Sunday 27 September 2009

ALL ABOARD THE SS VAN DINE: A Guest Essay by Ronald Reichertz

Back in May, I wrote about an exhibition called THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, at Trinity College Dublin, which tracked early detective fiction. You can link to it in the Bullseyes list on the right, or directly here. It prompted, some months later, this response from Ronald Reichertz, former professor of English at McGill, in which position he was my thesis advisor when I took an MA in creative writing. Renowned in Montreal for his eclectic tastes in a department tightly wrapped in tradition, and as an expert in all things Italian (when he once used the word sundried in a handout for his students, most of them 'corrected' it to sun-dried!) Ron sent the following about the man who was SS Van Dine

by Ronald Reichertz

Your museum-piece was very interesting. Remember that S.S. Van Dine is an imagined character who is a Boswell/Watson (senza the Nigel Bruce bumbling) to Philo Vance in a number of crime case novels. And that that Philo Vance is a pseudonym used by a fictional narrator to protect a rich and apparently idle young man who seems to share linguistic features and attitudes with Lord Peter Whimsey. Then add that the author of the Van Dine books, Willard Huntington Wright, also wrote a book on modern art still circulating in many libraries and a book of commentary on all of Frederick Nietzsche"s major works. Further, consider that, mysteriously, some bios list him as a graduate of Harvard and some of Claremont College in California. Also note that some critics mark a decline in his crime fiction (calling him Van Dine) that culminates in a very nasty conceit suggesting that the last of the murder case books help stitch up the shroud of his literary reputation.

In addition to the telegram reproduction you saw, Wright also interspersed furniture layout in room diagrams and maps and recipes in these works. Joining such attempts to create authenticity are various class uses of language, includin' upper class snooty and slang. Equally important, he links his works by citing them in notes to other works, while using footnoted references to studies of theories of criminality and many works of sociology and psychology, all of which I checked out and found to be actual publications. He creates a reality by using the glue of facts to enliven crime. Even a brief mention of a 19th century French writer adds to the authenticity: "it's too Eugene Sue-ish," is the kind of background that accumulates to lend solidity. Sue wrote many novels including "Le Juif Errant" and was plagiarized by other writers who turned his fictional attack on Jesuits into an important part of "The Protocals of the Elders of Zion." Vance uses Sue to undercut the "melodramatic" and "gaudy journalistic imagination" behind belief in the Commora, etc.

Thus Philo Vance, as much as he may like a few "lower class" cops, finally gives up on North America and takes up residence in Firenzi. America is far too equalitarian, " donyt'cha know." But Wright was up to date with then contemporary murders, including Loeb among his murderers.

Which reminds me. A Chicago Dailey news reporter, a guy named Ed Lahey (most likely late of Notre Dame), celebrated Loeb's prison execution at the hands of one James E. Day (1936) with this couplet found and exhumed by myself and laid to rest in prose:

Richard Loeb, dispite his erudition,
Today ended his life with a proposition.

Friday 25 September 2009


Though I was reading an original 1954 edition, The Face Of Evil appears to have been reprinted a couple of times,which means it's hardly forgotten, but John McPartland remains one of the lesser-known and celebrated Gold Medal authors. Although this is, at times, a very powerful book, it also suggested some reasons why McPartland remains overshadowed.

Bill Oxford is a fixer, nominally employed by an advertising agency, but a guy who, after serving as a journalist on the Army paper Yank during the war, has seen his work grow progressively more and more slimy. He started providing girls for parties, then girls to do other things. Now he's been sent to Newport Beach, to blackmail or otherwise destroy a local lawyer, Ringling Black, who has the goods on the man the LA big shots want to run for the Senate. So he's in a bar in Newport Beach, eyes a woman named Nile Lisbon, gets in a fight with her escort, a truck driver named King McCarthy, and later, when the woman returns, he's about to go off with her when her new escort shows up, and, as fate would have it, it's the man who's his target. From there, the story moves with breakneck pace, as Bill starts to re-discover his conscious, helped by the timely arrival of a girl he helped 'ruin', just in time for him to use her against the white knight named Black. But as he does, he discovers he's being shadowed by a peeper, Harry Podden, who's there to make sure he does what he's supposed to do. Follow that?

Although the plot is tricky enough, McPartland mostly keeps you guessing because you never know who you can trust. Nile is an assistant DA, but likes rough stuff; she's the widow of a popular local lawyer, and has her appetites, but it's all kept hidden. Is she using Bill? Is she lying when she says she's testing him? When Ann Field, the girl from his past, shows up, is she working with Podden, who's got the power to inform Bill's bosses he's not doing their bidding, which will get him sent to prison, because of course, they've got the goods on him too. But mostly it's within Bill Oxford himself, can he trust his own instincts, or have years of visiting the gutter ruined his perceptions?

McPartland doesn't quite write well; at times the prose flows cleanly, like you expect from Gold Medal books from the era, and at times he is striving for effect. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and overall he may promise more than he delivers in terms of action. This may account for his lesser renown.

But at times, his world is remarkably oppressive, classically noirish, very much like Megan Abbott but without the knowing dreaminess of her prose. It is a world of corruption, a world that can corrupt even the strongest men of the 'greatest generation'. The women are dangerous objects, there to be used unless they can use you, and it was great fun casting Nile and Ann in my mind (maybe Jane Greer as Nile and Jocelyn Brando, pictured left, as Ann). Just check out the names: Nile, with its serpentine suggestions, and Lisbon, exotically foreign.King McCarthy, the bruiser. And Ringling Black, the one honest man in the book, whose name denotes circuses. Ann Field, the suggestion of pastoral bliss. Bill Oxford, the man in the button-down shirt.

