Review by: Chris Mattix
It’s really rare for a writer to knock it out of the park as thoroughly and with as much sadistic fervor as Jake Hinkson does in his debut novel, Hell on Church Street. A relatively unknown voice in the world of crime fiction, Hinkson’s clever prose, fiendish dialogue, and well drawn cast of characters will no doubt make him the subject of much deserved chatter in the years to come. Taking stylistic cues from genre heavyweights like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler, Hinkson’s tale of a conman turned ruthless killer is one shockingly fun ride straight through the bowels of hell.
The story begins with a robbery-turned-kidnapping and quickly diverges into the tale of Geoffrey Webb, a small-town conman who weasels his way into an easy life as the youth minister of a Baptist church in rural Arkansas. As Webb gets comfortable in his new life as a professional liar, he falls in love with the preacher’s underage daughter, Angela. Webb’s relationship with Angela heats up very quickly, and before he has time to think things through, he is being blackmailed by the local Sherriff (a certifiable psychopath), Doolittle Norris. Things go very wrong for old Geoffrey Webb, and his plan to milk the local church for all it’s worth soon takes a backseat to the heinous murder he has to cover up.
Hell on Church Street is pure pulp bliss. Hinkson does a stellar job of creating a believably over-the-top story about the pitfalls of obsession and greed, and his “protagonist,” while a sadistic killer by the tale’s end, is the kind of guy whom readers can’t help but root for. The pacing is pitch-perfect, and the story never slows down for more than a page or two. This makes Hell on Church Street an exceptionally fast read, and it also makes the surprises that much more shocking. One minute we’re listening to Geoffrey Webb’s profession of love for Angela, and the next minute we’re watching a knife plunge into the victim.
Hinkson’s writing recalls Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler mostly because he tells his story in the form of inner dialogue, but there are moments where you’ll swear Thompson was dictating the story to Hinkson. This doesn’t mean Hell on Church Street is derivative in any way, quite the contrary, in fact. Hinkson takes the style of Thompson and modernizes it. He tells his story faster and with greater effect than much of Thompson’s work (heresy to say, I know, but it’s true!).
In all honesty, I am still surprised by how amazingly good Hell on Church Street is. I knew nothing about Jake Hinkson before cracking into his debut novel, and now I think he might be a genius. If you are a fan of hard-boiled noir I urge you to pick up a copy of this book. This is easily one of the best genre stories of the year, and I have a feeling it will remain a prominent example of noir done right for years to come.