Mean

When I was a child and lived on the south side of Chicago, elementary school was dismissed every day at 3:15 pm. It took about ten minutes for my sister and I to walk the block home, meaning we usually could just catch the last minutes and closing credits of Dark Shadows every day. This was disappointing, of course, because we loved the show and tried to keep up with it; the older woman down the street with whom our mother left us every morning on her way to catch the bus for her shift spooling wire at an electronics factory in Cicero and fed us both breakfast and lunch also watched, and would tell us the following morning what was going on in Collinwood (she also got us to watch One Life to Live and General Hospital with her; but we weren’t as veste in Llanview and Port Charles as we were with the haunted Collins family).

But at three thirty every day one of the affiliate networks in Chicago showed reruns of old movies, and we generally watched the movie–we weren’t allowed outside unless our mother was home–and she usually got home around four. My grandmother had already given me a taste for old movies and mysteries, so watching the afternoon movie wasn’t a hardship for me, and it kept my sister and I quiet while Mom made dinner and did whatever housewifely and motherly chores she had to take care of before Dad came home.

It was watching those afternoon movies where I first encountered The Bad Seed.

Later that summer, when Mrs Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the day of her last happiness, for never since then had she known contentment or felt peace.

The picnic was an annual, traditional affair held on the beach, an among the oaks, of Benedict, the old Fern summer place at Pelican Bay. It was here that the impeccable Fern sisters had been born and had lived through their languid, eventless summers. They had refused to sell the old place, and had kept it up faithfully as a gesture of love even when necessity made them turn their town house into a school for the children of their friends. The picnic was always held on the first Saturday of June since the eldest of the three sisters, Miss Octavia, was convinced, despite the occasions on which it had rained that particular day, and the picnic had to be held inside, after all, that the first Saturday of June was invariably a fine one.

If The Bad Seed has lost its ability to shock and horrify, it’s because in the decades since it was published (and adapted into both a play and film) the notion of a child being a killer has gone from being shocking to the general public to one that is kind of accepted; children do kill, and despite all the societal push towards sentimentality toward children. Rhoda is a sociopath, if not a psychopath; her inability to feel remorse or empathy or any other kind of human emotion is chilling to read about–she’s a stone cold killer, and clearly, she thinks nothing of killing to get something she wants: whether it’s the penmanship medal from her school, or a nice trinket promised to her, and then to shut up the janitor who sees through her and threatens to expose her; there’s a progression there. First she kills on impulse to get something she wants, then she coldly and calculatedly kills to protect herself. Rhoda is maturing as a killer, which is very chilling for the reader. The book is told entirely from the point of view of Rhoda’s mother, Christine–who is very slowly coming to realize, time after time, that her child is a monster, despite the innocence of childhood and everything we are taught to think, sentimentally, about children.

Psychology was starting to come into its own in the United States during the 1950’s, and you can see how crime writers took to psychology in that decade: The Bad Seed asks the question of nature v. nurture (although its answer is that it’s nature, genetic, and cannot be helped–and there’s some truth to that. I’m not entirely sure that sociopathy or psychopathy is learned behavior; are these cold-blooded killers born that way or are they creations of their environment? The solution Mrs. Penmark comes up with and executes in the novel is dramatically different from the film–the film had to abide by the Production Code, whereas novels had no such restrictions on them–and I believe the book’s ending actually works better than the film’s.

One thing that the book does brilliantly is depict the emotional turmoil and distress of the mother, slowly beginning to suspect and find proof that her child, that she loves so dearly, is actually a monster.

I first read this book when I was a teenager; I’d already seen the movie when I discovered the book on the shelves at the library, and so I checked it out and read it. I enjoyed it tremendously at the time–and it also had me watching other teens and young children for signs of sociopathy for a few years–and so thought it might be worth a revisit. It was, most definitely; it’s a bit dated, and of course the notion of a killer child isn’t quite so shocking as it was back during the Eisenhower administration–we’ve seen too many real life examples of this, and of course the trope of the killer child has been used, over and over again, in crime fiction and in films, so it’s not the brace of cold water in the face that it once was (kind of like how Beast in View by Margaret Millar was groundbreaking in its time–its still a great read–but what Millar did in that novel has been copied and imitated so much that it’s almost a cliche; one has to read these books with those sort of things in mind). Agatha Christie also used the trope of the sociopathic child (although in a quick google search it turns out Christie’s sociopathic child killer predated The Bad Seed; honestly, Christie did everything first).

