Tag Archives: american crime fiction

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin (1953)

One of the most enthralling, creepiest books I have ever read, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is a chilling journey into the mind of psychopath, Bud Corliss, a good-looking, decorated WWII veteran who returns to his hometown as a hero but then finds that the normal, difficult slow paths to money and success are ‘beneath’ him. Starter jobs aren’t good enough and college “would only be an unnecessary stopover on the road to the success he was certain awaited him.” He moves to New York, but the world does not shower him with the recognition he thinks he deserves. 5 months and 6 jobs later there’s a period of “serious self-analysis,” (Levin’s ironic touch adds to this tale) with the result that Bud “took out his fountain pen and made what he considered to be a completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents.” He finds a rich, older widow and easily slips into the role of gigolo, but the widow has a series of toyboys all with a short shelf life. Following that experience, Bud plots to snare a wealthy young bride and moves to Blue River, Iowa to attend Stoddard College: “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.”

It looks as though Bud’s plans will be successful when he finds the insecure, needy Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper manufacturer. But there’s a hiccup in Bud’s plans when Dorothy announces she’s pregnant. Bud knows that Dorothy’s father is strict and that in light of the unexpected pregnancy, Dorothy will most likely be cut off from the family coffers. Bud decides his choices are: 1) to marry Dorothy, lose the fortune and end up working menial jobs with a wife and baby dragging him down, or 2) ditch Dorothy in which case he’s sure Mr Kingship will hunt him down and ensure Bud’s ruin. Then Bud decides that there’s a 3rd scenario: first come pills to bring on an abortion, but they don’t work (“why hadn’t the goddamn pills killed the girl?“) His anger at Dorothy builds as Bud sees his plans thwarted, and in his narcassistic mind, it’s all her “fault.” His justifications pile on like speed dominoes–after all he hadn’t really wanted sex… it was just to “seal” the deal. From this line of thought, murder is the next step. …

Bud is a list-maker, so throughout the novel he faithfully, coldly and calculatingly lists his plans with pros and cons, and it’s through these plans we see the twisted logic of the psychopathic mind. After Dorothy’s murder, which is ruled as a suicide due to Bud’s cold-blooded staging, Bud is at first thrilled by his own brilliance and the “flawless success of his plans. He should be walking on air, smiling at strangers, toasting himself with secret Champagne. Instead there was this dull, leaden letdown feeling. He couldn’t understand it.” Of course the letdown feeling is caused by the slowly dawning realization that without Dorothy, he’s back at square one. And after all that hard work too. “All that planning hadn’t advanced him in the slightest.”

Bud returns home to his doting, indulgent mother to lick his wounds. He works another boring job, but internally he’s advancing to the next stage of the game. Of course this all takes ‘study’ and preparation. Although the Dorothy ‘episode’ may have been a failure, he turns it into a brilliant success; he can’t help himself–it’s the self-love kicking in, and so he keeps a collection of his twisted plans. His depression begins to evaporate:

Towards the middle July, however, he began to slough off his dejection. He still had the newspaper clips about Dorothy’s death locked in the small grey strongbox he kept in his bedroom closet. He began taking them out once in a while, skimming through them smiling at the officious certainty of Chief of Police Eldon Chesser and the half-baked theorizing of Annabelle Koch. He dug up his old library card, had it renewed and began withdrawing books regularly; Pearson’s Studies in Murder, Bolitho’s Murder for Profit, volumes in the Regional Murder series. He read about Landru, Smith, Pritchard, Crippen. Men who had failed where he had succeeded. Of course it was only the failures whose stories got written–God knows how many successful ones there were. Still it was flattering to consider how many had failed. Until now, he had always thought of what happened at the Municpal building as Dorie’s death. Now he began to think of it as Dorie’s murder. Sometimes, when he had lain in bed and read several accounts in one of the books, the enormous daring of what he had done would overwhelm him. He would get up and look at himself in the mirror over the dresser. I got away with murder, he would think. Once he whispered it aloud. “I got away with murder!” So what if he wasn’t rich yet. Hell he was only 24.

