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.

Crime Fiction Friday: HAVE CHAINSAW, WILL TRAVEL by Matthew McBride

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I had been jonesing for some Matthew McBride and was happy to find this story on Plots With Guns. If the title alone isn’t enough, Mat gives us a buffet of dark humor, splatter punk violence, and a unique style and approach that make him one of the best. Those of you who read his first novel, Frank Sinatra In A Blender, will recognize a part of this story, but it still stands on its own. McBride is also the author of A Swollen Red Sun, our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for July 2014.

“Have Chainsaw, Will Travel” by Matthew McBride

 “In 1974, STIHL Incorporated began manufacturing the 015 chainsaws at their new facility in Virgina Beach. I, myself, had  always been a fan of their products. They don’t just make a good chainsaw, but a variety of equipment that comes in handy for a guy like me. A guy who doesn’t tolerate standing…”

Read the rest of the story.

Noir at the Bar Tonight!

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Our last Noir At The Bar of 2014 (happening tonight, November 24, at 7pm at Opal Divine’s) has us going out with top talent. The line up is composed of first offenders and hardened felons. We’ve got both rural and southwestern noir authors and a guy who mashes up so many genres that we don’t know what the hell to call him. And of course, we’ll be joined by our own Jesse Sublett

C..B. McKenzie is the recent winner of the Tony Hillerman award for Bad Country. The book introduces us to cowboy-turned-private eye Rodeo Grace Garnett. McKenzie gives a rough and tumble feel to an unromanticized American west.

Glenn Gray’s The Little Boy Inside And Other Stories has been getting great buzz. The tales, which range from crime (especially involving illegal steroid use) to sci fi to body horror, are almost always funny and disturbing. Don’t eat while Glenn reads.

Matthew McBride instantly became a MysteryPeople favorite with his gonzo hard boiled debut Frank Sinatra In A Blender. He has received more rave reviews for his intense rural crime novel A Swollen Red Sun. The book deals with the repercussions of corruption in a Missouri county overrun by meth and violence.

Austin author and musician Jesse Sublett will perform some of his murder ballads, as well as reading (his latest is Grave Digger Blues) and everyone will be on hand to sign books afterwards. Before you’re put upon by holiday cheer, join us at Opal’s and celebrate the noir side of life.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Matthew McBride

On Wednesday, the 27th of August, at 7 pm, our Hard Word Book Club will discuss A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride. The book follows a chain of violence triggered by a moment of weakness from a sheriff’s deputy when he takes $52,000 from meth dealer Jerry Dean Skagg’s trailer. The book was our July Pick Of The Month, so we can’t wait to discuss it. Matt was kind enough to take some questions from us.


MysteryPeople: How do you feel about all the favorable reactions to the book?

Matthew McBride: It’s very nice, and still kind of hard to believe. As a writer, you hope people will buy your book and you want them to like it, but I never expected to sell as many copies as I have. It’s mind-blowing, and I’m grateful. Having strangers write you and tell you they love your book is cool. Because I know how it feels to read something you love and feel that way. You want to connect with the author, so you reach out to them. I’ve done that.

MP: While meth is in a lot of rural crime fiction, it is practically a character here. How has it affected where you live?

MM: I’ve been tempted to brand the book Meth Lit, because meth really is a character in this book, and it has affected my life and the lives of those around me in various ways. In Gasconade County, if you’re sick, you can’t even buy Actifed from the pharmacy without a prescription. For some things you have to show a driver’s license. For other things you have to drive to another county. And while Gasconade County is not now technically considered the meth capital of the world as I mention in the book (that distinction now belongs to one of our neighboring counties), it has certainly been called that at times. In the 90’s and into the 2000’s—and even still to this day—meth labs are raided almost weekly. And it was much worse a few years ago. You can read about it every week in the Gasconade County Republican. Someone is always getting busted or someone’s house is getting raided. People get caught cooking meth and they go to jail and they bond out and the cops give them a few weeks to regroup and resupply themselves and then they hit them again. Sometimes guys get caught for the second time before they’ve even been to court for the first time.

