Tag Archives: infidelity

More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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Filed under Crofts Freeman Wills, Iles Francis, Non Fiction, Sayers Dorothy

A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins (1968)

“To escape from the darkness of the ghetto-mind, especially if you had been imprisoned in it for over forty years, you had to be ruthless as well as reckless. Whether you were to be condemned or congratulated would depend on what use you made of your freedom.”

Mungo Jenkins, a married man in his 40s decides to run off to Barcelona with Myra. They’ve been involved in an affair now for some time, and independently wealthy Myra pushes Mungo to leave his wife and three children; it’s now or never.

A very scotch affair

Mungo was born in the slums of Glasgow’s Culdean Street, “still today one of the scruffiest in the east end, and had been brought up by a half-mad old aunt said to be a rag-dealer.” Mungo is now an insurance superintendent for a small company. He married Bess, a factory worker, 24 years earlier, and they have three children together: Andrew, Peggy and Billy. Mungo has long stopped loving his wife. In fact he can’t stand her:

God knew he looked for nothing fancy in a woman of forty-six who had borne three children. He did not expect her to tint or dye her hair, but was there any need for it to be always so drab and untidy? She said she couldn’t afford hairdressers, slimming biscuits, expensive girdles, and flattering clothes, as well as a son at University and a daughter in the sixth form. That was all true enough, but surely she should have learned, in her twenty-four years of marriage to him, that the truth ought never to be used as a skulking-place? Then in her almost revengeful deterioration she had taken to leaving out her false teeth at night, because, so she claimed, keeping them in gave her inflamed gums,. Those shrunken kisses in the dark, demanded so coyly, had revolted him more and more. They were made worse too by her recounting, with inane laughter, some trivial gossip of house, street, shop, or whist-table.

Mungo thinks he could have gone so much farther in life without his wife and children, but now “he might be held captive until death by the innumerable coils of sheer commonplace habit.” Determined to announce his departure, Mungo, unwittingly chooses the worse time to abandon his family. Bess has cancer. …

A Very Scotch Affair follows the fallout of Mungo’s departure: the repercussions on his children and also the reactions of the family’s friends and neighbours. While Mungo thinks rather highly of his abilities, this view is perhaps not as accurate as Mungo would like to believe, and unfortunately, Bess’s adoring love has helped sustain Mungo in his conceit. While Andrew, involved in a mess of his own, doesn’t seem to blame his dad for abandoning the family, Billy, the youngest at age 12 hates his father, and when Mungo announces his decision to desert his wife and children, Billy reveals close observations of his father’s intellectual “fraud.”

All those books in the bookcase through in the sitting-room, he couldn’t even read them and they’re in English. He would take one, look at it, and then put it back. He’d do that with half a dozen. Then he’d sit down with one and try to read it, but after a wee while he’d drop it and read a newspaper instead.

And then there’s Peggy, an unusual young woman, circled with an aura of sadness, who has made an art of accepting the limitations of human behaviour.

Set in a poor protestant Glasgow neighbourhood rife anti-catholic sentiments, the book contains some colourful secondary characters: Bess’s mean-spirited friend widowed Flo, a woman who “refused to make an iota of allowance for inevitable human shortcomings.” She is being courted by the widower Mr Peffermill, whose “prim, self-importance” and circumspect behaviour hide a vicious mind. When Mungo runs off to Barcelona, he doesn’t just desert his wife and children, he deserts his class. Most of the residents of the close knit neighbourhood, united in their poverty and common values, are appalled by Mungo’s behaviour. Bess is very popular in the neighbourhood:

Her laughter and smiles brought smiles and well-disposed remarks even from those whose luck was out. It was like having a fire to sit at, on a snowy night, just listening to Bess Niven laugh. 

The book contains some (very small amount) Glaswegian dialect which may be difficult for non-English readers.

A Very Scotch Affair is marvellous. When the book opens, Mungo justifies his actions to himself, but the plot gradually reveals the unreliability of Mungo’s argument plus the fallout of his selfishness. When we meet Bess, yes fat, yes, dowdy, we meet a woman whose warmth, generosity of spirit, and love radiant to everyone.

In the small hallway, as he took off his hat and coat, he looked about him at the pathetic evidences of Bess’s unimaginative home-making; the red candles in their tin holders on the wall, the picture of red and white roses bought at the Barrows, the patched carpet, and the brass jug useless for anything but keeping Billy’s marbles in.

