Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block

Originally published in 1964 as The Sex Shuffle under the pseudonym Sheldon Lord.
Republished as Lucky at Cards under Block’s own name in 2007.

AT CARDS AND WITH WOMEN, BILL MAYNARD KNEW HOW TO CHEAT…

On the mend after getting run out of Chicago, professional cardsharp Bill Maynard is hungry for some action – but not nearly as hungry as Joyce Rogers, the tantalizing wife of Bill’s latest mark. Together they hatch an ingenious scheme to get rid of her husband. But in life as in poker, the other player sometimes has an ace up his sleeve…

Cover and blurb from the 2007 Hard Case Crime reprint

Bill Maynard left Chicago in a hurry and with a busted jaw after being caught cheating at cards in a high stakes game. He arrives in a small town, checks into a hotel he won’t be able to pay for and gets a dentist to fix up his teeth. As he ends his treatment he casually mentions he would like to get in on a friendly game of poker and is invited along to the home of Murray Rogers, a wealthy lawyer who has a weekly game.

The players are not prepared for Bill who wins more than enough to settle his bills. During the game he meets Joyce, Murray’s wife, who startles him when she obliquely references the tricks he’s pulling. The next day she surprises him again when she calls on him at his hotel and lays her own cards on the table. She wants rid of her husband but to keep his money and she thinks Bill will be the man to help her…

I picked up Lucky at Cards because I was in the mood for something quick and pulpy. My concentration has been shot this past week thanks to fighting off a bout of Covid and so I needed a read that would keep my attention. It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered…

The premise of the book in which a drifter and a married woman hatch a plan to rid themselves of the obstacles to being together may be a familiar one but there is nothing wrong with that. Particular when, as here, it comes with a few unexpected story beats. For one thing, Bill and Joyce’s plan isn’t as simple as killing Murray.

I do not plan on describing said plan because part of the fun here is in seeing Bill set it up and trying to work out what exactly he has in mind. The reader will be aware of the parameters including that Murray has to be kept alive as should he die the money will all pass to Joyce’s two stepdaughters, cutting her out of the picture. While the reader should not expect to be completely surprised, I enjoyed seeing it come together and trying to figure out exactly how it would end up going wrong.

As you might expect for a book with a card shark for its protagonist, there are a number of games of poker and bridge which could so easily have become tedious. Instead Block does a great job of explaining what you need to know from the progress of a game to the tricks being employed to cheat the other players to follow what is happening without it ever becoming burdensome. Indeed, a few of the card games are downright thrilling. More on one of those in a moment.

I also felt Block did a good job of establishing and developing a set of themes throughout the book. One of these is to do with Bill’s background – a failed career as a stage magician – and the conflict he feels about whether he wants to roam or settle down in an area. Bill’s thoughts on that issue do seem to evolve quite organically as the novel progresses and they were one of the reasons I felt that the character showed a pleasing (and perhaps surprising) amount of development over the course of the two hundred pages. I think it’s that sense that Bill, in spite of his many flaws, does have a hopeful side to his character that makes you likely to root for him and makes his journey one the reader may well invest in.

While Bill is easily the best developed character in the piece, I thought Murray, the target, was well drawn and becomes more interesting as the story progresses. His actions are sometimes a little unexpected yet fit his character perfectly, making him feel quite a credible figure.

The two female characters, Joyce and Barb, felt satisfying to me in the way in which they are utilized and developed within the story. The former is a femme fatale but after making a memorable introduction during the card game and the subsequent proposal scene at Bill’s hotel, the character never makes quite the same impact again, mostly featuring in quick hook-up scenes and to once again push him to act. Later in the story I feel her perspective on what has happened is forgotten completely and I found her involvement in the resolution to be surprisingly minimal.

Barb is perhaps a more fleshed out character in terms of having identifiable wants and desires but I won’t argue with those who find her a frustrating figure. I certainly had moments where I wished she would act with a little more self-respect. It possibly doesn’t help that much of what both characters are used for is to feature in the book’s frequent erotic scenes (the book’s original title, The Sex Shuffle, was pretty apt). I do appreciate though that Barb is at least afforded some emotional engagement and consideration, even if I personally find some of her choices somewhat baffling.

The piece builds quite well towards its final act, a thrilling card game with some really high stakes. While some parts of the plot will likely be anticipated, Block does manage to deliver a few fun complications along the way that keep things interesting. I found those final few chapters particularly gripping and think he delivers a satisfying resolution to this pulpy, entertaining story.

The Verdict: Lucky at Cards is by no means a classic work but it offers an interesting and, in some regards, novel take on a noir standard (think Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick

Cover: Penzler Publishing – American Mystery Classics Reprint (2021)

Originally published in 1940
Detective Maclain #3
Preceded by The Whistling Hangman
Followed by Blind Man’s Bluff

Meet Captain Duncan Maclain. Blinded during his service in the first World War, Maclain made up for his lack of vision by sharpening his other senses, achieving a mastery of the subtle unseen clues often missed by those who see only with their eyes. Aided by his dogs Schnucke and Driest, the Captain puts the intelligence-gathering techniques he learned in the Army to work, making a name for himself as New York City’s most sought-after private detective. Now it’s 1940, there’s a second World War breaking out, and Maclain is pulled into a case unlike any he’s investigated before. 

The murder of an actor in his Greenwich Village apartment would cause a stir no matter the circumstances but, when the actor happens to possess secret government plans, and when those plans go missing along with the young woman with whom he was last seen, it’s sensational enough to interest not only the local police, but the American government as well. 

Maclain suspects a German spy plot at work and, in a world where treasonous men and patriots are indistinguishable to the naked eye, it will take his special skills to sniff out the solution.

