We were standing around talking, just about to close up shop, when a tall, lanky misfit walked through the door. He had the brooding, disheveled look of an actor or musician. He pretended to browse the book display up front, but we could tell he was checking us out, sizing up each one of us.
"Can we help you find anything?" one of us called out. He stopped for a moment and shot us a menacing stare, then turned and left the shop. Maybe it was a hunch, but something told us it was him. This was the guy who'd been booted from Greenwood’s Secret Book Club.
It hadn't been our intention to start trouble in the club. We simply wanted in on their secret discussions about books we admired. Like Bolaño's 2666, for instance. We tried to crash their last meeting at a Mexican restaurant, then wrote about our misadventures. Apparently the club was embarrassed by the whole thing, along with our exposes on their previous meetings by the river and after hours in the bookstore under our noses, and so they finally sent someone to talk to us.
She didn't look like any reader of esoteric literature we'd ever seen. She had a nest of wild blond curls and curves that would make a snake crawl straight. She pranced in with the confidence and freedom that only the young and beautiful possess. No doubt she'd left some sad-sack boyfriend back in his dorm room, probably mad with jealousy, wondering if she was hooking up with some jerk from high school. But this one had bigger fish to fry.
She introduced herself as Mary Brooke and made no bones about her membership in the SBC. She wanted to know if we'd been in further contact with O, the German literature professor who'd been ousted at the club's last book discussion. We told her O had not written lately but we'd be happy to contact him on her behalf. She said she needed his guidance on a personal matter and asked if we could forward her contact information.
Then the pretty little exterior began to crumble, and before we knew it, she was near tears. We led her up to the cafe and poured her some hot tea with honey, then invited her to sit on the balcony to discuss the situation in private. She gave us the whole story, about how the book club's notorious leader, Dr. H., ruled over the group like a vicious dictator. He'd chosen all the books, ran all the discussions, granted himself the last word on every book. Most recently, he'd printed out copies of his 1,800-page novel and given each member a copy to read for the next discussion. The guy had major hubris issues, she said.
"His book is terrible," Mary Brooke added. "It's so lousy, I wouldn't even give it to my comp professor to read. Also, I signed a contract saying I wouldn't allow anyone else to see it. I shouldn't even be talking about it."
There, there, we told her. "Let's get this straight," one of us said. "You want us to help you get rid of this guy. So you can get back to reading the books you secretly love."
She put a hand to her brow. "I just want a good story," she said. "With not a lot of pages."
Several of us had been on a hardboiled kick. Just the good stuff. Thompson, Willeford, Chandler, McCain. Any of these would be the perfect antidote to an 1,800-page book assignment. We sent her home with a sackful and told her there was more where that came from.
The next week or so we noticed some conspicuous purchases. We scrambled to fill orders for The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford. It seemed that at long last we'd thrown our hat into the Secret Book Club ring and it hadn't come back ripped to shreds. We had a stake in the action, and now we were looking to go all the way.
But there was one problem. We never heard back from Mary Brooke. She used us like a cheap date you stick with the bill. Luckily we had eyes and ears all over Greenwood. You don't keep a secret in this town. You just pray it passes out in the corner and never wakes up.
Finally we heard from a waiter at Lusco's. Lou Ford, party of eight. That was an easy one. Lou Ford was the deputy from Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, one of his best characters. Ford was a sharp, ruthless killer masquerading as a benign country rube. He tries to put the squeeze on a prostitute who has moved to town, but instead the young deputy begins an illicit affair with her. Together they hatch a plan to blackmail one of her customers, the son of a construction big-shot who Ford believes is responsible for his brother's death. But the girl gets in Lou's head and unleashes "the sickness," a sleeping psychosis that rears its head violently. One murder begets the next and the next and so on. As Lou tries to cover his tracks, his mental state slides further until we reach the bitter end. This is prime-cut noir, told from the killer's point-of-view, a chilling, convincing, and sometimes surreal vantage. In this line of writing, Jim Thompson is among the very best.
Everything looked to be going in our favor. We arranged to have the booth next to Lou Ford's party at Lusco's. It was the perfect venue for their meeting. The tables were divided into walled-off rooms, and you coursed a maze of curtained booths, chatter and clinking glasses to get to your table. A reporter buddy once described the restaurant as "the ideal place to hatch a doomed murder plot, a crooked political deal or a life-ruining adultery."
We slipped into our booth and silently poured drinks from our concealed brown packages, then set to eavesdropping on the meeting next-door, which sounded well underway. The conversation was positively riotous. Apparently, they'd been meeting awhile, and after numerous drinks, the discussion had down-shifted to gossip about husbands and co-workers.
It didn't take long to figure out that Lou Ford was a lady realtor from Brandon, up for the weekend with some college girlfriends. They were deep in their cups, cackling and reminiscing in increasing decibels. Damned if we hadn't been duped again.
It got us going on Willeford's The Woman Chaser. While we all loved the Thompson novel, Willeford's was the underdog favorite. Willeford's books are perfect outsider lit, slipping out of the grasp of any genre, though their spareness and tone are related to the hardboiled style. The Woman Chaser follows a masterful used car salesman, Richard Hudson, whose boss has sent him from San Francisco to his hometown of Los Angeles to purchase a dead-end car lot and turn it around. He does a bang-up job, but Richard soon discovers that his real passion lies in the movies. With the help of his stepfather, a washed-up film producer only a few years his senior, he directs his first picture. As he gets caught up in his artistic pursuits, Richard is confronted with the awful reality of compromise and the politics of the movie business, sending his project and his career careening toward disaster.
The book is distinguished by its lively style, its humor and subtle danger. It hums along so pleasantly that you really feel shook up when it ultimately speeds over a cliff. One thing that had us perplexed, though, is the title. To varying degrees of dissatisfaction among the group, there is little woman-chasing in Willeford's novel. Sure, there's a cruel affair with a secretary, and Richard's dangerous flirtations with his teenage stepsister, but otherwise the title seems like a misnomer. It so happens that an editor, against Willeford's preference, changed the title from The Director, a perfect irony considering the book's subject.
Before long, we'd gotten several cocktails in us, some famous Lusco's onion rings and spicy shrimp and fried chicken and pompano, and we were giving the girls next door a run for their money with our empty bluster. "Where are today's hopeless hardboiled writers?" one of us brayed. "Connelly? Ellroy? Nah!"
"All our best fatalists either kill themselves or turn to self-indulgent rock music!" cried another. "Or both!"
It got so bad that the slurring broads next door became embarrassed for us. They quietly packed up their wine and slipped out before we tried to merge booths and hit on them.
It must have been a week later when the mysterious lurker paid us a visit. We didn't think much about it at first, just some anti-social creep fondling the books, too cheap to buy anything. But after we shut down the store and shuffled off into the parking lot, we were spooked by what sounded like a car knocked out of gear and rolling toward us. We scattered in every direction as a runaway Prius raced by, nearly plowing into us. It spun into a doughnut, then made a second pass. We hollered and wailed, shaking our fists. The car whipped around and contemplated a third chase.
Suddenly the door opened and the lanky jerk from the store stepped out. "Aliquando et insanire iucundum est!" he cried, then climbed back into his quiet hybrid and sped off in a waft of burnt rubber.
We knew it could only be the tyrant Dr. H, cast out of his beloved club. Somehow he'd fixed on us as his undoers. But we were lowly book folk, simple lovers of tales who just wanted to trade words over drinks, who knew nothing of madness or power or the tragic consequences of compromise. Nothing but what we had read.