Posts Tagged ‘detective’

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

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I’ve been having trouble with the books I’ve been reading lately. I just don’t have much to say about them. Even if I sit down to write a simple plot summary, I feel absolutely uninspired. I think this one’s going to get me out of the rut, so let’s give it a go.

At this point in his career, Hammett had been publishing short stories for six or seven years. Many of them featured a private investigator with the Continental Detective Agency, San Francisco branch. The Continental Op is never named, but he’s been played on the screen twice, by James Coburn and Christopher Lloyd. Though I’m familiar with them, Coburn from Charade and Lloyd from Back to the Future and The Addams Family, I read the entire book in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. For some reason, every hard-boiled detective I read turns into Bogart, even though I’ve seen more films with William Powell in that role (my favorite is Star of Midnight, with Ginger Rogers). Red Harvest is Hammett’s first novel. Like The Dain Curse, published later the same year and also featuring the Continental Op, it was published serially, which gives it a choppy feel, like Cranford or The Pickwick Papers. But this one is not as choppy as Dain. There’s a nice stop at the end of the first section, but after that it flows pretty well.

The Op never meets his client. He’s supposed to meet a man named Donald Willsson, but Willsson dies before they can meet. Willsson’s father Old Elihu then hires the Op to investigate the death, but the Op tricks him into paying him to clean up the town. You see, Elihu Willsson used to own Personville (aka Poisonville), but then he couldn’t hang onto it, so he brought in some organized crime to keep everything in his own pocket. But the gangsters preferred things in their own pockets, so he lost control. At the time of the story, there are three principal gangs, those belonging to Whisper Thaler, Lew Yard, and Pete the Finn. Then, of course, there’s the police, but Chief Noonan is as bad as the other three. Cleaning up a town like this takes a lot of killing, and this book has a chapter titled “The Seventeenth Murder,” and that’s not the end of the book (or of the murdering). It’s a bit like watching Game of Thrones; if there’s a character in the book, he’s probably dead by the end.

This is 1929, and the writing is more commercial than artistic, so comments on sexuality are kept to a minimum, but some things got me thinking.

On the edge of this congregation I stopped beside a square-set man in rumpled gray clothes. His face was grayish too, even the thick lips, though he wasn’t much older than thirty. His face was broad, thick-featured and intelligent. For color he depended on a red windsor tie that blossomed over his gray flannel shirt.

You see, back when I was a student, I read an article on The Sound and the Fury that claimed that in the late 1920s red neckties were a signal for gay men to recognize each other. The author makes a convincing case for the circus guy that Quentin runs off with, but I haven’t really seen any evidence of it outside of the one book. And then the Op:

I put out a finger and touched a loose end of his tie. “Mean anything? Or just wearing it?”

It turns out that the guy is a leader of the IWW, so communist instead of homosexual. But still, it got me paying attention to some of the other descriptions.

I looked past the beefy man and saw Thaler’s profile. It was young, dark and small, with pretty features as regular as if they had been cut by a die.

“He’s cute,” I said.

Another description of Thaler:

A smallish young man in three shades of brown crossed the street ahead of me. His dark profile was pretty.

He just keeps reminding us that Thaler is pretty:

There were five of us. Thaler sat down and lit a cigarette, a small dark young man with a face that was pretty in a chorusman way until you took another look at the thin hard mouth. An angular blond kid of no more than twenty in tweeds sprawled on his back on a couch and blew cigarette smoke at the ceiling. Another boy, as blond and as young, but not so angular, was busy straightening his scarlet tie, smoothing his yellow hair. A thin-faced man of thirty with little or no chin under a wide loose mouth wandered up and down the room looking bored and humming Rosy Cheeks.

Which sounds more like the opening scene of a gay porno than the eye of the storm in a shootout. Maybe the red tie means something after all.

And another guy:

At the First National Bank I got hold of an assistant cashier named Albury, a nice-looking blond youngster of twenty-five or so.