In fact, if you watch Mad Men, you can see exactly the same character, the same dilemma, in Don Draper: 55 years later the shows creators are working at the interface of appearance and reality, which McPartland was doing at the coal-face, as it were, writing about Bill Oxford. And that's where the story really has its force, because, like Mad Men but far more intensely, The Face Of Evil is about the corruptions of a society which, on the surface, is perfect. It is the noir scraping away of the varnish to reveal the rot underneath. Bill Oxford is a man who has learned to navigate through those swamps, but sees, bizarrely, in the person of a twisty woman with a mean streak and men hidden away, a chance to get out. I can't think of a book that dissects this basic contradiction of noir better.

Eventually, Bill makes his decision, and the book proceeds toward what qualifies as a happy ending, with even the college kids on spring break on the beaches playing their All-American violent part. And this is where it loses all its convincing power. Because we know that people who fit into round holes don't all of a sudden turn square. We know that the society Oxford has been working in is the real society, the way the world works, and he isn't going to be able to find happiness walking away from his troubles. The book ends on a note of optimism, but it's about as convincing as those endings tacked on to pre-code crime movies to tell us crime never pays, after we've just been convinced that of course it does. We don't believe it for a second.

The Face Of Evil by John McPartland
Gold Medal no. 393, 1954, 25 cents

Thursday 24 September 2009


It's the winter of 1944, and three American soliders are on patrol in the hills near Cassino, part of the fight against the retreating Germans, who are making the invaders pay for every inch of ground, in the middle of the coldest winter in memory. They are part of a unit whose numbers decrease with each passing day, the last two when a German officer was uncovered in a hay wagon, and shot two men before he too was killed. With him under the hay was a young Italian woman, and Sergeant Glick walked up to her and shot her dead. Later, they come upon an old Italian, and Glock sends three men off with him to go over the hill, to get to the other side, to stop the arguing over whether or not the girl should have died.

Richard Bausch's story is told very well, in simple prose that rarely over-embellishes, but it is, at heart a familiar one, and more familiar in the wake of the river of nostalgia that marks the anniversaries of World War II. The 'lost patrol' story has been reprised many times; even Steven Spielberg tried his hand at it in Saving Private Ryan. I kept thinking I'd seen this story before, in a film that should have been directed by Samuel Fuller, who would have told it in a similar, simple, expressive fashion.

There were elements that seemed out of place; particularly the flashbacks to sunny Palermo, and the too-neatly done Italian boy who helps Corporal Marson, leader of the three-man patrol,
and who serves as a counterpoint to the old man. But the way Bausch builds up the tension, the internal tension between the soldiers, and the way he milks it until it comes down to one decision, is extremely well done. It's a decision that speaks, as the title does, of peace, and it's one that reflects the default position of Americans when they look at themselves at war almost constantly and believe themselves to be decent people at heart. In 1944, that was easier to believe than it is now, and it takes all of Bausch's skill to make that case. What he does best is describe the inner turmoil of each man, and the struggles within themselves, and with each other. It is the wider struggle which seems too familiar, as if appropriated for a backdrop to this moral tale; even the characters themselves seem borrowed from familar models.

Yet within that, what Bausch does very well is reflect the basic humanity of his soldiers, and if his Italian old man is somewhat less well-drawn, it is because he is seen from the perspective of the soldiers, and their limited picture is ours. So when, in the end, an officer who's been out of their experience comes in, and makes a crucial decision of life and death for Marson, we feel, as he does, that he is just a step from going over the line. That is the line that marks the peace of the title from something else, something deeper and longer lasting than just war, but certainly part of war's effect. For Bausch, it is an amplifier, and in this novel which feels like a shorter story, he manages to keep the signal clear, despite the amplification. Which in wartime, is a difficult thing to do. And in art.
Peace by Richard Bausch
Grove Atlantic £12.99 ISBN 9781848870840

Friday 18 September 2009


I was catching up with some papers on the flight to the US Wednesday, and was chuffed to see the Observer's house neo-con Nick Cohen quoting Mario Vargas Llosa's article in El Pais about the Millennium trilogy: Vargas Llosa compared them to the same sense of 'feverish excitement' he'd experienced reading 'Dumas Dickens and Hugo as a boy, those stories about what he called 'just avengers'. I couldn't agree more, in fact, Cohen could have found the same take on Stieg Larsson right here, among Irresistible Targets' Bullseyes!

The Observer comment section also included an excellent essay by the definitely non neo-con Henry Porter, arguing for a repeal of all the laws passed during the last 12 years of Blairite government aimed at eroding civil liberties and creating a security state in the UK. He fails to note that on any number of these restrictions, this government has introduced tests, or vetting, which need to be paid for: the citizen as consumer, the subject as profit centre. There is a definite feudal element to this, beyond the obvious apparatchik revival brought on by a government 'socialist' only in the most cynically Stalinist sense of the word.

I then found myself a bit baffled by Philip French's Observer review of Julie & Julia, where he complained the film gave no mention to Elizabeth David, who was writing French cookbooks for the English before Julia Child was doing her TV thing for Americans. Huh? Do we need to check other countries too, to see if they had anyone promoting French cooking? Philip French thought this was as bad as Tom Hanks 'storming up Omaha Beach on D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, and no mention being made of the British Second Army coming ashore on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. Unlikely as it might have been for the Yanks getting slaughtered at Omaha to wonder for the cameras about how Monty's chaps were faring at the somewhat easier beaches to the east, I should point out that for someone being hypercritical about historical accuracy it's rather churlish to forget that the toughest of those three beaches, Juno, was taken by the Canadian Third Division (although it was part of the British Second Army, Canadians are actually not British, and despite Juno's casualties being the second-highest, after Omaha's, the Canadians actually penetrated the farthest off the beaches on the first day).

