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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.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Something slightly different from me today, a little look at one of Raymond Chandler’s novels, The High Window (1942), his third featuring the legendary private eye, Philip Marlowe. As I’ve written about Chandler before – there are links to my previous posts here: Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Good-bye – I’ll try to keep this review fairly brief, certainly as far as the plot is concerned.

The novel opens in traditional hard-boiled fashion with Marlowe visiting a new client at her home, an elaborate but soulless mansion in Pasadena, Los Angeles County. The woman in question is Mrs Elizabeth Bright Murdock, a wealthy, cantankerous old widow whose main pleasures in life appear to involve the consumption of large quantities of port and the systematic bullying of her repressed secretary, a rather neurotic young lady by the name of Merle Davis.

Mrs Murdock is in need of ‘a nice clean private detective,’ someone to investigate the theft of a rare gold coin, the Brasher Doubloon, the pride of her late husband’s private collection, normally kept under lock and key in a secure room in the house. As far as Mrs Murdock is concerned, the coin has been taken by her wayward daughter-in-law, the former nightclub singer, Linda Murdock (nee Conquest), a woman she has never liked – both the coin and the girl disappeared at the same time, hence the suspicion surrounding her involvement in the case.

I love this first passage – it’s taken from a scene where Marlowe is sizing up Linda Conquest, just from a photograph given to him by Mrs Murdock. It’s textbook Chandler.

A wide cool go-to-hell mouth with very kissable lips. Nice nose, not too small, not too large. Good bone all over the face. The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus. (p. 18)

As the Doubloon’s disappearance is a private family matter, the police are not to be involved. Instead, Mrs Murdock wants the coin back in her possession, along with an uncontested divorce for her rather ineffectual son, Leslie, of whom she is very fond – this in spite of his foolish marriage to Linda. Marlowe, for his part, smells a rat from the start; and when he tries to probe Mrs Murdock for further information about Leslie, the shutters come down. Along with the police, Leslie must also be kept firmly out of the investigation…

“Young man, do you want this job or don’t you?”

“I want it if I’m told the facts and allowed to handle the case as I see fit. I don’t want it if you’re going to make a lot of rules and regulations for me to trip over.”

She laughed harshly. “This is a delicate family matter, Mr Marlowe. And it must be handled with delicacy.”

“If you hire me, you’ll get all the delicacy I have. If I don’t have enough delicacy, maybe you’d better not hire me. For instance, I take it you don’t want your daughter-in-law framed. I’m not delicate enough for that.”

She turned the colour of a cold boiled beet and opened her mouth to yell. Then she thought better of it, lifted her port glass and tucked away some more of her medicine.

“You’ll do,” she said dryly. (pp. 16-17)

Somewhat reluctantly, Marlowe takes the case – after all, there are bills to be paid and bottles of liquor to be purchased. So, he sets off to find Linda’s former flatmate from before her marriage, a nightclub entertainer named Lois Magic.

As is often the case in these stories, the opening premise is simply the first thread in a complex web of deep-rooted corruption, an entanglement of messy crimes and grubby misdemeanours. The underlying situation is much more involved and intricate than it appears at first sight. Turns out that Leslie Murdock is in hock to Alex Morny – the nightclub manager and husband of Lois Magic – to the tune of $12,000. And that’s merely the start of it; there are many more twists and developments to come.

Marlowe’s quest for the coin takes him into seedy offices and apartments, glamorous nightclubs and bars, a veritable myriad of sleazy locations in the city. Along the way, he discovers evidence of murder, infidelity, blackmail, counterfeiting and sexual harassment, some of which have been kept under wraps for several years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there comes a time when Marlowe finds himself caught between the police and his client in the quest for some kind of moral justice. While never losing sight of the need to stay on the right side of the law to maintain his status as a private eye, he is also aware that there is the confidentiality of his client to protect. Either way, our protagonist is trapped between a rock and a hard place, grappling with a situation he can barely begin to understand.

