I Can’t Believe I Hadn’t Read This: THE CUT by George Pelecanos

~Post by Chris Mattix

Welcome to a new column! Here at MysteryPeople we are always trying to stay as current as possible in order to bring you, dear reader, the best reads crime fiction has to offer. While we are constantly nose-deep in new mysteries, we sometimes miss a few books. The goal of this new column to is highlight books that somehow fell through the cracks. To inaugurate this lovely little column I would like to discuss a book that I should have read two years ago, The Cut by George Pelecanos.

The Cut is the beginning of a new series for Pelecanos that centers around Spero Lucas, a former soldier who now works in the recovery business for a D.C. lawyer. If you have read any Pelecanos in the past then you know how well he constructs his characters, and Spero Lucas is easily his greatest creation. Lucas is a very layered character who walks a fine line between white-hat-wearing righteousness and opportunistic amorality. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but understands that sometimes black and white bleed together.

In The Cut Lucas takes a job from an imprisoned weed dealer. His task is to recover the dealer’s stolen contraband and return it. It sounds like a simple job at first, but Lucas soon realizes that things are not what they seem, and his digging takes him deep into the nest of Ricardo Holley, a deviant former cop with a penchant for drugs, booze, women, and guns.

The Cut is everything I look for in a great crime novel. It’s fast-paced, violent, stylistically unique, and never boring. As a huge fan of HBO’s The Wire (for which Pelecanos was a producer and writer) I can’t believe I didn’t pick this book up sooner. Pelecanos’ writing style keeps your eyes locked to the page, even when very little is happening by way of plot development. It’s the kind of sincere and memorable storytelling that lodges itself into your brain. I finished The Cut three days ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

In my opinion, The Cut is a crime novel that should be required reading. It elevates the genre while staying true to its roots, and it peppers the pages with powerful insight and social commentary. If you are like me and slept on this gem, it is time for reparations. Get up. No, seriously get up. Get in your car, drive to BookPeople and buy this book. I guarantee that after five pages you too will say “I can’t believe I haven’t read this!”

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: DARE ME by Megan Abbott

MysteryPeople Pick for August: Dare Me by Megan Abbott
Reviewed by: Scott M.

Megan Abbott proves how malleable noir fiction is. In her first books, she approached the postwar setting and the genre’s other tropes with a feminine perspective (and I don’t mean “girlie”; you don’t get any cute romances or crying with Megan’s characters). She also honed in on the way noir portrays people driven by their emotions. The approach found its perfect pitch in last year’s The End Of Everything, set in the Detroit suburbs of the nineteen-eighties with a thirteen-year-old girl who discovers disturbing neighborhood secrets when her best friend goes missing. Abbott’s latest, Dare Me, takes the genre known to be about outsiders and losers and drops it in the middle of an in-crowd, a high school cheerleading squad.

It may seem like an idea ripe for satire, but Abbott dispels that notion in the first chapter. She lets you know these young women are both driven and formidable. They’re as tough and tenacious as any PI or mean street criminal and can be as alluring as a femme fatale. Part of what drives them is their search for that fine balance between standing out and fitting in. A pecking order has been established within the squad. One of the strongest bonds is between the main character and narrator, Addy, and the squad captain, Beth.

A new coach, Collette French, upends the order. Coach French is young and exciting to the girls, especially Addy. It’s not long before her attention to Addy strikes fissures in the relationship between Addy and Beth. As Addy hangs out with the coach at her home, we see a wife and mother clinging to her high school life, when she was somebody. It drives Coach French into an affair with a young marine. When the soldier is found dead, secrets, alliances, and deceptions build.

Some will probably compare Dare Me to The End Of Everything, both sharing teen heroines and a modern setting. It also has much in common with Abbott’s hardboiled Queenpin, which is the story of a young bookkeeper being taught the criminal ropes by a been-around-the-block woman in an unnamed gambling town. They share a terse style and the various emotions involved in the mentor/protégé relationship. The book is also reminiscent of Robert Cormier’s young adult noir novels like I Am The Cheese and The Chocolate War, which depict the rawness of teen isolation and tribalism. Abbott, however, gets more complex, and goes deeper and darker.

The two books also differ in the way they look at emotions. The End Of Everything looks at unbridled feelings and the dark places they can carry you.Dare Me is about emotion that is so focused and driven toward a a goal or person that it creates blinders. Both are dangerous.

It’s been said that noir is a look at the short cut to the American dream. Dare Me looks past the superficial goals of money, sex, and power and examines the dichotomy of both being accepted and standing out, as well as what it takes to be number one. God help any other number that gets in the way.

