When did I become a helpless fan of Thomas H Cook’s crime novels? 1992? 1993? I can’t remember. Neither can I remember why. No rationales, no excuses. It was the right time in my life for the battered Frank Clemons and his weirdly metaphysical understanding of his own and others’ motivations. Lines like this helped: “He wanted to begin something, but he did not know what … He didn’t know what he was waiting for, but only that when it came, it would be wrapped in something else…” (Flesh and Blood, 1989.) By 1996, UK publishing seemed to have lost interest in Cook and I drifted away too. Somehow, Colin Harrison’s books began to fill the same slot for me. (I don’t understand that either.) But now I’m loading myself up with all that good Frank Clemons stuff again, this time via Kindle.
Tag Archives: crime
Plot is a list of boxes you tick in case the customer notices you haven’t. You wouldn’t want to be caught out. It would be awful to hear a single below-the-liner say, voice rank with sarcasm & faked-up outrage, “In this day? Surely not that, in this day & age of CCTV? & didn’t she have a mobile? & sober on a Saturday night, I don’t think so, do you?” So there’s always a smartphone, some emails, some binge drinking & a security camera the data from which is available or not available. All you need is, “Apparently there’s just the one tape & they record over it,” & the box is ticked. Plot-patches–responses to some change in the culture at large, applied years ago to make the latest crock seem up-to-date–have become the plot. The story is constrained by fixes applied in advance; it lurches from one defensive posture to the next. “Wait a minute! Surely, in this day & age, she’d call him out on that broody bullshit schtick of his? Better get that into dialogue!” “Have we covered the religious aspect? Better get a vicar in. Better make him posh.” If the world portrayed seems mad, awkward, oblique to the one it’s supposed to be set in (ie, ours), that’s because it was constructed by a professional’s view not of what the world is, but of what a script is: every character, every scene, every piece of dialogue has been decided not by appeal to the world outside but to the requirements & anxieties of the medium itself. (“What’s her motive here? Better get it into dialogue!”) I wouldn’t even call it lazy: talented, well-paid, energetic people have gone to a great deal of trouble to make it so formally rigid & so irrelevant to anything but the terraced awareness of professionals. Their mounting panic is codified. The stories themselves become a cry for help, which can be heard in every twist & turn, every shred of dialogue: Let us out of the editorial suite & into somewhere real!
An old black cat on the garden wall. A few fine flakes of snow, more like paper ash, start then stop. Start again, stop again. I wonder if an idea can be written one way, then if it can be written another: after this examination the idea seems like rubbish anyway and I close the file, but don’t, for the moment, bin it. Instead I email a friend, “I wish someone had shot the monomyth through the bathroom door & was now standing trial for it in front of the Pryce jury,” then feel ashamed of myself and add: “I’m sorry, that was glib and unpleasant.” Then I bin the email and reopen the file. The cat has reached the end of the wall. He looks over the edge, sits down as if to give it some thought. Paper ash snow in his coat. I’m guilty on all counts this morning. I even had sugar on the porridge. Later I’ll make up for it somehow.
The man in my garden stares up & points. “There’s something wrong in there.” I look down out of the window at him & tell him there’s no one in here but me. “That’s not quite right,” the man in my garden says: “I’m in there too.” He claims he is the thief of death who takes from people their mortality, leaving them suspended & abjectly juvenile forever. “I’m afraid you’re not quite right in yourself,” he tells me now: “If I can see that, you can see that too.” I say that we all need to grow up, I say I appreciate his metaphor: but I wonder how he got into my garden. “You’re too fat to have come over the fence. In addition, it’s my experience that mortality is brought home to the individual through unavoidable circumstance, not education.” How, I ask him, can he steal that from anyone? “Speaking of the unavoidable, go back in your room, have a look,” he suggests, “I’ll wait here.”
He worked out of a small office the only feature of which was the clarity and interest of the screen saver images. They were beachscapes exotic & hard to place, with a sharp, travelogue quality. He had the screen positioned so it was impossible to ignore these glimpses as they dissolved softly into one another; while to the client he presented the city as a surf of buildings & people & consumer goods. The motives that powered it were tidal. Unpredictable winds played against masses of water, currents too complex to understand. Crimes were whipped off the crest of events like spray. “A great wave,” he would explain, “composed of the billion actions of the very citizens it curls so threateningly above!” It was the perfected experience of art, he said, in the perfect space–art as an aspect of architectonic and thence, with perfect logic, of lifestyle. His clientele were not so sure. These carefully groomed & dressed art tourists would look across the desk at him with a kind of puzzled distaste, & wonder if they were in the process of making a mistake. They understood their own inauthenticity: they weren’t, at the outset anyway, so certain about his. The women had come for the sensorium porn. The men, though they would pretend to enjoy “seeing the world from a different point of view”, were only interested in donkey crime.
A child several houses away, shouting, “I said I can’t do it! I said I can’t do it! I said I can’t do it!” over & over again. At first it was part of a game with another child, with a pause for laughter between each iteration. Then the other child dropped out & it took on values & momentum of its own, on & on, real meaning, real confusion & rage. After two or three minutes I realised it wasn’t even her own rage, any more than the sentence itself. It was the rage of some significant adult, overheard in god knows what circumstances.
