Monday, 14 June 2021

A BIG BOOK WITH A STRONG FEELING: JOEL DICKER'S DISAPPEARANCE OF STEPHANIE MAILER

 

In 1994, a brutal quadruple-murder shook the seaside resort town of Orphea, in the tony Hamptons on Long Island. The body of a jogger was found in the road outside a house; inside the house the mayor, his wife and young son all lay dead. Two young state troopers cracked the case, and in a car chase drove the killer off a bridge into a river, where he died, a presumed suicide.

Twenty-five years later, one of the those troopers, Jesse Rosenberg, is about to retire. He's now a captain, known as Captain 100%, for his perfect record in solving cases. But his retirement reception gets crashed by journalist Stephanie Mailer, who tells Jesse that he is, in fact, Captain 99%. He did not solve the biggest case, the one that made his career, and enigmatically, she says he failed to see what was right in front of his eyes. She leaves and tells him she will see him later. But she doesn't. That night, she disappears.

The Swiss writer Joel Dicker's follow-up to The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is, at first glance, a complex locked-room (or locked village) mystery, in which the stories of twenty years past are revisited and opened up to new examination. But in reality, it is a digging into character: a series of character sketches whose interaction centers on the crime, and whose changes come about as information is discovered and revealed. In a sense, this creates a story-telling dilemma, in terms of what information to release to the reader, and when to it. From the point of view of the classic locked-village mystery, this can be a fault, as sometimes that which is withheld would seem normal to have appeared much earlier by the process of natural selection.

But Dicker has avoided that trampling over the basic whodunit puzzle, with the aim of revealing more about the characters, through the nifty way the novel is structured, with multiple flashbacks and multiple points of view. These intertwine: Jesse's own very unusual upbringing, and his first love Natasha, for whom he pines, have their own impact on the tale, while the former police chief, Kirk Hayward who has moved out to Hollywood and written a play which supposedly will reveal the name of the true killer—a situation which does create more mystery but also makes one wonder about the sense of realistic policing (and indeed realistic murdering!) once the play becomes the focus of the town's theatre festival, the high point of its tourist season.

“I wanted to try something different,” Dicker said during his virtual UK book launch. “I wanted a challenge, to write a choral book with lots of characters and sub-plots. But this is Orphea—and Orpheus was, of course, all about not looking back, which is a great irony. Before Chief Hayward's play, the festival's production was going to be Uncle Vanya; despite Jesse and Natasha's backgrounds in Russian it's hard to see parallels between Vanya and the situation in Orphea except for one, perhaps: in Vanya happiness seems to be something that eludes us in this life. It's interesting that Dicker's characters all seem to be chasing some kinds of unachievable happiness, but in his ending Dicker plays further with that. His approach to the book echoes some of this: “it can work like a crime novel,” he said, “investigation becomes like a guide, a path you follow to the characters.”

Dicker said he chose the name Stephanie Mailer partly out of connection with Norman Mailer. “I create a character before I give the name,” he explained, and when I thinking of the town I wanted to have a lake called Deer Lake, which reminded me of Mailer's novel, The Deer Park. It was that simple. Or not quite, because in the translation, from the French, Deer Lake becomes Stag Lake, so the Mailer connection disappears!

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer is a big book, with a deep cast of characters and a plot woven through two decades. There are multiple twists before the end, but the real pleasure may come from the construction itself, like a play (perhaps Chekhov's The Wood Demon?) with a big cast, an expansive set, and a sea of revelations. Talking with Dicker, I mentioned my favourite Swiss writers, Jacques Chessex and Friedrich Durrenmatt, both of whom used the framework of the crime novel to investigate issues of both character and society. Both, however, worked primarily in shorter books. “Yes,” he said, “a book is what we see before we read; a big book may scare the reader but give a very good feeling to have finished. A short book is a strong feeling.” What Dicker has produced is a big book, but with a strong feeling.

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joel Dicker

translated by Howard Curtis; MacLehose Press £20.00 ISBN9780857059208

this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 10 June 2021

T.J. NEWMAN'S FALLING

 My review of TJ Newman's highest of high concept thrillers, Falling, has just been published at Medium. You can link to it avoiding the paywall with this friends link here. It's a great read: make the click to find out why....

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

F LEE BAILEY: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of F Lee Bailey is in today's Guardian; it went online yesterday and you can link to that here.

The paper had hoped for a somewhat shorter piece, of course highlighting the OJ trial, but as it was I tried to hold myself down to just him more famous/important trials, and each time felt it was necessary to explain them at least briefly for an audience who probably don't even recognise the name Patty Hearst, much less Sam Sheppard or Albert DeSalvo.

I mentioned that, in light of the Medina court martial, William Calley was the only officer convicted in the My Lai massacre. I didn't mention that the major who didn't find anything unusual in the action that day, nor when questioned by someone from the Inspector General's office the following year, was Colan Powell, whose recollection of that questioning in his own memoirs doesn't jibe with the IG's tape of it.

It would have been nice to delve further into a couple of the stories: Sam Sheppard became a professional wrestler after finally winning his release from prison, and died young not long after. Efforts to win compensation for false imprisonment have failed. Hearst (and William and Emily Harris) were not with the rest of the SLA when six died as the LAPD trapped them in a house, but Patty had shot during an earlier robbery to protect them. Bill, aka General Teko, Emily and two other SLA members lived second lives until arrested in 2002. There's a Robert Redford movie, The Company You Keep, which, while based on the life underground of ex-Weathermen members, covers similar ground.   

There was one interesting thread that did get lost; his marriages. Because Bailey and his first wife, Florence Gott, married in 1960 and divorced in 1961, but had two sons. I could not find anywhere a date for his second marriage, to his secretary, Froma Portney, with whom he had a third son. I was constructing a scenario to explain these circumstances, but there was no way of my proving any of it true. However the idea he divorced Froma in 1972 and immediately married his third wife, Lynda Hart (who didn't make the paper, sadly) would be what lawyers might call evidence of a pattern of behaviour. He divorced Hart in 1980 but didn't marry Patricia Shires until 1985, and they stayed married until her death in 1999. I probably should have mentioned, as well as his failure to win admission to the Maine bar, and before his later bankruptcy and finally move into a hospice near one of his sons in Atlanta, he ran a consulting business from an office above his girlfriend, Debbie Elliott's hair salon in Portland.

 

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

BEHIND THE LABEL OF "NORDIC NOIR": ARNE DAHL'S EUROPA BLUES

I've written a review at Medium, nominally about an Arne Dahl Intercrime novel, but more about the place of Scandinavian crime fiction and the label of "Nordic Noir". You can link to it here, without having to sign up to Medium, though that would not be a bad thing.