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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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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best book

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There’s no competition, I don’t have a prize to offer, but there are are certainly no losers. like many other amateur book reviewers I can only be grateful to publicists, publishers and, of course, writers, who trust me with their work. Here are five of the best books of 2019 – feel free to agree or disagree with my thoughts.

htds-coverVal McDermid’s wonderful odd couple Tony Hill and Carol Jordan don’t have it in them, for a variety of complex reasons, to love each other in any conventional sense, and How The Dead Speak finds their relationship more fractured than ever. Tony is in prison and Carol’s bosses have finally lost patience, and she is left to pace the moors around her solitary home. Tony’s venomous mother makes an appearance as she coerces Jordan into investigating a fraud case, while the equally abrasive Bronwen Scott seeks her help as she tries to put together a case for an appeal against a murder conviction. Back in Bradfield, Jordan’s former team are almost literally knee deep in the mysterious case of dozens of skeletons found in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic care home. As ever, McDermid puts in front of us a plate full of delicious mysteries and a few elegantly salted red herrings – crime fiction haute cuisine at its best.

tnibJames Lee Burke celebrated his eighty third birthday earlier this month and, thankfully, shows no sign that his powers have deserted him. His brooding and haunted Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheux returned in The New Iberia Blues with another adventure set in the humid bayous and crumbling colonial mansions of Acadiana. Dave – with, of course, his long-time offsider Clete Purcell – tries to solve a series of grisly killings involving a driven movie director deeply in hock to criminal backers, a preening and narcissistic former mercenary and a religious crazy man on the run from Death Row. We even have the return of the bizarre and deranged contract killer known as Smiley – surely one of the most sinister and damaged killers in all crime fiction. As ever, there’s a deep vein of morality and conscience running through the book, amid the corpses, shoot-outs and hot spoonfuls of Southern Noir.

6104xARjgmLThere is an understandable temptation to lionise a book, irrespective of its merit, when it is published posthumously, the last work of a fine writer who died far too soon. Metropolis, by Philip Kerr, however, is a bloody good book irrespective of any sentiment the reader may have about the passing of its author. Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, has traversed the decades – and half the globe – in his adventures. Peron’s Argentina, the cauldron of Nazi Germany, Somerset Maugham’s Riviera in the 1950s and the haunted Katyn Forest. Now, though, Kerr puts Gunther firmly back where it all started, in 1920s Berlin. While Gunther poses as a crippled war veteran in an attempt to catch a serial killer, we rub shoulders with the likes of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Lotte Lenya. Philip Kerr is gone, but Bernie Gunther – cynical, brave, compassionate and resourceful – will live for ever.

The Lonely HourSometimes, the sheer bravura, joy and energy of a writer’s work makes us happily turn a blind eye to improbabilities. Let’s face it, Christopher Fowler’s Arthur Bryant and John May have been solving crimes since the Luftwaffe was raining bombs down on London and, by rights, they should be, like Betjeman’s Murray Posh and Lupin Pooters “Long in Kelsal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.” But they live on, and long may they defy Father Time. In The Lonely Hour, in this case the haunted moments around 4.00 am, they try to track down a killer who is using an arcane and archaic weapon – a surgical device called a trocar. The trocar was a tube devised to allow the body to be punctured in order to facilitate the escape of gases or fluids. There is comedy both high and low, a mesmerising journey through hidden London – and just enough darkness to remind us that murder is a serious business.

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Click the image above to read my full review

 

 

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best historical crime

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I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, more recently, crime fiction set ‘back in the day’. Sadly, there are those writers whose thirst for period accuracy produces lavish costume drama at the expense of a decent plot and good storytelling. Happily, the five books on my 2019 shortlist don’t fall into that trap – take a look, and if you haven’t read them yet, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 19.34.11The Familiars by Stacey Halls was one of the publishing successes of 2019, and rightly so. The evocative visual presentation was matched by superb writing and the conviction of a natural storyteller. The story is not a conventional crime mystery, but involves suspicion, injustice, intrigue, political chicanery and personal bravery. We are in rural Lancashire in the early years of the seventeenth century and young Fleetwood Shuttleworth has been married off to a wealthy landowner. Far away in London, King James is obsessed with a fear of witches and daemons, and those anxious to please His Majesty are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty. Fleetwood’s new home, Gawthorpe Hall, sits under the looming Pendle Hill, and all around the district, harmless old women – and some not so old – are being rounded up as witches. Fleetwood is under pressure from husband Richard to provide a male heir and when, after several miscarriages, she seeks the help of a young peasant midwife, Alice Gray, her actions put her in direct conflict with the King’s men.

