Murder Most Banal

After reading Zola’s La Bete Humaine, I must admit that I’m really starting to wonder about this. Virtually all the main characters either consider or resort to murder at some point in the story as a solution to whichever problem is at the forefront of their mind at that moment. For example, Severine dislikes her husband (who has already murdered Gironcourt and got away with it) and wishes to marry Jacques, so she suggests that Jacques murder her husband as he is an obstacle to their happiness. Jacques’ aunt is murdered by her husband so he can steal her inheritance of 1,000 francs. Jacques’ cousin Flore murders scores of people by rigging a train crash because she is jealous of Jacques’ relationship with Severine and wants her out of the way so she can marry Jacques.

And so on. As the killer in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem would note, there is no style to these murders. They are common and unartistic and beneath the serious killer. One would hope that Peter Ackroyd was being tongue in cheek there, because that’s quite a controversial mindset to promote.

I was struck as I finished the book at how easily everyone simply killed people who got in their way; although it’s very possible that there were elements of northern France in the late nineteenth century who really did behave in such a way, but it really didn’t feel realistic to me – although that said, I realise that it may be an all too realistic representation of life in somewhere like a favela in Rio, for example. In those environments life is all too cheap, so it doesn’t really do to get wrapped up about it.

I suppose reading this so close to finishing Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has made me realise that in certain quarters, murder is (if you like) a craft, and there is a special satisfaction to creating a masterpiece; even if that masterpiece happens to be a corpse. My years of studying old issues of True Detective have taught me, if nothing else, that there are many serial killers who believe that they are artists and their murders are works of art; and we can see the same thought process in series such as Hannibal. You have those murderers who see value in their work and those who just view it as a means to an end.

Forensic psychology isn’t really my thing, but I did find this aspect interesting. I’m fairly sure there’s a thesis in here somewhere for someone much better placed than me to write it. What do you think?

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A Mistranslated Title?

I’ve mentioned previously that I do like reading the novels of Emile Zola. This will be the fifth one I’ve read (not counting re-reads) and is, I think, one of his best known. However, because I can’t read French I have had to pick up a translation and the title has got me all confused. The novel I’m reading is La Bête Humaine, which my (Penguin) edition has translated as The Beast Within. This is entirely acceptable, and I’m sure there is no problem with it. It’s just that to me, the title translates as The Human Beast which, in the context of the story, seems to make more sense.

The crux of the story (about which I will probably write more later) is that of murder on the railways, and in particular, the mind of a murderer; but I would also like to explore other characters and their mindsets because I think it illustrates (my translation of) the title really very well.

Roubaud, a stationmaster, kills the man who molested his wife when she was younger in a fit of jealous rage. I’m not sure, actually, that it is jealousy – perhaps righteous anger, but still – and realising that he has means, motive and opportunity, arranges the murder. The victim, Galincourt, a wealthy company director and senior lawyer, is a well-known sexual predator whose crimes have effectively been covered up as a result of his position. Don’t be surprised if this sounds HORRIBLY familiar, because it did to me too. Unfortunately for Roubaud, the murder is witnessed by Jacques Lantier, a young engine driver who suffers from homicidal delusions and had just tried to rape and murder his godmother’s daughter (whose sister was raped and murdered by Galincourt).

Traditionally, it is Lantier who is considered the Beast of the title, but I think there are different meanings to the word which Zola plays with. Certainly Galincourt’s behaviour is beastly, and Lantier’s fits of mania hint at a lack of rational control which at the time was considered to (to quote an old friend) “separate us from the animals”. In the fullness of time, however, we see Lantier go on to kill his mistress, then his engineer and finally himself in a plot that twists and turns like a good 19th century classic – which, of course, this is.

