Follies and Nonsense

July 30, 2017

Top of the Lake : China Girl (No spoilers)  

When I saw that the BBC in their infinite wisdom had released all the episodes at once, I promised myself I would take it slowly. No more than one a day.

I make myself a lot of promises I know I’m not going to keep. Just as well I have low standards.

Friday, I was under orders to rest – slight post – operative temperature. And after last year’s experiences, a little fear. (Don’t worry. I won’t go into detail. Unless I get around to writing that medical thriller, in which case all bets are off.)

So I watched it all.  One episode after another. I let Ryan cook – which, as ever, meant beans on toast.

I loved the first series and had been looking forward to this immensely. It was, after all, Jane Campion’s film ‘In The Cut’ (generally quite unpopular) which inspired my novel ‘A Savage Art’

In a Guardian article last week, it was said that this was deeper and darker – and indeed it was. In places it was positively weird.

But it was every bit as brilliant as I had hoped, and I am feeling inspired again, indirectly, to follow my own weird tangent.

I’m not going to say anything about the characters or the story or anything, knowing many people are more sensible than me and are eking it out.

I wonder if I’ll believe Elisabeth Moss as Offred tonight? Isn’t she fabulous?

Ann


May 8, 2017

Into The Water, and why I loved it anyway.  

I’m trying to understand what it is I ‘ve loved about the follow up from Paula Hawkins to The Girl on the Train.  Without spoilers, as far as possible as I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So there’s nothing about individual characters and plot points here – only generalities about theme and structure and genre.

Val McDermid has some reservations which she discussed here in her Guardian review.

There are eleven narrators for one – some in first person, and some in third. It’s a bit confusing and I did have to flick back and forth trying to work out whose point of view I was in, and at what point in the timeline. The voices are not particularly individualised.

There’s a lot of shenanigans that feel perilously close to cheating in the way information is with-held from the reader to maintain suspense and surprise. This definitely includes a few circumlocutions which dragged this reader right out of the story for moment.  However, some of them are maybe psychologically within the realms of possibility, so I wouldn’t dismiss them all as outright cheating.

I’m not sure about the setting – I agree with McDermid that it seemed randomly rural town. I don’t know the area concerned though, so it didn’t really trouble me.

So yes, I think Val McDermid’s review is perfectly fair. Of course it would be – who knows the genre of crime fiction better?

And yet, in spite of all that, I still loved the novel. And I’m trying to analyse why.

Perhaps it’s not really a psychological thriller. Not in the sense of  “transcending the genre” – a phrase so condescending to crime fiction lovers that it makes my teeth itch like a squeaky chalk on a blackboard.

It seems to me that it’s a deep novel about memory, and truth and lies. About miscommunication. And about how all those things are complicated by different points of view.

Those narrators are essential to the structure because the novelists is telling us about tragedies which have deeply affected several families, and a whole community. It’s almost a realistic way of telling the story, as clearly because of all those secrets and lies and miscommunications, no one knows the whole story, although it is gradually pieced together.

There’s one point in the story where a major character finally tells the truth about something which happened to her and you think hurray – but still, it ends up being misunderstood and complicating things even more. And I think there’s some real psychological insight here – we see people projecting things that have happened to them onto other people. Making assumptions based on their own personal experiences and prejudices. There’s a lot about mysogyny and difficult women – from the point of view of a whole range of people – young and old, male and female. There’s a reason why the novel starts with a shocking and graphic disposal of a witch being drowned – although it’s left an open question whether the modern day psychic is really talking to the dead, or if it’s all a psychological phenomenon. But it does all add to the gothic feel of the novel.

The misunderstandings are not always deliberate. Sometimes it’s a question of motivated reasoning – to avoid being confronted by one’s own complicity. Sometimes it’s naivety, and simple lack of experience, or a lack of imagination and empathy.

There’s an exploration of the idea that a good person might have at times acted badly,  or a bad person done some things for good reasons. None of the characters is wholly sympathetic – no matter what horrors they have been through. There was just one character I found deeply unpleasant and saw no redeeming features in – but only one. Other readers may have a different experience.

