“This book has some serious grip.” – David S. Atkinson
“They’re barely in their teens, but already they’re streetwise, courageous and honourable, qualities that are tested to the nerve-wracking limit in this gritty coming-of-age tale from a master of description. Compelling reading.” – Brendan Gisby
“Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle.” – Aidan Thorn
“An excellent slow burn novel.” – Keith Nixon
“Jason Beech’s City Of Forts masterfully blends urban noir with coming of age drama. Tense, atmospheric, and haunting.” – Paul D. Brazill
Matt Phillips’ Countdown is full-cream noir set around the murky purgatory of weed dealing in California where the stuff is legal locally but not federally – so what to do with the money is a perpetual headache.
Jessie and LaDon run the weed dispensary and have their money picked up and stored by collectors. The problem is one, an “Eye-Rack” war vet, wants a big payday and ropes in his dodgy old war vet pal into a nasty scheme to hit it big. Jessie and LaDon will have to deal with the consequences.
Phillips weaves in a hot mess of greed, sexual frustration, and good deeds and comes out with another cracking novel that just swims in atmosphere, crackling dialogue, and building dread. It’s great. If I have a problem with it, it’s the same as I had with his Know Me from Smoke – I’d like to swim in its mood a little longer. It’s lean, it’s fast-paced, it’s populated by flawed, desperate characters – some with a ton of heart – and it’s worth every moment of your time.
An author with a blazing style, one of the head honchos over at the magnificent Flash Fiction Offensive, and here to eulogise Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time, welcome James “Jim” Shaffer to Messy Business.
Hi Jim, we’re talking about The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. What’s the setup?
Great to be here, Jason. Think “rural Gothic” with hints of sulfurous noir bubbling to the surface like a bloated floater. Pollock riddles this saga with dubious, unhinged characters you wouldn’t sit next to during lunch, let alone want to meet your sister—pedophiles, murderers, a husband and wife team of sex-crazed serial killers; a corrupt, vengeful county sheriff, and mentally-disturbed preachers. So hold onto your hat.
This mixed bag of hardened criminals and demented nut-cases takes us on a wild, circuitous ride across the Midwest, into the deep South, stretches down to Florida, back north to West Virginia: and finally returns to the story’s roots—the frightening backwoods town of Knockemstiff, Ohio—where Pollock himself was born in late 1954, and spent his formative years.
Though first published by Doubleday in 2011, Pollock starts this devilish journey shortly after WWII—and drops his first poor characters, including a young boy named Arvin, in this backwater hell hole. While this novel is naturally fiction, Pollock uncharitably describes his hometown in the book’s prologue: “Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance.”
Ignorance, isolation, and religious superstition set the opening tone. Just a blip on the map, Knockemstif sits on the plateau edge of the Appalachian Mountains, south of Columbus and east of Cincinnati—and not far north from the neighboring borders of West Virginia and Kentucky. If a town named Knockemstiff sounds odd, Jason, you may want to consider this: Not a living soul knows for sure how this community got its name.
Dark, Gothic noir with a religious bent coursing through it. Is the novel, as Flannery O’Connor would term such a beast, “Christ-haunted?” If so, in what way?
The Appalachian region Pollock depicts in the novel is certainly Christ-Haunted, as I interpret the term. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, O’Connor was a Roman Catholic swimming in a sea of Protestants. Organized religion tends to promise troubled people answers, as well as “salvation” and a better “afterlife.” After losing the Civil War, people from the South suffered an identity crisis. Many had sacrificed, fought and died for a cause they believed was “just.” Haunted by the past, like millions have done for centuries, O’Connor and many southerners looked to God, religious rituals, their bibles and religious leaders for answers.
As a devout Catholic, O’Connor didn’t just attend Mass on Sundays—she attended every day. Her daily life was filled with “religious thought.” From 1956 through 1964, she wrote more than one hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers.
The first characters we meet in Pollock’s novel are Willard Russell—his wife Charlotte, and son Arvin Eugene. Recently returned from WWII, Willard’s also haunted by his past, what he’s seen in the war, and is struggling for answers. And seeking a bit of solitude and a place for self-reflection, Willard hauls them off to Knockemstiff.
