Sep 122014
 
"How very losable your identity was, Caroline thought, lulled and drowsy. Stripped of your social security card, your charge plates, that old, old reminder from your dentist, you became nobody, or anyone at all."

Caroline Emmett has been sent to a rest home in Wicklow, Massachusetts upon orders from her doctor. There she will recuperate from pneumonia and mental duress following her discovery of her husband's dallying with a woman half his age. Walking in the countryside she finds to be more therapeutic than any treatment from her nurses and doctors at the rest home. One evening she takes a detour from her regular path and climbs up a hill. She witnesses the brutal beating of a woman at the hands of a bulky figure wearing a man's raincoat. Or so she thinks. He shines his flashlight on her leaving it there for several minutes and Caroline flees. Bad weather -- rain and wind -- force her to seek shelter before she can return to her room. She manages to gain entry to the home of the Olivers where she tells her story while they listen with a mixture of disbelief and curiosity. She'll remain here for the next twelve hours while the killer in the raincoat tracks her down.

This is familiar territory to be sure -- the eyewitness to a crime who seems to have imagined everything. Of course no body is found where Caroline said she saw the attack. But don't expect the story to fall into the trap of a well-worn formula and an obvious unfolding of events. Enter Carmichael, the editor and owner of the local newspaper, with a nose for news and a healthy dose of common sense. He is the only one who believes Caroline. With the permission of a lackadaisical and skeptical policeman named Trunz the newsman heads out to the crime site to do some real work. He quickly finds two sets of footprints in the mud and a woman's patent leather shoe. Size 9. Something bad has happened he is sure. And he begins his dogged search for the woman with one shoe. Or her dead body.

Ursula Curtiss was the daughter of Golden Age mystery writer and police procedural pioneer Helen Reilly. She came to writing fiction late in her life unlike her prolific mother, but seemed to have inherited her mother's talent for tight plotting, lively and original characters, and well rendered settings. She surpassed in mother with an enviable talent not too easily mastered in crime fiction.  Curtiss' mastery in nearly all her books is her skill in creating mounting dread and terror. In The Deadly Climate (1954) she creates a household of suspicion and paranoia. Caroline seems to have found a haven from the mysterious attacker but no one, not even the practical minded and forthright teenage daughter Lydia Oliver, is really on her side. Over the course of a single night the killer stalks Caroline, makes two attempts on her life, disables the only car available to the Olivers and turns their would-be refuge into one of peril. "It was infinitely worse...with the shades drawn," Curtiss writes of Caroline's racing thoughts. "Like breaking uncontrollably into a run, or giving way to tears, this hiding from the night let down the frail barrier of pretense."  Dread builds to the point where even a rambler rose scratching up against a makeshift cardboard window pane gives rise to fearful glances from the characters and a chill or two from the reader.

The world Curtiss creates is also one of arbitrary happenings, oddities and the just plain weird. While Caroline is attempting to gain allies in the Oliver family two strangers interrupt the night's already chaotic events. A young man appears selling storm windows and a middle-aged woman comes collecting donations for the Red Cross. Coincidence or devilish design? Everyone who makes an entrance in the story is questionable in their apparent innocent motives. Who sells storm windows during a storm? Only the most opportunistic of salesman, right? Is he even a salesman? Why does a woman go ringing doorbells in the rain asking for charitable donations? And why does Lydia insist that the woman is not Mrs. Vermilya as she claims she is?

Carmichael's investigation of the victim is the highlight of the story. Here Curtiss shows she knows how to spin a good detective novel. We watch him turn to the newspaper clippings in the morgue and ask for help from his reporter colleagues as far away as Pennsylvania. He begins to put together a jigsaw puzzle of the past that sheds light on a crime involving an illegal abortion operation and a suspicious suicide. Not that it's all fun and games for Carmichael. One of the more interesting moments is the unease and discomfort he experiences while rummaging through the victim's belongings in her hotel room. His discovery that she mended all her clothes including a wispy and intimately sheer nightgown allows him a moment of sadness mixed with shame. He sees her as a lonely woman who cared too much for her clothes but clearly had no money to spend on herself.

This book so skillful in its building of suspense and tension not surprisingly proved tempting for scriptwriters. It was adapted and filmed for television twice in Curtiss' lifetime. Once for the 1950s anthology program Climax! with what sounds like a great cast -- Nina Foch as Caroline, Kevin McCarthy as Carmichael and Estelle Winwood as Mrs. Oliver.  It was done again in 1968 for the British anthology series Detective about which I know nothing.

The Deadly Climate in the words of Anthony Boucher is "a throat-clutcher in the absolute, tightly and economically written." A better summation I could not devise myself. Copies of the book are readily available in both hardcover and paperback (four reprint paperback editions at my count) in the used book market. I'm sure her books will be found in your local library. Curtiss was quite popular in her day and was the kind of writer that librarians loved to keep on their shelves. None of her books, to my knowledge, are currently in print. More's the pity for lovers of excellent crime fiction.
 Posted by at 6:34 pm
Aug 152014
 
 "Two forces. Interesting speculation indeed. But it had taken a small boy in search of a dog collar to identify the forces and uncover a crime."

Virginia Wales, a waitress in a hash joint in a California-Mexico border town, was a good time girl. Always looking for a laugh, an adventure, one of those "live life to the fullest" women who almost always land themselves in trouble at the expense of a good time. One night someone entered Virginia's hovel of an apartment and bludgeoned her to death with an award she won for jitterbug dancing back in 1937. An ugly crime, and an undeserving end for a woman who never really hurt anyone. But as Mitch Gorman says it was "[a] casual murder that didn't matter because it happened somewhere every night."

