Crime/Noir

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES BY BORIS VIAN

At one time I would actively avoid pain and unhappiness, torture and murder, in my reading. I called those who sought out that kind of thing literary ambulance chasers. And yet over the last twelve months I have found myself increasingly indulging in it too, even though it still disturbs and upsets me. I justified it to myself as a newly developed interest in the history of outré, extreme or anti literature, and the decadent, erotic and gothic genres; and while that interest is genuine I didn’t ask myself why, or what motivated it. Then, as I read Boris Vian’s discomforting I Spit On Your Graves, it occurred to me that it is, at least to some extent, because I am, and have been for over a year, deeply unhappy myself. In part, this is due to my personal circumstances, but I’m also angry and hurt by what is happening in the world at large. While I still feel compassion for others, I now realise that I am probably drawn to books that confirm this negative world view, the view that people are essentially full of shit and life is mostly viciousness, pettiness, vapidity and suffering.

“Nobody knew me at Buckton. That’s why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn’t had a flat, I didn’t have enough gas to get any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem’s letter, and that’s all. There wasn’t a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let’s not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid’s little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter.”

These days, Boris Vian is most well-known for the cute, some would say twee, love story L’Écume des jours. He wrote I Spit On Your Graves, which as previously suggested is decidedly not cute nor twee, in two weeks as a genre exercise. On face value, it is a passable, better than average, and certainly readable, example of hard-boiled noir in which a man arrives in a town and seeks to take revenge upon some of the inhabitants for the murder of his younger brother. The narrator, Lee Anderson, is engagingly, typically, broad-shouldered and mean; and the supporting cast also conform to expectations, which is to say that the men are hard-drinkers and the women – who make up the majority – are hot-to-trot. Moreover, while Vian didn’t have the best ear for noir dialogue and one-liners, there are a few memorable wise-cracks, such as when Lee says of Dexter’s father that he was ‘the sort of man you feel like smothering slowly with a pillow’ or when he is asked what he intends to do with the Asquith sisters and he replies that ‘any good looking girl is worth doing something with.’

What makes Anderson, and therefore the book as a whole, unusual is that he is a black man who looks like a white man. Nearly all noir is political, because it is so class conscious; it deals almost exclusively with the lower – a word I use economically, not necessarily morally – elements of society and with crime. However, not often, or certainly not when the book was written, is race a factor. In I Spit On Your Graves, race is used, first of all, as a motivation for murder, as Anderson’s brother was killed by white people and it is white people upon whom he wants revenge. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is also used as a weapon. Anderson is able to pass amongst the whites because he looks like them. Using the stealth of his appearance, he targets two young, local white girls, who he intends to bed and then dispose of. Crucially, he wants them to know that they were fucked by a black man before he kills them, as he believes that this will horrify them.

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It is worth pointing out before going any further that the book was originally published under the name Vernon Sullivan. This was not, moreover, an ordinary pseudonym. In a move that put him in the same position as his central character, Vian – a white Frenchman – took on the disguise of a black American, going so far as to pen a preface in which Sullivan outlines the intention or philosophy behind his work. That Vian would not want his own name associated with the book is not surprising, as a story this controversial and relentlessly grim might have been career suicide. However, I feel as though his decision to use a persona, especially that of a black man, was an unfortunate one. First of all, if you are going to write something like I Spit On Your Graves, in which I imagine Vian believed he was making serious, important points about his society, you ought to have the balls to claim it as your own, and not try and palm it off on the very elements of that society that you feel are unjustly treated. Secondly, using Vernon Sullivan strikes me as an attempt to give his opinions and ideas authenticity, as though he understood himself that a successful white Frenchman speaking for disenfranchised black America suggests a lamentable, almost offensive, level of arrogance.

In his preface, Vian has Sullivan express his contempt for the ‘good nigger, those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature.’ He goes on to explain his intention to write a novel in which ‘negroes’ are shown to be as tough as white men. And, well, while I understand what Vian was getting at, vis-a-vis a patronising attitude towards black people in literature, he doesn’t show Lee Anderson to be merely tough, but rather he shows him to be all the stereotypes that were/are expected of a black male. He is athletically built, criminal, violent and sex obsessed. There is barely a paragraph that goes by in which the narrator is not lusting after one young teenage girl or other. Sex is – far more than revenge, or his brother, or injustice – almost all he thinks about. Furthermore, one also has to ask why all the girls that Anderson sleeps with, and in some cases rapes, are underage. I struggled to understand the relevance of that. It felt seedy, nasty, and pointless. To have made them of age, in their twenties for example, would not have altered the story at all, except to make it marginally less disturbing. But maybe that was the point: Vian wanted his novel to be as unpleasant as possible, but to what end I do not know.

