I wasn’t going to do this. You know, post a list of my favorite reads of the year. There were just so many, is the thing. But seeing all the other “Best of” lists got me thinking, and I even posted a brief thing on Facebook about a couple of my favorites, so… what the hell.
Most of my reading this year was divided between Westerns (old and new) and a bunch of small-press indie releases, mostly on e-book. In fact, I don’t think I read a single new book all year that was put out by one of the major publishers. That wasn’t by design; it just worked out that way. But you know what? I didn’t miss the Big Boy Releases at all.
Anyway, sticking solely to novels, novellas and short story collections released in 2011, and in no particular order, here’s what I consider the cream of the crop:
THE LAST DEEP BREATH, Tom Piccirilli
GUN, by Ray Banks
CHOKE ON YOUR LIES, Anthony Neil Smith
MONKEY JUSTICE, Patti Abbott
SMOKE, Nigel Bird
BRIT GRIT, Paul D. Brazill
TOXIC REALITY, Katherine Tomlinson
THE END OF EVERYTHING, Megan Abbott
THE ADVENTURES OF CASH LARAMIE & GIDEON MILES, VOL. 2, Edward A. Grainger
ONE DEAD HEN, Charlie Williams
PULP INK, edited by Bird & Rhatigan
THE CHAOS WE KNOW, Keith Rawson
… and I’m going to add two more last-minute choices—last minute because one of them I only finished this morning, and the other I’m likely to finish before the night is over and unless it takes some sudden weird turn into shitsville it belongs here. They are:
SOUTHERN GODS, John Horner Jacobs
TOBACCO-STAINED MOUNTAIN GOAT, Andrew Bergen
That’s 14 books out of almost 200 I read this year, so please don’t feel too bad if your book isn’t on this list. You can be sure that, if I featured it here at this blog, I loved it.
Happy New Year.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
We all know that the only real closure happens only once in our lives, right at the end. And it’s inevitably pretty anti-climactic. So we fill our days with any excuse possible to imagine a fresh start ahead of us and an end to all the tribulations behind. Nothin’ wrong with that.
That’s why we like these year-end retrospectives and “best of/worst of” lists. They give us a nice sense of having accomplished something, even if that something is nothing more than having survived another 365 days.
Again, nothin’ wrong with that. I like them too. We have to grab up closure wherever we find it, I reckon.
Having said that, 2011 was, writing-wise, a solid year for me. My goals were hazy and ill-defined, but I managed to achieve many of them despite that.
Be warned, the following bit is very self-indulgent, and no one would blame you for not giving a shit. It’s all about me, my own personal bit of looking back and puffing out my chest in self-satisfaction.
My first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, came out in March, and over the course of the year continued to garner good notices if not terrific sales. In the last couple weeks of the year, it kept popping up on those afore-mentioned “Best of” lists, which, no lie, is immensely gratifying. Sales spiked on it because of that, bringing promises of coffee and cig money in the future.
About half-way through the year, almost on a whim, I put out myself a story collection called DIG TEN GRAVES. About half the stories were previously published, the other half new to the collection, and again I was relieved to see it received enthusiastically by readers. Two of the stories in particular, “It Will All Be Carried Away” and “Incident on a Rain-Soaked Corner”, seemed to have struck a chord. “Carried Away” was even nominated for storySouth’s Millions Writers Award.
I made a deal in October to do a series of weird Western e-stories for Trestle Press, the first of them being “That Damned Coyote Hill”. Oddly enough, this story wound up being the most successful of my projects for the year (sales-wise) and it’s still doing pretty well, 2 ½ months later.
I also did two chapters of something called “Deadland USA” for Trestle, but, despite them getting fairly good notices, they were pretty much D.O.A. and their future is uncertain.
Over the course of the year, I managed to place short stories in several e-zines and print mags that I’d long wished to be associated with. Necrotic Tissue, Chi-Zine, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, and Pulp Metal, among a couple others.
I was invited to contribute a story to Luca Veste’s anthology OFF THE RECORD.
I was given the opportunity to write a Gideon Miles story for Edward A. Grainger, called “Miles to Little Ridge”, which met with more success than I could have imagined.
And finally, the brilliant Snubnose Press agreed to put out my second full-length novel, CITY OF HERETICS, in 2012.
Two or three more great opportunities presented themselves just in the last month or so, but they are stories for this time next year, as they’re still in the early stages.
So that’s it. Not a bad showing for a guy who, this time last year, had next to nothing to show for himself, eh?
And please don’t get me wrong. I know that, as self-indulgent and self-congratulatory as this post has been, I’m perfectly aware that none of it means anything, really. But every little worldly success we encounter provides a little bit of solace, a little bit of self-esteem to cling to while the world goes about its usual business of kicking our asses.
Progress might be an illusion, but I’m well-pleased with this particular fantasy.
My goal for this time next year: Make some fuckin’ money at this.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
I talk about books a lot here at Psycho-Noir, but I’m not a book reviewer, despite appearances. And this is not a book review blog. Honestly, I don’t know what this blog is. Aside from the roster of guest posts featured recently, the bulk of posts have been either self-promotional, rants vaguely related to writing or reading, and fan-boyish chatter about books I enjoyed.
But that’s the thing: it’s only ever books I enjoyed. Like most of you, I read a great deal, and if I like a book I’ll mention it here. But for every five books I read, two or three don’t do much for me. If I was an actual book reviewer, I’d include them here, dissect them, point out all their flaws. But I’m not interested in doing that.
No, if a book doesn’t work for me, I ignore it. I have no desire to tear down other people’s work in a public forum, especially if the writer in question is struggling to be read, to be noticed. That just seems cruel, like making fun of someone struggling to walk again after being in a wheelchair for years.
Yes, you might say, but what if the writer in question really does suck and would be well-served to know that and stop vomiting his crappy prose all over the publishing world? Good point, sure, but you know what? Not my job. I’m not judging actual critics and reviewers who do that, I’m just saying I have no interest in it (with a few exceptions; fuck you, James Patterson and Lee Child, you suck).
So in the coming year, I intend to stop referring to my book chatter as “reviews”. They’re “recommendations”, that’s what that are. And you’ll see lots of recommendations in the coming months.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
One of the happiest events in publishing this last year was the flood of re-releases on e-book of Lawrence Block titles. His fans finally got to grab up inexpensive editions of some of the Master’s earliest work, and see an entirely different aspect of his vast talents.
One of the earliest of these new e-book releases was DEADLY HONEYMOON, a novel Block wrote in 1967 and which has been in and out of print over the years ever since. I was particularly excited about this one, since I’d been buying and reading the Hard Case Crime reprints and enjoying the hell out of them. According to Block’s essay at the back of the book, DEADLY HONEYMOON was inspired by his friend Donald Westlake, and was his very first hardcover release.
In essence, this is a simple, relentless revenge tale. Dave and Jill are young newlyweds on their honeymoon, bright-eyed and eager for the future, until they witness a murder and become victims themselves—the bad guys beat Dave senseless, and, almost on a whim, brutally rape Jill. Thankfully, Block doesn’t go into detail on this (after all, who wants to read a rape scene?) but in his clinical, almost detached vagueness, Block succeeds in horrifying you. It’s the sudden shift that does it, the juxtaposition of a young couple so happy and naïve just pages earlier, confronted with a sort of violence they never could have conceived of.
Instead of going to the police, Dave and Jill decide to take matters into their own hands. Something has been taken away from them, they feel; something that can only be paid for in blood.
The two of them go to New York on the trail of the enemy, and over the course of tracking them down discover how deep the darkness in their own hearts goes. They still love each other, still want each other, but their desire for vengeance tests everything they think they know about themselves.
DEADLY HONEYMOON is an immensely satisfying novel, moving along at a breakneck pace, lingering only briefly on their fumbling and bittersweet attempts to hold onto each other. A lot of the anxiety in reading it comes from your fear that, after all this, will they ever be able to return to any sort of normalcy. And Lawrence Block keeps you on edge about that until the final pages.
An absolutely top-notch, brilliant novel.
You need long-term goals in order to make something of your life. That’s what they told Shug while he was in prison, advice that Shug ponders on and takes to heart. Now that he’s out, he’s singularly focused on that goal, trying to keep a handle on his short-fuse temper and keep his eyes on the prize.
But it’s harder to do than he could have guessed. When he shows up in his old stomping grounds in order to pick up the cash he had hidden before heading out to follow his dream, it leads to several run-ins with his old girl and his old crew, and Shug’s long-term goal begins to look longer and longer term.
CALIFORNIA, the latest novella from Ray Banks, is another expertly drawn character study, disguised as a violent, bleakly funny crime story. In some ways, it’s a bit of a heart-breaker. Banks is terrific at letting the reader know, in very subtle ways, that the whole venture is doomed from the start, that our man Shug is locked into a pattern and no amount of dreaming can change it.
Shug has come out of prison a different man, yes. He actually has a plan for his life now, some dream to cling to. But in CALIFORNIA, Banks questions the whole notion that a dream is a good thing to have. Does a long-term goal make Shug a better person? Does it guarantee his happiness? No, not at all. In fact, the great dream just might be the young man’s undoing.
