Sunday, May 9, 2021

Existential Ructions

Act of Passion – Georges Simenon, tr. Louise Varese

Simenon’s catalogue is so vast and so varied that it's hard to be categorical, but this novel, published as Lettre à mon juge in 1947, could be one of his deepest, most serious novels. It is definitely one of his most desperate.

From his cell on death row, Charles Alavoine, a doctor who murdered his mistress, writes a letter to the judge who presided at his trial. The perp does not ask for forgiveness, but seeks the understanding of another man who is able to understand the feelings as the motive of his act. I can think of only one other novel where Simenon uses the first-person, In Case of Emergency, in which a lawyer explains his existential rage and defiance of conventions, especially as enforced by fussy mothers and nitpicky wives that take exception to affairs with bad girls half the age of middle-aged husbands.

The letter narrates his descent into hell. His was an alcoholic father who took his own life but Alavoine was saved by a devoted mother who was ambitious for him. Dr. Alavoine later checked the usual boxes: married, two children, widower, remarried, country office, incessant work leading to a slightly upscale lifestyle. Middle-age, however, takes him by the scruff of the neck. Routine, apathy, desire, resentment, misanthropy, lies and liars all come together to make him feel especially distressed one day in Nantes station. And he meets Martine.

Martine is also a child of misfortune. She’s filled with self-loathing due to sexual abuse in childhood. She’s a wild and self-destructive JD (in fact, she’s played by Bridget Bardot in the movie) The last person she needs is a man is so alienated from himself and society that he feels like a robot, just going through the motions of daily life. Events bring their internal and external pressures to the bursting point.

Something has to give.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Rival of Ashenden

The Three Couriers – Compton Mackenzie

I was going to read The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine (1927) in order to overcome my resistance  to mysteries written in the 1920s. I feel reluctant because they are too long. Beyond 200 pages, I find it hard to tolerate Dickensian characters, barely recognizable social situations, and casual prejudices of racist eras. Shades of the self-fulfilling prophecy, by page five of The Greene Murder Case, I was fed up with Van Dine’s 17th century English prose style that brought to mind Raleigh and Browne. I also could not get past the supercilious manner and affected speech of the profoundly irritating series detective. As critic Odgen Nash wrote at the time, “Philo Vance | Needs a kick in the pants.”

Still committed to reading a novel of the Twenties, I was lucky enough to have fall into my lap the 1929 spy mystery The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie. A prolific writer before and after his work in the secret world during the Great War, Mackenzie portrayed spying not so much as a noble clandestine fight against the Germans and Turks but as a running contest against His Majesty’s army and navy authorities and embassy and consulate employees that put the “dip” in “diplomat.” Stationed against his will in Greece, our hero, the unfortunate Waterlow, has to put up with endless French machinations and the never-ending nincompooperies of his own agents, both British and Greek. When he finally succeeds in counter-espionage, his masters and betters utterly ignore the vital intercepted message. “This is a Charlie Chaplin war” he mutters as he bravely moves on to the next fiasco.

In The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Chesterton makes a case for the futility of espionage, an ironic theme Somerset Maugham was to exploit in the Ashenden stories. But it could be that Mackenzie was the first to write a spy story as a black comedy of errors. The Three Couriers does not have much plot. However, the incidents and set pieces are hilarious as the hapless spies move in on the couriers. The characters are Gogolian grotesques. One wonders if he involuntarily stored these outrageous impressions in his head and wrote to get shut of them.

It seems that Mackenzie had written earlier novels based on his Intelligence activities. Extremes Meet, was published in 1928, but as a Wodehousian light comedy, it was out-sold by the release of Somerset Maugham's ground-breaking Ashenden, which came out the same year. Critic Anthony Masters says, “Mackenzie was considerably annoyed at being overshadowed in this way.” So in 1929 Mackenzie published The Three Couriers.  A comedy with more of a satirical bite, it sunk with few traces until this review on this unique blog that you are reading this very minute.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Back to the Classics 2021 #8

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

A classic in translation. This was first published as Le cercle des Mahé in 1946.

