Saturday, November 2, 2019
Late breaking news from Dallas confirms that S.A. Cosby took out a talented field of nominees in winning the Anthony award for best short story for "The Grass Beneath My Feet" published here on August 20th of last year. Please join us in a hearty "Hell Yeah" for Shawn and while you're waiting for what will no doubt be his breakout novel Blacktop Wasteland later on this year, you can read reviews of My Darkest Prayer here and here and here, or purchase the thing for yourself here. Needless to say, we're fans here at Tough, and wish Shawn the best as he takes over the crime fiction field in the coming years.
Monday, August 12, 2019
|art by Patrick Weck|
While hellbenders in the wild are much more difficult to find than a quality rural noir--though still a rare beast--we aim to help out the cause. HELLBENDERS will review books new and old, stories that got missed by the major book review venues or were otherwise overlooked as untimely and/or unappreciated. We'll take a look at the past, watch out for the future, and poke through the rocks and silt in search of the good stuff, the rare stuff, the HELLBENDERS.
Reviewed by Gonzalo Baeza
Given the number of new titles released each week and the little to no promotion most new books get these days, especially when they are not issued by a big publisher, it is no wonder that a remarkable novel like Jordan Farmer’s The Pallbearer has not gotten the attention it deserves. A darkly poetic rural noir set in the dying coal town of Lynch, West Virginia, this first novel may appear to tread familiar territory explored by writers like Breece D’J Pancake and Ron Rash, but it does so with its own mix of lyrical and propulsive prose and an unorthodox cast of compelling characters.
The pallbearer in question is Jason Felts, who used to work in his family’s mortuary in downtown Lynch. He still lives in an apartment above the old family business but it’s not just physical proximity to the funeral home that cements his ties to death and tragedy: Felts is a counsellor at the violent Shelby Youth Correctional Facility –known as “The Shell”– where many of Lynch’s and the region’s young men end up as coal prospects dwindle, businesses close, and opioids abound.
As seen through Felts’ eyes, “There was no opportunity left in the hills. With the mines shutting down there wouldn’t be much left of Lynch in ten years anyway. Just empty storefronts and the few families left behind without jobs, becoming more isolated as the economy collapsed. Jason guessed everyone would pull up stakes eventually or be forced into the regression of a frontier barter system and poaching.”
Counsellors have a hard time getting through to the troubled inmates, including one minor called Malcolm, whose constant outbursts of rage maintain the staff on edge, ready to restrain him as they wait for the boy to be transferred to a more adequate psychiatric facility in Ohio. Work is even more difficult for Felts considering he is a dwarf and his appearance is derided by both inmates and prison guards.
Two new arrivals to The Shell upend Felts’ life and unleash a series of ever more gruesome events. One is Huddles, the younger brother of local crime boss Ferris Gilbert. Huddles is incarcerated after a nocturnal drug run goes wrong and a state trooper confiscates Ziploc bags of pills and guns from his vehicle. The local sheriff, who is trying to get to Ferris, makes it clear to Huddles that he can either inform on his brother or he’ll make sure that the younger Gilbert remains detained until trial. He should then expect to be transferred to an even more violent jail where his family name carries no weight and he’ll be easy prey for the older inmates.
Huddles spends the days either meditating to mentally escape his surroundings or reading a novel he finds in The Shell’s library, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. A recurring theme in West’s novel from the 1930s is the disappointment of those who live in the fringes of Hollywood, unable to accomplish their dreams, “the people who come to California to die” and whose eyes are “filled with hatred.” Huddles’ fascination with the book is likely explained by the despair he sees in his surroundings but also by the unfulfilled potential of his own life.
The other arrival is Terry Blankenship, a strung-out teenager who is arrested for breaking into one of Lynch’s many dilapidated houses to steal pills. He lives in a rundown hunting cabin with his boyfriend after being kicked out of his home by his homophobic father. Blankenship also owes money to Ferris Gilbert who, seizing upon the young man’s despair, offered him an out: kill the sheriff and all debts will be forgiven.
Both Terry and Huddles look at Ferris with suspicion. Huddles cannot imagine a relationship that is not transactional and in his particularly laconic and defensive way he questions the counsellor’s offer of help: “You know, everyone I’ve talked to, they want to carve their slice.”
Terry is even more mistrustful, being marginalized in Lynch both because of his addiction and his sexuality: “Terry didn’t confide in anyone, (…) but as much as he wanted free of these secrets, he understood burdens were a way of life and no venting, whether to holy idols or equally broken men could lift them from your back. Why this universal need for communion anyway? Seeking solace in another only created a false hope that you’d be understood. People pretended because it was too hard to admit we’re each trapped in our own shell, using imprecise words to try to express something unsayable.”
A counsellor whose appearance has made him an outcast, an addict who hides too many secrets, a reluctant member of a crime family who feels the need to prove his toughness both to the inmates and to his brother. Their respective baggage enhances their outsider nature but never in a truculent manner. Farmer is a skilled writer who carefully builds each character so that their struggles –and their pain– feel real and more than a collection of misfortunes and arbitrary psychological traits. All three of them fight to survive under the shadow of the looming, almost feral presence of Ferris Gilbert, but also amid a ravaged landscape with its striated mountains stripped of their last ounce of coal.
Gonzalo Baeza is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His books have been published in the U.S., Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, Estados Hispanos de América, Tintas, and The Texas Review, among others.
Monday, December 24, 2018
My Darkest Prayer
reviewed by Rusty Barnes
S.A. Cosby's My Darkest Prayer is a solidly-written and compelling journey into the backroads and sin joints of Virginia. Our guide on this journey is Nathan Waymaker, a funeral home assistant.
