The Highsmith Blather by Chris Rhatigan and Pablo D’Stair

All Due Respect, Chris Rhatigan, International Noir, K A Laity, Pablo D’Stair, Patricia Highsmith, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

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Chris Rhatigan: I’ve been trying to pinpoint why Highsmith’s work is so compelling and timeless. And I have not succeeded.

 

But one element I appreciate is the sense of dread that’s the heartbeat of each novel. The main character is doomed from the beginning, either due to their own poor choices or fate or some combination of the two. This, in my estimation, is noir in its purest form.

 

Take Walter Stackhouse in The Blunderer. He only thinks about killing his wife after she tortures him psychologically. She then commits suicide, but one cop believes that Walter killed her. Walter hasn’t committed a crime and yet he becomes ensnared in the possibility of being a murderer, gradually morphing into the criminal he was desperate to prove that he wasn’t. 

 

The reader knows almost all of this from the beginning. There are no twists, no surprises, only the steady march toward the inevitable. 

 

Pablo D’Stair: And you’ve hit exactly what I feel is the majesty of Highsmith – she’s not there to tell us a story, she is there to curate an examination, her talents a kind of Virgil shepherding us through the, well, more the Purgatorio of the human psyche than even the Inferno.

 

I often joke how it’s so frustrating that she thinks up the best stories, the most finely wrought plotlines, the sort of “elevator pitches” one would murder for (which might as well be the opening of a Highsmith! haha) but only to use as a tease, a jumping off point for existential, nuanced excavation of the nightmare which is human perception. ‘Perception’ being the bogey, the plump little worm in all of our fore-brains (“conscience does make cowards of us all” taken to a giddily perverse extreme, perhaps.)

 

In the simplest way, just taking from your observation, yes: Highsmith perfects the philosophy that when we enter her noir world, we are not there to “see if this person gets out of this mess” but to “watch exactly how they don’t” and, most important, to experience the irrevocable for ourselves – to pull on the skin of someone doomed and walk the plank with them.

 

And what planks!

 

She is the most courageous and uncanny writer precisely because she has the gall to almost be … boring! While most authors are looking to provide a thrill, she is so sinister she teases the thrill to perfection in whichever novels premise and then refuses readers even the catharsis of breakneck pacing or “there it is!” twists and turns. She makes us dwell, know (as we would in life) the absurd moments between the moments of an endlessly forking disaster of a situation.

 

In Found In The Street (perhaps my personal favorite of her work) the gloom, the ingress toward such an absolute yet somehow unexpected undoing of everyone is so much an undercurrent, so coded in banality and the glacial loneliness of life and self-obsession that when a reader, upon finishing, tries to re-read in order to spot any MOMENT any SCENE wherein “oh, there’s that bit where it all went to Hell” … THEY CAN’T FIND IT! It almost feels like “Wait … did any of what I felt actually …happen?”

 

Another joke of mine is how it’s always a risk to recommend a Highsmith (especially some of her more perfect works like Found or The Blunderer, A Dog’s Ransom or – another fave – The Cry of the Owl. Why a risk? Because the lurking suspicion in you that the experience of the book was so personal, so absolute that it won’t exist for another reader – instead, it will reveal one of your own secrets, show you for what no one ever thought you were, the person you recommended it to will look at you like you’re a madman once they close the cover!

 

See, I always found it funny how Highsmith’s notions, her “plots” were so mesmeric that OF COURSE they are widely adapted into film … but film never, ever gets it right. All movies (with few exceptions) built from her work make some version of “the Hitchcock mistake”, as I call it, of taking something like Strangers On A Train and making it about “a bad man proposing something to a good/ordinary man who makes a mistake and gets embroiled in something he didn’t bargain for” – turns it into a White Hat v Black Hat situation, an adventure, a “story” wherein we need to witness “a regular decent chap get in over his head and find his way out.” Turns one of the most inimitable, piercing, and pure noir novels ever written, one wherein there is not a semblance, even, of good versus bad or right versus wrong and morphs it into something sadly ordinary – a thrill ride, a potboiler, a vehicle for popcorn delight. (because it’s a very FUN film, don’t get me wrong)

 

But: Hitchcock, in his version, takes US out of it – allows US a kind of removed, moral high ground, as though “well, we’re not like at least one of these people” – lets us choose a side (and makes perfectly clear while one side may be “flawed” the other side is “batshit awful” – and this is no kind of truly noirish soil to till) whereas Highsmith’s whole modus operandi is to show us how exactly “we are like them all” and to dispense with the semantics and the sophistries we use as “moral compasses” so-called.

 

That is: while we read Highsmith, the sinking feeling that everyone gets what they deserve and, well, we deserve exactly what they deserve, too – thus curiously feel guilty how our uppance has not yet come, but may be waiting in the post in forms we cannot even begin to plan to protect against.

Highsmith documents the ways in which her protagonists fall short of their expectations, how they will continue to make immoral decisions, or decisions that appear to be moral but originate from immoral intents, leading to their demise. 

 

I always found my draw to Highsmith was in her inimitable ability to dispense with “outward morality” (that there is Concrete Morality from a third party source or even a common understanding in people acknowledging a like-concept amongst us) – not even to comment on the notion of Morality to dismiss it in some way, but to deftly ignore it – or moreso, to unacknowledged it, as though such a consideration is dreamland fancy, akin to how a piece of literature written by someone who neither believes in God or who has never, in fact, considered a god one way or the other would not address the discussion of a “possible God” but simply write from a place removed of the question, versus someone who even peripherally entertains the question as relevant, wonders “do I believe that?” and so, in their piece of writing, would give credence to the “possible existence of God.”

 

Highsmith does not acknowledge, even, the “possible existence” of Morality (a reader might bring their feelings to her work, but they will be inducing the ideas, not finding them there) and this gives an incredible insight and imperativeness to situations in her novels wherein characters might even address their lives/actions in such words – we feel, or at least I do (and I might be inducing my worldview as much as anyone else, I acknowledge this) the wholly personal, invented identity of each individual grinding against things which to them are imaginary. Just like, to a criminal, consequences are imaginary. Until they aren’t. And even then, they somehow become so doubly. Which you touch on in how you say their intent does not match to their fate – to a Highsmith character, even their worst fear realized immediately feels prologue, levels out to the status quo, to the inevitable, the blasé blasé.

 

I’m repeatedly drawn to what I consider the best scene in fiction from Strangers on a Train. Guy goes to kill Bruno’s father, and as he sneaks into the house and ascends the stairs, he feels he’s already done this a hundred times before. It both works as a classic scene of suspense–with the patient build toward irrevocable action–and as the final revelation to show Guy as the equal of his tormentor. 

 

This scene, I realized over the years, had a profound influence on me. Now: I hasten to say it was not because it was the first time I’d encountered such a moment, nor was it what introduced a new idea for where a story could go. See: I’d watched the Hitchcock film before reading the novel so I think when Guy kills the father in the book (as I’d always said should have happened in the goddamned film!) I literally whooped for joy, clapped my hands, felt in the presence of the ACTUAL way the story was always SUPPOSED to be (which … well … obviously, hahaha, but I felt really smart and in the presence of a comrade). In the novel, in that scene, I discovered something from my aesthetic so perfectly rendered by another author it stunned and halted me – especially because it was handled more innocuously and with such a deft hand than I could conceive of!

 

While it was The Point of everything (Guy not only going through with it but it being the moment in which all his protestations and inner quaking fall away to such pretense) it also just … well … happened. The same as anything. The same as any other moment. As it would in life. The book didn’t slow down or speed up. No sudden, world altering commentary was given … because the world was not altered.

