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.

The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes

So Blue
The So Blue Marble
Dorothy B. Hughes
Originally Published 1940
Griselda Satterlee #1
Followed by The Bamboo Blonde

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is one of six vintage titles that were chosen by Otto Penzler to launch his new American Mystery Classics range. Like the British Library’s range, these books each feature an introduction giving some context to the work and information about the author.

Coming months will see titles from familiar names such as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen as well as less widely known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge. I think the range looks to showcase the enormous variety to be found in American Golden Age crime fiction.

While I knew that Dorothy B. Hughes is a relatively well-known name in American mystery fiction, this was my first encounter with her work. The So Blue Marble was her first mystery novel although, as the introduction notes, it might be better described as a thriller or work of sensation fiction.

The story concerns Griselda Satterlee, a former actress who has given up show business to become a fashion designer, who is taking a couple of months vacation in New York. Not being fond of hotels, she is staying in her ex-husband’s apartment while he is away on assignment as a news reporter. When she walks home one night she is stopped by two handsome, well-dressed twins who force their way into the apartment. They tell her that they have come in search of the So Blue Marble which they insist she or her ex-husband must possess.

What is the So Blue Marble? Well, in truth it is little more than a MacGuffin albeit with a mystical back story and a rather odd name. The desire to possess it provides motivation for some of the characters but the nature of the object is of little consequence. What is really important is what it means to the Montefierrow twins and what they are willing to do to acquire it.

Danny and David Montefierrow make for a fascinating pair of characters. Initially we see them in terms of their charm and physical perfection but Griselda quickly notices the blankness in their eyes which she finds quite unsettling. We see that they can be quite ruthless and prepared to harm innocent third parties while I think the triangle that forms between them and a woman reads as sadistic and disturbing while it is also hard to understand just who is dominant within the relationship.

We are introduced to a number of other characters who play roles within Griselda’s life that she will seek to protect. She has two sisters, Ann and Missy, each quite fascinating and possessing very distinct personalities. I enjoyed getting to know each of them and was pleased that they played meaningful roles within the plot.

Her ex-husband’s neighbor, an archaeology and art professor at the university, is an intriguing presence and possible romantic interest. He, of course, is concerned that he not do anything that might jeopardize his friendship with Con. One early scene in which she convinces him to stay in the apartment overnight after the incident referred to earlier is really quite charming.

Con, on the other hand, was a character that never quite worked for me. Part of it, I think, is that I was hungry for more details about their relationship, why they were initially attracted to one another and why it failed. He spends a significant portion of the novel as little more than a reference or an idea and as a result I never really felt I knew him and what makes him tick.

As for Griselda, I found her to be easy to empathize with and I appreciated that while she occasionally accepts help from male characters that she is not portrayed as a damsel in distress. I appreciated the way this story affects her relationship with Con and her desire to keep him from harm. While I think a story beat at the end is not quite earned, I did enjoy spending time in her company.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was that it feels like an absolutely unpredictable, crazy ride. It is not just the surprising plot developments, although there are a few moments I never saw coming, but rather it is the character beats that make this feel quite different and unusual. It is a joy discovering these characters and seeing how they will all interact with each other to drive the story.

The So Blue Marble is a wonderfully entertaining, even amusing story which feels far too polished and rich to be anyone’s first novel. I had a good time discovering the secrets behind the marble and its history as well as seeing how the conflict between the twins and Griselda would play in it. For those who enjoy thriller-type stories, this would be Highly Recommended.

The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

Vengeful
The Vengeful Virgin
Gil Brewer
Originally Published 1958

The Vengeful Virgin is a pulp novel from the 1950s that on the face of it seems a little out of my reading comfort zone. The reason it jumped out at me though is that it is another example of my favorite subgenre, the inverted crime story and I came to it feeling somewhat optimistic based on my experiences with the other hard-boiled inverted stories I have reviewed recently.

The novel concerns a pair of lovers with an almost primal physical attraction to one another and their plot to kill the girl’s rich stepfather who is an invalid. The girl, eighteen year-old Shirley Angela, has been caring for him for three years and resents his demands. She knows that she is in line to receive a big inheritance from him but knows that with medical intervention he could live for ten years or longer.

When protagonist Jack Ruxton, a television installation engineer, first crosses paths with her she has already devised a crude plan to get rid of him. The two are instantly drawn to each other and she brings him in on the plan. He quickly expresses concern that her idea to have a television topple onto him would immediately be traced back to them and suggests his own plan…

Jack is far from a charming guy and is in some ways a little reminiscent of the male murderer in Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry, another inverted story. This similarity extends right to the character’s casual description of Shirley as  someone who “…made you feel as if you wanted to rape her” and is attracted to her in part because of her youth. Their relationship is all kinds of problematic if the author’s intention is to titillate his reader as Jason John Horn notes in an essay he wrote about chauvinism and ableism in this novel. Be aware that essay does spoil some key plot developments!

