Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Water's Edge, by Karin Fossum

My journey into Nordic Noir started some years back after listening to a radio interview with Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indriðason. He and Karin Fossum have become the authors I reach for when I want a crime story with heart and mind.  I've been working my way through Ms. Fossum's books in chronological order, and The Water's Edge, the eighth in her series of Inspector Sejer novels, takes a bold turn -- for the first time, Konrad Sejer and his partner, Jakob Skerre, confront a perpetrator who is not simply an average Norwegian who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, they are tracking a paedophile.
'The Storm', by Norwegian Edvard Munch

A couple out on their Sunday walk in the woods -- the domineering Reinhardt Ris and his obsequious wife, Kristine -- spot the partially clad body of a young boy lying face-down beneath a tree. Reinhardt concludes that the man who had rushed past them earlier must be the killer. He becomes obsessively thrilled with his own role in a  real-life crime investigation, and to Kristine's horror, Reinhardt pauses to snap photos of the dead boy with his mobile phone.

Many of Karin Fossum's characters are morally ambiguous.  Maybe a bit like Edvard Munch's paintings -- lines are blurred, and circumstances are often unclear. Her paedophiles are not entirely unsympathetic, her witnesses can be monstrous, and when a second boy disappears, we can feel the growing panic in the village and the pressure to solve the crimes. The temptation to jump to conclusions is intense. Trust between neighbours erodes, and formerly innocent associations come into question.

Inspector Konrad Sejer, however, will not be rushed, much as he would like this hideous crime behind him. He and Skarre, his younger partner, spend a fair amount of time discussing what might make a paedophile tick; they have divergent opinions on this, with Skarre noting that many of them were themselves abused as children and thus deserving of counselling as much as punishment, and Sejer staunchly toeing the line of Norwegian law -- their sexual drives are criminal, and if they can't control them, they must be incarcerated.  When the conversation comes around to why they're in police work, both men again reveal their distinctive motivations.
Sejer started rolling a cigarette. He allowed himself one only every evening, as befits an exceedingly temperate man. 'A nicer job?' he asked suspiciously. 'Like what?'
'Well, you could have been a pastry chef,' Skarre suggested. 'You could have spent your whole day decorating cream cakes. And making tiny marzipan roses.'
'I could never have been a pastry chef,' Sejer declared. 'Cream cakes are pretty to look at, but they have no stories to tell. What would you have been doing?'
'I would have been a taxidermist.'
'Someone who stuffs dead animals, you mean?'
'Yes. Squirrels, minks and foxes.'
Sejer instinctively picked up his dog and put him on his lap. 'So tell me this,' he said. 'Why are you interested in criminals?'
'It's possible that somewhere deep inside I might be just a tad jealous of them,' Skarre said.
'Jealous? Of criminals?'
'They do what they want. They have no respect for authority: if they want something they just take it and they have nothing but contempt for us. It's a kind of protest, a deep and profound disdain. Personally, I am extremely law-abiding, to the point where it becomes scary, if you know what I mean. Why do you think people are so fascinated by crime?' he went on.'Nothing sells better than murder and the worse it is, the more interested people are. What does that say about us?'
'I'm sure there are many answers to that,' Sejer said, 'and you're just as well placed to provide them as I am.'
'But you must have thought about it?'
'I think it has to do with the image we have of our enemy,' he said. 'All nations have an image of their enemy, you know, something that unites people. During the war we were united against the Germans. It gave us a sense of identity and camaraderie, it made us take action and behave heroically. People were forced to choose sides, and in that way we could tell the good from the bad. But in our wealthy western world where peace and democracy reign, criminals have taken over this role. Their misdeeds unite us, we enjoy plenty of peace and quiet, but we also need excitement and stimulation to make us feel alive. But it's more than that. Every time someone's killed, we experience a kind of fortuitous assurance.'
In their efforts to gain an understanding of what motivates a paedophile, Sejer and Skarre drop in on a man whom they'd caught years ago and who had returned to the community after serving his prison sentence. Again, Fossum takes great pains to make Åkeson an almost likeable fellow, pitiable in his loneliness. His answers to the officers' questions suggest that the sexual preference for small children is like that for the same sex -- it's not something that can be "cured", even though the paedophile might well wish to be rid of it.
'Can I ask you a very personal question?' Skarre asked.
Åkeson leaned forward. 'Of course you can, young man, fire away. I'm no weakling, I just look like one.'
'Have you ever had a relationship with an adult woman?'
Åkeson smiled coquettishly. 'Well,' he said, pausing theatrically as was his style, 'that depends how you define adult. Yes, of course I have. But I must add that she was a terribly delicate little thing. It didn't last very long, I think it was mainly a desperate attempt to be normal; there's nothing we would rather be, we would prefer to be like you. But, dear Lord, I'm a grown man, I turned fifty last year and I know who I am, it can't be denied and I don't want to either.
When the second boy, a morbidly obese lad taunted by his schoolmates, vanishes, Sejer and Skarre interview his mother and come away feeling uneasy about her new boyfriend who, they discover, has a criminal record for defrauding single women. Many people are mumbling about a teacher who receives students -- mostly boys -- at his home after school. Is one paedophile responsible for both crimes? It's difficult to say, as they have no idea where the second child is or who killed the first one, but the excitement and fear is palpable. And Reinhardt Ris is absolutely thriving on it, glued to the television, making multiple calls to the police with "new" information, and instructing Kristine not to discard his growing stack of newspapers.
'Don't throw them away,' he said. 'I need to cut out the articles.'
'What do you mean, cut them out?'She gave him a puzzled look.
'As a matter of fact,' he said solemnly, 'it's terribly interesting, for once, to follow a case right from the start, follow it week by week as it develops. It's like a discipline of some sort.' He ran his fingers through his hair. 'Perhaps I should quit my job at Hafslund and become a crime reporter. I think I've got the bug.'
Kristine shook her head in disbelief.
'When I think about it,' he reasoned, 'I realise that I have never read the news in this way before. I've been superficial. None of the world's misery has ever gripped me. But this has, it's a totally new sensation.' He let himself flop into a chair and grabbed hold of VG magazine.
'But why?' she asked.
'Because we found him, Kristine. It's that simple.'
'But we didn't know him.'
'I feel I know him now. I've been reading about Jonas for days. The whole sequence of events rolls before my eyes like a film.' ...
'Have you deleted all those pictures?' she asked.
He tossed his head. 'Why do you keep going on about them?'
'Have you shown them to people at work?' She moved the frying pan away from the heat.
'What if I have? I don't understand why you're getting so worked up about them, people are naturally curious.'
She turned away again before replying. 'They were never meant for public consumption,' she said. 'And who decided that?'
Suddenly she felt exhausted. She leaned against the cooker and felt the heat from the brown butter waft against her face. 'Common decency,' she whispered. 'Have you never heard of that?'
That's what I love about Karin Fossum's novels. Her characters are all over the common decency spectrum, and their motivations are rarely predictable. And yet, each and every one of them seems like someone who might be living next door.

