Sunday, 10 March 2019

Grotesque secrets of the DEATH HOUSE

I have some exciting news today for anyone who enjoys my Lucy Clayburn novels. As you may know, the next one in the series, STOLEN, is out in May. But in case you can’t wait until then, a Lucy Clayburn e-story, DEATH HOUSE, is now available on Amazon, and it will be FREE for this coming week. If you fancy downloading it, you’ll also get the first few chapters of STOLEN thrown in. 

Scroll down a bit for some more info on that.

Also today, I thought it might be fun to draw up a list of my top 25 book-to-movie crime/thriller adaptations, and to add a little bit of text in each case, to explain why I’ve picked them. Check through it to see what you think, and don’t hesitate to suggest any titles that I might have missed.

And in addition to all that – because it’s a real treat, today’s blog – I’ll be reviewing and discussing the always inimitable James Lee Burke’s border noir crime novel par excellence, RAIN GODS.

If you’re only here for the JLB review, you’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s post. Jump straight down there and enjoy. However, if you’ve got a bit more time, perhaps you’ll be interested in some of the other stuff first. Either way, the choice is yours.

Death House

So … onto this week’s free gift, assuming you’re interested in that sort of thing.

DEATH HOUSE was a short story that I originally penned when STRANGERS, the first Lucy Clayburn novel, was published in 2016. It has appeared in print before, but only in a special edition of STRANGERS that was sold through Sainsbury’s. As only relatively few readers are likely to have read it, and the chances of getting hold of one of those special Sainsbury’s books must now be pretty damn slim, I thought we could celebrate the approaching publication of the third novel in the series by making this free-standing short story available to everyone else.

I repeat that DEATH HOUSE is a short story rather than a novel or novella, but it concerns an impromptu investigation that Lucy launches when a uniformed PC is called to a sudden death in a run-down Manchester council house and finds something that rather disturbs him.

I won’t reveal any more about it now, except to reiterate that it will also include the first three chapters of STOLEN, the next Lucy Clayburn novel, and that it’s completely FREE from tomorrow, Monday March 11, until Friday March 15 (after which it goes up to 99p). So, get in quickly. Follow the link, and DEATH HOUSE is yours.

Epic cases of book-to-film

Crime and thriller movies, eh! Who doesn’t love them?

The genre’s been through so many incarnations over the years – from those intense and moody noirs of the ’40s and ’50s, to the Cold War spy-fests of the ’60s, to the political conspiracies of the ’70s, to the ’80s action blockbusters, to the ‘real life’ organised crime sagas of the ’90s, to those lower-key domestic mysteries of the 2000s.

Yet, what is often overlooked by cinema audiences is that many of these, if not nearly all, were based on or derived from original novels. In some cases, there’ve been countless deviations from the plot lines the book-writers produced, while others have remained completely faithful to the text. Some are hugely well-known as having come from novels, but then others so overshadowed the original works that the book and even the author are now long-forgotten.

The same also applies to television. We’ve had some remarkable TV crime in the past, and yet a lot of it was initially published in novel form.

So, without further messing about, here – in chronological order, rather than in any order of preference – are my Top 25 Film and/or TV Crime/Thriller adaptations. I’ve not based these choices specifically on the quality of the original book, or the quality of the film or TV that resulted, but on the overall package the public received from both book and film combined, and from the lasting impression that these great works of entertainment art, now existing in two separate halves rather than one whole, have made.

Inevitably, there’ll be some omissions, so feel free to chip in with any ideas of your own. In addition to that, there are only so many items I can include, so, for the sake of brevity, I’m restricting my choices to English-language material, which unfortunately means that I must exclude foreign originals like Celle qui n’etait plus (Pierre Boileau), filmed as Les Diaboliques, and even some English language originals that were later adapted in other languages, such as Edgar Wallace’s early masterpiece, Dark Eyes of London, filmed in in German, rather marvellously, as Die toten Augen von London (giving Klaus Kinski one of his best early roles). And I am purposely not considering ‘true crime’ classics, even if they later received glorious movie treatment, so the likes of Wiseguy (Nicholas Pileggi, later filmed as Goodfellas), and Zodiac (Robert Graysmith) don’t make the cut either. It’s also the case that long-running book series, which spawned long-running TV shows will also – again for reasons of conciseness – need to be left out; so that means that I’ve sadly got no room for legends like Holmes, Morse, Banks, Wexford, Hill et al. Sorry about that, guys, but we have to have a limit somewhere.