Waymaker is a man between worlds, middle-class and biracial, in a rural county, he's developed a reputation as someone who can do certain things for you. A former Marine and sheriff's deputy, he's been forced to the wayside of his small-town life, because of the department's failure to investigate the tragic deaths of his parents, a failure he blames on both race and class.. When a couple of nice church ladies hire him to look into the death of Reverend Esau Watkins, Waymaker gets embroiled in corruption that eventually encompasses the department he's left behind, as well as other members of the small community.
Cosby paints deft portraits of all the characters, providing tragic backstory and mordant humor in equal parts. Waymaker's is a compelling point of view; he's quick-witted and quick-fisted, but always in service to the right. Cosby excels at and revels in the small-town atmosphere. Everyone knows everyone else's business and no one is immune to the social politics of the situations they find themselves in.
The two old women sitting across from me were studies in dignity. They held their gray heads up high. I didn't want to burst their bubble, but I didn't have a good heart. My heart had been shattered the day my parents died. Since I'd quit the sheriff department , I had done some odd jobs for some folks in the counties, earning a reputation as a man who could help you on the down low. Do things the cops couldn't or wouldn't do.
Waymaker reminds this reader of Spenser and Hawk combined, a street-wise and occasionally brutal practitioner of fisticuffs and hard drinking in a world that welcomes neither. Cosby provides an engaging love interest in the adult film actress Lisa Watkins, daughter of the murdered minister. She's a woman blowing through town like a whirlwind to do her duty and no more, as she and her daddy did not, as they say, get along. The often funny nuances of Waymaker's relationship with Watkins serve only to complicate his life, as she gets drawn into the novel's main action despite Waymaker's best efforts.
“But you went out and bought him some clothes?” I asked. Lisa sucked at her teeth. Her right foot was tapping out a staccato rhythm.
“I didn't want to go up to the house. So I just bought some stuff. Is that gonna be okay?” she asked.
“As long as you didn't get him a sun dress and Spanx we should be fine. Unless that's what he wished to be buried in,” I said. She fought the smile that was trying to creep across her face. Finally, she gave in and put her hand over her mouth. That kind of modest behavior seemed out of character for a porn star.
“You funny,” she said. A few seconds passed. The silence didn't seem awkward. It felt expectant. I forced myself not to stare at her body but gazing into her eyes was just as dangerous. At last, she broke the spell. “So we good?” she asked.
“Oh. Yeah, sure. We are all good.”
If there's a fault in this book, it's that the locus, a megachurch and its denizens, is a touch convenient. No one expects any less than hypocrisy from these people. Nor do we expect more from the small town that depends on this church and ones like it for spiritual sustenance and social standing: it's the way the con works. But that's a small criticism in the face of a strong novel that builds on the mystery tradition of the detective sucked into a web of corruption and greed. One hopes this is only the beginning of impressive things from Cosby.
Monday, December 10, 2018
G.P. Putnam's Sons
reviewed by Paul J. Garth
Rumors of what would end up being Blood Standard, Laird Barron’s first mainstream crime novel, had been going around for years. As a devotee, I first heard whispers that Barron was writing a noir sometime in mid 2014; there were no other details to the gossip, no plot hints, character ideas, or even a sense of where the book would be set, but the rumors were more than enough to get anyone even slightly plugged into the gray area where crime fiction and horror fiction overlap very excited. Shortly afterward, when Barron confirmed in a Facebook post that he was in fact writing a noir novel, I don’t think anyone could have imagined a more perfect pairing.
Barron, the 21st century's undisputed king of cosmic horror has always had a soft spot for characters straight out of classic noir: whether it’s the Pinkerton or the private detective stumbling across unimaginable truths, the CIA spook or the grizzled military commander monkeying with things they do not truly understand, miners and geologists, comfortable only in solitude but forced to work together to stay alive, or the lavishly rich, surrounding themselves with potential victims. Barron’s collections were full of gruff men of action whose minds were destined to end up as broken as their bodies. The promise of those characters, and the language and atmosphere Barron used to wring every ounce of tension from their suffering, but set in a world in which Old Leech was not to reveal himself? It was almost too good to be true.
Enter Isaiah Coleridge, another of Barron’s signature hardscrabble heroes. A mob enforcer sent from the warm arms of The Outfit to the outer edges of the universe, in this case, Nome, Alaska, Coleridge witnesses a money-making slaughter scheme on the Chukchi Sea and, maybe for the first time in his life, does the right thing. Or the wrong.
Exiled for his sins against the Outfit to the quiet Hudson Valley of upstate New York and held in check by an awareness that the Outfit might come calling at any moment to collect their pound of flesh, Coleridge settles in to a quiet life on a farm. It’s only when Reba Walker, the farm owner’s granddaughter, goes missing, and Coleridge promises to find the girl, that he is pulled back into the world of greed and violence, and he jumps in with both feet.
