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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Winifred Watson

“In one short day, at the first wink of temptation, she had not just fallen, but positively tumbled from grace.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, written in 1938 by Winifred Watson, has the effervescent, glam feel of its times, but rather sadly, for our titular heroine, poor downtrodden governess, Guinevere Pettigrew, her miserable life is drab as she drifts from post to post, subject to the vagaries of various temperamental employers. She’s never allowed to forget that her job is to be submissive, keep her head down and to adapt to the various obnoxious personalities of her employers. After years of living like this (and as it turns out being kicked about by two parents) Miss Pettigrew, with her “timid, defeated expression,” is a wreck of a human being. Whatever Guinevere Pettigrew could have been has been submerged by what she has become.

When the novel opens, Miss Pettigrew is desperate for work (again) and the employment agency sends her to a potential post with a certain Miss LaFosse. Miss LaFosse, Delysia, is a glamorous young nightclub singer whose life is a rotating door of men. There seems to be some initial misunderstanding when Miss LaFosse opens the door to Miss Pettigrew, and immediately there’s a crisis as Miss LaFosse, clad in a “silk, satin and lace negligee,” asks for Miss Pettigrew’s help in ejecting one man as another is expected imminently.

Miss Pettigrew finds herself dragged into the sort of life she’s only seen on the screen:

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify harry her every waking hour.

Over the course of a day, Miss Pettigrew steps into an entirely new existence. As she helps Miss LaFosse juggle men (some not very suitable at all) she discovers hidden talents. Soon, she’s knocking back the booze, fabricating alibis, helping two young women with their complicated love lives, acting various roles and even enjoying a make-over. Of course, what Miss Pettigrew doesn’t grasp is that through her lowly, subsumed role as a governess, she’s been acting all of her life and just didn’t realize it.

The great fun here is Miss Pettigrew’s ability to stretch into her new role. She finds that while she sees some of Miss Lafosse’s suitors are bad news, she too, a woman who’s never been kissed, would easily succumb to their tinsel charms.

“Oh dear!!” she thought. “These men. They’re wicked, but it doesn’t matter. They simply leave the good men standing still. […] It’s no use, we women just can’t help ourselves. When it comes to love we’re born adventurers.”

This wonderfully light frothy tale, with its non stop humour, examines sisterhood and the unmined depths of a woman who thinks life has passed her by. I have a fondness for books that explore circumstances in which people discover just what they’re capable of (which explains why I like crime books). The scenes of Miss Pettigrew knocking back the booze are hilarious.

“Sure you won’t have a whiskey?” he offered solicitously. “There’s sure to be some in the cupboard.”

“No thank you,” said Miss Pettigrew blandly. “I prefer them light in the morning.”

Her voice hinted at dark hours of intemperance in the evening.

Oh dear!”” she thought wildly. “it can’t possibly be me speaking like that. What’s come to me? What’s happening to me?”

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The Mystery of Henri Pick: David Foenkinos

“Writers are mad, everyone knows that. And ones who aren’t published … they must be even worse.”

In The Mystery of Henri Pick, Delphine, a young, ambitious book editor travels to the small town of Crozon to visit the bookshop that houses a library for rejected books. The library founded by bookshop owner Jean-Pierre Gourvec was inspired by Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion:

Writers came from all over France to rid themselves of the fruits of their failure. It was a sort of literary pilgrimage. There was a symbolic value in travelling hundreds of miles to put an end to the frustrations of not being published. Their words were erased like sins.

Was the Crozon library a gimmick or a homage to those writers who slaved for years only to receive rejection after rejection? During their trip to the bookshop, Delphine and her boyfriend, Frederic, who wrote a book that failed miserably, discover a manuscript, The Last Hours of a Love Affair. The novel, authored by local pizza shop owner, the now deceased Henri Pick, is a marvel, and Delphine carries it back to Paris for publication.

A storm of controversy erupts in the publishing world, and most of it centers on Henri Pick. How could a man whose claim to fame was creating the Stalin pizza write this amazing book? His widow Madeleine and his daughter Josephine are perplexed. How could Henri have written this masterpiece without their knowledge? Just how well did they know Henri? Did he have a secret life?

