Tag Archives: noir fiction

River Girl by Charles Williams

“It’s men, I tell you. They never should let ‘em out alone.”

River Girl is the third novel I’ve read by American crime author Charles Williams, and it’s the best of the three. I didn’t think I’d find one that topped Hell Hath No Fury so when I tell you that River Girl, published in 1951, soars to the number one spot for Charles Williams novels read so far, then that should give you an idea of just how good this tidy, desperate, dark noir novel is. Told initially in a laid-back style by the amoral narrator, Deputy Jack Marshall, the story’s pace picks up, increasing its tone of claustrophobic desperation as Jack’s life spins out of control.

river girlThe story is set in a small, corrupt town run by Sheriff Buford, a confident ladies’ man  who holds the political and economic reins on the region. This means that nothing much happens there without Buford knowing, approving, and having a piece of the pie. The problem is that Buford doesn’t like to get those lily-whites dirty–that’s where his deputy, Jack Marshall, our narrator, comes in. Jack Marshall, the son of a deceased judge, is useful to Buford, and most of his usefulness comes from the fact that while Jack is intelligent, he doesn’t rock the boat. He takes the path of “least resistance,” so he doesn’t challenge Buford’s authority or corruption, but neither is he particularly motivated by money. He skims along on the surface of his life, not wanting to examine anything too closely, and as a result, he complies with Buford’s demands, accepting the back door deals, the bribes and the sly winks as people look the other way–even if he doesn’t particularly like it. On a personal level, Jack’s marriage to Louise is strained, full of bitter recriminations and arguments. If Jack looked at his life closely, he’d wonder how the hell he got to this point, so rather than struggle against the position he finds himself in, he goes along with all the moral compromises, giving in at every turn to Louise’s demands and Buford’s iron-fisted control of the town.

The small town corruption exists on every level, and you can draw a direct line of complicity from the whorehouse, to the bank, and then to the sheriff’s office. Buford has that air of congenial bonhomie that masks the cunning, vicious mind of a slick predator. Jack may be amoral but Buford is evil. With a little more ambition, and a little more hunger for money, perhaps Jack could be Buford. Here’s Jack weighing up his boss:

He took out a cigar and lit it, then removed it from his mouth and looked at it in the manner of a man who loves good cigars. He’s an odd one, I thought, a queer mixture, and not somebody I’d want to tangle with unless I had to. That nineteenth century courtliness fronted for a lot of toughness you could see sometimes looking out at you from behind noncommittal eyes.

Even though Sheriff Buford is as corrupt as hell, he’s repeatedly re-elected by the constituents who know that he’s rotten to the core. This is due partly to the fact that the women love him, and the men want to be like him. It’s also due to the fact that everyone who counts–except the local preacher, Soames, likes the way Buford runs things. The big dilemma presented almost immediately is that Soames is preaching against some of the town’s shadier establishments, and with a grand jury investigation on the horizon, Buford wants everyone to keep a low profile until the trouble blows over. Buford, who gets a generous kickback from the local whorehouse run by tart-mouthed madam, Abbie Bell, isn’t too happy then when he gets a call that some drunk customer at the whorehouse has gone postal. This incident illustrates how Jack is the fix-it/clean up guy for Buford’s seedier deals. Since the bank president owns the building in which the whorehouse operates, it’s ostensibly a “hotel,” with a high turn over of girls and customers. Abbie believes that if “they’re old enough to give it away, they’re old enough to sell” themselves–no one asks questions about underage customers or teen prostitutes, and that way there are no uncomfortable answers. It’s a system that works for everyone but is never openly acknowledged. Here’s Abbie’s response to Jack when he tells her that ‘her girls’ need  to keep a low profile until the investigation is over:

“I know, I know. I’ve heard enough about it. Look, Jack, I try to keep those lousy high-school punks out of here, but Jesus, I can’t watch the door every minute. I don’t want ‘em anymore than Buford does. I’d rather have a skin rash. They smell of a cork and they’re drunk, like that dumb bunny. And they never have a crying dollar on ‘em–all they want to do is to feel  up al the girls and then go out chasing their lousy jail bait.”

The book opens on a day that is a turning point for Jack. We see him at home with Louise, his grasping, naggy, perpetually unsatisfied wife whose ambitions far exceed her husband’s salary. She’s one of those women who don’t mind that their husbands are mixed up in shady deals, but they do mind that there’s not more money in it for them to blow. Longing to be upper-middle-class with all the trappings of the fur-clad bourgeoisie wives, Louise isn’t fussy where the money comes from, just as long as it gushes her way. Louise thinks she’s better than the prostitutes that work in the local whorehouse, but she has no problem spending the money these women earned the hard way. After plunging Jack into debt with the purchase of a new car, Louise wants to hang out at the beach with her more affluent friends and she needs money. She harangues Jack about collecting money from the whorehouse, but then bitches at the prospect of having to live on his salary alone. Nagging, complaining and bitching until she wears him down, Jack tosses Louise the money he collected from Abbie Bell just to shut his wife up:

“Here,” I said, tossing it. “There’s a hundred and twenty-five in there.” It landed on the bed next to her naked midriff. Well, it’s gone full circle, I thought. That’s where it came from–a girl on a bed.

Disgusted with his job, and frustrated with his wife’s endless demands, Jack goes fishing, travelling deeper into swamp country than he usually goes, and here he meets Doris a mysterious woman who’s living in a primitive hut and who appears to be in hiding….

Caught between the two powerful personalities of his wife Louise and Buford, Jack Marshall is already ensnared in a nasty situation when the book begins, and he seeks to dis-entangle himself but only becomes increasingly caught in a web of intrigue. As a noir anti-hero, motivated by desire for a woman, he tries to escape to a  better life, and while he tries to use fate to his advantage, instead fate takes him for a hellish ride, tricking him at every crossroads into thinking that he has choices… that he has a chance when we know he does not.

While River Girl is a fantastic, tense, atmospheric story, the book is also packed full of fully-fleshed characters and dialogue that sounds so real, you hear the characters speaking. Naturally, and you know this is coming, there’s a femme fatale in these pages, but it’s not who you thought it would be–nonetheless, she’s here, a duplicitous, destructive, expensive beauty with a heady need for excitement and thrills. There’s the sense that we know exactly how this town works with its dirty deals and all the so-called ‘nice’ people looking the other way until things get so out-of-control that someone has to be reeled in and thrown out of town. There’s a moment when Jack has to deal with an underage prostitute, and for a moment, he is disgusted with himself. Yet the novel allows for no sentimentality as we read just how Jack manipulates this teenage girl and facilitates her on her desperate road to corruption and self-destruction. One of the story’s sad ironies is that Jack hates his life but lacks the motivation to do anything about it, and then when he acquires the motivation, his method of reinvention is flawed and tarred by the life he’s led. It’s too late for Jack; he just doesn’t know it yet. Jack’s struggle becomes his excruciating battle against fate–a fight that he can’t win and one that will take him full circle as he descends into “some frightening and deadly spiral”

I was conscious of the horrible sensation that I wasn’t just walking in circles in space and time, but that I was actually swinging around the steep black sides of some enormous whirlpool and sliding always towards the center.

