Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. (pg. 3)

On the evening of 30th December 2003, Joan Didion sat down to dinner with her husband and fellow writer, John Gregory Dunne, at their home in New York. Moments later, John experienced a massive coronary event that was to lead to his death. At the same time, the couple’s only child, Quintana, was lying unconscious in an intensive care unit at the Beth Israel North Medical Center in the city. She had been there since Christmas Day when, what had at first appeared to be a case of flu, suddenly morphed into pneumonia and septic shock. The Year of Magical Thinking charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed these tumultuous events in her life, a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness and death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage and children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times.

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Written between October and December 2004, the book’s title has its origins in “magical thinking,” a state whereby a person believes that their thoughts and wishes can bring about certain events or change an outcome in some way. Despite the fact that Didion appeared cool and rational in the hours and days immediately following John’s death, she began to believe that she could bring him back, ‘to reverse time, to run the film backwards.’

I see now that my insistence on spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana’s husband. […] Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone. […]

I needed to be alone so that he could come back. (pgs. 32-33)

As she looks back at that time, Didion identifies a number of instances of this covert thinking which remained somewhat hidden from others and even from herself: she had not been able to read the obituaries when they appeared in the papers as they would have confirmed John’s death; she had resisted the suggestions to clear his clothes, to give them away to charity, as he might need them when he returns; she had declined a request from the hospital to donate his organs. ‘How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?’

In an attempt to make sense of the range of emotions she is experiencing, Didion begins to explore the literature on grief, turning initially to poetry, novels and memoirs. Given that grief touches virtually all of us as some stage in our lives, there is surprisingly little coverage of it in the sources Didion finds close to hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most illuminating insights into grief come from Didion herself. In this passage, she distinguishes between our image of what grief will be like and the reality of actually experiencing it for ourselves, a description that rings completely true to me based on my own experience of loss.

In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (pgs. 188-189)

Didion is also very good on the feeling of utter disorientation and dislocation that follows the death of a loved one, that fuzzy, ‘mudgy’ state of mind that perhaps only others going through a similar experience can fully recognise. There is clear sense of fragility and vulnerability here.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. (pg. 75)

Intercut with these reflections on bereavement are Didion’s examination of her life with John, in particular, the years they spent in California and their time with Quintana. She describes how even the smallest of objects – often chanced upon at the most unexpected of times – can trigger the vortex effect, the opening up of a tunnel of memories that catapult her into the past. While glancing at a TV commercial, Joan happens to catch sight of a familiar stretch of coastal highway – all of a sudden she is back at Palos Verdes Peninsula, immersed in memories of the house where she and John lived with Quintana when she was a baby.

Reflections from the months leading up to John’s death form another focal point. There are a number of occasions when Joan wonders whether John had sensed that time was running out for him. In the autumn of 2003, John persuaded Joan that they should take a trip to Paris as he feared that if they did not go then, he might never see the city again. Moreover, when she thinks back to the time shortly before his death, Joan recalls John saying several things about his current and previous work which, at the time, made it difficult for her to dismiss his mood as depression (something she considers a typical phase of any writer’s life). Here is just one example of the things that continue to gnaw away at her. It was either the evening of John’s death or the previous night; John and Joan were travelling home in a taxi having just visited Quintana in the ICU unit at Beth Israel North.

Everything he had done, he said, was worthless.

I still tried to dismiss it.

This might not be normal, I told myself, but neither was the condition in which we had just left Quintana.

He said that the novel was worthless.

This might not be normal. I told myself, but neither was it normal for a father to see a child beyond his help. (pg 81-82)

I don’t think I’m up for this, he had said in the taxi on our way down from Beth Israel North that night or the next night. He was talking about the condition in which we had once again left Quintana.

You don’t get a choice, I had said in the taxi.

I have wondered since if he did. (pg. 217)

‘Did he have some apprehension, a shadow?’ These questions and more continue to haunt Joan as she tries to make sense of John’s death, prompting a re-examination of life with her husband as she had previously understood it.

Magical Thinking is a remarkable piece of writing, at once utterly compelling, deeply affecting and emotionally truthful. (There are other threads within Magical Thinking which I haven’t even touched on here, most notably Joan’s account of Quintana’s illness and its impact on her own state of mind.) Didion brings a great deal of honesty and candour to this work. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. Certain questions are left unanswered, doubts remain in the mind; and yet there is a sense that the very process of writing this book has helped Didion in some way.