Twelve hours to tie up a situation I didn’t even begin to understand. Either that or turn up a client and let the cops go to work on her and her whole family. Hire Marlowe and get your house full of law. Why worry? Why be doubtful and confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cockeyed, careless, clubfooted, dissipated investigator, Philip Marlowe, Glenview 7537. See me and you meet the best cops in town. Why despair? Why be lonely? Call Marlowe and watch the wagon come. (p. 129)

Once again, I am struck by just how many of these hard-boiled stories coalesce around dysfunctional families, often headed up by a poisonous matriarch as is the case here. Mrs Murdock is a prime example, a cold, bitter, unscrupulous woman who will stop at nothing to protect her own position. She really is quite a character.

While The High Window isn’t quite up there with the best of Chandler’s novels (for me, that would be The Big Sleep or The Long Good-bye), it still makes for a terrific read. Once again, I find myself admiring this author more for his writing than his plotlines. It’s all about the exhilarating prose style, peppered as it is with sharp dialogue and quotable one-liners. Here’s one of my favourites from the book, a wonderful description of the Idle Valley Club, the joint where Linda and Lois used to work.

The lobby looked like a high-budget musical. A lot of light and glitter, a lot of scenery, a lot of clothes, a lot of sound, an all-star cast, and a plot with all the originality and drive of a split fingernail. (p. 135)

Then there’s the irresistible combination of atmosphere, mood and indisputable sense of place. No one writes about Los Angeles quite like Chandler, from the plush estates of Bel Air to the rundown areas like Bunker Hill. I’ll wrap things up with a final quote, one that captures something of the dark underbelly of the city.

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles. (pp. 70-71)

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

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water is another top-notch novel from Patricia Highsmith, up there with the best of the Ripleys for me. The book was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen have been married for around eight years. They live with their six-year-old daughter, Trixie, in the suburban community of Little Wesley where Vic owns a small publishing business dedicated to the production of high-quality, specialist books. The Van Allens’ marriage has been toxic for some years; there is no real love left in the relationship, only jealousy, sniping and needling as the couple rub up against one another whenever they are at home together. (Vic no longer shares a bedroom with Melinda, choosing instead to spend his nights in a separate room on the other side of the house.)

Right from the start, Highsmith lays the blame for this situation firmly at Melinda’s feet. For the past three or four years, Melinda has been seeing a steady sequence of men, flaunting her conquests in Vic’s face by inviting them home in the evenings for copious drinks and some intimate dancing. (Vic rarely dances himself; in fact, he actively abstains from dancing simply because Melinda enjoys it so much.) These soirees often extend late into the night, prompting Vic to stay up as long as possible to keep an eye on Melinda, spoiling the cosy atmosphere she is aiming to create.

To make matters worse, Melinda usually manages to wangle an invitation for her latest man whenever the Van Allens are invited to the home of one of their neighbours – a fact that Vic finds particularly infuriating, although he is scrupulous in concealing his true feelings from their mutual friends. In this scene, Joel Nash, Melinda’s current beau, is accompanying Melinda and Vic to a get-together at the Mellers’ house – Horace and Mary Meller are the Van Allens’ closest pals.

Horace had tactfully refrained from mentioning Mr Joel Nash. Hadn’t said Joel was nice, or welcome, or asked anything about him or bothered with any of the banalities. Melinda had manoeuvred Joel’s invitation to the party. Vic had heard her on the telephone with Mary Meller the day before yesterday; ‘…Well, not exactly a guest of ours, but we feel responsible for him because he doesn’t know many people in town…Oh, thanks, Mary! I didn’t think you’d mind having an extra man, and such a handsome one, too…’ As if anyone could pry Melinda away from him with a crowbar. (pp. 4-5)

Every few months or so, Melinda seems to have a new love interest in her life, each one as foolish and ineffectual as the last. Actually, it is their idiotic nature that Vic really takes issue with – well, this and the fact that Melinda makes no secret of her fascination with these men by parading them all over town.

