Tag Archives: WWII

A Scream in Soho: John G. Brandon (1940)

“But the unfortunate thing about murder, Sergeant,” McCarthy pursued in that whimsical tone of his, “is that it is never committed according to any rules.”

John G. Brandon’s novel A Scream in Soho is set in wartime London, and while this is an entertaining entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, the book, with its emphasis on espionage, is also part thriller. This wasn’t an entirely successful blend in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham, but Brandon makes his novel work. We never forget that there are crimes afoot, but the energetic Detective Inspector McCarthy of Scotland Yard is not on the hunt for ordinary killers, but for spies!

A scream in soho

The book opens in Soho on a dark grim night with Detective Inspector McCarthy waiting for an informant inside an Italian cafe. These first scenes set the tone for the novel with its atmosphere of wartime tension, the cosmopolitan population of refugees, and criminal enterprises which thrive in the Blackout. Early scenes establish the unique state of the country, emphasizing the mish mash of the Soho populace. There are plenty of Italians here–including members of the Mafia, the Camorrista, and also a flood of refugees.We see the crowds of people through McCarthy’s eyes as he notes the Austrian and German refugees:

Harmless people who had suffered miseries almost beyond belief for the greater part, and who were filled with nothing but an immense and overflowing gratitude towards the land which had given them shelter in their hour of direst need. Still objects of pity to the soft-hearted McCarthy, notwithstanding the obvious improvement in their condition since arrival here.

But-and it was a very large “but”-there were others; those ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes. 

Later that night, a constable hears a scream; the scream is also heard by our intrepid main character Detective Inspector McCarthy, who’s about to go to bed. McCarthy, clad in his pajamas, leaves his house and goes to the location of the scream. But there’s no body, just a woman’s hankerchief, a blood stained dagger and McCarthy’s hunch that a murder has taken place. …

The scream heralds the beginning of a series of crimes and murders, and of course, McCarthy investigates. I can’t even say that he heads the investigation as he operates outside of any sort of institution. He doesn’t use policemen to help–but instead employs “Danny the Dip,” a sneaky underworld figure and also enlists the services of a stalwart London cab driver.

This is a well-paced story with practically no down time. As a crime/thriller it works well. McCarthy, although at a loss for how to proceed at several points in the book, never really breaks a sweat or loses his sense of humour. As the book continues it becomes evident, from plot twists, that McCarthy is a lone wolf who prefers to hunt his prey with very little outside assistance.

I laughed when the sex of a murder victim is up for discussion and the coroner suggests that McCarthy establish the victim’s sex by feeling the stubble on the dead man’s chin–how much simpler to just have a look at the naked corpse, but this is, after all, 1940. Anyway, this was a very entertaining, enjoyable read which reflects the concerns and fears of the times. Regarding the crime/thriller blend here, Martin Edwards, in his introduction notes that Brandon aimed to produce a thriller and was “writing at a time when there was a sharp divide between the two styles of popular fiction. Sayers was prominent in the Detection Club, which excluded thriller writers from membership.”

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The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot: Thomas Maeder

There’s a scene in Gone with the Wind in which Rhett Butler gives Scarlett some advice:

I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the up-building of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the up-building, fast money in the crack-up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you some day. 

That quote came to mind as I read the non-fiction book The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot from Thomas Maeder. Marcel Petiot (1897-1946) certainly knew how to cash in on the realities of the German Occupation of France. Of course, he’s not alone in this, but there’s something particularly horrific about this opportunistic, sadistic serial killer who fed off the terror of the Gestapo by promising safe passage to South America to those who could pay his fee. It’s impossible to create a spectrum of cruelty when it comes to murderers, but Dr. Petiot is right up there with the worst–not just for the numbers involved but for the way he capitalized on fear, preying on the most vulnerable people.

unspeakable crimes

The book opens on March 6, 1944 at 21 rue La Sueur in Paris, a three-story nineteenth-century building in the affluent sixteenth arrondissement owned by Dr. Marcel Petiot. A “greasy, foul-smelling smoke began pouring from the chimney,” and by March 11, one of the residents, who could stand it no longer, telephoned the police. Firemen broke into the building, and the police made a macabre discovery next to two coal-burning stoves. A pile of body parts and chunks of flesh,  a large pile of quicklime, rooms “crammed with an incredible assortment of furniture, art objects, chandeliers, and gadgets stored in chaotic piles,” but also a bizarrely constructed triangular room with a fake door and iron rings on the wall. The police on the scene knew that they had stumbled onto a mind-boggling crime scene, but before the case was solved, many questions (not all of which were ever answered) were raised.

This was the beginning of the infamous Dr Petiot case, and although this book could easily be categorized as ‘true crime,’ it’s also a look into the historical realities of the time, for it shows how a diabolically intelligent serial killer could operate by preying on those who were willing to take enormous risks to escape the Gestapo. Jews disappeared every day, and if dozens disappeared after making contact with Petiot, was there anything to report? And who would you report the disappearances to?

One of the fascinating aspects of the Petiot case is the glimpse into the heavily fragmented society which was pieced together under German occupation. Many government officials had heard rumours of an escape network run by a doctor, and while some turned a blind eye, in 1943, the Gestapo investigated an organization that “arranges clandestine crossings of the Spanish border by means of falsified Argentinian passports. ” Yvan Dreyfus, a wealthy Jew in prison awaiting deportation was unknowingly set up as part of the trap to snare Petiot’s escape network–a network which in reality did not exist–unless death is an acceptable escape route. Dreyfus disappeared after meeting Petiot, and a witness later claimed that someone else had seen Dreyfus dead at 21 rue La Sueur.