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KZRADOCK THE ONION MAN AND THE SPRING-FRESH METHUSELAH BY LOUIS LEVY

What will be related here is, like the novel by Louis Levy around which much of the action revolves, a ‘dreadful and bloody mystery’, one that is still not entirely understood by me. I make these notes, therefore, not in order to bring clarity to the situation but as a kind of exorcism. I write as a means of relieving myself of a burden and to bring a semblance of peace and order to my own soul. My patient, who I have always known as Kzradock, but who may in fact be someone, anyone, other than that man, was referred to me by the police as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, early in my treatment of him I doubted this diagnosis. When he screamed ‘Kzradock!’ I, like the police, understood this to be his name, certainly, but other of his utterances, and most persuasively the look in his haunted eyes, suggested to me some form of secret knowledge, a mystery, or story, that ought not to be ignored. In short, I doubted his madness, and, in turn, ended up doubting my own sanity.

I was making my morning rounds of the institute when I looked in upon Kzradock. He was standing in the corner of his room, his back to the wall. Often in situations such as these I would pass on to the next room without interfering, for the man was not harming himself, but on this occasion something compelled me to enter Kzradock’s cell. I greeted the man with a sincere good morning, and he, without turning around to face me, took up his familiar refrain: ‘Kzradock! Violently shaking hands! Hmm. Collapsing…under the burden. Eyes…ah…a consuming fever!’ I wondered whether I ought to administer a sedative, but I suddenly wished to have another go at getting him to expand upon his seemingly incoherent ramblings. I asked him to whom it was that he referred. ‘Kzradock!’ he screamed. And then to my surprise he spoke, near moaned, these new, strange, barely comprehensible, phrases: ‘Fever! Fresh Onion Man! Levy, Louis-Methuselah. Doctor! Oh doctor! I don’t exist! Please help me!’

I considered these new offerings to be a kind of breakthrough. Certainly, he had not referred to me as a doctor before, which suggested that he recognised who I was and, perhaps, where he was. Kzradock, I said, gently, who is the Fresh Onion Man? Levy Louis? ‘Kzradock and the doctor,’ he replied. I am the onion man? ‘No!’ he screamed. ‘You, like me, don’t exist!’ And then he began to weep. I thought at this point of ending our conversation, for I could see that it was especially distressing. I was about to leave when, conveniently, one of my attendants entered the cell and told me that there was a call for me in my office. When I picked up the phone, however, the line appeared to be dead. But as I listened closer I heard a crackling sound, something like tin foil being scrunched up into a ball; and then, faintly, I heard, or thought I heard, a voice say: ‘Kzradock is a character, doc.’ Hello? Hello? Who’s there? ‘It’s a book, you fool.’ What’s that? A book? Hello?

I put down the phone, almost slammed it down, and looked around my office. The room was full of books, for I have always been a keen reader. I went over to the shelves and scanned them intently. Kzradock, Kzradock, Kzradock. Every single book was called Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring Fresh Methuselah and each was written by Louis Levy. Ah, I’m lost, I thought to myself. I’ve gone mad! Kzradock has infected me with his madness! I took one of the books from the shelf and opened it. The pages were blank. I was on the verge of collapse when one of my attendants, the same attendant as before, entered my office. ‘You have blood on your hands,’ he said sheepishly. What? Is Kzradock dead? ‘No, your hands, doctor, are bleeding.’ I looked down at my hands. They were red. ‘A papercut!’ I screamed at the man. He smiled and nodded and then handed me a piece of paper. What’s this? ‘A police officer gave it to me just now.’ Which police officer? No, don’t say anything! You may leave!

I knew that something was amiss with that attendant. He was, I was sure, in on a plot to ruin me. He was, yes, a co-conspirator. Perhaps, I thought, he has even drugged me. In any case, I opened the note and read: esteemed author, Louis Levy, who died in 1940, will today, September 10th 2017, give a talk about his famous novel Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring Fresh Methuselah. Although sensing a trap, I noted the time and address and, realising that I had only twenty five minutes to spare, immediately left the institute. When I arrived at the appointed place, however, the talk was over and Levy was answering questions. ‘Yes, I would say that it is a Gothic novel. There is an insane asylum, of course, and murder, or at least the suggestion of murder, and a ghost. There is a scalping too! And there are, if you will allow me to quote myself, references to a hall of pain and an underworld of horrors. But it is, on the surface at least, as much a detective novel, but a confused kind of detective novel, whereby one isn’t sure who exactly is investigating – is it Mr. Wells or Monsieur Carbonel or Dr. Renard? – or whether there has even been a crime!’

