In which I use a book review to discuss an author…
Now we’re getting REALLY old school. Agatha Christie tends to be sort of misunderstood as an author, I think. Like a lot of popular writers who remain popular well past the span of their own lives, she leaves critics scrambling to explain her appeal and justify it. How could anyone love an author whose work is so devoid of the literary qualities present in, say, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Who knows, but here’s an idea: ask the fans.
In his preeminent work on the author, A Talent to Deceive: An appreciation of Agatha Christie, Robert Barnard (a mystery author himself) says of Ackroyd that it is, apart “from the sensational solution, … a fairly conventional Christie.” He’s right. Christie was a fairly conventional author once you get past the brilliant plotting.
She’ll always have a place in my heart because I read her as a child and still enjoy her work from time to time as light reading. I had a difficult childhood, and she made it a lot brighter with her fun, light-hearted, fiendishly complicated stories, which is more than enough. I’ll always remember wriggling with excitement at the prospect of finding out what lay behind the Peril at End House, and thrilling to the knowledge that I’d read my first “adult” book on finishing Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Nonetheless, critics of her work nowadays tend to tear themselves between two extremities: Christie as a secret artist, and Christie as a worthless hack.
But she was neither, really. What she was was a consummate craftswoman and a certain genius of popular entertainment. Ackroyd is a book that I didn’t read until recently, as unfortunately, it’s one of those works whose “big twist” was revealed to me by osmosis, like the secrets of Luke Skywalker’s parentage and Norman Bates’ mother. I still enjoyed it, however, and in a way, the spoiling helped me to appreciate the book for what it is, for what all of Christie’s detective fiction is: a great means of passing the time.
I won’t spoil the twist here, though, so don’t worry about that, and if this is a first reading for you and you’re interested in the classic titles of detective fiction, I envy your virgin experience. (So to speak!) The book is narrated by Dr Sheppard, a country doctor who lives with his sister Caroline in the village of King’s Abbot.
A local, wealthy widow has committed suicide, causing a scandal among her neighbours. And then the man who wished to marry her, businessman Roger Ackroyd, is murdered. Who could possibly unknot this problem? Handily, a retiree of the Belgian police force has recently moved in next door to the doctor…
Hercule Poirot was Christie’s most famous creation, and she ended up suffering the same fate as her predecessor Arthur Conan Doyle when she tired of writing about him while his public refused to give him up. For all that she’s accused of flimsy characterisation (Anthony Burgess’ view), anyone who creates not one but two iconic figures (the other, of course, being Miss Marple) is not a bad writer.
It’s probably fairer to say that she was an excellent caricaturist. Besides a couple of notable examples (And Then There Were None… being one), she didn’t really write “thrillers”. A lot of her early work was written to be serialised and accompanied by literal caricatures, as you can see below in a shot from a 1923 issue of a magazine:
In literary studies, there’s a concept called “the first reader”, wherein you try to understand the reading experience of the people who originally consumed a given work. Picture yourself at a railway station in the mid-1920s: you’ve got a long way to travel until you reach London and, since this is still the age of steam engines, it’ll take a while. So you visit the station bookstore and pick up a London Evening News to make the hours pass. And then, nestled in your railway carriage, you’re transported for those hours to a picturesque English village, where you watch a neat little problem unravel among a handful of sitcom characters.
That’s the appeal of both Christie and her Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The ending is a work of certain genius, not strictly original with Christie since it was suggested by a friend, but definitely her own in her application of it to her writing.
The final twist comes out and concludes the plot in a way that a lot of general readers now would possibly find bizarre since there’s very little emotion or tragedy involved. The determination to finish things cleanly and decisively would probably, in fact, be unintentionally comic. The ending doesn’t really make logical sense to me, since surely people wouldn’t be so easily dismissed in their concerns about who murdered a wealthy local, and just accept whatever the police tell them about events? (Then again, maybe this was how English country towns operated back then.) But this is Christie’s essential appeal, her “cosiness”. (A quality ascribed to her by modern “cosy” authors.)
