My Favourite crime novels no 23.

Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer
Anybody ever remember those stupid book clubs in the 80s and 90s? You got a selection of books for about 50p each but then you had no choice but to buy 6 full price hardback-sized softcovers over a twelve month period or rue the day.

With one exception the books I ended up getting via this stupid method were either dull or just plain shit (because I don’t remember a single title I bought). And that exception? Well, in my opinion it was worth all five of the other books, because that’s how I got hold of Baer’s masterpiece.

Kiss Me, Judas is probably the druggiest piece of crime fiction since Hedayat’s stone-cold classic The Blind Owl (even though it’s not really crime fiction). And like that work of genius it features, in Phineas Poe, one of literatures most unreliable narrators (a man who might be capable of truth if he was sober enough to know what it was).

The novel begins with ex-cop Poe, just out of a mental institution, hooking up with a woman he suspects to be a prostitute. She takes him to his hotel room for a night of passion. When he wakes up, he’s in a bathtub filled with ice, minus one kidney, with a note tells him to phone 911 if he wants to live.

Poe checks himself out of hospital perilously early in order to find the woman, called Jude, and take revenge on her. The problem is that when he finds catches up with her he falls in love instead. This leads to a cross-country trip with the haggard, still very sick, Poe riding with a woman he loves but can’t really trust. Along the way they meet various people who might not be who they initially appear to be.

Kiss Me Judas is a head-trip in the best sense. It veers from crime fiction to drug induced dreamscape to gothic horror with an ease that few writers in the genre could ever master. It takes the reader on a wild ride that has the twisted quality of the best or worst nightmares (depending on your point-of-view). Poe is a fantastic character who you simultaneously want to hug and slap – he does so many things that are wrong and yet he’s still very likeable. But the thing that really makes Judas work is the prose. It’s beautiful. Baer’s writing has a sensuous, sinuous quality that somehow renders the horrors within Judas’ pages palatable. There really aren’t many crime writers around who can come close to Baer in terms of prose. Hell, not many literary writers can touch this prose when it’s at the top of its game:

…I can see the boat. Adrift, barely moving. A woman’s arm dangling over one side. Her fingertips gliding at the surface of the water like the legs of a spider, leaving no trace.

There are stunners like this liberally peppered throughout the novel:

I pull off my clothes and stand before the mirror. Every bone in my body pushes at the surface of my white skin. I can see veins and tendons and unprotected muscle. My face is a grinning mask.

Baer’s prose and narrative trickery get us inside the head of his main character and push the boundaries of crime fiction in a way that very few writers do. At its best it’s a truly stunning performance. Baer followed Judas with Penny Dreadful and Hell’s Half Acre, which further Poe’s story. They’re both good, but neither has the power or precision of this classic.

Do yourself a favour. If you haven’t read this before, then buy it today. And if you’ve only read it once, then do yourself a favour and read it again!

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