It’s all about Pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient harvested from these pills; the component meth cooks need most to perfect their product. About ten years ago they started making you show your drivers license and sign a sheet of paper at the pharmacy window. Now Gasconade County prevents you from buying anything with Pseudoephedrine in it period without a doctor’s prescription. So unless you want to pay an office visit, you have to drive 40 miles to a different county, show your driver’s license, then sign a piece of paper stating you will not cook meth. While these laws are inconvenient for law-abiding, non-meth producing citizens, they were actually created to make it harder for chefs to get the pills they need to cook with, and these laws have made a difference—to an extent—but for every new law that’s made to curb the accessibility to precursors, there’s a guy who cooks crank that’s a very resourceful gentleman and he will just find a new way to make it. If such and such pill cannot be obtained without a prescription, he’ll just find the next best pill that will work, and then that pill becomes the new pill. The quality of the product may suffer, but people will still buy it. And they’ll love it. Even though the product is inferior to what they had previously known. They’ll still snort it or smoke it or shoot it and be grateful for it, while already scheming about how they will get more crank when the crank they have runs out.

But for old schoolers that have been in the game for the long haul, they remember what the good stuff was like. How pure it used to be and how easily it was obtained, and I’m sure a small part of them (guys like Jerry Dean Skaggs) will always look back with fond memories of previous product and long for the good old days.

MP: Frank Sinatra In A Blender was more along the satirical lines, while A Swollen Red Sun is a bit weightier (but no less entertaining). Was the change in tone conscious?

MM: If I had any real goal with my second book, it was to write something completely different from my first book. The characters are much deeper, and they’re drawn in such a way you can relate to them because they’re dealing with real world problems. Issues that we all deal with: Death and disease and loss. Suicide and infidelity and drug addiction. And the extremes people go to to satisfy those addictions.

While Frank Sinatra in a Blender was about embracing addictions, A Swollen Red Sun is about being a slave to them.

MP: Two of your favorite authors, Daniel Woodrell and Dan Ray Pollock, have endorsed the book. What from their work do you hope to apply to yours?

MM: They have become literary heroes to a generation of writers and if I could write half as well as either one of them I’d be walking in tall cotton. But honestly, when I wrote A Swollen Red Sun back in 2010 all I could think about was how cool it would be to meet them. Then maybe I could figure out a way to ask them to read my book without feeling like an asshole. But eventually I did meet them both, and over the years I’ve gotten to know them well, have even read and drank with them, so having their names and words on the cover mean a lot to me. The very same writers who have influenced me now believe in me, and not a lot of writers can say that—plus, there are blurbs from: Todd Robinson, Hilary Davidson, Johnny Shaw, and Ben Whitmer. Writers I genuinely care about as people and whose work I admire.

Between both books, I’ve gotten some amazing blurbs that I’ll always be thankful for. So anytime I see these people at a bar, I owe them a drink. Always. Because that’s the rule.

MP: You have a reputation among your peers as one of the best self-editors. Can you talk about your process after that first draft?

MM: Surely you’re making this up; I cannot imagine anyone saying this. In fact, I know five or six editors who are giving you the finger right now—but!—if I have become a good self-editor, it’s just because I have worked with much better editors than me and I’ve learned from them. Truth is: editors don’t get enough credit. They don’t. And sometimes they don’t get any. But they should. Because it’s the editor that really ties the book together. They polish the words and tighten everything down. The more you write and publish, the more you’ll work with editors and the more you will learn. You don’t even have to try. You just pick things up and they stick with you. Small skills you didn’t even realize you had until you found yourself using them. But I’m also very obsessive/compulsive, so that surely plays a role. It’s a curse, really. I write quickly, but I’m slow to let things go. I need to reread everything fifty times. I’ll do ten or twenty rewrites of anything before I’ll even show Stacia (my agent), who is actually my first editor.

What it comes down to is this: I loathe the thought of anyone reading something I’ve written that’s not as good as it can possibly be. If I think there’s a way to improve what I wrote and make it better I have to try. It’s all about editing: rereading and rewriting. In a way, writing books has ruined me. I look for mistakes all the time now. Even when I’m dining out. I can’t read a menu. I proofread everything.

MP: Would you tell us what you’re up to next?

MM: I don’t even know myself. Maybe nothing. Then again, I might start a new book a half-hour from now. When it comes to writing, I don’t plan a single word. Planning what I want to say robs creativity from the process. For me, writing is about total freedom.


The Hard Word Book Club meets the last Wednesday of each month in BookPeople’s cafe at 7 pm. Join us on Wednesday, August 26, for a discussion of Matthew McBride’s A Swollen Red Sun, available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: A SWOLLEN RED SUN

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month:A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

Matthew McBride caught the attention of crime fiction readers and writers alike with his debut novel, Frank Sinatra In A Blender. It introduced a new and exciting voice with a wild, almost satirical hard boiled novel. With his follow up, A Swollen Red Sun, McBride tones down the satire, but is no less wild.