As is often the case when I try to write about a favourite book, I am left feeling that I have fallen short, that I haven’t done it justice, that I have failed to articulate what makes it special. All I can say is that this is an exceptional book. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Delphine de Vigan’s autobiographical novel, Nothings Hold Back the Night, a book that made my ‘best-of’ list last year.

The Year of Magical Thinking is published by Harper Perennial. Source: personal copy.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I have long wanted to read Elizabeth Bowen; her 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart, has been calling me for quite a while. By rights I should have read it earlier in preparation for Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club (which took place last week) but time got the better of me in the end. Nevertheless, I’m hoping this review might count as a late entrant.

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When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their large house near Regent’s Park in London. It was her late father’s wish that Portia should live with Thomas and his wife for a year, after which time she might move on to stay with an aunt. In truth, neither Thomas nor Anna is particularly keen to have Portia, although Thomas, for his part, does feel some sense of duty towards the girl. Portia was born out an affair between Thomas’ father and the woman who became his second wife, Irene. After their marriage, the couple spent their lives in the south of France, moving from one hotel to another with Portia in tow, effectively in a sort of exile from Thomas’ mother and the family. With Portia now living in London, her presence in the house cannot help but remind Thomas of the shame and embarrassment he experienced over the affair, emotions that always came to the fore whenever he visited his father and Irene in France.

In those sunless hotel rooms, those chilly flats, his father’s disintegration, his laugh so anxious or sheepish, his uneasiness with Irene in Thomas’s presence, had filled Thomas with an obscure shame – on behalf of his father, himself, and society. From the grotesqueries of that marriage he had felt a revulsion. (pg. 39)

There is no real warmth or affection in the Quayne household with very little sense of anyone taking any form of pleasure from their activities. All in all, it’s a rather strange and unwelcoming place for a young girl who has recently lost her parents. At 36, Thomas is much older than Portia; and with no children of their own, Thomas and Anna have no real experience of dealing with adolescents, nor any appreciation of how to incorporate Portia into their lives. Anna, in particular, is a rather cold, unsympathetic creature, more concerned with taking tea with her own friends than with trying to forge any kind of connection with Portia. She finds Portia somewhat unnerving, convinced as she is that the girl is stealing furtive glances at her and Thomas from a distance (although in truth Portia is simply curious and somewhat unsure of herself). As a consequence of all this, Portia is pretty much left to her own devices most of the time, her closest ally in the house being Matchett, the family’s maid.

Bowen is brilliant at capturing the sheer awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence. Portia has very little understanding of how to behave around Anna, Thomas and their friends, no real sense of the workings of the adult mind. (And why should she? After all, her upbringing was somewhat unconventional and very different from the upper-class world in which she finds herself now.) In this scene, Portia is present while Anna takes tea with her friend, St Quentin – I think it’s an excellent illustration of Portia’s situation at the Quanyes’.

Getting up from the stool carefully, Portia returned her cup and plate to the tray. Then, holding herself so erect that she quivered, taking long soft steps on the balls of her feet, and at the same time with an orphaned unostentation, she started making towards the door. She moved crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them – and they, waiting for her to be quite gone, watched. She wore a dark wool dress, in Anna’s excellent taste, buttoned from throat to hem and belted with heavy leather. The belt slid down her thin hips, and she nervously gripped at it, pulling it up. Short sleeves showed her very thin arms and big delicate elbow joints. Her body was all concave and jerkily fluid lines; it moved with sensitive looseness, loosely threaded together: each movement had a touch of exaggeration, as though some secret power kept springing out. At the same time she looked cautious, aware of the world in which she had to live. She was sixteen, losing her childish majesty. (pgs. 26-27)

With very little support or affection coming from her half-brother and his wife, Portia falls in with Eddie, an acquaintance of Anna’s who also happens to work in Thomas’ office. Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. Portia, in her childlike innocence, is unable to see this, and so she falls in love with Eddie, believing everything he tells her without question.

Things take a different turn for Portia when Thomas and Anna decide to go to Capri for a month. Instead of taking the girl with them, the Quanyes pack her off to the Kentish coast to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccomb, and her stepchildren, Daphne and Dickie, both of whom are in their twenties. The Heccomb household – the house is called Waikiki – represents a marked change of pace for Portia. It is welcoming, lively and somewhat chaotic, full of the sounds of doors banging, plates clattering and music playing away in the background. Quite soon after her arrival, Portia find herself drawn into the Heccombs’ friendly social set and their world of dances, cafés, and walks along the coastline. In some ways, it all starts to feel like a new beginning for the young girl.