thg-coverChris Nickson’s historical novels may be narrow in geographical scope – they are mostly set in Leeds across the centuries – but they are magnificent in their emotional, political and social breadth. In The Hocus Girl, we meet Simon Westow who earns his living as a thieftaker. In America they still have them, after a fashion, but they call them bail skip tracers, or bounty hunters. Leeds in the 1820s had no police force except inept and frequently infirm Parish Constables, and so thieftakers pursued criminals on commission from victims of crime. Westow has a formidable ally in the shape of a teenage girl called Jane. Sexually abused as a youngster, she is ruthless and streetwise, and God help the man who mistakes her for a waif. Westow and Jane have a different kind of fight on their hands here, as they try to prevent a campaigner for social justice being sent to the gallows by political conspirators.

tsm-coverSW Perry has written an excellent thriller about religious extremism, media manipulation and political treachery. The fact that The Serpent’s Mark is set in Elizabethan London rather than 2019 can only make the reader wonder at how little things have changed. Nicholas Shelby is a physician who, despite his relative youth, has served on the battlefields of Europe and has emerged from a debilitating period of alcoholism caused by the tragic death of his wife and child. With many a real life character – including Robert Cecil and John Evelyn – making an appearance, Shelby becomes involved in a desperate affair which seeks to supplant Queen Elizabeth herself with a hitherto unknown child of Mary Tudor – and return the land of Gloriana to the old faith, Roman Catholicism.

night-watch-coverFor all that the era was in my lifetime, the 1950s may just as well be the 1650s given the gulf between then and the modern world. In Nightwatch David C Taylor takes us back to New York in 1954, and we follow a convincingly tough and hard-nosed NYPD cop, Michael Cassidy, who becomes involved in a case which is way, way above his relatively humble pay grade. There were many former Nazis who escaped Nuremburg and had vanished into the ether by 1954 and although many of them were undoubtedly bastards, the sinister folk in American intelligence agencies gave them a lifeline by making sure that they became their bastards. Awkwardly for the CIA, there were also survivors of Hitler’s death camps who had made their way to America, and although they may have been scratching a relatively meagre living, they still had access to information and a burning desire for revenge. Cassidy battles both the indifference of his bosses and the unwanted attention of some very powerful people as he tries to solve a series of murders and make his streets a little less mean.

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Click the text image above to link to my review of The Mathematical Bridge.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best police procedural

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While police procedurals, at least in recent years, don’t tend to attract as much publicity as, say, domestic noir (or books with ’Girl’ in the title) they are the solid and dependable backbone of crime fiction. A true cynic might say that the police procedural scene is a roomfull of Detective Inspectors moaning about their desk-bound box-ticking superior officers, but in the hands of writers who are prepared to take a few risks and move away from the norm, a good police novel is hard to beat.

tkim-coverThere are some very special Irish crime writers these days. Some mine the uniquely bitter and bleak seam of Belfast, with its raw and recent memories, while further south the city of Dublin, where “the girls are so pretty”, has its fair share of malcontents and evil doers. Olivia Kiernan and her Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan were new to me, but The Killer In Me was a beguiling read. I called it “dark, complex, but full of compassion.” and the story of Sheehan’s search for a killer, while trying to decide if a newly released killer is a wrongly convicted media cause célèbre or a murderous con artist, is beautifully told.

tbwfStaying in Ireland, it has to be said that Jo Spain is ridiculously talented. She has created a bankable stock character in the affable Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, but this has not stopped her from writing such brilliant stand-alones as The Confession. In reviewing her books I have used adjectives like ‘bravura’, ‘intense’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘mesmerising’, so will gather that I am a fan. It was good to welcome back Tom Reynolds this year in The Boy Who Fell. On one level this is a firecracker of a whodunnit, and Spain’s ability to misdirect the reader and lead us – Pied Piper-like – in the wrong direction, is proudly displayed. On a more reflective level her observations on moneyed Dublin society are sharp and salutary, as Reynolds tries to discover why a teenager died while partying with his privileged and privately educated friends.

