Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Something Wicked

August 17, 2022

(Spoiler alert for entire series of Better Call Saul)

The obvious road is almost always the fool’s road. And beware the middle road, the road of moderation, common sense and careful planning.’

– William Burroughs

‘Seriously, when the going gets tough, you don’t want a criminal lawyer… You want a criminal lawyer.’

– Jesse Pinkman

Somewhere in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there is a marquee tent in a field after darkness. Crowds of people stream towards and around it, a certain kind of crowd that loves life after dark. The hustlers and ravers, bikers and goths, drug fiends and lost souls. Inside the tent itself there’s no circus, just a man in a sharp, colourful suit, an attorney who up until recently practiced under the name Jimmy McGill. After a year’s suspension he’s reinvented himself as ‘Saul Goodman’ and has erected his tent to give away drop phones and pitch his business to the night crowd. He establishes rapport with potential clients, brags about his legal victories, grossly exaggerates them – the scene is something out of a dark carnival on the edge of town: something wicked this way comes.

At the end of the night, his bodyguard Huell says: ‘Well done, magic man.’ Saul replies: ‘We’re just getting started.’

Breaking Bad was about the persistence of magic in the modern age. The villain of Stephen King’s The Stand is described as ‘the last magician of rational thought.’ That’s an apt phrase for Walter White as well. His story is a bitter one about pride and unused talent. Yet even though he’s a failed scientist and high school chemistry teacher, he can do things that seem impossible – build a car battery out of nothing, cut through reinforced locks, synthesise poison from coffee beans. He has an uncanny ability to turn the tables even from an impossible position. He is an accomplished manipulator, who can change others’ perception of reality. Magic is sometimes alluded to in the series. Jesse Pinkman entertains Andrea’s son Brock with magic tricks, and then tells him: ‘That’s science, yo’ – but to Brock it’s indistinguishable from magic. Skyler admits to Walt during a furious marital row that ‘I don’t have your magic’. The very state of Mexico, of course, is known as the ‘Land of Enchantment’.

While he can’t match Walter’s meticulous nature and scientific expertise, Saul does have one thing his client lacks: charm. Even his disapproving older brother Chuck must admit early on that ‘Jimmy has a way with people.’ And Jimmy is equal with his charm, everyone deserves a good impression from him, whether they’re a prisoner in courthouse lockup or an old lady on a coach in Amarillo (‘Edison – like the inventor?’ ‘Beautiful penmanship – a lost art!’) Chuck is suspicious of Jimmy’s charm in part because he could never replicate it and also because he knows that charm has a dark twin – persuasion.

Charles and Jimmy McGill have the legal profession in common but not much else. Charles is everything that Jimmy is not: disciplined, rule-bound, grave and meticulous and successful. Law has the same defining, shaping meaning in Chuck’s life as science did for Walter White: it is like the gas lantern that Chuck carries around his house, a guiding light in a dark world. The law is sacred – Jimmy just can’t be trusted with it. ‘I know what you were, what you are,’ he says. ‘People don’t change. You’re Slippin’ Jimmy. And Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine. But Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun. The law is sacred! If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game.’

Chuck must know there is plenty of scope for persuasion in the day to day practice of law. We have known for this for a while. In his History of Europe, Richard Evans writes about the development of law as a profession:

Not surprisingly, lawyers were constantly campaigning against unqualified hucksters, known in Germany as Winkeladvokaten, or street-corner advocates, and in Italy as faccendieri, fixers. In the 1880s the Naples hall of justice was said to be like a flea market, with would-be lawyers advertising their services at every corner.

It seems that the regulation of legal practitioners, from its very early days, was drawn up with people like Saul Goodman in mind.

The respectable world seems to share Chuck’s opinion. Betsy Kettleman says it explicitly: ‘You’re the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.’ Jimmy can make people laugh in the legal world, but he can’t make them respect or approve of him, to them he will always be ‘Chuck McGill’s loser brother’. In the final series he’s ostracised by courthouse staff completely, the DA puts the word out: Jimmy has crossed a line that turns him from semi-tolerated guest to pariah. The resentment obviously fuelled his transformation into Saul Goodman, and there’s a moment in Breaking Bad when he strong-arms a more established attorney into selling his client’s house for less than half its value: you can see on Saul’s face how much he enjoyed outsmarting the conservative, disdainful older advocate.

Persuasion is all about the game. Persuasion is what got Socrates killed. Persuasion is how Jimmy McGill got his start as a small time conman – persuading people to hand over money for items that turn out to be worthless or even nonexistent. Persuasion is about creative interpretation, twisting the rules, dancing up to the line without quite crossing it. And persuasion brings in another concept Jimmy is fond of: showmanship. Showmanship is the suits, the ring, the LAWYRUP car, the inflatable Lady Liberty, and all the accoutrements of the Saul Goodman identity that Jimmy accumulates on the way. These things are not glammers (although they are that too) they are marks of Saul’s talent. And talent, Stephen King says, wants to be used.

This is where Kim comes in. As an attorney she seems more built in the Chuck mode: diligent and professional and quietly outstanding. But she shares with Jimmy a love of persuasion and mischief, a streak of something wicked that becomes the basis of their brief, passionate love affair. When interviewed by a new firm she relates her early life growing up in a small town in Nebraska. ‘What do you want?’ asks the law partner. ‘More,’ says Kim. She wants something that’s commensurate with her talents and the conservative blue chip ABQ law world is never going to offer that. The passion Jimmy and Kim have in common is the passion to be their own person, to work for themselves, not for a firm, a bank, a corporation or a cartel. Like Boyd Crowder in Justified, they are outlaws rather than criminals. The important thing for Jimmy and Kim is never to give up their independence – and they have a cautionary tale in Howard Hamlin, their boss at HHM, a comical, derided and ultimately tragic figure. 