It’s a very unsettling proposition, this idea that desire leads to ruin. And I don’t know, really, that that was Banks intention. But it resonates. And the inevitable disaster that follows on Shug’s heels is devastating to read. CALIFORNIA could very well be the most intensely compelling thing Ray Banks has yet written, and that’s saying a lot.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Dani Amore’s got mad style. She’s been very prolific this year, and if you haven’t read her yet you have a lot of options on where to start. THE GARBAGE COLLECTOR #1 might be the place for you to dig in, as it’s short and sharp and gives readers a nice taste of what Amore is capable of.
The narrative voice is straight-forward and stream-lined—our unnamed hero takes a job from a coven of sleazy lawyers to track down their renegade partner and… deal with him. The assignment takes the Collector from Detroit to Florida, where he gets down to brass tacks and discovers that, unsurprisingly, the bad lawyers weren’t playing straight with him.
What follows is some tightly-written action, wry humor, and a refreshing lack of moral scruples.
THE GARBAGE COLLECTOR #1 is fast, furious and wholly entertaining.
In crime fiction, we see a lot of variations on staple characters. Grifters, killers, professional thieves, gamblers, corrupt cops, losers. And that’s all well and good, but…
Those aren’t, generally, the characters Patti Abbott gives us. Instead, the central players in Abbott’s stories are: your next door neighbor. The girl you work with at the office. Your mother. The clerk at your supermarket. Patti Abbott’s characters, in other words, are you and me.
The stories in MONKEY JUSTICE are intricate sometimes, multi-layered, and psychologically profound. They are character-driven pieces with central themes in common, most notably the idea of family and the hurt that comes with it.
Secrets. Lies. Melancholy. Betrayal. Those four Cardinal Virtues of Noir slither through each tale in MONKEY JUSTICE just like the fabled Biblical serpent, linking them together with dry scales.
These stories manage to be deeply emotional and devastating without ever resorting to sentimentality or predictable shlock. They are mature and stoic in the face of loss and bitter disappointment.
On a more practical note, Abbott fills this e-book to the brim. She could just as easily, for the price, split the volume into two separate collections and no one would have complained. Instead, she chooses to give the reader MORE than their money’s worth. I’m grateful for that, because after I’d read the last story I found myself in the unusual position of wanting another one. Reading Pati Abbott could very well become an addiction.
MONKEY JUSTICE is a collection of truly original, literary glimpses into the lives of ordinary, messed-up people, and one of the strongest collections of the year.
Monday, December 26, 2011
So maybe you got a brand new Kindle for Christmas. Congrats, man. Those things are pretty cool. Fortunately for you, there is no shortage of books you can buy relatively cheap to fill that bad boy up. No doubt, if you're like most new Kindle owners, you're going to spend a lot of time perusing titles that are absolutely free-- stuff in the public domain mostly, or stuff by writers who aren't sure themselves if they are worth money and so are giving their work away to test the waters. The public domain stuff is mostly tried-and-true, so no worries there. But you'll find the latter is mostly crap. Granted, some exceptions exist, but mostly...
Anyway, point being: when you're done downloading your selection of free stuff, may I point you in the direction of the ever-evolving, excitingly unpredictable underground of genre fiction now making its mark on the e-book market? There's a Noir Underground here, but it crosses over and bleeds into the Horror Underground, the Speculative Fiction Underground, and even the Western Underground. These are writers from all over the world, connected only by their commitment to writing great stories that pull no punches.
Here are some writers I very strongly urge you to check out, download, and enjoy:
Edward A. Grainger
Anthony Neil Smith
Paul D. Brazill
Matthew C. Funk
Aaron Philip Clark
R. Thomas Brown
And I'm probably forgetting a few, sorry to say. I'll expand on this list as they occur to me, so check back.
But regardless, these are all writers I more-or-less discovered this past year or so. Some of the names are "bigger" or more well-established than others, naturally, but what they all have in common is unflinching sensibilities and mind-boggling talent. Download anything by any of them and you won't be disappointed.
And while you're at it, look, man, I have a few things out my-own-self that you'd probably enjoy. They're listed over there to the right. I do solid work, honest; I wouldn't lie to you.
Happy New Year, and Happy Reading, friends.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
The month or so before my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, came out saw me editing the hell out of it. A lot of the editing had to do with quality control, but some of it was purely for length. All told, I chopped out almost 170 pages from the original manuscript, and I think it's a better novel for it.
But there was one scene I hated to see go, because I thought it was fun and displayed all the Reverend's dubious charms quite nicely. I chopped it because, technically, it didn't move the story forward at all and was a bit superfluous. But it was the only cut scene that I lamented over a little.
So here it is. If you've already read THE BASTARD HAND, this happens when Charlie and the Reverend first leave Memphis and are on their way to Cuba Landing. If you haven't read the book yet, well, consider this a brief diversion into debauchery.
I GET IRRITABLE
Before we got on the freeway the Reverend pulled a fifth of Canadian whiskey out of the trunk and we started passing the bottle back and forth before we’d crossed the Tennessee-Mississippi state line. He listened, enthralled, while I told him about getting my money back, and he laughed at all the right places and glanced at me with wide eyes and said, “No shit!” and “I’ll be doggoned!” and “Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty!”
A good audience, the old Reverend.
The miles on I-55 flashed by, taking us away from Memphis. For a long stretch the road seemed to drop steadily and he said, “We’re coming down off the Bluff now. Can you feel the difference?”
I noticed that the signs of city life stopped almost all at once and the scenery got rural. We passed over the hills, through green and clay-colored patches of deep forest, past sagging willow trees. Kudzu grew in ditches and up the stout trunks of every tree, thick and dense.
Only a few short miles west, the land flattened abruptly into the fertile expanse of the Delta, and whenever we’d reach a high point on the road we could look in that direction and see cotton fields stretching away from us.
I’d never seen Mississippi before, and I sort of fell in love. Every few minutes one of us would make a comment about how pretty it was. The rest of the time we spent laughing, drinking, singing songs, like a couple of teenage boys on their first road trip.
Just north of Holly Springs he decided to get off the freeway and find someplace to eat. He steered the car off the next exit we came to, and we found ourselves on a long lonely stretch of two-lane road heading west.
Very nice, but not exactly what we had in mind. The land flattened out and the road curved through the heart of the woods, great giant trees looming on either side. Not a diner or a gas station or any sign of humankind anywhere.
The woods around us began thinning out, until we came to a straight stretch on the road and the cotton fields we’d seen from a distance were all around us. The first sign of civilization, but not a particularly happy one. Still no sign of humans—no one working in the fields, no houses in the distance, nothing. They were around somewhere, we knew that, but damned if we knew where.
“Cotton fields,” he said vaguely. “I used to work in the cotton fields.”
He sighed. “No. Not really. My daddy owned the pharmacy in town and I worked there. But if you tell folks you’re from Mississippi they like to think you picked cotton, so that’s what I’ve always told them. I don’t know the first damn thing about picking cotton.”
I laughed, started to say something about living near Seattle and not working in a coffee shop, when the left front tire went boosh! and the car lurched across the dividing line and toward the ditch.
He wrestled with the steering wheel, pulling the Malibu back on the right side of the road and pumping the brake. He steered the car off the road, rolled to a noisy stop on the gravel. He craned his neck, looked out his window, then drew his head back in. He said, “Well, damn. We lost the front left tire.”
We sat there for a minute, getting our heartbeats back under control.
Then I said, “You have a spare?”
“Well, that’s a relief. Let’s get this thing taken care of.”
We climbed out of the car and the heat hit us hard. The sky was huge and white and the sun beat down. We went around to the trunk and Preacher had to try three different keys before he found the right one. He said, “One of these days I’m gonna mark these dang keys. I can never keep track.”
He opened it up. His suitcase and a small carry case were on top, and under them the spare tire, all shiny and new and black as pitch. I pulled it out with a heave and set it against the bumper, then searched the rest of the trunk for tools.
There weren’t any.
“Reverend,” I said. “You do have a jack, don’t you? And a tire iron?”
He looked puzzled. “Don’t I?” He shouldered in next to me, eyed the trunk, then straightened and put his hands on his hips. “Well, I gotta say, it sure looks like I don’t.”
“You have a spare tire but no tools to put it on.”
“Sure does look that way, don’t it?”
We stood there staring at each other for a minute. I sighed and rubbed a hand across my face. Already, sweat was coursing down the back of my neck and beading on my scalp.
“Well,” I said. “Well. We’re screwed.”
“Now, don’t jump to conclusions, Charlie.”
“Reverend,” I said. “I’m not jumping to conclusions. We’ve got a blown tire, no tools to fix it with, and we’re stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere. In my book, that means we’re screwed.”
“Well, now,” he said. He wiped sweat from his wide forehead and gazed off to the west. Nothing but cotton fields, but he said, “There’s bound to be some human beings ‘round here somewheres. Maybe if we drive real slow we can get up the road a-ways and find someone.”
“We can’t. Drive on that rim and it’ll get so bent up we won’t be able to take the lug nuts off. Besides, we’ve already driven miles on this road and haven’t seen a single soul.”
“All that means is that we’re closer to finding someone than we were before. And the rim can take a mile or so.”
“I don’t think so.”
“C’ mon, Charlie! Let’s go before we melt out here.”
He clapped his hands together, grinning, then got back in the car.
