Tag Archives: Orion 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.

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard (review)

As some of you probably know, I love a good crime novel (especially if it’s a classic one) but for some reason I haven’t read many by Elmore Leonard. I’m more familiar with the film adaptations of his work than the books themselves. Rum Punch, first published in 1992, was adapted for the screen in 1997 as Jackie Brown, directed by Quentin Tarantino. It’s probably my favourite Tarantino movie and as I haven’t watched it for a while, now seemed as good a time as any to read the source novel.

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Ordell Robbie – who first appeared in Leonard’s earlier novel, The Switch – thinks of himself as a major player in the illegal arms business. He’s back in touch with former associate and aging low-lifer, Louis Gara, recently released from prison for a series of botched bank robberies.

Ordell has accumulated a tidy stash of money through gunrunning. He keeps his cash in Freeport, Grand Bahama, moving the money into the US a batch at a time by way of a neat little scheme he’s devised. This is where Jackie comes in. (In the novel she’s Jackie Burke; Tarantino changed her surname to ‘Brown’ for the film.) Jackie, a forty-four-year-old stewardess with a career that’s going nowhere, is Ordell’s money runner – she smuggles his money into the mainland by hiding $50,000 in a manila envelope stashed in her flight bag.

Ordell’s keen for Jackie to carry a larger amount, maybe half a million dollars in a single trip, but she’s worried about getting caught and rightly so. We’re not long into the novel when a couple of Federal ATF agents stop Jackie and catch her with $50,000 and ‘a half inch or so of white powder’ in a cellophane bag. The Feds were clearly waiting for Jackie, someone must have talked.

The other main character in Rum Punch is Max Cherry, an experienced, slightly world-weary bail bondsman. Ordell puts up the money for Jackie’s bail, and when Max arrives to collect her from jail she makes quite an impression on him:

This was a good-looking woman. If he didn’t know her age he’d say she was somewhere in her mid-thirties. Nice figure in the uniform skirt, five five, one fifteen – he liked her type, the way she moved, scuffing the slides on the vinyl floor, the way she raised her hand to brush her hair from her face…Max said, ‘Ms Burke?’ and handed her his business card as he introduced himself. She nodded, glancing at the card. There were women who sobbed with relief. Some men too. There were women who came up and kissed him. This one nodded. (pg. 63, Orion Books)

The Feds want Ordell, so they cut Jackie a deal. If she helps them nail Ordell, they’ll drop any charges against her. Jackie’s already at the bottom of the heap when it comes to her job, reduced to working for some crappy airline for a measly salary and little in the way benefits. A criminal record would signal the end, so she agrees to help federal agent Nicolet and his partner catch Ordell. She’ll carry Ordell’s $500,000 into the mainland where the Feds will be waiting.

But Jackie wants out, an escape from her empty life as a stewardess, a life free from dependency on Ordell. Likewise, Max is tired of life as a bail bondsman. In this scene, he starts to question what he’s doing with his life and whether there’s a way out for him too:

The place smelled of mildew.

He sat in the living room in the dark, an expert at waiting, a nineteen-year veteran of it, waiting for people who failed to appear, missed court dates because they forgot or didn’t care, and took off. Nineteen years of losers, repeat offenders in and out of the system. Another one, that’s all Louis was, slipping back into the life.

Is this what you do?

He knew why he was here. Still, he began to wonder about it, thinking not so much of waiting other times in the nineteen years but aware of right now, the mildew smell, seeing himself sitting in the dark with a plastic tube that fired a beanbag full of buckshot.

Really? This is what you do?

Max pointed the stun gun at a window, pushed in the plunger and saw a plane of glass explode. (pg. 87)

So, Jackie and Max hatch a plan to double-cross Ordell and disappear with his money. It’ll mean deceiving the Feds too, but Jackie thinks she can pull it off. She’s the catalyst, the thinker, but Max has fallen for her, and he’s willing to take a chance.

I don’t want to reveal any more of the plot, but it’s a great one with plenty of twists and turns. Even if you haven’t read Rum Punch, you may be familiar with it from the film. There are a few differences, but Jackie Brown is pretty faithful to the core of the novel.

Rum Punch is very well written, and I hope some of the quotes illustrate just how good it is. Leonard’s prose is lean, but he has a great eye for detail and observation. As you might expect, the dialogue feels tight and authentic. Any unnecessary clutter and exposition are stripped away allowing the reader to focus on the conversations and essential action. Here’s a passage from a scene between Ordell and Jackie following her release on bail – we get a sense of Ordell’s inner thoughts as well as his conversation with Jackie:

The way Ordell heard what Jackie was saying: If she kept quiet and did time on his account, she wanted to be paid for it. He asked her was this a threat. She said that would be extortion. It might be, but wasn’t an answer to the question. Was she saying if he didn’t pay her she’d go talk to the police?

Wait a minute.

He said, ‘Baby, you don’t know any more what my business is than they do.’

She said, ‘Are you sure?’

‘You run some money you say is mine. What am I suppose to get convicted of?’ Asking what sounded like the key question…

She came back saying, ‘The illegal sale of firearms.’ Like that. ‘It’s true, isn’t it? You sell guns?’

Sounding innocent saying it that way, naïve, nice-looking airline stewardess sitting across the room on her white sofa. Except she had the two guns resting on cushions to either side of her, little guns to look at but nothing naïve about them. (pg. 88)

Leonard is sharp too when it comes to characterisation. Each of the main players has their own voice, their own distinctive way of moving. Even the minor characters come alive in a few sentences – Simone and Sheronda, for instance, two of the three very different women Ordell seems to have on the go. One of the things I like about this novel is the way Leonard encourages the reader to invest in his characters. It’s easy to empathise with Jackie and Max, but even screw-ups like Louis elicit some sympathy from the reader (this one, at least).

All in all, Rum Punch is a terrific crime novel. I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage I couldn’t bear to leave out as it captures a sense of the Florida setting, the way the place has changed over the years. It’s another great piece of writing, one that conveys the author’s eye for authenticity and detail. Louis is another one looking for a way out. As it happens, he’s been working for Max handing out business cards, but he’s itching to get back to something more lucrative:

Louis had lived here ten years ago when old retired people from New York sat on the hotel porches wearing hats, their noses painted white, and boat-lift Cubans worked their hustles down the street. Five years ago when it was beginning to change he had returned to rob a bank not ten blocks from here, up by Wolfie’s Deli. Now it was the hip place to be in South Florida. Guys with sunglasses in their hair posed skinny girls on the beach and photographed them. There was no place to park anymore on Ocean Drive. Louis had a couple more vodka tonics. He watched a dark-haired girl in leotards and heels coming along the sidewalk, a winner, and was about to put his hand out, ask if she wanted a drink, when he realized she was a guy wearing makeup and tits. That’s how trendy it was now. What was he doing here? He wasn’t a salesman who handed out bail-bond cards. If anyone asked him what he did he would have to say he robbed banks, even though the last one was almost five years ago. (pgs. 73-74)

Rum Punch is published in the UK by Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books. 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.