Saturday, May 12, 2018

‘The Hellfire Club’ and the sinister consolations of secret societies


There is a scene in Jake Tapper’s new novel of Washington intrigue, “The Hellfire Club,” which seems tailor-made for our time of Twitter mobs and pearl-clutching, intentional outrage.

The novel follows a conversation in Statuary Hall on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol between newly-installed Representative Charlie Marder and his colleague, Congressman Isaiah Street. It is early 1954, and both men are surrounded by statues of great Americans of the past. Marder is white. Street is black. “Folks at home…voters would be amazed if they ever found out how many decisions are actually made by these secret societies and clubs,” Street says.

He doesn’t mean Skull & Bones – but the Ku Klux Klan. He voices the arguments of this century, wondering why there are monuments to great figures of the Confederacy here in the capital city of the nation they betrayed.

Both men are veterans of World War II, both serving their nation at a moment of great power. But both are men, in a nation at that moment largely led by men. And for one of these men, there are large portions of the nation where he couldn’t get a seat at a table in a restaurant, or even hold elected office, because of his race.

When Marder argues that the legacy of these men is complicated, Street replies that “right is right.” It is not enough to say that the people of the past, like us, contain multitudes. But then again, we are reading a novel about people of the past, in what we think of as an uncomplicated part of it, aren’t we?

This novel, the first by the CNN anchor, is fun. Tapper has constructed an entertaining, teeming, tense and charming thriller with bits of humor and even grandeur. It is obvious that Tapper cares about, and relishes, American history, particularly its more forgotten aspects. He shows the kind of devotion for old Washington haunts that you might want in your favorite tour guide, but he doesn’t let the minutiae overpower the narrative. More importantly, he expertly lifts the veil to show how similar the arguments of the recent past are to our own age. At the same time he's comfortable not answering the questions raised in the process. When a senator claims that 100 communists are crossing into the U.S. through the Mexican border every day, he doesn’t employ a flashing sign for the reader to draw any conclusions.

Like the Statuary Hall scene above, Tapper reminds us that the people of the past have the same complications we do. They sometimes know the right way but can easily lose sight of it in the press of the daily concern. And there is, in any situation, the exertion of the moment to conform to whatever masquerades as wisdom. Charlie’s wife Margaret at one point muses, “The human soul isn’t sold once but rather slowly and methodically and piece by piece.”

Among the sources for “The Hellfire Club,” Tapper acknowledges a debt to David Halberstam’s “The Fifties,” a fantastic account of the times written more than twenty years ago. Halberstam begins with the idea that the Fifties appear to us to be an orderly era, but that image masks vast contradictions. We see these years of American omnipotence in the same shade as the photographs that depict the time - black and white. There was a seeming order to everything, and Americans were grateful for order.

“In that era of general good will and expanding affluence, few Americans doubted the essential goodness of their society,” Halberstam wrote. “After all, it was reflected back at them...they were optimistic about the future…Americans trusted their leaders to tell them the truth, to makes sound decisions, and to keep them out of war.” At the same time, vast cultural, political, social and intellectual forces were moving beneath the surface that would eventually burst forth in the chaos of the Sixties.

Some of those forces are evident in the pages of “The Hellfire Club.” Charlie Marder comes from privilege. It was on his 21st birthday, Dec. 7, 1941, that America was rudely ushered onto the stage of world conflict, and ultimately, power. And it is through his father’s influence that he is appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives during the endgame of the career of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Charlie comes from academia and has faith in the essential goodness of people.

Through the novel’s intrigues, we are introduced to the idea of a secret society that operates at the highest levels of government, as old as America itself, keeping a lid on the tectonic forces driving the nation. But McCarthy’s advent – alleging a shadowy Communist conspiracy at the highest levels – threatens to upset the delicate concentrations of power within the Hellfire Club. Charlie Marder blunders into the middle of this upon taking his seat in Congress, requiring the action of the club’s old hands to escort him out of peril.

Through his odyssey, we meet familiar and forgotten figures of the era – the Kennedy brothers, Estes Kefauver, Lyndon Johnson, Ike – and we are treated again to the pageant of deep Cold War politics. As I read the novel, I kept wondering what the Russians would have thought of the idea of cabals within cabals. It probably would have looked familiar to them, as anyone who has seen “The Death of Stalin” would understand.