If anything, the novel is spoiled by shoehorning it into the necessary structure for a psychological thriller, because at that point it startes to lose nuance, and the twist I’ve been expecting isn’t really a surprise in spite of those avoidances and circumlocutions. So for me it wasn’t a particularly satisfying payoff.  It’s a bit strange to enjoy all of a psychological thriller apart from the last couple of chapters – so that’s what prompted me to spend a bit more time thinking about it.

Who dunnit has never really interested me as much as why, so perhaps my response is not so surprising. And suspense odoesn’t have to be about who to be a compelling read.

I always go back to this Hitchcock quotation –

 “One of the most essential things in a film is visual clarity. I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example if you take suspense – suspense can only be achieved by telling the audience as much as you can, I don’t deal in mystery – I never make whodunnits, because they’re intellectual exercises. You’re just wondering – you’re not emoting. My old analogy of the bomb. As an example, we couold be blown up this minute and the audience would get five seconds of shock. But if we tell them five minutes ahead of time there is a bomb that’s going to go off, that would get five minutes of suspense. and we didn’t have suspense before, because the audience were in ignorance, you see.”

I wonder, now, if all those with-holdings and circumlocutions were necessary for this novel to work. It might perhaps have been a better novel without them. Maybe a second reading, now that I know what was being held back, would make that clear.

Still, even though I wasn’t surprised by the twisty ending, I was certainly emoting like crazy. There were characters I cared about – some more than others, which with eleven narrators is pretty much bound to be the case. And there were a couple who I think might have been more developed.

I think Into The Water might actually be a far more interesting novel than Girl on a Train because it isn’t a standard psychological thriller. It’s trying, and in some ways succeeding, to do something more.

Neil Gaiman said a novel is a long piece of prose which has something wrong with it.

What is often missed, I think, when we criticise any novel is how easy it is to pick out those things which are wrong.

And yet what we might like about a novel are those things which are right about it, even while we can see the flaws.

Not unlike the way we can clearly see the imperfections in that special person and yet still love them.

Yes, that’s it. I loved this novel – warts and all.

 

Ann

 

 

Sources:

Guardian : Val McDermid review

Hitchcock quotation on YouTube


March 17, 2017

Jack the Ripper, Patricia Cornwell, and Walter Sickert  

A fascinating interview in The Spectator (here) reveals more about Patricia Cornwell’s obsession with the identity of Jack The Ripper – including some interesting new evidence.

So here’s the smoking gun, here’s the forensic detail that would nail the killer were this actually a Scarpetta book: it’s the writing paper. Not only did Sickert use the same brand as Jack, it turns out, but an expert has now demonstrated that their paper came from the very same pad.

The Tate gallery suggested I use this paper expert, Peter Bower,’ Cornwell says. ‘I think they thought Peter would come in and show what nonsense this all was and they didn’t realise it was going to do the opposite. The paper stuff is just incredible. Peter examined three Sickert letters and two of the watermarked Ripper letters, and those five sheets of paper came from a batch run of only 24 that could have ever been made. And the thing that’s really creepy about it is the three Sickert letters were written on his mother’s stationery. So he was writing Ripper letters on his mother’s stationery. Now that’s a bit Freudian, isn’t it?’

Cornwell’s eyes are fired with conviction. I have a stab of doubt. What if Sickert wrote the Ripper letters but didn’t do the murders?

‘It’s a good question. I personally don’t think so,’ she says calmly. ‘But that’s where I have my 5 per cent rule. I think you have to hold out the 5 per cent doubt though I’m 95 per cent sure he did it. I mean Sickert never stopped talking about this his entire life.’

I think I agree with her about the 5% rule – only I’d say 5% that Sickert was the Ripper, and 95% chance that he was simply the author of the Ripper letters. We know, for example, that many people obsess over these cases, and that does not make them the guilty party. Cornwell’s obsession doesn’t make her the Ripper reborn, or any kind of serial killer, except in fiction. The writer of the Yorkshire Ripper letters was not the Yorkshire Ripper. Wearside Jack, as John Samuel Humble was nicknamed, sent three letters and left an audio message which derailed the investigation. False confessions to horrific crimes are not rare.

Why do we have so many theories about Jack the Ripper? It’s a question which still intrigues me, much more than question of his actual identity.

In any case, it looks like Cornwell’s new evidence about the letters derails the idea that journalist Francis Craig was the writer of the letters, and the killer – which I wrote about in my first post about Jack, here. It seems unlikely that Craig had access to Sickert’s mother’s stationery – although that would be twisty enough to find its way into a Scarpetta story.

