The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Long before I read The Killer Inside Me for the first time the book both fascinated and scared me. How can I resist reading one of the classics of the noir/pulp genre? On the other hand, would this dark tale told in first person prove to be too much for me? I was in two minds.

Lou Ford, a small town sheriff’s deputy, is an ordinary (if slightly dull) man. Except no one knows that inside him there is a pool of darkness, a thing he calls his ‘sickness’. For years he has been containing it. One wrong person, one wrong moment and it may all come crashing down. Unfortunately Lou will soon meet a woman called Joyce Lakeland. Soon it will all spiral out of control and leave one bloody ugly mess.

Maybe it was shocking when it was first published in the 1950’s but for someone who has read the modern day works in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre; the violence may not be a big deal. It’s all pretty subtle when compared to modern depictions of violence.

What I found troubling was not the violence but the fact that I, the reader, actually had to see through the eyes of a psychopath. The first person narrative makes this book all the more disturbing. All that evil, stated so matter of factly by Lou, felt so very real.

What’s more is that Lou makes it all seem so rational. There are moments when one forgets how sick and twisted this man is. That is what makes this so unsettling.

I found it amazing how Jim Thompson showed Lou’s sadistic nature come out through his habit of cornering people and unloading on them one cliché after another. An example is given early in the story,

“The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a bore, it’s a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d give you his shirt if you asked for it?”

He delights in seeing people fidget and avoid him as he slowly torments them with his dull, plodding words. Brilliant!

There is a nightmarish quality to the narrative. It’s because Lou’s life is somewhat of a nightmare. As he describes it,

“It was like being asleep when you were awake and awake when you were asleep. I’d pinch myself, figuratively speaking–I had to keep pinching myself. Then I’d wake up kind of in reverse; I’d go back into the nightmare I had to live in. And everything would be clear and reasonable.”

He wants to get away from it all. He believes leaving the small town he grew up in will solve all of his problems. But then he wonders does one ever get way?

“The Conways were part of the circle, the town, that ringed me in; the smug ones, the hypocrites, the holier-than-thou guys–all the stinkers I had to face day in and day out. I had to grin and smile and be pleasant to them; and maybe there are people like that everywhere, but when you can’t get away from them, when they keep pushing themselves at you, and you can’t get away, never, never, get away.”

The book isn’t simple. There are a lot of layers to the story. As the narration is in first person, it is all a bit hazy. Of course one couldn’t expect a mentally disturbed person to be rational and precise. It is, after all, his mind that we are looking in to.

At times I had trouble understanding what was going on. Thompson left a lot unsaid and it certainly isn’t a bad thing even if it did hinder my understanding the book.

The story is sexist. It portrays the women in a bad light. Both Joyce Lakeland and Amy Stanton are portrayed as mean, spiteful women who help bring about Lou’s downward descent ever more rapidly. But I suppose it is a product of its time.

Watching and almost experiencing how the delicate balance that took years to build gets destroyed is disquieting. I didn’t find The Killer Inside Me gory but it is a cruel, merciless story. It isn’t fun to watch a serial killer’s mind unravel as the bodies pile up.

Even though revisiting The Killer Inside Me was difficult, it remains a favourite of mine mainly because of its writer, Jim Thompson. He was definitely ahead of his time. The book truly deserves its status as a classic of the noir genre.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

A desperate group of men want to eliminate one of the most influential leaders of the world. An elusive killer waits for one last big hit before retiring from his dark calling. When their paths cross disaster is undoubtedly around the corner.

Published in 1971, The Day of the Jackal’s heady mix of fact and fiction makes it a pioneer of the thriller genre.

It took me quite a while to get into the story. Some parts of the book are really boring which is not a good sign for a thriller. In addition, the book at times feels kind of dated. This feeling comes not so much from the story (which is innovative for its time) but rather from the way Forsyth ‘tells’ it.

The most interesting parts of the book were those focusing on the inexorable Jackal’s swift movements through France.

Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel’s patient, unexciting routine investigation provides a good balance against the equally patient but cold-blooded preparations of Jackal.

I liked how the changes in the Jackal’s appearances are detailed. It was like I was watching it all unfold right in front of me. Forsyth focuses quite a bit of attention on how the colour of the Jackal’s eyes change with changes in his moods. It is kind of the only ‘sign of life’ his character ever shows. I found that to be rather intriguing.

In my mind there weren’t much difference between the good and the bad in The Day of the Jackal. The good guys are almost as ruthless as the bad guys. They kidnap, torture and murder without batting an eyelid. A torture scene in the first part, Anatomy of a Plot, I found to be particularly nauseating!

The twist at the end is in keeping with the mood of the rest of the story. I liked it. I guess the twist is nothing novel nowadays but it must have been so when the book was originally published.

Overall, The Day of the Jackal is a good thriller. Recommended as a classic of the thriller genre.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

A wife goes missing. A husband is blamed. Fingers are pointed all around. Every little gesture, every little moment, every bump on the road is minutely analyzed. And in the end what are we left with? A place where almost all relationships reach a dead end, where psychotic maniacs are a dime a dozen and no one is really likeable.

Published in 2012, Gone Girl is the third offering from author Gillian Flynn after Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

The story unfolds from the points of view of Nick Dunne and his wife Amy Elliott Dunne. The entire book is divided into three different parts.

The first part, Boy Loses Girl, I’d say is the ‘skeleton’ of the story. The second part, Boy Meets Girl, fills in on the gaps left by Boy Loses Girl. In the final part, Boy Gets Girl Back (or vice versa), we find the whole story standing in front of us with the skeleton grinning from underneath.

