Saturday, March 01, 2008

Lust, Trust, and an Afternoon Gone Right

After reading several big door-stopper novels, I was in need of something different. So I settled down recently on the sofa with a compact paperback from Hard Case Crime, the Edgar Award-nominated work Robbie’s Wife, by Russell Hill. I’d picked it up from my to-be-read pile mostly because of its rather enticing cover illustration (by Richard B. Farrell) and its provocative back-cover synopsis:
Jack Stone fled Los Angeles, a failed marriage, and a failing career as a screenwriter to spend six months in the remote English countryside, hammering out the new script that would put him back on top. But what he found wasn’t solitude and peace--it was temptation. Because Maggie Barlow, the wife of the man putting him up, had something irresistible about her. Something that could drive a man to kill ...
Taking up the James M. Cain infidelity/crime angle (which was so commonplace in Golden Age noir tales), Robbie’s Wife proceeds to twist it out of shape with an American protagonist lost in rural England, who finds himself under the seductive scrutiny of a shapely young woman; a woman who is chasing her own demons, searching for something that may not even exist.

The plot of Hill’s yarn goes something like this: Jack Stone, a 60-year-old screenwriter quits Los Angeles after his second failed marriage, matched by a career on the slide. He packs his laptop and his life savings into a duffel bag and heads to Dorset, a sleepy little agricultural backwater in England’s southwest, to compose the killer screenplay he believes will get him back on professional track. His precarious financial situation is the ticking clock that is marbled throughout this narrative. Finding himself a lodger in the Barlow household’s spare room, he struggles to get a handle on his screenplay. But then he meets Maggie, “a tall woman with long auburn hair” and the eponymous Robbie (Barlow’s) wife. Robbie is a rugged sheep farmer, but with a university education, who befriends Stone, taking him in after his car has been vandalized. Robbie is in his early 40s and handsome, contrasting with the aging Stone, who at three score years considers himself on the losing side of his career as well as his life.

Stone proceeds to befriend Robbie and Maggie’s son, Terry, in ways that make Maggie realize that perhaps he is more fatherly than her husband. Soon, Stone feels himself falling in love with Maggie, who is more than 20 years his junior, and as he does so, he finds his lust expressing itself in his writing. As his fevered mind senses the attraction of this comely farmer’s spouse, his screenplay starts to take shape--a dark shape.

The location and atmosphere of this story are rich in detail and texture, with the insight of the outsider making it fresh and deeply evocative. It is obvious that the American author Russell Hill spent some time in Dorset during the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease crisis, as his narrative resounds with authenticity. I only wish that a British copy editor would have been consulted, as there are quite a few gaffes and lapses that jar a British reader.

In this compact novel’s trajectory, the first three-quarters build up the tension until it becomes unbearable, both from a sexual and character-development perspective. Once all of that build-up is released, and the crime committed, the tale seems to go into a downward spiral, as protagonist Jack Stone discovers the high price he must pay for his actions, both morally and criminally. Men being manipulated by their base urges have been fertile fodder for crime writers for many decades, but Robbie’s Wife puts a nice spin on it. In these pages, the shapely and married femme fatale is attracted not to the handsome stranger, because she is actually married to a good-looking man; but instead to an elderly gent, the stranger down on his luck. As a cautionary tale, Robbie’s Wife works with a real erotic charge, but it’s the novel’s atmosphere, location, and players that elevate it from the pulp tradition it so wants to emulate, and make it a very absorbing and insightful read. You’ll be thinking about the book for a lot longer than it takes to read.

After finishing Robbie’s Wife, I decided to look up a bit of information about author Russell Hill. It turns out that he’s an elderly English teacher, who spent a year with his family as a Fulbright Fellow in Dorset. This didn’t surprise me at all, due to the wordcraft on display in Robbie’s Wife and the intimate feel for this story’s location. Northern California’s Marin Independent Journal provides additional background:
In Russell Hill’s classes, murder might be in the lesson plan. Or it might not. The 71-year-old Fairfax man has taught in schools for nearly 50 years but his status as a Hard Case Crime writer of noir fiction is fresh in print. He might be teaching Victor Hugo one week or Mark Twain the next, but he’s not going to be bringing his latest book, “Robbie’s Wife,” into the classroom anytime soon.

Still, the intention is always the same. Hill loves words, and he wants his students to share that love. ...

He found that love early, spending big chunks of his youthful days on the couch with a book, any book. “Cheap books,” he says. “Books that you’d leave out in the sun for an hour and they’d turn yellow.”

It doesn’t bother Hill that “Robbie’s Wife” might fall in that cheap books category. He laughs that Charles Ardai, editor-publisher of the Hard Case Crime series, has said he’d rather see his books in truck stops than bookstores.

Ardai says Hill fits unexpectedly into the series. Hill is no purist mystery writer, and Ardai finds that refreshing.

“Russell is just amazing. His prose is beautiful and certainly of the caliber to write in any literary genre he wants,” says Ardai, who describes Hill’s book as “a cross between James M. Cain of ‘Double Indemnity’ fame and D.H. Lawrence on the other.” “Robbie’s Wife” is set in the English countryside. “You could be deep in the heart of a Lady Chatterley story and here comes an American screenwriter. And suddenly violence accompanies him,” Ardai says.
If you remain unconvinced about the efficacy of cuddling up for a few hours with Robbie’s wife ... er, Robbie’s Wife, then read a couple of other reviews, here and here. Or try this sample chapter. It’s hard to resist the charms of Russell Hill’s darkly tragic morality tale. I shall be watching with special interest to see how this book fares in the 2008 Edgar competition for Best Paperback Original. It’s pitted against at least a couple of heavy hitters: Queenpin, by Megan Abbott, and Who Is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall.


Dave Zeltserman said...

I loved this book, and thought it one of the best new noir novels I've read in years. The depths the protagonist, Jack Stone, sink to are truly staggering. This is a book that takes some patience, but it's well-worth the read.

Don Anderson said...

Absolutely right on, Ali. I, like you, read ROBBIE'S WIFE shortly after reading CHILD 44, a novel much longer than I usually tackle. ROBBIE'S WIFE served to cleanse my palate, yet was equally tasty. Russell Hill’s short novel is every bit as good as QUEENPIN and WHO IS CONRAD HIRST, both of which I also enjoyed. In short, ROBBIES WIFE deserves its Edgar nomination. In Hill's hands, the Dorset countryside becomes a character in the book as intriguing and interesting as its human characters, Jack Stone and Maggie Barlow.

Anonymous said...

I only modestly enjoyed this one. I was much more impressed with the Wignall book. (Unfortunately, I didn't read QUEENPIN.)