Tag Archives: New York

A Little Tea, A Little Chat: Christina Stead

“He had suffered too much from women.”

In Christina Stead’s comic novel,  A Little Tea, A Little Chat Robert Grant, a middle-aged businessman, a dealer in cotton, is a despicable, opportunistic predatory male who is always on the lookout for the next sexual encounter. This bombastic braggart spends most of his time scoping out likely women he can invite up to his New York apartment for the euphemistic “a little tea, a little chat.”

The novel opens in 1941, with an introduction of Grant and his repulsive male circle of friends, all “birds of prey” and “each of them loved money and lechery, above all,” so between these men, stories of ripping off widows or seducing them makes good cocktail talk. It’s hard to say which of these men is the most revolting, but the novel concentrates on the philandering career of Grant, and how he subsequently meets his match.

A little tea a little chat

Robert Grant isn’t an interesting man. He’s shallow and “had no hobbies. He could not read more than a few consecutive sentences in any book or newspaper unless they referred immediately to himself or his interests.” Grant’s relentless, pitiless modus operandi geared towards women is the compelling fascination here. He’s a pig, picking up women, stringing them along with false promises, assessing whether or not they’re worth bedding, buying them the cheapest meals possible. and then dumping them when he’s bored or if thing gets complicated.

He had little pleasure out of his real hobby, libertinage; and he gave none. Women fell away from him, but he did not know why; and he retained only the venal.

He claims to be afraid of women, irreparably damaged by a femme fatale in his past. He poses as a free thinker, a “bit of a Marxist,” but considers a woman goes too far when she dances with a “negro fellow.” He’s learned to pose as a Leftie and has convinced himself that he really is one. Again this is just a role for sexual benefit.  Leftist women seem to want to give it away free.

usually his radicalism made his girls trustful and either cheap or for nothing: a radical girl should not take money for love. 

Grant is a practiced seducer who always plays the victim to his prey. Here he is on his wife:

That ‘ooman in Boston, my wife, is no good to me. Never loved me. Now when it’s too late, she tries to make me come back. Just like Barb. It’s a type-stupid. A woman like you could keep a man. I’m looking for an oasis in my desert, a rose on a blasted heath. 

And here he is on what he’s looking for in a woman:

I’m looking for romance. My heart needs a home, a cradle, eh? I’ve used myself up, played too hard. Now I need a woman, a mother, a sister, a sweetheart, a friend. That’s what that cow in Boston doesn’t realize. I need a mother now. She could have me back. But it’s too late now.

Discarding woman as casually and frequently as if they were paper underwear, he finally runs into a woman called Barbara Kent–a woman he eventually nicknames  The Blondine. At first she seems a little drab, no big deal, but he becomes intrigued even though he knows “she’s possessive, she’s greedy, she is from the Land of Grab.” Barbara’s friend, Paula (another of Grant’s conquests) calls Barbara a “tramp.”

She got sick of men so soon. I don’t think she really cares for them. She’s not a gold-digger at heart, but she finished up gold-digging. She has too good a head for figures. She can always calculate the chances. What’s the use of marrying somebody with flat feet, some jerk, and so dying of old age at thirty?

In this darkly, cruelly funny novel, we see Grant perplexed by the languid Barbara, who’s really every bit as boring as he is, and as she slips his grasp, he becomes obsessed with her. Setting, at no small expense, private detectives on her trail, sightings of Barbara with various men serve to fuel his obsession, and eventually, comically, he discovers, or thinks he discovers, Barbara’s secret life.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat is an intense character study of the male predator. After a certain point in the novel, we don’t really learn anything new about Robert, his methods or his tastes, but nonetheless, we follow him through his obsession with Barbara Kent. Grant is a bore, and like most bores, he won’t shut up, has the same speeches, and the same beliefs which he trots out in company. Grant’s speech about how he’s been done wrong by women appears repeatedly, for example, although it’s modified at times to fit his audience. At one point, for example, he has an idea for a book, called All I Want is a Woman, and in another scene he meets a woman “just back from Reno,” who wants to write a thinly veiled novel about her marriage. This meeting morphs into a duel for attention as Grant and the woman wax on about their respective experiences. Both egomaniacs, neither listens to the other. Some readers may be disappointed in the repetitiveness of Grant’s behaviour, but Grant’s boring repetitiveness and insatiable rapaciousness is all part of his shtick.

This is not a perfect novel, and at times Grant’s constant rants can be bludgeoning. But in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book thoroughly for its portrayal of a type who finally meets his match.

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All Grown Up: Jami Attenberg

I really enjoyed Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins–the very funny story of how one woman’s overeating impacts her family. It’s a serious subject treated in a very readable light-hearted manner, and that brings me to All Grown Up, the story of a single 40- year-old woman, a New Yorker, a former artist, whose meaningless relationships and a job that serves to pay the bills have left Andrea Bern adrift in her own life. Ultimately this is the story of a woman whose life didn’t end up the way she planned and how she needs to come to terms with this.

As Andrea falls further into the void of meaninglessness, the years pass, her friends move, marry, have children, and seem to slip into gilded adulthoods:

Other people you know seem to change quite easily. They have no problem at all with succeeding at their careers and buying apartments and moving to other cities and falling in love and getting married and hyphenating their names and adopting rescue cats and, finally, having children, and then documenting all of this meticulously on the internet. Really, it appears to be effortless on their part. Their lives are constructed like buildings, each precious but totally unsurprising block stacked before your eyes.

