Monday, February 28, 2022

Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes: Reading Room Review


I love mysteries set on a train, and I especially love those train mysteries to be set in the 1930s or 40s. Mix in some golden days of Hollywood when there were “movie stars,” not actresses and actors, and you have a setup for some high drama. Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes contains these elements and all the accoutrements that go with them, from cocktail hour to black satin dresses. Over-the-top is the norm, as evident when one of the characters is ordering steak for dinner, wanting only "the best." Think The Great Gatsby on a train, and Jay Gatsby throwing his shirts in the air as Daisy looks on at how splendidly beautiful the “best” shirts were. As the darkness behind the glamorous society facade is revealed in Fitzgerald’s book, the darkness of celebrity fame is exposed in Hughes’ book. All the cocktails on the luxury Pullman car on The Chief cross-country train can’t dull the sound of masks cracking and dreams dying. 

Kitten Agnew is a movie star. She has proved her worth as a box office draw, and she will not be dismissed as yesterday’s news. On a cross-country train trip from Los Angles to Chicago and then on to NYC, Kitten is in a fight for her career and, ultimately, her life. The role of her career, the goal of her life, is to play Clavdia Chaucat in an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Vivien Spender, the producer/director who found Kitten and made her into a star, has been, since he found her, grooming her to play this part in the movie he will produce, his magnus opus. But now, Vivien has found a new Clavdia, a fresh face to mold into his image of Clavdia. However, Kitten has an iron-clad contract with Vivien and won’t step aside. She was not the first beautiful girl to catch Viv’s eye and then later be discarded when he grew tired of them, so Kitten made sure her contract could not be broken. 

The train trip to New York City is set up by Viv under the ruse of going there for the premiere of Kitten’s new movie. At the last minute, his intentions become clear to Kitten, as he forces her to share a room on the train with his new ingenue, Gratia Shawn. There’s no discussion about it because Kitten and Viv aren’t talking to one another by then. Kitten has threatened Viv with a lawsuit, one which he will lose because of her iron-clad contract. He has offered her a million dollars to give in, but Katherine “Kitten” Agnew will not go away: she alone will play Clavdia. With a stalemate existing between them, Kitten has an overriding fear when the train trip begins of what Vivien Spender has in store for her. “She was afraid. It wasn’t a tremble of fear. It was a dark hood hanging over her head. She was meant to die. That was why she was on the Chief speeding eastward. This was her bier.” 

Vivien Spender had hoped to keep his new girl under wraps until New York, but Kitten knows Leslie Augustin, famous band leader and singer, who is also in their car, and drinks in Leslie’s room gives way to Gratia joining them. Journalist Hank Cavanaugh is also in Leslie’s room and working his way to his preferred state of drunkenness. So, a foursome of sorts is formed for drinks and dinner and whiling away the many hours on the train, exposing Gratia’s beauty to the public ahead of the plan. Kitten is glad of the companionship, as she is trying to ensure Viv doesn’t get her alone to try and eliminate her. Hank learns of Kitten’s trepidations about Viv, and he feels he might at least do something useful in life by saving her. Hank and Kitten have one of the longest conversations in the book, with Kitten in a completely honest moment in her wondering about dying and heaven and hell. The train speeds on, and the small world of the luxury car on the Chief train gets closer to its final act. The atmosphere is tense, and the suspense builds steadily with each chuga chuga chuga of the wheels. Can murder be averted, or is it the end of the line for Kitten? 

Dread Journey is an ensemble piece, with each character is the cast receiving their solos where their thoughts and dialogue reveal themselves. Well, fresh-faced Gratia is the exception. Her character seems to be shaped by what others think and say about her rather than inner reflection or problem-solving thoughts of a deeper nature. A smattering of short outbursts of dialogue from her are her attempt to make her position clear. And, it is Gratia who uses the word “woke” to describe herself at the end, which may be the most important thing she utters. There’s no doubt as to what Kitten Agnew, Vivien Spender, popular band leader Leslie Augustin, burned-out journalist Hank Cavanaugh, or Viv’s loyal and long-suffering assistant Mike Dana, and the failed script writer Sidney Pringle are in torment about. They desperately want to find the happy ending but are afraid that one doesn’t exist, except for Viv, as his narcissism can only imagine scenarios with him succeeding. While Viv was the character I liked the least, it was quite interesting to learn through his thoughts how clever he thinks he is, his overblown confidence in there only being one right answer to anything, what he wants. Shades of Harry Weinstein are easily conjured up as we learn what the price of being a Vivien Spender star is. The Pullman porter, James Cobbett, has some deep reflections and thoughts about his passengers upon which he lingers, but James knows contentment, and, thus, he is separate from the other characters in the ensemble. Through James’ separateness, the reader has insight into the other characters as he watches them from his seat in the car or serves them. They often have their masks down in front of James, so the reader benefits from James’ invisibility to his passengers. 

