police

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.

tumblr_mczw96QMbB1rwuvuco1_r1_500 (1).jpg

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.

Advertisements

RED HARVEST BY DASHIELL HAMMETT

I often get asked why, as someone who appears to be politically switched on, I try and avoid the news media as much as possible. Well, the thing is, the truth of the world is too much for me these days. I can’t take it. Call it cowardice if you like, but I hate feeling angry or upset all the time. I’m not a masochist. A while ago I learnt that the UK government has agreed to sell arms to countries that have been blacklisted for human rights violations, countries that – as in the case of Libya, for example – our politicians will then go on TV and condemn. And that’s nothing new, you know. This has been happening for years [Saddam, the Taliban], but, still, the two-facedness is extraordinary; it doesn’t become any easier to swallow the third, fourth, fiftieth time. But this is only one example, a dribble of spit in a vast ocean of thick snotty phlegm.

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s character talks about how ‘someday a real rain will come,’ a rain that will wash all the scum – the corrupt politicians, the pimps, the crooked businessmen etc – off the streets. I don’t advocate violence of any kind, but the film’s popularity attests to how powerful and attractive a fantasy this kind of ‘clean up’ is. It is, moreover, something that is at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, although it takes a little time to warm up to all that. The early stages of the novel are mostly concerned with what appears to be a relatively straightforward murder investigation. The Continental Op has been asked to come to Personville by Donald Willson, yet Willson is offed almost as soon as he arrives. A number of suspects are quickly identified, including Willson’s wife, his father, a local tough and his gold digger girlfriend.

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.”

However, before too long the Continental Op has collared the culprit, sown up the investigation, and really should be intent on getting the hell out of dodge. Yet he isn’t. Indeed, one gets the impression that the author was eager to get all that stuff out of the way, that he himself wasn’t particularly interested in who shot Donald Willson, and that once it is all neatly tied up the real fun can start. It is from this point onwards that one truly comes to understand why Personville is nicknamed Poisonville, as Hammett embarks on a convoluted, twisty and twisted, tale of backstabbing, corruption, power games, homicides and attempted homicides, dirty secrets and double-dealing, involving just about every prominent person in the town.

In the centre of this maelstrom of violence and immorality is the Continental Op, who appears, despite his irascible manner, to be having a whale of a time. In fact, he could be said to be the director of events, as he takes it upon himself to smoke out all the rats, play them off against each other, and, in one way or another, put them out of action. However, one should not make the mistake of thinking he is the hero of the piece, or some kind of avenging angel; his ethics are far too sketchy and dubious for that. In fact, at one point he openly admits that he wants to clean up Poisonville as revenge for the attempts upon his life during his stay, and gleefully talks about opening it up ‘from Adam’s apple to ankles.’ At times the plot comes across as being little more than a bunch of psychopaths being rounded up and manipulated by another psychopath; and the overall effect is of a grim dance, one that will never end.

“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”

It’s interesting that Red Harvest helped to pioneer the hard-boiled genre, because it only bears a superficial resemblance to the classic works that came after it. Certainly those by Raymond Chandler, who is probably the most famous titan of noir, seem safe and cosy in comparison. First of all, the Continental Op is overweight, apparently ugly, and, at 40, relatively old. He is tough, sure, and he cracks wise [although most of his one-liners are laced with spite, rather than humour], but he isn’t suave and is certainly no babe magnet. Moreover, he has absolutely no qualms about putting a slug in someone.

3l

[Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is generally thought to have been inspired by Red Harvest]

The femme fatale, Dinah Brand, doesn’t conform to one’s expectations either, being more fatal than femme. She is described as having stains on her dress, badly applied lipstick, and an untidy hairdo. She isn’t, it is fair to say, Jessica Rabbit. She’s also unscrupulous, with dollar signs in her eyes and just about any other place you could mention. In fact, outside of one of Balzac’s or Dickens’ misers, I’ve not encountered a character like her, i.e. one who would happily sell out her grandmother for a tarnished nickel. She does, however, have a strange kind of charm, in that there is something child-like about her attitude, her honesty vis-à-vis her motivations, and her insistence that it is only right and natural that she get paid for every service she renders. In this way, she reminded me of Undine Spragg, the villainess in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

“You’re drunk, and I’m drunk, and I’m just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That’s the kind of girl I am.”

