Category Archives: Jim Thompson

I Took a Little Risk*

As this is posted, it’s 158 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As you know, it was a groundbreaking book that still has implications. It contributed to major changes in our thinking about our species, our history, and a lot more.

It was a risky gamble for Darwin, and for the John Murray Company, the book’s publisher. Darwin is, of course, not the only author to take risks with his writing. Plenty of crime fiction authors have, too. Whenever an author breaks new ground with a book, she or her runs the risk of a complete failure, both critically and commercially. But sometimes, those gambles pay off.

Consider, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle. His Sherlock Holmes was arguably the first fictional detective who used the scientific method and scientific processes to solve mysteries. It was a major shift in detection, and there was no guarantee that it would pay off. But it did. Holmes remains one of the most popular characters in fiction history. In fact, fans loved Holmes so much that there was a major public outcry when Doyle tried to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. He was more or less forced by public opinion (and the publisher) to bring Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Agatha Christie also took major risks with her writing. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, we are introduced to retired magnate Roger Ackroyd and his household. When he is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes that he is innocent; so, she asks for help from Hercule Poirot, who’s recently retired (or so he thinks) to the same village. Poirot looks closely at other possibilities for the murderer, and finds that virtually every other character is hiding something. In the end, he finds out who the killer is. The solution to this mystery turned many of the detective story conventions on their heads, so to speak. In fact, Christie got quite a lot of criticism for not ‘playing fair.’ And yet, this novel remains one of her most popular releases. And, if you read the story carefully, you see that all of the clues are there.

Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me was also quite risky. In it, we are introduced to Lou Ford, Deputy Sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s well-enough liked in town, if considered a little dull. Certainly, he’s not the kind of person who draws a lot of attention. Then, a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. After that, there’s a murder. Now, everything’s changed, and we learn that Ford is hiding something – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ This is arguably one of the first novels in which we really get to know a serial killer, and get ‘inside that person’s head.’ It was a major gamble for Thompson; in fact, Stephen King has commented on Thompson’s bravery in letting himself see everything and write it down. The novel may not be for everyone, but it broke crime-fictional ground, and changed many people’s thinking about what a crime story could be.

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was also a gamble. It’s often (‘though not always) regarded as the first ‘hardboiled’ PI novel. Even today, people often associate Hammett with that sub-genre. Until that time, most crime novels avoided a lot of violence, and didn’t really look at the seamy side of life. Hammett introduced a different sort of protagonist, and a different sort of perspective, and there was resistance to it. There was also no guarantee that people would take to this sort of story. But, of course, they did. Today, the ‘hardboiled’ story is among the more popular of sub-genres.

Many people argue that Robert B. Parker also changed our thinking about the private-detective story. His Spenser series doesn’t just focus on clues, whodunit, and ‘red herrings.’ Rather, it explores relationships and character development, too, in a way that innovated that sub-genre. And plenty of more recent PIs have been inspired by that innovation to create a new kind of protagonist.

These are by no means the only authors who have taken risks by changing our thinking about what a crime novel could be. I’m sure that you could think of many more than I could. And, if you think about, every author takes a risk. What if people don’t like the direction the novel takes? What if an author who’s had success with one series tries something completely different – and it fails? Fiction writing, like scientific writing, takes a certain amount of courage no matter what one’s topic. And writing that takes our thinking in new directions requires even more courage. Just consider what we might have missed had Darwin not taken the risks he took.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Robert B. Parker

‘Cause I Ain’t Quite as Dumb as I Seem*

As this is posted, it would have been Andy Griffith’s 91st birthday. In one of his more famous roles, he portrayed Atlanta attorney Benjamin ‘Ben’ Matlock. Matlock’s courtroom persona was the ‘I’m just a dumb hick lawyer’ type, and he used it to great advantage as he defended clients. If you’ve seen the show, though, you know that Matlock was much sharper than he seemed.

Griffith was well-known (at least in the US) for that sort of character, but he’s hardly the only fictional character to ‘play dumb.’ There are plenty of other fictional lawyers, for instance, who use the same strategy. There are other characters, too (right, fans of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo?).

