HIGHBROW, LOWBROW (Monthly Book Report: 12/1/17)

The past month’s completed books include a western, a thriller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A theme? Who knows…

Tender is the Night (1934)
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“It sounds like nonsense to me.”

“Maybe it is, Dick. But, we’re a rich person’s clinic–we don’t use the word nonsense.” 

Tender is the Night was Fitzgerald’s fourth and last completed novel. The literati now argue whether it’s a greater work than The Great Gatsby and the best I can say after finally catching up with it is that it’s a legitimate argument.

And while I can’t agree with those  (Ross Macdonald was one) who believe Fitzgerald’s best work was a step upward and onward from Henry James, his care with language was similar and his ear for the just-right phrase was sufficiently honed by this time to make his subsequent rapid demise a genuine tragedy of letters. Except for Nabokov–American only by accident–no “serious” American writer has shown similar facility with the language since.

The plot of Tender is the Night concerns a semi-autobiographical tale of a Fitzgerald stand-in, Dick Diver, become enamored of, then saddled with, a damaged beauty, Nicole Diver, who is a stand-in for the writer’s dazzling, troubled wife, Zelda. I suppose there’s fun to be had drawing parallels between the real-life Fitzgeralds and the fictional Divers. But that aspect didn’t interest me much. This isn’t a novel whose interest needs to be limited to the personal. Fitzgerald covered a narrow range, but within that range he was filled with penetrating insights. He’s worth reading not least because he had a fair bit to say about those who accrue power–and a great deal to say (much of it heartbreaking, but a good bit more bracingly cynical) about those who either stand by or are shoved aside by the people who will ultimately decide the fates of those less predatory.

That was not an insignificant well of knowledge for a writer to deepen and freshen in the 1930s….or now.

A beautiful book. I wonder if the same qualities that allowed him to write it, prevented him from living long enough or well enough to finish another.

The Eagle Has Landed (1975)
Jack Higgins

Higgins was one of several pen names adopted by Henry Patterson. It happened to be the one he was using when this novel made his name and he was stuck with it ever afterward.

I’m not exactly sure how many copies have ever shifted under “Jack Higgins” that wouldn’t have done the same under “Henry Patterson” but it’s sort of appropo, both in its mundanity and its duplicity, that a man whose Big Idea (the one every super-successful pulp writer needs to permanently hook whatever name he’s using into the Public’s grasping maw), involves an assassination attempt on Winston Churchill by a compromised man whose embattled sense of integrity ends up costing him success, should write under a pseudonym that isn’t even catchy.

That said, it’s damn effective. Given that you know his protagonist isn’t going to succeed–and that, unlike Frederick Forsyth’s “Jackal” or Ken Follett’s “Needle,” he isn’t going to be revealed as a sociopath, even though he’s on the darkest mission imaginable–Higgins’ ability to keep the finger turning the pages is near miraculous.

The Nazis hardly lost their usefulness to pulp writers in the decades since, but this, Follett’s Eye of the Needle, Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, and the similar-themed books by Len Deighton were the peak of the form. I’m glad I read it and Higgins’ is certainly a good enough writer that I’ll look for a chance to explore his work further. I keep hoping I’ll find one who hit it out of the park more than a time or two.

The Quick and the Dead (1973)
Louis L’Amour

Stranger: “They figure to kill you Mister.”
Settler: “What?”
Stranger: “They’ve seen your woman.”

Westerns were a big part of my youthful reading and I’ve revisited the genre here and there in the years since, but I haven’t read any L’Amour in decades. I found a stack of his books at a sale table in my little town’s fall festival antique show. At a dollar a pop, I figured what could it hurt?

I don’t know about the rest, but this, the first I read, was a nice little surprise. L’Amour and the other western pulp masters have never been embraced by the illuminati the way the crime writers have. And this very typical fare isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind. But if you have any feel for the genre, it’s a fine way to pass a weekend. L’Amour didn’t get to be the form’s all time bestseller by failing to understand its virtues. Those lines above set the story’s stage.

It doesn’t need anything grander, because L’Amour has a clear sense of what’s at stake besides mere survival:

Too proud to live in genteel poverty they had chosen to go west. They had no desire to seek gold, for to them wealth lay in ownership of land and in its cultivation. They wished to find a green valley where they could sink roots and live out their lives.

