Saturday, September 19, 2009

Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

"I kept thinking about how much of my life was accidental. I drank with the Stryker brothers and ended up in Maggie's house.... I could have stopped at the second beer and left Glastonbury, gone on to London and, even now, I would be in Los Angeles in a rented room rather than walking a country lane thinking of Maggie.... But it hadn't happened that way. I would not reflect on those events until it was too late." — from Robbie's Wife

Jack Stone has come from Los Angeles to England to make a new start. To get away from his second failed marriage and possibly write the screenplay that will rejuvenate his career. But he didn't count on falling in love with Maggie Barlow, the wife of a Dorset sheep farmer who offers a laid-back bed-and-breakfast arrangement.

A Hard Case Crime novel by an award-winning poet? Is this another departure on a par with Straight Cut? Well, yes and no. Robbie's Wife is more typical noir than that book (especially in the second half), but author Russell Hill's superb characterizations will appeal to readers of all stripes.

It may be the second Hard Case Crime novel in a row (after Lawrence Block's Lucky at Cards) to feature a newcomer-to-town who takes up with a married woman who is much more than the daily role she plays would lead us to believe, but otherwise Robbie's Wife could not be more different. It is a novel unto its own genre.

I really admired Hill's giving a romantic storyline to characters who are older than the typical genre participants. Jack is sixty, while Maggie is a relative spring chicken at forty. But age really doesn't come into play at all, with Jack still expected to act out the requirements of Hill's surprise-filled plot with the strength and stamina of a much younger man. Love at a certain age is both riskier and more compelling than I had thought possible, but these two make it into quite an attractive proposition (especially during some of the most tastefully erotic sex scenes I've read in some time).

Hill takes his time in offering up the expected noir trappings (essentially an update of familiar James M. Cain territory), but this allows the reader to get swept up in Jack and Maggie's illicit and delicious, heart-lifting and stomach-knotting relationship. Robbie's Wife is a beautiful, painfully tragic portrait of two people who, despite their attempts to the contrary, simply cannot stand to be away from each other. Like Jack states, "She was a magnet and I was nothing more than iron filings on a sheet of paper [darting] toward it, unable to do anything else."

Interspersed among Jack's narrative of real events are pieces of his ongoing screenplay, which uses those real events for inspiration. Hill slips these in at unexpected times, and even uses them to distance us from a particularly harrowing scene as it plays out on the script page. It is a very welcome change of pace in a genre that often depends on the same old setup to get things moving.

Things eventually get moving, all right, and they quickly spiral out of control, but never from Hill's point of view. He guides every part of the novel's evocative (and, in the right places, provocative) plotline with a sure hand to its powerfully shocking conclusion. With its fascinating mix of the familiar and the not new but nearly forgotten, Robbie's Wife made it onto my list of the ten best books of 2007.

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