Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Mall Story

My parents were great fans of the Sunday drive.

We lived in variety of suburbs over the years and they all looked pretty much the same to me. We lived outside of Washington D.C. on several different occasions but we never went into the city because it would be dangerous. Aimless driving in housing developments just never appealed to me. Since I couldn’t read in a moving car without getting sick, I saw the whole venture as a colossal waste of time.

But one week we had a destination. We went to watch a mall being built. My heart did not race at the thought. We went to the construction site and it was clear that many other people had had this same idea for Sunday entertainment.

It was hot, crowded and boring. Nothing happened. Well, that’s not true. I think I watched paint dry. I fidgeted. I made tiny whining noises. Nothing happened. My parents seemed to be enthralled.

Finally, I whispered to my mother, “I want to be a strip-teaser.”

Her eyes widened. “Shush,” she said.

I went over to my father. “I want to be a strip-teaser.”

His eyes widened. “Shush,” he said.

I really didn’t understand why I had to be quiet about my career choice.

The mall construction didn’t get any more exciting. Nothing was happening. It was Sunday after all.

“I want to be a strip teaser.” I said.

My parents shushed me again and I earned a glare from a few people in front of them.


Things happened quickly and my father swept me up in his arms and he and my mother beat a hasty retreat to the car.

“What’s wrong with wanting to be a strip teaser?” I asked.

“Not one word until we get you home, young lady!” said my father.

This was serious. My parents rarely hit me but I was steeling myself for a spanking. I still didn’t understand why my career choice was so unpopular.

When we got home, my father started.

“Just where did you get the idea that you wanted to be a strip teaser, miss? It’s disgusting.”

“No, it’s not. It would be fun.”

“You think taking off your clothes in front of people would be fun?”

“I don’t want to take off my clothes in front of people!” I yelled.

“Then what are you talking about?”

I went over to the couch and picked up the Sunday comics and pointed to “Dennis the Menace.” “I want to do this. I want to be a strip teaser.”

I thought my interpretation of strip teaser made perfect sense. I didn’t get spanked. I did get sent to bed without supper. Now as I look back, I think I was being punished for not appreciating the mall.

And you know what? I still despise them.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Seven Lies

James Lasdun’s book SEVEN LIES (2006) is at once a political thriller and a meditation on desire, loss, betrayal and redemption, or perhaps the omnipresence of desire, which can lead to betrayal and the impossibility of redemption, accompanied by the loss of that thing most desired, or the failure to ever attain it.

The narrator, the perpetrator of those seven lies (Luther tells is in the frontispiece that “every lie must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth”), is Stefan Vogel, who tells us the story of his lies knowing we, aware of his lying nature, will be wary even of his confession. And still, as the reader realizes Stefan really has nothing to lose, the power of his confession grows and takes on a convincing sense of dread and foreboding.

Stefan comes of age in the German Democratic Republic (what we would then have called East Germany) in the 1970’s. He’s a curiously fatalistic teen, given to feeling that those unfortunate things that happen to him have in some way already happened, that the feeling of déjà vu he feels is because somehow something in his character makes these things necessary, that they must happen now as they have always happened, and even if he doesn’t remember exactly when they happened before, they must have, so appropriate are they for someone possessing his unique gift, that of being a lightning rod for misfortune. A reader may think that Stefan’s feeling of fated-ness has led him to the passivity that in turn makes it seem to him as if life is happening to him more than he is happening to life.

The most salient feature of Stefan’s nature is his inability to act, to take any kind of initiative, to be what the self help gurus term “proactive.” He is not one to take arms against a sea of troubles, to be sure, or to plan against the storm that might occasion that sea of troubles—rather, he is more likely to get on a ship during hurricane season because he can’t think of anything better to do, and then find himself in a storm from which it is well nigh impossible to escape. And even then, his impulse would not be to directly confront the situation, but to try and trick and manipulate and deceive his way out of it.