Helen Nielsen explores this tawdry, seemingly opportunistic, murder in Obit Delayed (1952), a story that begins as a domestic drama involving a lover's triangle gone wrong. It's a fine example of the detective novel as a character study of the victim. We get to know Virginia Wales, her troubling life masked by the veneer of an extroverted happy-go-lucky persona. She is still hung up on ex-husband and keeps turning to him for help. But as the story progresses Mitch Gorman, a nice example of that detective novel mainstay the reporter sleuth, discovers that it's not Virginia's life that is the key to the solution of the murder.

Mitch Gorman is fascinated by the case. He uncovers a possible connection between Virginia's murder and a drug dealing gangster named Vince Costro. Dave Singer, Costro's lieutenant, had a relationship with the waitress but he is extremely upset over her death belying what he claims was only a casual friendship. Mitch thinks Singer knows who and why Virginia was killed but he's not talking to anyone. When another of Singer's girls, the garrulous gossipy lounge entertainer Rita Royale, turns up dead Mitch is certain the two women got in over their heads in some very nasty business. Business that Costro didn't want revealed. With the addition of these gangster characters the story enters new territory.

Deceptively familiar in its basic plot Obit Delayed is nevertheless a gripping, well told novel of non-discriminatory violence. Nielsen does an admirable job of describing how senseless murder, the fodder of tabloid journalism, can turn even the most cynical and skeptical reporter into a Nemesis of the hapless victim. Aided by society columnist Miss Atterbury (aka "the Duchess"), a smart-alecky colleague who would've been played by Eve Arden had this been a movie, Gorman devotes all his energy to turning a routine police case that might easily lay ignored on a sergeant's desk into a personal campaign for justice.

Multiple copies of the US first edition (Ives Washburn, 1952) and the Dell paperback published two years later will turn up in any internet book search and almost all copies are nicely affordable. The UK edition (Gollancz, 1953) is rather scarce. An eBook version available from Prologue Books. If you are inclined to reading and collecting digital books I suggest you check out their website for a wide variety of vintage crime fiction. Why not start by acquainting yourself with Helen Nielsen's work? You're sure to come back for more after sampling this one.

This book serves as part of Rich Westwood's 1952 Crime Novel Reading Challenge for August and another book knocked off my Bingo card for Bev Hansen's year long Golden Age Reading Challenge.
 Posted by at 3:13 pm
May 272014
 
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
by Joël Dicker
translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-3122668-3
643 pp. $18.00
May 27, 2014

It may be unfair of me but all the while during the first 100+ pages of Joël Dicker's mammoth The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair I kept hearing the strains of the Twin Peaks TV theme music.  And I pictured the beaming face of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer each time Nola Kellergan appears in the many flashback sequences.  Both Dicker's novel and the cult TV show of the 90s tell the story of a missing girl, the discovery of her body, and the slow reveal of who killed her. But as the labyrinthine story unfolds the Twin Peaks similarities soon dissipate and give way to something more subtle and subversive and -- dare I say it -- impressive.

Unwittingly Joël Dicker, a young Swiss novelist, has unleashed a Frankenstein's monster with the publication of this book. Part whodunit, part satire of the publishing industry, and part writer's handbook it has essentially become a work of fiction come to life.  In Dicker's novel a young writer Marcus Goldman becomes a sensation in the literary world when he publishes a book called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  (Oh yes, this is a also a work of metafiction.)  The book is an instant sensation and he becomes the darling of the media. So too has Dicker whose novel first published in Europe has become a mega-hit resulting in interview after interview and travel all over the globe to talk about this unique example of reality mirroring fiction. So much travel, in fact, that he has temporarily made his home in London to make air travel simpler rather than remaining at home in Geneva where direct air flights are at a minimum. Already an international bestseller for the past year Dicker's novel has at last been translated into English and is being simultaneously released in the UK and the US today, May 27.

Not only has Dicker become the flavor of the month in crime fiction, his book (only his sophomore effort no less) has won three European literary awards including the prestigious Grand Prix du Roman from the Academie Française. Has Dicker really written a mini masterpiece, whether it be mainstream or genre fiction? Well, not really. But it is an awful lot of fun trying to figure out both the mystery of the ridiculously complex plot as well as trying to understand the reason for all the hype attached to this new writer's book.

At its core ...Harry Quebert Affair is a literary detective novel. Quebert, a literary sensation himself in the world of the novel, was Goldman's college writing instructor, mentor and eventually a good friend. While visiting Quebert for some inspiration during Goldman's severe writer's block crisis a horrible crime is literally unearthed and Quebert is thrust into the limelight as prime suspect. The body of Nola Kellergan, a teenage girl who went missing back in 1975, is unearthed in a hidden grave located on the grounds of Quebert's New Hampshire retreat. Goldman is determined to clear the name of his beloved friend and writing mentor and for the next 600+ pages (!) we follow his dogged investigation into the past of Somerset, New Hampshire, a typical New England village with more than its fair share of dirty secrets.

Joël Dicker ©Jeremy Spierer
But Dicker is not satisfied only with telling a crime story with as many twists as the Kumba roller coaster in Busch Gardens. He has cast the novel in the framework of a handbook for writers complete with boxing metaphors that might cause Philip Roth to smirk in its obvious homage. Oddly, the book chapters are also numbered in reverse numerical order (a gimmick that utterly eludes me) with each chapter preceded by sage advice from Harry to Marcus as to how a rookie should proceed in writing the Great American Novel. Problem is the advice is thoroughly hackneyed. The obvious advice and words of so-called wisdom have been given to novice writers for centuries. Why do we need to read all this? Well, Dicker has a clever and subversive reason for couching this novel as a sort of handbook for writers. It turns out to be only one aspect of a multitude of ironies culminating in the true meaning of the title itself.

