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.

MysteryPeople Q&A: Jake Hinkson

Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson

Jake Hinkson’s debut novel, Hell on Church Street, blew my mind into unidentifiable pieces. I love the book so much I’ve been forcing it upon just about everyone who will listen. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Jake a few questions regarding his debut, and he was kind enough to supply some great answers.

MysteryPeople: Geoffrey Webb is a bit of an odd character. At first he seems relatively harmless, if a bit devilish in terms of his vices, but he crosses the line almost effortlessly. What inspired you to write this character?

Jake Hinkson: He started out as a voice. He just started talking, “To begin at the beginning, I had an abusive father. I know my kind always does, but we’re a regenerating lot of bastards.” Now, I’ve written some characters that it’s taken me a while to find, but Webb just seemed to be there rattling around in my subconscious. I discovered a lot about him as I wrote, but I didn’t have to force anything out. He just kept telling me new stuff. I felt like a court stenographer recording the confession of a really horrible person.

MP: Hell on Church Street deals with the themes of religion and corruption, are these two things you think go hand in hand?

JH: I think noir fiction is, at its core, about uncovering the rot beneath the rather banal surface of things. People are accustomed to seeing noir used to undercover the rot of politics, the rot of the criminal justice system, the rot beneath the supposed suburban utopia, whatever. For me, though, noir seemed like a very natural mode to talk about religion, and not just any old brand of religion but Christian fundamentalism—which, today, has become the mainstream religion in much of America, certainly in the south where I grew up.

To answer your question more directly, though, I’d say yes. Religion and corruption obviously go hand in hand. They always have. The bible itself is full of stories of corrupt religious officials. The essence of religion is a claim to absolute authority, and that kind of power attracts bad people and corrupts good ones.

MP: Did you pull from any influences while writing this novel?

JH: I like to say that if Jim Tompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a cheap Ozark motel I would have been the offspring. Between his godless Oklahoma and her Christ-haunted Georgia sits my sweaty little slice of Arkansas. I think Hell On Church Street reads like a Thompson character wandered into an O’Connor story.

On a side note, someone the other day said that my second book, The Posthumous Man, reads like a cross between David Goodis’s Black Friday and Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Maybe I just have one foot in noir and one foot in Southern Gothic. That seems about right to me.

MP: The characterization in Hell on Church Street leads me to believe you may know people like the ones you write. Did you base any of your characters on real-life events?

JH: The characters and events in the book are not based on real people or real events. I made it all up. Having said that, I come from a family of preachers and deacons and pillars of the church. I’ve spent a lot of time backstage, so to speak, with preachers and youth ministers and music ministers and evangelists and revivalists. The most common compliment that I get about the book—other than it reads fast—is that it feels like an authentic look behind the scenes at a church. I’m very pleased by that.

Readers always want to know if Geoffrey Webb was inspired by any creepy real life youth ministers. Let’s just say I’ve met some folks who weren’t all they purported to be. Something Webb says in the book is 100% true. Some ministers are good people doing their best to serve god. Others are lazy phonies who just want a cushy job with a three-hour work week. It’s hard to tell the difference unless you know what you’re looking for.

MP: The story is narrated as a flashback and is bookended by present day events. Was this something you wanted to do going into the novel, or did it emerge during the writing process?

JH: That aspect of the book emerged in the writing process. As I mentioned before, I started with Webb’s voice. Once I started writing, I began figuring out where the book was headed. Around the same time, I started writing a short story (or what I thought might be a short story) about a car-jacking. Once I got a little ways into the story, it became obvious that the car-jacking should kick off the book.

After I finished the first draft of the book and began to revise, it dawned on me that the entire book is heading for that final scene. That final scene is really what the whole book is about.

MP: New Pulp Press published Hell On Church Street, what has been your experience working with them?

JH: God, it’s been great. Honestly. Jon Bassoff, the guru at NPP, is a man with a vision. Of course, so was Charles Manson. No one’s perfect.

But Jon’s a straight-shooter. He’s got good taste (or a refined sense of bad taste, depending on your perspective) and he knows what he likes. Our working relationship has been, for me, a joy from start to finish. And I have to say, I look at the catalog of books he’s putting together and I’m proud to be part of it. The author roster of New Pulp Press reads like a rap sheet of degenerate assholes. That’s good company for me to be in.

MP: Any chance you’ll swing by Austin in the future? I’ll buy the beers.

JH: I am going to take you up on that for sure. I have some family in Texas, and I’m hoping to make a trip down there. Probably not this year, but maybe in early 2014. I’ll for sure let you know. Second round’s on me.

Eternal thanks to Jake for taking the time to answer my questions. If you haven’t already grabbed a copy of Hell on Church Street, swing by BookPeople and I will put one in your hands. You can check out my review of HoCS here and you can watch Scott and I get all nerdy about the book’s publisher, New Pulp Press, here. Also, make sure you check out Jake’s blog for some great insight into noir, past and present.

MysteryPeople Review: HELL ON CHURCH STREET by Jake Hinkson

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.