Tag Archives: Crime

The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald

It’s been a while since I last read anything by Ross Macdonald – an American writer who is now considered to be one of the leading proponents of hardboiled fiction. These novels typically feature a tough, unsentimental style of crime writing in which the protagonist – usually a private eye – battles against the systemic violence and corruption that exists within families, corporations and other powerful institutions. Several of Macdonald’s books feature Lew Archer – a detective with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man in pursuit of the truth, even though he’s almost certainly going to get roughed up along the way.

The Doomsters (1958) is book #7 in the Lew Archer series – a solid entry but probably not up there with the best. It does, however, contain some very interesting elements, enough to make it an essential part of the set for fans of the genre – more of this later. In addition, it also features several aspects that will be familiar to readers of the Archer novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; wayward children seemingly intent on manipulating situations for personal gain; highly damaged individuals with complex psychological issues; and finally, elements of greed, murder, blackmail and guilt.

As the novel opens, Archer is woken from his sleep by a caller at the door. The visitor is twenty-four-year-old Carl Hallman, an escapee from a mental institution who has been given Archer’s details by a mutual friend. While a pre-breakfast client is the last thing Archer needs at that particular moment, his curiosity gets the better of him and he invites the young man in.

Carl swiftly reveals that he was committed to the State Hospital shortly after the death of his wealthy father, Senator Hallman, some six months ago. Moreover, Carl’s elder brother, Jerry, doesn’t want Carl to be released – it turns out that Jerry, along with the family physician, Dr Gartland, was the driving force behind Carl’s incarceration. (While Carl’s wife, Mildred actually signed the relevant papers, the committal appears to have taken place following pressure from Jerry and Gartland.) According to Carl, it seems likely that Jerry and his wife Zinnie paid Dr Gartland to have him put away, possibly for the rest of his life, leaving Jerry free to benefit from the bulk of his father’s estate. There is even a suggestion that Jerry may have been involved in his father’s death – initially thought to have been due to heart failure, but the circumstances surrounding the incident could be considered suspicious.

Having digested all this, Archer persuades Carl to accompany him back to the hospital, leaving the detective free to do some digging. Tired and confused, Carl reluctantly agrees, only to overpower Archer en route, making off with the detective’s car in the process. With Carl on the run again, Archer finds himself embroiled in a complex web of manipulation and deceit. All too soon, Jerry is found dead – shot twice in the back with his mother’s old gun, a weapon thought to have been in Carl’s possession. Despite Carl being the chief suspect, Archer has enough sympathy for the young man to carry on investigating the situation – as far as Archer sees things, the powerful and corrupt may be trying to frame the damaged and vulnerable in this family.  

I won’t dwell on the plot for too long, save to say that for the most part it’s pretty compelling with a good level of intrigue along the way. That said, the resolution to the various crimes feels somewhat convoluted and laboured, requiring several pages of explanation in the form of a confession of sorts.

Nevertheless, what makes this such an interesting entrant in the series is the degree of self-realisation Archer experiences towards the end of the investigation. Firstly, there is a sense that our protagonist is coming to terms with the fact that not everything in this world is black and white; there are shades of grey in the fight against crime, just as there are in so many other aspects of life.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

It was a very comforting idea, and bracing to the ego. For years I’d been using it to justify my own activities, fighting fire with fire and violence with violence, running on fool’s errands while the people died: a slightly earthbound Tarzan in a slightly paranoid jungle. Landscape with figure of a hairless ape.

It was time I traded the picture in on one that included a few of the finer shades. (pp. 237–238)

Secondly, Archer must face up to an element of culpability or guilt, specifically in relation to the crimes that have just taken place. It transpires that Archer was approached three years earlier by someone from his past – a man Archer didn’t want to associate with as it reminded him of former transgressions, things he had hoped to leave well behind. Had Archer listened to this man at the time then maybe some of the tragedies involved the Hallmans could have been prevented. It’s an interesting twist, one that ends the novel on a contemplative note.

As ever with Macdonald, there is some nice characterisation, especially with the female members of the family. In this scene, Archer is observing Mildred, Carl’s birdlike wife.

