Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bad Luck City, by Matt Phillips, reviewed by Heather Luby

Author: Matt Phillip
s Publisher: Near To The Knuckle
Release Date: February 2016
Price: $5.99
Reviewer: Heather Luby

California native Matt Phillips has been carving his name in the table of crime fiction for close to a decade. As a formally educated writer, poet, and journalist; Phillips knows his way around a story, from flash fiction and poetry, to his latest novel “Three Kinds of Fool,” out from All Due Respect Books.

Phillips is a writer’s writer. He knows the power of the carefully chosen “telling” detail, the beauty of the perfectly placed phrase, and the impact of subtle subtext in dialogue. But when it comes to capturing the sweaty underbelly of sin city and the depravity of criminals who hurt people for pleasure—it takes more than a sexy sentence to make the pain of it all feel true on the page.Lucky for us; Phillips knows his way around the dark recesses of the heart, too.

Sim Palmer is a lonely guy. The only family legacy he has comes in a bottle and burns going down. A rumpled veteran reporter whose best days and best stories seem to be behind him. No wife, no kids, just the job and a city that never sleeps. In walks a man in a fedora who offers him something he can’t refuse. There’s a girl, booze, and bad men to go around. If it all sounds a bit too familiar, you’re right; but you’re also wrong.

Bad Luck City pays homage to the well-worn crime fiction conventions, but it also steps up with more than a few unexpected detours. The pages deliver the well-timed gut punches, but they also carry with them something more potent: the revelation by Palmer that when you start digging, you’re bound to uncover a bit of yourself along the way. Whether you like it or not.

As the story progresses, Palmer begins to catch glimpses of his long dead father. These sightings force him to contemplate the dark instincts that kept his dad under the thumb of the city until his death. Palmer begins to wonder if maybe he’s inherited more than his dad’s .38. As he squares against tough guys and a sinister casino boss, Palmer suspects there’s more to uncover than just a good headline.

When casino boss Stan Evers preaches to Palmer, “There’s a difference, lots of times, between what feels true and what really is true. I think you know that,” Palmer begins to put the pieces together—seeing both himself and Evers for what they really are—men searching for something they can’t quite name.

For me, this is how the pieces come together in Bad Luck City. I think it feels true to say, in many ways, Bad Luck City has a little too much in common with most of the crime fiction out there. But what really is true, is that Phillips makes the reader care about his story anyway.

If characters are to ring true on the page, if readers come to ache along with their suffering, the stories can’t just be about rage or retribution. The stories must have heart, and Phillips delivers it beating on the pages in Bad Luck City.

For Sim Palmer the truth boils down to family. Behind all the bullshit and booze is an oozing wound of want; a primal need festering for decades until it ignites a fire in his belly so fierce he no longer recognizes himself or fears what he may be capable of doing to satisfy it.

If Phillips goal was to explore the emotional landscape of a washed-up reporter, pushed to the edge in order to grasp his deepest unspoken desire; then he succeeded. The raw need on the page reminded me of the desperation so potent in the writing of Denis Johnson. His quick turns of phrase even called up a little Elmore Leonard.

So, despite my small concern that the plotting in the work might ring too familiar for some readers, there is a lot to admire about Bad Luck City. If Phillips continues to integrate the best elements of his influences while exploring ways to break from some of the more traditional crime conventions, then I’ve no doubt even bigger and better things are coming for this writer and his work.

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