Sunday, September 7, 2008

Review of Small Crimes

In 1952, Jim Thompson published The Killer Inside Me, a novel about Lou Ford, a small town sheriff who, while maintaining a personable, if somewhat dim fa├žade, hides the heart of a psychopath. It has earned its place among the classics. Thompson revisited the same situation in Pop. 1,280, with small town Sheriff Nick Corey bearing a strong resemblance in character to Ford. Thompson so defined this little subgenre that in order to avoid being anything but a pale imitation of the original any author who wants to approach it had better have a good twist.

Dave Zeltserman’s Small Crimes (Serpent's Tail, 2008) succeeds in paying homage to Thompson’s work without lapsing into imitation because his dirty cop, Joe Denton, is only fooling himself. Everyone else in the tiny Vermont town where he lives has him all figured out. How could they not? As the story begins Denton is getting out of jail after serving seven years for disfiguring the local district attorney with a letter opener. He walks out the door determined to turn over a new leaf, but no one wants to make it easy for him. The DA, understandably, has a grudge and is trying to get the dying local crime lord to make a deathbed confession that will put Denton in prison forever. The local sheriff wants Denton to take care of either the DA or the crime boss, to avoid the nasty repercussions a confession could bring, and Denton’s own parents are determined to keep him from seeing his two daughters.

Zeltserman makes good use of the first person point of view, constantly challenging the reader to use external cues to try and figure out the extent of Denton’s self deception. It keeps the story interesting. He also keeps the story moving, and it never stops to let the reader catch his breath. As the tension and body count grow, Small Crimes goes from being entertaining to disturbing. Zeltserman gradually lets the reader in on Denton’s secrets, and he goes from being sympathetic to being outright scary. It’s a story that will get under your skin and stay with you long after it ends. Thomspon would be proud.

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