Tag Archives: crime fiction

First Born: Will Dean

Will Dean’s crime novel First Born revolves around the murder of one of two identical twins. The novel begins with Molly preparing to leave the UK to fly to New York. She is to join her parents who are already in New York on holiday to visit Molly’s twin, Katie. Katie was attending an American university on a generous sponsorship/scholarship depending on who you talk to. The holiday, however, turned into something else with the news that Katie has been murdered. Molly, a highly neurotic character, packs her bags, leaves London and flies, with great trepidation to New York.

Molly and Katie, may have been “identical,” but they were polar opposites in temperament: molly is risk-aversive and, yes, paranoid whereas Katie embraced life with zest, took chances and accepted change. Molly knows very little about Katie’s life in New York and she proceeds (with self-created monkey fist at the ready) to do her own investigation.

There’s no shortage of suspects: Scott, the good-looking boyfriend who isn’t so grief stricken to cancel his regular rowing practice and then there’s Shawn, the creepy son of the Katie’s landlady. And what about that slimy professor Groot, and Katie’s best friend Violet Roseberry who was in a “Nuthouse in the Catskills.” Molly even sniffs that her father is hiding something.

There was a lot about this novel that seemed off to me. So on one level, there’s bizarre stuff going on: Molly’s parents have to move from their decent hotel to a stinky run down vomit-fest of a hostel. Molly, an extremely annoying character, btw, is running around on the loose in New York, armed, doing her own investigation. Speaking of investigation: the names of the detectives are Martinez and Ramirez and then there’s PI Bogart de Luca….To this reader the names seemed … well… derivative or else there’s something weird going on here with the whole story. …

This seemed like a fairly standard who dunnit-it in terms of development until the half way point, but then the book turned into something else. There’s a unreliable narrator that’s clear and acceptable and then one that isn’t. For me, the plot became completely implausible.

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The Wycherly Woman: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer #9)

“I glanced up at her small tense face. She looked like a bunny after a hard Easter.”

In The Wycherly Woman, PI Lew Archer becomes embroiled in the ashes of an acrimonious divorce in pursuit of a missing daughter. Archer is summoned to the home of the obnoxious bombastic Homer Wycherly, a wealthy man who has just returned from a cruise only to find that his only child, Phoebe, has been missing since the day he sailed. Homer Wycherly hires Archer to find Phoebe with the odd admonition that Archer not, under any circumstances, contact his ex-wife Catherine, a woman with, according to Homer, a “vile tongue.”

Just a little digging and Archer discovers that Phoebe was last seen in the company of her mother. Phoebe came aboard her father’s cruise ship to say “Bon Voyage,” but the moment was ruined by Catherine Wycherly who came aboard the ship before it sailed and created a scene with Homer. She demanded money. Two months have passed and during that time, Phoebe has not been seen at Boulder Beach College, at her rooming house, or by her momma’s boy boyfriend, Bobby. Bobby’s acidic mother is, or was, also Phoebe’s landlady. Archer is sure that Bobby knows more than he’s saying, and it’s clear that there’s no love lost between Bobby’s mother and Phoebe.

Although Archer is told by Wycherly to steer of Catherine, after he learns that Phoebe left the ship with her mother, he has little choice but to talk to Catherine. One missing person case quickly becomes a case of two missing persons. Catherine, a full-bodied, loud-mouthed blonde long past her sell-by-date, has also disappeared. Her residence, bought with money from the divorce, is up for sale, and when Archer starts asking questions regarding the real estate agent involved, the body count rises.

Archer encounters a lot of lonely, lost women on his way to solving the mystery:

You’re a hard man, aren’t you? But I like you, I really do. Are you married?

No.

I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know where to go.

She leaned towards me with a lost expression, hoping to be found.

For most of the book, I thought The Wycherly Woman could end up being at the top of my Archer list. I liked the book’s structure, and the elusive glimpses Macdonald gives the reader of Phoebe, a troubled girl who never recovered from her parent’s nasty divorce. I didn’t come close to unraveling the mystery, and the toxic stench from Homer and his relatives kept me guessing. On the down side, the plot twist was hard to swallow. Can’t say more than that without giving too much away.