Anyway, here are my Top 25 Crime/Thriller Books-to-Film …
  
Dashiell Hammett needs no introduction to crime fans, but in 1930 his novel The Maltese Falcon was a big departure from what he’d been doing up to that point, in that it featured a named central character, Sam Spade, a PI in San Francisco. That said, all the traditional boxes were still ticked, Spade hired by a femme fatale to track down her missing sister but finding himself framed for murder and then pitched into the complex hunt for a mysterious but allegedly priceless statuette. Several film adaptations have followed, but the third of these, written and directed by John Huston in 1941 and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Gladys George, is the one best remembered. Even though it shed much of the sexual implication that dogged earlier productions, it remains a film noir classic.

Graham Greene wrote Brighton Rock in 1938 and would probably be staggered to learn that it’s almost as pertinent now as it was then. It follows the career of Pinkie Brown, an unstable teenager and gangland wannabe, who controls various low-key rackets in pre-war Brighton, but starts to come unstuck when he murders an old rival. More than just a thriller, the author musing much on sin and damnation, it still caught the public’s imagination as a British noir and was adapted a couple of times for stage before hitting the big screen in 1947. Written by Terence Rattigan (and Greene) and directed by the Boulting Brothers, the film saw Richard Attenborough playing against type but still giving a spellbinding performance as the young hoodlum. The movie remains close to the novel for much of the story but takes a more psychological slant than moral.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s classic novel of ‘who dies next’ was originally published in 1939 under a different title, which we won’t repeat here to avoid offending modern sensibilities (though in the States it was Ten Little Indians), and tells the ingenious tale of eight strangers who are lured to a house on an island just off the Devon coast, where one by one, they are mysteriously murdered. There have been numerous adaptations to date, but one of the best came as a three-part TV serial from the BBC in 2015. Written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Craig Viveiros, it starred an ensemble cast, including Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Toby Stephens and Miranda Richardson, pitching them into a more nightmarish than usual version of the famous tale, evoking a near-horror atmosphere. 

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler was published in 1939 and introduced the novel-reading world to private eye Philip Marlowe, who, in this first outing, is sent to track down a wild-living young daughter of Los Angeles high society, and finds himself enmeshed in a web of drugs, pornography and blackmail. An archetypal character in crime fiction now, Marlowe was forever immortalised by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ 1946 movie version (scripted by William Faulkner, among others), which thanks to its tough talk and hardboiled atmosphere, and of course Lauren Bacall smouldering as only she could (giving it a bit more than usual, in fact, to get around the restrictions of the Hays Code), is now regarded as one of the quintessential movie noirs.

Influenced by the miseries of the Great Depression, and the true story of serial killer, Harry Powell, fantasist and horror writer Davis Grubb penned one of the greatest crime novels ever in 1953The Night of the Hunter drew heavily on the Southern Gothic tradition in its depiction of a murderous criminal, who, on his release from jail, sets out to steal money from the family of an executed cellmate, adopting the guise of a travelling preacher in the process, and becoming a figure of terror to the dead con’s children. Charles Laughton famously started and ended his directorial career with his 1955 movie version, neither audiences nor critics taking to his ‘German expressionist’ style, but it provided career-defining roles for Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters and in time came rightly to be considered a masterpiece.

John D MacDonald’s incredibly tense 1957 suspense novel, The Executioners, might not sound familiar today, but the synopsis will likely ring a bell, with hero Sam Bowden, a liberal-minded army officer, whose evidence sent Private Max Cady to prison for rape, forced to defend his family violently when, 14 years later, Cady is released, tracks his nemesis down on civie street and commences a campaign of increasingly vicious harassment. When director Lee J Thompson and writer Jim Webb brought it to the screen in 1962, as Cape Fear, the censors demanded many changes. Cady was no longer a rapist, while the military background was expunged entirely. However, the terror remained, with Gregory Peck perfectly cast as the family man struggling to fight off Robert Mitchum’s evil psycho. 