The Russells rent a dilapidated farmhouse surrounded by dense forest, atop the town’s Baum Hill. Willard clears a patch of woods behind their house—except for one huge log … “the remains of a big red oak that had fallen years before.” He treats the fallen oak as an altar. And here at his newfound “prayer log” Willard spends countless hours on his knees crying out to God—
A god who never answers.
But the people of Knockemstiff, including the newly-arrived Willard aren’t anywhere near as educated as Flannery O’Connor. Desperate for God’s attention, Willard ups the ante: he starts pouring fresh animal blood over his prayer log altar, and erects wooden crosses where he hangs roadkill carcasses.
Against Charlotte’s wishes, Willard routinely drags young Arvin to the prayer log with him. Charlotte cautions Willard, “too much religion could be as bad as too little, maybe worse ….”
Yet compared to itinerant evangelist Roy Laferty, Willard seems almost sane. Seeking to test his faith, Laferty brazenly dumps a jar-full of spiders on his head. This preacher also becomes convinced that he can raise the dead. And to prove his point, he’s willing to commit murder. How do you think that brilliant scheme turns out?
I was raised in a spiritual home, at first in rural Pennsylvania. Not one as intense as Arvin’s, but in some ways similar. So although this book’s just started, I’m worried shitless about Arvin Eugene’s future.
If the war has driven Willard’s increase in religiosity, then what drives Laferty’s?
Pollock’s plot arcs initially feel like a wide-haphazard circle. But actually he’s etching a well-controlled, fierce loop—that turns back on itself like a snake eating its tail—with ugly consequences. I described the preachers in this drama as mentally-disturbed: and Laferty’s one of two who churn our stomachs—but in completely different ways.
Pollock doesn’t reveal why or how Roy Laferty becomes a preacher, but in the churches where I grew up, he fits the tradition of the “visiting evangelist.” Evangelists travel from town-to-town; and church-to-church. Often they’ll pitch tents. Evangelists typically travel with an entourage that includes musical performers—and tend to get treated either like rock stars or circus sideshow freaks.
Roy’s faithful sidekick in this wandering freak show is his cousin Theodore, who strums a mean guitar. Lurking behind Roy in the semi-darkness, Theodore performs from a wheelchair, adding eerie background music to Roy’s firey sermons.
Why does Theodore play from a wheelchair?
Because attempting to prove his faith, Theodore once chugged a bottle of anti-freeze. Another brilliant scheme gone wrong.
Invited by the local church to inject a spirit of “revival” into its sluggish souls, Laferty punctuates a “hellfire and damnation” message with his shocking spider act—and sends the sleepy congregants jumping to their feet. Revival’s here! Hallelujah! The spirit of God is moving—
Never mind most of them are fleeing the scuddling spiders.
Roy’s not malicious … more like the village idiot, highly impressionable. But misery loves company, and Theodore’s got issues. So when delusional Roy announces God’s now given him the power to resurrect the dead? Theodore eggs him on.
While Roy Laferty’s getting played like a sacrificial lamb, devious preacher Preston Teagardin is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Knowing right from wrong, the thirty-ish, portly Teagardin is one twisted bastard. Though he’s got a teenage wife, this turd lusts for even younger flesh. Cloaked in the religious mantle of esteemed spiritual adviser, he lures, seduces, and fucks young impressionable girls in the front seat of his fancy sports car. And his wicked actions spawn hellacious consequences.
On one hand Pollock’s morphed a “morality tale”—a conflict between good and evil—with a heavy dose of Chaos Theory. Shit Happens. But in classic gothic fashion, his odyssey also ships us on quests for dark revenge. These twisted threads make me shout, “Hot damn. Hell, yeah!”
Because one man’s devil can prove another man’s saviour.
Is the small town flock drawn to the preachers’ religion, or is religion the sideshow to the magic tricks? What is the flock missing to draw them to such characters?
Isolation and religion prove deeply entwined in this novel, Jason. In the rural farming region where I was raised, the local rallying point was the country church—a place to socialize on one hand. And a place to practice long-held religious traditions on the other.
