Hardboiled

city at night in rain

The P.I. stepped into the morgue, shaking out an umbrella. He hung it from a hat rack, rested his fedora on the handle, and lit up again, taking a good long drag. Three weeks sniffing out the dame at beatnik joints – only for the trail to end up here.

‘Good timing, H,’ Benny said, shaking his hand then leading him to the back. ‘You just missed the fuzz.’

‘Aw, ain’t that a shame?’ he said.

Benny snorted, pausing before he opened the shelf. ‘It’s a messy one.’

‘Seen it all, Benny.’ Benny shrugged, rolling out the body. Jesus! In life, Miss Penelope O’Mletta was meant to be a real knock-out. Now? ‘I need a drink,’ H said, ash trickling on his loafers.

‘Warned ya,’ Benny said, taking a swig from a flask and passing it over the stiff. H gulped down the cheap scotch, then took a pen from his trench coat and poked the yellow goo caked on a wound.

‘Looks damn scrambled.’

‘Exactly.’

‘What, you saying this is the Spoons?’

Benny shrugged. ‘You’re the gumshoe. But that’s what the boys in blue were saying.’

‘I know those jokers. I wouldn’t put much stock in that. But I don’t know who but the Spoons smoke people like…’ he said, trailing off to gesture over the carnage.

‘Yeah. But H, how’d Old Man O’Mletta’s daughter get tangled in all this?’

‘That’s the question. Pharmaceutical kingpin’s daughter goes off grid blowing the trust fund on more… recreational pharmaceuticals. Kinda thing I’ve seen a hundred times before, they end up home and straightened out. Once the kid fell off a high wall, cracked their head.’ He rubbed his own smooth white dome. ‘This time’s something else. Musta been a real shady character hanging in one of them jazz clubs. I better ask for more, uh, resources on this one.’

Benny chuckled. ‘Well, O’Mletta’s got some to spare. Done with the body?’

‘Sure.’

Benny rolled the drawer back in. ‘Careful out there. If it is the Spoons, try not to draw attention.’

‘Don’t gotta tell me,’ H said, following Benny to the exit. After retrieving his hat and umbrella he opened the door than paused in the threshold. ‘Poker on Saturday?’

‘Course, I gotta win my money back.’

‘Hope you don’t need it too bad with tells like that, then!’ He unfurled the umbrella, pat Benny’s shoulder, and knocked the door shut with a foot. He thought he’d seen it all before, but this case was giving him real bad vibes. He decided to head back to the office for another glance through the notes.

Humpty Dumpty, P.I., walked out into the downtown rain, streetlamps glistening orange in the rain on his shell.

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Book Reviews (13)

books 13

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

I somehow hadn’t read either Pratchett or Gaiman before, so I joined seemingly everyone else in reading their joint story of the apocalypse going wrong. It’s a playful blend of funny and dark elements, with great turns of phrase and imagination, like when the demon Crowley ‘blessed under his breath’.

The Antichrist getting into new-age magazines, the corporate-training-paintball-thing, Aziraphale’s attempt at stage-magic despite being an actual angel, the holy water: there’s fantastic memorable scenes.

Like Ally said there’s the odd bit like ‘prease to frasten sleatbert’ (no enormous deal for me, but, eh). I would’ve liked a bit more of the sinister notes too, but taste varies.

Milkman – Anna Burns

An account of the Troubles from ‘middle sister’ in an anonymous town, with conflict brewing in an environment of rumour and sternly enforced unwritten rules. Another story of simmering darkness lightened with absurdity, but with a very different feel.

Burns captures a mood of conflict and rumour baked in community life – a place where there are acceptable or unacceptable baby names, films, even brands of butter; depending on political/sectarian allegiance. Along with the Troubles, there’s an intriguing feminist angle. Middle sister’s wry narration addresses the town’s perception of the feminist ‘issues women’, the policing of men for proper masculinity (with enjoying cooking or viewing sunsets being suspect), and the psychology of unwanted sexual attention going unrecognised as a form of threatening harassment (if they’re not touching you, it can’t be violent).

The absurd elements keep a current of laugh-worthy wit through what would have been dense and depressing by itself. The humour shifts the tone brilliantly, with great side characters like tablets girl, nuclear boy, or chef.

