Border and Bastille, by George Alfred Lawrence


George Alfred Lawrence (1827-76) was an English writer who travelled to North America during the Civil War/War between the States in a bid to join the Confederate Army of Virginia.  At first sight he did not seem prime military material: he had abandoned a career as a barrister for literature and made his mark as a novelist with Guy Livingstone (1857).  Published in 1863, Border and Bastille is part travelogue, part commentary on the war, part moan about his misadventures.  Setting off from England in the autumn of 1862, he describes his journey across the Atlantic to New York and his efforts to break through the Northern blockade to reach Confederate States territory.  His repeated attempts were frustrated as one plan after another went awry, and in Dantean fashion he found himself back in Baltimore at frequent intervals.  He managed to penetrate as far as Maryland when his expedition was abruptly terminated one night at the hands of a trio of civilian pickets who shot him in the knee and killed his horse.

The result of his arrest was that he was transported to Washington where he was imprisoned for two months.  He was released after he signed an undertaking in June 1863 to leave the United States forthwith and not return for the duration of the ‘existing rebellion’.  He readily complied with the terms as his financial and physical resources had been drained, glad to shake Federal dust from his heels.  During his confinement he had begun drafting this book, which allowed its speedy publication shortly after his return to England, having completed it while recovering in Devon.

He had joined the militia in England, and does consider himself a good judge of horseflesh, but he does not specify what he thought he could have offered the Confederate cause in person, ‘pen-work or handiwork’ being as precise as he gets.  His sympathies are clearly with the South, however opportunities for adventure and a book describing it appear to have been the primary motives.  He also had a deal with the Morning Post to send reports once in Confederate territory, so this agreement was never implemented (Charlotte Mitchell’s entry on Lawrence in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that William Tinsley, who published Border and Bastille, claimed later that Lawrence had been sent out as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, but this is not mentioned in the book, only the Post arrangement).  Lawrence got his book out of it, though it seems doubtful that sales covered his costs as these must have been considerable, not least in the purchase of horses.

Perhaps he saw an element of the plucky underdog in the Confederates missing in the Unionists that appealed to him, the former fighting for ‘freedom’, the latter for ‘subjugation’ (though it was the South’s freedom to subjugate its slave population, and the North’s subjugation of that freedom to subjugate, which was at stake).   He is frequently dismissive of the North, though he has positive things to say about some of the individuals he met there, expressing contempt for the press and many of the politicians.  His description of life in Washington DC and the characters he met there bear similarities with the satirical portions of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit set in America, and it is fair to say Lawrence was unimpressed with the Northern capital.

The final 50 pages move away from his abortive trip to examine aspects of the war.  A chapter presents an analysis of the Unionist military and its prospects for victory.  Naturally he has strong reservations about its leadership, organisation and tactics, contrasting them unfavourably with those of the Confederacy.  At the time he was writing the latter was still holding its own; an upbeat Lawrence notes its successes, alongside reverses suffered by its adversary and failures to press home advantages.  A further chapter looks at the issue of the border states, particularly Maryland, how varying attitudes to secession within its population were affecting the balance of power between the two combatants, and the risks border states ran in declaring for the Confederacy.

The conclusion, after indicating the North’s advantages in population and resources, gets down to the matter, not touched on previously, of Lawrence’s attitude to slavery.  As is to be expected, he finds points in its favour.  Agriculture in the South can only be maintained by black labour, and as they are naturally lazy, without compulsion productivity would decline to subsistence level.  Slavery, he feels, is an economic necessity transcending moral justification.  He suggests that in any case, blacks in the North are not particularly well treated.  Most surprisingly, he claims ‘the ordinary slave-rations far exceed, both in quantity and quality, the Sunday meal of an English West-country labourer; and that the comforts of all the aged and infirm, whom the master is, of course, obliged to maintain, are infinitely superior to those enjoyed by the like inmates of our most lenient workhouses.’  That doesn’t say much for the standard of living of West country labourers or workhouse inmates, but it implies a first-hand familiarity with the conditions of slaves which Lawrence did not possess.  He believes that in their childish simplicity they are better off as things stand, because freedom would turn happy individuals into sullen ones.  Here any notion of Lawrence as a high-minded adherent of a romantic attachment to Southern chivalry and desire for self-determination is dissolved into racism based on his belief in the inferiority of non-whites.

He sums up by stating that whatever the outcome, there could not, except by complete subjugation of the South, be unity between North and ‘Secessia’, and never amity, as antagonism will run too deep after the brutality of the conflict and is based on long-standing historical developments.  Worse, by trying to enforce its will, the North is laying open the contradiction between union and state loyalty, and may create opposition within its own borders to what is seen as a corrupt federal tyranny.  Apparently there were suggestions that a method of uniting the two sides would be to find a common enemy, notably Britain or France, with Canada or Mexico as the prize (this was the period of the ill-fated Second Mexican Empire backed by the French).  Lawrence is sniffy about prospects for such a plan, firstly on the grounds that not all Southern states would be willing to participate, secondly because the forces of ’Federalia’ would not be up to it militarily, and if they tried to cross their northern border they would soon change their minds about the plan’s merits.  He concludes by characterising Northern ambitions as economic and territorial, by states that can hardly be characterised as a nation because of their admixture from various European countries.  The South on the other hand is relatively homogeneous; it may be numerically smaller, but ‘Anglo-Saxon blood flows almost untainted’ in its veins, and it is fighting not for expansion of territory but for liberty.  The black population is entirely absent from his analysis.

The Lincoln Hunters, by Wilson Tucker


Wilson Tucker’s short 1958 novel The Lincoln Hunters is set in 2578.  Society has emerged from a fractured past which has seen revolution and the replacement of democracy in the United States with an autocratic emperor.  Life expectancy has been extended to as much as 200 years, but there is rationing, and anybody who is unemployed is forcibly conscripted for what is essentially slave labour.  In the upheavals preceding this new stability much of the historical record was lost and only a hazy knowledge of the past exists.  The plot concerns a Cleveland-based corporation, Time Researchers, which has a monopoly on time travel into the past and uses the technology to send individuals, known as Characters – hired for their ability to blend in – on trips to research events for wealthy clients and if required retrieve artefacts.

