This was a nice surprise to discover. I heard about William March from a reader of Under False Flags, who told me about March's quote about war in hisThis was a nice surprise to discover. I heard about William March from a reader of Under False Flags, who told me about March's quote about war in his WWI novel Company K:
"If the common soldiers of each army could just get together by a river bank and talk things over calmly, no war could possibly last as long as a week."
If only it were true. That reader is also an expert in crime noir, and he reminded me about this novel, which takes a far more damning and sad view of people. Another early March quote starts to get to the heart of The Bad Seed, and the way March really saw us:
"I have never ceased to wonder at the thing we call human nature, with its times of beauty and its times of filthiness, or at the level of calm stupidity that lies in between the two."
March was one of those deeply flawed types he reveals in this story. He had a troubling childhood by all accounts and worked it out in his psychological fiction. His novels didn't sell well until this one, which made his name just as he lay on his death bed. He had been known in New York as the writer's writer, underrated and unnoticed for too long. I imagine a young writer like Patricia Highsmith was surely paying attention at the time.
March clearly put everything into this tale, mining all those depths of human nature he knew all too well. In the story, attractive but ordinary and well-meaning Christine Penmark gradually sees her worst fears about her perfect yet strange daughter confirmed, and before long those fears only double and grow. What must a mother do when her own child might be a serial killer? What must that mother do once she dares to look deeper and discovers about herself?
The consequences are chilling and steaming with bloody truths about the human condition. This is more than a psychological thriller but can just as well be read for entertainment. March keeps the story moving, all while exploring his characters' deepest needs and fears, revealing them all even as his characters do their best to conceal who they truly are. March's craft is a wonder. He often presents Christine fearing what's wrong with her daughter while in social situations, putting on a brave face even as she's aching and eventually imploding in her thoughts—not an easy thing to pull off without diverting the reader. He chose and drew his cast of characters expertly, to bring out the worst. Setting plays its part. Just as Christine begins to sense her worst fears, worrying just where to turn, the rain comes and "the gutters were overflowing, and water ran down to the courtyard with a quarrelsome sound so close to speech that you felt, if you listened more attentively, you could surely know its meaning."
All the elements serve the story, which is only about creepy little Rhoda Penmark on the surface. It's really about who we are deep down, where we come from, the horrors we may be wired for. Sometimes, what we do to avoid the worst will create the only thing worse. March understood that.
Few novels or writers make you want to read them even after you realize partway through the story that you've read the book before, years ago. PatriciFew novels or writers make you want to read them even after you realize partway through the story that you've read the book before, years ago. Patricia Highsmith does it for me every time. It's all about Tom Ripley's twisted and yet oddly endearing point of view. Maybe it's because when, as the mafia are bearing down on him hard for gruesome deeds he himself set in motion, Tom relieves his stress by heading to Paris to pick out just the right antique harpsichord for his always loyal and charming wife Heloise.
Here Monsieur Ripley has the same drive that made him act out so horribly in the first novel in the series, The Talented Mr. Ripley, but he's mellowed. He wishes to help others as he strives to preserve his comfy expat way, even though he senses they will always hate him for it. He does his best to aid the ailing English art framer Jonathan, even though Jon despises him, and Jon's French wife Simone, and ... sometimes the whole village of Fountainbleau, it seems. But this will not stop Tom Ripley and as a reader you hope it never does no matter what or who makes Tom have to kill them, usually brutally and always neatly.
Let's call it a 4.5, though I'm not a big fan of star ratings in general. ...more
I'm always up for a Charles McCarry novel and always will be. I'd call this a solid effort but not outstanding. It's a more lightweight story comparedI'm always up for a Charles McCarry novel and always will be. I'd call this a solid effort but not outstanding. It's a more lightweight story compared to the Paul Christopher novels. The storyline includes some well-crafted consideration of the psychology of espionage and the trust involved in running agents.
One thing that left me wanting was the ending, which wrapped things up too quickly in the form of a report, much like Alan Furst's recent Fredric Stahl story Mission to Paris did by ending the story in a few abrupt and rushed paragraphs of exposition like from a guy in a hurry to get off an elevator. I'm not complaining but simply wish for more, which is still a good thing. ...more
I enjoyed this read a while back more than I expected, and the fact that I'm adding my thoughts now is probably testament to its odd haunting power. AI enjoyed this read a while back more than I expected, and the fact that I'm adding my thoughts now is probably testament to its odd haunting power. Actor Sterling Hayden, best known (to me) as Gen. Jack Ripper in Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove, put all he had into this memoir of his lifelong wanderings aboard various sea vessels he obtained at any and all cost whenever the world became too much for him.
Hayden never felt comfortable in his skin as a hunky actor, and some of the best passages come when he comments on the fast-paced world of Hollywood and mid-century America in general. Another great section follows his exploits during WW2 as an OSS agent named John Hamilton running guns to Yugoslav partisans, a bold and heroic effort he surprisingly plays down—and I would like to know more about. He doesn't always come off so well. He sold out friends who had dabbled in communist/socialist circles to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and later, defying a court order, basically absconded with his children on a sailing boat in one famously irresponsible incident. But Hayden owns up to all his flaws and to the society that formed him. Some brief passages are downright poetic. For me, this beats On the Road for its criticism of a culture of the sheep and the Man, a troubled cry from the dark side of 1950s America. ...more