However, there is trouble in the air when Portia invites Eddie to stay at the Heccombs’. From the moment she sets eyes on him, Mrs Heccomb detects something fishy about Eddie and is visibly distracted by his presence. Her view of Anna is rather idealised, and there is something about Eddie’s manner which seems quite at odds with this. In this scene, Eddie has just sat down to tea following his arrival at Waikiki.

He could not be expected to know that his appearance, and that the something around him that might be called his aura, struck into her heart its first misgiving for years – a misgiving not about Portia but about Anna. […] A conviction (dating from her last year at Richmond) that no man with bounce could be up to any good set up an unhappy twitch in one fold of her left cheek. Apprehensions that someone might be common were the worst she had had to combat since she ruled at Waikiki. No doubt it must be in order, this young man being Portia’s friend, since Porta said that he was a friend of Anna’s. But what was he doing being a friend of Anna’s? … Portia, watching the cheek twitch, wondered what could be up. (pg 209)

The weekend continues on a note of confusion for Portia as she struggles to understand Eddie’s behaviour around Daphne, especially when the two of them end up sitting next to one another at the cinema. It is a defining moment in the story as Portia finds herself in a world where people don’t necessarily say what they mean or mean what they say. Furthermore, once she returns to London, Portia discovers the true extent of the betrayals by those around her, not just by Eddie, but by others close to her as well.

The Death of the Heart is a wonderful novel, a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for someone to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. Eddie is a cruel, insensitive young man who takes advantage of Portia’s naivety and desire for affection, crushing her hopes and dreams in the process. In turn, Anna and Thomas are little better than Eddie, failing to offer Portia the support and protection she so desperately needs.

In some ways, Heart reminds me very strongly of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly A Game of Hide and Seek and At Mrs Lippincote’s (review to come). Both Bowen and Taylor pay close attention to character development, creating complex but realistic individuals the reader can invest in. Like Taylor, Bowen is an acute observer of the social interactions between people, and this novel is full of beautifully rendered scenes, rich with detail and latent emotions. The secondary characters deserve a mention as well, particularly Major Brutt, an acquaintance of the Quanyes who finds himself ridiculed by the couple (Anna in particular).

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates the novel’s London setting. Bowen’s description of this cold afternoon in January reflects something of the atmosphere in the Quanyes’ house, a cold, brittle, shallow place with little warmth inside.

The circle of traffic tightens at this hour round Regent’s Park; cars hummed past without a break; it was just before lighting-up time – quite soon the All Out whistles would sound. At the far side of the road, dusk set the Regency buildings back at a false distance: against the sky they were colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle, and cold. The blackness of windows not yet lit or curtained made the houses look hollow inside. (pg. 9)

Karen, Ali and Harriet have also reviewed this novel.

The Death of the Heart is published by Vintage Books; personal copy

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

When I put together my reading list for the Classics Club back in December, I wanted to include a few light-hearted books, witty novels such as Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which I reviewed here, and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which I’ve yet to read. Winifred Watson’s novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, also falls into this category of ‘fun’ books. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story, one full of warmth, wit and charm. Also, as it was originally published in 1938, it qualifies as my contribution to Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club which is running all this week – there’s a link here if you’d like some more information about the event.

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Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. As the novel opens, Miss Pettigrew is in urgent need of a new job as a governess or a children’s nanny. If she doesn’t secure a new position that day, Miss Pettigrew may well find herself with nowhere to go but the poorhouse as her landlady has threatened to evict her. This next quote perfectly captures Miss Pettigrew’s situation as she sets out in search of a suitable role.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy, November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead. (pgs 1-2)

Luckily for Miss P, the employment agency has a couple of new vacancies on its books: one for a lady’s maid and one for a nursery governess. However, in a mix-up over the details of the two positions, the agency sends our heroine to the home of Miss Delysia LaFosse, a glamorous nightclub singer in need of a new maid. When she arrives at the apartment, Miss Pettigrew finds Miss LaFosse in a bit of a fix. With her own culinary skills being virtually non-existent, Miss LaFosse is in urgent need of someone to fix breakfast for her gentleman friend, Phil; so before she can explain the reason for her visit, Miss Pettigrew finds herself in the kitchen, cooking ham and eggs for the two young lovers. The charming Miss LaFosse is thrilled with her new ‘maid,’ and Miss Pettigrew in turn is delighted to feel appreciated for once, an emotion she has rarely experienced while working as a governess.

