Books are, even in today’s world, still the best narrative medium for contemplation. The reader has enough control to stop and extrapolate a bigger idea after a sentence, allowing the reader and book to have a dialogue. Prose gives both an intimacy and distance to take in everything intellectually and emotionally, allowing us to draw further conclusions.
I was reminded of this from a dialogue exchange in Bill Loehfelm’s Doing The Devil’s Work, the latest with cocktail-waitress-turned-New-Orleans-policewoman Maureen Coughlin. Halfway through, Maureen realizes she’s been pulled into a bribery exchange to protect the heir to an old money family. When she argues with her fellow officer, Quinn, for getting her into this, she refers to the poor, minority area she patrols –
“Ask the folks on Magnolia Street what good people Caleb Heath is.”
Quinn’s reply- “Fuck them. Why don’t I ask what they think about you, or anybody in uniform while I’m at it.”
That quick moment made me think about how the division between police and some of the the lower class communities they patrol can encourage corruption. By making those people the other, it becomes easier to collude with the upper class, being co-opted as enforcers for the rich and powerful.
Doing The Devil’s Work is obsessed by this idea and explores it with nuance. The story begins with what starts out as a routine traffic stop with a couple after she’s discovered a body. Loehfelm captures the mix of dread and humiliation when pulling over a belligerent person. When she arrests the man and holds the woman, she gets pulled into and compromised by a plot involving militia groups, a drug dealer she’s been wanting to bust, the obnoxious rich boy Caleb Heath, and her fellow officers.
It’s this look at city corruption that makes this book a standout. By making Coughlin a street cop, new to the streets as both citizen and cop, we get a ground level view of corruption and its impact. For Maureen to survive on the job where she has to rely on her fellow officers, she has to compromise herself in the go-along-to-get-along understanding of her department. It makes it close to impossible for her to draw the line. It’s her ability to to see herself in those she patrols that allows her draw her own lines.
Doing The Devil’s Work is like mixing The Wire with Treme together. It gives you a feel for one of this country’s most atmospheric cities while looking at its cycle of corruption that both fuels it and holds it back. What makes Maureen a heroine is her messed-up past that allows her to identify with those she serves and sometimes arrests. I’ll be rooting for her to keep that ability in books to come.
You can find copies of Doing The Devil’s Work on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Bill Loehfelm joins us Monday, February 16, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Come join MysteryPeople for an evening of booze, books, and crime fiction with some of our favorite authors.
It’s not too long into reading The Long and Faraway Gone that you sense Lou Berney’s ambition. The plot involves at least three mysteries, two of them taking place over twenty-five years ago and interacting with the present, and the thematics raised have no easy answers. Even with these challenges, the author proves to be more than up for the challenge.
We are introduced to two mysteries that begin in Nineteen-Eighty-Six Oklahoma City. One is the robbery of a movie theater after closing, where all but one worker is executed. The other occurs about a month later at the State Fair when Genevieve, a girl in her late teens, leaves her little sister behind to meet up with a carny. She tells the little girl, she’ll be back soon. She never returns.
Berney then takes us to the present to follow two people struggling with each crime. Wyatt, the survivor of the theater massacre, is working as a private detective in Vegas. A favor sends him back to Oklahoma City to help a former cocktail waitress who inherited a club from a millionaire she used to serve. She thinks she’s being harassed by the man’s relatives to give up the property and needs proof. Still haunted by survivors guilt, he grows more obsessed with the question of why he survived when he learns that the men who were accused may have not been the ones to commit the crime.
We also follow Juliane, the little sister left behind on the midway, also weighted with an unsolved past. Not even knowing if her sister is dead or alive, she has warring feelings toward Genevieve. When she learns the carny her sister left to meet is back in town, she sets herself up as bait.
Both stories run parallel to each other. Do not expect a grand James Ellroy conspiracy tying them together. Bernie leaves the complexity for the emotions, knowing to plot as simply as possible for an elegant effect. He gives us just enough tropes in both the PI and thriller genre and gives us fully realized characters to mark each plotline. The book is more concerned with Wyatt and Juliane coming to terms with their history. Solving the crime is just part of the process. It’s fitting that the setting is post-9/11 New York. It did remind me of Ellroy’s My Dark Places, the memoir of the author looking into his mother’s unsolved murder.
What’s amazing is how such an emotional and meditative narrative never loses a brisk pace. Part of this is done by embedding Wyatt’s case with the bar owner into the story. It gives us a more traditional, involving mystery, while it brushed the two main stories up against one another. His main plan of attack is by focusing on revelations more about the victims than perpetrators. It keeps propelling the book forward while challenging Wyatt and Genevieve’s perceptions about the past and the people they love, allowing the subtext to surface.
