A little more than a week ago, Bill Crider announced he was entering hospice care after battling cancer the last eighteen months. I’ve never met Bill, but I’ve read his work, followed his blog, exchanged emails with him here and there, and feel like I know him. Over the years I’ve read dozens of Bill’s stories, novels and shorts alike, and one has always stayed with me. And here is a review I wrote for that story all the way back in 2009.
The date is never clarified in Bill Crider’s story “Top of the World”, but its setting is a dusty town in 1950s or 1960s Texas. The protagonist is a mechanic with dreams. He wants his own shop and maybe even a car dealership. But his dreams require money. And money is something Sam Cobb, a middle-aged man who robs banks less for the money and more for the robbing, can help with.
On a summer day, Sam finds the protagonist—a young mechanic whose name is never told—in the small-time auto shop where he works. Sam has a robbery planned and he wants the mechanic to do the driving, but a feeling of unease settles on the protagonist when he learns Sam has gone in with a woman.
At least until he meets her.
Vicky is older, beautiful with sizzling red hair, a wildcat style and an insatiable appetite for men. The mechanic and Vicky hit it off after that first heist and then start a regular thing. Sam warns him off the lady, but the youngster doesn’t listen.
“Top of the World” is a swift and twisted throwback of a tale. It has the feel, pacing, and style of a 1950s Gold Medal novel boiled down to 5,000 words. A femme fatale story twisted sideways, turned upside down and shaken. Beautiful and hard with a smooth, dusty and melancholy prose:
He shook his head again. He didn’t look mad, just kind of sick, or maybe just sad, and he turned and left the garage, settling his hat down carefully on his head.
The narrative is first person, but executed in a way that allows an emotional distance, for the reader and narrator both, from the story. This created distance turns down the story’s suspense, and Crider brilliantly replaces it with the bittersweet melancholy of time’s passage. A feeling of old and new all at once.
“Top of the World” is the real deal. It is literate, beautiful and dark. It showcases Crider’s broad range as a writer—it is nothing like his Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels—his grasp of human psychology and, above all else, is entertaining as all hell.Bill Crider’s “Top of the World” appeared in the anthology Flesh & Blood: Dark Desires. I read it in The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, Vol. 4.