How criminals think

John Lanchester

  • Love and Death on Long Island by Gilbert Adair
    Heinemann, 138 pp, £10.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 434 00622 X
  • Going wrong by Ruth Rendell
    Hutchinson, 250 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 09 174300 1
  • The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow
    Bloomsbury, 515 pp, £13.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0673 6
  • Crucible of Fools by M.S. Power
    Hamish Hamilton, 165 pp, £12.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 241 13006 9

In his now-famous article ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson gives one of the defining characteristics of Post-Modernism as being ‘the effacement of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and the so-called mass or commercial culture’. This effacement of frontiers, which has often taken parodic form (the soup cans of Andy Warhol, the deliberate kitsch of architects like Philip Venturi, author of the feisty manifesto Learning from Las Vegas) is now itself parodied in Gilbert Adair’s funny and accomplished second novel. The narrator of Love and Death on Long Island is the Hampstead-inhabiting author of four novels more popular in France than in this country, as well as of ‘a history of angels’. As the novel opens his work is starting to recover from two decades of neglect, and he is awaiting the publication of his second non-fiction book, a discussion of Post-Modernism called The Gentrification of the Void.

What are our hero’s books like?

Fastidiously textured, unlyrical and superficially uneventful save for the pivotal act, curiously timeless in atmosphere despite the occasional and, as some believed, rather intrusive allusion to the Holocaust, they were of personal inspiration only in the paradoxical sense that the equivocal convulsions of self abnegation which made up their subject-matter appeared to be mirroring, in what the French term a mise en abyme, my own self-effacing attitude to language as the externalisation of an interiority. (Recently, one of my American exegetes had caused something of a minor sensation in academic circles by demonstrating that not once in the entire corpus of my published writings, fictional and non-fictional, and even unto those extremely rare exchanges of dialogue that speckled my fiction, had I had recourse to the first person singular: in short, even when assuming the voice of one of my protagonists, I had never brought myself to say ‘I’ in print.) At any rate, they had enjoyed no commercial success whatever.

Adair gives this magnificently preposterous high-modernist his come-uppance through an unforeseen immersion in the world of mass culture. Going out for a walk after being stood up by a journalist who was supposed to come and give him his first-ever interview, the writer shields from the rain under a cinema marquee; while hiding there, he decides to break a self-imposed moratorium on going to films in order to see A Room with a View, ‘of which I had spoken at length to the ageing author himself’; he finds himself sitting through a movie which features teenagers and motorcyclists and beach parties: in short, he has blundered into the wrong film, and is now watching Hotpants College II.

On the point of leaving, the writer is struck by a revelation, a visione amorosa in the form of Ronnie Bostock. The actor’s handsome, gormless appearance on screen ‘exemplified what I take to be a specifically American criterion of “cuteness” – which is to say, beauty untranscended by mystery, tragedy or spirituality, beauty golden and well nourished and so vacuously secure in its own natural and social prerogatives that, as much as heredity and environment, it is its very disregard or ignorance of other, less privileged species of late 20th-century adolescence that appears to guarantee the tranquil perfection of sparkling eyes, of healthy white teeth, of a complexion tanned just so.’ He becomes obsessed with Bostock, and by reading all the available teenage fan material on the actor soon comes to know more about him than does anyone else in the world. Eventually, his obsession drives him to Long Island where, by going to humiliating lengths, he achieves his wish to meet young Ronnie; but he pushes his luck too far, and there is a fiasco. Adair is very adroit at milking the comedy of this grotesque infatuation, while also making one feel sorry for the poor old buffer who is its victim.

Love and Death on Long Island is a tour de force, which achieves the widely-held Post-Modern ambition of both having and eating its cake – it parodies, while also benefiting from, its own knowledgeability about both high and popular culture. Readers already familiar with Adair’s work will know to expect an exercise in imitation and pastiche: where Myths and Memories took off Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, and The Holy Innocents reworked Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, the new novel is a commentary on, revision of and skit on Death in Venice. It’s fun to think how much Mann would have hated Gilbert Adair’s book.