The language is evocative while maintaining the air of protective secrecy, with turns of phrase steeped in implication. The style is thoroughly distinctive, although the first third is slow in places and the dialogue can be a bit stodgy and unrealistic. I see what Burns was going for with the speeches filtered through middle sister’s knotted mind, told in her non-committal and defensive style, but some more direct straightforward speech could’ve been a nice contrast.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne

The mysterious Captain Nemo takes unwilling guests on a journey under the seas in a submarine far advanced for its time.

It’s a unique view of the world, with lush description of marine vistas. There is a fair amount of specialist vocab and exposition in there, explaining the submarine and doing sums. Unless you know the names of a lot of marine species, you’ll find your eye glazing at points, unsure what you’re meant to be picturing.

Definitely a bit stiff in style and dialogue – but it’s an enjoyable voyage, with striking scenes and interesting thoughts.

The Spellgrinder’s Apprentice – N.M. Browne

An orphan boy runs from his apprenticeship grinding spellstones, an escape punishable by death, but this doesn’t explain why the island’s tyrannical ruler is hunting him: fearing a return of true magic to threaten his power.

A quick easy read with deft worldbuilding and strong characters, magic and betrayal. The plot packs in a good clip of action and connecting threads. I last read this when I was a lot younger so half-remembered a few surprises, but it still holds up as a clever adventure with deep details, like how magically providing bread affects the market for farmers. Vevena’s ways of working around her curse make for inspired writing.

The dodgy comma placement is annoying, though.

Diversity is Necessary But Not Sufficient

Johnson Cabinet
Photo by Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images

In my thoughts on Theresa May’s resignation announcement speech, I said in response to her comment on being ‘the second female prime minister’ that ‘The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.’

Now new PM Boris Johnson (yikes!) describes his cabinet as a cabinet ‘for modern Britain’: ‘Mr Johnson has appointed four full cabinet members from BAME backgrounds (17%) as well as two ministers who will attend cabinet – a record for any government.’

To be clear, that representation is a good thing. It’s not as though it would be better somehow to not have it. It is better to have proper diversity than not.

But nor am I a trained seal, clapping mindlessly at these sorts of gestures. Diversity is necessary but not sufficient.

If a cabinet perfectly reflects every demographic but still maintains regressive policy, by what measure is it ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’, aside from in a shallow symbolic – even tokenistic – sense? ‘But there’s PoC in it’ can be an institutional version of the classic ‘I’m not racist, I have a black friend’.

For me, the prime example of the importance of representation vs. the importance of a firm critique of material conditions is the Obama presidency.

I don’t deny the symbolic power of the first black presidency for race relations. It made a lot of racists very mad, which is definitely a sign something good is happening. Many people found it profoundly significant to see themselves represented in the highest office of the land for the first time.

But as Matt Breunig and Ryan Cooper point out, Obama’s neoliberal policy made black Americans materially worse off:

Between 2007 and 2016, the average wealth of the bottom 99 percent dropped by $4,500. Over the same period, the average wealth of the top 1 percent rose by $4.9 million.

This drop hit the housing wealth of African Americans particularly hard.[…]

Because African Americans were disproportionately victimized at all levels of the housing and foreclosure crises, they stood to gain the most from better policy. But because Obama’s approach failed cataclysmically, the first black president in American history turned out to be a disaster for black wealth.

Because of its unwillingness or inability to take a good look at class, liberalism loses sight of the material issues impacting the very demographics it is so vocal about in the cultural sphere. Similarly, white Clintonite winemoms will insist that (cringy quote) ‘black twitter ain’t havin’ no Bernie’ despite many of the PoC they’re patronising actually supporting Sanders because his policy would help their lives.

To a lesser degree, the same principles apply over here with the Johnson cabinet. In our case, it’s conservatism deciding to like ‘identity politics’ as and when it can be used to score cheap points.

Two high-profile examples of Johnson’s cabinet ‘for modern Britain’ are Priti Patel (Home Secretary) and Sajid Javid (Chancellor).

Not that long ago, Priti Patel was led to resign as International Development Secretary after holding secretive meetings with Israeli political and business figures while on holiday. Her voting record is pretty dire by any progressive standard.

