Posts Tagged ‘murder’

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.

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

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.

Sometimes I read something and I think, Why? Why did I just read that? How was that necessary to life?

Eliot’s account of Thomas à Becket’s murder is like that. It’s an abstract expressionist play which first casts Becket as a Christ figure, then explains and absolves his murderers. Weird, as a drama by T. S. Eliot absolutely ought to be.

One of the things I appreciate about it is the reminder that people who aspire to become martyrs have the worst type of pride. Kings only want power and love while they’re alive; saints are revered for the rest of time. As long as the Church lives, so do its saints. Even films that have been approved by the Catholic Church make their saints seem horribly unpleasant people, too beatific to have any empathy for or usefulness in daily life. No one likes the sort of people who make them feel inferior.

Becket started as a young libertine who made friends with the future king. He became chancellor when his friend came to power, and the two of them actually ruled pretty well for a while. But when the king made Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury, the new priest dove into his new role feet first. He submitted to the Pope with Catholic grace, and defended the Church against all encroachers, including his former friend the king. Only one thing to do: kill him.

Sudden religion does not seem to benefit people very much. It certainly doesn’t increase the love among their less religious friends. New adherents often get twisted away from their true natures, and become more adamantly twisted than those who were raised in faith. I guess a slow growth of faith doesn’t hurt people too badly, but snap conversion seems harmful. I mean, look at St Paul. He argued with the disciples who had actually known Jesus and spent the rest of his life traveling, preaching his own version of the faith and screwing things around. Some people blame him for all the excesses of Christianity over the last two thousand years.

Becket’s martyrdom was actually sort of effective, if all he had wanted was fame. Two hundred years later, Chaucer was writing about traveling to Canterbury to get a supposedly authentic vial of his blood to ward off illness. Eight hundred years later, Eliot’s writing a drama about it. There was even a film (not of Eliot’s play, of Anouilh’s, but on the same subject). And here I am, 846 years afterward, trying to find meaning in a twelfth-century murder.

I’m not sure if Eliot comes to any conclusions or not. Perhaps it’s that even good people have to be killed sometimes, though as morals go, that one is rather awful. Maybe that’s the point; murder is inherently immoral, even if it’s initiated and condoned by the state. A person can always justify his actions, but that doesn’t always make them right or understandable.

I must confess, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I’m always a little behind the times. Some of my students are reading this with their regular English teacher, though, so I read it in case I need to field any additional questions. It’s very well written; I’m not really clear on how creative nonfiction developed as a genre, but this seems like it should be one of the monoliths of twentieth-century American nonfiction. (You know the monoliths; monoliths of British literature before 1750 are Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, for example).

This is the story of how two paroled criminals broke into the Clutter family home and killed them all, followed by the longer story of how they were caught and eventually executed. Sorry to give away the ending, but these are historical events. It’s all on public record.

The first part, telling about the day before the killings, has a similar feel to it as Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain.” It’s almost like fate impelled these two groups of people to interact in predetermined ways. I say almost, because things could easily have happened differently. When I was teaching composition at a community college, I’d ask the students to write a short autobiography. They came from all over the country, and several from other countries, to end up in our rural Southern town, studying various things for various reasons, but the cumulative effect of reading all those stories was that I started thinking of the town as a black hole that sucked people in from all over the place and refused to let them leave. It’s not true, of that or any other town, but when we know the end of the story, all the steps before it seem preordained instead of governed by human choices. Capote focuses on the seemingly fatalistic nature of the story, perhaps as a way to exculpate the murderers:

But the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger – with, rather, a measure of sympathy – for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another. Dewey’s sympathy, however, was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy. He hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged – hanged back to back.

And Perry in particular, as in this comment on his family:

Strong character, high courage, hard work – it seemed that none of these were determining factors in the fates of Tex John’s children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense.

If this book has a protagonist, it is Perry Smith. Capote lends him the most sympathy, perhaps because he needs it the most, being the man who pulled the trigger. Or maybe he just liked him the most; it could be a gay thing.

