Tag Archives: murder

Who Saw Her Die? : Patricia Moyes

It’s Crystal Balaclava’s seventieth birthday, and as usual her three daughters Primrose, Violet and Daffodil travel from various locations to join their mother at the family estate at Plumley Green, Surrey. This year is different. This year Crystal requests police protection and pulls strings to achieve her desire. She specifically requests that Detective Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy be present for the birthday celebration. She’s been tipped off by her Ouija board that she’s in danger and since Crystal always listens to her Ouija board, Tibbett and his wife Emmy find themselves staying at Foxes Trot.

Who Saw her die

The Tibbetts are not the usual sort of guests for Crystal. Crystal may be 70 but she’s stuck in her youth as a flapper, and so she tends to surround herself with people who are amusing and giddy. Henry and Emmy are rather pedestrian compared to the usual crowd. Crystal, who has a hard bitchy edge, is well drawn.

It took Henry a moment to register that fact that she was still a beautiful woman, because the overwhelming first impression was so bizarre. The Henna-dyed bobbed hair, the bandeau, the short, unwaisted dress of drooping yellow crepe, the bright red cupid’s bow painted on wrinkled lips, the pearly white-stocking, the foot-long jade cigarette-holder–they all added up not to a parody of the fashion of forty years ago, but to the thing itself.

Crystal is the sort of person who dominates the room, and dislikes female competition, so when she meets Henry and Emmy, she immediately launches some nasty barbs at Emmy. It’s obvious that Emmy is there for window dressing, so poor Emmy suffers from Crystal’s sharp edges.

Crystal fears that death will come in the form of poison, and she expects Henry to act, more or less, as a food taster. One daughter always brings a birthday cake, another a case of champagne, and another roses. In spite of Henry’s best efforts to protect Crystal she dies from poison.

It’s too bad Crystal makes an early exit as she’s a strong character (bet Emmy wasn’t really that upset). In fact the person who seems the most devastated by the murder is Crystal’s life long companion (since becoming a widow) Dolly,  whose “mannish face was coated in a thick layer of pancake make-up, in a grotesque parody of femininity.” (ouch!) Dolly manages the entire household and while Crystal considered Dolly a bit dense, Dolly, in reality,  is an incredible person. There are a limited number of suspects. The estate is tied up until Crystal’s death at which time it will pass to her daughters–each have their own reasons for needing money.

While the characters of Henry and Emmy were pleasant enough, the tale itself rather goes through the motions. With Crystal lying dead, still warm, Henry and the local doc share a chuckle over the body without seeming to realise the innate distastefulness of their actions. The result is a crime book that’s more an exercise for readers who prefer their crime light but puzzling enough they can try to discover the solution as they read.

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The Scholl Case: The Deadly End of a Marriage: Anja Reich-Osang

“Jutta Abromeit says, he caught her eye and then turned away quickly. ‘He realised that I’d seen through him.’ Scholl, she says, could manipulate people, win them over to his side and implicate them in arguments like key witnesses.”

I read my fair share of crime books–all sorts, non fiction and fiction. Murder is a frequent topic, and of course, the murder of a spouse pops up uncomfortably frequently. In these instances, I always find myself wondering ‘what was wrong with divorce as an option?’ At what point is divorce dismissed and at what point does the plan to, instead, murder a spouse emerge and begin to seem like a good idea? But then this niggling thought occurs to me: years of hatred and loathing (not to mention the financial benefits) must outweigh the risks and fuel the calculations. Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a non fiction book which takes a look at the murder of Brigitte (Gitte/Gitti) Scholl. She was 67 years old, a beautician who lived in Ludwigsfelde, a small and peaceful town south of Berlin. Brigitte’s husband of over 47 years, Ludwigsfelde’s former mayor Heinrich Scholl, was very soon accused and then convicted of the crime. The big question becomes WHY??

The scholl case

After Heinrich Scholl’s conviction, the author, who attended the trial, examined the evidence, accumulated interviews with friends and relatives of the couple, and amassed considerable input from interviews with Heinrich Scholl who also “wrote down and sent [me] memories of his life.” The book goes into some detail into the history of the Scholls and how they slotted into the history of East Germany. Brigitte Knorrek met Heinrich Scholl in  childhood. Scholl had a hard-scrabble childhood while Brigitte’s upbringing was much better. Much to the surprise of their friends, they married in 1964. Brigitte had a child from a boyfriend who drifted away, and Heinrich had fathered a child by another woman. It was a practical decision which seemed to work.

To all outside measurements this was a highly successful marriage. Heinrich Scholl had an amazing political career. He was elected and reelected as mayor repeatedly: “he was everywhere–down in a sewage drain and up on stage with the heir to the British throne.” His wife Brigitte ran a hair salon in their home. They raised her son Frank together, and, rather touchingly I thought, Brigitte had a series of brown spaniels–the first given to her by a boyfriend when she was a young woman.

About half way through the book, I was deep into the history of the Scholls’ lives and still couldn’t anticipate a motive for murder. Yet there were some very troubling signs: affairs, biting the head off a live mouse…

As with many married couples, life changes post retirement. Heinrich retired in 2008, and that meant he spent more time at home. According to the interviews, Brigitte was controlling, humiliated Heinrich and made him live in the cellar. Wait.. wait… Scholl actually had a flat, post retirement in Berlin, self-published an erotic novel, kept a Thai mistress,a sex worker,”  “with high standards” on the side, and depleted his bank account. True, he did return on Friday nights when “he handed Gitti his bag of dirty laundry and worked through her list of chores. If Gitte was controlling, then Scholl had slipped the leash.

At one point, Heinrich was advised by a therapist to write “what bothers” him about his  wife:
Nannies me.

Doesn’t let me hang up my pictures.

Has a cleaning mania.

Treats me like a small child.

No love any more!

Well boo fucking hoo.