My Thoughts

For much of this week the fates seemed to be conspiring to keep me from reading my book club’s latest selection, Odor of Violets. At the start of the week I began reading a copy on my lunch break at work, only to get thrown a curveball when a COVID-quarantining situation left me unable to retrieve it, forcing me to order a second print copy. Which got delayed. Or lost. So with twenty-four hours to go, I had to switch things up, shift to a digital edition and force myself to read it in one sitting.

I mention the background to how I came to read this because I want to acknowledge that I didn’t read this in ideal circumstances and I think it is possible that my reading, particularly my ability to focus, may have been affected. Certainly the plotting was the part of the novel I seemed to absorb the least although it had been much of the draw for me when this book was selected. Whether that reflects on the complexity of the plotting or my own inattention, I cannot say.

Odor of Violets begins by introducing us to Norma Tredwill who has decided she must speak with her ex-husband, the actor Paul Gerente, after beginning to suspect that he may be having an affair with a member of her family. She visits his apartment and is buzzed inside, only to find his dead body lying on the carpet. Someone must have buzzed her inside, but who could that have been and where did they disappear to?

Meanwhile across the city private detective Captain Maclean receives a visit in his office. The visitor, identified as Paul Gerente, has a message from Naval Intelligence seeking Maclean’s assistance in identifying vulnerable points in the city’s defenses. A short while later he visits Gerente’s apartment only to discover another man inside along with the dead body. A man who admits to murdering Gerente…

Odor of Violets, written in 1940, is principally a pulpy, espionage thriller though I was quite pleasantly surprised to realize that it also has elements of the traditional whodunnit. While some developments such as kidnappings and our detective finding themselves in physical peril clearly reflect a pulpy style, there are several occasions where those developments come about because of the detection (or to enable it to occur).

I do really like the conceit of Maclain speaking with a man only to learn that he was already dead. It gets things off to a fun start by introducing the idea of impersonation and also reminding us quite clearly of the wartime backdrop to the story. The success of Maclain’s investigation will, we realize, have a huge impact on national security and it may very well affect America’s contribution to the war. These are pretty compelling stakes and I felt they helped to not only build interest in the detection process but also to introduce a bit of a race against time as we near the end of the story.

As much as I liked this initial hook, I did find the early chapters a little slow and perhaps even a little unfocused. There is a lot going on here and I initially struggled a little with the combination of a domestic and a national security focus, wanting the writer to commit to one or the other. Things pick up considerably with a second murder that uses a pretty novel murder weapon and kick into another gear entirely when, close to the end, a third body turns up in circumstances that are very memorable.

Though I struggled a little to get interested in those early chapters, two things kept me going and engaged with this. The first was that Kendrick’s pulpy writing style is entertaining and ensures that there is plenty of incident to keep the reader engaged. The second, and perhaps more important one, was the character of Maclain himself.

Maclain is a fascinating creation for a number of reasons, not least the depiction of his blindness. While Kendrick’s depiction of sensory compensation can feel a little incredible and overdone, I appreciated firstly that the author attempts to show how a dedicated individual might be able to refine their skills to still make an important contribution – in this case to the war effort.

One of the most striking behaviors Maclain demonstrates seems to be drawn straight from the Sherlock Holmes playbook. On several occasions in the story Maclain draws huge observations about a character based on some small details of their personality or manners. Some of these can be a little fantastical, much like those found in Holmes, but the core idea here is excellent. What’s more, while I think Kendrick uses it a little too often, I think the execution and explanation of those moments is very good.

After a slow start my interest picked up considerably at the time of the second murder and gained still further with the third – which is introduced in quite a wonderfully macabre way. It’s a strong image in a book that’s absolutely packed with them (Kendrick was evidently quite a visual writer) and the moment it is introduced is quite startling. By the end of the book I was quite hooked on the action and keen to see what would happen.

It is, in short, a pretty engaging read – even when I wasn’t always clear exactly what was going on (as a reminder: that may be on me rather than the novel). While I found the direction of the story to be a little unclear at times, I really enjoyed the overall conceit and felt that the idea had been executed very well. Is Maclain a character I would seek out again and again? I am not sure though I will be curious to read any thoughts from others if anyone has any recommendations!

The Verdict:

I struggled to find the thread of the story in the earliest chapter but things picked up for me considerably with the discovery of the secondary murders. Ultimately very solid and readable but the plot itself is less remarkable than its hero.

The Nothing Man by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published in 1954

The Blurb

War changed Clinton Brown. Permanently disfigured by a tragic military accident, he’s struggling to find satisfaction from life as a rewrite man for Pacific City’s Courier. Shame has led him to isolate himself from closest friends and even his estranged, still faithfully devoted wife, Ellen. Only the bottle keeps him company.

But now Ellen has returned to Pacific City, and she’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Brown back. Even if it means exposing his deepest secret … a painful truth Brown would do anything to stop from coming to light. He’d kill a whole lot of people just to keep this one thing quiet–and soon enough, the bodies just happen to start piling up around him…

THE NOTHING MAN is Thompson at his most psychologically astute, in a deeply suspenseful and tragic portrait of one man’s journey through the dark side of the Postwar Boom.

The Verdict

A flawed but entertaining exploration of the forces that cause someone to kill.

Mr. Clinton Brown regrets the necessity of murdering Ellen Tanner Brown.

My Thoughts

Clinton Brown works as a rewrite man for the Pacific City Courier, the only newspaper in a small city not far from the Mexican border. His editor, Dave Randall, was his commanding officer during the war and was responsible for issuing an order that led Clinton to come into contact with an anti-personnel mine. A tragic mistake that ensured that he will never be able to become a family man. While Clinton knows that Dave didn’t intend for that to happen, he frequently uses the man’s guilt over that order as a way to exert power over him and to take pleasure in the man’s discomfort.