The Game is not a hard thing to get into. During the first series – I mean, after Tuco’s calmed down – there is not much criminal activity at all. One episode begins with Jimmy sitting in a police station, there as Mike’s attorney, his back against a wall of fugitives. We pan down the wall of faces, knowing Jimmy’s likeness will one day be among them, and we linger on one: a guy called William Hill. Later, this same man rudely pushes past Jimmy to exit a cafe bathroom. The underworld is not obvious… but we always know it is there. 

The practice of law intersects with The Game of the criminal world. There are very few morally uncompromised people in Better Call Saul, and those minor characters – Ernesto, Irene Landry, Manuel Varga. Even Chuck is not above the dark arts. He spent years quietly undermining Jimmy before actively trying to drive him out of the profession in series two (which, of course, makes Jimmy all the more determined to hold on to a legal career that he’d considered giving up in the past.) Chuck is as devious as Jimmy and as proud as Walter White: he won’t admit he is mentally ill because he can’t face any potential threat to his intellect, the brilliant mind that built his success in life and won him the respect he felt cheated of by his more loveable little brother. Even the thought that he might have made a transposition error in client documentation sends Chuck into a tailspin. At the heart of it is pride but also a kind of terrible tough love. Chuck is convinced that Jimmy will do great harm to himself and others, and of course he is right… but whether this is fate or just determinism is something for us at home to puzzle over.

The road to hell is a crooked one. A common criticism of Better Call Saul is that it was too slow moving. Jimmy McGill doesn’t make a clear conscious decision to get into The Game. There is no great fall but a crooked path with plenty of switchbacks, do-overs, false starts and dead ends – a slow, fascinating meander. Donna Bowman of the AV Club also identifies what makes the show more interesting and more tragic: the absence of innate evil in Jimmy’s world. While there was always a dark heart to Walter White, for his lawyer the internal soundtrack is less intense: freestyle jazz.

But there is also a sense that Jimmy was doomed from the moment he tried to scam the Kettlemans, which put him on the cartel radar – and also gave him a grounding in trauma and violence, enabling him to push through the horror as it escalates and therefore helping him survive the Game. Mike tells him:

We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off… but eventually, you’re back on it. And the road we’re on led us out to the desert, everything that happened there and straight back to where we are right now. And nothing – nothing – can be done about that.

Mike Ehrmantraut acts as a kind of Zen counsellor to Saul and others. As the above quote shows, he’s a fatalist, and a hard man, particularly on himself. Nothing fazes Mike – he meets even his own violent death with a deadpan equanimity: ‘Shut the fuck up, Walter, and let me die in peace’ (and Walter, incredibly, does.) After his son’s death, for which he blames himself, for Mike life is all epilogue. Hank told Mike that ‘your departure from the Philadelphia police was… dramatic.’ We now know just how dramatic that departure was. But revenge doesn’t seem to have satisfied Mike. He’s still haunted by guilt and loneliness, and he can’t tell the difference between justice and vengeance. So why do we love him? Because Mike makes us laugh, as a laconic foil to Jimmy, and because of his stubborn belief that there are rules and ethics to the Game, things you do and don’t do. Jimmy is heading into the darkness. Mike already lives there.

The road is not just for Saul and Mike. Albuquerque is full of criminal dilettantes – the Kettlemans, Dan the steroid nerd, Gale Boetticher, even Werner Ziegler the engineer – who think they can get into the Game without negative consequences for themselves. They all pale in comparison to Walter White, the ultimate criminal amateur, who upends the ABQ underworld entirely and leaves scorched earth. As Mike rants to Walter in Breaking Bad: ‘We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch!… We had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork…. It was perfect. But, no, you just had to blow it up.’

The story of Heisenberg was about bitterness and pride but also regret. Even in the last episode of Better Call Saul Walter is still going on about the company he formed in graduate school, convinced that his college friends scammed him out of billions. Walter wants a legacy but he also wants to live the life he believed was denied him (he keeps Jesse around because he sees the younger man as his missing third child, the son and heir Walt never had). Walt bares his soul – as much as he ever bares his soul – to Saul about this, only for the lawyer to tell his own most profound regret: injuring his knee doing a slip-and-fall. To this Walt just says: ‘So you were always like this.’ 

Yes, he was always like this: an ordinary guy from a small town with a taste for mischief. And this is the story, the story of an ordinary man who grew up in the small town of Cicero, a man with a good heart and a streak of something wicked to him: a man who could have done anything he put his mind to, but who ended up, after a string of criminal adventures, serving life in federal prison. And it is the story of his one, brief, true love, a brilliant young woman who was equal to him in both law and persuasion, a woman who could have done amazing things and still might.

Series creator Vince Gilligan has ruled out a return to Albuquerque, so it’s goodbye to that world as well – ‘quite a ride,’ as Saul says. It really was a land of enchantment, and an immense pleasure to spend time there.

Codename Edith

May 7, 2022

Edith Suschitzky merits only one mention in Ben MacIntyre’s masterful biography of double agent Kim Philby. ‘Philby’s introduction to Deutsch appears to have been arranged by Edith Tudor-Hart … Edith married an English doctor and fellow communist called Alexander Tudor-Hart, and moved to England in 1930, where she worked as a photographer and part-time talent-scout for the NKVD, under the remarkably unimaginative codename ‘Edith’. She had been under MI5 surveillance since 1931 but not, fatefully, on the day she led Philby to meet Deutsch in Regent’s Park.’

Philby learned communism at university. Just before he left Cambridge, he asked his supervisor, economist Maurice Dobb, ‘how best to devote my life to the Communist cause’ and Dobb put him in touch with a Paris agent of the Comintern named Louis Gibarti. Gibarti sent Philby to Vienna, where he fell in love with a Viennese communist named Litzi. Edith was one of her best friends, the daughter of a social democratic publisher. Then came the purge. ‘Prisoners march through silent streets as they are led towards the camps that will become their graves, Europe dithering in the months following Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’s disbanding of parliament. Across the city of Vienna, a fire takes hold.’

