Some things are too awkward to witness. White men talking jive or soul. Or attempting to dance. Another is watching the NYT's David Carr attempt to do hip, snarky blogging about the movie industry. Carr is a fine, traditional reporter. He does not come naturally to the informal nature of a blog post. The results are embarrassing.
As regular readers already know, the Bagger is always wondering about whether the Academy is Sending a Message. And they are, although it may be blowing a whistle heard only by the Bagger and his erstwhile source, another in a series of people who would not be quoted by name even if it would end world hunger. Apparently, putting your name next to an opinion in Hollywood is a sign of feeble-mindedness, sort of like in Washington, another fear-based, single-industry small town writ large. Let’s call him Cynical Heretic About Really Large Issues in Entertainment, or CHARLIE for short.
About twice a year I go through a flurry of reading new mysteries. I'm searching for fresh blood, new (to me at least) writers who might quicken my pulse as Elizabeth George, Laurie R. King, Michael Connelly and others did so well perhaps a decade back. All writers, I think, even the masters, run out of steam after awhile. This is no slur on their talents: to every thing there is a season.
Marilyn Stasio is the New York Times' watcher of crime fiction and a week or so back she reviewed approvingly a number of books, including this trio, each a maiden effort. All three show promise, especially in the page-turning part of the week. Alas, each has some weaknesses in plotting that keeps them from getting my recommendation.
Mark Mills, author of"Amagansett", is the most accomplished writer. Mills is a screenwriter ("The Reckoning," based on Barry Unsworth's "Morality Play") and his training shows. Mills understands drama. The story is set on rural Long Island in 1948. The protagonist is mild-mannered fisherman psychicly scarred by the deaths he saw and caused in World War II. The milieu, with its rich interlopers from New York versus the poor year-'rounders, evokes more than a whiff of Gatsby.
The fisherman's rich, secretive girlfriend is murdered, clumsily, and what ensues will not be surprising to those who've read Raymond Chandler. This isn't a particularly nuanced story. "Amagansett" was several notches above average and kept me moving right along until the hokey denouement. The climax tries very hard to be clever, but the result is too melodramatic by half. I could be generous and call the ending "cinematic," which means that it would make an unsurprising TV movie.
I wish Mills had re-written those last couple of chapters and trusted more in his readers' ability to handle a non-Hollywood ending. Still, Mills CAN write and I'll be anxious to see his next outing. If he can stifle those Hollywood-isms he could produce some excellent work.
Oklahoma librarian Will Thomas is a student of late-Victorian London, especially the East End. He's also a Conan Doyle fan and he's set "Some Danger Involved" there, in the pre-Ripper year of 1884. His first-person protagonist is an apprentice assistant "enquiry agent." It's akin to Holmes and Watson, but with much of the action centered around our younger, more virile Watson, who is both Oxford-educated and a recently-released felon.
There's a plot: an East End Jew has been crucified. Is it the work on an anti-Semitic league, out to incite a pogrom against the immigrant Jews crowding the East End? There's some pretty good plotting here and better characterization. But the concoction falters a bit with another too-Hollywood ending and an implausible villain. The writing isn't as crisp as Mills' but there's promise here too.
On occasion my wife or I will ask the other about the new mystery we've just picked up. We often have a one-word answer: "maize" or "wheat" or "barley" or "quinoa." It's our own acerbic shorthand (one could, I guess, call it wry) for Oh No, Another Serial Killer Tale.
There was a time in detective fiction when a single murder was sufficient, or a few murders by the sad but sane villain in the furtherance of a theft, fraud or some such. But those were in the balmy days before all killers were required to be psychopathic and driven by some hidden logic to keep selecting victims -- a pattern which, of course, only Our Hero can decipher.
That's what we have in advertising man Jack Kerley's "The Hundredth Man".
