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Flashback: Hate the Character, Love the Book

From issue 6

Hate the Character, Love the Book
by Dave Zeltserman

Most crime books we read center around someone who solves a crime. Private detective, police officer, bounty hunter, high stakes poker player, whatever, there’s a main character for us readers to latch onto. Someone for us to root for, to identify with. A lot of times these characters aren’t angels. Sometimes they carry quite a bit baggage; you’ll find protagonists who are ex-convicts, alcoholics – both on and off the wagon, and an assortment of other messiness from their pasts. And sometimes these characters display what in the real world would be considered strongly anti-social behavior; such as vigilantism or sadism. But in all cases, we’re meant to overlook these faults and like these characters and follow them from book to book. But then there are these dark gems scattered about. Books where we’re not necessarily supposed to like the main character. Books where the goal isn’t to watch our guy solve the crime, but instead watch his life spiral out of control as he’s the one crossing the line and committing crimes and other atrocities! This is noir at its heart, and when at the hands of a master like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, these books can be exhilarating, psychologically fascinating and provide a wild ride unlike any we’ll get from the more traditional crime novel. What I hope to do with this article is examine a few of these wonderful noir books, looking into why we can love these books even though we might justifiably hate the main character. Due to space constraints I’m going to focus on just some of the classic noir novels written by American authors. Forget any chance of being exhaustive, I’ll probably be lucky to scratch the surface.

While James M. Cain has to be considered the king of noir, the earliest American crime noir novel I can come up with is Rex Stout’s HOW LIKE A GOD, published in 1929 and beating Cain’s POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934) by five years. While there are both hard and dark edges surrounding Nero Wolfe, nothing in Stout’s Wolfe series could prepare you for this book. HOW LIKE A GOD is written in the second person and is a chilling account of a wasted life. The one shot the main protagonist has for happiness is lost by indecision, a character flaw that haunts him throughout the book. He ends up in a loveless marriage to a beautiful and rich woman, and eventually his life spirals out of control as he becomes sexually obsessed with a woman from his past who he finds utterly repulsive in all other ways. Told in flashbacks, Stout lets us know from page one what’s coming, but what hooks us as readers is how we’re going to get there.

Cain’s two noir masterpieces, POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1936) both follow a similar pattern: an average guy is tempted by both a woman and money to commit murder, and once he crosses that line he’s doomed. Walter Huff, the protagonist of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, is tempted maybe even more by the challenge of getting away with the crime. The murder here is impersonal, cold-blooded, and the woman Walter teams up with turns out to be far more than he bargains for. By the end there’s nothing left for either of them except oblivion. The murder in POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is far more personal. The victim is an older man who has befriended the protagonist, Frank Chambers. The problem is this older man has a young wife, Cora. Passion, lust, and the need to escape the dreariness of their lives fuel the murder, and once Frank and Cora cross that line there’s no hope for them. After the murder they’re forced to betray each other, and things only get worse from there.

I love these two books. Neither Walter Huff or Frank Chambers are in anyway likeable, still, you can’t put these books down. You watch spellbound as Huff and Chambers edge towards the cliff. And once they tumble off, you just take the ride down with them. And its one hell of a ride.

If Cain is the king of noir then Jim Thompson has to be considered his sardonic court jester. Thompson’s first crime novel, NOTHING MORE THAN MURDER (1949), was influenced heavily by Cain. This book had the same basic theme as POSTMAN AND DOUBLE INDEMNITY: infidelity, murder for money, and the inevitable conclusion. After that book, though, Thompson created his own unique bleak landscape of noir. The world he creates is a cold and unforgiving one, filled with desolation, paranoia and violence. His protagonists appear at first to be ordinary guys (with the exception of SAVAGE NIGHT) – bellhops, lawmen, and door to door salesmen – but in fact, they’re anything but normal. They’re characters that are born broken without a chance of redemption. They might fool you for a while, but it’s a false hope. They’re unrepentant killers, teetering on the edge of madness and psychic disintegration. While in Cain’s noirish world, his protagonists create their own fates by committing murder, Thompson’s protagonists have no shot from the very beginning. Lou Ford from KILLER INSIDE ME (1952) gets most of the ink, but probably Thompson’s most twisted character is Bill “Dusty” Rhodes from A SWELL-LOOKING BABE (1954). Dusty appears to be just a down-on-his-luck kid who’s has to work as a bellhop to support his invalid father. It turns out he had quite a bit to do with his father’s condition, and his motivations are as dark and twisted as they come.