To summarise Ackroyd, since I’ve warbled on about Christie long enough, it’s what Barnard called (in describing A Pocket Full of Rye, a later novel) a “good, sour read”. The sitcom types are all there, in all of their Vicar of Dibley-esque manners and mannerisms. There’s also a strong dose of cynical humour and a classic “1920s murder mystery” problem. What more could a fan of “Golden Age” detective fiction ask for?
I’ve been reviewing too much Laymon lately, and should really start reviewing books that are less trashy. I do, for example, at some point want to talk about classic texts (which are still, you know, fun to read). But I found this review draft in my email archive and couldn’t resist sharing it here:
Endless Night is considered one of Laymon’s best novels by his fans, and the early chapters are certainly propulsive in the best Laymon style. The plot follows a policeman’s teenage daughter, Jody, as she and her friend’s little brother, Andy, are gruesomely menaced by a gang of housebreaking thrill killers in ’90s LA. We then start getting chapters told from the viewpoint of one of the killers, Simon Quirt, as he’s forced to pursue and eliminate them as witnesses.
Laymon is a writer whose work I’ll pick on occasion because I have a fondness for pulp, even though it lacks almost any literary qualities beyond plot and pace. The characterisations are defiantly shallow, psychological motivation reduced to lust and hate, having sex with and killing people, and there are no strong themes or cultural relevance outside the immediate.
Based on an interview that he once gave to a fanzine, he seemed to model his writing style on splatter films (Blood Feast, The Wizard of Gore, etc). He definitely wrote in a cheerfully tasteless style, with oodles of cheese which showed that it was all just fun and games for him, as well as his readers. Splatter as a genre is more about shock and silliness than anything more serious than those elements. My mileage with it varies, but when it’s done well I do tend to have a rare old time.
The characters Jody and Andy are well-depicted and individualised for their roles in the story. The little boy is appropriately boyish, while Jody conveys a sense of young feminine strength, grounded in her desire to be like her father. Even Simon Quirt as the one-dimensional killer brings up interesting avenues for exploration, like his and his friends’ addiction to violence’s roots in their consumption of pornography.
Such pornographic material includes a horror novel that’s clearly a reference to Laymon’s second, The Woods Are Dark, whose botched editing he blamed for a stalled career in America. Similar ideas were made thematic and explored with powerful feeling by Stephen King in his novella Apt Pupil.
Endless Night is filled with unbelievable and exploitative elements, like how the gang somehow manages to tan their victims’ hides and wear them repeatedly during their crimes. Would even rich teenagers, as these are, have access to the resources necessary to do this? (We’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s even possible.)
The unbelievability is a huge charm of Endless Night, and Laymon even rises to a certain comedic level with it, now and then. For a long section of the narrative, Simon is effectively in drag, wearing the scalp of a female victim as well as her fancy clothes. This is for me the most ridiculous element of the book, especially when he’s walking down the street and turning heads as guys rubberneck the hot new filly in town, so to speak. For sheer so-bad-it’s-good fun, it is great value.
The ending, however, strikes me as a dissonant scar on the work, though it doesn’t appear to be a problem for other Laymon readers. It’s not the nihilistic violence that’s the problem (that’s par for the course). The problem is that its completely surface-level and pornographic presentation destroys what character engagement came before.
“Surface-level” and “pornographic” are, arguably, staples of Laymon. But in Endless Night, at least, it doesn’t seem to fit with Jody and Andy’s journey as characters. The fate of one character (no spoilers, don’t worry) is fine in and of itself; but its extremely cynical and unironic delivery ends the novel on a sour note.
It’s hard to explain what I mean here; I’m fine with Laymon’s use of “sick” climaxes elsewhere. The Cellar’s ending didn’t bother me, and it’s arguably just as cruel to its heroes. The issue might be that The Cellar does actually end on a somewhat positive note, and its otherwise downbeat ending works on the level of a sick joke.
It’s probably just me, or the mind-frame that I read Endless Night in at the time. You do need to read Laymon, I think, in a very magazine-y sort of way, where you don’t take anything seriously and treat it as a depraved shaggy-dog story. His work is pure sleaze-o-rama, and if you like that sort of thing, you’ll more or less have a good time.
