A Classic Crime Novel for the Digital Age
A few years after college, where I studied the great works of English and American literature, I was in a bookstore in Seattle looking for a good read. The woman stocking the shelves said, “Oh, you want this.” And she handed me a copy of Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. That was the first book I ever read straight through in one sitting.
I went on to read most of the rest of Thompson’s work, along with a number of classic crime novels from the thirties, forties, and fifties. A few of those novels really stand out as great examples of modern tragedy. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice begins somewhat unremarkably with a prose style so spare it seems like the author was just sketching notes for a screenplay. But it builds subtly, through plain language and simple events, to a powerful, haunting conclusion.
Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock also stands out, for a couple of reasons. First is the conceit: a reporter who is good at tracking people down sees his boss enter the apartment of a woman who is later found murdered. The boss did in fact murder her, and he knows there was one witness, one shadowy figure out there on the sidewalk, who can place him at the scene of the crime. He tells his reporter to find that person at all costs, and now the main character is in the horrible position of having to track down himself to be killed. But The Big Clock is also a brilliant commentary on American media and society, and on the social and economic pressures that force well-meaning people into uncomfortable moral compromises.
Finally, Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel stands out for its sheer brilliance from beginning to end. The prose is simple, clear, powerful, and deep. It shows a man and woman with little faith in life finding a reason to live on the course of their slow descent into doom. Along with Thompson’s work, it’s one of the inheritors of the Greek tragic tradition, where character is destiny, and you understand the inevitability of a person’s fate simply by seeing how their character traits fit (or don’t fit) into the world they’re stuck in. You can only watch helplessly as circumstance and personal weakness undoes them.
Each of these novels portrays the downward spiral of a man and woman who are well-suited to each other but cannot be together in the world. These books are also very lean. There are few wasted words and no superfluous scenes, and much of the stories’ power comes from the efficiency of the prose.
Thompson, Fearing, and Chaze all spent time as journalists. They had to write on deadline, conveying the essential elements of complex stories in a few column-inches of space. That taught them to get to the point, and it served them well in their novels. Cain was also a journalist, and he had a gift for conveying character through dialog, so he didn’t have to lard his prose with a lot of unnecessary description.
Before I wrote Impala, I had read Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing and was impressed by the pace of the story and the immediacy of events related in first person, present tense. Impala started as a writing exercise. Could I write one of those classic crime novels, but do it in first person present? It seemed so limiting, to have only one character’s perspective and to not be able to move back and forth in time. In a present tense story, you can’t use any foreshadowing. But constraints often force you to be creative, and the story turned out well.
Impala is, in some senses, an update on the classic crime novel. Crime has moved into the digital age, and the incident that kicks off the action in Impala is the demise of an illegal marketplace on the dark web. This was an online store that sold drugs and weapons and computer hacks, similar to real-world dark web sites Silk Road, which the FBI took down, and Evolution, whose administrators ran off with twelve million dollars of their customers’ cash.
Impala‘s protagonist, Russ, is a hacker who is cursed with the unfortunate combination of a brilliant criminal mind and a strong conscience. He tries to keep his better self in control and his darker side under wraps, but people keep picking on him–really bad people–and he’s the kind of guy who just can’t let things go. His enemies learn a little too late that picking on Russ is like hammering on a keg of dynamite.
Of course, there’s a woman involved too. What’s a good crime novel without her? Cali gets under Russ’ skin in a way no one else can, bringing out both the best and worst in him. The two are so well matched, there’s almost a telepathy between them, but she’s a lot more easygoing than he is. Though it has some dark moments, Impala isn’t quite as bleak as the tragic works of Thompson and Cain and Fearing and Chaze. It’s darkly comic, with plenty of angst and a number of scenes that fill you with dread and fear, but there’s some light in it too. Just like real life.