Muckabout, Outcast, Hero

David Corbett

Alexandra and Allison this past week blogged about heroes, and I mentioned in a comment that my favorite heroes are seldom the kind so many others seem to find so compelling. I realize this may seem like apostasy, but as much as I enjoyed Reacher and Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux (my favorite series hero), I felt no great need to revisit them. One bite of the apple and I was pretty much sated.

I know. Shoot me.

What can I say—I prefer the muckabout or lost soul, the guy down on his luck and wildly imperfect but not contemptible or contemptuous, the despised or disregarded outcast who comes through in a selfless act of courage.

Not only does this sort of hero feel more real and thus convincing to me, his arc is more gratifying because it travels a more difficult and unlikely trajectory. I can’t buy in to a final victory if it’s foretold all along by the hero’s too-conspicuous strengths and virtues.

And the hero I’m talking about can’t just possess a flaw, or a haunted past, or a lack of foresight. The flaw has to undermine his abilities or his will in such a way the climactic confrontation is realistically in doubt until the very end. That’s what creates suspense for me—not plot twists or overwhelming odds. The sheer complicated noble blind perversity of the human heart.

This type of hero appears in more permutations that one might think at first blush—everyone from Gal Dove in Sexy Beast:

To Kid Collins in After Dark, My Sweet:

To Freddy Heflin in Copland:

To Mickey Ward in The Fighter

To, yes, Seabiscuit (the horse everyone gave up on):


I think heroes reflect a kind of love affair. We don’t choose who we’re attracted to, who we fall in love with. That’s done for us by forces in our hearts and minds—and bodies—far beyond the radar’s sweep. And what can I say, the heroes so many others love often leave me cold. They remind me too much of the star quarterback, whereas I’ve always admired the guys in the trenches, the big uglies with muck and blood on their faces and hands, who fight and claw with little recognition, out of honor or pride or just cussed meanness. The Grunt, not the Officer & Gentleman. Sergeant Rock, not Captain America.

Now, it may well be that this love affair I’m describing is self-love. The kinds of heroes I like best are an almost embarrassingly obvious reflection of myself. They strike a chord because I see You Know Who in them.

But they also remind me of my father, whom I loved deeply and admired, whom I watched every morning dress for work like a warrior putting on his armor—this man my mother savaged with ridicule throughout their marriage, and left to die alone in a nursing home thousands of miles away. I wanted to rescue this proud man from his lovelessness, to redeem both him and me.

But I’m not sure pursuing this from an overly personal perspective gets us anywhere, so I’d like to discuss it in terms of one particular book and film, a relatively little known crime story from George Harrison’s HandMade Films titled Bellman & True (1987), and the novel by Desmond Lowden on which it’s based.

Here’s a trailer for the film, and the similarity to Sexy Beast should be obvious


They’re both British crime capers with a bank heist at their cores, with similar themes of the hero being drawn in against his will. But Bellman & True‘s Hiller lacks Gal Dove’s fallen-angel sex appeal — something that, in the end, strangely works to Hiller’s advantage.

The title comes from an old Cumberland song titled “D’ye Ken John Peel,” specifically the lyric:

            Yes, I ken John Peel and Ruby too.

            Ranter and Ringwood, Bellman and True.

            From a find to a check, from a check to a view,

            From a view to a death in the morning.

But there’s a pun in the term “bellman.” It also refers to a criminal who specializes in getting past bank alarms.

As good as the movie is—and it’s not just one of my favorite crime films, but one of my favorite films, period—I recently spent a sunny Sunday reading the book on which it’s based. I’ve now ordered everything else I can find that Desmond Lowden’s written—most of which, sadly, is long out of print and can be had for a song.

Don’t confuse obscurity with lack of talent—in writers or heroes.

This book provided me with one of the most gratifying reading experiences I’ve had lately. As I said, I read it in a day—it’s a mere 183 pages—almost in one sitting. (I’ve only done that with two other books: Double Indemnity and Kim Addonizio’s brilliant poetry collection, Tell Me.)

