Monthly Archives: March 2012

Criminal Classics – Martin Stanley

 

Martin Stanley is a Brit-grit author with a brace of  novels under his belt.  The Gamblers and The Hunters are both available now on Kindle and well worth a look.

Martin’s pick is The Outsider by Albert Camus…

 

 

 

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

 

So begins The Outsider, Albert Camus’ masterpiece of alienation.

 

The funeral of the protagonist’s mother gives us everything about the man that we need to know. Mersault experiences life from moment to moment, based on sensory experience, he seems to show little regard for the feelings of others, remains detached and aloof, and he is unflinchingly honest. These traits will ultimately prove to be his undoing, which pitches this work into the realm of noir.

 

Upon his return from the funeral, Mersault helps his neighbour Raymond take revenge on a girlfriend he suspects has been unfaithful and sets in motion a sequence of events that leads to him killing an Arab man on a beach. Mersault is arrested, incarcerated and tried for the crime. The prosecutor uses Mersault’s detachment to paint him as a soulless monster. It works, and Mersault is sentenced to death.  When a chaplain pesters him into accepting God Mersault flies into the one and only moment of rage in the entire book. He realises the pointlessness of his existence, of mankind’s existence, and tells the chaplain that nobody has the right to judge him. At the end, he accepts that the world ultimately won’t care about his death and finds a kind of peace.

 

The Outsider has a drive and momentum that few would normally ascribe to a piece of philosophical literature. Hell, there are plenty of pulp writers who probably wish they could tell a story as compelling and urgent as this. And, when push bumps chests with shove, Mersault’s story is pure noir. The novel’s conclusion isn’t one of triumph – after all, where’s the triumph in wanting a large crowd at your execution so you can feel less alone? No, you’ll find no triumph or happiness here, just truth, though you might be pleased to know that unlike many literary tales you won’t find many adverbs either!

 

The prose is as lean and hardboiled as they come. Camus openly acknowledged that The Outsider’s prose rhythms were influenced by James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice – and it shows. There are no bloated sentences or moments when the writer shows us his erudition (which in Camus’ case was considerable) – instead, he just gets on with telling a story and kicking the reader in the guts. And it’s all the better for it – you won’t forget this tale in a hurry.

 

If only all literature was this stripped back and powerful.

 

– Martin Stanley

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 


Criminal Classics – Damien Seaman

 

Damien Seaman’s debut novel The Killing of Emma Gross is out now with Blasted Heath and available on Amazon.  You can find Damien at his blog and on Twitter.

His pick is RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island…

 

 


Ah, Treasure Island. What a book.

Aptly enough, if called upon to name my desert island read, this would be it. This is a classic novel in the most rudimentary sense: written by a Victorian, never out of print and adapted for the screen umpteen times. Ergo it must be a classic, right?

It doesn’t read like a classic; it’s actually readable. This is because Robert Louis Stevenson knows the value of a good story. Pack it full of incident and suspense and bugger the flowery language and highfalutin themes. We’re here to be entertained and whisked out of our everyday cares, not lectured to about the horrors of poverty, the nihilism of bourgeois intellectuals or the moral superiority of the Russian peasant.

What’s that? You want characters you can get your teeth into? Good point, I almost forgot. There are three reasons Treasure Island is brilliant. You’ll know them already, but in case you forgot here they are:

  1. Long
  2. John
  3. Silver

Name me a better villain in all of English literature. Can’t do it, can you?

Stevenson sets Silver up with great skill, first presenting us with two ugly, monstrous versions of piratehood from our childish nightmares. There’s Billy Bones, the tattooed, facially scarred, violent drunkard who intimidates all and sundry. Then Blind Pew, a twisted scarecrow of a man so frightening that he reduces Billy to the status of the tooth fairy, tracks Billy down and puts the fear of God into him. Well, it’s fear of the black spot actually, but all the same Billy goes and carks it out of sheer terror.

Who are both of these men scared of? A certain one-legged man who turns out to be Long John Silver, tavern owner, erstwhile quartermaster to the infamous – and long since dead – Captain Flint, and soon charismatic ship’s cook on the voyage to treasure island.

As our narrator Jim Hawkins makes plain, Silver does not look like a pirate when compared with Billy Bones or Blind Pew. He’s a warm, ruddy-faced, friendly sort who couldn’t possibly be a criminal.

