Booze, sex and philosophy from the gutter: Reading Charles Bukowski’s ‘Women’

“I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms,” says Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski the fictional alter-ego of legendary boozehound writer and  “laureate of American lowlife” (as Time magazine dubbed him) Charles Bukowski in his 1978 novel “Women”.

I’ve read many of Bukowski’s brilliantly irreverent novels – written in a parsed down, forthright and highly entertaining style – and Women is by far the most graphic, indeed almost pornographic in its depiction of Chinaski’s innumerable sexual encounters.

(“I got down there and began licking…the cl*t came out but it wasn’t exactly pink, it was a purplish pink,” is how he describes one of these episodes.)

The semi-autobiographical novel (one can only assume some of his sexual exploits are exaggerated, though perhaps not the prodigious drinking) begins with Chinaski, 50, telling the reader that he has not had sex for four years.

“I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the street or wherever I saw them, but I looked without yearning, with a sense of futility.”

This drought is then broken by a period of romping that would have made Don Juan proud. It begins with half-crazed divorced mother of two Lydia Vance (the fictional version of Bukowski’s real-life girlfriend, the sculptor and playwright Linda King), whom Chinaski meets at a poetry reading:

She put both hands on the edge of the table, bent over and looked at me. She had long brown hair, quite long, a prominent nose and one eye didn’t quite match the other. But she projected vitality – you knew that she was there. I could feel vibrations running between us.

Woman, Charles Bukowski

Their relationship is full of wild sex, described in intimate detail by Chinaski – “I heard her breathing heavily, then she moaned” – and violent breakups due to his excessive drinking, visits to the racetrack, and infidelities, none of which he apologises for. Chinaski is who he is and the world can go to hell if they don’t like it.

“I walked into the bedroom with just my shorts on. I was conscious of my white belly lolling out over the shorts. But I made no effort to suck in my gut…”

At face value, Women is simply a recollection of Chinaski’s (or Bukowski’s) various relationships with women. These include Lydia, but also brief encounters with star struck fans who are seemingly served up on a platter to the horniest 50-year-old in LA.

It’s also a daily tally of his prodigious alcohol consumption of mostly cheap wine and beer. In between all the boozing and bonking – “Fucking was the best cure for hangovers. It got all the parts ticking again” – we accompany Chinaski on his often hilarious trips to college campuses around the country where he gives readings.

But as with all his writing, Bukowski manages to convey something more profound and meaningful than the sum of his adventures across bedrooms, bars and college campuses.

It is to champion the other side of Los Angeles in the words of his biographer Barry Miles: “Not the LA of ranch homes in the Hollywood Hills with the breathtaking views…” but the LA of tarnished dreams, of dead end jobs, of hookers and workers in the sex industry, of beaten down, damaged and dysfunctional people”.

Miles adds: “Bukowski loved the corner bars, the tawdry fast-food outlets, the sex shops and brothels, the graffiti on the walls…”

Sure Chinaski is the hero of the story, but he is no superman in a cape. He is very much the Bukoswki you see in those grainy black and white poetry readings on YouTube. a disheveled anti-hero with a pockmarked face who says what he thinks, never holds back and for whom nothing is ever taboo.

Chinaski in Women is very much a mirror – if perhaps a distorted and exaggerated one – of Bukowski at the height of his powers and fame: when after decades of struggle, eking out a living and working dead end jobs, he had finally established himself as a figurehead in American literature: the dirty old man of American letters.

Chinaski is not searching for some deeper meaning to life, or for the woman of his dreams. Life is simply about the experiences that happen to him – whether its winning big at the track or walking away broke, having a raging hardon or being unable to perform in the sack because he drank too much, talking to prostitutes or college professors – everything finds its way, uncensored into the book.

And while Chinaski is vulgar, and driven by his baser urges, he can also be sweet and loving. He is not a manipulator, nor does he pretend to be anyone else. And he despises pretentious, fake people.

Most importantly – and perhaps a key reason why I enjoy his books so much – is the poetic nature of his writing: short, descriptive sentences that hit their mark without ever saying too little or too much (a style that would have impressed George Orwell).

If you are a fan of Bukowski other books, or a writer like Raymond Carver who though not as vulgar, employed a similar parsed down style of storytelling, you should definitely give Women a read. (Just don’t leave the book anywhere near young children!)

Murdering the ratings: Why Jeffery Dahmer got two hit TV shows

“The only way I’ll ever get a television series made about me is if I become a serial killer,” I told my wife sarcastically, as we started watching a new Netflix show “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” a dramatised retelling of the crimes of one of the world’s most infamous (and revolting) mass murderers.

“Do I need to be worried?” she replied.

“Maybe….”

We’d watched about 40 minutes of the first of 10 episodes, when we both decided we’d had enough.

An African American man had been lured to Dahmer’s dingy Milwaukee flat, where he’d been partially drugged, threatened with an enormous knife and forced to sit on a blood-stained bed, while awaiting his hideous fate. A huge blue, industrial vat sat ominously in the corner of the room and the atmosphere was oppressive, almost unbearable.

“I don’t think I am in the mood to sit through 10 episodes of this,” I remarked, at which point my wife nodded in agreement and we stopped watching and found something distinctly lighter to enjoy with our cups of tea and biscuits. (For the record it was “Julia” about the life of the famous American television chef Julia Child, an excellent show).

And then what did I do a couple of weeks later?

Undecided about what to watch while my wife gobbled up episodes of the Walking Dead – I can’t handle the tension of that show, nor the constant gargling sounds of zombies – I started watched the other Dahmer show, the documentary series “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes”.

Based around previously unheard taped interviews with Dahmer and Wendy Patrickus, who was his defense attorney, the three part series travelled back and forward in time, cutting from grainy, homemade videos of Dahmer as a sweet, fair-headed child to those grisly scenes at the notorious Milwaukee apartment block as the barrels of human remains were carried down the stairs by crime scene investigators. In between we heard excerpts from the tapes in which Dahmer confesses his crimes and tries, unsuccessfully to explain his actions, and interviews with detectives, psychologists and former friends and neighbours.

There have been plenty more of these shows that have kept me mesmerised. I’ve watched dramatisation of the life of Ted Bundy (starring Zac Efron), a BBC series about London asphyxiator John Christie (played by Tim Roth) and another London killer Denis Nilsen (played to perfection by David Tennant) plus numerous documentary series about Richard Ramirez AKA The Night Stalker, David Berkowitz AKA The Son of Sam and. Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper.

I’ve also watched another Netflix documentary series about Ted Bundy (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes), while there’s another documentary series on my “must watch list” about the American serial killer Wayne Gacy ( who terrifyingly dressed up as a clown at children’s parties).

