History, Podcasts and the Craft of the Metanarrative
Episode seven of “The Magnus Archives” has been one of my favorites, weaving together the horror of war, historical figures and folklore in a tragic haunting manner.
Set during World War I, “The Piper” tells of the narrator’s experience with Wilfred Owen, who was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War, writing on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare. His poem “Dulce et decorum est” condemns the rallying cry that “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”
Owen was killed in action during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice, which is fictionalized in the archive statement in this episode along with the calling of the Pied Piper as almost a god of death who stalked the battlefields. It is said that his mother received word of his death while the bells of the nearby church tolled for the end of the war.
I haven’t read very much of Owen’s poetry but this episode did a great job capturing the bleakness and horror of which he wrote.
“The Magnus Archives” is not a new podcast, but while I may be four years and about 180 episodes behind, just in case I wasn’t the last person to ever hear of it, I wanted to share how creepy, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable the show has been.
I hope more of the episodes begin to play with historical events or figures as connections between archive statements and subjects begin to appear as this episode was one of their best. From a pure entertainment standpoint, this podcast has been great, but even more than that, the structure of it and the storytelling had been excellent with a fine balance between the individual stories and the connecting story arcs.
Definitely worth checking out as much as a short story anthology as a lesson in crafting narratives.
361 / “Look up 361 in any Thesaurus and you’ll find this: ‘Destruction of life; violent death; killing.’ “
I picked up a handful of Hard Case Crime books on clearance, a couple of the authors being ones I recognized, but they sat on the shelf for a couple years before I got around to reading one of them. I started Donald Westlake’s “361” mainly because it was the one sitting closest to me while I was having some computer issues. A few bugs had caused serious delays in my computer’s ability to even idle without freezing, so while I tried to troubleshoot that, I needed something to do.
Being in a significant reading slump the last few months, I didn’t have much faith in Westlake’s ability to keep me engaged. Nothing I picked up interested me, and nothing I was reading already seemed worth grabbing. This would do, I thought, for a momentary distraction while my computer struggled to open a single web page. But I was wrong. This was perfect. This was just what I needed.
The jacket gave away the setup, but that only heightened the suspense as Westlake’s narrator, Ray Kelly, walked you through the first chapter. I’ve missed this style of writing, the rough and to the point pulp narration. Kelly himself has no patience for people throughout the book, and it comes across in everything he does and relays to the reader.
As the history of the plot unfolds you can feel the tension and mystery of all the directions it could go, the uncertainty of the Ray Kelly as he pushes forward through what he’s being told, struggling to sort out the lies, the misdirection, the motives that led to his blinding, his father’s death and destruction of the family he thought was his.
What sets this apart from the other pulp novels I’ve read is that Ray didn’t choose this course for himself in the sense that he isn’t a professional detective or criminal. He was just a guy who was discharged from the Air Force, happy to be reunited with his father and heading home.
In a way, that makes Ray just like Ed Johnson, the private detective who tries to help him but is (as perhaps as the most realistically written private detective in the history of pulps novels) terrifyingly out of his league when he learns his client is getting involved with violent criminals; and Eddie Kapp, the gangster who holds the secret to the death of Ray’s father, and who until Ray came along was content to retire to Florida and leave the underworld behind.
But where Johnson refuses to push on and leaves Ray on his own, and Kapp throws himself gleefully back into the New York mob scene, Ray is simply a scared, hurt man, who has had everything taken from him. He wants justice and is willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve it.
Unlike the characters in similar books who suddenly find themselves at home in the darkness where their vengeance lies hidden, Ray has no interest in that life. He’s simply a man who wants to go home, but is willing to kill any man who tries to stop him.
Thanks to the Violent World of Parker for explaining the title and sharing the original cover art.
Had “Darkness, Take My Hand”, the second book in Dennis Lehane’s ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series, not been in the same volume as the first book, I may have taken a break to read some other things before jumping back into the world of these Dorchester private investigators.
Of course, had the plot of the second book not picked up significantly about halfway through, I don’t know when book three would have hit my reading list.
Typically, I don’t like this type of story. I’m getting sick of it. TV has done it to death with the untouchable villain whose lifelong game plan has been to get back at our protagonist for some long forgotten trespass, oftentimes committed by a parent or mutual mentor. Until that reveal, our protagonist was seemingly pulled into the entire plot by accident. And you know what? Stop. Just stop.
It’s ok to have a case without rooting it deep within your character’s personal histories. As readers and viewers of any story, we want to experience the world these characters inhabit but you should insult your audience with stories contrived to make us believe the entire universe revolves around those characters.
But… Ok, if you’re going to do it, I suppose, this time, at least, it was done pretty well.
I figured out who the mystery guy was before the big reveal, but I think, as readers, we were meant to figure it out ahead of the characters. Once the story got to that point it was obvious because deep down, that wasn’t the mystery.
Between books one and two, Patrick started up a new relationship, and it was the few pages of his frantic sprint over the icy streets of Boston when she was in danger that had me more on the edge of my seat then the ultimate conclusion to the case itself.
With that in mind, maybe I was wrong about this book. Maybe I was wrong about what the real story was? The reason I picked up the ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series in the first place was to experience Lehane’s Boston through his characters. The real story in “Darkness, Take My Hand” was the fallout of those decisions that Patrick and Angie had made in the previous book and how it affected both differently. Perhaps the story wasn’t about hunting a killer, but learning to accept and move past those choices Patrick and Angie made and must continue to make to survive in their line of work. Otherwise, they would allow themselves to be consumed entirely by it, as many of the characters ultimately were.
It’s actually a quote from “A Drink Before the War” that sums up what is truly at the heart of this novel:
“It never works that way. Once that ugliness has been forced into you, it becomes part of your blood, dilutes it, races through your heart and back out again, staining everything as it goes. The ugliness never goes away, never comes out, no matter what you do. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. All you can do is hope to control it.”