Unnatural Causes by PD James (1967)
PD James is one of my very favourite novelists, though I’ve yet to read a lot of her work perhaps because I don’t like the idea of being done with it, of having no more left to read. She’s quite possibly the queen of the whydunit, representing a sub genre of British detective fiction that on the one hand is very traditional, but on the other is as much concerned with motive as identity.
A beautifully macabre prologue introduces us to the corpse of Maurice Seton, mediocre crime novelist, whose corpse has been deprived of hands and pushed out in a dinghy off the coast of Monksmere, the small Suffolk hamlet that he shared with several other writers. These include romance novelist Celia Calthrop, theatre critic Oliver Latham, and magazine editor Justin Bryce. Detective Superintendent Dalgliesh was supposed to be taking holiday at his aunt’s house but finds himself raking over the rat’s nest of ego and rivalry, which includes Seton’s disabled assistant Sylvia Kedge, Seton’s ne’er-do-well brother Digby, and Celia’s caustic young niece Elizabeth.
Unnatural Causes marks the first of the truly excellent novels that James wrote. All of her work is good, but this third in her series about Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh pulls ahead of the preceding two (Cover Her Face and A Mind to Murder) with a more complete joining of the elements that set her work apart. It all comes together here. The characters are brilliantly drawn, the closed community (an important feature of James’ mysteries) is convincingly set up, a dash of black humour spices up the proceedings, the pace is considered but never dull, and everything converges on an exciting conclusion.
It also has the empathic and intelligent exploration of crime that makes James such a towering figure in her genre. I can’t think of many crime writers who, for example, would present a since-caught child killer on whom her lead detective is ruminating thusly (no spoilers here, by the way):
“Pooley had been such a small man, small, ugly and stinking with fear. His wife had left him a year before and the inexpert patch which puckered the elbow of his suit had obviously been his own work. Dalgliesh had found his eyes held by that patch as if it had the power to assert that Pooley was still a human being.”
James understands better than many that murder is often a pathetic crime, carried out not by creatures from the Black Forest but inadequate human beings. Justice does not preclude an understanding of this, and is arguably defined by it. Our compassion and sense of reason are what drive us towards justice, as opposed to animal and un-discriminating vengeance.
The humour in Unnatural Causes helps with the depth of her characterisation as well. The literary milieu gives her a chance to skewer the types of ego with which she was presumably familiar. I especially liked how the squabbling writers try to pull rank on each other at one point, declaring this and that about the comparative importance of their respective fields.
Meanwhile, the solution to the mystery is both fiendishly complex and satisfyingly nasty in its details. Although the pace is slow, the climax is a great action set piece that had me hooked. James is a treasure of the mystery novel genre, and I’ll be sad when I do finally complete her catalogue.
Pictured: Sphere Books Ltd edition
An ABC of Childhood Tragedy by Dr Jordan B Peterson (2022)
I like poetry. (I write my own from time to time.) I also like Edward Gorey, dark humour, and old-timey pop art. I’m even the type of person who’s inclined to separate art from artist. So with that in mind, I should have been in a position to really love An ABC of Childhood Trauma: Volume I, an abecedarium by the popular Canadian psychologist and political commentator Jordan Peterson. So why do I consider it possibly the worst professionally produced and commercially available poetry collection that I’ve seen?
I’m not going to talk about Peterson as a personality here because you can look him up for yourself if you’re interested and I don’t want to give the impression that controversial people can’t make good art. Manifestly they can, hence why the art v artist debate exists. But this book is not good art. It’s a collection of short poems, mostly rhyming quatrains that are almost but not quite limericks, largely on the theme of child abuse. The poems are good examples of “reaching for the rhyme”, where grammar and flow are sacrificed so as to force end rhymes. (Think of poetry written by adolescents who haven’t yet learned that you don’t need to rhyme the end of every line.)
Three of the poems are about childhood sexual abuse. All of which are focused on men (a father, a neighbour, and a priest) abusing boys and at least two of which have clearly homophobic implications. For example, the poem for D is as follows:
Dick was a damaged little boy
whose prancing father made him coy
when he ended up in jail
all competed for his tail
This was one of the three poems that Peterson chose to read aloud to promote this book. One of the others was the poem about a boy being molested by his neighbour. The latter poem, incidentally, ends with the spectacularly clunky line “where the hell was Christian God?” (I dunno, Jordan, maybe he was out on the lash with his mate Jewish Baker.)
This is the type of writing that once upon a time would have been anthologised in The Stuffed Owl, a collection of bad poetry. The D poem suggests that Dick’s father is gay (“prancing”) and then becomes fairly incomprehensible. Does Dick end up in jail, or the father? If I was going to try to “improve” this piece, I would probably re-write it thus:
Dick was a damaged young boy
whose diddling daddy made him coy.
But daddy ended up in jail,
with all competing for HIS tail.