CATGVulnerability as a character trait is perhaps more common in British fictional coppers that their American counterparts, and few fit that bill quite like James Oswald’s Edinburgh detective Tony McLean. Cold As The Grave is his ninth outing, and his quest for the truth behind a series of corpses found in strange locations in the old city brings the frayed edges of his character into focus. He has always had an awareness of the fact that there are “more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Oswald never goes full-on supernatural, but McLean is ever more aware that the solution to the Edinburgh deaths may lie beyond the dry pages of the Police Scotland training manual.

SleepwalkerIn The Sleepwalker, Joseph Knox reintroduced us to his troubled Manchester Detective Constable, Aidan Waits, who we first met in Sirens (2017) and The Smiling Man (2018). To say that Waits’s Manchester is dystopian is rather like saying that there can be a certain frisson between supporters of City and United. In The Sleepwalker it rarely seems to be daylight as the pallid and pinched faces of drug abusers and petty crimInals are caught in the flickering neon lights of the late night clubs and drinking dens. Waits and his loathsome immediate superior Sergeant Sutcliffe have been tasked with waiting at the bedside of a dying serial killer, in the hope that his final breath will reveal the burial place of one of his victims. Inevitably, everything goes bloodily wrong, and when the dust settles, and the final autopsy is done, Knox asks us – perhaps, maybe, possibly – to bid Waits a fond farewell.

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Click this link for a full review of Their Little Secret.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best thriller

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In the dear, dead days beyond recall, when I was still working as a teacher – casting (as a friend once memorably said) artificial pearls before real swine – someone suggested we apply the WILF principle when explaining to sullen teenagers how to improve their work. WILF stood for What I’m Looking For. Applying the WILF principle to what constitutes a thriller, I would suggest a mixture of the following: severe personal stress, violence, unexplained events, evil masquerading as benevolence, mysterious threats – feel free to add your own criteria, but those will do for me. Click the links to read a full review of each novel.

nohTim Weaver’s intrepid searcher
for the physically lost, David Raker, faced his hardest challenge yet in No One Home when he was hired to find not merely a missing husband or a disappeared friend, but an entire community, albeit a tiny moorland hamlet. As ever Tim Weaver provided a plausible solution to what seemed an impossible conundrum.

severedClergymen writing crime novels? That can only mean cosy village mysteries centred around tweedy villages and eccentric old ladies, surely? Not if Peter Laws has his way. He is a minister in the Baptist Church in Bedforshire, but his Matthew Hunter novels are dark, scary and blood-spattered. In Severed, Hunter encounters a reclusive sect whose primitive and baleful version of Christianity has left a trail of death and disruption.

till-morning-is-nighBen Bracken is a Jack Reacher do-alike transported to contemporary England. Much as I have enjoyed the invincible Reacher over the years, Rob Parker has created a more thoughtful and vulnerable – at least psychologically – version in Ben Bracken, a former soldier who exists in the shady hinterland which lies between law enforcement, special services and officially-sanctioned skullduggery. Till Morning Is Nigh is the fourth in the series and is, by some way, the best yet. Our man infiltrates an extremist far-right group and contributes to a spectacular shootout at a school nativity play.

tbl-coverSad to say, there is no-one more vulnerable in modern society – at least in novels – than a single mother trying to bring up her child. In The Body Lies Jo Baker takes a look at the dichotomy between fictional tropes and reality. Her unnamed protagonist is a lecturer at a minor university, separated from her husband and trying to juggle a job and childcare. Baker spins a delightfully elaborate yarn which begins when the woman is targeted by a stalker.