As for Sajid Javid, his recent past is, uh, a little concerning:

The man whose company produced the insulation panels on Grenfell Tower has a second job advising the Government on building regulations.

Mark Allen, a technical director for the UK arm of Saint-Gobain, is also a member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee.

The body makes recommendations about building regulations to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.

Saint-Gobain is an owner of Celotex, which produced the RS5000 insulation panels used on Grenfell Tower.

His voting record is a bit better, but still pretty bad.

It’s a good thing, not a bad thing, to have diversity in government. But that by itself doesn’t make a government woke, and to say otherwise would be immensely patronising tokenism.

We’ll see commentators crowing about the racial diversity of Johnson’s cabinet one minute then decrying ‘identity politics’ the next; ignoring that cabinet’s corruption and malicious impacts on ordinary Britons while claiming to love the ‘modern Britain’ it ‘represents’.

Beyond electoral politics, diversity is necessary but not sufficient in other areas. There’s a common leftist quip of ‘more trans CEOs!’ and ‘more lesbian drone pilots!’ – the point being that while transphobia, misogyny, etc, etc, are bad and worth addressing in their own right, making corrupt systems and institutions more diverse should never be the end goal.

Yes, end the misogyny behind the glass ceiling. Yes, diversity in boardrooms is a sign of progress. But let’s not end at that low bar – what is the company doing, how is it structured, what sort of economy is it situated within? How are its janitors? Is a company with a trans CEO woke if it sells arms to regressive regimes, or hires death squads to assassinate union leaders?

Shouldn’t nobody be an ICE agent? Shouldn’t nobody help bomb civilians? Shouldn’t companies not be structured like authoritarian governments?

There’s an interesting tendency sometimes to talk as though reality is a turn-based game. ‘You want to do thing! But we need to do other thing!’ Fortunately, it’s possible for a global population of billions to do more than one thing at a time.

In the case of diversity-related cultural issues and of class-based material issues, it’s completely plausible to address both of them together. And if we don’t, we won’t do either of them justice, because they are two sides of the same coin.

Pretend I Wrote a Thing

blank notebook

Pretend I wrote a thing.

Fill the blank page with syllables that sing,
a crescendo of cascading consonants.
Alliteration? You bet your
associations can be played with.

Imagine some nice imagery,
like a simile,
or a metaphor’s needle threading the present
to a fond scent, sound, or sight from your past.

Everyone likes haikus
So count yourself one of those
Three lines, 5-7-5

If you like enjambment, you can have it
then marshal your best franglais to pronounce it
as you recall a teacher explaining what it is
while you texted under the desk.

Add a rhyme scheme,
an intriguing theme,
an evocative scene
with subtextual sheen.

Pretend I wrote a thing
so I don’t have to.

Taking Artistic License

arrow

I recently saw this video correcting fantasy misconceptions about medieval weapons, such as bows being suitable for weaker characters and archers being able to hold a fully drawn longbow for ages.

There’s a lot of useful information, and it does add realism to fantasy or historical fiction if an archer strains to hold a shot.

But how accurate does fiction have to be, and when is it okay to take artistic license?

Medical dramas often show defibrillators used to restart hearts, but in reality they’re used to resynchronise an irregular heartbeat, not start it from flat-line. The myth is so established, however, that it might be counterproductive for the reader’s experience to try to push back on it.

A quick defibrillator scene we all already understand, that gets right to the character drama, may be better than a more factual scene which takes attention away from the ‘will they make it!’ tension to make the reader/viewer process new medical knowledge. Showing CPR breaking ribs might also be inappropriate for tone.

And back to the medieval context, Jo Walton’s Tiffany Problem describes a tension between historical fact and public perception – Tiffany was a real medieval name, but writers can’t use it.

It’s a variant of Theophania. It appears in 12th century documents from Britain and France, and you cannot give it as a name to a character in a historical or fantasy setting because it looks too horribly modern.

Realism doesn’t work so well if the reader doesn’t see it as realistic. If you want or need to buck a common misconception in your writing, you need to be aware of how the reader could react. It might be necessary to find some way to help the new information go down.