It was a very pleasant reread, and as always, it’s interesting to visit (or revisit) books that were considered shocking in their time, only to have them turn out to be fairly tame–I’m looking at you, both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls–as well as to see how far the crime fiction genre has progressed. (I still consider Peyton Place to have a place in crime fiction, even though most people don’t. And while the crimes in the book may not be the driving point of the story, those crimes do impact everyone in the town in some way….there’s another essay to be written, probably after I reread the book at some point. It’s been awhile since I’ve revisited both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls….perhaps that can be my Christmas present to myself.

I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You

Wednesday, and Day 4 of Facebook Jail. You know something? I wonder if they’ve heard of unintended consequences over at the Facebook Community Standards department. I usually spend far too much time scrolling through my Facebook feed and interacting with friends. So far this week, instead of doing that, I’ve revised a short story, worked on an outline, read a book (a wonderful history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted), read several short stories, and gotten some other things done. As this thirty day sentence continues, I will probably visit Facebook less and less–it’s kind of frustrating being able to see things and not respond to them–and by the end of the sentence, probably will be completely broken of the need to go there, and hopefully my attention span will have snapped back to what it was in the days before social media. I’m also liking Tumblr, INstagram and Twitter–you don’t wind up spending nearly as much time there, at least don’t, at any rate. Once I get used to not being on Facebook and having all this free time…look out.

I also read Lois Duncan’s young adult novel Ransom. Originally published in 1967 as Five Were Missing, it’s clear to see why Duncan was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America shortly before her death. I’ve not read all of Duncan’s work–I’m working my way through them all–but her novels were startlingly original and fresh, particularly when you consider when they were originally published. Ransom, inspired by a true crime in northern California where a school bus was hijacked and the students kidnapped, reads very quickly. The five students on the bus all are fully developed and fleshed out beautifully; and Duncan uses the kidnapping as a way of getting inside the heads of the characters and exposing them for what they are; the golden boy with dark secrets and feet of lead; the spoiled cheerleader who dislikes and resents her stepfather, only to learn that the father she idolizes is unworthy of her love; the military brat, deeply intelligent, who is the first to realize the truth of their situation and finds depths of bravery she never knew she had; the younger brother of the golden boy who realizes his own identity, and finds he has levels of potential strength his brother can only aspire to; and the orphan, being raised by his bachelor uncle with scars of his own to hide who finds out that self-pity only keeps him from enjoying his life. The dialogue is a little stilted and old-fashioned, but as I said, it reads very quickly.

Duncan was definitely a master.

Speaking of masters, I read a short story by Patricia Highsmith yesterday as well, “The Heroine,” which is the lead off story in Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives; a brilliant anthology of stories written by women crime writers from the 1940’s thru the 1950’s, a time when women dominated the industry and many of these wonderful writers are sadly, overlooked and forgotten.

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The girl was so sure she would get the job, she had unabashedly come out to Westchester with her suitcase. She sat in a comfortable chair in the living room of the Christiansens’ house, looking in her navy blue coat and beret even younger than 21, and replied earnestly to their questions.

“Have you worked as a governess before?” Mr. Christianen asked. He sat beside his wife on the sofa, his elbows on the knees of his gray flannel slacks and his hands clasped. “Any references, I mean?”

“I was a maid at Mrs. Dwight Howell’s home in New York for the last seven months.” Lucille looked at him with suddenly wide gray eyes. “I could get a reference from there if you like…But when I saw your advertisement this morning I didn’t want to wait. I’ve always wanted a place where there were children.”

I love Patricia Highsmith, and I have an enormous volume that contains all of her short stories. It’s really criminal that I, like so many other people, don’t read more short stories (hence my short story project, which I might make a year-long thing rather than just a few months), and it deeply shames me that I’ve had Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives sitting on my shelf collecting dust all this time without taking it down and reading it. This Highsmith story, “The Heroine,” is genius, absolute genius, in the cold, slightly detached way that Highsmith uses as her point of view, which makes her stories and novels so much more chilling. It’s very clear, almost from the start–ah, that foreshadowing–that the Christiansens are probably making a terrible mistake in not checking on Lucille’s references. And how the story develops is so much more chilling than you think it is when you get that uh oh feeling in your stomach when Mrs. Christiansen charmingly says she won’t check Lucille’s references. Highsmith’s authorial voice is so distant, so cold and matter-of-fact, and her word choice is always simple and spare…but she always gets that feeling of suspense, of oh my god what is going to happen that you feel amping up as you finish reading each sentence…and her denouements never disappoint.

