Saturday, May 25, 2024

Chris Harding Thornton's "Little Underworld"

Chris Harding Thornton, a seventh-generation Nebraskan, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska. Her first novel, Pickard County Atlas, was chosen by author Tana French (In the Woods, The Searcher) as a PBS Masterpiece Best Mystery of 2021. The book was also featured in the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere.

Here Harding Thornton dreamcasts an adaptation of her recently released second novel, Little Underworld:
Little Underworld is a novel set in Omaha during Prohibition—specifically, during the spring of 1930. Jim Beely, a private investigator, kills the man who sexually assaulted his daughter. While disposing of the body, he runs across a dirty cop, Frank Tvrdik, who helps cover up the crime for a trade. Jim agrees to take down a candidate for city commission by bungling an investigation. When that plan goes awry, Jim and Frank try to figure out what happened. The answers lie in the twisting, turning, and brazenly ridiculous machinations of the city’s corrupt politics.

For better or worse, I write books to be read in one sitting (because that’s how I read them). To me, books are films inside a reader’s head, so I keep the intermissions to a minimum. What kept this book rolling for me, what made it a good time, was the dark humor and the absurdity of the plot. So, ideal directors of an adaptation would be someone like Paul Thomas Anderson or Joel and Ethan Coen, people who can balance intensity and hilarity on the head of a pin. There are only two movies I’ve re-started immediately after first watching them: Phantom Thread and No Country for Old Men. During the initial viewing of both, I was too tense, too sucked in, to fully appreciate how funny they were, so the second watch was solely for laughs.

As for casting, I’d pluck the leads from the historic silver screen. I based Jim Beely on one of my great-grandfather’s uncles (who really was a PI who ran afoul of politicians). He was a huge guy, and while Edward G. Robinson was not, with some tricky camera angles, Robinson would fit the bill. He could capture Jim’s cranky cynicism, his unwillingness to crack a grin, while delivering on the rat-a-tat hardboiled dialogue.

Pulling from the same period, James Cagney would’ve made a great Frank Tvrdik. They’re both lit fuses—unpredictable and seemingly capable of anything. Cagney’s background in dance would fit Frank’s sure and bouncy stride. His mischievous (but somehow cherubic) face would be a dead ringer for the character, and Cagney could capture the terrifying intensity Frank’s prone to.
Visit Chris Harding Thornton's website.

Q&A with Chris Harding Thornton.

--Marshal Zeringue