I’m only about halfway through at the moment, and so far only Galincourt is dead, but the senior judiciary have already conspired to ensure that the case doesn’t go to trial to protect the deceased’s reputation. Zola was well known for his assertions against the State for injustice – he was a famous supporter of the accused in the Dreyfus affair – so this is hardly surprising. What surprises me is how prescient it feels in the light of more modern examples of Galincourt’s behaviour. Naming no names, because I refuse to give them publicity.

Looking at all the characters and the behaviour they illustrate, I can’t help but think my translation of the book is the right one. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished it.

An Ideal Dinner Party

Before my friends and family protest – I’m only imagining one. I don’t cook, I loathe cooking almost as much as I loathe having other people in my little sanctuary. So please view this in the spirit in which it is intended, as an entertaining thought experiment and not much more.

But – if I were to have a dinner party, who would I invite? Apparently, there are rules to these things; firstly, you must have equal numbers of men and women; secondly, all the invitees are to be fictional characters*; and thirdly, it is assumed that you’ve got an unlimited budget in terms of food, drink and catering generally. I don’t believe that a detailed menu is required, so I’m not providing one. They’ll get what they’re given and like it, as my gran used to say! So, here’s my list of dinner guests:-

1 – Miss Havisham, if she can be crowbarred away from her rotting wedding breakfast and enticed into polite company. She’s allowed to keep the wedding dress, mind.

2 – Jay Gatsby, because at least he knows how to throw a party. And besides, he’d probably know where to get some more booze if we run out.

3 – Morticia Addams, because it wouldn’t be a very good dinner party without her. She’s elegant, witty, intelligent and disarmingly funny.

4 – Gomez Addams, for the same reason I would invite his wife. Although in his case, he would probably be armed and funny.

5 – Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) because she’s a wonderful character and I think a blooming good meal with great company would do her the world of good. And she can practice her swordplay with Gomez.

6 – Wolverine, because he’d bring his own cutlery and keep things from getting too boisterous.

7 – Alice, because I want to know if her wonderland is real. And besides, someone has to pair up with Gatsby…

8 – Count Dracula, assuming he actually eats and promises to leave the guests alone. In return, I promise not to use him as a target for archery practice.

And there you have it. Mind you, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll give you a completely different list…

* An alternative version has real people who are deceased. Nobody living is ever allowed.

The Hanging Stranger

Sometimes, Philip Dick wrote a short story that is quite good; occasionally, he wrote one that was excellent; and rarely, he wrote one that was simply breath-taking. I can’t quite decide which category this one fits into; I think it’s floating somewhere between excellent and breath-taking, but I love small town paranoia anyway. Dick did small towns and paranoia very well, but in this story the combination is a masterpiece of storytelling. Is Noyce going bonkers or is he really seeing what he’s seeing? In fact, if everyone tells you that you’re insane, how do you know that you’re not?

In terms of plot, this very closely resembles the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where one man becomes increasingly convinced that the other occupants of his town have been taken over by strange insect-like creatures he sees descending from the sky. His reasoning is simple; none of them pay any attention to the man hanging from a lamp-post in the town square. The story is brilliantly told and although I did guess the twist at the end, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story one jot. It’s delightfully creepy.

Exhibit Piece

I’m not sure if any of you have heard of those weird and wonderful people who take vintage to a whole new level? I saw a TV programme about some once; two couples, one who lived in the 1930s and another in the 1950s. They had each done their houses out to reflect their styles, with authentic furnishings and vehicles and so far as possible, employment. Not surprisingly, it was this last point where things seemed to fudge a little; Mrs 1930s worked in a call centre and Mrs 1950s was a civil servant, but I suspect neither of them could afford to be the housewives they would have been expected to be in the eras of their choice.

The reason why I mention this is that this story by Philip K Dick reminded me a lot of those couples; so invested in their chosen era that they have elected to live the life so far as possible. It’s a wonderful idea, and in Dick’s hands it turns into something a bit special. We are no longer in a museum exhibit – we have genuinely gone back in time, and compared to the life that he was living before, perhaps going back isn’t much of a temptation.

