FFB: Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

41jcpvzb2ml-sx160-sy160I’m not sure why I always had it stuck in my mind that there were four books in the Ripliad. The fifth and final (thought I have an idea for a sixth, oh estate of esteemed writer) is Ripley Under Water. Released in 1991 more than a decade after The Boy Who Followed Ripley (which deserves a post of its own at some point — so much to dissect there…noting that down for yet another future project I guess: a long consideration of the Ripliad in my abundant free time), the novel has a distinctly different feel to it. No surprise, there. Much had changed in the meantime, especially going back all the way to the original novel in 1955.

Clearly Highsmith loves Ripley just as much thirty five years later. All of her sympathy is with him and concealing his crimes. She allows him to meditate on subjects near to heart (‘Were women masochists? Did that make sense? Child-birth, a stoic tolerance of pain?’). In our world of doxxing and trolling, Ripley Under Water has additional resonances. After making a successful life for himself with all the trappings of wealth he’s always wanted, achieved with really very few murders he thinks, Ripley is suddenly beset by the horror of Americans with wealth, some random facts and a grinding air of self-righteous belligerence.

In short, he has terrible new neighbours. They play loud music, they photograph his house, and they start to blackmail him about his two most important murders. The sanctuary that the little village of Villeperce offers and the fortress of Belle Ombre are besieged by Janice and David Pritchard, who seem to embody every ugly thing about Tom’s homeland — all he has sought to leave behind. His own life is a careful veneer of appearances, so it’s easy to threaten. He cannot comprehend this pair: after they exchange mock blows,

They played little games, Tom saw. And made it up in bed? Unpleasant to contemplate.

Like the toxic fans who stalk celebrities, they pingpong between wanting to befriend him and wanting to expose him. Their insistence on digging up the past unsettles the careful web of lies and deceit that Ripley has built into comfort. They threaten to unravel everything.

Sometimes his imagination was as clear as a remembered experience. And some remembered experiences faded, he supposed, such as that of killing Dickie, Murchison, even the couple of well-fed Mafia members around whose throat he had pulled a garrotte…There was indeed a screen between facts and memory, Tom realised, though he could not have given it a name. He could, of course, he thought a few seconds later, and it was self-preservation.

It’s impossible not to wonder if Highsmith gave herself the same out. She gives him musings that seem to carry the author’s own. Ripley reads Ellman’s excellent biography of Oscar Wilde, which he sums up as,

a man of goodwill, of talent, whose gifts to human pleasure remained considerable, had been attacked and brought low by the vindictiveness of hoi polloi, who had taken sadistic pleasure in watching Oscar brought low.

She then has Tom compare Oscar to Christ, with poetry, then returns to thoughts of his own persecution by the Pritchards (Highsmith has hilariously petty fun with Tom’s wife Héloïse and the other French folks mangling their name). Pritchard has too much money and too much time on his hand and too much bile. He relentlessly hunts the waterways for a body he suspects Tom has discarded.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this book is that Tom, the eternal loner, finally makes use of the friendships he has built as part of his camouflage. Flummoxed by this perverse persecution, he discovers the value of community and almost seems to take an unexpected pleasure in it. Highsmith wraps up this improbable story in a grotesque, bizarre and hilarious way — which I suppose is the only way she could end it. Don’t worry: Tom is still up to his tricks right to the last page.

See all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

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FFB: The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

9780140101171-uk-300I suppose it’s hard to make a case for it being ‘forgotten’ but considering the 2014 film likewise faded away without much fanfare, perhaps this novel has been overlooked as well. Yet it’s of a piece with all of Highsmith’s work, which of course means it sinks its hooks into you and you keep turning the pages to find out where it could possibly go.

I woke up with Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ in my head which was my subconscious at work as usual. The love/hate relations of parents and children often figure in her books (no surprise). It’s key to this one and the relationship between the two male characters: the conman Chester MacFarland and the wanna-be poet Rydal Keener. Colette MacFarland is sexual allure and all the problems it causes. She reminds Keener (what a name, eh?) of his adolescent love for his cousin Agnes — a situation that divided his family and set him on the path to reform school, shaming his Harvard professor father.

