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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

Cover of The Maximum Security Yoga Club by Mikita BrottmanThe Maximum Security Yoga Club, Mikita Brottman (TransVisceral Books 2017)

(This is a guest review by Dr Rachel Edelstein)

June 2015. Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman sets off in her eco-friendly Honda Hopi to the Jessup Correctional Facility on the outskirts of Baltimore. It will be her first day running a yoga club for prisoners at the notorious maximum-security jail and her hopes are high. For the next eight months those hopes seem to be fully realized. That first session goes very well and those succeeding it go even better. Dozens of new prisoners are soon clamoring to join the club.

Then Mikita introduces her by now tight-knit group of eager students to a new asana – a posture she has invented herself with just them in mind…

The following day her yoga club is abruptly canceled by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (MDPSCS). Mikita reaches out in an increasingly bewildered and desperate attempt to uncover why the authorities have taken this harsh and completely unexpected step, cutting her off from all contact with prisoners with whom she has bonded deeply and whose personalities and psychology she has been observing with an incisive but compassionate eye. As she writes in chapter four:

The MDPSCS at first refused to return my calls or answer any of my letters and emails, but I finally managed to get an “unofficial” response from one of the prison-guards with whom I had worked, and with whom – so I thought – I had forged a mutually respectful and considerate professional relationship. I had to read his email several times before its meaning fully sank in, so disconnected, incoherent and (frankly) illogical did it seem to my disbelieving gaze. I quote here an extract: “Your so-called club has killed two prisoners and left three others paralyzed for life. You can count yourself lucky that the Department is not suing your pasty-white posterior to Alaska and back. And you have the effrontery to ask why the club has been canceled? Please, Dr Brottman: give me a break!”

I was deeply disturbed by the tone and dismissiveness of this communication. Yes, there was a grain of truth in its assertions: the new asana had not gone as well as I might have liked. And yes, five members of the club did break their necks, of whom two died on the spot and three were, in the email’s cold and clinical phraseology, “left paralyzed for life.” But was this any reason to cancel a club that had been fatality-free on no fewer than forty-six previous occasions? To my mind, it was not. I continued to probe for the true reason behind the MDPSCS’s abrupt and shocking decision. (chapter 4, “Orwell’s Shadow”, pg. 124)

Her efforts are unavailing – but worse is to come for the mild-mannered literary scholar and yoga-enthusiast. As the US presidential campaign begins and the appalling rhetoric of Donald Trump incites the most reprehensible elements of so-called white America, Mikita finds herself adopted as an “alt-right icon” by vile racists who believe that the unfortunate events at that final session of her yoga-club were no accident. She quotes a typical email: “Way to go, girl! You should get a Congressional Medal for smuggling yourself into the jail and tricking all them dumb n*****s into trusting you like that! 88!”

Needless to say, these unjust, unfair and totally unfounded insinuations are an additional and almost unbearable burden for Mikita to carry. And be in no doubt: The Maximum Security Yoga Club is certainly a tale of trauma and tragedy. But it is ultimately one also of hope, as Mikita finds a chink of light amid the darkness by adopting a false name and starting a Tantric aromatherapy-and-origami club at a maximum-security psychiatric facility (which she leaves unnamed for obvious reasons).

Combining cutting-edge psychoanalysis with deeply personal memoir, The Maximum Security Yoga Club will take you on a roller-coaster ride of extreme emotion and edgy insight as it interrogates a seething underbelly of obstreperous obstructionism right at the heart of Maryland officialdom.

 


STOP-PRESS A TransVisceral Books press-release brings the unhappy news that the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has followed tiny clues in The Maximum Security Yoga Club and unmasked the false identity Mikita used to gain access to the Hyman T. Rubinstein Ultra-Max Mental Hospital. Her Tantric aromatherapy-and-origami club there has been canceled and she is now threatened with prosecution for impersonation, fraud and misuse of federal facilities. Please see the TransVisceral website for further details of this devastating new development.

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Pisces, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2017)

March 2016. Anglo-American academic Miriam Stimbers leaves her apartment in St Louis to attend an ’80s nostalgia concert at a local rock-arena. Behind her, she leaves transgressive author Peter Sotos to fish-sit her prized tank of tropical fish. Four hours later, Stimbers returns to her apartment to discover the tank empty and Sotos lying unconscious on the floor.

When he revives, Sotos describes how, minutes after Stimbers’ departure, the apartment was invaded by a masked gang.

He remembers trying to fight them off.

