Very tough book to give a star-rating to, but if I must, lets say a 3.75 rating not rounded up.
Not that there are spoilers here, because there aren't...moreVery tough book to give a star-rating to, but if I must, lets say a 3.75 rating not rounded up.
Not that there are spoilers here, because there aren't, but if you're settling in to read this book, you may want to be able to form your own ideas about what you're reading, so wait until you've finished it yourself before reading what I've written. Actually, now that I think about it, I'm going to mark the rest of this review as "SPOILER ALERT" so no one can be pissed if they think I've ruined things before they've even read the book. Read at your own peril.
I've written up my thoughts here; feel free to go take a look there at a longer version of what I'll say here.
This book opens with the characters in a delightful state of bucolic bliss on a christening day, so naturally, after a while I started to get curious about the book's cover art and why a blurb on the back notes that "The Black Spider was a horror story of its day." Then the "gotcha": as the post-christening festivities commence, a question about a "rough black window post" built into the newly-built home leads the grandfather to tell a story about events that had occurred in the area hundreds of years ago, one passed on through the generations. And oh, what a story it is.
A group of Teuton knights has returned from Poland and Prussia, having bent sent there to "fight the heathen." While there, they got caught up in the lifestyle, and on their return, continued to live, each "according to his own nature and pleasure." The worst of these was Hans van Stoffeln of Swabia, and he took a lot of pleasure in persecuting the peasants. First, he took them away from their land for two years by ordering a huge castle on a hill. When that was finished, and just as the peasants were rejoicing that they could get back to feeding their starving families and tending their livestock, von Stoffeln makes another demand -- they must now build a shaded walkway. He wants particular trees from a location that is hours away, and he wants everything done within a month or disastrous consequences will follow for the peasants and their families. Thoroughly in despair, because this is an impossible task, the peasant men wonder how they're going to tell their loved ones. At that moment a huntsman, dressed in all in green (hitherto referred to as the "green man" or the "green huntsman" ) appears, and offers them help -- and for payment, all he wants is an unbaptized child. When the women are told what's going on, they believe they can help their men, but it becomes obvious that this is not working out. One of the wives, Christine of Lindau, takes up the green huntsman's offer, thinking that when a new baby is born, the people will find a way to deceive him, and they do manage to stave off the devil for a while. However, they hadn't reckoned on the black spider, a reminder that the huntsman "would not suffer himself to be duped without recompense." I won't say more, because that would kill it for anyone remotely interested.
In Christian mythology, the spider is, of course, associated with the Devil, and you've got the Green Huntsman of the story in that role as the source of the spider, so it should be easy to figure out. However, according to Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times, the spider also becomes a symbol of plague, and there are scenes in this book that support this idea as well.
Even if you're not so inclined toward the Christian messages (as in my case), you can still enjoy The Black Spider. There are a number of scenes that are bound to produce that wonderful frisson of chills crawling up your spine, making it a perfect pre-Halloween read; it's also a peek into a specific society at a specific time and place making it a good story for historical fiction readers. (less)
9781590174951 NYRB Classics, 2012 originally published 1963 245 pp
My favorite fiction is the edgy, gritty kind where some poor guy, for some reason or an...more9781590174951 NYRB Classics, 2012 originally published 1963 245 pp
My favorite fiction is the edgy, gritty kind where some poor guy, for some reason or another, gets drawn into a hopelessly screwed-up situation and finds that it just keeps getting worse, despite everything he does to try to escape. These kinds of stories start off innocuously enough, but within just a very short time the tension starts to build, joined by a restlessness and a sense of growing trepidation, neither of which let up until the last page. This is precisely what I look for when I pick up a crime novel, and this is exactly what I got in Dorothy B. Hughes' The Expendable Man. What happens in this novel is nothing less than one man's nightmare played out over the course of a few days of his life; between the lines Hughes pens her own insights into issues pertinent to the time & place of this novel's setting.
Dr. Hugh Densmore is an intern at UCLA, and he's left the city to be with his family for his sister's upcoming wedding in Phoenix. In his mother's borrowed car, he's making his way through the desert highway and notices a hitchhiker along the side of the road. Normally, he "knew better" than to stop for hitchhikers, but this time it's different -- leaving the young, teenaged girl at the side of the road just wasn't something his conscience isn't going to allow him to do:
"He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift."
Although initially he'd planned to leave her at the border before crossing the state line into Arizona, that plan backfires and he takes her on into Phoenix. He drops her off at the bus station and she's gone. But after a surprise visit to his hotel room that same night, the next day he hears an announcement on the radio about an unidentified girl. Grabbing the newspaper, he discovers that the body of a young girl has been found in a nearby Scottsdale canal. He quickly discards any idea of helping the police identify her, but later an anonymous tip sends the cops to him -- as a suspect. He hides the situation from his family and tells the police the bare outlines of his story, but he's just certain that they're going to pin the girl's murder on him. They delay an arrest, but growing ever more paranoid that it's going to happen at any moment, he spills everything to Ellen, a family friend in town for the wedding, and Densmore sets out to prove his innocence. He has to prove that it wasn't him before they take lock him away for good -- "because of circumstance," he has been tagged as the "sacrificial goat," and he knows it. But time is ticking and no one but Ellen believes him.
