The Belting Inheritance: Julian Symons (1964)

In The Belting Inheritance from Julian Symons, a long-lost son, thought killed in WWII returns years later to the family mansion to claim his estate. But is he an imposter?

The book’s plot is not original, but it’s the way this story is told which makes The Belting Inheritance so entertaining. The narrator is Christopher, who is orphaned at age twelve and subsequently taken in by his mother’s aunt, the autocratic Lady Wainwright. Lady Wainwright had four sons: Hugh, David, Stephen and Miles. The two eldest boys, Hugh and David were killed in the war, but the younger two–although well into middle-age, still live with their mother. The house is vast, gloomy, and it’s ruled completely by Lady Wainwright. She dominates her sons and brooks no one else’s opinions on any matters.

The story, which is told in retrospect, has a Victorian feel to it, and this is partially due to the Victorian matriarch who supports unemployed sons (of nobility) who can lounge and enjoy lives of leisure. The plot itself, a lost heir who arrives to claim his fortune seems Victorian. Author Julian Symons wisely notes this fact several times in the novel, and even makes a comment about “what Wilkie Collins calls detective fever.” The massive house, Belting, which is marvelously described, seems an edifice from a long-past era, but then Lady Wainwright runs her establishment with old fashioned rules:

But the thing I hated the most was the prevailing gloom. The house was dark, Lady W was mean in small matters, and at the same time in the past she had been told that daytime lamps were better for the eyes than ordinary yellow electric light. The hall and all the corridors, both upstairs and down, were bathed in a funerael blue glow. 

Uncle Stephen, a rather petty-minded nasty character lives at Belting with his tweed-sporting, dog-breeder wife Clarissa who bemoans “the impossibility of getting a decent kennel maid.” Since Lady Wainwright’s sons only escaped her in death, Uncle Miles also lives at the house. Lady Wainwright becomes terminally ill and lo and behold a man shows up claiming to be the long-lost David. He has a plausible sounding story and knows facts about Belting and its inhabitants that only a family intimate could possibly know. Stephen and Miles are hostile to David’s claim as they stand to lose a great deal of money, and Clarissa goes as far as to threaten to set her dogs on the man who claims to be David. But Christopher, at first, believes that David is not an imposter.

Family politics are often messy and the plot makes good use of the idea that Christopher may be a Wainwright but he’s still an outsider. When a murder occurs, Christopher becomes more curious about the man who claims to be David, so he begins an investigation of his own which alters his rather protected, privileged world: he discovers that the Wainwrights are not universally liked.

While the story gets to the root of the claimant’s authenticity it’s also a story of a controlling mother who hobbles and isolates her sons by encouraging their artistic pretensions which are supported by remaining at Belting. As the plot develops, Christopher becomes his own person, gains objectivity about his family, and has a romantic adventure. The Belting Inheritance is very entertaining and for crime fans, it’s well-worth reading. It’s marvelous in its characterizations of a fading, privileged family who cling to tradition, brook no criticism, are close knit, but loathe each other:

There was something about the passion with which Stephen tore a bread roll into pieces, the savage loving care with which he dissected a piece of fish, that remains with me still.

Review copy

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A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

“Marriage is such a sordid, morbid relationship.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s dark novel A Wreath of Roses explores the relationships between three women–relationships which cause them to question the choices they have made. Each of these women: Frances, Liza and Camilla, have chosen different paths in life with varied success. Frances, at one time, was Liz’s governess, but since retirement, she’s concentrated on painting. Liz married a vicar while her childhood friend Camilla, a school secretary, damaged from a long-ago relationship slides into spinsterhood. Camilla travels, as she does every year, to the country home of Frances, where she will spend the summer with Liz, but this year is different. Frances is ill. Liz now has a baby, and for the first time, Camilla is shut out from experiences she has not had, cannot understand, and professes to reject.

A wreath of roses

A Wreath of Roses opens ominously. Camilla has reached a point in her life where she realises that life has passed her by. Being in Liz’s company serves to reinforce Camilla’s unhappiness: yet her observations about Liz are not black and white, not simple. On one hand, she can’t understand why Liz chose to marry a self-absorbed vicar, and the demanding presence of Liz’s baby has served to place a distance between the two childhood friends. Camilla is independent and can please herself while Liz frets about her baby’s health and her husband’s wandering attention.

Frances, who is ill, contemplates death, the meaningless of life and now paints from “an inner darkness.”  She has maintained a long-time correspondence with Mr Beddoes,  a rather lonely bachelor whose “spiritual” relationship with Frances is about to change when he travels to meet her for the first time. As a film director and an ardent observer of human nature, he’s the first person to recognise that Camilla is heading into danger through her relationship with Richard Elton, an enigmatic man, a charmer, also on holiday. Richard claims to be writing a book about his war experiences. ….

