Hard Twisted

Sunday Times, 18 November 2012

by C Joseph Greaves

Stories based in America’s Great Depression often focus on men struggling to find work. Hard Twisted is set in the 1930s but its main character, unusually, is a 13-year-old girl. Lucile Garrett is a vulnerable child in a world of men, and the novel’s most wrenching scenes gain added pathos from the knowledge that it’s based on a true story.

In 1994 the author, C  Joseph Greaves, a lawyer, was hiking in a remote area of San Juan County, Utah, when he stumbled across two human skulls. From the location, he concluded they were Indian skulls from one of the local tribes, and bone fragments suggested they’d been shot. This macabre find sent Greaves on a mission to research the history of the period, and led him to the true story of the 1935 “skeleton murder” trial.

The victim was Lucile’s father, Dillard. His remains were found near a farm belonging to a family called Palmer outside the town of Peerless, Texas, in December 1934. Dillard was a stern, ­God-fearing man who had struggled to bring up his only child after her mother’s death. Father and daughter travelled round the state together, looking for farm work and camping in whatever shelter they could find.

The following year, a con man called Clint Palmer was convicted of Garrett’s murder, and the principal witness for the prosecution was Lucile, known to her friends as ­Lottie. The trial is the starting-point for Greaves’s novel, which is an imaginative reconstruction of the relationship between Lottie and her father’s murderer. It is clear Palmer was a psychopathic sexual predator who targeted Lottie as soon as he met the Garretts.

In the novel, Lottie immediately senses something “feral” in the wiry little man, something akin to the fighting cocks he uses to lure her father into a business deal. But ­Dillard is a Bible-thumper with little understanding of real life and he’s easily taken in by Palmer’s brazen lies. Palmer grooms Lottie by sneaking her off to a cafe in Paris, Texas, and encouraging her todrink whiskey.

Her predicament is harrowing to behold as Palmer entraps and confuses her. The stories he tells Lottie about himself quickly unravel, but by then they’re all resting for a few days on his father’s run-down farm. One day Palmer and Dillard go out, leaving Lottie locked in a room, and Palmer returns alone. He persuades Lottie that Dillard has gone ahead on the road and they will catch him up. By now pregnant, she has little choice but to remain with Palmer, anxiously asking everyone she meets if they’ve seen her father.

Greaves’s descriptions of the landscape are lyrical, in contrast to Lottie’s brutal experiences, as Palmer tries his hand at stealing horses. He is a spree killer who murders for the pleasure of it, ­forcing Lottie to witness the ­killing of a local sheriff and another man before he is arrested ina stolen car. The novel displays Greaves’s deft grasp of psychology, using ­dialogue to offer a plausible explanation of why Lottie stayed with a man as cruel as Palmer. Their scenes together are impressionistic, anchored by excerpts from an (invented) transcript of Palmer’s trial. Lottie does not find out for some time that her father’s skeleton has been discovered in a cave near the Palmer farm, where it’s clear he has been decapitated — mirroring Greaves’s own experience with the Indian skulls, which may actually be relics of an Indian uprising.

After Palmer’s conviction, he spent the rest of his life in prison, where he died in 1969. It is a testament to the harshness of the period that Lottie herself, aged 15, was tried and convicted of associating with a known criminal. Despite being the victim of a paedophile, she was sent to a reformatory until her 21st birthday. Greaves’s ­fictional version of her story is a strange and unsettling read.

Bloomsbury £12.99

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