The Enduring Allure of the City of Light

People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.

Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s imagination.

The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French detectives, most  notably Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from the last year with significant Paris roots.

****The Long Road from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish girlfriend. Then the fascists appear. 

****A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real target.

*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”

Artists’ Lives on Film

What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).

Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood

An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus Garces Lambert (trailer). Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches. You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the flesh.

Three art historians comment on the significance of Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on, Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.

All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women, and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.

A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward device several more times to less benefit.

Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.

At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like greeting old friends.

You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known, it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been commonly believed.

Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences 62%.

St. Patrick’s Day is Nigh

Excuse me a sec, while I run into the kitchen and check the corned beef brisket.

Ahh…

Now, as the last year has whirled by and St. Paddy’s Day once again approaches, here are my three most recent dives into the wellspring of inspiration, imagination, and experience that is Ireland.

Earlier this year, we saw on Broadway, The Ferryman, which many reviewers said was “the ticket” for the winter’s season. From the promotional pictures (below), it looks like a multigeneration family sitting around the supper table, telling rollicking Irish tales, no? It turns out the IRA is involved, and, as everyone knows, the IRA is not The Clancy Brothers. Acting was super, especially the elderly Republican aunt who can’t give up her threadbare politics.

An Irish theme turned up unexpectedly in Angel Luis Colón’s Hell Chose Me (which I reviewed here). The American protagonist, Bryan Walsh, is AWOL from Afghanistan, and the only person he thinks can help him is his difficult and uncle Sean back in Ireland. IRA legatee Sean does give him a job for a while, as an enforcer and assassin, before Bryan returns to the United States (illegally). Lots else happens in this excellent thriller, but Uncle Sean’s menacing presence haunts Bryan evermore.

At the moment I’m reading (actually listening to) Tana French’s Dublin-based best-seller, The Witch Elm. I’m only a short way in, and while I know the book has received raves, am waiting for it to pick up steam. One of the characters is a genealogist, a profession I can relate to, who says that in the old days, people came to him out of curiosity about their Irish ancestors, and now with DNA evidence in hand, they come to him to find out who they really are.

Posts for past March 17s have focused on wonderful books from Irish writers, including the fantastic Irish crime/thriller writers, not only Tana French, but Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville too.

But, excuse me, the corned beef is done. Now have to spread a mix of brown sugar and dry mustard on top for a final twenty-minute bake while I stir the potatoes and cook up the onions, cabbage, and sour cream. In delicious anticipation . . .

And, check out Janet Rudolph’s list of St. Patrick’s Day Mysteries.

Graphic by Barbara A. Lane from Pixabay.

****Amsterdam Noir

Edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter – Fourteen of The Netherlands’ premier authors of crime and literary fiction contributed stories to this collection, with the editors—top-rated crime authors themselves—providing the fifteenth. Amsterdam Noir is the latest in Akashic Books’ long-running series of place-based crime anthologies.

If this enterprise is in part intended to impart a vision of the locale and its residents through the lens of crime, this collection is another success.

Whenever a story purports to represent a certain place, you can fairly ask yourself, could these events have unfolded this way anywhere else? Geography, history, and culture all affect what can and does take place in a city and the official and unofficial reactions to events.

Appel and Pachter assigned the stories to four broad headings inspired by classic film noir, and below I briefly describe a story or two under each of their headings. The collection includes both well established authors, like Theo Capel, and writers new to the scene, like Karin Amatmoekrim. Meet some of the very best Dutch crime writers, right here in these pages.

Out of the Past

Welcome to Amsterdam by Michael Berg is a story of revenge—a revenge the wronged man never thought he could achieve. It’s pretty strong stuff. Berg was the 2013 winner of the Golden Noose, the award for the best Dutch-language crime novel of the year. Herman Koch, who wrote 2013’s best-selling crime novel, The Dinner, contributed Ankle Monitor, which launches with a brilliant first line: “Maybe it was a mistake to go back to my old neighborhood on the very first day of a weekend leave.” No stopping reading there.

Kiss Me Deadly

All three of these stories are about ill-conceived love and all are written by women, interestingly. Silent Days by Karin Amatmoekrim proves that just because a woman is old and alone doesn’t mean she is helpless.

Touch of Evil

Here you have Satan himself, a pedophile, an alcoholic fratricide, and a man channelling Ted Bundy (for an international touch), plus a hard-working police detective who unexpectedly comes out on top in Theo Capel’s entertaining Lucky Sevens.

They Live By Night

Echoing that film’s theme of inescapable tragedy, most of these stories are from the victim’s point of view, but Abdelkader Benali’s The Girl at the End of the Line is told through the eyes of a Moroccan police officer assigned to find the killer of a Muslim girl. Winner of a top literary prize, Benali opens this story, “A farmer found her with her head facing southeast, toward Mecca, as if in prayer.” It’s an effective reminder of the pluralistic culture of Western European cities today and a strong intimation of the layers of social complexity the story will probe.

