Friday, February 16, 2018

FFB: Clay - David Almond

THE STORY: There’s a new kid in northern England town of Felling. Stephen Rose has been sent to live with his aunt, known as Crazy Mary by the kids in Felling for her eccentric ramblings about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Stephen is an odd boy, a loner of sorts, with a talent for sculpture. His breathtakingly beautiful human figures draw the attention of the art teacher at school and the admiration of a handful of Stephen's fellow students. Not one to make friends easily Stephen nonetheless is drawn to Davie, a mischievous altar boy who steals communion wine and smoke cigarettes with his pal Geordie down by the abandoned quarry. Stephen tells Davie that they have a lot in common not the least of which is a talent for creating things. When Davie shows Stephen the rich clay deposits by the marshy land surrounding the quarry the two begin a strange friendship fueled by a secret experiment that unveils a unnatural creativity defying science, religion and logic.

THE CHARACTERS: Davie narrates Clay (2005) in a mix of Felling’s Irish tainted dialect and a colloquial teenspeak. The reader watches him in his various personae as he flits between allegiance to his best mate Geordie, the burgeoning bond with eerily fascinating Stephen Rose, and a first taste of teen romance in his attraction to Maria. Looming menacing in the background but never really encountered in the flesh is Martin Mould, the local brute of a bully known as Mouldy to those he terrorizes. Described by Davie as having evil eyes, fierce breath and vicious spit Mouldy is a giant of a boy with massive hands, an apish muscular body and towering height. Though “only sixteen but already [drinking] like a man” Mouldy is the ostensible villain of the piece. All the kids talk of him and the fear he instills in them. Davie suffers from nightmares after a particularly violent encounter with Mouldy. He’d like to see him dead. Eventually the secret friendship between Stephen and Davie leads to a campaign of revenge with their secret weapon being a statue Stephen and Davie call Clay that Stephen swears the two of them can bring to life with an unholy ritual.

INNOVATIONS: Clay may be targeted to young readers, but it reads like a profound adult novel. Almond touches on a variety of mature themes all involving creativity and the power of imagination as a tool of survival. He covers everything from divine inspiration, the mystery of innate and inexplicable talent seen so early in young people, and the love/hate dichotomy of intense yet callow friendships. In Stephen Rose author Almond has created a Machiavellian artist reminiscent of a teen Faust armed with occult powers, seductive attraction and inescapably hypnotic words. The story draws on the legend of the Jewish Golem and subverts it with blasphemous use of Catholic ritual in the creation and animation of the statue Clay. Clearly there are also allusions to Shelley’s Frankenstein throughout the story as well as in the never-ending rhetoric Stephen taunts Davie with:

Are we not gods ourselves when we make something new? And why is it God who can only create? Stephen poses: “Mebbe there was a time of beasts and monsters before there came the time of us. Mebbe there’s things like them things walking still. Mebbe there’s things around us that was created by the devil and not by God. Things like the thing that snarled through the door at you. Things like your Mouldy.”

Peter Pratt, the Felling school art teacher, joins in the discussion answering similar questions and more importantly offering advice and counsel. When asked if human creativity is equal to the creativity of God Pratt warns Davie not to think so immorally. To contemplate such ideas is to begin straying down paths that lead nowhere good. He reminds Davie that artists have “astounding skills that may indeed be God-given, but [are] nevertheless human.” Ultimately Pratt teaches that the difference between human and divine creation is that humans cannot create a soul and without that art is never truly divine. Stephen Rose will take those words as a challenge, lead Davie by the hand into a darker world where black magic overtakes the soul, where the desires of the artist seem to have a power greater than even the divine power of creating life. And in bringing to life their idol of Vengeance they bring about destruction and death.

Almond explores metaphysics, theology, art and even the ethics of modern science. When Clay at last begins to move and resemble a powerful and handsome human Davie wonders whether if he is just not one more monster that will bring them trouble. When with Maria Davie talks about genetic accidents, “freaks of nature” and “things there seems no reason for.” The conversation of taboo topics leads to Davie musing on the future of science and the observation that one day they may be able “to make life in a test tube. We’ll be able to create living creatures with chemicals and electricity an nuclear power.”

