Harper Perennial, 2012, 374 pp.
NOIR IS, BY ITS VERY NATURE, funny stuff. I don’t mean private eye pastiche or screwball capers, but the real deal, dark-as-night, doom-and-gloom, moon-in-the-gutter stuff. The futile fight against fate is the noir protagonist’s lot in life. From one angle, it’s a tragic burden; from another, it allows us to ease existential anxieties through cruel laughter. Orrie Hitt, Day Keene, and Harry Whittington wrote of endless armies of middle-class everymen who brought about their own destruction by thinking more with their pants than with their brains. Even the melancholic David Goodis wasn’t without his own bitter sense of irony — Dark Passage follows a man who, in order to prove that he innocent of murder, must ultimately prove that he is capable of murder. Then there are the psychopaths of Jim Thompson and Jason Starr, who are so impressed and amused by their own violence that they miss the writing on the wall that spells certain disaster. To this long, laughable lineage we can now add Dan Jordan, the spermless hero of Greg Bardsley’s debut novel, Cash Out.
It is 2008. Jordan is an ex-reporter who sold out his moralistic ambition for a hefty paycheck as a speechwriter for FlowBid, a rising Silicon Valley start up. As the book begins, Jordan’s gamble is about to pay off big — in a few days, he’ll collect the first installment of his stock option, and he plans to sell out fast, buy a beach shack, and settle into a luxurious early retirement.
It is noon on a Tuesday, and I’m sitting in a dark lounge. By Friday, I’ll have $1.1 million deposited into my bank account. I’ll be like a bird uncaged, ready to fly away with my family, ready to start a new life. All I need to do is last another three days. Oh, and brave my way through a vasectomy.
Those scissors should have been the first sign of impending doom.
As the doctor snip-snips away Jordan’s manhood, the speechwriter clings ever tighter to his pipe dream of a future. The implausibility of his plan is immediately apparent to us, but Jordan remains oblivious, right up until the moment he steps outside of the doctor’s office and is roped and stuffed into the back of a van. His kidnappers are vengeful IT nerds. They’ve hacked all of his accounts. They know about his IM flirtations with a co-worker. They know how he “anonymously” gave malicious information about his boss to a journalist. They know how he abused photocopier privileges for private use. In short, they know enough to nail his ass to the wall, wreck his marriage, and get him fired without his stocks option — unless he does as they say. All he has to do is accompany his boss to Florida, and covertly record his actions for the IT squad and they’ll let Dan Jordan walk away clean.
If only it were that simple.
Robert Burns unknowingly crafted a proto-noir mantra when he wrote his famous words, “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry …” Expectedly, that’s what happens in Cash Out. In the tradition of Day Keene’s Too Hot to Hold, Bardlsey has created a character so naïve to his own dark side that he doesn’t even realize what a low-down, sleazy, corrupt scumbag he really is. Just as middle-class businessman Jim Brady in Too Hot To Hold views himself as a well-meaning family man who just happened to stumble across a cache of stolen mob money when, in actuality, he was exercising all of his most nefarious fantasies, Dan Jordan sees himself as a “wrong man” martyr. Everything he does is for his family, so that makes it ok, right? Bardsley is certainly sympathetic to Jordan and his emasculated plight, but the character wouldn’t be nearly so compelling if Jordan was actually as innocent as he hoped. How can Jim Brady justify his barely unrequited desire for his nympho daughter, and how can Dan Jordan justify his flirtations, his news leaks, or even his seemingly inoffensive photocopying? They can’t. They’re guilty of all this, and probably much more. Circumstance didn’t bring the worst out in these men — their impulses brought about these circumstances once, and they’ll certainly bring them out again in the future.
This all sounds so serious, but Bardsley writes with the deft, daffy touch of Preston Sturges. Not in recent memory has crime been both so absurdly funny and uncomfortably dark. From frozen food aisle ambushes to orgy riots, and compu-gangs to Neanderthal neighbors (the delightfully demented Crazy Larry who rubs cocoa butter on his belly and runs a Guantanamo-type torture chamber out of his garage), Bardsley continually pushes narrative credibility to the breaking point, and he always succeeds in pulling it off. Cash Out is a damned funny book equally capable of inducing fits of laughter, panic, or cocoa butter-lathered violence. The book’s humor serves not only to entertain the reader, but to hammer home how sick and messed up our seemingly normal world is. Nothing in Dan Jordan’s nightmare is too far out of the ordinary — and that’s what makes his plight so palpable and affecting. Strange as it all may seem, we can see it actually happening. Even Crazy Larry.