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If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King

I climbed onto the raft and reached down for her. She put one hand on my wrist and the other on my shoulder and came up easily, laughing. At the top she slipped and held on close. A shiver went through her. I put my hand on her back to steady her and felt her hair like dark seaweed in my face.”

Sherwood King’s  (1904-1981) novel If I Die Before I Wake serves as the basis of the Orson Welles film Lady of Shanghai. If you’ve seen the film, then you know that it’s not without its problems, and if you read about the making of the film, you’ll discover that the director (Welles) and the star (Rita Hayworth) were in the throes of a marriage breakup during the filming, and a fair amount of the film’s problems are thrown onto the domestic difficulties of this famous couple. The film, cut substantially before its release, was considered one of Welles’ worst failures, and it’s a film that divides his critics from his fans.  So this brings me to the book on which the film is based: If I Die Before I Wake. What a great title, and take a look at that cover:

If I Die Before I wake And here’s how this tale begins:

Sure,” I said. “I would commit murder. If I had to, of course, or if it was worth my while.”

I said this as though I meant it too. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it at all.

“The way I figure it,” I said, “a man’s got to die some time. All murder does is hurry it up. What more is there to it?”

You know–talk. What any young fellow might say, just to show he’s not afraid of anything.

There had been a murder out our way. On Long Island. Some society woman had shot her husband. He hadn’t been doing anything, just raiding the icebox for a midnight snack. But (she said) she’d thought he was a burglar … five bullets’ worth. Police were holding her; some insurance angle.

This strong beginning comes from the narrator–a young, well-built ex-sailor, Laurence Planter, a drifter who seemed to hit a lucky streak when he swam onto a private beach belonging to wealthy middle-aged attorney, Bannister. Bannister seems to have a lot: a beautiful red-headed, sexy young wife, Elsa, a lucrative practice, and a fabulous home near the beach, but Bannister is permanently disfigured from war injuries. These are physical scars, of course, but he’s also dismal, “bitter and a little screwy” about his limitations. When Laurence turns up on the beach, Bannister hires him on the spot as a chauffeur, and Laurence, broke and unemployed, takes the job, living in a small room above the Bannister’s garage.

Laurence hasn’t been there long when he’s approached by Grisby, a sleazy, fast-talking character who happens to be Bannister’s law-partner.  Seems that Grisby is unhappily married, and wants a divorce, so he’s dreamed up a scheme in which Laurence is supposed to murder Grisby, so that Grisby can escape from a marriage he can’t stand. Laurence will get $5,000 for his trouble and Grisby will collect the insurance money that will fund a new life in the South Seas. According to Grisby, it’s a foolproof plan:

You know they talk about the perfect crime. There’s some defect in all of them. Ours will be the perfect crime, perfectly executed. And the first essential is that I be killed, the second that you be in a position to prove you killed me.

The plan stinks, and so obviously full of holes, that Laurence, even though he can almost taste that  5,000, balks at the idea. Grisby  assures Laurence that this will be “the perfect crime;” he won’t be convicted and fry for the ‘murder’ as there won’t be a body.

Suppose they put you in jail for a while, or even the psychopathic ward, if they thought you were nuts, what of it? Let ‘em. Any dumb lawyer could get you out, if they don’t even have a body–and they won’t have. I’ll see to that. Besides, what’s a little time in jail compared to five thousand waiting for you when you get out?

With Grisby’s goading,  Laurence agrees to the plan–even though it makes little sense to Laurence (or to the reader).  Laurence begins asking questions, and then when he finally puts the brakes on and demands to know what Grisby is holding back, Grisby claims this was “just a test” before he revealed the real plan. The “real” plan is even worse than the first plan, but Laurence foolishly agrees and soon finds himself facing a murder rap.

A million things could go wrong: Laurence could be beaten or sent to the psycho ward for years, and what good is 5,000 going to be except to hire an expensive lawyer to fight your case? Grisby’s plot is overly convoluted and hard to swallow, and it only works if Laurence is a complete idiot–which, it turns out, he is. There’s a double cross, a triple cross and a quadruple cross before this tale of lust and greed is over. If I Die Before I Wake is a fast-paced read and written in a tough, terse style. After reading this, now the problems of The Lady of Shanghai begin to make a lot more sense….

There’s a story behind the story of The Lady of Shanghai. According to Welles, he was in Boston working on a stage production of Around the World in 80 Days. Welles states they “were unable to get the costumes from the station because $50,000 was due and our producer Mr. Todd had gone broke.” Welles, using a pay phone called Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures and desperate for cash, he improvised:

“I have a great story for you if you could send me $50,000 by telegram in one hour. I’ll sign a contract to make it.”  “What story?” Cohn said. I was calling from a pay phone, and next to it was a display of paperbacks and I gave him the title of one of them, Lady from Shanghai. I said, “Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.” An hour later, we got the money. (from This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich)*

Naturally since Welles grabbed the book without reading it, he was unaware of the convoluted, problematic plot. Incidentally, William Castle already owned the rights to the book, so he served as associate producer to the film which, made by pure chance, made film noir history.  Orson Welles, who’d intended to make a film that felt like an “off-kilter” bad dream found that the nightmare was his own, and after seeing the edited version of the film, he sent a nine page memo with various suggestions to Harry Cohn, but all of his arguments were ignored. No wonder Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures offered to pay a thousand dollars to anyone in the viewing room who could explain the plot of The Lady from Shanghai  (Orson Welles: Interviews with Filmmakers, Ed. Mark W. Estrin . Cohn should have read the book, and if he did he’d understand that Welles’ created a difficult, brilliant interpretation of the troublesome raw material.

*There are a couple of different versions about how the book If I Die Before I Wake came to be made into a film, so the source is included.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands by Gerald Butler

Gerald Butler (1907-1988), a British author who has almost completely faded from view, published Kiss the Blood off My Hands in 1940. I could find almost no biographical information on this mostly forgotten author and searches turn up the actor Gerard Butler. Kiss the Blood off My Hand is a very dark classic noir novel which was made into a 1948 film of the same name starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. The book’s title is intriguing–partly for the graphic images conjured into view, but the title has a much deeper meaning which includes redemption and forgiveness for violence through the healing powers of love. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was a bestseller in its day with sales of over 250,000 in hardback, and that’s probably why there are used copies still out there.

