Tag Archives: US

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith’s particular brand of domestic noir. Last year I read and loved Deep Water (1957), a novel which plays with readers’ responses towards an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. It remains one of the highlights of my 2017 year in reading.

Highsmith’s interest in decency and morality comes to the fore again The Cry of the Owl (published a few years later in 1962), a book that seems to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. There is an underlying seam of bleakness here, a real sense of destruction and despair as the story edges closer to its denouement. In some ways, it reminded me a little of some of Georges Simenon’s work – his hard/psychological romains durs as opposed to his Maigret books. Either way, it’s an excellent book.

Owl centres on Robert Forester, a twenty-nine-year-old man who has recently moved to a small town in Pennsylvania to escape the clutches of his venomous former partner, Nickie, a woman who continues to harangue him on the phone out of sheer malice. In spite of finding a decent job in the local aeronautics business, Robert has been battling loneliness and depression for some months – to the extent that he has slipped into the rather odd habit of watching an unknown young woman as she goes about her business at home.

As the book opens, we find Robert observing the girl, Jenny, through her kitchen window as she lays the table and prepares an evening meal for two. While at first sight this situation may appear very creepy, Robert is not a stereotypical Peeping Tom. There is nothing sexual about his attraction to the girl; instead, he is merely seeking solace and comfort by watching her running through her domestic routine. It’s as if this picture of normality is giving Robert some kind of hope, a sense of grounding and purpose that he longs to recapture for himself.

Even if nobody ever understood that watching a girl go calmly about her household routine made him feel calm also, made him see that life for some people could have a purpose and a joy, and made him almost believe he might recover that purpose and joy himself. The girl was helping him. (p.7)

Even though Robert knows he is playing a potentially dangerous game here – Jenny clearly has a boyfriend who visits regularly – he finds it difficult to refrain from watching the girl at night. All too swiftly, of course, Jenny discovers Robert; but instead of feeling fearful for her safety, Jenny invites Robert into her home as she finds herself drawn to him in some strange and inexplicable way.

Robert, for his part, feels somewhat embarrassed at being caught snooping around. Furthermore, there is a sense that getting to know the real Jenny would diminish in some way what her image has come to represent for him – a sense of calm and contentment and the absence of any kind of stress. Nevertheless, he continues to see Jenny, primarily at her rather insistent request.

With each subsequent meeting, Jenny’s attachment to Robert seems to intensify. (In an almost reciprocal act to Robert’s earlier snooping, Jenny actually follows Robert to his new home – thereby the watcher effectively becomes the watched, if only momentarily.) As it turns out, Jenny is having significant doubts about the suitability of her fiancé, Greg, whom she does not love enough to marry. Consequently, she breaks off her engagement to Greg and continues to see Robert, who appears to be drifting into a relationship with her in spite of his better judgement.

Meanwhile, the uber-possessive Greg is determined to track Robert down and warn him off Jenny, firm in the belief that he still has a chance to win her back. As he spies on Jenny and Robert at night, Greg’s temper and imagination start to run riot.

Jenny’s car was there, and so was Robert’s. She was blatantly spending nights there. This might be the seventh, the tenth, for all he knew. Lights were blazing in the house now. He imagined them laughing and talking and fixing dinner, Jenny making one of her big salads, and then – Greg couldn’t bear to imagine any more. (p. 78)

Driven by the toxic Nickie, whose malicious opinions on Robert’s unhinged state of mind add fuel to the fire, Greg launches an attack on Robert near the local river, an incident which leads to a violent struggle between the two men. In the end, Robert has to drag Greg out of the water onto the river bank where he leaves him to recover. Unfortunately for our protagonist, Greg goes missing immediately after the fight, and suspicion naturally falls on Robert – seemingly the last person to have seen Greg alive.

What follows is a veritable nightmare for Robert as his relatively ordered world comes crashing down around him. A sequence of increasingly twisted events ensues, acts which involve Robert, Jenny, Greg and Nickie – all of which leave the reader reeling from the catastrophic fallout.