The violence in Blood Standard isn’t meditative or philosophical as in the majority of Barron’s previous work. It simply is, an essential aspect of Coleridge’s life that is so commonplace it is barely worthy of note. Whether or not that is a good thing will be the cause of some debate among readers. The novel moves along at an almost impossible pace, most scenes action-packed and filled with growing mystery or tension or violence, but the language is clipped, especially in comparison to Barron’s horror work. In previous short story collections readers were treated to horrific imagery and the suggestion of the baroque and the grotesque awaiting behind even the most commonplace of items and incidents, elements which I think makes Barron one of the best prose stylists I’ve ever read. In Blood Standard, most of that is gone, excised instead for action and forward momentum, though Barron occasionally slows down the ass-kicking to deliver a knockout of a section, including the following plumbed from the depths of Isaiah’s fever dream:
I wandered through Elysian Fields and the Boar of the Wood hunted me, his tusks as sharp as spearheads. He felled the tall grass with each sideways swipe of his massive head. My grandfather, dressed in skins and a necklace of sharks’ teeth, floated always two places ahead his gaze serene as a storm cloud. He raised a flint ax and I woke, the blare of a conch horn trailing into the ether.
I’ll be honest and admit now that there were times when reading Blood Standard that I wished the Barron prose I’d fallen in love with would reappear, that I’d get more of the above, an exploration of the sense of cosmic doom that immediately follows a head cracking--an unconsciousness made of cold stars and the void behind them--but it’s also entirely possible that the only reason I wanted that is because that was the book I’d been imagining for four years, and it’s very likely that readers who haven’t read Barron's previous books won’t find anything amiss at all. Besides, Blood Standard is straightforward about the kind of book it is from the jump; if there’s ever been another book that greets the reader with a balled up knuckle sandwich right on the title page, I can’t think of it.
That’s not to say Blood Standard isn’t a recognizably Laird Barron novel, either, as it is absolutely packed with what some have come to call Barronisms, each circling one another, all of the converging and separating in Blood Standard s murky mystery. Lurking at the edge of the plot are unscrupulous FBI agents, a group of private military mercenaries working for an atrocity-prone organization known simply as Black Dog, mobsters (so many mobsters), a particularly bacchanalian Beltane fire celebration, and Isaiah’s father, a cold-hearted son of a bitch who, if he’d been copy-pasted into Barron’s first breakout story, “Old Virginia”, probably would have staved off all the miseries in that story and saved the day. Plus gallons of whiskey and racks and racks of guns.
It may seem amiss, at this point, that for book supposedly about the mystery of a missing girl, I haven’t discussed the mystery that much. That’s for two reasons. The first is that the mystery works perfectly well as a means to drive the plot forward, which is to be expected in a modern crime novel. Blood Standard performs admirably, each chapter deepening the mystery while also suggesting increasingly sinister explanations. But the more interesting reason to discuss everything but the mystery is that the resolution of what happened to Reba Walker may strike some readers as unsatisfying. At first, I might have agreed with those readers, but that’s only because it took me a while to understand that the potentially unsatisfying resolution of the mystery is exactly the point. Blood Standard is an action story wearing the skin of a mystery novel, but it’s also the story of Isaiah Coleridge and his attempt to find his place in a world where even the criminal rejects have rejected him.
A cross between Jack Reacher or Clyde Barr novels and some of Dennis Lehane’s more introspective and gothic work (Shutter Island and the displaced narrator of The Given Day seem like obvious touchpoints), Blood Standard is less about the mystery of what happened to Reba Walker and more about what Isaiah Coleridge--and men like him--have to do to survive the modern world. If Coleridge, with all his sins and his Barbarian nature, had been able to set the world right, it would ring false, like Barron were giving us a neat ending simply for its own sake, but as anyone who has read Barron before knows, he doesn’t believe in neat or happy endings: the universe is too complex for that, as even the section in which the resolution is revealed is titled “The Gordian Knot”.
A novel about an difficult man trying to resolve a hopeless mystery, while also trying to accomplish something else that may as well be impossible, starting a new life, Laird Barron’s first crime novel is as much a character study as a beat ‘em up, rich with all the signature themes longtime Barron readers know and love, while also being straightforward and action-focused enough to welcome a mainstream audience. Whatever comes next for Isaiah Coleridge will surely be haunting and difficult and expansive on the world created here, and if it’s half as much fun as Blood Standard, I can’t wait.
Monday, October 8, 2018
Fahrenheit 13 2018
reviewed by Bruce Harris
Matt Phillips's Know Me From Smoke uses alternating chapters to bring two characters together, lounge singer Stella Radney and ex-con Royal “Junior” Atkins. Stella Radney is described as late middle-aged with a petite figure and nice lips, easy on the eyes, but internally beaten and bruised, from being on the receiving end of figurative hits for decades. Once married, Stella's husband Virgil is shot during a robbery of the bar he and Stella operate. During the murder, Stella takes a .45 caliber slug in the hip, a macabre souvenir she still carries. Virgil’s killer, our friend Junior, is never caught. Twenty years later, Stella’s love for Virgil has never waned. Stella’s identity is linked to Virgil. Despite his physical absence, he dictates Stella’s thoughts and behaviors from the grave. Stella perpetually lives the Day of the Dead, not so much in celebration, but in remembrance and acquiescence. At one point, she has a “conversation” with Virgil, asking him to release his hold over her so that she could fall guiltlessly in love with another man: Royal.
Royal eludes capture for Virgil’s murder, but serves time for a different killing. He is released after 20 years due to a legal technicality. Although free from prison, Atkins remains mentally incarcerated, unable to escape his past or his self-inflicted death spiral. Immediately after his release, he befriends a pair of violent losers. It isn’t long before the threesome meet Stella Radney.
Atkins recognizes Stella. Although something about him is familiar, Stella has no idea that Royal is the one who shot and killed her husband and planted the slug in her hip. Despite half-assed attempts to avoid his new friends, Atkins gets more involved in their life of crime. First, Atkins becomes an accessory to armed robbery with the two career criminals. Their transgressions escalate quickly into additional robberies and murder.