The novel opens with Amos Peabody, curator of a museum that relies on the retrieval of lost material from the past, commissioning Time Researchers to go back 700 years to recover a lost speech Abraham Lincoln gave on 19 May 1856 in Bloomington, Illinois.  This was the beginning of the Republican Party, but the speech was not transcribed.  Peabody particularly requests that the mission be led by Benjamin Steward, an experienced time traveller.  Many of the Characters regard the people in the periods they are sent to as no more than the dead they will become, but Ben has a keen sense of history, enjoys it, and appreciates the freshness and potential of the different times he visits.  He is aware of the faults of the mid-nineteenth century, but conscious that there is more scope for personal initiative than there is in his own time.  Unfortunately he had been involved in a disastrous expedition to ancient Rome when a colleague had been hacked to death, and a further black mark in his file could curtail his employment with the organisation.

The 1850s should be a routine assignment, but things go wrong from the start when the engineers manage to send Ben, on his solo reconnaissance, to a day later than the target date.  He is disturbed to find a piece of recording wire lying in rubbish, and meet a man who already knows him and displays hostility.  Something bad appears to have occurred, but he cannot determine what.  Returning to his own time, he selects three Characters to accompany him on the mission, but one, Bloch, is an unreliable alcoholic under a great deal of stress.  His brother had become unemployed and been forced into a government labour scheme, the irony being that he is effectively a slave in the 26th century, while Ben and company are attending a meeting which will be debating slavery and its abolition in the 19th.  The main expedition goes to the right day and a recording of Lincoln’s speech is secured, but Bloch has disappeared and Ben needs to track him down, with the clock ticking to the point when Ben will arrive on his recce.

That is critical because of the problem of what would happen if the same person met him- or herself: could they co-exist or would they cancel each other out and vanish.  The theory is they would both cease to be, but when he inevitably overstays, only the Ben who has just arrived for the reconnaissance shot is extinguished (the implications, would the company have sent the main mission when Ben failed to return from his first trip for instance, or even how anything described after it could have taken place, are not considered by Tucker).   The assumption, hitherto untested, that such an event would cancel out both versions gives the surviving Ben and Bloch, now deemed to be dead ‘back home’, an opportunity to shake the sterile world of 2578 from their very muddy boots, and make their way in the rather more exciting world of 1856; an unsurprising conclusion given the continual emphasis on Ben’s feeling of kinship with it.

Tucker makes some oblique but telling points about his own society.  Peabody’s initial walk to the Time Researchers’ building allows Tucker to paint a decadent future, but resonating with the twentieth century United States.  Youngsters adopt outlandish fashions (as ancient Egyptian styles are trendy, women are virtually topless) and are unwilling to go anywhere except by car; a pedestrian is an eccentric.  Like today, information has a monetary value and it is in Time Researchers’ interest to restrict it, as monopolies do; hence forays into the past, being client-driven, are unsystematic.  There is a suggestion that we view the past through the lens of the present, and this is influenced ideologically to support the status quo: the emperor rules over a territory divided into city-states, and Time Researchers’ analysts assume this is how the early United States was organised, so rather than Bloomington, where the 1856 convention was held, being the city of Bloomington in the state of Illinois, it is thought of as the city state Bloomington-Illinois.

The novel challenges a liberal view that progress will be gradual but unceasing.  Because much of history has been lost, the imperial regime can claim it represents a novel approach to political problems, whereas actually it is a type that has been tried often before but which its subjects are not in a position to contrast with alternative forms of governance.  A lengthy example of the possibilities for history to be manipulated by those in charge is given in the account of how Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II disastrously lost the Battle of Kadesh to the Hittite Muwatalli II but proclaimed a magnificent victory anyway.  He inaugurated a ‘great lie’, to the extent that for thousands of years it was believed, until Time Researchers uncovered the truth of the scale of the Egyptian defeat.  Spin in politics is nothing new, and will doubtless still be going on in 2578.

The Lincoln Hunters is an enjoyable stab at a time-travel novel, but unsophisticated compared to, say, the mind-bending but logical multiple loops in The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa, by Alex Kershaw


Alex Kershaw’s 2002 biography tells how Andre Friedmann, born in Budapest in 1913, reinvented himself as debonair photojournalist adventurer Robert Capa (there have been various suggestions why he chose the surname, including its similarity to Frank Capra’s, but apparently it was a childhood nickname, meaning ‘shark’).  During his short life he covered some of the most significant moments in the twentieth century’s dark history.  Even as a teenager he found himself in difficult situations: in trouble with the repressive Horthy regime in Hungary, he moved to Berlin in 1931 where he discovered photography and began to earn a precarious living from his camera.  Unfortunately for a Jew, Berlin in the 1930s was not a good place to be and the Nazi regime’s establishment prompted a further move to Paris.  These early years set the pattern of a peripatetic life which saw Capa restlessly moving from place to place.

He made his name in Spain, covered Chinese resistance to Japan, the Second World War (most famously photographing the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach) and finally French attempts to maintain control in Indo-China, dying there in 1954 by stepping on a landmine.  The only big conflict he did not cover was Korea.  He also co-founded the Magnum agency in 1947 to protect photographers from exploitation by publishers, allowing them to retain control over their work.  He found time to collaborate with John Steinbeck, visiting the Soviet Union for a book; and with Irwin Shaw, co-producing a book on the struggles of the nascent Israeli state; to drink with (and fall out with) Ernest Hemingway, play poker with John Huston (while Burl Ives serenaded with a guitar, according to one photograph here), have a significant relationship with Ingrid Bergman, and far less significant ones with many other women.

The facts of Capa’s life are well known and are elegantly covered by Kershaw, but the portrait he draws from them is insightful.  We see someone who was capable of great charm, and who capitalised on it.  He made friends easily and women it seems found him irresistible.  The attraction was mutual and he possessed a significant sex drive, yet refused to make commitments. He was not a man of great introspection, was easily bored, and was a compulsive gambler – at one point he was described as essentially a gambler with a side-line in photography – which meant he would never be comfortably off.  And he pilfered books from homes he stayed in.