But I was also reminded of the lure of secret societies, an idea probably as old as government itself. The concept of a group of highly placed individuals who secretly pull the strings has an almost equal share of mystique and menace. If you are someone who prizes order, there is consolation in knowing that things may spin out of balance, but never quite out of control. There will always be someone to step in and preserve the institutions that help us sleep at night.

But if you feel yourself outside the order of society, then you are constantly wondering at what point that secret power will collapse, and what it will take to finally bring it down. Even so, there are consolations here.

Generations of anti-Semites have stoked themselves into a frenzy at the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world through politics, finance and culture. That idea has laid waste to millions. Those believing the lie even today have also taken cheer from it, because its believers see themselves as liberators, and their lives have an awful meaning and purpose. The political assassinations of the Sixties have led to spiderwebs of conspiracy among amateur detectives, with each new blurry photograph promising the long-wished-for solution. Those same people take pride in the fact that they know, better than anyone.

And there is sometimes truth to the ideas behind our fears. Hillary Clinton supporters speak of a "vast right wing conspiracy." Followers of Donald Trump talk about a "deep state" that frustrates his plans and sews suspicion through leaks. Read Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, and it too posits a conspiracy among America's institutions to preserve slavery. Judge for yourself whether he was right.

 When people on the left or right hear the other side’s conspiracy theories, they probably think, “If only we were as powerful and united as they suppose…” But both sides draw strength from the idea that, beneath the surface, are nameless vindictive zealots who may frustrate them today, but not tomorrow.

Somehow, Tapper makes all of this entertaining against a tapestry of time that we’ve mostly managed to forget. I was thrilled to see his story shoehorn in episodes like Congress’ hearings on the comic book industry. That too was a conspiracy theory – that lurid tales of murder and horror were responsible for rising juvenile delinquency. The way he works this into the conclusion was particularly sweet.

There is, of course, at this moment in American politics, the idea that we lost something when we lost the order of the Fifties. We lost surety, peace, optimism and benevolence. A movement to “make America great again” necessarily taps into that nostalgia. It was obvious who our enemy was then, we think. “The Hellfire Club,” within the mechanism of a suspense novel, pokes needed holes in that belief by reminding us of how complicated the uncomplicated past was. 

Novels like this – LeCarre comes to mind –usually cement in the reader’s mind the idea of a moral universe where everything is contested and there are no reliable levers to pull in order to bring everything into balance. Governments and movements are peopled by morally corrupted and endlessly compromised people. But Tapper leaves the reader of “The Hellfire Club” with a hopeful optimism, putting these words into the mouth of the era’s most recognizable, and sadly, overshadowed figure, President Eisenhower:

“I am confident in the idea of the United States of America…I believe that the combination of checks and balances and a free press and our democratically elected representatives ultimately expose charlatans. I believe in the good sense of the American people, and I know in my soul that truth will win out.”

There is a tendency in every era of American history to think that the stakes have never been higher, that the threat to the Republic has never been greater, that sinister forces were never closer to an ultimate victory. That may be true of any era, but as the years pass we quickly move past those conflicts to find others, consoling ourselves with darker, more mendacious conspiracies, casting ourselves in greater clothing to be quickly discarded. As Marilynne Robinson wrote in “Gilead,” “…how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome and meaningless in the next.”

I find myself wanting to revisit the history of “The Hellfire Club” (which I suppose is Tapper’s intention), seeing how it might have handled the Civil Rights struggle, Vietnam, or Watergate. Or perhaps a look back at the toll of the Civil War. We can hopefully wait to see about our own age, after our outrage cools. 


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

'King Rat' and the consequences of hard choices

Before he was the author of 1,000-page blockbuster novels about Asia, James Clavell was a screenwriter with a lot of time on his hands because of a strike.

That's how he became a novelist, when he turned his experiences in a World War II Japanese prison camp into his first novel, "King Rat." After nearly 15 years of saying nothing of his experiences - he found himself a prisoner again. His wife locked him in a room, he later recounted, promising to let him out only after he'd completed five pages of a novel. Clavell later admitted that much of this work was autobiographical, the character of Peter Marlowe serving as the author's stand-in. The 1963 novel was later made into a movie starring James Fox.

There's a reason Clavell, who also wrote the original film, "The Fly," and co-wrote "The Great Escape," sold millions of books - he was a very good writer. Even in this first work, he shows the polish and panache that distinguished him throughout his career, while still dealing with material that must have been personally harrowing to revisit. "If you live at the edge of death, you appreciate life," he said later. "It's the only way you can really appreciate life."


