Tag Archives: Crime

Red Lights by Georges Simenon (tr. Norman Denny)

What prompts a seemingly ordinary conventional man to embark upon a path of self-destruction, to the exclusion of those closest to him, until his actions end in near-inevitable catastrophe? This is the theme Simenon mines in his 1955 novella Red Lights. Like Three Bedrooms in Manhattan and The Widow (which I read last year), Red Lights is another of this author’s romans durs, the ‘hard’ novels of which he was particularly proud. It is a tight, claustrophobic read, one that would suit lovers of vintage noir or crime fiction with a strong psychological edge.

The book opens on the Friday evening of the Labor Day weekend; the time is the early 1950s. Steve Hogan and his wife, Nancy, are preparing to drive from their home in Long Island to Maine, New England to pick up their children from summer camp. It is clear from the outset that there are tensions in this marriage, some of which are bubbling just under the surface while others remain repressed somewhere in Steve’s psyche. Before the couple leave for Maine, Steve sneaks out for a quick drink under the pretext of filling up the car with gas. There is a sense that Nancy knows what he is getting up to, but she declines to say anything before they set off on their trip. On the road, the couple get caught in a storm and heavy traffic, the latter an inevitable development given the forty-five million motorists predicted to be driving at some point over the holiday weekend. Consequently, the tension starts to build…

He was not shaken by the accident reports, not alarmed. What got on his nerves was the incessant hum of wheels on either side of him, the headlights rushing to meet him every hundred yards, and also the sensation of being caught in a tide, with no way of escaping either to right or to left, or even of driving more slowly, because his mirror showed a triple string of lights following bumper-to-bumper behind him. (p. 13)

Desperate for another drink, Steve pulls over at a roadside bar under the guise of needing the men’s room while Nancy stays in the car. Back at the wheel after a swift double, Steve takes a wrong turn, gets frustrated as a result and seems keen to start a quarrel. Nancy, for her part, remains calm and composed. She is a practical, level-headed woman, self-confident and efficient; but as far as Steve sees it, Nancy has to be right about everything.

She didn’t order him about, actually, but she arranged their life in her own way, as though it were the natural thing to do. He was wrong. He knew he was wrong. Whenever he had had a drink or two he saw her differently, becoming annoyed by things that ordinarily he took for granted. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Steve decides to stop at another bar, leaving Nancy by herself in the car for the second time – this despite the fact that she has threatened to continue the journey to Maine without him if he goes in. As a consequence, Steve takes the ignition key with him just to spite her. When he returns to the car some fifteen minutes later, Steve finds a note from Nancy to say she is going on ahead by bus. After a frantic attempt to intercept his wife on the Greyhound heading toward Providence, he gets lost again, thereby abandoning all plans to catch up with the bus in the process.

By now, Steve is tanked and very annoyed with Nancy, sick of having to play by her rules all the time. In this heightened state of mind, he goes ‘into the tunnel’, an intense mental fugue he experiences every now and again, a mood characterised by feelings of solitude, frustration and alienation.

He called it “going into the tunnel,” an expression of his own, for his private use, which he never used in talking to anyone else, least of all to his wife. He knew exactly what it meant, and what it was like to be in the tunnel; yet, curiously, when he was there he never allowed himself to admit the fact, except for occasional brief instants, and always too late. As for determining the precise moment when he entered it, he had often tried to do this afterwards, but never with success. (p. 5)

Stopping at yet another bar, Steve latches on to a solitary drinker, offloading to him about Nancy and women in general. In the midst of his drunken fugue state, Steve is keen to demonstrate that he is a real man, someone who know how to live life ‘off the tracks’, unconstrained by the woman of the household and the conventions of society. Unfortunately for Steve, his uncommunicative drinking partner turns out to be Sid Halligan, a dangerous criminal on the run following a breakout from Sing Sing Penitentiary. Somehow or other, Halligan ends up in Steve’s car, a development which leads our protagonist into very dangerous territory. I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Halligan’s appearance on the scene has lasting consequences for both Steve and Nancy.

Red Lights is a very gripping piece of noir, harrowing and brutal in its sensibility. Simenon maintains an atmosphere of simmering tension throughout, which gives the story the feel of a white-knuckle ride as Steve attempts to deal with his demons both internal and external. In many respects, it reads like a cross between a classic James M. Cain noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and a Richard Yates novel – something like Disturbing the Peace, a book which features an alcoholic protagonist, a rather tragic figure who seems powerless to prevent his own descent into a self-destructive state of despair. As the narrative of Red Lights unfolds, we learn a little more about the nature of Steve’s day-to-day life with Nancy. As the one left to take care of the children for an hour or two after work, Steve clearly feels somewhat inferior to Nancy, particularly considering her importance to her prestigious employers. It is this underlying sense of frustration, together with an annoyance at having to constantly win his wife’s approval, which catalyses Steve’s abusive behaviour on this fateful night.