“That you, Mungo?” she cried from the living-room.

“Aye.” He smelled egg and sausage, baked in the oven, one of his favourite dishes. She would have spent time and care seeing it was just as he liked it. Aye but she never read a book from one year’s end to the other, and did her best to keep him from reading any.

Mungo isn’t really running away from his wife; he’s running away from himself. And of course, there are some tough lessons ahead, and while Mungo pays a price, others pay even more for his immense selfishness. And Mungo’s selfishness is incredible. He justifies his actions repeatedly, and everything is about Mungo. Even in the face of his wife’s illness and his decision to desert her in the time of her (and his children’s) greatest need, he’s the one who feels that he needs support and comfort.  For this reader, Mungo is added to the list of literary villains.

A Very Scotch Affair will make my best-of-year list.

Here’s Kim’s review:

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Acts of Infidelity: Lena Andersson

“Ester might just have met a real shit.”

In Lena Andersson’s novel Acts of Infidelity, writer & playwright Ester, a single woman in early middle age, begins an affair with the married actor who features in her play, Threesome. Olof doesn’t talk a great deal about his wife, Ebba, a doctor, who works out of town during the week and returns on the weekends, so Ester assumes that the marriage is ‘disintegrating.’ The affair is just a few months old, and not yet consummated, when Ester tells Olof, as they sit in a restaurant, that she wants to share her life with him. In response, Olof shreds his paper napkin nervously. Not a good sign.

Acts of Infidelity tracks the progress of Ester and Olof’s affair through its stages. Ester is the active party here, doggedly pursing Olof, and yet Olof is no innocent. The affair is often sporadic in nature, and when Ester doesn’t contact Olof for a while, he, obviously missing the attention and ego gratification, stirs up action repeatedly.

 

For those who read Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard then you know that Ester has been down this road before. This begs the question: are some people more likely to participate in long-drawn out affairs than others? After reading both novels, that’s a big ‘yes’ in Ester’s case. She “always pawned her life’s meaning for the man she’s chosen.” In Willful Disregard, Ester lost all sense of self and perspective when she sank into a nebulous, obsessive relationship with charismatic artist, Hugo Rask. In many ways, Acts of Infidelity is working the same themes: a woman who misreads a man’s signals and wants to put a fence and signposts around a relationship that defies commitment.

In Acts of Infidelity, Ester is older than she was in Willful Disregard and her career has progressed. In that sense, she has more to offer to a potential partner, and she also, in some ways, has more control and more self control than she had in Willful Disregard.  At one point, Ester acknowledges that she’s not “about to wade back into the bog of uncertainty” she endured with Rask, yet here she is, accepting crumbs once more while demanding, almost the minute she starts meeting Olof on the sly (even before they’ve had sex), that he leave his wife … or else.

Olof is a much more conventional (and less interesting) person than artist Hugo Rask, the man she pursued in Willful Disregard, but there are commonalities. While she was out of her league in dealing with Hugo, she seems determined not let Olof escape, and it’s not that easy to see just why Ester is relentless in her goal of nailing Olof into a monogamous relationship with her; he’s not exactly a great catch. He’s not particularly intelligent; he’s weasely, smug and he’s spineless. Ester realises that “he was a hard-done-by person, not an active subject in his life,” and this is a significant realization given the circumstances of their relationship. I began to wonder if there were some deeper psychological game at play here. Is Ester’s single-mindedness a psychological manifestation, closure if you will, of her affair with Rask? That relationship, which capitalized on her vulnerabilities, almost destroyed her, but will her relationship with Olof somehow repair the damage and return her life to equilibrium?

There’s a lot in this novel that’s spot-on. Ester has a circle of friends she calls for advice, and she will recall a scene between her and Olof seeking an interpretation of events, but of course the interpretation has to be the one she wants.

Then there are moments when Olof says one thing but Ester hears another:

Olof thought for a moment and said:

“I’m thinking we should meet up now and again in the future and see what happens. Decisions don’t always have to be made right away.”

Not again, Ester thought, never again, I’m going to get right up and go.

She stayed put and finished her meal. Soon they were walking from Djurgården towards the city along Strandvågen, arm-in-arm on Olof’s initiative. In line with Grevgaten, Ester stopped and embraced him, and he reciprocated, while saying he shouldn’t be doing this. They were approaching Dramaten National Theatre, their bodies close, when Olof stated:

“Leaving my wife isn’t on the cards.”