The book is briskly paced, deftly executed, with brilliant dialog and a well-researched and richly detailed high-tech heist at its core. But what makes it truly unforgettable is the writing, especially the characters.

Consider the following sketches, which are deceptively simple:

Of Hiller, the hapless hero: He was middle-aged, with thinning hair, but there was something of the schoolboy about him. It was the tweed suit, ready-made, from a High Street tailor’s. The sort of suit you bought on leaving school for your first job. The man had kept to the same style ever since, though heavier now in the stomach and seat. And he’d looked after them well, as he walked he kept the suitcases carefully away from his trouser creases.

Of Hiller’s stepson, known only as the boy: He was small, the back of his head was soft and rounded. But his face was pale, sharply pointed with the effort of being eleven years old.

Of Anna, a former high-priced call girl (“on the game, what you’d call the big game, South Africa and the Bahamas”): She wore no make-up, she was strangely neutral, like a fashion model walking from one job to another, her face and hair in her handbag, and no expression for the journey in between.

Of a minor character, a shop clerk: The man was grey-haired. He had bacon and a suburban train-ride on his breath, and he caught the smell of whiskey on Hiller’s.

Even the setting descriptions enhance character, in this case Hiller’s again:

The room, when they reached it, was small. There was an old striped carpet, and a basin in the corner held up by its plumbing. Hiller went straight to the window. He stood close to the glass and smelled the sourness of other people’s breath. Across the street he saw the four houses in a row that were empty, their insides gutted and piled at the kerb, their insides dark. And Hiller felt safe. No-one could see he was here.

But the book rewards most poignantly in the interactions between Hiller and the boy, specifically the stories Hiller tells him to keep him entertained—stories about Lulu Land, where they only had Wagner on the jukebox, and about the Princess, who only smoked French cigarettes and was beautiful when she wasn’t looking. 

In one particularly revealing bit of storytelling early in the narrative, accomplished with sly indirection, using subtext beneath the dialog, we observe Hiller’s struggle with drink and his tender if troubled relationship with the boy; we see flickers of mawkish anger beneath his wit, especially anger at vapid bourgeois pretension—and resentment of the financial success that has eluded him, or which he himself has sabotaged; we learn of the Princess, who is the boy’s mother, and the infatuation they share for her, despite her cruel desertion of them both; and we feel that desertion bitterly, even though (or perhaps because) its extremes are merely hinted at. 

The other great joy of the book is watching Hiller’s character solidify—and his love for the boy deepen. It’s easy to assume that Hiller is doomed, because of the feckless oblivion that’s led to his involvement with men far more ruthless than he realizes. But it’s not as simple as that, and Hiller is not that simple a man. His fondness and concern for the boy crystallize with a mutual realization that they only have each other, and it’s never been otherwise.

Hiller engages me in ways more conventional mystery/thriller heroes just don’t (which no doubt explains a great deal about my career). He’s not just the clichéd “tarnished hero,” nor can he be tidily tucked into the anti-hero drawer. He’s a recognizable man with a complex past and an insidious, almost overwhelming problem in the present, caused by his own thoughtless flirtation with darkness, his ongoing accommodation with despair.

And by the end he isn’t the same just more so, like so many heroes one comes across, especially in the genre. Without giving too much away, he achieves a distinct nobility, that of a man who gets up off his knees—if only to prove he can.

Note: The film was remade (and butchered) for American audiences by the same director (Richard Loncraine) with Harrison Ford in the lead. Curiously, this version, titled FIREWALL, includes no mention of Lowden in the credits. When I mentioned this to Don Winslow, he conjectured that Lowden got paid and “told to fuck off,” an all-too-frequent arrangement in the film world. Oh, and the American version is godawful. Harrison Ford has never sleepwalked through a performance more shamelessly. He looks like he’s expecting every scene to climax in an enema.

So, Murderati: Are you drawn to heroes with a crucial flaw, one that renders the likelihood of their prevailing always in doubt? Or do you prefer knights of a conspicuously whiter and more reassuring shade? In either case — why?

And ever notice how easy it is to mistype herpes for heroes?