Because when Bonnie and Dan weren’t in camp, that is to say, during the greater part of the year, it was not Nancy who got home early to look after them; it was he. Because in her office she was a person of importance, the right hand of Mr. Schwartz, head of the firm of Schwartz & Taylor, who came between ten and eleven in the morning and had a business lunch nearly every day, after which he worked till six or seven in the evening.

[…]

On the stroke of five he, Steve, was free. He could make a dash for the Lexington Avenue subway station, get wedged in the crush, and at Brooklyn, sprint for the bus that stopped at the end of their lot.

Altogether it didn’t take more than three quarters of an hour, and he would find Ida, the coloured girl who minded the children when they got back from school, with her hat on already. Her time must be valuable too. Everybody’s time was valuable. Everybody’s except his own… (pp. 29-30)

The more I think about this novella, the more compelling it feels in spite of the brutality – this is not a book for the sensitive or fainthearted. My only hesitation relates to the plausibility of the path to redemption sketched out towards the end of the story, something which is difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. Nevertheless, this is a fairly minor reservation. There is a depth/intensity to the various emotions explored here – not only during the night itself but in the hours that follow. The sense of place feels incredibly authentic too. Simenon perfectly captures the seedy atmosphere and sense of agitation in the roadside bars, the way the regulars remain watchful, sizing up any outsiders in the process.

All in all, this is a very affecting noir. Not always a comfortable read, but a gripping one for sure.

Red Lights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Bellos)

With more than 280 books to his credit, Frédéric Dard was one of France’s most popular and productive post-war novelists. He was also a close friend of Georges Simenon, a fact which makes a great deal of sense given the similarities in style – you can read about Dard here in this interesting piece from The Observer. First published in French in 1961, Bird in a Cage is one of Dard’s ‘novels of the night’, a dark and unsettling mystery with a psychological edge. It’s an utterly brilliant noir, probably my favourite of the six Pushkin Vertigo titles I’ve read to date.

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As the novel opens, Albert (the narrator) has just returned to his former home in Levallois in the suburbs of Paris following a period of six years. (At first the reason for Albert’s absence is unclear, but all is revealed a little later as his backstory comes to light.) His loneliness and sense of unease are palpable from the outset – a lost soul entering a damp and empty flat on Christmas Eve, the place where his mother died some four years earlier.

When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity. (p.7)

In an attempt to reconnect with life and his memories of happier times, Albert heads out into the streets of Levallois which are bustling with activity. Stopping at a shop, he decides to buy a Christmas trinket, ‘a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter-dust’, complete with an exotic bird fashioned out of blue and yellow velvet. For some inexplicable reason, Albert feels better after purchasing the bird; it’s as if it reminds him of his childhood.

I was glad there were people inside the shop. It meant I could linger, inspect its inexpensive treats and rediscover images of my childhood that I felt in special need of that day. (p. 11)

In time, Albert goes into a restaurant, an upmarket establishment he always wanted to visit as a child but was never able to. Inside the restaurant, Albert catches sight of an attractive woman, someone who reminds him very strongly of a girl he used to know, someone from his dark and mysterious past. The woman is with her young daughter, but there is no man on the scene; in some ways, their shared loneliness strikes Albert as being even more tragic than his own. After exchanging glances a few times during their meals, Albert and the woman end up leaving the restaurant at the same time. It could be a coincidence, but maybe it isn’t…

We came together again at the exit. I held the door open. She thanked me and her heart-rending gaze hit me point blank. She had eyes I couldn’t describe but could have looked at for hours without stirring, without speaking, and maybe even without thinking. (p. 17)

Before long, Albert finds himself accompanying the woman and her daughter back to their home, an apartment attached to a book binder’s premises, a dark and creepy place served by a steel cage lift. Once inside the woman’s flat, Albert is drawn into a disorientating situation; a number of baffling events take place, the true significance of which only become clear to Albert as the night unfolds.

Right from the start there is a sense of unreality to this story, almost as though Albert is in a dream – or maybe nightmare would be a better way of describing it. As Albert enters the woman’s flat, it is as if he is stepping into an ‘unexpected labyrinth’. At certain points during the night, our protagonist wonders whether he is hallucinating, calling into question his own senses in the process.