(Book currently on Kindle Unlimited.)
This is the debut novel by Richard Laymon and also the first of his “Beast House” series. Laymon was a “splatterpunk” author of the 1980s and ’90s. He writes in a very specific style that you’ll either appreciate for what it is or utterly despise, depending on both your taste and your ability to subordinate considerations of “taste” to the enjoyment of quick, pulpy, and taste-less entertainment.
Full disclosure: if you have PTSD which might be triggered by textual depictions of child sexual abuse, I wouldn’t recommend this book. I normally have an issue with even mild depictions of child abuse (particularly when depicted audiovisually), but with Laymon’s books, it doesn’t bother me, for reasons I’ll get into.
The plot is extremely simple, and ultimately more of a crime than a supernatural horror or “haunted house” story. Donna’s abusive husband Roy has just been released from prison after serving time for raping their daughter, Sandy, so Donna flees with the little girl and ends up at Malcasa Point, a California town whose primary attraction is The Beast House. The house was home to generations of a family which, according to legend, was haunted by strange creatures that came up from the cellar…
Laymon’s writing is trash, a remark that I make as an observation more than as a value judgement. I think that he himself understood that he wasn’t turning out Great Expectations or Look Homeward, Angel; he was writing pulp, to be read quickly and cheaply by people who just wanted a fast pace, a lot of action, and some “shock” elements.
That’s why, for me, his writing is compulsive even though it’s not in any sense literary. You don’t get characterisation or plot development beyond a basic level, and this coupled with the extreme, disgusting violence is no doubt why a lot of readers hate Laymon. And understandably so.
But liking him is also understandable, I think. For me, the sexual abuse elements of this book are redeemed by its pulpy nature. Laymon doesn’t dwell on issues of trauma and certainly doesn’t bother himself with psychological motivation, but by the same token, he also doesn’t really dwell on the suffering in any sadomasochistic sense.
He’s a shock merchant, and there’s value to that. For all that his writing is derided, it’s not BAD writing. It’s just functional. “The man walked down the street”-type stuff. And with The Cellar, as well as with all of his “best” work, he did something arguably unique: he successfully melded readable junk fiction with extreme content. How many horror writers can say that their books depict truly evil things while also providing an uncomplicated, fun time to a lot of general readers?
Thought I’d challenge myself to write a decent review in 12 minutes, so here we go. Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod is the first of the Canadian-US author’s Peter Shandy mysteries, set in an American agricultural college and its environs. The sort of “college” town that existed in the ’70s, when university educations were becoming more common, but not quite as ubiquitous as they are now.
MacLeod is generally thought of as having generated the “cosy” subgenre. “Cosy” is a label I dislike because it seems to covertly serve two negative purposes, firstly to denigrate mystery fiction produced and enjoyed largely by women, and secondly to excuse poor writing. Agatha Christie is often cited as the icon of this genre, given its inception as a supposed harkening back to the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, but I don’t buy it. Christie wasn’t a bad writer, nor was she even really a shallow one. She was an entertainer who excelled at entertaining.
Likewise, MacLeod has all the skills of a mainstream novelist (more than the more utilitarian Christie, in fact), and turns them towards humour. Rest You Merry is just a really good work of comic writing, especially when you consider that it mixes its humour with a well-constructed mystery plot. Not one anything like as vigorous as Christie at her level best, but then Christie was in a league of her own.
Peter Shandy is a professor of agriculture who, in the story’s hilarious first chapter, takes revenge on the local housewives for constantly badgering him about Christmas celebrations by festooning his home with electrical Santas and seasonal gear. Right before leaving for a long holiday in the sun so that his neighbours can enjoy the constant blaring light and music in his absence!
This bites him on the backside, however, when his holiday is cancelled and he comes home to find the chiefess of the local house-fraus dead in his living room. It looks like she fell and banged her head on the hearth while tearing down a decoration, but did she really?
Of course, she didn’t. And that’s the mystery. More murder and mayhem follows, all guided by an amateur detective (in Shandy) whose grumpy and sardonic personality is great company. Imagine Oscar the Grouch as an amateur detective, and you’re sort of there. Fun seasonal fare is Rest You Merry, which mines a rich vein of dark sitcom humour.