Last–yes, I recognize the parallel between Hiller and the boy and my father and me—though I didn’t until Monday, when I wrote this piece. Talk about oblivious. Sheesh…

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: In keeping with my theme, here’s a video of Bettye Lavette, who for almost 40 years wandered the desert of R&B obscurity, until she gave the following performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Lincoln Center, and revealed not just that the woman has a soulful voice, but a cagey, fierce, indomitable spirit:



38 thoughts on “Muckabout, Outcast, Hero

  1. Reine

    David, I have three kinds of heroes; those who do things; those who get things done; those who don't fall in line and do evil – would rather die than cave or get swept into a self-serving cause.

    Gabby, Gabby, Gabby . . . is my current hero. That I wasn't there that day was the result of Tucson's impossible paratransit scheduling. That I don't have big survivor's guilt is due to everyone else in the neighborhood feeling the same way — and Gabby's fearless, righteous, devotion. And the Safeway employees who ask you how you are and mean it. And the manager who visits with customers who still cry in the store, but go back because it's our store. And our neighbors. And the kids have to see us doing these things.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    After the Beatles, I adore The Who and saw that performance. She was amazing; and both Roger and in particular Pete were enthralled and near tears. That is an amazing song but I don't believe anyone had ever heard it done that way.

  3. David Corbett

    As a general note to the day: I will be checking in at two-hour intervals, on the odd-hours Pacific time. It's the best way I can juggle both my work load and my duties here.

    Reine: That's an interesting trichotomy of heroes. I'm not sure I get the distinction between the first two, except a bit of active/passive discrepancy. And it seems to me a great number of heroes might slip through the cracks between categories, but maybe that's not true.

    And Gabriela is certainly a real hero. She reminds me a little of my late wife, so decent, so strong, so unshakably honest. (I just typed something I had to erase because it was "political," and I've been warned we don't do that here.)

    PK: The Who was one of those bands as a kid that woke me up. Something changed in my head when I heard them. The same for the Byrds, the Kinks, Dylan, Blues Project, Spirit, Santana and Sly & the Family Stone. I didn't really get into the Beatles or Stones or Soul till I played them in a bar band (my particular brand of stupidity). But I knew of Bettye Lavette before this performance, and was so incredibly happy for her. There's a great New Yorker piece about her, and a friend of mine wants to do a documentary about her. Incredible story. Talk about a fallible hero who just too damn stubborn to stop.

    Here's another great video of her from an earlier era:

  4. MJ

    YES!!!!!!! Someone else loves Bettye Lavette!!!!! She is awesome as is her version of this song – everyone, go buy some Bettye. She will F you up (and she sells Teeshirts that say that too).

    David – I share your feelings about heros/protagonists. Which makes my writing (and reading tastes) several degrees off from the mystery "normal" but hey, that's me. I do like Loren Estleman's Amos Walker quite a bit, though (esp. in non-series short stories – I have issues with series, which will get me drummed out of all genre writing forever but so be it).

  5. Reine

    David, I am sure you are right about my categories. I see the first two as different, though, in that the first is the one who is the everyday hero who does dedicated good work perhaps with risk, while the second is the one who has a specific goal that benefits others; they find a way to do it; they do it. The third is hugely important, not passive in my mind at all, as to die rather than push the people into the gas chamber, or to refuse to fight in a war of aggression.

    They aren't good categories. Certainly not rigid or designed to exclude. They just allow me to sort with first-line breadth, so I can think about it.

  6. Stephen D. Rogers


    Thanks for all the great leads. (It just so happens I just started a story with such a hero.)

    COPLAND is much under-appreciated. Along the lines you describe, I'm thinking THE WRESTLER and the younger brother in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD.


  7. David Corbett

    MJ: Loren Estleman is on my radar because a friend who's a Michigander — Michigandian? MIchigandero? Wolverine? — and he's been hammering me to read him. Now I really have no excuse.

    Reine: No, I caught the distinctiveness of the third category. And I see where the first two are distinct, but I can also see a bit of overlap. Doesn't matter what I think anyway. If it works for you, that's the ticket. And it clearly does. So I'll shut up now.