When Dorothy’s guilt-ridden sister, Ellen suspects that Dorothy was murdered, she quietly begins an investigation. She uncovers a few male suspects and the wolfish behaviour of these young men sound alarm bells when in reality the danger is closer than she can imagine. Perhaps the greatest character here is DJ Gordon Gant, a man who meets Ellen and can’t forget her. His dogged persistence eventually costs him his job.  Although Gant has nothing to gain, and at great personal cost, he insists on giving Dorothy’s father, a man who has abdicated his parental role, a wake-up call. Bearers of bad news are typically seen as more trouble than the threat they report. Sometimes we want to bury our heads  in the sand and we must be dragged into reality kicking and screaming. While this is certainly true in this tale, it’s also true that the average person cannot conceive of the nature of Evil. An average person cannot imagine how a psychopath thinks, and this is one of the reasons this book is so powerful–we are privy to Bud’s twisted thinking, his objectification of other human beings and his monumental self-worship.

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Miami Blues: Charles Willeford (1984)

Frederick J. Frenger Jr., career criminal and a “blithe psychopath,” freshly released from his latest prison sentence, heads to Miami with a wallet full of stolen credit cards. He arrives at Miami airport with plans to steal luggage and hold up in a hotel room while he plans his big heist. When he’s hassled by a zealous Hare Krishna, Frenger reacts with violence and the Hare Krishna dies. So there’s Frenger’s explosive entrance into Miami, and when you see someone enter like that, you know they’re going to exit with a bang. Once in the hotel, Frenger, with the assistance of a ‘helpful’ bellman named Pablo, orders up a hooker, and this second action by Frenger tangles him in a cord of Fate. The waif-like hooker’s name is Pepper, and although she looks underage, she’s a 20 year-old college student named Susan Waggoner.

Why, Freddy wondered, is she lying to me? No college would ever accept this incredibly stupid young woman as a student. On the other hand, he had known a few college men in San Quentin. Although they usually got the best jobs there, they didn’t appear to be any smarter than the majority of the cons.

Needing a car and a place to stay, Frenger decides to play house with Susan, claiming they will have a platonic marriage. Susan is a lousy prostitute and the stupidest one Frenger has ever met. Still she suits his plans and she’s disposable. In the meantime, Homicide detective Hoke Moseley begins investigating the murder of the Hare Krishna. It’s an odd murder and Hoke is interested in how it occurred. As he approaches the investigation, Hoke inadvertently and unknowingly spins into Frenger’s path. Frenger hates cops and so he decides to ‘fix’ Hoke.

Miami Blues has Charles Willeford’s signature dry savage wit. The humour here comes partly from Susan’s naivety and stupidity. She’s pimped out by her brother, and there’s a whole back story here I won’t give away, but I could swear I heard the background music from Deliverance whenever Susan tells her sad story. With her offer of free blowjobs and giving Pablo a 50/50 cut, it’s clear this career is not for Susan. She’s a bizarre mix of character traits: naïve and innocent–yet utterly corrupted, stupid and yet a survivor. Sometimes innocence opens the gates of hell and sometimes innocence gives you a free pass:

Freddy unwrapped the bath sheet and dropped it on the floor. He probed her pregreased vagina with the first three fingers of his right hand. He shook his head and frowned.

“Not enough friction there for me,he said. “I’m used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?

“No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much, I just can’t do it. I can give you a blow-job if you like.”

“That’s okay, but I’m not all that interested anyway. You really should learn to take it in the ass You’ll make more money, and if you learn to relax–“

That’s what Pablo said but I can’t.”

The sardonic humour comes from the telling of this tale and in the portrayal of Hoke, a great series character whose life is a wreck. He’s divorced, handing over half his paycheck in alimony, living in a flophouse motel, trying to hang onto his false teeth (his abscessed teeth were removed in the morgue by the local pathologist). The teeth have quite a role to play in this violent tale. Hoke isn’t a humorous character, but it gets to the point that he’s beaten down so far you can’t see the nailhead. The novel spins around these three characters: Hoke, the slow-moving, low-key thorough detective, Susan, the world’s stupidest prostitute, and Frenger whose vicious acts carve a path of destructive violence. This is a man who is capable of the most brutal acts and the brutality isn’t relative to the provocation–Frenger, who thinks all his mistakes in life can be chalked up to his “altruism,” doesn’t possess a ‘scale of response.’