And him again:

The flush in his pleasant young face deepened and he spoke hesitantly.

So there are all of these handsome men running around, all orbiting around a single female star:

She was an inch or two taller than I, which made her about five feet eight. She had a broad-shouldered, full-breasted, round-hipped body and big muscular legs. The hand she gave me was soft, warm, strong. Her face was the face of a girl of twenty-five already showing signs of wear. Little lines crossed the corners of her big ripe mouth. Fainter lines were beginning to make nets around her thick-lashed eyes. They were large eyes, blue and a bit blood-shot.

Her coarse hair – brown – needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking.

This was the Dinah Brand who took her pick of Poisonville’s men, according to what I had heard.

The Op’s description of Miss Brand is lavish, detailed, voluptuous even, more so than that of any of the men, but what is missing? There is no appraisal. The Op doesn’t tell us she’s beautiful, or pretty, or cute, or any such thing. He scans her for clues, not for attraction. You could read some scenes as implying that he sleeps with her, but there are equivalent private drinks with Albury and other men. I’m not saying that either the Op or Hammett was gay; I’m just saying that it’s a possibility, and that bisexuality was a lot more common before we put a name to it.

This is not a book for people who grow attached to their characters, nor is it a book for people who are uncomfortable with books about people dying left and right. People die, sometimes because the protagonist shoots them. Them’s the breaks, kid. On the other hand, Dashiell Hammett is a monolith of detective fiction, and this, his first novel, is on a few lists of “Best American Novels.” It’s good, gripping, and despite all the death, Hammett’s prose seems to live. There is something vital and compelling about his work. It’s hard to let go of one of his stories. Fortunately, they’re not that long. Short and suspenseful; good adjectives for detective fiction. It’s what makes him one of the best.

O M G. Of all the books in the Simon & Schuster catalog, why, why would you put a reading group guide in the back of this one? It is, first and foremost, a comic novel. We read it because it’s funny, not because it’s thought-provoking. Christopher Moore is my favourite bit of fluff, but then, since I read Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf for fun, I may have skewed definitions. Also, you’d think a house like S&S would be more careful about typos. This one is full of them.

I first read one of Moore’s vampire books around the time that I first read The Waves, so it’s feeling a bit like Old Home Week around here. I kind of need that because I’m in such an upheaval. Two weeks ago I was looking for work, and now I’ve moved halfway across the country and just finished my first week at my new job. I’m going to look at apartments this afternoon, and if that turns out well, I’ll move in on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve also registered on a dating site for the first time in my life, and it’s convinced me that I’m much more attractive than I had ever thought. Not that men are seeking me out, but I’ve seen some of their pictures. I am just not that inbred.

So, the book.

They might have been the Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. If each of them had been a trained professional, a gunfighter with a character flaw, or a broken warrior with a past – or if each had a secret reason for joining a suicide mission, an antihero’s sense of justice, and a burning desire to put things right – they might have become an elite fighting unit whose resourcefulness and courage would lead them to victory over those who would oppose or oppress. But the fact was, they were a disorganized bunch of perpetual adolescents, untrained and unprepared for anything but throwing stock and having fun: the Animals.

We begin by meeting the Emperor of San Francisco, a homeless senior citizen with two dogs. He’s loved and considered crazy by all. He sees a vampire and spends the rest of the book wandering through the city, helping people and hunting evil. He’s based on a real person; there was a homeless man who proclaimed himself Emperor of San Francisco, I think in the late nineteenth century. He even sent diplomatic letters to the heads of actual states. When he died, his funeral was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Moore imagines him forward into the mid-1990s, but I don’t think the Emperor would mind. Despite the fact that we see him pissing in alleys and sleeping on benches, dumpster-diving for dinner, he’s always portrayed as having this incredible sense of dignity and self-worth. He may need to bathe more frequently, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is the only royalty this city will ever have.

