Tag Archives: US

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1951-55

This is my first experience of the Canadian writer, Mavis Gallant, but hopefully not my last. Dorian and Buried in Print have been urging me to read her for ages, and not without good cause. In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection.

The Cost of Living comprises twenty stories from 1951 to 1971 – rather helpfully, the pieces are dated and arranged in chronological order. I’m planning to read this collection in two or three chunks with the aim of spreading the stories over a few months; otherwise there’s a danger that everything will begin to merge, making it harder to reflect on each individual vignette before moving on to the next. So, this post covers the highlights from the first six stories in the set – hopefully another post on the rest will follow in due course.

Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves.

The collection opens with Madeleine’s Birthday, Gallant’s first story, published in The New Yorker in 1951. Seventeen-year-old Madeleine is self-sufficient and strong-minded, traits she has had to develop in response to her rather thoughtless mother – now living in Europe following her divorce from Madeleine’s father.

At her mother’s request, Madeleine is spending the summer at a country house in Connecticut, a property owned by Anna Tracy, a longstanding friend of the family. However, Anna simply cannot understand why Madeleine doesn’t seem particularly pleased to be there, especially as Anna views her Connecticut summers ‘as a kind of therapy to be shared with the world’. In truth, Madeline would much rather be on her own in her mother’s vacant New York apartment, amusing herself with trips to the movies and the like. To complicate matters further, the Tracys are also housing another guest for the summer – a German boy named Paul, whom Anna hopes will be a friend for Madeleine. Madeleine, however, resents having to share a bathroom with Paul, viewing him as yet another imposition on her freedom…

“I cannot cope with it here,” Madeleine had written to her father shortly after she arrived. “One at a time would be all right but not all the Tracys and this German.” “Cope” was a word Madeline had learned from her mother, who had divorced Madeleine‘s father because she could not cope with him, and then had fled to Europe because she could not cope with the idea of his remarriage. “Can you take Madeleine for the summer? she had written to Anna Tracy, who was a girlhood friend. “You are so much better able to cope.” (p. 7)

Things come to a head on the morning of Madeleine’s birthday, particularly when Anna tries to chivvy her along with patronising cheer and gaiety. In effect, Anna is treating Madeleine like a child – no different to her daughter Allie, who is six.  

This is an excellent, nuanced story, one that taps into the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment.

The failings of motherhood also feature in Going Ashore, one of the standouts from Gallant’s early pieces. Following the break-up of the latest in string of doomed relationships, Mrs Ellenger has taken her twelve-year-old-daughter, Emma, on a cross-continental cruise in the hope of finding some male companionship. As a consequence, young Emma must amuse herself with the other passengers on the ship – individuals like the Munns, a dowdy mother-and-daughter pairing, complete with old-fashioned tweeds and pearls.

Mrs E is the sort of neglectful mother one finds in a Richard Yates novel, like Pookie from The Easter Parade or Alice from A Special Providence. There’s an air of tragedy here, characterised by an attraction to unsuitable men, typically fuelled by a fondness for drink.

The story ends with Mrs Ellenger returning the cabin she is sharing with Emma, tearful and emotional following another disappointing dalliance. As such, she makes a desperate appeal to her daughter, urging her never to get married – clearly no good will ever come of it.

Her mother had stopped crying. Her voice changed. She said, loud and matter-of-fact, “He’s got a wife someplace. He only told me now, a minute ago. Why? Why not right at the beginning, in the bar? I’m not like that. I want something different, a friend.” […] “Don’t ever get married, Emma,” she said. “Don’t have anything to do with men. Your father was no good. Jimmy Salter was no good. This one’s no better. He’s got a wife and look at how–Promise me you’ll never get married. We should always stick together, you and I. Promise me we’ll always stay together.” (p. 95)

In Going Ashore, Gallant has created a story in which the child is far more responsible than the adult, reversing the natural roles to great effect.

The disruption and dislocation caused by WW2 can be detected in a number of the stories here, perhaps most notably in An Autumn Day, another highlight from Gallant’s early pieces. This story revolves around nineteen-year-old Cissy Rowe, who has just travelled to Salzburg to be with her relatively new husband, Walt, a member of the US Army of Occupation. Cissy is still very much a child, with her girlish clothes and lack of life experience. Having spent most of their brief married life apart, Walt and Cissy barely know one another, a point that is plainly obvious right from the start.

With Walt fully occupied all day, Cissy is lonely and desperately in need of a like-minded friend. Walt wants Cissy to buddy up with Laura, the wife of his closest friend, Marv, also stationed at Salzburg. Laura, however, is forever complaining about Marv, something that Cissy finds awkward to discuss, especially as her own marriage seems far from ideal.

