Tag Archives: California

The Drowning Pool: Ross Macdonald (1950)

“Sex and Money; the forked root of evil.”

Back to Lew Archer for Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool. This novel is the second in the series, following on the heels of The Moving Target. In this novel, Lew Archer investigates a case involving threatening letters, but the case quickly devolves to murder. The very attractive Maude Slocum visits Archer’s office and shows him a short vicious letter which was sent to her husband, James. The letter, which Maude intercepted, accuses Maude of adultery. Maude denies that she has been unfaithful, but Archer isn’t so sure. Maude argues that another letter might reach James and he would give it to his mother. That would ensure an ugly divorce. Archer agrees to take the case, although he thinks there must be more to the accusations of adultery. And, as usual, Archer’s instincts are spot-on.

Archer travels to Nopal Valley, to the home of the Slocums. James Slocum is an amateur actor with the Quinto Players , and Archer, catching a rehearsal, watches James Slocum hamming it up as the dramatic lead in a pathetically bad play written by pompous Francis Marvell.

It was the kind of play that only a mother or an actor could love, the kind of stuff that parodied itself. Phony sophistication with a high gloss, and no insides at all.

While Archer watches a few scenes from this awful play, he also catches a dramatic scene, offstage that takes place between teenage nymphette Cathy Slocum and the man she’s been practicing on, the Slocums’ hunky chauffeur, Reavis.

He turned and smiled wide, full in my face, and I had my first chance to study him. The teeth were white. the black eyes frank and boyish, the lines of the features firm and clean. Reavis had quantities of raw charm. But underneath it there was something lacking. I could talk to him all night and never find his core, because he had never found it.

Then onto the Slocum home where matriarch Olivia Slocum rules with an iron rod. James, Maude, and their teenage daughter Cathy live there too, with mummy holding the purse strings. Her property, which sits on oil, is worth a fortune. She refuses to sell for sentimental and moral reasons, but the property and her fortune keep James tied to her. Olivia is one of those mothers. According to her, James is a Renaissance Man, a veritable genius at everything he turns his attention to. And what is going on between Marvell and James? And why does Ralph Knudson, the Chief of Police, a “tall and thick, a bifurcated chunk of muscle” hang out at the Slocum home? And why is Maude Slocum so tense when Knudson shows up? It’s obvious that the relationships between the Slocums are unhealthy and twisted. Maude hates her mother-in-law, Olivia hasn’t forgiven James for marrying Maude, and Cathy flirts with the help. Add to that the very sick and twisted relationship between Maude and James….

With the discovery of a body floating in the pool, the case becomes more and more complicated. The Drowning Pool is my least favourite Archer so far, but it is still better than most crime books out there. These were unforgiving times for homosexuality, and the characters queasily reflect the attitudes of period. But the family dynamic–people who hate each other yet stick together for money–rang all too true. Packed with atmosphere and MacDonald’s signature hard style, the story packs a powerful punch.

The reflection of a stop-light made a long red smudge on the asphalt where 101 Alternate crossed the foot of the town. Four or five heavy trucks had gathered at the truck stop on the corner like buffalo at a waterhole. As I turned right onto the freeway, I could see the drivers bent over an early breakfast, and a thin-browed, pug-faced waitress smoking a cigarette by the kitchen door. It would have been very pleasant to stop and eat three eggs and talk for a while and then go back to bed in the motel. I cut my wheels sharp left at the next crossing, and the tires whined in self-pity: so late, so weary.

And then there’s the marvelous character of Lew Archer: a man who spends too much of his life exploring the darker side of human nature. This case does nothing to elevate Archer’s opinion of people.

The man in the mirror was big and flat-bodied, and lean-faced. One of his gray eyes was larger than the other, and it swelled and wavered like the eye of conscience; the other eye was little, hard and shrewd. I stood still for an instant, caught by my own distorted face, and the room reversed itself like a trick drawing in a psychological test. For an instant I was the man in the mirror, the shadow-figure without a life of his own who peered with one large eye and one very small eye through dirty glass at the dirty lives of people in a very dirty world.

Usually with series characters, we get the crime on hand and a continuation of the private life of the series PI. Not so here. As Archer notes, he’s “without a life of his own.

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Meet Me at the Morgue: Ross Macdonald (1953)

“The things a man does are always connected in some way.”

