Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

22 April 2020

The Unreliable Narrative


Preface
My apologies. This is unavoidably political, in the larger sense, but not a polemic. It's about grief.

***

Something is happening in this country, with regard to the coronavirus. If it were fiction, we could call it multiple POV, a chorus of voices competing for our attention.

The unreliable narrator is a longtime convention, in mysteries particularly, a famous example being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or more recently, Gone Girl. All the same, in fiction as (we hope) in life, our suspension of disbelief depends on accepting certain ground rules, and at the least an agreed-upon reality, a common yardstick.

So the question is, how do we engage, how do we maintain a sense of balance, or of structure, if the narrative keeps contradicting itself? In other words, how do we manage doubt? To return to the fictional model, mystery stories are inherently conservative, in that the crime, usually murder, violates the social contract, and resolution restores it. Even in noir, retribution is orthodox and rigid, a setting-right, with something almost Greek in its penalties, the appetites of the Furies satisfied. But if no weight is put on the scales, and no balance is required, nothing is restored. Order is relative, not absolute.

We have, in this strange political theater, not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative, a story taken out of context. Exit, pursued by a bear. And this isn't simply one or the other, my way or the highway. It's a hall of mirrors, reflecting many alternatives.

In fiction, again, in fairy tales or fantasy, dystopian or post-Apocalyptic, mysteries, thrillers, cozies or Gothic or paranormal, the most outrageous or outlandish conceits can be convincing, if they're internally consistent. This is the most basic rule. You can bend time, or the laws of physics, you can disregard every convention except the one: that similar acts have similar consequences. 

We each and all, of course, believe we see reality. We might very well believe we see the only reality. This is certainly delusional, but it's comforting nonetheless. We have very little tolerance of ambiguity. Quite probably our belief systems are grounded in self-image, or our sense of self is reinforced by belief, two things integrated. I suspect we choose a reality out of necessity, and yours can conflict with mine, because they're mutually exclusive.

Darwin may sort this out for us, survival of the fittest being adaptive, not necessarily predatory. Then again, you might not believe in natural selection, you might prefer a different model, that we are Chosen. Either way, the rough numbers come out about the same.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that unlike a fiction, life is essentially messy, and has no shape or storyline, other than what we impose. To imagine that reality - as an absolute, not a construct - pays any attention to us is no more than vanity. And to pretend that we can pick and choose which reality we inhabit is foolhardy, although that seems to be the human experience, if history's any judge. More astonishing is the lesson fiction teaches us, in that we use stories to impose order, that narrative, or history, is necessary. Like sunlight, physically and psychologically.

All the crazier, then, that what we're seeing in our body politic, and the breakdown of our national conversation, is that chaos is self-inflicted. We've agreed to it.

***

Postscript
This, from The Atlantic, may be paywalled. I recommend it.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/

04 August 2019

Sorry, Sorry Night


by Leigh Lundin

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait with bandaged ear
Vincent van Gogh
self-portrait, bandaged ear
Everyone knows the story of Vincent van Gogh. In desolation and desperation, he sliced off his ear and gave it to a love interest, a local prostitute.

Much of that tale is problematic, even outright false. I have a simpler theory:

He missed.

Wait, wait… I’ll explain.

First, let’s correct one fact right off. Not every one who works in a church is a priest, pastor, or parson. Likewise, not every one who works in a whorehouse is a prostitute. Van Gogh presented the ear to young Gabrielle Berlatier who worked not as une fille de joie, but as a maid, serving, sewing, sudsing the laundry.

Women were the least of Vincent’s problems. His trip to the south of France hadn’t worked out, his paintings weren’t selling, and he was dependent upon his younger brother Theo for a small monthly stipend. Naturally, when a person pays money to another, they feel entitled to offer advice.
Sunflowers
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
“Vinnie, Vinnie. What am I going to do with you? Sunflowers? Who cares about sunflowers. In my dreams, I hear a voice chanting, ’Take a leaf from O’Keeffe.’ Don’t know what the dream means, but there you go.”

“But Theo…”

“And that weird thing, Drunken Fireworks on Bastille Day, title it Starry Night. Listen, I’m an art dealer. I know these things. You with me, bro?”

“But Theo…”

“Look, a healthy guy ought to paint nekked women. Look at Manet, look at Georgione, Gérôme, and hey, your buddy Gauguin. Naked people, now that sells; flowers not so much. Try to be more, well, like Toulouse.”

“Too loose for what?”

“Vinnie, Vinnie. Check out other artists, man, keep your ear to the ground. You so got that Dutch yardstick-up-your-klootzak thing. That peasant who models for you, what’s his name?”

“Er, something with Zach, maybe Balzac, Shadrach, Mezach, Prozach, I dunno.”

“That’s enough to depress anyone. Gotta go, bro. That argument with Paul, get over it. Gauguin’s a good guy. Tell him to send me some work. See ya, Vin.”
Van Gogh was one down-and-out dude. No luck selling his works, no luck with women, no job, no money, no friends– Van Gogh found himself beset with problems, especially depression.