Then it all went black…

Pisces is a detailed examination of that fateful March day and its continuing repercussions. It is a true-crime book like no other, written from the inside by a no-holds-barred author who has been at the heart of events right from the beginning. As Dr Stimbers writes in her introduction:

Peter was a rock throughout the preliminary bewilderment-and-grieving process. It was truly a great comfort when he told me that, despite the brief time he knew my fish, he felt that he and the eighty-six of them had forged a genuine and permanent bond. Furthermore, despite the brutal assault to which he was subjected and the stress-induced hiccups he suffered for two days after the fish-napping, Peter barely left my side for the rest of the month, helping me to process my initial shock and horror and trying to assist the police investigation in any way he could. He also came up with the most plausible theory as to the gang’s identity. No trace of any break-in could be discovered, nor, despite detailed examination of multiple CCTV-feeds, was it possible to identify any strangers entering or leaving the apartment-block during the relevant time-period. But, while the gang was in the apartment, they re-arranged my bookshelves and anonymously purchased me a gift-subscription to the Journal of Forensic Entomology.

Peter’s suggestion?

“They must have been ninja librarians, Miri,” he said.

I concur. It’s the only explanation that fits all the facts. (Introduction, pg. ix)

But why would ninja librarians fish-nap a set of tropical fish? Where have they taken their piscine prizes? When will they issue a ransom demand? These questions continue to haunt all those involved in this unique tragedy. Pisces examines each aspect of the case from every conceivable angle and will only serve to trans-toxify Sotos’s rebarbative renown as an edgily incendiary archaeologist of the most photophobic furlongs of the counter-cultural complexus.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

K-9 Konundrum — review of Dog by Peter Sotos
Toxic Twosome — review of Doll by Peter Sotos and James Havoc


Forthcoming Fetidity from TransVisceral Books…

Stiff for Stiffs: Kandid Konfessions of a Korpse-Kopulator, דוד קרקשׁ
Slime-Sniffer: The Norman Nekrophile Story, Nicolae Feralescu
Pay to Slay: The Toxic True Tale of the Mersey Murder-Machine, Dr Samuel P. Salatta

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Forthcoming Fetidity / Future Ferality from TransVisceral Books…

Slo-Mo Psy-Ko: The Sinister Story of the Stockport Slayer…, Zac Zialli — fetid-but-fascinating investigation of a serial slayer who has flown under the police radar for decades…
Not Just for Necrophiles: A Toxic Tribute to Killing for Culture…, ed. Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and Dr Joshua N. Schlachter — 23 Titans of Trangression come together to pay tribute to the seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture
Opium of the Peephole: Spying, Slime-Sniffing and the Snowdenian Surveillance State, Norman Foreman (B.A.) — edgy interrogation of the unsettling parallels between state-sponsored surveillance and the Daily Meal


TransVisceral Books — for Readers who Relish the Rabid, Rancid and Reprehensibly Repulsive
TransVisceral BooksCore Counter-Culture… for Incendiary Individualists
TransVisceral BooksTotal Toxicity… (since 2005)…

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Void Moon by Michael ConnellyVoid Moon, Michael Connelly (2000)

This novel has two of Connelly’s greatest virtues: clever plotting and compulsive readability. But it’s marred by perhaps his biggest vice: his failure to remember that more is often less. Like The Black Echo (1992), it grabs you at the start with the small story of a failed criminal. The Black Echo has a dead Vietnam vet called William Meadows; Void Moon has a living parolee called Cassie Black. She’s just done years in jail for burglary and is trying to start her life again as a saleswoman at a luxury car-dealer in Los Angeles.

Why was she caught? What happened to her male accomplice? Connelly cleverly leaves things unexplained and draws you in. Cassie is a sympathetic character and you start worrying as you realize that she’s planning to go back to burglary. She’s risking a quick return to jail, because Thelma Kibble, her probation officer, is an “obese black female” and therefore very good at her job. She’s becoming suspicious of Cassie, who likes her all the same. Kibble “wasn’t easy but she was fair.” Connelly’s political correctness can’t really be called a vice, because it’s so common nowadays and isn’t in fact very annoying in this book.

There are even two good white men to offset all the evil white men. And the chief villain is one of Connelly’s best. He’s a psychopathic magician called Jack Karch. That’s magic as in card-tricks and rabbits-from-hats: Karch’s father once performed in Las Vegas on the same bill as Frank Sinatra. Like money and greed, legerdemain and misdirection are important parts of the plot. Las Vegas is where Cassie was caught, trying to rob a high-roller at a casino, and where she returns for another attempt at another high-roller. That’s why Karch, who’s working as a casino detective, gets on her trail and that’s when the book begins to lose its realism. There are too many dead bodies in the second half and too much of the action might have come from a James Bond movie. Like The Black Echo, the plot starts small, believable and compelling. Like The Black Echo again, it becomes big, unbelievable and no longer compelling.

