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One year, the girl who came to stay was the most extraordinarily beautiful creature who had ever been seen in the village. She was incredible. So many people, on walking into the pub and seeing her for the first time, would involuntarily exclaim, Jesus Christ! that she assumed this was a customary local greeting, and without thinking she started to use it herself. ‘Jesus Christ!’ she would cheerfully say, as people came in from the cold, ‘What can I get you?’

So there I was chuckling away on the couch to an early episode of The Mighty Boosh (the ‘Mod Wolves‘ one, if you are interested), when Stephanie leaned over and said ‘Don’t you have a review to write?’

How could I forget! Senility has obviously set in already.

Today’s story is set for the most part in and around a small seaside town pub known as The Anchor. It opens with three men who have spent years sharing a couple of drinks each evening, having the same conversations, peppered with the same jokes and catchphrases. Mr Puw, tall Mr Hughes and short Mr Hughes are the names they are popularly known by, although tall Mr Hughes is not all that tall and is in fact only an inch or so taller than small Mr Hughes. Mr Puw is the most cheerful of the three, enjoys making a point of smoking a pipe as most other people smoke cigarettes and has a habit of indiscriminately referring to all women of his acquaintance as ‘Thunderthighs’. The Anchor’s landlord, Mr Edwards, responds to most exchanges by saying only ‘Holy mackerel’, a phrase which can be employed in numerous contexts. Then there’s Septic Barry, the local sewage processing magnate,  who has lived on the same campsite since he ran away from home as a teenager and despite his frugal lifestyle is known for having a wide and varied lovelife.

Every year Miyuki Woodward returns to visit the town for a short holiday, renting a cottage for the duration of her stay, gorging herself on comfort food and beer and deigning to supply the answers to any questions relating to Japan when they come up in The Anchor’s pub quiz. In keeping with the offhand naming traditions of the town, she is commonly known as ‘Japanese Girl’.

The lives and loves of this small group of people are dwelt upon during the course of the novel, with Miyuki an outside observer who sits in The Anchor each evening with a novel and a pint, listening to the town gossip. Despite her outsider status she enjoys a strong feeling of fellowship with these odd characters. Over the years she has come to love the town, finding real beauty in its ordinariness. She decides to mount an art project of a sort, in an effort to share her vision of how perfect and golden the small community appears to her eyes with its inhabitants.

The novel proceeds at a leisurely pace, veering from the plot to explore comical digressions and histories on a whim. There is a bemused tone underlying the proceedings, but also a quiet sadness as well. A fateful encounter between Miyuki and tall Mr Hughes dances around the abyss of crippling depression, before side-stepping into confused conversation about blood diamonds and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then there’s the paradoxical figure of Septic Barry, serial seducer and sewer monger. He appears at first to be an entirely self-interested and miserly sort, but over the course of the book is revealed to feel tender concern to some of the other patrons of The Anchor.

Ultimately though Dan Rhodes has crafted a beautifully constructed tale about the fragility of life and love. It is a truly extraordinary book, capable of moving the reader to tears and laughter on a single page. I recommend following his blog for more pearls of wisdom from the man himself.

This is officially my favourite book of the new year, a romance about the love that can be felt for a place, as well as between people.

While she’s in the toilet

I check out her books,

On the shelf

thick books

fresh-smelling paper

academic stuff.

A muddle of novels

by the bed

French and South American

no thrillers, no crap.

Detective novels have a fairly set format. This is why they can be dismissed in such an offhand manner by critics on occasion. They are the definition of formulaic, and no amount of true life mysteries, vampires, sf future noir settings or even Hippo detectives can change that. The stories all begin to look the same from a certain remove. So Dorothy Porter’s solution is to write her detective tale entirely in verse!

Jill is an ex-cop who has moved into private investigation. Living out in the Blue Mountains she just barely manages to pay her bills, but she likes the quiet life. Eventually Jill’s finances force her to take on a missing person case. Nineteen year old Mickey Norris is a poetry-loving student, just another shy girl with ambitions of finding a patron and fame. Her parents are worried, but Jill reckons it will be a simple case. She travels to the college Mickey attends and questions her friends about her lifestyle. They all give the same report. Mickey was a quiet, retiring nondescript sort, who had recently discovered poetry.

Then Jill meets Mickey’s tutor Diana, who proves to be something of a distraction from the case. Married to an ambitious legal eagle Nick, she seems way out of the world weary private eye’s league, but surprisingly the two begin a torrid affair. Jill enters Diana’s more refined world of academic scandals and hobnobbing at book launches, feeling out of place and even slightly vulgar. Is this nothing more than a silly fling for Diana? Jill’s feelings continue to grow until she loses all perspective on the case. Then the police find Mickey’s body.