The well-publicized discovery of the manuscript leads to unexpected complications as various residents of Crozon become embroiled in Henri Pick’s sudden, posthumous fame. And controversy erupts in the publishing world when someone declares the discovery a “farce.”

This delightfully frothy novel pokes fun at publishing industry and the way in which marketing can make or break a book. The ‘discovery’ of the book makes it a phenomenon and maybe it deserves to be but the media grabs onto the myth behind the novel and a publicity explosion ensues.

At one point, I thought the story would go in one direction, but it did not. The novel ultimately, for this reader, in its exploration of what makes a bestseller, became a little too coy and superficial, but in spite of this I still enjoyed the gentle comedy. After the last page, I thought this would make a great film, so it was no surprise to learn that there is a film starring Fabrice Luchini or that the book’s author David Foenkinos is a screenwriter.

Swiss authors are often the best when it comes to boredom and solitude.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Taylor

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The Frontenac Mystery: François Mauriac (1933)

“Every human being has his peculiar form of suffering, the laws of which take shape in earliest youth.”

The Frontenac Mystery from François Mauriac is the second title I’ve read from this author, and now I’m committed to reading more. Another edition of this book is titled The Frontenacs which after reading the book, IMO is more appropriate. This is the story of the family bonds, the ‘mystery’ of the title,’  between the members of a gentry family who live in the Bordeaux area during the decades leading up to WWI. 

frontenac mystery

The novel opens 8 years after the death of Michel Frontenac who left behind his wife, Blanche and 5 young children: Jean-Louis, José, Danièle, Marie and Yves. Since the death of Michel, his brother, lawyer Xavier has become more involved in the lives of his sister-in- law and her children. He “renounced all his holdings” in the family estate in Bordeaux  and subsequently Blanche moved there with her children. Xavier, a bachelor visits every other week, and while he’s devoted to her children and to the memory of his dead brother, there’s an insurmountable barrier between Xavier and Blanche. She finds his lectures “extolling the splendours of sacrifice” “exasperating.” She’s very religious and is all too aware what her life will be moving forward. And, perhaps the most annoying thing of all is that “it was only in terms of the young Frontenacs that she existed for him at all.” This is one of the book’s major themes: the bonds between family, but also how individuals, some just connected to the family in various ways, sacrifice to the Pyre of the Frontenac name and property. While some of the sacrifices are meaningful, others are meaningless and are lost in the passage of time. 

This is not a tightly woven novel, and there exists a sort of gentle, ephemeral quality to the tale–languid days of childhood spent on the wonderful family estate as the Frontenacs grow up amidst the worries of a lonely, aging mother. The children are also under the watchful eye of their Uncle Xavier who keeps his mistress, Josefa stashed in another town. He keeps her hidden and imagines that his secret is unknown to anyone while in reality he’s a laughing stock for being so cheap with the poor woman who is part cook/cleaner/nurse/mistress and is devoted, even from a distance, to the Idea of the Frontenacs. But there are hints of something darker ahead–the slaughter of WWI awaits for one of the more adventurous Frontenac sons who longs for adventure, and then Blanche has constant anxiety about her children and a nagging worry about cancer. 

But all of them felt obscurely that, as the result of some singular favour shown by the gods, Time had stood still. Power had been given them to leave the train which nothing halts. In the very process of growing up, they could stand in the shallows of childhood, could dawdle while childhood slipped away forever.

The story concentrates on the 3 Frontenac boys–Jean-Louis, José, and Yves; the two girls “brood mares” are barely mentioned. Yves is a sickly child who manages, in early adulthood, to escape the yoke of Frontenac responsibility by hightailing it to Paris where he pursues a literary career, and a lot of his determination is seeded by Jean-Louis’ early entrapment in the family business. Jean-Louis, abandons his dream of an education in Philosophy and assumes the Frontenac harness, joining the family business and marrying a childhood sweetheart–a marriage which will ensure he’s cemented in place. It’s not an exciting life–it’s been chosen for him, but he shoulders the family burdens, consciously  turning away from an alternate future, while living variously through Yves. Mauriac explores maturation through the characters’ choices and how childhood may be linked forever to a physical place, such as the Frontenac estate, but childhood is also locked in time and can never be revisited.  The novel has a significant ending–the arrival of a motor car and the slaughter of WWI. If you like novels with a philosophical angle, then this may be for you.

