Showing posts with label James M. Cain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label James M. Cain. Show all posts

26 October 2020

Stratford Redux

 by Steve Liskow

Several weeks ago, I got an idea for a short story that needed a little refresher on Shakespeare. During my theater days, I directed six of his plays, acted in nine, and assigned about a dozen more. When I donated most of my acting books to the theater several years ago, I found the Arden, Oxford, Pelican, Penguin, Bantam and Signet editions of plays I directed on my shelves, along with four hard-cover complete collections. I kept those. 

Reading outside your genre makes you see things differently, and revisiting Shakespeare was the writing equivalent of a six-pack of Red Bull. Remember, the majority of his audience--who paid well and often to see his productions--was illiterate. They came for a good story and they got it. He knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. He owned a shared in the theater and retired at age 46, returning to Stratford and buying the second-largest house in town. 

Since looking up what I needed, I've reread The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. Even 2 Gents (Possibly his first produced work) shows us how to tell a story. Only in his late 20s, Will gives us plot and character arcs that are clear and strong. OK, the ending is a little hard to buy, but the structure and dialogue rock.

By the time I'd read the first act of 2 Gents, I understood the language again. Shakespeare wrote in modern English, and his punctuation is surprisingly contemporary. If you don't understand a line, stand up, read it out loud, and let the rhythms show you when and where to move. Trust me, it works. 

In Romeo and Juliet, look how Shakespeare differentiates Paris, Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, all teen-aged boys, by their speech patterns. Notice how everything in the plot is logical and leads to that wrenching finish.

Learn from the constant vivid images that deepen the characters and carry the themes. Shakespeare wrote that play when he was about 30, so his "great" works are still to come.

In the middle of my career, I took an intensive (One-day) workshop on performing the plays from the First Folio text. It was so helpful that I bought a copy of the First Folio, and I kept that, too.

The introduction makes an important distinction. "[This] is not a collection of plays, but a collection of scripts." Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read (remember, most of his audience couldn't read), and the difference matters. His actors often had only their own lines along with the cues (Today, we'd call these "sides"), but they could interpret the writer's verse, prose and rhythms for acting hints. If all English teachers took the workshop I did, students would come out of their classes loving Shakespeare instead of hating or fearing him. A theater group my wife still works with calls this phenomenon "Shakes-fear."

Alas, English teachers need no involvement with theater to get their degree. Most of them have none, and they teach Shakespeare as literature. It makes as much sense as a blind man teaching photography. 

Just as an aside, most editions of Romeo and Juliet put Mercutio's "Queen Mab" monologue in blank verse. The First Folio prints it in prose, and it flows better and is easier to follow. Actors could learn it more easily. 

Will can teach crime writers how to do it better, too.

You want noir? See how Lady Macbeth drives a good guy over the edge, 350 years before James M. Cain penned The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Verbal comedy?
The Comedy of Errors has Antipholus and Dromio discussing the Kitchen Wench with puns and repartee that Abbot and Costello might have cribbed for their "Who's on First?" gem. Foreshadowing? How about "Beware the Ides of March?"

I won't reread all the plays, but I will revisit several others. I've been away a long time.

23 October 2016

Sting Like a Butterfly

James M Cain wrote a controversial novel on a touchy topic made into an even more contentious movie of the same name.

It’s less than fair to suggest the film ended the career of Orson Welles, but some critics noted it capped the actor’s substantial body of work on a low note. Further, the production virtually finished the profession of its actress, turning her name into fodder for barbed late-night television jokes.

The Film

The actress was Pia Zadora and the movie was Butterfly based on Cain’s The Butterfly.

I overlooked the original in theatres, but a third of a century after its release, I decided to take a critical look at it. To my surprise, it’s not an awful film.
  1. Stacy Keach, known to private eye fans as Mike Hammer, put in an earnest and solid low-key performance as Jess Tyler. He provided the backbone of the story, but more than that, he played a nuanced there-but-for-the-grace-of-God character who made mistake after mistake even as the audience begged him not to.
  2. Orson Welles is claimed to have been drunk on the set. Whether or not that’s true, I hazard he turned in a sly performance, one he fully intended to. Suggesting substantial improvements would be difficult.
  3. Any actress bordering on age 30 who can convincingly portray a 16-year-old (19 in the novel) is doing something right. To be sure, Pia Zadora’s baby-fat cheeks helped, but more than that took place. She’d started as a child actress at age eight on Broadway and developed a singing career, but Hollywood hated her for reasons that had nothing to do with the film.
Pia Zadora
© Pia Zadora
So what went wrong?

