pascal Garnier

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Pascal Garnier. With A-26, I’ve now read 8 of his novels, and sad to say, I finally found one I disliked. Of course, I was forewarned by Max’s review. A-26 was, unfortunately, Max’s first Garnier, and if it had been my first Garnier, it might well have been my last…

A-26 is the story of two siblings: Bernard and his insane sister Yolande. Wait a minute … I’ve made it sound as though Bernard is sane. He’s employed, takes care of Yolande (in a very loosely defined way) and even has a relationship with a former girlfriend, the resentful Jacqueline (now unhappily married to some other sucker). But Bernard isn’t normal at all … he’s a serial killer, and a sick one at that.

A26

A-26 had some of the hallmark signs of the other Garnier novels I’ve read (and loved)–the idea that when you kill someone you are doing them a favour by sparing them more time in this horrible world, a sparse yet descriptive style and the continual motif of death and decay. Yolande (otherwise known rather appropriately as Yoyo) is a hoarder who has refused to step outside of her home since her head was shaved for sleeping with a German during WWII. As far as Yoyo’s concerned WWII still rages outside her door and while Bernard may say he’s going off to work, he’s really part the Resistance. Yoyo’s only contact with the outside world is through a hole drilled for her benefit in the shutter.

Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole.’

Yolande and Bernard’s world spins to its end stage when Bernard is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He isn’t afraid to die, and neither is he particularly sorry to leave the world behind. Living with his insane sister who spends her days concocting the most appalling meals, death will be a release for Bernard. Meanwhile Yoyo’s big concern is where to find the space for his body:

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up for it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blacked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

For this reader, while the themes of A-26 certainly fit with the other Garnier novels I’ve read, the black humour, so characteristic in his novels, couldn’t wash away the bad taste of several scenes: the death of victims and the cruelty to animals. While I often feel as though I don’t care what happens to Garnier’s despicable characters, I am, at least, interested in their destructive and self-destructive journeys as the novels careen towards the grand finales. In the case of A-26, I couldn’t care less.

Both Moon in a Dead Eye and Too Close to the Edge concern people who make disastrous retirement decisions, and as it turns out life in a gated community and in the bucolic countryside (respectively) is far more dangerous than living in the big city. While bad things happen to people, there’s the nagging feeling that they’ve brought it upon themselves–at least partly. How’s the Pain? is the story of a dying hit man who hooks up with a rather guileless young man. The juxtaposition of these two characters–dark and light–brings balance to the tale. In The Front Seat Passenger, the main character deserves what he gets. The Islanders concerns another whacko set of siblings, and while the novel takes a turn towards madness, plied with disgusting details, these characters, for the most part, turn on each other. The Panda Theory pushed my acceptance in a couple of scenes, but IMO A-26 went over the edge in its descriptions. Yoyo’s madness is intriguing, but the scenes involving animals left me with no room to care about these people who are a waste of oxygen. I get that Bernard and Yoyo’s life is threatened by the imminent arrival of a motorway, but A-26 for this reader was just unpleasant.

I delayed reading A-26 as I’d read Max’s negative review and had no new Garnier novels in sight. I didn’t want the last one I read to leave a bad memory, but The Eskimo Solution is due to be released 9/16.

So for anyone interested, here’s an order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory

A-26

translated by Melanie Florence.

 

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Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
Review copy

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A Scream in Soho: John G. Brandon (1940)

“But the unfortunate thing about murder, Sergeant,” McCarthy pursued in that whimsical tone of his, “is that it is never committed according to any rules.”

John G. Brandon’s novel A Scream in Soho is set in wartime London, and while this is an entertaining entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, the book, with its emphasis on espionage, is also part thriller. This wasn’t an entirely successful blend in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham, but Brandon makes his novel work. We never forget that there are crimes afoot, but the energetic Detective Inspector McCarthy of Scotland Yard is not on the hunt for ordinary killers, but for spies!