And then Jim overhears Silver’s plan to mutiny and, shortly after, watches in horror as Silver murders one of the crew by stabbing him in the back in a frenzy. This bit is scarier than anything that went before, because we’ve seen our good friend turn into a murderer before our eyes. A man we trusted, admired even. Him, a pirate?

Stevenson understands how to make his reader shiver and he pours all of that keen insight into Long John Silver. Even at the end of the book, when Silver tells Jim that he would never have betrayed him, we still want to believe. We still like him, despite – or because of – his crimes.

It’s hard for us not to understand his motives either. When faced with such a huge treasure, one that we’d toiled hard to collect through a life of danger and death, what would we do in Silver’s place?

We think of Treasure Island as a kids’ book. That’s no bad thing. What we probably mean is that it’s accessible, exciting and reasonably short. But it’s also full of greed, murder and attempted murder, with a body count of well over a dozen by story’s end.

On top of all that, it’s a great advert for the many virtues of cheese. And really, what higher recommendation can there be for a novel than that?

 

– Damien Seaman

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 


Criminal Classics – Jacques Filippi

 

Jacques Filippi is the co-founder of QuebeCrime Fest and reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover.  He blogs at The House of Crime and Mystery.

Here’s Jacques on The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan…

 

 

 

For many readers, Ian McEwan is “Amsterdam”, “Atonement”, “Saturday”, and more recently “On Chesil Beach” and “Solar”. But for others, like myself, it is “In Between the Sheets”, “The Child in Time”, “First Rites, Last Rites”. But mostly, it is “The Comfort Strangers” and “The Cement Garden”. The latter, published in 1978, is a classic of the gothic genre, an exploration into the darkness of a family’s gloomy life after both parents die, months apart.

 

The four siblings, two boys aged 15 (Jack) and 6 (Tom), and two girls aged 17 (Julie) and 13 (Sue) are suddenly orphans. Fearing they’d end up in different homes, and to prevent Tom from being placed for adoption, the children decide to hide the death of their mother from the authorities, thus keeping the family together. They place her in an old trunk in the cellar, pouring cement into it to bury her in.

 

The family has always lived in a remote and depressing area where houses have recently been demolished, theirs being one of the few left standing. They have no visitors, no relatives either. After a period of time where none of them seems to know how to grieve, the four children go on almost as usual, carrying in themselves the weight of their tragedy.

 

Jack, the narrator of the story, just wanted to be like everyone else but the loss of his father cracks something in him; he goes through a rebellious phase during which he neither cleans himself nor even changes his clothes. He spends the days masturbating, being mean to everyone, and daydreaming. His mind is a tormented and dark place where he loses himself; even his dreams are made of twisted Freudian scenes and filled with desperation.

 

Being the oldest, Julie soon becomes the surrogate mother, especially for young Tom who is the most traumatized from the loss of his mother. After getting beat up at school, he starts dressing up as a girl “because you don’t get hit when you’re a girl”; after his mother’s death his behaviour regresses into that of a baby.

 

As the family nucleus starts showing signs of weakness, so does the mother’s cement coffin, which is slowly splitting open; a foul odour from within spreads out and fills the house; like Poe’s tell-tale heart beating deafeningly, the overwhelming stench reminds the children of what they’ve done and of “what” is down there.

 

Ian McEwan brilliantly shows us the sad fate of four children that society has not only abandoned, but also forgotten. Telling their story from the perspective of the teenage boy, whose mind is as much troubled by his need of a fatherly presence as it is by his family’s isolation, is a brilliant, effective idea. The writing is voluntarily detached, almost emotionless, more observing than involved. It works so deeply on the reader that I read the whole story without feeling much of anything, numbed by the shocking events taking place in that house. As soon as I closed the book though, I felt something: it was a void. I was emotionally drained, emptied out.

 

A book like that stays with you a long time. I’ve recently read it again, and it was as if I had only left these kids a few minutes ago. The book had the same effect it had brought upon me fifteen years before when I first read it.

 

– Jacques Filippi

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 


Criminal Classics – Heath Lowrance

Heath Lowrance is the author of the cult novel The Bastard Hand and a prolific producer of dark and twisted short stories which you can find at Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and Pulp Metal, or in his collection Dig Ten Graves.  He blogs at PsychoNoir.

 

 

“There are all kinds of truth … but behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.”

 
There’s a preoccupation with religion in the American South. It’s in the marrow of the land somehow, this blood and thunder, fire and brimstone notion of salvation. But it’s generally a pretty Protestant faith that dominates the southern states, so Flannery O’Connor was a bit of an anomaly.  A Roman Catholic, her notions of faith were a bit more restrained and philosophically inclined.  Also, a bit more resigned to the darkness inherent in the very concept of faith.