Load of dead people in the comments here, making their interminable dead-people complaint. Think of the children. Not out of my taxes. My life, bloated as it is with a soul-frying ordinariness, is more demanding than that. Can’t he find something better to do. I’m just glad to be in the warm & nice. Hasn’t he thought of the children. Etc. Etc. Etc. Messages of denial from the pooling global Switzerland of the mind.
Phony music, cheap neon, streets that reek of bad money. Wide open suburbs solved like labyrinths, hands that make a big gun look small. All those burned down rooms & lists of suspects. Acts you might commit yourself, after a late night call. Someone is luring girls into the curve of the street, but before you can earn a blind dime you have to find out what’s behind her door. This detective starts in the centre of the maze. Crimes make their way through to him, uncover his heart at the heart of it.
This review of Paul Watkins’ The Story of My Disappearance appeared in the TLS in 1997–
You wouldn’t think anyone could write, “The next great chapter of my life was about to begin,” and get away with it. Paul Watkins can, because he is able to manage such a weird balance of irony and honesty. The “Paul Watkins” implied by his novels meets life with simple directness, later transforming his experience, on our behalf, into thrillers. Reading him is like being subject to a friendly, candid stare in a crowd: you want to look away, but you sense you would lose an opportunity if you did. Then you realise, probably too late, that the opportunity is a little less candid and a little more complex than you expected. You’re hooked through the gills, when two minutes ago you didn’t even know this person. You’re in Watkins’ shadow version of Newport, Rhode Island, being introduced to another of its shadowy fisherfolk inhabitants.
Born in Dresden in 1964, Paul Wedekind studies engineering until, on the eve of his national service, he is induced by the East German secret police to spy on his friend Ingo Budde–cheerful rogue, bland bullshitter and possible heroin dealer. These two serve with the Russians in Afghanistan, where Budde develops himself further as black marketeer and torturer. They are captured by a CIA-sponsored Afghani unit in the hills outside Kabul. Paul watches dazedly as Ingo’s teeth are filed down, then as his friend is dragged away to be beaten to death. Released in an exchange of prisoners, he finds himself listed “killed in action”, transferred to the GRU/KGB and sent to the US.
There he meets Sulieka, single-handedly running an operation to exchange smuggled Russian diamonds for dollars. Sulieka is raw and nervous, rough but real. With her help Paul settles into the life of a fisherman. They fall in a guarded, edgy kind of love. Money falls into their hands after a botched submarine rendezvous and a wreck at sea. They fall out of the habit of being spies, buy their own boat and become “real” fishermen. All seems calm, at sunset and at dawn. Then, in the chaos that follows the fall of the East, Ingo Budde comes back for revenge.
“…you left me,” he accuses. “You said you wouldn’t leave me. That means no matter what.” And: “You were the only friend I had.”
This novel has the elements of a classic thriller–exotic locations and outsize characters; women known only by their bizarre forenames; wars, revelations and fights in bars. There are grotesque wounds and acts of quite amazing savagery made credible by Watkins’ careful tone. Things are still flying about on the last page, like the best filmic slo-mo explosion. It is all very satisfying, but there’s more.
Paul tells his story in fits and starts, reluctant to face his memories but determined to do it anyway. He appoints us to interrogate him–or at least listen to him as he interrogates himself. He admits one thing to us, he admits another. The third thing he admits means that he must amend the first. There are overlays and imbrications. Small betrayals feather the body of deception. Small lies total into large ones. (“I hoped that I would one day look back onthis as an unpleasant but neccessary job I once did a long time ago for my country,” he excuses himself.) Each appalling event in the record is swaddled in a kind of numbness. Things happen–literally–before Paul has quite understood what he is looking at. The effect is gruelling.
As for names: well, names are surfaces. They shiver at a touch and break up, revealing much more complex stuff beneath. Identity is a form of bullshit, claims Watkins with some accuracy, but bullshit is in itself quite complex stuff. The following anecdote, clearly a warning, or statement of intent, appears early in the book:
“Biagio’s name was pronounced Bee-aj-ee-oh, which the locals had abbreviated to Bad Joe. So many people would come into this bar asking who Bad Joe was that Biaggio made up a story about Bad Joe being a notorious fisherman who died at sea with all his crew and whose ghost still haunted the dock. That was why Biagio liked to keep the fisherman’s theme to his bar, with nets strung out across the walls.”
Bad Joe’s nets have never caught fish. Names catch only a receding shimmer of truth. “Wedekind” is so easily anglicised to Watkins. Someone called only “Sulieka” is credited with the jacket-photo of author Paul Watkins as simple fisherman. There’s fog in the bay tonight, and The Story of My Disappearance is suddenly less a thriller than the aftermath of a collision betweenTo Have and Have Not andPale Fire, an event somewhere along the interface between male self-presentation and outright gleeful lie.