Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

Kindle edition, published by Mulholland Books, 2011.
Mulholland now has 9 of Jim Thompson's available as e-books and they intend to make 25 of Thompson't 29 books available in this format.
Pop. 1280 was originally published in 1964. The top cover is from the Mulholland Books edition. The one below is from the my well-worn 1990 Vintage/Black Lizard edition.

I relied on Robert Polito's Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson for background for this post.

Psychotics, criminals, people you really don't want to take an interest in you, Jim Thompson (1906-1977) captured them all in his stories. You don't read Jim Thompson expecting a happy ending. What you get is existential nihilism. The man could write noir and his impact is still felt. There is a nod to Pop. 1280 in James Sallis' Cypress Grove (read closely, you might miss it). Gloria Denton in Megan Abbott's Queenpin has the same noir genes as Thompson's Lilly Dillon in The Grifters. There is even a band named Pop. 1280 (think apocalyptic punk).

Pop. 1280 is the first person narrative of Nick Corey, the high sheriff of Potts County in an unnamed Western state in the early 1900s. Most of the action takes place in and around Pottsville, the county seat, with a population of 1,280 souls—down to 1,273 by the end.

For the first 6 chapters we see Nick as a harmless, lazy, spineless, aww shucks oaf who gets by with a joke, a slap on the back, and not making a fuss. Nick says he figures he has it made " long as I minded my own business and didn't arrest no one unless I just couldn't get out of it and they didn't amount to nothin'." The tone is light, even humorous.

Nick is also a man with prodigious appetites. A typical meal might be "...half a dozen pork chops and a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with grits and gravy." He never describes himself but the reader  can't help but imagine Nick as a big if not obese man.

His other appetite is women.
"I'll tell you something about me. I'll tell you for true. That's one thing I never had no shortage of. I was hardly out of my shift—just a barefooted kid with my first pair of boughten britches—when the gals started flinging it at me. And the older I got, the more of 'em there were." 
Despite, or perhaps because of this, Nick ends up blackmailed into marrying Myra, a horrible woman who brought her half-witted peeping tom "brother" Lennie to the marriage with her. This doesn't stop Nick from having an intimate relationship with Rose Hauck, a woman married to the town drunk and neer-do-well, Tom Hauck. And he'd really like to get back together with Amy, the woman he was going to marry until Myra came along.

When the story opens, Nick has problems —"And yet I was worried. I had so many troubles that I was worried plumb sick." His immediate problem is the disrespect he gets from two pimps in town but he is also worried about the coming election and, of course, his women problems. He's off to see Ken Lacey, the sheriff a couple of counties down the river, who has given him "valuable" advice in the past. Ken is a condescending bully but Nick is at his toadying best when he asks Ken how to handle the pimps.

Nick's approach to problem solving is covered in a dark but often humorous way and it is a treat to see how Thompson moves the story along.

Thompson's first major success was The Killer Inside Me, a dark, violent, misogynistic first person narrative. His last was Pop. 1280. They have similarities but I think Thompson found his finest expression in Pop. 1280. It might be close to the perfect noir story.

Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey both represent Thompson's love/hate relationship with his own father. "Big Jim" Thompson was a successful lawman in the Oklahoma territory. He was a big man who, like Lou Ford and Nick Corey, presented a good old boy front to the world. He was also crooked, fleeing to Mexico after being caught embezzling jail funds. Despite his down home, country boy manner, Thompson had a first rate mind. One of his favorite tricks was to play along with someone treating him like an ignorant redneck then hit them with learned expositions on medicine, history, and philosophy. Both Lou Ford and Nick Corey have a sharp intelligence that they are careful to hide. As Nick says "who wants a smart sheriff?". These two stories show Thompson's contempt for his father. Polito points out that the title, Pop. 1280, is probably a sly reference to his "Pop" Thompson.

Pop. 1280 is beautifully and subtly constructed. The reader sees Nick drop a word here, nudge someone there to bring his plans together. Often something Nick says or thinks doesn't register until  later in the story. I've read Pop. 1280 many times and I still managed to find something new as I prepared this post.

Nick Corey is psychotic but where Lou Ford is cruel and sadistic, Nick is a manipulator. He believes he has a messianic mission to fulfill and knows he needs to arrange his environment to continue his mission. His mission – "to punish the heck out of people for bein' people. To coax 'em into revealin' theirselves , an' then kick the crap out of 'em." There is some violence but nothing approaching the scale of The Killer Inside Me.

