Tag Archives: Hotels

Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Something a little different from me today – a few thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both of which could be loosely classified as crime fiction.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

I really enjoyed this old-school spy mystery by the respected British writer Eric Ambler. (You can find my review of another of his books, the hugely entertaining crime caper Topkapi/The Light of Day, here).

Like some of Ambler’s other novels, Epitaph for a Spy features a relatively ordinary if somewhat naïve man who, through no real fault of his own, finds himself caught up in a mysterious network of intrigue and illegal activities. The man in question here is Josef Vadassy, a languages teacher and Hungarian refugee of uncertain status, who gets into trouble while taking pictures during his holiday in the South of France.

As it turns out, the reel of film that Vadassy has been using to test various photographic techniques also happens to contain images of covert naval defences in a nearby town – something our protagonist is completely unaware of as he submits the reel for development. When the chemist who develops the film sees nature of these pictures, he alerts the police and Vadassy is promptly picked up for questioning. (Importantly, the novel was published in 1938 when Europe was poised on the brink of war, hence the seriousness of the situation.)

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for our protagonist, the police soon come to the conclusion that Vadassy almost certainly didn’t take the incriminating photographs himself – he’s far too gauche for that. Instead, it seems likely that someone else has been spying on the naval defences, someone with an identical camera to Vadassy’s as the two pieces of equipment must have been switched at some point (probably by accident) – the most obvious cause of the issue being some kind of mix-up between cameras at Vadassy’s place of residence, the local hotel. So, Vadassy is sent back to the Réserve with strict instructions to follow the authorities’ orders in the hope of uncovering the real spy. Should he fail to do so, the outcome almost certainly means deportation for our protagonist, effectively destroying his whole world.

Vadassy is supplied with a list of the hotel’s occupants to ‘investigate’ with a particular view to establishing details of any cameras in their possession – but the fun really starts when Vadassy decides to use his own somewhat misguided initiative to root out the culprit without arousing their suspicions.

Among the guests at the hotel we have a typically British major and his mysterious wife, an idiosyncratic Frenchman who proves to be very indiscreet, and a young brother and sister combo from America who seem to have something to hide – I found this couple’s backstory rather hard to believe, but that’s a fairly minor quibble in the scheme of things. There are more potential suspects too, of varying European nationalities – twelve in total including the Swiss hotel manager and his wife.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and well-drawn – I particularly liked Herr Schimler, a man who turns out to have had a very eventful past. There are a few red herrings along the way as Vadassy’s suspicions flit from one character to the next, all of which help to maintain engagement.

The moon had risen and I could see the outlines of the clumps of bamboo canes below. A little to the right of them there was a patch of beach. As I watched, the shadows moved and I heard a woman’s laugh. It was a soft, agreeable sound, half-amused, half-tender. A couple came up into the patch of light. I saw the man stop and pull the woman towards him. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her eyes and mouth. It was the unshaven Frenchman and his blonde. (p. 47)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable mystery with a clear resolution at the finish. In a sense, it becomes a race against time for Vadassy as he strives to flush out the spy before he is due back at work – both his job and his right to remain in France are at risk.

In his review of this novel, Max describes the story as being akin to a classic country house crime novel, which seems like a very apt description to me.

I read this novel over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, and it proved to be a fine choice. A nice match for the gorgeous weather.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

This is the third novel I’ve read by Hughes, a somewhat underrated American crime writer from the mid-20th century. My reviews of the other two are here – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – both of which I would strongly recommend, the former in particular.

My comments on The Expendable Man are going to be fairly concise. Not because of any concerns about the quality of the novel – far from it, it’s actually extremely good! Rather, the less you know about it the better, especially if you think you might read it.

In brief, the initial set-up is as follows. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, has borrowed his mother’s Cadillac to drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for a family wedding. En route, he spots a rather dishevelled teenage girl waiting alone on a deserted section of the highway. Densmore wouldn’t usually stop for hitchhikers – but in his concern for the girl’s safety, he offers her a ride which she accepts.

From the word go, it’s clear that these two individuals come from very different social spheres; he is well-bred, educated and polite, while she is rough, brazen and resentful.

After a tense and uncomfortable journey, Densmore drops the girl at a bus station and assumes he will never hear from or see her again. But then things go drastically wrong for our protagonist, and his previously ordered world comes crashing down around him.

This is a brilliant story, one that may well cause you to question your own assumptions – and maybe expose some of your subconscious prejudices too. It’s also very gripping and beautifully written. Hughes has such a wonderful style; it’s a joy to read. Here’s how it opens.

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the colour of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun. (p. 3)

The Expendable Man was my choice for our May book group, and I’m happy to say that it went down very well. (We take turns to pick the book which makes for a fairly diverse selection across the year.) It’s very difficult to go into any details here without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that we had plenty to discuss — particularly about the social context at that time. (Some of the issues raised by the novel remain painfully relevant today.)

All in all, this is highly recommended – not just for lovers of crime fiction but for other readers too.

Epitaph for a Spy is published by Penguin, The Expendable Man is published by NYRB Classics – personal copies.

After Claude by Iris Owens

Ever since I read Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding back in the autumn of 2014, I’ve been searching for something similar, another hidden gem of a book with a spiky (anti-)heroine in the central role. While Iris Owens’ striking novel After Claude – first published in 1973 – doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Cassandra, for the majority of its 200 pages it comes pretty close. The story centres on a trainwreck of a woman, so outrageously forthright in her interactions with those around her that there are times when she makes Cassandra seem like a relatively normal, well-adjusted human being.