Ironically the mystery of the disappearance of Yvan Dreyfus led to Petiot’s arrest, torture and incarceration by the Gestapo–all things that unfortunately fed Petiot’s claim that he was a resistance hero, ran a group known as Fly-Tox and that he should be lauded for executing French traitors. Petiot argued that he’d ‘disappeared’ several French criminals who had collaborated with the Germans and then decided to take Petiot’s escape route. These people were just a few of Petiot’s victims, but most of his victims remained unidentified as they were Jews who’d kept their desperate flight secret.

The book covers Petiot’s childhood and his early adult life before this chameleon hoofed it to Paris and formed a niche for himself embezzling the state and eventually turned to murder. There are some very relevant details to be found in the Gestapo files and also in the backgrounds of the non-Jewish victims who took a one way trip to Petiot’s house. Then of course there’s the spectacular trial…But overriding the entire story is the question of just how this man, with multiple scandals in his past, a stay in a mental hospital after being declared insane and the instigator of various criminal acts was able to continually operate freely within society with all the privileges of being a physician.

Throughout the investigation, despite all the facts gathered, the question of just who Petiot was remained unanswered. No image of a human personality emerged, no motive surfaced; one could scarcely even imagine greed or sadism in a person who seemed to exist only as an incredibly dexterous performance. Petiot had fooled the French, the Germans, the Resistants, the courts, the psychiatrists, his friends and his own wife. He had acted as a solitary enigmatic force amidst a world in which he did not participate, and which he regarded only with scorn.

This is the second book I’ve read about Petiot. I’ve also seen the fantastic film Dr. Petiot, and I’ll be watching a documentary soon. For this reading I saw his resistance to Gestapo torture as just more evidence of the man’s arrogance and narcissism.  The most poignant aspect to the story has to be the mountains of suitcases found amongst the loot of the mostly unidentified victims.

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War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

“White blouse and a pink skirt, I’m wearing with a roll-on underneath and my best undies just in case I do turn out to be loose”

I came across Liz Jensen’s book: War Crimes for the Home by pure chance, and attracted to the cover, perversely reminiscent of J. Howard Miller’s WWII war poster,  I bought a copy.

we can do it

And here’s the cover of Jensen’s book:

war crimes

While the ‘We Can Do It’ poster implies female strength and determination geared towards the war effort, War Crimes for the Home shows a WWII era female factory worker applying makeup. It’s a subversive image, and it’s a portent of what’s inside the covers.

The story is narrated by the elderly, demented wheelchair bound Gloria, who finds herself, following an unspecified operation on her duodenum, parked at an “old folk’s home” called Sea View. You can’t really blame Gloria’s family for leaving her there. Her only son, Hank, works on oil rigs and is gone half the time, and there’s a long standing feud between Gloria and her daughter-in-law, Karen. According to foul-mouthed Gloria, who refuses to call Karen by her name, her daughter in law is a “crap mum,” and has a lover, who “comes and gives it to her every Thursday.”  To make her point, Gloria periodically demands a DNA test to prove the paternity of her grandson, Calum.

Gloria claims her memory is ‘like a sieve,’ and she uses her old age and her various infirmities as a refuge from accountability and her son’s probes into her past. Gloria is a tough old bird, but she’s definitely fading, and after the death of fellow resident, “half-dead old drooler,” Doris, Gloria lingers in a place between the dead and the living, memories of a murky past and a present in which she protects herself by vulgarity, dementia (which Gloria uses as a weapon) and uncouth jokes.

Gloria’s mind jumps from the past to the present, and WWII finds Gloria and her older sister Marje working in a Bristol munitions factory. They were originally a cockney family who moved to Bristol, but “things got buggered,” and now the two sisters live alone and are running wild following the death of their mother from cancer and with their father missing in Singapore. Marje has a fiancé, British airman Bobby, and then Gloria meets Ron, an American GI from Chicago.

Several big questions loom over Gloria’s spotty version of the past. What is the significance of The Great Zedorro and the Slut Fairy? Why is she haunted by images of a little girl, “dripping water and pond-weed” ? Did Gloria ever go to America? Here’s a conversation Gloria has with Doris:

-Hank?

-My son. American connections. Chicago. The windy city. I always said to Hank, if you shut your eyes, you’ll remember it. Skyscrapers and blueberry muffins and all that. I call him Hank from those days, it’s what his dad would have called him, it’s what Americans call their children.

-How long were you there? she goes.

-What, Bristol?

-America.

-Never been there.

-What?

-Seen it on TV, Chicago and that. I had a GI boyfriend once. He fought in Tunisia and then he bombed Germany. Had a big scar on his thigh from shrapnel.

Doris looks at me.

-One Yank, she says. -Remember that? One Yank and they’re off.

Gloria is a fascinating character–fascinating because she uses her old age and dementia as both a shield and a weapon. She can be as rude and as crude as she wants, and then when her son Hank tries to pin her on her past, Gloria submerges herself in her various diagnoses. Here’s Gloria’s daughter-in-law Karen visiting with a present:

-Are you going to have a look then, Gloria?

The bag’s made of fake silk which is red and Chinesey. There’s stones in it.

