It didn’t happen, but it’s what they would have said. I was wearing a short skirt, and I’d been the one to suggest going back to his place to hang out. Never have I been so glad for the guys’ tendency to let their place be too messy to bring girls home.
When I started drinking at parties in high school, about the most I ever did was sit on guys’ laps. To this day, I get drunk, I want to sit on someone’s lap. Once a guy stuck his tongue down my throat, but that was all. I did go into a room with someone at a party once, but it was a game for me to see how much I could stay in control, and nothing happened. I don’t get wild when I’m drunk, I’m one of those who works to not let it show, to stay in control and walk straight. Even when I can’t feel my face. I was afraid of losing control, of something spiraling into chaos I couldn’t handle, couldn’t stop, so I avoided it. I had friends who didn’t. Some were lucky, some weren’t. I had a friend who got wasted at a party and ended up in a room with a guy who told her, “Suck or fuck.” This was when blowjobs were still a big deal, so she chose the latter. For her first time. As she was telling me, my heart was dropping, I knew she’d been too drunk to give consent, that he’d taken advantage of her, that it was rape. But it was years before she admitted it to herself and could say it. I was terrified of anything like that happening to me, so I avoided putting myself in those situations.
I didn’t even really seriously make out with a guy until my first college boyfriend, a nice art student who took a really long time to put the moves on me, even after we were dating. He’d pick me up from my dorm, we’d spend the evening hanging out at his apartment, he’d drive me home. I’m still not sure if his playing Salt ‘n Pepper’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” in the car on those drives home was a subtle hint. But I wasn’t going to throw myself on him when I had no idea what I was doing, as much as I wanted to, so I waited until he finally initiated. I spent the night a few times, but nothing ever happened below the waist. I would have, we were in college, he was my boyfriend, it was what you did. But I was following his lead, and he wasn’t going very fast. We broke up after a couple months. Maybe he expected more, who knows. I liked him, he was a great first boyfriend, really.
Slugboy was the next. Things went farther, faster, with him. In part because he was dating a Nice Girl back home who wouldn’t put out, and so I felt one of the few advantages I had over her was if I did. Yeah, that’s a great reason to lose your virginity, ladies. To win over a cheating liar and make him break up with the other girl. I was nineteen and thought I knew what I was doing. We planned it. I spent a Friday night at his dorm. We switched the CD from My Bloody Valentine to Crowded House because, really, as great as they are, the phrase “I lost my virginity to My Bloody Valentine” just sounds awful. As first times go, I guess it was above average. I enjoyed it enough, nothing hurt, I liked it. We repeated it on Saturday night, then went play rehearsal Sunday morning. He dropped me off at my dorm after, then disappeared. He called that evening from his parents to say he thought we should just be friends. I could hear The Nice Girl in the background. That pretty took the experience from “above average” to “emotional disaster.”
“Just friends” didn’t last long. He told me he’d broken up with the Nice Girl, that they were just friends. I can’t dissect what was happening in my nineteen year old brain to make me think that using my sexuality to win him was the best plan, but I’m sure women older and wiser have made the same mistake so I don’t beat myself up over it. I’m of the pre-Clinton days where oral sex was a bigger deal than intercourse, so I actually performed my first blow job on him months after we’d had sex. It was in my new apartment, no furniture yet, so he was lying on the bare carpet in one of the bedrooms. The act was less disgusting than gossip had led me to expect, even though he didn’t manage to warn me before he came and I had to choose to spit or swallow. I swallowed, it wasn’t bad. Salty, odd, but nothing awful. Still not enough, he was still seeing the Nice Girl, though I didn’t know it then as I believed his lies.
Maybe because I had to be the sexy one, I didn’t hold back, let myself enjoy it. And I really did. Even though it was well over a year before he actually gave me an orgasm- and when he did he asked what was wrong. I liked sex, all of it, and I was good at it. I never felt that good about it, though. Because it didn’t win him over, he didn’t chose me, he shamed me for drinking or smoking the occasional cigarette. For not being a Nice Girl. God, I wish I could go back and hug that nineteen year old me, tell her there’s nothing wrong with her, and that she needs to dump that idiot and go have as much fun as she can find.
I broke up with Slugboy for a time, and dated a sweet Freshman, who looked at me like he was gobsmacked I had chosen him. He was a virgin, I’d only been with Slugboy, and I wanted to be the Nice Girl this time. To know if a guy would still be with me even if I wasn’t having sex with him. I’ll never know, as the Freshman put the moves on me one night, and even though I tried to dissuade him, I didn’t feel comfortable just telling him no. He got overexcited and didn’t make it to the act that night, and saying no after that felt like I’d be punching him in the ego. So next date, I put on something sexy, took control, and made like it was my choice. We were in college, he was my boyfriend, it was what you did. I was never that into it, stopped to answer the phone more than once while we were having sex. He left for the summer and fell away.
I got back with Slugboy for a while, then got free and fell for my friend Dave’s roommate Bill. Bill was an actual Son of a Preacher Man, and didn’t have much experience. He didn’t pick up that I was suddenly arranging my schedule to have lunch with him, Dave, and our friend Will every week, and not just because Dave and Will cracked me up. I remember setting up the perfect shot for Bill to ask me out, and watching Dave’s jaw just drop as he completely missed it, and I ended up having to do it myself. Bill didn’t have much experience, but the boy was a natural. Our first date, once he did finally kiss me, I barely made it inside my apartment before my knees gave out. Yes, that good. Even though I was wondering if I was listed in a university guide as a good sacrificial volcano for boys looking to lose their virginity by this point, I wanted to be with him. And again, the boy had skills. He shyly asked he’d been OK, if I’d enjoyed myself. “Yeah,” I said, “four times.” Go Bill. It was a good relationship, but he was the kind of guy you marry, and at 22, I wasn’t ready for that, so I called it off eventually.
I dated plenty of guys after that, and I can’t remember any who pressured me into doing anything I didn’t want to do. The first night with Jack, even though I’d brought him back to my place and we were fooling around in my bed, I wasn’t sure I wanted to have sex with him. I must have telegraphed that on my face, as he said that we didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. I came around, but it was good to know it was fully my choice. He was dating half of Austin, and maybe he was secure enough that he didn’t need to convince some girl to fuck him to prove his masculinity. And he may have been dating around, and didn’t mind if I was too, but when we were together, I was the only girl in the world, and he expected the same from me. I learned that when I tried to be cool and intimate there was someone else, and he called me out on it, saying you don’t bring up other people when you’re with someone. Good lesson, one I’ve kept, and one I judge others by in their breaking it.