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The Galton Case: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 8)1959

In Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, PI Lew Archer is hired by one of California’s richest families to find the long lost heir, Anthony Galton. 22-year-old Anthony Galton disappeared, along with his pregnant, lowlife wife and a sizeable amount of cash, over 20 years ago in 1936. There’s been no word from him since. Widowed Mrs Galton, querulous and ill, wants Anthony, Tony, found, so the family lawyer, Sable, hires Archer for the job. With the trail long cold, Archer thinks the search is a waste of time and money, but he takes the job. mainly due to curiosity.

Oddly enough, in this cold case, there’s a trail of clues, like pieces of gingerbread that lead Archer to a pile of bones and a young man who claims to be Anthony Galton’s son. This seems to be the end of a long saga, but Archer isn’t satisfied. Early in the book, Archer says he “hates coincidences,” and those coincidences begin piling up.

When Archer starts digging, it’s the 50s, but the case reaches back into a world of prohibition and organized crime. There are many unanswered questions: including who killed Anthony Galton (the pile of bones without a head) and why? Where is his wife? The son has a story which seems to check out, but the entire swirling mess is entangled with some very unsavory characters. One of them, an impertinent, unlikely ‘butler’ who works for Sable and his much younger wife, is stabbed to death on the Sables’ doorstep by an unidentified man. Also, Archer isn’t happy with the way in which the missing persons case was solved so easily. Plus he is beaten badly and ends up in hospital.

Archer is a great character; he has his own code of ethics and once interested in a case, no-one can shake him lose. In The Galton Case, Archer is given a big cheque and is expected to walk away, but Archer senses there’s a lot more to the Galton story, and he continues investigating. Lew Archer books are peppered with fascinating characters, and there’s always the sense that Archer stumbles into the messy detritus of people’s lives. Here there’s a middle-aged poet, a woman with a shady past who now lives shrouded in middle-aged respectability, and a sordid couple who run a sordid rooming house. Many of the characters are imprisoned in their miserable lives. The class divide is the strongest yet I’ve seen in an Archer novel.

I bought a pint of whisky to ward off the chill and checked in at the Salisbury, a small side-street hotel where I usually stayed in San Francisco. The desk clerk was new to me. Desk clerks are always moving up or down. This one was old and on his way down; his sallow face dropped in the pull of gravity. He handed me my key reluctantly:

“No luggage, sir?”

I showed him my bottle in its paper bag.

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The N’Gustro Affair: Jean-Patrick Manchette

As a Jean-Patrick Manchette fan, I was delighted to see that New York Review Books Classics released another title: The N’Gustro Affair. The book is described as a ‘thinly disguised’ retelling of the abduction and murder of Ben Barka who opposed King Hassan II of Morocco. This is a timely release given the revolting murder of Jamal Khashoggi; somehow the two crimes, no doubt because of despicable commonalities, seem tied together.

The book opens with a few opinions about Henri Butron; there’s not much good to say–he’s a “mythomaniac” and a “pathologically case.” From those first impressions, then the book segues to Butron “wearing a smoking jacket” as he records his version of events in a tape recorder. “His own life fascinates him,” but he is rudely interrupted by two assassins who make short work of Butron. One of the assassins calls the police saying “Butron has committed suicide,” and the other grabs the reel from the tape recorder. The assassins wait for the police to arrive and then make a cordial departure. Butron’s recording is delivered into the hands of Marshal George Clemenceau Oufiri who listens with merriment at Butron’s sordid, braggartly tale.

Butron’s tale is clearly laced with the fabrications of an psychopathic egoist. At school he confesses “I could have been brilliant had I cared to be but I didn’t.” Butron, a petty, violent thief consider himself amazingly intelligent, but he also boasts about his sexual conquests. Butron’s version of his life is interrupted with observations and facts from others. These versions meet on some salient points but diverge when it comes to Butron’s fantastically inflated opinion of himself. Butron is a dangerous thug whose submersion into right wrong politics, where he proves to be a useful idiot, creates a patina of idealism on his basic revolting nature.

It’s a commentary on society that someone like Butron, a nasty little man, should not only be tolerated but supported and used to further political aims. The N’Gustro Affair is not easy reading–full of Butron’s grubby bragging about women and violence, it’s nauseating to read about this human cockroach. The long, interesting intro goes into the Ben Barka case, but it’s one of those mixed bag situations where the intro helps you understand the background and the connection with the Ben Barka case but at the same time pulled me away from the plot. My least favourite Manchette to date.

