Review: City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance

Anybody who has read this blog over the past year knows that I’m rather a big fan of Heath Lowrance. The Bastard Hand and Dig Ten Graves are up there with the best I have read this year, so I had high hopes for his latest crime thriller City of Heretics. I interviewed Heath in September about his new novel for this blog, which you can find here.

The story concerns Crowe; an ageing mob enforcer who is fresh out of prison with some scores to settle with some colleagues who got him sent up and tried to kill him. Before he can settle those scores Crowe attempts to find and take care of a serial killer. This leads Crowe to the front door of a strange and secretive Christian society with some very Old Testament notions about the word of God.

Heath Lowrance’s second novel is a different beast to The Bastard Hand. For a start, it’s a much tighter, shorter affair; the prose is leaner, the pace faster and the protagonist a whole lot meaner. Richard Stark’s Parker novels spring to mind when thinking about the feel of this book (the earlier novels, that is, not the later, weaker, ones). Lowrance paints some memorable images using very few words (particularly concerning the Ghost Cat – a dream figure that weaves its way through the novel). Also, his ear for dialogue remains as sharp as it did for TBH, though, again, the dialogue is shorter, more direct. What makes it really work is Crowe. He’s a hard-ass, a tough guy, a smart operator, ruthless and single-minded. He drives the tale forward, propelling it like rocket-fuel. Despite the beatings he takes, Crowe never gives up, never takes his eyes off the goal. He is a first-class character, a character most writers would love to have created. But, the thing is, they didn’t, Lowrance created him, along with a world that leaps off the page. It’s superbly written and confirms the abundant promise that The Bastard Hand announced to the world. Highly recommended.

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Review: Driven by James Sallis

For anybody who doesn’t already know it by now, Driven is the sequel to the utterly brilliant Drive by author James Sallis. Unlike a lot of Sallis’ previous work it was released with quite a bit of fanfare. Firstly, because the announcement followed in the wake of Nicholas Winding Refn’s excellent adaptation of the original and, secondly, because Drive is considered by many critics to be one of the finest crime novels to be released in recent years (and my opinion of it can be found here).

It begins several years on from the original book, in mid-action. Two men attack Driver, who has now become a businessman called Paul West, and his wife. Driver kills the two men, but not before one of them manages to murder his wife. Driver doesn’t hang around. He immediately drops out of sight, with the help of his war veteran buddy, and starts to hunt those who would hunt him. The harder Driver looks the worse his problems seem to get. The more hit-men he kills the more questions their deaths seem to throw up. Soon he finds himself threatening a succession of lawyers, looking for the man who put the initial hit out, and he finds that it all has to do with the past, though not necessarily in the way that he thinks…

After the relative disappointment of Sallis’ The Killer is Dying , which I read earlier this year I was hoping for a return to the kind of form that made Drive, Death Will Have Your Eyes and the Lew Griffin books such treats. So, did I get what I wanted?

Well, it has as good a start as one could possibly hope for, and throws the reader straight into the action, as hitmen attack Driver and his wife. And from here the pace is relentless, as Driver goes on the run from those who want him dead. Sallis’ prose is as pitch-perfect as ever – pared back, razor-sharp descriptions that spring off the page – and the dialogue crackles, but somewhere along the way it loses this momentum and becomes humdrum.

Drive balanced its action set-pieces and moments of philosophical reflection perfectly, and the narrative drive was spot-on. Driven, however, doesn’t work anywhere near as well. Themes that Sallis touched upon in The Killer is Dying and, to a lesser extent, Drive, concerning mankind’s need for connection and the dehumanising nature of the modern world, reappear here, but sometimes seem to dominate the page rather than weave themselves into the fabric of the story. The number of times I felt jarred out of the narrative because of this was far too many, and after a while I started losing interest.

Then I realised that all these hitmen seem to find it awfully easy to locate Driver, despite the fact that he does his best to drop off the radar again, but not one of them manages to land a single blow on him. This serves to make Driver seem more superhero than noir protagonist. This means the threat and menace that shimmered off the pages of the original just isn’t here, and you feel somehow cheated.

The end of the novel has a nice play on the nature of Chinese whispers. Driver finds out that the initial attack wasn’t exactly what he thought it was, but realises that it no longer matters, because he’s marked for death regardless of what he does. But even though this idea is well implemented it still feels like a false note, because the threat of the hero failing just isn’t there.

I really wish I could recommend Driven, because I so wanted to like it, but I can’t. In all honesty, it didn’t work for me, didn’t take me there. Despite the fluency of the prose, despite the fact that it has been put together with care by a serious artist, I just didn’t feel the story connect with me.

A huge disappointment.

Heath Lowrance talks City of Heretics

On of the great pleasures of getting into the writing/reviewing game over the last eighteen months has been my discovery of Heath Lowrance. His Psychonoir blog has been regular reading since I discovered it early last year, and Heath’s history of hardboiled/noir writers introduced me to several novelists whose work would have remained a mystery to me without this valuable guide.

However, what’s really blown me away about Heath is the quality of his writing. The Bastard Hand and Dig Ten Graves are up there with the best things I’ve read this year, and I can say that thus far (haven’t finished it yet) City of Heretics is the equal of James Sallis’ Driven, which I’m reading concurrently.