The  Mahé Circle - Georges Simenon

Dr. François Mahé, 35-years-old, overweight, disillusioned with his dull middle-class life, departs from tradition as to where to take the family on its summer vacation. Instead of a quiet rural spot, he decides on Porquerolles, an island in the Med, off the south of France.

On the ideal liminal space of an island, on holiday away from it all, as we’d expect, he is sun-struck out of his usual patterns of thought. In the disturbing opening scene, out fishing with a local angler-guide, Mahé feels out of place, like an impersonator of an ordinary person. He feels that the locals are laughing at him, that he is not quite an adult male. To tend to a dying woman, he gladly interrupts the outing because though he follows the guide's example he catches only a disgusting spiny fish.

As soon as he arrives the woman passes away, too young. He discovers that her husband, Frans Klamm, has been gone on a bender to Toulon, leaving their three thin and scruffy children all alone. The locals, being clannish islanders to the core, blandly make it clear the poor family has never been accepted since they just showed up on the island and squatted in an old military installation. This doctor feels for the misery of this family. But what can he do? The holidays end without regret for the Mahés, because nobody liked Porquerolles.

Dr. Mahé returns to his treadmill. Simenon could care less about moral lessons or philosophical orientations but I think he might be hinting that this is no way to live:

He found that at thirty-five, here he was […] with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week. He followed it […] because he could see no other solution, because he refused to admit there could be one, but he was floating inside this world that had been arranged for him as if in a suit of clothes that didn’t fit.

In spite of their memories of the hot weather, queasy kids, warm wine, scorpions in the clothes, oily fish, and crusty locals, the following year, Dr. Mahé decides to return to Porquerolles. The good doctor feels driven by a muddy desire to find himself in a spot where he feels out of place, with people vaguely suspecting he's an imposter. It’s better than following a conventional life with a dull wife, doing the same damn thing every damn day. Year two at Porquerolles ends, without any deaths at least.

In the third year in Porquerolles, the family Mahés take nephew Fred with them. At Chez Klamm, he notices that Elisabeth, the oldest daughter, has taken charge of the household, imposing order on chaos, sending the little brother to violin lessons and making sure her father Frans never has any money to go on a spree. Middle-aged and bored and disillusioned Mahé starts of obsess about her. He cannot explain his unsavory ruminations and he arranges for vicarious kicks to get his gawky stupid nephew to “meet” Elisabeth.

The resulting violation puts into motion a series of events that don’t end well for the good doc. Dr. Mahé realizes he can’t go on the way he’s been going on. But the realization comes too late. I recommend this pandemic reading to the early middle-aged as a cautionary tale and to people near retirement who pat themselves on the back for having left in the rear-view mirror the two demons of middle age – the nineteen-year-old and the bottle.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

High Tide

High Tide – P.M. Hubbard

This 1971 suspense novel was the writer’s tenth novel so it reads like the work of a confident, experienced writer that knows exactly how he wants to tell the story.

Peter Curtis is our first-person narrator. A cultured guy but not an intellectual, Peter hints that he is big and strong enough to be a commando but never dared take the training because he feared with violent skills coupled with his temper he’d be a danger to himself and others. He can usually keep his temper in “dingy kennel” of his mind but when provoked he’s not beyond killing. In fact, the novel opens upon his release from the Big House where he was sentenced to four years for accidentally killing a guy with his bare hands.

The provocation? The vic ran over Curtis’ Labrador.

Curtis does not face the money problems we assume an ex-con would have. So with the dream of buying a sailing boat to cruise the west coast of the Sceptered Isle for a couple of months, he’s driving in the south of England by night and sleeping by day in cheap hotels.

The plot twists when Curtis meets a henchman of the man he killed over the Labby. Then Curtis gets the feeling he is being followed. After adventures with a mysterious girl, Curtis ends up on a Cornish coastal town. Near a hiply designed but deserted farmhouse, he also meets the personification of “still waters run deep” in the form of the wife of a local novelist who writes nautical stories like Patrick O’Brian.

Hubbard also published poetry so he has a keen ear for sounds and a keen eye for details. He effectively evokes the dreary town of Leremouth, with its relentless tides and hazardous quicksand. As a Great Lakes guy, I can recommend this novel as a fine example of the nautical mystery, as enjoyable as Down among the Dead Men by Patricia Moyes, The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams or the immortal The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.