Camilla, who wants to return to her boring employment with memories to help fill her sterile life, finds herself attracted to Richard in spite of several warning signs and in spite of the fact that he’s not her ‘type’ at all. He has the “conventional good-looks of the kind that she, Camilla, believed she despised,” and Richard, for his part, dismisses Camilla as a “schoolmistress.”  A terrible event brings them into each other’s orbit, and once there, Richard and Camilla sense a need that can be fulfilled.  But they need different things:

“And women. Love.” he went on impatiently. “Where does it lead to, I wondered.”

“Must it lead somewhere?” She smiled.

“For a few days it didn’t need to. Then it would all seem like a play I was acting in. Been acting in a long time. A long run, and I knew all my lines too well and was stale and boring everyone. But most of all myself. Then I tried death.”

“Death?”

“In the war,” he said lightly. “I went up very close to it. My own and other people’s. And there it was. Unlike all the other things, it never changed. It was always real. I seem to carry the thought of it about with me.”

“You mustn’t.”

“Oh … I shan’t … it’s just that people are like doors. They lead you into empty rooms. You pass through and are left with yourself. Only death goes through ahead of you.”

Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the darkest undercurrent in this novel, and the novel’s tone is lightened by the gossip borne by Mrs Parsons, the cleaning lady, and by Liz fretting about her relationship with her husband. Liz acknowledges that her husband being a clergyman added to his initial attraction, and hinted at “inner mystery.” Liz is beginning to wonder if she made a mistake:

“I did think, though,” she continued, at once disregarding her own instructions, “that a clergyman would have something more in him than was obvious at first glance. But I discovered there was even less.”

Liz finds she is irritated by her husband’s almost continual presence at home and that she “is left with a rather cold and greedy man sitting at his desk writing notes to other women–casual-seeming little notes which take him hours and hours to scribble off.” This summer is a period of adjustment for Liz: she must adjust to married life, motherhood, and her responsibilities (and sacrifices) as a vicar’s wife.

A Wreath of Roses examines the lives of three women who all wonder if they made the right choices. There’s Frances who “assumed” the act of being an old maid while her dark view of life and unexpressed passion erupt in her art. Acknowledging that she threw herself into raising Liz, Frances admits that she also “evaded the pain and the delight of human-relationships.” Frances sees Camilla making the same choices that she did and even at one point says that “even Liz’s marriage is better than no marriage at all.” 

“We go on for years at a jog-trot,” Frances said, “and then suddenly we are beset by doubts, the landscape darkens, we feel lost and alone, all at once that we must grope our way forward for we cannot retrace our footsteps.”

While Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the novel’s darkest point, another dark undercurrent flows from Frances’s nihilistic view of life.

“Life’s not simplicity,” she said slowly. “Not loving-kindness either. It’s darkness, and the terrible things we do to one another, and to ourselves. The sooner we are out of it the better. And paintings don’t matter. They are like making daisy-chains in the shadow of a volcano. Pathetic and childish.”

She sat down on a kitchen-chair and looked at the lamp burning; her clenched hand beat nervously against her thigh.

“The only thing that makes sense of it all is looking up at the sky at night and knowing that even the burden of cruelty we’ve laid upon the earth, scarcely exists; must fly away into dust, is nothing, too infinitesimal to matter. All the time, the house is falling into ruin, and I run to the walls  and tack my pretty pictures to them as they collapse.”

Caroline’s Review is here.

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Newcomer: Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higsahino’s Newcomer is a police procedural featuring Detective Kyochiro Kaga of the Tokyo Police Department. Kaga has just been transferred to Nihonbashi area of Tokyo and he’s assigned to the murder case of a woman.

Newcomer

Newcomer is a slow burn novel. Residents of the Nihonbashi area are slowly introduced as individuals within their settings, and since this is a business district, we see people in the context of their employment.  In the first chapter, for example, we meet the three generations of one family who run a rice cracker shop. It’s been run by one generation or another for the past 50 years, and while the members of this family become dragged into the investigation (their part is to whether or not they can verify the alibi of a suspect), their tiny role in the murder investigation expands into family dynamics and the shifting role of the rice cracker business.

As the investigation begins, we know very little about the victim or the murder. These details are very gradually added as Detective Kaga makes his way through various businesses in the district. His investigation is hampered by the fact that everyone seems to have something to hide. The big question is whether or not these individuals are hiding personal problems or information relating to the murder.

