Dynamic Range Decompression: 16 New Crime Novels of The 1970s
Author and editor Jim Thomsen introduces readers to an essential list of new and notable crime novels with plots set in 1970s
I used to allow myself to be convinced that my preference for the music of the 1970s was rooted in Get Off My Lawn Syndrome: a calcified unwillingness to expose myself to new things, a reflexive retreat to the cultural blanket forts of my formative years.
That’s what people told me in so many words when I grudgingly gave some new artist a try and invariably found that one try would never lead to a second one. I’m not irrational; I could admit the music probably had artistic merit. But listening was usually an aesthetically unpleasant experience. It all sounded loud to me even when it wasn’t; as I said to one friend: “All I hear is a lack of air.” Said my friend: “OK Boomer.” (Clarification: I’m not a Boomer.)
I persisted in thinking that I was the problem until I chanced upon a New York Times article on the use of “dynamic range compression.” In the 1980s, recording engineers started using new technology to “boost the quieter parts and tamp down louder ones to create a narrower range.” It turned every part of a song into the sum of its hooks, deemphasizing a full, human band sound in favor of dense, synthesized slabs of carb-loaded pleasure. (Classic example: Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”) The upshot? “Maximum loudness, it was thought, was a prerequisite for commercial success.”
What does this have to do with crime fiction?
It seems to me that today’s “twisty” thrillers, with their emphasis on slam-bang beginnings, perpetual pulse points, and constant swish-pan blurs of emotion and motion — and their de-emphasis on character nuance and quiet reflection — constitute the literary equivalent of dynamic range compression. There are good ones and bad ones, but virtually no quiet ones. They all seem to have a sweaty desperation to hang on to your attention, a baked-in assumption that the minute someone steps back to think about something, the reader will wander away to play a video game or binge-watch TV.
I don’t agree that anybody who goes to the trouble of choosing a book to buy, putting out money for it, and cracking its cover is that hair-trigger distractible. But publishers seem to think differently, and they seem to have convinced most authors that there’s no other path to commercial success.
I still give the twisties some time from time to time, but even when they’re good, I find I’m not terribly interested in them, in their takes on contemporary characters and situations: Instagram influencers, social-media manipulators, celebrity-machinists, cyber-stalkers and the like. Everyone in these stories seems to define their success by the extent to which they can avoid human contact — as well as anything that takes away from screen time — and still make money and grab power and deliver punishment, righteous or otherwise.
So, stories of the past, specifically my beloved Seventies, with wider dynamic range have been pushed to the margins of publishing; even when they land with a big publisher, they don’t seem to get the marketing or promotional push of the latest Harlan Coben or Mary Kubica.
But they come often enough, even increasingly so, that I’m convinced that I’m not alone, that the interest in these stories is more than nostalgia for Bubble Yum or Peter Frampton or platform shoes. That there’s an enduring interest from a small but not unsubstantial slice of the reading public hungry for quiet crime fiction, fiction in which people have to face their problems face to face, in which they have to get out of their homes to figure out what needs figuring out, and that the figuring-out part is best done while staring out over an undeveloped beach or from behind the wheel of a wood-paneled station wagon.
And, as a result, they have to develop a broader dynamic range of personal character, with each knock on a door or each bit of shoe-leather fact-gathering.
And I believe the Seventies, specifically, has some appeal to those in this readerly subset. Why? Because it’s the last full decade before dynamic range compression of pop culture started coming to the fore, before synthesized art and humanity started stepping in for the real deal. In the Seventies, a person could still get lost and stay lost. A person could search for America and still find a funhouse-mirror version of it somewhere in the smudged glass of a cigarette vending machine.
There’s a sense that a Seventies person is not necessarily a prisoner of their own device but a free-ranger of it, even if they get nowhere in the process, if only because they usually have the chance to take a breath in the middle of it. It’s a pleasing idea to those of us who still believe that post-Vietnam idea that the journey for the disillusioned is the destination, and one arrived at in its own time, on its own pace.
Said that Times article: “Loudness has its place, but most of us like our music to have breathing room, so that our eardrums are constantly tickled by little sonic explosions. In a tight, compressed space, music can get asphyxiated.”
Tell me that last isn’t true of literature as well.