Clavell joined the Royal Artillery as a teenager, and was captured on Java. He was later sent to Changi Prison in Singapore, where he was subjected to some of the horrors depicted here.

Outside of slavery, it's hard to think of a more degrading experience than that recounted in "King Rat." The world within the novel is absolutely masculine. For the prisoner inside Changi, the war is over, and the tedium between action of the soldier is eaten up in the prisoner's tedium of inaction, or brutal labor. Men are deprived of healthcare, living on a barely subsistence diet. Cigarettes serve as currency, and black market bartering is cut-throat and emasculating. Each prisoner strips himself of clothing and dignity, floating in sweat and misery, convinced the future only holds more humiliation, and death. Each man is tormented by the knowledge that the world continues outside the camp, but what of friends and family, or any approaching relief?

At the center of the novel is "The King," an American corporal who is the master of illicit trades, commanding a small army of stooges who do his bidding. The King wears a clean uniform with  creased pants and clean socks, as he wanders through men with ill-fitting sarongs. He has his own store of food and demands tribute, keeping his own counsel. He does not survive by collaborating with the Japanese, but imposes his own order within the walls of the prison. With Marlowe's help, he hatches an elaborate scheme to supply the officers with rat meat through breeding vermin, and barters with guards and villagers with the guts of a burglar.


"The whole of Changi hated the King. They hated him for his muscular body, the clear glow in his blue eyes. In this twilight world of the half alive there were no fat or well-built or round or smooth or fair-built or thick-built men. There were only faces dominated by eyes and set on bodies that were skin over sinews over bones. No difference between them but age and face and height. And in all this world, only the King ate like a man, smoked like a man, slept like a man, dreamed like a man and looked like a man."


Marlowe is English, but Clavell only hints at the usual class distinctions among the British troops. Instead, each man is a human struggling to stay human. Marlowe is useful to the King, but he is also oblivious at first to what knowing him means. The King is never given an actual name, throughout the whole novel. And while there is something sinister about him, there is also something grand. The King survives on his wits and guile, not his intelligence. We aren't told what he did before the war, where he is from, or what his aims are. The ultimate goal of every other prisoner is to stay alive until the war is over. But the King wants more than survival - and he understands that here, in Changi, the rules are different. As Clavell writes, the world has been recreated here. It is a place of "beginning again."

Clavell gets a lot of mileage out of the image of the rat. They are scavengers, eating their own kind, living off filth and desperate for self-preservation. Changi has turned all the men into something a little better than rats, clinging to hope even when they think the Japanese will kill them all rather than surrender. Marlowe nearly dies in the camp, and it is only through the King's guile that he is given the medicine he needs to survive. "King Rat" is a different depiction than other prisoner of war stories, such as the portion of "Slaughterhouse Five" that deals with a German POW camp. The men of Changi are either cowed by the King's audacity, or they revile him, like Grey, the provost marshal of the camp. Grey later says the world would be a sorry place if everyone hid behind the excuse of the King - adapting to the circumstances of the camp. In other words, morality must hold true everywhere, or humanity perishes. If the camp changes who you are too radically, you will not be able to survive beyond it.

This is true for Sean, a prisoner who is recruited to play the female parts in plays staged inside the camp. Sean, we are told, was given the job because no one else would take it. But he soon began to adopt the mannerisms and trappings of a woman until he believed himself to be a woman. He feeds off the lust given by the prisoners at the sight of him, as they are altogether deprived of the
feminine form. When the war finally comes to an end, the men who previously had desired him are disgusted by the sight of "Betty," and he walks into the ocean to his doom. Marlowe is later left to ponder, "Is it wrong to adapt?"


In a curious way, Clavell contrasts these individual decisions with the drive to develop the atomic bombs which end the war. They have unleashed catastrophic destruction, killing hundreds of thousands of people and ushering in a new and awful kind of warfare. But to the men of Changi, there was no other choice. "But he knew, of a sudden, a great truth, and he blessed the brains that had invented the bombs. Only the bombs had saved Changi from oblivion. Oh yes, he told himself, whatever happens because of the bombs, I will bless the first two and the men who made them. Only they have given me back my life when there was truly no hope of life. And though the first two have consumed a multitude, by their very vastness they have saved the lives of countless hundred thousand others. Ours. And theirs. By the Lord God, this is the truth."