I don’t there is anything particular wrong or unusual about this viewing behaviour – I’m certainly, to calm my family and friends, not trying to pick up any tips. The truth of the matter is that everyone is part fascinating, revolted and intrigued by the “evil that men do” particularly of the psycopathic kind and especially when the monster looks like Dahmer: a normal, even somewhat handsome young man.

With 856 million hours of combined viewing and counting, The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been watched more than 95 million times from start to finish. Only Squid Game (1.65 billion hours) and Stranger Things Season 4 (1.35 billion) have been watched more.

Alongside the success of the dramatised series, the Jeffery Dahmer documentary series has also been a minor hit for Netflix, racking up millions of hours of viewing time.

No doubt Netflix executives must be delighted, though that might be tempered with the disappointment that there can be no second season. However, you can be certain someone at Netflix HQ is working on the next series and accompanying documentary about another sadistic mass murder.

While The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been lauded for its superb acting, disturbing and compelling storyline, and gritty realism, it seems to have emerged for no real purpose except gaudy entertainment. Dahmer was captured in 1992 and murdered in jail by a fellow inmate in 1994. Many would wish his name never be mentioned again.

But rather than forget about him and his reign of terror, Netflix has brought Dahmer’s vicious killing, dismembering and cannibalism spree back to live in vivid colour. In the process, their huge success has created fresh torment for the families of the 17 boys and young men who would have been alive today were it not for his unfathomable compulsions.

The same could be said for the documentary series though at least this provides fresh insights – these tapes have never been heard before – and gives the viewer a sense of the terrible impact his killing spree had on the Milwaukee community and the families of his victims.

(Incredibly, Dahmer could have been stopped after his very first killing – that of hitchhiker Stephen Hicks in 1978 when Dahmer was just 18 – had the police officer who stopped him to perform a drink driving test taken the time to look at what was in the garbage bags on the backseat, instead of believing Dahmer’s story that they contained animal remains).

Not surprisingly, the release of “Dahmer – Monster” has been met with rage, anger and disbelief by the family’s of his victims who were apparently not consulted about the making of the show, and which has reignited the grief they have had to live with for more than 30 years.

“It hurts. I shed tears. They’re not tears of sorrow, and it’s not disbelief in the Lord. The tears [are] tears of hurt because it hurts. It hurts real bad. But you have to trust and pray and just keep going day by day,” said Shirley Hughes, the mother of Tony Hughes, an aspiring male model, who was just 31 when Dahmer killed him.

The show’s writer Ian Brennan (who also wrote the hit musical series Glee) has defended his work as an “objective” portrayal, though professes amazement at its success:

“I think we show a human being. He’s monstrously human and he’s monstrously monstrous and that’s what we wanted to sort of unpack,” Brennan told news website Page Six at its premier

Also coming to its defense has been journalist Nancy Glass, the last person to interview Dahmer.

She perhaps gave the most telling and obvious reasons for the show’s success and many other similar shows”

“I know that that may seem bizarre, but I think it’s more about morbid curiosity than romanticism,” she told the New York Post.

One wonders what Dahmer himself would thought of a 10-episode dramatisation of his life and a three-part documentary series more than 30 years after his capture. Given his manifest inability to control his urges, it would be entirely plausible to think that he’d have “gotten off” on watching it all happen again. One can only but shudder at the thought.

“It was a compulsion. It became a compulsion,” he said in his last interview (watched 35 million times on YouTube).

In these interviews, Dahmer is softly spoken, articulate and appears highly intelligent. He also had a by all accounts happy childhood, and is described by his parents as a loving child, though one who took an interest at an early age in dead things.

Somehow this morphed into an obsession with the male human body, though why he then went on to murder, dismember, eat and preserve parts of his victims, even Dahmer cannot fathom.

Perhaps it this potential in everyone, to come apart at the seams, that drives our own fascination with true crime and violent killers.

No doubt Netflix and the other streaming platforms are well aware of this and have plenty more similar shows up their sleeves.

Making peace with the past: Reading Alan Cumming’s memoir ‘Not my Father’s Son’

I have enjoyed Alan Cumming’s acting for years, most notably the pushy campaign manager Eli Gold he played to perfection in the television drama ‘The Good Wife‘ and his small, yet memorable role in the James Bond hit Goldeneye, where he portrayed geeky Russian computer progammer Boris Grishenko.

Also a Thespian with a huge range, Cummings has appeared in major dramas and musicals including a one-man adaption of Macbeth on Broadway and as the master of ceremonies in Sam Mendes’s West End adaptation of Cabaret. His trophy cabinet includes two Tony Awards, theatre’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Against this backdrop, I decided to listen to his interview on Desert Island Discs, the legendary radio show and now podcast where guests talk about their lives and musical tastes via the selection of seven favourite recordings, a book and a luxury item that they would take with them if they were marooned on a fabled desert island.

It was only while listening to the podcast that I learnt about Cumming’s tragic childhood, where he felt the almost daily wrath of his abusive and vindictive father, Alex at their home on a 14,000 acre forestry estate near Carnoustie on the Scottish north east coast in the 1970s.

 “I could tell by the clack of his boots, I could tell by the way he opened the door… often it would be to do with my appearance or my hair,” Cumming told Desert Island Discs’ host Laura Laverne of the impending humiliation or beating to come.

Cumming talked a lot about the book he had written about his childhood ‘Not my Father’s Son’ and when I saw it in the local library, felt compelled to read it.

The title refers to his father’s long-held belief that his wife and Cumming’s mother, Mary Darling, had had a brief affair whilst the couple were on holiday and that Alan was not in fact his child, but a product of this betrayal. Choosing to believe this, Alex Cumming used it to justify his abhorrent behaviour (though he was equally cruel to his older brother Tom whose fathering he did not dispute).

So it’s not that every second of my childhood was filled with doom. But every second was filled with the possibility that in an instant my father’s mood would plunge into irrationality, rage and ultimately violence.

Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son

Divided into short, snappy chapters, Cummings’ carefully observed memoir moves back and forth between tales of his abusive and fearful childhood in Scotland in the 1970s and a tumultuous time 40 years later when was the subject of the BBC documentary series “Who Do You Think You are?” whilst also filming a movie in Cape Town.

The documentary series sought to solve a great family mystery: what happened to Cumming’s grandfather Tommy Darling, a decorated war hero, who survived the brutal 1944 battle of Kohima in northern India against the invading Japanese, but who later died in strange and sad circumstances in a village in Malaysia aged just 35 where he was serving after the Second World War.

There’s also another personal mystery to be solved: was Cumming’s really his father’s son?