Boy Loses Girl is definitely the most intriguing part of the book. With Boy Meets Girl, the story becomes more of a straightforward thriller. Boy Gets Girl Back is basically a continuation of Boy Meets Girl. It didn’t change my perception of the characters in any way.

Gone Girl reminded me of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen and The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Two points of view, an unreliable narrator and close family members under clouds of suspicion just like The Ninth Life of Louis Drax and a rather disturbing first person narrative like The Killer Inside Me.

Most of the major characters in Gone Girl are irreparably damaged people. The amount of time they spend messing with each others minds is unbelievable. If I had to live like that, constantly analyzing and/or be analyzed, I would go crazy!

The characters are all kind of one note. The mean and manipulative ones are just that, mean and manipulative. The weak ones are weak and the good are good. Just because they smoke, drink or curse doesn’t mean that they are multi-dimensional. Characters like Andie are there just to make a plot point. They are not well fleshed out and are faintly annoying.

I like books with unreliable narrators. It lifts books up from banality and adds an interesting twist to the proceedings. Gone Girl gives us a very fiendish unreliable narrator.

By Boy Gets Girl Back I kind of got bored with all the twists that were supposed to shock me. They are all screwed up people with serious problems. So they will act whatever way they want to. I was no longer surprised.

The book’s easy to read, which is I suppose a pre-requisite for all bestsellers. But at least it’s not banal or straight out stupid. Gillian Flynn has a way with words. I’d be interested in her other works Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

Overall, Gone Girl is a good psychological thriller. Good as an easy summer read.

The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham

At the edge of the estate of The Beckoning Lady there lies a dead man. The timing couldn’t be worse as it is just before Minnie and Tonker Cassand’s big party. It’s a good thing that Albert Campion is a friend of the Cassands. Campion investigates while the preparations for the party of the year go on in full swing.

The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham was published in 1955. In the US the book was published under the title The Estate of the Beckoning Lady.

Starting smack in the middle of a series is never a good idea. The Beckoning Lady is the fifteenth novel in Allingham’s Albert Campion series. I know I am probably missing a lot of the background information. Besides I am not used to Allingham’s style of story telling. But I always read what I can find. When I found this book I decided to read it first of all because it fit in perfectly with my 2012 Vintage Mystery Challenge’s Golden Age Girls category. Secondly, the book synopsis intrigued me.

Margery Allingham’s writing style doesn’t suit me well. I found her writing kind of confusing. It was as if I were in a dream, where the people were speaking in a language I knew and yet I couldn’t understand them.

The plot felt thin and at the same time bewildering. All the details about tax, property, ominous little men, dead elderly relatives, sending signals through flower bouquets; etc, etc left me feeling bored and puzzled.

I didn’t enjoy the relationship between Minnie and Tonker Cassand. They fight a lot and their fights left me feeling irritated. Tonker is responsible for a lot of the trouble in Minnie’s life and to top it all off he beats her on more than one occasion. Now maybe beating your wife was okay back in the 50’s but I am still not okay with it.

The preparation for Tonker and Minnie’s extravagant party takes up most of the narrative, the details of which left me exhausted. Why must the party go on despite multiple deaths is beyond me.

The actual crime, criminal and the motive behind it left me feeling unsatisfied. After spending so many dreary days reading a rather disjointed narrative with characters I didn’t really care about the solution seemed inadequate.

The book’s conclusion is odd. People casually forging evidence and letting things slide is just a bit too much.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy my first Margery Allingham. The narrative was disjointed and the solution unsatisfactory. I don’t feel to eager to continue with the adventures of Albert Campion.

At the Villa Rose by A.E.W. Mason

At the Villa Rose by A.E.W. Mason was published in 1910. It features Mason’s creation Inspector Gabriel Hanaud.

A wealthy widow lies gruesomely murdered at her home with all her jewels gone. Her young companion has gone missing and is under suspicion. Inspector Gabriel Hanaud reluctantly agrees to investigate at the request of a friend.

Hanaud reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. I feel Christie must have been influenced by Hanaud while creating Poirot.

At the Villa Rose is quite polished when compared to other early detective fiction works. There are, of course, plot holes. Like an important document arriving just at the nick of time that clinches the case for the detectives. Why would the person in question even send this document to the detectives in advance, I wondered.

What I really didn’t like about the book was the concluding chapters. The story effectively ends at Chapter XIV. I feel one or two more chapters would have been sufficient to conclude the story but the ‘extremely’ detailed explanation takes up not one or two but seven full chapters. Some of the details where even a bit masochistic in tone, in my opinion.

The book is pretty exciting overall. The first few chapters are interesting in particular because not everyone’s motivations are clear. By the mid point when most of it becomes clear the excitement is still there. But after the Chapter XIV, I found excitement in only a few places like the final séance scene, which was eerie and kind of scary.

Celia Harland is the typical blonde, ‘damsel in distress’ type heroine. I have no patience with this type of characters. I especially got irritated by the way Mason kept describing her ‘prettiness’. This tendency increases as the book progresses. Her white shoulders and arms, her golden hair, her ‘daintiness’ is mentioned so many times that it gets ridiculous after a while. The way every man and woman kept discussing her beauty (her ‘white shoulders’ and arms get mentioned about a hundred times!) was just stupid!

Harry Wethermill was interesting. Julius Ricardo starts off as a suave gentleman but soon transforms into a stupid side kick with nothing much to do. I found this transformation jarring.

At the Villa Rose is a good read marred by a bad story structure. It would have worked better without the last few chapters.

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