JOHN HAWKES – The Lime Twig.

New Directions, paperback, 1961; reprinted several times & still in print. UK edition: Neville Spearman, hardcover, 1962.


   If you’ve ever wondered what a Gold Medal novel or Dick Francis thriller written by a literary icon would be like then The Lime Twig should be your cuppa. John Hawkes is a legendary figure in the American literary world probably best remembered for his erotic novels Traveler and Blood Oranges, but his breakthrough novel is The Lime Twig, an expanded novella about a lower middle class English couple whose boredom leads them into a downward spiral of crime, violence, and death.

   Michael and Margaret Banks are befriended by William Hencher, who decides to do them a good turn by letting them in on a sure thing — the hijacking of a race horse. But from the beginning things go wrong. Hencher is killed in the heist, and Michael is chosen by the gang to take his place as their front man, kept quiet by the sexual lure of two women. When Margaret becomes suspicious she is kidnapped, and after Michael becomes enamored of one of the femme fatales, Sybilline, she is raped and murdered. When Michael tries to free himself he too meets his fate.

   The book is written in a lush nightmarish style that gives the novel the feel of descending into a dream world where nothing is quite what it seems to be. Michael is caught up in an erotic dream and Margaret in an erotic nightmare until both their fates dovetail in death.

   The chapters are separated by articles by a sports journalist, Sidney Slyter, whose commentary was insisted upon by the publisher to keep the reader from being too confused. You can use them for that purpose or skip them, but don’t expect a suspense novel in the usual sense. Suspense, at least what we mean by suspense, isn’t really Hawkes’ point or interest.

   It’s that kind of a book.

   Still, as literary writers go, Hawkes is never dull and has genuine ability. The Lime Twig doesn’t really work as a crime novel, but it does work as a study of human nature and a portrait of innocent individuals caught up through no real fault of their own in a growing nightmare, even if it comes in the guise of a favor and an erotic gift.


   Hawkes’ most accessible novel was Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade, a novel about an Alaskan Madam who operates a fly in brothel. He is almost always interesting and often treads on the dark side of human nature. Others than those I’ve mentioned, you might also try his novel Whistlejacket.

   That said, whether or not you want to read a book like The Lime Twig depends a great deal on your tolerance for literary style (and pretense), and your understanding going in that this is not Elmore Leonard or John D. MacDonald.

   However much it may sound like a Gold Medal original, its aims and intent are in other areas, and anyone expecting a thriller is apt to be disappointed. The Lime Twig has the same relation to most crime novels that Donald Gammell’s film Performance has to most gangster films.

   But understanding that, Hawkes is a good writer, never pretentious or full of himself, and certainly The Lime Twig has a nightmarish quality many a suspense writer would envy.

   As a crime novel it is a curiosity, as a literary novel a small masterpiece. Hawkes is an excellent writer, but he’s not for all tastes and admittedly can be difficult going — especially if you have a low tolerance for literary style. He writes beautifully, and can even be entertaining, but he’s not basically an entertainer. The darkness in his books can make Cornell Woolrich look like a cockeyed optimist.

   This is a worthy book, but if you read it, I hope you don’t think you’re going to find a thriller. If you decide to read it and hate it, remember, I warned you going in.


Bibliographic data: You can find all a list of all of John Hawkes’ contributions elsewhere online. This website is one that will do very nicely. The Lime Twig is not currently in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, but from David’s review, I (Steve) think it should be. His entry in CFIV presently looks like this:

HAWKES, JOHN (Clendennin Burne, Jr.) 1925-1998.
      Death, Sleep, and the Traveler (New Directions, 1974, hc) [Ship] Chatto, 1974.
      Whistlejacket (U.S.: Weidenfeld, 1988, hc) [England] Secker, 1989.

[UPDATE] 05-30-09. Al agrees. In it goes. The book will appear in the next installment of the online Addenda to the Revised CFIV.