But the plot is undeniably clever, with plenty of twists and surprises, and Connelly skilfully uses the characters and setting to explore themes like loyalty, deception and ego. Another part of his literary skill is apparent only when you read more of his books. His chief character is the LAPD murder-detective Harry Bosch and although Bosch doesn’t appear in Void Moon, it’s set in the same world. All his characters are linked in some way and Cassie turns up in a Bosch book. She’s a minor character there, a major one here.

That’s like life and so was the opening of Void Moon. When the bodies start piling up, the credibility is gone. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Thelma Kibble, the obese and highly competent probation officer, had been one of Karch’s long list of murderees. She isn’t, but she has more than a waddle-on part in the book and I’m not sure that Connelly was entirely sincere in making her such a stereotype of Black female virtue. If Void Moon had ended as it began, mindful that less is more, it would have been a much better book. But it’s still good and if you like hard-boiled crime fiction, Michael Connelly is definitely someone to try.

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I hope that no-one thinks I’m being racially prejudiced when I say that, much though I am fascinated by him, I do not find the Anglo-Romanian publisher David “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes intellectually interesting. As far as I can see, Doktor Dee and his drinking-buddy David “Slayer” Slater don’t have intellects…

But they do have psychologies.

And heavens! – What psychologies…

Just look at their simul-scribed seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture for a glimpse into the convolularities of those

Okay, it’s impossible to deny that death and decomposition are very interesting topics… But few people have devoted as much of their lives to interrogating issues around the two D’s as the two Daves. (See the aforementioned seminal snuff-study…)

They’ve contemplated more corpses’n you’ve had hot dinners...* Simul-Scribes Sam “Slayer” Slater and Dave “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes

They’ve contemplated more corpses’n you’ve had hot dinners…*
Simul-Scribes Sam “Slayer” Slater and Dave “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes


And now, as long-standing members of the corpse-cinema community right around the global stage quiver in excited expectation of the Enlarged (and Extended) Edition of Killing for Culture, I want to raise two questions that I have long pondered in terms of issues around the Doktor and his drink-bud:::

• Is David Kerekes a necrophile movie aficionado?

• Is David Slater a serial killer aficionado?

At first glance, the answers seem obvious… Dave K. hasn’t just constantly engaged issues around death-and-decomposition: he has actually scribed a book about necrophile movies called Sex Murder Art

Why would he do that if he weren’t a necrophile movie aficionado? Huh? And why would Dave S. devote so much of his writing to serial killing if he weren’t a serial killer aficionado?

Reasonable questions. But I think they make some big assumptions. Yes, Dave K. has engaged a lot of issues around death-and-decomposition…

But what about Mezzogiallo, the book he devoted to Romania…?

Greed for Speed — The Tour de France

A fast bit of the Tour de France…

And what about Greed for Speed, the book Dave S. devoted to the Tour de France…?

No, if we’re fair, we have to admit it:

1. There’s a lot of evidence tending towards the conclusion that Dave K. is indeed a necrophile movie aficionado and Dave S. is indeed a serial killer aficionado.

2. But neither assertion is 100% proven

2a. And maybe (just maybe) it’s better that way dot dot dot


*I said contemplated


Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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Awaydays by Kevin SampsonAwaydays, Kevin Sampson (Vintage 1998)

If you’re going to try a fictional entry in the hoolie lit genre, try this one. My interest was partly voyeuristic and I skimmed for the good bits rather than reading properly, but it deserves some of the hype given to John King’s weak and poorly written Football Factory series. Sampson is a much more intelligent and skilful writer. A lot of people will assume he’s cashing in on King, but his book was written before King’s became popular. The sex and violence in Awaydays are much more realistic: you’d definitely like to partake of the former and avoid being on the receiving end of the latter.

But dishing it out is pleasurable: violence is addictive because of its chemical effect on the brain. The narrator’s best friend, an Ezra-Pound-loving thug-eccentric called Elvis, tries more conventional pleasure-chemicals too, like heroin. That’s part of how Awaydays has more anthropological and linguistic interest than King’s books, being about obscure Tranmere Rovers and provincial Liverpool rather than world-famous Chelsea and London. Not that “Dzuh Roh Voz!” are Liverpudlian. They’re from Birkenhead, across the Mersey from the strange and dangerous city of Liverpool, but the rest of the country is right to lump them in with the Scousers. There’s a nastiness and criminality, even a psychopathy, about Liverpool that Tranmere fans in this book share, as the narrator reveals right at the beginning: “Tranmere are the only team in the Third who go away by train and we’re the only ones who use Stanleys – as Chesterfield and all the other knobheads now know.”

