Tag Archives: crime novels

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.

 

 

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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.


Criminal Classics – JH Everington

James Everington is a writer of subtle and disturbing short stories – his collection The Other Room is available for kindle and more of his work can be found at Scattershot Writing and Penny Dreadnought.

Here’s James on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle…

 

 

 

We Have Always Lived In The Castle is not as well known as some of Shirley Jackson’s other books and stories, but it has at least a strong a claim as The Lottery and The Haunting Of Hill House to being her masterpiece. Told in poised, controlled prose, it is the story of two sisters and their uncle living alone in their ‘castle’, isolated from and contemptuous towards the people of the village. As we learn in the first paragraph, everyone else in the family is dead. We are told this by the narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as ‘Merricat’ – childish, narcissistic, given to daydreams of strange charm or savagery.

It is not a crime novel, and yet the list of wrong-doings contained in it is long: patricide; matricide; poisoning, looting; naked attempts at gold-digging; manslaughter; and involuntary (?) arson. All this takes place against a supposedly realistic backdrop of mid-century, small town America. Yet no justice seems to be done: the characters suffer neither manmade punishment nor apparently any feelings of guilt or sin. Before the novel begins Constance, Merricat’s sister, was acquitted of the murders she’s apparently guilty of…

Wrongdoing implies rules have been broken, but in Merricat’s view of the world these aren’t the rules of law or even God – it is telling that the person from the village who seems to represent officialdom and authority is the fire-chief, not a policeman or priest.

For the truth is, running underneath and contrary to the realistic trappings of the book, We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a surreal, twisted fable – a modern day Grimm’s fairy tale with a grimly ironic ‘happy’ ending. The tension between this, and the more realistic aspects of the novel, are what gives it its edge. Ambiguity often implies a soft blurring of meaning, but here ambiguity is razor-sharp and dangerous.

 

– James Everington

 

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