Review: Too Many Crooks by Paul D. Brazill

too-many-crooksToo Many Crooks
Paul D. Brazill
Near to the Knuckle Novella #7

I’m pretty much an easy mark when it comes to Mr B, as you’re doubtless already aware if you’ve read my enthusiastic reviews for his other publications. But I love writers I can count on (see also Liz Hand, the Abbotts, Tess Makovesky and some others I could name but why inflate all those egos?).

Too Many Crooks hits some of the familiar territory: colourful low lifes spread across Europe from Britain to Poland and points in between, salty language, implausible schemes and cataclysmic coincidences. It also has callbacks to other tales he’s written (fun if you know them, interesting hooks if you don’t).

But there’s something more in the wild kinetic machinations: dare I say a touch of the poetic? A lot of mad laugh out loud moments — the Mad Jaffa Cake Eater, a pruney face was so lived in squatters wouldn’t stay there, a Slippery Pole — and a whole bunch of references to classic punk tunes and venerable comedies, not to mention Fall lyrics.

You’d expect no less than offhand Carry On lines and knowing music choices for every mood. There’s a lot more, too:

He was also the world’s leading authority on the Klingon language, apparently and used speaking in Klingon as part of his radical therapy. Hattie had told him she wasn’t interested and had never seen Star Wars and he’d glared at her.

“If you haven’t made a fool of yourself at least once in your life, you haven’t lived,” said Anna.
“Oh, well, if that’s true, I’ve lived more lives than a cat, then,” said McGuffin.

He watched Leslie leave the café and put up her umbrella, which flapped in the wind like a black crow.

He was hungover from a bad dream, or maybe a bad life.

The old grandfather clock had just struck thirteen.

Obviously I could go on and on. Just the audacity of naming a primary character McGuffin (snort!). Get it. You need the laughs. Because all orange clowns should be fictional.

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.

 

2016 Books: Round-Up

I’m woefully behind on reviews, having more or less come to the conclusion that I will never catch up and therefore must stop agreeing to try. Here are a few in brief that I can’t help mentioning.

IT’S ALL TRUE (ALTHOUGH IT MAY NOT HAVE HAPPENED): Bratkovič has a collection of stories that offers a noir take with a lot of mordant humour. His protagonists usually manage to cock things up through their best efforts to succeed and by wanting more than their abilities can produce. My favourite is probably ‘The Tribe’ in which a messianic leader wreaks havoc in a mental institution. ‘The Tie’ and ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ make the most of the blackest of black humour. Check it out.

BUFFALO AND SOUR MASH: Richard Godwin, known best for his sleek and sexy thrillers tries something new here: a Western! Well, sort of a western because the rodeo comes to Surrey. Now if that doesn’t already intrigue you, there’s also his usual mix of psychotic violence and sexual obsession as well. Murphy has a single-minded plan to bring the rodeo to the UK until he finds a new obsession to get racy Rhona to be its star — but Rhonda has plans of her own. If you like Godwin’s style, you’ll be intrigued by his appropriation of the western.

DARK MINDS: I’m only a few stories into this collection but I wholeheartedly recommend it. Solid quality and a good cause: All profits from the sale of this book will be donated to Hospice UK and Sophie’s Appeal. There are forty authors here, some the top of the field, many are exciting newcomers (and yeah, folks I know but then I only hang out with quality). In hard times we turn to crime: at least keep it fictional, right? Because we have enough crime to deal with in the government 😉

RAISE THE BLADE: Tess had a fab story in an anthology I edited so I was really pleased to see her publish a novella with Caffeine Nights. Then I decided to save it up for when I could savour it — and forgot! So I’ve cracked it open and it’s just as terrific as I knew it would be. In fact it’s been hard to tear myself away from it to do the things I need to be doing, but I highly recommend it. Tess has a great style that’s deceptively easy-going until WHAM! Pick this up.

Jude Cowan Montague: Winter Hill Sings

From Linear Obsessional Recordings, a seasonal treat that resonates. The CD is long sold out but you can download it for free.

For the first release of 2013, Linear Obsessional is delighted to present a radical new EP by Jude Cowan Montague.