Early in Cash Out, Jordan reflects on his infant’s near-fatal illness, “I know all too well that the worst does happen to people — every day.” Beyond the absurd scope of the narrative, there’s a through-line of more recognizable, believable tragedy. As Jordan struggles to keep his fantasy in view, there’s a dark cloud hanging over the book that won’t escape any reader: Fall 2008. The book is deliberately set in the months before the economic recession that would shock the world over. Jordan fights the good fight trying to right all the wrongs he committed, but the reader’s lingering knowledge that it will be for naught can’t be forgotten. Things are about to get a lot worse, and this mid-life crisis that Jordan experienced will soon become a past adventure he will recall with great fondness. Even if those vasectomy-induced delusions of grandeur had come true, how much better off would he have been? Such is the fate of noir: he would have been screwed either way.
Fulfilling all of the promise of Bardsley’s short story “Crazy Larry Smell Bacon” (the first appearance of Jordan’s sidekick, which originally appeared in Plots With Guns and anthologized in Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg’s By Hook or By Crook, and 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year) (Tyrus, 2010), Cash Out marks an exciting new entry into the mystery field. Flat-out funny prose that doesn’t resort to parody is a rarity. Bardsley’s clarity and eccentricity should be treasured. Here’s hoping that a follow-up novel isn’t too far around the corner.
The Last Kind Words
Bantam, June 2012, 320 pp.
IT'S BEEN THREE YEARS since the publication of Tom Piccirilli’s last novel, Shadow Season. Already having moved from dark fantasy/horror to noir/crime, Shadow Season found Piccirilli pushing himself ever forward into bolder, bleaker territories. The plot is set around an all-girl’s school in a small, remote New York town over the course of a single day. In order to tell the story of a blind teacher whose past life as a cop finally catches up with him, Piccirilli amplified the hallmarks of his style — sensation and introspection, rooted in his characters’ dejected moods — making for some of the most goddamn chilling crime fiction you’ll ever read. The book was a stylistic triumph, and a sure sign that ever better things were yet to come.
In the following years, there were no more novels. Instead, Piccirilli released a collection of previously published stories and poems, Futile Efforts (Cemetery Dance, 2010), and two new novellas that took readers on a cross-country journey through an economically and morally ravaged America. The Last Deep Breath (Tasmaniac Publications, 2010) followed the aptly named Grey, who drifts from New York City to Los Angeles, living on the increasingly unlikely hope of finding his missing sister. Shadow Season’s rampant despair has grown into full-blown nihilism in The Last Deep Breath — for Grey, it’s a toss up which is worse, failing at the one thing he believes in, or believing in nothing. Piccirilli’s follow-up, Every Shallow Cut (ChiZine Publications, 2011), reverses the journey: an unnamed down-on-his-luck writer, broke and alone save for his dog, drives from Colorado to Long Island, NY looking for his estranged brother. Finding his family, however, only exacerbates old wounds, leaving him more hopeless than ever before. It’s less of a novel about a crime than about detailing a character teetering on the precipice of violence: his worst deeds are yet to come. Like David Goodis and Ed Gorman before him, Piccirilli has a way of making the world seem sad and deflated, filled with characters desperate yet empty of desire and drive, and who are survivors of their own failures. Piccirilli’s latest, The Last Kind Words, is the culmination of these journeys.
Set in a sleepy backwoods area of Long Island, The Last Kind Words details the dissolution of a family of professional thieves. It begins with Terry Rand returning home after five years of hiding out on Western ranches. Now 25, the broken pieces of the life he left behind have drifted further apart in his absence. In two weeks, his brother, Collie, is to be executed for an unmotivated killing spree, which ultimately claimed eight lives. Alzheimer’s has already pillaged his grandfather’s mind, and is beginning to move in on his father and two uncles. His sister, Dale, always the straight one in the family, is drifting into a dangerous criminal crowd. And his mother, ever the rock, might no longer be strong enough to hold the family together.
