Mwah-ha-ha To You, Too

night filmThis isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read, but lately I’ve been drawn to stories with a horrific or extreme edge to them. I fear I’ve finally turned into the kind of person who reads about situations worse than their own for comfort. The ethical jury in my mind is still out on this; I’ll get back to you when the verdict comes in.

So Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a whopper of a book, almost six hundred pages interspersed with mock pages from internet sites and magazines like Rolling Stone that must have had the collective knickers of the publisher’s Right’s Department in a twist, so genuine do they appear. Already we can begin to spots the signs of a postmodern imagination at work, yet the narrative also draws heavily on the old-fashioned hardboiled thriller. That same slightly awkward juxtaposition will be at work in the content too, which reaches for the outermost edge of contemporary horror film making, whilst falling unashamedly into the tropes of the scary ol’ ‘B’ movie.

The story begins with the ‘accidental’ death of young, beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, whose body is found at the bottom of a lift shaft in an abandoned Manhatten warehouse. She was the daughter of the notorious and reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, whose eccentric life is legendary. The family occupied a huge and isolated estate, surrounded by a twenty foot high perimeter fence, in whose extensive grounds Cordova shot his fifteen films. Those films are only screened in select underground viewings – in the dead of night, in pitch darkness and often in condemned buildings. You can see where we’re going with this, and I hope you can hear the tremulous chords of the electric organ playing something portentous… Cordova’s films have spawned an impressive cult following, and his fan club hold their website on the onion, a black market version of the internet (is this for real?). The films are supposed to provoke the most terrifying viewing experience that has ever been created, and Cordova has been celebrated as a genius and reviled as a madman possessed of an evil, sick mind.

Enter stage right investigative journalist Scott McGrath. McGrath was researching a book about Cordova when he received a clandestine call from a man claiming to be the family’s ex-chauffeur, and suggesting that Cordova was involved in child abuse. This so rattled McGrath that when he appeared later that evening on a television interview program, he went so far as to suggest that ‘someone needs to terminate [Cordova] with extreme prejudice. The lawyers of the great man were instantly galvanised into action and McGrath has for some time now been a disgraced investigative journalist, unable to retain his credibility. Naturally the death of Cordova’s daughter awakens all his instincts, and he doubts the verdict of suicide. He also begins to believe that he saw Ashley shortly before she died. He was jogging around Central Park late at night when a ghostly vision in a red coat appeared to him in the shadows, and seemed to flit about the park following him at a supernatural speed.

Scott becomes engrossed in an unofficial investigation that soon brings him two young side-kicks, Nora Halliday, a would-be actress working as a coat-check girl in a restaurant, and the handsome young Hopper, a druggie with surprising capabilities. Together they start to patch together a timetable of Ashley’s final days, starting with her break out of a mental institution, and ending with her fall from the roof of the warehouse. Everywhere they turn they uncover more and more disturbing accounts of Ashley’s behaviour, that seem to indicate some kind of demonic possession. And the deeper they delve into the Cordova family’s murky past, the more dangerous their investigation becomes.

This is such a mixed bag of a book. The first 250 pages had me absolutely gripped, and then, when I reached the 400 mark, my interest began to flag. This could be me – I struggle with big books and this one did not do anything to dissuade me that anything over 500 pages has at least 200 pages of padding in it. But then it picked up a lot at the end, which is remarkably clever and inventive and finds Scott being chased through a series of old film sets on the Cordova estate, beset by the nightmareish visions they awaken, and by the menacing loss of distinction between fantasy and reality. In parts, the writing is excellent and wonderfully creative; for example, an image I loved of birds on a telegraph wire: ‘seven tiny black notes on an otherwise empty piece of sheet music, the lines and bars sagging.’ But the reader must contend with Marisha Pessl’s obsession with italicising words and snippets of phrases, two or three per page. This can become quite the irritant. Much about the plotting and the general idea of the book is extremely innovative; the characters of Scott and Nora and Hopper run the perpetual risk of dissolving into cliché.

The reason for this is due, I think, to the awkward juxtapositions I spoke about earlier. This is a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a jolly, spooky romp of a thriller, a kind of adult version of Scooby-Doo, or a serious, postmodern story about the merger of fantasy and reality. Pessl has a game stab at making it both. I enjoyed it and admired it and sometimes rolled my eyes at it, but I’m glad I read it. One final thought: if you really do like the sort of filmmaking that Cordova is supposed to specialise in, give this book a wide berth. Its edges are too soft to be satisfying. But if you like horror-lite, and thrillers, and the idea of mismatched teams brought together through force of circumstances, there’s every chance you’ll love it.