Wonder what Gitte’s list would have looked like. …

The author had many face to face interviews with Heinrich Scholl and so we get a lot of his version of events. Sometimes this is just bizarre when placed, without question, in the context of the events. So for example, apparently Heinrich Scholl finds women “hard to gauge. […] He didn’t notice that his wife humiliated him for decades or that his Thai girlfriend, a sex worker, exploited him.” Now think about that. …  Hardly the first man to think that “his relationship” with a sex worker “had been something special.”  At one point, the author asks: “And who was actually the victim here? The women in the gallery were for the most part on Brigitte Scholl’s side: the men on Heinrich Scholl’s.” 

The book seems stunningly hard on Gitte since, after all, she was the one who ended up strangled with a shoelace and buried in a shallow grave right next to the grave of her, also strangled, murdered dog. Scholl comes through loud and clear–although perhaps not always in the way he intended. As usual the victim is silent (and the portrayal somewhat vague in its stereotyping), and yet through the pages I saw glimpses of someone admirable: as a child she “almost always brought hungry children with her” to eat, became a hard working business woman, made floral arrangements for friends, planted flowers for an old friend whose husband was dying, was the only person to send parcels of food for a friend in prison, and wouldn’t increase her prices as she felt her customers had very little money.

And the suicide theory? I’m not even going to address that

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translated by Imogen Taylor

Marina’s review:

Kim’s review

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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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This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

“There it was again, the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges. Surely, I thought, Freud was closer to the mark when he said, ‘We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.’ “

On the evening of the 4th of September, 2005, Robert Farquharson, who’d separated from his wife, Cindy, the year before was driving his three sons back to their mother after a visitation. It was Father’s Day. On the drive home, Farquharson’s car veered across Prince’s Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. Farquharson survived. His children did not.

In spite of the fact that initially Cindy didn’t blame Farquharson for the deaths of her children (this later changed), Farquharson quickly became a suspect for the murder of his sons. Was it his behaviour at the dam when he insisted that two young men who arrived at the scene take him to see Cindy rather than try any rescue attempts? Was it his insistence that the children were dead? Was it his behaviour in the hospital when he was interviewed by police? Or… was it all of the above?

This house of griefAustralian author Helen Garner attended the grueling trial and also attended Farquharson’s subsequent 2010 retrial–a decision she admits that “often, in the seven years to come I would regret” and the book This House of Grief is an elegant, elegiac account of the case as it unfolded at these two trials.

This House of Grief should not be confused with any sort of reportage-style sordid true crime book. Rather the book is a very individualistic approach to this horrific tale which is primarily a study of human nature with anecdotal observations about the court system as a secondary focus. Helen Garner doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the narrative, and this is a woman whose sensitive emotional antennae are permanently scarred by this grueling trial. Her descriptions of the often shell-shocked witnesses brought the trial to life in all its immense pathos, and she makes it clear that no one walked away from this trial unscathed. At the same time, Garner’s emotionality sometimes drove me around the bend (more of that later)–so much so that I have many ‘WTF’ notes made for certain passages. But let me be clear here–even though I have fundamentally different emotional responses from Garner This House of Grief is an extraordinary, haunting book .

Helen Garner begins attending the trial with an open mind; she wants to “think like a juror,” which is certainly one approach, but it’s also one fundamental difference between me and Garner–darker pathways I suppose–I read the book’s basic synopsis and thought Farquharson was guilty. Admittedly, though, it’s a far more interesting book because of Garner’s ‘open mind,’ so there’s always that argument. Near the beginning of the book, Garner presents a cacophony of voices which represent many of the prevailing attitudes towards the case, and this one quote jumped out.

I don’t get these guys, said a feminist lawyer. Okay, so the wife dumps them. Men don’t have biological clocks. Why can’t they just find a new girlfriend and have more kids? Why do they have to kill everyone?

Well that’s the fundamental question isn’t it?

Garner’s emotional involvement in the case mostly pays off, but there were a few sections that were annoying. At one point early in the trial Cindy’s then boyfriend, Stephen Moules testifies. Garner admits that she “was not the only woman in the court who shot Farquharson a furtive glance of comparison.” A nice touch as this can only be relayed by someone who was actually there, but then IMO Garner goes too far when she dives into her imagination regarding Stephen Moules, who later married Cindy, and the pouring of a concrete slab:

But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight on a young woman in Cindy Farquharson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect.

That section drew one of my WTF notes.

Similarly after a particularly grueling day at court, Garner finds herself cuddling her grandson and then later chasing down the hall about to whack another when she pulls herself up short. Garner doesn’t expand this section while explaining that she “got a grip” on herself, but this anecdote seems to be there in order to make some sort of statement about inappropriate parental response and rage. Is Garner saying she frightened herself at that moment? Is she saying we can all lose control with children in stressful moments? Again, time for another one of my WTF notes as there’s simply no way that this incident can be compared to the actions of Farquharson, and while this is Garner’s experience, it’s placement here seems unfortunate.

As noted earlier, I found myself at odds with Garner on many occasions within the book particularly regarding her emotional reactions towards Farquharson. For example, at one point she “flinches” at thinking about Farquharson “stumping home sore-footed” from his cleaning job. At another moment she’s “too embarrassed” to look at Morrissey (defense) after he makes a remark, and later, she expresses a thought regarding Farquharson during the second trial when she says she “pitied him simply for the fact that he had to sit there and endure it all again.” Well if he hadn’t done it, he wouldn’t have had to sit through the trials would he now? But these are examples of me arguing with Garner, and honestly these differences paled in significance to the book’s overall approach and Garner’s attention to meticulous detail that can only be rendered by someone with Garner’s deep sensitivity and desire to understand. I found myself applauding Garner’s intelligent, insightful observations even though we have different, basic emotional responses. Garner’s remarkable coverage of the trial is extensive but goes far beyond the evidence and the facts and figures. And I have to mention the writing which is well paced and exquisite as exemplified in a quote regarding the judge speaking of Farquharson during the sentencing:

He forms a dark contemplation…

I watched the thought, to see what it would do. It firmed up, like a jelly setting. And there it sat, quivering, filling all the available space.

