Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

In a way, every piece of fiction is a mystery – How is it going to turn out? What will happen to the characters? If the reader doesn’t care, then the author hasn’t succeeded in writing a good book. The author must create a degree of eagerness and anxiety in the reader to keep him (or her) turning the pages. The anxiety in The Last Dickens is ideal for the bibliophile: what happens when we lose the voices that tell us what happens next? It’s June 1870, and Charles Dickens suffers a stroke midway through his serial The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving the story a genuine whodunit that will never and hasn’t ever been solved. How will readers cope without knowing how the book ends? And how will Dickens’s American publisher, the financially struggling firm of Fields, Osgood & Company, survive without the profits from his book?

I like to think of this as the third entry in a trilogy. Matthew Pearl’s first novel, The Dante Club blended history and mystery in a story featuring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and post-Civil War Boston. In his second novel, The Poe Shadow, Pearl re-created Edgar Allan Poe and life in mid-nineteenth-century Baltimore. In this novel, he presents a neatly written, meticulously detailed, and meticulously researched tale.

The firm’s junior partner, James Osgood (an historical figure), attempts to solve the real-life mystery that is proving fatal for several characters. The amiable, ordinary Osgood makes a believable man of letters. As a man of action he is an adorable fantasy, given to pedantic lecturing. In his efforts to find Dickens’s document, Osgood places his trust in a shady character to track dangerous clues through the city’s opium dens, he confides to his bookkeeper and sidekick, Rebecca Sand, this explanation: “I thought of consulting with Scotland Yard to secure a police escort, yet it would likely drive away the very man who can guide me. I am a publisher, Miss Sand. I know what it means. It means I must find a way, very often, to believe in people who believe in something else — something I often may not be inclined toward in the least.” He’s more stuffy than swashbuckling, but is able to hold his own with the bad guys.

Unfortunately, Pearl juggles too many narrative threads for a novel this length. He is forced to resort to exposition at inopportune moments, throwing off the pace. The subplot set in India and centered on Dickens’s son Frank, a supervisor in the Bengal Mounted Police with his own interest in the opium trade, is a promising gesture but never pays off. Pearl knows his Dickens, undoubtedly better than many of his readers do, and his focus on the author’s dark late period is valuable to those who would like to know about Dickens, the man. The problem is that by putting “the Chief” in his book (which he does through a series of flashbacks to the author’s final, backbreaking American tour), Pearl introduces a writer he can’t match, on any level. Of course, few writers could.

An intriguing element of the book is the historical struggle among publishers extant at the time; some of which still exist intact, some of which have been altered, and some of which are extinct. Fields, Osgood & Co. know that if they retain exclusive rights to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it could mean the difference between a successful publishing company and capitulating to their chief New York rival, Harper & Brothers. There is also a role for the trade circular that would come to be known as Publishers Weekly.

One of the pleasures of reading Pearl comes from enjoying the skillfully detailed 19th-century settings he constructs. In The Last Dickens, he recreates a world in which there were no international copyright laws, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment loomed, and steam elevators improved travel in office buildings. He also gives a contemporary feel to his works by reminding us that the 19th century in which the drug trade, organized crime, and urban blight loomed large and were less genteel than we tend to imagine.

It’s enticing to think that somewhere in some old, unexamined library or bookstore out there is a pile of missing manuscript pages in Dickens’s hand that would unravel the mystery of Edwin Drood. There have been several attempts by miscellaneous authors over the many years since Dickens’s death to complete the book – in the theater, film, radio, and novel. But none of them have the voice of Dickens himself.

Historical Epilogue for The Last Dickens:
Some facts behind characters and elements of The Last Dickens:
• After Fields’s retirement, James Ripley Osgood thrived for several years. The terrible Boston fire of 1872 destroyed some of the steel plates owned by the publishing firm. The following year, Osgood was forced to sell all three of his magazines. Facing steep financial problems, Osgood agreed to a merger with Houghton & Hurd. Later in life, Osgood moved to England to work for Harper & Bros. as their London agent. He died in 1892 in London, where he is buried.

• After Fields retired, he used his various experiences to write his memoirs of literary figures. He also spoke on the lecture circuit. He died in Boston in 1881 and is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

• Fletcher “Major” Harper retired in 1875. He died in 1877 at his home in New York and is buried at Greenwood cemetery. He was the last survivor of the original Harper brothers.

• Following seven years of service in the Bengal police, Francis Dickens continued his chosen profession in North America, receiving an appointment to the North-West Mounted Police in Canada beginning in 1874. Francis participated in several important battles and was promoted to Inspector in 1880. He died in 1886 while traveling in Moline, Illinois, where he is buried.

• Approximately ten years after Dickens’s death, one of Dickens’s sons, Charley, co-wrote a theatrical production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood with a new ending, which he claimed was in part based on the authority of the information his father had shared with him. The play has to this day never been produced. The manuscript is at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. (Charley was originally depicted as a character in The Last Dickens, but eliminated in a later draft)

• Years after Dickens’s death, a collector discovered a sheaf of his papers in Dickens’s unique shorthand. It was believed the bundle of papers could be the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Turning to Henry Dickens, one of Dickens’s sons, to help decipher, the papers were decoded—but apparently had nothing to do with Drood.