But the prize for churlishness went to a review by Christopher Turner, in the previous day's Guardian, of Anthony Flint's Wrestling With Moses, a book about Jane Jacobs' battles with Robert Moses which are the background to her classic book on urban planning, The Death And Life Of Great American Cities. In that book Jacobs described the ideal urban environment, which turned out to be exactly the kind of neighbourhood she was living in in Greenwich Village, which was threatened by Moses' plans to extend Park Avenue south through Washington Square Park, and turn Houston Street into a 10 lane expressway to connect the Hudson and East River crossings.

Turner somehow transmutes this into a battle between Jacobs' crowded urban mess and Moses' wide-open spaces. As it happens, I saw my birthplace, New Haven, lose whole neighbourhoods to exactly that sort of road-building (see Murder In The Model City, by Paul Bass and Douglas Rae), and those lost neighbourhoods were re-developed into exactly the sort of urban wastelands Jacobs feared. Yes, she broke the ground for gentrification which has turned the Village into the kind of place the people who made it interesting can no longer afford, but at least you can still walk through it. And by the way, it would be easier to take Turner seriously if he knew that the classic biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, was written by Robert Caro, not Anthony Caro.

There was also a nice little appreciation in that Guardian of Harley Granville-Barker, a much under-appreciated playwright, written by Richard Eyre. I noticed that he described Barker's wife as 'an American millionairess'. How this got past the Guardian's eagle-eyed sub-editors I do not know, as they insist on changing the word 'actress' to 'actor' whenever anyone else uses it, despite whatever confusion that may cause, as when I wrote of porn-director Gerard Damiano saying his experience as a hair-dresser helped him deal with actresses. As I wrote here, the subs changing that to 'actors' rather changed its meaning.

The Guardian insists on a gender neutral word for performers, but not for the very wealthy. They will not use a gender neutral word like 'spouse' to avoid 'husband' and 'wife', nor will they use 'homosexual' or 'gay' in most instances; instead they insist on gender-specific, not neutral, reference as 'gay and lesbian'. I'm sure you can think of other anomalies; that 'millionairess' leapt out at me means either it's a silly proscription or I am a rather sad and pedantic fellow. Probably both.

Monday 14 September 2009


With BBC4 finally showing the second series of the French crime series Spiral, it's a good opportunity to look back on series one, which originally aired in France in the winter of 2005-06, and on BBC 4 in the summer of 2006. The UK DVD version was released last October; I watched it late last year, anticipating I'd hook the review to the debut of the follow-up series, which aired in France in the summer of 2008.

The first series opened with the mutilated body of a Romanian woman being found in a dump. She is assumed to be a hooker, but the case soon becomes more complicated than that, and as magistrate Pierre Clement (played by Gregory Fitoussi) begins to investigate it begins to, well, spiral out of control (the French title, Engrenages, or 'Cogs' adds depth to that, because each development is connected, in the cogs of French society, and Fitoussi is soon disturbing those connections, some of which are very close to home.

It opened looking very much like a French version of CSI, complete with fast-moving POV and explicit gore. This toned down as the series progressed, with a grimmer, more realistic look taking over, contrasted with the slick, shiny camera-work when dealing with the loftier echelons of business or society. In that it may be closer to The Wire, or perhaps to the over-hanging story-arc of corruption behind Homicide.

But it is also very explicitly French, most tellingly in the character of police Capt. Laure Berthaud, played very much as someone almost desperate emotionally, by the enigmatic Caroline Proust. It's sometimes hard to imagine, even in France, that she could be commanding her own investigative unit, but somehow it works, partly because one of her two sidekicks, Gilou, is hopeless himself, addicted to drugs and hookers (it doesn't help that Thierry Godard, the actor playing him is a dead ringer for one of our floor managers on Five's NFL show, and would fit into The Wire perfectly if anyone there spoke French--he's the one sitting in the alley in the publicity shot at the bottom of the page). Proust and Fitoussi will, inevitably, hook-up, but it works in large part because Fitoussi is able to convey his character's befuddlement with the real world.

In fact, as the story line spirals deeper, we realise that Clement is still hung up on his ex-wife, played with wonderful overtones of evil by Anne Caillon. He appears to have always felt awkward trying to fit in with her wealthy family, and as the connections mount up with perhaps too much coincidence, being used by her and them. Coincidence abounds in the storyline, but what makes it work so well is that the coincidences are a product of the structure, the cogs of society if you will, and as each layer of corruption, betrayal, and lie is uncovered, the cogs continue to turn even as they are slipping.

Overseeing all of this is Clerment's boss, Judge Roban, played by Phillipe Duclos almost exactly as a more neurotic gray-haired Arsene Wenger, which makes him a formidable character. As Clement, in effect, blunders downward in his spiral, Roban's motivations are always suspect, which provides exactly the touch of ambiguity the plot needs. On the other side, Audrey Fleurot, as an ambitious lawyer named, eerily, Maitre Karlsson, acts as a sort of balance to the idealistic Clement.

