Meta, meta, murder…

June 18, 2015


I just finished this book – not sure whether it’s a “crime novel” or a “mystery”.  Is there a difference?  Anyway, it was well written, very clever and suspenseful.  The characters it presented were good too.  That’s all I have to say about it, other than that the murders it describes are extremely gruesome, but I guess that’s old hat these days, what with Hannibal Lechter, Steven King, and so on.

Well, there’s this too:  the killer in the book is staging his crimes to duplicate murder scenes in books he admires.  He sees himself as some sort of artist.  One of the books, the one with the first murder scene used, is Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.  Near the end of the book, the author, the real author, not the would-be author who is murdering women, changes the name of a character so that we might think that all the time we have been reading a text written by the murderer and sent to the character in the book who is chasing him, rather than reading a book about a policeman chasing a murderer who sends him texts…  Very meta.

I started reading this sort of book sometime after I started watching film noir, a natural progression I guess.  At first, I read books that were the basis of films I’d seen, but now I’ve expanded my range a bit.  I’m not sure why they are entertaining; certainly it’s not the gore – that just adds to the suspense somehow.

In the Acknowledgements section of the book, after the end, Lemaitre praises the four novels he references in his narrative.  He notes that critics reacted very harshly to Ellis’ book, implying that they are hypocritical for wanting these novels to “exorcise our hyper-violent societies,” while not exceeding the limits of good taste.  I am not sure what he means by this other than that authors should be free to write what they like, and if critics don’t like it, but read it anyway, too bad for them.  As for “hyper-violent,” I don’t know at all what this means.  Compared to what?  Medieval towns with public executions, drawing and quartering, bear baiting in the Elizabethan age?  Mass starvation?  Slavery?  It all sounds very French-Intellectual to me:  I can just hear those academics intoning about the “violence inherent in the system,” as Monty Python put it, and so on.  I think he’s just fascinated by violence and gore, and makes a good living at it.  Better than teaching literature, which is what he used to do.

A Private Venus

May 25, 2014


Melville House Publishing calls Giorgio Scerbanenco the “godfather of Italian noir,” in its blurb for A Private Venus, first published in 1966.  Well, could be – how would I know?  It’s part of The Milano Quartet, a look at the black, dirty underside of that city that seems to have a lot of  noir in its cultural history (Manzoni, Stendhal) if you stretch the term a bit.  And Duca Lamberti certainly is a classic noir male [anti]hero:

Then he took his Lisa Ussaro and drove her home.  At the front door, they even shook hands, they might as well have said, “Thanks for the company.”  He went back to the Cavour feeling completely nauseated with everything, starting with himself, but not with her.

And he doesn’t think to highly of the human species.  He’s babysitting his sisters infant:

“…at one she drinks two hundred grams of milk with her eyes closed, almost without waking up, has a pee at the same time, and then she’s out like a light until tomorrow morning at six or seven.  I’ve always thought that kind of vegetable life is the most civilized.  I think civilization ends, at least for the human race, as soon as brain activity starts.”

Surely he understands that non-humans don’t have civilization, but his crackling cynicism sure is entertaining!

Duca is a doctor who has been barred from practicing, and spent time in prison, for a misstep early in his career when he empathized too much with a very sick old patient.  His father was a policeman who was relegated to a desk job after his arm was mangled in an assassination attempt down south, where he was battling the Mafia.  He wanted, “my son, the doctor,” but the son is a bit too much like the father, and shares his tendency to move outside the rules.  That gets him in dangerous trouble.  But he’s quite good at the crime gig, after all:

But Signor A had not appeared.  They called him Signor A rather than Signor X, because the man wasn’t an unknown quantity:  he was something specific, the chief pimp.  Duca didn’t know his name or physical appearance, but he knew he existed.  It’s like when you say the fattest man in Milan:  you’ve never seen him, you don’t know if he’s a chemist or a restaurant owner, if he’s fair-haired or dark, but you know he exists, it’s just a matter of finding him and weighing him, and then you’ll immediately recognize him because he’s the one who weighs more than anyone else in Milan.

Very logical and systematic:  he gets results.  Faster than his friends, the police.