 

The smallest sequence of a Highsmith book, the “moments where nothing is happening” matched this moment tick-for-tock. Guy did that. And in that moment (and to this day re-reading) the feeling in me is: of course he did, because he was always going to, he always had … and he did, always would, always will … because I wanted him to. I KNEW he would.

 

The utter lack of surprise in the exquisitely rendered moment of the axe falling is a trick Highsmith pulls like no other.

 

 

It’s interesting that you bring up that she’s not telling a story, which is an odd thing to say about a crime writer. But it’s nevertheless accurate; Highsmith is more concerned with psychological examination via the guise of a story. And this may be why her work feels fresh and modern forty, fifty years on: it’s never about the particular situation a character faces but their weakness, their inability to alter fate, their certainty that they’ll become all things they despise. 

 

 

Yep – and to piggyback of what I was driving at about Strangers and Guy’s killing – she doesn’t have to tell a story, because it’s a story everybody knows. There isn’t so much a reveal of a character’s character, so to speak, but an acknowledgment.

 

I say it’s funny about Highsmith that “the moments we never see coming are the moments we see coming a mile away” – that she can craft suspense out of not only the mundane and the minute, but almost out of a spoiler! “She’s going to kill him and get away with it” or whatever. And then she writes about her killing him and getting away with it and right up to her getting away with it (knowing she was going to, knowing she will) one is viced in a rattling sense of noia and disquiet.

 

That Highsmith teases us with the conventions of storytelling but then refuses to truly utilize them, that she takes away the imaginary in her fiction is a dastardly masterstroke, in my opinion. Part of our brain wants the artificial rules and agreements of genre or storytelling, we want “what would happen in the movie,” so to speak, to happen in the novel, in life, in us … but we know it doesn’t, it won’t ever, and so are simultaneously bored with our inscrutable flaws and titillated by being recognized.

 

A Highsmith novel makes me feel caught. It makes me feel Other. It makes me feel suspicious to those I love.

 

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Then she takes those elements in plays with them. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray Garrett experiences crushing guilt about his wife’s suicide, despite seeming to play no role in her death. His guilt is so consuming that he resigns himself to allowing her father–who blames him for her death–to kill him, and yet he fails at this, escaping attack after attack in increasingly absurd ways. Here she rotates the formula a bit–the character wants punishment that may not even be deserved, yet can’t endure it.

 

Oh – Those Who Walk Away! Is there another novel like it? The prototype of the anti-thriller, in many ways, but so much more. I could sit around and unpack the ten thousand ways I think every turn and notion of this novel is genius, but will settle for an exploration of its pure, daredevil simplicity.

 

The book feels like the headspace of crime and guilt – the exact way it feels to get away with stealing oatmeal cookies from the drugstore and getting nabbed for stealing cigarillos from the same place, years later. All at once. Oh, the novel just teeters on the sensation of “something irreversible is about to happen” and teases, teases, teases the psychology in us all that insists “things can go back to being exactly the same as they were”. The sadness of the former, the horror of the latter; the horror of the former, the sadness of the latter. And it blunt-force-traumas the reality that: the same thing never happens. Even when it’s the same thing.

 

In a romance, this might be a nice sentiment: every “I love you” is unique, a set of words which repetition makes anew! But in the grip of Highsmith’s ink? Jesus … the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity, a day-to-day no different than anything else, no different than if Ray’s wife had never offed herself – that the novel “makes it point” but then “makes it point, again” but the “again” isn’t “again” it’s “another” even though the “another is the same” is intoxicating.

 

It lives in the exact moment of inertia before a climax begins to rise (or, though this would necessitate a whole other exploration of the novel and so a different answer: the entire novel is post-climax, the violence, the irreversible moment being the suicide, the husband and father the roiling victims of it regardless if they remain “in limbo” or not). Delicious!

 

And just the motherfucking title “Those Who Walk Away” depicting a world in which such a thing is proved obsolete, impossible – no one walks away, yet “those who walk away” is the most accurate thing to call us all!

 

“…the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity…” That is a brilliant trick. There’s often talk of “cycles of violence” in crime fiction—which does mirror the real world—but in this book it’s a cycle that has no beginning and extends infinitely because it keeps evolving in minute ways.

 

Beneath this is the creeping sense that not one iota of it matters. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray is quickly convinced that all his work to cover up the murder attempts was futile, because no one cares that Coleman is determined to kill him. While in another writer’s hands this would be melodramatic, with Highsmith it feels completely in line with the world she’s created, almost—to steal your word—blasé that someone would be accused of murder, a fact not worth interrupting anyone’s day about.

 

Higsmith has this underlying sense of noia as you described, with an intense, claustrophobic view entirely from the perspective of the main character. I’m curious as to how you see this operating in the Tom Ripley novels versus her other work. Ripley seems to stand alone, in my estimation, as someone who is comfortable being a criminal and very good at it. Yet the cracks in the façade are what make the character memorable.

 

Well, where even to begin with Ripley!?  Rr with the Ripley/English analogs, for that matter …

 

Just to have a jumping off point regarding the latter consideration, I can admit it was not until after I had penned the opening scene of the first Trevor novella that it occurred to me what an unconscious lift (or let’s say … homage? riff?) on the opening of the first Ripley offering it was. The classic “someone unknown walks up to the protagonist under a wrong impression of the protagonist’s character and makes a simple proposition” which then careens unpredictably in directions wholly unique – in Ripley it was Greenleaf Sr. offering to foot Ripley’s bill would he traipse to Italy and make attempt at convincing the wayward Greenleaf Jr. to return home (Greenleaf Sr. under the assumption Ripley and Greenleaf Jr. would have been acquainted at school) while in Trevor it is the unnamed fellow whose wallet English had lifted offering him cash money to hop cross country to deliver a letter.

 

As I’ve mentioned to you on another occasion (at least I think I did) the Trevor English sequence, while I was writing it, had (never something intended for the publication, just an inside-joke with myself) secondary title “The Talentless Mister English.” hahaha

 

But let me backtrack to Highsmith, because that is the meat of this …

 

And you are spot on that, while not exclusively, Ripley is Highsmith’s uniquely criminal criminal. Yes. But even in this, he is so much a criminal as to somehow come off as being altogether nothing of the sort.

 

I always (and it’s a trait I wrote Trevor with, though tilted in a different attitude) looked at Ripley as an artistic criminal – certainly I never viewed him as purely sociopathic, in the common sense, as so many do (and, well, as he indeed may be). Because in a certain sense, his criminality (from the start) is so nonchalant it is hard to call it that. He deceives. He takes advantage of situations as they present. He has ambitions (of a sort). Yes yes yes. But I always read him as one who (which is suggested he was at the start) is perfectly comfortable to skate along as some penny-ante nobody, not putting effort toward any great larceny one way or the other. A dilettante who could just as easily be perfectly legitimate if the breaks shook out a bit different. When a situation presents itself, he has an uncanny ability (in my eyes) not to so much bilk it for all its worth, but to understand the inherent nature of the world it presents and to take what, for all intents and purposes, is on offer. Things go sideways? He is a true tap-dancer and can roll with it.

 

But … there’s more than that. Ripley I read as an individual who sees himself as naturally outside of the world – is almost saddened by it. He is conscious of how he would be romanticized if not actual, but knows he is actual and therefore criminal, unable to move to the same music, to proceed as he naturally is in the world he must inhabit. He is conscious of being an Element with a Nature and a Function and he understands he is one who, if examined, will never be understood for precisely what Element he is, Nature he has, or Function he serves. No – motives, attitudes, ideas will be assigned to Ripley if caught and, if caught, he will lose his very identity, his very nature will be forfeit to the whim of whichever force nabbed him.