*****The Feral Detective

By Jonathan Lethem – Jonathan Lethem, who has been called one of America’s greatest storytellers, returns to crime fiction with this new novel, The Feral Detective. It opens with the narrator, Manhattanite Phoebe Siegler, searching for her best friend’s teenage daughter, Arabella, who has disappeared from Reed College. Her trail has led to the small California town of Upland, east of Los Angeles. It’s at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, a short drive to the mountains’ highest peak, Mount Baldy, and within striking distance of wilderness and desert, vividly described settings as bleak and untamed as the situations Phoebe will encounter.

The local police, loathe to put any energy into a search for Arabella, pass Phoebe on to a social worker who specializes in runaways, and the social worker refers her to The Feral Detective, Charles Heist. Phoebe’s told that, though Heist’s methods may be unorthodox, he’s a good man on a cold trail, an expert in rescuing runaways and teenagers snared in cults or human trafficking networks. In fact, Phoebe learns, one such teen lives in an armoire in his office.

Heist’s unique set of skills and experiences sets you up for a strange romp through the underbelly of California society. Scanning Heist’s unpromising office building, Phoebe says,“To make an appointment here was to have dropped through the floor of your life, out of ordinary time. You weren’t meant to be here at all, if you were me.”

Phoebe’s New York temperament is distinctly at odds with that of the Californians, and she’s pegged it; she wasn’t meant to be there. But Phoebe already has dropped through the floor of her life, first by quitting her job at a major newspaper because she couldn’t tolerate the prospect of the Trump presidency. She can’t fathom why the Californians aren’t similarly outraged.

She’s thirty-three, with no immediate employment prospects, a lot of anger, and dubious romantic feelings about Charles Heist. Her reflexive wisecracking is balanced by despair, a weak shield against reality. Lethem lets her be defensive, show poor judgment, and lash out when it would be better not to. She’s not perfect.

Road trips into the area surrounding Upland, with and without Heist, lead her to some sketchy places and characters. Heist has mysterious connections with these troubled people that the New Yorker cannot understand. Phoebe is drawn to the taciturn feral detective, though their mismatched relationship seems most likely to go awry. But perhaps he can give her the anchor in life she so obviously needs.

Lethem writes strong prose, with more than a sprinkling of appreciation for the ridiculous. Lovers of literary crime fiction will find Lethem has created interesting and engaging characters in Phoebe and Heist, as well as an array of distinctive secondary characters—and some dogs—whose fates are worth caring about. He never lets up in describing people, places, situations, and feelings in fresh and memorable ways. Several review sites included it among the top crime books of 2018, though I’ve noted that Amazon readers don’t much like it and seem to have missed the humor altogether.

Lethem’s previous detective fiction, Motherless Brooklyn, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was narrated by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome—sympathetically. In this new work, the characters are less overtly damaged, but the damage is there, not far below the surface.

rabbit photo by wbaiv, creative commons license

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*****LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

In David Sanger’s chilling book about the dangers of cyberweapons, reviewed here last week, he includes the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, but P.W. Singer and Emerson T Brooking focus laserlike on them in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. If you want to know chapter and verse about the barrage of efforts to manipulate American opinion in the election of 2016—and risk of even more in future—this is the book for you.

Singer and Brooking’s book, like Sanger’s, pulls together in one place the various threads of information about cyberthreats from the last few years, weaving them into a coherent, memorable, and understandable(!) whole. All these authors provide exhaustive lists of sources. It’s incumbent on responsible people to understand the tactics of information warfare, because, “[recent Senate hearings] showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy,” said Leigh Giangreco in the Washington Post.

These ill-intentioned manipulators understand the human brain is hard-wired for certain reactions: to believe in conspiracy theories (“Obama isn’t an American”); to be gratified when we receive approval (“likes”!); to be drawn to views we agree with (“confirmation bias”). If we feel compelled to weigh in on some bit of propaganda or false information, social media algorithms see this attention and elevate the issue—“trending!”—so that our complaints only add to the virality of disinformation and lies. “Just as the internet has reshaped war, war is now radically reshaping the internet,” the authors say.

Contrary to the optimism of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who saw social media as a positive, democratizing force, this new technology is being used to destructive effect at many levels of society. At a local scale, for example, it bolsters gang violence in Chicago; at a national scale, it contributed to the election of fringe politicians; at a regional scale, it facilitated the emergence of ISIS; and at an international scale, it undergirds the reemergence of repressive political movements in many countries.

How to be a responsible citizen in this chaos? Like it or not, “we’re all part of this war,” the authors say, “and which side succeeds depends in large part on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this new warfare for what it is” and how ready we are for what comes next. Start by reading one—or both—of these important books.