Litzi’s name was on one of Dollfuss’s hit lists, so she married Philby and fled to London, and a little while later Edith Suschitzky led him to the meeting in the park that would make him a spy. We see little of Philby in this novel, and no great loss. He pops up now and again: at Cambridge (‘Trinity College appeared to bask beneath its own golden halo, those first weeks flying past, the clinking of champagne flutes along the banks of the River Cam’) in Spain (‘Taking a step on to the pavement, the dust scattering around his polished brogues and linen suit – the perfect attire for a bright young Times journalist poised to report the Civil War from Franco’s side’) and outwitting the local cops by throwing his wallet on the floor during interrogation. Oh, he’s such a card. Letters from Russia intersperse the narrative. In them he talks about the weather, his dacha in the countryside, his attempts at cultivating vegetables. Charlotte Philby, who is his grand daughter, wrote the letters based on Philby’s own correspondence: ‘Some sections are lifted verbatim; additional paragraphs I have invented based on his interviews, his autobiography, anecdotes, family folklore, and my imagination.’

Edith was the greater mystery. Growing up, she saw her father’s bookshop regularly trashed and raided by the nationalist right, yet he never fought back: ‘Edith’s father had felt himself stand taller. A self-proclaimed pacifist, he hadn’t lashed out.’ As a young woman she shouts at the old man: ‘You have dedicated your life to ideas and theories that you claim will change the world. But you’re a hypocrite! Just out there, beyond the bookshop, Europe is imploding, and you do nothing.’ As an activist she’ll do anything the Party asks of her, and defend its most shocking crimes. ‘So, my daughter doesn’t condemn it,’ says Edith’s mother in 1939, ‘a pact between the Nazis and the Soviet Union. And so you must condone it, this agreement between your leader and the same man who forced us from our homes, who stole our country – the men who are responsible for Papa’s death?’ 

To betray you must first belong, Philby tells her. Philby was a son of privilege whose life was a succession of exclusive clubs. Edith was an immigrant artist under constant state suspicion. Edith is interesting because she didn’t belong – her personal life was nowhere as linear as her doctrinaire views. After letting go of the dullard doctor she married, Edith had a succession of affairs with various dynamic Soviet agents. The real focus in life was her son – she loves Tommy more than anything in the world, but his condition and stalled development (likely PTSD from the Blitz) makes him a threat to himself and others. Edith takes the boy to a child psychiatrist who starts an affair with her, while the kid is packed off to a succession of remote residential homes. The dullard doctor signs off on a transfer to a brutal asylum without Edith’s knowledge or consent. The child psychiatrist drops her a line to say ‘I think you would like to know from me that I have remarried.’

The last third or so of the novel is a heartbreaking read as, twitchy and ageing, Edith deteriorates fast. At this stage the typewritten police reports that were always an occasional presence in the text begin to take it over – officialdom overwhelming humanity, like the Soviet years. She burns her negatives, suffers a nervous breakdown and is herself institutionalised. It’s at this point that Philby’s letters, always the most interesting aspect of his presence here, take on a poignancy. Under the careful insouciance of Philby’s style you could always make out self-doubt and isolation that crept in. (Macintyre writes ‘At times he sounded like a retired civil servant put out to grass (which, in a way, he was) harrumphing at the vulgarity of modern life… he grumbled about ‘the ghastly din of modern music’ and ‘hooligans inflamed by bourgeois rock music.’) ‘Is it wrong to say that I envied you your freedom?’ he writes to Edith. ‘You got to live your life exactly as you ought; you never had to play a part.’ 

Edith and Kim becomes a sad song, and a meditation on the psychology of betrayal. There is always doubt, and memory, even in the club of one or a mind dedicated to the cause. In his biography of Guy Burgess, Andrew Lownie writes about the house on Bentinck Street where Burgess used to crash sometimes – ‘it had a bomb shelter in the basement, there were always plenty of overnight visitors stranded by air raids or late night duties.’ In August 1940 Burgess wrote to a friend: ‘the bed problem when I sleep there in the basement is complex. Varied also are the names people murmur in their sleep.’

American Fortunes

May 2, 2022

(Spoiler alert for entire series of Ozark)

In Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You there is a mob accountant called Bernard Squires. His ‘livelihood, and in all probability his very life, depended on his talent for assembling investment portfolios in which vast sums could plausibly disappear.’ He is in rural Florida to build a shopping mall on forest land – only the shopping centre is never meant to get built, it’s simply a vehicle to launder millions for the Tarbone crime family. Squires does everything right, but is ultimately beaten out of the land by the novel’s heroes, and ends up fleeing to South America.

Running away is never an option for Marty Byrde, the wealth manager in Ozark. Marty is very good at his job – if, for Gale Boetticher, the magic was in the lab, for Marty that magic is in the balance sheets. Cartel representatives come to his firm in Chicago and hire him to launder their drug money. The cartel is impressed with Marty because – out of the hundred-odd wealth managers its representatives interviewed for the role – Marty was the only one who had the balls to point out that their current financial advisor is ripping them off. All goes well for ten years, until the cartel discovers that Marty’s business partner is also skimming, and that Marty – distracted by his wife Wendy’s affair – has missed this. Marty has to watch his business partner and contractors gunned down in front of him, and only wins his own life by offering a radical new proposition – relocate to rural Missouri and launder more money far from federal eyes. The enforcer agrees to give Marty a second chance, and he uproots himself to Ozark. 

Ozark is a show about class, not crime. This is illustrated to high comedy in the early episodes. Marty arrives in Osage Beach offering tons of money to buy up small businesses, and is surprised when the locals get suspicious and ask questions. For all Marty’s business brain, he doesn’t anticipate that Missourians might actually know what money laundering is – or that he might be blundering into established operations. At least in the beginning, Marty is a white collar Yankee who underestimates the South. Once the family has settled in, and learned to fit in to some extent, we can see the dividing lines. Rich northern families visit every year to enjoy the lakes. Marty’s fifteen year old daughter Charlotte sleeps with one of the rich boys. When he blanks her, Charlotte realises that she is now on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon: to the elites stopping in from Manhattan or Long Beach she is no longer someone to be taken seriously, just a local girl to fool about with. (A New York hipster declines to take part in local hustler Ruth Langmore’s drug operation because, he says, he came from a place like Ozark and doesn’t want to go back there.)

