FFB: The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?
If she was asking for it,
Did she ask you twice?
Hole – Asking For It

2018-01-07 15.32.47It seems redundant to call this a lean novel from Spark — her novels are singularly lean. I always feel as if they have been sanded fine. I’ve been on a kick since the winter break before and after seeing The International Style of Muriel Spark exhibit with Miss Wendy at the National Library in Edinburgh, which I highly recommend you see. I loved it in the nosy way writers always want to peek at the process of others, but also damn, the woman had style — and chops. I feel like I need to cut my own prose to the bone like her or I’m just dithering too much. But you can’t miss anything: you have to absorb every clue. The thing is you don’t always realise what is a clue. You have to become hyper-vigilant and note everything which leads to a kind of madness rather like the heroine of this book.

coverThe Driver’s Seat is a great example of this. There is not one word in excess. This is a crazy book, off-putting to many I’m sure (I looked at some of the contemporary reviews) but both brilliant and searingly insightful. The blurb on the back (and what a marvelous cover, Penguin) from David Lodge calls it not only a ‘tour de force’ but ‘a crime story turned inside out’ which is a great description. Within the first few pages, you know that Lise is going to die. With mordant zeal, the narrator points out the clues that will be put together at the end of the investigation.

Many of them will puzzle the police forces. They’re both vivid and seemingly inexplicable. Like the clothing captured well in this cover: ‘the necessary dress’ as she calls it. the colours are so garish the porter of her building laughs at her.

She says, ‘Are you going to join a circus? Then again she throws back her head, looking down through half-closed lids at Lise’s clothes, and gives out the high, hacking cough-like ancestral laughter of the streets, holding her breasts in her hands to spare them the shake-up. Lise says with quiet dignity, ‘You are insolent.’

How marvelous is that? This whole world is at a slant, Lise’s particular slant, from her model of efficiency modular flat to the sudden and violent reaction to being informed that the dress she’s trying on is ‘stain resistant’ (‘I won’t be insulted!’). The alternation between helpless laughing and crying quickly leads to the deduction that the ‘months of illness’ that punctuate her sixteen years at the same job are definitely related to her mental health.

Now, here’s where it might get a little spoilery if you don’t want to know more about it than the fact that she’s doomed. She heads off on her holiday telling people she’s meeting a boy-friend though she doesn’t seem to know who and constantly lies about what she has done and plans to do. Even the narrator draws back at times, shying away from true omniscience at the most interesting junctures yet with chilling suggestions that have to be carefully sifted.

Lise is lifting the corners of her carefully packed things, as if in absent-minded accompaniment to some thought, who knows what?

The narrator seems uncertain what’s really going on, yet knows a great deal of facts –they’re just impossible to explain.  The novel reads like an assemblage of facts that took some time to put together, yet still don’t add up. Lise buys all the items used in her murder, deliberately and particularly. She even urges her befuddled killer to murder her: ‘She told me precisely what to do.’

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?

I suspect that like many of us, Spark may have heard one too many times about a ‘girl who was asking for it’ and wondered what sort of woman would ask to be killed, really. A mad woman, an insanely driven woman who is both consumed by lust and gravely puritanical — and utterly deranged. Asking for it?

I have bookmarked the Liz Taylor film version, but I dunno…

I admire her hugely. Check out all the FFB over at Patti Abbott’s blog including Evan Lewis’ post on Bill Crider’s celebration of life.

Spark Satire

FFB: Bill Crider’s Sherlock

Thanks to Patti and Todd for cajoling me into doing this special round of FFB. Many of you know that Bill Crider is doing poorly, so it’s great to have a chance to celebrate him and his vast catalogue of work while he can still appreciate our accolades. It’s always a joy to celebrate someone who seems universally regarded with genuine fondness. I’ve only met him briefly myself (not being much of a networking type) but he was just as kind and self-effacing in person as he has always appeared to be online over the years.

35433206 I chose the unconventional Crider: his Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Crossroad Press. If you’re a fan of the detective you will be pleased by how well Crider gets into the head of our famed narrator Dr Watson. Clearly he has had a lot of fun immersing himself in the style of Doyle’s doctor.