Alan Cumming’s parents on their wedding day

This waiting for the results of a DNA test is played out with great tension and emotion, as Cumming deals with the possibility that he may have entirely different father and a family he has never met.

A major celebrity figure, Cummings’ memoir is remarkable for being refreshingly devoid of ego. It is a book about survival, love (especially for his mother and brother), forgiveness and finding a way to move on.

It’s also part travel journal as Cumming and the BBC crew filming the documentary head off to different parts of England as well as Malaysia to talk to war veterans and historians in an attempt to unravel the mystery around his grandfather’s “shooting accident”.

Cumming is heartbreakingly honest throughout the book, happy to confide in his reader when making many startling discoveries about his grandfather and his family. His successful acting career helped him escape his father’s wrath, but money and fame cannot solve childhood torment.

Like the podcast interview on Desert Island Discs, the memoir exudes warmth and it is not surprising that so many people have praised it.

I finished reading it with a great deal more affection for Cumming. Despite being obscenely multi-talented (who else can act, sing, dance and write?) he remains a down-to-earth person and most importantly values his family, friends, partner and fans above all us.

(You can watch excerpts of the Who do you think you are? episode featuring Alan Cumming on YouTube, though I advice to finish the book first, to avoid “spoilers”.)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tart: a very long, but engrossing book about a lost boy and a small painting

The Goldfinch is the third novel by American writer Donna Tartt, considered by many to be a literary genius.

Tartt’s two other books are The Secret History, an “inverted detective story” about a college murder, which was published to huge acclaim in 1992 when she was just 29.

This was followed by The Little Friend a mystery adventure novel set in Mississippi in the early 1970s that appeared in book stores in 2002.

The Goldfinch – an epic novel spanning 864 pages – was published in 2013.

By that you can tell that Tartt, who is now 58, painstakingly completed a book about once every 10 years (and we should expect no.4 soon!).

It also suggests an astonishing level of self-confidence and cerebral stamina – you really have to believe in what you are doing to keep going on with the same story and characters for a decade!

However, each monumental effort has paid off. Not only are Tartt’s books best sellers and generally admired by critics, but they have won numerous prizes: The Little Friend won the WH Smith Literary Award while The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

“A beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart,” said the Pulitzer Prize judges of The Goldfinch.

It’s a pretty good summary of the novel, which begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam as 27-year-old Theodore Decker’s fever-ridden thoughts return to a fateful stormy morning in Manhattan 14 years ago and the last few hours he spent with is beloved mother.

When a storm descends on them, they seek shelter in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrorist bomb kills his mother a short while later.

Tartt’s description of the violent explosion and its aftermath are exquisite as she brings the terrible chaos and destruction to life on the page as if the reader is also there. Buried in the rubble, Theo finds himself in a “ragged white cave” with “swags and tatters dangling from the ceiling” and as the ground “tumbled and bucked up with heaps of a gray substance like moon rock”. It is descriptive writing at its finest.

Just as powerful and heart-wrenching are the scenes where Theo makes his way back to their empty, darkened apartment, to wait in vain for his mother, “her coffee cup, green glass from the flea market, with lipstick print on the rim” a reminder of her terrible absence.

Also a reminder of his mother, and a vital connection to his last moments with her is the The Goldfinch, a small painting by the 17th century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius that Theo has carried out of the wreckage with him.

The painting is of a “yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle”. Just before they were separated, Theo’s mother told him this little painting was “just about the first painting” she ever loved. There is also another parallel: Fabritius also died tragically young, caught in an explosion at the gunpowder magazine in Delft in Southern Holland.

I stepped back, to get a better look. It was a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself – its brightness, its alert watchful expression -made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.

The Gold Finch

The intriguing little painting, which uses an art technique called “Trompe l’oeil” (French for ‘deceive the eye’) to create the illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions, becomes a kind of living and breathing character in the life of Theodore Decker as he navigates his way as a lost young boy through adolescence into adulthood.

The painting connects him to the last conversation he had with his mother, and so he holds onto it tight over the next 14 years, keeping it hidden as first he lives with the Barbours, the wealthy, dysfunctional family of his bullied school friend Andy, before his absent father – a failed actor who mistreated his mother – appears on the scene with his girlfriend Xanadu and whisks Theo away to a housing estate on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Here he experiences the vast desert skies and becomes best friends with another of Tartt’s marvelous creations. a delinquent, enigmatic Ukrainian boy called Boris who entertains Theo with tales of his time in Humpty Doo in Australia’s Northern Territory and introduces him to alcohol and drugs.

The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Written in the first person, Tartt’s ability to get inside the head of a guilt-ridden 14-year-old boy dealing with the monumental loss of his mother and his bumpy journey towards adulthood is truly remarkable.

Thankfully though at 864 pages The Goldfinch is not just the story about a boy and his obsession with a painting that reminds him of his mother.

It also focuses in on relationships, and how we need people to get us through trauma, be it the muddled advice of Boris, or Hobbie, the quiet and patient Greenwich Village antique furniture dealer and restorer who becomes a pseudo father figure and mentor to Theo, when he makes it back to New York, after yet more traumatic events.

The Goldfinch may be long, but like Hanya Yanagihara’s epic, “A Little Life” it’s never dull. Each adventure is part of Theo’s journey towards lifting himself out of despair and to the realisation that “maybe even if we are not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway”.

Goodbye to Berlin, the autobiographical novel that inspired ‘Cabaret’ and warned of the Nazis

Goodbye to Berlin was the first book I read written by the celebrated English-American novelist and diarist Christopher Isherwood.

Published in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, it was the inspiration for the Bob Fosse movie ‘Cabaret’ , released in 1972, and starring Liza Minnelli as the flamboyant night club singer Sally Bowles. (Isherwood also wrote A Single Man made into the 2009 movie by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth).

The highly autobiographical novel is set in Berlin in the early 1930s as the city’s famed reputation for art, music, design, drink and decadence had begun to fade, as economic ruin started to descend on everyday lives, and as Nazi violence starts to assert itself on the streets whilst Hitler began his march to become Fuhrer.

Beginning in Autumn 1930, we find Isherwood living in a “large, dingy flat” above a busy street of shops, where prostitutes gather beneath his window. The flat is owned by Fräulein Schroeder, who was once fairly well off but like so many other Germans has fallen on hard times.

She calls Isherwood “Herr Issyvoo” and takes a keen interest in his life, and that of her other lodgers.

Such is her poor financial situation, that Frl Schroeder has had to take in five lodgers, leaving her without a room of her own. Instead, she “sleeps in the living room, behind a screen, on a small sofa with broken springs”.