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

Thanks  to Emma turning me onto Mauriac in the first place.

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I Married a Dead Man: Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Helen, 8 months pregnant, penniless and abandoned, boards the sleeper train. She’s hit rock bottom, and fruitless attempts to contact the father of her child result only in an envelope containing a 5 dollar bill and a one-way ticket from New York to San Francisco. Even though there’s no note, the message is clear.

Once on the train, she meets a young couple, happy, very much in-love, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, who are travelling to Hugh’s family. They’ve yet to meet Patrice. Patrice is also pregnant, and stuck travelling in an over-crowded train together, Patrice generously befriends Helen. Even though Helen doesn’t share her story, it’s clear that she’s down on her luck. A terrible accident occurs, and Patrice, Hugh and their unborn baby are killed while Helen survives. Thanks to the fact that Helen had tried on, and was still wearing Patrice’s ring when the accident happened, Helen wakes up in hospital and discovers that due to a mix-up everyone thinks she’s Patrice.

I married a dead man

Helen isn’t a bad person, and she doesn’t intentionally set out to deceive anyone. But Hugh’s parents have arranged for a private room for the daughter-in-law (now with a baby) they never met. Along with the private room come flowers and baskets of fruit. With just 17 cents to her name, Helen, drugged up to the eyeballs, finds it easier to go along with the case of mistaken identity.

But one thing leads to another, and Helen is taken to the Hazzard home. Surrounded with the loving, affluent family Helen doesn’t have, she goes along with the deception mainly for her son’s sake. Soon she’s in so deep, it’s impossible to say where this will end. Hugh’s parents have already been devastated by their son’s death, but they carry on knowing that they have a grandson. The story isn’t just about Helen anymore: she has other people to consider–people who will be brokenhearted again.

It’s not easy to step into someone else’s shoes and Helen makes a couple of errors; no one seems to notice–except for Hugh’s brother Bill who isn’t as blinded by grief as his parents. Then the louse who abandoned pregnant Helen, smelling money, reappears like a wolf hunting his prey.

The book starts slowly and it’s not until chapter 4 and the train trip that things take off, but then the book takes shape. In this noir tale, Helen’s life looks bleak but then Fate takes a hand with the death of Patrice, Hugh and their baby. Helen steps into Patrice’s shoes, but it’s an uneasy existence, and it seems just a matter of time before events comes crashing down on Helen. And Fate seems to deal Helen a cruel hand once again–giving her what she thought she wanted back in New York.

And here’s a fantastic quote about Fate–always central to noir:

What makes you stop, when you have stopped, just where you have stopped? What is it, what? Is it something, or is it nothing? Why not a yard short, why not a yard more? Why just there, where you are, and nowhere else?

Some say: It’s just blind chance, and if you hadn’t stopped there, you would have stopped at the next place. Your story would have been different then. You weave your own story as you go along.

But others say: You could not have stopped any place else but this even if you wanted to. It was decreed, it was ordered, you were meant to stop at this spot, and no other. Your story is there waiting for you, it has been waiting for you there a hundred years, long before you were born, and you cannot change a comma of it. Everything you do, you have to do. You are the twig, and the water you float on swept you here. You are the leaf and the breeze you were borne on blew you here. This is your story, and you cannot escape it; you are only the player, not the stage manager. Or so some say.

For this reader, Helen isn’t a particularly interesting character, but the plot is fantastic; when we meet Helen, she’s beaten down by life. The train wreck appears to flip Helen’s fortunes, but it seems unsavoury that anyone would profit from the death of a young married couple and their unborn child. Helen is never comfortable with the deception, she’s not a grifter looking for an easy buck–she’s waiting for the ax to drop. Again. 