It wasn’t until Frazier that I finally felt that my enjoyment of sex was OK, even a good thing. It was not the best situation. He was dating a friend of mine, even though she was still looking for something better, and he and I had always had chemistry. Since we did, and since she still seemed to be shopping around, I approached the subject with her sideways one day at lunch, saying that a few people I knew had ended up marrying guys their best friends had dated first, and how would she feel about that. Wouldn’t happen to her, she said. All her best friends were married or engaged. As I was neither, I was clearly not among her best friends, so I started sleeping with her boyfriend. Not my finest hour, but not something I will ever regret. It’s not that the sex was the most amazing ever, though it was good. No, it was that Fraizer was so admiring of how much I liked having sex, how much I was into it and enjoyed it. I’d never had a guy compliment me on that, make it sound not just OK but a good thing, something to be proud of. I felt so freed, finally able to express this aspect of myself without fear of being judged and found dirty. But I felt awful lying, and had to call it off after a few weeks.
Fast forward some years, and we get to Dan, and all the chat sex. Like Frazier, he liked that I was into it, that I was open and willing to test my boundaries, even if it was just virtual. I did too, finding out new things about myself (I’d be OK making out with someone else in front of a guy, but not having sex with someone else; spanking and hair pulling are good, things like,”You’re such a good slut,” crossed a line I didn’t like). But you start to wonder if your enjoyment, your willingness to try new things, is a bonus with purchase, or the only feature to really interest them.
Or if, as much as they enjoy it, it also scares them. I had one guy run out after sex, in the middle of the night, when I’d expressed that I actually wanted him to stay. The sex hadn’t been great, neither of us came, but I liked him, and was willing to work on it, and I’d enjoyed myself anyway. No idea if he had, as I have never been with someone who made less noise. I don’t need porn star talk, but the occasional groan is good feedback that I’m doing things right. This guy, I have no clue if I was, or what he wanted. I left him a couple texts and voice mails, but never heard back.
And Dan, well, for someone who is so open to new experiences that we had a Dream Team discussion on which actors and actresses we’d chose for a three-way, he sure embarrasses easily in person. We went out for drinks when we were both home, and I forgot that three vodkas on a mostly empty stomach was a bad idea for me, and got wasted. I still claim I was walking fine, that it was high heels and bad sidewalk that were doing me in, but he was good about keeping an arm around me anyway. We went to get coffee, I clearly needed some to be able to drive home, and as I couldn’t very well sit in his lap at a well-lit coffee shop as is my drunken wont, I tried to make do by stretching my legs out and putting my feet on his lap. I was in a skirt, it hiked up, and my stocking tops might have been visible to the other patrons. Even sober, this is not something I bother about, no big deal and let them have a thrill. But Dan, wow, bright red, eyes darting everywhere to see who was watching. So maybe guys are as scared of their own desires as they are of ours.
There’s nothing to be scared of, though. Until there is. I’d gone out with Dawson once, had a nice time, but found him a little boring, one of those who seems to be waiting for you to finish telling a story so he can regale you with his next bon mot. He walked me to my car, and laid some good moves on my, but I didn’t feel a thing, except that I wanted to go home and wished it wasn’t too late to hit the grocery store down the street. I told him in a email a couple days later that I thought we’d be better as friends, that we had too much in common, and even got him in touch with a friend I thought might like him, as a decent guy with a job in LA is a rarity. I don’t know what happened with them, but I gather it didn’t click. A couple months went by, and I got in touch with him about getting drinks. Thought I might try again for a spark, and if nothing else, I could use more friends. We had a good time, he was more relaxed, we laughed a lot. I had a few beers, and I can’t remember how the subject got around to sex, but then he was asking me what was the weirdest request I had ever gotten in bed. Now, this is not really early dating conversation for me, but rather things I talk about openly with my online friends (many of whom I’ve met through commenting on New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries on Mondays, although I’m more a reader than a participant), and Dan, whom I have known forever. But I don’t like being a prude, and it’s nothing I’m ashamed of, so I let the conversation continue. I haven’t actually had any odd requests (OK, I did not mention Slugboy and the zucchini, as that was just something that belongs in a farce not real life), but we got talking about other likes and dislikes, and I alluded to liking some light bondage. I was not going to get down and dirty with someone I don’t know that well, so I kept it vague. He walked me to my car, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to kiss him, or just be friends. I even said, “Awkward pause.” He went for it, and this time, I was into it. Really. Though I still hated that he took my purse off my shoulder and put it on the ground- it was a controlling little move. I’m a biter, though I tend to stick to necks and shoulders. This gave him ideas, though why he chose to bite my stomach I will never know. Things went far, with my shirt pushed up around my shoulders at one point, until someone on a bike went past and I shut it down.
He called twice the next day, and when I finally got a chance to call him back, he just wanted to talk. And then tried to invite himself over to keep me company. I was already in comfy pants and looking forward to lounging, alone, watching “Glee,” and had to be pretty firm that I didn’t want company. Even so far as saying we’d do something the next night just to get him off the phone. I worried I’d snagged a Stage 5 Clinger, which is ironic as I can be clingy myself but hate it in others. Typical only child, I need my space, unless I don’t, but I want to decide that. He’d mentioned missing the short skirt I wore on our first date, so I obliged on the next night. Met him at a restaurant, had dinner, and soon realized, God, he is boring. There are only so many, “This one time I said something really funny,” or “This one time I thought of something really funny I could say” stories a girl can stand, and he hit his limit early on in the evening. But I’d had a good time making out the night before (though the biting left marks that made a friend comment on a photo I’d posted of them, “Who are you partying with, Jeffrey Dahmer?”), and a girl has needs, so when we finished dinner and he asked what I wanted to do, I suggested we could go back to his for a while and hang out. He said his place was too much of a mess. I’d decided I wasn’t bringing anyone else back to mine until the third date or later, that if anyone was going to do a runner it was me, so I lied and said mine was too. As I was to learn later, this was so lucky.
I’d found such a good parking spot, I was worried it wasn’t legal, and wanted to check before we walked over for a drink. It was fine, and at my car, he started making out with me again. It must have been the beer the night before, as this time I wasn’t into it at all. I tried to feign interest, see if I could trick myself, but nothing doing. I did not want to be making out with this guy. But how do you say that to someone who’s just paid for dinner? And seems to be a good guy? As I’ve said before, I am too polite for my own good. So I just said we should get going if we’re going to get drinks before my parking limit runs out.