While Andrea’s employment started out as simply a means to an end, somehow temporary turns into permanent. She’s offered a promotion but after realizing that means “more responsibility,” she steps away from the opportunity. She still sees the job as a temporary situation–a stop gap in her life as an artist. And yet the years are running away from her …

you are moved to a new cube, which you must share with a freshly hired coworker who is thirteen years younger than you and is hilarious and loud and pretty and probably making half of what you make but still spends it on tight dresses. 

The years pass for Andrea relentlessly as the chapters move back and forward in time. Andrea’s brother and sister-in-law have a child, a baby girl who is born with a heart defect. This is a child who will never have the chance to grow up, and just as Andrea sidesteps responsibilities, she also avoids becoming involved with the brief life this child will have.

all grown up

The chapters read like interconnecting short stories. We see the trajectory of the life of one of Andrea’s best friends, Indigo, as she marries and has a child. Indigo, who lives in a two million dollar Tribeca loft has a seemingly perfect, envious life–even if Indigo becomes a living breathing cliche (yes she’s a yoga instructor) in order to achieve this state of Nirvana. I loved the character of Indigo–most of us know someone like her–so perfect, you want to vomit. One of the funniest chapters in the book occurs when Andrea attends Indigo’s wedding and finds herself sitting at the ‘singles’ table.

I sit at the singles table under a nest of twinkling lights and grape leaves. There are four other single women at the table: two of them are lesbians, who are best friends with each other and seem invested in gossiping about everyone they went to college with; one of them is a retired nun, whose story remains mysterious throughout the night; and the fourth woman is Karen, a real career gal. I say this not to make fun of her but because she described herself as such, which means it is doubly true. 

There are two gay men at the table, who used to date and are using the evening to hash out a few things, and there are two straight men: a newly divorced uncle of the groom named Warren, and a tall, broad, masculine man named Kurt. 

All Grown Up is a very funny, lively look at one woman’s messy life. Andrea careens from disaster to disaster in a life she didn’t plan and doesn’t acknowledge as her own. We get glimpses of Andrea’s youth, her chaotic upbringing, her drinking, her drug use and her eccentric activist mother. For potential readers: in adulthood, Andrea has numerous pointless sexual relationships, and while the sex isn’t explicit, it’s there. Also I would say that if you don’t like the ‘f’ word, then move on. This is very much a New York novel, grounded in its unique environment, so it should appeal to fans of Tana Janowitz. I really liked All Grown Up; it’s a book that made me laugh even as I shook my head over Andrea’s actions and mistakes.

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The Antiques: Kris D’Agostino

There’s a frenetic energy to Kris D’Agostino’s novel The Antiques which matches both its backdrop, an epic storm which engulfs Hudson, New York, and the lives of the Westfall family. When the novel opens, the Westfall family is in crisis, but I’ll back up here and say ‘crises.’ Yes it’s multiple; family patriarch George Westfall, cofounder of George and Ana Westfall Antiques, is dying of cancer. His wife Ana, hearty and healthy, but wrapped in her own concerns, isn’t sure how she’ll continue the business alone, and that brings us to the three Westfall offspring: sex addict Josef, daughter Charlie, out in California pursuing a career in publicity, and Armie, who still lives in the basement.

the-antiques

With George taking a turn for the worse, Ana begins frantically contacting Josef and Charlie, but they both ignore the desperate messages as they are deep in their own problems. In Josef’s case, the problems revolve around his sex addiction. He’s on the brink of making a huge, lucrative business move, and while he waits for news, as is typical, he distracts himself with thoughts of sex. Every woman, including his therapist, is a potential sex partner. This is a recently divorced man (no shock there) who buys used female underwear to sniff and claims that “it’s like my penis led me astray.”

Enough of Josef.

Onto Charlie.

Charlie works with P.Le.A.Se. Publicity LLC’s “most needy and lucrative client,” Hollywood starlet, Melody Montrose. Melody’s latest claim to fame is the starring role as a “vampire heiress” in  a “teen-fantasy saga based on a cycle of YA bestsellers called Thornglow.” Melody’s needy life is one publicity nightmare after another, and that leaves Charlie mopping up Melody’s messes and performing the work of a PA. There’s a pull between Melody’s petulant immature demands and Charlie’s personal life. Charlie has put her private life on the back burner, but after finding a pair of women’s underwear at her home, Charlie suspects her French husband is cheating. Meanwhile their son, Abbott is thrown out of school for violence towards another child.

As for basement dweller, Armie, he’s seriously damaged after being tangled in a questionable business deal which involved Josef and led to a stressful session with the FBI. He’s almost afraid to leave the safety of the basement, and yet love calls him in the shape of a young woman who occasionally offers to walk the Westfall family dog.

All the Westfall children converge on the family home, and there a drama unfolds over the sale of a valuable painting….

The book is well-paced and well-plotted but it is full of unpleasant people–I even disliked Ana, a character who should, technically speaking, be somewhat sympathetic. But it’s never a problem for me to read books about unpleasant people–after all, they’re usually much more interesting than ‘good’ people. But here, the characters were unpleasant and uninteresting–a deadly combination. Josef was a waste of good oxygen and Charlie … well there’s a telephone conversation that takes place between Charlie and another parent which left me shaking my head. While the author certainly mined aspects of today’s superficial culture, somehow that vapidity stuck to the plot with the result that I couldn’t wait to leave these people.

The Antiques is being compared to The Nest, and while I can see the connections: siblings and an inheritance, the resemblance stops there.  Most of the reviews of The Antiques on Goodreads are overwhelmingly positive, so I am in the minority opinion.