Review copy Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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Vanish in an Instant: Margaret Millar (1952)

Back to the many unread Margaret Millar books on my shelves, and this time it’s Vanish In An Instant with its almost comical cover which belies this depressing, suffocating moody of tale of deception, greed, and murder.

Vanish

The book opens at the Detroit airport with the arrival of the fussy, not-very-pleasant Mrs. Hamilton and her companion, a young girl called Alice. Mrs Hamilton has flown in from sunny California to the snow and grime of Detroit–the weather sets the tone for the entirety of the novel. Mrs Hamilton is here on a mission to ‘save’ her spoiled daughter, Virginia Barkley, who has been accused of stabbing local lothario, Claude Margolis. While Mrs Hamilton expects to be met at the airport by her son-in-law, Dr Paul Barkeley, instead she’s greeted by Virginia’s newly-hired lawyer, Eric Meecham.

The sidewalk was dirty with slush and on the road the cars swished by with the splatters of mud. Even the wind was dirty. Somewhere, in the north of Canada, it had started out fresh, but it had picked up dirt on its journey, smoke and dust and particles of soot.

Mrs Hamilton is an unpleasant woman. She’s not interested in what happened to Claude Margolis or even why Virginia is accused of his murder. She’s the type who throws money at problems, and expects them to be fixed … pronto.

At first this seems to be an open-and-shut case with Virginia as the perp, but then a young man named Earl Loftus pops up at the police station and confesses to the crime. Everything seems to be very neatly sewn up: there’s a nice little confession and bloodstained clothes at the back of Earl’s wardrobe. Loftus didn’t know the victim but he has a plausible enough motive story to carry him all the way to the electric chair

Virginia is released, Loftus has confessed, and yet Meecham isn’t happy… he knows he’s missing something. Loftus, a sad, defeated man, has nothing to lose; he’s dying of Leukemia, and Meecham, driven by curiosity and a request from Loftus, starts digging below the fetid surface of this murder case.

In this moody tale, Meecham is drawn into the toxic worlds that surround Virginia and Loftus. The humiliations of poverty compounded by disease ensnare Loftus and almost make him welcome death, and even one hardened character grasps the poignancy of Loftus’s small, sad life.  In contrast there’s Virginia who’d happily rip off her mother by bumping up Meecham’s fee–just as long as she gets a slice of the action. Most of the people who inhabit these two seemingly disparate worlds, the rich and the poor, are unpleasant, and Meecham’s probing peels back layers of disturbing domestic lives. What is it about these characters that leaves Meecham feeling slightly unclean as though contact brings a cloying moral stain?

Although I didn’t care for the implausible love story, there are some great lines here which added a lot to the tale:

Lawyers come high. The more crooked they are, the bigger their price. That’s how they stay out of the booby hatch, by rubbing the lesions on their conscience with greenbacks.

And here’s Jacqui’s review

And Marina’s review

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Nothing Can Hurt You: Nicola Maye Goldberg

“At a certain point, you realize the world is so bad, that it’s easier to pretend that people deserve the terrible things that befall them. That way, at least, you can pretend that you are safe.”

In a series of interconnected stories centered on the murder of a college student, Nothing Can Hurt You from Nicola Maye Goldberg sensitively examines the fallout from the crime. In 1997, Sara Morgan is  horrifically murdered by her boyfriend, Blake Campbell, and when Blake pleads guilty by temporary insanity, he is acquitted. But this doesn’t end the story for those who are involved, touched, and haunted by Sara’s death in one way or another.

Nothing can hurt you

The book begins strongly with an opening section from a young, damaged married woman named Marianne. She’s moved to upstate New York along with her husband, and while their new idyllic home makes it seem that they “had wandered into a painting,” the darkness in Marianne’s head remains. There are hints that the root cause of her “episodes” lies buried deep in her past. Yes you can move to the country, buy a big house, and get a dog, but these are just the trappings of normalcy. Marianne is damaged and nothing’s going to change that.

It’s Marianne who finds Sara’s body in the woods. There’s some debate whether Sara was the victim of serial killer, John Logan, who operated in the area, but Blake Campbell’s confession eradicates that theory. As the book continues we meet characters who are caught in the ripples that form in the wake of Sara’s murder. Many of the characters knew both the victim and the killer, and find it impossible to align the events that took place. And what of Blake who walked away from the murder and spent a short time in an upscale Rehab center? 

