Claudia Piñeiro. Betty Boo. (2011). UK: Bitter Lemon Press, 2016.
Argentina. How's that for exotic location? The high-security Maravillosa Country Club (what we would call a gated community) is the suburban Buenos Aires setting for the murder of a high-profile businessman, Pedro Chazaretta. Chazaretta had been acquitted of his wife's murder a few years previously and he died in the same fashion. Journalists for El Tribuno are determined to be first with investigative articles ― almost no cops involved here. Nurit Iscar (nicknamed Betty Boop or Boo after the Flapper cartoon she resembles) is a novelist co-opted by the newspaper to write commentary pieces. Along with crime reporter Jaime Brena and Crime boy who replaced Brena at the paper's most distinguished desk, Nurit uncovers related, sinister events.
But the style! So disconcerting. Run-on paragraphs, sometimes for pages. You catch on that conversations – dialogue! – are taking place within; no quotation marks anywhere. Takes some adjustment in the mind of the reader, especially determining who says what. And yet the plot and the likeable characters suck you in so you make the effort. It flows with ease from one person's actions to the next. Scenes with Nurit's friends Paula and Carmen, discussing their love lives (or lack thereof) are irresistibly funny; so is her unplanned weekend house party. Besides the main hunt for a killer, the story ranges from today's newspaper problems to whether they are obligated to publish the truth at any cost.
Word: entelechy; noun. Actualization of an organism's intrinsic self-potential.
You spend too much time sitting in front of a computer, he'd said; you're going to end up with an arse like a pancake pan. (116)
Before leaving, Comisario Venturini says: Forgive me, I don't want to be impolite to the ladies, and goes over to Nurit's friends, clasping each of their hands firmly between both of his own, a gesture that irritates Carmen and thrills Paula. (131-2)
Being solitary is constitutional, a matter of nature, and not something that changes with the passage of time or whenever the house fills up with people. (274)
When a person kills someone who deserves to die, does that make him any less of a murderer? (301)
Do the secondary school girls who today have her image stamped on their folders, their pencil cases, their backpacks or T-shirts know what Betty Boop represents? Do they know that she had to be toned down in the 1930s? Why is a cartoon woman re-emerging so strongly in the twenty-first century? Is Betty Boop simply another marketing product for our unthinking consumption? Nurit Iscar doesn't think so. She doesn't believe that Betty Boop's ubiquity is merely commercial. She still believes in the strength transmitted by the icon, even if it is working subconsciously on those who look to her eighty years later. (65)
In the taxi on the way back to their respective homes, Paula Sibona and Carmen Terrada are discussing their fears of Nurit falling prey again to the devastating Rinaldi effect. Although they can't be sure that they too, in her shoes, wouldn't do the same. That is, they are pretty sure they would do the same. And more humiliating things besides. There are plenty of examples best forgotten, says Paula. And Carmen Terrada adds: I've blanked them all out, believe me. (70)
You always were a mistrustful girl, Betty Boo. Clearly not mistrustful enough, she says, standing up. I'd better get going – it's a long way to that blessed country club. Do you think you'll have something for today? Don't put so much pressure on me, Rinaldi. There was a time you liked me pressuring you. Once upon a time, she says, but we're grown up now. It's only been three years. Ah, but I measure them the same way you measure presidential years, she says, and smiles. (84)
Brena on journalists:
But the question is: how do you form that opinion? What values do you respect? What scruples do you have? Many of them will offer up as an irrefutable truth something that's nothing more than their own opinion. Or the opinion of the people they work for. When a journalist departs from the facts in order to give his own opinion, he has to be clear about what he's doing or there's no integrity. It's fine to have opinions, but don't pass them off as facts. The bourgeois ideology tries to present the interests of its own class as natural or normal. Am I disappearing up my own ass, kid? No, not at all, says the Crime boy. (139)
Herman Koch. Dear Mr. M. USA: Hogarth/Crown Publishing/Penguin, 2016.
A very different approach to a mystery, ultimately disappointing IMO. A nameless watcher is obsessed with the prominent writer Mr. M, following him and finally inserting himself incognito into his life. Sometimes we get Mr. M's cynical viewpoint, reviewing his long life and published novels. It's his best-known book based on a true crime, Payback, around which the tale swirls murkily. Who is actually telling us about it ― Mr. M or one of the participants? Reality v. the writer's imagination develops as a theme. Two high school students were suspects in the real-life disappearance of one of their teachers. All three have a point of view.
It becomes tiresome bouncing back and forth in time from one version of the story to another. Too much probing of what Nameless calls mediocrity. Too much dubious appropriation of teenage minds. Too much navel gazing by Mr. M in a long interview that is supposed to illuminate literary arguments. Some credibility issues with the teacher's character as described. I almost gave up after the first fifty pages of agonizingly slow development. Then, sorry, I had to skim over passages. Here is another book dwelling somewhat on whether the truth, if known, should be told. Once engaged, you can foresee the resolution to come.