I could use this review to write about the tangled plotlines, the shifts in viewpoint, the dizzying twists that keep changing how Nola is perceived or how the relationship between Marcus and Harry undergoes rifts and changes more harmful than good. But that's what all the other reviewers are writing about. What really ought to be marvelled at is what Dicker does with the genre itself. The novel is an consummate example of the ultimate challenge between reader and mystery writer, a sure temptation for readers who loved to devour the old-fashioned puzzlers of the Golden Age. Once upon a time we read mysteries to be baffled, to be fooled and to have a clever storyteller pull the rug out from under us and leave us gasping for breath or laughing in admiration for having been outsmarted. Dicker mixes both hoary old clichés (anonymous messages, secret diaries) with contemporary thriller standbys (grisly crimes, psychosexual abnormalities, a hint of tawdriness) and comes up with a crackerjack tale that both entertains and manipulates the reader.

The world Dicker creates is wholly artificial as in the best of Golden Age detective novels. We are in an entirely fanciful world where writers are superstar celebrities instantly recognizable from their DJ photos. Everyone knows Marcus Goldman, everyone has read his book. Even Harry and his mega bestseller The Origin of Evil (ironically a love story) receives the same hyperbolic attention. This is a wholly mythologized world of the novelist, something that was barely a reality when celebrity authors regularly appeared on 1970s talk shows. Like the world of John Dickson Carr where ancient estates are haunted by ghosts and criminals commit elaborate crimes in baroquely sealed rooms meant to bamboozle and confound the police so too has Dicker created an entirely artificial world where novelists are hero worshiped as demigods and treated with both awe and sycophancy usually reserved for rock stars or professional athletes. It's a wish fulfillment kind of writing to be sure and yet it is done so with the primary purpose of misleading the reader just as the great Golden Age writers did.

There are faults and irritations as well. The simplistic Confucian-like writer's advice Quebert gives his student, the not so clever boxing metaphors, redundancies in the narrative when Dicker feels it necessary to recap the plot, a crucial character whose poorly reconstructed face after a horrific beating leaves him with a speech impediment that the translator renders in cutesy but more often offensive phonetics all began to wear down the reader's patience. Also Dicker has an obsession with characters vomiting that began to really annoy me. Everyone in the book seemed to have a weak stomach and would throw up at the slightest sign of stress not just when they saw a dead body.

However, when Dicker lays off his nausea motif, discards the gimmick of the novel within the novel (which is often ham-handed), and decides to focus on Nola's perplexing and contradictory life and her mysterious death the novel is utterly engaging. His plot pyrotechnics are his strength. They are audacious and preposterous and yet perfectly suited for his ultimate aim. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is one of the best examples of a retro style crime novel whose only goal is to fool the reader with a gasp inducing finale. Joël Dicker succeeds in pulling off one of the best literary deceptions in years and ought to be applauded for the sheer chutzpah of his 600+ page magic trick.
 Posted by at 4:36 am
May 162014
 
Two teenage boys skipping out on their English class on the last day of school come across a horrible sight while walking through Braxham Wood -- a skeleton half buried in a pile of leaves and wearing only one woman's shoe. They immediately report their grisly discovery to their teacher Tim Brennan who then calls Sergeant Hawkes and soon the entire village of Braxham Parva is caught up in a murder investigation.  Who was this woman? How long had she been dead? Why had no one reported her missing?

Miss Fenny (1957) was later retitled in its US publication The Woman in the Woods and is better known under that second title. The first title refers to the seemingly imaginary friend of a bedridden crippled boy named Daniel. The two of them become the most important characters in the book. Daniel is a petulant, demanding eight year-old, the only son of Nicole Sherratt who spends much of the book fretting over her son and pining for her dead husband. Brennan has been seeing Nicole for several months now and has developed a bond with Daniel. He tells the boy stories, creates nightly drawings for him, and listens to Daniel's fanciful tales of Miss Fenny, trying to win over Nicole in the process but frustrated repeatedly by her obsessive thoughts of her dead husband.

Little do Brennan and Nicole realize that Miss Fenny is far from imaginary. It doesn't take long for the reader to recognize that Daniel at one time befriended the woman whose skeleton was found in the woods. She was indeed murdered and the identity of her killer does not remain hidden for long. The killer also has daily visits with Daniel and when he keeps hearing the stories of Miss Fenny and the facts that Daniel unwittingly reveals in the conversations he has had with her the killer fears he may be found out. The story then becomes not so much a murder investigation but a suspense tale. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf the reader keeps hoping that the adults will finally see the truth in what Daniel has to say about Miss Fenny. Until they do the entire village is at the mercy of a killer who will not stop at more murder to keep his one crime secret.

Blackstock seems to me to be the missing link in the British school of suspense writing bridging the post-war detective novel with the modern day crime or suspense novel. Prior to her appearance on the mystery scene it was the American women writers like Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and Usula Curtiss who were pioneering domestic suspense and malice domestic novels. Blackstock brings to mind modern writers like her fellow countrywomen Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters in the use of sardonic humor and the creation of loathsome characters ripe for satiric attacks like the haughty racist Lady Grale, the prattling hypochondriac Miss Brooks, and the vile physician Dr. Heslop more interested in using the contents of his doctor's bag to harm than cure. Among the British women crime writers I can think only of Blackstock's contemporaries Shelley Smith and Joan Fleming who were writing similar tales of menace and murder at the time of the publication of Miss Fenny. What Blackstock does in Miss Fenny, however, is rather remarkable. She has written a story in which not just a violent crime but death itself has an inexorable affect on an entire village. And she does so with the macabre effects of a modern Poe.

Nicole is truly haunted by her husband, almost as if she is in thrall to his ghost. Brennan cannot compete for her love as she is more in love with a memory than anyone alive, including her son. Yet he too finds himself haunted. There is a chilling scene in which Brennan realizes that the skeleton belongs to a woman he held, caressed, and kissed. Linking the corrupted skeleton to a living being and then connecting that to a memory of a tender sexual encounter is something straight out of Poe.