A round of applause. A hand now sprang up, a small and hairy hand, a hand much too small and hairy to be human. I looked closer and noticed that the entire audience was made up of mongooses. ‘How do you feel, Mr. Levy, about the popular description of the novel as pulp?’ Levy grinned back at the mongoose. ‘Oh, I feel as though that term, that genre, is applied to books often as a kind of insult, or back-handed compliment at least. It is a way of saying that a story is fast-paced and fun, but not too taxing; that it is rather stupid, but enjoyable. It denotes low quality literature. Well, I guess my book is fun – what with the puma, and the man with the tapeworm, and all that – but, if I may say so, it isn’t stupid nor low quality.’ Another round of applause from the mongooses. I put up my hand. ‘Yes, you, the man in the doctor’s coat.’ What, I stammered, does all this mean? Who are you? Who am I? The book…I don’t understand. ‘He hasn’t read it,’ whispered one of the mongooses. ‘Philistine!’ hissed another.

I quickly realised that I ought to leave. I pushed through the crowd, which had now started to turn on each other. Mongoose leapt at mongoose, teeth bared, aiming for the throat. Pools of blood began to form on the floor. Wider, higher. Up to my knees. I waded through it. At this stage the mongooses had stopped fighting and were, instead, starting to drown in an ocean of their own blood. As I reached the door I looked back. ‘You don’t exist!’ one of the mongooses shouted, his head barely visible above the blood. ‘This isn’t real, it’s a book. Kza…Kzr…the meaning…is madness.’ I wanted to exit, to make myself safe, and yet I could not, I had to speak to the mongoose. What do you mean? ‘The book, if you had read it, you philistine, has all the answers…memory and madness…Kzradock is the mind in collapse, the soul when over-burdened…think, man, about yourself…how have you been feeling lately? Well?’ I had to admit I had not been quite myself. ‘What is reality? That is the book’s ultimate, profound question. Is it what you experience? Can what you experience be wrong? What does it mean to be of healthy mind, doctor? Is it when you can trust what you experience? Can you ever trust it?’

I wanted to reply, to converse further, but the head of the mongoose finally disappeared. So instead I pushed open the door of the auditorium and walked through, but rather than finding myself on the street, as I expected, I was, in fact, facing a wall, the wall of a cell in my institution. And, and as I turned around…there in front of me…was myself. ‘Good morning,’ I said to myself. ‘How are you feeling today?’ Kzradock! I screamed. ‘Tell me more,’ I replied patiently, ‘who is Kzradock?’ The Onion Man…I…I’m Kzradock! Louis Levy! Please! ‘And who is Louis Levy, Kzradock?’ Me…I’m…Dr. Renard de Monpensier…this is insanity…who are you? Who am I? Oh please…Spring Fresh book! Fever! Fresh Onion Man! Levy, Louis-Methuselah. Doctor! Oh doctor! I don’t exist! Please help me.

FANTÔMAS BY PIERRE SOUVESTRE & MARCEL ALLAIN

I didn’t initially suspect anything untoward; an unfortunate series of events, is what I called it. I am not mad; or at least I was not. In a world where anything is possible, where an infinite number of things can happen at any time and in any sequence, a run of bad luck, especially for someone with such poor judgement, was unwelcome, of course, but did not strike me as unduly worrying or significant. Yet, as the disasters have shown no sign of abating, have in fact increased in frequency and seriousness, I am at the point of seeing a sinister hand in this, a plan, a vendetta. Whose hand? God’s? No, with my ego having been brought to heel by these catastrophes, I can no longer believe that there is anything in my wretched case that would interest a deity. But someone; something. Fate? Perhaps. A force, certainly; inexplicable, unseeable, unknowable, but felt. A phantom. Fantômas.

“Fantômas! The sound of that name evoked the worst horrors! Fantômas! This terrorist, this über-criminal who has never shrunk from any cruelty, any horror – Fantômas is evil personified! Fantômas! He stops at nothing!”