“Winter Hill Sings” is a collection of short multi-tracked vocal works informed by folk singing and hill walking. The accompanying PDF booklet includes new texts, poetry and artwork by Jude.

credits

released January 26, 2013

Recorded by Brian O’Shaughnessy at Bark Studios, Walthamstow in 2012.
Jude Cowan Montague: Voice and instruments
(double bass, phono-fiddle, percussion)
All songs by Jude Cowan Montague & Trad

Adaptation: The Handmaiden & Nocturnal Animals

220px-the_handmaiden_filmTwo films I caught recently in a fit of end-of-term madness (when I ought to have been grading) were both adapted from novels. As I’m thinking of adapting a couple of my things into scripts, I’ve been musing on the technique involved.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a twisty-turny tale that from the start tells you that things are not what they seem. Sook-Hee, daughter of a family of thieves has been hired by a con man masquerading as ‘Count Fujiwara’ to work for Lady Hideko, the heir of huge fortune, kept more or less prisoner by her uncle, the creepy Kouzuki. The plan is for Sook-Hee to use her intimate position to sway the twitchy lady to romance with the fake count, but to her surprise, Sook-Hee begins to feel first protective of her lady and then unexpectedly to feel something much stronger.

I thought I’d had a plot twist spoiled for me but there was so much more going on that I was captivated the whole way by the layers exposed. Yes, Park’s male gaze leers at the lesbian sex a little too obviously, but Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are so magnificent and joyful that they are magnetic. It made me want to go read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith which ought to be the point. And to see the film again. Gorgeous. Dark.

nocturnal_animals_posterTom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been repeatedly called noir, so let me tell you: it’s not noir though it traffics in some of its trappings. It shocks at the start with indelible images that offer a great litmus test: I’ve heard people call them disgusting. I thought they were mesmerising and beautiful. However, since the movie begins by telling us how jaded Susan (Amy Adams) is about crap art, I guess we’re supposed to hate it. The ‘art is horrible’ subtext is completely undone by Ford making everything look beautiful and sad. I actually found a new appreciation for works like Koons’ balloon dog (was that the one recently broken?) which suddenly looked like a fragile attempt to hold onto a childhood happiness, or Hirst’s Saint Sebastian which, relegated to a stairwell in the tony gallery, gave me a sudden stab of sadness for its hidden pain.

I’m not going to be able to write about this without SPOILERS, so don’t look if you’re planning to see it. Sad Susan is sad; smarmy Armie Hammer is clearly so over her from the first moment he appears and is completely uninterested in her distress that you wonder why it takes her so long to catch on to his affair. There’s distracting stunt casting of Michael Sheen as half of the Holt power couple, with Andrea Riseborough as the other half, perpetuating the myth that women aren’t really interested in sex (just the women who are willing to marry wealthy gay men, Mr Ford) because they’re BEST FRIENDS! ‘You never really had that,’ Alessia tells poor Susan.

Then she gets her ex’s galley of his novel that he’s finally finished after twenty years (wow) and she begins reading it and is totally captivated, flashing back of course to why she left him and her mother Laura Linney predicting it. Maybe the best thing in the film, Laura Linney with gigantic Texas hair (as Angela says, the higher the hair, the closer to god): it made me immediately wish that 1) she had more to do in this film and 2) that there could be a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Linney and Adams because it would be magnificent.

Because of course the ex, Jake Gyllenhaal, is a weak man. And like all weak men in recent years, he dreams of being an uncaring raping, murdering psychopath because that’s strong, I guess. The novel within the movie that Susan is riveted to and disturbed by is really the kind of ‘literary crime novel’ Guy in Your MFA would write. Gyllenhaal’s character says something to the effect of ‘all writers write themselves’ at which I nearly shouted at the screen, ‘But the good ones disguise that rather well.’ His novelist doesn’t. The novel-within-the-film has him play the role of the protagonist as well. He has a wife and daughter who are only there to be killed and raped to provide him with a crisis and pretty, well placed corpses on a photo op ready sofa.

Because that’s what violent mad killers do. Town & country horror films have made much of the wild locals going after city folk at least since Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe Spider Baby or before. I think what has made people overlook the clichéd form of the tale is Michael Shannon, giving incredible life to the clichéd cop-with-nothing-to-lose and Aaron Taylor-Johnson channeling Tom Hardy into the clichéd amoral killer. Both work hard to bring some freshness to tired tropes.

But tired they are. Some belated attempt to make this a crisis of faith with the sudden importance of clutched crosses at the end, the ‘horror’ of the break-up having something to do with the abortion Susan had at some point with smarmy Armie and her emerging from the hospital at the exact moment when Gyllenhaal appears horrified (apparently there’s only one place to get the procedure in the whole metropolitan area. I was confused because after reading of the mother and daughter’s demise in the novel, Susan calls her daughter to make sure she’s alright. She is of course filmed sensuously naked in the same pose as the daughter in the novel. And never mentioned again.

