The Big Nowhere

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A monster is loose in 1950’s Los Angeles; three cops must learn to work together to bring the killer down, beach must fight his own demons along the way, and each discovers that the web of crime goes much deeper than any of them could have ever imagined…

As you’ve already guessed, this is one of James Ellroy’s crime thriller novels. And while the overall plots seems remarkably the same from book to book, I love every noir-drenched second of these books. Making Dashiell Hammett look downright cheerful – and a bit naive too. Ellroy is one of those writers whose talents dwarf those of the average mortal; he’s one of those authors that remind one why we read.

First of all, Ellroy is the mast or the “look” and “feel” of noir; each sentence oozes a world of literal and metaphorical shadows. Well-researched use of slang and his extreme sensitivity to what non-Americans would instantly identify as class differences between characters add realism. But beyond literary ‘tactics,’ Ellroy recreates Gotham City – in sunny southern California. It’s gritty and yet a playground of sin, vice, corruption, and dedicated cops that will stop at nothing to get what they most desire…

Second, Ellroy effortlessly matches character drama (office politics, characters struggling with their foibles and hang-ups) with razor-edge police procedural, serial killer pursuit with biting (and yet oh-so-subtle) social and political commentary. The killer is a monster, yes, but is always a product of a larger web of crime; always a result of an older crime, a crime which is linked, almost in a mythological sense to the founding “acts” of this shadowy Gotham-esque society. Ellroy shows how “pure” evil is always illusory, a product and reflection of cynical, regressive way of viewing the world and the other people in it. The “true” crime is thus far removed from the plot of the book; it represents a primal, protean act of violence towards society which “the monster” witnesses, thus setting the events of the story in motion.

As the piece de resistance, Ellroy is writing true mysteries that are dazzling in their complexity and detail. Each facts are accumulated, leads are followed, links keep forming and forming…the result is that each book m Even his separate books will refine each other, often with identical characters appearing in the same roles in each book. Yet this is not repetitive at all, rather true literary accomplishment.

Dark, sometimes painful and hard to read when the jargon gets to thick, but overwhelmingly masterful books.

 

 

The Persian Expedition (Anabasis)

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Known variously as ‘The Persian Expedition,’ or ‘The March of the Ten Thousand,’ the proper title would be ‘Anabasis,’ (Greek, meaning “the march up country”). Written in 350BC, it recounts the epic journey of an army of Greek mercenaries to return home from deep in the Persian Empire.

One of the more interesting things about The Persian Expedition is the fact that it is “real.”  Xenophon was a professional soldier who played the critical role in this epic; this is not myth, fantasy, or an epic poem, it’s actual quite concrete and at no point leaves the realm of fact – no mythological creatures, no assistance from divinities. The Greeks save themselves. This book is about tactics, forced marches, tough negotiation, power politics and a celebration of Greek cultural and military superiority. As such, I can’t help but feeling that Xenophon is the great-great grandfather of exploration/expedition writing, military/adventure memoirs and along with The Odessey, the trope of fantasticesotic/ journeys a la Gulliver’s Travels and Star Trek.

The context to Xenophon’s march is important. The high Hellenic world was comprised of city states scattered throughout what is now the modern day eastern mediterranean, only roughly centring in modern day Greece. To the east, the massive, oriental Persian Empire loomed monolithically – not just a political threat, the Persian Menace was an existential and cultural threat as well. This is the birth of the  East vs West divide and even the notion of the land-locked “evil Empire.” Famously, the Persians massively invaded Greece, the Greek city united, leading to the victories of Marathon (First Persian Invasion) Thermopylae (of 300 fame show casing the Spartans) and Samos (Athen’s great naval victory). This ominous pressure, combined with outstanding success set the stage for the high Hellenic Age and it’s this attempt by the Persians subdue these outlaying provinces of their Empire which more or less ignites the Greek cultural and philosophical revolution.

Following the Persian invasions, the rivalry between the militaristic Sparta and the vibrant, messy naval democracy of Athens dominated the Greek world. With Athen’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the dominant power, but this also makes the end of the Hellenic Golden Age. So in this context of Spartan victory over Athens, and the epoch making sense of Greek superiority (a sense that each Greek city-state could treat with the mighty Persian Empire; that Greek freedom and logic was ultimately superior to the exotic despotism of the East), that Cyrus, the younger brother of the Persian Shahinshah – the king of kings – Artaxerxes, hires ten thousands Greek mercenaries to assist him with his expedition to depose his brother.

