A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Tag: blackmail

Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison

This is a hard-boiled thriller from 1996, but it is also literature. I’ve searched for Harrison novels for some time, but this is the first work of his I’ve found. And it has met my expectations. It is terrific.

The author grabs the reader in two ways on the novel’s very first pages. First, he establishes the tough, gritty Manhattan scene, its dark alleys, its scandals, its dangerous people and its dramatic nights. Then he establishes the cynical viewpoint of a newspaper columnist assigned to satisfy the public’s demand for both titillating scandal and the ironies of justice.

The columnist is Porter Wren. He is a confident man who has a high opinion of himself and of his skills as a journalist. At a party given by his obese Australian publisher, Hobbs, he is approached by a beautiful woman, Caroline Crowley, a femme fatale who is used to controlling men with her beauty and has an equally high opinion of herself. She tells Wren that she wants him to find out what happened to her husband, the famous movie director Simon Crowley, who vanished and whose body was unexpectedly discovered in a demolished building. But Wren is not convinced that that is her true purpose for approaching him; and the novel’s plot revolves around a kind of duel they have, each trying to use the other, control the other, and, as they become intimate, to understand what makes each other tick.

An initial complication is that Wren is happily married to a smart hand surgeon, Lisa, and has two children he loves. So he is continually troubled by what he sees as a betrayal of both his wife and his children. But Caroline fascinates him, tantalizes him physically, and appeals to his professional instincts. And the tales she tells of her husband and of their relationship seem to remind him of the many other human relationships he has encountered and that have prompted columns that helped make him famous. Indeed, as a cynical narrator, Wren early on declares that “we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment.”

The dead husband was noted for short documentaries based on real events, and the initial story line revolves around the tape recording of an embarrassing meeting between Caroline and the obese publishing magnate Hobbs. Which the latter is determined to destroy at all costs. But Caroline’s husband has created other tapes as well, including one that shows how a policeman was killed and another incriminating one which shows a strictly personal murder.

The story grows more complicated as Wren speculates why these tapes are important and how he can use them, and then it becomes even more complicated as he discovers what each tape contains. However, these complications also serve to deepen our understanding of Wren, for they show how human this cynical columnist really is. For example, one tape forces him to change his opinion of Hobbs, the boss who has threatened his journalism career; while another tape, that of the murder, deepens the moral questions confronting Wren, who is already dealing with the moral issue of his extra-martial affair with Caroline.

Overall, this is a richly told story of lust and greed on one hand, and of vanity, power, and human folly on the other. It is also a tale in which violence lurks around every corner. For example, Wren himself is beaten and maced, while his house is invaded and his little boy shot. As a result, he himself exacts his own revenge, which produces a violent streak in him the reader does not anticipate. Indeed, reading about the violence dehumanizes him. And then Harrison takes the violence a step further as we witness on tape the actual carving up of a murder victim. It appears that Harrison wants the reader to feel the horrors and the risks that challenge these characters, but for me he overdoes it—just as for some he will have overdone the sex in order to make Wren’s fascination with Caroline convincing.

These people share stories of seduction, lying, self-doubt, and shame. And, as a result, the author probes the rich inner emotions of these characters, as well as the rationalizations and the psychology of strained human relationships. Wren confronts a fascinating woman he does not understand but craves, a woman he knows is using him but who is hiding answers to a puzzle that fascinates him. What is she hiding, he wonders. About her real motive in seducing him. About her husbands’s mysterious death. About her relationship with Hobbs. And how can he get her out of his system, and then back to his own life?

The duel between Wren and Caroline reaches its dramatic conclusion when Wren finally challenges her. “No, Caroline, no. You brought me into this. You thought you could just…lead me around. But you didn’t study me very carefully, Caroline, you didn’t figure out how a small-town boy like me with not one connection in New York City elbowed and hustled and hassled his way to be a newspaper columnist.”

As Jim Shepard wrote in The New York Times, “The novel’s protagonist is most memorable when that small-town boy, for all his bluster, articulates with real sadness his understanding of his own wrongdoing, and of the damage he’s done to those he loves.”

