Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'The Basement' Deals with Things Below the Surface



Review: THE BASEMENT (Three Elephants 2010)
Author: Stephen Leather


I have to confess that when my own books began to climb the ranks on Amazon UK, my first thought upon looking at the other names up at the top was, "Who the heck is Stephen Leather?" It even sounded like a name I should know. Yet, I couldn't recall ever seeing his books before. So, I checked on Amazon.com. There he was, but not nearly as high up. WTF??? Now, I was exceedingly curious. Why the hell was this guy so popular in the UK, yet so little known outside that realm?

So, I took the only logical course of action. I downloaded a copy of one of his books, which in this case turned out to be THE BASEMENT, despite the slightly creepy cover with the steps leading down to the same, which evoked images somewhat reminiscent of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

But things aren't always as they appear. You can't judge a book by its cover. Because when I started to read this one, I was immediately hooked by the voice, which was funny. Yes, funny! See, it's written from the point of view of a guy named Marvin Waller who makes a few offhand observations about America and New York City, in particular. For instance, what a great place it is to kill people. Awesome! And how you can walk around anytime you like with a loaded gun stuck down your trousers. At this point, I'm dying. Um, of laughter. And, of course, you can get away with murder easy there. The secret is to blend.

But Marvin says he wouldn't really do any of these things. You see, Marvin is a writer. Or to be more precise, he's a screenwriter.

Now, Marvin does his screenwriting thing in a cramped little cubbyhole of an apartment with the bare minimum of furniture, because this is the way real writers do things. He is, of course, a stone genius who works on an old typewriter, because real writers work on typewriters, not computers. When Marvin isn't pounding the keys on his ancient typewriter, he's pacing the perimeter of his tiny apartment like a caged lion.

Thing is Marvin's humor masks his frustration and sadness over his inability to get his genius scripts produced, because he can't seem to get them directly into the producers' hands. All because of the damn secretaries! The secretaries of the world have it in for him! It's a conspiracy of secretaries, I tell you! Pinheads!

Ahem. Where were we?

Meanwhile, another narrative is introduced. This one involves an unfortunate woman named Sarah Hall, who's held captive by someone (the unseen narrator). This captor is cunning, ruthless, mean, merciless, twisted and all sorts of other awful adjectives. The captor forces Sarah to do demeaning things to fulfill some kind of sick urge. The narrative is told from the captor's point of view, so we are kept in the dark as to the captor's identity. This narrative is interwoven here and there within the main story and is, in fact, a part of it.

Okay. Let's get down to brass tacks. Torture. I'm not big on it. So ... were these scenes with Sarah Hall beyond the pale? Nope, not hardly. Not one single nightmare resulted from reading this book. The scenes manage to strike a fine balance between being horrifying and suspenseful. For me, the horror wasn't so much the depiction of any physical torture, as the workings of the mind of a torturer.

So, back to the main story. In a desperate bid to bypass the secretarial wall, Marvin takes his pacing from the confines of his flat to the streets fronting the apartment buildings where the producers live, which creates all sorts of problems between himself and various doormen (more gatekeepers!), which leads to some priceless funny dialogue. However, because there's a serial killer on the loose in New York City and Marvin is acting weird, the cops are called. Way to blend, Marvin! :) I mean, not that he's doing anything illegal. He knows his rights. He'll give you chapter and verse of the Bill of Rights and even quote Terry v. Ohio. Impressive! :-)

Once the cops are called, they become a regular nuisance. Showing up all the time, asking questions. Again, lots of funny banter, but matters turn more serious the farther into the book you get.

So, here's the thing. Who is the unseen narrator? Is it Marvin? Does the fact that he's writing a screenplay about a serial killer who becomes a bestselling author tell you anything? Or does Leather want you to think that? Hmm ...

The end came as something of a shocker. And heartbreaking. Yes, heartbreaking! After all, serial killers are sociopaths. And sociopaths manipulate people into trusting them. Then treat the people who trusted them without mercy. And things aren't always as they appear. And writers are such clever liars.

Now my question is, "Why the heck haven't I heard about this awesome author Stephen Leather before?"

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