The Last Best Friend: George Sims (1967)

The Last Best Friend from British author George Sims is an entry in the British Library Classic Thriller series. Reading this novel came on the heels of reading another from the same author, The End of the Web.

The Last Best Friend concerns Ned Balfour, a married dealer in rare manuscripts and letters, who, when the novel begins, is cavorting with a girl half his age in Corsica.  He receives a telegram from his friend, concentration camp survivor Sam Weiss asking for his advice for a “terrible decision.” Slightly puzzled, Ned continues with his holiday until he gets a cable from his wife telling him that Sam committed suicide by jumping off the 10th floor of a building.

Ned immediately returns and he’s puzzled that his friend, who suffered from vertigo and was terrified of heights, chose this way to die. He’s drawn into the puzzle of Sam’s death and finds that all is not as it appears….

The Last Best Friend

As with The End of the Web, the great pleasure here is in the characterizations. Barbara Balfour’s friend, neglected wife, Ruth is chronically bored and isn’t above sleeping with the husband of her best friend. There’s also a thread which runs though the novel about the  purpose of life especially after survival. Flashbacks show that Sam Weiss is horrified by Ned’s chronic infidelity and admonishes him to curb his selfish ways. While Sam, who survived a concentration camp has definite ideas about a meaningful life, Ned’s ideas propel him in the opposite direction as he seeks pleasure wherever he can find it. To Sam, Ned is wasting his life.

Sammy had said with a sigh, “Yes. life is so short,” and then launched into a lecture on Balfour’s behaviour, telling him bluntly that he should not have left Barbara: “The children matter most. You don’t like your life with her, well you must lump it. Put up with it. Forget what you want for a bit and think about Toby and Prudence.”

This is a short novel which runs to just over 150 pages. On the down side, the story drags for about the first quarter as we get details of Ned’s almost-James-Bond-life. It’s interesting to compare The End of the Web with The Last Best Friend. The former concerns a chronically unfaithful antique dealer who dies in suspicious circumstances, and The Last Best Friend involves another mysterious death. The action in The End of the Web is driven by a single man who wants to settle down while in The Last Best Friend, a married man who’s unmoored from his domestic life is the unofficial investigator. So while these two mysteries involve mysterious deaths, they are both tied far more strongly by scenes of ruptured marriages and husbands who abandon their wives and families for younger pastures.

This short, very readable novel contains some nasty comments about homosexuals, and that dates the novel.

Review copy

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Nightblind: Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is the second novel in the Dark Iceland series. Nightblind takes place about five years after the wonderfully atmospheric  Snowblind. The third book in the series is Blackout which apparently “picks up the story directly after the events of  Snowblind.” Glad there’s an explanation of the time line in the intro. At the end of Snowblind, we left our series character, rookie policeman Ari Thor up in far-way Siglufjördur. I looked up the town on the map, and it is spectacularly beautiful but so remote. It’s easy to see that if you moved there, you’d either love it or hate it. It’s the sort of place that you cannot easily replicate, but the weather is going to dictate your lifestyle.

Nightblind finds Ari still working in Siglufjördur, but now he has a new boss after his old one left and Ari’s bid for promotion was turned down. Ari is living with his girlfriend Kristin, now a doctor, and they have a child together, so at least that past of Ari’s life has resolved. Or has it?

Nightblind

The novel opens with the shotgun shooting of a Siglufjördur policeman, and then follows the investigation as Ari’s old boss, Tómas, returns to head the hunt for the killer. The shooting takes place at an abandoned building at the edge of town near the new tunnel.  The building, which already has a tragic, mysterious history, is rumoured to be a liaison spot for drugs, so it may be that the shooting was drug related. The story weaves together threads involving the new mayor and his assistant, Elín while other sections of the novel are narrated by an unidentified mental patient. With Ari distracted by the murder case, Kristin rather calculating weighs her options. The strain of the investigation pushes Ari’s relationship with Kristin to the limit, but perhaps her limit has shrunk since she met a divorced doctor at work.

As in Snowblind, the weather has a huge role in creating atmosphere. While the town, during the summer is beautiful, winter descends along with an accompanying sense of claustrophobia heightened by the reality that there’s one way in and one way out. Storms and snow hammer down on Siglufjördur, forcing people indoors and yet…. there’s still time for violence and murder.

