Expert Reviews | Authors | Book Talk

Book Reviews by Paul Bergen and Barry Hammond

Paul and Barry are two 'crime geek' book reviewers based out of Edmonton, Alberta, and can often be found prowling the aisles of local independent bookstores.

You Write Like a Girl
A Sense of Place
Armchair Travelling

The Devil is in the Details
Stop it! You're Killing Me! Loving the Bad Guys


Barry: There's a kind of subterranean strain of story in crime fiction, where the murderer, criminal, or villain actually becomes the focus of the piece. Interestingly, this style may have come out of the movies, where you had appealing character actors playing the bad guys. I think of James Cagney in White Heat, or Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo. Even today, I know more people remember Hannibal Lecter than any other characters in the Thomas Harris books. I wonder if it comes out of the old adage of actors saying villains are more interesting to play than heroes? Maybe it's more interesting for writers to write bad guys, too?

Paul: It would be challenging in different ways. While I think that, in this genre, good people are made interesting by their situations:"how do I get through this without doing anything bad?", bad people are interesting by their very existence. The problem a writer has is to make them believable.

Barry: I think writers probably sense the freedom of these individuals, the fact that they are capable of anything. And as a reader I feel the same thing and this makes the story more thrilling in its unpredictability. The most compelling example that comes to mind is Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, where the book follows the central character's inner monologue. The character is a sheriff in the book, but he's also a homicidal maniac. That's the earliest book I can think of that did it well and probably started a trend.

Paul: Loved that book and how long it took me to truly grasp the nature of the sheriff since from his point of view he's just doing a job that needs to be done. One of my favorite writers who has deeply immoral and destructive protagonists is James Ellroy where the cops are very dirty and often worse than the criminals they pursue.


Barry: The effect is often stronger through setting a realistic tone which lulls you to the aberrations of the character. They present the characters as they are, with no comment from the author and let the reader make up their own mind as to their morality. Charles Willeford takes this to the limit when he takes the rough but good Hoke Mosely and after a number of books has him become the type of man he was often after. This was quite a contrast from the amiable but disheveled version presented in the film Miami Blues.

Paul: You couldn't really say Ellroy is much of a realist. His almost hallucinogenic prose mirrors the unsettling amorality that pervades his books. I find that I am almost flabbergasted by the wide swath of destruction these lead villains leave in their wakes. Murder is just another one of their tools and the utter pragmatism of their actions is astonishing.

Barry: That comes across well in the Ellroy-based film L.A. Confidential. You get to that point of comparing degrees of bad rather than the usual bad versus good. And I find that a nice change. Ultimately though, as enthralling as these characters might be, I prefer the more nuanced and thus difficult examination of the good person surviving bad times.

Paul: I agree. A book with a lead bad seed takes you on a holiday to that colorful unpredictable foreign country but the struggle for good deepens your understanding of home.