Strangers on a Train

strangers on trainToo many psychological thrillers these days think they’ve done sufficient work by placing their female heroine under multiple threats of peril. They need to have a look at the dark and twisted novels of Patricia Highsmith to see how it’s really done. Highsmith knew that no amount of external threat can rival the psychological terror we are able to inflict on ourselves. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), she created a story of claustrophobic menace that turned any simplistic understanding of morality upside down.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno are chance acquaintances on a train heading south to Texas. Guy, an architect, is travelling to see his estranged wife, Miriam, whom he hopes will finally agree to a divorce. Miriam is pregnant by a new lover, and Guy feels that here, at last, is the leverage required to settle the matter, though he is sure she will continue to kick up as many obstacles as she can. Guy has become steadily more impatient as he is nominally engaged to Anne, an altogether better prospect for the wife of a man with a budding career. Anne and her moneyed, harmonious family offer Guy the sort of social status he needs, and charming, elegant Anne inspires his genuine love.

Guy is accosted on the train by Charles Bruno who thrusts his company upon him. Bruno is already three sheets to the wind when they meet, and will drink steadily through their encounter. He has the sort of entangling presence that certain unstable people wield with cunning; a genius for ingratiating himself where he is not welcome. Guy drinks more in his presence than is wise and he ends up saying a little about Miriam – more than enough for Bruno to come to some astute conclusions. And so Bruno offers him partnership in a criminal scheme he’s been brewing for a while. Bruno hates his father and longs for him to be dead. He’d kill him if he thought he’d get away with it, but his homicidal desire is too evident. What he suggests to Guy is a tit for tat. He’ll kill Miriam if Guy will kill his father, and they will never be caught because there is no motive to link them to the crimes.

Guy is horrified by this idea and by Bruno himself. He ends the conversation and hopes never to see him again. But by the time he arrives in Metcalf, Miriam has miscarried and is threatening to accompany him to his new architectural project, a commission that could make his name. He can’t help but acknowledge a few murderous impulses towards her. When Miriam is found strangled at the local fair, Guy has the sickening sensation that his unconscious enmity has killed her, even though he is sure it was in the form of the all-too corporeal Bruno.

For Bruno turns out to be a man of queer passions. He loves his mother a little too much, and he has fallen into an idealistic veneration for Guy. This is a murder committed primarily out of twisted love – partly because he has been longing to reveal his own capabilities to himself, partly because he wants to offer it like a gift, a homage, to Guy. When Guy reacts with hostility to his actions, Bruno is deeply wounded. But not diverted from his determination to make Guy keep up his end of a bargain he never agreed to.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but if you’ve seen the Hitchcock adaptation, you should know that from here on in, movie and book diverge. Hitchcock, with a mainstream cinema audience to please, keeps Guy riveted to his ‘good man’ persona, whereas in the book, Guy knows his integrity is lost from the moment he wishes Miriam dead, a moment that isn’t even articulated, but is no less potent for all that: we know he did because of the guilt he feels when she dies. From now on, the story of Guy will be a study in guilt and what it can make us do. Guy will find himself pushed to the extreme because the guilt he feels is so intolerable he will do anything – even compound his crimes – in the crazy desire to be free of it. I was writing last week about Patrick Modiano and his ability to create characters who are guilty until proven guilty. Guy is another in this mode. It’s a very common part of the human condition, and it makes a mockery of this idea that we have control over our lives to the extent that we can choose to be good or bad. We’re human and so, under duress, we do good things and we do bad things, and sometimes doing nothing is the most damning thing we do of all.

If Guy is the good man forced to the bad, then Bruno is the bad man who forces us to feel pity. Sure, he’s a fledgling psychopath, but it’s the love that’s inside him we cannot deny, however horrifying its manifestations may be. His descent into the worst terrors of alcoholism are car-crash mesmerising, and we wait on tenterhooks for the moment when he can no longer contain all his messed-up emotions – worship for Guy, pride in his cleverness, terror at his own steady disintegration. We know Bruno can’t be all bad, despite appearances, because Guy becomes bonded to him, in an act of brotherly recognition:

Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.’