It took Hoke twenty minutes to find his teeth, but they had landed in a cluster of screw-leaved crotons and weren’t damaged. He put them into a fresh glass of water with another helping of polident and wondered what in the hell he was going to do next.

This is hard-boiled detective fiction: violence and sex. But in this novel, they are the same thing.

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The Evil Days: Bruno Fischer (1973)

In Bruno Fischer’s crime novel, The Evil Days, a married couple are on the Straight and Narrow until a bag of jewels introduces greed, sex and sin into suburbia. I love the theme of respectable citizens so easily derailed as it argues that honesty and decency exist simply due to lack of alternatives. One whiff of opportunity and morality, ethics, whatever are tossed to the curb.

Caleb Dawson, associate editor for a New York publisher, has the very typical life of a married suburbanite. Years earlier, Caleb and his sexy, avaricious, discontented wife Sally moved to the suburbs where they now live in a dull little tract home with their two dull little children. The move was a decision based on affordability, and no doubt that ever-elusive ‘quality of life’ issue was wrapped up in there somewhere too:

We lived in one of fourteen ranch-style houses lined up on both sides of the street. The houses were not quite identical. Some had garages on the right and some on the left; some had fixed black shutters on off-white shingles and some had white shutters on gray shingles. All had three bedrooms, and a dinette that merged into the living room, and an up-to-date kitchen wide enough for two skinny people, and a cement-block playroom in the basement. In the six years since we had bought it for more than we could afford, taxes had doubled, and in another twenty-four years (when I would be sixty-two), the mortgage would be paid off.

Every morning Caleb takes the 7:52 commuter train. And every evening Sally drives their sole vehicle, a station wagon, back to the station to meet Caleb from the 5:27 pm train. Life is a treadmill, and that makes Caleb either the hamster on the relentless wheel or a prisoner: you choose.

One day is exactly like another until the evening Sally starts acting weird, nervous and jumpy. At first she won’t tell Caleb what’s going on, but soon she confesses that she found a bag of jewelry outside of the bank. While Caleb’s first impulse is turn in the jewelry to the police, Sally persuades Caleb to delay–arguing that they should at least profit from a reward. Caleb, as village trustee, is in a unique position to monitor a theft/loss report, but things become far more complicated when he discovers that the jewelry belongs to his boss, Mr. Martaine’s wife, Norma.

Of course there are many questions rooted into the basic plot. How did Mrs. Martaine manage to lose her jewelry? How on earth are the Dawsons going to claim a reward without revealing that they have held on to the gems? Things are complicated enough but all hell breaks loose with the murder of a local playboy/poet. Suddenly, this boring little corner of suburbia is a hotbed of riotous sex, peeping toms, and voracious housewives.

The novel flings around some interesting numbers that reflect the cost of living and wages during the ugliness of the 70s. Fischer manages to slide in some criticism about the publishing industry through Caleb who fumes over his relatively low standard of living in relation of others in the work force. I didn’t like any of the characters and didn’t find them particularly interesting. The fun here is the way in which Fischer deftly shifts gears from boredom, routine and dissatisfied domestication to sex, greed and murder in the suburbs. The possibility of newfound wealth unleashes both Caleb and Sally, and there’s the underlying idea that the Dawsons each buried some of the more unpleasant aspects of their respective natures–at least from each other for years. With the jewelry adding temptation, wage slave Caleb finds that his resentments float to the surface and that Sally has hidden depths–none of them are good:

Then she began to move and turn and undulate like a belly dancer, watching herself all the time in the mirror. There was something quite unfamiliar about that familiar body, a hothouse lushness that seemed to have changed it in subtle ways–something unfamiliar about the sensuous smile directed at her naked image. And she was different. She had never before had a quarter of a million dollars of jewels on her flesh, and the erotic effect they had on her in the mirror reached out to me at the window.

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After I’m Gone: Laura Lippman

“Did you know the more we tell a story, the more degraded it becomes? Factually, I mean. It’s like taking a beloved but fragile object out of a box and turning it over in your hands. You damage it every time.”