At the centre of this story is a crime, one that is fiendishly clever in its execution. I don’t want to say too much about this, but suffice it to say that poor Albert finds himself caught in the middle of it. As this fateful night unravels, there is at least one occasion when Albert could walk away from the situation, removing himself from any imminent danger in the process. Instead, he chooses to remain close at hand, almost as though he is fascinated by this woman and everything she appears to represent.

Threaded through the novella are Dard’s wonderful descriptions of Albert’s surroundings, little touches that add to the unsettling, melancholy mood of the story. Here’s a typical example.

This Christmas morning was sinister—overcast, with a cold breeze sure to bring snow. The area felt dead and the few passers-by who hurried along close to the walls to keep out of the wind had faces even more grey than the sky. (p. 112)

All in all, this very gripping noir is a fine addition to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the essence of this strange and unnerving night. As Albert reflects the next morning:

Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do… (pg. 123)

Guy and Max enjoyed this novella too – just click on the links to read their excellent reviews.

Bird in a Cage is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin Vertigo)

I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, a collection of classic, mind-bending crime novels by a variety of different authors from around the world. (My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film, is here.) While most of the books in the series were written in the early-to-mid 20th century, one or two are more contemporary. You Were Never Really Here (2013) by Jonathan Ames is one such book, a taut and compelling noir that packs quite a punch.

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The book centres on Joe, an ex-Marine and former FBI agent who now earns a living as an off-the-books operative in his home city of New York. By way of his middleman, an ex-State Trooper and PI named McCleary, Joe specialises in rescuing people, mostly teenage girls who have been lured into the sex trade through no real fault of their own. In spite of the fact that he lives with his ageing mother, Joe is to all intents and purposes a lone wolf. Living and operating undercover comes as second nature to Joe. He keeps his cards close to his chest, eschewing any unnecessary contact with those around him for fear of leaving any traceable marks. His body is a lethal weapon, primed and ready for action.

So his hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, one-ninety, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a Marine on leave. (p.11)

As the story gets underway, Joe is tasked with a new assignment. Some six months earlier, Lisa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prominent State Senator, went missing from the family home in Albany. Now the Senator is in New York with a fresh lead on the case, but he doesn’t want the police involved; instead he wants Joe to follow it up with a view to finding and rescuing his daughter, ideally discovering the identity of her abductor along the way. The lead takes Joe to a Manhattan brownstone, the location of a high-end brothel where Lisa is thought to be working. Here’s an excerpt from the stakeout scene, a passage which should give you a feel for Ames’ pared-back yet atmospheric style. Paul, the brothel’s ‘towel boy’ has just left the house.

So Joe loped down the north side of the street and then crossed, five yards ahead of his target. He looked about. No immediate witnesses. It was a cold October night. Not too many people were out. He stepped from between two cars and right into the path of the towel boy—a thirty-two-year-old white man, a failed blackjack dealer from Atlantic City named Paul, who didn’t have much talent for anything. He was startled by Joe’s sudden appearance, and Joe shot out his right hand unerringly and grabbed Paul by the throat, the way a man might grab a woman’s wrist. Paul didn’t even have time to be scared. He was already half-dead. Everything Joe did was to establish immediate and complete dominance. (pp. 42-43)

At 88 pages, this is a short read, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, save to say that the case is more complex than appears at first sight. Power, corruption and dirty cops all play a role in this gripping story of cat-and-mouse in the underbelly of NYC.  What’s interesting here is the character of Joe. At various points in the book, Ames reveals a little more of Joe’s backstory, in particular the abusive childhood that has shaped his outlook on life.

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started. (p. 23)

Joe’s father, also a US Marine, was destroyed by the experience of fighting in the Korean War. Having entered the fray as a human being, Joseph Sr. ultimately emerged as a bitter and twisted creature, a ’subhuman’ of sorts. In many ways, the nature of Joe’s tortured relationship with his now deceased father has left him with a deep need to gain some kind of vengeance on the evils of the world. There is a sense that Joe remains mindful of the requirement to keep himself in check, to maintain the vigilance and control he must demonstrate in order to preserve his current existence.