Getting the Byrdes back across the line is the ambition of Wendy Byrde, Marty’s errant wife. A brilliant political campaigner, who was forced out by the Democrat machine in Chicago, Wendy sees in Ozark her last and best chance. While Marty launders the Byrde money, Wendy launders the Byrde reputation. She uses her long-dormant networking skills to buy up much of the Missourian elite and to build a Byrde family foundation, her goal to establish the foundation as a Chicago philanthropic machine that has outgrown the cartel. Her and Marty’s conflicting business aims, and their increasingly volatile marriage, dominate much of the storyline and there are lethal consequences for anyone caught in their crossfire. Wendy’s threats, her manipulations, her willingness to take life and even sacrifice her own brother to the cartel, all of it makes her a terrifying criminal operator in her own right. But it’s rare to find pure evil in the Ozarks. When Wendy’s father comes to the lakes (to find his ‘missing’ son) he ends up trying to take Charlotte and the son Jonah into his guardianship. Outwardly an upright Christian man, Ruth gets him drunk and makes him tell her who he really is: a mean drunk who hits his children. Ruth concludes that, as bad as the Byrde parents are, their kids are safer with them. 

‘When Ozark first appeared,’ writes Barbara Ellen, ‘it was dismissed by some as a mere Breaking Bad rehash. Give over. Ozark is its own beast: a chilling, slow-churning opera of frayed loyalties, burnt bridges and familial decay.’ Marty Byrde is fascinating because he’s not Walter White. Walt dragged his wife and kids into the gutter with him but for the Byrdes, money laundering is very much a family affair, the kids know what their dad does, there is no conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. And while Walter became desensitised to violence scarily quickly, Marty seeks a diplomatic solution to all problems. ‘We’re here to do a deal, not kill people.’ That is Marty.

Of course, in a criminal environment with cartel hitmen and local mafias, the diplomatic solution isn’t always on offer. ‘You keep trying to please everyone,’ says the Byrdes’ tenant Buddy Small, identifying the problem. But Marty has a temper, kept carefully in check. The only backstory we get for him is in series three when, languishing in a cartel dungeon, he remembers his childhood. In this bleak flashback Marty’s father is dying in hospital. Told to leave the room, Marty wanders about and finds a games machine. He watches the machine for a while and figures out that the game is rigged. The injustice of it all motivates Marty to rig the game in his favour, and it also gives him a furious temper, which he mostly keeps under careful control. But under the escalating tensions of the last series, Marty finally loses his cool. When a man cuts him up in traffic, Marty beats the motorist to a bloody pulp.

For all its nuance and style, Breaking Bad had a kind of homespun morality to it. With tragic exceptions, the characters get what they deserve. Breaking Bad is like a desert town, where the sun’s shining bright and you can see everything up ahead. Ozark is more like a trek through a forest at night, with the ground slippery underfoot and the air full of strange creatures hooting and swinging and brushing against you. It’s a murky world a long way away from the primary colours of Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque.

Ozark is the scarier show because of its indifference and amorality, the sense that anything could happen. When cartel boss Omar Navarro tries to retire from the business and wind up his criminal organisation, the FBI won’t let him because it wants the drug money from seized trucks. In an agreement of outstanding cynicism, the feds and Byrdes arrange for the cartel to stay in business – providing the authorities get a cut from border crossings. ‘It ain’t illegal, it’s the feds doing it,’ Ruth crows. In the end, legal and illegal interests form a monopoly that guarantees money and status for those fortunate enough to be part of the magic circle. 

And bad luck if you’re not. Ruth Langmore was Marty’s first lieutenant in his Ozark operation, a small time criminal from the local bad element. Marty recognises her brilliant mind, gives her a job and responsibilities and encourages her to excel… but ultimately, when she has finally outlived her usefulness, Marty chooses not to protect her. Ruth leads a stalled life, propelled forward by her talents and drive but held back by her family history: not smart enough to get out of Ozark, she reflects, but smart enough to know what she’s missing. In the final episode she sees the ghosts of her murdered family hanging out in the trailer park – a criminal family destroyed by more sophisticated criminals. By then Ruth has an inheritance and a business in her name and an expunged record – ‘first clean Langmore in five generations’ – but the machine was never going to let her get away with it. As they say: once a Langmore.

Tony Soprano, justifying the American-Italian mafia, tells Dr Melfi that ‘when the Americans opened the floodgates, let all us Italians in, the Conaughtys, the Rockefellers, they didn’t do that out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because they needed us… and those fucks, the JP Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was business. The American way.’ The private detective in Ozark tells Wendy Byrde that ‘You want to become the Kochs, the Kennedys, whatever kind of royalty you think you are? The world doesn’t work like that.’

‘Since when?’ Wendy snaps back.

A Lockdown Mystery

November 22, 2021

‘All this happiness on display is suspect,’ thinks Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, set during the 2003 march against the Iraq war. ‘Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other.’ 

I felt something similar when the first COVID-19 lockdown was declared in March 2020. Obviously, people weren’t out on the streets hugging each other, but there was the same kind of performative merriment, an atmosphere McEwan described as ‘innocence and English dottiness.’ Sourdough bread, Joe Wicks, handwashing songs, working from home in your PJs… all this happiness on display is suspect, I thought. 

For most people in the media, on social media, the greatest hardship of lockdown was having to homeschool the kids. But what about the people who weren’t invited to the Zoom party – people living in substandard accommodation in tower blocks or damp-infested council terraces, people isolated from green spaces and meaningful activity, people for whom work is a refuge and the pub a haven? 

Nancy Jo Sales in her dating book Nothing Personal reflected that ‘When shelter-in-place orders were issued for COVID-19, the news became filled with stories about a rise in domestic violence all over the world. I couldn’t stop thinking about the women and children who were trapped inside with their abusers.’

