Credits: Road photo by David Everett Strickler via Unsplash.com.
Woman and eyes by RetroAtelier via Getty Images.
Credits: Road photo by David Everett Strickler via Unsplash.com.
Woman and eyes by RetroAtelier via Getty Images.
Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time is the fifth in a series of mysteries featuring inspector Alan Grant. The book is perhaps best known for the praise it received from mystery writer and critic Anthony Boucher, who called it one of the best mysteries of all time. That’s high praise to live up to, but the author began the book with higher aims than most mystery writers ever aspire to, and she made it clear in the first chapter that she wasn’t going to follow the traditional path to achieve them.
For starters, Tey’s detective is bedridden throughout the novel, laid up on his back in a hospital due to injuries he sustained on a prior case. Grant is suffering from an acute case of boredom. Even the novels piled at his bedside, the latest works of the fictional best-selling authors Silas Weekley and Lavinia Fitch, don’t interest him.
…you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about “a new Silas Weekley” or “a new Lavinia Fitch” exactly as they talked about “a new brick” or “a new hairbrush.” They never talked about “a new book by” whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.
This is another hint from the author that she won’t be presenting a run-of-the-mill mystery.
To help alleviate his boredom, Grant’s friend Marta Hallard, an actress on the London stage, brings him a series of portraits–prints from London bookshops–showing faces and figures from the distant past. As a police inspector, Grant is a reader of faces. He prides himself on his ability to divine from the face a sense of a person’s character, their virtues, vices, weaknesses and habits of mind.
One portrait in particular grabs his interest. He judges the man to be of strong integrity, good judgment, and solid character. The bottom of the print gives the subject’s name. Richard III, king of England from 1483 to 1485, one of the most reviled and vilified characters in all of history. This is the king who Sir Thomas More said murdered his young nephews–children who had been placed under his guardianship–in order to secure his claim to the throne. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III is physically deformed, malevolent, and unconscionably evil.
Grant shows the portrait to a fellow homicide detective, one of his co-workers at Scotland Yard, and asks if he were to encounter this person in a courtroom, would he expect to see him in the dock or on the bench. His fellow detective replies that the man has the calm and conscientious face of a judge, and he would expect to see him on the bench.
Puzzled that two seasoned detectives have both come to the same reading of the King’s face, Grant decides to look further into the history of Richard III to figure out how a seemingly even-tempered and conscientious man could have conspired to murder his brother’s children in cold blood.
Grant enlists the help of his actress friend Marta and an American researcher, Brent Carradine, working at the British Museum, to conduct the entire investigation from his hospital bed. At this point, we’re already far from the traditional formula of detective fiction. There will be no tours of crime scenes, no chases or tense confrontations. If the story is going to adhere to any sub-genre, it will have to be a procedural, whereby our detective slowly pieces together what made a good man snap and do something horrible. How did the once able and well-respected administrator from York degenerate into the despicable monster portrayed by More and Shakespeare?
But even here, the book doesn’t go according to expectation. Grant impatiently (and correctly) dismisses the accounts of Shakespeare and Holinshed and Sir Thomas More as hearsay. Shakespeare got his story from Holinshed, who got it from More, who himself got it second-hand from a gossip several decades after the events transpired. The case they present, Grant notes, would not be admitted in court, because none of it was first hand, and all of the initial accounts came from unreliable sources who were not only hostile to Richard III, but had a vested interest in maligning him.
Grant notes that most of what constitutes real history is not the narratives historians have composed, but the artifacts left behind by ordinary people who weren’t intending to write history at all. Grant looks for the kind of evidence that detectives look for in present-day cases, the kind that does hold up in court. Things as simple as receipts in a merchant’s account book can show where a person was on a given date, whether they had money, and in cases where purchased items were to be delivered to a third party, evidence of a relationship between the buyer and the recipient.
Grant sets Brent Carradine back to the British Museum to dig up journals, letters, sermons, Parliamentary proceedings and more from the reigns of kings Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII. From these, he will piece together a compelling story of what actually happened to the two boys Richard is supposed to have murdered.
The story he comes up with, and the evidence he marshals in its favor, is vastly more convincing than the tales of More and Shakespeare, which have for centuries been accepted as fact. This is another twist on the traditional detective formula. Rarely does a procedural, after so clearly identifying the perpetrator, go on to thoroughly exonerate him.
