Over the last year or so I’ve heard a lot about Frank Bill. This collection of hard, violent shorts has been getting glowing reviews by critics whose word really means something – pretty much anybody with any kind of gravitas and reputation in the crime fiction world has been lining up to give it the severed thumbs up.
Frank Bill has been compared with Donald Ray Pollock, whose Knockemstiff was one one of my favourite reads of last year. Personally, I think the only thing they share is a working class/blue collar/rural backdrop to the stories – their writing styles and their temperaments seem very much different. On the basis of my reading of this collection, Pollock is by far the warmer, more empathetic writer, Bill’s world view seems colder, more detached (though not every story has this kind of distance). That’s not to say that this is a bad thing, because it isn’t. Bill is a fine writer and this is a very fine collection, but there’s a detachment to his prose that isn’t there in Pollock – at least, in my humble opinion.
I’ve just thought of another trait that they share. Both writers have characters that appear in more than one story, either in cameo or as main players, although Pollock never takes it as far as Bill. A fine example of this happens in CiSI’s first three stories: Hill Clan Cross, These Old Bones and All The Awful. These stories could have been released as a novelette in their own right. Each is a separate story, but together they form a three act structure. In the first story we get introduced to two very nasty local criminals who stop their sons from selling drugs to their rivals. In the second the father of the rivals, sells his granddaughter to the criminals to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment. In the third the granddaughter escapes from the criminals’ farm and sets up a final showdown. In their own right each is a fine story, but taken together they work brilliantly. There are others in here that work just as well.
In a sense, the stories are served well by a bit of detachment. Bill’s world is a scary reflection of a small portion of Indiana – a world of methed-up killers, dog fighters, crazed war veterans, rapists, gang henchmen. Not a very nice mix. And there’s so much horrible shit going on in these pages that distancing the reader from it makes perfect sense. If you plunge the reader’s face in the shit for too long they are likely to become alienated by it, but a bit of detachment and distance acts as a buffer against the horrors. This distance is served well by Bill’s prose, which is a mixture of clipped sentences balanced with nicely nuanced metaphors and similes. And I don’t know of many writers who can do action the way Bill does action. It moves quickly, wastes no words, and is awash with bone shards and blood spray.
For those of you with the stomach for a relentless, but excellent, collection of grim tales then this comes highly recommended. Bill is definitely a talent to watch.