We get to the bar, and his hand is on my thigh almost immediately. I’m not against such things, but not with someone I’m realizing I’m not into, and not in full view of everyone else in a weirdly well lit bar. And he keeps looking at my chest. Now, I’m used to this, as any girl with breasts will tell you, men like to talk to them. But never on a date. They’ve got a decent chance of doing more than just look, so why stare? I was getting more and more uncomfortable, feeling more and more like Something was expected of me, that I had somehow given the impression that I was up for anything. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten less of a buzz off a vodka rocks- my brain wanted all its faculties that night. Not that it did me much good, I still had no idea how to shut Dawson down. After first saying no, then yes, saying no again felt so flaky I was afraid he’d cause a scene. I don’t deal well with having someone be angry at me, so I avoid it. We walked back to my car, my saying I needed to get him home. Not getting the hint, he attacked me on my car again. I kept my knees glued together, and was nervous by how well lit and well traversed the area was. In retrospect, that was a good thing, but I just felt so exposed. I finally got him in my car, I guess I’d made enough references to needing to get him home and get home myself. And then he really went for it. Hand right up my skirt. I pushed it away a couple times, pretty firmly. But I guess as I hadn’t objected in the bar, he wasn’t hearing it then. He was still kissing me aggressively, and trying to get his hand up my skirt, despite my saying, again, “I need to get you home.” I finally tried, “I want to take this slowly.” Which he somehow took to mean, “I want you to try and shove my hand down your pants.” I was having none of that, and pulled back damn fast and said I was taking him home. And to get his hand off my leg as I drive a stick and needed all my attention for that. God bless that stick shift, it kept him on his side of the car at least. He tried more when we got to his place, but I was firm about wanting to get home.
When I did, I freaked out. Nothing had really happened, but I felt so violated, so taken advantage of, and I hated myself for not speaking out and stopping him. But, even though it was my car, and it was a well-lit, well-traversed area, I was afraid. Afraid he’d get angry and it would escalate anyway, and faster. Or that he’d start calling me all kinds of names. I’d tried to appease him, keep him calm, bring it down a notch. But it didn’t work. I kept thinking about what would have happened if we had gone back to his place, somewhere truly private. I am pretty sure I would have had to physically fight him off me, and I’m just glad I didn’t find out how far it would have gone before I’d succeeded. He was a smoker, and wore a lot of cologne, and both previous times we’d gone out I’d been able to smell it on me the next day. I couldn’t handle that, so I tore off my clothes and scrubbed myself in the shower. I woke up the next day with a migraine that lasted a week. I blocked Dawson on my phone, but he still called and emailed twice, increasingly annoyed and concerned as to why I’d dropped off the planet when “we’d had a good time.” I had other drama to cope with, things that were more pressing and important, and I just wanted to forget that night, so I ignored him and deleted all messages.
We talk a lot about consent in this country, about how sex without consent is rape, but we never really define what consent really is. Because it’s not just not saying “No.” I didn’t say no to what Dawson was doing to me, but I sure as hell feel I didn’t consent. I went along, because I was scared and nervous and unsure how to stop him. My friend faced with, “Suck or fuck,” didn’t consent, but she also didn’t say no, she didn’t fight him off. It didn’t make it any more right. But it seems like unless you scream “NO!” repeatedly and fight the guy off, whether he’s a stranger or your boyfriend, you aren’t taken seriously if you do decide to press charges. Even if you have fought, there’s still a nasty tendency to blame the victim, to say she just regretted it and is filing a false claim, trying to get some kind of revenge or attention. Having had friends who have been through the process, I doubt anyone would do it for fun. Sady Doyle’s #MooreAndMe campaign on Twitter, which sought to get Michael Moore to retract and answer to comments he’d made disparaging the accusers in the Julian Assange rape cases in Sweden, drew lots of support and attention to the issue. And if you read The Guardian’s story on the case, it is sadly clear these are cases where the women didn’t fight, they didn’t say no, but also, where they clearly did not want to have sex with this man and ended up doing it anyway. Without the functioning condoms they had insisted on at the very least. But in Sweden, for whatever reason, they seem more willing to acknowledge that grey area, and even have different degrees of sexual assault (though, no, “sex without a condom” is nowhere on that list, however often that lie is repeated). Maybe they’ve had the discussions we need to be having, about what consent means, about how to say no, about how to tell when a woman is quietly resisting and that those are signs you need to stop immediately. Because we’re clearly not there yet in this country. When Moe Tkacik tried to address the situation, in her patented Moe way, full of run-on sentences and not always strong logic, but with some damn good points, she got shredded in the blogosphere because she used the names of the victims. I completely agree that rape victims should never be named before a verdict, but her paper had no standing rule on the issue, and even MSNBC has broadcast their names. She made an honest mistake, and her editors didn’t fix it until the storm erupted, and made it seem it was totally her fault, and not theirs for not having a basic policy in place like any other outlet does. And she got fired, for talking about rape in a way some women found to be wrong.
It seems that you can be judged by all sides for not responding to a rape in the “right” way, whatever the hell that is. The victims in the Assange case have been shredded for taking time to report him, and for daring to continue to hang out with him after the attacks. So that’s wrong. But, it seems, it’s also wrong to be flippant about it, when you’ve been a victim of sexual assault by an acquaintance yourself, as Tkacik has been pretty open about having happened to her in college. Until we can talk about this, without declaring “right” and “wrong” ways to do it, we’re never going to move forward, and never going to make real progress in making it clear that being forceful with a woman isn’t manly, it’s rapey. And women will worry about how open they can be, without it being viewed as an invitation that we’re ready and willing anytime, with anyone.
It feels like I was just enjoying the music, dancing along, having fun, and now it’s stopped, and everyone has a seat but me. I’ll be over against the wall, humming to myself. Maybe another round will start, or someone will get bored and move on. A space has to open up eventually, right?
I’m half British, and while my father never actually said the words “stiff upper lip” or “be a good soldier,” the attitude was instilled in me early. Be calm under pressure, don’t make a fuss, try not to be a bother. Add to this growing up in the south, and I can be ridiculously polite. When I was in fourth grade, I was standing near the classroom door when my teacher left, shutting the door behind her. Somehow my thumb had gotten in between the door and the jam, so as she tried repeatedly to close the door, my thumb got smashed over and over. A normal kid would have screamed. I just went silent, and probably green, as something alerted my friend Jenny that something was wrong, causing her to scream, “Miss Fuglar, look!” Miss Fuglar opened the door, saw what had happened, and asked if I was fine. I was nodding that I was fine as blood was pouring from my mashed thumb. I did let them call my mom to take me home that time.
My last apartment in Austin was in an old converted house, three apartments downstairs, two up, my efficiency and a one bedroom. The floors sloped, my closet was in the kitchen, and there wasn’t enough hot water in the winter to make the walk from my warm bed across the cold apartment to the freezing shower seem worth it most mornings. The building had no central heat, or heat of any kind, just individual electric radiators. The wiring was old, so you had to remember to turn off the heater if you wanted to turn on any other appliance with a heating element. I ran into my neighbor from the other upstairs apartment most mornings that first winter, downstairs by the circuit box. We’d nod at each other. ‘Hair dryer,” I’d say. “Coffee maker, again,” she’d reply. And then back to our apartments. That was the extent of our relationship. Polite and a little reserved, that’s me.