-Semi-precious, she says.-Healing stones, they’re the latest thing. I’ve ordered some for the shop. You hold them in your palm and they calm your mind. Re-energise you. I’m so glad you settled in. It’s a lovely home, isn’t it? Nice carers, lovely view–

-Do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energizing? It comes out loud, louder than I thought I could shout, because the blood’s rushing about now. No stopping it. -Handful of bloody pebbles is all they are, look! Load of old rubbish!

I’ve chucked the lot at the window, and it splits across with a big crack. Then all the air from the outside is whoosing in, it smells of frankfurters from the harbor, there’s a van does them.

-Healing my arse. Healing, my flaming arse.

Next thing the little pregnant nurse is on the scene saying

-Calm down, please Gloria, all she do, she come give you nice present, you go break window! I tell Mrs M!

Calum starts screaming the place down like a spoilt brat. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a baby.

On some level, Gloria as sharp as ever; she knows how to wound people and always scores a direct hit, but then occasionally she bumps into a disturbing memory and verves off. Gloria’s family members want her to give them the truth about the past before she dies, but she fights her memories of life during WWII,  a time when the men are out there fighting the war, but at the home, the enemy takes a very different shape, and the women are left to fight their own battles for survival.

While War Crimes for the Home is a story about memory, on another level entirely, this is a story about aging. We are expected to engage in age-appropriate behaviour and Gloria who is, above all, a non-comformist is fighting against being scripted as the ‘little old lady.’ No wonder she strikes up a relationship with fellow resident “dirty old monkey,” Ed who gropes the nurses and plays with himself in public.

-That old boy she’s seeing to, I tell him, name of Ed Mayberley, he’s pushing ninety, he was a POW in Japan like Dad. He can’t keep his hands to himself, he can’t. Yesterday I saw him grabbing one of the foreign girls. She nearly screams the place down and slaps him. It’s abuse that. Someone should report her.

We all inhabit roles in this life, but as we age the roles narrow, and yet people’s characters don’t fundamentally change.  How often do we see our parents as individuals who have loved and lusted? Parents are advised to let their children be individuals and find their own paths in life, but does this advice trickle up the generations? Gloria refuses to be pigeonholed by her relatives and that’s part of the problem here. The elderly residents of Sea View who are frequently treated like children are fighting back against these rigidly prescribed roles with bad behaviour that’s cloaked by “Mad Cow,” dementia and age.

War Crimes for the Home will make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, touching, and original. This book comes recommended for fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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The Good Liar: Nicholas Searle

“No, on reflection disclosure is not a good thing, thinks Roy. It doesn’t salve the soul. It invites questions, not least from oneself, and upsets the certainty at which one has arrived. At his age he can do without such perturbations.”

Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, The Good Liar, begins with an elderly man preparing for an appointment with a woman he’s ‘met’ through an internet dating site. Roy prepares for the meeting with a feeling that the woman who calls herself Estelle is “heaven-sent.” Are we about to get a little geriatric romance in the vein of Last Tango in Halifax? No, fear not dear reader… we are about to get something much nastier, and that becomes apparent as Roy thinks about all the time wasters who lie about themselves and their means:

With this transitory reflection comes a momentary weariness. Those dreadful meetings in Beefeaters and Tobys around the Home Counties with frumpy old women in whom the bitterness of their long unfulfilled marriages with underachieving and uninspiring husbands has in widowhood seemingly become the sense of license to lie at will. For them there is no legacy of happy memories or the material benefit of platinum pensions in leafy Surrey mansions. They reside in poky terraces that no doubt smell of fried food, eking out an existence on government handouts cursing Bert, or Alf, or whoever it may be, and contemplating a stolen life. They are out for what they can get now, by whatever means. And who can blame them really?

Roy, who for the purposes of this first date, calls himself Brian, is on the lookout for a rich widow. It’s a “professional enterprise,” and he’s used to wading through lies from women who present themselves positively before he uncovers the truth. He refuses “to let them down gently” and enjoys “dismantling them forensically.”

“I thought you said you were five foot six and slim,” he may say with incredulity, but is delicate enough not to add: rather than a clinically obese dwarf. “Not much like your photos, are you? Was it taken a few years back, dear?” (He doesn’t add the postscript: perhaps of your better-looking sister.) “You live near Tunbridge Wells, you say; more Dartford really, isn’t it?” Or “So what you mean by ‘holidaying in Europe’ is a package trip once a year with your sister to Benidorm?”

Roy isn’t a nice man. If fact, even though he may appear to be a well-dressed, harmless elderly man, he’s a predator, and he’s about to meet a well-heeled widow, a retired professor named Estelle….

the good liar

Estelle turns out to be Betty, an attractive, spry, slender, independent, intelligent woman and more to the point, a widow with a sizeable nest egg. She’s just the sort of mark Roy is looking for, and as for Betty, well she appears to want a companion. But what is she really after?

The plot goes backwards in time with episodes from Roy’s opportunistic life and the crucial points (the 90s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s and all the way back to the 30s) at which he’s been able to use other people and step into different identities. These episodes are set against Roy’s present day life with Betty. He moves into her home and generally seems oblivious to how unpleasant he can be under sustained intimacy, but then while sociopaths are natural chameleons and so good at mimicking human emotions, sustained contact can reveal anomalies.  I asked myself why on earth Betty tolerated such a bore, but all is gradually revealed under Nicholas Searle’s controlled narrative.