Homosexuality is, in my opinion, one of the most significant issues in the book. What can you say about it in print in 1965? How did people live that in 1959? Growing up in the rural South, I was taught to see the 1950s as an unspoiled Eden, where people were safe, prosperous, and happy. This apparent paradise came at a cost, though, and I only learned the price of conformity later. It seems to me that if he were alive today, Perry would be gay. Think of the evidence in the book: he claims that the queens just won’t leave him alone, yet the homosexuals I know would only continue bothering him if he liked it, or were really good at it. He was a sailor and a soldier, two male-only environments at the time, and later he got sent to prison, another opportunity to be with only men. He looks down on men whom he perceives as unable to control their sexual desires, which usually seems to mean they are up front about their interest in women. One of Perry’s most prized possessions is a scrapbook filled with pictures of bodybuilders that he’s taken from magazines. He and his former cellmate call each other romantic endearments, and while I’m not entirely up on the Bro Code of the 1950s, I know that straight men today don’t call each other those names. Perry’s most intense friendship is with someone he says is queer, and the idea of seeing him again makes Perry break his parole and return to Kansas.

And what is the life of a gay man in the 1950s? One of constant evasion. He hides in periodic, short-lived relationships with women, but he hates himself for what he sees as an insuperable character flaw, an evil that cannot be eradicated. In liberal areas, large cities and artist colonies, for example, he might find some support and friends he can be out with, and some gay men even found necessarily secret communities and lifelong lovers. But for someone who’s poor and rural, like Perry, these comforts are permanently out of reach. As my friends like to say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Why is it that when I really like or identify with someone in fiction, that person always turns out to be either evil or crazy? Like in the new Point Break, which is full of bearded ecowarriors with foreign accents (aka, sexy as all get-out), but it makes them the bad guys, and they all die. Perry is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the end of the book, which makes me have to remind myself that I’m a mental illness hypochondriac and not actually a paranoid schizophrenic. I spent most of the book thinking he was the good one, and even after I know he was the murderer I still have the most sympathy for him. Perry feels like the world is out to get him, which makes perfect sense when you consider his experience with the world, but I think his most important problem is that he doesn’t have an emotional response to the suffering of others. I don’t remember if this makes him a psychopath or a sociopath, but certainly it’s something pathological. And it’s something I clearly don’t have; I feel other people’s pain rather more than other people admit to.

Perry’s partner, Dick, is not much like him. He’s much more integrated into his family and has fewer homosexual tendencies. Capote implies that he’s using sex to manipulate Perry, and whether he’s using sex or not, Dick does see Perry as a tool instead of a person. After Perry is released on parole, Dick’s new cellmate tells him about the Clutter family. Dick hatches the plot of robbing and murdering the whole family, but he needs Perry to put it into action because he thinks Perry will be able to kill them if Dick can’t. Dick is a pedophile, so his real goal is to rape the sixteen-year-old daughter, but Perry stops him (another reason I like him – I am also opposed to raping teenage girls, or anyone else. Rape is bad). There are two versions of the story, so we don’t really know whether Perry killed all four Clutters or only the two male family members, so it is possible that Dick didn’t have what it takes to kill after all. I suppose an inability to kill is not really a negative trait, but if you’re going to make this type of plan, you should be willing to do it. Don’t ask someone else to do something that you’re not ready to do yourself.

I suppose the victims are sort of important too, but the book isn’t really about them (once they’re in the ground, they’re out of the story). The Clutters exemplify the Edenic sort of life I was brought up to assume was characteristic of the time. Hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious, they are also kind and helpful. Nancy Clutter is precisely the type of girl the culture tells us everyone should want to be, be with, or both. Her little brother is always building or inventing something, and her mentally ill mother keeps out of the way of the successes of the rest of the family. One of the things that Dick doesn’t understand about families like the Clutters is that not all of their prosperity is proven by actual cash on hand. On a farm, success is shown by the system’s ability to perpetuate itself, so wealth is recognized as goods that the farm can use, such as grain for the animals or preserved food for the humans. To make matters worse, Herb Clutter is famous for never using cash; he writes checks for everything. Yes, Dick is an expert at writing bad checks, but he doesn’t think through all of this. He doesn’t have enough information to get what he wants: to rape the girl, and then to commit the murders and robbery without getting caught.

I’m actually more interested in their community. People are more forgiving than I imagine people today to be, or maybe people are more forgiving individually than in a group. For example, Nancy’s best friend:

Anyway, I don’t much care who did it. Somehow it seems beside the point. My friend is gone. Knowing who killed her isn’t going to bring her back. What else matters?

A local pastor:

I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.

Their peer group:

The aristocracy of Finney County had snubbed the trial. “It doesn’t do,” announced the wife of one rich rancher, to seem curious about that sort of thing.”

