A Beautiful Relationship

Suspect

By Robert Crais

It’s been awhile since we’ve read a Crais book, and we’re happy to see he’s lost none of his skill at writing a compelling tale, if this 2013 outing is indicative of his current work. What makes this effort so special is how he is able to portray the developing relationship between Officer Scott James and his K-9 corps dog Maggie. If you have any heart at all, any feeling for your fellow man and for beautiful, loyal, and determined dogs, you’ll find yourself growing misty-eyed in the final moments of the book.

Maggie is an ex-Marine dog. She suffers from the loss of her Marine handler killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, as well as PTSD and wounds in the attack. Officer James also suffers from PTSD and wounds received in a brutal shooting incident, as well as the loss of his partner. They come together at the LAPD canine training facility.

As we follow them learning about each other and developing a trusting relationship, we develop an attachment and affection for their partnership, and, in particular, for Maggie, the best friend a man could ever have. Our education about military and police canines, their almost incredible abilities and their unbreakable loyalty to their handlers, is the real strength of the novel. Crais does a good job of putting us into the mind of Maggie, so much so that by the end we feel as attached to her as Officer James does.

There’s not much more to say, except pick up a copy and discover a crime story with real heart. w/c

Crime Noir with an Environmental Conscience

The Extinction Club: A Neo-Noir Thriller

By Jeffrey Moore

Not your typical thriller, The Extinction Club features colorful characters, an environmental consciousness, and an atypical locale. Add to it Jeffrey Moore’s strong writing and you have something that goes a step beyond ordinary thriller and crime fiction.

Nile Nightingale is on the lam, sort of, fleeing a vengeful ex-girlfriend by whom he has a young daughter. He made plenty of mistakes, including taking his daughter on an excursion without mentioning it to the girlfriend. That makes him a wanted man, a wanted wealthy man, as well as a man who has had problems with drugs and alcohol, who is prone to hallucinations. From NJ, he heads to Quebec Province, to a small hunting town in the Laurentians. There he finds a surprise in the form of a girl, savagely wounded, left in a sack to bleed to death. Using a fountain of knowledge accumulated in failed career attempts, he mends and nurses her back to life.

Céleste Jonquéres, 14 going on 15, is a self-schooled little genius fraught with issues revolving around her appearance, her interests, and the fact that now, with the death of her grandmother who raised her, finds herself alone in the world. Then there’s the fact that a gang of hunters milking bears for their bile, as well as other vile torments, are after her. She despises them, their maltreatment of animals for money, and that they hunt and kill for enjoyment.

At first, she doesn’t like or trust Nile. And herein lies the strongest point of the book: the skillful and wonderful manner in which Moore develops the relationship between the two of them. Because of this, in the end, you’ll find yourself greatly affected by what transpires.

The other strong point is how Moore calls attention to the plight of wildlife at the hands of people interested only in money. You’ll learn some things you never knew, things that will sicken you. The abuse of wildlife goes beyond blasting them into extinction, and these horrors are much worse.

Originally published in Canada in 2010. Nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award for best crime. Recommended if you’re looking for something different and more intelligent than the usual fare of thriller and crime fiction. w/c

Street Justice in Old Harlem

The Real Cool Killers (1959)

By Chester Himes

If you need convincing either that the 1950s were anything but halcyon and that racism was, and continues to be, a real, visceral issue in the United States, Chester Himes’ The Real Cool Killers will serve as a potent persuader. Himes dresses this education in a quickly read and very brutal hunt for a killer by his two black detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

In the novel, second in Himes’ Harlem Detective Series (nine completed novels, one unfinished), the white cops are blatantly racists, the black bad guys (particularly Sheik) respond with their own racial hatred, and any semblance of citizen rights barely exist. If that isn’t enough, the victim is a white man shot dead amid a crowd in Harlem. Forget that a black man in a bar has an arm chopped off and another gets gunned down by Coffin Ed. The outrage of the cops focuses on the murder of a white man by a black killer. And the white man, Ulysses Galen, turns out to be a sadist preying on young black women. Lest you think anything is given away here, the novel ends on a big twist that in a weird way serves justice. Maybe.

