murder

THE MONGOLIAN CONSPIRACY BY RAFAEL BERNAL

I take a shower, then put on cologne and clothes. To meet a woman. Fucking women! What will it be like this time? Life has passed me by, the world has moved on without me. Fucking world! Five years I was with her, five years I was out of action, and the world changed, and people changed, and now everything is fucked. Where did your false sense of security get you, huh? All those five years I thought I was winning but I was actually setting myself up for the biggest loss. Love. Fucking love! Don’t tell me how exciting this is, how adventurous. They all enjoy the stories, before they add their own. They’re all crazy. Everyone is crazy. It’s not just the women. Fucking people! The president of the United States, the leader of the free world, his hand in his trouser pocket, fondling his dick whenever a woman crosses and uncrosses her legs. Fucking gringos! My eyes are open. Maybe the world hasn’t changed, maybe it was always like this and it’s only now that I can see it, now that I have to confront it. Five years cocooned inside my love, eyes closed, fast asleep, blissful, like a fucking baby.

If I could I would glue together the broken pieces of my cocoon, climb inside, and go back to sleep. A man needs his sleep, but it’s impossible. Fucking sleep! The eternal sleep is what I need. A French woman with a bearded dragon clinging to the front of her dress blowing me on a bench in the rain. Yeah, it’s a funny story, until you realise there is madness in it. Hers and mine. Fucking madness! Madness is my cocoon now. Staring into the frightened eyes of the bearded dragon. I’m scared too, buddy. Maybe I shouldn’t go out tonight, maybe I should stay here and write. What’s the worst that can happen, if I write instead? I just finished The Mongolian Conspiracy. Mexican noir, they call it. Fucking noir! So much machismo I could almost taste the author’s sweaty balls, but, still, it was good, and I should write about it, make writing my cocoon. The author is Rafael Bernal, who also wrote a book called Su nombre era muerte about a man who learns to communicate with mosquitos and then puts together a plan for world domination. Fucking world domination with the help of mosquitos! Fucking madness again! Although that does sound like the kind of book I want to read.

“And here I am with my hands so heavy, walking down the street. And she is my bed, alone with her death. And me alone, walking down the street, my hands as heavy as the many dead. And nothing’s heavy for her anymore, not time, not nothing. Or maybe her death is heavy as if a man were on top of her. I don’t know what that’s like, death. She does know. Thats why she’s alone. That’s why she’s not with me. Because she knows and I don’t. All I know is how to start down this road, how to live carrying my solitude.”

Filiberto Garcia is a hired killer, a ‘stiff factory.’ He’s a man who feels naked without his gun. Because of course he needs it to do his job. Fucking killing! Garcia has an inexpressive face, his mouth is ‘almost motionless.’ Except when he sneers. The furniture in his apartment is as if brand new because ‘so few people visited’ and nobody ever uses it. So you’re forming a picture, right? Of this man Garcia. This killer. A loner, a tough. Fucking tough guys! Filiberto doesn’t like joking or laughing. And neither do I, these days. Fucking laughing! In many ways he seems like the typical noir leading man. None of this is unexpected, really. Although perhaps he’s a little more dour than usual and down on himself. He frequently calls himself a chump, for example, for treating Marta with respect and tenderness. Yet on other occasions his misogyny has punch, quite literally, and he isn’t above throwing the word faggot around, or Chink, either. An arsehole, in short, but whoever thought a killer would be a good guy? Fucking good guys! In the early stages you wonder if you want to spend over two hundred pages in the company of someone like this.

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Yet as things progress you start to realise that the story has more depth, that Filiberto has more depth, than you thought at first. Fucking depth! What about the story? It takes place among the opium dens of Mexico’s Chinatown. There has been a rumour that the President of the United States is going to be assassinated during a upcoming trip to the country and that the Chinese are involved. Fucking President! The FBI and a Russian secret agent are investigating, and Garcia is dragged in too. Which all seems like nonsense, as I suggested. Albeit enjoyable nonsense, perhaps. But as I worked my way through the book it struck me that Bernal used this stupid set up, and his central character, to say some interesting things about international politics, first of all, and about Mexico itself, and ultimately the world. Fucking world! The FBI man and the Russian are suspicious of each other, each seems to be working his own angles. In fact, every man in a position of some power, every high ranking, important man, in the book is a louse. Secrecy, double-cross. All done with a daytime TV smile and a clean shirt and tie. All of them trying to slither up the greasy pole of power…but only a few can make it, only those who have the strength and stomach for the climb. The rest will get knocked down, will end up on their ass at the bottom. Most likely with a broken head. As Del Valle says: there are no friendships in politics. Fucking politics!

