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A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin (1953)

One of the most enthralling, creepiest books I have ever read, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is a chilling journey into the mind of psychopath, Bud Corliss, a good-looking, decorated WWII veteran who returns to his hometown as a hero but then finds that the normal, difficult slow paths to money and success are ‘beneath’ him. Starter jobs aren’t good enough and college “would only be an unnecessary stopover on the road to the success he was certain awaited him.” He moves to New York, but the world does not shower him with the recognition he thinks he deserves. 5 months and 6 jobs later there’s a period of “serious self-analysis,” (Levin’s ironic touch adds to this tale) with the result that Bud “took out his fountain pen and made what he considered to be a completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents.” He finds a rich, older widow and easily slips into the role of gigolo, but the widow has a series of toyboys all with a short shelf life. Following that experience, Bud plots to snare a wealthy young bride and moves to Blue River, Iowa to attend Stoddard College: “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.”

It looks as though Bud’s plans will be successful when he finds the insecure, needy Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper manufacturer. But there’s a hiccup in Bud’s plans when Dorothy announces she’s pregnant. Bud knows that Dorothy’s father is strict and that in light of the unexpected pregnancy, Dorothy will most likely be cut off from the family coffers. Bud decides his choices are: 1) to marry Dorothy, lose the fortune and end up working menial jobs with a wife and baby dragging him down, or 2) ditch Dorothy in which case he’s sure Mr Kingship will hunt him down and ensure Bud’s ruin. Then Bud decides that there’s a 3rd scenario: first come pills to bring on an abortion, but they don’t work (“why hadn’t the goddamn pills killed the girl?“) His anger at Dorothy builds as Bud sees his plans thwarted, and in his narcassistic mind, it’s all her “fault.” His justifications pile on like speed dominoes–after all he hadn’t really wanted sex… it was just to “seal” the deal. From this line of thought, murder is the next step. …

Bud is a list-maker, so throughout the novel he faithfully, coldly and calculatingly lists his plans with pros and cons, and it’s through these plans we see the twisted logic of the psychopathic mind. After Dorothy’s murder, which is ruled as a suicide due to Bud’s cold-blooded staging, Bud is at first thrilled by his own brilliance and the “flawless success of his plans. He should be walking on air, smiling at strangers, toasting himself with secret Champagne. Instead there was this dull, leaden letdown feeling. He couldn’t understand it.” Of course the letdown feeling is caused by the slowly dawning realization that without Dorothy, he’s back at square one. And after all that hard work too. “All that planning hadn’t advanced him in the slightest.”

Bud returns home to his doting, indulgent mother to lick his wounds. He works another boring job, but internally he’s advancing to the next stage of the game. Of course this all takes ‘study’ and preparation. Although the Dorothy ‘episode’ may have been a failure, he turns it into a brilliant success; he can’t help himself–it’s the self-love kicking in, and so he keeps a collection of his twisted plans. His depression begins to evaporate:

Towards the middle July, however, he began to slough off his dejection. He still had the newspaper clips about Dorothy’s death locked in the small grey strongbox he kept in his bedroom closet. He began taking them out once in a while, skimming through them smiling at the officious certainty of Chief of Police Eldon Chesser and the half-baked theorizing of Annabelle Koch. He dug up his old library card, had it renewed and began withdrawing books regularly; Pearson’s Studies in Murder, Bolitho’s Murder for Profit, volumes in the Regional Murder series. He read about Landru, Smith, Pritchard, Crippen. Men who had failed where he had succeeded. Of course it was only the failures whose stories got written–God knows how many successful ones there were. Still it was flattering to consider how many had failed. Until now, he had always thought of what happened at the Municpal building as Dorie’s death. Now he began to think of it as Dorie’s murder. Sometimes, when he had lain in bed and read several accounts in one of the books, the enormous daring of what he had done would overwhelm him. He would get up and look at himself in the mirror over the dresser. I got away with murder, he would think. Once he whispered it aloud. “I got away with murder!” So what if he wasn’t rich yet. Hell he was only 24.

When Dorothy’s guilt-ridden sister, Ellen suspects that Dorothy was murdered, she quietly begins an investigation. She uncovers a few male suspects and the wolfish behaviour of these young men sound alarm bells when in reality the danger is closer than she can imagine. Perhaps the greatest character here is DJ Gordon Gant, a man who meets Ellen and can’t forget her. His dogged persistence eventually costs him his job.  Although Gant has nothing to gain, and at great personal cost, he insists on giving Dorothy’s father, a man who has abdicated his parental role, a wake-up call. Bearers of bad news are typically seen as more trouble than the threat they report. Sometimes we want to bury our heads  in the sand and we must be dragged into reality kicking and screaming. While this is certainly true in this tale, it’s also true that the average person cannot conceive of the nature of Evil. An average person cannot imagine how a psychopath thinks, and this is one of the reasons this book is so powerful–we are privy to Bud’s twisted thinking, his objectification of other human beings and his monumental self-worship.