The truth was that he [Walt] and I never talked much about anything. I didn’t know him well enough, and I kept feeling that our real married life hadn’t started, that there was nothing to say and wouldn’t be for years. (p. 101)

A ray of hope for Cissy arrives in the shape of Dorothy West, an American singer who comes to stay at the farm where the Rowes are stationed, albeit temporarily. Cissy hopes she can befriend this woman whose voice and lyrics resonate with her deeply; unfortunately for our protagonist, the best laid plans never quite come to fruition…

The story ends with a missed opportunity, a development that prompts an outpouring of emotion, leaving Cissy distressed and Walt bewildered. It marks a transition for Cissy, signalling the need to move on, a longing for her marriage to finally ‘start’.    

Your girlhood doesn’t vanish overnight. I know, now, what a lot of wavering goes on, how you step forward and back again. The frontier is invisible; sometimes you’re over without knowing it. I do know that some change began then, at that moment, and I felt an almost unbearable nostalgia for the figure I was leaving behind, the shell of the girl who had got down from the train in September, the pretty girl with all the blue plaid luggage. I could never be that girl again, not entirely. Too much had happened in between. (p. 114)

The spectre of war is also present in The Picnic, an excellent story of class prejudices and cultural differences set in the French countryside during WW2. The action revolves around a picnic, a symbol of unity between the local community and the American troops stationed nearby. This story features the most wonderful character, Madame Pégurin, who keeps all manner of treats by her bedside – sugared almonds, pistachio creams and sponge cakes soaked in rum, which she secretly feeds to the American children lodging at her house. In short, she is an utter delight!

Alongside her acute insights into the sadness of loneliness and alienation, Gallant also has a sharp eye for humour – something that comes to the fore in A Day Like Any Other, another tale of clashing cultures and social classes. I love this description of Mr Kennedy and his medical problems, a condition that has caused his family to trail endlessly around Europe from one ‘excellent liver man’ to another.

He cherished an obscure stomach complaint and a touchy liver that had withstood, triumphantly, the best attention of twenty doctors. (p. 53)

A weaker man might have given up, thinks Mrs Kennedy; but no, her husband appears to have an inexhaustible supply of patience, although not where his children are concerned.

Mr. Kennedy seldom saw his daughters. The rules of the private clinics he frequented were all in his favor. In any case, he seldom asked to see the girls, for he felt that they were not at an interesting age. Wistfully, his wife sometimes wondered when their interesting age would begin–when they were old enough to be sent away to school, perhaps, or, better still, safely disposed of in the handsome marriages that gave her so much concern. (p. 53)

These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

The Cost of Living is published by NYRB Classics and Bloomsbury; personal copy.  

The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

The British-born novelist and screenwriter Alfred Hayes – a man who spent much of his working life in the US and Italy – is fast becoming one of those ‘experience everything’ writers for me. His slim, expertly-crafted novellas, with their piecing portrayals of the pain of ill-fated relationships, remain some of my favourites in recent years. (I read the superb My Face for the World to See (1958) before setting up this blog, but my thoughts on In Love (1953) and The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949) – a book that made my 2018 highlights – can be found by clicking on the links.)

The End of Me (1968) is a later novella, and the passing of time is somewhat reflected in the book’s narrator, Asher, a fifty-one-year-old screenwriter whose career is on the rocks. Having observed his socially-ambitious second wife in flagrante with her tennis partner, Asher flees his home in L.A. for the relative anonymity of New York, a bruised and anguished man. It is a city that has healed Asher in the past — ‘her crowds, like enormous blotters’ possess the ability to absorb his life.

Once ready to reconnect with the world, Asher pays a visit to his elderly Aunt Dora, who views him as the successful one in the family – the one with a good job, a fine wife, and comfortable home in the eternal sunshine. Unwilling or unable to dispel this idyllic vision, Asher submits to the falsehood, assuring Aunt Dora that everything is relatively well in his world. In reality, he lacks a sense of purpose and is pondering what to do. 

As a consequence of the visit, Asher agrees to meet Dora’s grandson, Michael, a young man with ambitions to be a poet; but when Michael comes to see Asher in his hotel suite, their meeting is a disaster. Asher is riled by Michael’s somewhat surly, disdainful manner, and his subsequent silence prompts Michael to leave.

The following day, Asher is ashamed of his behaviour; contrition sets in, and he calls Michael to invite him for cocktails at the hotel. When Michael arrives, he is accompanied by Aurora, a striking girl of southern European descent. The attraction for Asher is immediate and intense; Aurora intrigues him, and yet he knows she is part of Michael’s world.

She had immense dark eyes. The lids were whitened; the lips had been administered to with a pale lipstick. She wore her hair caught up in a rich, somewhat loose, coil that threatened if she laughed too hard (and she did, she always laughed too hard, she laughed, if I may amend Michael’s more graphic description of her laughter, vaginally) to come down in a disorderly mass. I wondered, then, how far it would reach: her hair. Down to where. Down to what. The skin was marvelous. And she was Michael’s girl. (p. 31)

In his keenness to reconnect with the past, Asher asks Michael to accompany him around NYC to revisit various places from his youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the city has now changed, neatly echoing the feelings of damage and loss that are central to the book. In return, Asher will read Michael’s poems – pieces that turn out to be rather crude and derivative, reflecting a poisonous, destructive form of love. However, Asher holds back from telling Michael what he really thinks of his poems, choosing instead to describe them as ‘interesting’ – a carefully-chosen word with an ambiguous meaning.