Likewise, before Pollock leads us on our dark romp through the Midwest, the South and Florida, we spend most of our time with Knockemstiff’s 400 inhabitants—or in Coal Creek, West Virginia—another rural outpost 75 miles southeast of our little hell hole. Even today, only 12 states have fewer inhabitants than West Virginia. And while Ohio’s population has bloomed to nearly 12 million people, with the majority living in the north, less than 2 million people live in West Virginia. By comparison, in 1950, nearly a million people called Cleveland, Ohio home.
Even during the 1950s, people in small communities like Knockemstiff didn’t have many job options—especially women. Choices about who to date or who to marry? Slim to none. And other than getting drunk—or getting laid if they were lucky, almost no “entertainment” choices whatsoever.
Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, morals or spiritual values, “organized religion” typically steps in and fills some of these social vacuums. Laferty’s Traveling Wilburys bring their insane act to Coal Creek, West Virginia at the invitation of a local minister—and his “so-called flock” has no choice in the matter: other than to stay home. Only 58 people attend this event the evening Laferty unleashes his spiders.And in a near-unanimous rout, 57 members of this jury would have preferred Roy’s Freakshow never came to town. But the event sparks consequences.
With the exception of Arvin Eugene Russell, Pollock’s more concerned about “cause and effect,” the “abuse of power” and “pure chance” than people’s motivations or personal beliefs. He launches this book with a seven-page prologue that hits us hard and fast. Pollock unites Isolation, Ignorance, “Religious ideas” and Violence—and wields them like a four-pronged pitch fork.
Talk about Arvin Eugene Russell’s role in the story.
Pollock dumps Arvin in Knockemstiff when the lad is only four—too young to know that he’s been fucked. But by the time this kid turns nine, he’s starting to get the picture. Lucky for Arvin though, he’s got a lot more fries in his Happy Meal than Roy Laferty and Theodore.
Even before his exposure to the horrors of WWII, Pollock leads us to believe Willard harbors a violent streak. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” is not a verse you’ll find in the Willard Russell version of the bible. And Willard zealously strives to shape Arvin in his own image.
Because they have no “kin,” no blood relations in Knockemstiff, the Russells are viewed as “outsiders.” Arvin has no friends. No play dates. No invites to dinner. And no one ever visits the Russells. When Arvin comes home with a black eye after a fight on the school bus, Willard accuses Arvin of being soft. “Those boys might be bigger than you, but the next time one of ’em starts his shit, I want you to finish it.”
Willard’s not simply singing to the metaphorical choir … or his congregation of one lone son: he practices what he preaches. And revenge he teaches Arvin is a matter of “time and place.”
During a routine battle with the Devil at the prayer log, two local hunters stumble upon Willard and Arvin praying. The mouthy one, Lucas, says, “Hell, they havin’ them a little revival meeting…shit. I’m thinking now would be a good time to pay his old lady a visit. She probably laying over in bed right now keeping it warm for me.”
Arvin knows from Lucas’s tone this man has just insulted Charlotte and his father. But Willard does nothing. He just keeps on praying. After the prayer log bout, Willard grabs Arvin for a trip into town to buy gas for the truck. So Arvin’s puzzled when they zip past the station and into the parking lot at The Bull Pen, a shit-hole bar. Before the truck stops rolling, Willard jumps out—he’s in hot pursuit of rude, crude Lucas. His sidekick hunter escapes, tearing out in his car.
Willard beats Lucas so bad he spends the rest of his days with a coffee can looped around his neck to catch his perpetual drool.
Back inside the truck, Willard grabs a rag and wipes his bloody hands: “You remember what I told you the other day?”
“About them boys on the bus?” Arvin asks. Willard nods. “Well, that’s what I meant. You just got to pick the right time … they’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there.”
Willard adores Charlotte above all else. But Charlotte’s got a problem. And Willard wants God’s help. When God doesn’t answer? Willard doesn’t reserve his fists for only the unrighteous. As his frustrations mount, he takes to beating Arvin … and later sinks into remorse. While Willard apologizes, like many abusers, he lays a guilt trip on the boy: You’re not praying hard enough. Arvin eventually accepts the blows and harsh words “as part of the life they were living now.”