THE AUTHOR: Born and raised in northwestern England David Almond worked as a postman, brush salesman, editor and teacher before turning to writing novels full time. His first novel, Skellig (1998) won several awards and still remains in print as do all of his books. He has written over twenty novels and picture books for children and one novel for adults. Throughout his career his work has been awarded with the Michael L Printz Honor Book twice, the Whitbread Award, a Carnegie Medal, and a Boston Globe Horn Book award.

EASY TO FIND? Of course it is! In a rare instance on this blog of presenting a book written and published in the 21st century what else would you expect? Clay is one of the most rewarding, penetrating and intense novels I’ve read in a long time. If all young adult books were this rich and dense, insightful and well written rather than being derivative knock-offs I’d probably read more of them on a regular basis. But I know that this kind of book is so utterly unique and a clear expression of recurring personally felt themes found in all of David Almond’s work that it is a rare book indeed. Happy hunting and happy reading!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

F@200: Frankenstein in Baghdad - Ahmed Saadawi

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0143128793
281 pp. $16
Publication date: January 23, 2018

For the first post in my year long salute to "Frankenstein @ 200" I've chosen a brand new book first published in Iran and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Saadawi's novel is a phantasmagorical work that incorporates fantasy, Arabic folklore, and wartime horror in a unique retelling of the Frankenstein story. The novel is Saadawi's reaction to the inescapable violence and endless killing of a wartorn city. He envisioned a sort of Nemesis who would haunt the streets of Baghdad seeking out murderers, terrorists and soldiers responsible for innocent victims of war and bombings. In place of Victor Frankenstein we have the junk dealer Hadi who inadvertently creates a Frankenstein monster of sorts when he tries to find missing body parts for a friend's blown-up corpse. When Hadi travels to the Baghdad morgue he discovers that no attempt has been made to separate or identify any stray limbs and that they have been dumped together according to body part. The morgue attendant tells Hadi, "Just take any arm. What does it matter?" In wartime Baghdad corpses and severed limbs have become so commonplace they are just like so much junk to be piled into a bin and disposed of as quickly as possible.

Saadawi has found a way to take the basic concept of Frankenstein's thirst for god-like power and subvert it. The Creature in his novel is not as soulless as Shelley's monster. It is not without identity nor is it without purpose. Just the opposite, in fact, as Saadawi makes the perceptive point that being composed of so many body parts it is a collective of multiple identities. As for the soul there is an entire chapter devoted to the bodyless soul of a hotel guard who is the victim of a terrorist's suicide bombing attack. For the length of the chapter he travels looking for his body while Saadawi reminds us of the Muslim religious belief that without a body the soul will never be able to enter Heaven.

Ahmed Saadawi (photo: ©Safa Alwan)
The guard discovers the body Hadi has created and settles there thus reanimating the corpse and simultaneously reawakening the many "memories" of the violent ends each separate body part endured. The soul of the hotel guard acts as a spirit of vengeance and the body sets out to find those responsible for its various destructions. As each "memory" succeeds in its act of retribution the body part dissolves making it necessary to find a replacement. What more perfect metaphor could be imagined for the relentless cycle of pointless death during wartime?

Sounds utterly gruesome, right? Why read something so truly horrifying and gut wrenching? And yet it's a masterful satire, tinged with biting humor and powerfully moving sequences, never once is there the temptation to sentimentalize the story with grief stricken longing for the horribly butchered victims of war. One character combats her grief for her missing soldier son with an untold capacity for the hope of his return. It is this missing son's  nose that Hadi finds and attaches to the creature Saadawi has dubbed the Whatsitsname (or perhaps the term is translator Jonathan Wright's invention). Each chapter focusses on one of the many characters in the novel with a trio of them -- Mahmoud, one of several journalists, Hadi, and the Whatsitsname -- taking center stage in the weaving narrative. The most original aspects of the novel are the incorporation of fantasy and supernatural. Saadawi cleverly manages to draw on the rich history of Arabic folklore familiarly known to Western readers from the 1001 Nights.