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Click the image above to read just why I thought A Book Of Bones is
MY BEST THRILLER 2019

BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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Maurice Procter (1906 – 1973) was a well regarded crime writer who created a popular police procedural series based on the cases of Harry Martineau, a Manchester police officer. Many of Procter’s books are still in print and modern writers such as Nick Triplow (Frank’s Wild Years, Getting Carter:Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir) and Nick Oldham (The Henry Christie novels) regard him highly and cite him as an early influence.

Hell Is A City
was published in 1954 and was the first of the Harry Martineau series. Set in a Manchester disguised only by its name, Martineau goes head to head with a man he knew when they were both schoolboys, but he and Don Starling have little else in common. Starling, a violent career criminal has escaped from prison, fatally injuring a guard in the process, and stages a cash heist from a bookmaker in order to fund his plans for freedom. A girl cashier dies, and so Starling is now a double murderer and faces the hangman’s noose if caught.

The full history of Hammer Films
is far too complex for this feature, but suffice it to say the British company was founded in 1934, and is best known for – and synonymous with – its series of horror films in the 1950s and 60s. One of its best known directors was Val Guest, and it was he who brought Hell Is A City to the big screen in 1960.

DonaldThe cast, if not stellar by international standards, was solid, with key roles for Stanley Baker as Martineau, Donald Pleasance as the bookmaker Gus Hawkins, and Billie Whitelaw as Mrs Hawkins (left). Strangely, the key role of Don Starling was given to John Crawford, (below) a journeyman American actor whose stock in trade was tough guys and villains. His American accent is obvious throughout and, although he puts in a good performance, it stretches credibility to believe he is the same man who fought with Martineau in their school playground. Regarding the oddity of his accent, it has to be said that the rest of the cast went for Stage Northerner rather than attempt the distinctive Mancunian twang.

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Remember the opening titles
in the Police Squad/Naked Gun spoofs? The view from the driver’s seat as the squad car careens through the neon jungle on its way to the latest murder? This is precisely how Hell Is A City opens, complete with the sleazy night club jazz music. Clearly, viewers in the 1960s would not have sniggered as we might do today and, thankfully, the film itself doesn’t disappoint.

Moody monochrome is the order of the day. We might regard that as reverential, but it was probably just economics. There are some good Manchester locations for those older folks who can remember the city back then, and the moors to the east of the city, where Starling’s gang dumps the murdered bookie’s cashier are, of course, changeless. Incidentally, when a passing motorist discovers the girl’s body, I said to myself, “Surely, that looks like …..” And so it was – a drive on, drive off role for Warren Mitchell, well before his Alf Garnett heyday. (below)

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The film sticks pretty closely to the book in plot, dialogue and nuances. It is a tribute to Procter’s finely tuned ear for dialogue (he was himself a serving police officer for many years) that Val Guest’s screenplay and script remain faithful to the original. We meet Martineau’s neglected but rather prissy wife Julia (Maxine Audley) but whereas their relationship takes on a happier turn by the last pages of the novel, Val Guest leaves us wondering.

Martineau’s faithful dogsbody Deverey is rather smarter in the film than he is print, and his romance with the beautiful deaf mute Silver Steele is well-established in the book, whereas he meets her for the first time on screen. Silver’s encounter with the cornered Starling ends more happily on the screen than it does in the book.

As ever, with British films of this era, those with sharp eyes will spot a few faces who would go on to be familiar to television viewers, including a brief appearance by Doris Speed as a nurse, no doubt taking time away from her evening job of serving pints in The Rovers Return in Wetherfield.

A teaser for film buffs. There are two connections between this film and the cult Australian thriller Wake In Fright (1971). One is Donald Pleasence, but the other …. ? I have provided a pictorial clue (below)

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The film is, in short, excellent. It is available as a DVD, and if you want to read about the novel – also first class – then it just so happens that I can help …….

Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter

BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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Hamish Hamilton220px-TermOfTrialIn 1968 Hamish Hamilton (by then part of the Thomson Organisation and subsequently to be bought by Penguin) published The Burden Of Proof, a novel by the Birmingham born author James Barlow. The firm had something of a hit seven years earlier with Barlow’s Term of Trial. That novel, about a teacher accused of indecency with a pupil, was made into a successful film starring Laurence Olivier, Simone Signoret, Sarah Miles and Terence Stamp. The Burden Of Proof was a different beast altogether, but first a little bit of history.