So Susan robbed him of a child is supposed to be the thing for which he needs REVENGE (which of course I hear in K-K-K-Ken’s voice), but she had a child? Was it with smarmy Armie? Is that why he kills her in the novel too? Perhaps. I like the REVENGE painting, explained by stunt-cast Jenna Malone as something Susan bought months ago.

I do like the punch in the gut ending. Several people around me vocally did not. But it totally fits the childishness of the character who would write this novel. So, yeah, not interested in reading the source novel. But I didn’t hate the film: it was rather interesting but not in the ways I suspect it was meant to be.

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TOA/V: Tutti Frutti

I had heard of Tutti Frutti for years but figured it was lost to the VHS oblivion, but I happened upon a DVD set in an Oxfam shop that was in pristine condition — down to including John Byrne‘s postcards for the characters. Byrne — playwright, artist, father of Tilda Swinton’s twins — brings a freshness to the well-worn idea, a band on the road by giving it a few twists. Robbie Coltrane plays the original lead singer of a band with some 60s fame and his brother who takes over the role after his death. Emma Thompson plays the love interest with a credible Scottish accent. Richard Wilson plays the dodgy manager (a hoot of course).

It starts out going for the wacky humour but after a while the story gets rather dark between the sadness of the clubs they play on their ‘Jubilee Tour’, vicious and violent exes and the squeamishly awful attempts by their ‘sexy’ guitarist Vincent Diver (Maurice Roëves) to hang on to his youth. There’s an absurdist sensibility that never gets lost though between Coltrane’s running commentary on the increasing disasters (the recording session is hilariously painful) and the final concert triumph that flames out spectacularly.

And Thompson looks unbelievably fabulous as a Teddy Boy.

See the roundup of overlooked A/V over at Todd’s, who will be stunned I actually did one of these.

Review: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Less than five feet tall, a hard, smooth shell of a body. Hipless, breastless still, but the way she’d transformed her body in the last two years, thighs like trunks, shoulders and biceps straining her tank-top straps, staggered Katie.

Abbott has hit a rich groove of material in exploring the darkness at the heart of girls’ lives. She has sought out the noir inherent in their feverish, hidden worlds so now you look at cheerleaders with a bit of awe and maybe some fear. While teenage gymnast Devon is the center of this book, the story is told through her mother Katie’s eyes. In classic noir fashion, what the narrator doesn’t know fuels as much suspense as what she does know — and wishes she didn’t.

Some people would always be jealous of Devon, the way they were jealous of all beautiful and brilliant things.

It was brilliant that they released this in the midst of the Olympics while Simone Biles soared to victory. The contrast between the cheering crowds and the sordid small town life behind it give this story its power.

“The greatest day of our life,” Devon said, and everyone laughed at the our, except it was true, wasn’t it?

It’s one thing to say a family makes sacrifices to get their child to Olympic level competition. It’s quite another to see how far-reaching their are, from Katie’s worry that she’s neglecting Devon’s little brother to her own isolation and fear. She watches the changes in her daughter obsessively, but there are changes in her husband Eric, too.

It was such a power, one she could never match. Even more good-looking as the years skipped by, his features settling on himself, the hot gaze of booster moms and dads transforming him, he was always able to convey the feeling that he believed firmly in all the right things.

It’s a commonplace to say parents live through their children. Abbott shows how much they can lose themselves in that pursuit. Katie’s own fears and body horror arise in her reactions to Devon’s career. When they meet with the coach she blurts out the lurking shame and fear with such unconscious alarm that it shocks even her.

“Devon’s going to get breasts, Teddy,” Katie blurted. “And hips. And everything else. She’s going to be a woman.”

The tensions underscore the entire novel: the murder, but even more so the hidden truths and fears that people reveal, sometimes without realising that’s what they’re doing. I figured out the ‘solution’ to the crime by chapter nine, but honestly, that is only a small part of what compels you through the book. As Katie begins to dig into the events leading up to it, what she increasingly discovers is what she doesn’t know.

That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.

And yet we make assumptions, so many assumptions. The horrible weight Katie feels from joking about her daughter’s ‘Frankenfoot’ conveys so well the power of the stories we tell ourselves. Devon’s own counter-narrative shows that point of view is everything in a story.

Abbott manages to slip in Vonnegut, Dylan Thomas and Joseph Heller without ever making the references feel laboured because Katie’s voice feels authentic. We know more than she does, we put clues together, and yet each new revelation shows us there’s so much more.

Something was wrong, wronger than it even seemed. She just wasn’t sure what it was.

Dive in: you will know her. You might not like what you see, but you won’t be able to look away.

She hadn’t learned, no one had taught her…that the things you want, you never get them. And if you do, they’re not what you thought they’d be.