    Stephen: Good luck with the story. I agree on COPLAND — why it's not better known is a shame (I feel the same about A PERFECT WORLD). Both THE WRESTLER and BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD stop short of letting the heroes vindicate or redeem themselves, and I like them both for that, the latter more than the former, admittedly. I thought both Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were brilliant, and the story was a dark little gem. (I'm ready for Marisa Tomei to find a new role, though.)

    On redemption: This is currently the big tamale in Hollywood, and I'm a little wary because of that. I have a good buddy who spent 8 years in prison for armed robbery, and had a key crucible moment when he discovered Buddhism. Changed his life. More importantly, it changed his heart. But he thinks redemption is crap. He's still a criminal, and every day he fights the anger and cynicism manipulative tendencies that led him down that path. But he also has a huge heart, adores his daughter, works his ass off to help other ex-cons. He's an inspiration, truly. His point is: There was no grand moment when he walked into the sun and never looked back. It's more like being a recovering junkie than Saul on the road to Damascus. But people love their fairytales.

  8. Louise Ure

    David, I do so agree agree about the heroes/protagonists you love.

    But I wonder, is part of their appeal that they all appear in stand-alone works? That we do not truly know whether they will survive this onslaught? Unlike their series counterparts who have to appear in the next book, they do not have to hold the promise of even a remotely happy ending.

  9. Judy Wirzberger

    Ah. I love Louise's comment. Something to ponder.

    I love Joe Pike. I love his loyalty, his friendship, his injured spirit, his ability to climb the ladder of morality beyond the law and order rung to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

  10. David Corbett


    I'd say you hit el nailo on the heado. Precisely. Too often a series hero becomes more of an action figure for the marketing department than a bona fide character. One great exception is Lawrence Block's Scudder. But the reason marketing flacks fetishize series heroes is because fans love them so much. I'm just not one of those fans.

    I once commented on a panel that I didn't believe a book could be interesting unless the prospect of the protagonist's death was real–at which point Laurie King looked at me like I was an idiot (a look I've grown used to over the years).

    The fact I know the hero will survive — or not suffer some life-shattering loss or reversal — before I even crack open the book takes away a great deal of interest for me. And I don't mean the hero's love interest will bite it — is there any more dangerous occupation in the world than being Dave Robicheaux's girlfriend? That's a personal preference, I realize, but it's just the way I am.

    I was not born for this genre. I'm a stranger here.

    That said, three authors whose series I very much love are, again Block, Ed McBain and John Harvey. And I think Lehane's Angie and Patrick series and Denise Mina's mini-series, if you will, benefit from going no further than a few installments.


  11. David Corbett


    I sometimes think the sneakily seductive appeal of Joe Pike is precisely the fact that his extra-judicial excesses may at any given time finally catch up with him. But Crais is enough of a businessman never to let that happen, and so my interest flags.


  12. Allison Davis

    I'm a bit lost with all the movie discussions because while I like movies I don't get out much to see them, and don't watch them at home (no TV for one). I like the series hero who prevails, and sometimes I'm just wanting some albeit false hope that the good guys win. I did just see Cowboys and Aliens — Jake the hero is a cad and the movie itself is classic cliches (but done well) and I enjoyed the sililness of that. I also like baseball because I like heroes — there is pain and suffering (especially now with the Giants) in baseball, and moments for heroes. One of my favorite redemption movies is "8 Mile." But my #1 favorite hero movie is Bladerunner, I do own all versions of it. Bad guys are good guys, good guys are awful, and everyone twists around in the movie. Gaff (Edward James Olmos character) in the end let's Dickard go when he could have killed the girl. I love that part.

    I also like the deeper, more brooding hero that you describe, the flawed hero who has the possibility redemption but maybe undermines it, or is redeemed but too late. Maybe it's just that we get to see deeper inside the hero and experience more dimensions and the flaws themselves can cause tension in the story. Your Buddhist friend who still carries his burden reminded me of something a therapist once told me, you don't get rid of the parts of you that cause you trouble or pain, you just learn to carry them around.