This is an impressive slice of noir fiction; quite dark and brutal at times, but that’s all part of the territory with this genre – Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer, and he knows how to use it. On the surface, Joe is slick, tough and merciless in the face of the enemy, but underneath it all he is rather damaged too. There is something mournful and a little bit vulnerable lurking beneath that hard exterior, these qualities coming to the fore on a couple of occasions during the story. Ames also adds one or two touches of compassion to his portrayal of Joe. There’s a very gentle scene near the beginning of the book where Joe’s mother makes him some eggs for breakfast, the pair communicating with one another without any need for words.

While the book ends at a particular point, it feels as if there is scope for another chapter in Joe’s story, a further instalment so to speak. If that happens at some stage in the future, I will gladly read it.

Ames has also written a novel in a very different style to this one – Wake Up, Sir!, a satire which sounds like a modern-day riff on the Jeeves and Wooster story. You can read Gert Loveday’s enlightening review of it here.

My thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy of You Were Never Really Here.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Nicholas Ray’s noir classic In a Lonely Place is one of my top ten favourite films. I’ve seen it a dozen times, probably more. It’s one of a handful of old films I watch every 18 months or so, whenever I want to remind myself just how good the movies used to be in the 1940s and ‘50s. As such, I’ve always felt slightly nervous about the prospect of reading the novel on which the film is loosely based. I’d heard that Ray’s version of the story was very different to Dorothy Hughes’ book (also titled In a Lonely Place), so much so that some consider it to be a completely separate entity. Even so, would the novel live up to my expectations? How would I feel about it compared to the film? Well, to cut a long intro short, I absolutely loved the book. It’s tremendous – so atmospheric and suspenseful, a highlight of my reading year.

From here on in I’m going to focus solely on Hughes’ novel (first published in 1947) as there’s more than enough to say about it in its own right without drawing comparisons or contrasts with the film. Maybe that’s something for another time.

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The central character here is ex-pilot Dix Steele, now trying his hand at writing a novel following his discharge from the US Army Air Force at the end of the war. Dix has been in LA for about six months, conveniently holed up in a fancy apartment while its owner, an old college friend named Mel Terriss, is away in Rio. Not only is Dix living in Mel’s flat, he’s also driving his car, wearing his clothes and spending his money courtesy of some charge accounts he has managed to access. With all these resources on tap, you might think Dix would be feeling pretty comfortable with his life, but that’s simply not the case. From the beginning of the book, it’s crystal clear that Dix is a very troubled man; he’s damaged, depressed and desperately lonely.

As the novel opens, Dix is prowling the city streets at night; he’s out by the coast, the fog rolling in from the ocean. When he spots a girl stepping off a bus, Dix’s interest is aroused.

He didn’t follow her at once. Actually he didn’t intend to follow her. It was entirely without volition that he found himself moving down the slant, winding walk. He didn’t walk hard, as she did, nor did he walk fast. Yet she heard him coming behind her. He knew she heard him for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half stumbled, and her steps went faster. He didn’t walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid. (pg. 2)

For the last six months, a serial killer has been on the loose in LA. Young girls are being murdered at a rate of one a month; different neighbourhoods each time, but the method is always the same – strangulation. To the reader, the nature of Dix’s connection to these killings is pretty clear from the outset. Nevertheless, Hughes stops short of focusing on the murders themselves; thankfully all the violence is ‘off-camera’, so we never actually see any of the crimes being played out in full.

Shortly after the incident with the girl from the bus, Dix decides to look up an old acquaintance from the forces, Brub Nicolai. When he calls at Brub’s apartment, Dix finds his old friend a somewhat changed man; much to Dix’s surprise, Brub has landed a role as a detective in the LAPD. When he learns that Brub is working on the recent sequence of killings, Dix knows he should back away. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about skirting close to the source of danger. In some ways, Dix sees Brub as an opportunity to discover exactly how much the cops really know about the perpetrator, so he decides to stay in touch with his friend, quizzing him carefully while trying not to make any slip ups in the process. Dix knows he is flirting with danger by sticking close to Brub, but he simply cannot stop himself. In his own mind, Dix is untouchable, his crimes untraceable. That said, it’s not just Brub that Dix has to contend with, there’s his wife too, the smart and perceptive Sylvia, a woman who clearly loves her husband, so much so it serves to reinforce  Dix’s loneliness.

He wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t intrude on their oneness. They had happiness and happiness was so rare in this day of the present. More rare than precious things, jewels and myrrh. Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago, in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow. (p. 17)

Dix is a devilishly complex character. Deep down, he is resentful of all the ‘rich stinkers’, the guys who get everything without having to lift a finger for it. Guys like Mel Terriss, his old acquaintance from Princeton; men like his Uncle Fergus, the patron who mails him a cheque for a measly $250 each month even though he could certainly afford a lot more. Hughes is particularly strong on portraying Dix’s anger and resentment towards the lucky people, the source of which stems from his own lack of status in life. As a pilot in the forces, Dix was respected; he had power and he had control. Now he has nothing.