And then Jody gets turned into a vampire. She’s a petite redhead with a soulless job at Transamerica who lives with a too-good-for-all-this boyfriend named Kurt. He’s not important. She’s rather attractive but still has low self-esteem. Becoming a vampire is actually really good for her, because it helps her get past a number of mental blocks that had been preventing her from living her life.

Not long ago she would have been terrified if she’d found herself in the Tenderloin at night. She couldn’t even remember coming down here during the day. Where had that fear gone? What had happened to her that she could face off with a vampire, bite off his fingers, and carry a dead body up a flight of stairs and shove it under the bed without even a flinch? Where was the fear and loathing? She didn’t miss it, she just wondered what had happened to it.

It wasn’t as if she were without fear. She was afraid of daylight, afraid of the police discovering her, and of Tommy rejecting her and leaving her alone. New fears and familiar fears, but there was nothing in the dark that frightened her, not the future, not even the old vampire – and she knew now, having tasted his blood, that he was old, very old. She saw him as an enemy, and her mind casted for strategies to defeat him, but she was not really afraid of him anymore: curious, but not afraid.

In some ways, turning into a vampire for her is like getting divorced was for me. Once the worst thing you can imagine happens to you, you’ve nothing left to be frightened of. I’m not afraid of being alone, or of being really really poor, or of being hungry for a few months. I didn’t transition as quickly as she does, but the end result is similar.

And so we meet Tommy. He’s a sweet kid from the Midwest, probably not far from where I’ve just moved to, who wants to become a writer.

Finally Harley said, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, you can’t stay here.”

“Pardon?” Tommy said.

“You got to go to a city and starve. I don’t know a Kafka from a nuance, but I know that if you’re going to be a writer, you got to starve. You won’t be any damn good if you don’t starve.”

“I don’t know, Harley,” Tom Senior said, not sure that he liked the idea of his skinny son starving.

“Who bowled a three hundred last Wednesday, Tom?”

“You did.”

“And I say the boy’s got to go to the city and starve.”

Tom Flood looked at Tommy as if the boy were standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. “You sure about this writer thing, son?”

Tommy nodded.

“Can I make you a sandwich?”

So, while visions of Kerouac dance in his head, Tommy drives to San Francisco to starve. He ends up sharing a room with five illegal immigrants from China who start leaving him gifts in the hope that he’ll marry them and they can get a green card. He gets a job supervising the night crew at the local Safeway, and meets Jody. She needs someone to handle daytime business transactions, like picking up her last paycheck and finding a new apartment, and he needs someone to rescue him from The Five Wongs. It’s a match made in . . . well, not heaven, but they could each do a lot worse (Kurt, one of the Wongs).

Tommy’s vampire bible is The Vampire Lestat, and apparently there are more subtle references to Anne Rice, including a chapter titled A Nod to The Queen of the Damned, but I’ve never read any of her books so I can’t comment. I haven’t seen any of the movies either. I once read the first chapter of The Witching Hour, but I was still caught up in being the perfect Christian husband and father, and I could tell that if I kept reading this book it’d take over my life and I’d be sucked into the world of horror fiction. I’ve got space in my life now; I suppose I could give her a try. The thing with a character in a book using another book as his vampire bible is that every author changes the rules. Count Dracula could go outside during the day; he was just weakened at sunrise and sunset. True Blood vampires can stay awake, but they start bleeding inconveniently and burst into flame in the sun. Jody burns in the sun, but she dies suddenly whenever the sun rises, and pops awake just as suddenly when it sets. She misses the speech about how to be a vampire, primarily because Elijah isn’t all protective of his progeny like the True Blood guys. He’s intensely lonely, so every now and again he turns someone into a vampire and watches her suffer and die over the first few days or weeks. Jody has to prove that she’s going to survive before he’ll teach her anything. Instead, he keeps leaving dead homeless people outside her apartment.