Which leads me in a roundabout way to Catherine Ryan Howard‘s brilliant concept thriller 56 Days. It starts in Dublin in the runup to the first Irish lockdown. Ciara is new to the city, doesn’t know anyone, but by luck she meets handsome and professional Oliver in a supermarket queue. The two click instantly, a whirlwind courtship ensues, and she moves in with him… just as the government declares lockdown. What could possibly go wrong?

It is a marvellous premise of two people who click but don’t really know each other, who find themselves overcommitted to each other… only, one of them is a sociopath. Oliver won’t talk about his past at all, or family, or friends: he prefers, he tells Ciara, the blank slate. He follows the COVID-19 rules to the letter, because he doesn’t want to get in trouble, doesn’t want to be hospitalised by the virus, because this is a man who wants nothing to do with the state, in any form. He even bans Ciara from sitting out on the balcony. 

When lockdown ends, the police break into Oliver’s flat to find a dead body inside it.

Howard writes in her afterword that ‘In the early days of this pandemic, many writers took to social media and elsewhere to vow that they would never write about this in their books, that once this was over no one, including them, would ever want to think about it again.’

In several ways this is a good thing. I remember a lot of publishers and literary journals closed their lists to anything COVID related, because everyone was sick of living this thing, never mind reading about it. And it takes time for great events to be mediated in imagination and memory. ‘You must let it weave and trickle through you,’ Martin Amis said.

But it would be a real shame to miss Howard’s marvellous displays of observation, of how people gradually accommodate the unseen killer. The dance of social distancing when you walk past someone on a narrow pavement, the jolt of fear when you touch a pedestrian crossing, the knuckle callouses of constant hand-sanitising, the slowly emptying cities, the new, small, learned behaviours – Howard brings those shaky early months of the pandemic to life. It takes time. On Patrick’s Day the bars are open but the parade’s been called off and there’s ‘a guy in his late teens wearing a mask, holding his phone in front of his face while he spun around to offer the lens a three-sixty view of the streets behind him. In what sounded like a German accent he was narrating the scene, pointing out that he was the only one wearing a face-covering. At the time, he’d struck Ciara as a bit of an alarmist.’

Howard deftly captures the Dublin of young professionals. When temperatures soar, Oliver and Ciara walk along the canal for a picnic: ‘The waterside paths are thronged with people and pets strolling, and wherever there’s a patch of grass or somewhere to sit and swing your legs out over the water, pale limbs and heads thrown back in laughter have already gathered around collections of supermarket bags filled with cans.’ You almost start to believe in the lockdown fantasy of bourgeois Instagram. But round the next bend of the river, they find a navy ship, with people in hazard moonsuits ‘using the spraying devices on their backs to hose down surfaces with what has to be disinfectant.’ They are making a morgue, a Flying Dutchman of COVID-19. 

56 Days is a baggy novel in the crime fiction style and the breathless present-tense style doesn’t always hold with the length of this story. But there are enough twists to keep your attention as the ugly truth of Oliver and Ciara’s relationship is slowly revealed, like a gradually looming iceberg. It’s also fun to watch the exhausted, bickering Garda detectives try to make sense of the whole messy mystery. 

If we do have another lockdown – I expect, and hope not – Catherine Ryan Howard’s novel would be a great way to kill a few days of it. 

The Writer’s Wife

November 21, 2021

My story of this name appears in the ‘Abandon Hope’ issue of Vamp Cat, a wonderful zine that takes its name from one of Terry Pratchett’s best subplots, in Witches Abroad: ‘Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.’

I’m proud of this story, but admit the idea of the trapped muse has been done before – most famously by Neil Gaiman in his Sandman episode ‘Calliope’. The Wiki fan page for that tale notes ‘Though the story of ‘Calliope’ was not criticized for unoriginality at the time of its release, its concept has apparently become a very popular one since; a list of overused story ideas at Strange Horizons included ‘Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.’

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my take on this old myth.

There are also several reviews for Shiny New Books, from the spring and summer:

Civilisations – Laurent Binet

Greenwich Park – Katherine Faulkner

The Absolute Book – Elizabeth Knox

A History of What Comes Next – Sylvain Neuvel

My favourite of these was The Hard Crowd, a collection of essays by Rachel Kushner, whose novels I discovered a couple of years ago. The Mars Room is probably her best book, but her whole back catalogue is worth reading – and the essay collection the best thing I read this year.

A World Without You

August 1, 2021

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is a story told by a dead girl. Narrating from heaven, fourteen year old Susie Salmon watches the fallout from her own murder, and tries to comes to terms with her death. She reflects: ‘These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.’

Before You Knew My Name grapples with the same mystery – how to imagine the world without yourself in it. Alice Lee has a few more years than Susie Salmon – she is eighteen when she is killed. She has fled unhealthy ties in small town Wisconsin and arrived in New York thinking ‘I have 79.1 years promised to me, that’s the life expectancy they gave to girls born in 1996, like me.’ Those years and their promise are extinguished, barely a month into her stay. 

Alice is discovered by a jogger named Ruby, another woman fleeing old connections. She has moved to NYC from Melbourne, and her first weeks in America are dominated by loneliness, the kind of exhilarating loneliness you only feel in a city where nobody knows you. Ruby is jogging in a local park during a storm when she finds Alice. Ruby can’t get the dead woman out of her mind – she hangs around the police station, asking about leads, until an exasperated officer directs her to a PTSD group, and through them, she meets the ‘Death Club’ – a group of friends who meet in restaurants and dive bars to talk about their connections to death. Lennie is a mortician, Sue lost her daughter in a car crash, Josh was technically dead himself after a biking accident for a moment or so. On one level Before You Knew My Name is a terrific story about making friends, which is not always an easy thing to write about. 

