Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: crime novel

Review: Sleazy characters star in Thompson classic thriller

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Nothing More Than Murder
Jim Thompson
Mulholland Books; Reprint edition, 2014
240 pages
$15 Trade paperback  $4.99 Kindle

You kill someone. You plot it out with two accomplices, your wife and your lover.  You trust one of them—your lover—to handle the details smoothly.  You look forward to the insurance money the killing will bring you.  It will be your escape from a life that’s harried you for years.  The business is going downhill.  So is your marriage.  This is the way out.

The murder is accomplished.  It went off according to plans.  But people are talking. You’re worried.  No, you’re scared.  People ask you questions.  Business people conspire against you. They know. 

Your lover becomes clutching.  She’ll spoil everything.   But there’s something you can do.  There must be.  You have to get an idea and fast. You get the shakes.  The chills.  Death is closing in.

Immersed in this absorbing story, you’ve just put yourself into the shoes of Joe Wilmot. He’s a scheming movie theater operator who rationalizes swindling and laments his uneven past. For a time he’s consumed by lust, then fear.  He muses about death, how he hates his wife’s incompetence.  Yeah, she owned the theater, but he hustled his ass off to make it work. Does he love her?

Wilmont’s story, told by Joe himself in a sardonic sometimes angry first person narrative, is suspense writer Jim Thompson’s early novel, Nothing More Than Murder, published in 1949. This first financial success was followed by The Killer Inside Me, and later, The Grifters, the most well-known of his 30 novels.  Some critics place Thompson in the same category as Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, pioneers of hardboiled crime stories.  Nothing More Than Murder demonstrates a dark view of life present in other Thompson novels.

Wilmot and his wife Elizabeth Barclay run a movie theater in a small town.  By ignoring union rules, shortchanging and overworking his lone projectionist, putting his competition out of  business via a back-room deal, cutting corners, cheating suppliers and schmoozing locals and city officials, Wilmont keeps the theater making money.  Although he’s operated the theater for ten years, it still bears his wife’s name.  One of the things that bothers Wilmot.  One of many.

Carol Farmer is the couple’s innocent and seemingly unnecessary house maid, hired by Barclay to relieve her of household chores.  “If there was ever a woman  you wouldn’t look at twice she was it,” Wilmot explains to readers saying she was cockeyed and pigeon-toed.  But one day when Farmer is showing Wilmot a suit that Barclay gave her, he changes his mind.  She was so buxom as to be top-heavy, he says. 

“She looked like hell. She looked like a sack of bran that couldn’t decide which way it was going to fall.”

But the more he looked, the more she attracted him. “She looked cute-mad and funny-sweet.  She looked like she’d started somewhere and been mussed up along the way.

“She was a honey.  She was sugar and pie.  She was a bitch.”  Later, in the restrained language of the 1940s, he describes having sex with her.

Barclay knows about her husband’s affair and she hatches an insurance scheme, agreeing to leave Wilmot and Farmer in exchange for the insurance money.  With a similar insurance scheme, Nothing More Than Murder differs markedly from Cain’s Double Indemnity particularly in the way the fraud is organized and executed.

Nothing More is a suspense rather than a detective novel, but it’s one with a number of mysteries, a pursuit and twists and turns and it’s sprinkled with clues to the outcome. Some of the clues come from the details of running a movie theatre.  Unfortunately, Thompson includes too much theatre operations minutia, of little interest to twenty-first century readers.

Eventually, the details of the trio’s plan tumble out of control.  Wilmot tries to find a way out, but threats are multiplying: associates seeking payback, a nosy insurance investigator, Farmer’s insecurity.

At first Thompson’s narrator sounds as if he’ll be as smart-alecky as a noir private eye.

“She smiled, kind of like an elevator boy smiles when you ask him if he has lots of ups and downs.” 

But soon the tone darkens.  Wilmot sympathizes with Farmer whose impoverished background has brought her to work for Barclay.

“…I knew how she felt because, I’d felt the same way. I knew what it meant to be nothing and to want to be something. And to be scared out of your pants that someone is going to knock you down—not because of what you’ve done but because you can’t strike back.  Because they want to see you squirm, or they have a headache, or they don’t like the way your hair is parted.”  

The book moves forward and back in time as Wilmot recalls his life in reform school, his courtship and marriage to Barclay and his relationship with Farmer.   Occasionally it’s a stream of consciousness narrative such as this dark digression in the middle of an unrelated narrative about  Wilmont’s fascination with Farmer.

“There was a lot of stuff on the radio and in the newsreels and newspapers.  People getting run over, blown up, drowned, smothered, starved, lynched.  Mercy killings, hangings, electrocutions, suicides.  People who didn’t want to live.  People who deserved killing. People who were better off dead.”

These seemingly unrelated dark thoughts represent a technique he uses to great effect in later novels.

Having a dishonest, wholly unsympathetic narrator is an occasional noir technique and Thompson executes it with skill.  Even if you don’t like Wilmont, you are captured by his plight and his panic as the story drags you through to its conclusion.

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I read this book in a 2017 reprint edition from Book Revivals Press, but it is no longer listed on the publisher’s website, nor available at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  The Book Revivals Press edition had not only a few typos but also hundreds of dashes that were turned into hyphens creating awkward hyphenated words.   Perhaps this is why it’s no longer available.

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Jim Thompson (1906 –1977) bounced around in various jobs after college at the University of Nebraska.  Like many successful noir writers he began writing short stories for pulp magazines in the 1930s.  He joined the Federal Writers Project, but was forced out in 1939 because he had become a communist.  After some unsuccessful books,  he found his first big success with Nothing More than Murder. He followed that with The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and others. Later in his career he wrote for television and motion pictures.

