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  1. New Orleans, 1958. Licensed under CC0 4.0. In our new Fall issue, no. 241, we published Nancy Lemann’s “Diary of Remorse.” To mark the occasion, we asked writers to reflect on Lemann’s remarkable literary career. In the early years of the revived Vanity Fair, I happened to be in Tina Brown’s office when the conversation turned to a dispatch Nancy Lemann had just filed from the trial of Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, which Nancy, a child of New Orleans, was covering for the magazine. Tina was dissatisfied, borderline exasperated: Nowhere in the article, she complained, did Nancy specify what the trial was about, what the actual charges were, and what the criminal penalties might be; it was all mood, séance atmosphere, and sketch artistry. This was not journalism as we knew it in the halls of Condé Nast. “I’ll talk to Nancy and get her to work all this in up front,” said Pat Towers, Nancy’s editor. In Towers’s comment, I caught an echo of something I once heard Nancy sigh aloud about: an editor’s suggestions regarding her latest novel manuscript, primarily its lack of story. “I guess I’ll have to go back and put in some plot,” Nancy had said—but of course you can’t retroactively implant a plot into a body of fiction as if installing a new transmission. Starting with her first novel, Lives of the Saints, Nancy Lemann has spread her impressions across the page in a style that calls to mind smooth, panning camera shots. Lives of the Saints, Sportsman’s Paradise, The Fiery Pantheon, Malaise (what a title, so Françoise Sagan): they’re like pre-mumblecore movies with a more interesting ensemble of neurotics, a firmer point of view, and a shapelier sense of comedy. No Lemann scene is complete without several characters in various stages of disrepair or subtle agitation, in need of flotation devices to get through the day. Although Nancy was a protégé of Gordon Lish, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Walker Percy—a heady triad of influences and personality-pluses that might have easily overloaded her circuits—her literary voice from the outset was assuredly, distinctively hers. In temperament and sensibility, she seems to me closer to F. Scott Fitzgerald than any of her mentors—or perhaps she’s Scott and Zelda rolled into one, her work suffused with a longing for a lost glamour. And she has no imitators. Unlike Scott and Zelda, though, Nancy and her autobiographical stand-ins are interested in comfort rather than luxury; they’re bohemian romantics with a fondness for familiar haunts and a taste for the shabby-genteel. I once made the mistake of chaperoning Nancy to CBGB, and as soon as she stepped through its grotty portal I sensed an inner freeze: punk was beyond the pale. For Nancy, bohemia was a blue-lit lounge leafed with fake palm trees, or a private social club where white-haired gents in rumpled seersucker beam benignly upon younger folks making tiny spectacles of themselves. Of all of her unjustly neglected books—none of them even available on Kindle, what gives?—The Ritz of the Bayou is the greatest. Lavishly described on the front cover as “the New Orleans adventures of a young novelist covering the trials of the Governor of Louisiana, with digressions on smoldering nightclubs, jazz-crazed bars, and other aspects of life in the tropic zone,” it possesses all the signature traits of her fiction—the rueful humor and wry asides, the sentences that unfurl like scarves from a magician’s sleeve, the damp moss of history underfoot in the present, the faded gallantry of good manners—with a larger probe of social anatomy and institutional drift. Its publication was a beau geste by Gordon Lish and Knopf; this fugue performance of personal reporting on a complicated trial with a mostly obscure cast of lawyers, reporters, local notorieties, and assorted eccentrics had no chance of commercial success. Nor did it attract the critical notice and fervent cult that sustain Lives of the Saints. In The Ritz of the Bayou, Nancy included all of the factual necessities that Towers found lacking in the piece she had been writing for Vanity Fair, but it’s not only as a work of journalism that the book deserves better than it got and gets. It reveals Nancy Lemann as an unrivaled, unlicensed detective in the art of “reading the room.” As soon as our correspondent takes her first gander at the courtroom, she knows she is where she is destined to be: “My heart was back in business when I saw all that human frailty.” Like the hedonistic governor in the defendant’s chair, she is loath to moralize and scold, musing, “Politics is not the place to look for saints. It’s not exactly the blue vault of heaven there, in politics.” Some of her other deadpan ironies are positively Murray Kemptonish: “The Prosecutor was not winning when he moralized about the Governor, who is known for gambling, womanizing, and risqué bon mots, for people hold few things as dear as those.” As the trial drags on, further delayed by the latest hurricane to barge in, entropy and brain fatigue take hold and morale unravels: “The jurors were beginning to fall to pieces.” Following a mistrial, the governor is retried, and the second jury pool is an even sorrier lot than the first (“The excuses were more lame than ever … ‘I’m constipated,’ ” et cetera). But somehow the judicial process proceeds on its rickety course, and the governor is acquitted—a strangely anticlimactic result, but somehow fitting for the endless soap opera that is Louisiana corruption, in which a new episode always awaits. Having no further vibes to harvest on this expedition, Nancy Lemann, Girl Reporter, bids a weary adieu, “for my days in politics are over.” A contributor to Air Mail, London Review of Books, and Liberties, James Wolcott is the author of the memoir Lucking Out and the essay collection Critical Mass. View the full article
  2. When I was a little girl, I made potions from my mother’s perfumes and lotions, much to her chagrin. The rose scent of those first potions still infuses my magickal sensibilities. My mother and I were both sexually abused as little girls. We grew up and stayed in toxic relationships with boys/men. My mother’s Catholicism and deeply rooted faith in its spiritual tenets saved her, quite literally. A Spirit appeared to her in a closet where she was hiding from her abuser and told her that he would keep her safe, and her faith has in many ways; shortly after that experience, my mother garnered the courage to scream her lungs out and use her gritona power to scare her abuser into never violating her again. My brujería is an amalgamation of the nascent inklings of the witchy, surreal world that appeared to me in my earliest memories comingled with the deep-seated faith of my mother, which manifests itself through Catholicism, yes, along with a sense of ritual and the sacred. I’m often asked why I call myself La Bruja since, for some Latinx folks, calling myself a bruja and invoking brujería in my writing carries a negative connotation that stems from the Spanish colonizers’ interpretation of ancient spiritual practices. But a new generation of brujas, myself included, are overturning stereotypical portrayals in literature, and pushing back against what it means to be a witchy woman of color in the United States and Latin America. Powerful, talented women with supernatural abilities are not new to Latinx literature; take, for example, Isabel Allende’s HOUSE OF SPIRITS or Laura Esquivel’s LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, both of which were foundational to my own blend of magical realism. But novels like Desideria Mesa’s BINDLE PUNK BRUJA and my RIVER WOMAN, RIVER DEMON (both of which are Most Anticipated Crime Books of Fall 2022) are reclaiming the term bruja. And not just in literature, but there’s a cultural shift in attitudes toward brujería as brujxs push back and destigmatize. So what does it mean to be a bruja and write a thriller from this perspective? Brujas have been cast as the villains for too long. Just as witchy women now are hexing the patriarchy and becoming more mainstream, Latinas and women of color too are turning the tables on what brujería is capable of accomplishing within the horror/thriller genres and the larger social and cultural landscape. The protective folk magick of my novel is based on the actual practices of people of color, including my familial practices. It resists stereotypes even as it embraces many classic elements of psychological thrillers and magical realism. Even the Charmed reboot, which has so many amazing elements, tends to focus on mainstream Wicca as the central magick, even though the protagonists are strong BIPOC/Latinas. My novel looks toward the magick of people of color—brujería, curanderismo, hoodoo—even as it shares many commonalities with Wicca and other Western pagan practices and beliefs. Just as witchy women now are hexing the patriarchy and becoming more mainstream, Latinas and women of color too are turning the tables on what brujería is capable of accomplishing within the horror/thriller genres and the larger social and cultural landscape. The protagonist of my new novel, Eva Santiago Moon, is a budding Chicana bruja—whose bruja mother died in childbirth, so Eva was raised by her conservative and well-meaning sister Alba, who isn’t interested in their cultural roots of brujería but instead nurtures her family in the kitchen with traditional comida. Eva is a strong, independent Latina mother deeply invested in her culture and its spiritual power but is mired in self-doubt and plagued by trauma-induced ghosts. While many psychological thrillers focus on rich, white women, Eva is Chicana, lives in the Southwest, and is the mother of biracial children. This story focuses on the holistic spiritual, and magickal (written with the “k” to denote a specific spiritual path) practices of BIPOC people embodied through Eva and her husband, Jericho. She is a woman who has lost her way and hopes to find it, a mother struggling to care for her family while maintaining her self-worth during a terrifying murder investigation. I’ve found that folks of color, particularly Latinx and indigenous communities, are often marginalized and overlooked in the media and literature (although I’m excited to see much more representation in the witching communities with the rise of brujería in the mainstream). We’ve been told to believe that darkness within ourselves, any manifestation of shadow, is our enemy, but Eva’s dark path as a bruja is the dark night of the soul (la noche oscura del alma) that leads her to deep truths and understanding that will embolden and strengthen her if she can trust herself. We need to listen to our inner voice and our ancestors’ wisdom and not let ourselves be gaslit or steered off course by society or those with skewed or selfish agendas. Eva comes to understand that she is the spell. Her magick is not external but internal—she’s had it all along. The inspiration for this story came from my childhood memories and PTSD, as well as a harrowing experience with a narcissistic abuser who had me all twisted up. As a practicing bruja who has healed both personal and ancestral trauma in myself and my family through brujería, I wanted to share the tools and practices that have strengthened and buoyed me in an accessible way. There are many wonderful nonfiction books on magical practices and witchcraft, but I’ve found that my magic is within my imagination, so I wrote a novel. When Catholicism gained its foothold in Latin America and the Southwest United States, those who practiced what we might call folk magick were considered witches (brujas, in Spanish) and feared as such. Patriarchal leaders feared women’s power, matriarchal knowledge, wisdom, and empowerment. They feared our Ancestors’ innate spiritual wisdom, rooted in self, family, nature, and Spirit—a wisdom that sought answers within rather than through any state-sanctioned religion. Over time, that fear spread, and we grew to fear ourselves. My practice of brujería is a cobbling together of traditions from my Catholic upbringing, my wild Spirit and rebellious nature, and my proclivity toward and interest in science, including cosmology and theoretical physics as well as plants and herbs. I also weave in the symbolism and iconography of my indigenous Ancestors in Mexico, as well as my reconnection with my indigenous origins in New Mexico and southern Arizona and Texas, where my maternal grandparents all have roots. At my home altar, I light candles for my antepasados (ancestors), La Virgen (Mother Mary), and her indigenous counterpart, Tonatzin, as well as Mexica goddesses like Coatlicue, who represents both creation and destruction, and Tlazolteotl, one of my favorite mother goddesses of divine love who takes in “filth” such as shame and purifies it. From this context, I reclaim the term bruja and the ritual of writing, which is how my magick most clearly presents itself—as a form of healing, manifesting, empowering, and overcoming. People are often drawn to me to help guide them through their personal and intergenerational trauma through writing, where they start healing themselves and allowing Spirit to flow onto the page and through their hearts. A connection to the Spirit world, the intangible otherworldly and Ancestral voices have allowed me to listen and to write what I hear… Brujería has been the key to my success as a writer, meaning it keeps me writing even when every bone in my body and every fiber of my mind protests. A connection to the Spirit world, the intangible otherworldly and Ancestral voices have allowed me to listen and to write what I hear, despite my sometimes debilitating chronic physical and mental illnesses; brujería helps me to quiet the trauma and the pain long enough to build entire worlds from thin air. If I’m down in the mud, Spirit gently shows me the stardust to scoop up and bring back with me to the page. The sacred that we honor also exists within us. We honor ourselves when we honor the sacred. When we honor the sacred, we claim our value and worth as inherent and undiminishable. We are the fire we light, the crystal we hold, the prayer we utter. I’m not sure most white folks understand how we folks of color, and Latinx people in particular, often must reclaim our cultural and ancestral heritage. It was not handed down to us. It had to be shrouded in secrecy, sometimes beaten or ridiculed or mandated out of our Ancestors by violent colonizers. Our Ancestors were often forced to assimilate and, over time, practices were lost to families. So when individuals with spiritual/magickal gifts come along, there is no one to train them because their great, great-grandmothers were silenced. Mine died in childbirth, crossing the border to have her daughter in New Mexico. My mama might well be a bruja too, although she’d probably be angry at me for suggesting so; she is now a Doctora of Nursing who went back to school in her thirties and earned her degrees while raising my two brothers and me. She has healing hands that turn hot to the touch when she’s laying hands, and they emit powerful restorative energy, which she chalks up to a spiritual gift from God—and I don’t doubt that’s true. Perhaps we use a different lexicon to describe the same thing. Magick doesn’t discriminate. Of course, we must be respectful and not culturally appropriate others’ sacred practices, especially for commercial gain. But that which belongs to our heritage and our families—as brujería belongs to mine and hoodoo to my husband and children—we alchemically infuse into a flexible, personal practice. There’s no one right way to practice. That narrow, dogmatic thinking belongs to patriarchy and religion—not magick. Early on my witching path, I asked another bruja how I could learn and if she had books to recommend, but she replied that she had several bruja teachers and a coven who showed her the path and didn’t know of any books. She said it in a tone of finality, closed conversation, no more questions asked. So I scoured the internet, the botánicas and apothecaries in my city and across the country, and found every witchy woman and bruja willing to open their practice, writing, and heart to me. I made my own familia/coven of like-minded spiritual women with natural proclivities for the otherworldly and attunement to the Spirits. Many of my bruja and witchy women friends are fellow writers and poets. We studied tarot together; we cast spells. We banished ancestral and personal demons, like sexual trauma and the toxicity of misogynist relationships, and held each other through the heartaches and hard growth of finding our true selves through breakups, divorces, job losses, births, and moving across the country for one reason or another. And all the while, I was finding the little girl I always was—the one my mama saw and loved but couldn’t necessarily understand outside of her religious framework that had protected her when she was a little girl in need of a defensive shield and sword. I was reclaiming the powerful warrior woman within myself, the nurturing mother I had always needed to heal my trauma, my mama’s, her mama’s, and hers—many generations back. And in so doing, healing the future and protecting my daughter so that she would never need to search far for her true source and strength. So that she would always know the great force and Ancestral power that resides within her. I became my own bruja, then wrote a book for you all who need it. Ask my daughter what she is, and she will tell you, proudly, a bruja. And she may even make you a rosewater concoction when she’s not writing her badass stories or slaying the patriarchy. So it is. Blessed be. *** View the full article
  3. Theo Wenner is a hotshot photographer. Fashion. Celebrities. Editorial. Big, glossy shoots for arty magazines you’ve never heard of, let alone read. He’s also the scion of a family which is intricately bound to celebrity: his father is Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone and Us Weekly. Theo does resemble his father a bit, the planes and shadows of the irresistibly charming Jann are evident in Theo’s face. He seems younger and more impressionable than he is, which is fortuitous. It’s a face you want to say yes to. Yet Theo has gone his way. When he hasn’t been jetting from one fancy shoot to another, he’s been hanging out not with models or actors but with the NYPD’s homicide division. The resultant book of Wenner’s portraits, Homicide, is a gritty love letter to New York’s finest. We talked about how and why he came to do this side project which became a major part of his life and changed the way he sees the world. Homicide for Beginners Lisa Levy: So how did you get involved in the project? This seems like a departure from what you usually do, or is what you do for money different than what you do for art? Theo Wenner: Yeah. it is kind of a departure photographically, but I’ve always been very interested in American culture and mythology. I wanted to look at what that mythology looks like. Lisa: Look at it as a photographer or as a person? Did you read a lot of mysteries or watch a lot of mysteries? What detectives are in your canon? Theo: I mean, so many, I couldn’t think of it on the spot. Tons and tons. Lisa: To me Homicide means the David Simon show, which predates you. Theo: Actually, I love that show. Lisa: Yeah, I do too. Theo: I love the book that he wrote called Homicide. I think it’s a masterpiece. That’s one of the best books I’ve read on homicide and detectives and just seeing it firsthand—it felt so unbelievably true to what I saw. I actually went back and read it again after I finished this project. Lisa: So it sounds like that was a motivating factor. Theo: I would say I’m a big fan of his. Lisa: Well, he’s really changed the way we look at cops. The Wire to a large extent really humanized and demonized the police. Tell me about the cops and their response to you and to the project. I guess some of them are probably comfortable with press, but you were in places that photographers don’t usually go. Theo: I don’t think any photographer has. They don’t even let police officers into the places that I went. I mean, it was pretty incredible and fascinating. And since it had never been done before, there was no precedent. I mean, there were no guidelines to measure against, so it was uncharted territory. Lisa: That’s great, as an artist. Theo: Which is a photographer’s dream, obviously. Lisa: Right. I mean, it sounds like gaining trust would be your main obstacle when you’re starting out. Theo: Oh, absolutely. Be Relentlessly Yourself Lisa: And given that we are in the middle of a civil rights movement that has to do with police, they must be defensive or a little bit skeptical of how they’re being portrayed in the press. Theo: I think when I first started spending time with them, they’re always making fun of each other, you know. They did the same to me and I think they saw that I could handle it and give it back to them. You just gotta be yourself, like you can’t be the person that you think you should be around them. You just have to relentlessly be yourself. Click to view slideshow. Lisa: I guess, you know, it’s their job. They have a nose for lies. Theo: Yeah. Maybe the best nose I’ve ever seen for that. That’s their literal job. And I thought about that very thing before meeting them. And I was like, you know, don’t dress different. Don’t do anything different. Don’t pretend like you’re not from Manhattan. Lisa: Well, how did you manage to get access? Theo: Oh, that took, it took years. I didn’t even really know who to ask or call, and I have this amazing producer that works for me. And we were figuring out where or what is the entry point? And we got in touch with a retired detective who is a consultant for film and television. Thinking that that person probably knows current homicide detectives. And then from there we got in touch with a current homicide detective and met him. And then from there he put us in touch with the D C P I, which is the press division of the N.Y.P.D. Asked them. They didn’t even respond. I didn’t even get rejected. I didn’t get an answer. Then we were hounding them. And eventually got them to agree to speak on the phone. Once I got them on the phone, I explained what it was. I think once they heard it from me, it made a little more sense to them. Then I started the project. They eventually agreed and had very specific parameters about what I could and couldn’t do. I had a babysitter with me. Lisa: They have handlers? Theo: I would’ve normally not agreed to such extreme guidelines, but I knew that I just needed to get in the door. And that’s exactly what ended up happening, just gaining trust, getting to know these guys. And then eventually them not noticing I was there. Lisa: Yeah. Well, I guess that’s your ideal, right? People are behaving, like they’re not being watched or photographed. They’re just doing what they would normally do. Theo: It’s only natural. In the beginning, people are aware of the camera, but over time you forget, you know, it just becomes background. You just, you’re not thinking about it like you did on day one. By the end I was just with them all the time. Lisa: You were embedded. Theo: I was in, I mean, they were, they were talking to me as if I was one of them. They’re always just talking about a theory or a scenario. They just talk out loud, they riff, and being a part of those conversations was pretty incredible. Lisa: Do you feel like they forgot about