Dick often wrote about memory and nostalgia, and how the past can sometimes seem a little rose-tinted compared to the reality. I think this story really brings it home. A part of me would love to have lived in the 1940s, but perhaps without rationing, the bombing and the disease… thinking about it, I’ll stick with the here and now. It’s stressful enough.

The Hood Maker

Not that I usually give a fig about being in fashion, but it does feel a bit strange to see Philip K Dick, one of my favourite SF authors, being so popular again. His star seems to rise and wane with alarming regularity – popular in the eighties, less so in the nineties, barely remembered in the noughties, starting to come back in the tens. Much as I like his novels, it’s his short stories that I really admire because they often deal with ideas and theories that probably couldn’t carry a hundred thousand words without veering off into lunacy.

I really like The Hood Maker, the first of his stories to be broadcast as part of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams series, which gave me the idea of reading all the original stories in the order that they were shown – partly because I prefer reading to viewing but also because I have the collected stories somewhere and it seemed a great excuse to dig them out. So before anyone asks – no, I haven’t watched the series and I probably won’t either, so I’m not necessarily aware of any differences between the two.

The central conceit of The Hood Maker is that people’s thoughts are no longer their own; the state employs telepathic mutants (“teeps”) to scan one’s unconscious thoughts and report any disloyalty. The state’s justification is that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to worry about. But some people do feel that there are secrets worth keeping and it isn’t long before strange alloy headbands (the “hoods” of the title) are being received by notable government employees which prevent the teeps from reading their thoughts. The state, unsurprisingly, drafts legislation banning them, but the story ends before the keynote vote (and reveals how it will fare).

Dick was, I suppose, something of a typical Californian libertarian; he was also quite paranoid and so the idea of the government spying on him using telepaths was something he revisited regularly – I suppose the best known version is Minority Report, also originally a short story, where people are arrested for crimes before getting the chance to commit them by (essentially) thought police. It raises questions about whether or not people have the right to keep secrets and the level to which a state can erode civil liberties before it becomes totalitarian. Given that the overwhelming majority of governments run on secrets – otherwise intelligence services wouldn’t be required – you can see why they would be concerned about “disloyalty”, for example. Whether or not it’s ever likely to happen is anyone’s guess – I’m fairly sure that people who have lived through the whims of a totalitarian regime before the fall of Communism would be able to vouch for Dick’s veracity here.

It’s a clever story, and it doesn’t seem dated – a flaw which has befallen a few of his novels, if I’m honest. It has elements of science fiction and spy thriller, which makes me wonder if there is such a thing as spy-ence fiction. On which note, I’ll move on to the next story….

The Impossible Planet

You know that scene at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes (the first of the Charlton Heston ones) where he’s riding along the beach and suddenly yells “Damn them all to Hell”? Yeah, that bit – that’s what I thought about when I got to the end of this story. And then I felt really sad for the future of humanity, which isn’t something I ordinarily do when I read Philip Dick short stories. It just felt very poignant.

The plot is quite simple; Earth has been consigned to myth by virtually everyone. Only a three hundred and fifty year old lady who grew up on stories told by her grandfather, who was born there, believes it exists. And she wants to go there. In desperation – and to pocket the inordinate amount of money she is prepared to pay – two space pilots pick a planet of similar description (i.e. third rock from a star) and take her there, telling her it’s Earth.

This made me recall something I often wondered when I was younger; assuming that there is life out there, what do they call our Sun? Do they have another name for our planet? Is it possible that at some point in the future, humanity will have spread throughout the universe and Earth may be forgotten? Big ideas, but that’s what Philip K Dick was all about.

Not Quite Downton

I’ve never read anything by Kate Morton before, but the library thoughtfully allowed a copy of The House at Riverton to remain on the shelf before anyone else got there, so I borrowed it to have a read. It’s a lovely read, interesting and with characters you can really engage with, and it took me no time at all to whizz through 500 pages.