At first, it is natural to think that Robert is the odd character here; after all, his fondness for spying on Jenny is a little creepy. However, it soon becomes apparent that he might be the least imbalanced character in the book. Having lost her brother at a very young age, Jenny is rather preoccupied with the idea of death, a factor that plays a significant role in her response to the terrible events that unfold for Robert.

Nickie is a very spiteful individual, prone to vindictive acts and outbursts, a characteristic typified by Robert’s recollections of the litany of complaints she unleashed on the night of their second anniversary. Her subsequent character assignations of Robert play a significant role in his downfall.

Robert remembered that he had made himself a second drink during her harangue, a good stiff one, since the wisest thing to show under the circumstances was patience, and the liquor acted as a sedative. His patience that evening had so infuriated her, in fact, that she later lurched against him, bumped herself into him in the bedroom when he was undressing for the night, saying, ‘Don’t you want to hit me, darling? Come on, hit me, Bobbie!’ Curiously, that was one of the times he’d felt least like hitting her, so he’d been able to give a quiet ‘No’ in answer. Then she called him abnormal. ‘You’ll do something violent one day. Mark my words.’ (pp. 49-50)

Then there is Greg, a man who seems hell-bent on removing Robert from the equation – not just figuratively but literally too.

In telling this story, Highsmith excels at capturing the rumours and gossip that circulate in a small-town community – the fears and suspicions that can surface as individuals who know some of those involved begin to put their own spin on events. Women like Mrs Van Vleet, Greg’s landlady and firm supporter.

She had asked if Robert was still working at Langley Aeronautics, and when he said yes, she had said, ‘It’s a wonder to me you’ve still got a job. It’s a wonder to me you can hold your head up in the community, it is indeed…. A fine young man like Greg…trifling with his girl…a fine young girl. I hear you don’t even want to marry her. I should hope not! You’re a killer – or the next thing to it! And Robert had stood there answering, ‘Yes…No,’ politely, trying to smile at it and failing, failing to get more than four consecutive words out before he was interrupted. What was the use? But he knew it took only a noisy minority like Mrs Van Vleet in a community to hang a man, literally or figuratively. (p. 124)

Ultimately though, what really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off.  We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the so-called upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes and plays her part to the full.

Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Cry of the Owl is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

First published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra was the debut novel of the American writer, John O’Hara. In short, it charts the rapid downfall and self-destruction of thirty-year-old Julian English, a successful businessman who lives in the fictionalised town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. As a commentary on the shallowness of a particular stratum of American society, it is very strong, particularly in its depiction of the rather skewed values that drive the main protagonist’s actions and behaviours.

On the surface of things, Julian English appears to have everything going for him. He runs a well-established Cadillac dealership in Gibbsville, has plenty of contacts with the town’s movers and shakers, and is married to a beautiful wife who remains faithful to him. Julian and Caroline English are part of the prestigious Lantenengo Street set who hang out at the local Country Club, a place where the preeminent social milieu is clearly evident.

The smoking room crowd always started out with a small number, always the same people. The Whit Hofmans, the Julian Englishes, the Froggy Ogdens and so on. They were the spenders and drinkers and socially secure, who could thumb their noses and not have to answer to anyone except their own families. There were about twenty persons in this group, and your standing in the younger set of Gibbsville could be judged by the assurance with which you joined the nucleus of the smoking room crowd. By three o’clock everyone who wanted to had been in the smoking room; the figurative bars were let down at about one-thirty, which time coincided with the time at which the Hofmans and Englishes and so on had got drunk enough to welcome anyone, the less eligible the better. (p. 9)

However, underneath that outwardly respectable exterior, Julian harbours a self-destructive streak, something that possibly stems from the nature of his family background – particularly the expectations placed on him by his father during the preceding years. Personality-wise, Julian is impetuous, disillusioned and abrupt.

