Not only does Barry Graham have a sharp writing voice, both tight and flowing like James M Cain, it’s what he does with it. He takes a socially aware look at the people we fear. He focuses on the killers and rapist the nightly news gives three minutes of airtime and stares at them until somebody cracks. Usually, it’s the reader.
Even though several of his books have been praised in Europe, he came to notice in the states last year when PM Press released The Wrong Thing. The first chapter introduces us to The Kid, a boogeyman who roams Phoenix. Part gangster, part cold blooded killer, he is a legend of evil. The following chapters show how he got to be that legend from a broken home, time in juvenile, and a violent encounter. Graham mainly focuses on his struggle with jobs and love, using our knowledge of the impending darkness to build suspense of when it will completely transform someone we’ve grown to understand and maybe even care about. He never lets the kid off the hook, while never letting us forget how he could have gotten in to this world.
Even though Graham deals with predators and crime, there is very little blood and gun play on the page. Most of the tension comes out of his characters trying to carve out a life, using the reader’s knowledge of how difficult that can be under normal circumstance. The violence hangs in the air like an impending and inevitable guillotine, ready to fall.
He does this beautifully with both victim and victimizer in his latest, When It All Comes Down To Dust. We meet Laura Ponte confronting Frank Del Rio, the man who victimized her as a child, on his prison release. Soon after, Laura loses her job by roughing up a wife beater. Without being over dramatic, we watch Laura struggle with her life as she falls for a reporter. Graham captures the fragility of love with the two. We hope the ghosts of her past don’t become demons.
We also see the banality of evil through Frank. We learn about his good upbringing and the potential he had and wants to find again. The guilt he feels for his past is real, but he can’t associate that guilt with his urges.
As these two lives head toward one another, we learn more about the actual crime (one of the rare times I’ve been shocked). Our fear comes less from them losing their lives and more from what their lives will become. While violence in the end may be inevitable, you may find its reasons and emotion surprising.
Barry Graham doesn’t pull any punches and avoids sensationalizing. He keeps our eyes on the aberrations of humanity, long enough to see the humanity in the aberration. That is truly disturbing.