The plot is a bit haphazard at times, but the suspense propels it forward, and Duca’s character.  You want to know if he will destroy himself or not.  There’s an emotionally damaged young man he’s hired to wean off of drink, a job tossed to him by the police chief who is an old friend; the kid’s engineer-martinet father, a plot element that’s a bit of a red herring;  a couple of young women with an awful lot of nerve and a bit too much intellectual curiosity; and some very creepy types running an European sex-traffic operation.  The title isn’t mentioned in the text, but the racket uses a photo-album to allow customers to pick out the girls they want delivered:  Everyone gets his private Venus, I guess.

The Mafia is a major presence in the book, but only as background, and as the unseen masters of the sex-ring.  Like the book Takedown, and the Italian films,  Mafioso and Gomorrah, its take on the mob is totally unsentimental and unromantic:  they are a bunch of brutal, murderous, gangsters, a cancer on the body of society.  It’s hard for me to imagine an Italian claiming, as people have for The Godfather, that the mob, even in fiction, is somehow a critical representation of capitalism…

Hell’s High Sheriff

May 16, 2011

Pop. 1280 is the seventh and last reading in the Jim Thomson noir-fest I am going along with this month, and it marks a big change from the others.  It has a lot in common with the American tall tales tradition that I know from Poe and Ambrose Bierce, and like them, its tone is one of dark comedy – very dark.  In keeping with this, the plot is a bit outlandish and convoluted, but the style frees Thompson to deliver some brilliant material, including heavy dollops of social satire and criticism.

Nick Corey, the protagonist, is another of Thompson’s unreliable narrators, and we get the story from him alone, a first-person tale.  At first we think he’s plumb stupid, the butt of everyone’s jokes, and the victim of some of their mean-spirited tricks.  Then we begin to wonder how stupid?  Towards the end, Nick becomes a bit delusional, associating himself and his ‘mission’ with the will of God.  He ends as he began, without any notion of what the heck to do, and ain’t we all like that in life?

The story is set in the early 20th century, although Thompson does very little to keep up the period atmosphere.  Maybe he was just getting nostalgic for the world of his father, also a failed sheriff.  Throughout this novel, as with no other I’ve read by him, I found myself noting choice passages that sizzled with ghoulish satire.

Since this is a tall tale, Nick has some out-sized characteristics:  he’s incredibly stupid, or seems so; he’s incredibly crafty; he’s unbelievably attractive to very pretty women;  his voracious sexual appetite is matched only by his intake of food:

I’d sit down to a meal of maybe half a dozen pork chops and a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with grits and gravy…

Along about ten the next morning, when I was having a little second breakfast because I hadn’t eaten much the first time but a few eggs and some pancakes and sausage, Rose Hauk called.

Like any Thompson narrator, he has his share of mental and developmental issues, but unlike those other psychopaths, Nick is philosophical.  Here he explains why he holds no grudge against his father for the ferocious beatings given him, and in the process, puts his finger on the source of a host of social ills:

I don’t fault him much for it any more, because I’ve seen a lot of people pretty much like he was.  People looking for easy answers to big problems.  People that blame the Jews or the colored folks for all the bad things that happen to ’em.  People that can’t realize that a heck of a lot of things are bound to go wrong in a world as big as this one.  And if there is any answer to why it’s that way- and there ain’t always-why, it’s probably not just one answer by itself, but thousands of the answers.

But that’s the way my daddy was – like those people.

Nick is also a bit of a poet when love is involved.  At one point, he quotes Oscar Wilde to an antagonist, saying, “we all kill the thing we love.”  Here he describes the farm of  one of his lovers, who has managed to maintain her allure despite being beaten by her no-good husband:

It was that rich black silt you see in the river lowlands; so fine and sweet you could almost eat it, and so deep that you couldn’t wear it out, like so much of the shallow soil in the south is worn out.  You might say that land was a lot like Rose, naturally good, deep down good, but Tom had done his best to ruin it like he had her.

As the story progresses, Nick becomes concerned with just what is his motivation?  Does he even know why he does what he does?  Does anyone?  Are we responsible for what we do?  He has a little philosophical dialog with a detective who has come to ensnare him in a murder trial.  Over drinks, the detective becomes a bit maudlin and Nick raises the spectre of Determinism:

Does the fact that we can’t do anything else – does that excuse us?

