Machete Kills! : Alex Segura – “Dangerous Ends”

“Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends” – William Shakespeare, “Henry VI, Part I”

dangerous ends

ABOVE: Presente y Pasado

When I last left Miami P.I. Pete Fernandez, he was venturing “Down the Darkest Street.” Some time has passed and now I find him up to “Dangerous Ends.” His best friend Kathy Bentley has published not one but TWO best-selling true crime books based on his exploits, and so it’s no surprise when he’s contacted (and contracted) by Maya Varela, the daughter of a notorious murderer; she means to exonerate her father, who was convicted on relatively slim evidence for a murder that, Maya insists, he never committed.

But then a jury can’t be expected to stay too rational when a man is accused of hacking his wife dozens of times with a machete, that most Cuban of sharp implements. ( The “Mambi” guerrillas that fought for Cuban independence in the 1860s-1890s had few rifles and often had to resort to what had essentially been a forest-clearing, sugar-cane cutting tool until then.)

elpidio valdes

ABOVE: Educational Cuban cartoons: Teaching kids to slash into “the enemy” since 1959.

Pete’s Cuban ancestry has been a very subtle element in the series, but in “Dangerous Ends,” that Cuban past bluntly intrudes upon the present- as it often does on Miami streets. We learn that Pete’s grand-father Diego was exiled from the island after Fidel Castro’s 1959 take-over; several interludes fill-in the story of the Fernandez family, as Diego becomes an influential, anti-Castro radio personality in Miami.

Does Pete’s abuelo tie to the Varela murder? What about the brutal death of Rick Blanco, the husband of Pete’s lost love, Emily? And who exactly are Los Enfermos, the mysterious drug-running Miami gang that may have ties to the Castro regime?

As the novel asserts at one point, “It’s all connected.”

“Dangerous Ends” is the smoothest Pete Fernandez novel so far, and the one that truly announces Segura as an assured practitioner of the noir. Here, all the elements gel: theme, style, setting, plot, and character working together. The dark and sunny complexities of Miami’s history are explored in terse prose. The plot barrels forward confidently, taking several surprising twists, and opening quite a few possible doors for the next installment. (I can’t wait to read more about the history of Los Enfermos!) The ensemble finally comes into its own too: Kathy goes from foil to full-on no-nonsense partner; Dave Mendoza, the brawn in Fernandez’ investigating team, becomes more psychologically interesting (and more violently volatile?); and a former rival, retired FBI agent Robert Harrass, makes a welcome return, this time as the voice of experience and wisdom. As this series plays with continuity, (major characters fade in the distance; small characters re-appear, and may not be so small next time around) we’re aware that Pete’s world is still in flux, and that any of his peripherals may hide interesting secrets, or may switch allegiances or, you know, may get killed.

RATING: COOL!

P. S.: Like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Pete Fernandez is a music lover, (we get a dutiful visit to Miami’s legendary Sweat Records) and so Sonic Youth and Neil Young and the Jam are alluded to- but it’s the Elena Burke allusion that his grandfather Diego might appreciate. Burke was a remarkable singer of Cuban boleros, great at squeezing longing from each note of her torch songs and somehow transforming that pain into joy. (Daughter Malena Burke is also a major Cuban icon; and grand-daughter Lena is a Latin Grammy nominee. Watch for Ena Burke to play Cuban music on the Moon in 2040.)

elena burke

malenaburke

lenaburke

ABOVE: You can guess which is which

 

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Twice Shy : Fyodor Dostoyevsky – “The Double”

ABOVE: I knew you were double when I met you.

The doppelgängers of German folklore; the mischievous menaechmi in Plautus, or in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”; the Martin Guerres of “The Two Dianas”; the Victorian Jekylls and Hydes. The human is always splitting into two, ( a rather conservative number.) “The Double” is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s second novella, ( after “Poor Folk”) and it’s a noticeable forward leap that uses Nikolai Gogol’s deadpan satires “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” as inspirational springboards. The plot, (easy enough to guess) finds a shy, undistinguished clerk named Golyadkin confronted with an identical, though far more assertive, look-alike (Golyadkin Jr.) whose unexplained presence goes unquestioned by all except by our ineffective hero.

