Smoking Kills: Antoine Laurain

“It’s never a good idea for an evil bastard to imprint himself on the retina of a murderer. I don’t advise it: it might lead to an idea for a spot of entertainment on an idle afternoon.”

Antoine Laurain’s wickedly funny novel, Smoking Kills, examines the extent, drive, and unexpected consequences of addiction through the acts of a man who seeks the high of “the good fairy Nictoine.”  Middle-aged Parisian headhunter Fabrice Valantine, an avid smoker for years, isn’t ready for the smoking ban which threatens to ruin his life by depriving him of one of his greatest pleasures. The threat against his smoking addiction finds little sympathy with his non-smoking, art curator wife. Plus then there’s the little matter of Fabrice leaving the unfortunate comment “makes me want to vomit,” in a guest book following the show of “Inflammatory Art” from pretentious “artist” Damon Bricker. Bricker, nicknamed “the pigeon roaster” by Fabrice:

Cheerfully chargrilled his animal subjects, using his blowtorch like other artists use their brushes. His installation of a life-sized chicken house, complete with hens cockerels and a fox, had caused a sensation at the previous years’s FIAC art fair in Paris.

After an embarrassing incident at an art show, however, Fabrice is encouraged by his non-smoking wife, Sidonie, to seek hypnosis therapy to help him stop smoking. The hypnosis is successful, and yet … Fabrice discovers that life without a “nicotine fix,” is lacking zest. He begins smoking again, only to discover that the pleasure factor has been removed, and by a strange set of circumstances, Fabrice discovers that nicotine can once again be pleasurable under certain circumstances….

Laurain sets up his main character into a set of devilishly clever circumstances: While Sidonie flies to New York to attend an art show, Fabrice’s situation at work changes for the worse. Exiled to a windowless basement office, he’s then required to attend a pool party with the young, fit, boss. What a brilliant humiliation from the author, to place middle-aged out-of-shape office workers awkwardly into swimsuits which reveal cellulite, body hair and flab.

The sight of the entire office staff in swimsuits was certainly strange. Bizarrely immodest. Some people looked taller or smaller than usual. The women had bigger or smaller chests than one might have thought. I wondered what my colleagues thought about me. They, too, would be thinking: “Goodness, Valantine isn’t hairy at all, and he’s musclier than I thought.” Or perhaps the opposite.

The new boss has created a situation of dominance:

He was standing on the diving board, microphone in hand. His athletic musculature gleamed, but not with pool water: he must have slathered himself in oil, like a bodybuilder. He delivered a short speech about the Piscine Pontoise, a gem of thirties architecture, with its thirty-three metre pool, and about how we would all get to know each other better through the joy of sport, and other nonsense. He looked like an Aryan SS officer, glamorised in a film by Leni Riefenstahl. With his short blond slightly swept-back hair, a black and white photograph of him would easily pass for an old piece of Nazi propaganda.

I’ve read three Laurain novels to date:

The President’s Hat

The Portrait

And now Smoking Kills which is my favourite so far. How delightful that Laurain seems to be getting darker and darker. The President’s Hat was a touch whimsical while The Portrait examined the life of man who loses his sense of identity and sinks into madness. Smoking Kills is the story of  a man who, in order to recreate a nicotine high, turns to murder.  Pushed to his limits. Fabrice uncovers a talent for murder and revenge. I’m not a smoker, but I’ve known smokers so determined that even a diagnosis of lung cancer and the removal of one lung has not dimmed their enthusiasm for cigarettes.

Smoking Kills is very funny in a twisted dark way, but apart from that, it’s full of Laurain observations and wisdom:

Sidonie inhabited her world, and I mine. My world was the more real: people came with a price; they were hired for a given time, for their skills, and paid handsomely in exchange. The whole system made the world go round, and created jobs for other people, drawing on their skills in turn. My world was logical. Sidonie’s was irrational. Serious, highly serious, but irrational. Artworks were worth more than the men who had created them, often achieving colossal sums of money at sale. A single picture could be worth as much as a small business; one museum’s holdings could equate to the GDP of an African state. The galleries played the role of the big financial groups, everything was quoted on a kind of invisible stock exchange, and the dead were worth more than the living.  

