2 out of 5
I think I get the core structural conceit of this novel, and it’s one that I think was valuable to pursue… but it ends up being at the expense of almost any tension, making for quite the drag of a read. A well written one, but a drag nonetheless.
In a lot of pulp, you have the femme fatale type character. If you buy into the genre where people can be reduced down to such basics and baseness, I often find the use of this archetype incredibly unbelievable: okay, fine, they’re beautiful, but whatever crime the lead is incited to commit, I almost always never buy that their dedication would be earned that easy. It’s such a nonsense fantasy – she’s gorgeous, might as well rob this bank / kill this guy / backstab this mobster for her! – that a lot of writers don’t properly earn through the characters, that it’s an easy way to make me lose interest in the book or author.
So: Russell Hill, in Robbie’s Wife, sets out to use this type, but to justify it. Writer Jack Stone – quite past the young man prime most of our leads would be – has gotten divorced, and is bored with his scriptwriting career in LA, and decides to follow a lark to hunker down in the outskirts of England, hoping to reignite a passion for writing. Hill patiently walks us through Jack’s very relatable mindset, and, in our own ways, we can all recognize the writer’s block he experiences – the lack of inspiration – once he gets to his location. As he putts around the countryside, flitting from location to location, he happens upon Robbie’s farm: Robbie, son Terry, and wife Maggie. And it’s not an instant zing of passion; Maggie isn’t the empty-headed seductress. She’s resolutely normal; she’s a mum, she’s a wife, she’s intelligent and sharp in believable doses. Similarly, Robbie is not a villain: he and Maggie, during Jack’s time with them, occasionally have a row, but again, it’s all very normal. He otherwise seems to care for his son, and is a good mate to Jack.
Yes, Jack falls in love with Maggie, and then makes some ruinous decisions as a result. But by presenting this in a very realistic fashion – the interest between Maggie and Jack takes time to kindle, and we’re allowed to understand (at least from Jack’s perspective) what could be motivating everyone, and the motivations are very, very much akin to those in any given relationship one may have been in – Hill has skirted the whole issue with the femme fatale.
Alas, he takes like 150 fucking pages out of a 250 page book to do it. And mixed in there are passages partially of Jack’s fantasies, as he half-scripts a novel informed by his feelings for Maggie; true-to-form for the character, yes, but it means that our Hard Case Crime book turns in to erotica for some passages, and it just isn’t what I come to the imprint for.
When the book’s ‘turn’ is finally executed, it’s admittedly masterfully done, and suggests a ratcheted-up level of intensity that would’ve been thrilling if wended in earlier. I’d say Hill was even aware of this being a risky structural gambit, as there is one reference to such events earlier on, when Jack thinks some threatening thoughts, but that thought ends up feeling incredibly random at that early stage.
Anyhow, another flip-side to this more realistic, step-by-step approach is that the book can’t properly escalate thereafter. We can have some guesses where things will go, and it just sort of goes that way. Stone isn’t particularly intelligent in his after-actions, but things don’t fully unravel in pulp fashion, they just sorta… happen. Yeah, like real life, I guess. And noir / crime can surely have a more devastating punch when we relate to the characters or events, but Russell Hill’s experiment with that balance tips way too far into the mundane to make it a very successful read.