The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, by Peter Ackroyd

The author likes to blend fiction and history, and he does it in this 1994 novel quite effectively. Such as when Karl Marx and George Gissing sit alongside his fictional characters in the British Museum. But he also blends other factors, such as the sexes, with females playing males, and such as the contrast between the reality of violent death and the illusion of the theatre.

This novel opens with an execution. Of the Elizabeth Cree of the title. For the murder of her husband. We then backtrack to her early life and her trial in the London of 1881. In her struggle to move out of poverty, she initially found bit roles in the theatre. In fact, the artifice of the theatre becomes a major theme of this novel. An artifice that will be exemplified by her dressing up as a man in order to explore the city of London.

Alternating with Elizabeth’s life are excerpts from a diary kept by a serial killer, a kind of Jack the Ripper but apparently based on a real, historic figure. In the novel, this diary writer is John Cree, Elizabeth’s husband. For whose death she is being tried and executed, although we do not know if she truly killed him and what might have brought her to do so. In his diary, however, Cree goes about viciously murdering innocent victims. These murders are described in brutal detail—indeed, too great a detail for me—which is apparently to convey to the reader the true horror of the crimes.

Also alternating with Elizabeth’s life are the lives of historic figures who, like John Cree, gather regularly in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Karl Marx and George Gissing have in common their interest in the poor people of both London and England, and soon become intellectual friends. But even as they become effective characters, and even suspects in the murders, one wonders why they are present in this novel. The eventual answer seems to be the historic verisimilitude that they offer. Although Gissing’s response when suspected by the police is especially moving.

Meanwhile, further chapters introduce John Cree as a reporter with a minor publication, but who has never fulfilled his ambition to write successful plays. He and to Elizabeth take to each other, but when they marry, she informs him that because of her violent upbringing she cannot allow him to make love to her. This is not further explored, but the reader does recall her theatrical past when she used to like to dress as a man.

A secondary theme of the novel is the golem. This monster-like creature of Jewish legend that can be created by people under emotional stress is rumored to be the true serial killer. And prompts considerable fear in the populace. While none of the characters in charge take such a monster seriously, the reader definitely knows that the golem is not the perpetrator of these murders—although its imagined presence extends the novel’s theme of the tension between artifice and reality.

For a while, it is unclear what this novel is all about. Is it about the cruel serial murders? Is it about the historic figures, and how they react to a poor and violent society? Is it about illusion, which begins in the theatre? Or is it simply a murder tale in which Elizabeth and John Cree will play major roles? These questions are continually raised in the first half of the novel, as the reader is exposed to various incidents and varying viewpoints.

But as the second half of the novel begins to concentrate on the Crees, it becomes clear that this is their story, including their increasingly contentious marriage. Whereupon, near the end, the author offers a grand surprise. Some critics apparently think that he has earlier provided clues to that surprise. But I cannot find a valid connection between such clues and the author’s final revelation. And so, I do not buy it. It comes across to me as an arbitrary decision by the author. Not as a sudden revelation of character.

And then he compounds this miscalculation on the final pages with a death that is apparently meant to be a cruel irony. But for me, it is simply stale frosting on a half-baked cake.

Despite these qualms, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The blend of history and illusion, of historic figures and fictional figures, of actual events and fictional events, of a series of murders and detective work, and of insights into the minds of different characters, including the killer—all these factors drew me into this volume. Even when I was not sure where the author was headed.

What also drew me into the novel was the enhanced reality of Ackroyd’s London. Valerie Martin describes it in the New York Times: “all its awful, teeming, endless variety, with the dark alleyways peopled by criminals, beggars, and children, its unbreatheable air, its pea-soup fog, its carriages rattling along streets lined with prostitutes…its warm smoked-filled theaters, its cool, airy, quiet museum library, its actors, its murderers, its writers, its intellectuals.”