The place had lovely old wooden sash windows, but the system of ropes and weights that make them work properly were long gone, so you had to use a piece of wood to prop them open, and be careful closing them so they didn’t slam suddenly and shatter the panes; they were really heavy. Come spring, I was opening the window beside my bed most days, to get a nice breeze through. It opened up on to the flat part of the roof, so I could climb out and sit there and pretend I had a roof deck. Seeing as the raccoons had no trouble climbing up the tree out front and also using my roof deck, I closed the window at night. I was in my ratty tank top and boxers one night, in bed, and leaned over to close the window. Took the wood out, carefully put one hand on the lower sash to steady it as I lowered it, and then felt a snap as the pane my hand was on broke, and pain as my hand slid through and was stuck between the two sashes of the window. Completely, totally, stuck. No way to free it with my other hand. And the telephone was on the floor, inches out of reach to dial 911 for help.
Now, I’m pretty calm in a crisis. I’m the person you want when things go ape shit, because I keep it together, don’t freak out at the sight of blood, just get it done and get through it. But at that moment, I started to freak out. It’s ten o-clock at night, I’m alone, my heavy front door is locked and bolted, my hand is jammed in the window and hurting more by the minute, and the phone is just there. Useless. On the floor. I have no plan, no idea what to do.
I started half-heartedly calling for help. I wasn’t even sure what kind of help to call for, I figured the fire department was the best bet, they’d be able to break down the door, and likely have tools to get my damn hand out which the cops wouldn’t. And they say people are more likely to respond by calling 911 if you cry “Fire!” than anything else. But there was no fire, and I’m oddly truthful, even when my hand is trapped in a damn window and I really need help. At another apartment, my oven caught on fire, and I just stood there staring at it as the temperature dial melted off, not wanting to call the fire department because it was just a little oven and I didn’t want to bother them with it. Yes, I have issues. That time I had access to a phone and called my landlord and he reminded me I had a fire extinguisher. Ok, so I’m not perfect in a crisis, but I am calm.
But I couldn’t reach the phone this time, no matter how hard I tried. And I was trying, stretching, wondering if I could dial with my feet. Nope. I was alone and stuck. I can be really loud when needed, and I think something in my overly polite head finally clicked on that this would be a time it was needed, and I started really calling out for help. Not sure what I was yelling, I think basically “Help me, I’m trapped, please help me,” or the like. I didn’t have much hope of success. It was late, there was no one walking around outside. I was envisioning being left there for days, wasting away, until my cats started chewing on me for sustenance. The sturdy wooden door, with its strong locks, really had me worried. Even if I did manage to summon help, how would they get in? Would they have axes? They would need an axe, and would my landlord take the damage out of my deposit?
Finally, my neighbor, whose window was next to mine, heard me and called out to find out what was wrong. I explained the situation, hand stuck in window, phone out of reach, door locked. She said she’d go get the building manager and be right back.
I’d forgotten about the building manager. Because he wasn’t so much a manager as a strange man who lived in a shack behind the building. It was like a tool shed, with a bunk for him to sleep. I never looked close enough to figure out what his cooking and bathing facilities were. He was a friendly guy, but gave off that vibe that made you automatically take a half step back, just needing that little extra bit of personal space. But any port in a storm, he had keys and tools, so bring on the creepy shaggy man! While I sat and waited in a stretched out tank top and baggy boxers, hand stuck in the window, wondering how much more ridiculous this situation would get, wishing I were wearing more clothes. Or just clothes that consistently covered everything needing covering.
It took a few minutes, but Shaggy got into my apartment, and my neighbor, a lovely woman who also happened to be a nurse, came along as well. He pried my hand free from the window. I’ve blocked exactly how painful it was, but I don’t think it was anything like the nice hand massage you get from the manicurist. My neighbor slapped an ice pack on my poor hand, and made herself comfortable on my bed, staking claim and making it clear to Shaggy that she’d be staying with the slightly freaked out girl in the gaping tank top, thanks so much for your help. He said he’d call the landlord about the window and would take care of fixing it and, after a few moments of awkward, left her to minister to me. For being stuck between two old, heavy wooden window sashes for about 1/2 an hour, my hand was oddly fine. It should have been crushed, bloody and bruised, but it was just a little scraped and swollen. My neighbor sat with me for a bit, making sure I was ok, then went back to her apartment. I called my parents and finally let myself freak out, hyperventilate and cry. I’m fine during the crisis, I wait to fall apart until it’s past.
The next morning, I woke to Shaggy replacing the broken window pane, sitting on my roof outside, mere inches from my sleeping self. He was very friendly about it. Being groggy from sleep and a little surprised at being confronted by a strange man while still in bed, I think I managed to pull off polite thanks at his promptness in fixing it. And soon looked into curtains for that damn window. Double checked the locks I’d installed the autumn before.
I’ve extended my politeness to always make it a point to introduce myself to my neighbors now when I move to a new place, and say hi when I run into them around the property. You never know when you’ll be screaming for help in the dark of night, and you want neighbors who will come to your aid, not just turn up the TV to drown out the noise.
The One from the Other by Philip Kerr takes place after the events in his Berlin Trilogy, the war is over and Bernie Gunther is trying, and failing, to run a hotel near Dachau. His wife has succumbed to madness, shut away in a hospital. An American intelligence officer brings a former Nazi guard by the hotel to dig up a box of valuables stolen from prisoners at the camp. This ends up entangling Gunther in a twisting, violent plot that organically switches direction several times throughout the book. Once the pieces fall into place, it seems impossible to have missed where it was going, but Kerr somehow pulls it off, letting us figure it out along with Bernie, becoming more and more amazed at the manipulations needed to pull it off.
I’m in a rush, and even if I weren’t, I can’t do justice to just how good this book is, on so many levels. The plotting is a lesson in itself, levels and levels, building on each other, no detail wasted. And Kerr’s language, oh wow, the way the man can put a sentence together is a thing to be marveled at. Take this passage:
And if that didn’t pan out, I would head to the Hofbrauhaus with my English dictionary and a packet of cigarettes and spend the evening with a nice brunette. Several brunettes probably- the silent kind, with nice creamy heads and not a hard-luck story between them, all lined up along a bartop.
Books I own, I mark passages I like and then turn down the bottom corner so I can find them again later. I got this book from the library, but there are still several pages turned down at the bottom corner, places to flip back to before I have to give it back to the library.
“Funny thing about forgiveness,” I said. “Someone has to look and act like they’re sorry for there to be any chance of real forgiveness.”
He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and yet he had the look of a creature that killed weasels with his teeth. It was as if his mother had prayed for a baby terrier and changed her mind at the last minute.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” I said. “That’s my advice.”