An I’m ending on this poignant quote:

Fathers are unwitting objects of fascination for their daughters, and the interlude of their childhood leaves a bittersweet taste: never again, for anyone else, will we be domestic demi-gods, greeted like long-awaited saviours when we come home for dinner at the end of the working day. The years go by and their joy becomes less and less palpable, until one day they fail to greet us at all. This time is past and the countdown reaches zero. We had known it would happen, we just hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie

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Filed under Fiction, Laurain Antoine

The Gravedigger’s Bread: Frédéric Dard (1956)

I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.

Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread is another well crafted, tightly written noir tale from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint. This is a classic tale of adultery and murder. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice but add more twists and turns as ill-fated lovers attempt to outrun Fate.

Gravediggers bread

This short novel takes us right into the heart of our first person narrator’s life. Blaise Delange, a man with a checkered past, unemployed and desperate, has been funded by a friend in order to seek employment at a rubber factory in a provincial town. By the time Blaise arrives, the job is gone. When Blaise finds a wallet stuffed with 8,000 francs, he considers taking it as a “consolation prize,” but then he thinks about the beautiful, sad, badly-dressed blonde woman who dropped the wallet and decides to return it. The owner is Germaine Castain, the wife of the town’s only undertaker. Blaise visits their depressing home and walks into a scene of marital misery.

Then I went up to the door and drove the yellowish little man back into the interior of his shop. The inside was even more wretched than the outside. It was cramped, dim, lugubrious and it smelt of death. 

One look at Achille Castain, an ugly, unhealthy, brutish man old enough to be Germaine’s father, tips Blaise to be careful how he proceeds. Blaise can see that all is not well in the marriage, and so he lies about where he found the wallet. He realises that Germaine can’t possibly love this disgusting man, and yet Achille, rather than treasure a wife that is so much younger and beautiful, abuses her and treats her like an indentured servant. Why did they marry? Why is Germaine, who has no children to consider, staying with this man?

A few hours later, Achille offers Blaise a job, and Blaise, attracted to Germaine and curious about this incongruous marriage, decides to stick around. Turns out that Blaise is a terrific salesman, and soon Blaise, an opportunist, is selling up: talking grieving families into buying fancier coffins which reflect status, guilt, or loss. Achille thinks he knows his customers (after all they all live in this small, dull town), and so he makes the mistake of selling what he thinks the family will spring for, rather than attempt to work on other, latent emotions.

“You see Delange,” he said. We can’t expect anything on the business front here. It will be the second-lowest category and a pauper’s coffin.”

“Why do you foresee that?’

“The fact that it’s the grandfather. That’s ten years now they’ve been spoon-feeding him and changing his sheets three times a day. If they could they’d stick him in the dustbin.”

Soon, there’s an unhealthy, tense, claustrophobic little triangle at the bleak, depressing funeral home with Blaise watching and fantasizing about Germaine, and Achille watching Germaine with suspicions that she has a secret lover….

The Gravedigger’s Bread does not take the conventional path. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but the plot was more complicated, with Fate interacting more capriciously, cynically and cruelly than anticipated.

I’ve read several Dard novels, and here they are in the order of preference:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage.

Crush

The King of Fools

The Gravedigger’s Bread goes straight to the top of the list.

Review copy

Translated by Melanie Florence

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In the Distance With You: Carla Guelfenbein

“passion and what we’re prepared to do for its sake.”

80 year old Vera Sigall, a Chilean writer, lives a quiet solitary life in Santiago. Most of her contact is with her neighbour, architect Daniel. One day, Daniel finds Vera at the foot of her stairs, and it’s not clear if she fell or was attacked, and with a vagrant seen nearby, exactly what happened to Vera seems unclear. Certainly Detective Alvarez has his suspicions, and it doesn’t help Daniel’s case that he doesn’t tell the police the truth about several facts.