“Our hero” is how Dostoevsky sardonically refers to Golyadkin,  but this is a hero that undergoes no quest; Dostoevsky as the narrator often demurs that he’s not quite Homer or Pushkin, and this is no epic. Golyadkin Sr. is too much of a nothing to even count as an anti-hero. His typical reaction to the possibility of conflict: “He made up his mind that it was better to keep quiet, not to open his lips, and to show that he was ‘all right,’ that he was ‘like every one else,’ and that his position, as far as he could see, was quite a proper one.”

He frequently fails at this propriety, turning into what in current parlance would be deemed a hot mess: “He felt that if he stammered all would be lost at once. And so it turned out – he stammered and floundered . . . floundering, he blushed crimson; blushing, he was overcome with confusion. In his confusion he raised his eyes; raising his eyes he looked about him; looking about him – he almost swooned.”

Golyadkin is a sketch of the personality type that Dostoevsky would soon examine with considerable less humor in “Notes from the Underground”: socially awkward, mired in constant hesitation, shyness, self-doubt. Here’s the poor clerk’s internal monologue as he tries to crash a cool party:

Mr. Golyadkin saw all this through the little window; in two steps he was at the door and had already opened it. “Should he go in or not? Come, should he or not? I’ll go in . . . why not? to the bold all ways lie open!” Reassuring himself in this way, our hero suddenly and quite unexpectedly retreated behind the screen. “No,” he thought.

He berates himself:

“You silly fool, you silly old Golyadkin – silly fool of a surname!”

I don’t know any Russian beyond “nyet”, “tovarich”, and “sputnik” (thanks a lot, James Bond movies!), but I’m going to guess that the name “Golyadkin” contains some pun the translator, (the ever influential Constance Garnett) doesn’t deal with (something like Mr. Halfaman, perhaps?) No ditz on the late Garnett, (whose epochal translations from the Russian pretty much forced Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov into the Anglo-American consciousness.)

Above: They’re trying really hard not to make eye contact while they pee.

P. S.: “The Double” was turned by Richard Aoyade into a 2013 movie with Jesse Eisenberg. By abandoning plot specifics, Aoyade creates a little story about alienation that is a little too Eastern-Bloc-in-the-70s to say much about the Golyadkins in today’s cubicles, (a lost opportunity)  – but still marks Aoyade as one of today’s up-and-coming auteurs. (He’s Moss from “The IT Crowd,” if you didn’t know.)

ABOVE: Auteur.

 

The Three Dumases : Alexandre Dumas – “The Two Dianas”

Much is made of Auguste Maquet’s collaborations with Alexandre Dumas.

ABOVE: Auguste Maquet, the unsung musketeer.

Hard-core fans know Maquet was essential to Dumas’ astoundingly prolific period of the late 1840s. Some have gone on a pro-Maquet campaign that reminds us that of the “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare” fanatics. The “anti-Shakespeare” gang has apparently decided  everybody alive in the 1500s wrote Shakespeare’s plays EXCEPT Shakespeare, and has produced overheated conspiracy pamphlets like “Anonymous”. By comparison, the moderate pro-Maquet camp admits that Dumas was the genius, but claims Maquet gave his work solid structures he lacked elsewhere. (I agree). A nice, little speculative movie was made of the fractious friendship between the two a few years back. “The Other Dumas” is an overdue if fantastical homage to the forgotten Maquet. (The movie stars Gerard Depardieu as Dumas, as if you even had to wonder.)

ABOVE: “It’s not pronounced Dumb-ass, I keep telling you! You’re fired!”