For instance, more than once, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple pretends to be ‘just a fluttery old lady.’ But any fan can tell you that Miss Marple is much more intelligent and observant than she seems on the surface. She uses that persona to put people off their guards, but they soon learn that they underestimate Miss Marple at their peril. There are times when Christie’s Hercule Poirot does a similar thing. Poirot is not exactly modest when it comes to his opinion of his detecting ability. But he also knows that it’s sometimes expedient to ‘play dumb,’ and he can do that quite well (I see you, fans of After the Funeral).

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a bright, educated detective with the Queensland Police. He’s intelligent and shrewd, and a solid judge of character. But he knows that it doesn’t always serve his purpose to ‘show his hand’ as the saying goes. So, he sometimes adopts an ‘I’m just a dumb Aborigine – what do I know?’ persona (he’s half white/half Aborigine). He’s also been known to adopt the non-threatening persona of an itinerant stockman, a ranch hand, and more. This non-threatening exterior allows Bony to get people to talk to him in ways they might not otherwise do. And it gives him the chance to observe people when they’re not aware of it.

In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, we are introduced to Central City, Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. Most people in town think of him as a bit dull, perhaps not the brightest bulb in the proverbial chandelier. But he’s nice enough – certainly not threatening. Then, a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is brutally beaten. Then, there’s a murder. As the story goes on, we learn that these events are connected, and that Ford’s ‘I’m just a dumb hick cop’ is hiding something else – something he himself refers to as ‘the sickness.’ It’s an interesting case of a murderer ‘playing dumb’ – and there are plenty of those.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover may be retired (she’s a former teacher), but there’s nothing ‘over the hill’ about her thinking skills. She’s bright, shrewd, and observant. Still, she knows that it sometimes pays to be as non-threatening as possible. That’s especially true since she’s not a member of a police force, and since she lives in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. So, she sometimes deliberately cultivates the ‘I’m just a gossipy old lady with nothing better to do’ image. This tends to put people more at ease than they would be if they knew what she was actually thinking. And it gets her information that she might not otherwise get.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. As the series begins, she’s eleven years old. She gets around her 1950s English village on her bicycle, Gladys. She fights with her two older sisters, and in other ways, she acts like a typical child of her age (if there is such a thing). But Flavia is not typical. She’s a brilliant chemist with a passion for poisons. And she’s curious enough to want to find out the truth about the murders that feature in this series. So, she uses her youth to her advantage. More than once, she adopts the ‘I’m just a dumb kid, don’t mind me’ persona so that she can eavesdrop, find clues, and so on.

There are many more examples of fictional characters who ‘play dumb’ so that they can get an advantage. Sometimes, they’re sleuths. Sometimes they’re killers. Other times, they’re hiding other things. Creating such a character can be tricky. There has to be a plausible reason for which other characters can’t see how bright/shrewd/well-informed the character really is. Otherwise there’s too much suspension of disbelief required of the reader. And ‘playing dumb’ too often can become tiresome. But when it’s done well, that sort of persona can add depth to a character – and interest to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Upfield, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Jim Thompson

They Say He’s Got to Go*

monstersOne of the most enduring plot types in any sort of writing is what I’ll call overcoming the monster. One example, for instance is the story of Beowulf and the monster called the Grendel. Of course, you don’t have to go back that far to find stories where protagonists have to overcome monsters.

If you think of monsters in the figurative sense, there are a lot of instances of this sort of plot in crime fiction. By the way, you’ll notice as this post goes on that there won’t be any instances of ‘crazed serial killer’ plots. Too easy.

In Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Six months before the events of the story, his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and he’s been inconsolable since then. His grief has driven him to the point where, as he puts it,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

He’s referring, of course, to the man who killed his son. And he regards that person as a kind of monster. He sets out to find the identity of the driver, and put an end to him. Cairnes moves to the town where he and Martie were living at the time of the boy’s death, and starts his sleuthing. He finds out that the driver of the car was likely a man named George Rattery. With that information, Cairnes wangles his way into the Rattery household and looks for an opportunity to kill the man. He gets his chance one afternoon when he and Rattery go sailing together. But, as it turns out, Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, and knew about the plot to kill him. As he tells Cairnes, if anything happens to him, the police will immediately suspect Cairnes. That’s exactly what happens when, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of poison. Cairnes seeks out poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. He claims that he’s innocent (after all, why would he have planned to poison Rattery when he was going to push him overboard?) and Strangeways goes to work finding out who the real killer was. In this case, Cairnes’ grief has made him think of Rattery as a monster.