“C’ mon, Charlie,” he called. “Chop chop!”
I rubbed my face again, muttered a line of expletives under my breath, and hoisted the spare tire back in the trunk.
We drove another mile on the blown tire, inching along at five miles an hour. The ragged rubber flop-flop-flopped along the road until I thought the noise of it would drive me insane. The endless fields of cotton and the intense heat were like a fever-dream, a mind-numbing rendition of a mundane Hell. I couldn’t believe that only an hour ago I thought the goddamn place was beautiful.
The Reverend seemed totally unperturbed. He hummed as he drove, taking an occasional swig from the bottle. He said a few words to me at first, but my responses were irritable so he decided to leave me alone.
Then we saw what we’d been hoping for—a patch of trees up ahead, at the far end of the field, and beyond them a barn.
We both sat up hopefully, and he said, “Hot damn!” He capped the bottle, handed it to me, and I shoved it under the seat. The blown tire flopped faster, and he pointed ahead. “See there? What’d I tell ya?”
Just on the other side of the barn, a huge old farmhouse stood like a sun-battered oasis in the desert. Preacher laughed. “God will provide, won’t he?”
I smiled. “Sure looks that way. Unless this is the Ed Gein residence.”
The Reverend asked me who the hell Ed Gein was, and I told him Gein was someone even crazier than him and the Reverend said he sounded like a decent fellow. At the side of the farmhouse a woman was hanging laundry on a sagging line and she looked up as we coasted to a stop right in front of her house.
The Reverend squinted his eyes and examined her. It was a huge front yard and she was some distance away, but I could tell she was one of those hard-boned southern women who worked like a dog and never said much. She stared back, all the while pulling damp clothes out of a hamper and hanging them on the line.
“Handsome woman,” he said.
“You ever see a woman you didn’t like?”
“Not yet I ain’t. God created women to be admired, Charlie, and I ain’t one to sneer at His plan.”
“She looks a little rough to me.”
“Damn straight she does. I bet she ain’t had a good hambone put to her in decades. Can you imagine what that woman would be like in the sack? Old thing would probably tear your ass apart.”
A lavacious gleam in his eye. I shook my head, sighed. “Maybe we can tend to your needs once we get to Cuba Landing. Right now we have a small problem with the car. Why don’t you go on up to the house there and see if she has a jack and a tire iron?”
I climbed out, went around to the driver’s side, and got down on my haunches to check out the rim. Sure enough, it was bent at a slight angle, straining against the bolts. Burping whiskey, the Reverend got out of the car and walked around back to open the trunk. I followed him, said, “Get a hammer too, if she has one. I’m probably gonna have to pound the rim out a bit to pull it off.”
He looked at the woman, hardly paying attention to me. “Okey-doke. If I ain’t back in an hour, call the army.”
I pulled the tire out and bounced it on the road. “No way, Rev. You’re not gonna leave me standing around in this heat while you go off gallivanting. Just see if she has what we need.”
“Damn if you ain’t the bossiest travel partner I ever met.”
Grinning, he straightened his white collar, pushed a hand through his hair, and started up the huge yard towards the woman. As he approached, she began smoothing her shabby dress and touching at her hair self-consciously. He stuck his hand out at her and she took it, smiled at him. The smile softened her features dramatically, touching her eyes and every part of her face. She was quite pretty after all-- the Reverend apparently had some uncanny knack about finding qualities in people that were just below the surface.
They stood there by the clothesline for a few minutes, talking. The Reverend swept his arm in my direction, and the woman glanced over at me, nodding about something he was saying. She looked for all the world like a wallflower being asked to dance at the senior prom. I would’ve given anything to know what he was telling her.
After a moment she nodded vigorously and led him around back of the house. He glanced back at me, gave the “okay” sign with thumb and forefinger, and they disappeared from view.
Immediately I had a bad feeling about it, and after a minute I’d just about made up my mind to go and get him. But right as I took a step in that direction they reappeared. He carried a red plastic toolbox in one hand and a rusty old jack in the other. The woman walked beside him, talking enthusiastically.
He left her at the washing line and made his way back to the car. The woman waved at me, and went back to hanging up her clothes.
“Well, here ya go,” he said, handing me the jack. “And lookee here. She had a whole box full of brand new tools in the shed. Pretty box too, ain’t it?”
He set the box on the hood of the car and opened it. A shiny black tire iron rested on top, so new it still had the thin coat of manufactor’s grease on it.
I picked it up, looked at him. He looked back at me, a half-grin on his pleasant face.
I said, “Listen, I’m sorry for jumping on you like that. S’ the heat, you know?”
He waved a hand at me in dismissal. “Paw! Don’t think nothing of it. I do tend to have a one-track mind, I reckon.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at me, and I laughed, shaking my head.
“You do beat all, Rev.”
I took off my shirt—the same bowling shirt I’d worn the day before—and started to work.
He hung around beside me, glancing at my progress occasionally, making “hmm,” noises under his breath. But I could tell he was distracted. The woman hanging up clothes still watched us, and without even looking at the Reverend I knew he was watching her.
Finally he said, “Y’know, Charlie... if it’s all the same to you, I think I might go on up there and get better acquainted with the lady.”
I stopped working at the rusted lug nuts long enough to arch an eyebrow at him. “Don’t you figure she’s married or something?”
“I asked her ‘bout that. Husband’s off in the fields.”
“Rev, I’m gonna be done with this pretty soon.”
“How soon, you reckon?”
“Well... twenty minutes or so. Maybe half an hour, depending.”
He grinned, rubbed his hands together, gazed at the woman. Appetite showed in his eyes. “Twenty minutes or so, huh? I tell you what...”
I looked at him, waiting, while he calculated in his head.
He clapped his hands together and said, “Yeah. I tell you what, Charlie, since you got yourself a little money now. I bet you that I can go on up the house there, chat that lady up, have myself a nice little ole’ romp, and be back here before you’re done changing that tire.”
I stared at him.
“What do you say, Charlie? If I can’t do it, then supper’s on me tonight. If I can, then you gotta buy.”
“This ain’t Bridges Of Madison County, Rev.”
“Bridges of what?”
“Never mind. You’re crazy, you know that?”
He grinned. “Damn straight. Craziest motherfucker this side of Ole’ Man River.”
I twirled the tire iron in my hand, said, “Okay. You’re on. I know you’re good, but you’re not that good. In fact, if you’re able to reduce that woman to a mere object for your sexual gratification before I finish, then supper’ll be on me for the next week. And I’m talking steak and lobster.”
“Well all right!” he said.
He headed back toward the house, striding purposefully, and the woman put down her work and waited for him.
I watched as they exchanged a few words and the woman actually blushed visibly. They talked for several minutes, laughing and carrying on, while I stood there watching like an idiot.
And then she was walking back to the house, the Reverend following her.
I started working. Fast. Somehow I knew they weren’t going inside for lemonade.
Exactly twenty-three minutes later my hands were covered with grease and I was tightening up the last nut on the new tire. The sun beat down on me relentlessly, and the back of my neck was raw and irritable. The whole time I worked, not a single car passed on the road, not a single sound disturbed me. Less than an hour from Memphis, but it may as well have been the moon.
I would’ve had the damn thing done ten minutes earlier, but my greasy hands—all signs of amber light gone for now—kept slipping on the tire iron and after that I kept dropping lug nuts and would have to crawl around retrieving them. The rim wasn’t bent too badly so it didn’t take long to hammer it out, but the bolts were rusted on and Samson would’ve had a hard time with them.
The problem was, my mind kept wandering, calculating down to the minute how long the Reverend would take to chat the woman up, seduce her, have his way with her, and then be back. It couldn’t possibly be done in twenty minutes.
But that didn’t stop me from hurrying. I’d known the Reverend only a short while, but I knew that if anyone could do it, he could.
I dropped the not-so-new-looking-anymore tire iron into the toolbox, wiped my greasy hands on my jeans, and stood up, my lower back aching.
I was just heaving the blown-out tire in the trunk when the front door of the house slammed. The Reverend came skipping down the porch steps, whistling a happy tune, buttoning his collar. A curtain moved in an upstairs window, and I saw the woman peeking out-- her hair mussed and her shoulders bare.
He stopped, glanced up at her and waved. She waved back, smiling an embarrassed smile, and the curtain fell in front of her.
“Howdy, Charlie,” the Reverend said, approaching the car. “I’m mighty hungry, how ‘bout you? What say we have filet mignon for supper?”
I slammed the trunk shut. “Filet mignon,” I said. “Son of a bitch.”
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The very last No Rules guest post is written by one of the very first friends I made in the Hardboiled/Noir community, none other than VINCENT ZANDRI. If you don't already know, Vin is the Amazon best-selling author of many, many fast-paced and crowd-pleasing thrillers like THE INNOCENT, GODCHILD, THE REMAINS, MOONLIGHT FALLS, CONCRETE PEARL, MOONLIGHT RISES and SCREAM CATCHER. He's diverse as hell and one of the tightest plotters around.
A little affection always comes into it when I talk about Vin; sorry, can't help it. Because as well as being a great writer he's also a truly great guy. Back before my own first novel came out, he took the time to lend his insight and sharp ear to this novice, and has remained a steadfast friend ever since.