As Vera lies comatose in the hospital her story goes back to the 1950s, through the Pinochet dictatorship, and is revealed through several voices: Daniel, Emilia, a French-Chilean student, working on her thesis who has travelled to Santiago to read certain papers by Vera, and Horacio Infante, a famous poet who had a passionate affair with Vera decades earlier.

In the distance

Daniel is married to Gracia, but there’s a distance between them (back to the title). They live together, have a relationship, have sex, and yet there’s an undeniable distance in spite of the fact that Daniel acknowledges that Gracia “had the something I was missing.” Daniel wants to cancel a planned anniversary party, out of respect to Vera, and Gracia doesn’t understand how Daniel’s loyalty can be to an old woman in hospital. But there’s something unique between Daniel and Vera:

I remembered our conversations in your study, and how you’d made me see the stuff marital relationships are made of. Stuff whose composition possesses the ingredients for self-destruction. I always resisted believing you. In the end, it’s just a matter of will, I used to tell you. The will to love, and to be faithful to the object of your affection. But then you told me about the voraciousness of love, about its longing to swallow the beloved and ensure that he or she breathes only through us, But above all, you talked about love’s secret desire to be realized without transactions, without words, moved solely by its own essence, by its supposed unconventionality. 

Emilia starts lingering around the hospital and meets Daniel. Gradually through the three voices of Daniel, Emilia and Horacio, Vera’s story, is revealed, and at the same time, Daniel and Emilia discover things about themselves. It’s clear that Vera’s great love affair with poet Horacio was intense and inevitable. They met and circled one another for some time before falling into a long, sporadic affair. Vera, who is married when the affair begins,  knows Horacio better than he knows himself.

The book examines the disparity of love. One person in a relationship seems to love more than the other–which one would you prefer to be? Despite this disparity, relationships balance in a status quo for years, and then some event or some person can throw the delicate negotiation of an established relationship into chaos. But for this reader, the most fascinating area of any relationship is the ‘me/us’ negotiated spaces. When we enter into any relationship, this me/us space seems to be the most fraught, and often so difficult to establish. Chilean author’s Carla Guelfenbein’s characters must face this issue in their relationships–how much to share, how much to let someone in, the space to maintain. And it’s these, often unspoken negotiations, that make or break relationships.

I don’t want anyone or anything to stand between us, not distance, not time, nothing, nobody. I don’t know how to achieve that state, but it’s what I want. 

Daniel’s voice is the strongest–perhaps because he is the most interesting of the three characters. I’m not a fan stories of prolonged love affairs, so some of this book didn’t work for me. There’s also a prolonged masturbation scene that was a bit much.

(The character of Vera is loosely inspired by Clarice Lispector)

Translated by John Cullen

Review copy

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The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”

In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of  “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.

The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.

A little love a little learning

At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.

Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.

It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.

She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world. 

This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:

“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”

There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.

There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:

Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to. 

And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:

I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it. 

I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.

 

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The House Swap: Rebecca Fleet

I liked the premise of Rebecca Fleet’s The House Swap. We live in a world that’s changed a great deal in the last few decades: the internet makes the globe smaller in some ways and also much more dangerous. Through the story of a troubled marriage, The House Swap shows the ease with people can elbow into our lives.

The House Swap

The novel opens in 2015 with Caroline and Francis, a married couple, parents of a small boy, traveling to Chiswick on a house-swap arrangement. Caroline signed onto a house swap site “on an idle whim,” but then was contacted by an S. Kennedy who expressed interest in swapping a Chiswick house for the couple’s flat in Leeds. Francis had wanted to go abroad, but Caroline nixed that due to concerns about leaving their son. So the book finds the couple, who’ve left the child with a grandmother, a bit combative and miffed with each other. Chiswick seems a poor exchange for Paris or Spain.

The truth underneath the choice of location is that neither Caroline nor Francis have the energy to rustle up a holiday that requires much planning. You see, their marriage is on the rocks. Caroline has been a bad girl, but their marriage has survived the affair. Sort of….