When Fantômas – which is, I believe, considered to be one of the first pulp novels – was released in 1911 it is said to have caused a sensation amongst the general public in France. Moreover, the iconic cover, which features a giant masked man holding a bloody knife and walking over Paris, appears to promise sinister delights. For these reasons, I came to the book expecting something fast-paced, exciting and essentially mindless. And I was fine with that; it was all I felt I could handle at this time. However, the opposite is actually the case. The pace is, for example, rather slow, certainly in pulp terms, although it does pick up in the second half. Likewise, the action is often laboured, with many pages devoted to interminable, often repetitive, or unnecessary, exposition, rather than cunning feats of criminality or even creative sleuthing.

On the subject of sleuthing, I ought to take a few moments to reflect upon Inspector Juve; and a few moments is all I will need. As the pursuer, he is dedicated and relentless, but bland. Yet, amongst the inhabitants of the novel, he is as famous and awe-inspiring as Fantômas, the pursued. He is, we’re told, a man of ‘marvellous skill’ and ‘incomparable daring’, a man with ‘extraordinary instinct,’ although, in fairness, Juve himself is rather modest about his abilities. The disconnect between how Juve is spoken about and perceived by the other characters, and the reader’s own exposure to the man, is one of the novel’s major failings. The inspector does nothing in Fantômas that suggests genius, or great skill, other than an unerring ability to seemingly stumble upon important clues and casually place himself at the centre of the action. Indeed, rather than any number of legendary case-crackers, he most reminded me of Droopy in the cartoon Northwest Hounded Police, where the wolf has escaped from prison and no matter what [insane] lengths he goes to, the unassuming dog always pops up out of nowhere to spook him.

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in view of all this, you may wonder whether Fantômas is worth reading at all. Indeed, I asked myself that question numerous times during the early stages of the novel. There are, however, a few things that elevate it, that give it power, depth, and ultimately a certain level of profundity. The first of these is the nature of the crimes. While, as previously noted, I would have liked them to be more prominent, they are gruesome and daring. There is one scene, my favourite passage in fact, in which a man jumps onto a moving train and then proceeds to throw a sleeping passenger off it. It may even be my favourite murder in all literature. The audacity and apparent senselessness of it left me a little breathless, which is not something that happens often during my reading. I also want to briefly discuss identity, or rather the changing of identity. This happens throughout to such an extent that it is at times farcical, but mostly disorientating. One quickly comes to question every character, one, specifically, suspects them of being, in truth, someone else.

Thus far, I have only mentioned the titular villain in passing, which is in keeping with his role in the novel itself, and which, incidentally, is another reason why it drags in places. One simply wants more of him, one waits for him, pines for him. Yet, due to the identity issues I touched upon in the preceding paragraph, there is a sense that Fantômas is always potentially on screen, whilst being simultaneously off it. That is part of the genius of the novel. He might be Charles Rambert, or his father; he might be Bouzille or even Juve. He might be none of them; he might, and this is crucial, not exist at all. Most of the crimes appear to have been committed by different people, with different motives. It is Juve who links them all to Fantômas; it is the inspector, in fact, who is most adamant about his existence, while a good number of the characters in the novel doubt it.

As with Durrenmatt’s The Pledge, there is the clever suggestion that perhaps Fantômas exists only in the imagination, and mostly in the mind of the man who is so hellbent on apprehending him. On the very first page, in the opening paragraph, it is said that he is both ‘nobody’ and ‘somebody,’ that the word means ‘nothing’ and ‘everything.’ Is he not, therefore, simply a convenient way of explaining the inexplicable or the apparently inexplicable? Is he not a scapegoat, a bogeyman, a nightmare ghoul, a phantom? Gurn is Gurn. Rambert is Rambert. The murders are not linked, or are not all the work of one man. Perhaps, perhaps. In any case, what is undeniable is that Fantômas is, for Inspector Juve, as he has come to be for myself, a necessary evil. He brings order and meaning to the chaos of the world, for he can be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for any catastrophe that befalls it or us.

BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL BY ELLIOTT CHAZE

You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.

“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”

Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett,  Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.

One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.

Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.

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I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.

It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?

THE PLEDGE BY FRIEDRICH DÜRRENMATT

For years I approached people as though I was a detective trying to solve a case. I thought logic could be applied to them; I thought that no matter how confusing, how irrational and out of character, any of their behaviour seemed, explanations and answers would be forthcoming if you kept a professional distance and were intelligent and perceptive enough; and that, furthermore, you could, in fact, accurately predict behaviour with a small amount of information. I saw the chaos around me, which so troubled my peers, as being simply a ball of string to untangle. I prided myself on understanding people, even if I only rarely liked them. Then, eighteen months ago I made the decision to climb down from my comfortable vantage point, to engage fully with the world, and found, at closer quarters, that it is surreal and nightmarish, and that any attempt to make sense of it, to impose order upon it, is futile and likely to lead to madness.