Simultaneously, Atkins’s relationship with Stella Radney progresses toward intimacy. Their relationship is the quintessential comedy / tragedy story and it plays effectively throughout the book in the shared giddiness and joy of falling in love, coupled with overriding feelings of fear and loss. In Stella’s case, the loss is Virgil, the love of her life. For Royal, it’s a wasted life, an ignominious past, a dark present, and an inevitable future. Ironically, Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy was initially Muse of Chorus. Radney, still living with an all-consuming tragic past finds life and vitality in music and song, defines this contradiction.
Stella is a sympathetic character who takes her livelihood seriously and learns to sing at an early age. Her mother sang while her father played the trumpet. Music provides temporary solace as witnessed in this, one of Stella’s fatalistic thoughts:
Now forty years on, she understood that each song – for her mom and dad – was a small escape, a jail break. Stella knew, and saw how each life moment led to a place of no escape. It’s like each portion of life leads a person, somehow deeper into a maze. And the more you live, the longer you live, the more you understand the whole world’s a grift, all of life is one big sucker punch.
She doesn’t completely trust Atkins, knows he’s hiding something, but in addition to being a dedicated singer, Stella Radney is lonely. She’s a romantic and despite her doubts, falls in love with him. Atkins is the first man since Virgil’s murder with whom she could spend the rest of her life. Yet, she fights internal battles over her feelings for Atkins. The only time she is content, truly alive, is when she performs. For Stella, music is life. In the following passage Stella expresses herself beautifully, and with a rare tranquility for her about music’s magic:
You can’t live without hearing a soft purr from the throat of a lounge singer, that first subtle, imperfect note as it floats into a continuum of time and death and love - as it floats out over the whole wide world. You can’t live until you hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare in the early evening, until you’ve seen and heard a guitarist walk one hand up and down a neck, as if his fingers all have a tiny heart of their own. And you haven’t lived until you’ve been shaken from sleep by some enchanting melody, until you’ve burst awake in the middle of the night with a clever chorus bubbling on your lips. And love didn’t compare to music, because music is love – it’s love living in sound, and there’s no other place to find love but to find it in music.
Early into Know Me From Smoke, The District Attorney's office reopens her husband's murder case, thanks to technological advances.This adds yet another force gripping Stella, dragging her back into the dark past. It’s only a matter of time before the world catches up with Royal Atkins. Few will have sympathy for this lowlife. The only question is will Stella’s love for Atkins overpower more rational thoughts? That’s the dichotomy. As Stella’s affections for Royal increase, so do her internal conflicts and justifications to continue the relationship.
Mystery publisher Otto Penzler stated, “Like art, love, and pornography, noir is hard to define, but you know it when you see it…noir stories are bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers--people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin.” This is Royal Atkins to a T. He personifies the “losers losing” meaning of noir. In contrast, Stella isn’t bad and has overcome tough breaks. Music provides meaning in her life, but love taunts her, a fool’s gold panacea to years of loneliness.
The characters, cops and cons and the supporting cast are realistic and the dialogue rings true. Humor is peppered throughout and strategically placed. I cared for and rooted for Stella Radney and hoped for the worst for Atkins. Noir succeeds when the atmosphere blends with the characters, defining and directing behaviors, becoming its own powerful driving force. In its darkness, gloom, and despair, Know Me From Smoke is reminiscent of noir master David Goodis. In fact, if Goodis were alive and writing today and had an apprentice, it might be Matt Phillips.
Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: About Type. His story “Carried Away” won the 2017 September/October Mysterious Photograph contest in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
Monday, July 16, 2018
Boise Longpig Hunting Club
Down & Out Books
In his May 2017 interview with Writer's Bone, Nick Kolakowski states, “I feel that crime fiction is a real exploration of the human animal. . . you want a peek at the beast that lives within us, crack open a crime novel.”
Kolakowski gets right down to that brutal beast within us in Boise Longpig Hunting Club. This relentless, fast-paced novel expands his sharp and gritty short story that first appeared in Thuglit Issue 21 titled “A Nice Pair of Guns.”
Rough guy and Iraq War Vet Jake Halligan is an Idaho bounty hunter who encounters every breed of low-life on a daily basis. He is a straightforward man with simple desires: work hard and enjoy life in rural southern Idaho, his space apart from the rest of the human race. He likes to spend time fishing after a rough week of rounding up criminal degenerates, bail-jumpers, and wacked-out drug addicts, and he is not averse to ending his day with few beers while he appreciates “the moments of order and justice that life can bring with hard work.”
But Jake’s life is anything but simple. He is a bounty hunter, and disliked by both the bail jumpers he chases, and the local cops. He is working hard on a second attempt at marriage with his ex-wife Janine, a worthy endeavor, but fraught with obstacles. And then there is his little sister Frankie, an illegal arms dealer, and a bad-ass crime queen who likes to solve problems with heavy artillery and explosions.
On a larger scale, Jake witnesses the vanishing and reshaping of the beautiful rugged southern Idaho countryside under an invasion of rich Californian and Texans, “potato kings, microchip executives, fast-food chain owners famous for tits labor laws violations, and other captains of industry, grabbing up the open land.” Giant McMansions and ugly malls with chain stores and Olive Gardens sprout upon formerly rugged, remote countryside. Kolakowski provides a brief but insightful passage of Jake and Janine are reluctantly about to meet their rich new neighbors.
We pulled into the long driveway of a two story McMansion with a commanding view of the river, its windows ablaze with light. These houses had sprung up across southern Idaho in recent years, bought by rich Californians or Texans in the market for a second or third home. They might have enjoyed the state’s low taxes and stunning landscape, but I often wondered what they thought about living next door to folks who barely scraped by?