  13. David Corbett


    Sports actually have the kind of tension I'm talking about, because unless the game is rigged, or the adversaries clearly outmatched, there's no real telling who will win until the final play or out.

    I know I pooh-poohed Christopher Vogler in an earlier post, but he makes a crucial point about heroes: They are obliged to die, if not in the flesh in the spirit. The ego has to dissolve so the greater aspects of the self, the anima, the shadow, can be incorporated into the personality. Now that's either deep wisdom or Jungian mumbo jumbo, depending on your take on things, but I do believe that unless the hero faces some crucial existential jeopardy, whether physical or psychological or emotional, the story suffers an inevitable slightness. And that's just damn hard to pul off in a series.


  14. David Corbett


    The snippets I quoted are from the book, and don't appear in the movie — obviously, you don't describe in a film, you show. But it's still a great film. I hope you like it.


  15. Louise Ure

    I spoke/wrote too quickly, David. It was a download of the book I was looking for. When I couldn't find that, I ordered a used copy of the hardcover edition. Can't wait.

  16. David Corbett


    Oh, how cool! let me know when you finish it, we'll go out to eat Mexican and talk about it. (And stupid me–I forgot you can download books. How ass-backward is that?)


  17. Susan Shea

    Louise, I have a hunch there will now be a sudden surge in sales of the book. I'm checking for the Brits' version of Bellman& True film as well. This discussion of what makes a hero worthy, memorable, true belongs in a book about the craft. Hey, David, aren't you working on one?

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is sort of wandering off the topic but I just love Richard Loncraine – Bellman and True is great but the really mindblowing film of his is Brimstone and Treacle… with a criminally young Sting as a demonic/angelic character. Talk about moral ambiguity!

    I loved his Richard III, too.

  19. Terry Shames

    David along those lines, I've read two books this year that you might like: Galveston, by Nic Pizziaolo and am currently reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.

    Re cop shows, have you seen Southland? My favorite in a long time.

  20. David Corbett

    Terry: Both those books are going to be picks for the book group I lead.

    Alexandra: I was unaware one could be off-topic here. 🙂

    Seriously, I agree with your Loncraine picks, which is what made his "remake" of BELLMAN & TRUE with Harrison Ford especially painful.

  21. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    You should be a publicist, David. The first and only truly literary publicist. You've sold more of Lowden's books today than he probably sold in his lifetime. I'll be buying it today. I love that line about the woman keeping her face in her handbag…brilliant stuff. Thanks for enlightening me!

  22. JT Ellison

    My favorite heroes are the ones who do immoral things for moral reasons. Assassins come to mind first. The knight errant is always appealing, and the Byronic is also a fave. I am also a fan of the hero who is simply a hero because what they do is heroic, not supernatural or overbearing or noir, just the right thing to do at all costs.

    Nice one today, Corbett.

  23. David Corbett

    Steven: I have my uses. I think you'll love the book. I'd actually transcribed a much longer section, but decided not to use it because the post would be way too long. Glad I didn't now, because I would have spoiled that section of the book for you (and Terry, and Susan, and Louise …)

    JT: Thanks. You make me feel limited in my choice of heroes. I'm nowhere near as narrow-minded as I seem, actually. (Quiet, Alafair.) I was going for provocative, but nobody took the bait.

  24. Reine

    David, this is an enlightening conversation for me regarding heroes and reading. In fact you can pretty much disregard my previous statements. It's the series/stand-alone observations that make me realize what I look for in a book. It's not the tension as much as the mystery that does it for me. Like THE RUNAWAY JURY was fantastic ecause of the weaving-unweaving-reweaving of the mystery of who's doing what, to and with whom. Then again it's the only John Grisham novel I've read so far – pretty new to fiction, still – so maybe I would have a different perspective were I actually familiar with his work.

    Thanks again, Corbett, for the mind stretch.

  25. David Corbett



    As long as the weaving-unweaving-reweaving is rooted realistically in character, I'm fine. It's when stuff happens for no clear reason that I get a little itchy.