It must surely be all bound up with why we love mystery stories so much. We (not just crime fiction readers and writers, but especially us, perhaps) don’t like not knowing not only who done it, but why.  That second part, the why of it all, is why we love the detail that Sickert was using his mother’s stationery. Not just a Freudian aha! moment – but who didn’t immediately think of Psycho? Perhaps it was just me whose mind immediately served up the rocking chair scene. Who and why are the questions that drive so many of the psychological thrillers we love.

As I put it in my second Ripper post,

So crime fiction – and true crime like Truman Capote, Janet Malcolm, Ann Rule and the Ripper books, even the addictive podcast Serial – are all ways of trying to get to the truth of human behaviour. It’s a survival mechanism. If our trust in other people is undermined in early life, understanding people becomes a driving necessity. From the earliest myths, through folk and fairy tales, epic poetry and gothic novels, revenge tragedies and morality plays, penny dreadfuls and religious tracts – perhaps that’s what all storytelling is about.

Of course, there aren’t many serial killers out there – the danger is really far closer to home. Every week two women in the UK are killed by partners and ex partners. Children are at more risk from their own families than from anyone else. These truths are hard to face.

No wonder Cornwell can’t stop hunting the Ripper.

I certainly think it’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to crime fiction.

What do you think?
Ann

 

Sources

Spectator interview

Wikipedia on Wearside Jack

My earliest post here on The Ripper

My second post on The Ripper

(No, really, I’m not obsessed).


February 24, 2017

Giveaway of A Savage Art  

For the UK, America, Canada and Australia

Please share

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Savage Art by A.E. Rawson

A Savage Art

by A.E. Rawson

Giveaway ends March 05, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Thank you!

Ann


February 13, 2017

The problem with revenge stories  

Spoilers below for TV dramas Apple Tree Yard and Unforgotten, if you’ve not watched them yet.

Both dramas involved complicated plots about those who have been abused turning the tables on their abusers and getting away with it.

While in real life, we might abhor vigilanteeism and we have a judicial system that is intended to be fair and impartial and not based on vengeance, we do accept that there’s a difference between fiction and reality.

Don’t we?

Some people can’t tell the difference. I vaguely remember stories about an actor who played a rapist on East Enders coming in for personal abuse on the street. There’s theories that violent games inspire real life violence. Much is made of Norwegian Anders Breivik training by playing Call of Duty – whilst ignoring all the many people who have played the same game without ever planning and carrying out a terrorist attack – and ignoring the logical point that to use it to train meant that he’d formulated a plan rather than been pushed into action by the game itself. Perhaps most worrying is the idea that Jack Bauer of 24 provided the inspiration for real life torture, post 9/11

To what degree are the writers of fiction responsible if some reader or viewer confuses the boundary?  Let’s ignore Trump, whose comprehension of the difference between lies and truth is doubtful. And consider the possibility that intelligence operatives used torture because it worked for Jack Bauer.

Would that be the fault of the producers and writers of the show? Of the actors?

Or would it be the responsibility of those whose job it was to train them, to teach them about the law, to remind them of human rights. And most of all, perhaps, that torture doesn’t actually work. Not even in those faked up storylines where the stakes are high and there’s only so many hours to save the world.

Did 24 ever have a plot line when the torture failed? That would be good story telling. I did watch the first few series but I can’t say it stuck in my mind – and in spite of the helter skelter pace, it got boring.

But I do love revenge stories. Way back at Liverpool Uni in the late 70s one of my lecturers specialised in Revenge Tragedies and forced me to write an essay on Titus Andronicus. Now that’s torture for you.

The issue some have with these current dramas is that they aren’t tragedies. Vengeance is rewarded. There’s no requirement to dig two – or six – graves.

Here come the spoilers.

In Unforgotten (the second series), a body is discovered and the investigating team gradually uncover the truth about the long-dead man. It was a variant on the Strangers on a Train story. All the suspects had met in a psychiatric unit and recognised each other as abuse victims.  And between them they hatched a plan to revenge themselves on each other’s abusers – creating perfect alibis. It would have been difficult to prove, apart from the fact that the detective followed one of them and discovered them all chatting together in a pub…  The ending, which has disappointed some, has the investigating police colluding to ignore the evidence and let it go, out of sympathy for what they’d each endured, and because they had spent the previous twenty years as productive members of society and were no longer a danger to anyone.

