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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. . .

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Taking Your Inspiration from The Boss

By  Dennis Lehane, Hilary, Davidson, Chris Holm, Todd Robinson, Les Edgerton, Jen Conley, et. al.

Edited by Joe Clifford
(248 pages)
(Gutter Books/Zelmer Pulp Press, Fall 2014)

When you turn it over in your mind, Bruce Springsteen is one of the contemporary masters of noir: his songs are alive with desperate people up against the odds, their futures blighted by their own bad choices, their mistakes and their passion.

For proof, just look at "The River," a track about the travails of a young couple who live in a declining burg on the edge of nowhere in Springsteen's eponymous 1980 album. It has a tremor of foreboding in the first verse ("they bring you up to do just like your daddy done"), then brings it home at the beginning of the second, relating a mistake that destroys their dreams and robs them of their youthful innocence:

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote;
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a winter coat.  
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest:
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle
No flowers, no wedding dress.

By the last verse, the couple is trapped in a loveless marriage, numbed by the bitter turn their life has taken and how conditions outside their control made things worse. As the song ends, the reader can't be sure that the singer -- the male half of the couple -- isn't desperate enough to dive into that river for the last time:

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?
Or is it something worse,  
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry.
That sends me down to the river tonight...

No Jim Thompson story was ever sadder or more hopeless than this song, which tells the bleak tale of how this young couple became trapped and isolated in a way that bleeds them of emotion as surely as a box knife blade across the carotid.

Springsteen's catalog is laden with this type of noirish material: "My Home Town," "Youngstown," "Lost in the Flood," "The Ghost of Tom Joad." These are desperate lyrics about desperate people living in desperate times. Some, such as "Nebraska," which was inspired by the Midwestern crime spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate, have been open in their outlaw themes. Others are less overt.

So it only makes sense for Springsteen's music to inspire an anthology of crime fiction heavily slanted toward the transgressive darkness of pulp fiction and the blackest of noir

Fortunately, this idea occurred to two people in positions to make it happen, Chris Leek (Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em) of Zelmer Pulp, a small imprint that specializes in hard-edged fiction, and Joe Clifford of Out of the Gutter Online and Gutter Books, another publishing operation that specializes in gritty crime stories.

The product of this collaboration is Trouble in the Heartland, a collection of 50 stories by some of the top writers working in contemporary crime fiction -- people such as Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island); Hilary Davidson (Blood Always Tells and 2011 Anthony Award winner The Damage Done); Lynne Barrette (Magpies), Steve Weddle (Country Hardball), Todd Robinson (The Hard Bounce), Chris F. Holm (the Collector trilogy), and Tom Pitts (Hustle, Piggyback).

A portion of the net proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to The Bob Woodruff Foundation, an organization that helps injured veterans and their families thrive after they return home by finding and funding innovative programs that assist them.

The book is edited by Clifford, whose own work has been spotlighted here in recent weeks. As he puts it in the book's forward, "I've been a fan for years, but I had no idea so many other crime writers loved the Boss as much as I did.  Makes sense, though. Bruce, like the best pulp fiction, champions losers and loners on lost highways, those seeking last shots at redemption."

The anthology starts with a bang. First up is Lehane's offering, "State Trooper," a full-bore short story about a drug courier who is trying to get things back together after a run of bad luck that apparently started when he was born.

Dennis Lehane (courtesy Wikipedia)
The driver, piloting a stolen Honda with a cargo that is never seen but is almost certainly pharmaceutical in nature, has done everything by the numbers: he is clean and sober, driving a car so dull it might as well be invisible, pulling the speed limit and doing nothing erratic. Still he manages to capture the attention of a late night statie hopped up on adrenaline and looking to nail somebody on his shift -- And. The. Man. Simply. Won't. Let. Go.

Lehane's yarn is one of the most brilliantly engineered pieces of fiction I have read in years. He tells the reader almost nothing, but implies every critical detail of his protagonist's life -- his emotionally wounded ex-, his little son, his furtive, fearful brother.

He never tells you outright that the character is black, but lets you infer it from the man's reaction to the droning talk radio commentators he keeps channel-checking on his car's tuner. The drones make it clear that the driver's "type" has no place in their America.

I'm not a racist, one of them tells his legion of mouth-breathing listeners. I'm just someone who loves the English language. I'm just a man who wants the English language to stay the language of kings, not the language of a bunch of do-rag lovin' homies can't tell the difference between crystal and Cristal, Know what I'm saying, yo?

And there is no way the reader can escape the conclusion that at least part of the reason why the cop keys in on him in his clapped-out nondescript gray Honda is racism. One big hint is the fact that the trooper's name is Whitman. Another is the fact that, because the courier is a black man on the Interstate in the middle of the night, he obviously must be doing something illegal, right?

"State Trooper" is a postgraduate class in how to build suspense and a sense of menace in a story without being obvious. Despite the fact that no violence occurs in his tale, Lehane lets us know that the potential is there, almost from the first sentence, and grows ever stronger as the story proceeds. That all hell is finally about to break loose is obvious as the tale rolls to its conclusion and the courier puts his hand on the snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver next to his seat.

Cool. Understated. Brilliant.

Other standout stories include Hilary Davidson's "Hungry Heart" in which a beer-joint Lothario picks an inopportune time to tell the woman he hopes to go home with that he was previously married and has two children. She takes his forgetfulness unkindly, and when he tries to force his affections on her anyway, she puts a bullet through his brisket.

Hilary Davidson (courtesy of Twitter)

"Don't worry. I'll call 9-1-1," she tells him as he lies dying. "Just as soon as you bleed out."

Lynne Barrett weighs in with "Dancing in the Dark," in which a woman hires a crew to help her do yard work while her police officer husband recovers from an on-the-job injury. The crew's leader makes advances to her and she accedes -- then ends up killing him when he shows up in the middle of the night unexpectedly. 

The story takes a wicked turn in the last few hundred words -- the kind that leaves you shaking your head while wearing a bemused smile.

How the hell did she think of that? you'll wonder.

Les Edgerton gives us "The Iceman," a story about a man whose wife thought she knew everything there was to know about him -- everything except the most important thing. Tom Pitts tells us about a "Local Hero" who forgets that his glory days are behind him until an old rival reminds him in a particularly rude way. 

Tom Pitts (courtesy of Amazon.com)

And speaking of "Glory Days," in his yarn by that name, C.S. DeWildt gives us a reunion between Stimpy and Lindsay, a pair of high school lovers that ends a bit differently than Stimpy was expecting.

There are long stories and short -- with Swill Magazine editor Rob Pierce's "Rosalita" winning the prize for brevity at only 29 words. There are funny stories, like David James Keaton's surrealistic tale "The Ghost of Jim Toad." There are sad stories like Richard Brewer's "Last to Die." There are stories like Court Merrigan's "Promised Land," in which a long-planned revenge offers a new career to a young woman fresh from a stint in a state prison. And there are stories like Eric Beetner's "Open All Night," which is set in a 24-hour diner where several murderous subplots come together as messily as a dropped flat of restaurant eggs.

When Trouble in the Heartland is released in the near future, we will announce it here, on my twitter feed and on my Facebook author page. Do pick up a copy. You will be supporting a worthwhile cause, and you will find it so full of amazing goodies you'll want to throw the Boss on the box and do a little dancing in the dark, yourself.

Sorry, though: you'll have to find your own Courteney Cox to pull up on stage with you.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you liked it! Thrilled to have my name associated with a bunch this talented!