The action intensifies when a body shows up in Jake’s gun safe. Jake can’t figure out if it is a warning, because the list of people who might want to send him a message is long: street level thugs, meth-heads, Aryan Nation, even local law enforcement. They all carry some level of grudge against him or his family. The mystery of who is behind the killings deepens until Jake, Janine and Frankie finds themselves in a survival death-match reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game.
Kolakowski writes in an unswerving and straightforward style reminiscent of old school crime writers Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain with this fast-paced, dark storyline and sharp dialogue. His dry humor shines in brief descriptions such as “a guy so muscular that. . . he looked like a half pound of rocks squeezed into a condom.” Despite the complex themes that mirror the difficulties prodding America today, Kolakowski is neither preachy nor heavy handed. He skillfully tackles the vast divide between those who have, and those who have-not, then dives deep into what could happen when money is plentiful, and the value of life is nonexistent. The bad guys may not look like bad guys at first “they look like a bunch of fat white men, but trust me when I tell you they can fuck up your shit better than anyone, because they can do it in broad daylight without worrying about any consequences.”
Jake and Frankie Halligan are the antidote to entitlement. Their banter is sharp, quick and funny, particularly during the moments of intense action where Frankie reminds Jake, “Our family, we don’t fold under pressure, we die with our teeth in our last enemy’s throat.” Which is not meant to imply that they are as cold-hearted and ruthless as their enemies. To the contrary, when Jake overhears a conversation by his captors, he responds in a real and gut-wrenching way.
Over the roaring river I caught the words “welfare” and “deadbeat,” followed by “drinking problem.” When he turned and pointed in my direction, and the men around him laughed, I knew he was talking about me. “I got a job,” I muttered. “I’m not a deadbeat.” A small, wounded part of me needed to voice that. Out of all the things that had happened to me over the past day or so—wounded, kidnapped, placed at the center of this sick little game—somehow this hurt the worst. I had done my best to make something of myself in this world, whatever my mistakes.
Boise Longpig Hunting Club combines the best of both crime and thriller. The body count goes high, and the gun count goes even higher. It is filled with chaos, suffering, and memorable characters with awesome names like Zombie Bill, Monkey Man, the Viking, Fred the Nazi Marlboro Man. It is a fast-paced story that gets right to the point and holds the reader captive until its explosive finish.
Monday, May 7, 2018
Down & Out Books
reviewed by Tim Hennessy
With the volume of detective fiction published today, emerging from a crowded pack has never been more difficult. Protagonists piecing together answers to convoluted mysteries is such a familiar path to head down, I swear off as much detective fiction as I pick up, always vowing I’m done, that I’ve read enough.Whether a seasoned, hard-boiled investigator or an amateur doing a favor for a friend, the PI novel is a genre weighed down by its history and popularity. With an overabundance of white male detectives running through the fictional mean streets and dark alleys, looking to right wrongs while busy self-consciously narrating, and maintaining their buzz, what has kept the detective novel appealing for over 150 years?
You can find one answer in the exciting narratives coming from the points of view of underrepresented authors and their protagonists, who are revitalizing the genre and making it more relevant. One of the bright spots in recent years, Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay, explores the complicated racial politics and code-switching necessary to navigating the 1952 Midwest.
When life had him by the short hairs, [Elliot] often fantasized about being a good student who graduated on the Dean’s list. Then he could have traded on his near-whiteness to land a job in the front office of some industrial farm in Illinois. Could’ve had a name tag. Maybe a desk. Dated some chippie from the secretarial pool. Perhaps that would have kept him from enlisting in Patton’s Third Army. He would have never followed every other discharged colored to the big city. He wouldn’t have taken the police academy test while drunk, just to show much smarter he was.
Elliot Caprice is the embodiment of otherness, abandoned by his white mother after his black father dies in a race riot. He is “a city boy trapped in farm country” raised by his father’s brother in Southland, a small rural Illinois community where as a young man, he collected vigs for Izzy, a Jewish loan maker and additional father figure. Elliot is also a war veteran who became a South Side Chicago police officer upon his return. Working amongst rampant corruption, Elliot was blackmailed into snitching on dirty cops once his past relationship with Izzy came to light. Elliot complicates matters for himself further when he involves himself with a former police lieutenant turned beat crime reporter William Drury, who investigated organized crime and its ties to the policing community.
Great characters have always been the engine that’s driven and sustained detective novels beyond any given books’ mystery. In the short span of his life, Elliot has done a lot of living, and Gardner’s loaded his first novel with an abundant supporting cast in which there’s hardly a character that comes in contact with Elliot that doesn’t have a complicated history with him or an uneasy rapport.
In the first third of the novel, Gardner layers Elliot’s conflicts with his past as well as his community on thick, with multiple subplots that would make any number of great novels. Much of the first act gives quick glimpses into Elliot’s past to establish the character. Elliot’s time serving in the war changed everything for him.
For the average Negro, the existence of concentration camps was an abstraction. Just another example of how ofays do each other when there were no niggers around. Once Patton took colored regiments deep within German territory, they witnessed atrocities that eclipsed the tortures of Jim Crow. …the next concentration camps to be liberated would hold colored bodies. This was his motivation for joining the Chicago Police Department. …He desired to legitimize himself. Perhaps legitimize colored folk overall.