Episodes from Roy’s sordid past are contrasted with the various fictions he tells Betty, so we are taken through the looking-glass to the real events–events which Roy has chosen either to forget or to gloss over. There are amusing moments when, for example, Betty tries to pin Roy down about his family. When he mouths the typical thing that he “bitterly” regrets losing contact with his family, and Betty offers to help him find them, he then says “they’re all dead.” But then later he invents a fictional son who conveniently lives in Australia and never travels to England.

“Would you like to see him?”

“Not really,” says Roy. “We have so little in common. And I’m afraid I’m unduly rigid when it comes to my moral standards.”

Ultimately, The Good Liar argues that we cannot change other people, and neither can a sociopath ever grasp a sense of his responsibility when it comes to his actions. The only thing we can carry away from a brush with a sociopath is the knowledge that we have survived.  This debut novel is well constructed, well paced and a page turner. I thought I was going to read something with an unreliable narrator along the lines of Get Me Out of Here or The Truth and Other Lies, but The Good Liar is a much more serious book, and Searle never allows Roy to control the reader’s vision.

Perhaps Roy should have asked himself why Betty picked the name “Estelle” for the first meeting. Although this is never addressed in the book, Great Expectations and its connotations came to mind.

Review copy.

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A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising: Miron Bialoszewski

“Then-the sun was just going down-the partisans undressed at a command. Then it became fairly dark and we were sent down the road to our new quarters. We saw them standing there and standing here, stripped down to their underwear for the time being. There was nothing ominous-despite this-in the warm breeze. And yet, as we know, after dark they had to strip naked and wait. What happened later-is hard to determine. Some were taken elsewhere. Some came back. Survived. But the others-no one knows what happened. They vanished. Were they silently taken off somewhere to the side that night? Or later? It’s never been completely explained.”

A certain synchronicity brought me to A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising on the tail of Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz. The latter book, a fictional account of a brief segment in the life of the Polish author shows Bruno Schultz, in 1938, desperately trying to communicate with the outside world via Thomas Mann. The Germans have yet to arrive in Schultz’s hometown of Drohobycz. The novel makes reference to the horrific slaughter committed by the Nazis yet to come, and in Miron Bialoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, the slaughter is well underway.

memoir of the warsaw uprisingThe memoir begins on August 1 1944. Author Bialoszewski was a civilian during the uprising so this is not a military overview of the event but rather the book concentrates on memories which recall the chaotic period. Almost immediately, we know that the author survives:

I shall be frank recollecting my distant self in small facts, perhaps excessively precise, but there will be only the truth. I am forty-five years old now, twenty-three years have gone by, I am lying here on my couch safe and sound, free, in good health and spirits, it is October, night 1967, Warsaw once again has 1,300,00 inhabitants. I was seventeen years old when I went to bed one day and for the first time in my life heard artillery fire. It was the front. And that was probably September 2, 1939. I was right to be terrified. Five years later the all too familiar Germans were still walking along the streets in their uniforms.

Bialoszewski tells his story rather as though we are sitting in the same room with him listening to his account. His memories are subject to revision–almost as though he tries to pull the scenes out of the fog and present them to his audience. Sometimes his style is abrupt–staccato, and there’s breathlessness to the action.

August 1 starts inauspiciously enough with the author being sent, by his mother, to collect bread. People are gathering on the streets and he hears that “they killed two Germans in Ogrodowa Street.” Tanks are “cruising around,” the author hears shooting, “heavier weapons” including cannons, and then people begin cheering: “The uprising,” we told each other immediately like everyone else in Warsaw.

In spite of the sounds of machine guns and rocket flares, the general mood is definitely excitement. Civilians join in; barricades are erected. The author, now at a friend’s house, has a meal, nonchalantly plays a game and goes to sleep.

It was raining. Drizzling. It was cold. We could hear machine guns, that rat-a-tat. Nearer burst, then farther off. And rocket flares. Every so often. In the sky. We fell asleep to their noise, I think.

That short quote is a good example of the author’s style as memories flood back. There’s a sense that every detail is important. Every incident witnessed must be recorded.

The holiday mood of the uprising continues with intense organization. Partisans “showed up,” and “several fronts” are established on the streets. Tanks ride right over the barricades, and the author remembers people “throwing down tables, chairs, wardrobes onto the street” to fortify the barricades. But when furniture proves futile against tanks, concrete is removed from the pavement. Still, in spite of dire signs, the excitement continues. But by the fourth of August, the atmosphere begins to change.

We ran out into Choldna Street. The street was covered with clouds. Rust colored and dark brown. From bricks, from smoke. When it settled we saw a terrifying transformation. A reddish-gray dust was covering everything. Trees. Leaves. A centimeter thick, I think. And that devastation. One Wache less. But at what a cost. Anyway. Things were already beginning to change. To anxiety. And always for the worse. Visually too. From Zelazna Bram Square, from Bank Square, from Elektoralna Street along our side of Choldna against the wall, people were running and running–women, children, all hnched over, gray, covered with some kind of powder. I remember the sun was setting. Fires were burning. The people ran on and on. A flood of people. From the bombed-out houses. They were fleeing to Wola.

The atrocities begin….Water and food become critical issues, and at one point in the book an exciting escape via the sewers takes place, yet grim realities set in as the author asks if the Polish will receive help from the outside world: “perhaps it was worthwhile to defend, to rescue whatever and whomever could be rescued. Maybe at this point someone would smile pityingly.”

