Surveillance

Having been laid up last week with a strong cold and unable to do much I fell into some crime fiction.

Some of it was the classic though rather stodgy, whodunit genre, which is fine enough for a while, especially with a head that is not clear, but the characters are ciphers, or vestiges of old and simple morality plays. This genre is so stuffed with nostalgia it exists for sentimental reasons.

Commissario Montalbano felt the same way in the opening of La prova generale as he contemplates ‘un giallo’ to take him off to sleep but balks at the irritations it will cause him.

Likewise, I went in search of more modern crime and realized something rather troubling. Contemporary crime has the stalwart features of the detective with the chipped personality, the long suffering associates, who are often blinded by the insights; in that sense it hasn’t moved beyond Holmes and Watson, but it is the insight, that mercurial quality, which made the detective gripping in spite of the other manifest flaws.

With a combination of creative intuition the detective could surmise – as Holmes would do – if a man had a limp from a wound he’d got in the Hindu Kush. This inductive reasoning made the genre work, gave it spice as the inductive rationale is qualified further through the story.

The current detective has a much easier time of it. When a murder occurs they can call on street CC-TV, mobile phone GPS, server logins, social media posts, credit card time stamps, ATM cash withdrawals and any other instances of a monitored society. The vast data sets are collated and then examined which means the detective is now a true deductive analyst but it also means that they are no longer an intuitive individual, equipped with a special ability, able to see a connections their prosaic colleagues can’t.

This is a shame as all the surveillance technology transforms the detective in a self-opinionated, egotistical, vain, but rather ordinary, data analyst. Once Chandler’s Marlowe could look a dame up and down and determine whether she was a hayseed or a swell. Now he can glance at her Facebook page and know every mundane detail.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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Extract 4: The Hidden Bend. Piers’s first date

Before Piers could call and arrange a time to meet Angela he needed a story, a convincing background he could use for his colleagues, his secretary, and most of all G. He did not want to meet Angela for lunch, it would be over and then life would resume, he would return to his office and pretend to be involved in business and then take the train home, etcetera, etcetera and so on. He wanted a dinner, free of any other appointments hanging over his head, where the evening might create something fresh; and not because he partially considered bedding Angela, as he knew that was not likely to occur, instead, at this time he hoped for a few hours when he was enthusiastic about spending the time. At no time did Piers believe he was breaching his vows with G, nor in some way committing a selfish act, he was pursuing a friendship and that was all he saw in it, he said to himself. A discreet place, and the right excuse handed themselves to him with the possibility of a deal from an Asian business contact, who only another business partner knew of, and G have never heard him mention. A mysterious and unique deal would offer all the plausible background to be in the office or at a secret meeting location without having to explain his movements. It was relatively easy to take time in London to cement this deal and he could evolve a story to suit his needs. He thought of a quiet restaurant that would be suitable as it was intimate, the food was well prepared, with the right level of service, and these things would let Angela known the esteem in which Piers held her. How she ought to react and show him in return, did not enter his head. It did not seem curious to him that he was old fashioned, that he adhered to an outmoded form of courting, even friendship, with a woman. It was not in with the times: more casual, more equal at least in word and more spontaneous; all conditions Piers had never known, or if he had they had been extinguished since childhood by successive masters, the army, and the rigors of codified business protocols.

Piers met Angela a week later at the restaurant. He was there early, with a Tio Pepe, sitting at the table. He wore a suit and tie as though he had gone to his club for dinner; the tie looked regimental, club, or some other masculine association. Angela walked to the table and was immediately aware of how quiet the restaurant was; it was not full, but the place was respectfully quiet. Piers stood to greet her and extended his hand as they made a limp handshake which fell into mid-air in two shakes. She sat down and said, “Why is everyone so hushed?” He looked about and said he had not noticed. She said, “It’s like a retirement hotel in Bournemouth. It’s a waiting room to a priest, or maybe, God himself.” Piers did not understand, to him it was polite that no one was talking loudly, but it was true he acknowledged to himself, that the very low voices enforced a practice of tight-lipped restrained speaking which was unnatural and it made laughing, except as a dry smirk, impossible or else receiving the obloquy of the other people. Her comments made him uneasy and he ordered her champagne as the waiter hovered by his side. He leaned forward and asked how she had been which she deflected and said, “I had a message at the gallery; apparently a man had left his card and offered me a commission if I called him. You know anything about that?” He suddenly remembered that he had left his card as a subterfuge. “Yes I do actually, it came up with a client…” and he regaled her with a story of a client – the Asian one again – who needed a contemporary art piece for his new offices in Hong Kong. Whether it was true didn’t matter, not now, as it started conversation and allowed Piers to hear Angela talk about her art and to return to the impromptu lecture she had given him at the gallery on interpreting art. He listened to her avidly and enjoyed her company more than he thought possible, or had imagined, while he plotted the second meeting. It was a fulfillment after the weeks of trying to meet her again. Casually, he dropped allusions to the reading he had done on art in the intervening weeks, which Angela deferred to but was not much interested, as she knew the texts in most cases that Piers was quoting, but she thought it was respectful of him to make the effort.