It was not that he objected to Melinda’s having affairs with other men per se, Vic told himself whenever he looked at Ralph Gosden, it was that she picked such idiotic, spineless characters and that she let it leak out all over the town by inviting her lovers to parties at their friends’ houses and by being seen with them at the bar of the Lord Chesterfield, which was really the only bar in town. (p. 17)

Vic himself is a quiet, respectable chap, highly regarded in the town of Little Wesley and well-liked by virtually everyone who knows him. He has time for people, taking care to stop and listen to their preoccupations and concerns – in short, he seems a generous, kind-heartened man, willing to support others wherever possible. His interests are somewhat insular and nerdy, activities such as breeding snails, studying bedbugs, gardening and stargazing; but then again, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this, they’re just innocent hobbies, things he can do without any interference from Melinda. Vic’s real pride and joy is his daughter, Trixie. In fact, he probably spends more time with her than Melinda, playing with the young girl and giving her extra tuition for school – she’s a very bright kid, remarkably well adjusted considering the state of relations between her parents. Melinda, for her part, pays little attention to Trixie, choosing instead to spend her afternoons and evenings in the company of her boyfriends, drinking and dancing and generally making a fool of herself.

As a consequence of all this, the Van Allens’ friends – especially their closest allies, the Mellers and the Cowans – feel very sympathetic towards Vic, but less so towards Melinda. They can see all too clearly what Vic has to endure when he is out with Melinda; in fact, it’s a wonder that Vic puts up with it at all, especially considering how long the whole business has been going on.

The fact that Melinda had been carrying on like this for more than three years gave Vic the reputation in Little Wesley of having a saintlike patience and forbearance, which in turn flattered Vic’s ego. Vic knew that Horace and Phil Cowan and everybody else who knew the situation – which was nearly everybody – considered him odd for enduring it, but Vic didn’t mind at all being considered odd. In fact, he was proud of it in a country in which most people aimed at being exactly like everybody else. (p. 18)

Quite near the beginning of the novel, Vic decides that he’s had enough of the likes of Joel Nash and Ralph Gosden for a while, so he decides to invent a story to scare them off. Vic tells both men, albeit on separate occasions, that he killed one of Melinda’s former lovers, an advertising exec named Malcolm McRae. (A few months earlier, McRae was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, murdered by an unknown assailant; the perpetrator is yet to be identified.) Both Joel and Ralph are visibly unnerved by Vic’s disclosures, and so they back away from Melinda – but Little Wesley is a small place, and word of Vic’s alleged involvement in the McRae case soon starts to spread. Those who know Vic well don’t believe a word of it. They can see exactly what Vic is doing, trying to frighten his wife’s lovers by hinting that he is not the mild-mannered doormat he appears to be. Nevertheless, there are other residents of Little Wesley who are less familiar with Vic, people like Don Wilson for example – recently arrived in town and a little outside of the Van Allens’ circle of friends – who are more suspicious of him, more willing to believe that he might have killed McRae in cold blood.

He thought that a few people there tonight really believed that he had killed Malcolm McRae – the people who knew him least. That was what Mary had tried to tell him. If Mary hadn’t known him so well, or thought she knew him so well, she might be one of the people who suspected him, he thought. She had as much as said it that night of the party. ‘You’re like somebody waiting very patiently and one day – you’ll do something.’ He remembered the exact words, and how he had smiled at their mildness. Yes, all these years he had played a game of seeming calm and indifferent to whatever Melinda did. He had deliberately hidden everything he felt – and in those months of her first affair he had felt something, even if was only shock, but he had succeeded in concealing it. That was what baffled people, he knew. He had seen it in their faces, even in Horace’s. He didn’t react with the normal jealousy, and something was going to give. (p. 52)

At first, Vic’s actions have the desired effect on Joel and Ralph, and life with Melinda settles down for a bit. The Van Allens even have a fairly pleasant night out together, something that hasn’t happened for years. But then the police catch McRae’s real killer, blowing Vic’s claims out of the water; and before Vic knows it, there’s a new man in Melinda’s life – Charley De Lisle, the piano player at the Chesterfield bar. Vic cannot stand the thought of Melinda dragging De Lisle to various social gatherings in front of their friends; and when the Cowans decide to throw a fancy-dress party at their home, with Charley providing the music for the event, things come to a dramatic head.

Deep Water is a truly brilliant thriller – expertly structured and paced, it remains suspenseful right to the very end. There is a sense that something dreadful might happen at any moment, just when the reader is least expecting it.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the way Highsmith draws on the reader’s natural emotions, prompting them to feel a great deal sympathy for an affable, downtrodden man who ultimately goes on to commit a terrible crime. The characterisation is uniformly excellent, from Vic and Melinda, right down to the minor players in the story. For years, Vic has been taking it on the chin from Melinda, calmly turning a blind eye to all her embarrassing antics. To their friends, Vic is a saint, is the model of patience, respectability and integrity; and yet inside he is privately seething, the tensions simmering away. For years he has been playing a game, appearing relaxed and indifferent on the outside, but bristling away on the inside. By contrast, we feel very little compassion for Melinda, largely on account of her outrageous behaviour towards Vic and her abject neglect of Trixie; there are times when she appears unhinged and deranged, especially to some of her closest friends.