If it reminded me of anything, the book closely resembled the second season of Downton Abbey, set during the First World War. This is primarily because both are set in a large country house, with noble owners and downstairs staff, and discuss all the changes that came with the onset of war, the slaughter and in due course the armistice. Although in that regard they are telling the same story, it is markedly different in how it is handled – at no time reading Morton did I imagine Hugh Bonneville coming down the stairs at Grantham to consult Carson over the wine list.

Riverton is narrated through the eyes of one of the maids, Grace, as she recalls her past which is in the process of being turned into a costume drama. There’s a lot more to the plot than that, but I found I wasn’t really interested in any of it; I wanted to go back in time with her, back to dusting every last nook and cranny in the library because Her Ladyship was convinced that a relative died of a dust infection three hundred years previously, and where Cook’s apple tartlets were considered a cure for shellshock on the grounds that they worked for everything else.

There are births, deaths and marriages in the novel (the greatest twist is where the inheritance of the title depends entirely on the gender of an unborn child so the household has to wait for three months to find out) as there are in Downton, and it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the conspiracies, friendships and rivalries between the characters. I honestly think that if you like Downton, you will enjoy this – just don’t expect Lady Mary to turn up suddenly and have a fling with an Indian prince.

The Cask of Amontillado

Another famed story that I’m not keen on. It’s really just a very sadistic murder told from the point of view of the murderer. So why is it so celebrated?

My assumption is simply that it’s the nature of the murder that is what fascinates – Fortunato is buried alive in a wall in a ruined crypt in an ancient (and unnamed) Italian city around the time of carnival. This was well known as a medieval punishment; Countess Erzebet Bathory was walled up in her rooms of Castle Cactice after being found guilty of the murders of numerous local girls. In fact, it was a common belief that the local gods, elves, sprites and fairies required a blood sacrifice to promote the success of a new building and dogs or cats were frequently dumped into the foundations for this reason.

It’s just that if it’s read alongside The Tell Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher, it strikes me that there is a progression in the burial theme here. In the first story, the victim may well be dead when the killer smothers him, but he is certainly deceased by the time he is dismembered and buried under the floorboards. In the second story, Madeline Usher is alive when she is entombed but dies soon after, killing her brother when she reappears. And in the third story, Fortunato is very much alive when he is bricked up in his niche. Being buried alive was something that terrified Poe, and consequently is a theme which appears frequently in his stories. I wonder if this was his way of trying to face down his fears, by being the person doing the burying rather than the person being buried.

It’s not a great story, if I’m honest. There are mistakes that even I spotted (and I’m not much of a drinker these days) which always irritates me. In the context of the other two stories that I have read recently, it did prove of interest though.

The Fall of the House of Usher

I feel slightly treacherous writing this. I love Edgar Allen Poe; and this was one of his most famous stories; but I hate it. I’m not sure if it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but it bores the pants off me and I find the prose tedious in the extreme. So I forced myself to re-read it to see if I could spot what my problem with it was.

The plot, such as it is, is minimal, which may be why it’s been adapted a few times with varying degrees of success – there’s plenty of scope for inventive cinematography or staging. An unnamed man visits his old schoolfriend and his sister, who both live in their ancestral home which is excessively ancient but not yet ruinous. Both the friend (Roderick Usher) and his sister (Madeline) have been unwell and during the course of the tale, Madeline dies. Her corpse is interred in the family vault and Roderick lapses into distraught grief. The climax of the story is the revelation that Madeline was, in fact, buried alive and the House itself falls down during a terrific thunderstorm and takes both the Ushers with it.

And that’s it. Not a lot goes on for an awful lot of words, and I simply find it tedious. Poe’s prose can tend to the purple if he’s not careful – Ligeia is a stinker for this, but I love it regardless – but here he tends to padding, it seems to me. There are a lot of words and not a lot of story. Still, as it’s one of Poe’s most popular tales, I must be in the minority, but I’m okay with that. It’s an important story – I just don’t like it.