Friday, December 23, 2016

The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson

"All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle."
                                                                --- 119

The Killer Inside Me is one of those novels that needs no introduction at all -- it is and will always be a classic of American noir fiction, it's been made into two movies (1976 and 2010), and chances are that if you haven't read the novel you've at least seen the film. Or, if you're really fainthearted, you've experienced neither, since both book and movie are dark, disturbing, and well past the point of unsettling. It's also one of those books that has been studied left and right, inside and out, and has even been the subject of a number of dissertations.  So the question remains what is left to the bring to the table about this book.  The answer - not much.

Lou Ford, of course, is a psychopath -- and as in many existentialist crime novels the reader finds him/herself seeing things from inside the mind of a sadistic and brutal killer. He, like Nick Corey, his counterpart in Thompson's Pop. 1280, hides behind a badge to do his dirty work, has nothing but contempt for the locals, and manipulates things so that outwardly, no one would believe he'd be capable of  violence or any sort of abnormality.  His deceased dad knew what sort of person Lou really was, but to the the rest of the town, he's perfectly normal.  Ford knows he's not normal and doesn't mind sharing his insanity with the rest of us  -- for one thing, he's got his own psychopathology figured out through his reading of medical and psychological texts-- and he also realizes that his habit of barraging people with clichés until they squirm, that the zippy little phrases he throws out are his substitute for the violence associated with his "sickness" that he says he's been able to keep buried.  We follow him down a trail of manipulation, violence, and revenge  as he begins to unravel -- slowly at first, then in a very big way, starting with the day his boss tells him that he needs to go out to pay an official call on local prostitute Joyce Lakeland, which, he tells us, is the catalyst for the return of his "sickness."

While this book is extremely difficult to read because of the sadistic, misogynistic violence (yes, I know ... a thing I generally try to avoid but I had to read this book -- it's a classic); it's trying to untangle what's in Ford's mind that is really the draw for me.  He may be one of the most unreliable narrators ever -- if you read carefully, there is a lot here that simply doesn't gel, and the way that Thompson has set up this book,  you have to take into account that Lou knows he has an audience in us, the readers.  Think about this too: this novel is Lou's confession, if you will, his way of trying to make us understand the logic behind his actions, laying out his plans ahead of time for our perusal, and revealing just how he is able to fool people so easily -- until he can't any more. So the question is this: is he really a victim of his "sickness," or does he just plain enjoy killing in the most brutal, sadistic ways possible?   He is, in cliché speak, the ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing.

There's much, much  more in this novel of course, but going through everything I discovered in this book would take forever.  As I said earlier, this novel has been scrutinized, studied, written about academically and otherwise, so there are a number of places to dig out more about it.  It's up there among books that made me want to take a shower after reading it, but it's so damn good I just couldn't stop.  And that sort of scares me, actually.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Strangers in the House, by Georges Simenon

NYRB Classics, 2006
originally published 1940 as Les inconnus dans la maison
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
194 pp


I'm somewhat reluctant to post about The Strangers in the House as a crime novel per se, because really, the crime that occurs and its aftermath is actually sort of the catalyst that sparks a man into action here.  It is another of Simenon's romans durs, and if anyone wants to know where the departure point between his commercial novels (think Maigret) and his "hard novels" lies, we can turn to Simenon himself for the answer. In 2012, Open Letters Monthly ran an article noting that
"the difference between the two ... was 'Exactly the same difference that exists between the painting of a painter and the sketch he will make for his pleasure or for his friends to study something.' " 
He  romans durs, he says, he didn't see as "commercial in nature," and he "felt no need to make concessions to morality or popular taste."  When he was writing one of his "commercial" novels, as he told the Paris Review in 1955, he "didn't think about that novel except in the hours of writing it," whereas with the romans durs, as he said,
"I don't see anybody, I don't speak to anybody, I don't take a phone call -- I just live like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels."
Most crime readers are very much into plot but in these novels, it's more the psychological/existentialist  aspects of the characters that takes center stage, and unless I'm at a point where I need fluff,  that, of course, is the draw for me as a reader no matter which genre I read.  The Strangers in the House highlights this distinction -- the story opens with a crime, there is an arrest, a trial and an aftermath, but it centers on lawyer Hector Loursat, 48, who for about 18 years after his wife had left him, has been living as a rather lethargic recluse in a small French town with his daughter Nicole, now 20.  And while a number of his acquaintances had over the years  invited him out for dinner or bridge, he remained alone, preferring his own company. His cousin told him that he couldn't possibly spend the rest of his life as a "hermit," but Loursat disagrees, and from then on
"He proceeded to prove that he could, and he had kept it up for eighteen years, eighteen years during which he had needed neither a wife, nor a mistress, nor a friend."
He and his daughter have been virtual strangers her entire life, with Nicole's upbringing having been put into the hands of one of the "domestics."  Lousart has during this time followed a regular routine -- several bottles of burgundy, followed by time spent reading in his study or his bedroom, and quiet dinners with his daughter where neither made any attempt at conversation.