In 1959, Ian Fleming penned Goldfinger, his 7th James Bond novel. To many, the 007 books are badly flawed, often filled with plot-holes, and Goldfinger is not problem-free in this regard. Bond’s pursuit of crooked metallurgist, Auric Goldfinger, on M’s instruction, is deemed a big coincidence given that he opens the novel blackmailing Goldfinger in Miami on behalf of a friend, while later on, the scheme to steal the US gold reserve from Fort Knox has been derided as ludicrous. However, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 film, the 3rd in the series, improves on much of this, altering the plan to the ruination of the Fort Knox gold by detonation of a dirty bomb (thus inflating the value of the villain’s own reserve), and by moving Goldfinger from SMERSH to SPECTRE. It also benefits from Shirley Bassey’s thumping rendition of one of the great movie theme songs.  

Len Deighton smashed his way into Cold War fiction in 1962, with his novel, The IPCRESS File, giving us a complex, intelligent spy thriller in which an anonymous British Intelligence officer presents a report to the MoD, detailing his investigation into a double-agent’s plan to kidnap and sell high-ranking VIPs to the KGB. It’s a lesson in spy-school suspense but the antithesis of Bond, imbued with Soviet-era greyness. Sydney Furie’s 1965 movie adaptation, The Ipcress File, was smart enough to retain this gloomy atmosphere, but by necessity, especially with Michael Caine on board, the unknown operative had to be given a fuller personality, and so ex-thief ‘Harry Palmer’ was born, a name allegedly suggested by Caine himself, though at one point in the book, the hero muses that his name might once have been ‘Harry’. 

Crime correspondent Arthur La Bern was also a prolific writer of crime fiction, but he’s largely unknown today except possibly for Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, published in 1966. Set in the late 40s, it focuses on ex-RAF ‘candle-dropper’ Richard Blamey, who deals with his guilt about bombing Dresden by drinking heavily. Meanwhile, a ‘necktie killer’ is terrorising West London. When the evidence points to Blamey, he is unable to provide a coherent defence, even though we know he isn’t guilty. Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, made in 1970, diverted significantly from the original, the most problematic change being the late 60s setting, which made the casting of Jon Finch (then 28) as a WWII ace seem ridiculous. However, the film packs incredible tension and several grim set-pieces that have passed into thriller history.

In 1966, Roderick Thorp’s The Detective gave us a classy if somewhat belated noir, introducing us to New York private eye, Joe Leland, a WWII vet enlisted to investigate the apparent suicide of an old friend, a quest which leads him into a world of corruption and murder. The movie version of the same name, released in 1968, was directed by Gordon Douglas, written by Abby Mann, and cast Frank Sinatra in the lead, though it played fast and loose with the original narrative, making Leland a police detective rather than a PI and taking advantage of the new permissive society to hit us with blunt dialogue, including much candid cop-talk, and taboo subject-matter; homosexuality had never been as frankly dealt with in a movie prior to this. Sinatra, 53 at the time, is generally considered to have graced it with his career-best performance.

Author Gordon Williams entered the public consciousness in 1969, not so much for writing the successful novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, but for his loud denunciation of the controversial movie, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, that followed. In Williams’ book, an American scholar and his English wife and daughter move to a cottage in Cornwall. However, the American doesn’t fit in with the locals, and when he offers refuge to an escaped child-killer, unaware of his past, a mob forms and the mild-mannered intellectual becomes a brutal defender of his home. Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 version, Straw Dogs, removed the young child and savagely (and infamously) sexualised an attack on the hero’s wife, adding a much darker dimension to the story. However, the subtext remained, and Peckinpah’s trademark ‘visually poetic’ violence elevated it into a massive hit.

Mario Puzo’s seminal The Godfather, published in 1969, became a global phenomenon in terms of sales, and is still credited with introducing English-speaking crime readers for the first time to the inner workings of the Mafia. It was set in the States, of course, following the fortunes of a fictional Mafia family, the Coreleones, headed up by Don Vito and his two sons, Sonny and Michael, and examining the brutal wars they engage in with rival families in New York in the years after World War II. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie version is equally celebrated as an iconic piece of work. It made the names of Al Pacino, James Caan and Diane Keaton, and offered Marlon Brando one of his juiciest roles. The two equally lauded spin-offs, though Puzo was involved with them, were only partially derived from the original novel.