 

…If that makes sense …

 

No one will appreciate Ripely for what he is but for what they make him into – and, perversely, this allows him a kind of righteousness in making himself whatever and whoever he wants. He plays an almost childlike chop-logic with his amorality – it seems okay with everybody (at least everybody he acquaints himself with) that he is who he is and does what he does until something goes wrong – at which point other people suffer pangs of guilt or conscious or suddenly desire an outside, legitimized lawfulness to come in to referee – they break the game and want him to pay so they can overlook the very nature of their lives, the worlds they are fine with inhabiting – “Make Ripley the problem, the intruder!” even though Ripley is, for the most part, an interloper who was welcomed in if not outright solicited.

 

I feel for Ripley – he is constantly turned against when (it is perfectly clear, to me at least!) if left to his own devices he would live quite simply.

 

I mean, what is his big crime after the initial novel? Forgery. Dealings with forgers. It is an exquisitely harmless crime! It is Ripley down to the marrow. Who fucking cares? You can almost see him being baffled when things start going shifty in Ripley Under Ground – and it feels more like he is trying to right the world to order than he is trying to make off with the boodle!

 

I always picture Ripley just wanting to step back and go “Hey now, hey now – let’s everybody just calm down” and as though a kid playing Jacks think he can simply say “Nevermind” and give everybody back their wagers or toys or whatever and let the game end.

 

My favorite Ripley novel is the third (Ripley’s Game) and it is the novel which I think is most revelatory of Ripley as a character – indeed, another Trevor parallel is that it is in the center of a five-novella set (Helen Topaz, Henry Dollar) where I found Trevor most fully understood, most nakedly expressed.

 

See, in Ripley’s Game, the honest *envy* Ripley seems to have for Trevanny is one of the most beautiful and nuanced things the sequence of books has to offer. I step away from the standard of treating Ripley as a self-serving sociopath, as I said earlier, but rather as a person so outside the world he accepts that the nearest thing to an inroad to “society” he has is to play a part in the world of crime (as he likewise plays a role in the world of law-abiding).

 

But in the machinations leading up to allowing it possible (necessary in his view – even charitable!) to arrange for Trevanny to commit the murders which had been asked of Ripley and which he had refused – is the rarest, irresistible opportunity for him, nothing at all to do with profit, revenge, or crime at all. No -in all of the intricate reasons which would allow for such an opportunity to come about what he sees is that he has been granted the opportunity to watch himself in a way he has never been able to before. He (in my reading) *is* Trevanny – identifies, empathizes incredibly deeply, sees Trevanny caught up in a plot (albeit at Ripley’s own hand) observes him making considerations, choices, regards him as he goes through the unthinkable motions he does – but motions which Ripley all too well understands and finds natural. The relationship is almost erotic and the closest to intimacy Ripley has even approached.

 

The giddiness Ripley exhibits in the scene where he has to assist Trevanny in violently dispatching with some threats is one of the defining moments of the character (and of the novel sequence) to me. For in that moment we see a Ripley who has forgotten even his own hand in the mechanism of events, we see a protector of the one individual we, the readers, would be legitimately be rooting for (though we haven’t forgotten the reason we are rooting – we are rooting for him against what Ripley has done to him! – we see Ripley loving Trevanny and wanting him to come out unscathed – or as unscathed as possible. They meld into (in Ripley’s mind) a perfect, singular unit – he gets to live the fantasy of himself in the reality of someone else and the reality of someone else in the fantasy he has forced them into.

 

Anyway … I obviously could go on about Ripley at great length, yet! Hahaha.

 

To just explain the Trevor (book three) connecting: all that I have said above regarding Ripley’s Game is one of the many reasons why the scheme Trevor hatches is book three is so self-referenced – a pretend blackmail against himself which he enthusiastically proceeds with only to have it morph into a kind of perverse other-pretend-blackmail orchestrated by a party who doesn’t know his initial blackmail was fake – Trevor finding himself, in a perverse way, as “in the right” as he could ever imagine being when he decides to turn the tables to his advantage – and of course he is left, in the end, in the worst situation he could have ever envisioned … yet somehow, despite it being all his orchestration at the onset, he cannot be faulted for feeling he has been wrongfully accused and treated quite shabbily!

 

That is the primary Ripley/Trevor connection: they are perverse innocents, they are irrevocably not-what-can-be-in-the-world but not through maliciousness, not through anything normally associated with the criminal class – but through acceptance of nature and a curiosity toward its place in the world.

 

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In “The Roots of Ripley,” K.A. Laity explores the idea that Ripley is more comfortable with things than people: “the feeling that after all, it was safest to be on your own luxuriating in all your nice things.” As you noted, he has no propensity for violence and, in some respect, would be perfectly happy leaving everyone else alone, to have the pleasures of civilization without ever interacting with anyone.

 

It is in this way that he appears to be a sociopath. He can put on the guise of the way other people act, he’s finely attuned to everyone around him, and yet he has no interest in other people beyond a sort of benign inclination to push people away from those ugly, clashing emotions that will lead to disorder. Yet his addiction to the game of crime—he is, after all, a master strategist—keeps him coming back.

 

One of the things I find interesting about your series about blackmailer Trevor English is that it’s never clear what he would do if he got everything he wanted. While Ripley’s boredom and restlessness will always get the better of him, Trevor has far more mundane desires—he’s always pursuing cash to keep on living his drifter lifestyle and he never, ever gets a step ahead. So what would Trevor do if he actually landed the big score (something he, of course, never pursues)? In crime fiction the trope is that the criminal would retire to some Caribbean island and live off their earnings, but that’s certainly not the case with the Talentless Mr. English.

 

Now *that* is rather large and probing question – in a way it’s the self-same question I always had to ask when I approached writing Trevor …

 

… though not exactly, as I suppose I knew the ‘answer’. More true is to say: the trick was to navigate the vessel of this ‘answer’ (tease that I am, you see, I hold off articulating it even now – or try to even for a few parentheticals longer hahaha) through the vast seas of the raconteur element of noir, to wrangle the ‘plot part’ of a novella *around what Trevor is* – he, himself, is the pebble the puddle puts up with and closes over (no – I would never call his the boulder the stream must bend to, as everything about my Trevor must remain paradoxically effacing!).

 

Your (and Laity’s) remarks on Ripley are very apropos, here. Sociopath or not sociopath to one side (as it is, perhaps, irrelevant to a literary creation of the calibre of Ripely and to a set of volumes so rich and expansive in treasure) the idea of his wanting to be left to himself, surrounded by his worldly things (ill gotten? Who cares!) content with his own ideas and aesthetic – this is certainly true (and, to me, a beautifully melancholic thing in the character – though there is not *to* the character himself) and if coupled with his noiac (if self-induced) idea that this ‘peace and quiet’ could all be torn asunder if ever he is squinted at too long, that his ability to live as and with himself is always at risk from outside elements, we see how it oddly compels him (even more than an ever present itch toward the ‘game of crime’) to trespass back into interaction with others. A defense posture. Criminality allowed him what he has so therefore it follows that criminality must safeguard it. The notion of interaction with people, to Ripley, is fused irrevocably (an unconscious, a part of his lizard brain) with crime, with manipulation. That is: the only reason Ripley interacts with people is to actively use, and he sues them to keep them, in effect, away from him. If someone comes knocking? Then there is a kind of sigh in his soul – he knows they don’t know what they are asking for just the same as he knows he has nothing to offer but deceit (deceit which might incidentally – especially in Ripley’s Game or, for another example, in his feelings of remorse for the poor forger who entered his orbit in Ripley Under Ground – allow glimpses of unconscious intimacy and genuine emotional connection/regard).

