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Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Strange Recital

I went to a short story reading at the weekend. It’s not something I do very often, go out, but I made the effort because I knew two of the guys reading and wanted to be supportive. I’d no expectations but the event went pretty much the way these things usually go for me; I’m not the world’s best socialiser, far from it, but the readings themselves were interesting. I didn’t regret not being up there with them, not for a second. I do understand why people arrange events like this but just because you write readable stories doesn’t mean you should read them yourself. And this is especially true if your story is in the first person. People would laugh if I got up on a stage and started to read ‘Disintegration’ or ‘Monsters’. Despite having lived all my life in Scotland I do a lousy Scottish accent and an even worse New York one. So I was wary when my friend Brent Robison dropped me an e-mail a few months back asking permission to include my story ‘Tomorrowscape’ in his podcast, The Strange Recital. I’d no problems with him using it—hell, we writers pounce on any opportunity to promote our writing—I just didn’t think I could do the story justice. Not a problem as it happens. Brent had access to a stable of actors. “So, yes, fine, knock yourself out,” I said, or words to that effect. I told him a bit about the voice I heard in my head when I read the story but other than that I left him to interpret the thing as he saw fit. After a while he wrote back. “I’ve had an idea. Why don’t we have a woman read the story?” Now I’ve got nothing about women—love ’em to bits actually—but although nowhere in the story is the sex of the narrator mentioned in my head it was definitely a male born in 1924 in Syracuse, New York, to a Jewish family. Just saying. But why not a woman? I wrote back: 
I think this is an interesting proposition, Brent. I’m just sitting here waiting to see who gets cast as the next Doctor Who and will it be a woman (they’ve hinted as much) or, if they’re going to be super politically-correct, a black lesbian? Beckett had strong opinions on the subject and refused, for example, to sanction an all-female version of Waiting for Godot. When asked why not by Linda Ben-Zvi his answer was simply, “Women don’t have prostrates” and it’s a fair point but that only cancels out Vladimir; they also don’t get erections and that would excuse both men. I’ve never seen women play Didi and Gogo but I did see a female Lucky once and wasn’t impressed. Not so much because she was female but because she was a bad Lucky. Of course there’s nothing in my story to suggest the narrator’s a male although to be fair I’d never thought about it before. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work and I’d be interested to see what it might add if the actress gets the tone right. To that end you have my blessing. If I was directing her my main concern would be that her delivery doesn’t suggest any sympathy for the wife or antipathy for the husband. The narrator is reporting the facts as if they’d already happened. 
And so it came to pass. Brent sent me a short demo which I approved and the full version—with appropriate sound effects—went live about a week ago. And I have to say I was impressed. It’s not the way I would’ve read it but I only see that as a good thing and all credit to Erin Stanley for her understated performance. 

You can listen to the whole show here. There’s also a Q+A afterwards. The answers are mine but the voice isn’t.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Meursault Investigation

[T]he absurdity of my condition … consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down, endlessly. – Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation

I was probably eighteen the first time I read The Outsider. Knowing me I picked it up because it was a slim volume—that and I related to the title (could never quite get used to Americans calling it The Stranger but if you’ve ever wondered why the difference you might want to check out this Guardian article). I’ve read it since—twice, I think—and unlike some of the books I relished in my teens, like Catcher in the Rye, it’s a book I found I grew into rather than away from, but even on a first read I knew this one was a bit special and so dashed out and bought The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom (books were a lot cheaper back then)—they’ve all got something but I can see why for most people The Outsider stands out although I do have a soft spot for The Plague.
As soon as I heard about The Meursault Investigation I knew I wanted to read it but expected to be disappointed. I’m delighted to report I wasn’t; far from it in fact. Of course it’s been done before—to my mind most notably in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead but also in Wild Sargasso Sea, Mary Reilly and Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West—minor characters are given a voice but few authors have had as little to work with as Kamel Daoud. His novel focuses on “the Arab”, the man Meursault shoots on the beach in The Outsider. What do we know about him for sure? That he wore blue dungarees; that he had a friend who played “a reed,” that he owned a knife and on at least one occasion in his life lounged on a beach. Not much. Even calling him “the Arab” isn’t especially helpful. It would be like a soldier in the British Raj talking about “the Indian” because at the time of the shooting this was French Algeria, one of France's longest-held overseas territories, and it continued as such until 1962. As Daoud points out:
Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period.
In even the poorest crime novel we generally find out something about the victim. Who he or she was matters. It goes to motive. Detectives do like to arrest criminals but I suspect solving a crime involves more than identifying the guilty party. It’s not enough to know who and how but in Meursault’s case the why ends up focusing on his character and in particular his relationship—or lack thereof—with his recently-deceased mother. It almost feels as if that is why he ends up being condemned to death and the murder of the Arab is evidence of that. Much has been written about this and I’m not going to add to the screeds out there.
When I first read about Daoud’s book I assumed we were going to go back in time and get the Arab’s story up to the point where he gets shot. Not so. The narrator is his brother who was seven at the time; now he’s in his eighties. An investigator—or reporter or student (it’s never quite clear)—tracks him down in Oran where he lives and over the course of several days (and many glasses of wine) listens to his story. At first I was ready to be disappointed until I could see where Daoud was going with this. Our narrator—who we learn is called Harun (Aaron)—has in many respects taken on the mantle of his dead brother, Musa (Moses), or at least become custodian of the dead man’s memory. (In the Bible Aaron acts as spokesman for his brother.) No, ‘taken on’ is too weak. He’s been forced by his grief-stricken mother to become his brother for all intents and purposes—“my mother imposed on me a strict duty of reincarnation”—although the more we get to know him, the ‘him’ Harun describes for us—the more we realise he actually comes to have in common with Meursault:
I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double.
The book he’s referring to is a novel entitled The Other although who exactly the author is is unclear. At one point it seems to be Meursault who must’ve been either pardoned or jailed because the brother says, “When the murderer leaves prison, he writes a book that becomes famous, in which he recounts how he stood up to God, a priest, and the absurd” but that contradicts what he says elsewhere: “Why the murderer was so relaxed after being sentenced to death and even after his execution…” [italics mine] Maybe ‘Meursault’ is a non de plume.
Clearly, though, Harun is an unreliable narrator and concedes as much when he talks about his relationship with the student Meriem (the girl from Constantine who, in 1963, first introduces him to the book), which he admits to elaborating—“[I]t’s a big fib. From beginning to end. The scene’s too perfect; I made it all up,” later adding:
Do you find my story suitable? It’s all I can offer you. It’s my word. I’m Musa’s brother or nobody’s. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks … It’s your choice, my friend.
That’s the problem with eyewitness testimony. It’s so easy to cast doubt on it. And the more you think about it the less you can trust the “facts” but, of course, neither he nor his mother were eyewitnesses and so all they’re left with are their imaginings. “As a child, I was allowed to hear only one story at night,” he recounts, “one deceptively wonderful tale. It was the story of Musa, my murdered brother, who took a different form every time, according to my mother’s mood.” His mother keeps newspaper clippings “religiously folded in her bosom” and, once her son has learned to read French, insists he read and reread them to her:
“Here, take another look, see if they don’t say something else, something you didn’t understand before.” That went on for almost ten years, that routine.
With two paragraphs, I had to find a body, some alibis, and some accusations. It was a way of continuing Mama’s investigations, her search for Zujj [Zoudj is Algerian Arabic for two], my twin. That led to a strange book—which I perhaps should have written out, as a matter of fact, if I’d had your hero’s gift—a counter-investigation. I crammed everything I could between the lines of those two brief newspaper items, I swelled their volume until I made them a cosmos. And so Mama got a complete imaginary reconstruction of the crime, including the colour of the sky, the circumstances, the words exchanged between the victim and his murderer, the atmosphere in the courtroom, the policemen’s theories, the cunning of the pimp and the other witnesses, the lawyers’ pleas … Well, I can talk about it like that now, but at the time it was an incredibly disordered jumble, a kind of Thousand and One Nights of lies and infamy. Sometimes I felt guilty about it, but most often I was proud. I was giving my mother what she’d searched for in vain in the cemeteries and European neighbourhoods of Algiers. That production — an imaginary book for an old woman who had no words—lasted a long time.
So this is where the confabulation begins. Needless to say when he learns of the existence of the novel Harun says nothing to his mother. By then she’s quit pestering him with the clippings. She may even have finally thrown them away. Why stir her up needlessly? Because it’s only a novel. Yes, only a novel. Not the truth. At least not the whole truth.
And here, we come to an interesting twist in literary reception of both The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation: it’s important to note that, when the Algerian audience discusses The Stranger, Meursault and Camus are often seen as one and the same. As noted at the recent Contemporary French Civilization at 40 conference, in Algeria, The Stranger is understood to be a roman à clef if not outright confessional memoir. – Jennifer Solheim, ‘The Art of Making Ghosts Live: on The Meursault Investigation, Fiction Writer’s Review
Memoirs passed off as novels are not unknown and semiautobiographical novels are downright commonplace. Is it possible, is it just possible, that Camus shot a man on a beach in Algiers and got away with it? Imagine if that were true and you were the victim’s brother. Wouldn’t you want to understand how he could’ve done it? And what would be the best way to do that? To do the same? Surely no one would go out of his way to gun down a total stranger simply to get some kind of closure:
These days, I’m so old that I often tell myself, on nights when multitudes of stars are sparkling in the sky, there must necessarily be something to be discovered from living so long. Living, what an effort! At the end, there must necessarily be, there has to be, some sort of essential revelation. It shocks me, this disproportion between my insignificance and the vastness of the cosmos. I often think there must be something all the same, something in the middle between my triviality and the universe!
But often enough I backslide, I start roaming the beach with a pistol in my fist, scouting around for the first Arab who looks like me so I can kill him.
Well that’s not what happens; something else does; one day, the very next day after the Algerian War of Independence ends, he gets his chance to fill Meursault’s shoes. What would you do? This book may well have started off as one thing but it soon becomes its own thing and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read The Outsider or seen the 1967 film version (which I recall being quite good) or even heard of Camus; it stands on its own feet. Granted its fragmented and sometimes repetitive approach to storytelling may not be to everyone’s tastes but it’s appropriate to the subject matter.
One of the major themes in The Outsider is Meursault’s take on God. These days we accept atheism as a norm—I’m always a bit sceptical when I read that two-thirds of the UK population identifies as Christian and wonder where they’re all hiding—but in 1942 things were quite different. In The Outsider Meursault is interrogated by the examining magistrate in his office:
[B]efore I could get the words out, he had drawn himself up to his full height and was asking me very earnestly if I believed in God. When I said, “No,” he plumped down into his chair indignantly.
That was unthinkable, he said; all men believe in God, even those who reject Him. Of this he was absolutely sure; if ever he came to doubt it, his life would lose all meaning. “Do you wish,” he asked indignantly, “my life to have no meaning?” Really I couldn't see how my wishes came into it, and I told him as much.
You can’t really imagine a conversation like that taking place nowadays. But what if these were Muslims? In The Meursault Investigation we discover that Harun has also come to question the faith into which he was born:
Sometimes I’m tempted to climb up that prayer tower, reach the level where the loudspeakers are hung, lock myself in, and belt out my widest assortment of invective and sacrilege. I long to list my impieties in detail. To bellow that I don’t pray, I don’t do my ablutions, I don’t fast, I will never go on any pilgrimage, and I drink wine—and what’s more, the air that makes it better. To cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer, and that I want to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.
As you might appreciate lines like that did not sit well with some and a Facebook fatwa (issued by Abdelfatah Hamadache, a radical Islamist preacher in Algeria who leads an obscure Salafist group known as the Islamic Awakening Front) resulted. After filing a criminal complaint against the imam the man backed down but, as you can well imagine, the kerfuffle did nothing to harm the book’s sales. Hamadache was eventually sentenced to six months imprisonment by a court in Oran and fined 50,000 dinars ($460).
Some have suggested that The Meursault Investigation will become essential reading for students studying The Outsider. I can see that. It goes a long way to making Camus relevant in today’s increasingly absurd world and, of course, it continues Algeria’s story into the present giving not only “the Arab” but all “Arabs” a voice.
You can read an extract from the book here.
Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for the Quotidien d’Oran—the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper. His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde and Courrier International and are regularly reprinted around the world.

A finalist for the prix Goncourt, The Meursault Investigation won the prix François Mauriac and the prix des cinq-continents de la Francophonie. International rights to the novel have been sold in twenty countries and a film adaptation is supposedly slated for release later this year but I can find no details online.



(for J.)

Excuse me, I don't know this place;
we're not where we were.
I'm sure we've moved on.
Mind if I join you?

Guess I must've dozed off.

Where're you headed friend?
No; don't tell me.
Just let me sit awhile:
we don't have to talk much.

Could sure use the company.

All journeys end
or so they say –
I read a poem once –
but I'm not convinced.

Suppose we'll know if we get there.

20 June 1994

The idea for this one came from reading a poem although I don’t remember reading much poetry around this time. The only books I can recall definitely finishing were Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, John le Carré’s first two novels. I also reread Catcher in the Rye and wasn’t nearly as impressed the second time round. In my head the poem was by a Canadian. Why that stuck I’ve no idea. So I thought I’d try and track it down. 

Cohen was the obvious first choice but I can’t find anything. Margaret Atwood wrote, “He'll find out somehow, because journeys end in lovers meeting,” but that’s from The Blind Assassin, so not a poem. Just a quick scan of the rest of the list was enough to make me think I was on a hiding to nothing. So I expanded my search parameters. 

It’s a popular phrase “all journeys end” and it wasn’t hard to come up with a few contenders:
As in interims all journeys end
in three steps
with a mirrored door, beyond it a closet
and a closet wall. 
So wrote the poet Jim Harrison in his poem ‘In Interims: Outlyer’ but I don’t think he’s the poet being referenced here.
A trellis rose-like souls can climb and grow –
And a pledge that one day all journeys end
As mind has now I stand in sun, and know
That was Nicholas Hagger in his poem ‘Among Laughton's Sacred Houses’ but it’s not that one either. Nor is it “Long ago, didn’t we read how all journeys end?” from Richard Hugo’s ‘Bay of Resolve’.
                The hillside wind

turbines were bleached oars
sunk to mark all journeys’ end. 
In his fist was a bolus of twine. 
That excerpt is from ‘Nausicaa’ by Tim MacGabhann but it doesn’t feel right.
All journeys end upon her lips and hair;
All roads lead to her eyes; all joys and pain
Up to her breast; all paths to where she sleeps;
Just why, he doesn't know and doesn't care. 
From ‘The Future – If We Win’ by Edwin Curran. It doesn’t ring any bells. It’s not from ‘Dream Poem – at fifty’ by Peter Boyle either.

