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Underground Reading: Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill

Robbie's WifeRobbie's Wife (2007) is an original Hard Case Crime novel from author Russell Hill. It was nominated for an Edgar as the Year's Best Paperback upon release. Mr. Hill has a background writing critically-acclaimed cross-genre works (including post-apocalyptic SF) and Robbie's Wife is no exception.

Jack Stone is an aging, stumbling Hollywood screenwriter - not an industry that's kind to folks outside of their proverbial fifteen minutes. Six months after a divorce, struggling with writer's block, Stone upends himself and heads to England. "Why England?," his aggrieved agent asks. "It's an ocean away," Jack responds (16). Armed with his diminished life savings and a laptop, Jack winds up on these soggy shores, looking for a miracle.

At first, inspiration is hard to find. London is damp, bustling and cramped (and the breakfast fry-ups are terrible). Bravely, he rents a car and escapes to Dorset. Jack has a brief stop in Lyme Regis to take in some culture and then heads back on the road. However, a few too many lunchtime pints leave Jack incapable of driving, so he's forced to stay with a local farmer who also hosts guests as a B&B.

If only Jack hadn't had that extra ale - a thought that he returns to over and over again, in an ever more desperate pitch. Robbie, the farmer, and Maggie, his wife, soon become the center of Jack's fragile reality. Robbie's truly a nice guy. He's a reluctant farmer, drawn back to his family home after his father's death. Slightly frustrated with his life, he still throws himself into his role of husband and provider. Maggie is also frustrated. A former dancer (classical, not exotic), she never dreamed of being cooped up this way. Although she's supportive of Robbie's decisions and proud of their precocious child, Maggie never stopped dreaming of bigger and better things.

Jack is immediately drawn to the leggy, red-headed Maggie, despite (or perhaps because of) their substantial age difference (she's in her late 30s, he's 60). She also begins to serve as his muse. Every morning, Robbie stomps off to poke at the sheep. Jack then comes downstairs and is treated to a (much tastier) fry-up and a lot of stealthy glimpses of Maggie's figure. He then returns to his room and writes scene after scene of steamy eroticism (generally involving an aging Hollywood writer and a foxy young housewife). At tea time, the worked-up Jack stumbles back downstairs to sit awkwardly at the table, his head still wrapped up in his work. 

The bulk of the book follows this daily pattern. With very little encouragement from Maggie, Jack writes himself into an obsession. Soon, reality and fantasy begin to overlap. Robbie - genial, hard-working, ignorant - becomes an object of hatred. Jack fixates on him. If only Robbie could be removed, perhaps his fantasy could become real...

Mr. Hill is a modern writer and this doesn't follow the immediate, obvious pattern. Rather than plunging into a series of James Cain-style murders, Jack leaves. And returns. And leaves. And returns. He's unable to clear his head of Maggie but knows that his own decisions are not to be trusted. Jack not only craves the sight of her, but is addicted to her influence - he needs the sight of her to fuel his increasingly Dionysian screenplay. 

The strength of Robbie's Wife is in Mr. Hill's portrayal of this crescendo of obsession. Jack starts the book in a rough place; a lost and bedraggled soul. Unfortunately, he's guided to the wrong lighthouse. Maggie is not some sort of ethereal sex-muse out of John Fowles. She's a complex character in her own right, struggling with her own discontent. As Jack Stone tries to capture her in two-dimensions with his idealised screenplay 'Maggie', he becomes increasingly blind to the real (well, real-fictional) Maggie's motivations. Previously mothballed and unmanned, Jack insists on making himself the hero of his own story. 

The climax, when it inevitably arrives, comes as a bit of a disappointment. Mr. Hill invests so much in creating these inscrutable, indecisive, struggling characters that when they finally act, it makes them slightly less interesting. As a portrayal of envy and fixation, Robbie's Wife excels. As an actual crime novel, it is a bit middling. Once Jack Stone commits to a course of action, the events of the book become increasingly predictable. The joy is in the nail-biting tension that leads up to that point.

As an example of Hard Case Crime's efforts to demonstrate the continuing relevance of pulp noir, Robbie's Wife is a clear success. Certain tropes are timeless, and this contemporary adaptation with unusual characters and a unique setting shows how they'll always be germane to the reader.


By Jared (@pornokitsch), who still has forty-odd HCC titles to go.