Inspector Grant remarks several times throughout the story that a detective’s job is to understand how character, motive, psychology and circumstance guide behavior. The narrator notes that Grant’s friend Marta, the actress, has spent her career developing and refining an understanding of these same elements of human nature and experience. Brent Carradine, the researcher, remarks that his job is merely to uncover facts, not to supply commentary or interpretation (though he does some of that in his conversations with Grant).
The tangible evidence that Carradine digs up allows Grant to establish a timeline of events, a cast of characters, and a series of relationships. His analysis of character and motive, based solely on evidence, allows him to fill in some holes about who likely did what, and when, and why. As far afield as we seem to have gone from the detective novel formula, Grant winds up doing in the end exactly what we expect a detective to do: through a combination of evidence gathering, logical deduction, and shrewd psychological insight, he pieces together a coherent and convincing story.
So why does Boucher call this one of the best mysteries of all time? Probably because the author set herself the exceedingly difficult task of overturning a centuries-old conviction for one of history’s most infamous crimes, and then did an exceedingly good job in accomplishing her task. Keep in mind that the story of Richard III and his successor, Henry VII, was more than the standard intrigue of the king’s court. It was the brutal conclusion of thirty years of civil war that ended the Plantagenet dynasty and began 118 years of Tudor reign.
The title, by the way, comes from an old proverb. Truth is the daughter of time. Which is to say, you can lie all you want, but eventually the truth will come out. Especially when a dogged and capable detective is on the case.
This is one of those books that rewards you to the extent that you are willing to invest in it. If you just want to be entertained, you’ll find easier reading elsewhere. If you want to engage your mind and you’re willing to keep track of a large cast of historical characters and a great number of facts, you’ll like this.
At the end of the book, Inspector Grant revisits the tale of Richard III as it’s written in a children’s history book. Grant, who is well attuned to the subtleties and complexities of human nature, is disgusted by the black-and-white tale of malevolence and evil, simple and unequivocal, universally accepted and completely wrong. The actual story with all its complexities is more difficult to digest, and for that reason is unlikely to ever supplant the false story that centuries of repetition have led people to stop questioning.
The story that More and Shakespeare and the history books tell doesn’t hold up under interrogation, and Grant can’t hide his frustration with the supposedly learned historians who repeat it.
“Historians should be compelled to take a course in psychology,” Grant observes, “before they are allowed to write.” Elsewhere he “wondered with what part of their brains historians reasoned. It was certainly by no process of reasoning known to ordinary mortals that they arrived at their conclusions.”
In an earlier conversation with Marta Hallard, Grant remarks, “[H]istorians surprise me. They seem to have no talent for the likeliness of any situation. They see history like a peepshow: with two-dimensional figures against a distant background.”
Marta replies, “Perhaps when you are grubbing about with tattered records you haven’t time to learn about people. I don’t mean about the people in the records, but just about People. Flesh and blood. And how they react to circumstances.”
The detective and the actress know that understanding the human element is essential to understanding any story about people. Brent Carrington puts in a final plug for the author when he says near the end, “A man who is interested in what makes people tick doesn’t write history. He writes novels.”
Or a woman who is interested in what makes people tick. She writes really good novels.
The Girl on the Velvet Swing tells the story of the 1906 murder of famed American architect Stanford White, who was shot to death before a crowd of New York’s elite at the opening night performance of a play at Madison Square Garden, one of the city’s architectural landmarks, which he himself designed. After the shooting, White’s assailant, the young millionaire Harry K. Thaw handed his pistol to a fireman and calmly walked to the police station in the company of a single officer.
When asked why he had shot White, one of the city’s most prominent citizens, Thaw said simply that he was avenging the honor of his wife, Evelyn Nesbit, whom White had raped five years earlier, when she was sixteen.
Nesbit had arrived in New York in 1900 with her mother and brother. The family had done well in a small town in western Pennsylvania until the sudden death of Nesbit’s father left them destitute. While her mother took in sewing to make ends meet, Evelyn’s beauty made her a popular model for artists.
In New York, Evelyn Nesbit caught the attention of painters, sculptors, photographers, and theater directors. Stanford White noticed her after she’d been cast in a production of Floradora at the Casino Theater on Broadway. White asked Edna Goodrich, an older actress in the play, to introduce them.
At White’s house, the fifteen-year-old small-town girl got her first taste of the high life. According to her testimony in two separate trials, after spending months gaining her confidence, White drugged her and raped her while she was unconscious.
Harry Thaw came from a Pittsburgh family that had made its fortune in iron, coal, and railroads. Thaw was in his early thirties when he met Evelyn, who was still in her teens. Thaw had an $80,000 annual allowance, had never worked, and had been kicked out of every school he had attended.
