Robert Lockwood’s jacket bio pretty much gives a sense of the extraordinary reach and overwhelmingly detailed subject matter of his latest novel, Artful Murder in the Hamptons (Xlibris).
Lockwood describes himself as “a reformed Washington lobbyist who represented many institutions as well as Fortune 500 companies on matters of taxation, foreign trade and defense,” and as a former “counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and cabinet-level officials.” Educated at Columbia and l’Université de Paris, he has lived and worked in France, Switzerland, Belgium and The Hamptons, and he knows a lot about upscale worlds and about the intricate crossing points, both legal and illegal, of art, high finance and investments, real estate, the law and Israel. Factor in insider takes on high-end restaurants and cuisine and furnishing East Side and Parisian town houses. The references are impressive but a bit much—36 chapters, a large cast of characters “major, semi-major, minor (influencing major outcomes)” and others—briefly described before the story gets going, then identified again as they appear in the narrative.
After a shockingly brutal and compelling opening event—the murder of security guards by an agent working for an Israeli-French art collector (the time is September, 2013), the story jumps back to the ’80s to see why the murders were planned. At this point, alas, the narrative bogs down in all kinds of sub-plots—romantic, venal, political, aesthetic (including appearances by lesser-known real-life artists—with conversations often in French that are unnecessarily translated. For artists and collectors, this big book may prove interesting as informed discourse on various art movements and practices over the last 50 years, particularly Neo-Impressionism, but for those who like their assassination novels fast paced and focused, Lockwood’s studied foray into creative writing, for all its lore, falls short of being an artful integration of the basic elements of fiction.
Although short stories are an entirely different genre from novels, the best short stories—as opposed to character sketches that sometimes pass as stories—have narrative drive—a beginning, a discernible development and a satisfying denouement. In this regard, Amagansett author Leonard S. Bernstein’s playful, charming, witty riffs on the Human Comedy, aka Surviving or Getting By, engage with their flawed but likable characters who tend to go over the edge, and with their simple, understated style. “He was insulated from small talk, from petty arguments, from everyday things. He lived in that cloister of himself, with an armed guard at every entrance.” The stories abound with little details that can startle with telling resonance. A man who thinks he has discovered a winning formula for psyching out the stock market stores copies in a slit of wallpaper, “inside a can of Maxwell House drip that was almost empty and slipping the third inside p. 267 of Moby Dick. A salesman who works out an ingenious way of securing customers for a funeral home knows that “the excitement generated by a basketball game is nothing compared to the arterial assault of a pastrami sandwich.”
Eminently readable, the 17 stories in Bernstein’s recent collection, named for one of them, The Man Who Wanted to Buy A Heart (UNO Press), exemplify the almost lost art of storytelling. Indeed, some of them recall once-upon-a-time tales, “once” being a chance event that takes on eccentric but moving significance, and “time” being a present that invokes the past with shrewd understanding and sympathy. Many of the stories are set in the once-thriving, mostly Jewish garment center in New York City, but have general appeal. “It is difficult to explain 7th Avenue to an outsider. How to explain civilization standing still?” But Bernstein can also do Sholem Aleichem/shtetl and all-purpose urban: “There were two factions in Clancy’s Bar: the steelworkers and Vladimir. Vladimir was an art historian, a subject about which he would talk endlessly, in no way concerned with who was listening. It was fortunate, because no one ever was.”
Common to Bernstein’s entertaining little fictions are adroit opening sentences and a sense of expectation. You intuit how events will turn out, and you are delighted when they do, though you appreciate the unanticipated imaginative twist at the end that imparts a sly, gentle irony. “Navy Blue Forever” about a man who eschews anything fashionable begins, “Henderson was in trouble 30 seconds after he knotted his first four-inch tie.” Is he ever! Bernstein has a fine ear for the idioms and sentence rhythms of his mostly aging characters, where comic relief insures pathos rather than tragedy. Obviously, the author knows his way around the garment industry, but also literature and art, and he manages enough variety here to avoid simplistic labels.