Does anyone really care about the president? Is there even an assassination plot? Life is a game to these people. Fucking games! Sure, some of them will die, but the real losers are the poor folks. The ex-whorehouse gringa, the Chinese, the smalltime toughs, the petty thieves, the drunkards, the lowdown, the hustlers, the scum, the morons who look at the pie and think they can help themselves to a slice. But that’s what people like Garcia are employed for: to slap away their hands, to protect the pie. Not for the good folks, but for the baddest guys of all. Fucking pie! Filiberto Garcia is the real secret agent, because he doesn’t know. Or he didn’t. But he’s starting to see, starting to open his eyes. The world has changed. Fucking world! Garcia is a ruthless man, who has done, and still does, terrible things. But he has a kind of code, a set of principles, a way of doing those terrible things, that is out of step. He has been left behind. He’s an old man, of course. Nearly sixty. Fucking old age! He hasn’t kept up. Lawyers everywhere you look. And I don’t matter anymore. Too right, grandpa. All you’re good for is killing, is doing the dirty work for others. The world is making progress. Mexico is making progress. Fucking progress! Even killing isn’t what it used to be. Garcia fought in the revolution, but that’s ancient history. Now there are cocktail lounges, not old-time cantinas.

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BEAST IN THE SHADOWS BY EDOGAWA RAMPO

I’ve written about this before. My troubled relationship with reality. My mania for narratives. My madness. My doubt. I doubt everything. For every event I could, and quite often do, create multiple stories or explanations. My need to confront the truth of the world means, ironically, that the truth is inaccessible to me. That is if it could be said to exist at all. The truth, I mean. Or maybe not inaccessible, but unidentifiable. The truth  – if it exists at all, if it isn’t a meaningless concept – is simply one possibility amongst many, all of which have equal standing, all of which are equally persuasive. I can work the facets of every case, every event, no matter how banal or dramatic, into a series of believable, logical theories. I doubt everything and therefore I am capable of convincing myself of anything. My mind is hyperactive, oppressive. It attaches itself to things like the Kraken does a ship. I didn’t want to write about this again. I’m wary of boring you all; yet Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo has made this necessary.

“I regret my proclivity to reasoning and fantasy, but regret though I might it is not enough. I feel like walking, searching Japan – no, every corner of the earth – in a lifelong pilgrimage to discover the whereabouts of Hirata Ichiro-Oe Shundai, even though I know it might be pointless.”

As published by Kurodahan Press, Beast in the Shadows is teamed with the more famous, yet seemingly less well-thought of, certainly judging by the reviews I read, The Black Lizard. That story, by all accounts, is a bit of pulp nonsense featuring a femme fatale master criminal – a description that, I must admit, appeals to me greatly – while the novel under review here – although it too has its moments of nonsense and does feature a woman who might not be what she seems – is a more serious, cerebral affair. I don’t know much about Edogawa Rampo, whose real name was Hirai Taro, but his pseudonym, which was chosen as a homage to Poe [say Edogawa Rampo quickly, preferably out loud], displays not only a kind of playfulness, but also suggests a keen interest in, almost reverence for, the major writers working within the genres that he did himself. I mention this because Beast in the Shadows read, at times, like a homage itself to the golden age of crime fiction, and also partly as an essay on what crime fiction is or could be.

The novel is narrated by a writer of detective novels and involves a search for another, the reclusive Oe Shundai. Much is made by Rampo, via his narrator, of the differences between the work of the two men. ‘There are two types of detective novelist,’ is how the story begins. One of these types is what Rampo calls ‘the criminal sort.’ These are people who are interested mostly in the perpetrator, their cruel psychology and gruesome acts. The other is ‘the detective type,’ who is ‘indifferent to the criminal’s psychology’ and concerns himself with ‘the intellectual process of detection.’ The narrator, and the author himself, are the latter, while Shundai is the former. It is clear then that Rampo was making a judgement. He was, at least indirectly, nailing his colours to the mast regarding what he considered to be the superior kind of crime fiction. Indeed, the pages of Shundai’s novels are [disparagingly] said to be full of ‘uncommon suspicions, secrecy, and cruelty’; there is, we’re told, a ‘strange ghastliness’ pervading them.