She had been told that soon, around the middle of November, the sun would disappear behind the mountains for its long winter break and it wouldn’t return until late January, when the town would celebrate with solar coffee and pancakes. Elín still found it odd to contemplate complete, round-the-clock darkness. 

There’s something almost subversive about the Dark Iceland series. Perhaps it’s because all these dire deeds take place over the holiday season (November-January) and the idyllic location which conjures imagined Christmas card scenes meshes with the dark side of human nature.

No violence in Iceland? That’s bullshit. Sure it all looks quiet and friendly on the surface, but behind closed doors there’s an uncomfortable secret. 

Review copy

Translated by Quentin Bates

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The End of the Web: George Sims (1976)

The End of the Web from author George Sims (1923-1999) is an entry in the British Library Classic Thrillers series. This short novel has the feel of a  WWII spy thriller, but the plot takes us into the world of 1970s London antique dealers.

When married, philandering antique dealer Leo Selver is found dead of a heart attack next to the bludgeoned body of his latest conquest, Judy Latimer, the police assume it’s a crime of passion. But Leo’s wife, Beatrice isn’t convinced. She knows that Leo was chronically unfaithful, but refuses to believe that he was capable of murder. Instead she clings to the idea that an alternate scenario is possible: a jealous lover killed Judy.

The police dismiss Beatrice’s concerns in what seems to be an ugly, open-and-shut case, so she contacts former policeman, ex-race car driver Ed Buchanan, recently returned from Greece and currently unemployed.

The End of the Web

When Ed first hears the story of Leo’s death from Beatrice, he too isn’t convinced that there’s anything inconclusive about the case, but then again, there are a few niggling issues. Leo had recently become more involved with fellow antique dealer, Sydney Chard who seems to have vanished, and a third, overly anxious, dealer has phoned Beatrice a few times from Amsterdam.

Ed, with nothing more pressing to do, and with his eye on Leo’s young female assistant, takes the case.

While all of this is going on, we readers know that yes, Leo’s death was not as it seemed, and we also know Sydney’s fate. Of course, Ed is in the dark, but he soon realises that Leo was involved in something he could not control.

There’s very little down time in this book, and the plot never really goes into anything too fantastical. Underneath the plot, there’s the sense that life is ephemeral. Most of our characters have been struck with tragedy in some way: the Selvers lost their son, and Ed’s parents were killed in a senseless accident. When the novel begins, we have the very interesting Leo Selver chasing a young woman and wondering why he bothers when he’d so much prefer to be home with his wife.  The End of the Web is an entertaining tightly-written read that touches on bigger issues, without being preachy, such as the meaning we put to our lives and using our time wisely.  This depth, along with the idea that people are complex multi-layered beings, adds a nice touch to a book from the thriller genre.

Dichotomy: division or distribution into two parts; hence, a cutting into two; a division. He did contain two selves, dissimilar but complementary characters. There was the more obvious extrovert, call him Leo for short, a typical Sun subject, born in August, romantic, impulsive, greedy, vain, a man who made money quickly and lost it, philandered, played the fool, got into trouble. Then there was the subtler character, sober old Selver who had second thoughts, watched everything and everybody including Leo, made sly comments and criticized, saw the absurdity of Leo’s behaviour, tried to take evasive action whenever possible. 

(The novel includes Ed’s homo phobia which also apparently appears in another George Sims book: The Last Best Friend)

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These Violent Delights: Victoria Namkung

Victoria Namkung’s novel, These Violent Delights, concerns a scandal involving a private school for girls. The novel asks questions about the consequences of our actions. If bad things happen, someone pays. But is it always in the way we expect? Can justice ever be achieved even if society and the Law intervene?

The novel centres on a handful of women in an sexual abuse case involving the very popular Dr Copeland, the chair of the English Department at Windermere, a private school for girls in Southern California. At tuition of $38,000 a year, parents expect their children to have an excellent education in a safe environment, but everything goes to hell when newspaper intern, 22-year-old USC Journalism student, Caryn, confides in veteran reporter Jane that years earlier, Copeland made inappropriate comments to her followed by emails, and sexual overtures. Even though Caryn contacted the school administration about the situation, it was basically just covered up.

These Violent delights

Caryn, feeling strongly that her story should be told, writes an article about the problems at Windermere but doesn’t name the teacher. Soon several other young women approach Jane and Caryn with their stories. Copeland abused his position and his access to young, vulnerable girls for years.