Kershaw considers that after a decade covering Spain and the World War, Capa was suffering from PTSD.  It may well have been true, but does not completely explain defects in his character.  Much is made of the loss of his lover Gerda Taro in the Spanish Civil War, and the devastation is this caused him, but he had been happy to have her photographs appear under his name; she constantly struggled to get out from his shadow as a photographer.  His behaviour after her death may have been risky, though her loss was not necessarily the cause – he had an addictive personality that would probably have manifested in risk-taking even had she lived.

He could be disloyal to his friends too.  When he had problems renewing his US passport in 1952 (he had become a US citizen in 1946), on the grounds he was under suspicion of being a communist, he was willing to name names to the passport authority in an effort to clear himself.  That included declaring Joris Ivens, for whom Capa had worked on a film in China, as ‘probably a communist’, a deplorable accusation to make at that time; charitably, perhaps he felt it was a safe accusation to make as Ivens’s views were well known and he had already left the United States.  Whatever the usefulness or otherwise of his information, he got his new passport.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s insights are illuminating.  He saw Capa as an ‘anarchist’ and ‘romantic’, ‘but not a photographer of outstanding intellect … not primarily a vision man, he was an adventurer with a tremendous sense of life…’  Cartier-Bresson was not dismissing Capa as stupid, rather describing someone who approached his craft at an instinctual rather than cerebral level (unlike Cartier-Bresson himself is the clear implication).  Kershaw notes that Capa was ‘surprisingly limited in his technical range’ but possessed ‘an uncanny ability to focus his camera at exactly the right moment’ (the decisive moment, one might say), putting Capa closer to Cartier-Bresson than the latter for all their differences might have wanted to acknowledge.

Kershaw managed to interview a number of people who knew Capa, and was assiduous in trawling archives to produce this elegant biography.  Unfortunately there are no photographs by Capa himself as his estate withheld permission.  Why this should be is not specified other than that the book was ’unauhthorised’.  It may be because Kershaw does not shy away from exploring Capa’s defects.  Another bone of contention may have been the scrutiny of Capa’s famous ‘falling man’ image, apparently showing a loyalist militiaman at the point of death in the Spanish Civil War.  The chapter airs the dispute over its authenticity – whether or not it was staged, whether it captured a man who has just been shot or is merely falling over – with clarity and even-handedness.  However, as Kershaw pointedly states, ‘To question its authenticity is to earn the undying ire of eighty-three-year-old Cornell Capa, who controls his brother’s estate and has spent many years fiercely defending his brother’s legend.’

That Kershaw uses the word legend suggests Cornell was less concerned with establishing truth than perpetuating myth, and it is reasonable to assume he would not have welcomed an analysis casting doubt on the photograph.  One dreads to think what a biography authorised by him, in which its author was obliged to promote the legend, would have looked like.  Fortunately Capa’s output is readily available elsewhere, not least Phaidon’s magnificent coffee-table book Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, a project Cornell was involved in, and Kershaw’s book is not damaged by its absence.

There are a few odd moments in the text, let through due to careless editing.  For example, Kershaw states that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour occurred on 6 December 1941, whereas it was 7 December.  The ‘remarkable anti-fascist philosopher’ Capa met on Capri was Benedetto Croce, not Groce.  But the strangest one is the implication that when Capa and Steinbeck visited Stalingrad (now Volgograd), it was in Ukraine.  Such slips notwithstanding, this is an engaging, insightful and page-turning portrait of a flawed individual who nevertheless produced one of the most significant bodies of photography in the twentieth century.

Capa became a role model whose dictum ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’ has proved extremely influential.  It is remarkable to think he was only 41 when he died, having lived several lifetimes.  He was not always blessed with precognitive abilities: he was surprisingly pessimistic about the prospects for documentary photography towards the end of his life, feeling television would take over its function.  Fortunately his prediction has not come to pass and photographers still have the capacity to inform, amaze and move us. Kershaw’s verdict is that Capa revealed ‘the purity of the human spirit’: a man who said he hated violence and hated war shows the effects of both unflinchingly, but his humanity always shines through.

Various novels by Georges Simenon

A Mans head cvr

A Man’s Head [La Tête d’un homme], 1931
My Friend Maigret [Mon ami Maigret], 1949
The Man on the Boulevard [Maigret et l’homme du banc], 1953
Account Unsettled [Crime impuni], 1954


A Man’s Head

A Man’s Head [La Tête d’un homme] is an early novel by Georges Simenon from 1931, but already the familiar tropes are in place: the unshowy workaholic detective, who rarely sees his wife, solving crimes by a blend of dogged determination and inspiration that doesn’t always make him popular with his superiors but gets the job done.   Down these mean streets a man must go, but while Maigret may be a little tarnished he is not afraid, nor on the whole mean, even when the pressure threatens to beat him down, though he can get a little curt.  He is an unsentimental man with a firm moral code, willing to bend the rules in pursuit of justice but always with an innate sense of compassion.

In this instance he is convinced that a prisoner who has been convicted of murder following Maigret’s own investigation is in fact innocent so he arranges for the man to escape.  He wants to see where the trail leads, even at the risk of his own career should the escapee elude him.  The events from this rash act unfold in a novella that evokes the life of interwar Montparnasse, its streets and bars mixing bohemians, lowlifes and lively expatriates, a melting pot that gave the city its distinctive personality in the period.

Simenon has a loyal band of followers, and it is easy to see why.  Maigret comes to seem like an old friend, and the Paris depicted has a comfortable feel.  A Man’s Head is an undemanding read, and the action moves quickly.  The cinematic opening throws the reader into the action, showing the escape before filling in the preceding events.  The focus on the psychopathology of the murderer is a departure from the usual emphasis of detective fiction in the period on whodunnit.  Even when it is clear who was responsible for the crimes the reader is still kept guessing how they were achieved.

Dropped into the story is a reference to a real murder case, an unusual ploy for a writer of detective fiction, especially at this period.  What is even more unusual is the source.  Maigret is asked if he remembers reading about the ‘Taylor case’, a reference to the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor in 1922: ‘But I don’t suppose you do, as you probably don’t read the American papers.’  Simenon clearly read them because he then paraphrases a paragraph near the beginning of an article by Ed C. King, ‘I Know Who Killed Desmond Taylor’, which was published in True Detective Mysteries in 1930.  Knowing who committed a crime, Maigret is being told, is not the same as proving it.

