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The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

I remember reading Every Last Drop not that long ago and being unable to escape the feeling that the real Charlie Huston had been kidnapped and was being held by a guy in an abandoned warehouse somewhere. Well, I’m happy to report that, after reading Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, it looks like Huston jumped that dumb son of a bitch and took his ass out. While the last Joe Pitt novel may have been a bit of a hiccup overall Huston just keeps getting better and stronger and Mystic Arts is a huge step in that direction.

Others of a pay grade higher then my own have declared this book a masterpiece. I’m not quite ready to go there yet though. While I do think that Mystic Arts is a great leap forward for Huston I don’t think it’s quite a masterpiece.

If you’ve read his crime novels then you know what to expect. The slacker hero, the humor that rides shotgun with violence but never approaching bleakness, and, in the new book more so then the others…a modicum of hope. It’s vulgar and violent but there is a certain likability level to the characters that keeps you on their side no matter what.

I love the exploration of crime scene cleaning culture, and the characters that get attracted by accident or design to this type of work. My understanding is that this may be the start of a series. I hope so because I’d love to see further exploration of this interesting sub-culture.

Web’s back story is a little like an Olympic power lifter going for the record, it’s a little shaky in the knees but ultimately manages to support the weight of the story.

The bottom line here is that this could be the book to take him to a new level.

Leather Maiden by Joe Lansdale

In many ways Leather Maiden is a conventional mystery, especially in the sense that a lot of familiar elements are here (small to mid sized town, scandal, murder, blackmail, psycho side kick, etc.) but at this point Lansdale has been at the game so long that he really knows leathermaiden
his shit and you are in safe hands. He has taken the things that you know and used them in a story that’s really good. It’s like the notes may be familiar but the song is still great. He’s written something like 30+ novels at this point so he really knows how to tell a hell of a story and he does.

The Lansdale style is on full display here, he’s almost like a really great storyteller you meet at the bar who tells you the greatest story ever told……as long as you keep plying him with drink.

As befitting our times, and something I expect to see more of, the protag is an Iraq war veteran. It’s a simple device that firmly grounds the story in the present and our times. His portrayal of Cason Statler is subtle and full, it’s nice to have a character with traits instead of being defined by them. For example, in the beginning of the book he is drunk. But then he decides to try and not drink anymore and it’s not turned into a big deal. He’s also carrying some baggage from the war that is never explicitly referenced, thus attaining a greater power. All of his characters are handled well and in the same manner.

One of the highlights (if that is the right word) is a torture scene that comes later in the book. His sidekick is an advocate of torture and he is not so sure. The scene unfolds in a non-judgmental, warts-and-all way that shows how horrible it can be but that it CAN also be effective. Sides aren’t taken and both characters can be seen as right and wrong. The reader has a complex reaction to a complex scene about a complex subject.

I also love the exploration of the relationship between the two brothers and their interactions with one another. This is yet another great book from the master storyteller Joe Lansdale.

(In writing this column I do have to idly speculate what a Joe Lansdale crime scene cleaner book would read like)

Last Days by Brian Evenson

One of the themes that plays out in Last Days, and in Evenson’s work when taken as a whole, is the effect of closed systems on the individual; The closed system is often religion and the individual is lastdays often unbalanced. When the pressures and permissions of religion are pushed to the front and the exposed cracks in the individual widen the results are always interesting and never what you expect.

There is a sense of otherness or wrongness that strongly pervades Last Days. We are to understand that Kline was an undercover police officer of some sorts but even that mooring point is shifted away from us by calling him an infiltrator instead. Everything is off.

Kline is an interesting character especially in the way that he is portrayed and the distance at what he is kept from us. When we first meet Kline it is soon after his previous case where he lopped off his own hand and in an act of self determination cauterized the wound. Though it’s never explicitly stated he is clearly suffering from some form of post traumatic stress syndrome. Like Web, in Huston’s Mystic Arts (above) Kline is in a state of shock and practically numb to everything around him and, for the duration of the book, the situations that he finds himself in. I say practically because there does seem to be some indication that he is aware of how far down he is but doesn’t recognize the way back up. It may even be this disorientation that kicks off the story; Kline is so spun around, yet aware of his state, that he accepts the first hand offered to him. It’s been suggested that Last Days is a Grand Guignol crime novel but I think that Kline’s dour personality works against this assertion and that Allan Guthrie’s Hard Man is much more akin to this comparison.

Often times crime fiction is billed and blurbed as being “dark” and too often it fails to live up; flinching first and crying uncle when the story gets tough. In this unique detective novel Brian Evenson is willing to hold the gaze of the abyss and the result is a novel that isn’t likley to be forgotten anytime soon.

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

Though it’s not really presented as such I think that under a broad definition Knockemstiff can be considered crime fiction and would appeal to some of its fans. First, it could be said that crime knockemstiff
fiction is about those on the fringe of society; those with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Knockemstiff is filled with stories of low-bottom fringe dwellers with nothing. Not nothing to lose, literally nothing. Bill Hicks once assaulted a heckler with the following line “Your gene pool is so shallow that its like your daddy jerked off and your mama sat in it.” The characters of Knockemstiff are the result of that union.

Second, over the years in crime fiction there has been this notion of the city as main character and there have been some famous ones over the years: Pelacanos’ D.C.; Chandler’s L.A.; Lehane’s Boston; Sallis’ New Orleans; and many others. As these stories unfold and the lives of these characters interconnect the desolate nature of the town really comes through as the main character.

In discussing this book with someone else who had read it (and loved it), it became apparent that we did differ on one thing, how to classify it. Knockemstiff is presented as a short story collection and this person considered it as one. But I considered it to be more in the tradition of a fix-up/mosaic novel since the stories were connected. Even though a term may have originated in one genre doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean that it is limited to that genre. I guess the way that I see it is that I’ve always felt that the mystery/crime genre was lacking in certain structure types, like mosaics, but also embedded story structures and some others, that would seem to lend themselves to the genre. So I just see it as a different kind of novel structure rather then not a novel at all.

The characters are presented, if not sympathetically, then at least objectively. You can’t really relate to them but they are interesting. There is a raw, almost primitive power that comes out of them. Pollack doesn’t demean or belittle his characters by categorizing their actions as black or white. They are just who they are, and sometimes even oddly comfortable in their own skin. Like the guy who slips off his wedding ring to hit on the convenience store clerk only to have her start making fun of the “retarded” girl who comes in sometimes realizing that it’s his wife she is talking about.

If there is a relationship between crime fiction and the horrific (especially the horror of small acts) then surely the town of Knockemstiff resides on the border. Like the moment of quiet horror when a father exhorts his young son to beat the shit out of another boy while in the restroom of a drive-in.

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