Jimmie John Hall wasn't anything until he was a killer, and Betty Dienhardt wasn't anything until she met Jimmie John Hall. When they get together, sparks fly and bullets follow. The first to go are Betty's parents, but Betty isn't bothered. She only wants to be with her man - the first person to ever make her feel special.
They set off on a cross-country spree, killing for gas money and food, killing to swap their car for one the police aren't looking for. As the dragnet draws tighter, they only grow closer, riding a road that leads to death because death has surrounded them all the time.
Lawrence Block has become a highly prodigious writer. He gives an afterword to this audiobook which is quite explanatory and very enjoyable. He wrote the book under a surname, Paul Kavanaugh. The book is based an two serial killers, John Starkweather and Carol Fugate, who murdered a number of people in Kansas for no reason other than their severe psychopathy. I want to say that Alan Sklar's voice is beautiful, gravelly, and perfectly tuned to the characters and the plot. The male, Jimmy John, is a pure psychopath: there is absolutely no reason for killing the people that he kills. The woman, Betty, is basically taken along for the rides. Jimmy John also steals dozens of cars, in order to evade the police, who eventually catch up with him. At first Jimmy John is completely repellent. You don't ever really like him, and Betty is a cipher. However, Mr. Block and Mr. Sklar make an excellent team, and the book becomes compelling reading in spite of our complete distaste for Jimmy John. Block never makes the mistake of trying to "nicen him up," or make him sympathetic in any way. He is just a loser, and so is Betty. It happens that Terence Malick made his memorable movie "Badlands," about the Starkweather/Fugate story, and Block candidly admits the classic betrayal by the denizens of Hollywood. He obviously wishes that the book had made it to the screen, and it is quite cinematic. Malick won that contest, and Block may have been better off, as he never again wrote with half an eyeball on a movie contract. Block's tone and pitch of the plot are perfect. He keeps the suspense moving and keeps us reading. Nothing is really "explained" about either of the characters, and even though that has been the fashion of more recent crime novels, Block somehow knew that he didn't need to do it. He also didn't need to create a dogged detective in pursuit of the criminals, a style which has driven hundreds of crime series since. This was a one-off, and it is better off for it. Block's move to New York and his development of the character Bernie Rhodenbarr, the bookshop owner/detective, has really never held me in the way that this book did. You might hate this book, as the primary character is completely repellent with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. However, I found it a very enjoyable read. I do like action, although of course I like thought as well. In this book you get a whole lot of the former and very little of the latter. Don't say I didn't tell you.
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