The Long and Faraway Gone is a book that aims high and hits the mark. It gives us an involving tale that explores loss, history, and obsession. Its emotions are both nuanced and visceral. I look forward to the next bar Lou Berney sets for himself.
Copies of The Long and Faraway Gone hits the shelves Tuesday, February 10 and is available for pre-order via bookpeople.com.
- Post by Molly
In 2004, Akashic Books published Brooklyn Noir, their first collection of original noir short stories, set in Brooklyn and written by a combination of local authors and writers from all over. Since that time, Akashic has released collections for almost every major American city and region (including, for Texas, Lone Star Noir and Dallas Noir) and, after covering much of the United States, has moved on to collections set in cities around the world.
Akashic’s motto is “Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World.” Some collections profile the fraught and violent underbellies of some of the world’s most prominent centers of tourism and business. Others focus in on the humanity and humor within a place already possessing a reputation for violence. Whatever the setting, Akashic, in their noir series, succeeds admirably at this goal. Akashic releases new collections faster than I can read them, and alas, I am now woefully behind on my world noir anthologies, but two recent releases from Akashic particularly stood out to me: Belfast Noir and Singapore Noir.
Belfast has always had a rather noir reality, but over the past decade or so, Northern Ireland has also become known for an incredible outpouring of noir fiction, dubbed the “new wave” of Irish crime fiction. Belfast Noir draws upon two of my favorite authors from the region in editing the collection: Adrian McKinty, author the Troubles Trilogy and many other novels, and Stuart Neville, author of The Ghosts of Belfast, Collusion, Ratlines, and most recently, The Final Silence, and includes original crime fiction from many more.
McKinty and Neville, as editors of the collection, have crafted a fine introduction, distilling the past several hundred years of bloody history and a relatively recent economic resurgence down to three pages and a minimalist map. They chose to organize the collection into four sections to reflect Belfast’s changing narrative, post-Troubles: City of Ghosts, City of Walls, City of Commerce, and Brave New City. Each section includes stories by authors as varied as the times and city they represent.
It would take far too long for me to write and you to read a description of what I liked about each story, so I’ll describe just a few. “Taking It Serious,” by Ruth Dudley Edwards, tells the story of a young boy whose mental illness leads him to embrace the motto “Free Ireland” to dangerous levels after his uncle spends a little too much time telling his nephew about the glorious old days of the IRA. In “Belfast Punk Rep,” Glenn Patterson teaches us that not only is Belfast the noirest city in the world, but even the punks of Belfast are a bit more hardcore than anywhere else as well. “The Reservoir,” by Ian McDonald, blends ghost story, murder mystery, and cross-generational smack-down at a wedding for a perfect Northern Irish celebration gone awry.
Steve Cavanagh‘s “The Grey” uses electric meters to tell us a story of love, revenge, and consequences, while Claire McGowan, in “Rosie Grant’s Finger,” writes about teenagers reenacting the high drama of the Northern Irish Troubles in a very, very petty way. Eoin McNamee, in “Corpse Flowers,” structures the story of a young girl’s murder entirely through images seen through cameras, a poetic twist on the surveillance state. Each story, layered on top of the rest, provides another nuanced viewpoint with which to construct a portrait of Belfast today – perhaps not a complete portrait, but a beautifully complex and ever-growing one.
Belfast, with its long history of violence and division, and its more recent history of capitalism run rampant, seems to be an obvious setting for Akashic to have chosen. Singapore’s darkness, however, rests a little more below the surface. As S. J. Rozan writes in her story “Kena Sai,” “Singapore, it’s Disneyland with the death penalty. Jay-walking, gum-chewing, free-thinking: just watch yourselves.”
Many of the stories in Singapore Noir structure their narrative around this contrast between appearance and reality, particularly emphasizing the contrast of luxurious and poverty-stricken settings; the corruption and organized crime behind the facade of democratic government; the city of expats and migrants within the city of Singaporeans. Singapore Noir is edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Singapore native and current New Yorker, who describes Singapore as “the sultry city-state,” and if this description brings to mind the cutthroat Italian city states of the Middle Ages, you’re not far off.