Thursday Reading Notes

It has to be notes at the end of this week rather than a review because I’m reading Eleanor Catton’s magnificent epic, The Luminaries, and I’m afraid at this point that it might just go on forever. I am enjoying it and admiring it hugely. The writing is outrageously good. But heavens, it’s long. It’s also intricately plotted and where I am (250 pages in) there are still new characters being introduced, so I don’t like to put it down and pick anything else up for a mental palate cleanse. I’m keeping all the information in my head at the moment, but a break might set free details that will turn out to be essential to understanding the outcome later on. I worry about these things.

I’m really not good with very long books and it seems to me that, generally, books are getting longer. The average length for a novel seems to be about 350-400 pages, often with 50 pages that could have usefully been edited out. I’m not sure why longer books should be so fashionable, unless they look like better value for money. But I also wonder whether the length is about increasing complexity, and the urge, so prevalent in a tortured bookworld, to grip a reader and not allow them to go.

Tuesday's goneLast week I read the second Nicci French book featuring Dr Frieda Klein, their psychotherapist-detective. It was by sheer chance that I read the first book first – another thing I’m bad at is reading in the right order, prefering to cherry pick the best books from a prolific author when given the chance. But in this case, order is essential, because the opening chapters of the second novel give away pretty much eveything that happened at the end of the first, and continue to develop the plot lines that were started. I get the feeling that if you’ve read one, you’ve got to read ‘em all, and the second book has 450 pages, because now there’s not just a murder enquiry to be developed, there’s so much else going on in Frieda Klein’s life as well.

What I really appreciate about the books is their properly disturbing atmosphere. Nicci French have done a great job of tapping into the feeling of shifting sands that comes with mental instability, how dislocating and disorienting altered mental states can be. Tuesday’s Gone begins with the discovery of a corpse, but one that’s being given tea and buns by a woman with a severe mental abnormality. It was one of the creepiest openings to a work of crime fiction that I’d read in a long while. The character of Frieda Klein is also very well drawn, showing the way that therapists both seem calmer and more in control in emotional situations than most, but also how deeply wounded they may be in other ways. The third in the series Waiting for Wednesday, is just out and yes, I have a copy. I’m hooked in now.

I’m also writing about Dodie Smith, which involves reading all four volumes of her memoirs. Clearly this was an example of Dodie getting going and not being able to stop herself – she is having such a ball describing her life, but I found to my surprise that I wasn’t having so much of a ball keeping her company. In principle I should love these books; Dodie Smith is a very funny, self-deprecating writer who had a half-life on the stage before becoming an author (and writing 101 Dalmations and I Capture the Castle if you can’t place her). After reading up on a couple of male authors who could be rather full of self-pity, I thought I’d appreciate her sparky, spirited good humour. And I do. But her ability to brush problems and difficulties aside and to come out with a stream of amusing anecdotes is perversely turning her into an uninteresting person. The memoirs are funny, yes, and somehow relentlessly shallow. At the moment, we are in the thick of World War One, but after three years of warfare, world events have scarcely warranted a mention. So caught up with her failing and foolish love affairs is Dodie, that when she watches a zeppelin raid over London from the blacked-out theatre she’s appearing in, all she sees is a delightfully pretty phenomenon in the night sky and she’s rather proud not to feel in the least bit scared. It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1. But the experience of the memoirs is telling me something very interesting: we hate the dark emotions, the painful events, the fear and the sorrow. But these are the things that give us depth and make us interesting people. 800 pages of frivolity is turning out to be the hardest going of all.

The Other Typist

RindellIt’s 1924, New York in the era of prohibition and Rose Baker is quietly proud of her job as a police stenographer. She is the fastest and most accurate typist at her police station, and she has an idol in the form of the Sergeant, with his moral rectitude and handlebar moustaches, and someone to despise in the form of the Lieutenant Detective, who is too greasily handsome and maverick for her tastes. For Rose Baker is an orphan who has been brought up by the nuns and one thing she knows how to do is judge. It’s another reason why she thinks she’s in the right job.

Rose’s comfortable but dull life is shaken up considerably when a new typist joins the precinct. The glamorous Odalie is a beautiful and dangerous manipulator, a woman with a hidden agenda and a secret life. When she befriends Rose, nothing is the same as it was before. In the early part of the story, we are not quite sure who we should be frightened for – Odalie is clearly an operator, but Rose has her secrets, too, including a girlhood friendship that ended in scandal, and a cruel streak that appears without warning. One girl is the cat, and the other the mouse, but which is which? When it becomes apparent that Rose is writing this story from some point in the future beyond its conclusion, when imprisonment is at stake, the tension doesn’t diminish; it becomes all the more intriguing to find out what happened and how.

