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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. . .

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chris Leek's Short Story Anthology Smokes the Competition

By Chris Leeks
93 pages
(Chris Leek, May 5, 2014)
E-book sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Got two bucks? You could piss them away on a big Coke, a bag of chips or a mediocre fast food burger, but all you’d end up with is diabetes, high blood pressure or gas.

Here’s a better idea: get yourself a copy of Chris Leek’s stylish anthology of short stories, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em.  No calories, no carbs, no artificial ingredients or preservatives. Just 93 pages of entertaining writing served up in a classy fashion that will put a smile on your face for many hours.

Leek is one seventh of Zelmer Pulp, one of the neo-pulp imprints that have popped up in the burgeoning field of electronic specialty press operations, and an editor of The Big Adios, a quarterly journal of western fiction. He writes a blog called, “Nevada Road Kill” that is entertaining and informative. 

He also happens to be an Englishman whose prose doesn’t read like it was written by an Englishman at all. In fact, it sounds more like it was cranked out by a peckerwood born in the cab of a 1947 GMC ton and a half truck.

Author and editor Chris Leek (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

Think what a Charlie Bukowski story might sound like if Henry Chinaski had been raised in an Airstream 20-footer in a trailer park outside Provo, Utah; got your brain wrapped around that image? Good.

His tales are classic rural noir, agrarian hardboiled yarns about hardscrabble folk in bleak, unforgiving landscapes living hand-to-mouth in single occupancy hotels, motor courts and trailer parks. People who drive pickup trucks in preference to passenger cars. People who measure the distance from one shit-kicker burg to the next in six-packs consumed en route.

Their crimes are many and invariably petty -- except when, backs against the wall, they are driven to kill.

Leek’s prose is rich and authentic. Lots of English writers get American slang wrong: they can’t pick up the rhythm, with its polyglot ethnicities, its complex traces of jazz, folk and rockabilly. They get the rural twang wrong, mess up the mechanical undertones of American urban dwellers. 

If you don’t know what I mean, read something by Agatha Christie that has an American character in it, or look at the dialog spoken by Quincey Morris, the wealthy and cowboyish westerner in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You’ll get it.

Not Leek. He may have been born in England and he may live in Cambridge but he kicked around the southwestern U.S. long enough to get the cadence and vocabulary right. His use of rural working class idiom is a pleasure to read. In fact, the characters running their mouths in his stories are as much fun as the twisted plots he concocts.

Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em is as full of barbs as the razor wire fence around a county work camp. Some of Leek’s characters are kind-hearted souls filled with good intentions. Others are rotten SOBs only fit for a cell in isolation. All of them, however, are as twisted as a coil of cheap plastic rope.

In a story called “Jacks, Queens and Evens,” here’s Leek on how his protagonist, a dealer at a Las Vegas casino, is greeted by co-workers when his girlfriend dies after taking tainted cocaine:

“Entering the lunchroom was like walking through the saloon doors in an old western movie; conversations would stop mid-sentence and everyone became suddenly fascinated by their shoes. All that was missing was the fucking piano player.”

A little later, the protagonist is working a table when he is tipped who dealt his girl the poisoned dope: “There were four other players on base, all of them waiting for a ticket that would never hit the felt. I dropped the shoe like a fat girl on prom night and made for the door.”

In a tale called “The Johnny Cash Killer,” Leek’s anti-hero once “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” The victim – if you can use the term and keep a straight face – was an ex-con who had raped his girlfriend.  

“I wanted to tell him, to scream ‘I’m Pete Jones, motherfucker’ in his face, making sure it was the last thing he heard before his organs shut down and he shit his designer jockeys. But my name wouldn’t mean a damn thing to him and neither would hers. He didn’t stop to ask it when he dragged her off the street and into the backseat of his beat-up Pinto. Names didn’t matter; names were for toe tags and arrest warrants, not for revenge.”

“Names were for toe tags and arrest warrants” is unquestionably my favorite line of the day.

Leek doesn’t just grace us with stylish language and a keen eye for detail in longer passages like these. He gives attention to smaller details, too. For example, in a grim little yarn called “The Cutter,” his main character watches the gum-ball on top of a state trooper’s car as the cop “swept the interior of my car with his disapproving flashlight.”  The “disapproving flashlight” sells the scene, adding a touch of style and surrealism to what could have been a ho-humburger description of any routine roadside traffic stop.

Because the passage begins the tale, the surrealism serves the reader well, because it signals that the story, itself, is going to be more than a little surrealistic. Later, when the central character picks up a female hitchhiker, “She dug in her pocket and pulled out a crushed pack of Kools, lit one up and drew on it before answering. ‘I guess you know there’s a finger on the floor,’ she said in a matter of fact kind of way.”

This is another deft touch that gives the story a slightly off-center skew that underscores its nightmarish quality. The understatement of the outrageous is a time-honored technique for slapping the reader in the face and making him or her pay attention – in much the same way that a man speaking quietly makes the listener lean forward and attend his words in a way that a man who yells never can.

Another example: in a story called “The Honeymooners,” a man fleeing from an entanglement with the law is T-boned by a semi rig while leaving the parking lot of a cheap motel. The accident knocks him out temporarily. Leek has him awakened by a cop investigating the collision who yells, “Hey you, you alive in there?”

“I can’t swear to it,” Leek’s protagonist answers back as he peers from the cab of his ruined pickup.

“I could just make out a metal nametag called Gonzalez and another badge that read Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department,” Leek writes. “There was a pretty good chance they had a lawman pinned to the back of them.”

It’s the understated wit of lines like that last one – terse, tough, authentic – that give Leek’s stories their power and vitality.

Reading them is a treat. And at $1.99 a copy for Kindle, the thrills come amazingly cheap.

1 comment:

  1. Just barged in to your place here for the first time. Nice post William, enjoyed it. You've got it right about Mr. Leek. Great writer, great guy.