Charles Willeford is mentioned along with Jim Thompson and Charles Williams as among the best writers of paperback originals, a publishing phenomenon that started in 1950.
The Woman Chaser was published in 1960, the sixth of his eighteen novels. Its hero is devoid of empathy. He interacts with others only to entertain or enrich himself. This recalls the heroes of Williams' The Hot Spot and Thompson's The Killer inside Me.
The Woman Chaser is the story of a used-car salesman who moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and takes a break from making money to write and direct a film. On this level, he is a spoof of every guy who has "a great idea for a movie" and thinks that's all he needs.
Along the way the salesman has an Oedipal relationship with his mother and uncaring sexual encounters with two other women. These characters are barely tethered to the plot. They are included so the author can check off requirements of the genre.
Willeford has a lot of fun experimenting with form. Instead of chapter breaks, he uses movie scene headings such as "Dissolve To:" The flow of action seems at times as arbitrary as the hero's brainstorming.
The Woman Chaser may not be a lesson in how to construct a narrative, but it successfully brings a sociopathic narrator to life.
For anyone who has ever wondered what the neighbors are up to, this is a fun read, assuming your idea of fun is watching things go very badly for a young mother trying to be a good neighbor.
We follow Emily and Ben in their new home as she attempts to befriend the woman next door while being a full-time mom to a toddler. This neighbor seems anxious and unwilling to communicate. Her husband, the doctor, is stand-offish to the point of rudeness.
The story is told from multiple points of view, so we also get to follow the doctor as he goes out to the shed behind the house every evening, and we find out what he does there. Thus we know what Emily is walking into before she does.
I enjoyed the way the author lays out the facts so we can see a pattern, and figure things out before the characters can. But things don't always go the way we expect, and that is fun too.
The prose is conversational and the various elements of the story---dialogue, description, thought, action, backstory, etc.---are in good proportions. It's and easy, enjoyable read.
Lisa Stone has four recent thrillers and twenty-seven novels written as Cathy Glass.
Anyone familiar with Patricia Highsmith's two most famous novels, Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, will recognize the premise of The Cry of the Owl: two men engage in mortal combat and the woman (or women) in the their lives don't seem to know what's happening.
The Cry of the Owl begins with Robert, recently divorced and moved from Manhattan to a small town in Pennsylvania, stopping along a road near a house to look through the kitchen window and watch Jenny washing dishes and doing other chores.
I won't give away the plot developments that lead to Robert's conflict with Greg, who has been dating Jenny. I will say that what could play out as a conventional romantic triangle turns into something more ambiguous. Each of the relationships---Robert-Jenny, Jenny-Greg, and Robert-Greg---is strange yet plausible, just as they are in Highsmith's more famous novels.
The ambiguity of the relationships no doubt stems from Highsmith's situation. She was gay, and she published most of her work in the 1950s and 1960s. Although she wrote one novel about a lesbian relationship (The Price of Salt, 1952), for most of her career she wrote about relationships between men and women. But she let her truth shine through them.
The Suspects by Katherine Johnson is one of the more inventive thrillers I've read for a while. She starts with an unusual situation: Five twenty-somethings, just out of college (since this is in England, they say, "uni"), meet in a training program for business journalists. Daunted by the market for rentals, they band together to purchase a house.
As twenty-somethings do, they throw a party for friends and friends of friends. Several days after the party, one of them finds a body in the basement. They do not call the police or set about trying to figure out whodunnit. They don't even know who it is. Instead, for entirely understandable reasons, they set about getting rid of the body.
The author is at her best getting her characters into tight spots that get tighter by the moment. Her complications are as inventive as the overall situation, and Johnson keeps us in touch with the thoughts and feelings of her characters. They seem real.
In addition to the five housemates, there are boyfriends and girlfriends to keep track of. A few characters get fairly long biographical speeches. The final chapters play out over years. But the core of the story is a gripping read.
Martin Krieger discovers someone is stealing from the company he bought for his investors. He vows to find out who is involved and make them pay.
But the thieves have set a trap, and Krieger must do things he’s never done before to protect his career, his reputation, and his family.
How far will he go?
In The Con Man’s Son, a chilling game of hide and seek plays out on the foggy streets of San Francisco.
The Con Man’s Son will be published September 31, 2020 and is now available for pre-order on Amazon.
Like The Thicket, this tale is set in East Texas during the Great Depression. In a small town that has grown up around a saw mill, the mill hands work long hours for low pay. But they are lucky. The migrants who work the farms sometimes get cheated out of their pay.
Not only is there poverty, there is also racism and sexism. Lansdale depicts the lynchings, the beatings, the physical and psychological abuse, and does so in the language of that time. He does not filter words and phrases we no longer use.