On the other hand, the author probes too deeply for me into the idea of illusion. I found the least interesting part of the novel to be the moments early on that capture life in the theatre, both on stage and behind the curtain—especially the emphasis on Dan Leno as a great comedian. At the end, I could see the reason for those scenes, but the detail did not work for me. It seemed to be there for its humor in an otherwise serious novel.

Perhaps this is in part due to my lack of knowledge about the historic world of English entertainment. That, for example, Dan Leno was a major figure in that world in 1880—so much so that he figures in the title of the English version of this novel, along with the Golem. (What a juxtaposition!) Whereas, I related to Karl Marx and George Gissing, both because I know of them and because they are treated here more seriously.

By itself, this novel does not turn me onto other novels by Ackroyd. But if I found an intriguing premise in a novel of his, a unique blend of known fact and unknown fiction, I would be tempted to explore it. For I do like to read the flights of an author’s imagination. Of which the best example for me is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, about an attempt to block the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (July, 2018)

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The Embezzler, by Louis Auchincloss

This 1966 work is an old-fashioned novel, but is still effective. At least for me. Auchincloss wrote many novels, serious novels, about wealthy Manhattan society, but they were never considered literature on a high level. He was even called a poor man’s Edith Wharton, because they both wrote of the same people. And his era was often hers as well. This author, however, did not claim to be on her level, and was, in fact, more often ranked with John P. Marquand.

But this has to be one of Auchincloss’ better novels. It is about three people: Guy Prime, a handsome, gregarious figure trying to make it in the financial world of New York; Rex Geer, an ambitious young man whom Guy sees has the business skills to complement his own personal skills; and Anglica, who loves them both, sees them objectively, and reveals their weaknesses. Each of them will portray their version of their lives from the turn of the 20th century into the 1960s. Each will also look back with a certain self-justification, and with a conscientious evaluation of one another.

But this novel is more than three character portraits, even as it offers three different ways of evaluating the same people and the same events. Because the three characters do not understand one another as well as they believe they do. And because the author is also interested in what lies beneath the surface of Manhattan’s upper classes: the uncertainties, the self-deceptions, the social climbing, the pretension, the frequent search for money, the self-righteousness and self-deception, an even the back-biting.

The novel begins in 1936 as Guy is caught as an embezzler. He has kept securities that do not rightfully belong to him as collateral for a loan he has received, and he believes the Feds, seeking to expose corruption on Wall Street, have chosen him to put on trial. We see him first through his own eyes, embittered by his trial and sentencing, proud of his business reputation, and unrepentant about his act of embezzlement. The opening section represents this once golden boy of Wall Street writing his memoirs in an attempt to justify himself to the grandchildren he will never see.

But once we are caught up in his dramatic situation, the novel backtracks to how Guy, Rex, and Angelica met, became involved in each other’s lives, and were impacted by Guy’s act of embezlement. It begins with the honest portraits that Guy tries to draw of the three major characters. Which reveals, instead, Guy’s own character, how he assumes he is in good graces with everyone he meets and ends up taking for granted the prestige he feels he has earned. But his success, he realizes, has been aided by the business advice and business contacts that Rex has provided. Which, in turn, prompts a certain resentment of this friend whom he once so identified with.

Rex’s narrative helps us to get to know him better, first with his abortive affair with Alix, who cannot bring herself to marry him. And then with his childhood sweetheart Lucy, who understands him and their situation much better than he does. But the most pertinent observation by Rex is noting that Guy’s biography leaves out what happened between his marriage to Angelica and their divorce 25 years later. This is the period when Guy’s idealism succumbs to frustration at home and at work, then to disillusion, and then to despair, leaving him only his surface reputation.

But even Rex skips the intervening years until the 1930s. This is when he begins horse-riding for exercise; and it comes under Angelica’s tutelage and leads to their affair. His narrative is primarily a story of his three loves, with casual references to his relationship with Guy. Only his final analysis of Guy seems wrong, as he concludes that he has been Guy’s tool, from Harvard to banking to Alix, that Guy used people for his own advancement, and that he used his embezzlement to destroy his world of finance “because he could not dominate it.” And Rex hates him for that, even as he admits it may be childish to do so.