In these days of social media and “online reaction,” all hell breaks loose. Caryn is vilified by some members of the public and lauded for her bravery by others. As more victims speak out and the story widens, Windermere administration is forced to publicly respond via a ‘Special Investigative Committee.’

There were times when I wasn’t sure where the story was taking me, but overall, the plot takes a predictable course. While many aspects of the story are black and white, interesting gray sections, the politics of the ‘Special Committee’ and “organizational loyalty,” (a term that I’d never heard before) remain unexplored. Institutionalized/organizational wrong doing, which must be the foundation problem here, still comes down to a few decisions made by one individual. Possible thought processes are mentioned rather than explored when it comes down to the choices made by this individual.

Although the story unfolds via the voices of several female characters, Dr Copeland remains a murky figure.  These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends a phrase from Romeo and Juliet lingers over the novel with a sense of impending dread. These young women are permanently damaged–some much more than others. Dealing with the acknowledgment and shame causes a great deal of distress and pain, and ultimately, sadly, there seems to be very little ‘won.’

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Catalina: Liska Jacobs

“Dazzle a man and you blind him.”

From a few pre-publication quotes, I had a feeling that I’d love Catalina, a debut novel from Liska Jacobs. What is so attractive, so alluring about Kamikaze Women–self-destructive women whose messy personal disasters surround them in a blurring cloud of detritus? These are women who simultaneously attract and repel–women whose lives crumble at the foundations as they careen, hopelessly, from one catastrophe to another.

The Kamikaze Woman in Catalina is our narrator Elsa, who washes back up in California after being ‘let-go’ from her job as personal assistant to MoMA’s curator, the very married Eric Reinhardt. Elsa and Eric had an affair, and we don’t know what went wrong, but the affair ends with Elsa being given a “generous compensation” package by Human Resources. We get, right away, that Elsa is being discarded and paid off, but Elsa, hard-as-nails, but also interestingly brittle, doesn’t quite ‘get’ the fact that she’s been summarily dumped.

Catalina

Elsa begins to think that New York feels “predatory,” and so home to Bakersfield and her mother’s house, ostensibly to lick her wounds. But home doesn’t offer consolation:

Poor girl, the joke’s on you. You’re back. Your old life just waiting for you, like a second skin.

So Elsa escapes with a quick flight to LA and then it’s a short drive to Santa Monica. Elsa holes up in a luxury hotel, enrolling in a yoga course but going to the bar instead, dropping money even as she tries not to think about Eric from the blurriness of a cocktail of unknown drugs (stolen from her mother) and alcohol.

There are many bottles. Probably too many, I think. So I combine a few that look similar. Who cares? I definitely do not. After all. I’m doing what Eric suggested on that last day: Go Home. See your mother in Bakersfield. Be open to possibility. Fine, a blue one if the mood strikes, or maybe a white, or sea-foam green. So many possibilities. 

The scenes at the hotel are marvellous. The sniffy disapproval of the waiters and other guests as Elsa polishes off bottle after bottle of alcohol, ordering up coke though room service, and the way she teases a Lancelot in bellboy clothing.

Instead I call room service and order another Bloody Mary, which, I tell myself, is basically a salad. 

Finally, with numerous traumas and dramas played out, Elsa calls up her old friend Charly, who is married to Jared. Elsa expects her friend to be mired in domestic bliss, but it’s clear that there are problems between Charly and Jared. He makes cruel comments to his wife and keeps a lascivious eye on Elsa:

“Have you been working out?” he asks. I tell him the most exercise I get is lifting a wineglass to my mouth or opening a prescription bottle. This enthralls him. 

Elsa’s ex-husband Robbie now works for Jared, and so before long, Elsa finds herself on a trip to Catalina to attend a jazz festival with Charly, Jared, Robbie, his new girlfriend Jane and millionaire boat owner, the very alpha male, Tom. Tom’s family own ” a potato chip company, real American money.” 

He’s well groomed, scrubbed clean, and absolutely menacing. 

Of course, this trip is a recipe for disaster.  Charly’s marriage is unhappy, Jared is openly womanizing, Robbie still has the hots for his ex and Jane, a restaurant manager,  is … well… on the tiresome side. “She’s always doing some marathon or on a new diet.”  She’s “very animated. Her arms and hands wave as if she were an instructor worried about losing Robbie’s interest.” As for Tom, he says that Elsa, brought along on the Catalina trip as a date, reminds him of his first wife:

Hot as shit but absolutely bonkers. 