Over the course of three days at Christmas, the novel follows Julian as he drinks too much, picks arguments with the wrong people and generally makes a complete fool of himself. It all starts when Julian throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, a man he has never really liked in spite of his standing in Gibbsville.

By Christmas morning, news of the incident is all around the town – a situation made all the more notorious by the fact that Harry appears to have sustained a black eye, presumably from the ice cubes that were present in the drink when it was thrown. As far as Julian sees it, the whole thing is a storm in a teacup. Surely there have been other, more outrageous ‘crimes’ in the past, episodes with more serious consequences than something like this? And anyway, Harry Reilly had it coming to him.

What the hell had he done? he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a noveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizeable fortune. Julian thought back over some other terrible things, really terrible things, that people had done in the club without being made to feel they had committed sacrilege. (p. 90)

The trouble is, with Harry Reilly’s influence spreading far and wide, it doesn’t do well to have him as an enemy. Several of Julian’s friends and business associates already owe Harry money, a fact that seems likely to influence their reactions towards Julian in the days that follow. Moreover, the fact that Harry is Catholic puts him in a strong position to call upon the support of the church and other prominent worshippers in the area. As Julian soon discovers, a lucrative business deal with the local undertaker – currently in the market for a prestige hearse – is already at risk of being scuppered, almost certainly as a consequence of his rash actions.

This seemingly small incident represents the beginning of a chain of events which constitute Julian’s fall from grace. Somewhat ironically, the damage caused by each individual misstep could be contained on its own – in other words, if it were a single violation as opposed to one element of a broader pattern of behaviour. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of the fallout that causes the real damage here.

O’Hara does something very interesting in the way he presents the Harry Reilly incident to the reader. Rather than describing what actually happens when Julian throws the drink at Harry, O’Hara shows Julian thinking about throwing it – not with any serious intentions of doing so, just daydreaming about it at this point. In fact, it is only through the responses of other people after the event that we get to hear about the incident itself. As a consequence, the very act of Julian throwing the drink seems to be magnified, which only adds to its impact and notoriety.

Something similar happens with the second of Julian’s missteps when, once again, the fine details of the episode occur off-camera, a technique that lends a degree of ambiguity to Julian’s actions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, interested observers assume the worst, a situation which leaves Julian feeling the heat from multiple angles – mainly from his wife, Caroline, and the powerful mobster, Ed Charney, whose louche mistress was the target of Julian’s attention that night.

As everything starts to unravel for Julian, we learn more about the early years in his life, particularly the relationship with his father, William Dilworth, a doctor and upstanding member of the Gibbsville community. As he came to young Julian’s rescue after the latter had been caught shoplifting, William English wondered whether the sins of his own father had come home to roost with the old man’s grandson.

William Dilworth English was thinking of his own life, the scrupulous, notebook honesty; the penny-watching, bill-paying, self-sacrificing honesty that had been his religion after his own father’s suicide. And that was his reward: a son who turned out to be like his grandfather, a thief. (p. 164) 

While Julian never stole anything again, he was left feeling a constant disappointment to his father especially as far as his career and the management of money were concerned. There was a time when Dr English wanted his son to join (and ultimately take over) his own prestigious medical practice – but Julian had other ideas back then, preferring instead to take advantage of the boom years of the 1920s.

Appointment in Samarra is an interesting look at the social elite of Pennsylvania in the early 1930s, the sort of people who had become accustomed to a certain standard of living, viewing it as a kind of entitlement as opposed to something that needed to be earned. The novel is full of little observations on the social codes of the Lantenengo Street milieu. While the town’s manual workers are still feeling the pinch from the decline in demand for coal (the local anthracite mining industry has struggled to recover from two lengthy strikes in the ‘20s), there is still plenty of money in evidence amongst the Gibbsville Country Club set.