On the 23rd of December 1888, he underwent a nasty row with his roommate, Paul Gauguin. Hours before Christmas, Van Gogh found himself abandoned, alone except for a bottle, actually a case of bottles.

He drank. He drank a lot. He followed Gauguin and waggled a straight razor at him. Gauguin sensibly fled to a hotel.

Vincent, truly alone, a man and his bottle… and a device commonly called a cutthroat razor.

The very drunk, very depressed artist decided to take his own life. He unfolded the blade. Intending to deliver a huge, decisive stroke, he raised the razor high above his shoulder, above his head. He hesitated, then whipped the blade down in a dramatic slash toward his quivering throat and…

Gaugin - Fatata te Miti (By the Sea)
Paul Gauguin - Fatata te Miti
Missed.

Gashed his ear, slicing it nearly off. Momentum lost, the blade glanced off his neck.

The inebriated artist botched his suicide.

The shock of blood and pain brought Van Gogh partially back to his senses. Woozy, he wrapped the ear and staggered to the brothel. There he unsuccessfully begged the teenage seamstress to sew it back on for him, a job too much for the girl.

Vincent van Gogh hadn’t deliberately cut off his ear. He’d intended to cut his throat and bungled his suicide.

So says my hypothesis. What’s your take?

22 May 2019

War & Remembrance


The Caine Mutiny put Herman Wouk on the literary map, among the war writers Norman Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal, John Horne Burns, and Irwin Shaw. Wouk and Shaw were the most commercially successful, by far, which drew a certain amount of snobbish condescension. I'm a big fan of Irwin Shaw's, as it happens, but today it's Herman Wouk, who died just this week past. 


The Winds of War was published in 1971, War and Remembrance came out in '78, and somewhere in there I remember my dad and a friend talking about Wouk's authenticity. Both of these guys were Navy vets, WWII, and while they admitted it was a little convenient that Victor Henry or somebody in his family circle managed to be present at so many historical turning points - Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and a host of lesser lights, all had cameos - they were impressed by the fluency and momentum of the novels, the gathering darkness, the furious consequence. They thought Wouk had gotten it right, that the books were absolutely convincing. (My dad thought Catch-22 was pretty accurate, too, if for different reasons.)


For me, that was a strong recommendation, and when I got around to reading The Winds of War not long afterwards, the fact that it was so resolutely old-fashioned worked very much in its favor, and I read War and Remembrance because I wanted to see how the story came out. My dad used to joke that he and his crew must have seen Part V of Frank Capra's Why We Fight a dozen times, but he never found out how it ended. We know now that they Allies beat Hitler and the Japanese, but Wouk is skillful enough that we want to know whether Natalie and her uncle Aaron survive the Nazis. You could do worse as a writer.


Wouk's model is of course Tolstoy; his title gives it away. It might be worth pointing out that Tolstoy's title in his native Russian is Vojna i Mir, and the second word, mir, means both 'peace' and 'world.' You could almost translate it as Repair, or chaos made whole again. There's a lot of this in Wouk. The narrative and moral arc of War and Remembrance is return. We're delivered from an unnatural order, entropy or chaos, its power over us denied, the balance restored. You could almost call it biblical unity, if not for being reminded how little comfort history is.


The best obit was the Hollywood Reporter, and there was an extraordinarily clear-eyed piece by Anna Waldman in the New York Times. Wouk was a guy who deserves consideration.







14 December 2018

Fleshing Out The Past


Ladies and gents, we are delighted to introduce our newest SleuthSayer. Lawrence Maddox will be appearing every third Friday, and we are delighted.

I met Lawrence at Bouchercon in Long Beach years ago and we hit it off. His gripping and eccentric stories have appeared in 44 Caliber FunkandOrange County Noir. He scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick RAW TARGET andthe indie musical OPEN HOUSE (and how often have you read about those two genres in the same sentence?). PUBLISHERS WEEKLY called his FAST BANG BOOZE (published earlier this year by Shotgun Honey),"offbeat noir." I called it "a wild ride."Please give Larry a warm SleuthSayers welcome! - Robert Lopresti

FLESHING OUT THE PAST

by Lawrence Maddox


Ian Fleming once surprised a Polynesian dancer by reaching out and touching her while she was performing. It’s not noted where, exactly, he touched her. As for why: he was doing research. Through travel, research, and first-hand knowledge, Fleming loaded his Bond novels with sumptuous detail. He was one of the first authors to use actual product names in his fiction. Fleming was a master at describing the world he lived in, but what are the tools an author uses to flesh out the past when, unlike Fleming’s dancer, it’s no longer there for one to touch? I asked crime fiction authors Christa Faust, Robert Lopresti and Paul D. Marks how they brought the once-was into the right-now.

Before New York’s Times Square was cleaned up in the 1990s, it was a sleazy and dangerous place. Travis Bickle’s “All the animals come out at night” monologue from Taxi Driver sums it up. Christa Faust, Gary Phillips (and artist Andrea Camerini) faithfully recreate Times Square, circa 1986, in their thrilling graphic crime comic Peepland (Titan Comics, collected as a paperback, 2017). Roxy Bell is a Times Square peepshow worker, performing one-woman sex shows behind a glass window. Powerful forces will stop at nothing to retrieve a criminally incriminating VHS tape that has fallen into her hands.


