Wednesday, October 30, 2013

After the Funeral

Agatha Christie can still get me.  I've read most of her books now, and even when I read a "new" one, I can guess the murderer, or at least narrow it down to a small group that includes the culprit.  Not this time - I'd identified three suspects and completely missed the murderer.

After the Funeral begins after Richard Abernathie's funeral.  A widowed septuagenarian mourning the death of his only son, his own death was not unexpected.  After his solicitor, Mr. Entwhistle, reads the will to the heirs, Abernathie's surviving sister says, "But he was murdered, wasn't he?"  No one takes her seriously - Cora had always been, well, a bit off, and she'd been estranged from the family since her marriage to an artist decades before.  Then (because this is an Agatha Christie novel), someone murders Cora, hacks her to death with a hatchet while she slept.  Does this mean that Cora was right?

Mr. Entwhistle isn't sure, so he calls on his old friend, Hercule Poirot.  Disguising himself as the representative of a refugee organization, Poirot invites the survivors - two grand-nieces and their 'unsuitable' husbands, a grand-nephew involved in questionable financial deals (doesn't every Christie novel have a young man cooking the books?), Richard Abernathie's "invalid" brother and his wife, Richard's favorite sister-in-law Helen, and Cora's paid companion - to Abernathie's home which he says his organization is buying..  A somewhat estranged family, visiting the about-to-be-sold family estate and bickering over the inheritance…so of course someone is attacked.  With one suspect hospitalized with a concussion, Poirot again gathers the family and accuses…the last person I would ever suspect.  And yet, once revealed, the murder's identity is completely obvious.

Christie tired of her most popular detective long before the public did.  She couldn't retire Poirot, but his appearances became less frequent as time went by.  It may not just have been weariness with the Belgian detective, though.  I've always though of Poirot as belonging to the era between World Wars (and Miss Marple, in her sleepy village where electricity and cars may replace candles and horses but nothing else changes, belongs to the post-war era).  Seeing Poirot in the 1950s and talking about death duties and societal changes, well, it just doesn't fit.  He was always more of a caricature than a character, but so were the Bright Young Things and the characters which populated screwball comedies.  The 1950s were more subdued, and Poirot was just a bit too unreal.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Big Short

Grant decided to investigate these strange Wall Street creations known as CDOs. Or, rather, he had asked his young assistant, Dan Gertner, a chemical engineer with an a MBA, to see if he could understand them.  Gertner went off with the documents explaining CDOs to potential investors and sweated and groaned and heaved and suffered.  "Then he came back, " says Grant, "And said, "I can't figure this thing out."  And I said, "I think we have our story." - page 177

That passage made me feel good.  Not about the financial market manipulations which nearly brought down the world economy five or six years ago, about myself.  Because I'm a chemical engineer with a JD and I could not follow the logic behind CDOs.  I read the business section of the paper, listen to Planet Money, understood enough about the difference between what banks would let me buy and what I could afford when I was house hunting, and I just could not wrap my mind around the financial instruments

Michael Lewis is an accidental insider to the world of finance.  He worked for Salomon Brothers in the late 80s, left, wrote Liar's Poker as a cautionary tale to save new college grads from losing their souls to large bonuses, and was shocked to find those kids he wanted to save used his book as a how-to manual.  When he escaped (his word), he thought that the investment world would eventually revert to a saner form, but he was wrong.

My college newspaper published this cartoon, lamenting the lack of moral career options for the late-80s math major.  A dozen years later, those math majors headed for Wall Street and created financial instruments which claimed to be "diversified" because they included risky investments from several different companies.  A subprime mortgage is a bad investment - that's why the borrower is paying a high interest rate.  Logically, 100 subprime mortgages should be a very bad investment - but when presented as 100 different investments, it magically becomes a "diversified" and therefore safer.  The housing market didn't collapse because individual borrowers were irresponsible per se - it collapsed because the experts figured out how to make money by essentially running an elaborate con game.

Lewis shows us this world through the eyes of a few outsider members - two guys who almost stumble into success, a doctor-turned-trader who's diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the height of his success, and a man hired through nepotism who might have been the rudest man in New York City.  They took advantage of the system, but they also saw the warning signs a few months before the rest of the financial world and tried (too late) to warn others.  They made millions, and got out as the world collapsed.

