Style

I often talk about how my education in the classics is sorely lacking; this applies across all spectrums and all genres. I was in my thirties when I began to appreciate John D. MacDonald, for example; I didn’t start reading Ross MacDonald until I was in my forties. There are any number of classic works of fiction I’ve not read, and I am sorely under-read in my own genre. I am trying to rectify that as I age; it’s, like almost everything else I do, a project.

I am not nearly as well read in spy thrillers as perhaps I should be; I certainly went through a Robert Ludlum phase (although I am not entirely sure that’s where Ludlum belongs–only rarely are his main characters, at least in the volumes I’ve read–actual spies), and over the last decade I’ve started reading Eric Ambler. I also gave, back in the day, both Helen MacInnes and Alistair MacLean a whirl; and of course, I’ve read some Ian Fleming–but not all. (I really want to reread Live and Let Die to see if it’s as racist as I remember; I also want to rewatch the film again–and not just because a lot of it was filmed in Louisiana; I want to see if the book’s racism carried over into the film, which I strongly suspect it did)

So, John Le Carre. I’ve never read his books nor seen anything adapted from one of them (other than the wonderful The Night Manager starring Tom Hiddleston; highly recommended, and now I need to read the book), but of course I’ve heard of him. His most famous book is probably The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I acquired a copy of it from somewhere at some point. I recently decided to give it a read–my attempt to improve my education in crime classics at work–and I finished it this morning.

The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”

Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.

“You can’t wait forever, sir. Maybe he’ll come some other time. We can have the polizei contact the Agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes.”

“No,” said Leamas, “it’s nearly dark now.”

“But you can’t wait forever; he’s nine hours over schedule.”

This is how the book opens, and it does draw the reader directly into the story; the action is already underway, and LeCarre masterfully choses this method–entering the story in progress, with dialogue–to draw the unwary reader into the story. The use of polizei and the year it was written gives the clue that this is very likely occurring in Germany, and most likely the divided city of Berlin. Alec Leamas, a British agent, is the main character of the story, and one of his spies on the other side–East Berlin/East Germany–has had his cover blown and is trying to make his escape to the west. As Leamas watches, the mission fails spectacularly and his final agent on the other side is shot to death by guards as he tries to make through from east to west. Leamas is tired of spying, tired of betrayal, tired of dealing with the worst aspects of international espionage and how it exposes the smallness of most people on either side of the capitalism/communism divide; he is alsi very tired of deaths that eventually mean nothing in the long run. Agents are merely pawns of their states, expendable and disposable. Brought back to England, he is informed that his counterpart in east German intelligence, who has been killing off his agents left and right, must be brought down, and his final job for British intelligence will involve deep cover and a plan that will inevitably lead to the Communists bringing their master intelligence agent, Mundt, down on their own as a traitor.

The Berlin Wall came down during my lifetime; 1989 to be exact, and its construction began the week before I was born. The division of Germany into two halves–one a democracy, the other a Communist autocracy–occurred after the utter defeat and collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945. The Berlin Wall was itself a symbol of the ideological divide between east and west; the cold war itself a world-wide struggle for hearts and minds that didn’t always go so well for the west–primarily because of the West’s determination to uphold Fascist dictatorships that violated the freedoms of its citizens repeatedly as bulwarks against Communism. It’s been thirty-one years since the Wall came down and Communism collapsed in most of the world, and there are at least two generations of Americans who have grown up without the the constant threat of the mushroom cloud’s shadow–yet the right’s constant portrayal of the left as communist/socialist/enemies of American freedoms and liberty persists to this day, and there are any number of American voters still alive (and voting) who will knee-jerk reflexively react to anything being labeled socialism or communism. The Republican party began their decades-long policy of red-baiting during the Truman administration, initially behind the demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Nixon was an acolyte of McCarthy’s (which should have been enough to disqualify him from public office thereafter); and it was under Nixon that the right began its gradually lurch toward authoritarianism which we see bearing fruit today.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is dramatically different from any other “international espionage/intrigue” spy novel I’ve read to date–and while LeCarre despised Ian Fleming’s work and often stated that he wrote his novel in reaction to the popularity of the Bond novels, the same moral ambiguity permeates both. Both Bond and Leamas are merely doing their jobs in both, and neither is particularly vested in ideology or politics or even nationalism. They are simply professionals, doing their jobs. LeCarre’s novel isn’t very action-packed, but it is written stylishly, and the suspense comes from whether or not Leamas will prevail in his task of bringing down an important figure in East German intelligence. Once the book got going-after an admittedly slow start–I simply couldn’t put it down, and now I am definitely interested in reading more of LeCarre’s fiction. It’s extremely well done, deeply cynical, and there are twists and turns that not only come as complete surprises–but really, shouldn’t have.

