Thursday, February 28, 2019

LAY ON, MAC DUFF – Charlotte Armstrong

McDougal "Mac" Duff, ex-history professor-cum-brain for hire, is "likely to think poorly of people who say ‘Lay on, Mac Duff’ to him. He says an intelligent person thinks of it, and realizes it’s been said, and passes up the chance. But a dumbbell is so pleased with his own cleverness, he always says it.” John Joseph "JJ" Jones, newspaper reporter-cum-Duff's legman, conveys this advice to the young woman he's falling in love with—Elizabeth "Bessie" Gibbon, who fears her ruthless uncle, Charles Cathcart, is a murderer.

There you have it, the setup for Charlotte Armstrong's first of many novels, Lay On, Mac Duff. The plot's architecture seems simple and intriguing, with the small cast of suspects diminishing in the first half when two of its members are murdered. A takeoff on Christie's And Then There Were None, boiling down quickly until only three plausible suspects remained. Then, in the second half, I found the solution needlessly complicated--such evidence as who arrived on a scene first and how did he or she get there, and when was a thermostat turned off and how many minutes elapsed between phone calls or before this person appeared or left or arrived or had the means to do this or that surreptitiously and on and on and on. Unable to follow the intensely meticulous conversations when the presumed good guys are hashing out these seemingly trivial details, I found myself skipping entire pages, wanting to get to something conclusive, especially when it became fairly obvious who'd been doing the murders. I might have finally given up were it not for my hope Armstrong would spring a surprise villain a la Christie's favorite device of unmasking someone we are led to believe all along is someone else. The other option would be someone--Mac Duff presumably--solving the crimes by cerebral procedural, i.e. methodically sorting thru a mess of complicated threads and details and notions. Long explanation short: No surprises in Lay On, Mac Duff.

I can't say I wasn't warned. Bitter Tea & Mystery's Tracy K, whose reviews of two later Armstrong novels persuaded me to give these novels a try, did mention the complicated plots. Tracy liked the writing and the characters, and so did I in the 1942 mystery that launched Armstrong's successful writing career (she won a best-novel Edgar Award fifteen years later for A Dram of Poison.) Not inclined right now to read another of her works, but if I get the itch later it will be because of the writing and the characters.

Lay On, Mac Duff is the first-person narrative of Bessie Gibbon, 19, who's just left her small upstate New York hometown where she was raised by her mother and Methodist minister father. Both are dead, the mother most recently, and Bessie hopes to find a job in New York City while staying with the wealthy uncle, whom she's not met. Arriving by train in the evening, she finds Uncle Charles and three business associates playing a cutthroat game of Parcheesi. The uncle loses, something that rarely happens, and he is clearly annoyed. That night, one of the players is shot to death in his home.  As another more famous cerebral fictional detective loves to say, the real game "is afoot."

First to enter the presumed good guys' side is JJ Jones, a newspaper reporter who immediately begins a heavy flirtation with Bessie when he arrives at the house to interview anyone who might might have anything to say about the murder. Bessie is more than flattered by the attention, and, before I can think Jack be quick,  the two share a deep mutual infatuation. When it's clear Bessie thinks it's likely her uncle committed the murder, persuading JJ to share her suspicion, the intrepid reporter, who seems to have no deadline for filing a story, suggests consulting his former history professor, Mac Duff. After a second Parcheesi player is stabbed to death in his home, Bessie's 25-year-old beautiful aunt, Lina, hires Duff to eliminate the uncle as a suspect. Now the game really is afoot. Lina herself is a suspect, I should note, because Charles had "bought" her after besting her father in a business deal. The old man is now in a nursing home, and it's apparent to Bessie that Lina is not at all happy in her marriage.
Charlotte Armstrong

All eyes are on Duff when he arrives and sets up shop at the Cathcart mansion. He wears no deerstalker cap, nor smokes a pipe or anything else. He doesn't apply Sherlockian ratiocination to learn volumes of information from looking, say, at the label of jacket or the ring mark on a finger. He just sits, asks an occasional question, and listens. Any legwork needing to be done JJ does voluntarily. Either he's been fired offstage from his day job, or soon will be if he doesn't call the city desk at least by book's end, or...uh oh, maybe isn't really a reporter after all! But Bessie likes him, so we do too, because she is one smart, albeit uneducated, cookie. Here, as an example of her perspicacity, is her take on Mac Duff:

MacDougal Duff was waiting in the drawing room, and pretty soon we went in there. He was a tall leanish man with a long face and a long-lipped mouth and a long bony hand that had warm life in it for all its gauntness...he had a melancholy face, seamed and lined as if he had been through a lot, and yet the lines were lightly etched as if for a long time some peacefulness of spirit had been working to erase them. I couldn’t tell how old he was, but like my uncle he knew too much to be young.

