Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Ironside by Jim Thompson

published 1967






[Robert Ironside’s associates have staged a surprise birthday party for him.]

The birthday party was over. Mark Sanger had taken his books and gone off to night school. Eve Whitfield was in the kitchen area, cleaning up the last of the dishes. Sergeant Ed Brown was having a final drink with Chief Ironside. As they talked, Ironside’s eyes and his thoughts strayed frequently to Eve – only to be yanked away from her just as frequently, their owner cursing them silently for their misbehaviour….

Eve, like the others, was his responsibility. He was obligated to see that she got the best from life, and the best was certainly not marriage to the likes of him.

She finished the dishes and came out to them, murmuring that she guessed she’d better say goodnight.




observations: Col, of Col’s Criminal Library, is busy logging his massive stacks of books, and back in October this one turned up in one of his tubs in the loft. It caught my attention immediately: I liked the TV series Ironside back in the day, and was that JIM THOMPSON writing the novelization? THE Jim Thompson, artist of the pulp, the quintessential gritty noir man? Apparently it was. So I found a second-hand copy online, and have been busy reading.

The series was broadcast as A Man Called Ironside in the UK (presumably in case we thought it was a historical drama about Oliver Cromwell, or about steel-sided ships) and ran for many reliable years (from 1967, when this book was written) with Robert Ironside solving crimes from his wheelchair with the help of Ed, Eve and Mark. Quincy Jones wrote the theme music, and appeared in one episode as a friend of Mark’s. If you watch early episodes you can catch appearances by many later stars such as Harrison Ford.

The TV tie-in book presumably was just a moneymaker for Thompson, and you can feel him pushing against the constraints of the TV connection. The suggestion above, that Ironside was in love with Officer Eve, is rather startling to series fans: the theme continues and develops throughout the book.

The plot is winding but at the same time minimal, and features a lot of shockingly louche clubs and bars full of lowlifes, and even an ambulance depot. Ironside fights for his life over an open lift shaft. Ed pretends to be drunk for an arcane reason. Really the book is just a collection of remarkably well-imagined scenes, written in lush prose, and strung together in the most vague way. It is highly politically incorrect: I presume Negro and cripple were acceptable words at that time, and I suppose if you start on Jim Thompson’s world where would you end? He uses the word flaming a lot, I’m guessing as a euphemism for a different f-word.

One scene ends with these words: ‘And the sunlight closed around them, and found them good.’ This particular chapter, which looks at the bad behaviour of a young woman, and race relations, is beyond understanding, criticism or discussion really: it stands alone as a monumental, jaw-dropping work of conceptual art.

The book is a curiosity – very recognizable Thompson style, allied to the traditions of the cop show and the TV tie-in book, and nicely short. I’m very glad to have read it, and am suitably grateful to Col for bringing it to my attention (though I’m guessing he hasn’t read it yet himself?). Looked at one way, it is terrible, but somehow it isn’t…

Col also pointed me in the direction of this review at Book Dirt: I waited till I’d read the book and written my review to read it, and found that Kelly Robinson and I had a very similar take on it – the review is well worth reading for more on Thompson and the book, highly recommended.

The picture is a still from the TV series.

18 comments:

  1. Moira - post of the year so far! I'm so glad you took the trouble to seek this out and thanks for linking to me. Hopefully Rich selects '67 as one of the years for his meme - I can then have a good reason to disrupt the symmetry of the logged tubs. Reducing one to 49 might upset my attic feng shui, though I'm sure there's a spare book or to replace it with.
    I did love that TV series, I wonder what it views like today? Does it stand up to time or has it not aged well?

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    1. I thought you'd be pleased! I reckon I saw an epi or two a few years ago, and they were quite clunky: I enjoyed watching but for historical reasons rather than because they were good.
      Come on, you need to dig the book out and read it...

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  2. Moira - I honestly didn't know there was a novel based on the series ('though I remember the series). Interesting! And even more so that Thompson wrote it. I can well imagine that he might chafe under the TV-imposed limits. I'm sure it really did make for a very unusual sort of book. To be honest, I'm not much of a one for 'tie-in' books like that. But just to see how he handled it? That might be interesting even if the book is in some senses pretty terrible.

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    1. You've got it exactly Margot - I don't think you'd need to bother if anyone else had written it, but it is a curiosity, and interesting to see Thompson do something so unlikely...

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  3. I was talking about 'Ironside' with Mrs P yesterday (we were reminding ourselves what TV programmes we watched when we were younger). I liked Ironside but I don't think I can remember any plots whatsoever. Interesting your comment about them being a series of scenes.

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    1. I loved Ironside, and can remember about 2 episodes/plots really clearly, while the rest is just a blur. I don't think it was masterpiece TV, though (because?) it did try to be very modern with its San Francisco setting - some hippies and wild clothes featured.

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  4. Thank you so much for linking to my review. It's such a bizarre book, isn't it? I think his style would shine through even if he were writing copy for the back of a cereal box.

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    1. I really liked your review, and was glad we felt more or less the same about it. Yes, bizarre. If he'd written it under a pseudonym I think we'd be reading it thinking 'but WHO wrote this? It couldn't possibly be... could it? Surely not!'

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  5. Very interesting. Never knew about this novelization of the series. I know I watched some episodes of the show, either when it first came on or in reruns. I am always hazy about TV shows because there were years I saw no TV and years I watched TV; it went in cycles. But I always loved Raymond Burr in any role, TV or movie.

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    1. I had no idea there'd been a novelization till I saw Col's piece, though I would have expected to know - I was quite a big fan, I must have watched an awful lot of the episodes. Perhaps the tie-in book didn't make it to the UK.

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  6. Moira: I thought Raymond Burr would always be viewed as Perry Mason until Ironside came along. I thought he was equally brilliant as the wheelchair bound detective. A generation later Ironside remains the rare fictional detective who is disabled.

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    1. You're right Bill: the setup was very traditional in one way, but quite ground-breaking in another, and should get credit for that.

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  7. I remember reading a hilarious article, years ago, about the making of the TV series, in which the woman who played Eve said how relentlessly dull their supporting roles were. In an attempt to flesh out her character, she spent one entire series making eyes at Mark, trying to kick-start a 'love' sub-plot, but no-one noticed. Also, Ed was always given the line 'they've drawn a blank at the lab, Chief'; when, one week, it was given to another character he was so thrown that he forgot all his lines...

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    1. That's so funny! The Guardian does that 'Making of' series, and I'm always hoping for good gossip like that rather than brilliant apercus about the artistic achievements and how special they all felt. In this book there is actually an explanation for why 'they've drawn a blank at the lab' - a scene that I wish they'd put into the TV prog. Let's just say that the people at the lab were not as conscientious as they should've been.

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  8. Moira, I wasn't aware of the "Ironside" television series but I have been wanting to read Jim Thompson's crime fiction since I discovered his work last year.

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    1. I think you would like Thompson, Prashant, he has that hard-boiled, noir thing off to a T. the programme Ironside turns up on obscure UK TV channels from time to time - you should look to see if it turns up in India too.

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  9. I watched Perry Mason and Ironside episodes. I don't remember any of the political incorrectness though. TV would have been burned off it that was on the shows.

    I liked Raymond Burr in anything and just saw him in a movie, "The Blue Gardenia." Also, he was a terrific villain in "Rear Window."

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    1. I'd forgotten Rear Window- he was marvellous in that. I don't know Blue Gardenia, I'll look it up.

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