I'm proud to give you VINCENT ZANDRI, with an essay that couldn't be more timely...
It’s a Wonderful Noir Life
Like a whole bunch of us saps, we grew up watching It's a Wonderful Life, thinking, "Hey, it must be Christmas." Like everyone else, I cried when Mr. Gower punched George in the head, cheered when George packed his bags to leave for some big trip overseas, cried again when his "tired" old man died and he couldn't go.
"Wonderful Life" was filmed and released in 1946 during a special time in US history. The big war to end the first big was over. Lots of soldiers were coming home from Europe and Japan. Many of them had never been away from their hometowns until the war began. Most of them had known what it was to suffer during the depression. Some were wounded and maimed. All were affected one way or another. The trauma of the war became indelibly painted on the faces of these soldiers as they were suddenly thrust into what would soon become Eisenhower "normalcy." Nuclear war was now as real as Christmas snow.
If some of these guys and gals were anything like my 44 year old grandfather, a Captain who walked away from the army after a 20 year career in Panama, Africa, Europe, and other exotic locales only to be forced to make the mad march through the Hurtgen forest while at the same time, suffering 150% casualties to his company, they were disillusioned at best. From what my mother tells me, he went from sipping red wine in France and marching the Champs Elysees to working at a Buster Brown shoe store in Upstate, New York, within thirty days of getting off the big boat. Talk about a life change. The two time purple heart and bronze star recipient probably cashed his first civilian paycheck in twenty years just before heading to the bijou to catch the new "feel good" flick starring Jimmy Stewart, himself a decorated war vet.
I think Frank Capra and the rest of the writers of "It's a Wonderful Life" knew damn well that despite winning the war, another war would have to be fought on US soil. And that one wasn't about a dire economic survival like everyone had realized a few years earlier. You know, like do we eat today or heat the fucking house? But a different kind of survival. Keeping up with the Jones's kind of survival. That kid Petey ain't belting out "Hey dad, did you see the new car next door" for no reason when George barks back, "Isn't our car good enough for you!" Okay, I might have the dialogue slightly wrong but it's a nonetheless discriminate attempt on Capra's part to show the American public what's in store for them for the coming decades as the trees get cut down and the suburbs ariseth out of the ashes of fallen heroes. Such is the price of war, and the fight for freedom.
George Bailey is an everyman who is full of heart and at the same time a selfish individual. He wants to do what he wants to do. He wants to be an existentialist with a big heart. He wants to be an Indiana Jones long before Spielberg's comic book concept of the adventurer is born. He wants to build bridges like Picasso paints paintings. He wants to conquer the world and be his own man. But a gross loyalty to family, job, God, and duty get in his way, and he's forced to give up his dreams for a life of wife, children, a house he can't afford, a broken down old car, and a future that is so bankrupt and dismal, he wants to kill himself. Merry Christmas.
But in 1946, this is precisely the type of man America would come to count on to create a thriving nuclear powerhouse. Existentialists and thinkers need not apply. The US government was out to influence a whole bunch of suburban newcomers by guilting the crap out of them into giving up their dreams now that they had survived the war with their lives. In the end, they succeeded. We beat the Soviets after all. Sort of.
But politics aside, George's character resounds to this day for those young men and women who have harbored huge dreams throughout childhood and adolescence only to see them squandered on a big wedding and a honeymoon that doesn't last longer than the time it takes for the checks to clear. One is only young once, and then suddenly the hopes and dreams turn into a heavy drinking bout at the local and getting kicked out on your ass in the snow. Only then do some of the darkest thoughts you never dreamed you'd be capable of conjuring enter into your head. Usually they are accompanied by violence. Whether it's to yourself or to others or both.
George Bailey stood on a bridge in the falling snow on Christmas eve during WWII and considered severe violence to himself. The scrunched, bulging eyed, black and white agony on Jimmy Stewart's face resonates with all of us who have ever contemplated abandoning home and job for a better (more wonderful) life, even if for a fleeting moment. Despair drips from his eye sockets and his blood radiates with hopelessness. Over a few hours time, George has been handed a tricky gift. The gift of having never existed. The tricky part is that he gets to see what it's like when his mother rejects him and an angel named Clarence thrusts the responsibility of every life of every man on a navy transport being killed because "George wasn't there to save his little brother from falling through the ice" back when they were kids. As if Hitler and Tojo had nothing to do with it. Poor George: manipulated in life, and even more manipulated during his brief tenure as a suicide. This fucker just cannot get a break.
George Bailey, the concept, makes me want to run.
When I see George Bailey, the man and character, holding his ZuZu and her petals in his arms, and his neighbors filling baskets with cash so he can pay off the debt some evil banker has thrust upon him through illegal activity, I stand up and shout for him to leave home. Don't spend another night in Bedford Falls, George. Fuck Christmas. First, go stick a knife in the evil banker fucker's neck, then go pack up the family and move south. Or move to Europe. Or just leave the family altogether and forget the cancers that eat away at you in the form of the American Dream. Live, George, Live!
At the end of the movie, Clarence the guardian angel sends George a copy of “Tom Sawyer”, with the penned inscription. "Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence." Fuck you Clarence! Apparently you had an agenda too. Tom Sawyer was an everyman. A young man who lived on his own terms. Something George Bailey and so many American men will never get the chance to do, simply because they fall into the trap of suburban responsibility, unbearable debt (beginning with college student loans), physical unfitness, family responsibility, guilt, and loneliness beyond compare. Have I mentioned the emasculation of political correctness?
There are dark elements in "It's a Wonderful Life" to be sure. So dark, I rank it up there under certain circumstances with "Seven" and "Angel Heart." In each of these noir films exists a common thread: one man forced to realize his worst, most horrid fears in a hellish, unforgiving world shrouded with false hope, blatantly false advertising, God inspired guilt trips, indifference, and greed.
Happy New Year.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Katherine Tomlinson has done something really remarkable with TOXIC REALITY, gathering together a set of stories that are as varied and wide-ranging as any I’ve ever come across. Her diversity as a story-teller really amazes me. It’s kind of a cheat, I know, for me to compare her to other writers, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to illustrate her power as a story-teller.
There are some tales in TOXIC REALITY that make me think a little of Patricia Highsmith. Others are in the same tenuous category as James Morrow or George Saunders—uneasy fables and parables. Others still are entirely undefinable.
There’s a real love of language in Tomlinson’s stories, and on top of that a deep understanding of human nature. You get the sense that the writer loves humanity, but with the sort of love you might have for a brother or sister who’s stolen from you, or an alcoholic spouse: reluctant affection, tempered with bitter disappointment.
TOXIC REALITY is a top-notch collection, through and through. I recommend it very strongly.
Patrick “Felony” O’Flynn is a cop in the ever-vacillating Los Angeles of the 1950’s, but his consuming passion is boxing—and he’s damn good at it. So good in fact, that his boss gives him an unusual assignment: get in the ring with crime boss Mickey Cohen’s contender and make sure he doesn’t get a shot at the title.
Simple in theory, but stopping Cohen and his fighter is going to take every bit of skill and fortitude Patrick has, and test his commitment to justice. Especially when Cohen kidnaps the 14-year-old daughter of Patrick’s trainer.
FELONY FISTS is a tight, streamlined brawler of a novel, heavy on ring action and spare jabbing prose. It’s hard not to use boxing analogies when talking about it. Series co-creator Paul Bishop is Jack Tunney this time out, and he sets a high standard for the Jack Tunneys to follow. His invocation of L.A. in the ‘50’s is vivid and well-researched without being overwhelming, and his grasp on the strange, sometimes seedy world of boxing is spot-on.
FELONY FISTS is a hugely enjoyable bout. I’m looking forward to the next round.
JASON MICHEL is a Pushcart Prize nominee, published author and the Head Honcho over at PULP METAL MAGAZINE and PULP METAL FICTION, where he has recently released an anthology of the best of PMM entitled Laughing At The Death Grin! and his newest novella And The Streets Screamed Blue Murder!
He has hopes one day of becoming a James Bond villain as he thinks he'd be good at it.
Jason, you mad man, welcome to Psycho-Noir...
THE PULP METAL MANIFESTO
“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?" -Chuang Tzu
1: PULP METAL is imaginary.
PULP METAL is a figment of our imagination posing as a literary Gomorrah and downright fun place to read some of the most talented writers in cyberspace. It is a flight of disastrous fancy. An idea.
An ode to the imagination.
2: Imagination is the mind at play.
It is as amoral and as serious as child's play.
3: The only true freedom; the only true oppression is in the mind.
The only limits are the ones that we set ourselves in believing that we are a solid unchanging individual. Science is beginning to show us that the Self, as Buddhists have been saying for millennia, is a crock. We are a thousand people in a thousand moments and situations, even if we pretend not to be. The ego is a jealous god and deserves a smacked bottom.
So, make peace with your inner-fascist.
Crack open a beer with the serial killer inside.
Go for a date with the flirty secretary of the soul.
Is this not what we do as writers?
Manifesting these personalities into the world through our imaginary filter.
4: All concepts, art and language derive from the imagination of somebody.
Words may have evolved from birdsong, but it was imagination that connected them to objects. Those very same objects that are all around you as you read this. Those very same objects that you are made of.