As the series winds to a close it does become melodramatic, with a few twists designed specifically to keep it from being resolved fully, which presumably helps set up series two. Series one was riveting; it's hard to tell whether this qualifies as hard-boiled TV in French terms, but the mix of an almost Chabrolian vision of both societal and personal corruption, with the French version of romantic soap (as unabashed as any American ensemble cop show), a sensationalist attitude to violence and a very dark world of crime high and low is totally compelling television. I'll be watching the second series with great interest, and writing about once I've got a handle on it. For the time being, you can catch up with the first series on DVD, and it's highly recommended.

Spiral, Series One
BBC DVD 2008


My obituary of Larry Gelbart is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. I've always liked the idea of comparing Alan Alda to Sid Caesar; one thing I might have mentioned is that Alda tempers Caesar's sense of anarchy with a likeability that Caesar never really had to worry about, but that is something crucial to the success of the TV Hawkeye. I also referred to Lee Harvey Oswald as President Kennedy's "supposed" assassin, but the supposed was edited out.

Thursday 10 September 2009


It was Indridason who, in effect, broke the bank with the CWA Daggers; his win instigating a rule change restricting books in translation to their own foreign ghetto. From the Daggers point of view, this was probably a good thing, because Hypothermia is not only Indridason's best novel yet, it is the best one I've read so far this year, and will take some beating.

Hypothermia opens with a straight-forward suicide; a woman, despondent since the death of her mother, found hanging from a beam in her summer cottage. There is nothing suspicious about the death, but when one of her friends gives Erlendur a tape of a séance which the dead woman had attended, seeking to communicate with her mother and know about the world beyond, Erlendur becomes fascinated with her death and, on his own time, investigates what would have brought her to the point of suicide. Meanwhile, he is also re-opening a couple of old missing-person cases, because the father of one of them is dying.

Those who understand the tropes of crime fiction might immediately guess the cases are connected, but they are not, at least not in any forensic sense. But what connects them, besides Erlendur's one-track fixation on closing the cases, is the sense of understanding. The missing children are a boy and girl, and by this time in the series Erlendur's own missing children, a boy and girl, are back in contact with him. And of course the central event in his own past, the night when he and his brother were lost in a storm on Hardskafi mountain, and his brother never found, haunts him. In fact, the heart of the book may be when Erlendur finally reads to his daughter an account of his and his brother's disappearance, and the empty part of himself becomes sadly evident.Just as much as Maria, the woman who has hung herself, Erlendur is looking for an answer to questions which may be unanswerable, which is why he has devoted his life to seeking answers that can be found.

Which of course he will do here. The book is billed 'A Reykjavik Murder Mystery', and there is enough old-style detection here to make this story almost cosy, the tale of a cleverly-worked out killing. But there is nothing cosy about the heart of the novel, which is about the real way people react to death, and to loss, and the way a shutting down, or closing off, a coldness toward the world, can have intense consequences. This is one reason Hypothermia, which also presents a clue in the murder mystery, may be a better title for a book called Hardskafi in Icelandic. This is a book about emotion, about love, about loss, and about closure. It doesn't have a 'happy' ending, but it has the kind of ending that reflects exactly what it is saying about life and death. Indridason has been building to this point, carefully, with his previous books, yet you don't need to have followed them to appreciate this one. But Hypothermia will take on added reasonance if you have. It is a fine novel, the best yet in a very strong series, and as I said the best I've read thus far this year.

by Arnaldur Indridason
translated by Victoria Cribb

Harvill Secker £11.99 ISBN 9781846552625

NOTE: This review will also appear at

Friday 4 September 2009

MY CHARACTERS ARE FIGHTING INEVITABILITY: An Interview With Thomas H Cook, 'the last of the midlist writers'

Thomas H Cook is a crime writer's crime writer, someone who in the course of 24 novels and a couple of true crime books has visited most of the staples of the genre, but whose reputation, and high-standing among fellow-writers and critics, has been built by a series of unclassifiable suspense novels, written in a superbly gentle prose style, which share a careful, cumulatively-building construction, and a concern with examining the various nuances of loss, and the persistent impact of the past on the present.

Appropriately, then, I met Cook in the old-fashioned bar of an old-fashioned London hotel, where his distinguished white beard contrasted sharply with the black T-shirt acquired at a French crime festival just a few days before. Although he's lived most of his adult life in America's north, New York City and Cape Cod, his speech is still coloured by the graceful tones of the American south, where he grew up, and I half expected to hear him ask the barman for a mint julep. Cook speaks authoritatively and with much enjoyment about his writing; with the beard and accent he reminded me slightly of Shelby Foote, the historian who became the star of Ken Burns' television documentary on the American Civil War, though he lacked Foote's avuncular self-amusing glee. Cook was in London to promote his 24th novel, The Fate Of Katherine Carr, which marks a slight departure for him, in that it suggests elements of the supernatural. When I ask if this were a deliberate decision, he says, 'no, it was simply the story that came to me. In the autumn of my years I've made it a personal campaign to expand crime fiction. I say it can do whatever it wants to do.

'I never really know what my books are going to be about. It would probably be easier to go with a sure-fire formula, but I just can't work that way. But it makes the book harder to market: I may be the last of the 'mid-list' writers—and it's a tougher commercial road because we're not talking fame, which a series can generate. In the old days a writer could survive on the midlist, look at Fitzgerald, while the publisher waited for a best-seller. I'm basically just sustained in America, though I'm tremendously up in France, and Japan, and in Britain now.'