But Alice is still very much in the picture, telling the story, not from heaven but the air and dust of the physical New York. She reconstructs for us the players of her little life – the mother who killed herself, the lazy guardian who took her in, her chaotic best friend Tammy, her creepy schoolteacher Mr Jackson, the kindly old man in Manhattan who gives her a free room out of nothing but generosity and his own loneliness. At the same time she’s hanging around Ruby, trying to push the older woman in the right direction, towards new friends and away from feckless lover Ash back in Melbourne. Alice is fascinated by people and life, sees kinetic energy coursing through them. Sometimes this is overwrought. Sometimes it isn’t. When Ruby meets the old man Noah, his dog Franklin ‘gives his seal of approval, nosing at Ruby’s hand when she sits down, asking for a scratch. He looks for me still, the old mutt, and he finds me sometimes, too.’ 

‘I too have tried to get close to him,’ says Alice, ‘But the man who murdered me only has to think about what he did that morning for those wild waves to start up again, drag me under the roiling water.’ For most of this novel the killer is off the radar, outside the net. Eventually though, he can’t help putting himself into the story, turning up at the crime scene, steering conversations back to the crime, and warning every woman he meets to ‘Be careful… It’s not as safe out there as it might seem.’ America is full of unsolved murders, people who disappear and are never found, real life cases told in books like Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls and Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou. But Jacqueline Bublitz gives us hope that the knock will come, for Alice Lee’s killer, for Mr Jackson, perhaps for the killers in Oak Beach and Jefferson Davis as well. 

When the Death Club hold a memorial for Alice, Ruby has one rule of conversation: ‘until the trial and resultant conviction made him impossible to avoid – no speaking about that other man, please.’

Bollywood Tragedy

July 10, 2021

Hospitality is hard work. The hours are long. The managers can be difficult. You live on tips and leftovers. You deal with complaining nitpicky customers by day and drunken unpredictable customers by night. 

Now imagine having to investigate a murder on top of all that. 

Kamil Rahman is living in somewhat reduced circumstances above the Tandoori Knights restaurant in Brick Lane. Prior to this Kamil was a budding homicide detective from a respected police family in Kolkata, but he has been forced to flee India after screwing up his first big murder case. His parents are ashamed of him, the Home Office is trying to deport him, and, it appears, a mysterious hitman wants him dead. 

Ajay Chowdhury is good at writing about hospitality work – the drudgery and stress of it, and also the camaraderie and laughter that seems to exist beside the drudgery. The Waiter opens with a big gig for the Tandoori Knights staff – they are catering a private party for wealthy businessman Rakesh Sharma. At this point you just have to relax and enjoy Chowdhury’s observations. Not long in London, Kamil expects Billionaire’s Row to be a ‘futuristic nirvana’, but finds instead ‘a deserted, shabby road with half the houses in total disrepair, hidden behind forbidding black hoardings and padlocked iron gates. It looked as though the billionaires had fled the country en masse after a people’s revolution.’ The venue itself is ‘a large double-fronted Georgian house, in the centre of which an overexcited architect had plonked a portico. At the entrance sprung four tall white columns topped by a triangular pediment displaying sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses disporting themselves in various states of undress. Underneath was a large plaque with the words ‘Sharma Manor’. It was an unique Anglo-Greco-Bolly-weirdo style of architecture.’

Rakesh Sharma is a success story who has fought his way out of the Basanti slums. But he’s dead by the end of this night, and the cops arrest his beautiful young wife. Kamil has his doubts, though, and to restore some measure of his own pride he starts to run his own investigation between restaurant shifts. 

What follows is a workable detective story. Kamil tries to unravel the mystery as best he can with no official standing as an investigator. At the same time he’s remembering his first big shot in Kolkata, the murder of Bollywood star Asif Khan, and how that case fell apart. We’ve been here before of course, but again it’s Chowdhury’s gift of observation that makes the story work. He describes two cultures, London and Kolkata, sending up both worlds and shining a light on the places where they intersect. Kamil was a rising star in Kolkata but finds himself balked at every turn by a dysfunctional police bureaucracy. A key piece of evidence disappears into the tomb of the malkhana, and to find it, Kamil enters this dismal underlayer of the police station:

I peered at the paan stains and damp patches on the bare concrete walls of the malkhana. It was sweltering here, the slowly rotating fan above doing little more than distribute the humidity around the room. The police headquarters became grungier and more dilapidated the further down you came; the executive offices at the top, pristine, wood panelled and air conditioned; the holding cells at the very bottom in the sub-sub-basement suffocating, filthy, stinking and damp. 

And that is not the worst of it – Kamil remembers a morgue that had ‘Bodies lying everywhere in the refrigerated room, some stacked on top of each other, sometime more than one on a stretcher. Some looked as if they hadn’t been touched in months. When I’d joined the homicide division, Abba had drummed into me, ‘First rule of police work, get a good PM doctor. The bad ones miss things all the time and you will be on a monkey chase.”

Chowdhury also evokes a changing London. Tandoori Knights owner Saibal complains that ‘Brick Lane is different – all young people and tourists now, no regulars anymore. I have to worry about things like Trip Advisor reviews-sheviews and Instant-gram – complete nonsense. People going click-click at their plates all night long. Tweeting and twatting. Good food, good service is not enough. Now the food has to be beautiful so people can take pictures and put on the Google. How do you make a chapati look nice?’ 

The dialogue is funny, idiosyncratic and real – indeed The Waiter is best when Chowdhury just lets his characters talk. Saibal’s daughter Anjoli, irreverent and quick witted, is the perfect assistant and foil for the gloomy and rule-bound Kamil. 

This is Ajay Chowdhury’s first crime novel and hopefully there will be more Kamil Rahman books to come, for it’s a pleasure to spend time in his world.

Bandages and Bullets: Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms

June 16, 2021

A nineteenth-century psychiatrist defines paramnesia as

‘The blurring of something imaginary and something real. Most commonly, déjà vu; the sense you’ve seen something new before. And its opposite, jamais vu, which is when something that should be familiar feels wholly alien.’

When the doctor says this, his patient, Joe Tournier, cries out in recognition: ‘Yes!… Yes, that second one, ever since that man found me at the station!’ 