Now they were alone, and until now she had not realized what loneliness meant, nor what it meant to live in an ordered, law-abiding community. There had been occasional thefts, and she could remember a murder once, some years before, but the law had been there, and public opinion, with its protective shield of what was accepted and what was not.

There had been so many restraints, legal and social, between them and the savagery that lay innate in so many people. Out here the bars were down. There was no such restraint…not yet.

They’ll live in their green valley when eight men have been killed or run off. Not before. Then they’ll be free to impose the restraints of civilization which the Great Thinkers of the decade L’Amour was writing in were so engaged in casting off.

It’s that and the perfect placement of that  “and public opinion” that gets you.

I’ll be reading more L’Amour. (For the record, this was made into a superb TV movie with Sam Elliot as the Stranger, Tom Conti as the Settler, and a lovely turn by the ever-underestimated Kate Capshaw as the woman the bad men have seen. Not to be mistaken for the Sharon Stone campfest of the same name, it can be viewed or downloaded here).

CRIME AND ESPIONAGE OF COURSE….THE RETURN OF THE BOOK REPORT (3/17 through 10/17)

Sorry for the delays folks. Eye trouble (minor but annoying); time-time-time; working on my own book; the need to, for the first time in years, monitor what’s left of Politics. Etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, the book report is back. I’ve only read eight books in the eight months it’s been gone. Two will be handled at some point in other venues. The remaining six are all crime or spy novels of one sort or another. It’s been that kind of year.

March through June:

Cop Hater (Ed McBain, 1956)

Ed McBain was the pen name Evan Hunter (of The Blackboard Jungle and Last Summer fame) used for his “87th Precinct” police procedurals. Eventually there were more than fifty. Having never read one, I decided to start with his first.

It’s solid. A good basis for a series. Hunter/McBain liked to pat himself on the back a bit for having policemen–the only people actually authorized to investigate crimes– catch criminals (especially murderers) without the help of private eyes and such. The romance of realism.

Of course, the best private eye fiction doesn’t generally involve solving murders but trying–and most often failing–to prevent them. If a murder to two gets solved along the way, that’s okay, too, as long as it gets smoothly incorporated into the larger narrative.

Then again, a lot of private eye fiction isn’t very good and I think what McBain/Hunter meant was that if you were going to have a lengthy series based entirely on pursuing criminals (as opposed to say, family secrets), then only a cop made sense. Especially if Erle Stanley Gardner had already wrapped up the Fighting Defense Attorney market. He was right in that, and his leap to the next level was in realizing that the idea of a genius operating inside a police department had already been done as well as could be (see below)….but no one had written a series focusing on an entire department. That was his ah-hah moment. Once he perfected the formula it made him millions. The story of Cop Hater is pretty humdrum. But the sharp writing was there from the beginning:

The heat had persisted all day long, a heavy yellow blanket that smothered the city in its wooly grip. Carella did not like the heat. He had never liked summer, even as a kid, and now that he was an adult and a cop, the only memorable characteristic summer seemed to have was that is made dead bodies stink quicker.

I’d change “all day long” to “all day,” but otherwise that’s haiku-perfect. Much more of the book is merely swift and serviceable…And I doubt, at a book a month (the series ran past fifty, more than Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Easy Rawlins combined), he ever made the leap to higher ground for more than a page here and there.

But I’ll be interested in finding out at some point.

World enough and time please.

July/August:

Maigret’s First Case (Georges Simenon, 1949)

Speaking of geniuses working within the system…

I’ve read half a dozen Maigret novels over the years, always with guarded pleasure: Expert writing, a little chilly around the heart.

The chill breaks here. Maigret had debuted, in print, in 1931. By 1949, he and Simenon were world-wide institutions. But this “first” case is set in an earlier time. Much earlier. 1913 to be exact, a year that was, in some ways, closer to 1813 than 1931, and closer to 1318 than 1949.

Simenon remembered that lost world and he lets the reader see and feel what he remembers. The series as a whole worked on many levels–I really do hope I live long enough to read all seventy-six novels–many of which I’m sure have stronger stories. But here the principal value is painterly, as Maigret hurries or marches or strolls through the streets of a lost Paris and Simenon’s inimitable eye catches a telling detail around every corner at every speed.

And, as the young inspector deals with France’s pre-Great War class system, his creator is not above suggesting–ever so subtly–that such systems are bound to fail.