The action takes place in Gasconade, a meth lab of a county in eastern Missouri. Dale Banks, a decent sheriff’s deputy, has a moment of weakness when he takes $52,000 from the trailer of local dealer Jerry Dean Skaggs. Most of the cash was supposed to go to Jerry’s partners and a crooked lawman to keep up the operation of his boss, the drug kingpin preacher Reverend Butch Pogue. The theft sends these characters and the county into a violent spiral.

This book is relentless. With no chapter breaks, Mcbride jumps from character to character. He has honed his prose style to where every word has punch and velocity. While travelling down some of the territory of fellow Missourian Daniel Woodrell, he goes for a more terse, visceral feel. Less interested in contemplation, he wants you in the moment, no matter how dark or violent.

The book becomes a study of corruption in its personal, institutional, and spiritual forms. With Banks we see a man who must face the consequences of his moral slip. Reverend Pogue shows how justification perverts religion to the point where its spirituality is scorched. Overall, the novel has the feel of Dashielle Hammett’s Red Harvest, showing how a corrupt society eventually destroys itself.

A Swollen Red Sun is a huge leap for Matthew McBride. It expands on his promise, demonstrating more depth as it moves from the intimate to the big picture with the skill of those who have a dozen books behind them. It looks like we’ve only scratched the surface of his talent.

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Copies of  A Swollen Red Sun are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Matthew McBride

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Matthew McBride’s Frank Sinatra In A Blender has been a book we’ve been raving about. Hell, we’d adopt it if we could. It centers on the violent misadventures of  St. Louis PI Nick Valentine and his terrier Frank Sinatra. Both hard boiled and funny, with it’s own kind of heart, it’s a debut that announces a great new talent. Our new favorite author was kind enough to answer a few questions.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the character of Nick Valentine come about?

MATTHEW MCBRIDE: I wanted to write something different. But at the same time, I wanted to write something with a familiar theme. So I ended up writing a PI novel. What appealed to me about the genre was that I could make my PI as good or as bad as I wanted, without having to worry about the sort of constraints a cop working for the police department would be subjected to. I wanted my private eye to play by his own rules. And he pretty much does.

MP: Does he have any kinship to characters you’ve read or watched in movies?

MM: Honestly, I’ve always thought of Nick Valentine as a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Sterling Archer. So, there’s that. But I’ve never actually read a PI novel, so I have no idea how closely Nick Valentine would compare to a character like Phillip Marlowe. But I’m pretty sure he could out drink him.
 
MP: Was Frank Sinatra always with him?

MM: I came up with the title before I ever wrote a word of the story, which is never how it works for me. But in this case, that’s how it worked, though I did know I wanted to write about a dog from the beginning. Because dogs are cool, and I felt like Frank could be a great character as long as I wrote him right. We have two cantankerous little dogs at home and neither one of them really likes me—despite my best efforts at trying to force my love upon them. They bite me and pee on my stuff. So the inspiration for Frank was right in front of me the whole time.

MP: Other than John Lutz and Robert Randisi, you’re one of the few authors who uses St. Louis as a setting. What makes it different from some of the usual settings like LA, New York, or Chicago?

MM: I was born in St. Louis and I worked there for many years, so I know the area well. But St. Louis is one of the most violent cities in America. Though FSIAB is funny, I wrote a dark book. So I needed a background that reflected that darkness. There are a lot of stories set in places like New York or LA, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted this book to feel different and St. Louis seems largely unexplored.

MP: What I loved about the book was that it had such a wild, over the top tone that you usually only find in short stories. Was it difficult to sustain that for the entire novel?

MM: (Long pause) I’ve never really thought about that. I just wrote what felt natural. It is wild and over the top. When I wrote it, I knew they would never name a library after me. And I’m OK with that. Because I never set out to do anything other than write the kind of book I’d love to read. I wanted to write a fun book, and reading about characters that come alive on the page is fun. Scott Phillips said that once and its always stuck with me.

MP: I know you’re at work on a rural hardboiled right now, but do you have any future plans for Valentine?

MM: I don’t think so. Then again, maybe.

If you have your own questions for Matthew McBride, come out to our Hard Word Book Club discussion of Frank Sinatra In A Blender on January 30th at 7PM here on BookPeople’s third floor (603 N. Lamar Blvd). McBride will be calling in to chat with us. The meeting’s totally free, no RSVP required. Just show up and talk some crime fiction with us.