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The Marquise of O: Heinrich von Kleist

Kleist’s Marquise of O was a third or fourth re-read for me, and there are some books that yield fresh results each time. This is true of Kleist’s novella–one of the few Kleist wrote (the excellent intro from translator Nicholas Jacobs mentions) that actually has a happy ending. How can you not like a happy ending? And yet for this read, I found the ending happy … yes … but a little incongruous. Back to that later.

The Marquise of O

So here’s the plot which was, apparently, based on a real, sensational event, and as we can imagine Kleist’s story caused quite a stir too.

The story begins with the Marquise of O, “a woman of impeccable reputation and mother of well-brought up children” putting advertisements in newspapers that “she had inexplicably found herself in a certain condition, that the father of the child she would bear should make himself known, and that out of the regard for her family she was resolved to marry him.” This is a bold but desperate move taken by the Marquise, and then the tale moves backwards in time.

It’s the Napoleonic Wars. In a Northern Italian town, the widowed Marquise of O and her children live with her parents. With news that war approaches bringing foreign troops, “even Russians,” the Marquise’s father, the Commandant, urges his wife and daughter to flee, but before they can escape, the citadel is surrounded, and after much fighting the foreign troops break into the castle. Some soldiers find the Marquise and drag her out into the courtyard. They are about to rape her when a Russian officer appears and “with angry thrusts scattered the dogs lusting after their booty.” The Russian, Count F., then offers his arm to the Marquise and escorts her to her rooms. Here she faints. The Commandant surrenders to Count F who then proceeds to be a Great Hero by dashing over the castle ramparts performing all manner of astonishing deeds. 

The Commander-in-Chief (the Count’s uncle) of the Russian troops learns about the “criminal assault” on the Marquise and tells Count F to round up those responsible and have them shot. Count F says he cannot identify them, but since one of the men was wounded by Count F as he rescued the Marquise, it’s not long before the general has the wounded man interrogated, the remaining perps are found and then shot. 

From this point, Count F has a special place in the Marquise’s eyes, so she and her parents are horrified to hear that he is subsequently killed on another battlefield. Yet the rumours are false, the Count still lives and he returns to the Marquise and her family. He expresses a desire to marry the Marquise and has interrupted an important mission to accomplish his goal. The Marquise’s father cannot understand the Count’s urgent wish to marry his daughter, but the more the Commandant prevaricates, the weirder the Count becomes. 

All agreed that his behaviour was utterly strange and that he appeared to be used to capturing women’s hearts, like fortresses by assault.

The Count won’t go away and the Marquise finally agrees to not marry another until he returns from Naples. The Count is torn between hopeful and disappointed as he tells the Marquise’s family he wanted to marry her immediately. What’s the rush?

Well it soon becomes clear what the rush is. The Count FINALLY leaves, and the Marquise begins to feel ill. She’s stunned to learn she’s pregnant but her father is horrified; she claims she did not have sexual intercourse with anyone, but he doesn’t believe her, and throws her from the house. It’s this that drives the Marquise to publicly advertise for the father of her child to show himself. It’s a desperate move designed to show her parents that she is innocent. 

SPOILER ALERT:

It’s a great little story that was made into a great film by one of my favourite directors Eric Rohmer. For this reread, I was struck by the fairytale aspects of the story (rape aside). Here we have mortal enemies shooting each other one minute and sitting down for tea together the next. Of course it’s a class thing. 5 men were executed for attempted rape, and the noble is forgiven. He’s a dashing hero, a persistent suitor but if you peel away the glamour, his actions were despicable even if they are covered with a patina of courteous gallantry. 

review copy

translated by Nicholas Jacobs

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So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing (1947)

“There are secret ways of justice.”

So Evil My Love is a novel of Gothic suspense. Hardly my usual read but I came to this book via the ‘Gaslight noir‘  film version (which I’ve yet to see). Author Joseph Shearing is one of the pseudonyms used by Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) who wrote an incredible number of books.

So Evil My love (1947) according to my edition, has some similarities to the case of Charles Bravo, so if you know anything about that case, you know that it involves murder–murder by poison.