But in spite of my differences with Garner, this is a beautifully constructed, extraordinary book–one that will continue to haunt me. Just as grueling days in court and gut-wrenching evidence leaves Garner “beyond speech,” the book, which isn’t the story of a crime but, importantly, the story of  two trials, shows how everyone involved is impacted by this horrendous experience.  Garner notes how excessive evidence regarding marks left by Farquharson’s car exhausts the jury, the evident pain felt by some witnesses who are emotionally battered by the trial and their testimony,  and also noted are the various personalities involved in the trial: Jeremy Rapke Acting Crown Prosecutor and his “casual coups,” and Peter Morrissey SC for the defense. Finally there’s Cindy herself who emerges from this crucible of pain and grief a warrior woman. I was surprised that the theory of premeditation didn’t appear as much as I would have expected–although of course it’s implied through the tortured testimony of Greg Rice whose wired conversation with Farquharson appeared to reveal a different side of the accused’s personality. I liked Garner’s intuitive theories about memory as it related to the conversation between Rice and Farquharson that took place at the Fish and Chip shop.

As a secondary focus, Garner explores the dynamics of the courtroom and especially zeroes in on witness statements.

The repeated order ‘Just answer the question’ came to sound like a gag or a bridle. How crude, how primitive were the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the face of questions on which so much hung!

Similarly on the subject of cross-examination.

So you get a grip on her basic observations, and you chop away and chop away, and squeeze and shout and pull her here and push her there, you cast aspersions on her memory and her good faith and her intelligence till you make her hesitate or stumble. She starts to feel self-conscious, then she gets an urge to add things and buttress  and emphasise and maybe embroider, because she knows what she saw and she wants to be believed; but she’s not allowed to tell it her way. You’re in charge. All she can do is answer your questions. And then you slide away from the central thing she’s come forward with, and you try to catch her out on the peripheral stuff–“Did you see his chin?”–then she starts to get rattled, and you provoke her with smart crack””Are you sure it wasn’t a football?” She tries to put her foot down–“Oh don’t be ridiculous”– and then judge gives her a dirty look and she sees she’s gone too far, so she tries recoup, she tries to get back to the place she started from, where she really does remember seeing something and knows what she saw–but that place of certainty no longer exists because you’ve destroyed it.

And finally here’s Garner’s partial synopsis of a taped conversation between Cindy and Farquharson two weeks after the death of the children. Cindy is medicated and Farquharson calls to “say g’day.”

Anything she says, in her thick drawling voice, he tops, or appropriates. She’s had a bad week. So has he. She has to make a statement to the police? Imagine what he’s had to do. She has calm days and then really shitty days? That’s like him. Her mum’s been having panic attacks, can’t face going back to work? That makes it hard on him. All those things affect him, ’cause he’s affected everyone’s lives and it’s on his shoulders too. How much more torture are they going to put him through?

Garner’s insightful, detailed recreation of the trial, told in her unique way made me feel as though I was there along with the jury and the witnesses. Due to the subject matter, it was sometimes hard to carry on reading. There’s so much raw pain here.  

I have to thank Gummie at Whispering Gums for bringing Helen Garner to my attention in the first place. In spite of the fact I had my differences with Garner, I know I want to read all of her non-fiction books hoping that they’ll be as extraordinary, intelligent and as thought-provoking as this one. Considering the quibbles I had with some of Garner’s points, but still predict this will be one of my best-of-2015, I think that shows the immense, power of This House of Grief. The murder of children is a tough subject for any writer to handle, and yet Garner treats her material delicately, with great respect and grace. Ultimately the result is a book that shows the best and the worst of human nature and the methods we, as a society, have devised to cope with our darkest behaviours.

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Sudden Fear: Edna Sherry (1948)

“Be as romantic as you want about me but don’t be romantic about money.”

Fans of noir film will be familiar with Sudden Fear–a 1952 woman-in-distress film starring the fabulous Joan Crawford in the title role of Broadway playwright and wealthy San Francisco socialite Myra Hudson, a middle-aged woman who falls hard for the much younger, penniless actor, Lester Blaine, played by Jack Palance. Lester is a homme fatale who’s after Myra’s money, and he has an impatient girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame) who can’t wait for Lester to dump his wife and marry her. Given that Sudden Fear is a great favourite, it was only a matter of time before I turned to the 1948 novel written by Edna Sherry. There’s always the concern, of course, that having seen the film, the novel won’t be interesting, and this is especially true when it comes to crime fiction. After all, are there any surprises left?

Gangsters take their victims for a ride, shoot them with an economy of effort and steel, deposit them in a lonely spot and drive coolly away. Crooked trustees of estates and sinister family physicians (mentioned substantially in their victims’ wills) hatch ingenious plots and carry them to a fatal conclusion. Half-mad lovers–male and females–strike in the heat of passion, and if they control their hysteria after the event, sometimes get away with it. These gentry operate with smooth regularity between book covers.

But for the run-of-the-mill, upper middle-class, law-abiding, convention-ridden public–in short, for you and me–murder is a tough chore. Psychologists maintain that at one time or another, the best of us has murder in his heart. What holds us back? Why aren’t there as many murders in the average household as on the average bookshelf?

So you’re planning a murder? For love, hate, revenge or money? Let’s go.