This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honourable, and when they meant the opposite. 

The book intellectualizes the affair, and this is partly achieved through Ester’s constant need to interpret Olof’s words into the narrative she wants to hear. Sometimes this works:

To Olof Sten, the mistress was an idea he so eagerly embraced that he never stopped to question that the traditional ‘mistress’ might not in fact exist. Instead he zealously embraced the idea as reality. 

At other times the intellectualizing of the affair is over-the-top and starts to read like non-fiction:

The self-loathing that arises from being unable to abstain from that which makes a man weak, his urges, is redirected to the mistress because she reveals the lover’s weakness to himself and the world. The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complementary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order

In Willful Disregard, (a better novel IMO), I wanted Ester to dump Rask and show him how insignificant he was. In Acts of Infidelity, I wanted to ask Ester what on earth she was thinking; at one point, for example, Olof texts his wife repeatedly, smiling at the exchanges, while sitting at a table for two at a restaurant (they’re off on  a dirty weekend) in a ski resort. So my reaction to Ester’s respective behavior in both novels shifted from sympathy to deciding she’s an idiot and needs to talk to someone (professional) other than her friends, about why she indulges in these cyclical behaviours.

Acts of Infidelity explores that all-too familiar scenario of the woman caught in an affair with a married man who has no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. Unfortunately Ester (and many others like her) never quite gets that a spouse is the ultimate defense, the ultimate excuse. Human motivation is complex at the best of times, and an extra-marital affair is a situation fraught with opaque inducements. The over-intellectualized portions are the novel’s biggest weakness, but its greatest strength is in its exploration of self-delusion and why affairs, conducted with two completely opposing narratives, layered with excuses, coercion, guilt, self-deception, and abdication of personal responsibility, are ultimately so toxic and destructive.

Review copy

Translated by Saskia Vogel

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Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

German Literature Month 2018

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

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

Mrs sartoris

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Another review at Winston’s dad

Another review at Vishy’s blog

And Caroline’s review. 

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Filed under Fiction, Schmitter Elke

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy lingered on the shelf for some time, but the enthusiasm of the Gerts drove the book closer to the top of the pile. Good thing too, as this book is just the sort of read I crave. Why: the viewpoint of an unreliable protagonist, a summer holiday, and the nebulous morality of a handful of characters.

The story is told through the mind of main character Matthew, a British chef who moved to America and is between jobs after selling a restaurant. He’s a part, an outer part, of his wealthy cousin Charlie’s life. Charlie, an investment banker who was ‘let go’ is also between jobs, but whereas Charlie has a considerable family fortune to bolster his lifestyle, Matthew does not. The third main character here is Charlie’s second wife Chloe, and when Charlie invites Matthew to his second home near the town of Aurelia in New York State for the duration of the summer, Matthew jumps at the chance.

What should be an idyllic summer is actually a season of tension, unease and strange undercurrents which shift beneath the three main characters. Charlie spends most of the time alternating between his next career move and meditating, Chloe is supposedly attending yoga classes, and Matthew is a sort of go-fer, using Charlie’s card to buy high-end food items with which he prepares nightly meals. While the three people share an address, they don’t share space apart from meal times.

The summer thickened around them. Soon it reached that point of miraculous equilibrium where it felt at once as if it had been going on forever and as if it would never end. The heat merged with the constant sounds of insects and red-winged blackbirds, to form its own throbbing, hypnotic medium. It made you feel as if you were inside some green-lit womb, full of soft pulsations. 

The relationship between the three characters, on the surface, seems comfortable. Matthew admits (to himself) a “general feeling of enchantment” in Chloe’s company. Everyone says the right things, and yet… the relationship between Charlie and Matthew, under scrutiny, seems strained. Can this be explained by the gap in their social status? There’s something unhealthy and unspoken here: a toleration instead of a family bond. A gap in fortunes and social status can (and often does) create awkward moments. That’s definitely true here, and there’s the feeling that Matthew ‘pays’ for his board by running errands and cooking meals. Plus there’s an undercurrent of an alternate agenda from Matthew. He wants to “jumpstart his career,” and there’s a falseness, an element of hanger-on to this relationship.

Matthew, who is bewitched by Chloe, admits that “the woman who was so obviously the right woman for Charlie, was, so to speak, the right woman” for him. He’s content to admire her, and bask in her company, but the situation shifts when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, and it’s this discovery which shifts the unease into overdrive.