While there are pleasures to be had, the pace tends to obscure the weaknesses of Simenon’s style.  The supporting characters are generally sketchy and there are some weaknesses in the plot, particularly a rather convenient suicide Maigret’s lengthy concluding explanation glides over.  How he comes to realise who the murderer really is depends on a fluke of timing, and there is an unrealistic amount of following where those being tailed are oblivious of the fact.  It’s enjoyable, but one suspects that had Simenon spent longer developing his stories they would have been even better.

(11 August 2014)


My Friend Maigret

We associate Maigret with rainy Parisian streets, and Simenon’s 1949 My Friend Maigret [Mon ami Maigret] starts off in conventional style, the rain beating down in an unseasonably cold spring.  But the scene soon shifts to the sunny Mediterranean, the island of Porquerolles a couple of miles from the French coast off Toulon.  So what drags Maigret so far from his usual beat?  A lowlife, Marcellin, who had known him in the past in a professional capacity, had been murdered.  What created the connection to Maigret was that shortly before his death Marcellin had been boasting in a somewhat exaggerated fashion about ‘my friend Maigret’ in a hotel bar.  Friendship was putting it far too strongly, so it was a puzzle why he said it, and why anybody would want to kill him for it.  Maigret goes south to try to find out the reason, and get away from the perpetual Parisian drizzle at the same time.

In contrast to the wet cold city, Porquerolles has a warm languid climate that Maigret finds has an adverse effect on him.  It is an enervating atmosphere which makes thought harder than in a colder environment, a lazy place guaranteed to sap energy and ambition.  The island is home to a mixed bunch of inhabitants, some permanent, others seasonal.  There are contrasts between the native French population, the expats who help to keep the economy going, and the low-value Sunday day-trippers from the mainland who leave their empty bottles and sardine tins on the beach before heading back on the five o’clock ferry.

Among the semi-permanent residents is Mrs Wilcox, an aging English ex-socialite whose family will not allow her to return to her own country and whose yacht is anchored in the harbour.  She is accompanied by her male factotum Philippe whom she bullies and who it transpires provides a wider range of services than one might at first assume from a member of staff.  Also living on a boat is a young Dutch painter, along with his impressionable teenage girlfriend he had enticed away from her good family.

Permanently resident on the island is Justine, a brothel owner with a string of establishments on the mainland who does her business by telephone, her son Emile who is tied to her apron strings, and a retired British Indian Army major.  Someone already known to Maigret is Ginette, a prostitute Maigret had known in Paris and had helped escape from Marcellin, now running one of Justine’s brothels and with an eye on marrying the semi-invalid Emile.  And there is Charlot, living on the margin of legality with his gaming machines, who likes to think he has his finger on the pulse and is competing with Maigret to fathom the mystery of the murder.  There does not seem to be much in the way of a motive for any of them to bump off someone who existed barely above the level of a beach bum.

Complicating Maigret’s mission is the Scotland Yard inspector, Pyke, who has been assigned to him for a ‘study tour’ to learn the famous detective’s methods.  This crimps Maigret’s style somewhat as it turns out he has something of an inferiority complex where his enigmatic English colleague is concerned.  Used to relying on intuition, he finds he becomes self-conscious when he is being observed, wondering all the time how he is being perceived.  He is determined to share all information with Pyke to ensure it cannot be said that somehow he cheated in solving the crime, but he is constrained in his usual approach, which is to talk to people and get a feel for their characters, have his subordinates ferret out useful information, drink a great deal and let the lot marinade until the solution presents itself.

He tries a more conventional line but eventually reverts to his trusty intuition, aided by information provided by his office in Paris and by a particularly nosy postmistress who listens in on the telephone during calls.  The solution is mainly arrived at by wandering about and chatting, which if truth be told is not that far from the way he operates in Paris.  Once Maigret has uncovered the reason for the murder and identified the culprits involved in the events leading to it, a resolution involving some unsubtle psychological pressure of which he is sure the Englishman disapproves, he says Mr Pyke will be disappointed to learn that in fact he has no method.  But of course he does have one, though not one that can be written down in a manual.  Mr Pyke, ever discreet, seems to understand and thinks no less of him for it.

The plot we finally learn hinges on a Van Gogh painting which Mrs Wilcox had bought but was not as it seemed, along with some other pictures in her collection.  As is often the case in the Maigret series, the actual mechanics of the crime are banal – in this case an attempt at extortion gone awry – which is rather like life.  The book is less concerned with the mechanics of crime than it is Maigret’s mentation while out of his comfort zone.  Simenon displays his usual weakness of providing sketchy subsidiary characters, but his strength in creating a vivid sense of place and atmosphere is fully on display.

Having lived for a couple of months on a Greek island in summer, I can empathise with the description of Porquerolles as a place of stasis where people laze their time away.  It’s just too easy to put your feet up and let life flow over you in a place like that.  Despite the rain and cold there is much to be said for the energy of more temperate climates, and it is no surprise to learn that the murderer is an energetic northern European.

(26 August 2016)


The Man on the Boulevard

Published in 1953, The Man on the Boulevard [Maigret et l’homme du banc] is a typical Simenon, evoking a drizzly autumnal Paris as Maigret plods around on the trail of a murderer.  Louis Thouret, the murdered man, is found in an alley with a knife in his back and a surprised look on his face, but it soon emerges that his death involves more than one conundrum.  To begin with, when his wife sees the body she is puzzled by the brown shoes and reddish tie he is wearing, not the attire he wears when he sets off each morning.

Chief Superintendent Maigret soon learns that far from going to work, the wholesalers where he was a storekeeper had closed down suddenly several years earlier.  Since then he has existed without any visible means of support that the police can discern while leaving and coming back to his tawdry suburban house at the same times as before, and bringing home his wages as usual.  How, when Louis seemed to spend most of his time sitting on benches, did he get his money, and where did he keep those brown shoes and tie his wife had never seen?  Was his death due to the money, or was it something more general to do with the parallel lives he was leading unknown to his wife?  The murder investigation becomes intertwined with uncovering these mysteries.