Yet the cutting critique reveals more than Rampo’s ideas in relation to, and his feelings towards, the crime genre and the different approaches to it. Shundai is the more successful of the two writers, and one can’t help but see in the narrator’s remarks an intense professional jealousy. At one point he calls his rival a man who ‘lived the criminal life with the same passion a brutal killer feels when he commits murder.’ He doesn’t stop at attacking his work either. He is described as an obese, unattractive man who, rumour has it, spends all day and night in bed. He’s a ‘vengeful devil’ and ‘poisonous spider.’ It’s worth noting that when discussing himself he states that he is in ‘no way a bad person’, that, in fact, there are ‘few as virtuous’ as he is. During the early stages of the story it might strike one that not only is the narrator biased, and therefore his words are not to be taken on face value, but also that he is perhaps a leading candidate as a suspect. Indeed, it is usually the case that anyone who insists upon their own goodness so vehemently has something to hide.

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The likely bias of the narrator is, however, only one aspect of an overall sense of uncertainty and unreliability, of confusion and doubt. The basic plot of the novel is that a woman, with whom the narrator becomes involved, is being stalked and threatened by Shundai. Many of the supposed facts of the case – such as the prior relationship between Shizuko and Shundai, and their less than amicable break up – are unproven, are simply one person’s word or interpretation of events. Indeed, rumours and hearsay dominate the story. Nothing is concrete; everything is unstable. No one, for example, has ever met or even really seen Shundai, apart from Shizuko, and that was many years ago [if she is to be believed]. The one occasion he is said to be present in the novel happens at night and he – if it is him, not some vagrant – is dressed as a clown. Moreover, the person who is reporting the sighting admits to being a ‘little drunk’ at the time.

As a consequence of his absence, because we don’t know who Shundai really is, because he isn’t a fixed character, he could in fact be anyone: the narrator, the taxi driver, the journalist, Shizuko’s husband, or even Shizuko herself. I wrote earlier that Beast in the Shadows is a kind of homage to golden age crime fiction, but what sets it apart, what makes more than a flimsy bit of nostalgia, what makes it worth reading, is that, unlike the work of Agatha Christie, for example, there are in Rampo’s novel no answers, there is no resolution. The narrator – who one comes to trust, rightly or wrongly, a little more as the story unfolds – puts together one theory, which is plausible, which one believes, until, of course, he rubbishes it, finds a flaw in it, albeit not a fatal flaw, and then comes up with another. He does this multiple times. He doubts everything, and consequently finds himself able to believe anything, to convince himself of anything. The goal is, of course, to uncover the truth, but the truth – if it exists at all – does not standup and confidently announce itself. It is triksy, supple, and swift on its feet.

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.

THE TRUMPETS OF JERICHO BY UNICA ZÜRN

It is at the end of a relationship that the most revealing statements are made. It is as though it is only when there is no hope of resolving the issues, of moving forward together, that people are able or willing to honestly disclose their feelings. ‘I thought I was pregnant last year’, my ex-partner told me once all was lost, ‘but I was too frightened to tell you.’ It was her most hurtful admission. I was ashamed that I had communicated my misgivings about having children in such a way as to convince her that it would be better to deal with the worry alone than to share it with me. And yet I do wonder – if she had been pregnant and had wanted to keep the baby – how I would have taken the news. Outwardly I would have done all that I could to be supportive, but secretly, inside myself, would I have freaked out? The awful truth is that often, when I have come into contact with pregnant women, I have felt uneasy, especially in regards to the grotesquely swollen belly, inside of which there sits a living creature. There is something magical about it, yes, but unnerving also.