The Butterfly Effect

Born to parents in the theatre (father a violinist, mother a Broadway costume supervisor), Pia adapted part of her mother’s maiden name, Zadorowski, as her stage name. She sang and acted in a number of child rôles. At age 19, she met a man 32 years older than she, Meshulam Riklis, an investor and businessman. They married five years later. She became the Dubonnet Girl in commercials for the apéritif in which Riklis had a financial interest.

Riklis encouraged his wife’s career, perhaps a bit too much. When Pia Zadora starred in Butterfly, he bought billboards promoting her.

The movie industry didn’t like that. In fact, they resented it. When the Golden Globes presented her with Best New Star of the Year, Hollywood turned on her and where Hollywood went, the public followed. Awards of a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress, Worst New Star and Worst New Star of the Decade were only the tip of the freeze-out iceberg. Late-night television comics relentlessly mocked her, celebrity magazines ridiculed her. While the New York Times actually liked the film, they said the petite Miss Zadora looked “stunted, like a Brigitte Bardot who's been recycled through a kitchen compactor,” an unnecessarily hurtful allegation both unfair and untrue. She appeared in a few more B-movies, but her film career was over.

But not all was lost. In a perverse way, her haters had given her name recognition, and she would eventually receive a sort of vindication. Movie-goers who didn’t stay for the credits roll didn’t realize she’d sung the sultry title song in Butterfly, “It’s Wrong For Me To Love You”. Her next-to-last film was Voyage of the Rock Aliens– ‘rock’ in this case meant rock-n-roll. In it, she sang many of the songs from her follow-up album, Let's Dance Tonight.

That’s when people learned Pia Zadora could sing!

And sing well. She rebooted her career singing in Europe and established a number of international hits. This was no aberration. In 1985, she barely missed the Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance with the song ‘Rock It Out’, losing to Tina Turner's ‘Better Be Good to Me’.

Sinatra © Zadora
She became friends with Frank Sinatra when she headlined in Las Vegas. He persuaded her to turn to standards. Her subsequent album Pia & Phil referred to her backup group, none other than the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Late-night talk hosts invited her back and Johnny Carson apologized for Tonight Show punchlines at her expense. Pia had made her comeback.

The Book

The Butterfly’s title might sound like a cosy, but Cain dismisses mean-streets-of-the-city noir to show us the truly dark, forbidden love and death in the depths of a West Virginia coal mine. While the book is a crime story with a mystery, it’s also a thinly disguised melodrama and a thin volume at that.

Cain said he intended an entirely different effects-of-the-Depression novel. When Steinbeck published Grapes of Wrath, Cain aborted his plans, eventually plucking The Butterfly out of the scraps of his writings and research.

Oedipus Wrecks

Many consider the subject matter creepy– incest. We tend to associate the practice with opposite extremes of society. On the one hand, royalty intermarried, not merely European kings, queens, and offspring, but Asian and Egyptian rulers too. In a dizzying myriad of ways, Norse, Greek and Roman gods bounded in and out of beds in an assortment of peculiar combinations.

The Judeo-Christian Bible is loaded with examples of incest, where theological theorists argue that God suspended the laws of incest. A few examples include Cain and Abraham and their sister/wives, not to mention Lot and his determined daughters. Presumably the descendants of Noah suffered a shallow dating pool as well. Lest you think Americans are above it all, celebrities– our own sordid royalty– have occasionally been said to engage in incest as well.

At the other extreme, we look down on poor folk in the hills 'n' hollers of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and places not yet despoiled by 7-11s, strip malls, and WalMarts. Deliverance has become a code word where mountain dew drinkin’ types marry relatives, just as in Carbon City, West Virginia, the setting of The Butterfly.

And yet…


Cain toys with us by recognizing a phenomenon called ‘Genetic Sexual Attraction’. GSA is a serious matter studied by psychologists and biologists. Apparently GSA is biologically programmed into us.

Opposing GSA is a debated factor called the Westermarck effect. According to its proponents, this psychological proximation factor blocks, sometimes imperfectly, sexual appeal between close relatives. The effect can and does break down, particularly in cases of at least one absent or absentee parent, and traditional rôles within a family change. When families split apart resulting in divorce and adoption, the Westermarck effect can’t occur.