As the optimism of the 1960s ended, a darker, grimmer age of violence and cynicism dawned, ushered in in 1970 by Ted Lewis’s ground-breaking British crime novel, Jack’s Return Home. Often regarded as the birth of Brit-Grit (British noir with a hardboiled edge), its tale of a London racketeer heading back to his north-country home to avenge the death of his non-criminal brother is in itself a gangland classic, but it was done in so bleak and seedy a fashion that it made a much bigger impact on publication than anyone expected. The Mike Hodges movie that followed, Get Carter, released in 1971, starring Michael Caine and a host of old reliables, though it deviated here and there from the original narrative, remained largely loyal and the few changes it made were improvements (Scunthorpe to Newcastle, for example). It remains revered to this day. (Check HERE for one of my much fuller book reviews)

Frederick Forsyth was already an experienced war correspondent, and something of a maverick when, in 1971, he wrote his debut novel, The Day of the Jackal. Inspired by the real-life attempted assassination of General de Gaulle by a disenchanted French air force officer in 1962 in retaliation for the Algerian truce (which Forsyth reported on), it revisited but reimagined the incident, this time with an anonymous British contract killer hired by an extreme right-wing branch of the French Secret Service. Though publishers were initially wary, the book rocketed on sale, and a film was inevitable. It followed in 1973, directed by Fred Zinneman but starring the then relatively unknown Edward Fox. An unusual degree of cooperation from the French authorities during filming, granting never-before access to government offices and such, ensured that it would have a completely authentic feel.

US author Morton Freedgood might not be familiar today, and is probably better known by his pseudonym, John Godey. In 1972, he published a novel that is also little-known in the modern age, The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome. It was a curiosity, to be honest, not especially well-written according to some purists, but it told the intriguing story of a disfigured jail-bird who undergoes facial reconstruction as part of his rehab, only to then assume a new identity and plot an elaborate million-dollar heist. Its 40s/50s tone was jettisoned in 1989, when Walter Hill remade it as an action-packed New Orleans revenge thriller, retitled Johnny Handsome. An outstanding cast – Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Morgan Freeman and Forest Whitaker – elevated it way above the norm, but Ry Cooder’s intensely moody Cajun score was the main winner. 

In 1972, David Morrell was inspired by Vietnam vets he met to write First Blood, in which the simply-named ‘Rambo’, a former spec ops soldier, now homeless, is mistreated by a sheriff in backwoods Kentucky, arrested on trumped-up charges, and when he escapes into the hills, commences a life-or-death battle with the pursuing authorities. It was tautly written and tough as nails, pulling no punches in the numbers of lawmen who die hunting the deadly fugitive. A movie adaptation was inevitable but languished in development hell for years until 1982, when Sly Stallone’s star-power pushed it into production, though this also led to a softening of the tale. There are fewer killings, the re-named ‘John Rambo’ is more of a misunderstood hero, and the ending is a tad more upbeat. Like the book, however, it is widely held to be an action-thriller classic. 

Back to John Godey again now, aka Mortoon Freedgood, who was nothing if not prolific during his heyday of the 50s, 60s and 70s. His 1973 hardcase crime classic, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, was both cruel and ingenious in its depiction of a disparate band of professional criminals and their hijacking of a New York subway train, their intention to execute one passenger per minute if the Mayor doesn’t pay them a $1 million ransom within one hour. The first movie version, which remains the paciest and most suspenseful, came from Joseph Sargent in 1974, with a script by Peter Stone that was tight as a corkscrew, and cast Robert Shaw as the British ex-SAS leader of the gang, and Walter Mathau as the cop out to thwart him. No wonder it couldn’t fail.

‘Is it safe?’ A phrase burned into the thriller fan’s consciousness thanks to William Goldman’s superb 1974 novel, Marathon Man. A pacy conspiracy, it centres on Tom Levy, a student at Columbia University, who is training to run the New York Marathon at the same time as trying to clear the name of his late father, whose academic career was ruined by McCarthyism. If that isn’t tough enough, Tom then gets drawn into the machinations of his older brother, ‘Doc’, a CIA agent currently handling Christian Szell, an old Nazi informer living in Paraguay, but planning to steal the German’s ill-gotten wealth when he comes to the US. John Schlesinger’s 1976 movie version stuck close to the novel, including the ‘is it safe?’ torture scene, and starred Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider, though Laurence Olivier stole the show as the maniacal old war criminal.

In the years after Watergate, US thrillers were much concerned with illegal operations by government departments, and James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, published in 1974, was a prime example. It concerns a CIA bookworm whose job is basically to pinch good ideas from spy novels, but who one days finds all his colleagues murdered. As he flees the killers, he tries to work out who is doing this and why, soon turning up evidence that a rogue CIA unit is covering its tracks. Sydney Pollack’s 1975 movie version, Three Days of the Condor, combined politically active star-power in the guise of Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, and that mid-70s paranoia about government dirty tricks that we’ve already mentioned to create a box-office slammer. Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel’s screenplay won many awards. 