“Peepland is based on my own lived experience as a kid growing up in Hell's Kitchen and as a young woman working in the Times Square peep booths,” Christa says. I consider the rich and authentic rendering of Times Square, and ask Christa if she needed to do any research for Peepland. “No research was necessary, just memories.” In an interview with Crime Fiction Lover, Christa explained that “all of the characters are based on real people I met while working in the peep booths. The central main character Roxy Bell is definitely semi-autobiographical.” In the same interview, Christa succinctly said why memories of Times Square were all she needed to create Peepland: “It’s in my blood.”

Roughly two miles away and two decades earlier, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of American folk music, a movement in sound that put political dissent on the airwaves. In Robert Lopresti’s evocative murder mystery Such a Killing Crime (Kearney Street Books, 2005), coffeehouse manager and war vet Joe Talley sifts through the many characters circling the folk revival scene in search of the murderer of his friend, an up-and-coming folk singer. Robert gives a sightseeing tour down MacDougal Street, detailing the people and points of interest along the way. Folksinger Tom Paxton, who makes a cameo, said of Robert’s writing, “If I'd known he was watching us all so carefully, I'd have behaved much better.”


I ask Robert how he brought 1963 Greenwich Village back to life. “Since I’m a librarian the obvious answer was research. That was more challenging than I expected because all the New York City newspapers were on strike that spring. The Village Voice was the main source of information.” Robert says he also spent hours at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library scouring the main folk rags of ‘63, Sing Out! and Broadside. Robert was after more than just facts in his research. “I got to interview several people I knew who lived in that time and place. That was partly to get facts but mostly to get feelings. What was it like? What did they remember the most vividly about that time? Then there was the matter of trying to think like an early sixties person. Women were ‘girls,’ whatever their age. Smoking in a hospital was perfectly normal.” I ask Robert if his research forced him to rethink past assumptions. “I was well into editing before an article in a recent newspaper pointed out that back in 1963 women were not allowed to drink in most bars in the city! After confirming that with a woman I know who went to school there I had to rewrite a whole lot of scenes. But part of the fun of the book is showing you this strange and distant culture.”


Paul D. Marks explores early 1990s Los Angeles in his two Duke Rogers private eye novels White Heat (Down & Out Books, re-issued 2018) and Broken Windows (Down & Out Books, 2018). In White Heat, Duke finds himself in the heart of the 1992 LA riots while investigating the death of an actress. Broken Windows, occurring two years later, has the Prop 187 battle over illegal immigration as the backdrop. Marks grew up in Los Angeles, and his Duke Rogers books explore how myth and memory are at odds with the often violent, seedy and corrupt LA that Duke encounters while plying his trade.

“The Internet, as well as memory, comes into play to try to get the reality of that time, but even with a good memory it’s wise to verify with multiple sources.” I ask him if there were any challenges recreating the not-so distant past. "In some ways it’s
almost harder to write that than something set in the more distant past.” Earlier in the 20th century “there were no cell phones, personal computers, answering machines or televisions at home. But all of that stuff existed in the ’90s, but in very different form than we have today. So, while someone might have had a cell phone it looked different and worked differently – some of the early ones were as big as walkie-talkies. Same with computers. So you have to be careful if you lived through that era not to transpose modern versions of the technology onto the tech of that day.”

I had similar issues with my novel Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey, 2018), which takes place in the early 1990s as well. I had to rethink a lot of what I thought I remembered about cell phones from that period. A fun cell phone fact: the first commercially available handheld cell phone (made by Motorola) was nicknamed “The Brick,” and cell phones pretty much kept that design until smaller flip phones came along in the mid-nineties.


Paul D. Marks and I are both native multigenerational Angelenos, and we’ve had that “Do you remember” conversation a few times. LA, as well as being a sprawl, is also the kind of city that lets a legendary place like Schwab’s get torn down and be replaced by a Crunch Gym, so sometimes the landscape of our memories doesn’t overlap. When I’ve met fellow Angelenos and we realize that we’ve both been to the same forgotten dive bar or long-gone taco truck, there’s a bond. We belong to a dwindling club, and when the last of us shuffles off, it will be like a point in time and place has been wiped off the map.

When I wrote Fast Bang Booze, I wanted to impart what it felt like to be young, barhopping, and maybe a little out of control in the early ‘90s in LA. I just couldn’t do it all from memory, because my protagonist (a grungy twenty-something with a fantastically souped-up nervous system) is a fictional construct, and my tale is pure pulp. I had to do my research, which included buying old issues of LA Weekly and re-reading old diaries. Like Robert Lopresti, I even interviewed people. I wanted the facts and the feel.

I drove to Salt Lake City some years ago for a job. When I unlocked the door to my hotel room and stepped in, I was hit with the odor of cigarettes and Glade air freshener. It struck me in a way I still marvel at today. I would walk to my Grandmother’s house everyday from elementary school, and that was exactly how her place smelled. I swear for a moment I could picture all the objects in her living room, down to the glass fish statuette with the green tint. However briefly, I could feel the past. A piece of writing that can accomplish what Glade and cigarettes did for me, bringing the past alive, is powerful indeed.