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The Fall of Princes: Robert Goolrick

I couldn’t pass up Robert Goolrick’s The Fall of Princes, the story of a former BSD (“big, swinging dick“) trader from Wall Street who soared the heights in the 80s only to plummet to the lows of working in Barnes and Noble. This is his story, and this long, detailed mea culpa AA/NA style confession of a louse’s fall from the pinnacle of success, a story of excess, sex, and drugs, is morbidly fascinating. And I’ll note here that Goolrick, to his credit, approaches his material with restraint, not crudity, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, so while we read about lines of cocaine and hordes of bedmates, throughout the tale there’s the sense that these young traders, running out of speed, are damaging themselves more than anyone else. The mayhem carries a heavy cost from the outset and doesn’t look like a great deal of decadent fun.

fall of princesThe chapters alternate between the narrator, using the collective ‘we,’ who tells the story of the aggressive, young bull trader lifestyle and the first person narrator who recalls specific incidents.  The narrator lands a job at ‘the Firm,’ where clients “had to have $20 million” in their accounts “at all times. That’s a lot of toys to play with,” and these young traders repeat the words “forty or forty.”

That’s when you retire, they reply with that bland smile. When you reach the age of forty, or your portfolio reaches forty million. That’s when you can get away clean and get your life back. What’s left of it

It’s an adrenaline-fueled life where sleep is a low priority, and rowdy nights are spent drinking, taking drugs, and bedding nameless women. Then when the narrator runs out of steam, he periodically boomerangs to rehab. There’s also a brutal competitiveness amongst the traders which begins with the bodies most of them develop.

Thousands of hours in the world’s most expensive gym, with the world’s most skilled trainers, had brought my body to such a state of perfection that the women who rushed to take off their clothes in my bedroom could only gasp at the luck that had put them into my line of sight, that had made them, even for one night, the most beautiful creatures on earth, with their lithe arms and their skin like chamois and their scents.

The narrator, occasionally referred to by the name Rooney, started out his trader life after various failures as a bad artist and a bad writer, but then turns to trading when he decides that he does not want to end up as one of the “gray masses.”

the place they would end up, neither richer or wiser, filled only with regret and second-tier liquor and the shreds of the dreams they no longer remembered, surprised to wake up one day and be shown the door with a tepid handshake and a future on the edge of old age and death that held only pictures of the kids and grandkids, a cruise to some out-of-season destination every three years, and the notion, which they somehow managed to believe, that this was comfort, that this was all the splendor they got for forty years of relentless drudgery and obsequiousness.

And to all this we said fuck you, we want it all, we want it now, you can drain us of our blood for all we care, but we want impossible things of impossible vintage and provenance. We want salaries equivalent to our ages multiplied by 100,000. We want to live life in a rush of fury and light, to rampage, to pillage our neighbourhoods and rape and demolish our best and closest friends

The collective ‘we’ sections, which at times felt like a Greek chorus describing the ebb and flow of money easily gained and easily lost, are not as powerful as the details of Rooney’s golden life before he ran out of steam just as AIDS swept through his world. There’s a no expense spared summer in the Hamptons … $200,000, a weekend in L.A. … $50,000, and, of course, a bachelor weekend in Vegas. While Rooney bedded and dumped countless women, he finally marries one very high-maintenance woman named Carmela, and he describes their turbulent, short relationship not “so much a marriage as it was like a long, drunken date.”

At times Rooney apologizes for the person he used to be. Sometimes the apology sounds sincere and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s impossible to tell where the remorse ends and the self-pity begins;

Forgive me for thinking that I was better than you will ever be. Forgive me for thinking that money equaled a kind of moral superiority

Rooney picks at the most shameful moments in his life–scabs that won’t heal. There’s one moment when he recalls a game he used to play with his hard-drinking workmates called “To Have and To have Not.”

The idea was you had to think of something you had done that nobody else at the table had done, or something you had never done that everybody else had done.

As the evenings wear on, “the vagaries of human behaviour” are revealed and then Rooney reveals that a girl killed herself when he dumped her. While he mulls over how heartlessly he treated her, a great deal of the regret seems to dwell in the self-pity Rooney wallows in. There’s also the sense that he’d be the same person again in a heartbeat if he got the chance, and we see that aspect of his character in the way Rooney, now in his 50s, dresses in the last of his expensive clothing and spends his days off using  a false name and address and masquerading as a high-flying apartment seeker.

People’s relationship with money is fascinating. Note the films stars who’ve earned millions only to declare bankruptcy, lose homes, or commit suicide when faced with financial disaster and a late life lack of earning power. Money works most of us, not the other way around, and people go the grave never understanding just how finances, and such tedious but necessary things as budgets, work. Of course I was fascinated to read this ‘rise and fall’ tale of a trader–surely, you’d think, someone who would understand money but who ultimately didn’t. All those millions that passed through his hands must have given him some sort of contact high. No authors handle the subject of excess better than Americans, IMO, and it shows here. Yet Goolrick takes the high road when describing the high roller lifestyle rather than sinking to titillation.

(Finally,  I couldn’t help wondering if anyone could survive in NY on Barnes and Nobles wages and save for a foreign trip every year.)

Review copy

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Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella

What is this, be kind to a fuck-up week?”