Still not good, still juvenile and amateurish, but it at least lessons the homophobia (while emphasising alliteration) and makes clear the point of the poem as a story. Dick was abused by his father, and then his father got his “just” desserts. (Not that sexual abuse is ever justified, of course, even when perpetrated against abusers. But in the skewed moral universe of dark irony, it makes sense as a logical narrative.)
This is the type of book where even the formatting of it as a physical object feels off. Normally a book like this would be a short rectangle, landscape style, hence why many of Gorey’s picture books are published in this manner. Peterson’s, however, is presented in portrait mode, so to speak. I have to assume that this choice was made to accommodate the art style of Juliette Fogra, the book’s illustrator. Her black-and-white illustrations sometimes have a little pop to them, but are not all that special.
They are at least better than the actual poetry, which is centre-aligned in the fashion of online poetry that amateurs upload themselves. A landscape format could have corrected this, since the centre-alignment feels chosen to justify how little of the page is taken up by the actual text. Imagine a Gorey text where instead of pages combining an image with a line or a couplet, you got acres of dead space surrounding the actual verse.
That Peterson invoked Edward Gorey when promoting this junk is honestly kind of offensive. Gorey’s books are skilfully written and illustrated “nonsense” poetry utilising macabre themes and a Victorian setting to tell surreal, sometimes darkly funny stories. What they are not is amateurish faux-limericks laughing at child sexual and other trauma, or even just how a child looks and sounds (some are about children being ugly or stupid through no fault of their own), paired with sloppy composite art by an acolyte of the author and which wouldn’t distinguish a Deviant Art account. (Whenever more than one character is required to appear in the image, they don’t seem to be occupying the same space or looking at each other, giving it an “actor in front of a green screen in a bad movie” quality.)
Furthermore, I seriously doubt that Gorey, a possibly asexual man who sometimes half-identified as gay and certainly had a lot of gay friends, would have been pleased by any association with poems like the aforementioned one for D, which suggests that “prancing” men are child molesters. Then again, any of Peterson’s poems would have been liable to disgust him, or anyone. Some of the most offensive are just laughing at children for being “ugly”.
The closest comparison with something like Peterson’s book would be The Gashlycrumb Tinies, another alphabet poem, in which Gorey describes the deaths of children. (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs / B is for Basil assaulted by bears”) Gorey’s work is a genuine piece of well-crafted dark comedy, expertly mixing the cutesy and macabre, and you can have it read to you for free on YouTube. Do you yourself a favour and pick that instead of this.
Featured image of the Libra Press edition
The Tangle by Justin Robertson (2023)
This is a very strange debut by a writer previously known for their work in music. To get much out of it you’ll need to be extremely sympathetic to the goals and concerns of “weird fiction”. If you don’t know, weird fiction is a somewhat loosely defined sub-genre of horror associated with magazine writers of the 1930s, most famously HP Lovecraft. It utilises non-traditional antagonists, often aliens, and has a lot of crossover with science-fiction as well as cosmic horror.
The Tangle is closest in intent and design to Thomas Ligotti, a literary descendent of Lovecraft who’s been writing since the 1980s. Ligotti’s work, mostly short stories, is philosophical in nature and tend to eschew violent action in favour of a pervading nihilistic atmosphere.
I’d struggle to even describe The Tangle as a novel. It feels more like a themed collection of stories, albeit with recurring characters and the same, titular antagonist. It comes with a foreword by David Keenan that I found incomprehensible until the end when he cites such genre writers as MR James and Algernon Blackwood. James is one of my favourite horror writers and I can certainly see his influence in elements of The Tangle, although his works are much more traditional ghost stories.
The Tangle is set in an English village called Caxton across multiple time periods. Some future, some past, some present (or thereabouts), others adhering to what feels like an alternative history. (One chapter is very clearly placed after WWI yet seems to exist in a post-Reformation world of witch-finders and burnings.) The titular entity is what links all of the chapters, a cluster of foliage, intertwining roots and branches which spread out from the woods to reclaim their dominion from the townspeople.
Each chapter is presented from a different first-person perspective, one (for example) that of an elitist in a distant, post-history utopia where technology is so advanced that people no longer struggle or want for anything. This character is drawn by the tangle to a “museum of ignorance”, where old superstitions are exhibited.
For its first quarter, The Tangle was a slog. It’s so thickly layered in abstract poeticism that I struggled to discern a narrative. To understand what was happening, in other words. The first chapter, involving a series of ritualised murders investigated by a policewoman, moves along at a fair pace and has a nicely baroque conclusion. Thereafter it drifts into almost obscurantist terrain. It’s the type of dense writing where you can read it for several pages and not have much of an idea as to who, what, when, or why.
My interest only really began piquing once I started to realise a proper story in the, well, tangle of prose. Even then, though, The Tangle required a lot of push for me to stay invested in and not give up on it.