Frl Schroeder is just one of the many eccentric and colourful characters Isherwood brings to life on the page. Another is fellow lodger Frl Mayer, a musical hall yodler, actress, proud Bavarian and “ardent Nazi” whose natural enemy is Frau Glauterneck, the Galician Jewess who lives in the apartment below theirs.

Coming into the living room yesterday morning, I found Frl Schroeder and Frl Mayer lying flat on their stomachs with their ears pressed to the carpet. At intervals they exchanged grins of delight or joyfully pinched each other, with simultaneous exclamations of ssh

Goodbye to Berlin

Another is the flamboyant American singer and wannabee actress Sally Bowles whom Isherwood meets one evening, early in October, dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders “and a little cap like a page boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head”,

Isherwood notices her emerald green nails, her nicotine tainted hands and “very large brown eyes”.

Bowles was based on the 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross. Whimsical, flamboyant, stylish, promiscuous and dreamy (and not overly talented despite her ambitions), she is symbolic of the free-spirited Jazz Age in Berlin that flourished in Weimar-era Germany before the Nazis snuffed it out.

Isherwood is immediately drawn to Bowles, and she to him; their platonic friendship a sharp contrast to Bowles’ many lovers.

It is not hard to understand why Isherwood moved to Berlin. A gay man from a wealthy and conservative family from the north west of England, he would have found the German city’s plethora of gay bars, cabaret and experimental theatre alluring alongside its acceptance of homosexuality.

But he arrived there as this tolerance and acceptance was about to crushed by the Nazi regime, and as anti-semitism and intolerance becomes part of the chatter of everyday Germans looking for scapegoats for their economic woes.

Christopher Isherwood – taken in 1938

Indeed many of the people Isherwood formed close relationships with during his time in Berlin, would have been prime targets for the Gestapo such as the gay couple Otto and Peter, who we find the author living with in a beach house on Rügen Island in the summer of 1931.

There are perpetual little rows going on between Peter and Otto, yet I cannot say I find living with them actually unpleasant

Goodbye to Berlin

Then there are the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family, who own a Berlin department store. Isherwood befriends their precocious 18-year-old daughter Natalia, whom he accompanies on outings where they discuss art and literature He also forms a friendship with their cousin Bernard, a gay man, and a target for the Nazis.

Indeed Isherwood himself would have been in great personal danger had he chosen to remain in Berlin after the Nazis rose to power. He fled Berlin in May 1933 spent some time back in London and China, before emigrating to the US in 1939 and living in California.

I enjoyed being taken into this now long gone, but exotic world that Isherwood brings so vividly to life with his stories and anecdotes. He was a gifted storyteller with an ear finely tuned to the nuances of speech and character and well worth checking out for those looking for a fly-on-the-wall journalistic literary experience, that warned of the horrors to come.

 “’Concentration camps,’ said the fat man, lighting a cigar. They get them in there, make them sign things… . Then their hearts fail’”

Goodbye to Berlin

Damon Galgut, the power of nostalgia and ‘dark love’ for South Africa

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper in December 2021, Damon Galgut, South Africa’s latest literary star, winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, a novel about the disintegration of a white family amid the collapse of apartheid, said he had originally intended to call the book “Dark Love”.

Galgut said it was an “abstract allusion” to the family’s youngest daughter Amor Swart, whose affection for their long-suffering black domestic servant Salome is a central theme of the book.

“But,” says Galgut, “I wanted to tie it in with a parallel sense that if one loves South Africa it has to be a dark kind of love”.

This “dark love” is apparent in the two Galgut novels I read back-to-back, The Good Doctor and The Promise, and is something I can relate too deeply, even though I left South Africa 22 years ago.

Dr Waters: trying to “make a difference”

A beautiful, but troubled land, South Africa gets under your skin and in your bones: if you’ve grown up there, you never really leave – even if you do physically.

Galgut’s gift is to draw from that dark well of South African history, culture and experience, and build an engrossing story with deeply South African characters, and to unsettle and enthrall the reader.

“Galgut has mined his novel with small but powerful explosive charges, wrote the writer Christopher Hope in his review of The Good Doctor in 2003 (written for the Guardian).

“Damon Galgut has written a lovely, lethal, disturbing novel,”

The story of The Good Doctor takes place in a crumbling, ill-equipped rural hospital next to a backwater town in what was once a Black “homeland” – one of a series of puppet states created by the white nationalist apartheid regime to separate blacks from whites – but is now forgotten, left to decay in the new South Africa.

The title of the book refers to Dr. Laurence Waters, an idealistic medical school graduate who comes to the dysfunctional hospital hoping to “make a difference” as part of his year of compulsory, post-graduate community work.

His arrival and subsequent stay at the hospital is narrated by Dr. Frank Eloff a disillusioned and bitter veteran physician, one of just a handful of staff that keep the medical facility barely functioning under the management of its administrator and head surgeon Dr Ngema.

So ill-equipped is the hospital, that patients with more serious injuries have to be transported to the big city hospital, a long drive through the veld.

The hospital’s small band of staff include the Satanders – a doctor couple from Cuba who quarrel a lot about staying in South Africa – and a troubled black orderly called Tehogo, who is symbolic of that “lost generation” of unskilled Black South Africans, left on the margins of society after the fall of apartheid.

In some kind of precarious and delicate balancing act, the hospital has maintained it place in the natural order of things, keeping its distance from the chaos beyond its boundaries, until idealistic Dr Waters arrives and shatters its island status.

“It’s like something terrible happened here,” Laurence said. “That’s how it feels.

“Ja, but the opposite is true. Nothing has ever happened here. Nothing ever will, that’s the problem.”

The Good Doctor

Written in 2003 (and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) The Good Doctor reads like a parable of the collapse of the idea of the Rainbow Nation that briefly flourished after the 1994 democratic elections that installed Nelson Mandela as president, followed by the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph.

Race relations, the juxtaposition of wealth and extreme poverty, the battle for power in the new South Africa and the naivety of those who think they can change things are all meshed together in Galgut’s novel with devastating and mesmerising effect.

Galgut also has a way of conjuring up a strange kind of nostalgia (though that may be the wrong word) among those readers who lived through those historical times.

Reading of a decaying hospital in a half-forgotten Homeland town, took me back to family holidays at the Mmbatho Sun (now called the Mmbatho Palms), an oasis of palm trees, sparkling blue swimming pools and gambling, set amid the dry and dusty veldt of the impoverished homeland of Bophuthatswana.

Hanging on the wall in the hotel foyer (I remember this so well) was a portrait of stern-faced Lucas Mangope in all his official puppet-state pomp and regalia, staring down on us wealthy whites, as we arrived for our luxury holidays and a roll of the dice at the roulette table.