63 -year-old retired Baltimore homicide detective ‘Sandy’ Sanchez now works on cold case crimes for the city. The pay isn’t great, but it keeps him busy and gives him the semblance of a life. With his wife dead, and his only son institutionalized, Sandy understands that solving cold cases brings some sense of meaning to his life.

There are no shortage of cold case crimes, but when the book opens, Sandy selects the unsolved murder of Julie Saxony for his attention. Although Sandy prefers to work on the cases of elderly victims, there’s something about the Julie Saxony case that catches his interest. Julie, a one-time stripper, cleaned up her act when her married boyfriend, Felix Brewer, who was facing a long term prison sentence, disappeared in 1976. Rumour has it that Julie helped Felix flee the country. Rumour also has it that Felix left her a wad of cash. While Bambi Brewer, Felix’s wife, floundered with no income stream, Julie morphed from stripper to coffee shop owner once Felix skipped town. Ten years later, in 1986, Julie was on the verge of opening an upscale inn complete with restaurant when she disappeared off the face of the planet. Many people assumed she’d finally joined Felix in exile, but when Julie’s body was found in 2001, that rumour was laid to rest.

After I'm gone

So Sandy begins digging into Julie’s murder which is, of course, connected to Felix’s flight so many years earlier. Reading the files, Sandy concludes that with this case, with this victim, there are  “really two stories, parallel universes.” On one hand here’s Julie Romeo, stripper, and then years later, Julie “respectable business owner.” As he works through the evidence, Sandy encounters a range of people who knew Julie in both of her lives; there’s her sister who’s not telling the whole story, and Julie’s former chef who swears Julie never mentioned Felix and yet he knows a lot of details. There’s also Julie’s friend, a stripper turned housewife, and Felix’s bail bondsman, Tubby Schroeder, who now lords it over the ladies in assisted living.  Tubby is a slippery character, and he obviously knows more than he’s saying. Yet he doesn’t entirely clam up either:

He didn’t answer. He was a smart guy. Smart enough not to talk to a cop at all, if it came to that. But something–Sandy’s not-quite-cop status, Tubby’s boredom in his plush nest–made him want to play this game. More challenging than bridge with a bunch of wistful ladies. 

Sandy is a great character–a man who feels that he failed his wife and son and clings to the detective work he’s good at. He’s calm, non-confrontational and as he talks to these witnesses about a decades old crime, Sandy learns that sometimes it’s not what people say, but how they say it, or what they leave out. 

She knew something. He wasn’t sure what it was, or if she even realized she had something of significance to share He’d prefer that she be a liar, actually. You could break down a liar. 

Sandy also questions Felix’s wife, Bambi, a beautiful trophy, a high-maintenance woman abandoned by her husband. With no money (and yes what happened to Felix’s money btw?), Bambi brings up their three daughters alone, convinced that her philandering hubbie left his mistress every rotten penny. Bambi’s three daughters grow up with memories of a larger-than-life man who apparently adored them yet who easily abandoned them, severing ties completely. 

I’m a Laura Lippman fan, and After I’m Gone written with great sensitivity, is one of her best IMO. Just as Sandy finds that there are two parallel universes in Julie’s life, there are two sets of characters–those who knew Julie in her stripper life and those who knew of her from their cushier nests. These rich, three-dimensional characters leap off the pages almost as though they were waiting for Sandy to come and ask the questions that went unanswered for so long. Some of those questioned by Sandy had things to hide when Julie first disappeared; others held back information as it didn’t seem relevant or they were protective of Julie. Others have had a shift in attitude as the years ground on or simply no longer have anything to lose. There’s Bambi’s best friend, a lawyer’s pampered wife, Lorraine, living in a home of “ruthless perfection” who reveals she knew more about Julie than initially discovered, and then there’s Julie’s best friend whose loyalty has been honed into a searing honesty.  As Sandy moves around Baltimore digging up the past, he confronts his own memories and demons.

Felix appears in the first pages before he does a bunk, and even in his absence, as the book goes back and forth in time, Felix dominates the story.  His abandonment and disappearance force his daughters and his wife to confront the uglier aspects of his life–that his stripper mistresses “were like Cadillacs to him.” “He drove them for two to three years and traded them in.” 