Despite all this, Asher finds himself drawn to Michael, seeing him as someone who might be able to learn something from Asher’s own experiences of life. There is an element of self-delusion on the part of Asher here – a sort of self-flattery, hinging on the belief that he can to pass into the world of the young, albeit temporarily.

Perhaps what I wished, not admitting it entirely to myself, was to attach the boy somehow to me. To establish between us (where the non sequitur existed) a connection of a kind. It wasn’t that I felt fatherly to Michael; I couldn’t even honestly say I liked him: it was simply that I felt he had a certain irritating importance for me. I might have been flattering myself, but I felt that, after all, something could be learned, that if I were rich in nothing else I was rich in experience, though perhaps not too rich in it. The generations touched somewhere. (p. 52)

In tandem to this, Asher begins to see Aurora – something he does with Michael’s permission. They meet in the park, chat together and go to the cinema. During these scenes, we learn more about Asher’s former loves, the relationships that have spoiled and soured. In contrast to these women, Asher finds Aurora intriguing and desirable. It is perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight that he appreciates quite how sly and calculating Aurora can be.

Oh, she acted. She played complicated games. As at the French film. Perhaps she even lied a little. Or teased me a little. Amused herself with me. But why not? I was the damaged one. Damaged by age, damaged by the profession I had chosen, damaged by marriage. She was whole, and young, and there wasn’t anything of value I could really offer her. I wasn’t going to fall in love with her; it would be absurd to expect her to fall in love with me. Besides, there was Michael: she was, in some way they accepted among themselves, by their definitions, his girl. Whatever being one’s girl at the moment meant. I wasn’t really too anxious to find out. I was being, by some consent, allowed to share her. (p. 95.)

With Michael pulling the strings, Aurora flirts wildly with Asher, twisting him round her little finger and manipulating him for the fun of it – lies, deceit and calculation are all part of the game. There is a form of ritual humiliation going on here, something designed to expose Asher for his past failings, reducing him to the status of washed-up hack with his productive, successful years far behind him. Michael, in particular, shows great contempt for Asher’s generation, the men who believe they were born into one of the great eras of historical truth, the time of America’s Depression. (The damaging impact of WW2 is part of the backdrop to much of Hayes’s work, and it remains in evidence here.)

There is a ruthless, fatalistic tone running through The End of Me, something that feels detectable from the outset. The impending sense of doom in the narrative is crystal clear; and yet there is something hugely compelling in the telling of it. Asher knows he is being played, but by quite how much only becomes apparent towards the end.

There is a brutal honesty to Hayes’s portrayal of various facets of human nature – perhaps most notably, desire, egotism, ruthlessness, vulnerability and cruelty. Once again, I find myself marvelling at this author’s ability to distil this degree of psychological insight into such an economical yet beautifully-written book.

In short, this is a bitter espresso-shot of a novel – a dark, concentrated gem of destruction and despair. Naturally, I adored it… (Annabel has also written about it here.)

The End of Me is published by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

Recent Reads, the Vintage Crime Edition – Agatha Christie and Margaret Millar

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

A classic Miss Marple mystery – possibly one of her best, although I’ll let other, more seasoned readers be the judge of that.

The appearance of a most unusual announcement in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette sets the residents of this sleepy rural village all of a flutter.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

Suitably intrigued, various friends of Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, gather together at the cottage at the appointed time later that day. The belief is that some kind of parlour game will take place – the sort of murder mystery where guests adopt various roles, someone gets ‘killed’, and everyone else has to guess the murderer’s identity. However, Letitia herself knows nothing about it. Maybe her cousin, Patrick, also resident at the Paddocks, has arranged it all as a joke? It’s hard to tell…

Just as the clock strikes 6.30 p.m., the lights go out, leaving the drawing-room in complete darkness. The door swings open with a crash; a powerful flashlight is shone around the room; a man’s voice shouts ‘Stick ‘em up, I tell you!’; and a series of three gunshots rings out. When someone flicks open their lighter, it is clear that the intruder – a masked assailant – is dead. Turns out he is known to Letitia, although not very well – a waiter she had encountered while staying at a hotel who subsequently approached her, unsuccessfully, with a sob story for money.

At first, the police are inclined to believe the incident was some kind of botched attempt at burglary. But once Inspector Craddock starts digging around, it seems that theory doesn’t quite add up. Murder is suspected, a crime almost certainly committed by someone attending the gathering on the evening in question. Before long, Miss Marple becomes involved in the case, gently probing the suspects in her own unassuming way. Her technique of subtly dropping ‘innocent’ questions into the conversation is very effective indeed.