It ought to be clear by now that Red Harvest is at the grittier, darker end of the noir spectrum. There are a lot of savage and unpleasant crime novels these days, and while it cannot compete with those in terms of sheer graphic [or pornographic] brutality, there is a great deal of bloodshed, and, by the final page, the book has racked up a body count that would give Jeffrey Dahmer a stiffy. It is hard to say whether I find it admirable or not, but at no point does Hammett flinch. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, however, is just how odd this book is, how surreal almost. Bullets seem to constantly be in the air, people go to prison and then minutes later are walking the streets, bodies pile up and no one bats an eyelid [at one point the Op enters a house and steps over an unexpected corpse without even breaking stride], etc, until Poisonville stops looking like a dirty old town, and more like a Boschian Hell from which it is impossible to escape.

I got to the end of this review and realised that I hadn’t at all engaged with any potential flaws or criticisms. I enjoyed Red Harvest a lot but the book, as is the case with all books, is certainly not perfect. Therefore, so as to not ruin the structure of what is written above, I’ll note a few things here, which may be construed as negatives.

I wrote earlier that Hammett’s novel has a convoluted plot, and, well, some might actually call it ridiculous, or unbelievable, or at least hard to follow [the pace is breakneck, which gives you barely any time to catch your breath]. Moreover, the characters have very little substance, all of them being a type or one sort or another, but, having said that, I don’t know if you turn to noir for character depth. It is also worth pointing out that the book is almost entirely composed of dialogue, so that at times it reads more like a play. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, or it didn’t bother me at all, but I imagine that it might put some readers off.

THE LONG GOODBYE BY RAYMOND CHANDLER

Tom was a quiet, reserved kind of guy. Which at the time was unusual within my circle of friends. Most everyone I knew back when I first returned to Sheffield was a lush, a druggie or just plain crazy. I made friends in pubs and clubs. My friends didn’t exist in the daytime. Except Tom. He was 24/7. Normal. I was in a bad way myself, although I couldn’t see it. Perhaps the company I kept gave me a false sense of my emotional and physical well-being. When J is getting the sack because he has been on a Ketamine binge and can’t stand up for two days, and Alison is turning up for lectures with semen in her hair, you don’t feel so crummy. Everything is relative.

And everything pointed to Tom outlasting every one of us. You didn’t talk about it. You just knew. Only a fool would have thought otherwise. Yeah, Tom made fools of us all. He didn’t dance in clubs, and so you thought he was shy, standing off by himself most of the evening. He made comments about his appearance, and you credited him with a dry, deprecating sense of humour. He didn’t do drugs, didn’t take nameless girls home, and you didn’t judge, you admired him for it. What a sensible guy. If only we could be like him.

Yet sometimes I would wonder. And in my wisdom would take Tom for a drink. It was all I knew how to do. I hoped that would help somehow, that he would see it for what it was: an inadequate but heartfelt gesture of solidarity or empathy. I didn’t know what he was really thinking. You didn’t ask; he didn’t tell. That is just the way it was. And all the while he carried on slipping. A little at a time; almost imperceptibly. Until one day he was gone. The guy we thought would go places, did. And he didn’t come back.

I think about those times a lot. About Tom in particular. Mop-haired Tom, so unassuming. If his name ever now comes up people like to say his situation was hopeless. That is their comfort blanket. That he couldn’t deal with the things that were bothering him, and he couldn’t have been saved. I guess it makes them feel better to think that way. All I know is that whatever he was up against, whatever he was grappling with, he lost. That no longer surprises me. Life is a dirty fighter, I’ve found. Of course, I wish I could have done more. I wish I had. It hurts to know I failed him. Maybe there is nothing I could have done. Some people are not made to endure. But futile effort is like a shot of whisky, it can calm the nerves.

Raymond Chandler once wrote that to say goodbye is to die a little. Well, I never even got to say goodbye. It was a surprise to me that reading The Long Goodbye brought all this back up. It is not something I had expected. I was ready for wise-cracking PI’s, sultry dames, tough guys, and all-round dumb fun, but I wasn’t prepared to be so moved, to have some of my personal sore spots fingered so aggressively. I guess guilt is like a blood stain, it takes a long time to fade. But I don’t want to give the impression that the book is only worthwhile as a kind of Proustian madeleine. The truth is that many of the characters  – including Eileen Wade, strangely enough – got to me on their own terms, just like they got to Philip Marlowe. And the credit for that goes to the author.

“The tragedy of life, Howard, is not that the beautiful die young, but that they grow old and mean. It will not happen to me.”