Sometimes, the monster that characters seek to overcome is in themselves (perhaps that’s another blog topic in itself…). In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, for instance, we meet Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s a quiet sort of man, a little on the ‘plodding’ side, but not stupid. He investigates when a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is viciously beaten. While he’s working on that case, there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something is going on in Central City. And all along, what people don’t know about Ford is that he’s hiding something he calls ‘the sickness’ – something he tries to overcome. And that ‘sickness’ plays its role in the story.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men features her sleuth, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. The story takes place in 1932 in New South Wales. It’s a time of great hardship, with the worldwide Great Depression hitting everyone very hard. Siinclair’s family is relatively safe, as they’re wealthy and powerful. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe from tragedy. When Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is murdered one night, Inspector Biquit and his team investigate. Slowly, Sinclair comes to suspect that his uncle’s killers might be members of the New Guard, a far-right group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. The group’s aim is to stamp out all liberal and left-wing thinking, and establish a new government in Australia, that will protect the current class system, and re-establish very traditional ways of life. The more Sinclair learns about the New Guard, the more dangerous he finds them to be. In fact, they’re already plotting against New South Wales’ government, and the rest of the country will likely not be far behind. As Sinclair and his friends try to find out who murdered his uncle, they also have to work to prevent the New Guard, and Campbell, from succeeding. In this case, it’s a dangerous political group that’s seen as a sort of monster that must be stopped.

Most children are no strangers to the concept of a monster and the desire to overcome it. And for some children, it’s all too real. For instance, in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, fourteen-year-old Adam Vander finally works up the courage to escape his abusive father, Joe. He’s always thought of Joe as a kind of monster, and with good reason. But until now, he’s always been too small and too frightened to leave. When he finally does, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who happens to be at the house when Adam makes his escape. The two spend the next week together, and form a sort of friendship. They learn, too, that they are connected in ways they’re not really comfortable discussing, but that are undeniable. And it all stems from a past incident. Still, they work together, and face real danger as the week goes on, and in the end, there’s a sense of resolution. Several parts of the story are told from Adam’s perspective, so we see how he regards Joe. It’s not exactly like Beowulf trying to defeat the Grendel, but there’s a very similar sort of sentiment.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s The Cemetery of Swallows. That novel begins as Manuel Gemoni travels from France to the Dominican Republic. There, he kills a Dominican citizen named Tobias Darbier. There’s no doubt that Gemoni is the killer, but what’s missing is a motive. All he says about it is that he killed Darbier,
 

‘‘…because he had killed me.’’
 

Gemoni has been badly injured, so Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID is sent to the Dominican Republic to bring Gemoni back to France as soon as his condition allows. When he has fully recuperated, the agreement is that he will be returned to the Dominican Republic to face trial. Mallock is particularly interested in this case, since one of his colleagues is Gemoni’s sister. As the novel goes on, we slowly learn the history of Gemoni and Darbier. And we see that the theme of overcoming a monster is woven into the plot.

It’s woven into many plots, actually. And that’s not surprising. That plot type can be very suspenseful and tense. And it’s something that resonates with readers.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla.

 

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Filed under Cecil Day-Lewis, Honey Brown, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jim Thompson, Nicholas Blake, Sulari Gentill

Far Too Many Sins to Mention*

FaultsNobody’s perfect. That’s a very obvious point, but when it comes to crime-fictional sleuths, I think it bears a little reflection. I think most of us would probably agree that we don’t want our protagonists to be too perfect. After all, a perfect protagonist isn’t realistic. So characters with no weaknesses and faults don’t feel well-developed or authentic.

In the early days of crime fiction, a lot of character depth was arguably less important than it is now. This isn’t to say of course that no classic or Golden Age detective stories have well-rounded protagonists. But the emphasis was on the plot rather than on the evolution of a flawed but still appealing and believable protagonist.