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Miami Blues: Charles Willeford (1984)

Frederick J. Frenger Jr., career criminal and a “blithe psychopath,” freshly released from his latest prison sentence, heads to Miami with a wallet full of stolen credit cards. He arrives at Miami airport with plans to steal luggage and hold up in a hotel room while he plans his big heist. When he’s hassled by a zealous Hare Krishna, Frenger reacts with violence and the Hare Krishna dies. So there’s Frenger’s explosive entrance into Miami, and when you see someone enter like that, you know they’re going to exit with a bang. Once in the hotel, Frenger, with the assistance of a ‘helpful’ bellman named Pablo, orders up a hooker, and this second action by Frenger tangles him in a cord of Fate. The waif-like hooker’s name is Pepper, and although she looks underage, she’s a 20 year-old college student named Susan Waggoner.

Why, Freddy wondered, is she lying to me? No college would ever accept this incredibly stupid young woman as a student. On the other hand, he had known a few college men in San Quentin. Although they usually got the best jobs there, they didn’t appear to be any smarter than the majority of the cons.

Needing a car and a place to stay, Frenger decides to play house with Susan, claiming they will have a platonic marriage. Susan is a lousy prostitute and the stupidest one Frenger has ever met. Still she suits his plans and she’s disposable. In the meantime, Homicide detective Hoke Moseley begins investigating the murder of the Hare Krishna. It’s an odd murder and Hoke is interested in how it occurred. As he approaches the investigation, Hoke inadvertently and unknowingly spins into Frenger’s path. Frenger hates cops and so he decides to ‘fix’ Hoke.

Miami Blues has Charles Willeford’s signature dry savage wit. The humour here comes partly from Susan’s naivety and stupidity. She’s pimped out by her brother, and there’s a whole back story here I won’t give away, but I could swear I heard the background music from Deliverance whenever Susan tells her sad story. With her offer of free blowjobs and giving Pablo a 50/50 cut, it’s clear this career is not for Susan. She’s a bizarre mix of character traits: naïve and innocent–yet utterly corrupted, stupid and yet a survivor. Sometimes innocence opens the gates of hell and sometimes innocence gives you a free pass:

Freddy unwrapped the bath sheet and dropped it on the floor. He probed her pregreased vagina with the first three fingers of his right hand. He shook his head and frowned.

“Not enough friction there for me,he said. “I’m used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?

“No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much, I just can’t do it. I can give you a blow-job if you like.”

“That’s okay, but I’m not all that interested anyway. You really should learn to take it in the ass You’ll make more money, and if you learn to relax–“

That’s what Pablo said but I can’t.”

The sardonic humour comes from the telling of this tale and in the portrayal of Hoke, a great series character whose life is a wreck. He’s divorced, handing over half his paycheck in alimony, living in a flophouse motel, trying to hang onto his false teeth (his abscessed teeth were removed in the morgue by the local pathologist). The teeth have quite a role to play in this violent tale. Hoke isn’t a humorous character, but it gets to the point that he’s beaten down so far you can’t see the nailhead. The novel spins around these three characters: Hoke, the slow-moving, low-key thorough detective, Susan, the world’s stupidest prostitute, and Frenger whose vicious acts carve a path of destructive violence. This is a man who is capable of the most brutal acts and the brutality isn’t relative to the provocation–Frenger, who thinks all his mistakes in life can be chalked up to his “altruism,” doesn’t possess a ‘scale of response.’

It took Hoke twenty minutes to find his teeth, but they had landed in a cluster of screw-leaved crotons and weren’t damaged. He put them into a fresh glass of water with another helping of polident and wondered what in the hell he was going to do next.

This is hard-boiled detective fiction: violence and sex. But in this novel, they are the same thing.

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Tides: Count Edouard von Keyserling (1911)

“She felt like a traveler stranded in some God-forsaken little wayside station, who sits in the dismal waiting-room and finds himself steeped for a while in the melancholy of a life that does not belong to him.”

In Count Edouard von Keyserling’s novel Tides (Wellen), a handful of German aristocrats visit a resort on the Baltic Sea, and a simple holiday becomes the battle ground for the preservation of societal standards. It’s the early 1900s and disaster lies ahead, but there’s also the sense that this elite society is fading into oblivion.

The widow of General von Palikow “Generalin” is at the resort with her companion, Fraülein Malwine Bork. They are to be joined by the Generalin’s daughter, the Baroness von Buttlär and her three children: Lolo, Nini and Wedig. Also to join the party are the males in the family: the mustache-twirling Baron and Lolo’s dapper fiancé, Hilmar von dem Hamm, a Lieutenant in the Brunswick Hussars. It’s clear that the domineering Generalin is at the top of the totem pole when it comes to rank, and several sentimental, “tender” observations made by Fraülein Malwine Bork are patronizingly suppressed.