In Ross Macdonald’s crime novel, Meet Me at the Morgue, parole officer Howard Cross runs into Fred Miner, a parolee. It’s an insignificant meeting and yet those few moments have serious ramifications. Miner is looking for Cross’s partner, but he’s gone from the office. Since Miner’s business isn’t with Cross, they exchange only a few words, but during that minute or so, Cross notices that Miner is accompanied by his employer’s small son, Jamie. Within hours, it appears that Miner has kidnapped the boy and is demanding a $50,000 ransom. It seems odd that Miner, in the midst of a kidnapping, would take a detour to visit his parole officer–especially in the company of the kidnapped boy.

In Meet Me at the Morgue, Cross assumes a PI role as he investigates the kidnapping. The kidnapped boy is the son of the very wealthy Abel Johnson, and his attractive oh-so-much-younger wife. The plot thickens when it turns out that Miner, a man of otherwise impeccable background, is on parole for vehicular manslaughter, but Miner doesn’t remember a thing about the accident as he was drunk at the time. Another curious fact, the dead man had no ID, and no one stepped forward to claim the body. Add yet another curious fact, Miner’s lawyer, Siefel is also the lawyer for the Johnson family. And apparently Cross’s assistant Ann is dating, Seifel, Johnson’s lawyer… well she’s trying to date him. But mummy gets getting in the way:

Her eyes were on her son like wet, black leeches. “It’s mean and selfish of you to keep me waiting like this. I didn’t devote my life to you in order to be cast aside whenever you feel the whim.”

“I’m sorry mother.”

“Indeed you should be sorry, you forced me to take a public bus down here.”

You could have taken a taxi.”

I can’t afford to pay taxi fare every day. You never think of my sacrifices, of course, but it has cost me an enormous amount of money to set you up in practice with Mr. Sturdyvant.”

“I realise that.” He looked at me miserably. His body seemed to have shrunk and taken on an adolescent awkwardness. “Can we drop the subject for now mother? I’m ready to drive you anywhere you’d like.”

She said with icy boredom, “finish your business, Lawrence. I’m in no hurry. In fact I’ve lost any interest I had in the party. I believe I feel a headache coming on.”

Please mother, don’t be like that.” He fumbled awkwardly reaching for her hand she turned away from him in a movement of disdainful coquetry and walked to the window on high sharp heels. I stepped into the elevator. The last I saw of his face it looked bruised and shapeless as if her Cuban heels had been hammering it.

The Johnsons decide to obey the kidnappers’ demands: not tell the police and hand over the money. The situation presents Cross with a moral dilemma. He knows that he should inform the police but he also feels obligated to respect the Johnsons’ wishes, but when a dead man is found with an ice pick sticking out of his neck, Cross brings in the police.

What’s that old saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ The deeper Cross digs, things just don’t add up, and yet the same names keep connecting in bizarre ways. This fate-laden tale is a hellish journey for Cross, and the investigation is peppered with strong characterizations: unhappy wives, a controlling mother, a disappointed father, and an underage girl who has a great figure but not much in the brains department. Ross Macdonald’s (Kenneth Millar) intense descriptive powers add to this excellent tale, and as Cross continues his labyrinthine investigation, the human landscape yields glimpses of various versions of private hell–the private hell of poisonous relationships.

The car ground to a stop on the cinder shoulder, the shallow ditch was paved with empty cans. A Sulphur stench fouled the the air. On the rim of the plain against the cloudy reflection of the city, the oil derricks stood like watchtowers around a prison camp where nothing lived. I’d come to the wrong place at the wrong time and done the wrong thing.

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The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

They first met Reginald Parker ages ago–in the innocent part of the year 2001– before disaster struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at a time when it was still possible to think ours was a virtuous country, and everyone liked us and terrorists were just a plot complication in the movies. We had no idea then what forms terrorism could take, at home and away, in that innocent time ages ago.

John L’ Heureux’s novel The Beggar’s Pawn gives a whole new meaning to the expression: home invasion. This is the story of a happily married, affluent couple in their 60s whose lives are slowly invaded by a casual acquaintance. While the plot is deceptively simple, various tangled moral dilemmas complicate our characters’ lives: the vagaries of helping those less fortunate, just how involved should we become with the problems of others, transparency in marriage vs keeping the peace, what do parents ‘owe’ to children, what do children ‘owe’ to parents, when does helping one’s children start ruining their characters, at what age (if any) do people stop blaming their parents and start taking responsibility for their own actions? All these dilemmas are faced by the two main characters, and the result is a splendid book–at once very funny and terrifying. The sort of thing that happens in these pages could easily happen to many of us. I loved this book for its approach to one of my pet theories: Don’t tolerate the intolerable.

