Bumbling Criminals

I started reading a new book last night, Robert Ward’s Four Kinds of Rain. I’ve never read Ward before, but his book Red Baker (1985) was apparently great. It won him a gig writing for Hill Street Blues, and he went on to become a successful writer for other television shows. If OCLC serves me right, his last book was Grace: A Fictional Memoir (1998).

I don’t know if this is a mini-trend or just coincidence, but Andrew Klavan, whose Damnation Street I just reviewed, also has some Hollywood connections: a couple of his novels were made into movies, and he wrote a couple of produced screenplays, too.

Anyway, Ward, like Klavan, has a love of old-school hard-boiled crime novels, but Four Kinds of Rain is a lot less dark than Damnation Street. Even though it references Ambien in the first sentence, and stars a washed-up ’60s activist, has a vibe that fits nicely with the lighter ’50s pulps. I think of Peter Rabe and Day Keene; modern-day analogs might include Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, or Charles Willeford’s Hoke Mosely novels. (Hiaasen’s a stretch, but I can imagine him and Ward hitting it off over drinks.) Four Kinds of Rain wouldn’t have been a bad fit for Hard Case Crime, either, where they also publish old-school stuff with contemporary settings.

The basic outline: Bob Wells, divorced, lonely, drinks too much, is a jaded community activist with a failing psychology practice. About the only thing that keeps him alive is his once-a-week gig in an oldies band, The Rockaholics, but even that is threatened: if they can’t find a better singer, they’re going to be replaced with a younger band. Enter Jesse Reardon, a smoky-voiced West Virginian who steals the show – and Bob’s heart. He falls head over heels in love with her, but Jesse keeps her distance. She comes from hardscrabble beginnings and has heard about Bob’s financial problems (he gambled away his life savings during a midlife crisis).

She wasn’t going to be into making sacrifices for “the people.” Hell, she was the people. 

Bob assures Jesse that he’s got money in the bank, and love blooms. But Bob is convinced that, if he doesn’t actually get some money in the bank, Jesse will leave him. One of his patients, an art dealer named Emile Bardan, says he has a priceless Sumerian mask (ironically, the god of justice) that a rival art dealer is going to steal from him. Bob, a good guy his whole life, decides to steal the mask himself.

The humor is very dry, and it’s fun to watch Bob as he gets in over his head.

Jesus, there was a lot to consider when you became a criminal. 

But also a lot of the humor comes from the fact that Bob has a blind spot big enough to hide a tractor-trailer.

…the whole thing – betraying the trust of his patient, stealing a valuable work of art – well, all of that would be enough to many any honest man nervous. 

I don’t know for sure, of course, but I believe Four Kinds of Rain will fall into the bumbling-criminal genre – not slapstick, but the guy who gets in over his head, whose greed changes him, who screws up his one chance at happiness by being too blind to see that it’s not money that can make him happy, but love.

Again, just a guess. But the evil lure of lucre – the elusiveness of happiness, the empty treasure vault – is perhaps the classic hard-boiled/noir trope. So I rub my hands greedily in anticipation…could this be the stuff that dreams are made of?

I’d love to hear suggestions in both the “bungling criminal” genre (comedy) and the “malevolent treasure” genre (tragedy). A couple off the top of my head:

Bumbling Criminals
Pronto, Elmore Leonard (1993)
Dutch Uncle, by Peter Pavia (2005)

Malevolent Treasure
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett (1930)
A Simple Plan, Scott Smith (1993)

Also, I need help with a better phrase than “malevolent treasure.” I took it from Donna Seaman’s review of A Simple Plan, and it works great there, but I’m looking for something that suggests the kind of feeling the protagonist has when, after he’s screwed over family and friends and ruined his life, his ill-gotten pile of cash catches fire.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

7 Comments on "Bumbling Criminals"

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  1. Bill Ott says:

    My favorite “malevolent treasure” novel is Kent Harrington’s Red Jungle, in which a dissolute journalist-think Fowler in The Quiet American-heads straight into the heart of darkness, Guatemala version, in search of a giant Mayan sculpture of the mythical red jaguar. Throw in some corrupt South American politicians and a femme fatale, and you wind up with a fortune hunter even more damned than poor Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which, in book form, is another classic “malevolent treasure” tale). More to come on the bumbling-criminals part of Keir’s query.

  2. Bill Ott says:

    I promised more on bumbling criminals, and here it is. This is a particularly rich vein in crime fiction-there’s so much to choose from. In a way, it all starts with Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which was intended to demythologize the Mafia, but the more current crop of bumbling criminals all grow from Elmore Leonard. Keir is right that Leonard’s Pronto is a great example, but so are Riding the Rap (sequel to Pronto)and Mr. Paradise, in which two-slow witted hitman kill a millionaire and a hooker and, then, as a coda, steal a bottle of vodka from the dead man’s house, just for fun.
    Carl Hiaasen also has a cottage industry going on the bumbling-criminal front-Lucky You, featuring two trailer-park thugs, Bodean Glazer and his pal Chub, who steal a winning lottery ticket in order to fund their own hate group, is hard to beat.
    Then there are the bumbling criminals in novels that are less comic and more edgy: Matthew Jones’ Boot Tracks, for example, or J. D. Rhoades’The Devil’s Right Hand, in which two dumb and dumber ex-cons, Leonard and DeWayne, are as stupid as they are lethal.

  3. Keir says:

    Thanks for keeping the list going, Bill. Those are some great titles! I often wish I was writing from home so I could scan my bookshelves…it’s an occupational hazard that, despite reading all the time, it can be hard to think of a good book. I guess that’s what Booklist Online is for, huh?

    I mentioned Charles Willeford, but to be specific, Miami Blues features some great bumbling between both Hoke Moseley and his prey, Freddy Frenger. (Great movie version, too, by the way.)

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