To an extent, the dense and abstract writing is par for the course with weird fiction. But where a modern master of the genre like Ligotti can still give it pace, humanity, and even humour, while the Old Master Lovecraft can suggest an entire universe that you would need to live a thousand lifetimes just to see a thousandth of, both writers creating stories that are often more like tone poems than traditional narratives, Robertson hasn’t yet acquired the same skills.
Too much of The Tangle is just kind of a chore to read. Its narrative approach is to introduce characters one at a time with large and lumpy chunks of backstory before setting in motion a series of gruesome events that are fun in concept, but in practice seem suffocated in the thicket of a prose style that’s reaching for poetic but more often comes across as cheesy, so that they feel glimpsed as if through a dirty window rather than powerfully witnessed.
It took me two weeks to push through this one and I had to fight to not DNF it. (I haven’t yet acquired the skill of guiltlessly abandoning books.) But Robertson shows promise, at least, in his dedication to weird concepts.
Double-O Double Feature! From Russia, with Love (1957) and Doctor No by Ian Fleming (1958)
With the recent brouhaha in the UK about “sensitivity readers” editing works by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming so that they remain suitable for modern audiences, I thought I’d review a couple of the original James Bond books. I’ve always enjoyed them immensely, despite not being a reader of spy fiction in general. They’ve always seemed to have more in common with Victorian adventure fiction, mixing daffy plots around treasure hunts, secret societies, and mysterious, almost fantastical locales with contemporaneous detail. Although I like the films (for the most part) Bond as an idea exists more for me in the books, which unlike some bestsellers do lose something when you replace the actual writing with moving images.
From Russia, with Love is a Bond novel which, ironically, illustrates the formula that Fleming used while supposedly breaking it. It’s an oddly plotless novel in some ways, about attempts by SMERSH (a real-life Russian counterintelligence agency) to humiliate the British secret service by honey-trapping and assassinating its best agent, James Bond, embroiling him in a confected scandal of sex and treachery.
I’m not sure that the plan ever really makes sense. It has the same problem as some of the Bond films do in that this great “secret” agent seems to be very well-known to the enemy. Furthermore, why wouldn’t they expect the British government to effect a coverup? What about them scandalising one of their agents would decrease morale enough to destabilise national security? They must think that we’re awfully sensitive over there in Moscow.
But like a lot of Fleming, the plot isn’t the point. The first 10 chapters of this one are brilliant and easily the most entertaining part of the book, which might seem odd as Bond isn’t in them. Instead, they follow several characters in SMERSH, most distinctively “Red” Grant and Rosa Klebb. Grant is a British serial killer who defects because he loves the Russians’ brutality, and Klebb is an (unfortunately queer-coded) Soviet torturess.
Following these chapters, we get a lot of James Bond in the Middle East before getting on the Orient Express. Oddly, as soon as he arrives the tension slackens a bit. This is never a boring novel, but even more so than the others it feels like its structure could be chopped and changed without losing any coherence. You don’t even need to read the first 10 chapters to know what’s going on, making them feel like a gigantic prologue, as good as they are.
This illustrates, then, the style of the original Bond books as stories. Fleming’s work lives and dies on its vivid characterisations, journalistic details, and exciting set-pieces. The characters of Grant and Klebb as well as certain other associates are a macabre joy to follow, the author packing so much detail and tense passage-work into the narrative. Yes, the passage work doesn’t build to anything in the way that a John le Carre or even a Tom Clancy novel would, but that doesn’t matter. Fleming introduces you to some unforgettable personalities and settings and cranks up the excitement with one suspense scene after another.
Doctor No is my favourite of the original Bond novels, perhaps because it’s the one that comes the closest to the genre of Gothic horror. But in its day it was reviled as the worst of the series so far, with one memorable review in the New Statesman expressing disgust at its “Sex, Snobbery, and Sadism”.
The plot sees James Bond – having barely survived his adventures in From Russia, with Love – sent on a sort of busman’s holiday-cum-rest cure to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two fellow operatives, a man and a woman, believed to have eloped. Whilst there, however, he comes into contact with a mysterious island owned by a reclusive Chinese scientist called Doctor No, and on which a fire-breathing dragon is said by locals to keep fishermen at bay…
The opening chapter of this novel contains some of the best writing that Fleming ever produced, perhaps because he was writing about a country he loved. His depiction of Imperial Jamaica with its King’s Club and well-fed cronies playing cards to pass the time on balmy nights may feel uncomfortably romanticised to modern readers, but it’s elegant and beautiful prose nonetheless.
Returning to that New Statesman review, it describes “three basic ingredients in Dr No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult”. It then goes on to declare that “Mr Fleming has no literary skill, the construction of the book is chaotic, and entire incidents and situations are inserted, and then forgotten, in a haphazard manner.” An American critic and fellow novelist, Anthony Boucher, echoed the latter sentiments when he opined that Doctor No is “80,000 words long, with enough plot for 8,000 and enough originality for 800.”