I’m going to leave it there for fear of revealing anything more about the plot. All I can do is encourage you to read this terrific novel for yourselves – I doubt you’ll regret it.

Deep Water is published by Virago Books; 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.

Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy

Find a Victim by Ross Macdonald

Longstanding readers of this blog may recall my intention to work through Ross Macdonald’s hardboiled novels – more specifically the books featuring his Los Angeles-based private detective, Lew Archer. Find a Victim is number five in the series – not the pick of the bunch by any stretch of the imagination, but an entertaining read nonetheless. (Here are the links to my reviews of the earlier books in the series, The Drowning Pool [#2], The Way Some People Die [#3] and The Ivory Grin [#4] – all can be read as standalone works.) While it may sound a little odd, this was a comfort read for me. I know what I’m going to get with a Lew Archer novel: something familiar yet satisfying with enough twists and turns to maintain my interest. And that was broadly the case here – it turned out to be just what I needed to read after the rather episodic nature of The Adventures of Sindbad.

So, back to Find a Victim. As the book opens, Archer is driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he is flagged down by a blood-stained man who has been shot and left to die in a ditch near a deserted stretch of the highway. With no sign of life for miles, Archer puts the severely wounded man in the back of his car and sets off to find help in the nearest town, a place called Las Cruces. On his arrival at a motel on the outskirts of town, Archer arranges for an ambulance to take the injured man to hospital – an action which turns out to be too late as the man dies before the medics can save him. Consequently, Archer must hang around to assist the authorities with their enquiries into the murder, a development that piques the detective’s interest especially once he starts to get the measure of the neighbourhood and its rather shady inhabitants.

La Cruces in the sort of small town where everybody is either related to or connected with everybody else. Archer encounters open hostility from the off: the motel owner is none too pleased with Archer for turning up with a dying man in his car; the local Sheriff seems defensive and mistrustful of him, especially once he realises that he’s dealing with a private eye; even the dead man’s boss, a local big-shot named Meyer, seems to have something to hide. (It turns out that the dead man, Tony Aquista, was driving a lorry containing a large consignment of bonded bourbon when he was shot. The truck in question is now missing, probably hijacked during the shooting – another crime for the authorities to follow up as soon as poss, especially given the nature of the cargo.) All is not well with the women in the town either. Kate Kerrigan, the motel owner’s wife, is clearly trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage, a point that Archer deduces from the word go. Then there is the question of Meyer’s daughter, Anne, who manages Kerrigan’s motel – she has been missing for the past week after failing to show up at work. As a consequence, Archer feels compelled to get involved in the case, whether the locals want him to or not.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Archer?” His grooved, stubborn mouth denied his willingness to do anything for anybody.

I told him I had stumbled into the case and wanted to stay in it. I didn’t tell him why. I didn’t know exactly why, though Kate Kerrigan had something to do with it. And perhaps the dark boy’s death had become a symbol of the senseless violence I had seen and heard about in the valley towns. Here was my chance to get to the bottom of it. (p. 38)

What follows is a sequence of events that leads Archer deeper and deeper into a complex web of vice, one that includes additional murders, robberies, corruption, adultery and sexual abuse – interestingly, family conflicts and double-dealings are themes that run through a number of these novels.

In Archer, Ross Macdonald has created a detective with a conscience, a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even when he knows it will lead to some dangerous encounters along the way. As in the previous novels, Archer gets beaten up and thrown around by those who are aiming to protect their own interests, and yet he keeps on coming back for more. Moreover, his conviction in getting to the heart of the matter is thorough and unrelenting. When the District Attorney tries to pin the crimes on the ‘obvious’ suspect, Archer refuses to accept the convenient option; he follows his instincts, refusing to dismiss any nagging doubts in the process. By so doing, it is clear that he will discover the true perpetrators of the crimes in question, even if the authorities seem less than willing to listen to him.

