Potted Reviews: Rust and Bone – Craig Davidson, American Death Songs – Jordan Harper, 18 Days – Allen Miles, The City and The City – China Miéville

A couple of heavily altered stories from Craig Davidson’s collection of shorts Rust and Bone were the basis of a recent film of the same name by French director Jacques Audiard. It was a good film, a strong film, but it lacked the humanity that makes the title story such a wonderful short tale. For a start, the protagonist in the film is a selfish prick with few redeeming features (he improves as the film progresses, though not that much), but in the story he’s a truly decent man who fights out of a sense of duty and honour (to say more would be to spoil things). It also contains some of the finest prose you’ll find in short fiction – beautifully written, perfectly modulated, and wonderfully paced. The other tales in the collection aren’t quite as perfect, but they’re still superbly written with three-dimensional protagonists who burn brightly long after the final word has been finished. Excellent stuff. Highly recommended.

Had it not been for Rust and Bone, Jordan Harper’s American Death Songs would have been the best short story collection that I’d read this year. As things stand it runs Craig Davidson’s collection a very close second. The prose is less flashy, and the tales are less angst ridden, but, damn, Harper tells a mean story. There are some really superb shorts in this book, with some recurring characters and nice line in amorality. Also excellent, and also highly recommended.

In 18 Days, the protagonist Davy Sheridan has everything to live for: a beautiful wife, a steady job and his first child on the way. But when Davy’s wife dies in childbirth, he falls to pieces and goes on a long, self-destructive bender – the 18 days in question – that threatens his sanity, his relationships and even his life. Miles’ novella isn’t exactly what you would call a pleasure read, but if you have the constitution for it it is a good read. Miles’ prose is, for the most part, strong and direct and at its best when it keeps things simple. Sheridan’s innate selfishness makes him difficult to warm to, but Miles’ control of the story keeps you reading to the end. Recommended.

The City and The City by China Mieville works on the premise that two cities at the far end of eastern Europe share the same physical space yet have their own separate identities. They are separated by crosshatching and the residents’ skill in the art of unseeing each other. But they are also separated by the fear of Breach – the concept of a person from one city suddenly seeing or interacting those in the other city. Once Breach has occurred a shadowy organisation takes over and deals with it once and for all. It’ll take most readers a bit of time to get their heads around the concept. But once it sinks in I have no doubts that most of these readers will be hooked on a murder mystery that takes in the concept of identity, has faint digs at the society we live in (we often unsee the homeless or areas of vast deprivation when the need arises), and makes less veiled attacks at corporate interest (not that surprising considering Mieville’s well-documented socialist leanings), but is also a damn fine tale in its own right. It’s the kind of idea that Philip K Dick would have had a field day with in his 60s heyday, though Mieville is a far better prose stylist than Dick. Highly recommended

Short story: The Accident

John sneered up from beneath the car and said: “Christ, Rog, did you do this intentionally?”

“What makes you say that?” Roger asked.

John shook his head and ducked back under. “Because this is the kind of fucked you can only get by going over a speed bump slowly or mounting a surface that’s too high,” he replied, his voice slightly muffled by the vehicle that covered him. “You’re a good driver, mate. So when I see this kind of damage I hafta ask.”

Roger sighed softly and shrugged. “A bit stupid of me.”

“Can say that again.”

Roger did a circuit of the jacked-up car, looking at the flat tires and the scratched-up bumpers. It didn’t look good from this angle. “Prognosis?”

John cleared his throat. “Back bumper’s hanging by metal threads. You’ve put a hole in the exhaust and that’s barely hanging, and you’ve somehow fucked three of the tires so they’re flat. And then you drove home on the things, so the rims are fucked along with the tires.”

“Can you fix it?”

John scoffed. “This is a garage job – I don’t have the tools or the time to fix it. Frankly I feel under-qualified just looking at it. And I’m only doing it as a favour to you.”

“Fair enough,” Roger said and did a second circuit of the car. He huffed constantly as he assayed the damage. “Went over one of those low roundabouts. Not low enough, I guess.”

“Don’t sound like you.”

“Thinking about other stuff.”

“Such as.”

“Trouble at home.”

John paused momentarily. “What?”

“It’s got worse.”

John poked his head out from under the car again. “Worse?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit,” John said, looking uncomfortable. “Owt I can do?”

“No more than you’ve done already.”

“Huh?”

“Can you fix marriages and cars?”

John went back beneath the car. “Marriages? Pfffff, can’t even fix my own.”

Roger paused. “Angela’s having an affair.”

“Really?”

He crouched and looked at the top of John’s head. “That’s why I pranged the car.”

John tilted his head so he could see Roger. “Shit, mate. Sorry,” he said and paused. “I guess something like that would make anybody lose control.”

“I didn’t lose control.”

“But, you said…”

“I said it was a bit stupid of me.”

John looked at something directly above him and tinkered with it. “Expensive way of venting steam,” he said, his voice stiff.

“I wasn’t venting steam.”

John angled his head back at Roger. “So you’ve inflicted all this damage for no reason?”

“No. I had a reason.”

John pulled at a piece of metal and threw it to one side. “Which was?”

Roger took a mobile phone from his pocket and prodded the screen. “I wanted you to look at the car.”

John paused. “I don’t understand.”

Roger got on his knees and crept towards the car. “This should explain it.”

John reached out from beneath the vehicle and Roger put the phone in his outstretched hand. He stood up and brushed the knees of his jeans.

John looked at the text, tried to speak but stuttered.

Roger looked at the jack. “Actually I wanted you beneath it.”

John screeched a rapid stream of words, reached out and hooked both hands around the foot of the car, trying to pull himself out. Roger kicked the jack away. The car seemed to hang in the air forever, and Roger worried for a split-second second it wasn’t going to fall at all. Then it dropped with violent finality. John squealed as the vehicle struck; bones cracked loudly, followed by a wheeze as the air rushed from his lungs. Two unmoving hands poked out from beneath the car body. The mobile lay on its back next to Roger’s right hand. The message on the screen read: I wanna see you, babe. Meet me tonight. The wife’s away. Make an excuse for Roger. John. Xxx

Roger squatted on his haunches for a view of the corpse. He saw a strip of bloodied hair in the light, but the rest was in shadow. It was good enough.

He smiled, stood and left the garage, closing the door on the way out.

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.