The structure of Newcomer reminds me of TV series police procedurals in which the detectives glom onto one person at a time, one suspect per episode. Broadchurch (series 1) had this sort of structure, for example, and with each episode, you thought DI Alex Hardy and DS Ellie Miller had their killer–after all the actions of the suspects made them seem as guilty as hell. Newcomer is subtler and more focused on the sociological aspects of the Nihonbashi district, but it’s the same structure–minus the pressure. Kaga almost savours the case:

“That’s not how police investigations work. We have to sift through every little detail, asking ourselves why such and such a thing occurred. That will eventually lead us to the truth, even if all those individual things have no direct connection to one another.”

This is not an action-packed novel by any means and requires patience (and interest in Japanese life) to read. I was somewhat frustrated by knowing next to nothing about the murder which begins almost as a rumour which subsequently echoes around the district and then begins to touch the lives of its residents. The book, however, seems to be appreciated by fans of the author. I preferred Malice, but then police procedurals are not my favourite sub genre when it comes to crime

Review copy.

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Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

“How am I to know you’re not some criminal lunatic?”

Ingrid Noll’s Hell Hath No Fury is a darkly funny tale of obsession, murder, and female competition for a worthless man. The tale, told by an insane stalker who sees her actions as perfectly reasonable and granting her a new enthusiasm for life, examines two questions: how far would someone go to get what they want and do they really want it anyway?

52 -year-old dowdy spinster Rosemarie Hirte leads a quiet life; she’s a good, reliable employee, and she’s only had a couple of romantic relationships. After being dumped by a fellow law student in her youth, she never managed to finish her degree, but instead moved into the insurance business. Now she lives in an apartment in Mannheim, and she has a friend, Beate, a woman she first knew in school. Beate, at one point, had everything that Rosemarie didn’t: a husband, a home, a family, and a social life. “Deep down” Rosemarie is “consumed with hostility towards so much sunshine,” but when Beate’s marriage ends, the two women become closer.

Hell hath no fury

Due to Beate’s drive towards self-improvement and new experiences, Rosemarie first sets eyes on middle-aged academic Rainer Witold Engstern. She becomes obsessed with him, has her hair cut, begins wearing clothes that are “romantically frivolous,” and begins stalking him.

Throughout this tale, the figure of Frau Romer, an older woman who works with Rosemarie, flits in and out of the narrative. With significant health issues, she lodges her elderly dog with Rosemarie, and the dog becomes a prop in Rosemarie’s twisted schemes to be with Witold.

Now I had a crazy idea. I thumbed through the telephone directory. Where did my Rainer Witold Engstern live? Or should I just call him Witold? My first flick through produced nothing, but at last I struck oil. R. Engstern, Ladenburg–got him! Good grief, with no rush-hour traffic, I could drive there in fifteen minutes. I even dug out a street plan of Ladenburg and found his street too, a little way outside the old town. The dog was giving me questioning looks. I felt young, thirsting for adventure. I still had a jogging outfit from my last day at the spa in Bad Sassbach, although I never wore it. So, on with that, dog on its lead, down the stairs, into the car and off we go!

A few trips, later spying on Witold’s house, Rosemarie decides the mess in his home is due to his “slovenly bitch” wife, who is conspicuously absent. It’s the appearance of Witold’s wife that sets a macabre chain of events into motion, and as Rosemarie wheedles her way into Witold’s world, the women in his life don’t realize that they have a rival who will stop at nothing to win the prize. Such as it is…

Hell Hath No Fury is brilliantly and unreliably narrated by Rosemarie. She tends to see what she wants to see, and this twisted vision leads down the path to murder. Rosemarie is the sort of woman people don’t notice, a woman defined by her status and not by the bitter, seething, buried cauldron of repressed desire and emotion bubbling away just under the surface. She lives the life of a “martinet,” keeping her spleen to herself when parents wax on about their children and their love lives. Rosemarie loathes the parent-child bond, hates other women, especially if they are attractive and can cook, and she knows she is one of the “leftovers sat on the fringes like fossils.” She’s always been hiding in plain sight, but it’s her desire for Witold that unleashes her true nature.

As the story progresses, Witold is clueless, and being in his self-centered, not particularly bright orbit, Rosemarie begins to wonder if the prize is worth all the effort, but by this point, she’s narcotized by “an addictive urge,” the power of wielding life and death.

The dark humour springs from the incongruity of Rosemarie as a serial killer and the tart, spiteful inner dialogue about the people she socialises with. Most of Witold’s friends include her as a form of kindness which is rather wasted on Rosemarie. Rosemarie’s thought processes seem so very reasonable, but juxtaposed with her actions, the story takes on a macabre comic tone. She toys with the idea of whether or not to kill someone with the lightness of tone that’s more appropriate to deciding which shirt to wear.  At one point she experiments with poison and decides: “No I told myself, poisoning is not my thing.”