Edmund Dulac painting, 1907 edition of The Arabian Nights
The novel opens with a sort of Iranian X Files division blandly called by the drab and bureaucratic name The Tracking and Pursuit Department, headed by an egotistical and nearly incompetent Brigadier Majid who is surrounded by muscular young male servants who trot out at a moment's whim to serve tea in his offices. Slowly we learn that the Tracking and Pursuit department is primarily in charge of preventing terrorist attacks by predicting possible violent plots and ending them before they ever occur. They employ not only soldiers but a complex network of astrologers, parapsychologists, mediums, soothsayers, and "people who can communicate with spirits and djinns." Mahmoud interviews the Brigadier about the department trying his best to understand why the army would call for help from what he thinks are a bunch of crackpots. Majid replies "It's work. You don't know how many weird stories we have to deal with. The aim is to get more control, to provide information about the sources of violence and incitement to hatred and to prevent a civil war." In one chapter the reader learns that even among these specialists in the occult there is a war for power. Several sorcerers manage to locate the creature known as the Whatsitsname and using their varied talents in spell casting are trying to control the creature in order to eliminate each other so each man can become the chief sorcerer. As the senior astrologer later says to Brigadier Majid: "What's the point of predicting where a crime is going to happen when you can wipe out the criminal before he becomes one?"

Original Arabic edition (Al Kamel, 2013)
Ultimately, it is the creature itself with its multiple identities, its amassed experience and perceptions of the world "remembered" through each body part who "emerges from a daydream" to deliver the true horror of the relentless violence: "There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal." He realizes the most telling aspect that will undermine his mission " [that] every criminal he had killed was also a victim." His rampage is pointless and he longs to be destroyed.  Yet even as the One Who Has No Name realizes his futility he becomes an omnipresent threat.  He is seen everywhere and becomes everything.  Fear spreads and the Whatitsname is called a Shiite extremist, an agent of foreign powers, an enemy of anyone who has an enemy. Even the Americans working to preserve peace blame the creature on an ingenious man trying to subvert their case. Such is the chaos of life in wartime and such is the power of fear.

As in Shelley's Frankenstein a resolution of sorts comes about only with an ironic punishment of the creature's inventor. Only when a face can be put on the creature rather than a name can the hunt end and a criminal be caught. But recalling the creature's observation we are forced to ask ourselves was the true guilty party found and captured? Saadawi offers us no pat answers here. There is no real peace either.  There is only resignation and surrender as the violence subsides temporarily only to make way for more. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

FFB: Mix Me a Person - Jack Trevor Story

THE STORY: Wannabe musician Harry Jukes is desperate to impress shallow Mona who is too easily impressed by expensive sports cars and movie star glamor. She dares him to steal a Bentley Continental for her. So he does. Little does he know he has stolen a Bentley that belongs to an IRA terrorist. On the same road Harry is driving the owner of that car is sitting next to another IRA member who is driving a truck filled with stolen guns. Harry has an accident in the Bentley, tries to fix a flat tire with the assistance of a passing cop. When they discover they are lacking the right kind of wrench to remove the unusual wheel the cop flags down the first truck he sees. Guess who’s in the truck? Mayhem follows, the cop is shot and Harry manages to run off with the gun that killed the policeman. Soon he’s on trial for the cop’s murder and no one seems to believe his outrageous story filled with alarming coincidences. No one but Dr. Ann Dyson, a psychiatrist of great insight, deep empathy and sheer guts. Dr. Dyson is determined to clear Harry’s name, find all the evidence to prove Harry’s story true and save him from the executioner’s rope.