Nearly every aspect of Willard’s daily life in Knockemstiff proves a bloody mess. Although the Russells live in a farmhouse, Willard works in a slaughterhouse, messily butchering hogs. While Arvin’s yet to make a career choice our boy’s pretty sure he doesn’t want “to kill pigs for a living.”
But one night necessity spurs Arvin to show a local adult his father’s secret altar. The fetid odor hits them first. Not knowing what to expect, Arvin’s companion steps back. “What the hell is that smell…?” Arvin points up. His guest aims a flashlight. And the torch alights Willard’s wooden crosses. Jolted by the dangling carcasses, teaming maggots, and the unholy bloody stench wafting from Willard’s prayer log, the bug-eyed yokel asks: “Goddamn it, boy, what the hell is this?”
“It’s a prayer log,” Arvin tells him.
“What? A prayer log?”
”But it don’t work,” forlorn Arvin wisely notes.
So as you may have guessed, Jason—
Arvin Eugene Russell doesn’t grow up to be a preacher. But one thing’s certain: beleaguered Arvin’s learned how to deliver a message. And he doesn’t need spiders either.
Willard’s a ticking time bomb … and when that bomb explodes, and the dust finally settles, ten-year-old Arvin finds himself separated from his parents—and living a new life in Coal Creek, West Virginia.
Goodbye hell-hole Knockemstiff!
Or so he thinks for now.
‘Cause remember, Jason, “They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there.”
So Arvin is groomed into violence, for want of a better term. How does he view the violence as the years go by? Is it nihilistic and in service of self-preservation? Or does he view it from a moralistic, religious viewpoint, that all those ‘sonsofabitches’ need a lesson?
Arvin considers The Bull Pen beating Willard unleashes on Lucas “the best day he ever spent with his father.” As part of Willard’s legacy, Arvin also receives his father’s Luger pistol when he turns fifteen. And the youngster buoyantly thinks it’s “the best present he ever got.” He proves a natural with the pistol, shooting small game: that winds up on the supper table. His hunting partner Earskell naturally prefers a shotgun. And he’s surprised that Arvin can hit—let alone kill—moving critters with a handgun.
Arvin develops a “don’t fuck with me and mine—or else” philosophy. He doesn’t start shit. And he doesn’t go looking for trouble either. But like his father taught him: If someone starts shit? Arvin ain’t afraid to finish. It’s always a matter of the right “time and place.” While Arvin escapes Knockemstiff at age ten, people in rural Coal Creek are also afflicted by “misplaced” religious beliefs, isolation and ignorance—as well as abusers who prey on others, and the havoc their actions wreak.
Throughout his high school years, hell-bent Arvin doles out vengeance with his fists. And ẚ la Roy Laferty, he chooses on occasion to “spice up” his message. A bible-toting girl in Coal Creek is one of the few people Arvin cares about. And, more often than not, his intermittent violent acts involve avenging her. One day he stumbles upon three menacing boys telling this girl Lenora that they’d fuck her—but first they’d have to put a paper bag over her head. Arvin wastes no time—and let’s his fists do the talking. But three-on-one? He doesn’t stand a chance. Revenge takes two months. But he gets each boy alone then lays a beat-down on them— And as a finishing flourish, tugs a paper bag over each boy’s head.
No bones about it: The Devil All The Time often seethes with violence. But the violence isn’t graphic like Casino or Goodfellas. Pollock doesn’t bathe us in blood splatter or whack us with broken bones. He doesn’t glorify or sensationalize violence either. But indeed we feel the aftershocks. The criminal acts he portrays are the kind you hear about in the media all-too-often. And I find his criminal characters credible—especially if you remember the rural landscape, and the eras this tale unfolds in. The husband and wife serial killing duo are sickly ritualistic hunters. Run into a pair like this? A gun in your hands is sure as hell a godsend— provided you get the chance to use it. Arvin only uses the Luger when he feels he has no choice …. Tragically, however, Willard has successfully shaped his son in his own image. And while Arvin wonderfully gives a slew of devils their brimstone due, as a young man he discovers he’s now got hell to pay. The big question becomes: Can he survive this debt?