Xenophon clearly admired this Cyrus, who comes across as a shrew judge of men and moral yet honourable in the account. He clearly perceived the superiority of Greek heavy infantry – the hoplite in phalanx formation (the original shock troopers) – over the Persian manner of fighting which tended to take the form of lightly armoured spearmen, archers and chariots. Part of the inspiration behind the hoplite is the idea of the citizen soldier – Greek military discipline not only provided Cyrus with an elite core of an army which had the additional bonus of not being Persian (and therefore more likely to by loyal to Cyrus once they were far from home). Cyrus and his army march deep into modern day Iraq, and near Babylon, Artaxerxes engages in battle. The dense formations of Greek heavy infantry did well (being essentially invincible in toe-to-toe combat), but Cyrus is killed in the fighting.

Suddenly the Greeks are surrounded, deep in the Persian Empire, and betrayed on all sides. Greek solidarity pulls the mercenaries together into a cohesive army which marches north to the coast of the Black Sea, despite the best efforts of the Persians, hostile tribes and the elements. More than an exotic yarn, this is a legitimate military feat; Greek culture and Greek individualism, mixed with a sense of honour and duties owed to each other allow Xenophon, his fellow generals and soldiers to navigate the challenges that they face.

It’s engaging to read this text; for me it’s the prospect of reading a cornerstone, founding text of western civilisation, but more, a testimony to “what makes the Greeks so great.” It’s surprisingly readable and the narrative flows easily. A great glimpse into a lost world.

 

The Man Who Was Thursday

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The Man Who Was Thursday is a sort of metaphysical thriller of the same generation of writers like Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad. The action takes place at an allegorical level, – much as in The Trial or Heart of Darkness – and so don’t expect a whole lot of character development or realistic plot points.

In fact, its worth pointing out that The Man Who Was Thursday – as a major work of conservative thought – is essentially the exact counter-point to Kafka’s The Trial. Where The Trial depicts a universe devoid of meaning, Thursday comes to the exact conclusion depicting a religiously-infused world meaning (even as it remains mysterious) G.K. Chesterton is one of the leading lights of the great British conservative tradition that starts with Edmund Burke’s rebuke to the French Revolution and passes with Winston Churchill. Think surreal Charles Dickens. As such, The Man Who Was Thursday is one of the most intelligent portrayals of actual conservative thought (as distinguished from the neoliberalism of Hayek and Rand and other more pernicious forms of right-wing thinking like Sorrel or Schmitt).

The book starts with main character Syme – a young gentleman of a poetic, passionate nature – entering a fashionable get-together of what today we might call know-it-all rich kids which dabble in left-wing politics. Holding court is Gregory, the outspoken leader who propounds the most radical anarchist ideas (revolt is poetic, better to live one day as a lion then a 100 days as a sheep, etc). In a very witty, allegorical conversation, Syme humiliates Gregory as a dilettante and a fool. Chesterton introduces his key insight: the idea that order, progress, monogamous marriage, and traditional bourgeois society are what is truely “revolutionary and poetic.” Using the key image of the lamppost (upright, technical/hierarchical society) and the tree (communal, organic/spontaneous society), Chesterton advances the idea that even common criminals have the decency to participate in the great order of life (there only crime is desiring property too much; presumably, if they got enough property, they would be content); it is the people who seek change in society who are the problem. These (largely intellectual) people want to change the established order of things: this is either spoiled childishness or a dark desire to “watch the world burn.”

To show Syme he is not a poser, Gregory swears Syme to secrecy and takes him to a subterranean meeting of Anarchists (which takes place in maybe one of the earliest conceptions of a Bond Villain hideout), where Gregory is about to be elected “Thursday,” one of seven members of the International Anarchist Council. Syme reveals he is a policeman to Gregory, who in his “vote for me” speech to the Anarchists attempts to temper his fears of Syme ratting on him by talking about how Anarchists want to uplift and help humanity; Gregory’s speech is not well received. Syme leaps up and delivers a fire-and-brimstone speech on the righteous, violent vengeance that Anarchism is about to unleash on the world. The Anarchists love it and elect Syme as the new Thursday.

