By Jen Conley
(Down & Out Books; April 25, 2016)
Lots of crime fiction fans suffer under the delusion that women who write about the underworld prefer to have their villains use poisons – preferably from plants grown in their own gardens – and work out their plots during downtime from knitting tea cozies, doing scrapbooks and sipping cup after cup of Earl Grey dressed with milk and sugar.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many woman crime writers fashion stories as bloodthirsty and nasty as their male counterparts. A goodly number do work that falls under the aegis of noir – bleak tales of doomed people who can’t seem to make a good decision, no matter how hard they try.
The female of the crime writing species is every bit as good at doping out the psychology of a serial killer, figuring the motivation of a scammer or turning the tables on a two-timing husband or boyfriend as any of her male counterparts. Think of Patricia Highsmith, Leigh Brackett, Dorothy B. Hughes or Margaret Millar, all acknowledged mistresses of gripping psychological thrillers.
Oh, yes: Add another to the list, if you will; Jen Conley, whose day job teaching elementary school kids at Christa McAuliffe Middle School in New Jersey belies her tough-as-nails and often violent prose.
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For years Conley, one of the editors at the red-blooded crime magazine, Shotgun Honey, has been writing short stories for publications such as Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, All Due Respect, and Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen.
Now she has brought forth a collection of 15 of her wonderful stories: Cannibals.
All are set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a desolate and mysterious region Conley seems to know very well. They feature troubled protagonists and villains who are plunged into situations far beyond their control.
Consider “Pipe,” a terse tale about Tyrell Colton, a bullied high school kid who plots revenge against his teen-aged tormentor. As he heads off to school on the day of his vengeance, “The morning sky was heavy with mean, gray clouds. Icy drizzle flecked against his face as he hiked down the street, his stride quick, the pipe hidden in his jacket, the one end tucked into an inside pocket while the rest rose underneath his coat and against his torso until it reached his shoulder blade.”
As the story unfolds we learn that a week earlier, Colton was throttled by Mark Horak, a vicious classmate in French class. Only the intervention of the school’s vice principal postponed a serious beating and Colton is told that Horak, who was suspended three days for attacking him, is planning to beat him up when he returns.
All the elements of noir are here: a loner alienated from his peers, an original transgression that sets the plot in motion, a violent response that is wrongheaded, an ally in which the protagonist has mistakenly placed his admiration and trust and the betrayal that ultimately dooms him. The story is atmospheric, tightly written and crackles with authenticity, packing an entire morality play into a 3,800-word package.
Or consider “Home Invasion,” a 4,900-word yarn about a heist in which the three thieves – one of them 19-year-old Keon Dell, doing “his very first and only burglary” – are surprised to find the elderly woman who owns the place is still at home.
The trio terrorize the woman, steal her petty valuables, then, because she is a teacher who once had Keon as a student, abruptly kill her:
“He (Ramone, the trio’s ringleader) grabbed the pillow from Keon, put it against Mrs. Mullins head, and with his other hand, pulled out his gun, sticking it against the pillow. She screamed and shook horrendously, but she did not try to get away. She only pleaded for her life, her voice desperate, her pitch high and frantic: “No! No, please! Don’t! I love my grandchildren!”
“Ramone tilted his head and gazed at Keon. Keon opened his mouth to— do what— stop the motion? But Ramone returned his focus to the task before him and, simply, fired.
“Her body buckled and collapsed. White stuffing dotted with red floated in the air. Ramone threw the pillow next to the body. Blood and pieces of gray seeped out of her head and onto the floor, a greenish carpet with swirling gold designs. Keon and Ramone stared at the body.
What’s haunting about the story is the fact that, after this sordid murder, life goes on pretty much as it did before.
In other words, the power of the story is that nothing more happens. Keon joins the Army and is sent to Iraq after 9/11. He initially has nightmares about the slaying but eventually conflates its memory with his other dreams. Conley cleverly alludes to the myth of the Jersey Devil – a wive’s tale that haunted Keon as a child – in her recounting of how his horrific remembrance of the murder fades over time:
“Now that he was a combat soldier, the blood and brains of his kills got all mixed with Mrs. Mullins . . . and sometimes, on a good night, all that evil confused him. And for a brief moment, when he was sitting up, wide awake, breathing hard, getting his bearings, the last traces of the dream breaking up and dissolving, it was like he was a kid again telling himself that the Jersey Devil was just a story.
“For a brief moment, after waking from the dream, mercy would fall upon him, and he would tell himself Mrs. Mullins and her bloody death never actually happened.”
Not all of Conley’s stories are crime tales, mind you. “Cannibals,” the story the collection takes its name from, is more of a horror yarn. It is disturbing and not to be read on a dark, storm-riven night, but no crime is actually committed in it. It turns on psychology, not the supernatural, and is as intense as salt in a gash.
The same is true of “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City,” “Kick” or “Debbie, the Hero.” All are really slice of life stories – tales of people who are up against it, who have run out of options. People stuck in dead-end lives, facing a future as bleak as a winter squall blowing up out of the Atlantic.
Make no mistake, however: all of them are as intense as “Home Invasion” and “Pipe.”Some have the anarchy and blank nihilism of Hubert Selby Jr. – they are bleak and aimless. Several reminded me of Selby’s masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn.
An excellent example is “Metalhead Marty in Love,” in which a shy and self-deprecating rock guitarist with a potential for artistic greatness makes the mistake of romance with a thug’s hand-me-down girlfriend. When the thug finds out about the union, he and his goons take revenge in a violent turn so shocking that even the bully has to recognize it. The story’s ending takes a melancholy twist that leaves the reader thinking about it hours after closing the book.
If there is a weakness to this volume, it lies in the stories called “Howling,” “Circling,” and “Angels.” Each involves a police officer, Andrea Vogel, and an incident that occurs when she is working her beat in the communities just outside the Pine Barrens. One is a rape, one is an investigation of a reported noise in the piney woodland. A third is the tale of Vogel’s protection of a man with extreme gambling debts – a man she once dated before she married.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with these stories; the villainy is minimal, the characters keenly observed, the dialog true to life; the situations are totally believable, not melodramatic clashes with evil personified.
The problem is, when I finished Cannibals, I wanted more stories about Vogel, her job, her private time after she knocks off for the day. I fell in love with this character. She is a little like Marge Gunderson, the police chief in the Coen Brother’s terrific movie Fargo, only a great deal more interior and philosophical than the woman Frances McDormand played. I hope that Conley is thinking about an entire novel about Officer Vogel.
Cannibals is a sensational piece of work. Jen Conley can proudly take her place with such amazing writers as Patti Abbott, Vicki Hendricks and Bonny Jo Campbell, her sisters in the field of dark crime.