The book begins explosively with a murder:

By the time I’ve been blotting up beer for a couple of hours, any fellow who starts anything with me is crazy. Although maybe I hit him harder than I meant, or maybe he hit his head as he went over, or something, but he looked like a chap who would want plenty of jab, and that isn’t the way he looks on the floor. He looks pretty still. He looks damned still. Come to think of it he looks too damned still.

The whole pub had dried up like a scab. The place was so quiet you could hear a cat mess.

Our protagonist calls himself Bill Saunders, but there’s every indication that this name is fictitious. There are also indications that he is probably American as later on in the book, he passes himself off as Canadian. We don’t know how he came to Britain and we know almost nothing about his past, but we do know that he reacts to most situations with violence, he’s a brutal criminal and as clichéd as it sounds, his fists are deadly weapons. This sort of anonymity is a continued theme throughout the book, and even though it was published in 1940, it may be set in the 30s, pre WWII since there’s no backdrop of war (significant given the ending). The anonymity of time, place and people is underscored by the way Bill objectifies his surroundings and the humans in that space. To him people are objects to be exploited, and if they’re in his way, then they’d better move aside or take the consequences. While Bill appears to have no past, we know that his background can’t have been pleasant. His emotions are all wrong, and he doesn’t even know the word for love when he finds himself unexpectedly falling for an unusual woman.

kiss the blood off my handsFleeing from the pub in this unknown, unnamed town, fate throws Bill into the path of a young woman named Jane who works as a shop assistant. Needing a place to hide, he shoves Jane inside her flat and decides to lay low there for the next 24 hours. Bill knows that what happens to Jane depends on whether or not she stays quiet. While he identifies Jane as not a “tart,” the sort of woman he’s more used to dealing with, he’s not exactly sure how to handle her. She seems like a new species as she doesn’t react to his threats the way she’s supposed to.  

The girl was pretty. Her eyes were bright, and somewhere around her mouth there was a curious tilt that made her look all the time as if she was going to smile. I wished to hell she was a man. You can sock a man to teach him to keep quiet, but with a girl that would just be asking for noise.

“This isn’t a push around,” I told her. “Don’t be scared.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she answered. “Who frightened you?”

“Nobody frightens me,” I started, but I stopped because I guessed she must be kidding.

“Who are you running away from, then?”

“Don’t ask me questions,” I said. “just you keep nice and quiet and you’ll be all right. The wisest thing for you to do right now is to keep nice and quiet.”

‘”What if I don’t?”

While Bill tries to “puzzle her out,” he realizes that she’s different. She doesn’t panic or cave when he bullies or threatens her, and she even makes a few demands of her own.

She got up and stood by the washbasin near the window, and pointed to the far wall.

“Go and admire the wall paper,” she said.

I went over and sat on the bed facing the wall. Something whistled over my head, and yesterday’s paper dropped at my feet. I picked it up and started to look at it.

She was tidying up, getting ready for the day. I could hear the running of water, and then after a bit–I think she hesitated a bit–I could hear the rustle of clothes coming off.

“Don’t look around she said.

“Don’t worry,” I told her.

That was easy enough for me. That kind of thing never did anything for me. There was a time and a place for that with me, and there was a kind of woman to do it with, and that kind of woman wasn’t her.

An awkward relationship begins between Bill and “kid” (as he calls Jane), and it’s a strange relationship based on her thinking he’s a decent human being, and him not understanding the attraction, but grasping that he should behave when they’re together. It’s later, not much later, we realize just how ugly and violent Bill can be….

When it occurs, Bill’s sheer, instant, knee-jerk viciousness is startling and stunning. This is one of those 40s novels that rapidly dismisses any notion we might have that the world was a better place 70 odd years ago. Bill is a dangerous man who believes there’s no way to make a living except through violence. And yet Bill isn’t an entirely unsympathetic character. Yes he has a few screws loose. Yes he’s hot-tempered and volatile. Yes he has murdered a man and may kill again. Yet in spite of the fact that we know nothing of Bill’s past, we can try to fill in the blanks, and it’s easy to imagine a past from Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. Was Bill raised in a series of institutions? Is that why the word ‘love’ doesn’t exist in his vocabulary? In an incredible section of the novel in which violence is punished by cold violence, there’s a moment when Bill’s toughness is tested:

Quite soon. No putting it off. You can’t choose the day. You can’t wait and pick the day when you feel like it. This is their show. They do the choosing. They do everything. You’re just the thing they do it with.

But it’s only the damned powerless feeling, that’s all. They usually scream, do they? Just mugs. They’ve screamed when I’ve hit them, but they’ve never really hurt me. They’ve picked the wrong one this time. They can knock me silly but they can’t hurt me. Not the way they mean.

The footsteps clatter along the passage. Now for it. Here goes. Brace yourself. Stop those silly doubts from flashing across your mind. The stories about it are all the same. It isn’t any picnic. So brace yourself. face up, that’s the thing.

This passage (and I’ve only included part of it) reveals more about Bill than any stories he could tell. This is a man who’s no stranger to institutions, and once faced with the chilling violence of the state, he’s diminished and yet oddly brave even as he tries to maintain his usual bullying tough exterior. The novel’s big question seems to be ‘can Bill be rehabilitated’? But since this is noir, the underlying issue is will fate work against Bill’s attempts to lead a straight life? Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a powerful story of the redemptive powers of love–a story in which love can heal but in this noir world in which we live, love isn’t powerful enough to face an unforgiving society full of opportunistic greedy men who are looking for the next easy buck. Butler seems to say that love cannot exist in this corrupt society, and this wonderful novel has a few unexpected twists and turns before arriving at its uneasy ending.

(Also published as The Unafraid)

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The Magician’s Wife by James M. Cain

While James M. Cain will always be remembered for Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, there are quite a few lesser-known works well worth reading. Last year, Hard Case Crime published a lost Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, and now Mysterious Press has resurrected a number of obscure Cain titles:

  • Sinful Woman
  • Root of His Evil
  • Galatea
  • Mignon
  • Jealous Woman
  • Rainbow’s End
  • The Institute
  • Cloud Nine
  • The Enchanted Isle
  • The Moth
  • The Magician’s Wife

Most of these titles have been out-of-print, and these novels are now available in e-format for the first time.

the magicians wifeThe Magician’s Wife opens with Clay Lockwood, the confident, affluent owner of Grants, a meat-packing business, stopping at Portico, a Maryland branch of a chain of restaurants. While he appears to be just another customer, he’s there thanks to a lucrative deal selling corned beef to the Portico chain and wants to make sure that the cooks handle the pre-cooked meat correctly. Lockwood notices one of the waitresses, a very attractive woman named Sally Alexis, and they square off in a meeting laced with attraction, desire, and sexual innuendo. Since this is noir fiction, it should come as no surprise that Sally and Lockwood begin a torrid, explosive affair that night. One night in the sack, and Lockwood is ready to call the preacher to seal the deal. But there’s a hitch: Sally is married and has a small child. Her husband, a small-time magician, has made his current stage assistant his latest mistress, and the marriage has been sour for some time.