Meanwhile the sight of Charlie working or meditating, or driving off in his tennis gear, formed an image of increasingly irritating innocence. Even his pleasantly mindless activities were losing their charm, their soothing rhythms broken by gusts of crackling interference from a situation that had nothing to do with the problems he was trying to sort out. 

James Lasdun creates an odd love-quadrangle here with Matthew as the bit player and yet one who places himself in the power position in the affair. Matthew could tell his cousin Charlie, but should he? After all, if he tells Charlie, Charlie will be devastated and there goes Matthew’s relationship with Chloe (not to mention the cessation of his summer holiday). At first Matthew’s discovery is a moral dilemma but as the novel continues, Matthew’s role becomes much darker.

The Gerts describe the plot as Hitchcockian, and I agree. The Fall Guy plumbs the depths of dark human emotions while teasing the reader with the possibilities of the true, twisted nature of the relationships which exist between these characters.

Highly recommended. Mixed opinions on Goodreads, but I loved it.

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The Gravedigger’s Bread: Frédéric Dard (1956)

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

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

Gravediggers bread

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you foresee that?’

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

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

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

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

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage.

Crush

The King of Fools

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

Review copy

Translated by Melanie Florence

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Strangers When We Meet: Evan Hunter (1958)

“You didn’t invent infidelity.”

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

Now to the novel from Evan Hunter AKA Ed McBain …

Strangers when we meet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

In Stephen Benatar’s New World in the Morning, Sam Groves, married to childhood sweetheart Junie, has two children 12-year-old Matt and 15-year-old Ella. Sam, at age 39, the owner of a second hand shop named Treasure Island, would appear to have the perfect life. He is happily married, his wife loves him, and they live in a gorgeous, roomy home, the former rectory in Deal, a dwelling they both admired in their youth.

A visitor to Deal, an attractive woman named Moira, steps into Sam’s shop. Shortly, after meeting Moira, Sam spends a Sunday with his wife’s large family, and it’s a good look at Sam’s place within the larger family network. It’s clear that Sam feels that he’s been co-opted by the family, and that married at age 19, life passed him by. He didn’t attend university but instead married June, and her parents helped finance their current life. Meeting Moira stirs Sam’s buried resentments and desires while fueling a desire for excitement. The seeming perfection of Sam’s life evaporates as he connives to juggle his stable home life with Moira, who lives in London.

New world in the morning

Sam’s a bit young for a mid-life crisis, but in essence that’s what occurs. He starts worrying about his appearance, decides to adopt an exercise regime, and absolutely intentionally sets out to deceive both his wife and intended mistress.

Sam is our unreliable narrator, and so we only see events through his eyes. We have a Kingsley Amis self-absorbed character here–someone who lives lightly while leaving devastation in his wake. Sam doesn’t see consider the impact of his behaviour on others and he selfishly seeks gratification, with no thought about the results of his actions. (For animal lovers, the dog is the first casualty, but this aspect of the novel is well created, isn’t too painful to read and serves to highlight Sam’s egocentric world view.)

Of course there’d have to be deception. But purely for the common good. It was through Moira that I was going to grow and blossom and bear golden fruit: through me that Moira was going to encounter love and passion and fulfillment. And Junie would awake to find an incomparably more thoughtful and devoted husband.

In fact, according to Sam, his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us.”

It may seem that Sam sheds his faithful, plodding married life too quickly, but as the book proceeds, Sam’s long held-discontent is evident (he has ambitions to be an actor for example and still imagines that a career awaits). After a row with Junie, it’s clear that Sam’s version of life doesn’t match his wife’s.

Sam’s one sided, self-justified view can be nauseating, especially at the beginning of the novel, but New World in the Morning is elevated to wonderful domestic comedy by its sly humour–all at narcissistic Sam’s expense. While Sam blithely plots a double life, somehow we know that he won’t get away with it. While pretending to visit a old friend, he sails off in a state of euphoria to London, floating on denial, wishful thinking and armed with food from Junie. It’s in London that the plot really begins to take on deeper significance as Sam creates elaborate stories for Moira and his slippery sociopathic behaviour escalates.

This novel checked a lot of boxes for me: the unreliable narrator, dark humour, the easy shedding of a decades long life. Sam annoyed the hell out of me at first, but soon I was thoroughly enjoying his descent and the inevitable consequences. This one will make my best-of-year list.