On 8th May 1968, led by Detective Chief Superintendent Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, the Metropolitan Police arrested Reg and Ron Kray, along with sundry members of their gang. Neither of the Kray twins was ever to see freedom again, apart from when Reg spent his final hours dying from cancer in the honeymoon suite at the Beefeater Town House Hotel in Norwich. In 1968, the particular character of Ron Kray was not widely known to the general public, as the whole Kray ‘industry’ of ghosted memoirs and personal accounts of ‘The Twins I Knew’ by minor London villains had yet to take wing. Ron Kray was a homosexual psychopath, and it’s as simple as that. Whether brother Reg was any better for being heterosexual is neither here nor there, but Ron’s peccadillos were mirrored in dramatic fashion in The Burden Of Proof.

RBVic Dakin is a London gangster who has political connections, and has yet to have his collar properly felt, despite a string of serious crimes. He also enjoys a spot of sexual sadism, usually with his unofficial boyfriend, Wolfie, who accepts the beatings as a fact of life. Oh yes, and before I forget, Vic loves his dear old mum (who is blissfully unaware of Vic’s career choices) In the novel, Vic plans a daring wages raid on a suburban factory, in between doing all kinds of other unpleasant things to people he both likes and dislikes. Before we turn to the movie version of the book, check out my review of The Burden Of Proof.

The film was released in 1971, renamed Villain. The key issue, of course, was that of who would play Dakin? The choice – Richard Burton – was a surprise at the time, and the actor later wrote that he was drawn to the role because it represented a change from his usual heroic fare. Younger folk reading this will not know what a huge star Burton was at the time. For a modern comparison you need to think Hanks, Clooney, Cruise, Fiennes or Craig. Film and TV historians will be surprised to know that the screenplay for Villain was written by none other than Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The duo’s lightness of touch and feeling for the vernacular of British comedy created pure gold in later works such as Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Lovejoy. Maybe all that shows is that good writers are good writers, end of.

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 20.33.54With a link worthy of BBC Radio 4, I can reveal that the role of Vic Dakin’s much-abused boyfriend in Villain was played by none other than the excellent Ian McShane (right), whose many credits include the long running Sunday night TV show, Lovejoy. Back to the film, directed by Michael Tuchner (Fear Is The Key, Mister Quilp). The supporting cast was stellar. The two coppers pursuing Dakin were the much-missed. moustache-twirling Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland. The villains were equally stalwarts of the day; TP McKenna as Frank Fletcher and Joss Ackland as Edgar Lowis, not to mention Donald Sinden as the compromised politician, and regular ‘baddies’ such as Tony Selby and Del Henney (composite below)

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DSindenid the film work? For me, it was something of a Curate’s Egg. Despite his passable snarling London accent, Burton never totally convinced me, even though he was never less than mesmeric when on screen. Villain will never be known as ‘the great London gangster movie’ – nothing will ever surpass The Long Good Friday – but that doesn’t make it a bad film. Donald Sinden was wonderful as the oily and glib politician, and Davenport and Welland were convincing, if hardly original, as the coppers. A final word of praise for the late, great TP McKenna. Check his filmography. He was never just the stage Irishman, but brought dignity and conviction to every role he played.

Villain was on Talking Pictures TV just the other day and you can still get a DVD of the movie here.

As ever, there are clips to be found, such as this one, over on YouTube

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THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (4): The Natchez Trilogy by Greg Iles

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Greg_IlesGreg Iles was born in Stuttgart where his father ran the US Embassy medical clinic. When the family returned to the States they settled in Natchez, Mississippi. While studying at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Iles stayed in a cottage where Caroline ‘Callie’ Barr Clark once lived. Callie was William Faulkner’s ‘Mammy Callie’ and different versions of her appear in several of Faulkner’s books. Iles began writing novels in 1993, with a historical saga about the enigmatic Nazi Rudolf Hess, and has written many stand-alone thrillers, but it is his epic trilogy of novels set in Natchez which, in my view, set him apart from anyone else who has ever written in the Southern Noir genre.