And when I arrived at the last page, I laughed out loud.

Highly, highly recommended

Translated by Ian Mitchell

(This is one of my picks for German literature month, and many thanks to Caroline for pointing me towards this author. )

 

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The Count of 9: Erle Stanley Gardner (1958) Writing as A. A. Fair

“Double lives are simple. It’s triple lives and quadruple lives that give you the excitement.”

I’ve read earlier Cool and Lam novels: The Knife Slipped and Turn on the Heat. The Count of 9 hasn’t been published in over 50 years, and since it’s classic Erle Stanley Gardner, it’s also a refreshing change from the standard PI novel. Witty, snappy dialogue helps of course, but the heroes here, Donald and to a lesser degree his partner, Bertha, shape this gumshoe novel into a lively, engaging romp.

The count of 9

Donald Lam has finally made partner in the private detective company owned by Bertha Cool. He’s always done most of the leg work with Bertha arranging the jobs and spending most of the money while Donald is kept on a shoestring budget. The novel opens with Bertha landing a job to guard a society party from gatecrashers. This may sound like a strange assignment but the wealthy eccentric throwing the party, Dean Crockett II, threw a party three weeks earlier which resulted in the theft of a valuable carved Jade Buddha.

The job seems simple enough: Crockett, who is serious about his privacy and his security, lives on the twentieth floor of an apartment building. First all visitors check with the front desk, and then, if a visitor is approved, Crockett gives the green light which sends the elevator to the guest. This is “special elevator” which only travels to Crockett’s penthouse. For the night of the party, visitors must request permission for the elevator from the desk staff on the ground floor, and then Bertha’s job is to check the invitations against the guest list, but in spite of all these precautions a blowgun, poison darts, and a Jade Buddha, which matches the one that was already stolen, disappear from the Crockett apartment.

Crockett is furious, but his third wife, a former beauty queen, is a calming force. Since Donald and Bertha are already familiar with the case, they are hired to track the thief. Donald applies some basic logic and is soon hot on the trail of a very clever thief. But the case is complicated by murder. …

While Donald certainly has no small success with women, the novel places Donald on the opposite side of a lecherous photographer. There’s a very funny conversation between Donald and the photographer with the latter bragging about how he tricks women. Donald responds by pretending admiration which is covered with a patina of dislike. We get it, but the photographer, who is enamored with himself, misses the signals:

He opened another drawer, took out the usual eight-by-ten professional portraits, then some full-length shots with legs and bathing suits.

“Nice looker,” I said.

He hesitated a moment, then took an envelope out of the drawer. “You look like a good egg, he said.” “Maybe you’d be interested in these.”

I opened the envelope. It had a dozen five-by-seven shots of the same girl. This time she was posing for pictures I was certain had been suggested by the photographer. Clothes were absent. 

“How do you like that number?”

“Class,” I said.

“Lots of them are like that. I won’t monkey with them unless they’re real class.”

Donald Lam is an interesting protagonist. There are many references to his diminutive stature (made by the beefy Bertha Cool), and while Donald is capable and intelligent, he doesn’t come across as hyper-masculine. That said, he doesn’t need to prove anything. He’s always a sucker for a damsel in distress and Bertha can never quite understand his success with women. One of the funnier aspects of the book is Bertha’s attitude towards her own sex. She sees, and resents, how lookers get away with a great deal, and since it’s suspected that the person responsible for the theft of the first jade Buddha was a woman who hid the statue in her dress, Bertha states that she would “have picked her up by her heels, stood her on her head and shaken the damn thing out.

review copy.

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Family Trust: Kathy Wang

At 74 Stanley Huang is active, dapper and a picture of good health. Back in San Jose from his latest all-inclusive Mediterranean cruise, Stanley is very proud that he has actually lost weight in spite of loading himself with unlimited desserts. But then Stanley begins to have a nagging doubt about weight loss after “twelve days of gastronomic Bacchanalia over international waters. “ A trip to the doctor eventually leads to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Family trustStanley’s illness is the starting point for this story which explores fractured family dynamics in the face of a terminal diagnosis. Stanley has a much younger second wife, Mary Zhu (ex-waitress/massage therapist ) a still pissed-off first wife, Linda and children Fred and Kate. A huge question looms over the family. Does Stanley have any money and who will inherit it?

Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda isn’t particularly concerned about Stanley’s diagnosis. She’s “annoyed” by the “revisionist history her children had indulged in ever since Stanley’s diagnosis.” She’s far more concerned with the financial aspect of things. To Linda, Stanley never came through with his promises, and was “lazy and incompetent,” plus terminally unfaithful while she slaved to earn the money for the family.