She listened with her head bowed, biting one knuckle like a doleful child. But there was nothing childish about the look she gave me. It held a startled awareness, as if she’d had to grow up in a hurry, painfully. I had a feeling that she was the one who had suffered most in the family trouble. There was resignation in her posture, and in the undertones of her voice: (p. 38)

The sense of place is evocative too, capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of the Southern California setting. (Archer’s world-weary demeanour is also conveyed here, particularly at the end of the passage.)

The Red Barn was a many-windowed building which stood in the center of a blacktop lot on the corner. Its squat pentagonal structure was accentuated by neon tubing along the eaves and corners. Inside this brilliant red cage, a tall-hatted short-order cook kept several waitresses running between his counter and the cars in the lot. The waitresses wore red uniforms and little red caps which made them look like bellhops in skirts. The blended odors of gasoline fumes and frying grease changed in my nostrils to a foolish old hot-rod sorrow, nostalgia for other drive-ins along roads I knew in prewar places before people started dying on me. (p. 174)

So, in summary – not a perfect entrant in the Lew Archer series, but an intriguing one nonetheless. One for completists, perhaps?

The Doomsters is published by Vintage Crime / Black Lizard; personal copy.

The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

Last year I read and enjoyed Vanish in an Instant (1952), a tightly-plotted murder mystery by the Canadian-American crime writer, Margaret Millar. The Listening Walls is a later work – published some seven years after Vanish in 1959. If anything, TLW is a more accomplished novel, certainly in terms of its premise and insights into the secrets and petty disagreements of suburban life. Certain aspects of the story reminded me of novels by other American crime writers I love and admire – in particular, Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes. All of these writers – Millar included – seem to share an interest in their characters’ psychology and motivations, the difference between an individual’s public persona and their underlying inner world.

The Listening Walls opens in Mexico City where Wilma Wyatt has persuaded her closest friend, Amy Kellogg, to accompany her on a get-away-from-it-all kind of holiday as a break from the routine of their lives in San Francisco. Oddly enough, the two women couldn’t be more different from one another; while Wilma is intolerant, rude and domineering, Amy is shy, submissive and mouse-like, frequently embarrassed by her friend’s disdainful treatment of the Mexican chambermaid.

Amy Kellogg, standing by the window, made a sound of embarrassed protest, a kind of combination of ssshh and oh dear. The sound was Amy’s own, the resonance of her personality, and an expert could have detected in it the echoes of all the things she hadn’t had the nerve to say in her lifetime, to her parents, her brother Gill, her husband Rupert, her old friend Wilma. She was not, as her brother Gill frequently pointed out, getting any younger. It was time for her to take a firm stand, be decisive and businesslike. Don’t let people walk all over you, he often said, while his own boots went tramp, crunch, grind. Make your own decisions, he said, but every time she did make a decision it was taken away from her and cast aside or improved, as if it were a toy a child had made, crude and grotesque. (pp. 11–12)

For Wilma, the break is supposed to be a chance to get over her recent divorce and other life events; however, in truth, she seems more interested in complaining about the standards of service at the hotel than trying to relax or forget about her cares.

At an early point in the story, there is a dramatic development at the hotel when Wilma falls to her death from the balcony of her bedroom, a room she has been sharing with Amy. Moreover, Amy is discovered lying unconscious in the same room, presumably having fainted from shock following the incident involving Wilma. As a consequence, Amy is admitted to hospital for a few days to recover; meanwhile, her husband Rupert, a bored yet moderately successful accountant, travels to Mexico with the aim of accompanying Amy home.

As the story unravels, layer upon layer of mystery is revealed. There are reports that the two women were observed drinking heavily in the hotel bar before the fatal incident, something that seems entirely out of character for Amy if not for Wilma. The presence of a freeloading barfly, an American named O’Donnell, was also noted and considered to be somewhat suspicious. Then, most worrying of all, Amy disappears from her home immediately following her return from Mexico City, leaving a letter of explanation with Rupert to be delivered to her overbearing brother, Gill.

