12 September 2009

The Kind One

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In The Kind One, screenwriter Tom Epperson has produced a successful genre novel in an area that has fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent years – the 1930s American gangster tale.  I must admit I picked it up in the Wellington library on the basis of its striking cover – a crisp, evocative monochrome image by Bernard Wolf of a vintage Packard (I presume) in the California desert, the only vestige of civilisation visible apart from the road on which it sits. 

‘Two Gun’ Danny Landon, the novel’s protagonist, drives a Packard (a ‘33 Packard Club, to be precise) as he cruises the streets of the burgeoning City of Angels, ferrying gangster’s moll Darla to eateries, parties and boutiques.  Darla is with Bud Seitz, Danny’s mobster boss, who has the ironic nickname ‘The Kind One’ thanks to the psychotic urges that become increasingly apparent as the story progresses.  Danny remembers almost nothing of his earlier life, having received a mighty crack on his skull from a lead pipe, and this leads him to question whether he really is cut out for a life as a gangster – particularly when he begins to fall in love with Darla and dream of a way out of the criminal scene.

Despite gangster fiction being a major genre for decades, particularly from the 1920s to the 1960s, it’s one I’m not particularly familiar with.  Most of my cultural reference points come second-hand, via homages like the surreal The Singing DetectiveBut it’s an area I’d like to learn more about, given the fascinating historical context and the massive social and economic changes that were taking place in America and elsewhere at the time.  Certainly, the current recession has provided a good excuse for modern writers to remind us that times have been hard before – much harder, if we’re being honest. 

Epperson has plenty of writing experience, although most of it has been for the screen.  He has often worked with hometown friend Billy Bob Thornton, co-writing several films including One False Move.  In its February 2008 review of The Kind One, the LA Times noted Epperson’s proficiency in creating a believable gangster tale whilst avoiding pulp clichés:

Although it may not be hard to imitate a genre's clichés (they are, after all, what generate the genres), it's difficult and exceedingly rare to transcend the clichés and produce a work that can appeal to readers who are not necessarily aficionados of the given genre. Epperson has managed the uncommon feat of writing a genre novel that can hold its own alongside (if not best) other works considered more literary. On every page, the language is crisp and fresh, the details sharp and keenly observed, the dialogue real, never forced. When Epperson elevates his prose to the lyrical, he reads like a streamlined Joseph Conrad.

Epperson has also done plenty of research; I enjoyed the touches of period detail that showed considerable attention to the detail of life in LA in the mid-30s.  It’s set in 1934 – a current newspaper headline on the death of John Dillinger on 22 July 1934 is mentioned.  (While it’s got nothing to do with the novel, this filmed witness statement by a Chicago mechanic is fantastic). 

Epperson’s dialogue is commendably accurate and replete with deadpan humour too.  Here’s Danny meeting a showgirl:

“I bet you think my name’s not really Vera Vermillion”

I shrugged.  I held no opinion on the subject.  She pulled a business card out of her purse and handed it to me.

Vera Vermillion

“One in a Million”

Actress – Singer – Dancer – Et Cetera

The Mel Goldberg Agency

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It seemed like every girl came with some sort of motto or slogan up here.  One in a Million.  The Girl You Won’t Forget.  Best All-Around Woman.

I started to hand the card back but she said: “Keep it.  You never know when you might need an et cetera”

Very Mae West, don’t you think? 

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After enjoying The Kind One and wanting to do a little background research I was pleased to discover that the filmic qualities of the novel had been noted quickly by none other than the famed director Ridley Scott, who intends to film The Kind One with actor Casey Affleck in the role of Danny and Epperson adapting his own novel for the screenplay. 

Perhaps this is a by-product of the relative commercial success of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, which grossed US$189m worldwide on an approximate budget of US$100m, showing that audiences will still pay to see gangster movies.  A 21st-century equivalent of The Untouchables, Public Enemies was definitely boosted by its high-quality cast of Depp, Bale, Cotillard, Ribisi, Crudup, Dorff and Wenham.  But perhaps Scott’s screen adaptation of The Kind One will follow the noir-ish route of classics like Chinatown or LA Confidential, aiming for the lower budgets and art-house credentials.  Either way, it’s an exciting project and one that I’ll be looking forward to seeing. 

Just a suggestion though, Ridley Scott, if you happen to be reading: if you’re looking for an actor to play Danny’s neighbour, the fading, slightly dissolute English scribbler Dulwich, may I suggest John Hurt?  For I can think of no candidate more suitable to evoke the care-worn intellectual who befriends Danny and is his greatest ally in a time of need. 

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