We all know that second feeling, when something ordinary becomes strange, and I wonder if it’s common to people living under authoritarian regimes, as Joe does. He comes to himself on a train just pulling into London… that’s actually ‘Londres’, because Joe is in a nineteenth century where the French won the Napoleonic Wars. In this reality, it’s 1898 and England is just one more colony of Napoleon’s republic, Joe Tournier just one more slave inside it. Even though well into middle age, he remembers nothing before the train pulled into the Gare du Roi. His wife and child are strangers he must get to know all over again, his past is a mystery. Years go by and nothing returns. 

The only physical trace Joe can find of his past life is a postcard showing a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides and a cryptic message – COME HOME, IF YOU REMEMBER. When Joe reaches the lighthouse of Eilean Mòr (and it takes some doing) he finds that the island is a spooky place. Winters arrive in a single day. Everyone has tortoises. The lighthouse itself is like an optical illusion – from one angle it’s a proud beacon, from another a crumbled ruin. There are two stone pillars in the causeway with names carved onto them. 

For in Eilean Mòr a portal in time has opened. Joe finds himself shanghaied into the past to fight the battle of Trafalgar all over again, and win it this time. 

It sounds a bit silly – Blackadder in a time machine. But any potential absurdity of the concept is buried under the gravity of events. Joe is conscripted by the mercurial captain Missouri Kite, and life on board his ship is full of the horrors of naval wartime – floggings, drownings, sleeplessness, amputations, annihilation. After each battle, Kite’s sister Agatha (who is also the ship surgeon) goes to tend to the wounded with bandages… or pistols. When too many sailors die, children are drafted in their place. It’s so grim it almost drags. But there is a battle in Edinburgh that is well worth your king’s shilling. And Natasha Pulley seems to capture the lure of the sea. This is Joe and Fred at the ship’s helm:

Because the water was rough, it took two people to hold the wheel. It was hard work, so nobody was allowed to do it for more than an hour, but it was a wonderful hour. Fred showed him how to correct the course on the compass, and how, even once you’d moved the wheel, it took the ship twelve or fifteen seconds to start swinging in the direction you wanted. By the time their hour was up, they were soaked and laughing, and in a flying rush, Joe understood why all these people had signed up for such a wet, miserable, dangerous life.

We’re used to research-heavy historical novels (the Culture Secretary, raging against woke arts, may want to take solace in contemporary English fiction, which seems stuck in the more respectable parts of the English past) but there’s a narrative grace to The Kingdoms that makes it better than most. As we get to know the characters, the terror eases off. Missouri Kite is a monster, but a human monster that war has made. He is so a creature of the navy that he feels nervous on dry land, because the ground isn’t rolling. The time travel conceit even begins to make sense because you realise how advanced technology was at the end of the nineteenth century compared to the beginning. (Sail to steam was a big development in Conrad’s time; Kite doesn’t seem to like it either.) And there is a love story that is not the expected love story.

And Pulley makes a marvellous imaginative reach into the impact that time travel could have on human psychology and memory. The blurring of something imaginary and something real – an aspect of paramnesia, and also one of a terrific novel.

The Two Musicians

May 8, 2021

I really must say a few words about Kirstin Innes’s fabulous second novel, Scabby Queen, which I have just got round to reading. It’s about an idealistic Scottish singer who has one big hit – a protest song about the poll tax called ‘Rise Up’ – then spends the rest of her life in activism and low key experimental music. Her first big tour is of Highland towns – ‘Thirty dates, none of them in cities. That’s what makes it revolutionary’ – Oban, Ullapool, Fort William, the kind of towns no London Brexit columnist would be seen dead in.

Clio Campbell is considered D list as a celebrity, but she makes a strong impression on everyone she meets, and her story is told through the perspectives of the people who knew her best – her parents, people who grew up with her, the men she married, the artists she inspired, the activists who shared her squat in Brixton in the 1990s. Innes has a gift for mimicry and epistolary detail, and I particularly liked the op-ed clippings from the right wing newspapers and the music press about her. The very names – ‘John Biddie’ – ‘Pete Moss’ – are a delight. 

Martin Amis writes in his Inside Story that ‘There used to be a sub-genre of long, plotless, digressive, and essayistic novels (fairly) indulgently known as ‘baggy monsters’… For self-interested reasons I like to think this sub-genre retains a viable pulse; but broadly speaking the baggy monster is dead.’ Surely Scabby Queen is a classic baggy monster novel, long and digressive but certainly not plotless: Innes manages to keep an array of characters, cities and timelines going without once losing our attention. It’s a fractured tale, and a great novel about uncertainty, and fractured lives.

Clio’s childhood in industrial Ayrshire is torn between her lazy, irresponsible father Malcolm and her respectable mother Eileen. Her contemporaries follow the rules, keep their heads down and train for jobs that, in the event, vaporise when the industrial base is destroyed in the 1980s. But Innes doesn’t romanticise the road Clio has taken, either. At a squat reunion in 2009, Clio’s old friend Sammi reappraises her activist peers of two decades back: ‘She saw them now, frayed, middle-aged and flustered, people who’d never held down a job, raised a kid, had managed to coast through to their forties and even their fifties on outrage and vim, untroubled by any real responsibility.’ Scabby Queen is not an advertisement for dropping out. 

Her own inspiration is Robert Burns, and I wonder if the whole story is set around this Burns poem, that we hear towards the end of the novel: ‘There was a lass and she was fair,/At kirk or market to be seen;/When a’ our fairest maids were met,/The fairest maid was bonnie Jean. And ay she wrought her Mammie’s wark,/And ay she sang sae merrilie;/The blythest bird upon the bush/Had ne’er a lighter heart than she.’

But the next verse takes a dark turn: ‘hawks will rob the tender joys/That bless the little lintwhite’s nest/And frost will blight the fairest flowers,/And love will break the soundest rest.’ Burns warns that the world breaks people who dare to rise above a certain level of mediocrity, and that’s more or less what happens to Clio. Her world is full of decent people but also hawks, circling the skies, waiting to strike. After her death, her story is rewritten, just as Burns is mainly read in golf clubs and Rotary dinners these days. Innes establishes the erasure of working class women’s stories with more deft and clarity than any contemporary academic discourse. 