MysteryPeople welcomes Megan Abbott to BookPeople to speak about & sign Dare Me on Thursday, August 2 at 7pm. Abbott will be joined by author Sean Doolittle. Austin’s own Jesse Sublett will serenade us with a few murder ballads, and we’ll have complimentary refreshments.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is without a doubt one of my favorite current crime fiction authors. She pushes the boundaries like no other. Her latest, Dare Me, is a noir tale set in a cheerleading squad. We’re all excited to be hosting her here Thursday, August 2nd at 7p with another great author, Sean Doolittle. As you can tell from this Q&A, she’s not only one of the most talented authors out there, she’s also one of the smartest.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: What drew you to the world of cheerleading for a noir story?

MEGAN ABBOTT: I always think the seed for the next book lies in the last one and in The End of Everything there’s a character who’s a serious high school field hockey player. I started watching high school girls play and was so dazzled by their intensity on the field. They looked like warriors to me. That led me to cheerleading, the most dangerous sport for girls. Today’s cheerleaders are deeply competitive and their willingness to take risks fascinated me. To put themselves in bodily danger. I started thinking about it as this perfect terrain to explore female power, friendship, appetites, desire, ambition.

MP: Besides Coach, who you could argue hasn’t completely grown up, adults have a limited appearance and not much dialog. Did you design the book to step out of the cheer squad as little as possible?

MA: Yes. I guess to me they’re absent presences. When you’re a teenager, your world is your peers and when you’re involved in something as deeply as these girls are with their squad I think that only increases. It’s almost as if adults disappear. Also, it began to feel a lot like a war story, or a gangster tale. Their whole world is one another. There is no other world. And that’s a hothouse. It can only create trouble.

MP: It’s obvious you really looked into this world. What is the biggest misconception about cheerleaders?

MA: I think our popular idea of cheerleaders—as mean girls, ditzy blondes, all those kitsch stereotypes—are a way of not looking at the things we’re afraid to reckon with about girls: that they have ambitions and desires. That they may have aggressive impulses and want to take risks. We understand this about boys, but I still think we don’t want to look at this in girls. In particular, these All-American Girls. We want them to be simple, pretty, plastic. And they’re not. I should add, I shared all these misconceptions! But in the end, it doesn’t matter that they’re cheerleaders. For me, it’s a story about girls, female friendships, its dangers. The cult of personality.

MP: When you were on tour for The End of Everything, you mentioned you were more comfortable writing about those girls in their early teens as opposed to the high school girls in Dare Me. What difference do those few years make?

MA: I think life gets so much more complicated. The yearning for experience is so much greater. Your willingness to take risks is greater and the consequences can be greater. It’s much easier for you to bluff your way into situations you cannot handle. There’s a scene in the book, set at a motel, that feels very much like that to me. Those moments from late high school when you realize: I thought I wanted this, but I didn’t know what “this” was. And there’s no going back.

MP: No matter if you go terse or more lyrical, you have a voice a reader can distinguish. How important is style to your writing?

MA: As a reader, I’m a total sucker for style. I think it’s more than embroidery, it’s everything. It’s the thing that transports the reader. That builds the world. It’s why I return, time and again, to stylists: Daniel Woodrell, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Sara Gran.

MP: You’ve shown how malleable noir is. As someone dubbed “the Queenpin Of Noir” what’s your general definition?

MA: I think it’s utterly subjective, but for me, it’s a mood, an overall feel—a sense that the world is a place of hazard because we are, in many ways, slaves to our desires. And sometimes people accuse noir of being depressing or nihilistic. I feel it’s the opposite. I think noir novels show life as brimming over with feeling, hunger, desire. So much so that it hurts. In Dare Me, all the main characters—the girls, the Coach, the two men in the book—want things they just can’t have. And they all act on that longing in different ways, dangerous ways.

MP: On our part of your tour, including a stop at our store, you’ll be with Sean Doolittle. Sean is one of those crime writers who is loved by other writers. Why should the unfamiliar pick up one of his books?

MA: Because he is the real deal. Ask anyone who’s read any of his books. I still remember the moment I first read him (with Rain Dogs), and I can’t wait for Lake Country. There’s an authenticity there, to his characters, the world he creates for them, that is rare, and beautiful.

MysteryPeople welcomes Megan Abbott and Sean Doolittle to BookPeople this Thursday, August 2nd at 7pm. Austin’s own Jesse Sublett will serenade us with a few murder ballads and we’ll enjoy complimentary refreshments.