The novel opens with 30-year-old Olivia Sacret, the widow of a Dissenter missionary “whose life and death were obscure, who had bequeathed her but a few hundred pounds” and a tiny shabby house. She worked alongside him in Jamaica and nursed him through the tortures of his illness. Now she’s back in England desperately seeking work either with some mission or dissenter society, but no such work is forthcoming. Olivia, the daughter of a doctor who married beneath him, remembers a school friend, Susan. Heiress Susan married, was made a widow and has married again. In between those two marriages, however, she fell in love with a married man. Looking for a suitable position, Olivia reads an announcement in the paper that Susan and her new husband, Martin Rue have just returned home from Florence.

Olivia decides to contact Susan, and even though she despises Susan, Olivia, a festering tangle of resentments, thinks perhaps she can turn the acquaintance to her advantage.

So evil my love

Susan Rue, as it turns out, isn’t happily married. Her second husband, Martin is “jealous, censorious, mean,” and even though he’s a young man, he’s a perpetual neurotic self-made invalid, fussing about his health and dosing himself with various potions.  After Susan foolishly confides her unhappiness to Olivia, Olivia gains “a sense of power,” for “she had regained her old ascendancy over this [Susan’s] weak nature.”

Olivia mentions some letters from Susan she still has in her possession. The letters were written when Susan was a widow and madly in love with the married man. Susan’s obvious fear that these letters still exist fuels Olivia, and she begins to subtly blackmail Susan–moving into the Rue home, siphoning off money, jewelry, clothing.

Then into Olivia’s life, a handsome man appears who claims he’s a painter. He wants to rent Olivia’s now empty house, and after a little flattering attention, gradually Olivia falls under his spell, confiding in him and taking his advice regarding her manipulation of Susan. …

As noted, this is not my usual read, and yet So Evil My Love is brilliantly constructed, it’s gripping. The threat of encroaching evil permeates this incredibly atmospheric novel of deception, blackmail, murder and revenge. Marjorie Bowen, writing as Joseph Shearing nails human nature, and shows how a murderous plot is put in motion with one nasty, vindictive human nature coming under the control of an evil mind–a murderer who gives Olivia a narrative of her life. And that is Olivia’s central weakness: accepting the narrative she wants to hear. Olivia is an incredible, yet credible, creation: when the novel begins, she wraps herself in piety. It’s a costume which allows her to feel superior and to imagine she’s still part of the genteel crowd when she’s long since sunk beneath that–now she’s clinging to the raft of respectability with both claws. Bowen includes some marvelous touches here–Martin Rue’s hothouse of exotic rare flowers, the resentment of the servants, the way in which Olivia brushes over her own evil acts, and the way the ‘painter’ harnesses her resentments for his own gain. 

How little any of it had availed–so much violence, so many lies, such intricate scheming, and she was where she had been, a poor missionary’s widow. It was all the fault of her parents, who had brought her up so poorly, who had cheated her so cruelly, who had never given her a chance.

She made her way home, using that word in her mind, with no sense of how grotesque it was in her case.

The ending is incredible.

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Killer in the Rain: Raymond Chandler (1935)

I wasn’t too far into Raymond Chandler’s Killer in the Rain when screenshots of Humphrey Bogart began popping into my head. Yes! This short story was adapted ‘(‘cannibalizing’ as Chandler called it) into The Big Sleep. The story is atmospheric, and certainly inspires visual images as you read it, and the film … well, the film is unforgettable.

Rain beat very hard against the windows. They were shut tight and it was hot in the room and I had a little fan going on the table. The breeze from it hit Dravec’s face high up, lifted his heavy black hair, moved the longer bristles in the fat path of eyebrow that went across his face in a solid line. He looked like a bouncer who had come into money. 

The story is narrated by a PI, a shamus who is hired by a self-made man, a wealthy Serbian named Dravec. Dravec has been sent to the PI by homicide detective Violets M’Gee. At first Dravec claims that he wants the PI to find his daughter, Carmen, but within a few minutes, Dravec, who is one of those physically powerful but emotionally immature men, admits that Carmen isn’t his daughter.