• According to a literary historian in the early twentieth century, James Osgood wrote a manuscript detailing his experiences as a publisher, including extensively about his time with Charles Dickens during the American tour. This manuscript has never been located. Osgood had left it in the possession of A. V. S. Anthony, an engraver, at whose death passed it on to his widow. Tracking their descendants leads to actor Anthony Perkins, whose father was named James Ripley Osgood Perkins after the publisher and who also had a son named Osgood Perkins. If the manuscript still exists, it does not appear to be registered to a library or archive and may still be held somewhere as a private possession (http://www.matthewpearl.com/dickens/epilogue.html).

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The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

This is another book I read for the Kimball Museum’s book club. I found it off-beat, enigmatic, and worthwhile reading, although not really a page-turner. Maybe it’s I who is off-beat because it seemed that no one in the group liked it, at least the outspoken members. I really don’t know how I feel about the book; put me down as neutral.

Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice, for the novels Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. This is the first book by Carey that I have read so I have no basis for comparison. However, two reviews stated that:

Peter Carey’s dazzling new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, encompasses heartbreak, the comfort of absorbing work, the transformative power of beauty and the soul of an old machine. If you’ve never read the Australian-born, two-time Booker Prize–winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang — or, most recently, Parrot and Olivier in America — his 12th novel is a terrific introduction to his work. Once again, Carey demonstrates an artful ability to capture a two-way interplay between past and present that is part historical, part fanciful and completely wonderful (McAlpin, Heller, NPR.org).

This novel lacks the wicked energy of Parrot and Olivier or Theft: A Love Story. But if Carey’s best books are superlative, the next tier down is still better – meatier, more imaginative – than many writers ever manage (Caplan, Nina, http://www.independent.co.uk)

So, I have more books to put on my to-read list. As they say, so many books, so little time.

Maybe what the book club readers were reacting to is that The Chemistry of Tears is a novel that speaks to the intellect rather than the heart. While it is tightly engineered, The Chemistry of Tears also contains vagueness and ambiguity, mystery and wonder. This novel reaches a bit too far for ambiguity to make the book really accessible. Carey’s goal in the book is setting up the illusory versus the actual, the mechanical versus the organic; it just takes great deal of work on the reader’s part to get it.

Peter Carey moves between two time periods, two countries, and two main characters. Catherine Gehrig is an horologist working at the (fictional) Swinburne Museum in London. The book begins when she learns of the sudden death of a heart attack of her lover, Matthew Tindall, Head Curator of Metals at the same institution. Catherine has been Tindall’s mistress for 13 years. He was older, married, and a father, but the pair of them lived an idyllic, secret life together. Now, Catherine believes that all possibility of happiness in life is gone.

Despite her grief, which we hear a lot about and which should make her a sympathetic character, Catherine isn’t easy to like. Her voice is brittle and snooty. It isn’t a voice that seduces. Quite soon, it’s possible to wish she would keep quiet about her “secret darling.”

It is in his depiction of Catherine as a technician that Carey presents her most effectively. He has clearly done a massive amount of research into what conservators and curators do in modern museums. The Swinburne and Catherine’s workroom are always entirely convincing places, and there is much incidental pleasure in learning about the place, the tools, the dust coats, the fume cupboard, the elaborate hierarchies.

Eric Croft, her boss, is one of the few at the museum aware of her affair with Tindall. He hopes that a new project, the complex reassembly of a magnificent, mid-19th century automaton of a silver swan, will distract her. He also provides an exceptionally able young assistant, Amanda, along with boxes packed with the swan’s hundreds of screws, rods and rings and eleven densely filled notebooks.

These are the journals of the second character, Henry Brandling, a British railroad heir who, desperate for entertainment for his sickly young son, travels deep into the land of expert clock makers in the German Schwarzwald in 1854 to commission a mechanical toy duck that will eat grain, apparently digest it and then, with a whirring of springs, defecate. Catherine becomes obsessed with Henry’s fantastical tale about his dealings with Herr Sumper, a mechanical genius and probable con man, and his strange household, a story that alternates and ultimately intertwines with her own.

There are many strings left hanging at the end. Ambiguity, remember? However, in the end, details (and logic) don’t really matter. The closing scenes, in which Catherine and Amanda finally recreate what Henry Brandling brought back from the forest, are among the best in the book, and the moment when the swan is set in motion is delightful.

Watch a video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4YggCiDRI0) of the mechanical Silver Swan housed in the Bowes Museum in Northern England, which inspired Peter Carey.

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Master of Shadows The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster

I read this for the Fort Worth Kimball Museum’s book club. I knew next to nothing about 17th century history – just a little about the Stuarts, Cromwell, and the Great Fire – but not European doings. Now I know way more than I ever wanted. Some of it little came in handy when I was teaching early American literature this summer. One never knows what random information one may pick up that might come in handy at the most unexpected times.

