Friday, September 27, 2013

FFB: The Tremor of Forgery - Patricia Highsmith

UK Edition (Heinemann, 1969)
Despite its exotic and desert landscape filled setting of Tunisia The Tremor of Forgery (1969) covers some familiar territory for Patricia Highsmith. There is the usual assortment of strangers befriended by a somewhat dull American, some overt and covert homoeroticism in male friendships, and perhaps most importantly her obsession with duality be it in personality, cultural mores, or political viewpoints. Howard Ingham, the American protagonist, is also a writer. This strong theme of duality is carried through in the title, also the title of a novel Ingham is writing about a banker who is secretly embezzling funds from his employer. Crime will play a role in Ingham's life just as it does with Dennison, his own protagonist, but it is a murky and ambiguous world that Ingham inhabits. We know that Dennison is a criminal and thief; we never know if Ingham is one though it is strongly hinted he may have killed a man.

Perhaps the most subtle and insidious of her novels The Tremor of Forgery is unusual in how it incorporates criminal behavior into its supposedly simple plot. There are burglaries, thefts, attacks on a dog, one violent death most definitely a murder, and another possible murder. Though crime is present it is a shadow world of ambiguous and puzzling events; mixed perceptions and eyewitness accounts contradict one another throughout the action. We never know whose viewpoint we are to believe -- even that of our ostensibly innocent hero.

Yet crime is not Highsmith's primary concern here. This novel is a study in cultural and political disparity and their effect on visiting long term residents in a foreign country. It is also, strangely, something of a treatise on love. Besides The Price of Salt, I have never encountered in a Highsmith novel more discussions about love in all its forms, from platonic friendship to erotic desire, than I have in The Tremor of Forgery.

US Edition (Doubleday, 1969)
Highsmith's reputation rests largely on her development of what everyone likes to call noir these days - the dark crime novel that explores base motives, criminal impetus and the ugly side of human nature. Ironically, while exploring all these aspects of a noir novel The Tremor of Forgery turns out to be Highsmith's most life affirming and positive work. Even its slightly ambiguous ending is one I would classify as a happily ever after type.

Ingham is in Tunisia at the request of a film director friend who has commissioned the writer to pen the screenplay of a movie he wants to set in Tunisia. But the screenplay is soon abandoned when the director dies suddenly under suspicious circumstances. Ina, Howard Ingham's one time lover, eventually communicates with him via letter to explain the sudden death in a roundabout and vague way. Ingham can't decide whether to return home or remain in Tunisia largely due to the curious and sporadic letters he receives from Ina. Each time he writes he pours out his love to her, but she takes her sweet time replying to his letters. She must be prodded to tell the whole story of John Castlewood's death after Ingham's repeated urgings. One begins to suspect that Ina is complicit in what at first is described as an accident and then a suicide.

In the meantime Ingham toils away on his typewriter turning out page after page of his novel about the duplicitous banker. He is befriended by two men. The first is the overly friendly Francis Adams whose sunny personality masks a political and religious zealotry that will reveal him to be a bigot of the worst sort. The other is the artist Anders Jensen visiting from his native Denmark and making the most of his penchant for sleeping with Arab boys while attempting to bed Howard as well. Jensen has a dog named Hasso that will also play an important part in the story. Jensen tells stories of some attacks of cruelty on Hasso and when the dog suddenly goes missing he fears the worst.

A younger and happier Patricia Highsmith
Since living in Tunisia Ingham has found himself influenced by the apparent lawlessness and amorality of the Arabs he meets. He tells Ina "...if one is robbed five or six times, there might be an impulse to rob back, don’t you think? The one who doesn't rob, or cheat a little in business deals, some comes out in the short end, if everybody else is cheating." Even his discovery of a dead man in the street at night changes him. He finds it unnecessary to report the body and his indifference has dire consequences later when he attacks someone who he thinks is trying to break into his bungalow. Once again he does nothing but discuss the events in a rather vague manner with his true friend and confidante, Jensen, just as Ina danced around Castlewood's death (more duality). But Adams somehow gets word of the attack and begins to suspect that Ingham is trying to cover up the murder of a local thief and outcast who has recently vanished. Adams then shares his thoughts with Ina thus turning her visit from one of a reunion with her lover to one of suspicion, mistrust and betrayal.