09 May 2018

What They Ate


Not on the subject of crime, but partly on writers, more particularly on food - and the relationship of women to food - and simply because it's an utterly fascinating book, I might suggest Laura Shapiro's latest, What She Ate.

We were briefly colleagues at The Cambridge Phoenix, in what might have been a more innocent time, and then Laura moved on to Newsweek. She published Perfection Salad in 1986, which took as its baseline the late 19th century Fannie Farmer cookbook, and then took flight. It was a meditation on America's relationships with food, a social history, a political document, an attitude, a conversation with the reader. It was an eye-opener. I gobbled it up, and argued back the whole time I was reading it. It turned what was familiar and comforting inside out.  



Food writing has undergone an enormous change, and I think a lot of the credit goes to M.F.K. Fisher, although it's condescending to diminish Fisher as merely a 'food writer,' although maybe it's the reverse - we shouldn't diminish food writing as something suspect and domestic and below the salt. For sure, this is true of Laura Shapiro, whose eye, like Fisher's, is drawn to the telling detail, and how food is a reflection of our desires, carnal and otherwise. (Her second book, Something From the Oven, picks up the themes of Perfection Salad, but it's rather about the food industry than the community of the kitchen, and she wrote a lively and gracious portrait of Julia Child as well.)

What She Ate is a sort of group portrait. An approach to the canvas, so to speak, looking at six women through what they brought to the table. It appears to circle in, from the peripheral, but that's inexact, or even demeaning. As if to say, food is peripheral, or food is women's work, the kuche in between kinder and kirche. In other words, that this most basic of human activities is somehow less than serious. It's very much lose-lose. If the table is central, though, to family, to tribal instinct, to our sense of commonality, if it nourishes us in both express and literal ways, as well as the unexpressed, then what we sit down to is celebration. The breaking of bread is by no accident sacramental. How To Cook A Wolf, indeed.

The six women we're invited to sit down with are, in order of appearance, Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister, the famous Brit hotelier and caterer Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun (!), the novelist Barbara Pym, and publisher and master of self-invention Helen Gurley Brown. It's enjoyable company, for the most part, although we don't quite imagine a dinner party with all six of them in the same room. We can, on the other hand, imagine being seated next to each of them on turn. The exception being Eva, who doesn't come across as being particularly interesting in her own right, and the guest list puts you off your feed, but the reason Eva's in the nearest chair is that this was likely her only means of self-expression. 

"Extraordinary circumstances produce extraordinary women," Shapiro remarks in her introduction, "food makes them recognizable." The point here being the intimacy of food, how we prepare it, and serve it, how we take it into our mouths. That we digest its nature, whether that be its earthiness, or meaty sinew, or leafy crunch. That it's in fact very much a domestic pursuit, homely in both sense of the word, does it no discredit.

The voice in What She Ate is companionable. Engaging, a little skeptical at times, but sympathetic. She seems to coax her subjects into the light, or encourage them to reveal themselves, and they can be not always self-aware. The mix is a challenge, and a bit of a puzzle, but it works. Mostly because the author is curious, and generous, open to surprise, sly and funny. What it is, is chewy.



11 September 2017

The Moments We Remember


Jim Howard, a former Hartford police officer whom I see more often than not at open mic gigs, is one of those rare people who can play harmonica and guitar simultaneously. Today, he turns 71 (Happy Birthday, Jim), which makes him almost exactly six months older than I am.

But that's not how I remember his birthday.


We all have a handful of days we remember, and they change from generation to generation. Some are good days: meeting your future spouse, for example, or the day you won some award.

There are other days we remember because they changed the way we look at the world. Forever.

One Friday afternoon in 1963, I sat in my Latin III class when the principal came on the PA to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The next few minutes are hazy. I remember feeling like the floor had dropped out from under me, and the gorgeous German exchange student whom I never had the nerve to ask for a date turning to the boy next to her and asking him what "assassinated" meant. He answered with tears pouring down his face and most of us cried along with him.


I was sixteen. That may be the moment when I began to comprehend what I now identify as "evil."
Years later, my wife and I met Laurent Jean, a fine actor and director with whom we worked on many theatrical productions. Laurent's mother went into labor on November 22, 1963 and he was born the next day. I remember his birthday easily, too.

Five years later, I was shaving for a date with, coincidentally, another young woman from Germany when my next-door dorm neighbor burst in to tell me Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. I watched the play that night, but I don't think either my date or I could have told anyone about it the next day. By the time I walked her back to her dorm, we could see the orange glow dancing in the sky over Pontiac, Michigan as the town went up in flames five miles away.



Barely two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot, too. The year I turned 21 featured both those killings and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (Where former CT Governor and JFK Cabinet member Ribicoff infuriated Mayor Daly with his comments about police "Gestapo tactics" against demonstrators), not to mention the escalating Vietnam War.

By then, most of the shaping had been done and I was probably about 90% of the person I am now, for better or for worse.