Catalina is the provocative, unsettling  story of one woman’s meltdown, but it’s also a story of a handful of people behaving badly. A novel of Bad Manners, if you will. Everyone thinks that wildly successful Elsa is back on an extended holiday, but Tom, who claims he can hear Elsa’s pills rattling in her bag, has Elsa’s number, and he delights in watching the trip implode as couples fight, friction escalates and lives collide.

The big question here is Elsa’s state before being dumped by Eric. There are elusive shards of the past tantalizingly submerged in the plot, and most of these float to the surface through Elsa’s memories of her marriage to Robbie. But this is a woman who doesn’t want to examine her life and her mistakes; she’s much prefer to blur the past, and the present, with alcohol and whatever pills she can dig out from the alarmingly diminishing supply which lurks at the bottom of her bag.  I loved Catalina; it’s just the sort of book I am always looking for and find so rarely–people behaving badly within the rails of polite society.

I squint to try to make out where the pier should be, where the Miramar is, where the airport and Charly and Jared’s house should be. Bakersfield just north and inland-New York and Eric a few thousand miles beyond that. It’s there, I’m sure. I suddenly feel lightheaded. Strange. Like catching your reflection, that moment just before recognition, when you are a stranger to yourself. 

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(The idea of Kamikaze Women comes from Woody Allen and the film Husbands and Wives.)

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Three Days and a Life: Pierre Lemaitre

“The wheel was coming full circle.”

Pierre Lemaitre’s novel, Three Days and a Life is essentially a study of guilt, the fallout of violence, and small town prejudices in the aftermath of a murder. Murder is an irrevocable act, and the consequences, as we see in this novel, are unpredictable. The story begins in 1999 with Antoine, a twelve-year-old boy, the son of the divorced Madame Courtin. Antoine and his mother live in the small, dying town of Beauval–a place where everyone knows everyone else. You can live there for years and still be an outsider.

Antoine is a normal twelve-year-old who longs for a Playstation of his own, and with a sudden awareness of his own sexuality, he has a crush on blonde Émilie. The Courtins live next to the Desmedts: the brutish Monsieur Desmedt, his wife and two children: Valentine and 6-year-old Remi. The Courtin household is rigid whereas the Desmedts’ home is chaotic. but the best thing about living next to the Desmedts is that Antoine can play with their dog Ulysses.

three days and a life

One day in the woods, Antoine accidentally kills Remi, and in a blind panic, he hides the body. Will he get away with murder? ….

About 2/3 of the book follows Antoine’s actions as the townspeople realise that a child is missing. Paralyzed with guilt, and waiting for the police to knock on his door, Antoine watches events unfold from his home. Unpopular residents are rounded up and questioned, and then nature intervenes.

The second, last third of the novel opens in 2011. Antoine now lives in Paris, is in a wonderful relationship, and is close to becoming a doctor when he reluctantly agrees to return home He is being recalled by fate to meet his punishment. ….

Truth be told, the terror never went away. It dozed, it slumbered, and it returned. Antoine lived with the knowledge that, sooner or later, this murder would catch up and ruin his life. 

I’m very glad to have finally read a Lemaitre novel. For this reader, the first section with Antoine as a boy was good but overly long–especially when he repeatedly imagined various scenarios. However, the second part paid off in its conclusion. To say more would spoil the novel for other readers, but Fate shows, once again, that one cannot escape, no matter how hard we try to run. In the case of Lemaitre’s tale, do not expect simple retribution. The plot is far too subtle for that.

Reading the acknowledgments, I saw the name Patrice Leconte pop up. This made me mull over the idea of this book as a film. The first two-thirds are introspective while Antoine wrestles with his guilt, but with the right script, this would make an excellent film.

Review copy

Translated by Frank Wynne

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Genius and Discovery: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017Genius and Discovery is another nifty little collection of Stefan Zweig gems from Pushkin Press. Triumph and Discovery contained select moments in history, and this collection contains the following five sections:

Flight into Immortality

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel

The Genius of a Night

The Discovery of El Dorado

The First Word to Cross the Ocean. 