A Stanley knife is a razor blade set in a metal handle. It’s difficult to kill with one, but easy to slash and scar. That’s why they were popular with some football hooligans. The narrator of the book doesn’t use one, but plenty in his crew do, to put the knobheads in their place. Awaydays is actually a study of hierarchy and status, because those are very important things to human beings. Violence is one way of establishing who’s above who. So are music and fashion, in this case those of the late 1970s: Joy Division and sovereign rings. Sampson captures the period and setting well and although his attempts at humour and quirkiness can seem a little contrived – the Dr Who convention gatecrashed by Tranmere in Halifax, for example – they’re something else that separate him from King.

So does the ending of the book. Capturing the period and setting well isn’t necessarily a good thing, because both are bleak and unpleasant, and the narrator eventually decides to get out. He realizes the futility of what he’s been doing and the viciousness of it will be brought home after his last away trip. He’s intelligent, middle-class-ish and from a suburb, so he has never really fitted in and trouble starts when he finds he’s being fitted up. That’s why he never gets to face the big boys Tranmere have drawn at home in the F.A. Cup after winning both on and off the pitch at Halifax. But his confrères try their best to get an early taste of what’s in store:

The journey back is a merry one. By the time we draw in at Lime Street, we’ve hyped ourselves up into a mob of fervent Scouse-haters and everyone’s up for storming the Yankee Bar. We’ll never have a better crew or a better opportunity so it’s a deadly let-down when a hundred-odd of us walk into Liverpool’s legendary stronghold and find it packed out with Christmas revellers and drunken old girls singing rebel songs. There’s one or two heads in the back who cannot work out who the fuck we are. They know we’re nothing to do with The Road End and the Yankee isn’t the sort of place you’d expect Everton to go socially. Eventually one of them comes over, horrible kite on him, nasty, narrow eyes and a bit of a scar on his temple. He starts trying to pal up to us, asking what the game was like. Marty pushes his way over.

“We’re Tranmere. That’s what you want to know, isn’t it, you Odgie cunt.”

“Tranmere.”

He just repeats the word, mulling it over quietly amused, then pulls a wincing face. He’s cool. Not remotely flustered by the odds of a hundred and seventeen to five. Ugly, but cool. Batesy, with commendable valour and utter stupidity, stands up.

“You’ve just met The Pack, lar!”

Suddenly it’s my turn to wince. I glance at Elvis. All of a sudden our steely, streetwise little crew sounds like a bunch of drama students playing at being football thugs. Why do we have to have a name anyway? The Scouse lad smiles to himself.

“Well. We’ll be seeing youse then, The Pack.”

He walks back to his mates. Moments later a big laugh goes up. (pp. 114-5)

Status, you see. But why do Liverpool have more than Tranmere and Tranmere more than Halifax? It’s as trivial as demographics: cities generate more violence and have more young men to practice it. That isn’t all there is to it, however, and you can catch the fringes of Liverpool’s unique nastiness here. Perhaps there’s something genetic at work, reflecting the Irish Catholic influence. Whatever it is, Sampson has seen it and can get it down on paper.

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Ruthless by Geoff SmallRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

Because Geoff Small is black he can say things in this book that would have been called racist if they had been said by a white journalist. For example, he tries to explain differing levels of violence in the island nations making up the West Indies by the differing natures of the African tribes who were enslaved and transported there. Some tribes were peaceful, some warlike, and Jamaica, birthplace of the Yardies, was populated by representatives of the warlike ones.

Combine that with dire poverty and illegal drugs, add the intense rivalries of local politics and asinine interference by the CIA, and you have a recipe for some very violent and dangerous gangs: the Yardies, named after the Jamaican word “yard”, meaning a neighbourhood or district. They started to come to the attention of the media and the general public in the 1980s, as they broke their way into the drugs market in the United States and United Kingdom, and the word used of them then is still being used of them now: “ruthless”. If you have a quarrel with the Mafia, the Mafia will kill you. If you have a quarrel with the Colombians, the Colombians will kill you and your wife. If you have a quarrel with the Yardies, the Yardies will kill you, your wife and your children.

With anyone else who happens to be in your house or on the street or in the nightclub at the time. In fact, “ruthless” is hardly strong enough: another word that Small uses comes closer to the truth: “nihilistic”. The Yardies seem to cultivate a complete disregard for human life. Anyone who wonders if their bark is worse than their bite is likely to stop wondering when he reads about this kind of thing:

In terms of utter ruthlessness, the killing of Cassandra Higgins ranks high on the list. A Jamaican visa overstayer, she was certainly no angel. Still, her demise was shocking by any standards. The nineteen-year-old was stripped naked by five Rude Boys in an eighteenth-floor crack-house on the Cathall Road Estate in Leytonstone, east London. Then, to the horror of those who looked on, she was thrown out of the window 160 feet to the ground. Higgins’s death, in September 1993, was thought to have been the result of a rudie drug deal double-cross on her part. The brutal murder was witnessed by several people, but true to form the mouths of those assembled were welded shut by the force of the posse code: ‘See and blind, hear and deaf’; in fact, not one person was willing to go to court to testify against the killers.