Pop. 1280 is also a savage attack on corruption, racism, mistreatment of children, and the treatment of the working man. At one point,  Nick neatly skewers a detective from a fictional agency clearly meant to represent the Pinkerton's.  About the railway strike of 1886,
"Now, by golly, that really took nerve," I said. "Them railroad workers throwin' chunks of coal at you an' splashin' you with water, and you fellas without nothin' to defend yourself with except shotguns an' automatic rifles! Yes sir, god-dang it, I really got to hand it to you!"
Nick is most vulnerable and sympathetic when talks about his own childhood and the abuses against children and women. Thompson does something you might not think possible, that maybe one of his psychotics isn't all bad, that maybe soes do some good. As long as you don't become part of his plan, that is.

Pop. 1280 is my favorite Jim Thompson novel. It's one I read at least once a year with the same enjoyment as the first time I encountered it and I highly recommend it.

Film adaptation:
Bertrand Tavernier took Pop. 1280 and set it in colonial French West Africa in the 1930s. He called it Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate). It is an excellent adaptation and faithful to the main story line. Tavernier's commentary on noir is a reason to purchase the DVD.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Bad Girl by Michele Jaffe

Kindle edition, 2004. Ballentine Books, sold by Random House Digital, Inc.

Crime fiction is my preferred genre and I'm drawn to the hardboiled and noir styles. But I look at all genre fiction, including romance, because the way the genres can be blended to appeal to multiple audiences is interesting. For example, Nora Roberts (writing as J.D. Robb), a noted romance author, has created the Eve Dallas/In Death... series which mixes the science fiction, romance, and police procedural crime fiction genres. A blending of genres can be tagged as a crossover story.  And this brings me to why I read Bad Girl. I had to drive a 16 ft. rental truck from Florida to Virginia recently and among the podcasts loaded on my iPod was the DBSA Romance Fiction Podcast, put together by Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Jane of Dear Author. Sarah and Jane episodes on ebooks and publishing— a topic that interests me as a reader and as a librarian— which is what drew me to the podcast. DBSA is smart, insightful, and funny and I dropped Sarah and Jane a note to tell them I enjoyed their work. I mentioned my preference for crime fiction and jokingly suggested that I was going to read Tool Belt Defender. Jane seriously responded that Michelle Jaffe's Bad Girl would be a better crossover for me to start with.

This isn't so much a review as the reaction of a hard core crime fiction reader to a romance/crime fiction crossover novel and what I perceive as the romance tropes found in the story. Romance readers should feel free to correct me where I miss the point. I've deliberately avoided reading anything that could affect my perceptions.

A couple of things upfront about this post. First, I enjoyed the book. Jaffe writes an entertaining story and is excellent plot, characters, and details. I'll probably never be a serious reader of romance but it can be a fun detour. Second, I have two warnings. Jaffe violates a great taboo for many readers — harm and implied harm to children. The harm is described after the event but is still difficult to absorb. She has two explicit sex scenes, one short and icky, one extended and racy. If harm to children and any suggestion of sex bothers you then this book might not be for you. Third, there may be spoilers ahead. I'm not going to identify the big bad but anything else is a fair target.

Plot Summary:
Chicago "Windy" Thomas and her daughter Cate move to Las Vegas where Windy has been recruited to head the criminalistics department. She will be joined soon by her fiancé Bill. Six weeks into the job, Ash Laughton, the head of the Violent Crimes Task Force, asks her to take a look at a murder scene to see if she has any insights. The murder is particularly hideous with a mother and three young children the victims. From the level of violence Ash feels that this isn't the first time the murderer has killed and it won't be the last. Ash's fears are borne out and he and Windy are launched into a high pressure race to find a pattern, a motive, the killer.

Jaffe emphasizes the investigation over the romance which appealed to me. Windy has a solid background having worked in the FBI's crime lab for six years and was a sheriff for three. I give the author top marks for the criminalistics part of the story. She plays it straight without tossing in a lot of shiny forensic toys. When asked if she had seen CSI: "Had she ever. Windy dreamed of equipment like the stuff they showed." Windy is shown to have first rate analytical and observational skills and confidence and pride in her abilities.

