Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Grifters [1963]

Jim Thompson, the cult writer of nihilistic hardboiled pulp and best known for the blistering novel The Killer Inside Me, was given the absolutely appropriate moniker “Dime-Store Dostoevsky” by a peer of his – and that perfectly elucidates his delicious roman noir The Grifters. The book, which was adapted into an excellent neo-noir film by Stephen Frears, had at its core the elemental human failings of greed and jealousy, which played out like a saucy yet slow-burning tragedy through a mutually self-destructive ménage à trois. The book’s three central characters are of differing dubiousness but all are in the business of making a quick buck – Roy Dillon, a 25-year old short con artist who’s officially a salesman and is living out of a washed-out hotel in LA to maintain that front; Lily Dillon, Roy’s estranged and still attractive mother who’s entangled neck-deep with the mob and is looking for a way out before it’s too late; Moira Langtry, a sultry, self-serving blonde in a casual affair with Roy and who wants to make it big before her striking looks begin to fade. Characters like these are best suited to work out their cons, angles and grifts alone, and hence there’s bound to be a murder or two when they dance together – and that’s essentially how things pan out here. Roy, upon being hit in the gut by the barrel of a rifle, starts hemorrhaging internally – consequently when his mom, whose relation with her mob boss is going south, appears in the scene, she wants to take care of him, and starts to shoo Moira away – which the latter doesn’t like; and Roy, torn between these two captivating ladies, is faced with some difficult choices that could very well decide his fate. The author wonderfully portrayed the evolving chemistry between the three, with the POC continually shifting between them; he also provided, through the racy narrative, some gold plated stuff on the subtle art of con, with all its nuances, red herrings and pitfalls, making this all the more fun to read.

Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime Drama/Roman Noir
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Pigeon Tunnel [2016]

My tryst with British novelist and former MI6 operative David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, had largely been limited to his iconic Cold War-era novel of espionage and duplicity The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Martin Ritt’s haunting adaptation starring Burton as Alec Leamas, and the brilliant BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Guinness as George Smiley. Fortunately this limitation didn’t deter me from reading his episodic, charming and engrossing memoir The Pigeon Tunnel – filled with enticing anecdotes from his eventful life, and chronicled with wry, deadpan humour and disarming candour – illustrating what a terrific raconteur and prose stylist this Octogenarian still is. The narrative of his adventurous life, and his subversive, leftist world-view ridden with self-doubt and sardonic pessimism, had close parallels with Graham Greene who he admired (despite their disagreement over the British double agent Kim Philby), and hence one is bound to find parallels with Greene’s arresting memoir Ways of Escape, even if they were tonally very different. One great unresolved equation in his life was his father Ronnie – an incorrigible scoundrel who conned his way through life – and that was portrayed in possibly the book’s profoundest chapter towards the end; he’s been as obsessed with his father as James Elroy has been with his mother (My Dark Places). But, the assorted episodes that led to it, self-contained exploits in themselves, about his seriocomic encounters with fascinating people at various junctures, were equally absorbing – Yasser Arafat at Palestine and Beirut; a political prisoner in an Israeli prison; Russian gangsters, dissidents and KGB men in Moscow; warlords in the Congo; a fabulist tailor in Panama; a potential defector while posted in post-War Germany; Thatcher and Murdoch over bizarre lunches; renowned filmmakers (Kubrick, Coppola, Fritz Lang, Pollack) for movies that were; Czech actor Vladimír Pucholt (star of Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde) who he helped escape. And it ended with a hilarious, anti-climactic story of the MI6 Chief’s safe, memorably underlining the book’s running sense of droll irony.

Author: John le Carre
Genre: Non-Fiction/Autobiography/Memoir/Travelogue/Political Satire
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Barbarous Coast [1956]

Rarely have I read books by the same author consecutively – a cardinal norm in my bibliophilia which I’ve usually been extending to genres, themes and styles as well. Exception, as in this case, proves the rule. The Way Some People Die hooked me enough to start with the next entry in the LoA collection – the 6th novel in the Lew Archer canon – The Barbarous Coast. Incidentally, Kenneth Millar, who’d been using the pseudonym John Ross Macdonald, dropped the John with this novel in order avoid being confused with fellow roman noir writer – and the more famous Macdonald then – John D. Macdonald. If one’s focus is the seedy and ugly underbelly of LA, and in turn the flip-side of the American Dream, Hollywoodland can hardly be avoided; it provided the key setting here with its superficiality, love for excesses, self-destructive dreams, false hopes, and the idea that money buys everything. The tale begins at an exclusive club on the Malibu beach, populated by the city’s rich and famous, where Archer, the knight errant that he is despite his hardboiled exterior, witnesses a scuffle between the club’s whiny manager and a pugnacious young man frantically searching for his wife – a ravishing, ambitious, fickle-natured lady now mysteriously missing. A toss of the coin, and Archer decides to assist the latter in what appears to be a rather meaningless quest; but, as he soon realizes, one fraught with alarming chances of getting bumped off as he finds himself on the wrong side of a wealthy movie mogul, a sleazy producer, a cocky actor suddenly in fortune, and shady, gun-toting henchmen tasked with protecting the mogul’s murky secrets. Like the other Archer novel, it had a broad scope, human angle, grit, grime, bursts of violence, cynical worldview and wisecracks, even if the final unravelling of the whodunit was too much of a twist and thus out of sync with the rest of what had been a gripping, sordid tale of unbridled greed, lust, jealousy and the tragic human cost of it all.