As ever with Christie, the characterisation is great, and no one is quite who they might seem at first sight. Living at the Paddocks with Letitia are her cousins, Patrick and Julia, her childhood friend, Dora (a complete scatterbrain), a widow named Philippa, and the German cook, Mitzi, a suspicious/paranoid woman whose family were killed in the war. Among the guests, we have a retired Colonel and his partner, two busybodyish ‘country’ types who share a house together, and a kindly yet forthright vicar’s wife.

I’d quite forgotten how funny Christie can be – she really is very amusing! Here are the two ‘country’ spinsters trying to re-enact the murder to jog their memories of the scene.

‘Tuck your hair up, Murgatroyd, and take this trowel. Pretend it’s a revolver.’

‘Oh,’ said Miss Murgatroyd, nervously.

‘All right. It won’t bite you. Now come along to the kitchen door. You’re going to be the burglar. You stand here. Now you’re going into the kitchen to hold up a lot of nit-wits. Take the torch. Switch it on.’

‘But it’s broad daylight!’

‘Use your imagination, Murgatroyd. Switch it on.’

Miss Murgatroyd did so, rather clumsily, shifting the trowel under one arm while she did so.

‘Now then,’ said Mrs Hinchcliffe, ‘off you go. Remember the time you played Hermia in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream at the Women’s Institute? Act. Give it all you’ve got. “Stick ‘em up!” Those are your lines–and don’t ruin them by saying “Please.”

As a writer, Christie uses dialogue to great effect – not only to move the action forward but to reveal telling insights into character too. It’s very skilfully done.

The mystery itself is supremely well-plotted (surely a given where this author is concerned). Various subtle clues are dropped in along the way, from the significance of names and identities to the importance of little details in the drawing-room layout. The resolution, when it comes, is suitably twisty and satisfying, with Miss Marple’s deductions proving vital to Inspector Craddock’s investigations.

The post-war setting is beautifully evoked too, particularly the sense of a country undergoing social change. Fifteen years earlier, England was a different place, where everyone in the village knew who everyone else was. But in the late 1940s, things seem very different; nobody quite knows who anyone is anymore, especially as so many people effectively ‘disappeared’ during the war, making an individual’s real identity somewhat challenging to verify.

There were people, as he [Inspector Craddock] knew only too well, who were going about the country with borrowed identities—borrowed from people who had met sudden death by ‘incidents’ in the cities. There were organizations who bought up identities, who faked identity and ration cards–there were a hundred small rackets springing into being. You could check up–but it would take time–and time was what he hadn’t got…

A Murder is Announced ticks all the boxes for me, one of those mysteries where everyone is a suspect and longstanding secrets are revealed.

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar (1960)

This wasn’t quite as satisfying for me, so I’ll aim to keep this summary reasonably brief.

The novel’s premise is an interesting one. Daisy Harker is tormented by a recurring nightmare, a dream in which she comes across a gravestone bearing her name and date of birth. According to the inscription, thirty-year-old Daisy died four years earlier in December 1955. Convinced that something highly significant must have happened on that date, she employs a private detective, Steve Pinata, to help her reconstruct the day as fully as possible. Maybe then she can deal with whatever consequences it throws up and hopefully move on.

Daisy is married, but her relationship with husband Jim is not a happy one. Jim and his controlling mother-in-law, Mrs Fielding (who lives in a cottage 200 yards from the Harkers’ house), treat Daisy like a child, casting her in the role of ‘happy innocent’ – a fact Daisy finds very frustrating. While Jim is somewhat sceptical about the wisdom of Daisy trying to uncover the meaning of her dreams, he plays along with it, just to keep her occupied.

As Pinata begins to investigate Daisy’s movements on the day in question, more information comes to light, bringing other characters into the mix. Perhaps the most notable of these is Daisy’s father, Mr Fielding, something of a drifter and alcoholic who been absent for the last three years.     

For the most part, the central characters are well drawn, particularly Pinata, an orphan whose parentage and family history are largely unknown. (Millar has a longstanding interest in issues of race and gender inequality.) Daisy, however, seems more lightly sketched. She is never much more than a cypher for me – someone to hang the narrative around as opposed to an individual with a real sense of depth. The plot too is rather convoluted. At 300 pp. this mystery could have benefited from a bit of filleting here and there to help keep things pacey and tight.

Millar’s prose, however, is very good. This author can write! Her dialogue is excellent; it’s well-crafted and naturalistic. There are some nice sinister touches along the way too, indications that Jim may be controlling the situation, effectively keeping certain information hidden from Daisy’s view.

I should play along with her, Jim thought. That was Adam’s advice. God knows, my own approach doesn’t work. (p. 74)

If you’re interested in reading Margaret Millar, then I’d suggest you try either Vanish in an Instant or The Listening Walls – both very good. They’re tighter than Stranger, and more satisfying as a result.