They ordered in between the talk and he discovered that she was a vegetarian, and his instinct was to dismiss and scorn it but he suppressed his reflexive contempt and listened to her explain why she had chosen to eliminate meat. They were fine but reasons apart: it spoiled what he anticipated would have been a memorable meal to share over some high quality beef. The waiter had heard of vegetarians as an odd cult and was bemused as to what to offer in the place of meat as it was the centrepiece of the menu in every dish: salad and cheese might be acceptable, or perhaps, said with polished obsequiousness, a fried egg would be suitable. The waiter went to the kitchen and asked the chef while Piers was embarrassed and Angela said she did not mind in any case, she would take anything but not meat. Her intransigence made Piers bothered, uncomfortable: how bad can a small portion of meat be and she must have eaten it before? Or how else did she decide to stop? He upbraided himself for not having the intelligence beforehand, unforgivable as it threatened to spoil the evening. The waiter returned crestfallen and said the chef was unable to do anything and they ought to have booked at another restaurant. Piers looked to Angela to make another choice or else, to be more flexible, or preferably both, and be a little like the women he was accustomed to and accept what was given. It was not a hardship to eat good beef and she was being egocentric, as the cause of trouble.

Angela picked up her handbag, stood up from the table and said she would be happy to go elsewhere. Piers was shocked, he had never walked out of a restaurant and openly defied the waiter before, and could feel the eyes of the other people looking at him with seething silent politeness. Angela looked down at Piers who was still sitting: “We could go to another place it’s still early”, she said. The words did not form quickly in Piers’s mouth, “I, that is, this was a good choice I thought. Couldn’t you see yourself to having another chop at it?” he asked with a rising tone of childish appeal. She paused to consider her answer; she glanced at the restaurant and the other diners who were discomforted by anyone standing before they had had the pudding. The order of things had been upset. That made her mind for her, she said, “It was pleasant enough but not successful. A pity. My fault no doubt and if you blame me I can quite understand. Put it down to temperament, or having one, at the very least. Goodbye.” She walked out of the restaurant unhurriedly, a waiter held the door for her; she said thank you and the door closed behind her.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Extract 3: The Hidden Bend. The Soldier builds the revolution

They finished the breakfast and rose, wiping their tins and bowls with rags and the ends of their shirts, they knew they could wash soon, and putting their bowls back in their bags and packs as orders were shouted and barked to the mass of soldiers in the same way that each man had heard a dozen times a day, they moved without delay, hoisting packs on shoulders and gathering objects that tumbled out; they fell into a march to trucks waiting on the opposite side of the kitchens. He, the soldier, one of thousands, walked briskly; the others beside him were quiet, their truck was ahead of them, a hundred meters, the cargo area was ready to receive them with the tail gate open for them to board it.

The diesel engines frothed moving off and the truck bumped over the uneven and pitted roads to the city; the men sat on the wooden slats at the cargo bay exchanging a few words or pointing at what they saw; it was the first day and their tour of the city in the night concealed most of the earlier day’s fighting. There were chunks out of buildings, the smooth rendering was pitted; power lines were down on the roads; and few people had come out on the streets, to shop or take breakfast at the stalls and small bars, the doors were locked, and the men saw children’s faces from inside houses and apartments with a lost and unsure expression; the few adults who dared to show their faces or risk going out of doors, despite the martial law, were older, they did not care at all; the army was everywhere, at checkpoints at junctions, in armored vehicles, they had the city without opposition, though the sound of the gunfire in the distance could be heard but it was small arms – an ineffective final tantrum from the old order – not artillery, and only occasional; there was no real threat of the enemy retaking the city. There were bodies in the road, abandoned, no one near them, no one dared to go near them, disease, but with only sparse medical aid and all directed to the army, these bodies would remain where they were found for another day. The truck drove on, past poor neighborhoods, past rich houses, with high brick walls and huge trees and hedges grown high for privacy, and that was now gone too; past shops, railway stations, and the eyes of the people was all the same, sad and hollowed, shell shocked and tired.

The men in the truck could not allow their tiredness to overtake them, they had a full day’s work to do. They arrived at their new billet, the one they would inhabit for many weeks: a massive metal structure that had been a main vegetable market: it was now a skeleton of its former structure: twisted metal girders, a roof that had a large hole in it where a shell had burst through, and the ground area, though still largely dry, had a quarter at the top end that was a morass of water and rotting produce. The stench of stagnant water and rotting vegetables was rich and sickly, ripe, musty and damp. The truck’s tail gate was dropped open from its pins and the men dropped to the ground in ones and twos. They looked around to get their bearings; it was a wide open flat and featureless land, having been cleared for industry, there was a low squat block a hundred meters away from the market; and further away from it was a sports field, overgrown with grass and weeds sprouting in clumps, a football pitch with one complete goal at one end and another goal that was shattered, the goal cross bar leaned to one side, as it has lost an upright. The market stallholders had had a football team which explained the field, the sports pitch was laid out close to their place of work.