The audience for this book would, I think, be readers who want to know more about political history and art history. It is not for the casual reader; it is not light reading. Also, I have the paperback edition with few illustrations – all in black and white. I don’t know whether the hardback would have more painting, and in color. I was lucky enough to have Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, which is chock full of Ruben’s paintings mentioned in Master of Shadows.

I was also relatively unfamiliar with Rubens. I knew the name, of course, but his paintings are not as ubiquitous as are those of Monet, Rembrandt, Botticelli, or Munch. Chances are, you, like myself, are much better acquainted with the adjective than the work of the painter. Few people can cite a Rubens painting by name, but “Rubenesque” has become a synonym for any amply proportioned female. Rubens has fallen out of style and is now thought of as an Old World master of a painting style—symbolic representation, heavy on Greek and biblical references—that we now think of as musty and antiquated. High Baroque, the style in which he painted, is nowadays synonymous with pointless complexity. After all, how many modern museum-strollers have the time to invest in all of the reference books needed to make sense of his allegories? But despite the one-dimensionality associated with the painter’s name, here’s a book that puts Rubens in a whole other frame.

Peter Paul Rubens got more done in one day than most of us get done in a lifetime. Rubens wasn’t content with merely being, conceivably, the world’s greatest painter during his lifetime. Instead, he filled his resume with an impressive array of occupations. Like superspy, for one—in addition to treaty negotiator, statesman, wealthy landowner, antiquities dealer, and factory head.

Rubens the politico-spy is just one of his many pursuits that surface in Master of Shadows, but it’s perhaps the least likely, given what was regarded as an artist’s lack of prospects when it came to upward mobility in the 16th and 17th centuries. Painters had a relative low status in society and were viewed as manual laborers because they worked with their hands. They could, possibly, earn a fortune. Rubens certainly did, with many royal and ecclesiastical commissions, which he met, with the assistance of helpers and students executing large portions of the paintings that bore his name. Painters were rarely drafted into diplomatic service, despite what Mark Lamster cites as the most natural cover: they had the ear of kings, queens, dukes, and assorted courtiers.

Rubens was eventually put on military salary by the Spanish crown (which had dominion over his native Antwerp). He was handsome, affable, quick-witted, and a natural salesman and he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Lamster calls him “the perfect spy.” There’s no doubt that Rubens’s undertakings were useful to Europe’s volatile politics. Intrigue was everywhere, with one clandestine deal being canceled out by another, and a third in place as a fall-back.

Rubens worked primarily as an operative for the Spanish crown, which was engaged in a prolonged war with the emerging Dutch republic, a conflict that engulfed all of Europe’s powers and involved the countries’ colonies. Rubens believed he could resolve this perpetual war, and he devoted several years of his life to this effort, risking all that he had achieved. He would arrange for a peace between Spain and England, with the expectation that England would then force its Dutch ally to compromise with Spain. It was a shrewd bit of strategic thinking, but it would not work unless Rubens could convince England and Spain, traditional enemies, to come to terms. Ultimately, Rubens did not succeed, although he was knighted by both Philip IV, King of Spain, and Charles I, King of England. One can see the sources of conflict in Europe that extend even to the 21st century. Lamster does a valuable job of sorting out the tangled politics of the Low Countries during what was a violent, complex, and energetic era. I was never entirely clear exactly what was going on, but I suspect the participants weren’t either.

Rubens was able to balance affairs of state with his personal business interests. He was not an agitator, at least externally; repeatedly browbeaten by various members of the nobility, the painter/spy worked ceaselessly to please, winning the favor of kings (such as Spain’s Philip IV) who had previously held his lack of a birthright against him.

Rubens approached negotiations as he might have approached a painting. That is, as a problem to be solved, requiring just the right balance of materials and techniques—shadow, color, and symbolism on the painting side of the equation; pointed reasons, financial assurances, and talk of shared interests at court.

We see Rubens’s political concerns feeding into his art, yielding it greater narrative scope. His early work evolved into a style where the relationship between metaphor and meaning became more direct. He had to make sure that his patrons understood precisely what his art was conveying. Satisfying human vanity went a long way in Rubens’s political career, and visualizing a king as a metaphorical god of justice and happiness, beloved of his flock, made for a favorable frame of mind when a favor was needed.

Mark Lamster’s affection for his subject is so complete and his research is so thorough that “Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens” manages to be generally engaging, instructive and thought-provoking. My occasional impatience arose, undoubtedly, from my overall lack of interest and experience with 17th century European history.

Lamster demonstrates the relationship between Rubens’ diplomatic assignments and his important artistic commissions. The author also reveals Rubens to be an attractive and likable man who clearly interested and charmed those around him.

Lamster provides a portrait of a major painter at a time when artists were still fully integrated into the intellectual, social and political affairs of their time. For Ruben, the artist was very much a man of affairs — well-educated, -traveled and -schooled in the social graces. Flemish painters, like their Italian counterparts, were members of respectable, even prestigious guilds. It’s not hard to see how a man as self-possessed and as socially gifted as Rubens could find a role in high-level diplomacy.