A Stranger in My Grave is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

In this age of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m finding myself drawn to certain types of non-fiction, typically books with a connection to the arts or cultural world. Two recent reads that really stand out on this front are The Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s meditative exploration of loneliness in an urban environment and Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz’s seductive collection of essays.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. (pp. 3–4)

At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation.   

Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, Laing explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. While this is clearly a very personal and well-researched book, the author uses this wealth of information very carefully, weaving it seamlessly into the body of the text in a way that feels thoughtful and engaging.

Laing examines the work of several artists, from the relatively well-known (Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol) to the less familiar (David Wojnarowicz and Henry Drager), each contributing something unique to the scene. Here’s a passage from the chapter on Hopper, surely the foremost visual poet of urban alienation, an artist with the ability to convey the experience with such insight and intensity.

Hopper routinely reproducers in his paintings ‘certain kinds of spaces and spatial experiences common in New York that result from being physically close to others but separated from them by a variety of factors, including movement, structures, windows, walls and light or darkness’. This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (p.17)

At the start of her time in New York, Laing recognises in herself a growing anxiety about acceptance and visibility. On the one hand, she longs to be seen, to be valued and accepted by those around her. On the other, she feels dangerously exposed, wary of being judged by others, particularly when alone. During her investigations, Laing discovers various aspects that together prompt a deeper understanding of her own relationship with the condition. These range from the loneliness of difference and not fitting in – as typified by Andy Warhol’s early life – to loneliness as a longing for integration as well as acceptance. There is also a section on the particular challenges of making meaningful connections with people in the digital age, where smartphones and other devices facilitate non-physical forms of interaction.

In summary, this is a fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Slow Days, Fast Company – The World, The Flesh and L.A by Eve Babitz (1977)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles, the city of her birth. These days she is perhaps best known for her writing, mostly thanks to NYRB Classics and their stylish reissues of her work.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Babitz’s writing with its fluid, naturally cool style. (My post on her marvellous autobiographical novel, Eve’s Hollywood, is here.) Strictly speaking, Slow Days is probably classified as autofiction rather than memoir, but the ten essays/sketches in this excellent book feel very autobiographical.

Babitz grew up in a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky, Eve’s godfather. However, unlike others with this type of background, Babitz doesn’t namedrop for kudos or attention; instead, her writing reflects a long-term relationship with California., snapshots of her bohemian lifestyle within the cultural milieu.

In Slow Days, Babitz conveys an enthralling portrait of Californian life, turning her artistic eye to subjects including men, relationships, fame, friendship, parties, baseball and drugs. She writes of deserts, vineyards, rivers and bars, the essays taking us across the state from Bakersfield to Palm Springs to Emerald Bay, each one portraying a strong sense of place.

Babitz’s style is at once both easy-going and whip-smart, a beguiling mix of the confessional and insightful. She is particularly good on the superficiality of success, the emptiness that can often accompany popularity and fame. Janis Joplin is a touchstone here, particularly as the pair had met just weeks before Joplin’s death.

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have “everything,” not success-type “everything.” I mean, not when the “everything” isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (when even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent). There’s no precedent for women getting their own “everything” and learning that it’s not the answer. Especially when you got fame, money, and love by belting out how sad and lonely and beaten you were. Which is only a darker version of the Hollywood “everything” in which the more vulnerability and ineptness you project onto the screen, the more fame, money and love they load you with. They’ll only give you “everything” if you appear to be totally confused. Which leaves you with very few friends. (p. 54–55)

While Babitz isn’t particularly famous herself at this point, she comes close enough to detect the stench of success, a smell she describes as a blend of ‘burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.’ As Babitz reflects, the truly dreadful thing about success is that it’s built up to be the thing that will make everything alright, when in fact the opposite is often true, leaving loneliness and desolation in its wake.

I’ll finish with a final passage, one that reminds me just how naturally funny Babitz can be – this is a book full of quotable lines and sharp humour

L.A. is loaded with designers, art directors, and representatives from amazing Milanese furniture manufacturers. These people don’t live in apartments like most people, or studios like artists; they live in “spaces.” “How do you like my space?” they ask, showing you some inconceivable, uncozy, anti-Dickens ode to white, chrome and inch-thick glass.

“But where do you sleep?” I wonder, nervous.

“There’s a space up those stairs,” I’m told.

“But those stairs…I mean, those stairs don’t have banisters. Aren’t you afraid of falling head first on your coffee table and wrecking the glass? The glass looks pretty expensive.”

But designers never get looped enough to get blood on their spaces. Red doesn’t go with the white and chrome. (Not that they necessarily have red blood, come to think of it.) (p. 90) 

If you like this quote, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, then it’s probably not for you.

My thanks to NYRB Classics for kindly providing a review copy of the Babitz. The Laing is published by Canongate, personal copy.