you? Theo: Oh no. I was very clear that what I was doing was not any sort of political statement. I’m just documenting what it is—I have no agenda either way. You Never Forget Your First Homicide Lisa: How do you feel about it now? Do you feel like there is a political message to the book? Theo: That’s up to the viewer. Lisa: And what do [the cops] think about the photographs? Theo: I’ve heard from quite a few of them. I think they liked it. I mean, these are guys that have a very difficult job. They deal with life and death on a daily basis. Those are some pretty major consequences. Lisa: So did you go out with them to a lot of scenes? Theo: Yeah. A lot, a lot. A lot of homicides. Lisa: And what was it like at first? Theo: I mean, you’ll never forget your first homicide. You’ll remember every single detail about it, which I do. You have no idea what you’re gonna see. I mean, knowing that you’re about to see someone who was shot in the head… Lisa: Right. So therefore there is probably very little head left. Theo: They all do it in their own way. Their ability to connect with somebody and read a room is just unbelievable. They’re like encyclopedias of human nature. Lisa: Well, it’s, it’s interesting coming from you who does a lot of work with celebrities and with people who have exaggerated personas. It sounds like these cops like have the goods, but they want to come off as normal and just like everybody else, so that they’ll get the confessions. Theo: They can talk to anyone. You could be talking to a monster who just killed his girlfriend with an axe—which I saw firsthand. I saw a crime scene where a guy had killed his girlfriend with an axe, which was, I mean, you could imagine… Lisa: Probably something you will not forget anytime soon. Theo: Yeah. And then I watched the interrogation of the suspect. I watched the detective talk to this guy and remain calm and not show any sort of judgment towards him. Lisa: That’s also something reporters do all the time. Project trust so you know, yet get the information that you need, even if it’s uncomfortable. How did the cops put people at ease? Was it just kind of bantering and you know, making it feel like everybody was friends? Theo: Yeah. Just banter. I think on some level everyone has something they can find in common with somebody, Lisa: And some people are very good at spotting those things or complimenting people. Theo: And you know, one thing they do also is they’ll rotate detectives in an interrogation to see how the suspect may respond better to one cop or another. They have roles. The tough guy, the comedian… Lisa: That is interesting in terms of your celebrity work because these guys are acting too. It’s for a purpose—they have these personas they can put on. Theo: Yeah. Lisa: And as a photographer, I would imagine what you want to do is capture those personas and then go past that to find the real person. Theo: Yeah. And it’s interesting, even the way they talk to witnesses is kind of similar. Because witnesses are so used to seeing TV shows. Spot the Cop Theo: They have a certain look. I was asking them why they have to dress that way? Cause they look like— Lisa: They look like cops. Theo: They look like the detectives you see on TV and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lisa: That’s interesting. Well, it’s also their suits, right? They don’t make a lot of money, and they have to wear a suit every day. You’re not going to Hugo Boss. Theo: it’s a very specific type of suit. I call it the cop suit. Lisa: I think it’s time for cop core to come around. Everybody will be letting themselves go bald and get kind of fat. Theo: The ties are amazing too. The colors! Lisa: That reminds me of the part in The Wire where they cut people’s ties off. And they’re all on the wall—that had to be a real thing. It’s so specific. Theo: Yeah. That’s amazing. Is that when you fall asleep on the job, they cut your tie? Lisa: Yes. That’s exactly it. I think is it Bunk Who’s sleeping and then the other cops come over with a scissor and you see the wall of ties. It’s really brilliant. Red on the Board Theo: They like all those traditions. I think it’s probably so specific to each precinct, but they give a trophy at the end of the year to the person that closes the least amount of cases. Lisa: Right. So like in Homicide, it’d be the name with the most red on the board. Theo: Yeah, the person with the most red on the board gets a trophy. Lisa: Oh wow. Theo: You don’t want that trophy. Lisa: How long were you were you working on this book? Theo: I think I spent about two and a half years photographing them. Lisa: That’s a significant amount of time. Theo: Yeah. I mean sometimes I’d do a fashion shoot or advertising job in the day and then I would leave the set and go directly to the precinct. Lisa: That must have been really jarring. Theo: Yeah. It was jarring. Art About Homicide Lisa: So what do you want the person who sits with the book for a while to think? Have you achieved your goal? Theo: You’ll have to tell me. I mean, I there’s nothing I specifically want someone to feel looking at the book Lisa: That is also political. Theo: I would just want someone to spend time and look at the photographs. I mean, you can come to your own conclusions. And many people see it in different ways. That’s what I want. Lisa: Right. You want the viewer to form their own relationship with these photographs. Theo: Yeah. I would like them to also like go back and look at the book a couple different times. Lisa: Every night? Theo: At least. Lisa: And then they can buy their friends a book. Theo: Yeah, exactly. Theo: Did you like the book? Lisa: I love the book. Theo: So glad to hear that. Lisa: This is essentially a kind of art book about homicide. My philosophy is that crime sites should be very interested in this and all those people who are obsessed with true crime should be interested too. What I wanted to do was to put this out there as narratives about cops. I do think you’re telling a story that is complicated. Those cops feel complicated—even when they’re trying to be light, there’s kind of a heaviness about them. Theo: That’s a really good observation. I’m glad you like the book a lot. That’s really good to hear and thank you. View the full article
  4. When we moved to Aix-en-Provence in 1997 it was a sleepy provincial town. You could park your car on the Cours Mirabeau, which at that time still had some mom-and-pop shops. Nowadays, only international chain stores can afford the rent on one of France’s most beloved main streets, and the obligatory underground parking garages can be full by noon. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was only eight years old (I devoured it on the plane moving here), and Occitane didn’t yet have a shop on the rue Espariat, nor in airports around the world or in downtown Dubai and Tokyo and Helsinki. As a writer I find it completely normal to be inspired by the place where you live, and despite its growth Aix remains an inspiration. These are some of the spots that I frequent, that have worked their way into my novels, and that touch me dearly: 1) Two Cafés: Le Grillon and Les Deux Garçons The faded and elegant Les Deux Garçons, with mirrored walls lined in gilt, has been a café since 1792. Cézanne and his best friend, Emile Zola, were regulars, and the café with its over-priced restaurant was visited by Churchill, Picasso, Edith Pïaf and Catherine Deneuve. Newcomers to Aix inevitably drift to Les 2 G’s, as I did, where I’d sit on the terrace and imagine the food and travel writer MFK Fisher there in 1960, chatting with her girls after they got out of school at Ste-Catherine de Sienne. She wrote, “The little girls drank lemonade and I beer in complete and sudden ease: we were in the right place at the right moment, and we knew it would last.” Sadly, a fire destroyed much of the café in 2019. Renovations have begun. Down the street is Le Grillon (Le Mazarin in my books), where I began writing my first novel in the early mornings after dropping my own daughter off at Ste-Catherine. Mornings are best here, inside its elegant interior of ochre-painted patina walls and saw-dust covered tiled floor, under the hush of clients’ whispers and the thudding noise of the espresso machine. Local lawyers arrive before 8:30am and throw their black judicial robes over the backs of chairs before heading off to court. And one of the best things about breakfast at Le Grillon, despite the mediocre coffee, is that they serve buttery moist croissants from Béchard across the street. It’s the café where the characters in my books regularly meet. They call it “the office” as my friends in Aix do. 2) Two Shops: Patisserie Béchard and the Fromagerie Savelli The best pastries in Aix are found at Béchard’s, and the best cheese at Savelli’s, both shops dear to the Aixois. Béchard’s, on the Cours, is an institution, as the queue that flows out of the shop and onto the street during certain fête times will testify. I love their springy brioches glacés for breakfast, and for dessert, the simple Chantilly-filled sponge cake Le Tropezien. My friend Philippe once found in his attic a receipt from Béchard for two brioches. It was handwritten, of course, and dated 1902. Cézanne himself could have been in the same queue as Philippe’s ancestor. On the other side of town, near the town hall, is the Fromagerie Savelli. Sylvie Savelli, a dark beauty, is a cheese affineur, meaning she ages her chevres, bleues, and tommes in three separate subterranean cellars beneath her shop. I never buy cheese at the supermarket anymore—it’s just never as flavorsome, or perfectly aged, as Sylvie’s—essentially, not worth the calories. 3) The Fountains Philippe (the same) remembers his grandmother filling up jerry cans with the healing waters of the Quatre Dauphins fountain, then lugging them, no matter the weather, back to the family mansion on the south side of the Cours. There are 23 fountains in Aix, and each one has its own story, its own charm. The fountain Des Neufs Canons in the middle of the Cours was permanently damaged in 1944 by an Allied tank; its neighbor, the fountain d’Eau Chaude (La Moussue to locals, as it is covered in moss from which steam rises up in winter) was also once damaged, in this case by “young imbeciles drunk on wine.” That was further back, in 1670. The most photographed fountain must be the one in the Place des Augustins; it’s not a particularly old fountain, but the square, paved with small rounded river stones and lined with charming 17th century mansions, is one of the city’s most beautiful. Aix’s fountains all have stories; one has a curse. I used it in one of my novels, naturally. 4) Cathedral Saint-Sauveur Aix’s cathedral may not be the city’s prettiest church (that prize goes to the smaller Saint-Jean de Malte) but it’s the oldest, work having begun in 500AD on the site of the abandoned Roman forum. Slender red Roman bricks and tall columns from a temple were reused in building the Cathedral; the columns can still be seen in the baptistery, the bricks on the exterior façade. Saint-Sauveur also houses one of the city’s most tranquil spots: a 12th century cloister that is lined by twin sets of columns, each capital exquisitely carved with biblical stories. There’s a restored sculpture of Saint Peter that is almost identical to one found at Saint-Trophime in nearby Arles. Here the Saint, who holds the keys to heaven, is full of personality; his face, hair and short curly beard are finely carved; his robes a mass of crisp vertical pleats from the layers of fabric he wears. It is assumed that the talented 13th century sculptor travelled from parish to parish working freelance. He would have trudged up these same neighboring streets, narrow and twisting, that remain unchanged since the Middle Ages. 5) The Markets You know a real food aficionado in Aix if they talk about the market stall of Mme Martin. She doesn’t sell bananas or pineapples, only fruit and vegetables locally grown on her farm outside of Aix. She’s a reoccurring minor character in my books. Mme Martin can be found in the enormous thrice-weekly market located on the Place des Prêcheurs. There’s also a daily market, in fact smaller and more intimate, on the Places des Herbes. In spring one producer proudly displays mountains of asparagus, thin and fat, white and green; another, in fall, sets up stacks of wild mushrooms. A group of nuns sells a small selection of dainty floral bouquets and some vegetables, very good quality if over-priced. But I’m not going to argue or barter with them. At 1pm waiters in neighboring cafés hover until the square is cleared and cleaned, then quickly set up their tables and chairs. 6) Atelier Cézanne At the turn of the century Paul Cézanne’s art was called, by an influential Aixois, « sale peinture » (dirty paintings), and the Musée Granet’s director vowed never to have Cézanne’s work exhibited in the museum. Aix thus missed out on owning a priceless collection. It’s a shock to think that Cézanne’s widow Hortense sold his work after his death at rock bottom prices so that she could have a bit of fun on the Côte d’Azur. Nevertheless, Cézanne’s spirit is felt all over town, and nowhere more than at his atelier. The dusty studio, located on a hill in the city’s north end, was left untouched after the artist’s death in 1906. The Provençal clay pots, colorful tablecloths, and stone cupids that starred in his revolutionary still-lifes fill the room; his hat and black coat hang in a corner. Up the street, wide stone steps lead through lavender and rosemary to a lookout with a view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire. From here Cézanne painted some of his one hundred-odd versions of the mountain, always feeling he never got it quite right. 7) Oratories Aix has one of France’s largest collections of oratories (92)—niches carved into street corners or façades that contain stone statues, sometimes accompanied by candles and flowers. Their purpose? To ask the saints’ intercession with God to prevent another deadly outbreak of the plague from entering the city. They were also reminders to say prayers, and possibly locations of blessings or even Mass. Most of the oratories contain the Virgin and Child; there’s a black virgin on the corner of the meter-wide rue Esquicho Coudre (Street of Squeezed Elbows), carved in 1663, and four statues of Saint-Roch, the patron saint in times of plague. Roch carries a staff and points to an open wound on his leg. A small dog sits before him; it’s the dog who nursed him back to health. 8) The Cours Mirabeau Aix’s main street, bordered by a double row of tall plane trees, was given its new name in 1876 to commemorate Count Mirabeau, who moved to Aix in 1772 after seducing a local noblewoman twenty years his junior despite his renowned ugliness (he had a deformed foot and over-sized head). Besides being an infamous ladies’ man, Mirabeau was also a politician, gifted orator, and writer who criticized the French monarchy but died young, at 42, while Louis XVI was still king. Before being paved in 1899, the Cours was dusty in summer and muddy in winter. Now, it’s best avoided on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, when market stalls selling polyester clothing made in Bangladesh fill its wide sidewalks. But it remains the pulse of Aix (you typically rendezvous with friends in front of Monoprix) and on September 11, 2001, it was there that I headed. I needed to be with my fellow Aixois, surrounded by the rhythm and beauty of the town. Cézanne wrote to a friend in 1896, “When I was in Aix, I thought I would be better off elsewhere. Now that I’m here, I regret Aix…when one is born here, that’s it, nothing else appeals.” *** View the full article
  5. I was 20 when I first told another person I’d been sexually abused as a child. My confessor is a dear friend; after nearly five decades he remains the oracle of a remarkably close circle of men forged together as American, middle-class Gen-X boys. Clem was post-high school, like me. Not yet seriously invested in higher education, like me. Not learned on the dynamics of grooming or child sexual abuse, like me. Yet he accepted my account with grace, compassion, and gentleness. His reaction, tender and beyond our years, emboldened me to open up to the rest of our group. Each accepted what I had to tell them and understood me better for it. And knowing me fairly well to begin with, they encouraged me to write about it. My first novel, Copperhead Road, was the product of that early, terrible work; a coming-of-age story, an exploration of horror, betrayal, shame and guilt, but ultimately hope and the power of adolescent friendship. The story is only marginally autobiographical; what happened to me was bad, but far less dramatic and systematic than what was suffered by the boys at the heart of the story, some “good,” some “bad.” The descriptors are in quotes because of their gross inadequacy at defining these characters, be they 17 (which most were) or three times that age. Indeed, the antagonist of Copperhead Road, a brutal, manipulative child sexual abuser, hiding in plain sight as a community leader, is a character more reflective of two-dimensional evil than most people I encountered in professional life. But that’s not to say I didn’t encounter them. I was 30 when I first prosecuted a child sexual abuse case, the eventual focus of my life’s work as an attorney. To the surprise of many who know my background, there was no passionate connection between my own memories and that case or the dozens after it. I am grateful for this, because I am not certain I could have done the work as effectively, ethically and compassionately as I did. No one in my professional life knew I had been a victim until much later. I assumed correctly that my superiors would not have wanted a prosecutor with a history of victimization to handle such cases. It would be believed, incorrectly if understandably, that I’d view them too emotionally. That I might stumble ethically for want of justice, or simply burn out too fast. None of those things happened. I made myriad mistakes and suffered growing pains, but in court I was always professional; in every area of the casework, I was hyper-ethical. Perhaps most important, I never lost sight of the humanity of everyone involved, the accused especially. If anything, the exposure to terrible facts, the testimonies of wounded victims, and the limited interaction with defendants only softened the contours of my definitions of right and wrong, good and evil. It’s not that these distinctions for me lost their meaning. The abject selfishness, wonton brutality and inexcusable disregard for others that underpins evil choices are very real and tremendously destructive. On the other hand, the root causes of those choices, for the thoughtful observer, become only more elusive with time. Satisfactory explanations for acts we criminalize—the kind that justify the Biblically-based punishments we mete out in courts of law—continue to slip our grasp like water through cupped hands. The intrusion of nature/nurture, the intersection of purpose and impulse, the barely cracked window into the brain-based science of behavior: all make our mission “to uphold the Law” ever more uncertain. I was 50 when I returned to writing in earnest and completed my second novel, Among the Dead. Like the two after it, Bleed Through and most recently City Dark, it’s in the legal thriller genre. I’m happy there, not uncomfortable with dramatizing the often-mundane work of crime, investigation, trial, and punishment. Drama and intrigue are a part of storytelling, and I believe I do it well. But in my later years, the itch I feel under my own skin, the one I wish to scratch the most on the page, is the broadening conflict between what we do as a society to answer “evil” and why we do it. More to the point, how dare we? I try to avoid the narcissism of the present, the easy trap of believing one’s own time is unique in the purest sense of the word. The ubiquitous abuses in American criminal jurisprudence, intractable racism, the criminalization of poverty, the gross inequalities dealt across the board wherever there are shackles, guns, and gavels, are ancient and universal. And yet only recently are even these scourges perhaps becoming overshadowed by a baseline question, one that cannot be forever batted away with religiosity or cultural strictures: What is the human creature and why does it do evil? Most importantly, how is our wanting, strained system, the thin-blue line, the 12 Angry Men, the endless acres of stone walls and barbed wire, in any way adequately responding to it? Each story I share with my readers echoes with these questions. I can only hope, with their help, to approach the answers. *** View the full article