The war years were the first happy years he’s ever known. You didn’t have to kowtow to the stinking rich, you were all equal in pay; and before long you were the rich guy. Because you didn’t give a damn and you were the best God-damned pilot in the company with promotions coming fast. You wore swell tailored uniforms, high polish on your shoes. You didn’t need a car, you had something better, sleek powerful planes. You were the Mister, you were what you’d always wanted to be, class. You could have any woman you wanted in Africa or India or England or Australia or the United States, or any place in the world. The world was yours. (p. 96)

As the story unfolds, we learn that Dix remains tormented by a woman from his past, a girl named Brucie whom he knew from his time in England during the war. Ever since then, no woman has ever come close to lighting Dix’s fire; no woman except his neighbour, the glamourous Laurel Gray. When Dix spots her for the first time, he is utterly smitten.

Her eyes were slant, her lashes curved long and golden dark. She had red-gold hair, flaming hair, flung back from her amber face, falling to her shoulders. Her mouth was too heavy with lipstick, a copper-red mouth, a sultry mouth painted to call attention to its promise. She was dressed severely, a rigid, tailored suit, but it accentuated the lift of her breasts, the curl of her hips. She wasn’t beautiful, her face was too narrow for beauty, but she was dynamite. (p. 21)

It’s not long before Dix and Laurel are an item, spending most of their evenings and nights together in Dix’s apartment. Laurel is another damaged character. Outwardly self-assured, but more than a little vulnerable at heart, divorcee Laurel is wholly dependent on her wealthy ex-husband for support. Ideally, she’d like to break into the movies or a show, something that would place her in the spotlight where she seemingly belongs.

All goes well between Dix and Laurel for a week or two, but then everything starts to crumble. One evening, Laurel doesn’t come home on time. Dix’s mind goes into overdrive, he gets angry and jealous; and when Laurel gets back, there are hints that the situation might spiral out of control. In this scene, Dix realises how close he has just come to hurting Laurel.

‘I’m sorry.’ He was, and for a moment he tightened. He was more than sorry, he was afraid. He might have hurt her. He might have lost her. With her he must remember, he must never take a chance of losing her. If it had happened – he shook his head and a tremble went over him. (p. 91)

In a Lonely Place is a first-class noir – superbly crafted, beautifully written. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot as it might spoil things, but it’s pretty suspenseful right to the end.

The characterisation is excellent, complex and subtle in its execution. Even though the novel is written in the third person, Hughes holds the reader close to Dix’s perspective throughout. We gain an insight into the mind of a deeply tormented man. Dix is angry and bitter and twisted, yet he is also rather vulnerable and fearful for the future. A lone wolf at heart, the war has left him with no real hope or purpose in life. Even though we know Dix commits some unspeakable acts, his pain is clear for all to see. At times, there is a sense that Dix is in denial about his actions, as though he is trying to distance himself from the other Dix, the one who hates women: ‘he wasn’t the same fellow.’ If only things work out with Laurel, then everything will be okay.

The other leading characters are portrayed with depth too. I marked up a great quote about one of the women in this story, but I fear it might be too much of a spoiler to include.

Hughes also excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you.

If this novel is representative of Dorothy B. Hughes’ work, then I can’t wait to read another. Caroline has also reviewed this book here.

In a Lonely Place is published by Penguin Books.

The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald

The Ivory Grin (1952) is the fourth book in Ross Macdonald’s series featuring the Los Angeles-based private eye, Lew Archer. I’ve been trying to read them in order, so here are links to my reviews of the second and third novels in the series, The Drowning Pool and The Way Some People Die, both of which I would wholeheartedly recommend – they can be read as standalone works.

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Back to The Ivory Grin. As the story begins, Archer receives a visit in his office from a rather strange, mannish-looking woman named Una. Here’s how the novel opens – I was hooked from the get-go:

I found her waiting at the door of my office. She was a stocky woman of less than medium height, wearing a blue slack suit over a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue mink stole that failed to soften her outlines. Her face was squarish and deeply tanned, its boyish quality confirmed by dark hair cut short at the nape. She wasn’t the type you’d expect to be up and about at eight thirty in the morning, unless she’d been up all night.