One of my former students was in pre-med classes at George Washington University hospital when the Secret Service rushed Ronald Reagan into surgery after John Hinckley wounded him. He wrote me later to tell of his shock and horror when men in suits rushed in waving weapons and badges. This was his first life shattering event.

In January, 1986, I was producing a play and sat in the lobby of a local theater trying to reach my set designer on the pay phone (remember them?) and watching a portable TV replay the Challenger explosion. My director, a former Vietnam pilot and then an aeronautics engineer, watched a dozen replays and finally called the local news station to suggest what might have gone wrong. The subsequent investigation confirmed his suspicions. We didn't rehearse that night. A few people may have wired up speakers or focused a few lights, but most of us sat in the half-assembled gallery and cried for the astronauts and their families.


In September, 2001, I was teaching five classes--two for the first time--and still learning the names of 125 students. I cut through the media center toward the teachers' lounge and saw dozens of people jammed around the TV set near the AV department. They were still telling me what had happened when we watched the second plane slam into the World Trade Center.

To my students in 2001, the World Trade Center was what Kennedy's assassination was to me, and I remember feeling the curriculum shift slightly for the rest of the year.

Every generation has a horrific event that shapes it. Right now, we're dealing with several natural disasters: Harvey and Irma, the earthquake in Mexico City, tropical storm Katia, the fires in the northwest (Nope, no climate change, uh-uh). But I tend to give the man-made events more weight. We know that Nature is immense and implacable, but the assassinations and explosions remind us over and over (and we never learn, do we?) of our own hubris.

And that's what we all write about. No matter whether we write crime, romance, sci-fi, poetry, or anything else, our material is the shattering events in peoples' lives. The events that force them--and us--to surmount and survive.

The events that make us remember for too short a time that we are all human.

26 May 2017

Monuments to a Terrible Past


by O'Neil De Noux

Confederate monuments have been removed from public places in New Orleans.

A little perspective about these monuments. Founded on May 7, 1718, New Orleans has been around for 299 years. For 1 year and 3 months she was a confederate city (from January 26, 1861 until April 25, 1862). That's it - 15 months.

For the record - I'm a New Orleanian. Born, raised and educated in New Orleans. I'm fairly intelligent (my last measured IQ was 161). I am a US Army veteran, been a police officer most of my life. I'm an internationally published, award winning writer with 34 books in print and over 400 short stories sales. I have a voice and I now use it.

I dislike changes in our city, dislike renaming streets (What happened to Good Children Street and Craps Street and Nyades and so many others?). I love art and sculpture and statues and have given the removal of confederate monuments a lot of thought.

There is much to be admired about Robert E. Lee but let's face it - he broke his oath to defend the constitution of the United States when he quit the US Army to join the Confederate cause. He led men into battle against the US Army, against men who died flying this flag:


Could you take up arms against this flag?

Robert E. Lee was an important leader of the armed insurrection that divided our nation and caused the deadliest war in American history (Over 750,000 killed and an undetermined amount of civilian casualties). His particular genius at war prolonged the conflict. Jefferson Davis and P. G. T. Beauregard were also traitors. Beauregard, in command of Confederate forces at Fort Sumpter, started the war. We are talking four years of horrific history in America.

Robert E. Lee has no connection to New Orleans (visiting the city doesn't count). His statue was put atop Tivoli Circle by post-reconstruction white citizens thumbing their noses at the Yankees in Washington. The Lee statue, just as the statues of Jefferson Davis and P. G. T. Beauregard, does not celebrate the glory of old New Orleans. They celebrate the lost cause of a confederacy of states whose economies depended on human slavery. They celebrate the arrogance of a people who thought they were better than ungentlemanly Yankees and believed people with darker skin were subhuman and could be bought and sold like beasts of burden.

These monuments were not even put up to celebrate the glory of the old south. They were put up to celebrate defiance, to show the world white people were back in charge of the south after reconstruction and their will be done. Only white folks can vote now. Bring on segregation.

The Liberty Monument is not only a celebration of white power, it is the ONLY American sculpture celebrating the murder of police officers (white and black officers) by an armed mob of terrorists. Abominable. It is a "monument to a deadly white-supremacist uprising in 1874" (www.apnews.com). New Orleans Mayor Mich Landrieu explains these statues "perpetuate the idea of white supremacy". He vowed, "We will no longer allow the Confederacy to be put on a pedestal in the heart of our city."

As I said earlier, I love art and sculpture and statues. These monuments should not be desecrated or destroyed but their time is long past. Put them in a museum.

photo of St. Louis Cathedral © O'Neil De Noux


www.oneildenoux.com

10 May 2017

Rattling the Cupboards


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the twelfth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Edgerley Gates

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy famously says, and each unhappy family unhappy in their own way. Tolstoy certainly knew from personal experience. John le Carré is another writer whose unsettling family history gave him not only a template, but a theme. He tells us the habits of concealment have served him a lifetime - not always with the desired result. Skeletons in closets.

Buried secrets are an old literary device. The buried past particularly. I'm always a sucker for it, and it's one I've used myself fairly often. I have to wonder too, like le CarrĂ©, how much of my personal history conspires to make the secret so attractive.