The book opens in 2001, with 65-year-old Stanford professor David Holliss and his wife Maggie who are empty nesters living in “professorville,” in a large, beautiful home in Palo Alto. The house was bought a long time ago with Maggie’s trust fund money (always a sore spot with David) and they raised three ungrateful, awful, privileged children in that house: Sedge, Will and Claire.

Serial monogamist handsome Sedge “would marry an unsuspecting girl, buy a house, he could always depend on the parents in a pinch, and settle down forever with his new bride. Within the next year or two, Sedge and his wife would decide it had all been a well-intentioned, glittering mistake, though of course they would remain good friends. Divorce, division of the spoils, alimony for a specified time. Never any children so there was no need for child support.

Will, the supposedly perfect son, tends to take the moral high ground with his family. Like his father, he’s a professor, but he lives in England with his British house and his growing family. Since Will lives in England, his parents don’t see him or the grandkids much. Finally there’s arguably the most trouble, and troubled, of the bunch: Claire. Claire and her abrasive “fierce integrity” (rude) drifts from one extreme to another. Unable to find a job, she joined a commune, and had a child she abandoned. (This child eventually attended Princeton paid for, of course by the Hollisses.) After the commune, Claire has a lesbian relationship with a theatre director but moved on to “The Little Sisters of the Poor in Oklahoma. She made a retreat at their convent and after the 8 days were over, she asked to be admitted as a novice. The Mother Superior was an old hand at delayed vocation.” The fact that she wasn’t a Catholic seemed to be of no importance to Claire who answered the Mother Superior’s questions with her typical aggressive hostility. So much for the convent.

Thank god the kids are gone, and now the Hollisses share their home with a puppy, Dickens, a dog that they were supposed to just take care of while their son Sedge went through his 4th divorce. All the trouble starts in David and Maggie’s tranquil enviable life when they have a chance meeting with Reginald Parker while walking the dog. It’s a Spot-The-Looney situation. Maggie thinks Reginald is “nice,” but David has some intuitive feeling that the man is “trouble,” although all he can pinpoint is that Reginald’s hair is too long and he’s “intrusive.” As a long-time married couple, both Maggie and David have well-established roles. She’s friendly and more tolerant and David is the curmudgeon.

The few casual meetings between Reginald and David and Maggie are limited, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the man is a liar, hostile and on drugs. He patently and nastily rubs in what he can and can’t afford. (He rubs it in that he can’t afford a dog which may be what happens when you siphon your wife’s meagre income towards cocaine.) He always leaves the Hollisses with a definite uncomfortable feeling. His words are moored with conventional politeness, and weighted down by guilt over their material situation, the Hollisses tolerate Reginald, who latches on like a blood-sucking parasite when really they should tell him to fuck off. But one day in 2009, Reginald, after scoping out the Hollisses’ home, saves Dickens from being run over. This incident acts as a lever for Parker to insinuate himself into the lives of the Hollisses. Soon he hits Maggie up for a loan, and then invites them to a horrible dinner with his downtrodden wife Helen, who’s employed part-time at Walmart and their poor neglected daughter, Iris. From this point, Reginald Parker becomes obsessed with the Hollisses, and the situation isn’t helped by Claire who has a sexual relationship with Reginald. Claire loves cruelly ridiculing her parents while blaming them for her messed-up self. So Reginald moves to start writing a book based on the Hollisses.

The novel paces Reginald’s persistent encroaching aggression against the way the Hollisses roll over rather than confront. I’m reminded of Mon Oncle D’Amerique and dominance/avoidance in human behaviour. There were times I laughed out loud at this book, thanks mostly to the appalling Holliss children, all with chips on their shoulders springing from imagined hardship childhoods. They refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their actions, demanding, and taking for granted, endless handouts even as they bitch at (and about) their parents. Claire, for example, claims that she suffered “familial torture while she was a child. She had been obliged to attend concerts, the opera, and on one terrible occasion, the ballet.” The sections with the children are funny–even though the children are appalling in their presumptive privilege for which they ALL blame their parents. Reginald hates the Hollisses for what they represent, and he begins blaming them for his choices. As his obsession with the Hollisses grows along with the idea that everything in HIS life is THEIR fault, it’s almost as though he becomes the fourth child. He demands they become his saviours and just like the Holliss children, any help given to Reginald is not enough–rather the opposite. His belligerence, bitterness and aggression grow. … The book was so funny at times, that its dark turn is shocking. There are many moral lessons to carry away from this entertaining, engrossing book.