“It’s bad advice, Herr Gunther,” she said. “Think about it. All those veterinary bills if the nag is no good. And let’s not forget what happened to those dumb Trojans. Maybe if they had listened to Cassandra instead of Sinon they might have done just that. If they’d looked the Greek gift horse in the mouth they would have seen Odysseus and all his Greek friends huddled inside.” She smiled. “Benefits of a classical education.”
It was something I had learned as an intelligence officer during the war: The essence of deception is not the lie that’s told but the truths that are told to support it.
That last one’s just good advice, all around. Kerr has a gift for description, he can put a few words together in a way you’d never imagine and a character or place or moment flies off the page, alive and kicking. He’s also able to work what must be massive amounts of research and background seamlessly into a story, teaching you things your teachers never mentioned, making it more real than they ever could. Without ever feeling like you’re being lectured. Be warned, the violence in this one gets very nasty, bones crunching, technicolor bruises. And the references to the Soviet troops raping their way across Germany will make your stomach turn. We’re so used to the high school history class black and white of WWII, we were the good guys, the Germans the ultimate bad guys. Kerr doesn’t dispute that, but he gives voice to individual stories of what it was like to be German at that time, in that place. In his books, good and bad are turned on their heads.
Growing up in Baton Rouge, summers were all about the pool. With temperatures in the nineties, and humidity to match, being submerged in cool water was the best escape. Playing outside meant being sticky from the heat, bitten by mosquitoes, and the ever-present threat of stinging caterpillars. Yes, that’s right, even the caterpillars sting in the south. They come out when the ligustrom hedges were in bloom, and I always associated the smell of the flowers with the stinging caterpillars, like they were the ones with the scent. They were black, and covered with prickles and spikes, and left a painful welt if you touched them. Not only was there a danger of stepping on them, but they could fall from the trees and land on you. So the local pool, with no overhanging trees and the promise of hours of games of Marco Polo and handstands in the shallow end, was the place we all wanted to be.
I was an only child and grew up on a street without many kids my own age. We joined the local pool for the neighborhood, nothing fancy, no high dive, but the snack bar had good french fries. It was almost close enough to bike to, but not really, not on my own. So my mom would have to drive me and drop me off. She wasn’t a swimmer, didn’t like getting her hair wet. I remember her swimming, her head above water, hair protected by one of those caps with rubber flowers on it. Dad would come on the weekends, but weekdays, I was on my own. I don’t remember what we did, just goofed around I think. Teased the lifeguards. All the things you do when you’re six and seven. I took swimming lessons one summer, but I was never a great swimmer. I didn’t want to perfect my strokes and do laps, join a team. I loved being underwater, not going along at speed on top of it. Given a long enough snorkel, I would happily sit on the bottom of the pool all day, just marveling at the reflection of the light on the surface of the water. I liked doing handstands, turning somersaults, all the things I was clumsy at on land felt graceful in the water. I felt graceful in the water. Freed from gravity, I could almost fly.
They brought in busing in our parish when I was in third grade, so I changed schools, went to one far away from where I lived. I had friends all over town, even fewer in our little neighborhood than I had before. I kept wanting to go to the pool in Kenilworth, where more of my friends lived, and I could, if I was with one of them, they could sign me in as a guest. It was bigger than our pool, with a high dive and a kiddie pool. It was a better, newer neighborhood, they had a better, newer pool. If I wanted to bring Elizabeth or Erica to our pool, my mom would have to drive over and pick them up, bring us back to the pool, pick us up at the end of the day, and bring my friends home after. I think it was just easier for my parents in the end to change what pool we belonged to, even though my dad never liked the Kenilworth pool as much. At our neighborhood pool, he had a key, and would go swimming in the middle of the night when my mom and I were visiting relatives. I don’t think he did that at Kenilworth, it wasn’t that kind of pool. My mom always made a big deal about our joining the Kenilworth Swim Club, that I would have to go a lot to make it worth it. Of course, it was farther away, so she had to drive me, which she never came around to enjoying.
But I got to spend the days with Elizabeth, my best friend. I remember days spent at the pool, laughing, playing Marco Polo, bitter when they made us get out because of thunder and lightening, far off and no danger to us. The sun pouring down on us, we owned that world. Night was even better, under the stars, the air slightly cooler than during the day, fewer people. We would swim up to the lights, feel their heat. Looking back, I don’t know how we ended up best friends, we had nothing in common. Though her mom was a librarian, I was the reader, not Elizabeth. I liked playing with dolls, she liked playing sports. She won awards on the swim team, I couldn’t be bothered to finish a lap. I was always playing catch up being her friend. Trying to be more athletic, more outgoing, less of a weird little girl who wanted to make up stories in her head and more of a normal girl who could play soccer. But I could never play soccer. Or tennis. Or do a cartwheel, even after two years of gymnastics. Whatever they tell you, practice does not make perfect, it just makes you slightly less awkward when you inevitably fall down.
Angie lived down the street from Elizabeth, and she was as athletic, on all the same teams I wasn’t good enough to make. Not that I even wanted to be on them, really. I knew I wasn’t good enough to win at games, so I just wanted to play, enjoy myself. Angie wanted to win, so did Elizabeth. I don’t know why Angie and I didn’t get along. My mom says I came home crying the first day she came to our school, when she finally transferred there, long after the rest of us. I have no memory of what happened that day, I just know that after she came, recess stopped being about playing games and started being about winning them, four square and double dutch instead of pretending the climbing frame was a spaceship. I was good at piloting a spaceship, I was crap at four square, or anything involving a playground ball. I broke Erica’s arm in a freak kickball accident in second grade, I wasn’t just bad at sports, I was unsafe. And Angie’s mother didn’t believe, like mine did, that you invited every girl in class to a birthday party. Angie had sleepovers, and all my friends were invited, while I sat at home with my parents, trying to tell myself it didn’t matter. Angie and Elizabeth lived on one of those streets with a pack of kids growing up together, I was just a visitor, having to get a ride over.
By middle school, the pool became less about games and more about real swimming, or laying out by the pool to get a tan. The diving board was for real dives, not just cannonballs and goofing around. Angie took diving lessons, was doing flips. I couldn’t even manage to dive from a walking start, bouncing at the end of the board and cleaving the water with my hands pointed above my head. And Elizabeth was on the swim team, there for practice every day, spending the days playing there lost its appeal to her. I went to summer camp with her one summer, where they tried to teach me tennis. My dad had tried before, giving me a ball and an old racket, moving the car so I could hit the ball off the wall at the front of the house. He even tried tying a ball to a string from a branch on a tree. Nothing could get me to hit that little ball with that damn racket. I was decent at badminton, but no one played badminton in 1980’s Baton Rouge, they played tennis. I did manage to learn how to serve, even if it was just a bounce serve. I rarely hit a ball back over the net, so my serve got lots of practice. Going to the pool, I borrowed my dad’s old snorkel and mask, practicing that while Elizabeth and Angie did laps, working on their butterfly stroke. I couldn’t even figure out what the movements needed for that were. I tried once or twice, and just felt like I was flailing madly. I was a manatee, they were dolphins.