The Troubles in Northern Ireland may seem like history now, but in 1978 they were very current indeed, so what a time it was for Gerald Seymour’s taut thriller, Harry’s Game, to hit the shelves. It follows the hunt for an IRA sniper in Belfast after a cabinet minister is assassinated, with undercover British Army officer, Harry Brown (also an Ulsterman), the agent charged with this most difficult task. Its ultra-realistic portrayal of a shattered community was unforgiving, and this continued when Seymour adapted his own novel as a mini-series for Yorkshire Television in 1982, presenting a warts-and-all picture of the crisis-torn state, from which neither side comes up smelling of roses. TV star, Ray Lonnen, who tended to specialise in secret agent roles, was rock-solid and totally believable in the titular lead.

Roderick Thorp waited a decade to write a sequel to The Detective, giving us Nothing Lasts Forever in 1979, again featuring retired NY detective Joe Leland, but this time adopting a radically different tone, sending the laconic hero to the Klaxon Oil Corporation skyscraper in LA, where he awaits his daughter while she attends a Christmas Eve party. When a bunch of German terrorists takes everyone hostage, Leland resists them, playing cat and mouse through the building, armed only with a pistol. Incredibly, when John McTieran’s action epic, Die Hard, commenced production in 1987, an initial proposal was made that Frank Sinatra should star, thus to reprise his role from the 1968 original, but given that he was then 73, a wise decision was eventually taken to change the hero’s name and cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis instead.

James Ellroy was already one of the biggest names on the crime novel circuit in 1990, when the stylish LA Confidential was published. Set in 1951, it tells the lurid but compelling tale of three antagonistic LA detectives who join forces to unravel a net of heroin trafficking, prostitution and police corruption. With its combo of sex, drugs and Hollywood, it was a made-to-measure movie from the outset, and when Curtis Hanson’s film came out in 1997, it was nominated for a raft of Academy Awards, Kim Basinger winning her first. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe didn’t win, but still owe their US careers to it, while Kevin Spacey was pitched into the acting front rank. From such a massive original novel, changes were unavoidable, and the result is a streamlined, condensed version, with several threads lost. But it’s still an awesome watch.

John Grisham’s second novel, The Firm, was published in 1991. It’s the one that put Grisham on the map and is still regarded today as one of the quintessential legal thrillers. It centres on a Harvard law student who joins a Memphis legal firm (having been seduced by the generous offer they make him), only to discover that previous employees have died in unusual circumstances, and when he investigates, that the firm is actually a front for large-scale Mafia tax-fraud and money-laundering. Sydney Pollack’s 1993 movie adaptation is equally well-known, featuring a bravura performance from Tom Cruise as the young guy in crisis – in the era before he was basically Superman! – a host of fine turns from the support cast, and an ending that is very different from and some have said a lot cleverer than the novel.

Journalist William Diehl was already an accomplished novelist when, in 1993, he published the hard-hitting thriller, Primal Fear, in which egocentric Chicago defence attorney, Martin Vail, opts to defend altar boy, Aaron Stampler, when he is accused of murdering an archbishop. It became the first of a trilogy of books setting Vail and Stampler against each other, though the first novel was an event in itself. In 1996, Gregory Hoblit filmed it with Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Edward Norton (whose powerhouse performance made his name). Shot before the Boston Globe revelations about pedophilia in the Catholic Church, the salacious aspects of the tale were toned down, and the archbishop made into a voyeur of consenting adult sex rather than a child-molester. Nevertheless, it remains an intense, gripping thriller.  

In 2012, Gillian’s Flynn’s Gone Girl was published to near-universal acclaim, not just presenting us with a taut mystery-thriller, but deeply penetrating the relationship of its husband-and-wife central characters, psychologically analysing them to a discomforting degree, and in the process, giving birth to what is these days referred to as ‘domestic noir’. The book centres on the strained relationship between Nick and Amy Dunne, whose move to the Midwest for the sake of an ailing relative is the last straw. Amy vanishes, and given that neither have spoken well of each other recently, Nick becomes a key suspect. David Fincher’s movie version of 2014 saw the director stick with Flynn as writer and cast Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Despite the absence of a few plot points, the film remains largely faithful to the book and was a big hit both with audiences and critics alike.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.
  
