Friday, November 02, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books, November 2, 2012

Due to a computer crash, the summing up will appear tomorrow. Thanks!
I have a story posted at SHOTGUN HONEY.
Thanks to the kind folks there.

                                          THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, Anthony Ambrogio

Anthony Ambrogio is the author of YOU'RE NEXT: LOSS OF IDENTITY IN THE HORROR FILM, contributes to MIDNIGHT MARQUEE, and is the editor of CORRIDORS, a literary magazine. 

This past October, while staying on Chincoteague Island in Virginia, I picked up, for free, at the public library there, a battered copy of THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, which I had never read. I did see the movie back when it came out (as I had also seen but never read ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES), and I thought it was okay, but that was a long time ago, so I thought I’d check out the novel. What struck me about the book was that, if it were written today, Ira Levin could never get away with the rather slow pace that he uses to begin the book. I had to dutifully plug through the first 15 or so pages describing the Nazis meeting at a Japanese restaurant in South America before things really got going. But, once things did, it was a pretty gripping narrative—so much so that I put BOYS on my Netflix queue so I could re-evaluate the movie.

You can see from the novel how it was probably written with a screenplay in mind (by that time, Levin must have known that anything he wrote would be snapped up by Hollywood), but my recollection was that the finished product wasn’t so good. Back in 1978, when the movie was released, I didn’t think that Gregory Peck made a convincing Nazi, and I thought Laurence Olivier made only a half-convincing Nazi-hunter. That may be because I was convinced, in the 1970s, that Olivier used the same strange accent whether he was playing a Dutch professor (DRACULA), a Nazi (MARATHON MAN), a Nazi-hunter (here), or a Jewish cantor (THE JAZZ SINGER). (Maybe I was being unfair; maybe they all spoke alike because they all hailed from the same area.)

SPOILER ALERT. If you have never read/seen THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and are unfamiliar with its plot and various surprises, you may want to stop reading now. However, at this late date, I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I disclose that BOYS, which plays like a puzzle (why does Mengele want his six assassins to murder 94 65-year-old non-entities, 94 civil servants in various European and North American countries?), finally explains itself by revealing that Mengele has succeeded in cloning 94 Hitlers and placing the babies in homes that duplicate the family structure of Hitler’s own youth, with the intention that—by replicating key events in the original’s life (like having his much older father die when he is 14)—several of them will grow into the spitting, shouting, hating, demagogic image of the Fuhrer.

A friend of mine objected to the central premise of the story: “My main problem with THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is that Mengele's plot is completely nonsensical. Why would anybody, even a Nazi, want to clone 94 Hitlers spread out in countries all over the world? Didn't it occur to them that an American Hitler, or a British Hitler, or a French Hitler, isn't necessarily going to be a good thing for Germany. I know it's a thriller, and thrillers are allowed a lot of latitude in the plausibility department. But, at the very least, you should be able to follow the reasoning of the Master Villain, no matter how absurd his plot is. In BOYS FROM BRAZIL, I just didn't get Mengele's reasoning. To be fair, the other Nazis in the movie—the sensible Nazis, I suppose you could call them—thought his plan was as crazy as I did.”

But my friend is missing the point.

Mengele’s plan is to “save” the Aryan race by creating another Hitler. So he plants his 94 clones in Aryan countries or with Aryan (white) parents in countries with “mixed” populations. The idea is that one or more of these kids will grow up to champion the cause of the white (Aryan) race. I don’t think it’s so odd for him to believe that, whichever Fascist comes to power in whatever country, he will be good for Germany and white countries everywhere. After all, at the time that Hitler ruled Germany, the Italians (who had developed Fascism first) had Mussolini, and the Spanish had Franco, both of whom were sympathetic to and supporters of Hitler’s aims and goals. Many other countries had their own home-grown brown- or black- or whatever-color shirts. (Oswald Mosley upheld the Fascist cause in Great Britain in the 1930s, as did other people in other places.) It wasn’t all that hard for the Third Reich to get “right-thinking French and denizen of other occupied countries to jump on the Nazi bandwagon.