Heaven’s a Lie by Wallace Stroby is an extremely well-written and suspenseful crime novel that ultimately left me underwhelmed. I’m not completely sure why, though it may be because however brilliant the execution of a formula is, it still requires a spark to really set it cooking. Even saying that feels unfair to Stroby and his novel, because this really is an expert piece of writing, only faltering a bit in its rather unbelievable final showdown, which feels a bit like it was ripped from an early ‘90s thriller of the week.
The plot sees a woman who works as a motel clerk, Joette Harper, struggling to balance bills as she also has to support her ailing mother’s healthcare. In a crime-fiction plot device probably as old as crime fiction itself, she rescues a tote bag stuffed with cash from an accident outside her workplace, and is faced with the dilemma: do the right thing and turn it in to the cops, or keep it for herself and resolve some money worries.
The antagonist is Travis Clay, a relentlessly cold and calculating sociopath who’s out a lot of money in the accident. Clay is brilliantly sketched, an at once frightening and realistic murderer, even as he performs feats of brutal calculation that are probably beyond most human beings. The novel feels very filmic in the sense that as I read its action scenes I could see how they’d look on a cinema screen.
This isn’t to say that the writing is deficient in literary qualities, either. Stroby’s skill at setting up and guiding you through a scene, and hinting at histories for his criminal characters without needing to add complicated backstory, is the stuff of great novel-writing.
Joette Harper, too, is a compelling character. Though unfortunately she’s a good start for discussing why Heaven’s a Lie feels less than satisfying in the last account. A novel like this essentially provides a power fantasy, in this case the woman who’s pushed too far and won’t work within the rules anymore. This appeal is there, but Joette’s characterisation reveals a fundamental flaw in the narrative, which is that while Stroby’s good at creating realistic characters, they still don’t feel as though they exist much outside the roles he has in mind for them.
This is hard to describe, and feels like I’m nitpicking, which perhaps I am. Heaven’s a Lie is a really good crime novel, staged and executed well with a keen eye for pacing. But it’s a little too well-staged. Joette is a sympathetic heroine, but she doesn’t really develop much and neither does Clay. As figures they’re great in the moment, in that they make for great scenes, but that’s kind of it. Is Joette capable of a truly selfish and criminal action? Does Clay ever yearn for an honest and healthy relationship? At a basic level, we don’t even really know what their desires are beyond the obvious: to be free of money worries.
The rather pat ending solidifies this, with its B-movie showdown where it seems like the villain’s about to have his cake but hey presto, the hero’s got one more trick up his sleeve. Also, I’ll be honest, I bought this book based on the title. But after reading it I’m not sure what the phrase “Heaven’s a Lie” has to do with anything.
It’s a well-written book and makes me want to try Stroby again in future, but it’s not one that’ll stick with me, I don’t think.
Mr Mercedes is a crime novel by Stephen King, the popular writer about whom it doesn’t feel accurate to use the term “horror writer” anymore, and probably hasn’t for a long time. He’s really more of a suspense writer, it’s just that sometimes the suspense he offers is in relation to the supernatural, sometimes not, sometimes a little bit of both. His work has become leaner and more focused since The Tommyknockers, the book written at the apex of his addiction to, among other stimulants, cocaine. The 1,000+ page epics (The Stand, IT) have largely gone, though he can still turn out a blockbuster when he wants to – Under the Dome, as an example.
Mr Mercedes is a good example of his more “wrist-friendly” style, by which I mean you don’t have to potentially lug around gigantic paper or even hardbacks, stuffing them into your backpack or handbag, hauling them out on trains or in the break room. The story begins with a moving and then horrifying scene outside a jobs fair as jobseekers huddle in the cold of a wet winter morning to queue for whatever meagre employment opportunities are available. A man befriends a young woman whom necessity has forced to bring her child with her in a papoose.
And then the psychopath who’ll become known as “Mr Mercedes” strikes, driving a car into the crowd… Afterwards, we meet the retired Ohio policeman, Bill Hodges, who’s gone on to star in two subsequent crime novels by King, Finders Keepers and End of Watch. Hodges worked on the Mercedes case and like a lot of old cops finds himself edging towards despair in retirement, with nothing to do all day but watch daytime television.