This is not a pleasant book but it’s a gripping one. The claustrophobia that Highsmith builds up is brilliant and sickening. Although much of the book is about people doing dreadful things, its centre is the tragedy of our longing to be pure. Guy shows how nothing that has value in life – love, success, money – is worth a fig when set against the horror of feeling besmirched in our own sense of self-worth. Guilt dominates, and almost nothing can appease it at the height of its power. The kind of novel that sends a genuine chill down the spine.

On Patrick Modiano

patrick modianoYesterday I put two and two together and realised that the reason I’d seen a lot of brief but extremely unusual mentions of Patrick Modiano online was that he’d just won the Nobel Prize. Yes, I know, let’s put it down to age. But I love Patrick Modiano, he’s a wonderful author whose simply written novels, drawing on – and subverting – the genres of the spy novel, detective fiction and film noir are exquisitely complex and unnerving. I was trying to think how I could possibly describe the experience of reading one of his works and I could only come up with strange metaphors. They are like waking from a vivid dream, straining to catch those last fleeting remnants as they fade away. They are like being involved in a high-speed car chase only to turn the corner and find you are driving in solitary splendour. They are like the moment when Bugs Bunny runs off the edge of the cliff and doesn’t realise that he is pedalling pure air. He writes what I suppose I think of as proper literature – in which the story is perfectly formed, but the questions provoked by it are endless.

rue des boutiquesTake for instance the novel for which he won the Prix Goncourt, Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person). This was my first introduction to Modiano and I still recall it today. Guy Roland is a detective who decides, when his partner retires, to turn his skills onto himself. For fifteen years, since an accident left him an amnesiac, he has not known who he is. Armed with a fistful of clues he heads out on the quest for his real self, following a chain of witnesses, each of whom provides him with just enough information to carry on the search, but never enough for answers or closure. The trail of his old self runs out in the Second World War, when he seemed, like others around him, to be escaping the Nazis and the Occupation by fleeing to Switzerland. When Guy tracks down the last surviving person who might be able to help him, he learns that he has gone missing. And now I’m going to give away a massive spoiler, so you can hop to the next paragraph though the spoiler is intrinsic in understanding Modiano’s audacity as a writer… because the story ends with Guy in pursuit of this last witness, the original missing man chasing a missing man. The traces could not be any existentially lighter, and so it is almost as if Guy fades away into oblivion. It’s a shock ending, it was certainly not what I was expecting, and yet I didn’t mind at all; I may even have applauded. It was so original when I first read it, some 15 years ago.

voyage de nocesThe other novel of his I want to tell you about is Voyage de noces (Honeymoon). This concerns the documentary maker, Jean, who learns in a hotel in Milan of the recent suicide there of a woman he once knew. When he returns to Paris, he arranges his own disappearance and sets off on a quest to find out all he can about her. The search for information about Ingrid Teyrson and her husband, Rigaud, takes him back in time to the Occupation in France, when the couple were hiding out on the Côte d’Azur. Ingrid is Jewish and the couple are haunted by the figure of a man in a black raincoat who they feel sure is spying on them, in the hope of turning them in. How does this past match up with the present in which Ingrid has become suicidal? What happened?

So what have we got, then, in terms of preoccupations here? There’s an intriguing quest for identity at work in both novels, in which the hunt for the self is also the hunt for another person. But these quests which drive the narrative forward powerfully and compellingly are always doomed to failure – what’s missing can never be retrieved. There’s also a fascination with the Occupation as a kind of black hole – or maybe the sort of rabbit hole that appears in Alice in Wonderland – down which the experience of France as a nation disappeared, and now only fantastic traces remain that seem surreal and inexplicable. There’s nostalgia for a time when things were not strange and disconnected and wrong. But there’s also a pervasive sense of melancholia and shame. Modiano’s protagonists are not just postmodern, they’re post-lapsarian: guilty until proven guilty. We may not even be sure what they’ve done, but the strong sense of needing to atone, or to piece together a mystery that shows them in a bad light, creates building blocks of the plot that feel like they’re made out of antimatter.