Friday, April 23, 2021

A Victorian Explorer

First Footsteps in East Africa – Sir Richard Burton

Burton was a racist. And when asked by a young vicar if he'd ever killed a man, Burton replied “Sir, I'm proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”

Sir Richard Francis Burton gained notoriety by travelling to Mecca and Medina in the early 1850s. His journey to another Muslm holy city in the Somali country, Harar, in 1854-55 is one of his forgotten books. As far as he can believed, Burton’s chronicles of hard travelling are idiosyncratic, to say the least. Here he criticizes millet beer and local indolence.

I tried this mixture several times, and found it detestable: the taste is sour, and it flies directly to the head, in consequence of being mixed with some poisonous bark. It is served up in gourd bottles upon a basket of holcus heads, and strained through a pledget of cotton, fixed across the narrow mouth, into cups of the same primitive material: the drinkers sit around their liquor, and their hilarity argues its intoxicating properties. In the morning they arise with headaches and heavy eyes; but these symptoms, which we, an industrious race, deprecate, are not disliked by the Somal—they promote sleep and give something to occupy the vacant mind.

I doubt the accuracy of Burton’s descriptions of Somali manners, society, and national characteristics. But his personal recollections, I think, retain some power. Here he recounts thirst near the end of the journey:

Our toil was rendered doubly toilsome by the Eastern travellers’ dread—the demon of Thirst rode like Care behind us. For twenty-four hours we did not taste water, the sun parched our brains, the mirage mocked us at every turn, and the effect was a species of monomania. As I jogged along with eyes closed against the fiery air, no image unconnected with the want suggested itself. Water ever lay before me—water lying deep in the shady well—water in streams bubbling icy from the rock—water in pellucid lakes inviting me to plunge and revel in their treasures. Now an Indian cloud was showering upon me fluid more precious than molten pearl, then an invisible hand offered a bowl for which the mortal part would gladly have bartered years of life. Then—drear contrast!—I opened my eyes to a heat-reeking plain, and a sky of that eternal metallic blue so lovely to painter and poet, so blank and deathlike to us, whose [Greek kalon] was tempest, rain-storm, and the huge purple nimbus. I tried to talk—it was in vain, to sing in vain, vainly to think; every idea was bound up in one subject, water.

This expedition had a violent ending. Near Berbera natives attacked their party. Lt. William Stroyan was killed and Lt. John Hanning Speke was severely wounded. Burton himself had a javelin pierce his jaw, which caused the loss of four teeth.  The book omits that an official board of inquiry blamed Burton for excessive confidence and ignoring warnings of danger.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Take Two at Bedtime

Deadly Duo a.k.a Take Two at Bedtime – Margery Allingham

First released in 1950, this book collected two awkwardly sized stories. The first Wanted, Someone Innocent (1945) is a long short story about 80 pages and the second Last Act (1946) is a novella of about 115 pages so they were too short for a stand-alone book.  The Bantam paperback I read says on the cover “An Albert Campion Mystery” but this is misleading because the series hero does not put in his gangling appearance in either story.

The first story has some familiar gothic elements: an innocent pretty girl in distress, an uneasy atmosphere of suspense, and inexplicably cold and unhelpful servants. Granted, it is not set in a castle, but the London house is still unsettling and the weather is grey and rainy.

Our heroine is 20-year-old Gillian Brayton, who was raised by her uncle after she was orphaned at a young age. She was gently brought up and attended a tony girls school but times have been bad for her since her uncle died after burning through his money. At a reunion of alumnae where she’s supposed to tout her employer’s hats, one of the mean girls Rita Fayre offers her a job so attractive that a penniless girl with nobody in the world couldn’t dream of refusing. Though the duties of the job are unclear, she figures the annual salary of 300 pounds (about 17K in bucks) is better than working in a hat shop. Gillian is introduced to Rita’s husband who is convalescing from a war wound. As we’d expect in a gothic tale, romance blossoms. There’s a killing, though, and innocent as a puppy Gillian becomes the prime suspect. This is an interesting story, with good pace, witty writing but not arch or glib.