However, it wasn’t until I read Unica Zürn’s The Trumpets of Jericho that I seriously considered how a woman might feel in the same situation. I don’t mean that I would expect that every woman be happy about being pregnant, rather that, as I have selfishly blundered my way through life, it had not previously occurred to me that to be the one who actually has the living thing inside you might be a whole other level of existential terror, a kind of terror that the likes of me  – i.e. a man – cannot fully understand. Indeed, for Zürn’s narrator her pregnancy has been nine months of a ‘gruesome inner union.’ She openly, almost gleefully, attacks the unborn, calling it a ‘bastard’, a ‘hateful creature’, an ‘abomination’, and an ‘unwanted suckling’. It is this last phrase that is, in my opinion, the most significant. The child was not planned, and is not wanted. While it is true to say that she is partly responsible, the girl – she is only sixteen – has had her body, in a sense, invaded.

At the heart of her despair, and her disgust, is the realisation that the baby’s existence, its inevitable coming, signals the end of ‘the sweet days of youthful peace’. On one level this ‘youthful peace’ refers to her physical well-being. She laments how the child has ‘sucked all the strength’ from her, with her labour pains, for example, being so intense that they feel like ‘the sea moving beneath a storm.’ There is also a touch of vanity in her concerns, for she remembers the time when she was ‘still slim’ and notes how her ‘long, beautiful hair is getting damp from fear sweats.’ However, her strongest objection is that she will no longer be able to do as she pleases. To have a child is to be responsible for, and obligated and tied to, another human being, which requires your time, effort, and money; especially for a woman, and especially at the time at which the book was written. She sees the baby as a threat to what she calls the ‘dancing freedom of a proud young cat,’ and remembers fondly how she once ‘hurried with big steps from one lover to another.’

“For the whole land is flooded with a large and powerful wave of the deepest melancholy, and wherever anyone goes or stands, they think here of violent death.”

The Trumpets of Jericho is not a plot-based book, so it is no spoiler to reveal that the girl plans to kill the baby. Indeed, on the second page she states that she has ‘cold-heartedly’ decided that ‘the suckling must die.’ The intended infanticide speaks to her mental state, of course, and I will return again to that, but it is also one part of a overriding atmosphere of gothic horror, which at times is surprisingly playful. The girl’s situation is that of someone living alone in a tower. She has, she says, no friends. Her only company are ravens and, for a brief period, the bat that is caught in her hair. With a touch of welcome humour, she theatrically addresses the creature: ‘I honor you, you serious, uncanny night spirit/But please leave my hair, because you are bothering me during the serious business of bringing my child into the world.’ I was also amused by the grim intention to pack the remains of the murdered new born ‘in seven different packages and send them to my last seven lovers.’ A dramatic fuck you to whichever of these men is the father.

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On the back of my copy of The Trumpets of Jericho it is described as ‘a fierce fable of childbirth’, which is a fine phrase, but which is not, in my opinion, entirely accurate. Of course it is important, and it is, moreover, the most immediately engaging, eye-catching aspect of the text, but I don’t think Zürn’s work is reducible to that alone. In fact, although I have devoted all of this review to it so far, at least half of the book’s fifty pages have nothing to do with pregnancy or childbirth at all. The second half is given over to a series of surreal-poetic stories, told by the narrator, the majority of which feature death. For me, The Trumpets of Jericho is about madness and unhappiness, about, specifically, Zürn’s own madness and unhappiness, with an attitude towards childbirth being only one facet of this. Indeed, the girl describes herself, rather quaintly, as a ‘member of the Eccentric’s club’. More alarmingly, she speaks of an anger against life and longs to kill herself, by leaping from a window.

I don’t often refer to biographical detail concerning the authors of the works I review, for I consider it irrelevant in the main, but on this occasion it is worth pointing out that Zürn killed herself by doing just that: by jumping out of a window. There is, moreover, a moment in the text when Zürn, as the author, addresses you: ‘you see, reader, that I cannot bend my thoughts away from death.’ It is a brief slipping of the girl-mask, of the pretence at writing a piece of fiction. Another, more telling, slip occurs when she actually namechecks herself: ‘Unica’s heroes murdered.’ The second half of The Trumpets of Jericho, which is at times barely comprehensible, but is always beautiful, is like directly entering the gloomy labyrinth of her mind; and it is, in this way, much scarier than what precedes it, if not so ripe for critical analysis.

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?