Holy Shit, Batman!
5: Imagination is both individual and collective. The flow can go both ways. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Stan Lee, Ian Fleming, Homer, Shakespeare, Bob Kane, Karl Marx, Coca-Cola, Rowling, Dostoevesky and any other creator of art, ideology, image and ideas have left their mark on us, whether we like it or not.
Why let them have all the fun?
6: Your imagination is your most precious resource. Your wittiest joke. Your deadliest weapon.
"Imagination is intelligence with an erection." - Victor Hugo
7: Revel in your imagination. Tickle its feet. Jitterbug with it. Slap it around a bit. Make love to it. Revere it.
For too long our imagination has been denigrated to an almost worthless state that is not "real".
"It's just her imagination."
"It's all in your head!"
"Stop daydreaming and get back to work!"
We live in interesting times, as the ancient Chinese curse has it. There is the Faustian whiff of a hundred Revolutions carried on the breeze. History shows that in the cold light of the aftermath, all that is left is another dull shower of cunts at the top of the shit pile. Left or right, the story has the same final scene.
All in the name of ideas.
Don't you dare imagine something that doesn't contribute to productivity!
That is the death rattle of our epoch.
Unless it is for entertainment purposes, of course. Entertainment brought to us from a collective, safe and turgid imagination born in a boardroom and designed to pacify us before the commercial breaks and political campaigning comes on. Until it is time to shop, materially, politically and spiritually.
This is the world we live in.
No matter that imagination may just be our way to slow the downward plummet of this rotting smorgasbord of tired old ideologies, creaky economics and environmental angst.
Reclaim your imagination.
Do you know what this is, my fellow daydreamers?
This is fighting talk.
Some practical exercises of the imagination:
I have personally had experience of all of these exercises and found that some of them have contributed greatly to my writing and others are just cracking good fun.
*Disclaimer! Practice these exercises at your own risk as some people have gone batshit crazy because of some of these techniques. Don't forget to ground yourself back to the world with a nice cup of tea. Then again, what is life without a smidgeon of danger. Take responsibility for your actions and if caught, remember, deny everything!*
i. Learn the loci system of mnemonics and create your own memory palaces à la Hannibal Lecter.
ii. Read The Diceman then have a party according to the laws of the die. Watch the chaos ensue and observe your reactions.
iii. Be a creative prankster. Go to a book shop and sneak dirty poetry in self-help books. Confuse your boss: Once I was asked why I was wearing jeans at work which is not officially allowed (I was, but to my credit, they were black). I told the man that they weren't "jeans but just looked like jeans in the way that sometimes summer looks like autumn". The poor sap just turned around and walked out of the room. He has never said a word about my attire since.
iv: Read all you about Jung's Creative Imagination or Dali's Paranoiac-Critical Method, then create an imaginary world of your own and go walking through it, interacting with the characters of your own creation.
Write about your experiences.
A good way to start is:
1. Sit or lie down comfortably. Close your eyes. Tense every muscle in your face and body and then relax them telling yourself that "as my limbs get heavy I can go deeper and deeper into an imaginary state".
2. Visualize a staircase and count from one to ten with each step you take going down it, telling yourself that it'll take you "deeper and deeper into the state".
3. When you have counted to ten see a grand old door in front of you. Tell yourself to open the door and enter into your world.
4. As you enter your world utilise all your senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing as well as sight.
5. Off you go!
6. When you wish to come back just see the door again and exit. Go back up the stairs (counting back from ten to zero), then slowly open your eyes and slowly get up.
v. Here's a good one for atheists and agnostics (I, myself, am a radical agnostic. To paraphrase Husserl and RAW, all perception is gamble).
Learn all you can about the way of altering your state of consciousness, otherwise known as Ritual Magick. Read that old bastard Crowley, A O Spare etc (although the Victorian waffle is unbelievable and Grant Morrison's Pop Magic! is far more fun), then create your own ritual and invoke a famous character that everyone knows is imaginary and have a chat.
I once did this with The Silver Surfer and he told me that "The way of knowledge is the loneliest path of all".
Not exactly known for his fart jokes though, eh?
vi. Print out the IMAGINE! poster at the top of this rambling of a mad man and cover the world in an advertising campaign for the imagination.
Just IMAGINE what that would be like ...
Friday, December 16, 2011
CHRIS RHATIGAN is a prolific writer of short stories, with work appearing at A Twist of Noir, Pulp Metal, Beat to a Pulp, Shotgun Honey and lots of other places besides. Along with Nigel Bird, he’s the editor of the fantastic collection PULP INK. He also blogs at Death By Killing.
I’m very pleased to give you Mr. CHRIS RHATIGAN…
Back when I was reporter, I had the opportunity to interview Curtis Sittenfeld, author of novels like Prep, Man of My Dreams and American Wife.
She’s a ridiculously smart writer and was nice enough to take some time out of her day to talk with a small-town reporter.
Anyways, she told me that if she was going to write, she needed about a four-hour block to really get going.
I wasn’t writing fiction at the time, so I took down her answer and plowed ahead. Now that I’ve been writing for a few years, my response would be, What?!
Let’s just say my writing process is not like that at all. Part of it is how my life works – I’m a freelance proofreader, so I check email 70,000 times a day for projects, as the first one who responds gets the project. I’m also a student, so homework, class, blah blah blah gets in the way.
Four-hour blocks of time just don’t exist.
But even if they did, I still don’t think I would write that way. I tend more toward the random burst school of writing – fifteen minutes here, maybe an hour there.
Here’s how one of my stories typically evolves:
I get an idea in shower or overhear a conversation at auto mechanic or some other mundane shit.
If the idea has some staying power, I write most of the story in my head on my walk to school. I get a good idea of who the characters are, how the story will evolve, how most of the dialogue will go – this is where most of my real writing is done.
Then I brew a lot of coffee and put words on the page. This is followed by random stabs at editing and the inevitable days of intense self-doubt/hatred.
Even at this point, fifty percent of my stories never move beyond the hard drive. But, if I still think the story might be worthwhile, I fire it off to the writing group.
They give me brilliant feedback. I do more editing and I send the story out.
Then I drink a beer or twelve.
So, as much as I’d like to be Curtis Sittenfeld, banging out page after page four hours at a time, I’ve realized that’s simply not who I am. Maybe I would need to be more disciplined if I were writing a novel, but for now, my cobble-shit-together style is working just fine.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
When a woman is murdered at his nightclub, Robbie makes it his mission to find out who and why-- he's a bit of a shady character himself, but a feeling of responsibility drives him on. Teaming with the victim's reporter sister, he finds himself caught up in the dark, sinister underworld of Key West, and uncovers a mind-boggling conspiracy that dates back decades. Robbie is no stranger to violence, but now it seems he may have bitten off more than he can chew...
The Ghosts of Havana is a relentlessly fast-paced conspiracy thriller, the sort of book that keeps you reading all through the night. I devoured it in two sittings, on the edge of my seat the whole time to see what unexpected turn of events would occur next. Mike Dennis does a terrific job of revealing the seamy side of Key West, with the sort of intimate touches that only a native of that place would be capable of. And his protagonist, Robbie, moves through this dark world as if he's right at home.
And the secret behind the conspiracy, once it's revealed, will blow your mind. Top-notch suspense here.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
AARON PHILIP CLARK’s debut novel, THE SCIENCE OF PAUL, was published January 2011 by New Pulp Press, and was hands-down one of the best novels I've read all year. It came out right before my own debut novel from the same publisher, which caused me no end of anxiety-- THE SCIENCE OF PAUL was a hard act to follow. Set in Philadelphia, it introduced the crime fiction world to Paul Little, an ex-con battling his demons. Little has been called the “antithesis to the classic noir tough guy”.
Clark is currently putting the finishing touches on A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN, the second novel in the Paul Little series. To learn more about Aaron, visit his website here, or better yet, join his Facebook page.
I suppose I should have known better. After all, I read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. And it did make the publishing industry seem strikingly similar to Hollywood; the fast talking Tad Allgash-like schmucks, the models, and the book parties, the cocktails and the coke. Of course, that was the 80s, the decade of excess—Regan and Gordon Gekko. There was no Internet, no mobile porn, no text messaging, no social networks, and face it, people read a lot more. Writers were actually hip, not in the way of disposable celebrities like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians, but their cool factor was in direct correlation with their intelligence and wittiness. People valued their opinions and they were culturally relevant. It was simply a different time; charging admission to a book signing was unheard of and Oprah Winfrey couldn’t make or break an author’s career. But things have changed; it’s an Amazon planet. Numbers and rankings, 99 cent downloads, free e-books (for today only), book trailers and short films, self-publishers and small houses, Facebook ads, contests and giveaways, and commercials with James Patterson hocking Nooks. Anything goes. And this is a good thing, right?
The film industry wasn’t always the Wall Street of the West, or the cesspool so many thespians and screenwriters are now forced to wade through. Once upon a time, there was Bogart and Bacall—there was art inTinsel Town. But Hollywoodland lost its luster a long time ago. The boulevards are no longer shiny and electric; they smell of urine and defecation. Drunken girls pleasure fellas in the front seats of cars, as they sit parked in the deck of the Kodak Theater, once the clubs let out. Street hustlers outfitted as Batman, Spider-man, and Pee-wee Herman shuck and jive for spare change in front of Mann’s Chinese, and what used to be a town of glitz and glamour is now a freak show. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, L.A.’s own James Ellroy bucked at the idea of driving down Sunset Boulevard; instead, opting for the dark surface streets because the billboards along Sunset made him cringe.