If the protagonist is a medical student, it’s natural for them to learn what defibrillators are and aren’t really used for. This could be through exposition or a lecture scene, or through something more dramatic and less clunky. That could be a scene where a doctor tries to resuscitate someone, the student is shocked by how intense it actually is, and sees someone die for the first time.

In another Shadiversity video he explains why torches weren’t used for indoor lighting in the way we usually imagine. The reality could be shown without special fuss, since nobody would instinctively find rushlights or the real use of sconces ‘unrealistic’. Showing the soot under a torch as it is used could be a great bit of detail. There isn’t a big tension there between perception and reality. However, if a character must be named Tiffany for some reason, that will need a bit of explanation to be accepted.

Myths can be useful narrative devices, but I think there’s a risk of relying on ones that have become recognised tropes. The 10% myth has been used so much in sci-fi involving characters ‘getting access to 100% of their brains’ that it isn’t unique any more. When using a myth for a narrative device, it has to do more than allow the story to happen. What possibilities does it raise? How effective is it at suspending disbelief? How easy is it to understand?

Where there’s tension between reality and common beliefs, knowing when and how to draw from research or to take artistic license can be tricky. Realism and reality don’t always match, and what fits the textbook doesn’t always fit the needs of a scene.

A Game of Chance

cards

The casino thrummed with activity. Bells rung, lights flashed, waitresses with trays piled with drinks weaved around gun-toting soldiers. I stood near the entrance, threads of probability orienting towards me like iron filings to a magnet, brushing against my skin.

I walked along a corridor of slot machines to the bar, passing the last security guard who’d tried to demonstrate what they do to cheats. I smirked, recalling his face when he’d tripped up, banged his head on the bar, and reared back into a waitress, whose tray of drinks got him in hot water over a Major’s stained suit. Fun, but the incident had forced me to change face again.

Today I was wearing the form of a white male in his fifties with thick silver hair, in a sharp grey suit. A letter ‘I’ branded on the cheek under the left eye would serve to buy a little respect, suggesting I’d fought for the invaders in the Coltan Rebellion and survived an ambush. Ironic.

I got my drink and leaned back on the bar, surveying the scene. Glittering marble, chilling air-con, glamorous clientele. I’ve got to give them credit: they’re good at grand scale. Their casinos may lack the spirit of the old days, but they’re enough to give me a weapon.

Returning some wealth from our plundered land, for the bullets needed to take it back.

They even have a shrine to me, but it’s not sincere. A badge of conquest, an ornament of local colour, a token of the natives. And the few natives on staff don’t follow the old ways themselves. Even before we lost, the faith began to dry up. Without the few committed souls in the resistance I wouldn’t even be able to win coin tosses.

I finished my drink, sucked the lime wedge, and headed to a roulette wheel while I waited for the real action of the night. I let a few bets follow chance – some wins, some losses. Then I started plucking the threads of probability, turning the odds in my favour.

‘Congratulations, sir,’ the croupier said after a string of wins. Her smile was genuine – it was the casino’s money, not hers – but a flicker in her brows implied a little doubt. I lost the next two to throw her off, then cashed out the winnings.

I got another drink, wondering when the general would be arriving. The longer I sat there, the more I worried the information was off. We’d been building up to this for so long, my followers slowly restoring me from an impotent wandering spirit to a shadow of my former glory, I slowly building the resources they need to strike. My sisters and brothers were barely surviving on scraps of faith, fitfully stirring in caves and forests, in ocean depths, in the crevices of human minds.

First take back a small area, show I was still here, turn the people back to the ways of their grandparents. Rebuild the shrines of my fellows, raise us all back to majesty, and drive out the invaders with bullets and miracles.

As I mused, crunching ice cubes, I felt an unexpected prayer from inside the casino. Quatzeltin, Lord of Fortune, grant me your favour. I followed the stream of faith back to a craps table with a native man holding the dice, preparing to throw.

‘C’mon, pal,’ a woman said. The other players seemed amused by the old-fashioned true believer, but patience was wearing thin. I wondered how he’d managed to work his way out of the mines.

I whispered to him, ‘The wheel turns by your hand.’

He startled, twisting to me and focusing on the brand on my cheek. As he did so he dropped the dice, the impatient woman sighing, and won.

