Friday, 10 April 2009


It is rather odd to read Fletcher Flora's Killing Cousins, written in 1961, while almost simultaneously watching Mad Men, a knowing and ironic look back on that era. Because there is a sense of tongue-in-cheek about Flora that seems slightly out of character for the genre we associate with him. His best known book, the lesbian thriller Strange Sisters (one of at least five books to share that lurid title) was published by Lion in 1954. But when Killing Cousins appeared, in 1960, it was a hardback, from Macmillen, which implies that someone in the publishing world could see what Flora was up to. My copy, shown right, is a 1964 British paperback edition, from New English Library's Four Square, but what really fascinated me what that it reprints the original 1961 British hardcover by Jonathan Cape, at a time when Cape was one of the most prestigious of houses. Which means someone in Britain understood what was going on too..

If indeed he was up to anything more than entertaining at a fast pace. The style and tone of Killing Cousins reminded me of something Ed Gorman once said about Day Keene, that he became more flamboyant the more he wrote, and it doesn't get more flamboyant than this. It opens with Flora explaining about Willie Hogan the most famous of all the residents of Ouchita Road, in a town called Quivera (!), more famous than a losing Republican governor or a bit-part actress, because she killed her husband. Having set-it up, he doesn't wait long to deliver: Willie is confronted by her husband Howard, prosperous because his father is the local beer distributor, and cuckolded frequently, which didn't appear to bother him inordinately until Willie took up with his bright but ne'er do well cousin, Quincy. Howard confronts Willie, while she's painting her nails, and dares her to shoot him. So she does. Then she finishes painting her nails and calls Quincy to help her dispose of the body.

It's a pretty classic set-up, femme fatale and hard-boiled hero about to get in over their pretty heads. But while there is much of the classic femme fatale about Willie, there's a seriously flipped element to the story; she's really stupid, with none of the kind of feral intelligence black widows have in classic noir. Flora really seems to have been intent on reversing lots of the stereotypes of the genre. Quincy is far from the usual noirish hero, driven off-track by lust, stolid and being played by a spider-woman more clever than he is. Instead, he's extremely bright, to the point of alcoholic boredom in Quivera (!), and has more than a little feyness about him, far from your average 50s or early 60s noir hero. His dialogue often sounds like a parody of a drawing room mystery, played for laughs, which may be what appealed to Cape in the first place, that tone like Nick Charles talking to Gracie Allen (the George Burns Gracie, not the British one).

Of course getting rid of the body is never as easy as you might think, and something's always bound to go wrong. Especially when Howard's mistress turns up. And then Quincy's smarts are tested, and so are Willie's natural abilities. As Flora writes: 'Willie, advised to do nothing, was surprised to learn that doing nothing was one of the hardest things she had ever done'. I think that the entire novel may be worth it for just that line; but of course Willie can't keep still, and of course she and Howard turn on each other, and Flora gets to work out a few more reversals along the way. It occurred to me that if you set out to rewrite The Postman Always Rings Twice, take the passion out of it, or better, turn passion into boredom as motivation, and see where that took you, you'd get something like Killing Cousins. You get the sense James M Cain was immersed in his characters, repelled and attracted like his heroes, which is why his books are so intense; Flora seems merely amused by his. But if you could that to Cain's best-known book, you'd probably wind up with that same kind of wry, fed-up with the Fifties, quality that Mad Men has, fifty years later.

1 comment :

Juri said...

Thanks for this! I thought it was a very good novel. It was also translated and published in Finland in Finnish, so agents must've been selling it big time.