A ‘Twisted’ gangster and his girl

Cortez author’s novel based in fact

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Courtesy of Bloomsbury

It’s easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing history’s great criminals – we’ve been doing it since Robin Hood burglarized Nottingham in the name of the people. Cortez author Chuck Greaves knows better.

Few eras created as many anti-heroes as America’s Great Depression, when gangsters such as Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde lived and died by the Tommy Gun. But they were just the headliners, and if there’s anything worse than a celebrity murdering thief, it’s an anonymous, two-bit, lowlife, statutory rapist of a murdering thief. That’s Clint Palmer, and the fictionalized story of him and his 13-year-old traveling companion, Lottie Garrett, is the subject of Greaves’ great new novel, Hard Twisted.

I’ll leave the facts of Palmer’s story and the 1935 “Skeleton Murder” trial to Greaves, who will fill in the historical facts tonight when he’ll be the guest speaker at Maria’s Bookshop. But about 20 years ago, Greaves found two human skulls in the Utah desert and it is his research into those victims that led him to write Hard Twisted. Few authors of historical fiction have such firsthand insight into their subjects.

The novel has been called “gritty” by every reviewer I’ve read, and I can’t improve on the adjective. Homeless Lottie and her father meet Palmer shortly after his release from Leavenworth, which, sadly, is the best thing that happens to the abbreviated family. Shortly thereafter, Dad vanishes, and Palmer drags Lottie around the country in “search” of him, though we realize almost immediately that it’s a futile search and Palmer knows it all too well.

In detailing the couple’s odyssey, Greaves debunks any of the romantic myth associated with the ’30s gangster. Like his infamous counterparts, Palmer always had a few extra dollars after every town they’d stop at in the Southwest. One of those towns was Durango, which Greaves accurately described as a near ghost town in 1934 in between the silver rush and the tourist boom.

Lottie never seemed to notice that Palmer’s pockets were a deeper each time, but she probably overlooked his larceny because she had her own problems. Palmer, whom history has revealed to be a sexual predator of underage girls, treated the adolescent Lottie as his “wife” during their year together on the road across four states. And it wasn’t like she was living the gangster high life, either; Palmer also treated her to a never-ending string of roadside campsites and seedy boarding houses.

The research and historical accuracy of Hard Twisted, combined with Greaves’ commitment to pulling no punches in telling the story, explain why the novel was named Best Historical Novel in the SouthWest Writers’ International Writing Contest. It should be the first of many such honors.

ted@durangoherald.com

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