The book begins with Clinton at work on a story built around the Sneering Slayer murders. He confides in the reader that he feels bitter mostly that the last line of his story will, by necessity, need to be written by someone else. A clue that we are about to be embark on the sort of dark homicidal journey that Jim Thompson wrote so well.

Unlike the protagonists in Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, Clinton does not set out to become a serial killer. He may enjoy his little sadistic digs at Dave Randall or the corrupt local detective Lem Stukey but prior to his first meeting with Deborah Chasen that sort of manipulation is the extent of his sociopathy. This book explores the circumstances that cause Clinton to first kill and then to try and kill again (and again) to try and protect himself.

Thompson is not subtle in explaining that it is the man’s accidental penectomy or, to be more specific, his fear of it becoming widely known that leads him to his first kill. This emasculation clearly has left him angry, bitter and resentful. Clinton dreads the idea that others will find out that secret and yet he toys with them, sometimes strongly hinting at it in their conversations. These behavioral contradictions are not accidental or oversights on the part of the author – they are part of the core character of this man and are indicative of the conflicts within his character.

One of the things I like most about Thompson’s work is that his protagonists tend to inch themselves towards destruction, compounding bad decisions until they find themselves beyond hope. I think that approach works because it helps to make sense of how people find themselves in truly impossible situations. While there are some people who recklessly gamble their way into peril, most of his protagonists are men who think they are smarter than they actually are and who cannot catch a break. That is certainly the case with Clinton Brown.

The result is that he is a character who, in spite of some of the ridiculous things that happen to him, feels surprisingly credible – particularly in comparison with Lou Ford or Nick Corey. We may not agree with the choices he makes (or like him as a person) but Thompson effectively conveys the forces that have made him who he is and the motivations behind some of those terrible choices.

Thompson offers us multiple murders and manages to make each feel quite distinctive, both in the circumstances leading up to it and the means by which it is done. I would suggest that they become progressively more striking and detailed as the book goes on as though the account is mimicking the character’s increasing familiarity and comfort with death.

By virtue of his position and relationship to one of the victims, Clinton finds himself pretty close to the investigation which allows him to meddle with it. This meddling was, for me, the most intriguing and original part of the book in large part because of the way it explores the man’s psychology, particularly in relation to the question of who he is willing to hurt and who will become his subsequent victims.

Thompson’s characterization of the other men in Clinton’s life, both as colleagues on the paper but also the detective Lem Stukey, feels similarly very convincing. While we may only be sharing Clinton’s thoughts directly, it is easy to understand what the various people he interacts with are thinking and feeling in response to the various provocations he offers.

Thompson’s portrayal women can be a little more divisive. There are often misogynistic comments voiced by characters within his stories and there certainly area few instances of that here such as when a character asserts he would like to give a woman a ‘good sock in the mush’. The question is whether you think Thompson is accurately depicting the views and attitudes of his day or writing to reinforce them. I personally feel it is intended to be the former rather than suggesting this is behavior to be emulated but I can completely understand those who feel the other way.

Unfortunately the book eventually runs out of steam as it becomes evident that Thompson doesn’t really have a clear idea on how to conclude the thing. There is an ending but I cannot say it was particularly satisfying or that it provided much sense of closure. Indeed I didn’t even find it all that easy to follow, forcing me to reread it to try and make sense of its implications.

Still, while I was a little disappointed with the way the book ends, I admire the craziness of the journey Thompson takes us on here. He crafts a wild but convincing picture of how a man comes to commit a series of crimes and create a criminal persona. While I think it doesn’t offer the richness and depth of Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, it is still a very clever and compulsive read that combines Thompson’s bold, larger-than-life characterization with a really solid murder plot. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who can stomach the nastiness, I found this to be a compelling read.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Impossible Event wrote this superb post about the book which he suggests is a good place for those seeking a ‘comparatively gentle, non-famous introduction’ to Thompson. I can’t disagree!

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

Book Details

Originally published in 2007

Some ebook editions include Abbott’s short story Policy that this novel was based upon.

The Blurb

A young woman hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Notoriously cunning and ruthless, Gloria shows her eager young protégée the ropes, ushering her into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money. Suddenly, the world is at her feet–as long as she doesn’t take any chances, like falling for the wrong guy. As the roulette wheel turns, both mentor and protégée scramble to stay one step ahead of their bosses and each other.

The Verdict

An enjoyable exploration of some of the common themes and tropes of noir fiction.


My Thoughts

This week has not exactly turned out as I had planned. I had a bunch of vacation days that I could take so I decided that I would take several days this week. The plan was that this would allow me to be able to stay up late and watch the election, get some sleep once it was all called and then take a few relaxing days to recover, catch up on reading and blogging. I am still pretty much in the first stage of that plan. Thankfully I still have the weekend to recover!

So, why am I telling you this? Well, I read Queenpin on Tuesday morning before heading to work. It has been a sleepless few days since then as I have been transfixed by coverage, finding myself unable to concentrate on anything else. Point of illustration – right now I have the coverage on the TV muted in the background. As a result, I suspect whatever careful and considered analysis I might have offered about the details of the book has disappeared from my mind to be replaced by vote margins in the various counties around where I live (which as of the time of writing appears in recount territory).

This is a shame because Queenpin is a book that deserves thoughtful thematic analysis. No doubt I will have to revisit it at some point though I would like to try some of Abbott’s other works first.

Queenpin is the story of a young, unnamed woman who takes a job as a bookkeeper at a seedy nightclub that her father also works at. He is oblivious to the illegal activities taking place there but she realizes that the owners are connected and, when she is asked to produce a second set of books, engaged in a dangerous game with their bosses. Gloria Denton comes by regularly to inspect the books and collect the bosses’ share of the take. She quickly spots what they are up to but, having taken a shine to the narrator and recognizing that she is smart and capable, opts to exclude her from the punishment and take her on as an assistant.