  6. Jack Kerouac’s notebook. Image courtesy of the Jack Kerouac Estate and Charles Shuttleworth. Read any biography of Jack Kerouac and here’s essentially what you’ll learn: that in the summer of 1956 he spent two months in a mountaintop shack as a fire lookout for the US Forest Service in the North Cascades in Washington State, and nothing much happened. Mostly he was bored. Jack’s experience on Desolation Peak marked the climax of his involvement with Buddhism and of a decade of restless travel; it’s the high point of his journeying and spiritual seeking. A voracious reader, he nevertheless chose to go up the mountain without any books, only his personally typed copy of the Diamond Sutra, which he planned to read every day and transcribe yet again, this time in language more accessible to American readers, in order to achieve the enlightenment that he was certain would result. The extent of his solitude, thus, was acute. There were no radio stations from the outside world to tune into. No electricity. No running water. And most radically for Jack, two months without alcohol. It was his last, best chance to change the trajectory of his life, to avoid the alcoholic downfall that accelerated a year later with the instant celebrity from On the Road’s publication and that would ultimately kill him at age forty-seven. The following excerpts six pages from the one-hundred-and-eighty-page diary Kerouac kept during that time. —Charles Shutterworth Page 2 I will now write supreme book that will astound both Cowley & Giroux, a respected work now, like Town & City, to save & to exfoliate America & religious light & generation—If I find shack in Cascades I’ll stay there winter,—Big German police dog trots around my crate yard—Everything, 20,000 of it, is belonging to me because I am awake (“because I have my fish tail” says Claude)—Peter hanging out sleeping bags now in McCorkle’s shack—“It Happened In Mill Valley.” my enlightenment happiness—Nuff prose— The machine wheels turn straps Tree leaves away Page 10 Flowers in the lunchroom —Wednesday June 20 Napoleon in bronze— the burning Blakean Mountains Chow dog, Chinese woman— China cock crows Velvet horses in the valley Auction —Woman sings Talk of eaters low at table —Clink, clack Straw in paper glasswater shivers —Spoon in glass (Haiku longstyle) Page 11 SEATTLE NEXT MORN My Diamond Sutra said that there’s nothing but snowy white mystery—read it in a hush silence 15 ft ceilinged skidrow room smoking a butt at 8:30 AM, felt that old Diamond Feeling Poor tortured teeth under The blue sky (Haiku thought on road with ride I got from J[unction]City, to clear to Portland, little blond Jack Fitzgerald painter with splattered shoes & 4 cans of cold pint beer, we drank em & had another in a tavern with sweet sincere bartender)—In Portland we wailed on vast eternity bridge as draw went up to allow crane barge thru, big Montrealish smoky river city Page 13 curvy woods roads to Naval Base Bremerton to 50¢ Seattle Ferry where I paid Okie Slim’s fare (65¢) then went on top deck in cold drizzle for one hour sailing to Port of Seattle & I found a half pint of vodka on deck concealed under a Time Magazine & drank some in cold wind as we came on thru Puget Sound, wild, lyrical,—Mt. Olympus & Mt. Baker I guess to be seen & I think even Mt. Hozomeen on all horizons, wild, an orange sash in the gloom only over the Hokkaido Siberian Page 19 forest & no one was there to hear it wd it make any sound?”—And on & on, wild Buddha nature talk on all sides—I took dusk pace in old road in back, praying—Gotta put in 11 days of bunkhouse living till I get to my sweet hermitage—Too hot at lights out I went out & slept on grass awhile, finisht vodka, had a samadhi (drunken samadhi) of the tree who presented me his glittering diamond aspect full of forms & shot thru with regnant Tathagatas, one form an Assyrian king clown, perfect—diamond silence of Washington State—hold me on, Lord—decided on a month of solitude at any Matterhorn camp this October—then sweet solitariness in Mexico hut Page 23 The tranquil and everlasting essence, whether traveling as water, or sitting as peaks, or setting as snow, or hillhairing as trees, or dancing as sunlight thru the leaves, or passing as trucks, or digesting dinners, or being digested, or as shoes, or as imaginary blossoms in empty space, or as empty space, or as wind, or as marching clouds, or as ululating mysterious visionstuff, is still (with or without words) the tranquil & everlasting essence— Or as moss, or as bark, or as twigs, or as mud, or as bird, or as noise, or as whatness, or as the smile of pitying milk—or as a dream —it holds together— Image courtesy of the Jack Kerouac Estate and Charles Shuttleworth. Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) was born the youngest of three children in a Franco-American family in Lowell, Massachusetts. He attended local Catholic and public schools and won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York City, where he first met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. His first novel, The Town and the City, appeared in 1950, and On the Road, made him one of the most best-known writers of his time. Charles Shuttleworth has been studying the work of Jack Kerouac since the late eighties. He currently teaches Kerouac and the Beats at the Harker School in San Jose. This is an excerpt from Desolation Peak: Collected Writings by Jack Kerouac, with an introduction and notes by Charles Shuttleworth, which will be published by Rare Bird in November 2022. View the full article
  7. In novels (if not in life) there is something very pleasurable about being taken for a ride. You might argue that all fiction does this by luring the reader into a temporary belief that made-up people and events are entitled to their time, energy and emotions—but the effect is definitely heightened when an unreliable narrator is part of the mix. The lack of reliability may be innocent: a result of the narrator’s own limited perspective. It may be knowing, but well-meant, if they have a particular agenda to push. On the other hand, the unreliable narrator may be a deliberate manipulator, wanting nothing more—or less—than to mess with the reader’s mind. The unreliable narrators in this list range from guardians of moral virtue, to enchanting spinners-of-yarns, to out-and-out psychopaths. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller (2003). Notes on a Scandal is the story of school teacher, Sheba Hart, and her affair with a teenaged pupil. It is also—or perhaps it is really—the story of a very twisted friendship, as told by Sheba’s colleague and confidante, Barbara Covett. Barbara, a lonely woman in her sixties, who has struggled all her life to maintain proper friendships, is deeply drawn to her younger, prettier co-worker, and an unequal friendship begins: superficial on Sheba’s part, increasingly obsessive on Barbara’s. When the illicit teacher-pupil affair becomes a public scandal, Sheba’s life implodes, and she becomes a pariah. How ‘fortunate’ then (inverted commas very much intended) that Barbara is on hand to provide comfort and protection. Notes on a Scandal is a dazzling exploration of the blurred border between love and cruelty, and it is Barbara’s voice—insinuating, needy, touching, domineering, sinister—that generates the story’s power. Darling by Rachel Edwards (2018). [SPOILER ALERT] Some unreliable narrators have an iffy smell about them from the get-go (Barbara, from Notes on a Scandal, is a case in point). Others seem so trustworthy and endearing that the reader will take their hand without a second thought, and allow them to lead the way. Rachel Edwards’ eponymous Darling belongs in the latter category. Everything about Darling’s story puts us squarely on her side: the racism she experiences as a British-Jamaican marrying into a white family; her bravery as the mother of a seriously ill child; the sheer warmth, passion and generosity of her voice. It’s so easy to forget—in fact, at the hands of such a skilled storyteller, it’s virtually impossible to remember—that this is the version of events Darling wants you to hear, and not necessarily the truth. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). At first glance, Jane looks like the opposite of an unreliable narrator. Even among the ranks of virtuous Victorian heroines, she is notable for her honesty and moral courage, and the novel gives no sense at all that Charlotte Brontë wants her readers to doubt her heroine’s account (no slippery post-modern shenanigans here, thank you very much). However, I think this makes Jane the perfect illustration of the thesis that there can be no such thing as a reliable first-person narrator. Unlike the omniscient third-person narrator, who is able to dictate the terms of his or her fictional universe to the nth degree, the first-person perspective is necessarily limited, as in real life. Other characters’ secret thoughts, feelings and motivations remain mysterious. It may be true that Aunt Reed is a shallow, cruel and unimaginative ogress, and nothing more … but what would Aunt Reed’s take be, if she were pushed to give her own account? What about Grace Poole, or Blanche Ingram, or little Adèle? Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (‘mad’ Bertha Rochester’s famous riposte) is proof of just how much scope the unreliable narrator—even one as high-minded as Jane Eyre—leaves open for new perspectives, which may both challenge and enrich the original narrative. The Magus by John Fowles (1965). If you don’t enjoy being blindfolded and spun round and round on the spot by an unreliable narrator, then The Magus is one to avoid. Nicholas Urfe is a young Oxford graduate, teaching English on the Greek island of Phraxos. He makes friends with an eccentric recluse, Maurice Conchis, who starts playing bizarre tricks on Nicholas—a series of psychological games which become ever more weird and elaborate as the story progresses. As Nicholas loses his grip on the truth, the reader does too. There were so many turning-points in this novel where I thought, “Ah ha! Now I get it!” only to have the rug whisked from under my feet … again. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926). [SPOILER ALERT] Christie’s novel caused controversy on publication, by breaking the first ‘rule’ of the Whodunnit, as codified by Ronald Knox a couple of years later: “The criminal […] must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.” The story, concerning a series of murders in the sleepy English village of King’s Abbot, is narrated by Poirot’s mild-mannered sidekick, Dr. James Sheppard. In a shock twist, at the very end of the book, the killer turns out to be—yes, you guessed it, but only because you’re reading a piece about unreliable narrators—Dr. James Sheppard. Brilliantly, Christie does not allow her narrator to record a single falsehood; his slippery omissions and evasions are enough to conceal his guilt. Christie may well have pushed the possibilities of the unreliable narrator to their absolute limits with Roger Ackroyd, but she made it work, as only she could. In 2013, the Crime Writers’ Association called this novel, “the finest example of the genre ever penned.” A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962). In this futuristic satire, a subculture of teenage gangs is terrorising the population of a grimly-envisioned England, and the state will stop at nothing to subdue them. The sociopathic protagonist, Alex (“Your humble narrator”), tells the story via a mixture of English and Anglo-Russian argot called Nadsat, which Burgess invented for the book. In the first edition, no key was provided for the slang, and the only way for the reader to try to make sense of it was by total immersion in the narrator’s hideous mindset. At the heart of the book is the question of whether it can ever be right for the state to recondition someone’s mind by force, however delinquent they may be. Burgess’s answer would seem to be no—that freewill trumps everything—but it’s interesting to wonder what the answer would look like from the perspective of a different character. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). Words can be a toxic hazard, as demonstrated by Nabokov’s infamous masterpiece. The novel is told from the perspective of paedophile and murderer, Humbert Humbert, and follows the course of his sexual obsession with a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores Haze (upon whom he imposes the more fantasy-friendly name, Lolita). Humbert marries Dolores’s mother in order to gain access to the child, and is widowed shortly afterwards. Stepfather and stepdaughter then embark upon a cross-country road trip, during which Humbert’s abuse of Dolores becomes increasingly physical, and his efforts to retain her interest increasingly frenetic. What makes the book difficult, as opposed to simply repellent, is Humbert’s artistry as a narrator. He flatters, seduces and wows with his flamboyant prose style, to such an extent that the reader is in danger of being brought on side: willing to condone the actions of a monster, because the monster spins his yarn so well. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001). Martel once said of his most celebrated novel, that it can be summed up in three phrases: “Life is a story”; “You can choose your story”; “A story with God is the better story”. Pi, a young Indian boy washed-up on a Mexican beach, tells of the Pacific shipwreck in which his family and their migrating zoo were drowned, and of the subsequent two hundred and twenty-seven eventful days he has spent at sea, in a lifeboat, with only a Bengal Tiger for company. It is a compelling tale of friendship, faith, beauty and survival—but Pi’s rescuers refuse to buy it. He offers them an alternative version, in which there is no magic; only a drab ordeal of suffering and brutality. Since neither story can be proved or disproved, Pi’s rescuers (and, by extension, Martel’s readers?) agree to believe the first. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). A child narrator is always going to have a somewhat skewed perspective, if only because he or she is still at the stage of discovering who they are, and what they think, in a world run by adults. For the modern reader of this American Classic, the story of Huck’s relationship with Jim, the runaway slave, is likely to be the most important thread in the book. Mark Twain’s agenda is (by the standards of his time) anti-racist, and yet in order to illustrate the entrenchment of nineteenth century attitudes, he allows Huck—our hero—to feel desperately conflicted about the rights and wrongs of helping Jim (Miss Watson’s ‘property’) to win his freedom. It’s an interesting—and challenging—example of an author in conflict with his own narrator. From the reader’s point of view, it’s just as well that Huck is a child, trying to navigate an upside-down moral universe. If he were an adult, we might be less willing to forgive his ambivalence. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005). This is an almost unbearably intriguing novel, which reveals the true nature of its narrator, and the horror of her story, very gradually. Kathy is a Carer, whose job is to look after organ donors, and she spends much of the book reminiscing about her childhood and the nice-but-peculiar English boarding school that she attended with her friends, Tommy and Ruth. So far, so benign, and yet … the words Kathy uses to describe her situation (the teachers at her school are known as ‘guardians’, for example, and the patients who die in her care are referred to as having ‘completed’) don’t feel quite right. It becomes increasingly clear to the reader that Kathy is employing euphemisms, and the effect is deeply sinister. Never Let Me Go is a journey of self-discovery in the most heart-breaking sense, and Kathy is an unreliable narrator because the world in which she lives is doing its utmost to blind her to her own identity. *** –Featured image: Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino. Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. 1524 View the full article
  8. The CrimeReads editors select the month’s best new novels. * Wanda M. Morris, Anywhere You Run (William Morrow) Wanda Morris burst onto the scene last year with her impeccably plotted legal thriller, All Her Little Secrets, and her new novel keeps a legally-minded heroine as one of its leads but takes us back to 1964. When Violet Richards is raped by a white man, she takes her revenge, then goes on the run, soon followed by her sister Marigold, who aspires to be a lawyer but first must make a decision about her unwanted pregnancy. A southern setting where voting and abortion are both increasingly restricted feels…rather like today, if I’m honest. Wanda Morris, too, has noted the parallels, and there is a sense of political urgency that helps speed this thriller along. –MO Kaoru Takamura, Lady Joker Translated by Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida (Soho) I’m a big fan of big novels, and Kaoru Takamura’s Lady Joker is an epic for the ages. The first installment of 500+ pages took us into a fictionalized account of an industrialist’s kidnapping that captivated Japanese media for upwards of two years in the mid-90s. Now, we get to read the impeccably translated followup as Takamura continues to weave together elements of crime, social criticism, and literary epic. I described the first one as James Ellroy if written by Don Delillo, and I stand by that comparison. –MO Joanna Margaret, The Bequest (Scarlet) This debut from art historian Joanna Margaret hopscotches across European art and academia hot spots and delivers on a wild ride with nods to gothic fiction and dark academia, accompanied by smart notes of Hitchcock to round out this exemplary thriller. With a doctoral candidate at the center of the plot, you can expect an erudite unraveling of the mystery, as well as some pressure cooker atmospherics from some of the grandest spots on the international intellectual circuit. –DM Roger A. Canaff, City Dark (Thomas and Mercer) In this gorgeous and shattering novel from powerful new voice Roger A. Canaff, two young brothers must navigate their way through New York City during a blackout after their mother goes to get gasoline and never comes back. Something happens to the boys on their trek through the city; something that changes them irreparably. Decades later when the woman who abandoned them turns up murdered, it’s finally time to deal with the consequences of that terrible night. –MO Lev A. C. Rosen, Lavender House (Forge) In the midst of an America under the sway of McCarthyism, a gay policeman gets caught in a raid on an underground club and finds himself at loose ends and newly a pariah. Rescued from suicidal ideation by the wealthy owner of a soap dynasty, he accepts a commission to investigate a murder in a house where everyone is queer, including the servants and the victim. Lavender House, an art deco mansion in a secluded area outside of San Francisco, is more than just a refuge for those who would live openly as gay, and as the ex-cop uncovers its secrets, his own life becomes more and more in danger. –MO Scott Turow, Suspect (Grand Central) Turow is still mining the endless corruption and intrigue of Kindle County, Illinois, the longtime home of his sophisticated thrillers. In this new chapter, a police chief is accused of soliciting sex in exchange for department advancement, an accusation she vehemently denies and says is part of an insidious campaign against her. Her attorney and his private eye go on the search to find out just how deeply rooted the campaign is, and in the process expose a few dark new layers to the county’s underbelly. Turow, as always, provides lush prose and a heady mix of ideas amidst the hard-charging action. –DM Erin E. Adams, Jackal (Ballantine) As Jackal begins, Liz Rocher has reluctantly headed home to Johnstown, Pennsylvania for her childhood best friend’s wedding. She’s prepared for the micro-aggressions from her friend’s racist family, but during the celebration something far worse happens—a beloved child goes missing, and the key to her disappearance stretches back over decades of missing children, all of them young Black girls last seen around the summer solstice. Meanwhile, a spirit in the woods is close to taking corporeal form and rejecting the bonds of its human master. A social thriller perfect for fans of Jordan Peele, Jackal also comfortably rides the folk horror wave. Like Bethany C. Morrow’s Cherish, Farrah, Jackal also asks compelling questions about who society values as worthy of protection, and the true nature of monstrosity. –MO Adam Hamdy, The Other Side of Night (Atria) With The Other Side of Night, Hamdy has crafted an intricate, exhilarating mystery that makes it feel as though the ground is shifting beneath your feet. A man’s deepest regret, a note in a used book, a detective with unexpected links of her own to the case—this one will leave readers short of breath and eager for more. –DM Marcie R. Rendon, Sinister Graves (Soho) A drowned woman in a drowned land: that’s how Marcie R. Rendon’s third novel begins, as water recedes from the Minnesota landscape after a huge snowmelt, and a young Ojibwe woman is found murdered. Cash Blackbear, an Ojibwe college student, decides to seek her own answers in the case, following the victim’s trail to an evangelical church that feels more like a cult than a house of worship. Once again, Rendon immerses us in the 1970s Midwest and gives readers a plot to carefully consider. –MO Mur Lafferty, Station Eternity (Ace) This book is so much fun. What if Jessica Fletcher’s tendency to have people die around her had led to instructions to self-isolate for the benefit of society? And what if that isolation had taken place on a space station rather like Babylon Five? In Station Eternity, a young woman who has solved a suspicious number of murder mysteries flees police attention on Earth and heads to a space station with few other humans on board. Of course, someone on board the space station would have the temerity to be murdered, and once again, all signs point to Lafferty’s protagonist unless she can solve the crime herself. –MO View the full article
  9. Considering how much I write about murder, I’m surprisingly sappy around the Christmas season. I enjoy cooking for people, I love giving gifts, and I’m such a sucker for holiday romance movies that I’ve started an annual tradition with one of my closest friends where we create a holiday romance movie spreadsheet and then hold weekly streaming parties to get through as many as we can (and force our husbands to join us). That’s right, there’s a Christmas romance movie spreadsheet. My friends don’t play. For me, the holidays are a time for family, friends, and feasting, a time of hope, and a time of merriment. All the things I love. But I also know for many people, the holidays are also a time for capital D Drama, which makes them an excellent setting for books. But romance isn’t the only genre that gets to enjoy the magic of the holidays—there are a plethora of mysteries that use Christmas time for dramatic effect. My newest book, Blackmail and Bibingka, takes advantage of the lead-up to Christmas (a huge holiday for Filipinos, with the Philippines holding the record for the longest Christmas season in the world) to explore themes of family and forgiveness, joy and jealousy, and the power of a really good karaoke party. To celebrate Blackmail and Bibingka’s release, I made a list of my top 5 Christmas-themed mysteries, guaranteed to get you in a merry, murderous mood: The Art of Theft: The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas The Lady Sherlock series is my current favorite series, and somehow each and every book that comes out (there’s six so far, with a seventh coming out next spring) is an absolute banger. The Art of Theft is the fourth book that follows our gender-bent protagonist, Charlotte Holmes, and is a bit of a departure from the previous books in that the case in question involves an art heist rather than murder. The glamor! The relationships! The intrigue! The continually raising stakes! I really love a dangerous ballroom scene, and while this book doesn’t include any sexy dancing (that I remember) there is more than enough scandal going on at this Christmas party to keep Charlotte and her crew busy. Come for the twisty mysteries, stay for the anguished yearning. Wed, Read & Dead by V.M. Burns The Mystery Bookshop Mysteries is the epitome of a cozy read to me: it follows Samantha Washington, who opens a mystery bookshop to fulfill the dream she and her deceased husband shared. One of the best things about this series (other than the absolutely delightful cast) is that each book features two mysteries in one: Samantha is also an aspiring mystery writer, so readers get to enjoy the contemporary murder mysteries that plague Samantha and her close-knit group, as well as snippets of the British historical mystery that she’s working on. This fourth book in the series is not only set around Christmas, but also a wedding, and we know what kind of drama weddings can bring! Death in D Minor by Alexia Gordon I love the Gethsemane Brown series, which follows a Black classical musician who moves to a small Irish village to start a quiet new life, only to befriend the ghost haunting her cottage and become an amateur sleuth in the process. While I love romance (if I hadn’t made that abundantly clear in my opening), I know it’s not for everyone, so this is a great series for those not interested in romantic relationships, but still invested in deep familial and platonic ties. The second book in the series has Gethsemane accidentally conjuring up the wrong ghost in order to save her brother-in-law, who stopped in for a visit and is now the main suspect for art theft and murder. A typical Christmas vacation, am I right? The Glass Thief by Gigi Pandian The Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series is so much fun! We get to follow the intrepid, globe-trotting protagonist, Jaya Jones, as she solves present-day crimes linked to treasures from India’s colonial history. The sixth book in the series involves a locked room mystery (and if you don’t know, Gigi Pandian is the contemporary queen of the impossible crime), looted treasure from Cambodia, and an alleged ghost responsible for three unsolved murders over a seventy year timespan, each taking place right before Christmas. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries: Murder Under the Mistletoe (Season Two, Episode Thirteen) OK, so this is a TV episode and not a book (though the show is based on the Phryne Fisher novels by Kerry Greenwood), but it is too good to not include on the list. This season two finale follows our lady detective and friends on a ski holiday for (Australian) Christmas in July. When Phryne arrives at the lodge, she learns about the “accidental” death of one of the workers. She suspects foul play and is soon proven right when another dead body turns up, but the police investigation hits a bit of a snag when a snowstorm traps everyone at the chalet, and the lodgers are murdered one by one to the theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Honorable mentions: “The Dauphin’s Doll” by Ellery Queen This is a short story recommended to me by S.A. Cosby. I wasn’t able to hunt down a copy of this story in time for this listicle, but he said it was his “favorite Ellery Queen story and it’s an impossible crime story as well” so I knew I had to include it on this list. Thanks for the rec, Shawn! Peril & Prayer: A Sister Lou Mystery by Olivia Matthews This was a book recommended to me by a fellow Crime Writers of Color member that I didn’t have time to read but have added to my holiday TBR. What other mysteries should I add to my Christmas TBR? Also, I’d love to learn about more mysteries centered around non-Christian holidays, so if you have any recs, please let me know! *** View the full article