Since Lockwood is a very affluent man with all the material things in life that he wants, he’s more than ready for Sally to divorce her deadbeat husband, take her kid and move in to his swanky apartment with him. Permanently. But Sally isn’t so hot on the idea. See there’s the matter of a few million dollars, and a couple of bodies are in the way of Sally and the money that she thinks is rightfully hers….

It showed through, like the blue on a corpse’s fingernails, what she was hoping for. What she means to do, perhaps. If she gets help.

Sally is, of course, a classic noir femme fatale–sexy, manipulative, cunning, and she’s also more than a little unhinged. Not that that makes her any less attractive to Lockwood, who has a real problem when it comes to dealing with women. When Sally goes too far one evening, Lockwood decides to move on to calmer pastures. Unfortunately, once Sally has her teeth in a man, she doesn’t let go easily.

The Magician’s Wife is not Cain’s finest work, so I don’t want to claim that, but as a Cain fan, it was one of those books I couldn’t pass up. One of the enjoyable aspects of the story is the way in which Cain makes it clear that a femme fatale may be dangerous, explosive and destructive, but all those negative qualities are magnified when she hooks up with a malleable man with weak morality or issues of one sort or another. Lockwood is a case in point. Any sane man would run from Sally’s kind of trouble, but Lockwood’s ego gets in the way–for a while at least. And it’s perfect that Cain created Lockwood as the owner of the meat-packing plant. There’s something not quite healthy about his carnivorous appetite. He aggressively seeks out contracts for meat, and he’s equally aggressive in his lustful approaches to Sally–even though his common sense tells him to end the relationship.

That vanity was his trouble, inflamed by obsessive desire; that was his great source of strength, the element in his nature that drove him ahead in business, riding all the obstacles down, could also be his weakness; that this giddy twin sister of pride could have a soft underbelly, loving praise above everything else, especially this girl’s praise, and dreading her phony scorn.

Cain creates an interesting cast of characters for this book; there’s Sally’s husband The Great Alexis aka Alec Gorsuch, the heir to the Gorsuch fortune who works as a two-bit magician at the Lilac Flamingo and his cheap tarty assistant, Busty Buster. There’s also Sally’s mother, artist Grace Simone. I can’t give away too much of the plot here, but there’s a development between Lockwood and Grace Simone that didn’t quite gel for me, but after finishing the book and chewing the story over, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate femme fatale is arguably one who comes in disguise. I had to reread the last line several times and ask myself who got what they wanted in the end….

Review copy

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Big City Girl by Charles Williams

“Once they get you in there in the pen, there ain’t no long-nose bastards  writing about you and talking about you on the radio. Not till maybe thirty years from now, when they might let you out if you behave yourself, or till someday they kill you if you don’t.”

Otto Penzler, founder of Mysterious Press, continues his unflagging quest to put classic noir titles back into the hands of readers: this time it’s with a Charles Williams Revival–a writer who seems to have been largely forgotten in the annals of noir fiction. So it’s back to Charles Williams (1909-1975) for another noir gem. Big City Girl (1951) is an unusual noir for its setting, and it’s certainly a change of pace from perhaps this author’s most famous work, Hell Hath No Fury (AKA The Hot Spot), a novel I read and reviewed a few years ago.

charles williamsBig City Girl is a story of a family of dirt poor sharecroppers in the American south. Widower Cass Neely, a hopeless man who’s losing his mind, used to own an impressively large cotton farm, but for the past 14 years, he’s sold off one parcel at a time.

There was nothing vicious about him, and the money he had received over all this period of time from the piecemeal sale of his land and farming equipment had not been thrown away on liquor or gambling or any other active vice, but had disappeared down the bottomless rat holes of shiftlessness and bad management and a perennially wistful fondness for secondhand automobiles. And now the deteriorating carcasses of seven of the defunct cars squatted about the sandy yard around the house where they had wheezed their last, giving it the appearance of a junk yard.

Now all that’s left is the crudely-built house and a few acres of poor soil, and Cass and his son Mitch, who basically does most of the labour, find themselves working the land they used to own.  Mitch also has a young, impressionable teenage sister named Jessie, and there’s also a brother, Sewell, a brutal, violent criminal who was involved in rival gang wars until his conviction for armed robbery. At first glance, Sewell’s criminal career appears to be an anomaly, some quirk of nature that set this son on a bad path while Mitch stayed on the straight and narrow. A closer look at the family’s bleak, hopeless, back-breaking existence offers another explanation of Sewell’s life for crime: he simply broke free of a lifetime of virtual slavery and decided to take his chances with crime.

big city girlWhen the book opens, Sewell’s blonde, trashy wife, Joy has joined her husband’s family out of desperation, and she reasoned that at least with her in-laws she’ll have a roof over her head and food in her stomach. A good-time girl addicted to the attention of men, Joy is now thirty and beginning to lose her looks. Just as Mitch relies on his strength to get by, and Sewell counts on his ruthless violence, Joy has counted on her looks and her body to see her through the hard times, and with the prospect of aging, Joy is worried about what lies ahead. In theory she can stay on the farm, but the lifestyle is driving her mad with boredom. There are only two elements to her new life that she finds remotely interesting: Jessie’s worship (Jessie acts as her ex-facto maid) and the distinct possibility of teasing and seducing Mitch. While Joy acts out her own little dramas at the cotton farm, Sewell “Mad Dog Neely” is being transferred to the state pen to begin a life sentence for armed robbery….

vintage big city girlThe novel has its surprisingly poignant moments as Mitch recalls rich childhood memories when he and Sewell did everything together:

You lay awake when you were dead tired and needed the sleep, lying there on the cot in the darkness thinking of hunting squirrels with Sewell and running the setlines at night along the river’s banks with the pine torch blazing and sputtering and throwing your long-legged shadows against the trees, hunting coons with him to the baying of hounds on frosty, starlit winter nights a long time ago before he began to get into trouble, and all the way you always had to run to keep up with the endless vitality of him. You thought of him then and you thought of him now, and it was like a sickness eating at you from the inside where you couldn’t get at it.

