Showing posts with label Nights in Berlin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nights in Berlin. Show all posts

13 April 2017

"Afternoons in Paris" by Janice Law

by Eve Fisher

You remember Francis Bacon:
  File:Pourbus Francis Bacon.jpg  No, not that one, this one:  

Francis Bacon, artist.  Francis Bacon, gambler.  Francis Bacon, bon vivant.  Francis Bacon, gay, asthmatic, Irish, autodidact, devoted to his Nan, louche, rough, crazy...

Well, HE'S BACK!!!!



Yes, my favorite gay artist adventurer is back in Janice Law's "Afternoons in Paris".  Francis is 18 and in the City of Lights, and very glad to be there after the craziness of Berlin (read Janice's "Nights in Berlin":  the book and David Edgerley Gates' review).  Now he's on his own, working for a decorator/designer by day (the somewhat susceptible Armand), visiting galleries with the motherly Madame Dumoulin, and cruising the city by night with the totally unreliable Pyotr, a Russian emigre who, like Francis, has a taste for quick hook-ups and rough trade.

Pyotr has two Russian friends, Igor, who's sinister, and Lev, who's quickly assassinated.  After getting robbed (by Pyotr), beaten up (by 'Cossacks') in Montparnasse, and finding two more waiting to do the same at his lodgings, Francis tries to avoid Russians by moving in with Madame Dumoulin and her brother, Jules, who needs a caretaker.  Well, it could be argued that Francis is the last person to be anyone's companion/caretaker, but our boy knows how to be appreciative.  And Jules, although a traumatized WW1 veteran, is an innocent (at least compared to Francis):  much like Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield", he builds complex machines and flies kites.  Francis can enjoy both.

And then Jules gets a chance to design machines for the theatre group Les Mortes Immortels, and it's back to Paris for all.  Jules' machines are the best part of a production about as audience-friendly as "Finnegan's Wake"; that and the character of Human Hope, played by Inessa, a Russian Helen of Troy who enraptures everyone around her.  Except for those who are using her.

Russians are everywhere, and they're all dangerous:  Pyotr; the NKVD assassin Alexi; the NKVD blackmailer Anoshkin; Inessa's missing brother, Pavel.  And, wouldn't you know it, who's up to his neck in all of this but Francis' Uncle Lastings?  Now known as Claude, art dealer and bon-vivant, but still up to his neck in intrigue, scams, sex, and spying.  Francis has a lot of fast talking, fast running, fast thinking, and fast acting to do to survive...

Soutine's Chemin de la Fontaine
des Tins at Ceret - Wikipedia
As always, it's fascinating to see the world through Francis' eyes, especially at 18, when he is still at the beginning of creating himself.  He has a knack for noticing details, from the "distinctive stink of French drains" to the "most brutal and vigorous thing I'd seen in France" - a dead rooster, painted by Chaim Soutine.  When he writes to Nan that "a glance at her makes me feel more hopeful", we know that Inessa is indeed a remarkable woman, someone to pay attention to.  And, when told that Pavel can't be wandering Paris without proper papers, Francis' reaction is "My own experience in Berlin led me to believe that Monsieur Chaput was exaggerating.  A teenage boy has a number of ways of eluding bureaucrats and busybodies."  And he would know.
Image result for jessie lightfoot
Nan

Emotionally, Francis is still developing, or is he?  At one point he says, regarding his commitment to Jules:  "I had promised Jules, and I believe in friendship.  It tends to be more stable than romance." Not to mention family. As he writes to Nan about his uncle, "I know this is a surprise, but He Who Must Not be Named has secured a job for me, and this time, I have asked to be paid half in advance. You can see I am getting wise to the ways of the world." In fact, the only person Francis trusts implicitly is Nan, in "Afternoons in Paris", "Nights in Berlin", "Fires of London", "The Prisoner of the Riviera", "Moon over Tangier" and in real life.  She will always be the most stable person in his life, not excepting himself.

But even at 18, Francis is already witty, sarcastic, honest, observant, hungry, lustful, reckless, and utterly sure that he will never be among the bourgeoisie. (And how right he is.) He always gives a master class in the art of survival.  Francis Bacon and Paris in the 20s - it's hard to ask for anything more.