  10. The world of espionage has always fascinated me—from the intrigues of Francis Walsingham on behalf of Elizabeth I to twentieth century wartime operations, through the Cold War, and all the way up to the workings of the modern CIA. While the action-packed adventures of James Bond and Jason Bourne are fun to watch, to me there is something even more compelling about people who use intelligence and ingenuity, rather than fists and firepower, to fight for their country. Traditionally, most spy stories have focused on men, and it’s true that historically, the occupation of spy has been largely a male preserve. But with manpower short in wartime Britain, many women were given the opportunity to work in the intelligence services and wound up doing the same work as their male counterparts, almost always for less pay. Here are just some of the fascinating females who worked in that field. Victoire “Paddy” Ridsdale The subject of my new novel, One Woman’s War: A Novel of the Real Miss Moneypenny, Paddy Ridsdale was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1991 for her wartime service. She is widely thought to be the woman on whom the James Bond character of Miss Moneypenny was based. Paddy was employed as a secretary for the British Directorate of Naval Intelligence in Room 39 at the Admiralty during World War II. She worked for several officers, including Commander Ian Fleming, who eventually wrote the James Bond novels based on his experiences as personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence during the war. It was perhaps an early indication of Fleming’s dramatic flair that he came up with the idea behind one of the most eccentric and effective intelligence deceptions of all time: Operation Mincemeat. This was a ruse by which the British sought to fool the Germans into believing they intended to invade southern Europe via Greece instead of the obvious invasion point of Sicily. The British floated a dead body off the coast of Spain dressed in the uniform of a British Royal Marine and carrying papers that pointed toward the false invasion point. To make sure that the dead body seemed real to the Germans, the officers at Naval Intelligence went to extraordinary lengths to create a legend for the dead officer, including giving him a girlfriend called Pam. Paddy Ridsdale was asked to participate as a field operative in Operation Mincemeat, and given the task of pretending to be Pam, a task she undertook with alacrity. More recently, at age seventy-five, the redoubtable Paddy hit the newspapers when she fended off a mugging by kicking her assailant in the groin, commenting that her years of ballet gave her the requisite flexibility. The mugger, who had been trying to yank her wedding rings off her finger, ran away. It is that spirit, along with Paddy’s keen mind, which I have tried to convey in my novel, One Woman’s War. While several women have been mentioned as having inspired the creation of Miss Moneypenny in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Paddy Ridsdale best fits the bill. Intelligent, cool, elegant, determined, and well respected by her colleagues, Paddy denied mooning over Fleming the way Moneypenny did over Bond! Jane Archer I’ve always been fascinated by the Cambridge Spies, a group of British students who were recruited as intelligence agents by the Soviet Union while at Cambridge University. With considerable forethought, even before the Second World War, the Soviets decided to play the long game. They chose intelligent, well-connected young British men and steered them toward prominent positions in the media and in the intelligence and diplomatic services in Britain. Many years later, those recruits would be activated and operate for many years before they were exposed as traitors in a devastating blow to British intelligence. Perhaps the most famous of the Cambridge spies was Kim Philby, who worked for the Security Services and supplied the Soviets with a stream of important intelligence throughout World War II and for much of the Cold War, as well. He was recruited in 1934 and defected to the USSR in 1963 after he was finally unmasked. I was reading Philby’s autobiography, My Silent War: The Autobiography of a Spy, when I came across a mention of a female intelligence officer called Jane Archer. When told she might join his intelligence section, Philby said, “This suggestion gave me a nasty shock, especially as I could think of no plausible reason for resisting it. After Guy Liddell, Jane was perhaps the ablest professional intelligence officer ever employed by MI5.” I was hooked! Who was this woman, the only person Philby mentioned in the entire autobiography to have given him serious cause for disquiet? Recruited to MI-5 as a clerk in 1916, Jane Archer also trained as a barrister while working her way up the ranks of the service. She eventually became the first female intelligence officer at MI-5. Skilled in the art of cross-examination, and in Philby’s words, “tough-minded and rough-tongued”, Archer had debriefed the defector and former Red Army intelligence officer General Krivitsky in 1939 and her masterly extraction of intelligence from the general became a textbook example of the skill. Jane discovered from Krivitsky that there was a mole in British Intelligence, a man the Soviets had sent to Spain (reportedly to try to assassinate Franco) during the Civil War when he was a young journalist. This young journalist was, of course, Philby himself. Philby made a point of diverting Archer to work in a different area so she was unlikely to make the connection between him and Krivitsky’s mole. Unfortunately, I was unable to find out much more about her or her reaction to Philby’s eventual defection. I burned to know whether she ever suspected Philby, or whether she discounted the vague and unsubstantiated tidbit from Krivitsky as so many others had done. And if she had suspected Philby, what would she or could she have done in the face of the overwhelming support he seemed to have from the British Establishment? Unfortunately, in 1940, Jane Archer was sacked for insubordination after denouncing the incompetence of the new director of MI-5. Philby must have breathed a sigh of relief. Vera Atkins In the summer of 1940, the Special Operations Executive was formed as a secret army to fight behind enemy lines in Europe. The SOE’s brief was espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance, and they also helped establish and arm resistance networks across France in preparation for D-Day. Sometimes known as “the Baker Street Irregulars” because of the location of their headquarters in Baker Street, London, the SOE tended to recruit amateurs–lawyers, bankers, secretaries and housewives. The recruits told their families they worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fish but in fact, they were sent to risk their lives in secret. The SOE ran several training facilities on large estates all over Britain and Scotland, so that another nickname for the outfit became “Stately ‘Omes of England”. Agents, men and women alike, trained in outdoor survival skills, firearms, the art of disguise, safe-cracking, parachute-jumping, wireless transmission and a myriad other skills they would need as agents. Vera Atkins started out as a secretary at the French “F” Section of the SOE but quickly rose through the ranks as her intelligence and competence became clear. She became assistant to section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster and an intelligence officer in all but title. Vera was not a British citizen, a fact she tried her best to conceal throughout the war. It wasn’t until 1944 that Atkins became a British citizen and she was subsequently commissioned as a Flight Officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Atkins was responsible for recruiting and preparing agents to be dropped behind enemy lines in France. Everything they carried on them, down to their cigarettes and the fillings in their teeth, must be indisputably French and Vera would check everything, even the labels on their clothing, before they left for France. Tragically, an SOE agent had betrayed the members of his circuit to the Germans in Paris, so many of the agents sent to France were rounded up on arrival and interrogated, and later executed or sent to concentration camps. Atkins was a complex character, and she was blamed by some for failures and mistakes on the SOE’s part that led to the deaths of many of their agents. After the war, she made it her mission to find all of her missing agents, with the cooperation of the Special Air Service, who were also desperate to find the men they’d lost to Hitler’s “Night and Fog” policy—any agents or commandos found behind enemy lines were stripped of identification and executed without any record of how or where they died. Vera Atkins fought to make sure that the fallen female agents were commemorated in the places of their deaths and recognized by the British Government. *** View the full article
  11. There were signs of life back on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. Brighton Beach Avenue was entirely quiet, but on the boardwalk, husbands and wives strolled to-and-fro. They wore down coats from the bargain basement shops on Brighton Beach Avenue. They delighted in the stillness of the night—engaging in a European mode of relaxation called la dolce far niente—sweet inertia. To my anxious Egyptian eyes, they looked like zombies. They say that the boardwalk at Brighton Beach looks like St. Petersburg. Some of the night people of the boardwalk looked like their parents had, strolling in their sensible, Soviet, monochromatic woollens along the frigid Baltic. I was hurriedly scrolling through my options on Pound, the gay app, while Tony, one of my lovers for the evening, observed the passersby. My grandfather Wassim, who raised me, had always marvelled at how quickly I texted — how fast my thumbs were able to move. Wassim’s last mobile was a flip phone with no internet connectivity. He was not a luddite. He had seen many fads come and go, and he was keen to learn new things. He was learning Mandarin when he died. But something about the way I had become drawn into my phone, the way my head bent before it, upset him. Wassim’s hatred of smartphones was not a question of the privacy concerns that people raise these days. Wassim was not the kind of man who cared whether online marketers knew he loved oatmeal. And yet he was certain that each new generation of smart phone was a kind of progress that takes a step backward. ‘What about this guy?’ I asked Tony, showing him my phone. ‘He’s in Sheepshead Bay — just one stop away on the Q train’. His username was an emoji: a pair of suspicious-looking side-eyes. In Pound parlance, this meant that this Pound user was ‘looking’ – that he was actively seeking a hook-up. His profile picture showed him standing on the beach covered head-to-toe in Adidas athletic wear. He had cropped his head out of the picture. He was 41 years old, 177 centimetres tall, 67 kilos, ‘Average’ body type, male, discreet, single, HIV negative on PrEP, and looking for casual hook-ups. ‘What’s his face look like?’ Tony asked. ‘I thought you didn’t care’, I replied. ‘This guy says he’d be down just to watch’. ‘Well I don’t want him to look scary’, Tony said. ‘It’d be a bit distracting to have a Picasso leering at us at the end of the bed, don’t you think?’ I asked for a face pic. The Pound user blocked me immediately, in response. ‘The little gonad blocked me!’ I exclaimed. ‘Can you believe the nerve of some people?’ Another account appeared on the menu grid of possibilities. Just 1.3 miles away. Blank profile. ‘HOST’ was his username. No stats. Just a few more-or-less words in the self-description: ‘STR8 4 STR8’. Hey bro, I wrote. What’s up? Faggot, HOST replied. The fuck? We’re both on Pound fuck face? I replied. What a sad, faceless little man. If you had any balls you’d show your sorry little face when you use homophobic slurs on a gay sex app. Tell me that to my face, HOST replied. I would if you had one! I’ll slice you I reported and blocked the profile. ‘What’s wrong’, Tony said. ‘You look upset’. ‘Nothing — just a whimsical, little Coney Island crackhead said he wanted to slice me up!’ ‘Ah the goodly people of the hook-up app, society’s cream of the crop’, Tony said and returned to his people watching. A yellow sports car pulled up to the roundabout near the bench where we sat. A pale blue and purple strobe light turned on inside the car. The driver rolled down the window and the song Плачу на техно – Plachu na Tyekna — Crying over Techno played with heavy bass from his surround sound. Tony and I watched him look out his window broodingly into the infinite blackness of the Atlantic Ocean for a moment. Then the song ended. He flicked a cigarette out the window and drove off into the night. I looked back to my phone. I had several messages — not on Pound but on Instagram. It was Akram, my digital friend in Alexandria. Hey Sam Good morning Or goodnight, whatever. I have a surprise for you, Akram wrote. I spoke with a municipal history expert at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, our famous library. My heart began to beat through my chest. Flower Street is now called Freedom Street. I went there to take you some photos, so you could finally see it. One moment. And then they came to me like a dam had broken, in rapid succession — Photos of Freedom Street. I reckoned not much had changed since Wassim’s time. The buildings were just as regal. They had only become a bit more ghostly, beaten about by the elements and cloaked in a film of age. Then Akram sent two videos: one of the large coastal avenues and the glistening Mediterranean beyond them and the second of young Akram walking up Freedom Street. At the head of the street, close to the water, was a Chili’s – تشيليز — one of the American chain restaurants famous for the barbecue ribs. I marvelled at the sight of an American restaurant on a side street off the Alexandrian coast. I was both relieved and disturbed to find something so familiar there. And then I realised that this — seeing Wassim’s street after a lifetime of wondering — was a heavy undertaking. What if nothing beyond the old-looking buildings and the Chili’s was familiar to me? If Flower Street felt as foreign as New York, perhaps the problem of my constant sorrow lied with me and not my displacement. ‘Notice there are some shops here that still call themselves Flower, the old street name’, Akram said in the video, in English. Tony was startled by the sudden high-volume static sound from the video. It was the sound of the winds from the Mediterranean assaulting Akram’s phone as punishment for capturing and transferring to me what I should only have again if I actually made it there. ‘Here’s a battery shop — Flower Street Batteries’, Akram continued. ‘And a little cigarette shop — ‘Flower Tobacconist’. I thought about the still-living people of Flower Street. Freedom in Arabic — حرية – horiya — is just as sweet-sounding a word as flowers — زهرة – zahra. And yet there was evidently something about modern Egyptian people that would hang onto the old, colonial-era name. Maybe, seen from another vantage point, their nostalgia was not self-defeating and sad. Maybe Egyptians are culturally — and as a function of the culture of Islam and of Egypt’s history with famine, epidemics, and other periods of los and want — opposed to waste. Maybe there are several simultaneous realities. ‘This is it’, Akram said. Our house on Flower Street had become a small apartment building. I wondered if our building had been bulldozed or just updated or expanded to accommodate several, separate quarters. We had no old photos of the house, growing up — only photos from up the street. Then, Akram continued inland from the sea, southward toward Borg el Arab. I saw an alley beside the building where we had lived. I felt as though I had seen the alley in a dream. I tried to zoom in on it with my thumb and index finger, but the video became too grainy to inspect it further. I flipped through the accompanying photos. There it was — an alleyway just beside the apartment building, and over it stood a marble archway decorated with a relief of three oversized jasmine buds, interwoven with ribbon, sitting atop two Grecian pillars. I looked up into the ocean ahead of me. I wondered if I flung myself into the Atlantic, if I would wash up on Freedom Street, beneath this archway, and be buried there by someone like Akram, who would be Egyptian enough to understand why I had come. ‘You’re crying, Sam’, Tony said. ‘No, it’s the ocean wind hitting my eyes’, I said. ‘You’re crying, Sam’, Tony insisted. ‘Those are tears’. ‘This is the street of my grandfather, who raised me’, I said, showing him my phone. A young man who is like him in some ways took these photos because he knows I’ve wanted to see it and couldn’t’. ‘Good man’, Tony said. It was a pleasure to hear Tony say something earnest after all his snark and skepticism about my religiosity, my plan to return, my adventures with hypnosis. ‘It’s a sort of goodness I haven’t felt here in years’, I said. ‘That’s is why I’m going back. In Alexandria, people will know what I need, intuitively. My grandfather would have done this for someone in my situation, and his family too, Heaven rest them’. ‘That’s why you’re going to mentally castrate yourself tomorrow morning’, Tony said. ‘Religion is a hell of a drug’. ‘God forgive you, Tony’, I said. ‘Religion is the only thing keeping me alive until now’. ‘Religion is why you won’t give me more than one night’, he said. ‘Your last gay night.’ ‘That’s not true’, I replied. ‘I’ve given men like you more chances than I can count. I banked my soul on a gay Hollywood romance—a fiction I never found. And by doing that, I’ve taken myself farther from this street. The truth is, when this street, and your feelings, and my face crumble, there will still be the Heavens. And if I repent one day, before my death, I will rest my head there and be free from my sorrow’. And solitude, I should have said. What a beautiful word — العزلة – elaozla – Solitude. The sound of it is like a void echoing from the back of the throat. Some American people name their children Constance, which is beautiful, no doubt. But I love the Catholic faithful of the Spanish-speaking world who dare to name their daughters something as true to life as the name Soledad – Solitude. * ‘This is goodbye then’, I told Tony. We strolled along Stillwell Avenue in the direction of the Coney Island Metro station. Stillwell Avenue runs along the perimeter of Luna Park, but something about Stillwell stifles that merriment beside it. Maybe it’s the ocean wind or the humid air, pregnant with water, that quiets the sonorous bells and whistles of the rides and the cacophony of children screaming to express from their chests the joy and terror of careening downward from great heights. ‘I guess so’, Tony said. ‘Sam, I want you to know something—’ Across the street was Nathan’s Famous, where Wassim would take me for a hot dog on the first day of every summer break. We stopped walking and turned to each other. Tony took my hand and put it on his chest. ‘I’ve dated a lot of guys, and I don’t feel myself to have known any of them like I’ve known you in just a few hours’, Tony said. You don’t know me for shit, I thought silently. And what you think you know, you’d soon lose patience for. And all the sweet things you tell me will return to torture me, in your absence. You’ll have moved on without a second thought, because you’re so calm and collected that you’ve made your living on it. ‘I feel the same about you’, I said. ‘It’s a pity’. ‘That we met too late’, Tony said. I nodded. ‘And that I’m not a dumb kid anymore’, I said. ‘And that everything ends’. ‘I’ll never stop being a hopeless romantic’, Tony said. ‘Then you must be a glutton for punishment’, I said. Tony said nothing. I imagined what it would be like to let this one go. I hoped that our subways were on different platforms or that my train would leave first. I wanted to be the one to leave him. I resolved myself to get on whatever train in whatever direction, as long as it left before Tony’s. From there, I would wait at the next stop for another train headed in my direction. I would hide in a corner of that station, in case his train crossed the same tracks and he spotted me, abandoning him. I would not suffer his last impression of me to be another act of casual psychoanalysis — another judgment. I heard a familiar popping sound from my trouser pocket. It was Pound. ‘It’s the headless guy with the nice bed’, I told Tony. Tony said nothing. You’re closer, now, the headless guy said. Where are you? Coney Island, you? Same. I’m at Mermaid Avenue and West 44th. Is that far from Nathan’s? Very close. I can come get you. ‘He says he’s nearby, and he can host us’, I said. ‘He’s real close — Mermaid and 44th’. Tony looked down at the ground and then up into the sky. ‘I don’t think I can, Sam’, Tony said. ‘What would this be tomorrow? Just a haunting, painful thing’. ‘We’d have had tonight’, I said. ‘All we ever have is tonight’. ‘And if I want more?’ Tony asked. ‘What more is there?’ I asked. ‘What if I want tomorrow?’ Tony asked. ‘What if this was supposed to be forever, and you’ve made a decision I’ll never comprehend? Because you’ve decided to suffer’. ‘You’re like every man I’ve ever met, Tony’, I said, tongue of a viper, speaking to slice and dice. ‘Either you want nothing much or you want to get married after a few hours together. I’m not stupid like that anymore. I have one night left with a libido. I have to give myself this last moment’s pleasure’. ‘I also have to be fair to myself’, Tony said. I had nothing else to say, so I said nothing. Tony’s eyes searched mine for something that no longer existed in me. Tony turned and crossed the street into the large, gaping mouth of the Coney Island subway station. ‘Goodbye!’ I shouted. I realised he had never offered me his phone number. But what good would his phone number have done me the next day? Maybe we could have been friends, I thought. But I had no gay friends. I either dated the gay men I encountered, had sex with them one or a few times, or wondered why they had not engaged me in either course of action. Moments later, I continued on my trek along Stillwell Avenue, passing the large Coney Island subway terminal and its closed, dark, empty shops. I felt eyes on me. It was perhaps just my imagination — I have no reason to feel I am psychic. If I could have seen the future, I would not have been there at all. I wondered if the feeling of being watched was Tony, surveying me from one of the subway platforms overhead. Around the time of the Twilight series and other such vampire romance fiction, I had begun to imagine that the love of my life had always been watching me, waiting for me to delete Pound and become a more respectable person before he would present himself. I didn’t feel overcome with romance in that moment. The feeling of being watched put a chill in me, like the feeling of an unseen hand gently caressing the back of my neck. I picked up the pace and began to walk with greater purpose in the direction of my final fuck. And then as the disquiet within me grew, I began to run in the direction of Mermaid Avenue. At one point on that road, there was a near-total absence of light. I imagined that there would be someone in the shadows at some point who would make themselves known. That person never appeared. The farther I ran, the more certain I was of the profound stillness that was ahead. *** From LAST NIGHT IN BRIGHTON by Massoud Hayoun, to be published on November 15 by Darf Publications. Copyright © 2022 by Massoud Hayoun. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. View the full article