Not in the best of moods, the couple arrive at the Chiswick house. Caroline finds the house a bit odd.

It’s the emptiest house I have ever seen. Nothing on the walls, not even a mirror. Pale pine floorboards and smooth blank doors opening into near vacant rooms. 

Weird, weird weird…. But then things get weirder when Caroline finds items in the house that remind her of her former lover, and what of the nosy, pushy neighbour a few doors down.

The story goes back and forth in time through a few different voices, while the background of Caroline’s affair and her marriage to Francis unfolds. Francis is a therapist, and gradually we see what a wreck Francis is, his unhealthy behaviours and exactly what pushed Caroline towards another man. Against this backstory, events in the past also occur which trouble Caroline in the present; she’s tried shoving thoughts of the affair into the back of her mind, but the Chiswick house brings memories flooding back.

This is a domestic thriller about two married people who had a lot going for them but threw it away, and now the consequences are there, back in their lives in spite of their best efforts otherwise. The characters are not likable (which is often a plus for me) but they were also not terribly interesting. Caroline ‘wakes up’ too slowly IMO, but the novel is stronger when showing that when a marriage is wrecked, the pieces never fit together again…

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books.

review copy.

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The Day of the Dead: Nicci French

The Day of the Dead is an ominous title for the final book in the Frieda Klein series from husband-and-wife writing team “Nicci French” (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). For those playing catch-up, this is the eighth book in the series which follows London psychologist Frieda Klein. I’ll add here that in spite of the fact that this book includes many repeat characters, it can be read as a standalone, but if you want to get a bit more out of the story, I’d recommend that you read at least the first one in the series: Blue Monday.

the day of the dead

The Day of the Dead begins with a horrific incident in London which leaves many people wounded, but as the police begin to investigate what seems like an accident, the incident turns into something much more sinister. This murder case initially baffles police, but then another body surfaces, and another, and another…..

Meanwhile, Frieda Klein (who doesn’t appear until we’re really deep into the plot) is in hiding. In Blue Monday, she met serial killer, psychopath Dean Reeve, and although he was supposedly dead at the end of the book, Frieda has insisted to the police for years that Dean was still alive. And considering how her life has been turned into a theatre of blood and murder since meeting Dean, she may be onto something.

Dean Reeve is the ultimate predator, and over the course the series he’s played a cat-and-mouse game with Frieda, always close by, always circling. To some, Frieda’s claims about Dean Reeve are too fantastic to be believed, and she is regarded as an attention seeking nut, a woman “who has left a trail of havoc behind her,” but Frieda also has her defenders.

In The Day of the Dead, the police finally have to acknowledge that Dean Reeve is alive, and into his current string of showy murders stumbles a young confused criminology student named Lola who has become so interested in Frieda that she decides to write a dissertation “deconstructing” the psychologist. Lola seeks Frieda and manages to find her, but with Dean Reeve circling, Lola doesn’t want to leave Frieda’s side. Frieda is in hiding for a reason as she knows that those close to her are in danger from Dean. Frieda knows that Dean “is reaching the end. One way or another.” 

Although this book clocks in at just over 400 pages, it was a very quick, addictive read. The novel’s strongest point, IMO, is that Frieda, having dealt with Dean Reeve, never underestimates him. Psychopaths are underestimated by novices who cannot even begin to imagine how someone like Dean thinks. Most of us are lucky enough to live our lives without ever crossing the path of a psychopath, but if you’re unfortunate enough to ever tangle with a sicko and survive, you move forward into an unsettling life. The authors nailed this feeling.  As the novel builds to its inevitable crescendo, the pacing is excellent. While Frieda seems to have reached a zen-like plateau in her acceptance of this, her final duel with Dean, the character of limpet-like Lola is rather annoying. The authors pulled a bit of a switcheroo with the plot, and I might have been a bit annoyed about it had I not already guessed it. Still, if you are in the mood for a a crime novel that sucks you and and refuses to let go, then The Day of the Dead may fit the bill.