Tonight’s dinner, as almost every guest was able to tell at a glance, was the club’s two-fifty dinner. This was a club dinner dance, and all members were invited. At a dinner such as the Ammermanns’, the hostess could arrange with the steward for the dollar-fifty (roast chicken), the two-dollar (roast turkey), or the two-fifty (filet mignon), and this had been the filet mignon dinner. The Ammermanns had just that much money, and their position in Gibbsville was just that certain and insecure, that they had to give the best of everything. (pp. 82-83)

The book is full of observations like this, fine details which add a sense of authenticity to the world O’Hara is portraying here.

The novel’s title comes from a brief parable by W. Somerset Maugham, a sort of retelling of an ancient cautionary tale. Maugham’s piece forms the novel’s epigraph – and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems a very fitting scene-setter for the book.

Appointment in Samarra is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby

There are times when I don’t want or feel the need to write a full review of a book I’ve been reading, when I’d just rather experience it without analysing it too much. Nevertheless, there are still things I might want to say about it, even it’s just to capture an overall feeling or response before it disappears into the ether. So, with this in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on four books I’ve read recently – mainly for my own benefit, but some of you might find them of interest too.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

I really loved this novel of the young, adventurous American innocent abroad. It’s smart, witty and utterly engaging from start to finish, a rare delight.

When we first meet the book’s heroine, the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce, she is walking down a Parisian boulevard on her way to meet her Italian lover when she runs into Larry, an old friend from home in the States. The fact that she’s still wearing last night’s evening dress in the middle of the morning does not go unnoticed by Larry – nor does her hair which has recently been dyed a rather striking shade of pink.

What follows is a series of exploits for Sally Jay as she mixes with the bohemian artists, writers and creative directors of Paris. There are various parties, romantic dilemmas and the occasional encounter with a gendarme or two along the way, all conveyed through Dundy’s sparkling prose.

This is a book which eschews plot in favour of tone and mood. Instead, it’s more about the experience of living, of self-discovery and adventure, of making mistakes and wising up from the consequences. Above all, it’s a pleasure to read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes – the first two are archetypal Sally Jay.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way? (p. 180)

It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

While the whole novel is eminently quotable, I couldn’t resist including this final piece from the closing section of the story when Sally Jay returns to New York. Dundy has a wonderful way of describing things, a skill which I hope you can see from the following passage.

We went into a cocktail bar just off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. One of those suave, sexy bars, dead dark, with popcorn and air-conditioning and those divine cheese things.

“What’ll you have?” he asked. “Champagne? Have anything. Money’s no object. Look. Wads of it. Ceylon. Can’t spend it fast enough. We photographers are the New Rich.”

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air. (p. 244)

Finally, for those of you who might be thinking that The Dud Avocado is too ditzy or sugary, let me try to reassure you that it’s not. There are touches of darkness and jeopardy running underneath the surface of some of Sally Jay’s adventures, especially towards the end. Moreover, Dundy’s writing is so sharp and on the money that it elevates the novel into something with real zing. Highly recommended – in retrospect, I actually preferred it to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Simon has reviewed this book here.

The Spy Who Came into the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

Another brilliant book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long.

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

It’s also a book that seems to perfectly capture the political distrust and uncertainty that must have been prevalent during the Cold War years of the early ‘60s – the tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war. (pp. 6-7)

While the first two Smiley novels are good, The Spy Came in from the Cold is in a totally different league. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (tr. by W.J. Strachan, 1955)

This is a slightly curious one – not entirely successful for me, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Set in 1930s Italy in the heady days of summer, this short novel focuses on the life of Ginia, a rather sheltered sixteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood.

When she meets the more sophisticated, self-assured Amelia, Ginia is quickly drawn into an intriguing milieu of bohemian artists and everything this new culture represents, including some brushes with the opposite sex. It’s not long before Ginia falls in love with Guido, an attractive young painter who responds to her innocence and youth while remaining somewhat emotionally detached. What follows is a fairly painful introduction to the fickle nature of human emotions and the duplicities of the adult world, at least as far as Ginia is concerned.