The Warsaw Uprising: August 1, 1944-October 2, 1944 –an important event in the history of WWII for several reasons–is recounted here by someone who lived through it, and this remarkable memoir grants the reader a sense of this event. Miron Bialoszewski (1922-1983), who was just 22 years old when the uprising took place, wrote the memoir more than twenty years after it occurred. The book’s introduction explains the background of the uprising: the Red Army was “encamped in the working-class suburb of Praga, directly across the river from Warsaw,” and how the Polish resistance Home Army “encouraged and directed by the London government in exile […] initiated the uprising in the capital.” But as the introduction, by translator Madeline G. Levine, tells us “the people of Warsaw were left to fight and die by themselves.” By the time the uprising ended, over 200,000 Poles were dead.

Originally published in 1970. Maps are included at the end of the book.

Translated by Madeline G. Levine

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Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz: Maxim Biller

German 2015

Back to German Literature Month, and this time it’s a modern German novella inspired by the life of Bruno Schultz: Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz by Maxim Biller.  Bruno Schultz, a polish writer, critic, teacher and illustrator was murdered in 1942 in the Drohobycz Ghetto. He had been commissioned by Nazi officer Felix Landau to paint a mural and in exchange Landau promised protection. Schultz was shot, according to many sources, by another Nazi officer, Karl Günther  in revenge for Landau killing Günther’s “personal Jew,” a dentist. So yet again another brilliant talent wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis.  In spite of the fact that very little of his work survived (his final novel The Messiah is lost,) there’s a mythic quality to Bruno Schultz. Just check out the Wikipedia page to see how authors have integrated Schultz into their fiction. Biller’s novella is an imagined glimpse into Schultz’s life.

The book begins with Schultz frantically writing a letter to Thomas Mann:

“My highly esteemed, greatly respected, dear Herr Thomas Mann” wrote a small, thin, serious man slowly and carefully in his notebook, on a surprisingly warm autumn day in November 1938–

The letter, subject to multiple edits, is intended to warn Thomas Mann, currently in Switzerland, about an imposter who’s arrived in Drohobycz. In the letter Schultz admits to Mann that  “I cannot say with complete certainty that he is not you, but the stories he tells alone-not to mention his shabby clothes and his strong body odor-arouse my suspicions.” Right away there’s a sense of the absurd, of playfulness, but behind this there’s also a frantic plea and a fearful, neurotic quality to the letter writer. The imposter Thomas Mann is making a spectacle of himself at a local restaurant, seizing food in his hands and stuffing it into his mouth.  The imposter Thomas Mann is a sinister demonic character who plans to write a novella in which Jews are murdered by Christians:

“Well my friends, ” said the false stranger to us when he had finished, and was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “how do you like this story? How would you reply to the question of guilt that I am about to ask? I would say: if the Hebrews had never come to Drohobycz, that pointless and utterly destructive pogram would never have taken place, would it?” Then he beat a short but vigorous drum roll on the manager’s head with the palms of both hands.

In his letter, Schultz bemoans the fact he must teach “drawing to my beloved but totally untalented boys” at a high school, and it’s at this high school that Schultz is terrorized by a sturdy sports mistress, Helena, “small and athletic and with a hairy face like a clever female bonobo chimpanzee,” who aggressively harasses him about his next novel.

Bruno had really been hoping that no one in school would notice his absence particularly not pretty Helena, whose thick, blonde and often badly combed hair unfortunately gave off the pungent smell of an animal cage, a mixture of urine and damp hay that had been left lying around. Yesterday she had shut him up, for almost a whole hour’s lesson and without any light on, in the little room containing broken gymnastics equipment next to the sports hall. He didn’t know why, but probably because he had trembled even more than usual during their last conversation in a break period, and couldn’t be soothed even by the pressure of her short, but sharp and unfiled fingernails. So what? She shouldn’t have asked him to let her see at least a few pages of his novel, and he had been cold as well, in spite of the summery days that came like a gift in mid-November, and in spite of the fact that he was wearing his heavy jacket. When she finally let him out he was feeling much better, or so he told her at least, for fear of making her even angrier, and she promised to shut him up again sometime soon. Maybe, she added, she’d come into the little room with him herself for a while if he liked. She could go to one of the chaotic shops beyond the market place that opened only late in the evening for a few hours, sometimes not even that, and buy things she’d been wanting to try out with him for a long time he could guess what she meant! No, he had replied, he’d rather she didn’t, although he immediately felt very safe and well at the thought of those things–black leather Venetian Columbine masks stuffed with sawdust; penis-sized Pierrot made of willow rods, and Easter whips interwoven with thin steel chains; silver nipple clamps, and Japanese shunga candles (their dripping wax left no blisters on the skin).

Schultz lives with his sister, Hania, who’s in denial that her husband committed suicide by slitting his own throat ten years earlier. While Schultz writes in the basement, Hania, a Cassandra-like figure, tells him gossip about a man who “looked remarkably” like Bruno visiting a brothel and there he “examined the half-naked girls like a horse dealer, drank a lot of wine, and told dirty jokes.”

Inside the head of Bruno SchulzMaxim Biller’s Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz, in its blurring of reality and fantasy, mirrors Schultz’s own work, so it’s cleverly executed. Biller’s story itself blends fact with fiction, and it is a bit frustrating not to be able to peel the two apart, yet this dilemma is partially bolstered by Schultz’s life itself; even the story of Schultz’s death is subject to some debate.  What of the fictional imposter Schultz who manhandles women at a brothel? Is he real or imagined by Schultz’s sister? Is the imposter Thomas Mann just a figment of the fictional Bruno Schultz’s imagination? We cannot tell the ‘real’ or the imagined apart on so many levels in this novella.