I am on the fence about whether Brewer intends to appeal to that side of his readers here or not. If that was the aim I think he misses the mark in any case as those scenes, while frequent, do little to appeal to the reader’s senses. They do effectively establish the main character as a seedy, brutish man who uses the women in his life to fulfil his own desires whether physical or financial.

Shirley is cast as a mix of vixen and femme fatale. She certainly tempts Jack into committing a crime though he did not need much persuasion and she repeatedly expresses her desire for him. The characterization is not particularly complex and perhaps the one revelation that may have added a little punch is spoiled within the book, reducing the impact of a key moment within the novel’s conclusion.

Though Brewer’s characters feel a little flat, the plotting is a little more interesting. I was impressed with the idea that Jack comes up with for its relative simplicity and the scene in which the plan is carried out contains some wonderful moments of tension. Throughout the build up to that moment we are made aware of the danger they face and anticipate some of the things that might go wrong. These problems are foreshadowed very effectively and while I think it would be a stretch to say there are mystery elements here, the reader can try to work out how those elements will combine to cause their downfall.

While the reader will likely predict elements of the novel’s conclusion, I do think it contains some of the novel’s strongest imagery and dramatic moments. That sequence sums up the novel’s themes well and it feels like a logical and powerful resolution to the story.

Unfortunately the journey to that point underwhelms, particularly in the saggy middle of the tale where we wait for the pair to actually get on with committing their crime. Neither Jack nor Shirley are interesting or likeable enough to make their relationship compelling and there are no unexpected revelations or moments featuring them that may have made them more complex or interesting and might have helped to drive the story.

Though The Vengeful Virgin has some strong moments, not least its punchy ending, I think it never rises above its often flat, unpleasant characterizations and the slow pacing of the scenes in which the pair develop their plan. It is not badly written and it does have a few good ideas but the sometimes seedy tone (which, to be fair, is totally hinted at in its title) had little appeal for me.

I Married A Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

MarriedADeadMan
I Married A Dead Man
William Irish (aka. Cornell Woolrich)
Originally Published 1948

I Married A Dead Man is the story of a murder and the impact it has on a couple who ought to be enjoying a happily ever after. It definitely belongs to the noir school as our protagonists find themselves in a hopeless situation, each unable to shake their feeling that the other must be responsible. After establishing this portrait of the couple Woolrich jumps back over a year to show us how this situation came to be.

The story begins with Helen who is unmarried and eight months pregnant. Rather than receiving support from the father, instead she is given five dollars and a one-way train ticket back to her hometown.

On the train she is befriended by a woman who is also pregnant and travelling with her husband to meet his parents for the first time. We hear that they have never so much as seen a photograph of her so when the train derails and the couple are killed they assume that she must be their daughter-in-law and so pay for her medical care and give her and her newborn son a home.

This setup creates tension as she lives under the fear that her secret will somehow be discovered. This could not only lead to her losing her home and security for her child but the family she comes to cherish. Finally, a year later, she finds a note that seems to suggest that her secret has been discovered though she is not sure who is responsible, setting a series of events in motion leading to the situation and characters’ state of mind described in the prologue.

At this point I should probably reiterate that this is the story of a murder and its aftermath rather than a mystery story. The scenario certainly generates questions that the reader may try to work out the answers to but there are no clear answers given to the biggest question that hangs over all of the characters and that will destroy all of their chances of happiness.

What Woolrich does really well is explore Helen’s state of mind and the unlikely but compelling situation she finds herself in. While the thing she does is clearly morally wrong, we are likely to sympathise with her and absolve her of wrongdoing. She has not orchestrated this deception and we see that she does truly care for the couple who had lost their son.

The grieving parents are likeable but presented somewhat abstractly, referred to by their roles as mother and father rather than by name and given limited and fairly general personality traits. While that approach would not suit every work it is appropriate here because the couple represent a set of values and a family lifestyle that Helen comes to cherish. They give her a sense of belonging that she clearly has not experienced before.

Bill is given more depth not to mention a name. We know from the start of the novella that Helen will end up married to him and that she will think him responsible for the murder and yet when we first meet him that unhappiness seems unlike him. He possesses a strong sense of charm and while his intelligence poses a threat to Helen, the two are clearly attracted to each other from shortly after they meet.

This relationship sits at the heart of the novella because for the conceit of the story to work we must view them as a tragic couple and believe that had they met under different circumstances they might have been happy. The length of Woolrich’s story means that we do not have much time to see the couple’s friendship and relationship slowly develop and so instead we see a few key moments in that process but I was convinced by the type of interactions they shared that they could have been happy.

