One never gets used to the Midwestern heat. My husband dislikes air conditioning, but in these record-high temperatures I couldn’t live without it. Though I can be sprightly and cheerful in front of fans blowing at top speed, I need the AC at night.
We struggled over the issue of AC for years. No, my husband said. But during a drought one summer, I bought the last air conditioner in town–I called many, many stores before I found one at Sears. We stuck it in the bedroom window, wedged a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire beneath it, and then fanned out the plastic pleated shutters on either side. Not the safest installation: the vampire Lestat held it up.
Even with central air and no vampire installations, the heat is exhausting. So I stayed home last week and took a mini-vacation indoors. And I read the perfect cool books. What can be cooler than the fashion world and a Graham Greene quasi-thriller? I recommend:
1. Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes. Patricia Moyes’s mysteries are delectable, especially Murder a la Mode, a cozy classic–now back in print, published by Felony and Mayhem Press. Set in the 1960s at the offices of a London fashion magazine, it captures the hectic quibbling and high-pitched tension of the staff’s hurrying to put out the Paris fashion issue. Having returned late from the spring show in Paris, they are still bickering over layouts at midnight. The art department is histrionic, and only the level-headed, soon-to-retire editor Margery French can soothe Patrick, the art editor, who refuses to give a double spread to an ugly hat: “that…that pudding on stilts.” Teresa Manners, the posh fashion editor, has a pitch-perfect fashion sense and insists that the hat will be the axis of the season. Meanwhile, Helen, the assistant editor, must stay behind to write the copy and photo captions after the others leave. When Helen is found dead the next morning from cyanide in her tea, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates, with the help of his niece, Veronica, a model. (P.S. Moyes worked as an assistant editor at Vogue, so she gets the details of the fashion magazine just right.)
2. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Greene is one of the most intelligent writers of the 20th century, and his intelligent well-plotted novels are peopled with intelligent men who agonize, Greek tragedian-style, about their emptiness and angst. I am not Greene’s biggest fan–I prefer his pop predecessor, W. Somerset Maugham–but his characters definitely know how to be cool in the most volatile situations.
That is true of The Quiet American,which I recently read to stay cool. The narrator, Fowler, an English war correspondent in Saigon in the 1950s, has witnessed battles, bombings, and atrocities in the war between the French and the Vietminh guerrillas. He knows just what his newspaper will or will not publish, and he regards himself as an observer, not an activist.
The British empire has fallen, and Fowler cynically watches the new world politics enacted in Vietnam. But when an American comes to Saigon and threatens Fowler’s way of life (and the Vietnamese way of life), Fowler eventually must act. Pyle, an American employed in the Economic Aid Mission, seems at first friendly and naive, irritating and sincere: he earnestly believes that “a third force” can save Vietnam. Pyle wants not only to Americanize Vietnam but to poach on Fowler’s personal territory: he falls in love with and steals Fowler’s mistress, Phuong, after chivalrously warning Fowler of his intentions. But when one of Fowler’s contacts tells him the truth about the death-dealing “plastics” industry Pyle is setting up, Fowler must cross a moral line.
Gorgeous writing, even though this book is not for me. Greene needs only a paragraph or two, or a line of dialogue, to establish character and mood. In the following passage, he describes his first meeting Pyle at a cafe. Pyle asks to join him, because there are no free tables.
“Was that a grenade?” he asked with excitement and hope.
“More likely the exhaust of a car,” I said, and was suddenly sorry for his disappointment. One forgets so quickly one’s own youth: once I was interested myself in what for want of a better term they call news. But grenades had staled on me; they were something listed on the back page of the local paper–so many last night in Saigon, so many in Cholon: they never made the European press. Up the street came the lovely flat figures–the white silk trousers, the long tight jackets in pink and mauve patterns slit up the thigh. I watched them with the nostalgia I knew I would feel when I left the region forever. “They are lovely, aren’t they?” I said over my beer, and Pyle cast a cursory glance as they went up the rue Catinant.
The Pyles of the world turn out not to be what they seem, and the Fowlers have more to them than you noticed. Love the writing, but am indifferent to the book. It’s something about Greene: not for me.