As I unlocked the door she stood back and looked up at me with the air of an early bird surveying an outsize worm. (pg. 3)

Una claims she is looking for a former employee – a young ‘coloured’ maid named Lucy – who has disappeared along with a pair of ruby earrings and a gold necklace. At first, Archer proposes that this is a matter for the police; Una, however, doesn’t want them involved, keen as she is to talk to the girl to see what she’s up to. Archer is none too keen on Una and remains rather sceptical about her stated motivations for wanting to find Lucy. That said, curiosity gets the better of him and he agrees to do a little surveillance, at least in the short term. According to Una, Lucy has been seen at a restaurant in Bella City, so Archer heads off to find the girl to monitor her movements for a while.

Archer finds Lucy and follows her for most of the afternoon, the trail taking him from the bungalow where she’s been renting a room to a seedy motel in the same area. When she hears of Lucy’s whereabouts, Una decides to pay the girl a visit at the motel, giving Archer instructions to resume his surveillance once she has left. As Archer continues to follow Lucy, the journey takes him to the office of a certain Dr Benning, whom the girl consults before heading to the railway station. Along the way, Archer realises that there is someone else on Lucy’s trail, another private eye named Max Heiss, who tries, rather unsuccessfully, to persuade our detective to collaborate on the case. In the meantime, Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, pulls up to the station in his car, picks up the girl and drives off, losing Archer in the process. When he returns to the Mountview Motel later that afternoon, Archer discovers that Lucy has been murdered, her throat cut from ear to ear.

At this point, we meet one of my favourite characters in the novel, the world-weary police chief, Lieutenant Brake. Here he is, talking to Archer at the scene of Lucy’s murder, a passage that illustrates Macdonald’s skill with dialogue.

“Who hired you?

“I don’t have to answer that.”

“You weren’t hired to kill her, by any chance?”

“You’ll have to do better than that, if you want any co-operation from me.”

“Who said I wanted any co-operation from you? Who hired you?”

“You get tough very quickly, lieutenant. I could have blown when I found her, instead of sticking around to give you the benefit of my experience.”

“Can the spiel.” He didn’t needle easily. “Who hired you? And for God’s sake don’t give me the one about you got your client’s interests to protect. I got a whole city to protect.”

We faced each other across the drying moat of blood. He was a rough small-city cop, neither suave nor persuasive, with an ego encysted in scar-tissue. I was tempted to needle him again, to demonstrate to these country cousins how a boy from the big city could be hard in a polished way. But my heart wasn’t in the work. I felt less loyalty to my client than to the dead girl on the floor, and I compromised. (pg. 53)

Alongside this first strand, a second one starts to open. When Archer finds Lucy’s body in the motel room, he also discovers a newspaper clipping in her purse – namely, an article advertising a $5,000 reward for information on the whereabouts of a young socialite called Charles Singleton. Some two weeks earlier, around the same time as Lucy’s disappearance from Una’s employ, Singleton had also vanished (he was last seen in the public rooms of a local hotel). As a rather reluctant heir to the family business, Singleton had been trying to break away from his wealthy mother and her money for years – ideally, he wanted to create a life of his own. So, following the discovery of the clipping, Archer heads off to Arroyo Beach to visit Mrs Singleton in her home. Once there, he is hired by the lady’s young companion, Sylvia Treen, with the aim of finding Charles, hopefully still alive.

The two cases are of course connected, but I’m reluctant to reveal how – let’s just say that they intersect in unexpected and complex ways. Lieutenant Brake is convinced that Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, is responsible for his girlfriend’s death, especially when the murder weapon turns out to be the boy’s knife. Archer, however, isn’t buying this, especially once the details surrounding the Singleton case start to emerge.

I had been trying to decide all morning whether to give Brake everything I knew. I decided not to. The frayed ends of several lives, Singleton’s and his blonde’s, Lucy’s, and Una’s, were braided into the case. The pattern I was picking out strand by strand was too complicated to be explained in the language of physical evidence. Brake’s understanding was an evidence box holding the kinds of facts that could be hammered through the skulls of a back-country jury. It wasn’t a back-country case. (pg. 148)

The Ivory Grin is a story of fear, desire and the lure of money (there are links to mobsters and collection rackets rumbling away in the background). It’s another very fine entrant in Lew Archer series. The plot is tight yet complex enough to keep the reader guessing; the lead characters are intriguing and just a little different to the usual types one tends to find in this genre. One of the highlights is the interplay between Archer and Lieutenant Brake, the police chief who’s been dealing with guys and girls from the wrong side of the tracks for nigh on thirty years. Brake is weary and frustrated, tired of ‘trying to fit human truth into the square-cut legal patterns handed down for his use by legislators and judges.’