Well, first off, there's the official record - not all of it on the record, naturally. Most people know I was a Russian linguist and intercept analyst when I was in the Air Force, and probably as many people know from reading my posts here that my uncle Charlie Haskins was at Bletchley Park during WWII. He also served on Eisenhower's national security staff during Eisenhower's presidency. I suspect there's more to his life in the secret world, but I'll never know. Going back another generation, his own dad, the historian Charles Homer Haskins, was at Versailles with Wilson, in 1919. Specifically, he served on the commission to administer the Saar. You wouldn't think this was a political hot potato, because everybody pretty much conceded the French would control the coalfields, but it may have been one of Wilson's bargaining chips with Clemenceau. Wilson himself was impatient with the machinations at the conference, but his main advisor (and intelligence chief) Col. House didn't mind getting his hands dirty, and my grandfather reported to House. I can only guess, but given my fanciful nature, I imagine there's probably more to this than meets the eye.

Then, we got the unofficial. My mom's family, the same lineage as above, had one of those episodes everybody was deeply embarrassed about, and it was rarely spoken of. The problem being, for a kid, is that the hints and silent glances only made you want more, and more was never forthcoming, which of course made the whole thing out to be worse than it was. This dark blot on the escutcheon was the fact that my great-grandparents had divorced, a scandal that apparently shook late 19th-century St. Louis society, not least because he divorced her, which to all intents and purposes branded her a Scarlet Woman. A veil is drawn across what actually happened, but the point isn't what in fact actually happened - with a lot of spadework, my sister Bea has dug out the details - but that everybody felt it was too shameful, it had to stay hidden, it couldn't be talked of. Like the madwoman in the attic, Mrs. Rochester. There's more than a little of the Gothic, here.

It turns out there really is somebody in the attic, too, now you mention it. My grandfather, my mom's dad, the aforementioned Charles Homer Haskins, came down with Parkinson's. He had to give up teaching, and the slow degenerative process wore him down. It killed him at 66. For the last years of his life, he lived on the third floor of the house in Cambridge he and his wife had built early in their marriage. As a boy, I'd always found my grandmother's house spooky and dark, haunted not too strong a word. And it was only years later, when the house was being sold, that I ever ventured up to the third floor. To my enormous surprise, it was filled with light. Made me feel a lot better, truth be told, to know he wasn't left in darkness.

There's another legacy of shadow, the troubled relationship between their children, my mom and her two brothers. My uncle Charlie was the middle one, and from all the evidence a mediating influence. My uncle George was the oldest. Seen at this remove, a bully, emotionally abusive, a predator. Nothing to be done about it now. Not that I'd have a problem pissing on his grave. My real revenge would be to write a book about it, and cast him as the heavy.

It's odd to realize you get material out of this. If not the actual, the impulse. All that compacted sadness. It's not right, somehow. Or maybe we're making amends. That sorrow isn't of our making. It's gone, it's done, it's well beyond our control, it was never ours to begin with. Perhaps this is how we claim ownership, the way we bear witness. Survivors' guilt. We owe them. This is the coin we carry for the ferryman, to pay for our own crossing.

26 April 2017

Life on Mars


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.



09 November 2016

Old Mortality


I don't imagine Sir Walter Scott is much read these days. Back in high school, for some of us, IVANHOE was on the reading list, maybe QUENTIN DURWARD or THE TALISMAN. All three of them were made into pretty successful movies, in the 1950's - romantic swashbucklers, not particularly credible, I admit, but incredibly rousing.  

His reputation now perhaps in disrepair, Scott in his lifetime was quite possibly the most widely read novelist in English, and maybe in translation. He's the first brand-name author, at least in trade publishing as we know it. He falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Dickens. not just chronologically, but in how he inhabited the popular imagination. If you look at expressions that have entered out common vocabulary, the Bible of course comes first, with Shakespeare a close second, then Dickens, and then Scott, you might be surprised to realize. The rest of us are back in the pack. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Scott. They're the most-quoted writers in the English language, although more than half the time, nobody's consciously quoting them. Something rotten in the state of Denmark. The best of times, the worst of times. Every dog has his day. Recognize the source? A lot of us wouldn't. They've become commonplaces, There's an interesting transition with the generic. Years ago, Xerox fought bitterly against their name being used as a synonym for copying - "let's Xerox it" - and Rollerblades has done it too, more recently, calling it trademark infringement. Fridgidaire once tried the same thing. Hard to see Dickens complaining about being Uriah Heep'd - it gave him legs.

Shakespeare and Dickens both set out, from the starting blocks, to be rich and famous. Neither of them came from privileged backgrounds, and their ticket to stardom was their skill as writers. Scott had more advantages. He was well-educated, and read for the law. Writing was at first an avocation, not a career. And neither was he drawn to commercial genres. He was fascinated by the Borders, the bloody history, the clan feuds and the religious wars, the Covenanter Rebellion and, later, the doomed Stuarts. His first book was a collection of Border ballads. He'd met Robert Burns when he was fifteen, and it had decided him on being a poet.