Ostensibly, the story is about Terry’s attempt to perform one last favor for his brother: to prove that Collie didn’t murder one of the victims, Rebecca Clarke. The ultimate pointlessness of this endeavor is not lost on Terry — at best, his brother will still be guilty of seven murders, and will still be legally executed by the state. It’s another of those “futile efforts” that haunt Piccirilli’s characters — personal journeys that are unavoidable, taking us further into the past, moving backward instead of forward, perpetually worse and never better. Terry’s real motivation is less in proving Collie innocent as it is in finding the true depths of his brother’s guilt — and, by association, his own. The guilt of one Rand is the whole family’s burden; the downfall of one is the ruin of all. The strong but tense bond between the Rands, and the seed of their disconnect, is hinted at in their symbolic forenames: Terry (short for Terrier), Collie (short for Collier), Dale (short for Airdale), and other canine-derived names. They are all dogs — but separate breeds. Just how different, and how similar, is the proverbial elephant in the room. Terry knows the men in his family are plagued by the same mental decomposition, be it Alzheimer’s or something more sinisterly unknown, and it is this mystery that haunts him most of all: when will he show his true family heritage, when will he be the next to succumb to “the underneath” (as it is referred to in the book)? Unlike his father who rarely spoke his mind for fear that “his words [would] give life and form to whatever he was holding back,” Terry wants to know his fate, however bleak it may be. It’s a heroic quality that sets him apart from the rest of his family, and at least one trait that he doesn’t seem to have inherited.
Genealogy has long been a preoccupation of Piccirilli’s work, and not only in the familial manhunts of The Last Deep Breath and Every Shallow Cut. There’s also his Edgar-nominated Cold series, The Cold Spot (Bantam, 2008) and The Coldest Mile (Bantam, 2009), about the cutthroat rivalry between grandfather and grandson criminals. Nowhere is it more pronounced than in his noir-western fusion, Grave Men (Leisure, 2002). Ancestral revenge is an archetypical plot motivation in western fiction; in Grave Men, Piccirilli presents a character so resigned to his family’s tragedy that he isn’t compelled to do much of anything. The plot revolves around siblings Priest and Molly McClaren who witnessed the murder of their parents. Reversing gender archetypes, it is Molly who takes to the open plain hunting down their parents’ killers, while Priest stays at home to look after his dementia-debilitated grandfather. Priest isn’t exactly a motivated homemaker, however: he runs his General Store into the ground by standing by listlessly while Indians burn it to the ground and let his partner spend all the profits on gambling and women. Priest can’t even keep tabs on ol’ Gramps, who likes to booze up on mescal and run off with a local band of Apache warriors. For most of Grave Men, Priest doesn’t really do much. He knows if he tries to avenge his parents, he’ll most likely be killed, and if he survives he’ll wind up like Gramps. Priest is warned, “That old man is sick. Sick in his brain […] And I fear you’re heading in the same direction. One of these days you’re going to go mad in the streets, tearing out your own eyes and stinking in your own shit.” Priest, like many of Piccirilli’s characters, is faced with another “futile effort,” with ruin around every corner. The thematic impulse behind genealogy, and the truth that Piccirilli looks for through it, goes back to his start in dark fantasy and horror. The monsters and demons from those earlier tales are still present, only now they take a human form, and they’re all the more terrifying for how recognizable they are.
If Shadow Season was a turning point for Piccirilli — signaling a maturation of theme and style — then The Last Kind Words marks the start of a major new period in Piccirilli’s oeuvre, and it stands among his finest and most moving works to date.
A Death in Mexico
New Pulp Press, May 2012, 211 pp.