How did this selfish, self-focused man get so many women to love him? His disappearance left a huge void in the lives of those women, and it’s sad as quite frankly he wasn’t worth a tear.

There’s always been this stupid fiction that he comes back, like some benevolent spirit.

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Nothing Can Hurt You: Nicola Maye Goldberg

“At a certain point, you realize the world is so bad, that it’s easier to pretend that people deserve the terrible things that befall them. That way, at least, you can pretend that you are safe.”

In a series of interconnected stories centered on the murder of a college student, Nothing Can Hurt You from Nicola Maye Goldberg sensitively examines the fallout from the crime. In 1997, Sara Morgan is  horrifically murdered by her boyfriend, Blake Campbell, and when Blake pleads guilty by temporary insanity, he is acquitted. But this doesn’t end the story for those who are involved, touched, and haunted by Sara’s death in one way or another.

Nothing can hurt you

The book begins strongly with an opening section from a young, damaged married woman named Marianne. She’s moved to upstate New York along with her husband, and while their new idyllic home makes it seem that they “had wandered into a painting,” the darkness in Marianne’s head remains. There are hints that the root cause of her “episodes” lies buried deep in her past. Yes you can move to the country, buy a big house, and get a dog, but these are just the trappings of normalcy. Marianne is damaged and nothing’s going to change that.

It’s Marianne who finds Sara’s body in the woods. There’s some debate whether Sara was the victim of serial killer, John Logan, who operated in the area, but Blake Campbell’s confession eradicates that theory. As the book continues we meet characters who are caught in the ripples that form in the wake of Sara’s murder. Many of the characters knew both the victim and the killer, and find it impossible to align the events that took place. And what of Blake who walked away from the murder and spent a short time in an upscale Rehab center? 

Katherine, an alcoholic, meets Blake at the Paradise Lake Recovery Center. He’s young, handsome and a reader like Katherine. Katherine hears the “gossip” that Blake murdered Sara, but she finds it hard to believe that Blake is capable of such violence. Blake’s friend, Sam, the owner of the knife used to kill Sara is still haunted by her death. He’s plagued by bad dreams, dissects the past to try to look for clues he missed about Blake, and even now, years later, the murder stains Sam’s personal life. 

In this chorus of voices, there’s a third circle of people–not family, not friends, but still people touched by the crime. During the trial of serial killer, John Logan, Juliet, a reporter who works for a small local paper in upstate New York meets Celeste, a veteran NY reporter who’s feeling burnout from all the violence. Juliet, at the beginning of her career becomes obsessed with Sara’s murder

“How so they manage it? Serial Killers?” I asked Celeste once. “I can barely keep my shit together, and I only have one job.” I was having a lot of days when things like showering and buying groceries seemed not only pointless but basically impossible.

“It energizes them,” she said, without hesitation. “They’re at work, they’re waiting in line at the DMV, whatever, and they’re thinking about what they’ve done, what they’re going to do. It’s how they get through the day.”

The families of the victim and the killer are at ground zero when the murder occurs. Sara’s half-sister, Luna grows up in the wake of the murder and eventually cuts herself off from her family. Blake’s family “hired a lawyer, a good one, from New York, to represent their son. Did that make them bad parents? Bad people?” Blake’s sister, Gemma, has managed to detach herself from her family, but she wonders if her daughter is headed for inherited mental illness. A young girl writes to the manipulative serial killer, and Sara’s mother, who years later is a psychic, is called in on the disturbing case of a missing child:

The Stoddards live in what used to be a farmhouse. It’s big for three people. which makes Jonathan think they wanted more children. They moved up here from New York before William was born, probably to escape the terrors and temptations of the city. Inside, it’s beautifully decorated with thick, soft carpets and silver doorknobs. But it smells slightly off, like rotting fruit. On a table by the front door is a crystal vase full of nothing but dirty water.  

Threading through the stories is the dark, inexplicable nature of violence. There’s random violence against strangers, and then there’s violence against people we say we cherish the most. We look for reasons for violence–not just the solution to a crime, and that’s what’s so disturbing about Sara’s murder; there are no answers.