A scream in soho

The book opens in Soho on a dark grim night with Detective Inspector McCarthy waiting for an informant inside an Italian cafe. These first scenes set the tone for the novel with its atmosphere of wartime tension, the cosmopolitan population of refugees, and criminal enterprises which thrive in the Blackout. Early scenes establish the unique state of the country, emphasizing the mish mash of the Soho populace. There are plenty of Italians here–including members of the Mafia, the Camorrista, and also a flood of refugees.We see the crowds of people through McCarthy’s eyes as he notes the Austrian and German refugees:

Harmless people who had suffered miseries almost beyond belief for the greater part, and who were filled with nothing but an immense and overflowing gratitude towards the land which had given them shelter in their hour of direst need. Still objects of pity to the soft-hearted McCarthy, notwithstanding the obvious improvement in their condition since arrival here.

But-and it was a very large “but”-there were others; those ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes. 

Later that night, a constable hears a scream; the scream is also heard by our intrepid main character Detective Inspector McCarthy, who’s about to go to bed. McCarthy, clad in his pajamas, leaves his house and goes to the location of the scream. But there’s no body, just a woman’s hankerchief, a blood stained dagger and McCarthy’s hunch that a murder has taken place. …

The scream heralds the beginning of a series of crimes and murders, and of course, McCarthy investigates. I can’t even say that he heads the investigation as he operates outside of any sort of institution. He doesn’t use policemen to help–but instead employs “Danny the Dip,” a sneaky underworld figure and also enlists the services of a stalwart London cab driver.

This is a well-paced story with practically no down time. As a crime/thriller it works well. McCarthy, although at a loss for how to proceed at several points in the book, never really breaks a sweat or loses his sense of humour. As the book continues it becomes evident, from plot twists, that McCarthy is a lone wolf who prefers to hunt his prey with very little outside assistance.

I laughed when the sex of a murder victim is up for discussion and the coroner suggests that McCarthy establish the victim’s sex by feeling the stubble on the dead man’s chin–how much simpler to just have a look at the naked corpse, but this is, after all, 1940. Anyway, this was a very entertaining, enjoyable read which reflects the concerns and fears of the times. Regarding the crime/thriller blend here, Martin Edwards, in his introduction notes that Brandon aimed to produce a thriller and was “writing at a time when there was a sharp divide between the two styles of popular fiction. Sayers was prominent in the Detection Club, which excluded thriller writers from membership.”

Review copy

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The Strays: Emily Bitto

“The night that followed was a slip down the rabbit hole.”

The Strays of the title in the debut novel from Australian novelist Emily Bitto are a group of people who gather around artist Evan Trentham, his independently wealthy wife, Helena, and their three daughters: Bea, Eva and Heloise. While most of ‘the strays’ are artists, Eva’s best friend, Lily joins the group, first at age 8 just for companionship, but then as a housemate when her family circumstances change.

The strays

This is Melbourne in the 1930s, but the novel opens in 1985 with Lily, an art lecturer, now in middle age, divorced, remarried and with a daughter. We know that something went horribly wrong at the Trentham home and that whatever happened spilt the ties between Lily, Eva and her family. So it’s with a sense of impending doom that we read on…

Lily is an only child from a home that seems boringly normal when compared to the Trenthams’ home — a huge splendid house surrounded by ramshackle, yet glorious gardens–which has been in Helena’s “old money” family for three generations.

That garden. I still wander in dreams between the pale grey pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of the mist, gigantic, as they appeared to me as a child in that magical place.

Lily’s home is quiet, predictable and stable. Meals are served at the same time every day, but life with the Trenthams is anything but predictable. At first Lily begins visiting Eva’s home after school, and these visits morph into weekend stays.

Besotted as I already was with Eva, that first visit to the Trentham home threw my sense of my own life off balance. I felt as though my home, a semi-detached bungalow we had recently moved into, had shrunk since morning, and our yard was a shoebox sown with only those plants that refused the smallest taint of wildness, even in their names: sweet William, primrose, baby’s breath.

Eventually, Lily moves in with the Trenthams becoming almost a fourth daughter (there’s a great comment made by Helena that Lily is no trouble as she barely notices she’s there), but by the time Lily moves in, it’s not just the Trenthams living there–the house has become an artist colony for the ‘Melbourne Modern Art Group.’ While the young artists pose for one another, have sexual relationships, smoke pot and continue to work, the flimsy parental structure barely held in place begins to fall away. There are rumbling noises from the world outside of the colony: the vice squad, obscenity charges, and reviews in the newspapers. The four young girls, approaching adolescence are left, disastrously, to their own devices.