  12. In the early seventies, Helen Garner, a newly single mother, found herself in the first of several “hippie houses” she lived in that decade in the suburbs of Melbourne. She read and made up songs with her daughter and fell in love with a heroin addict—an affair she documented daily in her diary. The writing deepened as her life became more complicated. Soon, she began to see an outline. “Story is a chunk of life with a bend in it,” Garner told Thessaly La Force in her Art of Fiction interview, published in the Fall issue of the Review, “and I could feel this one coming.” Every day for a year, after she had dropped her daughter off at school, she sat in the state library working on her first novel, Monkey Grip. The book was a hit, although several critics (“almost always men”) accused Garner of simply publishing her personal journals. The truth is, she confesses, the novel really was closely based on her diary—and why not? “Underlying the famously big gap between fiction and nonfiction there’s a rather naive belief that fiction is invented—­that it’s pulled out of thin air,” Garner says. “All those comments I’ve had to cop about my novels not being novels—­they rest on that idea that the novel is mightier than every other form.” When we asked Garner—­who is also an accomplished journalist who has covered criminal trials for decades—­whether she might share with us something from her recent journals, she sent us a true “chunk of life,” at once artfully sculpted and uncompromisingly honest. In the winter of 2017, when I wrote these entries, three things were dawning on me: first, that if my hearing continued to fade I would have to stop writing about criminal trials; second, that although I was probably burned-out, I would miss the courts terribly; and third, that I would be saved from boredom and despair by the company of my young grandchildren, who live next door. * Took the 17-year-old to the city to buy a pair of Doc Martens for her birthday. We walked past the Supreme Court. “Nanna, is this where you go to those trials?” “Yes. That big brown building.” “Can we go in and have a look?” At the door of the first courtroom we come to, a murder trial is rolling. I show her how to bow and we creep into the media seats. Young guy in the dock, pale, rigid, in a dark blue suit. The witness on the stand is giving a graphic account of what happens inside a skull when a head is smashed against a concrete curb. Oh God. I glance up at the judge. I know her. What will she think of me, bringing a schoolgirl in here? The girl is very still, straight-backed, bright-faced, watching and listening. I sit there gritting my teeth. Court rises and I hustle her on to the street. “Are you okay? Are you upset? Was it too much?” She wakes from a reverie. “No. I’m fine. It wasn’t upsetting. Because it was scientific.” * In the post office throwaway bin I find a CD of Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits. Secretly in the car I play over and over Jimmy Webb’s three works of genius: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston.” On the freeway my ten-year-old grandson digs out the Campbell from the mess in the glove box: “Who’s this?” I flinch, but he puts it on, and soon we’re singing along, him in his breaking voice, me in my old woman’s one which has dropped to a tenor. He loves all the songs, even the revolting ones like “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife.” * Court 4, pale pink with high, looped plaster garlands that glistened like ivory. The sentencing of the African refugee who’d killed three of her children. The judge read out the sentence. I was straining to hear, fighting my hearing loss and the muffled acoustic of the courtroom. Her husband was shot dead in front of her? They burned his body? They raped her? She began to weep and couldn’t stop. Her two robed lawyers approached the huge old timber dock, they had to reach up and hook their fingers at shoulder level over its high edge, I saw their pale hands grip the rim, like kids at a lolly-shop counter. She got 26 years, 20 before she can apply for parole. Even the tough-looking woman security guard was wiping her eyes. Walked away, walked and walked through the city, crying and raving to myself, bought a pair of black trousers and a T-shirt, went up the stairs to Gopal’s and ate a bowl of carrot and beetroot salad for $4. I’ll be dead by the time she gets out. What will she do, in prison, each day for 20 years? What will become of her other kids? It seemed the first time I’d ever seriously asked myself: Why do we put people in jail? * The barristers’ hands on the rim of the dock—a memory from the 60s. In the corner shop near our house a couple of adults are waiting to be served. A boy of seven or so is standing tiptoe at the counter, laboriously spreading out coins. His cheeks turn red: he hasn’t got enough. A pause. In a high, earnest little voice he says to the shop lady, “Would you trust me to run home and get the rest?” The grown-ups exchange soft looks over his head. “Off you go,” says the shop lady, and he darts out the door. * Judges must have to weigh up a case on a highly technical set of scales. They’re afraid of having to account for themselves to a higher court. They can never just act on the human thing: “I felt it would be cruel not to have mercy on this poor brutalized grieving wretch.” And when I read the tabloids about the African woman’s sentence, the heartless pipsqueaks screaming for blood, I started to understand the dark rocks between which a judge has to steer the ship, in these matters. * The waitress at Akita places before me a small cherry-red bowl of miso soup, and shuffles away. I nudge the bowl into the center of the dark wooden table and sit with my hands in my lap. Faint steam rises off the soup’s cloudy surface. * Maybe I’m coming to the end of writing about courts. I can’t hear properly. I can’t keep up. And I can’t bear the pain. Maybe my ears are packing it in on purpose, to save me. Also, is it “morbid” to be as fascinated as I am by other people’s suffering? To be awed by it? Will I ever stop asking myself this stupid question? Do real journalists ask it? Maybe they don’t, maybe that’s why I like to hang out with them—you can laugh. “He wouldn’t let me see the brief of evidence,” says my friend in the café, “but it was in front of him on the table, and one thing I’ve got good at, as a journalist, is reading upside down.” * God, I so love being old and not married. Out the other side of sex and love and all that torment. I can go out drinking martinis with the clever young guys I’m friends with—well, actually they’re middle-aged. With gray hair. Last night the bar was almost empty, the football was playing on the big screen with the sound down low. Every now and then I’d look up and see some outrageous piece of thuggery that caused me to exclaim and curse, while the men went on talking in wise, quiet voices about books and biography and publishing. By what exercise of virtue have I deserved this? * Late in a photo session for a writers’ festival I wandered vaguely towards the laptop on which the photographer was sorting the shots of me he had just taken. He turned his shoulder to me: “No.” * In the lobby of the Magistrates’ Court an old man had a seizure in the fine-paying queue. A hoarse cry, a groan, and he was on the floor, awkward-necked, his head in his big pale pensioner’s glasses resting on a crouching bystander’s thigh. Security running down the stairs. Paramedics, a gurney. Meanwhile I was stopped at the bag check: “Have you got a measuring tape in there? Something with a circle of metal?” I plunged my hand into my red backpack from which before leaving home I had removed everything metal; and came up with the dispenser of dental floss. I said, “I suppose I could strangle someone with it.” The security guy looked me up and down, and allowed himself a tiny smile. * My law professor friend visits from D.C. Her quick wit, her skepticism, as we stride shoulder to shoulder up Collins Street. We act out for each other our mortifications and triumphs large and small, never bored, doubling over in convulsions or dabbing at our sentimental tears. * My grandsons are out of holdable childhood. Gone are those hours I spent on the blue couch with a little boy crammed close to me on either side, watching ep after ep of Adventure Time, tranquil and absorbed. From time to time we would exchange knowing glances, without speaking. At least the girl still kisses me, puts her long arms round me when one of us comes home. She’s given up playing football herself, but at her brothers’ matches she leans over the boundary fence, in her dirty Blundstones and thick socks and the calf-length black wool coat I bought at Bergdorf Goodman thirty years ago, and shouts orders at them like a coach: “Man up! Where’s your man?” * Springsteen is rowdily singing on the car radio: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” Yeah, they have; but I change stations. Ooh. Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash. How modest and melodious are their voices and simple acoustic guitars, after Springsteen’s hypermasculine bellowing. * I bought a large bone for the dog. Thrust it between his jaws and he swaggered away to gnaw on it, alone on wet grass under the fig tree. Later I took him over to Travancore. Superb winter sky, pure as porcelain, air growing sharp as we played on the damp green: he ran furiously after the ball, tail whirling, one ear up, one down. * At the long table I remembered why I stopped going to dinner parties years ago. The shouting, the riding roughshod, the scornful belligerence that calls itself conversation. I felt myself sinking and sinking, disappearing below the plimsoll line that divides full consciousness from a daze of dismay, suppressed rage, and crippling boredom. * I drove the thirteen-year-old to his football match at Sanctuary Lakes, an outer suburb unknown to us. On the freeway I became confused. Me: “Shit, man. I think we’re lost.” Him (calmly, with the street directory open on his scrawny bare thighs): “Oh well. It’s not as if I’m the most valued member of the team.” He looks at me slyly. We laugh so much I almost have to pull off the road. * Her hands. I noticed them on the table when we had coffee. Broad and well-shaped, competent. But it was the skin I was struck by: dry, large-pored, even coarse, and I thought at once, These are a doctor’s hands, worn from being vigorously scrubbed, scores of times a day. Fresh respect filled me. * “A great capacity to be alone.” Zadie Smith on what a novelist needs, or perhaps by temperament already has. * The American law professor says she wants a pair of R.M.Williams boots like the ones the leader of the National Party wears, but gold. If I had cute little feet like hers I would run right out and buy a pair. I’d thrash them round the house for a year till they faded to the soft gold that’s no longer gold but still possesses the magic of what once was gold. Then I’d wear them with some equally faded and trashed wheat-colored linen pants and an extremely faded and trashed pink linen jacket with the sleeves rolled up just past the wrist; and then I’d go to a cocktail party and drink a very dry martini with a twist, and a glass of water, and then I’d go home tired but happy. * How I know I’m losing my hearing: if someone covers their mouth with their hand while they’re talking to me I’m filled with rage and want to slap their hand away. * A mother in the airport departure lounge with her two little boys, who were trying to plait her long thick dark hair. Breathing heavily through their noses they divided it into sections, the older boy giving his brother instructions: “You hold this bit. Hold it over there.” She smiled at me and I said, “You’ve got a whole team of hairdressers working on you.” The boys kept their eyes on the job, carefully controlling their mouths. * A friend shows me a photo of his grandparents. Me: “I love old headshots. The way people never used to smile at a camera. They always make me cry.” Him: “Oh, don’t cry.” Me: “It’s not sad crying. They lived. They died. It’s more like awe.” * Maybe I should have been a psychoanalyst. * In Emergency at the Royal Melbourne I was so interested in the goings-on there that I forgot why I’d come. A whole women’s roller derby team came clomping in, skates and all: one of them had broken her leg. A shaven-headed, barefoot, old homeless man wrapped in a blanket emerged from the treatment rooms roaring, “Criminals! Doctors, nurses—criminals! All crrrrriminals!” He climbed onto his motorized wheelchair and, still yelling insults, surged out on to the street, grand as a king going into exile. As the big doors slid shut behind him a man called out in a reproachful tone, “Have a bit of respect, mate.” And my chest pain was only muscular, from the gym. * “Come on! Get up! It’s eight o’clock!” The boy slid naked off the top bunk and landed on his feet before me, knees flexed, the glory of his body on full display. He was so cleanly muscled, so slim and ripply and golden, that I laughed out loud and so did he, in his insolence, in the careless joy of himself. * At the audiology clinic they clapped huge headphones on me, and told me to listen. I heard two women’s voices, one in each ear, each one reading aloud from a different children’s story book; then a third voice was laid across them, clearly enunciating a single sentence which it was my job to repeat aloud: The books were on the shelves. Pfffff, I thought, I can do this. But as the test progressed, the single-sentence voice sank further and further into the texture of the stories the two women were reading. Sank and sank till I could no longer even guess at what it was saying and could only distinguish faint meaningless sounds. All I could say was “No. No. No.” It was awful. Existentially awful. Like dying. I was frightened. I wanted to cry. But then they began to turn up the volume of the single-sentence voice until once again I heard it perfectly. This, they said, showed two things: the improvement I can expect from a hearing aid, and the fact that there’s a big cognitive factor involved—the brain has to work very hard, as cells die and hearing fades, to supply the missing sounds, so that when you “strain to hear” you’re not actually hearing more, but laboring intellectually to make sense of what little you are hearing. (Does this mean that a clever person “hears” better than a stupid one? Can this be?) * I get into bed, groaning with weariness. One of the windows is open. I hear (or intellectually create, since I won’t get the hearing aid for three weeks) a soft rushing sound in the plane leaves, and the gentlest imaginable smattering of raindrops. Helen Garner is an Australian novelist and nonfiction writer, whose books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach, and The Spare Room. View the full article
  13. A look at the week’s best new releases. * Vinaya Bhagat, The Girl in the Mist (Agora) “A fun and engaging plot, with a stimulating and gratifying read, and looks to be on the way to be a bestseller.” –The Free Press Journal Laurie Loewenstein, Funeral Train (Kaylie Jones Books) “The sequel to Death of a Rainmaker . . . is just as atmospheric. The anguish and struggles of the Dust Bowl and Depression years are vividly depicted in this historical mystery.” –Library Journal Ava Barry, Double Exposure (Pegasus) “The plot of this exhilarating and intricate novel ebbs and flows between fast-paced action and relaxed moments of narrative exposition.” –Booklist Jennifer Givhan, River Woman, River Demon (Blackstone) “Featuring lush, evocative prose and beautiful, detailed descriptions of people and places, the book is difficult to put down…River Woman, River Demon is a seamless psychological and supernatural thriller about resilience and personal empowerment.” –Foreword Reviews Erin Adams, Jackal (Bantam) “Harrowing horror with a side of searing social commentary . . . Plentiful twists, keenly rendered characters, and atmospheric prose keep the pages turning.” –Kirkus Reviews Erle Stanley Gardner, The Bigger They Come (American Mystery Classics) “The reader will scarcely learn to admire any of the characters in this story, but he will have to admit that they lead exciting lives” –New York Times M. L. Longworth, Disaster at the Vendome Theater (Penguin Books) “…Pleasing…Packed with luscious descriptions of food and flashes of cultural history, this is a fine way to relax in the company of old friends.” –Publisher’s Weekly Laurie Lico Albanese, Hester (St Martins) “A standout historical… Even those unfamiliar with the classic will be hooked by this account of a capable woman standing up to the sexist and racial prejudices of her time.” –Publishers Weekly Nicolás Ferraro (transl. Mallory N. Craig-Kuhn), Cruz (Soho Crime) “Written with a relentless pace, Cruz explores the ferocity of family loyalty and treachery. This is a window into a world most people don’t know and no one will forget.” –Chris Offutt Kate Winkler Dawson, All That Is Wicked (Putnam) “All That Is Wicked is ceaselessly engaging, gorgeously researched, and—true crime fan or not—impossible to put down. Warning: read it with all the lights on.” –Karen Abbott View the full article
  14. While I’m an unabashed fan of straight-up mysteries—see: the high stack of Simenon in my house, along with the works of Elizabeth Hand, P.D. James, John le Carre, and Stieg Larsson; more than one paperback picked up in an airport bookstore; and roughly ten million police procedurals and Nordic noirs in my streaming history—my deepest love is for mysteries and thrillers that remain mysterious even after the final scene. Sometimes you don’t know who did it, or even what was done; sometimes you know who did it, but will never quite be able to pass judgment on why and what the consequences were; sometimes you, reader, feel implicated as well. The gray areas call to me to come closer, right up to the edge of what may or may not be very wrong. A mystery solved is satisfying, but murkiness, ambiguity, and the slipperiness of power seem to me more true to the human condition: none of us is as good, or sometimes as bad, as we might imagine ourselves to be. Here are a few of my greatest hits of moral unease. The Book of Evidence, by John Banville You may know that Banville is also Benjamin Black, author of a successful series of terrific, conventional mysteries set in 1950s Dublin, but in The Book of Evidence from 1989, Banville as Banville turned his abundant literary imagination to one Freddie Montgomery, a murderer who is writing a confession—or is it an apologia? Montgomery has a turbulent inner life, a spectacular way with words, and troubles, terrible troubles, that really are not his fault. While he did, yes, murder someone, there were circumstances. He can explain. And he does, in prose that is as exhilarating as it is profoundly unsettling. A Most Violent Year, 2014 film, directed by J.C. Chandor Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, who owns a trucking company in 1980s New York, and Jessica Chastain plays his wife, Anna. Abel is in the heating oil business, which, as the film makes clear, is dirty through and through. Albert Brooks plays against type as Abel’s canny attorney. At every turn, Abel has to make a decision between something bad and something worse. Isaac as Abel spends a lot of the movie saying, “I try to do the most right thing,” but that’s a big gray area, as it turns out. As the film goes on, one becomes less certain if he’s drowning or keeping his head just above water. Saving his soul or losing it? The film stays exactly on that edge, all the way to the darkly ambiguous ending. Suspended Sentences, by Patrick Modiano Really, I mean all of Modiano’s work, but you could start with these three novellas in which mysteries and suspiciously large gaps in memory abound, but are never resolved. Set in Paris, often in the early 1960s, these novellas are written with highly deceptive clarity and simplicity: precisely delineated streets, dates, and photographs conjure a world that you can see quite clearly, but what has happened on those streets and dates, and in those photos? The narrator often can’t remember, and what did he or others do in the war? Who was a thief, who a black marketer, who a collaborator, who a member of the Resistance, and when so-and-so disappeared, what happened? Something is missing. Something can’t be recalled. There are holes in every story, and those holes, it turns out, are the story. Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014, not for solving mysteries, but for leaving them unsolved. Passing, by Nella Larsen Larsen’s classic novel of the profound, roiled bond between two women in 1920s Harlem—one passing as white, the other an upstanding doyenne of the Harlem Renaissance—isn’t usually shelved with, say, Highsmith. But as the relationship between Clare (the passing one) and Irene (the doyenne) unfolds, strong currents of fascination, betrayal, and identification rush between them uncontrollably. At the end—no avoiding this spoiler, sorry—Clare goes out a window to her death, but did Irene push her? Did she jump? Did her racist white husband do it? What has actually happened between these two women? In Rebecca Hall’s elegant 1921 film of the novel, the tiniest flicker of a shot of Irene’s arm around Clare’s waist just before Clare falls suggests maybe protection, maybe a shove, maybe an embrace, all at once. Or, as Larsen puts it in the book, “What happened next, Irene Redfield never afterwards allowed herself to remember.” Nor does the novel, leaving the reader swaying in the ambivalence of Clare’s and Irene’s intimacy. Who We Are Now, 2017 film, directed and written by Matthew Newton A killer performance by Julianne Nicholson, playing a woman who has, in fact, killed someone and is just being released from prison after ten years. She’s desperate to regain custody of her son, despite the bad decisions she’s made in the past and continues to make. As much as you root for her, you also sometimes fear equally that she’ll succeed in her quest. The movie never collapses, or allows the viewer to collapse, into an easy tale of redemption. Nicholson’s character: victim, villain, heroine? Yes. The Quiet American, by Graham Greene Greene loved a tangled geopolitical thriller, but perhaps never more so than in this 1955 novel, which has made readers uncomfortable from the moment it was published. First-person narrator Thomas Fowler, a seasoned British journalist, meets up with young CIA operative Alden Pyle in 1950s Vietnam. Fowler is also involved with a younger Vietnamese woman named Phuong, who becomes involved with Pyle as well. Pyle, fully believing he knows best for Vietnam, wreaks incredible damage in all directions, but Fowler, our appalled narrator, might not be much better in the end in his attempts to curtail Pyle. Phuong deserves a novel of her own, as she is more or less just a point in what becomes a love triangle; one wonders what she might say or do, given a chance. Meanwhile, America and Britain blunder around, making some of their worst decisions on the basis of what they think of as their highest principles. The novel has been adapted for film twice, once in 1958 (when, to Greene’s horror, it was turned into an anti-communism thriller with Pyle as American hero) and once in 2002. The second version actually first premiered on September 10th, 2001, but Miramax pulled it after September 11th, fearing it would be seen as unpatriotic. Michael Caine plays Fowler in the 2002 film—that should tell you everything you need to know about the world-weary face of ambiguity here. Les Voleurs (Thieves), 1996 film, directed by Andre Techine One of the best films of gray areas, and among French auteur Techine’s best as well, although it’s only available, without subtitles, on DVD. Consider this a plea for someone to stream this beauty, about a family of thieves, featuring Daniel Auteil and Catherine Deneuve. Auteil plays the one member of the family who has become a cop. When a heist goes wrong and his crime boss brother is murdered, Auteil is on the case, but alliances and hearts are tangled every whichway, not least because he and Deneuve, playing a philosophy professor, are involved with the same woman, a criminal as well who played a key part in the bad heist. What is crime, what is love, what is sex, what is family, what is justice? What is the most right thing? The characters and the film circle around these questions, vexed and fallible. The questions may seem simple—who did it? how did this happen?—but the answers never are. *** View the full article