The second story, on the other hand, has some elements of the romance novel. The setting is an English country house, with a backdrop of entertainment and glamour. A beautiful clever actress gives her perspective on the story. The victim is a strong-willed older female, a veteran of the French stage and screen. Our actress feels giddily in love with one of the victim’s grandsons, a medical student. Our unlucky pair soon become not husband and wife but the prime suspects. Allingham builds suspense, persuading us inexperienced readers that being falsely accused because of circumstantial evidence would be an unfortunate situation. 

Fans of the cozy whodunit who don’t mind Allingham’s mashing of genres will probably like this. Other readers, sensitive to misogyny and gender stereotyping, may find these stories problematic.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Ides of Perry Mason 23

The 15th of every month until I don't know when I will post a review of a Perry Mason mystery. For the hell of it.

Note. This is yet another tribute to the actresses of Perry Mason. Previous entries covered Patricia Barry; Lisa Gaye; and Anna Navarro & Arlene Martel.

Elaine Devry & Karen Steele

In two Mason episodes, red-haired, green-eyed Elaine Devry played small parts. In The Case of the Elusive Element (1963) her secretary role is overshadowed by another familiar face Gloria Talbott, as Erle Stanley Gardner himself would say, “a well-upholstered woman.” In The Case of the Arrogant Arsonist (1964) she plays a book-keeper that knows an employee is stealing but she's too tender-hearted to bust him. She has an aura of gentle caring that is irresistible. It makes a guy want to come down with flu to activate all her nurturing instincts.

In The Case of the Shapely Shadow (1962) although she plays – you guessed it in one – a secretary, she is also the eponymous shadow. And what a shadow. It’s not only the red hair and green eyes. Not only the smart-girl glasses and clothes from Très Wallflowers so wrong they’re attractive. Not only the make-over that transforms her to va-voom. But her warm, sympathetic manner is so feminine, so compassionate that she approaches the archetypal. I mean, we’re talking Kitty Shcherbatsky in Anna Karenina here. We’re talking Bronwen in How Green Was My Valley.

And from her tender, good-hearted willingness to help her worthless supervisor, where does she end up? Being defended by Perry Mason, though one has to admit she was economical with the truth. And in the end she ensures that we readers quit viewing ourselves as unworthy when she throws over our pal Paul Drake for some goddamn cowboy.

Cover girl Karen Steele played a small role in The Case of the Fatal Fetish (1965) as victim Carina Wileen. Blonde, blue-eyed Steele gets a nice melodramatic scene bemoaning her fate as a good girl brought low by drinking, partying, and loving the wrong kind of man.  But by season eight, Perry writers were flailing. So nobody walks away from this mess unbespattered. With no explanation Perry walks around with his right arm under his coat, like Napoleon XIV. As an unethical chemist, the volatile Douglas Kennedy doesn’t have much room to assert his considerable presence. Gary Collins runs around making the wrong decisions, not served by the writers who have him getting into conflicts of interest any government employee would smell a mile off. Poor Fay Wray capers about in a nightclub voodoo act, which will get post-modern tongues a-waggin’ about cultural appropriation.

But The Case of the Haunted Husband (1958) was made in the first season when directors used film noir techniques and the TV tropes of the Mid-Sixties hadn’t yet kicked in. Karen Steele steals the show as Doris Stephanak, the loyal friend of the defendant.  Besides Steele’s looking Polish or Czech, she plays a friend so true-hearted that she’s willing to go out on a date with a cad in the hopes of pumping him for information that will help her friend's cause. Paul Drake, smitten as any guy would be at such loyalty, observes, “Whatta gal.” She takes wearing a little black dress to levels not often achieved. The cad gets loaded, ever-supportive Doris half-carries him to his apartment, leaves to go get take-out coffee, and returns to find him shot dead in the shower. A lot to experience for a friend, but she’s stalwart. That this is one of the best shows of all 271 is mainly due to Karen Steele.

Steele in fact had an admirable courage. At the tail end of a good career in TV, in 1970, she went on a goodwill tour of service hospitals in the South Pacific instead of taking a job in a TV series that would have paid almost $80,000 (a bit more than a cool half-million today). Missing his cut sorely, her agent walked away from her. She settled in Arizona and married a psychiatrist. They were married until her death from cancer at age 56 in 1988.