Just as one example, one of the criticisms I’ve read of Dorothy Sayers’ work is that her Lord Peter Wimsey is too perfect. He gets it right too often. Whether you agree with that particular claim or not, it reflects a more general criticism of some of the ‘heroes’ of the stories of that era. People want their protagonists to be believable and that means to be less than perfect.

One response to this interest in the ‘not perfect’ protagonist has been what people sometimes call the ‘anti-hero.’ Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is arguably one example of that sort of character. Ripley is not without any feelings, but he is amoral. He’s been mixed up in fraud, murder, theft and other crimes; on that level, he’s got many deep flaws.

There are also characters such as Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford, whom we meet in The Killer Inside Me. On the surface, Ford seems to be what everyone thinks he is – a pleasant if dull local sheriff’s deputy. Then crime comes to Central City, Texas. First, there’s a vicious beating. Then there’s a murder. As the investigation goes on, we begin to see what Lou Ford is really like, and we learn about his past. Without spoiling the story, I think it’s fair to say that Ford is not a classic detective-story ‘hero.’

There are more modern examples too of the ‘anti hero’ sort of protagonist. For example, some people feel that Leif G.W. Persson’s Evert Bäckström is an anti-hero. Certainly he’s not ‘politically correct.’ He’s not easy to work with, he’s egotistical and he’s bigoted. By most people’s estimation he’s a fairly deeply flawed character.

And yet, the trilogy featuring Bäckström and his team has been well-regarded. A lot of people think that The Killer Inside Me is a classic noir story. And Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels have certainly gotten a great deal of praise. So it’s possible for an ‘anti hero’ to be appealing enough to hold readers’ interest.

That said though, I think we could all think of examples of stories we’ve read with one too many broken, demon-haunted, drunken detectives. I won’t make a list; you’ve all read your share I’m sure. We’ve all had the experience too of reading books we didn’t enjoy because there simply nothing to make us care about the protagonist. So simply giving a character many, many flaws isn’t enough to make her or him interesting.

What’s the balance, then? A protagonist who’s too perfect is not just unrealistic, but can also be annoying. But a protagonist who is too full of weaknesses, flaws and negative qualities puts readers off. How flawed does a protagonist need to be for that character to seem realistic? How many flaws are just too many? When do your ‘eye roll’ moments start?  Of course, different people will have different reactions, but I would really be interested in your input.

If you’re a writer, how do you decide how many weaknesses your protagonist is going to have?  What’s your strategy for making your protagonist human enough to be believable, but not so full of flaws as to be off-putting?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.

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Filed under Dorothy Sayers, Jim Thompson, Leif G.W. Persson, Patricia Highsmith

When the Sun Comes Up on a Sleepy Little Town*

Small TownLook at any picture postcard and you’ll see that the image of the village or small town is supposed to be peaceful, quiet and inviting. But beneath the surface of small-town hospitality and pleasantness can lurk an awful lot of nastiness. In a way that’s not surprising. After all, people in small towns tend to know each other well. That means all sorts of resentments can build up. And small towns and villages can be insular – outsiders not welcome at all. Add to that the history that small-towners can have together and it can make for a very effective context for a murder. There are many examples of the ‘creepy small town’ sort of crime novel. I’ll just give a few of them here.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger takes place in the village of Lymstock. Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna have recently moved there so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. They’re not there long when they receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests that the Burtons are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, they discover that they’re not the only victims. Several other villagers have gotten awful anonymous notes, and soon, some very ugly rumours begin. Then, a letter to the local solicitor’s wife results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but the local vicar’s wife thinks Miss Marple will be far better suited to find out what really happened. Miss Marple is very familiar with village histories, animosities and so on, and is in a good position to make sense of what she hears. It turns out the network of relationships among the villagers has a lot to do with the letters and the deaths.

Central City, Texas is the setting for Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It’s a quiet, peaceful town on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that bucolic tranquility. When a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is badly beaten, deputy sheriff Lou Ford investigates. He’s what most folks think of as the ‘nice but dull,’ plodding sort, but he’s not stupid. And he’s hiding something most people don’t know about – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ He’s looking into the attack on Joyce Lakeland when there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on in the town and that things are not nearly as peaceful and pleasant as it seems.