And maybe I cringe just a little when I see Patterson pimping a device that is likely to put book printing out of business one day. I’m not naïve; I realize writers have to be business savvy. I spent enough time in Hollywoodto know art is secondary to revenue, and in the case of the film industry, it’s a word that’s only used on Oscar night. And with the onslaught of social networking, budding and established authors are connecting with fans and other like-minded folks because it’s good business. But like Ellroy, don’t most authors just want to drive in the dark? Isn’t that why we became writers in the first place? Sure, it’s probably bad for sales not to have some kind of online presence. I just miss the good ole’ days when authors like Fran Lebowitz made appearances on David Letterman to promote their books, cracked a few jokes, and then returned to anonymity. When Cormac McCarthy was interviewed by Oprah, he was probably her most difficult nut to crack. He seemed uninterested; he answered her questions, which had less to do with his craft and more to do with his personal life, but never really dipped into the platitudes—and it only made me respect him even more. After all, we’re not celebrities; we’re authors. We’re the last vestige of intellectual sheik—in our world being smart is still cool. We’re the children of “The Vicious Circle”—the Algonquin Round Table. We write, we devour books and soak up knowledge—we blog and post, and we maintain discourse. We’re the original outsiders; the ones who weren’t invited to the party, only to peak in from a window while the “cool kids” got hammered and high. And it made us tough—it made us one of the most important fixtures in popular culture—the observers and commentators. We asked questions, we tried to make sense out of the chaos; we processed that chaos and then fed it back to the people in a more digestible form, and we mattered.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against wild success. I’m a capitalist—American through and through. It’s why I don’t give away free books because it implies that what we do as writers is somehow less than, and not worthy of payment. But writers as celebrities, as rock stars, as spokes models seems to be oxymoronic. Or maybe Patterson is just ahead of the curve? One day maintaining a book library might be the equivalent of owning a stamp collection; it’ll be a hobby of sorts, and the digital reader will be the standard. And though I’m tragically prone to nostalgia, the only option is to adapt and hope the book industry doesn’t go from half-classy dame to Sunset skeez—a three-ring circus where authors will do anything to turn a buck.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
About six months ago, I decided that my next novel would, by necessity, be a Western. I’d never really had an itch before to experiment in that genre, but as the ideas and characters for it took form in my mind, I began to realize that it would only work as a Western.
I’d long been a fan of Western films, but when it came to reading Western fiction I was a total novice. If I was going to write one, I felt, I’d better damn sure make certain that I understood the genre better. And so, like a settler setting out on the long dangerous trail through Indian Territory, I saddled up and started off.
Here’s what I found along the way.
I read about eight or ten non-fiction books on the subject, the best of them being Dee Brown’s terrific and informative THE AMERICAN WEST. I highly recommend this book: it serves as a terrific launching point for further reading and gives you a clear understanding of chronology and themes that were central to the Western experience, from the perspectives of whites and Indians alike. And it was an absolute joy to read.
Exploring fiction, I read about 60 books total, from about 25 different writers, in that six month period. Here’s a round-up of the best of them—
Elmore Leonard. He’s a good place to start for the modern reader. Try VALDEZ IS COMING or THE LAW AT RANDADO.
Lewis B. Patten. His book DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER came recommended by Cullen Gallagher and Mike Dennis, two fellas who know what they’re talking about. And they were right.
Elmer Kelton. AFTER THE BUGLES and TEXAS VENDETTA were tightly written and compulsively readable.
Luke Short. VENGEANCE VALLEY knocked my socks off, and GUNMAN’S CHANCE was just as good.
James Reasoner. THE HUNTED and THE HAWTHORNE LEGACY were my introductions to Reasoner, who quickly became one of my favorites. Simply one of the best writers around in any genre.
Ed Gorman. Again, thanks to Cullen Gallagher. He sent me Gorman’s novel DEATH GROUND, a bit of hardboiled Western bravado that proved Gorman can do anything.
Loren Estleman. BLACK POWDER, WHITE SMOKE and THE BOOK OF MURDOCK are tight and fast Westerns that move as relentlessly as a steam engine.
…and a few things you should know:
I’ve never been a big fan of Robert Parker’s detective novels about Spencer, but at a friend’s recommendation I read APPALOOSA and was pleasantly surprised.
Edward A. Grainger’s two story collections about Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles were terrific, fast-paced actioners with heart and conscience.
SMONK, by Tom Franklin, was by no means a traditional Western, but I can’t remember the last time I had such bloody disgusting fun with a novel.
And—listen now, because this is important—if you haven’t read TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis yet, stop reading this and go get a copy and do it. Honestly, one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.
And a bit of an addendum: Robert E. Howard's Western story collection, END OF THE TRAIL, is flat-out must-reading.
So the Western novel I started writing has taken a backseat in the meantime while I finish up some other projects. But I WILL get back to it within the next month or so, and it will be informed by a closer knowledge of the genre—which can only help.
In the meantime, I wrote my first straight Western short story a couple months ago, called “Blood Relations”. It appeared at Crime Factory.
“That Damned Coyote Hill” was a weird Western featuring a vengeful gunman called Hawthorne, up against bizarre creatures in the remote Arizona desert. There are more Hawthorne stories coming.
And, most recently, I wrote “Miles to Little Ridge”, a longish short story featuring Edward A. Grainger’s character Gideon Miles.
Am I forsaking crime fiction/noir/hardboiled? No, not at all. It’s just that circumstances have led to me putting on the Stetson and mounting up for a while. And I’ve found that writing crime fiction and writing Westerns (weird or otherwise) are not much different. It’s the exact same approach.
Except that Westerns require a bit more research…
Monday, December 12, 2011
DANI AMORE has been prolific this year. Spearheaded by a terrifically witty and fun mystery novel called DEATH BY SARCASM, she's launched a full-on assault on the world of crime fiction, turning out one compelling read after another. Both DEATH BY SARCASM and DEADWOOD are Amazon best-sellers. Her most recent is a WWII drama called TO FIND A MOUNTAIN, so make no mistake: Dani is as versatile as she is driven.
For a complete list of all Dani's work, see here, or visit her webpage.
So to start off the week with some blood and thunder, here's is DANI AMORE...
For The Love Of Guns
I’m a bit of a gun nut.
In fact, Heath and I have chatted about our favorite weapons, which sort of prompted me to write this post.
For me, my love of “shooting irons” all started with a left-handed six shooter with a fast-draw holster including the leather braids to tie the holster to your leg – gunfighter style.
It looked a lot like this (though mine was a left-handed version…).
The gun and gunbelt had been my grandfather’s. He had been the black sheep of his family – the son of a university president, a dropout, and an NCAA Division II champion tennis player. (He won his title even though he wasn’t enrolled in college.)
My grandfather went on to play jazz trumpet in bands in Chicago, and develop a massive drinking problem that he never kicked.
But when my great-grandfather sent his juvenile delinquent son to Oklahoma, where a rancher friend was going to help “break” my grandfather, it only accomplished two things. One, the return of my grandfather with a message from the rancher that he never wanted to see this young man again. And two, it fostered within my grandfather a love of the Old West, cowboys, and guns.
That passion was passed down to my father, and then to me.
When I was around nine or ten years old, I convinced my father to let me practice my quick draw. (Of course, the gun was unloaded and my father swore he didn’t even have any ammo for it.) By then, I’d read every Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey novel ever written.
When my left hand got tired, I’d slide the belt around, with the holster backward, and practice my right-handed quick draw.
I got pretty good at it. I even worked on my border switch – exchanging an empty gun in your right hand with a loaded gun in your left by simultaneously flipping them to the opposite hand. A lot of time, too, went to the art of spinning the gun on your finger and timing the barrel spin to go back into the holster in one fluid motion.
Eventually, though, I went to college and moved on with my life. One of my siblings inherited the gun and gunbelt when my father died, so when it came time to buy my own gun, I decided to go modern.
I bought a Para Ordnance .45 hi-cap, just like the one Mary Cooper uses in my novel DEATH BY SARCASM.
I love it. It’s a lot of gun.
It holds 14 rounds of .45 ACP in the magazine, and one in the chamber. It’s heavy when it’s fully loaded. My favorite thing about it? When I’m at the range, and the brass is flying and an ejected shell bounces off the wall and drops between my neck and the collar of my shirt, burning my skin. Badges of honor.
I know there are a lot of issues with guns and gun control, none of which I’m going to get into here. I will tell you, though, that target shooting is my passion. I don’t hunt, and don’t think I could shoot anything like a deer (it would remind me of my panty stealing dog Vinnie).
But go out into the woods, line up a dozen empty beer bottles and blast away?
I’m there, baby.
You bring the beer, I’ll bring the guns.
You can follow Dani on Twitter: @authordaniamore
Or send her an email: email@example.com
Saturday, December 10, 2011
"I've never read a Western before, but after reading this I plan on reading LOTS more..."
Man, I love hearing that.