But with the crop, thank god, it was different. You could still lose because the rain could whip you and the boll weevils could whip you and any one of a half-dozen things could do it too, but at least you were fighting something you could see and when you hit it you could feel something solid under your hand. It was an elemental problem, with nothing fancy about it. The crop was there and if you didn’t save it you went hungry. It had rained far too much already and there wasn’t much chance now of that big crop you were always going to make next year, that fifteen bales or more when you would come out at the end of the year with more money ahead and Jessie could go back to school and you could buy some more of your own equipment again and not go farming on halves all your life. That was probably just a dream for another year. What you were fighting for now was survival. You had to pay off the credit to get credit for another year to go on eating to make another crop.

Big City Girl has an unusual setting, but all the hallmarks of excellent noir fiction are here with the twists and turns of fate determining moments of apparent choice. The lines between the good and the bad characters are blurred and murky with heroes and villains defined by a brutal society that refuses to recognize that the have-nots are forced to sell whatever it takes to get by. Sewell sold his strength to become muscle for gangsters. Joy sells her body because that’s all she has to sell. Mitch is the hero here, the one decent character, but his decency is based on his willingness to work himself to death. The energy required to farm cotton stops Mitch from thinking about anything except the crop, so during the day he’s able to keep on the treadmill, but at night it’s different. There’s a deeply buried unasked question underlying the validity of the two brother’s respective, grim choices: In breaking away from the back-breaking subsistence work of the farm, Sewell makes a bid for freedom through a life of crime. Mitch doesn’t reject his brother’s choices and understands that Sewell is fighting society–a largely invisible and unconquerable enemy.  Which of the two brothers is a freer man? What will Mitch think of his choice to stay on the straight and narrow when he’s a broken, worn out man by the time he’s 50?

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles

No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase

“From now on, you’re going to wear mink, baby.”

No Orchids for Miss Blandish  (1939) by James Hadley Chase has been on the reading radar for some time. I saw the film version in 2010 and then Emma, from Book Around the Corner reviewed the book here. After seeing the film version, and reading the controversy about the book, I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. The book is far darker, far more unpleasant, so if you like your crime books bleak, nasty and downright unsavoury, then you might want to check out No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

No orchids for miss BlandishThe story begins with a couple of cheap crooks, Bailey and Old Sam, stopping at a gas station on the way to Kansas City. Old Sam is sleeping, so Bailey, worried about money and even contemplating robbing a bank if things don’t look up soon, steps inside the diner for a Scotch. Bailey and Old Sam form an ad-hoc gang with a sleaze ball named Riley as the brains of the operation. It’s slim pickings for these trio of bottom-feeders. The lucrative jobs are too big and complex for their slipshod 3 man operation, and that leave the petty jobs that don’t yield much. It seems to be a lucky break when tipster fat Heinie, a “leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side” waddles into the diner and mentions that multi millionaire Blandish is throwing a party for his daughter’s 24th birthday. Her gift will be the family diamonds and after the party at the Blandish mansion, she’ll move on to the Golden Slipper nightclub with her boyfriend, Jerry MacGowan. Bailey keys onto the fact that the couple and the diamond necklace will be alone and vulnerable. Heinie warns him off any thoughts of knocking off the necklace as Bailey and Riley “aren’t big enough to handle a job like that.”  But to Bailey, the job sounds like a cinch: Waylay a society dame and her cream puff escort then grab the diamonds. Simple.

Bailey takes the idea to Riley, the head of the gang, and a man in Bailey’s opinion who spends “too much time in the sack with that broad of his,” a cheap, mouthy striptease dancer named Anna. The plan is to go to The Golden Slipper while Miss Blandish is slumming and then follow the couple, waylaying them along the route, and making a fast smash and grab. But the plan goes wrong and morphs into a kidnapping, and then bad luck sends members of the vicious Grisson gang into their path….

The Grisson gang, considered by other crooks as “good third-raters,” is led by Ma Grisson–a tough as nails, “big, grossly fat and lumpy”  woman  who sounds as clever, mean and evil as the FBI fabricated-for-the-media version of Ma Barker. (This can’t be coincidence as the author, James Hadley Chase was supposedly influenced by the tale of the Barker Gang when he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish.) Ma Grisson sees the Blandish heiress as means of becoming the “richest, the most powerful, and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City.” In other words, the Blandish girl is a ticket out of the small-time, and with a prize like that Ma Grisson is willing to take some risks.

Some of the novel includes the dynamics between the various gang members. There’s an unlicensed alcoholic doctor, “Doc” who comes in handy when the boys need stitching up, Eddie who “wouldn’t have been bad looking, but” for the cast in his eye, Flynn, Woppy and finally Ma’s son, the dysfunctional, psychotic, and none too clean Slim Grisson, the man with a taste for knives.

He was tall, reedy and pasty-faced. His loose, half-open mouth, his vacant, glassy eyes made him look idiotic, but a ruthless, inhuman spirit hid behind the idiot’s mask.

Slim Grisson’s background was typical of a pathological killer. He had always been lazy at school, refusing to take the least interest in book work. He began early to want money. He was sadistic and several times had been caught torturing animals. By the time he was eighteen, he had begun to develop homicidal tendencies. By then, his mental equipment had degenerated. There were times when he would be normal to the point of being quick-witted, but most times he behaved like an idiot.

Slim is barely held in check by his mother who “refused to believe that there was anything wrong with him.” So there’s an inherent, festering sore in the gang’s power structure: Slim is out-of-control and yet his mother refuses to reign him in. It’s with the introduction of Miss Blandish into the equation that the power balance within the gang changes.

More gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops.

The novel’s violence is swift, merciless and sadistic. The 1948 film version of the novel played like some sort of deranged love story, and that glamoured up what’s really at play here. After all, there are some things worse than death….

No orchids for miss Blandish 1961James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was British but chose to set this, his first novel in America, a country he’d yet to visit. Now to the question of versions:  Chase revised the novel in 1961, and I have two versions: a kindle version and a print version which are quite different. The kindle version, originally from Harlequin books, refers to television and Slim being a television addict (“He never grew tired of watching the moving pictures on the twenty-one inch screen.“) The kindle version says 1939 on the front but the Harlequin edition was published in 1951.  The out-of-place reference to televisions in the 1930s is absent in my Bruin Crimeworks edition, and the Amazon description of this book says it’s the 1961 updated version, but inside the book there’s a page “note to the reader” which says that this version is “yet a further update” to the 1961 update. So how many versions are there?

The revised print version from Bruin Crimeworks is even nastier (read “embellished,” and here’s just a taste–a scene which isn’t so detailed in the earlier kindle version. BTW, I blotted out the victim’s name in order to not spoil the plot suspense for potential readers:

“I’m giving it to you there,” Slim said, pricking the shuddering flesh with his knife. “Right in the guts, *****, and you’re going to take a mighty long time to croak. I know just where to stick you.”