One is still left wanting more of a sense of Elliot’s time as a younger man trying to navigate the dismaying effects of returning home from war. Also, further exploring the conflicts Elliot’s time collecting for Izzy presented as he began his career as a police officer would make an excellent time period we can hope Gardner explores later in the series.
So where does the detective story come in? That plot thread picks up much later when Elliot learns that his Uncle Buster lost his farm after taking out a bad loan to help pay labor for the planting season. Matters complicate quickly when Buster falls ill, and loses his workers to a competitor, failing to keep up with payments.
To help pay off his uncle’s debt, Elliot takes on work as a process server hoping he can figure out a way to save the farm. He’s dispatched to get a signature from a wealthy widow in the midst of an estate battle with her husband’s adult children. Their sudden marriage after his first wife died in a boating accident raised suspicions and when he later drowns in a bathtub after changing his will to benefit her, foul play was suspected. Seizing an opportunity to make some side cash, Elliot’s hired to examine the complexities of her legal situation so she can retain the assets her husband left her.
Following in the footsteps of his golden-aged predecessors, Gardner sends Elliot down a familiar path filled with duplicitous wealthy relations, and broader entanglements that involve organized crime, and familiar federal law enforcement officers that complicate his life yet again. Gardner’s novel is too action heavy to balance the elements of race and class that are also on its mind. The book has a lot of plot threads to connect and resolve, which it does with the aid of a massive shootout. While fun and well executed, the action sequence served as an opportunity to bring disparate plot threads together rather than build tension.
Even though not all of the story elements work in equal measure, Danny Gardner is laying the foundation for a fascinating and complex character. The more opportunities we have to view the detective genre through different experiences like those in the works of Attica Locke, Adi Tantimedh, Steph Cha, and Alex Segura the more it vital it will continue to be. Each of these writers’ like Gardner uses their sleuths to look at social issues intersecting cultural conflicts of the past and present all while bringing a fresh perspective to a familiar genre.
Saturday, March 3, 2018
Switchblade Issue III boasts a number of contributors familiar to anyone who follows the small press crime scene, writers like Eric Beetner, Morgan Boyd and Preston Lang. As well, there are a number of writers I know mostly from their Twitter feeds and the occasional scuttlebutt. I realize it's still early on in Switchblade's career, but it's safe to say they've become prominent in a short time. All told, editor Scotch Rutherford has put together a well-done and entertaining issue here.
Some highlights include the aforementioned Preston Lang, who gives us "Press it Down," a story about a former musician turned mayhem artist, a granny who turns out to be skilled in the use of a golf club. I've found his stories always deserve more love than they receive: he's well-published, but merits further recognition, and kudos to Rutherford for recognizing that and giving him a spot in multiple issues.
In "Burning Snow," Morgan Boyd writes about how even a simple job like shoveling snow can become a criminal web of intrigue and violence. Told by our narrator Max, who's got a secret or two himself, the story ranges across the snowy landscape, artfully and simply revealed, to an unforgettable description of a fat man in flagrante delicto. The ending is a punch in the gut that tells us what some of us could still stand to learn: some people never have the luck.
Eric Beetner's piece, "Family Secrets," about a child who witnesses a gruesome crime and is forced into a criminal act himself, is something I've found typical of Beetner, in novel or short story mode. His work is well-paced and deftly written, always in service to the narrative, not flashy. It's solid prose exemplified by lines like "I didn't buy the fake sincerity in Mom's voice when she told me Dad would be okay. But beyond wondering if my Dad would live or die, I tried to figure out how in the world he ever come to be shot."
Other stories are largely successful but not necessarily my bag. I recognize the effort each of the writers here, though, and I appreciate too the effort it takes to put out a quality journal several times a year. It's an often Herculean effort sustained only by the love you get from writers and occasionally from readers, and certainly not in monetary rewards. The kinks in the production process notwithstanding, I expect Switchblade to have a long successful career highlighting the best the small press crime scene has to offer for as long as Rutherford can keep the magic going on the back end.
The stories are out there waiting, and I see the job of small press crime journals like Switchblade, Pulp Modern and Tough to bring them to the forefront and provide an alternative--however the individual journals define that-- to the larger venue/larger payday every writer generally shoots for. Our job is to get large in vision, but stay small in practice, to highlight writers before they reach mainstream success, and to bring attention to those mainstream writers who still need the boost. Their success is our success. Every Switchblade issue, every Pulp Modern issue, every story, every time we get our names out there in the small press crime scene, is a success for all of us.
Thursday, September 21, 2017
The Neon Lights are Veins
Publisher: 280 Steps
Review by James Pate
I’ve always been drawn to stories about misfits and rebels, individuals existing on the outer fringe who radically take their lives into their own hands, for good or ill. Struggling artists, street-level visionaries, punks, insomniacs, wanderers, the obsessed and the damned.
Nolan Knight’s The Neon Lights Are Veins (280 Steps) is a Californian crime novel teeming with misfits. There’s the protagonist, Alvi Drake, whose legendary days as a skateboarder are behind him, and who is tormented by a painful family history involving a conniving, crazed mother and a recently deceased wife. There’s Mongo, a transvestite dreaming of fame and adoration in a city where she knows the odds are against her. And there’s Faye, a recent arrival to Los Angeles who is struggling against the myriad social forces pushing her toward a life of prostitution. There are others too, in this social orbit – most of the them living in a crumbling apartment building called the Hotel Lafayette -- and taken together, they made me think of Andy Warhol’s Superstars of the late 60s and early 70s, whose drug and sex fueled lives created a micro counterculture. Knight clearly has sympathy for these characters. Neon is one of those noir novels where the so-called deviants are actually the good guys. Even the fetishists are treated with good humor, presented not as sickos but as people with unusual sexual appetites. Knight has a Rabelaisian interest in the diversity of human nature.