Even if you are not ordinarily a detective novel reader, you’ll find several reasons to try the book. First, of course, is Himes’ snapshot of a Harlem almost gone, where now African Americans no longer comprise the majority and the place rushes along in a wave of gentrification. Second, is the absolute rawness of the novel, particularly the language. Literally, most detective fiction today isn’t nearly as stuffed with vulgarity as this novel; you’ll be surprised. Himes also creates mood by employing a scaled back, easily accessible street vernacular.

Then there’s the way the cops go about their work; that is, with no regard, zero, for the rights of citizens, with Grave Digger and Coffin Ed as bad as the white cops. To wit, Grave Digger is interviewing (well, actually badgering, intimidating and threatening a group of teens in the Dew Drop Inn, where said arm separation occurred earlier) and a teen cautions about rights. Mistake: “Grave Digger slapped him out of his seat, reached down and lifted him from the floor by the coat lapels and slammed him back into his seat.” That’s a civics lesson, for sure.

Chester Himes was born in Missouri, and moved to Arkansas and Ohio with his family. His father taught industrial trades at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (formerly Normal College). His mother also was a teacher. He became truly embittered when a school experiment blinded his brother Joseph and a whites-only hospital refused him treatment. After his family resettled in Cleveland, he attended Ohio State University, before the school expelled him for pranking. He then began committing crimes, which landed him in the Ohio Penitentiary for a long sentence. There, he started writing and publishing. Totally fed up with the U.S. by the 50s, he moved to France in 1953, where his work was respected. He met his second wife in Paris and mingled with some of the most famous writers, artists, and intellectuals of the day, such as Picasso and Nikki Giovanni. Later, he and his wife moved to Spain, where he died of Parkinson’s disease at age 75. For more about Himes, see Chester Himes: A Life, by James Sallis. w/c

A Sophisticated Sociopath on a Rampage

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

By Patricia Highsmith

Psychological thrillers don’t get much better than this. Patricia Highsmith plants you deep within the brain of American sociopath Tom Ripley as he deceives one person after another, assumes the life of a young man he envies, and lashes out murderously to achieve his ends. Even today, more than sixty years after its first printing, with truckloads of psychological crime novels featuring psychos carted of to the remainder bins, and a swamp of crime movies and television shows spilling from our screens, this still stands out as an achievement of perfectly blending literary and hard-edged noir.

Succinctly, Tom Ripley is a young man in his mid-twenties existing in New York City. He really can’t do anything, doesn’t own anything, rooms with friends, and engages in petty forgery and scamming, not to make money but to amuse himself. As he says, he is very disappointed in his life and what he has made of it. Then his life changes. Mr. Herbert Greenleaf approaches him thinking him a close friend of his son, Dickie. Dickie has been taking an extended vacation in Italy trying his hand at painting, when his father needs and wants him back home in the family boat building business. Would Tom, all expenses paid, of course, sail to Italy and persuade Dickie to return home?

Tom connects with Dickie in short order and methodically befriends him. What Tom admires most about Dickie is his smooth approach to life, his nice manner, fueled, naturally, by lots of money. In a letter to Dickie, that is, Tom as Dickie, Marge Sherwood, Dickie’s wannabe girlfriend, writes of Tom, “He’s just a nothing ,,,” Perfect, as Tom is a blank canvas awaiting paint, and Dickie is the paint. Tom hatches a plan, really sort of a scatterbrained plan that feels almost spontaneous, to kill Dickie, which he does. Then the adventure truly begins as Tom dodges, weaves, and deceives (the police, Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, and Dickie’s friends) his way around Italy, subsuming Dickie into the very core of his being. So perfectly does he do this that later in the novel he begins to believe he has a talent for painting and an appreciation of art. And no secret here, as you probably know the Ripley story turned into a five-novel series, he gets away with it.