I had read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge once before, around five years ago. At that time, I found it, like many other police procedural novels, fun, easy-going, immediately satisfying, yet ultimately inconsequential. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but more likely my judgement was a result of an overriding complacency. I was happy then. It was not until I picked it up again this week, as a different man, as someone who is not at ease with the world or himself, that I came to appreciate how complex and moving it is. It begins with a chance meeting between a writer of detective novels – who is narrating the action – and a police chief. Not long after they are introduced, the author is offered a ride, during which the chief criticises the detective genre. These novels are, he says, a ‘waste of time,’ not because the culprit is always brought to justice – this he considers to be ‘morally necessary’ – but because they proceed logically. You can’t, he advises the narrator, and me too, albeit too late in my case, ‘come to grips with reality by logic alone.’

As a way of illustrating his point he starts to tell a story about one of his officers, Matthäi, which then dominates the rest of the book. These postmodern, meta-fictional aspects of The Pledge are often praised, yet are, for me, one of its few, but not fatal, flaws. The framing narrative, the meeting between the author and the chief, including his criticisms, are too contrived, are gracelessly executed, and, worse still, unnecessary. It is clear that Dürrenmatt himself is speaking through the policeman when he objects to convenient, predictable plotting, and how at odds it is with reality, but these points could, and are, made far more powerfully in the rest of the novel. The reader does not need them to be spelt out quite so clinically. In fact, these elements have the potential to compromise the intensity of what follows, because one always has in mind that one is listening to a story being recounted; it comes close to taking one out of the action, it weakens, if not breaks, the spell.

The reason that these things do not too negatively impact one’s experience of the book is due, in large part, to the author’s ability to create and maintain a foreboding atmosphere. Even before the main storyline is introduced Dürrenmatt writes about the ‘inhuman silence’ of the Swiss canton, of unnaturally dark days, and of mountains that resemble an ‘immense grave.’ One is given the impression that this is a menacing, strange place. The houses are wretched; the sun, when it actually comes out, is malevolent. The writer of detective novels is spooked. He mentions his fear of ‘not waking again’, of feeling as though he is trapped inside an ‘endless, meaningless dream.’ Later, there is the repeated red symbolism, which of course reminds one of blood, but most eerie and unsettling is the role of the hedgehog giant, whose significance will become clear upon reading the book.

“You’re choosing madness as a method, and it takes courage to do that, no question; extreme positions impress people generally these days; but if this method does not lead to its goal, I’m afraid that in the end, all you’ll be left with is the madness.”

The first glimpse one has of Matthäi is as an ‘old man on a stone bench.’ He is ‘unshaven, unwashed’; his clothes are ‘smeared and stained; his eyes are ‘staring, stupefied’; and there is a strong smell of absinthe. His current unfortunate state means that one is eager to find out how a former police officer came to be this way, especially when it is told that he was once a ‘most capable man’, even a ‘genius.’ The crime at the centre of the book is the murder of a child, a girl, perhaps the most emotive kind of crime, and, in the early stages of the investigation, the impression that one gets of Matthäi is of someone who is strong and dispassionate. For example, he is the only one present when the body is found who is able to look directly at the corpse; and the only one willing to shoulder the burden of informing the parents [during which he makes the pledge of the title]. Indeed, in one of my favourite lines, he says to a doctor that he didn’t want to suffer with the world, he wanted to be superior to it.

However, none of this lends any weight to the chief’s description of Matthäi as a genius. The earliest indication of his special ability is when he offers to release the primary suspect to a crowd who have gathered in order to seek vengeance. He says he will turn the man over to them if they can guarantee justice, then proceeds to convince them that this would be impossible, because they cannot prove his guilt. It is a daring move, and evidence not only of his talent, but his arrogance too. Matthäi believes that he can read people, and that reason, his reason, will triumph over disorder. One sees further evidence of this in his unwillingness to accept that the primary suspect is actually guilty, despite him having motive, opportunity, a previous conviction, and the girl’s blood on his clothing. On one level it seems like a kind of a superiority complex, such as when I was at University and would argue the most extreme positions, because I felt as though I could do so better, more logically and consistently, than anyone else could argue their more mainstream opinions.

