Wednesday 21 December 2022

Sex with Travis McGee and John D. MacDonald


Sometime in the 1970s one of my first forays into crime fiction came via John D. MacDonald's series about Travis McGee, a Florida-based "salvage consultant" who helps people recover money or property they've lost due to theft, embezzlement, blackmail or a slick con. McGee keeps half of what he recovers as a fee. In truth, McGee is an adventurer/private detective who just as often comes to the aid of friends as he does clients. The twenty-one McGee novels were written from 1964-85, were very successful at the time, and certainly remain popular with critics and contemporary crime writers. I read them in publication order way back when, and I recall enjoying them very much. Up to a point. I remember that as the series wore on, the book's became less about crime and more about sex. There's nothing wrong with sexy crime novels, but my impression at the time was that MacDonald was letting his freak flag fly under the guise of crime fiction.

The McGee novels were recently reissued, complete with glowing introductions by writers such as Lee Child and Carl Hiaasen, so I decided to give MacDonald another try and see how he'd aged. First off, here's what's still good about MacDonald: he writes about Florida and the destruction of its environment with a prescience and passion that still burns brightly. MacDonald saw with awful clarity that Florida was being raped and pillaged by property developers and politicians, and if nothing else he could claim to be the first "eco-novelist." In relation to this, MacDonald is also a fine writer when it comes to describing the outdoor life. His descriptions of the natural world, life on the ocean, fishing, the joys of sailing, all have a freshness and muscular poetry that makes them timeless. Lastly, the plots of the McGee books have a pleasing variety. Murder always figures into the stories, but there's also some complex con or swindle going as well, and the settings for the novels frequently shift away from Florida.

But here's where things get wonky with the McGee novels. It turns out I wasn't misremembering the obsession with sex in the books. It's fair to say that MacDonald was using the McGee books to air his sexual anxieties and fantasies. But where to start? One theme that runs through all the books is the idea of sexual humiliation and/or enslavement. Various characters, often quite minor ones, are given back stories in which it's revealed that their sexual partner either made them feel so sexually inadequate they had nervous breakdowns, or their partner was so good in the sack they became their sexual slaves. Darker Than Amber has barely got under way before we're hearing about a woman who fetches up on McGee's doorstep after being sexually humiliated by her husband. After some hands-on sex therapy from Travis, the woman is made whole again and is gone from the story. Almost every book has several asides along these lines, and all kinds of throwaway characters only make appearances in the stories (so it would seem) so that MacDonald can dwell on their sexual prowess, particularly their ability to gain a psychological hold over another man or woman simply through their sexual skill or appetite.

Another theme is voyeurism. In two of the novels McGee lurks outside bedroom windows listening to the people inside having sex, and on several more occasions he looks through pictures taken surreptitiously of people making love, which has to count as voyeurism by proxy. In fact, I don't think there's a single novel that doesn't have some scene of mild or major voyeurism.

MacDonald often presents sexual relationships as a kind of infection, something that the mind might resist but the body cannot. When he gets down to describing the nitty-gritty of people fucking, MacDonald takes the view that we're helpless slaves to our body's sexual triggers and desires. In Dress Her In Indigo McGee falls into a brief (and irrelevant) affair with an English aristocrat. McGee is initially a helpless victim of her sexual acrobatics, seemingly forced to have pleasure against his will. Our hero eventually manages to turn the tables and make the aristo purr with pleasure, which, oddly enough, seems counter to her wishes. The whole sub-plot is profoundly bizarre. The same novel also features an "incurable" lesbian and a gay man. Both characters are described as having the ability to turn straight people gay. McGee sees the gay man, Bruce Bundy, taking a  straight man under his wing and confidently surmises that within a few months the hetero will be speaking with a lisp.

MacDonald's view that we have little control over our sexual selves takes a darker, more disturbing turn in Bright Orange for the Shroud, in which a woman is repeatedly raped one night by a brutish redneck. The rape scene is horrible enough, but what's worse is that MacDonald then tells us that because the woman's husband hadn't been satisfying her in bed, her body, if not her mind, couldn't help but enjoy the rape. Here's how MacDonald describes it:

"But he was so damned sly and knowing, so crafty and patient that each time, even the last tine, he had awakened the traitor body so that while the soul watched, the body gasped and strained to hungry climax, to dirty joy, grasping powerfully."