Caroline Graham wrote seven Inspector Barnaby novels, but as anyone who’s watched Midsomer Murders knows, those few novels inspired a television series that’s been on the air since 1997. In the novels, Graham takes a look at the hidden lives of villagers and the sometimes ugly things beneath the surface of an ‘ordinary English village.’ In The Killings at Badger’s Drift for instance, Emily Simpson suddenly dies of what looks on the surface like a heart attack. But her friend Lucy Bellringer thinks otherwise. In fact, Miss Bellringer is so insistent that this is a case of murder that the police make an investigation. It turns out that the victim was poisoned with hemlock. As Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, they discover that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of the quiet village of Badger’s Drift, and that Miss Simpson found out more about it than was safe for her to know.

Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin takes place in the Peak District near the village of Rakedale. A skeleton is discovered at Pity Wood Farm not far from the village, and DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper begin the investigation. Then another skeleton is found, and the investigation moves into high gear. The current owner of the farm is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development and doesn’t know much about the farm or the area. So Fry and Cooper try to get information about the farm’s former owners, brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek Sutton has died, but Raymond Sutton is still alive and in a nursing home. He claims to know nothing about the bodies and in fact, forensic evidence suggests that the remains were buried after Sutton sold the farm. As a part of the investigation, Fry and Cooper try to talk to the people who live in the area, but the Rakedale villagers are not interested in talking to outsiders, especially if they’re police. In fact there’s a very telling scene in which Fry goes into the local to try to get some answers. It’s very clear that Rakedale keeps itself to itself as the saying goes. That insularity adds a layer of tension to the novel, and so does the set of old traditions, beliefs and superstitions that the detectives uncover as they find out the truth about the deaths.

In P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter, police detective Louis Kincaid takes a new job in the small town of Loon Lake, Michigan. Loon Lake is popular with hunters, anglers, and those who like ice fishing, so there are lots of ‘getaway’ cottages and homes in the area. But the town itself is small and on the surface of it very peaceful. Soon after he arrives, Kincaid discovers that he was hired to replace Officer Thomas Pryce, who was recently murdered in his own home. Kincaid has some questions about the official police theory, and his boss Brian Gibraltar gives him permission to pursue the investigation. Bit by bit, Kincaid finds that Pryce was keeping some secrets; finding out what they are will be critical to solving his murder. But there are several other people in this supposedly peaceful community who also aren’t telling everything they know. So Kincaid doesn’t get much help on the case, even from people in whose interest you would think it would be to find the killer. Along with Kincaid’s sense of increasing isolation as he investigates, there’s also a sense of lingering racism in this community. Certainly anyone who’s ‘different’ is considered odd. That atmosphere adds a layer of tension to this story.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which features the lives of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi. After twenty-five years of absence, Silas Jones returns to Chabot to serve as its constable. Soon, he finds himself investigating the disappearance of Tina Rutherford. Everyone assumes that local ‘oddball’ Larry Ott is responsible and in fact, he’s attacked in his own home by a vigilante. Ott’s the most likely suspect because years earlier, he took Cindy Walker out on the only date he’s ever had, and she never returned. No-one could prove what happened to her, but everyone thinks Ott’s guilty of murdering her. Jones finds that as he investigates the Tina Rutherford case, he also has to face the town’s (and his own) past and find out what really happened to Cindy Walker.

There are other series too that uncover the hidden layers of nastiness in small towns and villages. For instance, Ellery Queen visits the small town of Wrightsville in three Queen novels: Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. There’s also Rebecca Tope’s Thea Osborne series, and Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. There are also lots of small-town series for those who prefer cosy mysteries. Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series is just one example. Who said small towns are the safest places to live??? 😉

Thanks to Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog for the inspiration. Go pay that terrific blog a visit; you’ll find some excellent crime fiction reviews there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ China Grove.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Jim Thompson, Linda Castillo, P.J. Parrish, Rebecca Tope, Stephen Booth, Tom Franklin