07 September 2009

The Truth of the Matter

The first place I found John Lutz was in The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction--his byline was under the story "Tough." I like to collect the old Black Lizard paperbacks (with the Kirwan covers), and sure enough one of them was John Lutz' The Truth of the Matter. (I love the Fantastic Fiction website and use it all the time.) "Tough" is a hard-boiled tale about a grizzled old desert rat who matches his wits and guts against a trio of escaping robbers who commandeer his home as a hideout. The story is as tough and hard-boiled as anything in the genre, with a shocking conclusion that leaves you reeling. You get the sense that Mr. Lutz is a masterful writer. The Truth of the Matter, from 1971, is as far as I can tell his first novel. It is a simple story of a couple of down-and-outers. Ellie is a small-time hooker who takes a chance on a rugged, good-looking, smooth-talking john with a mysterious past. The john is Lou Roebuck, and he turns out to be a pathological liar with a persecution complex. Lou's hasty and inexplicable killing of an old accomplice sends him running, and when he runs into Ellie they run off together. A suspicious sheriff noses around their lakeside hideout, and that starts another round of running. Eventually the running and the paranoia get the best of our whacked-out protagonist, and things come to a head in an ending both explosive and anti-climactic. Late in the tale, we finally get to the "truth of the matter" in Lou's backstory, and it gives his character some depth and wins him some sympathy. Before that point, his obvious fabrications are so ridiculous you burst out laughing, and his increasing hostility toward his likeable companion wears mighty thin. Ellie is the deeper character, with an appealing self-possession, an undramatic fatalism, and a thorough lack of pretension. It was an enjoyable ride through a crime fiction landscape, featuring iconic figures like the Fugitive, the Prostitute, and the Lawman, with a dose of the Friendly Outsiders who help our heroes along the way. And that's the truth of the matter.

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