At this point we are treated to a flashback to the recruitment of Syme as a member of a special squad of detectives bent on a last-ditch attempt to infiltrate and destroy Anarchism; he is told that he is being sent on a suicide mission. Syme attends the meeting of the Anarchist Council – which hides in plain sight, passing itself as a group of successful gentleman just having large brunch with some harmless banter. We meet the rest of the Council, headed by the grotesque and portentous Sunday, the cold, cruel scientific Dr. Bull, the ideologically fervent Secretary, the aristocratic and vaguely De Sade-esque Marquis de St. Eustache, and the stand in for German Idealist philosophy, Professor De Worms (the other members of the council are less significant). It should be obvious that there is little of character here, post figures in this book stand for ideas or notions. We learn that Sunday is planning some huge dynamiting “outrage” and one of the members of the council is revealed to be a police spy.

Syme is now pursued, one by one, by various members of the council, who, one-by-one are also revealed to be police agents. It is revealed that they were all hired especially by one head cop who hired them in a completely dark room. The plot builds until it seems like the whole world has turned to Anarchism and is trying to hunt down the detectives, but it is an illusion; soon the entire council of detectives set out to pursue the god-like Sunday, who leads them on a truely surreal chase around London, involving an elephant and daring balloon escape. The detectives chase the balloon across the English countryside, meanwhile engaging in metaphysical reflection. Eventually, the balloon comes down.

The detectives are then met by carriages staffed by elegant attendants; they are taken to a estate where they are given symbolic garb to match their respective day and personality. Ushered into the presence of Sunday (who is now truely God), they sit as a symbolic unity of seven and look on as a massive costume party (people are dressed as animals, the elements, etc) goes on for several hours. The detectives are revealed as sort of cosmic principals originating with Creation. Syme has been “Thursday (the day the moon and stars were created)” all along. It’s a magical evening, but Gregory the only real Anarchist comes (as the Devil?) to complain about how God is running things; he implies that God has never suffered, doesn’t understand humanity or the human predicament. In response, the last words of the book are Sunday’s: “would ye drink of the same cup as I have?”

Intellectually the book peters out once you realize that the entire council are all police detectives – in fact, the opening two chapters make up the meat of the book in terms of actual debate and argument. In this sense, it’s curious, half-finished book which never quite susses out it’s full vision. What does it mean that God is at once Top Anarchist and all his acolytes are all police detectives? It begs the question: “What are they actually fighting? What are they actually afraid of?” The more I think about the book, the less intellectual traction of engaging with the material I find.

And while it is all tremendously witty, with a tremendous sense of playacting – Anarchist Gregory dresses up as his idea of establishment figures like a bishop, an army major, and a millionaire to avoid being detected as an Anarchist, the police detectives dress up as their ideas of Anarchists (an Idealist philosopher, the cold man of scientific reason, the exotic, yet somehow slightly asiatic decadent despotic-ness of the Marquis, the Worker).

Chesterton’s most insightful point, again, is that there is something poetic, something revolutionary about establish society (he uses the idea of a train system that runs on time, not as an example of rigid monotony, but of an thrilling departure from the lassitude of the natural world). Another way of putting it is that a successful heterosexual monogamous marriage is the truely “rebellious” relationship because of true unique/rare it is. Behind this all lays the fundamental conservative view: there is an established order to things and any attempt to change this established order is, at best foolishness, and at worst, a sinister destructiveness.

And one can easily why this would be a powerful point of view – it as the emotional bonus of being both optimistic (of a sort) and poses as a sort of timeless wisdom. The mindless destructiveness of Edwardian terrorism, masked with Romantic rhetoric was truely obnoxious. But for me, that is where the strength of the book ends. Conservatism fundamental denies that there is a problem – the only problem is people who mistakenly believe there is a problem that should be addressed with social change. You do no have to think about this for too long to realize the chilling consequences of this concept: it’s a massive endorsement of the status quo – no matter how savage or cruel – and any attempt at change, no matter how modest or sensible becomes a crime against The Order of Things. Chesterton is unable to engage with any background to Anarchism – aside from a sense that Gregory wants attention and to be taken seriously – he is unable to explain social problems, unable to grapple with what might lay behind any alternative to his world view. He denies that there are any social problems; crime and poverty are eternal, part of the cycle of stars it seems, not manufactured social circumstances which can obviously be addressed.