To me, these criticisms feel a bit like getting the facts right while missing the point entirely. Yes, Doctor No exploits sex and violence as elements of its genre and no, it doesn’t have a clockwork plot. What works about it are its scenes, the journey rather than the destination. The evocation of No and his Moreau-esque island of horrors on which Bond and his latest squeeze Honeychile Rider are trapped is magnificently done suspense writing.
My favourite bits of the novel start when Bond and Rider are brought into the madman’s lair (although they contain a particularly tic-inducing use of a trope that Roger Ebert called the Talking Killer). The predominant image of the novel is of No, with his mechanical extremities, casting a looming shadow over his prisoners as they sleep.
Horror Triple-Feature! Unsafe Haven by Frank Tayell (2014), Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste (2022), and Reprieve by James Han Mattson (2021)
My reading has been more than a little slack these first two months of 2023, but here we go with reviews of the three books that came in my January subscription box from The Abominable Book Club.
Firstly, the shortest, Unsafe Haven by Frank Tayell, a novella and the fourth in the author’s self-published (via Amazon) Surviving the Evacuation series. I’ve not read any of the others and in all honesty wasn’t looking forward to this one, since I’m not a fan of zombies. I like George A Romeo’s original Dead trilogy, The Return of the Living Dead, and a British miniseries called Dead Set that Charlie Brooker made before Black Mirror, but that’s about it. They’re just not compelling enough antagonists in and of themselves to entertain me unless the story has a lot else going for it.
Unsafe Haven is a viral apocalypse story set in the UK in the aftermath of an “evacuation” that was more of a genocidal cleanup. Our main character is Nilda, trapped in Penrith with her teenage son Jay and surviving by foraging from the abandoned urban wasteland as zombies stalk the streets. They try to forge a community with some other survivors, but a shortage of supplies and infighting threatens their existence until they’re forced to try for somewhere safer.
Given that the book is just one part of a series, the plot is vague and loosey-goosey, ambling from one set piece to another without much structural focus. However, I always understood what was happening and the people were sufficiently characterised, even if their personalities ultimately came down to pulpy types. The violence is pretty standard for this genre, a lot of ambling and thrashing corpses getting stabbed in the head, as is the layering on of pseudo-philosophical chin-stroking. I did like that the story is constantly moving, with no one settling anywhere for long before an action scene looms.
While I understand that the genre is steeped in post-apocalyptic grit and nihilism, a dash of humour might have helped this one stand out. Still, Tayell’s prose and scene-setting are efficient. He knows how to pace his set pieces and has a certain fertility of invention when it comes to sketching new characters and throwing fresh obstacles at them.
I can’t say that I got a whole lot of Unsafe Haven, but if you like The Walking Dead, you’ll probably enjoy this.
Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste is one of my favourite new novels that I’ve read in a good long while. The cover design (with its Gothic riff on the 2000 film Almost Famous’ poster) and the blurb had me hooked right away. This novel is extremely well-done fan fiction, following characters from Dracula by Bram Stoker and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte in a whole new setting.
Dracula victim Lucy Westenra and Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” of Mr Rochester’s house in Eyre, are living a life of reluctant immortality in late 1960s Los Angeles. Dracula has been confined to several urns forged by Westenra in the Carpathian Mountains, but his ashes remain unquiet and she continues to struggle against her vampiric lusts. Meanwhile, Mr Rochester has set up a home in San Francisco, and with Dracula by his side may spell doom for the Summer of Love…
What Reluctant Immortals does is reinterpret Stoker and Brontes’ stories as allegories for domestic abuse and gender-based violence. The reinterpretation of Rochester as a supernatural villain was brilliantly executed. I loved the idea that the attic of his country seat became possessed by a malignant spirit to which he would sacrifice women, which feels at once both effectively metaphorical in terms of the themes around domestic violence, and also like something out of Thomas Ligotti, the nihilistic horror writer whose Lovecraftian tales are haunted by “the death principle”.
Kiste tells the story in a pleasingly pulpy style as well, ending chapters on cliffhangers. The drama can sometimes feel overwrought, leaving a soapy aftertaste reminiscent of Dawson’s Creek and various YA titles, and I do wish that the first-person narration in Westenra’s voice was less inclined to state her feelings rather than let them be shown by her actions. More historical detail would also have helped to deepen the portrait of these characters and their lives.
But while this isn’t a perfect novel, it is really good, snappy and entertaining and rich with some genuinely haunting depictions of supernatural otherness. Like a lot of the best horror fiction, it gives you a spine-caressing sense of worlds beyond ours. As well as themes that are all too relevant post-Me Too.
In line with this, and also like a lot of great horrors, Reluctant Immortals evokes real pity and terror for the victims of the entities. One scene of young hippie girls entangled and drained by a vampire is unspeakably sad, while a sequence at a gas station highlights how vulnerable young women without money have always been to rape and murder. This is a powerful, sensitive, and occasionally horrifying novel.