Then there’s the celebrity ‘guest stars’ that include everyone from Bram Stoker and his own Van Helsing as sidekick, Oscar Wilde, and even a descendant of Ebeneezer Scrooge making this a good holiday gift giving choice for ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Ghosts’.

The suggestion of the supernatural is ever present but purists shouldn’t worry too much. This is Holmes after all and he will get to the bottom of what seems to be unnatural. Crider manages to capture the fun and the cleverness of Holmes without being too slavish to the originals, giving them a chance to breathe.

The bonus story by Patricia Lee Macomber and David Niall Wilson is more Lovecraftian and clashes quite distinctly with the other stories: less homage and more pastiche.

Thanks Bill for your camaraderie on line, your fine books and your VBKs. Happy to salute you on the long trail.

See all the entries over at Patti’s blog.

FFB: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

dark-is-risingAlthough a classic I’d not read this novel before, but stumbling across it at the Oxfam Bookshop this winter, I found the combination of the title and the folk horror revival vibe in Michael Heslop’s cover irresistible. Will is the seventh son of a seventh son, which he did not know as one of his brothers died very young. He’s been born to a special task, uniting the forces of light against the darkness:

‘It is a burden,’ Merriman said. ‘Make no mistake about that. Any great gift of power or talent is a burden, and this more than any, and you will often long to be free of it.’

It’s full of history, pagan symbols and eternal struggles. The struggle of dark against light is rather simplistic as many myths are. The contempt for women is striking within the narrative: ‘typical females’ are silly. There are maiden, mother and crone for symbolic purposes, but the maiden has to be rescued by Will, the mother falls and sprains her ankle to provide emotional ammunition and the crone has to be brought back by Will as well. Not that any of the characters are especially well drawn: they’re just pegs to carry the narrative forward, and it moves at a good clip.

This sounds more negative than it is in sum. The vivid scenes of magic and myth really leap off the page. The mysterious mask, the snow that falls for days, the almost sentient fire Will discovers in the past all offer a thrill. Her poetry sings:

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.

The Wild Hunt at the end that awakens Herne is truly magnificent. We all need inspiration to fight the dark that is rising now. There’s much to inspire here.

See all the overlooked gems at Patti’s blog  make that Todd’s blog.

FFB: Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

porterhouse_blue_bookI have been thinking about academic novels lately because I am — much as I swore never to do so — working on a roman à clef called Hire Idiots (the topic of which ought to be abundantly clear). I taught Lucky Jim in my senior seminar and enjoyed my students’ reactions to it. I’ve been thinking of re-reading Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but I can’t seem to find it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write satire anymore as reality outstrips it, but now that I’ve started I want to finish.

I had not read Tom Sharpe’s novel of a fictional college at Cambridge. He’s probably best known for the Wilt novels. There’s no Jim Dixon or Paul Pennyfeather to fasten our sympathies to in this novel: everybody is kind of awful in a cringingly realistic way. There is the poor post graduate student Zipser who commands our pity if not sympathy, but alas, he exits the story rather early on. There are some great comedic scenes.

What’s fun about this book is the horrible way the petty politics quickly ascend to the heights of absurdity as the new Master of Porterhouse arrives and intends to make big changes. In the cyclical nature of politics (which I suppose ought to give us some hope at the moment) this 1974 novel gives us a college of hidebound tradition faced with the liberalising force of a reformer. Sharpe makes all the partisans ridiculous, but not without sympathy. The bullying Master is bullied by his wife (women are either harpies or sexpots if they appear at all, alas), the deaf Chaplain is mostly kind, the put-upon Bursar leaps from frying pan to fire, and the snobby porter has been grossly misused.

Anyone who has been in academia (or academia adjacent) will appreciate the humour here — especially when the score-settling tv host who’s also an alum arrives. Sharpe’s humour mostly rests in good and bad intentions going madly awry. I’ve got the mini-series based on it to watch when I get the time. Some quotes:

‘As far as the College Council is concerned I think that the best policy will be one of…er…amiable inertia.’