“Come on, Slim! You wouldn’t do that to me. I’m a stand up guy, don’t I keep telling you? You know me. You ain’t gonna cut me like that. No! Slim! …No!… For Christ’s sake…Jesus, God…Don’t do me, Slim!”

Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below *****’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. ***** drew his lips back. His mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of ***** like a horrible malformation. ***** began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.

Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes and squinted at *****.

“Take your time, Pal. We ain’t in a hurry.” He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. “Ain’t them clouds pretty?”

And here’s the same scene in the kindle version:

Slim looked over at ***** who shut his eyes. A horrible croaking sound came from him. Slim cleaned his knife by driving it into the ground. The he straightened.

“*****…” he said softly.

****** opened his eyes.

“Don’t kill me, Slim.” he panted. “Gimme a break! Don’t kill me!”

Slim grinned. The moving slowly through the patch of sunlight, he approached the cringing man.

The book has been made into two film versions: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and The Grissom Gang (1971). Pick your poison.

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Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

In the excellent, perceptive introduction to Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), Woolrich’s biographer, Francis Nevins gives an overview of the author’s life and career. There are some  great quotes about Woolrich’s work here, but I can’t include them all, so here’s just one:

All we can do about this nightmare world is to create, if we can, a few islands of love and trust to sustain us and help us forget. But love dies while lovers go on living, and Woolrich is a master of portraying the corrosion of a relationship. Although he often wrote about the horrors both love and lovelessness can inspire, there are very few irredeemably evil characters in his stories. For if one loves or needs love, or is at the brink of destruction, Woolrich identifies with that person no matter how dark his or her dark side.

Nevins explains that although Woolrich (1903-68) “knew overwhelming financial and critical success [but] his life remained a wretched mess.” Woolrich, a homosexual who tried marriage once, lived with his mother for a great deal of his life, but after her death in 1957, he was a recluse–miserable from the sounds of it–while he struggled with diabetes and alcoholism. Woolrich also seems to have a death obsession. Perhaps that’s not quite the right term I’m looking for, but certainly he had an awareness that death waits in the wings for all of us, and that life, to a great extent is an attempt to avoid or deny the inevitable.  I think that’s a fairly normal realisation for those who live with chronic disease, but Woolrich seemed to be aware of the inescapable nature of death even as a child, and that knowledge of imminent death seems to have found its way into Night Has a Thousand Eyes–a story in which an obsession with death so plagues two of the characters that in an attempt to avoid Fate they rush headlong to meet their deaths before Death can come for them.

The story begins with an earnest young New York homicide detective named Tom Shawn walking along the river as he does every night after work:

You can’t dream in a bus, with your fellows all around you. And so-every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night about one, a little after. Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once.

Woolrich sets up his story immediately with the idea of permanence, predictability and routine, and this is a brilliant move as these elements of life are those about to be challenged and even, perhaps, eradicated by Fate.

Tom is a good, honest, and hard-working young man who is grounded in reality. That night in the park, he comes across some money discarded on the ground. Once again, character is fate. A lesser man would pocket the money and chalk the find up to luck, but Tom is curious. He follows a money trail which leads to an expensive handbag and a diamond wristwatch, and eventually he finds Jean, a distressed, wealthy young woman, beautiful, of course, who is about to commit suicide. He saves the woman, and in the emotional aftermath, she tells a strange tale involving her father.

Jean Reid and her debonair, handsome father are extremely wealthy New Yorkers who lead an enviable life, but all that ‘good fortune’ is apparently swept away when psychic predictions surrounding the Reids begin to come horribly true. After Mr. Reid’s death is predicted, he becomes fixated on the date. Paralyzed with fear, he loses all his confidence, undergoes a frightening personality change, and holed up in his mansion, he can no longer function.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is an iconic tale which deals with issues of Fate and Predestination. In creating the Reids, Woolrich offers us two characters who have the best that life has to offer: looks, confidence, money, power, intelligence and good health. The Reids are the sort of people who make their own destinies–or so they think. When confronted with a power that seems to erode their worldly position, Jean and her father are rendered helpless for the first time in their lives. They are reduced to the same sort of powerlessness felt by their impoverished, plain, dull and worn-out maid, and suddenly, money and prestige mean nothing. It’s not simply that Mr. Reid is terrified of his own death (and that is definitely his ostensible, palatable fear), but it’s also that their entire value system no longer exists. Their money or connections cannot help them avoid the horrible Fate predicted for Mr. Reid by a shady psychic, and there’s the subtle issue of privilege bowing to a greater power underlying the tale. The novel doesn’t spend a great deal of time on character–although many of the secondary characters are great sideshow creations. The psychic is a particularly interesting character as with his sort of gift, you’d expect some sort of enlightened individual, but when Woolrich pulls back the layers of deceit on this character, we find a shrivelled, unpleasant, bitter little man. Primarily, however, this is a plot-driven story which builds with incredible tension that keeps this story rolling to the last page. Unlike Black Wings Has My Angel, Night Has a Thousand Eyes has an archaic feel which grounds the novel firmly in its times.

I recognized that the focus of this pall of fear and grief that hung over me was not the catastrophe itself or even the loss that it had wrought; it was the fact of having been forewarned against it. There was a curious sort of clammy terror in that, there was horror, there was-I don’t know what. There was a nightmare feeling heavy upon me, and not even the fact that the destructive climax was already past and no longer still ahead could lessen it any.

Review copy from Open Road Media

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The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

“Not every man’s death is a crime.”

It’s the sort of scenario we readers dream of … a “lost” novel found and brought to publication, but that is exactly what happened with The Cocktail Waitress, the “Lost Final” novel by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime, the novel includes an afterword by Charles Ardai in which he describes how he found the novel and the role of Max Allan Collins in the hunt. Crime fans owe a huge debt to Charles and Max for their continued contributions to the crime genre.

The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, a shapely young “corn-husk blonde,” widow, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral which happens to be the same day she lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Joan needs this job badly as she has no money, her Hyattsville house in a suburb of Washington DC is on the brink of foreclosure, and the utilities have been disconnected. Joan’s marriage to Ron wasn’t happy, and their life together ended when a very drunk Ron drove the car at 2 in the morning and met his death in a fatal crash.  