Mengele’s plan (perhaps not spelled out clearly in the movie—or, perhaps, even in the book) was to create some kind of Pan-Aryan paradise across the world. In the book, Liberman says that biology and family environment are not enough; the social conditions (such as those that existed in Weimar Germany) must be just right if a Hitler is to come to power. This is another reason for Mengele’s number of 94—to increase the chances of the boy having the right combination of all three things. There’s more talk in the book than in the film about the success rate of his experiment—what percentage of the boys will become the Fuhrer that Mengele wants.

At any rate, I was able to suspend my disbelief without difficulty in regard to Mengele’s plot as conceived and delineated by Levin. (On the other hand, I thought that the disowning of Mengel’s scheme by the Germans in charge was an unnecessary contrivance.) I suppose it all depends on what we can stand, but I was able to put up with the major contrivance without much difficulty.

It was instructive for me to re-see the movie after finally reading the book. The film alters the beginning of the novel—that part that I said was rather slow and wouldn’t be stood for by a reader today—by speeding up events, making them more (dare I say this?) “cinematic”—letting us see the Nazi get-together from the point of view of the young Jewish American who’s trying to keep tabs on them. In fact, the first five minutes or so of the film are practically wordless as the young man observes the Nazis gathering and rushes to shadow them.

The film itself follows the book pretty closely, though it does compress certain things and allow the story to proceed at a faster clip. (It avoids some of the awkward “disguises” that Mengele assumes at the end, first pretending to be Lieberman when he meets Wheelock, the adoptive father of one of the Hitler clones, and then pretending to be Wheelock when Lieberman shows up.)

Ultimately, I don’t know if the picture is more than a two-and-a-half-star film because of certain flaws inherent in the story and because of the casting, which doesn’t really work. I understand that Gregory Peck probably wanted to stretch his acting muscles by playing a bad guy, but he’s not the best choice for Josef Mengele. (And, of course, he has to speak with a “Choimin accent” throughout, even when he’s obviously supposed to be speaking German to his colleagues, when he wouldn’t have an accent. Ditto Laurence Olivier’s Jacob Lieberman [based on actual Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal] with his European accent.)

Two items in the plot—there because Levin wants them to be, probably for thematic reasons—bothered me.

When Lieberman discovers Mengele’s plan to have the civil servants killed, the “high command” or whatever it is (the post-War Nazi unit) decides to abort Mengele’s mission. But single-minded Mengele determines to soldier on without anyone else’s help. I guess I can understand why this has to happen—to set up the ultimate confrontation between Mengele and Lieberman—but it, in one way, diminishes the general Nazi threat by making it more the single-minded action of one man. And that final confrontation between Mengele and Lieberman involves several dangerous Dobermans. Again, I kind of understand why the dogs must figure in the plot because the young boy who’s one of the Hitler clones has to have a part in this confrontation, and the dogs become his “weapon.” Still, I always felt that the dog scenario was a kind of cop-out—I guess because it wasn’t the sort of Big Climax that I was looking or hoping for.

The film did play better this time than I remember it in 1978, and Levin’s ideas are ingenious (albeit dimmed by 35 years of cloning in fiction and real life), and I think both book and film are worth reading/seeing, at least once, and would make an interesting companion piece to MARATHON MAN, book and film, which are of the same vintage.

And you have to hand it to Levin. He came up with wild but plausible and downright scary stories that were all different: a coven of witches conspiring to insure the birth of the anti-Christ, a bunch of men conspiring to replace their spouses with perfect robotic substitutes, a group of Nazis conspiring to recreate Hitler. (Notice, however, that conspiracy figures prominently in each novel.)

In the dénouement of BOYS, Lieberman prevents the Jewish Defense League-like organization from hunting down and killing the Hitler clones, arguing that they are just children and that the Hitler hunters would be no better than the Nazis who killed six million. But both the book and the movie add (different) codas, suggesting that the cloning is working and that the Wheelock boy whom we’ve seen might very well grow up into the Nazi we fear, pretty much negating Liberman’s message of tolerance and kindness and non-intervention. I have no idea of this outcome represents Levin’s pessimistic view of the world or if he was just following a trend (that, one could argue, he started in ROSEMARY’S BABY) of having the bad guys win. In ROSEMARY’S BABY, Rosemary’s acceptance of her devil child is a maternal action and one that grows organically out of the plot. One might even be able to argue that the dire fate of the protagonist in THE STEPFORD WIVES makes sense, given the thrust of the story. But the tacked-on “downbeat ending” of BOYS is more perfunctory (as were the endings of too many movies that followed in the wake of ROSEMARY’S BABY’s success); it doesn’t need to be there.