The protagonist of Charlie Stella’s wonderfully entertaining novel, Eddie’s World is a man who lives on the border between the straight life and a life of crime, and he “resisted impulses to drift too far one way or another.” He works occasionally as a data operator, but that’s just a job that checks the box ‘respectable citizen’ if the cops or the IRS come sniffing around. Eddie’s main source of income is loan-sharking and what he collects is enough to live on. He’s a wannabe–not a made man, but a man with connections. Eddie’s second wife Diane, a senior marketing executive makes a lot more money than her husband, and when the novel opens, their marriage is in trouble. She wants a baby, but having another child is the last thing Eddie wants–he already failed at fatherhood with a son from his first marriage; he doesn’t want to repeat that mistake. So while Eddie juggles the criminal world and the straight world, he also tries to find a balance between marriage, his obligations to Diane and his need for independence.

“Hey, we only knew each other a couple months when we got married,” Eddie said. “We both thought it was the right thing to do, you know. Like it was magic or something, I don’t know. We got along. I liked her flakiness. I know she was intrigued with me, with us, what we do. Brother, did that rub off fast. Now she was wants a kid. Her eyes get wet every time she sees one. Scares the shit out of me.”

“I know the feeling,” Tommy said. “My old lady sees a kid, her eyes get all fucking big, and I want to catch a flight across the country. They just don’t get it, some broads.”

Discontented and bored, and possibly trying to get a reaction from Eddie, Diane, using the screen name BeigeThong has turned to internet chat rooms and virtual sex to spice up her life. At the same time, Eddie, according to Diane and her therapist, is in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Eddie's worldWhile Eddie’s personal life is going down the toilet, he’s planning a heist with his friend Tommy to steal $15,000 cash in a simple smash and grab job. He’s received a tip from an alcoholic named Sarah, “one of life’s losers,” who wants revenge on her slimeball boss for his extracurricular demands, and so she’s given Eddie the tip that there will be $15,000 sitting in a desk, ripe for the picking one weekend. Eddie doesn’t need the money, but he needs the thrill, “a spark of life.” It will be a three-way split and Tommy who’s heavily in debt thanks to gambling losses, badly needs a score…

The problem is Sarah has terrible taste in men, and when she picks up freshly released ex-con Singleton, suddenly there’s just not action to go around. Eddie finds himself set up for the fall.

Author Charlie Stella makes wonderful use of dialogue. It’s realistic, sharp, witty, and occasionally crude. Here’s Sharpetti, “longtime captain of the Vignieri family” longing for the good old days:

Used to be you had to be Sicilian. Then both of your parents had to be Italian. Then just the father. Pretty soon, things keep going the way they have, we’ll be making anybody ate a slice of pizza.

Part of the novel’s humour comes from these mob men trying to live in a PC world where men are supposed to be more sensitive and receptive to the needs of the women in their lives. So you have 62-year-old Sharpetti, who has a vicious side, complaining about his much younger girlfriend who now runs a gym “the business she always dreamed of.” Now that it’s ‘her’ business, she doesn’t want to keep her end of the bargain, and she complains about fulfilling the sex part of their agreement and also tells Sharpetti, who’s watched by the FBI, to stay away from ‘her’ gym.

Sharpetti sipped some orange juice, coughed up some phlegm and yawned loud. “Her business,” he said. “I take her useless ass off a strip stage and put her in here, in her fucking name, and all she does is show up in tight clothes, and work out, and now it’s her business. She ever wakes up and just tells me out right, she don’t wanna suck my dick, I think I’ll tell her, Oh is that what you’re doing? I couldn’t tell.”

While there is a lot of humour here, there’s also some hard-boiled action, and because it follows the humour, the swift violence is shocking and reminds us that while these people kid each other and make jokes about their lives and their women, they’re ready to kill in order to save their skins or to protect their families. Also under scrutiny here is Eddie Senta’s decision to straddle both worlds–the straight and the criminal life. During the course of the novel, Eddie finds himself in deeper than he anticipated when he planned this minor job, and he is forced to call in favours from Sharpetti. Eddie has managed to balance his life so far–never going too deep into crime, but he’s also not harnessed by a 40 hour week job. The fallout from this crime may change all of that forever in a world in which connections become liabilities.  If you are a fan of Donald Westlake (his humourous crime novels) or Elmore Leonard, then chances are that you’ll like the novels of Charlie Stella.

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Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

For some reason, people seem to think I’m joking when I mention that crime fiction teaches you life skills, and although the novel Before We Met is more psychological tension than crime, all sorts of crimes take place in this page-turner which should appeal to fans of Nicci French. Lucie Whitehouse’s novel Before We Met is being compared to Gillian Flynn’s big hit Gone Girl–a book I had mixed feelings about. Before We Met is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve read in a while, and quite honestly, there were times when I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. So, if you’re in the mood for a distracting read–something that will take your mind off of something unpleasant, then this is the book for you.

before we metThis is the story of a young British woman named Hannah who’s been happily married to Mark for almost eight months following a brief courtship and marriage in New York. Thinking she could easily find work, she left her job as a successful ad executive and relocated to London with Mark when he closed his company’s  New York office due to downsizing. She’s been in London now for 5 months and enjoys a cushy lifestyle in Mark’s beautifully restored, pricey Victorian mansion. While the marriage is very happy, idyllic even, Hannah cannot find work. But no matter… Mark, whose remodeled home is worth a cool two million, makes plenty of money and is in the process of selling his company and pocketing a mint. When the novel opens, Mark is supposed to return from a business trip to America and Hannah drives to the airport to pick him up.

From this moment on, Hannah’s life is in meltdown, and the chaos begins with small details until ultimately she’s facing a tsunami of deceit.  Mark doesn’t show at the airport, he doesn’t call, and her anxiety turns into suspicion when both Mark’s business partner and his personal assistant let slip that they thought that Hannah and Mark were on a romantic weekend in Rome.  Hannah does what any rational person would do in this situation…. she begins snooping.