Lastly, Reprieve by James Han Mattson, my least favourite of the trio and one that I, unfortunately, had to DNF (did not finish), as the BookTubers say. Feel free to disregard my review on that basis. I’m more than open to the idea of returning to this one someday and seeing it in a whole new light, especially given that I didn’t even really dislike the writing. I just felt so completely disengaged from anything that was happening in the narrative that it was difficult to even focus on it.
The story is that a disparate group of people in the 1990s are drawn towards the Quigley house, which hosts an escape room. Someone from the latest group dies during one such event, and the structure of the story follows each of the various players in turn as their lives lead them towards the house.
The structure was my biggest issue with this one, I think. It starts with a prologue which pretty much explains exactly what’s going to happen, when, how, and why. This isn’t necessarily a problem; Ruth Rendell used it to good effect with the famous first line of A Judgement in Stone (1977): “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” But something about Mattson’s use of it here undercut straightaway my engagement with his tale.
The opening section about a black girl’s tentative first relationship with a boy with whom she watches horror films is sweet and observant. All of the character stuff that I read was fine in and of itself, I just felt no narrative drive at play, and no suspense, which in a horror novel is a problem.
What the novel does highlight is the importance of world-building. As well as an effective structure, what it lacks is a clear understanding of the territory we’re in. Part of the reason I DNF’d was that I became acutely aware that I had no idea what was happening, or why, and didn’t care. Joss Whedon’s film The Cabin in the Woods (2011) resolved this issue by opening with a couple of technicians at the facility that runs the game. The rules of the game and why it exists were therefore related to the audience as the characters went about their work.
Again, feel free to disregard my review based on my DNF. As I said, I may return to this one someday and have a whole new perspective on it.
Red Rain by RL Stine (2012)
Red Rain is the second of two adult horror novels by RL Stine, better known for his children’s series Goosebumps, and Fear Street novels for teenagers. The plot is that a journalist visits a tropical island and participates in a voodoo ritual before getting caught in the path of a hurricane that devastates the community, leaving behind a pair of twins, two blond and blue-eyed little boys whom she ends up adopting. She hasn’t seen Village of the Damned, but anyone who has can see where this is going…
Red Rain has gotten its fair share of snotty reviews, but it’s about what anyone has a right to expect from an adult novel by RL Stine. It does what his children’s books do and repackages horror tropes in a trashy, gaudy, and direct style, just this time at a more gruesome level because the audience is adults.
The best bits are set on the island, which is presented early on with a great deal of atmosphere. The ritual too, when it comes, is satisfyingly menacing and macabre. After that, the plot settles into more of a Bentley Little vibe, by which I mean a lot of gory and inexplicable events, spiced up with a dash of sex, occur in a small American town.
Though they’re the centre (and central antagonists) of the book, the twins are probably the weakest part. The details of their carnage and action scenes are great, but as characters, they’re grating, presented with daft “Oirish” accents/dialects for no very explicable reason. (Perhaps Stine was just repackaging the trope of “British accent equals creepy”?)
There’s also a pointless subplot about the journalist’s husband having an affair with a young woman, which seems to exist purely to facilitate a sex scene. The woman in question is depicted as so strangely absent of personality other than “vamp” that I thought that she was going to be a part of the supernatural shenanigans, a succubus from hell or something. But no, she’s just a stereotype who should have been left in the ‘70s.
The writing is crisp, as always with Stine. Whatever you think about the characters or plot, this is good, pulpy writing, vivid and memorable. It’s the pop art of literature. Red Rain makes me wish that Stine wrote more adult fiction. Yes, it’s trash, but so are James Herbert and Richard Laymon, and the writing in Red Rain is easily on their level. (At a higher level than Laymon in terms of characterisation and theme, honestly.) The chapters end on cliffhangers much like a Goosebumps or Fear Street book, and Stine even works in some decent comedy, especially regarding one fakeout scare early on and involving two cops who show up to break bad news.
Red Rain is a good example of “cosy” horror or beach reading. There are some extremely gruesome moments, but nothing that should badly upset horror readers.
The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith (2022)
A sloppy behemoth from Robert Galbraith, crime writing nom-de-plume of JK Rowling. PI Cormoran Strike continues his romantic flirtation with fellow detective Robin Ellacott, this time against the backdrop of a case involving toxic fandom and social media. Cartoonist Edie Ledwell comes to Strike and Ellacott’s agency seeking assistance to identify “Anomie”, an internet troll stirring up a campaign of online abuse against Ledwell due to her supposed “selling out”, among other things. The sleuths declare themselves unqualified to deal with such an enquiry until Ledwell is tasered and then stabbed to death in Highgate Cemetery, her boyfriend/colleague left paralysed.