Nobody (apart from his family, who looked down on him as a failure) has a bad word to say about him, so it seems impossible his income would be the proceeds of crime – and yet how else could he have got it?  Digging into the dead man’s personal life, Maigret and his team of inspectors locate his rented room, and learn that he had a close lady friend.  It is clear why he would want some measure of independence from the cabal at home comprising his wife, her two sisters and her sisters’ husbands, and that the brown shoes would constitute a secret act of rebellion.  Events take another turn when Maigret discovers that Louis’s daughter and her boyfriend knew he had lost his job, and were in effect blackmailing him to fund their proposed emigration to South America.

As is to be expected with Simenon it is a quick read with no fat, as Maigret’s precise approach to police work, allied to his intuition based on long experience, enables him to get to the nub of the matter.  For most of its length the novel is engaging because the reader wonders how the mild-mannered Louis makes his money, even if it is likely that it is illicitly, and because the identity of the killer is elusive.  It is a mark of how intriguing those aspects are that the ending is such a let-down, because it abruptly introduces two characters who have not previously been part of the investigation – Louis’s accomplice and the murderer – so would not have been possible for the reader to identify beforehand.

The money-making scheme is also a disappointment because it is unsophisticated, and it is astonishing that he and his accomplice could make such a large sum just from robbing tills, so much it is worth killing him to obtain the money.  It is a rushed ending that undercuts the careful atmosphere Simenon has built up during the rest of the novel.  The emphasis is on the characters, who by this stage he could doubtless conjure up with his eyes closed, but at the expense of the plot, which is unconvincing.  The reader is left feeling that time spent making the details more credible would have resulted in a stronger conclusion.

(20 August 2015)


Account Unsettled

A non-Maigret story, Account Unsettled [Crime impuni], published in 1954, is divided neatly into two parts.  The first begins in 1926 in Liège, a city which as it happens was Simenon’s birthplace.  Madame Lange rents out rooms to students at the university.  Her longest-serving boarder is Elie, a Jew from Vilna in Poland, who has lived in her house for three years.

He is an extremely talented mathematician from a very large and very poor family who has only been able to pursue his studies with assistance from a Jewish charity.  He is now working on his doctorate, and spends most of his time in the kitchen where it is warm.  Introverted and withdrawn, physically unattractive, he does not make friends and has no social life.  He has grown accustomed to the house and particularly to his landlady’s sickly daughter, Louise.  He has never spoken to her about his feelings, which he does not fully comprehend himself.  Even so, he believes that he could comfortably remain where he is, with the two women and the other boarders, for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately his composure is shattered by the arrival of a rich outgoing Romanian student, Michel Zograffi, who quickly becomes the centre of the household because unlike the others he pays for full board and occupies the best room.  Speaking Polish but no French, Elie translates for him but senses Michel’s disdain after Elie rebuffs an offer of friendship.  Perceptively, Madame Lange accuses him of being jealous.  Michel is outgoing, but is revealed to have a dark side when Madame Lange discovers a number of photographs of naked women in provocative poses, taken by himself, in his room.  Elie becomes obsessed with Michel, who is everything he is not, and one day sneaks into his room to poke around his things.  Unfortunately he is caught by Michel.

After seeing them by chance standing in a doorway on a dark street, Elie realises that Michel has seduced Louise and discovers they are having regular afternoon sex during Madame Lange’s absence.  He takes to watching them through the keyhole, but it becomes apparent that Michel is aware he is doing so.  Elie is crushed by Michel’s actions, by his contempt, and the stark differences in their lives, all of which combine to destroy his equilibrium, and he decides that the interloper has to be punished.  Madame Lange’s husband was killed in the war, but she still has his revolver.  Elie steals it and one night waylays Michel, shooting him in the face.  Realising he has not killed Michel outright but not able to fire again, Elie flees to Hamburg.

The second part of the story jumps forward 26 years, with Elie married and living quietly in Carlson City, Arizona, replacing the cold of Europe with the stifling heat of the American west.  Having abandoned mathematics he is employed as a hotel receptionist in a mining town and has become enormously fat.  The fate of the mine and hotel hangs in the balance as their owner is going through a messy and expensive divorce, and an underground lake has been discovered at the mine that may make its future exploitation unviable.  Hotel and mine are finally sold, and when the purchaser checks in it is none other than Michel, now a successful businessman.  He had survived the shooting but had had to have reconstructive surgery which made the lower half of his face immobile, and his expression inscrutable.

Elie is disconcerted to see his victim, though in his heart he had known that fate would eventually catch up with him.  But he does not know what Michel will do and is in an agony of suspense.  Yet Michel, after establishing some basic facts about him, simply ignores him and rejects Elie’s attempt to communicate.  Elie goes through permutations of possible reasons for Michel’s behaviour, only one of which is the likeliest: he has decided that Elie’s mundane life and lost promise represent a greater punishment than any he could inflict.  Elie is frustrated by Michel’s refusal to offer closure and is terrified he will lose his job and be sent away, because he has nowhere to go.  Having failed to kill Michel, he now fails to provoke a response.  Feeling he has little to lose and suspecting that Michel may be leaving Carson City, removing his scope for action, he impulsively takes a gun kept in hotel reception and finishes what he started almost three decades before.

This is less a crime story than it is an exploration of Elie’s interior life.  His insecurities, it is suggested, stem from his unloved childhood in Poland, which is contrasted with Michel’s warm relationship with his mother.  Where Michel’s life was one of affluence, Elie’s was wretchedly poverty-stricken.  His mother had produced so many offspring she could hardly tell them apart, the families in the area so lacking in resources that children had to go barefoot in the snow and siblings fought over a pair of boots.  It was the cold and hunger that made Elie seek out a hot place where he could eat to excess.  His personality has not changed, though, and the climate has not warmed him; when he thinks he might have to leave the hotel, he understands his wife would not go with him as she feels more for her sisters than she does for him.  For all his intelligence, he cannot read people.  He goes round in circles trying to deduce Michel’s attitude until the simplest way out of the morass of contradictory feelings is just to shoot him again.  That way he can be sure Michel is paying him some attention.