There are women who say out loud that every man turns and looks when they walk past, and there are women who don't have to say that. (13)
"Tolerance is only possible when one fosters a deep-rooted sense of superiority." (300)
Now, from the kitchen, I heard the rattling of bottles.
"We've still got ...," I heard Laura say. "Wait a minute, what's this? Eau-de-vie. There's still a little left. You want that? A glass of eau-de-vie?"
No, I said in my thoughts. Not eau-de-vie. But Laura couldn't hear that.
"Well, I wouldn't say no to that!" Mr. Landzaat shouted. "I still have to drive, but one little glass couldn't hurt."
Then he turned to look at me―and winked. He winked, and at the same time he bared those long teeth, all the way up to the purplish gums.
I didn't look at his face, only at his mouth and his teeth. If I had teeth like that I would keep my smiling to a minimum. (58)
Mr. M's obligations:
The library where he's expected to turn up is within walking distance, in a neighbourhood at the edge of his own town. The worst thing about giving a reading in Amsterdam is the audiences. The audiences here radiate a certain self-importance, to put it mildly. What they radiate above all is the fact that they could be attending so many other, perhaps even much more interesting performances, matinees, or concerts. Still, on this sunny Saturday, they are here, with you, in the library. They're raring to go, but make no mistake about it: they're not about to settle for the same old song and dance, not like those provincial bumpkins who, for lack of a richer cultural agenda, go gladly to see an older, visibly dwindling writer. (90)
Comes the truth:
It was one of those moments when you cross a certain line unawares, Laura realized only too late. Suddenly you're on the other side and can't go back. Laura would think back on this moment often, later, the moment when she, without knowing exactly how it happened, found herself somewhere she didn't want to be.
She could feel her face growing hot, and cursed herself. It had all gone too quickly. She knew the question that was coming next, and she knew that she could never lie as long as she was looking straight at Stella.
"Do you like Herman, Laura?" (185)
John Lescroart. Sunburn. (1981) USA: Signet, New American Library/Penguin, 2009.
And now for something totally different from the writer of those immensely popular Dismas Hardy and company mystery dramas ... groan. This reprinted debut novel from Lescroart should have been left in quiet oblivion. Despite the author's apologia that it represents his creative awakening. Am I getting curmudgeonly or what. A group of mostly middle-aged Americans in Spain are finding themselves, one might say. What is the point of life when you can't be yourself, whatever that is? Lea and Doug seem happy together, at first; her brother Sean struggles in his relationship with the volatile Kyra; Mike reviews his personal motivation; Berta and Tony are opaque side players. The narrative switches back and forth.
Many of these relationships and introspectives seem stilted, difficult to grasp in rambling exposition, let alone dialogue. Lea's insistence on a mission to galvanize them out of their torpor falls flat. Plenty of vino tinto fuels clumsy self-attempts at marriage counselling each other. Why do they all have so much trouble acknowledging or expressing their true feelings? You want to kick them hard to stop their false masquerading as being normal and contented. The only mystery is how long the reader can persevere through the trite whining about trust issues. See samples below of
gloomy poorly articulated existential angst.
As long as he never let himself believe her, she could never destroy him, but also they would be nothing more than two drifters pretending to be lovers. (141)
"I don't know if you've ever lived with someone when the spark just went out." (183)
But he was more than alone, depressed, and tired. He had decided to give up. It was all so meaningless, anyway.
If only something would happen, he thought. Almost anything. He wouldn't be picky. He turned onto his side and pulled the pillow over his head. But he had to watch that he didn't fool himself. He'd had something he believed in before. Maybe he could resurrect that.
As long as he didn't fool himself. That was the main thing. (44-5)
"Should I go away for a while, you think?" he asked.
"I don't know. Sort things out."
"I didn't think things were that bad."
"It's not that things are so horrible. It's that I feel I'm in over my head, like I'm not controlling anything between us. It's all her. Sometimes I feel that her goal is to get me to love her, so that she will have all the power. And the hell of it is, Doug, that I'm powerless against her. I don't want to fall so hard that I won't have any choices left if she betrays me ..."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that if I fall as hard as she wants me to, then I wouldn't be able to live without her, and I mean that literally." (58)
"You're blocking yourself off from me and everybody and everything, just because of some stupid intellectual idea you have that nothing affects anything else. That's not true. I affect you, and you know that. You're just not letting anything near you. This galloping unfaith, as you call it, guarantees that your life is empty and will stay empty."
She quieted down. "I'd like to force you, Doug, to let yourself feel something."
"I do feel things," he said feebly.
"Name something that really touches you then."
He was silent. (122-3)