Catharsis. That’s what crime books are for. Or can be.
For instance, on the train ride from hell. We’ve all been there. Trapped on a train (or a bus or an airplane, any vehicle with a confined space) with a Voice That Will Not Shut Up, that slices through all other sound, oblivious to the psychic carnage it wreaks throughout the vehicle and beyond, as far away as Schenectady. No subject is so personal or trivial that the Voice can’t opine at length upon it. Skin diseases. Marital troubles. Freshness of ingredients at Quiznos that day, or lack thereof. Inadequacy of paychecks. The rudeness of fellow train passengers who stare and go “Hush!” Often on such journeys we are trying to read a good book. It’s our only downtime, our lone oasis of peace between job and family, work and responsibility, rat race and sleep.
Here is a list of books this unpredictable horror brings to mind. Read these for that much-needed catharsis. Read — instead of pursuing that other line of thought, the one that will get you in the papers for the very worst wrong reason, and make you a permanent guest of the state in a stone and steel house full of scary, bored characters with nothing to do but pick on you. You know, the sorts you want to read about but not know personally.
The Vanishing, by Tim Krabbe
The basis for a really crummy American remake of a really, really good Dutch movie (both versions by the same director, strangely enough), this chiller has the kind of ending we all would wish for the Voice, if we would only admit it. Yes indeed, vanishing’s the ticket, particularly the way it’s done in this book.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, by Georges Simenon
Keeping to the continent, this “roman dur” is by a Belgian but also features a Dutch protagonist, the unforgettably named Kees Popinga. We are all Kees Popinga. Doing what we are supposed to do. Doing as we are told. Enduring. Persevering. Behaving. Until we find out something that scotches it all. Maybe it’s some quiet, long-festering epiphany that devastates our inner being. Or maybe it’s that Voice. Whatever the cause, we become dangerous. It would have been better for the Voice to have watched this particular train go by, and not get on. (By the way, this is not a Maigret novel.)
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is Highsmith’s lone series character, and this is the first book in the series. It’s notable mostly because the evil protagonist gets away with murder and we are witness to every intricate step of his deceit, subterfuge, and amorality. Some of us might even find ourselves, well, rooting for him, in a way. It’s uncomfortable. In a later book in the series, Tom is pretty handy with a garrote. On a train. (Hint, hint.) I’ve never held a garrote, but I’ll bet you someone being garroted shuts up pretty darn quick. Schenectady might thank me… I know, I know — I keep reading.
The Demon, by Hubert Selby
These books. How they get under your skin. Tom Ripley? Meet Harry White, the protagonist of this novel. He’s the same demon as you, but without your demonic self-control. The Voice, it keeps talking and talking and talking. And like Harry White, the itch I have keeps itching and itching and itching. Harry is quite the ladies man, and talented in business. But this itch he has, this itch to, well, kill… I think I better close this book now and listen to my MP3 player. The Voice has to get off the train soon. Doesn’t it? If not I will. In an hour. Hope I can last that long.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George Higgins
But who am I kidding? Am I really going to go all Kees Popinga, Tom Ripley or Harry White on the Voice, and mete out the well-deserved shuttupance that is so richly deserved? Of course not. I’m like you; I only read about it. If only I had the right kind of friends, though. Like Jerry Orbach, who played Martin Landau’s brother in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Or folks like the toughs that populate this great book by George Higgins. You know, tough guys. Yes, if only I knew a couple of guys like these, whose perfectly rendered conservations I could listen to and marvel at, who owed me a favor, say, on the way home from the hockey game…
A Hell of a Woman, by Jim Thompson
But I don’t have any such friends. I’m meek and mild and respectable. There’s no killer inside me. I think. But pondering it, particularly as the train doors close at every stop and the Voice keeps yakking, I begin to doubt myself. I embark upon two separate narratives, simultaneously and in parallel, one realistic and rational, the other unrealistic and fantastical — just like this book, in fact. By the way, note to self: Man, I should read this again.
The Blank Wall, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
Of course, if I ever were to do Schenectady (and the rest of us) the favor dreamed of here, I’d get in deep doo-doo, no doubt. I wouldn’t have anyone to cover for me like the resourceful Lucia Holley, the heroine of this book. Lucia manages a middle class household during World War II, adroitly fending off murderers and pornographers while never letting her Navy husband, who’s off fighting the war, know that anything at all is amiss. Hey, it always takes a woman. In fact, if Lucia were on the train, I bet she’d find a way to quiet the Voice. Maybe in a less viscerally satisfying way, but I suspect peace would be at hand.
The Ax, by Donald Westlake
And if I were to execute, so to speak, a plan against the Voice, of course word would get back to the office and I’d get fired. And thoughts of that particular calamity always bring to mind this book. Burke Devore gets fired from his job in paper manufacturing operations and in searching for a new job places a phony want ad to find out who his competitors are. Then he stalks them and kills them. That’s a bit harsh, though in Westlake’s hands simultaneously horrifying and funny. Me, all I want is for the Voice to shut up. Is that too much to ask?
By Ron Dionne. Ron’s modern noir novel SAD JINGO was just published. Ron Dionne’s stories have been published in online publications such as Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers, Title Goes Here: Web Edition, and Yellow Mama (forthcoming). In print, his stories have appeared in Blue Murder Magazine, Palace Corbie, Into the Darkness, and other publications.