Some victims stay victims but others … well others who face monsters learn what they are capable of. As Josephine Hart writes in Damage“Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” Marianne shows just how dangerous she can be when another man makes a clumsy pass. It was at this early point in the book, that I knew I was reading something special. 

The snow had fallen so heavily overnight that Ted could not get his car out of our driveway. He and my husband spent all day watching TV, playing Risk, and drinking whiskey. They ate leftovers. I pretended to be busy in bed with a book, when I was really sitting with the emptiness. For the first time I longed for one of my visions. I wanted to see Ted’s head crack open, to see myself scooping out his brain with my fingernails.

Brilliant.

Review copy

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More Better Deals: Joe R. Lansdale

“Some people pave a short way to hell.”

In Joe Lansdale’s hard-boiled noir novel, More Better Deals, it’s Texas in the 60s and Ed, a used car salesman makes a marginal living pushing junkers on a used car lot. There are a few tricks of the trade: moving the odometer back, blacking tires, plugging holes in the transmission. But a deal’s a deal, and Ed doesn’t have trouble sleeping nights even though he knows most of the customers have been ripped off. Boss Smiling Dave, “about two hundred and fifty pounds of lard on a five-foot frame mounted on tiny feet, had a cheap pistol”  in his desk just in case any of the customers think they have a complaint. Smiling Dave’s advice:

Don’t grow a conscience., Ed. It’s bad for your bank account. You know what they say. Buyer beware, and better you fucked than me.

Customers are suckers, and every sale presents an opportunity to screw someone over and grab a commission. It’s a marginal life, and Ed’s in a rut. His mother, a bitter alcoholic wreck, thinks that Ed can do better since he can ‘pass’ for white, so there’s nagging pressure to improve his life and the life of his sister. And one day the opportunity for Ed to get ahead comes knocking in the shape of a cheap blonde who’s behind on her car payments.

More better deals

Ed tries to repo a red Cadillac and runs right into Nancy Craig, a “blond in a cheap out-of-the-bottle way.” Barely dressed, cocktail in hand, she invites Ed inside her home and claims that her abusive husband, a travelling encyclopedia salesman is on the road, presumably with the Cadillac. Nancy, hardly an oppressed housewife, oozes sex and availability; “she could make Billy Graham pull down his pants and jack off in five o’clock traffic.” Nancy and her husband own a run-down drive-in and a pet cemetery, and to Ed, it’s a sweet deal; get the blonde, the drive-in and the cemetery. Frank, Nancy’s gorilla of a husband is in the way of that plan of course, but a few sweaty hot sexual encounters later and Ed signs on for murder.

Nancy is a bad woman, but that doesn’t stop Ed. Since he’s ok with ripping off customers, he’s apparently also unperturbed by Nancy’s explanation of how to run a pet cemetery.

Be honest with you, Ed, what we found out is digging a hole is work. So we mound the dirt up a little, scrape some here or there and make it look like a grave, then we take the beloved off in the woods and throw it in a ditch somewhere.

That would be a hint to make a run for it, but Ed is too wrapped up in the hot sex to hear alarm bells. 

It may sound as though More Better Deals is a typical noir novel–perhaps it even sounds like something you’ve read before: the bad blonde, an inconvenient husband, and a murder plot. In the hands of Joe Lansdale, however, this book is something special. A simple debt collection launches our narrator into hell–he may think he’s landing a sweet deal, but in this tale of greed, lust and murder, just who is screwing who is up for grabs. Lansdale laces this tale with some wonderful touches, violent cops, crude sex and a narrator who’s bad but not as bad as he needs to be. For Lansdale fans, I think this is one of his best, and for anyone who’d like to read a hardboiled noir novel, go no further.

They throw the switch and the devil is showing you your hotel room.

Review copy

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I Married a Dead Man: Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Helen, 8 months pregnant, penniless and abandoned, boards the sleeper train. She’s hit rock bottom, and fruitless attempts to contact the father of her child result only in an envelope containing a 5 dollar bill and a one-way ticket from New York to San Francisco. Even though there’s no note, the message is clear.