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Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

*****Lost Empress

Football, leaves

guvo59, creative commons license

By Sergio de la Pava – Does anyone these days have the time to read a 640-page novel? I made the time and was glad of it! This remarkable book came to me as a reviewer for crimefictionlover.com, and it bucks convention in more ways than its length.

In all those pages, a lot happens—interesting, challenging stuff you won’t find in a typical novel. It includes a meditation on Time, an evisceration of professional football, a hilarious take-down of the U.S. health care system, an exploration of the meaning of loneliness and the futility of religion. Fundamentally, however, it’s a kaleidoscopic, postmodern approach to the question “what is justice?” All the while, Sergio de la Pava’s sly sense of humor keeps the pages turning, as situations at first merely odd spiral out of control like a poorly judged forward pass.

Characters are described with juicy details that make their stories tantalizing, and as the story settles down, two principal characters emerge. The first is Nina Gill, former co-owner and brains behind the wildly successful Dallas Cowboys. Family maneuvering gives her a football team of her own—not the Cowboys, the decidedly non-competitive Paterson (N.J.) Pork.

Nina is a woman who gets what she wants, and what she mostly wants is a winning football team. The NFL players are in a lockout, the owners have cancelled the season, and gutsy Nina recruits men desperate to play. Her second-in-command is college student Dia Nouveau, and the laugh-out-loud banter between tough Nina and can-do Dia is like the script for a screwball comedy, sometimes even written in script format.

Nuno DeAngelis is a career lawbreaker headed to Rikers Island. Nuno is a philosopher. “They can put him in Rikers, but they can’t make him live there.” The story of his life in prison, how he gets out and back in again, is written in what you might call a suprarealistic style, not as gritty crime drama, but floating somewhere above reality. But, since he’s there, his various connections give him assignments: avenge a vehicular homicide, snatch a Salvador Dali painting Nina wants . . . you know, the usual prison malarkey. Nuno writes his own brief for his Grand Jury proceeding, and it’s both expletive-laced and morally persuasive.

Trying to give a sense of the plot of a novel this sprawling is probably irrelevant. De la Pava has created a three-ring circus involving clowns, daredevils, and high-wire performers, creating extraordinary characters from people engaged in seemingly ordinary activities—a 911 call transcriber, a man caring for his ailing mother, a parking garage operator, a priest in a dwindling parish, and a failed doctor who becomes the Paterson Pork mascot.

De la Pava’s first novel, 2008’s A Naked Singularity, was originally self-published, but when the University of Chicago Press discovered and republished it in 2012, it received the PEN/Bingham Prize for best debut novel of the year. His is a refreshing and unforgettable voice, one that busts out of the boxes of both crime and literary fiction, stretching the form and the reader as well.

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Don’t Miss! Detroit ’67

Detroit '67

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Just a few more performances of McCarter Theatre’s stunning production of Detroit ’67, directed by Jade King Carroll and on stage through October 28. The summer of 1967 is unforgettable for native Detroiters such as myself, and I’ve looked forward to seeing what light playwright Dominique Morisseau would shine on that bleak page in history. Morisseau is a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient and the third most-produced playwright in the country at the moment, so my expectations were high.
They were certainly met, with this powerful story and strong cast. In her story, sister and brother Chelle (played by Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey) have inherited the family home in Detroit, and Chelle is using her portion of their parents’ savings to send her son to the Tuskegee Institute. Lank and his best friend Sylvester (Will Cobbs) have other plans. They want to buy a bar. This would be a big step up from the low-budget blind pig (unlicensed drinking establishment) Lank and Chelle operate in their basement, which is the set for the play.
The Detroit Police Department is going through a repressive period, in which tactical squads of four police officers terrorize, intimidate, and assault residents. If the police discover the blind pig, Chelle and Lank are in deep trouble. Contraction in the auto industry and a significant population decline have decreased economic opportunities for the city’s residents, another reason Lank and Sly want to strike out on their own.
The unexpected presence of the white woman in the household gives the characters a chance to talk about the difference in choices available to them. Chelle is deeply, angrily disappointed that her brother has, in her view, “squandered” the family inheritance—an opinion manifesting in events when the city begins to burn.
Although these are heavy subjects, Morisseau lightens the mood with the humorous efforts of Sly to romance Chelle, and the observations of her best friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie).
It’s also a story about the power of dreams and the importance of having them, and although these insights are not new, the precarious situation of the protagonists makes them all the more pointed. The fact that half a century later the play’s issues regularly resurface in the daily news underscores their continuing importance and well worth seeing.
The theater has put together a rich set of background resources that includes—of course!—a Spotify playlist that leads off with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Find it here!
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.