The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes

I’ve written before of my fondness for the novels of Dorothy B. Hughes – most notably, her noir classic In a Lonely Place (published in 1947) and her ‘wrong place, wrong time’ thriller The Expendable Man (1963). If anything, The Blackbirder (1943) falls somewhere between the two with its noirish atmosphere and breakneck pace. It’s also very good indeed, a gripping thriller set in the midst of WW2 as a young woman tries to figure out who she can trust in a shadowy, uncertain world.

The novel opens in New York, where Julie Grille (aka Juliet Marlebone) is currently residing following her flight from occupied Paris and her Nazi-sympathiser uncle some three years earlier. In essence, Julie is an illegal immigrant; her entry into the country by way of Cuba, making her status precarious to say the least. Consequently, she has been trying to keep a low profile, possibly until the war is over or the situation settles down.

One night, after a concert, Julie spots an old acquaintance, a man names Maxl whom she knew a little in Paris. Unfortunately for Julie, her attempts to hide from Maxl prove fruitless, and she is drawn into a conversation with him in the lobby of Carnegie Hall. Right from the start, there is a strong sense of tension to the narrative as Maxl coerces Julie into joining him for a drink. Can Julie trust him? It’s hard for her to tell…

The door was there now but she didn’t step through it. Maxl’s yellow pigskin glove restrained her arm.

‘You must have a drink with me. Talk over other days – the good days…’

The walk on this side of 57th Street was crowded. Buses and cabs blocked the street. The pigskin glove swerved her to the corner. Unbelievably, there was an empty cab. She didn’t know if the meeting were accidental. If it were, it would direct suspicion if she refused. No one was suspicious of her in New York. No known person. (p. 3)

At the bar, Julie becomes increasingly convinced that the waiter is observing her. Once again, our protagonist is unsure as to whether she is really being watched or if it’s just her natural sense of suspicion kicking in.

The situation rapidly escalates when Maxl accompanies Julie to her home in a taxi. Moments after being dropped off, Julie finds Maxl’s body on the ground outside her apartment. He has been shot dead, murdered by an unknown assassin in the blink of an eye. Julie knows she will be a suspect in the case, and with her status as an illegal immigrant she can ill afford to get tangled up with the police. As a consequence, Julie searches Maxl’s body for any papers, finds his notebook, and heads off as quickly as she can, leaving all her possessions behind in a flight for freedom. Following a change of clothes and her appearance in general, Julie heads by train to Albuquerque, eventually landing in Santa Fe where she hopes to find the Blackbirder, a man who traffics individuals across the border between the US and Mexico – Mexico being seen as something of a safe haven in light of the developments.

In essence, Maxl’s murder acts as a catalyst in the novel, propelling Julie on an adrenaline-fuelled journey across the US, during which she feels under threat from both the Gestapo and the FBI. It’s a story in which the central protagonist can trust no one, where it remains virtually impossible for her (and the reader) to distinguish clearly between friend and foe.

When Julie meets a man named Blaike on the train to New Mexico – a man who also claims to have known her in Paris – she is unsure of his integrity. Is Blaike a former RAF officer as he claims? Is he a Gestapo agent, looking to use Julie as a way of infiltrating the resistance network? Or does he work for the FBI, an organisation likely to be on the Blackbirder’s trail? Once again, it proves difficult to tell, especially as this individual’s motives seem far from black or white.

There are other shadowy individuals in the mix, too. In Maxl’s notebook, Julie finds a reference to someone named Popin, also located in New Mexico. Could this be the same Popin who helped Julie’s cousin, Fran, a man currently being held in an internment camp after being framed by the Gestapo? Julie is determined to find out. Then there is Schein, a man who knows Julie was with Maxl on the night of his murder – he is, in fact, the waiter from the bar where the pair had their drink. Julie strongly suspects Schein to be a Nazi, so his presence at Popin’s house proves all the more disturbing.

What is so impressive about this novel is the sense of tension Hughes creates, capturing the intense feelings of paranoia and uncertainty that must have been prevalent at that time. The pace rarely lets up as one development after another propels the story forward.

She took another peer backward. No car was following. Their own, piloted by the silent young Indian, moved on and on into the night and the storm. Again she felt that frightening isolation from all of remembered reality. Actually where was she? Where was she going? (p. 93)

The characterisation too is very impressive – particularly Julie, who is portrayed as sharp and quick-witted yet also afraid for her life. She is immensely engaging; someone the reader can relate to in a time of crisis.

Moreover, the novel successfully captures the various nuances at play – in terms of both the characters and the situations they face.

This was why the F.B.I. was searching for the Blackbirder. They couldn’t chance the entrance of dangerous aliens among honest refugees. Nor the escape of dangerous aliens over the same route. Somehow she hadn’t thought of it that way. The Blackbirder to her had been only a shadowy figure of refuge. He was still that but a sinister blackness darkened his shadow. His helping wings could be abused. She shook away the tremor. (p. 146)

In summary, this is an absorbing, fast-paced thriller in which individuals’ motives are never entirely transparent; Ms Hughes will keep the reader guessing right to the very end.  