One thing nagged at me throughout the book.  How much money is "enough?"  I like money, but I have a sense of enough, and of the trade offs involved.  If I work extra hours, I'll have a few more dollars two weeks later but if I leave early, I can meet a friend for dinner or go to the ballet.  It's a matter of finding the right balance.  Lewis's traders throw around seven and eight figure bonuses like the money in the change purse I keep in my glove compartment.  They can buy condos the way I buy a medium twist cone with chocolate jimmies - it's beyond what I can comprehend.  And yet, they want more.  People complain about athletes' and movie stars' salaries - but if Jimmie Rollins pops up or if Reese Witherspoon's movie tanks at the box office, no one gets hurt - and Rollins and Witherspoon actually do something.  Not necessarily something which will have much effect on the world as a whole, but they're doing something few others have the ability to do.  The Wall Street traders profiled in The Big Short make more money than all but the biggest stars, and they came close to destroying our entire financial system in the process.  And yet, no one complains about their paydays.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Constant Gardener

Warning - possible spoilers

Two weeks ago, the journal Science published an article claiming that reading literature improves your social skills.  While I generally agree with Neil Gaiman that so-called "fluff" reading has imaginative value, I also take issue with the assumption that genre fiction is fluff.  Some of it is - but some literary fiction is so concerned with being "literary" that the author downplays minor details like plot and characterization, resulting in a book that one can admire, but not really like.  Yes, there's some mediocre (or worse) genre fiction on the market and selling well, but I can't agree that a mystery can't be literature.

My first exhibit?  The Constant Gardner.  It appears to be an action-movie-in-waiting: a well-known espionage novelist, exotic locales, and an unsolved murder.   Lift off the first layer and you'll find an indictment of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and below that a love story in retrospect.  It also takes place largely in the mind of a grieving man, desperate to solve his wife's murder before he too dies violently.

Le Carre's novel starts as a conventional suspense novel.  Sandy Woodrow, a British diplomat in Nairobi, learns that another diplomat's wife has been found, murdered.  Tessa Quayle was, well, a bit of an embarrassment to the embassy; much younger than her undistinguished husband, flirty, and prone to quixotic forays into social justice.  Woodrow and his wife organize the funeral and hide Justin Quayle from the press, both men submit to police questioning about Tessa's life and death, and Justin returns to England.  So far, an ordinary if well-written mystery, highlighted by acidic sketches of domesticity in the diplomatic corps.  Once Justin returns to England, though, The Constant Gardener changes, becoming a more reflective piece which takes place more and more in Justin's mind as he travels through Europe, to Canada, and finally back to Africa, trying both to solve his wife's murder and to complete her mission.

You see, the diplomatic corps had completely misjudged Tessa.  She wasn't a flirt, but deeply in love with Justin (and Justin with her).  Neither was she a quixotic campaigner, but an Oxbridge trained lawyer and human rights campaigner who'd discovered that a promising anti-malarial drug had toxic side effects and that a corner-cutting pharmaceutical company didn't know - or care.  Using Justin's grief to frame the flashbacks, le Carre subtly transforms Tessa Qualye from a shallow dilettante to a fully realized character.  Perhaps she's a bit too "good" (after all, we're seeing her through the memories of her widower), but she's real, too stubborn and perhaps naive to be a saintly victim.  Justin also transforms from a middle-aged, mid-level, mediocrity into a man desperate to complete his wife's quest, even (or perhaps hopefully) at the cost of his own life.

I mentioned above that I believe The Constant Gardner is literature, despite its genre status.  It engaged both my emotions and my intellect more than some classics have (coincidence-heavy Jane Eyre, with the two-dimensional Mr. Rochester, for example).  Le Carre also had a more difficult task than the non-genre novelist, because he had to stay within a framework.  Genre fiction isn't easier than straight fiction - it's harder.  The author has the same duty to use rich language, create engaging characters, and craft a believable plot as any other novelist, but has to do so without violating the genre's rules.  Le Carre succeeded on this level as well.  After finishing the novel, I woke up in the middle of the night.  It wasn't because of a noise outside, or because I was thirsty or uncomfortable - it was because I second-guessed myself on the identity of Tessa's killer.