Some of you may already know that I wrote a novella (or long short story or whatever you want to call it) for Edward A. Grainger, author of the terrific series of stories about U.S. Marshals Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. It's out today.
It's called "Miles to Little Ridge", and focuses tight on Gideon Miles. Here's the product description from Amazon:
"Edward A.Grainger's Gideon Miles hits the trail in this fast-clip western novella written by Heath Lowrance. The U.S. Marshal finds himself in the sleepy town of Little Ridge, Montana, on the search for a wanted man. But just as Miles enters town, he's spotted by a hard case who recognizes Miles as the lawman that killed his friend. Now Miles must face the wanted man, who claims his innocence and is raising a daughter on his own, while the hard case and a ne'er-do-well partner are gunning for him."
When I first read the stories of Cash and Miles, I never thought I'd be writing one myself. I was fairly new to Westerns myself at the time. But Grainger's sure hand with the Western genre was part of my inspiration for writing "That Damned Coyote Hill", the first Hawthorne adventure. Granted, Hawthorne exists in a different version of the Old West than Grainger's intrepid lawmen (one where there are were-coyotes and swamp witches and ghouls) but most of the basics remain the same-- an emphasis on action and wry humor.
I loved the experience of writing about Gideon Miles, and I'm pretty satisfied with the results. Hopefully, you'll dig it too. And if you're new to Westerns, maybe this will inspire you to read more of them!
Friday, December 9, 2011
R. THOMAS BROWN exploded on to e-book scene this year with several very strong releases, among them the seriously creepy novella "Merciless Pact", two short story collections, and two e-shorts from Trestle Press (you can find them all on Amazon, right here).
He's a great writer who, bit by bit, is gaining the audience he deserves. That audience is only likely to get bigger still early next year, when Snubnose Press releases his first full-length novel, HILL COUNTRY.
He's also a voracious reader, and when he's not writing fiction (or working the ole' day job), R. Thomas Brown keeps a terrific blog, Criminal Thoughts, devoted primarily to reviewing new releases from other writers.
Which leads us quite nicely into his topic for this "No Rules". I'm very pleased to give you.. R. THOMAS BROWN...
Why am I here?
So, when Heath asked me to do this I was flattered that he asked, but also had no idea what to write about. I thought about something about reviews, or short fiction, or my writing. None of it felt right. Probably because I still wonder why someone might care what I have to say.
Not that I feel I don’t have worthwhile opinions. I’m actually a pompous blowhard who pontificates on a variety of subjects to any family member or friend who hasn’t left the room yet to avoid the verbal onslaught. (That’s not entirely true. I follow them if they leave.) But it’s different in a world where I don’t personally know the people.
I’m also fine giving lectures, teaching (did for years at community colleges) or other defined public speaking. This didn’t feel like that either.
I shrink in public gathering of a less formal nature. I have to force myself to speak in any social gathering. This felt like a social gathering. People I don’t know, coming around to see if there was interesting conversation. Not my best setting.
So, what is this all about, then? Other than two hundred words about me not knowing what it’s about. Well, I think the discomfort I felt about this is the same I feel when I submit a story, or self-pub something, or write a review. I worry, constantly, that someone won’t like it. That they’ll think ill of me for having written it.
When I don’t love a book I review, I cringe at the thought of the author reading it. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. Of course, I also believe that my opinion means nothing (we covered that earlier about my arrogance with friends, and sheepishness with strangers, remember, It’s just like four paragraphs ago. Are you paying attention? Have I already bored you? Oh, no. There I go again.)
The thing is, of course someone will. I don’t like everything I read or hear. So, some people will hate my review, story, book, blog post, whatever it is. I should accept that, and just hope that people care enough to hate it or love it. Just as long as it’s not ignored, right?
Right? Yes, dammit!
(Oh, I hope I didn’t offend anyone there. Crap, did it again.)
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
JENNIFER THOMSON'S first novella HOW KIRSTY GETS HER KICKS, will be published by Pulp Press in the UK in March 2012. It’s about, according to Jennifer, "a gutsy Glasgow barmaid who goes on the run with a safe load of gangster’s cash and a hot gun after embedding her stiletto heel in the head of one of his goons who has the crass eejitery to touch her up."
Jennifer says, "I love the ethos and energy of Pulp Press and their tales of violent comeuppance without the meandering pish where some flouncy author takes ten bloody pages to describe a bloody tree. The covers are fantastic too."
Yep, well said, Ms. Thomson.
She's currently writing DEID BASTARDS: a zombie novel with a Scottish twist where bagpipes and midges play an important part and VILE CITY, her first detective novel featuring DI Waddell and his comatose sidekick.
Jennifer blogs at Ramblings of a Frustrated Crime Writer where she insists she is normally much more polite.
I'm very pleased to introduce you to the immensely talented JENNIFER THOMSON...
Literary Snobbery Be Damned
To me the most important thing about any book is that it entertains. It doesn’t have to be a piece of great literature or be up for one of the major prizes that always go to someone hardly anybody reads until the book wins it and every person up for a bit of fakery, who wants to appear well read goes out and buys it then leaves it on their art deco coffee table for visitors to see. (Do you notice how these books are always in pristine, unread condition?)
Sadly, there are people who don’t see it that way. Hey you literary snobs, you know who you are.
I have done one writing course in my entire life. After two decades of working as a freelance writer (okay plodding away) and living on porridge and stale bread in my freezing garret (you try living on a windy Scottish island with a leaky window) I finally did an online course with Strathclyde University where over 6 weeks you critiqued each others work.
On the first week we were asked to introduce ourselves, say what authors we liked to read. When I said I was a big fan of Stephen King (if The Stand was a man I’d marry him and that’s more than I can say for my partner of eleven years), out came the wee digs.
‘I used to like him when I was younger,’ said one person.
‘His stuff’s a bit childish,’ said another.
The general consensus amongst my fellow students was that Stephen King was for weans. Why because his books weren’t entertaining enough? Nah, because they weren’t considered literary enough.
And, what exactly is literary fiction? To my mind its writing that take ages to get to the bloody point. Often its flowery and laden with unnecessary metaphors with bugger all happening.
Literary fiction is an arrogant beast that thinks it’s too good to be read by you and me and make you feel stupid because you can’t concentrate on them for longer than five minutes. Then there’s those words you’re convinced the author has made up that you need to look up because you haven’t the foggiest idea what it means.
Me? When I come across a word like that ‘I say screw this, the author’s up his own backside’ and go off and read something else.
Hey, my time’s precious. I don’t have time to indulge some author’s ego because he or she’s trying to show how smart they are and what a dumb eejit I am.
Worst of all, ‘literary fiction’ puts folk off reading anything at all and that is the most damning indictment of all. Because reading takes you to places you’ve never been, introduces you to people you’ll never meet yet who seem so alive they might as well be in the same room as you.
In my loneliest hours when I have battled depression, desperation and agoraphobia that has crippled me, books have made sure I have never felt alone. I have yet to come across a drug that does that.
The thing that really pisses me off most about these literary works that win all the major prizes where glum faced judges parade themselves on the TV making reading seem like such a bloody chore when it should be a pleasure, is that crime the biggest selling genre, doesn’t even get a look in.
I suspect that if Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle were up for prizes they’d lose out too.
Crime is considered too common, apparently because it’s read by the masses. What a crime that would be to give books that masses of people actually read the big awards.
Christ, you’d need to start giving the literary awards to books people actually read.
Monday, December 5, 2011
MATTHEW C. FUNK writes some of the tightest, most colorful stories in crime fiction these days, and a great deal of that is due to the very intimate sense of place in his work. Yes, he's a great plotter, and his characters are all vivid and memorable, but if you had to cite just one aspect of his body of work that stands above the rest, it would be his ability to make the setting seem as vital to the story as everything else. Like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Funk's Desire is a living breathing character in and of itself, informing all the events and shaping the characters.
Here's Matthew C. Funk, then, with a few words on his relationship with Desire...
I have to write about Desire.
Not just because of the name. There’s a lot of fertile ground there, though. Could grow a lot of layers of meaning from that name.
And I don’t mean that I have to write about New Orleans.
I’ve already written plenty on that subject. About how New Orleans is America’s loveliest, ugliest, kindest, cruelest, proudest place. About how that means I can’t imagine writing elsewhere.
No, this is about me being unable to escape Desire.
My stories roam other areas. I dropped by Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in the French Quarter to give the Beat Generation a send-off in Black Heart Noir. I got a glimpse of the high-rise lifestyle of the Port Authority in I Ain’t Gonna. I mix plenty of places together, from the famous like Tipitina’s and Mother’s, to the not-so-famous like Verti Marte and Cosimo’s.
I always end up back home in Desire, though.
I’ve got to, there’s no getting out. There’s too much pain and pride there for the stories ever to end. The human extremes stretch across the whole spectrum, raw as a rainbow, and I have to draw attention to them.
They are right next door, after all.
The soaring crime. The abysmal poverty. The art, dance, song and religion. Desire has the most churches, per capita, next to the worst homelessness.
And that is just a short plane flight away, if you’re in America. Not even a full day.
Whatever you’re doing, wherever you are right now, in a few hours, you could be in a place where the gangs can hardly afford colors, the church volunteers are everywhere and the graffiti can’t be beat for surreal beauty.
