Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Irony of Humanity: Jim Nisbet's LETHAL INJECTION

James Ellroy called it "unheralded masterpiece of the noir genre." It is widely regarded as one of the finest achievements of moder noir - a classic that stands with the best of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford. It is Lethal Injection, by Jim Nisbet.
And now, almost twenty-five years after its orginal publication (1987), critics and reviewers are still taking about Lethal Injection. Here's a new assessment on the German publication of the original novel.

Irony of Humanity. A short 20 years later, Jim Nisbet's 1987 novel Lethal Injection belongs to the classic noir book inventory.
Franklyn Royce hasn't achieved much in his life. His wife hates him because he's not ambitious enough to provide her with the standard of living she thinks she deserves. Frustrations with his marriage and job have made him an alcoholic. His own doctor's practice is lousy, so he has to earn an extra couple hundred dollars each month as a prison doctor in Huntsville, TX. Witnessing death sentences is one of the responsibilities that goes with the job. And so he meets the young, black Robert Mencken. During the robbery of a small shop in Dallas, for a whole $9, Mencken supposedly shot the shop keeper in the face several times. When the poison of the lethal injection is already in his veins, he confides in Royce that he's innocent of the crime, but prepared to die. His confession is an awakening for the doctor, and shortly before dying the condemned men seals the experience with a kiss.

Lethal Injection has long been a timeless, insider tip for those who know the genre. For Sandro Veronesi, whose article out of La Repubblica serves as forward to the new German translation, author Nisbet is a "phantom genius", little known and admired by few… but these readers are spread out all over the entire world and all in all aren't so few in number.

But don't expect that the new German edition of Nisbet's classic from 1987 will be a huge hit. That it ought to be is barely more than a fervent wish. In the local, not so badly stocked book store the Pulp-Master titles - after "Dark Companion", “Lethal Injection" is the second Nisbet novel for the Berlin publisher Frank Nowatzki in his highly praised enterprise - are seldom requested. Too literary? Too depressing? In the truest sense of the word, too "noir"?

In any case, for Franklyn Royce the encounter with Bobby Menken starts a new and for him final phase of life. Nothing holds him in his relationship any longer. Convinced of Menken's innocence, Royce sets out on a search for the real killer. He quickly lands with the two people who were there as the murder occurred, for which Mencken was executed. Eddie Lamark is a psychopath capable of anything; Colleen Valdez a heroin addict and sometime prostitute who doesn't need to do much to totally bewitch the sexually frustrated Royce.

The reader only notices at the very end of the book the sophistication Nisbet used in composing this early masterpiece. And that the path of Franklin Royce is already laid out in the path of the man the doctor feels called to revenge. Royce won't survive his search for the truth either. The connections he finally reconstructs and tragically gets wrong is at the very end simply repeat the irony of human destiny that Mencken made Royce aware of: that it was in the hour of death that Royce finally encountered the compassion for humanity he'd spent his whole life seeking.

With Jean Genet the novel itself mentions one of the witnesses whose work pops up in one’s mind when reading "Lethal Injection". Bobby Mencken's prison nickname is Harmacone, after a figure from Jean Genet's "The Miracle of the Rose” whose chains turn into roses in the fantasy of the narrator and give the murderer the aura of a saint. For Sandro Veronesi, it's like Nisbet's beloved Samuel Beckett, Oe, Josef Škvorecky and Fjodor Dostojewski, whose voices he heard when reading the novel. Occasional associations with the famous Malcolm Lowry impose themselves on the reviewer. These few names, no matter how clearly they might be woven into the intertextual network of "Lethal Injection" show the caliber you have with Nisbet. No one who reads the first 50 pages, which force the reader into the cold light of a Texas execution chamber, will argue with the fact that this novel can be understood as vehement plea against the death penalty, practiced again in the USA since 1976."

The Overlook Press has published three of Jim Nisbet's classic works in paperback - Lethal Injection, Dark Companion, The Damned Don't Die - and a 2010 novel in hardcover, Windward Passage.

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