The character in question is Harriet, a fiercely intelligent lady with a razor-sharp line in cutting one-liners. The trouble is, she also displays a terrible lack of self-awareness and understanding of her impact on others. In her own mind, Harriet is a smart, considerate, lively companion; but in reality, the situation couldn’t be more different. She is lazy, rude, bitchy and relentlessly argumentative, always believing herself to be in the right whatever the circumstances or topic under discussion.

When we first meet Harriet, she is in the throes of reflecting on her very recent break-up with Claude, ‘the French rat,’ the man she has been living with for the past six months. The story is told through a series of flashbacks covering various timepoints in Harriet’s recent life – more specifically, the days leading up to her split with Claude, one or two interactions with her best friend, Maxine, and a disastrous evening spent with Claude and his friend, a French playboy names Charles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the acrimonious nature of their break-up, Harriet paints a rather scathing picture of Claude. As far as she sees it, Claude – an assistant director of a French television news crew based in the US – is the somewhat uncommunicative, artistic type, often conveying his responses via facial expressions instead of words, especially where women are concerned.

He could talk for hours, days, but only on carefully selected topics, such as every disappointing course of his most recent meal. But discourse? Converse? Exchange ideas? Never, and certainly not with that brain-damaged segment of the population called women. (p.10)

The problem is, Harriet’s innate tendency to respond to virtually every comment with a counter-argument or snide remark has succeeded in alienating Claude to the point of no return. (The novel opens with an extended quarrel between Harriet and Claude on the artistic merits or not of a movie they’ve just seen, ‘a sort of Communist version of Christ’s life,’ as Harriet puts it. Naturally, she hated the film, and she outlines her objections with great gusto. The whole exchange is both painfully funny and sharply acerbic, a combination that sets the tone for the book itself.) Here’s a brief excerpt from one of their exchanges shortly before the split – Harriet is the first to speak.

“Are you hungry?” The creep still didn’t answer. The fact is that Claude, not having been raised by kidnappers, was habituated to regular meals, not scavenging.

“I’m not hungry.” It walked! It talked! It went to the kitchen and got itself a can of beer.

“I can’t find the opener,” he complained in that same hurt voice I’d been tolerating for two full weeks.

“Why don’t you telephone Paul Newman? I read he always wears a can opener around his neck, like a cross. Maybe he’ll lend you his.” (p. 19)

Shortly afterwards, Claude hits Harriet with the sucker punch. He wants her out of his flat by the following Monday, belongings and all; she has simply become far too difficult to live with.

“Me a bore?” I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.

“When you get an idea in your head, when you have an opinion, which is always, you’ve got to make a speech about it, not once, but ten times. If anyone manages to break in, you bury them; you grind them into little pieces with your big mouth. I’ve had it, Harriet. I want you out.” (p. 22)

The weekend ultimately ends with Harriet being driven to the Chelsea Hotel by Charles and Claude, but not before she has had an opportunity to change the locks on Claude’s apartment and been tackled by the police for trespassing on her (former) boyfriend’s property. Quite an eventful few days all in all.

Interspersed with the recollections of the dying days with Claude are passages on the only other significant relationships in Harriet’s life – those with her friends (or in the first case, ex-friend) Rhoda-Regina and Maxine. Here’s Harriet on Rhoda-Regina, her former friend from school, the girl she went travelling with some five years ago.

Rhoda-Regina had been my oldest and best friend. I’d known her almost as long as I’d known myself. We’d gone through school together, except that she, being insecure as a female, had gone on to collecting degrees. We’d sailed to Europe together, me to stay for five crucial years, during which I’d grown out of my Brooklyn chrysalis into a creature of indeterminate origins, while Rhoda-Regina had barely lasted through the summer, rushing back to her beloved highway-robber analyst like Dracula making dawn tracks to his coffin. (pp. 67-68)

Back in the story’s present day, Harriet has now succeeded in destroying any relationship she ever had with Rhoda-Regina as a result of her unreasonable behaviour as a tenant. After returning from Europe following a crisis some months earlier, Harriet turned to her old pal R-R, who agreed to take her in for a little while. Unfortunately, after another outrageous and terribly misjudged incident (this one designed to encourage the perennially uptight and stingy R-R to chill out a little), Harriet found herself out on the streets. It was at this point that she met Claude for the first time as his apartment just happened to be in the same block as Rhoda-Regina’s. So, for the last six months, Harriet has been running the gauntlet on entering and exiting the premises, desperately trying to avoid any unpleasant confrontations with R-R, her bête noire on the ground floor.

Harriet also bitches about her current best friend (quite possibly her only friend), the wealthy and pampered Maxine – both behind her back and directly to her face. Here’s a typical example – Maxine is the first to speak.

 “You’re lucky to have such a wonderful skin,” she crooned, but since she didn’t look up from her gold compact, I couldn’t tell which of us was supposed to be so lucky. She glanced up. “Not a wrinkle or a blemish. What do you use?”

“Sperm,” I said, damned if I’d let her drag me into one of her beauty commercials that begin with compliments and finish with her imploring me to consider plastic surgery. (p. 46)

And here’s one of Harriet’s personal observations on Maxine, so typical of Iris Owens’ ability to pepper her writing with pointed one-liners.