Evidently Schultz did admire Thomas Mann and gave him the manuscript of his novella The Homecoming (1937), a work that is referred to in this story. The Homecoming is lost, and taking that loss into consideration, the letter Schultz writes in the book acquires a much deeper poignancy, and again a mythical quality. While Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz shows Schultz reaching, frantically, desperately, to the outside world represented by Thomas Mann, tragically while Mann did acquire Schultz’s sole work written in German, it is now lost. And that gives a sinister, surreal significance to the whole idea that a Thomas Mann imposter has taken up residence in Drohobycz, popping up a year after Schultz finished The Homecoming. Biller’s novella is set in 1938, and the Germans had yet to arrive in Drohobycz. The “alleged” demonic Thomas Mann appears to be a harbinger of the Nazis:

“You must write your novel. What is it to be called? The Messiah, am I right? To work, get down to work, and when you have finished those bandits will come from Berlin to your little town and burn you along with your wonderful manuscript. Too bad–it’s your own fault!’ He laughed, “terrific, what a subject! But who will write a novel about it where you are dead, Jew Schultz?”

This is another gorgeous little book from Pushkin Press, and it includes two stories from Bruno Schultz: Birds and Cinnamon Shops (translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.) Reading these stories and looking at Schultz’s art add a great deal to Biller’s novella.

The murals Schultz created for Landau were discovered in 2001. Here’s a link for those interested.

Review copy/own a copy.

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Trouble on the Thames: Victor Bridges (1945)

“Wait till Hitler’s in Buckingham Palace and these darned Britishers are crawling around on their bellies.”

Trouble on the Thames, a short, thoroughly engaging spy thriller published in 1945 by Victor Bridges finds Naval Lieutenant-Commander Owen Bradwell in a funk. After receiving the news that he’s become colour blind, Bradwell, a young man, with a brilliant career in front of him, consults a Harley Street specialist. The bad news is that “chances of recovery were about one in a thousand.”  This means that Bradwell’s naval career is over, but then he’s recruited by the British Secret Service for a recon mission. With Britain very likely to plunge into war with Hitler, it seems that the country is awash with spies.

According to the Secret Service official who recruits Bradwell, a Lieutenant Medlicot recently committed suicide rather than face charges of treason. Medlicot was “conducting experimental work on some new gadget in connection with submarines,” when he became entangled with the owner of the Mayflower, a nightclub in the West End. Medlicot most likely had extensive gambling debts which were then leveraged to persuade Medlicot to hand over a “complete copy of the plans.” The sleazy owner of the Mayflower club, a certain Mark Craig, is suspected of being a spy for the Germans.

These are delicate times. German diplomats reside in England, and with a government that “still believes in the possibility of appeasement,” the Secret Service wants a “cast-iron” case against the spy network suspected of operating within the Mayflower Club before moving to make arrests or expulsions from the country. This is where Bradwell comes in. He’s given ten pounds for expenses and told to travel to the countryside where Craig owns a private island. There under the guise of a fisherman, he’s to collect information about Craig’s visitors.

trouble on the thamesTrouble on the Thames is an adventure story, and since we have our dashing hero, of course we have to have our heroine. Romance appears in the form of a plucky young woman, Sally Deane, an interior decorator who, on a mission to save her sister from blackmail, stumbles into the nest of Nazis.

This is the sort of book that races along with very little down time. Spies, blackmail, an escaped prisoner, amnesia and murder all roll in to this short novel. With the action moving from the hubbub of London to the quiet beauty of the countryside, there’s the strong sense that the British way of life is under threat. This is an ultra patriotic novel, but that’s by no means a fault–rather it’s an indicator of the times. Against the backdrop of an ever-encroaching war, the characters are either black or white with those “in the pay of the Huns,” portrayed as opportunistic, morally weak, societal outsiders. At one point for example, German sympathizer Olga Brandon tells Craig, “I’m all for the Germans. I’d love to see them smash the hell out of these stuck-up swine.” German diplomat,  Count Conrad von Manstein is an “unpleasant mixture, a cross between a Prussian junker and a genuinely fanatical Nazi, about the worst abortion that nature has yet produced.” And at one point there’s a reference made to an “epileptic house-painter.” It took me a minute to absorb that this was a reference to Hitler.

The respective roles of the sexes and the ethnocentrism are problematic. Bradwell is the dashing hero, and of course there must be a scene where he saves the female romantic interest. While Sally Deane is a plucky character, an independent businesswoman breaking the mold for her sex, nonetheless, she gushes at the appropriate moments. Bradwell makes a great new recruit for the Secret Service–although perhaps a trifle loose-lipped. At one point the issue of whether or not women can keep secrets emerges, so that grates–especially since Bradwell didn’t hesitate to tell Sally and her partner who he was working for. And here’s a quote about Olga which is supposed to explain a lot about her character

Having a dash of the dago in her, however–we have discovered since that her mother was a Romanian dancer–she was already beginning to panic.

The book, which really is great fun, is an entry from the British Library Spy Classics series, and includes another wonderful introduction from Martin Edwards. Prolific author Victor Bridges (1878-1972)–real name Victor George de Freyne Bridges set his novels “among the tidal estuaries and rivers of Kent, Essex and Suffolk.” (Harald Curjel, Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers.) Trouble on the Thames is a very cinematic novel, so it came as no surprise to read that several of Bridges’ novels made it to film. It did come as a surprise, however, that this author, once so popular in his day, has almost completely faded from view.

