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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.
I blame Carol at the Cultural Gutter for kicking me off onto this tangent. To my film shame, I had not ever sat down to watch the entirety of Fritz Lang’s classic crime film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. As an academic, I am of course always in search of ways to supplement my paltry pay so I joked about turning to hypnosis or tarot or even advertising, as well as crime.
‘Why not combine them all, Mabuse style?’
She was right as usual. Put all my esoteric and criminal arts to use as a mastermind behind capers of a nefarious nature: genius! Only in fiction, surely! First I needed to sit down and enjoy Lang’s masterpiece of expressionist cinema, collaborating with his talented wife Thea von Harbou, who adapted one of Norbert Jacques‘ unfinished novels on the shadowy figure (yes, I’ve got to read the novels, too).
There’s just so much good here, even if you’re not contemplating a life of crime. Secret hideouts, nefarious plans, dapper grifters, glass alligators — and a medical school (in 1933) more diverse than many top ones are now. Cool special effects, too. So here’s a bunch of images to give you a reason to watch the film, too. Helps if you have the Criterion Channel or Kanopy. Click the images to embiggen. I’m going to work on my hypnotic stare now.
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.
MAIGRET AND THE GOOD PEOPLE OF MONTPARNASSE
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.
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.
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.
After something of a dry spell I have a new short story out at Punk Noir Magazine, the DIY collective of writers and artists who just can’t (won’t) fit the mainstream. I suppose in the midst of promoting LOVE IS A GRIFT it’s absurd to say ‘dry spell’ but it was weird to realise that I hadn’t published a new short story since last year.
It’s been a weird year, but I think I’m back in the land of the living — though the landscape has changed.
‘Funny Little Frog’ of course was inspired in part by Belle & Sebastian’s song of the same title, which is a heartbreaking little tale of its own. I’m grateful to Mr B for poking me to actually listen to it. Forever on the brain jukebox now:
For a very short story, I managed to fit in another song reference:
But wait, there’s more (as the old advertisements say)! I fit a third reference in there because why write when you can steal?
Yeah, you might better know Elvis or Sir Tom but this is the first version I knew. Every note of this LP is seared on my memory. And I have duly added these songs to the list of Inspirations: Songs that Spawned Stories.
See, they’re not all Fall songs…
This is modern, fast-paced, hard-hitting neo-noir doing exactly what it’s supposed to do and doing it remarkably well.
Thanks! Every review helps. Sometimes it wins a prize.
I’m taking part in one of the roundtables over at The Big Thrill this week. The topic is:
Drop by and offer your opinion and see what the other have to say.
How much do you write? Every day? Only on weekends? When the mood strikes?
Check out my interview in The Big Thrill newsletter, too.
Don’t forget: the big LOVE IS A GRIFT gift package is awaiting someone who reviews the book. Enter to win!
Check it! A super prize package that includes an XL t-shirt, travel mug, notebook, and sticker all emblazoned with S. L. Johnson’s wicked cool cover design for LOVE IS A GRIFT plus a free download of Victoria Squid’s theme song for the book. What do you have to do to win?
UK folks! We have two paperback copies of LOVE IS A GRIFT and we’re giving them away on the Fox Spirit Books Farcebook Page. Go over there hit like (and why not like my page, too?!) then comment on the pinned post that you want it!
That’s it! Prizes drawn — probably by cats — on Tuesday April 23rd. And if you get a freebie, you’re going to review it, right? Because that’ll put you into the running for giveaway #3…