There are all sorts of interesting influences in this book – it’s a kind of Single White Female meets The Great Gatsby, with a bit of Hitchcock thrown in too. But it rises above these elements in the pitch-perfect evocation of the 1920s and the remarkably consistent voice of Rose who narrates. I found it took a few pages to get into Rose’s voice – she is pedantic and eloquent, using long, complex sentences that nevertheless flow smoothly and well. But once I was in, I found this a clever, scintillating story, with a well-organised plot. This is a stunning debut for a first-time novelist, and the only place it shows is in the middle of the book, where Suzanne Rindell shifts her narrative around her characters, showing different aspects of their relationship in a way that can let the tension drop at the start of each chapter (though it’s quickly picked up again). The theme of identity – that we are all constructions one way or another, and this is the strongest and the weakest part of our personalities – is brilliantly explored.

I’m never sure about the term ‘literary thriller’ because literature slows the pace in order to make the reader appreciate the subtleties and nuances of events, whereas a thriller implies (to me anyway) some high-octane speed. But The Other Typist is pretty close to what a literary thriller might look like, if you take away the necessity of inhabiting fifth gear. I both admired and enjoyed it, and will be looking out for Suzanne Rindell’s next novel.


A New Discovery

Probably because I am so keen myself on the activities of reading, deducing and interpreting, I am the kind of consumer of crime fiction who’s in it for the puzzle. I can read the gore and violence stuff (to a certain level) but playing mental games with fear and vulnerability just isn’t as interesting. No, what pleases me above all else is the arrival on the scene of the master detective – professional or inspired amateur, I really don’t mind – who will discern revealing clues in otherwise ordinary objects and events, and who will read the difference between what the suspects say and the subtext they try to hide. Nothing makes me happier than a really good dénouement when all the pieces fall into place in a surprising yet convincing order. And so my heart lies with the Golden Age of crime, when detecting was all about being clever, and the victim was so often someone the community was glad to see dead.

Elizabeth Daly looking suitably benign and cozy

Elizabeth Daly looking suitably benign and cozy

Imagine my delight, then, when the wonderful Danielle reviewed a ‘lost’ Golden Age author, Elizabeth Daly (what would we do without Danielle’s recommendations – I think half the books I’ve bought in the past seven years have come from reading her blog!). I immediately bought a couple of books by her, and after I’d read the first one, I did something I practically never do and immediately read the second. And then I ordered two more. I had taken with a pinch of salt the much trumpeted claim on the book cover that Elizabeth Daly had been the favourite author of Agatha Christie. But having read her books, I now believe it is probably quite true. There is something very Christie-esque in the way the plots unfold and the ingenuity of the solutions. I’ve been trying to find out a bit about Elizabeth Daly’s life but she is a regular woman of mystery. She was the daughter of a New York justice of the peace, had enough private income to pursue her interests in writing and putting on plays, but didn’t publish her first novel until the age of 62. In the next ten years she wrote 15 more novels, featuring her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge.

Henry Gamadge is an expert in antiquarian books and manuscripts and known to be discreet, trustworthy and shrewd. Although he’s a gentleman, he’s not the effete, foppish sort; rather, he takes advantage of his undistinguished features to blend in wherever he finds himself, and he’s not above involving himself in war work (intelligence, we presume). His location is a subdued New York in the 1940s and his clientele is made up of the kind of wealthy old families who are on the brink of extinction.  Whilst a louder, smarter set are close on their heels, these are the families for whom name, reputation and respectability are still worth killing. And given their innate secrecy, this is apt to happen when such families harbour a certifiable nutcase in their midst.

arrow pointing nowhereIn Arrow Pointing Nowhere, Gamadge receives – through the deployment of much subterfuge – an anonymous cryptic note asking for his help. More such missives follow, each one thrown from an upper window of a grand mansion belonging to a family of spotless respectability. Gamadge infiltrates their midst and has to figure out first of all what crime has been committed and who his client is. In Somewhere In The House, Gamadge has been asked to come and witness the unsealing of a room that has been blocked for 25 years and which may contain a valuable part of Grandmama Clayborn’s legacy. Harriet Clayborn has decided her family are so untrustworthy that attempts may be made to lift the treasures and so she reels Henry Gamadge in as an independent adjudicator. When the room is finally open, a gruesome discovery is made, and Gamadge finds himself involved in a series of crimes committed a generation ago.

I loved these novels! Sharp, elegant, clever and fast-moving, and Gamadge is a delight; a man whose compassion is matched only by his intellect, he effaces himself the better to observe others and always has a care for the dignity of the innocent. Most of all, though, I appreciated truly satisfying resolutions to the cases, ones I never saw coming even though I might have guessed I was being distracted and diverted. Golden Age crime in classic form.