Gangs and gang-warfare have long been fashionable on screen and in print, and this book offers many satisfying fixes for the aficionado of other people’s thuggery as it describes how the Yardies or Rude Boys – “rude” meaning “lawless” or “aggressive” in Jamaican English – invaded expatriate Jamaican communities in the US and UK. Their intent was to take over the drugs-markets there and they succeeded through a combination of extreme violence and use of a Jamaican patois that local police forces often found impossible to understand during phone-taps or surveillances.

An often fascinating, sometimes frightening book, Ruthless seems to me more proof of the harm done both by mass immigration and by the illegality of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Yardies do not kill and terrorize people just for the fun of it: they do it because there are huge sums of money to be made from the illegal sale of drugs and huge amounts of excitement and satisfaction to be had from confronting and outwitting the authorities. Small describes Jamaicans as naturally rebellious, ambitious and aggressive, making a mark on the world in international fields like music and sport out of all proportion to their numbers. The Yardies are another example of Jamaicans making their mark in an international field: that of crime. If we legalized drugs, that field would get much smaller. And if Jamaicans had not been allowed to immigrate in such large numbers into Britain and North America, their criminality would not have inflicted so much misery and imposed so much expense.

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Front cover of Dog by Peter SotosDog, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Mikita Brottman (TransVisceral Books 2014)

August 9, 2012. Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman departs her apartment in Minneapolis to attend a ’70s nostalgia concert at a local rock-arena. Behind her, she leaves transgressive author Peter Sotos to dog-sit her prized French bulldog Ludovicus. Four hours later, Brottman returns to her apartment to discover Ludovicus gone and Sotos lying unconscious on the floor.

When he revives, Sotos describes how, minutes after Brottman’s departure, the apartment was invaded by a masked gang.

He remembers trying to fight them off.

Then it all went black…

Dog is a detailed examination of that fateful August day and its continuing repercussions. It is a true-crime book like no other, written from the inside by a no-holds-barred author who has been at the heart of events right from the beginning. As Brottman writes in her introduction:

Peter was a rock thru-out the bewilderment-and-grieving process. It was truly a great comfort when he told me that, altho’ he knew Ludovicus for only a brief time, he felt that the two of them had achieved a genuine and permanent closeness. Furthermore, despite the brutal assault to which he was subjected and the stress-induced indigestion he suffered for two days after Ludovicus’s disappearance, Peter barely left my side for the rest of the month, helping me to process my initial shock and horror and trying to assist the police investigation in any way he could. He also came up with the most plausible theory as to the gang’s identity. No trace of any break-in could be discovered, nor, despite detailed examination of multiple CCTV-feeds, was it possible to identify any strangers entering or leaving the apartment-block during the relevant time-period. But, while the gang was in the apartment, they cleaned the kitchen and polished the stove.

Peter’s suggestion?

“They must have been gay ninjas, Miki,” he said.

I concur. It’s the only explanation that fits all the facts. (Introduction, pg. xii)

But why would gay ninjas kidnap Ludovicus? Where have they taken him? When will they issue a ransom demand? These questions continue to haunt all those involved in this unique tragedy. Dog interrogates each aspect of the case from every conceivable angle and will only serve to sharpen Sotos’s two-fisted reputation as an uncompromisingly incendiary submariner of the most phantasmal sierras of the post-transgressive arena.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Toxic Twosome — review of Doll by Peter Sotos and James Havoc
Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Twice Has Thrice the Vice — review of Pisces by Peter Sotos

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Thirteen Girls, Mikita Brottman (Nine-Banded Books 2012)

I’m no expert in her work, but I don’t think the Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman is a very coherent or profound thinker. Yes, she’s brighter than David Kerekes or Jack Sargeant, but that’s not difficult and her academic specialities prove that she doesn’t know where to draw the comedic line. Being a PhD in EngLit is a good joke. Being a psychoanalyst is a good joke. Being both is grotesque to the point of vulgarity. And vice versa. However, despite all that, I did at least think Ms B was a Good Persun – an Obama-voter, an egalitarian, someone who wanted to make the world a cleaner, kinder, caringer place.

Yes, that’s what I thought.