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As a study of arrogance, The Pledge would be fine, but not quite the masterpiece that it is. What elevates it even further is that one can also interpret Matthäi’s stance as a great, obsessive, and ultimately insane, dedication to his work and, more importantly, to the truth [as he sees it]. The easiest thing would be, of course, to be satisfied with the most probable culprit and close the case. Certainly, the chief, the townsfolk, and his colleagues, are happy to do so. For Matthäi personally, who has landed a excellent job opportunity in Jordan, and is due to leave the country imminently, it is the best, the most sensible thing to do. However, he refuses to, or he can’t, and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, his methods and theories more monstrous, as he vows to catch the real perpetrator of the crime. As he pieces together his case, everything that he argues is plausible, but the point made by Dürrenmatt is that logic is so powerful that one can create, and justify, appalling narratives, that in a world of chaos one can find links between an infinite number of unrelated, insignificant things, and thereby imbue them with false significance. It is to his immense credit as an author that he has one rooting for his madman, has one believing in him, even when he ruthlessly uses a small child as bait in order to catch a killer who may not even exist.

A SENTIMENTAL NOVEL BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

Since becoming aware of its existence I had earmarked Alain Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel to be the last book I wrote about, and perhaps the last book I read. It seemed to me to be the perfect way to go out, to give up the activities that I so often find joyless and detrimental to my mental health. As is typical, I did not want to take my leave gracefully, but, rather, with a big fuck you to books, to writing, and to my old self. Indeed, that is how I understood the purpose of A Sentimental Novel, prior to reading it. It was written when Robbe-Grillet was in his eighties, and was published, in 2007, a year before his death. It was, therefore, the work of a man who must have known he was reaching the end of his life. This, he may very well have decided, would be his concluding statement, his last word to the world; and, as such, I saw in its promised unpleasantness, and disregard for the well-being of its reader, a stiff middle finger. But I was wrong.

“He contemplates her for an instant, motionless, in waiting, at his feet, and pays her a sophisticated compliment on her pose as a well-trained maid and on her flattering and intimate turnout as an underage courtesan, without failing to make mention, in ceremonious terms, of the numerous bright pink, distinct, artfully crisscross marks that decorate her ass.”

A Sentimental Novel centres on the relationship between a fifteen year old, ‘barely pubescent’ girl and a man who is said to be her father. In the early stages – even taking into account the suggested incest and the underage sex – what it serves up is a fairly tame and predictable account of sadomasochism. The ‘authoritarian’ master and the ‘docile’ pupil engage in a training regime, involving corporal punishment [whipping her backside – for wrongdoings or simply when he feels like it], enforced reading of pornographic material, serving him drinks, etc. She is the ‘lovely schoolgirl’, the ‘underage courtesan’, and he is her ‘inflexible director of conscience and libido.’ It is, let’s be honest, the sort of role-play consenting adults take part in every day, for their mutual enjoyment. In doing so, they are not, at least in most cases, condoning paedophilia, and nor does pornography that depicts similar situations and scenarios. It is simply the case that one of the functions of erotica is to flesh out, give voice to, fantasies many people feel uncomfortable about giving voice to themselves.

Moreover, there are numerous, not-so-subtle, hints that what one is reading is not really happening. It is easy to forget, as the atrocities pile up, that the story is actually being narrated by a man, a man who, on the first page, wakes to find himself in a white room. He does not know how he got there, and wonders whether he was ‘perhaps driven here by force, against my will, in spite of myself even.’ He also wonders whether he is in prison, or whether he is dead. Therefore, the action of the novel, the extreme unpleasantness contained within it, may be, or most likely is, a figment of his imagination. Certainly, it is not possible that the girl and her father are in the room with him, nor that he can see them through a window or door, as he claims there are none. Indeed, the girl, and by extension the story, appears to emerge from a painting that the man is looking at. It is also worth noting that one of the girl’s names is Djinn, which means genie, suggesting, again, that this is all fantasy.

In any case, I do not believe that the exploring of forbidden, if common, fantasies, nor the sexual gratification of his readers, was Robbe-Grillet’s aim. In fact, far from being a dirty and immoral book, I would argue that one of its principle themes is indoctrination and the harmful effects of what people are exposed to, including pornography. The young girl – who, as noted, has several names, but is mostly called Gigi – is groomed to be her father’s sex slave, is made a willing participant, by virtue of a systematic normalising of the behaviour and acts that please him. She lives, for example, in a house that is essentially a brothel, one that is equipped with torture chambers. She knows no other world. There are, moreover, pictures on the walls showing young girls being tortured; and, as previously noted, she is made to read from texts featuring abuse and torture, and listen to her father’s own anecdotes on the subject. She is even given alcohol and drugs in order to make her pliable.