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Strangers When We Meet: Evan Hunter (1958)

“You didn’t invent infidelity.”

The film version of Strangers When We Meet is one of my favourites. This 1960 film stars Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas as married (to other people) neighbours who meet and have an affair. The film is splendid, IMO, with terrific performances from the two main stars; it captures the nuances, excitement and agonies of an extramarital affair.

Now to the novel from Evan Hunter AKA Ed McBain …

Strangers when we meet

Architect Larry Cole, married to Eve, and the father of two little boys, lives in a modern suburban estate that he loathes. Early in Larry’s career, he won an architectural prize, but now, years later, the reality is that he designs ugly buildings and homes he dislikes but that fit the market tastes/demands. He has a loving, beautiful wife, but somehow … discontent creeps in, and then he meets Maggie, a gorgeous slightly younger married woman who lives in the same neighbourhood. Maggie is married to Don and has one son.

Is Larry’s discontent stoked by his meeting with Roger Altar, a successful writer and bachelor who employs Larry to build a home? Altar and Larry are the same age and Altar, a consummate bachelor, always has a fresh woman at his side, promptly discarded like a pair of old socks. There’s a synergy between the men, and there’s a subtle air of comparison of  their lives.

When Larry meets Maggie, there’s an instant attraction, and Maggie, who’s no novice to infidelity, recognises the signs. Soon Larry and Maggie begin an affair which begins at a cheap run-down motel.

Larry is the novel’s focus here. In the midst of this passionate affair which begins to define his life and his career, he finds himself confiding in the writer Altar, whose cynical view of women and sexual relationships doesn’t help Larry much.

“I’ve got a closetful of manufacturer’s labels. Architect, Husband, Father, Son, Striver, Brooder, man! I sew the labels into my own clothes. but the suits never fit me. Underneath all the crap, there’s me! And I’m never really me, never the Larry Cole I want to be until I’m with –” he cut himself off, suddenly wary.

“Sure,” Altar said, “and then you fly, don’t you? Then you’re bigger and stronger and handsomer and wittier, aren’t you? Then you can ride your white charger against the black knight! Then you can storm the enemy bastions!”

Another confidante is Felix, a casual acquaintance who welcomes Larry to an “international fraternity” and who, guessing Larry’s secret advises caution. According to Felix, if your wife suspects “then you haven’t got a wife any more, you’ve got the New York branch of the FBI.” Once Felix realises how Larry feels about Maggie, he recommends dropping the affair as it’s too consuming.

Larry realises that Felix, butcher by trade, is a completely different person as a philandering husband. Felix is a “cynical boudoir philosopher” who becomes the type of man he’d like to be–not a butcher, but a suave seducer of women. And yet… even while Larry grasps this about Felix, he doesn’t grasp that Maggie also fills a need. Is Larry’s married life constricting? Or is Larry just stymied in his career? Does anyone ever end up with the sort of life they wanted or planned? Felix, who has a very low opinion of women, doesn’t believe in Great Love, but he believes that all married people have affairs.

“It’s a big soapy dishpan of boredom. That’s the truth. And no husband can understand that soapy dishpan. And a woman can’t explain it to another woman because they’ve all got their hands in that same soapy boredom. So all a man has to be is understanding.

Yes baby, I know, I know, you’ve got a miserable life, here’re some flowers. Here’s some perfume, here’s ‘I love you,’ take off your pants.’ Bang!”

This novel was published in 1958, and it oozes the shifting views towards sexuality. Straight to the punch: in parts, the novel has not aged well. This is clearly a novel which reflects its times in the very typical male attitudes of the towards women and sex. And that’s not a good thing. In fact, at times, I found myself wincing.

There are scenes when Maggie is telling Larry, “no, no,” for example, and Larry hears “yes, yes.” (Actually I’m not sure that we’re supposed to hear mixed messages.) There’s another scene which depicts Maggie’s sexual frustration when she greets her husband at the door, sans undies, but her ‘dirty talk’ (mild) turns him off. Finally Maggie tells Larry about her relationship with a young man named Buck. Maggie’s version of events is ludicrous so I’m glad that Larry called her on it.