Katherine, an alcoholic, meets Blake at the Paradise Lake Recovery Center. He’s young, handsome and a reader like Katherine. Katherine hears the “gossip” that Blake murdered Sara, but she finds it hard to believe that Blake is capable of such violence. Blake’s friend, Sam, the owner of the knife used to kill Sara is still haunted by her death. He’s plagued by bad dreams, dissects the past to try to look for clues he missed about Blake, and even now, years later, the murder stains Sam’s personal life. 

In this chorus of voices, there’s a third circle of people–not family, not friends, but still people touched by the crime. During the trial of serial killer, John Logan, Juliet, a reporter who works for a small local paper in upstate New York meets Celeste, a veteran NY reporter who’s feeling burnout from all the violence. Juliet, at the beginning of her career becomes obsessed with Sara’s murder

“How so they manage it? Serial Killers?” I asked Celeste once. “I can barely keep my shit together, and I only have one job.” I was having a lot of days when things like showering and buying groceries seemed not only pointless but basically impossible.

“It energizes them,” she said, without hesitation. “They’re at work, they’re waiting in line at the DMV, whatever, and they’re thinking about what they’ve done, what they’re going to do. It’s how they get through the day.”

The families of the victim and the killer are at ground zero when the murder occurs. Sara’s half-sister, Luna grows up in the wake of the murder and eventually cuts herself off from her family. Blake’s family “hired a lawyer, a good one, from New York, to represent their son. Did that make them bad parents? Bad people?” Blake’s sister, Gemma, has managed to detach herself from her family, but she wonders if her daughter is headed for inherited mental illness. A young girl writes to the manipulative serial killer, and Sara’s mother, who years later is a psychic, is called in on the disturbing case of a missing child:

The Stoddards live in what used to be a farmhouse. It’s big for three people. which makes Jonathan think they wanted more children. They moved up here from New York before William was born, probably to escape the terrors and temptations of the city. Inside, it’s beautifully decorated with thick, soft carpets and silver doorknobs. But it smells slightly off, like rotting fruit. On a table by the front door is a crystal vase full of nothing but dirty water.  

Threading through the stories is the dark, inexplicable nature of violence. There’s random violence against strangers, and then there’s violence against people we say we cherish the most. We look for reasons for violence–not just the solution to a crime, and that’s what’s so disturbing about Sara’s murder; there are no answers.

Some victims stay victims but others … well others who face monsters learn what they are capable of. As Josephine Hart writes in Damage“Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” Marianne shows just how dangerous she can be when another man makes a clumsy pass. It was at this early point in the book, that I knew I was reading something special. 

The snow had fallen so heavily overnight that Ted could not get his car out of our driveway. He and my husband spent all day watching TV, playing Risk, and drinking whiskey. They ate leftovers. I pretended to be busy in bed with a book, when I was really sitting with the emptiness. For the first time I longed for one of my visions. I wanted to see Ted’s head crack open, to see myself scooping out his brain with my fingernails.

Brilliant.

Review copy

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The Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

“You think police work is all about brainwork. It’s not. It’s about telling a story.”

Police detectives must, by the nature of their jobs, drop into the messy points of people’s lives. This is certainly true in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A-35. Bertrand Barthelme, a prominent lawyer in the town of Saint Louis, is found dead at the wheel of his green Mercedes. It’s a rainy November night, and the simple explanation is that the driver fell asleep at the wheel and careened off the road colliding with a tree.

The accident on the A35

Chief Inspector Gorski, who always contemplates the methods of his much more popular predecessor, is determined to keep an “open mind” about the accident. Gorski decides to break the bad news to Barthelme’s family himself–partly due to the status of the deceased. Saint Louis, “a place of little note, situated at the Dreyeckland, the junction of Germany, Switzerland and eastern France,” is a small, suffocating town, where everyone knows everyone else, and a few families, the old money families, pull a lot of strings.

The town’s twenty thousand inhabitants can be divided into three groups: those who have no aspiration to live somewhere less dreary; those who lack the wherewithal to leave; and those who, for reasons best known to themselves, like it. 