Things look bleak for Joan. Her hostile, barren, accusatory sister-in-law, Ethel, has agreed to take Joan’s small son, Tad, until Joan gets on her feet, but Joan knows that Ethel considers her an unfit mother and that’s she’s looking for any excuse to keep Tad permanently. But when good things happen to Joan, they happen fast. Although she has no experience, thanks to police sergeant Young, she lands a job at the Garden of Roses. So what if she has to wear a skimpy outfit? So what if the male customers think that Joan sells something on the side? Joan makes it clear that she’s not for sale. Well at least she’s not for sale unless she gets that flashy diamond hardware, third finger, left hand.

It’s on the day of her husband’s funeral, the first day on her new job as a cocktail waitress, that Joan meets the two men who play significant roles in the next stage of her life: Tom, the studly driver from the undertakers (who insists that Joan “blew him a kiss,” as he left her at her doorstep after the funeral), and the very wealthy Earl K. White–an older man who suffers from a touchy case of angina….

Joan is a very interesting, strange character. We know little of her past, but some facts roll out as the story unfolds.  She’s estranged from her family, and we learn from Joan “my mother hated me and my father cut me off.” Joan has to fight to survive, and while she tells her story in a seemingly straight-forward fashion, can we believe her version of events?

Did I put an extra sway in my step as I walked away, to make my hips jog and my bottom twitch? I may have. I know I unbuttoned an extra button on my blouse before turning around, tray in hand.

“Joan, there is something I’m curious to ask you”

I rejoined him at his table, and swapped a full bowl of Fritos for the half-full bowl in front of him. It was no more than I’d done at any of the dozen other tables at the bar. But perhaps I bent slightly lower doing it than was absolutely necessary. “What’s that, Mr. White?”

Earl, please.”

“I’d feel too familiar.”

“Please.”

“Earl, then.”

“I…”

“What is it? What do you want to ask me?”

“I’m not usually tongue-tied, Joan, I just find myself somewhat distracted at the moment.”
I smiled and lowered my gaze, and said softly: “Pleasantly, I hope?”
“Most pleasantly.”

“But all the same, I don’t want to make it hard for us to have a conversation, Mr. –Earl.” I fastened up the lowest open button on my blouse. “Better?” 

That quote is a good example of the author’s style–no flashy prose style & everything seems fairly straightforward. The kicker to this novel is that there’s more than one way to read The Cocktail Waitress. You can read it straight, and believe every word that comes out of Joan’s somewhat prim and proper mouth, or you can start to question her as an unreliable narrator. If you take the first road, you’re going to read a meat-and-potatoes story, nothing fancy here. But, if you take the second facta non verba approach, then the novel’s power and intelligence hit you after you turn the last page, and slowly you’ll find yourself unravelling Joan’s narration with chilling results. There were a couple of times that Joan chose actions that seemed out of character but by the story’s conclusions, it all comes together in a sinister sort of way.

According to the afterword, Cain struggled with this novel for some time, and Charles Ardai, editor and founder of Hard Case Crime discusses finding the manuscript, its various drafts, and the way Cain experimented with various narrative voices. Cain took a chance writing The Cocktail Waitress through Joan’s voice, but its very boldness makes for a bigger payoff.

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Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette

“It was the rich that interested her, and she went only where there was money.”

Fatale is the third crime novel I’ve read by French author Jean-Patrick Manchette, and I’d rank it above  The Prone Gunman and below 3 To Kill. This copy, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, is one of New York Review Books Classics–a publisher who consistently brings excellent titles to the market.

Fatale is a bit of a switch as its protagonist is female, a professional killer named Aimée. That may or may not be her real name as she uses several throughout the course of this short novel. We know just what she’s capable of when, on the second page, she blasts a man with a shotgun. After completing her kill, she quietly and quickly leaves town on a train, using the privacy of a railway carriage to metamorphosize into her next act when she pops up in the dreary little town of Bléville. Here she poses as an affluent young widow interested in purchasing a large local property from the pompous realtor, Lindquist. Within hours she manages to worm her way into Bléville’s ‘best’ society. With her looks and her money, all doors open to her.

Invited to whist games, the opening of the fish market, cocktail parties, a baptism and to other small-town social events, it takes Aimée no time at all to gather information and to sniff out the local dirt as she works out who is willing to pay for a contract-killer-for-hire. She seems to have landed in a viper’s nest of intrigue, adultery, and shady business deals. The town has a very clear social stratification with the plebs as a large, faceless mass who go about their work and their daily lives minding their own business. It’s the upper crusties that interest Aimée.

There’s only one person of any substance who appears to exist outside of the town’s social clique and that’s Baron Jules. He is either an eccentric or a lunatic (depending on your goodwill), and he admits that he’s been spying on the residents and keeping records of their activities for decades. This makes him a very dangerous man. Baron Jules has just been released from some sort of clinic, and he’s intent on annoying the town’s wealthy citizens. The Baron makes an unwelcome appearance at the opening of the fish market, upsetting the Tobies–the pharmacist and his wife, and the owners of the bookshop, the Rougneux.

The realtor broke off. He was staring at something that his interlocutors could not see, somewhere in the crowd. He pursed his lips.

“Shit!” he exclaimed, and coming from him the profanity was startling. “Shit! That lunatic!”

The Rougneux, the Tobies, and senior manager Moutet all turned around at his words and scrutinized the crowd. Their attitudes bespoke anxiety and disgust. Aimée turned around too, her eyebrows slightly raised, and surveyed the gathering without seeing anything out of the ordinary. Sinistrat was all smiles. He lit a Craven A with a Zippo lighter.

“I don’t see anything,” said Madame Rougneux.

“No! No!!” responded Lindquist. “He was there–outside.”

“I don’t see him.”

“He’s not there now. He must have gone off to plan more mischief.”

“It’s simply outrageous,” said Rougneux. “I don’t understand how they could have let him out. Those doctors are idiots. Their clinics are a joke.” He spluttered after every sentence. He seemed mean, and pleased with himself.

“They are all drug addicts, leftists, and that sort of thing,” said Tobie.

“Next time they ought to put him in an asylum,” said Mme Tobie.

“Be that as it may,” said Sinistrat, “don’t count on me to have him locked up.”

Later the realtor Lindquist, who already counts Aimée as someone who can be trusted for the solidarity of class interests notes that the local doctor, Sinistrat, has “nerve” showing up at the fish market opening. According to Lindquist, Sinistrat is a “sort of nihilist” who “votes for that Trotskyite Krivine.” Again this establishes the stratification of Bléville’s society: the masses on the bottom, and then the fiercely maintained layers of the bourgeoisie. Funnily enough while the new fish market is supposed to be “capable of toppling the barriers of social class,” the inauguration event seems designed to reinforce boundaries. This is just one of many examples of bourgeoise double-speak found in the novel.