Yes, dear old John D. had a taste for rape. Indeed, the villain of the first McGee novel, The Deep Blue Good-by, is a notable serial rapist. It's not a subject that's as front and centre as his other sexual obsessions, but it's a subject that recurs throughout the series. In Cape Fear, MacDonald's most famous non-McGee book, rape and the threat of it is the focus of the novel. Max Cady, the villain of the piece, is put in prison for rape by the novel's hero, Sam Bowden, who, in yet another of MacDonald's voyeuristic moments, actually witnesses the rape. The rest of the novel features Cady raping his ex-wife, and threats of rape against Bowden's wife and daughter. Given that the novel was written in 1957 (originally called The Executioners), one can only imagine how much more sexually violent and explicit it might have been if written ten years later when MacDonald was peaking in popularity.

And getting back to the Bruce Bundys of the world, there's a subtle but definite vein of homoeroticism running through the McGee novels. MacDonald sees to have a thing for bears, and I don't mean the kind who steal picnic baskets. In gay culture, large, hairy, masculine gay men are known as "bears," and, as it happens, McGee's best friend and sidekick, Meyer, fits that description to a T. Meyer's chunkiness and hirsuteness is obsessively mentioned by MacDonald, who frequently describes him as looking like a bear or ape. Meyer's not the only hairy hunk McGee meets up with. Here's how McGee/MacDonald describes Boone Waxwell, the redneck rapist:

"He was barefoot, bare to the waist.  Glossy black curly hair, dense black mat of hair on his chest. Blue eyes."

And a bit later:

"He peered up at us through lashes I had not noticed before, dense and black and girlishly long."

Hmm. Travis certainly has an appreciation for a well-furred foe. And Waxwell isn't the only fit, hairy man McGee will meet on his various adventures. Interestingly, Waxwell meets his maker when he leaps off a boat into shallow water and impales himself up the ass on a submerged tree root. Paging Dr. Freud. And then there are McGee's girlfriends. Each novel has Travis falling into bed with one or two women, but one characteristic almost all of them share is a certain mannishness. McGee's women are usually described as fit, athletic, solid, or muscular. No svelte, willowy femmes for Trav. In one of the later novels, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, McGee and MacDonald's taste for butch women becomes more explicit:

"There was big tall lady behind the counter in the office. She had very short black hair and strong features...She stood about six feet high, and though the face was strong enough to look just a little bit masculine, there was nothing masculine about the legs or the way she filled the T-shirt."

The masculinity of Travis' women often goes beyond the physical; they sometimes even sound like men. In Pale Gray for Guilt McGee's love interest is Puss Killian (introduced to us as "a big, stately, random redhead"), and what's striking about her is that she means more to Travis than most of his companions and through her speech and hearty sense of humor, you're left with the indelible impression that you're listening to a man.

MacDonald began his career writing all kinds of pulp fiction in the 1940s and '50s, and a certain amount of sex was the sizzle needed to ship product in those days. The '60s saw pulp fiction get even more sexually explicit, so from that point of view the McGee books are simply surfing the wave of sexiness that helped define that decade. What sets MacDonald apart from his peers is the sheer amount of sexuality in his McGee novels. In novels like Bright Orange for the Shroud and Dress Her In Indigo it feels like the crime plots end up taking a back seat to discussions and depictions of sex. And yet MacDonald stops short of becoming a porn writer because it's clear he's both fascinated and terrified of sex. A porn writer enjoys what he's writing about. With MacDonald you get the impression he can't stop talking about something that scares the crap out of him. What's intriguing is what caused this terror. At times he comes across as a man with horrendous performance-anxiety issues, and at others he reads like a deeply-closeted gay man whose constant focus on heterosexuality is a way of distracting himself from his own truth. I'll go out on a limb and opt for the latter explanation. If there's one overriding theme in the McGee novels, it's that people can't fight and/or are betrayed by their true sexual natures. MacDonald seems to find that a terrifying prospect, and it's easy to conclude that the McGee novels were his way of articulating his painfully repressed sexuality.

All in all, I can't say that the McGee books have stood the test of time. He has a poor ear for dialogue, his attempts at humour are ham-fisted, and he gets downright silly and cranky on the subject of hippies and rock 'n roll. But if you're looking to do a master's thesis on, say, sexual anxiety in 1960s crime fiction, MacDonald's a limitless resource.

