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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, June 26, 2016

Nick Gillis’s Spiraling Descent into Hillbilly Hell

Kill ‘Em With Kindness
By C.S. DeWildt
142 pages
( All Due Respect Books; May 30, 2016)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

A year ago, C. S. DeWildt served up a fine novel about a quirky glue sniffing detective in Love You to a Pulp, his first full-length piece of noir. He has outdone himself in his latest, Kill ‘Em With Kindness, a twisted tale of love, hate, psychotic sex, violence and revenge.

C.S. DeWildt
Meet Nick Gillis, a pot grower with a green thumb. Check that; as his flakey space-case chum, Hobo says, “Forget about thumbs; you’re green to the shoulder.”

Nick’s life has been rocky lately: he was thrown out of college, lost his wife to suicide and got fired from his job as head man at the golf course. He lives a solitary, guilt-wracked life in Horton, a tiny corrupt community, and gets by peddling his high-grade grow through Hobo.

It’s a bleak existence. But things get even bleaker when Nick does a good deed for Kimmy Flynn, local crime strongman Chad Toll’s girlfriend. Nick is sitting in a local beer joint, Nate’s, when  Kimmy enters. He  is stunned at her appearance: it’s clear that Chad has beat the hell out of her, leaving her with facial contusions, cuts and a skull held together by a metal band secured in place with screws.

Kimmy takes only a few minutes of sucking down vodka and orange before she is shit-faced drunk.

When she attacks an eye-candy blonde Chad and his posse brought to the bar before retiring to a secret room downstairs to talk business, Nick hustles her out of the place and takes her home, staying only long enough to make sure she is secure for the night.

His good Samaritan effort, unfortunately, turns out to be a grotesque mistake.

Nick finds himself in the local jail run by a crooked cop, The Chief, facing charges of rape. When he is released, Chad Toll and his bone-dumb sidekicks pick him up and force him to join their crew, committing petty crimes and terrorizing the citizenry.

The source of Toll’s leverage is Nick’s good deed in driving a drunken woman home.

Chad holds the rape charge over Nick’s head. In addition, there is the constant threat of his animals, two “drooling Caucasian Mountain Dogs that went with him everywhere, black as the night and each of them easily over two hundred pounds.” Early in the book, the dogs’ menace is amply demonstrated: Chad forces Nick to watch as Hobo is literally eaten alive by the mindless brutes.

It’s the beginning of a spiraling descent into Hillbilly hell.  

As his primary responsibility to the small town gang leader, Chad orders Gillis to be Kimmy’s driver and errand boy. But he warns him not to make a move on her, offering an anecdote about his gangster father shooting a man through the head for engaging in an act of bestiality with one of Chad’s animals: “‘You can’t let a man fuck your goat,” he tells Nick. “It’s not that he’s fucking it, some men just can’t help themselves. It’s that the goat he’s fucking is yours.”

“This [his father’s slaying of the man] is what happens when you fuck a man’s goat: the man is put down,” Chad says  without a trace of humor. “And the goat, too, because while innocent victim maybe, ruined is fucking ruined, right?”

Their relationship is cat and mouse, and Nick is the unlucky rodent. “What had been a tolerable stagnation of body and soul was about to become something new," DeWildt writes  early in the story. "It was easy to think that with a little luck, the something new would work out and everything would be okay. Easy to think if you were a fucking moron.”

Nick Gillis is a marvelous creation: diffident, passive, gnawed by guilt over his dead wife’s suicide and the loss of the child she was carrying. DeWildt’s protagonist is a perfect noir hero; a schmuck who has no control over his fate or much of anything else. Battered by conflicting demands from Kimmy, The Chief and Chad, he is a pawn in everyone’s game. His one desperate Rube Goldberg attempt to free himself goes ludicrously astray, killing Chad’s two oafish underlings, but leaving him at the mercy of the infuriated Toll, himself.

Despite his aimlessness and ineptitude at extricating himself from his entanglement, Nick grabs the reader with his first action, his decent attempt to help a woman in distress. He continues to display that innate decency throughout the narrative, while all the other characters – except the unfortunate Hobo – show various levels of depravity and viciousness.

Almost by default, the reader hopes for Gillis to find a way out of his quagmire. But Nick’s pessimism and guilt seem to doom him. For example, Nick has a well-maintained Russian Makarov nine millimeter he acquired from a classmate before he was kicked out of college for dealing weed, and he begins carrying it for protection after hooking up with Chad. But he literally lacks the nerve to pull the trigger. Turning the principle of "Chekov’s gun"* upside down, when Gillis finally fires the pistol, it is at an animal – which he fails to kill.

The book is extraordinarily well-written. DeWildt’s dialog is crisp, with a backwoods twang that is not overdone and a fine ear for a unique turn of phrase. His descriptions are as direct as a punch to the face and help move the narrative forward as well as maintaining the novel's ominous tone. 

For example, When Nick drives Kimmy to her family home so she can visit her daughter, DeWildt writes:

“Nick saw no driveway until he was on it, no more than a narrow break in the tall green corn that dominated the area. He pulled into the rutted dirt drive and the car was immediately swallowed up whole by thick stalks. The long, straight gravel drive was dark, shaded with little slashes of sunlight that ripped through narrow breaks and turned the corn stalks into shadowy fingers that bad-touched everything that dared come close.”

Later, Kimmy has Nick help her inspect a small fortune in coins she has secreted in a hidey-hole:

“Nick dug and she watched. The ground was soft and it made for easy work, but the easy added up and soon Nick was wet with sweat, standing in his hole with a growing pile of “easy” behind him. Waist deep in the hole he wiped his brow and looked at Kimmy and wondered if he was actually digging something up or preparing a grave.”

The book’s plot is first rate. All Gillis wants is to stay alive, but he finds himself in a dance of jealousy, hatred, brutality and treachery, with each partner – Chad, Kimmy, The Chief and Chad’s oafish sidekicks – seeming to jostle him toward extinction. Several twists in the story line -- not to mention its resolution -- will leave the reader smiling with surprise. Kill ‘Em With Kindness is one of those books that is difficult to set aside, even temporarily, and when the details of the twisted story fade, the pervasive atmosphere of anomie and gloom persists. It is a terrific summer read.

* Chekov's gun: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off."

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