The poem it turns out I’m referencing is by Rod McKuen and if you’d asked me this morning if I’d read anything by him I would’ve sworn blind I hadn’t. I would’ve been wrong. It’s called ‘Passengers for J. S. A.’ in which he writes: 
Passengers we are
traveling these same tracks
carried along by this same ribbon
                     of boardwalk.
All journeys end
or so we are told they should.  
The destination looms,
is nearly in our sights.
Can you see it, feel it? 
And for the record McKuen was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California in 1933. Christ knows why I was so convinced the poet was from Canada.

Sunday, 11 June 2017


The Power of Love

(for J.)

Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.

Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.

Love to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.

12 June 1994
The geometry of love. That would’ve made a decent title too. A one-dimensional straight line grows to become a two-dimensional flat plane which expands to become a three-dimensional cube. This is a love poem but what kind of love I can’t say. Not a simple love; that much is true. Interestingly I don’t use the ‘in’ word in this poem. I don’t talk about diving into the deep. I do think of it as a dark place and darkness can be scary. Yet what does it take to reduce that fear to a tolerable level? a spark? a reassuring voice? or maybe a hand to hold? By this time in my life I’d been infatuated with, had crushes on, lusted after, doted on, adored, loved and been in love with more than a few women. And now here was one more desperately needing to be cared for. The last thing in the world I was looking for was another woman. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t wary.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017


"Behind the Wood"

(for J.)

How did love find its way in here?
What's it doing in a place like this?

It knows it'll die –
there's nothing to keep it alive –
and yet it came.

Somehow I knew it would
but I was still unprepared.

How do you prepare to lose something
before you've really found it?

10 June 1994
Why do people meet behind the wood and not in the wood? Surely the trees would provide cover? Don’t you have to pass through the wood to get behind it? Maybe that’s the point. Maybe this kind of meeting warrants effort. For months J. and I had kept our distance. The only time I made any effort was once when we ran into each other in the bank and I asked her if she’d like to go for a coffee but she declined and it was probably for the best. What if we’d been seen? People talk even when there’s nothing to talk about and there was nothing to talk about. 

My dad asked me if J. and I were in a relationship. It’s an annoying little preposition. It’s not enough for us to love someone, we have to be in love with them. Both J. and I were going through our respective somethings in 1994. We were both very much in our individual woods. So I think I’m being presumptuous here in assuming either one of us had made it to the clearing beyond it. I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking. 

Why the title’s in quotes I couldn’t tell you. I can find several people who’ve used the expression—Shakespeare, Tennyson, Turgenev—but none of them ring a bell.

Sunday, 4 June 2017


The Spark

(for J.)

She didn't see it at first
because the world was full of lights.

Then the lights went out
and the sky was filled with stars.

But when the stars fell down
and all was dark and cold
then she noticed it,
alone and unsure,
in a universe of darkness.

And it was for her.

7 June 1994

Every now and then someone turns up in our life and we can’t quite remember a) when they arrived and b) how they became important to us. That’s how it was with J. I don’t recall meeting her for the first time. I do know there was a time when she wasn’t a part of my life but the window in which she appeared is a wide one, anywhere between 1983 and 1988 at a rough guess. One day she wasn’t there, the next she was. She became a friend of the family but she wasn’t part of our inner circle and I can only remember her being at our house once only I’m not sure she came in the house; I remember her in the back garden (I think she was dropping something off) but that’s it. I was never inside her house and only once knocked on her door to drop off a book but she was out so I gave it to her eldest son. And yet after the disastrous years that led up to 1994 she was the only person from my past—apart from my parents (and by that I mean mainly my dad)—whom I kept in touch with. I wrote to her, she replied and we corresponded and talked occasionally on the phone for a few months. In the years to come I met her in person only twice; the last time was at my mother’s funeral.

When my dad learned about J. he asked if I had a relationship with her and I remember being confused by the question because I honestly hadn’t thought about it. For a man who prides himself on his knowledge of words my misunderstanding is a surprising one. We were friends and I loved her but that was all I could be sure about. To this day I couldn’t tell you if I fell in love with her but we did cling to each other for a while and that can muddy the waters. She was also going through a bad time—she’d come home to find her husband had hung himself leaving her with three boys to raise on her own—and was also very much alone having been abandoned by almost everyone. (Not as a direct consequence of the suicide but I don’t want to elaborate.)

I didn’t have much to give her but somehow a bond developed between us—even before I moved away—and it helped a little. I am the spark in the poem. And she became my spark too. Not bright enough to see anything bar and certainly not hot enough to warm us but enough to know we weren’t completely alone.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017


My Pain (to be read out loud)

(for J.)

What do I say?
What do I say to the pain,
“Pain, go away”?

You are my pain;
you define what I am.
What would I do without you?

We have been together so long
like a wartime couple who married too young
and stayed together for the sake of the kids.

But this is the nineteen-nineties –
I don't need to take this. (Did I say that?)
Yes; go away. Go away now!
It won't be the same
but then
it never should have been.

5 June 1994
Three years is a long time to go without writing poetry. Prose helps but it’s not the same. Not by a long chalk. A lot's happened since I wrote ‘Pillow Fight’ in August 1991. F. and I are no longer together, I’ve quit my job, moved away, lost almost all my friends and am in the middle of my second major depression. I’d like to say this is the lowest point in my life but I’m not sure it was. I suppose for some people there’s a day where they hit rock bottom and the only way is up but, for me, it took a long time to bottom out, months in fact. This isn’t a particularly good poem but I can’t really skip it because of its significance. Saying you’re going to stop drinking or taking drugs is one thing and I’m not saying it’s easy but saying you’re not going to hurt any more is another thing completely. Rodman Philbrick said, “Pain is just a state of mind. You can think your way out of everything, even pain.” Well, this is me starting this process and it took about eighteen months before it dawned on me I was no longer depressed.
As for who J. was, I’ll come back to her. Yes, it’s a her. You knew it was going to be another her. Where would my life be without all the hers in it?

Sunday, 28 May 2017


Pillow Fight

"It's all right," William said (talking to my chest),
"When it's not all right I scream into my pillow.

"It's full of breasts you see –
I rip them out of magazines and papers
(we're not allowed scissors).

"They're like sponges, (I read it in a book) –
you must see – they soak up the pain."