And their governor:

The late George Docking, Governor of Kansas from 1957 through 1960, was responsible for this hiatus [in carrying out executions], for he was unreservedly opposed to the death penalty (“I just don’t like killing people”).

And yet, when confronted with the jury, Perry thinks

Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom.

Why? It could be the paranoia, I suppose. But I think that it’s because people are there for the show. The trial is entertainment, as the justice system has always been. Think of the broadsheet heroes that Foucault talks about in Discipline and Punish; they boast and swagger all the way to the gallows, with the crowd laughing, cheering, jeering, and hissing. Maybe they only care insofar as it affects them, and they’d feel personally betrayed if the murderers went free. If you start a mystery story, you want to know the end; you want closure – you want to feel that the world works in clearly understandable ways, and that every problem has a solution. But (circling back), in some ways, now that The People have replaced the monarch, that feeling of betrayal is justified. But I think this bit about the post office might be an accurate representation of their attitude in general:

The people of Holcomb speak of their post office as “the Federal Building,” which seems rather too substantial a title to confer on a drafty and dusty shed. The ceiling leaks, the floor boards wobble, the mailboxes won’t shut, the light bulbs are broken, the clock has stopped. “Yes, it’s a disgrace,” agrees the caustic, somewhat original, and entirely imposing lady who presides over this litter. “But the stamps work, don’t they? Anyhow, what do I care? Back here in my part is real cozy. I’ve got my rocker, and a nice wood stove, and a coffee pot, and plenty to read.”

And, there’s this bit from Perry’s friend Willie-Jay:

What could be more conventional than a housewife with three children, who is “dedicated” to her family???? What could be more natural than that she would resent an unconventional person.

In some ways, it feels like Capote is the unconventional person resented by the conventional masses; Perry has that in common with him, and I feel something similar about the ex, who defines herself as a stay-at-home mom who is not only dedicated but devoted to her children. She wasn’t that interested in being a housewife; before the kids were born, we were content to ignore conventional gender roles, but afterward, it was all skirts and submission and OccMan has to go get three jobs because manliness means voluntary misery.

One of Perry’s dreams, toward the end, seems just like an episode of The Twilight Zone; I’d love to see it onscreen.

His favorite old theatrical fantasy, the one in which he thought of himself as “Perry O’Parsons, The One-Man Symphony,” returned in the guise of a recurrent dream. The dream’s geographical center was a Las Vegas night club where, wearing a white top hat and a white tuxedo, he strutted about a spotlighted stage playing in turn a harmonica, a guitar, a banjo, drums, sang “You Are My Sunshine,” and tap-danced up a short flight of gold-painted prop steps; at the top, standing on a platform, he took a bow. There was no applause, none, and yet thousands of patrons packed the vast and gaudy room – a strange audience, mostly men and mostly Negroes. Staring at them, the perspiring entertainer at last understood their silence, for suddenly he knew that these were phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted – and in the same instant he realized that he was there to join them, that the gold-painted steps had led to a scaffold, that the platform on which he stood was opening beneath him. His top hat tumbled; urinating and defecating, Perry O’Parsons entered eternity.

It’s not a bad way to go. Singing, dancing, playing music . . . I’m still drawn to an audience, even after all these years away from a stage. I hope that in his last moments Perry found some peace, recovered some self-regard. I think that Capote’s nonfiction novel, though it came after his death, gives Perry the acclaim that he always wanted.

CAPOTE

I just rewatched the film about the writing of In Cold Blood, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. I must say, the view we get from the film is completely different than the one in the book. [Apparently there was another Capote film called Infamous, with more star power but less adherence to historical fact.] First, Perry looks as white as they come instead of having the coloring of his full-blooded Native American mother. Then, there’s the way Capote is a self-promoting manipulator who will do anything to get his next novel written, even getting someone killed. In the book, he’s so self-effacing that you don’t notice the author/narrator’s personality at all. But there again, I may be projecting myself onto him. I took one of those facebook quizzes a month or two ago, How Evil Are You?, and I discovered that in most ways, I’m not very evil at all. However. Apparently I have a manipulative/Machiavellian side, and it’s not so much a side as it is two-thirds of my character. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t befriend and possibly encourage some amorous contact with someone just so that I could write a book about the worst thing he’s ever done, and then try to conceal the fact from him until he’s been executed for it. I’d also like to think that Truman Capote didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. I have no idea how much truth is in the film, though for that matter I don’t know how much truth is in Capote’s book. All I can say is, these two texts present the same period of time very differently. And it’s likely that something terrible happened either to or within Truman Capote, because he lived for another twenty years and didn’t finish another book. Yes, think of DeLillo’s Mao II, but also think of watching Perry get executed, knowing that it’s the perfect ending to your book and also knowing that you really care for this person and want him to live. A breakdown makes sense.

