The Night of the Hunter
by Davis Grubb
America is in the grip of the Great Depression and Ben Harper has robbed the local bank of $10,000 because he was “just plumb tired of being poor”. Two guards were killed in the shoot-out that followed so he awaits his death sentence. Sharing his jail cell is a man, Harry Powell, who calls himself the Preacher. But what kind of preacher, thinks Ben, carries a stick knife in his boot and has ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on the knuckles of his hands? Ben taunts Powell with his story but no matter how hard he tries Powell cannot get Ben to tell him where the money is hidden - though he does know Ben has a wife and two young children and he knows they live at Cresap’s Landing on the banks of the Ohio river.
Powell inveigles his way into the lives of Willa, Ben Harper’s widow, and the children nine year old John and four year old Pearl. Powell soon realises that Willa has no idea where the money is; that it’s the children he needs to persuade. But John is a shrewd boy and loyal to the memory of his father to whom he promised never to reveal the hiding place, and he will not be worn down. Pearl, on the other hand, is younger and charmed by her new daddy so Powell takes every opportunity to get her alone and work on her.
What follows is truly shocking and the increased tension and suspense is almost unbearable. To say more about the plot would surely give too much away but the Ohio river setting is so atmospheric and so key to the plot and the voices of the characters are pitch perfect. This book really is (and I use this expression rarely) unputdownable.
Grubb has produced a modern parable with a faultless portrayal of evil, greed and sexual repression which should really carry a warning - don’t read late at night!
Published by Simon and Schuster (Blue Murder) - 255pp
In 1955 Charles Laughton made a, soon to be re-released, film of the novel, starring Robert Mitchum, which is now seen as a masterpiece of expressionistic cinema.