The novel unfolds at what some might call a glacial pace. But it is fitting for this languorous story of developing friendships, reconnections, epiphanies and -- yes -- contentment and happiness found at long last. In the final pages Highsmith has a few surprises in store, some of which have been called ambiguous by other reviewers and critics. On closer reading of the subtle clues she drops the unanswered questions all become clearer. The mysterious disappearance of the Arabian thief is suddenly not so mysterious and Ingham may not be the bad man he thinks himself to be. He ends up leaving Tunisia with one final letter in hand, overdue from seemingly endless forwarding, that leads me to believe that he will go on to find the love he had been searching for throughout the book.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

FLASH FICTION: A Taste of Temptation

Here's another of Patti Abbot's Flash Fiction Challenges. This time the idea came from her perusing an old newspaper and being intrigued by the headline "Michigan Man's Taste Gets Him into Trouble." We were to write a story of about 1000 words inspired by the headline and could if we wanted to change the state from Michigan to anywhere else. I guess mine would be better suited for Oregon, but I stuck with the one in the headline. Not that the setting really matters for my tale.

For more stories on the theme visit Patti's blog page here where some stories have been posted along with links to stories on other blogs.

A Taste of Temptation

Shall I tall you a tale of forbidden fruit? Oh, no metaphors for you, my friend. This is juicy, ripe and literal. So modern yet still so Old Testament. There may be no snakes and no stand-in for Eve but you do get a tree and fruit. But not an apple. Even if the tale is set in Michigan. Not cherries either. Patience, my friend. You will soon know. This is a tree that holds out one sole piece of fruit, the most tempting delicious fruit that you can hardly blame the poor man.

This man –- with the preposterous name of Jarvis Angelica -– considered himself the consummate gourmand. An explorer not of countries and cities but of international cuisine. Restaurateurs clamored for his attention and his highly developed palate. Jarvis’ taste buds were the envy of the foodies, his pronouncements of a cheese sample, for instance, were anticipated as would be the final verdict in a sensational murder trial. Jarvis tasted and passed judgment. A condemnation might ruin a produce seller, a retailer, a chef or the restaurant itself. But his praise often reaching states of ecstasy was a reward worth waiting for. Business always increased, doubling or even tripling profits. Jarvis’ taste was mighty and powerful.

His adventures in food were not solely confined to the table, however. In fact, he more preferred hunting down the raw ingredients that resulted in five star dishes served in Zagat rated eateries. If word reached him of an unsurpassed wine he needed to see, smell and taste the grapes. If he was told of a heavenly dessert of unmatched decadence he wanted to find the trees that bore the fruit, pick one, and taste it right off the branch.

A pear tart would be his undoing. The signature dessert at a little known bistro only insider foodies knew of and supposedly kept secret. No underground cult sensation would be kept from reaching Jarvis for long. If the secret had anything to do with food he could ferret it out better than the best truffle pig in search of mycophiliac wonders. Yes, in a pear tart Jarvis met his match.

Through his network of restaurant worker spies (the kitchen prep staff were his best informers) he soon learned of which orchard supplied the pears for the fabulous dessert and from there he obtained the exact location of the trees that were reserved as the private supply to the bistro’s pastry chef. Any attempt to cajole and flatter, however, fell on unimpressionable ears. Jarvis was barred from visiting the orchard. No one but employees were allowed on the premises.

But rules meant nothing to Jarvis. Once on his quest he was unstoppable, an indefatigable hunter who needed his trophy. His senses fueled him. The promise of fragrant bouquets, the fervent excitement of touching, feeling, groping those pears, and ending in taste sensations one could surely drown in, all culminated into one superhuman power that kept him going. He was going to pick one of those pears himself if he had to climb the highest branch and set it free from its arboreal prison.

Never mind how exactly he got into the orchard. Bribery of a low paid security guard no doubt. The fact is he infiltrated the portion of the orchard that was like a Fort Knox of golden fruit. Equipped only with a flashlight and a pair of heavy duty, fleece lined, gardening gloves he made his way to the select trees.