Another high point is Lew Archer himself, a detective I’m growing to love more and more with every novel in the series. On the whole, Archer treats people with respect. He is a good judge of character, keen to observe and scrutinise wherever possible, but compassionate too. Archer’s treatment of the black characters is very sympathetic; he is on the side of decent people, irrespective of their colour, race and gender. There are some very nice touches with some of the minor characters too, most notably an elderly next-door neighbour who proves useful to Archer in his surveillance of Lucy, and a homely milliner who lives with her cat. Macdonald captures their personalities with just the right amount of colour.

The novel is very strong on the sense of place and period. Small-town America in the 1950s is portrayed in vivid detail, a community divided into ‘lighter and darker hemispheres’ by the highway that runs through it. Archer finds himself in the bottom half, a run-down place packed with laundries, warehouses, and dilapidated houses.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage. (pg 12)

Alongside this picture of the small-scale environment, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian landscape are as evocative as ever. I’ll finish with a final quote on the scenery surrounding Bella City – Archer is driving there in search of Lucy.

From the top of the grade I could see the mountains on the other side of the valley, leaning like granite slabs against the blue tile sky. Below me the road meandered among brown September hills spattered with the ink-blot shadows of oaks. Between these hills and the further mountains the valley floor was covered with orchards like vivid green chenille, brown corduroy ploughed fields, the thrifty patchwork of truck gardens. Bella City stood among them, a sprawling dusty town miniatured and tidied by clear space. I drove down into it. (pg 11)

The Ivory Grin is published by Vintage Books – Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

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.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. Avril Bardoni)

The thirteen pieces in this excellent collection of Leonardo Sciascia’s short stories, The Wine-Dark Sea, were written between 1959 and 1972. Collectively, the author considered these stories – which are arranged in chronological order – as a kind of summary of his work up until that point in time. As such, the pieces are somewhat diverse in nature, and yet there is something inherently Sicilian in each and every one, a reflection of a certain aspect of the island’s soul and character. As with other collections I’ve covered here, I’m not going to review each individual story. Instead, I will focus on my favourites, the ones that made the greatest impression or spoke to me in some way.

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The collection opens with The Ransom, Sciascia’s retelling of an old folk tale he first heard during a visit to the capital as a young boy. When Don Nicola Cirino, the Procurator General of Palermo takes a fancy to a beautiful girl named Concettina, he sees an opportunity to strike a bargain with her father, Don Raimondo. If the father allows him to marry Concettina, Don Nicola will arrange for the release of the man’s son-in-law, currently serving a prison sentence for killing a peasant with a single kick of his foot. Despite the young girl’s concerns, the father agrees to the union, and so Concettina has to marry the old judge; in effect, the innocent must pay the price for the release of the guilty. However, the story doesn’t end at this point; there are further developments to come, events that add a touch of irony to this old tale.

Many of the stories in this collection are underscored by a sense of rivalry between factions, whether it be clashes between husbands and wives, conflicts between separate branches of the Mafia or tensions between local neighbourhoods. This quote from The Ransom captures it nicely as Sciascia reflects on the differences between two neighbouring towns, Grotte and Racalmutto.

In truth, the two towns, although only separated by a couple of miles, were as different as could be. Grotte had a Protestant minority and a Socialist majority, three or four families of Jewish descent and a strong Mafia; it also had bad roads, mean houses and dreary festivals. Racalmuto staged a festival that lasted a whole week and was splendidly colourful and extravagant; the people of Grotte flocked to it in their hundreds; but for the rest of the year the town was tranquil and trouble-free, being electorally divided between two great families, having a handful of Socialists, and army of priests and a Mafia  divided against itself. (pg. 5)

Perhaps somewhat inevitably, the Mafia feature in quite a few of Sciascia’s stories. In Philology, two men discuss the origins and meaning of the word ‘mafia’, but their reasons for doing so only become clear as the story unfolds. Another story, the aptly named Mafia Western, features two rival Mafia cells that have been in conflict with one another for many years. When a third cell is suspected of killing several members of both factions, not even the patriarchs of the Mafia hierarchy can solve the issue through the usual declaration of a truce; so they leave it up to the two cells to resolve things as swiftly as possible.