Things begin to change one cold winter night when a sound like the crack of a whip wakes him up.  It seems to have come  from one of the rooms in his own home, and curious, he decides to have a look around. He runs into his daughter and tells her that there must be a burglar in the house, and notices that there's a light on somewhere on the third floor.  She tells him it must be the maid, but he doesn't think so -- and continuing upstairs, he realizes that this was
 "the first time in years he had departed from his own narrow and strictly prescribed orbit."
Further investigation yields the discovery of a man on a bed who's been shot and then dies "at the exact moment" Loursat walks in. He phones the prosecutor, telling him that the situation is "really tiresome," wanting him to come over and sort things out. He has no idea "who it is or how he got here," but he soon comes to realize that in this big rambling house, Nicole has been leading her own life, having her friends over for parties and dancing in the attic, and he never had a clue at any time that any of this was going on. It dawns on him that one of these people must have been the murderer, a fact that fascinates him, but he's more amazed by the fact that there's a world he's known nothing about going on under the roof of his own home and more importantly, right under his very nose. This is the earlier-mentioned catalyst that makes him aware that "he'd never tried to live -- not in the ordinary sense of the word," but more importantly, the fact that these people have actually been "living" makes him aware  that he hasn't been.

There's much, much more, of course, but I'll leave it all for anyone who may be interested in reading this novel.  While The Strangers in the House has a few minor flaws plotwise,  they're pretty irrelevant  -- this book is very much character driven and doesn't really revolve so much on plot details.  Simenon has again given us a book that oozes atmosphere, setting and above all, a look at what PD James in her intro (which I strongly advise avoiding until the end) calls "the secret underground of the human heart," and Simenon's understanding of  (as James also observes)
 "the salient facts which bring alive a character or a place, inducing the reader to contribute his own imagination to that of the writer so that more is conveyed than is written." 
While I enjoyed his The Engagement much more, I can most certainly recommend The Strangers in the House to people who, like me, are much more into a book to discover what he/she can about human nature.  This one definitely speaks volumes.

ps - there is also a film (1967) made from this book with James Mason, but I'm so pressed for time right now that it will have to wait (if I can even find it!).

Monday, December 12, 2016

an indie double feature: Cotton, and Courting Death, by Paul J. Heald

In my house, the appreciation of the legal thriller (for that matter, any thriller) falls squarely in the wheelhouse of my husband Larry, who loves this stuff. So when I was contacted by the author of these two books I wasn't sure, but I had to admit that at the time the premise of both novels sounded pretty good and if I didn't like them, well, I knew Larry would.  And despite the fact that I prefer crime fiction from the past,  from time to time, I like to check in on what's new in the modern world of small-press crime, so I said yes to the author's request for reading his books.   What surprised me the most is that these books turned out not to be legal thrillers per se, but more like mysteries involving people in the legal profession.  So maybe "legal thriller" isn't the best moniker to apply to these books after all.

Yucca Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing, 2016
356 pp
paperback, sent by the author (thanks!)

