Staff Picks: Passing Saviors, Psycho Sitters


This Week’s Reading

Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock, 1952.

Before The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, or Blue Sunshine, there was Mischief, Charlotte Armstrong’s 1950 suspense novel and home of the original psychotic babysitter. The story, newly reissued in Sarah Weinman’s anthology Women Crime Writers, follows an out-of-town couple in a Manhattan hotel; for a night out on the town, they leave their only daughter in the care of a meek woman who knows the elevator guy. (Good help is so hard to find.) From there things go quickly south. Armstrong’s fixation on social mores, on the subtle ways we pay obesiance to convention, reminds me of John O’Hara—Mischief’s crazy sitter has an implacable ennui that would put her right at home in the pages of Appointment in Samarra. Her violence is motivated by sheer boredom, and her psychology makes the novel eerily effective, even in its clunkier moments: Armstrong tapped into postwar fears about class and belonging in a new and terrifying way. Two years later the book was adapted in Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark; “The female race,” says the latter, “is always cheesing up my life!” —Dan Piepenbring

In The Act of Killing, a 2012 documentary, the directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn travel to Medan, Indonesia, where they film the feared and vaunted Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, and Herman Koto: deified “gangsters” of the paramilitary Pancasila youth. Congo and co. are family men, cinephiles, and mass murderers who have never faced punishment for their crimes. They’re invited by Oppenheimer and Cynn to make a film about their contribution to the mass killings of 1965–1966, in which a million alleged communists lost their lives. In it they dramatize their “glory days,” abiding by their favorite Hollywood tropes (gangster, western, musical). In one scene, on a rooftop, Congo explains his preferred method of killing: strangulation by wire. In another, we watch him gently admonish his two grandsons for treating some backyard chicklets with too rough a touch. As the camera rolls on, we see Congo’s defenses against remorse and self-disgust erode. Watching these scenes you sense him begging for his comeuppance—“I’m always gazed at by those eyes I didn’t close”—but a full admission of guilt is slow to arrive. It’s probably best to take this one in over several viewings, with a bottle of something strong nearby. Then watch The Look of Silence. Joshua Maserow 

I fear too many people mistake Iris DeMent’s voice as a hokey parody, because she sometimes plays that role. Her singing sounds old, yes, but it has an unshakable, antique backwater sincerity that I admire. DeMent was raised in the Pentecostal church, and you can hear it especially when she’s belting out old hymns like “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” in a way that appeals to even the staunchest atheist. Today she’s not associated with any church; her music celebrates the comfort found in acknowledging origins. In other words, she takes nostalgia seriously. “What I heard was gospel church music,” she recently told Terry Gross, “and it was by real people that I knew and whose lives overlapped with mine until I was about five years old.” Her new album, The Trackless Woods, sets to music the poetry of Russian born Anna Akhmatova, whom Stalin named an enemy of the state. The dirge-like country-cum-Russian-revolutionary tracks show a new side of her old style. —Jeffery Gleaves


I read my way through two short books this week: Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Weddingpreviously “picked”—and Raymond Radiguet’s The Devil in the Flesh, a largely autobiographical novel that details a fifteen-year-old’s love affair with an older, married woman. (Radiguet, who died at the age of twenty, was only eighteen when he wrote it.) I came to Radiguet’s work by way of Jean Cocteau’s 1964 Paris Review interview, in which he offers an account of Radiguet’s precocity:

He was remarkable in that he began perfectly from the beginning, without error … He slept on the floor or on a table from house to house of the various painters. Then in the summer vacation with me on the Bay of Arcachon he wrote The Devil in the Flesh; Bal du Comte d’Orgel he did not even write, but sat and dictated to Georges Auric, who tapped it out on the machine as they went. I looked on, and he simply talked it all out. Rapidly and effortlessly. And it is flawless style. He was a Chinese Mandarin with the naïveté of a child.

Both novels are told from the prospective of uniquely neurotic and, at times, petulant narrators. But it was Baker’s Cassandra—headier, more exacting, infinitely more endearing—who lingered in my mind. —Stephen Hiltner