Gill, for his part, refuses to believe Amy’s reason’s for taking off so suddenly – namely, that Wilma’s death has prompted Amy to reconsider her life, sparking a need for independence and a break from the reliance on others. In short, Gill is convinced that a) Rupert is hiding something, and b) Amy’s letter is a fake, possibly extracted under duress; so, he hires a local PI, Elmer Dodd, to investigate the situation further.

That’s probably enough in terms of the plot; to say any more at this stage might spoil things, but there’s plenty of intrigue at the heart of this story to maintain the reader’s interest.

For a crime novel, the characterisation is refreshingly nuanced. With the possible exception of Elmer Dodd, no one is quite who or what they might seem on the surface. As the story plays out, different facets of their personalities are revealed, mostly through the uncovering of various motivations and behaviours. The minor characters are nicely judged too, from Rupert’s devoted secretary, the idiosyncratic Miss Burton, to Gill’s private eye, the level-headed Elmer Dodd.

Millar’s style is very engaging, with a good balance between descriptive passages and dialogue to move the action along. The atmosphere is well conveyed too, especially as the novel approaches its denouement.

Along the ocean front waves angered by the wind were flinging themselves against the shore. Spray rose twenty feet in the air and swept across the highway like rain, leaving the surface sleek and treacherous. Dodd kept the speedometer at thirty, but the thundering of the sea and the great gusts of wind that shook and rattled the car gave him a sensation of speed and danger. The road, which he’d traveled a hundred times, seemed unfamiliar in the noisy darkness; it took turns he couldn’t remember, past places he’d never seen. Just south of the zoo, the road curved inland to meet Skyline Boulevard. (p. 160)

Some readers might find the final solution to the mystery behind Wilma’s death and Amy’s disappearance a little convoluted. Nevertheless, I’m happy to go with it, especially as the ride along the way is so enjoyable, full of potential clues and red herrings to fox the reader. There are some darkly comic touches here and there too, nicely incorporated with the rest of the narrative.

All in all, this is a very welcome addition to the Pushkin Press/Pushkin Vertigo list; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith and her interest in the psychology of domestic noir. Her 1957 novel, Deep Water, remains one of my favourites, along with the Ripley series of course. The Blunderer (published in 1954) sees Highsmith in familiar territory, exploring themes of guilt, obsession and the possibility that an ordinary, everyday man might resort to murder if pushed far enough. It’s an intriguing novel, one that will suit lovers of dark, well-crafted fiction with a psychological edge.

The story opens with a swift yet brutal murder, on the face of it a seemingly perfect crime. The perpetrator is Melchior Kimmel, a cuckolded husband who murders his wife on the sly while the latter is on a bus ride from Newark to Albany. To establish a suitable alibi for the night in question, Kimmel buys a ticket at his local cinema, seeks out an acquaintance in the audience who will recall his presence, and then slips out of a side door unnoticed. All that remains is for Kimmel to drive in the direction of Albany to intercept the bus during a rest stop. Once there, he lures his wife, Helen, away from the other passengers and kills her, dumping her body by the highway before returning to Newark.

When the crime is reported in the newspapers, it catches the eye of Walter Stackhouse, a frazzled, thirty-year-old lawyer whose life is being made a misery by his wife, Clara, a successful yet neurotic real estate agent. Clara dislikes pretty much all of Walter’s friends whom she has systematically driven away with her lack or tolerance and unreasonable behaviour. In fact, the situation has got to the point where Walter is no longer invited or expected to be able to go out with the boys, such is Clara’s hold over him. While Walter still finds Clara physically attractive, he is becoming increasingly fed up with her behaviour, especially once she resorts to tantrums or flare-ups. So, when Walter meets Ellie, a generous and attractive young woman who is sympathetic to his situation, it’s not long before the two of them embark on an affair.

While Walter can only fantasise about killing his wife, Kimmel has committed the deed in reality – a point that Walter successfully guesses when he sees the article about Mrs Kimmel in the papers. Thus begins a chain of fateful events as our protagonist becomes increasingly obsessed with Kimmel and his potential involvement in Helen’s murder. The more Walter thinks about it, the more convinced he is of Kimmel’s guilt – to the extent that he decides to take a trip to Kimmel’s bookstore in Newark to have a look at the man himself. In essence, Walter wonders whether he might be able to tell if Kimmel is a murderer just by observing him.