Pretty perspicacious, I must admit. My goodness, she's smart enough and she's articulate enough, knows enough big words...why, she could be a novelist!! Here she is comparing Duff with her uncle:

The great difference between him and my uncle was just what made them seem most alike. That sounds crazy, but it was as if two extremes, two opposites, were so far from each other that they met again around at the back of the circle. Uncle Charles was tough, hard, armored with experience. He was a seasoned fighter, a veteran disillusioned and dangerous. Mac Duff had been through the wars, too, but for him the battle was over. He was marked with wisdom but also with weariness and some sadness. And there was this quietude about him, this deep resignation, which was his power, so like my uncle’s and so different...they were both powerful men. But I knew Mac Duff had the only kind of strength against which my uncle’s strength would have no purchase.

And this (and no more, or you'll think I'm sweet on the guy, too): "He had one of the sweetest smiles I’ve ever seen" she says, not me! "It lightened his sad face so wonderfully, offered such a shy affection, revealed behind the tired mask someone so eternally young, so incorrigibly hopeful for the best in us, that I fell for him then and there." One wonders if she shared this sentiment with JJ. One hopes she's too smart to do this, but there are two more books in the Mac Duff series, perhaps containing clues to this potential trinity. Presuming JJ's not the killer Mac Duff nails for the murders in this debut outing.

One feature I especially liked about Bessie's Armstrong's narrative style is her close-up focus on the body language, the nuances of people she observes. "Some people," she tells us, "have a way of walking away from you with their consciousness of your still being there somehow apparent in their spines, in the turn of their necks. But when my uncle walked away you felt dropped and forgotten." I'd never noticed something like that myself, but when I read this I knew precisely what she meant.

And this. I don't know to whom she refers, but it's typical of her predatory eye: "He nodded, still with that listening angle to his neck."

This: "I could feel his bewilderment in the very limpness of his fingers."

If Bessie's in the other two books, she had better not still be looking for work. She should at least have won a literary award by then. Here's one last quote, taken during one of Duff's sessions with the potential murderers:

I saw Lina turn and scrutinize Guy Maxon with a long deep look as if she’d read him inside and out. I saw my uncle pretend not to watch Hugh and Hugh pretend not to watch my uncle. I felt the criss-crossing of tensions weave and tighten while Duff sat in the middle and soaked up his own impressions of all the flying wordless messages. Hugh’s to me, meaning, “I haven’t the right to ask you for faith in me, but have you got it?” Maxon’s to Lina, meaning, “If I knew what you were looking for, I’d be that thing. What is it?...What was [Duff] thinking? What was he feeling? He wasn’t. Not for himself. But we were feeling, and that was the point. The room was full of feelings for all we sat so civilized and sipped our drinks. It was our feelings that mattered, I remembered. And I knew what Duff was watching and listening to.

And I do too heh heh heh heh heh.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, February 21, 2019

MIAMI BLUES – Charles Willeford

Dolphins, Daytona, Glades, and Gators notwithstanding, Florida has never held much attraction for me. Not sure why. Been down there a few times, to the races, to visit friends. No bad memories—I actually kind of liked the place. I've enjoyed reading about it—MacDonald, Hiaasen, Holland come to mind—but when I'm not actually there I feel no chemistry, no pheromones pulling me south. Not like Callifornia, which I visited once long ago and still carry in my heart.

Maybe it has something to do with my mother and the oranges. She complained that Florida oranges were more acidic than California oranges. I never noticed any difference, but I'm learning more and more Gert's influence went deep. Not that I look at the labels. She didn't go that deep. I can't help but wonder, tho, if maybe her orange bias didn't somehow affect my nonchalance toward Charles Willeford. It's a stretch, I know, especially considering all of the positives.

