Thursday, August 15, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THE HUNTER by Christopher Keane

Okay, I admit it - I'm kind of going outside the lines with this week's book, which purports to be a biographical account of Ralph 'Papa' Thorson's life as a modern-day bounty hunter. Except I've read 'The Hunter' a couple of times now and I'd be really surprised if even fifty percent of its contents are entirely factual. Now don't get me wrong - it's a thoroughly addictive read about a larger-than-life individual who actually was a well-known bounty-hunter, but it's really the format more than anything else that makes me doubt its veracity. At least, in places.

Because Keane writes the biography as though it were a novel, complete with definite character arcs for the main protagonists, extensive dialogue scenes, dastardly villains, the lot. Which isn't a crime, of course. Many biographers structure their works in the same way in order to accentuate the more dramatic elements of their subject's life, but in this case Keane really stretches the bounds of reality.

For one thing, he constantly hops between various characters' POV to let the reader experience those individuals' thoughts and hopes, which strikes me more as artistic license than straight reporting. And on a number of occasions there are scenes between peripheral characters that Keane couldn't possibly know about. I'm thinking in particular of a scene between two Hell's Angels, one of whom is an extremely violent paranoid schizophrenic, which I'm pretty sure Keane made up entirely from scratch. And then there are the numerous dialogue scenes between various characters. These conversations are very plausible and natural-sounding and help make the narrative fly by, but I find it very hard to believe they were transcribed word for word. Assuming they happened at all. Take for example this scene between the flamboyant Winston Blue and his associate, where Papa doesn't even appear until the end:

     While Winston waited for Papa's familiar yellow Plymouth to cruise into the neighbourhood, he chatted with his recently acquired partner, a young Chicano he discovered in the Thrifty Discount Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. The Chicano's name was Real.
     'Real?' Winston asked the kid. 'As in deal?'
     No, as in Ray-Al but the kid was so impressed by Winston's cool demeanor that he didn't want to disagree with him. Real it would be. Yet Real wasn't strictly Winston's partner, not the way Winston saw it. More accurate would be valet, slave, peon, vassal.
     'Real, that's me,' the kid replied.

Now, call me a cynic, but I very much doubt the author was present in Bloom's apartment at that point, so I think it's safe to say a little artistic license was employed here. And possibly in a few other places as well. I also can't help thinking that Keane already had one eye on a possible movie deal and wanted to make the book as attractive as possible to producers, which would certainly explain the numerous dialogue and action scenes that fill the book.

And speaking of which, this is another case where the eventual movie that got made went on to overshadow the source material. Which is a shame as the movie version of 'The Hunter' itself isn't really all that memorable. It's quite likely you've seen it on TV at some point, with Steve McQueen playing the part of Thorson (and looking far older than his 49 years). The film's enjoyable enough without being anything too special, but it's notable mainly for being the actor's last movie before succumbing to cancer in 1980. It's also notable for featuring the real Thorson in a small cameo as a bartender who helps McQueen get drunk. This is the man himself serving his screen counterpart:

As you can see, the real-life Thorson was a huge bear of a guy, far removed from the trim movie star presence of McQueen. But he was also one hell of an interesting fellow too, with many different facets to his character - which was probably what got McQueen interested in his story in the first place. At the time of the book's publication in 1975, not content with being the only full-time bounty hunter in the USA (his peers all worked part-time while juggling other jobs), he was also a fully ordained Bishop of The Temple of Inspired Living, a master bridge champion, a classical music aficionado, a serious astrologer, and a criminology alumnus of the University of California. It seems he was also one of those people who thrive on chaos, as his residence in North Hollywood was essentially a permanent open house for all kinds of disparate characters, all drawn in like moths to Thorson's charismatic presence. In addition, men he'd picked up and sent to jail would often come back and Thorson would end up counselling them, lending them money, and even helping them find proper work.

That's when he wasn't out chasing violent fugitives all over the country. A 1987 Los Angeles Times article claimed he'd caught more than 12,000 fugitives over the course of his 40 year career, which, if true, is an astounding number. I'm inclined to halve that figure just out of principle, but even so that's still pretty damn impressive. Obviously the book only focuses on a small fraction of those cases, and Keane actually lays it out as though everything happens over a set period of six or seven months. However, it's more likely Thorson recounted (and possibly embellished) the more memorable cases from his recent past and told the author to present them however he wanted, making sure to change certain names where necessary.

In any case, the rogues' gallery contained in the book is really something to behold. We get to meet the insane Branch Brothers, for instance, who started out as seven but have a habit of blowing themselves up so are now down to two, and possess a combined IQ of a loaf of bread. Or there's Boom Boom Jakowski, the aforementioned Hell's Angel who's so volatile and unstable that even other Hell's Angels are afraid of him. There's Paco Carrera, a Mexican drug wholesaler whose abduction from his native country by Thorson and two associates comes under the heading: 'The Mission Impossible Snatch.' Then there's the improbably named Myron Fish, a harmless electronics whiz who's so nervous around Papa that he ends up destroying everything of Papa's that he tries to fix.

There are also two other notable felons who run through the narrative from beginning to end. One is Tony Bernado, whose capture Papa keeps putting off in order to wind up his tight-fisted employer, bail-bondsman Richie Blumenthal. The other one is Rocco Mason, a speed freak who's just been released from prison and has sworn to kill Papa. Again, Keane gives us numerous scenes of Mason watching Thorson's house which he couldn't possibly have witnessed himself (again, assuming they happened at all) and its when you're reading these passages that you begin to question what else in the book might have come from Keane's imagination.

But all that said, 'The Hunter' is still a well-written, rollocking read and worthy of anyone's time. It's clear why Hollywood snapped up the rights as Ralph 'Papa' Thorson is a truly fascinating and unique character and deserves to be better known (he apparently died in the early nineties - possibly from a car bomb from a vengeful fugitive, possibly from natural causes). As you'd expect, the book went out of print some time ago, but used copies can be picked up relatively cheaply online. But a word of advice: you'll enjoy the story a lot more if you take it all with a grain of salt.

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