She felt strong with compassion and sympathy, though for what she hadn’t the faintest idea. Yet behind her solicitude, rather guiltily, Miss Pettigrew felt the most glorious, exhilarating sensation of excitement she had ever experienced. ‘This,’ thought Miss Pettigrew, ‘is Life. I have never lived before.’ (pg 11)

Miss LaFosse feels so confident in Miss Pettigrew’s abilities to manage a crisis that she asks for some much-needed help in disentangling her rather complicated love life. As it turns out, Miss LaFosse has three lovers on the go: first there is Phil, the kindly chap she needs to keep sweet in the hope he will place her in his new show; then there is Nick, the dashing, influential and dangerous lover who pays the rent on her apartment; and finally there is Michael, the self-made man who wants to marry her. When Miss Pettigrew successfully manages to get rid of Phil before Nick arrives back at the apartment, Miss La Fosse is extremely grateful; in fact she is so impressed that she begins to see Miss P as some kind of miracle-worker, a fortuitous gift from Heaven. In reality, however, Miss Pettigrew is making it all up as she goes along, relying on her knowledge of characters from the movies as a way of managing these tricky situations. What’s more, every time she tries to explain the real reason for her arrival that morning, Miss LaFosse interrupts her flow, promptly cutting her off before she can finish.

All too quickly Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into Miss LaFosse’s world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. Despite the fact that she is a little disapproving of her companion’s lifestyle, it’s a world Miss Pettigrew begins to enjoy very much. She knows that her mother and father (a curate when he was alive), would have disapproved of this new behaviour, but what the hell – it’s time for Miss Pettigrew to live a little!

Miss Pettigrew sat savouring to the full a blissful sense of adventure, of wrongdoing: a dashing feeling of being a little fast: a worldly sense of being in the fashion: a wicked feeling of guilty ecstasy. She enjoyed it. She enjoyed it very much. (pg. 97)

As the title of the novel suggests, we follow Miss Pettigrew over the course of a complete day during which Miss LaFosse and her friend, Miss Edythe Dubarry, take our heroine under their wings, transforming her into a lady of distinction.

Another woman stood there. A woman of fashion: poised, sophisticated, finished, fastidiously elegant. A woman of no age. Obviously not young. Obviously not old. Who would care about age? No one. Not in a woman of that charming exterior. The rich, black velvet of the gown was of so deep and lustrous a sheen it glowed like colour. An artist had created it. It had the wicked, brilliant cut that made its wearer look both daring and chaste. It intrigued the beholder. He had to discover which. Its severe lines made her look taller. The ear-rings made her look just a little, well, experienced. No other word. The necklace gave her elegance. She, Miss Pettigrew, elegant. (pgs 98-99)

There is a cocktail party for Miss Pettigrew to attend; there are more romantic troubles for her to fix; and finally there is a glittering trip to the Scarlet Peacock, the nightclub where Miss LaFosse performs as a singer. It all makes for a wonderful story.

This is a very charming novel indeed, the ideal read if you’re in the mood for something light-hearted and vivacious, but with a little substance too. The two central characters are beautifully drawn, and their different personalities complement one another perfectly. Miss Pettigrew experiences life as she has never known it before, namely the excitement, thrills and pleasures that come with new opportunities and adventures. She discovers skills and talents that had remained hidden for many years. Conversations are no longer a problem for her as others seem interested in what she has to say; in others words, they see Miss Pettigrew as a person, an individual in her own right as opposed to someone else’s governess or nanny. For her part, Miss LaFosse also learns something from her new friend, particularly how to make sense of her romantic entanglements. I could say a little more, but I’ll leave it there for fear of revealing too much about the outcome.

The secondary characters are also very well drawn, especially Nick, Michael and Miss Dubarry. Watson is very adept at drawing brief but revealing pen portraits of these characters – here’s how she introduces Nick, the handsome but treacherous matinee-idol type.