Although some reviewers called this book a political thriller, I would call it a thriller in which some of the suspense is imbricated in politics. It does not pit East and West, Capitalism and Communism, against each other, but rather shows that in East Germany in the 70’s, one way you could climb the social and economic ladder was through political intrigue and trickery. It did not seem to be a denunciation of Capitalism or Communism per se, but a broader study of how you can get what you want if you betray your fellow man, and yourself. In this sense, it is universal. You can see a lot of Walter White (Breaking Bad) in Stefan Vogel.

One lie does lead to another for Stefan. Living a somewhat privileged life as the son of a minor party bureaucrat whose uncle is a well-placed party officer, he does not seem to want for much. But his mother, who was an aristocrat before the war, wants better for her family. She feels what is happening now runs counter to what should be because she is a displaced aristocrat, royalty in proletarian disguise. It is not just that she imagines she would be an aristocrat in West Germany, but that she would be a member of the ruling class anywhere. When Stefan’s father falls from favor with the party, Stefan’s mother decides that the family will now express its superiority through its intellect, and its artistic sensibility. To do this is difficult in a society where setting yourself apart and claiming for yourself more than the next person is frowned upon, but she manages to do it, to perform this bit of illusion while apparently deluding herself she is not being duplicitous.

Stefan, who unlike his brother Otto cannot confront things head on (Otto has a bitter and emotionally violent confrontation with Mom as a teen, and she writes him off, which is perhaps more a blessing than a curse), allows his mother to pass him off as some kind of artiste, a prodigy, a budding poet genius. To be this, Stefan decides not to dedicate himself to the craft of writing but instead to the art of plagiarism. He finds a book of foreign verse translated into German, taking those translations and transforming them into something he can pass off as his own. In fact, he takes Walt Whitman’s long lines and turns them into something anodyne and simple, pleasing to the poetic palate, simple nourishment not long providing sustenance. People fall for his con, and he revels in his false celebrity even as he undergoes intense anxiety about getting caught.

In order to access the books of poetry, young Stefan must bribe the building super with bottles of Aquavit he steals from his parents. In one scene, he must lie to Kitty, who is halfway between servant and step sister to him, in order to get her out of the way when he steals the bottles. Here, early on, we sense that the author’s attitude towards Stefan may be different than the attitude Stefan has towards himself. Stefan could have found other ways to have carried out his charade, but he doesn’t. He lies to Kitty, who completely trusts him, and he chooses a hurtful lie, one that can only mean pain to her. He gets her out of the way by telling her he has seen her “disappeared” boyfriend outside looking for her.

The lies do indeed multiply. Everything is done on a quid pro quo basis, even as people pretend it is not. People trade or sell what they can to get what they need. Kind of like Capitalism, or the way that any people behave under any political system, no matter what that system professes to be about. The currency Stefan deals in is deceit, both in East Germany and, after he manages to defect, in America.

The next thing Stefan truly wants is Inge, an actress who inspires a desire in him that strikes like a thunderbolt. She represents salvation from his mundane surroundings, and even from his banal self. He courts her, but can’t keep himself from his habit of subterfuge, telling bigger and bigger lies carrying with them bigger and bigger consequences. No spoilers here, but the question I bet you will keep asking yourself is “did he really have to say (or do) that?” Time and again he lies and tells himself he has to, that he is taking part in that quid pro quo, or maybe just trying to satisfy those who need his deceptions as much as he does, but you begin to question more and more whether he really has to. Eventually, he even begins to doubt himself.

Suspense is built into the tale right in the opening pages, when a woman throws a glass of wine in Stefan’s face at a New York party, as if she knew of his dark secrets, of all that led up to his and Inge’s escape to the US. Does she? And who from the past may prove to have been just as deceitful as Stefan? It is an intricately plotted tale, and the flashes forward and back are handled skillfully. And the biggest question comes at the end. Does Stefan finally meet life head on—is his final act finally an end to all the shirking and hiding and duplicity? Does he finally act, and act truly, or does he still see himself as victim, allowing himself the easy and deceitful way out? To the book’s credit, it portrays Stefan in all his complexity so vividly that I am still trying to decide.