Gorksi visits the Barthelme mansion which is guarded by the housekeeper, Thérèse, an unpleasant woman who has been with the family for years. Ushered into Lucette Barthelme’s bedroom to break the news, Gorski is surprised to discover that the new widow is young and attractive, but then, after all, she was Barthelme’s second wife. When Gorski breaks the news of her husband’s death, to Lucette there’s “something curious in her subdued response.” Ditto the son, Raymond, who has been listening to the movements of the late night visitor.

Even though no one (except perhaps Thérèse) mourns Barthelme’s death, Lucette asks Gorksi to look into the accident that killed her husband. According to Lucette, he was at his club and would not have been on that particular road at that time of night, and so Gorksi begins to poke around ….

The death of Barthelme should be an open and shut case, but Gorksi isn’t quite satisfied.  After questioning the dead lawyer’s acquaintances, Gorski hits a brick wall, but then he begins to make a connection to a high profile murder in another town.  Influenced by his desire to keep contact with the lovely widow, a damsel in distress who meets Gorksi in her negligee,  Gorksi, who finds any excuse to knock back alcohol, embarks on an investigation that appears to be blocked at every turn. He’s the object of disrespect at the police station and only has the job because of his father-in-law, the Mayor. Then there’s Gorski’s marriage which has long since been flushed down the toilet–even if Gorksi hasn’t quite grasped that. Gorski vacillates between thinking he misses his wife and enjoying the luxury of a sort-of holiday from her.

While this sounds like a police procedural, that is too inadequate a description for this unusual, engaging crime novel. The novel has a feel of Simenon, but ultimately The Accident on the A-35 cannot be filed away quite so neatly. Two marriages are under scrutiny here: and in both cases, people married ‘up’ and lived in oppressive circumstances. The death of Barthelme frees his widow and also unleashes Gorksi to indulge in the ultimate investigation mistake: squeezing a crime into a created narrative. This is a compelling tale which captures the oppressiveness of small town life, the lure of distractions, career and marriage frustrations and yes, also, the death of a prominent lawyer. There’s one brilliantly created scene that takes place at a restaurant between Gorksi and his wife. When it seems that Gorksi has been stood up, with simmering resentment and deep humiliation in front of the other smirking customers, he orders for himself.

Gorski got up, knocking the table with his thigh. The wine bottle teetered for a moment, before Céline reached out and steeled it. She allowed him to kiss her on both cheeks. In her heels, she was half a head taller than him. 

He mumbled an apology. “I assumed you weren’t coming. The kitchen was closing.”

Céline looked at him. “You’re drunk. she said.”

This is, of course, a power play, a marital maneuver, in which Céline takes revenge for earlier humiliation, knowing that her husband will polish off a bottle of wine before her grand entrance.

The novel purports to be written by the now deceased Raymond Brunet and translated by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I was only annoyed by these diversions and thought the novel stood strongly without that extra wrapping.

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this.

Review copy

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The Shut Eye: Belinda Bauer

“Your future,” he whispered, “is my memory.”

I’d never heard of the author Belinda Bauer, but then I came across The Shut Eye, highly recommended by Cleo, a fellow crime aficionado who reviews at Cleopatra Loves Books. Cleo’s recommendation came with the caveat that she found the psychic element a bit off-putting, but I knew that if carried off by the author carefully, I’d rather like that different twist to a crime novel.

The book’s detective is Lewisham DCI Jack Marvel, a cynical hardened detective whose job has left him with a sour opinion of people, but he’s still a good detective with a “staggering” 84% solve rate.

The longer DCI Jack Marvel worked in homicide, the more he disliked people. He’d never met one he didn’t hate–or despise, at the very least–and he could see the bad in anyone.

It was a useful quality in a detective. Not so much in a human being. Murder was DCI Marvel’s favourite thing in the whole world–even above Sky Sports. There was no other crime that had the sheer black-and-white finality of murder, and it was one of the few things in life that he took personally. He was good at it, too. He had hunches and insights; he had the dogged obsession to keep going when everyone else had given up–not because he wanted to solve the crime, but because he hated to lose. Solving murders was a competition, make no bones about it. The killer won, or the cops won.