I highly recommend it.

Long Live

Good morning, Sunday!

I did the windows yesterday, and it is literally amazing how I can forget between window cleanings what a difference it makes. It had been so long since I’d done it I need to do them again–it’s never easy getting all that caked on dirt and dust and debris off the glass, even when you do it weekly, as I used to do–but it’s a start.

I woke up early and feeling rested yesterday, which was absolutely lovely–and it was an absolutely lovely day in New Orleans, if a bit warm for mid-November. Did I get as much done as I needed and/or wanted to? Of course not. I did some other cleaning and straightening around the Lost Apartment; made some notes on some projects I am working on, and reread “The Snow Globe” to get a better idea of what I am dealing with on the revision, which I am going to get done today before I go to the gym. I’m also making the week’s to-do list, doing some other chores around the house, and feeling a lot better about things. Yes, I am behind on everything, but a little bit of focus and a little bit of desperation never hurt me, or anything I’ve worked on.

Rereading the story was, actually, something i’d been dreading doing; I always hate to reread something I’ve written, as I always tend to be highly critical and negative, and this story was no exception. I do love the story a lot–it was written to be submitted to a war on Christmas anthology and wasn’t accepted (the anthology never happened, either; long ugly story)–but it definitely needs some work. I originally came up with the story for a Halloween anthology, to be completely honest; there was a call for submissions, I think maybe from the Horror Writers’ Association, for stories with a Halloween theme. I distinctly remember reading the call and then an image popped into my head–me standing on the balcony at the Pub, looking down on Bourbon Street and the front doors of Oz, as a man in a devil costume came out; and he was hot as fuck; perfect body, body paint to make his skin red, and a skimpy red bikini, and thought Satan has a great six-pack, which I then made the opening line of the story. I believe at the time the story was called “All Hallow’s Eve” or something along those lines; but the story never made it past the opening paragraph. When the chance to write a story for the Christmas anthology came along, I remembered that opening and I remembered the joke I made on the Facebook post and thread about Christmas horror stories–I wanted to write about a Satanic snow globe–and immediately saw how to turn my unfinished Halloween story into a Christmas horror story called “The Snow Globe” merely by changing a single letter in the opening line: Santa had a great six-pack.

Voila! And the story began to flow. As I said, it was rejected from the anthology I wrote it for–and in the notes I got from the editors, which was lovely (one rarely gets notes on a rejected story) they basically told me I should have made it more than it was–which I had also thought about doing, but was afraid to–and so naturally, with that confirmation that the initial instincts I’d ignored from lack of confidence were, in fact, correct, I went back to the drawing board and revised it. And clearly, it needed one more revision. I have editorial notes on this story already, which I completely agree with, and I don’t know why–other than utter and sheer laziness–that I have not gone ahead and worked on this story to get it finished and out of the way. That is my goal for this morning–get the damne thing finished and be done with it–and then I can move back on to the book that has been stalled for weeks now.

Last night we watched a few more episodes of Mr. Mercedes, which finally introduced the character of Holly Gibney, who quickly became one of my favorite King characters–which was why I was so delighted she showed up in The Outsider–and so far the character is being played as she was written in the book, which is quite lovely. I think the show has padded/built up some things that I don’t remember from the book–but since I don’t remember them from the book, I am not entirely sure there were changes made. I just know I am deeply enjoying the show–it’s really a shame it hasn’t gotten as much success as it should have. (Maybe it did, I don’t know; but I rarely, if ever, heard anything about the show and there are three seasons…so there wasn’t a lot of social media buzz about it.)

