26 August 2013

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (ed. Sarah Weinman)

(I know: that cover! That title! How perfect.)

Editor Sarah Weinman embarked on Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives as a response to "the current crop of crime writers who excite and inspire me the most"--women like Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Laura Lippman (fun fact: I once sold a Lippman novel to Kyra Sedgwick! Mr. Bacon was also present.) Many of these authors work in what's known as "domestic suspense," crime fiction that takes place in ordinary spaces and lives, splitting the difference between hard-boiled and cozy--and very often centering on the ambitions and frustrations of women.

Yet while these modern authors sell like lovely bloodthirsty hotcakes, their predecessors--women writers working at mid-century who invented domestic suspense--have been largely forgotten. Weinman sets out to right this wrong, selecting fourteen stories by as many authors, written between the 1940s and mid-1970s. I'd only heard of Patricia Highsmith, whose inclusion here is surprising, as she made a name for herself writing about men, and (of course) Shirley Jackson, whose "Louisa, Please Come Home" deserves to be read as much as "The Lottery." Some of the others were critically acclaimed bestsellers in their day, such as Vera Caspary--"Sugar and Spice" is a skillful portrait of toxic friendship, though I wish it had a more ambiguous ending--and Edgar-winning Charlotte Armstrong. The latter's "The Splintered Monday" contains my favorite line in the collection: "Bobby [got] into his chair in a young way that was far more difficult a physical feat than simply sitting down." I loved Elizabeth Saxby Holding's "The Stranger in the Car," where all the women know more than they let on, and the male protagonist knows far less than he thinks he does, and Miriam Allen Deford's "Mortmain" is deliciously malicious and unexpected.

Weinman's introduction is a bit simplistic in its history for me, mostly adhering to the tired narrative that feminism was an invention of the 1960s, and twice her notes on the individual stories have small but crucial errors in her plot summaries. Despite these small quibbles, her analysis of the subgenre is excellent, and she can certainly sling a sentence herself, as here: "The bombast of global catastrophe, the knight-errant detective's overweening nobility, of the gaping maw of total self-annihilation has no place in these stories." In lifting these writers from obscurity, she's done a great service to mystery readers, and to the writers themselves.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Penguin, in exchange for an honest review.)

07 August 2013

The Prague Cemetery (Umberto Eco)

Umberto Eco's latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, left me with somewhat muddled reactions, which I'll try to talk out here. It's told as a diary in dialogue--that is, a certain Piedmontese Captain Simonini, gourmand and forger, takes the advice of a "Doctor Froïde" he met once and begins to reconstruct the events of his life, in an attempt to regain recent memories he seems to have lost. Soon, he finds interpolations from a cleric, Abbé Dalla Piccola, who may or may not be himself in disguise. The two weave a tale of far-reaching conspiracy, including their involvement with Garibaldi, the Paris Commune, and the Dreyfus Affair, and hatred: of Freemasons, of Jesuits, of women, Russians, Germans, French, Italians, and above all, the Jews. Having gathered calumnies from various European sources for decades, Simonini eventually authors the all-too-influential hoax document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used as justification for anti-Semitic violence to this day (in fact, I'm a little grossed out that this page will show up somewhere when you Google it. Unfortunately, I'm sure it's far down on the list).

Simonini is the only entirely fictional character in the novel, who has a great talent for forgery and creating "original documents" by developing and changing old conspiracies to fit what his audience wants to hear (theorizing that there is really only one conspiracy theory, requiring only tweaking to work for any hated group or scenario). By doing this, he becomes the common thread throughout much of the great paranoias of nineteenth-century Europe.

The thing is, I'm not sure how much the book works as a novel. The mystery of whether Simonini and Dalla Piccola are the same person, and what trauma led to their splitting, pales in interest beside the complex web of bigotry and fear and intrigue that runs throughout--but it's the non-fiction that's most compelling (and horrific). Which leads to the question: why not write it is as non-fiction? Eco would have had to sacrifice some narrative drive, of course, but wouldn't have lost the story. And in a way, attributing these wide-ranging machinations to the work of a single man lessens their impact; though he's certainly aided and abetted by various authors, journalists, and secret police, Simonini is ultimately responsible for the Protocols, rather than their being a collaborative result of centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment. It is, I think, a great lie that we've been told, that Hitler was an anomaly, rather than the culmination of a European tradition of hate and persecution. He just perfected the means.

Thus: while I didn't find Prague Cemetery entirely satisfying, I'm still glad I read it, unsettling as it was. But if you just want a great conspiracy thriller, you should just (re)read Foucault's Pendulum.
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