It was of course absurd that we (well-off white South Africans) should enjoy our luxurious buffet breakfasts, sip cola-tonics and lemonades poolside and pull the handles of slot machines, all whilst being waited on hand and foot by an army of underpaid black servants.

Equally, it is absurd that young white graduate doctor – Galgut’s Dr Laurence Waters – working in a backwater hospital should think that he can “make a difference”; that he should be so naïve, reflects perhaps that unrealistic feeling we all had, standing to vote in the first elections in 1994, that the past could simply be swept under the rug.

While The Good Doctor confines itself to a relatively short period of narrative time, as well as a specific era in South Africa – the birth of the new democratic country – Galgut’s The Promise starts in 1986, during the State of Emergency, and spans 30 years. Over that time, and set against the backdrop of famous historical events in the evolution of the country towards democratic rule, it tells the tragic story of the Swart family and their haunting farm set amongst the stony koppies and veldt outside Pretoria.

The story is told through eyes and deaths of four members of the Swart family: Rachel Swart or “Ma”, her husband Herman “Manie” Swart (whose post-funeral gathering occurs during the momentous 1995 Rugby World Cup Final), Anton, their first child and only son, and Astrid, the middle daughter.

Connecting them all together is Amor, the youngest child, who carries the family’s guilt – a white person’s guilt for the things done to black South Africans under the apartheid system – and who is determined to fulfil her mother’s dying wishes that their faithful and long-suffering black servant Salome, be granted the deed to the crumbling house, that has been her home all the years she has served the family.

Galgut has a real gift for capturing the feeling of a place and time: for example that deep-seated resentment old Afrikaaners felt about the ending of apartheid and having to share the country with black people, but also their supreme and undying love of rugby.

At the farmhouse, following Manie’s funeral (he died from a poisonous snakebite at the reptile park he ran) the television is switched on in the build up to the World Cup Final.

While some family members are unhappy that the television is playing during what is meant to be a solemn gathering, Ockie, the unloved husband of Manie’s sister Marina has a “warm glow only partly due to Klipdrift” (a famous South African brandy enjoyed with Coke).

“…and God knows he took the new South Africa hard. But he has to admit, it’s nice to be able to play international sport again. Gives us a chance to donner people from faraway lands, and man we really fucked up those Samoan floppies a couple of weeks ago”.

The Promise

In another episode, Galgut writes how Anton, a white child, suckled on the nipple of Salome, such was the motherly bond despite the rules of apartheid forbidding such behaviour. While this may sound extreme to some readers, it was common, even when I was growing up, for black domestic workers (who we called “maids” or “nannies”) to care for white children as if they were their own, to bathe, clothe, feed and nurture them.

In an interview with the podcast 5X15, Galgut says Salome was was “mentally modelled on a Nanny I had”.

“My first nanny was a kind of substitute mother for me when I was really little…I’m talking the age of 2,3,4. Her name was Salome and I named the character after her, partly in tribute to her.”

“As you can imagine,” Galgut says later, “quite meaningful and intimate bonds can spring up in an artificial relationship like that”.

Drawing on the greats that have come before him – Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and others – Galgut is the latest gifted writer to explore the complexities of South Africa’s dark history, its often paradoxical race relations, and its troubled democratic rebirth.

He does so, in my opinion, with less literary pretention than those who have come before him. His writing style is more direct and accessible (you could say “modern”) but still poetic. That’s even the case when he’s writing about Joel Stransky kicking that magical drop goal, while an Afrikaaner family cheers him on, but refuses to embrace the New South Africa that allowed that moment to happen.

Ann Rule, Kate Summerscale: two masters of the art of true crime writing

The last two books I read were both in the true crime genre, and brilliant examples of writers at the top of their craft.

First I read Ann Rule’s Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases, a collection of mostly cold case investigations that take place around the Seattle area on America’s west coast,

After finishing it, I then stepped back 160-odd years and into an entirely different landscape, of Victorian England and the ghastly murder of a three-year old boy in a large manor house in the countryside and the London detective recruited to solve it in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

Ann Rule, who died in 2015 aged 83, started her career as a law enforcement officer for the Seattle Police Department, wrote for True Detective magazine under a pen name and then established herself as the Queen of American true crime writing with a long career of best sellers. She is most famous for The Stranger Beside Me published in 1980, her sensational account of her charming, handsome friend Ted, whom she met while working at a Seattle suicide crisis hotline, who turned out to be serial killer Ted Bundy.

Ann Rule’s books are motivated by a strong desire for justice for the victims and their families, especially those heart-wrenching cases that are never solved.

Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases is dedicated to “everyone who has lost someone they love, never to find them – or learn the reasons they vanished”.

Rule goes onto explain, in a brief introduction to the first story in the book “North to Alaska” that when she chooses which cases to write about, they are almost always selected from the Cold Case departments of homicide divisions.

“There is something infinitely satisfying about finding killers long after they have become confident that they have walked away free,” Rule writes.

The two long stories in Don’t Look Behind You – “North to Alaska” and “Too Late for the Fair” both track cold case investigations: the former about the disappearance of charismatic meat salesman Joe Tarricone, and the second about Joanne Hansen, a young mother locked in an abusive marriage who vanished one day, never to be seen or heard from again.

Rule is a master of plot, narrative and pace: she is a natural and gifted storyteller. While her stories are rich with procedural detail – the collection of evidence, investigating leads – and the small steps taken by investigators to unravel decades old crimes, they never becoming boring or plodding.

It’s not hard to see why she became a best selling popular writer of true crime: stories are told in an uncomplicated, linear way with plenty of direct dialogue. She brings characters to life on the page, both the perpetrators and the victims, the latter for whom she displays the greatest of empathy.

She once said of her motivation to write about true crime: “I wanted to know why some kids grew up to be criminals and why other people didn’t. That is still the main thrust behind my books: I want to know why these things happen, and so do my readers,”

Apart from these two books – The Stranger Beside Me and Don’t Look Behind You – I have also read Rule’s Lust Killer, about the shoe fetishist and necrophiliac serial killer Jerome Brudos.

I highly recommend all of them if you enjoy reading, listening to or watching true crime stories. They’re an easy read, but also engrossing and thought-provoking.

Kate Summerscale is cut from a far more literary cloth than Rule, but none the less entertaining a writer.

In the case of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – the only book of hers I have read – Summerscale writes from a much broader historical and social perspective, producing in the words of the great spy novelist John le Carre called “a classic of the finest documentary writing”.

Born in London in 1965, but brought up also in Japan and Chile, Summerscale attended Oxford University and then California’s Stanford University, where she obtained a masters in journalism. She worked at a number of English newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and Independent, whilst establishing herself as a writer with an award-winning biography about eccentric speedboat racer Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs.