In short, this is a delicate story of a young girl’s loss of innocence and sexual awakening, themes which usually hold a great deal of appeal for me, especially in translated literature. However, while I really liked the overall mood of this novel and Pavese’s depiction of the conflicted emotions of youth, I wasn’t quite as taken with the writing, some of which felt a bit flat or clunky to me. (The following quote is intended to convey something of the novel’s tone and mood as opposed to the quality of the prose.)

Ginia slept little that night; the bed-clothes seemed a dead weight on her. But her mind ran on many things that became more and more fantastic as the time passed by. She imagined herself alone in the unmade bed in that corner of the studio, listening to Guido moving about on the other side of the curtain, living with him, kissing him and cooking for him. She had no idea where Guido had his meals when he was not in the army. (p. 49)

Overall, I was left wishing that Penguin had commissioned a fresh translation of Pavese’s text instead of running with the original from 1955. Others may have a different view on this, so I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book, particularly in the original Italian. Grant and Max have also written about it here and here.

For a sharper, more insightful take on the loss of a teenager’s innocence, albeit from a male character’s perspective, try Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, also set in the heat of an Italian summer – this time in the early 1940s.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

(Don’t worry, my comments on this last novel are going to be relatively brief!)

While I liked this novel, I didn’t love it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story of Muriel, a young girl struggling to find her place within the confines of a restrictive Edwardian society in a small Yorkshire village, a world where marriage seems to be the only option available to ladies of her class. That said, it lacks some of the bite of other stories I’ve been reading lately, particularly those by women writers from the mid-20th century, a favourite period of literature for me.

The latter stages of the novel are the most interesting, mainly because the advent of WW1 provides new opportunities for women like Muriel, encouraging them to spread their wings by gaining some much-needed independence.

Holtby’s prose is good but not particularly spectacular. That said, I loved this next passage from the end of the book – it really stood out for me.

I used to think of life as a dance, where the girls had to wait for men to ask them, and if nobody came – they still must wait, smiling and hoping and pretending not to mind.

How tragic is that?

The Dud Avocado is published by NYRB Classics, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Beautiful Summer by Penguin, and The Crowded Street by Virago; personal copies.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

What a marvellous novella this turned out to be. Smart, engaging and uproariously funny – another great summer read for me.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the debut novel of the American screenwriter and author Anita Loos. (You can read a little more about her career here.) The book was an instant success on its release in 1925 – the individual sections had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar, so the market was ripe for its appearance as a complete text.

Blondes features Lorelei Lee, a young American girl about town, and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei and Dorothy are very different from one another. At first sight, Lorelei – a blonde – appears rather witless and ditzy, while Dorothy – a brunette – seems sharper, more outspoken and more irreverent in her views. Lorelei likes to think of herself as being very refined, someone who is part of a particular social set along with everything this confers – more of that later…

So Mr Eisman gave me quite a nice string of pearls and he gave Dorothy a diamond pin and we all went to the Colony for dinner and we all went to a show and supper at the Trocadero and we all spent quite a pleasant evening. (p. 18)

The book’s main action really gets going when one of Lorelei’s male friends, Mr Eisman, ‘the Button King’, sends Lorelei to Europe with a view to broadening her horizons – a means of furthering her education if you like. Naturally, Dorothy accompanies our narrator on her trip, and their story is presented as a series of entries from Lorelei’s diary, a sequence of amusing vignettes as the girls make their way from New York to London to Paris and beyond.

It soon becomes clear that Lorelei has little interest in gaining a ‘traditional’ education while abroad. In fact, she seems far more concerned with shopping, drinking champagne and collecting valuable trinkets than taking in the famous sights. The majority of these attractions fail to impress her anyway, especially once she compares them to the buildings back in the US.

In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and that is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out. (p. 40)

Money, expensive jewellery and the good things in life are all important to Lorelei – she likes nothing more than a glamorous diamond bracelet and a delightful glass of champagne or two. Men are the main providers of these things with Lorelei attracting a trail of suitable admirers wherever she goes.

