In the 1950s, when Tiffany Cage (see my review of Diamonds are Forever) was working in New York, you weren’t a woman, you were a “broad”, a “doll”, a “skirt” – or if your father or your husband was rich, a “lady”. Life for the single working girl and widows (lots of those after WW2 and Korea) and unmarried mums (but were they allowed to keep the kid?) was no fun at all unless you were some kind of blonde bombshell, and even then the party was soon over.
This though? “How could one nice, single, pretty, polite, young blonde have had so many male acquaintances with so many possible motives to murder her?“
Murderers Prefer Blondes is the story of an overworked and underpaid Girl Friday in an office full of underworked, overpaid and arrogant men. The office of Daring Detective magazine. Paige Turner – yes, that’s her name, and she wants to be a writer, and in fact this is it, her first book …It’s well written, you enjoy it and you can’t help loving her. She’s twenty-seven, a widow whose husband was killed in the war in Korea, and she’s busy looking for the right crime for her story. The crime she comes across? The rape and murder of a blonde waitress and part-time photographic model and call-girl whom she met when she came to Daring Detective once about being the model for a front cover.
Paige is clever, sexy and streetwise. She is also sensitive and kind. Most of the “dolls” seem to have been sensitive and kind in those days. Perhaps it came from the way they were treated: the “Cinderella syndrome”. Anyway, she needs all these different qualities and more as she meets and mixes with the bar owners and waitresses, pimps and photographers, models and prostitutes that the victim herself used to mix with, and who, Paige hopes, will have information leading to the murderer. Then the murderer (another very arrogant and very spoilt man) decides he wants her dead, too, before her investigation goes any further …
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Tags: 1950s, Amanda Matetsky, Murderers Prefer Blondes
Categories : Book Reviews, Fiction (Historical)
I’ve been spending the evening – and much of the night! – with James Bond again. This time it was Diamonds are Forever, the third of the original novels that I have read since reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography on this site.
I talked about the sexism and the racism in earlier reviews (here and here). In Diamonds are Forever, which is set mostly in the USA, all that is once more there in the background, of course. It is still the 1950s, and without the racism and sexism typical of the period the book would seem like a badly researched historical novel written by someone in the PC here-and-now. But Fleming was brilliant at portraying a time and place, and everything in this book is exactly as it was. Don’t take my word for it; listen to Raymond Chandler: “The remarkable thing about this book is that it is written by an Englishman. The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this.”
What our James is up against here is American gangsters. And when M gives him the mission, it is evident that M is more nervous about sending him on this job than he ever was when sending him on “Iron Curtain business”. Talking to the Chief of Staff later, James says “What’s he so worried about? [...] There’s nothing extraordinary about American gangsters. They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves.”
“That’s what you think,” the Chief of Staff replies.
By the end of the book, James has learnt better – and is seriously considering marrying the “gangsters’ moll” known as Tiffany Case.
Which brings me to another thing. In each of the three books I have read so far (this time round) James has fallen in love, literally, and by the time the story draws to an end is contemplating marriage. Is this the hard man who treats women as sex-objects to be used and discarded which seems to be everyone’s idea of him and how he has been portrayed in many of the films?
Speaking of the films, I remember that Diamonds are Forever was my favourite. I’m going to watch it again this evening and do a post tomorrow on the story – or rather the two stories, for there were, I now realise, some major changes in the film version.
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Tags: Diamonds are Forever, Ian Fleming, James Bond, Tiffany Case
Categories : Book Reviews, Fiction (Contemporary)
This is a love story – one of the greatest (“Abelard and Heloise” rings all the bells, like Tristan and Isolde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra) and Peter Abelard, Helen Waddell’s wonderful novel, is probably the best retelling of it.
But her novel is more than that, for it is also the story of Peter Abelard himself, the leading philosopher and theologian of his age and one of the great tragic figures of all the ages.
“It is the strong who have enemies: it is on the mountain peaks that the thunderbolts fall,” says Gilles de Vannes, Canon of Notre Dame, quoting St Jerome. Fat old Gilles, with his razor-sharp mind, is the confidant of both Abelard and Heloise and provides the anchor that holds the story down. He knew them both in the beginning, before they met -
‘He [Heloise's uncle, Fulbert] is ambitious for her, as you have yourself perceived. He bade me say that she will be at your disposal at any hour you choose.’ Gilles’ voice rasped like a saw.