Having found the store, Walter orders a book from Kimmel as a ruse for his visit, but he also makes the mistake of mentioning Helen’s death, a point that immediately puts Kimmel on his guard…

Walter looked at the broad, plump back of Kimmel’s right hand. The light from over the desk fell on it, and Walter could see a spattering of freckles and no hair at all. Suddenly Walter felt sure that Kimmel knew he had come to the shop only to look at him, to assuage some sordid curiosity. Kimmel knew now that he lived in Long Island. Kimmel was standing very close to him. A sudden fear came over Walter that Kimmel might lift his thick slab of a hand and knock his head off his neck. (pp. 72–73)

Then, in a dramatic twist of fate, Walter’s wife, Clara, takes a night-time bus trip to Harrisburg to visit her dying mother. Still obsessed with the details of Helen Kimmel’s murder, Walter stupidly follows the bus in his car, just as he supposes Kimmel would have done on the night of his wife’s murder. However, when Walter tries to find his wife at the rest stop, Clara herself is nowhere to be seen, so he drives home and goes to see his lover, Ellie.

Events take a turn for the worse the next morning when Clara’s body is found at the bottom of a cliff near the rest stop in question. At first, the death is thought to be suicide, a conclusion that fits with Clara’s rather neurotic temperament and medical history. However, once the zealous detective Corby appears on the scene, things begin to look a lot more uncomfortable for Walter, especially once his interest in the Kimmel case comes to light.

In a complex game of cat-and-mouse, Corby begins to play Walter and Kimmel off against one another, primarily in the belief that at least one of them will crack under pressure. Kimmel in particular stands firm; nevertheless, he remains furious with Walter for his reckless behaviour. In effect, Walter’s blundering actions and insatiable curiosity about Helen’s murder have effectively led the police straight to Kimmel’s door. Without the titular ‘blunderer’, Kimmel might well have been home free.

As the suspicions surrounding Clara’s death increase, Walter becomes increasingly isolated as his behaviour, and ultimately his innocence, are called into question – not only by the police but by his closest friends too. Unsurprisingly, the situation intensifies, especially once Walter’s obsession with Kimmel is made public. Even though Walter didn’t actually kill Clara, there comes a point when he virtually imagines having done it, so exhausted is he by Corby’s relentless questioning.

Walter got into his car and headed for Lennert. He should have a brandy, he thought. He felt jumpy, on guard, against what he didn’t know. He felt guilty, as if he had killed her, and his tired mind traced back to the moments of waiting around the bus. He saw himself walking with Clara by some thick trees at the side of the road. Walter moved his head from side to side, involuntarily, as if he were dodging something. It hadn’t happened. He was positive. But just then the road began to wobble before his eyes, and he gripped the wheel hard. Lights skidded and blurred on the black road. Then he realized that it was raining. (p. 104)

The Blunderer is a very effective noir – intriguing, well-paced and compelling. Once again, Highsmith demonstrates her ability to explore the psychological motives and behaviours of a seemingly ordinary protagonist, an everyman trapped in toxic marriage. In this instance, she is particularly strong on exploring the point at which idle curiosity tips over into an unhealthy obsession, signalling the point of no return. There is an inherent dichotomy in the central protagonist’s personality, which is both fascinating and believable; even though Walter knows something is a truly dangerous idea, he goes ahead and does it anyway, irrespective of the consequences. In some respects, this mirrors the push-pull nature of Walter’s relationship with Clara, the dynamic between attraction and repulsion that has characterised their situation in life.

A strange sensation ran through him at the touch of her fingers, a start of pleasure, of hatred, of a kind of hopeless tenderness that Walter crushed as soon as his mind recognized it. He had a sudden desire to embrace her hard at this last minute, then to fling her away from him. (p. 96)

This is a great choice for fans of dark, psychological fiction, particularly Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl or Strangers on a Train. Those of you familiar with the latter may find certain similarities between the two novels, especially in terms of the exploration of obsession, guilt and fate, not to mention the ongoing fascination with murder.