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The Zebra Striped Hearse: Ross Macdonald (1962)

“She was waiting at the office door when I got back from my morning coffee break. The women I usually ran into in the rather dingy upstairs corridor were the aspiring hopeless girls who depended on the modeling agency next door. This one was different.”

California PI Lew Archer is hired by the inflexible retired Colonel Blackwell to investigate his only daughter, Harriet’s fiancé, painter Burke Damis. 24-year-old Harriet, who is due to inherit a “half-million-dollar trust fund” in just a few months time, met Burke in Mexico. After a couple of meetings with Burke, the Colonel is convinced that his prospective son-in-law is a fortune hunter. Archer had a preemptive visit from the Colonel’s much younger wife, Isobel, who argues that the Colonel is overprotective, so Archer takes the case with some misgivings–first Harriet is a grown woman and she can marry whom she pleases. Secondly Blackwell’s huffy attitude is opposed to Archer’s methods, but he agrees to take the case as long as the Colonel, who’s used to giving orders, understands that “the chips fall where they fall.”

Harriet and Burke currently reside in the Blackwell family beach house, so this is Archer’s first stop. Apart from an initial subterfuge to get through the beach house door, it’s a full-frontal approach. Archer doesn’t believe in working in the dark, following people or spying on their secret lives–at least not in this novel. After a few minutes in the company of Harriet and Burke, Archer concludes that the lovers’ relationship is one-sided, and that the Colonel’s suspicions are probably correct. Harriet is a “lot of girl.”

I saw why her father couldn’t believe that any man would love her truly or permanently. She looked too much like him.

Archer travels down to Mexico, to the remote town where Burke was living when he met Harriet, and here he discovers that Burke’s past is blurry. Archer must penetrate the sometimes hostile American ex-pat community–people who want to forget their lives in America and have chosen “a sealed-off past.” The case, which should be fairly simple, becomes increasingly complicated, more circuitous, and Archer finds himself pursuing the truth even though his employers don’t like his methods or his attitude.

Isobel Blackwell spoke behind me as I hung up: “Do you doubt everything and everyone?”

She had washed her face and left it naked of make-up. Her hair was wet at the temples.

“Practically everything,” I said. “Almost everyone. It’s a little habit I picked up from my clients by osmosis.”

In this quintessential detective novel, Archer has his own set of ethics. He wants to believe there’s good in the world, but his experiences tell him otherwise. He has a gut feeling about some people.

I lit a cigarette and considered my answer. Between my duty to the law and the man who trusted me, and my duty to a client I no longer trusted, my ethics were stretched thin.

Lew Archer, with his wry dry humor, is a great series detective, and the novel is peppered with great characters–most of them liven up and open up when they hear it’s unpleasant news about someone else. There’s little human charity. We meet a washed up actress, a toupee wearing desk clerk, a policeman’s wife, and parents who live in denial about their daughter’s past. We may only get a sliver of a glimpse into their lives, but that toxic sliver is enough:

But it’s hard on an older woman having a younger woman in the house. A younger woman with all those troubles, it puts a strain on the marriage.” She ran her fingers over her curlers, as if they were holding the marriage precariously together.

And here’s Fawn, a second-rate lounge singer hoping for the big time, and in the meantime she pays her rent with “dates.” She has a hardier morality than most of the women in the book.

The song broke off when I knocked. She appeared at the door, her face still softened by music her brown eyes held a puzzled innocence. Perhaps she was puzzled by her body and its uses. It was full and tender under her sweater, like fruit that is ripened too quickly. She held it for me to look at and said in a semiprofessional voice: “Hello, I was just practicing my Blues style.”

“I heard. You have a nice voice.”

“So they all tell me. The trouble is, the competition here is terrif. They bring in recording stars, and it isn’t fair to the local talent.”

“You’re a local girl?”

“This is my third season. My third fabulous season which makes me an old-timer.”

“And you want to be a singer?”