Graceful, lithe, beautifully poised body. Dark, vivid looks: a perfection of feature and colouring rare in a man. Brilliant, piercing eyes of a dark bluish-purple colour: a beautiful, cruel mouth, above which a small black moustache gave him a look of sophistication and a subtle air of degeneracy that had its own appeal. Something predatory in his expression: something fascinating and inescapable in his personality. (pg 27)

The dialogue is sharp and witty, very reminiscent of the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s. Even though they come from two different eras, there were times when Miss La Fosse and Miss Dubarry reminded me of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the Howard Hawks film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Watson’s novel has a similar tone.

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Finally (well, almost finally) a note on my Persephone edition which comes complete with a beautiful series of line drawings by Mary Thomson and an excellent introduction by Henrietta Twycross-Martin. It’s a beautiful little book.

I’ll wrap up with a favourite quote from the novel, one that typifies Miss Pettigrew’s transformation from mousey spinster into someone with a zest for life – perhaps it will encourage you to (re-)read the book for yourself.

No longer were the damp November streets dreary. Fairy signs glittered on buildings. Magic horns hooted insistently. Palace lights shed a brilliant glow on the pavements. Avalon hummed, throbbed, pulsed, quivered with life. Bowler-hatted knights and luscious ladies hastened with happy faces for delightful destinations. Miss Pettigrew hastened with them, though much more aristocratically than on her own two legs. Now she, herself, had a destination. What a difference that made! All the difference in the world. Now she lived. Now she was inside of things. Now she took part. She breathed Ambrosial vapour. (pgs 167-168)

Alimadame bibi lophile and Karen have also reviewed this novel.

The Grifters by Jim Thompson

Every now and again I find myself in need of a noir fix, preferably the vintage variety – something like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity or, more recently, Simenon’s The Widow (both of which I would highly recommend). I never seem to tire of these stories and their insights into the darker side of human nature. With this in mind, I turned to another leading proponent of this genre, the American writer Jim Thompson and his 1963 novel, The Grifters.

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The story revolves around Roy Dillon, a ‘short-con’ grifter (or con artist) living in Los Angeles. (At the time, the typical upper limit for a short con was $1,000, while anything above this threshold was considered a ‘big con’.) A fairly unassuming guy at first sight, Roy is the kind of man who makes friends easily. He’s young, smart, self-sufficient and wily, a seasoned professional with an air of respectability about him. Having learnt the grifting trade some years back, Roy now operates in Los Angeles, the one place where it’s possible to work an extended stint without becoming too conspicuous. (There are two key principles of life as a successful grifter: 1. stay anonymous while you remain in circulation and 2. keep on the move.) Officially, Roy’s a salesman and a good one at that; but the job doesn’t pay very well, so he supplements his income through grifting, an activity that has netted him somewhere in the region of $50,000 which he keeps hidden away in cash.

As the novel opens, we find Roy stumbling out of a confectioner’s store after being hit in the stomach with a sawn-off ball bat. Roy has just tried to work the ‘twenties’, one of the three standard tricks of the short-con grift, a ruse involving a twenty-dollar bill which nets the grifter nearly $20 in cash if he can pull it off successfully. All well and good, only this time the clerk (the shopkeeper’s son) picks up on the scam, whacking Roy in the guts in the process.

Roy is in a bad way, so he heads for the Grosvenor-Carlton hotel, his home in LA. Luckily – or maybe that should be “unluckily” – for Roy, his mother, Lilly, turns up out of the blue three days after the accident. When she realises that her son might be dying, Lilly gets Roy to a hospital where he can receive the care he needs. Roy isn’t on the best of terms with Lilly, the woman who gave birth to him at just shy of fourteen, the mother who treated him very poorly as a child. At the time, Lilly’s attitude resembled that of a selfish older sister towards a bothersome younger brother. She showed very little affection towards Roy until he reached his teens when all at once her attitude softened to reveal ‘a suppressed hunger in her eyes’, a sign of sexual attraction which didn’t go unnoticed by the boy at the time. Now after an absence of seven years, Lilly is back in Roy’s life, and things are about to get stormy.

Lilly is a tough cookie, one of the hardest women you’re ever likely to encounter in noir fiction. She operates out of Baltimore, working the ‘playback’ for the mob’s bookmaker, placing sizeable cash bets on likely runners and longshots to lower the odds on these horses. When she first settled in Baltimore, Lilly found work as B-girl in a bar; in other words, her role was to act as a companion to male customers, encouraging them to buy drinks wherever possible. Then, in time, Lilly’s employers recognised her true assets, and so she got drawn into other more lucrative activities.

