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Mystery File: "You know you're in the hands of a truly unscrupulous narrator when a priest meeting him for the first time says, 'You're a bad egg. As bad as they come.'"

Date: Mar 23 2006

The Crime Fiction Research Journal
IN THE FRAME, by Vince Keenan

You know you’re in the hands of a truly unscrupulous narrator when a priest meeting himfor the first time says, “You’re a bad egg. As bad as they come.”  The description suits Giorgio Pellegrini, the protagonist of Massimo Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss.  This novel,originally published in 2000, is the latest example of “Mediterranean noir” from Europa Editions.

Giorgio, wanted for political crimes committed half-heartedly in his native Italy, hasdecided that seven years on the run is enough.  He blackmails his old contacts in the movement into delivering “the best deal on the bad rep market.”

Once he’s paid his debt to society, Giorgio sets out to earn a little bourgeois respectabilityfor himself using the only tools at his disposal: an utter lack of morals and an eye for opportunity.  In short order, he’s forcing other ex-revolutionaries to commit hold-ups forhim and cheating the spectacularly crooked cop with whom he’s made a devil’s pact.  (“Something about him always made me think he was rotten. Not just corrupt.  Rotten. The right sort of guy to form a partnership with.”)

Carlotto, a former left-wing militant, fugitive, and convict, knows whereof he speaks.  Healso writes like an unholy combination of Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson.  When so many contemporary noir authors wallow in darkness for its own sake, Carlotto makessure that every shadow in his book is cast by forces either psychological or political.  Giorgio is no posturing tough guy but a genuine sociopath, issuing immediateassessments (“Somewhere along the way she registered it was too late to get back to even a vague facsimile of the woman she once was”) and acting on them with ruthlessprecision (“All she lacked was a violent, unjust death, and I’d provide that very soon”).

Even more chilling is Giorgio’s pursuit of success in the new Europe with a zeal he onlypretended to feel for the ideals of his youth.  Carlotto has concocted an elegant thriller that also paints a scabrous picture of a society that has lost its moral bearings.

Europa Editions is not only publishing recent foreign fiction.  The company is alsoreissuing older titles that have been unfairly neglected.  Patrick Hamilton’s work as a playwright produced the landmark suspense films ROPE and GASLIGHT.  Now his 1941 novel Hangover Square is back in print.

Shy, hulking George Harvey Bone has suffered from “dead moods” all his life.  With a‘click,’ his consciousness slips and he becomes someone else.  “Imagine it – wandering about like an automaton, a dead person, another person, a person who wasn’t you, fortwenty-four hours at a stretch!”  The moods are exacerbated by his feelings for would-be actress Netta Longdon, a denizen of the Earl’s Court neighborhood of London.  “Youmight say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her.  It was the same thing – just looking at his obsession from the other side.”  One version of George vows towin Netta’s heart.  The other is determined to kill her.

The novel opens with a clinical definition of schizophrenia.  Hamilton’s depiction of thedisorder is surely one of the most remarkable in fiction.  Every ‘click’ receives its own evocative description, as if George is experiencing the sensation for the first time.  Hisbrain feels “enclosed behind glass (like Crown jewels or Victorian wax fruit).”  At other times it’s “as though the soundtrack in a talkie had mysteriously broken down,” or “asthough ... scenes and activities were all taking place in the tank of an aquarium or even at the bottom of the ocean – a noiseless, intense, gliding, fishy world.”

It makes sense, then, that George would be drawn to Netta, given that “her thoughts ..resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid.”  Hamilton is equally meticulous in laying out Netta’s pathology.  The chapter inwhich he focuses on her is extraordinary, delving into why “it was convenient for her to act this free-and-easy Earl’s Court life – irregular, unpunctual, self-consciously ‘broke,’unconventional.”  Hamilton claims that Netta possesses “a feeling for something which was abroad in the modern world ... something to do with blood, cruelty, and fascism.” The story climaxes on the night that German troops invade Poland, giving it additional intensity.

Hangover Square’s structure is somewhat repetitive, and the book is shot through with asense of foreboding that verges on oppressive.  But Hamilton’s portrait of a man and a continent on the brink of insanity retains its power.

Film aside: Hangover Square was adapted for the screen in 1945.  Actor Laird Cregarwould seem an ideal choice to play George Harvey Bone, but the plot was radically altered; George became a composer driven to kill when he hears loud noises.  Cregar diedsoon after the film was completed.  His friend and costar George Sanders believed the experience contributed to his death.  The critic David Thomson calls the movie “awretched travesty of Patrick Hamilton’s novel,” and notes that “Hangover Square – for all (director John) Brahm’s style, and Bernard Herrmann’s mad music – still waits to befilmed properly.”

by Vince Keenan

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