“Anything,” she said. “Anything to get out of the rat race. Do you have any suggestions?”

My usual line was ready. The one I used on aspiring starlets and fledgling nightingales and girls who hoped to model their way into heaven: I was from Hollywood, knew movie people, could help. Her puzzled innocence stopped me.

“Just keep trying .”

She regarded me suspiciously, as though I had flubbed my cue.

At the conclusion of the novel, I had to puzzle out some of the meetings and some of the timelines of this complicated murder case. And I haven’t even mentioned the zebra-striped hearse. After working out the timelines, I stewed on the cesspit steaming and bubbling under the plot–the things Archer suspects, the things hinted at but not proved. The twisted aspects of this case grow rapidly and wrap around the plot, but always Archer understands that there’s a beginning and end of this case–of every case. He just has to find it.

I was thinking that you never could tell what murderers would do.

Marvelous.

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The Spectator Bird: Wallace Stegner (1976)

“At our age, news is all bad. I don’t like standing in line for the guillotine.”

It’s the 1970s, and 69-year-old, retired literary agent Joe Allston lives with his wife Ruth near Palo Alto, California. Their only son, Curtis died years earlier while surfing, maybe an accident, maybe not, and now Joe and Ruth live a quiet life. Joe, “irritable and depressed,” is pushed by his wife into gathering together all of the papers and notes from his career in order to write a memoir:

The writers I represented left their monuments, consequential or otherwise. I might have done the same if I had not, at the bottom of the Depression, been forced to chose whether I would be a talent broker or a broke talent. I drifted into my profession as a fly lands on flypaper, and my monument is not in the libraries, or in men’s minds, or even in the paper-recycling plants, but in those files. They are the only thing that prove I ever existed.

Joe who sees himself as a “wise cracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people and a tourist in his own,” has many regrets about his life; he feels as though he’s been a “spectator bird” and “that there had not been one significant event in life he planned.” As Joe mulls over the dullness of his life and the road that brought him to this point, a postcard arrives from Astrid, a Danish countess the Allstons met during a holiday decades earlier. The postcard revives old memories and Joe digs out a journal he kept of the trip. The trip to Denmark was partly for Joe to investigate his roots and discover exactly why his mother left Denmark, setting sail for America at age 16. The trip is also an escape from the guilt and regrets over their estranged son’s death. While the holiday should be restorative, it becomes an unsettling Jamesian exploration of the Innocent American Abroad.

Joe narrates The Spectator Bird, and when the novel opens, it’s clear that Joe is obsessed with aging and dying. This state of affairs isn’t helped by the fact that a neighbour is dying of cancer, or that Ruth visits the local care home and encourages Joe to do the same. Then on top of that, another neighbour, an elderly doctor who is falling apart slowly but still manages to put a brave face on it, harasses Joe about his morbid frame of mind.

I had been sitting on the old timbers for about ten minutes when Ben Alexander drove in from the county road in his convertible. His top was down, his hair was tangled, and he had Edith Patterson in the seat beside him, looking like a racoon in her wraparound Hollywood shades. It was all so young and gay and California that I had to laugh. Ben is the very chief of the tribe that makes old age out to be a time of liberation. He is writing a book about it.

Ben and Ruth can see that Joe is having a miserable time aging, and they both have strategies, which always fail, to shake Joe from this frame of mind. The result is that Ruth has become more of a mother to Joe–so much so that he keeps her at arm’s length emotionally as he struggles with regrets and aging. Poor Ruth, who likes to air all emotions, has the patience of a saint. We see Joe in the present day, uncomfortable in a shifting social environment, reluctant to be around young people as they remind him of what he’s lost. He wonders if they notice him, and at the same time when he learns of a neighbour’s imminent demise he can’t confront the reality of death and instead finds it easier to pretend all is normal.

Getting old is like standing in a long, slow line. You wake up out of the shuffle and torpor only at those moments when the line moves you one step closer to the window.

The book goes back and forth between 1970s California and Joe’s reading of the 1954 journal which Ruth insists be read aloud after she spies it in Joe’s hands. Joe does so with some reluctance as it reveals both his state of mind at the time and some rather unsavoury events that took place.