Abelard sat grimly silent. Suddenly he rose, and coming down the room, stood square in front of Gilles. ‘Is the man right in his wits?’
- and is still there weeping over their fate at the end:
She [Heloise] got up quickly and crossed the room to the window, that he [Gilles] might not see her agony. And standing there, struggling to control herself, she heard behind her a small stifled sound. She turned round. He had his face to the wall, but she could see the old Silenus mask distorted with soundless weeping, the hands opening and closing in impotent despair.
Abelard agrees to teach Heloise at home, privately. Indeed, he moves into their house, board and lodging being one of the blandishments that induce him to go along with the idea. And of course they grow close. Heloise is very beautiful, very sweet and very intelligent; Abelard is a youing man still, charming and charismatic.
Then Heloise panics and runs. Abelard goes after her, searching the countryside around Paris and returns home that night in despair only to find her waiting for him in his room.
He fumbled at the latch, the door fell open: he came in a step or two, bewildered by the light: she saw his eyes seeking, not yet comprehending, suddenly wild with hope. She was there at the window: he saw the small white oval of her face, the black pools of her eyes. With a little stifled cry, she held out her arms to him: he was on his knees at her feet, his head buried in her lap, his whole body shaking with a terrible tearless sobbing. [...] She stooped and took his head and carried it to her breast.
They have passed the point of no return. At one point, they journey back from Britanny together, Heloise disguised as a boy, and of course make love in the forest. What was there in love that taught a man all the mysteries of the ancient faiths? He looked at the young creature riding ahead of him, with a kind of awe. Was that the Heloise he knew, or had Psyche become Eros …?
The only person in Paris who is not aware of what is happening is Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle (Or was he really her father? – which would be ironical considering his attitude to Abelard, who was willing to sacrifice his career in the Church to marriage.) And when he does find out, it is Heloise who is against the idea of marriage. Eventually, she becomes pregnant, they compromise, get married in secret, and she bears him a son. But this is not enough for Fulbert, who has swung from guileless and doting to remorselessly vindictive: he has Abelard castrated.
The end of the story, in a sense.
Abelard joins a monastery, Heloise a convent (at his insistence).
However, Helen Waddell’s account of the rest of Abelard’s life, the accusations of heresy, the trial, and so on, is a masterpiece:
‘Have you read the “De Trinitate”, Gilles?’
Gilles nodded. ‘It is more than his accusers have, I’ll be bound.’
‘And is it heretical?’
‘Of course it is heretical. Every book that ever was written about the Trinity is heretical, barring the Athanasian Creed. And even that only saves itself by contradicting everything it says as fast as it says it.’
But he is tried at the Council of Soissons, where, in a complete travesty of justice even by the standards of the medieval Church, Abelard is sentenced after being found not guilty: his book is to be burnt and he is to be incarcerated for life. By the time his friends arrange his release, he is a broken man. He retreats with one young disciple to a hermitage in the forest, and there, as a result of a mystical insight into the nature of the Incarnation, formulates the doctrine known as the Moral Atonement, condemnned by the Church as patripassianism. [In his own words:] “How cruel and unjust it appears that anyone should have demanded the blood of the innocent as any kind of ransom. Or have been in any way delighted with the death of the innocent, let alone that God should have found the death of His Son so acceptable, that through it he should have been reconciled to the whole world ” In brief: God suffers when man or any passible creature suffers, and it is by identifying with Christ on the Cross that man becomes God.
This is what places him among the ranks of the great heresiarchs.
Reprinted nine times in its year of publication (1933) and in print continuously ever since, this is a book that must be read (and read again) by anyone interested in medieval Paris and/or the medieval Church, but especially by those who appreciate a marvellous and very moving love-story that has now established itself as one of the classics of the genre.
But for what happens to him and Heloise later, when they reestablish contact after ten years, it is necessary to turn to another book: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Here we meet the new Heloise, “famed for her learning and administrative genius as an abbess,” who addresses Abelard in the opening paragraph of the first letter as “my beloved” and “my only love” and who beneath the surface is clearly still the old Heloise: in that same first letter she says “God is my witness that Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore“. Her love had not changed one iota.
“Where is the learned Heloise?” asked Francois Villon, the Paris ‘gutter-poet’, sometime in the 1450s. “Where is he who for her sake was castrated and forced to live the life of a monk – Peter Abelard, who for love of her suffered so much misfortune, shed so many a tear? But then, where are the snows of yesteryear?”