Rowling’s detective novels have, at least for me, the same issue as her later Harry Potter books: they stopped being edited once they became guaranteed money-spinners. Rowling recently appeared on Graham Norton’s radio show to discuss The Ink Black Heart (don’t ask me why there’s no hyphen) and addressed the length partly by invoking the Golden Age of detective fiction, arguing essentially that more space equals greater characterisation. This feels like a fallacy which reveals Rowling’s apparent belief in tell-don’t-show. Do short books somehow have less characterisation?
“Long” Golden Age novels, like Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers (which comes in at a meagre 483 pages), don’t come close to the 1,024 churned out by Rowling. Even modern examples, like the notably long novels of Elizabeth George, tend to weigh in between 5 and 800. Heck, going back to one of the prototype novels of detection, Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, you still get less than a thousand pages at 912. The only reason for any novel to be as long as The Ink Black Heart is if it’s either a masterpiece of language or filled with enough interesting detail to justify it. The Ink Black Heart is neither.
There’s also the issue that Rowling’s writing is often dated and clumsy. You’d have thought that descriptions of “cupid’s bow” mouths, for instance, went out with the 1970s. (Although to be fair, I do recall that phrase being used in a fairly recent Stephen King anthology.) This is a theme in her books, the last one (Troubled Blood) having added a “weak and sensual mouth” to a killer who fetishises women’s clothes and uses them for disguise. The old-fashioned writing would be fine, with me at least, if it felt like a conscious stylistic choice, but it tends to just feel simplistic.
Added to this in The Ink Black Heart is the badly formatted use of web chats and other mocked-up social media content. Maybe this is better in the print version, but on a Kindle, I found the chapters’ worth of web chats to be difficult and just plain obnoxious to read. In the end, I gave up trying to follow it precisely and just read it in columns, left to right. Whose idea was it to try to emulate the look of social media and weblogs as opposed to adapting that material into a more book-friendly format? (Say, by presenting the chats similar to a theatre script.)
Of course, none of this will matter to Rowling’s fans, who’ll see reviews like mine as just grumble-puss nitpickery by elitist (or “woke”) critics. The length is just what they’re looking for and anyone criticising it has a low attention span, they’ll say; they happen to like the writing style, thank you very much, and you’re just too PC to get it; the formatting wasn’t a problem for THEM. And so on, and so forth. That’s fair enough, but I do wonder whether the most rabid fans are buying the book strictly for what they perceive as its quality, or whether, maybe, they’re more just inclined to support the author because they sympathise with her reported views and experiences.
As always, Rowling’s strengths as a writer are in picturesque concepts and crisp readability. (Aforementioned social media dross aside.) I also like her use of quotations from classic texts that start each chapter; this can feel like an attempt to make books feel more literary than they are in other works, but they’re used to decent effect here. Ultimately, Rowling has a fertile imagination when it comes to conceiving plots and ideas for characters. It’s the execution that’s the problem.
Ripley Under Water (1991) by Patricia Highsmith
The last in the series about gentleman-of-leisure and occasional killer Tom Ripley, and the second to last novel that Highsmith wrote (arguably the last that she finished, given the first-draft quality of Small g: A Summer Idyll), Ripley Under Water begins as our globetrotting American-in-France is enjoying some time at a cafe when he runs into another ex-pat, David Pritchard. Pritchard and his wife Janice have recently moved into a house near Ripley’s stately home. Unfortunately, David especially seems interested in more than borrowing a cup of sugar from his new neighbour, revealing himself to be hell-bent on exposing Ripley’s life of crime for psychopathic reasons of his own…
I wasn’t much looking forward to this last of the Ripliad. The details of its writing and reception didn’t bode well. It was written in the last four or so years of Highsmith’s life and tends to polarise readers, many of whom remark on its perfunctory plot and lack of incident. Moreover, it’s a direct sequel to the second book in the series, Ripley Under Ground, and therefore necessitates regurgitation of that novel’s plot.
All of the signs indicated, then, that this would be an example of a late-period novel by a crime writer of declining abilities, a la Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. Even the first chapter felt somewhat clumsy in its introduction of the main plot thread, with Ripley thinking about an odd person he’s seen recently, right before bumping into him. The narrative does somewhat bear the hallmarks of a writer of decreasing focus – Tom’s thoughts have a slight tendency to ramble, feeling less like those of a man in his 30s than of, well, a 70-year-old woman, as Highsmith was in the year of this book’s release.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself ranged against the naysayers when it comes to Ripley Under Water, as I found it very compulsive reading. This is mostly due to the novel’s (or Ripley’s) antagonists, David and his wife Janice Pritchard, two of the most fascinatingly repulsive and pathological characters that Highsmith ever created. Their very names – the surname rendered repeatedly by French characters as variations on Prick-ard, a pun which the author doesn’t let pass – seem to ooze with the contempt that Highsmith has for them and their type.
