Thoughts from the Loo

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Friday, October 15, 2004

[E][A] I'll Skip This One

I like a good thriller, mystery, police procedural novel, whatever these are called. The best authors seem to be women: P.D.James, Minette Walters, Elisabeth George. I will also gladly read a competent techno-thriller, like those from an old reactionary Tom Clancy (but emphatically not those thom "his workshop"). Recently I tried to add another one to the trio of my favorite lady writers, a quite popular Patricia Cornwell. I was a bit doubtful after reading her short work, a kind of truncated Dr. Scarpetta'a cookbook. The recipies were incomplete and quite uninspiring - nothing to learn there. Anyway, there was nothing new from my favourite reliable authors at the place I was browsing and 'Cause of Death' is a full novel, so perhaps it's worth a try... Well, it wasn't.

I don't know much about forensic pathology and post-mortems, but do a bit about computers, technology in general and physics (all of which play a part in the novel). I can warn you that Cornwell has done a very poor job at research. She obviously has no first idea how a computer works (which is not a big deal - you ask someone who does), but decides to impress the reader by phrases such as "programming discs of his 486 computer". Of course, it did not occur to her that "486 computer" has no meaning (for the purpose of placing the machine as ancient, mainstream or bleeding-edge, which was the intention) without knowing the timeframe within monthts (and being computer history buff). Scarpetta's wunderkind niece designs databases and pattern-recognition software FBI uses for forensic ballistics, constructs robots, writes telepresence software for them and operates them (a piece of dialogue between her and one of colegues about robot's software is particulatly laughable), all while being 23 year old self-destructive alcoholic. Very realistic. Cornell commits more writers' mortal sins, like develping a sub-plot and then simply forgetting it, because the main one concludes. Et cetera. Nuclear physics parts are no better (though power plant bits seem to be at least perfunctorily researched).

But I have another gripe: for Scarpetta (and, I am affraid, Conwell) those who cannot afford to live in "mansions" or at least gated-in communities are sub-human. Scarpetta is divorced without children, but finds it necessary to build a two-story house inside one of those guarded compounds. She does not know her immediate neighbours, and considers that a virtue. Very exceptionally, in someone consistently and reliably does Scarpetta's bidding (like a police captain who follows her like a puppy) can be reluctantly granted human status. Only "mansions" are called "homes" by Cornwell; anything where people have actual neighbours is a "project", something to be avoided at all costs and populated with drug addicts at bests and dealers and other criminals more probably; they are just Scarpetta's "cases". For example:
Century-old row houses and Greek Revival homes had been brilliantly restored by people bold enough to reclaim a historic section of the city from the clutches of decay and crime. For most residents, the chance they took had turned out fine, but I knew I could not live near housing projects and depressed areas where the major industry was drugs.
Therefore, live in the "project", and you are doomed to a early death from a bullet, stab or overdose.


[E][A] Speaking of 'Projects'

Jenny Barchfield writes in "Newsweek" about debut novel "Kiffe Kiffe Demain" by Faize Guene, a 19 year old French girl of Algerian origin. By the second paraghraph we read:
In "Kiffe Kiffe", Guene takes readers across the proverbial tracks - in this case, the superhighway that divides Paris proper from the sparawling ghettos that surround it - to her home in projects. Not since director Matthieu Kassovitz's 1995 hit film "Hate" has there been such a compelling portrait of the Parisian suburbs: drug-dealers on the street corners amid massive, dilapidated housing projects.
I havan't read the novel nor wathched the film, but I am pretty sure that for discrepancy between these few sentences and what I see in Paris Barchfield is to blame, not Guene and Kassowitz. Paris (including its 20 'inner' arrondissements) is full of "housing projects" with very colorful tenants, all very well kept, clean (maybe cleaner that "old Paris", at least doue to less dog poo all over the pavements), without much grafitty, with functioning street lighting and unvadalized playgrounds. Periferique (not a particularly "super" highway) rarely makes a border between sharply contrasting neighborhoods; more often you don't even notice it, as it goes through series of tunnels and over viaducts, and the neighborhoods on both sides are very similar, although administratively different cities. This not to say that everything in Paris is idylic: I currently work in Saint-Denis, really not a very nice place; pretty depresive, actually. But even here the "bad" part is derelict old town core, not "the projects" of which there are quite a few (and revitalization seems to be working, including the parts of the centre).

What is it with Americans that they cannot imagine normal life in an appartment building (except if it very expensive, in which case it ia not a "project" any more and becomes a "condo")? As if the problem is in city administration trying to provide housing (especially for lower-income population) without paving over the whole country. I suggest that they try and see for themselves how it works in Paris (or, for example, Vienna; even Zagreb's southern "projects" seem to be heaven compared to what Americans expect).

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