While the juxtaposition of high and popular culture provides Love and Death in Long Island with a lot of its comedy, the novel gains its narrative momentum from a more straightforward use of one of the oldest plot devices there is – the plot based on obsession. Obsession provides the writer, particularly the novelist, with a nice clean forward-moving storyline: detail the inception, growth and resolution of any idée fixe and you have a ready-made plot, complete with psychological and narrative momentum. Add to that the sheer mysterious interestingness of obsession, and it’s no wonder that the subject is such a common one in fiction – more common there than in real life, perhaps.

The thriller genre is particularly thickly populated with obsessives, who are usually policemen and detectives – men in the grip of a righteous desire to find the truth. The motivation of wrong-doers in thrillers and crime fiction tends to be pretty perfunctorily sketched, and is – Patricia Highsmith excepted – almost invariably told rather than shown. Ruth Rendell’s great strength as a practitioner of the two genres has been her genuine interest in the psychology of the perpetrators of crime, an interest in how criminals think and in what it must feel like to be one. She takes the reader into the areas of psychology that are often lazily described as ‘murky recesses’ and shows in fact that these areas of the mind tend instead to be very brightly lit – lit with the harsh artificial light of obsession. Going wrong is a particularly vivid example of Rendell’s skill in exploring obsessive psychopathologies. Guy Curran, from whose point of view the story is told, is a 29-year old drug dealer, who has been fixatedly in love with an upper-middle-class girl called Leonora Chisholm for over ten years, since they spent time together on the streets of Notting Hill as truant teenagers. In those days they had an intense love affair, which Leonora got over but Guy did not.

The relationship has become formalised around a pre-arranged meeting which takes place every Saturday lunchtime – Leonora’s idea, and a very bad one, since it drip-feeds just enough sustenance to keep Guy’s obsession with her raging at full strength. We see these meetings from Guy’s point of view, and witness both the intensity of his love for her and the full extent of its deludedness. Leonora, it is obvious to everyone but Guy, only goes on seeing him out of pity, and all her family and friends are opposed to the continuation of their relationship. When Leonora gets engaged to be married Guy puts some of his practical knowledge of criminality to work: it’s clear that he is going to get someone in Leonora’s circle killed, but for a long time it isn’t apparent who the victim will be.

Through large parts of the victim-selecting process, the reader is egging Guy on. This is partly because of the Macbeth phenomenon by which one tends to identify with energetic wrongdoers when they are presented as protagonists, and partly because of the vividness of Guy’s perspective on Leonora’s snotty family and friends. The class nuances common to fiction in the genre are given a twist by being presented from Guy’s affluent but frankly resentful viewpoint; the West London setting, while a trifle on the familiar side, is well done; the twist ending involves some plausible villainly bungling. Going wrong is particularly impressive when one considers that it’s Rendell’s second accomplished novel this year: the other, Gallowglass, was published in February under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. (I had thought that Ruth Rendell used that name for her in-the-mind-of-a-psycho novels, in which case it could very appositely have been used for her new book. As a reader and fan of Vine/Rendell, I have to admit that I find the use of two names about as helpful as the distinction Graham Greene used to draw between his ‘Novels’ and his ‘Entertainments’ – which is to say, not very helpful at all.)

Scott Turow’s first novel, Presumed Innocent, was a colossal hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Copies were getting up off the shelves and walking out of bookshops on their own. The novel was narrated by Rusty Sabich (terrific name), Chief Deputy in the office of the Kindle County Prosecuting Attorney. The first half of the book described Sabich’s investigation into the murder of a female colleague with whom he had had an affair; then Sabich himself became the chief suspect, and, in the second half of the book, was himself tried for the murder. As thrillers go, Presumed Innocent was an absolute gripper. It was also clearly going to be a very difficult act to follow, and Turow – a practising lawyer himself, in fact the partner in a Chicago law firm – has done the smart thing by writing a novel as different as possible from the earlier book.