 
Her particular vision of salvation was laid out very nicely in her first novel, Wise Blood. In its way, it’s a defense of faith in a world where faith doesn’t seem to make any sense.  It’s a deeply serious book, yeah.  But it’s also a low comedy, Wise Blood is, with the blackest of humor seeping out of its pages like tar.

 
The story, in a nutshell: Hazel Motes is back home in Tennessee from WWII, a different man. His experiences have destroyed his faith in God and he’s now a confirmed and bitter atheist. So consumed is he by his hatred of God that he makes it his mission to spread a sort of anti-gospel, preaching on street corners and ranting at every opportunity.  And yet he can’t shake his bitterness. He feels haunted by his former faith, and a Jesus that moved “… from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

 
When Hazel hooks up with Enoch Emery, that’s when Wise Blood starts to become an exercise in the bizarre and grotesque. Enoch is a weird young man, working as a zoo keeper, who has this idea that he is a “wise blood”—that is, someone with an innate sense of the spiritual world and requires no spiritual guidance. Enoch falls in love with Hazel’s anti-gospel.  The two of them cross paths with a preacher named Asa Hawks (who blinds himself with lye to avoid worldly temptations– supposedly), and his daughter Sabbath Lily (who ruins Hazel’s attempts to seduce her by proving to be a raging nymphomaniac). As the lives of these four characters become hopelessly entwined, setting off one bleakly comedic event after another, Wise Blood veers toward the surreal.  You have a mummified dwarf. You have a creepy cop with weird blue eyes pushing Hazel’s car off a cliff for no reason. You have Enoch deciding that the key to salvation is dressing up like a gorilla. You have barbed wire and shards of glass in the shoes.  And you have one of the most astonishingly funny and dark and emotional American novels ever written.

 
So most folks who know me know that I’m an atheist. I don’t push my non-belief on anyone, but by the same token I don’t hide it either. Why, then, is a novel that exists in defense of religious faith one of my top five novels of all time?  Well, for one thing, I don’t require that a book adhere to my own personal philosophy for me to enjoy it. But more importantly, I love Wise Blood because, in its way, it’s a deeply existential story, with some of the most finely-drawn and weirdly relatable characters I’ve ever come across. O’Connor really makes us feel Hazel Motes spiritual pain.  And it’s so darkly funny, illustrating the fine, fine line between tragedy and comedy better than just about any book I can think of.

 
“He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him.”

 

– Heath Lowrance

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Richard Godwin

Richard Godwin is a crime/horror author and interviewer of rare technique over at Chin Wags at the Slaughterhouse.  His second novel Mr Glamour is out next month from Black Jackal Books.

Here’s Richard on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment…

 

 

 

 

“If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.”

In many ways that is the leitmotif of one of the most brilliant, disturbing novels ever to have been written. While occupying a strong position in literary fiction, Dostoyevsky’s seminal Crime And Punishment is also a crime novel. It is a dark, unflinching look at the human psyche and the irrational mechanisms at work within it. It is a dig by an expert archaeologist into the mind of Raskolnikov, who, influenced by the theory of the superman, kills his grasping landlady only to fall prey to his guilt.

In some ways the novel is about why he is unable to turn himself into a psychopath. And that is why I have given nothing away in telling you who he murders, because it is not a whodunit, it is a whydunit.

Dostoyevsky takes a scalpel and peels back the layers of his characters’ motivations. He exposes the need for the irrational in human beings, the fact that despite our illusion that we are governed by reason, we fall prey to impulses that get the better of us.

There is an interesting historical footnote to Crime and Punishment.  Nietzsche read Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and wrote of the author, “At last a psychologist I can learn from”. While there is no written evidence Dostoyevsky read Nietzsche, there seems to be some cross-fertilisation at work in Raskolnikov’s use of the theory of the superman, and it is likely Dostoyevsky did read the theory and use it in the novel.

He shows the connection between crime and irrational drives in a St Petersburg filled with paranoia. In terms of its depth of characterisation and exploration of the nature of guilt it is a great novel.

 

– Richard Goodwin

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 


Criminal Classics – Andrez Bergen

 

Andrez Bergen is a Tokyo-based musician and journalist.  His debut novel Tobacco-Stained  Mountain Goat, a dystopian love-letter to film noir, is out now with Another Sky Press, as a paperback or on kindle.