The bad guys are the ones after money and power and control. Ray Satin is the ringleader of a group of very violent men who make small fortunes through drugs and pimping. Satin is vicious – his weapon of choice is the screwdriver, which he uses on both men and women, strangers and relatives – and he views other people as rungs on the ladder toward greater wealth. He is a dangerous combination of psychopath and narcissist. As he tells his men early in the book, “Money, power and monopoly—that’s the goal, gentleman—in that order.” When we meet him, he has started to make inroads with the police and City Hall, a move he hopes will pay off with a near total control of the Los Angeles underworld.
There are two factors at work against his grand designs, however: his nephew Rocco, and Alvi Drake. The nephew is sickened by the cruelty of his uncle’s world, even though he participates in that world by helping his uncle literally bury the bodies. He dreams of a more everyday life. While on the campus of UCLA, he imagines himself as just another student. Knight writes, “He reclined the seat and shut his eyes, envisioning dorm room summer nights, intellectualism sandwiched by beer pong and togas. All those great things the movies had promised.” Rocco is trapped in a Tarantino movie but wants to be in a Linklater one. As the story progresses, Rocco’s desire for escape starts to run counter his uncle’s desire for underworld dominance. Alvi Drake, in contrast, is an outsider to Satin’s world. He is looking for a missing ex-girlfriend named Gabby. His quest takes him into a grim, treacherous network where no one but his most immediate friends can be trusted.
Part three of the novel is titled “The Underground Web,” and, like the best of Californian noir, the novel reveals the shadows and back room deals that dwell beneath the sunshine, beaches, and mellow vibes. Knight’s Los Angeles is a double-sided coin: a haven for rebels like Alvi and Mongo, but also a Gothic terrain of nihilistic power grabs.
The last third of the novel is a fragmented, explosive showdown between these two spheres. It’s not giving too much away to say that things do not always go well for the more sympathetic characters. Knight’s novel is strikingly bleak in places, and the more familiar plotline of the good guys handily winning certainly does not apply here. But this pessimism is one of the best elements of the novel, giving it an unexpectedly tragic dimension.
For all of the book’s fatalism, though, Neon is not a depressing work. The narrative has an amphetamine-like intensity. And Knight’s language sings with a streetwise poeticism reminiscent of Hurbert Selby Jr., Lou Reed, and Richard Price. When Alvi walks into a barbershop, he heads “past the candy cane spiral, into the lair of man. Ricky Nelson crooned. Smut rags and nickel pulps cluttered the magazine rack; Lawrence Tierney and Killer Kowalski sneered from mint green walls.” Rocco strolls the through the grounds of UCLA and thinks it is “the Monica Vitti of college campuses: lean, tan, Romanesque—hypnotic to the human eyes.” In The Neon Lights Are Veins, the language is constantly surprising, bouncing around on the balls of its feet.
The publishing history of Knight’s book is an odd one, to say the least. 280 Steps, a Norwegian crime press founded in 2013, published Neon this past winter. A few months later, 280 Steps suddenly ceased to exist. The last time I checked, there were only seven copies of Knight’s novel left to buy online. I hope the book gets re-issued shortly by another press. It’s a fierce, bold work, and deserves a wide readership.
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Crime Wave Press
reviewed by David Nemeth
An outlaw’s prime motivator is not wanting to go back to prison. Readers take this at face value, but not wanting to go back to prison is a strong incentive, because prison is shit. Roy Harper’s Shank (Crime Wave Press) takes aim at Hollywood’s myth of the sanitized prison system and obliterates it. Prison is no game, it’s death, it’s boredom, it’s soulless.
In Shank, Harper’s narrator David “Tool” Roney is serving a life sentence at Parchman Farm, the oldest and only maximum security prison in Mississippi. Though Shank details the daily life inside a prison walls, Harper shines when writes about a convict’s existence and their fight for dignity:
Prison was about much more than just not being allowed to come and go. It was about sensory deprivation. Deprivation of life’s normalcy. You were deprived of all kinds of stimulation – colors, aromas, sounds, movement, family and love – all variety of life was replaced by something bland, offensive, and negative. Everyone wore the same clothes and the same hairstyle. Everything was painted the same bland, uninteresting color. Everyone was a potential enemy. Your life became permeated with the odors of unwashed bodies, urine, feces, and insanity. Steel doors slammed and people were always screaming; angry, stupid or insane screaming. Everything moved slowly and any sudden move caught your eye; was it an act of violence? Or was it just a rat?
Stuck in the Maximum Security Unit, Roney is always on alert against the daily humiliations forced upon him by both guards and inmates. These indignities drive his one ambition — to escape. Roney finds himself a partner in making his escape plans, a man who Roney knows to be “loudmouthed and rude, with an overbearing personality, abrasive to most people’s nerves, Mad Man was a man who was hard to like.” But what attracted Roney to him most was that Mad Man was an outlaw.
I didn’t particularly like Mad Man, myself, and would never even have talked to the man if it hadn’t been for the one thing that drew me to him: Most inmates who spoke of escape fantasize about living in the woods or blending into a large city somewhere and maybe getting a job. Not Mad Man. He wanted to escape so he could rob more banks, do drugs, sell drugs, enjoy party girls, and live like a biker till someone killed him. Yep, Mad Man Rigsby was a one-hundred percent true, no excuses made, no apologies offered, outlaw.
