Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Thriller 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.

 

 

Gosh, is profanity the right word?

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Obscenity and profanity in mystery novels

Second of two parts

Swear words, no matter how the hell you look at them, can be a challenge for mystery writers.  Use foul language and you risk alienating or offending some readers.  Studiously avoid profanity and your dialog, especially in scenes of stress, could sound implausible.

But gosh darn, now that I’m two columns into this discussion, I discover—thanks to an article by novelist Elizabeth Sims in Writer’s Digest online—that I’ve been using an imprecise word for naughty language.  Even naughty is not quite right.

If you do a Google search for profanity in mystery novels, one of the first results you’ll see is a link to my 2016 column on this subject.  Regardless, I’m not trying to be the Internet’s expert on mystery writers’ swear words.  And before we go further, we need to define terms.

Profanity, as Sims points out, is the word frequently used to denote any objectionable word, but  profanity literally means words prohibited by religious doctrine. In other words, terms that are profane.  Generally this would cover Jesus Christ or God as epithets, but not necessarily f**k, etc.  The term blasphemy comes to mind.

Obscene and obscenity are better, more exact terms to describe most cuss words or coarse language.  Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines obscene this way: “disgusting to the senses: repulsive.” This could be an eye-of-the-beholder situation, depending on the words’ use, but let’s not split hairs.   Sims notes that obscene words often refer to sex.  The f-word is the most objectionable example, she says, and she concludes with understatement,  “Adding mother as a prefix ups the ante.”

Returning to the pros and cons of potentially offensive language, several authors (in addition to John Sandford, mentioned in my previous post) have written reasoned defenses of  “writers who dare to swear,” as mystery writer Christina Larmer puts it.

In a 2015 Huff Post article she wrote:

“Adding profanity is just a natural, fluid part of the writing process. I hear the character’s voice, I spew it out. Sometimes, when I read back through the copy and the language feels jarring or overdone, I remove it, just as I remove clichés and adjectives that don’t work. But I never remove it so my readers can feel more comfortable or content. This ain’t Chicken Soup for the Soul, guys.”

I agree.  Before I’d finished my first mystery, I decided I would use profanity, but  judiciously. Some of my characters are bad people.  They rob and kill for money. They don’t watch their language. They are not likely to say, “Excuse me sir but I believe we may have a slight disagreement. I feel your attitude does not reflect sincerity.”

In addition, when my ex-cop protagonist, Lyle Deming, faces a troublesome situation, I want him to be able to say, “Oh s**t.” Maybe that’s because it’s the way I often react to adversity.  Perhaps writers who don’t swear themselves, don’t have their characters tell anyone to f**k off.  As academics say, this is a sub-topic that warrants further study—but not here.

Then there’s the comparison of violence and inhuman acts vs. obscenities.  Larmer says she’s baffled by people who take exception to profanity but “make absolutely no mention of the fact that in one book, for instance, I leave someone in a dank basement to be devoured by rats.”

“Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus,” writes Kathryn Schulz in the June 5, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.  “We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one.”

In contrast, author Mark Henshaw says profanity is usually a sign of weak writing.   Writing on his website in June of 2014 he said,  “Profanity has become so common in modern media that I feel its inclusion almost never adds anything to an artistic work. Profanity has lost its shock value, rendering it useless as a literary device for character development or delivering emotional impact.”

It is common, and it can easily be overdone.  But still.

Some of the best arguments for not using profanity come from writers who penned novels when damn was considered foul language and four-letter words never found their way into polite print. Yet some writers still got the point across.

Here’s how Dashiell Hammett described one of Sam Spade’s explosions,  “He cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously in a harsh guttural voice.”

He didn’t even need to call him a bastard; we understood.

One of my favorite writers of the past is Ross Macdonald.  His novels spanned the period when profanity was unacceptable to the early 1970s when many of the restraints came off.

In his 1958 novel, The Doomsters, he used hell 22 times,  damn 13 times, Christ 4 times and Jesus twice.  No other profanity.  In his 1951, The Way Some People Die, he was a little more careful, but no less effective:

“Blaney and Sullivan escorted me to the car. In order to keep their minds occupied, I swore continuously without repeating myself. ”

To conclude, for now:  Mystery writers don’t use obscene language today for shock value as Henshaw indicates. We use it because, like it or not, it’s become a big part of life.  We use swear words occasionally for the same reason we don’t use “forsooth” or “verily.”  We want our dialog to be contemporary and realistic.

Editor’s note:  In the first article in this series I attempted to include a link to the profanity article I wrote two years ago.  Instead, the link simply brought the reader back to the latest article.  It’s been corrected online, but if you read the post in email and missed the earlier article link, here it is: https://baconsmysteries.com/?s=do+you+hate+f**

Links

Avoid the shadows when night falls

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Nightfall
David Goodis
170 pages
Black Curtain Press  1947
$8.49 paperback    Kindle $  .99

James Vanning is lonely, depressed, afraid and plagued by insomnia.  In other words he’s a classic protagonist in a noir novel.

The commercial artist and World War II vet is on the run from the police and a gang of bank robbers.  He’s holed up in a small New York City apartment selling his work to ad agencies to get by and feeling sorry for himself.  As an average guy entangled in a seemingly unexplainable criminal morass, he could be a character in a Cornell Woolrich novel.  Instead he’s the creation of another respected noir author, David Goodis, noted for his mystery, Dark Passage, that became a Bogart and Bacall movie.

In Nightfall, published in 1947, Goodis imperils Vanning without letting the reader know too many details.  Except for one thing: he’s killed someone, or is convinced he did. And, he’s scared.

 “He wanted to go out.  He was afraid to go out.  And he realized that.  The realization brought on more fright.”

A few sentences later a Woolrich-style premonition: “…something was going to happen tonight.”

Vanning knows that the story of the killing, as he remembers it, is so preposterous no cop or DA would believe him. We learn bits and pieces: A Seattle bank was robbed of $300,000.  One of the gang responsible for the robbery was murdered. The money disappeared.

The story unfolds through chapters of alternating points of view, that of Vanning and of Fraser, the NYC police detective following him.  Married with three children, Fraser (we never learn his first name) has been shadowing Vanning for months and thinks he knows nearly all aspects of the artist’s solitary life.  But he worries the case may be his undoing.  His superiors are calling for an arrest and return of the money.  And Fraser has doubts.

Despite overwhelming evidence against Vanning, Fraser thinks he might be innocent.  “With what they have on him already,” Fraser tells his wife, “they can put him on trial and it’s a hundred to one he’d get a death sentence.

“They’ve got witnesses, they’ve got fingerprints,” Fraser says, “they’ve got a ton of logical deduction that puts him dead center.  And what I’ve got is a mental block.”

Vanning’s faring no better.  His memory is full of holes.  He knows Continue Reading →

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