Through Lily’s first person narrative, Emily Bitto captures the intense closeness of the friendship between Eva and Lily, and how, as sexuality enters the picture, secrets divide the girls. There’s occasionally an edge of hysteria to the tale which echoes the excitement felt by the four girls as they spy on the adults, swig leftover alcohol and steal joints left carelessly by the ‘adults’ they live with.

It’s the beauty of Bitto’s remarkably visual writing that remains with this reader, and many scenes recall the sharpness of Lily’s memory of those years.

The room itself was cluttered with paint tins, brushes and books, and reeked of tobacco and turpentine. There was a green chaise longue behind the door, its horsehair stuffing erupting through a hole. A huge half-finished painting stood against the back wall.

While this is essentially a coming-of-age story, the novel asks some deeper questions: are artists allowed some sort of ‘pass’ for their behaviour? Can they be judged by the same standards as non-artists? Where do family and responsibility fit into an artist’s life? And I was particularly intrigued by Helena, a substantial artist in her own right.

I could look at a corner of a cloudy sky in one of her canvases, and it was if I was peering through a chink in a wall from a distance, with little revealed, but with three steps could put my eye up to the chink and see the whole panorama revealed. Helena’s images allowed you to see what was outside their compact frames, almost by the very fact of their occlusion. They invited the viewer to peer through the window of their canvas and watch the scene expand.

There’s a slight feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of the novel, but upon reflection, for this reader, that feeling seems to be fermenting in Lily’s role as the scapegoat for the lack of parental responsibility. Almost 50 years have passed since Lily left the Trentham circle, and yet she steps back into the milieu and her role as family scapegoat is shoved upon her once more. But is it a role she can ever abandon? She hints at writing a memoir which would perhaps shed a different light on that period, and yet… she can’t commit to the project–perhaps silently confirming that everyone’s settled opinion is best left unchallenged. To expose the truth would betray those whose opinions and acceptance matter.

(The novel is “inspired by stories of the Melbourne art world in the 1930s and 1940s.”)

Review copy

For other reviews: Gummie and Lisa

 

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Carousel Court: Joe McGinniss Jr

“Remember, babe: every page of the mortgage has TWO signatures on it. But facts and shared responsibility aside: just what IN THE FUCK do you think I’m doing?”

Given the gravity and dimensions of the Great Housing Bubble, I expected, and looked forward to, a flurry of fiction books which showed characters in various phases of the fallout. Perhaps it’s easier to stick 9-11 in novels, since we have a plethora of those in an unpleasant voyeuristic where-were-you-when-it-happened sort of way.

Carousel Court (and the title evokes a great image) from American author Joe McGinniss Jr. follows the toxic marriage of Phoebe and Nick, a young married couple who swallowed the myth that homes were ‘investments,’ wealth machines, and that burying themselves in debt to follow the American Dream at the sacrifice of quality of life is a perfectly acceptable option.

carousel court

The novel opens during the collapse of the housing bubble with Phoebe and Nick living, unhappily, in a new home on Carousel Court in Southern California. They’re tied to  an “interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Seronos.”

They chose the new construction with room to grow. Granite countertops, double-ascending stairways, and a double garage. More stainless steel. More square footage. More landscaping. And the pool: in ground free-form hourglass with ice-blue Quartzon rendering natural stone waterfall with solar heating. The cabana and wet bar. Nick and Phoebe spent as much time as they could to drive up the value. Something else Nick insisted on: the rock-climbing wall. It was simple, clean, and something to make their place pop: One interior wall of their double-ascending stairway hid the bonded two-part application of granite-like panels.

They moved from Boston to California. Phoebe, who imagines her lifeline to success lies in her former sexual relationship with a previous, wealthy, well-connected employer, has a job in pharmaceutical sales. Nick’s promised job vaporized while they were still in Boston, but committed to the house and to California, they went ahead with the move.

So here they are a few years into a nightmare existence. Phoebe spends most on her days on the freeway visiting doctor’s offices, and Nick has a job with EverythingMustGo!, a company which cleans out foreclosed homes. And oh yes, they also have a small child: Jackson, I’ve added him as an aside as Phoebe seems to forget that she’s a mother most of the time.