All too often authors use journals from the past or an unexpected postcard as a cheap segue into the past. Here the past and the present are perfectly and skillfully blended as we see Joe in his 40s and Joe decades later farther down the road as he faces old age. This is an incredibly introspective novel, told from Joe’s often morbid view, and that morbid view, particularly striking on the subject of age, is alleviated by Joe’s self-deprecating humour. Since this is Joe’s story, Ruth is an appendage–the little woman in the background and while she sighs a lot at Joe’s attitude to life, we never really get to know her. But then I don’t think Joe knows her either. … I can’t imagine that they had much of an emotional life together. It can’t have been easy being married to Joe. I listened to the audio book version which was beautifully read by Edward Herrmann, but unfortunately Ruth’s voice comes across as simpering.

But apart from those criticisms, I loved this book and enjoyed it far more than I expected to. This is a sombre examination of the life of one ordinary man–nothing heroic in his past, no great deeds, but as he ages and sees that nothing of him will remain after his death, he is full of regrets. This is a man whose choices were inseparable from, and seminal to, his character.

My commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue. There are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better good and good, but why cry over it twenty years later? Because in every choice there is a component maybe a big component, of pain .

 

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Ask for Me Tomorrow: Margaret Millar (1976)

“In this business you see their worst side, until pretty soon you forget they have a better one. And then ten chances to one they haven’t, anyway.”

Margaret Millar’s Ask for Me Tomorrow opens on a hot afternoon in Santa Felicia, California. Immediately we step into a toxic domestic scene. Middle-aged Gilly is watching and talking to her wheelchair bound husband, Marco, a stroke victim. His right eyelid closes and opens “normally,” but the rest of his body is paralyzed. He doesn’t respond to his wife, and he doesn’t seem to register her presence, but in spite of this, Gilly keeps up almost constant conversation. She’s convinced that Marco is aware, at least on some level. Gilly’s efforts are admirable, but there’s also something off about her behaviour too. Is she trying too hard?

Trying was part of her nature, just as giving up was part of Marco’s. He had given up long before the stroke. It was merely a punctuation mark, a period at the end of a sentence.

Gilly is wealthy. She has hired a male nurse, beefcake Reed (think Tab Hunter wearing tight swimming trunks), and there’s also the housekeeper, the extremely religious, nosy Violet Smith who seems out-of-place in the household.

ask for me tomorrow

Through her lawyer, Smedley, Gilly arranges to hire a bilingual, newly graduated lawyer named Tom Aragon. Gilly refuses to discuss anything with Smedley and insists on discussing her case with Aragon at her home. Gilly tells Aragon that she was married before to a very wealthy man named B.J. Lockwood, but the marriage only lasted 5 years and ended when B.J. ran off with Tula, their 15 year-old pregnant Mexican maid. She hires Aragon to travel to Mexico and find out what happened to B.J. and the child he had with Tula.

Well, I’m fifty. That’s not very old, of course, but it cuts down on your alternatives, narrows your choices. There are more goodbyes and not so many hellos. Too many of the goodbyes are final. And the hellos-well, they’ve become more and more casual … I’ve lost one husband and I’m about to lose another. I’m depressed, scared, sitting in that room with Marco, listening to his breathing and waiting for it to stop. When it does stop, I’ll be alone, alone, period. I have no relatives and no friends I haven’t bought.

All a little weird as Gilly doesn’t seem the sentimental type. She arms Aragon with a letter she received from B.J. 5 years earlier. In the letter, B. J. asks Gilly for $100,000 which he says is an “opportunity to invest” in a building project, Jenlock Haciendas, in partnership with another American named Jenkins. According to B.J. “once the Americans get word of it we expect to be deluged with offers.” Yeah right. 

Gilly never sent the money. So Aragon’s task is to travel to Bahía de Ballenas, a place with no roads and no signposts, and discover what happened to B.J. and the child. Aragon goes to this remote, dusty, undeveloped region and ignites a trail of murder. 

Ask For Me Tomorrow is a wonderful book, full of peppy dialogue and quirky secondary characters, the waspish lawyer’s secretary, the pouty male nurse Reed, and Jenkins, the man caught up in the frenzy of dreams of riches. Yes, it’s a crime novel, and while I thought the plot was leading me in one direction, it took me somewhere else. More than anything else it’s about human nature and the bitterness of experience. There’s Gilly’s life story, of how she fell in love with the already married B.J. and how she worked on taking him from his wife, Ethel. He was, she claims, the love of her life, and yet there’s also bitterness there in a conversation she has with Aragon when she describes how B.J. ran off with Tula.