NEW PULP PRESS CONTINUES to shake up the mystery world with some of the most audacious and ambitious crime titles currently being published. Like a delinquent cousin to Hard Case Crime, New Pulp Press combines the provocative innovation of Grove and Evergreen Press with the criminal tendencies of Fawcett’s Gold Medal imprint (at various times the home of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Lawrence Block, Day Keene, Harry Whittington, Peter Rabe, among many other legendary paperbackers). Their books don’t nicely fit into pre-defined niches or publishing patterns — they take risks, venturing so far out on limbs they risk bringing the whole damn tree down. In a field where publishers often seek safety in repetition, such daring and lunacy is much appreciated.
Among their notable recent releases is Jonathan Woods’s debut novel, A Death in Mexico, an outrageous and unruly mescal-soaked murder mystery packed with plenty of euphoric and hallucinogenic highs and none of the regrettable aftereffects. Readers looking for a by-the-books police procedural won’t find anything so straight-laced or conservative in this book; adventurous readers — those willing to drink without first asking what’s in the glass — will savor Woods’s unorthodox mélange of sex and slaughter under the sun.
It all begins when a young female corpse is discovered mutilated in the streets of San Miguel de Allende. Leading the investigation is police inspector Hector Diaz, a man prone to indigestion, ill-timed erections, and hallucinations of Aztec gods. After the corpse is identified as Amanda Smallwood, a young model from Texas, the trail leads Diaz to a local community of expatriate American artists that includes a charming convicted child molester, a Canadian diplomat’s wife, and scores of jilted lovers and wannabe artists living Bohemian fantasies with total abandon — any of whom seem desperate, envious, inebriated, or crazy enough to have committed the murder.
True to form, the case turns out to be more complicated than it initially appeared. Where Jonathan Woods diverges from convention, however, is in the pacing, direction, and ultimate resolution of the narrative. Diaz's investigation doesn't unfold with much organization or exactitude, as it would in a more traditional procedural. Instead of Chandler or any of the usual suspects, Woods' style is more suggestive of Henry Miller by way of Grahame Greene. Like Miller, Woods revels in squalid splendor: public urination, rampant intoxication, spiritual and philosophical digressions, honest (and frequently funny) sexuality, and Bohemian exhibitionism. And like Greene, there's a counterpoint between cultural and political intrigue that resists the superficial trappings of tourism and offers a more enlightened perspective.
As Amanda Smallwood’s case develops, San Miguel de Allende reveals itself to be a place out of time, an anachronistic theme park for Lost Generation re-enactors. Save for a couple minor references to a cell phone, A Death in Mexico could be set almost anytime in the 20th century. While the suspects believe they are soaking up an “authentic” cultural experience, they remain ignorant to the marketing ploy they have bought into. Diaz muses, “If it wasn’t for the need to keep the town ‘authentic’ for the tourists […] we’d have decently paved streets. Not these dry steambeds that eviscerate your vehicle and shake your organs loose.” Like El Rey, the thieves’ hideaway in Jim Thompson’s The Getaway where old crooks are recycled into meals, there’s something sinister about the sex-and-art-fueled paradise offered by San Miguel de Allende. While there isn’t anything so gruesome as Thompson’s human meat factory in A Death in Mexico, there’s certainly something cannibalistic about colonialism and its effects in the tourist trade.
In the end, Amanda Smallwood’s death, and the subsequent investigation, amounts to very little. Regardless of the unpleasant truths that Diaz uncovers, or the even darker ones that are left undiscovered, all that matters to the government is that the tabloids have moved on to less sordid headlines, and the tourists still make the rounds at night — not that they ever stopped. In fact, there’s no evidence in the course of Diaz’s investigation that anyone touched by Smallwood’s death was affected in any profound or meaningful way. Perhaps they were too drunk, too jealous, too jaded, or too busy thinking about their next project, their next lay, or their next drink, to take notice of the world in which they lived, and the people they shared it with. Woods doesn’t deny the myriad enjoyments to be had by all in San Miguel’s fantasy world (even Diaz indulges in pleasures of the flesh in the course of his investigation), but nor does he ignore the superficiality, transience, and ultimately the fiction, of such experiences.
A Death In Mexico isn't a puzzle to be solved so much as an opiate to be ingested. An impressive follow-up to the author’s first collection of short stories, 2010’s Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem (also from New Pulp Press), it bodes well for further literary adventures with Jonathan Woods.