The mafiosi of the town began to make their own investigations, but fear, the sense of being the objects of an inscrutable vendetta or homicidal whim, and finding themselves suddenly in exactly the same position in which they themselves had placed honest people for so long, left them bewildered and robbed of much of their will to act. They were reduced to imploring their political members in their turn to implore the carabinieri to mount a real, thorough-going and efficient investigation—even though they suspected that the carabinieri themselves, having failed to smoke them out by legal methods, might have resorted to this shadier, more secure one. (pg. 169-170)

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, The Long Crossing, a group of peasants board a ship on the promise that they will be taken from Sicily to New Jersey, where life in the land of hope and glory beckons. The story opens with this wonderful passage which sets the scene perfectly.

The night seemed made to order, the darkness so thick that its weight could almost be felt when one moved. And the sound of the sea, like the wild-animal breath of the world itself, frightened them as it gasped and died at their feet. (pg 17)

Several of the men have sold virtually all their possessions to pay for the trip, a journey they understand will take twelve days, give or take a day or two, But when they arrive at their destination, all is not quite what it seems at first sight. This is a mournful story of faith and duplicity, one that will stay with me for quite a while.

Betrayal also rears its head in another excellent story, A Matter of Conscience, in which a woman who has committed adultery with a relative is wracked with guilt at the thought of continuing to deceive her husband, a loyal and loving man. Even though the affair is now over, the woman, who loves her husband very much, feels the urge to confess everything to clear her conscience. With this in mind, she writes a letter to a woman’s magazine asking for advice. When the letter is printed, it catches the eye of one the local lawyers. Consequently, it’s not long before the men of the town are caught up in the process of trying to guess the identity of the woman (and therefore the husband) in question. When one man, Favara, becomes the focus of attention, he is both amused and anxious:

Amused, because the bachelors, the widowers, the old men and those fortunate enough to have a wife without relatives, could afford to feel highly entertained; anxious, because those who fulfilled Don Luigi’s conditions were now seriously alarmed and were studying Favara’s reactions minutely as if he were offering a kind of sacrifice on their behalf which, once accomplished, would restore their shattered sense of security. (pg. 148)

Like a number of the stories in this collection, A Matter of Conscience ends on understated but poignant note.

Interestingly, I found Sciascia’s stories more humane than I had anticipated. When I think back to my previous readings of Sciascia’s novels Equal Danger and The Day of the Owl, it’s the biting combination of crime, corruption and political intrigue that I remember rather than a sense of compassion. Perhaps the best example of this feeling of humanity is encapsulated in the titular story, The Wine-Dark Sea, in which Bianchi, an unmarried engineer from the North of Italy is travelling to Sicily by train, sharing a carriage with a husband and wife and their two boys. The family, who are returning from a wedding in the capital, are accompanied by a relative, an attractive young girl named Dina. As the journey progresses, Bianchi – a man who has never been particularly fond of children – finds himself warming to the young boys despite their rather unruly behaviour. Further, Bianchi is clearly attracted to Dina, a girl of few words and profound feelings. As a consequence, these two developments prompt him to re-examine his own life. At just shy of forty pages, this is the longest story in the collection and deservedly so. It touches on the joy of family life, the tensions between the people of the North and those of the South (the Sicilians, in particular), the values of society, so many things. It’s my favourite piece in the collection.

A similar humane quality comes through in The Test, a story in which a Swiss engineer named Basler travels across Sicily from town to town, recruiting young women to work in a factory producing electrical goods. On the engineer’s arrival in an isolated village, his driver is approached by a young man whose girlfriend is one of the candidates. The young man wishes to marry this girl, and so he implores the driver (a fellow Sicilian) to help him by persuading the engineer to reject her, thereby ensuring she remains in the village. This story touches on several things: the economics of life in a small town; the dignity that comes with work and being able to provide for a family; questions of trust and loyalty. It’s another fine story.

Other stories worthy of a mention include:

  • Demotion, in which the head of the local Communist cell berates his wife for joining a demonstration against the removal of a statue from the local church, the statue of a saint whom the priests have now declared as never having existed in the first place. This is a story with an ironic sting in its tale, best left for readers to discover for themselves.
  • End–Game, the story of a man who is sent to eliminate a woman. But who holds the balance of power here? Is it the assassin, his potential victim or the man who commissioned the kill (the husband of the woman in question)?

In summary, this collection of stories would make an excellent introduction to Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicily, a place characterised by a compelling fusion of raw beauty, dignity, suspicion, brutality and sly irony.

Update: Grant (1streading) has reviewed this collection – click here to read his excellent review.

The Wine-Dark Sea is published by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.