I just picked her up in Smoky, a little baby in the street. She didn’t have nobody. I guess I steal her, huh?

Carmen isn’t exactly faithful to Dravec who admits that “all the time some new guy and all the time a punk.” Dravec paid one punk 5 grand to clear off, but since there’s no shortage of creepy men, Carmen is now involved with Harold Steiner, a so-called “dealer in rare books” which translates to pornography.

So the narrator takes the case and the next night, during another rain storm, he tails Steiner from his business to his home. Carmen soon arrives, and some time into the stake out, shots are fired. The narrator bursts into the home and finds Carmen drugged, dressed (or undressed) for porno pix, and Steiner dead. Carmen may be the damsel in distress here, but Dravec is the only one who thinks he can ‘save’ her. She gives the narrator the creeps. There’s something not right about this woman:

If she had screeched, or turned white, or even keeled over, that would have been fairly natural. But she just giggled.

I began to hate the sight of her. Just looking at her made me feel dopey.

Her giggles went on, ran around the room like rats. They gradually got hysterical. I got off the desk, took a step towards her, and slapped her face.

“Just like last night” I said.

The giggling stopped at once and the thumb-chewing started again. She still didn’t mind my slaps apparently. I sat on the end of the desk once more. 

A few bodies later, the case is solved but not before the narrator gives us a glimpse into the ugly side of humanity. In this case he steps into a group of people whose behaviour leaves a rotting stench. There’s no joy in the solution of this case; just darkness, hopelessness, an inevitability, and yet at the same time, a determination not to slide down into the sewage with the lowlifes.

Philip Marlowe appeared as a character in the 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. His name does not appear in this short story, but the feeling of Marlowe is still there.

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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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Black Souls: Gioacchino Criaco

Gioacchino Criaco’s Black Souls is set in the remote area of the Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, Italy. This crime novel centres on three boyhood friends: Luciano, Luigi, and the narrator. These boys are raised in poverty: Luciano is an orphan whose father was murdered at the orders of the local crime boss, Luigi is somewhat lazy, and the narrator’s father is a goatherder. These poverty stricken lives are alleviated by lucrative crime–the narrator’s father’s “real trade;” it’s common for the goatherders to keep kidnap victims hidden in the mountains, and the funds from these crimes are a steady source of income.

Black Souls

The novel opens with the narrator crossing the mountains carrying an AK-47.  Mention is made of the goats and then there’s the “swine.” But the swine isn’t a pig; it’s a handcuffed man. To the narrator, it’s “normal” to call a man a “swine, the word shepherds of the Aspromonte used for the many hostages we hid away in those intricate woods.” The hostages are “filthy but more profitable livestock,” with a “new pigsty” built every spring as a cage for a hostage. Since the boys grow up with crime as an acceptable source of income, it’s predictable that they will continue when they become men. …

By the age of nineteen we had stolen, robbed, kidnapped, and killed. In a world we rejected because it was not our own, we took anything and everything we wanted.

The novel is at first hard to get into as there are many terms regarding various tangled aspects of the criminal enterprises in this region. Once you get past this (and there’s a lot to absorb), you have a tale of boys who slide into crime as a natural progression into the family business. Morality doesn’t enter into the picture: it is irrelevant in this gritty, sometimes ugly, tale.

As these three young men enter adulthood lacking a moral compass, their violent lives are guided by loyalty to one another:

I thought about us as kids, those first heists we’d pulled off so we could dress better at school. Luigi would greedily count the spoils, while Luciano, in his imploring, even prophetic tone, would say, “”Let’s stop while we’re ahead.” But I was the one who drove us forward. 

Along this criminal journey, we read about local legends and myths, which in this context, serve to underscore the relentless drive of violence and revenge. This isn’t a pleasant tale, and these are not pleasant people. Occasionally the ugliness is overwhelming, but the narration succeeds in its depiction of an amoral criminal universe. For animal lovers, there’s some animal slaughter and food preparation included. Black Souls has been made into a film, and I suspect I’ll enjoy the film more than the book.

Review copy.

Translated by Hillary Gulley

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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?

Review copy/own a copy

 

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