She had the feeling that there was something at the corner of her eye, just out of focus, something that didn’t make sense. It was like watching a film and knowing there was something in the plot that didn’t quite add up but not being able to put a finger on it.

The novel goes through Hannah’s memories back to the time she met Mark in Long Island through mutual friends, and the fact that they are both British working in New York may have been part of the attraction. Mark certainly seemed to make a point of seeking Hannah out, and to Hannah, he seemed wonderfully attentive when it came to learning all the details of her life. She should have shut up and asked a few questions of her own.  

There’s a very nice twist to this novel in the details of Hannah’s past. As a child, she caught her mother going through her father’s pockets looking for clues to his extra-marital affairs, and since her parents’ marriage subsequently broke up (something she’s never quite forgiven her mother for), Hannah has always said that she would never be that person. And we all know that when we start a sentence with “I’ll never…” well, like the Titanic which sailed with insufficient lifeboats, we’re tempting fate.  Hannah sees her mother as a woman whose insecurity precipitated the collapse of her marriage, so in response Hannah tends to want to give Mark the benefit of the doubt. Another nice twist here is that Hannah had past problems with men and was perfectly happy with one night stands that came with no commitment. Taken to task by her caring brother Tom, she felt proud of herself that she was turning a new leaf when she flung herself into a relationship with Mark, applauding herself for her ability to change direction and finally commit to an institution she’s leery of.

Those character details go a long way to explaining exactly how Hannah, an intelligent, educated career woman finds herself in the terrible predicament of wondering just who she married and how she ended up being totally dependent. She’s torn by a desire to know the truth, but at the same time she doesn’t quite trust her own judgment. Is she overreacting to the inconsistencies in Mark’s past or is there a simple explanation?

I’m not going to give away more of the plot because that would spoil the fun for the next reader. This is an intensely paced plot in which the tension just keeps building. There are a few plot holes that were never addressed, and the ending was a bit over-the top; I hate those Hollywood endings. Those minor complaints aside, I read this in two sittings and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Review copy

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Good Girl, Bad Girl by Christopher Finch

Does anyone else have the impression that there’s more crime fiction being published these days? I’ve no idea if that is true or not–perhaps my impression is totally wrong, but there are so many new names, so many new series, and a lot of it is a load of crap. As I’ve said before, the term ‘crime fiction’ is an umbrella term which covers many sub-genres. I tend to avoid cozy crime as it’s just not dark enough for me, and I’m also completely burned out with books about teenage girls being kept captive as sex slaves by some crazed pervie. In fact, books that focus on sex torture crime or cases sparked by random body-parts and cryptic messages sent to the coppers are out completely, and I’m getting to the point that I’m a bit reluctant to try new names as I’d prefer to read vintage noir or crime along with old favourites. This brings me to Christopher Finch’s novel Good Girl, Bad Girl, the first in a new PI series.

The Heartland Credit Union Building was an anonymous structure that attracted tenants seeking anonymity–unfrocked dentists, myopic eye doctors, low-life lawyers, assorted quacks, polyester-suited real estate shysters, vodka-soaked teachers of English as a Second Language, masseuses and manicurists with interesting sidelines. My hutch was on the third floor. If you cracked the solitary window open, you were overwhelmed by the aroma of sweet-and-sour-pork deep friend in peanut oil that should have been thrown out before Mao set out on the Long March.

It was one of the first uncomfortably hot days of the year–one of those May mornings when a tropical front breezes into town unannounced, like that cousin from Miami you hoped had lost your address.

To be honest, I thought Good Girl, Bad Girl was a stand-alone, and I wouldn’t have read it if I had realized that this was the beginning of a new series. With a stand-alone, you enter one door and exit the next. You are done. But with a series, you enter inter-connected rooms and the first one, often the weakest, leads you to all the others. I have so many unfinished series I want to get back to, I didn’t want to start another. I wasn’t expecting much from Good Girl, Bad Girl, but after the above quote, I knew I was in for the ride. Low-rent PI Alex Novalis describes his pathetic little office in the opening of Good Girl, Bad Girl as he begins another morning. He receives a call summoning him to the apartment of real estate Gabriel Kravitz.

“Mr. Novalis, I understand you were fired from your position as an investigator with the DA’s office?”

No argument from me.

“Possession of marijuana. I presume you’re clean now?’

“Whiter than the driven snow,” I said, taking another hit.

That quote should give you a sense of Novalis’s wise-ass style, and if you like the style then chances are you’ll like the book. It’s 1968. The Warhol crowd dominate the avant-garde art scene in New York and America is at war in Vietnam. Novalis is hired by Gabriel Kravitz to find his missing daughter, 18-year-old Lydia. Lydia was attending Teddington, an exclusive girls’ college when she met, and became involved with predatory pretentious artist & egotist, middle-aged Jerry Pedrosian.

One of Pedrosian’s happenings involved the audience being taken into an industrial refrigerator hung with sides of beef, while a girl in leathers revved the engine of a Harley till the noise was deafening.

No wonder Pedrosian’s career is on the skids.

good girl bad girl Kravitz and his wife objected to their daughter’s relationship with Pedrosian, and after a fight with her parents, Lydia disappeared. Novalis’s job is to find Lydia without making any noise. He’s considered the perfect man for the job as he once specialized in art fraud and knows his way around the quirks of the art world. Novalis knows that there’s a lot he’s not being told–after all, Lydia is 18 and can do as she pleases. One of the leads Novalis has is Andrea Marshall, Lydia’s best friend. Andrea, a sexy little brunette, at first claims she knows nothing about Lydia’s disappearance, but it seems that she’s not quite telling the truth.