The murders, of course, lead to the police. Rivera and Cavuto are two of my favourite fictional detectives. Rivera is a little Latin guy, smart, good at his job. Cavuto is big, Italian, and gay; he overcompensates for that last one by being really aggressive. That whole hypermacho closeted thing. They do their job, making trouble for Tommy and Jody, then eventually helping.

The Animals are the stocking crew at Safeway. Most of them are not fully realized as characters – just a quick detail about skin colour or type of hair and a single personality quirk – but that’s what sequels are for. Their leader is Simon Wheeler, a loud cowboy type who can’t read, so probably isn’t qualified for any other sort of work. Simon is kind of like Tommy’s dad’s friend Harley, the Alpha who needs a Beta sidekick. Moore explores the psychology of the Beta male more explicitly in A Dirty Job, but you can see the traces of it in most of his books. Another sterling beta example is the protagonist of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. By the end of the book, though, Tommy doesn’t need Simon’s protection or guidance. He’s still a nineteen-year-old idiot (sorry, folks, it comes with the age. I was one too), but he can stand on his own feet.

It can be easy to disregard subtitles, but I think this one is important. This is a comic novel, yes, the cover art tells us that much. It’s also a vampire story, with some of those tropes thrown in. But the important thing here is that this is a love story. It’s about Tommy and Jody meeting and falling in love. They have some issues that make it complicated, but this is essentially a romantic comedy.

Jody thought, I guess not everything changed when I changed. Without realizing how she got there, Jody found herself at Macy’s in Union Square. It was as if some instinctual navigator, activated by conflict with men, had guided her there. A dozen times in the past she had found herself here, arriving with a purse full of tear-smeared Kleenex and a handful of credit cards tilted toward their limit. It was a common, and very human, response. She spotted other women doing the same thing: flipping through racks, testing fabrics, checking prices, fighting back tears and anger, and actually believing salespeople who told them that they looked stunning.

Jody wondered if department stores knew what percentage of their profits came from domestic unrest. As she passed a display of indecently expensive cosmetics, she spotted a sign that read: “Mélange Youth Cream – Because he’ll never understand why you’re worth it.” Yep, they knew. The righteous and the wronged shall find solace in a sale at Macy’s.

One other important thing to mention, though. We’re in San Francisco in the mid-90s. There are gay men everywhere, selling makeup, waiting tables, and dying of AIDS. It’s just that most of them are not main characters. And one of them proves that Moore, as well as making me laugh all the way through the book, can also bring me to tears.

His name was Philip. His friends called him Philly. He was twenty-three. He had grown up in Georgia and had run away to the City when he was sixteen so he wouldn’t have to pretend to be something he was not. He had run away to the City to find love. After the one-night stands with rich older men, after the bars and the bathhouses, after finding out that he wasn’t a freak, that there were other people just like him, after the last of the confusion and shame had settled like red Georgia dust, he’d found love.

He’d lived with his lover in a studio in the Castro discrict. And in that studio, sitting on the edge of a rented hospital bed, he had filled a syringe with morphine and injected it into his lover and held his hand while he died. Later, he cleared away the bed pans and the IV stand and the machine that he used to suck the fluid out of his lover’s lungs and he threw them in the trash. The doctor said to hold on to them – that he would need them.

They buried Philly’s lover in the morning and they took the embroidered square of fabric that was draped on the casket and folded it and handed it to him like the flag to a war widow. He got to keep it for a while before it was added to the quilt. He had it in his pocket now.

His hair was gone from the chemotherapy. His lungs hurt, and his feet hurt; the sarcomas that spotted his body were worst on his feet and his face. His joints ached and he couldn’t keep his food down, but he could still walk. So he walked.

He walked up Polk Street, head down, at four in the morning, because he could. He could still walk.

When he reached the doorway of a Russian restaurant, Jody stepped out in front of him and he stopped and looked at her.

Somewhere, way down deep, he found that there was a smile left. “Are you the Angel of Death?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s good to see you,” Philly said.

She held her arms out to him.