Let's be plain about this. Poetry was a gentlemen's profession. It was literature. In the early 1800's, the novel was below the salt. They were written for women, and not to be taken seriously - some obvious irony, here. Scott launched the novel in a new direction. The first of his historicals, WAVERLY, was published in 1814, and it took off like a rocket. I don't think Scott anticipated its success. He wanted to popularize the Jacobite legend, and maybe at the same time, bring it down to earth, make it accessible but show it for the folly it was.

Scott tapped into a hungry audience. They were waiting for it. He
was the missing piece, and he hit the market at exactly the right time, although he hadn't calculated for it. The early books were simply gobbled up.  Of those novels, my own opinion, the best is OLD MORTALITY, which has a political and moral complexity Scott never pulled off again. Yeah, the hero's kind of an insipid boob, but the heavies are jaw-dropping, the Royalist general Claverhouse and the Presbyterian assassin Burley. Think, perhaps, of the IRA Provos, or Islamic fanatics. OLD MORTALITY is deep in those dark woods.  

Scott didn't trade on his celebrity. It was an open secret in Edinburgh literary circles who the so-called Author of Waverly was, but his name never appeared on the title pages of his novels. A quaint convention? Maybe. He put his name to THE LADY OF THE LAKE, which sold like hotcakes, but it was of course epic poetry.

And then the inevitable happens. Scott's success catches up with him. It isn't hubris, or over-reaching, but his publisher, James Ballantyne, goes down. Scott has been a silent partner in the business for years, and his books have supported Ballantyne's bad business decisions. Scott could have thrown them over the side, but he's way too honorable for that. They declare bankruptcy, Scott writes them out of debt, and it kills him, at 61.

This is an over-simplified version of a complicated story. I admire the fact that Scott took responsibility. It speaks to the man. but the later stuff isn't that good, with the exception of ST. RONAN'S WELL, which is patently playing to the romance market, Austen and Bronte, and Scott doesn't shy away from admitting it. 


Seriously, can you envision anybody doing this, in the present predatory publishing climate? I think it's astonishing. The guy's loyal to an old friend, who's been a fool, but not devious. The guy believes that his good name, and his legacy, is more valuable than immediate profit. The guy wants to finish an enormously ambitious building project, Abbotsford, but he won't mortgage his reputation. In other words, Scott's willing to break his ass, and risk his physical health, to make good on his debt to history. I'm not at all sure we could meet that bar.  


Old Mortality


I don't imagine Sir Walter Scott is much read these days. Back in high school, for some of us, IVANHOE was on the reading list, maybe QUENTIN DURWARD or THE TALISMAN. All three of them were made into pretty successful movies, in the 1950's - romantic swashbucklers, not particularly credible, I admit, but incredibly rousing.  


His reputation now perhaps in disrepair, Scott in his lifetime was quite possibly the most widely read novelist in English, and maybe in translation. He's the first brand-name author, at least in trade publishing as we know it. He falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Dickens. not just chronologically, but in how he inhabited the popular imagination. If you look at expressions that have entered out common vocabulary, the Bible of course comes first, with Shakespeare a close second, then Dickens, and then Scott, you might be surprised to realize. The rest of us are back in the pack. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Scott. They're the most-quoted writers in the English language, although more than half the time, nobody's consciously quoting them. Something rotten in the state of Denmark. The best of times, the worst of times. Every dog has his day. Recognize the source? A lot of us wouldn't. They've become commonplaces, There's an interesting transition with the generic. Years ago, Xerox fought bitterly against their name being used as a synonym for copying - "let's Xerox it" - and Rollerblades has done it too, more recently, calling it trademark infringement. Fridgidaire once tried the same thing. Hard to see Dickens complaining about being Uriah Heep'd - it gave him legs.

Shakespeare and Dickens both set out, from the starting blocks, to be rich and famous. Neither of them came from privileged backgrounds, and their ticket to stardom was their skill as writers. Scott had more advantages. He was well-educated, and read for the law. Writing was at first an avocation, not a career. And neither was he drawn to commercial genres. He was fascinated by the Borders, the bloody history, the clan feuds and the religious wars, the Covenanter Rebellion and, later, the doomed Stuarts. His first book was a collection of Border ballads. He'd met Robert Burns when he was fifteen, and it had decided him on being a poet.

Let's be plain about this. Poetry was a gentlemen's profession. It was literature. In the early 1800's, the novel was below the salt. They were written for women, and not to be taken seriously - some obvious irony, here. Scott launched the novel in a new direction. The first of his historicals, WAVERLY, was published in 1814, and it took off like a rocket. I don't think Scott anticipated its success. He wanted to popularize the Jacobite legend, and maybe at the same time, bring it down to earth, make it accessible but show it for the folly it was.

Scott tapped into a hungry audience. They were waiting for it. He
was the missing piece, and he hit the market at exactly the right time, although he hadn't calculated for it. The early books were simply gobbled up.  Of those novels, my own opinion, the best is OLD MORTALITY, which has a political and moral complexity Scott never pulled off again. Yeah, the hero's kind of an insipid boob, but the heavies are jaw-dropping, the Royalist general Claverhouse and the Presbyterian assassin Burley. Think, perhaps, of the IRA Provos, or Islamic fanatics. OLD MORTALITY is deep in those dark woods.  