2015 Mike Welch

Friday, April 24, 2015

Propaganda Posters from The Great War

In wartime, even more than at other times, the government is keenly interested in what the citizens believe.

During the First World War the Hun believed that Germany was a nice place, and it was honorable and fitting to fight and die for the Kaiser.

Food was short everywhere.  In fact food was critical to all parties' war effort. Neither Britain nor Germany grew enough food to supply their people, even before war broke out, but imported much of what they needed. The Canadians warned their people to refrain from hoarding.

For some reason corn was not considered good for shipping overseas—perhaps the Europeans didn't know how to cook it—so the home folks were encouraged to eat corn in preference to the more desirable wheat.

Saving food and buying war bonds were the activities most encouraged on the home front.  Here's a First Nations tribesman boasting about his investment in the Patriotic Fund. It's a crappy piece of artwork. I can draw better Indians than that, myself.

In reality the First Nations people had little money to invest in war bonds, but many were keen to go to Europe and fight. Some became war heroes. And speaking of ethnics tussling with the Hun, here is a poster from France depicting a happy African rushing to the fray.

I guess they don't call it a World War for nothing. By the end of it everybody was involved.

The recruiting posters urging the Irish to fight for England's King seem really strange to me. Here I was thinking they would have been just as happy to see him defeated.

But this was not true of all the Irish. A goodly number of Irish men were fighting in the trenches on the side of the Allies. When Roger Casement, that rabid revolutionary, went to Germany to ask for troops and arms to fight for Irish independence, the Germans said they would give him arms but no troops. However, more than 2,000 Irish men were being held in Germany as prisoners of war. If they wanted to fight against the English, they would be allowed to go back to Ireland with Casement.

Only three of these men volunteered. Quite likely they understood that if the rebellion failed they would be hanged, as was Casement, in the event.

Trench warfare was a nasty, futile, and frustrating business. Few were the comforts, what with the mud, the barrages, and the dead piling up, but one thing could always be counted on to bring a spot of relief: tobacco.

Aaah, nothing like a good smoke. And so it goes. More news from the Western front in later posts.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Millicent and Her Cockroaches

I met "Millicent" in my office at the Archdiocesan Vocational Services of NYC Catholic Charities where I was in a transitional job from private school administration to the vast ocean of Fortune 100 mile-high culture.

Millicent's outward appearance and demeanor hid the fact that she lived on the streets of Manhattan.

Our office counselled people and helped them find jobs. I never guessed this pleasant woman was just using us as a warm dry place to hang out. She looked normal. Her English was fine. She was polite and pleasant, even had a sense of humor. She often smelled, but so do some of my most elegant friends at times!

After a couple of sessions it dawned on me that maybe she could use a decent free meal. So I treated her to lunch. Then this became a weekly ritual.

After a few weeks I realized this was not so good. We did not have the budget to offer clients regular meals—but I didn't have the heart to turn her away.

After about a month, Millicent started talking about her son, a grown man who lived in a single room, somewhere on the lower east side.

And she began to tell me about his cockroaches…

As a former Girl Scout in the southern swamps, I had dealt with bugs—mosquitoes, etc. as well as water moccasins—but the idea of roaches in a Manhattan bed terrified me!

At first, I tried to change the subject at the lunch… but each time Millicent brought her conversation back to the cockroaches…

By then, I realized the lady might not be a serious job hunter…

Our little office on East 52nd street was warm, cozy and friendly. We dealt with a lot of walk-ins, so anyone could come in and be served by one of us.

We had become Millicent's security blanket, I was beginning to see…

When I checked her application form, the address, phone and references all sounded fine.

But after some light detective work it was evident that " Millicent" did not really exist. But the woman did come in weekly to work on a job search.

Only the help she sought was not for a job…

I finally took my concerns to my boss, a devoted churchgoing Irish Catholic from Westchester. (I'll call him Kevin)

After listening to my situation he looked at me with a kind smile.

"I've known 'Millicent' for some time", Kevin said quietly. "The cockroaches are real—but only in her mind. Her name isn't really Millicent. I'm not sure we know her real name."