13 April 2016

Nights in Berlin

David Edgerley Gates


NIGHTS IN BERLIN is the fourth of Janice Law's period mysteries featuring the painter Francis Bacon. The first book takes place during the Second World War, and the next two follow chronologically, but NIGHTS IN BERLIN takes us back to Weimar Germany in the 1920's, when Francis is only a teenager - although far from innocent - some years before he begins his art career.

Berlin, in the Weimar era, has a reputation for being wide open. "Life is a cabaret, old chum - " and you better believe it. Francis is sent off in the care of his uncle Lastings, in hopes Lastings will make a man of him, Francis being more than a little gay, but uncle favors a bit of rough, himself. He's also a scoundrel, working the black market, with a sideline as an informer, which turns out to be the part that proves dicey. Lastings is selling secrets to the highest bidder.  

In the event, uncle takes it on the lam and leaves Francis to his own devices. Playing fast and louche, Francis lands a job as a hatcheck girl at a drag bar. It's good cover when British Intelligence recruits him - blackmails him, in point of fact - because Uncle Lastings was freelancing for them. Berlin is in political ferment, with Bolsheviks, Freikorps thugs, SA brownshirts (Goebbels just arrived as Nazi party gauleiter), Prussian reactionaries, all stalking each other with violent and criminal results.

Francis is an entertaining guide to these wilder nooks and crannies, his voice alternating between the knowing aside and his native provincialism. There's something to the story of a Boy's Own Adventure, reminiscent of John Buchan, say, or Erskine Childers' RIDDLE OF THE SANDS. I think partly this is the age between the wars, revanchist, tribal hatreds boiling to the surface, but no real sense of the cataclysm about to swallow the Old World entire. It's also a function of our hero's age. Francis is old and wiser, and sadder, in the first three books of the series, whether London or Tangier or the Cote d'Azur, whereas turning the clock back, we see a previous, vanished Berlin, and through a younger pair of eyes. What contributes further to this is an avoidance of historical ironies. Hitler doesn't get a walk-on, or Sally Bowles, either. NIGHTS IN BERLIN is very much of the moment, as Francis inhabits it, and that lends it a sort of wandering air, the kid a little too much in pursuit of sensation for his own good.

The politics are really a side issue. The story is how the experience imprints on Francis. What did he learn? he writes to ask his former nanny. That the most unlikely people can teach us odd and useful things. And with this in mind, he's off to Paris at the end of the book. Both enterprising and alarmingly fey, in some respects, Francis seems like something of a blank slate, yet to be written on. In other words, we're still in the opening pages. The rest are empty. Francis will grow into himself. As the world itself will, passing into the savage 1930's, and then the war years. Pages yet to be written.




I jumped at the chance to read NIGHTS IN BERLIN. Janice had me at the title. I'm crazy about the premise, and the period, of course. I've lived in Berlin, I've read up on it quite a lot, I've written about it myself. I also recently discovered Philip Kerr's fabulous series of historicals, with the wartime German homicide cop Bernie Gunther. There's something endlessly fascinating to me about the city in the past century, with its many changes of clothing, Weimar, the Nazis, Occupation and the Cold War. I think if Berlin didn't actually exist, we'd have to invent it, as a metaphor, and for the purposes of fiction.


15 March 2016

Resetting the Clock

Today, on the Ides of March, I’d like to welcome Janice Law, SleuthSayers emerita, mystery writer and painter, to guest blog. Janice was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1977 for The Big Payoff, her first Anna Peters novel. And in 2013, she was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Mystery for Fires of London, the first in her Francis Bacon series. She won that award the following year for its sequel, The Prisoner of the Riviera. She writes frequently for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many others. So, take it away, Janice.

—Paul

*~*~*~*

Resetting the Clock

by Janice Law

(Many thanks to Paul D. Marks for kindly giving me his column space this week.)


My family always insists that I don’t take advice. This is only partially true. I rarely take advice immediately, but that’s not to say that I reject good ideas entirely. Case in point: my new Francis Bacon trilogy, which debuts April 5 with the opening volume, Nights in Berlin.