Katherine Carr tells the story of George Gates, formerly a globe-trotting travel writer, who's content to be a jobbing feature-writer on a small-town newspaper after losing his son, who was kidnapped and murdered while he waited for his father to pick him up after school on an especially rainy day. Gates had been caught up in the writer's trade, chasing the end of a sentence, and forgot his promise to the boy. Now he is haunted by his loss. He is jolted out of his zombie-like existence by a retired cop's suggestion he investigate the unsolved disappearance, some twenty years earlier, of Carr, small-press poet and assault victim. The detective produces some of Carr's writings, including a story which seems to detail her own disappearance, and in the course of his work, Gates begins sharing them with a young girl dying of a disease which is aging her far faster than nature intended. It's a multi-layered novel, with stories within stories, and very much about the story-telling process; Gates is actually narrating the whole tale to someone else.

'It was difficult, trying to capture the voice of a New England travel writer,' Cook says, 'but I find I'm paring my writing down as I get older, and I think that helped.' As it happens, Cook is now working on a travel book himself, much like Gates' own, gathering the 'saddest places in the world', including Saipan, whose story Gates mentions, when American soldiers offshore watched as Japanese threw themselves and their children off cliffs, plunging to their deaths rather than enduring the atrocities they were convinced the invaders would visit upon them. For someone named Thomas Cook to essay a travel book takes a certain amount of courage, an idea which draws laughter, and another round of gin and tonics, from Cook.

The sense of stories within stories echoes another of Cook's trademarks, the slow development of his plots. I likened it to watching a black and white photograph develop, and mention that a number of his books actually feature characters who are photographers themselves. 'A photo can be contradictory,' Cook says. 'It shows you a moment, but that moment may be false; in my novel Red Leaves he says it's like Seurat's painting, pixellated, you have to step far enough away to see the image, and that is exactly what time does; forces you to step away to see the image clearly.'

Katherine Carr is set in the countryside north of New York, and I suggest to Cook that much of his work might be divided into books set in the North, where characters are often alone, and the South, where they seem more a part of the landscape. The novel which preceded Katharine Carr, 2008's Master Of The Delta, is set in the south, and Cook says 'Well, having grown up in the South, I feel the density of community there, the sense that the family unit actually expands.' I likened it to the difference between Nathaniel Hawthorne versus William Faulkner. 'There is that Faulknerian sense of growing up part of a defeated people; when I was twelve worked in a dairy store, and at the end of each day I'd go to the post office, and when I looked at the flag hanging in front I'd think, “that's not exactly MY flag, it's the flag of my occupiers. So I think southerners are closer to Europeans in the way they sense history can sweep over you.' So does he feel an outsider in the North? 'Not at all. I moved to New York in 1969, which was not necessarily the best time to be a white southerner, but I never felt an iota of hostility. It's the most American of cities; it loves you if you work hard, and even more if you succeed.' And what about when he returns to his native south? 'Well, most of my beliefs don't fit in too well with my relatives, who are mostly more conservative, but the core things, like loyalty and honesty, they remain, and they are family, and would do anything for their families.'

Cook never intended to go into crime writing. 'I think it was because I didn't know what a so-called “crime novel” was. When I started, I had read Poe, but not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.' He laughs, saying 'Crime And Punishment was probably the first crime novel I read'. But his first effort, Blood Innocents (1980) was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel, and was about cops. Cook explains, 'my first job in New York was on the suicide shift in a motel in Brooklyn, and one night I had to call the police and force open the door to a room where I thought a woman had overdosed—we went in and she's face down on the floor, and there was a two-year old baby in a cot. They revived her, but one of the cops grabbed the baby and as he started out the door he said to me “this is what it's all about”. That went through me like a spear, and that's what I wanted to convey, to write a novel about a person who has a difficult job to do but who manages to maintain his humanity despite that.'

Three more novels followed, including Elena (1986) which he describes as 'a full-scale literary novel', whose narrator is someone who's 'never been able to write'. I mention that his characters are often aspiring writers, or secret writers, and Cook says, 'yes, they're often overwhelmed with feeling, but have no way to express it. It is extreme frustration, like being able to feel every sentiment of music, but not be able to play at all.'

Then Cook tried to develop a series character, in the late eighties writing three novels about the New York detective Frank Clemons; books that grew more depressive as the series continued. 'After the third one, I said to my wife “if I ever write a book worse than this I will stop”. All the joy, the spontaneity of art had gone out of it. It was like doing something by rote, and I said that's not what I want to do. My guy had crossed-over into self-pity, which may have reflected my getting tired of him. A lot of serial writers have that energy, and can keep putting it into their books, but I just couldn't'.

Alongside his next novels, a couple of which (The City When It Rains and Breakheart Hill) featured photographers, Cook also wrote two true-crime books. 'The most difficult thing is to control the pacing, which is harder than in a novel, because you have to include the components, the crime, the investigating, and the bringing to justice—sort of like the Law & Order television show-- but you can't just go chronologically as they don't always have equal weight at any given time. But I was interested because they are stories of people in crisis, and we seem obsessed today with putting these people before the cameras, which shows only the surface.'