If it sounds as though I disliked Phoebe, I’d say that’s putting it mildly. This is one fucked-up woman. She swallows most of her samples as she careens across the freeways, tries to boost sales by sending erotic photos of herself to these physician lotharios, and while Nick is the stable force in their marriage, she treats him like dirt.

In snippets, we see how Nick and Phoebe met and where exactly their toxic marriage went wrong….

Carousel Court wasn’t an easy read, and by that I mean it’s painful to read about Phoebe’s addiction to her drug samples and her appalling neglect of her son. There’s a sense of impending doom which arcs over the storyline–one neighbor burns household items in his abandoned pool, another sleeps outside in a tent, armed and ready for intruders or perhaps even bank officials who will soon come knocking. And then there are the homes that Nick empties of abandoned belongings–often high priced items discarded by the owners as they flee from their creditors.

Inside, Nick kicks a couple of dead rats, avoids what seems to be human feces in the same room, with white walls covered in graffiti tags. He could direct guys like Boss does, dividing up the labor, sending pairs of men to certain parts of the house. But they don’t need to be told. So Nick just starts working. He drags three mattresses to the driveway, scoops up children’s underwear and stuffed animals and mayonnaise jars and vacuum cleaners, two hard drives and three cardboard boxes filled with old cell phones. In a bedroom he finds soccer and T-ball trophies. A child’s journal filled with stick-figure drawings and shaky writing lies on the floor.

Nick, eager to drive up his savings account, has devised an illegal scheme whereby he puts tenants who’ve lost their homes (and have bad credit) into foreclosed homes AFTER the houses have been cleaned up and BEFORE they’re auctioned off. In one scene he meets with a shell-shocked couple, portrayed as victims, who’ve lost their home. This scenes skirts the nuances of the crisis–how people took seconds on their homes, blew the money and then whined about how much they owed. The housing bubble (which was predictable IMO) allowed homeowners access to unprecedented amounts of cash–$60,000, $80,000, and for most people, it was just too much temptation. In the past, of course, people just used plastic and declared bankruptcy, but refinancing was the death knoll for homeownership for countless Americans (and yes, all over the globe).

Author McGinniss nails the bleak landscapes, the feeling that it’s Armageddon, but I’m going to add here that while I have massive sympathy for those who bought homes which then plummeted in value, or those forced by life circumstances to sell (abandon) their under water-homes, there are many more dimensions to the housing crisis. McGinnis adds details which hint at the sort of financial incompetence rife in this society. Phoebe and Nick have no money, Phoebe may lose her job, but the extravagances don’t stop (a thousand dollar stroller,) and it’s Phoebe’s unquenchable thirst for the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that lead her down her hellish path. She never knows if there’s any room left on a credit card, but that doesn’t ever make her stop and assess her situation:

The small Korean woman massaging Phoebe’s feet in warm water is completely silent. The nail salon is nearly empty. Phoebe turns off her iPhone, closes her eyes and tries to sleep behind her sunglasses.

I’ve known so many people who lost their homes. One man retired & living on social security bought a prestige home for $800,000 and was SHOCKED when he couldn’t keep up payments. And then there’s someone else who bought his home 20 years ago, refinanced in 2005 for quadruple the home’s original cost and now whines about the payments he doubts he can maintain. But let’s not forget the boat, the Harleys, the classic Corvette, and the brand new truck all in his driveway bought with the cash from his second mortgage. Many people thought they were wealthier than they were. They thought they deserved a better lifestyle, and Carousel Court shows that attitude along with its bitter fallout.

McGinniss takes chances in this novel, and arguably the biggest chance taken is making his characters so unlikable. But making his characters likeable would have been a very different book, so if you pick up Carousel Court, be ready to embrace its John O’Brien-type bleakness which includes showing animals as victims of foreclosure. At times, this is a painful read–not just for Phoebe’s path of self-destruction, but for the way this young couple fight, seem unable to connect over the simplest of issues, and whose relationship boils down to angry texts.

While the ending seemed a little too pat and for this reader, unlikely, given the prior events in the book, I don’t think the sort of life depicted here is any gross exaggeration of how many young families who’ve overspent on a home, struggle daily. The author takes a lot of risks taken here in this edgy, gritty book. I turned the last page and asked myself just when we expected to own so much and accept that it was ok to enjoy life so little?

