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.
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
If Patricia Highsmith wrote dystopian fiction but had more of a sense of humor, it might be something like The Miracle Inspector. The book opens in anIf Patricia Highsmith wrote dystopian fiction but had more of a sense of humor, it might be something like The Miracle Inspector. The book opens in an England of the near future that's been partitioned and in decay. London proper seems to have the worst of it, walled off and Taliban-like in its social clampdown. Women can't leave the home. The Arts are off-limits. Men work meaningless bureaucratic jobs that only serve the faceless authority that keeps them all locked in, both socially and interpersonally. The book focuses on one couple, Lucas and Angela, who think they once loved each other but are really just strangers passing each other constantly. An aging and legendary underground poet, Jesmond, fuels their secret needs to escape to that sought-after heaven, Cornwall. They're all not especially likable, but they're always a little more so than those around them, chipping away at them. It works.
The saddest part might not be that they can't have what they want, but rather that they don't truly know what they'd want if they could have it.
I mention Patricia Highsmith because Smith deftly works in the dark urges and fears of Lucas, Angela and others in a way that only psychological mystery and espionage writers like Highsmith and Graham Greene do well. The story manages to remind of 1984, Brazil, Children of Men, The Road and other noirish dystopian tales yet manages to be original, partially through the dark and often subtle humor. Yes, I'm mixing films with books here, because I think this would make a good film script.
If I could give this 4.5 stars I would, but as we know we have to choose between 4s and 5s. I would have like to have had more setup and background about how England became this way, but that's also a product of me liking the story enough.
It's been a long time since I read this, but Condon gets an extra star from me simply for his writing style and characters. He's always been underrateIt's been a long time since I read this, but Condon gets an extra star from me simply for his writing style and characters. He's always been underrated. ...more
In October 1940, Warsaw's German occupiers ordered that Jews be rounded up and crammed into neighborhoods that took up only two percent of the city. TIn October 1940, Warsaw's German occupiers ordered that Jews be rounded up and crammed into neighborhoods that took up only two percent of the city. This was the Warsaw Ghetto: Specially erected high walls, barbed wire and sadistic guards doomed Warsaw's Jews to grim and brutal ways that were only just beginning.
One of the doomed is an elderly Jew, Erik Cohen, once a prominent psychiatrist. Erik gets by but is already skin and bones. We know little about his former life, only that he was respected and took some comfort in that respect. Erik's young nephew, Adam, is one of Erik's few lights of hope. Adam has a sparkle about him and might just make it out of this hell.
Then Adam is murdered. It's a grisly killing that leaves the boy's corpse horribly disfigured and tossed onto barbwire just outside the ghetto. Erik's shock turns to rage, and he summons the grit to find the killer. The clues are few and cryptic and Erik will endanger friends and family on the way, which would seem more careless if they weren't already so damned.
The desperate hunt is on. Erik and his old friend Izzy even cross over secretly into regular Warsaw, a chase full of riddles and false friends that will lead just where it had to. This isn't standard historical crime fiction. The story surges between: Erik's pursuit of an untouchable and crafty killer who, in standard historical mystery style, also symbolizes the dark era; and Erik's longing for lives and loved ones lost and soon to be lost, the former pummeling Erik in storms of emotion and nightmare.
Erik Cohen had been an atheist and modern Jew, but the old Jewish ways loom even as they're being eradicated. At times the dead seem to come alive like Ibbur in the Jewish Kabbalah, decent souls not sure if they're alive or dead. The ciphers and anagrams of that tradition will also help Erik cover his tracks — and lead him to the killer.
The dire setting of The Warsaw Anagrams outdoes the mean streets of most any noir novel. Those inside slowly succumb to misery and oppression, cold and hunger, and those somehow alive survive as ghosts of their former selves. It's a grueling wasteland churning backwards to a primitive state where good can rarely find its reward. Everyone loses and the more cunning often win. The story evokes noir in the fierce and hopeless way Erik and others scrap and scheme to beat rigged odds, well knowing they're well screwed. They will finish off what they pursue not so much to survive but to honor their dead and plunge a jagged blade into the throat of all those who thrive on making them disappear.
Author Richard Zimler is from New York and lives and teaches in Portugal. Zimler's novels include the internationally bestselling The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, and Seventh Gate. He's won numerous prizes for his historical fiction, and the reasons ring clear in The Warsaw Anagrams. The writing is intense. Zimler is able to pinpoint emotions and desires with dead accuracy. The beginning and some sections favor loose, introspective narrative over action and dialogue that show the reader the way, but these passages work with great effect to establish Erik's longing, agony and the harsh fate of too many.
Near the end, when Erik tells the man who will continue his quest for him, "Beware of men who see no mystery when they look in the mirror," you begin to know just what Erik means.