I just read that Karin Fossum's seventh Konrad Sejer novel, The Murder of Harriet Crohn, published in 2004, has just this year been translated into English. Something to look forward to!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff

This is a gorgeous, thought-provoking historical novel, loosely based upon the life (lives?) of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his alter-ego, Lili Elbe. The historical record, which describes Einar/Lili as one of the first recipients of sex-reassignment surgery -- in its experimental stages in the 1920s -- provides the merest framework for the novel, and Ebershoff fills it out with richly textured atmosphere and emotions, respectfully and gently raising questions of what love entails.
Lili Elbe by Gerde Gottlieb

The real-life Einar Wegener was married to another Danish painter, Gerda Gottlieb; in the novel, his wife is American-born Greta Waud. One day, as Greta nears the completion of her portrait of an opera singer, the model fails to turn up. Greta turns to her slightly-built, blond husband, Einar, and asks him if he would kindly don her stockings, dress and shoes so she can finish the work on time. After a moment's hesitation -- it will take him away from his own work -- Einar complies.

One afternoon a few days later, Greta comes home to find her husband once again dressed and made up as a woman, and the shy, blonde visitor introduces herself as Lili. Lili doesn't stay long at first -- a few hours here and there -- but when she visits, she models for Greta. Over the next months and years, Greta's portfolio grows with ever more mesmerising (and commercially successful) portraits of Lili. Einar's career languishes as Lili appears with increasing frequency, because Lili doesn't paint.

Greta's relationships with Lili and Einar are fascinating and complex. Her love for her husband remains warm and gentle; her bond with Lili ranges from protective older sister to demanding employer, especially as Lili grows into the role of primary artistic muse.
Lili had begun to appear unannounced in the afternoons. Greta would leave the Widow House for an appointment. When she returned she'd find Lili at the window in a loose dress, the back buttons unfastened. Greta would help her finish dressing, clasping a string of amber beads around her throat. It never ceased to startle Greta, finding her husband like that, waiting with the neckline of a dress open across his pale shoulders. She never once said anything to Einar, or to Lili. Instead, she would always welcome Lili as if she were an amusing, foreign friend. She'd hum and gossip as she helped Lili into her shoes. Greta would tip a bottle of perfume against her forefinger and then run her sweet fingertip down Lili's throat and up the inside of her arm. She would stand Lili in front of the mirror and whisper, her voice the soft intimate voice of wedlock, "There now . . . so very pretty."
Gradually Lili begins to go out in public. Greta introduces her at social events as Einar's visiting cousin. Her concerns for her husband's emotional health drive Greta to consult a doctor, a man who is far less accepting of Einar's alter-ego -- after a full consultation, he strongly advises Greta to have her husband forcibly committed into a mental health facility, as he poses a threat to public order and decency. Greta responds by telling Einar that the three of them -- the married couple and Lili -- would be more comfortable in France. They pack up their painting supplies and move south. 1920s Paris is indeed more liberal, and Lili comes into her own.
It was what she liked most: her head gliding across the surface of the pool like a little duck; the other ladies in their wool bathing dresses watching her with their mixture of indifference and gossipy intrigue; the way she could pull herself from the pool, her fingertips pruned, and pat the towel down her arms as she dried in the glittering light that reflected off the Seine. She would watch the traffic across the river. And Lili would think that all of this was possible because she and Greta had left Denmark. She would think, in the summer mornings, on the lip of the pool filled with Seine water, that she was free. Paris had freed her. Greta had freed her. Einar, she would think, was slipping away. Einar was freeing her. A shiver would run up her damp spine; her shoulders would shudder. 
Einar and Lili are engaged in a quiet, heart-wrenching battle, finding it increasingly difficult to share the one body, especially with its undesirable accoutrements.
... if she was in a particularly strong trance about her life and the possibility of it all, she would let out a little gasp when she discovered that down there, between her white, goose-pimpled thighs, lay a certain shriveled thing. It was so vile to her that she would snap closed her thighs, tucking it away, her knee bones smacking; she could hear the muffled smack, and the sound of it -- like two felt-wrapped cymbals meeting in crescendo -- would remind Lili, would remind Einar, of the girl at Madame Jasmin-Carton's who had danced resentfully and snapped her knees together in such a harsh manner that he could hear the smack of bone even through the smudged glass. 
Ebershoff never paints Einar's and Lili's shared predicament as a pathology, but he makes it painfully clear that it is a conflict for which they both want to find a resolution. On a summer visit to Paris, Greta's twin brother, Carlisle, takes Lili to see another doctor who may be able to help. Einar's earnest desire for a solution paired with Dr. Buson's enthusiasm make this one of the novel's more chilling passages.
"And that leads me to my procedure," Dr. Buson was saying. "It's a rather new operation, one that I'm quite excited about because it's so full of promise."
"What is it?" Einar said.
"Now I don't want you to get too excited when I tell you, because it sounds more complicated than it is. It sounds drastic but it really isn't. It's a rather simple surgery that is working on people with behavior problems. The results so far are better than any other treatment I've ever seen."
"Do you think it would work on someone like me?"
"I'm sure of it," Dr. Buson said. "It's called a lobotomy."
"What is that?" Einar asked.
"It's a simple surgical procedure for cutting nerve pathways in the front part of the brain."
"Brain surgery?"
"Yes, but it isn't complicated. I don't have to cut open the cranium. No, that's the beauty of it. All I have to do is drill a few holes in your forehead, right about here . . . and here." Dr. Buson touched Einar's head, at his temples, and then at a spot just above his nose. "Once I've put the holes in your head then I can go in and sever some of the nerve fibers, those that control your personality."
"But how do you know which ones control my behavior?"
"Well, that's what I've discovered recently. Haven't you read about me in the paper?"
"It was a friend who sent us here," Carlisle said.
"Well, he must have seen the articles. There's been quite a bit of press."
"But is it safe?" Carlisle finally asked.
"As safe as many other things. Listen, I know it sounds radical. But I've had a man come to me who believed he was five people, not just two, and I went into his brain and fixed him up."
"How is he now?" Einar asked.
"He lives with his mother. He's very quiet, but happy..."
Although Carlisle feels that Dr. Buson is credible, Greta has been having conversations with a doctor, as well -- a German professor who is offering a surgical remedy that will not render Einar a vegetable, but will render him a woman -- Lili. Einar trusts his wife implicitly and is more inclined to place his trust in the German surgeon.