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The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

There have been so many times in my life that I needed this house. Undoubtedly, everyone has needed this house at least once in her life.This is such a wonderful, soothing, cheerful, up-lifting book I would recommend it to anyone who is generally as negative about life as I am. It really isn’t my usual kind of book; maybe I need to change my usual kind of book. One review I read said that it felt like “a big hug.”

I was feeling that I had been overdoing it on the mysteries and needed a change of pace. (This blog is, after all, All Books Considered.) I had read about this book somewhere and had ordered it sometime ago. I wish I had read it sooner.

Part modern romantic fiction, part fantasy (low), part feminist history, the eponymous house exists for women who have lost all hope. Only those women can see the house; it is invisible to anyone who doesn’t need it (and men). A woman can only stay ninety-nine days; usually, that is sufficient time for the house to give the woman hope and show her the way to her new life.

The house has been in Peggy’s family for centuries, and some of its guests have been Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Mary Somerville. There are also some ghosts who returned or, in the case of the cat, never left. The guests in this book are Alba, Carmen, and Greer, who are all at the end of their endurance, without anywhere to go, without friends, without hope.

The house sends the three messages when they need them, objects that they need to find their bearings, and advice from the previous residents. Imagine getting writing advice from Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker! The house doesn’t tell the women what to do; it just makes suggestions. And everything that happens to the women while they are in the house isn’t happy; however, things seem to work out for the best and the women learn from their experiences.

This book has inspired me to go back and read the Victorians – one of my eternal resolutions, I just keep getting distracted. Sarah Addison Allen is compared to this author in several reviews. I’m not familiar with her because I am not, as I said, attracted to contemporary fiction, certainly not the “big hug” kind, but I will keep my mind open and investigate her books.

At any rate, I highly recommend this book. Maybe, like the house, I saw it just when I needed to.

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Joyland by Stephen King

It’s been years, no, decades, since I read Stephen King. But there was something about the cover (which as you can tell from its retro art is King’s ode to pulp crime novels) or the write-ups that made me read this book. And I am so glad I did. It’s perfect summer reading, even if you don’t have a beach within hundreds of miles (which I don’t).

Joyland is King’s story about the adventures of a 21-year-old college boy in a haunted Southern amusement park as he attempts to overcome the crushing blow of his first experience with heartbreak. The book delivers chills, not horror, and could be a ghost story told while toasting marshmallows around a fire. It’s mock-Gothic Americana whose tone is more important than its plot, mostly because it barely has a plot, and only a soupçon of insubstantial menace. For most of the book, there’s not even a villain, just a sense of carnival sideshow creepiness that takes the place of a specific evil.

Devin narrates the story, reflecting on the summer of 1973, an immemorial year for him, as Poe might put it, which infuses the story with thoughtful moments of old-age wisdom. I could so relate to all the cultural references – I was 21 in 1971, my own most immemorial year. And, while I didn’t work at an amusement park (Six Flags over Texas is a stone’s throw from me), I was a tour guide at our state capital in Austin. We didn’t exactly sell fun like Joyland does, but we tried, and we were a tight group that explored what 1970 and 1971 had to offer. I listened to the Doors like Devin – even saw them in 1968 – but I never got into Pink Floyd. Maybe this is one reason King is so popular. He is able to tap into certain aspects of life that apply to almost everyone. King’s unique brand of horror has always been so potent because it has an underlying sense of humanity.

This is a coming-of-age novel, bittersweet as they all are, mixed in with a crime novel and a horror story – and it undeniably works. King was born in 1947, so the ages don’t match, but numbers don’t matter. You can tell from the get-go that Devin is Stephen King. It is a personal tale that explores the importance of love, loss, and death. One line leapt out at me: “When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.” I have been in contact with my 1971 summer love, and we have similar, but not identical memories. We all have our own perspective of any event; which is true and which is illusion?

At Joyland, Devin makes friends with Tom Kennedy and Erin Cook, also summer hires at Joyland, which years before had been the scene of the murder of a young woman named Linda Gray whose ghost is said to be seen at the Horror House. He also befriends a young boy, named Mike Ross and his mother, Annie. Their lives all become interwoven when Devin and Erin decide to investigate the mystery of Linda Gray’s unsolved murder by the “Carny Killer” after Tom has a vision in the Horror House he won’t discuss.

Joyland is a quaint, old-fashioned establishment that offers rickety rides, rigged games of skill, and other lurid but finally tame diversions. Between the lines is an implied critique of the sanitized, corporate, Disney-style amusements that have supplanted the grass-roots titillations of an earlier, cruder era. Through Devin, who senses that Joyland’s days are numbered, King is lamenting the disappearance of a certain type of forthright hucksterism not all that different in spirit from pulp fiction.

As Devin learns from the masters of the trade, the carny-from-carny folk, the naive seductions of the carnival take advantage of the human desire to be honestly manipulated and charmingly ripped off. Devin discovers that his special talent is cheering up the kiddies, especially while costumed as a huge dog, which, in the Joyland parlance, is known as “wearing the fur.” It’s a noble calling, as Devin’s boss explains to him in a rather wooden speech that might be King’s own manifesto as writer: “This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. . . . Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun.”