THE CHARACTERS: Mix Me A Person (1959) is a blend of the inverted detective novel, a juvenile delinquent novel, and a gangster thriller. The odd title is an allusion to a passing slight about the profession of psychiatry, in particular Dr. Dyson’s personal approach of listening intently to her client’s life stories and gleaning from their anecdotes telling behaviors and reactions that help her understand them. She builds a close bond to Harry rather quickly but is more successful with his small circle of friends who hang out a local cafe/jukebox joint. They all sport odd nicknames like Socko, Gravy, and Dirty Neck, which she uses familiarly to help build up camaraderie. Only later when they've helped her out of scrape with the IRA ruffians does she bother to ask about their real names and how their got their unusual monikers. Story does a good job of making these young people extremely likeable in their refusal to believe in a generation gap. That Dr. Dyson is in her early thirties, very attractive and given to wearing close fitting, eye catching outfits might also have a lot to do with her getting Harry's male friends to act as her cohorts in crime solving. But it's mostly due to Anne's being the only adult who believes in Harry's innocence that gains her such a loyal group of allies among the cafe crowd. Their hip lingo and British teen slang add a nice touch of retro verisimilitude to the plot.

In one of the more strikingly poignant moments Mona joins the gang of do-gooders in a way only she would think suitable. Mona is starstruck, living in a daydream world of idolizing screen stars and the fantasy lives they portray in the countless movies she is always talking about. She's also completely delusional in thinking that she will someday have a career in movies and does everything she can imagine in order to fulfill her dream as soon as possible. Through a combination of feminine wile and luck she uncovers a crucial piece of evidence -- a gun Harry once owned then traded away -- by seducing the young man who got the gun from Harry. Once she has the gun in her possession Mona dreams up a ludicrously melodramatic scene right out of the kinds of movies she is obsessed with. She plans to call the police, tell them she has the gun all the time staging a fake suicide attempt involving the coin operated gas heater in her bedsit apartment, figuring the suicide attempt will speed the police to her home and they can get the gun promptly. She spends half the day making herself up, positioning herself in a suitable dramatic pose, just before inserting the few shillings into the gas meter. Never once thinking that extra touches of reality may lead to a fatal accident rather than an act of heroism.

The IRA baddies are a nasty lot, quick to catch on to Anne's questionable interest in Mr. Taplow, the owner of the stolen Bentley, who runs a fruit distribution company. Anne pries into his business operation alarming the hot tempered Irish who think nothing of imprisoning Anne in a walk-in freezer and setting up other death traps. Taplow may not be fully cooperating but he recognizes that to endanger Dr. Dyson's life or foolishly kill her would be tantamount to admitting guilt in the policeman's death. This disagreement in how to deal with Dr. Dyson's prying questions leads to the nail-bitingly suspenseful final chapters with Taplow turning the tables on his IRA associates in an last ditch attempt to do good.

THE PREVIOUS VERSION: In addition to his own novels Jack Trevor Story was one of the many writers contributing thrillers to the Sexton Blake series. His sixth novel for Amalgamated Press (he wrote about twenty books for the series) was Nine O'Clock Shadow about young Harry Jukes who "borrows a flash car to impress a girl. Unfortunately, the car belongs to an IRA arms smuggler and Harry is implicated in the murder of a policeman." Yes, indeed! It's the very same story as Mix Me A Person. When Story rewrote that plot he substituted pulp hero Sexton Blake for the attractive Dr. Anne Dyson, psychiatrist turned detective. The title of the first version of this story refers to the "shadow of the gallows" figuratively looming ominously in the background as Blake races against the clock to prove Jukes' innocence in the same time constrained manner as Dr. Dyson.