Cook's 1996 novel The Chatham School Affair won the Edgar Award for best novel of the year, which should have made his career. 'I suppose it was because readers didn't know quite what to expect next, or from my earlier books,' Cook says. Which is a shame, because although it's a fine book, he's bettered it at least twice, with Places In The Dark (2000) and Red Leaves (2005). Like Chatham School, both are set in the north, and again, I mention Hawthorne. This time Cook responds. 'Places In The Dark is actually very much like Hawthorne, though the Hawthorne of his short stories, very much more focused. I like a novel to work like a short story.' Red Leaves, currently being developed as a screenplay by Alan Parker's son Nathan, who scripted the recent Moon, is a shattering tale which, like Katharine Carr, builds from the parent-child relationship. I wonder if Red Leaves may have been popular in France for the some of the same reasons the French loved Harlan Coben's Tell No One; that it suggests great darkness behind the idyllic image of small-town (or suburban) America. 'Yes, in that sense that our towns are supposed to supply our imaginations with perfection. My characters are fighting inevitability, the sense that life is not designed to live up to our imaginations. Instead, it's incredibly cruel. Thomas Hardy once said that if God existed he should be executed, that's it's cruel when a creature reaches the level of consciousness to ask questions that he can't answer'. Which seemed, after asking that many questions myself, a good point to end the interview.

NOTE: This interview will also appear at

Thursday 3 September 2009

LUSTMORD: BEYOND ICE COLD--More Thoughts On Serial Killers And Germany

Reading Andrea Maria Schenkel's ICE COLD (you can read my review here) reminded me of a piece I'd written in 1996, for the magazine Headpress, on Maria Tatar's study of sex murders in Weimar Germany, LUSTMORD. What follows has been rewritten and expanded considerably, not only in light of Schenkel's book, but also any number of ideas about film noir, Jack the Ripper, and serial killers I've developed since writing the original...

Weimar Germany is seen today as being to serial killers what the Italian Renaissance was to poisoners, an early golden age. The question of what it was about the conditions of Germany in the 1920s that made it such a fertile breeding ground for serial killing is particularly fascinating today, when we are confronted with what is, at very least in its presentation in media, a modern epidemic of similar crimes. I mention media presentation deliberately, because, in Lustmord, Maria Tatar is more concerned with the artistic representation of sexual murder than with the murders themselves. But by thus narrowing her focus, and by being willing to confuse sometimes the art with the act, she winds up dodging the chance to analyse the question in more detail.

Professor Tatar’s thesis is that German men, already disempowered by the loss of the Great War, felt even more threatened by the growing emancipation of women, and thus sexualized murder, turning it into a crime specifically against women as a manifestation of revenge against them for luring men into their seductive evil clutches. But trying to explain serial killing as a reaction to Louise Brooks was more than even GW Pabst attempted, and is both simplistic and misguided; it's applying the mores of late 20th century feminism to a phenomenon particularly rooted in its own time and place. Brooks' Lulu is punished for her wanton destructiveness as a femme fatale, not just her sexual precociousness (she's not merely the equivalent of a baby-sitter in a contemporary horror film). Lulu's path to the Ripper figure who kills her is inevitable, and he exacts not revenge as much as punishment for her self-confidence. This would seem to fit Tatar's thesis very closely, except of course the Ripper is a figure of Victorian England, and Lulu originally from Wedekin's fin de siecle plays. Had Pabst made the story itself new, you could argue this didn't matter, but he plays upon the same tropes in 1920s Germany as were played in turn of the century Munich and Vienna and indeed Victorian England. This makes it necessary to present more evidence that serial killing was more than an expression of sexual revenge, and that this revenge was indeed a reaction to some particular greater threat, specifically by Weimar men.

Prof. Tatar's wider interpretation is close to Ann Douglas', in The Feminisation of American Culture and Mongrel Manhattan, both of which interpret the modern movement in art as a male attempt to destroy feminine culture. In fact, Douglas portrays the Great War as a fit of testosterone madness, European males seeking revenge against their Victorian mothers. Although it is a jump from world war as vengeance against 19th century mothers to serial killing as revenge against newly-empowered 20th century women, there is an element of truth in both perspectives. The Great War did engender a symbolic loss of masculinity, particularly in art; Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises is impotent, after all, and Hemingway did resent his mother deeply (and chose mother-figures for both his first love and first wife). The Valentino figure of the Latin lover was expressly feminine, and the bobbed-hair flapper far more sexually indeterminate than her Victorian predecessors. Sexual confusion might indeed be a factor in finding a common motivation for Weimar's serial killers, and disempowerment might indeed be another, but there are all kinds of disempowerment, including those brought on by the political and economic chaos which marked the era. Seeing these frustrations being caused solely by envy of women and thus taken out solely against women is a mistake.

For example, Prof. Tatar opens her book with references to a German children’s rhyme based on Fritz Haarman, a serial killer executed in 1925. She conveniently avoids mentioning the fact that Haarman’s victims were exclusively male, which hardly fits into the violence against women thesis. In Fritz Lang's M, Peter Lorre's serial killer is an abuser of children. It both cases the victims are the powerless; in neither case is the killer seeking revenge because young males or children have been recently empowered at his expense.

Our culture's current obsession with serial killers suggests an intriguing parallel with Prof. Tatar's thesis, since it dates from the Vietnam era, in which American masculinity was symbolically eviscerated by the loss of a war. This coincided with the rise of women's liberation, a social change arguably more pronounced than the liberations of the Roaring Twenties or even those of World War II, when women entered the workplace in great numbers. In the latter case, of course, America had just won a war, not lost it, yet underneath the explosion of art and culture which also seemed to conquer the world, we can find film noir, an outgrowth of the meeting of German Expressionism from the Weimar era with the Roaring Twenties' liberated flappers, then mixed together with Depression-era hard-boiled detectives. Interestingly, in post-WWII noir it is the masculine hero, often a doomed bozo bewitched by a spider woman femme fatale, who is presented as the victim: a reversal of Prof. Tatar's version of Weimar's roles.