They represent not just the antithesis of Tom Ripley but the apotheosis of Highsmith’s guttural disgust for a certain American caricature: common, ill-mannered, uncultured, hypocritical, crude and pathetic and ignorant and ragingly envious of anyone they suspect of being better than them. (Which is most people.) Of course, they’re not really the antithesis of Ripley given that he is, after all, a career criminal and serial killer. He doesn’t have the moral high ground. But damn it if he’s not at least a wonderful host, unlike this pair of pricks.
David is the dominant partner, a psychotic fantasist whose exploits have also included sending menacing letters to pop stars, while Janice is a cowering shrew who flits between apologising for her husband and enjoying his excesses. He beats her – she’s constantly rubbing at a wrist or an arm where he’s bruised her – but in her own way she’s equally sick, enjoying what he does on a sadomasochistic level. Both she and her husband are the type of sick people who sometimes find each other and make the most compatible marriages that they could hope for. Janice might be a more salvageable personality than him. She’s a hysterical attention-seeker, but has a genuine victimhood about her, remarking that if she left David he’d just turn on her like he did Ripley.
David reminded me a touch of the psychopath that Highsmith created for A Dog’s Ransom (1972). But where that guy was a poor New Yorker on disability allowance, his sick and jealous behaviour therefore limited to the pets of penthouse-dwellers, David is the prodigal son of a lumber magnate. He’s able to stalk people across international borders and create havoc in their lives, not even motivated by money.
In one scene he calls Ripley a “snob crook”, and although he’s not wrong, you don’t get the sense that he really has any moral feelings about Ripley one way or another. He’d be more than happy to live Ripley’s life and do exactly what he’s done with no qualms whatsoever. His motivation is sadistic jealousy, a desire to torture someone who has the peace and tranquillity that he craves. The harassment he perpetrates would be just as thorough and vicious if Ripley’s secret wasn’t criminal, like homosexuality or a history of mental illness that he doesn’t want the neighbours to find out about.
In a way, Ripley Under Water represents a conflict of two distinct types that Highsmith used for her psychopaths: the suave and demonic, and the weird and debased. The gentleman and the pig.
I can’t honestly say that Ripley Under Water is as good a novel as any of the others in the series. It’s just not as fully rounded and elegant a piece of craftsmanship, lacking the narrative tension and focus of earlier entries. Its plot is vague and jerky and lacking in set pieces, quite a lot of it revolving around trips to different countries and conversations in which the plot of Ripley Under Ground is recounted.
It helps if you’ve read the second Ripley novel before this one. I may have missed something, but I don’t think that the previous novel in the series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, is even alluded to here, though all the others are.
This suggests that the events of that novel succeed Ripley Under Water, although the timeline of the series tends to be very loose. It takes place roughly over 15 years, yet was written over 36. The last two novels have a wildly different feel from the original, which was written slap-bang in the middle of the 1950s. Highsmith’s writing style doesn’t change much, but she’s describing a completely different world.
In 1955’s The Talented Mr Ripley people still said “queer” to mean gay, wore overcoats and trilbies if they were men, and travelled for several days by boat from America to Italy because air travel wasn’t widespread yet. In Ripley Under Water, meanwhile, air travel is cheap and easy (Tom flits between the Middle East, France, and the UK in what feels like as much story-time as it took him to get from New York to Mongibello in his first adventure), gay definitely means homosexual, and everything just feels more modern, or ‘90s. (Tom debates getting a microwave and watches a film on VHS: hard to come by in what should logically be the early to mid-1970s, or even ‘60s if you’re being super picky.) It’s probably best not to think about the timeline too much, although it’s certainly an amusing illustration of changing social norms.
Nonetheless, despite its vague and rambling quality, Ripley Under Water’s not a bad novel at all if you enjoy Highsmith, propelled as it is by some truly bizarre character dynamics.
The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1980)
The fourth in the series about bon vivant criminal and murderer Tom Ripley, living his best life in the French countryside with his heiress wife Heloise and housekeeper Mme Annette, only occasionally drawn back into nefarious schemes. This time his path crosses that of Frank Pierson, the sixteen-year-old heir of a superfoods millionaire in the US. Frank has fled to France under an assumed name following the death of his father, who was watching the sunset when he appears to have lost control of his wheelchair and fallen over a cliff on the family estate. But Frank has an obsession with Ripley which suggests that he may not be as innocent as he appears…
The early sections where we get to know Frank and what he’s done are atmospheric and suspenseful, and I liked the depiction of Tom’s social tête-à-têtes with his neighbours. When one pops round Frank has to flee upstairs, which the visitor notices and remarks upon, enquiring as to the sex of Tom’s midnight guest. “Guess”, Tom replies.