Angelica, on the other hand, reveals other aspects of Guy. That, for example, he worshipped Rex, which is why he wanted him as part of all his endeavors. She also reveals Guy tries to win everyone to his vision, because he realizes he has to overcome his family’s “shabby” reputation. Finally, she says that she loved Guy for only their first ten years together. Then he began affairs geared to advance his career, and he lost her—which left her open to her affair with the man her husband so admired. A final bit of intrigue, she says, is that he used the betrayal of Angelica’s affair with Rex to justify his own embezzlement.

There are aspects of an unreliable narrator here. But the emphasis is on the different interpretations, and what they reveal about each person. It is not on the surprise of the new interpretation. With the result being deeper characterizations for both the observer and the observed. The different viewpoints work because each person seems sincere, both in evaluating their own actions and in their re-interpretation of events that others have described. And most still like and respect the persons they are commenting upon.

And, yes, their different interpretations of how Guy finds himself in each situation, both his business career and his marriage, and how the others view his actions—these lend substance to this tale. But I was more intrigued by the situations themselves, by how each developed, how the emotional relationship among the three principals provided the growing impetus, and how each responded, given the position each had achieved and their personal relationships. Guy has his worldly reputation, Rex his business success, and Angelica emotional commitments followed by betrayal.

This work fulfills my final interest in Auchincloss. Its greatest achievement is the subtle differences with which the three characters see their own reactions to Guy’s personal and financial history. (July, 2018)

Arrival and Departure, by Arthur Koestler

One seldom reads of Koestler today, especially as part of Europe’s literary history. And yet he proves himself a worthy novelist here in this early 1943 work. As well as a probing explorer of human psychology. Perhaps it is his subject and theme that seems less pertinent today. His subject is the flight of his hero Peter Slavek from a central European dictatorship in the 1940s. And he says his theme is “the conflict between morality and expediency,” which “I have tried to transpose…into terms of individual psychology.”

From the moment Slavek drops into the sea, from the bowels of a ship in which he has been hiding, and swims ashore to freedom, Koestler has captured the reader’s interest. And it continues as his hero adjusts to a strange city and a set of new, curious faces. He tries to join the military forces of an unknown country, but since its official is Mr. Wilson, one assumes it is the England to which the author himself did flee. But Slavak is told that since the unnamed country he fled is now occupied by the enemy, such permission is not easy to obtain. The official suggests he try the American consulate as a back-up. America is neutral in the war, and may more readily accept him.

The identity of most countries has to be inferred, however. Which leaves one easily confused, as I was, about people’s loyalties. Thus, the country Slovak has fled to is Portugal, but is called Neutralia—a label which should have been too obvious in Koestler’s wartime era, much less today.

Meanwhile, Slavek is taken in by a Dr. Sonia Bolgar, an imposing women, a psychologist, who has turned her home into a meeting place for refugees. One of these refuges is Odette, with whom Slavek soon has an affair. But Odette is independent-minded, one who says, for example, “after all, love-making is rape by mutual consent.” And one day Odette vanishes because her American visa has come through, leaving Slavek distraught.

To complicate his thinking, he knows he also faces many decisions about his own future. Should he continue fighting the forces occupying his own country? Should he flee to England to do so, since it has now said it would give him a visa? Or should he escape to neutral America and Odette? He cannot make a decision, and soon develops a weakness in one leg that incapacitates him.

We are one-third into the novel, and are about to follow the author into probing the psychology of his hero. Dr. Bolgar uses logic to help Slavek face the critical question of the novel, which is how much the torture he endured under his country’s dictatorial regime he brought on himself—as the result of a guilt he feels about a small incident from his childhood.

