Archive for May, 2015

Where Nothing Is As It Seems

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Is it the newsreels? The films of the 40’s? What is it that immediately shifts our mnemonic transmissions into black and white when we think of the Second World War and its aftermath? What is it that turns streets and alleys and craters and ruins into varying shades of gray. It really is gray, isn’t it? Yes, the shadows are black, or charcoal perhaps. And the snow is white, when not tinged with soot. But eventually it all becomes gray. Not just the image, but also the times, the people, the stories too.

Nowhere is gray more apparent than in Joseph Kanon’s latest novel, Leaving Berlin. It’s postwar Berlin, but just barely. It’s the Berlin airlift, but only tangentially. Mostly it’s the gray Berlin of divided zones, hazy memories, unsure motivations, unendurable alliances, unintended consequences, and perhaps most piteously, unachievable aspirations.

Alex is a Jewish exile retured from America to take his place among the emerging Communist community in East Berlin. Or so it seems. Irene is his first love who survived the Nazi ascent to power, the city’s descent into starvation, even the victorious Russians rape of the vanquished. Or did she? Dieter is an ex German policeman now working for the West. Markus is a new German policeman now working for the East. Markovsky is a Communist victor now¬†overseeing unspeakable acts. Gustav is a Nazi doctor now hiding acts of his own. Berlln, 1949, is a patchwork of intrigue, hidden agendas, heroism and treachery. A study in gray if ever there was one.

Kanon is a master storyteller. With each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, he reveals information that illuminates what you’ve already read and infuses what is to come with even more mystery. Nothing is obvious plot device. His characters act and react as befits real human beings caught up in the envy, the lust, the sorrow and the hope that is life. When you leave Berlin, and the characters that populate this engaging novel, you will be sorry to go.

Joseph Kanon is often compared to John Le Carre and Graham Green. Rather heady company to be associated with. Certainly his work, especially Istanbul Passage and The Good German compare favorably with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Third Man. But make no mistake, Kanon is his own man in wit, style, and in his ability to hold the reader in a compelling grasp. Don’t believe me? Take this black and white tour of a very gray Berlin when the war had ended but intrigue continued to snatch you into a waiting car. Like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’ll be the better for it.

Delve Into Deception

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

The city as a character. Happenstance as motive. A mystery within a mystery. These are the thoughts foremost in my mind after recently finishing three novels from one of the original masters of noir–the great Cornell Woolrich. While his reputation has not been as storied as Raymond Chandler and other crime and mystery writers of the 30’s and 40’s, his output and success rate often surpassed his contemporaries. More Woolrich books and stories were turned into movies and teleplays than writers more easily remembered today. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, Rear Window, was based on a Woolrich story. Chances are, if you watch old movies on TV, you’ve seen a number of Woolrich works without knowing so, unless you’re as glued to the credits as you are to the films.

In Deadline At Dawn, a couple thrown together by circumstance, must solve a murder one of them is suspected of before the sun rises so they can catch a bus that will take them out of the city that has seemed to plot their downfall. The city itself becomes the all-seeing, all-schemeing, omnipotent force that continually conspires to thwart their efforts and keep them wrapped in its tentacles. Woolrich’s evocation of the city as the ultimate evil is as entertaining, if not more so, than the plot of this pot boiler as the hours and minutes until sunrise tick away.

The hyperbolically titled I Married A Dead Man, has nothing to do with the gore laden zombie books and films of today. The dead man in question does not return from the grave. Woolrich is too skilled at plotting to rely on such a haggard cliche. Rather, he has the heroine of the story posing as the dead man’s wife in order to raise her newborn child with some measure of security under the roof of the deceased’s loving (and wealthy) parents. Parents who never met their son’s fiancee and bride prior to their wedding. The actual couple died in a tragic accident enabling the deception. The suspense comes in living through the heroine’s fear and terror at being discovered. Particularly when the real father of her child comes back into the picture with blackmail on his mind.

Phantom Lady is an exercise that borrows a bit from both of the novels above, without copying either. Rather than a clock counting down the hours until sunrise, here the days, weeks, and months tick away leading to a final sunset–the execution of an innocent man convicted of murder. As each day brings us one day closer to an appointment with the electric chair, Woolrich spins a tale rich in detail and ingeniously plotted. The reader is fairly sure he knows where this story is heading, but not how it will get there. When it arrives at what appears to be the conclusion, the reader is not only surprised, but astounded that he missed the clues the author planted along the way to give him the real identity of the murderer.

Some have faulted Woolrich for an over-reliance on coincidence as plot device. But this reviewer sees that merely as literary nit-picking. The willing suspension of disbelief is essential to virtually all mystery or cloak and dagger tales. Accepting it in Woolrich’s writing takes nothing away from the enjoyment of being caught up in the wicked webs he weaves to engulf both his characters and his readers in deliciously torturous situations.

Cornell Woolrich’s life was often as macabre as some of his stories. Why did his marriage end mere weeks after it began? What was the mother like that he lived with until her death? Why did he keep wearing a shoe too small for his foot that eventually gave him gangrene and caused him to lose his leg? Why did the creator of so many successful novels and stories wind up dying as a virtual recluse, nearly penniless and alone? ¬†To find the answers you can look into his life in the search engines or the biographies. To find out why he is regarded as one of the most renowned writers of crime and noir, you need only read one of his novels. The Fiction Fortune Hunter hopes you do.