The coming of Allied troops and the end of the war is especially brutal to the King. Immediately, one of his henchman will no longer fetch his coffee. None of them want to see him. The rest of them say he is "dead." His presence seems to remind those who previously sought him out that something within them was perhaps fatally compromised in order to survive. When Marlowe attempts to console the King - indeed, to thank him for all he has done to keep them, and him, alive - the King will not be comforted. He is just a corporal again, stuck with stacks of worthless Japanese money. His exit from the camp is sudden and anticlimactic. He is reborn, as are those who bowed to him, and were bullied by him.

Clavell later said the lessons of Changi were repugnant to him until he transferred them to the pages of "King Rat." Writing it allowed him to see, from a distance, the distance he had bridged in remaining alive, in order to return to life.

War stories regularly refer to their settings as "hell on earth." To the Christian reader, the phrase is weak tea. Hell is hell, and the worst parts of existence all eventually come to an end. We crave the freedom of resurrection, sometimes not knowing that it takes a great deal of pain to shake off what we were before. Stuck here on a planet of beings little better than rats, we cling to hope and morality to preserve ourselves, abandoning either when the mood suits us, hoping others will embrace them if it means our lives.

There is little logic among corruption, save surviving. We forge ourselves with each decision, hoping we do not harden into something corrupted, or corrupting. Pardons extended from Heaven, however well-disguised or obvious, uplift as they humble, while at the same time we go on resenting the same hand that feeds us. We cry out for a King until he makes demands on us, but kings often distinguish themselves only through acts of mercy.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Face We Give, the Face We Long For

"Hey, it's me again."

According to published reports, this was the way that Mark Anthony Conditt, the Austin bomber, began his final taped confession shortly before blowing himself up on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, as SWAT teams cornered him.

Conditt, police say, was the man responsible for killing two people and severely wounded four others in a series of bombings that terrorized the Texas capital for weeks.

Police say the motive for the bombings might never be fully understood, which makes the story instantly familiar. Media speculation variously blamed Conditt's homeschooling and Christianity, while others claimed he was a white supremacist, given the victims of his explosions. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley originally referred to Conditt as a "troubled young man," but later called him a domestic terrorist after controversy over his original remarks. Would the chief have been more quick to call him a terrorist if he hadn't been a young white man? critics asked.

Manley's original comments were in regard to Conditt's video confession, where police said he described in detail the bombs he built: “He does not at all mention anything about terrorism…but instead it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point."

"Hey, it's me again." 

Conditt's acts, as described by police, seem to fit a distressing pattern in recent American violence - the motiveless massacre. In a New Yorker piece written by Ben Wallace-Wells, Conditt's acts are linked to other grotesque public killing spectacles within the last year where meaning is sought, seemingly in vain:


"Among the mass killings of the past six months, motives have been elusive. There has been no compelling official account of why Stephen Paddock killed fifty-eight people in Las Vegas, and there has been only slightly more clarity about why Nikolas Cruz went to his old high school on Valentine’s Day and killed seventeen. In both of those cases, what was first examined as a political act came to be understood as more private and inscrutable, and it seems that the shooters had inhabited a familiar political form of violence because it was familiar, not because it was political."

In Paddock's case, for example, police have surveillance footage showing how, over the course of several days last September, he made trips into the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with luggage containing weapons and ammunition. By the end of a week of hopscotching between the hotel and his nearby home, Paddock would methodically open fire on the music festival across the street from his suite. When he wasn't preparing for his massacre, presumably, he was on the casino floor, trying his luck at a video poker machine. The image from cameras is striking - a man with only hours left to live, risking money in a game of chance. What does he hope to win? Why is he even there? 

Following these and other mass shootings, debates have erupted about how to prevent them: more money for mental health, giving law enforcement more ability to identify potential mass shooters, anti-bullying campaigns in schools, stricter gun laws. These debates eventually devolve into ideological battles, both in media and social media, between warring factions of right and left. This leads to each side putting forth its preferred cause for why seemingly normal people, and troubled people, go home to stockpiles of weapons and seemingly wait for the inevitable moment when they will be moved to create carnage. 

One solution proposed - do not identify the perpetrators. The idea behind this is to deny the shooter, bomber, etc., a measure of celebrity. I was reminded of this reading Umberto Eco's last book of essays, "Chronicles of a Liquid Society." In "God is my witness that I'm a fool..." Eco recounts a theory by the Spanish writer Javier Marias, that what is happening is the inevitable consequence of "the death of God" in society. 