Marvel is working on a case of a murdered prostitute, but he can’t let go of the unsolved case of twelve year old Edie Evans who disappeared on her way to school over a year ago. Although the case was initially treated as truancy, the moment Marvel walks into the missing girl’s bedroom he “had known that she’d been taken.” It’s a gut feeling blended from experience, a feeling of the victim, and perhaps, just perhaps, something else….

the shut eye

There were no real clues about Edie’s disappearance except her abandoned bicycle and a few drops of blood nearby. Even a psychic, “Shut Eye” Richard Latham, is consulted in the case, but Edie is never found, and now, more than a year later, the case is cold and shelved.

Marvel, who we now know is a good detective but a crap human being, is like a dog with a bone when it comes to his cases, so he’s furious when he’s pulled off the case of the murdered prostitute and asked, in confidence by his boss, Superintendent Clyde, to help find his wife’s missing poodle, Mitzi. It’s a very funny scene when Marvel is shown a photo of “a buxom woman with too much lipstick sitting on a sofa.” Marvel thinks initially he’s supposed to find the woman, so he’s stunned when his boss tells him he’s supposed to find the dog that’s also in the photo. Marvel sees the favour as an opportunity to leverage promotion

It was his unshakeable view that everybody had a flaw in their make-up that allowed leverage to be exerted, and he liked to think he had a knack of identifying those weaknesses, those tiny human failings, that would give him the upper hand in any relationship.

So a very resentful Marvel begins investigating the case of the missing poodle, and this brings Marvel back to Latham. Meanwhile Anna Buck, a woman whose toddler went missing a few months previously also contacts Latham out of sheer desperation, and this is where all paths intersect….

That’s as much of the plot of this pageturner as I’m going to discuss. It could be argued that the plot is marred by coincidence, but that argument is refuted by the idea that coincidence is often orchestrated by some bizarre design, all compounded by watching the lives of our characters as they overlap like circles in a Venn diagram.

The emphasis here is on character, and for this reader, although the book opens with Anna Buck, who’s gone mad with grief, the main character here is Marvel. I loved the psychic element to the story, and appreciated the clever way the author showed families in different stages of grief. Edie’s parents, still standing together, have come to a horrible quiet acceptance that their daughter is most likely dead, but that doesn’t stop a desperate hope surging whenever Marvel calls. In contrast is Anna Buck, sinking into madness, who blames her husband for their son’s disappearance. At the lowest point in her life, she sees a psychic as the last possible hope, and meeting Latham has consequences that none of our characters could have predicted. Marvel, a misanthrope, and an antagonist to his own feelings, is the most interesting character here. There’s a lot to admire about Marvel but he lacks humanity–almost as though he’s afraid that benevolence will become a chink in his armour. Ultimately, however, it’s Marvel who emerges from these experiences as a better person, a man who has grown emotionally in spite of his best efforts to the contrary.

Review copy.

 

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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

“Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with a fifteen-year-old girl?”

Slated to be the blockbuster novel of the year, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair from Swiss author Joel Dicker is a complex and convoluted novel which examines the relationship between two authors against the backdrop of a crime that took place decades earlier. Most reviews of the book are glowing, and since the book won several French literary prizes, sold close to a million copies in France, and is named Amazon’s Book-of-the-Month for May 2014, most readers will come to the book with high expectations.

harryAt close to 700 pages, there’s a lot going on in the book–too much, but more of that later. The book’s synopsis is intriguing, and for this reader, the book was at its best in the beginning as the relationship between author Harry Quebert and his young protégé and former student,  Marcus Goldman is established. Suffering from writer’s block, Marcus, who’s a one-hit-wonder of a novelist, can’t write his second novel. Under tremendous pressure, partly due to the hefty advance that’s already mostly spent, Marcus retreats from the glitzy party scene in New York to his mentor, Harry Quebert’s idyllic beachside home in Somerset, New Hampshire. Marcus knows instinctively that if anyone can help him overcome his writer’s block, then that person is Harry. But shortly after his arrival, Harry is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergan, a 15 year-old who disappeared back in 1975….

