Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Book I Read In January

‘The Killing Spirit. An Anthology of Assassins’ ed. by Jay Hopler
Clearly I need to stop buying thematic short story collections. This one was produced by Canongate Books which appears to have been a Scottish publishing house particularly interested in urban and black writing. Under their Payback Press imprint they sought to publish US black authors neglected in the UK. I have no idea if Jay Hopler was black but certainly many of the stories in this collection have an urban setting and are very American. This book was first published in the USA and reprinted by Canongate for the UK where I bought it.

Like a lot of collection editors, Hopler had very strict criteria for what can be included. He argues there are only two types of assassin stories, those about professional assassins and those about amateurs pressured or bribed into being assassins. Bar in one case, all the assassins are male and most are amateur and operating in an urban setting largely in the USA. The argot of the characters soon becomes tiresome as a result.

The nature of what is included here is a real mish-mash. The poetry like ‘Screen Image: (Royal Emerald Hotel, Nassau)’ by Mark Rudman and ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ by Robert Lowell are the poorest and even for poetry are incoherent. ‘The Hit Man’ by T. Coraghessan Boyle is a series of fragments that are again irritating and do not do much. There are book extracts, from ‘This Gun For Hire’ by Graham Greene and ‘Ripley’s Game’ by Patricia Highsmith. These are distinctive, the first being set in Britain; the latter in France and Germany. There is also an extract from ‘The Butcher’s Boy’ by Thomas Perry which looks as if it is going to shape up to be a kind of a CSI story, but is curtailed too quickly. The story is engaging as far as it goes, probably one of the best written in the whole collection. These extracts are unsatisfactory because they are incomplete. You know the story is going to run out and so you are irritated rather than engaged with the characters and not necessarily at the most interesting parts of these books.

‘Gentlemen, the King!’ is a silly comic piece by Damon Runyon about mafia assassins going to a fantastical state in Europe to kill a king. I have seen people reading Runyon’s work before, but this story difficult to follow through the mafia argot has certainly dissuaded me from mimicking them. The same goes for ‘The Killers’ by Ernest Hemingway. The back-chat dialogue in both these stories seems to be considered more important than the story or the characters themselves. It is as if Runyon and Hemingway are saying ‘look at how clever I am, I can write dialogue like mafia men use’. Perhaps given all the mafia movies this is no longer any kind of revelation to us. The same problem applies to ‘Hit Man’ by Charles Bukowski, though its greater difficulty is that it is far too brief to be of any point.

‘The Death of Mrs Sheer’ by Joyce Carol Oates, is almost the opposite of an urban novel, featuring a pair of incompetent backwoods gunmen as they go about failing to kill their targets. ‘When This Man Dies’ by Lawrence Block is not bad. It is more like a story from the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ collection by Roald Dahl, as much a morality tale as one about assassins. ‘Shelter. An Original Screenplay’ by David Kost, is also not bad. It is a script again featuring a mafia assassin in this case seeking refuge from a hit that has gone wrong, at the house of an old girlfriend during family dinner. It works in this short format and I do not know if it could stand expansion. Written as a short story it could have been one of the best in this collection, though again hampered by this obsession with mafia argot.

The better pieces include ‘Loose Ends’ by Bharati Mukherjee which like too many of the stories features the assassin wandering around cheap motels in the USA, though in this case featuring US Asians. It has some very irritating, very trashy characters. ‘The Same Only Different’ by Jiri Kajanё is translated and is as much about Balkans politics as assassination. It features a female assassin, though we do not see through her eyes. The generic names for things makes it feel rather abstract as if it is a fable. However, this may derive from the translation. It is still better than a great deal of the stories included. Perhaps the best is ‘In the Beginning: A Novel in Progress’ by Ian McEwan. I have heard McKewan’s short novels criticised for very little happening in them. However, this is the best crafted story in the book and works as a short story very well. I do not know what it subsequently grew into.

Hopler has a lengthy introduction in which he gives rather weak analysis of the elements going into assassin stories and then is very prescriptive of what they must include. He ends the book with a series of reviews of assassin movies 1942-94 with a paragraph for each; the book was published in 1996. This is done reasonably well. I might have also included ‘The Green Man’ (1956) starring Alastair Sim and even ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955) with Alec Guinness mimicking Sim. There is also ‘My Learned Friend’ (1943) featuring Will Hay.  'The Assassination Bureau' (1969) is a 19th century set story about a company of assassins. However, all of these may have felt to be too light to be included. All three versions of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ (1935, 1959, 1978) feature an amateur seeking to thwart professional assassins.

The more series gaps are two French movies, ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967) which alongside ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is the archetypal study of a professional assassin, yet much more explores many of the themes of loneliness and morality touched on in some of the stories featured in this book. The other is ‘La Femme Nikita’ (1990), which Hopler only mentions in the introduction in reference to Luc Besson’s later ‘Léon’ (1994), known in the USA as ‘The Professional’. ‘La Femme Nikita’ has spawned two US television series. It crosses Hopler’s two types of assassin story featuring an amateur bullied into becoming a professional assassin. Hopler does not even feature ‘The Assassin’ (1993), the very reasonable US remake of ‘La Femme Nikita’ which actually resolves some of the confusions of the original.

‘Assassins’ (1995), though not a good movie, probably was released too late to feature in this book. Similarly ‘Nick of Time’ (1995) the real-time movie featuring Johnny Depp seems to fit perfectly Hopler’s category of an ordinary man compelled to be an assassin but was probably too late for inclusion.

Hopler argues that he was spoilt for choice in terms of stories he could have included in this collection which is why he had to adopt such strict criteria. However, if this was the best he could find, I can hardly believe that statement. This book is a mess, featuring often meaningless chunks of stuff. It also wallows in a restricted perspective, primarily highlighting mafia hit man stories. This is another book I regret having bought.

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