The voices included in this collection are as diverse as the residents of Singapore itself. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s story, “Reel,” tells a story of heat and lust set in the kelongs, old fisheries on stilts, while Colin Goh’s tale “Last Time” takes place in the glittering high rises of the city and involves international pop stars, corrupt businessmen, and powerful mafiosos. Simon Tay, writing as Donald Tee Quee Ho, in his story “Detective in a City with No Crime,” tells the story of an ordinary policeman stuck in a world of interchangeable people, where he can aspire only to lust, and never to love.
Philip Jeyaretnam’s “Strangler Fig” uses the natural environment of Singapore to structure a story of obsession and possession, while Colin Cheong’s “Smile, Singapore” uses a murder mystery to represent all of the frustrations of modern Singaporean society, and also fufills Chekov’s adage that if you introduce a gun in act 1, you had better use it by act 3. Each story is more poetic than the last, and Singapore Noir, like Belfast Noir, once again proves that Akashic Books’ noir series is better than any travel guide.
You can find copies of Singapore Noir and Belfast Noir on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
This weekend many of us crime fiction fans are in Long Beach, the site for the 2014 Bouchercon, the international mystery conference. This Crime Fiction Friday gives a nod to the conference with this story set in Long Beach by L.A. writer Gary Phillips. Phillips is one of our favorite writers here at MysteryPeople. The story first appeared in Akashic’s Mondays are Murder series.
“You’re it, Hank. Who the hell else could I lay this burden on?”
Mark coughs up more blood and I do my best to comfort my dying friend. He’s dressed in a suit I’m quite sure costs more than my parish generates in two months. His leaking blood creates a Rorschach test gone awry on his light blue shirt.
“The ambulance is coming.” I say this even though I don’t hear a siren. Which is ironic, given there’s always a peal around here, in the neighborhood where Mark and I grew up.
He smiles up at me with his red-stained teeth. “We both know that they’ll be too late. Sit me up, will you, and reach into my pocket.”
The White Van, Patrick Hoffman‘s debut novel, is hard to define in subgenre. It shares the pace and plotting skill of a Jeff Abbott or Meg Gardiner thiller, but has a grittier style. Both heroes and villains in Hoffman’s masterful work would feel comfortable in the worlds of James Crumley or Andrew Vachss. One thing is certain, this is one effective book.
In the first chapter we’re introduced to Emily, a somewhat functioning drug user in San Fransisco. Her addiction leads her to follow a man to his hotel for a hit. The drug she takes knocks her out. When she awakes, others are in the room.
We feel Hoffman’s skill immediately, through a series of lucid moments Emily has between black outs. Hoffman keeps us in suspense; we are as off balance as the character. Her captors attempt to manipulate Emily into partaking in an identity theft scheme in return for a cut. It’s too late when she learns it is a bank robbery and she’s been framed to be the suspect. With money in her hand,having come to her senses, Emily takes off.
We then meet Leo, a cop with more than questionable ethics. After his behavior gets him and his partner into a jam that only a lot of cash can solve, he hears of the robbery and Emily’s description. Now she has the honest cops, the outlaws, and the corrupt cops all after her.
Hoffman could have titled the book ‘desperation.’ Every character is in over their head. When we learn the circumstances of the people who set up Emily, we even feel for them a little. If the definition of ‘noir’ is one bad decision leading to a series of other decisions that are even worse, then The White Van is the epitome of noir. For Hoffman, a fast pace isn’t a goal for turning pages but a way to immerse us in the relentless situation his characters are in.
Like the rest of the novel, the ending has a unique feel. We take inventory of the people we’ve gotten to know through their trying and violent time. We are not sure if we have changed our minds about them, but we feel a deeper connection. Like Elmore Leonard, we have gotten to know Patrick Hoffman’s shady characters. Through these people we get the chance to see a shadow San Fransisco; one which rubs up against the work-a-day one. Will Patrick Hoffman’s next novel take the same approach on an international level? Wherever he wants to take the reader, I’m ready to go.
Copies of The White Van are available on BookPeople’s shelves and via bookpeople.com.
For this month’s Murder In The Afternoon Book Club, meeting Tuesday, November 18th, at 2 pm, we get to discuss the book with the author. Janice Hamrick is one of our favorite writers. Her series featuring Austin high school teacher Jocelyn Shore consistently entertains us with light, humorous mysteries. Hamrick’s novels avoid being cute with with a truthful look at human nature and a bit of an edge. We’ll be reading the first book in the series, Death On Tour.
Death On Tour introduces us to Jocelyn and her extroverted (to put it mildly) cousin, Kyla, as they take a vacation on a discount tour to Egypt. When a member of the group falls to her death from a pyramid, Jocelyn is swept up in a plot involving an old necklace, a new love, and murder. The book has the plot of a mystery, the pace of a thriller, and the style and approach of a good romantic comedy.