The Blunderer is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

A couple of additional mini reviews of recent reads – this time novels by the wonderfully off-kilter Barbara Comyns and the British crime writer, E. C. R. Lorac. Enjoy!

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns (1987)

I discovered this little gem of a novel a few months ago via Heaven Ali’s excellent review, which you can find here. It’s very much in the style of one of Comyns’ earlier novels, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), a book that made my ‘best of’ list back in 2017.

Like ‘Spoons’, Mr Fox features a rather childlike young woman who relates her story in an unassuming, conversational style. As the novel opens, Caroline Seymore and her three-year-old daughter, Jenny, have just been offered a place to live by their ‘friend’, Mr Fox, who makes his money via various underhand dealings – mostly tarting up dodgy cars plus some black-market activities here and there. (The novel is set at the start of WW2.)

Caroline has been on her own with Jenny for the past three years, trying to make a go of sub-letting rooms in a London house having inherited the lease after her mother’s death. Unfortunately for Caroline, the bailiffs and debt-collectors are rapidly closing in, leaving her virtually no other option but to accept Mr Fox’s offer however awful that may be.

I knew so little about him [Mr Fox] really. Perhaps he was an awful vicious man, or maybe he was cruel and bad-tempered or mean; perhaps he hoarded things like string and candle-ends in boxes under his bed, or he might even get drunk and beat people. Then I remembered all my creditors and thought perhaps I’d better risk all these things. Nothing could be worse than all those summonses and bowler-hatted debt collectors. (pp. 27-28)

Mr Fox is an odd little man; kindly and generous one minute but prone to moody behaviour the next. In particular, he finds Jenny’s constant chattering somewhat annoying, frequently disturbing the household when he wants to enjoy a rest. While Caroline doesn’t share a bed with Mr Fox, she is expected to cook his meals – another aspect her benefactor finds fault with. As a consequence, Caroline often feels sad and homesick, even though she has no other home to speak of. There are times when Caroline longs to escape from Mr Fox, but realistically there is nowhere else where she and Jenny can go.

With the advent of war looming on the horizon, Mr Fox decides they all need to get out of London for a while, so he shuts down his dodgy garage, securing a job in an aircraft factory instead. But life in the isolated town of Straws proves terribly grim for Caroline; it’s a shabby, dismal place where no one seems to have any spark or money.

I became more and more depressed and never bothered to carry my gas mask any more. It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws. It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable. He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all. (p. 76)

As Ali has already written about this slim yet very affecting book, I’m not going to dwell on the plot, only to say that we follow Caroline and Jenny as they try to make their way in an uncertain world – sometimes aided and abetted by Mr Fox, other times not. Instead, I’ll try to highlight a few things I liked about the novel, just to give you a feel for the style.

Like Sophia in Spoons, Caroline is a very engaging narrator, the childlike naivety and innocence adding greatly to her charm. There are times when Caroline’s matter-of-fact tone of voice may seem at odds with the horror of the situations she is describing, but in practice this style of delivery makes her predicament feel all the more horrific. (In an effort to earn her keep with Mr Fox, Caroline spends a terrible week working as a dance hostess in a ghastly club, a role she is ill-equipped for with her innocence and simplicity.)

In spite of the rather bleak subject matter – poverty, homelessness, a desperate reliance on the kindness of others, particularly men – Comyns lightens the tone with some nicely judged humour. There are several moments when Caroline is unintentionally funny, coming out with the most wonderful turns of phrase such as this description of a man who invites her for dinner after they meet in the club.

I came through the main entrance of Rules after getting rather entangled in the swing doors. But there he was, looking like a bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun. (p. 51)

Comyns’ evocation of wartime London is superb, replete with air-raid sirens, explosions and bombed-out houses. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Caroline has to run barefoot while shielding Mr Fox’s dog, desperately trying to find shelter during a chaotic raid. Moreover, what comes through very strongly from the narrative is the fluid nature of civilian life during the war. Caroline and Jenny are almost always on the move, barely able to stay more than a few months in any single place. The transient feel of everything – jobs, houses, possessions, even life itself – is both palpable and striking.