Gloria teaches the narrator the basics and gets her started with a few collection gigs. She is provided with a home, beautiful clothes and lots of other luxuries. Her life seems pretty comfortable but then she has the misfortune of meeting a young and reckless man and before long she finds herself making some questionable and dangerous decisions…

Queenpin is a work that seeks to deconstruct and reassess the central tropes and relationships of noir storytelling. Abbott transforms the typical structure of such stories by flipping the usual gender assignments, providing us with a female protagonist and mentor and, in Vic, a homme fatale. In the wrong hands this could have been an excuse for a gimmicky type of storytelling but Abbott uses this idea to explore deeper ideas relating to the career expectations based on gender and class in this period, social mobility, consumerism and of female sexuality.

The decision to not provide a name for the protagonist is an interesting one. I think it is intended to remind us that our focus is not so much on the individual but the idea of what she represents. She is as much an archetype as Walter Huff or Frank Chambers. But Abbott isn’t going to craft multiple novels to explore that idea – instead she does it in just one book, providing us with a model for an ambitious and competent everywoman who wants to make herself something more.

To emphasize that this character is not a one-off, even within the world she has created, Abbott creates Gloria – a character who inhabits a familiar world of gangsters. Where the protagonist remains somewhat hazily drawn, Gloria is described in very clear detail and established as successful and inspiring. She is a woman who has lasted in a tough and violent world, outlasting several of her peers, and retains a sense of dignity and style. It is clear that our protagonist views her as a model for who she wants to be, though she does not always listen to the advice she is given.

The development of the main character’s criminal career is intriguing though it is not really the focus of the book. We do get some interesting discussion of money laundering but the focus of the book is more on interpersonal relationships.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the relationship between the protagonist and Gloria. Gloria takes a number of risks and provides a lot to the main character throughout this novel. It begins with the trouble she takes to protect her from being caught up in the reprisals against her bosses but she goes much further, dressing her, giving her jewelry, a home and a car. She raises her up and remakes her as the woman she thinks she should be.

There are several possible interpretations of these choices. She could simply be seeing potential in her, crafting her into a version of herself to make it possible to step back from (or expand) her professional activities. She might also feel protective of her, seeing something of herself in her and seeking to strengthen her. Or, and this is the one I find most convincing, she may actually have fallen in love with her and be trying to turn her into an ideal lover. If it is the last of these options, I think the relationship is probably never consumated, though I suspect that the main character is aware of her power over her and comes to exploit it.

What I find most compelling about this last possibility is that, if true, it raises an interesting parallel with the main character’s own misguided relationship. Throughout the novel Gloria advises her to avoid romantic or flirtatious entanglements, suggesting that they would compromise her and make her weak. We see evidence of that in her misguided relationship with Vic, a character whose appeal is a little hard for me to perceive though I understand that her feelings are simply beyond her control and she is simply drawn to him. Is Gloria’s advice given out of jealousy or possessiveness or is it simply good advice that she herself is failing to follow. I am not entirely sure what I think but I found this ambiguity to be really interesting.

By comparison her relationship with Vic is much flatter and while I understand its importance to the plot, this is the least complex aspect of the novel. Perhaps that reflects that this is simply a more familiar relationship with a pretty direct reversal of the usual gender roles. Much of the material that is added to this novel in expanding it from its original short story form relates to this aspect of the story and at times it does feel a little like padding. Still, I think the payoff to this aspect of the story is satisfying and I enjoyed the reflections on it towards the end of the novel.

Overall I felt that Queenpin was a clever and largely satisfying exploration of theme and situation. Is it revolutionary? Perhaps not, but I think the more familiar aspects of the plot are necessary to allow for commentary and reflection on noir tropes. It certainly left me curious to try some of Abbott’s other work which I gather is more contemporary. If you have any recommendations please feel free to share!

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

The Killer Inside Me
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1952

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is often cited as the author’s masterpiece. Certainly I think it remains his best known novel in spite of other books having had more popular movie adaptations.

The book, written in 1952, is also one of the earliest examples of a inverted crime novel featuring a psychopathic protagonist. There had been killers who killed multiple victims before and arguably even seemed to enjoy it but never with the degree of violence present here.

The novel concerns a Texas lawman, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. He comes from one of the older families in the neighborhood and has lived there all his life. The book opens with him being dispatched to chase a woman out of town who has set herself up as a prostitute.

When he encounters that woman, Joyce, he begins to get violent with her but rather than inspiring her to get out of town, it prompts the start of a sadomasochistic relationship between the pair. Lou enjoys himself but expresses the feeling that he is experiencing the symptoms of what he terms “the sickness” that has plagued him since his teen years when he sexually abused a young girl – a crime that his brother took the blame for.

Lou’s long-term girlfriend Amy Stanton, a schoolteacher from one of the most prominent families in town, becomes suspicious of his behavior and when Joyce expresses a desire to run away with him and get married he realizes that the situation can’t go on. He concocts a plan to kill Joyce and put the blame on Elmer, the son of a local construction magnate who he blames for the death of his brother. He carries the plan out but soon realizes that he is under suspicion, prompting further murders as he tries to clean up loose ends.

One of the reasons I had held off on reading this book until now, aside from my long-stated preference to avoid starting out with an author’s most famous work, is that I had heard that this was an incredibly violent novel. Certainly I do not think that people are wrong to say this – Lou is vicious, administering severe beatings that reduce his victims to a bloody pulp – but I think it slightly mischaracterizes the work. Thompson’s writing is not as explicit in the details of violence as that of some other hard-boiled from the decades that follow – what sets it apart is the focus on exploring how Lou feels during and after those events. We are put into the mind of a killer and it’s not a pleasant place to be.

