Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.

The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street

“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”

One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.

Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.

“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”

Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.

The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and StoriesWoodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.

“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”

Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.

the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineagean established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.

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Scott’s Top Ten Mysteries of 2014

Scott’s Top 10 (Okay, Eleven)


This was quite a full year for crime fiction. Raymond Chandler came back and Moe Prager left. Emerging voices like Benjamin Whitmer  and Matthew McBride made a stand and veterans like James Ellroy came back. Matt Scudder was in a great movie and the poster couple  for toxic marriage in Gone Girl got beautifully adapted. Needless to say it was difficult to make a top 10 list, so I found a way to  shoehorn in eleven.


cry father1. Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer

This book, following the dark criminal adventures of a tree cutter in disaster sites in mourning for his son, is a perfect piece  of brutal poetry. Raw in its emotion, it speaks to and for the people society pushes to the margins. I plan to read this book at  least every ten years for the rest of my life.

 


hollow girl2. The Hollow Girl by Reed Farrel Coleman

The final Moe Prager novel deeply involves Coleman’s recurring theme of identity in a way that forces one of the most human private detectives ever put on the page to deal with his own concept of self. A pitch perfect swan song.

 


fever3. The Fever by Megan Abbott

Mysterious seizures hit a group of high school girls, causing hysteria in an upstate new York town. Abbott blends mystery, horror, and  coming of age, digging emotionally deep into community, family, and female friendship with an aching and dark mood.

 


swollen red sun4. A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

A masterpiece of rural crime fiction. When a Missouri sheriff’s deputy steals $72,000 out of a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of  weakness, it sets the spark that sends a corrupt county up into flames. A relentless novel that moves like a muscle car on an open  road.


the drop poor boys game5. The Drop by Dennis Lehane & The Poor Boy’s Game by Dennis Tafoya

Both of these books tapped into the emotional core of their stories with poignancy while still delivering a bad-ass hard-boiled tale.  Lehane’s lonely bartender being batted about by the mob and Tafoya’s damaged U.S. marshal who has to fight the mob off are characters  who will stay with you for some time.


last death of jack harbin6. The Last Death Of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames

The second Samuel Craddock novel has the retired police chief looking into the murder of a disabled war veteran. As he investigates, Samuel  becomes a witness to the sins of his town and society in this moving mystery.

 


the forty-two7. The Forty-Two by Ed Kurtz

A tension filled thriller that effectively uses early Eighties Time Square as a backdrop in all its seedy glory. Kurtz uses grind  house theaters, peepshows, and greasy spoons like Hitchcock used Mount Rushmore and The Statue Of Liberty.


forsaken ace atkins8. The Forsaken by Ace Atkins

The fourth Quinn Colson novel has the Mississippi sheriff dealing with race issues, biker gangs, county Kingpin Johnny Stagg, and an  old crime connected to his father who disappeared years ago. Entertaining dialogue and action with strong thematic undercurrents.


mark pryor the blood promise9. The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor

A great thriller with vivid characters and a plot that ties a modern treaty signing to an event during The French Revolution. Further  proof of why Pryor’s Hugo Marston is one of the best new heroes.

 


after im gone10. After I’m Gone by Laura Lipman

Lippman looks at the disappearance of a shady businessman through the wife, daughter, and murdered mistress he left behind. Lippmann  uses the lives of these ladies as a clever window into family, class, religion, and feminism in the last half of the twentieth  century.


Copies of each book are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

 

MysteryPeople Interview: Benjamin Whitmer

Today is the release of our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Cry
Father. It’s Benjamin Whitmer’s follow up to his brilliant debut, Pike,
and will definitely be be seen on my year end top ten list as well as
many others. It deals with Patterson Wells, a tree cutter in disaster
areas whose grief over his dead son leads him into violent
circumstances. It is a brutal and beautiful book. Ben was kind enough
to take some questions from me on it.
MP: Pike and Cry Father seem like two twins raised differently, you see
the shared DNA, yet they both successfully achieve different things.
What do you see the main difference being?

BW: Well, Cry Father was written right on top of Pike, so it made sense
that a lot of the things I was thinking through got carried over. The
first draft was actually finished in 2010, it just took a long time to
get it published. If Adam Wilson at Gallery Books hadn’t seen
something in it (and, for that matter, if Sophie Littlefield hadn’t
suggested I send it to him) it probably wouldn’t even be published in
English. I’d pretty much decided to skip America and go straight to
France when Adam called my agent.

To me, the main difference is that Cry Father seems more open. I was
less scared to hit on the themes I was interested in. I don’t know if
they came through, but I hope so. In Pike I was more just trying to
establish a kind of tone — I’m new at this book-writing thing, and
still trying to figure out what I’m doing — and in Cry Father I felt
like I had a little more room to move.

MP: Patterson’s job as a tree cutter is both unique and a perfect
metaphor for what he’s going through. How did you choose that
profession for him?

BW: That was actually a gift given to me by one of my oldest friends,
Lucas Bogan. He’s the real deal and actually does what Patterson does.
(I should note that the similarities end right there: Patterson’s
faults are all his own.) Like you said, it seemed like the perfect job
for Patterson. And for me, I like characters who are grounded in the
work they do. It seems to me that a lot of novels skirt work. I’ve
always had a day-job and hated them all, but they consume the greatest
part of your waking hours whether or not you like it.