 

 

Join Eddie Collins, actor-turned PI, on a back-lot tour with laughs, deaths and Hollywood tales

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Murder Unscripted
Clive Rosengren
Coffee Town Press, Oct. 2017
240 pages
$5.95Kindle  $13.41 Trade paper

Passing by the famous Hollywood sign in the hills above tinsel town, Eddie Collins drives his Olds Cutlass though an uncharacteristically rainy Southern California afternoon.  “As the wipers droned back and forth like two annoying metronomes, I began to feel an emptiness oozing into me.”

He’s just learned that his ex-wife, movie actress Elaine Weddington, died in her trailer at Americana Pictures, a bottle of medicine lying next to her.  Accident or murder?  Although it’s been more than eight years since they split, as her career started to take off and Collins’ acting opportunities flattened out, he harbors good memories.

Weddington was in the middle of filming Flames of Desire and her death puts the movie’s future in jeopardy.  Since Americana Pictures had taken out a completion bond to protect the studio’s investment, the bond company hires a private investigator: Eddie Collins.

As his acting jobs became more hit or miss, he opened Collins Investigations to keep him “sane and solvent.”  Since he had worked for the bond company before, he is hired to look into the murder at the Flames of Desire set, regardless of his connection to Weddington.

Mixing crime and the movie biz, author Clive Rosengren starts his Eddie Collins mystery series with the Weddington case in Murder Unscripted.  Two other novels are in print, another is due out later this year and the author is working on book #5.  A Hollywood actor himself for many years, Rosengren knows his way around a movie set and treats readers to insider tidbits that make the story all the more realistic. 

After the rain, Rosengren says, “patches of water on the street…reflected the light like movie streets invariably do.  One never sees a dry street at night in the movies, even during the sweltering heat of the summer.”

A second murder complicates the case.  Collins is led all over the movie lot and outside to dingy bars as he questions, Sam Goldman, the studio head, along with movie stars, assistant directors and various hangers on, most with secrets that aren’t in the PI’s script.

The story progresses in a relaxed, comfortable style with Collins sharing reminiscences of films and actors of the past as he tries to establish the whereabouts of various suspects at the times the murders were committed.  Rosengren fills the book with Collins’ light-hearted observations that kept me smiling. 

“A lot of people stand around at a movie set.  The most popular place is the craft [catering] services tables.  Munchies abound, the bill of fare running the gamut from squeaky-clean to double-bypass.”

Collins is occasionally reminded of scenes from old movies.

“…I saw a bearded old man who looked like Walter Huston peering at me through the window.  His beady little eyes followed every move I made.  The spines of the cacti must be protecting his own Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Since I didn’t look like either Bogie or Tim Holt, he probably couldn’t figure out who the hell I was.”

Collins is 41, unmarried, tall and describes himself in Hollywood terms as a cowboy type.  He’s not a full-time shamus and an early chapter shows him dressed in western duds, acting in a TV commercial for Chubby’s Chicken.  After Collins and a partner have gone through 17 on-camera takes, including biting into the chicken, we learn the necessity of an actor’s spit bag. 

The PI side of Collins’ life is complete with a secretary loaded with moxie, a small office and tiny attached apartment, a fondness for Jim Beam and beer chasers and an occasional eye for attractive women.

“She always dressed in richly colored blouses that gave the faint suggestion of a woman who didn’t mind staying out late.”

Rosengren has an enviable knack for phrasing:

“She looked as uncomfortable as Gidget sitting in the middle of an Elk’s convention.”

“As lonely as an Orange County Democrat” referring to one of California’s few right-wing enclaves.

Searching for a wandering dog, Collins observes: 

“There was no sign of Clyde, other than what he had deposited on the lawn.”

Collins has such a smooth, somehow familiar narrative voice—a term usually applied to authors, but I’m applying to the first person point of view character here—he sounds like someone you would like to know.

Just as life is a journey, not a destination, you read Rosengren to follow Collins’  intriguing, at times idiosyncratic—and wholly entertaining—life as he pokes around his Hollywood haunts in search of the truth.   Naturally, he ultimately solves the murders, but getting there is the most fun.  Then, of course,  you crave another case with Eddie.

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Book prices vary depending on the day and the bookstore or website.

A new addition to the Vice series

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Here’s something to add to your spring/ summer reading list.  Vice Enforcer is the second book in Stovall’s Vice series.

Vice Enforcer
S.A. Stovall
DSP Publications   April 2018
250 pages
$6.99 Kindle  $16.99 Trade paper

Holding on to a life worth living can be hard when nightmares of the past come knocking.

Eight months ago, Nicholas Pierce, ex-mob enforcer, faked his death and assumed a new identity to escape sadistic mob boss Jeremy Vice. With no contacts outside the underworld, Pierce finds work with a washed-up PI. It’s an easy enough gig—until investigating a human trafficking ring drags him back to his old stomping grounds.

Miles Devonport, Pierce’s partner, is top of his class at the police academy while single-handedly holding his family together. But when one lieutenant questions Pierce’s past and his involvement in the investigation, Miles must put his future on the line to keep Pierce’s secrets.

The situation becomes dire when it’s discovered the traffickers have connections to the Vice family. The lives of everyone Pierce cares about are in danger—not least of all his own—if Jeremy Vice learns he’s back from the dead. Pierce and Miles face a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels—one that will gladly destroy them to keep operating. As Pierce uses every dirty trick he learned from organized crime to protect the new life he’s building, he realizes that no matter how hard he tries, he might never escape his past.

But he’s not going down without a fight.


Author S.A. Stoval lives in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  She’s an attorney, writer and video game enthusiast.  Her first book in the noir series was Vice City.

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