‘There’s nothing like prevarication,’ the Dean agreed, ‘I have yet to meet a liberal who can withstand the attrition of prolonged discussion of the inessentials.’ [ouch]

With the experience of hundreds of hours in committees behind him, the Master anticipated the arguments that would be raised against him by the Fellows…It was precisely on such divisions of opinion that he thrived. The original issue would get lost in argument and he would emerge as the arbiter between divided factions.

But first he needed an ally. He ran through the Fellows in search of a weak link.

‘We shall muddy the issue until it is uncertain…If there must be dirt let there be lots of it.’

‘Trouble with you academic wallahs,’ said Sir Cathcart finally…,’is you take things too seriously.’ [cringe]

‘In my opinion genius is by definition a capacity to jump the whole process of taking infinite pains, but then as I say, nobody listens to me.’

There was something perverse about English political attitudes that defeated logic.

His had been an intellectual decision founded on his conviction that if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.

See all the neglected books over at Patti Abbott’s place.


FFB: Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes

For some reason, I had not noticed before Peter Cook’s sister saying that their favourite childhood book was Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes by Harry Graham. It much reminded me of our childhood fave Shrieks at Midnight so I had to get a copy.

And of course it’s delightful.

Check out all the other overlooked Friday books at Patti’s blog or rather over at Todd’s this week.

FFB: The Devil’s Mistress

2016-01-08 11.11.04.jpg

The Devil’s Mistress
J. W. Brodie-Innes
The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult
Sphere 1974 (original novel 1915)

I taught a course on witchcraft and the witch hunts in the fall semester. Don’t ask me what took so long to get around to it. As usual with new courses I stuffed far too much into it, so I’m going to have to rethink before I teach it again.

Among the fun things was getting a little obsessed with Isobel Goudie, the Scottish witch whose confession is responsible for a lot of modern views on witches. There have been novels written on her (this is one, I’ve got another to come, both picked up for pennies here) but also a symphonic work and a pop song.

As Wheatley points out in his introduction, one of the first things to intrigue is Brodie-Innes’ dedication in the volume: ‘To the memory of my dear friend the author of Dracula to whose help and encouragement I owe more than I am at present at liberty to say.’ He also mentions the continuing history of which Brodie-Innes writes. In his own introduction the author reiterates the historicity of the narrative: ‘All the leading characters in the story are actual historical persons, and the incidents told of them vouched by contemporary writings.’ In fact, many from his own family’s history like Patrick Innes.

This reliance on historical record makes the opening pages a little dry, rather like Harker’s diary entries at the start of Dracula but soon we are in the mind of Isobel and things pick up. The old story of beauty married to age (as well as a sour and miserly disposition) gets the added complication of a woman with ambitions for art and knowledge.

So yes, Isobel sells her soul to the Dark Master, who promises her that ‘Knowledge is power’ but with a loophole: he cannot affect her Catholic baptism, only her false Reformed one. This loophole is important and she holds onto the gold cross hidden within a simple shift for it works a magic equal to if different from that of her dark lover. It also provides an important theme in the clash of the Cromwellian reformers with the royalists — a lot of the trials of ‘heretics’ and ‘witches’ had a deeper political cause.

Then there’s the world of faerie, which delights Isobel even more than the wild hunts and tasty revenge that her dark lover gives her. From their realm only does she see the whole of creation and realise what power the devil has — and has not. She’s torn between that land’s delights, her loyalty to friends and the perilous struggle for her eternal soul.

All of which makes for a fun read. Lots of folklore and old rhymes, too. There are rituals, Hecate, fae fun, wild hunts and even a Hand of Glory. Some snippets:

‘Nay, she would not be chattel; she refused to be bought. She belonged to herself. No human being can be bought thus in free Scotland.’

‘Horse and hattock! Mount and go! Horse and hattock! Oh, ho ho!’

‘The Lord rade fair and free
Ower the hills til Galilee;
He pat the blood to the blood till all upstood,
The lith till the lith till all took with.
Owr Ladie charmed her dearlie son, with her tooth and with her townge
And her ten fingaris.
Be ye then hail and well,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Halie Ghaist.’