As a consequence of her training, Gigi is the only character in the book who goes on a kind of journey, who evolves, only it is not for the better, it is not towards enlightenment. There is, for her, a pivotal moment in the text when a doll, by which we mean another young girl who has been trained to be submissive, is brought into the house. Some of the abuses Odile has been subjected to are recounted, and Gigi is said to understand that she must ‘not show the tenderness she feels’ for her. She has learnt, therefore, that sympathy or compassion, for example, is unacceptable, and is also aware of her own precarious position in the house i.e. that it is possible that if she displeases her master she may actually find herself in Odile’s position, or worse. Yet, this is the last vestige of humanity one glimpses in her. Once Odile is given to her as a present, Gigi becomes increasingly her father’s daughter.

There is so much in this that one could discuss, not least the idea, which I have expressed myself on numerous occasions, that if you give someone complete freedom over another to do as they please they will invariably do something harmful. However, in terms of this review, what I am most interested in is Gigi’s transformation from slave to master by way of her education. The most persuasive evidence of this is that upon discovery of the pictures of her mother being tortured, Gigi fantasises about Odile being strung up in the same way. She is not pretending out of fear, she has come to find sexual enjoyment in the pain and suffering of others through relentless exposure to it. There are, of course, those who claim that we do not learn in this way, that, to use an analogy, violent computer games cannot create violent people, but I disagree. I do not believe that exposure to unpleasant things has the same effect upon everyone, but I do think that human beings are incredibly suggestible, and our preferences, especially our sexual preferences, are fluid and malleable and are often directly related to our experiences, especially those early in life.

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It is significant that there is not a single act of aggression or abuse perpetrated against a male in the novel, significant because this too is, for me, one of Robbe-Grillet’s principle preoccupations. Throughout, he repeatedly highlights the cultural and historical persecution and torture of women. He references the martyrdom of Sankt Giesela, the ‘sacrifices listed in the works of Apuleius, Tertullian, and Juvenal’, the rape and murder of women in religious paintings, the burning and disfigurement of concubines who displeased the emperor of the Tang dynasty with their ‘nocturnal activities’, etc. He also notes that girls from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, amongst other places, who have escaped ill-treatment in their home countries, often find themselves sold into sex slavery. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet himself points out that sinners made to perish in front of witnesses are very seldom men, and are most often girls, not mature women. This he puts down to being a consequence of the power being held by men, of, therefore, patriarchy.

None of that is particularly profound, or insightful, but it is certainly at odds with the common perception of A Sentimental Novel as the outpourings of a dirty old modernist. As with Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden, Robbe-Grillet appears to be making a comment about humanity-at-large, and our well-documented, natural but lamentable, sadistic and masochistic impulses, impulses that, at least in the case of sadism, we go to great lengths these days to hide. However, I cannot conclude this review without reiterating just how disturbing some of the content of the book is, regardless of, in my opinion, the author’s philosophically and morally sound intentions. There is no getting away from the fact that there are parts of it that are fucking horrible, near unreadable. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I reached breaking point at page eighty-eight, which describes a mother and her baby being raped and dismembered and eaten. So, while A Sentimental Novel is not pornography, and it is not a final fuck you, you might say that it is a test of one’s nerve. How far can you get? How many pages can you stomach?

MASTER OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT BY LEO PERUTZ

Life, I told someone the other day, has been getting in the way of my reading. Which is, I guess, a good thing. After the recent breakdown of a relationship, a relationship characterised by a familiar resistance to engaging meaningfully with the world around me, I vowed to change. Too late, of course, to hold onto the person that meant so much to me. One of the more distressing aspects of human existence is that often the one who inspired a change or growth in a man, the one who waited so patiently for it, will never benefit from it; no, that benefit will be for someone else, someone who did not have to work with the earlier, shoddier model, and who is therefore not even aware of the improvement; someone who, with blissful ignorance, accepts that this is who you are and have always been.

With this change my engagement with books has slowed to a pace consistent with that of a sane human being, one who is, indeed, not much of a reader at all. It has been two months since I completed Roland Topor’s The Tenant, a period of time, which, when I try to imagine it, strikes me as vast and extraordinary, like the surface of a previously unknown planet. I have picked up a number of novels during those two months, but unenthusiastically, reading only a page or two here and there; none of these books aggressively appealed to me, none of them turned me on in the way that they would once have done, when they would have breathed hotly into my ear and rested a hand on my cock. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Ironically, just as my relationship with my partner soured, so has my relationship with books, such that they now strike me as something like a wife I no longer desire.