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Murder by Matchlight: E.C.R. Lorac (1945)

Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.

The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives  & calls out “anyone about?”:

Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.

A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.

murder by matchlightThere’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.

the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements. for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:

A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?

There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting,  Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.

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For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens (1998)

“You could be Alice in Wonderland and me the White Rabbit for all you know.”

It’s taken me too long to return to Scottish author Agnes Owens, but sorting through book stacks revealed the novella: For the Love of Willie, the tragi-comic story of a young girl’s infatuation with a creepy shop owner named Willie Roper. The story is narrated by now middle-aged Peggy who lives in a mental hospital and whose major relationship is with a much older resident named the Duchess, a woman who may or may not have had a husband. Peggy, stealing paper from wherever she can find it, is determined to write her life story, and equally determined to make the Duchess, who’d much rather obsess on a Mills and Boon romance, read it. So the story goes back and forth with some scenes between Peggy and the Duchess and other scenes that tell Peggy’s story.  The big question here, in this story of abdicated responsibility, power and conformity, is what happened to land Peggy in a mental hospital.

Peggy’s story begins during WWII,  a gloomy world of air raids and rationing, with her first day delivering papers. She’s eager and proud to have landed the job which pays six shillings a week, and pleased that Willie Roper, the shop owner, makes special concessions for her. Plus there are those caramels which she, the only girl delivering papers, gets daily while the boys go without. Life at the newspaper shop is peculiar, and the reclusive Mrs Roper who lives above the shop with her husband rarely appears, although she arranges for sherry deliveries, against her husband’s wishes, courtesy of the paper boys. There are some ugly rumours about Willie but that doesn’t stop Peggy developing a crush on a man more than twice her age, and when she leaves school, she’s employed as his assistant….

for the love of willieWhile it’s fairly easy to guess where this story is going, it’s the author’s style that makes this story such a delight.  Peggy’s powerful voice combined with Agnes Owens’ dark tart humour make this tragicomic tale a marvelous read.  At sixteen Peggy is innocent and powerless, or so the adults who surround her think until Peggy’s quirkiness erupts in an unexpected way. In a world in which options are controlled and limited, immature Peggy makes her own tragic decision–the only one she thinks she can live with. Now in middle age, Peggy is in the position, once again, of being controlled by those in power, so we see her shouting through the railings desperately trying to catch the attention of a passing male, locked in the ‘punishment room’ and tranquilized for causing trouble. Even though Peggy is in many ways a victim, somehow she transcends that description, remaining uniquely defiant, obstinately independent, and brutally sane.

In the asylum, the Duchess and Peggy are women whose lives have shrunk to a routine of medication and boredom. The Duchess consoles herself with her dreams, saying “I dream a lot myself. It’s like going to the cinema in a way.” It suddenly seems vitally important to Peggy that she tell her story, but the Duchess, theoretically a captive audience, isn’t impressed:

‘I think people might want to read it if you put some romance into it,’ said the Duchess. “I mean if you wrote about falling in love with someone. Women always like to read about things like that.’

‘For God’s sake’ said Peggy, ‘you should know by this time that there’s no such thing as falling in love. It’s only sex with a sugar coating round it. I once thought I was in love, but on looking back I can see it was nature’s way of getting the female pregnant. We’re just like animals, you know. Do you think they fall in love?’

‘How can I tell what they’re thinking?’ said the Duchess haughtily. ‘But I’m quite sure they do in their own way.’

Her mouth closed firmly as she turned her attention to the film on television. Peggy shook her head and went into a reverie which had nothing to do with her present circumstances.

As with Bad Attitudes, there’s something a little off kilter about the characters in the book. Peggy’s mother and Willie are the main adult figures here, and they both act badly with Peggy’s mother abdicating responsibility when it comes to protecting her vulnerable daughter, and Willie taking advantage of an immature mind. Peggy is seen as a bizarre nuisance mainly for her refusal to conform to convenience. This theme is also continued in the mental hospital where the nurses bully and brutalize the patients and harass the poor old Duchess for wetting her bed. When various women in the book react emotionally to the circumstances in their lives, then they’re locked up or if they’re lucky, as Willie says about his wife, it’s all blamed on their hormones:

She’s been acting very funny lately. I’m just hoping that it’s her time of life.

16-year-old Peggy is a quirky character, someone who seems uncomplicated until suddenly she shocks us in a way we didn’t anticipate, and that’s exactly what makes this novella so brilliant. We’re left puzzling over the question of Peggy’s sanity, but certainly the adults in Peggy’s life have a great deal of responsibility here. Agnes Owens is an author who will definitely appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

122 pages

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The New Neighbor: Leah Stewart

“I can’t believe in heaven. Even now, as death grows ever harder to unimagine.”