THE AUTHOR: Jack Trevor Story is perhaps best known in the US as the author of The Trouble with Harry (1949) which was adapted for the movies and became Alfred Hitchcock's comic thriller about a dead body that won't stay hidden or buried. In his native England Story is better known for a trilogy of semi-autobiographical comic novels featuring Alfred Argyle and another trio of books about Horace Spurgeon. How he came to write for the Sexton Blake series is one of those "sheer luck" stories that often literally save a writer from a life of poverty. Story wrote about meeting Bill Baker, a former editor at Panther Books, who was going to take over the Sexton Blake series in an essay called "Sexton Blake Saved My Turkey." Great memoir! I suggest you all click on the link and read all about it. In the essay Story says the only Blake novel he and Baker could use as their model was one by Rex Stout. But that's an error of memory. He means Rex Hardinge. Stout never wrote a Sexton Blake novel as all us Yanks know he was strictly about Wolfe and Goodwin.

THE MOVIE: In 1962 Mix Me a Person was adapted for the screen by writer Ian Dalrymple and director Leslie Norman. American actress Anne Baxter played Dr. Dyson and pop star and sometime actor Adam Faith co-starred as Harry Jukes. In the novel Harry is a mediocre guitar player, but he's changed to a singer allowing Faith to sing at least two songs based on YouTube clips I found. The strangely sunny title track "Mix Me A Person" was released as the B side to Faith's quasi country record "Don't That Beat All?" Faith also performs -- bizarrely -- a cover of "La Bamba" in one of the many cafe scenes. Check it out here if you want to. He was actually perfectly cast as the naive, pretty boy Harry though his acting is not very memorable. You can watch Faith and Baxter in a prison interview scene at YouTube. Baxter is too old for Dyson as she is described in the book and way past her glamor years, too, to be suitably alluring to Harry's friends. The film is available on DVD from Rare Movies, who impressively will code your copy for the proper region as well as the putting it in correct DVD format.

THE RECORD: I listened to Adam Faith's song "Mix Me a Person." Pleasant and innocuous, but with sentimental lyrics and an upbeat melody completely unfitting for a movie about a young man facing execution. To me it sounds like something Pat Boone would have recorded with an arrangement that oddly reminds me of Gene Pitney's "24 Hours from Tulsa".

EASY TO FIND? There were a couple of reprints of this title, including a movie tie-in paperback edition (Corgi, 1962). The US first edition shown at the top of this post is the most common these days and easy to find (as well as reasonably priced) in the used book market. And I'm sure you might stumble across one of the many UK editions, hardcover or paperback, in any of the bookstalls and shops on the other side of the pond. The book hasn't been reprinted since the 1960s.

Friday, February 2, 2018

FFB: Money on the Black - Allan MacKinnon

THE STORY: David Stanners, recently on leave from the army, is asked to help crackdown on black market thieves who have committed murder during their recent burglary of a fur warehouse. Money on the Black (1946) is rich with wartime details and its action packed, incident filled story is chock full of unexpected plot turns and shocks.

INNOVATIONS: MacKinnon has a sharp eye for character and action. The story is highly cinematic in its descriptions and many of the scenes are dramatically constructed as if intended for a movie or the stage. Mackinnon was in fact a screenwriter and wrote scripts for numerous movies, some of which were based on his stories.

UK edition originally titled
Nine Days' Murder (1945)
(apostrophe in wrong place on DJ)
Take, for example, the young elevator operator with a memory like a camera. He was a former page at a hotel until he literally outgrew the position. Now as a too tall elevator operator in an apartment complex he is training himself to remember the features and clothing of five people he meets everyday hoping this skill will help him land his dream job of being a reception desk concierge in at the same hotel where he worked as a page. His remarkable description of a man who leaves the scene of a murder helps the police track down a crucial witness.

THINGS I LEARNED: Really what made this one of the most fascinating reads so far this year was the exceptional attention to detail and the casual references to wartime that I was forced to research since all of it was foreign to me.

A passage mentioning "the Valor was burning low" led me to look up what exactly Valor referred to. I guessed that it was a kind of stove and some internet searching tells me its a brand name of a portable oil burning stove popular during wartime. I found a for Valor British Made Oil Stoves ad on a WW2 history blog that used the tagline "No smoke...No smell....No trouble."