There was a sufficiency of rhinestones in her thong platforms to refinance the purchase of Manhattan. (p. 45)

In essence, After Claude is a character study, a portrait of a complex woman who says what she thinks without filtering anything or sparing anyone else’s feelings. She is uber-demanding, sarcastic and combative – and yet, underneath it all, there is a vulnerable, insecure woman, someone who is terrified of being on her own, especially if it means having to survive without a man. (There are several points in the novel when Harriet tries desperately to cling on to Claude, even though she knows in her heart of hearts that their relationship is over.)

As the story proceeded to unfold, I found myself growing increasingly fond of Harriet in spite of her many flaws and annoying habits. Yes, she is a car crash on legs, but she’s also very sharp and witty with it. During the novel, she turns her irreverent gaze on a number of stereotypes – the fussy and pretentious playboy, the self-satisfied domestic goddess, the bimbo air stewardess (who really does come across as a name-dropping airhead) – all to very good effect. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the final section of the book, in which Harriet gets involved with the members of a drugged-up hippie sex cult (very 1960s/early ‘70s), I loved the rest of it.

To finish, I’ll leave the last word to Harriet. Here she is responding to a taxi driver’s comments on her resemblance to Anne Bancroft (I guess he must have had the character of Mrs. Robinson in mind here).

“I bet a lot of people have told you, you look like Anne Bancroft,” he said, gazing into his crystal ball.

“Why? Has she been complaining to you lately?” (p. 91)

After Claude was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Last year Dorothy B. Hughes made my end-of-year highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. There’s a good chance she’ll make the list again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse was published in 1946, the year before Lonely Place. It’s a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there. I think it’s my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I’ve read this year.

The novel focuses on Sailor, a former street kid turned city slicker who has travelled to a ‘hick town’ near the US border with Mexico in search of the main man, a corrupt state Senator referred to here as ‘the Sen’. While the Sen believes he has finished with Sailor, our protagonist definitely hasn’t finished with Sen. According to Sailor, the Sen owes him a sizeable bundle of money, the remaining payment for a murder that didn’t quite go to plan – and if the Sen refuses to pay up, Sailor thinks he has enough knowledge of what really happened to pin the rap on the Sen. When he gets what’s due to him, Sailor plans to cross the border into Mexico. Once there, he can set up a little business peddling liquor or suchlike, maybe even find a beautiful girl, a silvery blonde with clear, shimmering eyes. All he has to do is to find the Sen and shake him down.

The trouble is, it’s Labor Day weekend, and the town is packed full of people, all there to celebrate the Fiesta. When he arrives on the bus from Chicago, dirty, sweaty and in need of a wash, Sailor is frustrated to discover that all the local hotels are full (even the crummiest ones), leaving him no other option but to bunk down on the ground for the night. Nevertheless, he soon discovers that the Sen is holed up in the smartest hotel in town, the swanky La Fonda complete with its plush bar and fancy restaurant. And so the quest begins, as Sailor confronts the Sen and pushes for his payoff. At first, the Sen is elusive, playing for time while he considers his options. But Sailor is determined; he knows what’s due to him, and he’s out to get it.

He wasn’t going to give up that kind of money. He needed it; it belonged to him; he was going to have it. What was owed and what he deserved above it. Five thousand dollars. The most he’d ever had at one time. Peanuts. He should have asked ten. The dough wouldn’t do the Sen any good where he was going. (p. 172)

To complicate matters further for Sailor, there’s another significant player in the mix – McIntyre (aka ‘Mac’), a Chicago-based cop and long-time acquaintance of Sailor’s, who also happens to be in town, allegedly for the Fiesta. Mac is the wise, down-to-earth type, someone who watches and waits and plays his cards fairly close to his chest. At first, Sailor thinks Mac is trailing the Sen; but as the weekend unfolds, it becomes clear that Mac is keeping tabs on Sailor too, a dynamic that adds another layer of tension to the situation, certainly as far as Sailor is concerned.

If only he could only bust open McIntyre’s head, see what was inside it. If he could only lay out those little squares, like lottery tickets, each one labeled with a name and a thought and a plan. Was his name on the winning ticket, the losing ticket; or was it the Sen’s? He couldn’t ask McIntyre; he could only sit tight and wait. And make talk. (p. 128)

Hughes makes good use of the animated backdrop of the Fiesta, complete with its mix of Spanish, Indian and gringo revellers, thereby conveying the frenetic atmosphere in the local bars and streets. (As one might expect, the novel’s language and racial descriptors reflect the prevailing attitudes of the day.) There are times when Sailor feels caught in a labyrinth, an encircling trap from which there appears to be no escape – a feeling that is reflected in the rather circular nature of the chase as Sailor tries to get what he desires from the Sen.

The streets were whirling louder, faster; on the bandstand a fat black-haired singer blasted the microphones and the crowds screamed ‘Hola! Hola!’ as if it were good. A running child with remnants of pink ice cream glued on his dirty face bumped into Sailor’s legs, wiped his sticky hands there. Sailor snarled, ‘Get out of my way,’ a balloon popped behind him and the kid who held the denuded stick squalled.

He had to get out of this. (pp. 116-117)

On the face of it, the Fiesta appears to be gay and jolly, a time for release and celebration; but below the surface glamour lurks a much darker undercurrent, a terrible note of death and destruction, a hangover from the days of previous crimes against humanity.