This is how Sudden Fear begins with a fantastic introduction and the idea that for the average person, murder isn’t easy to commit, and it’s even harder to get away with–especially if you stand to directly benefit.

sudden fear iiThe novel opens with playwright Myra Hudson arranging to fire an actor during the rehearsals of her new play. According to Myra, 27 year-old Lester Blaine is just too good looking, so he’s fired with no more thought than if Myra were tossing out a set of unwanted curtains. This is very typical behaviour for Myra–she doesn’t think of people as human beings with feelings and needs, and she tends to objectify everyone in her sphere. She’s a  42-year-old intelligent, driven woman–a woman who “had practically everything except youth and beauty.” Myra isn’t an easy person to get along with; she’s critical, arrogant, possessive, demanding, and controlling, and while she has no apparent weaknesses, she’s intolerant of weaknesses in others. She’s a rather formidable person, but there’s also a lot about her that’s admirable. After all, she inherited fabulous wealth, but she’s also written seven “brilliant” and successful plays in the last 15 years. Myra surrounds herself with a New York set of friends who are completely loyal to her, and that includes Eve, her faithful secretary who admires Myra’s talent and intelligence but finds her “intolerance and self-absorption [were] repellent.” Myra also maintains social relationships with several males–including her long-time admirer, Dr. Edgar Van Roon. Roon is the kind of soft-spoken gentle man that Myra “lorded” over, but she seems to like his company for the reflective image of herself in Van Roon’s worshipful , docile eyes.

sudden fearEveryone in Myra’s social set is astonished when she enters into a whirlwind courtship with Lester Blaine that results in marriage. Naturally, gloom is predicted with Lester as a cheesy gold-digger who’ll make Myra regret her impetuosity. But months pass, and Lester, who’s treated rather like an exotic pet–pampered and spoiled, yet dismissed at Myra’s whim (“run along like a good boy”), eventually gains everyone’s respect. But then one day, fate throws a beautiful young woman, Irma, into Myra’s path, and Myra, intrigued by Irma’s complete, unashamed amorality and naked social-climbing invites Irma into her home and into her circle of friends….

If you’ve seen the film (and it’s highly recommended if you haven’t), then you know what happens. The book handles the story differently, and Myra and Irma are much more extreme characters than their celluloid counterparts. The book’s plot couldn’t be transplanted to film as there are elements that would not have survived the censor. As a result, the film makes Myra a brittle victim who finds the inner strength to fight back for her survival. Edna Sherry’s Myra is something else entirely.

Myra likes to watch and study people for her plays–hence her fascination with Irma–a “type” she hasn’t met before. Myra sees Irma as a “primitive” with  “uninhibited appetites,” and by adding Irma to her social circle she intends to study Irma for creative inspiration. Myra’s secretary, Eve isn’t keen on the idea, and there’s a shade of naiveté and arrogance to Myra’s attitude that Irma won’t cause her any personal trouble. Myra “sensed the girl’s possibilities for evil,” but can’t imagine Irma being evil enough to bite the hand that feeds her–although she predicts that Irma will “leave havoc all round in her wake.” Myra tells Eve:

“Get the idea of deliberate wickedness right out of your head, She wouldn’t hurt a fly if it didn’t get her something. But if it did–she’d massacre without a backward glance. She’s a force–like wind or tides. Even Les felt it.” 

Myra is attracted to beauty, and Lester and Irma are both extremely good looking:

Myra watched them together with a smug gusto. Her ego took credit for their looks. Others might surround themselves with charming men and pretty women, but she attracted the cream. Nothing less was Myra Hudson’s due. She looked on them almost as creations of her own hand. It never occurred to her that if they had not been outwardly superlative she would never have given either a second thought. Lester’s radiance covered a weak, greedy inanity, and Irma’s, a cheap cold calculation. But Myra’s voracious love of beauty blinded her to their intrinsic worthlessness.

In many ways, Myra and Irma are a lot alike: they both see people as objects, the disposable means to an end. Both Irma and Myra will go as far as necessary to get what they want, and they both lack some key element to their emotions. Irma is cold and reptilian, bent on clawing her way to the top while Myra uses her money and power to destroy people. Are they very different? Myra has so much power and money that she doesn’t need to use people to get ahead, but she does use people to feed her ego. Remove Myra’s money and privilege, and toss looks her way– it’s not that hard to see Myra acting a lot like Irma to get ahead. There’s a story early in the novel regarding what Myra did to a man who betrayed her trust. It isn’t pretty, but it opens a window into Myra’s unforgiving relentlessness. Here’s Miles Street, Myra’s lawyer, warning her secretary Eve about the kind of enemy Myra can be:

“You don’t know Myra. She’s got her good points, so long as she isn’t crossed. But let anyone tweak that oversized vanity of hers and she shows all the gentle traits of a jaguar. I’ve known her to ruin a woman socially because she said Myra looked like a purse-proud walnut. Even as a kid, she had to be cock of the walk or else.”

The celluloid Irene isn’t as thoroughly evil as her counterpart, Irma in the book version. Interestingly Sherry pits Irma against Myra, and both of these women are frightening, ruthless creatures–especially when crossed. Sherry’s Lester is the weak, none-too-bright man toy stuck in the middle, and there are several indications in the book that Lester might stick with Myra if she’d occasionally let him off the leash to take an acting role she could so easily wrangle.

sudden fear filmSudden Fear is a superb crime novel but it’s also an excellent character study. Deceit, infidelity, passion & greed collide in this tale of revenge, and although I’ve watched the film many times, the book was full of intense surprises and gave me a deeper appreciation of the various plot twists. Sudden Fear is currently out of print, but used copies are out there.

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Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham

“We disappeared together, Tash and me. That was a summer of hot winds and fierce storms that came and went like, well storms do. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the coloured lights had been turned off.”

A few years ago I read Australian author Michael Robotham’s Suspect, the first in the Joe O’Louglin series.  In this novel, the London-based clinical psychologist, just diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is drawn into a murder investigation and lies about his past relationship with the victim. Say You’re Sorry is the sixth novel in the series (Suspect, Lost, Shatter, Bleed for Me, & The Wreckage). Since I have a weakness for books that feature psychologists, I’d been meaning to get back to this series, but somehow, 4 of them have passed me by, so here I am with number 6. I’ve missed a bit along the way. Joe has moved back to London, and he takes medication for Parkinson’s which seems to be helping. He’s separated from his wife, Julianne, and his daughter Charlie is now a rebellious teenager. Joe works 2 days a week for the NHS and the rest of the time he works on “referrals [from] the Crown Prosecution Service.” There’s the sense that Joe’s work has become a little too routine and predictable, but all of that is about to change when Joe is pulled away from his commitments to make a psychological evaluation of a murder suspect.