This book is sort of like an Alfred Hitchcock mashup, so of course I loved it. It’s a mystery that has echoes of Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest. The author worked in cinema in the 1960s, so the influence can’t be an accident. You may not see his pen name on the screen, though; some of his work was done under his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi. I’m impressed with the fact that he gave himself a sobriquet that is an anagram of his real name.

It’s easy to kill, it’s easy to die. Everything is easy. Except, maybe, to console for a minute the child who is still trapped inside of us, who has not grown up, who never will grow up, and who never stops calling for help.

Dany Longo is a nice girl, pretty, shy, like a Joan Fontaine character. She borrows her employer’s Thunderbird while he’s on vacation and goes on a trip of her own, but as she gets away from Paris, people keep claiming to have seen her the day before. Shopkeepers, garage mechanics, hotel concierges, everyone saw her passing along yesterday, even though she knows that she’s never been down here before. It’s all very Gothic and unsettling, but she’s not so weak as people think she is. At one point a guy steals the car after seducing her, so she tracks him down and within two hours she’s in a different city taking the car back. There is a (very) handsome truck driver who helps her with some of this, but like a good Gothic book/film, most of the suspense comes from the protagonist’s response to circumstances that are revealed through ordinary people/minor characters.

She was living, fully awake, in a dream. Neither a good dream nor a bad dream; an ordinary dream, the kind she sometimes had and forgot afterwards. But this time she was not going to wake up in her room. She was already awake. She was living in someone else’s dream.

Do such things exist? To take a step indistinguishable from all the other steps you have taken in your life and, without realizing it, cross a frontier of reality; to remain yourself, alive and wide awake, but in the nocturnal dream of, let’s say, the girl next to you in the dormitory? And to keep on going in the certainty that you’ll never leave it again, that you are the prisoner of a world modeled on the real one but totally absurd, a world which is monstrous because it may vanish at any moment into your friend’s brain, and you along with it?

As in dreams, in which motives change as you go along, she no longer knew why she was on a road driving through the night. You walk into a room where – click – a little picture shows a fishing port, but Mama Supe is there, you came to confess to her that you have betrayed Anita and you can’t find the words to explain it to her because it is obscene, and you hit Mama Supe again and again, but she has already turned into another old woman whom you came to see about your white coat, and so forth. What was clearest was that she was supposed to get to a hotel she had already been to, before they could tell a policeman that she had never been there. Or the other way around. They say that when you’re crazy it is other people who seem to be crazy. Well, that must be it. She was crazy.

And of course, it’s hard to see who is significant and who isn’t, who is the murderer and who is mad. Maybe the Mama Supe (Mother Superior to strangers) who raised Dany and now lives as the voice in her head is really malevolent and not the part of her subconscious that protects her from the suicidal urges she feels sometimes. It’s hard to tell, until you get to the end and Dany figures it all out.

Of course, there are also moments of humor. It’s a delightful book.

The people of Marseille are very nice. First of all, they don’t insult you any more than most people do if you try to run over them, but they also take the trouble to look at your license plate. When they see that you come from Paris they tell themselves that obviously they must not expect too much of you, they tap their foreheads with their index finger, but without ill will, simply because it’s the thing to do. If at that moment you announce, “I’m lost, I don’t understand anything about your rotten city, the stoplights are out to get me, I’m looking for the freight yard in Saint-Lazare, does it even exist?” they take pity, they blame the good Mother for your misfortune, and a dozen of them crowd around to give you information. Turn right, then left, and when you get to the square with the Arc de Triomphe, watch out for the streetcars, they’ll run you down, my cousin’s wife’s sister stopped one of them and now it is she who has stopped in the family plot, and since she’s at the Canet cemetery it’s too far to bring flowers.

I guess people are pretty much the same everywhere. Even I once caught myself giving directions that included as a landmark that house on the corner that used to be painted chartreuse with yellow trim. Oh you know which one I mean, the guy only painted his house like that because his friend bet him fifty bucks he wouldn’t do it and leave it that color for a year. The joke was on the friend, because he lived happily in the chartreuse house for years. I think it’s white with dark trim now, but it may still have one green side. Then you turn again at the house that always has the dogs lying in the sun on the porch roof. You know the one.