The thing of it is no one wrote “crazies” like Jim Thompson did. He’d sucker you in, have you believing in the guy, and then pull the carpet out from under your feet. And there you are, not knowing quite what to believe – not knowing whether the protagonist is delusional or lying to you or what. But there was more to Thompson that just that. More than simply creating the most vicious bleak characters in crime fiction. More than writing vividly arresting dialogue. More than brilliantly mixing social commentary into his harrowing tales. There was a magic to Thompson’s writing, a magic that will suck you right in to whatever hell his characters are tumbling into. When you finish KILLER INSIDE ME, A SWELL-LOOKING BABE, HELL OF A WOMAN (1954), SAVAGE NIGHT (1953) or POP. 1280 (1964), you can’t help but feel somewhat shaken, a little unsure of where you fit in the universe.

One year after Thompson wrote his classic KILLER INSIDE ME, Seymour Shubin wrote quite a different type of noir classic, ANYONE’S MY NAME (1953). Like KILLER INSIDE ME, ANYONE’S MY NAME is written from the mind of the killer. But while Lou Ford, the protagonist in Killer Inside Me, is a broken psychopath who’s gleefully playing out his hand in some perverse game, Paul Weiler, the protagonist in ANYONE’S MY NAME, is an average college-educated guy, but because of taking shortcuts in both his personal and professional life, finds himself caught in a sequence of events that end in a killing. Both men know that they’re doomed. Ford accepts and welcomes it, Weiler is terrified by it, realizing everything that he’s lost. In some ways Weiler’s reaction to his killing is more chilling than Lou Ford’s. Ford, in his own perverse way, has empathy towards his victims. The only remorse Weiler shows is towards the future he’s losing. While this book drips in cynicism and irony (especially the last brilliant line in it), there’s an absolute honesty to it. Weiler’s motivations are real, his reaction to the killing is real, and the outcome, while brutal, is the only way it could be. As readers, as distasteful as we may find Weiler, we can’t help but be swept up in his ordeal. Like Thompson’s best books, this one leaves us shaken.

There are many other great noir classics, like Charles Willeford’s COCKFIGHTER (1960) and THE WOMAN CHASER (1962), where the protagonists stubborn refusal to compromise their own bizarre artistic vision lead to both wasted lives and madness. Then there’s Orson Welles’ brilliant MR. ARKADIN (1956), carrying on Welles’ theme of lost innocence and betrayal. And I have to mention one of my favorite noir books, Dan Marlowe’s THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH (1962) featuring a vicious hard-as-nails bank robber, Earl Drake, whose soft spot for dogs leads to his downfall. Vicki Hendricks’ recent noir books, MIAMI PURITY, IGUANA LOVE, SKY BLUES and VOLUNTARY MADNESS are wonderfully twisted examples of modern noir. Her protagonists are woman, and they’re just as crazy and bleak as any of Thompson’s.

There’s a power and rawness to these books as we’re dragged into the minds of both doomed and crazy protagonists. We’re taken places we may not want to go, but there’s also a moral center to these book – justice, one way or another, is metered out at the end. Reading these books, in a way, is like hiking up a steep mountain. The trip may be difficult, maybe even painful at times, but the view when we can to our final destination can be mind-blowing.

Dave Zeltserman is the author of thirteen novels, including his recently released ‘Monster: A novel of Frankenstein’.  His short mystery fiction has won the Shamus, Derringer and Ellery Queen’s Readers Choice awards. His crime thrillers, Small Crimes and Pariah, both made the Washington Post’s best books of the year list in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and Small Crimes was selected by NPR as one of the 5 best crime and mystery novels of 2008.

His horror novel, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, was shortlisted by the American Library Association for best horror novel of 2010 and was also a Black Quill nominee for best dark genre book of the year.   His novel, Outsourced, has been optioned by Impact Pictures and Constantin Film, and is currently in development.