Friday, 29 March 2013

Acting Out - Friday Flash

He religiously viewed every programme he appeared in. He'd played detectives, uniforms, white-suited forensic officers, witnesses and persons of interest. (though for some reason, never the murderer, perhaps because of his good looks and the producers' executive decision that a murderer had to look evil). He could portray evil, he'd once played Iago at High School. But no dice, as with his whole acting career which had never taken off, not even second spear carrier in a local community production. Hence he'd eked out a career doing bit parts in crime reconstruction shows.

All the roles he'd played, shared the same fate as that of the corpse, (which he'd also played on occasion), you never heard their words. You heard them speak, but their actual words were muted low in order that the voice-over cut across it. He never understood why sometimes they were even given scripts, or else encouraged to improvise, if the words didn't matter a dime. The real detectives and forensic officers were the voices that demanded to be heard. They were placed central in the mix. And through their expertise, the corpse got to tell its story after all. So in the final reckoning he was always more mute even than the corpse.

But not today. Today he was dressed in a sheriff's uniform and armed with a badge. Yet he wasn't on any set, nor even on a location shoot. They may have been making shows where attention to the smallest detail was uppermost, but TV production companies were rather lax about their own security. And so he had smuggled out a uniform. Was the badge authentic? It would be good enough to gain him ingress.

The uniform he'd plucked meant that his next appearance would have to be in Texas. Inevitably, it would only be Texas or California. No point him stealing a uniform of law enforcement in Delaware or Oregon, the serious crimes there were too few and far between. No, thank god for the bloodlust of Tx and Ca.

He'd driven for three nights to get to the right county to match his assumed jurisdiction. He was proved correct when the combined authority of the uniform and badge granted him an invite across the threshold of the remote farmhouse. He withdrew the knife, (the gun that came with the borrowed uniform was only a replica) and plunged it into the belly of the man. The victim slumped to his knees, but the would-be killer knew that he had to move into overdrive. For he had to set the scene for the experts.

In the case of a home invader disturbed in the act, the tendency would be for a quick stabbing and then fleeing the scene, since the primary aim was burglary, not murder. The randomness of how the killer and the victim come to be brought together makes it hard for the police to get to the identity of the former, because there is no overt connection. But this is where his plotting kicked in. Though this was to be a stranger killing, he wanted to muddy the waters further, to throw the so-called professionals off the scent.

Hence he thrust the knife once more into his helpless victim. He tried to work up a frenzy of stabbing, but he found it tough going. (He had considered trying the act with his left-hand, but he wasn't confident that having never stabbed anyone before that he could successfully execute it wrong-handed). The knife seemed heavier and more resistant each time he tried to extract it from the man's flesh. He would have thrown up, had he not summoned up his old Stanislavski technique to offset the physical repulsion with some happier affective memories.

Finally the man toppled over fully and he listened for his death rattle as the breath ebbed away from him. Now came the time for full misdirection. The excess of sharp force trauma might suggest a psychopathic killer. He had idled with the thought of imitating an extant serial killer's MO, but he knew from the shows that copycats never quite reproduced the signature of their inspiration which always tripped them up as clumsy imitators. Besides, this was all about making his own voice heard for once, though of course no one was to know that it was his voice. He had also flirted with the notion of bringing misleading clues to drop at the scene, but his research had shown that The Manson Family's attempts to misdirect with random objects and bloody messages daubed in blood had ultimately helped guide the police to them. No extraneous props. They tripped murderers up as much as they did actors on stage.

He wanted to suggest that he and the murderee were in fact acquainted. But the bluff and counterbluff would be enhanced by pretending to cover it up as a stranger murder, like a home invasion gone wrong. Donning his gloves, he rifled through the house, careful to look as though he was searching for riches, but leaving obvious boons intact. Thus tipping off future investigators that robbery was not really the motive.