If you’re looking for a great little mystery from the pre-cell phone age, this is it. Of course, there are some triggers: date rape seems to have been very common in France in the 1960s, and once Dany escaped only to leave her friend Anita in her apartment with two horny guys. She feels guilty about it, but she’s also dealing with post-abortion guilt. An important thread to the narrative is Dany’s journey toward valuing herself. At the beginning she’s so weighted by guilt that she’s murmuring “Kill me” in her sleep, and by the end she’s winning the fight to save her life and her sanity from the people who threaten her. She doesn’t have a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant to save her (sexy truck driver isn’t around all the time), so she learns to do it herself. Not just how to save herself, but that her life is worth saving.

Life is full of pressures from within and without, and we have to learn to choose ourselves. For some of us, that’s a hard lesson. And we keep having to repeat it. But our happiness won’t come on its own; we have to learn to value it, to work for it, and to enjoy it when it comes.

One of the delights of reading du Maurier novels is that she knows her tradition. Rebecca, her most famous novel, is rather similar to Jane Eyre. My Cousin Rachel is close to Wilkie Collins’s Basil. Her earliest novel, The Loving Spirit, uses some ideas from Wuthering Heights. She doesn’t copy directly from the writers of the past; she uses enough material to remind us of our Gothic past, then transforms it for the twentieth century. The Flight of the Falcon is a great example of this. She pulls from the Ann Radcliffe novels of the 1790s, but changes the theme and mood at the end.

Following Mrs Radcliffe, we open in a benign situation: Armino Fabbio is a tour guide, hauling a bunch of American and British tourists around Rome (notice that we are distanced from our readers in either place or time; the time is contemporary, but our story is safely tucked away in central Italy), fielding questions, keeping the guests happy, dodging passes made by lonely men willing to pay for his time. Then he starts experiencing some cognitive dissonance, hearing a homeless woman on the street wailing his childhood nickname, wondering what connection is being formed between the present and the distant past.

Also following Mrs Radcliffe, Fabbio picks up a false sense of guilt. That guy who dropped a ten thousand lire tip trying to get him in bed? Fabbio gives the fortune to that homeless woman, and she’s killed that night. Some of his guests want to go to the police, but he doesn’t tell them about the money. When they show up later, asking for him, he assumes that he’s being accused and runs. He hasn’t done anything wrong, but he doesn’t trust the law enforcement, so he panics anyway.

An essential early step, of course, is to trap the heroine in an ancient castle or otherwise big scary house. [Sorry, Radcliffe always went with heroines – Fabbio is in a traditionally feminine role.] To get there, Fabbio leaves Rome and works his way back home, to the little village in the north where he grew up. His father had been in charge of the former duke’s estate, giving tours and maintaining the property and household goods. The father and older brother had died in World War II, and he and his mother left town. The castle is still there waiting for him, complete with a legend or ghost story about the evil man who used to live there.

The Falcon was duke five hundred years ago. He was a terrible leader; his courtiers and he grew ever more decadent, ever more violent, dismaying and upsetting the villagers who supported them. The legend is that one day the Falcon got so crazy that he climbed up to the highest tower and jumped off, something similar to the temptation of Christ only he actually did jump, proving that angels don’t protect people from stubbing their toes. The historical records are a little different: the way they tell the story of the flight, he hitched up eighteen horses and galloped through the town square on a busy market day, killing several supposedly worthless peasants. The people rioted, pulling him from his chariot, and killing him en masse. It’s not du Maurier’s style to scare us with ghosts, though; we need a real villain.

Armino’s brother didn’t actually die in the war. When his plane was shot down, he started working for the resistance. Unlike his living family, he came home after the war. While Armino was getting a degree in European languages and becoming a tour guide, Aldo Donati was also getting a couple of degrees and taking over his father’s former position. The estate is now owned by the university, so Donati has a sort of professorship. Things seem less rigidly codified in the 1960s. Every year he puts on a bit of a pageant with the university students, and the whole town gets a big kick out of it. This year he’s recreating the flight of the Falcon. He takes advantage of the existing rivalry between the modern economics majors and the more traditional arts students. He whips up the emotions with a series of pranks against leading faculty members; one of them even involves rumours of rape. I was shocked by just how casually everyone takes the supposed rape of the leading matron of the women’s dormitory. Even an educated woman, a university professor, thinks it’s funny and exactly what she deserves for being so strict. She isn’t actually raped, but she is tied up and passes out, and the boys let her think she was violated.