I don’t want to spoil the later parts of the novel so the safest part to discuss in detail is the relationship with the prostitute Joyce. As I indicated earlier, this begins with an act of brutal violence and yet it seems to quickly turn into a relationship in which he abuses her body. I say seems because Thompson does not directly describe what they do, only the feelings it creates in Lou and we see their interactions outside the bedroom as she discusses wanting to run away with him. Assuming that Lou’s narration is truthful and accurate, something we have no reason to doubt as this is not presented as an attempt to convince the reader of a character’s innocence or guilt, the relationship seems quite consensual by this point.

Later, when Lou decides to murder her, we are reminded that he felt he was in love with her. Even if that is not the case it is apparent he is far more attracted to Joyce and feels he has far more in common with her than he does with the prissier Amy but Joyce is an inconvenience. She represents the side of him that he needs to cover up in order to fit into Texan society.

For years Lou had been able to hide the violent side of his personality by developing an “aw, shucks” persona and masking his fierce intelligence. His work in the sheriff’s department, attendance at weekly Bible classes and long-term relationship with Amy have led most to consider him to be a pillar of the community. Part of what makes this book so shocking is the way Thompson has him abuse their trust, acting viciously towards them and the people they love while looking them directly in the eye.

Thompson attempts to give us a psychological understanding of Lou, actually supplying us with a probable diagnosis by the end of the novel. That diagnosis is both medical and rooted in the exploration of an event from Lou’s childhood which is intriguing though I was not entirely convinced in the latter, perhaps because the details remain vague as Lou makes an active choice to repress them.

Some criticism I have read of the book focuses on the relative treatments of Lou’s violent acts when targeted at men and women. The argument goes that the novel is misogynistic because the murders of the women are more brutal, detailed and vicious while the murders of men are barely described at all. I agree that they are correct to describe those murders in that way however I feel that Thompson’s point is that Lou’s “sickness” is directed specifically at women and are tied up in that event from his past. That is to say that the violence aimed at women and the hypocrisy of American society on this issue is an intentional theme of the book rather than something that critics have revealed through textural analysis. That isn’t to say that it makes for comfortable reading however and I certainly would sympathize with anyone who finds it makes for a difficult or unpleasant experience.

If we switch perspectives a little and look at this as an example of an inverted crime story I think there are some further points of interest worth exploring. For one thing, this is much closer to a traditional inverted mystery story than any of the other Thompson works I have read so far. Lou develops something approaching a reasonable plan but there are flaws in it that the reader can discern and use to work out how everything might unravel. Several developments are clued pretty well in the text and while a few of those developments are complete surprises, I never felt cheated by the book.

Thompson attempts to portray a police investigation, albeit one that often operates in the background of his story with the protagonist not always aware of the details of what is going on. We focus on movements, motives and opportunity, although Lou attempts to subvert those investigations using his own knowledge and access, making it clear that this is not just the tale of a man committing crimes but also the efforts to bring him to justice.

It makes for pretty compelling reading, helped along by Thompson’s witty writing style. Lou is never someone you feel the slightest shred of sympathy for however, nor does he blend in quite as successfully as Nick Corey does in Thompson’s later novel Pop. 1280.

It is that latter point that I think ultimately makes that novel stand out to me as a more successful and complete work, even if it offers a less convincing explanation of its killer’s actions than this novel does. I would suggest that book is often funnier and lighter in tone, in spite of being just as violent. That, for me, is Thompson’s masterpiece and so, I suppose, I have to say that The Killer Inside Me is a little overrated (though it was the more influential work).

That is not to say however that it is a disappointing read or not worth your attention. While its themes and tone won’t be for everyone, The Killer Inside Me is certainly one of the milestone texts in the history of the crime novel and while that alone would justify a recommendation, I think it is an interesting read in its own right.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1934

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an important and widely celebrated novel within the mystery and crime fiction genre. It is a fixture on many best novel lists including the CWA, MWA and Modern Library top hundred lists. It has been adapted a number of times, including the celebrated 1946 movie adaptation, and proved hugely influential in its ideas and imagery, inspiring other works like Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread and Camus’ The Stranger.

It begins when a drifter named Frank Chambers visits a diner and is offered a job by the proprietor, Nick Papadakis. Frank is not usually one to stick around and work a paycheck but he feels an intense attraction to the man’s much younger wife, Cora, and after deciding to stay a while, the two initiate an affair.

The pair eventually develop a scheme by which they intend to kill Nick, making it appear to be an accident. Things however do not run smoothly and soon Frank and Cora find themselves under police scrutiny…

The first thing that strikes me about this novel is just how confident and direct Cain’s writing is. Even eighty-five years later it still possesses a striking raw quality that perfectly fits the tone of the story and helps to establish the main characters. Few debut novelists find their voice so early and so clearly.

Cain wastes little time in establishing the premise and the relationships between Frank, Cora and Nick, creating a compelling and tense situation. Nick is oblivious to the affair going on behind his back but we quickly learn that Cora is looking for a way out and she sees this new relationship with Frank as her answer, planning to lean on him to help dispose of her husband.

Cora is the archetypal femme fatale, being young, seemingly vulnerable and yet uncompromising with an apparent masochistic streak. There is, of course, a way that Frank and Cora could be together – they could just skip town – but she cannot walk away from the business and the prospect of getting Nick’s money. Frank knows the dangers inherent in what she asks him to do and yet he wants her badly enough that he will put himself at risk, acting almost as if he is under compulsion by ignoring his own concerns.

Knowing that she opts to pursue a more dangerous approach to ridding herself of her husband, it is hard to see Cora as a sympathetic character. We learn a little about her backstory, marrying young and working in the kitchens but Nick is clearly not a tyrant, making him a rather undeserving corpse. Instead her desire to leave him seems rooted in racism and xenophobia because of his Greek background, leaving me with little sympathy for her.