He reflects upon the impending death of Einar Wegener, painter, should he go ahead and become Lili. In a moment of delightfully farcical back-story, Einar recalls the beginning of his artistic career.

The man in the cloak spoke softly, and word spread through the halls of the academy that he was a dealer from Paris. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with a strip of leather, and the students could barely see his eyes. There was a little blond mustache curling down around his mouth, and the faint smell of newsprint falling behind him like exhaust. The acting director of the academy, Herr Rump, who was the less talented descendant of Herr G. Rump, introduced himself to the stranger. Rump escorted the man through the academy halls, where the floors were gray and unvarnished and swept clean by orphan girls not old enough to conceive. Rump tried to halt the stranger in front of the canvases painted by his favorite pupils, the girls with the wavy hair and apple-perky breasts and the boys with the thighs like hams. But the man in the cloak, who was reported to say, although no one could ever confirm it, "I have a tongue for talent," refused to be swayed by Herr Rump's suggestions. The stranger nodded in front of the painting of the mouse and the cheese done by Gertrude Grubbe, a girl with eyebrows so yellow and fluffy it was as if a canary had shed two feathers across her face. He also paused by the scene depicting a woman selling a salmon painted by Sophus Brandes, a boy whose father had been murdered on a ferry to Russia, due to a single leer at the murderer's adolescent bride. And then the man in the cloak stopped in front of Einar's little painting of the black bog. In the painting it was night, the oaks and willows only shadows, the ground as dark and damp as oil. In the corner, next to the boulder speckled with mica, was a little white dog, asleep in the cold. Only the previous day Herr Rump had declared it "too dark for the Danish school," and thus had given it a less-than-ideal spot on the wall, next to the closet where the orphan girls stored their hay-brooms and changed into the sleeveless apron-dresses that Herr Rump insisted they wear. "This one is good," the man had said, and his hand reached into his cloak and pulled out a billfold made of -- again, this was rumored too -- lizard leather."What's the artist's name?" he asked.
"Einar Wegener,"said Herr Rump, whose face was filling with the hot bright color of choler. The stranger handed him one hundred kroner. The man in the cloak pulled the painting from the wall, and then everyone at the academy -- Herr Rump and the students who had been watching from the cracks in classroom doors and the adminstratrices in their pinned-up blouses and the orphan girls who were secretly plotting a plan, which would later fail, to push Herr Rump from an academy window, and, last of all, Einar Wegener, who was standing on the stairs exactly where Greta would later kiss him -- had to blink.
Is it really a "brazenly American trait", the need to move abroad and reinvent oneself? (Well, it certainly seems so in my case.) What becomes clear, though, is that Einar's wish to transform himself comes from no innate love of change -- he simply can't cope any longer with existing as a man. Becoming Lili seems to be a biological and psychological necessity.
Greta would need to be alone in Denmark, relationless in Europe, in order to become the woman she saw herself as. She needed to put an ocean and a continent between herself and her family in order to feel that at last she could breathe. What Einar didn't understand then was that it was another of Greta's brazenly American traits, that bubbling need to move away and reinvent. Never before had he imagined himself doing the same.
So Lili boards the train to Dresden by herself -- she tells Greta that she can only do it alone. The fictional Lili dies not long after her fifth surgery, as the real-life one had, during which the surgeon transplanted a uterus in the hope that she might bear children. Much as she wanted it, her body rejected the organ. She is buried in Dresden, the city with the Elbe running through it. Looking out the window after her first surgery, Lili told the clinic staff that her new name would be Elbe. Lili Elbe.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

White Bird in a Blizzard, by Laura Kasischke

I reached for this novel after seeing the wonderfully quirky film adaptation of it. As I've written many times before, I'll almost always choose the book over the movie, but this one is a tough call... The screenplay stayed very close to the novel's plot until the end, when the film took a delicious and unexpected twist.  Laura Kasischke is a poet as well as a novelist, though, so the book has some exquisite passages that film just can't touch.  The opening paragraph is a sensory delight, ethereal meeting mundane, and introducing us to a teen-aged narrator who will prove as elusive and puzzling as her mother's disappearance.