My dad went on a sabbatical when I was in eighth grade, so we moved up to Maryland for the year. I kept in touch with Elizabeth on the phone, this was before the internet, and she came up over Christmas vacation. We made a huge snowman and had snowball fights. I was popular in Maryland, and enjoyed introducing her to all my friends. We moved home during the summer, so we didn’t bother joining a pool up there. I went to the VFW pool with my friend Kelly once or twice before we moved. They made all the kids get out for a time every hour for adult swim. I’d never heard of that before. And we were 14, not kids, it was embarrassing to be grouped with them and not the adults.
I came back to Baton Rouge and started high school, a new school, with even more new kids from all over town. Alliances had changed, solidified, in the year I’d been gone, and I never really caught up. Due to a wonderful genetic quirk, a massive growth spurt had left me with awful knee pains and problems that got me out of PE for the rest of my school career. The physical pain was nothing compared to the freedom from the pain of embarrassing myself at one sport after another. Our school was a magnet school, too focused on academics to have a football or basketball team, but it had a swim team. A very active, very tight one. Elizabeth was on it, so was Angie. They had practice every day, last period and after school. They would get together for group shavings before meets. I took a drama class instead of PE, so I started spending more time with the drama geeks, my fellow non-athletes.
We could get our license in Louisiana at 15, and Angie was the first among our group to do so. She and Elizabeth started carpooling, along with another friend. Even though it would have been easy for my dad to drop me off there on his way to work, so I could ride in with my friends, I wasn’t invited, so my dad took me in the mornings, I rode the bus home. Elizabeth stayed late for swim practice. I had play practice sometimes, Thespian Club conventions. There was no group shaving involved, though. I remember going to the pool a few times the summer between freshman and sophomore year. Kelly came down to visit, so we hung out at the pool to escape the heat, even tried to play tennis once or twice. Mostly we got noticed for the weird old white tennis balls my dad dug up from somewhere. Elizabeth and I still hung out, were still nominally best friends, but what little we had in common was stretched thinner and thinner. Angie had joined a diving team as well, so she taught Elizabeth more flips, complicated combinations. I couldn’t compete with improv games and Red Leather, Yellow Leather voice warm ups.
I don’t know what the breaking point was for me, I think the car pool I was never invited to join was involved. That cut deep, as such things do when you’re 15. I wrote out a long note to Elizabeth, stating all my problems, why I was upset, left it in her locker, like you do when you’re 15. She was shocked, surprised, had no idea why I was so hurt, why it mattered who drove to school with whom. But it did. She didn’t have room for me in her life anymore, and I was left standing on the outskirts of her group before school, and no one noticed if I wandered off. I hated that school, and changed back to the weird little Gifted and Talented program I’d grown up in, set in a terrible inner city school with razor wire along the fence ringing it. And no swim team. We let our membership to the pool lapse that year, I couldn’t convince my mom I would go enough to make the cost worth it. I could drive by then anyway, there were other ways to escape the heat, going from air conditioned car to air conditioned mall to air conditioned movie theater. Melissa’s parents got her a car, an old Duster that had belonged to her grandmother and had low mileage from just being driven to church and back. The pool had lost its allure, we had the whole city open to us.
Sometimes when I visit the pool at my friend’s apartment, I catch myself doing handstands, somersaulting under the water. Remembering when that was enough to fill the days, the freedom to make up your own games and not care who won, just how much fun you had.
When you get together for drinks with the guys, you just smile and nod as they detail how crazy their women are. Your girlfriend is always so calm and happy, what are you doing wrong? Don’t worry, with just a few simple steps you too can learn to drive women round the bend!
First, and most importantly, be inconsistent. Keep her guessing, women love that. One day be totally into her, wanting to know everything about her and making plans for your future together, and the next, act like you barely know her and don’t have the time to take her calls. It will drive her wild. She won’t know what you’ll do next, and the suspense will keep her up all night thinking about you.
Remember you’re the most important person in the relationship. If you’re running late, don’t worry about calling her, she’ll be so happy to see you she won’t mind. When you do arrive, be sure and tell her all about how your day was. She’s been sitting around waiting to hear all of it, and has nothing nearly as important to tell you. She will love hearing about the jerks you work with and how your boss won’t take you seriously. She’s there to support you, so tell her about your mother riding you about coming home to visit. She’ll realize that getting paid less than the guy below her who’s been there half as long as her pales in comparison with your problems at work, and will be happy to be distracted from worrying about her own mother’s health problems by listening to you complain about having to make time to see yours. And, of course, she’ll be happy to give up her whole weekend to accompany you on your visit to your family. There’s nothing she’d enjoy more than spending the morning with your family at your grandmother’s grave, then waiting a few hours as your brother and sister-in-law get the kids organized so you can go get some lunch as a family. One day that could be the two of you, so seeing how your brother lets his wife take all the responsibility for the kids will be a nice glimpse of her future!
Show her you care by pointing out that she’s just jealous of you spending time with any other women, or even looking at them. Of course she is, and she will love knowing that you noticed. She’s not upset that dinner was ruined because you were running late chatting up some woman at work, or embarrassed that you almost snapped your neck following a pretty girl walking past. Nope, she’s jealous your attention is on any woman other than her and will be touched that you point this out.
Sometimes women will get upset. Whatever you’ve done, it’s not your fault, and she’s always overreacting. It will help her to calm down if you point out to her how she’s getting upset over nothing. She needs to be told that, or else she could just keep getting more and more upset over something trivial like your insulting her family. And don’t let her having a bad day at work affect her time with you. She needs to leave work problems at work, learn to compartmentalize so she can give you the attention you need after a long day doing real man’s work.
But what if you’re still looking for that perfect girl? Don’t worry, there are plenty of things you can do to keep a prospect on edge and interested in sticking around until you make up your mind if she’s worthy or not. Be sure and chat up a girl you’re interested in with innuendo and banter. Women love this, it lets us know we’ll be getting a tiger in the sack. But remember, you’re just testing her out, if she makes an advance she’s shown herself to be a loose woman and you should cut and run. Men are the hunters and women your prey, and you don’t see gazelles putting the moves on lions. It’s not natural, and any woman exhibiting such behavior likely has other problems you don’t need.
Some women need a little more convincing than others. If she seems hesitant to fall under your spell, you’re going to need to really lay it on thick. Keep after her, make sure she knows she’s your number one gal. Charm her, bring her around to seeing you’re the one for her. Remember, anything easily won is worthless. But be wary of the girl who wants you, you may have hooked a desperate or defective one, and those are clingy. You don’t need to be tied down like that when there are other, better fish out there waiting to taste your bait!