“B.J. always did honorable things, impulsive, stupid, absurd, but honorable. So the two of them rode off into the sunset. It was what they rode in that burns me up–the brand new motor home I’d just bought for us to go on a vacation to British Columbia. I was crazy about that thing. Dreamboat, I called it. On the first night it was delivered here to the house B.J. and I actually slept in it, and the next morning I made our breakfast in the little kitchen, orange juice and Grapenuts. A week later it was goodbye Dreamboat, B.J., Tula and the rest of the box of Grapenuts.”

“What do you want me to do, get back the rest of the Grapenuts?”

And then there’s B. J. What kind of a man was he? Evidently women were his Achilles’ heel but while he seems passive–the sort of man things happen to–he nonetheless manages to stir a maelstrom of emotions. 

It’s funny when you think about it–Henry Jenkins took B.J. from Tula the way she took him from me and I took him from Ethel. We just sort of passed him along from one to another like a used car. Even Ethel, Ethel the Good, she probably took him from somebody else. There was always someone waiting, wanting to use B.J. Where did it all start? The day he was born, the day the car came off the assembly line.

Absolutely fantastic

There are three Tom Aragon novels: Ask for Me Tomorrow, The Murder of Miranda, and Mermaid

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Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

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The Mars Room: Rachel Kushner

“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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Beast in View: Margaret Millar (1955)

“In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation–this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie.”

Thirty-year old Helen Clarvoe has a lot to be grateful for, and yet she lives a miserable, solitary existence at a bleak, second-rate hotel. After the death of her father, she left the family home and has very little to do with her flighty mother and dilettante brother. Beast is View is an exploration of loneliness, madness and manipulation, a claustrophobic novel with few characters and very little down time.

Beast in view

The novel wastes no time on preliminaries, and we are dropped right into the action when Helen Clarvoe picks up the phone, and begins a conversation with someone who purports to be an old friend. As the conversation becomes increasingly disturbing, Helen demands to know who is calling her: the caller identifies herself as Ellen Merrick, and that they met at school.

Peculiar things begin to happen to Helen. She hardly goes out as it is, but the phone call and the subsequent events rattle Helen so much, she turns to her late father’s financial advisor, 50-year-old Paul Blackshear for help.

What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive. 

Blackshear, a widower, is already semi retired, and when Helen tells him about the threatening phone call, and that she’s beginning to wonder if someone has access to her apartment, initially he doesn’t want to get involved. Then he changes his mind. Armed with scant information, Paul begins to track down the mysterious Evelyn Merrick. Soon he finds himself on the track of a woman who leaves a trail of damage through poisonous innuendo, and this trail leads him right back to the Clarvoe family. ….

Blackshear discovers that Evelyn Merrick has an almost hypnotic power over her victims. There’s one scene that takes place at the Lydia Hudson School of Charm and Modelling.

The outer office was a stylized mixture of glass brick and wrought iron and self-conscious young women in various stages of charm. Two of them were apparently graduates: they carried their professional equipment in hat-boxes, and they wore identical expressions, half disillusioned, half-alert, like travelers who had been waiting too long for their train and were eying the tracks for a relief car.  

This scene is representative of  the novel’s premise of truth vs. illusion. The charm school students feed the business–the graduates don’t feed the modelling industry. Millar creates a schism, a mirror fractured in two in the very first scene, and this sensation continues through Blackshear’s quest. Most of the (unpleasant) characters appear to have some sort of duality–whether they’re two-faced or living some sort of lie. Millar feeds this unsettling thread throughout the plot’s twists and turns.

Beast in View is an unnerving, classic woman-in-peril novel with an emphasis on terror through psychological suspense–something along the lines of Midnight Lace (although the plots are dissimilar). After reading this, it’s easy to see why it was picked up for an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, for in this novel, terror exists (mostly) in the mind. This book should appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell.

Margaret Millar was the wife of Kenneth Millar AKA Ross Macdonald

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Catalina: Liska Jacobs

“Dazzle a man and you blind him.”

From a few pre-publication quotes, I had a feeling that I’d love Catalina, a debut novel from Liska Jacobs. What is so attractive, so alluring about Kamikaze Women–self-destructive women whose messy personal disasters surround them in a blurring cloud of detritus? These are women who simultaneously attract and repel–women whose lives crumble at the foundations as they careen, hopelessly, from one catastrophe to another.