As I mentioned a little earlier, this isn’t the strongest of the early Lew Archer novels; some of the characters feel a little thin and clichéd. In particular, it lacks a distinctive female figure, someone like Galatea from The Way Some People Die or the vulnerable and damaged Maude Slocum from The Drowning Pool. Nevertheless, there are some nice touches here and there, like this description of the motel owner, Don Kerrigan.

He came back toward me, running his fingers lovingly through his hair. It was clipped in a crew cut, much too short for his age. I guessed that he was one of those middle-aging men who couldn’t face the fact that their youth was over. It gave him an unreal surface, under which a current of cruelty flickered. (p. 17)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these Lew Archer novels is Macdonald’s ability to evoke a strong sense of place. From the seedy bars and clubs of small towns like Las Cruces to the barren terrain of the Californian desert to the mountains near the border with Nevada, it’s all here.

I looked back to the south and then to the north. No cars, no houses, no anything. I had passed one clot of traffic somewhere north of Bakersfield and failed to catch another. It was one of those lulls in time when you can hear your heart ticking your life away, and nothing else. The sun had fallen behind the coastal range, and the valley was filling with twilight. A flight of blackbirds crossed the sky like visible wind, blowing and whiplashing. (p. 3)

All in all, this is probably a book for Archer completists. If on the other hand you’re looking to try one of the early novels just to get a sense of Macdonald’s style, then I would recommend either The Drowning Pool or The Way Some People Die, both of which are excellent reads. Finally, I must give a shout-out to Max at Pechorin’s Journal who persuaded me to read these novels in the first place. Here’s a link to his excellent review of #1 in the series, The Moving Target.

Find a Victim is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Back in 1960, John Williams published Butcher’s Crossing; ostensibly a Western, it is the story of a young man’s journey into the dark heart of the American wilderness, a trip that leads to death and destruction. Five years later Williams moved on to a very different type of book with Stoner, a sensitive character study set within the world of academia. While the success of recent reissues of Stoner has generated a renewal of interest in Williams’ work, it is probably fair to say that Butcher’s Crossing remains less widely read. A shame really as this is a very intelligent novel, full of insights into the darker side of humanity and the consequences that can occur if this remains unchecked.

The central protagonist in Butcher’s Crossing is Will Andrews, an open and imaginative young man keen to see something more of the country he calls his home. As the novel begins, Andrews is travelling to Butcher’s Crossing, a small Kansas settlement in the heart of the Midwest – the year is 1873. Having left his studies in Harvard, he hopes to find some greater meaning in life by getting closer to the freedom of the land. In essence, Andrews is embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, one he trusts will give him a greater insight into his own character and future direction in life.

On his arrival in the rough and ready town, Andrews gains an introduction to Miller, a seasoned yet maverick buffalo hunter with several years’ experience of working the prairies. Before long, Miller entices Andrews into financing a hunting expedition to a hidden valley deep in the midst of the Colorado mountains, supposedly home to more than three thousand buffalo complete with prime hides. The location of the valley is known only to Miller who last visited the area some ten years earlier while trapping for beavers. There is a sense that Miller might be spinning a tall tale about this mythical herd of buffalo, large groupings being something of a rarity these days – with the market for buffalo skins in the ascendancy, the animals have been hunted with a vengeance, a development which has resulted in a significant thinning out of the herds. Nevertheless, Andrews, in his hunger for a taste of the West, is willing to take his chances with the persuasive hunter. As a consequence, the party is completed by Miller’s trusty sidekick, Charley Hoge, a one-handed, alcoholic, Bible-reading camp man/cook, and Schneider, an experienced skinner of hides. It will be Miller’s role to lead the group, a position that creates considerable tension amongst the men especially when the trip gets underway.

Once their preparations are complete, the group sets off for Colorado, accompanied by horses and a team of oxen to draw the wagon. Williams is particularly adept at capturing the gruelling nature of the journey across the prairies: the physical exhaustion and soreness from riding over the hard terrain; the extreme thirst from a lack of fresh water; the monotonous routine of performing the same tasks time and time again as the days merge together into one long continuum. Nevertheless, Andrews clearly feels the undeniable pull of the land; it is almost as if his whole life has been leading up to this point, his previous existence fading into insignificance by comparison.