16 August 1991
On the surface I can see how people might assume this poem is a natural follow-on to ‘Grief at Parting’ (#734) and I’m not saying there’s not a connection but William had already expressed an interest in women’s breasts in ‘The Lady Doctor’(#620). When I came to write my first novel (around November 1993) I decided to make Jonathan a mastrophile and the same is true of Joe, the dead father in my new novel Left, but before you tar me as a latter day Russ Meyer can I just state for the record that I’m not obsessed with breasts. I mean I like them—what red-blooded male doesn’t?—but from a writer’s point of view I’m far more interested in them because of the symbolism that goes with them. I had originally intended Jonathan to be a bum man but it was much simpler with boobs. It’s lazy writing on one level, to go with the obvious, but why make things hard for our readers? Men are hard-wired to be drawn to breasts. We don’t shake our heads when we learn this. We might not be proud to announce to the world that our dad has a complete collection of Juggs in his wardrobe but better that than Heavy Rubber Fetish Magazine.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017


Grief at Parting

I let the moment go.
I left your lap and your breasts, my sister's breasts,
to rest my weary head on dreams and colder memories
not strong enough to be weak or honest enough to want
and afraid to ask as I wasn't sure.

What am I supposed to do with all these feelings?

4 August 1991
I only vaguely remember the event that triggered this poem but not what it’s about. I know it takes its title from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, ‘The Melancholy of Departure’ but I’m not sure why. And I’m not even sure if it’s the 1914 painting (‘Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)’) or the 1916 painting (‘The Melancholy of Departure’); I suspect the former and that’s the image I’ve used. The date puzzles me too. I remember being with my sister but not in 1991.

I was upset. I don’t know why I was upset—so many things to choose from—but we were on the couch in her flat only it couldn’t have been the couch because the couch was against the wall. Had she rearranged the room? So how exactly did this work? Was my head in her lap? I was crying (I think I was crying) and she went to comfort me. Was my head on her shoulder or in her lap? The shoulder makes more sense. After a time she either lifted or lowered my head so that it rested on her right breast. It wasn’t her simply shifting because she was uncomfortable; it was a deliberate action. I never understood why she did that—there’s nothing remotely maternal about my sister—but it’s a gesture that’s always touched me. We’ve never talked about it but I doubt she’d have any answers. It clearly felt right at the time. It wasn’t sexual and it was an awkward position (she didn’t have much of a bust to rest anything on) which is probably why I moved. Is that how my head ended in her lap? You would think I’d remember something like this with crystal clarity but far from it.
This is the first original poem in over a year. I wrote one more on 16 August and then nothing—no poetry at least—for three years. This was the start of my second major depression.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017


The Insides of Words

I gave her some hollow words to fill and she asked what with.
I suggested the truth but the romantic in her wasn't too keen.
So she left them empty on a shelf.
She said they meant something to her.

One day a spider made a web in them to catch flies.

6 April 1991
Hollow words. Empty words. Beats me why so many people struggle with poetry. “Your words don’t ring true.” Words don’t ring. And yet we know exactly what that means. I’ve written poems for people for decades and yet few of the recipients have ever got them. I’m not talking about pearls before swine—I would never be that condescending—but most of them would’ve been just as happy (more so even) with a card from Clintons and a bar of Dairy Milk.

