Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: James M. Cain

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.

 

 

Victim plots creepy, bizarre revenge in Woolrich’s ‘Rendevous in Black’

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The word “black” appears in the title of five Cornell Woolrich novels–considered his best–written in the 1940s. Darkness describes his literary themes and his life.   He was married only briefly, had no children and lived in New York hotels with his mother until she died. He was preoccupied with death, disliked much of his own work–which included two dozen novels and hundreds of short stories–and died virtually alone. Yet his haunted, bleak life led him to create the discouragement, distrust and panic that colored his suspense-filled, austere novels.   Rendezvous in Black is such a story.

Johnny Marr always met his girlfriend Dorothy in the same place, outside the drugstore down by the town square. “He had special eyes for her, just as she had for him.” Their wedding was set for June. But on May 31, in a bizarre, unlikely accident, Dorothy was killed as she waited for Johnny by the square. Johnny’s life exploded. When the shock finally wore off–or did it ever?–it took him only a short time to figure out how she had been killed, and a little more time until he had a list of five men, one or all of whom were responsible.

What follows is the episodic tale of Marr’s crazed, devious retribution. He doesn’t kill the men on his list; his revenge is more appropriate, more cunning. And always on time. The men who populate Johnny’s list are only loosely connected and they live vastly different lives as we discover as the deranged lover tracks them down.

This is part of an occasional series on the work of noir thriller writer Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968).

Johnny’s indirect form of revenge makes it difficult for the police to anticipate his moves and collar him. As writer Richard Dooling says in the introduction to the 2004 Modern Library edition of the novel, “The reader finds no shelter in a comfortable central character or crime-solving Hollywood hero….” The less-than brilliant detective on the case, MacClain Cameron, says Dooling, is “a mere accessory to a story governed by the mighty forces of murder, retribution and fate.”

As the novel lurches forward, each specimen of revenge becomes almost a separate story, connected by the presence of Johnny Marr lurking somewhere off-camera and detective Cameron usually several, clumsy steps behind.Rendezvous in black 2   We know that each long chapter will end with something horrible.

Woolrich’s language is sometimes criticized–by a few of the small number of reviewers who even know of his existence–as more clunky than that of Chandler or Cain–but his fast pace and taut suspense keeps your eyes racing forward. His writing skills, however, often flower and he can deepen an already gloomy atmosphere.

All the way up those deliberately curving stairs, the shadow pursued him along the wall panels and he fled from it. But as the stairs curved, it relentlessly overtook him, then swept around before him, to confront him accusingly as he reached their top.

Johnny’s methods for revenge obviously take much planning, and they become more ingenious as the book progresses. This is not a question of whodunit, but of how is he going to do it this time, and will he be caught.   The conclusion is sufficiently suspenseful. Until the last page, you’ll be guessing whether Woolrich will conclude with a Hollywood ending. When you finish, you’ll have to decide if the ending was “Hollywood,” or a bit darker.

Rendezvous in Black
Cornell Woolrich
Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2004 Original printing, 1948
211 pages     $14
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