Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 23 April 2017

#727


Crag



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

#726


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.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

#725


Façade



I hid from you behind the only words I had
saying just those things I knew you knew.
But not it all.

Just the things I knew you wouldn't question.


6 April 1991


Lying is wrong. That’s what I was taught growing up. Satan was the father of the lie. (Which, I guess, makes God the grandfather of the lie but no one talks about that.) The older I’ve got the more I’ve lost patience with truth and questioned its efficacy. It has its uses but mostly it hurts people unless diluted in some way. Do you love me? Yes, but not as much as you’d like. Why volunteer that last bit? My wife doesn’t know how much I love or in what way or how it compares to the other loves of my life and why do we need to go there anyway? What use is that kind of truth?
 
I loved F. I think I loved F., was in love with F. Now I’m not so sure. It felt like what I imagined love ought to feel like. But did I really love her? What does that even mean?

Sunday, 9 April 2017

#724


Mother



I sat and watched my mother cry, and said,
"These arms are mine. You gave them to me.
You cannot have them back."


6 April 1991
 
 
My mother cried a lot. I made her cry. My brother and sister made her cry. Her husband made her cry. And I’m not sure any one of us ever put our arms around her and said, “There, there.” We were not that kind of family. There’s a photo of me as a wee boy—I’m probably about three in it—and my mother’s hugging me and I look like a cat a small child’s got hold of and is squeezing to death. The expression on my face says it all: I don’t want to be here.
 
The last mental health professional I went to once asked me the classic (or is it clichéd?), “Tell me about your mother,” to which I replied, “I’ll tell you about my dad because you need to understand my dad and my relationship with my dad before you’ll understand me and my mum.” I don’t think she was very pleased; she didn’t like when I didn’t play ball. My dad was a bully. He never hit my mum, not once, but he belittled her and never worried about whether the kids were within earshot or not. So we took our cue from him and looked down on her. And it only got worse when I realised just how much cleverer than her I was.
 
This is one of only two poems I wrote about my mum. The other is ‘Making Do’ (#934) which you can read at the end of my post Richard Brautigan, my mum and I if you’re interested.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

#723


Medusa



"I had to see,"
she said, by way of explanation.
"With my own eyes."
But this explained nothing.

"Sitting in a darkened room
peering through a two-way mirror.
It's not the same."

And I had to agree
but I didn't know why.


6 April 1991
 
 
So what’s going on here? It’s not very clear, is it? A woman is explaining to someone—the poem’s narrator—why she chose to leave the safety of a darkened room to see something or someone with her own eyes. Or maybe not “see” as in look at but “see” as in come to understand first-hand.
 
In Ovid’s reimagining of the story Medusa was a beautiful maiden whom Poseidon raped in Athena's temple. Enraged Athena transformed Medusa’s hair—the victim’s hair—into serpents and made her face so terrible to behold the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. Perseus was only able to slay her whilst looking at the reflection from the mirrored shield he received, unsurprisingly, from Athena herself. So there’s the mirror.
 
Two-way mirrors we generally associate with interrogation rooms.
 
Let’s say it’s Medusa the woman has to see face to face. Why’s she still able to talk? Surely she would’ve been turned to stone. Well, metaphorically, perhaps she has. Learning the truth can have that effect on people. And we know it can. And yet we go out of our way to look it in the eye. Why? I have no idea.
 
Or perhaps the woman is Athena and this is before Medusa’s punishment. Perhaps Athena needed to look her in the eye before she knew for sure. Even if what she thought she saw was completely wrong.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

#722


Lean Pickings



Slowly and deliberately
she picked her way
through the husks of words
searching for a kernel of hidden meaning,
what she called "truth."

"Was that all that was worth saying?"
I asked, when she seemed to have found it,
and she said, "No,
but that was all I wanted to hear."


6 April 1991
 
 
Somewhere amongst my papers I have the first few pages of a dictionary. I don’t think I’d heard of The Devil’s Dictionary when I started it but it’s along the same lines, alternative definitions of words we thought we understood. The only definition I can remember is the one for ‘Apple’: Crunchy water. I gave up on it because I kept trying to make it funny but a part of me wishes I’d taken it a bit more seriously because at its core was a good idea.
 
I’ve always loved dictionaries—one of my earliest posts on this blog was Twenty-seven dictionaries—but here’s the thing: as much as I loved them I always felt they fell short. As did the one I started writing. An apple is no more crunchy water than it’s “the round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin green or red skin and crisp flesh.” Neither really catches the appleness of an apple. Definition is not meaning. What does an apple mean?
 
Mostly in life we get by on crumbs. I wrote a long letter to B. after she moved to Ireland and she phoned me up afterwards—it was probably the last time we ever spoke—but all she wanted to talk about was the opening sentence in which I’d talked about how people viewed what she’d done and to be honest most people either didn’t get her or didn’t approve. That was all she wanted to talk about. There was so much truth in that letter but it was too long—far too long—and so she focused on the only thing that mattered to her. I clearly didn't. I’ve no idea if this poem’s about that but that’s what it reminded me of.
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