How does Lenora fit into Arvin’s life? Is she as vengeful as he? Does she just ride his wave, passive? Is it love?
I believe you’re hooked on Pollock’s story. If so, I’m glad. Hooking an audience is a large part of this presentation as is the temptation to continue talking. But my temptation advice comes from the Good Book–yield not!
If the discussion turns further toward Lenora and her connection to Arvin, we’ll venture into “big reveal” territory. I prefer not to do that. Don’t wanna be “that guy”.
Pollock’s book is definitely “stuff I wish I’d written”, but I also want to turn people on to the story. And like I did, let potential readers make some of their own discoveries.
All that remains is my praise for Pollock and his book that received an impressive international distribution, indicating a wide interest in rural Gothic Americana. Plus there’s “The Devil, The Movie” coming out in 2020! Sounds pretty cool.
Sounds mysterious. What part does the landscape play in the novel? Is it a character all on its own. Does it affect the characters?
Sounds mysterious, you say? Thrilled to hear you think so. Suggests my diabolic plot to tempt you with this book is working brilliantly, Jason.
Environments always affect us—and our way of thinking. Someone who spends their life in Montana and has never seen an ocean except on TV or at the movies won’t see life through the same lens as a lobsterman in coastal Maine. And if you’ve seen the movie The Horse Whisperer, someone from NYC who merely visits Montana can’t possibly comprehend the entire range of intricacies held by the local mindset: even though they see the landscape. My life here in England is naturally vastly different in many ways than my farming youth in rural Pennsylvania.
The key role landscape plays in The Devil, as mentioned earlier, involves “Isolation.” One can drive for miles and still be isolated. But as routine as daily life can often be, people can still stumble and bumble about … and sometimes bump “into things.”
Likewise, in an apparent twist of fate, I bumped into Pollock and The Devil unwittingly. A friend sent me an audio book … and attached an intriguing note: “Just listen.”
So, hell yeah, I listened—
Found myself surrounded by these backwoods crazies. It’s a trip you don’t wanna make while cruising country roads with your car windows down—or tucked in bed at midnight. Or at least I wouldn’t ….
Publisher Penguin books chose award-winning actor Mark Bramhall to dramatize The Devil. And Bramhall—who’s narrated some 400 audiobooks—spurs Knockemstiff to life: pegging the often slow curt speech … and grammar-shredded dialogue of Pollock’s Appalachian characters. Pollock’s books have been dubbed by some as Hillbilly Noir. And while Bramhall’s largely known for his theatrical performances, he’s also appeared in films, including the 2017 rural horror flick Anabelle: Creation—portraying the priest Father Massey. So he cunningly makes you feel how these characters live and think.
For anyone hoping to snatch a taste, I’ve included an audiobook sample below. But for all you TV-film fanatics, characters in the series Justified, set in moonshine-making rural Kentucky—talk in a fashion similar to Bramhall’s audio portrayal: including actor Timothy Olyphant. Billy Bob Thornton in the movie Sling Blade is another good example—though his accent’s more “drawn out.” Or check out Tom Hardy in the depression-era film, Lawless.
Meanwhile, nine mesmerizing hours and ten minutes later I found my spellbound self thinking: Damn. I wish I’d written this book. I grabbed a hard copy—that I’ve devoured four times since.
Call me possessed, Jason! And I’m not the only one. The Devil has been translated into at least a dozen languages including French and German.
Looks like the fun may not stop here either—
According to newsy sources, a movie based on the book is scheduled to release sometime in 2020. Sounds pretty cool. And yup, you can bet your soul I’m anxiously waiting to see the flick. But with Hollywood’s spotty adaptation record? I pray they don’t fuck this up.
Which leads me to think: Time I shut the fuck up. Talking The Devil All The Time—or to the Devil all the time—isn’t healthy or safe for anyone! But before I get the hell out of Dodge, Jason, thanks for letting me share my fire about this book. Pollock certainly gives the bad ol’ Devil his due.