This book falls squarely in the noir tradition of the 1940s and 50s noir fiction, and Dorothy B. Hughes is a revered noir writer of the 40s. All the characters struggle with a world that has disappointed them and shown them things they cannot reconcile into a happy existence. Kitten, Vivien, Leslie, Hank, Mike, and somewhat less Gratia. They all are floundering in a world of broken dreams that lead to despair. Classic noir presents that the American dream is not actually an attainable goal, trying to find meaning in a meaningless world. Otto Penzler, who is the publisher of this edition of Dread Journey, states that “the lost characters in noir … are caught in the inescapable prisons of their own construction.” Rather a you-have-nobody-to-blame-but-yourself judgement, but in defense of the character’s blame, the existential state of fate does hang heavy. There’s a darkness of theme and atmosphere, which is personified by so much happening in the dark hours of the journey, like a living, breathing entity hovering to pounce. There’s the sexual tension between Hank and Gratia, Leslie and Gratia, and the sexual seductive postures of Kitten and the sexual predatory expectations of Vivien. And, there’s the dialogue of noir, mostly short and abrupt, often with a dramatic flair. The dialogue between the characters in Dread Journey is always on the edge of despondency. The unhappy ending seals the noir deal, and that shouldn’t be a spoiler for readers. Most people wouldn’t expect this setup to end anything but badly. 

I am so glad that I picked out this Dorothy B. Hughes book to read in the classic crime fiction being reprinted. It was a wonderfully suspenseful tale and well written. The closed setting of the train amps up the excitement tenfold. That it is a dark tale doesn’t mean it’s a depressing one, well not in the sense of the reader being disappointed. It’s a fascinating tale, with the images of it clearly playing in your head, as if a film. Even though I was fully involved in the Dread Journey, I wasn’t overcome by gloom. For those of us who love jazz and blues music, reading this book is like hearing the sad notes of a song where someone’s been done wrong and loving the sound despite the message.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the introduction to this edition of Dread Journey. I was thrilled to see it was written by Sarah Weinman, an author whose knowledge of crime and crime writing is exceptional. This introduction by Weinman really deserves a review of its own. It’s concise but thorough, a perfect introduction. Weinman obviously knows tons about author Dorothy B. Hughes, as Hughes is her favorite author and In a Lonely Place by Hughes is a yearly reread, but Weinman doesn’t have to spend pages and pages telling us everything that’s in her head about this author. She conveys to readers the sense of who Dorothy Hughes was and provides remarks about Dread Journey that actually aid in the reading of the story. Weinman’s character breakdown of those traveling on the ill-fated train ride was an invaluable resource to me in keeping the characters straight at first. Reading Weinman’s introduction will give readers the background and notes on this story to enjoy it to the fullest. 

To wrap up this lengthy review on a short book, Dorothy B. Hughes can tell a story. Her writing is so flawless that you don’t even realize just how good it is until you’ve finished the book. If Dread Journey is not even Hughes’ most well-known book, then it’s a certainty that I will read more of her. It’s always exciting to discover a new-to-me author and another sub-genre of my favorite genre of crime reading.



Dorothy B. Hughes Quick Crime Writer Bio

Dorothy B. Hughes wrote fourteen crime novels, mostly between 1940-1952, and Dreaded Journey, her eighth, was published in 1945. She wrote only one more novel after 1952, The Expendable Man in 1962. Her books are described as the hard-boiled, noir styles, and I certainly felt the noir in Dreaded Journey. Three of her books were made into movies (1943, 1947, and 1950). Humphrey Bogart starred in In a Lonely Place, perhaps her most popular work, in 1950, and it doesn’t get much more noir than Bogie. After her last novel, she continued to write criticism, reviews, and non-fiction.  For 39 years, Dorothy reviewed mysteries for the Albuquerque Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Herald-Tribune and other newspapers. She received an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1951 in the category of Outstanding Mystery Criticism, and in 1978, Hughes received the Grand Master award from the MWA. In her days before the novels, she had written poetry and worked as a journalist. She died in 1993 at age 89.

“She carried her head like a lady and her body like a snake.  ~ Dorothy B. Hughes, Dread Journey


Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Water's Dead by Catherine Lea: Reading Room Review


One of the reasons I enjoy reading so much is that it broadens my horizons, introducing me to or adding to my knowledge of worlds beyond my backyard. One of the reasons I read fiction so much is that I like a story with my learning. Fiction can show the effect on people who deal with real life issues, not in a didactic approach but a narrative that allows the reader to become engaged in history and current issues. Enfolding the reader into the story is something at which Catherine Lea excels in The Water’s Dead. Sense of place and authenticity of the characters wrapped in a gripping story ensure that reading this book is a genuinely immersed experience. With Catherine living in Northland, New Zealand, which is the setting of the story, I was excited to dip into a place I hadn’t read about and to learn more about the indigenous Maori featured in the book. 