Though he is a detective and this is a detective novel, it’s not a whodunnit. The true identity of “Mr Mercedes” is revealed early on, and then we see his interactions with Hodges as he tries to taunt him about his prior failure to catch him. What he doesn’t realise is that by taunting Hodges he’s not driving him to suicide, but away from it, as his continued abuse of the man through letters and then web chat gives the man renewed purpose.
The characterisation of the killer is one of the strongest elements of the novel. We see him first through his letters, which are aggressive and psychotic but also childish and pathetic. He taunts the detective in the most schoolyard manner possible, displaying a rudimentary understanding of other people (let alone himself) and a capacity for empathy that he shares with children – and adult psychopaths. When we meet the killer himself through scenes from his perspective, we slowly begin to realise him and why he is who he is, not in a sense that justifies who he is, but if anything underscores his essential vulnerability, his weakness.
The details of the killer’s life are the pulpiest elements of the book – incest, childhood trauma, sexual obsession, and other Freudian concerns – but even so, these serve only to illustrate the character, not reduce it. Those elements are real parts of him, just as they’re real parts of non-fictional people.
Other characters include a black teenager and, eventually, a troubled woman. These two and their respective vulnerabilities come to form a crime-fighting unit with Hodges, in a dynamic similar to the one in the second Dark Tower book by King, The Drawing of the Three, wherein a gunslinger travels across a fantasy landscape with a drug-addicted young man and a disabled black woman.
Though Mr Mercedes is essentially a noir crime novel – haunted hero, depraved villain, gritty situation – it doesn’t altogether feel like one. This is perhaps one of its strengths since it feels like it emerges from the author’s personality and concerns, as much as any particular adherence to tropes. The tropes are there and are just as important as anything else, but they’re not the whole story.
Image source: https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/mr-mercedes-1
It’s hard to talk about this book because of the controversy surrounding its author, which naturally bleeds into the narrative, which is after all an account of a life that’s come to be defined in large part by a scandal that was legally settled thirty years ago. I believe that Woody Allen is innocent, not because I like Woody Allen but because that fact is as objective as it can be when there are conflicting accounts between humans. (If you’re interested in that, it’s covered in an exhaustively researched and resourced, two-and-a-half-hour documentary on YouTube by Rick Worley, which you can find by searching “By the Way, Woody Allen is Innocent”. I’ve spent years changing my mind about the allegation, and that resource forced me to realise the truth of the matter.)
But I’ll try to keep that stuff in proportion, mentioning it without letting it monopolise my review. The book is a true autobiography, one of those that come near the close of a long life in a distinguished and public career. Woody Allen is, of course, the New York comedian who became a filmmaker and went on to write and direct many of the most beloved cinematic offerings of the 1970s and ’80s, before settling into a long period of workmanlike film production punctuated by occasional forays into other mediums like literature and television.
The title of this memoir is apposite. “Apropos” means “in reference to”, so the title literally translates to In Reference to Nothing. Allen has frequently been accused by critics of both his work and private life of solipsism, and self-obsession to an appalling degree. This is the great paradox of his best work, and in a larger sense of much worthwhile art: it relates very specifically to an individual experience, yet is relatable. And this book, like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Another Woman, and his other classic films, refers to nothing but his own preoccupations and concerns. What else could an auto-biography refer to?
The best of the book is in its first half. Before Farrow, you might say. To a point where I almost wish that the book had just been the first half. There’s good stuff in the second, but it’s more momentary and spread out amidst material that’s just by its nature much darker, creating a jarring tonal shift that isn’t the author’s fault, of course – they’re just following the form of an autobiography – but nonetheless creates a dissonant reading experience. It doesn’t affect my rating because the dissonance comes from sources outside Allen – the controversy and the demands of a comprehensive memoir – it’s just something to be aware of.
