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January 8, 2020

THE UNFORGETTING . . . Between the covers

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As she gazes up at her bedroom ceiling, Lily Bell daydreams of becoming an actress. She is, to be sure, beautiful enough, with her long almost-white blond hair and her flawless complexion, but for the stepdaughter of a struggling artist in the London of 1851, her dreams of becoming Ophelia, Juliet or Desdemona are just foolish fantasies. Until the day her penniless stepfather receives a visit from one of his creditors, a mysterious self-styled Professor – Erasmus Salt. Salt is actually a theatrical showman, with a macabre interest in that overwhelming Victorian obsession, communicating with the dead. He offers Alfred Bell respite from the debt in return for Lily accompanying Salt and his spinster sister Faye to become the star of a new production, in which he will convince audiences that he has raised the dead.

Unforgetting coverDespite her misgivings, Lily is intrigued by what appears to be a chance to achieve her ambition. After all, Salt’s theatrical illusion may be faintly sinister, but who knows what career doors it might unlock? Bell, despite the tears and misgivings of his wife, cannot get Lily out of the door fast enough, and soon the girl is on her way south, to the seaside town of Ramsgate, where Salt’s production is due to be presented at The New Tivoli theatre.

Salt’s production is, literally, smoke and mirrors. Lily is not to appear on stage at all, but is confined to a cubicle, where her image is projected onto the stage via a huge mirror and the swirling aura produced by the burning of quicklime. On stage, an actor plays the role of a grieving husband trying to summon up the image of his dead wife. When she ‘appears’, he tries to clasp her to his arms but her wraith vanishes, and he ends it all, courtesy of a knife and a bladder of pig’s blood concealed under his shirt.

At first, Lily does not object to her new career, strange though it might be. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Salt – in order to further foster the illusion of Lily’s miraculous reincarnation – publishes notices announcing her death, and has a headstone bearing her name erected over an (empty) grave in a nearby cemetery.

By now we, as readers, know much more about Salt than does the hapless Lily. Having experience a terrible trauma in his youth, the balance of his mind has been disturbed; he may also be a murderer, and his obsession with the dead could be leading further than simply the creation of a melodramatic theatrical illusion.

Lily is an admirable character and becomes more resilient as her fortunes take a downturn at the hands of Salt, but the most intriguing part of the story is the way that Rose Black brings Faye Salt more and more centre stage, from being a slightly forbidding Mrs Danvers-like character, to becoming a vivid and compassionate woman. In the end the book was, for me, more about Faye than it was about Lily.

Rose Black has created an elegant conjuring trick of her own in The Unforgetting. She has stuck with all the conventional trappings of a Victorian melodrama, but written something much more subtle and affecting. Yes, we have a sneering villain, his grotesque henchman, a gothic mansion witness to a terrible tragedy, a wronged woman, a dying mother, exotic travelling gypsies, a noble young man who turns the tables on the degenerate despoiler – but there is more, so much more than that. The Unforgetting is published by Orion and is out now.

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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In 1952, Jim Thompson published The Killer Inside Me, the novel which was to make his name. The central character is Lou Ford, an apparently mild mannered Texas Deputy Sheriff. Behind the bland mask he is, however, manipulative sexual sadist and a stone cold killer. For a detailed review of the novel, click the image below.

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The Killer Inside Me is astonishingly frank for 1952, so much so that the implications of sadistic sex, paedophilia and substance abuse would make anyone writing a screenplay tread very warily indeed. The first movie version wasn’t until 1976, and it featured Stacey Keach as Lou Ford. Director Burt Kennedy transposes Central City Texas to Montana. Sometimes this geographical shift is echoed by the storyline, resembling that of the novel in the same way that the mountains of Montana mirror the vast flatlands of the Texas oilfields, but at other times, such as the jail scene between Ford and Johnny (now Hispanic rather than Greek) the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel.

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The novel has Ford speaking from the very first page and we know immediately who and what he is, whereas the film takes a while to reveal to us Ford’s true character. Ford still ends up shot dead by his former colleagues, but his demise comes much quicker and with less ceremony than in the novel. For the complete cast and credits, click here. Keach makes a decent enough fist of the part but in a brilliant cameo as Joyce Lakeland, Susan Tyrell was the stand-out performer, brief though her role was. Her New York Times obituary decribed her ‘talent for playing the downtrodden, outré, and grotesque.