Imagine his surprise when he saw them stripped bare. Not only were the trees barren of the prize pears none could be found on the ground beneath. It was impossible, yet his eyes did not lie. The harvest was complete. Stubbornly he refused to believe he had been too late. Passing his flashlight over the tops of the branches, muttering a string of foul curses, he was determined to find the last remaining pear. Surely a few were overlooked, maybe one not yet ripe enough allowed a day or so to reach piquant flavor. And then he saw it. One lone pear ignominiously abandoned on the uppermost twigs. He had to have it.

Now athleticism was never Jarvis’ forte. Before you imagine him to be some portly cliché of a glutton let me assure you he had a trim and handsome figure. Good eating will do that for you. But for running, cycling, working out of any fashion Jarvis had no time. The ascent into the tree to reach that treasured pear would be perhaps his greatest challenge. He inhaled to prepare himself and caught on the wafting night breezes the perfume of fruit like none he had smelled before. That was impetus enough.

Grabbing the nearest branch he surprised himself with the execution of a expert flip worthy of any Olympic gymnast. Soon he was making his way through a maze-like cage of gnarled limbs and torturous pricking twigs. The scent of the fruit leading him ever upwards. Just a few more feet, an arm’s length away. Jarvis plucked the pear and held it gingerly in his hand.

Now most of us would pocket that pear and make our way safely back to earth before eating it. Not Jarvis. He was entranced. He and the pear were as one, alone in the universe. The tree ceased to exist. He took in the aroma, fondled its shape, caught the gleam of its skin in the waning moonlight, then took a bite. A light exploded. Jarvis traveled out of himself and was transported to pear Nirvana. It was delectable, dream-like, he savored the mouthful and sank his teeth into the fruit once more.

Then a voice cried out, “What the hell are you doing up there?”

Jarvis startled by the sound, realizing that the explosion of light was not an ecstatic response to the unique flavor of the pear but a powerful searchlight held by some invisible man below, turned suddenly and lost his balance. He came crashing out of pear Nirvana, tumbling through the pricking twigs, scraping his designer suit on the rough bark of the branches and landed with a painful thud on the sodden ground.

The security guard (a more officious and tough one from a different part of the orchard) came over to investigate. He knelt beside Jarvis and asked if he was all right. He was curious to find out why this well dressed guy was in a pear tree at 2:30 in the morning. While officious and unbribable he was also kind and wanted to know if Jarvis was injured.

All he heard was one word from the orchard’s trespasser. “Divine.” And with the last brief taste still lingering on his lips and quiet smile on his face Jarvis Angelica took one last trip to pear Nirvana and never returned.

Friday, September 20, 2013

FFB: They Can't Hang Me - James Ronald

James Ronald received quite a bit of praise with his first few detective novels from writer August Derleth to novelist and book reviewer Harriette Ashbrook all pointing out his ingenuity and freshness.  Of course you have to take this kind of enthusiastic praise with a grain of salt and maybe a dash of sugar, too.  Book hype has been with us for decades though it has skyrocketed in the past 15 years or so with the kind of gimmicky stunts some P.R. people are pulling.  When I learned that Ronald started out as a bargain basement pulp writer for the British digest publisher Garmol who published his early novels sporting such lurid titles as The Green Ghost Murder, The Man Who Made Monsters, and The Sundial Drug Mystery I was very wary of the blurbs Ronald received for his books. Was it just a fluke or did he really rival the kind of clever plots of a John Rhode or Carr?

They Can’t Hang Me (1938), listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders, also offers the added bonus of an impossible crime. Actually, two impossible crimes. Ronald had a lot to live up to. I’m glad to report that despite his background in pulp digests James Ronald does indeed merit all the praise lavished upon him. They Can’t Hang Me is a corker of a mystery novel. Ingenious murder methods call to mind the brilliant John Rhode; two impossible crimes, one of which is worthy of Carr; and witty dialogue reminiscent of Clifford Witting. All are on colorful display in this page-turner of a story.