To its credit, the movie doesn’t try to detract from Dumas’ work. The general consensus is that Maquet did the research, outlines and grunt work; Dumas provided the plot, the wit and panache. Maquet’s own novels are noticeably less engaging – although, and it does bear stressing, hardly terrible. I’ve read a couple and while the uninterested have no need to laboriously seek them out, (they’re only available in French as far as I know), they do have charms. I also strongly believe Maquet is authorially responsible for the character of Chicot in the Valois trilogy: when Maquet went solo after their parting, he took Chicot with him into the novel “The Belle Gabrielle,” under symbolic incognito. (Notice he didn’t try any of that with D’Artagnan or Montecristo, both of which had solid basis in Dumas’ theatrical work and early novels of the ’30s.)

Understandably most of the reviews of “The Other Dumas” lacked familiarity with any of Dumas’ work beyond “The Count of Montecristo” and “The Three Musketeers.” Take this typical article prompted by “The Other Dumas”:

https://flcenterlitarts.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/who-wrote-the-novels-of-alexandre-dumas

The article mentions little of Dumas’ work beyond the two perennials. It says that “for nearly 20 years the two worked closely together.” Not quite.  It’s true that the date of the first meeting between Dumas and Maquet (1839, when Gerard de Nerval introduced them and Maquet showed Dumas the play that would become “Harmental”) and the date of Maquet’s lawsuit against Dumas (1858) would signal “nearly twenty years of closely working together.” But the real partnership between Dumas and Maquet went from 1842 (starting with the publication of “The Chevalier d’Harmental”) until 1850 (the ending of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.”) That’s eight years, not nearly twenty. Moreover, the “closely together” part of that partnership actually involved the astoundingly prolific FOUR years period between 1844 and 1848 that produced the Count, the Musketeers Trilogy, the Valois Trilogy and the first three Marie Antoinette novels, among others.

Later that same article claims that after the two parted ways, “Dumas wrote nothing else of worth, while Maquet went on to write a lot.” Huh? Dumas went on to write a lot as well and plenty of worth. There were, after all, 22 years after their break, which included newspapers / plays / histories / essays / an epic multi-volume memoir / his classic “Dictionary of Cuisine”  AND at least one (more typically two or three) novels a year, including some big hits like “The Companions of Jehu,” “Emma Lyonna” and “The Mohicans of Paris.” What the writer means to say is that Dumas was ruined after throwing away several fortunes in his lavish lifestyle, while the wiser Maquet saved his pennies and died rich.

ABOVE: Paul Meurice, the other OTHER Dumas?

Anyway, the Dumas- Maquet partnership can only be fully understood in the context of   Dumas’ writer-factory process, which went back to his years as a young theater lion, when plays were co-scripted and passed around. Think of Dumas as the show runner, (the Joss Whedon or Vince Gilligan of his time.) Among Dumas’ other collaborators and ghost-writers were De Nerval, the Countess Dash, and the three Pauls: Paul Bocage, Paul Lacroix, and Paul Meurice. Meurice is more known for his close friendship with Victor Hugo, but he collaborated with Dumas in “Ascanio”

And “The Two Dianas,” which is the book prompting these thoughts.

ABOVE: Wow, someone decided that a drawing of a guy opening a book was an exciting cover for a historical romance!

Quick: It takes place in 1557 and picks up historically more or less directly after “Ascanio”. Gabriel de Montogomery has a problem. He’s in love with Diana de Castro, the illegitimate daughter of Diane de Poitiers and… either Jacques de Montgomery (Gabe’s father) or King Henry II. To complicate maters, Henry II put Jacques away to an indeterminate fate. So Diana de Castro is either Gabriel’s sister … or the daughter of the man who destroyed his father’s life. Dealbreakers everywhere Gabriel turns, so he runs off to sort things out at the Siege of St. Quentin. Nostradamus, Mary Stuart and Ambroise Pare are among the historical figures that parade through the pages.

Some scholarship suggests “The Two Dianas” may very well be entirely of Paul Meurice’s making. There exits a letter in which Dumas seems to give Meurice full authorship of the novel after Meurice asked for permission to prepare a stage version, but the phrasing is ambiguous enough that scholars are still uncertain. The letter could merely be an official business gesture and blessing (as in, “the novel is now yours to do with it as you will”). It’s a great “Dumas” anyway, and fits seamlessly into the canon. Furthermore, some fictional characters from here reappear on “The Page of the Duke of Savoy,” which works as a sequel.