Even thirtysomething years later, when she’d finally located her courage, had gone and left him, told him that they were going to divorce, leaving him openmouthed and speechless, helplessly steaming in his armchair-even then, he’d managed to come out ahead. Stanley had recovered quickly enough from his brief period of depression, sighing up for a series of elite gym memberships a month after he’d moved out, rebounding shortly after with a sequence of increasingly younger girlfriends. A series of events he’d then capped off by getting remarried with undignified speed. A marriage he couldn’t help but publicize by braying to everyone how happy he was, making it appear as if he was the one who’d left her. Because she was still alone, of course. 

Unbeknownst to her children, Linda was the real breadwinner of the family and gave Stanley a generous divorce settlement when his philandering became too much for her to tolerate. Stanley’s assurances of a large inheritance and a family trust do nothing to assuage Linda’s concerns that her feckless ex will prove true to his character—even in his last months. Plus then there’s the second wife who, in spite of her enthusiastic efforts to find miracle cures for her much-older husband, seems almost delighted to hasten him into the grave. Will she get the money or will Stanley leave it all to his children as promised? Here’s Linda taking charge at a dreaded family meeting:

She clicked the pen impatiently. “I want to write the numbers down, so that there’s no confusion. It should be very simple. First you determine your net worth. Then you define a token–that means small, Stanley–amount you give to Mary. Everything else goes to the children.”

“I have to take care of Mary,” Stanley said. “I am everything to her.” 

Both of Stanley’s children have considerable problems of their own. Harvard Business School graduate Fred has never made good on his early promise. Former classmates have soared into the company of the 1% but Fred, divorced by his dissatisfied wife, lingers in his profession’s “swampy bottom.” He’s dating Saks saleswoman, Hungarian immigrant Erika. Part of his attraction to Erika is her avarice, but it’s naive avarice. In other words, given his job title and income (over 300K a year) he can snow Erika into thinking he’s far more affluent than he really is.

Stanley’s daughter Kate is struggling with some serious personal problems. She is the sole breadwinner while her husband, Denny, hides out with “the majority of his daylight hours unaccounted for, lazing about in a cozily furnished attic” supposedly gathering investors for his start-up which has yet to materialize.

Linda, Stanley’s ex, has always been the sensible one when it comes to money, and yet, she begins to plunge into the murky waters of internet dating after a conversation with ‘friend’ Shirley, a woman Linda dislikes:

She’d undertaken a through redecoration of both herself and her house after her husband,  Alfred, had passed, and each now reflected the Versailles-lite sensibilities of a provincial government official.

This is a tale of Chinese Americans whose lives are driven by status markers. Given the subject matter, death in the face of a terminal diagnosis, it’s bold indeed for this first time author to take a spiky humorous approach. We follow Linda, Fred and Kate’s lives as Stanley’s diagnosis becomes all too real. He grows frailer and frailer while the question of money grows stronger. And as we all know, people are at their worst when money enters the picture.

The back stories of each character were overly detailed and I wanted the story to propel forwards–not backwards, but the moments between the family members were perfect. Here’s Mary Zhu, elevated to nurse status:

“Last week they brought in a special tree bark I ordered; it had to be sent from Hong Kong. I’ve been brewing it into a tea for Stanley. It’s supposed to be very powerful against cancer. For many people, it is a near-instant cure.” She prattled on, detailing all the various acupuncturist, healers, and meditation gurus whose skills were being summoned. Next to her, Stanley preened, lapping it up.

Linda decided she’d had enough. “Please inform your wife that I am a full supporter of Western medicine,” she said to Stanley in English. To her left she heard Kate sigh. But she didn’t care. Lunch was over. 

The novel has a lot of energy, and the author clearly has a complex story to tell. I am fascinated by inheritance plots, and if you are too, then you will enjoy this novel that takes a irreverent, humorous look at the question of assets that may or may exist and may or may not be passed to the next generation My attraction to inheritance stories may be a Balzac thing, and/or it may be the fact that I have seen many inheritance scenarios go horribly wrong.

review copy

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Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

German Literature Month 2018

“We all wanted a little house and a garden and children and trips to Spain and to grow old in peace, and if we weren’t badly deceiving ourselves, then we could be happy with that, and why should we be deceiving ourselves so badly with someone if he came from the same town and we’d known him forever and his parents had a shop around the corner or they cut our grandfather’s hair or sat behind the counter in the savings bank.”

Mrs. Sartoris, another choice for German Literature Month 2018, is a stunning novella that explores passion and compromise. The story is narrated by Margaret Sartoris, a middle-aged married woman whose reliable husband Ernst, daughter Daniela, and adored mother-in-law Irmi, cannot compensate for a tragic love affair that occurred decades earlier.

