Tag Archives: Noir

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 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 Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Back in April 2015 I read Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, a fictionalised account of the author’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. Even though Three Bedrooms was somewhat atypical of Simenon’s work, it gave me a taste for his romans durs (or ‘hard’ psychological novels). With that in mind, I’ve been looking forward to trying another ever since.

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First published in 1942, The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of its narrative. The woman in question is Tati Couderc, a forty-five-year-old widowed peasant who runs a farm close to St. Amand in the Bourbonnais region of France. Having outlived her husband, she now shares the farmhouse with her father-in-law and owner of the farm, old Couderc. Tati is unattractive, unkempt and somewhat rough around the edges, but she is also sharp and as tough as old boots.

As the novel opens, Tati is taking the bus home from market when a young drifter, Jean, boards the vehicle. Unlike the other passengers on the bus, Tati sees something different in Jean, something the others simply do not notice. She sees that he has nothing on him, no ties and no obvious direction either. It’s as if she figures him out in an instant.

…but all the same she did not take her eyes off him, and she took note of everything—his stubbly cheeks, his pale unseeing eyes, his gray suit, worn yet having a touch of ease about it, his thin shoes. A man who could walk noiselessly and spring like a cat. And who, after the seven francs fifty he had given to the driver in exchange for a blue ticket, probably had no money left in his pockets. […]

Widow Couderc too hugged a secret smile. The man blinked slightly. It was rather as if, in the midst of all these old women with their nodding heads, the two had recognized each other. (pgs. 6-7, NYRB Classics)

When Tati gets off the bus laden with packages, Jean follows shortly afterwards and gives her a hand carrying everything back to the farm. Keen to take possession of this young man, Tati offers him some work on the farm – in any case she needs a hand running the place as her father-in-law is old, deaf and a little senile. When Jean reveals that he has just been released from prison for the murder of a man, Tati does not seem in the least surprised – ‘It was as if she had guessed it already.’  With nothing else on the horizon, Jean falls in with the plan and promptly beds down in the loft.

Her eyes were eating him up. She was taking possession of him. She wasn’t afraid. She wanted him to understand that she wasn’t afraid of him. (pgs. 14-15)

And always that little glance in which he could read satisfaction, even a kind of promise, but a slight reservation as well. She was not distrustful. Only, she still needed to watch him for a time. (pg. 23)

A few days later Jean and Tati end up in bed together. Even so, there is no real passion or romance here – it’s all much more functional than that. And while Tati is happy to have sex with Jean, she must also service old Couderc’s sexual needs every now and again just to keep him sweet.

As the story progresses, two developments come together to create a sense of tension and conflict in the narrative. The first of these stems from the introduction of old Couderc’s daughters into the mix. Daughter number one, Françoise, lives next door to the farm; as such she is perfectly positioned to keep watch on developments when Jean arrives on the scene. However, the real brains of the outfit is daughter number two, Amélie, who, on hearing about Jean’s past, descends on the farmhouse with her husband and young son in tow. Both daughters are deeply resentful of Tati’s position on the farm—they have never liked her ever since she arrived as a young servant at the age of fourteen. With a murderer now living in their midst, the daughters are worried that Tati might be plotting to do away with old Couderc. If truth be told, they would like nothing more than to find a means of evicting the widow; after all, their inheritance might be at stake. Here’s Amélie as she confronts Tati.

“You see, I know what you’re up to. It’s no accident that this man’s here. One fine morning you’ll get Father—God knows how—to sign a paper. Then he’ll have to be disposed of before he can change his mind. Go on, admit it! Admit that from the first day you stepped in here, when we were still only kids, you decided you would take over. Our poor brother was properly fooled. You were already as perverted as could be. […]” (pg. 48)

The second development involves Françoise’s daughter, Félicie, an alluring sixteen-year-old who lives with her parents in the house next door. Jean is clearly attracted to Félicie as he watches her playing with her baby in the grass. (There is no sign of a husband or a father of the child on the scene.) At first, Félicie keeps her distance from Jean (teasing him, perhaps), but as the narrative progresses her attitude softens, and she moves a little closer.

As she had bidden him good night, she would bid him good morning. She was not altogether tamed yet, but she was beginning to trace ever-narrowing circles around him. (pg 107)

From the very first chapter, it is plainly obvious that Tati has taken a deep dislike to Félicie, whom she considers ‘a little slut’ – in all honesty, she is jealous of the young girl. Concerned that something might be brewing between Jean and Félicie, Tati insists on keeping a close eye on developments. She watches Jean like a hawk, questioning him on his movements and interactions as he goes about his work on the farm. Jean, on the other hand, can think of little else but the prospect of Félicie. He carries her image in his mind: the fullness of her lip, the curve of her body as she carries the baby on her arm…

That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot, save to say that circumstances and events conspire to force a dramatic denouement. This is a first-rate slice of noir from Simenon, just as dark and disturbing as its cover suggests. The style is spare yet very effective with the author carefully modulating the tension as the story unfolds. There is a palpable sense of foreboding from a fairly early stage in the narrative and if anything this feeling only grows as we move closer to the final chapters. Memories of Jean’s trial for murder some five years earlier echo and reverberate through the novella, and we learn a little more about the young man’s backstory along the way.