I absolutely loved this little novel by Comyns, which is by turns funny, evocative, honest and poignant. The ending in particular is very affecting, perfectly capturing the opportunistic nature of Mr Fox – a man forever on the make, constantly on the lookout for the next lucrative deal.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac (1946)

I’d been looking to read E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) for a while, particularly following positive reports by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and one or two other readers on Twitter. So, I was delighted to find a copy of one her novels, Fire in the Thatch, in a local charity shop fairly recently, especially as it was in near-perfect condition. Happily, my first experience of this author’s work was a great success, definitely one I’d recommend to others.

In short, Fire in the Thatch is a very entertaining entrant in the British Library Crime Classics series, a traditional Golden-Age novel to brighten a dull weekend. When Little Thatch cottage is destroyed in a fire, killing its new tenant, the reclusive army veteran Nicholas Vaughan, the dogged Chief Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to investigate.

Set in the beautiful countryside of Devon, this is a thoroughly intriguing mystery with interesting, distinctive characters (many of whom are shadowy), and a deep-rooted sense of place. Lorac demonstrates a real appreciation of the farming community’s passion for the landscape and traditional customs. These aspects of the novel are beautifully portrayed. The writing is excellent too, very engaging and precise.

Hayley at Desperate Reader has posted a lovely review of this, as has Guy, so I shall direct you to their posts. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books by Lorac, particularly those featuring Macdonald, the rather engaging detective at the heart of Thatch – Lorac’s compelling portrayal of this determined character is one of the book’s many delights.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Ross Macdonald – now acknowledged to be one of the leading proponents of the hardboiled novel alongside Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Many of Macdonald’s best books feature the world-weary Lew Archer, a private eye with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even though he knows he’s likely to get roughed-up along the way.

Book #6 in the Lew Archer series is The Barbarous Coast (1956), a compelling and intricate mystery featuring many of the elements I’ve come to know and love in Macdonald’s novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; damaged individuals with complex, psychological issues; elements of desire, murder and betrayal, all set within the privileged social circle of 1950s LA.

As the novel opens, Archer is arriving at The Channel Club, a high-end leisure club for the rich and famous, where he is to meet the establishment’s owner, Clarence Bassett. On his way into the club, Archer runs into a man who appears to be creating a disturbance, arguing with the security guard in an attempt to confront Bassett. The agitator in question is George Wall, a sportswriter from a Toronto newspaper – a fact Archer discovers during his subsequent meeting with Bassett. In short, Bassett wants Archer to get Wall off his back, proposing to pay the detective to nip the harassment in the bud. Usually, this would be a matter for the police, but Bassett is reluctant to involve them in any way, fearing the potential for a scandal which could damage the club.

Wall, for his part, believes Bassett is hiding his wife – a twenty-one-year girl named Hester Campbell, who appears to be caught up in some serious trouble. Wall hasn’t seen Hester since she left him in Toronto a few months ago, but a recent phone call from her suggests she is in danger. The connection to Clarence Bassett is longstanding one, Hester Campbell having known Bassett for many years, ever since she began diving at the club as a young girl. While Bassett knows of Hester’s return from Toronto to California, he claims not to have seen the girl for around three months – in all probability Hester is running around with some man she met through the club following her split from George Wall.

In the end, Archer agrees to try and find Hester, albeit somewhat reluctantly – like the seasoned detective that he is, our detective knows when something isn’t right, and that’s almost certainly the case here. While Bassett offers to pay for Archer’s services, just to get the nuisance off his back, Wall insists on paying the fees himself – a move that leaves Archer playing babysitter to his client as they set off in search of the missing girl.

“It’s right down your alley, isn’t it?” Bassett said smoothly. “What’s your objection?”