The Blackbirder is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

The American writer Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story, The Lottery (The New Yorker, 1948), a piece that highlights the cruelty and violence that can stem from mob psychology. Dark Tales (published by Penguin Classics in 2016) is a collection of seventeen of Jackson’s later short stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. The stories themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society.

In The Possibility of Evil – the opening story in the collection – the seemingly upstanding Miss Strangeworth takes it upon herself to be the guardian of decency in her home town, the place where her family has lived for generations. However, our protagonist goes about her mission in the most underhand of ways, sending poison-pen letters to various residents, warning them of the evil that dwells within their midst.

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion. Mr Lewis would never have imagined for a minute that his grandson might be lifting petty cash from the store register if he had not had one of Miss Strangeworth’s letters. Miss Chandler, the librarian, and Linda Stewart’s parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of possible evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent letters to open their eyes. Miss Strangeworth would have been genuinely shocked if there had been anything between Linda Stewart and the Harris boy, but, as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to do it. It was far more sensible for Miss Chandler to wonder what Mr Shelley’s first wife had really died of than to take a chance on not knowing. (pp. 6–7) 

Jackson excels at creating characters and situations that seem perfectly normal and respectable at first sight, only to reveal themselves to be somewhat off-kilter as the narrative unfolds. In What a Thought, one of the most striking pieces in this collection, a seemingly blissful domestic scenario takes an alarming turn when the protagonist, Margaret, is gripped by a sudden urge to lash out at her husband.

She flipped the pages of her book idly; it was not interesting. She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride, or to play gin rummy, he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her, still, after ten years of marriage. An odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it. (p. 94)

In the minutes that follow, Margaret must wrestle with two competing influences over her actions: an insatiable desire to murder her husband, and the notion that she is being ridiculous and irrational. After all, Margaret loves her husband; what on earth would she do without him?

Several of these stories explore themes of confinement and entrapment, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity.

In The Good Wife, an overbearing husband keeps his wife locked away in her bedroom following a suspected affair – something his wife denies. Moreover, the husband opens and reads all his wife’s letters, frequently replying to them on his partner’s behalf.

In The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith, a newlywed becomes the subject of curiosity amongst her new neighbours following her recent marriage. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Mr Smith may be hiding something sinister from his past. Do the neighbours warn Mrs Smith of the speculation surrounding her husband or abandon the young woman to a potentially dangerous fate? You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out.

Running through these stories, there is a sense that Jackson is highlighting the relatively limited roles woman are allowed to play in society – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. In The Beautiful Stranger, a dutiful wife is worried about the return of her husband from a business trip, fearing his dissatisfaction and anger following an earlier quarrel. However, the man who appears is not John, the woman’s husband, but a beautiful stranger full of warmth and generosity. Like many others in the collection, this is a creepy little story, underscored with a sense of eeriness and unease.

In other stories – often those containing elements of fantasy – characters appear to be trapped in houses (The Visit), paintings (The Story We Used to Tell) or recurring scenarios (Paranoia). In the latter, a man becomes increasingly convinced he is being followed by a stranger in a light-coloured hat on the way home from work – a journey of some importance as it is his wife’s birthday. As the action plays out, Jackson ratchets up the sense of unease, culminating in a twist that I didn’t see coming. This is an unnerving story with a sting in its tail, a very effective little piece.

The Visit is another highlight in the collection – quite Gothic in style, it features a young ingenue with a curious mind, a large house replete with an imposing tower, and at least one character who may or may not be a ghost. (As is the case with many of the best short stories, Jackson leaves enough scope for the reader to bring their own sense of imagination into play; and The Visit is a great example of where this can work so effectively.)

Before wrapping up, there are two final stories I would like to mention. In The Bus, an elderly woman is abandoned at night in the middle of nowhere by a bus driver who claims to have arrived at her stop. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for our protagonist, she is picked up by a couple of passing truckers and dropped at a nearby inn. What starts as the journey from hell turns even more sinister once the woman steps into the building – it appears oddly familiar in many ways, almost like a remodelled version of her old home, complete with recognisable touches. This is another nightmarish story where the central character seems locked in a loop, desperately seeking the safety of home.

Also deeply unsettling is The Summer House, in which a couple decide to stay at their holiday home beyond the traditional end of season, much to the surprise of the locals. All too soon, the couple find themselves running out of vital supplies – food, kerosene, a functioning car – while the permanent residents seem very reluctant to help. Once again, Jackson proves herself adept at developing a growing sense of anxiety as the story plays out.

Overall, Dark Tales is a very good collection of stories, one that showcases Jackson’s eye for the twisted and off-kilter in seemingly everyday situations. A deliciously disquieting read for a dark winter’s night.

The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blunderer is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky is a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. The narrative has a somewhat fractured feel, reflecting the emotional state of its main protagonists, Port and Kit Moresby, an American couple of the like found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, particularly Tender is the Night.