Sunday, 14 May 2017


Birth befalls me
Life occupies me
Death completes me
– Édouard Levé,

‘The Death of the Author’ is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. It has nothing to say about dead authors or even suicidal authors. So why bring it up? Barthes’ essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated. He has a point up to a point and I couldn’t help thinking of him when I read these lines addressed to a man who has recently killed himself:
The way in which you quit it rewrote the story of your life in a negative form. Those who knew you reread each of your acts in the light of your last. Henceforth, the shadow of this tall black tree hides the forest that was your life. When you are spoken of, it begins with recounting your death, before going back to explain it. Isn’t it peculiar how this final gesture inverts your biography?
Silvia Plath, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton: the list is not short and yet it’s impossible once you realise the author of the book you have in your hands has killed himself not to look for clues. In 2013, for example, an article appeared in The Telegraph talking about how the notes for Plath’s last poem ‘Sheep in Fog’ “show the poet's increasing fragility as she approached the date she took her own life.” The LitHub article The Suicide Note as Literary Genre is also worth a read. Why the fascination? Because life’s precious and people go to extraordinary lengths to stay alive—e.g. Aron Ralston, who amputated his own right forearm with a dull pocketknife in order to extricate himself from a dislodged boulder—and yet others for no good reason—no good reason we can see—give it all up. Some we can understand—Arthur Koestler committed suicide when he was seventy-seven on discovering he had terminal leukaemia—but it’s the young, those who have, as the cliché goes, so much to live for that bemuse and confuse us.
I’ve never seriously contemplated suicide. I’ve thought about it because I’m a writer and writers—well this writer—thinks about all sort of shit but just because I’ve thought about something doesn’t mean I’m going to do it or even write about it. As it happens one of my characters is a suicide. The protagonist in my novella Exit Interview has killed himself and the book has him sitting down with Saint Peter who conducts a pretty bog standard exit interview with him. It was never intended to be a treatise on the meaningfulness and the wonderfulness of life but, obviously, a few pertinent questions get asked and the nice thing about it being a work of fiction is that I can have my suicide answer these as best he can. That doesn’t happen in the real world and it certainly doesn’t happen in Édouard Levé’s novel.
The book opens with the following paragraph:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.
We never learn the name of the man who’s taken his own life nor do we ever learn who’s telling us his story. No one’s named in the book apart from, oddly, the narrator’s brother. We only know the suicide as “you” and it takes a while to get used to the narration in the second person especially since we know he’s a) talking to a dead man and b) describing things he cannot possibly have been be privy to. There’s less dialogue than in an Anita Brookner novel but it works. There’s no suicide note or at least what was to pass for one is lost and so the only words we have that offer any clue are the handful of short poems discovered after his friend’s death that the narrator sees fit to include after he’s finished his story; almost every line ends with the word “me”. And this is where we need to remember Barthes and not read into the poems but how can you not?
Why did he do it? Let’s just say for a minute he could answer that question: what would he be able to say that would make us go, “Yeah, I get that. I’d have done the same”? Do you remember the scene in Educating Rita where Trish, Rita’s Mahler-loving flatmate, attempts suicide and when asked why all she can offer up is a weak, “Darling, why not?” No doubt after hours and hours of therapy—and thousands upon thousands of words—we might get something that makes some sort of sense out of her actions and that’s what this book is really attempting to do. The narrator puts himself in his friend’s place and explains his friend to his friend albeit in absentia. The odd thing is who’s decided to do this investigation. We don’t learn a great deal about the narrator but this is a start:
I haven’t seen your wife since. I hardly knew her. I met her four or five times. When the two of you got married, you and I stopped seeing each other. I see her face again now. It has remained unchanged for twenty years. I’ve retained a fixed image of her from the last time I saw her. Memory, like photographs, freezes recollections.
The first time I saw you, you were in your bedroom. You were seventeen years old.
As the suicide is twenty-five when he dies this means our narrator has barely seen his friend over the last five—and presumably critical—years and only knew him for the three before that. He doesn’t seem especially qualified to start out on a task like this but who are we to deny him? When I learned that my first girlfriend had died I immediately sat down and wrote a poem for her even though we hadn’t spoken in over twenty years. You can’t help how you feel.
If you were still alive, would we be friends? I was more attached to other boys. But time has seen me drift apart from them without my even noticing. All that would be needed to renew the bond would be a telephone call, but none of us are willing to risk the disillusionment of a reunion. […] But you, who used to be so far-off, distant, mysterious, now seem quite close to me. When I am in doubt, I solicit your advice. Your responses satisfy me better than those the others could give me. You accompany me faithfully wherever I may be. It is they who have disappeared. You are the present.
You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it. Your death has written your life.
Some of the things the narrator tells “you” are things the man would’ve been well aware of—they’re there for us in just the same way detectives in cop shows spell things out just a little too thoroughly—and mostly he dwells on the time his friend was alive but at the start of the book he does share some details concerning how people reacted to his death, like the young man’s father:
Your wife only remembered later that before falling from the table, the comic book you had left there was open. Your father bought dozens of copies, which he gave to everyone. He came to know the text and the images of this book by heart; this was not at all like him, but he ended up identifying with the comic. He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written “Suicide Hypotheses.” If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies.
I can see me doing that. Edwin Shneidman, “a father of contemporary suicidology”, wrote, “Suicide notes are cryptic maps of ill-advised journeys.” Where does the suicide think he’s going? Journeys feature quite a bit in Suicide. How many of them are accurate or even took place who can tell? At one point the narrator describes in detail his friend wandering round Bordeaux and then the next day…
You went back out, and set off at random into the town. But your steps spontaneously led you to the same locations that you had strolled through the day before. You paid less attention to what you were looking at; the places no longer had the attraction of novelty. You then decided to walk taking the first street on the right, the second street on the left, the first street on the right and so on, without deviating from this method, so as to not let yourself be guided by the appeal of whatever turned up. You passed the day in this way, looking on your map from time to time at where chance was leading you.
He stops to eat and then…
Rather than resuming your random walk, you returned by the shortest route to the city centre. When you got close to your hotel, it was still too early for dinner. You decided to take the same route as the day before, to verify if what you had seen was now anchored in your memory. You didn’t look at the map, you didn’t hesitate once over changes in direction.
Did any of this happen? Unlikely. Our narrator’s trying to imagine the kind of man his onetime friend was becoming:
When you travelled, it was to taste the pleasures of being a stranger in a strange town. You were a spectator and not an actor: mobile voyeur, silent listener, accidental tourist.
Is this how suicides feel, out of place? I found an article online with one of the usual ponderous titles that academics see fit to give their works but this one included the wonderful expression “thwarted belongingness;” I suspect its author was a frustrated poet. But it’s a good expression especially for the kind of person we find described within these pages. He doesn’t belong. Others are a struggle. We learn this right at the start when our narrator is granted access to his friend’s bedroom; no one was allowed in his room up until then.
A ruin is an accidental aesthetic object. If it becomes beautiful, this was certainly not the intention. A ruin is not constructed or maintained. The tendency of a ruin is to crumble down into a heap. The most beautiful parts remain standing despite their wear and tear. The memory of you is what stays up, your body what subsides. Your ghost remains upright in my memory, while your skeleton is decomposing in the earth.
The man we see described in this book is not the man he once was. He was never that man. The man we see described is part-ideal and part-enigma. His friend’s filled in the blanks imaginatively. He’s begun the task of mythologizing him. Sylvia Plath is now a myth according to The Herald several dozen other online sources and yet I found this sentence on the ironically short-lived site The Myth of Sylvia Plath interesting:
[H]er tabloid-worthy life and tragic end can not and should not define her: a deeper look into her work and those who read and study it show a constantly morphing poet who defies categorization.
They’re right. Her death shouldn’t define her and there will be a few lucky individuals who’ll encounter her poetry and not know anything about her but once they do it’ll be hard not to reassess what they’ve read; the need to look at it again with different eyes will be hard.
Which brings me to Édouard Levé. In the Afterword Jan Steyn, the book’s English translator, writes:
Édouard Levé committed suicide on October 15, 2007. Ten days earlier he had given a manuscript to his editor; it was a novel entitled Suicide, the same you hold in your hands.
Suicide’s reception in France has been deeply influenced by the circumstances of the author’s death. Although it is a fictional work, written in the second person about a friend of the narrator’s who had committed suicide twenty years earlier, its title and subject matter ensure that, despite reports that Levé did leave a suicide note, the present text is taken as a sort of literary explanation of his decision to die.
Levé was forty-two when he died and every line of Suicide makes us wonder why.
Your suicide has become the foundational act…Your final second changed your life in the eyes of others. You are like the actor who, at the end of the play, with a final word, reveals that he is a different character than the one he appeared to be playing.
I was lucky. I’d forgotten all about Levé’s suicide by the time I got round to reading the book. I never thought for a second that the author of the book I was reading might be dead due to anything other than misfortune or natural causes. Now I see it all in a very different light but rather than looking for a reason—which may or may not be there—I was struck by his awareness of how others would react to his death:
Your mother cried for you when she learned of your death. She cried for you every day until your burial. She cried for you alone, in her husband’s arms, in the arms of your brother and your sister, in the arms of her mother and your wife. She cried for you during the ceremony, following your coffin to the cemetery, and during your inhumation. When friends, many of them, came to present their condolences, she cried for you. With every hand that she shook, with every kiss she received, she again saw fragments of your past, of the days she believed you to be happy. Faced with your death, scenarios of what you could have lived or experienced with these people, gave them a feeling of immense loss: you had, by your suicide, saddened your past and abolished your future. Your mother cried for you in the days following your funeral, and she cried for you again, alone, whenever she thought of you. Years later, there are many, like her, whose tears flow whenever they think of you.
One of the things they say to potential suicides is, “Think of others.” That might be a spouse or a parent or a sibling or even work or classmates. Well, clearly, even if Suicide is not Levé’s actual suicide note it does show that he was aware of the potential—dare I say inevitable?—consequences of his actions. Another thing people say—although they don’t usually get to say it to the person they’d most like to—is that suicide is a selfish act. It is on one level but the real question is: Is selfishness necessarily a bad thing? That’s one I’ve struggled with my whole life. Here’s what the narrator thinks his friend’s thoughts might have been on the matter:
This selfishness of your suicide displeased you. But, all things considered, the lull of death won out over life’s painful commotion.
No one would suggest for a moment that suicide is an ideal solution to life’s problems. It’s a desperate measure. Here are twenty-seven thoughts culled from Reddit on a very divisive subject.
As far as books go Suicide doesn’t sound like it’d be much fun to read and it was never going to win Comedic Novel of the Year 2008 but it’s not all doom and gloom. It focuses mostly on a life lived and what it’s like to be different. And the extrapolated/imaginary “you” we get to know is most definitely different and interesting and puzzling. In The Rules of Attraction Bret Easton Ellis wrote: “What does that mean know me, know me, nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” This is why we don’t get why most people kill themselves. Because we’re not in their heads. Because we could never be in their heads. There are no answers in Suicide. The real questions we should be asking are, perhaps, a little clearer though.
The Afterword is particularly helpful if you’ve not read anything else by Levé (which most of us won’t have although Autoportrait and Works have since been translated) because it helps us understand the kind of man he was and how all his prose works are interlinked—Autoportrait, for example, includes the opening scene of Suicide—and probably could/should be read as a single text. Not that I expect it would make things much clearer. To illustrate: Levé was also a photographer and might even be better known for that than for his writing. He produced a series called Pornography in which his models position themselves in the kinds of poses you’d expect from a work called Pornography with one exception—they’re all fully clothed. He did a similar thing with the series Rugby (a photo from which was used for the Folio edition of Suicide). Another series called Homonyms consists of neutral frontal portraits of “ordinary” people who happen to share a name with someone famous. Expectation thwarted seems to be a thing with Levé. Amérique, published in 2006, comprised of images of arbitrary parts of obscure American towns named after grander world cities like Florence, Berlin, Amsterdam or Paris.
For the record Levé didn’t shoot himself in a basement. He hung himself in his Paris apartment after receiving confirmation that Suicide was going to be published.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


An Early Fall

My feelings are leaves and it's Autumn.
Why do you tear them down?
Why won't you let the winds of change do their job?
They do it well.