The relationships between Frank, Nick and Cora are wonderfully ambiguous at times. We might wonder, for instance, whether Cora is as mad about Frank as she appears and certainly Frank’s own interest in her waxes and wanes. This is not as a result of some oversight on Cain’s part but rather it is the whole point of the novel as it builds to a moment in which we have to question those feelings and judge for ourselves. That moment struck me as really powerful and while I have my reading of that relationship, I could conceive others coming away with a different impression that could just as easily be supported by the material.

Though the novel is pretty short, Cain packs it with plenty of incident and quite a few surprises. Nothing seems to go smoothly for the pair and there are a few significant problems that set the narrative into new and interesting directions, particularly once lawyers become involved.

Perhaps the weakest element of the novel is that it seems pretty clear where the action will be headed yet I think it would be unfair to blame it for any familiar plot elements. This is a novel that has clearly been emulated many times since being written yet I suspect it would have been a lot more shocking, particularly its ending, at the time.

This seems a pretty pointless quibble when the quality of the story is otherwise so high. I found The Postman Always Rings Twice to be quite an engrossing and striking read. Sometimes when you read a book that is labeled a classic the results are disappointing. Happily my experience here was excellent, being the rare case of a book that meets its reputation. It may not be quite perfect in every regard but the story is strong and powerful while the situations are really engrossing. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

Nothing More Than Murder by Jim Thompson

Nothing More Than Murder
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1949

When Joe Wilmot is found by his wife Elizabeth in the arms of Carol, their housemaid, she makes him a proposition. She will skip town and leave them together on the condition that she be declared dead and given the insurance payout to allow her to start a new life somewhere else.

Of course, to get an insurance payout you need a body but Elizabeth has a plan for that too. Carol is tasked with finding an unattached woman of a similar physique and luring her to their home. Once there she would be killed in a fire, burning the body to the point where it could not be fully identified.

It is a solid, if ghoulish, plan and the novel begins with Joe taking the first steps in executing it, placing an ad in the local paper to try and find a suitable victim. The chapters that follow not only detail how they are putting their plan into action but also the events that led them to that point, exploring their psychological states at key moments.

One issue that Thompson faces is convincing us that these characters would conceive and develop this plan and I felt that this was the least successful aspect of the novel. Certainly the situation he has devised is interesting, dramatic and quite original but given the nature of what they are planning, I found it challenging to get my head around each of their motivations.

The easiest character to understand is Joe. He had started working for Elizabeth at her movie house but when they married he took over the concern, finding ways to trim costs and work the distributors system to ensure that he was showing the movies he wanted. He loves the business and is deeply invested in it, so it makes sense that he would be willing to consider a plan that allows him to keep hold of it and allow him a fresh start with Carol.

I found it harder to understand the motivations of the two women in his life. In one respect this is appropriate – Joe’s confusion about Elizabeth’s reasons for offering this deal is an important plot point – and I do think Thompson ultimately addresses some of these questions but I found that they lingered over the early part of the novel. My feeling is both women feel underwritten and are given much less definition than Joe.

While the plan wasn’t of Joe’s devising and he is not directly involved in its execution, Thompson’s decision to have him narrate the story rather than using a third person narrative style makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Thompson is able to use his narration to establish aspects of his character but it also allows us to experience his lack of understanding of the thoughts and mentalities of the two women in his life. This leads to some of the book’s richest pages towards its end as Joe reflects on how his marriage to Elizabeth ended up going so badly.

The plan Elizabeth has hatched is quite clever and I think it is credible to think that it might work. The mechanics and characters’ movements are clear and easy to follow while at first glance the murderers are leaving no loose ends. Of course, things will go wrong – that’s just a part of the noir style – but it’s reasonable to think that they might succeed.

The problem of course lies with the insurance company who send an investigator to the town to look into the death. Here, once again, the decision to tell the story from Joe’s perspective pays off as it means that we have little idea exactly what he has found or how close he is to finding out their secret beyond what the investigator tells Joe.

Thompson sets his pieces in place effectively, creating obvious points of tension between the various characters. The reader waits for those tensions to be triggered and to see just how things will collapse and, of course, if anyone will get away with it all.

I also found that I really enjoyed Thompson’s explanations of the movie distribution system and some of the practicalities of running a movie theatre. In these passages Thompson manages to convey some pretty complicated ideas quite effectively, throwing light on how the industry worked in that time.

The supporting characters are similarly quite interesting and I enjoyed following along as things start to go wrong with the plan. Several of these characters are particularly colorful. Some of these issues are quite strongly clued but some others may take readers by surprise.

Though it is not perfect, I found that I liked and enjoyed Nothing More Than Murder. The writing is sharp and the way this story is resolved feels really quite clever.

Devil in Dungarees by Albert Conroy

Devil in Dungarees
Marvin H. Albert (as Albert Conroy)
Originally Published 1960

Sometimes I pick up a book based on meticulous research or the recommendation of a friend. Today’s title, Devil in Dungarees, grabbed my attention simply because its title made me smile as the idea of hyper-sexualized dungarees seemed ridiculous. As it turns out this is because in the period in which this was written dungarees would have meant jeans as shown on the Crest Book cover which makes a whole lot more sense than what I initially pictured (Sarah-Jane Smith in the Doctor Who story The Hand of Fear).

The novel is an example of a type of crime novel I have not written about before on this blog – the heist. While I have enjoyed many films that feature these sorts of crimes, I suspect this may be the first novel I have read detailing that sort of crime. Certainly no others readily come to mind.

The appeal of these sorts of heist stories is in following a crime from its conception to execution and exploring its aftermath. Typically things do not go well for the criminals (or there is some element of double-cross). Given my love of inverted crime stories in general, it should come as little surprise that this sort of story might appeal to me. The only real surprise is that it has taken me so long to try one.

Devil in Dungarees begins on the morning on which the crime is planned to take place. The target is a bank on the day before payday and the plan is not particularly complex. The armed gang aims to get in and out within a very tight window of seven minutes, being off the scene before the police are able to arrive.