Review copy

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A Quiet Place: Seicho Matsumoto

In Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, middle-aged Tsuneo Asai is a senior civil servant, dedicated to his job, a man who loves his second wife, the much younger but sickly Eiko. We don’t know what happened to Asai’s first wife who died early in the marriage, and it would seem that Asai is fated to be a widower when, on  a business trip, he receives the news that Eiko has died suddenly of a heart attack.

Asai knew that Eiko, his wife for seven years, had heart problems; she’d had a heart attack two years earlier, and that’s the reason Eiko gave her husband for no longer having sex. She was afraid that sex would bring on an early death, and so Eiko filled her days with a series of hobbies: studying traditional Japanese ballads, playing the shamisen, Japanese style painting–all abandoned until she found Haiku–an “infatuation” which “stuck.” She joined a haiku group, and Asai, happy that Eiko found something to occupy her time, remained largely disinterested about how his wife spent her days.

After the funeral, Asai asks a few questions about Eiko’s death. She collapsed and died in a “cosmetics boutique” in a neighbourhood peppered with “couple’s hotels.” Some things about the story of Eiko’s death don’t add up. Asai begins to wonder what his wife was doing in this area, and the questions, which remain unanswered, fester in his head.

a quiet place

There are details of Japanese customs here–the  matchmaker’s job in bringing Asai and Eiko together, condolence money after the death of a loved one. And since this is Japanese fiction, this is a tale that takes its time, unwinding in unexpected ways as we learn about Asai’s life–now ruined by the unanswered questions about Eiko.

While A Quiet Place is a crime novel, it’s also deeply psychological. The phrase ‘a quiet place’ refers to a section of the book, but it’s also symbolic of Asai’s state of mind. He is an ambitious man–not in the traditional sense of wheeling and dealing his way to the top, but he’s a coat-hanger operative. He prides himself on being a good judge of character and is “adept at sniffing out whether someone was likely to rise in the ranks or not.” Occasionally, just occasionally, he’s “deliberately malicious.” Asai makes sure that he makes himself indispensable, even arranging for geishas for those he thinks will rise in the hopes that one day, all his hard work will be remembered and “justly rewarded” by those he’s served on their way up the ladder. Asai isn’t a bad person; he’s responsible, faithful to his wife and hardworking, but his job is of paramount importance to him, and his one great character flaw is his complete indifference to his wife as a sentient being. He “valued money above everything,” and right below his attitude to money, in the hierarchy of his characteristics, is Asai’s dread of scandal and losing his respectability.

And then there are the images of Eiko who’s dead when the novel opens, and yet the impressions of this rather sad woman remain:

It wasn’t uncommon for her to spend two or three days at a time lying on the sofa, claiming to be too tired to do any housework. Asai never complained. He’d go out shopping and do all the cooking and cleaning himself.

[…]

She had two completely different sides. Asai often wondered if she was bored staying at home with him. She certainly came to life whenever she went out anywhere.

Asai is surprised after Eiko’s death to learn from one of the women in Eiko’s haiku circle that his deceased wife wrote over 150 haiku:

“It was a case of quantity over quality, I imagine,” he said.

Imagine how shocked Asai is to learn that his wife actually had talent, and according to the haiku teacher Eiko’s death has cut short the writing life of a truly gifted woman. Oh the irony–Eiko becomes more interesting and valuable to Asai in death than she ever was in life. And then it makes sense why we know nothing about Asai’s first wife. She was a blank, just like Eiko would have been a blank if not for the clues left behind in the haiku.

I’ve read only a few Japanese novels, and now I’m determined to read more. Yes, probably crime novels, but A Quiet Place is much more than a crime novel, it’s a character study, so don’t let that genre tag put anyone off. This is a slow-burn novel about how, in spite of the greatest planning and self-discipline, a middle aged man’s life goes off the rails.