In Leah Stewart’s novel, The New Neighbor, Margaret Riley, a ninety-year-old retired nurse whose only hobby is reading mystery novels lives in a remote area outside of a small town in Tennessee. She is fiercely independent, has no relatives nearby, no friends, and is not exactly the easiest person to get along with. One day, while out reading on her deck, she notices she has a new neighbor. Snooping through the mailboxes, Margaret discovers her new neighbour’s name and curious, she soon creates a way to invite this stranger into her life.

the new neighbourWhile Margaret’s antisocial personality certainly explains her choice of location, just what masseuse Jennifer Young and her 4 year old son are doing living in the middle of nowhere can’t really be explained. In Jennifer, Margaret “recognized a mystery” and encouraged by the reading of crime novels, she is driven to solve the puzzle. Yet “Jennifer is a cave that blocks the entrance,” to the solution. Margaret recognizes that she and Jennifer have much in common: the desire for isolation, the deliberate avoidance of society, and yet Margaret refuses to respect Jennifer’s privacy.

She is so careful, so guarded. There are locked doors in conversation  with her, and no way to tell when you’re approaching one.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Jennifer and Margaret (with a few chapters from a third character right at the end of the book). This format, as I noted in an earlier post, seems to be a popular trend these days. But whereas the format annoyed me in Disclaimer for the way in which the reader is thrown red herrings, here, author Leah Stewart uses the dual chapters to move the story forward but also allows Margaret and Jennifer to speculate about each other. Gradually we learn what Jennifer is running away from, and also through Margaret’s narrative, we see her horrendous WWII experiences.

Without a doubt, Margaret is the marvelous character who claims and dominates this novel. She recognizes that as a ninety-year-old woman, she has a certain invisibility and that she’s marginalized into a stereotype, so she can be grumpy and rude to people and in return they basically pat her on the head, treat her with false gaiety, and chuckle. No one ever calls her to account for her churlish behaviour and any kindness directed her way isn’t personal–it’s a generic act based on:  ‘be nice to the old lady who may croak any day.’ Margaret is drawn in such a way that we see a woman who was shaped by her WWII experiences, trapped inside her body, and yearning to tell someone her story. While Margaret intrudes into Jennifer’s life in order to discover her neighbour’s secrets, instead she finds herself discussing her own.

I picked up The New Neighbor expecting a crime novel, and while crimes take place, this is much more the story of two women at different stages of their lives whose paths cross and connect. Jennifer and Margaret have a great deal in common for they both have secrets, and that’s what Margaret recognizes in Jennifer.

There’s a lot going on in The New Neighbor and it’s a much more complex novel than it at first appears. While I have to tread carefully around the issue of secret pasts and plot spoilers, I will mention Jennifer’s complicated relationship with university lecturer, Megan and her husband Sebastian. Jennifer begins taking her son, Milo to preschool and Milo’s friendship with a boy named Ben places Jennifer in the position of having to befriend Ben’s parents. At first her relationship is with Megan and through her, Jennifer gains a rather negative impression of Sebastian, and yet later, in a very cleverly constructed fashion, Jennifer has reason to reevaluate her impression of Sebastian and Megan’s position in the marriage. It’s one of those moments when we see Jennifer’s maturity, fed by bitter experience, of just how one spouse always generates a surge of sympathy from society while the ‘killjoy’ does not.

The fact that Margaret is a very well drawn character both works for and against the book as Jennifer and her story pale in comparison, and here are a few tart, choice quotes that bring Margaret to life:

What a pleasure it would be to really piss somebody off, just to see my existence fully register on someone else’s face.

And:

You might imagine that being an old lady I like the cozy mysteries, but you’d be wrong. Spare me the cats and the knitting. It was Sue’s idea to start picking out books for me–perhaps she gets bored–and the first stack she presented me, two or three years ago, was full of such nonsense. I don’t need my murders made adorable. Death in a book is still only death in a book, but give me an author who doesn’t flinch. If a mystery doesn’t walk you up to the abyss before it rescues you, it’s a shallow form of comfort.

Here she’s referring to the Wordsworth poem:

The world I can more or less get away from, as I think I’ve proven, and there’s so much of nature around me I’d be hard pressed to long for more. Sometimes I wish the birds would shut the hell up. It’s not the world I can’t escape but my body. Not its demands so much at this stage, but its complaints and limitations. It’s resistance and pain.

The New Neighbor argues that, as outsiders, even living in the same house, we can never fully grasp the inner politics of a marriage, and we can never understand what it’s like to be another human being. In the Acknowledgements, the author notes that she wanted to write a novel based in the WWII experiences of her grandmother. And that’s the feeling I had when I read this novel–that the author had tapped some powerful real life experiences and that ultimately, this is Margaret’s story and not Jennifer’s. While this is not a perfect novel as its ending felt a little forced, I’ll check this author’s backlist.

I thought I had seen some things. I’d never seen anything like this. Our next patient required an amputation. The strangest part was not the cutting through but the moment when the limb actually came off. That first day I carried a whole arm away from the table. I held it by the elbow. The fingers on the hand were still flexed as though reaching for me, saying, Hold on a minute, wait, wait. The arm was surprisingly heavy. You don’t think about what an arm weighs when it’s still a part of the body. And then when it’s cut off, it’s waste. It gets burned with the rest of the waste.

Parts of your body can come off. Jennifer. You can have a hole in your back so big a man can out his fist inside it.

I hadn’t seen anything.

Later I’d see all of this, do all of this, many times, without sparing a thought to the oddity of it all. The time I’d moved into the extraordinary but hadn’t learned to live there. This wasn’t even a hospital as I’d ever known one, with hallways and wards and nurses in white, but a tent full of blood and guts and screaming. There should have been some other name for it, but we didn’t have one and so we applied the old one, and after a while when I thought “hospital” what I pictured was a tent or an abandoned schoolhouse, sawhorses for the stretchers and  patients boys.

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