Jim, you’ve been great. What are you working on right now?
I’ve been working on a series of what I call “Frank Smith” stories. Two stories featuring this character were already published – “Desert Requiem” in the Hardboiled anthology from Dead Guns Press, and “All That the Case Is” in Blunder Woman Productions’ Wrong Turn anthology – my inspiration to keep these tales going. Frank’s a hard guy to pin down. He unofficially helps people out of tough situations. But he’s never exactly the same guy twice. The thread of each story dictates Frank’s persona, whether he’s an investigator, simply the muscle, or possibly even the victim. So each story suggests a peculiar adventure: Who will Frank Smith be this time? I aim to link these stories in a road-trip novella, kicking it off with a completed but unpublished Frank Smith story set in NYC, “A Drink in Purgatory”.
Thanks, Jim, for a thorough and passionate run-through of what sounds like a great book.
Matt Phillips, the brilliant writer who brought us the classic Know Me from Smoke, Bad Luck City, and now Countdown, is here to talk Bury it Deep, the noir classic from 1993.
Hi Matt, what’s the book you want to talk about?
Bury it Deep by Sam Reaves. It’s an old book and you may not have read it…
I’ve not read the beast. Corrupt Chicago politics, Teamsters, and death by homicide – heady stuff. What’s the draw for you?
Sam’s prose is as good as anybody’s. But really I love the characters he creates. This book is one of a series that follows a cabbie in Chi-Town named Cooper MacLeish. Both Cooper and his reporter buddy are great noir characters but with nuanced intellect and sensibilities. There’s a bit of bohemian aimlessness to them, but they’re also peppered with enough PI guts to make the story amp up page-by-page. Take that and add in the Chicago corruption angle, working class politics, and some great relationship drama…This is a noir that should be counted among the classics.
What’s the set-up?
Without giving too much away: Cooper’s buddy, a local reporter, is slated to get some city hall intel from a mysterious source. Eventually, he asks Cooper to go with him to a meet and they get mixed up in a brutal murder. The book starts, though, with a haunting cat murder and a death threat. I loved the book from the outset—nothing like spitting in the eye of the ‘cozy’ genre to start a great noir novel.
Is there a 70s vibe to it in the sense that two Bohemian types living in a counter-culture are caught up in the world of high politics and skulduggery?
Yes—that’s it…to a degree. The story evokes the novels of George V. Higgins, but Sam Reaves has his own distinct style. Far less dialog-heavy, but Reaves has a similar ear for how people speak and a similar eye for how the world truly ‘works.’ The thing about this book is that it doesn’t matter what time period—the story is so well-done and detailed that, as a reader, you’re in that world. You believe what’s happening because the writing is that good…You’re there. And, like with so many good books, you can’t escape until you read the last damn page.
What’s the book’s political atmosphere? Is there tension between a political elite and working class ambitions? Is it working class politicians absorbed into a corrupt system? What do Cooper and the reporter want from the city’s politics?
The plot of this one is oddly familiar (in a real-world kind of way), at least to those of us living in the good ‘ol US of A. Local Teamsters are involved. There’s a mysterious recording that a lot of people are dead-set against releasing. And, of course, some pretty shady stuff related to a mayoral election. It’s really about how politics—I think—can’t help but corrupt even those who start out with good intentions. More than that, it’s about normal guys (a run-of-the-mill reporter and a cabbie) coming through for their city and going after the truth. Like with most noir, there are heightened tensions between the working class and the political elite. The result is murder (more than one)—and these guys, like a helluva lot of us, don’t want much from politicians: All they want is the DAMN truth.
Are the protagonists susceptible to corruption? Do they fight inner demons?
Funny, I’d say they’re incorruptible. But they’re also horribly imperfect—that, to me, is what makes them likeable as characters. It’s what makes them real. Like any great noir book, this one deals a lot with paradox. How can two outcast characters be so incorruptible as to pursue the truth about folks who maintain a facade of incorruptibility? Even when these two characters are full of flaws and mistakes and imperfections themselves? I think the answer lies in the fact that people who seem ‘put together’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘always on,’ are full of shit. Often times, their very impression/existence is a lie. Give me Cooper MacLeish, a smart cabbie with tons of failure in his life, over a ‘perfect’ cop or PI any day. Give me somebody real that I can get behind. I’ve got no time or inclination to read about perfect people who never fuck up. That’s not what novels are for…The noir story should get at the heart of what life really is: It’s complicated, hard, incomplete, unwieldy, exhilarating, disappointing—it’s amazing and horrifying all at once.