Suggestions for further books welcomed.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

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The Mistresses of Cliveden: Natalie Livingstone

Cliveden, once the home of noblemen, is now a five-star hotel. It’s only five miles from Windsor Castle, but Cliveden, a huge spectacular house, in spite of its size and grandeur, somehow exudes illicit intimacy. Perhaps it’s the Fountain of Love statue or perhaps it’s the reputation of the Spring Cottage added in the early nineteenth century and rented by Stephen Ward. I first read about Cliveden in connection to the Profumo Affair, for it was at Cliveden that John Profumo met a naked Christine Keeler frolicking in the pool.

the mistresses of cliveden

But the Profumo Affair is not Cliveden’s only claim to fame. In the 17h century, Cliveden was originally two lodges on 160 acres when it was purchased by the notorious rake, George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham who then built Cliveden as a “monument to his scandalous affair” with his married mistress Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury. Their very public affair led to a duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury which resulted in Shrewsbury’s death, and eventually a penitent Countess of Shrewsbury gave up Buckingham and reconciled with her son after many years of estrangement.

It’s the history of Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury that launches this non-fiction book, and sets the tone for the idea that Cliveden is a very special place–initially designed as a splendid, shameless love nest for the married-to-other-people couple who flaunted their love affair and damned the consequences. The fact that with the death of Shrewsbury, Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury got what they wanted–only to discover that it came at too high a price, also places a sort of mark upon Cliveden. Not a stain, not a blemish, but a reputation….

During its dawn in the 1660s as much as its twilight in the 1960s, Cliveden was an emblem of elite misbehavior and intrigue.

This reputation which includes a huge degree of notoriety continues with the stories of the other women who inhabited Cliveden throughout the centuries in The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Power, Scandal, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone.  Other mistresses of Cliveden include: Elizabeth Villiers, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, and Nancy Astor. Adding to the sense of scandal which seems to hang like a cloud over Cliveden’s history, Elizabeth Villiers was mistress to William III, a rather lucrative job, as it turns out.

Author Natalie Livingstone clearly loves her subject providing minute details about the building of Cliveden. For some readers who are familiar with British history, some of the information will be already well-known. The section of the Duke of Buckingham, for example, goes into the English Civil war and Buckingham’s privileged relationship to Charles II. While it’s necessary to include this information in a where-does-a story-begin-and-end sort of way, some of it will be a repeat for readers at all familiar with the period. However, there’s masses of information here about daily life including the stringent 18th century mourning requirements that necessitated the covering of any shining surface.  While the book’s title emphasizes The Mistresses of Cliveden, this is essentially the history of a house–originally designed as an ostentatious love nest (the word ‘nest’ seems ironic in this case,) and the history of this house is set within the larger context of the shifting history of England.

Cliveden had been reduced to a charred ruin. Following the fire, Mary lived alone, a tragic figure, residing in the dilapidated wing that had escaped the flames. The remains of the house, along with the lone inhabitant, became a source of morbid fascination to the public.  Her fallen situation and the ruins in which she lived fitted well with the late 18th-century trend for Gothic sites. In the latter part of the century, under the influence of writers such as Horace Walpole and William Sotheby, ‘picturesque’ and ‘melancholy’ settings began to attract artists, writers, and as the fashion for the Gothic took hold, crowds of tourists.

The house, soaked in scandal, rebuilt in the nineteenth century following a catastrophic fire, morphs with the times and with each new owner until it became a huge unsustainable white elephant that could be put to best use as a hotel. For its owners however, the house started as a temple to a licentious  man’s mistress, and ended as a symbol of monumental indiscretion.

Review copy

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Bird in a Cage: Frédéric Dard (1961)

Last year, Pushkin Press launched their new Vertigo line with some impressive titles: Vertigo (naturally), The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, and She Who was No More All three novels can be categorized as crime–no argument there, but each one was unusual in some unique way. The Pushkin Vertigo foreword, with the tantalizing sentence, “Whose dark or troubled mind will you set into next?” promised an emphasis on the psychological, and these three titles certainly fit the bill. I then read The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses which were police procedurals and much more standard novels… I began to wonder if Pushkin Press could continue with the early promise of the unique Vertigo line–were there enough previously ‘undiscovered’ (read untranslated into English) crime novels to feed this imprint? And then I read Frédéric Dard’s  Bird in a Cage. This is a noir novel in which the main character, the narrator, Albert, finds himself embroiled in a disorienting crime, the details of which initially make no sense. Maneuvered by the fickle hand of fate, he becomes a pawn in the perfect crime.

bird in a cage

Our narrator, Albert, returns home to Levallois after an absence of six years. It’s a dreary, depressing homecoming to the grim little flat his mother lived and died in.