Ed Gorman is the author of the Dev Conrad series of political thrillers as well as the Sam McCain series. He also edits anthologies, writes westerns and short stories, and is generally busy here.

One way you can tell you're getting old is when the good girl in the Gold Medal novel appeals to you more than the femme fatale.

Somebody wrote me about a review I'd written a few years ago of Bruno Fischer's House of Flesh. In my review I was agreeing with science fiction writer Dave Bischoff's contention that the book is a mystery that combines gothic elements with some really horrorific moments. It's one of Fischer's best novels, a very sleek, dark whodunit that lags only at the very end because he runs out of suspects. There is a particularly nasty scene wherein dogs set upon the remains of a dead horse, the carcass having rotted before they got to it. The word "flesh" has multiple meanings in the novel. And nasty is the operative word for long sections of the book. 

Before responding to the letter I decided to look through the book again. Held up very well. But as I read it I realized that Fischer had made the good girl so appealing--smart, funny, winsome, clean cut--that the protagonist seems sort of dotty to obsess over a rather odd woman whom he finds unattractive (but inexplicably sexy of course), aggravatingly mysterious and frequently irritable. 

I know, I know--this is noir land where gonadic response to fate is not only standard but mandatory, thanks to the Law of The Crotch as writ large and eternal by James M. Cain.

The only way I can explain this misjudgement is my age. But an evening with the sweet, amusing good girl promises so much more fun than a few hours in the clutches of The Dragon Lady...

By the time they plant me Ill probably be reading those old-fashioned Harlequin romances. The clean ones.


The Evil Days by Bruno Fischer

Bruno Fischer had one of those careers you can't have any more. There's no market for any of it. He started out as editor and writer for a Socialist newspaper, shifted to terror pulps when the newspaper started failing, became a successful and respected hardcover mystery novelist in the Forties and early Fifties, and finally turned to Gold Medal originals when the pb boom began. His GMs sold in the millions. His House of Flesh is for me in the top ten of all GMs.

Then for reasons only God and Gary Lovisi understand, Fischer gave up writing and became an editor for Colliers books. But he had one more book in him and it turned out to be the finest of his long career.

Fischer shared with Howard Fast (Fast when he was writing mysteries under his pen names) a grim interest in the way unfulfilling jobs grind us down, leave us soulless. Maybe this was a reflection of his years on the Socialist newspaper. The soullessness features prominently in The Evil Days because it is narrated by a suburban husband who trains to work each day to labor as an editor in a publishing company where he is considered expendable. Worse, his wife constantly reminds him (and not unfairly) that they don't have enough money to pay their bills or find any of the pleasures they knew in the early years of their marriage. Fischer makes you feel the husband's helplessness and the wife's anger and despair.

The A plot concerns the wife finding jewels and refusing to turn them in. A familiar trope, yes, but Fischer makes it work because of the anger and dismay the husband feels when he sees how his wife has turned into a thief. But ultimately he goes along with her. Just when you think you can scope out the rest of the story yourself, Fischer goes all Guy de Maupassant on us. Is the wife having an affair? Did she murder her lover? Is any of this connected to the jewels? What the hell is really going on here?

Sometimes we forget how well the traditional mystery can deal with the social problems of an era and the real lives of real people. The hopelessness and despair of these characters was right for their time of the inflation-dazed Seventies. But it's just as compelling now as it was then when you look at the unemployment numbers and the calm reassurances by those who claim to know that the worst is yet to come.

A wily little novel that rattled me the first time I read it and rattles me still on rereading.

 THE RULES OF THE GAME by Georges Simenon
(Review by Deb)
If you handed this book to someone without telling them it was written by Georges Simenon, I think they would guess it was written by John O'Hara or John Marquand or one of the other mid-century American writers who focused on the interior lives of middle-class men reaching roadblocks in their attempts to navigate the social structures of their suburban worlds.  Certainly, a reader would not guess that this book was written by the creator of that quintessential Frenchman, Inspector Maigret.

