PM Press’s Switchblade imprint has one of the best track records for crime fiction. In the past few years, they’ve published great, tight, socially aware books like Benjamin Whitmer’s Pike and Barry Graham’s The Wrong Thing. The work is smart, rough escapism. Escapism you can’t shake. They deliver again with James Kilgore’s Prudence Couldn’t Swim.
The hero (or anti-hero) is Cal Winters, a hare-lipped ex-con, who still dabbles in his old work. When he comes home to find his mail order wife, Prudence, drowned in their swimming pool, he knows it’s murder. He calls up his old partner in crime, a gambler named Red Eye, and the two scour Oakland, going up against cops, pornographers, and killers, to find the truth. Some of it may pertain to Prudence’s past in Africa.
The book is a shade lighter and funnier than many Switchblade books. The chapter that takes place at a hot dog eating contest is like no other. Projectile vomit is used as a weapon. Mainly, the tone comes from Cal’s attitude. He’s neither overwrought nor hardened by Prudence’s death. The search is more out of duty than vengeance. He barely seems phased when he learns about her darker secrets. Also, the fact that Cal mainly uses his skills as a con man to get information also give it a less menacing tone. It sometimes feels like a sleazy version of the Rockford Files.
Where it does follow in the Switchblade tradition is in depicting an underground society within a society. We travel through chain restaurants during grave yard shifts, dive sports bars in the middle of the day, and backrooms that are dangerous anytime, rubbing up against some colorful people along the way. All have history, most have broken dreams, and all hang on. Kilgore walks that line, making you feel the underworld that borders on the “normal” one.
Prudence Couldn’t Swim is a fresh take on the hard boiled novel. Just over two hundred pages, it’s tight, funny, gritty, and as political as you want it to be. It deserves it’s place in the Switchblade library.