Then I came across Thirteen Girls, her study of thirteen female murder-victims. I’ve not read the book and I don’t intend to: I got bored with true crime a long time ago. But I don’t need to read the book to be aghast at its ideology. Okay, at first glance, it further exposes the Evil White Male, or EWM/Yoom, and his Evil White Maleness, or Yoomness. But let’s not beat about the bush, or the Brottman: this book buttresses white privilege. And hyper-hypocritically so:

When describing Thirteen Girls, I often refer to Bruegel’s “Fall of Icarus,” in which ordinary people go about their daily routines, barely noticing the tragedy taking place in the background. My students get the analogy immediately, but in the narrow world of publishing and the marketplace, the concept of an unobserved tragedy is definitely not a selling point. (“The Afterlife of Murder”, Mikita Brottman)

Oh, yeah? So Ms Brottman thinks she’s interrogating issues around unobserved tragedy and lives that are lost without the wider world noticing. But all the victims in this book are white. All thirteen of them. Every last flipping one. Even in death, they are benefiting from white privilege and the racist hegemonic mindset that dictates who is seen as Important and who is not. What about the countless Victims of Color (VoC) raped and murdered by Yooms on a daily, indeed hourly, basis? Huh? It is no excuse – no excuse at all – that Brottman is herself not a Woman of Color (WoC). That merely makes it worse. Herself having white privilege, Brottman has used it to buttress the bestial, rather than vocalizing the VoC and interrogating the evil of the Yoom in its full horror. The clear message of this book is that Yoomness only matters if it is directed at white women.

We can see the same message in a recent news-story from South Africa. First, consider a simple fact: not thousands, not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of Black women have been raped or murdered there by the legacy of apartheid since Yoom fascism was toppled in 1994. But none of that has received a fraction as much attention as the death of a single woman called Reeva Steenbock earlier in 2013. Why? Because Reeva Steenbock was the white girlfriend of a famous white man. And when a Black death does receive publicity – someone was recently tied to a police van and dragged to death by the legacy of apartheid – guess what? The Black victim was male.

This book is another example of that noxious narrative and of the refusal of white-privileged women to show solidarity with VoC’s and stand with them against the Yoom and his Yoomness. There are no two ways about it: Brottman is reinforcing racism, facilitating fascism and nurturing Nazism. And if you think I’m being hyperbolic, consider another simple fact: Nine-Banded Books, the Yoom publisher of Mikita Brottman, is also the publisher of Jonathan Bowden. An infamous fascist philosophaster. Coincidence? I fear not. Ms Brottman needs to repent her white privilege, denounce her publisher and start working against the Yoom, not on behalf of him.

Want to see how a genuinely decent and progressive writer does that? Then look no further than Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and her just-published Re-Light My Führer: Nausea, Noxiousness and Neo-Nazism in the Music(k) of Take That, 1988-2007. Now, there is a woman whose ethics I can respect.

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The Satan Bug (1962) / The Way to Dusty Death (1973), Alistair MacLean

MacLean isn’t the best thriller-writer I know, because I think Ian Fleming is better, broader and more entertaining. But The Satan Bug, originally published under the name Ian Stuart, is probably the best of his many books. Or rather, the best version of his book, because he wrote variants on a single theme: hierarchy-hating hero defeats super-cerebral sado-villain(s) whilst wet, wounded and whiskey-soaked. The hero isn’t usually described in detail, because that would have got in the way of the wish-fulfilment fantasy for the heterosexual males who formed MacLean’s main audience. The nondescript hero here is called Pierre Cavell, a highly intelligent, highly skilled Anglo-French secret agent who has turned down six decorations – “three British, two French and one Belgian” (ch. 1) – at the end of the war before joining British intelligence and trying to stop minor but dangerous thefts from a high-security germ-warfare laboratory in Wiltshire called Mordon.

Then the thefts turn major: the laboratory has brewed a super-virus called the Satan Bug and someone makes off with two flasks of it, despite the high security. Cavell endures cold, kicks and cracks on the cranium as he unravels the crook’s cunning and literally saves the world in the final chapter, high over the rain-soaked streets of London. The ending is reminiscent of Fleming’s Goldfinger, which was published in 1959, but MacLean’s villain is more of a God-finger: he could destroy the world with one hand tied behind his back. The botulinum toxin he has also stolen, a gramme of which could wipe millions of people, is much less dangerous than the infernal infection he was really after. Following the theft, an Italian bacteriologist at Mordon describes what it can do:

