Tag Archives: US

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.

The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

Along with many other readers, I came to this book – first published in 1966 – via the recent film adaptation by Sofia Coppola. (There’s a good review of it here by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.) The novel itself is a brooding, tempestuous slice of Southern Gothic, a mood that is mirrored in Coppola’s adaptation, complete with its evocative Virginia setting. Even though the film had already shaped much of the visual imagery in my mind, it was still interesting to read Cullinan’s source novel to gain a greater insight into the characters. If the narrative is of interest, I would recommend both – although you might want to read the book first before watching the film.

Beguiled 1

For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, the story is set in a girls’ boarding school in Virginia in the midst of the American Civil War. As a consequence of the unrest, only five pupils remain at the school, along with the forthright headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, her somewhat submissive sister, Harriet, and their perceptive cook/‘help’, Mattie. Miss Martha runs a tight, morally upstanding ship, aiming to educate her young ladies in both mind and spirit before they are released into the wider world.

As the novel opens, the school’s sheltered routine is interrupted when one of its pupils, Amelia Dabney, discovers a wounded Union soldier – Corporal John McBurney – while out picking mushrooms in the woods. In an effort to assist Corporal McBurney, Amelia helps him back to the school where he is taken in and treated by Miss Martha and the girls. At first, there is much discussion amongst the residents as to whether McBurney should be handed over to the Confederates; however, it is soon agreed that he should stay there covertly, at least until his severely injured leg has had time to heal. In essence, this seems to be the most charitable thing to do.

Corporal McBurney is a fascinating character, full of tall tales and Irish blarney which he uses to charm his carers, many of whom are beguiled by their charge. Almost immediately, his presence triggers a range of different sensations amongst the residents, unleashing points of conflict, sexual tensions and long-repressed emotions within the claustrophobic environment of the school. McBurney is clearly an unsettling presence in the house, one who delights in spreading his affections far and wide as he proceeds to play off one resident against another.

[Martha:] It was hard to dislike him. He had such an open and friendly look about him, that even when you knew for a positive fact that there was guile behind his innocence, it was difficult to think of it as anything but a boyish trick.

And the guile was there, no doubt about it. Whatever Corporal John McBurney said, you had to ask yourself – is this the way Corporal McBurney really feels? – or is this the way he wants you to think he feels? – or is he even more clever than you suppose and is allowing the edges of the trick to show, hoping that when you see it, it will make you feel superior to him in cleverness. And you’re really not. Or at least he thinks you’re not. Because what he really wants is your misjudgement of him.

How deep to the layers of deception go, I wondered one day but not that second day. (pp.80-81)

The story is told in retrospective from the point of view of each female character in the book, with the chapters alternating from one person’s perspective to the next. While this might sound a little confusing or repetitive, Cullinan handles it very well, moving the action forward a little with each change of the baton, also adding new dimensions and interpretations along the way. (Interestingly, we never hear directly from McBurney himself, although his dialogue and interactions with the residents are relayed through the other narratives.)

Miss Martha is particularly clearly defined as a character, clashing with McBurney on several occasions as her position of authority in the house is destabilised by his presence. It soon becomes clear that McBurney is in no hurry to leave his place of shelter, fearing reprisals from both sides in the ongoing war. Most of the girls are well differentiated from one another too, particularly the rather troubled Edwina Morrow, the provocative Alicia Simms, and the reclusive, nature-loving Amelia.

Right from the start there are hints of significant trouble to come following McBurney’s arrival; however, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything more about the plot at this stage, save to say that it becomes steadily more compelling as the narrative unfolds. (Some readers might find the pacing a little slow, so if you prefer fast-moving plots this probably isn’t the book for you.)

[Edwina:] I felt that he was attracted to me. […]

I can’t deny that I was flattered by it. I also can’t deny that I was attracted to him. […]

I felt at first that he had understood, as no one else around here ever had, the rather troubled and perhaps troublesome person that I am. I am not always the easiest person in the world to get along with, but I did feel that Corporal McBurney might possibly be someone who – even if he did not know all the reasons for my bitterness – would accept me the way I am with maybe the hope that affection might improve me. It might well have, you know. It really might have done so. (p.159)

The Beguiled is a thoroughly absorbing novel of deceits, secrets, sexuality and power. There’s plenty of dark melodrama here, the psychological nuances of which are nicely captured through Cullinan’s expressive prose. Definitely recommended, even if you’ve already seen the recent film. In fact, there’s a whole interracial dynamic going on in the novel which doesn’t appear to feature in Coppola’s adaptation – so it might be of interest for that alone.

[Note: The novel was also filmed in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the leading roles. Coppola’s version (made in 2017) stars Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. Both are worth watching, although my vote goes to the more recent female-centric adaptation for its evocative mood.]

The Beguiled is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Literary Beginnings – Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton and Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

Something a little different from me today. It can be interesting to follow the development of a favourite writer to track how their work evolves over the years. In this post I’m looking at the debut novels of two masters of their craft, Patrick Hamilton and Truman Capote, delving into their literary beginnings to see how they started their careers.

Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton (1925)

A fascinating insight into how Hamilton’s work was set to develop over the years, this debut novel offers early glimpses of many of the writer’s trademark tropes – more specifically, men who become infatuated with unsuitable women; forthright comic characters complete with various eccentricities; the challenges of writing, acting and other artistic pursuits; the seedy atmosphere of Earl’s Court with its smoky bars and pubs; the lure of prostitutes and heavy drinking: and of course, the loneliness of tawdry boarding-houses and hotels. It’s a lovable little novel – rather amusing and optimistic compared to Hamilton’s other work, but characteristically strong on dialogue too.

Central to the story is eighteen-year-old Anthony Forster, a romantic, idealistic young man embarking on the first phase of his adult life in London. (Everything up to this point has merely been a prologue to this ‘true’ beginning, a curtain raiser to the main event.) With his aspirations of becoming a successful writer and poet, Anthony is in danger of daydreaming his time away, forever resolving to make a proper start on *Life* next Monday Morning.

Anthony was quite sure, really, that he would be successful in obtaining a very good journalistic position. Also he had a certain fear in the obtaining of a good journalistic position. Wemyss had frightened him with stories of frantic interviewing, reporting, and putting papers to bed. There seemed in journalism a quite unfamous, distressfully energetic note of competition. Not that Anthony did not relish a bitter fight for fame. But he did not like this way of setting about it. A far nicer way of doing it would be to starve somewhere, in a garret, writing immortal things, and being free. Even been found dead one morning in the red, new sunlight. (pp.70-71)

Very little happens in the way of plot in this novel; instead, the story focuses on experiences as Anthony searches for a meaningful purpose in life. Naturally, there is love along the way, especially when our protagonist meets Diane, a rather shallow, impetuous young girl who happens to be staying at the same Kensington hotel (the Fauconberg). Amid the heady emotions of youth, Anthony’s mood fluctuates from rushes of wild passion to periods of abject disillusionment, particularly as Diane is so capricious in nature.

In time, Anthony gets a small part in a touring play via a fellow boarder at the Fauconberg, the forthright Mr Brayne. The production takes Anthony to a range of different locations including Sheffield, Manchester and Torquay, highlighting the isolated nature of a life lived in temporary accommodation complete with all its drab associations.

Anthony had lunch at his combined room. Steak piping hot, hot plate, greasy potatoes and cabbage. And after this he lay on his bed and slept. Not sleep exactly. A worried, giddy, dim consciousness of his own cold legs, the warm pillow, the milkman’s cart outside, an occasional little shriek from an opening gate, the rapping of quick heels on the pavement, coming from afar and fading abruptly around a corner… (p.158)

While the hopeful ending might feel a little sentimental for some Hamilton enthusiasts, I loved it for its warmth and idealism.

In summary, this is a charming novel for fans of this writer’s work. Probably not the best one to try if you’re a newbie – The Slaves of Solitude or Hangover Square would be my recommendations there.

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (written in the 1940s, published posthumously in 2005)

This vivid, eloquent novel – Capote’s first – revolves around seventeen-year-old Grady, the beautiful, headstrong daughter of the privileged McNeil family. In many ways, it is a coming-of-age story as Grady’s sexuality is exposed in the blistering heat of a New York summer.

Her everyway hair was like a rusty chrysanthemum, petals of it loosely falling on her forehead, and her eyes, so startlingly set in her fine unpolished face, caught with wit and green aliveness all atmosphere. (p. 51)

When the McNeils set sail for France, Grady is left alone in her parents’ luxurious apartment for the season, determined to make the most of her new-found freedom. The tensions between Grady and her mother, Lucy, are apparent from the start. While Lucy has plans for her daughter’s future introduction to society, Grady herself has other ideas, preferring instead to throw herself into an impassioned love affair with Clyde, a Jewish parking attendant from Brooklyn.

With his rough background and lack of prospects, Clyde is most definitely not the type of man the McNeils would approve of, in spite of his earlier stint in the forces. Closer to their social circle is Peter Bell, a charming, sophisticated young chap who has known Grady since childhood. To complicate matters further, Peter is in love with Grady, a notion that has only just begun to dawn on the young girl herself.

As one might expect, the story plays out in striking fashion, building to a startling denouement that leaves an indelible mark. The contrast between the social classes is a key theme here, as is the impetuous nature of youth, a time when everything seems carefree, untethered and lacking in permanence. For a debut novel, it’s very impressive, hinting at the greatness of Capote’s output in the years to follow. The prose, in particular, is beautiful and lyrical, perfectly capturing the passion of Grady’s emotions alongside a vivid sense of place.

She would stay all afternoon and sometimes until it was dark. But it was never dark there: the lights that had been running all day grew yellow at dusk, white at night, and the faces, those dream-trapped faces, revealed their most to her then. Anonymity was part of the pleasure, but while she was no longer Grady McNeil, she did not know who it was that replaced her, and the tallest fires of her excitement burned with a fuel she could not name. (pp. 24-25)

I thoroughly enjoyed this early glimpse into Capote’s world, a novel that elegantly explores how the choices we make in the inexperience of adolescence may have profoundly damaging consequences in the weeks and months that follow.

Summer Crossing is published by Penguin, Monday Morning by Abacus; personal copies.