Don’t let a woman get complacent. Be vague about plans, make it difficult for her to pin you down on anything, even if it’s just as simple as whether you want to go to the early or the late show of the movie Friday night. Your schedule can change at any time, and she should expect that. If you have to cancel at the last minute, she’ll be fine with it. There’s always something on the TV, and it’s even more fun watching your favorite shows when you’re all dolled up for a night out!
If you have caught a good fish, that doesn’t mean it’s time to hang up your rod and reel. There’s an ocean full of women out there, and you have no obligation to tell someone freshly hooked that you’ve got someone at home already until you’re good and sure she’s interested. We’ve all seen The Bachelor, we know how women love to compete for a man. You’re just giving them what they want!
And lastly, if you want to drive a woman wild in bed, be sure and push her head down to make sure she knows what you really want. Kissing gets so tiresome so quickly, and we’re just waiting for you to let us know when you’re ready so we can stop.
It has been a roller coaster of a few weeks. I got my piece, “Clap Your Hands,” posted on Wordsmoker, and got such an outpouring of good feedback and welcome. After ten years of not writing, because it was the only thing in my life that I hadn’t yet managed to screw up, getting that kind of recognition from people I admire and respect just floored me. At one point I was crying on the phone to my friend Leslie, just blubbering about “I’m a real writer, a real writer.” I wrote something that touched people, that they responded to, that resonated with them. It was a kind of high I haven’t experienced since my days of amateur dramatics, the feeling when you are on, every cell firing, and you can feel the audience hanging on your every word, with your every movement. Drugs have little effect on me, I am a waste of pot, but if there were a drug that duplicated that feeling, I would be an addict after one hit. Except with acting, I was just slightly more than competent, and writing, writing is something I can be good at, if I keep working. I had moments of beating myself up (a favorite form of aerobic exercise) over years wasted not writing, but I couldn’t be doing this writing then, it’s because of what I’ve been through, what I’ve done, that I can. So having the years back would be nice as to have more, or, ha, any kind, of a career at it, but I’m proud of the work I can do now, it’s mine, no one else’s.
But it is annoying me how much I am craving the feedback and the adoration. It is like an addiction. I used to be happy if I liked how a piece of writing turned out, not worried about my grade or too worried about notes from classmates in seminars. But that gap of not writing, the battering my psyche has taken overall in the past ten years, and I feel like Sally Field at the Oscars, “You like me! You really like me!” I’m hoping my bruised and battered ego will heal over, and let me stop feeling like a junkie waiting for my next hit. In the meantime, I have found the greatest little collective of smart, funny, creative and supportive people through WS, and feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have them as my friends. It’s like finding my tribe. My weird, brilliant, hyper verbal, pun loving, overly harsh on ourselves, little tribe of misfits.
At the same time, I have started coming off my Effexor. It’s a good thing, not the best idea for someone with Major Depressive Disorder to come off all her meds, but something I have to do. Carrie Fisher, bless her, put it best, “I’m an emotional diabetic.” I am too, and I accept that I will need to be on some kind of meds for the rest of my life. But this one, at this dose, was just not going its job anymore, and I have had many other things in my drug regimen for other conditions change since going on it and hitting this dose, so I don’t think it’s the right choice anymore. Unfortunately, unlike diabetics, there aren’t simple blood tests, or even complicated blood tests, to see what your crazy levels are and what drug at what dose would stabilize them. So I’m carefully, under doctor supervision, coming down off the stuff, and it is white knuckle time. There is never a “good” time to do something like this, the side effects are always going to be unpredictable and worrying. But choosing to do it while trying to find a new job, dealing with various relationship dramas, and then imploding my bank account, I can’t tell which way is up some days. I don’t know if my spiteful and fragile state is caused by a normal reaction to hellish stress, or if it’s exacerbated by coming off the meds, or, most terrifying, if coming off the meds is revealing just how crazy I really am. I’m clinging to a combo of the first two theories, and soldiering on with getting off the stuff so my docs and I can find the right medication at the right dose. If only there was something more scientific than just spinning the medication roulette wheel, again and again until you hit something that works OK without killing you with side effects. They’re playing with my brain, I kinda need that to work. I don’t like experimenting with it, I don’t have a spare if they guess wrong.
I sent out 50+ resumes to TV shows, asking to be considered for any open assistant jobs. In the past I’ve cold called shows and then faxed resumes, but this year a took a cue from a couple friends and just mailed them off blind to any and every show I wanted to work on, picking a couple writer/producers at each one. After sending out 50, I found a typo in my cover letter. I worked with a professional on my resume, so I am secure on it, but cover letters kick my ass. And in this case, I was sending it out blind, no idea what if any jobs there might be open, so I had to try and hit all quadrants. Qualified, but not overqualified, able to think for myself, but not a threat to your job. It’s an impossible task, not helped by my tendency to revert to Serious Professional Manner when I’m doing business letters to people I don’t know. It was as dry as the Mojave. I finally got a friend to take a look, when I was starting round two and about to go out to picked up pilots. She shredded it, rightly. I got much better feed back from the one she helped me with, which actually sounded like me, rather than a Stepford assistant. I got a lead on a good job, had a panic attack at getting the cover email right, and bless Leslie and Sam for talking me down and helping me get it right. The girl who called to offer me an interview said she had found it “charming,” and that it had made her laugh. Huzzah! I used a variation on the format for the pilots, all of which were staffed up, but would “keep it on file.” Some seemed like they might actually look at it again, or even better, pass it on to someone else who needed to hire someone. It’s still round after round of rejection, never a fun thing, but I know my solid resume and a cover email full of my dry wit and willingness to fetch Diet Coke is in place around town.
The interview went well. I was a bit confused, as the friend of a friend of my dad’s who told me of the opening said there was an opening for an assistant on the show he had just started on, not that he was looking to hire an assistant for himself. The assistant who called to set up the interview said his name, but after years of imprecise instructions from temp agencies as to whom I was going to see and/or work for, I thought she was saying who had referred me for the job. And so I didn’t IMDB the guy, and didn’t know when it ended up that he was interviewing me to be his personal assistant that he had written two of my all time favorite episodes of The X-Files, the Bruce Campbell demon baby one, and the creepy slugs in the water after the hurricane in Florida. I would have been a complete fan boy, so maybe it was better that I didn’t know, but it might have given me a better idea about what I should say when asked, “What TV shows do you watch?” I was honest, I watch Gossip Girl to Breaking Bad, but I was interviewing on a procedural, and I don’t watch many traditional procedurals anymore. Supernatural, Fringe, both are non-traditional procedurals, and I kick ass at breaking procedural scripts, both in the classes I took and in my writing group. Decades of reading detective novels and countless Law & Order marathons, if done critically, can teach you the mechanics. I know my TV shows, I can talk about them as a fan or take them apart ten different ways to critique them, so I hope I came across OK on that point. Then he mentioned that he’d need me to do research for scripts. I don’t think I actually bounced up and down in my seat, but gosh golly, is research something my geeky self loves. I mentioned that I had researched writers and outlets while in publicity at Fox, to make sure a writer would do a positive piece on our precious talent. I also said that among my friends I am known for my wide and weird range of knowledge. Possibly using the example of Megan asking me what I knew about placentas wasn’t the best choice, but it is a weird bit of knowledge to have, and it could have been worse. I could have told the bit about how women’s breasts can become so engorged with milk that the skin actually splits. See? Totally could have been worse.