They have enlisted the help of a policeman, Walt Bonner, who has passed them information about patrol movements and agreed to arrange a diversion to give the gang the widest window possible to get in and away before the police can arrive. For this he is expecting to get paid half of the total takings for the job.

Walt is being encouraged and persuaded to take part by Peggy, a young woman he has been seeing for a little over a month. She claims to be twenty though Walt suspects she is younger in spite of her experience with men, and keeps pushing the idea that they will be together permanently after the job is done and they have the money. Of course the moment he leaves we learn that Peggy and the others have no intention on keeping their promises to Walt and plan on running out on him.

This then is the setup for a day that will turn into a disaster and I think it makes for an effective starting point for the novel. By choosing to begin after the crime has been planned, Conroy is able to focus on injecting action into his story while choosing to reveal important and pertinent pieces of information as needed. This works nicely to drive the narrative towards that moment where everything begins to go wrong with their plan and these characters begin to react to their situation and each other.

The way their plan ends up breaking apart is relatively simple but I think it is very effectively done. Each development feels properly set up and clued, particularly as we already know something about the personalities of each of the gang and their eventual intentions towards each other. The result is a story in which developments feel logical and satisfying and the tension seems to steadily build throughout the bank job.

While Conroy’s focus is on developing his plot and structure, his characters feel striking, colorful and distinctive. This is particularly true of some of the supporting characters such as the members of the gang and Bonner’s partner on the force, Ben Travis who is probably the most likable character in the novel. No one really changes – they begin the novel as they end it – but there are some surprising and challenging moments along the way for several of them.

Unfortunately I was a little less enamored of the handling of the two most central characters, Walt and Peggy. Conroy’s focus in his story is on pushing the plot forwards at all times and so neither character has any moments of introspection or reflection. They simply spend the novel responding instinctively to circumstances. This is interesting enough and I enjoyed the ride but given some of the things that happen to them I felt that there were questions about their backstories and their emotional states that were left unanswered.

This frustrated me most with regards the character of Peggy. From the moment she is introduced it is clear that she is serving in the role of a femme fatale and it is easy to understand the effect she has on Walt. I was curious about how Peggy came to be the way she is and why she is willing to be used and to endure some of the things she puts up with here.

I think we also come to recognize that this is a character who is conditioned to survive, clinging to the man she believes offers her the best chance of doing that. That is inferred however through the choices made rather than from any direct discussion of her choices in the narration or dialogue. We learn little about her beyond that impulse even when she is being put through the wringer as she is at points here.

I cannot hold this against Conroy too strongly however because I do not think he singles Peggy out. He is simply uninterested in exploring those questions. Peggy and Walt are the way they are presented and his interest lies in how these character types will interact and cope with the situations they are presented with. In that respect I think this story is very effective.

The power of the novel lies in its simplicity both in terms of its construction and the themes Conroy is interested in exploring. Because all of the other details are stripped away to focus on the plot, we are encouraged to anticipate conflict we know is coming up. The surprise lies in seeing what elements factor into that moment as other characters shift in and out of focus. It is simple but effective storytelling and Conroy is able to pack a lot of action into the story as a result.

While I was left wanting a little more depth in the characterization, I think that focus Conroy has on story pays off well. The result is a tight, engaging and sometimes quite dark read that drives towards its conclusion without ever really letting up.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

double
Double Indemnity
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1943

I cannot really explain how it is that I have not previously written about the works of James M. Cain. He is after all one of the towering figures of American crime fiction and, in particular, of the sort of inverted crime stories that I enjoy so much. I only realized this omission when I recently compiled my Five to Try list of inverted crime novels and determined that I would try to rectify it as soon as possible.

While I may not have reviewed any Cain works here before, Double Indemnity is not my first encounter with his work. I have previously read and enjoyed The Cocktail Waitress and The Postman Rings Twice and I am pretty sure that I have seen at least part of the film adaptation though I didn’t remember much more than the basic premise and certainly not well enough to discuss the changes made.

The story is told from the perspective of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman who calls at Mr. Nirdlinger’s home to try to persuade him to renew their automobile insurance. It turns out that he isn’t home but his wife Phyllis is and they speak for a while about the plan before she asks whether he sells accident insurance. This question surprises Walter as it is a type of insurance usually sold as an add-on during a transaction rather than one picked out by customers though he notes that it is unusual as being the only type of insurance that can be taken out on a third party’s life without their knowledge.

Walter’s suspicion that Phyllis intends to murder her husband are soon proved correct and, unable to resist his attraction to her, he agrees to help. He quickly points out some of the defects in her scheme and the pair come up with a clever plan to contrive a train accident to claim the money. They find however that the insurance company is suspicious of the death and that they are suddenly under investigation…

One of the first things that struck me about Double Indemnity was how short it is. It was a novella, published in parts in Liberty Magazine, and it can easily be finished in a couple of hours. But it’s not just a matter of the page count – this book reads quickly because Cain writes so tightly, drawing us in to a plot that moves quickly and features several significant twists and revelations.

Part of the reason that Cain’s story is able to move so quickly is that his protagonist, Walter, is not a complete innocent at the start of the story. He does not start the story as a killer but he has given thought to how an insurance fraud of this sort could be pulled off meaning when he is presented with the opportunity he does not need to be persuaded that it might work or spend too long devising a plan. This lets Cain get quickly to the action and focus on developing our understanding of his characters and the details of the plan they aim to pull off.

Walter has two motivations for getting involved in this plan. Firstly, he is excited by the idea of pulling off this fraud idea he had thought up long before ever calling on the Nirdlingers. Secondly, he is attracted to Phyllis and likes the idea that by carrying out this plan he will win the girl too as she would be free once her husband is dead. These motivations are not exactly unique to this story but I think they are strong enough to make his actions feel credible and I think they also help build our understanding of Walter’s character, his strengths and the flaws that may undo him.