The midsection set in Germany on both sides of the Berlin Wall is excellent, pacy and colourful. The Ripley novels can sometimes feel like travelogues, in a good way, and Highsmith makes use of the breadth of her research. The depiction of Berlin’s vibrant gay nightlife is a lot of fun, especially in a scene where Ripley dons drag so as to go undercover. This might be the book which leans in the hardest (no pun intended) on Ripley’s homosexual side. His friendship with Frank has an undertone to it, of course, but this is a story where he openly flirts with gay men and infiltrates their circles. (Again, no pun.)
The story also glances at the seedy and outright depraved areas of life in Berlin before the Wall’s collapse, such as child prostitution and kidnapping. Despite that, this might also be the most comedically toned novel in the Ripliad, with lots of amusing digressions on subjects such as “life-like” sex dolls and conversations overheard in gay bars. Frank feels charmingly innocent at times, at one point remarking what a surprise it is how the men in a gay bar can have so much fun without girls, and his friendship with Tom can be surprisingly sweet.
The book suffers from a rather aimless and disjointed plot, however. Once kidnapping is introduced as a plot point the book gathers pace, but we never get to know the kidnappers and the point is resolved with over a hundred pages to go. This is fairly indicative of the way in which Highsmith wrote, beginning with a premise and then sort of making the story up as she went along, exploring this or that avenue as complications to throw in her characters’ paths occurred to her.
The end result just feels a little more diffuse this time, perhaps partly because Ripley is in a much more passive role than usual. The last hundred or so pages amble around without much sense of why we should care what happens, given that the exciting bit of the plot is basically over, but I was drawn on by an interest in how Frank’s story would conclude. Overall, this entry in the series is a little ramshackle, but atmospheric and intriguing.
Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith (1970)
The second in Highsmith’s series about bon vivant conman and murderer Tom Ripley (after 1955’s The Talented Mr Ripley), Ripley Under Ground is a strange and playful novel in which Ripley, now established at a house in France and with an heiress wife, becomes embroiled in an art forgery scheme.
Some friends in London are continuing to sell paintings by a brilliant artist, Derwatt, with whom they were close, as well as turning him into a brand with art supplies and a school in Europe. The problem is that Derwatt committed suicide months ago, disappearing off the Greek coast and leaving behind a journal of his woes. The paintings are in fact being forged by his protege, Bernard Tufts. The forging was Ripley’s idea, and in amusing early scenes he helps his friends keep up the ruse by flying to London and disguising himself as the dead painter. But inevitably, up against exposure by an interfering American art collector, Ripley must resort to murder…
Patricia Highsmith wrote psychological thrillers in the truest sense of the term. Her novels don’t go into excesses of action or emotion, but exist in an amoral world where identity and personality are malleable concepts. The five Ripley novels, known as the Ripliad, are fairly unique in the annals of crime fiction as a series led by its antagonist. Ripley isn’t like, say, Hannibal Lecter, who appears in a series of novels but is never really the protagonist to the extent that Ripley is, even in the execrable origin story Hannibal Rising.
It occurred to me while reading Ripley Under Ground that by this second book, Ripley’s living a life that would normally be associated with gentleman sleuths in crime fiction, with his large French estate of Belle Ombré, faithful housekeeper in Mme Annette, and wife Heloise. I’ve come across readers who find his continual escape from justice to be unbelievable, which is understandable.
There were certainly times during Ripley Under Ground when my credulity was stretched, such as when a detective makes the obvious remark that an awful lot of people seem to disappear around Tom Ripley. At one point he’s even visited by Christopher, the cousin of his first victim, Dickie Greenleaf, killed in The Talented Mr Ripley. The young man is witness to some strange goings on at Belle Ombré and one wonders what his letters home were like. (‘Remember that chap whom Dickie left all his money to before supposedly offing himself without trace? Well now someone else has gone missing! That Tom, can’t catch a break…’)
For me, though, strange as it may sound, what makes the Ripley novels believable is how unbelievable they are. I was reminded of a famous true crime documentary from a while back, about a businessman who’d spent decades evading justice until one day he confessed to murder to a journalist, not realising that he was being filmed. The truth can be stranger than fiction, and people like Tom Ripley do sometimes crop up in the world.
There’s a pertinent moment in Ripley Under Ground when a detective is described as “benumbed” by what he’s investigating. Ripley gets away with it, I think, in large part because his skulduggery is so thorough and complete that it’s hard to untangle. He doesn’t just kill someone and hide their body. He leaves their belongings to be stolen, moves back and forth across countries with false passports, and muddies people’s understanding of how, who, what, when, and why. The people around him aren’t stupid, they suspect him of all sorts, but they’d be hard pressed to be clear on the details.
It was during this read of Ripley Under Ground that it struck me how essentially demonic Ripley is. He’s a sort of Mephistopheles, luring ordinary people into moral traps. Bernard Tufts appears to be the only person disturbed by the increasingly sinister Derwatt scheme, and it completely unhinges him. In Highsmith’s cheerfully amoral universe, what matters more than concepts of good and evil is the attitude you take. Ripley thinks that he can get away with it, and so he does.