Scott didn't trade on his celebrity. It was an open secret in Edinburgh literary circles who the so-called Author of Waverly was, but his name never appeared on the title pages of his novels. A quaint convention? Maybe. He put his name to THE LADY OF THE LAKE, which sold like hotcakes, but it was of course epic poetry.

And then the inevitable happens. Scott's success catches up with him. It isn't hubris, or over-reaching, but his publisher, James Ballantyne, goes down. Scott has been a silent partner in the business for years, and his books have supported Ballantyne's bad business decisions. Scott could have thrown them over the side, but he's way too honorable for that. They declare bankruptcy, Scott writes them out of debt, and it kills him, at 61.

This is an over-simplified version of a complicated story. I admire the fact that Scott took responsibility. It speaks to the man. but the later stuff isn't that good, with the exception of ST. RONAN'S WELL, which is patently playing to the romance market, Austen and Bronte, and Scott doesn't shy away from admitting it. 


Seriously, can you envision anybody doing this, in the present predatory publishing climate? I think it's astonishing. The guy's loyal to an old friend, who's been a fool, but not devious. The guy believes that his good name, and his legacy, is more valuable than immediate profit. The guy wants to finish an enormously ambitious building project, Abbotsford, but he won't mortgage his reputation. In other words, Scott's willing to break his ass, and risk his physical health, to make good on his debt to history. I'm not at all sure we could meet that bar.  


31 July 2016

History behind the Story


(NOTE: this blog article is a re-post originally written for AHMM and posted at Trace Evidence on 07/12/2016.)

Out of history comes a story: "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:


Imam Shamyl
For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossaks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen's saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details..

Murid followers
Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion of the Caucusus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of the hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It's now time to invoke the writer's famous What if...clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

     The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells "The Great Aul" story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So let's get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian's return.

It's a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things can happen to the Armenian along the route and the boy doesn't know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market and making his own plans for escape just in case things don't work out according to the plans of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that's all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam's son is returned, you'll have to read the story yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. It allegedly made the editor cry.



04 July 2016

An Independence Day Conspiracy Theory


As today is the Fourth of July, I felt it only fitting that I do something patriotic, and what's more patriotic than a good conspiracy theory? Nothing notable has happened in our country that hasn't been clouded (or, to some, sprinkled with sunshine) by a good conspiracy theory. Was there someone on that grassy knoll? Did John Wilkes Both really act alone? Did FDR really know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did the FBI have forewarning of 9/11? Who knows? Well, somebody surely does, but maybe not the ones who purport the juicy theories.

I decided (mainly because I'm not beneath loving a good theory or two myself) to research rumors that might have been running a muck during those latter years of the 18th century. And I came across a doozy: Massachusetts writer J.L. Bell, a leading historian on the Revolutionary War (author of, among others, THE ROAD TO CONCORD), revealed some interesting tidbits in an article entitled, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”

In an article written on July 19, 1775, The Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport reported that on a trip to Paris, British Captain Jno. Hansen, due to irrelevant (in my view) circumstances, became intimately acquainted with the French Pretender's secretary. During a meeting with this unnamed secretary, he – the secretary – left Capt. Hansen alone in his office. On the secretary's desk was an unsealed packet. Capt. Hansen read the contents of this packet, which stated that Lord North and the Earl of Bute (present and past First Ministers of Britain) said the “plan” was almost finished, that the “draught of troops for America would soon leave England so defenseless that the Pretender with 20,000 troops might land and march all over England.”

Hansen fled with the packet to England and informed Lord North of the contends of the packet. Lord North then paid off Capt. Hansen. But by spring of that year, America was “deluged” in war and Hansen felt guilty about his part in this. He went to New York where he told the Congress, which credited the information and sent Capt. Hansen to show it to the Continental Congress.

Rev. Stiles concluded in this article that Lord North had regained the packet from Capt. Hansen. Stiles felt that if Capt. Hansen had retained custody of the packet he could have convinced the King and the Nation and “restore tranquility between Britain and America.” Rev. Stiles went on to surmise that perhaps the top ministers of the British government had started the trouble in America just to tie up the British army, letting the Pretender sail from France and seize power.

Rev. Stiles wasn't the only one to think along the lines of a conspiracy theory. Roger Lamb, a sergeant in the British army, wrote in an article that, in essence, the French supported America in the Revolution so as to separate Great Britain from the colonies and help France regain their former station in Europe. He went so far as to claim France sent “secret emissaries” to the colonies to “spread dissatisfaction.” The colonists began to gradually change from the “warmth of attachment to the mother country, which had so particularly characterized them,” to, well, pissed off. As J.L. Bell concluded, Sergeant Lamb, writing for a British audience, could not concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfaction all on their own.

On reading this, my take is we must thank the French for more than just the Statue of Liberty. Whatever their reasons for supporting the colonies in their bid for independence, we appreciate the help. So this fourth of July, tilt back a Coors Lite with a Perrier chaser, and grill yourself a cheese burger with a side of escargot. Just a thought.