(5 September 2016)

The Afterlife Unveiled: What ‘The Dead’ Tell Us About Their World, by Stafford Betty

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In his 2011 book The Afterlife Unveiled, Stafford Betty, Professor of Religion at California State University at Bakersfield, takes a number of texts which deal with mediumistic communications and extracts descriptions of what the afterlife looks like and what apparently happens to us once we are there.  He notes that mediumship is a major source of such reports because most religious writings are reticent when discussing conditions in the hereafter.  His focus is on the dead speaking and he excludes evidence gleaned from near-death experiences and death-bed visions.

Betty devotes a chapter each to seven mediums and their ostensible spirit communicators, presented in chronological order.  They are Rev. William Stainton Moses and’ Imperator’ and colleagues, in Spirit Teachings (1883) and More Spirit Teachings (1892); Leslie Stringfellow, recorded by his mother Alice in The Afterlife of Leslie Stringfellow (while the original book was published in 1926 and a new edition in 2005, Leslie died in 1886, and communications took place over the next 15 years); Judge David Hatch via Elsa Barker, in Letters from the Afterlife, aka Letters from a Living Dead Man (1914); Society for Psychical Research co-founder Frederic Myers through Geraldine Cummins in The Road to Immortality (1932); Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson via Anthony Borgia in Life in the World Unseen (1934); Anglican nun Frances Banks through Helen Greaves in Testimony of Light (1977); and finally Lutheran minister Alvin D. Mattson through Margaret Flavell in Witness from Beyond (1975) and Evidence from Beyond (1999).

Though given various names by the communicators, there is an emphasis on a series of levels souls ascend as they grow spiritually, never able to reach the next until ready for it.  Those who have led bad lives may not want to move up, and some lower planes are horrible – but the emphasis on free will means individuals themselves must make headway; it cannot be done on their behalf.  So some are in a kind of hell, true, but of their own making, and there is always hope they will see their errors and so escape.  Nobody is irredeemably damned to eternal torments.  This is still a theological afterlife, with God in it, though one in which He does not sit in judgement but leaves us to make our own way upwards to some form of union with the divine.  Religious affiliation on earth is not a guarantor of progress (and presumably some may be a hindrance, if adherence leads to immoral acts).  Existence is a continual journey of learning, whether we want to or not; we grow spiritually by study and positive deeds in the afterlife.  We are not on our own because spirit ‘social workers’ assist unevolved souls and care for children who passed over before their time and now grow up in the spirit world.  We meet again those with whom we have a deep connection, and may even join in a Group Soul in order to speed up the collective spiritual growth, according to Myers.

In his conclusions, Betty itemises several dozen points summarising what the seven texts say, finding a great deal of congruence between them.  This is the book’s most valuable section, pulling together the accounts.  One aspect upon which there are conflicting opinions is reincarnation.  Betty concedes the lack of unanimity gave him pause, wondering if the communications could originate in each medium’s subconscious, but he decided that, overall, the evidence stood up to this one thorny issue.  He concludes that reincarnation could be an option to allow the individual to develop faster than would be the case by remaining in the afterlife, by undertaking a greater challenge, but is a voluntary arrangement rather than a requirement.  Alternatively, it seems the afterlife is largely segregated ethnically (though perhaps this is changing in line with the increasing multiculturalism to be found on earth), so perhaps reincarnation occurs more in realms populated by peoples who subscribe to it: thus those in the Hindu realm are more likely to reincarnate than are those in the Christian realm.  Reincarnation viewed as a learning experience does beg the question why experiences garnered while incarnated and between incarnations are not available to recall from one state to the next.  It is an odd kind of learning experience if one cannot remember it.  The theory also implies that on average adherents to belief systems which include reincarnation are spiritually more evolved than those which do not, not a differential much in evidence.

Good news is that the afterlife is a place of culture where it is possible to be a spectator at a new play by Shakespeare, or hear a new piece of music written by Mozart.  Less good is that artistic works are sanitised, with nothing unpleasant permitted in this safe space. It is a place for the development of mind.  Endlessly singing God’s praises may not on the menu, but it still sounds a trifle dull, however wonderful watching the latest drama from the Bard would be (does he keep up to date or are his plays always based on his own times, and what sorts can he write if he has to omit the violent bits?).  On the other hand, this new life after life is difficult to put into words, as can be seen from the way music plays a key role, and a sensory melding of sensation amounting to synaesthesia.  We only have in front of us what can be articulated, and much is perforce left out.  Perhaps it only appears dull to us, who know no better, and new riches more than compensate for the loss of some earthly habits and interests better left behind.

Betty stresses that people who have passed on do not have all the answers; there is no reason why they should suddenly achieve omniscience simply because they are dead, though they can see further than those still on earth.  Further, he concedes that an amanuensis may unwittingly influence the transmission process, so what is written is not the pure communication intended by the individual from whom it originates.  However, he is sure that the scripts are genuinely originating in discarnate entities rather than other mechanisms such as clairvoyance or telepathy.  He feels the descriptions must have some validity in referring to a real state because they are coherent in a way they would not be if they were randomly concocted.  Surprisingly he does not take into account the obvious possibility that those interested in survival might read what others have written, thereby achieving a consistency when they take down their own messages.  The mediums he scrutinises were not operating in a vacuum but were part of a tradition, therefore independence between their productions cannot be assumed.

So does all this matter? Can’t we just wait until we get there and find out for ourselves?  Betty takes issue with Christian theologians who seem embarrassed by discussions of life after death.  In particular he believes the attitude that discussion of it is a distraction from a concern with matters in the here and now to be misguided.  He argues that life here cannot be separated from life there – how we live directly influences what happens afterwards, and they must be treated holistically.  Certainly an approach which stresses a moral life cannot be a bad one, even if the continuation of consciousness it is predicated on proves to be an illusion, but one feels that spirits do not help as much as they might.  Spirit scientists are well ahead of those on earth in their research, we are told, and elements of these advances are often fed to living scientists – ‘Benson’ goes so far as to claim ‘the earth world has the spirit world to thank for all the major scientific discoveries that have been made throughout the centuries’ – but for some reason it is always done discreetly, without those on earth realising an intervention has been made.  Presenting a major scientific discovery explicitly via a medium would do more to change sceptics’ minds than all the channelled communications extolling Summerland put together, yet it never happens.