The novel centres around the lives, and deaths, of two men, Terry Lennox and Roger Wade. As introductions go, Terry’s is one of the best. Marlowe first encounters the man hanging out of a Rolls, blind-drunk. Also in the car is his beautiful ex-wife. Immediately one gets a sense of each character’s personality, or role-to-be in the novel. The ex-wife is hard-nosed, unsympathetic, dispensable; Marlowe is, against his better judgement, and for no personal gain, drawn to Lennox and wants to help him; and Terry is vulnerable, in need of help, and likely to bring in his wake a whole lot of trouble. One understands very quickly that he is one of life’s perennial losers [a word I use without any negative connotation].

Lennox’s physical appearance is also significant. He’s a young man with a shock of white hair and comprehensive scarring on his face [which a doctor has attempted to fix with plastic surgery]. The scars were picked up during the war [and this is also significant, but I’ll touch upon that later]; they act within the novel as a physical representation of his emotional, inner life. Lennox is, both emotionally and physically, damaged goods. Marlowe isn’t in much better condition himself. He’s getting older [he’s 42], wearier. His wise-cracks, which readers seem to so cherish, struck me as angrier, or more bitter than usual, rather than admirable bravado or swagger.

tumblr_mg4qnjh0mh1qbhnrvo1_500

[Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe, in Robert Altman’s film version of the book]

What ties Marlowe and Lennox together is that both are, essentially, alone and feeling it. They drift towards each other out of a pretty basic human desire for contact or friendship. It is worth noting that Marlowe doesn’t know why he cares about Lennox. The men do not share interests, they do not really talk to each other all that much, but they could be said to need each other. At the beginning Terry is described by his ex-wife as ‘a lost dog,’ which is apt, but that phrase could also be applied to Marlowe too; in fact, it could be applied to every character in the book. It is interesting that the focus throughout is on moneyed people, privileged people; Chandler seems to be at pains to point out that being flush doesn’t stop you from fucking up, or getting sad. Indeed, The Long Goodbye is a terribly sad book, bleak even; its overriding message is that, as a result of two wars, the world is quickly going down the toilet, that humanity is starting to collapse under the weight of its own faeces. The wars, Chandler suggests, have taken our innocence, and left us worn-out, seedy, cynical and self-obsessed.

I’ve read elsewhere that Chandler intended for The Long Goodbye to be different from his other books. Apparently, he did not set out to write a Marlowe novel, but eventually lost his nerve. Wanting to ditch his famous narrator would indicate that the author was aching to spread his proverbial wings, was perhaps gunning for something more personal and with more depth. If that is so, then one might look to Roger Wade, the alcoholic writer, as the most obvious example, for not only is he different from what one would usually encounter in Chandler’s stuff, but he could even be said to be a stand-in for the man himself. Chandler’s own problems with drink are well-documented, but the parallels between him and Wade are not restricted to that. Both are writers, of course, but both are also struggling with their work. Wade considers himself to be a hack [he writes genre novels, historical bodice-rippers] and is tired of conforming to a formula. He even mentions his reliance upon similes, which is something that Marlowe [and by extension Chandler] also relies upon. Yet if he was taking a shot at himself here, I think Chandler is wrong to put himself down; for me, great similes are an art, and he was something of a master [he describes one man as having a face like a collapsed lung, for example]. In any case, it is clear that he felt dissatisfied with the writing process, that he found working within the PI, hard-boiled genre restricting.

“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can’t predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”

To this end, one finds the author experimenting a little. For example, during the Wade storyline one is allowed to read something he wrote while drunk out of his mind, which turns out to be a strange, stream-of-consciousness self-pitying ramble reminiscent of Gass’ The Tunnel or Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s great masterpiece. In fact, all the Wade chapters reminded me of Lowry, and that is a big compliment. This is not to say, however, that there isn’t any of the dumb fun I mentioned earlier. There are still dames, and femme fatales; there are murders and mysteries; there are crooks and hoodlums; and there are plenty of great one-liners, and square-jawed, big-balled machismo. It is simply that these familiar, well-worn things run alongside broader, more satisfying existential, moral concerns, while also delivering characters that we feel as though he get to know and care about.