I am bouncing up and down like a superball, from highest highs to lowest lows. I have the chance of getting a true dream job, but also the chance of seeing it, holding it, knowing it is there, and having it taken away. A misunderstanding with Dan led to a wicked fight, one that had me on the verge of saying “Fuck it, I am out of here” at many points. Conflict, I am bad at it. But we worked it out, and whatever happens there, I have a friendship I value enough to fight to keep. I even ended up in a fight about Forgetting Sarah Marshall on a poor friend’s FB page out of nowhere. I’ve written about my feelings on that movie, and Apatow & Co. in general, but I can usually refrain from suggesting anyone “suck a bag of dicks” on a FB thread. I’ve laid low this week, as I worry that if someone looks at me sideways I’ll either burst into tears or let loose in a tempest of fists. I really wanted to go out drinking, enjoying the anesthetizing effects of vodka and snarky conversation. But everyone is paired off, busy, or currently not drinking. This may be for the best, but when you need to get your drink on, you need to get your drink on, and doing it alone is not a good idea in any state, but especially not the one I’m in now. I’m going to have to make do with pizza and Party Down, and thinking about all the very bad things I want to do to Adam Scott.
I worried about starting this one, as it’s a trilogy of books in one volume. Could I really handle reading three detective novels set in Nazi Germany back to back to back? Turns out, I wanted to tear through three in a row, because Kerr’s writing is so evocative. I had to keep checking that these were written recently and weren’t actually from the period. Kerr’s writing is full of hard-boiled slang, guns are “lighters,” cigarettes are “nails,” and those are some of the easy ones. Take this exchange from the first book, The March Violets, for example:
“First you plum the man with all that smart talk, and now you want to play the black horse. Pay the bastard”
“Look, if I don’t black horse him a little and drag my heels over paying him that kind of mouse, then he’ll figure I’m worth a lot more.”
It took me most of the first book to acclimate to the language, and the plot was rather convoluted, so I had a tendency to lose the thread from night to night, but I didn’t care because the characters and writing were so good I just did the reading equivalent of “smile and nod,” and followed along hoping I’d catch up again. The books are told from the point of view of Bernie Gunther, an ex-policeman in Berlin who chose to become a private eye rather than join the National Socialist Party. The first book, The March Violets, takes place during the Berlin Olympic games, and includes perfect details like SA officers removing anti-Semitic posters from display so as not to upset foreign visitors for the games. Gunther is hired by an industrialist to solve the murder of his daughter and son in law. The case twists in innumerable ways, involving blackmail of Party members, the criminal underground, mistaken identity, torture, and even has time for a romance. It is dark and violent, but worth it. I’m a good British girl, my father and aunts were evacuated from the UK to the US during the war to save them from being raised as Nazis if the Germans succeeded in invading Britain. And I grew up in US schools, so my view of the Germans in WWII was always pretty critical. When traveling through Europe during college, I happily quoted my cousin, “Why would you want to go to Germany? It’s full of Germans.” But as I’ve gotten older and learned more about what led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, I’ve found it much more nuanced and full of shades of grey. Even though Kerr is a modern writer, he captures the time and feel of this time in Germany, what people on the street were experiencing under Hitler’s rise in power.
The second book, The Pale Criminal, takes place in the summer of 1938. Gunther is recruited back to the Krippo, the Berlin Criminal Police, to help solve a series of killings of young women, perfect models of the Aryan race, that point to a serial killer on the lose. They want him back because he had been instrumental in catching a serial killer in the past. They have someone in custody who has “confessed” to the crime, but another was committed while the suspect was in jail. Gunther reluctantly goes back, getting a higher rank than the one he had when he left, and some autonomy to conduct the investigation as he sees fit. The police are hesitant to publicize the killings, as it could prevent further abductions of young girls but it could also spark riots as the killings follow a spurious method described as a Jewish “ritual” killing in anti-Semitic literature. Gunther is tasked to find the real killer, and fast, before there is panic in the streets or any more girls disappear. Again, the story winds through segments of Berlin society, from the SS officers enthralled with the occult, to closeted homosexual life in the city. As Gunther is having to work within a system he disagrees with, there is much friction between him and his superiors, and even between him and those working on his level. I don’t know whether it was a simpler story, or that I had gotten used to Kerr’s writing by this one, but I found it easier to follow.
The third book, A German Requiem, is set after the war, 1947, with Berlin patrolled by Russian soldiers. I never learned in school that the Russians basically raped their way across Germany after the defeat, and while Kerr has some Russian characters who display intelligence and cunning, he is very harsh on their methods, and clear on the brutality they enjoy inflicting on the locals under their control. Gunther is back in Berlin, after a stint as a Russian prisoner of war. He chose to go to the eastern front rather than work with the SS rounding up Jews, Communists, and others deemed un-German. He’s married, and his wife works at an American PX and is able to sneak food home for herself and Gunther. He’s approached by a Russian intelligence officer to take a case trying to prove the innocence of a former friend from the Kripo who is under arrest for killing an American soldier in Vienna. Gunther takes the case, in part because he learns what his wife has been doing to procure those extra rations. He is sent to Vienna by the Russian, with a cover story of dealing in cigarettes. He has to navigate with the Americans, the Austrians, and the Russians, who all want something from him and who would all be willing to let him die if it would be convenient. I’m still not sure what the exact difference is between a chocolady and a prostitute, but I am clear that any woman who fell into such a life after the war is never to be judged for doing it if it meant the difference between death and meager survival. This book is more of an espionage thriller than straight detective novel, with the various factions crossing and double crossing each other. There are a couple scenes of graphic violence and torture, not for the faint of heart. They add to the feeling of fear and doom hanging over these people, the dread that they could be rounded up at any time on the thinnest of charges and put to death.
I enjoyed Kerr’s books, and plan on reading more as soon as I can clear up the odd block on my library card. For those already fans of Kerr’s works, I recommend J. Robert Jane’s series about the team of St-Cyr of the Surete and Kohler of the Gestapo, investigating murders in occupied Paris. Janes’ writing can get convoluted at times, but the series is a brilliant and fascinating look at a time and place most of us know little about. It dwells in the grey areas of life, the little concessions you have to make to achieve a better good. It’s the kind of series ripe for adaptation by the BBC/PBS.