I stared at him, aghast. Unable to speak.

"You wonder why I let you work with her, " he said. "This woman came here to be accepted as a human being, not to hunt for a job. She could not hold down a real job for one day.

"When you offered to take her to lunch, my superiors and I thought, not only was it a kind gesture, but it might really help her to live a small slice of life like a real person. If only for a little while."

I was angry and stunned.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I stammered. "I'm not just some dumb kid." I blinked away the tears.

"You were a person willing to see this woman as a regular human being," Kevin said. "We'll never know if Millicent is alive now or not… but for a few weeks she felt like she was a real lady. Who was invited to lunch," he added softly.

Sometimes, I look back and wonder what happened to Millicent. And her cockroaches…

And wonder, at times, who else in life is the person we meet in some group or life situation… a Millicent… looking only for validation as a human being… and a little invitation to lunch…

Did you ever meet a Millicent?

If so, did it change your life? Please share it with us here at Crime Writer's Chronicle.

Warmest wishes to you, dear reader.

Thelma J. Straw

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sorry, Wrong Number

My Dad used to tell me about his love for old-timey radio shows like “Suspense” and “The Shadow” and “Inner Sanctum.” His claim was that the imagination could create images more horrible than anything special effects could manufacture for the movie or TV screen. He also claimed that there was more of an onus on the actors and actresses of these old shows to really carry their parts, as they had no computerized special effects geniuses to save them from mediocrity with their 21st century legerdemain (or to upstage them, for that matter, I could have said, but I wasn’t in the habit or arguing with my father).

When I saw SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948, Paramount) I got to thinking about his claims. The movie, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster as Leona and Henry Stevens, was based on a radio play written by Lucille Roberts. It was basically a one woman play, and Agnes Moorehead scared the pants off listeners so adroitly that Paramount asked Roberts to expand and rewrite the play for the big screen.

Sure, less is left to the imagination on the screen. With Moorehead, you couldn’t see her surroundings, you couldn’t see her, and in the movie we can see the posh, tony, chic bedroom Leona Stevens inhabits quite well (if in black and white) on the big screen, as well as the scale of emotions she runs up and down on her pretty, spoiled rich girl face. But this is still minimalist film making. Stanwyck’s portrayal of Leona has to carry the film, and it does. Most of the drama takes place in phone conversations. No fires, explosions, no trains disappearing into tunnels, no gun battles, aliens, slow motion Kung Fu Battles, death stars, no grand sets, epic scenes, no burning of Atlanta, nothing. Just a woman who, in trying to call her husband, gets cut into a call (this used to happen, I guess, party lines and all that) which she slowly begins to realize is about her own impending murder.

What a grabber, that first scene. Her own murder! And she’s an invalid to boot, and the servants are out for the night, and her husband is nowhere to be found. Alone in her bed, which is so nicely appointed with all kinds of frilly stuff, Leona sprawls in a nightgown that looks fancy enough to wear to a coronation. Poor woman, she can’t interest the police in her plight, and the phone company can’t trace the call after the party has hung up (I guess things have changed in that regard).

I read a NY Times review written shortly after the opening of this movie, and the critic cracked wise about not leaving women alone with their phones to whip themselves into hysterical frenzies (and run up the bill). That would go down as sexist today, and I think it is really true that men are on the darn cell phone as much as women are now, but it was a funny line. And Leona Stevens is a hysteric, and a hypochondriac, and a spoiled rich girl, so it is a little hard for her to get anyone interested in her case, or for us to care about what happens to her.

But slowly we do. Stevens gamely and doggedly pieces the wildly improbable story together, starting by tracking down her husband’s secretary, who leads her to her old college roommate (Sally Lord, played by Ann Richards), who is married to the DA Fred Lord, who just happens to be investigating Henry Stevens. Good old Sally (from whom Leona stole Henry at a college dance) decides to do an imitation of Nancy Drew and figure out why. Far-fetched coincidences, to be sure, but who cares? Suspend a little disbelief, ignore the minuscule chances you would get cut into a phone conversation about your own murder in a city of 8 million, and this movie is great fun, great thrilling and chilling fun, giving you that old frisson of terrified pleasure that good suspense movies do.