The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will meet on Tuesday, November 18th, at 2 pm on BookPeople’s third floor. Janice will be joining us through conference call and you’ll find her as funny and as entertaining as her books. Come for the discussion, stay for the laughs.
The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets the third Tuesday of each month at 2 pm. Please join us Tuesday, November 18th, as we discuss Death on Tour, by Janice Hamrick and, for this special occasion, with Janice Hamrick. Copies are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. All book clubs are free and open to the public, and book club members receive 10% off of their purchase of their monthly book club title.
We have the honor of hosting Rob Brunet with Terry Shames this Monday, November 10th. His novel Filthy Rich is getting great buzz as one of the best debuts of the year, combining crime and comedy brilliantly. In this story, originally a part of the anthology Down, Out, & Dead, serves as a prequel to Filthy Rich.
By Rob Brunet
Perko Ratwick needed a change in plans like he needed hemorrhoids. He rocked his Harley onto its kickstand and walked to the water’s edge where a man stood fishing.
“Biting today?” he asked.
The man grunted and looked at the white bucket beside him. Perko peeked in and saw what had to be half a dozen scaly creatures, gills flapping on the top ones.
“These good eating?” Making conversation when he’d much rather knee-cap the fisherman. Four months of planning, a twenty-thousand-dollar down payment so this bugger could set up a suburban grow op, and now he calls to say the deal’s off? No explanation?
“Free food.” The man finished reeling in his line, shook a clump of weeds from its green and yellow lure, and cast again.
Perko didn’t get it. Nghiem had to be worth a couple million, maybe more. He’d arrived from Vietnam a decade ago and was running at least six grow houses in the suburbs north of Toronto, one of which was supposed to supply Perko. Surely he could afford dinner. “We coulda met in a restaurant,” said the biker. “I’d a picked up the tab.”
Nghiem said, “Sense of obligation. No need.”
“So what’s the deal? Your message said something changed.”
“I said no deal. Go find new grower.”
Perko said, “I don’t understand. You’re saying—”
“What so hard? NO GROW FOR YOU.”
Perko watched as he tugged and reeled, pulling the lure through the shallows. Nghiem’s plain white van sat forty feet away, backed in off the road. With cars passing every minute or so, there was no way to drag him over without being seen. Besides, chances were the guy had a couple goons inside the van in case their boss needed help delivering bad news.
“I’ve already lined up the sale,” Perko said.
Nghiem’s rod bent suddenly. He let a little line run out then started reeling again, still smooth and slow. “Cops busted two houses. One guy third time. He’s not coming out soon.”
The Vietnamese grower ran a straightforward game. Buy a nondescript house on a quiet street, grow three or four cycles of skunk weed. Fresh coat of paint, and sell the house to some sucker who wouldn’t know it was full of mold until long after the check had cleared. Toughest part of the guy’s operation was finding people fool enough to live in the houses while tending the plants, yet straight enough to fit in.
“What happened,” Perko asked.
“They get nosey?”
“Kid got lonely. Had a barbecue.”
“You gotta be kidding.”
“Cost me crop, both houses. Now I have to pay lawyers.”
The Vietnamese sighed. “They are the breaks.”
“Them,” said Perko. “Them’s the breaks.”
“Problem is, my down payment.”
“House is a crime scene. No can sell. Have to wait.”
“Waiting ain’t my specialty.”
“I pay. Five thousand a week. You have in no time.”
“I’d rather the weed. We had a deal.”
“Your money.” Nghiem nudged the white bucket with his foot. “Take it.”
“There’ll be interest.”
“See you next week. No problem?” The man grinned, mouth full of yellow teeth. Perko imagined yanking them one by one with a set of pliers. Nghiem glanced over his shoulder to the white van. No question he had backup. His rod bent double, and he started reeling fast. Perko looked at the dying fish piled on top of one another. He tilted the bucket on its side to reveal a sliver of pink plastic bag. Pinching it between his thumb and two fingers, he tugged. As it pulled free, two fish started flopping, slapping his forearm, making it slick with slime.
He walked back to his bike and wiped his hands and the bag in the grass. He watched Nghiem land a rock bass, bang its head against the ground, and drop it in the bucket. Driving away, Perko was relieved to find the fish smell disappeared in the wind.
