If I had never read Jim Thompson, I might think that Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes (Serpent's Tail) is a neat little book, a provocative narrative of law-enforcement corruption and human depravity with satisfying doses of dark humor and an over-the-top conclusion that almost works.
But I have read Thompson, and thus while reading Small Crimes I could really only register how derivative it is. A first-person narrator relates to us the story of his own dissolution from high school football star to corrupt cop and dual gambling- and drug-addict to ex-con trying to re-establish himself after serving a sentence for disfiguring, and almost killing, the local district attorney. His story includes his relationship with the local crime boss, as well as his former employer, the local sheriff, who if anything is an even bigger criminal than the crime boss himself. The narrator finds himself pursued still by the DA, who in trying to get the mortally ill boss to implicate the narrator in his criminal operations also threatens to implicate the sheriff, and so the narrator only gets entangled further in the poisonous legacy of his past. That he won't finally escape it seems a pre-established certainty.
In its depiction of ubiquitous criminality and relentlessly sociopathic behavior, Small Crimes is a near-impersonation of such Thompson narratives as The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280. Zeltserman does try to outdo Thompson in a couple of ways, most obviously by transferring the Thompson crime narrative to rural Vermont, where the violence and other crimes perpetrated by most of the novel's characters (including a nurse with whom the narrator briefly becomes involved, who seems to be a serial killer) seems outrageously out of place. Unfortunately, so out of place does it seem that ultimately it comes to be rather cartoonish, a flaw Thompson himself almost always avoided. The second flourish on Thompson guignol is that the narrator appears to be narrating the story from hell, his descent to which occupies the novel's final scene. This actually does seem like a device Jim Thompson might have used, but again I couldn't finally accept it here as anything more than an attempt to compete with the master in the exploitation of extremes.
In most other ways, the novel can't compete with Thompson's books. The narrator has little of the creepy understatement characteristic of Thompson's unhinged narrators. He spends way too much time trying to convince himself, and us, that he's not such a bad guy after all, and it's ultimately hard to have much feeling for him one way or another, not even as someone who deserves some sympathy because he's clearly insane, or who should be feared because he's so inherently evil. Although it isn't a particularly long novel, it still seems padded out with perfunctory and unnecessary dialogue, while the last one-third or so of the story seems very rushed and full of implausible violence, some of it made more implausible by being reported to us indirectly rather than dramatically portrayed. The constant trouble into which the narrator gets himself seems contrived, which isn't helped by the fact that the setting, against which this action ought to be heightened, is depicted cursorily at best.
I'm less disappointed by the limitations of Small Crimes, however, than I am puzzled by the effort to mimic a writer like Jim Thompson in the first place. There is inspiration and then there is imitation. This novel seems to me clearly the latter, although much crime/detective fiction seems to me largely imitative as well. Most hard-boiled detective fiction imitates Chandler, while most "noir" crime fiction imitates Thompson (or perhaps James M. Cain). This must be why I can still read Chandler and Thompson with great pleasure and admiration but find most current crime fiction pallid and secondhand. Both of these writers were creating something new. The kinds of characters, plots, and narrative voices they developed were so compelling they came to define the hard-boiled crime genre, but this has become a mixed blessing, as the genre itself struggles to step out of the shadow of these writers' influence.
In her fawning Washington Post review of Small Crimes, Maureen Corrigan asserts that "Zeltserman takes up all the familiar tropes of the formula -- femmes fatales, frighteningly dysfunctional families, self-destructive drives and the death grip of the past -- and shows how infinite are the combinations that can still be played on them." That Zeltersman "takes up all the familiar tropes" of the genre is certainly true, but the novel demonstrates that the "combinations" available are far from infinite. More importantly, it prompts one to ask why recombining these tropes is a worthwhile activity to begin with.