Highsmith’s Ripley is a brilliant creation. He’s at various times a knockabout, a petulant child, a hedonist, a terrorized boy, a self-doubter, an explosive killer, a conniver, and a man unable to understand or even define his own identity. Paramount, though, above all, he thinks of only one person, only what’s good for Tom Ripley. Striping away Highsmith’s literary polishing, he sounds quite despicable. Yet, credit to Highsmith, you find yourself liking him, hoping, too, that his bobbing will succeed. Forget that you know, like all sociopaths, he doesn’t experience emotion but mimics it. Pay attention to Highsmith’s sentences and descriptions, the declarative style she employs here; you’ll see how it helps us feel Tom’s coolness, his emotional void.

Even her plotting captures the essence of Tom, his lackadaisical ambling approach to life, by giving us the impression stuff just happens. A situation presents itself and Tom improvises on the spot. So we readers feel like we’re just skipping from situation to situation, almost as if Highsmith is making it up as she goes, perhaps chortling at each twist.

A must read for everybody who loves their psychological fiction on the highest order. And after reading it, you might enjoy seeing how Hollywood realized it on the silver screen with a stellar cast. w/c

Pulp Fiction Redux #4: James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1935)

By James M. Cain

The Thirties were a dark time that gave rise to novels of dark passions, and none darker than lustful sex and murder, and in the case of this one, a devilish twist on Calvinist predestination. Read instead of the postman, fate; fate rings twice, or as many times as necessary, to bring the journey of a life to its unalterable end.

In his gritty, dirty (as in atmospheric; you can almost smell and taste the grime of these characters’ lives) crime novel, James M. Cain put the worst aspects of human nature on full display, a reason why Boston saw fit to ban The Postman Always Rings Twice.

It’s a story you probably know well, as Cain’s novel has been adapted to film at least seven times internationally, not to mention adaptations in other media (a couple of film trailers below). However, it is still worth reading not just because it holds up well more than eighty years after its first publication but also for its cultural impact in the context of its time, a more prudish America.

Frank Chambers, a drifter with a criminal past, lands at a the Twin Oaks Tavern, owned and operated by Nick Papadakis, an outgoing, hardworking Greek. Frank and he strike up a friendship. Nick encourages Frank to stay and help out. Frank resists and prepares to leave, when he sees Nick’s wife, Cora. Everything changes in that instant, for Frank and for Cora.

Between them surges a spark of animal magnetism that instantly binds each to the other. Shortly, they engage in rough, passionate sex and Cora reveals her discontentment with old greasy Nick. The two hatch a plot to kill Nick, but it fails because of a stray cat.

Realizing he has escaped a nasty fate, Frank tries to get away from Cora and Nick, who is under the delusion he suffered a near fatal accident. Then, by happenstance some time last, Frank runs into Nick, who cajoles him into returning to the tavern. Soon enough, Frank and Cora take up again and hatch yet another plot, a car accident, that proves successful in killing Nick.

After, badly injured, Frank has to contend with a very suspicious cop. He’s saved when another cop turns him onto a slick lawyer, Katz. Katz gets both off with some extremely sleazy tactics that threaten to turn Frank and Cora against each other, as well as reveals a hefty insurance policy Nick has taken out on his life (a plot device Cain uses to greater effect in his 1943 novel Double Indemnity). Though this revelation causes Frank to speculate as to whether Cora has set him up, the pair patch things up, in no small part because Cora tells him she is carrying his child.

While it appears  the two will be happy lovebirds and a settled married couple, fate comes calling for its second shot at Frank and Cora (having already had two whacks at Nick). Thinking Cora is suffering a miscarriage, Frank drives like a maniac to get her to the hospital, when he crashes and Cora dies. Given his past, the cops and courts don’t believe Cora died by accident. Frank pays the price. So, not only will fate have its way but also the readers who are usually more comfortable when justice is served, regardless of how that my come about.

