A truly frightening psychological thriller on par with Jim Thompson, Vin Packer’s The Twisted Ones (1959) is written with cold desolation and unflinching violence. Structured as a triptych narrative about a sixteen-year-old rapist, a nineteen-year-old murderer, and an eight-year-old arsonist, it is a stark portrait of how three seemingly ordinary young people are driven to murder for reasons beyond even their own understanding. Though their crimes are monstrous, Packer doesn’t treat her characters as monsters, and she gets into their heads with chilling sympathy.
It is, on the whole, a complex and prismatic look at the social, sexual, psychological, and emotional conditions that can contribute to a crime. Some of the situations are ordinary—such as an aloof high-schooler still getting used to his father’s new, and much younger, wife, or an aging momma’s boy struggling for his own independence—while others are more extraordinary—such as an eight-year-old wunderkind with photographic memory winning thousands of dollars on a national game show. But what each of these stories share in common is a deep-seated fear of being different, an unshakeable sense of isolation and anxiety, and an inevitable sense of doom. The family situations, the loneliness, and the alienation felt by the characters seems so ordinary that to witness everything snowball into murder is profoundly disturbing. Packer manages to make her criminals as terrifying as they are identifiable.
Packer is mostly known for her daring and controversial subject matter, but she was also a highly skilled writer who deserves more praise for her formal experimentation. 5:45 to Suburbia unfolds on a series of March 6th birthdays that jumped back and forth between the 1920s and 1950s, while Whisper His Sin, The Girl on the Best Seller List, and The Evil Friendship preface each chapter with excerpts from fictionalized books, interviews, and newspaper accounts. The Twisted Ones is written in seven parts, each broken down into three individual narratives (one for each of the characters) that could almost stand alone as separate short stories, even though by the end characters in one story learn about characters in the others through the newspaper and television. The clean division of the chapters both mirrors the isolation felt by the characters, but it also speaks to the synchronicity of their traumas, as well as their shared social and personal problems. Though they feel alone, their issues aren’t only their own—they are problems that need to be faced by society as a whole, which is a recurring message throughout Packer’s novels.
The big question in The Twisted Ones is—how, as a society, do we even begin to make sense of these seemingly senseless crimes? It is one thing to commit murder to get someone’s money or property, or out of revenge—but what about when even the criminals don’t understand what they did? And how do we come to terms with the fact that they are so young? Youth violence continues to be a much talked-about topic in today’s news: a few years ago it was school shootings, and now it is bullying and suicide. Packer’s novel continues to be relevant some half a century later because she faces the complicated issues of youth violence head-on, examining it from multiple perspectives, and avoiding any reductive conclusions. It’s interesting to compare The Twisted Ones to portraits of youth violence in movies at the time, such as Rebel Without a Cause. As great as Nicholas Ray’s film was, Packer’s novel is far more disturbing, and it lacks the self-destructive glamour of James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. There’s nothing romantic or alluring about the crimes in The Twisted Ones. The book still packs a bleak and unsettling punch, and like a lot of Packer’s novels, this one still has a lot to say to modern readers.
Cover art by Robert Abbett