I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon -- pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her, perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright flute notes in the distance -- and disappears. No one sees her leave, but she is gone. Only the morning before, my mother was a housewife -- a housewife who, for twenty years, kept our house as swept up and sterile as the mind of winter itself, so perhaps she finally just whisk-broomed herself out, a luminous cloud of her drifting through the bedroom window as soft as talcum powder, mingling with the snowflakes as they fell, and the stardust and the lunar ash out there.
Teen-aged narrator Kat gives us our only image of her vanished mother, a desperately unhappy suburban housewife who loathes her husband. Like most girls her age, Kat vacillates between utter self-absorption and sympathy for her mother.
 ... she planted petunias in our yard, and by July of every year they were dried out. Like complaints, or exasperation. Our house was stuck into some of the world's most fertile earth -- black and loamy and damp -- and anything could have grown there. A handful of it was as heavy as a heart, or guilt. As a child, I used to dig it up with a plastic shovel and pretend to bake cakes and cookies, shapeless pastries patted out of gravity. That dough, that dirt, was as dark as space. For thousands of years, our backyard had been ice, and when the Ice Age ended it thawed into a swampy dinosaur forest, and when the dinosaurs got zapped by whatever zapped the dinosaurs, farmers came and turned it into farmland and country meadows, which were later bulldozed to make way for subdivisions with names like Country Meadows Estates.
Anything could have grown there, but my mother grew petunias. I never knew what she wanted, but I knew it wasn't in Garden Heights, and it wasn't my father.
Kat's response to her mother's disappearance is disturbingly nonchalant. She and her father soldier on -- not bravely, really, but more indifferently, as if they'd always known Eve would vanish one day, or perhaps as if she'll return from whatever errand she'd gone off to do.  They file a police report, of course, and Brock takes and passes a lie-detector test. When her friends ask Kat if she thinks her father knows more than he is letting on, Kat is quick to assure them that he couldn't have had anything to do with his wife's disappearance -- he just didn't care enough.
These two decades, my father had also stayed slim. His face had aged well. He looked younger than fifty ... but also as preserved and eternal as some frozen-faced saint painted on the wall of a chapel during the darkest Dark Age days. Pale. Uninquisitive. A painted saint gazing without judgment, or interest, at centuries of women passing by, bearing candles, or babies, or flowers in their black habits, lace veils, go-go boots, and girdles. My father was the kind of man, like one of those expressionless saints, who sees a woman -- naked, or roped in pearls, tied to a stake, or shedding tears of blood -- and thinks, I wonder what's for dinner.
But what I think is this: She was a housewife, his housewife. For twenty years she served his dinner at six o'clock. Afterward, she washed the dinner dishes in Palmolive, to keep her hands soft. One Christmas when he offered to buy her a dishwasher she insisted she would never use it, that washing her husband's dinner dishes by hand was one of the greatest pleasures a woman could have. And he had no idea she was being sarcastic.
Precocious Kat seduces the middle-aged detective who is handling her mother's case. Is it because she wants to learn how his investigation is coming along? Not at all. She's just bored after the teen-aged boy next-door broke off their relationship when Eve disappeared. When she goes off to college, Kat's new friends inevitably want to know what happened to her mother.
"Where is she?" Cindy asked.
"Who knows?" I said. "I don't."
"She has to be somewhere,"Cindy said.
"Does she?" I said, spilling wine on my flannel nightgown. "Maybe she doesn't. Maybe she's nowhere."I smiled. But Cindy looked serious, and sad.
This exchange reminds me of an article I read about the mother of the teen-ager who gunned down the staff and elementary school students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. She had convinced herself that dwelling in his perpetually darkened bedroom, changing his clothes many times each day, collecting an arsenal and insisting that particular foods be arranged in a certain way on his plate was normal behaviour for her son. A psychologist noted that when we're dealing with a mentally disturbed family member, we tend to just readjust our ideas of normality. What seems bizarre and alarming to most people simply became Nancy Lanza's "new normal".

White Bird in a Blizzard tells the story of Kat's "new normal". It's a potent reminder of how adept our minds can be when they want to maintain the semblance of normality, of how keen our vision can be in some regards and how utterly myopic in others. See the movie, and read the book -- they complement each other beautifully.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

American Tabloid, by James Ellroy

James Ellroy is best known for his L.A. Quartet:  Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz. I've been reading a fair amount of Nordic noir over the past few years, but this is my first foray into American noir. In this massive novel, Ellroy takes on all the shady characters of the Kennedy years -- gangsters, molls, CIA and FBI agents, Cubans of both the pro- and anti-Castro varieties, and of course, the Kennedys themselves. The majority of characters in the novel are historical figures, so the line between fact and fiction is hard to discern at times, but the overall effect is wildly vivid.

I was 20 months old when JFK died on 22 November, 1963. What sense I have of that era is what I've cobbled together from bits and pieces. Camelot, to Kennedy's supporters, was a time of innocence and youthful exuberance. Ellroy eviscerates the Camelot myth. Innocence? Even if I give Ellroy some creative license, his novel makes it abundantly clear how many individuals and groups had vested -- very vested -- interests in demolishing Camelot.  And they were so interconnected!  The Italian mobsters lost a fortune in casinos when Castro took over Cuba; they supported anti-Castro refugees. Howard Hughes had connections to the mob, oodles of money, a drug addiction that needed to be fed, and an insatiable lust for lurid gossip. Bobby Kennedy had it out for organised crime, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was his father's underworld connections that had put his brother in the White House. JFK mishandled the Bay of Pigs invasion, leading to a wholesale slaughter of the Cubans who were trying to take their island back, and this infuriated the Cuban refugee community, the CIA (which had secretly backed and funded it), and the Mafia. J. Edgar Hoover had connections to nearly everyone and manipulated them all like chess pieces.
John Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Kennedy
The Kennedy political circle was every bit as corrupt as those before and after it.