It is a harrowing session she puts Slavek through in order to reveal this, but it makes sense. Slavek first recalls dreaming how the enemy back home put its dissidents on mysterious death trains. And then tells of the terrible mental and physical torture he himself endured. The explanation, she says, is that he wished to be punished for a childhood sin. And that he still holds within him that sense of guilt. And yet…one senses that this complex realization by Slavek has been programmed somewhat by the author. Do its explanations of his past and its impact on his future fall too neatly into place? This is not to fault its dramatic effectiveness, but rather to raise doubts in retrospect. Do these developments stand the test of being an outcome of the novel’s theme, morality vs. expediency, rather than chosen to illustrate it?

And so Slavek stops being the idealist, like Don Quixote, and becomes the more realistic Sancho. He decides to be practical, and pursue Odette in neutral America. But does he? He endures a lecture on political theory by a representative of his occupied homeland. Or is it the author? And then the decision he reaches is prompted by a dream, just as other dreams have influenced earlier decisions. But his time he wills not focus on reasons for one’s actions, for “reasons do not matter so much. They are the shell around the core; and the core remains untouchable, beyond the reach of cause and effect.” What matters, it seems, are feelings, not reasons. If this “does not provide a logical answer to its central problem,” Koestler has written, “I felt that it provided me with a sort of answer nevertheless, [although] in a novel it could only be hinted at in an indirect way.” Which is the one reservation I have about this novel: its sound reality caters to its message.

The Departure of the title consists of a final chapter in which Slavek acts out, and justifies, his final decision. We do not know his future, but we know that he will be comfortable with it, with the feelings it gives him. And that, even as the ending grows more abstract, the author is comfortable with having explored and illustrated the inner psychology of his hero.

Saul Bellow in The New York Times summed up my reaction to this novel. “Mr. Koestler has given Arrival and Departure the full benefit of his marvelous ability to create a contemporary atmosphere and to make his characters represent the whole of the civilization to which they belong.” That is, he has met the terms of novel writing. He has created characters, scenes, and human psychology that makes a somewhat abstract concept come alive.

But while Bolgar was right to emphasize logic, Bellow says that “faith has its own requirements, despite logic. And quotes Koestler that ‘in these spheres the right thing [has] always to be done for the wrong reasons.’” He adds: “There is no science of moral convictions; that, in effect, is what Koestler is saying. [That] by themselves, our ideals of reason mean very little; they have brought us few benefits and done us great damage.” Bellow then cites Koestler contrasting the abandoned problem of ethical belief in the past with today’s problem of experimental science. And leaves the reader with the hope that “all mankind may join in answering the questions of moral choice which individual men today attack with inadequate means.”

To sum up, Koestler has written a highly effective novel in literary terms, but he has grafted onto it an exploration of a human psychology in which scientific thinking has replaced ethical thinking. Which makes more sense for a European intellectual who has fled his era’s dictators than it does for an author who assumes here the mantle of a novelist. (July, 2018)

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

This 2017 work ends as a terrific thriller, but it begins as a daughter’s search for her father. It is really two stories about an insecure girl who does not know who she is, and is desperately seeking an identity. Rachel Childs was raised by a controlling mother, who wouldn’t tell her who her father was. The novel begins as she commences that search, is foiled, and begins again. It is a technique the author will use throughout the book: throwing up surprise developments that she must hurdle in a search for the answer to who she is.

She thinks the answer may be in the love she has never experienced. And she believes she finds it in Brian, who enters her life, leaves it, and then casually re-enters it and marries her. Except, we already know from the prologue that she is going to shoot dead a husband that she still deeply loves. Is this Brian? Such a prologue is a tool that thriller writers use to interest us in their story. And it surely works here.

