This book is many things, but it is not a murder mystery, despite the attempts of its first reviewers to stuff it into that format. In a murder mystery, someone (usually for a fee) learns who killed the victim, and generally finds out why the victim died, as well. In this story, there's a murder, all right, but Alex Cutter doesn't want to know whether or not his suspect actually committed it and Richard Bone would rather not know anything at all.
One has to admit that "Cutter and Bone" reads like a classic hard-boiled detective story. Many such tales take place in southern California, as this one does, and emphasized the irony of dark, sordid crimes done in a paradise of sunshine. There's one important difference, though, between those stories and Newton Thornburg's tale - there's no detective. Raymond Chandler himself once said of detective stories, including his own stories of Philip Marlowe, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." "Cutter and Bone" is a Marlowe story without Marlowe, without the man of principle who can hold everyone to account for what they do. There's no guarantee of any such justice for anyone here.
As the title implies, this is the story of Alex Cutter and Richard Bone's relationship, told from Richard's point of view. He's a former marketing executive who left his wife and children years before and now lives by seducing rich female tourists in Santa Barbara when he's not sponging off Alex and his wife Mo. Alex, the son of a once-wealthy family, spends his days and his intelligence antagonizing people, trusting his terrible Vietnam war wounds to protect him - he lost his left leg, arm and eye. Mo waits for Alex to come home drunk or angry and love her or strike her, relying on alcohol and pills to sustain her and refusing to contact her rich mother.
One night Richard sees, silhouetted against a pair of headlights, a heavyset man put something in a dumpster. The next morning he learns that the something was a teenage girl's corpse. He's quite sure he could never identify the man he saw, but later he sees a newspaper photograph of leading industrialist J.J. Wolfe, and finds himself whispering "That's him" in Alex's presence. At which point things start to get interesting.
Or maybe not. As I said, the point of this story is that it contains no Marlowe. It also contains no hard evidence or significant investigation. It has only Alex's conviction that Wolfe is guilty, of being a rich bastard if nothing else. Damaged as Alex is, his charisma carries all before it, including a very uneasy Richard Bone.
So no, this is not a murder mystery. It's the story of two friends and those around them using the death of a not-so-innocent teenage girl to force some meaning into their lives at all costs. Adding to that tale is Thornburg's setting and narrative. We're in Santa Barbara in the early 1970s, at the edge of the continent and the close of the American Century, where the endless sunshine bleeds the energy out of everything, including the characters. The old virtues ran dry long ago, the new ones are rapidly following suit, the war is over and there's nothing to believe in. At the opening of the story you get the impression that everyone, even loudmouth Alex, is tiptoeing around with great care lest they break through the surface of their lives and find themselves faced with the emptiness below their feet. The dead girl, tragic as her fate might be, arrives just in time.
The process of finding meaning is particularly difficult for Richard Bone, which makes him a good point-of-view character. As the novel opens he has already demonstrated that he has a hard time keeping any commitments or getting involved in anything permanent. A line in the movie version sums up his character pretty well; he's about to leave a bar where Alex, as usual, is stirring up trouble, and Alex snarls something like "Don't worry, gentlemen, that's just Richard Bone doing what he does best - walking away." Yet Richard can't seem to resist Alex's outrageous suggestions or ignore Mo's pain, even when he knows that getting involved will only lead to chaos. He knows his life is empty, and even tragedy is better than that.
And what's the tragedy? It's that Richard Bone would make a pretty good Philip Marlowe if he hadn't let himself be corrupted already. The author's descriptions of faux-Mexican Santa Barbara architecture, dirty dishes piled up in the sink, casual adultery and sunshine that burns off all shadows, shows us what Richard sees - a rotting world where principle only kills you quicker. Marlowe found some value in principle even when it brought him no reward. Richard has lost that faith and recoils at its very suggestion. He can't make himself stop caring, and he can't let himself care enough to make any difference to his friends. Not to give too much away, but that's what leads to his downfall.
This is not an uplifting tale, to put it mildly, but it's still worth reading for the narrative's skill. It puts us in a particular place and time and gives us sympathetic characters. Like Richard, we can get fed up with Alex and Mo for the way they waste their time and talents. We can get fed up with Richard for the same reason. I'd say that our annoyance, here as in life, is no more than a symptom of disappointed love, and it carries the story right through to the shocking conclusion, when you realize that maybe these people were right to opt out. It's a classic reversal, and finishes up the story with a refreshing jolt of outrage that may make Marlowes of us all in time.
Benshlomo says, If your conscience is asleep, wake it up, even if it hurts.
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Sep 24, 2010
Oct 17, 2010 08:02 AM UTC
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A thriller, and a whacking good thriller, too—shows how much can be done by a writer who knows his business—the best novel of its kind in ten years!—New York Times
First published in 1976, Cutter and Bone is the story of the obsession of Cutter, a scarred and crippled Vietnam veteran and his attempt to convince his buddy, Bone, that the latter witnessed a murder committed by the conglomerate tycoon, JJ Wolfe. Captivated by Cutter’s demented logic, Bone is prepared to cross the country with Cutter in search of proof of the murder. Their quest takes them into the Ozarks—home base of the Wolfe empire—where Bone discovers that Cutter is not pursuing a murderer so much as the great enemy itself, them, the very demons that have dogged his life.
A prolific writer, Newton Thornburg lives in upstate New York. His novels include A Man’s Game, To Die in California, Dreamland, The Lion at the Door, and Eve’s Men.