Dr. Heslop, the cruel physician caring for Daniel; Rose, the doctor's simple-minded mistress and office assistant; Matthew Plumtree, an effete writer battling between cowardice and heroism are also key players in the drama and all have had their past encounters with the woman Daniel has come to know as Miss Fenny. When the identity of the skeleton finally comes to light and Daniel's stories are seen to be truth and not fiction it is only a matter of time before the cowards will make bold confrontations and the killer will strike out again.

Anthony Boucher, champion of new crime fiction writers of immense talent, was thoroughly impressed with Blackstock's novel when it first appeared. He noted her "technically faultless" construction, solid characters of "believable complexity" and an "evocative hint of fantasy" in the person of Miss Fenny. But notably as I have mentioned above he writes "...there is a spell of the sharp immediacy of death itself, such as is too rarely cast in our novels of violet crime."  Contemporary writers have since capitalized on this crucial aspect of crime fiction, but it was Charity Blackstock who perhaps was one of the earliest pioneers to recognize the dread power Death has over the living. Her ruminations on this conceit captured in evocative writing and impassioned emotions make Miss Fenny -- or The Woman in the Woods -- a book worthy of your attention.

*     *     *


Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space O6 - "Book with a Woman in the Title"
 Posted by at 12:30 pm
Apr 302014
 
Syndrome E
by Franck Thilliez
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-147-50971-0
370 pp. $16.00
April 29, 2014

There is a certain type of crime novel that wants to be everything. It wants to comment on the nature of evil and the predilection for violence, criticize government abuse with satiric jibes, entertain with quirky characters, and scare the pants off of you with scenes of grisly crimes that outdo anything in the latest torture porn flick. Syndrome E is one of those books. I should’ve hated it, but I found it to be one of the most guilty pleasures I’ve read in a long time.

Franck Thilliez has written a contemporary horror novel with elements of the detective novel that entertains as much as it repulses and disgusts. Any attempt to make the book a cautionary tale about the abuse of corrupt governments or a stab at educating people about such past disgraces like the Duplessis orphan tragedy and the experiments of the CIA on unsuspecting citizens is lost in his sea of information. Syndrome E is a potboiler thriller with all the usual ingredients in abundant display -- labyrinthine plot, globe trotting scenery, forgotten historical tidbits, arcane lore and legends, and a Pandora’s trunkful of bizarre murders and body mutilations. It does exactly what it should do –- jolt you with a few shocking surprises, terrify you with its indulgent and grotesquely executed murders, and in the intervening scenes calm and assuage you with a perfunctory romance between the two lead characters.

Film lovers more than anyone will find much to enjoy. Thilliez is clearly a movie fan. The cause of all the mass slaughter (there are a lot of bodies) and paranoia found in Syndrome E is a 16mm movie so disturbing it leads one man to suffer hysterical blindness and haunts the memory banks of everyone else who is foolish enough to watch the movie. From it’s jarring opening scene –- that any true cineaste will instantly recognize from Dali’s Un Chien Andalou -- to its ostensibly innocuous images of a little girl cuddling a kitten the movie leaves each viewer with feelings of unease and disquiet without really understanding why. That’s because the movie made in 1955 is an early and very perverse example of subliminal filmmaking. Examination of the film uncovers a second film buried beneath all the primary images the viewer takes in. And that second film rivals any horror movie ever made.

Investigating the many murders linked to the ownership and eventual theft of the 16mm movie are two policeman. Appearing as solo lead characters in Thilliez’ other books (still untranslated into English) they meet for the first time in Syndrome E. Lucie Henebelle is a single mother doing her best to raise her twin daughters. Lucie lives for her job as police officer often abandoning her family and leaving her admonishing mother Marie to take on the role of primary caretaker.

Franck Thilliez, bestselling crime writer throughout Europe.
Syndrome E is his first book translated into English
In direct contrast to Lucie, the go-getter law enforcer addicted to the thrill of the chase, is the intense and morose Franck Sharko, probably the most original character in the book. He's a throwback to the eccentric amateur sleuth of the Golden Age, too. What makes him so eccentric? Franck is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations after suffering a mental breakdown following the death of his wife and daughter. Even though he regularly medicates himself with Zyprexa he is enslaved to a phantom girl named Eugenie with whom he has frequent arguments. Eugenie goads and taunts him, hampering his decision making while also blackmailing him into buying her jars of cocktail sauce and candied chestnuts. If he gives her the foods she craves, she'll leave him alone...for a while. Of course she’s not real so she can’t eat any of it leaving Sharko with a stockpile of jars in his home and at work that make for raised eyebrows and prying questions from his friends and co-workers.

Lucie and Shark (“No first name, no titles, please.”) become partners through a combination of chance and Lucie’s desire to work with the man. Shark is a world class criminal profiler and has been called upon to use his skills on a case that appears to be the work of a serial killer. Five bodies have been unearthed in rural France, most of them now nothing but skeletons, but all of them with the tops of their skulls sawed off with surgical precision.

As the mystery of the film’s creation and meaning plays out it eventually intersects with the story of the killer responsible for the five murders and many other deaths throughout the world. Is it the movie itself that has created this monster of serial killer? Or is the killer only trying to recover the film for some private purpose? The trail will take Lucie and Shark from France to Egypt to Canada and back to France again. As the bodies pile up the two police discover that the terrible subliminal messages are part of a much larger global conspiracy involving the CIA, the Foreign Legion and the disgraceful past of 1950s era Quebec.

The novel's structure of finding an expert, interviewing the expert, having the expert "info dump" loads of technological or historical data gets to be very predictable. Among the varied topics lectured on are the latest trends in neuroscience, the use of neuromarketing in advertising, the recruitment process of the Foreign Legion, the methods of hiding subliminal images on film, how to splice and edit 16mm celluloid, and the shameful nightmare undergone by the Duplessis orphans in Canada. But at nearly 400 pages you do get your money’s worth in arcane educational moments.