  15. Grant Morrison is best known for their innovative work on comics, from the graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum to acclaimed runs on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the X-Men, as well as their subversive creator-owned titles such as The Invisibles, Seaguy, The Filth, and WE3. Their debut novel, Luda, is the story of an aging drag queen usurped by their promising protégé while performing a pantomime. Morrison was kind enough to answer a few questions about genre, gender, drag, and the art of pantomime. Molly Odintz: Luda is all about the instability of identity, exemplified by drag. What did you want to say about the identities we are assigned, and assume? Grant Morrison: At the simplest level, I suppose I want to say that ‘identity’, at least from my point of view, appears to be conditional and refuses to be contained by any label; how does the ‘identity’ of a person as a two year old child square with that same person’s alleged ‘identity’ as a 40-year old or as a dying 90-year old in a failing physical frame – our bodies and minds and how we feel about ourselves, and who we are within a larger constantly shifting and rearranging system, are subject to such radical transformations over decades that were we to speed a human life up to last ten minutes rather than 80 years the result would resemble a radical metamorphic shifting of shape and size, intellectual capacity and ‘personality’. The idea of a single label adequate to that process seems absurd. MO: There’s a unique voice to the novel. How did you develop your main character’s style of narration? GM: It took a little while to get it right. Once I’d decided to tell the story from the point of view of a single unreliable narrator, I felt it was important to keep the language lively and colorful, which fit also with the novel’s theme of drag and performance; I wanted every sentence to be in drag, in the sense of heightened, performative and extravagant! I was aiming for a rich and dazzling, almost psychedelic overload of sensation. I borrowed some elements of Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp along with a sprinkle of Hunter S. Thompson and others, pulling it all together with the heated, overwrought and pearl-clutching style of tabloid journalism to create a kind of contemporary mock-Gothic voice. MO: There’s quite a bit about the history of pantomime in the book. How did you get interested in this art form, and what was behind having the characters perform a Thousand and One Nights? GM: As a kid in Scotland, pantomime was a staple of growing up. Every year we’d be taken to see a motley collection of TV and screen stars make flamboyant fools of themselves in these deranged and lavish musical spectaculars. It’s one of those things so deeply baked into a typical British childhood that we tend to take it for granted. Of all the pantomime ‘Dame’ roles, traditionally played by men in drag, the formidable Widow Twankey is the gold standard, so tackling that character meant going to Aladdin. Originally a story from the Thousand and One Nights collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, the pantomime Aladdin is set instead in in Peking where the young Aladdin becomes the son of Widow Twankey, a Chinese washerwoman! Pantomime’s simulated, artificial world of gender and culture confusion appealed to me as the setting for the novel; a perfect microcosm of our world where everyone is in drag, filtered, mediated, curated, acting out ideal selves in a world of chaos and confusion. MO: Luda is often a contemplation of aging and fear of replacement. What were you thinking about in terms of capturing the passage of time? GM: Ultimately, all of us who stay alive long enough will face that moment when we fully understand that we are here to be replaced in the end, that we are no longer the glamorous young stars of the movie but now must assume secondary ‘character’ roles! There’s a fear there obviously but also a kind of relief. The character of Widow Twankey exemplifies that—our narrator Luci LaBang is a former young drag star who finds her former options reduced to playing menopausal comedy roles and very loudly laments the passing of youth and her former allure! In the seductive form of Luda, Luci is obliged to confront the physical embodiment of all that she feels she has lost! MO: There’s so much magic in this novel. Alex Segura’s blurb for your book talks about you as a “modern mythmaker”—would you agree? Is Luda a dark fairy-tale? GM: Quite literally to the extent that it’s very much an updated version of the story of the aging wizard Merlin and his captivating young apprentice the teenage witch Nimue or Vivienne as she’s named in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’. In the story, Vivienne flatters the self-deceptive old fool into transferring his magical power to her, at which point she seals him in an oak tree for all time! In Luda, the oak framed mirror plays the part of the tree! MO: You’re equally playful with genre and gender. Do you see that playfulness with both as related? GM: I suppose I see genre as a kind of literary Drag or Glamour, where certain elements of the human experience are foregrounded at the expense of others in order to create a heightened, uncanny and fundamentally Glamorous effect. The horror novel tends to edit out any of the day-to-day absurdities and non sequiturs of the human condition that would undermine its effect, so too the comedy or thriller, which de-emphasize everyday sadness or boredom to concentrate on evoking a specific and narrow range of flavors. Life itself isn’t quite as restricted as genre opts to be and we can experience horror and comedy on the same day, often at the same time! I wanted Luda to reflect that as a way of emphasizing the contrast between the ordered rehearsed world onstage and the painful unscripted turmoil of our real lives. View the full article
  16. Several years ago, I was chatting with an editor and mentioned an idea I had about clones and murder in space. She loved the idea and after the ink was dry on the contract, I went into a panic. “Hang on. I don’t know anything about murder mysteries! What have I done?” So I went into research mode. I spent the next few months reading all the Agatha Christie I could get my hands on, and started watching murder shows regularly. I’m from Generation X, so I did know one thing about murder: Jessica Fletcher was the most successful serial killer in history. Or at least that was the joke back then. My husband and I consumed a lot of more recent murder mysteries in TV and book form, such as Father Brown, Miss Fisher, and Midsomer Murders. If you take any one of these stories by themselves, they offer an engaging story and an interesting mystery. But if you look at them as a whole, you wonder why no one ever points out, “Damn, there’s a lot of murder in Midsomer County!” (its murder rate is 278 times the rest of England and Wales, as reported by My London in March, 2021.) They never say, “Lady Felicia [Father Brown] sees dead bodies all the time, and every time she still screams like it’s the first one she has ever seen.” And they never ask why all these murders happen around Father Brown and Miss Fisher. I sure as hell wouldn’t go to Father Brown’s church. He’s delightful, but too much murder. So I started thinking about playing with the trope itself. What if someone DID say, “of course there’s a murder; Father Brown came to the fete. THANKS, FATHER BROWN.” People might get paranoid. “Don’t invite Miss Fisher; someone will end up dead!” Fiction doesn’t usually like to point out when it sacrifices consistency on the altar of Plot. But I kept thinking, if these murders happened in our world, Father Brown, Miss Fisher, and Jessica Fletcher would be shunned, not to mention frequently investigated for their connections to the murders. But I’m a science fiction writer, and tend to want to throw weird technology, space, or aliens into stories. I am a fan of Babylon 5, the TV show that featured a diplomatic space station full of aliens and humans, and I had the idea that if our murder magnet protagonist could escape humanity without being totally alone, she might take that opportunity. Maybe murders won’t happen if she’s surrounded by aliens? Worth a try. Hence my comp titles: “Murder She Wrote meets Babylon 5.” (Someone pointed out that J. Michael Straczynski wrote for MSW and created B5, which tickles me. I hope we can get a copy of Station Eternity into his hands. If we really do live in a Six Degrees of Separation reality, one of you might be able to show him this book.) My heroine, Mallory Viridian, was created—but I needed at least one more interesting human, a partner, with Mallory on the station. That’s when I turned to clipping., the concept hip-hop rap group. They received a Hugo nomination for their album Splendor In Misery about a slave, known only as 2331, on a spaceship who overpowers his captors, takes control of the ship, and then has to flee into the deep dark. It’s a powerful album, and I absolutely love it. I got a strong desire to include a story about a man who bonds with a sentient ship and is otherwise quite alone in the universe, and Xan Morgan was born. And because I love comic relief, the joyriding, intoxicated aliens who abduct Xan were born shortly thereafter. I can’t help it. Lastly, I want to discuss Mrs. Brown. She is there primarily to answer Ursula K Le Guin who wrote an essay called “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” (The Language of the Night, 1976). In it, she references an essay by Virginia Woolf who watched an unassuming woman on a train and made up a fully realized character (today we call it headcanon) for her, then wondered if literature could return to character-driven narratives. Le Guin’s essay looks at Mrs. Brown through the lens of SF. I won’t do a book report, but the essay is summarized in the blog SciFi Mind,* “Science fiction offered a promise for the “continued life of the imagination” and an “enlargement of consciousness, a possible glimpse, against a vast dark background, of the very frail, very heroic figure of Mrs. Brown.’ (p. 119).” With that, I had to include Mrs. Brown in my story. She suffers no fools, but wants to be as proper as she can be. (Until encountering the aforementioned fool.) Also, I realized that subconsciously I put a little bit of my Grandma Lafferty into a lot of my stories. They seem to frequently include a tough old woman I like to call a “murder granny.” (While tough, the murder granny may or may not be an actual murderer. Also, to my knowledge, my Grandma was not a murderer.) In this book, there’s a little bit of my maternal grandmother as well, who was not tough as nails, but screamed during televised golf for the rolling ball to do her bidding, and really liked radio contests… So, Mrs. Brown went from Woolf, to Le Guin, to me, with a dash of two grandmothers. I don’t know if those giants of literature would approve of my Mrs. Brown, but I thank them for their inspiration. I’m sure you have heard enough creators talk about how the pandemic changed their writing, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I have always done my best to offer entertainment and levity to folks’ lives with my work. I know funny/dark SF probably won’t change the world, but it can change one person’s day. Now, more than ever, I take that role seriously. Straddling between dark murder and lighthearted alien adventures was a real challenge, but my editors at Ace helped me steer it. And now you can take my murder cozy, hip-hop, literary essay, 90’s SF—inspired book and, I hope, enjoy it. *** View the full article
  17. Saint Ignatius of Loyola Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photograph by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. In my hometown of New Orleans, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, certain men I know go periodically to a Catholic retreat up the river. They go there to repent. Probably they contemplate goodness. And goodness is a lot more interesting than it sounds. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola are used as the format for these pursuits. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was a womanizer, purportedly—like a lot of the saints. So probably he wanted to repent, too. My friends growing up in New Orleans were all Catholic girls, and I’ve often wondered about their Catholic qualities. They seem to have less vinegar in their veins than Jewish girls (like me). It fascinates me to delineate the character traits informed by their religion. I’m drawn to its organized tenets. I’d read the Catholic catechism just for kicks. But you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. They are a set of prayers and practices divided into tantalizing rubrics such as Three Classes of Men, Three Kinds of Humility, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, Daily Examination of Conscience, etc. Their goals are constructive: to overcome disordered inclinations; to seek indifference and humility; to elicit courage, discipline, and perseverance. Just take Jesus out of it and there you go. I took Jesus out of all those phrases, which would otherwise include the strange concept that you’re doing all this for his sake—rather than for your own sake, just to be more worthy. I don’t know why you need Jesus to aspire to this quest. So it’s not like I’m some sort of religious maniac. The Spiritual Exercises can get a little weird, though they still speak to me: you’re supposed to ask for shame and confusion. So if you feel shame and confusion, don’t worry, you’re on the right track! Because it’s about remorse—when you know you are bad, it is good. It is half the battle won. I also revel in The Palace Papers by Tina Brown, with its effortless intelligence and command of a wide array of royal facts and concepts, even when at the end Brown suddenly descends into bathos about Queen Elizabeth, as people sometimes tend to do. But I read that book before the queen’s death, so I must now add prescience to Brown’s powers of discernment—the emotional conclusion, the sudden eulogy—though I guess you didn’t have to be a genius to realize the queen was on her last legs. She seemed immortal, though. Like one’s mother, sort of. A few days before she died, I had bought the latest issue of Tatler, which was entirely devoted to the queen, with quaint, sepia-tinted photos telling her life story, etc. I kept thinking, Why did I buy this, and/or, Do I have to keep reading this. But something kept me from throwing it away, for which, afterward, I was glad. Nancy Lemann is the author of “Diary of Remorse,” published in issue no. 241 of the Review. View the full article
  18. It’s just about October, which means your streaming services are going to be packed full of horror, but for the avid crime watcher there’s still quite a bit to look forward to, as long as you don’t mind a tinge of fright in your weekly viewing, or else you’re a fan of British mystery in particular, in which case you’re in luck, because there are some gems headed across the Atlantic in the weeks ahead. Here, a few highlights on the calendar. Sherwood (Britbox / Premieres October 4) Set in a Nottinghamshire mining village, Sherwood tracks an investigation into two murders in a community still processing the legacy of a miners’ strike decades before. Clues point to one of the victim’s suspicions about secret police infiltration and disruption in the miners’ ranks, and possibly an ongoing coverup. Alaska Daily (ABC / Premieres October 6) Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) is back to the world of investigative reporting. This time Hilary Swank plays the dogged journalist, summoned from New York to Alaska to work on a story about women from indigenous communities gone missing. She’s paired up with a local to help her navigate the ins-and-outs of the uncanny north. Surprising that this one should land with ABC, but McCarthy has a history of working on prestige features and network hits. A Friend of the Family (Peacock / Premieres October 6) Nick Antosca (Channel Zero, The Act) is the creator by this incredibly sinister story based on true events, with Jake Lacy getting the turn as a psychopath who insinuates himself into the neighbor’s family and kidnaps the daughter multiple times over a span of years. The Midnight Club (Netflix / Premieres October 7) It’s the annual Mike Flanagan repertory production on Netflix, and I for one am pretty happy to have it. This time around Flanagan is co-creating with Leah Fong, adapting from the book by Christopher Pike, which depicts a group of young people in a hospice home who try to out-scare one another with late night story sessions, who soon find themselves at the center of a terrifying plot. Shantaram (Apple TV+ / Premieres October 14) Charlie Hunnam is playing an Australian bank robber who goes on the lam to India. That’s really all I need to know to give this one a chance. Looks like it has some pretty atmospheric location shooting, too. Magpie Murders (PBS / Premieres October 16) In what appears to be a truly perfect marriage, Masterpiece is bringing us an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, a lovely meta-mystery about a novelist who dies with the whereabouts of his final book’s last chapter unknown, setting his editor off on a scramble to solve the real crime and piece together the whodunnit. Here’s hoping we see even more from this series on PBS. View the full article
  19. CrimeReads editors select the best new nonfiction crime books from September and August. Barbie Latza Nadeau, The Godmother: Murder, Vengeance, and the Bloody Struggle of Mafia Women (Penguin) Barbie Latza Nadeau’s new study brings us inside the mafia clans of Italy to draw a revealing portrait of the women who prop up these family structures, and who sometimes build power bases of their own, to violent ends. The book is in large part the story of Pupetta Maresca, the Naples woman who, at eighteen, avenged her husband’s gangland murder, served time in prison, and later became a media sensation. But The Godmother is also about the largely misunderstood role women play in organized crime in Italy, and what that role reveals about contemporary society. –DM Greg King, Penny Wilson, Nothing but the Night (St. Martin’s) In this compelling historical narrative, King and Wilson reexamine one of the nation’s most famous cases and come up with an alternative interpretation of the relationship between Leopold and Loeb. They also offer a vivid sketch of Clarence Darrow, the lion of the American bar, finding a complex humanity that drove him toward the case and into one of the most celebrated summations in the annals of American jurisprudence. –DM Beverly Lowry, Deer Creek Drive: A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta (Knopf) In Beverly Lowry’s hometown, when she was a small child just beginning to learn the horrific history of the American South, an elderly white woman known for being hateful was murdered with great violence. Her daughter tried to blame the crime on a Black man, but was instead put on trial herself—he attack was too brutal and lengthy for the townsfolk to ascribe such violence to the vulnerable Black community; what’s more, the daughter was suspected of a too-close relationship with a schoolteacher and this, combined with her mannish courtroom outfits, signaled her to be a gender rebel and thus a probable murderess. The daughter found herself convicted, but unending support from her loving husband (the contra-indicator for her suspected lesbianism) and the class differences between this upper-class wife and mother and her lower-class prisonmates eventually convinced the governor to secure her release back into the community that had so rejected her during the trial. –MO Andy Kroll, A Death on W Street (PublicAffairs) In 2016, a young DC staffer named Seth Rich was killed on his way home from work. The death was presumed to be in connection with a robbery, but when no arrests were made, a world of online conspiracy theorists and propaganda operatives stepped in with an elaborate lie about the Clinton family and a criminal coverup (and some much stranger, dark theories, of course). In Kroll’s new book, he chronicles Rich’s real life and death, as well as the dark forces that interrupted his family’s grief and made their tragedy into an online fascination and a hideous, dangerous distortion of reality. –DM Joe Pompeo, Blood and Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime (William Morrow) The 1922 murder of a prominent reverend and a woman from the church choir serves as the basis for Pompeo’s Blood & Ink, which takes a fresh look at the grisly murder. A new media landscape was emerging at the time of the crime, and Pompeo does an admirable job of linking up the mystery to the wider cultural forces at play. –DM Kathleen Hale, Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls (Grove Press) Kathleen Hale initially wrote about the Slenderman case for Hazlitt, an article that still stands out from the general sensationalist coverage of the case for its enormous empathy for all involved. When two middle schoolers stabbed another middle schooler in the woods in 2012, they claimed to do it on behalf of a mysterious figure known as Slenderman. Hysterical parenting sites spread a moral panic about CreepyPasta, the website where stories of Slenderman originated and then became memes, but undiagnosed schizophrenia, midwestern stoicism, and intense friendship dynamics are much more to blame for the attack, as Kathleen Hale illustrates in both the original article and now a full-length title. –MO T. J. English, Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld (William Morrow) T.J. English’s newest slice of American noir culture is a sweeping history of the long, entangled tradition of jazz and organized crime, from the early days of Storyville, with Black performers and Sicilian club owners operating a complicated network of protection, endorsement, exploitation, and wild, creative invention. In cities across America, jazz musicians often found their homes in connected clubs and performing venues. Some believed it was to their benefit, but as the century rolled on, divisions within the arts community began to spread, as some musicians no longer wanted to play along for the mobsters who had a taste of their careers and profits. So in the end, the story becomes a distinctly American one, of course: of racial inequality, economic injustice, and the immortal art form that sprang from this hotbed of corruption and striving. –DM View the full article