Is the antagonist front and centre, or a ghost-like background presence? What’s their worldview?
Like a lot of great mysteries, it’s not clear who or what the protagonist is at the start—that’s one of the great things about this book. The reader goes on a journey of discovery with the main characters and, little by little, the truth is revealed. It’s truly a knot that tangles and tangles and tangles until…it finally comes unraveled. Look, the book is very much about power and how it works. The antagonist(s) here don’t shy from corruption or violence. Are you seeing a thread here? All the great elements of noir and crime fiction, I think. That’s why this is one I wish like hell I’d written.
Cooper will have seen all the worst, and maybe some of the best of humanity in the back of his cabs. Is his cabbie experience layered into the story along with his life’s failures? Does it add to any cynicism he has?
Yep, that’s exactly right. Add to that a love interest who doesn’t want him to drive anymore because he keeps running into violence. I imagine being a cabbie is a lot like being a bartender in a tough bar, but worse. You see everybody, from all strata of society. Of course, nowadays I suppose Cooper would have to be an Uber driver (or is Chicago one of those who has regulated Uber?). But I still think it’s a similar thing. You pick somebody up downtown and you can’t really know what they’re up to. Could be a coed out for a Martini or a drug mule carrying money for a cartel … I mean, really, that’s true. Part of the thing for Cooper, though, is that he could really do anything with his intellect and ability. I’m not sure being a cabbie makes him cynical—rather, he chooses that profession because of who he is. For some reason, it suits him…
The love interest in your own classic, Know Me From Smoke, is integral to your novel. What’s the love interest in Bury it Deep like? Is she as crucial to the plot?
Yes! In Bury it Deep, Cooper has this lady named Diana who is essentially the good angel on his shoulder. She wants him to go back to school, to quit driving a cab because he’ll eventually get shot. That relationship tugs at the heart of who Copper is—to me, Diana serves as a barometer for him. He’s constantly wheeling back and forth between what he should be and what he is. A lot like what happens with Royal and Stella in my book. Sam Reaves does us all one better though. His reporter protagonist falls for a femme fatale type. Not only does Reaves toy with that trope, but he also builds a nuanced romantic relationship for each of his main characters. It’s top stuff, believe me. Now that I think about it, reminds me a lot of Newton Thornburg’s books. In any case, Sam Reaves is one of the masters of the genre.
Mel, the journalist, is after his big story. What does the book say about the profession and the media as a whole?
I think the book says that journalists—no matter where they work or their beat—have to be dedicated to finding the truth. There are a number of times when this guy can give it up. He can walk away and be done with it, but the truth is what really matters to him. Sure, he’s a ‘regular’ reporter trying for that big, big story every journalist wants…But this guy knows there’s something hidden, that he has to keep scrapping. Somewhere, on the other end, there’s a whole web of corruption he needs to expose. And here’s the thing: If he walks away, nobody will be the wiser. Nobody is going to know. Being a journalist, according to my reading of Bury it Deep, is about doing what’s right—and it’s about doing what’s right even when nobody will know. You have to be gutsy, but you have to be ethical. Again, yet another example of Reaves’ ability to craft a nuanced character…
Does the character’s past, his failures, push him further on his chase for the story?
I’m not sure it’s his past that pushes him so much as his general intellectual curiosity, his sense of ethics and what’s right, and a more general attraction—quite frankly—to adventure and violence. Some people are simply drawn to and through interesting stories…Copper is one such character. This, for me, goes back to crafting a nuanced character—Reaves creates such a character in Cooper and, as a reader, I’m carried through the story largely by that. It’s not about what’s happening, but who it’s happening to/with…All great books, I think, are really about character. The events/plot are simply a testing ground for character. As novelists/writers, we should always be asking one question: Who are we?
