The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Tennis with Mr. Nice

April 13, 2016 | by

My week with the late Howard Marks, drug smuggler and author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In June 1995, on a magazine assignment that never came to fruition, I flew to Palma, Majorca, to spend a week with Howard Marks. He was just out of prison then, having served seven of a twenty-five year sentence on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations charges at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Howard’s backstory was well known in the UK, but less so in the U.S., despite a Frontline documentary on his worldwide marijuana smuggling. As a young working-class Welsh philosophy student at Oxford, Howard had started out as a small-time dealer and, in his smart, amiable way, worked his way up the ladder to become a bona-fide drug kingpin, a Robin Hood to stoners across the British Isles. “Mr. Nice,” as one of his aliases had it, dealt only in soft drugs; today he might be an upstanding citizen of Washington or Colorado. To the everlasting chagrin of the British police, he beat the rap once at the Old Bailey—he’d been caught moving fifteen tons of dope from a fishing trawler off the Irish coast onto dry land—by offering the unimpeachable defense that he’d been working for MI6 at the time. He was not a drug smuggler, he said, but a narc. Read More »

Here’s to Hearing the Hum, and Other News

April 11, 2016 | by

A visualization of the Hum made by Louviere+Vanessa, who broadcast audio files through a digital spectrometer then print them onto handmade Japanese kozo paper Dibond-primed with gesso, covered in gold leaf, and coated with resin. Photo via New Republic.

  • Though his criticism can be acid, and though it sometimes deploys words like gassy, Michael Hofmann isn’t “a lit-crit Johnny Fartpants,” experts say: “As he sits in an incongruously rowdy Hamburg bar, all shy eyes and nervous hands, one is reminded that he is also a poet and translator: a humble servant of words, not just their sneering judge. In smooth RP tones that belie his German parentage, he explains that none of his hatchet jobs were written out of personal animosity … ‘I have a sense of the enterprise being ecological,’ he says. ‘There is so much excessive praise and excessive interest in the books world, and it’s all too focused on too few people. If you cut things down to scale, you do something good.’ ”
  • Tinnitus is more than a condition. It’s a worldview. Or so it is if you’re among the lucky 2 percent of the population who can hear the Hum, widely reported as “a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine, mostly audible at night, mostly noticeable indoors.” Colin Dickey looked into it: “Hum sufferers have been consistently written off as either delusional or simply suffering from tinnitus … It’s important to remember that there’s so much we still don’t know about how hearing works. We know low-frequency waves can cause pain, nausea, and other deleterious effects on humans—indeed, the United States and other governments have long experimented with using sound and vibration as nonlethal weapons … Add to this the fact that since the early twentieth century we’ve been bombarding the atmosphere with all manner of frequencies and waves. Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don’t more of us hear it?”
  • There’s an argument to be made that any and all instances of the Hum are in fact to be pinned on Tony Conrad, the experimental filmmaker and drone-music progenitor, who died last week at seventy-six: “After his graduation in 1962, Mr. Conrad briefly worked as a computer programmer and immersed himself in New York’s experimental music scene. As part of Mr. Young’s ensemble, he performed seemingly improvisational pieces that involved holding notes for what might have felt like hours at a time. Some audiences found the music maddening; others were exalted. ‘It appeared as if Schoenberg had destroyed music,’ Mr. Conrad said … ‘Then it appeared as if Cage had destroyed Schoenberg. Our project was to destroy Cage.’ ”
  • For aesthetes, the mug shot provides a great reason to avoid a life of crime—it’s so unforgiving, so permanent. A new exhibition at the Met, “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” looks at its history: “In the 1870s, a Parisian policeman named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as part of his ‘anthropometric’ system of criminal identification based on minute physical measurements. For no pay, he spent his free hours examining inmates at La Santé prison, using calipers and rulers to record the length and width of prisoners’ fingers, noses, foreheads, and mouths … If one measure of a photograph’s power is the extent to which it inspires us to fill in the circumstances around it, then the mug shot of a 1930s Baltimore shoplifter is a small masterpiece of portraitist art. A woman in her late forties, with whitening blonde hair, turns slightly away from the police photographer’s camera with a mix of melancholia and trapped defiance. The flesh around her left eye is badly bruised, a messy black puddle that spills along her cheek and temple. Who slugged her—the department store security guard, the arresting cop, the shopkeeper himself, or an intimate friend? Her lips are thin and subtly crooked, her jawline is just beginning to sag. The life before (and after) the picture rushes in on you in an imagined story of filled-in time.”
  • Violette Leduc was a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir, and yet she seldom appears on syllabi—why? “A journey through Leduc’s rejections, documented in her autobiographies La bâtarde (1964) and Mad in Pursuit (1970), lay bare the insidious gatekeeping that money and masculinity exert on literary inclusion, then and now. Leduc was born poor and illegitimate; her mother is the help, her father is the heir and she, the child of their furtive union, is unwanted … De Beauvoir spent her time earning the title ‘intellectual.’ Her story is one of early erudition, acing exams, stunning philosophical acuity and a romantic (if also conveniently strategic) alliance with Sartre. In Leduc, she sees the authenticity that she theorizes, and in playing midwife to her self-exposition she seeks the vindication of her philosophy. In existentialism, we are all free to choose, exercise our radical free will; the constraints of past experience can be shaken off, truth told and freedom achieved. Leduc’s life, told in her writing, has to be evidence of the truth of this. De Beauvoir’s feminism, unleavened by any literal struggles with the whims of men, needs Leduc’s literary liberation to prove its practical application.”

Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Glass Hat

February 11, 2015 | by

Richard Price and the evolving role of pseudonyms.

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From the cover of The Whites.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, isn’t by Richard Price, except that it is. It’s by Harry Brandt, Price’s pseudonym, but it’s also not really by Brandt—Price’s name is on the cover, too, and so Price is Brandt, obviously, and it follows then that Brandt is Price, and thus, uh …

Let’s start over.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, is by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It says so right there on the cover. Big deal, you might say; another author slumming it in genre fiction by creating a false identity for himself. But by publishing both his name and his pseudonym on the cover, Price has parted with centuries of pseudonymous convention. He hasn’t just pulled back the curtain. He’s brought up the house lights and waved to the audience. And he did it all, according to the New York Times, because he got sort of annoyed. Read More »

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A Dissatisfaction with Life

January 19, 2015 | by

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Patricia Highsmith on After Dark, 1988. Photo: Open Media Ltd.

You don’t agree with George Bernard Shaw’s idea that the artist is very close to the criminal?

I can think of only one slight closeness, and that is that an imaginative writer is very free-wheeling; he has to forget about his own personal morals, especially if he is writing about criminals. He has to feel anything is possible. But I don’t for this reason understand why an artist should have any criminal tendencies. The artist may simply have an ability to understand … I would much rather be an entertainer than a moralizer, but to call murder not a social problem I think is ridiculous; it certainly is a social problem. The word existentialist has become fuzzy. It’s existentialist if you cut a finger with a kitchen knife—because it has happened. Existentialism is self-indulgent, and they try to gloss over this by calling it a philosophy … I once wrote in a book of mine about suspense writing, that a criminal, at least for a short period of time is free, free to do anything he wishes. Unfortunately it sounded as if I admired that, which I don’t. If somebody kills somebody, they are breaking the law, or else they are in a fit of temper. While I can’t recommend it, it is an awful truth to say that for a moment they are free, yes. And I wrote that in a moment of impatience, I remember distinctly. I get impatient with a certain hidebound morality. Some of the things one hears in church, and certain so-called laws that nobody practices. Nobody can practice them and it is even sick to try … Murder, to me, is a mysterious thing. I feel I do not understand it really. I try to imagine it, of course, but I think it is the worst crime. That is why I write so much about it; I am interested in guilt. I think there is nothing worse than murder, and that there is something mysterious about it, but that isn’t to say that it is desirable for any reason. To me, in fact, it is the opposite of freedom, if one has any conscience at all.

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The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.

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Mesrine’s mugshot, 1973.

On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.

For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.

This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later. Read More »

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The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

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Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

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