Bad enough Nghiem’s screw-up messed with Perko Ratwick’s plans to move a few hundred kilos of high grade pot. Business was business and the biker had talked his way out of worse corners before. The New York buyers would still be there once he found a new supply. It wasn’t about one deal, though. Perko had a real shot at making Road Captain in the Libidos Motorcycle Club. Launch himself into the big leagues—a guy who brokered deals between rival gangs and lined the Libidos coffers without taking on real exposure. Kind of like an investment banker, only quicker. And less paperwork.
He set a meet with a guy named Frederick who wanted into the Libidos in a bad way.
“Maybe it’s a good thing the gook fell through,” Perko said.
“Maybe I been coming at this wrong.”
The men were sitting at a picnic table in dead quiet downtown Bobcaygeon. The ice had barely broken up and the locks wouldn’t be operational for a few weeks yet. Perko said, “These locks run, what, five months a year?”
“’Bout dat,” said Frederick.
“And when they do, they’re only open something like eight, ten hours a day?”
“So, the water never stops flowing.”
“’Course not,” said Perko. “They control the water level, but they don’t kill the flow.”
Frederick looked from the locks to Perko and said, “What you mean?”
“Do I gotta paint the whole picture? Instead of waitin’ for some other guy to deliver supply, I could be growin’ myself. Year-round. Much as I like.”
“So you take on more risk.”
“Not if I do things right. Arm’s length,” Perko said. “That’s where you come in.”
“How come me?”
“You wanna patch Libido some day? Earn your stripes. Couple things I need you to do.”
Frederick nodded slowly.
“First, find me a grower,” Perko said. “Make sure he’s no fool.”
“And the other thing?”
“It’s a little more complicated,” Perko said, and told him about Nghiem’s rate of pay.
Perko decided to go all pro. Thinking about Nghiem’s lonely grower and the barbecue, he wasn’t about to put his own name on the deed for some suburban shack on a street full of busybodies. Besides, once he got the gig going, he’d need two houses, then four. Before he knew it, he’d be back begging product from the fish-frying bastard. Never mind how many growers he’d wind up hiring. The more he thought about it, the less his plan felt risk-free. The Libidos would let him run with it, take their cut, but his ass would be hanging way out there. No, what Perko needed was a large-scale operation. Leverage.
He found a farm.
Mildred Perrigrew owned the farm and had lived on it for nearly sixty-five years, starting when she married Orvus Perrigrew the week she graduated from Grade Ten. Orvus was twenty-two at the time and had only stayed in school himself until Grade Six, dropping out to work the farm with his uncle until the elder Perrigrew passed away. When Orvus inherited the land, he immediately looked around for a mate. Marrying Mildred was a real coup: he got himself a young wife as well as a capable bookkeeper, since Mildred had taken both accounting and typing classes for the two years she was in high school.
All of this Perko Ratwick learned from Mildred herself when he responded to her ad in the Peterborough Examiner:
FARM FOR RENT
Good barn. Better house. Not much of a woodlot, but good water and some apple trees. $3,000 monthly. Cash only. Contact Mildred at Hillview Retirement Residence, Peterborough.
Perko tried telephoning, but the attendant said Mildred had left strict instructions that she intended to meet potential renters in person.
“You can tell a lot about a man from looking in his eyes, my daddy always told me,” Mildred said to Perko over a cup of coffee in the Hillview sun room. “Did I already say ‘Thank you’ for the donuts? Well, thank you, kindly, anyway. What a nice young man you are.” Perko had brought a dozen Krispy Kremes. Between the two of them, he and Mildred had already eaten half the box.
“I gave Orvus four children, don’t you know,” Mildred said. “Two girls and two boys, before I lost Orvus during childbirth.” She paused and watched Perko pick up flakes of dried honey from the table top with his fingertip. She gave a little shrug and continued: “It happened when I went into labor with Jeremy. Orvus sent our eldest, Marianne, to fetch the doctor. Doc Grainger lived about five miles up the main road. Marianne was only nine at the time, but we were used to trusting her with important errands. She was pretty independent and knew how to handle a horse.”
“Right. So, do I gotta give the rent money to this Marianne or to you?” Perko asked, scratching his chin.
“To me, young man. It’s my farm, not the children’s.” She squinted at him and stuck out her lower lip. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I told Orvus, go get some hot water and clean towels. And step on it, I said, ’cause you know that number four is like as not to come along even faster than number three did. So Orvus tells Baxter—he was six, no, seven years old—to build a fire in the woodstove. Baxter ran straight out to the woodshed to get some logs. Then, don’t you know it, Greta—she was barely two and a half—well she decides she wants a bottle, and she started to cry.