bon voyageOf all the contemporary writers in France that I know of, Modiano is a surprise choice for the Nobel. His novels have a strong family resemblance – I imagine he might be accused of being a one-trick pony (though it’s a good trick). I cannot think he would go down well in America; if as a culture you want to outlaw the passive voice then Modiano’s enigmas of who-did-what and who-am-I-anyway aren’t going to please a lot of people. He’s very postmodern. And I wonder how much you have to understand French history to get the significance of the feeling aroused when it became clear that the myth of France as a nation of resistance fighters was built on shifting sand. But all that being said, I really like him; he’s an original, and his work of sophisticated simplicity is both eminently readable and full of menacing mystique.

If you’re interested in trying Patrick Modiano in his simplest form, then I recommend the film: Bon Voyage. Modiano wrote the screenplay, about the converging lives of a disparate group of people who flee Paris when the Nazis invade. Watching the different storylines dovetail so neatly into one another, you can feel the hand of Modiano guiding the plot.

Death of an Avid Reader

9780349400570As we near the publication date of our next full edition of Shiny New Books, you might reasonably fear that the title of this post referred to me. But no! It is in fact the most recent addition to the series of crime novels by Frances Brody featuring her 1920s lady detective, Kate Shackleton. I confess I just love this sort of reproduction vintage crime. I’m a fan of the traditional cozy whodunnit, and ready to cheer when – for example – Kate’s stalwart housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, brings in the tea and hot buttered muffins as Kate sheds her coat and muffler after a long day of tough sleuthing out in foggy Leeds. Bring on the comforting period detail! This novel provided me with a weekend’s perfect relaxation.

So it’s autumn 1925 and Kate has received a letter regarding a new private investigation. The venerable Lady Coulton charges her with finding the daughter she gave up for adoption many years ago. With only an old photo and a last-known address to guide her, Kate sets to work with her trusty ex-policeman assistant, Jim Sykes. But it isn’t very long before her attention is distracted, first by the discovery of a Capuchin monkey in the back of her car, property of the local organ-grinder who seems to have gone missing (Mrs Sugden is disapproving but scarcely ruffled, you’ll be glad to know, by a monkey as a house guest), and then by a distinctly odd story of ghosts in her local library. As a member of the board, she agrees to witness an exorcism in order to settle the fragile nerves of the ladies who work there. But instead the evening ends with the discovery of a real body, that of Dr Horatio Potter, a learned local man who is deeply involved with the library’s business. And lying not far from him, in a state of collapse, is the organ-grinder.

Kate finds herself dragged into this case in order to prevent the crime from being thoughtlessly attributed to a poor old sick man. But when it seems that the missing daughter she seeks might well have been a former employee at the library, and that the library is riven with quarrels over a proposed move into new buildings, her cases merge and become more complicated.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and the plotting is masterful. There are plenty of revelations and twists and turns, a colourful cast of characters and the atmosphere of 1920s Leeds is beautifully recreated. I thought this was consistently well-written and Kate Shackleton is a fine creation. Left widowed by the war but far from helpless, she puts her VAD nursing skills to good use along with her able intelligence. She never oversteps the boundaries of what a lady of her class could do in that era, but you do feel that she actually works her puzzles out, rather than relying on some stroke of luck or anachronistic act of derring-do. She’s often been compared to Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs, and there is a circumstancial resemblance to her, but there’s more detecting going on in these books, less historical detail. I don’t mind that as I can sometimes get a bit bogged down with Maisie. And on an entirely superficial note, the covers are fab. If you like your cosy crime intelligent but restful, then I’d warmly recommend her.

As for this avid reader, I am aware of being horribly behind yet again in my blog reading. I’ve kept all your posts on my feed reader and hope to start getting to them very soon. Many apologies – hopefully the new edition of SNB will more than make up for my absence!