Mrs sartoris

When the story opens we know that something is seriously wrong with Margaret’s life. She has a drinking problem (Ernst “checks” her breath when she returns home) and a problem with her nerves, so she’s on pills to ‘help.’ Regarding her life, Margaret says she doesn’t know “when it got lost. The certainty, the strength, the concentration that was automatically there for what is known as everyday life.” Gradually chapters reveal Margaret’s past which includes an early romance that went badly and resulted in a period in a sanatorium.

After the sanatorium, Margaret’s passionate nature is switched off, and then she meets Ernst, affable, safe Ernst who has one leg.  When she decides to marry Ernst on the rebound, she acknowledges that she’s driven by “a form of ice-cold delirium.”

I would marry Ernst and live with him and Irmi; in spite of everything, Ernst looked good, he treated me with real consideration, he earned a good living, he was a good, dear man who wouldn’t deny me anything, and Irmi was simply a treasure. I imagined how nice it would be to have her around, and I imagined Ernst’s dazzled gratitude that he wouldn’t have to leave his mother, the war widow, alone, but would be allowed to bring her with him into the marriage. I would go on working, in the evenings we would often be with friends–nothing would become of my dancing now–and when we came home, Irmi would be there, a source of life and good cheer.  Perhaps we would have a child. 

To outsiders, Margaret pulled her life together: she has a solid, stable career, a long-standing marriage to the steady Ernst and is devoted to her mother-in-law.  But all these years, all these seemingly satisfactory elements of Margaret’s life, are just window dressing. It’s as though she’s an iceberg with an exposed functioning tip while hidden passions of incredible intensity lurk beneath the surface. Underneath the routine, the household arrangements and her intimate domestic life, Margaret maintains a detachment, an apathy towards her life and her future.

Middle age is a peculiar time of life: it’s a time of accounting, and very often a time when we measure our lives against our early expectations. No wonder so many people go off the deep end. Margaret Sartoris has a life that is on auto-pilot. She and her husband go out with friends, she laughs and participates, is a good, dependable employee, a good wife and daughter-in-law, but there’s also a huge chunk of Margaret that doesn’t engage with her own life. Then, after more than twenty dormant, albeit, outwardly successful years of  life with Ernst, she meets a married man, a serial philanderer.

My energy had made an impression on him, as had my uninhibitedness, and I had swept us both into a feeling that we could live all over again. The last twenty years unfolded in front of me like a bleached out map; I could find paths on it I had walked a thousand times and yet had hardly a single visible contour; I could have made a list of the sentences I’d said or heard again and again: Sleep well! Or Does it taste good? or Is Daniela in bed yet? or Have you thought about Irmi’s birthday? or Are we taking the car or going on foot? or Did you get the things from the dry cleaner? or Where is the aspirin? or Is the coffee finished? or Did you lock up downstairs? or Are the eggs still fresh? or I think I’ll keep reading for a bit.

[…]

There weren’t many unfriendly sentences in this catalogue, lots of friendly concern, lots of good will, lots of good cheer, though none of that was mine, not much worry, not much anger, not much surprise; as sentences, they were like oar strokes, regular, always on the same beat, always pulling in the same direction: we’re rowing across the sea, the sea, we’re rowing across the sea now. But I was no longer rowing with them.

The story unfolds with Margaret’s life in the present and flashes of memory–her first, damaging love affair, and the unexpected passion that shakes her from her dormant life. This is a woman who made a sensible choice, packing away all her passion, desires and disappointments, until one day they are unleashed again, and this time, these passions, rather like Pandora’s box, cannot be packed away again.

The book’s blurb connects the plot to Madame Bovary. As far as the similarities go, the two books are about unhappily married women who have illicit love affairs. This is not Madame Bovary. Mrs Sartoris is something quite different, and the plot takes the reader in an unanticipated direction. Margaret is an interesting woman who dons the circumspect ‘costume’ of respectability and reliability. She subsumes and controls all passion, passion which in her case is destructive, and she manages to act the part for more than twenty years until one day she throws caution aside. Margaret’s voice is calm, cool, detached and yet … we know that incredible passions lie dormant, just underneath the the surface. How much compromise is too much? Are ‘sensible’ choices the best ones? Or are we just delaying the day of reckoning? Highly recommended.

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Another review at Winston’s dad

Another review at Vishy’s blog

And Caroline’s review. 

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Fugitive Red: Jason Starr

“Choosing another path in life doesn’t necessarily solve your problems–sometimes it just leads to a new set of them.”