As I said, this genre is new to me, so I can't compare Ellroy to other writers, but I would venture to guess that no one does gangsters like he does.  He seems to catch exactly the right tone without crossing the line into cliché or parody. Herschel Meyer (Heshie) Ryskind is one of Ellroy's creations, but he's clearly modelled on members of the Kosher Nostra -- Meyer Lansky, maybe.

An historical colleague is Jack Ruby (born Jacob Leon Rubenstein). Ellroy portrays Ruby as an ardent dog-lover (in the bestial sense) who is constantly surrounded by a variety of pooches in the sleazy nightclub he runs. I think the dog fancy may be purely fiction, but it's a vivid detail in Ellroy's picture of a weasel-like low-life who will cooperate with anyone who beats the stuffing out of him -- whether it's an Italian mobster or a CIA agent, to whom he describes the sex life of Heshie Ryskind.
Ruby said, "Heshie loves blow jobs. He gets blow jobs exclusively, 'cause he says it's good for his prostate. He told me he hasn't dipped the schnitzel since he was with the Purples back in the '30s and some shiksa tried to schlam him with a paternity suit. Heshie told me he's had over ten thousand blow jobs. He likes to watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" while he gets blown. He's got nine doctors for all these diseases he thinks he's got, and all the nurses blow him. That's how he knows it's good for his prostate."  
J. Edgar Hoover, head of the CIA, wants to keep his job, and Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General and
Jimmy Hoffa, Teamster Union boss
head of the Justice Department, is just as keen to depose him, vowing that Hoover will be fired when his brother is re-elected. Hoover is in cahoots with the mobsters when it suits him and when it serves his battle against RFK,  The Jewish and Italian mobsters are collaborators or foes, depending upon the circumstances, but they are united in their opposition to the Kennedys.  An inconvenient truth, however, is that Irish immigrant Joseph Kennedy, Sr. had very tight connections to both gangster communities.

Ellroy credits the Mafiosos with more brawn than brain-power. While this may be underestimating them (Jimmy Hoffa was in fact a law school graduate), it's entertaining, at least.
Hoffa said, "It's the handing down of grand jury indictments that bothers me. My lawyer said the Sun Valley thing is unlikely to go my way, which means indictments by the end of the year. So don't make Joe Kennedy sound like Jesus handing God the Ten Commandments on Mount Fucking Vesuvius." ...
Rosselli said, "It's Mount Ararat, Jimmy. Mount Vesuvius is in fucking Yellowstone Park."
Three characters -- all Ellroy creations -- weave through the whole novel like serpents, colluding with and opposing each other and every other character.  Pete Bondurant is essentially a thug-for-hire, and he's worked at some point for nearly every faction. Kemper Boyd is a former CIA man who still has ties within the agency, but he is equally comfortable in the Cuban refugee community, and he's enamoured of Jack Kennedy. He has so many irons in the fire that, when muddled, he can no longer remember which lies to tell. Ward Littell, a CIA agent, goes in and out of favour with Hoover, Boyd and Bondurant. At first charmed by Bobby Kennedy, he's soon disillusioned and joins forces with the underworld goons who would like to thwart him at least, or better still, to eliminate him altogether.
RFK, image of Fidel Castro, JFK
This change of heart puts Littell squarely back into Hoover's good graces. ("I will not comment on the attendant irony," as the Director is fond of saying.)

The skullduggery connected to the Cuban crisis is staggering. If Ellroy is even close to historically accurate, the CIA (probably with Mafia help) funded training camps to build invasion forces with anti-Communist refugees, and later -- when JFK had softened his stance on Castro -- to train teams of marksmen who would go to Cuba and assassinate him.

Silly me.  I'd thought drugging mercenaries was a recent phenomenon.
Pete meandered. The camp was Disneyland for killers. 
Six hundred Cubans. Fifty white men running herd. Twelve barracks, a drill field, a rifle range, a pistol range, a landing strip, a mess hall, an infiltration course and a chemical-warfare simulation tunnel. Three launch inlets gouged out of the Gulf a mile south. Four dozen amphibious crawlers rigged with .50-caliber machine guns. An ammo dump. A field hospital. A Catholic chapel with a bilingual chaplain. 
Pete meandered. Old Blessington grads waved hello. Case officers showed him some good shit. Dig Néstor Chasco--staging mock-assassination maneuvers. Dig that anti-Red indoctrination workshop. Dig the verbal abuse drills--calculated to increase troop subservience.
Dig the corpsman's amphetamine stash--pre-packaged preinvasion courage. Dig the action in that barbed-wire enclosure--peons flying on a drug called LSD. Some of them screamed. Some wept. Some grinned like LSD was a blast. A case officer said John Stanton hatched the idea-- let's flood Cuba with this shit before we invade.
Langley co-signed the brainstorm. Langley embellished it: Let's induce mass hallucinations and stage the Second Coming of Christ!!!!! Langley found some suicidal actors. Langley dolled them up to look like J.C. Langley had them set to pre-invade Cuba, concurrent with the dope saturation.
As Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy went on the warpath against organised crime. This has always baffled me, because it's well-known that his father had long-standing connections to the underworld, and that the Mafia had in fact pulled strings to get JFK elected. Ellroy's characters don't seem to understand it any better. Ward Littell, fictional CIA agent, goes on his own anti-corruption initiative and captures the account books of a secret "pension fund" which was essentially used for loan-sharking. He finally -- after an appalling chain of violence and death -- gets his hands on the account books and interprets the code in which the entries are written.
Among the Teamster Central States Pension Fund lendees: Twenty-four U.S. senators, nine governors, 114 congressmen, Allen Dulles, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Juan Perón, Nobel Prize researchers, drug-addicted movie stars, loan sharks, labor racketeers, union-busting factory owners, Palm Beach socialites, rogue entrepreneurs, French rightwing crackpots with extensive Algerian holdings, and sixty-seven unsolved homicide victims extrapolatable as Pension Fund deadbeats. 
 The chief cash conduit/lender was one Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. 
Vivid, gritty and dirty. There's not a single clean character in American Tabloid. No one has spotless hands, and few make it out of the book alive. Absolutely none of them is trustworthy, except perhaps James Ellroy, whose voice is always dead sure.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Illustration by Pieter van Eenoge for the
NY Times review of '
The Bone Clocks'
I adore David Mitchell. Each of his novels has left me flabbergasted, and I'm wondering what ailed the Man Booker Prize committee this year when they left The Bone Clocks off the short list.  (Mind you, I haven't yet read any of the novels that did make it onto the short list, so this is unadulterated, uninformed favouritism on my part.)  If they are as or more stunning than this book, I'd better get to reading them.