Were Weimar's serial killers trying to reclaim their masculinity by revenging themselves on women, or were they revenging themselves on their shattered society by attacking the women who symbolise it? It's admittedly a murky distinction, but Prof. Tatar clouds the issue further by recognising “the belief that men might be able to reconstitute themselves through art”. She points to artists like Dix, Grosz, Beckman, Lang, and Doblin as needing to kill women to do that. But she ignores the major new art movement of this period, cubism, which was all about deconstruction, or even destruction, and offered in its explosive realities a reconstituted humanity full of non-murderous loss. She often seems confuse cause and effect; does the work of Otto Dix and Georg Grosz really serve as a substitute for actual killing? Is it as bad as actual killing, in a Catharine MacKinnon sense? Or does it reflect the contradictions of the society in which the artists found themselves? It is somewhat like Patricia Cornwall deciding Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper because of a painting which referenced the Camden Town murders, but which reads not as murderer and victim but as a portrait of essential emptiness within a relationship defined by commercial or other societal boundaries.

Prof. Tatar suggests that these misogynist male artists felt so weakened that they needed to kill women, figuratively, in order to re-ignite their creative powers. But it's as much a jump to suggest the artists of Weimar identified with sexual killers as to suggest, as she does, that Grosz was somehow a pervert who preferred 'shapeless, obese' women, simply because his 'Self-Portrait As Jack the Ripper' (see right), whose title seems at bottom ironic, features his fiancee Eva, whose 'zaftig' quality was one he admired. So did Reubens, after all. If one is going to make the representation, rather than the reality, the core of one's argument, one needs to avoid attributing the latter to the former.

One final problem is that Weimar Germany's sex killings do stand out, as Prof. Tatar suggests, because of the ways they were portrayed in the art of the time, but they were not unique. Germany had seen killers before: Karl Deake, for example, the cannibal who sold his victims' flesh to meat-hungry Germans during the Great War. They'd seen far more active serial killers (admittedly not all of them sexual in nature) since the war. And of course it is tempting to look at World War II and the Holocaust as a protracted exercise in institutionalised serial killing, as I suggested Andrea Maria Schenkel might be hinting at in Ice Cold. I've mentioned the parallel one might draw between Prof. Tatar's Weimar and post-Vietnam America, and certainly works like American Psycho constitute a lightweight version of Dix or Grosz. But I wonder about patterns. Does Andrei Chikatilo, on whom Child 44 was based, reflect something about Stalinist Russia, beyond what Tom Rob Smith pointed out, that a refusal to admit the possibility of a serial killer allowed him to pursue his obsession, and precluded any sort of artistic interpretation within the USSR? Can we explain the Ripper, or the Acid Bath Murderer, or Fred West or Peter Sutcliffe in terms of reaction to various stages of British society, or indeed loss of empire?

Perhaps it is telling that none of these societies and their killers has generated the kind of lasting artistic response that Weimar produced, although you could argue present-day America has tried. Partly it's because Patricia Cornwell and CSI aren't quite Fritz Lang. But by mis-identifying the forces that drove Weimar's sexual killers, and then attributing those same motives to its artists, Prof. Tatar has left us with a conundrum, a set of symptoms rather than causes. Violence against women is certainly a part of the art of Weimar Germany, and certainly a part of the serial lustmord that partly characterises the era. But it is more symptom than cause, and the causes run far deeper than Prof. Tatar, for whatever reasons, cares to look.

LUSTMORD: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany
by Maria Tatar
Princeton University Press 1995 ISBN 0691043388


My obituary of the historian David H Donald is in today's Guardian, you can find it here. Because it was trimmed somewhat, particularly in its lede, here's my original copy:

As the leader most crucial to America's psyche, Abraham Lincoln's life has been open to constant re-interpretation; all things to all people, he has been seen as everything from hallowed genius to demented fanatic. 2009, which marked Lincoln's bicentennial (he was born the same day as Charles Darwin), saw also the inauguration of Barack Obama, often compared to his Illinois predecessor, and consciously encouraging such comparisons by choosing Lincoln as a model. These factors brought new renown for historian David Herbert Donald, who has died aged 88. Donald's writing about Lincoln spanned nearly 50 years, and his 1995 biography, titled simply 'Lincoln', is considered the best, and certainly most balanced, account of the president's life. The book gained a new audience after receiving lavish praise from the historian Eric Foner, part of the Lincoln bicentennial programme on America's National Public Radio. Donald's Lincoln is a determined man struggling to find the inner reserves to cope with immense crises always threatening to overcome him; the parallels with the current president were there to be made.

Ironically, though Donald twice won the Pulitzer Prize, neither award honoured his work on Lincoln. His first Pulitzer came in 1961 for the opening part of his two-volume biography of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, best-remembered today for receiving a savage beating on the floor of the US Senate during a debate on slavery. Covering Sumner's career up to the Civil War, Donald presented him as a radical whose Republican leadership placed the newly-elected Lincoln in an almost untenable position. By the time the second volume was published in 1970, by which time Donald had been influenced by changes brought on by the civil rights movement, his Sumner was more of a visionary moral leader.

He won his second Pulitzer for Look Homeward, his 1987 biography of the novelist Thomas Wolfe. It was a more personal project because, as Donald put it, 'Wolfe told my story'. Like Wolfe, Donald was a southerner transplanted to the world of Yankee intellectuals, and spent his career examining the roots and the effects of the great divide between North and South. Donald also considered himself a frustrated novelist, saying biographies ought to 'let the story tell itself and have it as ambiguous, as ambivalent as a modern novel.'