‘Who are you?’ he said, as the next round started.

Commotion at the entrance as the general arrived. I left the faithful man to win the rest of the game and kept an eye on the target from a distance, sipping another drink as he took a place at a blackjack table.

When he ordered drinks, I made the waitress trip on the way from the bar and was there in time to grab them, dripping a pipette in his glass as I helped her up.

‘Good catch! Thanks,’ she said. I watched her reach the table, holding my breath as he took the drug. A little while and he’d be putty.

As the game progressed he began to dip and sway. The players glanced at each other, but by this point he’d had a few more, so they took it as nothing unusual.

I strode towards him. This was it. His bodyguard blocked my path and I called out, ‘Pete, it’s been too long!’

The general turned round. His pupils swam. ‘Who’re you?’

I laughed, ‘It’s me, Roger, old boy. All those times in the… don’t say you’ve forgotten?’

‘No, no, of course not,’ he said, waving me through, brow furrowed as he searched for memories that weren’t there. ‘Roger, how’ve you been?’

I strung him along in his persuadable state through a few rounds, then I took hold of a thread of chance and had him almost tip back. ‘Whoa there. Perhaps you need some fresh air.’

‘Yes, uh, good idea,’ he said, abandoning the game and coming to his feet, leaning against me.

We headed outside, his bodyguard trailing behind. As we stepped onto the street tropical heat slapped us in the face, even with the late hour. The moon shone yellow over the hills through the city’s smoke, drunks stumbling by, lizards crawling up streetlamps. By the time we got towards the truck the general was barely conscious.

‘Sir, are you okay?’ the bodyguard asked.

The general passed out. In a flash, he was in the truck and a blade was in the bodyguard. We drove up into the hills, down the other side, and along bumpy dirt tracks into the jungle. At night the forest buzzed with insects like people were using chainsaws.

The general came to at dawn, tied to a chair in a clearing. I sat opposite him swigging mescal, with a revolver and one bullet resting on a small table, and a brand heating red in a brazier. A ring of my soldiers surrounded us. Behind me, my shrine was wreathed in the sweet smoke of burning herbs, sunrays highlighting the particles in the air, shining on the general’s bleary face. Parrots sang.

He pulled against the ropes then drew himself taut, looking me in the eye with a tight grip on the chair’s arms.

‘You drugged me,’ he said. ‘Who are you?’

‘Quatzeltin,’ I said.

He laughed. ‘Good god, a madman.’

Lazily, not moving from my throne, I picked up the brand and seared the letter ‘I’ onto his cheek. The smell of sizzling meat mixed with the herbs. He stayed impressively quiet.

‘I knew some of you savages still follow your jungle gods,’ he said. ‘Even a few of our men had nonsense stories, no doubt fever dreams… But you’re ins-’ he hissed.

I dispelled my human form for a moment, appearing to him as wheels within wheels spinning in liquid gold, as dice rolling snake eyes and biting, as himself walking a tightrope between worlds of fortune and horrors with my finger poised to tip him to either side. He paled, screaming hoarse, while the soldiers kneeled before my glory. I shrunk into the shape of a young native woman wearing a crown of bones, worn by the display.

‘This is not your land, and not your people to rule,’ I said. He shook. I forced him to drink some mescal to steady him.

‘I’m still drugged,’ he muttered. ‘This isn’t. No.’

‘You tell yourself that. But the mines and whips and rations and prisons and checkpoints and government won’t stand much longer.’

‘You could have just poisoned me,’ he said.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Then someone else replaces you. That’s not the way we build our army, restore the old ways, and raise the rightful powers of this land to their thrones.’ I touched his forehead and licked the sweat from my finger. ‘I need them to think you’re alive if I’m going to take your place,’ I said, letting my skin warp to his image. ‘As far as they know, you’ll heroically escape a native camp.’

I picked up the revolver and placed the bullet in one of the six chambers, spinning the cylinder and slotting it back in.

‘I have to give your people credit for a few things. First time round, yes, we weren’t prepared for the guns and bombs and gas. And you’ve introduced me to a few new games. I wanted to try this one as soon as I heard about it.’

