Tag Archives: Texas

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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The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

“Everything that happened to you before you got here has either been forgotten or is better off forgotten.”

Adam Sternbergh’s book The Blinds is set in a remote bleached-out, dusty town called Caesura– a fenced area in Kettle County, Texas, “the third least populous county” in America. Caesura, a secret facility created by the Justice Department and maintained by the murky Fell Corporation, does not exist on any map or census, but its existence is the subject of internet speculation–“chatter of secret government camps and black helicopters, mind experiments and covert crackdowns.” The town is set inside a perimeter fence. There’s no hospital, no school, but then only one child lives there. There’s a rundown-trailer for the sheriff, a structure that serves as a bar, and a small library for those who can muster the energy to read. The town is run on a cash-less basis, but there’s a commissary, which has groceries delivered once a week, and a laundromat. There’s no internet, no phones, and only two cars–the sheriff’s pickup and another in case of emergencies.  The residents can leave if they want, but they do so at their own peril. It’s well known that a woman left with her son some years ago, and it didn’t end well.

The Blinds

So who lives in this sunbleached hellhole? Who are the residents of Caesura or the Blinds as it is otherwise known?

She looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their identical cinderblock bungalows, each with the same slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it all grow wild and just wait for whatever’s coming next. 

The residents are a blend of career criminals, the worst sort of scum–hired killers, serial killers, epic child molesters and even a few ‘innocents’ as they are called who were offered a way out for certain testimony. Instead of going into the Witness Protection programme, they disappeared, with new names, into Caesura, but only after having their memories wiped by The Fell Corporation. Over the years, and Caesura’s been in existence for eight years now, the memory wipe has been perfected.

He remembers something vaguely, as a kid, with his dad, in a dusty basement, with small windows, and the sound of tools clattering, but that’s where his memory gets ragged. Orson’s case, the doctors told him before he entered the town, was a deep dive; the relevant memories required something like a root canal for his brain. Plus he was one of the early ones, the original eight, back before they’d perfected the precision of the technique. Some of the newer people, they remember almost everything–childhoods, first crushes, wives, kids–except for the part of their lives they chose to forget.  With Orson, they scoured most of his memories, just to be sure.

So here you have a town full of vicious killers whose memories of their past mis-deeds have been wiped away. What can possibly go wrong?

That’s what happens when you wipe out a big chunk of a person’s memories: Fear breeds in the empty space that’s left behind.

Caesura, with its community of memory wiped villains has run smoothly for the past eight years, but cracks begin to appear. One resident commits suicide, and while the act itself isn’t a shocker, it’s the fact that a gun was used that is unsettling since “theoretically at least,” Sheriff Cooper is the only one who is supposed to have a gun. Then Cooper’s long-term deputy left in a hurry after the suicide, and he’s been replaced by Dawes, a woman who begins digging into loose ends. ….

Sheriff Cooper, the story’s anti-hero, is laid back and laconic, a style which causes him to project a lazy mind, but in reality he has the perfect temperament to run this hellhole. His temperament also matches the plot which unfolds layer upon layer.

Now he stands at a remove from the body in question, studying the scene with the weary air of a man who’s returned from  particularly tedious errand to find that his car’s been keyed.

To say more about the plot would ruin this book for others. I’ll add that Sternbergh’s style meshes perfectly with this dark tale that is creative and yet also oddly possible at the same time. The Blinds has to be one of the most unusual, interesting and creative books I’ve read this year. There are a couple of loose ends at the end of the story, but that’s relatively minor. It’s not often I come across a book and find myself thinking ‘this is really different,’ but Sternbergh created something new and plausible here.

Someone…. please… option this book for a television series

Review copy

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There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme

When is thinking carefully cowardice? When is avoidance cowardice? Is it cowardly to evade and dodge, to leave by the side door, to step out of the way? Is it fear that makes a person behave ‘properly’ and in accordance with one or another code of conduct?”