When Sabich was tried in the earlier novel, his defence lawyer was an ultra-brainy Argentinian Jew called Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern – ‘the subtlest man I’ve met’, according to Sabich. A cerebral and slightly distant figure in Presumed Innocent, which was dominated by the rollercoastering emotions of Sabich himself, Stern is the central character and controlling point-of-view in The Burden of Proof. The novel begins with the suicide of Stern’s wife Clara. In the aftermath of the death a whole series of questions about Clara’s life is opened up: how did she come to have genital herpes? Is that why she killed herself? Who had she been having an affair with? What happened to the uncashed cheque for $800,000 she wrote out just before she died? What part does Dixon Hartneil, Stern’s swashbuckling, half-crooked businessman brother-in-law, have to play in all this? And what’s going to happen to old Sandy himself?

There’s no shortage of plot and character in The Burden of Proof. There’s also no shortage of data – you may learn more about commodity dealing than you thought you wanted to know. Stern, compared with Sabich, is a trifle stodgy as a central character, though even that stodginess has its benefits: Turow does well with Stern’s first explorations of his newly single state, their mixture of fumbling vulnerability and excitement. On accepting an invitation to dinner: ‘Eating, after all, was not a form of sexual intercourse. But then again, he slyly thought, he was becoming quite a fellow.’ The difficulty with the book is more that – perhaps in an attempt to get away from the compelling focusedness of Presumed Innocent – Turow has overloaded the novel with plots, subplots, twists and ramifications, all of which seem to be of apparently equal importance. You have to concentrate, with the result that the novel’s effort-to-reward ratio is disproportionately weighted on the side of effort. People don’t seem to be minding that, though. At the time of writing The Burden of Proof is topping bestseller lists, and the paperback rights have been sold for a thought-provoking $3.2 million.

Crucible of Fools opens badly, with a funeral.

There is something extraordinary in the make-up of man that makes him shudder when confronted by gentleness in others, that makes the absence of malice accusatory. As though to negate this feeling he derides humility, equating it with weakness, and he scoffs at meekness, likening it to cowardice. In his arrogance he detects a fearful threat in anything that smacks of timidity, and he denounces it with mockery, using a buffoon’s abuse to conceal his brutishness.

There is some more of this in the early parts of the book, which chronicle the marriage of Dan Loftus, an Irish farmer, to the spirited Deirdre Bannerman, twenty years his junior. A child, Sergei, is born, to great rejoicing: but Sergei first turns out to be retarded and then dies; Deirdre kills herself, and Dan goes mad. A lot of this is overblown and worked up. ‘The trees, deformed by generations of gales, outlined starkly against the wet grey sky, took on the appearance of old, bent women, their backs to the ocean, bracing themselves against the buffetting chill.’ Once Dan has gone mad, though, the tonal range of the novel increases, to greatly beneficial effect. The narrator – a child in Dan Loftus’s village – describes Dan’s gradual regression to a state close to nature, and the turn he takes towards violence after he is beaten up by villagers.

This is the best part of Crucible of Fools. Power often achieves a persuasive mixture of comedy and horror in these passages, which are delicately predicated on Dan’s innocence: he doesn’t know what he is doing. The novel then darkens again, and things get really nasty when, after committing several murders (of the people who had beaten him up), Dan kidnaps a woman from the village, holds her bound and gagged for several days, and then has sex with her. ‘For nearly thirty years she had waited for this, dreaming about it, her dull mind running riot and conjuring up unimaginable delights. But it was better than anything she had dreamed.’ The villagers find Dan and kill him – though not before the woman has starved to death – and it’s his funeral we read about on the first pages of the book. Given that Dan has committed a number of murders, as well as an abduction and rape leading to murder, the emphasis on ‘gentleness’ and ‘meekness’ in the passage quoted seems to me to be a trifle misplaced.