Fiesta. The time of celebration, of release from gloom, from the specter of evil. But under celebration was evil; the feast was rooted in blood, in the Spanish conquering of the Indian. It was a memory of death and destruction. (p. 24)

As the story unfolds, we learn more about Sailor and his troubled childhood – in particular, his abusive, alcoholic father, downtrodden mother and the impact of poverty on his formative years. There are echoes of the past here, sights that trigger memories of desperate times and circumstances, things that Sailor would much rather forget.

He knew then what was familiar in her; she was the hopeless face and sagging shoulders and defeated flesh of all poor women everywhere. He wanted to bolt. Even in this small way he did not want to be pushed back into the pit of the past. The pit he believed he had escaped forever. (p. 187)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hughes also excels at capturing the inherent sense of loneliness and alienation that Sailor is experiencing. It’s a quality that also underscores her portrait of Dix Steele, the lone wolf protagonist in her brilliant novel, In a Lonely Place.

What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. (p. 57)

The Sen, on the other hand, emerges as a sly, shadowy figure, a somewhat elusive presence. He is the one who first spotted young Sailor’s talents at the pool hall all those years ago and subsequently groomed him for a key role in his organisation.

As the weekend plays out, it becomes increasingly clear how hard it will be for Sailor to carve out a new life for himself given the nature of what he’s attempting to pull off. There are various points in the story when he could choose to do the right thing, to set himself on a better track for the future – to find out if he decides to take any of these opportunities, you’ll have to read the book. Mac, an honest and decent man at heart, is keen to help Sailor – if only Sailor would agree to talk to him about what really happened on the night of the murder. (In another life, Mac knows that he could have ended up like Sailor, and vice versa, the two men having grown up not far from one another in the same rugged neighbourhood.) Another possibility for redemption comes in the form of old Pancho, the kindly man in charge of the battered fairground carousel, who takes Sailor under his wing, offering him tequila and a blanket for the night while also trying to set him on a straighter path.

Ride the Pink Horse is an excellent noir, one that highlights the existential nature of our existence, how our lives and destinies are largely shaped by our own choices and actions. The title refers to the coloured wooden horses on Pancho’s shabby merry-go-round. It could also be viewed as a metaphor for life itself, e.g. the ups and downs that we all experience as we make our way from the cradle to the grave or a few minutes of enjoyment in which we can forget all our troubles. Either way, it’s an apt title. There’s a film too, directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. I’m hoping to track it down fairly soon.

Ride the Pink Horse was published by Canongate Crime; personal copy.

The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox

A couple of years ago I read Desperate Characters – a 1970 novel by the American writer Paula Fox – in which a cat bite sparks a crisis in the lives of a privileged middle-class couple, setting in motion a series of events which threatens to undermine their seemingly harmonious existence. There is a crisis of sorts too in The Widow’s Children, Fox’s later novel of family dysfunction, first published in 1976. This is an acutely observed story of longstanding slights and prejudices, of things left unsaid or buried beneath the social niceties of family gatherings, of trying to live up to the burden of expectations – both those we demand of ourselves and those imposed on us by others. It is an excellent book, one that deserves to be much better-known.

Fox’s novel could be likened to a play, a deliberately claustrophobic chamber piece that plays out in an extended sequence of scenes, each one denoted by a new chapter. The cast is small and finely sketched, allowing us to observe each character in some detail.

Central to the story is Laura Clapper (née Maldonada), a fifty-five-year old prima donna, now married to her second husband, a rather foolish, hard-drinking man by the name of Desmond. Laura is impulsive, outspoken and manipulative, a woman with virtually no self-awareness and very little understanding of her impact on those around her. As Peter Rice, her longstanding editor friend observes at one point, ‘she actually can’t judge her own behaviour […]; she explodes, then wonders at the flying glass’. For Desmond, life with Laura is exhausting, for it is he who has to pick up the pieces when she blows up.

Completing the core cast are Laura’s brother, Carlos, a faded music critic, openly gay and playing the field; Clara, her timid, self-effacing daughter from her first marriage; and Eugenio, Laura’s other brother, a rather distracted individual who appears in one of the later scenes. Also central to the story, although we never meet her in person, is Alma Maldonada, mother of Laura, Carlos and Eugenio, an elderly widow who resides in a nursing home.

As the novel opens, Clara, Carlos and Peter Rice are preparing to join Laura and Desmond for drinks in their hotel room to say goodbye to the couple before they embark on an extended holiday to Africa. Before the guests arrive, we learn that earlier in the afternoon Laura received a phone call from the care home informing her that Alma had just died; but instead of telling Desmond the news, she keeps the information firmly to herself, showing no signs of sorrow or distress in the process. If anything, the opposite could be said to be true – Laura seems to relish in the knowledge of this secret fact, something that she alone is privy to, possibly to reveal at a vital moment during the evening ahead.

Her mind had been empty of thought; she had known only that something implacable had taken hold of her. And she had felt a half-crazed pleasure and an impulse to shout that she knew and possessed this thing that no one else knew, this consequential fact, hard and real among the soft accumulations of meaningless events of which their planned trip to Africa was one other, to be experienced only through its arrangements, itinerary, packing, acquisition of medicines for intestinal upsets, books to read, clock, soap, passports, the husk of action surrounding the motionless center of their existence together. (p. 18)

And so this bizarre evening begins during which the members of the Maldonada clan dance around one another in a strained sequence of manoeuvres during which various tensions become apparent and old grievances are revealed. (As of yet, there has been no mention of Alma’s death.) As Clara puts it here, the interactions between individuals are characterised by a marked gulf between outward behaviours and inner feelings, all in the name of keeping the charade of ‘family’ going. But to what end one might ask, especially with someone like Laura orchestrating the show.