In the preface, Zweig talks about “genius

Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky. 

Genius is pushing it a bit with a few of the people mentioned here.

Flight into Immortality is the incredible story of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Gold fever grips Spain after Columbus “who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time” tells tales of “gold mines of immeasurable extent,” in the Americas.  Gold seekers, adventurers, ruffians, you name it, arrive in Española (“later San Domingo and Haiti”).

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honorable nobleman arrive, wishing to gild their coat of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cadiz.

While lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso readies a ship to sail to the San Sebastián colony “near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela,” many of the Spanish adventurers are stranded on Española and hope to avoid debt by taking a ship out. The governor orders that no man may leave without his permission, but that doesn’t stop Vasco Núñez de Balboa who boldly smuggles himself aboard Enciso’s ship on a crate.

Genius and Discovery

And so begins Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s incredible adventures as he seeks gold and becomes the first European to see the Pacific ocean. This is a story of the highs and lows of human nature; mention is made of how he used hungry dogs to tear apart prisoners.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel is the story of how Handel recovered from a stroke and eventually wrote the Messiah.

The Genius of a Night is the story of how The Marseillaise was created, and this section wasn’t that interesting for this reader. The First Word to Cross the Ocean is the story of Cyrus Field and the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean

And now The Discovery of El Dorado. This is the story of John Augustus Sutter, born in Switzerland, who traveled to California, and becomes the luckiest and unluckiest of men when gold is discovered on his property. The Zweig version differs wildly in several aspects from the Wikipedia version, and while some of this can, perhaps, be ascribed to our modern sensibilities, some of it cannot. Zweig paints Sutter as a more tragic figure, and tells us that Sutter’s wife died after shortly arriving in California. Zweig says Sutter had three children while Wikipedia says five. Zweig portrays Sutter as a man stripped of everything: attacked by a mob, his “eldest son, threatened by these bandits, shoots himself.  The second son is murdered; the third runs for it but is drowned on the way home.”  Zweig creates a portrait of a widower, a demented beggar whose children are all dead. Wikipedia has Sutter’s wife living to a ripe old age, and one of his sons became the founder and planner of Sacramento.

Zweig didn’t have Goggle.

Apparently Zweig wrote 12 of these vignettes, so between this collection and Triumph and Disaster, we can read ten. Sadly omitted: Cicero and the (mock) Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Review copy

Translated by Andrea Bell

 

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Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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The Weissensee Saga (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Back to German Literature Month and another excellent German miniseries. This time it’s The Weissensee Saga (Weissensee)–the chronicle of two families who live in East Berlin in the 80s. The Kupfers, whose lives are spearheaded by senior Stasi officer,  Hans Kupfer (Uwe Kockisch) and his wife Marlene (Ruth Reinecke), live in a gorgeous home in the prestigious Weisensee neighbourhood nestled on the banks of a lake. They have two sons, the very nasty, ambitious Falk (Jörg Hartmann), and divorced Martin (Florian Lukas) who has a mind of his own. Falk, who is also a Stasi officer, is (unhappily) married to Vera (Anita Loos) and they have one child together. Both sons live with their parents, and while Vera, thanks to life with Falk, is literally falling to pieces under the eyes of the Kupfers, it’s interpreted as ‘her problem’–something she needs to fix.

Enter the Hausmanns: singer and songwriter Dunja Hausmann and her daughter Julia Hausmann (Hannah Herzsprung) who live in a tiny Berlin apartment. Dunja, who is vocal about her criticisms of East Germany, is a known dissident and is under Stasi surveillance. Her performances are monitored and controlled; she isn’t allowed to perform outside of East Germany.  Julia and her German/American boyfriend are stopped by the Stasi one night, and Hans Kupfer reluctantly puts them under surveillance. Hans is seen as a more reasoned Stasi officer, whereas Falk, who is looking for promotion and wants to impress his father, is utterly heartless. Falk appeals far more to the current political climate, so at one point, Hans is moved off to become a lecturer at the Stasi Academy while Falk is promoted (and unleashed) to his father’s job.