A vast literature on mediumship exists and Betty does not say what guided his selection, apart from personal conviction.  There can be no independent criteria by which to judge other than an appeal to plausibility, and that will vary according to one’s sympathies.  Ultimately the amount of credence readers give these accounts is determined by how disposed they are to consider mediums conduits of valid information.  People who are committed to the idea of an afterlife already may be encouraged to expand their conception of what the life to come is actually like away from a rigid one based on a particular religious stance, but it is unlikely that sceptics will be persuaded of the genuineness of alleged mediumistic sources when other interpretations are on offer.

On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam, by Joel Sternfeld


The first time I saw a dead body I was 13 or 14.  I was coming home from school with a friend along Dulwich Village in south London when we saw that a man had collapsed on the pavement.  Several people were standing around him, not saying anything.  It was raining lightly and someone had laid an open umbrella over his head.  He must have been there for some time because a young woman with a child came the other way, from the village infants’ or junior school, and as she passed by she tutted and said, ‘is he still here?’ before hustling past, as if dying in the street was in poor taste.  My friend and I waited for a while, but as there was obviously no urgency on the part of the London Ambulance Service to come out to retrieve the corpse, we eventually carried on home.  Several decades later, only a handful of people will recall the incident, our numbers dwindling towards zero.  Yet thousands of people have since walked there without any awareness of what happened on that wet afternoon.

Many such spots exist, but usually they go unreported and ultimately sink back into anonymity, because to look at they are so ordinary.  Joel Sternfeld addressed this forgetting by taking photographs of fifty sites around the United States between 1993 and 1996 (the year the book was published).  Each was either the location of a dramatic, usually fatal, act or was connected to one.  Many of these events date from the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few occurred not long before he arrived to record where they had taken place.  Some are well known nationally or internationally, others were of local concern and never came to wider attention.  The photographs form a sombre catalogue bearing witness to a selection of the darker deeds that have scarred the US.  There are hardly any people visible because this is a book about the dead, and the emptiness reinforces their absence.

They are not all connected to specific crimes.  A derelict building in Wyoming marks an internment centre Japanese Americans were held in during the Second World War.  The Mount Rushmore National Monument is included because of the way the Sioux people were treated by the Federal government when this land was stolen from them.  The iconic carved presidential faces can be seen, but are dwarfed behind a bank of spotlights, making the point that the loss to the Sioux of their sacred land is a gain for South Dakota’s tourism industry.

Unsurprisingly the ones with most impact show where something awful happened.  A large wreath marks the balcony Martin Luther King Jr was standing on when he was assassinated, the motel now a civil rights museum.  Kitty Genovese’s murder, so often cited in social psychology textbooks on the ‘bystander effect’, is represented by the street along which she was walking one night in 1964 when she was repeatedly stabbed (looking nothing like how I had imagined it reading about the case as an undergraduate).  The shop still stands – or did in 1994 – where 14-year old Emmett Till, a Chicagoan unacquainted with the mores of the South, said ‘Bye, baby’ to a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, leading to his murder by her relatives (who were found not guilty).  There is the Stonewall bar, birthplace of the gay rights movement in 1969, the road on which Karen Silkwood crashed in mysterious circumstances in 1974, Harvey Milk’s office where he was murdered in 1978.   The car park at Kent State University where four students protesting against Richard Nixon’s policies in Vietnam and Cambodia were shot by National Guardsmen (memorialised in a different way by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) is depicted in a view unlike those we are used to seeing from contemporary news photographs.  The street where Rodney King was beaten and other examples of police brutality demonstrate that out-of-control American law enforcement not a recent phenomenon.  Lumps of concrete indicate the remains of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco.

There are photographs showing where people, often children, were murdered, either singly or in sprees, or were abducted to be murdered later, and these images are even more important than those dedicated to the famous, because nobody else is likely to perform such an act of remembrance for them.  One such is Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori, killed in a Louisiana carport in 1992 solely because guns are so freely available.  He and his host student were going to a Hallowe’en party in costume but went to the wrong door.  The householder, alarmed to see someone in Hallowe’en costume at Hallowe’en, told him to stop.  Unfortunately Hattori was not able to understand what was said and carried on walking.  He was shot and died; the householder was acquitted of manslaughter because he thought he was defending his property.  Another that stands out in terms of senselessness is a bus shelter in which a homeless woman froze to death in November 1993.  It stands opposite the Department of Housing and Urban Development building in Washington, D.C.; one could not find a more symbolic setting in the entire country.

Sternfeld also covers crimes against the community: a river in Ohio so toxic it caught fire after molten slag was dumped in it; the area in Niagara Falls used as a chemical dumping ground for several decades, leading to birth defects after homes and a school were built on it; Hanford, Washington,  where the US army manufactured plutonium for its nuclear weapon programme from 1942, and who (this is hard to believe) poured 440 billion gallons of radioactive and chemical waste into the ground before the facility was shut down as late as 1988.  Twenty-five employees in a chicken processing plant in North Carolina died when a fire started because many of the emergency doors were locked to prevent theft and there was only one extinguisher.

The unit used to store materials for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is a reminder that the book was published before 2001, and the towers were still standing.  Also indicating the book’s vintage, a photograph referring to a victim of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, has ambiguous text indicating he had been caught but not convicted; another related to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was written after Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had been arrested but had pleaded not guilty (McVeigh was executed, Nichols received 161 consecutive life terms with no possibility of parole and is in the same block at a prison in Colorado as Kaczynski).

The most poignant photograph is of the workshop where a statue of a boy named Christopher Harris was being finished.  Nine-year old Christopher was killed in St. Louis in 1991 while being used as a human shield in a gun battle between two drug dealers (Sternfeld also includes the house outside which he was playing when he was shot).  His statue was cast from guns purchased in a buy-back scheme.  Significantly, all Sternfeld’s royalties were donated to the Children’s Defense Fund.  The book’s final image is the inside of a mosque in Los Angeles where two street gangs signed a truce in 1992: there is always hope for the future.  On this Site could have been a prurient true-crime volume, however the compassion it displays elevates it to a tribute, commemorating a few places we might otherwise walk past, unconscious of their significance.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

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There are strengths and weaknesses in structuring a novel as a series of interviews, according to the medium used.  The fast-paced film version of World War Z tries to emulate the book’s episodic nature but focuses on a single person and cannot find a satisfactory resolution to a story about zombies engulfing the entire planet.  In the novel, a slower pace using multiple narrators allows Max Brooks to cover the flow of the war, from first inklings of a crisis to a kind of victory over the living dead.