For twenty-five years, DI Nyree Bradshaw of the Far North Criminal Investigation Bureau has worked hard to prove herself in her department of almost all men. When she receives the call that the body of a young woman has turned up in a volcanic rock pool beneath Mason’s Rock Waterfall, she has no idea how huge this case will be and how she will have to prove herself all over again. When Nyree views the body in place, she has a glimmer that it won’t be an easy one. From the chin tattoo on the young woman, it’s obvious that she is a Maori, and there’s lots of distrust between the Maori and those outside their land in the Northland of New Zealand. Permissions aren’t legally required, but to stand a chance of getting any information, Nyree will have to gain permission to come onto Maori land. Fortunately, there’s a detective on her team who is Maori and is familiar with the proper protocols. 

Police procedurals are exciting with their investigative procedures and the increasing pressure to solve the case, but this police procedural is particularly time sensitive and urgent. Not only is Nyree looking for the young woman’s, Huia Coburn’s, killer, the DI discovers that Huia was babysitting her cousin’s six-year-old daughter Lily Holmes the night of the murder. Now, Lily is nowhere to be found, and Lily is diabetic, so she needs her medicine to live. Nyree is determined to find Lily alive and get her back to her mother. 

DI Bradshaw has her work cut out for her, and the barriers to finding Huai’s murderer and who has Lily keep piling up. She must navigate through the delicacies of interviewing the Maori people on the local marae, as they seem less than forthcoming with information. Huai’s parents, mother and step-father, are behaving in a bizarre fashion, and it becomes apparent why Huai moved out of their home. Huai’s Maori father, Rawiri Cooper, hides information, which is both puzzling and frustrating to Nyree. A Detective McFarlane brought in for another assignment keeps butting into Nyree’s investigation and spreads seeds of distrust in the department about Nyree’s leadership. But, Nyree knows that her work and results will prove her worth, so she tries her best to ignore any dissension. Of course, Nyree realizes that above everything, the most important job she has is to find Lily Holmes. Huia’s murder must be addressed in order to find out who took Lily, and Nyree is running on little sleep to find and follow the evidence. She, and the reader, will be shocked to uncover what the major stumbling block to her investigation has been, a twist that is brilliantly revealed by the author.

Nyree has her personal demons to deal with, too. An estranged relationship with her son and a recently released convict who has sworn revenge against her. One thing that drives Nyree in the hopeful recovery of little Lily is Nyree’s feeling that she failed her own child, her son. She doesn’t want to fail Lily. As the hours turn into days, the suspense of the search grows to a spine-chilling level. The desperation of Nyree to find Lily is felt in the pace of the novel, Nyree and her team interviewing people multiple times and pressing them more and more.

Catherine Lea has given readers a thrilling story, with fascinating characters to both love and hate. I’m so pleased that DI Nyree Bradshaw is to be a series. While it’s clear that Nyree is one tough, dedicated detective, I’m looking forward to finding out more about her and seeing her in action again. I’m wondering which police associates will play a recurring role, as there was a mixture of good and bad, keeping it interesting wondering who was reliable and who wasn’t. I expect that readers will continue to learn more about the sub-tropical beauty that is Northland, New Zealand and the pockets of poverty that are interspersed there. The layered plot in The Water’s Dead was so well paced, creating that building tension and suspense, action getting more intense chapter by chapter. Page-turning is the absolute best way to describe the effect on the reader. I am ready and waiting for the next case, Ms. Lea.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Notes on an Execution: A Novel by Danya Kukafka: Reading Room Review


Pain.  Everywhere you turn in this book, you find pain.  It’s inescapable. Of course, with a title like Notes on an Execution, you shouldn’t expect warm and fuzzy. Some people’s lives begin in pain. Why do some come from that pain to be productive and caring, and why do others let their pain drive them to destroy? This is a book about a serial killer, but it is not a visit through the murders he committed. They are noted and there are some thoughts from Ansel Packer on his victims, but the focus is not on a description of the murders.  “What” isn’t the unknown factor here.  We know what was done and that he did. But, why did he do it and how did it affect those living who felt the shock-waves of his violence. There are always people left behind by the victims, people who grapple with its lingering sting.                  