MP: The idea of fatherhood comes up in many forms. What did you want to
explore about it?

BW: Fatherhood’s probably never gonna be far from anything I write. I’m a
single father with two kids, and my relationship with them is the most
important thing in my life. But it’s a constant game of
second-guessing, doubt and guilt, as you understand all the things
you’ve done wrong. Not to mention all the things that you can’t
protect them from or do for them. It’s a fairly brutal crash course in
understanding how inadequate you are. Likewise, as a father with a
male child, I’m always thinking about the constructions of masculinity
that get passed down from father to son. That was a lot of what I was
trying to think through. As you can probably tell, though, I’m better
at negative examples than positive ones.

MP: There is always a lot of talk about the violence in your books, but
you use very little dramatic embellishment on it. How do you try to
treat it when writing?

BW: I think violence can reveal character just as surely as sex, love,
parenthood, or anything else. I try to write violence in a way that
people feel it. I don’t know if I succeed, but I don’t want anyone to
skim a violent scene. I want it to be ugly and heartsick. And in the
same way, to show that it’s attractive, too. It’s a balancing act. I’m
never gonna write it the way everybody wants it written, because it’s
such a touchy subject for people. But the attraction and repulsion has
to be there, I feel.

We’re more conflicted about violence than anything in this country.
Even sex. We’ll expel a kid from school for a fistfight, but there
hasn’t been a single year in my lifetime where we haven’t been bombing
the hell out of somebody and gloating about it. And we won’t even get
into what we’ll put up with from our police, like in Ferguson. I’m not
a pacifist, but the separation between what we tell ourselves we
believe and how we actually behave is so wide that I wonder that
folks’ heads don’t just start exploding from the cognitive dissonance
of it all.

MP: Many of the characters in Cry Father talk about freedom. Do you
think that’s what they are really looking for or is it something else?

BW: I think it’s a question they’re asking themselves. It’s a question I’m
always thinking about, anyways. I believe in freedom, the real
tangible kind. And I’d argue that we have less of it, in the real
tangible sense, than any of us would like to think. Most of freedom in
this country is just talk, and that disturbs me. When you’ve got more
people in prison than any other country in the world and every move
you make is legislated, I don’t know how the hell you can talk about
freedom with a straight face. I know that’s not a real popular
opinion, and we’re supposed to believe freedom is some kind of
metaphysical quality that we receive by virtue of being able to vote
once every four years, but I have trouble buying that.

Still I’ve also been around long enough to see how people get
destroyed by freedom. And I’ve come close myself at points in my life.
So I don’t know. For me freedom is a question, not an answer. I think
my characters are as lost in the question as I am. I think a lot of
people are right now.

MP: Can you tell us what your next book is and please promise it won’t
take four years before we get to read it?

BW: I have two in mind, actually. One is a jailbreak novel which I’m
really enjoying. I can’t promise it won’t take four years to get it
published, but I can say that it’s about half done and I should be
finished within the next year. I’m also working on a proposal for a
non-fiction book about one of my best friends, Paul Schenck, who was
killed by the police after a shootout last year. I’m not sure anybody
will want it – or either one of them, I guess – but I’m hoping so.

 

You can find Cry Father on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: CRY FATHER, by Benjamin Whitmer

cry father

MysteryPeople Pick for August: Cry Father, by Benjamin Whitmer

Review by Scott

When I got my hands on Cry Father, I knew I was going to love it. Benjamin Whitmer‘s debut, Pike, had caught the attention of every hard-boiled fan with its masculine prose and unflinching look at people on the margins and the brutality in which they find themselves trapped. Before even opening it, I knew it would be in my Top Ten of the Year. Whitmer delivers a novel for the decade.

As the story opens, we follow Patterson Wells, a tree cutter who clears limbs and wrenched timber from disaster sites. He also tries to clear the wreckage of his own life caused by the death of his son. Part of his attempt involves writing letters to his son that are interwoven beautifully throughout the story. On his way home to Colorado, he stops by a friend’s place and finds his buddy high on meth and his friend’s girlfriend hogtied in the bathtub. Patterson’s decision to free the woman, plus his involvement with Junior, a drug courier with severe father issues and a hair-trigger personality, unspool several brutal encounters that challenge Wells’ humanity.

While Cry Father shares many of the character types and ferocity of Pike, it has a wider scope. Pike‘s tighter structure compressed the genre tropes and more dramatic elements together, with violence present throughout the book. Here, Whitmer takes a more self-assured pace, allowing the characters, thematics, and bloodshed to settle into the story and dominate it less. The result is a book that is multilayered with a threat of violence vibrating through it like a rattle on a diamondback that will strike in due time.

Whitmer brings his version of the modern West and its people vividly to life. As desperate and brutal as the  circumstances are, it doesn’t come off as your standard rural noir. We simply follow people dealing with their lives without the middle-class advantage of being able to put a mistake behind them. Struggle permeates the book more than doom.

Cry Father finds a way to be deep, nuanced, wild, and dramatic all at the same time, making it difficult to fully comprehend in one reading, much less encapsulate it in one review. Its sense of loss and portraits of people in search of grace without a road map make the story linger. Whitmer honestly deals with what he tackles. He realizes there are things we can not get a grip on or put behind us. We’re best judged by how we carry them and can expect to stumble at times with that weight.


Cry Father hits the shelves September 16. It is available for pre-order now at bookpeople.com.