Anyway, enough of my waffling. You’re here because of Heath, not me. So, here’s the man himself to talk about his latest and greatest…

1) Let’s get down to brass tacks – can you boil down the premise of City of Heretics for the readers, and let us know why it’s going to wow them?
CITY OF HERETICS follows Crowe, an aging hard man just out of prison, back in Memphis, and looking to even the score against his former employers. But before he can do that, he’s caught up on the trail of a vicious serial killer, ultimately leading him to uncover a conspiracy among the city’s rich-and-powerful, and a secret society of murderers disguised as a Christian splinter-group. Along the way, he re-opens old wounds, and sustains some brand new ones– literally and figuratively. He’ll discover his own humanity, but whether or not he accepts it or rejects it, well…

For those of you who’ve read my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, this one is a bit different. It’s harder, and it’s meaner. So, you know, if you like that sort of thing…

2) What was the spark that set the whole project in motion?
I guess it came from being away from Memphis for so long. It’s been almost fifteen years since I left that city. A friend who is still down there told me that I wouldn’t recognize the place now, that it’s a lot darker than it used to be. I put my feelings about that into Crowe, a man returning to the city he knew so well after seven years away, and finding that he doesn’t know his place there anymore. Also, it came from getting older (though I’m not quite as old as Crowe) and feeling that the world is, perhaps, leaving you behind.

And religion, of course, my old obsession, rears its head. I was reading about the various Protestant groups that sprang up all over the country in the early 20th century, and how strange and secretive some of them could be. That lead to the “secret society” of Heretics in the novel.

3) What were your influences?
The approach of Charles Willeford to character, as always, had an influence on CITY OF HERETICS. But beyond that, I was stretching my hard-boiled muscles with this one. I was reading a lot of Dan J. Marlowe and Richard Stark, and both of them seeped heavily into forming Crowe. He’s a dark character, cynical and bitter, and, if he has a conscience, its been buried deep for most of his life.

4) In what ways would you say it improves on your previous work?
Well, it’s leaner and more direct, for one thing. I find my work lately has been moving in that direction. As nasty as THE BASTARD HAND could be on occasion, there was still a tiny little bit of sentiment here and there, because the main character was basically a decent-enough guy. He was just… in a crisis situation is all, and it brought out the worst in him. CITY OF HERETICS has no such nice guy. Crowe is a nasty piece of work, and that gave me license to get down to brass tacks. The story doesn’t meander, and a lot of what goes on in Crowe’s head is left up to the reader. So I suppose it’s more of a challenge than my previous work.

5) How long did it take to write? And how much did the rewriting/editing process shape what readers have their hands?
It’s funny, but my first novel took a good five years to write, on and off. CITY OF HERETICS, though, took about eight months for the first draft. Re-writes took another couple of months. And the re-writes made the book, I think. Before editing, it was a moderately hard-boiled story, but after taking the scalpel to it, it became very, very lean and direct, without any ornamental language at all.

6) You’re a prolific writer. How do you manage it?
I just write every day, that’s all. There’s no great secret to it. Write, and don’t worry about any of it until the editing part. Don’t second-guess yourself. Keep going, no matter what.

7) Once readers have read this, what else have you got in the pipeline?
Well, I’d urge readers to check out my Fight Card novella which just came out, BLUFF CITY BRAWLER, for a fast, stream-lined action story. I have more Hawthorne in the works (weird western short stories, put out by Beat to a Pulp) and a few short tales here and there. Keep an eye on Psycho Noir for upcoming stuff. I started a third novel a few months ago that’s been on the back burner because of other obligations, but I hope to get back to it soon.

8) Who are your top five most influential writers and why?
Flannery O’Conner, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Richard Stark, and Ernest Hemingway. Because all of them were obsessive about telling the truth about human nature. And they were all masters of tight, tense prose.

9) Top five favourite crime novels?
Just off the cuff, I’d say:
The Black Mass of Brother Springer, by Charles Willeford
Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson
Slammer, by Alan Guthrie
The Name of the Game is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

If you haven’t read Heath’s work before then do yourself a favour, follow one of these links and download them now.

City of Heretics
Bluff City Brawler
The Bastard Hand
Dig Ten Graves
That Damned Coyote Hill
The Long Black Train
Miles to Little Ridge

Review: Slammer by Allan Guthrie

Nick Glass, or Crystal as he’s known to the other screws and cons, is a rookie guard in an Edinburgh prison, having moved there after his wife had an affair. He’s not respected by either the cons or his fellow guards and his family life is hardly idyllic – his wife is a drinker and he’s having to support her and their daughter because she is pretty much unemployable. So far so bad. But when one of the cons decides that Nick is the perfect mule for importing drugs into prison things go from bad to worse. Initially Nick wants nothing to do with it but when the con uses an outsider to threaten his family, Nick has no choice but to comply. But as things get worse and Nick begins to siphon off and use the drugs he’s smuggling his tenuous grasp on reality begins to fracture completely leading to a murderous finale…

Slammer is dark psycho-noir at its finest. As the story progresses, the world begins to fold in on itself. The tale is told entirely from Nick’s point-of-view and initially gives us clues as to when his mind wanders off at a tangent. However, as things progress and the tension ratchets up several notches the barrier between what is real and what’s imagined collapses, leaving the reader struggling for the truth as desperately as the story’s protagonist. Guthrie’s prose is lean and tight and dense, often packing lots of information and clues into as small a space as possible. He drops hints into the story constantly, but due to his skill and suppleness as a writer the reader is often so caught up in the moment that the bigger picture remains a mystery. If you like your crime fiction pitch-black and nasty you’ll do a lot worse than giving this belter a read.