The plot revolves around two crimes: the disappearance three years earlier of the two 15-year-old “Bingham girls” Piper Hadley and Tash McBain, best friends from school. Good-looking and confident Tash came from a rough home life and had a bad reputation. Fully aware of her attractiveness, she played teasing games with many of the males in her circle. Piper, who came from an upper-class background, seems an unlikely friend for Tash, and when Piper’s friendship with Tash began to lead to trouble, her parents shipped her off for to a re-education centre. But intervention from Piper’s parents inevitably backfired, and the two girls disappeared without a trace one summer night. The consensus is that the girls ran off to London.

The second crime takes during a blizzard at the remote farmhouse which used to be the home of Tash’s family. Joe is heading for a long weekend in Oxford “to talk at a mental health symposium” when he’s co-opted to provide a psychological evaluation on the suspect of a bloody double homicide. Initially the crime has the hallmarks of a classic home invasion. The husband was trying to run when his assailant bashed in his skull with a blunt object. Nasty, but the wife met a worse end. She was tied down onto the bed and set on fire. The police have a suspect–Augie Shaw, a handyman employed by the victims. The handyman has a history of mental problems and he’d recently been fired over a matter of missing underwear. The police are happy with an open and shut case, but Joe can’t fit the crime to the handyman, and then again there are some very troubling clues at the crime scene that leads Joe to think that the double homicide was linked to something else that occurred at the farmhouse.

Joe makes an interesting series character, and in this novel, former Det Insp. Vincent Ruiz (from Suspect) is back and joins Joe in his hunt for the truth. Joe finds himself investigating the cold case of the missing Bingham girls, and just as a crime scene can become contaminated as people inadvertently trammel clues, the stories about the girls have become distorted with time, and Joe has to wade through the myths built up around the two missing teenagers.

Everyone had a story about us–even the people who never liked us. We were cheeky, fun loving, popular, hard-working; we were straight A students. I laughed my ass off at that one.

People put a shine on us that wasn’t there for real, making us into the angels they wanted us to be. Our mothers were decent. Our fathers were blameless. Perfect parents who didn’t deserve to be tormented because of the posters and my collection of crystals  and my photo-booth portraits of my friends.

Narrated in turn by Piper Hadley and Joe O’Loughlin, Say You’re Sorry is the perfect distraction read, and by that I mean that you can be on a train or a plane or surrounded by annoying conversationalists, but you won’t hear them; you’ll be turning the pages of this book. On the down side (and this may seem a strange comment), I didn’t want to put this book down as by doing so, I was prolonging a crime. There’s an uncomfortable complicit feeling of reading a book while a crime is in process. I had the same feeling when I watched the film, The Cell. Almost fast forwarded the DVD for that one.

While Say You’re Sorry is a crime novel with a strong psychological bent, it’s also qualifies as a thriller towards the end. I didn’t guess the perp for this one, and the book kept me guessing to the end….

Mirrors have an interesting effect in interview rooms. People struggle to lie when they can see themselves doing it. They become more self-conscious as they try to sound more convincing and truthful

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Robotham, Michael

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

How far might such a mania lead?”

Dostoevsky fans, stop right here. If you liked Notes from Underground, then this is your lucky day. At least that’s what I thought after reading Argentinean author Ernesto Sabato’s marvellous, wickedly funny novel, The Tunnel. In the introduction to Notes from Underground, Richard Pevear, who translated many Dostoevsky novels, uses the term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness” to describe the narrator’s obsessive, circular and rambling narrative. That term can also be applied to the narrator of The Tunnel, and even the title should echo a connection–although an explanation for the ‘tunnel’ does appear late in this brilliantly entertaining novel. The Tunnel is narrated by an obsessive, violently jealous man, an artist named Juan Pablo Castel who begins the novel with a frank confession that he has murdered his mistress, Maria Iribarne. So as we know the nature of Juan’s crime, the all-important question becomes why.

It takes just a couple of pages to know we are dealing with a loony:

To a degree, criminals are the most decent and least offensive people among us. I do not make this statement because I myself killed another human being; it is my profound and honest conviction. Is a certain individual a menace to society? Then eliminate him and let that be an end to it. That is what I call a good deed. Think how worse it would be for society if that person were allowed to continue distilling his poison; think how pointless it would be if instead of eliminating him you attempted to forestall him by means of anonymous letters, or slander, or other loathsome measures. As for myself, I frankly confess that I now regret not having used my time to better advantage when I was a free man, that is, for not having done away with six or seven individuals I could name.

The purpose of Juan’s “account” he tells us is that he feels “animated by the faint hope that someone will understand me- even if it is only one person.” ‘Understanding’ Juan isn’t the issue here, however, and that’s one of the dark ironies of this tale. It’s easy to understand what’s behind Juan’s actions: madness, obsession, deranged passion, violent jealousy, and the desire to own & control another human being, but while we grasp Juan’s mental state, Juan’s “account” is really an exposition of his insanity. He condemns himself with every word.

Juan has a neurotic aestheticism that belongs in a Huysmans novel: ” I do not mind telling you that there have been times after I observed a particular character trait that I could not eat for a day, or paint for a week.” There are many things Juan loathes: the critics (“they are a plague I have never understood“) psychologists (“let’s not go into that“) people in general (“I have always looked on people with antipathy, even revulsion“), the beach, etc. Sabato’s narrator is unintentionally funny, and one marvellous scene has him trying to retrieve a letter from the post office only to be met with a wall of impenetrable bureaucracy. But at the same time, side-by-side with this humour, tension builds as the tale develops and Juan’s victim is drawn deeper, almost irresistibly, into a blatantly dysfunctional relationship which seems fated to end, inevitably, in violence.

Juan is a well-known, highly respected painter when he meets Maria, the elusive woman who becomes the object of his obsessive love and paranoia. Juan first sees Maria at an art show where he exhibits a painting in Buenos Aires.  In the foreground of the painting is a woman and a child, and Maria is transfixed–not so much by the whole painting–but one particular corner of it:

In the upper left-hand corner of the canvas was a remote scene framed in a tiny window: an empty beach and a solitary woman looking at the sea. She was staring into the distance as if expecting something, perhaps some faint and faraway summons. In my mind that scene suggested the most wistful and absolute loneliness.