Joyland is a far gentler, deeper, more thoughtful book than the one it masquerades as. Joyland is a coming of age story that teaches us to appreciate those special moments in our lives because “some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few”. King leaves you with the powerful idea that even though the day will come that we are all forced to meet our maker, there’s something undeniably beautiful about that.

For all that, it is good fun. The novel is like a plump wad of cotton candy; it fills the mouth with fluffy sweetness that quickly dissolves when the reader starts to chew. That’s by design. King’s ambition this time around isn’t to snatch us and hold us in his grasp but to loft us up high, then briskly set us down the way a Ferris wheel does. Or a first love. Joyland comes with all the horror trappings for which Stephen King is known: a sinister carnival, a grisly unsolved murder, a haunted ride, but much, much more.

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The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

“The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing. Was nothing.” – George Stroud

How does a man escape from himself? No book has ever dramatized that question more perfectly effect than The Big Clock, a masterpiece of American noir.

Fearing based the novel on the October 1943 murder of New York brewery heiress Patricia Burton Bernheimer Lonergan and Sam Fuller’s 1944 thriller The Dark Page. A combination of these two suggested a plot thread to Fearing, and he began writing The Big Clock during August 1944, continuing to work on the manuscript for over a year. He married artist Nan Lurie in 1945, and much of the novel was written in her loft on East 10th Street in New York City. The manuscript was completed by October 1945, and it was published by Harcourt Brace in 1946.

The Big Clock is the story of George Stroud, editor of Crimeways’ magazine, one of several publications in the Janoth Enterprises publishing empire. Stroud is dissatisfied with his job and his marriage.

One day, before heading home to his wife Georgia, Stroud has a drink with Pauline Delos, the beautiful girlfriend of his boss, Earl Janoth. Things happen. The two have a few dates, including a night away in Albany and a gay old time in Manhattan the next day. In the morning, Stroud escorts Pauline home, leaving her at the corner just as Janoth returns from a trip.

Janoth and Pauline have a spat over the shadowy man Janoth spotted walking from Pauline’s. “At least this time it’s a man,” Janoth quips. Yes, it seems that Pauline swings both ways. She in turn counters by questioning Janoth’s sexual proclivities, especially in regard to his relationship with his right-hand man, Steve Hagen. Enraged, Janoth bludgeons her to death with a brandy decanter. These homosexual references are pretty risqué for 1946.

Janoth knows there was one witness to his entry into Pauline’s apartment on the night of the murder; he knows that man must have been the man Pauline was with before he got back; but he doesn’t know who he was. He badly wants to get his hands on that man.

Janoth turns to the only man he can trust, Steve Hagen. The cool, calculating Hagen concocts a scheme to provide Janoth with an alibi and discover the elusive figure who could connect Janoth to the crime. In order to do this, Hagen calls on one of his most trusted employees to track him down: George Stroud, who else?
All signs point to the man seen with Pauline. However, Stroud can’t reveal his identity or deny his guilt, both due to the damning circumstantial evidence and because telling his side of the story would ruin his marriage and his career. Who would believe his innocence? Stroud also can’t stall the search or else draw suspicion to himself. He has to give the appearance of doing his typical persistent job of investigation, hoping to escape detection while uncovering enough evidence to place guilt on Janoth.

Stroud has been playing both ends against the middle and it’s all about to fall down around his ears.

Stroud’s cover story is that he is looking for a missing link in a high-powered political-industrial deal. Meanwhile, it appears that there are some dubious dealings going on behind the scenes at Janoth Enterprises that have nothing to do with Pauline Delos. During his investigation, Stroud learns that there is a leak within the organization that is strengthening a rival company, Jennett-Donohue, for a takeover of Janoth’s empire. Fearing ingeniously refers to this treachery with the title for a painting Stroud purchased on his last night out with Pauline – The Temptation of St. Judas. However, the identity of the traitor is never properly revealed.

The Big Clock ends abruptly and ironically illogical in its chronological structure. From approximately 8:30 pm to “the rest of the day”, Stroud speaks of making dinner dates and buying tickets for a show that night. Then a page later he’s talking about that afternoon. Perhaps Fearing is making an overly conscious effort to subvert “the big clock” by this shift in hour. He may be suggesting that there are no nicely-wrapped conclusions in life by never explaining the circumstances behind the novel’s business intrigue. He does this by using a story that Stroud tells his daughter with a moral of not pulling at any “loose threads.”

In The Big Clock, Fearing employs no less than seven narrators to tell his tale including Stroud, Janoth, Hagen, Stroud’s wife, two Crimeways reporters and unconventional artist Louise Patterson. Fearing captures each of the narrators’ voice, from the philosophical musings of Stroud, to the coldblooded assessments of Hagen, to the uncontrolled tittering of Patterson.

The Big Clock is Fearing’s most successful novel, commercially and aesthetically. It’s a crime story, but more surreal than hard-boiled. The two key figures in it are the Big Clock, of the title, and Gil’s Bar, which is its antithesis. The spaces and characters all array themselves in actual and spiritual proximity to one pole or the other.