Although his money made him a member of New York’s elite and he frequented the same theaters and restaurants as Stanford White, none of the city’s social clubs would have him. There were rumors, which White himself repeated, that Thaw was addicted to heroin and cocaine, that he lured young girls who aspired to the stage to an uptown house on the pretext of offering auditions, then stripped and beat and terrorized them. After the assaults, he used his money to buy their silence.
Everyone knew that Thaw was eccentric. Some thought he was insane. No one wanted him in their club.
Thaw was the kind of man who nursed a grudge and brooded over every slight. He was also, according to his young wife, obsessed with the idea of female purity and chastity. The knowledge that his most bitter enemy had done such a thing to his wife when she was only sixteen filled Thaw with hatred and rage.
The series of events leading up to the murder, and the murder itself, occupy only the first four chapters of Baatz’s book. The remaining 220 pages describe Thaw’s trials and his legal wranglings with the state of New York, the authorities in Canada, and New York City’s ruthless, relentless, and single-minded District Attorney, William Travers Jerome who pursues Thaw like Ahab pursues his whale.
The book actually gets more interesting at this point, as it shows the lengths to which the wealthy will go to get their way, and the means by which they will accomplish it. Harry Thaw and his obsessive, underhanded mother are as relentless as the government officials who want to make their lives hell, and they have an almost inexhaustible supply of cash to fight their fight.
The post-murder battles involve prosecutors, clever lawyers, governors, the US Supreme Court, an asylum for the criminally insane, the government of Canada, gangs from Hell’s Kitchen, and the intractable, often wrong-headed opinions of the public and the press. While the murder itself was a lurid spectacle in the most unexpected setting, the post-murder wrangling provides a fascinating look into how wealth, power, government, law, public opinion, and the press wield their powers in American society.
Baatz is right to focus on the rich story of crime’s afterlife, which includes a series of events more dramatic and improbable than any author of fiction could ever reasonably invent.
I won’t spoil it for you, because it’s a great read. Go out and get a copy!
My next book, To Hell with Johnny Manic, is now available for review on NetGalley.
Johnny Manic is a psychological suspense/thriller in the classic noir tradition. The cast of characters includes a very intelligent but slightly deranged and impulsive protagonist who’s doing his best to keep it together, a beautiful woman who pushes all his buttons, and a sharp, cynical detective in the mold of Philip Marlowe.
If you liked Body Heat, The Last Seduction, Double Indemnity, Wild Things, or anything by Patricia Highsmith, you’ll like this one. This is also for fans of Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald.
John Manis, aka Johnny Manic—charming, stylish, impulsive, and reckless—is racked with guilt over the secret he doesn’t dare tell. Marilyn Dupree, passionate and volatile, has too much money and the wrong husband. Johnny and Marilyn have a chemistry like nitrogen and glycerine, and that makes Detective Lou Eisenfall very uneasy.
A twisting tale of deception, murder, and psychological suspense that barrels along at breakneck pace, Johnny Manic is a throwback to the classic crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Hughes, and Patricia Highsmith.
If you’re a NetGalley member and you want a free review copy, click the logo below.
Trade Paperback, 8.5″ x 5.5″, 260 pages
Carton Quantity: 28
Available Aug. 1, 2019 from Ingram
This book, set in London in 1941 during the blitz, begins with a man on the outs, Arthur Rowe, strolling through a church fair fundraiser. He plays a few penny games, then has his fortune told. By a stroke of bad luck, he utters the wrong words to the fortune-teller. In exchange, she tells him the weight of the cake in a nearby stall. Whoever guesses the weight correctly, wins it, which is a big deal, because it’s made with real eggs, which are a prized rarity in wartime London.
Before he leaves the fair, Rowe is intercepted by a number of people who want to buy the cake, but he stubbornly refuses their insistent offers.
Back at his rented flat, the landlady points out that the weight he guessed could not have been correct. She puts the cake on the scale to prove it, then cuts a slice for him to enjoy with his tea.
Soon a new boarder shows up. He’s hungry, and seems to be more interested in the cake Rowe shares with him than in Rowe himself or the tea they drink together. Rowe recognizes the odd taste in the tea the stranger has poured for him. It’s the same poison Rowe used to kill his wife years earlier. That crime, which he committed out of pity for her failing health, and for which he was convicted, has haunted him for years.
Perhaps if they had hanged him he would have found excuses for himself between the trap door and the bottom of the drop, but they had given him a lifetime to analyze his motives in.