In no other company more than among these Spaniards was Clara so conscious of a discrepancy between surface talk and inner preoccupation. They sped from one posture to another, eliciting with amused cries each other’s biases, pretending to discover anew the odd notions each harbored, amusing themselves nearly to death! Until Laura, with a hard question, thrust a real sword through the paper props, and there would be for a second, a minute, the startled mortified silence of people caught out in a duplicity for which they could find no explanation. Then, with what indulgence, what tenderness, Laura rescued them, sometimes. (p. 41)

As the evening plays out, we learn more about the backstory of each character, their individual flaws and imperfections, their missed chances and lost opportunities. We discover that Clara was abandoned by Laura as a young baby, only to be brought up by the impoverished Alma in her makeshift home in Brooklyn, a fact that has coloured Clara’s relationship with her formidable mother ever since. I love this passage describing Clara’s arrival at the drinks gathering, a moment that conveys so much about her perceived inferiority to Laura, and in so few words.

“Hello,” said Laura, bringing up the greeting from the deepest reach of her voice, a plangent, thrilling annunciation to which, Clara knew, no response would measure up, felt with a sinking heart that her own “hello” would weigh less than dust on such a scale of tonal drama, and so only held out her hand. Her mother gripped her fingers strongly for an instant, then withdrew her hand to a cigarette. (p. 19)

Clara also experiences a sense of unease about the state of her relationship with Alma, reluctant as she is to visit her at the care home even though she feels obliged to do so. Perhaps as a consequence of the nature of her fractured family, Clara seeks affection elsewhere. There is a man in her life; but as he married with children, the chances of her achieving a fulfilling relationship with him seem cruelly out of reach.

Carlos too feels the sting of his sister’s gaze; his rather sad and empty life is revealed in this insightful reflection, one of many in the book.

…Carlos would fold his hands behind his head and lie there, tears running down his cheeks, thinking of his used-up life, of lovers dead or gone, of investments made unwisely, of his violent sister who might telephone him at any minute and, with her elaborate killer’s manners, in her beautiful deep voice, make some outrageous demand upon him, making clear she knew not only the open secrets of his life but the hidden ones, knew about his real shiftlessness, his increasing boredom with sexual pursuit, his unappeased sexual longing, his terror of age. (p. 39)

Perhaps most notably, we also hear more about Alma’s story, how she emigrated from Spain to Cuba at the age of sixteen to marry a much older man she had never met before; how she neglected the Maldonada children when they were young; and how, following the death of her husband, she fled from Cuba to the USA where the family struggled to rebuild their lives. As a consequence, there is a noticeable sense of displacement running through this novel, an undercurrent of shifting circumstances and identities, which adds to the fault lines that have emerged over time.

I’m not going to reveal if and how the news of Alma’s death comes out; that would spoil the story, I think. Nevertheless, when the party move to a nearby restaurant for dinner, it becomes clear that Laura may have been more affected by the day’s events than had appeared at first sight. Interestingly, in the second half of the novel, the focus shifts away from Laura towards the male characters in the story, particularly Peter Rice – the ‘half-scant life’ he has settled for is touchingly revealed.

All in all, The Widow’s Children is a very accomplished novel – razor sharp and precise in style, brittle and unflinching in its sensibilities. The writing is superb, packed full of insightful observations on the inner truths of our lives and the fronts we put up to conform to expected social conventions. There are frequent references to predatory birds and animals throughout the book – the core symbolism is an obvious one.

I’ll finish with a final quote that caught my eye, this one from the ‘Restaurant’ chapter of the book.

Clara grew aware, with an easing of her spirit, that there were other people not much more than an arm’s length away, small islands of people at their tables, among whom waiters eddied and shifted, bent and straightened up. Some of the diners looked domestic, some festive, and some were silent. How, she wondered, did this table appear to all those others? In the subdued ambiguity of the restaurant lighting, the sustained clamor of conversation and eating, would anyone glancing casually at the Clapper table have observed the ravages of the battles that had raged among them. And was the apparent placidity and self-satisfaction of all those other people only a contrived show? (p. 123)

The Widow’s Children is published by Flamingo; personal copy.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

First published in 1953, Black Wings Has My Angel is now regarded as something of a noir fiction classic, aided no doubt by the publication of the NYRB Classics edition at the beginning of 2016. As a novel, it has all the hallmarks of a top-flight noir: a damaged soul driven by lust, desire, frustration and greed; a manipulative femme fatale who turns out to be more rapacious and unhinged than the protagonist himself; and an unstable situation that proves a catalyst for their ultimate self-destruction.

Chaze’s novel is narrated by a man who calls himself Tim Sunblade, a small-time con on the run following a breakout from Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi. Having amassed some ready cash by roughnecking it on a drilling rig in the Atchafalaya River for a few months, Tim is just about set to hit the road for Denver where he hopes to make a big killing. His ultimate aim is to carry out a heist on an armoured vehicle full of cash, a plan originally hatched by Jeepie, a fellow inmate at Parchman who was shot during the escape.