Donald was born on a farm in Goodman, Mississippi, where his mother was also a teacher. He graduated from Millsaps College, in Jackson Mississippi, then received his PhD in history in 1946 from the University of Illinois, studying under the Civil War scholar James G. Randall. He began teaching at Columbia, in New York, and in 1947 published his first book, 'Lincoln Reconsidered', a collection of essays, which was followed in 1948 by 'Lincoln's Herndon', with an introduction by the poet Carl Sandburg, a study of Lincoln's Illinois law partner and early biographer. Although he claimed he originally found Lincoln a tedious subject, Donald's studies of Lincoln's relationships to people close to him would lead him to conclude Lincoln was ambitious, politically shrewd, and 'much more sensitive and human than I had thought before'.

In 1954 Donald edited 'Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon Chase', and during the Civil War centennial, which began in 1961, edited 'Why The North Won The Civil War', and a revised edition of his Lincoln essays. He also revised his mentor Randall's key 1937 study 'The Civil War And Reconstruction', and followed with his own 'The Politics Of Reconstruction' (1965), breaking ground by using statistical analysis to detail how the relative safety of a Congressional seat was the prime determinant in how fiercely politicians pursued radical policies.

Donald also taught at Smith, Princeton and Johns Hopkins before joining Harvard as Charles Warren Professor of History in 1973, a post he held until assuming the emeritus title in 1991. He was Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford and also taught at University College London. In all he wrote or edited 30 books, the last of which, 'We Are Lincoln Men', a study of the president's friendships, appeared in 2004. When he died, of heart failure, he was working on a study of John Quincy Adams' life after his defeat in the 1828 presidential election.
He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Aida DiPace Donald, former editor of Harvard University Press, and a son.

David Herbert Donald, historian and biographer
born 1 October 1920 Goodman, Mississippi
died 17 May 2009 Boston, Massachusetts

Wednesday 2 September 2009


Ice Cold covers familiar ground in an unusual manner. Andrea Schenkel's short novel details the stories of a number of victims of a serial killer in 1930s Berlin, then sets them against the confession of their killer, Josef Kalteis. Meanwhile, interwoven with these tales is the story of Kathie, a young country girl who comes to Munich entranced by the freedom and excitement of the city, but soon finds herself falling into a sort of desperate life of casual amateur prostitution. Inevitably, her path and Kalteis' are doomed to cross.

The originality of this approach hides its familiarity. If Kathie's path is reminiscent of Louise Brooks' Lulu, the scene with two cycling brothers neatly details not only the sense of a price fallen women must pay, which forms the core of much serial killer fiction, but also the very real innocence behind Kathie's 'fall'. She is not, like the fornicating babysitters of modern horror movies, shown as somehow inviting her demise, rather her simple desperation aimed at finding a place to sleep is set against the powerlessness which brings out a very different sort of response from Kalteis. But the sense of inevitable doom, which recalls Murnau and many other films of the period, is engineered delicately and precisely.

Kalteis seems based, loosely, on Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf vampire, with one crucial difference. The Weimar era was Germany's first golden age of serial killers; Schenkel's setting the killings in the Nazi era articulates them against a different backdrop, one in which female sexuality, often seen as the provocation for the Weimar serial killers, is less a matter of modern empowerment as a reaction to the relative lack of economic power within the new system. In other words, an echo of the particular story of Kathie described above. Like Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, Schenkel's setting is within a system which refuses to allow for the existence of serial killers within it, though Schenkel doesn't actually make much of the ulitmate ambiguity of this system's dedication to its own serial killing on a far larger scale. But her portrayal of Kurteis, pathetically almost unaware of his own actions, is also familiar; it was set out by Colin Wilson, among others, in his study of Kurten, and shows a marked sociopathology which perhaps suggests something more universal within the Germany of the time.

Serial killers reflected Hannah Arendt's famed 'banality of evil' just as surely as the Eichmanns of the Nazi death machine, and perhaps it is here where Schenkel's implied parallel is most accurate. Though this interpretation would be easy to miss. There is a difficulty in that, interpreted through our modern victim culture, Kalteis becomes a stock villain, an abusive man, and this more personal approach is something reinforced by the translation. I cannot say how some of the speech, not just Kalteis' but other characters' as well, is meant to be presented, but I assume it was written in some sort of German slang. It is translated into a kind of mockney right out of a 1930s movie. I'm not sure if this is accurate or not, but the effect is to recall Hitchock's The Lodger, say, not Pabst's Lulu, removing the sense of temptress and guilt from Kathie, which is good, but somehow removing from Kalteis a general sense being a force within an evil world, his Nazi context if you will, and place him instead as a mundane evil everyman.

The strong point of Ice Cold is that it is, indeed, ice cold (the German title was Kalteis, but this one works far better). We build a certain amount of sympathy for Kathie, as we follow her story knowng she must be doomed, but there is a palpable lack of horror, of feeling, from most of the characters; some understated expressions of loss, but mostly a certain sense of acceptance of this unnatural violence. As if it is already their world. And perhaps this was Schenkel's point after all, using the idea of the serial killer and the sex murder to crystallize something more horrific on a far larger scale, an acceptance of a slightly twisted world, which became far more than slightly twisted. It's a lot to read into, indeed to ask, of such a compact mood piece, but I think it works on that level as well as that of a thriller.

Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel translated by Anthea Bell Quercus, £9.99 ISBN 9781847245656