Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
One of the most remarkable reads of this year [or any year] comes a work of non-fiction from one of the most critically acclaimed writers of literary mystery fiction. Though what some may consider as just another travelogue – is indeed something far more intriguing. I am reminded of the tag-line to Shane Carruth’s 2004 film Primer as I feel Tom Cook achieved what Carruth’s characters did in this astonishing book “They took from their surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more”
Many of us were aware that Thomas H Cook was penning this non-fiction work and were anticipating it with excitement – and now it is here. For those unfamiliar with the work of Tom Cook - note he uses his middle initial ‘H’ so that British readers do not confuse this elegant writer of mystery fiction, with one of the country’s largest Travel Agents. This is a problem when one considers that the topic and context of this work – ‘A Memoir of Travel to the Darkest Places on Earth’.
What at first glance would appear a rather melancholic book, a dark book, is far from what one would anticipate from a travel journal, for it detailing visits to some of the scenes of man’s worst traumas; be it natural or from the most evil deeds in humanities past. I was reminded of a line from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. For visiting and reading about a writer’s visits to the places Cook and his wife [the late Susan Terner] and their daughter Justine frequented, is most illuminating and insightful.
Over the years I have often been so wrapped up in Cook’s literary mystery fiction [which in turn is reflective, melancholic and striated with compassion] that I have to admit to often feeling moisture in my eyes when I read ‘the end’ – in many of his work, such as his remarkable Red Leaves. I often wondered what sort of a man writes such deep andcomplex narratives about man and his/her place in this reality – now I do not need to ponder, for in Cook’s Tragic Shores, all is laid bare, revealed; which at times appears like a wound, but one that is not open, but dressed.
The book opens with Cook reflecting upon loss and the significance of family; firstly with a sad anecdote from the Spanish Civil War relating to a Father and Son, trapped in a War. This is immediately followed by a childhood recollection of a visit with his Father to a wake, where open caskets were on display and his Father uttered the words ‘Tommy, wanna see something?’ It is an often recounted as truism from psychiatry that the formative years of childhood help form the personality of the adult. In Tragic Shores we get a hint as to why Cook as a writer would probe the darkest corners of what it means to be human. Not basking on a beach, instead uncovering what lurks under the rocks and slime of our darkest deeds and those of nature [our own as well as of Mother Nature].
Contained within this insightful and thought provoking work are details of Cook’s journeys [sometimes alone, but usually with his wife and daughter]; as well as his thoughts. He holds the reader’s hand as we venture to the killing fields of Verdun, Cambodia, a leper colony, places of famine, of disease, the sites of industrial scale murder, be that in the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, Russian Gulags, Ground Zero, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the horrors of the times of Colonialism, the acceptable face of racial segregation in the American Deep South as well as Southern Africa and Apartheid and many others. Each of the chapters detailing these visits have the facts, intertwined with Cook’s cognition, and his thoughts when he looked around at the scars these places have left on the landscape and our history. Contained within the narrative there is a deep love of humanity and compassion as he reflects upon why these places [from the darkness of our past] are important to us today. He also analyses why he is drawn to seek these places out, and write about them.
Tragic Shores also contains haunting images Thomas Cook took with his camera, while visiting these dark places. Some of these photos will remain with you; which for me, the most haunting being the places where Suicide appeared the only solution for some facing their reality.
They say, when confronted by death in your face, and surviving - be it by misadventure, war, or famine - or by visiting places that resonate with the memories of death, then, and only then, does one truly feel alive. This book reinforces that axiom about the relationship of our lives contrasted against the deaths of others; for our senses get heightened and our awareness goes up a few notches – and these places and experiences remain with us, like itches, like sores that we scratch from time to time – like an awareness of who we are as a species; and as a reminder or portent.
There is terrible darkness in what some term ‘the human condition’, but as Leonard Cohen once said, that’s how the light gets in. To truly understand ourselves, sometimes we have to recall and experience the worst of human nature, in order to bask in the light and the joy of being alive.
Considering the geo-political turmoil humanity finds itself in today, this elegant and insightful book is a warning that whatever our expectations of life are; they must always be contrasted against the deeds of our past.
I consider two words that give this work relevancy ‘Essential’ : on any mystery reader’s bookshelf and ‘Prescient’, for one must always consider that history and location have shown that Mankind is capable of what Kurtz uttered in his dying breath from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness -
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror!”
Which in turn was lifted affectionately from The Bard’s Macbeth, when Lord Macduff re-enters
‘O Horror, horror, horror ! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee’
Sometimes it takes writing of great power to provide the insight into what it means to be human, as well our place on this planet. Thomas H Cook’s Tragic Shores is one such work.
Miss this work at your peril - and I mean it.
Editor’s note : Some of the photographs contained in Tragic Shores, as well as some context to this work can be accessed here