As the novel opens, Tim is relaxing in the bath in some two-bit hotel in Louisiana when the bellhop brings him a ten-dollar prostitute for the night, a shapely number by the name of Virginia. But, as we soon discover, Virginia is no ordinary small-town hooker; she’s a classy lady, leggy and beautiful – ‘a slender, poised thing with skin the colour of pearls melted in honey’. It’s pretty clear that Virginia is somewhat out of place in this joint. There are hints of money about her person – good clothes, expensive-looking luggage, and a general desire for the high life. If truth be told, Virginia is actually a five-hundred-dollar-a-night call girl on the run from a messy situation in New York, something involving the city’s District Attorney – a revelation that emerges a little later in the story. At this stage in the game, Tim knows that something is up; he just doesn’t know what exactly. Nevertheless, after a few days of wild sex, he finds himself attracted to Virginia, so he decides to take her on the road with him, at least for a while.

Going across the Red River bridge, I sailed my Mississippi tags over the iron railing and saw them hit the water with a splash, forty feet below. She watched me, leaning back in her padded-leather corner, smoking quietly. Nothing seemed to surprise her: the car, the tags, the business of taking an unchartered trip with an unknown man. The wind whipped her bright hair the way it does in the soft-drink advertisements, co-operatively, beautifully. The cross-stripes of tar on the white highway thumped faster and faster beneath the wheels until the thumping became a buzzing. The air was soft, yet not dead. And over all of it lay the very good feeling of going somewhere. (p. 13)

At first, Tim convinces himself that he’s going to dump Virginia at a filling station on the way to Denver – a woman like her is always going to attract a lot of attention, and that’s the last thing he needs if he’s going to get away with the heist. But the robbery is a two-person job, and he needs an accomplice to pull it off. So, after a few cat fights along the way, Tim decides that Virginia is cool enough and tough enough to help him out with the raid. Plus, by this point, he’s fallen for her, which means there’s more than one reason to keep her around.

On their arrival in Colorado, the pair begin to make plans. They rent a house in a decent neighbourhood in Denver where they pose as newlyweds, just an ordinary, respectable couple going about their business like any other. Tim gets a job in a sheet metal plant, a role that gives him access to the tools and other resources he needs to prepare for the heist. On his days off work, he follows the bank’s armoured car, monitoring its movements in detail to establish the driver’s routine when making the pickups. By doing so, Tim uncovers a habit that the driver’s sidekick has fallen into, something that will give him an ‘in’ when it comes to pulling the heist.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Virginia is getting impatient, eager as she is to get her hands on the money with the aim of hightailing out of Denver, away from the monotony of a life posing as a contented housewife. As a consequence, she begins to turn up the heat on Tim…

All of a sudden I was mad and sick. I loathed the sound of the knife on the oilstone. I wanted to throw it in her face and get out of the car and start running, anywhere, just running. […] I was going downtown to kill a man who hadn’t done a damned thing to me, to kill an old guy whose only fault as far as I knew was throwing chewing gum wrappers in the street. I was going to kill him because I wanted money more than I wanted him to live and I was going to kill him filthily. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe he was going to kill me and go on the rest of his life with the gum wrappers. I know now that I would have probably backed out of it if it hadn’t been for Virginia and the desire to remain a big bad lad in her eyes. Anyway, I didn’t want any mushy farewell business with Virginia, no sentimental sendoff. Not for a thing like this. (p. 115)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Tim and Virginia’s story doesn’t end with the heist. In a gripping denouement, two cruel twists of fate come together, developments that ultimately prove to be the couple’s undoing. It’s as if Tim and Virginia are chasing a dream that will never bring them any real happiness or sense of satisfaction in life, a dream as hollow and empty as Virginia’s lavender-grey eyes.

Black Wings Has My Angel is a very good noir, a highly compelling story powered by strong emotions of desire, greed, suspicion and general debauchery. The characterisation is excellent, both credible and convincing. The love-hate relationship between Tim and Virginia is very well drawn; at times the sense of repulsion they exhibit for one another is as strong as the feeling of mutual attraction. Virginia is painted as a rather hard, voracious and impulsive woman, someone who is prepared to stop at nothing to get what she wants. Tim, on the other hand, has a little more depth to his personality. He is a veteran of the Second World War, irrevocably damaged by the brutality of conflict and the soul-destroying experience of life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he was held for almost three years.

I told her how it’d been spending thirty-four months in the Japanese prison camp on the Island of Luzon, clamped there in the heat and filth with ten thousand others, and how they buried the weak ones alive, some of them who were too weak to work, too weak even to throw off the dirt and sit up in their graves. I told about getting my honourable discharge button and going home and selling office supplies until I blew my cork and landed in Parchman [jail] with Jeepie and Thompson and the others, and how at Parchman I’d decided I was through with being locked up and through being poor. (p. 55)

As a consequence of these experiences, Tim is frustrated by the mind-numbing nature of civilian life in post-war America; the prospect of sweating it out in a dead-end job seems utterly pointless to him.

This novel has been compared to the work of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, classics like The Postman Only Rings Twice and The Getaway. If you enjoy this style of noir fiction, chances are you’ll take to this. The writing isn’t quite in the same league as Cain’s or Thompson’s, but the storyline definitely stands up to the comparison.

I’ll finish with a final quote on Virginia, one that captures something of her presence and something of Chaze’s style. It’s textbook noir.

I wanted Virginia. She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that. (p. 177)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

Black Wings Has My Angel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

Back in April 2016 I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, a brilliant book that made my end-of-year highlights – you can read my review here. First published in 1927, The Hotel was Bowen’s first novel. It’s a striking debut, a story of unsuitable attachments and the subtle dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, all cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera in the 1920s.