“‘Don’t you be worried about me, Orvus Perrigrew,’ I told him. ‘You just give Greta her bottle and then come back with some water for me to drink. The doctor will be here soon enough. Besides, it isn’t as if I’m new to childbearing.’
“So off he goes and leaves me in the bedroom, and Greta follows him out to the kitchen. There was a jug of milk left from breakfast because I always made sure we kept enough for the afternoon. I guess Orvus must have been pouring the milk into a saucepan to heat it on the stove, because I heard Greta get all excited. I figure she was hanging on his pant leg the way she liked to do some times, because I heard Orvus say, ‘No sweetheart. We can’t play airplane right now. Poppy’s got to take care of Mommy.’
“The next thing I hear is Baxter shouting out as he stomped back in the kitchen: ‘Here’s the wood, Poppy.’ I figure the door must have struck Orvus on the backside because, well, Baxter told me later, Orvus just spun around, with Greta hanging onto his pants for dear life. I heard her shrieking, but it was for joy, you know, the way babies do. Baxter stumbled and I heard the logs he was carrying spill onto the kitchen floor. Baxter told me Orvus’s feet flew out from under him when he stepped on one of the rolling logs. He landed flat on his back. That was one very loud crash, mercy me. I jumped right out of the bed, labor or no labor, and walked across the bedroom so I could see into the kitchen. The saucepan had flown out of Orvus’s hands and clattered down beside him. There was milk everywhere. Greta was bouncing up and down on Orvus’s belly and shrieking, ‘Again, Poppy! Again! Do fly-fly again!’
“Orvus wasn’t moving and I figured he must have smacked his head on the corner of the stove.”
“So, was he dead?”
“Dead? Dear me, no! It would take more than a knock on the noggin to do in Orvus Perrigrew. He was fine stock, my husband.” Mildred reached for another donut, took one bite and then licked her fingers as she passed it back and forth between her hands. Perko sighed and scraped some dirt from under his thumbnail.
“After just a moment or two, Orvus’s eyes fluttered open and he said, ‘I better get some more milk.’
“Well, it was early in the day to be milking a cow for the second time, but Orvus wasn’t about to leave his baby girl without her bottle, so he picked up the milk jug and headed out to the barn. And that’s the very last I saw of him.”
“So he just took off on you? Left you with the kids? End of story?” Perko asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Of course not! What a silly question. He would never do such a thing. Besides, like I told you, Orvus died during childbirth.” She paused to eat half the donut. Perko grabbed one himself and shoved it whole into his mouth, pushing the last bit in with his thumb and wiping his fingers on his jeans.
“See, I got the pains again right after he left the house and so I made my way back to the bedroom. Baxter did his best to take care of me, and Marianne arrived with Doc Grainger soon enough. No one even noticed Orvus was missing until after Jeremy was born, cleaned up, and in my arms. Except Greta, of course, but her crying didn’t get a whole lot of attention once my pains began in earnest, and I was making all my own noises and such.
“Then Doc Grainger said to Baxter to go get his pa so he could meet his new son, and Baxter went out and came back white as a ghost two minutes later. He said, ‘Poppy’s under Bessie’—she was our cow—‘and he don’t look too good at all and he’s not talking or nothing.’
“Seems somehow Orvus must have tripped up Bessie while trying to milk her, or maybe she was real upset at getting milked a second time so early in the day. Whatever the case, Bessie’s leg was broken and all fifteen hundred pounds of her were laying on top of Orvus. Baxter said he had an awful grimace frozen on his face. Like he knew he was done for when it happened—and just how much Bessie was worth to our family. But there isn’t a whole lot a soul can do when a cow lands on you.”
Mildred quietly finished her donut and licked the honey off her fingers once more. She fixed Perko Ratwick in the eye and said, “So that’s how come I raised my children all alone on the farm. And maybe having to work so hard while they were growing up is why one by one they left the land as soon as a better opportunity came along—not that I blame them—and now I’m just too old to live out there but still I can’t bring myself to sell it because, well, you know, you just never know, do you. Maybe one of the grandkids will want to revive the farm. Or maybe they’ll just sell it once I’m in the ground, but that will be the kids’ decision, not mine. Now, what did you say you wanted to do out there, Mr. Smith?”
Perko shoved the last donut into his mouth, took a gulp of coffee and resumed staring at Mildred with his best attempt at an interested look. Half a minute passed before it dawned on him that the old biddy had stopped talking.
“Mr. Smith? I say, why is it you want to rent my farm?”