A nod is given to the idea of politics as a meaningless form of expression–rather as one might select one perfume over another. We are told that there are two newspapers in Bléville:

One of them championed a left-capitalist ideology; the other championed a left-capitalist ideology.

Author Jean-Patrick Manchette, who is largely credited with reviving the crime genre in France was an admirer of Guy Debord and Situationist Theory, and we can see both The Society of the Spectacle and its détournement in the way Aimée, an assassin for-hire who appears to operate without an explicit political motive but for money alone, exploits capitalism by executing the wealthy. Capitalism eats itself.

In some ways Aimée seems to have sprung from the society she both feeds off of and destroys–one capitalist at a time. We know little of her past (although some information is revealed about how she got into the biz), and we know little of her motivations. We do, however, see her feeding greedily, and making a mess, as she guzzles on sauerkraut following a kill. Yet before a kill, she’s all business, eating very little, reading crime novels, and taking fencing and martial arts classes. It’s in her relationship with the very possibly insane Baron Jules that Aimée loses her bearings.  Perhaps this is because he blurs the lines of the classes and Aimée is confused by him:

“When I break this decanter of mine,” he said, “I’ll replace it with one with advertising on it.” He held out one of the glasses to Aimée, who reached for it with one hand as she continued toweling her hair with the other. “I am very interested in promotional items and free gifts,” continued the baron. “Also in trash. I have no income, you see, and a man with no income is bound to take a great interest in free gifts and trash.” He took a sip of brandy and clicked his tongue appreciatively. “Given the present state of the world, don’t you know, with the increase of constant capital as compared with variable capital, a whole stratum of the poor is bound to be unemployed and live off free gifts and trash, and occasionally off various government subsidies. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“I am not sure,” said Aimée.

There is some dark humour here–some found in the marvellous character of the misanthrope Baron Jules–a man who despises the bourgeoise of his community, but apart from punching out the bishop and urinating in inappropriate places in order to spoil their parties, he seems unsure of how to handle his contempt for the corrupt class he’s a part of. Then there’s the plaque inscribed with the words “Keep Your Town Clean” which seems an ironic call to action for Aimée as this is exactly what she does best. It’s interesting that the title is Fatale rather than Femme Fatale, but then Aimée is disinterested in sex, rebuffing advances and using her gender as a means of disarming both her prey and her clients.

There’s an afterword by Jean Echenoz placed at the end of the book. It’s placed there for a reason, and it’s best read after finishing this slim volume.

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Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

One good reason for readers to blog is to pick up book tips, and this exact scenario occurred recently when I visited Kevin’s blog and noted that no less than two other bloggers: Kim and Max both recommended Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (and yes it’s been made into a television film!). Kim compared Dirty Tricks to Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, and since that book was one of my favourite reads of 2011, that sealed the deal.

Dirty Tricks is narrated by a forty-year-old Oxford EFL teacher who pedals his “tenth-hand push-bike” from his shared flat in the slums of East Oxford to his pathetically underpaid job at the Oxford International Language College. It’s here that the narrator meets a married couple, the upwardly mobile and socially pretentious Parsons, accountant Dennis, “a wine bore of stupendous proportions,” and his sexually rapacious, PE teacher wife, Karen–a pencil-thin woman with a “large, predatory mouth, like the front-end grille on a cheap flashy motor.” After feeding Dennis’s wine snobbery, the narrator finds himself invited to a dinner party at the Parsons’ suburban home with the “lumpenbourgeoisie,” and he embarks on a sordid affair with Karen in which the biggest thrill comes not from orgasm but from the thrill of blatant coupling right under Dennis’s nose. After rubbing elbows with members of the consumer-driven middle-class, the narrator gets a taste of the good life, and following a holiday with the Parsons in a villa in the Dordogne, he decides it’s about time he moved up in the world…..

I wanted the lifestyle which other people of my age and education enjoyed but which I had forfeited because of the wayward direction given my life by the humanistic propaganda I was exposed to in my youth.  I didn’t crave fabulous riches or meaningless wealth, I simply wanted my due.

And just how Dibdin’s unnamed sociopathic protagonist decides to get his “due” is the subject of the novel, and since the tale is told by an unreliable narrator of classic proportions who refuses to play by society’s rules, Dirty Tricks is both transgressive and darkly comic.  The opening paragraphs of Dirty Tricks resembles a confession, but it’s not of course; this is a justification:

First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race–or at least pretend to pretend.

Thus begins the narrator’s hilarious confessional narrative in which he explains and justifies his actions. He tells us his side of this sordid tale of adultery, murder, and social-climbing while waffling on the precise version of events until he creates one he intends to stick to.  Part of the reason the novel works so well is that all of the characters are unpleasant, and when the homicidal EFL teacher, a seething mass of envy with a self-admitted “yen for married women” is unleashed in suburbia, the results are explosively funny and wicked. Dibdin takes us deftly into the mind of the sociopathic narrator, and here he is applying grandiosity to murder

It is striking that at a time when just about every other human value has been called into question, the value of life is still universally accepted as an absolute. Despite this, I have no qualms about admitting to men of your culture and experience that the demise of Dennis Parsons seemed to me to be jolly desirable.

With this narrator, Dibdin creates an awful human being who’s always full of unpleasant surprises and whose base actions are unspeakably low and self-serving. Now matter how awful the narrator is, I found myself laughing out loud at his twisted, sick thinking. Just when I thought the narrator had sunk to his lowest behaviour, there were endless disgraceful actions in store.

I’ve always made a point of borrowing money from women early in the relationship so as to give them a hold over me. It also helps when the time comes to break off the affair, because you can talk about the money instead of feelings and love and messy, painful stuff like that.

In true sociopathic style, the narrator ambushes the reader with his twisted logic. Here he is discussing the past of one of his EFL students, Garcia:

Trish had given me a brief account of the allegations against him, but just to be on the safe side I phoned Amnesty International, posing as a researcher for a TV current affairs programme. Their response was unequivocal, a detailed catalogue of union leaders, students, newspaper editors, civil rights workers,  Jews, feminists, priests and intellectuals tortured and murdered, a whole politico-socio-economic subgroup targeted and taken out. I was dismayed. With a record like that, Garcia might well regard the menial task I had to offer him as beneath his dignity.

In this extremely entertaining novel, our narrator leaves a trail of revenge, death and disaster and yet always sees himself as the victim–a simple man who merely tried to turn his life around, and as the crimes rack up, his justifications become more complex, skewed and hilariously wicked. Author Michael Dibdin’s journey into the mind of a sociopath would be chilling if not for the humour, and for this reader the very best parts of this terrific novel occur when the narrator mimics the emotional responses he knows society expects of him.

For Kim’s review, go here. Kim also liked Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

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Filed under Dibdin Michael, Fiction