Then there was his mode of entry. While flashing his badge had allowed him unforced entry, he now had to counterfeit a burglar's entrance. He went to the French Windows and let himself out through them. You'd be surprised how many fools punch out the glass from the inside so the shards fall outside. Dead giveaway that it's been done after the event. Even those smart enough to punch out the glass from the outside, don't realise that the CSI guys can tell whether that glass has been walked on or remains pristine. If the latter, it means no robber came in through the windows. So he marched through the broken glass strewn across the carpet.

Satisfied with his own mental check-list, he peeled off his clothes and put them into a bag. He would conceal them in full-sight back at a TV studio, simply adding them to the laundry basket of soiled costumes. He wasn't sure if they were thoroughly cleaned or just thrown out as unusable. Those that had screen blood and gore caked on to them at least. And another benefit of dear old Texas, was that his wide-brimmed sheriff's hat had allowed him to secrete a hair net beneath, thus ensuring there were no stray strands of DNA-laden hair to betray him.

One final survey around the crime scene determined that his Method had been faultless. His only regret was that as the case was likely never to be solved, he had no chance of appearing in a programme reconstructing it in the future.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Moral Responsibility of The Author - part 3

In two earlier posts, I discussed the moral responsibility of the author with regards to copycat violence and involving oneself in the real lives of those you're writing about with reference to Stephen King and Harriet Sergeant. 

I just happened to have finished reading a novel by acclaimed Crime Thriller writer Jo Nesbo. And it threw up another slant on the same question of just how much moral responsibility does an author bear?

Now crime fiction inevitably deals with the unpleasant side of humanity as we prey upon one another within the pages of such books. Murders, rapes, torture, and all manner of amoral or beastly behaviour towards our fellow man are the meat and drink of the genre. So one is already wallowing in a moral quagmire in dealing with the genre. If such subject matter repulses, the chances are you won't read it.

Now I don't read much of it, not because of moral repugnance or squeamishness, but mainly because I find it a limited genre, especially when applied to series. Nesbo has a detective character called Harry Hole who has been central to the action in nine of his books. I struggle with the fresh revelation in each book of some new character trait or personal history in Hole that somehow was never pertinent in any of the previous books. So I've only read 3 of the 9 books.

In "The Redeemer" the book opens with an under-age rape. The bulk of the action moves to take place when all concerned are adults. The victim has eschewed sex, partly from the trauma of her experiences and partly due to her Christian faith as she remains unwed (the book's action takes place in the world of the Norwegian Salvation Army). However, she is prepared to break her self-prohibition (and a tenet of her faith) when she falls for Harry Hole in the course of his investigation of a murder.

Now I find this problematic. Harry Hole can "cure" rape victims of their fear just through his sheer magnetism. Hole is quintessentially associated with Nesbo, though of course he is a fictional creation. But I cannot help but feel there is an element of Nesbo's own conscious or unconscious fantasy as to how he may see himself projected on to Hole. Even if I'm mistaken in this supposition, it's still a highly problematic concept and one I think that oversteps the moral mark. Men 'curing' women simply by their own physical allure is not a line I think ought to be casually dropped in as a plot device or some characterisation. Nesbo handles the woman's Road To Damascus conversion really unconvincingly, with some really cringeworthy sentiments expressed by her towards Hole, as she throws herself at him with a mixture of chasteness, callowness and natural sexuality bursting out.

Maybe such a point seems churlish in a book that starts off with rape and involves murder and dismemberment. Maybe it's wrong to assume the reader accepts these criminal activities as par for the course, but I just feel that this notion of curing a rape victim is not such a common or garden part of the crime world and needed picking up for debate rather than just slipping under the radar.

What do you think?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Crush - Friday Flash

He arrested his pumping thrust mid-stroke. Stout-hearted oak almost toppled over the card sharper operating on the sidewalk. Nearly induced a cardiac-attack. The man gathered up his ill-gotten gains into a sac and transplanted his procedure elsewhere. Somewhere less congested.

Heart in mouth, bated breath in suspended lungs. Could it possibly be?

His heart missed a beat as he distended his neck to search out his bypassed Miss.