Gil’s Bar is everything the Big Clock is not. It is an ill-lit, not to mention illicit, dive. Behind the bar Gil keeps a grand array of junk. Patrons challenge Gil to produce an item that they imagine he could not possibly have. Gil invariably produces it, and the patron stands Gil a drink while he tells the story of how he came to possess it. Whereas the Big Clock values everything every instant and discards everything every instant for something new, Gil’s junk heap operates on a different principle. Everything remains in the junk heap to be valued again and again, in yet one more of Gil’s anecdotes without end.

In The Big Clock, characters who are close to the orbit of Gil’s Bar are marked by their openness to art, alcohol and sexual variety. Characters close to the Big Clock instinctively close themselves off (although, this being America in the 40s, everybody drinks). The central character is the one most evenly divided between the two.

The Clock at Janoth Enterprises controls all of the timepieces in the building, as omnipresent and omnipotent as Janoth would like to think he is. Fearing’s “big clock” is metaphor for the invisible framework that seems to control the fate of man; the tedious beat to which most men march and a rhythm that Stroud believes himself above. Stroud fancies himself a free thinker, only seeming to escape from the “pincher claws” and “grinding gears” of “the big clock” when he surrenders himself to its mechanisms.

John Farrow’s 1948 The Big Clock starring Ray Milland is available on DVD. The book was also adapted for Roger Donaldson’s 1987 spy-thriller No Way Out with Kevin Costner.

In his introduction to Kenneth Fearing: Complete Poems (1994), Robert M. Ryley described the events of publication and the aftermath:
Published in the fall of 1946, The Big Clock made Fearing temporarily rich. Altogether he took in about $60,000 (roughly $360,000 in 1992 dollars): about $10,000 in royalties and from the sale of republication rights (including a condensation in The American Magazine), and $50,000 from the sale of film rights to Paramount. Overestimating his business acumen, he had negotiated his own contract with Paramount, permanently and irrevocably signing away his film rights, and relinquishing his television rights till 1952, by which time, he discovered to his rage and frustration, Paramount was showing late-night reruns and had thus cornered the market. A more immediate problem was alcohol. He told his friend Alice Neel (the model for Louise Patterson, the eccentric painter in The Big Clock) that since he could now afford to start drinking in the morning, he was having trouble getting any work done. On one occasion he almost died from a combination of scotch and phenobarbital, and in 1952 he was so shaken by his doctor’s warnings about the condition of his liver that he went on the wagon.

Fearing died in 1961, of malignant melanoma in Manhattan.

There is a famous anecdote about Fearing. During the Red-baiting years of the 50s, the FBI rounded up Fearing and asked him the inevitable question: “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” His answer: “Not yet.”

What makes it a story is the enigma of this answer. Is he saying that the FBI’s harassment is, ironically enough, the very thing that will drive him into the arms of the Party? Or is he saying that he is not worthy of the Party? Not ready? Or, more interestingly, that the Party itself is not ready for him?

Fearing’s writing style maintains a taut, yet relaxed feeling that works so well in classic noir. This book belongs on the shelf next to the works of Hammett, Chandler, Cain and Woolrich of every reader of the genre.

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The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

I am writing this review/essay the week the Trayvon Martin verdict was handed down and President Obama observed that 35 years ago, he could have been Trayvon. This book was written in 1963, but it could have been written today. People are still wary of young black men, whether they are in black hoodies or, as Hugh Denismore is, a respectable young doctor from a wealthy and well-educated family, finishing a medical internship at a university hospital in Los Angeles.

This novel also addresses the issue of abortion. Written ten years before Roe v. Wade, Hughes does not oppose, at least directly, abortion; the characters all consider the operation immoral, appalling, and sordid. The marshal who observes, as Doc Jopher is arrested: “… there’ll be another Jopher. And another telephone number. And another old woman. Another and another and another. There’ll always be abortionists just as there’ll always be prostitutes and pimps and pushers. When man wants an evil, he’ll always find someone evil to supply him. (243)”

The fact that to get an abortion Iris had to go to an alcoholic, unlicensed doctor and have the procedure on the floor with unsterilized instruments doesn’t seem to strike anyone as wrong – that Iris should be able to go to a clean hospital for an illegal abortion, not risking her life or reputation just isn’t an option. I hope that those living in states restricting woman’s access to a legal abortion, such as I here in Texas, realize that we may end on up those days again. With one or two clinics open in a state and all the other limitations in place, women will have to return to those bad old days.

So much for my editorializing.  I won’t apologize or ask you to ignore it if it offends you. If it offends you, you should read it and think about the point I am trying to make.

You may have heard of Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Jim Thompson if you are at all familiar with mid-century noir. Dorothy B. Hughes ranks with these writers as a master of this genre. With its reissue of The Expendable Man, New York Review Books has given readers the opportunity to rediscover the extraordinary Dorothy B. Hughes. In books like In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse she exposed a seething discontent underneath the veneer of twentieth-century prosperity. With The Expendable Man, her last work of fiction, Hughes reverses the conventions of the wrong-man narrative to deliver a story that engages readers even as it implicates them in the greatest of all American crimes.

