FFB: Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

51iefe949hl._sx317_bo1204203200_Catching up on my neglected Highsmith novels: so focused on the Ripliad lately, it’s good to remember to step aside for her other work. In her introduction Denise Mina talks about this novel being her gateway to the creepy world of Pat, completely by accident. What an introduction! This book is pure dread. It’s crime by content, but as in many of her books, the crime is hardly the main plot element. Edith’s crumbling dissolution as life keeps disappointing her is utterly terrifying as well as perfectly drawn.

It would never get published today because ‘head hopping’ is considered an insurmountable crime. Highsmith hops adroitly from Edith’s increasingly buzzing head to that of her wretched offspring, the supremely creepy Cliffie — incel supreme! — without losing the reader at all or making it too jarring. The jumping off points are well chosen. Highsmith is so good at building unsettling creepiness — Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness also do that superbly. But I think the choice of this invisible middle-aged woman adds a poignant sorrow that breaks you in a way those two novels don’t.

There’s a moment when Edith stands in the little stream in her aunt’s back garden, looking up at the house where she had often been happy. She recalls a line from a Goethe lieder (this is Highsmith, you know), ‘Kennst du das Land?’ and it captures perfectly the distance between the sometime happy child and the woman completely lost in fantasy. Edith remembers the line about the roof and the pillars, but the line that really resonates is, ‘What have they done to you, poor child?’

Highsmith shows you the obvious things, like Cliffie as a child trying to kill the family cat, or her husband’s very dull, very middle-class affair — but in throwaway lines, she also lets you know the cold family life Edith had even as a child. It’s striking that as she veers into insanity the woman not only moves from left-wing political activism to bizarre right-wing diatribes (that often match the author’s opinions) but she also becomes more creative, both in writing her alternative diary-life and her self-taught sculpture. So Pat.

Check out the FFBs at Patti’s blog. Or maybe Todd’s.

Catch Up on Reviews: Harris, Simenon, Libby, Spark

Cari Mora by Thomas HarrisCARI MORA
Thomas Harris

I was really excited about a new book from Harris. His best work is hypnotic and even books of his that others have disparaged, I have greatly enjoyed (though I would have loved to see an editor push him through one more reqrite of the climactic scene of Hannibal Rising). Much of this novel is fascinating and exciting. I could have done without the constant reminders of how attractice the main character is, but her background as a child soldier was gripping and tragic. The primary antagonist, Hans-Peter Schneider, was singular and repulsive in a particularly interesting way and there were all the elements of international crime to keep the plates spinning and the tension taut. As many have mentioned, however, it all feels a bit thinly sketched. I would have loved to see a lot more of this world. The inclusion of a chapter of Red Dragon at the end just made me want to re-read that immediately. The book is gorgeous but since Penguin is doubling down on publishing and promoting fascists and anti-Semites, I don’t plan to throw money their way any time soon.

Georges Simenon - Maigret and the Good People of MontparnasseMAIGRET AND THE GOOD PEOPLE OF MONTPARNASSE
Georges Simenon

Penguin book, too, but as I found it on the shelf at the pub, I didn’t hand any money to them. A particularly good shelf that day, where I had to choose between a few good choices. I am slowly acquainting myself with the Simenon catalogue, though I think there’s something essentially Gallic missing from my sensibilities. I can appreciate Simenon without really liking him. Maybe — after listening to Andy Lawrence talk about them — I need to try some of the romans dur instead. I did enjoy the first part of the biography of the writer, but had to return it to the library when I changed countries again. Shall have to get back to that. I enjoyed this; Simenon’s style is without artifice. I always learn from reading him.

LIBBY
Milt Machlin

I have been obsessing on Libby Holman for a while now. The tragic torch singer inspired the theme song for LOVE IS A GRIFT and the film that we used in the music video. Holman was a huge star on stage, lived life to the fullest, but everything started to go wrong when she married the spoiled heir to a tobacco fortune. He shot himself but local prejudice and anti-Semitism led to Libby being charged with murder (despite her husband having a long history of suicidal tendencies and raging alcoholism). They finally give up on the trial, but from that day things seem to go south. She never quite gets her career back on track and people around her seem to die at an alarming rate — including her bizarre and needy later relationship, Montgomery Clift — and her own sad end. But she left her estate to Connecticut where its natural beauty can be shared by all. Kind of a trashy bio, but a quick read.

