Let’s Discuss — A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

He didn’t speak. He had never known how to talk to women. There was only one thing he had ever been able to do to women and advancing now, smiling, he did it. First he rested the torch on a brick ledge at the level of his knees so that she was in shadow, so that the room took on the aspect of an alley into which a street lamp filters dimly. Then he approached her paralyzed as she was, and meeting no resistance–he would have preferred resistance–he closed his hands on her throat (2)

Readers will view the movements of the eclectic tenants of 142 Trinity from the perspective of either of two Johnsons:

1. Arthur Johnson:

  • snob
  • borderline racist
  • something of a psychopath*
  • the longest residing tenant of 142 Trinity.

2. Anthony Johnson:

  • young scholar
  • writing a thesis on psychopaths
  • having an affair with a married woman
  • the newest tenant at 142 Trinity.

These two are not related; names are purely coincidence. Sometimes when two people share a surname, they bond or make jokes about relation or generally speaking, develop a good rapport with one another…this is not the case with these two Johnsons. They do not get along at all. There’s a weird space between them that is not natural to neighbors or people you might share a building with. This tension is a undiminished easiness that consistently feeds into the storyline because one of these Johnsons has a secret–he is the Kenbourne Killer.

This is the first book I’ve read by Ruth Rendell, but it will not be the last because what Rendell really champions is the character. She creates great beings that easily come to life from the page. And then she adds the right amount of horror and thrill to make for a worthwhile read. For example:

Once she was out of the house, he had gone and stood over the baby, scrutinizing it with curious desire. It was about six months old, fat, fast asleep…A napkin, white and fleecy, secured with a large safety pin, was now visible above its legging. Safety was a strange word to apply to so obviously dangerous a weapon. Arthur removed the pin, and taut now with joy and power, thrust it up to its curled hilt into the baby’s stomach. The baby woke with a shattering scream and a great bubble of scarlet blood welled out as he removed the pin (71)

There are lesser characters and smaller plot lines that contribute to this idea that outwardly each Johnson appears to be an everyday person in the community. But even the everyday person has their secrets and it’s only a matter of time before the Kenbourne Killer terrorizes the very community he hides in.

*potentially a sociopath….I’m not really sure. I may have the two confused.

Let’s Discuss — My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I am nothing but a corpse, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from the vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below (3)

Let me begin by saying this book is very well written. The narrative isn’t provided solely by one or two characters–it’s told by a ranging cast of other persons, animals and even inanimate objects*. The title of each chapter will introduce the reader to the speaker, who will subsequently narrate their point of view.

Pamuk integrates folkloric and religious elements of Turkish culture into the novel, so readers will find myth sequences woven into the main story line. Pamuk also invites the reader to participate. In some instances, characters are aware of reader presence and they’ll acknowledge when the reader has probably formed their own opinions about what has transpired in the story. And from dialogue, readers will encounter philosophical discussions about style, semi-sarcastic, xenophobic attitudes and criticisms of western culture, and generally indifferent attitudes to what many consider to be perverted or grotesque.

Essentially, the story revolves around a man named, Black, as he unravels the mystery of a disappeared miniaturist**. Black’s primary motivation to complete this task is to win over his uncle, a prominent figure in the art community. By doing this he also hopes to rekindle his love for his cousin, Shekure. For me, Black’s character is very one dimensional.  Also a significant portion of the book revolves around Black and Shekure’s relationship…which was slightly annoying because neither is particularly interesting or likable—especially Shekure. I’d like to think Pamuk included her illogical actions and irrational modes of thinking to make a point about the role of women in Turkish society***, but that may be a stretch…I really didn’t like her.

I have to say, I put My Name is Red down quite a few times. I stand by the fact that it is superbly written, but after the first chapter, the pace slowed down and my interest didn’t return until about chapter 12. Maybe I was too eager to solve the mystery. I don’t know. I just know it didn’t meet expectations…I thought I would never put a book down which opens with a chapter titled I am a corpse.

We’re talking trees, portraits, colors, etc.

** An artist whose task it was to draw in red certain words or letters in manuscripts; a painter of miniature pictures or portraits, as on china or ivory, characterized by fineness of detail

*** I am not a feminist, or  historian, or anthropologist or anything like that…and I know next to nothing about Turkey so…that’s just a guess–semi-educated guess.

Let’s Discuss — The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The corpses of dogs, cats, and horses often remained where they fell. In January they froze into disheartening poses; in August they ballooned and ruptured. Many ended up in the Chicago River, the city’s main commercial artery. During heavy rains, river water flowed in a greasy plume into Lake Michigan, to the towers that marked the intake pipes for the city’s drinking water (28)

Let’s see*…the majority of the book is a meticulous recounting** of American architects and engineers banding together in 1893, to place a fair in Chicago representative of American exceptionalism, worthy of international praise and symbolic of the nation’s great legacy and innovation of the future.

What is it–Murphy’s law? Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. That’s a basic description of the planning, opening, success and demise of the fair; weather disasters, politics, a bad economy, labor unions, accidents, vandalism, crime…wrong measurements, rejected blueprints…newspaper headlines. Every possible detail that can be accounted for in the existence of this fair is recounted. I suppose that’s good research on Larson’s part. But for this reader it really dragged…except for the chapters on Holmes, the psychopath predator, and Prendergast, a mentally ill man with political aspirations. These chapters could have belonged in a different book altogether. But they’re flawed in the same way. There is no intrigue. No tension. Larson loves to foreshadow to a fault.

Where was the magic and madness?***

*If you couldn’t tell by the brevity of this write up, I was very disappointed with this one.

**Novelistic/Narrative non-fiction may not be my cup of tea.

***The title in its entirety is–The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.