The Cavalier Mr Thompson is perhaps slightly mis-nomered as a crime/suspense book. A crime takes place within the pages, but it is one that is almost incidental and secondary to Tommaso’s narrative, which is essentially a book about people and stories. Each character here, from the hotel residents who we meet by proxy, to the new caretaker, is given page time, background and story. It’s no mean feat considering Cavalier features a rather hefty cast of characters but Tommaso manages it without ever disrupting the flow of the narrative, floating from one person and plot point to another in a mostly seamless, organic manner that allows arcs to develop and flower naturally. Although some of these characters have no distinct ‘role’ as such, they are all part of the tapestry of people and storytelling from which Sam Hill’s life is woven.
Set in 1920’s Texas, Tommaso amalgamates his creation loosely with the life and works of crime writer Jim Thompson, beginning with an inauspicious birth in a jail cell, followed by the early death of his mother, Sam grows up living in, and helping his father run the hotel Cavalier. Now in his teenage years and on the cusp of adulthood, his head full with the tales and experiences of the multitude of guests who pass through the Cavalier’s doors, events mould him into deciding to leave to pursue his own interests. There are two main catalysts for this decision: the arrival of Nick, a new caretaker cum security guard, and his lovely daughter Willa and the death of Ross Thompson, a recent arrival who is found murdered in his room. Instead of following Sam himself, Tommaso sets a wider scope, showing us his environment and surroundings, the people he encounters, his existing and growing relationships, leaving us to ponder the effect of these on his actions and decisions.
This expanse, however, means you don’t really get much of a grasp on Sam as a character himself until a final angry, blow-up exchange between him and his father where frustrations, grievances and expectations are vented. This is the point where the book feels truest; the volatility, the exposed emotions express the relationship between father and son perfectly, with lack of understanding and a generational gap dividing the two . In his Kickstarter drive, Tommaso talked of the relationship between Jim Thompson and his father being the point at which all the ideas of Cavalier came together for him, as it so closely mirrored the relationship with his own father and that’ personal connection is keenly felt here. This climatic argument proves to be both cathartic and a catalyst for Sam, bringing more of his personality into relief and only then do you get a sense of this being his story, or the beginning of it at least.
The world of Sam Hill is something that’s been 10 years in the making, both to it’s detriment and benefit- it’s dense and richly populated with ideas, but it lacks a clear point or character that the reader can attach themselves to or really get behind. The approach of not sticking with one character which the narrative follows is workable, but the various plot threads -while enjoyable- don’t feel connected to Sam in any way, thus impacting on the reader’s connection to the text. The reasoning behind this is understandable: Tommaso plans to continue telling Sam Hill stories in one form or another, and so in this first book, he wants to show the reader where Sam has come from and the people and influences which have helped shape him, before he sets out on further adventures.
What the Cavalier does very well is encompass the zeitgeist of an era and people vividly. The cusp of change, the opportunistic business set-ups, displaced people forming communities, rag-tag thugs, the toil, the rise and fall of dreams, hope and idealism. Tommaso conjures all these, building stories within stories in a style rarely seen anymore. Nick, one of the more engaging characters, tells a lovely nostalgic little story about his short-lived boxing career with a perfect punch-line ending entirely in keeping with the camaraderie and humour associated with the profession at the time. Indeed, the over-arching feeling of reading this comic is one of benevolent pleasure: for the most part you’re happy to be led through the rooms and ravines, over train tracks and down corridors as a gentle narration of tales from times gone by ensconces you comfortingly.
Tommaso has recently begun serialisation of a new Sam Hill adventure, set this time in 1939, which you can read for free here.