He remembered himself twenty years ago daydreaming and in love; he remembered without self-pity, as one might watch the development of a biological specimen. He had in those days imagined himself capable of extraordinary heroisms and endurances which would make the girl he loved forget the awkward hands and the spotty chin of adolescence. Everything had seemed possible. One could laugh at day-dreams, but so long as you had the capacity to day-dream, there was a chance that you might develop some of the qualities of which you dreamed… Since the loss of his wife, Rowe had never day-dreamed; all through the trial he had never even dreamed of an acquittal. It was as if that side of the brain had been dried up; he was no longer capable of sacrifice, courage, virtue, because he no longer dreamed of them. He was aware of the loss–the world had dropped a dimension and become paper-thin.
Though the crime and its effect on Rowe’s psyche tinge the story with a dimension of weight and darkness on top of the war and the blitz, Greene finds humor in the situation. For example, while Rowe’s friend Henry Wilcox stands by him even after the conviction, Mrs. Wilcox hates him. “Once a man starts killing his wife, she would have ungrammatically thought, you couldn’t tell where it would stop.”
One of the hardest things for Rowe to deal with is the fact that he can’t even help in the war effort when his country’s survival is at stake. His age prevents him from serving in the army and his conviction prevents him from serving at home.
Ironically enough, the stranger who has come to kill him and German bombers trying to blow him up become the first steps in freeing Rowe from the past he can’t stop brooding over.
Greene divides the story into four short books, each told in third person from Rowe’s perspective. Each begins in a new setting, just before or just after a major event, and much of the story’s suspense comes from the reader trying to figure out, along with Rowe, where he is and how he got there, who are his friends, who are his enemies, and how he will extract himself from troubles he doesn’t fully understand.
The story is ostensibly a high-stakes spy thriller, with the main character inadvertently wrapped up in some intrigue that will affect his country and the outcome of the war. But on a deeper level, it’s the story of a sort of everyman trying to come to terms with maturity and the complexities of a world where in which life didn’t go as he had planned.
Halfway through the book, Rowe becomes a different person. His past is wiped away, and he finds himself at last getting the chance to be the hero he always wanted to be, as he tries to expose a cabal of Nazi partisans inside England, a group he comes to call “The Ministry of Fear.”
Later in the book, as he finally pieces together his past and present, “The Ministry of Fear” comes to mean something entirely different. It’s personal now, and has nothing to do with nations or politics or war. This is the main twist of the book (which I won’t give away). In the parallel dramas unfolding within and around the story’s hero, it’s the inner drama that matters in the end. That’s the one that will change him, that he will carry with him, and that he will build his new life upon.
In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality–heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated. This is why no later books satisfy us like those that were read to us in childhood–for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we knew the rules, but the later books are complicated and contradictory with experience…
Like all of Greene’s novels, The Ministry of Fear is a book you can find new meaning in each time you read it. It’s well-plotted, well-written, and shows the insight of a deeply observant and reflective mind. It is not a simple story of a simple hero standing on the right side of a clear moral line. It’s complicated, but completely in line with an intelligent adult’s mature experience of a complex world.
It’s hard to write of a review of Alan Watts’ books because there’s so much in them. It’s like trying to summarize the ocean. Each time I re-read one of his works, I come away with something different. So I’m not going to try to encapsulate all that Watts says. Instead, I’ll just described what impressed me in this reading, using mostly Watts’ own words, since he can express himself better than I can paraphrase him.
If you want a full summation of the book, Watts gives it succinctly in the last two sentences of the final page:
Life requires no future to complete itself nor explanation to justify itself. In this moment it is finished.
By “finished,” he means not ended but complete, as a completed work of art requires no additional gloss or explanation. Watts spends most of the book showing how both science and religion attempt to supply this additional gloss, and how their systems of thought often wind up replacing the reality they are meant to explain.
That there is a way of looking at life apart from all conceptions, beliefs, opinions, and theories is the remotest of all possibilities from the modern mind. If such a point of view exists, it can only be in the brain of a moron. We suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos.
In holding so tightly to a system of understanding, whether it be scientific, religious, economic, or political, we lose touch with reality. The mental constructs we’ve created to understand, predict, and manipulate the world prevent us from actually seeing it.