  20. I am obsessed. I can’t escape it. My thoughts are dominated by the evil, the mystery, the cruelty of one eccentric episode in modern history: The Cold War. It’s what I read. It’s what I write. It’s my lens for the world. And, even though the Cold War was pronounced dead with the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989, I see evidence of the Cold War around me daily, lurking like some half-seen figure in the shadows. The war in Ukraine? The daily propaganda messages from the Kremlin, amplified by China’s supportive posturing against the West, is the mirror image of events from the Korean War of the 1950s, when China was the combatant and the Soviet Union was the supporter. Strange theories about Covid or Monkeypox hatched in secret labs? Reminds me of the fears of bioterrorism immediately following WWII that led to the creation, for military purposes, of what today is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fear, mystery, hidden forces, alien powers, random chaos pushing people towards nihilism, those are the key issues of the Cold War. And they remain alive and well-fed in 2022, fueling a renewed interest in the Cold War in literature, film and television. To be clear, I take a broader view of the Cold War than simply defining it as the era of Soviet-American tensions between 1945-1989. That is the true Cold War. But to me, the broader, literary idea of the Cold War extends to any era in which enemies unknown threaten the stability, the livelihood and existence of regular people in a period where, officially, no war exists. George Orwell’s 1984, published in England in 1948? Absolutely Cold War. Amazon Prime’s 2015-2019 series The Man in the High Castle, based on Phillip K. Dick’s 1962 alternate history in which America loses WWII and is subjugated by the victors, Japan and Germany? Totally Cold War. There was a time in the late 1970s through the 1980s, when Cold War spy stories dominated the book trade like massive nuclear-armed missiles on the horizon. John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Len Deighton’s Game, Set, Match series, and others were the epic novels of the era, lovingly and painstakingly turned into television miniseries with big budgets and headline actors. But all that faded away for a few decades when the Cold War was said to have ended. Cold War, dead. Spy stories, out. But, like radioactive dust, the winds have blown life back into the Cold War. One of the best detective thrillers of 2021, according to Stephen King: Five Decembers, a brilliant saga by James Kestrel, set in Hawaii and Hong Kong spanning pre-Pearl Harbor to the end of WWII. The book is crammed with mysterious espionage forces and clandestine military preparations when neither America nor Hong Kong were officially involved in war. New Cold War thrillers out this year include Joseph Kanon’s The Berlin Exchange, the story of a spy swap, and Anika Scott’s The Soviet Sisters, also set in Berlin, but from a distinctively Eastern perspective. Here’s my bet: We are going to see a continued rise of new Cold War books, especially Noir tales, in the next two years. Just as the Kennedy assassinations in the 1960s, the Watergate break-in and coverup in 1972, and the CIA-backed coup and assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 led to a slew of government conspiracy-laced thrillers, like James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor and Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, I think we are ripe for an exploration of unsettling forces loose in the world today. Why? Because literature becomes a go-to, partly for solace to heal and explain modern tensions through the lens of history, and partly to echo and reinforce themes of alienation, anxiety and social distress, much like a tongue probing a chipped tooth. After all, when Mickey Spillane’s private eye antihero Mike Hammer decried his essence as a government-trained, war-inured, legalized killer in One Lonely Night, published in 1951, he was reflecting back more than a decade of turmoil, doubt and repercussions from World War II. And readers loved it. From my scan of the horizon, there are a handful of wild forces at play that are unlikely to be tamed any time soon: mistrust for government, fear of war, whether conventional war or cyber-war, and fear of increasingly powerful and seemingly malevolent technology. After all, who isn’t, deep down, afraid of what Google or the NSA knows about them? Throw in a few conspiracy theories smoldering on the internet and you’ve got the seeds for a new crop of Cold War novels. My own novel, The Man from Mittelwerk, is set in California in 1950, with a traumatized World War II vet facing his worst nightmare, the appearance of Nazi scientists in America. (This really happened: The U.S. imported 1,600 top German Scientists under a secret program called Operation Paperclip.) I don’t want to spoil the story here, but I will say, even though it’s a Cold War thriller with spies and codes and a few murders, it’s actually a critique of our modern obsession with technology. As a writer, the Cold War is an extra character that serves as the best sort of Noir villain, hidden, cruel, unpredictable, like a poison gas in the air. I was inspired by Philip Kerr’s brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy, a Chandler-style detective story transplanted from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the madness of Nazi Berlin. Nobody beats Kerr in describing the daily life for Germans under Hitler. Kerr painted a picture of the attempt to normalize the oppression of the Nazi regime across all aspects of daily life, from the “volunteer” donation drives to the suddenly booming business for his lead character, ex-cop Bernie Gunther, in searching for missing persons, usually Jews, usually dead in the river. On the surface, Kerr wrote detective stories in homage to Chandler, but in reality, he portrayed an epic battle of good versus pervasive evil. Whether that evil represented war or a political force or technology gone wild doesn’t really matter. It’s the struggle that keeps the reader’s interest. In the tumultuous time we’re in, the winds of cold war continue to chill us. There are battles being fought in undeclared wars, some we know about, some we may never know. It’s in these times that people turn to Cold War noir to help them understand the world we’re in. Decades after it was pronounced dead, the Cold War lives on for readers, for writers, for all of us. *** View the full article
  21. “It feels, indeed, as if the characters and everything that happens to them exist in some limbo of the imagination, so that what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process of revelation, not of creation.” Nobody could put it better than that. The quotation comes from the inimitable P. D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction. And that’s what it’s like for me: the characters are there, somewhere in that limbo, and I check in with them whenever I want to see what they’re up to. So, character is, to me, the most important element of a story. And I must have succeeded to some extent: I get very strong reactions to my three main characters: Monty Collins, Father Brennan Burke, and Maura MacNeil. With respect to Monty, I attended a book club one time, and one reader referred to Monty; she said quite heatedly that she would never advise her children to go to a lawyer like Monty! I said, “You would if you wanted them acquitted of murder.” Some people find Maura MacNeil a little too lippy; she does have a mouth on her, no question. Brennan Burke once said, “She has a tongue in her head that could slit the hull of a freighter.” Father Burke inspires the strongest and most frequent reactions. I’ve had everything from love — “What church is he at? I’m a single woman and I’d like to meet him.” — to outrage about his boozing and his (only occasionally) breaking of his vows, in particular, the promise to live a life of chastity. One reader declared: “He is not fit to do anything but get down on his knees and scrub the floor of his church!” I’ve even had readers worry about him: “What’s he going to do about this?” Or, “You can’t let that happen to Brennan!” This tells me that I have created (or, citing P.D. James, I am in touch with) a character who is not bland or forgettable; my readers are not indifferent to him. In order to portray a believable and compelling character, a writer has to have an ear for dialogue. I love writing dialogue, and regional dialects. If I sit at a table with a group of people, I may not be able to remember afterwards what anybody was wearing. But I can recall conversations, often word for word, and I can bring back the accents, the tone and cadence of the voices. I find in some writers’ books that the dialogue doesn’t ring true and the attempts at humour fall flat. It’s not all that easy to do, or not easy to do well. An intelligent, witty character should sound it; an old lag doing hard time in a cell should talk like one. Inseparable from all this is the “voice”, the voice in which the story is told, whether it’s a character speaking in the first person, or the voice of the author/narrator. Sometimes the voice alone, if the writing is particularly fine, is enough to hook me on a story or a series. It could be the wit of Caroline Graham in her Midsomer Murders series, the unapologetic erudition of Dorothy L. Sayers in the Lord Peter Wimsey books, or the evocative, poetic writing of R.J. Ellory in A Quiet Belief in Angels. Or John Brady, rightly commended in this New York Times review of his Matt Minogue series: “Although he writes with realistic precision of Irish police procedures, Mr. Brady adopts a tone of battered lyricism for Minogue’s keening thoughts about the spiritual corruption he sees around him. It’s a sad sound, the lamentations of a decent man’s conscience, but it’s the music that keeps drawing us back to this haunting series.” How many writers could ever hope to reach that pinnacle of achievement?! Having said all that, it’s interesting to recall the importance that P.D. James accorded to setting. “Place, after all, is where the characters play out their tragicomedies, and it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that we can enter fully into their world.” Of course, she portrays setting brilliantly in her novels. Setting is important to me, as well. Not surprisingly, my stories are set in places that hold great interest for me, e.g., my own city of Halifax, Nova Scotia; Dublin and other cities in Ireland; Italy; and Germany. My most recent novel, Fenian Street, was inspired directly by the street of that name in Dublin. Historically, and at the time of my novel — the 1970s — it was a street of tenements, called the Corpo Flats there, meaning public housing for the poor and working classes. My main character, Shay Rynne, is a lad from the Corpo Flats in Fenian Street, who wants to succeed in the Garda Síochána, the Irish police, despite the prejudice against him because of his background. Now, here are a few of my most cherished writers, who excel in the elements of setting and character. With such an illustrious history of writing and storytelling, Ireland has so many great writers that a list would fill volumes. I’ll mention only a few of my favourites. Liz Nugent is exceptional at creating character and suspense, from Unraveling Oliver through to Little Cruelties. For a brilliantly written police series set in Dublin, see Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, beginning with In the Woods. A recent standalone novel is The Searcher. And we have Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series. The books are set in McKinty’s native town, Carrickfergus, and the surrounding areas, including Belfast. McKinty transports you right into the turmoil of Northern Ireland. There are six books in the Duffy series, with the seventh expected soon: The Detective Up Late. Another great crime writer from the North of Ireland is Stuart Neville. He was born in Armagh and, like McKinty, knows all about the dark side of life in his native land. He has an excellent series of crime novels starting with The Ghosts of Belfast (a.k.a. The Twelve) and, most recently, a standalone novel, The House of Ashes. Ironically, Neville has revealed, when he first started writing about his home country and seeking to publish his work, he was told that setting stories in Northern Ireland was “death for sales” and he should try to disguise or play down the setting in promotional materials! His first novel had to be titled The Twelve for sales in the U.K. instead of The Ghosts of Belfast. Neville and McKinty have certainly overcome that particular prejudice. And, interestingly, the two of them are the editors of a collection titled Belfast Noir. Moving on to Italy. Donna Leon writes a wonderful series set in Venice, featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti is a wonderfully drawn character, one I keep coming back to. And the secretary in the Questura, Signorina Elettra, is one of a kind; she is a genius at doing things for Brunetti on the sly, mining her computer and digging up any information Brunetti needs, often information that is meant to be inaccessible. Leon, via Brunetti, has an uncanny ability to penetrate people’s minds, revealing with wit and asperity aspects of the characters’ behavior and thoughts that the characters do not know they are revealing. And her descriptions of Venice make you feel you are right in the centre of that legendary city. The most recent book, number 31(!) in the series, is Give Unto Others. Finally, we turn to Germany, and one of the greatest-ever writers of historical fiction, Robert Harris. He has set stories in ancient Rome, England, France, and Russia among other places. I particularly like his books about Germany, namely Fatherland, Munich and V2. His recreation of places and past times is incomparable. He has a new book out, Act of Oblivion, about the 1649 murder of King Charles I. And now I’ll return to my own city, Halifax, which suffered catastrophic damage in the explosion of December 6, 1917, an event which has inspired many writers of fiction and non-fiction, and I intend to be one of them. *** View the full article
  22. “My mother couldn’t believe the Queen’s hats. My mother disliked birds and hats.” Queen Elizabeth II in New Zealand, 1953. Licensed under CC0 2.0. When the Queen of Tuvalu died, I remembered. My parents were pleased that at ten years old I liked Mark Twain. And then they discovered that, as with Cleo the Talking Dog five years earlier, I would not move on from The Prince and the Pauper. I wasn’t interested in any other non-school book. I’d seen the film of Twain’s novel and Errol Flynn had the right to sit in my presence every week when I reread my favorite parts. Tom Sawyer? Any luckily orphaned boy princes? No? Then no thanks. My mother had purchased from a door-to-door salesman in 1958 our 1957 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia. We never owned another set. My knowledge of the world came from our ever more out-of-date encyclopedia. My science is still very Sputnik-era. I let the twenty-four taped, dogged volumes go with much regret in 2009 after my parents died. As I was tiring of Twain’s lookalike boys and their protector, Miles Hendon, I found in the encyclopedia a black-and-white illustration of a painting of two princes in dark clothes. They had light long hair and looked scared. Princes were unlucky. I lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. I longed to be unlucky. The two brothers were in a place with a dark staircase called the Tower of London. And, yes, the L volume of our encyclopedia set had so much on London, headed by a drawing of really old London dominated by “S. Pauwls Church.” I studied the narrow houses packed around it. My father couldn’t tell me for sure what “eel ships” were, but they were the largest vessels on the river in the drawing. So that’s where my nursery rhyme jumble of “all fall down” came from. (When did I come across the drawing that had the Globe Theatre marked in it and London Bridge full of houses over the “Thames fluuius”? Much later, when Shakespeare’s history plays were still way over my head.) I looked up stuff in the encyclopedia and in volume E I learned the counties of England from a map. England was superimposed over the state of Alabama to show how small the realm was. I tried to learn the list of English kings and queens going back to Alfred, but names before the Tudors (“To doors,” like “to arms,” I said, before I learned “two doors”) were hard. I looked up whatever I hadn’t heard of before. Sometimes the encyclopedia let me down. Then in February of 1964 came The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the British pop invasion. (Everything is on YouTube now, including an audio recording of the Beatles concert I went to at the Indiana State Fair cow barn in September of 1964. The screaming.) Fan magazines about The Beatles were supplemented by expensive and out-of-date copies of The Illustrated London News, which I begged my parents for on Sundays when they went downtown to the newspaper store across from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Circle. I was twelve years old when I first heard the voice of Queen Elizabeth II. It was a Saturday morning in 1965 and instead of cartoons or Little Rascals films on television, there was a broadcast of a memorial being dedicated to the late President Kennedy at Runnymede. I learned then what the Magna Carta was. My mother mocked the Queen’s accent: “Efrika.” When had the Queen talked about Africa? In 1965, I got up real early to watch the funeral of Winston Churchill. “I Vow to Thee, My Country” brought me to tears. I’d never heard “My Country ’Tis of Thee” sung as “God Save the Queen.” To add to my illustrated histories of great European military battles, I wanted coffee-table publications about Churchill. It was just a hobby, a history buff–type project, but then my family became alarmed when I insisted to my older sister that she must have meant Wat Tyler, who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and marched on London. No, Watts. California. Los Angeles. Black people. Riots. What else had I missed or failed to take in? Around the dinner table, my mother and my sisters thought I was hilarious. Except black people had been killed during Watts, my father said, very serious. To fall in love with Great Expectations at the new “white” school was fine, but my parents were offended when a history teacher told them how astonished he’d been when he began to recite in class “They came three thousand miles and died…” and I finished the stanza. (We’d been to Concord, Massachusetts. I had a little replica of the Grave of British Soldiers with that verse on it.) My parents did not like it when white people were surprised that black people knew anything. Maybe my parents’ ambivalence about my out-of-nowhere Anglophilia began then. It was a joke, distasteful to them, but then I could beat white people at their own game with it. I’d never been into sports and my father had played football for Fisk until he was kicked out for calling his French teacher queer. Maybe it had been a little weird when I got caught experimenting on my feet with my mother’s nail polish at a school friend’s when he burst in to tell me that somebody had just shot Lee Harvey Oswald on television. I was put in the special squad for sissies and fat boys at the new “white” school. In those days of vinyl, I had a record of historic speeches that I still listened to a lot after school. “This is Windsor Castle, His Royal Highness, Prince Edward.” I didn’t understand what was the constitutional impossibility that had kept Edward VIII from speaking before this broadcast, but I responded to the dramatic flummery of his self-pity: “… and to discharge my duties as king as I [eye-ya] would wish to do … of the British race …” (Race?) Unlucky kings were another matter. A known closet case to myself, my Anglophilia blossomed into a private gay culture. I’d not heard of Oscar Wilde but in 1969 when I was sixteen and locking every door behind me, I had no need of him. I’d discovered the House of Stuart. Flame on. Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser and The First Churchills on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and the BBC documentary The Royal Family and the broadcast of the investiture of the Prince of Wales—one great vanilla mound of unlucky princes with Her Majesty the faultless berry on top. My mother said, Yuck. My mother and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year. My mother couldn’t believe the Queen’s hats. My mother disliked birds and hats. She was always in favor of missing church, except on holidays. A bow and a bit of veil. Her imitation of the Queen’s voice was a high, squeezed little pipe. I said “liege man” and my mother said “liege man my foot.” I moved on to the Hanovers. The high school bookstore had stuff in it like Elizabeth Longford’s biography of Queen Victoria. My father put on his serious voice. He had avoided the army for as long as he could, because he and his friends at Morehouse had had no wish to fight for the British Empire or the French Empire, for that matter. My Anglo-American version of history went something like the House of Hapsburg with its weird chins degenerated and a son of the French House of Bourbon became King of Spain in 1700, provoking the thirteen-year War of the Spanish Succession. By the Treaty of Utrecht, Spain had lost the Netherlands and its possessions in Italy, but at the same time immigration from Spain to its colonies in Central America, Latin America, and South America was at its height. The populations there had already started dying, as soon as the Europeans brought diseases. I saw footnotes but did not read accounts from the Spanish conquests. Anyway, Spain kept going downhill in the Anglo version of its history and was a husk of an empire that fell apart in the nineteenth century. Before Pearl Harbor, lots of black people, Langston Hughes among them, had regarded Japan as the non-white empire that would counter European power in the Pacific. My father said he was not one of them. He got sent to Italy, a beautiful country, but the poverty he saw in Naples was worse than anything he’d come across in Georgia. The locals attacked black soldiers who they thought were after Italian women. Protestant conquest of the globe was different in my Anglo-American version, obeying as it did the imperatives of trade, capital, and progress. Trade. Yes, that commodity, human beings. There had been some debate among their captors as to whether or not slaves—as we said and as history books also said when I was in high school—should be baptized. Maybe the villain is conquest in the name of monotheism. Spain and France never had the large abolitionist movements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and the United States. Most of the captured and imprisoned Africans were transported to lands controlled by Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people, not to those lands squatted by England. My father tried again. These people do not care about us. But I knew from The British Overseas by C. E. Carrington that during the War of 1812 the slaves, as we said then, ran off to the British lines, because they would be free and sent to Nova Scotia. My father put on his don’t-hand-me-that face, but it was too late. I wanted buckles on my shoes and ruffles on my cuffs. I wrote “Sonnets Written in Dejection near Indianapolis.” Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, danced in Accra in 1961 with Queen Elizabeth, Head of the British Commonwealth, to a specially composed highlife tune, “Welcome, Your Majesty.” That was the year, 1961, that I took my first plane ride. My mother wore gloves and a hat. Life went on after the World Book Encyclopedia of 1957. The Queen‘s prince consort, happy as his Frankish ancestors, danced with Ghana’s Egyptian-born first lady. Black women were crowded around to check out the smooth moves of the dancers and one pretty spectacular diamond tiara. I’d seen a photograph and read the caption. Among the Zande, the Queen was given the name Naingitere. The name means “she who flies high in the sky with a white smoke.” The Queen owned a plane. Naingitere could be given only to a girl child with the characteristics of a ruler. Such were chosen by the deity to rule. I lied and said I was going to London with a school group. High school graduation present, 1971. My father had probably guessed that this was a solo flight, because he slipped some of his condoms—they came in little blue plastic containers of wet—into my shaving kit. I was unaware for a week and then paid it no mind for days that I’d brought my Afroed head of every obtuseness to a London that belonged not to the Queen’s men, but to Enoch Powell. Shit happened. Darryl Pinckney’s memoir, Come Back in September, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the fall. View the full article
  23. Deanna Raybourn, Killers of a Certain Age (Berkley Books) “… so inventive, the only ageist wisecracks it deserves are the ones its characters make about themselves … a singular suspense story thanks to its deftly fluctuating tone, which is by turns comical, violent and unexpectedly affecting … t’s impossible not to root for these dangerous dames and their refusal to let themselves be put on the ash heap — a phrase that, in this thriller, should be taken literally.” –Maureen Corrigan (Washington Post) Robert Harris, Act of Oblivion (Harper) “Fast-paced yet wonderfully detailed … Cleverly, the adventures and privations of Ned Whalley and his son-in-law, Will Goffe, are set in counterpoint to the trials of Will’s wife, Frances, as she hides in London with five young children, relying on the charity of her religious community as she faces plague, poverty and the great fire that will later destroy much of the city.” –Alida Becker (New York Times Book Review) Tracey Lien, All That’s Left Unsaid (William Morrow) “… suspenseful … Lien’s novel, by turns gripping and heartbreaking, makes room for forgiveness and understanding. Ky knows all about her people, and to know all is to forgive all.” –Arlene McKanic (Bookpage) Kate Atkinson, Shrines of Gaiety (Doubleday) “Shrines of Gaiety revolves around this grimy power struggle, and yet is—outwardly at least—Ms. Atkinson’s airiest creation to date. A feather-light confection of intersecting dramas that recalls the antic comedies of P.G. Wodehouse, the novel has it all: a runaway teenager, a sleuthing ex-librarian, a dogged Chief Inspector, even a stash of purloined jewels. There is the perfect balance throughout of sweetness and heartbreak … And, as always, there is the unmistakable zest of Ms. Atkinson’s dry wit … t is hard to think of another writer who can flit from darkness to levity, often in a single sentence, without lapsing into coyness or cynicism…Ms. Atkinson has perfected the comic wizardry that keeps us both airborne and immersed in her mosaic-like narratives … if such scenes border on farce—just as some of the novel’s dialogue veers toward archness—this only accentuates the underlying darkness. For here, once again, with nonchalant dexterity, Ms. Atkinson has depicted a world ripped apart by war and a city still emerging from the shroud of ‘muffled mourning.'” –Anna Mundow (Wall Street Journal) Richard Osman, The Bullet That Missed (Pamela Dorman Books) “Osman concocts a satisfyingly complex whodunit full of neat twists and wrong turns. But unlike most crime novelists, he ensures his book’s strength and momentum stem not from its plot or its thrills but rather its perfectly formed characters. Once again, the quartet of friends makes for delightful company … If there is fault to be found it is a recurring one throughout the series – namely that Osman’s two men have less to do than his two women, and as a result feel like extras around the main double-act. But what a double-act … What could have been twee and uninvolving is in fact heartwarming and enthralling. ‘They carried a kind of magic, the four of them,’ a policeman muses. That magic is still there in abundance.” –Malcolm Forbes (Washington Post) Barbie Latza Nadeau, The Godmother: Murder, Vengeance, and the Bloody Struggle of Mafia Women (Penguin Books) “Pupetta, who died last December at 86, may be the star but she is hardly the only engaging figure in this crisply written, dutifully researched book exploring the role of women in a sector of Italian society not noted for its embrace of a #MeToo ethos … [Nadeau’s] prose is straightforward, with welcome flashes of irony.” –Clyde Haberman (New York Times Book Review) Daniel Stashower, American Demon: Eliot Ness and the Hunt for America’s Jack the Ripper (Minotaur) “The premise is a grind house fever dream … The reality of this case is far more mundane and messy, and far more fascinating … Both Ness and the Torso Killer are operating in Cleveland at the same time, but Stashower is admirably forthcoming about how these two threads barely intersect … Stashower demonstrates an ear for the vivid poetry of the era’s tabloid journalism as he resurfaces the outlandish writing that came out of the press’s attempt to cover the Torso Killer … American Demon is a winding, and sometimes confusing, jaunt.” –Patton Oswalt (New York Times Book Review) Virginia Hartman, The Marsh Queen (Gallery Books) “With its atmospheric swampland setting, Hartman’s debut brings to mind Delia Owens’ blockbuster Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), while the mystery itself is on par with Stacy Willingham’s A Flicker in the Dark (2022)…While the plot has many different threads to follow, the fast pace and short chapters keep the story moving for an enjoyable ride.” –Cari Dubiel (Booklist) Iain Reid, We Spread (Gallery/Scout) “.. another masterful example of high-concept psychological horror. Laid out in captivating, first-person prose … Through Reid’s spare, fragmented passages, the reader is immediately situated deep within Penny’s solitary world: hours, days, perhaps weeks pass in a heartbeat. We know only what she sees and experiences … Reid confronts that which is unavoidable for us all: ageing and death. His deft hand at plot and atmosphere calls to mind the films of David Lynch or the ‘strange tales’ of English author Robert Aickman. We Spread is a fast-paced, engrossing thriller that will hold you in its clutches from the opening right through to its stunning conclusion.” –Justin Avery (Readings-Aus) Ainslie Hogarth, Motherthing (Vintage) “… a grim, disturbing novel of family drama and mental illness, yet a bizarrely funny glimpse into one woman’s mind … Hogarth rocks readers via Abby’s turmoil, her swings from devotion to fury, self-loathing to self-aggrandizement. Motherthing keeps readers as unstable as its narrator, struggling to manage the traumas and the waves of emotion … The result of these roiling thoughts and images is a darkly comic, kaleidoscopic novel of unhealthy fixations, love, murder, the gifts and wounds that family can inflict and one woman’s fight to save herself.” –Julia Kastner (Shelf Awareness) View the full article
  24. Sometimes you discover writers in the most roundabout ways. I must have seen Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom two or three times before I knew anything about its screenwriter, the man responsible for its unusual story about a shy and sympathetic cameraman who is also a serial killer, his modus operandi being to film his victims while he stabs them. I’d never put together that the name listed as screenwriter in the film’s credits, Leo Marks, bore a similarity to the main character’s name, Mark Lewis. It wasn’t until I bought the Criterion edition of the film on DVD and watched the documentary extra on it called “A Very British Psycho” that I learned the rich story of the person who dreamed up Peeping Tom and how the film’s narrative derived quite logically from the life Marks had lived. Born in 1920, Marks grew up in London, and he spent a substantial portion of his childhood surrounded by old books. His father co-owned Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookshop on Charing Cross Road. This was the shop made famous decades later when Helen Hanff’s book 84 Charing Cross (1970) came out. From her apartment in New York, Hanff for years had corresponded with and bought books from the store’s chief buyer, a man named Frank Doel. By that time, Leo Marks had lived a few lives. He’d been a World War II cryptographer involved in espionage for the Allies, and he had moved on to his career as a playwright and screenwriter. “He’s weird, I tell you,” the person who introduced him to director Michael Powell, in the nineteen fifties, said. “You ought to see him. He lives double or triple lives, he’s difficult to get ahold of, and he’s full of mystery and conundrums.” And it had all started, Marks’ oddness, his peculiar obsessions, in that bookstore. On a Saturday morning when Marks was eight, his father took him to the bookshop to start getting him acquainted with the family business. His father taught him such essential things as the profit margin of rare books. The store was doing so well that it would be closed on Saturdays, and the education of the young Leo Marks proceeded once a week every Saturday. As a reward, Saturday afternoons after the sessions, his mother would take him up the street to a nearby movie theater, and from this routine, the association between books and film developed in Marx. But soon enough, something else was added to the formative mix. Edgar Allan Poe set him off. When Marks was eight-and-a-half, his father showed him a signed first edition of Poe’s “The Gold Bug” he had just acquired, explaining what it had cost to buy and at what price he would sell it. Marks opened the story out of curiosity, and he found himself reading a story about a code that needed to be broken to find a buried treasure. Marks had never known what codes were or how they functioned, but at that very moment, devouring the story, Marks became enamored of cryptography. He had no need that day for a trip to the movies. Eager to crack a code himself, he remembered his father telling him that every book in the store over five pounds had its cost written on it in code on the book’s back cover. This was to allow the staff leeway in how much discount to give to individual customers. His father had not explained the code’s workings to him, however, and so by himself, over the course of an afternoon, using as a basis that he knew the cost of “The Gold Bug” volume and could see the code price listed on the back, Marks cracked his father’s pricing code. He would do this as well later at the rare bookshop his grandfather owned and the one his cousins owned, all in London. The little boy had hit upon a passion. But not only for codes. As he would later write in Between Silk and Cyanide, the book about his life, “From that moment onwards, I had two ambitions: to know as much about codes as Edgar Allan Poe, and one day to become a writer, probably of horror-stories, possibly of films”. He was 21 years old, in 1942, when he got conscripted for World War Two. Marks applied and was accepted to a school for cryptographers. The newbies were slated to take an eight-week course, after which they would be graded and sent to Bletchley Park, the country house and estate that was the British headquarters for code breaking. Marks completed within a day a training exercise that was expected to take the aspiring code masters a week, but instead of being dispatched to Bletchley, as the rest of his class was, the powers that be earmarked him for “some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits”. It was clear, despite his talents, that those in charge regarded him as a challenging man to teach and manage. The potty outfit was called SOE (Special Operations Executive). Here, too, he had a bumpy start. Informed that SOE’s primary function was dropping agents into Europe and that he would be tasked with keeping an eye on the security of the agents’ codes, the lieutenant briefing him handed him a code to break. This was to test his abilities. That it took Marks hours to make headway with it disappointed the lieutenant, who told Marks that prospective SOE cryptographers usually cracked it in twenty minutes. As it turned out, Marks had not been given the needed cipher key. The lieutenant had meant for him to do a simple speed decoding test, not to break the entire code, which SOE considered secure. But Marks, after several hours, had broken it, and he asked his superior, “You mean, sir – that SOE is actually using this code?” “We were,” his superior answered. “We have others now.” Marks rose fast within the SOE ranks. Agents then were using existing poems for their codes, or familiar quotations, language they could remember easily. Marks’ first job was to provide ciphers to the agents in the field, so that, by radio, they could send their information to London, and the writers often tapped for poem-codes included Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, and Poe. Sometimes agents used the Bible as their source. The problem, as Marks realized right away, was that some poems and quotes in use were so well-known that German agents knew them as well, even in English, and could guess the ciphers. Somehow, this susceptibility had never dawned on the SOE brass. Not one to quash his thoughts, Marks spoke up about the need to improve the quality and security of the coding, and his solution, which was something novel, was to have the agents memorize original poems, language created from scratch, and to use those poems as the basis for their codes. But who would come up with these poems? Who would compose these verses which would have to be coherent and rhythmical enough for agents doing work under great pressure to memorize? It was not as if SOE had reincarnations of Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelly on hand. Marks had never been a poetry writer himself, not even as a hobby, but he took the lead in this project, and from that point till the end of the war, he wrote hundreds of poems, contributions, as he put it, to the ditty-box. To one agent he gave these verses: They cannot know What makes you as you are Nor can they hear Those voices from afar Which whisper to you You are not alone. They cannot reach That inner core of you That long before of you The child inside Deep deep inside Which gives the man his pride What you are They can never be And what they are Will soon be history. After the war, one poem he wrote for an agent would become famous because of its use in a film. Carve her Name with Pride, from 1958, was about Violette Szabo, one of the many women SOE used as agents on the continent, behind enemy lines. To her he gave a poem that had occurred to him on Christmas Eve 1943, lines inspired by the recent death of his girlfriend in an airplane crash. At the SOE briefing room in London, before Szabo departed for her mission, Marks recited the poem for her, not mentioning its provenance and saying, when Violette asked, that he didn’t know who had written it. The life that I have Is all that I have And the life that I have Is yours The love that I have Of the life that I have Is yours and yours and yours. A sleep I shall have A rest I shall have Yet death will be but a pause For the peace of my years In the long green grass Will be yours and yours and yours On her second mission into Nazi-occupied France, the German army captured Szabo. She was tortured, sent to a concentration camp, and executed. Carve Her Name with Pride, starring Virginia McKenna and Paul Scofield, dramatized her experiences and made Marks’ poem famous. He’d given the film’s producer permission to use it on the condition that its author’s name not be revealed. As he writes, “Thousands of letters poured in asking who’d written it and the Rank Organization professed not to know…” Not until sometime after Peeping Tom came out did the press somehow get wind that he had written the poem, and the knowledge caused them much consternation. The press had loathed Peeping Tom, with critics lambasting it as vile and disgusting and worthy of being flushed down the toilet, and they had a hard time reconciling its scriptwriter with the man who had written such a moving ode for a heroic figure from the war. Throughout the film, Mark Lewis, cameraman-murderer, is trying to capture something ineffable. He is obsessed with photographing a specific thing only his victims can provide. What exactly that something is we don’t discover until near the film’s conclusion, but we do know from early in the story that what Mark is after relates to that most basic of human emotions – fear. This is the emotion his psychologist father studied when Mark was a child, using Mark as his guinea pig in fear-inducing experiments he devised. For Leo Marks as well, fear was a preoccupation. Having discovered its potency in fiction through Poe, he had then lived with it, immersed in it, during his years with SOE. Every time, he’d have a briefing with an agent about to be dispatched to occupied Europe, he’d know that the agent might be killed on the mission. At that briefing, he’d try to probe the agent and get inside the agent’s head so as to understand the person as fully as possible. He’d do this in part because he felt he owed it to the agent about to risk his or her life, but also for a practical reason. Earlier, before Marks started at SOE, agents at work sending back messages that had mistakes in their coding would be asked to repeat the message so it would no longer be indecipherable. Mistakes happened, naturally, due to the stress agents were under while conveying their messages to London. But for an agent to repeat a message took time and served to increase the chance of the agent being caught while transmitting. A number of agents had in fact been captured this way. Marks declared that this was an unnecessary risk and that there would be no such thing, henceforth, as an indecipherable message. An agent in the field would transmit a message once and then, wherever they were, be on the move. One transmission, perfectly done or not, and the staff at SOE headquarters would have to decipher it. Marks got his way on this proposal, and he put together a team of 450 women whose sole job was to crack the so-called indecipherables. One such message took 750,000 attempts to decode. But decode the garbled transmissions his team did, and a primary help in this labor was knowing how the agent’s mind worked. Understanding the person’s mental quirks, their interests and neuroses, their general thinking process, often gave a clue to what lay behind the agent’s coding errors. Cryptography mixed with applied psychology one might call this, where the stakes were life and death, and Marks barely slept for four years. It makes total sense that he would say, though the film has nothing to do with codes, that the idea for Peeping Tom was born in the briefing rooms, the fear-saturated environment, of SOE. But voyeurism, pleasure in looking? This is the activity that defines Mark Lewis, and the question is how did Leo Marks alight on this particular subject for his script. Again, he says it connects to his wartime experience. At SOE, dealing with secrets and codes and fear, managing people of every imaginable type, he had indeed developed a keen interest in human psychology. To both the men in his charge and the hundreds of women, as they toiled non-stop in their pressure-cooker offices, he had been something of a psychotherapist. He would come to draw a connection. If psychotherapy is the study of the secrets people keep from themselves, then codes is the study of secrets nations keep from one another. And as he explained, he “became convinced that all cryptographers are basically voyeurs, and I wanted to write the study of one particular voyeur”. Peeping Tom, to this day, is among best movies ever made about voyeurism. Its influence has been wide-ranging, cited of course by Martin Scorsese for its depiction of film-making as violating and aggressive, a precursor to slasher films. You see nods to it in many a Brian DePalma film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, and a host of others. And just what was Leo Marks’ voyeur trying to capture with his camera while filming and filming, pointing his lens at women he kills? What did he hope to see while moving in for close-ups that would be the last thing his unsuspecting subjects ever experienced? He was, like Leo Marks and his cryptographer colleagues at SOE, trying to break a code. But the codes the cryptographers wrestled with were ultimately, after strenuous efforts, breakable. Not so for Mark Lewis, the sad and obsessed cameraman, who found that what he was trying to grasp is ungraspable, impossible. View the full article
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