Author Christopher Finch plays with the good-girl-bad-girl dynamic, and Novalis is never quite sure just who is the bad influence here–Andrea or Lydia. Lydia “had the face of a Piero della Francesca angel,” and yet as Novalis digs into the case, Lydia clearly has a secret life that not even her best friend knows about. While the 60s atmosphere works most of the time, there are a couple of instances when it doesn’t. At one point, for example, Novalis says that Andrea “looked about as comfortable as a poodle in a cage full of pit bulls.” The simile didn’t work as the reference to pit bulls yanked this reader out of the 60s.

For the most part, this was a fun, not-too-serious trip into the 60s art world complete with the tasteless homes of the filthy rich, a squalid, filthy tenement, and Max’s Kansas City where the rich, the famous, and the trendy go to “see and be seen.” The bottom line secret punch with Lydia is all too familiar, and the novel’s strengths are the narrator’s sardonic sense of humour and some good characterizations. Strongly flavoured scenes with neglected politician’s wife, Mrs. Baldridge who is also Pedrosian’s sister, and Pedrosian’s tenacious old radical, Aunt Ida are very funny. Since this is the first in a series, we are given some interesting glimpses into Novalis’s messy personal life, and the art world backdrop lends a novel quality to the PI tale. The missing person case comes second in this book which obviously is part homage to the hard-boiled PI novels of the 40s and 50s. At one point, Novalis even tells someone “Trouble is my business,” and while Novalis’s audience doesn’t get the reference, author Christopher Finch, no doubt, hopes that we do.  Review copy

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Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Donald Westlake

I’m a Donald Westlake fan, but it’s been some time since I read one of his books.  I don’t know about all the other readers out there, but when I return to an old favourite after a significant gap of time, I am reminded all over again why I like a particular author, and then I ask myself why it took me so long to return to a writer who is practically a ‘sure bet.’ Specifically, I’m talking about Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death which is the first entry in the Mitchell Tobin mystery series originally written by Westlake using the pseudonym Tucker Coe. Westlake, who died in 2008, was an extremely prolific author, and to be honest I’ve lost track of just how many names he used over his long varied career. I was delighted to come across another series character, and fans of Westlake will understand what I’m talking about when I say that readers of this author’s novels become die-hard fans of  Westlake’s series characters.

kinds of Love kinds of deathThe protagonist of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is a disgraced former New York police officer, Mitchell Tobin, fired from the force, and now unemployed. His wife, Kate works at a local five-and-dime and her meagre wages along with their diminishing savings keep the family afloat. Meanwhile, Tobin is using his energy to build a wall at his home. It’s back-breaking work, and there’s the sense that it’s both a physical punishment and a mindless distraction. Where did Tobin’s life go wrong? Now 39, he was a  member of NYPD for 18 years before being kicked out. In his 14th year as a police officer, he met Linda, the wife of a burglar named Dink:

But the story tips itself right there, doesn’t it? On first seeing Linda’s name in print you know that I am destined to go to bed with her, knowledge that did not come to me until over a year later, when Dink had already been tried and convicted and was in the process of serving a term that at its shortest must last fifteen years. But it is impossible for me to communicate the knowledge to you as it came to me, in slow revelations, in tiny sunbursts of awareness, in gradual dependence and increasing need and a feeling that developed so slowly it was there long before either of us was fully aware of it, a feeling of inevitability. None of the rationalizing mist which so delightfully blinded me is available now to blind you; you must see it in a cold harsh light, a cheap and nasty bit of adultery with the most tasteless and degrading overtones.

I won’t spoil the story by giving any more details of what went wrong in Tobin’s life, but here he is, still with his wife, Kate and their only child, feeling a crippling sense of guilt. Tobin is busy working on the wall when he’s approached, through a lowly intermediary, about a job for gangster Ernie Rembek, an “amiable czar in a two hundred dollar suit.” It’s ostensibly a bit of detective work, but Tobin doesn’t have a PI license. Rembek who  “needs somebody to do a cop-type job,” wants to employ Tobin for his detective skills and also there’s the  unsavoury, unspoken idea that, since the case involves adultery, perhaps Tobin is the perfect man for the job. Tobin would like to tell Rembek to get lost, but Rembek makes an offer that Tobin is in no position to refuse. Tobin feels awkward working for a gangster, so he sets some hard and fast rules which lay the ground work for how he’ll treat his client and the case. Tobin may be a disgraced ex-cop, but he’s heavy on integrity:

Years ago I gave up being bitter about the comparative incomes of successful crooks and successful cops; it’s a cheap and irrelevant comparison anyway, since wealth is the goal of the crook but presumably something else is the goal of the cop.

Tobin is hired to find Rembek’s mistress, Rita Castle, a bit-part actress who’s flown the love-nest taking a large chunk of Rembek’s cash for her trouble. She’s left behind a cruel note to her ex-sugar daddy, but Rembek, still smitten, wants her back. Since there’s every reason to believe that she’s run off with someone Rembek knows (and that means another member of “The Corporation” ), whoever investigates needs to ask delicate questions and keep his mouth shut about the answers. That’s where Tobin comes in.

I studied my reactions to the job I’d been offered. The job itself required no study; if it contained no elements other than those already described to me, it was a plain and honest piece of work. I might or might not be capable of handling it, but legally and morally I could have no qualms about it.