Friday 16 December 2022

The Hollows (2022) by Daniel Church

Folk horror, which is the category The Hollows mostly falls into, is very much a UK-based genre. From M.R. James to Algernon Blackwood to Andrew Michael Hurley, British writers (and filmmakers) have shown a real eagerness for presenting their docile, bucolic countryside as a mosh pit of malevolent ghosts, devil worshippers, green men, fairies, hobgoblins, spectral black dogs, ghouls, and any number of creeping terrors. It's as though they're embarrassed to be living in such a groomed, unthreatening environment and need to populate it with imaginary horrors. Folk horror doesn't seem to register on continental Europe, with the exception of the vampire, a creature from eastern European folklore that needed an Irish writer to really gain traction in the marketplace and move uptown to the intersection of Hollywood and Hammer. European writers have long recognized that the scariest entities are other people. The French, in particular, realize that there's nothing more terrifying in the paysage than a scheming, avaricious peasant. Why worry about church grims when you've got Cesar and Ugolin for neighbours? Or, even worse, the murderous and incestuous peasants on display in Zola's La Terre and the film Canicule

The Hollows has many virtues, one of the more noteworthy being that it starts with a bang and doesn't let up. I've started and not finished so many high-concept supernatural and SF novels that tease and slow burn their way into my reject pile because the writers get obsessed with world-building rather than fully engaging with their subject. Not an issue here. 

The small village of Barsall in England's Peak District is snowed-in a few days before Christmas, and before you can sing "God rest in peace ye merry gentlemen," isolated houses are being attacked by...things. Things that like to peel the skin off their victims in the name of haberdashery. They are Tatterskins, long-forgotten creatures of local legend that have suddenly come back into the world. Almost as frightening are the Harpers, a mostly loathsome farming family who sit on the nastiness spectrum somewhere between the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm and Leatherface's tribe. The Harpers, led by matriarch Liz, have a somewhat administrative relationship with the Tatterskins, and hope to survive the local harrowing of souls and bodies by offering sacrifices, animal and human. Opposing them is Ellie, the local constable who has to organize a terrified citizenry to battle both the Harpers and the Tatterskins. 

Like I said, the action is relentless and brings with it a very high body count. Although its genre is folk horror, other elements creep into the story. At times it feels like a supernatural version of Zulu ("Tatterskins, thousands of them!") as Barsall comes under siege, domestic horror raises its head as we enter the world of the Harpers, and there's even a quasi-Wild West shootout. Towards the end, the novel moves from folk to Lovecraftian cosmic horror. This shifting of genre gears is hugely effective in keeping the reader engaged and pleasantly off-kilter; we're never sure what's coming next, and that adds to the tension. The narrative is further aided by Church's clever use of micro-crises to build tension. No-one in this novel can do anything time-critical without first hesitating, tripping, fumbling or otherwise faffing about while something nasty closes in. Ellie is a strong, determined heroine, but never unbelievably skillful a la Jack Reacher. Liz Harper might be the star of the show as the kind of mother only a Balrog could love. The only thing that didn't work for me was the cosmic horror add-on. It was an element that felt a bit tacked-on and underdeveloped. It doesn't hurt the novel, but it certainly doesn't help it. That said, this is still one of the best horror novels I've read in years, and also one of the best action-thrillers. 

Wednesday 7 September 2022

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson

Yes, this is a novel, albeit one that uses its fictional elements as a loose (very loose) framework on which the author hangs a travelogue, and a lot of didactic and polemical asides. The unnamed narrator is bi-racial and grows up in Connecticut with his unmarried mother and believes he's White until one day at school he's outed by a teacher. He's something of a prodigy at the piano, as well as being an excellent student, but his skin colour quickly comes to dominate his thoughts and viewpoint. After graduating from high school he sets out to find his place in America. He travels to Atlanta to go to university, but after a cruel setback he goes on to Jacksonville and lives there for over a year working as a cigar roller. After Jacksonville he tries his luck in NYC, and eventually spends time in Paris and rural Georgia. After witnessing a brutal lynching in Georgia he makes the decision to live the rest of his life as a White man, even, for a time, keeping his race a secret from the White woman he falls in love with. She rejects him initially, but then eventually marries him. It's the last time he reveals his biracialism to anyone.