Andrez’s Criminal Classic is The Third Man by Graham Greene…

 

The Third Man wasn’t meant to be a book – Graham Greene tells us in his preface, “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen.”  In the late 1940s Greene, already responsible for the thriller Brighton Rock, received a commission from British studio titan Alexander Korda to write a film for director Carol Reed.  Greene and Reed had just polished off a critically lauded adaptation of The Fallen Idol, and for their next effort Greene composed a novella before embarking on the screenplay, in order to set “a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere.”

Greene claims that The Third Man was born out of a short note written on the back of an envelope and it’s definitely a novella rather than a novel – my Penguin edition clocks in at 112 pages, including the brief preface by Greene, and is paired with The Fallen Idol. The book is significantly different from the eventual movie, yet principle elements remain, poking out of the woodwork, either in undeveloped form or as the polished gems Reed and Greene preserved in the screenplay.  There’s a mysterious, gorgeous girl, a world-weary hero and a ruthless villain, but undercutting these standard riffs are the twists – a murder where the victim wasn’t really a victim per se, and then it emerges the murder itself was a ruse – before comeuppance at the end.  But there is one thing that stands the book and the film apart – in Greene’s early written version there’s an implied happy ending. The movie defies that and is, ironically, more of a literary exercise for the change.

In ‘The Third Man’ Greene deftly mixed the procedural (military police tracking a killing) with a mystery (man’s friend is murdered; man tries to find out whodunnit) and helped to pioneer much of what we take for granted now in a crime thriller.

 

– Andrez Bergen

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 

 


Criminal Classics – Stav Sherez

Stav Sherez is a journalist and author, his new novel A Dark Redemption is out now with Faber and Faber and you can follow him at his blog.

Stav’s pick is No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy…

In the realm of ‘serious’ literature there is one name that towers above all others and that is Cormac McCarthy’s. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award, McCarthy is widely regarded as the apotheosis of high-minded literary fiction. Yet surprisingly few people have commented on the fact that several of McCarthy’s works are also exquisite crime novels. His first two books, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, were rural revenge noirs in the mould later adopted by Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin. His third novel, Child of God, is about a cannibalistic serial killer. His masterpiece, Blood Meridian, has more crimes committed in it than perhaps any other book in the history of literature. But it’s No Country For Old Men that I want to talk about.

NCFOM is set in 1980, at the start of the 30-year drug war which has since torn northern Mexico to shreds. Moss is an ordinary working man who stumbles on the aftermath of a drug-buy shoot-out in the Texas desert. He takes a suitcase of money from a dead dealer’s hands. That night he suffers a pang of conscience and goes back to the scene to give water to a dying man. It is a measure of McCarthy’s sensibility and, indeed, of all noir fiction that this one moment of kindness sets off an inexorable chain of events, placing Moss squarely in the bad guy’s sights. And what a bad guy it is! Anton Chigurh is one of the most terrifying, appalling, and unstoppable forces in all literature. Like previous McCarthy antagonists he seems more a personification of evil, a howling wraith spewed up from the pit of hell to punish the living.

The set-up is both simple and crime-classic. From here on the novel becomes a white-knuckle chase through the scorched American borderlands. But it’s what McCarthy does with this narrative that makes NCFOM both an exemplary crime novel and, simultaneously, a trenchant and profound work of literature.

Bell, the sheriff and WWII veteran who tries to help Moss, spends large portions of the book meditating on the way life and society have changed since the days of his youth. He and his wife read atrocity stories from the newspaper to each other. These sections are aflame with a palpable sense of loss and anguished rage at the moral degradation of society. At how a human life means very little these days. (“They tortured ’em first, I don’t know why. Maybe their television was broken.”) Bell’s WWII experience is mirrored by Moss’ time in Vietnam as a sniper. McCarthy uses the two wars to highlight the chasm in morality and belief that cracked open between 1950 and 1980 and how the type of war waged by a country dictates its soul.

A major part of the reason this novel transferred so well to the screen is the dialogue. Some of the best dialogue in fiction, razor-sharp and cynical and funny all at once. Like when Bell and another lawman are discussing the coming future:

“Dope”

“They sell that shit to schoolkids”

“It’s worse than that”

“How’s that?”

“Schoolkids buy it”

With NCFOM, Cormac McCarthy explodes the literary / genre debate and proves conclusively that you can write a crime novel which follows all the rules and, at the same time, create a piece of fiction resonant with deep ideas, dire warnings, and cautious grace.

– Stav Sherez

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.