Well, I said, do you excuse a post for fittin’ a hole?  Maybe there’s a nest of rabbits down in that hole, and the post will crush ’em.  But is that the post’s fault..?

But that ‘s not a fair analogy, Nick.  You’re talking about inanimate objects.

Yeah? I said.  So ain’t we all relatively inanimate, George.  Just how much free will does any of us exercise.  We got controls all along the line, our physical make-up, our mental make-up, our backgrounds: they’re all shapin’ us a certain way, fixin’ us up for a certain role in life…

Finally, Nick goes loco, and starts to see himself as the instrument of God and Jesus.  In some of his rantings, he seems a parody of the Bible-thumping, self-righteous, ‘family values’ conservatives of our own day:

Y’see, I got my job to do, Rose; I got to go on bein’ High Sheriff, the highest legal authority in Potts County, this place that’s the world to most people here, because they never see nothin’ else.  I just to be High Sheriff, because I’ve been peccul-yarly an ‘ singularly fitted for it, and I ain’t allowed to give it up.  Every now an’ then, I think I’m going’ to get out of it, but always the thoughts are putin’ in my head and the words in my mouth to hold me in my place.  I got to be it, Rose.  I got to be High Sheriff of  Potts County forever an’ ever.  I to go on an’ on, doing’ the Lord’s work; and all he does is the pointing’ Rose, all He does is pick out the people an’ I got to exercise His wrath on ’em.  and I’ll tell you a secret, Rose, they’s plenty of thems when I don’t agree with Him at all. But I got nothing to say about it.

And how’s this for comic relief, as he reveals that he killed off his lovers excuse for a husband:

Finally, the words came out in a  shaky whisper:

You’re sure, Nick?  You really killed him?

Let’s just say he had himself an accident, I said, Let’s just say that fate dealt him a crool blow.

But he is dead?  You’re sure about that?

I told her I was sure, all right.  Plenty sure.  If he ain’t, he’s the first live man I’ve ever seen who could hold still while he was getting kicked in the balls.

Rose’s eyes lit up like I’d given her a Christmas purty.

The sexual escapades are also a lot more explicit in this book than his earlier novels.  At one point, he isn’t in the mood for sex, so he fakes an injury to his groin from a horse kick.  After a little conversation in bed, his mood changes:

Hey now! she said.  Just what’s going on here, mister?

What does it look like? I said.

It looks to me like a big business recovery.

Well, god-dang, gee-whillikins! I said.  And right after a severe blow to the economy!  You reckon we ought to celebrate the occasion?

What the hell you think? she said.  Just let me get these goddam clothes off!

Jim Thompson was a member of the Oklahoma Communist Party, and his knowledge of the 1950s McCarthy Scare was clear in A Swell-Looking Babe.  The main character’s father was ruined by a false accusation of political impropriety.  Nick, who studiously avoids real work in his post as sheriff, helps start some very foul stories about his challenger in the next election, but he’s careful to avoid the appearance of being the instigator.  Finally, he puts in the knife, as they say:

Well, this is about them dirty stories people are tellin’ on you, I said…I know Sam [his challenger] wouldn’t rape a little colored baby or steal the gold teeth out his grandma’s mouth or beat his pappy to death with a stick of cordwood or rob a widder woman of her life’s savings or feed his wife to the hawgs,  I know a fine fella like Sam wouldn’t do nothing like that.  So all I’m askin’ is this; this is my question…If them stories ain’t true, how come them to get started?  How come almost everybody claims they are true?

And sometimes, Thompson just gets in his own private zingers, as in this exchange between Nick and the philsophical detective from the Talkington (read Pinkerton) Agency:

Let’s see now, you broke up the big railroad strike, didn’t you?

That’s right.  …  The railroad strike was one of our jobs.

Now, by golly, that really took nerve, I said.  Them railroad workers throwin’ chucks of coal at you an’ splashin’ you with water, and you fellas without nothin’ to defend yourself with except shotguns an’ automatic rifles!  Yes, sir, god-dang it, I really got to hand it to you!

Now, just a moment, Sheriff!

In some ways, this is my favorite one of the whole series!