Natchez, Mississippi. Just under 16,000 souls. A small town with a big history. It perches on a bluff above the Mississippi River, and some folk reckon they can still hear the ghosts of paddle steamers chunking away down there on the swirling brown waters. The central character in Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood is Penn Cage. Cage is the classic enlightened white liberal character of Southern Noir. His background is privileged; his father, Tom, is a doctor who is hugely respected by the black community in the area for his colour blind approach to his vocation. Medical bills too numerous to mention have been written off over the years, and Cage senior is the closest thing to a living saint but, of course, he is regarded with a mixture of fear, distrust and loathing by Natchez residents who still hang portraits of Robert E Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest in their hallways. Penn says of him:

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Penn Cage, though, has made his own money. He is a hugely successful author, long-time DA for the County and now, after a bitter political struggle, The Mayor of Natchez. He has made many enemies in his rise to fame, not the least of which are the corrupt Sheriff Byrd and the deeply ambitious and oleaginous public prosecutor Shadrach Johnson. Cage is not without his own ghosts, however, and he is haunted by the death of his wife Sarah, crippled and then tortured by cancer. He has, however, established an unofficial second marriage with the campaigning journalist, Caitlin Masters.

The politically correct and socially comfortable world inhabited by Penn Cage and his family is about to suffer a brutal invasion. Hidden deep at the end of the rutted dirt road which leads away from the relatively polite discourse between liberals and conservatives in Natchez society, is a dark and dangerous place occupied by a group of men known as the Double Eagles. They are united by a bitterness provoked by their view that the Ku Klux Klan went soft. Their anger, however, was not limited to tearful and rancorous drinking sessions around some backwoods table, but was the match that lit the gunpowder trail to a devastating explosion of focused violence which resulted in the assassinations of the three Ks – Kennedy, Kennedy – and King.

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Of course, Iles takes a great risk here. We know – or think we know – who killed these three men. But do we? Iles is confident and fluent enough to turn history on its head and present a credible alternative truth. While the Double Eagles are concerned with matters of national importance, they also have time for vicious local issues. The bombshell which threatens to reduce to ruins the cosy edifice of the Cage family, is that Tom Cage fell in love with a black nurse who worked for him, fathered a son by her, but then sat back and watched as she fled north to Chicago in disgrace. When she returns to Natchez to die, riddled by cancer, what she and Tom Cage knew – and did – about the malevolent Double Eagles back in the day becomes a public shit-storm.

The Bone Tree is a terrible place. Deep in a snake and gator-infested swamp it is an ancient cypress tree where generations of slave owners and white supremacists have taken their black victims and executed them, For Tom Cage’s nurse, Viola Turner, it is a place of nightmares, because under its rotten and gnarled branches her brother was tortured, mutilated and executed.

Tom Cage is accused of mercy killing Viola. Unwilling to face the public disgrace, he goes on te run with a couple of a trusted former Korean War buddy, and they outwit the authorities for a time. Eventually, Tom Cage is captured and put on trial for murder. He refuses the help of his son and, instead, relies on the charismatic courtroom presence of Quentin Avery, a celebrated black lawyer. Mississippi Blood contains one of the best courtroom scenes I have ever read. I realise this feature is 700 words in with not a critical word, but each of the three novels is a lengthy read by any standards, being well north of 600 pages in each case.

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So why are the books so good? Penn Cage is a brilliant central character and, of course, he is politically, morally and socially ‘a good man’. His personal tragedies evoke sympathy, but also provide impetus for the things he says and does. Some might criticise the lack of nuance in the novels; there is no moral ambiguity – characters are either venomous white racists or altruistic liberals. Maybe the real South isn’t that simple; perhaps there are white communities who are blameless and tolerant and shrink in revulsion from dark deeds committed by fearsome ex-military psychopaths who seek to restore a natural order that died a century earlier.