At one time, Eco said, people were "persuaded that everything that they did had at least one Spectator, who knew their every thought and deed, who could sympathize with them or, if necessary, condemn them. They could be outcasts, good-for-nothings, losers scorned by their fellow men. They were people who would be forgotten as soon as they were dead, but who nourished the belief that there was at least One who knew all about them."

Eco goes on to recount how people would use this in conversation. "God knows I'm innocent," would say the criminal, or "God at least knows how much I've suffered," would be the cry of the one who felt abandoned by friends and family. In the place of God now is the eye of society, usually translated into the media presence. "Even bad press is good press," goes the wisdom, because at least someone is paying attention to you. That means that a person who makes it onto television stripping to his underwear for a cheap laugh has "made it." You hear millennials talk about people who are "Internet famous," which can encompass Snapchat users who are sought after as influence marketers, or the people who show up in Vine compilations, their faces recognizable for less than 10 seconds. 

Human beings have always sought recognition, through beauty, clothes, education, achievement, monuments, creation. And destruction. 

One is inevitably reminded of Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold, the Columbine shooters, who, according to Time Magazine, speculated on video about how their lives would be remembered after their deaths:

"They wanted movies made of their story, which they had carefully laced with "a lot of foreshadowing and dramatic irony," as Harris put it. There was that poem he wrote, imagining himself as a bullet. "Directors will be fighting over this story," Klebold said--and the boys chewed over which could be trusted with the script: Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino."

There's also the story of Vester Lee Flanagan II, also known as Bryce Williams, who shot his former TV colleagues Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live television on Aug. 26, 2015 in Roanoke, Va. Flanagan went to the trouble of recording the moment of the shooting and sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. One clearly sees the barrel of his 9mm Glock in the foreground of the picture, as Parker and Ward are totally engaged in an interview, and how Flanagan hesitates before pulling the trigger. He wanted the moment of the killing recorded live on his former television station, and indeed, Ward's falling camera caught the image of Flanagan right after the shots were fired. 

Flanagan left his own manifesto, a 23-page fax which says that he, a gay African-American, took inspiration from Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C. church two months before. And from Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. And from Harris and Klebold. And so it goes. 

Society has a taste for this kind of story. FX recently concluded nine weeks of "The Assassination of Gianni Versace," a mini-series which spent more time on Versace's assassin, the spree-killer Andrew Cunanan, whose motives are still a mystery 20 years later. 

"They wanted to be famous," said FBI agent Mark Holstlaw of Harris and Klebold. "And they are. They're infamous."


Not everyone aspires to this category of notoriety, but our culture encourages the idea of finding your 15 minutes of fame. Eco's piece fleshes out the problems with performing for the eye of society. If you appear on television, you are recognized for your face - not the depth of ideas, the strength of character, the quality of virtue. And as the face changes, the level of acceptance changes. We get to watch ourselves on television, on our phones, on our screens, but what then? How far will we be willing to go to be remembered? And how long does that memory last? What constitutes a lasting memory? Even in the catalogue of murderers I just gave you, how many of you had to be reminded of the killers' names, and what they did, and when it happened? Even the carnage tends to blur over time.

The eye of society, like the eye of a camera, can be wounding. Where God promises not only recognition as one of His children, He also promises love. And that is love in spite of a very sure knowledge of every one of our imperfections, even the ones we are long oblivious to. 

The seductive idea that the creator of all reality can be simultaneously offering a personal relationship with all seven billion of His children at the same time strains the mind, but a being unable to do so wouldn't be worthy of worship.

In another piece, Eco asks what the point of Twitter is, as it is made of myriad warring perspectives, wisdom and idiocy shared at exactly the same volume. Perhaps it is to feel important, he writes. Not to be important, but to feel that way, at least to someone, at least for an instant. 

Perhaps the most compelling proof of the truth of Christianity is its Founder identifying the need the faith satisfies. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) The listener is given a task, to come, and a focusing destination, to Him. For the listener to react, he has to believe that he can find something in the Speaker's presence that is satisfying. With these words, Jesus summons all those who share a common feeling about humanity - the accumulating weight of existence, the futility of toil, the numbing quality of existence. He then promises rest. Mental, physical, spiritual. The most basic need other than sustenance, and the most elusive.

It would be impossible for someone, over two millennia, to make credible such an exhortation, unless He could deliver. And only someone watching would know that you needed it. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express: The Plot within the Plot



Spoiler warning: If you haven’t read Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” or seen the 1974 movie, you might not want to read further.