Ansel Packer sits on death row for killing four women. It’s twelve hours until he will be put to death by the state of Texas on this day of his execution. The reader will be shown his sorry life, from birth to now, and Ansel will do his own reflecting, but the author has chosen three women who felt the impact of Ansel’s existence in their lives to tell the story of murder’s wide-reaching reverberations. One of the questions about a serial killer is how did he or she begin the journey towards killing. This book is far from an explanation or excuses of mitigating factors as to how the killer became a person who with a fair amount of ease could take life from another, but it is a close look at circumstances and choices combined. It is interesting to discover that Ansel is shown to have killed animals from an early age, a trait linked to serial killers. Ansel also came from an abusive home, which is often associated with serial killers. And, Ansel demonstrates in his current situation and his past actions the skill of fine-tuned manipulation. Whatever the causes and effects of murder, whatever makes a serial killer, it’s certain that murder doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The women who tell so much of this story could be said to represent Ansel’s beginning, middle, and end, but the line is not quite that linear.    

The three women, whose stories intertwine with Ansel’s life, telling their connection to it, are survivors. They each have fought a battle of invisibility in the eyes of others and found a place of meaning in the world, overcoming both their physical and inner demons. Lavender, Ansel’s mother, makes a choice of how to end the abusive existence of her husband’s terror, trying to set her children and herself free to live a better life. But, in her endeavor to end the abuse, she abandons her children to a future of unforeseen consequences. Lavender doesn’t go back for her children and carves out her own place of safety and peace. Hazel is the twin sister of Ansel’s wife Jenny, and Hazel has seen the change between light and dark that pass over Ansel. She is also witness to the life her sister has found herself trapped in with a controlling and increasingly unpleasant Ansel. Saffy, whose mother died in her thirties, is also set adrift at a young age and finds herself in the same foster group home as Ansel.  Ansel had begun his descent into darkness by that time, and Saffy experiences a horrifying discovery of his rage she will never forget. Saffy grows up to become a homicide detective, and she is the first to suspect Ansel of murder.

Danya Kukafka has accomplished what every author strives to write and every reader longs to read. She has written a unique take on a subject. As a reader, when I can say I’ve never read anything quite like the book I’m reading, it’s a huge incentive for me to keep reading. In this instance, that subject is serial killers. Using the vehicle of the three women to balance out the killer’s reflections, there is a wholeness to the story that could not otherwise have been achieved.  And, seeing the totality of his existence, questions start forming about the possibility of Ansel Packer not becoming a serial killer if this or that circumstance had been different. Or are serial killers a psychological foregone conclusion? Is he a psychopath, born to the violent tendencies? Kukafka cleverly gives a push to the answer she seems to believe in some of Ansel’s actions as a young child, even before his mother leaves, and yet, maybe that's a bit of a red herring.

Starting the story at the last twelve hours before the killer’s time of execution gives an urgency to it. It's not a fast-paced book, but the reader knows that time is growing ever short for this person who has spread so much pain. Ironically, Ansel Packer is told that his execution will be painless. Knowing what awaits Ansel, the reader keeps turning the pages, looking for some redeeming part to this wasted life. Is there any? If he lives, might there be redemption, or does Ansel’s story begin and end with his narcissistic desire for people to understand and acknowledge him as above the fray of ordinary life. His inability to handle any criticism does not bode well for understanding or redemption. For me, the truth is that there is no redeeming part to him, and his desire to live longer is not so that he can be a better person, but so that he can be better understood as a unique individual. In the end, Ansel Packer is a killer who isn’t remorseful about the lives he took or the lives he forever changed, and I can’t see redemption without remorse. He killed four women with no thought of their desire to live and those who love them, and that demands a harsh judgement. The compassion belongs with those women.

And, yet, even after I come to this conclusion, I read back through the last chapter and think maybe there is remorse that’s not just about himself. If he’s a psychopath, there’s no question that he is beyond redemption. And, he is a psychopath, isn’t he? Isn’t he? I can’t get the words of one of the females in his life he grows close to out of my mind. She tells Lavender, his mother, that “Ansel had this idea …he talked about it a lot: the other worlds that might exist, if you changed just one tiny choice.” There's that "why" that tortures us so creeping out to play mind games with us.The author doesn't just keep the reader immersed in this story until the very last word of the very last sentence, she creates a debate within your brain that keeps going and looking for resolution.

Danya Kukafka’s writing has been described as lyrical prose, and I can’t argue with that description. She has a grand command of the language and uses it beautifully to convey story and points of thinking that the reader will be wrestling with long after the last page. Notes on an Execution is Kukafka’s second novel, following her 2017 debut entitled Girl in Snow. I intend to backtrack and pick the first book up to read, and I look forward to following her career. Danya is also a literary agent with Trellis Literary Management, which may explain the five year gap between books. With the success of her first two books clearly assured, I’m hoping she might bring out her next book sooner rather than later. I think readers have a lot of future enjoyment coming from the pen of Danya Kukafka.