This book can't really be judged as a novel since it's clear that Johnson was only using the novel form as a vehicle to deliver what is essentially a State of the (Black) Nation speech. As such, it's fascinating. Johnson was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a U.S. diplomat, became the first Black professor at NYU, and held important positions in the NAACP. Johnson's thoughts and observations on the split personality forced on Blacks are particularly interesting. As he saw it, Blacks had to struggle to be both Black and American. Racist America didn't want Blacks except under strict conditions, but Blacks wanted to be fully American in terms of rights. They were aspiring to join a club that didn't want them, and that, in his view, produced a painful split in the Black personality. The narrator, who becomes a financial success, realizes he can't be both Black and American, and chooses the latter. That's not something Johnson ever did, but he was able to see the cruel choice forced on Black America.

Although Johnson takes a mildly optimistic view of the progress Blacks will make in the future, highlighting their role in creating ragtime music which was taking the world by storm, it's sobering that so many of the hot button issues and cruel social conditions he describes are still unresolved to this day. He even takes note of, to him, the problematic and plentiful use of the n-word by what he regarded as lower-class Blacks. Interestingly, Johnson is blind to his own racism as he twice says disparaging things about Native Americans. While as a novel it barely exists, as a snapshot of the Black experience it's invaluable.

Wednesday 3 August 2022

Book Review: The Fourth of June (1962) by David Benedictus

Before the libidinous suet pudding and Eton graduate known as Boris Johnson came along, Eton College was famous as an artisanal workshop crafting young white boys into assorted British PMs, cabinet ministers, as well as sundry leaders of UK culture and industry (look for the maker's mark on their bottoms). It was justifiably regarded as a bad thing that one academic institution, famed for its wealth and snobbery, should have an outsize influence on British society and culture. Cue the political arrival of Johnson, a man who read Animal Farm as a how-to guide for upper management, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, better known as the posh, but dim, ghost from that set-in-England episode of Scooby Doo, and the dialogue swerved from how anachronistic and elitist Eton was, to how toxic and omni-incompetent its graduates are. 

It turns out that a novel written sixty years ago had already hit the fire alarm on Eton. David Benedictus, an Eton graduate, wrote this incendiary portrait of life at the college less than six years after graduating. I know nothing about British libel law, but I'm shocked, given the time period, he wasn't sued into oblivion. The student body he describes is stuffed with viciously snobbish mediocrities with an appetite for sadism, psychological torture, the sexual coercion and harassment of younger boys, plus a side order of servility in the face of tradition. And the teachers aren't any better. It's as unflattering a picture as you could want in 1962 or 2022.

The main student character is Phillips, a boy with literary leanings who finds himself witness to a formal, sanctioned beating (Eton students could and did discipline each other) that puts a student in hospital for the trivial crime of being out of his room after hours. Initially, the severity of this incident threatens to lead to the expulsion of Phillips and three of his peers. Eton, however, hasn't lasted hundreds of years by not knowing how to sweep a scandal under the Aubusson. Strings are pulled, important voices raised, and, in one case, sexual favours are provided to a housemaster. The result is that the guilty go unpunished, and the culture of cruelty and moral cowardice that put a boy in hospital is allowed to continue. 

The Fourth of June doesn't rely on sensationalism to hold the reader's attention. Benedictus writes with wit and precision, showing how the weaknesses and vices of students and teachers are allowed to flourish in the hothouse atmosphere of Eton. Phillips is essentially a bright, average youth, but Eton's cult-like obsession with form, duty and tradition breaks down his moral barriers and makes him actually enjoy watching a fellow student savagely beaten, even as part of him recoils from it. The beaten boy, Scarfe, a junior God-botherer and most definitely not one of us, is the only who leaves the school, gently pushed out with the excuse that his delicate constitution isn't suitable for the rigors of Eton. He is, of course, psychologically damaged beyond repair by the time he leaves the college. And forty years later the same damage, and worse, is being inflicted upon Britain by another cohort of Etonians.