The early sections deal as you might expect with Allen’s parentage and childhood, before progressing to the nascence of his career, first as a writer for comedy shows, then as a stand-up, before finally ending up in film. He describes the wartime lives, recent ancestry, and courtship of his parents, beginning with a humourous anecdote explaining how unlikely his birth was, given his father’s narrow survival of a naval incident during WWII. The stories are funny and earthy and very old-fashioned in a style that’s irritating to some critics but should be understood within the context of how people thought once upon a time.
The book has been accused, for example, of focusing on women’s outer appearances, but while this is true, it’s not the whole truth. Allen clearly relishes female company and not just for sexual reasons, though he conceptualises his enjoyment based on what women wear, their cosmetic choices, bodies, etc. I was moved by stories about a female relative his age whom he spent a lot of time with as a child, going to movies with her friends, and generally enjoying the friendships more than he did any he’d had with males.
Another accusation levelled at the book is that it’s light on film analysis. This is true. If you’re looking for a work of film literature, this isn’t it. It’s a personal memoir, not a scholarly work, Hollywood expose, or celebrity tell-all. That’s not Allen’s world, and as the book makes clear never has been. Describing his own taste in books and movies, he gives indirect insight into what influenced his films, but that’s it. This is a book about a man, not a body of work, even if the body of work is why you know about the man. And it’s a brilliant book. Funny, moving, philosophical, grounded in genuine thoughts and experiences, and elegantly presented. If its vision is sometimes problematic, as in the aforementioned conceptualisation of women, then that’s because human beings tend to be.
Fiends contains a novella and a selection of short stories, representing Laymon’s usual over-the-top content. And hoo boy, is “Fiends” OTT. The story: a young woman is stalked by a man who broke into her parents’ house and raped her ten years ago. Her testimony put him away and now he’s back for revenge. At a core level, it’s a story about the main character evolving from traumatised victim to ruthless fighter, as she repeatedly flees from the man who attacked her before finally being pushed too far.
That’s fine and dandy, but some of the character logic… “Fiends” has possibly my favourite WTF moment in fiction. Picture this: our heroine has been terrorised at the scene of her original assault by her attacker, who tries to kill her by hanging her from a bannister. She escapes, and outside happens across her boyfriend pulling up in his car. What does she do at this point? What would YOU do?
She asks that he take her back to his place and has sex with him, of course! Without telling him anything about what’s just happened, calling the police, or doing anything to at least warn her parents that a psychopathic murderer is in their home. (Though I appreciate that that would be an awkward voicemail.)
Laymon’s work is often compared to B-movies of the slasher era, with their simplistic characters, bizarre plots, and exploitative elements. For me, for all the very ’80s/’90s ultraviolence, he’s also comparable to pulp writers of the ’30s and ’40s. He saw himself as being a crime as much as a horror writer, even his supernatural novels utilising pulpy crime elements, with a focus on plot and action more than atmosphere.
If he had a theme, it was that most people (especially men) are driven by a compulsive sexual need and that there are fiends in this world who exist to prey on others. There’s a scene in “Fiends” that’s almost a non-sequitur, involving a man who’s seduced by a woman, yet it sticks with me as the defining Laymon moment. She’s depicted as almost a ravenous succubus, meeting him for the first time at his business, instantly stating her sexual intent, and overcoming his doubts to pull him into an embrace.
Fiends is a book that I enjoy in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Beyond the basic thread of the girl and the stalker, the plot makes little sense and is filled with gratuitous or just nonsensical moments. The short stories are of a higher standard. “Eats”, a parody of hardboiled detective fiction of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammet mould, is one of my favourite things that Laymon wrote. It’s a funny and clever story about a widow who hires a none-too-bright PI to figure out who’s trying to poison her.
Another great one is “Joyce”, which is essentially an extended sick joke, about a widower who remarries only for his new wife to find out that he’s been keeping his old one’s corpse under the bed. And expects the “three” of them to live in a menage a trois. The other stories vary between straightforward crime stuff like “Eats” and a few splatterpunk-y horrors like “Joyce”. Splatterpunk is a subgenre of horror focused on extreme and graphic violence as opposed to subtler literary techniques. If you enjoy that, you’ll enjoy this, which is the overriding ethos of Laymon.