Having said all this, it would be remiss of me to finish this review without mentioning some of the book’s less successful aspects, because it is certainly not flawless. It is episodic, and the structure is pretty poor, but then structure was never Chandler’s strong point. Nor was plot, which, here and elsewhere, is plodding and anti-climatic [although I think that is less of a problem with this particular novel]. A bigger issue, however, is the ending. Indeed, it would be a service to the author to quit about ten pages before the finish line, because the ultimate twist, the reveal [quite literally] is more than a bit silly. It is such a shame that the book ends in disappointment [for the reader and for Marlowe, I guess], because what precedes those final few pages is fantastic. In any case, The Long Goodbye is fit to stand beside any novel you care to name; it is a Shakespearean tragedy, with a two-day hangover and old lipstick smears on its pillow.

THE SECRET AGENT BY JOSEPH CONRAD

In the aftermath of a tragedy people often look towards artists, towards novelists, musicians and poets also, for comfort, the kind of comfort one finds when someone is able to capture an event, or feelings, that you yourself find incomprehensible or unfathomable or inexpressible. For example, after 9/11 there was a rush to proclaim certain kinds of art as speaking for the time[s], and it was then that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent received a lot of attention, it being a novel concerned with a plot to blow up a well-known building. Subsequent to the attacks on the Twin Towers, this book has now come to be known as The Great Terrorism Novel, and is seen as a kind of prophetic/prescient work. Yet, there is something about the The Secret Agent, something about the particular brand of terrorism that it deals with, that people often choose to ignore or simply misunderstand; or perhaps, if one was being especially cynical, which I almost always am, one might wonder if a lot of the journalists who put the book forward have actually read it.

Adolf [yes, Adolf] Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is as the secret agent of the title. However, Verloc is no James Bond; he is an observer, and informer; that is, until one day he is told, by the shady Mr. Vladimir, who is some kind of foreign ambassador, that observation is not enough. He must, says Vladimir, prove to be indispensable if he wants to remain on the payroll. This being indispensable involves blowing up Greenwich Observatory, the aim of which is to stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organisations. It is Vladimir’s idea that in order to do this one must get the attention of, to wake up so to speak, the middle classes.

‘The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree the middle-classes are stupid?’

Mr. Verloc agreed hoarsely.

‘They are’

‘They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity. What they want just now is a jolly good scare.’

This is blistering stuff. The terrorists are not crazy Arabs hellbent on destroying democracy and taking over the world, as some commentators would have you believe was the case with 9/11, this is violence and terrorism used against an ignorant or complaisant people in order to enrage them, in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. So, far from providing balm for the masses, The Secret Agent is actually more likely to fuel conspiracy theories; its take on the political world is, in fact, far closer to the popular conspiracy theory that the World Trade Centre attacks were an inside job, that they were brought down in order to give the US government a reason to wage war in the Middle East.

‘You give yourself for an “agent provocateur.” The proper business of an “agent provocateur” is to provoke.’

One of the first things you will notice about The Secret Agent is that although the novel is purported to be set in London, there is not a great deal that is recognisably English about it. All of the revolutionaries, for example, have continental-sounding names – Ossipon, Verloc, Michaelis, etc – despite it being the case that they are meant to be British citizens. Furthermore, Conrad’s capital city is a particularly gloomy place; even taking into account that London may have been dirty and so on, there is something almost phantasmagorical, but certainly very odd, about the way the Pole presents it. In Bleak House Dickens writes about the fog and such, but Conrad’s London appears to be permanently in darkness, with a palpable threat of violence or madness always in the air; Indeed, the sense of madness or mental strain that pervades the work is reminiscent of Dostoevsky [although Conrad was, apparently, not a fan].

A blank wall. Perfectly blank. A blankness to run at and dash your head against.

For a novel so obviously, relentlessly, political and satirical it would be easy to see the characters as mere symbols, or representations, or one-dimensional puppets. Yet there is also a strong human aspect to the work. First of all, there is the conflict resulting from the task given to Verloc, by which I mean that of the observer who is forced to be an active participant. It takes a special kind of person to do this sort of thing, to bomb a building; most people are capable of standing by and letting it occur, but it’s a different thing, takes a different kind of personality, altogether to be the one holding the explosive, to detonate it. As one would imagine, if you force someone to act who is more suited to observing the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

Secondly, there is the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. Stevie does have a representative or symbolic function in the novel: he is innocence and confusion and, one could also say, chaos [at least mentally/emotionally]; he is, in a sense, both the moral conscience of the novel and a human mirror of the emotional state of Mr. Verloc himself [as well as perhaps all revolutionaries]. Yet he also provides the most tender moments in the book, such as his sympathy for the whipped horse and the poor driver of the horse, and all of the tragedy. Stevie is a tragic figure because he is a wholly trusting and loving brother and brother-in-law. Mrs. Verloc sacrifices herself in order to provide a safe and comfortable home for him, while Mr. Verloc ultimately takes advantage of him in an apparently mindless, yet cruel manner.