Thursday 9 June 2022

Book Review: Die a Stranger (2012) by Steve Hamilton

One of the things that distinguishes crime fiction from other genres is its frequent focus on creating a strong sense of place; in fact, this could almost be said to be the defining quality of the genre. From Raymond Chandler's L.A. to Val McDermid's Fife, Scotland, there are few crime writers who haven't tried, as William Faulkner said, to bring to life "their own little postage stamp of soil." Of course, this emphasis on a specific region or city is partly a natural byproduct of authors using the same detective/investigator who, in book after book, patrols the same turf. But it's not always the case that writers make the effort to drill down into their "postage stamp." Simenon's Maigret novels, for example, are often set in Paris, but they're not about Paris in the same way that Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee mysteries are about the vast Navajo reservation in New Mexico. With Simenon Paris is only a setting, while Hillerman makes his setting a character, one that has a significant influence over events and personalities. Some other notable writers who turn environments into characters include K.C. Constantine, Adrian McKinty, Giles Blunt, and Christopher Fowler. Add Steve Hamilton to the list.

Hamilton's investigator, Alex McKnight (featured in eleven books), lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a region defined by the bush, the Great Lakes, and Native American reservations. I've lived and worked in northern Canada, and Hamilton gets the atmosphere of this environment perfectly; in particular, he gives the reader a feel for the divide, and occasional tension, between Natives and the white community. As well, he captures the necessary interconnectedness of the people who live in these isolated, underpopulated areas, bound together by blood ties, friendship, and sometimes long-held grudges. It's a peculiar world that's largely the same on both sides of the border, and Hamilton clearly knows it well. 

In Die a Stranger McKnight becomes caught up in a cross-border drug smuggling operation that goes wrong and which also drags in one of his close friends. The plot mixes mystery and thriller elements, but it also takes time to build up a picture of life in the Upper Peninsula. I'd read several thrillers in a row prior to Stranger, so there was something pleasing about a story that wasn't trying to slap me across the face every second. I've no objection to pure thrillers, but they can become formulaic and predictable when you know that every chapter is going to end with some kind of twist or shock reveal. A crime novel such as this can actually be more surprising because it digresses, taking quick side trips to places that are new or foreign to us, e.g. a look at the impact of  Native-owned casinos on reservation life. And Hamilton puts equal emphasis on the personal relationships that bind his characters and often direct their actions. The finale, in fact, avoids the usual violent, climactic encounter or arrest, and instead has a father telling McKnight about a sacrifice he's going to make to save his son. It's an unexpected way to end a crime novel, and it's all the stronger for it. 

Friday 13 May 2022

Book Review: Slow Horses (2010) and Real Tigers (2016) by Mick Herron

I haven't read any spy fiction in years, but at the urging of friends and relatives I decided to give Mick Herron's Slough House series of spy novels a try. Slough House is the name of a squalid London office block in which MI5 agents who've screwed-up royally are sent to perform menial security tasks under the supervision of Jackson Lamb, a one-time star of the service who insults and berates his staff in equal measure. Being sent to Slough House isn't a probationary move; the top brass at MI5 hope that the miscreants will simply quit rather than endure working lives of bureaucratic drudgery while being verbally abused by Lamb. Naturally enough, they end up falling into assorted adventures.

I was both delighted and mildly disappointed by the two I've read so far. The main annoyance for me is that neither novel features much spying, at least not the kind one associates with writers like Deighton and Le Carre. These are straight-up race against the clock thrillers, both, oddly enough, featuring kidnapping plots, and they have more in common with conspiracy thrillers than the world of furtive border crossings and sleeper agents.

While Horses and Tigers can't claim to be pure spy fiction, they are very entertaining. The pacing and prose is excellent, with the banter, always sharp and nasty, often funny, probably being the best feature of the series. Jackson Lamb is the star of the show. He's one part Falstaff, one part insult comic, and one part stroppy genius. He may be in command of a backwater, but his spycraft and acumen are still first-class. He's also rude, arrogant and has a dysfunctional relationship with personal hygiene. On the downside, Lamb also represents a cheat code for middle-aged white writers who want to say naughty, un-PC things without taking any heat. The trick is to create a white, middle-aged character who's larded with bad habits and gross appetites, so that when he tosses off a "witty" racial slur the author can say, well, what do you expect from someone as reprehensible as Lamb? The fact that Lamb is never outwitted, always gets the last laugh and the best lines, indicates that his visceral disreputableness is merely a way to sugarcoat his Jimmy Carr-isms. 