The Moresbys are unmoored, both physically and emotionally, travelling south through North Africa with little purpose or ultimate destination in mind. Eschewing America and Europe in the aftermath of the war, the couple have come to Africa as an escape, hoping to find some kind of meaning in an ever-changing world.

There is a sense that Port views himself as an intrepid traveller, keen to explore the mysteries and remoteness of an unfamiliar land. He is perpetually restless, continually searching for something, although quite what that something is remains rather unclear.

Kit, for her part, is acutely aware of the emotional distance between herself and Port, their marriage having crumbled to dust in the preceding years. Brittle and highly strung by nature, Kit lives a life governed by superstitions, a series of omens that dictate her mood and ability to function. There are times when the feeling of doom surrounding Kit becomes so strong that it results in a form of stasis, almost as if she is experiencing a strange kind of paralysis.

While the Moresbys share much in the way of feelings and emotions, they are divided by their outlooks on life, a situation typified by the following passage.

It made her [Kit] sad to realize that in spite of their so often having the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were almost diametrically opposed. […]

And now for so long there had been no love, no possibility of it. But in spite of her willingness to become whatever he wanted her to become, she could not change that much: the terror was always there inside her ready to take command. It was useless to pretend otherwise. And just as she was unable to shake off the dread that was always with her, he was unable to break out of the cage into which he had shut himself, the cage he had built to long ago to save himself from love. (p. 98-99)

Accompanying the Moresbys on this trip is their friend, Tunner, a somewhat opportunistic chap who appears to be tagging along for the ride. While Tunner has designs on Kit, his motives are ultimately shallow and devoid of any meaningful emotion. In truth, Tunner’s advances are driven predominantly by vanity and a sense of pity for the beautiful Kit. During the course of the journey, both of the Moresbys are unfaithful in rather casual and ultimately unfulfilling ways.

As the party travels south, the unrelenting heat of the desert and rather basic living conditions begin to take their toll, particularly on Port and Kit. There are long, uncomfortable train journeys and equally gruelling bus rides through barren landscapes and rough terrain. The hotels become dirtier and increasingly rancid and with each successive move. Consequently, the sense of unease becomes more palpable by the day, adding to the brooding atmosphere at play. There are disagreements between the couple with Port disappearing into the night, wandering the streets and alleyways of the shadowy towns where he encounters prostitutes and their handlers, both eager to exploit a foreign traveller. Meanwhile Kit longs for the culture and civilisation of the Mediterranean, an environment where her suitcase full of evening gowns might actually get an airing. Instead, she must submit to weevil-infested soup and rabbit stew with added fur, just two of the many hazards to be navigated by the Moresbys during their stay.

While all this might sound rather bleak, there are some moments of light relief here and there – for the reader, at least. Turning up again and again during the journey – much to the Moresbys’ annoyance – are the Lyles, a middle-aged Australian woman and her grown-up son, Eric. While Mrs Lyle is snobbish, obnoxious and insufferable, her son, Eric, is possibly even more unpleasant – a spoiled, untrustworthy brat, intent on tapping Port for some sort of loan. Their presence in the narrative adds an element of farce, accentuating the rather desperate nature of the Moresbys’ plight.

The Sheltering Sky is a potent, terrifying book, one that leads the reader into the heart of darkness, an existential journey in which any form of reconciliation or atonement remains tantalisingly out of reach.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Bowles vividly captures the inner lives of his central characters as the unforgiving nature of the environment permeates their souls. The hallucinatory feel of Port’s night-time ramblings, as he lies ill with a virulent fever, is brilliantly portrayed – as is Kit’s own terrifying descent into darkness in the days and weeks that follow, an experience that leaves her utterly broken and shell-shocked, possibly for good.

Before her eyes was the violent blue sky – nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralysed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed. (p. 336)

Bowles’ prose is stunning, both lucid and evocative. I love this description of Kit from the beginning of the book, one that captures something of her disturbed mindset through the intensity of her eyes.

Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained. (p. 6-7)

The sense of place and suffocating atmosphere are also powerfully imagined, rich in authenticity and detail, qualities that undoubtedly reflect Bowles’ own experiences of travelling through Morocco and Algeria during the period in question.

Boussif was a completely modern town, laid out in large square blocks, with the market in the middle. The unpaved streets, lined for the most part with box-shaped one-storey buildings, were filled with a rich red mud. A steady procession of men and sheep moved through the principal thoroughfare towards the market, the men walking with the hoods of their burnouses drawn up over their heads against the sun’s fierce attack. There was not a tree to be seen anywhere. At the ends of the transversal streets the bare waste-land sloped slowly upward to the base of the mountains, which were raw, savage rock without vegetation. (p. 89-90)

This is a fateful story of fractured souls, a couple who cannot meaningfully connect with one another, failing to realise the depth of their feelings until it is far too late. It is a tense, emotionally-draining read, brilliantly rendered by an imaginative writer. I can understand why it is considered a 20th-century classic.

The Sheltering Sky is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.