She then wrote The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which won The Samuel Johnson Prize (since renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize), Britain’s top book award for non-fiction writing. It was also made into an ITV television series, which unfortunately seems very hard to track down.

I’ve actually read the book twice, but enjoyed it just as much the second time round.

It’s not as easy a book to read as the pacier novels of Ann Rule, but if your penchant is for slowly unravelling, procedural crime shows like Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect or Unforgotten I think you’ll immensely enjoy reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

The “Mr Whicher” refers to Jonathan or “Jack” Whicher, one of the first eight police detectives who joined a newly created branch of the London Metropolitan Police, at Scotland Yard in 1842. Whicher was sent from London to the village of Rode, near Trowbridge in the county of Wiltshire to solve the most famous crime of the era, the murder of three-year-old Francis Saville Kent in a stately country home called Road Hill House.

Summerscale does not just tell the story of the Kent family and the terrible events of the night of Friday 29th of June 1860 at Road Hill House, when the young boy’s body was discovered shoved down a privy (outside toilet), his throat cut, and the efforts of Whicher, the most brilliant detective of his day, to solve the baffling crime.

She captures the whole zeitgeist of that time – the public’s fascination with the crime (especially since it occurred in the country home of a wealthy, upper class family) fueled by a legion of city and country daily newspapers that reported on its every detail, theory and rumour.

“While the press and the public condemned Whicher’s prurient, impertinent speculations, they freely made their own,” Summerscale writes, capturing the fascination with the case that gripped the country from the big cities to farming villages, and its distrust of the new class of detectives.

As Summerscale explains in her wonderfully researched book, the crime was the first “whoddunit” set in a quintessential country home, in which all the suspects were inside the house: circumstances which created the template for hundreds of fictional detective stories, movies and TV shows including Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders.

Not surprisingly, the case influenced many subsequent Victorian novels, captured the attention of the greatest writer of the times Charles Dickens, a friend and admirer of Jack Whicher. Dickens, like everyone else had his own (wrong) theories about who the murderer was.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this book, not least of which is the crime itself, there’s the story of the brilliant career of Jack Whicher, and how the immense pressure to solve the Road Hill House murder almost finished him off, the growing power of daily newspapers to shape public consciousness and the emerging art of crime detection.

Part true crime, part historical and social commentary, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is non-fiction writing at its finest and a must-read in my opinion.

Oscar Wilde, David Sedaris, Paul Auster and Esther Freud: Four short reviews of books by masterful storytellers

It has been my custom, on this humble blog, to write reviews (often quite badly, but perhaps sometimes entertainingly) of the books I have read.

I’ve gathered them in one spot on the Freshlyworded virtual bookshelf, mostly for my own nostalgic pleasure, to peruse from time to time and to remind me of what I have read over the years. At worst, its fantastically eclectic mix of genres, themes and styles.

I hope it might also provide some recommendations for friends and strangers who may be looking for a tome to entertain them, and perhaps an escape from Netflix etc.

As, I have fallen far behind on the books I have read and not yet reviewed, I’ve decided to gather mini reviews of the last four books I have read – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, David Sedaris’s The Best of Me, Paul Auster’s Moon Palace and Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky in one handy blog post, sparing my dear reader the lengthy, waffling and rambling diatribes I tend to succumb to when writing reviews.

While it’s hard to find too many commonalities across the four books – Wilde and Auster’s are novels of exquisite imagination set in big cities (London and New York), while Sedaris and Freud’s works are highly autobiographical and deeply observational stories – I can confidently say that all are the product of wonderfully entertaining storytellers that bring characters to life on the page through their precise and elegant writing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, who famously said “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” penned one of the best works of Victorian Gothic fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1890.

An absolutely wicked and very dark tale about how vanity and the pursuit of pleasure can destroy the soul, it was an absolute pleasure to read it for the second or maybe third time. From the very first page, where we meet the artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of young, beautiful Dorian Gray in a stately London home, Wilde transports you to upper class world of Victorian England.

Wilde depicts the inner moral decline of Gray, who succumbs to the “new hedonism” promoted by the aristocratic Lord Henry, and goes from a innocent “young Adonis” to a cruel, murderer frightened of his own shadow. While Gray retains his youthful looks, the painting hidden up in the attic of his Mayfair townhouse grows hideous, depicting the corruption of his soul.

An aspect I loved about Wilde’s book is that the “monster” of the gothic tale is handsome young man, with evil growing inside him, rather than the real monsters that inhabit Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget the numerous film adaptions of the book, and read’s Wilde’s brilliant, dark novel.

Rating: 9/10

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

I was pretty late discovering the wonderful writing of David Sedaris, whose celebrated short stories, fables and accounts of his own life have turned him into one of America’s most celebrated humorist and best selling authors.

A friend lent me a copy of a collection of his stores, Holidays on Ice, published in 1997, that included a retelling of his experiences working as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s Department store in New York

Then I came across Sedaris via the great Radio Show/Podcast This American Life. In one episode he read aloud his story about the death of his sister Tiffany, who committed suicide after a troubled life (Now we are five). In another episode, host Ira Glass meets with Sedaris in Paris, where the writer had lived for two years with his boyfriend Hugh. Sedaris takes Glass on an eventful tour of Paris sharing anecdotes of misadventures with the French language and the dangers of buying the wrong butter

Sedaris narrates his own stories with a delightful weariness in his mid-Western voice. He has an almost magical ability to write as if he is confiding only to his reader.

The Best of Me is an anthology of favourite works hand-picked by Sedaris. It begins with a delightfully wicked tale entitled “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3 No. 2” where Glen (perhaps Sedaris’s alter-ego) describes his brief and doomed friendship with the attractive male cashier at Dave’s Kwik shop. It’s both very funny and unsettling, descriptions which apply to a lot of the stories contained in The Best of Me.

While I enjoyed some of his fable-like fictional stories like Christmas Means Giving, where rivaling super-rich neighbours try to outdo each other’s charitable acts in the most hideous fashion, my favourite stories are the one Sedaris tells about seminal moments in his own life particularly those about his family. Sedaris grew up with five siblings, including the actress and comedian Amy Sedaris.

Sedaris combines both tenderness and great humour in his writing, which is never overly sentimental or lecturing, but always insightful whether it be about relationships, politics, culture or identity.

Many of his stories explore the relationship with his father, who treated him with disdain and unkindly in his youth, but who softened into someone almost likeable as he aged.

To get a taste of Sedaris’s unique voice, you can listen to him narrate the story of his father’s final days in the achingly poignant Unbuttoned via the New Yorker magazine website. Unbuttoned is one of the stories contained in the anthology.

You can also read online – Dentists without Borders – which was first published in The New Yorker in 2012.