The other key member of the team is River Cartwright, a young, up and coming agent unjustly accused of fouling up a major training exercise and now marooned at Slough House for his sins. If Lamb provides the brains and wit, River takes care of the legwork and action elements. Other disgraced agents round out the team, all of whom are solidly crafted. Except for Roddy Ho. Every team in a modern spy thriller needs a computer whiz so here the job has to go Asian. And because he's Asian and into computers he has to be nerdy, anti-social, and terrible with women. Ho is a parade of cliches that were getting stale 20 years ago. There are two recurring villains: Diana Taverner, the number two person at MI5 and a ruthless careerist with the bedside manner of a solicitous cobra. The other is Peter Judd, a transparent parody of pre-Downing St Boris Johnson. In both books Judd is angling for political gain through dirty tricks. They make a fine pair of baddies. 

Herron's plotting is clear and finely structured, although there is an overreliance on Ho using his magical computer//hacker skills to solve problems. This is a common fault in so many thrillers; the hero or the team face an apparently insuperable barrier or mystery until the resident keyboard jockey taps a few keys, et voila! Problem solved. It's an example of lazy writing and it shows no signs of going away soon. One odd thing I noticed: the style, tone, and even the sense of humour on offer in the Slough House books is remarkably similar to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. You could even see the crew of Slough House as real world doubles for the Watch of Ankh-Morpork. 

So while both Lamb and Ho, particularly the latter, aren't entirely successful characters (the TV adaptation of Slow Horses has largely fixed this problem), the books are an excellent mix of wit and tension-building plots. And any novel that pillories Boris Johnson deserves bonus marks

Friday 21 January 2022

The Republic of False Truths (2020) by Alaa Al Aswany

One of the surest indications of the quality of this novel about the popular revolt in Egypt in 2011, is that the author is no longer welcome in his native Egypt and the book is banned there. The Republic of False Truths is turbocharged with anger and outrage at how the Egyptian state and its ruling classes reacted to the mass protests in Tahrir Square with violence and a vicious, hysterical propaganda campaign. 

Al Aswany tells his story through the eyes and voices of the protestors and their oppressors. On one side are the poor and educated twentysomethings who have finally had enough of the corruption, brutality and spectacular hypocrisy of the state and Egyptian society. On the other side are those who benefit from the status quo: businessmen, high officials in politics and state institutions, and careerists in religion and the media who seek to further their ambitions by siding with whomever is in power. When the state cracks down they do so with massacres, torture, sexual violence against female protestors, and an egregious media campaign that tries to paint the protestors as paid accomplices of the CIA and Israel. 

The novel's dozen or so characters range from the head of Egypt's security service to a maid. In general, Al Aswany isn't subtle with his characters; the good ones (protestors) are pure in their intentions, while the bad ones are implacable in their desire to bring harm to the other side. I'm not qualified to say whether the situation was that black and white in Egypt (I suspect it was), but the stark divide between the two groups of characters occasionally gives the novel a melodramatic flavour. 

Two characters, Nourhan and Ashraf, stand out because they're given more interesting shadings. Ashraf is a middle-aged, well-off, barely employed actor, who spends his days smoking hash and conducting an affair with his maid. He and his wife are barely on speaking terms. He witnesses the first massacre in Tahrir Square in which hundreds of protestors were shot by the police and instantly becomes radicalized, throwing in his lot wholeheartedly with the student protestors. Ashraf's Damascene conversion is, perhaps, too abrupt and complete, but he's at least a character who's given a chance to change. Nourhan is the star of the novel, and Al Aswany uses her to paint a picture of Egypt's toxic levels of hypocrisy. She's a popular and beautiful talking head on one of the country's official TV channels, as well as exceedingly and loudly pious. That doesn't prevent her from using Islamic divorce laws to essentially sleep her way to the top, and, once there, as the face of a private TV channel, become the Tucker Carlson/Sean Hannity of Egypt as she spouts officially written and approved propaganda. She's a monster who thinks she's a saint. 

If there's an overriding theme to the novel it's the pernicious role of religion in Egyptian society. The ruling classes use it as a goad, a weapon, and a one-size-fits-all excuse for their worst crimes. And as shown through Nourhan and a religious leader named Sheik Shamel, piety can also be monetized. Although there's nothing subtle about Al Aswany's approach to his subject (not surprisingly, he took part in the Tahrir Square protests), his anger and his clinical descriptions of state-sponsored violence give the novel tremendous energy. And this isn't just a novel for people interested in the Middle East. A lot of what takes place in the novel has an eerie similarity to the recent BLM protests, the fall of Trump, and the Fox News-led backlash against both events. After all, when it comes minting money from religion and manufactured outrage, America leads the world.