Merle Temple

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (2): Tropes, Tribes and Trauma


An opening word or three about the taxonomy of some of the crime fiction genres I am investigating in these features. Noir has an urban and cinematic origin – shadows, stark contrasts, neon lights blinking above shadowy streets and, in people terms, the darker reaches of the human psyche. Authors and film makers have always believed that grim thoughts, words and deeds can also lurk beneath quaint thatched roofs, so we then have Rural Noir, but this must exclude the kind of cruelty carried out by a couple of bad apples amid a generally benign village atmosphere. So, no Cosy Crime, even if it is set in the Southern states, such as Peaches and Scream, one of the Georgia Peach mysteries by Susan Furlong, or any of the Lowcountry novels of Susan M Boyer. Gothic – or the slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothick – will take us into the realms of the fantastical, the grotesque, and give us people, places and events which are just short of parody. So we can have Southern Noir and Southern Gothic, but while they may overlap in places, there are important differences.

I believe there are just two main tropes in Southern Noir and they are closely related psychologically as they both spring from the same historical source, the war between the states 1861 – 1865, and the seemingly endless fallout from those bitter four years. Despite having a common parent the two tropes are, literally, of different colours. The first is set very firmly in the white community, where the novelists find deprivation, a deeply tribal conservativism, and a malicious insularity which has given rise to a whole redneck sub-genre in music, books and film, with its implications of inbreeding, stupidity and a propensity for violence.

Real-life rural poverty in the South was by no means confined to former slaves and their descendants. In historical fact, poor white farmers in the Carolinas, for example, were often caught up in a vicious spiral of borrowing from traders and banks against the outcome of their crop; when time came for payback, they were often simply back to zero, or ALMKTHthrown off the land due to debt. The rich seam of dirt poor and embittered whites who turn to crime in their anger and resentment has been very successfully mined by novelists. Add a touch of fundamentalist Christianity into the pot and we have a truly toxic stew, such as in Wiley Cash’s brilliant A Land More Kind Than Home (2013).

No-one did sadistic and malevolent ‘white trash’ better than Jim Thompson. His embittered, cunning and depraved small town Texas lawman Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (1952) is one of the scariest characters in crime fiction, although it must be said that Thompson’s bad men – and women – were not geographically confined to the South.

Although not classed as a crime writer, Flannery O’Connor write scorching stories about the kind of moral vacuum into which she felt Southern people were sucked. She said, well aware of the kind of lurid voyeurism with which her home state of Georgia was viewed by some:

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 20.13.46Her best known novel, Wiseblood (1952) contains enough bizarre, horrifying and eccentric elements to qualify as Gothick. Take a religiously obsessed war veteran, a profane eighteen-year-old zookeeper, prostitutes, a man in a gorilla costume stabbed to death with an umbrella, and a corpse being lovingly looked after by his former landlady, you have what has been described as a work of “low comedy and high seriousness”

There are a couple of rather individual oddities on the Fully Booked website, both slanted towards True Crime, but drenched through with Southern sweat, violence and the peculiar horrors of the US prison system. The apparently autobiographical stories by Roy Harper were apparently smuggled out of the notorious Parchman Farm and into the hands of an eager publisher. Make of that what you will, but the books are compellingly lurid. Merle Temple’s trilogy featuring the rise and fall of Michael Parker, a Georgia law enforcement officer, comprises A Ghostly Shade of Pale, A Rented World and The Redeemed. I only found out after reading and reviewing the books that they too are personal accounts.


The second – and more complex (and controversial) trope in Southern Noir is the tortuous relationship between white people both good and bad, and people of colour. My examination of this will follow soon.


 MICHAEL PARKER is a law enforcement officer created by the author Merle Temple. This feature takes a look at the Michael Parker trilogy, and discovers something quite remarkable.

agsopA Ghostly Shade of Pale (2013)
We are beamed down into the explosive and turbulent USA of the mid-70s, a country engulfed by the social and military repercussions of the Vietnam War. The new perceived peril which threatens to engulf Middle America does not come from the commies, however, but from the debilitating tide of cheap drugs in the hands of mobsters and crooked cops. As we absorb the atmosphere of the Deep South, where bugs the size of golf balls clatter into the kerosene lanterns and, out there on the river, vines hang from the live oaks as nameless creatures snuffle and snort in the brackish water. The King still lives in Graceland, and out there, down some back road, there’s a shotgun shack with a doped-up redneck biker sitting on the porch.