 

Trevor is not dissimilar. The main difference in he and Trevor is down to how they want to be regarded.

 

Ripley: he wants no true self, but rather to be the surface people admire (if he has to consider people) and to keep to himself.

 

Trevor, though …

 

(well, let me digress and then I will return to that ellipsis.)

 

Trevor, in my mind when I wrote, is not a criminal. Not exactly. He is written as a Writer. And not as a writer with ambition for ‘the big leagues’ or ‘renown’ but rather as a writer who, like the unnamed narrator in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, is genuinely attracted to the purity of the Idea and its nuance in execution – the Art, to him, is the reward; and the Art, when shared, should elicit a deep appreciation, no matter the content (the crime) – especially as he is, so to speak, an undergrounder, just a blithe nobody hand stapling his zine! Hahaha

 

Trevor becomes overwhelmingly, almost erotically attached to the *notion* of a scenario his mind recognizes, and the inner drum of him compels his every breath to suck the marrow of every potential he recognizes out. To let an idea or an opportunity go slack, be left unplumbed or unexplored? This is something he is literally incapable of! And he pursues at his own expense, with a childlike innocence and glee, whichever track is the most genuine, the fullest, the purest.

 

From the beginning, when this offer from someone to deliver the letter cross country for cash is presented to him – let’s break it down as the story of the artist:

 

Trevor had picked someone’s pocket (the very fact he is tracked down shows the amateurish hand he has, despite the aptitude he must admittedly possess to pull such a trick). Translation: some scribbler just passing out broadsides of his work has been recognized and approached – his unique voice pleasing to someone who wants to see more!

 

The bag of money and the letter? Sure, the money is important, but let’s be real: throughout the entire Trevor series the poor guy never shows a lack of willingness to work, even the lowliest little crumb-bum job, it’s all the same to him! So, why does he fixate on trying to preserve the two thousand as long as possible? Because it affords him the ability to continue creating on his own terms, outside of the ‘mainstream flow’ – like holding onto a kind review or a generous remark from an audience – he cannot let it dwindle or become just a momentary flash in the pan – who knows when someone else might even read anything he writes, whatever little review must mean *the world*.

 

But he opens the letter (at first, if you recall, quite bored and not even with an angle in mind, doesn’t even get to the ‘juicy bit’ until his second or third attempt to get through the missive!) – and upon doing so gets the greatest gift a writer can stumble on: A New Idea. And this idea *must* be explored. And Trevor *must* be what Trevor needs to be to have it explored. And when he sees an undeniable, aesthetically pure and pleasing avenue the idea can fork – well, he *must* explore that idea too!

 

And again.

 

And again.

 

Sometimes Trevor has to act as the agent, the instigator which ‘causes something’ – but not out of avarice or monetary or even criminal desire, but rather because the *idea demands it*. He never quite knows what to do with himself. Getting money, losing money, it’s all the exact same driving wheel to him, the fuel to make the narrative go, the poetry flow, the idea keep birthing another.

 

His victims are his audience – oh my goodness, Trevor so wants them to be able to appreciate the interesting subtleties and nuances of his ideas, even if he has to expose himself more, risk himself more – he doesn’t need to come out on top, he just needs to know they *read the fucking book he wrote*, did not skim or overlook – Trevor cannot, in his soul, bear being misunderstood!

 

Now, I will not go through the entirety of the series right now, breaking down each mechanism of how it is constructed, sufficed to say each book starts with an idea (based on an observation of something which happens across his path and titillates the Author Soul in him) and intently examines the life of that idea (the writing of that work).

 

There’s a terrific line in David Mamet’s Heist where one character says to another ‘You should see this plan – it’s beautiful. If I were a publisher I’d publish it’ to which another replies ‘So why not publish it?’ to which the first guy remarks ‘I’m saying: that’s what I’d do if I were a publisher. But I’m a thief. So I’ve gotta do that thing.’ Trevor is like that.

 

cover-dstair-norman-court-300x480pxTo return to my earlier ellipsis:

 

Trevor though … wants to be *anything but the surface*. He wants his actual personhood not to matter. He wants to be the underneath, the idea, his own particular existence hardly worth mentioning – but the *ideas* he litters life with, the things he shares and reveals through his observations – he wants those known so very badly. And he wants them admired! He just wants everyone to be pleased with what he thought up and then to understand he’ll go away, leave everyone alone, get another idea and be too busy following it to bother with them again so it doesn’t matter anymore.

 

But, sadly, like Ripley … he’s borderline deranged (so far as the common man’s sensibility) and what he does with his ideas is not the sort of thing people admire and let just fade away. Trevor, like Ripley, certainly *knows* this. And in a subconscious way likely gets off on it (hence neither of them ever seem to ‘learn their lesson’ – or rather, they learn the lessons very well just don’t ever apply the lessons previous encounters have taught them in any way except to dig themselves in deeper next time!)

 

I feel I have rambled around, but that it was necessary – because to get to your big question: what would Trevor do with The Big Score?

 

Because you’re right – he would never go looking for it – he would not even *think* (as a writer) of ‘getting an agent and trying to be the next Steven King’ or what have you. No no – he’s the consummate underground artist and needs to prove it by never being anything else but it – continually, unthinkably, absurdly enlarging and aggrandizing what it means to be nobody. Until the non-entity he is is so unique a prize no one, no matter how well off or famous – can say they have the ability to do and to live how Trevor does. Everyone else’s success or ‘normalness’ in fact *proves* the uniqueness of Trevor. And there is an agitation in him at this not being recognized – the old ‘If you gave me a million dollars and said I could spend all day writing, sure, I could probably be as good as any of the big dogs – but could any of them produce work of their calibre for nothing for no one over and over and over without ever even reaching for more or taking a rest? I could do what they do, but could they do what I do? And so who should we be admiring here!?’ hahaha

 

The easiest way to answer the question is to say Trevor would not recognize The Big Score. The only prize he would see is what new idea it allowed.

 

Remember, I made him a blackmailer and all his acts are through the filter of blackmail – at least once he ‘discovers it’ while riding on the train, reading through the letter. That is the moment he moves from being a wannabe, ‘I’m a writer because I did some stories for class at school’ to – BANG! – ‘I’m motherfucking Dostoyevsky just because I goddamn say so!’ It’s Eureka. Inspiration. Birth. And we witness it and watch how it goes.

 

But see: to stick with my artist analogy: Trevor is a novelist – not a short story writer or a playwright or a filmmaker or a musician or a painter etc. And so if he’d been offered Twenty Thousand in the first book, that would have been all the same. The story of Trevor starts when he reads that letter and gets the idea (the idea that he could do something better than whatever the schemer having him deliver the letter had in mind). Two thousand, five hundred, ten thousand – it’d just have been the new hook, the new potential, the new atmosphere and he’d see what he could do.

 

Trevor gets continually fixated on the amount of ‘criminal money’ he has because ‘the artist is supposed to sustain himself with his art alone’. It is radically appealing and important that he scrimps and saves to keep this technically true of himself. When he hits bottom (which does happen somewhere in the series, not to spoil things too much) we see what happens: he goes on. Bottom feeder, works little jobs, or stays at a shelter – waiting, like any true artist, for another idea to come along.

 

But it needs to be a *new* idea, not a retread. It needs to further his themes, not restate them. Like any artist, he is perfectly satisfied to not exist, but would rather die than suffer the pangs of repeating himself.