In its final form, the Satan Bug is an extremely refined powder. I take a salt-spoon of this powder, go outside in the grounds of Mordon and turn the salt-spoon upside down. What happens? Every person in Mordon would be dead within an hour, the whole of Wiltshire would be an open tomb by dawn. In a week, ten days, all life would have ceased to exist in Britain. I mean all life. The Plague, the Black Death – was nothing compared with this. Long before the last man died in agony ships or planes or birds or just the waters of the North Sea would have carried the Satan Bug to Europe. We can conceive of no obstacle that can stop its eventual world-wide spread… The Lapp trapping in the far north of Sweden. The Chinese peasant tilling his rice-fields in the Yangtse valley. The cattle rancher on his station in the Australian outback, the shopper in Fifth Avenue, the primitive in Tierra del Fuego. Dead. All dead. Because I turned a salt-spoon upside down. Nothing, nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug. (ch. 3)

MacLean could write compelling prose about the biggest and baddest of themes, but he was also capable of touches like this, when the police are issuing a description of a get-away car:

“Alfringham. Then the London road. Cancel the call for the Fiat. It’s now a turquoise Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre. All stations. Locate, follow, but don’t close in.”

“Blue-green,” the general murmured. “Blue-green, not turquoise. Don’t call it turquoise. It’s policemen you’re talking to, not their wives. Half of them would think you’re talking about their Christmas dinner.” (ch. 11)

The general is Cavell’s spy-chief and the father of Cavell’s beautiful blonde wife, who gets kidnapped by the villain and his psychopathic deaf-mute assistant in chapter ten. That sort of thing was a bit dated even in 1962, but MacLean also bases a plot detour on an amateur astronomer taking photos of Jupiter’s “satellite Io occulting its own shadow” (ch. 5), so he obviously had a well-stocked brain. It was a well-soaked brain too and his alcoholism isn’t hard to guess from the constant references to hard liquor, though they aren’t as obtrusive and gratuitous as they are in some of his other books. The source of his obsession with cold, wet and injury won’t be so easy to guess, but the obsession is all over The Satan Bug. The book is set in a very wet October and Mordon is “grim, grey and gaunt… under darkly lowering skies” (ch. 2). Because of his war-service, Cavell is almost blind in one eye and has a crippled foot. He also spends the closing half of the book with cracked ribs after the villain tries to dispose of him. Why all the wet and wounding? Well, MacLean served on the Arctic convoys supplying the Soviet Union during the Second World War and his experiences there never left him or lifted from his writing. I also wonder about an earlier part of his life: his mother-tongue was actually Gaelic, not English, and perhaps that helps explain the drive and directness of his prose. He also has a verbal tic of describing people or things as “very X indeed”. It’s part of his hyperbole, but is it also an echo of some characteristic Gaelicism?

Perhaps, but I wonder about genetics as well as Gaelic. Scots have been disproportionally successful in all areas of Anglophone culture and MacLean, one of the best-selling authors in history, is a good literary example. And if I look at my favourite authors, I find that Scots are disproportionately represented there, one way or another. Ian Fleming had Scottish ancestry, for example, and so did Swinburne and Evelyn Waugh, though Waugh’s surname is actually a form of “Welsh”, from Anglo-Saxon walh, meaning “foreign” (as in walnut, because the tree isn’t native to Britain). And Waugh looked, and drank, remarkably like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Thomas isn’t one of my favourite writers, though I do recognize his talent. All the same, he may be another example of the link between literary greatness and Celtic genes.

I wouldn’t call MacLean a literary great, but he definitely had talent and could write up a storm. It’s rain-storms in this book; elsewhere, in Night Without End (1959) or Ice Station Zebra (1963), it’s snow-storms. If you want to understand why he sold so many millions, The Satan Bug may be the best place to start. The copy you read may also be older than you are, but my tattered, age-stained, pre-post-code paperback – stamped “At Your Service | 7 Warren Road | Cheadle Hume | Books and Bric-a-Brac | Bought and Sold” – is more enjoyable to read than a modern paperback would be. Black marks on whitish paper create and populate a world: writing is a strange and magical thing. There are two stills from the film-of-the-book on the back cover of my copy, but film is a less strange and less wonderful thing. It still hasn’t caught up with what writing can do and in some ways it never will.

Nor will computer games, but I can see similarities between computer games and The Satan Bug – and also MacLean’s formula-one thriller The Way to Dusty Death, which I’ve re-read at the same time. The Way to Dusty Death has another good title and is another entertaining read, but it’s on the downward slope of Mount MacLean, heading towards the foothills of rubbish like River of Death (1981) and San Andreas (1984). Like The Satan Bug, it’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy for heterosexual males, though it’s not as complete a fantasy as the James Bond books. MacLean’s books are clean books, without sex or lechery, though the glugging of whiskey is often accompanied by the slugging of villains. The Way to Dusty Death isn’t unusual in its slugging, but is in one of its sluggees:

She spat at him. “Fix it yourself.”