“I’m a…ahem…a painter,” he said. “I’m looking for a place where I can get close to nature. I especially like plants.” He paused and blinked slowly. Mildred stared at him like he was speaking in a foreign tongue. “Some of my canvases are really big, so I figure I’ll set up my operation in your barn.”
Mildred continued to stare. She asked, “Couldn’t you just rent an apartment or something? What do you need with a farm?”
“It’s real important to me to find peace and quiet. Money’s no object where my creativity is concerned.”
“You do realize the hayfields have already been rented to the neighbor.”
“I just need the barn.”
“It comes with the house, too.”
“Fine by me.”
“I’d feel better if you had a look at it first. I don’t want any landlord-tenant headaches at my age.”
“No really, I—”
The look in Mildred’s eye made Perko shut up and listen. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been put in his place quite so firmly. She said, “Here’s the key. You go have a look around and come back and tell me what you decide.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.
“I’m not going anywhere.” She pushed herself to her feet and shuffled across the room to where a game of Snap was getting started. She gave him one last look, jerked her chin toward the door, and said, “Deal me in.”
Perko sat in the bow of the fishing boat wearing a floppy hat bedecked with lures. Using the electric motor, Frederick navigated close to the rocky shore. The water was deep enough he could have used the outboard but a silent approach was critical. They got within twenty feet of Nghiem before he even realized he had company. He smiled, waved, and cast his line in the opposite direction. When he noticed the boat was nosing up against the causeway he warned them to watch out for the bottom. Even when Perko jumped in the knee deep water and scrambled across the zebra mussel-encrusted rock, it was clear the Vietnamese took him for just another fisherman until he got a good look at his face. By then it was too late. Perko clocked him with a paddle and Frederick leapt ashore to help drag him into the boat. Frederick insisted on snatching the white pail full of fish. It wasn’t until he fired up the outboard and buzzed out onto the lake that there was any sign of movement from the white van facing the road. If Nghiem’s bodyguards did fire their guns, they missed. Perko couldn’t hear a damn thing over the two hundred twenty horsepower engine’s roar.
Drifting in the middle of the lake, Perko prodded Nghiem with his foot and splashed water on his face. “Scream and I’ll cut you some gills,” Perko said.
The man just lay there on his side in the boat’s hull, his eyes blinking like a bass.
“You’re gonna make a phone call,” Perko said. “My cash gets delivered, with a ten thousand kicker, before morning. All of it. If it don’t, the rest of your houses are going down, and we’ll find out how well you swim with your hands tied to your feet.” Perko asked him what number to dial then held the phone to his ear.
Frederick baited a hook and dropped a line off starboard.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise, Mr. Smith,” Mildred said, flipping open the fresh box of Krispy Kremes.
Perko Ratwick remained standing. There were plenty more donuts where those came from, and he wasn’t in the mood to hear about life—nor death—on the farm he was about to rent. “Everything checks out,” he said. “I’ll take it.”
“Do sit, Mr. Smith. Tell me about your paintings.”
He leaned in close and said quietly, “I noticed a little unconventional wiring in a couple of the outbuildings. Mind if I clean that up while I’m out there?”
She nibbled a donut and looked as though she hadn’t heard.
“Mrs. Perrigrew, I’d like to rent your farm.”
“Like the ad said, it’ll be three thousand dollars a month, in cash, and I would very much like it if you brought a box of these donuts with you each time you come to pay me.” Perko offered Mildred his hand and she shook it. “You know, you do smell rather like Orvus did. A real manly smell. Have you been fishing?”
Forcing a smile, Perko took a thick wad of bills out of his jacket pocket. Mildred’s eyes sparkled wide when she saw the money, then narrowed again suddenly. “First and last month’s rent, of course,” she said.
Perko grinned and nodded. It wasn’t like he’d be coming back any time soon.
“And did I mention that there would be a damage deposit? I can’t very well be chasing after a young buck like you at my age, now can I?”
“Here’s the first eight months rent,” he said, thumbing a stack of bills and laying them on the table. “And other five grand damage deposit.”
Mildred’s eyes darted left and right as she swept the money off the table and tucked it into a large pocket on the front of her frock. She seemed satisfied nobody had witnessed the transaction.
“Well, now, that’s mighty thoughtful of you, Mr. Smith.”
As Perko turned to leave, she said, “Mr. Smith, could you do me a favor?”
He forced his shoulders to relax and pasted what he hoped was a friendly smile on his face. “What?”
“On your way out, kindly tell that nice young man at the front desk I will be taking the bus to the Horned Owl Casino this evening, after all.”