The location is Mobile, Alabama, evidently the until now only remaining U.S. metropolis without its own psychologically-astute detective, demanding woman medical examiner, and full-blown psycho serial killer. Yes, Our Hero does indeed live in a shack above the water, drinks prodigiously, revives himself with long death-defying swims in the bay. He also has a black partner. For motivation he's also a saviour, bringing back an assistant medical examiner from near-terminal alcoholism. Oh yes, and he is assisted in his psychological insights by his brother, an abused kid who became himself a serial killer and is now incarcerated, perhaps in an adjoining cell to an aging Hannibal Lecter. I'll omit mentioning that Our Hero's superiors are out to get him.
Kerley is capable of writing snappy sentences and paragraphs and he injects a bit of believable cop-like humor. The pages turn readily enough but we have, one again a movie-ready action-packed ending that plain blew up my implausability meter.
It's possible, I suppose, that I'm being too rough on these three books (and the half-dozen others I rejected to get to these three). After all, these are indeed first works; presumably each will improve in future outings. All show promise -- Mills and Thomas the most; Kerley's preposterous plotting is a bigger mountain to climb.
I've been doing a lot of reading lately. The upside of this is that I've just read two of Sarah Vowell's books. The downside is that this witty essayist/historian, best known for her "This American Life" contributions on NPR, has only written four books. Let's hope she's busy beavering away. She just finished a one-month gig on the New York Times op/ed page, subbing for Maureen Dowd. One need only read the title, "Assassination Vacation" , to get an insight into Vowell's offbeat view of life: she vacations in sites associated with famous American political assassinations. This is a clever device to allow Vowell to indulge in her real passion, telling wonderful history stories. Highly recommended.
Ryan's just written a good, long post on his and Jill's blog and it's inspired me to put up something new.
As you can see from Ryan's post, we've been pushing the kids faster than they've wished. Sandy and I have different rhythms and we're trying to get in sync. For the kids their ideal day seems to involve:
1. Getting up very late in the morning, having breakfast;
2. Afternoon: sightseeing, shopping or strolling for 3-4 hours. Of these they prefer strolling or shopping to sightseeing. Museums are number 55 on Ryan's list of Top 100 favorites; Jill would prefer having her teeth pulled rather than visit one. As Ryan mentions, we walk a lot. Sandy has her pedometer, and typically we'll clock 5 miles or so during our wanderings. This tires Ryan, Jill and I the most, I think. (See below for Sandy's preferred regimen).
3. Late afternoon: a cafe or ice cream wherever we are, which revives them -- but not for long;
4. Enduring boredom during the hour or so it takes us to buy groceries;
5. "Hanging out" at the apartment for a couple of hours, typically with a nap of an hour or more. Sandy and I often have to rouse them for dinner or they might sleep through until the following noon;
6. A two-hour dinner, with lots of conversation. Dinner doesn't start until at least 8:30 p.m.. The sun is still up. The kids are at their most animated. Dinner doesn't end until after 10 p.m., when the sky is still quite blue.
7. An after-dinner stroll of a mile or more. While our immediate 'hood is quiet and residential, we are within walking distance of at least three areas with lots of street nightlife -- cafes, restaurants, music clubs.
8. By now it's usually past 11 p.m. and it's time to start the cycle again.
This is a bit different from Sandy and my natural traveling rhythm, which admittedly is more intense than anyone we know. When we travel with other adults -- say, Pat or Margaret or Connie and Gary -- they voice the same complaint of Jill and Ryan: we go too much.
Our ideal day is, admittedly, too long. It exhausts even us. Or at least me (Sandy has more stamina). Here's the way we typically travel:
8 a.m. -- out to buy breakfast croissants
9:30 a.m. -- head out for sightseeing experience 1 -- a museum, an organized walk of a district, typically with commentary from a guidebook, possibly a shopping expedition.
1 p.m. -- informal lunch (sandwich or baguette/cheese) on a park bench.
1:30 p.m. -- Sightseeing or shopping experience 2. If the morning involved a museum, well, we won't do another that afternoon. I typically search the local newspapers and entertainment publications for street fairs, art gallery stuff, etc. This involves great coordination (or at least I spend a lot of time doing it) because galleries and museums are closed on different days, etc.
