Stagecoach To Somewhere – Nabokov, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing

I have been in bed with the flu and am still shaky.   Instead of the usual blog I have raided from the pieces I write for Crime Chronicles and Spooky Isles.

Should be back to normal next week.


No Sale – Patrick Conrad Published by Bitter Lemon Press £8.99p.

I once saw Elvis The Concert in Antwerp.  The performance featured Elvis on a big screen backed live by his original band.  I have relatives who live in Belgium but I have no illusions.   An inexplicable need had dragged me to the arena.   Most of the action in No Sale happens in Antwerp and the main character is also obsessed.

The first 35 pages of No Sale suggest that the book might be a variation on an Ed McBain or Georges Simenon novel.  The book begins with a murder and two typical detectives begin their enquiries.   But it develops into something very different when cinema addict Walter Cox appears.  From that point we have the suspense of wondering whether our unreliable narrator really is crazy.   The ending when it arrives is no surprise but what makes the book tantalising is how we soon become desperate to know which of the alternate endings will apply.   No Sale is loaded with narrative grip.  Most mysteries depend on hidden facts but No Sale substitutes confused fantasy for unrevealed information.   This technique also supports well the main engine of suspense, which is whether Walter is the paranoid violent schizophrenic he thinks he might be.   There are definitely echoes of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and the old man hero obsessed with the much younger girl and what may or may not be happening.   This time, though, the wandering is not along the interstate routes of America.   Walter drives around his own cinema memories.   Of course, this is for most of us the real Promised Land.   The America that is alive inside our heads.   Like Humbert Humbert, Walter Cox is building a new world that we know will be unsustainable.

The plot and the style are managed brilliantly.  The narrative voice of Walter is unreliable but seductive.  The two detectives are a little dull but their stolidity suits the story.  We have more than enough eccentricity and exotica elsewhere.   Indeed, the theme of the book might be how innocent escapism, futile myth mania and dark schizophrenia unite us all.   The book has many fine moments including a strip poker game that involves naming the appearances of Alfred Hitchcock in his films.    Throughout I rooted for Walter Cox, like most readers will, but I was disappointed to know that the alcoholic wife whom he rejected looked like Dorothy Malone in Too Much, Too Soon.   Dorothy Malone?  Walter, that is unforgiveable.  I am not sure what ‘cinemascope breasts’ look like but more than one male reader will have a very pleasant moment trying to imagine.  There are also plenty of good throwaway lines like, ’I found madam’s clothes behind the greenhouse in the rhubarb.’   I have no idea why the rhubarb makes that funny but it does.  No Sale won the Diamond Bullet Award for the best crime novel in Dutch in 2007.   No Sale hardly needs praise from me.  It will, though, help me remember Antwerp and Elvis fondly.


Christopher Lee and Van Helsing

He is very tall and initially he was told he was too tall.   Movie directors like actors to be of average height with large heads.  It makes photography easier.  His height, though, did not bar Christopher Lee from being the actor identified with the role of Dracula.  They found coffins big enough to fit him, and when he opened his expansive cape he filled a room with dread.    There is no obvious reason why Lee was chosen for the part of Dracula and not Van Helsing unless it was considered essential to have a Dracula with the same dark eyed appearance as Bela Lugosi.   The casting in Hammer pictures, though, was not inevitably conservative.  Prior to the movie, Dracula, the handsome Lee created an unusual and sympathetic Frankenstein creature.  Nobody was more quintessentially British than Peter Cushing yet it did not prevent him from walking into drawing rooms all over Europe and announcing himself in some strange exotic name.

The two actors are linked.  They fought many times to the death; actually make that extinction.  Both actors also played Sherlock Holmes because they were good at representing authority although in the case of Lee it was usually dark mastery.   In The Wicker Man it was more complicated.  Lee plays Lord Summerisle.  He is master of a Scottish island where the natives have rejected Christianity. Lee regarded this as his best horror performance. Lord Summerisle is excessively liberal and indulgent.  The over-heated villagers can be compared to vampires, what Bram Stoker feared would happen without bourgeois restraint.  But Lee is not a vampire villain igniting dark desire.  He is the semi-hippie bystander too easily impressed by people having fun. Lee understands his marginal role perfectly and his self-effacing performance is a real strength in the movie.  Britt Eckland and Diane Cilento, not  Lee, have the sexuality and disdain for morality that will challenge the doomed hero.  And The Wicker Man has probably the greatest Van Helsing of them all.   Edward Woodward is the tortured puritanical policeman who knows God will not damn him but that the islanders are having better orgasms.

Van Helsing, of course, is not a policeman.  He is a self-sufficient academic who inspires the loyalty of young men.  Cushing, though, played him like Frankenstein, the truth seeker that alienates the deluded, that is everyone else.   Cushing suits this role.  After the death of his wife, the actor was miserable in old age.  But his presence was always a warning against contentment, as if his misery had always been his destiny.

Lee did play the virtuous leader in The Devil Rides Out.  But Duc de Richleau is unlike Van Helsing.  The aristocrat is haunted by black magic and realises that the true battle is within the self.  Van Helsing is merely the schoolteacher intent on keeping order in the class.  Perhaps that is why Lee never did play Van Helsing.  He was too complicated and remote.  Or maybe it was because he was just too tall.


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