The world of crime fiction – peopled by writers. readers, publishers and critics – is overwhelmingly progressive, liberal minded and sympathetic to persecuted minorities, and so it should be. It is probably just as well, however, that embittered, dispossessed and marginalised white communities in Mississippi, Texas. Louisiana and other heartlands of The South are not great CriFi readers. Penn Cage fights a battle that definitely needs fighting. Greg Iles has given Cage a voice, and has written a majestic trilogy which sets in stone the chapter and verse about generations of Southern people whose hands drip blood and guilt in equal measure. Maybe the moral perspective is very one-sided, and perhaps the books pose as many questions as they answer, but for sheer readability, authenticity and narrative drive, Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood have laid down a literary challenge which will probably never be answered.

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THE AMERICAN SOUTH. . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (3): The Dead Are Still With Us

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I’ll kick off (before it all kicks off) and say that for no other reasons than style and simplicity, I am going to use the word black to describe characters in crime novels who other people may wish to call Afro-American or People of Colour. If that decision offends anyone, then so be it.

The racial element in South-set crime fiction over the last half century is peculiar in the sense that there have been few, if any, memorable black villains. There are plenty of bad black people in Walter Mosley’s novels, but then most of the characters in them are black, and they are not set in what are, for the purposes of this feature, our southern heartlands.

heatfirstedition-a2c9af52Black characters are almost always good cops or PIs themselves, like Virgil Tibbs in John Ball’s In The Heat of The Night (1965), or they are victims of white oppression. In the latter case there is often a white person, educated and liberal in outlook, (prototype Atticus Finch, obviously) who will go to war on their behalf. Sometimes the black character is on the side of the good guys, but intimidating enough not to need help from their white associate. John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books are mostly set in the northern states, but Parker’s dangerous black buddy Louis is at his devastating best in The White Road (2002) where Parker, Louis and Angel are in South Carolina working on the case of a young black man accused of raping and killing his white girlfriend.

Ghosts, either imagined or real, are never far from Charlie Parker, but another fictional cop has more than his fair share of phantoms. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux frequently goes out to bat for black people in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. Robicheaux’s ghosts are, even when he is sober, usually that of Confederate soldiers who haunt his neighbourhood swamps and bayous. I find this an interesting slant because where John Connolly’s Louis will wreak havoc on a person who happens to have the temerity to sport a Confederate pennant on his car aerial, Robicheaux’s relationship with his CSA spectres is much more subtle.

As a Vietnam veteran, he recognises the wordless bond between fighting men everywhere, irrespective of the justice of their causes. One of the magnificent series, which started in 1987 with The Neon Rain was actually called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993). When it was filmed as In The Electric Mist (2009) Tommy Lee Jones made a very good fist of Dave Robicheaux, but the director’s take on Dave’s interaction with the long-dead soldiers was treated rather literally by the director Bertrand Tavernier, particularly in the final few moments. Incidentally, I have a poser: name me the link between The Basement Tapes and this movie, and I will buy you a pint.

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Burke’s Louisiana is both intensely poetic and deeply political. In Robicheaux: You Know My Name he writes:

“That weekend, southern Louisiana was sweltering, thunder cracking as loud as cannons in the night sky; at sunrise, the storm drains clogged with dead beetles that had shells as hard as pecans. It was the kind of weather we associated with hurricanes and tidal surges and winds that ripped tin roofs off houses and bounced them across sugarcane fields like crushed beer cans; it was the kind of weather that gave the lie to the sleepy Southern culture whose normalcy we so fiercely nursed and protected from generation to generation.”

robicheaux-1Elsewhere his rage at his own government’s insipid reaction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina rivals his fury at generations of white people who have bled the life and soul out of the black and Creole population of the Louisian/Texas coastal regions. Sometimes the music he hears is literal, like in Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002), but at other times it is sombre requiem that only he can hear:

“…the dead are still with us, like the boys in butternut marching through the flooded cypress at Spanish Lake, and the slaves who beckon us to remove the chains that bind them to the auction block, and all the wandering souls who want to scratch their names on a plaster wall so someone will remember their sacrifice, the struggle that began with the midwife’s slap of life, and their long day’s journey into the grave.”

In the final part of this series, I will look at a trilogy of novels which, for me, are the apotheosis of the way in which crime fiction has characterised the often grim but never less than fascinating persona of The Southern States.

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