And what is this good advice that I’ve taken? To revise a character’s age downward. I did not do this with my former detective, Anna Peters, who retired with her bad back in her early 50’s. But I have now reset Francis’ age, from forty-something in Moon over Tangier, back to seventeen.

I had a couple reasons for doing this.

By the time he’d reached his early forties, the historical Bacon was on the verge of being both rich and famous, and some of his less pleasant, and more destructive, habits were going to become prominent. More important, he had lost Jessie Lightfoot (Nan in the books) and she, along with a knowledge of painting, was crucial to my understanding of his personality.

Characters one invents are almost by definition comprehensible. They may or may not be the fascinating, successful creations we all hope for, but the chances are good we’ll feel we understand them. If we don’t, if the character doesn’t in some way “make sense” to us, he or she will surely wind up in the out-take file or scooped up and eliminated by the handy delete button.

Historical figures are another matter. They are known, sometimes to the general public, sometimes only to specialists, but either way there certain irrefutable facts and circumstances about their lives that must be respected. To be honest, some of these facts are awkward. I personally love country living and all animals. Not so Francis. Music is important to me; Francis was tone deaf. And then there is his sexual preference – promiscuous gay sadomasochism – and his affection for the bottle.

Clearly, if one is going to write about a character this far from one’s own tastes, interests, and experience, a character, moreover, whose biography is known and available, one must find a way into his personality. My entrance to Francis’ psyche were via Nan (my mom had emigrated as a nanny and I grew up on a big estate that employed one) and his art (I’m a keen semi-pro painter).

With those two anchors, I’ve been able to navigate my fictional character’s taste for city life and rough trade, not to mention his reckless genius. Still, by the time I finished Moon over Tangier, I felt that the character I had been following for a dozen fictional years was complete, and I was ready to end the series.

But some interesting facets of the man’s life remained, especially his decision to close a reasonably successful design business (one capable of supporting both himself and Nan) and to embark on the precarious path of serious painting. That decision could, I saw, be the finale of a new trilogy.

What about the 600 or so pages needed before I could get to that point? Here, the real Francis’personal history came to my rescue. As a teenager and young adult, he lived in three different cities, each at a crucial and fascinating time: Weimar Berlin, where he was taken by a peculiar uncle – my character Uncle Lastings is, aside from his sexual habits and the circumstances of the German trip, a total invention; Paris at the end of the Roaring Twenties; and London in the Thirties after the party stopped.

Berlin and Paris were extremely important for the real painter’s later development. Bacon never went to art school and what little formal instruction he had in oil painting was picked up from one of his lovers. But in Berlin, he saw the cutting edge European art of the moment, Bauhaus design, Expressionism, Dada, and the New Objectivity as German artists struggled with the machine age and the devastation of the world war. For a young gay man, it also didn’t hurt that Berlin was liberated sexually in ways undreamt of in England.

Paris, like Berlin had galleries and new art, most importantly for Bacon, the works of Picasso, as well as the great public museums. Surrealism was in the air, and writers and artists from around the world had come to work – or to live the artistic life – in the metropolis. As for London, the art scene was tame compared to the excitements of the Continent, but London was, first and foremost, where his heart was. All his artistic life Bacon had trouble working anywhere but in the city along the Thames: he was a London man first and foremost.

Of course, three novels, even short ones, about the making of a painter are not going to set mystery lovers’ hearts a-flutter. Fortunately, history as well as biography now comes to the rescue. Berlin had gangs both fascist and Red; an enormous vice industry, fueled by the collapse of the post-war economy, plus public and private violence and misery of every sort.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-09249-0013, Berlin, alte Frau sammelt Abfälle
Paris had rich foreigners flinging money around and indulging their whims, while poor foreigners scraped for a living and struggled to recover from wars and revolutions further East. The underside of Parisian artistic creativity was imaginative larceny, including successful attempts to sell the Eiffel Tower. As for London, by the mid-Thirties, the city saw Hunger Marchers, waves of homeless, desperate immigrant Jews, British fascists like the Black Shirts, and ever-increasing fears of yet another war.

Who could let all this go to waste?

I declared Francis seventeen again and started Nights in Berlin.