Once on the train, she meets a young couple, happy, very much in-love, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, who are travelling to Hugh’s family. They’ve yet to meet Patrice. Patrice is also pregnant, and stuck travelling in an over-crowded train together, Patrice generously befriends Helen. Even though Helen doesn’t share her story, it’s clear that she’s down on her luck. A terrible accident occurs, and Patrice, Hugh and their unborn baby are killed while Helen survives. Thanks to the fact that Helen had tried on, and was still wearing Patrice’s ring when the accident happened, Helen wakes up in hospital and discovers that due to a mix-up everyone thinks she’s Patrice.

I married a dead man

Helen isn’t a bad person, and she doesn’t intentionally set out to deceive anyone. But Hugh’s parents have arranged for a private room for the daughter-in-law (now with a baby) they never met. Along with the private room come flowers and baskets of fruit. With just 17 cents to her name, Helen, drugged up to the eyeballs, finds it easier to go along with the case of mistaken identity.

But one thing leads to another, and Helen is taken to the Hazzard home. Surrounded with the loving, affluent family Helen doesn’t have, she goes along with the deception mainly for her son’s sake. Soon she’s in so deep, it’s impossible to say where this will end. Hugh’s parents have already been devastated by their son’s death, but they carry on knowing that they have a grandson. The story isn’t just about Helen anymore: she has other people to consider–people who will be brokenhearted again.

It’s not easy to step into someone else’s shoes and Helen makes a couple of errors; no one seems to notice–except for Hugh’s brother Bill who isn’t as blinded by grief as his parents. Then the louse who abandoned pregnant Helen, smelling money, reappears like a wolf hunting his prey.

The book starts slowly and it’s not until chapter 4 and the train trip that things take off, but then the book takes shape. In this noir tale, Helen’s life looks bleak but then Fate takes a hand with the death of Patrice, Hugh and their baby. Helen steps into Patrice’s shoes, but it’s an uneasy existence, and it seems just a matter of time before events comes crashing down on Helen. And Fate seems to deal Helen a cruel hand once again–giving her what she thought she wanted back in New York.

And here’s a fantastic quote about Fate–always central to noir:

What makes you stop, when you have stopped, just where you have stopped? What is it, what? Is it something, or is it nothing? Why not a yard short, why not a yard more? Why just there, where you are, and nowhere else?

Some say: It’s just blind chance, and if you hadn’t stopped there, you would have stopped at the next place. Your story would have been different then. You weave your own story as you go along.

But others say: You could not have stopped any place else but this even if you wanted to. It was decreed, it was ordered, you were meant to stop at this spot, and no other. Your story is there waiting for you, it has been waiting for you there a hundred years, long before you were born, and you cannot change a comma of it. Everything you do, you have to do. You are the twig, and the water you float on swept you here. You are the leaf and the breeze you were borne on blew you here. This is your story, and you cannot escape it; you are only the player, not the stage manager. Or so some say.

For this reader, Helen isn’t a particularly interesting character, but the plot is fantastic; when we meet Helen, she’s beaten down by life. The train wreck appears to flip Helen’s fortunes, but it seems unsavoury that anyone would profit from the death of a young married couple and their unborn child. Helen is never comfortable with the deception, she’s not a grifter looking for an easy buck–she’s waiting for the ax to drop. Again. 

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Four Novellas of Fear: Cornell Woolrich

The collection Four Novellas of Fear from Cornell Woolrich is aptly named. Woolrich creates four domestic scenarios that tap into primal terror. Here’s the line-up

Eyes That Watch You

The Night I Died

You’ll Never See Me Again

Murder Always Gathers Momentum

Eyes That Watch You is the story of a paralyzed wheelchair bound woman who overhears her daughter-in-law, Vera, plotting to murder her son. Without the power of speech and unable to move, she is helpless to stop the crime. Given the woman’s incapacity, this is a story that in other hands could have lacked tension, but it’s the pure callous savagery of the plotters that knocks a powerful punch:

Just see that he soaks up enough, and you can bet all the oxygen in the world won’t pull him through. Watch his face. When that gets good and blue, all mottled, you got nothing more to worry about. 