Marcus becomes involved in the case and is determined to write a book which will prove Harry’s innocence, but Harry, one of America’s “best selling and highly respected authors” (and pompous to boot) isn’t exactly helping his own case since he admits that he had an affair with the teen and that she inspired his best-selling second novel, The Origin of Evil, the book that served as the pinnacle of his career.  Marcus finds himself trapped in the flesh-market of celebrity and caught between loyalties: he can write a bestseller and betray his friend or he sink into obscurity, yet another has-been.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is touted as a cinematic novel, and while I don’t agree, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this, with substantial cuts, made into a film. The novel is also supposed to be “tightly-plotted,” but the plot which moves between 1975 and 2008 meanders all over the place, leaving loose ends until convenient moments of discovery.  Other claims about the novel state that it’s a portrait of small-town America, and while the novel begins as a crime story, it clearly morphs into something else as the plot unfolds and becomes increasingly complicated. The missing girl turns out to be a local Lolita; then add corruption, gossip, nosiness, voyeurism, masochism, dodgy police officers, a reclusive billionaire, and the narrow dogmas of some backwoods religion to the mix. (To paraphrase from Out of the Furnace: “Church ain’t over ’till the last snake is back in the bag.”) Unfortunately the wild inaccuracies and implausibilities in the novel eradicate much of the novel’s intentions to portray the ambience and hypocrisy of small-town America.

There’s so much here that’s just off: At one point in the novel, Police Sgt Gahalowood is waiting for a crucial handwriting analysis. A great deal of the case against Harry hinges on the results, and the analysis doesn’t arrive and we’re kept waiting. When the results finally arrive, other story lines appear exhausted so that the timing seems plot driven more than anything else. Then much, much later, just as the plot appears to have been solved, another niggling little loose end drags us back in. The messy, bloated plot includes even a theoretical version of events. Then there’s the issue of implausibility:  Gahalowood allows Goldman to ride along repeatedly for the investigation, question witnesses and even shares crucial, trial-determining evidence. Then there’s the issue of the way witnesses are just sitting around waiting to spill the beans on vital pieces of evidence. Marcus steps into their lives, asks a question or two, and all these secrets all too conveniently pour out. Another problem concerns the female characterizations of two middle aged women–Marcus’s mother, and Tamara Quinn, the former owner of the town’s café. These two women are mostly caricature with the result that the scenes between Tamara and her husband are almost comic–a tone which jars with the rest of the book:

Satisfied with the arrangements outside, Tamara went into the house to monitor what was happening there. She found Jenny at her post in the entrance hall, ready to welcome the guests. But she did have to scold Robert , who was wearing a shirt and tie, but had not yet out on his pants–because on Sundays he was allowed to read the newspaper in his underwear in the living room; he liked it when the draft from the open windows blew inside his underpants because that cooled him down, particularly his hairy parts, and he found that very pleasant.

“Enough parading around  naked, Bobbo!” his wife rebuked him. “all that is over now. Do you really imagine that you’re going to walk around in your underwear when the great Harry Quebert is our son-in-law?”

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is an ambitious novel which tries to achieve several things. There’s a long buried crime, and a relationship between two writers–one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Then there’s an exposé on the hypocrisy of small-town America, and finally, there’s a hard look at American society and the fickle publishing industry, its savage focus on celebrity, the invasion of privacy, media manipulation, the disposability of authors, and the ephemeral nature of fame. I don’t like to slag off on any book, but The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is riddled with problems. So why did I slog through nearly 700 pages?… I wanted to know who killed Nola, the girl who was the living embodiment of, and also interestingly, the vessel of small town hypocrisy. Nola is dead when the novel begins, and yet somehow her image remains alive thirty-three years later. Through memories, Nola has left behind a series of representations, but are any of these memories correct? Or did people just see what they wanted to see? How did Nola become a reflection of various twisted desires? These are some intriguing questions which are unfortunately obfuscated by the bloated, convoluted and implausible plot.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair depicts a whorish American publishing industry while garnering glowing rave reviews and phenomenal sales. The American publishing industry is shown as the real villain here with authors only as good (or as interesting) as their last best-seller. There’s an irony here which did not escape me.

“People like you because you’re young and dynamic.  And hip. That’s what you are–a hip writer. Nobody expects you to win the Pulitzer prize; they like your books because they’re cool, they’re entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Here’s Stu’s review

Translated by Sam Taylor. Review copy.

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Filed under Dicker Joel, Fiction

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

Review copy

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Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction, Fremlin Celia, Highsmith Patricia, Hughes Dorothy B., Jackson Shirley, Millar Margaret, Neilsen Helen, Sanxay Holding Elizabeth