RAIN GODS 
by James Lee Burke (2009)

In the dusty southwest Texas town of Chapala Crossing, nine young Thai women, prostitutes by trade but double-hatting as drugs mules, are smuggled across the Mexican border and then machine-gunned to death, their mangled corpses bulldozed into the ground behind an abandoned clapboard church.

One of those participating in the atrocity is scar-faced Iraq veteran and full-time loser, Pete Flores – but Pete genuinely thought this would be nothing more than an illegal immigration job and is so horrified when the shooting starts that he flees town, taking level-headed bar-singer girlfriend, Vicki Gaddis, with him. Inadvertently, this puts both of them on the hit-list of whoever it was ordered and/or perpetrated the horrendous crime, and Pete – a kid who never seems to plan anything in advance – has no clue where they can go to find sanctuary, as he strongly suspects that if he calls the cops, he’s already so involved that he’ll finish up on Death Row.

Meanwhile, the corpses are uncovered by veteran lawman, Sheriff Hackberry Holland. We’ve met Hack before in James Lee Burke’s writing. A relative of Billy Bob Holland, who stars in a trio of his own novels, Hack was the central character in another Burke novel, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, but that was set an amazing 38 years prior to this one, when he was a vain young lawyer, hard-drinking, self-centred and much more immature than he is today. Now, in Rain Gods, he’s a lean, taciturn old-timer, hard-bitten by his job but also by the demons that continue to haunt him. He can’t get over the loss of his wife, and at the same time is tortured by memories of his POW days during the Korean War, when he was brutalised into betraying his comrades.

Despite all this, aided by his attractive and spirited deputy, Pam Tibbs, hindered by the aggressive and bullish immigration official, Isaac Clawson , and unsure whether or not to trust his semi-indifferent FBI contact, Ethan Riser, Hack slowly starts to make ground on the case. He forms a theory that the trafficked women were hijacked by someone whose main interest was the balloons of heroin in their bellies – and in the process uncovers a nest of viper-like criminality in this quiet, isolated place were previously nothing ever happened.

The problems for Chapala Crossing really began in 2005, it seems, when Hurricane Katrina swept a whole host of organised crime figures westward out of New Orleans. Without doubt the most dangerous of these is Josef Sholokoff, a Russian Mafia boss who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona, but who still exerts life and death control over a whole range of verminous criminals (and who was also probably the ‘owner’ of the murdered Thai women and the drugs they were importing). Not much further down the scale of evil comes rival and big-time Galveston pimp, Artie Rooney, who could easily have organised the hijack, and his hardcase enforcer, Hugo Cistranos. Then there is Nick Dolan, a more complex character – a casino and strip-club owner but also a restaurateur with a ‘family man’ side to him. Dolan is less obviously a gangster; he even has a characterful and law-abiding wife, Esther. The evidence increasingly suggests that Dolan was involved in the massacre too, but Holland isn’t totally buying it. Dolan feels like a classic fall-guy to him.

The real fly in everyone’s ointment, though, is Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins, a religiously inclined serial killer who rents himself out to the highest bidder as an ultra-ruthless hitman. Collins was almost certainly the shooter in the Thai killings – that’s no spoiler as you come to this conclusion early in the narrative – and now he is put on the trail of everyone else threatening to upset the apple-cart. Collins is a particularly difficult guy to deal with, even for those who are supposedly on his side; though he appears sane, he follows his own obscure rules, and there are times when almost any comment – no matter how innocent – may be taken by him as a provocation. Though he’s a Bible reader, this doesn’t prevent him regarding himself as the literal scourge of God, and a guy who, though self-admittedly ruthless, is always correct in his beliefs and actions. To complete the all-round maniac picture, he dons a fedora and a trench-coat when he’s on the job, and wields an old-fashioned Thompson submachine gun, so he looks more like a bootleg era gangster than a modern-day assassin – and the blazing, multi-round overkill of his attacks only reinforces this.

Holland and Tibbs, meanwhile, find themselves in one high-risk situation after another thanks to two of Rooney’s less intelligent but still very dangerous sidekicks – Bobby Lee Motree and Liam Eriksson. As if that’s not enough, their investigation gains no real assistance from FBI chief, Riser, who doesn’t really care what happens in Texas so long as the case eventually shows him a way to snare the really big fish in this pond, Josef Sholokoff.

