CRIME WITH A TWIST OF HORROR
As time goes on I find myself getting more and more interested in crime fiction. This may be a delayed reaction influence from my dad who never met a trashy crime novel he wouldn’t read, bless him. I certainly grew up with a respect for people like Gregory MacDonald, Dick Francis, and Robert B. Parker, even if I was more interested in straight-on horror books. Imagine my surprise, years later, when running into Jim Thompson’s The Getaway. Damn! It’s like a feast of the best of hard-boiled caper, noir on the lam, and surreal horror. Jackpot, baby!
Thus, today’s topic is a three-sided suggestion for excellent crime novels that go quite far out into the darkness, ones that will probably satisfy even the most ardent reader of scary fiction’s horror-tooth. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but I have a good feeling about these…
1. Anything by Kem Nunn!
Seriously, all his books are good, and they all contain antagonists so effing EVIL that Pennywise would probably be nervous around them. But, if I had to narrow it down to just one book it would have to be his debut, 1984’s Tapping the Source. It’s a masterful first novel that makes so many smart choices and even single-handedly creates the sub-genre Mr. Nunn has become known for: “surf noir”. Yes, you read that correctly–noir fiction based around surfing. You’d be surprised how well the two milieus fit together.
The plot is a thing of simple beauty: a young loner, Ike Tucker, fixes motorcycles in the middle of the California desert and keeps to himself. One day, a mysterious stranger from the coast pulls into the garage where he works and tells him he has information about his sister, Ellen, who disappeared years ago after running away from home. The stranger gives Ike a piece of paper with three names and tells him to go to Huntington Beach, a fading beach town. Ike, REALLY unprepared for the nightmare that is about to unfold, jumps on a motorcycle with his meager life’s savings and heads out to find his sister. Along the way, he learns how to surf from a crazy Vietnam vet in order to infiltrate a group of hard cases who may be responsible for whatever happened, and gets in about as far over his head as any character possibly can.
Oh man, it’s SO GOOD!!! And it is also downright vicious and scary and tragic and DARK and you won’t believe where it all leads. Long live surf noir! (And if you end up liking this, do yourself a favor and pick up the equally fantastic Dogs of Winter). Why Mr. Nunn isn’t a household name like James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard is beyond my meager reasoning apparatus…
2. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
When I saw the movie version of this novel, it was like getting punched right in the face by greatness. Damn. I found it really affecting, from the acting to the writing to the whole vibe of the sucker. I immediately (like, that night) bought the novel and devoured it in a couple days. All I can say is that even though the movie is amazing, the book is brilliantly poetic, almost mythic, rural noir with a core of darkness. A true masterpiece.
Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.
This is the exact kind of writing that makes me jump for joy–beautiful, soulful, gritty yet luminous. This book is a 7-course meal, friends, and has some very disturbing and scary moments.
3. Go with Me by Castle Freeman, Jr.
Firstly–Castle Freeman? Is there a better name available on EARTH?! The poor dude was forced to be a writer just by having this name, so hopefully it’s something he enjoys.
Secondly, we re-enter rural noir territory again, but this time instead of the woods of West Virginia, we’re in the rundown hill country of Vermont. Oh and this is also a re-telling of the “Tale of Sir Gareth” from the Arthurian cycle. Of course, it’s retold with characters named Lillian, Lester, Nate, and Whizzer…
Lillian is a young woman who has relocated to the woods of Vermont with her husband, and has become the victim of an especially nasty stalker/bully/general asshole named Blackway. The book opens with her waking up in her car in the sheriff’s department parking lot, having reached her final straw from Blackway’s horrific attentions (he’s driven her husband away, killed her dog, etc.). Blackway is so scary that the sheriff is reluctant to go after him. BUT, he knows some guys who just might be able to help…
This book is extremely enjoyable and reads in a flash. The “knights” that come to Lillian’s aid from the pool of beer-swilling coots who hang out at the defunct sawmill seem at first to be the last couple of guys you’d want on your side in a fight. Watching this mismatched trio attempt to find Blackway before he (or any of his minions) find them is exciting and engrossing, and like the best monster fiction it involves characters having to work past their limits. Yahooo!!!
There you have it, my young friends. If you haven’t read any of the titles above, I bet you would enjoy their mix of criminal monkeyshines and dark nights of the soul.
Check back tomorrow as we hit Post #15, almost halfway through the run up to Halloween, and celebrate yet another hunk of brilliant SCARY…