American author Frederick Barthelme whose work is described as Dirty Realism or K-Mart Realism has a reputation for setting books in the New South.  There Must Be Some Mistake (and I’ll admit that I was attracted by the book’s cover) is the story of Wallace Webster, a divorced, retired architect. Wallace lives in one of the “prestigious” Forgetful Bay condos in Kemah (“halfway between Houston and Galveston“), Texas and more or less leads the sort of life he wants. His first wife died of cancer, his second wife Diane inherited a sizeable stash from her father and now lives on Rhode Island, and his college age daughter Morgan drifts in and out of his life. Jilly, a former workmate also visits, and with Jilly the relationship is a bit murky. There’s an attraction there, but Jilly is still damaged from her marriage which was “like TV show nasty, true crime nasty” to the ubiquitous Cal, a “tough piece of business.” Neither Jilly nor Wallace seem willing to make a move on the attraction and are happy to keep their relationship as an easy friendship.

there must be some mistakeThe book begins by setting the pace of  Wallace’s life, and although this is a man who could harbor bitterness towards some of the events in his life (his first wife, a singer died of  cancer, he was elbowed out of his business by his partners) Wallace is a very well balanced individual, content to enjoy his life and his free time. We realize that Wallace has an enviable life in many ways–it’s peaceful, bucolic even, and he has the means to do what he chooses.

All this peace and quiet begins to shift when a series of mysterious events occur in the condo community. First Wallace’s neighbor crashes his car in a deadly accident which claims his life, and then another resident Chantal White is “found in her kitchen, her hands bound with picture-hanging wire from the back of her prize art print and blue paint smeared all over her.” These are the first two things that occur, and it’s just the beginning. While the residents of the HOA aren’t exactly dropping like flies, it does become a whose-next scenario. As various crimes are investigated, Wallace finds the police presence “oddly reassuring. Like your life imitating television–murders and drive-bys and robberies and whatever happening to people all around you.”

For a few weeks the police were all over the neighborhood like mice. They were asking questions, coming in twos to everyone’s door, inviting themselves in, sitting on the edges of sofas and wing chairs with their little tablets, little flip books where they took notes whether the interviewees knew a thing or not.

With the police now frequent visitors to the condo development, Wallace finds himself becoming involved with the mysterious Chantal White, a woman whose murky past isn’t quite as buried as she’d like it to be. Chantal is the owner of a architecturally unique restaurant called Velodrome, and Wallace is just as drawn to Chantal’s restaurant as he is to her. It’s through his relationship with Chantal that Wallace chews over a great deal of his past choices.

There Must Be Some Mistake initially carefully creates an atmosphere which reflects the security of Wallace’s life in the Forgetful Bay Estate. This is a community where the highest stakes seem to be who is going to run the HOA. Wallace’s neighbors, for the most part, appear to be a boring bunch of middle class, middle-aged Americans whose priorities are status, gossip and lawn care. Wallace’s divorce is amicable, his daughter presents no problems, and his life is predictably safe. His laid-back lifestyle emphasizes internet searches, facebook status, TCM, lazy daytrips, Target shopping  and visits to “finer eateries.” But underneath the surface of this easy-going life, strange things begin to happen on the Forgetful Bay Estate. …

Through his characters, author Frederick Barthelme asks  ‘how well do we know anybody? How well do we know ourselves?’ Lulled into a false sense of security, this reader was unprepared for the direction the novel began to take as Wallace finds himself involved with the “comfortably weathered” “hard as nails” Chantal White at her restaurant, Velodrome:

We got back late and the bar was lit up with floods high on the telephone poles in the lot and I got the midnight view–the building was like a giant rock, made out of that blow-it-on concrete that people make odd-shaped buildings with, except here the shape wasn’t geometric, it was like a boulder the size of a small hay barn, all chiseled planes, small cliffs. irregular flat spots, poorly framed square holes for the windows, and what looked to be a small Airstream trailer stuck up on top. Homemade architecture, what we once called ad hoc design.

Chantal exemplifies the novel’s theme that even your neighbor, a person you think you know, can hide the deepest secrets, and when Chantal’s performance artist daughter Tinker arrives on the scene, things only get stranger for Wallace.  All the mysteries of the novel are not solved by its conclusion, and while in the hands of another author, There Must be Some Mistake would become a dramatic murder mystery, instead Barthelme veers away from the predictable and gives us a marvelous novel that is a reflection of, and a meditation on, modern life: from Trayvon Martin, reality TV, google searches, celebrity and junk culture. Some people disliked the ending, but for this reader, the ending matched the novel’s optimistic tone while embracing the realities, the unexpected and the mysteries of life.