Dorothy Hughes’s writing, like the best noir writing, is simultaneously rich and spare, with sumptuous descriptions summoned by irregular sentences and familiar language. “Across the tracks there was a different world,” begins the novel:

The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun.

Raymond Chandler famously wrote that hardboiled fiction must be written in the “speech of common men,” yet also wrote astoundingly poetic descriptions of Los Angeles. Hughes, like Chandler, began her literary career as a poet, and this tendency is apparent in her writing.

Ms. Hughes wrote 14 mystery novels, most of them set in the Southwest and involving an upper-class hero caught up in evil intrigue. Her best-known works include The Cross-Eyed Bear (1940), Ride the Pink Horse (1946), The Expendable Man (1964) and In a Lonely Place (1947), which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart.

After working as a reporter and women’s editor in the 1920’s, she began reviewing crime fiction for The Albuquerque Tribune, The Los Angeles News, The Los Angeles Mirror and The New York Herald Tribune

In 1931, she published an award-winning book of poetry, Dark Certainty. She wrote a history of the University of New Mexico in the late ’30s, and then turned to writing fiction. In 1940, her first two novels, The Cross-Eyed Bear and The So Blue Marble, were published. Her 1942 novel The Fallen Sparrow was Hughes’s breakthrough and her introduction to Hollywood. The story rights were bought by RKO which released a movie based on the novel in 1943, starring John Garfield as the survivor of a Spanish prisoner-of-war camp, faced with new Nazi enemies in the United States. This movie was a box-office success and one of the more serious topical thrillers about World War II, and it helped transform the book into Hughes’s best-known work. Her 1946 novel, Ride the Pink Horse was turned into a brilliant film by director and star Robert Montgomery the following year. The film version of her 1947 novel In a Lonely Place starred Humphrey Bogart and was released in 1950.

Hughes’s work decreased as she started a family and found motherhood encroaching on her time and ability to write, but she always wrote literary criticism — for 39 years she was a literary critic specializing in mysteries for the Albuquerque Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Herald Tribune. In 1950, she received her first Edgar Allen Poe Award for her work as a critic. Hughes’s fiction became well-respected among readers for its vivid language, linked to a tough yet powerful style of writing. Her books usually featured lone upper-class heroes operating on their own, independent of the powers that be and in quest for justice. Hughes was writing far ahead of what Hollywood was prepared to deal with even in the ’60s.

In 1964, Ride the Pink Horse was adapted into a new movie, The Hanged Man. This marked the end of her direct influence on Hollywood. Her work, however, was a major influence on other mystery writers of the postwar era, and the movies they inspired remain among the most respected of their particular libraries. She was especially influential on the next two generations of female mystery writers. In 1978, Hughes was dubbed a “grand master” by the Mystery Writers of America. She returned to non-fiction writing late in life and received her second Edgar Award for her book Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. Hughes died in 1993 at the age of 88. Her most popular books regularly went into reprint throughout the later decades of her life.

In his Afterword to this new edition, Walter Mosley asks, but does not answer, why Hughes has not been as celebrated as her peers, like Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy. “Bringing her back is no act of nostalgia,” he writes. “It is a gateway through which we might access her particular view of that road between our glittering versions of American life and the darker reality that waits at the end of the ride.”

In The Expendable Man, Hugh Denismore is driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix to attend a family wedding. His life is going great; he would seem to have the world at his feet. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Hughes holds back a few facts for several chapters. She provides hints but doesn’t directly state the primary reason for Hugh’s distress and anxiety until his first interview with the police – Hugh is black, not white, unlike many noir heroes. It becomes clear that Hugh’s discomfort with the noisy teenagers is due to the racist epithets they yell at him as their car drives by, and that his tense interactions with various service personnel during his trip have a very simple explanation. Hugh’s overwhelming terror at hearing of Iris Croom’s death is entirely rational. The local detectives’ overt racism only heightens his fear.

Hugh feels he cannot tell his family about his distress for fear of ruining the wedding festivities, but he luckily finds his allies in Ellen Hamilton, his niece’s roommate and the daughter of a D.C. judge; Skye Houston, a white lawyer preparing to run for city office; and Hugh’s brother-in-law Edward, a successful and well-respected doctor in Phoenix. Against them are the detectives Ringle and Venner, whose determination to prove Hugh’s guilt overrides any opposing evidence; an anonymous caller intent on viciously harassing Hugh; and Iris Croom’s mysterious Phoenix boyfriend, who may or may not be married but who certainly arranged for her abortion.

In Walter Mosley’s Afterword, he discusses the role race plays in this novel. To fail to inject politics into any discussion of noir is both a dishonest proposition and a losing one. The Expendable Man, which makes use of noir’s generic conventions of corruption, resonates only too well today. With the election of President Obama, we were supposed to be in a “post-racial era.” This week’s events have shown that we are far from being there.

