Catch-Up Reviews

I have actually read some books lately, which seems such a novelty. Well, I’m always reading books, but for the whole of this shit year of lockdown I’ve often found it difficult to finish them even if I am enjoying them. I’ll be re-reading a bunch of books as I’m teaching the Killer Women course again (and fending off non-stop requests to over-enroll it, too). Maybe I’ll post about that collection of novels later. And there’s Highsmith’s 100 birthday next week. In the mean time:

CONVICTION
Denise Mina

This is a thrill ride that just doesn’t stop. It packs events plucked from the headlines with the non-stop craziness of social media, the weird exclusive life of the rich, a reclusive ex-pop star, eating disorders, jetting around Europe (ha, that’ll date it now, eh Brexiteers), hauntology (!), and the coldest killer imaginable. As usual Mina knits it all together with humour and effortlessly efficient prose. Don’t start reading this late at night — start in the morning so you can be sure to finish it.

CURIOUS TOYS
Elizabeth Hand

Liz has been obsessing about Henry Darger for years. I recall a talk she gave on him and other ‘outsider artists at ICFA in the 90s or early noughties. But it was her mom who suggested putting him into a book as a detective. This book is just stuffed with the careful research she did of the era — don’t let that scare you off: it’s seamlessly knit together — including the amusement park where much of the action takes place. There’s also the nascent movie company through which Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery and other luminaries pass like the ambitious Glory, who wants to be an opera singer but making pictures pays better. She dazzles Pin, the girl who’s hiding as a boy and carrying the grief of a murdered sister along with some other heavy loads (also a dawning realisation about her own sexuality).

While Pin is the main anchor of the narrative, chapter to chapter we follow along other character, including the former cop/whistleblower who’s now security at the park and Darger himself, who thinks like he writes. There’s all the amusement park folk, some of whom are based on historic figures: Clyde, the black magician, Max & Maxene the ‘She Male’ and Pin’s mother who is a fortune teller. Then there’s the ride Hell’s Gate where the first murder takes place.

An ambitious weave of storylines with wildly different voices, but Hand makes it all work.

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.