And here’s a final quote I loved from one of Wallace’s neighbor’s:

So I’m looking forward to social security, know what I’m saying, and I run into this woman in the hardware store. She’s buying a set of wrenches, good ones, too. So she asks me a couple questions, and I act like I know from wrenches, which I oughta, and maybe I even did at one time, back in the old days, but the thing is I’m thinking sixty-one is not much different from fifty-nine, even fifty-five, but it’s night and day to fifty. Fifty you’re still alive, still a functioning cog in the system. There are parts to play, deals to make, women to bed. you can still sell yourself to the ones that remind you what pretty women look like, what god skin in, and the rest. But it goes downhill after that. Some guys keep up the pretense, but I never could.

Review copy.

 

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The Killer Inside Me: Jim Thompson (1952)

“I guess I kind of got a foot on both fences, Johnnie. I planted them there early and now they’ve taken root, and I can’t move either way and I can’t jump. All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle.”

When I decided to hold a Jim Thompson noir fest, the first thing I had to do was narrow down which books to read. I had no idea that Thompson had written so many, so for the final tally, I ended up selecting books with a film connection as well as a couple of titles that stuck out for some reason (A Swell Looking Babe, now how could I pass that up?). I decided to start with The Killer Inside Me. This is not Thompson’s first novel, but it seems to be the one that unleashed some sort of creative power; after its publication, Thompson’s production rate picked up dramatically. The Killer Inside Me had been sitting on my shelf for some years, and since I saw the film version in 2010, this was the novel I was most curious about. I’d read a lot of hype about it and wasn’t too sure it would live up to its reputation.

What was I thinking? The book is fantastic. But I’ll add a caution to that–not everyone wants to read a book written from the perspective of a total psycho.

The Killer Inside Me is a deeply unsettling read. The narrator is Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in the small Texas town of Central City. It’s one of those sleepy towns where nothing much ever happens, and everyone knows everyone’s business and past history. There’s one main wealthy family whose patriarch, Chester Conway, has a finger in every pie. Lou Ford is the son of the local doctor (now deceased), and Lou lives alone in his father’s home. He had an adopted brother, Mike, who was jailed for some crime against a child. When Mike was paroled, he returned back home and became a building inspector only to die in a strange construction-related accident.

The trouble begins when Lou is asked by his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples, to shake down a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland who has recently moved to a cottage right outside of town. Apparently some the locals are upset about the close proximity of a prostitute, and it’s Lou’s job to go out there and assess whether or not to let her stay or to throw her out-of-town. The meeting with Joyce is significant and through their relationship, Lou’s psychotic behaviour, something he calls “the sickness”  is unleashed.

The Killer Inside Me is partly a revenge tale, and the novel is Lou’s attempt to explain and justify his crimes. In my opinion Lou has far too much fun taking revenge, so I’d argue that Lou’s vicious murders are rooted in instinctively sadistic, violent behaviours and that the revenge aspect is the sugar-coating for a slew of brutal murders.

Lou Ford is an incredible fictional creation. Imagine a total psycho leading an apparently normal life, but it’s even worse to give that psycho a badge and an almost unlimited power over people; he’s just a timebomb waiting to explode. That’s just the scenario in The Killer Inside Me. The real Lou Ford is submerged under a persona of the ‘good ol’ boy’. He seems slow and is full of cliché ridden speech which he loves to roll out in front of people. This carefully crafted persona acts as a mask for the cunning and violence that lurks beneath the surface. Anyone who ‘knows’ Lou cannot believe that he’s capable of violence. He has a reputation for calming & talking down drunks, but his method really is just to wear them down to the point of exhaustion. Just think of a cat playing with a mouse. He plays with everyone in a similar fashion, and while he plays slow, boring ol’ Lou, he feeds off of the discomfort and gullibility of acquaintances. Here’s Max, the owner of the local diner praising Lou:

“Because you are good, you make others so.” He was all ready to sign off with that, but I wasn’t. I leaned an elbow on the counter, crossed one foot behind the other and took a long slow drag on my cigar. I liked the guy–as much as I like most people, anyway–but he was too good to let go. Polite, intelligent: guys like that are my meat.