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in the latest version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” due out later this year. In a recent article in “Entertainment Weekly,” Branagh is described as “cagey” when discussing how much this latest version of the story sticks to the plot of the novel, and “shrugs off” concerns that those familiar with it will be able to anticipate the story’s twists and turns.

A traditional murder mystery conforms to a pattern – we are introduced to a cast of characters and a person who is tasked with solving the mystery. The detective, more or less, stands in for the reader. The murder occurs, and we are given a few basic facts about how it was committed. Not all of this information may be correct, but it will allow us to form one or more theories of the case. Then we get to know the cast of characters and hear their explanations. Our theories rise and fall on what they tell us. We know our detective will probably solve the mystery, but we will get a thrill by perhaps guessing first who the murderer is from the information we receive. Again, not all that we hear and see may be reliable. We know some of the characters will lie, but we assume the author will leave clues, sometimes within other clues, that allow us to see afterward how the solution was always there, even if it was impenetrable.

“Murder on the Orient Express” presents us with a murder victim, Mr. Ratchett. He is introduced as a thoroughly unpleasant man, and even the great detective Hercule Poirot says that he does not like Ratchett’s face. When he dies, his murder presents a puzzle to be solved, not so much a wrong that must be righted. Why? Because he is soon revealed, by Poirot, to be Cassetti, a figure from the criminal underworld responsible for an infamous kidnapping. 

 Looking at the story, as a story, Agatha Christie’s twist is to present us with a cast of characters who are gradually all revealed to be guilty. But what would motivate a dozen people to assemble in one place to murder one person? Writing in the 1930s, Christie took as her inspiration the Lindbergh kidnapping, a case that still fascinates the public decades later, which H.L. Mencken called “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” She presents us with a scenario where Cassetti abducts Daisy Armstrong, a three-year-old girl, from her home in America. She is connected to figures spanning the globe. Her father, Col. Armstrong, is a famous British aviator. Her mother Sonia is the daughter of the greatest tragic actress of the day, Linda Arden. The household staff is comprised of people from various countries who have gravitated to the Armstrongs out of friendship and loyalty. When Daisy is found dead after a ransom is paid, Sonia Armstrong dies in childbirth, Col. Armstrong kills himself, and a maid in the house commits suicide when she is falsely accused of complicity in the kidnapping. Cassetti is captured, but eludes prosecution and flees America.

I have always thought a really good story would be to see everything that we don’t see in “Murder on the Orient Express.” It is “The Plot.” One can almost imagine its opening, with the conspirators standing over the freshly dug grave of Col. Armstrong, his suicide following Cassetti’s unsuccessful prosecution. All of the principals have gathered for the funeral. Linda Arden announces to them that they must have revenge. Mary Debenham, the family secretary, and Hector McQueen, the son of the district attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted Ratchett, conceive the plot. Hardman, a former policeman in love with the dead maid, tracks down Cassetti. McQueen and Masterman, Armstrong’s former butler, get into Cassetti’s employ. Working with Pierre, father of the dead maid, they arrange for Cassetti to board the Orient Express at a time of year when few people travel. They invent a passenger, “Mr. Harris,” in order to ensure no one else will be on the coach. Then they all arrange to be on the train at the same time in order to kill Cassetti. They are their own jury.

One of the best, most subtle moments in the 1974 Sidney Lumet film of the book occurs when Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is added at the last moment to the Calais coach of the Orient Express by the director of the line, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). Bianchi introduces Poirot to the conductor, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Pierre immediately grasps, to his horror, the situation – a great detective will be in the middle of their plot, which can’t be called off now. Once the murder takes place, a further complication comes when the train is immobilized by a snowdrift, which gives Poirot time to discover what has happened.

Poirot: If all these people are not implicated in the crime, then why have they all told me, under interrogation, stupid and often unnecessary lies? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Dr. Constantine: Doubtless, Monsieur Poirot, because they did not expect you to be on the train. They had no time to concert their cover story.
Poirot: I was hoping someone other than myself would say that.

What kind of conversations took place once Poirot was on board? How was the plan altered? Perhaps the conspirators resolved to leave enough clues to implicate each of them, but meant only to muddle the issue. Perhaps one of them said, “All we have to do is confuse him until we get to the next stop on the line.” So they assigned roles to each member, with contradictory stories in order to keep Poirot guessing. Arden, in her “role” as Mrs. Hubbard, a female version of the Babbitized American, says a man entered her compartment, which is adjacent to Ratchett’s.