For we have persevered through the first third of the book and her search for her father, a third which is well told and contains its own effective surprises. But it is not the heart of the book, and it reveals little about Rachel, except the needs she has. Is that to be the subject of this novel? For if it is, I found an elusiveness at the center of Rachel. And was not persuaded when, as a television reporter in Haiti after its earthquake, she has an on-air breakdown as a result of the horrors she has experienced. And when this breakdown follows her home, I still did not feel it. While it is intended as an extension of her mother’s coldness, all I felt in her subsequent denial of human contact was a hollowness. I did not feel the torment within her.

And so I never felt that constant withdrawal that keeps her off the street and confines her to her own house. It is a withdrawal that Brian will say he can cure. Because he loves her. But never having felt that breakdown, I could not relate to her desperation, to her search for who she truly is.

But then, one day, years later, when Brian is supposed to be on a plane to London, she sees him on a street in downtown Boston. And all her uncertainties return. Was it Brian? If so, who is this man she has married? Has he been lying to her? What is he concealing? Has he just pretended to love her? And so, the thriller begins. And it is marvelous thriller.

It begins with the tale of a rich mine in New Guinea, with seventy million dollars, and continues with two murderous gangsters, a mysterious corporation that hires them, the Providence and Boston police, a pregnant woman, a Japanese whore, and the dead Brian that Rachel has shot.

But is Brian really dead? What was his plan, and was Rachel a part of that plan? Or just a tool? And whom should she trust? In fact, has she the inner strength, the fortitude, to survive? Her flight from the police, and from gangsters, will take her to Maine, to Brian’s origins, then to an abandoned factory outside Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then to a bank safe deposit box with money, passports, and tickets to Amsterdam. And the questions arise for the reader as well: Will Rachel escape? Can she survive on her own? And what has Brian planned for her?

There is no issue of morality here. The only issue is: what will work? With the reader pulling, as in all thrillers, for the hero(ine) to survive and to succeed. No, there is one other issue: what will be the cost of success? In human lives.  Lehane forces Rachel to face this issue, when he confronts her with death. “You have to bear witness to your dead,” she thinks. “You simply have to. You have to step into the energy field of whatever remains of their spirit, their soul, their essence, and let it pass through your body.”

And as she goes to confront a dead friend on the last page:

“But there might be some light upstairs and there would certainly be light when she want back outside.

“And if by some twist of fate there wasn’t, if all that remained of the world was night and no way to climb out of it?

“Then she’d make a friend of the night.”

Rachel, above all things, is a survivor. And she discovers she can not only turn the tables on Brian, for a change, she could also produce better ideas, as she does on at least two occasions. There is no hint of redemption, however, which one might expect from an author raised amid the Catholic culture of Boston. There is only survival, and the strength to survive.

Lehane, however, calls this a novel about identity, and I agree it is a strong aspect. Raised by a controlling mother, and deceived by two husbands, Rachel does not know who she is. “The book very much becomes a question of how much of any of us is a con,” the author says. “How much of any of us is a performance. When do you understand the moment? Do you ever understand the moment where that line has been crossed and you can’t come back from it?” But he has submerged that issue in a thriller that challenges her uncertainty, her insecurity, on a physical level. And that is what the reader is concerned about. Rachel’s fate. Not her psychology.

Rachel is also Lehane’s first heroine, after writing exclusively about the experiences of men. And in terms of her subservient role, her internal strength, her new maturity, she is a successful creation. However, she is not in terms of a character of richness and depth. Her growth is on the surface. Her maturity is geared to survival in the world. There is little recognition of the moral road she has travelled, of what she has learned about integrity, or about the responsibility of love.

I would note that the two reviews I read in The New York Times spend more time on the psychological insecurity of the Rachel we meet early on in this novel. It is there that they seem to find the human being worth discussing, rather than in the woman facing the thriller predicament she is soon confronting. But I wonder if this is not for a practical reason: they do not want to spoil the plot’s many surprises. And so they emphasize the distraught character that Rachel once was instead of the distraught woman she finds herself to be when her former world collapses.

I do look forward to reading more of Lehane. But I hope he focuses more on the inner lives of his characters, and less on their exterior. (June, 2018)