Friday, December 03, 2010
Friday's Forgotten Books, Dec. 3, 2010
I am tied up today so this may be a bit scattered. Also I'll be taking off December 24th and December 31st for the holidays.
Ed Gorman, who write terrific westerns such as those found on Pulp Serenade's roundup (Wolf Moon for one) can be found right here.
THE INNOCENT MRS. DUFF, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
For some reason, much as I've pushed her, I'd never read THE INNOCENT MRS. DUFF by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It is remarkable in many ways, not least because the protagonist, Jacob Duff is drunk for virtually the entire novel. And we see 95% of the book through his eyes. Functionally drunk for most of it but also falling-down drunk in places. Holding's genius was to sustain a sense of
dread that I don't think even Ruth Rendell has equaled. There are times in her novels when I have to put the book down for a few minutes. Theyare that claustrophobic in mood and action.
That's the first remarkable aspect of the book. The second remarkable aspect is that we see the book through the eyes of one of the most arrogant, self-involved, cold and self-deluded men I've ever encountered in fiction of any kind. I hated the bastard so
much--I'm not enamored of the upper-classes, alas, and Duff embodies everything I loathe about them--I almost gave up after chapter three. I wasn't sure I wanted to learn anything more about this jerk,
But Holding has the voodoo, at least for me. She makes me turn pages faster than any best-seller because what you're rushing to discover is the secrets of her people not just plot turns. All the good folks in
this one are women, especially Duff's younger, beautiful and very decent wife. He constantly compares her unfavorably to his first wife, though we soon learn that he didn't care much for his first wife, either. At
age forty he's still looking for his dream woman. God have mercy on her soul if he ever finds her.
As always with Holding, as with much of Poe, what we have is not so much a plot (though she's as good as Christie) as a phantasmagoria of despair, distrust and suspicion that consumes the protagonist. Is his
wife cheating on him? Is she setting up his death so she'll inherit his estate? Is she turning his young son against him? Has his wealthy aunt, his life-long mentor and mother confessor, taken the side of his young
wife? Has his drinking disgraced him in his small town and are all those smirks aimed at him? And finally, is he a murderer? And why does he have to sneak around these days to drink?
If you're curious about Holding, this is a good place to start. Anthony Boucher always said that she was the mother of all psychological suspense novelists. What's interesting is how few, fifty-some years after her death, have come close to equaling her enormous powers. Not for nothing did Raymond Chandler call her the best suspense novelist of his generation
R. Narvaez was born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His work has been published in A Thousand Faces, Indian Country Noir, Murdaland, Plots with Guns, and Spinetingler. He is co-editor of The Lineup crime poetry chapbook series
Am Thinking of My Darling, Vincent McHugh
A virus. The City. Civic chaos. Government collapse. The stuff of zombie flicks and terrorist scenarios in 2010. But back in the ’40s, such a plot could still be light-hearted. In Vincent McHugh’s 1943 novel I Am Thinking of My Darling, a virus infects New York City—but it's a happy virus! The infected follow their bliss, feverishly losing their inhibitions (for you Trekkies, think "The Naked Time" episode). The problem is that no one wants to work. Honestly, who would?
Acting planning commissioner Jim Rowan returns home from a trip to DC to find cheerful chaos quickly spreading across town—and his actress wife Niobe missing. She’s infected and on the lam, looking to live out a succession of character roles in a kind of Method fervor. Meanwhile, in an emergency management meeting (consider what that term evokes today), the mayor announces he has the virus—and would rather play with model trains than lead the City. To avoid panic, Rowan is secretly made acting mayor.
The plots riffs genially from there, with Rowan hot on the trail of his slippery wife, cabbing from City Hall to Harlem across a Cityscape in Mardi Gras mode—all the while consulting with civil services to keep things running and with scientists to find a cure. (The fact that the virus apparently originated in the tropics, implying that people there are inhibition-less, may be another artifact of the past.) A polymath (when being a polymath was simpler), Rowan narrates in sensual, informed detail about now-bygone architectural wonders, regional accents, lab science, and jazz music.
This book, with its glad-rag view of a long-lost era, has been a favorite of mine since it was recommended to me decades ago. (I still have my first copy, bought in the now-bygone Tower Books in the Village). McHugh, a poet and a staff writer for The New Yorker in the ’30s, employs a prose style that winks slyly at Chandler and pulp. (Once Rowan is inevitably infected, he’s like Marlowe on E.) Darling also features a nice amount of sexual frankness that may surprise modern readers who forget that people in the ’40s had sex. The novel was made into the very '60s movie What's So Bad About Feeling Good?, but by then the times had already been a-changed enough that the conceit no longer had the right kind of jazz.
Steve Lewis.William F. Deeck