That old throb started tugging at his core. His organ burning in his chest. The blood pulsing around his veins at a rate of knots, tingling agonisingly. His heartstrings tangled like a cats cradle. He shot his shirtsleeves tight over his wrists to try and venesect the pressure. But it was too late. The heart of the matter was indeed his heart. A resuscitated pang for his love. A one woman love infarction. That heart stopper and head turner had just crossed his path again. Encased in a sable stole.

And then the old ticker skipped as did his stride. There she was moving at a cracking lick. It was his heartfelt wish to see her, to talk to her again. He gathered up his pace- making. Heartily, lustily. His ticker hammering away at his ribs like a xylophone with joyous excitement. He put his hand over his chest to see that his fit-to-bursting heart was still contained within. Still in the right place.

The motor was powering his legs like pistons. Systole... as he bounced up in his stride. Diastole on the downstroke, although he felt he was being carried along on a cushion of richly oxygenated air.

She entered the revolving door of a hotel. He followed her directly in the next glass chamber behind. She contracted sight of him and missed her opening into the atrium, instead going round another circuit. Her lashes fluttered and his heart responded in kind. But hers was a double-take quickly followed by a double declutch of her expression. A look more dagger than arrow to the heart. Tricuspid valve slamming shut on him like a tomb, rather than Cupid's airy flight. Furry venous, not Venus in Furs. His heart sunk with displaced hope. Footsore and heartsick. He knew in his heart of hearts that they were never to be heart and soulmates.

Murmuring to himself, he slowed his rate and let her heart-free into the bosom of the lobby. As he re-emerged back into the arteries of the city, the smell of warming cockles from a stall rendered his sclerotic muscle into a ball of wrinkles.


from the flash fiction collection, available from Amazon Kindle store free to download 3rd-7th June 2016

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Theatre Versus the Novel

Award winning author Mark Haddon ("The Curious Incident Of the Dog In the Night Time") is about to stage his own book in a London West End theatre. That's a journey I made in the opposite direction, starting out writing plays and then moving into writing prose. Of course in terms of success and status, Haddon and me are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, I'm almost exhibiting hubris mentioning myself in the same breath as him. But I'm only raising it as Haddon made some interesting and I believe wrong-headed, statements in an interview he gave to London newspaper "The Evening Standard".

He claims to have given up novel writing for stage plays, ( I seem to remember Zadie Smith making the same claim as she wanted to concentrate on essay writing, but she has returned to the novel form recently) "so much better for the immortal soul" Haddon is quoted. I don't quite understand what he means by that.

It's true historically the stage play is an older form of literature stretching back to the Ancient Greeks and maybe there is still some sort of ghostly cultural inheritance from that. But stage plays are as multifarious as genre fiction, through the physical theatre of the likes of Theatre de Complicité, musical theatre, cabaret and burlesque, comedies, farces, absurd and avant garde through to the political theatre and theories of Brecht, Artaud and the like.

He therefore goes on to claim that theatre goers are more open to a broader spectrum of taste, than novel readers where "those categories are much harder to leap out of". Well, when I was working in theatre, the audiences were no less tribal, as were the commissioning artistic directors. Physical theatre practitioners and the more conventional staging of plays never mixed. The interesting contemporary stuff was going on in the Fringe theatres (as well as a lot of terrible material there too), almost never in the established West End theatres. And Haddon's example of the variety of seeing an Ackybourn and then a Roy Williams play, only strikes me as being superficially removed from one another. The theatre in Britain remains a middle class audience, even if Williams writes urban plays in patois.

British theatre produces very little new, contemporary work (unlike in the 1960s and 1970s when it genuinely formed part of society's discourse with itself during these turbulent times). Any aspiring playwright worth their salt, now jumps ship to the better paid TV or film, so there are few long-established, developed careers writing for theatre. The West End is dominated by musicals or what I call tourist theatre - classic plays from the dramatic canon performed by big name actors. In that sense I do understand Haddon's "immortal soul". Or the occasional new play that becomes so successful it takes off for Hollywood anyway and the stage version is like some vestigial homage or museum exhibit to it, as with "Warhorse". Haddon is perfectly entitled to adapt his own novel for the stage, it's still not exactly new material. It will just be an interpretation of a novel brought to life for the stage. He may go on and pen plays that didn't start life as a novel, but we're not able to be at that point of the argument yet.

So while theatre has a proud back-catalogue that it is constantly reinventing with new productions, the notion of writing new works to join that immortal canon is I think risible. Can anyone name a play of the last 20 years that could honestly be said to have joined the pantheon of great dramatic works? And when Haddon bemoans the loneliness of the novel writer in contrast to the playwright who collaborates with actors, directors, set designers, choreographers and musicians, he is surprisingly out of touch for someone who has demonstrated such savvy with social media; prose writing today in the digital world absolutely offers the author opportunities to burst out of their bubble. Both with regard to collaborators in design, video and digital platforms, but more importantly to their readers who now are the equivalent of an audience sat in a theatre auditorium. Their feedback can be instantaneous and at any stage of the writing process, just like the actors and playwright can feed off the reaction of the audience sat in the stalls. I don't know if Haddon is aware of the multi-media, multi-collaborator project involving Will Self called Kafka's Wound. That gives a sample of the possibilities of prose in the digital age.

I really loved Haddon's book "The Curious Case..." I thought it was an uplifting triumph of prose writing. I shan't be seeing it in the theatre though. For much the same reasons I gave as to why I don't go to see film adaptations of literary novels. I'll be interested to revisit these issues when Haddon premiers a brand new play written especially for the theatre.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Threads - Friday Flash

It could go in one of two ways...

He awoke under a thatched roof as the sunlight streamed in through the straw's interstices. Shackles of light pinned him to the floor, a vestigial auspice of the convict's recent status prior to his breakout.

The forensics team built an exact replica of the shoot-out room, die stamping holes through the doors and walls where the bullets had punched into the room's interior. But it was only when they used red thread tracing the trajectories through those holes, that the room took on the appearance of a cats cradle that had raked and clawed the lives of a whole family.

He squeezed the atomiser of the spraycan, sending vapour fanning out until the fine droplets illuminated the infra-red tripwires through the filter of his night-vision goggles. He performed the action repeatedly until he had a mental map of the beams, knowing that his own sinuous movements would have to be as light and airy as that of the hairspray.

The problem with doing your own cornrows is that you can't but help pull the hair tighter away from the scalp, than when someone else was doing it for you. He missed his daughter's supple fingers that used to braid his locks for him and though his arthritic hands could still twist the braids, they were too gnarled and bent to thread the beads.

Having unpacked the six foot of DNA coiled into the cell nucleus, a gob of spit bound like Samson between two pillars, she proceeded to photograph it. Not diffraction images, of building up pictures from absences and lacunae, but actual direct light exposure, she knew would likely bring the whole damn human edifice crashing down on all their heads.

He leaned over his sink and spat blood into it, mottling the white porcelain with red until the water from the tap fretting away at its tensile strength finally overcame its resistance and swept it away towards the plughole. When finally the blood-flow had slowed so that it was just a streak of red spittle stretching down past his chin and on to the folds of his neck like a stalactite, he knew he would be avenged of this insult that same night.

It wasn't his hemophilia that did for him, seeing as the bullet had wrought destruction on too much tissue for even a fully-functioning coagulation cascade to be able to plug with platelets and clots. Lying there clutching his gut with a slow bleed, the fibrinogen chain gangs forging fibrin chains still performed their futile toil, like breaking rocks under the burning scorch of the sun.