I held the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Click. To my own. Click. His. Click. Mine. Click. His. Click. I held the gun to my head, grinning. This chamber had the bullet. But I am not one to bet against. A pluck of a thread, and the odds follow. Fortune’s wheel turns, and a revolver jams.

‘That’s impossible,’ he said.

‘No, just very unlikely,’ I said, resting the barrel between his eyes. Bang.

I rose to my feet, placing the gun on the table. At long last, the next stage of the plan could begin.

The soldiers bowed before me. ‘Quatzeltin, Lord of Fortune, grant us your favour.’

I smiled, taking in the smell of herbs and sweat, blood and gunpowder. ‘The wheel turns by your hands.’

Links Post 2

Some things I found interesting.

Lyta Gold discussing class – as an element often left out of intersectionality, or just given lip-service without really being considered. E.g., when it gives upper-middle class white liberals an opportunity to get mad at Bernie Sanders for supposedly dismissing identity. While class-reductionism is of course dumb and bad, on the whole it seems class is under-addressed.

Jonas Fossli Gjersø on Corbyn not being a terrifying tankie:

Another moniker Mr Corbyn’s detractors often apply to his policies are that they derive from some so-called extreme of the political spectrum, that they are ‘hard left’ and ergo hopelessly idealistic and unworkable. To a Norwegian observer such as myself I find this characterisation puzzling. Mr Corbyn’s policy-platform, particularly in regard to his domestic policies are largely identical with the Norwegian Labour Party manifesto. Railway nationalisation, partial or full state ownership of key companies or sectors, universal healthcare provisions, state-funded house-building, no tuition fee education, education grants and loans to name but a few, enjoy near universal support among the Norwegian electorate, in fact, they are so mainstream that not even the most right-wing of Norwegian political parties would challenge them.

And this is not only the case in Norway, but has been integral to the social-democratic post-war consensus in all the Nordic countries. Judging by almost any measure of social indicators these policies have been a success, the Nordic region enjoys some of the world’s highest living standards and presumably should be a model to be emulated rather than avoided. Obviously the Nordic region is no earthly paradise and there are cultural, economic and historical differences between the UK and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, but if there is such a thing as a ‘best practice approach’ in public policy the Nordic model would probably be it and, at any measure, a useful benchmark for Britain to move towards.

(Sidenote: within the UK, compare ‘Corbynomic’ Preston‘s success to Tory councils going bankrupt.)

Nathan Robinson, on when conservatives accidentally admit that the free market can restrict freedom:

From every other PragerU video, I would get the impression that corporations cannot be “Big Brother,” because we choose whether to interact with them or not. It’s a free market, and if you don’t like the product on offer, you can go and find another product. […] Say a context where an employee had been fired for handing out a pro-union pamphlet, or a customer had been asked to leave a Walmart for refusing to stop waving a Palestinian flag. I doubt many capitalists would argue that the right to free speech trumps the right of an owner to decide which speech to allow on their property.

When conservatives like Bozell criticize YouTube and Facebook as abridging freedom of speech, then, they implicitly concede that private companies can have the power of governments, that “Big Brother” can be in either the public sector or the private sector. They accept Elizabeth Anderson’s point that corporations are private governments structured as dictatorships. If the gateway to the “public square” is policed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s policed by the state police or the security firm hired by the asset management company that owns the gate. […]

My instinctive reaction here is to roll my eyes and say “Oh, so you’re saying that concentrated power in the hands of unaccountable self-interested private actors can abridge people’s freedom?”

Conservative journalist Peter Oborne – Corbyn’s right on Iran:

Corbyn is right to challenge claims emanating from the White House about Iran. His call for Britain to “act to ease tensions in the Gulf, not fuel a military escalation,” is common sense.

This is not the first time that the Labour leader has been the voice of caution when the British political class have rushed towards war. He took a brave and lonely stand when the British political establishment followed George W Bush into the Iraq disaster.

He was vindicated by events when he warned against the invasion of Afghanistan. He was one of only a dozen MPs who voted against David Cameron’s terribly misjudged intervention in Libya. […]

It’s only in the UK that expressing alarm about the bellicose Iranian policy of Donald Trump is regarded as unpatriotic. Germany and Japan have both made it clear that they don’t regard the evidence of Iranian involvement produced so far as conclusive.