Mask of the Nice Guy by K. A. Laity

International Noir, K A Laity, Patricia Highsmith, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

deep water

If you know much of anything about Patricia Highsmith, you probably know her love for snails. Okay, maybe it’s not the first thing you learn, but it should be. It tells you so much about her. Smuggling them through customs in her bra – the thought of it makes me want to boak even now. She has several stories that feature them, even one where they are giant-sized and man-eating. Sure, she liked cats, too, but she never had the same affection for them that she did with her snails.

In her novel Deep Water, they are the beloved pets/keenly-observed obsession of the main character, Victor Van Allen. Highsmith’s only tender love scene that I can think of in all her writing is about the snail coupling that takes place in this book between his two favourites. He gives them conventional male and female names, though one of the things that most intrigues Highsmith is the fact that snails can morph their sex almost at will.

Hortense and Edgar were making love, Edgar reaching down from a little rock to kiss Hortense on the mouth. Hortense was reared on the end of her foot, swaying a little under his caress like a slow dancer enchanted by music. Vic watched for perhaps five minutes, thinking of absolutely nothing, not even of the snails, until he saw the cup-shaped excrescences start to appear on the right side of both snails’ heads. How they did adore each other, and how perfect they were together! 

[Spoilers here on in]

Vic first poses as a murderer, then becomes one. He gets a thrill from starting a rumour that he had something to do with his wife’s (probable) lover who suddenly disappeared then is found brutally murdered. He tells her new fave, ‘I don’t waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him.’ Vic has been telling himself he handles everything fine. His wife can’t face his oddness directly so she takes up with new men, hoping they’ll sort things for her somehow.

But Vic finds power in pretending to be a murderer. He realises his calm has discomfited the new lover, and further that ‘Vic had frightened him’ and further understands how his own uncanny nature makes that work: ‘People who do not behave in an orthodox manner…are by definition frightening.’ But it’s only at this intimate level that Vic’s strangeness can be seen.

To his neighbours and colleagues, he does all the right things: runs a fine art small press, keeps a nice home (though most don’t know that he lives in the workshop in the garage and not the house itself), has patience in the face of his wife’s flirting, and is a kindly dad to his daughter. People like him and disapprove of Melinda, who’s seen as a bad wife.

When Vic does actually kill her latest lover on a whim, in a fairly obvious way, not one person suspects him (well, maybe his wife). The police who rightly think it’s a bit odd are quickly dissuaded by all the neighbours who vouch for the upstanding-quiet-keeps to himself Vic. They double down on their disapproval of Melinda, too. She brought trouble to their quiet town after all. For a time she is contrite.

But then a mystery novelist comes to town and makes friends with Melinda. ‘People in Little Wesley had not been particularly friendly to the Wilsons since their arrival, and Vic thought it was Don’s fault. He was humourless and standoffish at social gatherings, perhaps because he considered smile and conviviality unintelligent or unbecoming in a writer.’ Highsmith having some fun with her own image here, perhaps. Also Vic publishes poets and important things. ‘[Don Wilson] was such a hack – western stories, detective stories, love stories, some of which his wife collaborated on, though Vic had heard from somebody that her specialty was children’s books. The Wilsons had no children.’

Comic book writer Pat never much reconciled herself with that past. She was quite a snob about things and hated being seen as a niche genre writer. Some of that ambivalence comes through. Yet who unravels the next murder Vic commits? Part of it is simply his arrogance. It’s not enough to plan the murder; he needs to gloat over it with his wife nearby.

At one point as they argue and he baits her with a dare to kill him, she says, ‘You’re so – nuts! I don’t suppose you’d mind that very much. I’d like to smash your lousy ego.’  He explains to her with great patience, ‘”No, not ego. Just the pieces of myself that I can put together and hold together – by force of will. Will power, if you like, that’s what I live on, but not ego. How could I possibly have any?” he finished desperately, enjoying the discussion immensely and also enjoying the sound of his own voice, which seemed to be objective, like his own voice on a tape-recording machine being played back to him.’

So uncanny and he doesn’t even see it, but neither do his neighbours and friends. They all see the mask as real. Such a nice guy. Right down to the end, Vic retains a belief in his superiority, dismissing Wilson and all the rest as ‘ugly birds without wings’ and mediocrities

Talking to Strangers by K. A. Laity

Fiction, K A Laity, Music, Punk Noir Magazine

PhotoFunia-1593254997Talking to Strangers

K. A. Laity

 

I do talk to strangers. You don’t mind, do you? I know some people do. They move away from me on the bench, even if it’s raining and they get all wet. Sometimes I can understand. You want a bit of quiet, you want to think your thoughts. I feel that way sometimes, too. The thoughts they have a way of getting out or getting in, up in your brain like, I guess. They want to have a wander, they want to let you see the shape of them and hear their voices and sometimes that’s not bad at all.

Do you want a bite of my sandwich? It’s fresh. I just got it out back of the shop there. No one else but me has eaten it. No? Well, if you change your mind, don’t be shy.

Thoughts was it? I was thinking. We are all thinking. All the time. My husband used to say that’s why he drank. Joking like, you know, only joking—or was he? Sometimes I wasn’t sure. He had that deadpan wit, that quiet sort of way, only joking he would say and sometimes I figured, as you do, sometimes I figured he was only saying so, you know what I’m going to say, only saying so when he had been caught out and it wasn’t a joke at all just a thing he wanted to say and then walk back from as if he had never said it or meant it or not.

He was always like that. God rest his soul.

No, no: not dead. He’s alive last I knew. I think I saw him in town about a year ago, hurrying along to the betting shop. Getting his little flutter in. Like the drinking it was never so much, just a bit to distract him. Mostly from me. I think he regretted things, as you do, as we all do sometimes. The baby, I regretted the baby. We regretted the baby, I mean. A mistake, after all. A mistake when the house is not full of love. Babies need love. Babies need care. Constant care. You have to be there all the time. You have to be attentive. He wasn’t going to be the one. It had to be me.

I can share my chocolate bar. Shall I break off a piece? No? On a diet. Young thing like you shouldn’t worry about slimming. You never regret the chocolate. That’s one thing I can say for sure. Never regret the cakes or the biscuits. No. Children though, you regret them.

I haven’t thought of them in years. Children I mean. We can live our whole lives without them, you know. It’s not just modern women. In my time, too. Lots of women, lots, decided they could do without. That was the age of the pill. You take it for granted now. But in my day—

Oh listen to me! Talking like my gran, like I said I would never do. ‘In my day’ well, we all know things were different in the past though not always as much as we guess. Same as in my gran’s day because the priests you know, the priests said it was sinful so we had the babies we didn’t want and had to live with it make the best of it. That’s the way it was.

And it wasn’t what I meant to do, none of it. Didn’t really want a baby, not once I found out that I got tired of him. You can’t imagine how dull men are when they have you, when they don’t care to please you anymore. Just want a mum to clean up after them, feed them, bring them tea.

And all the time you have to be fussing with another baby, too, one that cries and screams and has the most foul smelling poo you ever could imagine in your life. No, wait until you find out for yourself. So foul.

And just a moment’s distraction. Well, a few minutes. I was only away a moment. The bath is—well, we should have had little baby one but himself didn’t want to buy it. Only a minute or so. The water was cold, I told them, because I was always afraid of scalding that tender skin. Really. Sad, it was, but he looked pretty as a doll once he was quiet.

Don’t you want a bite?

Playing Ripley by K. A. Laity

K A Laity, Patricia Highsmith, Punk Noir Magazine

ripley

I was watching a TIFF interview with Phyllis Nagy who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt as the 2015 movie Carol directed by Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and Sarah Paulson. Among the bon mots – along with her story of her first fascinating meeting with the author herself – was the fact that she had adapted The Talented Mr Ripley as a play right around the time Anthony Minghella’s movie came out. I vaguely recalled a production of the play some years back, but didn’t realise who had written it. 