Harlow gave no warning. There was a blur of movement and the silencer of the pistol smashed against the blonde’s face. She screamed, staggered and fell to a sitting position, blood welling from gashes on both cheek and mouth.

“Jesus!” Rory was appalled. “Mr Harlow!” (ch. 10)

Like the pistol-whipped blonde, Rory is an unusual character for MacLean. He’s a teenager and was perhaps meant to allow the sons of MacLean’s older fans to think themselves into the story too. It’s good that he didn’t like that pistol-whipping, but the hero Johnny Harlow has a justification for it: the blonde is beautiful, true, but she’s also a cold-blooded murderess, because she’s recently disguised herself as a nurse and fed a sugar-coated cyanide pill to an inconvenient prisoner. Unlike some of the old writers described by George Orwell in his classic essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944), MacLean needs to give his heroes good excuses for their brutality and bullying. Cavell is trying to save the world in The Satan Bug and Harlow is trying to defeat a heroin-gang in The Road to Dusty to Death.

And get his employer’s kidnapped wife back. He does both, of course, but the book is curiously empty and dream-like by comparison with The Satan Bug. At one point Harlow exchanges idiomatic banter with two French policemen, but MacLean doesn’t bother to say what language they’re talking in. Is Harlow unusually skilled at French or are the policemen unusually skilled at English? No clue is offered: the European setting of the book seems little more than an excuse to include some exotic surnames and places and every character is a walking, talking cliché, from Harlow himself, the world’s greatest racing-driver, to Harlow’s love-interest, the beautiful, black-haired Mary MacAlpine, twenty-year-old daughter of the millionaire owner of the Coronado racing team. But clichés can be compelling, or they wouldn’t be clichés, and the book starts well. This is the opening paragraph:

Harlow sat by the side of the race-track on that hot and cloudless afternoon, his long hair blowing about in the fresh breeze and partially obscuring his face, his golden helmet clutched so tightly in his gauntleted hands that he appeared to be trying to crush it: the hands were shaking uncontrollably and occasional violent tremors racked his entire body.

He has just survived a bad crash. His friend Isaac Jethou hasn’t and is “being cremated in the white-flamed funeral pyre of what had once been his Grand Prix Formula One racing car”. Harlow stares at the flames with “the eyes of an eagle gone blind” and then pours himself brandy in the pits with a “castanet rattle” of bottle on glass. But one difference between him and MacLean’s other heroes is that they drink because they like it. He drinks because he’s pretending to like it, part of a deception to make both his friends and his foes think he’s lost his nerve. This is the scene that greets his boss MacAlpine and a journalist called Dunnett in Harlow’s hotel bedroom after the crash:

Harlow, clad only in shirt and trousers and still wearing his shoes, was stretched out in bed, apparently in an almost coma-like condition. His arm dangled over the side of the bed, his right hand clutching the neck of the whiskey bottle. MacAlpine, grim-faced and almost incredulous, approached the bed, bent over Harlow, sniffed in disgust and removed the bottle from Harlow’s nerveless hand… Both men turned and left the room, closing the broken door behind them. Harlow opened his eyes, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His hand stopped moving and he sniffed his palm. His wrinkled his nose in distaste. (end of ch. 2)

This book was a wish-fulfilment fantasy for its alcoholic author too, but the theme of deception is everywhere in MacLean’s writing. It’s related to paranoia and sleeplessness, which are two more important themes. Paranoia and sleeplessness go together, in fact, as MacLean must have learnt on the Arctic convoys and Harlow gets little sleep at the end of the book, though he doesn’t get wet. That happens to one of the villains instead, but MacLean doesn’t alter much else and the hero triumphs fully and finally in the end.

This is one way the book differs from a computer-game. Like The Satan Bug, it could supply plot-and-hero for one, but it follows a “linear narrative” and MacLean decides what happens next. Not that I’m knocking linear narratives: DNA follows one too and DNA is responsible for both language and computer-games. The era of language is millennia-old now; the era of computer-games began a few decades ago. The males who once read MacLean books are much more likely to be watching pixels now, but it’s reassuring that my copy of The Way to Dusty Death was published in 2009, part of HarperCollins’ reissue of all MacLean’s novels. I prefer to read MacLean’s novels in editions published before he died in 1987, but I’d be happy to re-read some of them again in any format. And when I say “re-read again”, that’s exactly what I mean: the ones I like I’ve read several times. Others I’ve read once and will not be reading again. The Satan Bug and The Way to Dusty Death are among those I will re-read again. They’re fun, as intended, and thought-provoking, as not always intended. If you’re looking to try MacLean for the first time, I’d recommend The Satan Bug. It’s better-written, better-plotted, and its bio-terror theme hasn’t dated.

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