5 p.m. -- Revive with coffee/tea, then do the marketing. In Paris cafes are relatively serious places for adults. In other cities -- Barcelona comes to mind -- street cafes are more of a family affair. We recall spending many "cocktail hours" in the street behind our apartment. It was a wide pedestrian area and intensely family-oriented (as was much of Barcelona). Parents and friends would gather to drink, grandma would sit at the table or nearby watching the children play. The infants would simply chase each other. Those over the age of four played at soccer. Dogs ran free and got their exercise. There's not much of that in Paris. Even on the car-less pedestrian streets there are few children. And those who are present are at table, not milling about.
6 p.m. -- Hang out, fix dinner. When it's just the two of us we'll sometimes have a quick dinner at home -- bread, pate, cheese -- then head out for...
8 p.m. -- Sightseeing experience 3. Most shops are closed now, so there's little shopping. But it's a great time to stroll restaurants, examining their menus and making notes for later.
After Leon's we walked back home. We were jetlagged zombies with full bellies. We approached the apartment house and pushed the call button which we'd used earlier to gain entrance. The door remained locked. We called up to residents a floor above who could clearly us through their open windows. None responded. We waited for someone to enter the building. No one did.
We could call Madame Paugam, except we hadn't activated our Euro cellphone, we hadn't bought a card to operate the pay electronic phones -- and it was 11 p.m. and all the tabacs (local tobacco/lottery shops) were closed. I left the others at the front door and went in search of a tabac or something. I spent a half-hour scouring the neighborhood for a solution, then gave up. I returned to find Sandy and the others in the vestibule. A man had come up to the lock keypad, looked suspiciously at Sandy as if she were some burglar, and tried to dart quickly inside. She was too fast for him, though. Before the door could slam she hopped inside. I returned, we uneventfully went up and our first day in Paris ended, about 26 hours after we started the day in the almost-wide spot of Hamilton, Texas. We fell exhaustedly into bed.
Those familiar with the French/European floor numbering system will conclude that 'Ol Karraker was on the wrong floor because what Americans call the "first floor" is the equivalent of "floor zero": the first floor is one flight above. But that wasn't the problem. The elevator was numbered properly and I had gotten off at "5" which means the sixth floor in American. But still the key didn't fit the lock.
It's a small apartment building with just two apartments per floor. The other apartment used a different lockset, a modern one, unlike the medieval-looking brass key I held. I rang the bell of the second apartment. A small dog barked furiously. Eventually a woman -- obviously older -- answered, and gruffly told me there was no M. Paugam. Her tone indicated I should slope off immediately.
With little else to do choose from, I decided to walk up to floor 6, the highest in the building. The lockset looked compatible. The key fit. I went in. No one was there. There was no note. Things were strewn about. It certainly didn't look as if the occupants were expecting guests. Still, I concluded, the key fit, so it must be the right place. I went down to get the others and the luggage.
Still unsure that we were in the right place we dropped our bags in the living room and surveyed the apartment. It seemed substantially different from the pictures we'd seen, yet it certainly seemed likely we were where we should be. A bit tentatively, we decided to go get lunch (crepes and panini at a cheap joint on the Blvd. Montparnasse a few blocks away).
On our return we knocked and buzzed, then went in. We called loudly. No answer. I mounted the stairs (it's a two-story or duplex apartment) to see two women, one, behind wearing a housecleaner's smock. Before her and shuffling toward me with tiny hesitant steps was a wraith, a rail-thin woman of about my height whose waist was about as thick as my thigh. She was clearly frail, though beaming broadly, and I was reminded that my sister Marcia, who had met M. Paugam 18 months ago in California, had mentioned that a "bad blood" transfusion had given her something akin to multiple sclerosis. We were "home," but we were hardly finished with surprises.
We spent an uncomfortable hour or so "making nice" and learning about the apartment. This was uncomfortable because I, politely, tried to speak in French and M. Paugam spoke in English that was as labored (but more grammatical) than my French. Then she would seemingly tire and lapse into solid French and assume that I understood. Not wishing to discomfort her, and presuming I could ascertain from the meaning from catching every tenth word, I'd nod or say "oui."