I sat down in the old armchair next to the window where she always did the darning and looked around at the silence, the smell and all the old things that had lain waiting for me. The silence and the smells had greater reality for me than the damp-streaked wallpaper.

Albert’s mother died 4 years before, but her mattress is still rolled up on the bed, and there’s a “glass for the holy water and the sprig of blessed palm.” Albert mentions that he only heard about his mother’s death when he received her funeral notice. Why didn’t he return home? Where has he spent the last six years? The answers to those questions are revealed later in the novel and are integral to the plot, so no reveal here…

So a depressing homecoming for Albert. There’s no one to welcome him; his only relative, his mother is dead, and to top off the sense of heavy loss, it’s Christmas Eve. Albert has returned at the height of the holiday season. Outside, the streets are noisy and full of life, and Albert decides to join the holiday makers, but being surrounded by joy makes him feel worse:

The narrow streets of Levallois were full of happy people. They were knocking off work bearing Christmas supplies and thronged around open-air stalls where fishmongers shucked bucket-loads of oysters under wreaths of coloured lights.

The delis and cake shops were packed. A limping paperhawker zigzagged from one pavement to the other calling out the news, but nobody gave a damn.

Acting on an impulse which Albert later identifies as a desire to recapture his childhood, he stops at a small shop and buys a Christmas decoration–“a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust.” Inside the cage is a bird made of velvet. For some reason Albert can’t identify, the purchase lifts his spirits and then later, he wanders into a restaurant where he catches the eye of a very attractive woman who’s there with her daughter. …

That’s as much of the plot that I’m going to discuss. This evening, which begins with loneliness, blends into bittersweet memories and ends in murder. Albert finds himself neck-deep in a web of intrigue and deceit, embroiled in the outcome of a bitterly unhappy marriage. The Christmas decoration which Albert bought on a whim is integral to the mystery, and this tiny object marks a turning point in the tale. While the decoration is a very literal object, it also symbolizes Albert, and that significance becomes poignantly obvious when the tale ends. As with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, the ending is left to the reader’s discretion–the nightmare hasn’t ended, and some mysteries do not have a definitive ending.

I was delighted to discover the prolific  Frédéric Dard, and even more delighted to learn that Vertigo will be releasing several other titles by this author: The Wicked Go to Hell, Crush, and The Executioner Weeps. Bird in a Cage is highly recommended for those who like crime/noir novels from an unusual view with an emphasis on the psychological.

Review copy

Translated by David Bellos (original title: Le Monte-Charge). The book is also apparently titled The Switch.

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The Dead Stand-In: Frank Kane (1956)

Following on the tail of Richard Deming’s Kiss and Kill comes Frank Kane’s The Dead Stand-In–the second novel in Armchair Fiction’s  two-fer. At just over 70 pages, this tale rattles along with very little down time. The novella’s protagonist is Kane’s series character, PI Johnny Liddell. While the story has nothing new to add to the genre, and has the usual tropes, it’s entertaining, and with a colourful cast of characters, it’s a lively, if somewhat predictable read.

the dead stand in

Johnny Liddell fits a general image of the 50s low-rent PI. He has a red-headed secretary, no clients and a mountain of bills, so when he gets a note telling him that there’s $500 up for grabs if he goes to the Savoy Grill, he takes the bait. When the mystery note writer fails to show, Liddell thinks he’s been stood up, but then he gets a call from a woman (naturally with a “sultry” husky voice) who refuses to identify herself. She hires Liddell to look into the death of hitman Larry Hollister who was shot to death by police a few weeks previously. The official version is that Hollister was a “gun-crazy hood who was burned down resisting arrest.” Liddell thinks the case is a waste of time but with a $500 fee dangling, he takes the case. It doesn’t take much digging before Liddell sniffs a rat. …

The tale has a few interesting twists, and it’s loaded with the PI tropes. Liddell is a tough guy who gets help from his woman–Muggsy. There are some low-life gangsters, a shady nightclub and a platinum blonde singer who’s “hard, cold, and expensive.” As I said, there’s nothing new here but The Dead Stand-In, a pulp read, has its entertaining moments.