Weinman has done an excellent job curating this collection; she also did a two-volume collection of novels by these writers called Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s and 1950s: A Library of America Boxed Set. Some of the novels included in that gorgeous set I’ve already read–Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, Vera Caspary’s Laura–but I am definitely going to have to get that set down from the shelf and read the others as well. Weinman is also pretty expert on the crime genre in general; very well read, fiercely intelligent and deeply perceptive, her newsletter The Crime Lady is amazing, and I read it every week for her thoughts on true crimes, the books she’s read and recommends…you can sign up for it here. You can thank for me for it later. She’s also writing a true crime of her own right now that I can’t wait to read.

And now, back to the spice mines.

You Can’t Hurry Love

I read a lot this weekend! I did work on the writing a little bit, but not nearly as much as I could/should have. I finished reading the Highsmith, reread The Exorcist, and finally got to Ross MacDonald’s The Drowning Pool, which I read yesterday afternoon, and then last night while watching the US Open I started reading Christopher Golden’s Ararat (which is great fun so far; I’m a little less than halfway through and having a great time reading it).

It might interest you to know, Constant Reader, that I’d never read Ross MacDonald until I was on a panel somewhere with Christopher Rice, either in 2002or 2003, and Chris mentioned MacDonald as one of his favorite writers/greatest influences. I’d read John D. MacDonald and Gregory McDonald; but had somehow never gotten around to Ross. I knew of the Lew Archer series, of course, but had never read any of them, nor any of his standalones. Based on Chris’ recommendation, I started reading them, and never looked back–although I have been slowly doling them out, as there is a limited amount of them and no new ones coming anytime soon. I was a little surprised, after finishing The Exorcist, to pick up The Drowning Pool and realize it was one I hadn’t read.

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If you didn’t look at her face she was less than thirty, quick-bodied and slim as a girl. Her clothing drew attention to the fact: a tailored sharkskin suit and high heels that tensed her nylon-shadowed calves. But there was a pull of worry around her eyes and drawing at her mouth. The eyes were deep blue, with a sort of double vision. They saw you clearly, took you in completely, and at the same time looked beyond you. They had years to look back on, and more things to see in the years than a girl’s eyes had. About thirty-five, I thought, and still in the running.

She stood in the doorway without speaking long enough for me to think those things. Her teeth were nibbling the inside of her upper lip, and both of her hands were clutching her black suede bag at the level of her waist. I let the silence stretch out. She had knocked and I had opened the door. Undecided or not, she couldn’t expect me to lift her over the threshold. She was a big girl now, and she had come for a reason. Her stance was awkward with urgency.

“Mr. Archer?” she said at last.

“Yes. Will you come in?”

“Thank you, Forgive me for hanging back. It must make you feel like a dentist.”

“Everybody hates detectives and dentists. We hate them back.”

The Drowning Pool is hard-boiled, borderline noir (based on the fact that Archer works as a private eye), and can’t you imagine the above scene being played, in black-and-white by either Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, talking to either Gloria Grahame or Ida Lupino or Barbara Stanwyck? The story is simple: Archer is hired by the wealthy-seeming Mrs. Slocum to find out who has written her husband a poison-pen letter accusing her of adultery; back at the time the book was written, adultery was one of the few grounds for divorce recognized in every state. But as Archer begins to investigate, turns out Mrs. Slocum and her husband don’t have money; the money belongs to her mother-in-law, and she keeps them on a tight leash. Her estate is also sitting on a lot of oil, which she refuses to allow anyone to drill for, which would in turn make them even filthier rich. The elder Mrs. Slocum winds up dead in the swimming pool during a party, and soon the case begins twisting and turning left and right–and more bodies continue to pile up as Archer tries to get to the bottom of what is going on at the Slocum estate. It’s a great, fast read–and MacDonald’s grasp of language is extraordinary.

There’s a reason why MacDonald is up there with the greats of crime fiction.

There’s also an interesting subplot–almost a throwaway–about why the second Mrs. Slocum’s marriage is an abject failure. MacDonald doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, but it’s there for the queer reader to pick up on. It would be interesting to compare and contrast this book with MacDonald’s wife, Margaret Millar’s, Beast in View, released a few years later. There’s also an interesting comparison to be made between The Drowning Pool and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, in the character of Mrs. Slocum’s daughter Cathy, and the daughter in Cain’s book; also, an interesting comparison between this book could be made with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

Maybe someday when I have more time.