That said, Lorelei isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in any amorous romances. Unlike Dorothy, who falls in love relatively easily, Lorelei doesn’t become emotionally attached to any of these men. Instead, she sees them more as forms of light-hearted amusement and entertainment, just as long as they can furnish her with stylish gifts. As soon as Lorelei gets bored with her current beau, she demonstrates her readiness to move on to the next – providing he has enough money to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceiving. I mean they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you way for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever. (p. 55)

By the way, these misspellings and the rather childlike phraseology are all part of Lorelei’s charm; Loos’ prose has a natural rhythm all of its own.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a short book, but the girls’ adventures rattle along at quite a pace. There is a brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, a contretemps over a diamond tiara that Lorelei has her eye on, and plenty of other vignettes aside. We even get a peek at Lorelei’s backstory – an incident involving a shooting, a charge of which our heroine was rather demurely acquitted.

The two women make ideal foils for one another – in many ways, they are complete opposites. Lorelei struggles to understand why Dorothy can fall for a man who has no money, while Dorothy herself is dismayed at Lorelei’s willingness to accept a life without love. However, a man’s monetary wealth and resources are more valuable to Lorelei than any emotional or physical connection. She is very single-minded in her approach.

You might feel you know the story of Lorelei and Dorothy from the 1953 Howard Hawks film – also titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but Loos’ original novel feels like a different creature altogether. There is something rather knowing about the book, something much sharper and more satirical going on underneath the outwardly frothy surface. It’s all very cleverly done. Whatever level you choose to read it on, it’s a real treat.

The Penguin Classics edition comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Ralph Barton. Here’s an example from the Paris section of the story.

To finish, a brief note about Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a book that would make an interesting partner to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – you can read my post about it here. Reputedly inspired by the Loos, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, something that ultimately illustrated the darker side of life which lay beneath the glamour of the capital city of Berlin. It’s an excellent book, one that features a narrator whose voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Highly recommended reading.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Liars in Love by Richard Yates

I’ve been on a bit of Richard Yates kick lately. First with A Good School (1978), his loosely autobiographical novel of life as a teenage boy at a single-sex boarding school, and now with Liars in Love (1981), his second collection of short stories. While Liars isn’t quite as strong as his earlier collection, the superb Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of this author’s work or short stories in general – Yates is widely acknowledged as a true master of the form.

Once again, Yates demonstrates a deep understanding of the frailties of human nature here. More specifically, he explores the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the feelings of worthlessness that can stem from small failures, and the lack of connection as promising relationships break down and individuals drift apart. Here we have failing marriages, disparate households, and children who seem detached and isolated from their parents. It’s vintage Yates territory, as intuitively observed as one might expect.

The collection comprises seven stories each ranging from around 30 to 60 pages in length. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each story in turn. Instead, my aim is to pick out a few favourites to give a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The opening story, Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired, is narrated by a young boy living in Greenwich Village with his sister and mother who is trying her hand – quite poorly as it turns out – at producing sculptures. The mother is a classic Yates character; having separated from her husband some three years earlier, she is now a somewhat tragic and deluded woman whose best years are almost certainly behind her.

She was forty-one, an age when even romantics must admit that youth is gone, and she had nothing to show for the years but a studio crowded with green plaster statues that nobody would buy. She believed in the aristocracy, but there was no reason to suppose the aristocracy would ever believe in her. (p. 30)

This is a thoughtful story laced with moments of pathos and sadness, a strong start to the collection.

Children feature again in one of my favourites pieces, Trying Out for the Race. In this story, two mothers with kids agree to share a house together in Scarsdale as a means of combining their respective resources. However, in spite of the fact that the two women, Elizabeth Hogan Baker and Lucy Towers, have been friends for years, they turn out to be somewhat mismatched as living companions. Here’s a brief flavour of the myriad of tensions that ensue – Nancy is Elizabeth’s young daughter.