Detectives deal in simple, hard facts. Detective stories must contend with the dry, logical structure of deduction and the prose employed in these tales reflect that. Porter’s story opts for slippery free verse, embracing an Otherness in keeping with its lesbian protagonist to set it apart from plodding flatfoots and shamuses.

Porter also is having quite a lot of fun at the expense of ligging poets and pretentious artists. By adopting the standard plot of a detective novel, with the hero descending into a criminal world to avenge the death of an innocent, the literary scene is transformed into hellish trap for the young and beautiful, exploited by the corrupt and venal.

It is a funny little joke and Porter’s erotic content adds a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Overall though I found the book a bit too cool, too detached. This is an assembled satire that lacks the necessary earthy punch of the best kind of mockery. Still worth a gander though.

In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.

Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.

Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?

Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?

This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).

An underappreciated classic.

And she and Ginny laughed together, a giddy, earthy, delightful laugh, and Marian laughed too. She laughed too and it was all so grown-up. She’d never met any women so young yet so grown-up. So beautiful and no husbands around or downy babies, and if it weren’t for the tubercular rack that ripped through Ginny’s laugh as it further unpeeled, everything would seem too perfect for words.

If James Ellroy were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 1950’s to seduce Patricia Highsmith with the joys of heterosexual coupling (which, given the success of the male lead in The Black Dahlia to do just that I assume he believes is possible. Converting a lesbian that is, not time travel.) I imagine the eventual product of their union would turn out to be a writer like Megan Abbott, whose grasp of period detail and exacting plotting combines the best of both.

Is that too laboured an analogy? Probably.

Taking inspiration from actual events, Bury Me Deep is the story of nurse Marian Seeley, left to fend for herself in a small town in Phoenix by her husband, a doctor who has had to resort to finding work in Mexico due to his troubled past. Lonely and self-admonishing, she blames herself for her husband’s ‘troubles’, Marian is taken under the wing of Louise Mercer, a fellow nurse at Werden clinic. Her new friend passes on all the gossip, lets her young, naieve charge know which doctors have busy hands and how to avoid the endlessly dull Bible sermons of the more religiously inclined members of staff. She also introduces some fun into Marian’s life, inviting her to join her and housemate Ginny in their home where they host wild parties.

All the important men in the town seem to attend these hooch-fueled soirees, most arriving with an expensive gift for the two raucous hostesses. Marian thinks it strange initially, but she learns to go with the flow. She doesn’t even seem too bothered that a brisk trade in stolen pills from the hospital is carried out at these parties. In fact she doesn’t think much of anything after Louise introduces her to Gentleman Joe Lanigan, a dashing local businessman whose company sells to most of the pharmacies in town, has friends in very high places and is gifted with movie star looks. Despite her misgivings and strained loyalty to her husband in Mexico – whom she increasingly refers to as Dr. Seeley instead of by his name Everett – Marian is swept up by the charismatic Joe, their affair in her mind a great romance right out of the pictures. Little does she know that she is set on a course for tragedy that will strike at the heart of her friendship with Louise and Ginny, and reveal just how much of a gent Joe Lanigan really is.

Megan Abbott has taken the real life story of the so-called ‘Tiger Woman’, Winnie Ruth Judd, at the centre of a notorious case in 1931 in Arizona and cherry-picked the details for her own fictionalised account. In many ways I find her approach superior to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. For one, this is a book about women, written from the point of view of a woman, without any of the cloying misogyny that noir fiction sometimes revels in. Female characters seem often to have two roles only, the victim and the femme fatale. Marian Seeley is initially young and naieve, but Abbott invests in her the obvious survival skills of Winnie Judd, whose incredible story I find fascinating. There is also more of a sense of hope here, with the forces of corruption not nearly as monolithic. The language is very detailed and Abbott has a beautiful gift for imagery, describing Gentleman Jim’s maroon hat as having a teardrop crease, or Marian staring out of a train window into the black night and seeing nothing but the reflection of the drunk sitting next to her leering over her shoulder. Finally Abbott never claims to know the truth about the ‘Tiger Woman’, case. This is clearly a fictionalised departure from the events described in the trial. She merely takes some of the events and repositions the characters as she imagines them.

This vision of America captures the period perfectly, where an unstarched nurse’s uniform was the height of excitement and Jim Lannigan’s mayoral ambitions are kept at bay only due to his being a ‘papist’. I enjoyed this book immensely and look forward to reading more of Megan Abbott’s work.

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