SYMPOSIUM
Muriel Spark

I can end on a high note: my god, Spark is a wonder. Is there anyone who can skewer quite so deftly as she? Who can whip together murder, Scots border ballads, eccentric relatives and snarky suburbanites with apparent effortlessness? Margaret worries she has the evil eye, Uncle Magnus has a purple tie, the painter would quite like to paint and not have dinner parties, the mother of the groom wants to give them a Monet even though she rather hates the bride and what’s really up with the servant and his very expensive watch. This is the kind of book where all the unexpected pieces fit together so neatly that when you finish it, it is tempting to re-read it immediately to relish the pleasure of it all. Clever, but not in the way that people usually mean that. Delightful is a better word. Savagely so. Laugh out loud funny, too.

FFB: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith

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I was sure I had written this up before but I searched for it and didn’t find it. This Sphere edition is so much nicer than the bland corporate packaging of the St Martin’s Griffin edition I did end up buying. When you’re on a Highsmith kick and buying everything, the covers are less important (though still proud to own the kickass edition of This Sweet Sickness).

There are two kinds of writers: those who are articulate about the process and those who are not (ditto most arts and artists). Highsmith is not one. If you want a handbook on the topic, this is not the one to teach you. Of course if your publisher offers to pay you to write one, most writers will accept the challenge. But this is not the Highsmith School of Suspense Fiction School, which she recognises. So she turns to the tortured history of her novel The Glass Cell (a good Film for a Friday) in hopes that it will clarify how she does what she does. The case study is so singular that it could hardly be useful in inspiring a budding writer.

Highsmith outlines the evolution of the novel, which ‘was not inspired by any specific story idea but evolved simply out of the desire to write such a book–which is perhaps no bad reason for writing a book’ (chapter 10). She traces the idea from a prisoner’s fan letter (‘I don’t think my books should be in prison libraries’), to reading a book about convicts, to developing intellectual rather than emotional’ threads ‘none of them spectacular’. After that she tries to add some motivation for the characters. A key turns into a dog. What ifs multiply. A wife becomes unfaithful. The first two versions were rejected by her publisher.

‘I thought my story was not bad, but perhaps it could be better. When one thinks this, even faintly, it is best to write it over.’

The interesting part of this book is of course her voice, the anecdotes and the little insights that she may not even realise she’s offering. Speaking of her admiration for Graham Greene Highsmith makes plain her pleasure in reading him. ‘There is no doubt that a study of the whole field of “the best” in suspense writing, whatever that is, can be of benefit professionally to a suspense writer, but I would just as soon not pursue this study.’

Highsmith, in all her ambivalence there — and it’s entertaining.

See all the overlooked gems at Patti Abbott’s blog.

Out Now: The Damp Fedora by Kate Pilarcik

From the same folks who brought you the Anthony Award-winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks, Down & Out Books slings a slang-rich novella from Absolutely*Kate Pilarcik that has tongues wagging around noir shadows. What’s the hubbub, bub?

THE DAMP FEDORA introduces 1940’s detective Nelle Callahan, gal gumshoe with gumption, with a case that struts its stuff like the breeze off a good Narragansett sail. Brisk. Brash. Knowing where the wind’s coming from, and yet … wondering. Nelle’s job? Cut through some slick con’s shadow, lift a corner of chintz off the mist, let some truth shine in for the chippies and the chopper squad — you know — menfolk who measure themselves by how big their tommy guns really are.

I’m diving into it right now and I can say there’s nothing out there quite like it. Fans of the genre will get a kick out of the style as Nelle sashays around the town. Check out the deets here and tell ’em I sent you.

Occult Crime: The Dain Curse

In Satan’s Sorority, I wanted to explore the idea of crime that uses occult connections even if there’s nothing supernatural happening (it’s open to interpretation, of course — the characters certainly believe something diabolical occurs). Admittedly my forthcoming story Elf Prefix, which again mixes up crime and the occult, is a little more beyond acceptable reality, but I’m interested in the ways the occult has been used to cover up or shield crime.

You don’t think of Dashiell Hammett as a ‘fantasy’ writer, though he did pen a short supernatural tale of a magician and his assistant (‘Magic’). But he was aware of how the occult could be used to con people — he was always interested in how people manipulated one another. After all, many cults are just a way to swindle folks — another big con.

The Dain Curse has a fascinating occult motif in the middle of it. California has long been the hotbed of strange cults so it’s not surprising the Continental Op would run up against one. The Temple of the Holy Grail supposedly resurrects a sort of druidic practice of Arthur’s Britain. While guarding Gabrielle Leggett, inheritor of the curse, the Op discovers her blood-soaked with a dagger in her hands, confessing to murder.