Nicolas Cage can't believe what he sees in 8mm
Like Seven and 8mm (a movie that shares many ideas with Thilliez' novel) the images of violence perpetrated on film and in life are relentless and gut wrenching. A sex scene between Shark and Lucie that basically cures Shark of his schizoid hallucination is absurdly unbelievable. And often the language and sentence structure is inappropriate or awkward. I have no idea if this is the fault of the translator or Thilliez’ original French or a combination of both. But given all these caveats I still found myself turning the pages with abandon. No matter how much I wanted to find fault with this book I will concede that Thilliez sure knows how to tell a good story. He does a fairly good job, too, of creating suspenseful scenes that make the reader want to know what happens next. Plain and simple: a thriller is meant to thrill. Syndrome E lives up to that promise and then some. It may not be for the faint of heart, but any reader daring enough to take on its horrors and thrills will get way more than they expect.

According to Deadline.com Syndrome E has been purchased for the movies. As of February 2013 the screenwriter adapting the novel is Mark Heyman who wrote the very disturbing, surrealistic nightmare movie Black Swan about a ballet dancer losing her mind which won an Oscar for actress Natalie Portman. It’s a daunting project and I wish the entire production team a lot of luck transferring an imagined horror film into a real film. Often the real horror that goes on in the reader’s imagination is completely lost in the adaptation process.
 Posted by at 7:34 pm
Apr 262014
 
It's all about Frances.

Gillian Freeman has taken Richard Miles' character of Madame and a handful of key scenes as a springboard for an exploration of an oppressive and claustrophobic kind of loneliness. The kind of loneliness that will drive Frances (Sandy Dennis in a mesmerizing, bravura performance) to things she had barely dreamed about. Living in a cluttered apartment with all sorts of anachronistic and "old people's" furnishings (she has a harmonium!), cared for by an indifferent bustling housekeeper she also "inherited" from her dead mother Frances seems to have become her own prisoner. But one night at the end of a dinner party for her ancient friends -- most of whom are also inherited from her mother and all of whom are twice her age or more -- she drifts away from their idle chatter to glance out her apartment window. Outside in the pouring rain she sees a young man (Michael Burns) sitting on a park bench, apparently just as lonely as she is, getting drenched. With no umbrella and no real coat he curls up on the bench and lets the rain come down. We see her watch him with a sly smile on her face as she begins to plot. Once her guests have left Frances goes outside to the boy and invites him into her house. Just for a while. Until the rain stops. He can warm up, take a bath, have some food. Then when the rain stops, be on his way.

And so begins That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Robert Altman's second feature film and one of his least known movies. The combination of Altman's love of improvisational dialogue and Freeman's artful and cultivated speeches give the movie an air of timelessness and spontaneity. The movie opens with what seems like banter and chatter among Frances' dinner guests. A similar improvisational feel occurs when we see the boy with his sister and her boyfriend and much later in a visit to a doctor's office. The purpose of the visit and type of doctor are revealed only to us through the seemingly random conversation of three women in a waiting room. Meanwhile the camera follows Frances as she wanders about nervously or fidgets in her seat. This is one of the most clever sequences in the movie, a kind of scene we rarely see on film any more, a scene you need to pay attention to. Only rarely does the dialog betray its 1960s era as in the slangy phrases tossed around by the Boy, his sister and her boyfriend.

And the movie has such a mystery about it. The Boy indulging himself in his fraudulent mute world, toying with Frances, teasing her and Frances not really letting on what she's up to. This is more than a simple act of kindness, of taking a stranger in out of the pouring rain. There is a mind game of sorts going on between the two as well as other games. On his first night she gives him a bath, takes away his sodden clothes and lets him wander around her home clad only in a blanket. They listen to music. He coyly dances for her to gypsy music played on her hi-fi. He practically does a kind of strip tease. What is he up to? Why is Frances so willing to let a stranger run wild in her home? When he decides to stay for the night she locks him in his bedroom. She does it with such purpose we know that she has some kind of ulterior motive.

The Boy comes and goes as he pleases, but always returns to Frances' home. One day he returns with some "cookies" -- really brownies laced with pot. The two of them have a party that night with wine and the brownies. Frances becomes drunk and high and really lets her hair down. They play a game of blind man's buff, she flirts with him and continues her endless monologues about her life. He listens, returns the flirtations, but abandons her once again before the night is over. She's beginning to get a bit perturbed about his disappearances.





The crucial scene and the most poignant in the movie is the night when in a moment of utter honesty Frances bravely walks to his bedroom and delivers a speech about what her lonely life has become. She talks of Charles, a man old enough to be her father, who is attracted to her, who has propositioned her several times. "His immaculate shirts...he has a terrible habit of plucking at the creases in his trousers. He disgusts me." She talks about odd details of the first night she met the Boy. "You wore no socks with your shoes. No socks. That...it gave me such a peculiar feeling." She goes on becoming increasingly vulnerable, confessing her attraction for him, and getting the courage to slip into the bed next to him. What ends the scene is not only terrifying for Frances but heart-wrenching for the audience. We know that from this point on she will stop at nothing to keep the Boy in her home.



From that moment on there is an air of danger about the movie. As if her eccentricity weren't enough Frances becomes totally unpredictable. Her strangest and most desperate act is hiring a hooker by proxy and bringing her back to the Boy as a gift. As in the book this is the climax of the story. Whereas Miles had the third character of Yves enter at the eleventh hour, in the film there is no savior for the Boy. The movie has a very different ending, far more disturbing. For me because the story has always focused on Frances and her slow deterioration into a world of her own making Altman and Freeman's changed ending is much more satisfying. It also makes a lot more sense than Miles' somewhat ambiguous and flat ending in the novel.