The troops reviewed the scene to comprehend the job they had ahead of them. It was like a scene from a lost city almost swallowed and regained by the plants and jungle which grew at the perimeter of the market and the other buildings and was a constant menace to civilization that had cleared the land for commerce. It was a wistful scene, peaceful, melancholy, as though the remnants of people’s daily business, the coming and going that had made the market bustle with all the energy of people making a living, the prices being cried out, and then the growers and packers taking time off to play football was echoed in the vacant ruined, buildings.

The commander came to the back of the truck where the men were standing and explained the position: the market was where they would establish camp, they had to clean it and make it good for a permanent encampment later, much larger than for their needs. The block house off to the side they see were the latrines and showers and they still work he said, as being at a distance from the city the area avoided most of the fighting and had little tactical importance. The plumbing functioned but new pipes would guarantee it could serve for the men for a long period. He tapped the soldiers lightly, affably on the back, as if he was a coach, their big brother, and told them to wash. They moved off as a sprawling group of young men as if they were getting prepared to put on team shirts and play football.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Ordinary

Charles Pooter was probably the first ordinary man to appear in a book. His diary gives us: “After my work in the City, I like to be at home. What’s the good of a home, if you are never in it? “Home, Sweet Home,” that’s my motto.” His prosaic outlook and concerns hardly seem, except facetiously, suitable material for a book.

Yet the suburban drone is a rich vein. Reginald Perrin was one of the more memorable. Last week his creator took the final 8.15 from Norbiton, via Clapham Junction to Waterloo – and beyond. Perrin smirked through the semi-detached streets of his home, sneered in the fatuous business meetings, and with nearly Ionesco-like ridicule, mocked the conventions of middle-class life. Grot became his monstrously successful franchise of tat. It satirised consumerism. If only he’d lived through the self-replicating virus of lifestyle media which presents food and housing as economic aspirations.

Leopold Bloom is perhaps the nec plus ultra of ordinary man: real and imperfect, without special virtues but with common human qualities. The psychology that Joyce supplied him makes his humanity complete. He is not a stereotype, nor a satirical device; he does not have great thoughts and his greatest failings may be sexual desire.

Inhabiting Bloom through the first person gives the reader a place in his frontal lobe and Joyce cannily navigates between the banal and the more interesting, raising Bloom’s own life to a universal degree.

This subjective form is engaging if the character is too, otherwise it can be very dull as occurs occasionally in Woolf’s books because the character’s view is mundane, prosaic and self-regarding; or if have a very monotonous and dull way of talking/thinking. (It seems mental thoughts are not done in relative and subordinate clauses. Wittgenstein, and later, Stoppard, had view on that, which is slightly too much for this place.)

Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End took the Joyce technique wholesale, but with the cast of Ford’s characters it becomes numbing because they use stock phrases, the clichés of their time and class. Tietjens blusters and fulminates; the military characters may be true to experience but being in the mind of one, with its King’s Regulations linguistic forms is like this example.

Bloom still resonates with the experience of many and shows the ordinary is not unattractive.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Redemption

In an earlier post I talked about the inspirations in The Hidden Bend, citing Primo Levi: “It was my fortune to be deported to Auschwitz…” because, he says, in the camp he learned more about himself and humanity in all its forms.

Redemption has two definitions: one spiritual, the other very worldly and transactional. Being saved from sin or evil is the definition evangelicals preach. Retailers and other marketers offer the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment. In both senses there is a trade. An actual or even potential loss is compensated by greater ethical strength in the sacred realm. In the profane world something like a coupon may entitle a person to own a product.

It seems to me that Levi combines both standard definitions into his implicit personal sense of his own experience. In Auschwitz Levi lost everything, but he later owned something more, intellectually and morally, derived from the absolute evil of the death camps.

There are many ways to describe what he acquired, and I won’t attempt to impose some interpretations on Levi here, but it gave him a more profound insight into humanity. The insight was intellectual, because Levi was that type of man, and also an understanding of his own being, with and without the life he had had before his capture. Perhaps that trade might be called redemptive.

It is this middle, or imprecise, sense which I brought to The Hidden Bend.

The characters in The Hidden Bend either lose or have the things that identify them taken from them. Without the people or the things that they have always had and known, they are changed. At the end they reconcile to the new world, and may adapt. But in doing so they acquire something else, maybe something Levi understood.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.