It helps, I admit, to be “of a certain age” to fully appreciate these distinctions. I was born in 1965, so the Seventies were both known and unknown to me. I spent my childhood distracted by its details — fruit leather and Wacky Packages and AMC Pacers and Mac Davis — while mostly missing its bigger pictures. So the decade remains something of a mystery that I, forever stranded between the Boomer and X generations, feel forever driven to solve. Many of my friends around my age say the same in so many words.
So I find myself migrating not just to the great novels of the Seventies written and published in the Seventies for clues, but to a growing body of independent and under-promoted books of the Seventies written and published much more recently. It’s that latter group I’d like to throw a spotlight on.
It’s not strictly confined to the years 1970 to 1980, but together they form a linked aesthetic that evokes nostalgia and dynamic free range in equal measure. To me, they’re the trend-buckers that tickle my ears, the Brandy Clarks and Jason Isbells of the printed word.
Elevator pitch: Delpha Wade, newly released from prison for killing her rapist, gets a second chance, as secretary to fledgling private eye Tom Phelan, and displays a sharp investigative eye herself even as she struggles with rejoining society.
Peak Seventies Quote: “That Watergate gang running the country, they held the truth under water till it run out of bubbles.”
Elevator Pitch: From behind the wheel of his cab, Nick Cullen prowls the streets and highways of Los Angeles. Through a haze of druggies and disco denizens and dark passengers with dead eyes, Nick tries to get a line, however thin and frayed, on the men who murdered his wife and baby in a home-invasion robbery gone insane.
Peak Seventies Quote: “Can you believe Jimmy Carter won? We’re going to have a peanut farmer in the White House. Jesus!”
“A lot of our founding fathers were farmers,” Nick said, remembering his grammar school history.
“Yeah, but peanuts?”
“He also commanded a nuclear submarine,” Nick offered.
Elevator Pitch: In a small Southern town where loyalty to family and to “your people” carries the weight of a sacred oath, defying those unspoken rules can be a deadly proposition for 15-year old Boady Sanden when a black family moves into town to run the local factory.
Peak Seventies Quote: “To call Thomas a decent dancer would be like calling the Rolling Stones a passable rock band. The kid had moves that seemed to disconnect his ribs from his hips, sliding them in opposite directions, his arms and legs slinking and snapping like the business end of a bullwhip.”
Elevator pitch: Between fending off the advances of her parole officer and trying to get by as a security guard at an abandoned factory, private investigator and convicted killer Colleen Hayes struggles to put her life back together so she can reconnect with her runaway teenage daughter.
Peak Seventies Quote: “A woman screamed and the two of them were mashed up against the bar momentarily by a young woman wearing a garbage bag as a dress and snakeskin platform boots. She had heavy makeup and hair by Crayola, favoring the purple and black crayons, curled in front of her face in what must’ve taken her, or her hairdresser, hours. But she was lithe and young and carried it off.”
Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota, 1970 and 1971
Elevator Pitch: Renee “Cash” Blackbear, foster child, farm laborer, pool hustler and sheriff’s protege, is a little smarter and more ambitious than most in the rural Red River Valley, and that puts her in a position to poke around when fellow American Indians are found dead or go missing.
Peak Seventies Quote: “A couple of young farmer dudes shooting pool. They looked up at her, took in the cue stick and smirked at each other. ‘Hey baby, women’s lib doesn’t reach this far north,’ the one in a checkered shirt hollered.”
Elevator pitch: Oscar, a musician whose hit-making days are behind him, learns that Tommy, the McCartney to his Lennon, has died of an apparent heroin overdose. His guilt-driven efforts to trace Tommy’s drug-strewn backtrail leads him to blackmailing killers with mob ties.
Peak Seventies Quote: “She’d liked Elvis. She didn’t like his music so much but she liked him and how he dressed in those shiny space-age jumpsuits and his hair. David Bowie was always trying to act like a space alien but Elvis Presley seemed damn near to being the real thing.”
Elevator Pitch: Troy Falconer, career drifter and thief, joins forces with brother Harlan to track down Harlan’s wife, who disappeared with their money. Their laconic journey through the small Texas towns of their childhood takes a twist when the last car they steal contains a young girl — and suddenly they’re on every cop’s radar.