Author: Ross Macdonald
Genre: Crime Thriller/Roman Noir/Detective Novel/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Way Some People Die [1951]

The bleak, fatalistic, enchanting world hardboiled crime fiction had its share of masterful practitioners – James M. Cain, David Goodis, Mickey Spillane, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, James Crumley et al. However, a host of connoisseurs and aficionados of this fascinating school of literature tend to agree that Kenneth Millar, better known by his nom de plume Ross Macdonald, made the “holy trinity” along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The Way Some People Die, the 3rd title in his 18-novel Lew Archer series and the opening title in Library of America’s sparkling 1st volume on Macdonald (a bit of a shame as the preceding book, The Drowning Pool, which too is considered amongst his finest, isn’t covered by LoA), is a quintessential, compulsive, collar-grabbing, atmospheric work of genre fiction, filled with a deliciously sprawling yet tightly packed plot, hard-edged narrative, fabulous evocations of sordid joints and alienating spaces, and the seedy post-War LA underbelly with its sleazy mobsters, sly dope peddlers, nasty hoodlums, conniving hustlers, jaded cops and tragic victims. And, at the center of this urban quagmire stands Lew Archer, who, in the veins of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, is a cynical, acerbic, weary PI who hates being taken for a sucker, and yet with a deceptively sentimental core and a melancholic outlook towards crime, violence and retribution. When the distraught, middle-aged Mrs. Lawrence contacts Archer to search for her missing daughter Galley, he unwillingly starts into what he initially considers rather a blasé, uninspiring investigation. As he starts doggedly pursuing wild leads, however, things start slowly but brilliantly unravelling, and bodies start piling up too, as the scenario gets more grimy and enthralling, aided in small parts by the absorbing prose with its effortless witticisms and rueful observations. And, despite his sharp hunches and acute perceptiveness, he also eventually realizes, just before it’s too late, that he’s all along been taken for a ride by the ravishing damsel – a bewitching, duplicitous femme fatale as any – he’s been hired to find.

Author: Ross Macdonald
Genre: Crime Thriller/Roman Noir/Detective Novel/Hardboiled  Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, January 20, 2018

When the Moon Shines by Day [2017]

Nayantara Sehgal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, and, at 90, the grand old lady of Indian literature, has always been known to possess an irrepressible voice and a fiercely independent streak – be it in her falling out with her cousin Indira Gandhi upon the latter’s autocratic tendencies or in her return of her Sahitya Academy Award in protest of increasing intolerance by conservative right-wing forces. These traits, coupled with her love for the cherished ideal of secularism and inclusion, were on fine display in the breezy novella When the Moon Shines by Day, where, under the charming guise of mock-satirical tone, she’s painted a disquietingly dystopian allegory to India’s political present – a potentially grim future, albeit rooted in the here-and-now, where right-wing hardliners have taken control of the national narrative, leading to curbing of civil rights, censorship of artistic freedom, vigilantism against anyone suspected of hurting majoritarian sentiments, and minorities being pushed to either moving to ghettoes or change their identities. The book has at its core a few endearingly etched characters – the heartwarming Rehana, a bibliophile whose father’s books have been banned and is actively part of a human rights organization called Asians Against Torture; the brilliant and fearlessly acerbic German historian Franz, who ruefully observes, "our past is your future"; and the sobering diplomat Kamlesh, whose anti-war views in his latest work and fascination with Mughal architecture earns the wrath of the government’s virulent nationalism. Meanwhile, on the sidelines, the Director of Cultural Transformation’s patronizing propaganda machine urges the rich and influential to partake in increasing Hindu population and revising history, random fire breaks out at art exhibitions which don’t toe the nationalist line, and people are lynched and even killed for daring to disobey Hindutva communiqués and rhetoric. The book, with its spread of dissent and outspokenness, walked a thin line between polemics and political satire, and mixed firebrand demagoguery with wry humour, sadness and anger.

Author: Nayantara Sehgal
Genre: Political Satire/Dystopian Novel
Language: English
Country: India