Entering the temple itself through a ‘small iron door’ he sees ‘dim stars in a night sky’ as they walk over ‘a floor of white marble, or pentagonal tiles that imitated white marble…The light glittered and glistened on a wide altar of brilliant white, crystal and silver.’ The victim lay upon the steps pooling blood.

Later as the Op tries to protect Leggett in her room, he’s aware of the persistent smell of dead flowers intensifying. Then he sees something weird:

Not more than three feet away, there in the black room, a pale bright thing like a body, but not like flesh, stood writhing before me. It was tall, yet not so tall as it seemed, because it didn’t stand on the floor, but hovered with its feet a foot or more above the floor. Its feet—it had feet, but I don’t know what their shape was. They had no shape, just as the thing’s legs and torso, arms, and hands, head and face, had no shape, no fixed form. They writhed, swelling and contracting, stretching and shrinking, not greatly, but without pause.

The Op figures things out eventually–and as you might suspect, the cause of the seemingly supernatural vision has a lot to do with the strange smell and suggestibility, but it’s worthwhile thinking about how even the hard-nosed Op can be thrown off kilter by what appears to be inexplicable. You might breathe a sign of relief when the Scooby-Do ending gets revealed, but for a time even the hard-boiled reader might be willing to suspend disbelief for a time.

See all the overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s blog.

 

FFB: Saturday Night & Sunday Morning

saturday-night-sunday-morning-alan-sillitoe-paperback-cover-artBack in 1980, my modern British literature course at Regents College introduced me to Alan Sillitoe, forever giving me a Northern bias, I think. I re-read this on the train to London and found it just as compelling as ever, though I think age adds at least a little empathy that I didn’t feel back then. When you’re 18 it reads like a tragedy: they’ll grind you down eventually, those bastards. From the perspective of age, you realise eventually you want more than perpetually kicking against the pricks: you want to win. So you find other ways to fight.

Or so I tell myself.

I could quote endlessly from this book: Sillitoe has a sharp observant eye. There’s little in the way of showing off here, he just says everything right and from a perspective that’s spot on, though there’s a soaring beauty to his descriptions of everything from the run down neighbourhoods to the cacophony of the factory. The opening paragraph of Arthur’s drunken fall down the stairs is hard to top, but that’s only the beginning of course. He’s lies not out of habit but out of a desire to reshape reality according to his whimsy. ‘It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken’ but his only attack is wringing the most he can from the system that exists. ‘Liars don’t prosper’ his lover warns him, but Arthur is determined to prove that they do.

‘With the wages you got you could save up for a motor-bike or even an old car, or you could go on a ten-day binge and get rid of all you’d saved. Because it was no use saving your money year after year. A mug’s game, since the value of it got less and less and in any case you never knew when the Yanks were going to do something daft like dropping the H-bomb on Moscow.’

‘Make a woman enjoy being in bed with you–that’s a big part of the battle–then you were well on your way to keeping her with you for good.’

‘The more he talked the less he noticed the noise, and they sat in a magic ring of quiet speech that no disturbance could enter.’

‘Not that he minded them drinking his stout. He expected it from Nottingham women who, he told himself, were cheeky-daft, and thought so much of themselves that they would drink your ale whether they liked your company or not.’

Check out all the neglected reads at Patti Abbott’s blog.

Review: Cold London Blues

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COLD LONDON BLUES
Paul D. Brazill
Caffeine Nights Press

I know: you’ll be shocked to hear that I loved this. I’ve been champing the bit waiting for this book to drop because there are few writers who genuinely entertain as much as Brazill. And this is no exception.

If you’ve read Guns of Brixton, you’ll recognise some of the folks here. The tune has changed from the Clash to the inimitable Vic Godard and this offers the chance to slip in a little — dare I say it? — poetry between the mayhem. There’s a confidence here that allows some audacity. The first line: ‘The morning that Father Tim Cook killed Aldo Calvino the air tasted like lead and the sky was gun-metal grey.’ Mood and mayhem plonk down on a bar stool next to you. You’re not going anywhere until you find out how it all shakes out.

As always it’s laugh out loud funny between bouts of wincingly painful chaos brought on by characters who are as unlikely as they are vivid: gangsters who are feeling their age, hitmen who miss, hoods who want to go straight, and an actor so far up his own arse he thinks he’s god — or maybe just Batman.

I love the expansion of the Brazill world: both the London stories and the Seatown tales feed into the history of Cold London Blues. You don’t need to have read all his other books but it helps. There’s a mad world of lowlifes, cops and random walk-ons — no innocents though. Everyone has their demons — but they’ve got music too.

And I love the idea of the Roman Dalton P.I. series: TV people, make it so!