I must admit that I was starting to panic, about this, about my blog and the prospect of never again updating it, and that panic became motivating. Was I to give it up? Does having a life outside of books involve becoming like the people I once criticised, the ones who told me they didn’t have time for serious reading, and certainly not for reflecting on what they had read? You have the same amount of time as everyone else, I would say, with predictable arrogance. So, this is, in truth, why we are here, why this review exists. It is pure panic, rather than excitement or stimulation. But this does not, of course, tell you anything about Leo Perutz or Master of the Day of Judgement.

In order to rectify this let me state that Perutz was born in Prague, but spent much of his life in Vienna. I do not know of what interest this is. He wrote, I think I am right in saying, for this is the only work of his I have any real knowledge of, literary thrillers, or ‘page-turners’ [although every book is a page-turner to someone]. One commentator described Master of the Day of Judgement, as critics are wont to do, as the marrying of Kafka and Agatha Christie. Which is nonsense, of course. You can guarantee that any author or novel compared to Kafka bears no significant resemblance at all to the great man’s writings. There is, however, something in the Christie comparison, although I have come to this conclusion from a position of almost total ignorance.

In any case, there are certainly familiar murder-mystery dynamics on display here. A group of people, many of whom are harbouring secrets or are connected to each other in ways that may arouse suspicion should someone lose their life, are gathered together in a house. Before too long a shot [or two shots] rings out, and the body of Eugen Bischoff, a once celebrated actor who has recently run into money troubles, is discovered. Are any of the people present responsible for his death, which, on the surface, appears to be suicide? Indeed, the room in which Eugen’s body was found was locked, and so the possibility of an outsider being involved seems remote, if not impossible. As expected, from this point onwards, although the novel lacks the traditional detective leading man or woman, one is led in stages through an investigation into the ‘crime.’

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[The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch]

While Master of the Day of Judgement moves at a particularly brisk pace, and there is the always intriguing whodunnit element, if this is all it had to offer I would likely not have finished it [especially as the prose is rather workmanlike]. What gives the book its depth is that some of the Prague strangeness, that is so familiar to me, both in terms of literature and my own experiences of the city, filters into the work. First of all, the story is told in the first person, by Baron von Yosch, and because he is the prime suspect one is invited to doubt his version of events. Indeed, he makes no secret of his unreliability. Yes, he declares in the opening pages that he has ‘omitted nothing’, yet soon admits to getting important dates muddled. Moreover, he actually stops himself at one point in his narration to call himself a liar and, more significantly, later confesses to the crime, only to explain it away as a false memory.

There are also a number of allusions as to the [doubtful] quality of von Yosch’s character. In one scene he overhears two people talking about him, and one of them states that he believes the man to be capable of ‘ruthlessness and murder’ [if not dishonourable action]. Waldemar Solgrub, who is one of the book’s main players, tells the Baron that others talk about him with a kind of ‘respectful hatred.’ Therefore, although the focus shifts away from von Yosch as a suspect as the novel progresses, or certainly in the minds of the other characters, as the reader one is given multiple hints that one ought not to be so eager to dismiss him.

“The rhythm of life and death was a banal dance tune. Thus we come and thus we go. What shatters us and casts us down utterly turns out to be an ironic smile on the face of the world spirit, to whom suffering and grief and death are continually recurring phenomena familiar since the beginning of time.”

Yet for me the most engaging aspect of Master of the Day of Judgement, and what provides a legitimate stylistic link to a well-known Prague inhabitant [Gustav Meyrink, not Kafka], are the gothic overtones. von Yosch, in his foreword, describes the events as a ‘tragic and sinister business’ and the investigation as a search for ‘a culprit not flesh and blood,’ and this sets the tone for the majority of the work. There is a suicide note that contains a single word, ‘dreadful’; there are references to monsters and ‘phantoms’; and words such as ‘terror’ and ‘nightmare’ appear frequently. And what of the title? What is the day of judgement? It has, of course, a biblical connotation; it is, our narrator says, the last day, when ‘Satan triumphs over the sinful soul.’ Indeed, one is led to believe that it may in fact be the cloven-hoofed one who is the elusive Master, whom Solgrub and von Yosch are on the trail of. And that is, surely, enough to recommend any book.