Review: Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

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.

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My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!

Potted reviews – Fatale, Knockemstiff and The Wheelman

Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette – Hitwoman Aimee Joubert heads to Bléville and causes trouble by using an impoverished Baron to help her turn the town’s inhabitants against one another so that she can undertake a dastardly plan. As with all good Manchette novels, a lot of carnage ensues.

Fatale feels in a sense like a more subversive play on Hammett’s Red Harvest, which was fairly subversive itself. The Blé in Bléville apparently means wheat or the dough that’s made from it. Dough is obviously an Americanism for money – Moneyville, in other words. It feels kind of like Poisonville (which is the nickname of Personville, the town in Red Harvest). The heroine also plays the various sides against each other in a similar way to the Continental Op and both novels have a similarly jaundiced worldview and large amounts of bloodshed. It’s a weaker novel than both Three To Kill and The Prone Gunman, but considering they’re out-and-out works of genius and this is merely excellent there’s no shame in that. It is incredibly readable and comes highly recommended

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray PollockKnockemstiff is a short story collection set in and around the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. The stories range from incredibly sad to funny and most of them are as black as a mineshaft at midnight. Pollock’s prose is as lean as a racing greyhound and just as nippy. Some of the characters from one story reappear in another (or get name checked). There isn’t a duffer amongst them and at their best (Knockemstiff and Honolulu, in particular) they damn near took my breath away. Go out and buy it straight away – you won’t be sorry.

The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski – Lennon is a mute Irish getaway driver who finds that getting out of Philadelphia is a lot more difficult than he had anticipated. He finds himself pursued by the Russian Mafia, the Italian Mob, an ex-policeman and various other criminals, all falling over each other to get their hands on $650,000 of loot.

This is the first Swierczynski novel that I’ve read but it won’t be the last. It’s a cartoon romp that’s almost too tricky for its own good at times, but it is also a damn fine piece of entertainment that races by at an astonishing pace. It has some excellent moments of black comedy along with some nicely written set-pieces. If you like heist capers you’ll really enjoy this.