When did you first read Bury it Deep? Is it the book which triggered you to write?
I came across Bury it Deep by pure chance. My first time at Bouchercon, last year, I was sitting in the lounge and sipping coffee. Wondering what the hell to do, to be honest. A guy sits down next to me and introduces himself—turns out, it’s Sam Reaves. He was absolutely gracious, kind, and passionate about crime fiction. Later that weekend, I was in the book room and Bury it Deep caught my eye…I started reading it on the plane ride home—and I finished it over the next couple days. I guess I came across the book the same way I’ve come across a lot of the books I love—pure luck.
So what did trigger you to write?
That’s an interesting question—and the truth is, I just know that I always thought about telling stories. And I was always talking to myself as a kid, making things up, creating characters. I do remember some distinct moments that made me ‘feel’ like a writer. In tenth grade, a girl I knew said she had to write a poem for English class. I asked if I could try—I wrote something vaguely smacking of Metallica, but it was rhythmic and used lots of word play. She said that she wished she could write the way I did. She used the poem for her assignment, so I suppose that also started my life of crime. I should say, I also remember two teachers encouraging me in the Language Arts. One, in eighth grade, said I was a talented reader and writer. Another, in my freshman year of high school, gave me a compliment after I did a reading from Shakespeare for the class. It was his way of saying—I know this now—that I maybe understood the character and play in a way that my classmates didn’t…And when I was a senior in high school, my dad read a heist story I wrote. He pointed at the pages and said, “This, you should do this…And you’ll be alright.” Here I am, working my ass off at a day job and trying to write novels at night. And to little fanfare and acclaim! But what the hell, right? Thanks, dad!
Your dad sounds alright. Do you believe a protagonist has to be likeable?
Does a protagonist need to be likeable? Yes—I think that’s the case, but that doesn’t mean they have to be good or moral or ethical. A great protagonist can be a crook with a sense of humor or a con-man with a charming personality. Or a woman out to snag somebody in some vicious trap. Hell, it doesn’t matter if your protagonist is kind or heroic—all that matters is if a reader can identify with that character or if a reader can invest themselves in what happens to that character. As people, we love to slip into the skin of other people…Even if they’re crooks.
I loved Know Me From Smoke. I’m looking forward to Countdown (thanks for the paperback). What’s next?
Well, I’m proud to say I have another pulp crime novel that’s just been accepted for publication. Can’t offer any hard details, but it’s a brutal one that follows a character I introduce in Countdown. I’m not sure if my books are getting more pulpy over the years, but I do feel I’m getting better as a writer with each book. It’s a real pleasure to be creating a body of work. Other than that, I’ve got another noir novel I’m halfway through on a first draft and an existential noir novella I’m half done with…Just grinding away on the page.
Matt, I can’t wait to tuck in. You’ve been a top guest. Any final words about Bury it Deep, Sam Reaves, and life in general?
Thanks for having me, Jason. Been a helluva pleasure. Famous last words? Why not? I guess I’ll say that I love discovering new writers. It was by pure chance that I discovered Sam Reaves and Bury it Deep. Sometimes, great books find us, you know? I’m about to dig into Pablo D’Stair’s Man Standing Behind. Also got Paul Heatley’s new one, Bad Bastards, headed my way through the mail. If there’s one thing I know, it’s this: There are so many great writers out there. I want to encourage people to branch out, try somebody new—give another writer the chance to surprise you. I don’t care if it’s an older book or a recent release…Give a few of us a shot—you won’t be disappointed.
Today I have the pleasure of showcasing my interview with author Jason Beech, who uses his passion for great crime fiction and thrillers came some truly awesome examples of the genre that he created himself. He talks me through his work and his inspiration.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?
I read a lot of Ellroy, Rankin, Hiaasen, Banks and a lot more when I was young. Out of that pulped mass crawled my writing style. I loved the first book I wrote but I should never have published it – a mess of adverbs, typos, passive voice, and too many flashbacks that went on forever. I still tinker with it because it has a good core and a great cover, but it might never see the light of day again, or will take forever to chisel it into…