Then madam decided I should learn about the car, a tiny Smart, in the garage below. So while Sandy remained upstairs Madame, Ryan, Jill and I descended in the tiny lift to the "sous-caves" the second level underground. That's when the elevator, capacity 4 or 600 pounds, suddenly lurched and came to a halt, apparently between floors. The door wouldn't open. Madame tried several permutations of flipping unlabeled switches and prssing buttons, all to no avail. Eventually Ryan suggested I try prying the door open. Surprisingly, I was able to do so and we were only a foot or less above the floor of the landing.
We went into perhaps the world's smallest, lowest garage to inspect the car. Smart cars are but 8.5 feet long and seat only two, so we knew we weren't all going for a ride. Madame got behind the wheel and motioned me to the passenger's seat. I presumed she was going to show me the controls, etc. Not so: she fired up the engine, backed up without looking and we took off up the ramp. After four or six harrowing blind turns in the narrow passageway the garage door opened and we were on the street.
Madame drove atrociously, dangerously. In the U.S. she would have caused at least three accidents. But this is Paris and French drivers are both skilled and alert. Despite her unsignaled, abrupt U-turns and other infractions we returned alive and again negotiated the ramps and the parking space that was little more than two feet wider than the car. Thus endeth the driving lesson.
Jill and Ryan were of course perplexed when we disappeared. They waited a moment or so and went back. The elevator still "non marche plus" so they walked up the eight flights to the apartment. And so, 20 minutes later, did Madame and I. She moved slowly and deliberately, always with a quivering motion that I thought was sure to precede a fall. It took us awhile, and she paused often on the landings, but we got back.
Eventually she and Maria, her caretaker/housekeeper, left -- though she to return the next day and again on Wednesday before finally departing for California on Friday. And we, despite our earlier vows to stay awake until dark and thus begin to defeat jet lag, fell onto the beds and to sleep.
Sandy and I awoke later, then roused Jill and Ryan and we headed out for dinner. We walked through the Jardin de Luxembourg and up to the Blvd. St. Germain. We stopped for dinner at Leon of Bruxelles, a mussels and fries joint. Sandy and I love mussels and we've eaten at several of the Leon's locations in Paris. Ryan had a baked salmon casserole. Jill had a steak, a bit fatty to her taste. Prices were, of course, a shock. The last time we'd been in Paris, in 2001, the dollar and the euro were equal in value. Now the euro is worth 30 percent more (or the dollar is worth 30 percent less, depending on how you look at it). What used to be a bargain was now becoming pricey.
But it wasn't the prices that were to provide our final surprise of the evening.
[to be continued]
As I write this, we've been in Paris for about 32 hours and it's been a whirlwind. Our departure from Texas was a snap: a rather leisurely morning drive from Ryan and Jill's temporary abode in Hamilton, then a short flight from San Antonio to Dallas. Even the 10 -hour flight to Paris was uneventful, though it seems longer each time, even when, as this year, it's actually shorter because we're started 1500 miles to the east.
But all the tranquility ended literally the moment we exited the Charles de Gaulle terminal. We were to turn right to rendezvous with the van driver meeting us. But suddenly police and soldiers with machine guns (including a petite woman soldier with a submachine gun looking something like an American M-4 -- short-barreled, flash suppressor, big clip) began clearing the area where we were supposed to go. An unattended bag looked suspicious. All traffic to the terminal was halted; the area was cleared. In about 15 minutes we were allowed back, found our van and set off. I'm sure it was an impressionable introduction to Paris for Ryan and Jill.
Our second surprise was to arrive at our house exchange to find, apparently, no one at home and no one to meet us with the keys. The door to the apartment house was locked, but we quickly got in by following someone else through the door. In the lobby we found M. Paugam's name opposite the buzzer for "5". We rang it, expecting to be buzzed up from somewhere. No response.
A door led off to the right. It was locked. Her mailbox was visible in the lobby, but there was nothing in it. While we pondered step two, which would be to go buy a phone card and call the number, a woman came out, heard us talking and said something like "Madame Paugam." She then abruptly dropped something into a mailbox slot. Luckily Ryan noticed that it was M. Paugam's mail slot. We fished out the keys. One key opened the Another adventure surmounted.
I took the keys to floor 5. They didn't fit.
[to be continued]