No, it wasn’t the job that was complicated, it was my reaction to it. To a large extent I wanted to make believe the offer had never come along, I wanted to go back to work on my wall and think of nothing but dirt and bricks and concrete block. But in a small corner of my mind I felt a certain excitement, almost eagerness about the job; it would be a kind of return to the life I’d lost, a task within my competence, and I couldn’t help feeling a degree of hunger for it.

This quote gives a taste of the sort of narrator Mitch is. He knows that he can never repair what happened in his past, and painfully honest about his errors and responsibilities, Mitch partly wants to be punished and remain in a state of disgrace. The job with Rembek offers some tantalizing possibilities that go far beyond the generous monetary compensation; the job is also a way to gain back some self-respect, and Tobin, who’s too hard on himself to allow for any self-pity or self-delusion, knows that he owes it to his family to do something about the mess his life has become.

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is the first of 5 Mitch Tobin novels, and it’s an extremely strong start (could Westlake do anything less?). Westlake creates an incredibly strong and interesting protagonist, a troubled man immersed in his own tangled problems–a man who’s thrown a lifeline from an improbable and questionable source. Tobin, of course, takes the job, as we knew he would, and he proves to be an excellent detective. He learns that the men in “The Corporation” had “wifey time,” and this means public events they attended with their wives, but then there’s the rest of the time when the gangsters trooped out their expensive mistresses and partied. While Rita Castle acted like the “original dumb bunny” and seemed to be little more than a “feeble-minded” dumb blonde out for whatever cash from whichever besotted middle-aged admirer she could hook, Tobin begins to suspect that Rita Castle was not what she appeared. One look at the bookshelf next to her bed tells Tobin that Rita was anything but dumb. She was sharp and manipulative coming on to Rembek’s acquaintances,  employees and business associates whenever Rembek’s back was turned. According to the chauffeur she was “dangerous,” and according to another gangster, Rembek couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else:

When a man buys something new and shiny, and he loves it very much, you don’t tell him he got a lemon.

Anyway, I’m hooked, and I’m in for the series

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

Murder Among Children

Wax Apple

A Jade in Aries

Don’t Lie to Me

review copy

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The Black Angel: Cornell Woolrich (1943)

“Death is man’s greatest gift from Nature.”

Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) began his writing career producing Jazz age novels along the lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by 1934, in debt and unable to sell his work, he began to focus on the crime genre. Using pseudonyms, he wrote a vast number of stories and novellas for various pulp magazines before embarking on his Black Series: The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948). An impressive number of films have been based on his work, including a film version of The Black Angel starring one of my personal favourites, Dan Duryea. Woolrich was not a fan of the film as it was greatly altered from the source material. Not only is Woolrich a major contributor to film noir, but he is also considered one of the greatest American crime writers of his period. Lucky for us he gave up on the F. Scott Fitzgerald theme.

The story begins with 22-year-old narrator, Alberta Murray, rummaging through the cupboards only to discover that a number of items belonging to her husband, Kirk, are missing. She finds his valise locked and heavy, and jumps to the conclusion that he’s packed his bag and intends to leave her. This is not a decision based on hysteria; Alberta has deliberately ignored a number of tell-signs that her husband is having an affair. The most notable of these is a gold compact she discovered in a pocket. It was engraved to “Mia,” and a little detective work behind the scenes led Alberta to believe that the Mia who owned the compact was also the same Mia, “who looked good to stay away from,” employed by a nightclub. More detective work and Alberta tracks down Mia’s address and what appears to be a very tacky love nest with a turquoise colour scheme and monograms everywhere you look.

A few hours later, Alberta’s husband is arrested for a murder that she knows he did not commit, but according to the police, it’s an open-and-shut case. Taking an address book and a clue from the scene of the crime, Alberta decides that if she wants to save her husband from the electric chair she’ll have to do the sleuthing on her own.

The structure of the novel then follows Alberta’s investigation into four names from the address book. These are four men from Mia’s life, and since Mia wasn’t a very nice woman, so it follows that Alberta is going to have to meet lowlifes and crooks on her determined path to the truth. Alberta is called “Angel Face” by her husband which gives us a clue about what she looks like–she’s a stunner, but her beauty is the look of innocence. Underneath that look, however, she’s steel, and even though Alberta is terrified at times by those she encounters, she never once deviates from her plan to investigate the murder until she finds the truth.

The book’s biggest weakness is arguably its basic premise–Alberta’s determination to save her husband–the man who cheated on her, packed his bags and planned to split. Would most women bother with this heel? Isn’t it more plausible that Alberta would say sayonara to her cheating spouse and let Kirk fry? Or does Angel Face also have an Angel Nature? I chalked up Alberta’s decision to save her no-good husband to the idealism of youth, and, after all, Alberta’s initial reaction when she discovers that her husband is cheating is not anger but dismay. Regardless of Alberta’s decision to save Kirk, the man is still a heel and although he’s off stage for most of the book, at one point Alberta visits him in prison, and he makes a last request of her after she insists, against the odds, that he’ll be a free man soon:

He smiled as though he had his doubts. “but in case, in case I don’t, afterward, after it’s over–Angel face, you won’t let anyone else bring you flowers home at night or kick around the coffee, will you? Don’t let anyone else–I know you’re young yet–but that belongs to me.

Ain’t that sweet? So let me get this straight– ‘Save yourself for me, honey, even though I didn’t do the same for you’….