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”

“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggondest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky–the boy is the father to the man. Just like that. The boy is the father to the man.”

The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a bore, it’s a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d give you his shirt if you asked for it?

Lou’s method of playing with people until they feel uncomfortable is a sort of low-level sport:

Striking at people that way is almost as good as the other, the real way.

As the plot continues, Lou unravels. There have always basically been two Lous–the one people see: the dull-witted, boring Lou, and the sociopathic, violent & manipulative Lou who’s hidden from plain view. As a matter of survival, Lou tries to contain and resubmerge this aspect of himself, but there’s a point at which he crosses a line and he can no longer assume his old act. As one murder grows into two murders, his good ol’ boy act moves from speeches full of cliché to sly and mean comments, and while Lou thinks he’s still clever enough to fool everyone, he simply can’t quite stuff the killer inside back down underneath the surface. Lou dons his good ol’ boy persona like a costume; sometimes it slips, and he has to make an adjustment.

Lou reveals his plans for various murders to the reader ahead of time, and then we see him slip into chameleon mode as he spouts the emotional reactions he considers appropriate for the occasion to bystanders. He thinks he has all the bases covered but these are the plans of psychopath–they may sound good to him, but they’re still deranged. Unfortunately those who love Lou have the most difficult time accepting the truth, and this is, as it turns out, a deadly error in judgment.

The Killer Inside Me is disturbing and chilling for its creepy portrait of Lou Ford–a sociopathic, emotionless chameleon who’s adopted a character ‘type’ which allows him to operate successfully in his small Texas town. He’s well-liked and admired–his boss Bob Maples is very fond of Lou–enough to regard him as a son, and Lou has a long-standing relationship with local schoolteacher, Amy Stanton. No one suspects that under that good ol’ boy persona of a man who’s a little slow but good-hearted lurks a pathological killer whose thirst for violence is barely held in check. As readers we get a ringside seat at Lou’s ability to mask his brutal tendencies, and it’s not a comfortable view at all. Our level of discomfort only increases as Lou unravels before our eyes. The only question is ‘how far will he go before he’s stopped?’ The Killer Inside Me refers, of course, to Lou’s submerged violent nature, but it also refers to the killer whose chilling narration enters our brains as we read the book–the killer is effectively inside us.

One of the reasons The Killer Inside Me is an uncomfortable read is that it explodes several notions. Here’s Lou Ford, a dangerous psychopath who’s armed with a badge. He can commit various atrocities and get away with it:

It’s not legal , but I found out long ago that the place where the law is apt to be abused most is right around a courthouse.

The story also destroys the notion that we ‘know’ anyone. Growing up in a small town with decades of history is no security. In fact, making assumptions based on ‘knowing’ someone is bad for the health of more than one character in the book. Joyce Lakeland has the surest view of Lou from their first meeting, but instead of being repulsed, she is drawn to him.

Lou discusses what he calls his sickness and he also claims that he tries to control it, but just how honest is his narration? We know Lou’s version of events becomes increasingly warped as he slips farther and farther away from reality. There are times when Lou turns that fake good ol’ boy persona on to the reader. Here he is discussing why he likes to spend nights in his father’s office reading his medical books:

It had always made me feel better to come here, back from the time I was kneehigh to a grasshopper. It was like coming out of the darkness into sunlight, out of a storm into calm. Like being lost and found again.

I got up and walked along the bookcases, and endless files of psychiatric literature, the bulky volumes of morbid pyschology….Kraft-Ebing, Jung, Freud, Bleuler, Adolf Meyer, Kretschmer, Kraepelin…All the answers were here, out in the open where you could look at them. And no one was terrified or horrified. I came out of the place I was hiding in–that I always had to hide in–and began to breathe.

Lou reminds me of some sort of creature who has adaptive mechanisms for survival in an alien environment. Think of all those sci-fi films that depict alien creatures dropping to earth and then assuming camouflage or inhabiting a host so that they won’t be identified and exterminated. This is Lou in a nutshell.  It’ll make your skin crawl.

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