Problems erupt when police officer Martin falls in love with Julia. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all hell breaks loose. These are two people who love each other and want to be together, but we see what happens when Falk, who doesn’t want the taint of being involved with a dissident family, moves to make sure the two lovers are separated. There are scenes at the Kupfer family home which indicate that being involved with the Hausmanns isn’t just  a matter of not wanting to be involved with dissidents. Martin’s attachment to Julia is seen as extremely threatening to the Kupfers, and potentially fatal to Falk’s career. Marriages between politically powerful families cement society. Over time, layers of the Kupfers’ marriage are peeled back and we see a pragmatic relationship built with the bricks of ambition. Interestingly, Martin’s wife divorced him because he wasn’t ambitious enough.

As the series continues, the plot takes us down the dark, twisted rabbit hole of life in East Germany as the Stasi become involved in the lives of the Hausmanns.  Dunja sings a banned song at a concert, and Vera, who can no longer morally turn a blind eye to her husband’s actions, goes off the rails. The machinations of the Stasi (Falk) are incredibly evil, and what happens is mind-blowing. We see how people are manipulated into being Stasi informers: at one point it’s estimated that the ratio of informers when weighed against the total population was 1:6.5.

Watching this is an education in totalitarianism. Forget the benign incompetence of state government. What happens here is so vicious, so heartless, it takes your breath away as it becomes evident how the poisonous tendrils of the Stasi infiltrate every corner of life in East Germany. The series is being lauded as showing what life in East Germany was really like, so forget The Lives of Others.

There are three seasons of The Weissensee Saga so far with a fourth on the way. Do yourself a favour and watch this.

 

Once again, yes I know this isn’t a book, but German Literature Month is about celebrating German culture, and… as I said before you can read the subtitles. You can watch The Weissensee Saga on MHz which is available through Amazon or  Roku. Since MHz is also a distributor, it’s also available on DVD.

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Turn on the Heat: Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

“I walked out and piloted the agency heap out to my rooming house, feeling like the tail end of a misspent life.”

Almost a year ago, I reviewed The Knife Slipped, the first second Cool and Lam novel written by Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A. A Fair). Turn on the Heat is the second third in the series (see JJ’s comment below), and what a treat it is to see this novel back in print.

Turn on the heat

A Mr. ‘Smith’ employs Bertha Cool Confidential Investigations to find a missing woman. Decades earlier a Dr and Mrs Lintig lived in the small town of Oakview.  According to Mr Smith, who doesn’t explain his interest in the case, a scandal took place, and Mrs Lintig disappeared back in 1918. Obviously there’s a lot more to the case than Mr. Smith is willing to explain, and when Bertha Cool’s operative, Donald Lam arrives in Oakview, he finds out that he’s not the only person who’s looking for Mrs. Lintig.

Digging through old newspapers, Lam discovers that Dr. Lintig sued for divorce in 1918 citing mental cruelty. Then accusations followed from Mrs. Lintig that her husband was having an affair. Dr. Lintig signed over all his property to his wife, and then they both … disappeared. The judge and the lawyers involved in the case are all now dead, but questions remain: where did Dr. Lintig and Mrs Lintig disappear to? Who is Mr Smith and why is he so interested in tracking down a woman who disappeared decades earlier? And who else is looking for Mrs. Lintig?

Blackmail, adultery, political corruption and murder tangle the Lintig case in knots, and Donald Lam, on his usual shoestring budget from his boss, Bertha Cool, must solve the case without finding himself in the electric chair.

While the case under scrutiny in this fast-paced crime novel makes for entertaining reading, the real fun here lies in the toxic, sinewy relationship between Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Bertha Cool “profane, massive, belligerent and bulldog,” is a woman who’s used to getting what she wants, but in Donald she’s met her match. He likes his independence, and she likes to keep control of the reins. There’s no glamour here in the PI business, and Donald Lam, who gets beaten up more than once, can’t be described as a tough guy. Bertha Cool, who talks about herself in the third person, mostly emasculates Lam, describing him as a “half-pint runt,”  handing him the bare minimum to run his case while she, a gigantic, majestic battleship, may well be eating all the profits.

Of course, there’s a beautiful reporter, and a visit to a strip joint:

I found a table back in a corner and ordered a drink. An entertainer was putting on an expurgated version of a chemically pure strip tease. She had more clothes on when she’d finished than most of the performers had when they started, but it was the manner in which she took them off that appealed to the audience: a surreptitious be-sure-the-doors-and-windows-are-closed-boys attitude that made the customers feel partners in something very, very naughty.

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Filed under Fiction, Gardner Erle Stanley