Lilly Dillon wasn’t putting out for anyone; not, at least, for a few bucks or drinks. Her nominal heartlessness often disgruntled the customers, but it drew the favourable attention of her employers. After all, the world was full of bimbos, tramps who could be had for a grin or a gin. But a smart kid, a doll who not only had looks and class, but was also smart – well, that kind of kid you could use.

They used her, in increasingly responsible capacities. As a managing hostess, as a recruiter for a chain of establishments, as a spotter of sticky-fingered and bungling employees; as a courier, liaison officer, finger-woman; as a collector and disburser. And so on up the ladder…or should one say down it? The money poured in, but little of the shower settled on her son. (pg. 7)

When Lilly comes back into his life, Roy realises that she reminds him of someone. It turns out to be his girlfriend, Moira, an older woman and former grifter who relies on her dwindling capital, good looks and ageing body to sustain a living. It’s not that the two women are similar in appearance; it’s more a case of them being cut from the same cloth. Both possess a certain attitude, a kind of steeliness if you like.

You couldn’t say that they actually looked like each other; they were both brunettes and about the same size, but there was absolutely no facial resemblance. It was more a type similarity than a personal one. They were both members of the same flock; women who knew just what it took to preserve and enhance their natural attractiveness. Women who were either endowed with what it took, or spared no effort in getting it. (pg. 39)

Lilly takes an instant dislike to Moira, putting the frost on her with a view to breaking up the relationship with her son. Moira’s none too keen on Lilly either. In this scene, she’s just had a run-in with Lilly (Mrs Dillon) at the hospital, a passage that will give you a good feel for Thompson’s style and tone.

So today she had risen early, knocking herself out to be a knockout. Thinking that by arriving at the hospital at an off-hour, she could see Roy alone for a change and tease his appetite for what he had been missing. It was highly necessary, she felt. Particularly with his mother working against her, and throwing that cute little nurse at him.

And today, after all the trouble she’d gone to, his damned snotty mother was there. It was almost as though Mrs Dillon had read her mind, intuitively suspecting her visit to the hospital and busting her goddamned pants to be there at the same time.

Smoldering, Moira reached the parking lot. The pimply-faced attendant hastened to open the door of her car, and as she climbed into it, she rewarded him with a look at her legs. (pg. 74)

The Grifters is a classic story of greed, resentment and possession. It’s also a portrait of life as a long-term grifter, the lone wolf constantly on the lookout for the next opportunity, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

As the novel moves towards its conclusion, a number of things come together to force a dramatic turn of events. Roy faces a choice: should he plump for safety and security by accepting his firm’s offer of a role as Sales Manager, a job he knows he could manage quite easily (and would most likely enjoy), or will the lure of the grift prove too much for him to give up? Moira’s assets are fading fast – both her looks and her money. With her sights set on the big-con game, she sees Roy as the perfect partner, especially once she discovers the true extent of his grifting skills and activities (a side he has tried to keep under wraps as far as possible). And then there’s Lilly to contend with…but I should probably leave it there for fear of revealing too much about the ending.

The characterisation is very strong (with the possible exception of Roy’s nurse, Carol, who plays a role midway through the novel but seems lightly sketched in comparison to the three main leads). Where Thompson really excels though is in the dialogue and the scenes centred on grifting, both of which feel rich in detail and rooted in authenticity.

I’ll finish with a final quote on another of the standard tricks of the short-con grifter’s trade, the ‘tat’, a ruse involving the spin of a die. The tat, with its rapidly doubling bets, is a sure-fire way of fleecing a sucker. If the grifter can catch a group of guys with this game, then he’s all sorted for the week ahead. There’s a bit more to it than this (particularly in the set-up), but it would be unfair of me to reveal everything at this point. Hopefully, it will whet your appetite for reading the book.

The tat must always be played on a very restricted surface, a bar or a booth table. Thus, you could not actually roll the die, although, of course, you appeared to. You shook your hand vigorously, holding the cube on a high point, never shaking it at all, and then you spun it out, letting it skid and topple but never turn. If the marks became suspicious, you shot out of a cup, or, more likely, a glass, since you were in a bar room. But again you did not really shake the die. You held it, as before, clicking it vigorously against the glass in a simulated rattle, and then you spun it out as before.

It took practice, sure. Everything did. (pg. 35)

For another perspective on The Grifters (published by Orion), click here for Guy’s review.