The Saints play this afternoon–I think the game starts around three-ish, if I am not mistaken–and then of course there will be a new episode of The Undoing tonight. That should give me more than enough time to get this story finished, some chores done, and a trip to the gym for a workout. This is my fourth week since we rejoined the gym, and I am eminently proud that I have gone three days a week ever since. I can’t get over how much better I feel physically–the stretching really helps, too–and that correlates with how much better I’ve been sleeping. Who knew that exhaustion would help one sleep? (Sarcasm, don’t @ me)

I also read a few more chapters of The Hot Rock yesterday, which I am enjoying. Westlake’s style in this book is very reminiscent of Rob Byrnes’ brilliant caper novels (Straight Lies, Holy Rollers, Strange Bedfellows)–although since Westlake is the influence here, I should probably say I can see his influence on that unappreciated trilogy; it still kind of amazing to me that I’ve not read more Westlake (or Lawrence Block, for that matter), which is something I am going to need to rectify. (I’ve also never read Ed McBain, but I read some of his Evan Hunter novels.)

As I have often said, my education in crime fiction is a little lacking when it comes to the classics; I’ve not read all of Ross MacDonald or Raymond Chandler, for example, and I’ve also never read a Dick Francis novel either, for that matter. I think I’ve read a Nero Wolfe or two, but not many–although I have thought about using the trope of that series for a book of my own–the brilliant investigative mind who never leaves his/her house so needs a legman, from whose point of view the story is told–and there are any number of other classic crime fiction writers I’ve not cracked a spine on. But with new books I want to read being released all the time and being unable to even keep up with the canon of current writers whose work I love–not to mention all the new-to-me writers I keep discovering–there’s just simply no way I can ever read everything I want to read.

I’ve been doing some more research on Chlorine, recently reading Confidential Confidential, about the scandal rag of the 1950’s, and Montgomery Clift Queer Star, an academic treatise of multiple essays about reading Clift performances and films as queer, which was very interesting. Reading these two books also reminded me of something else that was going on in the time period which I wish to cover–red-baiting and the House Un-American Committee hearings; another period of America not living up to her ideals. It’s probably hard to explain to people who didn’t grow up, or were old enough, to remember the existential threat of the Soviet Union that had Americans seeing Communist spies and Communist infiltration everywhere; without an understanding of the highly paranoid state created by politicians and news outlets, neither the Korean nor Vietnam Wars would have most likely happened. That fear of Communism was also used by conservatives to gin up racial hatred as well as systemic discrimination against people of color and queer people–the queers were considered a national security threat because if you were queer and worked for the government in any capacity, you were thus opened up to blackmail by Communist agents. This was an actual thing, and I all too often see that key element left out of writings about the time, both fiction and non-fiction.

It would thus be wrong to leave Red-baiting out of Chlorine, which will mean more research. Heavy heaving sigh.

And on that note, the dryer just clicked off, so I should fold the clothes and get ready to get back to to work on the story. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

Cross My Broken Heart

I slept well again last night, so here’s hoping that Monday night’s shitty night of sleep was an aberration. I feel very rested and well this morning, which is a lovely change from yesterday morning’s horror.

Paul was home late last evening, so I was able to finish watching Greatest Events of World War II in Colour, which I highly recommend. It’s incredibly well done, and powerfully moving. The final two episodes, “Liberation of Buchenwald” and “Hiroshima”, are the perfect pair to end the series with; in my last post I talked about how the “Dresden Firestorm” episode brought up questions of morality, both national and that of war; how absolutely fitting that “Liberation of Buchenwald” was the very next episode; so that any sympathy one might have felt for the German citizens killed during bombing raids and so forth, evaporates almost immediately. The documentary is also one of the first times I’ve ever seen anything about World War II and the Holocaust that absolutely puts the lie to the German everyday citizen’s claim, afterwards, that they didn’t know anything about the death camps. They knew, and at best, just didn’t care. At worst, cheered the mass slaughter of “undesirables”. Thank God Eisenhower brought in the press to document the horrors of the camps.

Even more horrifying is knowing that the threat of Soviet Communism was deemed so terrible that the Western nations chose not to pursue a lot of war crimes trials against horrible Nazis, and instead helped rehabilitate them into German society, deciding it was simply better to move on–the past was the past, the Nazis were defeated, and Communism was apparently worse–to our everlasting shame.