The only evidence of what the conspirators decided on is the evidence that was left in Ratchett’s compartment – the “too many clues” Poirot alludes to in the film. The theory created by them is that a figure, perhaps from the Mafia, entered the train at Vinkovci dressed in a conductor’s uniform – a man with a female sounding voice – and gained access to Ratchett’s compartment, but was seen by Mrs. Hubbard. There may even have been two murderers, since Ratchett’s stab wounds came from a knife wielded by a right hand and a left. The killer may have smoked a pipe, as a pipe cleaner is discovered. The shadowy figure was then seen leaving in a woman’s kimono, but dropped a ladies’ handkerchief with the initial H.

In “Curtain,“ Poirot’s final case, he tells one of his associates:

“For a murderer, my friend, is more conceited than any creature on this earth. A murderer is always more clever than anyone else – no one will ever suspect him or her – the police will be utterly baffled, et cetera. Therefore he (or she) goes ahead just the same, and all you can have is the satisfaction of hanging them afterwards.”

What must it have been like for the conspirators? What kind of solace could they have offered each other, as the plot spins beyond their careful control? Cassetti was a murderer – he was used to living life on the edge. When he approached Poirot about serving as his bodyguard, Ratchett allowed us to see a man who knows the trap is closing around him. But how about those who killed him? They are not used to the suspicions, the anguish, the constant inner questioning. They must hang together, having come this far, but how much anguish was there? Which of them was ready to crack at the first accusation? The only hint we get is a whispered confidence from Mary Debenham to Col. Arbuthnot: “Not now. When it’s all over, when it’s behind us.” Hear the tension in the words – begging for release. 

Poirot begins to question each. In the novel, he needs more than one session from some of the conspirators to zero in on his suspicions. It becomes obvious that they are panicking and begin to offer up more information, which is their undoing. In the 1974 movie, this is made clear by the discovery of the conductor’s uniform and the kimono, and Poirot’s laughter. In the 2010 version starring David Suchet, there is much more interaction between the conspirators than in the Lumet version, or indeed, the novel. Humor is decidedly absent. There is also an underlying tone of Christian disdain for the murder plot, from Poirot and from the group’s supposed conscience, the missionary Greta Ohlsson. In Suchet’s version, there is more of a feeling that even though Cassetti was a monster, it was up to God, not human beings, to exact punishment on him.

A word should be said here about the Ohlsson character. In Christie’s novel, she is barely present. Her character was greatly expanded for the 1974 version, to accommodate the actress Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. In it, Ohlsson was once Daisy Armstrong’s nurse. After the child’s death, she “sought refuge in a vision of Jesus” and became a missionary teacher in India. Bergman gives the missionary several colors of personality – grief, regret, subterfuge and a kind of humble peace. In the 2010 version, Marie-Josee Croze’s Ohlsson takes this a step further. She advocates that the conspirators stand in the place of God, allowed by their righteousness to exact revenge on the murderer. No one wanted murder, but the circumstances cried out for it. 


The 1974 version never quite strays from its old-style ambience – Poirot figures out fairly early that this case is extraordinary, but he keeps his own counsel on whodunit as Dr. Constantine and Bianchi declare each passenger guilty as soon as the individual’s questioning is over. This allows for humor and the thrill of the chase. There are no moral judgments here. This is an entertainment. A repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively and perhaps deservedly murdered. When the conspirators clink their glasses at the end, they are celebrating a successful revenge. Something seems to have been healed.

But if we were to go forward with the plot, how would taking part in the murder affect each of our conspirators? Would Ohlsson be seized with regret and remorse? Would Hardman, as a policeman, begin to pursue his own vision of justice in other cases? Would keeping the secret spoil the marriage of the Count and Countess Andrenyi, or the romance of Col. Arbuthnot and Miss Debenham? What if some new evidence should implicate someone else in the killing of the Armstrong child? Might the group be moved to another plot in another part of the globe? We don’t worry so much about Poirot – there is always another case in some other exotic spot for him.

There’s no way of knowing now how the story will be told by Branagh, especially since Ratchett/Cassetti will be played by Johnny Depp. But perhaps one day, with the pen of a Balzac, someone will tell the story of this extraordinary revenge from the other side, and what mysteries might it further reveal? 


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.