As with most of his previous novels, The Bone Clocks is a stunning example of literary architecture. In an interview on the radio show, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Mr. Mitchell says he is basically a writer of novellas. By breaking his novels into short pieces that span centuries and continents, he's able to indulge this need to write shorter, very diverse bits of fiction, which he then links together with overlapping themes or characters.  The link in The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, who appears as a teen-aged runaway when the book opens in 1984 and as an elderly grandmother in a very grim 2043 when it ends.  Various characters -- some human, others supernatural and "atemporal" -- come into and leave Holly's life in the book's seven chapters.

All of David Mitchell's architectural wizardry would seem contrived and pedantic if he didn't people his stories with characters who reel us in. The voice of Holly, who's run away from her working-class family in Gravesend, is so real that it makes me wonder where the persona of David Mitchell went when he was channeling her. Holly, after finding her older boyfriend in bed with her best friend, takes off on foot and ends up finding work on a strawberry farm.
Blue sky, fresh air, aching back but three pounds richer than I was when I picked my first strawberry. At eight-fifty, we start picking again. At school right now, Miss Swann our form teacher'll be taking the register, and when she reads out my name, there'll be no reply. "She's not here, miss," someone'll say, and Stella Yearwood should start to sweat, if she's got half a brain, which she has. If she's bragged about nicking my boyfriend, people'll guess why I'm not at school, and sooner or later the teachers'll hear and Stella's going to get summoned to Mr. Nixon's office. Maybe a copper'll be there too. If she's kept schtum about nicking Vinny, she'll be acting all cool like she knows nothing but she'll be panicking inside. So'll Vinny. Sex with a bit of young fluff's all well and good, I s'pose, as long as nothing goes wrong, but things'll look pretty different pretty quickly if I stay at Black Elm Farm for a couple more days. Suddenly I'm an underage schoolgirl whom Vincent Costello seduced with presents and alcohol for four weeks before she vanished without a trace; and Vincent Costello, twenty-five-year-old car salesman of Peacock Street, Gravesend, becomes a chief suspect. I'm not an evil person or anything, and I don't want Jacko or Dad or Sharon to lose sleep over me, specially Jacko, but putting Vinny and Stella through the mangle at least a bit is very, very tempting."

In the second section, we make an abrupt shift to Cambridge, and the narrator is a sociopathic student named Hugo Lamb. He's brilliant and amoral, a hedonist and womaniser. Perhaps it's his lack of empathy that makes him completely oblivious to the fact that the gorgeous woman who materialises in a pew across the aisle is not quite... normal. In any sense. They will meet again, but not under the sort of circumstances Hugo might have wished for.

Benjamin Britten's 'Hymn to the Virgin' launches, chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists and students sitting there in the chancel in our damp coats. For me, Britten's a hit-and-miss composer; prolix on occasion but, when pumped and primed, the old queen binds your quivering soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity...
The hairs on my neck prickle, as if blown on. By her, for example, sitting across the aisle. She wasn't there when I last looked. Her eyes are closed to drink in the music so I drink her in. Late thirties --vanilla hair, creamy-skinned, beaujolais lips, cheekbones you'd slice your thumb on.
Hugo jets off for a ski holiday at the Swiss chateau of one of his wealthier classmates. The four young Cambridge men haunt the posh clubs and bars at night, which is where Hugo meets a bar maid named Holly (with whom he's inexplicably smitten) and scores some first-class cocaine from the club owner.
I deposit the last of my coke in a swirl on the mirror and -- kids, don't try this at home, don't try it anywhere, Drugs Are Bad -- toke it up my left nostril in a powerful snort. For five seconds it stings like a nettle being threaded down my throat via my nose, until -- We have liftoff. The bass is reverberating in my bones and godalmightythat'sgood ...
Tiny lights I can't quite see pinprick the hedges of my field of vision. I emerge from the cubicle like the Son of God rolling away the stone, and inspect myself in the mirror -- all good, even if my pupils are more Varanus komodoensis than Homo sapiens.
(Yes, that is a reference to a Komodo dragon. Hold that thought.)  Meanwhile, Hugo returns to his group's table to find that his three companions have found some lovely African women to keep them company. They deride him for declining the company of a fourth one, but he, for once, steers clear. The following morning, his intuition proves to have been keen as the women demand enormous sums of cash in payment. When the three lads get stroppy about it, the women ring up their pimps.  Hugo pockets the cash he'd won from them in poker games (ignoring their calls up the stairs to him to give the money back to pay off the knife-wielding goons) and jumps out the window.  Back in the village, he buys a paper, orders a coffee and watches the scene at the ATM machine across the street from his seat at the cafe where Holly works.
Here Quinn makes three withdrawals with three different cards, before being frog-marched back. I hide behind a conveniently to-hand newspaper. A Normal would feel guilt or vindication; I feel as if I just watched a middle-of-the-road episode of Inspector Morse. "Morning, Poshboy," says Holly,
What did you do to your ankle? You're limping."
"I left my old accommodation a la Spiderman."
"And landed a la sack-of-Spudsman."
"My Scout pack did the Leaping from Buildings to Escape Violent Pimps badge the week I was away."
Holly, although she sees through Hugo's flirtations, somewhat grudgingly offers him shelter during the approaching blizzard. What she does not see at first is that, for once, Hugo's interest is genuine.
I watch her fingers, her loopable black hair, how her face hides and shows her inner weather. This isn't lust. Lust wants, does the obvious, and pads back into the forest. Love is greedier. Love wants round-the-clock care; protection; rings, vows, joint accounts; scented candles on birthdays; life insurance. Babies. Love's a dictator. I know this, yet the blast furnace in my ribcage roars You You You You You You just the same, and there's bugger-all I can do about it. The wind attacks the window.
Unfortunately, the associates of the beautiful woman in the Cambridge chapel are also genuinely interested in Hugo, and he disappears before he can pursue any rings or joint accounts with Holly.