Andrews felt that the mountains drew them onward, and drew them with increasing intensity as they came nearer, as if they were a giant lodestone whose influence increased to the degree that it was more nearly approached. As they came nearer he had again the feeling that he was being absorbed, included in something with which he had had no relation before; but unlike the feeling of absorption he had experienced on the anonymous prairie, this feeling was one which promised, however vaguely, a richness and a fulfilment for which he had no name. (p. 106)

In his determination to find the valley, Miller pushes the team onwards by the most direct route possible even when it means risking the lives of his companions and their animals. Much to the annoyance of Schneider, the group has to survive without fresh supplies of water for a couple of days, a move that ends up putting the whole expedition in jeopardy.

Eventually, Miller finds the entrance to the secluded valley – as promised, the buffalo are there in abundance, maybe three or four thousand in total. It is here that Andrews’ initiation into the true nature of the hunt really begins as Miller wastes no time in embarking upon a frenzied cull of these noble and dignified mammals. Once he has identified and taken out the leader of the pack, Miller falls into a swift, steady rhythm, firing and reloading systematically until the ground is littered with buffalo corpses. Unsurprisingly, Andrews is shocked and horrified by this senseless savagery, to the extent that he begins to question his own character, values and identity.

During the last hour of the stand he came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust of fury that tolled darkly within him—he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself, crawling dumbly after Miller upon the flat bed of the valley, picking up the empty cartridges that he spent, tugging the water keg, husbanding the rifle, cleaning it, offering it to Miller when he needed it—he looked upon himself, and did not know who he was, or where he went. (p. 137)

After the first day’s haul of more than one hundred buffalo, it soon becomes clear that Miller is intent on decimating the whole herd. Schneider and Andrews can barely keep up with their leader as they struggle to skin the carcasses before rigor mortis sets in, a process that leaves them exhausted and bruised, mentally as well as physically.

Schneider and Andrews had to work more and more swiftly to skin the animals Miller left strewn upon the ground; almost never were they able to finish rather skinning before sundown, so that nearly every morning they were up before dawn hacking tough skins from stiff buffalo. And during the day, as they sweated and hacked and pulled in a desperate effort to keep up with Miller, they could hear the sound of his rifle steadily and monotonously and insistently pounding at the silence, and pounding at their nerves until they were raw and bruised. (p. 159)

Where this novel really excels is in the characterisation of the four men, each one distinctive and fully painted on the page. As the hunt continues, further tensions emerge within the group, especially between Miller and the rather stubborn yet practical Schneider. Once again Miller’s dogmatic behaviour threatens the very safety of the men and their animals as they are forced to camp out in the mountains over the winter months, trapped by the snow following a sudden heavy blizzard. They cling to a precarious existence, taking shelter in a makeshift lean-to fashioned out of foraged materials and buffalo hides from the cull. There are moments when Andrews wonders if they will ever make it out of there alive – and if so, what life will mean to him in the months and years that follow.

Butcher’s Crossing is a truly excellent novel, one that highlights the sheer futility of the obsessive pursuit of power, wealth and the Great American Dream – the closing section of the story plays a particularly important role in underscoring the senselessness and stupidity of everything that has gone before. Moreover, Williams doesn’t hold back on the brutality of life in the wilderness. There is an honesty in his portrayal of the darker side of humanity, especially in relation to Miller, a man who takes certain things to the extreme in his mindless determination to destroy. The descriptions of hunting and skinning buffalo are highly graphic too, possibly not for the sensitive or fainthearted. Nevertheless, there is great beauty here as well, not least in Williams’ well-judged prose and his lyrical descriptions of the land. I’ll finish with a brief passage from the middle of the novel as Andrews first catches sight of Miller’s hidden valley, a vision of paradise just there for the taking.

For perhaps three hundred yards, the trail cut down between the pines; but at that point, abruptly, the land leveled. A long narrow valley, flat as the top of a table, wound among the mountains. Lush grass grew on the bed of the valley and waved gently in the breeze as far as the eye could see. A quietness seemed to rise from the valley; it was the quietness, the stillness, the absolute calm of a land where no human foot had touched. (p. 117)

Butcher’s Crossing is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.