Forty-four-year old real estate agent Jack Harper, a recovering alcoholic, is in a rut. His professional life is at an all-time low, and his marriage to Maria is stale and sexless. He hasn’t landed any sales in some time, and when Rob, a former bandmate, flies in from California looking to buy a two million dollar Manhattan penthouse apartment, Jack’s failure is rubbed in his face. Rob, a practiced womanizer, sniffs Jack’s failure and lords his success over his old friend’s head, but more significantly, he mentions that he uses an online dating app called Discreet Hookups, a “Cheating site” which is “the best thing for married men since Monday Night Football.” While Jack feels disgust at his old friend’s behaviour, there’s another part of him that envies Rob’s brash confidence and material success.

Late one night, bored and restless, Jack logs onto Discreet Hookups, the website whose logo is: “people marry for companionship, cheat for happiness.”  Jack tells himself he’s led by curiosity, but he has a past of addictive behaviour, so it’s just a very short step until he has an online profile and connects with a wealthy married woman who calls herself Fugitive Red. …

Jason Starr’s Fugitive Red takes an insightful look at the perils of online relationships, adeptly navigating the narrative of Jack’s rapidly unraveling life. Online, we can be anyone we want to be, and when sex and/or money enter the picture, things go downhill fast. Most of us know people who have had exploitative disastrous online relationships, and Jack is a great fictional example. Soon he’s accused of murder, and while Jack thought his life was bad before his exposure to Discreet Hookups, he finds out how bad gets worse. With his life spiraling out of control, he still imagines he has options which have long since been removed from the table. There’s a morbid sense of humour at work as we watch Jack, who can’t quite accept that things are as bad as they are, missteps repeatedly in the quicksand of a murder investigation.

The plot, peopled with colourful characters, explores the hazards of misinterpreting virtual life on the computer as reality, and there are times when Jack has insight into his own ego and addictive behaviour, but these times are alternated with his blind spots. Here’s Jack being grilled by the detective who will soon become his arch-nemesis:

Then he added,” I don’t want to say you’re gullible, Mr Harper, but okay, I’ll say it–you’re gullible. I mean, you meet some chick online, she says she wants to screw around, and you think she’s telling you the truth?”

“She wasn’t ‘some chick,’ ” I said. “She was a sweet, sincere woman, and yes, I believed her.” 

“Just like you believed it was her first time meeting a guy online.”

Jason Starr’s novels often include some reference to New York housing, and how outrageous costs impact life and relationships, so here we find Jack living in a 580 sq foot apartment and wondering if he should have moved to the ‘burbs. I thought I knew where Fugitive Red was taking me, but it had more twists than I anticipated, and since it’s Jason Starr, these twists are laced with deviant behaviour.

The book synopsis includes a reference to Gone Girl, and if you arrive at this book expecting another Gone Girl, you will be disappointed. This is classic Jason Starr, which means a different set of things from Gone Girl, and I wish publishers would stop referencing this book as though it’s the bible of suspense. Frankly while Gone Girl was highly readable, by its conclusion, I was annoyed at the plot devices.

Rant over.

If you are a Jason Starr fan, you will not be disappointed. There’s a lot to appreciate here in the insights into human behaviour: the lies we tell ourselves, the types of horrible relationships we endure, the disappointment of how our lives turned out, and how tricky, deceptive and seductive online ‘relationships’ can be–and yes those online relationships just happen to slot into all of life’s shortcomings.  Psychologists argue that first impressions take just a few seconds. How does that translate to online relationships? Jack’s impressions of Fugitive Red are formed and sealed before he meets her, and that proves to be a deadly mistake.

Review copy

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The Spoke: Friedrich Glauser (1937)

German Literature Month 2018

German Literature month rolls around yet again. I’m late to the party–or at least my reviews are.

“There ought to be a law, the sergeant said to himself, against women painting and powdering themselves. The layer covering their cheeks could easily, all too easily, hide a flush, a sudden pallor.”

A few years ago, during German Literature Month 2015, I reviewed Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint. I had more Glauser on the shelf, so it was time to take the plunge…

Detective Sgt Studer of the Bern police is back once more for what should be a happy occasion. His daughter is going to be married, and the groom is Albert Guhl, a corporal in the Thurgau Cantonal Police. Studer, his wife Hedy, and daughter travel to Schwarzenstein for the ceremony and stay at a hotel run by Studer’s childhood sweetheart, Anni. Anni is now married to Karl Rechsteiner who is bedridden and has been treated for consumption.

The Spoke

Murder seems to follow fictional detectives, and this is certainly true for Studer who should be concentrating on his daughter’s wedding and instead is confronted with a corpse inside the hotel. Murder never takes a holiday, I suppose, and so Studer begins to investigate. The victim, a young man, has been skewered with a sharpened spoke from a bicycle, and guess what, there’s a bicycle repair shop right next to the hotel. …

The case seems to present its own solution, especially when the owner of the bicycle shop, Ernst Graf, seems to be one part of of a love triangle involving the murder victim.

