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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, August 16, 2014

A Laugh a Minute With the Funniest Serial Killer Novel I’ve Ever Read

By Eryk Pruitt
200 pages
ISBN: 1938750039
(Immortal Ink Publishing, LLC; April 3, 2014)
E-book sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Dirtbags is sort of like a book about a serial murderer written by Carl Hiaasen, only a lot darker -- and without a hero who will bumble his way into catching the bad guy.

It is unquestionably the funniest serial killer novel I’ve ever read.

Mind you, I am making an exception here, because I am usually not a fan of serial killer fiction. I tend to avoid reading books or seeing movies about sexual psychopaths who bump people off because it makes their nipples hard. Even when I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle doing stories about the Zodiac, “Trailside Killer” David Carpenter, “Vampire Killer” Richard  Ramirez and “Bunker Killer” Charles Ng, I found those guys boring.

On the other hand, give me an insurance fraud artist, strong-arm robber, dope dealer or extortionist and I am happy as a pig in shit. There is money to be made off those crimes, so the motivation is easy to understand.

But perps who kill people because it gets them off? Meh.

I can’t see why anybody would take that kind of risk without the possibility of scoring some serious cash. Killing people in quantity gives the bad guy exactly zip in the way of profit. In fact, the fool generally has to spend his own money to stalk and dispatch his victims.

To put it concisely, serial murder just doesn’t make economic sense to me.

That’s why I like Pruitt’s serial wannabe Calvin Cantrell: Calvin is a man with a plan: he wants to rack up a sizeable body count then offer his talent to high-rollers as an assassin for hire.

Dirtbags author Eryk Pruitt (courtesy of
 Pruitt's author page at Amazon.com)

He doesn’t fit the serial killer psychiatric profile: He didn’t start out as a child by stepping on bugs and work his way up through the vertebrate ranks to make his bones; he actually has a personal connection to many of his victims: he pitches directly in, eliminating members of the human race from Jump Street.

He has spent his entire life building a resentment against scores of people who have put him down or stood in his way, dreaming up ways to kill them all when the time is right. And he sees a way to make money doing it.

Now that’s my kind of serial killer.

I have to admit, Calvin also appeals to me as an individual: he is a down-and-outer, a loser who can’t hold a job. He lives in a trailer, spends all his time researching past serial killers and reading comic books and trying to figure a way up and out of the hole he has dug for himself. He has managed to score a hotty of a trailer park wife, but only because she was looking for a way to escape servicing the redneck lap-dancing  club proprietor she was working for, not because he is so suave or charming himself.

"The scene in which they consummate their relationship, schtupping while he maintains his Johnson by calling out the names of famous and obscure female serial murderers, is worth the $2.99 price of the Kindle edition all by itself."

The scene in which they consummate their relationship, schtupping while he maintains his Johnson by calling out the names of famous and obscure female serial murderers, is worth the $2.99 price of the Kindle edition all by itself.

Best of all, for a psycho who literally murders by-the-numbers, he is surprisingly soft-hearted; in fact, he bungles his first kill by falling in love with his intended victim, a rehab counselor at a Texas drug treatment center who is one of the few actual innocents in the book.

What makes Calvin enjoyable is the fact that all the people he murders in the 200-pages of Dirtbags are worse assholes than he is. There is not a single likeable person among Calvin’s victims.

Certainly not Tom London, the man who sets the killing spree in motion by originally hiring Calvin to murder his ex-wife. As Pruitt describes him, London is a grade “A” shithead who stiffs everyone he meets and even tries to cheat the contract killer he has hired. London cares only about himself. He boffs  every cosmetologist in town, runs up unpaid bills with his restaurant’s suppliers, lies to his young son and screws the woman who manages his restaurant – who also happens to be Calvin’s wife.

Pruitt gives us similar insights into most of the other people that populate his witty and entertaining book.

Thus, London’s wife, Reyna is portrayed as shrill and heartless, as mean-spirited as a snake; the county sheriff’s chief assistant, Deputy Shackle, is a bent lawman who takes money from vice operators and has a shoebox full of cash in his bedroom; Phillip Krandall, Calvin’s original partner in crime, is a vengeful little rat who has been looking for a way to extract revenge against the world that has shunted him aside for years; Bubba Greene, the dance club proprietor who dabbles in virtually every type of vice practiced in Calvin’s home town, is a vile-tempered brute who extracts sexual favors from the “dancers” who lure local peckerwoods to his club for parking lot prostitution.

Even the local Bible thumping judge, who has his own hypocritical reasons for wanting the hillbilly dance parlor closed down.

Selfish and heartless to the core, each of Calvin’s targets is somebody who richly deserves to die.

Each has his or her weaknesses exposed as neatly as the rubberized plumbing of a toad in a high school biology lab. For instance, when London is informed he is suspected of complicity in the death of his ex-wife, “He walked slowly at first toward the kitchen, then picked up the pace a bit. Once in the kitchen, he rushed to the sink and vomited, chucking up everything he’d eaten that day and perhaps the day before and, for all he knew, everything he’d ever eaten in his entire life.”

London blames everybody else for his woes; but the real reason his life is a mess is that he is a pure-bred shit heel. For example, the restaurateur is sucking down ethanol in practically every scene where he appears, and ends up passing out in a booth at his steak house when he is is thrown out by his social-climbing wife, Reyna. Despite his rampant dipsomania, he absurdly tells one of his female sex partners that his relationship with Reyna is troubled because of her drinking problem:

“It’s because Reyna is an alcoholic.” London says as he rattles ice cubes in his recently emptied vodka glass. “She’s not stable. I can’t live with someone like that. She runs hot, then she runs cold. You have no idea the pain I’ve been in.”

Others get a similar dissection: for instance, in introducing London’s lawyer to the reader, Pruitt observes that “The Law Offices of J.B. Baird and Associates was modern back in its heyday. Heydays went south a while back. To be more specific, they went to India or China or some shit. Jobs don’t grow on trees, so folks ran short on money. One type of person survives when heydays move on; J.B. Baird was one of them.”

With a character like Calvin at center stage, it would have been easy for Pruitt to simply mail it in; instead he produces one plot twist after another that keep us riveted to the page (I started the book at ten p.m., figuring I would spend two hours reading then go to sleep. I ended up finishing the damned thing at two a.m. and ended up getting up to write because I was too charged up to sleep).

He leavens the horror of Calvin’s murder spree by tossing in enough dark humor to make the reader laugh. For instance, at one point late in the narrative he says of Calvin’s wife, “Rather than deal with the disappointments of having an attuned bullshit detector, Rhonda Cantrell figured it good and well to simply shut it off. . . It was a skill she learned [lapdancing at the club] where, if she ever took note and focused, there wasn’t a single human being worth a glass of water should they suddenly catch flame.”

Dirtbags is fun and horrific at the same time, certainly one of the better crime reads currently on the market; as Calvin might say, I recommend it with nary a qualm.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this review. I am reminded of the agent rejecting this book because she said, "I thought you said this book was funny." I told myself then that she just didn't get it. I hoped like the dickens somebody out there did and I can't tell you how thrilled I am to read (and re-read) this review. Thank you, Mr. Wallace!