A taut, thoroughly convincing and highly atmospheric novel, The Expendable Man is a classic "wrongly-accused-man" story with a bit of a twist that adds an extra layer of reader tension when it dawns on you exactly what's going on. Hughes is superb at plotting and pace; her descriptions of the Arizona desert are spot on. For example, in describing a ride through the desert night, she writes:
"The moon was high and white; each fence post, each clump of cactus was as distinctly outlined as by the sun. The mountains were moon-gray against the deep night sky. A dog barked from a distant house, the only reminder that they were not on a distant planet."
The atmosphere she creates with phrases like these reflection Densmore's own isolation throughout the story.
Her characters and dialogue are all believable as well, but beyond the normal components of this kind of fiction, Hughes also incorporates people from different walks of life into her story, all the while scrutinizing American attitudes regarding race, socio-economic status and crime in the early 1960s.
The Expendable Man is among the best books I've read all year, and I can't recommend it enough. Sure, the wrongly-accused-man thing has been done before and for many modern readers used to the gimmicky serial killer type reads that top the charts today, it might come across as a little tame in the crime area. But this book goes well beyond just another novel of crime fiction, spilling into the realm where empathy takes over -- the reader remains trapped in Densmore's nightmare just as much as he is. That's how much power Hughes has over her audience. And I loved every second of it. (less)
To Each His Own is only one of the author's long list of novels translated into English; it is a literary, intelligent and yet unconventional novel o...moreTo Each His Own is only one of the author's long list of novels translated into English; it is a literary, intelligent and yet unconventional novel of Italian crime fiction. And it's superb.
The story begins when the local pharmacist, Manno, receives a death threat in the mail:
"This letter is your death sentence. To avenge what you have done, you will die."
He waves it off guardedly as a joke, because he can't think of anything he's done to merit this kind of warning, but when he and his friend Dr. Roscio go off hunting the next day, they do not return. Only their dogs are left to announce their deaths. The authorities make a perfunctory appearance, questioning the pharmacist's widow as to what kind of behavior could have built up such animosity that it would be worthy of revenge. Settling on the fact that he must have been killed by a jealous husband or lover because of some kind of adulterous behavior, a sort of collective fiction is born regarding the pharmacist's (unfounded) extramarital flirtations. Once that ball has started rolling and the rumors start flying, his "adulteries" become the "official" reason for his death among the locals. Roscio's death is put down to him being the poor guy who just happened to be an innocent bystander; caught in a bad place at a bad time, the victim of Manno's "bad" behavior. After the funerals are over, having settled on a reason for the murders, the townspeople turn their focus to the future of Roscio's voluptous widow, Luisa.
There is, however, one person, high-school teacher Professor Laurana, who is still thinking about what may have actually happened. He picks up on an important clue about the threatening letter, noticing that the word "Unicuique" comes through the paper in the light. Laurana realizes that the words "Unicuique suum" is one of the mottoes printed under the masthead of the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. At this point, Laurana's vanity and curiosity compel him to follow his hunches, and then he "doggedly sets about doing so", unable to let the matter rest like everyone else. At the same time, it becomes clear that uncovering the truth is a very personal matter rather than a means of securing justice:
"...Laurana had a kind of obscure pride which made him decisively reject the idea that just punishment should be administered to the guilty one through any intervention of his. His had been a human, intellectual curiosity that could not, and should not, be confused with the interest of those whom society and State paid to capture and consign to the vengeance of the law persons who transgress and break it."
Laurana is an interesting character: he lives a sheltered life with his mother and in the halls of academia. He has a firm "belief in the supremacy of reason and candor over irrationality and silence...", even though he's a lone stranger within a culture that exemplifies the opposite. He lives in a society where truth falls victim to the ongoing maintenance of the accepted status quo by people "who have every interest in working to keep the impunity coefficient high." His curiosity is unwelcome in such a system, and along the way his need to know will turn his understanding of the real world on its head and even worse.
Although the crime fiction aspect of this book will keep the reader turning pages trying to figure out exactly what happened, the story operates on other levels as well. It is a commentary on the justice system, party politics, the Church, and other facets of Sicilian culture. And, as di Piero notes in the introduction, Sciascia
"used storytelling as an instrument for investigating and attacking the ethos of a culture -- the insular, mafia-saturated culture of Sicily -- which he believed to a metaphor of the world."
One of the basic points the author makes throughout this book is that there are various levels of criminality in which we are all complicit, so in that sense, the metaphor is not too far off the mark.
Readers of more socially and politically-oriented crime fiction will like this book, as will readers of literary fiction. It's intelligent, thought-provoking and frankly, is very high on my list of good books for the year. (less)