Also like The Thicket, this is a tale of a team---a band of brothers and sisters---who come together out of necessity and oppose the overwhelming cruelty of their world.
Sunset, a woman so named for her flaming red hair, becomes constable of the mill town through a series of unlikely events and pulls together an unlikely crew of deputies and enforcers.
The horrors of this violent world become bearable because these people do what they can to oppose it. They do so, not because they are idealists, but because they want to survive.
Peter Abrahams excels at exploring altered states of mind. Most famously, in The Fan (1996), a baseball fanatic pursues his hero to the point of madness. Robert DeNiro and Wesley Snipes starred in the film version directed by Tony Scott.
In Oblivion (2005), Abrahams explores the altered state of mind that follows removal of a brain tumor. The chief symptom is loss of memory for the three days leading up to the surgery.
The loss is critical because the hero is a private investigator tracking a missing-person, and he spent those three days getting close to cracking the case. Following his surgery, he must re-investigate the case, but all the people he talks to now know more about what he's up to than he does. This puts him in increasingly dangerous situations.
To complicate matters, years earlier, one of his cases was the subject of a based-on-a-true-story Hollywood film, and it's not always clear whether people are remembering him or the character based on him in the movie.
Alteration of the hero's state of mind makes this one of the more ambitious P. I. novels I've read.
It begins, as some of my favorite books do, with an obviously dumb proposal. Matt is talking to a friend in a bar. The friend has a foolproof plan for a kidnapping. He just needs Matt to be the driver. Matt knows this friend is an addict and even when sober is incapable of making rational decisions. So of course Matt turns him down.
But Matt has money problems and other problems that come with being a single parent. The parents of his late wife think his daughter would be better off with them. The pressure on Matt builds. He runs out of options and decides he may as well take a chance on his friend's plan.
From there on, it's not a question of if something will go wrong but of when, and what the consequences will be, and how far Matt is willing to go to survive them.
Much of the pleasure in reading this book comes from its perfect construction. Each complication plays out just long enough, the next one comes along just in time to boost the tension, and it's usually something we didn't see coming but makes sense once we've seen it.
Given the hero's compromises, we know the ending won't be sunshine and puppies. It's a question of how dark the shad of gray will be. This is a very satisfying crime novel.
Twisted City compares well with the noir masterpieces of the early and mid-twentieth century. The prose is crystal clear. It is admirably brief. And it is a voyage into the heart of darkness, to borrow Joseph Conrad's title.
In the first scene, David Miller, the narrator, fumbles his attempt to chat up a woman in a bar. And his wallet is stolen. We sympathize.
As we follow his efforts to get his wallet back, we learn he has recently lost his job as a financial journalist with the Wall Street Journal, and has signed up with a less ethical publication. And his sister has recently died. We sympathize more.
He gets a chance to retrieve his wallet. He gets chances to improve his love life. He gets chances to advance in his career. But things keep going wrong. He seems to be wallowing in quicksand.
The plot compares to those of Cornell Woolrich. The theme reminds me of James M. Cain. The first-person narrator is worthy of Jim Thompson. And the banality of this evil recalls Patricia Highsmith.
This novel from 2014 belongs with the classics of noir.
Scott Phillips builds suspense quietly, bit by bit. His hero, Charlie Argliss, visits the strip clubs he helps to manage and notices this is the last time he will see these places, speak with these people and do these things. The reader wonders why. Is he ill? Are the clubs shutting down? Is he going somewhere?
The possibilities are whittled down as his plan is revealed. When we see what he's up to, we wonder, can he pull it off? Eventually things start to go wrong, and we wonder how far Charlie is willing to go to see his plan through.
Along the way, we learn a lot about the people who work in strip clubs and those who patronize them. Phillips plays up the irony of their casual acceptance of the bizarre nature of their business. And it doesn't hurt that this is all happening on Christmas Eve.
Ultimately, this novel from 2000 is a dark story, as dark as those by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and others, half a century earlier. That's quite an accomplishment.
It's a fairly simple story. A young man's sister is kidnapped. He gathers an unlikely crew to rescue her. The wonder of this book is in the details of the time and place where it takes place is set: East Texas, when most people still ride horses and automobiles are just beginning to appear.
Essentially the book is one long chase. Along the way we get to know a lawless land. European settlers skirmish with Commanche. Gangs of psychopaths on horseback overrun homesteads, take what they want, and leave no witnesses. In the towns and on the roads, violence rules.
The details are not pleasant. This is the stuff of nightmares. But the author, Joe R. Lansdale, makes it worth reading by revealing the ideals, failings, regrets, and hopes of his principal characters. These are real people.