Walter narrates the story so we get to learn what he thinks about the situation he finds himself in as well as the concerns that develop as it goes on. A consequence of this choice however is that Phyllis is a little bit harder to get to know, at least at first, as we only really learn the things about her that Walter is interested in.

This does not mean however that the characters are flat or shallow. By the end of the novella we will have a much clearer picture of who Phyllis, her stepdaughter Lola and Sachetti all are and how they each fit into the story. To Walter some of these developments will come as a surprise but the reader will quickly recognize that a character is presented as a femme fatale and so will hopefully be a little ahead of him.

Some of those revelations are not particularly surprising, though there were a few points that turned out to be much more complex and interesting than I guessed. What makes this memorable is how well Cain introduces each idea and element, integrating them to tell a crisp and powerful story that builds to a dramatic finish. That conclusion is potent and delivered with slick intensity.

As with the buildup to the murder, Cain’s ending does not dwell too much on exploring characters’ emotions or attempt to string things out by having his characters behave with indecision. His characters remain bold and decisive right up to the end, providing us with a powerful conclusion that I felt was an appropriate and memorable resolution to the story.

While Double Indemnity is a short work, Cain’s clear plotting, direct prose and bold characterizations make it a striking, quick read. Cain’s restraint both in terms of his use of detail and in his description of the killing is impressive and I think he does well to boil down some complicated ideas about insurance processes so that the action of his story is easy to follow. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mystery Challenge: Book turned into TV/film/play (Why)

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

1280
Pop. 1280
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1964

Pop. 1280 is my first encounter with Jim Thompson, a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction best known for writing The Killer Inside Me. I had previously learned about him as part of a lecture about violence and crime fiction in the Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction series and was even more intrigued when I saw JJ had listed him as one of his Kings of Crime.

The novel’s protagonist is Nick Corey, a corrupt and lazy sheriff in a tiny county in rural Texas. His days are spent taking bribes, eating and drinking at the various establishments in the town and sleeping with the town’s single (and some not so single) women.

He has some problems though that threaten his chances of keeping this job and the comfortable living that comes with it. For one thing, he is being publicly disrespected by two pimps at the local brothel. With a tough reelection fight looming he wants to stamp this out before it can do more damage to his public persona. And then there’s his complicated love life…

Pop. 1280 follows Nick as he attempts to straighten out some of these problems, indulge his appetites and ensure his reelection to the only job he feels suited for. While he appears to be quite a simple, corny kind of guy who tries to avoid taking any firm positions, we soon learn that he gives far more thought to what he does than it appears as he commits murder and manipulates another character into claiming responsibility for it. Crucially we are not told what he intends and so his actions often seem irrational or counterproductive, only for the reason for them to become clear after the fact.

Not every aspect of the story falls within Nick’s control however and he spends significant chunks of the novel responding to problems instigated by other characters. This gives the story a meandering, unpredictable quality as we see him find opportunities in situations that seem quite undesirable, showing his quick mind and talent for manipulation.

Thompson’s story drives home a deeply pessimistic view of humanity in which no one wants to obey the law themselves but wants to see others subjected to it. Nick reflects that what this amounts to is that the influential folk want to be left alone and to see him pick on the town’s black and poor white population instead and what we see confirms it. Almost all of the supporting characters are shown to be in some way corrupt, greedy and selfish and several of his victims seem to quite deserve their fates, usually falling into them because of their own moral compromises and instincts.

There are some very strong satirical moments in the story and it should be said that as dark as the subject matter can be, it is often very amusing. Nick’s habit of responding to criticism with a folksy saying works throughout the novel while his amorous misadventures place him in some truly ridiculous situations. These sorts of comedic moments keep the overall feel of the piece quite light and give a good sense of balance to the novel as a whole.

The three central women in Nick’s life are also all quite intriguing and varied figures, each feeling quite fleshed out if far from sympathetically. I do not want to spoil the way each is developed and used in the story but I think they all have an interesting journey with that of Rose, his wife’s best friend whose husband is abusive, being the most striking. That storyline takes several unpredictable turns and incorporates several of the novel’s most shocking moments.

Thompson cultivates a feeling of shock and dismay on the part of the reader right the way through the novel, routinely exposing characters’ vices and cruelties. Readers should expect to find considerable, casual use of a racial epithet by pretty well every character in the book which, while not pleasant, is authentic to the time and setting.

Nick is not a nice man, nor can he really be elevated to the status of anti-hero. He is a villain who does some truly cruel things but because the people he targets are often more loathsome than him readers may well enjoy seeing him pull off his plans. While he seems to obfuscate and lie at points in his narrative, he can also be quite straightforward in admitting to exactly who and what he is. For that reason when he explains himself at the end of the novel it doesn’t come as a shock but rather it is the logical conclusion to what we have observed throughout the story.

It is surprising that although the book touches on some truly dark themes Thompson is pretty restrained in his use of violence. The threat of it and our knowledge that it is happening is always there but there are relatively few moments in which we see it explicitly described. This contrasted with the image I had of Thompson’s style and I will be interested to see whether that is true of his other novels.

It should be said that while this is a crime story that this is not a mystery. There is nothing here for the reader to detect or deduce other than what exactly Nick has planned and his motive, both of which are spelled out early in the book.

Rather Pop. 1280 is both a character study of a killer and an exploration of the human propensity towards selfishness, greed and hatred. Stephen Marche described it as ‘a romp through a world of nearly infinite deceit’ and while I don’t have enough knowledge of the author’s work to be able to agree with his assessment that it is the author’s true masterpiece, I would certainly say it is a compelling, cynical read that manages to shock, appall and amuse in fairly equal measures.