Much as it was for cinema, the ’70s was one of the best decades for crime fiction. There was finally a literary awareness of the genre. Talented writers with ambition who usually went to general fiction instead used the conventions of crime fiction to address the politics and society of their time. It gave us James Crumley, George V. Higgins, Robert Stone, and many others who pushed the boundaries, including the lesser known Newton Thornburg.
What distinguished Thornburg from many of the others were his protagonists. Most were not cops, criminals, or in any profession that dealt with crime. They were odd, often marginalized versions of Every Man; farmers, drop outs, middle or working class folks, all trying to figure out where they and their country stood in strange and sad times. Two fine examples are the title characters of Cutter And Bone.
Richard Bone is a handsome guy who dropped out of his middle-class family life in Michigan and is now scraping by as a half-assed Santa Barbara gigolo. After a tryst, he spots someone shoving something into a trash barrel. When the morning paper reveals that a girl’s body was found there, he makes the mistake of mentioning to his buddy, that the figure looked a little like millionaire JJ Wolfe.
Bone’s buddy is Alex Cutter, a man disfigured by a Vietnam claymore. Along with an eye and leg, it took a piece of his soul, with a lot of angry (and often humorous) bile leaking out. His wounds and rage serve as a great counterpoint to the smiling, sunny hypocrisy of Southern California. He sees the murder as an opportunity to get back at one of “them”.
Cutter- “I just want to know that’s all. If it was him.”
Bone- “Why him?”
Cutter- “Cause I don’t like him, that’s why.”
Their search for proof takes them to L. A. and the Ozarks in a period of dissolution and paranoia that takes a personal toll on both. One thing that makes this a stand out book is that you find yourself debating whether Wolfe is actually guilty, even though there is no other real suspect. When the truth does become completely clear in the last sentence, the damage is already done.
If you’re looking for conventional crime fiction with the heroes escaping the abyss they journey through, this may not be for you. If you’re looking for a further understanding of that abyss, Newton Thornburg is as relevant in this century as he was in the Seventies.