Despite enthusiastic endorsements from a couple of crime authors whose blogs I followed—Ed Gorman and Bill Crider—I never had quite enuf itch to read Willeford. It took another crime author, Ben Boulden of Gravetapping, to lead me into Willeford's world. Boulden posted a link on Facebook that took me to the gate, a long Daily Beast piece on Willeford, with this headline: The Train-Hopping, Nazi-Fighting Literary Hero You’ve Never Heard Of.

Resist a pitch like that? Hell, I read a few paragraphs and suddenly my fingers dashed off to the Kindle library and with no more thought than it takes to breathe downloaded Willeford's first novel, Miami Blues, which is also the first in his four-book series featuring Detective Hoke Moseley. I will read the rest, if my doctor allows me to do that much laughing and experience that much suspense. I shook my apartment's flimsy walls laughing at the opening scene, perhaps echoing Willeford's own laughter when he described it to friends (see Marshall Jon Fisher's piece in The Atlantic if you think I exaggerate). In fact, I'll let Fisher, whose parents knew Willeford, describe it himself: "I remember him roaring with laughter while telling my parents about the opening scene of his novel-in-progress, which would become Miami Blues. In it Freddy Frenger, a haiku-writing psychopath, brutally breaks the finger of a Hare Krishna in the Miami airport. Frenger goes on his merry way, and the Krishna collapses in shock--and dies."

Miami Blues doesn't have much of a plot, and it includes the kind of coincidences critics sniff at writers for, calling the unrealistic events deus ex machina. Well, bon golly molly! Willeford, who won the Silver Star in WWII, gave a couple of nostrils full of industrial grade ammonia to any critics who wished to sniff at the big fat deus ex machina he stuck right in chapter one: The 19-year-old hooker Freddy Frenger hooks up with at the hotel, where he’s staying under a fake name is, unbeknownst to him, the dead Hare Krishna’s sister.

And Willeford follows this up with another, an even more outrageous deus ex machina, giving sniffing critics a one-two punch combo (he did some boxing, too), when he brings series star Moseley together with the doomed (we know) young couple driving them to the morgue so the hooker can identify her brother. In the car Moseley’s cop instincts immediately pick up that Frenger’s hinky, but as he’s only investigating the Hare Krishna’s death he merely files this away for possible future reference. Neither Moseley nor Susie Waggoner, the hooker, know Frenger’s the one who broke the finger. You must believe me that altho this sounds like a blazing satire, Willeford delivers the humor so slyly, so nonchalantly, you’re apt to ease along with it, laughing to yourself while seriously hooked on wondering what the hell the next page will reveal. I did, anyway.

One more laugh and then I’ll move along to something else. Susie’s an inexperienced, barely competent hooker who came to Miami from Okeechobee with her brother to abort the baby he’d impregnated her with. They decided to stay in Miami—brother hustling Hare Krishna at the airport, Susie hooking at the hotel, to earn enuf money to buy a Burger King franchise. Frenger “rescues” Susie from her job and takes her to another hotel. He tells her they’re married “platonically,” which she seems to understand, altho what Frenger really means is that they’re shacking up, which she accepts without question. He’s the nicest man she’s ever known, she tells him, and evidently means it.

While Susie keeps house Frenger’s at the mall mugging drug dealers and pickpockets, and Detective Moseley returns to his daily life, which amounts to paying half his sergeant’s salary to his ex, and living free in a Miami Beach fleabag hotel where he earns his keep doing minimal security work. Things heat up when Frenger, who somehow gets Moseley’s address, mugs him in his hotel room, beating him badly and stealing his gun, his badge, and his blackjack.

Moseley wakes up in a hospital with no idea who attacked him. The narrative here becomes so realistic--focusing on the injuries, the treatments, the hospital expenses, the problems his department has muting the embarrassment of a cop losing his badge and gun, the fact that he’s been living illegally out of his jurisdiction—that, even tho I hadn’t thought I’d gotten to know Hoke much yet, I cared about all of this, as if he were a friend or relative. 

When the narrative shifts to Frenger’s problems, his viewpoints, his predicaments, I feel as as if he’s the brother who went bad, but is still a brother. Willeford’s writing incrementally creeps into your sensibility (mine, anyway), making it hard not to identify with which ever viewpoint is at bat. And there are believable parallels—each is even struggling to quit smoking. We know they’ll inevitably meet again, and it won’t be friendly.