I read Benatar’s wonderful Wish Her Safe at Home a few years ago.

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Little Disasters: Randall Klein

Randall Klein’s debut novel, Little Disasters, is told through the voices of two men: Michael and Paul. These two very different men are connected by the fact that their wives each gave birth on the same day, at the same Brooklyn hospital. That’s how they met, waiting for the news while their wives were in labour. Furniture maker Michael is married to cookie entrepreneur Rebecca, and actor and paralegal Paul is married to writer, Jenny. Rebecca gives birth to a baby boy, but Jenny’s baby dies. Fast forward to a year later and Michael who is now having an affair with Jenny, receives a text saying she can’t meet him. Both men find themselves stranded in the city, unable to get home, and their stories move back and forth in time.

The four characters, with their careers, and personal tics, are well constructed. When we first see Rebecca, she’s preparing to leave for the hospital, and everything is all perfectly done: bags packed, and even a celebratory flask of bourbon for her husband etc. The married couples are so well drawn that’s it’s easy to see why they are together, and how they work together–each partner compensating and/or complementing the other.

The birth of Michael’s son changes his marriage dramatically: chaos reigns and sex is more or less just a memory, and of course, since Jenny and Paul’s baby died, there’s a layer of grief which has damaged their marriage. But was it that great before the loss of the baby? Paul invites Michael and Rebecca over for dinner, ostensibly to discuss bookshelves, but in reality, it’s a desperate move from Paul to inject some healing into his marriage. Ironically, of course, that plan goes haywire and Michael and Jenny embark on an affair. …

Little disasters

While the premise was good, it was difficult to have sympathy with Michael who moans about how his life has changed, especially since the moaning is in light of the fact that they have a healthy child. Then again, he didn’t really plan on having a child that soon, and he feels a bit betrayed that Rebecca stopped taking the pill without his agreement.

Would be nice to have a beer with someone–I didn’t realize that would stop once my wife pushed out a baby. I didn’t realize that having a child would lead to the immediate death of my social life. I’m not an adolescent and I don’t exist in a sitcom; I knew sacrifices would be made. I knew I wasn’t going to be stumbling home while Rebecca provided the 2:00 am feeding, but I didn’t anticipate the full stop at he end of the sentence. Plug up that release valve and it has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?

For this reader, the book’s best scene takes place when the two couples meet for dinner for the first time: Rebecca and Michael should have RUN. Rebecca has obviously been drinking and seems determined to embarrass everyone with stories about her sexual past:

She punctuates the story by finally spooning gazpacho between her lips. I give Jennifer an appreciate smirk. Shine on, you crazy diamond. You roped me back in. “What happened to Danny Perlis?” I ask.

“He gave me a lecture that he clearly thought was eviscerating and I thought was directed entirely to my tits. Probably a good thing that we didn’t elope like he wanted . I loved him, but the thing I loved most about him was how much he loved me. I mailed his ring back after graduation. 

Jennifer pushes her virtually untouched bowl of soup forward. She drains another glass of wine and reaches halfway across the table for the bottle but Paul’s arm shoots out and grabs it first. He holds it just out of Jennifer’s reach and the two of them glare at each other. Rebecca has on her no-lipped mortified face, but I cannot imagine a better standoff. Either they will go full George-and-Martha and my wife and I will get home (or to a bar, so long as we have babysitters …) or she’ll wrestle the bottle from his hands and deliver another monologue of her checkered sexual history. Either way, I’m getting dinner and a show. 

While the two marriages were nicely created, and the nuances of the affair (between ‘friends’) well done,  the background setting of the disaster which occurs in NYC was, after a while, a distracting structural device that did not serve the plot.

I recently finished We Don’t live Here Anymore from Andre Dubus (review to follow) which follows  the lives of married couples Hank and Edith & Jack and Terry. The two books, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Little Disasters were read back-to-back, and as it turned out, this was a fortuitous choice. We Don’t Live Here Anymore has a totally different take on infidelity, and comparing the two books was thought provoking. The infidelity writers of several decades ago (Updike, Dubus, Roth) seem fascinated by the act of infidelity itself, while today infidelity seems so much more wrapped around the pressures of commuting, child-rearing, juggling two careers, oversized mortgages, etc. Little Disasters is infidelity of the 21st century. Still the same act, but the view is a little more domestic-centric than its 70s/80s counterparts.

review copy

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A Perfect Sentence: Patrick Starnes

When it comes to reading, I seem to be on a roll with Men Who Leave. This time it’s A Perfect Sentence from Patrick Starnes. Kier Buchan, a married fifty something writer of a series of middling-level detective stories is made redundant from his part-time lecturer position at the Open University. This news couldn’t come at a worse time for Buchan. It’s not that he cares that much about the job–he doesn’t. It’s just one more thing that unmoors him from his already unsatisfying life.