He notices MacFarland because he strikingly resembles his father, whose funeral he’s recently missed by staying in Athens. Keener helps the pair conceal a body and then they’re friends — maybe. Because maybe Keener’s really after Colette and maybe MacFarland isn’t the father figure he sometimes thinks. Of course Highsmith is delightful in detailing MacFarland’s elaborate Ponsi schemes and his habits to maintain the various faces he shows the world.

When violence comes, like a lot of Highsmith, it’s sudden, brutal and stunning. Things unravel and so quickly, so strangely — the paranoia of the characters is completely understandable. The POV shifts between chapters. Highsmith, as always, masterfully manages to give you all the information from very different slants. It’s genuinely surprising right up to the end when you think, well this is how it has to go. Good stuff.

Check out the other overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

FFB: Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter

carter_3_collage_1527285657After reading this fabulous write up on Charlotte Carter by Michael Gonzales, I knew I had to give her a try. Rhode Island Red arrived promptly — one advantage of Carter having a greater following in the UK than in the US, I guess.

41p84k7b6wl-sx160-sy160From the get-go this a book that will drag you along. With chapter titles looted from Thelonius Monk and a voice that’s both knowing, mordant and a little too hopeful, Nanette will keep you reading. I’m one of those readers for whom voice will keep me engaged in a way that clever plotting and intricate detail will not. Carter has a great skill for making the story jump into action right from the start , of filling in the life of the characters without ever giving way to boring exposition. Every one is so vivid through Nanette’s eyes — and so is the NYC that no longer exists, one that was just starting to be gentrified and was still full of life and art.

Nanette is the kind of character that offers richness for crime writing. Insatiably curious, sexy and confident, she’s also smart without always being wise. She has the habit of many clever people of assuming they’ll know when things are getting bad and that they’re always ahead of the game — and suffer doubly when they’re wrong because they ought to have known better. It’s to Carter’s credit that she shows us all the clues but being on Nanette’s side, we might just as well misinterpret them.

The mystery is tied up in cops, criminals and of course music. Nanette is musician, though she doesn’t think much of her abilities it is what she lives for. The uncanny lure of a melody is something she can’t resist. And like a lot of imaginative people, she has a tendency to believe what she wants to believe. Yet there’s a frank evaluation of contemporary racism that permeates the city — especially the police. The matter-of-fact way Nanette negotiates it chills. It’s a simple matter of life and death that she faces daily.

Why no one has optioned this for a film I don’t know. Her pal Aubrey alone should be enough to get some execs in a lather. Nanette is a great character with such a distinctive voice — I’m going to be reading more. I’ll leave you with one quote that took me by surprise, late in the novel. So steeped in jazz is this book, that Nanette pulling out some Satie, told me something — connected to her love for Paris, but also the complexity and wide-ranging curiosity she has. Never assume.

I put on some Erik Satie, for a change of pace from the Billie songs to commit suicide by, a change from the junk-sick Parker ballads and the post desolation Bill Evans stuff. It’s funny how heartbreaking Satie can be, and at the same time soothing, focusing, And then he’ll go off on one of those surrealist tangents, where he sounds like a spoiled brat having a tantrum, or the inside of a mad trolley conductor’s head. He was one weird looking man, Satie. I think I probably would have had a lot of fun with him.

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

FFB: Build My Gallows High

buildmygallowshigh-illusbyharrybarton-1BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH
Geoffrey Homes (1946)

Probably best known as the text for Out of the Past, the classic noir film with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas (and how much better a title is the book than that?), this novel written under a pseudonym by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who also worked on the script for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and dozens of others, has much less cultural currency than the film it led to (I’d forgotten Against All Odds was a remake: I just cringe automatically on hearing in my head the Phil Collins theme song).

It’s a tight little book that feels very much like an adapted screenplay. There’s no wasted words in this slim volume though it fleshes out the backstory of the novel quite a bit more. The action pretty much hurls through the events non-stop. Nonetheless Homes/Mainwaring offers some moments worth lingering over, throwing in scraps of poetry (‘When I am dead and over me bright April shakes down her rain-drenched hair’) and some description that offers a bit of poetry of its own:

Lloyd Eels was a tall man who hadn’t come off the assembly line.Somebody had found some spare parts lying around and had put them together carelessly, not bothering to get the bolts tight so that they seemed almost ready to come apart. He had black, sad eyes and a black mustache like an untrimmed hedge. No amount of combing would help his shock of hair.