Add to this dust-laden devil’s brew Holland and Tibbs’ repressed romantic relationship, which is causing them no end of problems because it’s distracting them both from their work, and you have a pair of local – to a certain extent ‘hick’ – cops who feel increasingly out of their depth.

Meanwhile, Flores and Gaddis remain on the run, moving from one so-called safe place to the next, but Jack Collins and his crew are only ever a couple of steps behind. There have been plenty of killings up to this point; the badlands of South Texas have surely never seemed badder or bloodier than this (hence perhaps, several references to the nearby Alamo!) – but we know in our bones that this situation is likely to get a whole lot worse before it gets better …

Rain Gods pulls James Lee Burke out of the Louisiana bayou, where his more regular hero, Detective Dave Robicheaux, pursues trigger-happy criminals of the swampland variety, and pitches him into the no less picturesque environment of another iconic Deep South back-country, the Texas southwest, where the landscape is barren and drifting with tumbleweed and the towns desolate and windblown. 
Despite this, comparisons between Hack – who now features in three novels, this being the second – and Robicheaux are going to be inevitable, though this is mainly in terms of the central character.
Robicheaux is also an alcoholic loner cop with a hell-raising background. And though younger than Hack, he’s not younger by a great deal. In addition, the two cops share a similar laconic air, and are often lost in introspective musings. 

But, you know … I don’t care.

If you pick up a James Lee Burke novel, or indeed any novel by an author you admire greatly, it’s hardly the case that you’ll hope or expect that this time he is going to speak to you in a different voice. And anyway, Rain Gods is an exquisite piece of crime fiction. It’s what you’d call a border noir or a rural noir, rather than a Southern Gothic – if such things actually matter – and it’s subsequently soaked with atmosphere. And as you’d expect, of course, it is beautifully written. In many ways, this has become James Lee Burke’s trademark, and the standout difference between him and so many other crime writers, his descriptive prose flowing deliciously and yet non-intrusively. Some reviewers have complained that maybe there is a little bit too much of this, and that it’s all just a touch too colourful and poetic for a hardboiled crime novel. But judge for yourself; check out this early, scene-setting paragraph at Chapala Crossing:

On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic’s shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tyres. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.

Intrusive? Overly poetic?

Not a bit of a it.

For me, it’s perfect, dropping you straight into the time and place, totally capturing the heat, the sweat, the dust, the chirping of the cicadas in the creosote bushes, not to mention the rugged, dangerous aura of a wilderness outpost where the law hangs by a thread.

Character-wise, Burke does his usual amazing job, presenting us with a tough but vulnerable hero. Hackberry Holland is your archetypal seen-it-all oldster, a veteran peace-officer whose been in the job almost as long as he can remember and never seems to be off-duty. The result, he’s now a pillar of plain-spoken morality and a shrewd judge of character, who doesn’t suffer fools. Underlying all this, of course, is sorrow and regret for the many errors and losses of his past. He might be a septuagenarian, but Hack is still damaged goods, someone you might in real life find a little bit scary but at the same time someone you can root for. He’s also a survivor, a modern-day Wyaat Earp, the kind of cool, gruff customer who’s emerged from lots of gunfights because he knows to go into them with his gun already drawn.

Pam Tibbs is a perfect foil. Younger than Hack, but not a young woman, she too has been around, done it, seen it, etc. She is now old enough and wise enough to see past her boss’s craggy exterior, and to empathise with and adore the manly heart that is buried somewhere deep inside. She’s also a career cop, long-serving, authoritative, fearless in confrontation and very handy with a firearm. For all that she’s tough on the outside, though, a very pleasant lady lies within, which, thanks to some skilled writing, we learn about through her interactions with others rather than because we are told about it.

The atmosphere between these two literally crackles. It’s not merely that they are attracted to each other, it’s the fact that they are all each other has got in this harsh desert world, and that they become ever more aware of this as the tide of villainy rises around them. 

On the subject of Rain Gods’ villains … well, once again we are in vintage James Lee Burke territory, dealing not just with amoral scoundrels, but with complex individuals too, men who have no concern whatsoever for the fate of anyone other than themselves, but who are still able to function in the real world, who are much more than just Old West-style desperadoes. Some of them think only of the next pay-cheque, but others want to get out of this – they’re become frightened by the craziness of it all and fancy a taste of ordinary life, even if that’s something they’ve never known.