The percentage of adults who engage in incestuous relationships is unknown, but estimated at fifteen per cent on average and up to 50% among long-separated, reunited relatives. A sizable proportion don’t want to be ‘fixed’. It’s substantial enough to have pro- and con support groups, lawyers and lobbyists, forums, books and blogs, and web sites. After Britain was criticized for punishing sibling couples who remained stubbornly in love, the European Union is trying to figure out how better to handle these situations and possibly decriminalize most adult couplings.

The mainstream public’s introduction came from the columns of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren in the 1960s and the first support groups were born. These days, if we hear about the topic at all, it’s usually the result of long-lost relatives, separated at childhood, who find each other… and unexpectedly find each other attractive.

Praising Cain

James M Cain isn’t the only author since Anaïs Nin to dabble with incest, although his 1946 story cleverly works in the recognized psychological stress factors. Novelist Gillian Flynn hinted at ‘twincest’ in her book and film, Gone Girl.

Although Cain played upon reader’s suppositions, he cleverly adopted and adapted this phenomenon for his own purposes, juxtaposing a long-lost Lolita with… Well, you have to read the novel or see the film and choose which ending you prefer.

13 August 2015

No Sex, Please, We're Skittish

by Eve Fisher

"If you mention sex at an AA meeting, even the non-smokers light up."
--Father Tom, "Learning to Live With Crazy People"
Agatha Christie.png
Agatha Christie

And so do a lot of mystery writers and readers.  There are those who write and/or love cozies, and want everything as asexual as they think Agatha Christie was.  Except, of course, that if you actually read your Agatha Christie, there's a lot of hot stuff going on:  In AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL, Ladislaw Malinowski is sleeping with both Elvira Blake and her mother Bess Sedgwick, and that fact alone is one of the major drivers of the plot.  In SAD CYPRESS, Roddy Welman's sudden, overwhelming attraction to Mary Gerrard makes everything homicidal possible.  And, in at least three novels, a man's lust for one woman, combined with his lust for money, makes it possible for him to marry and murder a rich wife.

Then there's the noir crowd:  

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
― Raymond Chandler, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY
“I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.”
Brigid O'Shaughnessy: “I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know.”
Sam Spade: “You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.”
― Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON

In noir, EVERYTHING is about sex.  That and greed.  But mostly sex, and often violent sex. (Prime examples are probably the "rip me" scene of James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE - and Mickey Spillane's VENGEANCE IS MINE, in which - and I think it's the first chapter - he beats a woman before having his way with her and she loves it all.)  The noir guys all moon over the virgins (Walter Huff over his victim's daughter; Mike Hammer over Velda), but the women who obsess them are anything but. And so of course they hurt them, twist them, torture them, betray them, all of the above.  Truth is, after a long day in noir-land, you want to yell at them, "Try somewhere else besides a bar to meet women!   Buy the girl some flowers!  Try to stay sober for ten minutes!" but it's all a waste of breath.  (Except, apparently, to Nick Charles who got a clue and a rich wife.)

And spies...

The upper center of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

Spy stories, of course, depend on global locales, tech wizardry, constant weapons, supervillains, and a high body count for both sex and death.   Women, women, women, of all ethnicities, although Russian spies are a perennial favorite.  (Is it the accent, or the idea of nudity and fur?)  I just read a novel in which the male American spy and the female Russian spy were mutually obsessed, madly, madly in love/lust/etc., to the point where I really thought that the cover should be of her holding him against her exceptionally large chest, hair flowing like a female Fabio...  Anyway, sex drives these plots as well, no matter what the spy or the supervillain think, because - besides providing objects of rescue, thus securing another reason for the ensuing sex - 90% of the time at least one of those women is going to save the male spy from certain death. The game is to figure out which one by, say, page five.  

Horror.  Sex = death.  The survivor's a virgin.  What more can I say?  

So, to all of those who say that mysteries are all about cerebral detection, and that there isn't much place for sex in them - WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”  

You could look it up...

24 February 2015

Adventures in La La Land

Introducing Paul D Marks:

Today I have the honor of introducing our newest SleuthSayer.  Usually when there is an opening Leigh and I join forces to come up with suitable candidates.  This time it so happened we each came up with the same name: Paul D. Marks.  And to our delight, he said yes.