Temple introduces us to his central character, Michael Parker. He is an idealistic man who has forged a career in law enforcement. After surviving a dangerous spell as an undercover narcotics agent, he is drawn into an investigation of clubs where cheap drugs and expensive women are provided for bent politicians and minor mafia characters. Parker battles a truly Gothic horror of an opponent called Frederick who is barely human – a killer, and an albino. His pigmentation problem alone might have driven his fragile psyche into a bad place, but he is also schizophrenic. The voices he hears belong to the epic psychopaths of the 20th century, including the deranged British satanist Aleister Crowley, and Adolf Hitler.

In the end, Good just about prevails, but not before Michael has locked horns with the evil angel Frederick in a fight to the death which, as described by Temple, is as allegorical as it is actual.

arwA Rented World (2014)
Michael Parker’s odyssey continues, but now his enemies are not the sleazeball criminal hoodlums he battled in A Ghostly Shade of Pale. His latest foes wear expensive suits, have personal assistants and, instead of the nightclub pallor of small time scammers, they have Malibu tans. Parker learns to his cost that politicians and corporate fixers have one aim, and one aim only, and that is to sell. What is on sale? You name it, they’ve got it. Bodies, buildings, allegiance, honour, integrity – all can be bought if you can meet the asking price. Temple punches home his point early on the book. He says:

“The cops counted corpses, the courtiers buried truth beneath flattery, and political grifters brokered deals in a rented world ..”

In the end, Parker comes to grief at the hands of men – and women – whose feeding at the trough of public money has been disturbed by his integrity. He has sent many men to jail and now, thanks to the over-arching powers given to law enforcement agents since 9/11, he must join them.

trThe Redeemed – A Leap of Faith (2016)
The book is almost entirely the tale of Parker’s journey through the American prison system and, like that of the Greek warrior, it is a journey of wandering, omens, tragedies, friendships and, ultimately, a homecoming. The home, however, is not the one that Parker bade farewell to when he fell into the pit made for him by his enemies. It is a sobering thought that Parker is sent to a Federal Correctional Institution. These establishments are at the lower end of American prisons in security terms, but Parker still has to survive terrible infestations both human – in the way of brutal and malign prison officers, and animal – such as the ever present danger from hideous Brown Recluse Spiders.

Temple’s writing is sometimes not subtle, and sometimes not silken. Instead, it often marches to the drum of anger and indignation against the incalculable human cost of criminal greed and corporate avarice. All the extreme emotions and human qualities are invoked: repentance, purity, revenge, honesty, malice, regret and redemption all cry out to us for attention. Readers also need to be aware that the books, particularly the second and third, are openly evangelical in tone. Temple is a committed Christian, and his Christianity is straight down the line: good is good, and evil is evil, but the mantra is one of redemption.

American reviewers have commented on the similarity of the characters in A Rented World to real life movers and shakers in the state of Georgia at the time in which Temple sets the novel. One critic suggests that this is almost an autobiographical novel, with Parker/Temple as a David challenging the Goliath of the American corporate world. Until I spoke to Merle Temple on-line recently, I had no idea whatsoever how prescient this judgement would be. I now understand that the whole narrative across the three books is, for the most part, a factual account of the adult life of Merle Temple. He has used some fictional devices to make sure that the books read well as novels, but other than that, they are his life story. He says, of the events in The Redeemed:

“I served five and a half years of an eight year sentence. The real psychologist in The Redeemed, who was so helpful to me, just asked me to return there to speak. They use my books now for inmates, and she told me that the movie nights are still going strong after nine years, and are now in English and Spanish. As I left each facility, I passed the baton to another inmate and asked him to do the same. I go into prisons and shelters to speak to men, as one of them, about a better way. They need lots of love, and most I’ve known are nothing like the stereotypes offered up by some in government and media in that unholy trinity of politics, crime, and business.”

If there is one section of the three books that I could read over and over again, it is the death and funeral in Memphis of Parker’s sweetheart, Dixie Lee Carter, in the first book of the trilogy. The prose is brimful of anger, passion, love and regret. Not many writers could get away with the concluding passage, but Temple does:

“On an adjacent hill in the old cemetery with weathered monuments, a solemn man in dark glasses, with black hair and sideburns, quietly watched Michael’s last farewell to Dixie. As Michael rose to leave, he saw the familiar figure point to the sky – once, and then again – to emphasise “The One”. He saluted crisply and held it, and then – framed by a pink coral sun that blistered the juncture of day and night at the skyline and branded the final resting place with sudden darkness – he turned and walked down the green hillside towards a waiting limo that would return him to Graceland.”

Check out Amazon’s author page for Merle Temple




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