    I think what it gets down to is I don't trust anyone who doesn't feel some deep sense of regret. Now I know many series heroes do. But what stifles my interest in the series hero is I know that he will never be called on to sacrifice himself or herself for the greater good because the publisher and the author want to sell more books. That has nothing to do with story, but it poisons story. The one quality that truly defines a hero is that willingness to sacrifice himself for others. So I never buy in. And I'm not sure I'm supposed to.


  26. David Corbett


    I have to make this quick because I have a neighborhood watch meeting to go to, but here goes:

    Realism is the most difficult mode in fiction to do well. Words on a page automatically create an illusion, so one can never really capture in language the physical reality of life, but through an attention to the word by word fictive world created, avoiding cliche and pat language, pulling back from authorial voice at just the right time, just the right level, not overdoing it by being stylistically anti-style (a common occurrence in the crime genre), concentrating on capturing the real-world reflection in your imagination, you can create characters and stories that linger in people's minds with the power and intensity and emotional resonance of memory. It's much easier to create deliberately fanciful worlds, or pretend to do mere reportage, which is just using flat language as an excuse. You can never escape voice, nor should you. But there's a sweet spot, a kind of lowering of your authorial voice with care to the details, that can capture something that ironically is both magically fictive and as real as your own life. The reader surrenders to your language and trusts you're trying to be as accurate as humanly possible, on all levels. You deep sense of things and theirs connect. It's great when it works. It's hard to pull off. Almost always, there's a false note: a clumsy phrase or an obvious authorial intrusion, or a blatant stupidity passing for an insight.


  27. Reine

    Wow. Mm. Thanks, Corbett. You are totally fucking brilliant.

    That must be your condo group? Have fun with that meeting.

  28. MJ

    David – I'm so happy to hear that I'm not the only reader who doesn't like series…and I think that you described what I'd been feeling in the action figure/no chance of death/repetition thing. I know that a lot of readers love series, and as a writer I should embrace them as my ticket to beer money, but I'm having an incredibly hard time doing that right now. The series enjoyment I had in my 20s is gone at 41 – and the worst part, the part that makes me put the book down, is the inevitable harkening back to the first book/origin story. As soon as we start looking back to Book 1/how they met/how they started fighting crime together, I'm out. Maybe that'll change again.

    Not born to this genre either, except perhaps by way of Chandler and MacDonald (and those protags didn't look back to past cases all that often, did they? Like Estleman, many of my favorite books with a shared PI function as stand-alones).

  29. David Corbett


    It's a topic that could use a bit more exploration. Maybe we will as the weeks progress.

    As I say, heroes are a love affair, and I can see why people latch on to series heroes. But a series hero can't die, obviously, nor can he, in every book, have the kind of emotionally gratifying and credible core confrontation with death or some key element of his life or psyche that truly makes a story great.

    I think Michael Connelly comes close to that with Harry Bosch, because he gave Bosch such an incredible amount of baggage, but I agree with you, in the end a series book begins to feel more like a marketing strategy than a work of art.

    I’ll definitely look into Estleman. He’s been on my radar for a while. Thanks for the kick in the shin.


  30. Reine

    I know this must be terribly naive, David. Just wondering though if a series hero must die. Heroes people follow in real life, get stupid, "turn to the dark side," even die in a ball of fire – a bit like Buford Pusser (although his death is not proven to have been a hit) or Chauncey Bailey?

    I know about the bread and butter aspect of book writing. Aside from that why cannot the demise of the hero be part of the tension in the building of a series – a brief series, perhaps?

  31. David Corbett


    The death need not be physical. And indeed, James Bond hardly need die. There are a great many perfectly good stories that do not observe the guidelines I'm describing. But great stories, to my mind, involve some key risk–and the risk must be real to truly engage the reader. If we know the hero will survive before the adventure even begins, then the risk is to some extent contrived. And if the death is metaphorical, i.e., a key aspect of the psyche changes forever–the shedding of a deep-seated fear or hatred, overcoming a key regret, opening one's heart to true intimacy–there are only so many of those a hero can endure in a row before the series begins to feel contrived as well.


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