I had none, except that there was trouble in the air and it was the end of a rough year and I was a little tired. I looked at George Wall’s pink, rebellious head. He was a natural-born troublemaker, dangerous to himself and probably to other people. Perhaps if I tagged along with him, I could head off the trouble he was looking for. I was a dreamer. (p. 24)

As more information about Hester and her whereabouts comes to light, it transpires that the girl has links to a Hollywood studio – a dubious operation run by a group of powerful bigwigs. Perhaps more significantly, Hester appears to have come into a large sum of money in the last month or so, enough to buy back the upmarket property that used to belong to her family. According to the girl’s mother, Hester claims that the money came from her late husband’s estate, but this is clearly a lie – George Wall is neither wealthy nor dead. So, given his experience of these situations, Archer suspects the money may be the proceeds of some form of blackmail. Nevertheless, two key questions remain: who is Hester bribing, and what kind of hold does she have over them?

The unravelling of the web of deceit surrounding Hester brings Archer into contact with a variety of nefarious individuals, from the washed-up-boxer-turned-actor, Lance Leonard (aka Miguel Torres), to the womanising head of the film studios, Simon Graff, to the corrupt mobster, Carl Stern. What starts as just another missing person case soon morphs into something much darker, taking in multiple murders, blackmail, cover-ups and the use of a ‘cat’s paw’ to accomplish at least one dirty deed.

In his quest to uncover the truth, Archer finds himself in the midst of Hollywood, a world he finds shallow and meaningless, populated by individuals caught up in a superficial dream.

There were actresses with that numb and varnished look, and would-be actresses with that waiting look; junior-executive types hacking diligently at each other with their profiles; their wives watching each other through smiles; (p. 140)

It’s a wealthy, privileged sphere of society, indelibly tainted by the lure of corruption.

As ever, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian environment are lucid and evocative, effectively portraying the shadowy ‘feel’ of the place. For this novel, we’re in Malibu and Beverley Hills, locations where some of the houses have delusions of grandeur.

Manor Crescent Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions. The houses weren’t huge and fantastic like some of the rococo palaces in the surrounding hills, but they had pretensions. Some were baronial pseudo-Tudor with faked half-timbered façades. Others were imitation Mizener Spanish, thick-walled and narrow-windowed like stucco fortresses built to resist imaginary Moors. The street was good. but a little disappointed-looking, as though maybe the Moors had already been and gone. (p.78)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Archer is at once both wired and weary, despairing of the darkness in the underbelly of LA.

Time was running through me, harsh on my nerve-ends, hot in my arteries, impalpable as breath in my mouth. I had the sleepless feeling you sometimes get in the final hours of a bad case, that you can see around corners, if you want to, and down into the darkness in human beings. (p. 226)

Overall, The Barbarous Coast is another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the Lew Archer series. While the plot feels a little convoluted and tricky to follow at times, everything slots into place relatively smoothly in the final chapters, with an additional, unforeseen twist right at the end.

Once again, Macdonald demonstrates his skill in moving the narrative forward through dialogue underscored with the ring of truth and authenticity. While Lew Archer is the most well-developed character here, the other players are nicely sketched – particularly the secondary characters who frequently add some interesting dashes of colour. Of particular note are Hester’s former landlady, Mrs Lamb, a straight-talking woman with ‘an air of calm eccentricity’; and the girl’s mother, Mrs Campbell, who naively believes Hester’s lies about her fortuitous inheritance.

There is some beautiful writing in this novel, from Macdonald’s nicely judged metaphors and observations to his poetic descriptions of the landscape. In this scene, Archer is driving into the Canyon, on his way to Lance Leonard’s house in the darkness of the night.

I left the house the way I had entered, and drove up into the Canyon. A few sparse stars peered between the streamers of cloud drifting along the ridge. Houselights on the slopes islanded the darkness through which the road ran white under my headlight beam. Rounding a high curve, I could see the glow of the beach cities far below to my left, phosphorescence washed up on the shore. (p. 108)

You can find my reviews of other novels in the Lew Archer series listed below. Each one can be read as a standalone – but to follow Macdonald’s development as a writer, it would be worth starting with an early entrant, probably The Drowning Pool.

The Drowning Pool [#2); The Way Some People Die [#3]; The Ivory Grin [#4]; Find a Victim [#5].

Max and Radhika have also written about their experiences of the series. You can find their latest posts here and here.