As the showdown approaches, we’re in Moseley’s head, filled with the need to avenge himself as well as bring a criminal to justice. He’s ambivalent about the meeting. “The more he thought about [Frenger], the more afraid he was,” he tells himself. “This was not paranoia. When a man has beaten you badly and you know that he can do it to you again, a wholesome fear is a sign of intelligence...his only chance was to spot him in the street, and that seemed damned unlikely. Deep down, way down there in the pit of his stomach, he hoped he wouldn’t find him”

He’s still musing when he finally does: “Freddy Frenger, Jr., AKA Ramon Mendez, had played out the game to the end and didn’t really mind losing his life in a last-ditch attempt to win. Junior would have been good at checkers or chess, thought Hoke, where sometimes a poor player can beat a much better one if he is aggressive and stays boldly on the attack. That was Junior, all right, and if you turned your head away from the board for an instant, to light a cigarette or to take a sip of coffee, he would steal one of your pieces. Junior didn’t have to play by the rules, but Hoke did.”

Well. We know who won, else there wouldn’t be three more published Hoke Moseley novels and another one available in typescript available for reading only in the Charles Willeford Archive at the Broward County Library.

Oh, I must not omit the last laugh, on the last page, an item in The Okeechobee Bi-Weekly News:

OCALA—Mrs. Frank Mansfield, formerly Ms. Susan Waggoner, of Okeechobee, won the Tri-County Bake-Off in Ocala yesterday with her vinegar pie entry. The recipe for her winning entry is as follows:

I thought it was a joke, as I’d never heard of nor could imagine vinegar pie. I Googled it. It’s real, it’s Southern, and it sounds right tasty.The recipe's the last thing in the book!

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Sunday, February 17, 2019

IT IS THE APEX OF OUR CULTURE: "Have you read Gravity’s Rainbow?" -- Smiley McGrouchpants

Wanna get lit hip quick? Don't look to me to get you there. You gotta have a New York City connection, and I've been there only twice: once spending a night on a friend's sailboat, and the other in a friend's 4th floor Manhattan apartment after being trapped in an elevator for a millennium and next morning finding my car, parked on the street below, had been broken into. Something evidently frightened the thief off, as he or she left his or her tire iron under the hood. It was my only souvenir from that trip—the rusty tire iron—and I kept it for years under the front seat of every vehicle I've owned since then. Probly somewhere in my Ford Ranger Sport model pickup as I type this guide to the guide to getting lit hip quick, It is the Apex of Our Culture: "Have you read Gravity’s Rainbow?"

To answer the Apex question, yes, I've read Gravity's Rainbow, but only after two or three false starts, always giving up at the advent of the giant walking adenoid, thinking at that point I might be losing my mind. I finally decided I had to read the damned thing all the way through if I ever wanted to at least be able to talk lit hip, so I did (and, in doing so, very possibly did lose at least part of my mind—but also gained a new respect, bordering on awe, for adenoids, mine, and, in fact, everyone's). It was the same year I finally read Moby Dick after two or three false starts, spaced about a decade apart. Reading Moby Dick did nothing to advance me toward lit hipness, but I do know a lot more now about whales, presented in vaguely King Jamesian biblical dialect that occasionally soared so majestically I could almost hear Gregory Peck's maddened voice wailing over the waves, and the stomping around on his God damned peg leg.

I should note—by God I do note!—I was given entré to the coveted lit status by prominent New York City photographer Rob Kinmonth, who’d recommended Gravity’s Rainbow to me when we were colleagues in Newport News, Va. at his hometown newspaper. Or maybe it was V he recommended. I started that, too, and pooped out before the end for fear of losing my mind without even the goading of a superhuman adenoid. Or maybe it was just Pynchon Rob recommended. Both V and GR are giant novels, which might also have played a deniable role in my half-hearted early attempts. The one I finished first was the novella, The Crying of Lot 49, which, finally, blew my mind all over the seat on the train from Newport News to Philadelphia and back reading the thing and learning therein to live equanimically with my latent paranoia and propensity to explode with laughter at word combinations plumbing nuances I never could have explained to anyone—not even a lit hipster—nor could I now. Problem is, McGrouchpants, in his guide to lit hip in one stoned sitting, pays so little notice to Crying I’d be begging for ridicule trying to claim points toward a lit hip degree for having read it, and maybe’d even lose points for admitting how cataclysmically it affected me. But, as McGrouchpants or Pynchon might put it, so f**king be it (the asterisks are in deference to Prudence, Amazon’s language sensory/censoring bot, which would reject without dispensation the entire review were it to spot certain verboten letter combinations from its tight-assed data base--even if contained in an excerpt from the work being reviewed!). As Hemingway or some other pre-hip lit lion once said, the asterisk is the dirtiest word in fiction (we presume with hope the bot does not know this).