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In many ways, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties. Sydney has come to the hotel to accompany her older cousin, Tessa Bellamy, who in turn is trying to deal with a gastric condition. Sydney’s family are delighted that she has travelled to Italy with Tessa, viewing it is an ‘inspired solution of the Sydney problem’, in their eyes something to counterbalance the girl’s leaning towards the neurotic and her tendency to be ‘so unfortunate in her choice of friends’. For her part, Sydney has developed a rather unhealthy attachment to another resident, Mrs Kerr, an intriguing, self-assured woman in her forties. While Mrs Kerr is a widow, she appears to act more like a divorcee; at least that’s the opinion of several of the other guests at the hotel who seem enjoy speculating about Mrs Kerr and the nature of her relationship with Sydney. I love this next quote, a passage of dialogue so indicative of Bowen’s penetrating tone. In this scene, Tessa is in conversation with several other ladies in the hotel drawing-room.

Tessa continued: ‘Sydney is very affectionate.’

‘She is very much…absorbed, isn’t she, by Mrs Kerr?’

‘I have known other cases,’ said somebody else, looking about vaguely for her scissors, ‘of these very violent friendships. One didn’t feel those others were quite healthy.’

‘I should discourage any daughter of mine from a friendship with an older woman. It is never the best women who have these strong influences. I would far rather she lost her head about a man.’

‘Sydney hasn’t lost her head,’ said little Tessa with dignity.

‘Oh but, Mrs Bellamy – I was talking about other cases.’ (p. 62)

And so the discussion continues in a similar vein.

Other notable guests at the hotel include Mr and Mrs Lee-Mittison, the Ammerings and their son Victor and the Lawrence girls, Veronica, Eileen and Joan. Mr Lee-Mittison is determined to surround himself with the beautiful, refined young people, and there are some classic scenes involving a picnic he attempts to orchestrate with mixed results. While the Lee-Mittisons are very happy for Sydney and the Lawrence sisters to attend, they are none too pleased when Victor Ammering shows up on the scene, much to Veronica Lawrence’s amusement when she goes off with the young man. For her part, Mrs L-M, a devoted wife, will do anything she can to ensure her husband’s social events are a success. It’s all quite amusing to observe.

Also staying at the hotel are Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, genteel elderly ladies very much of the type depicted in Fawlty Towers, and two sisters-in-law, the Honourable Mrs and Miss Pinkerton, who have paid extra to have exclusive use of the bathroom opposite their rooms. When middle-aged clergyman James Milton arrives at the hotel following a long train journey across the continent, unaware of the bathroom arrangements he goes for a long soak in the Pinkertons’ bath, much to the consternation of the ladies on his floor.

James Milton’s appearance on the scene shakes things up a little in more ways than one. In the hope of attracting Sydney, he rushes out a terribly ill-judged proposal of marriage to her during a walk in the countryside (there is a sense that he is comfortable operating within his own relatively small circle of society, but much less so in this wider sphere). Sydney declines, giving James the impression that there is no point in his holding out any hope of a change in heart; but then the situation changes once again with another arrival, that of Ronald, Mrs Kerr’s twenty-year-old son. Before long, Sydney realises that Mrs Kerr has given her the brush off in favour of Ronald, a fact that becomes painfully clear to her during a conversation with Veronica Lawrence. Once again, Bowen demonstrates great insight and precision in painting this scene; here’s a brief extract from the extended discussion between these two girls.

‘Well, she has so absolutely given you the go-by, hasn’t she?’ said Veronica, replacing the alabaster lid of the powder-bowl, then looking down to blow some powder off her dress. ‘It was “Sydney this” and “Sydney darling that” and “Where’s Sydney?” and “Sydney and I are going together,” and now he’s come she simply doesn’t see you.’

Sydney, after an interval, leant sideways to push the window farther open. She seemed to have forgotten Veronica, who energetically continued: Of course I’m sorry for you. Everybody’s sorry for you.’

‘Oh,’ said Sydney.

‘Do you mind the way she’s going on?” asked Veronica curiously.

‘It hadn’t occurred to me that there was anything to mind,’ said Sydney with a high-pitched little laugh and a sensation of pushing off something that was coming down on her like the ceiling in one of her dreams. It seemed incredible that the words Veronica had just made use of should ever have been spoken. (p. 117)

In a rebound response to being sidelined by Mrs Kerr, Sydney agrees to marry James Milton, a development also prompted, at least to a certain extent, by Veronica’s attitude towards marriage. In many ways, Veronica sees marriage to a man as an inevitable outcome for a woman in her position – so if she has to marry someone it may as well be Victor Ammering, to whom she has just become engaged.

It is from this point onwards in the novel that Mrs Kerr’s cruel, manipulative steak really starts to show itself. When James reveals his engagement to Sydney, Mrs Kerr carefully plants the seeds of doubt in his mind. To say any more might spoil the story, but it’s a brilliant scene, beautifully observed.

The Hotel feels incredibly accomplished for a debut novel, full of little observations on human nature and the dynamics at play. In some ways, it could be seen as a cold book as there is very little warmth or affection in most of the relationships depicted here. That said, I certainly don’t mean this as a major criticism – it seems to be a function of the characters and the society in which they find themselves. These people are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability. Veronica seems to be making do with Victor; while happy enough, she doesn’t appear to be in love with him, although that might come in time. James is on the lookout for a wife, and Sydney seems to fit the bill. As for Sydney herself, I feel for her even though she behaves rather foolishly, especially towards James. She is young and inexperienced, and the worldly Mrs Kerr has clearly toyed with her affections. By the end of the story, Sydney sees her sophisticated friend for what she really is: a rather spoilt, insensitive woman.