Aldo makes some good speeches, though:

It is essential that every volunteer should believe in the part he plays, should think himself into his creation. This year you will be the courtiers at the Falcon’s palace. You will be that small body of dedicated men. You, the Arts students of the university, will, by your very nature, become the élite. You are so already. For this you are here in Ruffano, for this you have your reason for living. Yet you are a minority in the university, your ranks are small, the immense numbers swamping the other Faculties are barbarians and goths and vandals who, like the merchants of five hundred years ago, understand nothing of art, nothing of beauty. They would, if they had the power, destroy all the treasures we possess in the apartments here, perhaps even pull down the palace itself, and put in its stead . . . what? Factories, offices, banks, commercial houses, not to give employment and an easier life to the peasant who lives no better now than he did five centuries ago, but to enrich themselves, to better themselves, to own more cars, more television sets, more biscuit-box villas on the Adriatic, thus breeding ever greater discontent, poverty and misery.

And, to the other group of students:

If they could get rid of me they would. Just as they would get rid of you, the whole fifteen hundred of you, if that’s what you muster – I haven’t the figures before me, but it’s near enough. Why do they want to get rid of you? Because they’re frightened. The old are always frightened of the young, but you represent a threat to their whole way of life. Any one of you who passes out of this university with a degree in Commerce and Economics is a potential millionaire, and, more than that, he will have a chance of helping to run the economy not only of this country but of Europe, possibly the world. You are the masters, my young friends, and everyone knows it. That’s why you’re hated. Hatred is bred of fear, and your contemporaries who haven’t your brains and your technical knowledge and your enthusiasm for life as it will and must be lived tomorrow are frightened of you. Frightened blue! No schoolteacher, no grubby lawyer, no chicken-livered so-called poet or painter – and that’s what the students of the other faculties are trying to become – will stand a chance beside you. The future’s yours, and don’t let any half-baked set of decaying professors and their pathetic dwindling band of followers stand in your way. Ruffano is for the living. Not the dead.

He’s playing both sides, working the crowds into a frenzy, with things getting complicated by the little family drama of his baby brother, supposed dead, appearing in town just before his moment of triumph. Family is very important to Aldo; du Maurier extends this to all Italians. I’m not saying it is or it isn’t, but it seems like a stereotype. The emotionally violent Italian is also a stereotype that du Maurier perpetuates, much as she defies their supposed tendency to physical violence. This book starts as a murder mystery, but all the stuff between Armino and Aldo distracts from the murder for a while. The book is short enough, though, that she keeps things moving along fairly quickly. It starts a little slow, but it doesn’t stay at that pace.

I’ve been running into my own problems with past and present. Five years ago, I lived in a little place with the ex-wife and kids, and we stored stuff with her parents and my parents and friends and left little pieces of ourselves scattered about the South. Then we split up and I left the country for a while. I got a storage unit and gathered stuff from my parents’ places – after coming out of the closet, the less I rely on them the better – so everything was either in the shed or with me. Now I’ve cleared out the storage shed and everything I own is finally in one place. I’m surrounded by things I hadn’t thought of in so long I had forgotten I owned them, as well as recent acquisitions. It’s like all the pieces of my life are jumbled up together, a temporal pastiche, gifts from Saudi students and the brother who disowned me, postcards from the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Paris last spring and letters from when I was a missionary in Brazil when I was nineteen, and then there’s the painting of a teddy bear that my mom did the night before I was born, the blanket I slept on as a baby, the blanket I carried around for far too long as a child, the dragon blanket I got as a teenager, and the afghan I made last week. Possessions used to belong to times and places, and now they’re all here and now. It’s even more disorienting than facebook. Despite some internal confusion, it’s good for me. It’s a way of demonstrating that I’m finding peace with all the different people I have been. I am still all the people I have been, and I don’t hate any of them. I’m learning to be healthy.

The Flight of the Falcon starts a bit like a regular murder mystery, but du Maurier follows an older model. It may not be what you expect, du Maurier shows more faith in humanity than most mystery writers, but it’s still satisfying. She writes beautifully as ever, though this novel is more plot-driven and less nature-loving than some of her other novels, significantly less nature-obsessed than Radcliffe herself. It’s good, fairly typical of this stage of her career. Read it, it’s nice.