If it's slipped my mind to point out that McGrouchpants’s quicky guide to Lit Hip (I’m upper casing it as by now we should know this is something important) is brief, it is. So brief it’s considered in the academic sense a “monograph,” meaning, I’m guessing, it’s shorter than a thesis, and this, mainly, because it omits voluminous footnoting, tedious repetition, ass-kissing acknowledgments, and, of course, the mandatory, drawn-out passive voice. In the spirit, thus, of brevity I forthwith am adopting a shortened version of the author’s presumed pseudonym. I’ve known him nearly a decade now as a fellow contributor to, where I initially encountered him as “Smiley McGrouchpants.” Somewhere along the way, I’m thinking possibly around the end of 2016, the “Smiley” morphed into “Crabby.” But in keeping with the conceit of this monograph I am reluctant to stray too far from formality. Yet, in deference to my fingers’ beseechment to ease up on the upper-case-lower-case pseudo-surname rhumba, I’m reducing the alphabet combinations to simply “Grouchy,” the identical appellation redaction I’ve adopted for our primary venue.
Grouchy's self-perception

Lest any readers of this review think for so much as a blink I am trying by this ridiculous-seeming syntax to pass myself off as a graduate of the New York Amalgamated Academy of Lit Hip Research Ltd., please perish the notion! Not exactly sure just what it is that’s come over me, altho those readers with an understanding of the expression “contact high” might find a clue in the following paragraph, lifted verbatim in its entirety from the aforementioned monograph:

“But what if . . . ” (taking another toke here), “the mind, the imagination properly speaking, couldn’t, like a—” (toooke) “— hot air balloon, be reigned in, and—” (tooohhke) “— started floating, helpless, into the ‘murder’ regions of the mind, irretrievably ‘corrupted’ by the cre-ah—” (toohke) “— tive parts of the mind—” (grabs pen, attempts to pull of cap, gets it on the second try, starts scribbling furiously . . . )”

Are you with me here? Don’t worry if you’re not. Not sure I’m here myself. But I’d like to be, which is why I read Grouchy’s monograph thinking I was on the cusp of Lit Hip for having read several works by Pynchon but soon realizing I’d have to read it again, and perhaps again after that, and so forth, as Grouchy says he did with all 780 pages of the 26-year-old Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. At least three times, maybe four, depending on which of his paragraphs you believe. Grouchy’s monograph alone was beginning to stagger me until I got to the paragraph where he notes that Gravity’s Rainbow has a similar effect, possibly intimidating many as esoteric gibberish “rather than a rollicking, improv.-based Warner Brothers cartoon that makes WWII look like it was run by people who at least thought they should try to intimidate Cary Grant’s élan . . . crossed with Dr. Strangelove . . .”
Grouchy with anonymous celebrity

I get that, but I’ll be damned if I read Gravity’s Rainbow another two or three times just to make sure. I have the diligence only to re-read parts of this monograph for the review, certainly not to master its hip-lit/film maze as presented without footnotes by Grouchy McCrabpants, who obviously gets it with enough confidence to put his assertions right out there in the Kindle universe for dilettantes like me to fumble around with as if we get it, too. Some of the names he drops I recognize and some I’ve read or seen their work on a screen. Only one grabbed me by the throat with such shocking tenacity I actually rushed back to the Kindle library and downloaded his most recent (I think) book: Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, whom I’d not known of. Here’s the quote that snagged me: “The universe hates us. We are temporary violations of the second law of thermodynamics. We push entropy off to the edges, but it’s patient, and it builds, and when we take our eyes off of it, kerbloom, it’s back with a vengeance.”

Walkaway’s a long book, too, so I figure I'll read it a couple three times and have met the requirements for at least an associate degree in Lit Hip. I know you’re pulling for me! 
 Oh, this: Pynchon, remember, was 26 when he “scribbled” Gravity’s Rainbow out on engineers’ quadrille paper (the kind with little squares on it--this fact alone nudges me fearfully close to clinical insanity). Today, Wiki says, the dude is 81.

I’ve nothing more to add. 

Except this:   Except this: