Still from trailer for The Big Combo (1955) Allied ArtistsJohn Alton, Cinematographer
Six new novels of note.
Kings of Midnight
Minotaur, April 2012. 304 pp.
Kings of Midnight kicks off with a heist destined for the Hall of Fame. The setup may be simple — knocking over an ATM with a tractor, followed by a fast getaway into the woods — but the scene's power lies in Wallace Stroby's uncannily exact imagery, precise language, and narrative credibility. Stroby's depiction of heists is so believable you almost wonder if writing is just a sideline for him. The scene recalls those meticulously choreographed centerpieces from films like Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) and Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road (1957), in which minute details of movement are amplified to anxiety-inducing extremes. So much tension, but so little happening. Economy of language has been a key element of crime fiction since the days of Dashiell Hammett, but Stroby makes it feels fresh and vital again. He doesn't rely on hardboiled clichés or tough guy lingo. Kings of Midnight is, in large part, a quiet book when it comes to dialogue. The attitude is all in the action — and action speaks louder than words.
Kings of Midnight is a follow-up to last year's Cold Shot to the Heart, which first introduced career criminal Crissa Stone. Like Richard Stark's Parker before her, Crissa is a stone-cold thief who finds redemption in professionalism. But unlike Parker, Crissa is no existential enigma. Stroby gives us just enough fleeting glimpses of her personal life — a lover behind bars in Texas, a daughter who lives with relatives and doesn't know her real mother's identity — to lend her actions a sincere urgency, and to explain why, at this point, her job is her whole life. She lives for her family, even if she can't see them, and raising this money is the only way she can connect with them, even if they don't receive it directly. Some of the money goes to bribing officials to get her lover released from jail, and the rest goes to her daughter, either through her caretakers or a secret account.
Stroby grounded Cold Shot to the Heart in realism, avoiding excess, paring phrases down to their utmost efficiency — but Kings of Midnight takes this aesthetic even further, and amps up the excitement. The novel begins with two parallel stories, which eventually converge. There's Crissa, who returns to New York City to make some quick, clean cash after the ATM score goes sour. Then there's Benny Roth, an old-time mobster turned stool pigeon who got sick of living under witness protection and walked away from everything, taking a job as a dishwasher. When a fellow mobster from Benny's past shows up and demands to know where he stashed the legendary $5 million from a 1978 Lufthansa heist, the retiree is thrown back into action. Taking it on the lam with his much younger girlfriend, he heads back to New York, hoping to get to the loot before his rivals do. He'll need a pro for that: someone desperate enough to team up with an old man not at the top of his game and go for a big score that might not even exist...
Kings of Midnight is remarkable for its stylistic rigor. There's not a word out of place, no detail that isn't essential to the story. Some writers might be tempted to retreat into the minds of their characters, spelling out their every thought and feeling. Not Stroby. For him, all the psychology is implicit in their movement and dialogue. Crissa's lover and daughter are barely mentioned in this sequel, but their absence provides an unspoken motivation for all her decisions, and a foundation for our sympathy. This is what hard-boiled writing should be. No silly posturing, just tough characters making difficult choices and surviving in a ruthless world.
At their best, crime novels provide more than the voyeuristic pleasure of looking in on a lifestyle that us law-abiding citizens will never know first-hand: they offer a refractive glance back on our own world. In her own way, Crissa Stone is a modern-day hero for an America still recovering from the economic collapse. There's an honesty and integrity to her work ethic that separates her from the fold. The "corporate" types screw her over time and again, judges and lawyers can't be trusted, and the panic has even infected her own milieu. Old crews aren't operating together, the scores are more feeble, the interpersonal dynamics more tense, and there's a general feeling of depression and hopelessness. As Stroby writes of Crissa:
A long string of bad luck. Events pushing her along as if she had no control over them, no choice, her fate already decided. All of it getting away from her before she could fix it. Everything going to hell.
Or, an alternate, more succinct explanation courtesy of Benny: "Everything was fucked."
Over the course of two books in two years, Crissa Stone has become one of the most relatable and likable criminals in contemporary crime fiction. And in those same two books, Stroby has risen to the top of his field. Here's hoping that Stroby and Crissa make it three-for-three in 2013.
And She Was
Harper, February 2012. 384 pp.
A private investigator haunted by her past may be an old premise, but Allison Gaylin dusts it off and gives it new life with her latest novel, And She Was. Brenna Spector literally cannot forget anything. She suffers from hyperthymestic syndrome, a rare cognitive disorder that lends her almost total recall. Brenna's condition is a near-constant assault of sensation, emotion, and history, and nothing plagues her more than the one case she has never solved. When they were still children, Brenna's sister was abducted by a strange man in a blue car. The traumatic event triggered Brenna's disorder, and she's been trying in vain to find her sister ever since.
There's a reason why we see the past in softer and softer focus until it's forgotten down to snippets, sensations. Few people understood what a luxury that was, the ability to forget.
And She Was finds Brenna on a double missing persons case. Eleven years ago, 6-year-old Iris Neff was also seen getting into a strange blue car before vanishing. Now Carol Wentz, a friend of the Neff family, has gone missing. Her wallet was found at the scene of Iris's disappearance, with Brenna's phone number inside. Suspecting a deeper connection between Carol and Iris — and perhaps with her own sister — Brenna reopens the case in hopes of finding all three.
The result is a moody, densely layered mystery whose emotional notes are as affecting as the plot points are enthralling. Gaylin excels at getting us into her protagonist's complex (and crowded) mind.
Thematically, And She Was resonates with the recent novels of Megan Abbott (The End of Everything) and Sara Gran (Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead), both of which also delved into the "missing young girl" scenario. All three books are outstanding novels, and each offers a unique perspective on the topic. Whereas Abbott's book dared to venture into the burgeoning minds of adolescent girls, capturing that rapturous fantasy of being carried away from one's drab suburban surroundings, Gran and Gaylin chose to deal with the aftershocks of disappearance. Both of their novels feature female protagonists who turned to private detection in order to find their missing friends and family members, as well as a near-hallucinogenic relationship to the past. Whereas Gran's detective actually takes mind-altering drugs, Gaylin's P.I. needs no such external stimulation.
Gaylin distinguishes herself in both tone and structure. And She Was is a labyrinth of crisscrossing histories and unsolved mysteries, a model of superb narrative craft. Gaylin tackles three interlocking stories at once, and the complexity is all the more astonishing for its clarity. Tonally, Gaylin's protagonist readily dons that noir cloak of self-loathing. Abbott's girls are too young to fully comprehend what they're getting into and Gran's PI still hasn't fully confronted the past, but Brenna Spector reaches near-Goodisian heights of regret and depression. Gaylin doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of her characters, and with a sequel already planned for next winter, one has to assume that Brenna hasn't finished plumbing the depths of her past.
Joe R. Lansdale
Edge of Dark Water
Mulholland Books, March 2012. 288 pp.
Imagine the literary love child of Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, but way more twisted, with a penchant for dismemberment, and a hell of a lot funnier. That's Joe R. Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water in a nutshell. Lansdale's teenage narrator, with her blend of youthful naivety and old-before-her-age-wisdom, recalls Frankie from The Member of the Wedding, while the overarching sense of history and Southern mythology recalls Faulkner's geographic and genealogic sensibility.
Set in the swampy backwaters of East Texas during the Great Depression, Edge of Dark Watertells the story of Sue Ellen, a teenage girl who uncovers the bloated, rotten corpse of her friend May Lynn while fishing with her father. The prettiest girl in town, May Lynn always dreamed of making it to Hollywood. Dead set on making that dream come true, Sue Ellen and her two best friends — Terry, a gay boy who is afraid to come out of the closet, and Jinx, a black girl who longs to escape the racism of her surroundings — plan to exhume May Lynn's corpse (in multiple pieces, mind you), burn it, and take the ashes on a river-and-road trip to Hollywood. They plan to finance their journey with May Lynn's cache of stolen money, and that might just be their undoing. Soon they find themselves on the run from May Lynn's greedy family, as well as a mythic tracker named Skunk, who smells of death and wears his victims' body parts as jewelry.
Though it is both an endearing coming-of-age saga and a grotesque, Southern Gothic fable, let's not forget that, at heart, Edge of Dark Water is a great crime story. You have the murder, the stolen money, and the magnificent chase down the Sabine River that blends all the excitement of a breakneck getaway with the magic realism of Davis Grubb's Night of the Hunter andHuckleberry Finn's defiant rebellion. But for all the comparisons one might draw to other authors, Lansdale is a true original. Since breaking onto the literary scene in the early 1980s, Lansdale has been slicing-and-dicing genres and serving up wild hybrids with his patent offbeat humor, grotesquerie, and riveting storyteller's voice. Lansdale spins the type of campfire yarns that keep you around long after the marshmallows are gone and the embers have grown cold.
As funny as Edge of Dark Water often is ("Uncle Gene was fat as a hog, but without the personality"), it never descends to parody. There's a deep sincerity to Lansdale's characters and the situations in which they find themselves, whether it be carrying a friend's severed limbs, poisoning a lake with one's father and waiting for the fish to float up, or coming to terms with a mother's alcoholism (and how a father emotionally and sexually manipulates it). There's a simultaneous simplicity and profundity to Sue Ellen's observations — "It hurt to think I was losing Mama to twenty-five cents a bottle and a lying dream" — that is crucial to keeping her voice as believable as her experiences can allow. And in that respect, Lansdale succeeds impressively.
Early on in the book, Sue Ellen reflects:
The mockingbird is a kind of thief, same as I planned to be. The big difference was he seemed happy about it and I didn't, and I hadn't stolen anything yet, outside of cane and watermelons.
It's a humble beginning to a life of crime — and the start of a great adventure.
The Next One to Fall
Forge, February 2012. 352 pp.
Picking up where her 2010 debut, The Damage Done, left off, Hilary Davidson's The Next One to Fallfinds travel writer Lily Singer still mourning her sister's murder. A trip to Peru with her best friend, Jesse, proves anything but restorative when the pair witnesses a young woman's death. The police write the incident off as a drug overdose, but Lily suspects murder. Seeing vestiges of her sister in the deceased woman, Lily throws herself into the case.
Don't let the exotic Peruvian backdrop fool you: this is in no way a picturesque walk in the park — or through the Incan ruins, as the case may be. From its doom-laden opening line ("Standing at the edge of the mountain, I imagined what it would feel like to let go") to its unexpectedly savage finale, The Next One to Fall is driven by the noir impulse towards oblivion. Herself a former travel writer, Davidson imbues The Next One to Fall with enough local color and history to appeal to those readers looking for an escape from their day-to-day surroundings. But this journey isn't escapist. From Lily's own personal wounds — especially her sense that she ran out on her drug-addicted sister in her time of need — to the layers of deceit and human exploitation she uncovers in the course of her investigation, The Next One to Fall is anchored in guilt.
Deep down, I felt that I'd been marked by the deaths of my father, mother, and sister, that each loss had taken a toll on me leaving me less than I had been before, and irrevocably damaged. Claudia swayed at the edge of my thoughts every waking moment, but I was afraid to let her any closer, in case the darkness she carried with her consumed me. I couldn't see any way out.
With only two novels to her name, Hilary Davidson has already achieved a remarkable fusion of mainstream mystery appeal with a dark streak a mile wide. Her voice is a fresh and welcome addition to the noir landscape. Based on the deep emotional resonance of The Next One to Fall, we can expect many more bleakly elegant pages from Davidson in the future.
Chris F. Holm
Angry Robot, February 2012. 384 pp.
Chris F. Holm's genre-transmogrifying debut, Dead Harvest, is among the most adventurous crime titles to appear this year. It's sort of a supernatural hit-man story, with a wrong-guy, lovers-on-the-run, end-of-the-world, action sci-fi twist — an ambitious mash-up that twists, contorts, recasts, and revives umpteen different archetypes. The only thing crazier than Holm's vision is the fact that he actually pulls it off.
Sam Thornton, the protagonist of Dead Harvest, doesn't make kills like any ordinary assassin — he collects their souls. A soulless phantom himself, Thornton's spirit moves from body to body, wherever his assignment leads him. All goes well until he goes to collect his next victim, a young woman who murdered her family. When he reaches into her body, he senses that she is innocent. No collector has ever dared defy orders before, but Sam knows that taking an innocent soul could have massive, world-altering repercussions ... like, bringing about the apocalypse. So, he kidnaps his victim in an attempt to prove her innocence and, well, prevent the world from ending.
There's a lot packed into Dead Harvest's 300 plus pages: everything from Staten Island bimbos to demigods, and from demonic possession to helicopter chases. At times, it may seem like too much. Holm's creativity knows no limits, but by the end I wondered whether I knew the world he had created better than the characters that populated it. Dead Harvest is a wild and unpredictable ride that only gets more bold as the narrative unfurls, and now that the foundation for the series is set, I'm excited to see what hurdles Holm has set for Thornton in the sequel, The Wrong Goodbye, already slated for October 2012.
Blood on the Mink
Hard Case Crime, April 2012. 224 pp.
A Robert Silverberg renaissance is a-brewing. Last year, Stark House Press republished two of the sci-fi master's earliest novels, Gang Girl (1959) and Sex Bum (1963), both of which originally appeared under the pseudonym Don Elliott. These are from the heyday of smut paperbacks, a time when rising talent (like Silverberg, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block) were cutting their teeth on T-and-A-tastic yarns, honing their writing skills and getting paid for it. On a sadder note, veteran pulpsters like Harry Whittington, who could barely sell to legit paperback houses anymore, also resorted to the likes of Corinth to pay the bills.
Fifty-plus years later, Silverberg's Don Elliott books hold up as more than just a literary curiosity: they're damned good, deftly plotted crime stories about low-lifes trying to fight (or sleep) their way to the top. Imagine if James M. Cain's protagonists threw a few more punches and copped a few more feels.
And now comes another of Hard Case Crime's legendary rediscoveries: Blood on the Mink, a "lost" Silverberg novel. It was originally published as "Too Much Blood on the Mink" by "Ray McKensie" in Trapped magazine in 1962. Trapped's last issue, it turns out: one of many casualties in the pulp era's retreat to oblivion in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was subsequently forgotten by most of the world, until Hard Case head honcho, Charles Ardai, turned up with a copy of that old magazine. Bless you, Mr. Ardai, for making noir-lovers' dreams come true, time and time again.
As it turns out, Blood on the Mink is one of Hard Case's best rediscoveries yet. The story is about a government agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a counterfeit money operation in Philly. There's a momentum to these 158 pages that you just don't feel in today's crime novels. Perhaps it's simply the pace at which it was written — banged out as fast as possible so as to get the check as soon as possible — but I think it's something more. This is from an era before doorstop best sellers, when mysteries and thrillers couldn't be mistaken for a set of Shakespeare's complete works. Whether tales from the actual pulps, or full-length novels from the likes of Gold Medal or Lion, the best writing contained a sense of fury one couldn't find elsewhere. That inimitable sensation runs all through Blood on the Mink. It has a vein-bursting pulse, an ecstatic energy that surges through the pages. At times, it is almost drug-like: a hallucination of paranoid plots, constant adrenaline, and a nonstop parade of sex, violence, and subterfuge.
What saves the book from becoming an orgy of excess, however, is Silverberg's stylistic restraint, and his attention to detail and craft. Blood on the Mink is by no means as extreme as something by Mickey Spillane. Silverberg's style, at least here, is more reminiscent of the cool precision of a Peter Rabe. When it comes to action, there's a remarkable balance of clarity and brute force to his choreography:
I started up out of the chair, ostensibly heading for the door. But Chavez reacted as I expected. The right hand went diving into the jacket to get the gun. I swung to my left and caught hold of him as though we were going to waltz, wrapping my left arm around his shoulders and grabbing his jacket-front with my right. He couldn't draw his gun out of the jacket — or his hand, for that matter. His face was white with hatred and surprise. I held him tight.
If you liked that, just wait until you read the climactic gunfight...
Reading Blood on the Mink today, it seems like it should have been a crime fiction staple for decades by now. It fully embodies the finest craftsmanship that the pulps had to offer. Now that it is available once again — and to a wider audience than even in its initial printing — it will finally have the chance to become the classic it deserves to be. And with two more rare short stories in the mix, as well as an afterword by Silverberg himself, this is definitely one of the most fun Hard Case titles to come along in some time. I hope Hard Case continues to include more of these bonus features in future volumes.