Hugh Denismore experiences a combination of confusion and resignation when confronted with overt racism – confusion because he is used to a near-“invisible” blackness in L.A., resignation because he remembers encountering the same hatred in his childhood.  Hughes, however, neatly upends her own inversion of the classic noir trope of good and evil drawn along racial lines: race, in The Expendable Man, is not an indicator of good or evil. In fact, neither is racism, oddly enough, although the “bad” characters are easily identifiable by their overt and ugly bigotry. Hughes has managed a precise illustration of racism as a system and the ways that people can work to undermine the system even as they are implicated in it. When Ellen Hamilton checks into the motel, the desk clerk states in a transparent lie that the only room available is the one Hugh has just vacated. Yet Hugh’s belief in this moment is not that the clerk is participating in racism, but that her friendliness and willingness to help Hugh and Ellen mean she is working with them to undermine the system that prevents her from giving them another room.

Like many crime writers, Hughes is interested in appearances: the look of guilt and innocence. His adversaries, based on circumstantial evidence and their suspicions of Denismore’s race, don’t believe in Denismore’s innocence, and on its own, Denismore’s innocence isn’t all that interesting, anyway. It has no shape or size. In this novel, any one character’s psychological depth is arid compared to the interactions between them, how they test and threaten each other.

Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all – black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and a rhythm for such differences. The contrasts of heat and coolness, light and shadow, create the setting for stagey confrontations – accusations, interrogations, discoveries, confessions – that move the plot forward.

Morality, too, is a matter of contrasts. Blackness in “The Expendable Man” occupies a position of ethical superiority. Denismore is so peaceable, or passive, that he isn’t even threatened by the appearance of Bonnie Lee’s father, who rages against him. It’s not only white racism that Denismore is against; insistently, it’s white abortion. The classic American fear that a black man would sleep with a white woman is here transformed into the fear that a black man would “kill” a white woman’s baby. Abortion functions as a sex crime without the sex. Denismore’s doctor brother-in-law, Edward, explains that all medical men are approached, from time to time, by someone wanting the service. “One thing I’ll say, Hugh, and it’s God’s truth. I’ve never been approached by any of our people. Only the ofays… Somehow they seem to think that a Negro doctor lacks morality.”

Denismore’s search for the abortionist—a fallen doctor for a fallen woman – shapes much of the plot and ratchets up the danger and risk he faces. He finally finds Doc Jopher, a white boozehound who lost his medical license for operating while under the influence, and who lives in a shack with his booze and his hound, Duke.

The real villain in this novel – the absolute limit of horror that blacks and whites together must combat, though the battle will never end – is the death of the unborn. In the tightly calibrated world Hughes has created, black morality can only appear in contrast to something that readers, and the author, could paint as unquestionably immoral. That is, Hughes was able to explore race and difference because she put “evil” somewhere else. For noir, everything in the world is in some way tainted. Only the unborn can be blameless and incorruptible. It’s the perfect symbol for her moral economy.

It bears noting that illegal abortion, of course, was evil, if not on the terms The Expendable Man understands it. It killed thousands of women. It was expensive and humiliating. There was no anesthetic. And terminating an unwanted pregnancy was much more dangerous for poor women and women of color, who lacked access to providers. According to one report from the Guttmacher Institute, in New York City in the early sixties, abortion was responsible for twenty-five per cent of childbirth-related deaths for white women; for non-white and Puerto Rican women, it was fifty per cent.

The Expendable Man does not suggest that racism can be combatted by action or waited out in time; it is a disease, and it must be quarantined, the scene fled. The last lines find Denismore back in the car with a woman, the right woman this time. He and Ellen, backs to the desert, are driving towards their future. It awaits them in Los Angeles, away from Phoenix.

The beauty of the Southwestern American desert is a deceptive cover for the violence — born of fear and hatred — that lies beneath it in a tawdry, seedy underbelly familiar to noir. There are no satisfying solutions in The Expendable Man, and the solutions that do come seem almost pat and almost saccharine; however, though the solution may not be satisfying, the novel as a whole certainly is. Noir does not present a puzzle to be solved. We can expect no easy answers, because the answer is not the point. Hugh Denismore’s search for Iris Croom’s true killer is not prompted by a desire to apprehend the villain, or even to find the truth. His search is prompted by the apparently selfish desire to save his reputation. Yet Hugh Denismore is not a selfish man; he is, by any reckoning, a good man, who loves his family and wishes to save them from the grief of hearing him branded an abortionist and murderer. His is not the superhuman intellect of Holmes or Poirot; Hugh Denismore is only human. That, in fact, is the truth that hides within noir: it is the stories of the only human, tawdry and stained and yet somehow golden for all of that.

As Hugh and Ellen set out to find Iris’s killer, the threat of disappearance stalks Hugh. He could end up in jail or murdered, the fact of his race denying him any margin of protection. Lest the novel’s allusive title be lost on anyone, Ellen spells it out: “In our country, more often than not, we are what Ellison so well describes as invisible.” The Expendable Man dramatizes the relation between existential invisibility and actual expendability. It was Hughes’s virtue to discern, far more clearly than Harper Lee (that other white woman with a ’60s novel about a black man’s innocence and an unjust society’s guilt), the systemic quality of American racism. Hughes’s virtue is also a virtue of her genre. In the noir novel, after all, corruption and abuse are not individual moral failings. They are etched in society’s bones.

 

 

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