The Barbarous Coast is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Set in a small town in Michigan in the midst of a snowy winter, Vanish in an Instant (1952) is a tightly plotted murder mystery in the classic hardboiled style. Its author, Margaret Millar, was a Canadian-American crime writer, best known for her 1955 novel Beast in View, winner of the Edgar Allen Poe award for best novel. If Vanish is anything to go by then that award was fully justified; it’s a very compelling mystery, full of twists and turns with plenty to keep the reader guessing right up to the very end.

As the novel opens, Mrs Hamilton, a wealthy and rather bossy matriarch, has just arrived in town accompanied by her paid companion, Alice Dwyer. Mrs Hamilton is on a mission, namely to do whatever it takes to get her daughter, Virginia, out of jail following her alleged involvement in the murder of a local married man, Claude Margolis. As far as the police are concerned, Virginia – Margolis’ mistress – is the prime suspect, especially as she was found wandering about near her lover’s cottage shortly after the stabbing.

However…Virginia was blind drunk at the time of the incident, and her recollections of the evening’s events are hazy at best. Even though she was discovered covered in blood, Virginia has no idea whether she actually killed Margolis or not – she may have done it, but she isn’t sure. Neither is Meecham, the bright lawyer Virginia’s husband, Paul, has hired to help.

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing the yellow wool dress and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes. (p. 30)

To complicate matters further, a local man named Earl Loftus appears on the scene and confesses to committing the murder. On the surface, Loftus seems to have no apparent connections to Margolis, but his account of the crime is convincing enough to persuade the police of his involvement. Virginia is released and reunited with her family, leaving the police to tie up the case against the mysterious Loftus. Meecham, however, remains unconvinced of Loftus’ guilt, fearing that Mrs Hamilton has paid the loner to take the rap. As it turns out, Loftus is dying from leukaemia, so he has little to lose by standing in for the killer – quite the contrary in fact as his family would stand to gain financially from Mrs Hamilton’s payout.

As he continues to investigate Loftus and the various connections to the case, Meecham becomes increasingly convinced that things are not as clear-cut as they might appear. Inch by inch, the view widens to include other individuals connected to Loftus: namely his devoted landlady, Mrs Hearst, and her husband, Jim; his alcoholic mother, Clara Loftus, a genuinely tragic figure; and his ex-wife, Birdie, no longer on the scene. Each character is drawn with care and attention, from the major influencers to the seemingly peripheral players in the mix.

To reveal any more of the plot would almost certainly spoil some elements of the story, but suffice it to say that it remains suitably gripping and intriguing to the end. However, what really sets this mystery apart from others in the genre is the character development, aided by the attention to detail Millar brings to this aspect of the novel. Very few of these individuals are as straightforward or as ‘black-and-white’ as they might seem on the surface; instead, their personalities are nuanced with shades of grey and degrees of ambiguity that reflect a degree of reality.

There’s a great deal of hard work and diligence in Meecham’s quest for the truth, qualities that reward his persistence in following up the loose ends. Millar also brings a strong sense of humanity to the lawyer’s character, an understanding of the harsh realities of life for some of the individuals involved. Moreover, there’s a lovely dynamic between Meecham and Alice Dwyer, Mrs Hamilton’s desirable young companion, almost reminiscent of a screwball comedy-romance at times, such is the nature of their pitch-perfect dialogue.

The small-town atmosphere is nicely captured too, adding a sense of unease and darkness to the story, somethings that help to reflect the ‘feel’ of the place.

In the summer the red bricks of the courthouse were covered with dirty ivy and in the winter with dirty snow. The building had been constructed on a large square in what was originally the center of town. But the town had moved westward, abandoned the courthouse like an ugly stepchild, leaving it in the east end to fend for itself among the furniture warehouses and service stations and beer-and-sandwich cafés. (p. 26)

In summary, this is a sharply plotted, absorbing mystery – ideal reading for the winter months.

He walked out the door and down the hall. He didn’t look back but he knew she was watching him. He could feel her eyes on the back of her neck, cold and painful as the touch of ice. (p. 222)

My thanks to John, who has been encouraging me to read this author for a while.

Final note: As some of you may know, Margaret Millar was married to Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries are amongst my favourite novels in the genre – I’ve written about some of them here.

Vanish in an Instant is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.