Ordinarily, [the basic principles of philosophy, religion, and metaphysics] are used as attempts to stand outside oneself and the universe to grasp them and to rule them… The powers of technology have availed for little save to speed the process to a point of unbearable tension… If scientific thought has weakened [religion’s] power we need have no regrets, for the “God” to which it could have brought us was not the unknown Reality which the name signifies, but only a projection of ourselves–a cosmic, discarnate “I” lording it over the universe.
The true splendor of science is not so much that it names and classifies, records and predicts, but that it observes and desires to know the facts, whatever they may turn out to be… In this openness and sincerity of mind it bears some resemblance to religion, understood in its other and deeper sense. The greater the scientist, the more he is impressed with his ignorance of reality, and the more he realizes that his laws and labels, descriptions and definitions, are the products of his own thought…
What he does not know seems to increase in geometric progression to what he knows. Steadily he approaches the point where what is unknown is not a mere blank space in a web of words but a window in the mind, a window whose name is not ignorance but wonder.
The timid mind shuts this window with a bang, and is silent and thoughtless about what it does not know in order to chatter the more about what it thinks it knows. It fills up the uncharted spaces with mere repetition of what has already been explored. But the open mind knows that the most minutely explored territories have not really been known at all, but only marked and measured a thousand times over. And the fascinating mystery of what it is that we mark and measure must in the end “tease us out of thought” until the mind forgets to circle and to pursue its on processes, and becomes aware that to be at this moment is pure miracle.
There’s quite a bit overlap between Watts’ book and Anthony De Mello’s Awareness. Both authors have a deep knowledge of Eastern and Western religion, and both have a strong mystical bent, arguing persuasively that experience and language’s representation of experience cannot ever be the same thing. As we come to dwell more and more in the latter, in the conceptual world, we have less and less visceral experience.
Watts spends much of the book describing how our attempts to avoid pain are themselves the source of great pain. If something hurts, it hurts. But if, during the hurt, we add to it an insistence that the world not be hurtful, that it be something other than it is, we simply compound the hurt with psychological discord and strife.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James remarked:
A strange moral transformation has within the past century swept over our Western world. We no longer think we are called on to face physical pain with equanimity. It is not expected of a man that he should either endure it or inflict much of it, and to listen to the recital of cases of it makes our flesh creep morally as well as physically. The way in which our ancestors looked on pain as an eternal ingredient of the world’s order, and both caused and suffered it as a matter-of-course portion of their day’s work, fills us with amazement.
Watts notes how much of today’s world is engineered to try to guarantee certainty, to guarantee a future that is predictable and known, and if not pleasurable, at least comfortable and free from pain. When the world turns out not to go the way we expected, we have to endure the pain of that, plus the emotional strife of being surprised, disappointed, and slighted. Illness, misfortune, and death are no longer part and parcel of existence, they are injustices and we are their victims.
Both Watts and William James point out that when a mind rejects suffering and death as natural parts of life, it can only justify these them by creating a beneficent father figure whose loving plan is beyond our understanding, to be concluded outside of time in a world that is larger, more real, and more permanent than our own.
Watts notes that it’s a lot easier to just accept these things as part of life. Hence, the wisdom of insecurity: there is no certainty from one moment to the next in this life. When you accept that, you begin to appreciate the wonder of the now.
Watts also touches on a point that De Mello stresses in Awareness. De Mello, a Jesuit with strong streaks of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, says that often a religious person’s understanding of God is the last and strongest impediment to enlightenment. It’s usually a second-hand understanding, passed down from doctrine rather than experienced first-hand, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it carries the weight of damnation if you get it wrong. It is one of those beliefs “that if we do not hold to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos.”
Both Watts and De Mello define belief as something you think you know, and faith is an acceptance of not knowing. “Almost all the spiritual traditions recognize that there is a stage in man’s development when belief…and its securities has to be left behind,” says Watts. When we are willing to make that leap, to relinquish the known and secure for the unknown and insecure, when we are ready to give up what we perceive as everything in exchange for nothing–no certainties, no guarantees–then we “come to a position from which the principal ideas of religion and metaphysics can once more become intelligible and meaningful–not as beliefs, but as valid symbols of experience.”
This is how I’ve always viewed the story of Adam and Eve. Not as a factual recounting of events in a distant age, but as a profoundly accurate and moving description of the universal human progression from innocence to experience, of the cost of knowledge and the painful emergence into adult consciousness. Whether or not the story portrays actual events is irrelevant. There is no truer account of human experience.
When I read Watts again in a year or two, it will be a different experience, a different reader opening a different book to find something new and unexpected.