That Cold Day in the Park is now available on DVD from that fine video company Olive Films, in both regular DVD and Blu-Ray formats. There's also the internet; I managed to watch the movie broken up into seven parts on YouTube (all seven parts together here). Not advisable for movie purists -- the color is washed out and a few scenes are too dark to see what's really going on. I'd suggest finding a DVD copy. Finally, this underrated movie is reaching a wider audience now as it so long deserved. There are several reviews on movie blogs all over the internet. One of the most knowledgeable and insightful critiques can be found at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For".
 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Apr 252014
 

Later US Paperback (Pyramid, 1974)
 I first came to know That Cold Day in the Park (1965) in its effectively creepy and sometimes heartbreaking movie adaptation starring Sandy Dennis in the lead role. Dennis plays an extremely lonely woman who takes the term "kept boy" to its literal extreme. I thought perhaps the book might be the female counterpart to John Fowles' first novel The Collector, also turned into a memorable film. While the movie shares its basic premise with its source and both include three key scenes, the story of Miles' original novel is remarkably different.

Madame (we never learn her real name) meets a young man in the Tuilleries, the famous public garden of Paris, befriends him in a short conversation and convinces him to come home with her. Throughout their brief meeting the young man, a stunningly gorgeous blond haired Adonis, never speaks. Madame thinks, as does the reader, that the boy is mute. That he can hear her is made very clear. Only in the second chapter titled "The Boy" do we realize he has chosen not to speak. He often plays the role of a mute in order to manipulate his targets. The boy goes by the nickname Mignon. He and his friend Yves are male hustlers roaming the streets and bars of Paris' less than touristy areas taking advantage of lonely, affection starved men and robbing them.

Mignon stays with Madame most of the time, but escapes his new home each night by climbing out the window and down the fire escape in order to visit Yves. As the book progresses we see that Mignon is both manipulator and manipulated. He is caught between two worlds -- his life of crime with Yves (who he is clearly sexually attracted to) and his freer, more creative life with Madame who is also controlling him and shaping him to become what she wants. She is a hostess, a housemaid, a mother and eventually his lover. The book takes on a sinister element when Madame learns of his nightly escapes. We begin to see the fragile state of Madame's mind when she imprisons Mignon in an attempt to possess him completely.

UK 1st ed (Souvenir, 1966 )
The novel explores this very strange ménage à trois of sorts and its inevitable deceit and betrayal through alternating chapters told in the first person by Madame and in the third person omniscient voice when it focuses on either the boy or Yves. There is a middle section entitled "Interlude" centering on a minor character's visit to a sex club. Here we see the kind of sex trade Yves engages in with both men and women. It's the first taste of what will become a more lurid, sexually graphic, and sensational story.

The key scenes that I remembered from the movie -- Madame bathing the boy, her locking him in his bedroom and nailing the windows shut, and the climactic scene when she procures a prostitute for him -- all are present in the book. It is the story of Yves' relationship to Mignon that was removed in the movie adaptation.

In the novel the boy is conflicted between trying to change himself under the guidance of Madame, who seems to be the only person who doesn't desire him only for his body and good looks, and his life of adventure and crime with Yves -- his best friend, pseudo-brother and quite obviously a surrogate father. As the silent kept boy Mignon is at first a pet, then a student of painting, and finally a lover. With Madame the boy is more compassionate and pitying, emotions he does not feel for the men he robs when he is with Yves. There seems to be hope for both of them in their secret life together.  Yves doesn't want things to change. Mignon must make several decisions -- who is he really, who does he want to be with,  and perhaps most important of all who and what can he become.

In the final pages the book turns into a lurid thriller complete with embarrassingly written sex scenes that reminded me of the worst of 60s erotica ("throbbing rod" and "swelling member"). Madame's character transforms too quickly into yet another psycho-sexual lunatic bent on deadly violence. Miles nearly destroys the interesting contrast in characters that, up to the bloody climax, was the most fascinating part of the book. The story works best in the sections between Madame and Mignon and weakens in the too predictable sequences when Yves appears.

1st UK paperback (Corgi, 1967)
Richard Miles is the pseudonym for a former child actor turned writer and high school teacher named Gerald Perrau-Saussine. He first performed in movies under his slightly shortened, given name (Gerald Perreau) and later as "Peter Miles". His movie roles include Possessed w/ Joan Crawford, The Red Pony w/ Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, Heaven Only Knows and Quo Vadis . As a teenager and young adult he later appeared in a variety of TV shows such as Dragnet, The Lone Ranger, Maverick and Perry Mason. He had a long running role on The Betty Hutton Show where he played brother to his real life sister, actress Gigi Perreau.

That Cold Day in the Park is Miles' first novel. He followed up with Angel Loves Nobody (1967), a prize-winning novel about high school violence and The Moonbathers (1974), a revenge thriller featuring a Japanese secret society. One of his lesser works is the script for one of the worst movies ever made -- They Saved Hitler's Brain. But we all make mistakes, don't we? Don't judge him by that big one.

Turn in tomorrow when I examine Robert Altman's movie version of this book with a screenplay adaptation by Gillian Freeman. It's an example of taking the basic story of an intriguing novel and transforming it into a much improved and resonant character study.

*   *   *


Reading Challenge update:  Silver Age Bingo card, space  L2 - "Book Made into a Movie"
 Posted by at 8:16 am
Apr 212014
 

US 1st ed., (Congdon & Lattes, 1981)
Easter Sunday, 1915. The students at Madame Pennington's private school for girls have decided to have a charitable fundraiser for the Red Cross. The students have invited the locals to an Easter egg hunt and for the price of one penny are invited onto the school grounds to find as many eggs as they can within an allotted time. Prizes are offered. During the hunt it is discovered that Madeleine Marshal, the 17 year-old ward of Mme. Pennington has disappeared. A thorough search of the school and its grounds, including the lake, turns up no sign of the missing girl. Madeleine has vanished. Decades pass and she never returns, nor has her body ever been found. What happened to her?