I ought to have seen the circumstances of the crisis coming, though somehow it caught me by surprise. I think even if you know what will get in the way of their happiness those scenes are cinematically written and highly effective. I felt the protagonist’s sense of panic, anger and frustration at the possibility of losing everything and understood her actions.

It should probably be said that while the scenario is set up to have each character believe the other guilty of the crime, we do follow Helen’s actions more closely than Bill’s. That does not necessarily mean though that we know Bill to be guilty and in a way the actual solution to the crime doesn’t matter – it all comes down to how the couple’s suspicions and feelings alter the rest of their relationship. It is powerful stuff, underlined by the striking decision to return to the material from the start of the book at the end.

Is it perfect? Well, it must be said that the scenario outlined does seem wholly unlikely to ever happen. I think Woolrich does take steps later in the novella to give a rationale to how the mistake could have come about and gives her a strong reason to maintain the fiction but it does require some pretty odd plot contortions to set everything in motion. This is a scenario that really could not work in the present day as it relies on a lack of documentation that would be close to unthinkable today.

Overall I found this to be a fast and highly engaging read. It certainly veers towards melodrama in some aspects of its scenario and storytelling but I felt that the ending was really effective, packing an emotional punch.

This book was originally published as the work of William Irish, a pseudonym for Cornell Woolrich. Reprints have typically used the author’s real name so I am following suit.

Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Lady Killer
Lady Killer
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Originally Published 1942

I had my first taste of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s work just a few weeks ago when I read and reviewed Net of Cobwebs. I was deeply impressed with that novel’s clever and thoughtful presentation of its unreliable protagonist and was hungry for more so when I came across a copy of Lady Killer I couldn’t resist putting it to the top of my To Be Read pile.

Seven months before the novel begins Honey married Weaver Stapleton, a wealthy older man primarily for his money. While their courtship had been pleasant, the couple find themselves arguing constantly and she is wondering if she has made a terrible mistake.

The novel begins with them taking a Caribbean cruise together but as the voyage gets underway Honey begins to become suspicious of a fellow passenger whose new wife seems sick, complaining that the food tastes strange, and whose luggage mysteriously vanished before they set sail. She soon begins to worry that the husband plans to kill his wife but whenever she tries to raise the matter with Weaver or her fellow passengers her fears are dismissed.

The blurb you will find on popular e-book sites will give you more details about the plot but this novella is short enough that I don’t want to spoil too much about where it goes. Suffice it to say that there is a body and the latter half of the novel has elements of the detective story about it, albeit couched in the style of a psychological thriller.

Lady Killer is about the relationships between men and women and their comparative statuses within 1940s society. Honey is intuitive and persistent but she is hindered in her efforts to protect her new friend by gender expectations and roles. Whenever she discusses her fears she is treated as hysterical by the crew and by her fellow passengers, male and female, forcing her into a position where she has to act on her own. Even the person she believes will be a victim appears to refuse her help.

While Holding writes in the third person, she frequently slips into a first person perspective for a line or two to share Honey’s thoughts or state of mind and she does not show us events from anyone else’s perspective. This means the reader only really gets to experience them as Honey interprets them, making her a potentially unreliable narrator.

The reader feels Honey’s growing isolation throughout the novella and her building sense of desperation as her efforts to intervene keep being blocked. I was also quite struck by how I started to question the opinions I had formed about what had happened in light of the responses of her fellow passengers and the authority figures on the boat. Could she really be imagining it? You feel her powerlessness in those moments and though Honey can at times be quite rude and unpleasant, I found her determination in the face of these obstacles to be quite endearing.

The tension steadily builds throughout the first half of the book, climaxing with the discovery of a body on the boat. That moment is effective, not only because it transitions us to a new phase of the story in which Honey becomes a more active detective-type figure but also because it allows from some further ideas and themes to be introduced, complicating Honey’s relationships with her husband and her fellow passengers.

Honey’s relationship with Weaver is simultaneously the most intriguing and the most underwhelming part of the narrative. This is initially presented to the reader as an example of an uneven power dynamic where Weaver feels he is better than Honey and so resents what he regards as her shortcomings yet later in the novel we get to hear an alternative perspective on that relationship.

The reason this aspect of the story ultimately underwhelms is because of the way it is resolved or, perhaps more accurately, is not resolved at all. The narrative seems built towards having a major confrontation between the two and yet Holding never gives us that sort of moment.

I was far more impressed with the resolution to the mystery element of the novel which I found to be very cleverly worked. I was particularly taken with the final few pages of the novel which strike a sharp yet ambiguous note that I am sure will stay with me for a while. I can’t remember the last time I was so struck by an ending that managed to simultaneously feel like it came from nowhere and yet is the logical culmination of all that had gone before.

It was an impressive end to a novella that I found to be highly engaging both as a mystery and as a piece of social commentary. Not only is it an even better read than Net of Cobwebs, it is a book that makes me want to run out and buy copies of everything else that Holding ever wrote.