The following chapter is narrated by Ed Brubeck, a childhood friend of Holly's, now the father of their young daughter, Aoife. Ed is a war reporter, and he and Holly are at odds -- he's addicted to his work, and she wants him to spend more time at home. Aoife, not surprisingly, is precocious and articulate. Much like David Mitchell, who blithely tosses a Komodo dragon into another chapter.
"Mummy wants to be a dolphin," says Aoife,"because they swim, talk a lot, smile, and they're loyal. Uncle Brendan wants to be a Komodo dragon, 'cause there're people on Gravesend Council he'd like to bite and shake to pieces, which is how Komodo dragons make their food smaller. Aunty Sharon wants to be an owl because owls are wise, and Aunt Ruth wants to be a sea otter so she can spend all day floating on her back in California and meet David Attenborough."
While attending a family wedding in the UK, Ed's thoughts continually flash back to the war in Iraq, which he describes with a clarity that was notably lacking in the politicians who organised it. Lacking, in fact, in some of the "soldiers"who fought it remotely.
A drone circled above us. It would be armed. I thought of its operator, picturing a crewcut nineteen-year-old called Ryan at a base in Dallas, sucking an ice-cold Frappuccino through a straw. He could open fire on the clinic, kill everyone in and near it, and never smell the cooked meat. To Ryan, we'd be pixellated thermal images on a screen, writhing about a bit, turning from yellow to red to blue.
Making his way back to Baghdad after a trip to Fallujah with his Iraqi photographer and fixer, Ed detours to see an American helicopter that's just been shot down. Arriving just after them, a group of Marines orders all the onlookers flat onto the ground, and Ed fears for his Iraqi colleagues' lives. He announces himself as a British journalist, and the commanding officer gives him a dressing-down that's a pointed warning against black & white sympathies.
Major Hackensack looked at the black marine and shook his head, then turned a malevolent gaze my way. "You just see a sewer-mouthed military man, don't you? You just see a cartoon character and a platoon of grunts. You think we deserve this" -- he nods at the wreckage -- "just for being here. But the dead, they had children, they had family, same as you. They wanted to make something of their lives, same as you. Hell, they were lied to about this war, same as you. But unlike you, British journalist, they paid for other peoples' bullshit with their lives. They were braver than you. They were better than you. They deserve more than you. So you and Batman and Robin there, get the fuck out of my sight."
Now we jump to a literary festival at which irascible "bad boy of English letters" Crispin Hershey is at war with reviewer Richard Cheeseman who has just flamed his latest novel.  Hershey is a bitter, angry egomaniac who can rarely be bothered to learn anyone's name, but at the signing he learns -- and will never forget -- the name of the fellow author at the next table.
The place is pullulant with punters, cordoned by festival heavies into a snaking queue of Crispin Hershey faithful. Look on my works, Richard Cheeseman, and despair! They'll be reprinting Echo Must Die by the weekend and a V2 of money is headed straight for the House of Hershey! Victoriously, I gain my table, sit down, knock back the glass of white wine served by the Festival Elf, unsheathe the Sharpie -- and realize that all these people are here not for me, God sod it, but for a woman sitting at a table ten feet away. My own queue numbers fifteen. Or ten. More frumpet than crumpet. Editor Oliver has turned the colour of elderly chicken slices, so I scowl at Publicity Girl for an explanation. "That's, um, Holly Sykes." Oliver's color returns. "That's Holly Sykes? Jesus."
I growl, "Who in the name of buggery is Holey Spikes?"
"Holly Sykes,"says Publicity Girl, falling down the sar-chasm.
Over the years, Crispin develops an odd friendship with Holly, who seems to fill his own sar-chasm with a heightened sense of humanity. He accepts a position at a college in upstate New York, teaching creative writing. Suddenly, I wondered, is David Mitchell channeling the voice of Crispin, or vice versa?
For most digital-age writers, writing is rewriting. We grope, cut, block, paste, and twitch, panning for gold onscreen by deleting bucketloads of crap. Our analog ancestors had to polish every line mentally before hammering it out mechanically. Rewrites cost them months, meters of ink ribbon, and pints of Tippex. Poor sods. ...
"A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned." My ten postgrads look sober. So they should. "Art feasts upon its maker," I tell them.
The sixth chapter is narrated by one of the Horologists, the small group of atemporals who find themselves reincarnated repeatedly throughout time. It's always a bit shocking to them to run into each other again in later incarnations. The narrator, Dr. Marinus, is a middle-aged female psychiatrist. Another character remembers having met her in 16th century Japan, which is, coincidentally, where a Dr. Marinus appeared in very different form in one of David Mitchell's earlier novels, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
"God's blood! Marinus -- the doctor, on Dejima. Big man, red face, white hair, Dutch, an irascible know-it-all. You were there when HMS Phoebus blasted the place to matchwood."
I experienced a feeling akin to vertigo. "You were there?"
"I watched it happen. From the magistrate's pavilion."
"But -- who were you?"
Although this sort of play is great fun, The Bone Clocks is not pure whimsy. The interviewer on To the Best of Our Knowledge asked David Mitchell why he chose to mix genres in this novel (and most of his others), and why he elected to introduce supernatural aspects. This proved to be a question that Mitchell has heard all too often and is weary of. I don't care about sticking to one genre or another, he replied. I just want to write the best novel I can. If it crosses genre lines, so be it.