You can also listen to him read Now we are five and Americans in Paris on This American Life and dozens of other episodes featuring his stories and essays.

While his writing is a platform to explore his own upbringing, identity, phobias and personality, Sedaris has this amazing ability to make the reader feel good about being alive in a world of contradictions and craziness.

Rating: 8/10

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

I hadn’t realised how many Paul Auster books I had read until I browsed my bookshelf at home, after reading his work of magical realism Moon Palace.

Here I found Mr Vertigo (1994), The Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2003).

I also know of Auster through two screenplays he wrote for the movies Smoke, and its follow-up Blue in the Face, both starring Harvey Keitel, who plays the owner of a Brooklyn cigar shop.

Though I don’t remember all the plots in detail, I have a clear memory of the sheer pleasure in reading those books and the sweetness of the movies, especially Smoke.

Auster, is one of the modern greats of American Literature, and has been touted as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize of Literature. Were he to win it, he would be one of the most accessible and worthy recipients (the prize is often in my opinion given to writers no one has heard of (Abdulrazak Gurnah in 2021?) apart from university professors of English literature.

Auster is a wonderful storyteller and masterful creator of characters, that often draw on his own personal history. Many of characters reappear in his books, at different ages and stages of their lives.

Moon Palace is narrated in Holden Caufield-like fashion by the introverted, intense and tortured orphan Marco Stanley Fogg. It begins with Fogg nearly starving to death in his sparse New York apartment after deciding to “live dangerously” and simply live off the proceeds of the mountain of books he has inherited from his late Uncle Victor. Later he finds love in the arms of the beautiful and kind Kitty Wu and then a live-in job reading and carrying out chores for a blind old, wheel chair-bound man called Thomas Effing in his large Manhattan apartment.

Along the way, all sorts of strange and seemingly unlikely (but believable in the hands of Auster) coincidences take place throughout Marco’s epic, modern odyssey that take him from streets of New York to the sparse wilderness of the American Mid-West and that bring him closer to knowing his back story and finding his identity.

As with other Auster books, there are “stories within stories” as the reader is swept down portals of time and memory. If you’re looking to make a start on the oeuvre (yep, fancy word – look it up!) of Auster, magical and mystical Moon Palace is a good place to start.

Rating: 8/10

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

I thought I’d be a bit more enthralled by Esther Freud’s autobiographical tale about her stint living in Morocco with her aimless mother Julia and older sister Bella. (Freud is the daughter of the legendary portrait painter Lucian Freud and the great granddaughter of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud).

I picked the book at random from my gigantic 1001 Books You should Read Before You Die and was looking forward to reading it as I’d travelled through Morocco with my wife when we backpacked in 2010 and been entranced by its ancient and bustling cities with their overflowing markets, maze-like laneways and lively squares like the incredible Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square and marketplace in Marrakesh.

Indeed we stayed in just the kind of cheap hotel Lucy, the six-year-old narrator stays in with her mother and sister (the wonderfully named Hotel Moulay Idriss) close to the Jemma el-Fnaa.

Lucy precociously narrates the family’s adventures across the country, the curious sights she sees in the markets, squares and festivals, the relationships forged with local characters like Bilal (her mother’s Moroccan lover and a father figure for her kids) and the eccentric expats they meet, like the wealthy “prince” Luigi Mancini. The children seem to have a supernatural power to to know which adults to trust, a fortunate quality given their mother is often absent, in spirit if not sometimes physically.

The family are constantly having to find ways to make ends meet as they wait for money to arrive, making dolls to sell in the market, or a few pieces of fruit they have gathered. One “holiday” has them sleeping outdoors on a beach for days.

Esther Freud’s beautiful descriptions transported me back to my time in Morocco, especially Marrakesh, which was wonderful. The novel is magical in parts, but I was also quite bored at times by all the wondering about and waiting around. Perhaps I need to read it again (It’s only 186 pages). I’d also like to watch the movie starring Kate Winslet.

Rating: 7/10

What’s so obsessively interesting about the lives of serial killers?

Chances are, if I am at a loss as to what to watch or listen to, I’ll turn to some documentary, dramatised movie or podcast about a serial killer, psychopath or madman.

Just the other day, while my wife tuned out at the end of the day to episodes of The Nanny, I was racing through a new documentary series on Netflix investigating the Son of Sam murders which occurred in New York in the 1976 and 1977.

Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the show called The Sons of Sam (note the plural) focuses on the claim by obsessive investigative journalist Maury Terry who believed that convicted killer David Berkowitz did not act alone but was part of a satanic cult that committed the spree of murders that terrorised the city.

Then before that, I was gripped by an Australian true-crime documentary series on Stan called After the Night which looked into the series of killings that occurred in the affluent and until then quiet and safe suburbs of Perth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The crimes were perpetrated by deranged family man Eric Edgar Cooke, the last person to be hanged in Western Australia.

David Berkowitz; Did he act alone or was he part of a satanic cult?

After the Night told the story not only of Cooke, but also of two other men who were wrongly convicted of some of his crimes, Darryl Beamish and John Button, and the lengths they and their supporters went to clear their names.  It also captured very well the easy-going, carefree life in the well-to-do suburbs of Cottesloe and Nedlands, and how that sense of security was shattered by a violent string of murders and rapes.

A big motivator to watch this show was reading and re-reading Robert Drewe’s wonderful Perth memoir The Shark Net which had as its backdrop the Cooke serial murders and Drewe’s start in journalism as a cadet reporter for the West Australian newspaper. (Read my review here).

Before that both my wife and I watched The Serpent on Netflix about conman and serial murderer Charles Sobhraj (also known as the Bikini Killer) who lured in hippy backpackers travelling around South East Asia in the 1970s with the promise of a place to stay and a luxurious lifestyle and then poisoned them, held them captive and then murdered them and stole their possessions.

Charming and sadistic: Ted Bundy is a fascinating study in evil

Then there was the documentary series The Night Stalker, about the satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez who broke into homes across Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to rape and murder in a vile spree that terrorised the city. The documentary focused on the detectives who tracked Ramirez down and some of the extraordinary stuff-ups that occurred along the way. It also delved into the cult-like rock star status Ramirez enjoyed and the perhaps even crazier women who threw themselves at him.

Prior to that there was Des about the London serial murderer Denis Nilsen who lured in young men into his shabby Muswell Hill flat. Here he smothered them, slept with their corpses and then dismembered and attempted to flush their remains away. ‘Des’ was played by the brilliant David Tennant (a key attraction for watching the series).