ABOVE: A scene from “Martin Guerre.” They were very musical in 1500s France.

Talking about doubles and twos, “The Two Dianas” features Martin Guerre as Gabriel’s doubled Sancho Panza. Martin Guerre is one of the most famous cases of imposture in the historical record. Guerre was a French peasant who abruptly abandoned his home town in 1548, was thought dead, and reappeared eight years later, in 1556, to return to his wife and family. Except, PLOT TWIST, then the REAL Martin Guerre returned, and the man who had been passing as him for a while was revealed to be a stranger named Arnaud Du Thil. Du Thil was hanged for the fraud, but the oddities of the case – the wife who never said anything! – made a mark. Dumas popularized the Martin Guerre case before, in his massive “The Celebrated Crimes,” but here he uses it to great theatrical effect, (happily shouting out Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Plautus’ “The Menaechmi”.) Mild-mannered Martin Guerre is puzzled by the more daring double of himself who creates mischief everywhere he goes. Dostoevsky’s “The Double”– WITH THE EXACT SAME CONCEIT – was published the same year as “The Two Dianas,” by the way.

COINCIDENCE?!?

Yes, totally. I just like saying “COINCIDENCE?” and raising my eyebrows significantly as I do it. Also I’m reading “The Double” as well so it casts its magic and makes you see doppelgangers everywhere. The “Martin Guerre” case inspired “Sommersby”, a Civil War-set drama starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, as well as a not-too-successful musical adaptation by Boublil and Schomberg, the makers of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” I am a fan of that show in its several attempted incarnations, but I fully accept its flaws, which include some laughably inane English-language lyrics.

RATING : COOL!

Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings : William Shakespeare – “Richard II”

Second in the monarchic Histories, (after “King John” ), William Shakespeare’s “Richard II” chronicles the forced 1399 abdication of that mediocre-yet-poetic titular king before Henry Bolingbroke, (soon to be Henry IV.)

ABOVE: “I can’t remember… did I turn the oven off before I left the palace??”

“Richard II” aims at pure poetry: about a third of it relies in couplets. The rest slides into blank verse, not always in a smooth or logical transition. Bardolaters might believe Shakespeare’s inspiration inexhaustible, but you can certainly spot the moments where Will throws up the quill: “Can’t think of a rhyme/So it’s blank verse time!” It’s not the only schism in evidence: the play is also half dutiful textbook account, half lyrical attempt at metaphysical poetry.

A third schism runs through the play: We’re supposed to accept that Richard, (whom the plot requires to be a rash, unthinking fool) is also somehow one of the greatest philosophers to ever wear a crown. Shakespeare never manages to reconcile the external, historical, blundering Richard with the internal, invented, meditative poet who could give John Donne a metaphorical fit of envy.

Richard is not very heroic: his plight (losing the throne after he’s created enemies left and right, and then developing a fallen-Messiah complex) hardly gets our sympathy; and yet he  is the only character whose emotional life we can access here. “Richard II” has no Faulconbridges to amuse us, no worthwhile female roles to break through the martial ranks. The closest thing to a secondary character of worth is Old John Gaunt, who at least has enough personality to pun on his own name.  I find this dearth of character atypical for Shakespeare, who can usually conjure unforgettable people out of two-line cameos.

For me, there are three truly memorable moments in “Richard II”:

-the highly dramatic bit in which the deposed Richard II asks (Lear-like) for a mirror that will show him what his own face looks like, once drained of its Kingliness

ABOVE : “Mirror, mirror in my hand/ who’s the worst king in the land?”

– the “sceptred isle” speech, a jingoistic anthem of England uber alles that would make any slightly susceptible audience break into salvoes of “God Save the Queen”

– and the stand-out speech, a high epic poem that doubles as a manifesto for the Shakespearean Histories, since it purposes to

“…tell sad stories of the death of Kings:

How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,

Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,

Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,

All murther’d. For within the hollow Crowne

That rounds the mortall Temples of a King,

Keepes Death his Court, and there the Antique sits

Scoffing his State, and grinning at his Pompe,

Allowing him a breath, a little Scene,

To Monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with lookes,

Infusing him with selfe and vaine conceit,

As if this Flesh, which walls about our Life,

Were Brasse impregnable: and humor’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little Pinne

Bores through his Castle Walls, and farwell King.

