Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Criminal (1953)

Although in many ways The Criminal reads like a Jim Thompson typing exercise, filled with typical language and situations, it is also the closest I've seen yet to "Dostoevskian," with its nearly total abstraction of a rape and murder. It is also a fragment, offering virtually no resolution and very little explanation, at least beyond, "Everything is corrupt and what if it wasn't." And it traffics in a popular noir device, apportioning the narrative chores to multiple first-person characters divided by chapter. Several characters get a chapter or two apiece. Kenneth Fearing has a very nice version in The Big Clock, but I suspect it all starts with As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, who could well be an outsize model for many crime writers of the mid-20th century. I get the feeling they were all well aware of him. In many ways The Criminal feels pro forma: the slutty teen tramp, the stammering good boy who behaves suspiciously because he's such an innocent, and endless corruption everywhere else. As always, the seven deadly sins play a vital role, and institutions such as newspapers and the criminal justice system are so rotten they are casual about the venalities that motivate them. As always, Jim Thompson's inner knowing raconteur keeps it compelling and compulsively readable. This may be an early attempt at innovating non-ending endings, but feels less thought through and more as if he reached some predetermined page or word count and stopped. All indications are that there's still plenty of plot to develop. After getting the young boy Bob Talbert, "the criminal" of the title, well and deeply into trouble, with charges of the aforesaid rape and murder via all the corruption extant and no good man to do a thing about it, he throws it into reverse and seems prepared to back out again, but that's where it stops. I don't even come away with a clear idea of who the guilty party actually is, or even probably is, or could be. Thompson may be at pains to portray everyone as guilty, and there's an argument it really doesn't matter. In fact, it could have been Talbert—he's more likely by circumstance than anyone else. And yet that would do little to change our perceptions. He's practically the most innocent person here no matter what.

In case it’s not at the library.

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