The Kamikaze Woman in Catalina is our narrator Elsa, who washes back up in California after being ‘let-go’ from her job as personal assistant to MoMA’s curator, the very married Eric Reinhardt. Elsa and Eric had an affair, and we don’t know what went wrong, but the affair ends with Elsa being given a “generous compensation” package by Human Resources. We get, right away, that Elsa is being discarded and paid off, but Elsa, hard-as-nails, but also interestingly brittle, doesn’t quite ‘get’ the fact that she’s been summarily dumped.

Catalina

Elsa begins to think that New York feels “predatory,” and so home to Bakersfield and her mother’s house, ostensibly to lick her wounds. But home doesn’t offer consolation:

Poor girl, the joke’s on you. You’re back. Your old life just waiting for you, like a second skin.

So Elsa escapes with a quick flight to LA and then it’s a short drive to Santa Monica. Elsa holes up in a luxury hotel, enrolling in a yoga course but going to the bar instead, dropping money even as she tries not to think about Eric from the blurriness of a cocktail of unknown drugs (stolen from her mother) and alcohol.

There are many bottles. Probably too many, I think. So I combine a few that look similar. Who cares? I definitely do not. After all. I’m doing what Eric suggested on that last day: Go Home. See your mother in Bakersfield. Be open to possibility. Fine, a blue one if the mood strikes, or maybe a white, or sea-foam green. So many possibilities. 

The scenes at the hotel are marvellous. The sniffy disapproval of the waiters and other guests as Elsa polishes off bottle after bottle of alcohol, ordering up coke though room service, and the way she teases a Lancelot in bellboy clothing.

Instead I call room service and order another Bloody Mary, which, I tell myself, is basically a salad. 

Finally, with numerous traumas and dramas played out, Elsa calls up her old friend Charly, who is married to Jared. Elsa expects her friend to be mired in domestic bliss, but it’s clear that there are problems between Charly and Jared. He makes cruel comments to his wife and keeps a lascivious eye on Elsa:

“Have you been working out?” he asks. I tell him the most exercise I get is lifting a wineglass to my mouth or opening a prescription bottle. This enthralls him. 

Elsa’s ex-husband Robbie now works for Jared, and so before long, Elsa finds herself on a trip to Catalina to attend a jazz festival with Charly, Jared, Robbie, his new girlfriend Jane and millionaire boat owner, the very alpha male, Tom. Tom’s family own ” a potato chip company, real American money.” 

He’s well groomed, scrubbed clean, and absolutely menacing. 

Of course, this trip is a recipe for disaster.  Charly’s marriage is unhappy, Jared is openly womanizing, Robbie still has the hots for his ex and Jane, a restaurant manager,  is … well… on the tiresome side. “She’s always doing some marathon or on a new diet.”  She’s “very animated. Her arms and hands wave as if she were an instructor worried about losing Robbie’s interest.” As for Tom, he says that Elsa, brought along on the Catalina trip as a date, reminds him of his first wife:

Hot as shit but absolutely bonkers. 

Catalina is the provocative, unsettling  story of one woman’s meltdown, but it’s also a story of a handful of people behaving badly. A novel of Bad Manners, if you will. Everyone thinks that wildly successful Elsa is back on an extended holiday, but Tom, who claims he can hear Elsa’s pills rattling in her bag, has Elsa’s number, and he delights in watching the trip implode as couples fight, friction escalates and lives collide.

The big question here is Elsa’s state before being dumped by Eric. There are elusive shards of the past tantalizingly submerged in the plot, and most of these float to the surface through Elsa’s memories of her marriage to Robbie. But this is a woman who doesn’t want to examine her life and her mistakes; she’s much prefer to blur the past, and the present, with alcohol and whatever pills she can dig out from the alarmingly diminishing supply which lurks at the bottom of her bag.  I loved Catalina; it’s just the sort of book I am always looking for and find so rarely–people behaving badly within the rails of polite society.

I squint to try to make out where the pier should be, where the Miramar is, where the airport and Charly and Jared’s house should be. Bakersfield just north and inland-New York and Eric a few thousand miles beyond that. It’s there, I’m sure. I suddenly feel lightheaded. Strange. Like catching your reflection, that moment just before recognition, when you are a stranger to yourself. 

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(The idea of Kamikaze Women comes from Woody Allen and the film Husbands and Wives.)

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