Couer your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemne Reuerence: throw away Respect,

Tradition, Forme, and Ceremonious dutie,

For you haue but mistooke me all this while:

I liue with Bread like you, feele Want,

Taste Griefe, need Friends: subiected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a King?”

That’s absolutely beautiful stuff!!! ( Being Shakespeare, there’s a couple of other great turns of phrase here, my favorite being “the purple testament of bleeding war.”) Still, “Richard II” is more prologue than it is play. Many things are set-up here for the future: the rest of the “Henriad,” the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian segment of the Hundred Year’s War. But few things actually HAPPEN, and when they do, it’s off-stage.

ABOVE: It is good to be king.

The conclusion to Act V is particularly frustrating, with Henry IV passively listening to the rapid report of all sorts of decisive off-stage events. Towns consumed in fire! Dozens of important parsonages are mutilated and be-headed! Except  we were barely introduced to any of them and so do we do not care about them. They’ve taken the heads of

Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt and Kent/

The manner of their taking may appear/

At large discussed in this paper here.”

That’s four guys whose deaths were apparently very dramatic- but Shakespeare withholds the drama with that line. The Bard might as well have walked in from the wings: “Folks, you missed out on a lot of super-cool action scenes I couldn’t really work into the plot. Real HEART-POUNDING, EDGE-OF-YOUR-GLOBE-SEAT stuff! Trust me, you wish you had been watching THAT play instead!”

To add some sort of visual interest to this scene, a coffin gets dragged on stage. WHO’S IN IT, you wonder in suspense?

“Great King, herein all breathless lies

The mightiest of thy greatest enemies:

Richard Bordeaux.”

(WHO? We have no clue, because this great nemesis WAS NEVER ONCE MENTIONED BEFORE.)

“Richard II” can accurately be described as: “King realizes he’s just a human being; gets bummed about it.” I do not, if you noticed, rate “Richard II” high on the Shakespearian scale.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH (on the Shakespearian scale)

Signifying Nothing: William Shakespeare (and Joss Whedon) – “Much Ado About Nothing”

muchado

ABOVE: Oh, they’re NEVER going to find you THERE.

Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare are, like, two of my favorite dudes in the history of ever, so I liked Whedon’s low-budget, intimate adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,”  but most people can be excused for feeling like they’re watching a student film. I mean, it’s an A+ student film for sure, but a student film nonetheless. Beatrice is arguably Shakespeare’s best female character- so Amy Acker fails her by being a little too frail, too wounded. She’s wounded by Benedick’s hinted-at dip-and-rip, (the play’s Beatrice is just annoyed). She’s wounded by Claudio’s slut-shaming of Hero (the play’s Beatrice is righteously pissed.) She even seems wounded and defensive in her “skirmish of wits” (the play’s Beatrice took no prisoners.) Acker is still a highlight- she clearly knows what her lines mean, which may not be true for everyone else in this non-Shakespearean cast culled from the Whedonverse, (although I found Nathan Fillion hilarious with his surprisingly subtle Dogberry). A good chance for subversion was lost here: Whedon may have made some nods to a current atmosphere of financial distrust with the character of Don John the Bastard, but what he needed to modernize was the absurd gender politics in the Hero-Claudio plot-line. Even Shakespeare found THAT brouhaha about Hero’s virginity ridiculous, (it’s nothing to make ado about!)  so why would Whedon, who’s very attuned to the battle-of-the-sexes, not even blink when Hero and Claudio get reunited? Claudio didn’t deserve the girl. What a dick.

Sorry, was that a spoiler? It’s been 400 years!

The Kenneth Branagh version remains the gold standard despite its quirks *cough*keanureeves*cough*

ABOVE: “Whoa, dude. Thou are, like, making much ado nothing. Hang loose.”