Indeed, our final glimpse of Wren takes us into his core, and into the rich contradictions that Harrison brings to his portrait of this troubled man. “I wished then, with a final sweet pain…that despite my betrayal of those whom I loved most, I might yet prove worthy of their affections. Better then, I thought, that our respective confessions go unheard, that they fall away into time. There would, I know, be other questions to worry about, other dark crises of heart and hope; sooner or later life brings to all of us some form of suffering. Would that we were equal to it always.”

These musings, these probings of internal doubt, are what raises this thriller for me to the level of literature. And what makes me want to seek out more of Harrison’s work. (December, 2018)

 

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Aiding and Abetting, by Muriel Spark

This 2001 work is a beautifully conceived novel and professionally executed until the end, when it fails to match its inspired beginning—perhaps because the inspiration came from history, from a real crime that was never solved. Which means that Spark had to accommodate her ending to the known facts.

This is the story of two men who walk, separately, into the office of a famous Paris psychiatrist and claim to be a Lord Lucan who killed his children’s nanny 24 years earlier in a bungled attempt to murder his wife. The psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, is actually Beate Pappenheim, who herself has a problematic background. Years earlier, she swindled many people by posing as a stigmata. Indeed, she is also based on a historic figure, be it one who swindled people rather than assaulted them. But it is a typical cavalier approach by Spark, and, as I said, an inspired one, to combine these two historic personalities into one work of fiction.

The reader, like Hildegard, speculates about which of the two men who seek psychiatric help is the real Lord Lucan—one called Lucky or one called Walker—and why they claim to need such help. Later, however, and arbitrarily, Spark revels that the two men are conspiring colleagues, and they plan to blackmail Hildegard by threatening to reveal her past. It seems they need money. It seems that their wealthy aiders and abettors, who believe in protecting their fellow aristocrats, have been providing the true lord with money; and now they are now dying away, shrinking his source of funds.

And just as the two lords exist in a world of conceit and deceit, so Spark implies does Hildegard. For instead of listening to the lives and problems of her patients, like most psychiatrists, she tells them her own problems, until they either give up or buy into her approach. This is Spark, ever aloof, satirizing the life of both of her adversaries

The intrigue between these two dueling parties fades in the center of this short novel, however, as two figures from the lord’s past seek to track him down and interview him about the 24 years in which he has moved around the world, always being funded, and always escaping capture. The satire here extends beyond the life of self-righteous aristocrats to the pursuit of villains in detective stories. It even has a parallel track, with Hildegard herself disappearing briefly and her lover Jean-Pierre seeking to track her. Eventually, Spark does bring the pursuing couple into partnership with Hildegard and her lover, but their joining of forces is somewhat contrived.

The end result is a moral satire about an artful murderer dueling with a master con-woman. Spark here covers three bases. She addresses the nature of evil, indicts upper class mores, and maneuvers her characters into her resolution, in this case matching the history of an unsolved crime.

This is vintage Spark, even if imperfect, even if inspired by history rather than the author’s own imagination. For she remains aloof from her characters, revealing their crimes but letting the facts expose their true selves. Aristocratic Lord Lucan is so convinced of the justice of his every act, for example, that he believes it was his wife’s destiny to die. Just as it will be the destiny of his fellow Lord Lucan.

But although the two Lord Lucans become adversaries at the end, perhaps to meet the author’s needs, perhaps to add a new irony, the true duel is between Lord Lucan and Hildegard, as both threaten to reveal the other’s past. Michiko Kakutani points out their similarities in her New York Times review: “Both have spent much of their adult lives inventing new identities for themselves; and both, so to speak, have blood on their hands,” meaning Beate has because she faked the stigmata by placing menstrual blood on her hands.

The ending, which doesn’t work for me, has a touch of Waugh. The two Lord Lucans end up in Africa, and each becomes the victim of a different ironic fate. It is not the same as Waugh, and not as powerful, but it belongs to the same family of fates.

To sum up, this is 83-year-old Spark in complete control of her characters and their fates. She uses irony and satire to establish a certain moral level, but a level her characters easily transgress. The drawback is that it is an inspired treatment of a plot, but it is not itself an inspired plot. And because it must conform to certain facts of history, the conclusion does not have the bite that one expects from this author. (July, 2015)