By introducing atemporals -- beings who are either immortal or reincarnated repeatedly -- he was able to consider how we might treat the world if we knew we were going to be in it for longer than one human lifetime. We would certainly not, he suggested, treat it with such callous disregard. His vision of the 'Endarkenment' makes the 14th century look like a picnic, and worse, it feels all too plausible.

An elderly Holly narrates this final chapter, set in 2043.
Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It's not just that I can't hold Aoife again, it's everything: It's grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office -- all so we didn't have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it's an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth's Riches knowing -- while denying -- that we'd be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Not My Daughter, by Barbara Delinsky

The premise of this novel caught my attention, but it promised more than it delivered.  Four girls, seniors in high school in a Maine town and close friends, make a pact to become pregnant, and three of them succeed. Their decision shocks their parents and, in fact nearly everyone in town -- these girls are at the top of their class, on a track for top-rated colleges, not teen motherhood. To complicate matters, the mother of one of the girls is the principal of the high school, and she comes under attack from the school board, whose conservative members are displeased with her handling of the media storm inspired by the pregnancy pact and find her (a single mother herself) a less than upstanding role model.

The three girls, despite their ostensible intelligence, didn't seem to consider that their behaviour would disrupt their social lives at school, cause a firestorm in the community and put their parents in tenuous positions, both socially and professionally.These girls are from upper middle-class, but more important, loving and grounded families. They are not having babies to fill emotional voids. When asked why on earth they've willfully decided to get pregnant at 17, the only answer any of them can proffer is that they all like babies. None of it is believable. Their parents, friends and neighbours can't get their heads around it, and neither can we readers.

It all ends happily -- the principal keeps her job and marries the father of her daughter (and the grandfather of their new grandson).  The three girls deliver three lovely, healthy babies, although one of them has a scare during the pregnancy, wailing that it had never occurred to her that she could have anything but a perfect baby. Again, I could only shake my head and resist the urge to throttle my Kindle in lieu of the naive, irresponsible, clueless girl.

I know that pact behaviour amongst adolescents is an alarming thing, whether they're suicide pacts, pregnancy pacts, drinking & drugging pacts, or whatever. This novel brought me no closer to understanding the dynamics of teen pacts, and the happily-ever-after ending certainly whitewashed any negative effects in this case. All's well that ends well? So it would seem. What can I say? I'm just happy that none of Ms. Delinsky's feckless teenagers is my daughter.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Songbird, by AJ Adams

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you well know that erotic organised crime thrillers aren't the genre that I reach for first.

Many moons ago, I worked in the publishing industry. In possession of a BA in Linguistics from an elite women's college in the eastern US, I went to work for a small publisher in Boston, editing gay men's porn, predominantly S&M. (This item never featured in my college's alumnae news, rest assured.) I learned a great many things in that job, most of which one doesn't mention in polite company. Here, though, was the central lesson: Good writers write good books, regardless of the subject. A talented writer will take you into a genre you'd not otherwise consider and make you glad you went there.

Now, many decades later, I'm living in Phnom Penh. I mentioned to a friend that I'd love some part-time work. She recommended that I set up a gig on Fiverr, a web site that allows all manner of freelancers to offer their services in $5 increments. As my friend writes erotic fiction, she suggested that I offer editing services specifically for erotica. She's found it challenging, she said, to find editors who will take on sexually explicit manuscripts.  I have no shame.  I set up one gig to edit general text and another for editing erotica.

The amount of work that has streamed in via this site has amazed and delighted me. Between the two gigs, I've drafted and edited web site copy for a Mallorca construction company, promo copy for a boudoir photography studio, a non-fiction book on women's orgasm, marketing materials for a new app to connect fitness nuts with gyms and trainers, and an application essay for a seminary in California. I relish the contact with the customers around the world and the diversity of the things they write and care about.  A few manuscripts have left me cold or put me off altogether, but thankfully, it's been only a handful.

The manuscript for Songbird was the longest submission  I've received since resuming my editing career, and it was an absolute treat.

Solitaire is the plucky and far-from-angelic heroine who falls in with the Princeton-educated boss of a Mexican cartel. There's plenty of sex, violence and a collection of Spanish epithets you're unlikely to pick up anywhere apart from a Guadalajara fish market. The key, though, is the two edgy, intelligent protagonists drawn by a very savvy author.

AJ Adams deftly mixes black humour and verbal quips with the darkness and intensity of her subject matter. Arturo, the cartel boss, says of a dirty London cop, "I now owned Davis from dandruff to bunions, but I still didn’t trust him a fucking inch." This novel is escapism with brains. It's gruesome in places, and it's funny. The sex is torrid. It's a really well-crafted novel that stands far above most of the others in its genre.  (And, I'm chuffed to tell you, it now has nary a comma nor an apostrophe out of place!)