Hallas’ novel opens with Richard Dempsey returning from a long day’s work at the diner to an empty house. Before he enters, he knows from the darkened windows that his wife has left him. Inside, he learns she’s taken their son and the family savings. She says he’ll never find her, but he knows she’s always dreamed of going to Hollywood.
This is Oklahoma in the late 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression and a crushing years-long drought. The world of glamour and sophistication that Hollywood painted on the silver screen in those days must have looked like heaven compared to the stark and pitiless world in which Richard and Lois had been living. Richard Dempsey doesn’t blame his wife for leaving. Who wouldn’t want to trade such a grim reality for a shot at one that was so much brighter?
Dempsey wants his son back, but with only two dollars and change to his name, his only chance of getting to California is to hop a freight train and ride with the hobos. Dempsey barely survives the multi-day journey, locked inside a freight car with dozens of other men by cops who want to push all the homeless out of the Western railroad towns and into California. Dempsey and his pack of fellow travelers, after being ripped off by cops and by each other, nearly roast as the sweltering box car crosses the desert, and nearly freeze as it crosses the mountains. Dempsey arrives in California exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and broke, but still determined and full of hope.
The novel that seems to be about a man winning his family back turns out not to be that at all. Dempsey, now a drifter, winds up falling in with a number of shady characters, hustlers and survivors who are doing what they have to do in a failing economy that has no place for them.
Dempsey befriends a film director, gets roped into a scam with a con man from a gambling house, meets a couple of heavy-drinking divorcées, and then… Well, since this book is more about plot than character, I won’t spoil anything. Let’s just say the action rolls along at a very fast clip, and not always in the direction you expect.
Hallas’ book reads like a noir version of The Grapes of Wrath. Imagine Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain co-writing a condensed version of Steinbeck’s novel, and swapping out the Joad family for an inarticulate loner with an unfortunate instinct for trouble.
The populist left-leaning political movements of the era that Steinbeck portrayed with a visceral sympathy are mocked with withering satire here. And that’s not because Hallas lacks sympathy for the plight of his characters. He’s just a little less earnest than Steinbeck, and a little more cynical. In this book, the impossible promises of populist politicians merely play on the desperate hopes of the oppressed, who are willing to replace the knaves in power with fools who actually believe the utopian vision they are peddling.
Hallas’ prose is lean and spare, like Cain’s, and the mid-1930’s Los Angeles it portrays is very much like the one Philip Marlowe inhabited, with people from all tiers of society drinking and misbehaving together in a corrupt and decadent city with plenty of flash and little substance.
Hallas’ novel was published in 1938, a year earlier than Steinbeck’s, so you can’t call it derivative, though its stark portrayal of the Okie migration bears striking similarities to the journey Steinbeck portrayed in greater detail. It was also a year earlier than the first of Chandler’s Marlowe novels, The Big Sleep, though Chandler had been publishing in magazines for several years before You Play the Black appeared.
All three books bear similar themes of California as the land of promise and disappointment. One of the main characters in Hallas’ novel, the successful movie director Quentin Genter, tells Dempsey that the Southern California climate makes people foolish and delusional. They cross the mountains from the east and lose their judgment and perspective, ready to accept the most outlandish ideas and practices as sensible and normal. Genter prides himself on being the only man in Los Angeles who actually knows he’s insane.
After a series of improbable and increasingly desperate escapades lead him further and further from the life he wants, Richard Dempsey reflects:
…some lands were like a father to a man, and beat him; and some were a mother to him and loved him; and some were a wife, and had to be loved; but California was just a whore who dropped her pants to the first man that came along with a watering-pot.
If you like the crime and noir fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, you’ll like this book. It’s a quick read that never bogs down. It was a bestseller when it was published, and it must have captured the mood of the country. “If you prefer sweetness light,” said the review in the San Francisco Chronicle, “you’ll think this book is just horrid.”
[Notes on names: Eric Knight wrote this book under the pen name Richard Hallas. The narrator, known alternately as Richard or Dick, never gives his true surname, but his friend Smitty “always called me Dempsey right from the first because he said I was kind of built like the champ. I got used to it.” The title refers to the Murphy’s law of the roulette wheel, where the ball always seems to land on the color you didn’t pick. That metaphor works for both the main character, in whose life nothing seems to go as planned, and for the reader, who is constantly trying to predict the next plot twist, and keeps coming up wrong.]
I received the UK edition of this book as a gift a few months ago (it won’t be published in the US until later in 2019). I twice tried to start it, and twice put it down after a few pages thinking, “I can’t read this. This reminds me of the most depressing parts of the DC punk scene back the eighties and early nineties, the guys who spent their last dollars on beer instead of heating their apartments. This is about the ones who didn’t grow up.”