Published in 1955 and written during a period when Simenon lived (and wrote several books set) in America, THE RULES OF THE GAME concerns a few pivotal days in the life of Walter Higgins, the manager of a large grocery store in Williamson, a prosperous Connecticut suburb.  For the second year in a row, Walter has applied to join the local country club.  The previous year, he was black-balled; this year, assures the friend who sponsors him, he is a shoo-in for membership.  To Walter, membership in the country club means he has arrived, that he is part of the group that runs things in Williamson, that his Little League coaching, regular chuch attendance, membership in the Rotary Club and VFW (he served in WWII), and volunteer work with the school board has been noticed and rewarded.  It also means he can let go of the memories of his difficult childhood in the rough, working-class town of Old Bridge.

But again Walter is black-balled and this time his life comes tumbling down with the imploding of his expectations. Despite the support of his wife and perceptive oldest daughter, Walter cannot adjust to the notion that people who control the admissions process do not think he is "worthy" of country club membership.  The scales have fallen from his eyes and at last he sees the social strata of Williamson and his place in it.  He realizes that everyone plays a game in this social interaction, but that he has failed to understand the rules (or even be aware that a game is being played). 

This new awareness leads Walter to a brave act: Supporting a proposal to raise local property taxes in order to build a new school that will accommodate the town's growing population.  There are some remarkably timely exchanges at the school board meeting (or perhaps it's just a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same") where the town's wealthiest citizens (and their proxies) complain that the increase in taxes will hurt them the most, even though they have recently been willing to pay much more to erect a new building at the country club; while people on the other side of the issue claim that the new schools are necessary to produce the sort of educated workforce needed by the wealthy to run their factories and other enterprises.

Worried that his support of a tax increase will cause upper-class customers to stop patronizing his supermarket, Walter spends a morning at work in a state of near paranoia, fretting over every person who does (and does not) come in to shop.  Then a phone call summoning him back to Old Bridge leads Walter to confront his past and experience a "dark night of the soul."  The ending is, paradoxically, both happier and more cynical than we would expect from an American writer covering the same material.  We have a sense that Walter will now be better able to function in the society he has chosen, but we do not know what the price of playing the game will be for him and his family.

Yvette Banek
Joe Barone
Brian Busby 
Bill Crider
Martin Edwards
Curt Evans
Elisabeth Grace Foley
Jerry House
Nick Jones
Randy Johnson
George Kelley  
Margot Kinberg

B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
Richard Pangburn
James Reasoner
Gerard Saylor
Ron Scheer 
Michael Slind
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple
Prashant Trikkanad


J F Norris said...

I read HOUSE OF FLESH earlier this year and thought it run-of-the-mill. You're right about the femme fatale. I thought she was repellant and absurd. I was stunned that the protagonist was obsessing over her. The story is excessively Gothic (how can anyone not see that?) and probably too familiar for someone like me who's read too many of the real thing to find a noir spin of Gothic to be innovative.

Gerard said...

A line worth repeating:

I know, I know--this is noir land where gonadic response to fate is not only standard but mandatory, thanks to the Law of The Crotch as writ large and eternal by James M. Cain.

Casual Debris said...

Hi Patti, I've returned with an entry just in time for Halloween. Please include in your list.

John Blackburn, The Children of the Night (1966).

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Interesting, thoughtful review of Boys from Brazil. Funnily enough I reviewed it myself over the summer (as part of a series of posts on books which begat films), and made the point – not terribly original, I'm sure – that Levin's big ideas are like perfect high concept movie pitches – which is why so many of his books became movies.

Thanks, as ever, for the link, Patti – link back now active.

Yvette said...

Nothing from me today, Patti. I'm just blank. Apologies.

Rick Robinson said...

Computer crash? Oh my, I am sorry to hear that! Hope you are able to get everything repaired and that you didn't lose any data!

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Had my post up yesterday, but somehow forgot to leave my lnk here till now! Here it is: Poor, Dear Margaret Kirby & Other Stories by Kathleen Thompson Norris

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

That would be "leave my link." :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I've been intending to read the boys from Brazil for a very long time. One day.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

It's solid stuff, Charles; not the best book I've ever read, but a cracking yarn, although if you've seen the film there won't be many surprises!

Patti, didn't realise you'd swapped links to my posts! I've duly swapped the link back here.

Anonymous said...

Patti, good story. Only one correction for future reference: it's Redding.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can't believe I missed that!