I had met him in November when we served on a panel on Bouchercon.  He was funny, thoughtful, generous, and he cleans up nice.

So, who is this dude?  Only a Shamus-Award winner for the novel White Heat, which received praise from Publisher's Weekly and made some best of the year lists.  It was set in southern California, as is, not surprisingly, Paul D. Marks.

Paul has had more than thirty stories published, including "Howling at the Moon," in EQMM last year.  He has been published and praised in literary journals as well.  You can find several of his stories in his collection  L.A. Late @ Night.

According to Steven Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, Paul also has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of having been the last person to shoot on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for housing.

You can read more about him at  Or right here every other Tuesday.  Over to you, Paul!

— Rob
Adventures in La La Land

by Paul D. Marks

Thank you, Rob, for the great intro. And thanks for saying I “clean up nice.” My mom would be glad to hear that.

Before I get into my first post for Sleuth Sayers, I’d like to thank Velma Negotiable , oh, and Rob Lopresti and Leigh Lundin and the other Sleuth Sayers, for asking me to come aboard.

Since this is my first post, I thought I’d write about two things I know pretty well, Los Angeles and me. Sort of an introduction to my writing and me, my influences, especially my inspiration for setting. And since it is an intro it might be a little longer than a normal post...

I’m old enough to have grown up in Los Angeles when both Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and Chandler himself were still around. When I was a kid L.A. still resembled the city of Chandler's "mean streets," Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer and Cain's Double Indemnity. In fact, I grew up in a Spanish-style house very much like the one that Barbara Stanwyck lives in in the movie version of Double Indemnity.

L.A. was a film noir town for a film noir kid. And that certainly had an influence on me and my writing. And a lot of my writing involves L.A., not just as a location but almost as a character in its own right. Of course, we’re all influenced by our childhoods, where we grew up and the people we knew. And those things, whether conscious or unconscious, tend to bubble to the surface in our writing like the black pitch bubbling up from the La Brea tar pits.

* * *

Two things that Los Angeles means to me are movies and noir, oh, and palm trees, of course. Movie studios and backlots were everywhere in this city. You couldn’t help but see the studios, feel their presence and be influenced by “the movies” one way or another. Many of the studios and backlots are gone now, but almost everywhere you go in this city is a movie memory and often a noir memory. L.A. is Hollywood’s backlot and many films, including many noirs, were filmed throughout the city.

As a kid, a teenager and even a young adult, I experienced many of the places I read about in books and saw in the movies, once the movies got out of the backlot and onto those mean L.A. streets. Not as a tourist, but as part of my “backyard.”

So Los Angeles has insinuated itself into my writing. Here’s some examples of how it might have gotten there and how it reflects my view of the ironically named City of Angels.

Angels Flight
photo credit: Angels Flight via photopin (license)
Angels Flight is a funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles. Star of many films and many noirs, including Kiss Me, Deadly, Criss Cross and others. Chandler visits it in The High Window and The King in Yellow. As a young boy, my dad took me to the original Angels Flight (now moved down the road and since closed). And though I may not have known about noir films and hardboiled novels then, it was an experience I’ve always remembered. Such a cool little pair of trains going up and down that hill, the tracks splitting in the middle just as each car approaches the other and you think they’re going to smash into each other head on. Angels Flight slams back to me in memory every now and then and makes its way into my writing, most notably in the eponymous story Angels Flight, which I must say came out before Michael Connelly’s novel of the same name.

That story, about a cop whose time has come and gone, is still pretty relevant today. The world is changing and he’s having one hell of a time catching up, if he even wants to. He’s a dinosaur. And he knows that Angels Flight is an anachronism, just like he is. He says to the other main character:
“Will Angels Flight bring back the glamour of the old days? Hollywood’s lost its tinsel. Venice’s lost its pier. And there are no angels in the City of Angels. What can Angels Flight do to bring that back?”

“Sometimes you need something for the soul,” the other person says.

I think that sums up a lot of my attitude not only toward Angels Flight but to the City of Angels as well. 

In Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Tod Hackett comes to L.A. thinking he’s an artist. And like so many others he gets trampled by that dream. Not much has changed all these decades later in my story Endless Vacation, when a young woman comes to Hollywood with big dreams and a bigger heroin habit. The narrator tries to help but he also knows:

Who the hell am I to talk? I came to L.A. looking for a Hollywood that died before I was born. A glamorous town of movie stars and studios and backlots. A studio system that nurtured talent, whatever you say about how it also might have stifled it with the other hand. A town that made movies in black and white but whose streets were, indeed, paved with gold. Yeah, I bought it – hook, line and clapboard.

Luis Valdez examines the Zoot Suit Riots that took place in L.A. during World War II in his play Zoot Suit. I remember my grandfather, who lived through that time, talking about “pachucos” when I was a kid. In my story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set during the war, I take a stab at dealing with the racial tension of that era.

Hot jazz—swing music—boogied, bopped and jived. And Bobby Saxon was one of those who made it happen. Bobby banged the eighty-eights with the Booker “Boom-Boom” Taylor Orchestra in the Club Alabam down on Central Avenue. It was the heppest place for whites to come slumming and mix with the coloreds. That’s just the way it was in those days, Los Angeles in the 1940s during the war.

Venice Beach and boardwalk is the number one tourist destination in Los Angeles.Venice-CA-Canal-1921 People think it’s cool and flock to see the “freaks,” and maybe the nearby Venice Canals. Developer Abbott Kinney wanted to recreate Italy’s Venice in L.A., and he did, to some extent. But it didn’t quite work out. Many of the canals were drained and filled in, though some remain. They can be seen in several movies, too numerous to name. And, because they were another place I’d done time at, they pop up in my short story Santa Claus Blues, which opens with a bunch of kids playing along the canals and coming across a dead Santa floating in one of them.

Staring at the canal, Bobby thought about Abbott Kinney's dream for a high culture theme park, with concerts, theatre and lectures on various subjects. Kinney even imported Italian gondoliers to sing to visitors as they were propelled along the canals. When no one seemed to care about the highbrow culture he offered he switched gears and turned Venice into a popular amusement area. And finally the people came.

My grandparents always referred to MacArthur Park, on Wilshire Boulevard on the way to downtown, as Westlake Park, its original name. It was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. But for my grandparents it was always Westlake. When I was a kid it was the place they took me to have a picnic and rent a boat and paddle around the lake. A nice outing. In the movies it’s the scene of a murder in one of my favorite obscure noirs, Too Late for Tears. By the time of my novel White Heat, set during the 1992 “Rodney King” riots, the nature of the park had changed from when I was a kid:

MacArthur Park is midway between Hancock Park, not a park, but an upper class neighborhood, and downtown L.A., a neighborhood in search of an identity. When I was a boy, my grandparents used to take me to the park. We’d rent rowboats and paddle through the lake, tossing bread crumbs to the birds. The park is a different place today. You can still rent paddle boats – if you want to paddle across the lake while talking to your dealer. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays immigrant families still try to use it as a park. Most of the time, it’s a haven for pushers, crack addicts, hookers and worse. Even the police don’t like treading there. If they were scared, who was I to play Rambo?

Even if someone’s never been to Los Angeles, most people know Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. Sunset begins or ends, depending on how you look at it, at Pacific Coast Highway on the west and continues to Union Station in downtown L.A., though recently the last part of the jog has been renamed. It goes from wealthy homes in Santa Monica and the West Side, into Beverly Hills, through the Strip in West Hollywood, where hippies back in the day and hipsters today hang out. Into Hollywood and on to downtown. It’s a microcosm of Los Angeles. Of course, both Union Station and Sunset have made multiple appearances in movies and novels and have made several appearances in my writing. Sunset was a major artery in my life as well as in the city. One time I walked almost the entire length of Sunset on a weekend day with my dad, ending up at Union Station. Later, I hung on the Strip. I drove it to the beach. I slammed through the road’s Dead Man’s Curve, made famous in the Jan and Dean song. Sunset appears in my stories Born Under a Bad Sign, Dead Man’s Curve, L.A. Late @ Night and more. In the latter, Sunset is as much of a character in the story as any of the human characters.

She'd only noticed the mansion. Not long after that, her parents had taken her to the beach. They had driven Sunset all the way from Chavez Ravine to the ocean. She had seen houses like the one in the movie. Houses she vowed she'd live in some day.

What she hadn't realized at the time was that there was a price to pay to be able to live in such a house. Sometimes that price was hanging from a tag that everyone can see. Sometimes it was hidden inside.