There are stunning revelations every time poor Leona dials that telephone. Leona realizes her husband is not who she thinks he is, and that even she herself is not, when her new doctor reveals to her that all her infirmity is in her head and not her heart. Spoiled rich girl or not, nobody deserves what she is going to get at 11:15 pm, a woman alone, who might as well be tied down to a railroad track with the hoof beats of Snidely Whiplash’s horse growing ever louder, ever closer.

And the way she must overcome herself, her own weakness and self-delusion, to save herself is classic. She must conquer her hysteria, get up and walk to the window, to scream for help, but she can’t. Perhaps she can’t give up the power her weakness has given her over her husband and father. She certainly bats them around with it. And maybe unconsciously she just can’t believe anyone will stay with her unless she stacks the deck in her favor, not only with her beaucoup bucks, but with her china doll fragility, her neurasthenia, and her poor weak heart. Doesn’t everyone leave? Didn’t her Mom? (Who died giving birth to her). Can she find safety, from herself, from heartbreak, from an 11:15 appointment with a murderer? It’s what you wish for, but this is noir, and like in any good noir, you are never safe, not from them and, in the end, not from yourself. The bomb ticks, and 11:15 awaits.

The movie flashes back and forth and sideways to give the back story, and it does a good job. Leona’s maiden name is Cotterell, and her father James has made a pile in pharmaceuticals. She meets Henry Stevens (Lancaster) at a college dance and asks him if he goes to Harvard. This starts her off on the wrong foot, as Lancaster is a hardscrabble guy from Grassville (great name for a down at heels town) who has only gumption and good looks going for him. She tries to cut in on him and Sally and he says no, but Leona doesn’t take no for an answer from anybody, but he’s not anybody, and you figure their back and forth, the sexual tension, will resolve itself into a nice romance, that he will tame the shrew and his real talents will be rewarded, a la Horatio Alger, and they will live happily ever after. HA.

They get married, but none of the above happens. He works for her father, in a kind of sinecure, and he calls himself the invoice king, the emperor of paperwork. With the help of the old man, Leona keeps Henry on a short leash, keeps him from taking a job anywhere else, and when Henry insists they move out of her father’s house, she has an “episode” and begins to manipulate him with her ailment as much as her money.

It’s classic. She doesn’t believe he could really love her, and so acts in a way that guarantees he won’t. And he, finding the yellow brick road to American success blocked off, decides to take a very illegal detour, which involves him with some very bad guys, who blackmail him for big bucks, which he can only get by knocking off his wife for the insurance money (and you wonder if he really minds knocking her off anyway—the moral ambiguity is great, classic noir stuff). And so he plans his lovely wife’s murder, but is nice enough to request that they make it quick and painless. If he can’t get by on a smile and a shoeshine, murder will do, especially for a kid from Grassville, from hunger.

Great tension, without any over the top FX type stuff. Could Arnold Schwarzenegger carry a film like this? Carry the whole movie with tone of voice and body language and facial expressions? I don’t think so.

And the great twist is that Henry Stevens has a change of heart, and confesses to Leona, from a pay phone, no less (she already knows, but he doesn’t know she does). He tells her to run to the window and to scream out, do it now (at 11:15 the El comes by and will drown out her screams) but can she overcome her psychological affliction, give up her whole flimsy persona, will she be able to lose her old self to save the new one? Nah. This is noir. Nobody saves themselves.

The movie gleefully fakes us out in two ways: As a thriller, where we think that the doughty Leona and her old college friend/rival will solve the crime and live happily ever after (they solve it, but no one finds happiness) and then with the standard romantic expectation that the lovers will be reunited, reconciled. She will save herself, won’t she? She must. She doesn’t deserve to die, we have found a kind of grudging sympathy for both of them in our hearts, there has to be a happy ending. Doesn’t there have to be a happy ending?

© 2015 Mike Welch