Hardly prescient in 1949, but certainly worth remembering in any year in a world where Franco-level hubris seems almost quaint.

Hostage: London (Geoffrey Household, 1977)

Household was a former British Intelligence officer (WWII) and nearing eighty when he published Hostage: London. He was most famous as the author of Rogue Male. (Big game hunter stalks Hitler for sport but does not kill him, with terrible consequences for much more than the World. Fritz Lang turned it into Manhunt, a film that caught the small scale, insidious evil of the Nazi state and deepened and personalized it in a manner seldom seen in the forties or since–I haven’t read the book so I can only speculate how much of the inspiration derived from the novel). But he hadn’t lost his fastball. After Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (likely unmatchable) this is the best novel I’ve read about the inner workings of a terror cell. Since the modern stakes of nuclear holocaust were barely imaginable in the days of James and Joseph Conrad, this is almost bound to have an air of implausibility, meaning I’m not sure even those writers could have done more with this than Household does. Anyone contemplating blowing up a nuclear device in a major city is truly psyhcopathic. So the only option left to Household is to have his inside man wrestle with a split conscience as he realizes the full implications of his comrades going a bridge too far. Of course he can’t accept the carnage and must turn on them….But what about the cause he still believes in?

The map by which the protagonist slips into madness is skillfully drawn. There are no wasted words.

No real lessons for our time either, Thank God, except this: If someone wants it badly enough, it will happen. And the line between wanting the very worst just badly enough–and not quite enough–is being daily tested somewhere.

The parting gift of a man who, having been born in 1900, when James and Conrad still walked the earth, had, perhaps. lived too long and seen too much.

Highly recommended for those happy few who need no comfort.

September/October:

XPD  (Len Deighton, 1981)

Skilled. Deighton was always skilled. 1981 was just about the last moment when the old “What If Churchill secretly met with Hitler to negotiate a truce and what if the modern world found him out!” premise could be taken with at least a grain of far-fetched credibility.

Maybe England really would have fallen apart! Within those limits Deighton sustains a certain tension and keeps a complicated story moving without let it sink in too deep or run completely off the rails. But there’s now attached a kind of poignance I’m not sure he intended. He seems to have still believed, as late as 1981, that there would always be an England.

We know better now.

The Player on the Other Side (Ellery Queen, 1963)

“Ellery Queen” was a pseudonym deployed by two New York cousins, David Nathan and Emanuel Lepofsky, who wrote “professionally” under the names Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, respectively.

Got that?

The Player on the Other Side was a comeback novel, after the pair had dried up in the late fifties (whether writer’s block or that other old bugaboo, “creative differences” was to blame may have been unclear, even to them). Apparently the writer’s block part was a legitimate problem, because Science Fiction ace, Theodore Sturgeon (pictured below the cousins above), was called in to ghost-write, with how much supervision from the cousins, one can only guess.

The result?

A very fine whodunit–exemplary of the form, especially coming so late in the game. I read it in my early teens and hadn’t revisited since (or any Queen for probably twenty-five years or more). It’s still highly engaging and even has some haunted qualities in the early scenes. It ran out of steam at the very end, mostly because, by then, the revealing of the murderer wasn’t really surprising, even to someone like me, who always makes a point of not guessing. But the ride was still enjoyable and I envy at least some aspects of an age where the quality of pulp writing was better than anything we can expect from “literary” magazines today.

Breakout (Richard Stark, 2002)

I wrote about Richard Stark (a nom de plume for pulp genius Donald Westlake) in the last book report. Long story short, I put a lot of effort into reading Stark/Westlake’s Parker novels in order….and missed one!

Well, now I’ve read it and all I said about Stark/Westlake/Parker previously still stands. This one had a neat and memorable premise. Parker gets caught and sent to a holding prison somewhere in the midwest. Facing life in prison if he’s extradited to California, he rounds up a couple of confederates and makes a break. One of the confederates has a job (breaking into a jewelry warehouse, but that hardly matters) lined up and his price for helping Parker and one of his cellmates make the break is they have to help him with the robbery.

if you know Stark/Westlake/Parker, you know things will not run smooth. Suffice it say that Parker keeps jumping from fire to frying pan and back again. Really a kind of transitional novel between running storylines, but it more than holds it pace and place.

Now I just gotta decide if I want to spring for those last three in the new editions! In any case, one more check mark on the “done” side of the Life List, with much fun had by all!