Why hasten the Winter when Spring is so long in coming?

On the whole I’d say I’m quite good at letting go. At first I wasn’t—none of us are at first—but I learned although not quickly. Life is cyclical and it’s best to enjoy the moment even though you know it’s going to end. This has a sort of anti-O.-Henry feel. In ‘The Last Leaf’ an old painter paints a leaf on an ivy vine to give a dying girl hope. In my version someone clambers up the stepladder and tears off the last few, in modern parlance ripping off the Band Aid. I’m not sure this poem’s about any specific event. I’m just watching something come to an end too quickly for my taste.

Sunday, 7 May 2017


The Present

She made me a present of the past.
I had one already but it wasn't much of one.
The memories had got a bit dusty from lack of use.
One or two had even disappeared.
They're probably still boxed-up in the loft.
Or maybe they got given away when we moved.

6 April 1991
The only thing I have from B., the only thing she gifted me, is her copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse. Everything else I took, mainly photographs. Taking’s not stealing, not exactly—it’s not as if I was lurking in the bushes—but taking’s not receiving. When you take something you don’t generally ask permission. Most of what I got from B. I took. She gave me her time, yes; she gave me hugs; she gave me trust; she gave me a reason to keep going… No. No, I took that.
I don’t have a loft. All my photos of her are in an Iron Mountain storage box in a cupboard in Carrie’s office. I had reason to go through the box about a year ago and, as you do, ended up looking at every picture in it. There are no photos of the two of us. That was remiss of me. I should’ve found a way to wangle that; it wouldn’t have been hard. My favourite was taken in Edinburgh, a posed photo and the image of her I hold in my head. I got a copy professionally framed and gave it to her mother.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017


A Return to Orwell's Café

There was very little on the board to play with
apart from love.
She'd used him before but never to any great effect.
He was always last to go.

The glasses were still empty.
There was no meaning left to it all
as I peered in the window.

6 April 1991

This is a follow-on to ‘Orwell’s Café’ (#592). When I wrote this I was thinking about the scene in the final chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A tinny music trickled from the telescreens. Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass. Now and again he glanced up at a vast face which eyed him from the opposite wall. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavoured with cloves, the speciality of the café.
A waiter, again unbidden, brought the chessboard and the current issue of The Times, with the page turned down at the chess problem. Then, seeing that Winston's glass was empty, he brought the gin bottle and filled it. There was no need to give orders. They knew his habits. The chessboard was always waiting for him, his corner table was always reserved; even when the place was full he had it to himself, since nobody cared to be seen sitting too close to him.
This is where Michael Radford’s film adaptation (staring John Hurt), the extremely popular 1954 BBC version (staring Peter Cushing) and the 1956 adaptation (staring Edmond O'Brien) all differ from the novel. In the book as Winston’s sitting alone in the café he remembers his last meeting with Julia is in “the Park”:
He had seen her; he had even spoken to her. There was no danger in it. He knew as though instinctively that they now took almost no interest in his doings. He could have arranged to meet her a second time if either of them had wanted to. Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind. He was hurrying along with frozen hands and watering eyes when he saw her not ten metres away from him. It struck him at once that she had changed in some ill-defined way. They almost passed one another without a sign, then he turned and followed her, not very eagerly. He knew that there was no danger, nobody would take any interest in him. She did not speak. She walked obliquely away across the grass as though trying to get rid of him, then seemed to resign herself to having him at her side. Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection from the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm round her waist.
The 1956 film comes the closest but you’d hardly call the setting a park—just a few isolated trees and benches (more of a garden than a park)—although it is March and so you’d expect it to be bare. In this version Winston finds himself in the park and notices Julia sitting by a tree. So it’s very much an accidental encounter.  
The 1954 version is set in the café. Julia’s already seated when Winston arrives and is shown to her table as if he’s been expected but he's surprised to see her there. No chess set and the waiter’s a bit too chatty for my taste. In this version the couple both look as if they’ve been through the mill; Winston walks with a limp and Julia seems like she’s aged twenty years.
In the 1984 adaptation—what most people regard as the definitive version—it’s Winston who’s in the café with a chess set in front of him when Julia arrives. He thanks her for coming and so clearly he’s gone out of his way to make contact. That bothers me because although they talk about meeting again we know (and they know) they never will, not purposefully in any case, so the idea that he’s arranged a reunion doesn’t quite work.
I can understand why scriptwriters do what they do—their time’s limited—and so we shouldn’t be surprised when they try to do two things at once but what’s missing from them all films is Winston’s sudden and urgent need to get back to the café:
He was overwhelmed by a desire not so much to get away from Julia as to get back to the Chestnut Tree Cafe, which had never seemed so attractive as at this moment. He had a nostalgic vision of his corner table, with the newspaper and the chessboard and the everflowing gin. Above all, it would be warm in there. The next moment, not altogether by accident, he allowed himself to become separated from her by a small knot of people. He made a half-hearted attempt to catch up, then slowed down, turned, and made off in the opposite direction. When he had gone fifty metres he looked back. The street was not crowded, but already he could not distinguish her. Any one of a dozen hurrying figures might have been hers. Perhaps her thickened, stiffened body was no longer recognizable from behind.
I can imagine Hurt acting the above scene and I’m a little sad it was lost even if I do understand why.

Sunday, 30 April 2017



I invested all my feelings
in a poem for you.

And locked them carefully in the words
with time as the key.

This is not that poem but now you know it's there
be careful and do not force the lock.

6 April 1991

Why do we writers do it? We’re good with words and yet we insist on burying our meanings. You have no idea how much pleasure I got going through The More Things Change and grafting in in all those extra layers knowing full well the vast majority of them would be missed. Is it a test? I suppose it must be. It’s not enough that you read my book or even enjoy my book (and believe me there’s plenty there on the surface) you need to get me.
This poem wasn’t written for you. I didn’t know you when I wrote it. It was for her and she never read it. Even if she had she wouldn’t have got it. She never got any of my poems. She never saw herself in them. How could she not see herself in them? I wonder if she still has them. Probably not.

Thursday, 27 April 2017


The Widow Time

The widow Time left her mark on me.
She slipped something in my tea
then got to work with her needle:
a tattooed scar of what she could have done.