And who doesn’t know the famous—or infamous—Hollywood Sign? Something I sawHollywood_Sign almost every day as a kid, and which a friend of mine and I hiked up to many, many years ago, before it was all fenced in and touristy. In Free Fall, originally published in Gary Lovisi’s Hardboiled magazine, a man recently separated from the service, heads west, as far west as he can go until he comes to the terminus of Route 66 in Santa Monica, near the Santa Monica Pier. This is the end of the road for him in more ways than one.

I kept looking at the Hollywood Sign, wondering about all the people down below, pretending to be in its glow. Where do they go after L.A.? There is nowhere, the land ends and they just tumble into the arroyos and ravines, never to be heard from again.

So this is a sampling of my writing and my relationship to L.A., La La Land, the City of the Angels, the Big Orange. Could I have written about these places without experiencing them? Sure. We can’t experience everything we write about. But hopefully it has made my writing more authentic.
Maybe there are other cities less well traveled that would be ripe for exploration in movies and books. Maybe L.A. is overworked and overdone. But Los Angeles is part of me. Part of who I am. So it’s not only a recurring locale in my writing, it’s a recurring theme. And I’ve only just touched the surface here of Los Angeles, the city, its various landmarks and neighborhoods and my relationship to it.

So that’s part of what shaped me and makes me who I am. And some of my L.A. story. You can take the boy out of L.A., but you can’t take L.A. out of the boy. Oh, and here’s an L.A. story for you (a true one): I’m one of the few people who pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about. But that’s for another time.

19 October 2012

The Dadaist Enigma of Claire DeWitt

Of Novels and Noir

I’m a member (if you can call being a part of such a loose-knit group a member) of the Hardboiled Discussion Group at the Poisoned Pen bookstore here in Scottsdale.  I’m sure you understand how such a thing works: everybody in the group reads a certain novel each month, then we meet at the store, after hours, to discuss it.  In this case, a fellow named Patrick Millikin, who’s worked there for over a decade (and also edited the anthology Phoenix Noir), chairs the group and helps us decide which novels we’ll read for the month

I don’t always manage to get to the meetings, but I usually manage to read the book for the month.  So, over the past few months I’ve read several noir mysteries.  Of those, the two that stand out as the most wonderfully contrasting works are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.  One a grimly realist work, the other a flight of fancy that still manages to be rather grim yet holds an artistic aspect I don't recall encountering before in literature.

James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce is probably the more widely known of the two,  of course, James M. Cain being the writer of  classics such as: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Mildred Pierce has been around for decades, but I only met her this past summer—thanks to the group’s introduction.  Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, on the other hand, is a fairly recent novel – second or third  in a contemporary series, which I understand is planned for five installments.

I said the two works contrast wonderfully, and they do.  Which is . . .

 Almost the Point of this Post:

Among the books I've read by Cain, Mildred Pierce probably stands as one of the best examples of Cain holding himself in check, keeping a tight reign on his natural tendency to let everything devolve into a murderous blood bath. As such, I found it based in greater realism—the realism of its time, at least. Claire DeWitt, however, includes  magical thinking, a holistic approach to detection and hints of Voodoo -- all connected inextricably to the painful realism of post-Katrina New Orleans: a remarkably gripping combination.

The two novels easily compare, in my mind, because neither was what I expected, and both consistently diverged from paths I thought the novels were about to take.

In the case of Mildred Pierce, one of the first such occurrences took place soon after Mrs. Pierce’s husband left her with two daughters, and she was not easily able to find employment. “Okay,” I thought. “This is going to be a noir mystery or suspense plot, so -- This is going to be the story of an abandoned woman who winds up becoming a prostitute, then works her way to 'madam' of her own establishment. In the end, she’ll be laid low by the realization that her favorite daughter has become a sex worker in either her own establishment, or that of a rival.” I was, of course, wrong. How wrong? Well, if you haven’t read the novel, I encourage you to read it and find out.

There really isn't much of a "mystery" in Mildred Pierce, though there are plenty of quasi-legal shenanigans.  But, there is a mystery in Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.  In fact, I finally decided that there are at least two mysteries.