And it may feel like a dream when you’re there, but there is no wall separating it from the strip malls across the freeway, or from New Orleans, or from your life.
It is as beautiful as a dream, though.
I’ve been from Bel Air to the Bronx, and I’ve never seen so much ruin decorated so beautifully.
A place like that has to be written about just like it has to be named Desire.
That’s crime writing for me: Taking something broken and showing how it’s beautiful.
It began with Jari. I was smitten with Jari Jurgis, with her infected fractures and glorious strength, from first we met. I had to place her in Desire.
Where better for a bad cop with butterflies on her jeans and an endless bad attitude to do her best work off the clock?
Clean Hands and Tipped Scales in ThugLit was the seed, but Desire had already been well tilled by my imagination. I explored it in Ava, my horror manuscript.
Ava’s desire is to help people. She cares so much. So, so much. As much as we all should care.
And yes, Ava wants to be wanted. She has her own selfish desires—for love, recognition, companionship. Who doesn’t? But above all, she wants to help everyone. She wants to make their pain stop.
All of it. Everywhere. Starting in Desire.
I often wonder whether y’all will ever meet Ava, or whether she’ll just spend eternity roaming Desire like the ghost she is, while the lives of my other characters form and fight and make love in her shadow.
The cast of Desire is getting considerable: The red-Irish embodiment of all things bad about cops, the Mahoney family, first seen in Good Night Durham. The she-wolf survivor of stories I get fevered with and write about the 2000-2003 gang war, Bebe. The kid growing up pained and hard, Rabid, Desire’s Tom Sawyer. The role of fatherhood, heated and distilled down to explosive compound, Parnell.
They all have anti-hero followings. I like that my readership is divided between loving and hating them. I am too.
Everybody loves Stagger Lee, though.
He’s my Dixieland Hercules. I’ve got big plans for Stagger, as he’s big enough to wander wherever he needs to and make some myths happen.
Desire is myth and reality, so as much as I may ramble with Stagger, I’ll always be coming home to that place in the Upper Ninth. That place that reaches right up to the Interstate, huddled forgotten between the Lower Ninth Ward and Bywater, that has so little and so has so much life.
Ask Buddha, ask Freud, ask me—ask anybody who knows—life is about appetite. Suffering. Desire.
Desire’s where my writing has to live.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
The first thing I ever read by MIKE DENNIS was a sort of love letter to rockabilly and blues called CADILLAC'S COMING. It was a solid piece of work, full of the sort of understanding of popular music that only a musician is capable of (and Mike IS a musician; he tickles the ivories, natch).
I've never heard Mike play, so I can't tell you if he's any good. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he was, though. I can tell you this much with certainty: he's a Killer when it comes to writing fiction. Aside from CADILLAC'S COMING, his other books include THE TAKE, BLOODSTAINS ON THE WALL, and the first two volumes of his Key West noirs, SET-UP ON FRONT STREET and THE GHOSTS OF HAVANA.
And apparently, writing and music aren't all there is to the man. Here's MIKE DENNIS, with a great piece on the leading men of film noir.
THE MEN OF FILM NOIR
A few months back, Heath put out a list of his favorite films noir. After reading it, I was inspired to do the same. Then he suggested we do a "Who's The King Of Noir?" post. Since I'm not really sure any one actor could hold down the top spot, I'm going to throw a few of them at you and see what you think.
ROBERT MITCHUM: Even if no one actor can be number 1, Mitchum would certainly come very close. His performance in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1973) was, without a doubt, the finest of his career and perhaps the greatest single performance of any film noir actor ever. He crawls inside Coyle's skin and drags the viewer with him to all the seedy bars and parking lots where he reveals his desperation through dialogue. His hand gestures, body language, voice inflections—all pitch-perfect in his portrayal of this world-weary street criminal.
You can't talk about Mitchum and noir without mentioning Out Of The Past (1947), a classic directed by Jacques Tourneur. True to the traditions of noir, Mitchum's Jeff Bailey is all trenchcoat and cigarettes, the everyman drawn into a situation he can't control. And of course, his downward spiral is greased by a smokin' hot babe, in this case, the deadly Jane Greer.
ROBERT RYAN: Part average Joe and part psychopath, Robert Ryan always makes you nervous everytime he walks onscreen. You never know if (or more likely, when) he's going to come unhinged. In An Act Of Violence (1948), he's terrific as the creepy ex-POW thirsting for revenge against his former commanding officer. His Oscar-nominated turn as a violent anti-Semite in Crossfire (1947) is probably his greatest role. Over and over, throughout his career, Ryan shows you how long he can dance on the very lip of the abyss before plunging in. You just have to be careful you're not too close to him when he jumps. He might take you with him.
RICHARD WIDMARK: Two words: Harry Fabian. Night And The City (1950) is one of my top three personal film noir favorites, maybe even number one. Fabian is without question the quintessential film noir character, a dreamer whose reach far exceeded his grasp. Widmark's complex performance in director Jules Dassin's masterpiece far outweighs anything he ever did at any other point in his long career, but few actors get the chance to play a character like Fabian. Widmark never got such an opportunity again, often being relegated to standard leading man roles and later, ordinary character parts. The excellent Road House (1948) was his only other film noir performance worth mentioning. I deliberately omit Kiss Of Death (1947), where he played the snickering Tommy Udo, because I consider it a cops-vs-gangsters movie, not film noir.
DAN DURYEA: Anyone who can be as consistently slimy as Duryea was throughout his career deserves inclusion in this list. From Criss Cross (1949) to Woman In The Window (1944) to Too Late For Tears (1949), he's there to remind you that film noir is not for sissies. They play for keeps in these movies and you know from the moment he walks onto the screen that someone's going to wind up at the bottom of the river.
Duryea and Hollywood endings weren't really meant for each other, and his turn as pimp Johnny Prince in Scarlet Street (1945) drove that point home. The little-known and very underrated Too Late For Tears (1949) is another great example. Black Angel (1946), One Way Street (1950), even Anthony Mann's noirish western, Winchester 73 (1950)...I could go on and on with Duryea. He was one of a kind.
ELISHA COOK JR: Whenever you saw Elisha Cook Jr's name in the credits of a film noir, you knew things were going to fall apart for the central character. Cook could do that to you. Come on with those raised eyebrows and his diminutive (but compelling) presence, and presto! You're in deep shit. A lot of noir characters paid the price for associating with Cook. Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956) comes to mind, not to mention Marie Windsor, Cook's "creamy dish" in the same movie. Gene Raymond learned the hard way in the superb Plunder Road (1957) and Lawrence Tierney certainly could have done without him in Born To Kill (1947). Cook had his mojo working at all times. One of the greatest character actors in movie history.
Which reminds me, LAWRENCE TIERNEY: If ever there was an actor whose personal life played out like a film noir, it was Tierney. Way better-looking and a far better actor than his brother Scott Brady, it rankled him that Brady was more successful. After setting the screen on fire in Dillinger (1945), and in the aforementioned Born To Kill (1947), he was on his way to major stardom. The New York Times even said that Born To Kill was "not only morally disgusting but is an offense to a normal intellect." That alone should've cemented Tierney's place in film noir history. Unfortunately, however, his hard-drinking lifestyle prevented him from fulfilling his potential. A true, real-life tough guy, he got into plenty of barroom brawls, got thrown in jail numerous times, saw his career take a southward dive, and wound up in the 1960s in New York City, tending bar and driving horse carriages for Central Park tourists. His career never recovered, although he made a slight comeback in the 1990s, topping out with Quentin Tarantino's great film noir, Reservoir Dogs (1992).
RICHARD CONTE: Probably the most exciting news I heard in 1971 was that Richard Conte was tapped to play Don Barzini in The Godfather (1972). Although that movie was more opera than film noir, Conte oozed noir every time he stepped in front of the camera. He made you realize they were making a real gangster movie. And I mean a real gangster movie like The Big Combo (1955), where he's the gangland subject of a police investigation that is going nowhere. As the ice-cold Mr Brown, he lets you know in no uncertain terms that he doesn't like being investigated. Thieves Highway (1949), directed by the great Jules Dassin, while not exactly noir, is close enough, and Conte makes his way through this tale of revenge in his usual top form. Cry Of The City (1948) shows him in tangled relationships as an accused cop-killer on the run.
CHARLES McGRAW: You can't say "trenchcoat" without thinking of Charles McGraw. He should've gotten a piece of the action for every one sold in this country because God knows he helped to sell a shitload of them. Nobody could wear one with more authority. Brutal films like The Killers, The Narrow Margin, and Border Incident helped solidify McGraw's hold on the cinematic realism that was film noir. You knew guys like him in your own town, real hardasses, and you didn't fuck with them. Even when McGraw was on the right side of the law, you still were never sure he wouldn't break your face if you didn't tell him what he wanted to know.
McGraw, like the rest of these guys, had the presence, the look, the swagger, that was meant to be photographed in black and white. You know, at night against a backdrop of wet city streets. Sultry alto sax lines slithering through the soundtrack as guns slide in and out of oiled shoulder rigs.
Gimme a cigarette and pour me some whiskey, then bring in the femme fatale and let my world collapse around me. You know what? I don't give a shit.
It's noir, baby.