An important novel for how it deals frankly and openly, even for modern times, with the baser aspects of human nature. w/c

1946 Hollywood film adaptation starring Lana Turner and John Garfield.

1981 Hollywood film adaptation starring  Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson.

Pulp Fiction Redux #2

The Killer Inside Me

By Jim Thompson

Though relatively few serial murders operate at any given time in the U.S., the volume and cold-blooded brutality of their crimes fascinate people, albeit in a horrifying way. (For more on these killers, see the FBI report Serial Murder.) Because the actions and especially the psychology of serial killer is just plain interesting, writers have populated their fiction with them for years, and broadcast media, for their part, have sought ratings with them, i.e. The Following. Few writers, however, have portrayed the demented serial killer as frighteningly and humanly as the great pulp fiction dean of the 1950s, Jim Thompson. Still to this day, few books measure up to Thompson’s classic The Killer Inside Me.

Only a few get to know firsthand the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, and women, too, as well and as intimately as Thompson did. Born in 1906 in the Oklahoma Territory (statehood date: November 16, 1907), he was bright, an avid reader, began writing at an early age, and didn’t much care for formal education. He smoked heavily. He drank heavily. And in his teens, during Prohibition, he worked as a bellboy at the Hotel Texas (a National Register building, now operated by Hilton). Those were wild times in Texas, affording Thompson an eye-opening look at the seamy side of life, as in illegal liquor, drugs, and sex, all of which he procured for guests. It wouldn’t be overstating to say he received the pulp and crime writer’s perfect education.

Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me appeared in 1952. In it, Lou Ford is a consummate serial killer created by a writer who, as the above brief bio demonstrates, knew his way around the dark nooks and crannies of the troubled, impassioned, and diseased minds of wayward people better than most, and who masterfully portrayed these traits in simple, stark, and powerful language, as in this pulp literature masterpiece.

The Killer Inside Me, among his best, serves as the blueprint for the nearly-perfect serial killer novel because it plunks you down inside the mind of the killer; you see the world through his off kilter eyes. If you’re looking for crime fiction that stands heads and shoulders above the usual genre fare stuffed with overly dramatized and generally implausible protagonists, The Killer Inside Me may be what you want.

The Killer Inside Me offers you Lou Ford, the aw-shucks deputy who appears a little slow on the uptake, who handily dispenses clichés upon every occasion, who, in short, strikes you as a pretty nice, ineffective guy in the beginning and then in the end, amazingly, given his predilection for murder, a sympathetic, tormented man. It’s a credit to Thompson’s skill that you feel for Ford in at the conclusion.

Don’t assume that just because The Killer Inside Me appeared in 1952 that the prose is censored milquetoast. Thompson’s writing is blunt and raw, as in the scene in which Lou cold-bloodedly kills Joyce, the prostitute he’s been frequenting and abusing as he executes his plan of revenge against local big-deal Chester Conway: “I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once.” Or this, after inflicting a brutal beating upon his fiancé, leaving her barely alive while he awaits the person he plans to frame for her murder: “I sat down and tried to read the paper. I tried to keep my eyes on it. But the light wasn’t very good, not good enough to read by, and she kept moving around. It looked like she couldn’t lie still.” Those are the thoughts of a true psychopath.

Don’t fear extraneous excursions into back stories and side narratives; or excessive descriptions of the countryside or characters. Thompson gives exactly enough to provide context and move the story along swiftly. That’s no mean ability; it earned him a living as a screen and television writer for Stanley Kubrick and others.

Do expect sharply drawn characters. You’ll get to know Lou, Joyce, Elmer, Chester, Johnnie (who put his trust in a psychopath who understood only self-preservation), Amy (who campaigned to marry Lou to unfortunate results), and the others not through elaborate descriptions but through what they say and do.

And do expect a realistic serial killer who goes about his business in a straightforward way, a killer who is at heart a sociopath, a manipulator of people, who Thompson based on emerging research on psychopathology, research that forms the foundation of modern thinking about these people.

Highly recommended not only as the best of crime fiction but also a fine literary experience. And don’t accept the filmed versions as a substitute for the real thing, please. w/c