The Towers family shied away from Elizabeth most of the time, and so did Nancy; it was like having a stranger in the house. Coming heavily downstairs in her spike heels, standing at the front windows to stare out at the Post Road as if in deep thought, picking at whatever food was set before her and drinking a lot after dinner as she paged impatiently through many magazines. Elizabeth didn’t even seem to notice how uncomfortable she made everyone feel. (p. 84)

This is a story full of acute observations on the sheer awkwardness and frustrations of living in close quarters with people other than family – a situation familiar to most of us at some point in our lives.

Another of my favourite stories, A Natural Girl, touches on the strained relationship between a father and his much-loved daughter, a young woman named Susan. Yates is typically strong on openings, but this one in particular drew me in from the very first line. Here’s how it begins.

In the spring of her sophomore year, when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him anymore. She regretted it, or at least the tone of it, almost at once, but it was too late: he sat looking stunned for a few seconds and then began to cry, all hunched over to hide his face from her, trying with one unsteady hand to get a handkerchief out of his dark suit. He was one of the five or six most respected hematologists in the United States, and nothing like this had happened to him for a great many years. (p. 37)

While the father struggles to understand why his daughter feels this way, there is in fact no particular reason behind it. As Susan says at one point: “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. I think most intelligent people understand that.”

This is another beautifully observed story which also explores the landscape of Susan’s marriage to her college lecturer, an older man named David Clark. Towards the end of the narrative, things come full circle in more ways than one as Susan makes a brief return visit to the family home before setting out on her life again. The opening and closing sections are particularly poignant.

Others stories focus on an American soldier who requests compassionate leave to visit his estranged mother and sister, both of whom now live in England; a divorced writer who has a fling with a strikingly attractive girl while working on a screenplay in LA; and a young copywriter/editor named Bill Grove, presumably a grown-up version of the protagonist in A Good School.

While much of the subject matter explored in this collection is rather melancholy, there are touches of real tenderness and compassion here. In some ways, Yates is at his best when capturing these moments as he brings a degree of sensitivity and nuance to such scenes. It can be difficult when a quote is presented out of context, but I hope you can see something of it in this passage from Trying Out for the Race.

And Nancy gave her a brief, shy smile before turning away again. Slowly, Elizabeth removed the driving glove from her right hand. She reached across her daughter’s lap, clasped the outer thigh and brought her sliding over, careful to keep her small knees clear of the shuddering gear shift. She held the child’s thighs pressed fast against her own for a long time; then, in a voice so soft it could scarcely be heard over the sound of the car, she said “Listen, it’ll be alright, sweetheart. It’ll be all right.” (p. 92)

In summary, Liars in Love is another very satisfying collection from Yates. There are even glimmers of hope and optimism in some of these stories, a sense of fresh starts, new beginnings or second chances for some of the characters, which is pleasing to see. In many ways, these stories feel all the better for it.

Liars in Love is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

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.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year I read and loved Shirley Jackson’s gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So, it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I picked up another of her classic novels, The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959 and famously adapted for the screen as The Haunting some four years later. It’s a brilliantly unsettling book, a gothic/psychological chiller that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence.

Central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. Dr Montague has rented Hill House for the summer to observe and collect any evidence of supernatural activity or ghostly goings-on, not least of which may be connected to the dwelling’s complex and ill-fated history. Also joining Dr Montague and Eleanor at the house are Theodora, a bright, flamboyant young woman who brings a touch of sophistication to the proceedings and Luke Sanderson, the congenial heir to the estate.

Eleanor is the first of the group to arrive at the property, and her initial impressions are not promising. Hill House itself is a strong force within the book, its imposing presence making itself felt at an early stage in the story.

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (p. 35)

The house has been built in a curious design with the various rooms forming two concentric circles surrounding a central inner room. All the angles and doorways are slightly off-kilter, giving each room a somewhat unbalanced perspective, a feeling which only adds to the creepiness of the place – the internal doors seem to close of their own free will.