When the novel opens, Buchan is sitting in Gatwick airport waiting for a flight and a holiday in Riva del Garda. He’s with his saintly long-suffering, patient wife Fran, and his two children 21-year-old Charlie and 16-year-old Cat. Charlie was only persuaded to come along for the trip when it was agreed that his American girlfriend, bartender Cassie could join them, and while the family, quickly fractures into their own spaces at the airport, Buchan, obviously already emotionally distant from his family, wonders off alone musing about Cassie’s suitability for Charlie.

A Perfect Sentence, which is narrated by Buchan, by the way, begins with a worn,  bitterly comic tone. He admits that he doesn’t pay “much attention to the political, social, or commercial lurchings of our tired planet.” Think along the lines of Kingsley Amis at his best, but this mood soon passes as the story becomes much much darker, and Buchan finds himself in full Midlife Crisis mode.

What the hell do I think I’m up to? What male menopausal, pre-prostatic madness have I succumbed to? Back off Keir, back right off. Put this afternoon down to anything you want to, put it down to global warming, the Bermuda Triangle, whatever, but don’t get in any deeper, don’t destroy the lives of those you love simply because you’ve fallen for a redhead with world-class tits and legs that won’t give up. But why the hell not?  

It’s not easy to move beyond an almost stomach-churning dislike for this character: tragic past combined with midlife crisis or not. For this reader, there was nothing whatsoever to like about this selfish jerk. An incorrigible snob who dislikes almost everyone in his orbit, he cheats on his wife, abandons his children, and careens around Europe until Fate catches up to him in a big way.

In many ways, this story takes a predictable path (man in his 50s hooks up with a sexually rapacious girl young enough to be his daughter), and yet it’s told with such flair, that it’s impossible to tear our eyes away from Buchan’s train wreck of a life. The author’s choice to tell this tale in the first person dangles the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Is everyone really as small-minded and clichéd as Buchan thinks. Is Fran as saintly as Buchan thinks or has she just learned to tune out and tolerate a man who no longer interests her? There were a couple of characters, for example, Josh and Buchan’s father-in-law, who never move beyond stereotype cardboard-cutouts. Starnes is too good a writer for this to be anything other than Buchan’s narrow, one-dimensional view of two characters who are bit players in his life. At one point, Buchan feels sorry for himself when his long-time lover, Ruth, abruptly tells him to ‘fuck off,’ and Buchan argues that he is unable to understand this behaviour–after all the longtime, no strings-affair, spent in various hotels rooms, seemed to work so well for him. This was an affair that was all about “flying the outer edge of the erotic envelope.” And that’s the root of Buchan’s character: it’s whatever works for him and other people exist as pieces on his chess board.

The novel’s rich imagery is powerful:  “a wasp expiring like some Roman orgy victim in the sticky heel of a beer glass.” Or Buchan’s mother-in-law: “once a handsome serene woman, she is now a dessicated Gordain knot of nerves for whom contact with even her close family, let alone the outside world (her bridge four is a miraculous exception) is painful.” I’m not a writer–I’m a reader and there were times that this extremely polished novel is almost too polished in its imagery. That minor issue aside, I enjoyed reading this knowing that Cosmic Justice or Karma or Fate … (you take your pick) careened towards Buchan on a collision course. This is a man who had everything: his health, a lovely, kind, tolerant wife, no money worries, holidays abroad, two children, a nice home, and way too much time on his hands. Yet it was not enough for Buchan. Ah… the burdens of middle class life. Some people drive fast, expensive cars to glamorize the image of themselves, and Buchan uses his affairs to add some level of excitement to a life he’d rather not be attached to.

There’s another aspect of this novel that I’d love to comment on, but I can’t due to spoilers. I will say that there’s the shadow of an alternate, less dramatic outcome that would also have served Buchan his just desserts. Pick your poison.

Review copy

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