The redhead got up from her chair, brought her glass over to the coffee table. She picked up a cigarette from the humidor, chain-lit it from the one in Liddell’s mouth. “I’ve bumped into him around, but I never knew him too well. He wasn’t exactly my type.” She blew a stream of feathery smoke at the ceiling, squinted through it. “He was the kind of a guy that asked for killing, I guess. Everybody hated him, but most of the people he dealt with were too afraid of him to show it.”

“Women?”

“By the carload. He practically had them working in shifts.”  

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Kiss and Kill: Richard Deming (1960)

“We sort of drifted into the business of murder.”

When crime writer Richard Deming (1915-1983) penned Kiss and Kill, a few Lonely Hearts killers had made the headlines. Wikipedia has a page devoted to such crimes–men and women who placed ads in the lonely hearts newspaper columns, courted (briefly) and murdered their prey. While the killing duo in Kiss and Kill doesn’t quite fit any real life characters, this lean crime tale, highly readable at 136 pages, feels like an intimate retelling of a crime spree.

I suppose in any profession you grow with experience. I know I did. When I think of my crude planning in the early years, and the chances I took, it makes my hair curl. Time and time again I blundered past disaster by pure luck.

Our narrator, Korean war veteran Sam, who uses several surnames during the course of the novel, picks up the story when he’s working in California as a grifter, working a con that needs an accomplice. The perfect woman walks into his life–Mavis–a girl from Chicago, inspired by the grandeur depicted in film, who’s eager to learn and willing to take Sam’s bidding. They make a great team, but in between scores, they whoop it up, living lavishly, and this spending creates a boom-and-bust cycle. Eventually when they exhaust their old scam and their “sucker list,”  Sam and Mavis move onto murder and the lonely women who advertise through the lonely hearts columns. They learn from each kill, finessing their techniques, taking no chances.

We had learned a lot from the Houston job. The most important thing we had learned was to lower our sights and never again try for such a big score. The more money people leave when they die, the more speculation there is about their heirs. It was safer to pull small jobs regularly than to try to clean up with only an occasional big one. We concentrated on marks whose passing would leave only the faintest ripple of public comment.

The Houston job also taught us never again to try to operate on the mark’s home ground. In small towns, where we found it safest to operate, the death of a newcomer excites not nearly as much interest as the death of a lifelong resident. So we avoided women with deep roots in their own communities. If they weren’t willing to move off with me to some new town after marriage, we bypassed them.

There are indications that Mavis wants to settle down, and after all, since she has to sit on the sidelines while Sam courts, marries and has sex with his victims, Mavis has arguably the most uncomfortable part to play. Not according to Sam, however, who finds it hard, apparently, to have sex with a series of demanding women. Mavis turns him on, and Sam complains about the fat or bony women he must sleep with in order to seal the numerous marriages. Poor Sam. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it:

“I had to,” I said roughly. “There was no other way to loosen her up. I’m not going to pass up twenty grand just because you’re jealous. You think I like making love to a fat, middle-aged slob.”

Moving from score to score, Sam and Mavis are lucky, but sooner or later, luck runs out….

kiss and kill

The tale follows Sam and Mavis through various cycles as they spend thousands of dollars and then when they’re down to just their stake money, they begin a hunt for the next victim. Sam isn’t interested in retiring, saving or settling down. He kills in order to fund a decadent lifestyle of casinos, hotels, and Monte Carlo. Years after beginning the Lonely Hearts scam, he is no farther ahead financially. He is living an unsustainable life. As the victims pile up, Sam seems to worry less about courting and more about opening that joint checking account. Impossible to tell if this is a flaw of the novel or a sign of Sam’s vanity going to his head.

Anyway ladies: if you are a women of means, you meet some man, and he wants you to marry him and move away, I’d advise CAUTION.

Kiss and Kill made me think about the criminal life. Sam’s a criminal because he can’t see the point of working a subsistence job for the rest of his life. I’m currently watching an Italian crime series which concerns a group of gangsters who are all motivated by different things but as their wealth increases, they don’t seem any happier–just more violent, more unpredictable and most of the profit seems to go towards funding various vices. Scenes show opulent homes decorated in astonishingly poor taste, and then I thought of Scarface and the gangster lifestyle. What to do with all that loot?

scarface

Kiss and Kill is part of a two-fer published by Armchair Fiction reminiscent of the old Acedouble novel.” (And they have a entire Sci-fi line for those interested).

 

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