A Literary Cavalcade

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

Tag: scandal

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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Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll

This is a religious thriller, and a good one, from one of my favorite authors, James Carroll. But this 2014 novel is not the literary work that I had hoped to read. What happened? My theory stems from the fact that of Carroll’s recent works, only one was a novel, and, indeed, a literary one. Whereas, the others were works of history—with the emphasis on Church history and power, the Church’s relations with the Jews, and American military might.

This novel represents a blend of those issues, and I sense that Carroll either thought his subject here did not reach the scale of his previous non-fiction works, or thought it would reach a broader audience as a novel. And he did want/need a broad public to be aware of this slice of Vatican history.

The story he tells is ironic, that the Vatican, with the collaboration of the American army, established a pipeline to help Nazi military officers and government leaders escape to Argentina. They worked together, in history, because both groups feared that Soviet military power would establish atheistic Communism in Europe; and had determined that these escaping Nazis could become a bulwark to help prevent this from happening. While the irony is that the same U.S. government that is allowing the Germans to escape is, in Carroll’s fiction, also helping to fit into the post-war world the Jewish people whom those Nazi leaders persecuted.

And so, in addition to its exposure of Church duplicity at the highest level, this work also raises both refugee issues and moral issues. These include the violent acts of terrorists, by both Germans and Zionist Jews; the guilt of the fictional characters who become involved in the intrigue among the Germans, the Jews, and the Vatican; and the commitment of these various characters to their ideals, in the wake of these revelations.

The basic story of the Vatican pipeline is true, says Carroll. His fictional story to complement it involves five main characters. These are an American government official, David Warburg, a Jew; an ambitious priest, Kevin Deane; a Red Cross worker, Marguerite d’Erasmo; an American military officer, Peter Mates; and an English nun, sister Thomas Aquinas. Some of these collaborate with each other, some work at cross-purposes. Two couples emerge from this intrigue, but they reach different resolutions.

Warburg has been sent by the U.S. government to Rome to aid Jews who have escaped German and Italian internment, and to help them settle in the U.S., Palestine, or other countries. He meets Marguerite, who is helping all refuges in Rome, especially Jews, and Father Deane, who serves Cardinal Spellman, and is as ambitious as Spellman, but who also expresses sympathy for the plight of the Jewish refugees.

The novel’s fictional story concerns the discovery by this idealistic trio of the reality of the pipeline, the involvement of the Vatican in providing the Nazis with the papers to emigrate, and the Americans, such as Mates, looking the other way for their own purposes. Whereupon, complications ensue, for violence intrudes on this “discreet” Vatican scheme, first when retreating German forces murder Jews and then when vengeful Jews seek to advance their cause through terrorist bombings in both Rome and Jerusalem.

It is this violence that challenges the idealistic beliefs of our trio. For one the challenge is to a belief in a vague Jewish faith; for another it is one’s conviction to remain in service to the Church; for another it is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of corruption everywhere; and for another the challenge is to retain one’s vocation in the face of failure and betrayal. And it is here that the novel reaches for the level of literature. If it does not succeed in doing so, it does lend more depth to all of its characters.

As a former priest, Carroll is adept at capturing both the emotions and the consciences of both good priests, like Father Deane, and bad priests. Among the latter is Father Roberto Lehmann, a Franciscan who is the key Vatican contact for the pipeline. Carroll establishes the mood and the thoughts of Deane, both when he is saying mass and when his conscience grasps his involvement at the fringes of the Nazi pipeline. Meanwhile, Carroll explores the rationalizing conscience of Father Lehmann, even as he comes to understand he has been sexually seduced to betray his pipeline friends.

At times, the political maneuvering among the Vatican officials, the Nazi sympathizers, the Jews, and the Americans can become complex and confusing. Indeed, I find such maneuvering often to be confusing in a thriller like this. Which only re-enforces for me that this is a thriller, that the emphasis is not on the characters themselves, as well delineated as they may be. No, it is story that matters here—the maneuvers themselves, and the message that the story carries. Namely, that the Vatican was more than complicit, was deeply involved at the highest level, in a pipeline designed to help Nazi officials escape Allied justice after World War II—the purpose being to use these officials later to combat the advance of Communist Russia.

In passing, I would note that despite the complexity of the plot, each time I picked up this novel I needed little help in recalling the overall situation. This is testimony to Carroll’s skill as a novelist and to the tightness of his structure. But more significant are the moral issues that the novel raises. Is it right to bomb a building, even without killing people? Is it right to assassinate one evil person rather than kill scores of innocent people? Is one culpable when betraying a person in order to reveal evil? Or in betraying one person in order to save another? And how much should one accept/believe in an institution or a vocation which contradicts one’s own beliefs?

Another theme of this novel is love. Both the love of mankind and love among individuals. Both spiritual love and sexual love. Both idealistic love and practical love. Both love of self and love of others. And the diverse resolutions of the human loves here bring home the complexity of love itself.

I do not expect more literary fiction from Carroll, but I will welcome any works that offer further insight into the Church and its spiritual mission in a world of pragmatic human beings. (March, 2015)