His ultimate response to Gregory – that God has suffered (on the Cross), is suffering infinitely more, and thus knows all (this is the way it had to be)- both dismisses actual human suffering and at the same time makes God into something of a martyr, a cosmic playing of the victim. Chesterton’s ultimate response to real, humanly manufactured suffering is a sort “yeah, well, we all have a sob story pal” but told in an optimistic, wise sort of way. The cosmic dance at the end of the book answers no questions, solves no problems, and upon reflection leaves one wondering why God is presented as a rich eccentric who has nothing better to do than to play Anarchist.

It’s interesting to see the birth and development of the traditional conservative critiques of liberals, ones that we are all too familiar with today. The sense that people interested in change are either apocalyptically destructive, bent on global despotism, or rich intellectual fools interested only in getting attention. Additionally, one can detective the growth of the spy and superhero genres – there were many scenes which reminded me of the 1960’s TV show The Prisoner for example.

Witty, enjoyably surreal and ideologically instructive. Probably one of the best, most sane /gentle portrayals of conservative thought from a time when being conservative meant something.

 

The Coroner’s Lunch

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Since Trump’s election, I have had a hard time reading anything but escapism. Thus has started my new found love of mystery, you know: depictions of a world where justice, logic, and the public good win out in the end. Sheer utopian fantasy.

Set in 1970s communist Laos, the series follows the aged Dr. Siri as he gets inevitably wrapped up in a series of murders most foul. Enjoyable because the setting is so un-typical and marked by an interesting flight into the vaguely supernatural, this is a pretty by-the-numbers murder mystery yarn when you really get down to it.

This is the second murder mystery book that I have read set in communist countries during the historical past, the other being Child 44, a hunt for a serial killer in ’60s Soviet Russia. Here’s my bone to pick. I love the idea of murder mysteries in the Soviet block – the concept is brilliant, but the execution has left much to be desired. Both authors- Colin Cotterill and Tom Rob Smith – work overtime and are at extreme pains to show that their main characters are not communist and that the communist system was terrible and incompetent.

Both books have a whiff of insecurity about them – the “methinks she doth protest too much” – of having a main character who has been in the communist party for 40 years and remains totally uncommitted to the communist cause, or the Child 44, the main character goes from a Soviet Hero to being ripe for recruitment for the CIA in the course of a week. Both books labor to show the comical irony between the rhetoric and the reality to the point of drowning the actual story.

Much was made in marketing Child 44 of “how can you stop a crime that doesn’t exist” – the idea that crime and dysfunction was not recognised in Soviet Russia, so how can members of the KGP catch a serial killer when the official ideology cannot recognise any crime? Tom Rob Smith clearly didn’t dig into this idea too much. Taken rom Proudhon’s famous idea that “all property is theft,” communist theory developed the idea that most crime and dysfunction is a result of larger social systems. Thus classic Marxist theory postulates that under true communism, crime will gradually disappear (as there is nothing to steal, and the brutalisation of the human individual under capitalism will cease to produce broken people). The Soviets quickly adapted this notion as a part of their ideology as a propaganda tool.

Instead of the sinister utopia-lost of Soviet Russia playing out in the background as a extra layer of dread for the characters, instead of the prospect of the KGB trying to do something positive for once in a broken system, or the idea of an old communist trying to do what’s right, both books make their heroes self-conscious enemies of the state.

Clearly, I found The Coroner’s Lunch overshadowed by it’s failure to fully delve into the atmosphere of 1970s Laos. Perfectly enjoyable otherwise.

 

Baudolino

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As with most of Eco’s books, it is impossible to place Baudolino in any one category or genre. It’s a novel which delves into history, mythology, metaphyisical speculation and mystery all wrapped up in Gulliver’s Travels-esque adventure. So as usual, this book is an intellectual romp of fancy and whim marked by its sheer cleverness, wit, and depth/breadth of scholarly knowledge seamlessly woven together into one story.

Baudolino is a peasant during the High Middle Ages in northern Italy. A cleaver boy with a knack for languages, he is adopted by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, in Italy as part of his intermittent attempts to suborn the thriving city-states of Italy. Baudolino get caught up in a series of adventures ranging from city sieges, to getting Charlemagne declared a saint, to forgery of letters and relics.

It’s a hard book to justice by in a review.  I love it because it revels in history, both the events, but the people, the mythology, the ideas, the ideologies. Eco frolics in the fantasies of the 13th century mind, relishes the kaleidoscope of christian heresies and interpretations, and lovingly mixes historical fact with fiction in a way that seems to truely respect the actual history.

It be honest, Bauldolino is the least of three Eco books I have read so far, but it was still quite enjoyable.