While this was emotionally satisfying in the drama, it’s not how we’d see it in real life. Most of us would, I assume, prefer to see the courts deal with the evidence and then allow for mitigation. Maybe in a real life situation a jury would decide they were not guilty of murder, only of manslaughter. Perhaps a short prison sentence or a suspended sentence would be deemed appropriate. Or maybe a judge would decide they needed to be made an example of to deter vigilanteeism.

Apple Tree Yard is also a revenge story, with a twist or two along the way. The heroine, Dr Yvonne Carmichael, is a scientist who falls for a dodgy guy who leads her to believe he’s a spook. Clearly she must be punished for the sin of having a fling while she has a good job, a nice house and an acceptable husband (even if he might be playing away himself, I mean, he’s a bloke, so that’s allowed, right?). And so one of her colleagues clearly senses that she’s an immoral woman and is therefore fair game, and rapes her. It’s a truly shocking scene – brutal and violent. Perhaps more shocking is the way she becomes meek and plaible and goes along with his suggestion that they share a taxi. Shocking, that is, if you believe all the myths about rape, and how victims behave – and it seems many people still do.

So we know from the outset that Yvonne is on trial, along with her lover, Mark Costley, for George’s murder.

In various twists and turns we find out that Costley was not a spook – he failed to qualify because of suspicions that he has a personality disorder – his defence against the charge of murder. He’s married, with children. Yvonne finds out she really hardly knew him at all. There are shades of the Prisoner’s Dilemma throughout – will they stay loyal to each other? It seems not. And then, in a final twist, it is revealed that he was the more romantic – not her. That she asked him to deal with George. And so she gets away with her revenge as he is convicted and she walks free.

As a viewer I couldn’t help but feel glad that Yvonne got away with her revenge. I felt sad for Costley – not for George, who was violently murdered after all. I suppose that’s because we saw the brutality of the rape. And we saw that he continued to stalk her. That even though she didn’t report him and she altered her life to avoid him, that she’d allowed him to get away with it – still he wouldn’t leave her be.

In real life, would it be acceptable to incite murder, even of someone who has violently raped you and is a determined stalker? Of course not. Even though we know perfectly well how dangerous male aggressors of this kind are. Even though we know restraining orders are of limited use, that the police often fail to take stalking seriously, even though we know how low convictions for rape are… We still wouldn’t condone that kind of violence.

But this is fiction. I’m not sure that we really expect fiction to be realistic. At least, not all forms of fiction. We criticise dramas where we think they fail to be realistic, but we accept a certain amount of deviation from reality too. No one wants to see policemen doing paperwork, or on long observations when nothing happens. It’s a story.

Where would we start criticising Apple Tree Yard for its deviation from reality? The willingness of a respectable female scientist to have sex in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament with a guy she knows nothing about? Her spectacular agility in leaping to the conclusion that he’s a spook, because he makes some random observation about how CCTV cameras work?

Me, I’d rather pick holes in reality. I suppose we could write a fiction in which justice prevails – the police act correctly, there’s evidence to be had and not just he said, she said situations, the jury are educated about the myths about rape and abuse, the court system always reaches a just conclusion. And we could all it, I dunno, Utopia. It wouldn’t be very emotionally satisfying for all the people who have been let down by the justice system. See the recent Guardian article about British rape trials. Nor would it be a very good story.

I have my own dog in this race. My own addiction to revenge stories to declare. My novel, A Savage Art, is also a revenge story.  I’m sure there are lots of areas where it fails the realism test.

Revenge stories are wish fulfilment for the powerless. I suppose I believe like comedy, they’re about punching up, rather than punching down. If they make the reader or the view think about issues of morality that’s a good thing. But if we expect a story to make our minds up for us, in this brave new world of FAKE NEWS, then we’ve already lost.

Ann

For another day, perhaps. Is it wrong to punch a Nazi?

P.S. My novel is currently only £0.99/$0.99 to download

Sources

Guardian – Inside British Rape Trials

NYT – Normalising torture on 24

CSM – Did 24 help to make torture acceptable?

American Thinker – Stranger than Fiction: Does 24 Inspire Real Life Torture?