An Easter Egg Hunt (1981) is a pastiche of Edwardian sensation novel told in a unique fashion. The book is presented as a three part manuscript sent to a fictional magazine called An Argosy of Mystery Stories over a period of 25 years. It's presented as a literary detective story on the part of the author who reveals herself to be one of the students at the girls' school. Part one describes in a vignette the day of the egg hunt and Madeleine’s disappearance.

Part two then tells the story of Madeleine -- her arrival at the school and how her gregarious personality and striking beauty affect everyone in the school. Too old to be a student, but too young to be a staff member, Madeleine is caught between adolescence and adulthood. She is allowed to teach French to the students but spends most of her time as a professional chaperon for the younger girls and also assists with housekeeping duties. Her very presence brings about a huge change in the way the girls behave and how the school is run.

Nearby the girl's school is a military training camp, a flight school for young cadets learning to be fighter pilots. Several of the young men are keen on some of the girls. When Madeleine arrives Will Kent falls madly in love with her. The two of them start a secret friendship meeting in a nearby cave for trysts that eventually lead to a sexual relationship. But when a horrible airplane accident ends that relationship Madeleine becomes an emotional wreck. Her changed state then affects the students and staff at the school.

UK 1st ed., (Hamish Hamilton, 1981)
The third part of the story, entitled "The Answer", reveals the true reason for Madeleine's disappearance, why she left the school and what ultimately happened to her. Encapsulated like this the brief novel seems too familiar, like an old-fashioned soap opera. Yet Freeman manages to defy all expectations of the familiar and routine. She tells her story in a compelling manner with an economy of deft prose and artful character portraits. She has an unexpected way of conveying raw emotion and turns up surprisingly poignant moments in this ultimately tragic tale of love, illusion and self-deception in wartime.

Gillian Freeman is best known perhaps for her work as a screenwriter, but has also written a handful of novels touching on often taboo topics (for the time) like gay relationships and pornography. Her first book The Leather Boys, a seminal work in gay fiction, tells the story of two young men both members of a motorcycle gang and their tenuous sexual relationship. Her screenplays include an adaptation of her first novel; I Want What I Want, one of the earliest films to deal with transgenderism; and the psycho-sexual thriller That Cold Day in the Park -- a dual review of movie and novel which is coming soon.

*   *   *


Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo Card, space E2 - "Book w/ Time, Day, Month, etc. in Title" I figure Easter in the title can be applied to the "etc".
 Posted by at 3:02 pm
Apr 162014
 
“Everything was foreseen – everything except what actually happened…”

Robert Arthur Kewdingham, recently out of a job as an engineer for a manufacturing company, retreats into a private world occupying his time with his bizarre collections of insect specimens and ancient Roman artifacts and his crackpot occult beliefs. Kewdingham believes himself to be the reincarnation of Athu-na-Shulah, an Atlantean high priest and loves to talk about the wisdom of the ancients who built that lost city lecturing rapturously about their marvelous engineering skills that led to building pyramids and other wondrous feats. He dismisses Einstein's popular theories of physics admiring instead these ancient people “who truly knew the secrets of the stars.” His wife Bertha suffers in silence and maintains an outwardly polite demeanor but longs for the company of a real man. She turns her eyes to a frequent visitor and her husband’s cousin, John Harrigall. The gossipy judgmental housekeeper is eyeing these two and does not like at all what she sees. Neither does Robert Arthur’s father, Old Robert, who openly displays his antipathy for Bertha and her not so subtle way of flirting with Harrigall.

This is the Kewdingham household as we first encounter it in the first few chapters of Family Matters (1933). It is a home of jealousy, hatred, suspicion and spitefulness. We know from the outset that Robert Arthur is targeted for death and we know who is plotting his murder. The surprise comes in how the murder plans backfire spectacularly.

This is not a typical inverted crime novel by any means. We watch the two would-be murderers carry out their nefarious plans never suspecting the inevitable, but unprepared for the genuine outcome. First, there is a particularly evil plot in which Robert Arthur’s own physician Dr. Wilson Bagge uses him as a guinea pig for the development of a lethal poison. Since Kewdingham is a hypochondriac, constantly suffering from one ailment or another and taking a variety of medications both by prescription and of his own invention, Dr. Bagge sees in him the perfect victim. Bertha is the other poisoner and her method is just as insidious, perhaps moreso as she adds her poison of choice – a lead compound that looks like sugar and conveniently has a slightly sweet taste – to her husband’s meals every day over a period of weeks. The two murderers oblivious to each other’s plotting are dumbfounded when their intended victim not only refuses to succumb to each poison he seems to be healthier than ever.

Family Matters begins as an intensely detailed, ironically intimate and – dare I say it – cozy study of a bitter household at war with one another. Beneath the feigned politeness and the veiled insults are deeply felt passions that are held in check. Bertha restrains her burgeoning sexual attraction to John and all but explodes when she is alone with him. Dr. Bagge slowly reveals himself to be not the kindly village physician but a megalomaniacal mad scientist more often found in American shudder pulps. You keep thinking he is going to burst out in a insane laugh and rub his hands together. But he too reins in his passions, holding back his glee and frustrations while conducting the most unethical and deadly of his experiments.

Rolls has a cheeky omniscient narrator who practically spoofs the “Gentle Reader” tone one finds in early 19th century novels of manners by writers like Austen and Eliot. His tone, however, is subtly satiric amid the ease and comfort he initially builds upon.

"A woman’s words, [John] said to himself, have to be translated, not from one language to another, but from one sense to another. You must form your opinion of a woman (if you think an opinion is necessary) by observing what she does, not by listening to what she says."