Still…. in spite of its dated view of life, women and sex, the novel has a lot going for it, and I’m glad I read it. The timeless lure of the affair is very well portrayed. Larry is discontented with life, wasting his talent on projects he doesn’t care about. He’s looking at middle age, and yes … he’s bored. Maggie appears to fill the gaps. Suddenly his life is exciting and unpredictable, but the affair doesn’t solve anything and ultimately creates turmoil. Many scenes between Larry and Eve are pitch-perfect–the way in which Larry picks a fight with Eve for no reason, for example:

He felt anger full upon him now, and he thought, We’re going to have a fight, but he was helpless to stop the anger or the argument which he was certain would erupt around them, He didn’t even know why he was angry, and his inability to pinpoint the cause of his irritation made him angrier still. 

One last point: Larry “found it impossible to conceive of anyone ever having an affair before the telephone was invented,” What would he make of cell phones? Have they made infidelity easier or more difficult?

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Filed under Fiction, Hunter Evan

Blood on the Tracks: Edited by Martin Edwards

I have a suspicion that most crime readers enjoy books that are set in, or revolve around, trains. Blood on the Tracks, from British Library Crime Classics, includes an introduction from Martin Edwards, and he discusses reasons why trains make “such a suitable background for a mystery.” 

Part of the answer surely lies in the enclosed nature of life on board a train–the restrictions of space make for a wonderfully atmospheric environment in which tensions can rise rapidly between a small ‘closed circle’ of murder suspects or characters engaged (as in the enjoyable old film Sleeping Car to Trieste) in a deadly game of cat and mouse. 

Edwards covers many wonderful examples of train mysteries in this introduction, so there’s plenty for the aficionado to investigate, but back to this collection which includes:

The Man with the Watches: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Mystery of Felywn Tunnel: L.T Meade and Robert Eustace

How He Cut His Stick: Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway: Baroness Orczy

The Affair of the Corridor Express: Victor L. Whitechurch

The Case of Oscar Brodski: R. Austin Freeman

The Eighth Lamp: Roy Vickers

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem: Ernest Bramah

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L. Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

Mystery of the Slip-Coach: Sapper

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage: Ronald Knox

Murder on the 7:16: Michael Innes

The Coulman Handicap: Michael Gilbert

I’m not going to discuss all the stories–some I enjoyed more than others (and I learned that gold teeth seemed to be, at least in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, an American thing,) but my three favourites are

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L.Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

In The Unsolved Mystery of the Man With No Face, a train compartment full of passengers returning home after the Bank Holiday discuss a savage murder which occurred on a remote beach at East Felpham. This story shows how a train carriage throws together an assortment of people who would not otherwise be found in the same room. In this case, “an overflow” of third-class passengers crowd into the first class carriage. Various opinions rage forth about the crime, but as fate would have it, one of the passengers is Lord Peter Wimsey. Detective Inspector  Winterbottom, also in the carriage, pays close attention to Wimsey’s theories of the crime.

Blood on the tracks

F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Railway Carriage, is a supernatural tale which finds Solange (a series character) inside a carriage with two other passengers– an elderly Cockney woman and a “small, insignificant-looking man” who carries a large black bag.

The commonplace little man, with his shaven cheeks and his deft, stubby fingers, had seemed unusual in a way that was not altogether good, but no message of evil such as had so often told her of harm, had knocked upon her senses when he entered the carriage. Yet it was only since he and the old woman had been in it together that she had felt this spiritual unease. Something was wrong between these two human beings–and yet they apparently did not know each other.

Solange’s unease grows, and she’s relieved when the train stops and picks up other passengers who then enter the carriage. These passengers leave shortly after another stop, and Solange is left alone again with the two morose strangers in an atmosphere heavily laden with turmoil….