I always like learning something new and here I learned about leuco crystal violet. All readers of police procedurals and forensic stories and watchers of Dexter know about using luminol to detect blood. After looking at the crime scene photos — like Sherlock Holmes and the dog barking in the night — Windy is drawn to what she doesn't see — the kitchen  in this case. Recognizing the limitations of luminal in that location, she elects to use LCV. Jaffe gives an excellent description of Windy and her technician working the kitchen. This scene is used effectively to show "new kid" Windy winning over the grizzled veteran. I also learned about electrostatic lifting to find evidence in carpet.

The murders are horrible and disturbing to think about. Some readers might think they verge on torture porn but Jaffe is no more extreme than many crime fiction writers and better at it than many.

I do have a couple of minor nit picks. What kind of organization does she work for where she has been on the job for six weeks and hasn't met all the people who work for her AND she has to be asked to look over crime scene photos? I would have thought one of her first tasks would have been to get to know the abilities and limitations of her crime scene technicians. And why didn't she already know that this gruesome murder had occurred?

Worse is something that might have crime fic readers poised to hurl book at wall. Windy was recruited for the job but presumably she had at least one interview. Which makes it inexplicable that she could take the job while promising fiancé Bill that she wouldn't work crime scenes and she wouldn't work nights and weekends. We are supposed to accept that Los Vegas would hire a first rate criminalist but not expect her to take an active part in investigations. Now I understand that this is a necessary plot device to build tension between Windy and Bill but the crime fiction reader in me made an obscene exclamation when this came up.

And this leads me to ...

I said earlier that Windy is highly competent at her job. She worked for the FBI. After her husband died in a wind surfing accident she left the FBI to become an acting sheriff where she was so good that the government officials didn't bother to look for a replacement. But she is trying to Bury Her True Nature which leads to Emotional Conflict. She is proud of her abilities but she also thinks she should be the perfect mother from a 50s tv show —bake cookies, go to soccer games, be the good wife to Bill. There is some good Angsting going on. I give Jaffe credit for giving Windy a background that explains her insecurities. Her parents left Chile to escape the brutal Pinochet regime. They tried to pass on to Windy what they consider important survival skills from their life in Chile: be safe, be a good girl, don't be noticed. There were times when I wished that Eve Dallas would drop in from the In Death series and give her a boot in the ass to straighten her out.

Adding to her conflict is Bill, the Emotionally Stifling Fiancé. Bill is Mr. Safe, Mr. Bland, Mr. Unimaginative. The moment Windy thinks to herself "Bill always knew exactly where everything he wanted was" I know he wouldn't last. He isn't abusive but he wants to shelter Windy. He says "Babe, I love you so much. I just want to take care of you. Protect you." Gah! I wonder if romance readers are wondering at this point why she hasn't kicked him to the curb and recognized that she really needs the Roguish Yet Sensitive Ash.

Upon meeting Windy, Ash is Immediately Smitten. Up to to then, his only relationships had been with married women in cheap motels. Ash is also unusual in that he is independently wealthy having sold a software package that he knocked off for fun for $30 million. So he doesn't have to work and can afford a complicated and fast sports care. I wonder if Jaffe is giving a nod to John Sanford's Lucas Davenport who is also a cop who sold a computer game for a bundle and drives a Porsche? After meeting Windy, Ash is more likely to go home, strip to his underwear, and paint. He won't admit it but he Longs for a Family.

We've all recognized that Windy is very attracted to Ash and eventually comes to the Realization That He Is The One which leads to a Can We Still be Friends scene with Bill where he reveals his True Nature (I think he could have become abusive). At this point Windy has what I can only describe as a Gloriously Liberating Breakthrough. She hops in the shower, puts on her fancy underwear (Bill preferred plain white cotton), dons her leathers, jumps on her Ducati motorcycle for the first time in years, and roars off to have wild monkey sex (Sarah used this expression in one of the podcasts). This is wonderfully over-the-top and a definite You Go Girl moment.

In case you haven't put it together, the bolded words are what I think might be romance tropes. Let me know if I'm wrong or missed any.

I'm not good at the "if you liked..." type of recommendation and don't do it often. But as a crime fiction reader, I would say that if you like J.D. Robb's books then this might have appeal. I happen to like those books myself. I think there is enough romance to appeal to readers of contemporary romance. And people who read the big name crime authors whose books occupy several shelves might also like it.