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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Mistress of Trailer Trash Noir

By Vicki Hendricks
250 pages
(Busted Flush Press; May 1, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0979270936
ISBN-13: 978-0979270932

228 pages
(Top Suspense, Jan. 11, 2013)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

How can you resist a book that begins like this:

"Hank was drunk and he slugged me -- it wasn't the first time -- and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it. It was one of those big boom boxes with the cassette player and recorder, but I never figured it would kill him. We were sitting in front of the fan, listening to country music and sipping Jack Daniels -- calling each other 'Toots' like we both enjoyed -- and all of a sudden the whole world changed. My old man was dead. I didn't feel like I had anything to do with it. I didn't make that choice."

This is the introductory paragraph of Vicki Hendricks' first novel Miami Purity, published in 1995. Since then, she has written five more: Iguana Love, Voluntary Madness, Sky Blues, Cruel Poetry, and a collection of short stories, Florida Gothic Stories.

I found out about Hendricks a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Patti Abbott (author of Home Invasion), a woman who is no mean hand at a hardboiled crime story herself.

Now I don't know how I ever got along without her.

Vicki Hendricks, mistress of trailer trash noir

Miami Purity is the story of Sherri Parlay, a former topless dancer superficially similar to the central figure in Carl Hiaasen's Strip Tease, but perhaps emotionally closer to Cora, the amoral temptress in Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.

She Boom Boxes Hank, accidentally killing him in the process, then walks because he is what a politer era used to call a "police character" -- a goon with a long and violent record of malefaction.

On the rebound, Sherri decides a change of career is in order. She winds up working in a dry cleaners (the novel takes its name from the business), supervised by an irritable and ill-mannered woman, Brenda, and her handsome but feckless son, Payne.

The complication to the story is Sherri's sexuality: as Hendricks explains in passages rich with double entendre, the former stripper endrilets her glands do most of her thinking.

"I had Payne some nights, but never long enough," Sherri says at one point. "[His mother] thought he was working out at the gym and he'd come over to my apartment instead. Then he'd go home and I'd smoke a couple joints for dinner in front of the nine-inch TV and try to keep calm. Nine inches of TV just wasn't enough."

As she says of killing Hank, "I didn't feel like I had anything to do with it. I didn't make that choice." It's true: she didn't make the choice; her body chose for her. She swung that radio at Hank's head as a purely physical reaction to his punch. 

By same token, she balls Payne on the floor of the dry cleaners, hops into bed for a hump with a former surfer boyfriend, and even takes a quickie in the cab of a pickup truck with a stranger she just met in a bar.

A death occurs that can be seen as either a murder or an accident and it looks like Sherri's life is going to change again -- possibly for the better.  Then a series of unforeseen events send her veering off in another direction like a pinball machine on the San Andreas Fault.

It's not possible to recount the various turns that occur in the story without revealing how it turns out; suffice to say, there are two more homicides and a final twist that ties up all the loose ends very satisfactorily.

Please note: a satisfactory ending and a happy ending are not necessarily the same thing.

Miami Purity is a terrific thriller that keeps the reader wondering -- and worrying -- about what will happen next. Despite her lack of conventional morality, the reader becomes fond of Sherri as the story proceeds. The reader cares whether she fails or succeeds, goes free, dies or winds up in prison.

It is a sensational accomplishment that Hendricks has managed to make Sherri, a deeply flawed individual, such a sympathetic character. She does it by choosing every word, comma and period in this novel for maximum impact.

Take that first paragraph above, for example: it sets up the rest of the story by establishing that Sherri is single, and standing at a crossroads in her life, looking for a fresh start; but it also tells the reader she is impulsive, kind-hearted, sentimental ("calling each other 'Toots' like we both enjoyed"), rather empty-headed and from a cultural background in which violence can -- and does -- occur without warning. 

It is almost a little novel all by itself and everything that happens in this excellent book is presaged in it.

In another sequence, a taxi driver she has silently stiffed because she is too broke to leave a tip calls her "a hotty bitch." Hendricks shows us Sherri's lack of education by having her think the comment refers to her sexual desirability. She makes it clear that Sherri doesn't know that the word "haughty" means stuck-up.

Hendricks writes the sex scenes -- and there are plenty of them -- with a twisted eroticism. After Payne's mother dies at the dry cleaner, Sherri grabs Payne for a furious sexual encounter.

"I stuck my tongue in his mouth and pulled him away from her onto the floor. I reached down and felt him -- he was hard as ever. He wanted me, too. We stripped down and did it right there, pounded it out fast, right next to his mother's dangling head. My foot touched her hair while I rode him."

Like Cain's book, Miami Purity is told in the first person and desire eventually leads to homicide. Hendricks' book even has a Postman-esque sadomasochistic angle that is hinted at early on, but does not come to fruition until much later in the story.

Though Hendricks works with a similar plot-line, however, she takes her characters in a totally different direction and gives her story its own tenderly diabolical nature.

Miami Purity is gritty, violent and sexy at the same time. Hendricks' use of language is superb and each of her major characters is vivid and memorable. Days after I finished reading it, entire passages from the novel would pop into my head; to me, that is the mark of a really superior literary work.

 Hendricks' Gothic Stories are Short but Bleak

Florida Gothic Stories Shows another side of Hendricks as an author: this slender collection of short stories includes a few tales that turn on criminal behavior, but the author's intention here is to examine humankind's dark side in other ways.

Here, "gothic" does not mean the ghoulish style affected by youthful fashionistas; it refers to the dark and morbid romances written by authors such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe.

These stories are more outrageous, more over-the-top than Miami Purity. A couple of them qualify as horror stories; with the proper illustrations, they would be right at home in the old EC Comics which, despite their gruesome twists, mutilated bodies and ghastly plots, were really exercises in conventional morality: those who did evil were invariably punished for it, usually in an ironically appropriate fashion served up with a ghoulish twist at the end.

Others are simply tales of wonder that leave the reader gasping at the types of human perversity conjured by Hendricks' fervid imagination.

Several involve relationships between humans and animals that may strain some readers' comfort level.

For example, "Stormy, Mon Amour" relates a woman's bizarre romance with a killer whale in a Sea World-style animal show; Another story, "Cold-blooded Lovers" tells of the platonic affair between a mentally ill man and his pet iguana; "Must Bite!" involves a lap dancer in a Florida road house who takes up with a man who has a menagerie of hungry -- and in some cases, randy -- apes.

Even those that do not involve animals turn on bizarre or depraved behavior, including "ReBecca," in which a conjoined twin finds herself sexually aroused by her Siamese sister's liaison with a normal man, or "Boozanne, Lemme Be," the unlikely tale of a burglar with dwarfism who secretly takes up residence in the crawlspace of a suburban house with the immense woman he is boffing.

As far-fetched as some of these stories are, and as off-the-wall as her characters may be, Hendricks makes it clear she sympathizes with and genuinely likes the peculiar people who inhabit her stories -- and she manages to make the reader sympathize with them, too.

Though several of the stories display Hendricks' seemingly inexhaustible capacity for the weird and abstruse, each has moments of humor to leaven their brutality and grimness. Some are laugh-out-loud funny. And all of them exhibit her open fixation on sex as the motivating factor that underlies much human behavior.

Hendricks' stories are perverse and discomfiting, gems of artful writing and her novels are just as good as her shorter fiction. Now that I know about her, I look forward to reading her stuff for years to come. 

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