No one seemed to notice the scene: their eyes passed over it as if it were something trivial, mere embellishment. With the exception of a single person, no one seemed to comprehend that the scene was an essential component of the painting.

After Maria leaves Juan is devastated that he lacked the courage to talk to her, and he becomes depressed. At the same time, intrigued by Maria’s attention to the detail of his painting, he begins to be obsessed with her:

Throughout the months that followed I thought only of her and of the possibility that I might see her again. And in a way I painted only for her. It was as if the tiny scene of that window had begun to expand, to swallow up that canvas and all the rest of my work.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the narrator spends many hours plotting revenge against an officer for some imagined slight, and it’s this same sort of thinking at work in The Tunnel. After the art show, Juan experiences insomnia while he racks his brain over the possibility of another encounter with Maria. He asks himself “How the hell is it that some men manage to stop a woman and start a conversation with her, even an affair?”

I envisioned scenes in which she spoke to me–for example, to ask about an address, or where to catch a bus–and from that opening, during months of reflection and melancholy, of rage, of abandon, and hope, I constructed an endless series of variations. In one I was talkative, witty (something in fact I never am); in another I was taciturn; in still another, sunny and smiling. At times, though it seems incredible, I answered rudely, even with ill-concealed rage. It happened (in one of those imaginary meetings) that our exchange broke off abruptly because of an absurd irritability on my part, or because I rebuked her, almost crudely for some comment I found pointless or ill-thought out. I felt bitter after these frustrated encounters, and for several days I would reproach myself for the clumsiness that had caused me to lose my one opportunity to establish a relationship with her. Fortunately, I would realize that everything was imaginary, and the actual possibility still existed.

Of course, they eventually meet, and through the relationship Juan begins his descent into madness.

Juan is the classic unreliable narrator, and regular readers of this blog know I have a weakness for this narrative form. As Juan tells his story, he spins a tale of justification, obsession, and paranoia, and of course since this is Juan’s version, we only get his side of things. Nonetheless,  there are tantalising glimpses of Maria, the only woman on the planet unfortunate enough to catch his attention and to become the vessel for his neuroticism and obsession. Here’s Maria being interrogated by Juan about her husband, Allende:

“You always twist my words, and pervert my meaning,” Maria protested. “When I said I had married him because I loved him, I didn’t mean I don’t love him now.”

“Ah, then you do love him.” I parried swiftly, as if hoping to prove she had lied in answer to earlier questions.

Maria was subdued and unresponsive.

“Why don’t you answer?”

“Because there doesn’t seem any point. We’ve had this same conversation too many times before.”

“No, this is different from the other times. I asked you whether you loved Allende now, and you told me yes. But I seem to remember that not too long ago, at the port, you told me I was the first person you ever loved.”

Again Maria did not answer. What irritated me about her was not only that she contradicted herself but that it was almost impossible to get her to say anything at all.

The Tunnel was rejected by several publishers but was finally published in the French magazine Sur in 1948. Camus read it and “commissioned” the novel for Gamillard. In the introduction, Colm Toíbín explains that Sabato chaired the commission to “investigate the crimes against human rights”  committed during  the years of Argentina’s military junta.

Translated by Margaret Sayers

Copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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Filed under Fiction, Sabato Ernesto

All Yours by Claudia Pineiro

“However much you love your man, there are limits and sometimes, to be honest, I feel like putting a bullet between his eyes.”

In 2010 I read and enjoyed Argentinean author Claudia Pineiro’s novel, Thursday Night Widows. The book has since been made into a film. I’ve yet to see it, but I hope that Pineiro’s latest, replete with sly black humour, and told by a hilariously unreliable narrator, makes it to film too. That said, it’ll be no easy task to translate this book to the screen without turning it into a comedy, and that would be a shame. Chances are, if you enjoyed Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and/or Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy, you’ll enjoy All Yours as well.

This slim novel which racks in at 172 pages in narrated by middle-aged, middle-class wife,  Inés Pereyra who begins to suspect her husband Ernesto is having an affair. Their sex life has dwindled down to nothing, and initially Inés is willing to chalk the lack of sex up to exhaustion on her husband’s part. But after digging in her husband’s briefcase and finding a heart “drawn in lipstick, with the words ‘All Yours’ across it, and signed ‘your true love,’  ”   Inés decides to take action:

But I said to myself, what if asking questions backfires on me, the way it did with Mummy? Because when she thought Daddy seemed a bit strange she went to him one day and said, “Is there a problem, Roberto?” And he said, “Yes, you’re the problem! I can’t stand you any more!” He left there and then, slamming the door behind him, and we never saw him again. Poor Mummy.

Inés reasons that she won’t repeat her mother’s mistake, and so while her “instinct” is to confront Ernesto with the paper heart and demand “What is this, you piece of shit?” instead she suppresses her rage. She decides that whoever drew the heart isn’t a serious threat and that Ernesto is “just getting his rocks off.” Nevertheless, Inés increases her vigilance:

So I started going through his pockets, opening his mail, keeping an eye on his diary, listening in on the extension when he was on the telephone. The kinds of things that any woman in my situation would do.

After a mysterious late night phone call that sends Ernesto flying from the house, Inés follows her philandering husband to a rendezvous. Hiding behind a tree, she sees her husband meeting his long-term, patently upset secretary, Alicia. An emotional argument takes place between Ernesto and Alicia, and it ends with Alicia dead.

Up to this point, Inés seems to be a little odd–one of those prim and proper ladies who worries about how her house looks, and what her neighbours and acquaintances think even while she can happily, and delicately, ascribe her husband’s alienation to ‘work stress.’ She seems to be on the pampered side and is, perhaps, a woman who can’t cope with the idea of functioning without a traditional family structure.  The initial impression of Inés begins to disintegrate, however, as the story evolves. With gusto and almost savage glee, Inés decides to show Ernesto just what she’s made of by providing him with an alibi (they were watching Psycho), even destroying damning evidence in her newly aggressive role of the supportive wife who stands by her man–no matter what. As time goes on, the crime remains unsolved, but life at home changes drastically….