Sara Gran, author of the Clair DeWitt series
Claire DeWitt (the novel's protagonist) has studied to become a detective by reading Detection, a book written by supposedly great French detective (or "mad man", depending on who's doing the describing) Jacques Silette.  She then, as we learn in the book, apprenticed under a woman who had known Silette and had -- in her own turn -- apprenticed (as well as evidently doing other things) under him.

One of the tenants evidently set forth by Silette is: "The client already knows the solution to the mystery.  But he doesn't want to know.  He doesn't hire a detective to solve his mystery.  He hires a detective to prove that his mystery can't be solved."

When I hit this paragraph, at the top of page three, I got the idea it meant: A person close to a murder victim won't like learning why he was murdered, because it may reveal unsavory things about the victim's life.  And, those unsavory things may be what he was murdered for.  And, to an extent, I was right. The mystery at the core of the novel isn't hard to figure out; I had it pegged pretty early on -- as did many of the other group members.  But, the core mystery isn't necessarily what you want to read the book for.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill out of context: "This book is a mystery wrapped in an enigma."  The core mystery is wrapped in a kaleidoscope of clues, odd extraneous-seeming events and depictions, and pseudo-clues -- and the reason behind them is what makes the read worthwhile (IMHO).

Elements of the Enigma

At first read, ridiculous absurdities seemed to clutter the pages, squeezing the story out of my mind. Among them:
  • A small boy has a .44 Magnum concealed in his pants at one point.  
  • An off-duty police officer works as security while carrying only  "a .22 caliber revolver." 
  • Complaining about having to give constant updates about the case status, the first-person narrator writes: "Scientists don't give updates.  As far as I know no one asks a painter for an update, or a chef."  
  • At one point, Claire DeWitt recalls a past occasion, in which the police were unable to...  (Well, I'd better leave that one for you to see for yourself.  Let me assure you, however, that the resulting solution contains a massive absurdity.)

Now I've handled a .44 Magnum, and I can assure you that I -- a grown man -- couldn't possibly conceal such a side arm in my pants.  Not unless I wanted to walk around and have everyone ask me, "Is that a .44 Magnum in your pants, or are you just happy to see me today?"

When I asked some of my cop buddies if they'd carry a .22 revolver on off-duty security work, they looked at me like I had three heads and scoffed at the idea.  One actually said, "That'd be absurd."

For those who think scientists don't give updates, let me assure you that my relatives who conduct scientific work in universities have to give constant updates.  Otherwise the money funding their work dries up very quickly.  As for painters: Seems like folks ask my house painter friend "How long until you're done?" to the point that he sometimes feels all he's doing is answering that question instead of painting.  My wife continuously asks my son -- the artist type of painter -- for updates on his latest work in progress, just as she keeps asking me, "How long until you make enough money off your writing so that I can quit my job?"  As for asking a chef for updates....  Well, ask a chef and I think you'll find he feels constantly harassed while cooking.

These glaring absurdities at first caused me problems.  Does the author not realize how wrong she's got it? I wondered.

At the same time, Claire's rather holistic approach to detection made me recall another book I'd read, long ago: Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.  The Douglas Adams book, however, was a comedy.  Claire DeWitt may be many things, but I don't think I'd call it a comedy.  On the other hand, I thought, maybe it is, but I'm just not getting it.  If this was the case, then Sara Gran wasn't letting us in on the joke, the way Douglas Adams had.  And, one reason I felt this way, was because too many of the occurrences were too similar to certain mistakes I'd seen ignorant writers make in the past.  Is Sara Gran ignorant? I wondered.  Or, is she doing this on purpose, for some reason?

I arrived at my book club still wondering.  About half the group that night, really didn't get the book (myself included), but the other half loved it.  At one point a woman said, "It's interesting that, though many of us say we didn't like it, we can't stop talking about it."  And, indeed, we not only had a much-larger-than-normal group, that night, but stuck around discussing the work for nearly twice the usual time.

Some of the members had seen Ms. Gran, when she came to speak on a book tour.  I asked them if she struck them as the sort of person who would make such mistakes.  Could she, in their opinion, be ignorant?  To the last, each ensured me she was clearly very intelligent, and they were convinced she had included these absurd occurrences very intentionally.