This is a novel to be read slowly. At times, Bowen’s prose can appear rather dense and intricate, but it does rewards the investment in time and concentration. As one might expect, Bowen is excellent when it comes to capturing the atmosphere of this elite world, complete with its tennis matches, picnics and tiresome excursions to places of interest. She is particularly good on hotel etiquette. I’ll finish with a passage on the social codes at lunch, so typical of this author’s keen eye for detail.

Beyond, down the long perspective to the foot of the stairs, one could see visitors take form with blank faces, then compose and poise themselves for an entrance. Some who thought punctuality rather suburban would gaze into the unfilled immensity of the room for a moment, then vanish repelled. Others would advance swimmingly and talk from table to table across the emptiness, familiarly, like a party of pioneers. Men came in without their wives and did not always look up when these entered. Women appearing before their husbands remained alert, gazed into an opposite space resentfully, and ate with an air of temporizing off the tips of their forks. When the husbands did come in it seemed a long time before there was something to say. It seemed odder than ever to Sydney, eyeing these couples, that men and women should be expected to pair off for life. (pp. 23-24)

I read this book with Dorian (of the excellent Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog). You can find his terrific analysis here.

The Hotel is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano (tr. John Cullen)

There are some mysterious persons – always the same ones – who stand like sentinels at every crossroads in your life.’ (p. 47)

First published in 1975, Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste is a short, hypnotic novel steeped in a sense of nostalgia for an all but vanished milieu.

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As the story opens, a man is revisiting a summer he spent as an eighteen-year-old in a town in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Winding back to those days in the early ‘60s with the Algerian war rumbling away in the background, our narrator flees Paris where he feels unsafe, an uneasy, police-heavy atmosphere being firmly in evidence. Going by the name of Victor Chmara, the narrator installs himself in a sleepy boarding house, avoiding all news reports and communications from the wider world. Instead, he spends his evenings observing the young people around town, taking in a movie where possible and whiling away the hours at one of the local bars. The nights are long and languid, a mood which Modiano perfectly captures in his evocative prose.

I’ve never known nights so lovely, so crystal clear as those were. The sparkling lights of the lakeside villas dazzled me, and I sensed something musical in them, like a saxophone or trumpet solo. I could also perceive the very soft, immaterial rustling of the plane trees on the avenue. I’d wait for the last cable car, sitting on the iron bench in the chalet. The room was lit only by a night-light, and I’d let myself slip into that purplish semidarkness with a feeling of total confidence. What was there for me to fear? The noise of war, the din of the world would have had to pass through a wall of cotton wool to reach this holiday oasis. And who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers? (pp. 16-17)

With the summer season in full swing, it isn’t long before Victor meets a mysterious couple in one of the town’s hotels, the glamorous, auburn-haired Yvonne and her close friend, the somewhat affected Dr René Meinthe. Right from the start there is something shadowy about these people. While they treat Victor as an old friend, taking him to lunch and various social events around the town, both Yvonne and René are somewhat evasive about their lives. René makes frequent trips to and from Geneva, although what he does there remains something of a mystery. Yvonne for her part is trying to fashion a career as an actress having just made a film with a director in the local area. The source of her money is never entirely clear, especially when it emerges that she hails from a fairly modest family still living in the neighbourhood.

Nevertheless, Victor is captivated by his new friends, Yvonne in particular, and the two of them soon become lovers. In the shelter of Yvonne’s room at the Hermitage hotel, there is a sense that Victor is muffled from events in the broader world; as long as the band continues to play, the world must still be turning.

Downstairs the orchestra would be starting to play and people began arriving for dinner. Between two numbers, we’d hear the babble of conversations. A voice would rise above the hubbub – a woman’s voice – or a burst of laughter. And the orchestra would start up again. I’d leave the French window open so that the commotion and the music could reach up to us. They were our protection. And they began at the same time every day, hence the world was still going around. For how long? (p. 100)

During the course of the novel, Victor – now aged thirty – tries to piece together the fragments of that long lost summer in Haute-Savoie. There are many unanswered questions from this time, a few of which I’ve alluded to already. By the end of the novel, some of these elements are a little clearer, in particular, the nature of René’s business in Geneva, a hub for transit activities at the time. Others, however, remain a mystery.

All in all, I found Villa Triste to be an intriguing novel, an intimate exploration of memory, identity, loss and our desire to understand the past. The place, period and cultural milieu are all beautifully evoked. Modiano conveys a society that values beauty and elegance, qualities that are typified in one of the novel’s best set-pieces, a thrilling recreation of the Houligant Cup, a contest for the most glamorous presentation of a classic car by a couple. With their eyes on the prize, René and Yvonne are all set to put on an impressive display for judges.

As the novel draws to a close, these people continue to haunt Victor’s memories. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that seems to capture something of the elegiac mood of this story.

Already in those days – soon to be thirteen years ago – they gave me the impression that they’d long since burned out their lives. I watched them. I listened to them talking under the Chinese lanterns that dappled their faces and the women’s shoulders. I assigned each of them a past that dovetailed with those of the others, and I wished they’d tell me everything: […] So many enigmas presupposed an infinity of combinations, a spider’s web they’d been spinning for ten or twenty years. (p. 32)

Guy has also reviewed this book – there’s a link to his excellent post here.

Villa Triste is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.