The string ballistic trajectories emanating through slits in the surfaces, unwittingly modelled the quantum world in which the act of observation collapsed the wave function and made the bullets seemingly behave with the singularity of solid matter. Therefore the police were never able to fathom other possible behaviour patterns behind the arc of the projectiles.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Sunday Sample - The Optics View

Behold! Up behind the bar. No, the stacks. Just look at the myriad of bottles ranged there. The manifold curvatures and distinct colours of the glass. Smooth, frosted or stippled. The diversity of the labels too. Stencilled, intaglio’d, embossed, don’t you think some of them resemble miniature illuminated manuscripts?
Proceed up, ever upwards, to take in the arc of a legion of necks, fluted or otherwise. Coronal bungs, corks, bulbs, twist caps, and screw threads. A fair sprinkling which echo clunky perfume atomisers. Several like delicate pillboxes, while others sinuous petals. Bee hives and mother of pearl. Russian Orthodox onion domes and shotgun cartridges. Some require waxy seals to be broken, in order to light the red touch paper. Diadems, bowler hats, pith helmets, one even simulates a pint-sized sombrero, cresting a bottle of faux tequila. All such surmountings, less akin to chivalrous doffing of their hats, more like removing the pin from a hand grenade in what they unleash.
Yet when I’m in here, I’m not remotely interested in loading up on their contents. In fact, I find the house stipulation, that I must indeed temporarily desecrate the arrangement by ordering from their rank, actually sullies my pleasure. But I nurse it exclusively all evening, for I don't want to spoil my view. This is not the gaudy trompe l’oeil wrought in that dive two doors down. Where the bottles are deployed in front of mirrors to suggest a never-ending supply. For no matter what the inundation, these bottles remain singularly arrayed. If one of their rank does indeed get drained, then it is seamlessly replaced without any warp in the whole.
For perched here, it's as if I'm on a hilltop, looking down at a Medieval City. With all the cathedral spires of the tall-necked bottles. The dependable stoutness of the civic bottles. The squat prosperity of the gilded bottles. The soothing blue of the main brands and so on endlessly. See how their chromatic vibrancy lifts the restraint of the bar’s dark shroud? Stained glass intensification. Saturating the light with spectral colour. This here, is my art gallery of appreciation and awe. My quiet moment of contemplative stillness. My last gasp temenos, after I profaned those of the library, the island of Corfu and the athenaeum of Greece itself. If I manage to secure a bar stool, then I get a close-up of the detailed brushwork. But I am happy to settle for a view of the whole from afar. Even with the heads of less devout pilgrims genuflecting across the panorama.
I sit and I try and fathom it out. For do they not do exactly what they say on the label? 20% proof. 15% by volume. If what you see is what you get, why do they pour so much creative energy into probably what the eye normally doesn’t get to see, as the cocktail is prepared out of the line of sight? I might understand if you were in a group of friends, having a quiet night out based around conversation, then the taste of your chosen tipple might warm the cockles of your heart like a nice internal log fire. The setting of your convivial convocation might be mounted in your memory by the shape of the glass in your hand and indeed the associations of the coloured liquid it contains. Unconsciously referenced back to the bottle from which it emerged. But this is Kavos for flip sakes! Volume by volume. Proof only of insensibility. Also keeping your feet off the floor so as to avoid the runnels of piss and puke. The retrospective anecdotes will solely be about the physiological havoc wrought by the liquid propellant. The associations of rank bad behaviour attributed to the glass borne antagonist. Vapid drinking stories, long after the bubbles have gone flat. I guess you just had to be there yourself...
So you see I have to ask myself. For all those gin and whisky bottles maintaining a stately and regal bearing, with classical elegance pointing to the soundness of their heritage, what then of the brash and the gaucheness of the johnny come lately brands? The bourbons and the vodkas and tequilas with sombrero lids? Why proceed to vulgarise the whole, by mixing them with all sorts of other adulterations in the form of the cocktail, in misguided pursuit of sophistication? There, it’s on the menu. Order by number and stupid compound name to conjure up what personal intimation? A Harvey Wallbanger yes, does just what it says, but Between The Sheets? A Black Russian? Ooh er Missus, saucy postcards from foreign resorts. What need for escapist figments, when you already have it all on tap here in the most trite and unvarnished manner. Alcohol, the paint stripper of civilisation’s veneer. Bottled up rage, uncorked and decanted from something so beautiful to look at. A siren luring you to a monstrous fate.

from "A,B&E" available on Amazon Kindle