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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

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

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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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Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories to be Read with the Lights On, ed. Harold Q. Masur (1973)

A rather illogical title, a rather uninspired collection of crime and detective stories, with the notable exceptions of Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady”, still worth re-reading however often you’ve read it before, and John Keefauver’s “The Pile of Sand”, which creates mystery from the mundane and isn’t about crime or detectives. The police do make an appearance in it, though, part of the ordinariness of an American seaside town touched by something strange involving what it says on the tin: a pile of sand. Where the other stories, even Dahl’s, have endings-that-explain, this has an ending-that-doesn’t. Partly surreal, partly existential, it has a Twilight Zone-ish quality without being about something big enough to make it onto the program, I’d guess.

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The Reversal, Michael Connelly (2010)

As you’d expect from Michael Connelly, the chronicler of Californian crime who now lives in Florida, this book is another detailed examination of the importance of the White Heterosexual Able-Bodied Male, or WHAM. But this time you get a double-dose – in fact, a doubled double-dose. There are pairs of WHAMs on the side of both Good and Evil. The two righteous righters-of-wrong are Harry Bosch, Connelly’s LAPD murder-detective, and his half-brother, the defense attorney Micky Haller, who’s accepted an offer to appear for the prosecution in the re-trial of a child-murderer called Jason Jessup. The murderer doesn’t sound melanin-enriched, does he? But you don’t need his name to know that he isn’t: his crime is enough to ensure he can’t be anything other than a white male, in the Connelly cosmos. And it’s apparent long before the end of the book that he is guilty, although he’s been released on bail and wants to sue the state of California for a false conviction. He was found guilty in the 1980s partly on DNA evidence, when a trace of semen was discovered on the victim’s dress and shown to belong to his blood-group. But it’s turned out that it wasn’t in fact his. Twenty-first-century technology has proved the depraved deposit belonged to someone else – but still a white male, of course.

The girl’s stepfather, in fact. But he hadn’t actually been abusing the girl: she had borrowed the dress from the actual victim of abuse, her slightly older sister. Then she got snatched off the street by Jessup and strangled. Is there no limit to WHAM evil? Not in the Connelly cosmos. But the book raises a related question: Is there no limit to non-WHAM saintliness? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost start to suspect Connelly was taking the piss in one part of The Reversal, when the discoverer of the victim’s corpse testifies at the new trial. The Bosch sections of the book are written in the third person, the Haller sections in the first. Haller describes the witness being brought to the stand:

As I had gone to the lectern Bosch had left the courtroom to retrieve [William] Johnson from a witness waiting-room. He now returned with the man in tow. Johnson was small and thin with a dark mahogany complexion. He was fifty-nine but his pure white hair made him look older. Bosch walked him through the gate and then pointed him in the direction of the witness stand. (pg. 220)

The “dark mahogany complexion” and “pure white hair” are the first stages in the character’s canonization. Here are some more, as the witness identifies himself to the court and describes what he does for a living:

“…I am head of operations for the El Rey theater on Wilshire Boulevard… I make sure everything works right and runs – from the stage lights to the toilets, it’s all part of my job.”

He spoke with a slight Caribbean accent but his words were clear and understandable. (pg. 221)

So he’s Caribbean and highly competent. The saintliness is solidifying, but Connelly isn’t done. The murdered girl was callously dumped in a rubbish-bin by her WHAM killer. Haller projects a police photograph of the scene onto a screen and asks the competent Caribbean to clearly confirm that it is accurate:

“Okay, and is this what you saw when you raised the top [of the bin] and looked inside?”

Johnson didn’t answer my question at first. He just stared like everyone else in the courtroom. Then, unexpectedly, a tear rolled down his dark cheek. It was perfect. If I had been at the defense table I would have viewed it with cynicism. But I knew Johnson’s response was heartfelt and it was why I had made him my first witness.

“That’s her,” he finally said. “That’s what I saw.”

I nodded as Johnson blessed himself. (pg. 220-4)

I, on the other hand, retched. I think writing like that counts as emotional pornography, but this example has an interesting feature: the black saint who is offered for liberal self-gratification isn’t an American black but a foreign one. Is Connelly suggesting that a Caribbean is credible when weeping over the death of a white child, but a native black wouldn’t be? I don’t know, but I do know that the book, like many of Connelly’s previous books, is meant to be titillating in other ways. The details of Jessup’s known and suspected murders – he proves to have floated like a butterfly and stung like a WASP – remind me of something George Orwell said in his essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944):

It is important to note that by modern standards Raffles’s crimes are very petty ones. Four hundred pounds’ worth of jewellery seems to him an excellent haul. And though the stories are convincing in their physical detail, they contain very little sensationalism – very few corpses, hardly any blood, no sex crimes, no sadism, no perversions of any kind. It seems to be the case that the crime story, at any rate on its higher levels, has greatly increased in blood-thirstiness during the past twenty years. Some of the early detective stories do not even contain a murder. The Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance, are not all murders, and some of them do not even deal with an indictable crime. So also with the John Thorndyke stories, while of the Max Carrados stories only a minority are murders. Since 1918, however, a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited. Some of the Peter Wimsey stories, for instance, display an extremely morbid interest in corpses.

That was written at the end of the Second World War. Plus ça change, eh? But something that has definitely changed in detective fiction is the attitude to the societies built by whites in Europe, America, and other parts of the world. Liberal writers like Connelly now attack them constantly: they’re racist, they’re oppressive, they’re evil. The Reversal re-treads a constant Connellyean theme. In several of his previous books, evil WHAMs have committed sex-crimes and hapless non-WHAMs have been unjustly accused instead. In The Reversal, an evil WHAM has committed a sex-crime and a saintly non-WHAM is weeping over the victim. That’s how it works, in the world of Bosch and Haller. But they’re WHAMs too and they’re examples of how, in liberalism, only WHAMs have free will to choose between good and evil. Bosch and Haller choose good and side with the saintly oppressed; Jessup and the stepfather choose evil and commit the oppression against the saints. But the WHAM Connelly and his WHAM fans may soon start to see that their collusion with their critics will not lead to a better world. They may even realize that sex-crimes are not always and everywhere committed by white males. But I suppose that’s what makes Connelly an imaginative writer and The Reversal a work of fiction.

Pre-previously posted (please peruse):

All Bosched-Up

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