A second adaptation, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, was released in 2010. Thirty-odd years is a long time in cinema, and while remakes are rarely considered to be as good as the original, in this case Winterbottom gave us a movie which was altogether more thoughtful and complex, partly because it stuck closely to the original story and dialogue. There is an abundance of softcore sex and hardcore violence which made it controversial. Interestingly, while the roles of prostitute Joyce and Ford’s school-ma’am girlfriend Amy remained intact plot-wise, there was something of a reversal in how they were played. Jessica Alba was almost impossibly beautiful and vulnerable as Joyce, while Kate Hudson was often seen slouching around Ford’s house in slutty underwear with a cigarette between her lips.

Ford’s frequent flashbacks to his dark and doomed relationship with Joyce link explicitly to the damage done to him when he was a child. Joyce herself, as in the novel,  did not die from Ford’s beating, and true to Thompson’s plot she gets to appear in the Grand Guignol final scene where Ford is confronted by his accusers before everything literally explodes in flames.

The film is violently stylish with an ironic soundtrack of country schmaltz and gauche 1950s rockabilly, but punctuated with operatic arias, most tellingly at the end, where Caruso sings ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore.

For full cast and crew, plus production details, click the image below.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The Killer Inside Me

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James Myers ‘Jim’ Thompson (1906 – 1977) was an outrageously talented novelist, screenwriter – and drunk. When he died in Los Angeles of an alcohol-induced stroke he left a legacy of hard hitting crime novels and brilliant screenplays, perhaps none better than that for Paths Of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film set in the French trenches of The Great War. With a dazzling performance by Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the film has become a classic.

killer_inside_meThompson’s first major success came in 1952 with The Killer Inside Me and it remains grimly innovative. Psychopathic killers have become pretty much mainstream in contemporary crime fiction, but there can be few who chill the blood in quite the same way as Thompson’s West Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. His menace is all the more compelling because he is the narrator of the novel, and a few hundred words in we are left in no doubt that the dull but amiable law officer, who bores local people stupid with his homespun cod-philosophical clichés, is actually a creature from the darkest reaches of hell.

Ford has homicidal urges which he refers to as the sickness. They date from childhood, and we learn that he was used for sex by his father’s housekeeper and went on to murder a girl – a crime for which his foster brother took the blame.  Ford’s downfall begins with a visit to a beaten up house, outside the city limits;  the resident of the house, Joyce Lakeland, is a prostitute, and Sheriff Bob Maples has given his amiable deputy – renowned for not carrying a gun, and being able to sweet-talk his way out of difficult situations – the task of telling her to move on.

KillerInsideMe01_cvrSUBJoyce is savvy, and world-weary, but when Ford’s “pardon me, Ma’am,” charm strikes the wrong note, she slaps him. He slaps her back and the encounter takes a dark turn when Ford takes off his belt and gives Joyce what used to be known as “a leathering.” She responds to the beating with obvious arousal, and the pair begin a violent sado-sexual affair.

Ford’s involvement with Joyce becomes complicated when he is summoned by Chester Conway, the major employer in the city. Conway’s feckless son Elmer is one of Joyce’s paying customers and Conway senior wants Ford to engineer a meeting where Elmer is to give Joyce a large sum of money on the understanding that she leaves immediately. Ford twists the situation to his own advantage by giving Joyce a near fatal beating, shooting Elmer and setting up the scene to look as if there has been a violent quarrel which has left both participants dead.

His plan seems to have worked, but seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of some of Ford’s associates, including Joe Rothman, a sceptical union official, and also Bob Maples, who is old, ill and drinking himself away from thoughts that his deputy may be a murderer.

KillerInsideMe02_cvrSUBA key figure in Ford’s life is Amy, his long-time girlfriend. Thompson paints her as physically attractive, but socially constrained. She is a primary school teacher from a good local family who, despite responding to Ford’s violent sexual ways, is determined to marry him. As the dark clouds of suspicion begin to shut the daylight out of Lou Ford’s life, she is the next to die, and Ford’s clumsy attempt to frame someone else for her death is the tipping point. Thereafter his downfall is rapid, and his final moments are as brutal and savage as anything he has inflicted on other people.

We live in a different world now. While violence against women is pretty much standard fare in the scores of serial killer novels which are published every year, The Killer Inside Me is different. Nowadays, if a book is classed (by whom, one could ask) as a literary novel, then almost anything goes. American Psycho attracted all kinds of labels; it was satirical, it was post-modern, it was transgressive, it was New York chic. Firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre, I Was Dora Suarez was horrifically violent, but shot through with author Derek Raymond’s overwhelming compassion and pity. Could, would, should The Killer Inside Me be written and published in 2020? I doubt that a mainstream publisher would handle it, and I am certain that critics would kill it dead, leading to social media vultures hovering over the remains.

For an account of the two movie adaptations of
The Killer Inside Me, click the image below

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