The housekeeper, Mrs Dudley, is a very strange creature indeed, unwilling to waver from her strict timetable of breakfast at nine and the laying out of dinner at six sharp, leaving everything in readiness for the guests so that she can head off to her own home before it gets dark. Mrs D is a wonderful Jackson creation (albeit in miniature), delivering her lines in a deadpan style – all of which adds a touch of dark humour to the novel.

In many ways, Eleanor acts as a focal point for the story. She has come to Hill House as a means of escape, to break free from her unhappy home life, an existence indelibly marked by the lonely years she previously spent nursing her sick mother (now deceased). There is an increasing sense, especially as novel progresses, that Eleanor sees Hill House as her destiny, drawn as she is to certain aspects of the house in spite of its chilling appearance and unsettling aura.

As she closed the door of the blue room behind her Eleanor thought wearily that it might be the darkness and oppression of Hill House that tired her so, and then it no longer mattered. The blue bed was unbelievably soft. Odd, she thought sleepily, that the house should be so dreadful and yet in many respects so physically comfortable—the soft bed, the pleasant lawn, the good fire, the cooking of Mrs. Dudley. The company too, she thought, and then thought, Now I can think about them; I am all alone. Why is Luke here? But why am I here? Journeys end in lovers meeting. They all saw that I was afraid. (p. 91)

At first, all seems relatively uneventful at the estate, and the members of the group sleep soundly through the night. However, it’s not long before the house begins to exert its mysterious forces on the group. A sequence of frightening noises, the appearance of strange writing on walls and other inexplicable events come together to unnerve the inhabitants, Eleanor in particular. In this scene, she cries out to Montague and Luke for assistance.

Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought. (p. 154)

As the novel moves forward, there is a sense that Hill House is taking control of Eleanor, possessing her in some way, with things coming to a head following the arrival of Dr Montague’s disagreeable and controlling wife and her rather blunt assistant, Arthur. Mrs Montague also has a keen interest in the supernatural, bringing with her a planchette – a sort of Ouija board that produces words – in the hope of being able to communicate with the spirits.

The various relationships between women form an interesting thread which runs through the book, almost all of them characterised by hostility, envy or jealousy. First we have Eleanor and her sister – a woman we never meet in person, although we know that Eleanor dislikes her. Then there are the two Crain sisters, the daughters of the ill-fated man who commissioned the construction of Hill House in the first place – after inheriting the estate following their father’s death, the two sisters then spent a lifetime arguing over the division of the property and the family heirlooms. Finally, we have Eleanor and Theodora who initially form a close bond in unison against the potential terrors of the house. There is a sense that Eleanor views Theodora as the soulmate she has longed for, or even the person she would love to be herself – a glamorous, self-assured woman with an interesting life. But then the relationship between these two women begins to sour when Eleanor feels provoked by Theodora, a situation that only serves to distance Eleanor from the rest of the group.

The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. Does the terrifying aura of Hill House have the greatest impact on Eleanor’s state of mind, or is she inherently emotionally unhinged anyway irrespective of her surroundings? There is a degree of ambiguity here for the reader to ponder.

Eleanor is undoubtedly a daydreamer and fantasist, her vivid, childlike imagination running riot at various points in the story. When she spots a tiny cottage hidden away in a garden during the journey to Hill House, Eleanor imagines herself living there alone with only her fantasies and a white cat for company. Several of the motifs and images she creates at this point resurface later in the book, echoing and reverberating with great effect. These recurring symbols reminded quite strongly of Merricat’s lucky charms and rituals in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

All in all, this is an excellent novel – a very striking exploration of a character’s psyche. It’s extremely well-written, too – at times the prose has an almost musical quality. Fans of Castle will almost certainly enjoy Hill House, a book that turned out to be a very satisfying and intriguing read for me. It was one of Max’s summary posts that prompted me to bump it up the pile – you can find a more detailed review here. Ali has also written about this book here.

The Haunting of Hill House is published by Penguin; personal copy.