What follows is a wickedly funny tale of obsessive love, adultery and revenge. The plot unfolds through Inés’ warped view of her toxic marriage, and then, at points, her off-kilter world vision is interrupted by what appear to be police reports. At still another point in the novel, the narration briefly shifts to third person. A sub-plot concerns Inés and Ernesto’s daughter, Lali, and while Inés who’s rather jealous of Lali’s relationship with Ernesto, thinks of her daughter as a protected spoiled brat who lives in a “bubble,” Lali’s life quietly unravels in the background.

All Yours is a marvellously clever novel, and I hope my enthusiasm conveys how enjoyable the story is. Initially Inés may seem like one of those perfect housewife types who’ll happily sweep anything under the rug rather than confront the fact that their domestic life is anything less than perfect, but when Inés begins to suspect Ernesto of the affair, she almost morphs into a bumbling amateur detective type from a British cosy. From then on as the plot settles into its main premise, Inés is clearly seen as the classic unreliable narrator. So we see events interpreted through her eyes while off in the periphery we get hints that Inés’ life is unravelling in ways even she cannot control.  When you have a character who sees murder as a less serious offence than the vulgarity of scratching herself, well you know that there’s a problem.

I took a bus into town I don’t like driving, especially when my nerves are on edge. And why deny it–I was really jumpy. I felt as if something inside my body was going to come out of my ears. Something hot. Something at boiling point. My insides? I sat down at the front and looked out the window. Trying to calm myself down. Deep breaths. Why did I ever stop going to yoga? The lights at the junction of Cabildo and Juramento weren’t working. Trees, cars, buildings. I fiddled with Alicia’s keys. Because the yoga teacher talked too much, she made me feel nervous.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Miranda France.

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Filed under Fiction, Pineiro Claudia

1222 by Anne Holt

2011 brought a new-found appreciation for Icelandic literature in the form of Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets and The Ambassador, so fast forward to December 2011 and me thinking it would be a good idea to read something seasonal. No Xmas cosy for me. Instead I read 1222 by Norwegian crime author Anne Holt. It’s the sort of novel that makes you glad you’re inside with the doors locked and not stuck in a snowstorm somewhere freezing in Norway.

The action starts immediately with a dramatic train derailment at Finse 1222. We’re in Northern Norway on a trip from Oslo to Bergen in the middle of the worst blizzard recorded in over 100 years. The story is told by passenger, Hanne Wilhelmsen, a  former police officer who left the force after being paralyzed by a bullet still lodged in the spine. Hanne probably never had the best personality, and now she’s even more prickly.  More of that later.

The stunned passengers are rescued and removed from the train and taken to a nearby centuries old hotel. There’s plenty of food, and it’s warm, so all the 268 people have to do is wait out the storm. They should feel fortunate as only one person died in the derailment. Yes there are an assortment of sundry injuries, but it could have been worse, and since a number of doctors were on board the train to attend a conference, at least there’s medical help available. That’s just as well as the passengers and train crew are completely stranded and isolated. Finse 1222 is only accessible by train.  Due to the snow storm,  the televisions in the hotel aren’t working and snowploughs cannot get to the hotel.  

Right after the rescue, it becomes obvious to Hanne that there’s something fishy going on. The train held some anonymous VIP who stayed in a separate carriage surrounded by armed guards, and this person now occupies the top floor of the hotel. Any attempt to connect with the mysterious guest ends up with threats of violence. Nice.

Within just a few short hours, an execution-style murder takes place, and while Hanne and a few other people at the hotel are in on the fact that one of the guests was shot at point-blank range, the truth is, at first, kept from the general hotel population in order to avoid panic. Think stampede.

Since Hanne is a retired police officer, and a famous one at that, she’s expected to take over the investigation by the hotel management. At first she tries to shove the responsibility over to someone else, but when the body count rises and there’s no contact with the outside world in sight, Hanne reluctantly finds herself being dragged back into the world of criminal investigation. Here’s Hanne’s thoughts on the matter:

When it comes to the actual murder, that can wait. There’s no point in starting an investigation here and now. Wait for better weather. Wait for the police. Let them do what they can and this will all be cleared up in no time.

At least that’s what she tells solicitor Geir Rugholmen and hotel manager, Berit Tverre. The few guests who know about the murder can’t understand why Hanne refuses the responsibility of the investigation, but Hanne is one step ahead of everyone else. She reasons that the murderer walks amongst the guests. An overt investigation will provoke panic and paranoia, so she clings to that reason while silently ruminating that an investigation will make the killer nervous.

In the meantime, I thought, there’s a murderer with a heavy calibre weapon wandering around amongst us. In the meantime we can only hope that the intention of the person in question was to murder ** [no spoilers], and that he or she would not dream of harming anyone else. While we are waiting for the police, I thought without saying anything, we could pray to the gods every one of us must believe in that the perpetrator was rational, focused, and did not suspect any of us of knowing who he or she was. And that he or she would have no reason to suspect that anyone might be starting to investigate the case here and now.

The situation in the hotel begins to unravel fast, and Hanne finds that she must use her old skills to whether or not she wants to….

I’ve read some reviews that compare this to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and obviously there are some similarities between these two  “closed circle of suspect” mysteries. In fact the narrator doesn’t fail to make the connection:

I thought about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I immediately tried to dismiss the thought. And Then There Were None is a story that doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.

The similarities to Agatha Christie must be acknowledged, but those similarities reside in the set-up, and 1222 is refreshingly bitter thanks to its edgy narrator, Hanne, a woman who’s become anti-social almost to the point of pathology. Hanne doesn’t exactly shine in the personality department. In fact she actively tries to keep people away from her by her taciturn comments. Not that I blame her. Here she is with Geir Rugholmen:

He placed his hands on his hips and looked down his nose at me. That look from those who are standing up, the tall ones, the ones whose bodies work perfectly. Strictly speaking, I think it’s perfectly ok to have mobility problems. I want to be immobile; that’s the way I’ve chosen to live. The chair doesn’t really hamper me significantly in my everyday life. It can be weeks before between the occasions on which I leave my apartment. The problems arise when I am forced to go out. People are just desperate to help me all the time. Lifting, pushing, carrying. That’s why I chose the train. Flying is a complete nightmare, I have to say. The train is simpler. Less touching. Fewer strange hands. The train offers at least some degree of independence.