Nick Dolan is a perfect example. A Jewish guy who grew up on the wrong end of racist abuse, he knows what it’s like to be powerless and picked on, and so, though he’s a pimp by trade (among other stuff), he shies away from cruelty and wants to do good things too. He genuinely loves his family, and for their sake wants to start going straight.

At the opposite end of the hoodlum spectrum sits Josef Sholokoff. To a certain extent in crime fiction, Russian mobsters are the villains of the moment. With an unlimited capacity for violence, revenge and intimidation, they are the ogres and giants of the 21st century, the enemies who there’ll never be any option other than to eliminate. Sholokoff is one of the least well-developed characters in the book; he only appears in one scene, but it’s a nerve-rendingly scary moment, the guy living like a deranged king amid his court of murderous madmen. It’s little wonder that Sholokoff is Ethan Riser’s main target, the slaughter of nine drugs mules seeming irrelevant when stacked against his day-to-day acts of routine evil.

If Sholokoff is an uncharacteristically thinly-drawn character in Rain Gods, that’s not a real problem for me. His role primarily is to be the elemental force, the dark storm in the distance. The more immediate war occurs between law officers Holland and Tibbs and Preacher Jack Collins.

Collins is the criminal we spend most time with in Rain Gods and is therefore the most multi-layered in terms of personality. And what a personality it is. He is utterly insane; that is plain, but he’s not a homicidal maniac. His oblique attitude has evolved over many years of involvement in violence and bloodshed. But he adheres to his odd beliefs rigidly, which leads him to spare some you’d expect him to kill and kill others you’d expect him to spare. His daily reasoning is often impossible to penetrate. You might go out of your way to assist him, but don’t expect thanks. Don’t expect anything, because you could do him a really big favour – and his response might still be to pull the trigger on you. I can’t say too much more about Collins for fear of spoiling the story, but this is one wonderful and genuinely chilling bad guy. From the very outset, Hackberry Holland and Pam Tibbs have a real job on their hands with this character, not to mention Pete Flores and Vicki Gaddis, who you imagine could keep on running to the ends of the Earth and they still wouldn’t be safe.

I found Rain Gods a thumpingly enjoyable thriller, and a very, very fast read. Everything is so visible; you can smell it, you can feel it, you can see it. The people in the book are real, the landscapes dramatic, and the situation as frightening as any you’ll encounter in mystery thrillers. James Lee Burke is widely regarded as a literary lodestone, and with very good reason. When it comes to noir, whether it’s deep in the Louisiana swamps, or out on the sun-scorched badlands, his prose lives and breathes – at least, as much as the heat and dust and flying bullets allow it to. Rain Gods yet again proves that he’s an emperor among his kind.

Of course, Burke has been adapted for screen many times, but on the basis that I don’t think Rain Gods has had that pleasure yet, I’m now going to do my usual thing and nip in first with some suggestions for casting. Only a bit of fun, of course – who would listen to me (even though I think all of these actors would be superb in the respective roles)? It would be an expensive production, mind you. But then, as I always say, I have the advantage of a limitless budget. So, here we go:

Sheriff Hackberry Holland – Jeff Bridges
Deputy Pam Tibbs – Jennifer Connelly
Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins – Johnny Depp
Nick Dolan – Adrien Brody
Esther Dolan – Winona Ryder
Hugo Cistranos – Oscar Isaac
Artie Rooney – Robert Patrick
Pete Flores – Diego Boneta
Vicki Gaddis – Selena Gomez
Ethan Riser – Hugo Weaving
Isaac Clawson – Josh Brolin
Josef Sholokoff – Gary Oldman
Bobby Lee Motree – Joel Edgerton

7 comments:

  1. A fantastic selection of films adapted from some of the best books penned. An in-depth blog as always. Thank you Paul.

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  2. You're more than welcome, pal. Thanks for the kind words.

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  3. Excellent choices Paul, I would have Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane (would bump Goldfinger, sorry not a Bond fan). Thanks for the freeby x

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  4. Thanks for that. Gone Baby Gone only missd out because, originally, I was going to include Shutter Island and didn't want too many by the same author ... but I then ended up moving Shutter Island to the Best 25 Horror Adaptations which I'll be doing in a few weeks. I agree that Goldfinger is a controversial one. The list probably wouldn't have suffered if 007 hadn't made the final cut, but he still seems a bit iconic in thriller terms, so in the end I went with it.

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