The plot is familiar to any crime fiction fan and seems lifted from the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s. Lucius Marplay, an inmate from a mental institution, escapes with the intent of carrying out a plan of murderous revenge, threats of which sent him to the asylum in the first place. Each murder is announced in the obituary section of The Echo, the newspaper where the victims work, on the very day of the death leading the police to believe the killer is hiding out in the building. A thorough search of The Echo building and its environs turns up no one who shouldn’t already be there. Though the police are fairly certain the escaped lunatic is the culprit somehow he manages to elude capture with each baffling crime. The title comes from Marplay's claim that his plan is as close to a perfect crime as one can dream up for even if he is caught he can't be hanged as he has already been declared insane. He will just be thrown back into the asylum.

Perhaps what makes the book work so well is Ronald’s sharp sense of humor. Even amidst the terror Ronald still finds ample opportunity to lighten the tone. The book is very funny with handful of well drawn colorful characters who serve as the author’s comic voice. Some of the best wisecracks come from a scene between Agatha Trimm, the guardian of Joan Marplay, daughter to the escaped lunatic and the offbeat private investigator Alastair McNab. Some of my favorites are:

Agatha Trimm: "Cocoa is a perverted taste for a man. I'd be careful of him, Joan."

Alastair McNab: "There's two things I like naked and whiskey's one of them."

Sir John Digby (a psychiatrist fed up with the Freudian imaginings of his female clients): What he longed to say to them was "What you need is more fat here"--slapping them where a woman should be comfortably rounded-- "and then you'd have less fat here" --smacking them on the head.

Later UK edition, circa 1940s
The characters, too, are a lively bunch who hold the reader's interest and keep the story moving at brisk pace:

Mark Peters -- managing editor ready to fire anyone whose actions threaten to ruin the already tarnished reputation of his dying newspaper.

The aptly named Ambrose Craven -- an overweight skirt chaser whose cowardice and fear has him fainting in every other chapter.

Flinders -- an ex-reporter gone to seed and drink, who’ll risk his life when he turns to blackmail in order to feed his alcoholic cravings.

Alastair McNab -- the odd and rambunctious private investigator determined to unmask the murderer and sell his story to a rival newspaper.

Agatha Trimm -- guardian to the plucky heroine Joan Marplay. Agatha is a tough as nails, no nonsense woman distrusting of nearly every man Joan sets eyes on.

The detective work is shared by two characters. Joan Marplay who acts a sort of girl sleuth trying to prove her father is not the madman the police and newspapermen think he is. She is sure he was sent to the asylum wrongfully and that his sworn revenge was only a reaction to his furor at being thought mad. Then there is McNab who arrives with a letter in of introduction from the asylum announcing he has been hired to track down the escaped Marplay. With his pronounced Scottish brogue, rendered in a typical 1930s phonetic dialect, and his oddball tastes and habits (like carrying his lunch around in a wicker basket wherever he goes), McNab is the most unusual of the cast. So unusual that he arouses the suspicions of Superintendent Wrenn who has his sergeant investigate McNab's background. McNab is shrewd yet enigmatic. One never knows if he is out for himself or if he really wants to solve the case and apprehend Marplay.

They Can't Hang Me is an excellent example of a crime novel that mixes elements of the detective novel with that of the pulp thriller. So good was this first outing I had to read the other easily accessible crime books of James Ronald. I found some of his later books lean towards psychological crime novels that foreshadow the work of Patricia Highsmith and Julian Symons.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Late Summer Hiatus

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things..."

To be frank, I'm sort of tired of talking of -- or writing about -- shoes and ships and sealing wax, so to speak. Essays about fictional events and the history of detective fiction and tidbits about long gone publishing houses can't compare with the kinds of eyebrow raising, life changing events that have recently occurred over here in the book-crammed Rogers Park condo in Chicago.

Some of you may have noticed a marked decrease in the number of posts last month. Life is rather chaotic and some very pronounced changes are occurring in what used to be my rather uneventful routine. This has forced me to reassess what I find truly important in my life. People, my family and my partner especially, are a lot more important than books and blogging these days.

For now I'll try to keep participating in Friday's Forgotten Books meme and I will contribute to Patti Abbott's Flash Fiction Challenge on September 26, but don't expect too much over here until around mid-October

Be well. Enjoy your books and the other blogs while I'm gone.