In his excellent introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, Paul Theroux compares and contrasts The Widow with another novella published in France in 1942, Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider/The Stranger). Interestingly, the French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, André Gide considered The Widow to be the superior book. Each of these novellas features a remorseless young man cast adrift from society. In Simenon’s work there is a sense that Jean operates in a bit of a vacuum—none of his actions seem to hold any real weight or significance. There are other similarities too including the focus on bright sunlight, a motif that runs through The Widow. I’ll finish with a couple of quotes to illustrate this point. The second of these also gives a brief feel for Simenon’s descriptions of the Bourbonnais countryside, the tranquil environment that forms the backdrop to this powerful story of greed, resentment, jealousy and desire.

Sunrays as sharp as the beams from a searchlight slanted in through the window with its small panes. (pg. 31)

The grass was a dark green, the water almost black. In contrast, the newborn foliage of the chestnuts was tender and the sunshine splashed it with large daubs of gold. (pg. 29)

For other perspectives on this book, click here for reviews by Guy and Jose.

The Widow is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (book review)

‘I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.’ (pg. 84, Orion Books)

Some years ago now, I read (and loved) James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, but I’d never dipped into any of his other books. Then earlier this year, Max Cairnduff reviewed Postman and his review reminded me of the sharpness of Cain’s writing. As I’ve just come off the back of a run of reading translated fiction from the IFFP longlist, I wanted a change of scene, a different mood. Time for some noir, I thought, so I picked up my copy of Cain’s Double Indemnity and allowed it to sweep me away to Los Angeles for a few hours.

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Our narrator, Walter Huff, is an experienced insurance salesman who works for the General Fidelity of California. He’s mastered all the tricks of his trade, knowing exactly when and how to push (or back off for that matter) to bag a sale. As the story opens, Huff is paying a call to a client’s home in Glendale in an attempt to get him to renew his automobile insurance. His client, Mr Nurdlinger (great name), is out, but Nurdlinger’s wife, Phyllis, receives Walter’s call. Huff explains his reasons for wanting to see Mr Nurdlinger, and Phyllis gives him some story about how her husband is considering other insurance providers. But Walter soon smells a rat:

And after a while I knew this woman didn’t care anything about the Automobile Club. Maybe the husband did, but she didn’t. There was something else, and this was nothing but a stall. I figured it would be some kind of a proposition to split the commission, maybe so she could get a ten-spot out of it without the husband knowing. There’s plenty of that going on. And I was just wondering what I would say to her. A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.

But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. ‘Do you handle accident insurance?’ (pg. 5)

Seduced by the allure of Phyllis Nirdlinger and her shapely curves, Walter is unable to keep away, even though he knows this magnetic woman spells trouble from the get-go:

She made another bunch of pleats. Then, after a long time here it came. ‘Mr Huff, would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all? I have a little allowance of my own. I could pay you for it, and he wouldn’t know, but just the same all this worry would be over.’

I couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go. I was going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red-hot poker. But I didn’t do it. She looked at me, a little surprised, and her face was about six inches away. What I did do was put my arm around her, pull her face up against mine, and kiss her on the mouth, hard. I was trembling, like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare, and then she closed her eyes, pulled me to her, and kissed back. (pg. 13)

Walter’s dog tired of the insurance world. Just how many terrible stunts had he seen where people had tried to ‘crook the wheel’, thereby attempting to cash in on their policies? He falls for Phyllis and sees an opportunity for them to pull their own trick on the insurance game. In his review of Postman, Max describes the book as ‘classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way.’ And that’s what we have here, too; Walter, Phyllis and the unfortunate Mr Nurdlinger surplus to requirements.

Drawing on Walter’s inside knowledge of his business, the pair set about planning what they consider will be an undetectable crime. All the big money on accident policies comes from railroad incidents, as companies will pay double indemnity if a person dies as a result of an accident on the railway. So, if they can pull it off, Walter and Phyllis can clean up; they can remove Nurdlinger from the picture on a permanent basis and cash in at the same time:

‘Get this, Phyllis. There’s three essential elements to a successful murder.’

That word was out before I knew it. I looked at her quick. I thought she’d wince under it. She didn’t. She leaned forward. The firelight was reflected in her eyes like she was some kind of leopard. ‘Go on. I’m listening.’ (pg. 22)

We’re only on page 22 here, but I’m not going to describe any more of the plot as this would only spoil the delights to come. Double Indemnity is superbly written, which I hope I’ve illustrated from the passages quoted above. The dialogue is tight and sharp, and the main characters leap off the page. I love the passages in which Cain gives us access to Huff’s inner thoughts; we find him wrestling with himself and the situation as the narrative unravels. And Phyllis is quite a creature; the ‘leopard’ passage I’ve quoted suggests a predator-like quality, and that’s exactly the type of person (or animal?) we’re dealing with here.

Alongside Walter, Phyllis and Nurdlinger, another character I should mention is Keyes, Head of Claims in Walter’s office. He’s another very skilfully drawn character. Walter describes Keyes as ‘the most tiresome man to do business with…always in some kind of feud with other departments of the company.’ In his obsession with detail, Keyes triple-checks everything that moves and can sniff out a phoney claim a mile off.  This spells trouble ahead for Walter and Phyllis, of course, but I said I wouldn’t dwell on the story…

Double Indemnity is a brilliant noir. Even if you’ve seen the superb film version, it’s well worth investing in the book (and there are some differences in the plot). My copy clocks in at around 135 pages, so it’s a pacey book and a joy to read.

Thanks to Max Cairnduff for prompting me to return to the work of this terrific writer, and for permission to link to his review of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Double Indemnity is published in the UK by Orion Books. Source: personal copy.