The family’s holiday will be the last before Lolo’s marriage to Hilmar von dem Hamm. It’s a love match; well Lolo is madly in love with her fiancé, and since it’s a very suitable match between social equals, everyone is happy.

Other visitors to the area are the retired government official, witty, entertaining bachelor Privy Councillor Knospelius (we are told he has a “deformity”) and Doralice Köhne-Jasky, a beautiful young married Countess who fell in love with Hans Grill, a lowly artist hired to paint her portrait. She scandalized society by running away from her elderly husband who then subsequently suffered a stroke.

Doralice’s presence shocks, threatens and excites various members of the Generalin’s party. The Baroness, who seems to take the news particularly hard, practically faints away when she hears that Doralice is nearby, but then given her husband’s philandering ways, she has every reason to be worried. The middle-aged Baroness “worn out by motherhood and housewifely duties” is a bit on the neurotic side and lacks her mother’s serene detachment. Even Lolo notes that her mother’s temperament seems “strangely out of harmony with the sea.”

“Of course, I knew it would come out. You were already jealous of Madame Grill. But, my dear Bella, your husband is after all not a man of that sort. Oh well, yes, there was that little affair with the housekeeper–it’s time you forgot that. Now and then in the springtime the Cuirassier officer in him wakes up, it’s like a sort of hay-fever; but it’s you women with your jealousies that drive the men to wrong ideas. No, my dear Bella, why are we what we are, why have we our social position and our ancient name, if we are to be afraid of every runaway little wife? You are the Baroness von Buttlär and I am the widow of General von Palikow. Well, doesn’t that mean that we are two fortresses to which people who don’t belong to us have no entrée? And now let us go to bed and sleep quietly as though there were no Madame Grill. We simply issue a decree–and Madame Grill ceases to exist.”

Fraülein Malwine Bork as a bridge between the Generalin’s high society and the lower echelons, has notions, that occasionally are quietly voiced and quickly squashed, as she questions the rigid nature of society:

But Countess Doralice herself was once just such a poor little fortress.

The younger generation are swept up in the romantic tale of Doralice’s flight and long to meet her. Pretending that Doralice doesn’t exist is great in theory but poor in practice–especially since the Generalin’s three grandchildren are determined to fabricate excuses to run into her, and then events take place that bring all the characters together.

Tides is an examination of elite Prussian society. Doralice, married off to an elderly husband, threatens the foundations of that secure society when she rebels and runs off. She must be ostracized as she is seen as a dangerous, contaminating influence. Doralice is a tragic figure; she escaped the suffocation of her controlling husband, thirty years her senior, only to find that she’s married to Hans and living in a dingy little cottage. A beautiful bird in the Count’s gilded cage, she seems to have exchanged one cage for another. Hans is just as displeased with Doralice as the Count was. The Baron and the lieutenant make no attempts to hide their desire for Doralice, who is, after all, seen as a woman who’s ready to abandon all for love, and Hans, jealous and insecure, becomes obsessed with painting the sea. He begins leaving Doraclice on her own. She finds she’s just as bored and lonely now, with her supposed ‘freedom’ as she was when married to the stuffy Count–a man who trained her daily. No wonder she ran off.

But it was his method of training to act as if she were what he wanted her to be. He was constantly praising her for the ideas that he wished to instill into her: he was, as it were, imposing upon her his ideal Doralice by acting as if she were already there. If, for example, she was too obviously amused in the company of a young man at a party, then he would say: “We are perhaps somewhat exacting, perhaps too sensitive, we cannot always get the society of our own choosing; but you are quite right about that young man, his manners are objectionable and we will do our best to keep him at a distance.” Or at the theatre she may have laughed gaily outright at a piece which displeased the count and on the way home he would say: “We are perhaps too censorious in these matters, but we found the play disagreeable, not to say shocking; however, it doesn’t matter, you are quite right, it was a mistake on my part to bring you to see it. I ought to have known ma petite Comtesse better: forgive me for this once.” And it was the same on every occasion: this ideal Doralice. that was imposed upon her, intimidated her, tyrannized over her, constrained her like a dress that was not made for her.

The male wandering eye is ever present in the tale–even 15-year-old Wedig is eyeing the servant girls, and as the tale continues the formidable Generalin becomes a more sympathetic figure. Finally the magnificent ocean, beautifully described here is the force of nature so destructive, so uncontrollable, that its hunger and strength levels all else.

Also translated as Waves. Edouard is also spelt elsewhere as Eduard.

Translated by Arthur J. Ashton. The picture above is Waves, the Dedalus edition. Translated by Gary Miller.

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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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Filed under Fiction, Von Kleist Heinrich

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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Filed under Bowen Marjorie, Fiction, Shearing Joseph

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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Filed under Chandler Raymond, Fiction