The third time I picked up the book, I read random pages from the middle, and I was hooked. The author, Virginie Despentes, is a phenomenal writer with an extraordinarily deep and perceptive mind, and an almost unparalleled ability to portray the minds and experiences of a broad cast of very different people. I went back to page one, read the book all the way through, and came away thinking this is one of the best novels I have read in many, many years.
Vernon Subutex is a former record store owner, now out of work and out of options. When the book opens, he’s scrounging tobacco from last night’s cigarette butts to roll into his morning smoke. His unemployment benefits have run out, he’s about to be evicted from his apartment, and his benefactor, the rock star Alex Bleach, has just died.
Things go downhill from there.
I was right in my assessment of the first few pages. This book is about exactly the kinds of people I knew back in DC when Fugazi and Bad Brains were playing at the 9:30 Club and DC Space. Despentes writes about what happens to the rockers, the groupies, the partiers, the addicts, porn stars, transsexuals, Neo-Nazis, and wannabes as they approach age fifty.
Some, like the writer Xavier, have moved into traditional roles and become bitterly reactionary, self-centered, or self-pitying. Others, like the Hyena, adapted to a harsh and cynical world. Still others, like Pamela Kant, gave up on trying to fit in to a society that never did and never would accept them. Many, like Vernon, are just trying to find their way with ever fewer resources, fewer opportunities, and less energy.
We meet this sprawling cast of characters as Vernon drifts from home to home, couch to couch, in a futile effort to avoid ending up on the streets. In true punk fashion, Despentes presents her characters raw and unvarnished. The unrepentant porn star, the savage wife-beater, the neo-Nazis, the young Muslim girl who chooses the veil, the homeless, hulking and physically repulsive Olga–are all full-fledged human beings whose thoughts and feelings make sense, whether we agree with them or not.
In fact, an encounter near the end between the haughty right-wing Xavier and the homeless Olga illustrates the encounter between the reader and the text. Xavier crosses the street to talk to Vernon, who sits beside Olga, begging in front of a supermarket. Xavier has no intention of speaking with, or even acknowledging Olga, whom he finds disgusting. He crouches down in front of Vernon, close enough so that he doesn’t have to see Olga.
Olga, unbidden, talks to Xavier about the dog that was cruelly taken from her. Xavier too has just lost a dog, and has been too hard, too bitter to mourn. Olga’s eloquent expression of grief hits a nerve, takes him by surprise, and allows him to finally feel the extent of his loss. Along with his recognition of their mutual reactions to a shared experience comes a surprise recognition that this woman is not some repulsive “other,” but merely another version of himself in another context that terrifies him. This is himself as a woman at the midpoint of a life in which everything went wrong, in which he ceased to matter and lost all protection from the indignities and brutality of a society in decay.
Throughout the book, Despentes seems to say, “Let me show you the tawdriness, the ugliness of what you so love to despise. This is you. It’s ugly, isn’t it? But are you willing to see the beauty in it? Because it’s there if you look.”
This is where Despentes differs vastly from so many American writers. American readers seem to demand that characters whose political values or moral outlooks are opposed to their own be portrayed as unlikable and be condemned by the author. Despentes simply pumps her world at the reader through a fire hose and leaves it to you to figure out how you feel.
What comes out of that hose, like real life, is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. What makes this book so good is its unflagging intensity, the scope and breadth of the world it portrays, its clear-eyed and justified rage, its untender appreciation of beauty. You can’t imagine that an author can convey such depth and poignancy writing to the machine gun beat of eighties punk, or that she can break your heart without an ounce of sentiment. But she does it. After three hundred and fifty pages of vivid writing that challenges you to think and feel, to revisit and re-evaluate perspectives you thought had settled, Vernon’s final descent into homelessness, when he suddenly identifies with the entire catalog of outcast humanity, is one of the most moving passages in all of literature.
I really hope this book finds an audience in the US when it comes out this fall.
Woolrich is a master of suspense and a brilliant writer. I was hoping to like this one more, but unfortunately, I could never fully buy into the story.
The book begins with Detective Tom Shawn walking home from work at one A.M. along the river, where he finds a young woman, Jean Reid, about to kill herself. He stops her from jumping and asks her why she wants to end her life when she’s young, wealthy, and beautiful. Her explanation forms an unusually long and well-written chapter of backstory.