Killing for Company the classic true crime book about Nilsen by Brian Masters (who is played by the great character action Jason Watkins in the television series) that so fascinated me when I read it whilst visiting my London cousin stirred my interest in Nilsen at the time. It also happened that my London cousin lived and still lives in Muswell Hill, a short distance from Nilsen’s flat of horrors, one of the creepy reasons no doubt I chose to read the book at the time.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

I also watched the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes which re-examined one of America’s most notorious and charismatic serial killers, who also had his own female fan club. There was also the biographical crime drama about Bundy (starring Zac Ephron in the lead role) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that I watched maybe a year ago.

My fascination with Bundy began when I read Ann Rule’s classic of the true crime genre The Stranger Beside Me. Rule’s perspective was unlike any other in the history: she was a friend of Bundy.

There’s more for sure. And there are also shows I’ve yet to watch but will no doubt get to at some point. A new Netflix documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper looks intriguing.

Part of the fascination for me is the “how they caught them” aspect, the police and detective work, the clues that emerge and the trail that leads them to identify and capture the villain.

It’s probably then not surprising that my favourite detective shows are not the fast-paced glitzy stuff (I can’t stand shows like NCIS) but the slow-paced procedural dramas featuring believable investigators, my favourites being the dour and eternally grumpy Inspector Morse, Idris Elba’s rugged and damaged Luther and most recently, the renegade LA detective Harry Bosch in the Amazon series Bosch played by Titus Welliver (and based on the novels by Michael Connelly).

All these shows and the ones I have described above I highly recommend if that sort of thing intrigues you.

I do wonder why I am so drawn to these dark and disturbing shows, as are so many other people.

I like to think that I am not a secret psychopath with a penchant for blood and violence. Rather I think there is an innate human fascination with evil people or – if you don’t subscribe to that idea – to people who do evil things, especially those who do them over and over again.

After all these ‘monsters’ were soft, and cuddly babies once, not little devils with horns and a pitch fork.

I also think, that there is penchant in all of us – in the right (or wrong) circumstances to commit crimes of violence and descend into a kind of madness. Just think of all those seemingly ordinary Germans and other Europeans who became Hitler’s willing executioners during the holocaust. Might they have gone on living ordinary lives had a mad dictator not come to power?

Interestingly, on YouTube, a death row interview with serial killer Richard Ramirez has over 6 million views, while Ted Bundy interviews and documentaries online have racked up millions. Ditto Jeffery Dahmer and others.

Just like slowing down when we pass a car crash, it seems we can’t look away.

Why ‘Life Itself’ (about Roger Ebert) is one of my favourite documentary films

One of the most entertaining, moving, inspiring and powerful documentary films I have watched in a long time is ‘Life Itself’, about the life of the famous Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. It’s also the title of Ebert’s own memoir published in 2011.

The film by Steve James (who made the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams) unintentionally documented the final months in the life of Ebert, who had long battled thyroid cancer, losing his lower jaw in the process, his ability to speak and eat but never his wit or brilliance.

It’s quite shock seeing Ebert for the first time in his hospital bed, missing a large part of his face. But he has these incredibly sparkling eyes, still full of mischief as he types away on his computer, making jokes through a voice synthesizer, writing film reviews and responding to emails.

Just a few months into filming, Ebert passed away in his hospital bed after another medical setback, surrounded by his devoted wife Chaz (who has continued to run rogerebert.com since his passing), friends and family.

The documentary moves between past and present telling the story of how Ebert started out as a young journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times – one of the city’s two main newspapers – and how by chance he became its film critic after a sudden vacancy emerged, a role he maintained and cherished for over four decades.

In 1975, Ebert whose non-snobbish and direct style of writing made film criticism accessible to all who loved the movies, became the first film critic to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism and later a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But it was his on screen rivalry with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel (of rival paper the Chicago Tribune) on their show ‘At the Movies’ that would make Ebert almost as famous as the actors and directors whose movies he reviewed.

The documentary features interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene – Siskel died from cancer aged just 53 in 1999 – who wonderfully channels the love/hate relationship between the pair as well as with director Martin Scorcese, who emotionally praises Ebert for helping resurrect his career when it had sunk to a low point in the 1980s due to cocaine addiction and depression.

The documentary also includes interviews with current film critics like the New York Times’s AO Scott, who wrote of Ebert’s passing that he along with Siskel helped to make Chicago “the first city of movie criticism”

“Every medium [Roger Ebert] made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a way of talking to people — Sun-Times readers, the critic in the other chair, Facebook friends, insomniacs and enthusiasts — about the movies he cared about and, perhaps more important, the human emotions and aspirations those movies represented,” wrote Scott.

Someone who reviewed hundreds of films a year, wrote books and blogs even when battling cancer, he still had time to answer letters, and emails from schoolchildren and college students, said Scott,

In James’ film, Ebert is a larger than life figure with boundless energy. In his earlier years he was always the last person to leave the local bar in the early hours of the morning (his drinking almost killed him) and then later entertained readers with his offbeat and colourful stories from the Cannes Film Festival.

Someone whose well-chosen words could ruin a movie at the Box office (as could the ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down reviews given on television by he and Siskel), Ebert was also one to champion lesser known film makers and smaller independent pictures – among his most ardent admirers is German filmmaker Werner Herzog who dedicated one of his films to him and said, when Ebert passed away that not only was he “the good soldier of cinema” writing about cinema for four decades but that he was also the “wounded soldier who for years in his affliction held out and plowed on”.

A statue of Roger Ebet outside a movie theatre in Champaign, Illinois where he had is first newspaper job.

Never someone who wrote anything  out of malice or spite, Ebert was controversial at times, most notably in his review of David Lynch’s cult classic Blue Velvet, a film Ebert despised, but one praised by many critics as a masterpiece.

Ebert gave it one star noting that the “movie is pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart”.

But even if Ebert criticised movies, he would often find things in them to praise (including in Blue Velvet). Scorcese called Ebert’s review of his movie The Colour of Money starring Paul Newman “condemning and helping”.

Still I wondered why the documentary film moved me so much. I hardly knew much about Roger Ebert, apart from having read some of his film reviews, and had not followed his career closely, or his battle with cancer.

Reflecting on that question, I think it has a great deal to do with the storytelling – James is a master storyteller – which manages to capture the totality of Roger Ebert’s “grand adventure” from his small town roots to becoming arguably the famous film writer in the world, with a love of movies that never died.

It’s also this idea of a man who loved sitting in a darkened cinema for 40 years, watching and writing wonderfully about movies, and the emotions and feelings they conveyed (and it’s a nice break from almost every other documentary film I watch and like, which seems to be about true crime, especially serial killers and maniacs).

James also manages to capture Ebert’s magnetic and warm personality and his mischievous nature seen – when most of his body had failed him – in his sparkling eyes.

I give it two thumbs up!