Fortunately the play is easy to get hold of especially in comparison to the more recent Ripley and Highsmith play Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith, which I also missed seeing. That one is much more meta, but Nagy’s adaptation is full of surreal touches that call it and Highsmith’s obsession with the character to mind. Some first thoughts:

I enjoyed it. Like most play scripts, it’s a quick read, though this is a really fascinatingly complex narrative. The play boils down the events of the novel into signal moments, often overlapping. Nagy’s imaginative positioning of the characters and their interactions make the most of the space of theatre and the flexibility it has to allow simultaneous things to be happening and affecting the audience’s interpretation of that overlap.

It has a lot of mirroring, sometimes literally, as [SPOILERS, SWEETIE] Tom kills and absorbs ‘Rickie’ (not Dickie here, though his character name is always Richard), rather than simply eliminating him. Even after he kills Rickie at the end of the first act, the victim hangs around to encourage, argue and sometimes taunt his killer. There’s a lot more of the influence of the past, both Greenleaf parents, and Tom’s Aunt Dottie, but also Tom’s friend from NY – not the artist he hangs out with in the novel, but an adaptation of the housemate who is much more deliberately coded gay. Tom’s sexuality, or at least some version of it, in tune with Minghella’s film version much clearly positions him as gay rather than Highsmith’s own odder, more fetishistic Ripley, whose only real ecstasy comes when he contemplates all the things that once belonged to Dickie now belong to him.

Like the modern description of Ripley as ‘charming’ which is completely wrong; contemporary reviews were much more aware of his abjectness. Nagy repeats that misapprehension in her character description of Riply: ‘an utterly compelling, fastidious, charming and measured psychopath’. He becomes that psychopath, but there is little charming about him. In the original novel that couldn’t be clearer. Highsmith humiliates him upon arrival in Mongibello with a terrible bout of diarrhea. Nagy calls him ‘charming’ but doesn’t really present him that way. Ripley finds a way to be who he wants to be when he meets Rickie/Dickie. For a time he wants to be that spoiled, untalented but oh so self-assured rich kid. Circumstances only allow that for a short while before he has to once more become Ripley, but the value of the experience remains and gives him the power not only to survive murder whenever necessary, but to make Tom Ripley into the psychopath he never knew he could be.

‘It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else.’

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley

Film Noir: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry by K. A. Laity

Films, George Sanders, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine

220px-The_Strange_Affair_of_Uncle_Harry_FilmPoster

From the play that shocked Broadway!

Led down a little George Sanders rabbit hole the other day I finally got around to watching this film which was mentioned in some of the film noir books I have read, probably Brookes’ Film Noir. Partly I suspect that because he’s very interested in the overlap between noir and Gothic. This film is a great embodiment of that. 

Robert Siodmak directs, Joan Harrison produces; script by Stephen Longstreet based on the play by Thomas Job. George Sanders stars as Harry Quincy of the Corinth Quincys, who used to the tony family of the tiny town, though they lost their money in the Great Depression. His sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester (Moyna Macgill) keep the ancestral mansion with the help of Nona (Sarah Allgood). The house is all they have left of the glory days. Everything seems cosy until New Yawk City slicker Deborah Brown (Ella Raines) comes to the quiet mill and shakes up Harry’s life.

Mostly because his hypochondriac sister Lettie doesn’t want anything to change and relies on Harry bending to her every whim. Very gothic: borderline incestuous – I wonder if the ‘shocking’ play made more of that. But Lettie pretends to welcome the interloper, but just can’t seem to find a place suitable for her and Hester so the two can get married. Six months pass. Deborah manages to convince Harry they should just run off to the wilds of Boston and get married, then honeymoon in big bad NYC.

Lettie collapses. Or appears to do so. Harry starts glaring at the poison bottle Lettie bought to put down their old dog Weary. 

There’s some great small town shenanigans: the trial of public opinion, gossip, fence peeping, taking sides, soda counters, men singing at the club (a far cry from the Drones) ‘Pickle My Bones in Alcohol’ and then a twist that comes out of nowhere – well, literally it came out the Motion Pictures Production Code. I could imagine this being remade either without the twist or with one more cynical twist.

George Sanders is always watchable; Geraldine Fitzgerald clearly has a great time with the theatrical Lettie. Fun stuff!

Summer Wine by K. A. Laity

Flash Fiction, K A Laity, Music, Nancy Sinatra, Punk Noir Magazine

nancyHow does that grab you, darlin’? I told you it was good, didn’t I? You can taste it all in there. Strawberries, cherries, and some special herbs. I make it myself. From my mama’s recipe. Kiss of an angel, she’d say as she handed it to my poppa. Kiss of an angel in the first blush of spring. 

See, that’s the colour. Blush. I know, most men are afraid to drink something pink. Don’t think of it as pink. It’s a blush. Like that first glow when you see a man is looking at you in that way. You know what I mean, I see you do. 

Go on, get comfortable. Take off those heavy boots. Have another glass. Sure is hot out! That’s why I always keep the wine nice and cool. It’s sweet, but when it’s kept cold that sweetness doesn’t overwhelm you. With a little cheese it’s just a perfect match. Maybe I’ll get some cheese out in a little while. Here, let me pour you some more. 

This is last year’s wine. It has to sit over the winter to really bloom. I know it’s called aging. When it’s in a cask that seems right, but I let this sit in a big glass bottle. They call it a demijohn. I think that’s kind of cute. There’s a few more steps to it but that’s not very interesting.

The fruit comes from the trees out there and the berry garden. When I was a girl we had a neat orchard and the brambles were well maintained, but it was more difficult to keep up with it all once poppa died. Would you believe there are black currants in there? Too many and it gets a little too red, gaudy really. But I like the flavour they give.

With all the rain see how lush everything has got? Last year’s pickings were a little slimmer. My late husband said we needed better fertilizing but he couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it, alas. Everything’s much better this year. The right fertilizer definitely helps.

No, don’t get up. What do you need? Oh. How about some more wine? No? Just a little? Funny how sleepy it can make you, right? More than regular wine. People say homemade wine gives you a bad head in the morning, but that’s down to a sloppy process. My process is very precise. My herbal flourish is a part of that. That’s what makes my wine different.

See—no, don’t nod off just yet!—see, I need to tell you about my herbs. You have to know the right amounts of course, but you also have to worry about the taste. You can’t have something so bitter a man won’t take more than one swig without complaining. It took me a few years to perfect it. My late husband was a tough customer. He’d just spit it right out if he didn’t like it. No manners. No consideration for my hard work. Not much to recommend him at all.

Anyway, I perfected the taste. He never even guessed how fast it could work. All I had to do was get him to take a second glass. I knew it had enough it to do him in. He loved it! Even drank a third glass. I won’t say he was easy to kill. It took years to get to that recipe.

There now. Just let your head rest right there. You won’t feel a thing. Just the kiss of an angel.

Laughing at the Great God Pan by K. A. Laity

Art, K A Laity, Non-fiction, Punk Noir Magazine, The Fall, Writing

Pan Joy Morton Cover

Laughing at the Great God Pan

K A. Laity

In 2001 Camden Joy and Colin B. Morton wrote Pan, a book purporting to be ‘A work of imagination endeavouring to recount the Extraordinary yet True events occurring within the City of New York upon April the Seventh, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight when: numerous hearts are engaged; feats of Astonishment and Daring unfold: a man loses his found love: a primitive power draws manifold strangers into a supernatural dragnet: a father’s gift sends a son across the ocean: space-time continuums (QSTs) are repeatedly straddled: tears get shed: after which the assemblage of cross entertainers known as The Fall ceases working together (yet again) and everything threatens to remain exactly as it has been’ which is a nicely balanced evocation of bombast and litotes.