Until it crashed….

 Added to the tension at the hotel is a anti-muslim nut who manages to whip up fear and paranoia amongst the guests. 1222 is apparently number 8 in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. The fact that I’m jumping late on board didn’t seem to matter; Hanne’s life was fully explained, so no pieces of the puzzle were missing.

Review copy from the publisher via netgalley.

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Filed under Fiction, Holt Anne

The Duel by Heinrich von Kleist

Melville House came up with the brilliant idea of publishing 5 different novels–all called The Duel, and in spite of the fact they share the same title, they are vastly different in tone. There’s Casanova’s The Duel, Kuprin’s The Duel, Chekhov’s The Duel, and Conrad’s The Duel. Casanova’s duel is a Duel of Honour. Kuprin’s The Duel shows a society in disintegration. Chekhov’s The Duel shows the duel as farce–whereas Conrad’s The Duel shows two men pitted against each other for a lifetime while the original insult is mostly forgotten. This brings me to Heinrich von Kleist’s The Duel, a selection for German literature month cohosted by Caroline and Lizzy. Von Kleist (1777-1811) came from a Slav/Prussian family which produced 18 generals, and while Kleist was, at one point, a second lieutenant fighting the French in the Rhine campaigns, he ultimately rejected a military career. His short life came to an abrupt end when he shot his mistress, who was dying of cancer, and then he subsequently committed suicide.

Kleist’s The Duel is completely different from the other 4 novels in the Melville House series. In this novella, we see the Judicial Duel, and essentially it’s a duel which is supposed to establish guilt/innocence depending on who wins the ‘trial by battle,’ and it’s an extension of the ‘judgement of god.’ Of course to us it’s all nonsense, but we can see the same sort of thinking or reliance on ‘divine intervention’  in medieval times in a process to identify witches. Suspected witches were thrown into rivers. If they sank & drowned, well they were innocent, but if they floated, they were guilty and the fun continued with burning at the stake.

It’s more-or-less this sort of thinking afoot in The Duel, and what a tawdry tale of lust, deceit, and greed this is. Kleist’s The Duel is my least favourite of the five as it’s short on character and heavy on fainting, chest beating and threats of penance, but that said, it was a must-read for me.

So here’s the plot:

Duke Wilhelm von Breysach is murdered by an unknown assassin when he returns home late one night. The timing of the murder is significant as the Emperor had just agreed to make his illegitimate son, Count Philip, his heir. Duke Wilhelm fathered the child before he married Katherine, so now she will act as regent until her son, Philip comes of age. Now here’s where it begins to get sticky…. The Duke’s half-brother, the dastardly Jakob Rotbart (great name) really has a claim to his late brother’s estate, but to everyone’s surprise, and somewhat against his nature, Rotbart acts graciously and endorses his nephew as the legitimate heir.

All seems well, but then Katherine begins to investigate her husband’s murder. The only evidence she has is the rather unique arrow that was pulled from his chest, and that arrow is traced back to Rotbart.

Since this is the 14th century, Katherine can’t have her brother-in-law arrested, so instead she appeals to the Emperor for help, but in the meantime, Rotbart begins to circulate some juicy rumours about his relationship with the widow, Littegarde, and he claims he has an alibi as he was in Littegarde’s boudoir when the Duke was murdered. The rumours spread like wildfire and Littegarde is widely held up to be a liar when she denies a sexual relationship with the Duke. The scene shifts from who killed the Duke to whether or not Littegarde is a floozy, and the Emperor sends word to Littegarde’s father that his daughter must “answer the charge brought against her by Count Jakob Rotbart.” Note that Littegarde is already supposed to “answer the charge” rather than provide an alibi for Rotbart. Littegarde’s father keels over dead at the news, and she’s kicked out of her home by her brothers and sent out penniless. But one man who’s always loved her, the chamberlain Friedrich von Trota believes her and fights a duel against Rotbart to prove Littegarde’s innocence.

Now if Friedrich loses the match, it’s assumed that Littegarde is guilty and is the secret mistress of Rotbart. But worse than that Littegarde and Friedrich will both be burned at the stake, and with options like that, you’re going to find out who your real friends are.  There will be no further recourse to law–the duel decides the guilt or innocence of the accused. Here’s Lady Helena, Friedrich’s mother:

“Fool,” his mother cried. “Do you not know there is a law by which a combat once, in the opinion of the judges, finished, may not, to dispute the same affair, be taken up again in the holy court of law?”

“What of it?” the chamberlain replied impatiently. “What are these arbitrary human laws to me? Can a combat not fought to the death of one of the combatants be on any rational appraisal of the matter considered finished? And might I, if I were permitted to resume it, not hope to undo the accident that befell me and achieve with my sword a divine verdict wholly other than what at present narrow-minded and shortsighted people take for it?”

“All the same,” his mother insisted, “these laws you say you do not care about are what governs and rules; reasonably or not, they enforce god’s ordinances and will deliver up you and her, as a criminal pair, an abomination, to the full severity of the judicial process.” (quote from Kleist, Selected Writings. Ed & translated by David Constantine)

Naturally any duel is a serious business–after all the participants have the potential to kill one another. But in this judicial duel, the outcome of combat will determine a third party’s innocence or guilt. On an entirely different note, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how both sides in a battle expect god to bless their endeavors. That’s always struck me as a bit odd–after all, both sides can’t win, and yet they send their appeal to win to the same source. In the judicial duel, we see this same sort of thinking, the victor being given the power of the righteous.  

For Caroline’s review go here

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Filed under Fiction, Von Kleist Heinrich