6 April 1991

I’ve always been fascinated by grammatical gender. German computers are male; Spanish computers, female. Russians call their homeland ‘Mother Russia’ whilst Germans talk about the fatherland and the Portuguese somehow manage to combine both genders (Pátria Mãe).
In the UK we generally view time as male, Old Father Time, and I’ve no problems with that but I was thinking more of the Fates when I wrote this. The names of the three Parcae were Nona, Decima and Morta and they all deal with the thread of life in different ways: Nona spins the thread, Decima measures it and Morta cuts it. When people talk about time though it’s rarely in a passive way; time does things to us, it wears us down or it can heal us (it’s not all bad). Time always leaves its mark on us though: wrinkles, grey hairs, missing teeth, regrets, guilt, pain of all kinds, scars both literal and psychological. No one gets away unscathed.

Sunday, 23 April 2017



He was a barren crag of a man
open to feelings and stripped bare by them
but unable to move out of the way.

6 April 1991
I have mixed feelings about feelings. I like to think of myself as an intellectual because I prize reason above emotion but the truth is I am a sensitive creature and rarely in control of those emotions. They dictate to me. Actually they bully me. I don’t trust them. There was a time when I did. Now I take what they offer under advisement. If you were to ask me how I’m feeling right now I’d say, “Crap,” and I do but that’s pretty much my default these days. Not sure if it counts as an emotion though but as I don’t think I’m crap what else could it be? What else is there? We think and we feel and that’s it. Maybe ‘crap’s’ a compound emotion, a bit of sadness, some despondency, a touch of ennui, a dash or two of unhappiness and a smattering of physical discomfort all vying for attention in front of the backdrop of mawkish sentimentality that always descends whenever I struggle to write about one of these old poems.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


The Sands of Time

There is something I have to tell you
that you do not want to hear
and which will not help
but in a moment of weakness I loved you.

You never had to do anything.
Nor do you have to now.
Nothing has changed.
Not even the past.

But I know it won't be the same.

6 April 1991
What good does knowing the truth do? Especially if it’s to do with the past. The present, yes, I can see a case for asking someone to look again at the world around them but the past’s done and dusted. We survived it. Bully for us. If I ran into B. today and she didn’t snub me (which I expect she would) and I managed to talk her into going for a coffee for old times’ sake would I tell her the truth or some version of the truth or would I underline the lie I so carefully crafted? I don’t think she’d believe the truth. The last I heard she’d already reassessed our relationship and decided I was… I wonder what word she would’ve chosen?... obsessed with her, that I secretly lusted after her. I wonder who put that idea in her head. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion to reach but reason’s overrated. What I felt wasn’t reasonable and it can’t be measured with reason. Or maybe I’m misremembering