Woolrich takes us on a tour of both the high and the lows of the city: the seedy bars, the flop houses, the nightclubs, the dope fiends, the mansions of the blue-blood rich–all the way to the lavish penthouse suite of a psychotic gangster.  Here’s Alberta in a bar where she meets one of Mia’s earlier victims, the hollowed-out shell of a man.

I’d never been in a Bowery drinking place before. I’d heard the phrase “the lower depths”; I don’t remember where.  I think I read it once. This was it now. The lowest depth of all, this side of the grave. There was nothing beyond this, nothing further. Nothing came after it–only death, the river. These were not human beings any more. These were shadows.

And there was one thing more pathetic than themselves, more eloquent of what had become of them. It was the hush that fell when I came in. That bated breathlessness. I went into many places after that, but never again did the same thing happen in just that way. Men in a barroom will often fall silent when a woman comes in. This was not that. This was not admiration or even covetousness. I don’t know what I would call it myself. It was the memory of someone in each man’s past, someone like me, long ago, far away, come back to mind again for a moment, before the memory darkened again and went out-forever. It was life’s last afterglow glancing off the faces of the dead as I brushed by them.

This passage also reflects the idea that while Alberta’s quest is to save her husband, it’s a quest that is, ultimately, a process of experience and maturity for Alberta for she enters a “world of jungle violence and of darkness, of strange hidden deeds in strange hidden places, of sharp-clawed treachery and fanged gratitude, where compunction and conscience are just other words for weakness and used as such.”

There’s one later passage when Alberta notes that gangsters have splashed aftershave on their faces, and she silently marvels that they are just like other men–except they operate without a moral centre. For some reason, that was one of my favourite parts of the book–perhaps because it’s just so simple. Alberta’s nickname may be Angel Face, and while she’s a decent person, when she begins her investigation and penetrates the dark universe of crime and corruption, she becomes The Black Angel–inadvertently bringing death and destruction in her wake and capable of whatever it takes.  According to Woolrich’s biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr, the dark, destructive angel is a recurring motif found in Woolrich’s work–I’m thinking The Bride Wore Black.

The Black Angel’s ending–dark, haunting and extremely troubling–makes this novel something very special in a twisted noir way. There’s a loneliness here in Alberta’s journey to the truth, and that loneliness and isolation seems to be reflected in everyone she meets. For fans of the genre, or for those who haven’t tried Woolrich, this dark tale of the forbidden world of lust, despair and madness perforated by decency and goodness is well worth catching. Moral choices are a turning point for those confronted with the opportunity to commit crime. In Alberta’s case, there’s an inversion of that common scenario, and the moral choices are made when she pledges to find the real murderer. One intriguing, lingering question remains when the book concludes.  Will her life ever be so simple and innocent again?….

Review copy from the publisher via Open Road Media.

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Osborne’s Revenge by Henry James

Emma recently read and blogged about one of my favourite Henry James novels, Washington Square, and I was motivated to return to one of my favourite authors. It was a matter of luck that I selected the short story, Osborne’s Revenge (1868), which clocks in at a mere 28 pages on my kindle, for the story is not only a perfect companion piece to Washington Square, but it’s also quintessential James.

The title indicates where the story will take us, but since this is Henry James, nothing is simple, and a great deal is submerged beneath that oh-so-polite behaviour. The story opens with the statement that “Philip Osborne and Robert Graham were intimate friends,” but to outsiders, the relationship is a “puzzle.”

Disinterested parties were at a loss to discover how Osborne had come to set his heart upon an insignificant, lounging invalid, who, in general company, talked in monosyllables, in a weak voice, and gave himself the airs of one whose nature had endowed with the right to be fastidious, without ever having done a stroke of work. Graham’s partisans, on the other hand, who were chiefly women (which, by the way, effectively relieves him from the accusation occasionally brought against him of being “effeminate”) were quite unable to penetrate the motives of his interest in a commonplace, hard-working lawyer, who addressed a charming woman as if he were exhorting a jury of grocers and undertakers, and viewed the universe as one vast “case.”

Following the advice of his physician, Graham is spending the summer at some medicinal springs in New York. Osborne hasn’t heard from his friend in some time when he finally receives a letter in which Graham confesses that he remains at the springs as he is “charmed” by a young woman he met there. From a mutual acquaintance, Osborne learns that Graham has fallen in love with a certain Miss Congreve, and that an announcement of an engagement was expected when a Mr Holland appeared at the resort and that Miss Congreve precipitously “transferred her favours” to the newcomer. According to the mutual acquaintance, the gossipy witness, Mrs Dodd, Graham is dying from a “broken heart.” Indeed, Graham seems to be shaken by the affair and shortly afterwards, he commits suicide.

Osborne doesn’t recover from his friend’s death and with some notion of revenge, he travels to Newport in order to seek out Miss Congreve….

This is a wonderful early Henry James short story, and as we so often see with this author, the main character (Osborne in this case) is actually outside of the main story–the failed love affair between Graham and Miss Congreve. All of the passion–the courtship, jealousy, despair and suicide have occurred off the pages, and instead we have Osborne left with the aftermath. Once again we see the passivity of Jamesian inaction, the complexities of human behaviour, motivation and psychology, and the turmoil of unexpressed emotion just underneath the surface of polite society.

How would Charlotte or Emily Bronte dealt with such a plot as Osborne’s Revenge? A rhetorical question, of course, but their pages would have included more passion, more action, and yet perhaps James’s subtle story is so exquisite because it’s fairly easy to step into the shoes of Osborne and hover around Miss Congreve as he tries to hate her, struggles with indecision and tries to make her pay for the death of his friend.

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