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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, December 11, 2014

Winning Hand: A Pair of Aces

By Pablo D’Stair and
Chris Rhatigan
98 pages
ISBN: 1500931942
(All Due Respect Books, Aug. 22, 2014)
eBook sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Ever wonder what two different authors would do with characters that are in the same basic situation?

Wonder no longer. In you don’t exist, two grimly paranoid novellas by All Due Respect’s Chris Rhatigan (The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other) and Pablo D’Stair (I Poisoned You), each ends up going to a different place and getting there by a different route.

The jumping off point is that classic standby of noir – found money: the protagonist in each story accidentally comes into possession of a large amount of spendable cash – so much of it, in fact, that it clearly was generated by some sort of dishonest activity that took place before these stories began.

Rather than turning the money in to the authorities, however, the characters in these short novels hold on to it and take steps that compound the error of keeping the cash in the first place. In the one case, the protagonist destroys evidence of a murder; in the other, he defrauds an inn-keeper, tries to purchase an illegal gun, and hides part of the money.

Though the starting point of each story is similar, D’Stair fills his tale “Bleed the Ghost Empty” with paranoia from the beginning, portraying his character as a traveler on a lost highway, the occupant of a world in which initially no other people exist – just an endless road to nowhere.

Pablo D'Stair
“Apparently, I’d wound up further from the highway than I’d thought,” D’Stair writes. "I was under the impression I’d been running parallel to it, keeping a straight line, that at worst I might have to back track half a day’s drive, but the reality seemed so much more dreadful. I wasn’t even nowhere, I was just somewhere I couldn’t identify, and there seemed to be no one else there with me.”

He tells a policeman he encounters that he is fleeing the breakdown of a relationship with a girlfriend. This is inherently incredible; no one but a lunatic would drive through the night mapless in an unfamiliar area simply because they had split up with a lover.

But our protagonist is a classic unreliable informant who seems to lie about everything. It is not clear whether we can believe him about even this seemingly harmless fact. In fact, we’re not certain he believes the things he tells himself.

While the road he travels is lonely and deserted at the beginning of the tale, after he finds the money, it seems to become crowded with people he does not trust: a passing motorist, a policeman who seems too friendly by half, a motel operator. 

The character has secrets of some sort he is trying to keep hidden. We never learn what they are, but the way D’Stair has written his story encourages our imaginations to run wild.

The novella creates an atmosphere of imbalance, irrationality. His protagonist’s words tumble into and out of his head in a panicky rush, their disorder creating a sort of weird order despite themselves. 

When he discovers a dead man’s body in an abandoned and badly hidden car, for example, the reader is sucked along by the energy of the character’s panic, bumping along in the wake of his blurted thoughts.

“I started thinking I should open the trunk, this suddenly making me breathe heavily,” the character thinks. “Pounding, knowing I needed to get back to my car— I was having some fit, wasn’t thinking, couldn’t think, needed to get on the road, even if just to drive until my tank heaved dry.”

It slowly becomes clear that our main character is seriously mentally ill – he seems convinced he is ensnared in some sort of trap by the money he has uncovered, but he continues to obsessively hold onto it, even after he has decided it poses a danger to him.

We never are able to determine whether he is, in fact, being followed, why the money was left at the scene of the murder – even where the main character is. The only thing we are sure about is that the money exists. Fearful it might be discovered, D’Stair’s protagonist has taped it into the wheel well of his car, and it remains there the last time he checks.


Chris Rhatigan
As ambiguous as D’Stair’s story is, Rhatigan’s is even murkier: by the time you reach the last page of “Pessimist,” you are no longer even certain that the cash that he found really exists.

In Rhatigan’s tale, the protagonist is a lowly municipal bureaucrat who picks up the wrong bag in the luggage carousel at a small airport. The duffel bag he grabs contains a large amount of bundled bills the bureaucrat is sure was generated by drug sales or some other criminal activity.

On the spur of the moment our main character decides to take the money and run. He, too, believes he is pursued by evil-doers intent of getting back the cash.

As can be seen by the novella’s title, the character in Rhatigan’s story sees the glass as a lot more than half empty and a man who always expects the worst is seldom disappointed. Our character, Pullman, demonstrates his grim outlook at the story’s outset, imagining what might happen if it crashes:

“You will burn to death,” Pullman thinks to himself. Yet you are no one. You have lived thirty-seven years, but have done nothing. No one will mourn your death. Will there be a funeral? Maybe they have to have funerals for people who die in plane crashes. Like the FAA requires it or something. Then it would just be a chaplain and one FAA guy. The chaplain saying the Nicene Creed and the FAA guy texting the whole time. Doing their job, honoring your flaccid corpse. They forget to bury you. And they move on, but you remain in that plain, pine box, staring at the sky, wide fucking awake even though everyone thinks you’re dead. Because you can’t die if you’re nobody in the first place.”

In Rhatigan’s story, Pullman hides part of the money, tries to buy a gun illegally from a licensed dealer, rents a storage locker to stow most of the dough, and hires a private eye to keep him under surveillance in case someone tries to get the money back. Eventually he even reports the cash to the police.

All his efforts come to nothing, however: the gun dealer punches him out and takes his wallet; the shamus thinks he’s an idiot and abandons him after pocketing his retainer, and the police believe he is lying about everything that happened.

By the end of the story, you don’t know whether there was really any money or not. You only have Pullman’s word it existed and he, like the nameless protagonist in “Bleed the Ghost Empty,” is hardly a reliable informant.

What you are sure of is the atmosphere of dread, of paranoia, of hopelessness thick enough to spread like peanut butter:

“A glance in the rearview mirror revealed only the vague lights of the parking lot and the inky black night swallowing him— no cars behind him,” Rhatigan writes. “Maybe they had turned off their lights. Maybe they planted someone in the trunk of his car. Maybe they were already ahead of him. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he had never lived.”

As noir, these two stories are classic: major character, confronted with a choice between right and wrong, makes a bad decision. He makes more bad decisions to try and correct the effects of the first one. He experiences physical harm or is threatened by it. His attempted solutions lead him further into a morass of guilt, regret and immoral conduct.

The best noir leaves the reader with the feeling that he or she is the transgressor -- the person whose misbehavior has brought consequences that cannot be escaped. A first-rate noir story puts the reader in the protagonist's shoes.

These two stories do exactly that.

They aren’t the type of tales you are likely to seek out if you are feeling blue or depressed. They are too grim for that.

But if you aren't in a suicidal state of mind and enjoy fiction firmly rooted in the darkest type of human behavior, you will be riveted by you don’t exist.

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