There are lots of books about, by and inspired by The Fall. Ex-band member volumes are a hefty shelf themselves and just about all of cracking quality, too. ‘Inspired by’ is a more tenuous category and by ‘tenuous’ I mean there’s some rubbish out there. I’ve always heard Pan spoken of as one of the better ones, so stuck in lockdown and floundering on any number of overdue projects, of course I decided to pick up a copy to finally read.

It’s not cheap to lay hands on; I reconciled myself to the price because I’ve not had to pay for lots of things since March. As frequently happens with things connected to The Fall, a crazy mix-up ended up giving me half-off on the price, so yay. It’s really more of a novella, so I sped through it in no time, even with stopping to look things up that jogged my memory.

The book itself is lovely, a product of Tom Devlin’s Highwater Books, which I knew mostly from comics by folks like Megan Kelso and Matt Madden. It was designed by Matt Lerner of Rag and Bone Shop with exquisite typeface and a subdued yet unsettling image of Pan on the cover and printed on luxurious paper. The title page with the above précis features calligraphy by Nancy Howell and is just beautiful. There’s a pull quote from Jon Langford of The Mekons to offer street cred to the unwitting innocent (i.e. non-Fall fan) who might pick up the book. My copy is signed twice by Joy.

What about the story itself? Buring the lede again: it’s fun. Do you have to be a Fall fan? Possibly, though I think Ballard and Dick fans may enjoy it for non-Fall related reasons. People who prefer their fiction meta will get a kick out of it. Fans of Pan, you will deffo enjoy. It kicks off right at the epigraph which purports to offer a mini history of Pan in the Western world by ‘Magnus the Good’ (resonant of Olavus Magnus but not quite) and translated by an ‘R. Totale’ in two volumes back in 1923.

The epigram establishes the impetus setting all the action in motion: the god of Panic, having been subdued by fire and death was then bisected, his head buried by the Celts, his body taken to the ends of the earth by ‘the North sea-dwellers’ or as we call them, Vikings. ‘His Head, kept by the Celtae in the ground, occasioned sorcery to render the grave as hot as the fires a warrior finds in beastly dens…’

The book opens in a Manhattan office, overlooking the Seagram’s building with Clarke suddenly meeting two very strange fellows who seem rather…shall we say, alien. Clarke being part of the music biz, that’s not so outlandish as it might seem to others, but he begins to be unsettled, especially once they mention his friend Vaughan (I have to believe that’s a Ballard ref). Are they private eyes? Fortunately his boss crashes in with news:

‘The Fall!’ Brandon shouted at Clarke from a short distance. ‘Clarke, hey! The Fall; tonight at Brownie’s; you remember; punk rockers from England? God, Clarke: fuck I always hated all those guitars; no more; The Fall’s in town!’

If you’re not a Fall fan you won’t know the cataclysm that announcement contains. There are bad gigs – and with the Fall legendarily bad gigs – and then there’s the meltdown at Brownies (if you want to see it for yourself, you can). An apocalypse no one thought the band could survive.

[Spoiler: it did (but that’s another story).]

‘Meanwhile, in a far-off place called Newport, Wales, the bell of a record shop rang and Colin B Morton entered.’ Yes, it’s that kind of book where one of the co-authors is a character in the wildly esoteric adventures. His dad, as it happens, has given him the head of Pan which had been dug up at an archeological dig at Caerleon (notebooks out, medievalists). The head has told him to head to New York and to play the fruit machine at his local to provide cash for the journey.

The scenes in the record shop and the pub are excuses for a lot of Fall fan jokes: ‘This amused Colin, for it was the cry of every Fall fan down the ages. At any given moment, The Fall was not as good as it used to be.’ Pointed mentions of Mark E. Smith’s procog intrigue the girl on the not-so-megastore check-out desk to the point where she ignores Colin and pores over the FallNet.

He leaves for the pub to join his mates for a few pints of Brains Skull Attack and discussions of everything from the occult, the Mekons, Swamp Thing, Pan’s head, the Liverpool Scene, and of course, the finer points of why The Fall was not as good as it used to be.

Colin heads off to NYC and many disparate threads begin to intertwine, strangle one another and fray like the band is about to do onstage. While it is not always about The Fall, it is always about The Fall in the sense that physics exists only to examine the finer point of whether the band 1) exists 2) is better or 3) is worse than it is any other given point in the time-space continuum.

‘Do you remember last year, in Belfast, when all the members dispersed? Snook believes that, in the brief period, The Fall still existed. It’s just that there was nobody in it, you know?…Snook also believes…that, for those few moments when The Fall existed with nobody in it, it went spindizzy about the world. Like some sort of prowling phantom, you know? It traveled around the globe, almost as a virus or something, disrupting various musical personalities in which it did not belong.’

Precog: it’s a drug. Like love, I guess. So if this sounds like something you’d enjoy hunt it down like a lost Fall member and lay your hands on it. Don’t lay your hands on ex-Fall members though. They’re not books.

K A LAITY IS HERE

PhotoFunia-1593254997

Classic Caper: The Black Lizard (1934) – Edogawa Rampo by K. A. Laity

Crime Fiction, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine

71R8RysfPwLA while back Carol Borden of the Cultural Gutter hepped me to the 1962 film version of this novel which I absolutely raved over. I finally got around to reading the novel and I’m happy to say it’s great fun, too.

 

The 2006 Kurodahan Press edition, translated by Ian Hughes, includes The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (1928). There’s an introduction by Mark Schreiber that offers a good overview of the author born Hirai Tar?, his works and his influence, including real life criminals writing sarcastic letters to the police and signing themselves as characters from his novels.

 

Is there a better tribute to a crime writer?

 

The Black Lizard is a jewel thief with an almost orgasmic desire for shiny stones. In the opening chapter on Christmas Eve, the criminal mastermind dances in her private club with ecstatic pleasure clad only in her jewels, inflaming the desires of the men who will do anything she says. That’s useful because she’s set her black heart on obtaining the Star of Egypt, a colonial spoil that belongs to the leading jewel merchant in Tokyo.

 

Her daring plan is to kidnap Iwase’s daughter at the ritzy Kei? Hotel, then force him to give up the jewel to get her back. The queenpin is so arrogant that she writes him anonymous letters warning him what is going to happen and when. Iwase is disturbed and hires renowned detective Akechi Kogor? to safeguard his daughter. Akechi is confident that no one can get past his clever preparations. He even bets the stylish Madame Midorikawa that he will succeed. She pledges all her jewels that he won’t.

 

Of course Mme Midorikawa is just the Black Lizard in disguise and her clever preparations are even better than his. Disguises are the rule of the game and there are so many. Luck allows Akechi to find the daughter before she’s completely spirited away, but this makes the criminal mastermind even more determined.

 

Another even more daring plot is hatched and poor Sanae is kidnapped right from the Iwase home. The jeweler regretfully agrees to hand over the Star of Egypt at the top of a tower in a theme park. The place is deserted except for a stylish ‘genteel’ woman who of course reveals her true face. ‘The Black Lizard! She was a monster, a shape-shifter.’ But Akechi has a few tricks up his sleeve, too.

 

There’s a lot of excitement, more disguises, a moment when the Black Lizard has Akechi in her power and finds herself unexpectedly drawn to a mind that matches her own: ‘Driven by some strange emotion, she had the weird illusion that the man lying stretched out under her seat was not her enemy, but almost a lover.’