I hope that so far I have gone some way to summing up some of the book’s strengths and points of interest, yet it would be remiss of me not to mention that many readers raise serious objections. Of these objections most are related to Conrad’s style. On this, there is no doubt that The Secret Agent is at times a mess of adverbs and repetition; no character does or says anything in the book that isn’t, in some way, over or unnecessarily described and repeated. For example, Verloc is said to ‘mumble’ or speak ‘huskily’ with such frequency that it is liable to cause mirth or extreme irritation in the reader. Indeed, if you were to be brutally honest, this over-reliance on certain words, and excessive number of adverbs, is the kind of thing you would expect from the most amateur of YA authors, not one of the most renowned novelists of the 20th century.

So, does this mean that Conrad was a bad writer? Or that The Secret Agent is a badly written book? That is certainly one way to look at it. One might say that as Conrad was a Pole writing in English it is understandable that his vocabulary would be limited and his sentences idiosyncratic. Yet I don’t quite agree with this. All of his novels are dense and difficult but, unless my memory is faulty, this is the only one written in this particular way. Furthermore, some of the repetition, for example ‘Ossipon, nicknamed Doctor’, occurs on subsequent pages in the text, and, for me, it is absurd to think Conrad wouldn’t have noticed. This suggests that these flaws were perhaps intentional, that it was a style choice. However, one is then, of course, faced with coming up with some way of justifying that style choice.

The Secret Agent features intellectually dull men, incompetent revolutionaries with radical ideas or, in Verloc’s case, an incompetent secret agent. As with Stevie, Conrad’s banal yet convoluted style in a way mirrors the mental, intellectual state of these characters. Furthermore, as previously noted, the novel’s atmosphere is that of confusion and anxiety and potential violence. The repetition, the overall strange writing style, to some extent, makes the reader feel how the characters themselves feel; it is, whether one likes it or not, disorientating, and that does not strike me as a coincidence. Indeed, it is worth noting that the novels that The Secret Agent most closely resembles, to my mind, are The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov and Petersberg By Andrei Bely, both of which are also written in a bizarre style that some readers have wanted to proclaim as bad writing [or translation].

While many argue that The Secret Agent’s style is unsophisticated the same could not be said of the structure. In the early part of the novel each new chapter deals with a different character, often introducing a previously unknown one. Rather than follow Verloc as he carries out his assigned task, the narrative moves around, shifts perspective; and during each of these shifts characters will discuss both past and present events, thereby only gradually revealing what is going on. For example, one finds out during an early chapter featuring Ossipon and the Professor that someone has blown themselves up, and that it is assumed that it is Verloc. But you never see the event itself, and you don’t find out what actually happened until much later. There is, therefore, no linear timeline of events; much like a detective, you have to piece together the timeline yourself, and this is particularly satisfying.

However, towards the end of the novel the focus narrows, and in the last 50 or so pages Mrs. Verloc comes to the fore. There is a long passage between her and her husband that is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it is a truly brilliant piece of writing. Conrad manages to show grief and shock in a way that is more accurate and moving than I thought possible in a novel. For me, it is worth reading The Secret Agent for this long passage alone. Yet, that is not necessary, one need not only read Conrad’s work for this passage, because it gives you so much more: farce, tragedy, murder, satire, mystery, and so on. It may not be The Great Terrorism Novel, it may not comfort the masses the next time a bomb explodes, scattering far and wide the flesh of hundreds or thousands of destroyed bodies, but it is a fucking great book.

THE DAY OF THE OWL BY LEONARDO SCIASCIA

It is an often expressed opinion that overtly political novels become dated very quickly; in fact I read just that the other day in relation to Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge. Things change, is, I think, the general idea. Yet, while there may be some aspects of political fiction that, if you were not around at the time, or you’re not an expert on the subject, will be confusing or seem alien to your experience of the world, I do not accept that this means that it is unable to resonate with you. Yes, things do change, but one thing that doesn’t change is humanity. As far as I am concerned, behind all political systems, ideologies, and conflicts are pretty basic, universal, human motivations, such as greed and a desire for power. So, for me, political novels, or the good ones anyway, which would include the work of Leonardo Sciascia, are as much a study of humanity as anything else.