 

 

Passing Through

I am still somewhat brainless with chronic fatigue and turgid in spirit (isn’t turgid a good word?), though I don’t know what Mr Litlove’s excuse is. This is an exchange we had just the other evening:

Me: And how were your sandwiches today?

Mr Litlove: Very nice, very tasty. I do like that cheese. And the mayonnaise.

Me: That’s interesting. Considering the sandwiches I made you were ham and tomato.

Mr Litlove: (eyes darting from right to left in concentration) But there was mayonnaise in there… wasn’t there?

Me: You don’t have a clue, do you?

It’s a wonder they still let us drive. The only thing I’ve been doing with any consistency and engagement is, as usual, reading. But so many of the books that have passed through my hands lately have been for the magazine, one way or another. You’ll note the Monique Roffey in my sidebar, and the recent half-review of Archipelago I wrote. I’m actually putting together a special feature about her writing for our next edition because I think she’s an amazing author, fearless in her approach and so clever in her storytelling. She’s asking questions about power and politics, risk and catastrophe that no one else has the guts to tackle.

in love and warI’ve also just finished the new novel by Laurie Graham, who is a writer who really should be better known than she is. Several years ago now I read and loved The Importance of Being Kennedy, and since then she has produced a series of historical novels that focus on a sprawling dynasty at the height of a crisis. Only she is a wonderfully comic author who gives her characters the sort of lines that Maggie Smith would punch the air to have in Downton Abbey. This latest was a joy and my love of her continues unabated. I’m also at the start of a novel by Alex Preston set in the late 30s when a young man is sent (in disgrace) to Florence by his powerful father in order to set up a wireless station for the Faschists. It’s been wonderful so far. Honestly, if any idiot decides to proclaim the death of contemporary fiction, I shall be unrestrained in my scorn. I’ve read – and have still to read – a stream of brilliant books for the magazine.

Given my under-par nature at the moment, I’ve also been reading solidly comforting crime fiction. Last year, thanks to Danielle, I discovered Elizabeth Daly and her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge. I read Any Shape or Form, set as usual in the grand houses and crazy families of New York in the 1940s and absolutely loved it. Gamadge is visiting his elderly Aunt Alice and obliged to visit the neighbours with her. There, two conflicted sides of a family – the stepmother and her stepchildren – are being brought together by Johnny Redfields, a friend to all concerned, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the stepmother is dead. It was the sort of book that makes me think of Bertie Wooster who, when interrupting Jeeves in his reading of Spinoza, commented guiltily that he bet Jeeves’d just got to the place where they found the second body.

deadheadingI’ve also recently discovered Catherine Aird, though her books are a bit harder to get hold of. She has a hapless Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan (‘Seedy’ to his work colleagues) squashed between a boss half in love with the ill-digested propositions of whatever recent training course he’s been on, and the only reinforcement he can ever lay hands on, Constable Crosby, who no one believes will ever make a decent detective as he is so immune to the niceties of police work. They all take place in the fictional county of Calleshire and are sort of halfway between Caroline Graham with her Midsomer Murders and something a little older and gentler, Margery Allingham perhaps or Ngaio Marsh. I like ‘em.

the last asylumThere have also been a few new arrivals over the threshold, cough. I couldn’t resist historian Barbara Taylor’s memoir, The Last Asylum, about the four years she spent there recovering from a nervous breakdown. Nor The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark by Josh Cohen, which draws on psychoanalysis, literature and life to argue that we cannot lose our basic privacy because we have parts of ourselves that even we can’t access. (Mr Litlove skim-read this one weekend morning and said he found it a bit academic, but I don’t suppose I’ll mind that too much). I’ve also picked up copies of Sue Gee’s Coming Home, about colonial Brits returned from India, and D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, an alternative history novel which begins with the death of Wallis Simpson. Cleopatra had her asses’ milk, I have creamy pages of vanilla-sprinkle words to bathe in; I can thoroughly recommend it as a treatment. But what do we do about Mr Litlove??