For November, we have three paperbacks for fun and affordable reading as the cooler weather settles in.
Jack Carter & The Mafia Pigeon by Ted Lewis
Now, the Jack Carter trilogy is fully restored by Syndicate Books with this novel appearing for the first time in the States. This time, the London mob enforcer is tricked by his employers into being the bodyguard for an American Mafia boss at a Spanish villa. Throw in two beautiful women, one the wife of Carter’s boss who he’s seeing on the sly, and expect a lot of scheming and shooting under the sun.
Easy Death by Daniel Boyd
A holiday tale for the hard boiled set. In 1951, two World War Two vets are sent out into a December blizzard by a small town crime boss to rob an armored car. The money, mishaps, and presence of a female park ranger make for a great retro crime novel. Boyd, a Ohio police officer, knows his cops and criminals.
2014 Best American Mystery Stories edited by Otto Penzler and Laura Lippman
One of the best from this annual edition. One feels the presence of guest co-editor Laura Lippman’s sensibility in this great range of contemporary crime fiction that leans toward the character driven. There are stories by MysteryPeople favorites like Megan Abbott and Dennis Tafoya, as well as work by general fiction authors Annie Proulx and Russell Banks. Austin author, Ed Kurtz, has a story as well. A great stocking stuffer.
Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
~post by Molly
Fuminori Nakamura is part of a new generation of Japanese detective novelists known for their spare prose and dark explorations of alienation in modern society. His novel, The Thief, was his first to be translated into English and won prizes all over the world for its terrifying beauty and relentless pace. His latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for November, and for me, this is a perfect novel for a Texas November. I recommend reading it at a coffee shop at twilight when the chill finally begins to settle in – at such impersonal thresholds much of the book takes place.
Last Winter, We Parted is structured as interviews, archives, and letters – the notes for a book that a young journalist has been assigned to write about a notorious serial killer on death row. The murderer, Yudai Kiharazaka, was renowned as a photographer before becoming fixated on life-like dolls and later, burning models alive to get the perfect photograph. The journalist soon finds an intense connection with Kiharazaha’s sister, Akari, and begins to discover that in Kiharazaka’s case, things are not what they seem.
Nakamura has crafted a noir Heart of Darkness; Kiharazaka warns the writer early on that by listening to him, he may take on some of the killer’s morbid fixations. As the journalist learns more about the killer and his sister, Akari – about, as Nakamura phrases it, their “true selves” – his own self become subsumed and taken over. The young journalist’s arc is shaped as a warning. By spending time too close to a psychopath, the writer takes on some of their thoughts and compulsions, most dramatically expressed in the journalist’s growing interest in Kiharazaka’s sister, Akari, also an object of unhealthy attachment to the killer himself.
As the writer becomes entangled in the distorted lives of brother and sister, abandoning his professionalism to get closer to the object of his unwholesome infatuation, the serial killer and his sister, in turn, delight in bringing out the darkness hidden within the minds of those fixated upon them. Like Hannibal Lector, Yudai and Akari believe in quid pro quo.
This is a novel concerned not only with solving a crime, but in understanding our darkest impulses. In that sense, Last Winter, We Parted evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the genre of true crime in general. Nakamura references In Cold Blood throughout the novel, and the book is in some ways a tribute to Capote while also a warning against mirroring Capote’s actions. The novel both warns against the psychological effects of spending time trying to get into the head of a murderer, and condemns the hypocrisy of judging the actions of another while also using their crimes as a mass object of fascination. Nakamura delves deep into the unsettling motivations behind societal obsession with the mind of a serial killer. In the novel, as in real life, there is no easy separation between those who commit crimes and those who spend their time learning about the crimes of others.
Kiharazaka’s crimes also serve as a metaphor for alienation in modern society. Kiharazaka’s fixations represent an attempt at basic human connection, warped by the photographers lens, the purchase of lifelike simulacra in the form of dolls, and other ways of simulating and disrupting connection with the real through the use of the artificial.
Fuminori Nakamura brings to mind the haunting elegance and sordid conspiracies of David Peace, and like the best exploitation movies, blurs the line between poetry and violence. The characters Nakamura portrays are trapped – caught by their obsessions, their fantasies, and their addictions in an endless web of repeating behavior and insincere apologies. They can’t even quit smoking, much less control their other, more violent unhealthy impulses. Nakamura’s writing is as psychologically astute as it can be while also representing a vision of the world twisted and screwed, without joy or happiness. In other words, Last Winter, We Parted is the epitome of literary noir.
Last Winter, We Parted is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com