 

But jewels are the most important thing and we’re off to her secret underground lair that has jewels and a whole lot more—a most unusual ‘zoo’ that she plans to add poor Sanae to in a most interesting exhibit.

 

Great fun! Now to see the 1968 film…

Classic Noir: Two by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding K. A. Laity

Crime Fiction, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, K A Laity, Noir, Non-fiction, Punk Noir Magazine

People have been talking about Bookshop as an alternative to the ‘zon so I hopped over to set up my profile there and see what they have. Disappointingly, they have a very patchy collection. Ironically, as they sell themselves as a booster of independent bookstores, you’ll mostly find volumes from the not-so-indie presses. I tried to add some things with ISBNs, but if it’s not in their database, you can’t add it. Out of the couple dozen (?) or so books I have out, I found a random 5.

Unable to burnish my own self-serving profile, I decided to set up some recommendations, including a ‘Godmothers of Noir’ list. I figure I’ll add to as I go along, but as you can imagine, I ran out of steam because data entry is boring. So to prod myself into doing more, I offer a couple recs here.

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was ‘the top suspense writer of them all’ according to Raymond Chandler. Jake Hinkson agrees, acknowledging that the reason she tends to be dropped from the noir canon is largely because she doesn’t fit the hardboiled cliché. He argues that despite her ‘comfortable’ appearance, ‘I’d wager everything I own in the world that if you could have sidled up to Holding at some stuffy dinner party and asked her what she was really thinking the answer would have been darkly funny and perceptive.’

KILL JOY (1942) is the story of Maggie MacGowan, a young woman with ambition working as a servant in quiet house when she’d much rather be working in an office. While the housekeeper reads the sensational headlines about a local murder, tutting that the young woman ‘brought it on herself’ probably from wearing pajamas or shorts—‘and shorts they are!’ Maggie chafes at her position, but release comes through trying to help the young niece Miss Dolly, who flatters her ego and then confides in her like an equal: she’s in danger and afraid and needs to flee. She wants Maggie to come as her secretary. Because Dolly appears to be everything chic and sophisticated in her eyes, and she’s getting threatening notes from someone who signs his name as Othello, Maggie is won over to the scheme and they sneak away.

It all seems exciting and romantic but Maggie is dismayed to find they arrive in the dark of night at a ‘nasty dirty’ little house on the water. There’s no food but there are two strange men: Neely, a Dutch artist who seems unconcerned with anything, and Johnny Cassidy, a smooth talking fellow who alternately entrances and disgusts the young woman. One minute he’s putting on a cod Scots accent to tease her and the next he’s muttering dark drunken ramblings.

Dolly’s lawyer shows up but soon appears floating in the estuary. And things really begin to unravel. At first Maggie is primly determined to get herself out of the increasingly-gothic surroundings, but she’s checked first by sympathy for Dolly and then by a growing fear that she can’t escape. The bohemian group intermingles with the local Long Island gentry. Maggie learns that all the ‘class’ she attributed to Miss Dolly is really embodied by Gabrielle Getty, whose husband is another circling around the eternal victim—unless it’s Miss Dolly herself who’s only playing a part.

The book will keep you guessing as to who’s knocking off one inconvenient person after another right up to the end. It’s fascinating to see the changes in Maggie who is initially crushed by finding out that she’s not as smart as she thought she was, yet bounces back with real courage and plenty of pluck.

THE VIRGIN HUNTRESS (1951) could not be more different. Like Hughes’ In a Lonely Place (1947) this novel plops us into the mind of misogynist, self-pitying manipulator. The novel opens on V-J Day, neatly taking advantage of the noir hinge between the war and post war periods. Montford Duchesne is not quite in the same celebratory mood as the rest of the population. The end of the war means the end of his job in the shipyard on Staten Island. It means more difficulty coping with his landlady’s daughter Gwen, who’s determined to marry him. He thinks he deserves better things.

It’s interesting how different Maggie’s ambitions – initially just as self-deluded – compare to Monty’s: Maggie realises it’s herself that needs to change; Monty stubbornly waits for the world to change around him. And there’s that thing he can’t quite bear to think about in his past. The (mostly female) ghosts that haunt him lead him to a random change of plans. In the chaos of the celebrations, he wanders away from his would-be fiancée to offer assistance to a couple of women in a Rolls who are being menaced by a sailor who’s trying to force them to celebrate with him.

The rescuer gets invited along since they’re all heading back to Manhattan and at first it seems like a dream come true for Monty: away from his down-at-the-heel life and into the wealthy world of Argentian oil wealth. So what if Rose has her suspicions about him. Her tia Luisa takes an instant liking to him and invites him to use her brother’s hotel room while he sorts himself out.

Monty veers from arrogance to abject self-loathing: ‘This time he paid, this time he tipped, lavishly. Maybe she was noticing. After all, he thought. I’m not an oaf. Not a hick. My father’s people…I went to a really good school.’ Like Dix Steele, Monty wants all the things he thinks he deserves while knowing the world is against him. Oh and there’s that thing haunting him, that give him nightmares and makes him sweat and act belligerent and desperately try to fix things so no one will find out just what he can’t bring himself to remember.

Both of these books will grab you and have you flipping pages right to the end. While some of the noir tropes will be familiar, you’ll find plenty of surprises, too. Even bit part characters are memorable and distinct (wow, Monty’s mother). See the ongoing list of ‘Godmothers of Noir’ here.

Murder in My High School by K. A. Laity

Fiction, K A Laity, Non-fiction, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

in cold blod

This is not going to be a lurid tale; more of a puzzled one. A colleague share a link this morning about the need to compensate formerly incarcerated people for telling their stories—particularly for those events seeking to redress the criminal (literally) imbalances in the justice system. It got me thinking about a weird thing from my own past.

My high school, like many American schools of its time, would have ‘assemblies’ from time to time of varying sizes (don’t get your hopes up, Austen fans—not that kind of assembly). The whole school would get together in the gymnasium, but there was a block of classrooms that were separated by moveable accordion panels to bring six or eight classrooms into one big one.

Sometimes they did it for films: one time Fail Safe, the 1964 Sydney Lumet cautionary nuclear war film (that’s kind of a po-faced remake of Dr Strangelove) –why? Who knows? Cold War romanticism from some faculty member? More striking in my memory is when they showed us In Cold Blood, which gave me a whole new fanaticism for Capote’s novel and true crime. I remember the gym teacher who taught ‘history’—for whom I used to grade quizzes because you know child labour laws were lax and I was bored with the quizzes themselves—making fun of the actress screaming before her character was murdered. ‘Isn’t that the worst scream ever?’ he said laughing, then turning the sound back up.

All the misogyny I remember well, too.

Films were always a welcome relief from the day-to-day grind of classes, especially in that term where I was stuck in a class with a teacher who had given up on everything. But I remember the weird day that they brought in a murderer to talk to us. Once more all the walls folded back. We turned our desks around to face a different front. And a quiet unassuming old man told us that he committed murder in the heat of a moment of anger as a young man and spent a lot of years regretting it.

I suppose, in my school where they were churning out better autoworkers for tomorrow, it was a warning: Think before you knife someone. Perhaps it was just another indication of how little they expected of us: try not to murder someone. I remember his regret, his quietness. I remember more the students’ heady combination of fear, fascination, and a kind of intoxication as the two mixed.

I remember the disappointment many had that he was not some slavering beast held by chains but a tired older man who spoke softly to us about lost time. I suppose things that might have been on adults’ minds at the time included the recent memory of ‘Michigan’s Ted Bundy’ but I don’t recall thinking about that at the time. The invulnerability of youth. I remember his sadness. I remember thinking about all he might have done instead.