Radiogram confused me a bit. From the context I figured maybe it was a record player, but why the radio part? Turns out it's a fancy piece of cabinet furniture that combined a radio with a record player. This is exclusively a British & Australian term. In the US a similar item would be called a hi-fi (short for high fidelity).

One of the characters goes strolling down the street and turns into an alley "where an illuminated S offered safety". Just an offhand way to tell the reader that he went in search of an air raid shelter. Of course I had no idea until I looked it up.

Anyone would know that "a Wren emerged from a kiosk" does not mean an actual bird. I figured it was a female officer in some military unit since the scene where this passage occurs takes place in a military club. Didn't know that it was the slangy way to pronounce WRN for Women's Royal Navy. Related to this was a passing reference to an A.T.S. Girl who was also among the many soldiers and officers at the King George Club. The Auxiliary Territorial Service was the women's branch of the British army. It was formed in 1938 after 17,000 woman volunteered. By the end of 1943 there were close to 200,000 women in the A.T.S. I found this on the "Women at War" website: "Women were not allowed to go into action with the men or to use firearms, but apart from that they did the same work as the men and were paid the same wages. Jobs in the [A.T.S.] army varied from cooks, clerks, telephonists and translators to lorry drivers, motorbike messengers and engineers. Women did most of the driving in the army. They drove everything from staff cars to trucks and had to be able to maintain and repair the vehicles. The ATS anti-aircraft crews watched out for enemy aircraft. They could track them with radar, pick them out with searchlights and aim the large anti-aircraft guns onto them, but only the men were allowed to fire the guns!"

Stanners' superior is a Scot who throws in a Gaelic phrase every now and then. He describes a murder weapon found plunged into the back of the first corpse as "a very ordinary sgian dubh". That sent me off to the internet again. Gaelic for "black knife" the term specifically refers to the kilt knife a Scotsman wears in a sock or tucked into his boot.

(BTW, all of these above references occur within ten pages of one another [pp. 46-56]. This next one didn't show up until page 122.)

"four day flitter" is a person who moved from hotel to hotel before five days were up. In wartime if you stayed in a hotel five days or longer you had to turn over your ration book to the front desk. This is not a casual mention but is tied into the plot. The explanation of a four day flitter (someone who refuses to give up their ration card and leaves to find another room for another four days at a different hotel) leads into a lengthy discussion about ID theft and ID card forgery. The head of the black market operations in the novel, Michael Hanley, is a "four day flitter" and is also thought to have forged an ID card with this fake Hanley alias.

THE AUTHOR: Allan MacKinnon was a Scottish novelist and screenwriter who like his countryman John Buchan was a specialist in the pursuit thriller and espionage adventure novel. Money on the Black, his first novel, reveals his trademarks of an intricate plot and fast pace. While he incorporates elements of the traditional detective novel I'd say it travels heavily into thriller territory. Most of Mackinnon's writing was for the movies. In addition to his many original scripts he adapted numerous novels, stories and radio plays for the screen during his career that lasted from 1939 to 1957. Among his scripts are Sleeping Car to Trieste, She Shall Have Murder (based on the Delano Ames novel), The Saint's Girl Friday (based on Leslie Charteris' Simon Templar story), Circumstantial Evidence, House of Blackmail and The Hornet's Nest.

EASY TO FIND? This one is pretty scarce, but that should come as no surprise. Originally published in the UK as Nine Days' Murder (1945), in France as Le dernier whisky, and under the title reviewed here in the US only a handful of each edition are currently offered for sale at various bookselling sites. My copy is the US Doubleday Crime Club edition, apparently the most common, with the striking surrealistic dust jacket by artist Vera Bock, a frequent Crime Club DJ illustrator. There was also a reprint for the US based Unicorn Mystery Book Club, a four-in-one volume with three other mysteries by Patricia Wentworth, H.R. Hays and Don Cameron. Checking with libraries may be helpful with this title.