Unlike heist novels where the plan goes haywire and usually fails, Shank is prison escape novels, the plan always falters, but somehow the escape always succeeds. Harper clean and crisp writing excels at building the tension throughout the escape and does not falter as Roney continues to evade the dogs and police tracking him down.
Usually we don’t assume that a crime writer is a pick-pocket, robber, murderer or, say, prisoner, but in this case, assume away. Harper is currently a prisoner at Parchman Farm where is his serving 88 years for robbery as a repeat offender. Left with the knowledge that his only way out of prison is escape or death, Harper has escaped from prison three times. One escape was featured on an episode from National Geographic’s Breakout series, “Escape from Supermax”. Even though there is an authenticity to the bleak dreams and bitter realities of Shank, the book succeeds on Harper’s direct and no-nonsense writing.
Monday, March 27, 2017
I love brand new magazines. They are the lifeblood of any short story reader. New magazines often have fewer conventions and allow their authors to push the boundaries further, so I feel you get a more eclectic group of writing than you might in already well-established publications. I also love the feeling of discovery, and often first issues don't disappoint.
It was with this in mind that I opened up Issue # 1 of Occult Detective Quarterly, edited by Sam Gafford and John Linwood Grant. I always judge a publication by its cover--it's the first impression a reader gets. For the most part, I thought the graphics complemented the content really well, conveying a polished retro style that screamed "hard-boiled" from the color cover to the black and white interiors.
This first issue had seven short stories, the first chapter of a serial, an article about Doctor Spektor and interview with its creator, a tongue-in-cheek how-to about ghost hunting, and reviews of three works featuring the supernatural. Most, if not all, of the fiction found within its pages had the feel of old-school adventure stories, containing tortured and sometimes oddball antiheros, mysterious murders, and inexplicable and magical happenings.
Pulp literature, in general, is a literature of vices. The pillars of these include smoking, drinking and gambling--the latter not in dollars, but with lives. In the pages of ODQ, there are the classic flea-bitten PIs, the ex-cops and journalists, and the apprentices who must follow their masters into uncertain undertakings. Even in "When Soft Voices Die" by Amanda DeWees, a story set in the 1800s, the female protagonist is not a demure and virginal little miss, but rather has a scandalous background (for the time in which it is set) of a former actress and a widow to boot. Most of the characters in these stories are free-wheeling adventurers who might have powerful magic on their side, but it's seldom magic they completely control or entirely understand. There comes a point in each story where the character has no idea what they're getting into, but they persevere anyway in the face of great odds.
Pulp is also a literature of voice. From the feature story of a wise-cracking gorilla detective in "Got My Mojo Working" by David T. Wilbanks and William Meikle, to a been-there-done-that odd job man in "MonoChrome" by T.E. Grau, the tone is often jaded, with strong touches of sarcasm--and a wink and a nudge towards the reader. The fourth wall is usually cast aside, and the characters tend to speak directly to the reader throughout the pages of each story. As such, fully half of the eight stories are told in first person, with many of them in a quick-to-read, conversational style.
While I enjoyed a number of stories in the issue, I must say that the real star of the collection for me was "MonoChrome" by T.E. Grau. From vivid scene-setting to superb pacing, this story is told in a slow, literary reveal that incorporates a somewhat surrealistic narrative and elements reminiscent of the best horror movies. To give you a small taste of Grau's style, here is a stark picture of the home of the main character, Henry Ganz, an alcoholic and former cop whose best days are behind him.
Pico Union was left to rot by inches through the gutting of post-war factory jobs that drove out the blue collars, filling the gaps with style-blind investors and immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador, on the run from brutal civil wars and therefore unconcerned with such bourgeois notions as curb appeal. Los Angeles was full of neighborhoods like this, mixed-race middle class bastions gone to shit, with a preponderance of them circling downtown like a rusted halo. (37)
I enjoyed the mystery of Grau's piece, the description and dialogue, the small hints and motifs throughout the story, and the building of tension that leads to a spectacular and satisfying ending.
I feel that the magazine will certainly appeal to fans of the genre, but there were a few things that stuck out to me as a reader. In terms of background, all the pieces are set in the U.S. or the United Kingdom, and I would have liked to see a little bit more diversity of the characters and variety of locations--maybe a murder mystery in the Congo or a ghost story in Japan. While the overarching theme of the magazine hearkens back to the days of pulp, I feel that there are elements that can be modernized, since we live and read in a global society.
And while I enjoyed reading the reviews and learning a bit more about the history of the occult detective genre, I was disappointed that a page had been accidentally left out of the article, "How to be a Fictional Victorian Ghost Hunter (In Five Easy Steps)" by Tim Prasil. I'm sad to say I'll probably never be a good ghost hunter, since two out of the three steps were on the missing page. Perhaps they'll do a reprint of the missing page in the next issue or on their website--I thought it was fun to learn about ghost hunting trends in literature, and I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to see the remainder of the article.
But a first issue also includes getting your editorial legs under you as you work out the kinks, so I don't think that there were any grievous errors that would make me not pick up the next issue. This was a very beautiful and well-put-together publication. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did--and look forward to Issue # 2.
Occult Detective Quarterly
edited by Sam Gafford and John Linwood Grant
Issue # 1, Fall 2016
Electric Pentacle Press
$6.00 PDF / $13.00 print
Alison McBain is an award-winning author with more than forty short stories and poems published, including work in Flash Fiction Online, FLAPPERHOUSE and The Gunpowder Review. When not writing fiction, she is the Book Reviews Editor for the magazine Bewildering Stories. Alison lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.