Another favourite is The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts. The story opens with Dunstan Thwaite planning to kill his blackmailer. Thwaite, an accountant at a large steel business dipped into company funds when he courted the wealthy Hilda Lorraine. He always meant to return the money, but another man is blamed for the theft and Thwaite thinks he’s home free until an unpleasant, obsequious blackmailer comes into his life. By this time, Thwaite is unhappily married to the demanding heiress, who as it turns out, wasn’t as rich as he assumed, plus she demands to be kept in an affluent lifestyle. Pressures mount, and between the demanding wife and the slimy blackmailer, Thwaite decides he can take no more and so turns to murder.

This collection is a lot of fun to read for anyone who enjoys the combination of crime and trains. Some of the stories make use of the closed carriage (there’s no corridor to exit to) and also the class divide melts as passengers surge, often dashing to catch a train, into whichever carriage can hold them.  Murder is discussed and murder takes place. In one story, a train is even the mode of murder. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author so eager readers can follow up on favorites.

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The House by the Lake: Thomas Harding

In 2013, Thomas Harding traveled from London to Berlin in order to visit the weekend house in Groβ Glienicke built by his great-grandfather, Dr Alfred Alexander, a house which, by necessity was abandoned by Harding’s Jewish family in the harsh year of 1936.  The house “was on the front lines of history–the lives of its inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.” That statement is true for many of the holiday home’s inhabitants. Harding’s relatives were lucky enough to escape to London after his great-grandfather, who had long held the opinion that “his countrymen would see sense, that they would finally understand the madness of Hitler and his cronies,” finally agreed that the family must flee.

The Alexanders’ lake house was an idyllic holiday home for the well-to-do Jewish family. In the 1890s, a wealthy businessman, Otto Wollank with an eye for a bargain, bought a large estate near the Groβ Glienicke lake, fifteen kilometres outside of the city of Berlin.  Under Wollank, a former member of the Danzig Death’s Head Hussars, initially the estate prospered, but by the mid 20s it faced ruin. Wollank decided to lease out lakeside land which could tempt wealthy city dwellers to establish second homes in the country. Consequently, in 1927 Dr Alexander leased the land for 15 years and built a modest lakeside home for his children.

The location of the lakeside home turned out to have an impressive historic significance. Post WWII, the Berlin wall ran (inconveniently) between the lake and the land, so it’s easy to imagine the difficulties residents faced. But even before that, extreme political views arrived in Groβ Glienicke, marking the village out as an early area of turmoil.

The house by the lake

Wollank’s son-in-law, Robert von Schultz, was a rabid anti-Semite, “a product of the street battles of the 1920s, believing in the violent overthrow of the government, the supremacy of the German people and the importance of race.” Von Schultz was the regional leader of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and with the company von Schultz kept at the Wollank estate, soon there were “rumours of abductions, midnight interrogations and even torture.” Yet in spite of this, many of the leasehold tenants who had holiday homes on the Wollank land were Jewish.

The Night of the Long Knives saw von Schultz imprisoned, questioned, and placed on trial. In the meantime, his wife was approached by a representative of Herman Göring who asked her to sell a large part of the estate–a section which was later to used as an airfield– the airfield Hitler used “for his personal journeys, including to his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, providing a degree of privacy that he could not find at Berlin’s other airfields.

Once the Alexanders fled to England, the occupancy of the lakeside house fell into freefall. Residents lived there as they fell in and out of political favour, and during the Soviet occupation post WWII, the village became the site of a series of horrendous unsolved murders. Later, the house, under communal living, was at one time occupied by a somewhat lackadaisical Stasi informant known as “Ignition Key.”

When the author arrived to inspect the home (for the second time) in 2013 he found a wreck of a house that was “now owned by the city of Potsdam,” scheduled for demolition, and the author was told that in order to save the building, he would need to prove “it was culturally and historically significant.” That’s where all the research comes in.

It’s impossible to write the history of this house without writing a mini history of Germany–such was the impact of politics on the residents of this house. Readers may find themselves familiar with some of the historic information included here, but nonetheless, this is a remarkable story.

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Filed under Non Fiction