The Spoke was more enjoyable than Thumbprint, possibly because we get to see more of Studer’s personality, investigation style, and his sense of humour, plus there are some very interesting characters/suspects here–including Fräulein Loppacher who appears to have been in relationships with both Graf (the main suspect) and Stieger (the victim). Other detectives would rush to close the case and move onto the wedding, but not Studer. Studer’s family exist in the periphery and he seems to spend far more time dwelling on Anni’s sad, hard life. The novel explores early forensics (this was published in 1937), and reflects attitudes of its time.

Studer’s sense of humour is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the tale, but unfortunately I guessed the culprit very early in the book. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press contains a brief bio of the author, Friedrich Glauser, who was, apparently, addicted to opium and morphine. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he spent “most of his life” in various insane asylums, did a stint in the Foreign legion and prison when he was caught forging prescriptions. He died at age 42.

Translated by Mike Mitchell

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The Good Doctor: Damon Galgut

In Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, set in post-apartheid South Africa, two doctors, one high on idealism, and the other opting to bury himself in a dead-end job, both end up in the same ramshackle rural hospital. Who is the ‘Good Doctor’ here? Idealistic, young Dr Laurence Waters whose arrival sets off an uneasy chain of events or the narrator, burned-out middle-aged Frank Eloff, who prefers the status quo–even if that means years spent avoiding his estranged wife and the promising career expected of him?

The good doctor

When Laurence Waters arrives he’s clearly shocked by the state of the small rural hospital. and according to Frank, who’s been stuck in a self-imposed stalled career, it isn’t a “real hospital.” The nearest town in an hour away, and that’s where the “real hospital is,” the one where “people go when they’re sick.”

And then you arrived and you saw. Maybe the first clue was a disturbing detail; a crack that ran through an otherwise pristine wall, or a set of broken windows in an office you passed. Or the fact that the fountain was dry and full of old sand at the bottom.

Frank expects Laurence’s initial “bewilderment.” He’s seen it so many times before whenever new doctors arrive.

So the bewilderment that Laurence Waters felt wasn’t unusual. I’d been through it myself. And so I knew that the feeling would pass. In a week or two, the bewilderment would give way to something else: frustration maybe, or resentment, anger. And then that would turn into resignation. And after a couple of months Laurence would be suffering through his sentence here, like the rest of us, or else plotting a way to get out.

But Laurence’s emotional state doesn’t quite form as Frank predicts. Laurence and Frank share a room together, and Frank is at first resentful at the intrusion but then finds that he enjoys the company. Soon, however, Laurence begins a programme to take medical care to the locals, and this shifts the delicate status quo within the hospital and the community.  The narrator realises, uncomfortably, that “Laurence’s involvement and effort showed up a lack in me.”

As the novel explores Laurence’s idealistic attempts to alter the hospital and the community, the plot raises several moral questions. Is idealism harmful or even practical? How much moral compromise is acceptable?

The plot introduces some extraordinary secondary characters: Frank’s father, an aging celebrity doctor who thinks he can fix the world (as he used to do) with a chat with the right people, and Laurence’s American do-gooder girlfriend whose specious intentions are revealed when she meets a vicious dictator and treats him like some sort of rockstar.

The novel is at its strongest when showing the unacceptable worlds that Frank lives in. There’s a moment when he visits his father who is a living remnant of the old order:

Betty carried the brown, limp leaves from the mantelpiece to the door.

‘Betty!”

“Master?”

“You’re dropping petals, Betty. All over the place, Please, please…”

And the old lady in the nice blue uniform set the dying flowers down and got on to her knees. She started crawling across the floor, picking up bits of flowers as she went.

“There, Betty, my father murmured, pointing patiently, … there … another one there…”

While I sipped the sour coffee, hearing the rim of the china cup clink against my teeth.

This scene brings up the silent question: how does a white man used to apartheid fit into this ‘new’ still unstable South Africa? Frank has a sexual relationship with a local black woman and yet what is their connection? Is she his sex partner, his girlfriend, or is she a prostitute who asks for money? This is a stunning example of how Frank cannot penetrate black culture–how he remains an outsider, no matter what he does.

For this reader the novel was weakest in its portrayal of Laurence–a character who didn’t quite gel for me. He didn’t seem real–almost a caricature of an idealistic young man who is basically clueless and does more harm than good, and since he is a main character, this is unfortunate. Still I’ll remember this book for its troubling, complex moral landscape and some terrific secondary characters.

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