Just before an Iraq war demo in 2003, Clio meets her father for the first time in many years. Malcolm is also a musician but not a songwriter: ‘If I’ve learned anything, it’s that people really only want to hear songs they’ve known before…. hear those songs that mean things to them… Och, what’s that word – nostalgia.’

Clio is subdued during this argument. She just says ‘It’s important. Make a big public stand.’ Malcolm, in full wind, goes on to say this:

You can’t stop these bastards from doing what they want to do and hang the ordinary people. It never changes, lass, believe your old father here. You know that. You’re hardly a wee girl now, are you? All the likes of you and me can hope to do is cheer them up with a couple of tunes. That’s why we were put on this earth. That’s our purpose, you and me. You’ve got a God-given gift in that throat of yours, lass – you use that rather than your feet. Sing a song for people and at least you give them some hope.

Clio wants art to be more than that. She wants change, not hope. Who is right in this argument? Should art move the world and change it? Clio’s friends don’t know where the talent and passion ends and the actual person begins. She’s a mystery, and in Scabby Queen there are big plot twists but also the nagging sense that you are not being told the whole story, that there is important stuff we’re not privy to. For how can anyone really know anyone else?

Bric-A-Brac And Murder

March 13, 2021

Weldon Kees, the great Larkin of American suburbs, wrote a poem ‘Crime Club’ that is also an impossible mystery. His case is an absence of helpful clues: ‘No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair. No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend’ and a surfeit of misleading clues: ‘The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple/ The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased/The note: ”To be killed this way is quite all right with me.” It’s clear that the mystery of ‘Crime Club’ will never be unravelled, not least because ‘the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane, And sits alone in a white room in a white gown, Screaming that all the world is mad’. 

The mystery of Inga Vesper’s The Long Long Afternoon is no less impenetrable. It is suburban California in August 1959. Joyce Haney, a married mother of two, has vanished into thin air. The only clues are a couple of beer bottles, a bloodstain and a child’s sleepsuit. Of course, Mrs Haney isn’t the most well adjusted housewife around. She takes a lot of medication – even for the time – she came from a rough background, she has a rough boyfriend in her past, and she is far too friendly to ‘the help’: brilliant young Black cleaner Ruby Wright, who gets the bus from Skid Row to do the jobs that white Californian housewives will not do. 

We’ve been here before of course – the lonely struggle of Betty Draper in Mad Men, the research of Betty Friedan into the lives of upscale homemakers (‘Sixteen out of the twenty-eight were in analysis or analytical psychotherapy. Eighteen were taking tranquillisers; several had tried suicide’) – we know this time, and how crazy it seems now, men drinking and whoring in the city while their womenfolk fiddle with the air conditioning in their perfect little houses. We know Vesper’s characters. Mick Blanke is the haunted detective. Jimmy McCarthy, Joyce’s ex, is the haunted roughneck and war veteran. Ruby Wright is the aspirational young woman from the ghetto.

And yet Vesper’s novel never has the ring of overfamiliarity. Her prose is like the poetry of Weldon Kees – it’s understated but says everything. A half-finished freeway arches over the suburbs. Sunnylakes ‘looks like something from an election poster. The tidy houses, the flags, the mailboxes glinting in the sun’. Ruby suffers in her cleaner’s uniform: on the bus south, ‘her head is burning up under her little cap, and her feet are marinating in her sneakers’; cleaning the kitchen, ‘Ruby leans against the mop, which has gone slippery in her hands.’ Mick is from Brooklyn, kicked to the west coast for screwing up a case in New York, and he never gets used to the heat: ‘the sunshine makes him woozy every time he steps outside’. Investigating the Haney garden, he notices that ‘the sun flares from the tiles marching around the pool. Not a single weed dares to rear its head through the cracks.’ If that’s what it’s like to work in the oppressive summer town of Sunnylakes, living there must be worse. ‘There is hope in the morning hours,’ Joyce says, ‘just as there is desperation in the afternoon, which stretches like gum and yet contracts into nothing’. To be killed this way is quite all right with me.

Vesper writes brilliantly about male privilege and the struggles of the time. Joyce’s husband, Frank, is no Don Draper. He can work in a high paying office job but that’s just about all he can do; when Joyce disappears, Frank visibly disintegrates; without a woman in his life, he panics, and calls in his mother, a scary Lady Bracknell figure who quickly moves into the family home. Frank is a man who has been brought up to expect everything to be done for him, and is distraught to find that’s not always on offer.

In Ruby’s life there is the Sunnylakes Women’s Improvement Committee and the Skid Row Black Man’s Advancement Committee. Ruby’s not welcome at either. My life needs advancing too, she wants to tell her boyfriend. The tenement city where Ruby lives is described just as skilfully as the Sunnylakes ideal. Many of the homes are going to be bulldozed to build the new freeway. Evictions are coming, and near the end of the book, there is a riot. ‘When she steps into Trebeck Row, it’s nearly empty. Only a few people hurry to their homes or their work. Fine 49 is shut up. In the distance, Mrs Estrada is making her way to the bus stop, her dress aflame with evening light.’ You see the riot before it happens.

The head of the Sunnylakes committee is Genevieve Crane, one of the best drawn characters in the novel. Her committee is ostensibly about home efficiency and home economics, but Mrs Crane is also subtly trying to teach the housewives to think for themselves, and make their own decisions – to show them ‘that there is more to life than men.’ She understands that Sunnylakes women have been conditioned into believing they will never be complete without a husband, and that the conditioning leads some of these women into very dark places. But her neighbour Nancy Ingram snaps back: ‘You think all a woman ought to want is freedom. But freedom is damned hard, Genevieve.’

The Long, Long Afternoon recalls the 1930s noir writers in its fusion of workable mysteries and a portrait of a society. It is also a fine way to kill a long, long afternoon.