For me, The Night I Died was the weakest of the bunch. This is the story of a married man who goes from marriage and dead-end job to murder, insurance scam and stolen identity all in one night:

The point about me is: that I should stay on the right side of the fence all those years, and then when I did go over, go over heart and soul like I did–all in the space of one night. In one hour, you might say.

I liked the story’s premise: a married man comes home unexpectedly from work and finds his wife plotting his murder. Nice. Things go downhill from there. The narrator/husband’s decisions seemed a little implausible given that he can’t trust his wife to the slightest degree. Murder is one way to end life, but handing it over to someone you can’t trust is another.

Four novellas of fear

You’ll Never See Me Again is the longest story in the book, and again Woolrich taps into a primal fear when he creates a nightmarish situation involving a missing wife. Newlyweds argue about the wife’s baking and she takes off into the night and disappears . …

Murder Always Gathers Momentum is the story of Paine, a married man who goes to his boss to claim his wages. The encounter ends in murder and murder having been done once… This story shows Woolrich’s skill at pacing for the tale seems to speed up with each murder as Paine rushes towards his violent fate. 

My favorite was Eyes That Watch You. Woolrich really ramps up the fear factor with this tale. It’s terrifying to imagine being paralyzed but even more terrifying to be paralyzed, overhear a plot to murder your child and be unable to stop it. ….

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Wild Town: Jim Thompson (1957)

Jim Thompson’s tale of corruption,  Wild Town feels like a much earlier novel than The Killer Inside Me which was published 5 years earlier in 1952. The Killer Inside Me remains one of my favourite  Thompson novels, while Wild Town doesn’t feel as mature, as polished and certainly not as dark. Yet both novels feature Lou Ford. It was actually somewhat surreal to read about Wild Town‘s Lou Ford while The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford lurked in my memory, but enough of that; onto the plot.

Wild town

The Wild Town of the title is a Texas oil boom town with Lou Ford as the local chief deputy sheriff. It’s the sort of place where men are expected to get drunk and get into fights, so local law enforcement is more about limiting damage.  The town itself is rowdy and not built for permanence. “Practically all the structures were temporary–built as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible.” The town’s one hotel, the Hanlon Hotel, is a fourteen storey building where everyone turns a blind eye to various shenanigans. It’s hardly a respectable joint, but it’s not a fleabag hotel either. And this is where our main character Bugs McKenna comes in.

McKenna is fresh out of prison. His life story is a series of missteps, and he’s aware that one more mistake will land him in prison for the rest of his life. He arrives in town and is promptly thrown in jail, but then a strange thing happens. The sheriff, Lou Ford points him towards a job as the house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.

McKenna, who is used to being labelled as a jailbird, distrusts Lou Ford’s friendly, good ‘ol boy manner. (So did I.)

He was about thirty, the chief deputy. He wore a pinkish-tan shirt, with a black, clip-on bowtie, and blue serge pants. The cuffs of the trousers were tucked carelessly into the top of his boots. In Bug’s book, he stacked up about the same-in appearance-as any county clown.

His black, glossy hair was combed in a straight-back pompadour. His high-arched brows gave his face a droll, impish look. A long thin cigar was clamped between his teeth.

McKenna takes the job, and he finds that he likes having security, likes being able to shower and shave, and likes the hot coffee brought to his room every morning. The job, however, is not without its problems: first someone is stealing money from the hotel, and then the owner’s sexually rapacious wife, Joyce is determined to seduce McKenna.

While the plot sounds good, the book has its flaws. McKenna and Ford are both interesting creations but I found it impossible not to connect ‘this’ Ford with the Ford of The Killer Inside Me (a far superior novel). Also, there are a couple of bellboys who are cartoonish, and then there’s a lot of good-ol boy hee-haw slang going on which gets annoying after a while. I’d consider this a lesser Jim Thompson, so if you haven’t read any, I’d suggest you start elsewhere. Still if you’re a die-hard Thompson fan, you won’t be able to resist:

“Aw, heck. Gosh all fish-hooks. Gee willikers,” drawled Ford. “and here we-all thought we had you fooled.” 

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Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)

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