Perhaps on a handful of occasions, you come across a story that can paradoxically alter and reinforce your understanding of the human condition. A story so rich in complex and interesting characters, their lives narrated with such vivid detail and telling dialogue, they have to be real people and not the imagined composites of a novelist. A story set so perfectly in a place and time in history that you come away believing for a while that you lived there, traveled the streets, overheard conversations or had supper with the denizens.
Of the hundreds of books I have enjoyed reading, like an endless buffet of delicious meals, there are few and far between the luscious delicacies found in Thomas Thompson’s book, Blood and Money. This sumptuous feast requires slow, deliberate relish in order to luxuriate in every chapter like exquisitely prepared courses served in the finest restaurant. Before I had finished the first chapter of the book, I began to pace myself to allow the rare beauty and satisfying depth of this engrossing experience to linger like the afterglow of fulfilling lovemaking.
Thompson’s masterpiece made him famous, along with introducing the Robinson family to a worldwide audience. He tragically died at age 49 from an illness he acquired while researching another superb work, Serpentine, a riveting and bizarre true story about a serial killer who preyed on tourists in multiple continents. Were not Thompson’s career cut short, I would be happily standing in line for his next offering. As it is, I have read and enjoyed every one of his books. His thorough understanding of human nature, exhaustive research and attention to detail, and his virtuoso ear for vernacular, anecdote and irony vaults his work far above the usual pulp suspense or crime genre into the category of great literature, along the lines of William Faulkner, James Joyce, or Dostoevsky. None of the reviews, dust cover blurbs, or quotes from publishers do justice to this book; there are no superlatives that can overstate its brilliance.
Blood and Money is set in Houston, Texas, from its beginnings as an uninhabitable swamp to its colorful and extraordinary ascension as a major power metropolis in America. Every influential player in the story is traced from childhood to his or her participation in the intricate drama, which at its core is a familiar tale of love, betrayal, murder, money, and revenge. Ash Robinson, a rags to riches hero, indulges his talented and popular daughter, Joan, to virtually anything her heart desires, including private education, champion horses, and three deadbeat husbands, the last of whom, plastic surgeon Dr. John Hill, probably murders her with a mysterious concoction of bacteria. I don’t want to spoil the story, but suffice it to say I believe John Hill facilitated Joan’s demise, if not precipitated it out of greed and expedience. Hill is a portrait of narcissism: self-serving ambition, reckless indulgence, cold and calculating cruelty, and with an overly protective, self-righteous mother who defends him to the bitter end. Some of you, like me, may despise Hill so intensely by the first half of the book, you begin rooting for the “bad guys” to escape punishment.
As in the Shakespearian tragedy, Macbeth, there are quite a few dead bodies before the end of the saga, and by now most of the survivors have passed on to the big oil rig in the sky. Unlike in most crime books, however, the reader is privy to an energetic biographical history of the lawyers, judges, prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, ruffians, cops, oil men, socialites, and even some famous Texan politicians, which could only be accomplished through massive research, countless interviews, and dissecting court transcripts and newspaper reports in an investigative fervor unmatched by many writers. Thompson was a journalist with obvious connections and charisma, in whom nearly everyone confided like a priest at the last rites.
Joan Robinson Hill is the most ambivalent character in the book, followed in a close second by her father, Ash, whose relationship with her was akin to worship. Unlucky in love, Joan is nevertheless adored by her family and friends, if not most of Houston, and represents the quintessential independent woman: talented, passionate, strong-willed, temperamental, philanthropic, and a devoted mother to her only child, a son she shared with the wretched Hill. Joan is no saint, but her failings and flaws are so endearing, she is someone with whom you can imagine being good friends or at least a doting admirer. Her death is only the beginning of a complex series of relationships, crime and murder.
If I tell you anything else, it will ruin the suspense. Buy a copy of Blood and Money. You will want to own this book, and savor every piquant page.Powered by Sidelines