FFB: People Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith

9780349004976-usI started reading this on a transatlantic flight thinking I would be able to nod off get a little sleep. But it’s Highsmith, so of course I finally had to force myself to close the book so I could sleep a little. As Sarah Hilary’s astute introduction spells it out, ‘Her great skill was to make us, dear readers, complicit….Highsmith, let’s face it, is addictive.’

I’m not sure there’s a ‘typical’ Highsmith, but this one’s definitely an outlier. For one thing the protagonist is a high school kid. Written in the midst of the rise of the so-called Moral Majority in the Reagan years, her contempt is palpable for the grubby little hypocrites who trumpet ‘morality’ whilst using religion as a club to batter down any dissent.

But it doesn’t at once seem like a ‘crime’ novel. After a while I stopped waiting for something ‘criminal’ to happen and just settled in to the life of Arthur Alderman (oh, what a name) in a seemingly idyllic Midwestern town where everyone is a specifically odd reality and the sinister march of darkness creeps through the niceness everyone desperately struggles to maintain.

That unease: that’s Highsmith. That’s the art I struggle to put a finger on. How easily, how pervasively she develops it. I need to study her more closely. It feels effortless, but it’s got to be so carefully built. Into the maelstrom of religious tension, abortion controversies, money matters and always intimations of ‘morality’ that slowly drive a wedge into the ‘perfect’ family.

You always knew they were not perfect. But when it all explodes, it’s still a shock.

Her racism is much more on show here. Highsmith makes it a part of the small town outlook, a nodding us vs them mentality. The mindset that Arthur struggles against, both with his father’s closing mind after his ‘born again’ moment and with the ‘why not just settle’ message he gets from almost everyone else.

He comes to a conclusion, a philosophy that seems to finally bring him peace:

Take life as it comes. Enjoy and be grateful. Not grateful to God, but to luck and chance. Tread carefully, speak carefully, hang onto what you’ve got. Be polite to what you’ve got.

Of course that’s when, as they say, all hell breaks loose. Of course, this is Highsmith country.

Discover your new reads at Patti’s round up of overlooked tomes.

 

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.

Advance Praise for Satan’s Sorority

“Sometimes when I read a book I find a single line sums it up perfectly. The poets often claimed that death wore a mask, but they never said it wore a sorority pin…For those more learned than me there are plenty of literary and occult references in this story.  Putting a twist on Goethe’s famous character by making it female was interesting and also made the ending more surprising for me.”

Tony Lane

“Having read some of Wynd’s shorter fiction I had a good idea what to expect.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Dark humour, the occult, loss of innocence and sex are all themes…it’s a thumping good read.”

Daz’s Reviews

Daz liked it so much, he recorded an excerpt! Listen here (and check out his other readings).

Out October 13th from:

Number 13

Classic Crime: William McIlvanney – Laidlaw


LAIDLAW
William McIlvanney
1977

From its almost surreal opening McIlvanney’s Laidlaw grips the reader.  That first short chapter follows the frantic movements of a young murderer as he tries to find a place to hide. Told in second person, it offers an intimacy and yet an almost god-like insight into the tumbling thoughts of the killer. It’s breathtaking in its effectiveness, immersing the readers in vivid images but leaving them unable to understand how to connect them.

It comes as a bit of a relief to begin the next chapter in a more typical fashion, returning to the more neutral third person narrative and the now-familiar jaded cop — the beginnings of 70s cynicism. Laidlaw offers the prototype for so many iterations that followed. He’s not just the detective who’s ‘seen too much’; Laidlaw is permanently out of step with the human race.

Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him.

He’s not just consumed by his job; it’s a kind of existential ache that permeates every part of his being — and makes his pursuit of criminals unconventional yet very effective.

He was a potentially violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, an active man who longed for understanding. He was tempted to unlock the drawer in his desk where he kept Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol.

His departmental rival, Milligan, reflects everything he hates: certainty, arrogance, and violence. They’re like oil and water and we see a lot of the clashes through the eyes of Harkness, the ambitious young detective who alternates between confusion, admiration and impatience dealing with his new partner.

McIlvanney slips between a variety of characters with ease, showing the world from the point of view of the parents whose daughter is missing, gangsters, and petty criminals. But Laidlaw remains at the center tying together all the disparate threads because he allows himself to see them.

I’ll end with one long quote that really captures the spirit of this excellent book which feels entirely contemporary. It comes after Laidlaw gets yet another dressing down from his boss:

They had these confrontations several times and always Frederick was at least as understanding as you could expect him to be, and always Laidlaw finished up depressed. The pair of them had the art of conjuring hopelessness together. They had managed it again. But at least Laidlaw had the melancholy satisfaction of feeling that he understood why, a little more clearly. Listening to Frederick’s advice, he had thought again of how much he disliked that room, the deodorised furnishings, the uncluttered desk, the smiling photograph, the ashtray never used. It was like a shrine to a God he didn’t believe in. It was the God of categories.

Good stuff: highly recommended.

Reading Noir Nation 3

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Making my way through Noir Nation 3 — loving all the mehndi and tattoo art (of course), and the stories are terrific. Just read Richard Godwin‘s creepy little roadside tale, “Tattooed Highway” and if you don’t have much time, try “Two Stories Under 100 Words” by Bianca Bellová.

Eddie says issue 4 will be not long away — and you know you can get it in print, too?