‘You’re getting fat,’ Red said. ‘It doesn’t become you.’
‘You come up here to tell me that?’
‘No, I hate to see a man let himself go. They’ll get you back in shape in Alcatraz.’
‘Always the jester,’ Whit said acidly.
‘But the cap is getting pretty shabby and the bells lose their merry tinkle.’

Jim Caldwell’s eyes saw nothing in the drab domestic scene to wonder at, nothing to make him consider even momentarily the thought that people got old and people took each other for granted and presently there was no magic in the world. Jesus, she was beautiful standing under the hard, white light, her head tilted a little, her cheeks flushed, her dark eyes full of stars.

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

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.

Guest Post: Patti Abbott

Shot in DetroitI’m happy to host Patti Abbott today to talk a little bit about the writing process behind her second novel SHOT IN DETROIT. The book has been generating a lot of buzz, building on the fine reputation of CONCRETE ANGEL.

BLURB: Violet Hart is a photographer who has always returned to cobble out a life for herself in the oddly womblike interiors of Detroit. Nearing forty, she’s keenly aware that the time for artistic recognition is running out. When her lover, Bill, a Detroit mortician, needs a photograph of a body, she agrees to takes the picture. It’s an artistic success and Violet is energized by the subject matter, persuading Bill to allow her to take pictures of some of his other “clients,” eventually settling on photographing young, black men.

When Violet’s new portfolio is launched, she quickly strikes a deal, agreeing to produce a dozen pictures with a short deadline, confident because dead bodies are commonplace in Detroit and she has access to the city’s most prominent mortician. These demands soon place Violet in the position of having to strain to meet her quota.

As time runs out, how will Violet come up with enough subjects to photograph without losing her soul or her life in the process? A riveting novel of psychological suspense, Patricia Abbott continues to cement herself as one of our very best writers of the darkness that lies within the human heart

Do you consider genre when you write? Did you write SHOT IN DETROIT as a crime novel? How about CONCRETE ANGEL?

I lack calculation, or perhaps better phrased as control, which is probably a bad thing for someone trying to find success in writing. I am a pantser rather than a planner. And when I sent Shot out for the first time (it was initially titled Raising the Dead) the very kind editor who agreed to read it, said, “My God, woman, forty pages have gone by without a body?” This was from Hard Case Crime and I clearly did not understand the demands of that genre. The body count in the their books is high and the bodies fall quickly. I should have been aware of it after reading many of their books. I should have calculated or exercised control over what I needed to succeed with them. But instead I went merrily along writing the book that I seemed to only work out on a subconscious level.

And as someone who does little planning or outlining, I also never think, “Hey, it’s time for another murder.” It may happen, but I never planned it. I am as surprised as a reader might be when it does, wondering when my character came up with that idea. When did he get so angry?

Getting back to the question of genre, when and how does a story find its way into genre fiction? If there is any murder at all in a novel, is it then crime fiction? Well, that would widen the gates considerably. We’d have to usher in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, THERESE RAQUIN. I would instead say that crime cannot be incidental to the plot in genre fiction. It has to be the focus of it. What we are most interested in, maybe even to the diminishment of character.

With Mr. Ardai’s critique in mind, I decided to begin the second novel, CONCRETE ANGEL, with a murder. But it’s a bit of a cheat because Eve Moran is not your typical murderer, and her first and only murder was an accident. But throughout the book she engages in most other crimes. A crime novel? I was not sure and called it domestic suspense. In many ways, her crimes are the result of mental illness. And if I was able to control or even outline a novel, I probably would have added another murder along the way. Her father might have made a good victim. Her husband?

Shot in Detroit veers even further from the definition of genre. We are not much interested in who killed the people who die in the book. Hopefully we are interested instead in what being around murder or death, in even being invested in it as a photographer, does to a woman like Violet Hart. How it both softens and hardens her over six months. But if twelve men die, it can rest easily on the shelves of crime fiction for me.

So have I written two genre novels? Are both crime novels? I would say yes.

Visit Patti’s blog for all kinds of interesting discussion, including her weekly round-up of Friday’s Forgotten Books.