The narrative switches in the second chapter, which is well over 100 pages, from third person to first, with Jean doing the telling. She’s an excellent narrator, as well as a confident, thoughtful, observant and well-grounded character. She lives the charmed life of the wealthy, without being dysfunctional. She’s deeply attached to her father, Harlan Reid, whose recent troubles are the source of her own.
Her father, a clear-eyed practical man, has recently encountered a strange reclusive man with clairvoyant powers, and he’s become obsessed with extracting predictions from the reluctant seer. Some of these predictions are innocuous, some are helpful, and one–the prediction of the exact time and manner of the father’s imminent death–is terrifying.
After hearing this prediction, Harlan Reid is so consumed with terror and dread he cannot function. His own suffering and his imminent demise are what led Jean to attempt suicide.
After telling her story to Detective Shawn, Jean, still rattled by events, refuses to go home. The Detective takes her to the police station, where the lieutenant takes an interest in her tale. The lieutenant, a hard-eyed realist, doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He sees the whole affair as the attempt of a clever con man to manipulate a wealthy old man and separate him from his fortune.
Realizing that the setup is complete, and the shakedown will occur within the next 48 hours, the lieutenant assigns several detectives to investigate the characters Jean Reid described in her story. From here on, the novel plays out in two parts: one follows Jean and Harlan Reid, along with Detective Shawn who has been assigned as their bodyguard. The other follows the detectives sent out by the lieutenant as they shadow the characters they believe are extorting the Reids.
The Jean/Harlan/Shawn chapters read like dark psychological suspense with tinges of madness and the supernatural. The detective chapters read like classic, well written police procedurals. Few writers can write so well in two different genres, and fewer can merge two genres into a single book in which both tellings–the criminal and the supernatural–make sense.
My problem with the book was that the psychological suspense depends on Harlan Reid’s pathological and paralyzing dread. When we meet Mr. Reid in the long second chapter, he is confident, sharp, and vigorous. How could he be so thoroughly undone so quickly? If the reader were to accompany Harlan Reid on his descent into dread–for example as the reader feels the young Mrs. de Winter’s deep earnestness, sensitivity, and insecurity in Rebecca–the story would be more convincing and powerful.
Instead, we watch Mr. Reid from the outside, and from that perspective, his helplessness and paralyzing dread seem like an exaggeration and an out-of-character overreaction. A flaw like that is excusable when it involves a minor character and a minor plot point, but it’s a problem when the entire novel and the actions of all the characters hinge on it.
Woolrich was certainly ambitious in this book, unfolding a complex plot through an equally complex narrative structure, incorporating prose that is at times tedious and at times powerful and strikingly brilliant. Even if some elements of the book aren’t entirely satisfying, he sure aimed high, and there’s a lot to like about this one.
The most disturbing thing about this book is that the vapid, false, and mind-numbing world that the media produces and the population so whole-heartedly consumes is so much like our own. The narrator points out more than once that the government didn’t take the initiative to ban books (and by extension, reflection and depth of thought and experience); the people themselves stopped wanting them.
In this world, humanity has rejected its own cultural history and the hard-won wisdom of preceding generations in favor of comfort and isolation. They choose to consume life second-hand, as remote spectators, accepting whatever their screens feed to them.
They wanted instead a world of empty thrills and non-stop stimulation. And then they wonder why they’re not happy. They don’t even understand their feelings of dissatisfaction, because those feelings have no place and no representation in the media-produced world they consume. Guy Montag doesn’t understand quite why he’s unhappy today, after being perfectly fine yesterday. His wife Mildred almost kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills and doesn’t even know it.
In this world, war is entertainment, one more flash of excitement on the screen. War’s death and destruction are distant and abstract. As one character puts it, death is something that happens to other people’s husbands.
Everyone in this world is asleep, and they don’t even know they’re asleep. Swap out a few details–TV for the internet, the three-walled televisions for smart phones–and you have something pretty close to the world we live in now. Even the manner of death the society chooses for its outcasts is ironic: the robot dogs hunt them down and numb them to death with massive injections of procaine (novocaine).
What do you do with a world like this? Bradbury gives us the analogy of the Phoenix that must descend into self-immolation before it can rise again.
Fahrenheit 451 is an allegory. Bradbury doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development, because the characters aren’t the point. They’re merely types against which the characteristics of the world he portrays come into sharp relief. It’s a chilling read, not because it makes you think of the dystopia into which the world may someday evolve, but because it so uncannily portrays aspects of the world we live in right now.