Peak Seventies Quote: “The clothes I’m wearing tonight belonged to a personal injury lawyer from Oklahoma City. I hit a little jackpot with him: pigskin suede jacket, single-breasted, center vent, Bert Paley label; dark brown Dacron dress slacks by Corbin; baby-blue dress shirt, Van Heusen Vanopress; rust-colored tie embroidered with a crosshatch pattern of Conestoga wagons; gold-plated winding watch, Benrus; polished shell cordovan wingtips, Florsheim Imperial, nearly brand-new, still stiff. I robbed his room at the Black Gold Motel in Pampa while he was in the shower.”
Elevator pitch: TWO-LANE BLACKTOP meets CRAZY MARY AND DIRTY LARRY meets THE GETAWAY meets THE WILD BUNCH as a flinty father-son duo of drivers for a local crime family get caught up with turf wars and fleshy temptations.
Peak Seventies Quote: “They rolled and he came up on top of her, the macrame bag between them, her breasts threatening to spill out of her top.”
Elevator pitch: Andy is the owner of a neighborhood bar that’s just hanging on, thanks in part to corrupt cops—including the childhood best friend whose wife he’s seeing on the side. So he goes into burglary and fencing stolen goods to stay afloat, but he can he trust his partners?
Peak Seventies Quote: “People say sex sells. Fuck that. Fear kicks sex’s ass every goddamn time. It makes them give up their social clubs, churches and schools. It makes them burn down family businesses for insurance money.
It makes them sell their brick bungalows for three quarters what they’re worth. It makes them run for it down the Eisenhower, those six lanes of concrete that Daley cut through Columbus Park like a scar. It makes them buy overpriced shitty frame ranch houses on streets with sidewalks that lead to nothing.
It makes them spend the rest of their lives driving twenty minutes just to get a fucking loaf of bread. It had happened long ago in other neighborhoods, and it had started in ours. And I knew it wouldn’t be long before everybody I knew was gone.”
Elevator Pitch: Freelance writer Terry Brennan just wanted to raise his profile by getting close to New York celebrities and power brokers. But the more he does so, the more he gets caught up in a ticking-clock chase by those even more ruthlessly ambitious than him, and it’s all he can do to survive as a body count piles up fast behind him.
Peak Seventies Quote: “He had to content himself with the Official New York Freelance Writer Uniform. He wore a black T-shirt, black Levi’s, black socks, a beat-up black leather jacket, and Jack Purcells. He looked like one of the Ramones, but truth be told, he felt a little shoddy as he stood there in front of Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five. Like a lost teenager standing there with a full-fledged adult.”
Elevator Pitch: Sam was raised to be a thief, and she’s good at it. Little brother Jacob wasn’t, and he might be just as good at it — if Sam will let him in on her desperate scheme to rob a rock club to pay back the crime bosses she owes. Add in a crew that embodies a Lou Reed-meets-T. Rex-marries-Bowie aesthetic in life as much as looks, and the glitter shines from more than the metal of their guns.
Peak Seventies Quote: “This is when you discover just what kind of man you are. Travis Bickle or Richie Cunningham? Bullets don’t lie.”
Elevator Pitch: Scotland Ross, ex-Navy man, ex-husband, ex-father, ex-pretty much everything, has a murderously dark side and a deep, shame-driven devotion to friends and family that seems to come into constant conflict.
Peak Seventies Quote: “While Scotland had been kicking back listening to the Allman Brothers on the stereo trying to block out the memories of rifle fire and then the explosion, Kyla walked by in nothing but his Disco Sucks T-shirt.”
Elevator Pitch: Viridiana, at eighteen, is stuck between her fidelity to family — particularly, her mother’s wish for her to marry the boyfriend she does not love — and her desire to get far away from her small fishing village and fulfill the dreams inspired by her favorite 1940s melodramas. Possibilities, both bright and dark, abound in a trio of mysterious Americans who show up in town.
Peak Seventies Quote: “Reynier sat in his big burgundy chair, dressed in one of his prim charcoal suits. He never succumbed to the desire for casual fashions; the 1970s, with their polyester and flared trousers, had not been acknowledged in his home.”
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