"If it had not been for this new fear of [her husband], she might have gone on, even without hope; she might have repressed the lurking impulse. Fear, as it so often does, drove a desperate mind to a fatal decision."

"What is peculiar in this case of Robert Kewdingham is not the mere fact of murder, but the extraordinary conflict of design which is presently to be revealed."
Periodically this quaint satiric tone is dropped in favor of outright comedy as in the wonderful scene in which the prattling, piccolo-voiced Pamela Chaddlewick (so perfectly named) stuns Bertha and Robert with her tea leaf reading skills. She takes Robert’s cup and after a few expert swirls foretells a dire warning of a man and woman who will bring danger to his home. She both impresses herself and frightens the others present, especially Bertha who tries to clear the tea things as quickly as possible before Pamela decides to do a few more swirls and sees something all too clearly.

The genius of the book is how it keeps defying categorization. You think you know what Rolls is up to yet he keeps changing the rules almost at each chapter ending. What begins as an ironic novel of manners soon gives way to an inverted crime novel with detailed psychological probing yet once again sheds that label in the closing chapters and turns into a whodunit. When Kewdingham finally does die everyone is stunned to learn the cause of his death. The autopsy turns up not lead poison, not aluminum poison, but that good old detective novel stand-by – arsenic. So where did the arsenic come from and who killed him? A shocking inquest, rivalling any courtroom murder trial, bombards the reader with multiple surprises revealed one after the other until we are led to the inquest jury’s verdict and an arrest. But there are still more surprises in store in the final paragraphs.

Family Matters has been out of print for decades and is one of the few crime novels that justly deserves being reprinted. It’s not just a superior example of a crime novel. I would dare to call it a minor masterpiece. Here is an engrossing and penetrating novel that expertly combines elements of the inverted crime novel, the detective novel and the novel of psychological suspense into one rewarding package. While you may be hard pressed locating an affordable copy in the used book market you may have luck trying to find the book through interlibrary lending services. Your efforts will not be in vain; I guarantee this book will not disappoint.

* * *

Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space N5 - "Book by author using a pseudonym"
 Posted by at 6:33 pm
Apr 092014
 
Nancy J. Cohen

Creating a hook at the end of a chapter encourages readers to turn the page to find out what happens next in your story. What works well are unexpected revelations, wherein an important plot point is offered or a secret exposed; cliffhanger situations in which your character is in physical danger; or a decision your character makes that affects story momentum. Also useful are promises of a sexual tryst, arrival of an important secondary character, or a puzzling observation that leaves your reader wondering what it means.

womantied

It’s important to stay in viewpoint because otherwise you’ll lose immediacy, and this will throw your reader out of the story. For example, your heroine is shown placing a perfume atomizer into her purse while thinking to herself: “Before the day was done, I’d wish it had been a can of pepper spray instead.”

This character is looking back from future events rather than experiencing the present. As a reader, you’ve lost the sense of timing that holds you to her viewpoint. You’re supposed to see what she sees and hear what she hears, so how can you see what hasn’t yet come to pass?

Foreshadowing is desirable because it heightens tension, but it can be done using more subtle techniques while staying within the character’s point of view. Here’s another out of body experience: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d never have walked through that door.” Who is telling us this? The Author, that’s who. Certainly not your character, or she’d heed her own advice. Who else but the author is hovering up in the air observing your heroine and pulling her strings? Same goes for these examples:

“I never dreamed that just around the corner, death waited in the wings.” [okay, who can see around that corner if not your viewpoint character? YOU, the author!]

“Watching our favorite TV program instead of the news, we missed the story about a vandalized restaurant.” [if the characters missed the story, who saw it?]

“I felt badly about the unknown victim, but it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.” [speaking again from the future looking back]

“I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.” [ditto]

“I was so intent on watching the doorway, I didn’t see the tall figure slink around the corner.” [then who did spot the tall figure? You got it--the author]

Although these examples are given in first person, the same principles apply to third person limited viewpoint. Your reader is inside that character’s skin. She shouldn’t be able to see/hear/feel beyond your heroine’s sensory perceptions. By dropping hints about future events, you’re losing the reader’s rapt attention. Stick to the present, and end your chapter with a hook that stays in character.

Here are some examples from Permed to Death, my first mystery novel. These hooks are meant to be page turners:

“This was her chance to finally bury the mistake she’d made years ago. Gritting her teeth, she pulled onto the main road and headed east.” (Important Decision)

“There’s something you should know. He had every reason to want my mother dead.” (Revelation)

“Her heart pounding against her ribs, she grabbed her purse and dashed out of her town house. Time was of the essence. If she was right, Bertha was destined to have company in her grave.” (Character in Jeopardy)

“She allowed oblivion to sweep her into its comforting depths.” (Physical Danger)

dead woman

Personal decisions that have risky consequences can also be effective. For example, your heroine decides to visit her boyfriend’s aunt against his wishes. She risks losing his affection but believes what she’s doing is right. Suspense heightens as the reader turns the page to see if the hero misinterprets her actions. Or have the hero in a thriller make a dangerous choice, wherein he puts someone he cares about in jeopardy no matter what he decides. Or his decision is an ethical one with no good coming from either choice. What are the consequences? End of chapter. Readers must keep on track to find out what happens next.

To summarize, here’s a quick list of chapter endings that will spur your reader to keep the night light burning:
1. Decision
2. Danger
3. Revelation
4. Another character’s unexpected arrival
5. Emotional turning point
6. Puzzle
7. Sex
In a romance, end chapter with one viewpoint, and switch to partner’s viewpoint in next chapter. Or end a scene of heightened sexual tension with the promise of further intimacy on the next page.

lovers

Sprinkle the lucky seven judiciously into your story and hopefully one day you’ll be the happy recipient of a fan letter that says: “I stayed up all night to finish your book. I couldn’t put it down.”

What other techniques do you use?