However, where the film carries the viewer with its dramatic set pieces, the result of the book’s documentary treatment is a rather bitty narrative which follows the course of the war but cannot sustain any kind of build-up because tension is reset at the start of each interview.  Even the longer uninterrupted sections, such as the adventures of a Chinese nuclear submarine after its crew steal it, do not have time to generate the feeling in the reader of being absorbed in a devastating (in all senses) situation.  The individuals through whom the story of how humanity is nearly destroyed unfolds are never given the opportunity to develop, even when we return to them at a later point in the prosecution of the war, being mouthpieces to convey parts of a jigsaw.  Anyway, you know that they win because it is the survivors who are speaking, which reduces the emotional engagement.

The scenario is that a decade or so after the conclusion of the war against the zombies, bar some protracted mopping up, the author was delegated to collect witness statements for a technical report to be published by the United Nations, but much of it was discarded because it focused too much on personal testimony rather than statistical analysis.  Rather than discard the material it was turned into a separate book, which is World War Z.

The arc of the infestation, set in the near future, is well imagined, with rumours of ‘African rabies’ spreading following a mysterious disease outbreak in China (a plausible scenario given the health scares that have originated from there and the woeful state of its public service); ‘The Great Panic’, engendering confusion and leading to even more deaths than from the zombies themselves; denial of the extent of the threat by governments, including the ignoring of expert analyses that say things the top echelons do not want to hear, particularly in countries ruled by sclerotic oligarchies; slow acceptance of the scale of the danger; confusion as order breaks down; inappropriate military tactics by forces geared to conventional warfare; retreat, regrouping, and slow fightback.  One can see that a real zombie outbreak would progress in a similar way, assuming the remnants of humanity were able to organise as effectively as shown here.

A country’s chances of defence depend on various factors such as population density, social cohesion, isolation from major regions of population, government flexibility.  Significantly the one state in the Middle East able to respond effectively is Israel, which builds a wall (business as usual for them, just the name of the aggressor has changed).  They do better than those American citizens who have the bright idea of moving to Canada on the grounds that zombies freeze in winter (the only respite, although they are just as lethal as before when they thaw in the spring) but forget that keeping warm and feeding yourself in sub-zero temperatures  is difficult.  However, there is one source of ready protein (and it’s not zombie flesh)…

The amount of research in World War Z is impressive, and Brooks manages to inject social commentary that lifts it above straight horror.  Through the prism of the threat we see what is best and worst in people, their nobility but also their baseness. For example there is a thriving trade in fake pharmaceuticals because some people will find a business opportunity in any situation, however dire.  Humans can be just as inhuman as the zombies, yet others display nobility and sacrifice.  Old statuses are irrelevant in this world.  People who can make things and do things are valued, sales managers less so.  Laissez-faire capitalism is shown to be useless in fighting total war; a command economy is necessary to get things done.

Zombies turn the world upside down, with Cuba on top economically at the end.  The First World countries by contrast struggle.  A zombie apocalypse would reset international relations, all current socio-economic strengths and weakness discarded in favour of new values based on the effectiveness of survival and remaining community organisation.  Ironically the enormously expensive weapons systems deployed by the US are wholly ineffectual in the new war situation, requiring a complete rethink in terms of equipment and strategy.  It feels uncomfortably like a metaphor for asymmetric warfare in which battlefield weapons are irrelevant in the face of an inexorable enemy who attacks from within and will not participate in diplomacy.

Brooks identifies a curious group that would arise as a result of the zombies – Quislings.  This is a psychological condition that leads non-zombies to identify with the undead and mimic them completely, to the extent of biting the uninfected (though of course without the automatically lethal effect a genuine zombie-inflicted injury would have).  It has its limitations, because the living are going to assume they are zombies, while to the zombies they are still alive and therefore targets.  Attempts to rehabilitate Quislings have patchy success.

Frankly that sounds unlikely, but who knows.  Another phenomenon, once perhaps more likely to happen in such a situation, is Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome, or Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome (you can see which one was coined by boffins and which one by ordinary people), in which the victim goes to sleep and does not wake up.  After prolonged stress with no end in sight, the organism simply gives up the struggle.  The most effective cure for this it turns out is hope, which in this case is supplied by propaganda films.  These morale boosters cut the incidence of ADS hugely.  There is a reminder also that shooting zombies in the head would take its toll, just as shooting live people does, with PTSD a factor in combat veterans.

One section left me wondering if anyone reading about characters who share their nationality will find those characters unconvincing.  There is an English person who talks about the role of castles in the zombie war.  He was holed up at Windsor when England was overrun, and it is clear that the Queen was there as well.  There is a toe-curling description of her determination not to run, like her parents staying in London during the Blitz, a schmaltzy paean to how Her Majesty pulled her people together, protecting the soul of the nation.

More successfully there is an amusing in-joke in one of the interviews.  The interviewee is discussing misinformation and myths that inevitably arise in the fog of war, and the effort required to debunk them.  ‘The civilian survival guide helped, but was still severely limited…. You could see it was clearly written by an American, the references to SUVs and personal firearms.  There was no taking into account the cultural differences…’ (p.197)  That is presumably The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Brooks himself, originally published in 2004, two years before World War Z.

It would be going too far to say that this is a prescient analysis of future geopolitics because the thing about zombies is that they change the rules by which these things are done.  It is difficult to draw parallels between a post-zombie landscape and the one which will evolve naturally, though he is probably correct in seeing a shift in power from the US and western Europe to other areas of the globe with other ideologies, probably those populations with the highest fertility.  Those changes will happen, zombies or not.  One thing for sure after World War Z is concluded is that there will be a lot more space for everybody, although whether we will learn to get along with each other better than before is another matter.

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