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Miss Christie Regrets

[L]et me try to define what it is that the readers of Sunday papers mean when they say fretfully that ‘you never seem to get a good murder nowadays’. – George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder
This is the fifth book by Guy Fraser-Sampson I’ve reviewed. The first three were his Mapp and Lucia novels Major Benjy, Lucia on Holiday and Au Reservoir. I enjoyed all of them and it was obvious Guy had read Benson’s original books with care because he mimicked Benson’s style perfectly although not slavishly. The fourth book was a detective novel, Death in Profile, which, while set in the present, was written in the style not of an individual author but a genre, the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction; so we’re talking of the likes of Agatha Christie (Poirot and Miss Marple), Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn), Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) and Margery Allingham (Campion) to name the four Queens of Crime but there are plenty of others like, for example, Ronald Knox (creator of Miles Bredon) who argued that a detective story “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.” [bold mine]
As I mentioned when I reviewed Death in Profile I really haven’t read much crime fiction at all but I have watched an awful lot of it on TV and still do. We’ve only just finished the last series of Father Brown (created by G. K. Chesterton) who predates the authors above but as Dale Ahlquist reminds us in his lecture ‘The Innocence of Father Brown’ “whenever you think of the great detectives of mystery fiction’s golden age—Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, or Nero Wolfe—remember their parentage. Remember that they had a father. His name was Father Brown.” Father Brown is not naïve but then neither is he cynical; he’s decent and thoughtful. Most importantly he’s observant. It’s what distinguishes detectives from readers of detective fiction because if the clues are “clearly presented” the reader should have every bit as much of a chance of solving the mystery as the detective even if we do mostly fail to put the pieces together. What’s irritating—and Christie’s particularly guilty of this—is holding back the vital clue right until the dénouement; that’s unfair. As Joan Acocella notes in an article in The New Yorker:
[I]n truth, the guessing that we are asked to do is almost fruitless, because the solution to the mystery typically involves a fantastic amount of background material that we’re not privy to until the end of the book, when the detective shares it with us. Christie’s novels crawl with impostors. Letty is not really Letty; she’s Lotty, the sister of Letty. And Hattie isn’t Hattie. She’s a piece of trash from Trieste, who, with her husband, Sir George, killed Hattie (who was also married to him) and assumed her identity. The investigator digs up this material but doesn’t tell anyone till the end.
Let me be clear then: everything you need to solve the first murder in Guy’s new novel is there on the page and if, like me, you can’t add two and two don’t gripe. The second murder is different in that the crime was committed in 1937. No one expects the murderer to even be alive. Or any witnesses. What keeps us interested in this second case is working out how it’s connected to the first and the link is tenuous: the first victim had been researching the building in which the corpse of the second victim is discovered. Surely though this is nothing more than a bizarre coincidence. As is pointed out in the novel, however, “[J]ust because there’s a coincidence doesn’t mean there’s a correlation […] Correlation is not causation.” That said, “Jung said that coincidence is all around us but … most of the time we don’t realise it.” Besides this is fiction. No one can sneeze in a novel without me thinking, Aha! Foreshadowing!
There’s no doubt that Agatha Christie is well-loved and if a new adaptation comes on the TV I always record it even when it’s one of popular ones and I can remember who did it. I’m always perfectly willing to suspend disbelief one more time and buy into her world view the same way as I do with Last of the Summer Wine or anything by PG Wodehouse. As John Banville notes in his contribution to a lengthy article on Christie in The Irish Times entitled ‘Agatha Christie: genius or hack?’:
Christie is certainly a kind of genius, but one cannot help feeling she would have been better off employed in Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, or working for a manufacturer of board games. Her plots, while highly ingenious, are also wildly improbable, if for no other reason than that the characters who drive them are not characters at all, but marionettes, jerking lifelessly on the ends of their all too visible strings. Her worst fault, however, is that we never feel the slightest twitch of sympathy for, or empathy with, the victim, lying there in the library in a neat puddle of blood. Who could possibly care?
In this respect Guy falls into line. The body in the library (actually it’s a museum) is never more than that, as is the body from 1937 which turns up in a suitcase. We learn bits and bobs about them, wee details necessary to keep us interested and also to misdirect us, but never for a second did I find myself caring about them. Neither is real. No one really died. They’re simply clues, a part of the puzzle.
The first murder is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to see one of the detectives on Death in Paradise being tasked with solving. We never witness the actual murder; a body is discovered, maybe a little blood, nothing gruesome like we’ve got used to in the likes of Dexter. There are only a handful of suspects and all have watertight alibis. In the building when the body was discovered we have Karen Willis and her boyfriend Peter Collins (both of whom were introduced in Death in Profile) who’ve visited the museum to see an exhibition of works by Constable and then we have the buttery staff; the assistant manager, Jack Bailey; his wife Sue and Professor Hugh Raffen. Since Karen Willis is a detective sergeant she’s immediately ruled out and can confirm where her boyfriend and everyone else in the buttery was at the time of the murder so we’re left with three possibilities unless a stranger happened to wander in, a “passing tramp,” for example, “a regular device in Golden Age detective fiction.” The victim is one Peter Howse and his only living relative turns out to be a nephew who has a decent motive and isn’t the slightest bit upset when he learns of his uncle’s passing but, of course, denies any involvement and the police have no way to place him at the scene of the crime or thereabouts.
Howse had been preparing an exhibition on the Isokon building on Lawn Road, Hampstead, a concrete block of thirty-four flats designed by architect Wells Coates which opened on 9 July 1934 as an experiment in minimalist urban living and is now widely recognised as one of the finest achievements of Modern Movement architecture. The building’s list of illustrious former residents includes Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and, surprise, surprise, Dame Agatha Christie. On the surface this seems of as little relevance to the murder enquiry as the fact Professor Raffen has been working on a book about Britain’s vanishing railways until that is a body is discovered behind a wall that shouldn’t have been there in a basement at the Isokon.
What follows is a police enquiry that’s probably far closer to a real life investigation than anything penned by Miss Christie or her contemporaries. If anything it’s a little dull and by the numbers which is what, I imagine, most police work is like: suspects are interviewed, doors knocked on, phone calls made, superiors kept appraised, lines of inquiry followed and dots joined. What is interesting is the more we learn about the 1937 murder the more light is shed on the death of Howse until the identity of the murderer becomes blindingly obvious and we all know to be wary of the obvious culprit in any murder mystery. There’s always someone early on in an investigation that we can point the finger at and it’s never him just like it’s never the narrator (Ronald Knox’s First Commandment of Detective Fiction) except in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where it was.
The problem with rules is that they encourage predictability. If a Chinaman appeared in any of Father Knox’s stories you could immediately rule him out (Rule #5) and so why bother with one? Rules also encourage expectation. One thing I hate about so much detective fiction is its formulaic nature. I know on TV if a show’s in two parts at the end of the first part we’ll very likely be left with a second death. What I liked about Guy’s handling of these two deaths is how he uses our preconceptions of how a Golden Age novel should play out to put one over on us.
The second murder is not the kind you normally associate with the Golden Age of detective fiction although I do have to wonder if Guy wasn’t tipping his hat to John Dickson Carr’s 1948 novel The Skeleton in the Clock when he decided to include a body in a suitcase. (Cold Case fiction has only really taken off in recent years thanks to advances in forensic science but even in the 1940s a medical examiner would’ve be able to tell if a skeleton’s feet were too big.) But there’s another thread introduced here. Once the corpse has been identified suddenly a whole new can of worms is opened: espionage and although spy novels are generally considered a separate genre there is some overlap; Agatha Christie herself wrote three full length spy novels, N or M?, Murder In Mesopotamia and They Came To Baghdad. A few reviewers have mentioned John le Carré’s name and I can see why but if you’re coming to this hoping for another Smiley’s People you’ll be disappointed; it has more in common with A Murder of Quality.
As I noted at the start of this article most detective writers tend to get associated with one character (or in Christie’s case two) and one of my concerns when I reviewed Death in Profile was this: “[W]hat we have here is an ensemble cast with no charismatic lead but that’s not really an issue because the story drifts from one character to the next seamlessly and efficiently like handing over a baton in a relay.” I did wonder if a shining star would come to the fore in the second novel but no one really stands out. I found myself lumping all the males into a single amorphous blob: the detective. It probably didn’t help that I could remember little or nothing of the first book although that’s nothing to do with Guy’s writing; I forget everything. There are numerous nods to the first novel and they did help jog my memory but not enough. At the start of the book the publisher has added this comment:
Miss Christie Regrets is the second volume of the Hampstead Mysteries. Readers are invited to sample the series in the correct order for maximum enjoyment.
I have to agree. Yes, the murder-solving stands alone but the relationships of the police officers have moved on and if you haven’t read the first book there’s room for confusion especially when it comes to the… let’s go with open love triangle… involving Karen Willis, Peter Collins and Bob Metcalfe. Romance subplots are common enough—and that is all this is—but it does serve to flesh out the characters a bit and it’s interesting to see them develop. Christ! They’re so British. I was somewhat sorry to see Guy was unable to utilise Peter Collins as much as he had in the first book. I’m a big fan of the oddball consultant—from Sherlock Holmes to Lucifer—but Collins really doesn’t get much chance to shine here. Maybe next time.
One thing I liked about Christie is that her characters age and so by the time we get to Curtain Poirot is an old man. In an interview in 2016 Guy talks a bit about his relationship with his characters:
One could get into a very arcane discussion about what is or is not a ‘series’. In my view it should be one long narrative spread across several books. Very few detective ‘series’ would qualify under this description, though Wallender might be an obvious one which does, mixing professional and personal issues. I can see the argument for writing stand-alone books featuring the same characters because then it doesn’t matter in which order people read them but again, I wanted to be different.
 I wanted to create a cast with whom the reader can empathise, and care about what happens to them as they go through life. In order to do this, you have to set them against a personal background. The more of the books you read, the more deeply you will understand, and hopefully like, the characters.
I do have to say that this book did feel as if it was a part of something bigger and not simply the second in an on-going series. I’m genuinely curious to see where these characters go. Several reviewers expressed regret at not having read Death in Profile first.
The book’s not perfect. I enjoyed all the nods to Golden Age authors although they felt a little strained at times as many had to be explained for the benefit of less-well-read colleagues. There’s nothing wrong with the book’s core mystery (ten out of ten there) but I think it could’ve done with one final run through before going to press. The Yorkshire Ripper case, for example, is mentioned four times and twice someone observes that people don’t usually crawl into suitcases to die. There are perhaps, too, too many adverbs for modern readers’ tastes. No one simply says anything. They say it “ruefully,” “savagely,” “mournfully,” “resignedly,” “diffidently” or even “jocularly.” The biggest problem I had though was with the copyediting. There were dozens—and I do not exaggerate—of errors: periods instead of commas, apostrophes the wrong way round, extra spaces, miscellaneous problems with quotes, times written without colons to separate hours and minutes and even three bona fide typos that I noticed. This was in the e-book and it’s always possible that an old version was uploaded but I found them terribly distracting.
The third book in the series, A Whiff of Cyanide, will be released on 2 June 2017 and I’m quite looking forward to it.
Guy Fraser-Sampson is an established writer, previously best known for his Mapp and Lucia novels, which have been featured on BBC Radio 4 and optioned by BBC television. His debut work of detective fiction, Death in Profile, the first in the Hampstead Murders series has drawn high praise from fellow crime writers as well as from readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
He currently works as a board adviser (and sometimes invests in) various entrepreneurial businesses, and has previously held various senior level investment positions, including a spell as Investment Controller with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and ran for several years the international operations of a leading US fund manager. For the past several years he has been designing and teaching a number of post-graduate modules at Cass Business School in the City of London.
Guy appears regularly on radio and television in the UK and is also in demand as a keynote and after dinner speaker.
He is married with two grown-up sons and divides his time between London (NW3 naturally) and East Sussex.
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