And, along the way, I discovered that those who loved the book really didn't love it as a mystery, per se.  Instead, they enjoyed some esoteric quality about the book, which they couldn't really explain.  I listened to them, thinking maybe they were onto something. And, on the drive home, I realized:

The Glaring Absurdities are the Point of the Story

I submit that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is an example of a very specific type of absurdist literature.  Other examples of absurdist lit sprang to mind on that drive home, chief among them: The World According to Garp.  But, there was something different about Claire DeWitt.  The plotline was superimposed over the backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans, a setting so strong that it seemed to grow out from the backdrop in a way that turned setting into an additional character.  And this character was harsh, glaring and pain-filled, as well as mysterious and magical.

That wasn't the only thing the plotline rested upon, however.  It also hung on very solid mystery elements, as if it were straddling a contemporary mystery line and the background-character at the same time.


Finally, on that drive home, I reflected on a Modern Art class I'd taken years ago in college.  There, I came to understand that appreciation for Modern Art required more than just viewing: it also required work on the viewer's part, and sometimes benefited from a little explanation.  In short, I had to alter the way I thought about what I was looking at (or: "interacting with").

Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No.2, for instance, caused one reviewer of New York's Armory Show, in 1913, to write that it resembled "an explosion in a shingle factory."   Looking at the work (on the left), you can see why.  But, that critic was missing the point of the painting.  Duchamp's work was not meant to capture one moment in time, as a young lady with no clothing came down a spiral staircase; it was instead an attempt to capture her entire movement down that staircase.  Some of us could undoubtedly capture a similar image -- though probably more blurred -- by using a film camera loaded with very slow film, employing low light, and leaving the aperture wide open as a naked woman walked down a spiral staircase.  To get closer to Duchamp's final product, however (a relatively un-blurred collection of still shots), it would probably be necessary to shoot a series of still shots -- without advancing the frame, so that they all fell on the same negative -- as she came down.  Either way, the difference between comprehension and non-comprehension, concerning the painting, comes down to whether or not the person viewing (or interacting) with it understands the intent behind it.

Roughly seven years later, Duchamp created L.H.O.O.Q. which can be seen on the right.  He was said to have created this work by drawing a pencil mustache and beard on a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa, adding the letters L.H.O.O.Q. to the bottom.  The five letters are a bit of a quip.  In English, we can read them as "Look", but in french the pronunciation sounds like the french phrase meaning: "She has hot pants" (or a hot something else, if you want to be more literal perhaps).

L.H.O.O.Q. is generally taken as one of Duchamp's attempts at Dadaism, an art movement that arose from artist's negative reactions to the horrors of the First World War.  Dadaism (or Dada) largely rejected reason and logic, instead prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition.  The word Dada, itself, may have been coined because it sounded like a "nonsense" word, or because it is the French word for Hobbyhorse, which one of the artists in the movement arrived at through random means.  

L.H.O.O.Q. fits into the Dadaist camp, in many people's minds, because it would appear to be Duchamp's slap in the face of an iconic art form (the Mona Lisa) while simultaneously pointing up the "unacceptable way" that icon had been used to line pockets.

And, I think it's important to note that, without the Mona Lisa image behind it, we'd be left with just a penciled mustache-beard floating in air, and the initials below. Still nonsensical, but hardly worthy of note nearly a century later. Earlier, I wrote that I believe Sara Gran's latest novel is a particular type of absurdist literature. Were it just a novel of absurdities – as I perceive The World According to Garp to have been – instead of being constructed around a more standard format, then I would simply list it as another example of absurdist literature. It's the mystery anchor, here, as well as the depth of setting, that I believe lifts it into another realm of literary art form. The two together, in my opinion, work in a manner similar to the Mona Lisa image in L.H.O.O.Q.

Thus, to me, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead fits the Dada mold, because it is a work of absurdity (or nonsense) prizing irrationality and intuition (the "holistic approach" detective methods used in the novel) and is superimposed over a standard mystery and deep background "anchor". (The mystery being: What happened to a guy everybody said was a nice, helpful, friendly person with no enemies, during the first days following Katrina's landfall in New Orleans? And, what has become of his remains?)

I'd say, if you want to look at glaring realism, in which the artist has worked mightily to hold himself in check – take a gander at Mildred Pierce. But, if you want to see a work that demonstrates just as much harsh realism, but in which the writer works equally hard to produce something perhaps even more transcendent – read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

Or, do yourself a real favor – READ THEM BOTH!!

Either way, I'll see ya' in two weeks, buddy!

— Dixon