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The Charles D. Thornton Tapes, on “The Second Murderer”

I read the classics, of course (though, of course, at the time they were not classics). Hammett, Chandler, some Gardner and Campbell, too. But it was Hadley whose prose grabbed me. J. Ford Hadley could wrap sentences so tightly around your fingers that you swore the bones would break once you reached the period at the end. Crisp, tight paragraphs. Hard-edged and whimsical. Hadley died in the Fifties; I suppose I have spent the intervening years trying (and, I admit, failing) to imitate his style.

Where his contemporaries would warp a story around the central murder, theft, or act of heinous violence, Hadley would not. There was rarely a semblance of plot because, after all, there is no single narrative to life. You cannot have predestination in detective fiction. Surprises come often, twists that interrupt – even end – your characters’ existence; without surprises, detective fiction is nothing but urban life with added similes.

When I started out, I wanted to be ‘literary’, whatever that meant. I set out to be spare, brittle, and irritatingly clever. But soon Hadley and co. had pulled me in, and I instead applied myself to becoming one of them. My first story was published in 19__, and it was very much a Hadley pastiche, from the opening lines to my nameless protagonist. (This detective cipher would, one day, swirl into the recognisable form of Delaney). Published in _____ _______ magazine, it was titled “The Second Murderer”, after a similarly nameless character in Macbeth.

(The Second Murderer utters one of the most prescient things in all of Shakespeare:

I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Have so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.

Unwittingly, my dear countryman seemed to have predicted the course of the Twentieth Century.)

I am blustering like an old fool. Forgive me, Liebchen. Tangents are like catnip to the old. What I mean to say is that fiction always seemed more able to order life, to categorise it; and that detective fiction, on top of this, provided an insight into what lay behind the crumbling facade of our time. That, and it was jolly good fun.

“The Second Murderer”
by Charles D. Thornton

Most cases begin with a bang. This one was no exception.

It had been the usual damp and lonely Wednesday afternoon before the dame in the red dress drifted into my office. She was tall and slender, the curves of a bowling pin and then some. Drawing on a cigarette, rich smoke rose like a curlicue into the room. Gauloises, maybe?

But the thought was amputated. From out of her clutch a package wrapped in parcel paper and twine dropped onto the rosewood table top. I almost spilled my coffee onto the taupe carpet tiles. Instead, I pulled myself together and tugged the cuffs of my white shirt another half-inch towards my fingertips, tilted my head approximately 45 degrees to the left, and asked:

“Where’d you get a purse big enough to hold a gun?”

[continues…]

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