Some quotes (I’ll try not to post everything): just go buy it now.

A face so lived-in squatters wouldn’t stay there, as his old gran would have said.

Tim wasn’t sure when it was that domestic drudgery like cooking and gardening had become elevated to the level of the works of Beethoven and Chaucer but it was another sign of what was wrong with the modern world, the country.

‘Consistency is the city hobgoblin of little minds.’

‘If you gaze into the abyss’ said Marty, with a lop-sided smirk. ‘The abyss also gazes … and sometimes winks at you and blows you a kiss.’

The winter night bit like a savage beast.

A murder of crows scattered and sliced across the white moon, as the purr of an approaching Mercedes grew to a roar.

‘I blame America for it … well, I blame America for everything …The United States of America is a cancer. A poisonous virus that has fatally infected its host’…‘They say you shouldn’t make your home on an Indian burial ground but when you think about it, the whole of the United States is a bleedin Indian burial ground. Think about it.’

Marty hated high places. He got vertigo in thick socks.

FFB: The James Bond Dossier by Kingsley Amis

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Among the vintage Bond titles where I’m house-sitting, I found this volume which I had actually forgotten about. Signet packaged it the same as Fleming’s originals so they make a nice set.

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‘As a recently retired university teacher, I can’t help being slightly drawn by any form of writing that (like science fiction) reaches no part of its audience through compulsion. One volunteer is worth ten pressed men.’ Amis is a fan and it shows in his being most delightful and on his best behaviour throughout.

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I love the implication of sexy revelations — including the advert for Jan Cremer’s ‘scandalous’ tell-all of his sexual escapades.

The ToC promises more of the same; Amis sneaks in some Spillane for the Appendix on Sadism.

The ToC promises more of the same; Amis sneaks in some Spillane for the Appendix on Sadism.

Perhaps the best line in the book, which I like to quote ad infinitum, though I’d forgotten where I first got it, is ‘All literature is escapist.’

See all the overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s round-up.

Now Reading: Satanic Panic

I helped fund this volume and it’s chock full of all kinds of material. Though mainly US-centric it hops the pond to for a chapter on the UK version intertwined with the hand-wringing over the video nasties and how Genesis P-Orridge was driven out of the country for a time, as well as heading down to Australia to look at the career of artist Rosaleen Norton.
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It’ll be handy for musing about the sequel to Satan’s Sorority!

Tramps Like Us

Somehow Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run is forty years old. This Atlantic piece gets to the heart of why his music hit so hard at the time, once he stopped trying to be too Dylan for Dylan (not that I minded that). The first song of his that made me a fan was ‘Rosalita’ because of its buoyant hope, I think, but the music that stays with me — and made the music for a time, too hard to listen to — is that period where he really hit his stride.

Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River captured the small town America I knew all too well as a kid. Zeitz mentions the 1970 strike against General Motors (in my town, most people worked for GM like my dad or they worked for Fisher Body like my cousins). I didn’t realise how well I remembered that time. My dad going off to the picket lines, my mom packing his lunchbox extra times. The tension because money was extra tight; my dad finally moonlighted at Knapp’s the local department store to get money for Xmas gifts.

Shiftwork affects more than just sleep. I recall us kids watching scary shows with my mom when my dad was working nights. The night the bat got in the house and we all stood out on the lawn in our pajamas watching it swirl around the light in my parent’s room. My mom had been so startled she got out the bedroom and closed the door, locking the dog who was her shadow inside, whimpering.

When I hear certain Springsteen songs, I am transported instantly to my teen self, staring out the window in the kitchen as I did the washing up and terrified I would be trapped in that town forever. I was filled with such desperation I understood why people did foolish things in hopes of getting out. At times I felt my foolishness rising to dangerous levels.

When I first got out — all the way to Los Angeles, just like in ‘Rosalita’ — I felt so recklessly free. But it’s not a thing you can shake off entirely, that fear. First ‘payment’ I ever got for writing was a 50 word essay about why I should get to go see Springsteen with the editor of the student paper. He told me later most of the entries were thinly veiled come-ons. I almost didn’t enter, but my boss made me go out on my break at the campus store and write something. 50 words about desperation and how his music gave it voice.

The song that decided to pop into my head while I read this piece is not one of my faves. ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ always rubbed me the wrong way. I realise now it’s an ice pick right into my anger. The desperation, the longing, the fear: they were acceptable. The anger was not.

In the darkness of your room your mother calls you by your true name
You remember the faces, the places, the names
You know it’s never over, it’s relentless as the rain

Here’s to getting out.