I suspect I will be digging more into Goudie’s confessions as I explore some more. You can explore more overlooked books at Patti’s blog. Todd’s blog this week.

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FFB: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

I know, I know — when you suggest a classic author for FFB a lot of people will roll their eyes. “Forgotten by whom?” but I’d make an argument for Red Harvest very much being out of favour in the traditional canon of crime classics. I admit to not having the love for the Continental Op the first time I read those stories. The Maltese Falcon is just so good and I so adore The Thin Man and the films based on both those books, classics in their own right, too.

And no kidding, there are classic films associated with Red Harvest too — no less than Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, too. Plus the Coen brothers swiped the title and concept for Blood Simple from the book and while Miller’s Crossing isn’t exactly an adaptation, it pulls a lot from this novel. The Big Lebowski is more Chandlerian, but the love they have for the noirish grit is plain.

I’ve been trying to make the hard choices for the crime course in the spring (argh) and have finally made my peace with not trying to overstuff the reading list but to offer them a sort of gateway drug into the noirish side of crime. I was deciding which Hammett to use, going back and forth between Falcon and Thin Man when I considered whether to use this one instead. Re-reading it on the train down to Grand Central, then finishing it on the train to Dundee, I knew why it had taken on such a magnetic pull.

It has such a contemporary feel. The Continental Op battles the effects of early 20th century corruption: a town boss who crushed labour, then found his violent new bedfellows had — gasp! — no compunction about muscling into his world and filling their pockets, too. The oligarch Wilsson initially funds the investigation (after the Op’s original client, his son, has been murdered) in hopes of knocking out the competition. The extra S in his name allows Hammett just enough leeway to make him hosting peace talks just enough of a joke for a chuckle. As we seem to be returning to the age of robber barons and town bosses, the pervasive miasma of corruption smells all too familiar. Even the Op knows the deeper he wades into it, the more he risks picking up the stink himself. The last part of the book benefits from the tension that provokes, as we too wonder just how far he will go to take them all down.

Some great lines, starting with the opening sentence, a killer:

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” How’s that for a kick off? Each word perfect, specific but not too over the top and the book maintains the tone throughout with gangsters named Reno, Whisper and Pete the Finn.

Dinah Brand — described by the chief of police as “A soiled dove, as the fellow says, a de luxe hustler, a big league gold-digger” — becomes the linchpin of the novel and the Op’s uneasy colleague in a few capers. One of her conquests tells the detective: “I suppose you’ll see her. You’ll be disappointed at first. Then, without being able to say how or when it happened, you’ll find you’ve forgotten your disappointment, and the first thing you know you’ll be telling her your life’s history, and all your troubles and hopes…and then you’re caught, absolutely caught.” With all the vamps and dishy dames that fill so much wannabe noir, she’s a real standout. Brand ends up a complicated and fascinating character and Hammett works on the reader the same way.

The Op certainly thinks so: “She looked as if she were telling the truth, though with women, especially blue-eyed women, that doesn’t always mean anything.” Heh, you know I love that.

Dinah tells him at one point: “Polly De Voto is a good scout and anything she sells you is good, except maybe the bourbon. That always tastes a little bit like it had been drained off a corpse.”

Meanwhile he could provide a good test subject for a sleep deprivation study: “I went back to my hotel and got into a tub of cold water. It braced me a lot, and I needed bracing. At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”

There aren’t enough Finnish gangsters in early crime lit. I love his description of the fate of Pete the Finn: “Reno called him a lousy fish-eater and shot him four times in face and body.”

The toll taken: “This damned burg’s getting to me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”

In the end the most appealing aspect of the Op is that none of us are too sure just what he’ll do, including himself. Even his colleagues don’t trust him completely: “McGraw was trying to look through my eyes. I let him look, having all sorts of confidence in my belief that, like a lot of people I looked most honest when I was lying.”

Check out all the overlooked tomes at Patti Abbott’s blog. Click the picture to buy yourself a copy.