Sciascia’s Il giorno della civetta, or in English The Day of the Owl, is a short literary crime novel that deals with multiple murders in Sicily, Italy. It starts, quite literally, with a bang, as Salvatore Colasberna, the owner of a small construction company, is gunned down while running for a bus. The first hint that things are not going to be easy for those charged with investigating the crime is when the passengers on the bus flee before the Carabinieri [Italy’s national military police] arrive, and the conductor and driver play dumb when questioned. Something has them spooked. That something becomes clear [if it isn’t already] when the weapon used in the murder turns out to be a lupara, or sawed-off shotgunthe kind traditionally used by Mafia hitmen.

500px-Il_giorno_della_civetta-3

[From the film Il giorno della civetta, dir. by Damiano Damiani] 

What is strange about Sciascia’s novel is that the point at which all the tension goes out of the work is when it becomes most compelling. What I mean by this is that you know, especially if you have read any of his other novels, that as soon as the Mafia are fingered [or at least suspected] as the perpetrators of the crime that they will not be punished for it, that people will be paid off or things will be covered up. In an ordinary crime thriller the mystery, the clues, the pursuit, and expectation of the eventual reward of seeing the bad guys getting their comeuppance, are the things that pull you along; the reader is essentially manipulated in order to create excitement. However, The Day of the Owl pretty much dispenses with all that; as a mystery, as a thriller, it is a total anti-climax. The Mafia will not be brought to justice, because, well, it’s the Mafia, and they are more powerful than the Carabinieri.

In the absence of traditional crime-thriller dynamics, what The Day of the Owl becomes is a book about futility. Bellodi, the investigating captain, is either naïve or an idealist. He thinks that the people responsible for a crime ought to be punished for it; and he isn’t afraid to arrest and interrogate members of the Mafia. The flaw in this admirable approach is that most people refuse to acknowledge that the organisation even exists. Indeed, throughout the novel it is described as the so-called Mafia; the native Sicilians, either due to a fear of reprisals or because of wanting to protect their own financial interests, consider the Mafia to be akin to the loch ness monster; it is a myth, a legend, and even a borderline racist slur. I found all this stuff fascinating. How can you challenge something that does not exist? That is Bellodi’s biggest dilemma.

In this way, The Day of the Owl, like 1984 and many great Russian novels, explores the nature of reality and truth; it shows how one’s understanding, one’s experience, of those two things – reality and truth – are not as concrete as many people believe. If you have read my other reviews you will know that this is something that plays on my mind quite a lot. As far as I am concerned there is no reality, or no concrete, unchangeable, unchallengeable reality, merely perception and interpretation; what you are told, what you are allowed to see, that is your reality. Furthermore, not only are many of the characters in Sciascia’s novel keen to disparage the idea that there is such a thing as the Mafia, they are equally keen, in an act of misdirection, to blame the murders, and in fact nearly all murders, on affairs of the heart. Indeed, Bellodi is criticised, at the end of the novel, for ignoring this possibility and instead going in search of a mythical bogey-man. The key point is, of course, that the murders are not affairs of the heart; but if the police, politicians, and the media push that interpretation then that is, in a sense, what they become. It may not be exactly the same thing, but this put me in mind of recent articles about manipulation of statistics in this country, about how a crime is only a crime, or only a certain kind of crime, if the police actually decide that it is.

In terms of Sciascia’s style, it is mostly tough and straightforward, but does also have lyrical moments. It is not, however, in any way similar to the classic hardboiled noir of Chandler or Hammett, or even Simenon, but that, for me, makes a refreshing change. Also unlike the work of those more famous authors, there is no charismatic central character; in fact, there really isn’t any great character depth or development at all, to the point that I was sometimes confused as to who was speaking, as everyone is essentially interchangeable. This is, of course, more of a problem, but not every writer is Tolstoy, and, besides, I think the Italian would have himself admitted that character wasn’t really his concern. He wanted to highlight what he saw as the problems facing Sicily, and Italy as a whole, with corruption and violence and avarice, things that, as I pointed out in my introduction, are by no means particular to a certain time or place. In this way, Sciascia’s small, potent anti-thrillers are the cold showers that are sometimes needed in order to wake you up not only to what has happened in the past, but what is still happening right now.