“Hiroshima” naturally deals with the development of atomic weapons and the lead-up to the decision to use them on the Japanese. The reason given at the time was that Japan would never surrender, and the conquest of the home islands would have cost many American lives; so President Truman–also wanting to finish off Japan as quickly as possible, before the Soviet juggernaut could turn east–made the decision to wipe two cities off the map–and the xenophobic racism that allowed the Americans to be more brutal with the Japanese then they ever were with the Germans; had the Germans won the Battle of the Bulge and taken Belgium back, would the Americans have dropped atomic bombs on say, Frankfurt and Munich? Highly unlikely.

I highly recommend this series. World War II changed the face of the world, and politics, forever; and almost everything that has gone on in the world ever since the war ended has been affected and colored by the war. It was the war that made minorities in the United States–who fought, bled and died for this country in a brutal and bloody war–no longer willing to accept second class status. For many closeted queers, it gave them the opportunity to meet others like themselves, and planted the seeds for the gay neighborhoods in places like San Francisco and New Orleans and New York–gay men and lesbians no longer felt isolated and alone, knew there were others like them, and tried to make community, eventually leading to the queer rights movement. Women participated in the war and stepped up to replace the fighting men in their jobs, and soon realized they could be more than wives and mothers, chafing against their once-again restricted roles after the end of the war–which of course led to the Women’s Movement…and that’s not even taking into consideration the changes wrought in the world in geopolitical terms.

Even if you aren’t interested in watching all ten episodes, I strongly encourage everyone to watch “The Liberation of Buchenwald.” The Holocaust was real, it happened, the Western nations allowed it to happen, and it must never happen again. And if you have the capacity to even consider, for one moment, the notion that it was a hoax–fuck all the way off, and I hope your death is slow, painful, and horrific.

I kind of want to revisit Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War/War and Remembrance series; such a well done fictionalization of the war, as seen through the eyes of the Henrys, a naval family. Of course the two volumes total something like three thousand pages–I’ll never in a million years ever have the time for a deep reread–but they were amazing, and I read them as a teenager.

Yesterday I taped Susan Larson’s “My Reading Life” with Jean (J. M.) Redmann, which is always a delight. Susan is smart and fun, as is Jean, and it’s all I can do to keep up with them and not come across as a drooling idiot. But it’s always lovely to talk to Susan and Jean about books and writing, and even more delightful, Susan told me she’d enjoyed Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, which was of course the crowning jewel of my month. As you know, Constant Reader, I have constant doubts about my short story writing ability, and so getting Susan’s stamp of approval meant a lot. I’ll post a link for the show when it airs.

Today is a half-day, and after tomorrow my vacation for Thanksgiving begins. I’m hoping to get a lot done–like always–and maybe I won’t; but at least I feel confident I can get a lot of reading done. I also have my blog entries about The Hunter by Richard Stark and The Ferguson Affair by Ross MacDonald to write. I also would like to catch up on all the things–little things, nothing major–that I always seem to let slide since I don’t have much time.

LSU has also managed to maintain its number one ranking, despite the abysmal showing of the defense last Saturday against Mississippi. I saw an interview with Joe Burrow after the game in which he simply shrugged and said, “You know things have changed at LSU when we score 58 points and get over 700 yards of total offense and the locker room mood is disappointment at how badly we played.” YIKES. But I tend to agree–I was enormously disappointed by the defense in both the Vanderbilt and Mississippi games; but the offense was spectacular in both games and ordinarily I’d be aglow by those high-scoring offensive performances. Maybe it’s true; maybe we do get spoiled quickly–God knows I get annoyed when the Saints don’t play well and they’ve consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL since 2006. Sigh.

But the last two games of LSU’s season are at home, against Arkansas and Texas A&M, and if they win either of those games they clinch the West division and are going to Atlanta to play Georgia for a shot at LSU’s first SEC title since 2011. Woo-hoo!

I hope to start reading Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys today; today is my half-day and so I can get home earlier, possibly do some writing, and then curl up in my easy chair while I wait for Paul to get home. I still haven’t written a damned thing recently, and I really need to get back on that.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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