The author of both of these novels is a law professor and travels around the world giving lectures, so if anyone's qualified to write books with the legal profession as a backdrop, it's definitely him.  I accidentally read the two novels out of order so let me set the record straight here.  The correct order, chronologically, is Courting Death, followed by Cotton.  Both are set in the small town of Clarkeston, GA, and both share a main character, Melanie Wilkerson, who in the first book is a judge's law clerk and in the second a US attorney in Atlanta.  Since I read them out of order, I'll talk about them in the same way.  Cotton begins with a big surprise for James Murphy, an investigative reporter with the Clarkeston Chronicle, who doggedly followed the case of the missing Diana Cavendish, who had disappeared without a trace some five years earlier. The story is that she was "presumably abducted by her boyfriend Jacob Granville, from a prominent local family. She left behind a "blood-spattered apartment," but no one had any clue what had happened to either of them.  With no more evidence coming in, authorities had eventually just given up on the case, although James was told that the FBI had been alerted three days after Diana's disappearance.    So imagine James' surprise when while he's surfing through a website called "," up pops a photo of the missing woman dressed in a swimsuit on the "This Week's Babes" section of the website.  The photo inspires him to go back and take a look at the case again, but he knows he's going to need help. He takes his story and the website's URL to Melanie Wilkerson, and she's just curious enough to check it out.  Turns out that not only had the FBI not been called in, but curiously, on the FBI database she discovers that next to Granville's name is a phone number, to which any and all inquiries about the case should be directed. Melanie sends James on his way, but she realizes that there is something "whiffy" about the case and launches a private investigation, beginning with an attempt to track down the owner of the website where James had just seen Diana's photo. For this she calls in Stanley Hopkins, a sociology professor and professional consultant, whose initial discoveries will take the case in a direction that no one would have ever suspected.

While Cotton has lots of standard thriller elements -- international intrigue that moves into the highest levels of politics, cover ups, etc., what I really liked about it is that it runs out to be a good mystery that takes its time getting solved.  The people who join James and Melanie in helping to solve the case are perfect as a team, and for me, that combination of mystery and main characters are what make this book a good one.  The added bonus is that neither over the top violence nor graphic, unnecessary sex scenes find their way into this story, a fact I can definitely appreciate since these days that's pretty much unheard of.  So, bottom line -- this is a book worth reading and will appeal to people who are in it for story rather than the other baggage that seems to be part and parcel of modern crime these days. Well done.

Yucca Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing, 2016
321 pp
paperback, sent by the author (thanks!)

In Courting Death, although Melanie Wilkerson makes an appearance again, the action takes place earlier than Cotton.  Here she hasn't made it to the US Attorney's office, but rather is clerking for a prominent judge in the federal courts. Melanie becomes involved in following the trail of a death that happened some five years earlier, a case that catches her attention and piques her curiosity because it happened in the same place Melanie is currently working. Around Melanie this time are fellow clerks Phil Jenkins and Arthur Hughes, who are tasked with doing research in cases of habeas corpus -- death penalty cases to be more exact. Their work involves reading cases and writing memos that "get the law right, regardless of what the substantive result is."  In fact, Courting Death, outside of the mystery that Melanie goes out of her way to look into, is a novel that makes the reader look at issues surrounding capital punishment, based on cases that come Phil and Arthur's way.  In this sense, it's less mystery than Cotton, but rather a more philosophically-based novel when it comes to the capital court cases.  But when all is said and done, it's Arthur who takes center stage here -- his growing relationship with his young landlady, his doubts about the death-penalty cases, and other events that start to take a personal toll,  and to top it all of, he has ongoing concerns about the Judge for whom he works.

Putting the two together,  I liked Cotton much better although I did appreciate the way that the author  forces the reader to examine different facets of the legalities behind capital cases in Courting Death. There's so much more involved in these cases that most people don't realize goes on behind the scenes, and this book really is an eye opener in this arena. At the same time, there's too much personal stuff going on here for my taste -- I get how it works overall in terms of Arthur's character and where it all leads, but as an example, 20 pages going through Arthur's father dying, the funeral etc., are just a bit too much.  The mystery that Melanie is involved in is intriguing, but it sort of plays second fiddle to everything going on in Arthur's life.  Unlike Cotton, this one has much more romance and personal relationships throughout the story which I'm just not into as a crime reader.  But that's a me thing not necessarily shared by other readers, and I have to say that I was caught up in thinking about the issues surrounding death-penalty cases more than anything else in this book. So this one works more for me on a philosophical level; the mystery surrounding the dead court clerk is also a good one but I wish it had been developed a bit more and that less focus had been given to Arthur here.  If he could bring back the team from Cotton and put them together in another intriguing mystery, I'd totally buy it, because in spite of the thriller elements that I normally just don't care for, there's a solid mystery at its core that I couldn't wait to get to the bottom of.

Bottom line: both novels are quite good and I'd recommend the two to crime readers, but Cotton for me definitely has a slight edge because of its casting and because of the mystery at its heart.  If the author wrote another novel would I buy it? Definitely -- and trust me, for someone who is happiest reading crime fiction from the past, that's saying a lot.