The Penguin Classics edition of the letters that I have in my hand also contains Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, Abelard’s own account of his misfortunes, on which of course much of the novel is based. Abelard’s own words again: “But success always puffs up fools with pride I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh There was in Paris at the time a young girl named Heloise, the niece of one of the canons …’
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Tags: Helen Waddell, Heloise, heresy, medieval Paris, Peter Abelard
Categories : Book Reviews, Fiction (Historical)
In my review of Casino Royale (following on from my reading of James Bond: The Authorised Biography) I mentioned – it was difficult to avoid it – the overt sexism. In Live and Let Die, while the sexism is still there (of course, it was written in the fifties) it is more the racism that sticks in our PC-brainwashed throats. Mixing my metaphors a bit here, but you know what I mean.
Let’s start with one or two quotes, not from philosophers or politicians, but from novelists, because the novel is what this blog is really all about
“I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism.”
That’s P. D. James.
Note that they are both women.
So what exactly is the problem here? First and foremost, I imagine, the continual use of the word “Negro”. But this book was first published in 1954. Even ten years later, the word “Negro” was being used without any pejorative connotations by one and all – witness Martin Luther King’s use of it in his great speech delivered on the 28th August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.:
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
Now let’s get back to the book. Speaking of “Mr Big, a negro gangster”, Fleming has M say:
And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions – scientists, doctors, writers. It’s about time they turned out a great criminal [...] They’ve got plenty of brains and ability and guts.
Which leads us straight to Mr Big himself:
Born in Haiti [...] initiated into voodoo as a child [...] emigrated to America and worked successfully for a hi-jacking team in the Legs Diamond gang [...] bought half-shares in a small nightclub and a string of coloured call-girls. His partner was found in a barrel of cement in the Harlem River in 1938 and Mr Big automatically became sole proprietor of the business. [After the war] he disappeared for five years, probably to Moscow [...] returned to Harlem in 1950 [...] bought up three nightclubs and a prosperous chain of Harlem brothels [...] as a result of weeding by murder, he was expertly and diligently served [...] originated an underground Voodoo temple in Harlem [...] rumour started that he was the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness, and he fostered the story [...] commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders.
A much more entertaining villain than poor old Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.
But what about the ageism? Bond and Solitaire are heading for St Petersberg, Florida. She tells him about it:
Everybody’s nearly dead in St Petersberg [...] It’s the Great American Graveyard [...] Everybody goes to bed around nine o’clock in the evening and during the day the old folks play shuffleboard and bridge, herds of them [...] but most of the time they sit squashed together in droves on things called “Sidewalk Davenports”, rows of benches up and down the sidewalks of the main streets. They just sit in the sun and gossip and doze. It’s a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and false-teeth [...] You’ll love it [...] You’ll probably want to settle down for life and be an “Oldster” too.
“God forbid,” says Bond. As well he might.
Later, he is there with Felix Leiter.
Bond noted the small grudging mouths of the women, the sun gleaming on their pince-nez; the stringy, collapsed chests and arms of the men displayed to the sunshine in Truman shirts. The fluffy, sparse balls of hair on the women showing the pink scalp. The bony bald heads of the men. And everywhere a prattling camaraderie [...] You didn’t have to be among them to hear it all. It was all in the nodding and twittering of the balls of blue fluff, the back-slapping and hawk-and-spitting of the little old baldheads. [And so on.]
That offend you? If you are one of them, it almost certainly does . Time to hear from Stephen Fry, well known representative of another minority group, but not a great fan of Political Correctness or a supporter of censorship or bowdlerisation:
The bottom line is: do we, can we, recognise that our notions of political correctness are purely local in time and space?
Live and Let Die is a great story. We have no more right to criticise it on PC grounds than we do to criticise the Bible or Homer or Shakespeare – or Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mark Twain – on those same grounds. It, and they, are true to their day and age. You don’t have to read it if you fear some of the words or notions in it may offend you, but if you do read it, I think you will enjoy it.
And here to close with is something I found on the internet:
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Tags: ageism, Doris Lessing, Ian Fleming, James Bond, Live and Let Die, Martin Luther King, P.D.James, political correctness, racism, Stephen Fry
Categories : Book Reviews, Fiction (Contemporary), Quotations (literary)