“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
Ive got Janet Roger, author of the very good-looking novel, Shamus Dust, to talk about her book and a whole lot more. Enjoy.
Your book, Shamus Dust, set in a battered post-war London, is out on 28 October this year. What’s the story, in 30 words or less?
Pandora’s Box just got opened
in the ruins, City Police has a vice killing on its hands, and a spooked
councilor hires a shamus to help spare his blushes.
I love the 40s London setting. What drew you to the city and the period?
Well, thank you. Shall we start with the City? Shamus Dust is set there at Christmas 1947, when – as it still is – the City of London was the financial heart of the capital, often simply known as the Square Mile. Think of it as London’s Wall Street. In fact, it genuinely is – even now – the more or less single square mile contained inside the arc of London’s ancient Roman walls, with the Thames running along its southern boundary. What drew me, was living and working there on a couple of occasions. You can walk the whole City very easily, and if you do that you inevitably get up close to its geography and history. As for period, those early years of Cold War fascinate me in general. But in the City something very special happens. It had taken a hammering in the London blitz. Hundreds of its acres – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – were flattened rubble. Which made it an archaeologist’s dreamland. For a few short years, digging in those blitz sites gave them unimagined access to the two-thousand years old Roman city right beneath their feet. They wasted no time. Before reconstruction got seriously under way they’d made monumental discoveries: a Roman temple, a Roman fortress on the line of the wall, even the foundations of an arena – a Roman coliseum, no less. And there was the puzzle. The discovery of the temple and the fortress made instant splash headlines. Yet London’s very own Roman coliseum – yes, there really is one – got overlooked. Seriously, it completely escaped notice for the next almost forty years. Which started me wondering what the story was…
So this Pandora’s Box is an opening of Roman treasure which sets off murder and intrigue?
It was a window opened on that lost Roman arena. In the
blitzed London of the early postwar it was stumbled on in the north of the
City, on a construction site close by the current (vast) Barbican development.
But the window closed again, and the coliseum’s existence – it’s an arena the
size of a football field – simply got overlooked (!). The mistake is explained
today as just one of those things, an oversight that went unnoticed until 1988,
when the archaeological record was examined again. Once rediscovered, the Roman
amphitheater was excavated for more than a decade, then opened to the public in
a spectacular new gallery below ground (don’t miss it on a trip to London). Shamus
Dust, of course, fills out the story differently. It goes back to those
Cold War years, when rebuilding the City was up for grabs and fortunes were
staked on the coming construction boom. In this telling, the real estate
interests include high-end racketeers as well as corrupt City grandees, who
think any delay on construction will be very bad karma indeed. Cue that
monumental discovery on a construction site that no-one will get to hear of.
Cue the apparent vice killing that gets Shamus Dust under way. And then cue
the hardboiled gumshoe who gets hired as part of the cover-up.
Shamus, in the British sense refers to a policeman. In America the term was often a derogatory term for Irish cops, and now a private detective. Who’s your shamus and what motivates him?
You just told me something about the British use of shamus that I didn’t know. There’s also a rather lovely connection to Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe, arriving as immigrants into New York. If I can get this right, the shammes is the Synagogue’s house man – the eagle eye and the ear to the ground who’s meant to know what’s going down in the shtetl. So, when those European immigrants first came across the novel notion of a private eye, they simply reached for an equivalent (the shammes) from the old country. The question is, How Do You Say It? Near the beginning of The Big Sleep, Marlowe – Bogie himself – tells Carmen Sternwood he’s a Shahmus. On the other hand, near the end of Somewhere In the Night, Police Lieutenant Kendall (Lloyd Nolan) tells the chanteuse that her new squeeze is a Shaymus. Both films are from 1946, so you choose. Though it’s interesting that both Marlowe and the police detective have to explain that the word means private eye. As for Newman, he’s been an American in London for nigh-on twenty years, arrived in the Depression era for the chance of a job in the City. He turns insurance investigator, spends his wartime transferred to a British Army unit with his boss, tracking down military supply fraud (but that’s another story). War ended, he’s back in the City, going it alone as a gumshoe, motivated in Shamus Dust by a payday offered by a City councilor. Also motivating for him are a kingpin racketeer, some unsubtle policing, the necessary femme fatale and a temporary medical examiner who’s clearly out of his class. Which motivation wins out? It’s complicated.
Early reviewers have noted Shamus Dust’s Chandleresque hardboiled language, and you clearly love the old noir film classics. The setting and timeframe makes me think of the The Third Man. How important is the use of language to you? Do you have patience for Ellroy-style prose?
The Third Man! Well, I’m a fan of Graham Greene, love the movie and still buy a ticket anywhere it’s showing. And it’s true, the themes of Cold War rackets, displaced Americans, love and loss, are all there in Shamus Dust. Not to mention deep winter and the dark disillusion of the times. Language? A reviewer said of Shamus Dust recently, Imagine Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown, played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London. Now, setting aside the compliment, that was interesting because Chinatown’s screenwriter is the Angeleno, Robert Towne, who says he loves what he calls Chandler’s lazy lyricism. So do I. For me, it’s the lyric prose that lifts the Marlowe stories out of the crime read and into the territory of the novel. It brings a unity and spaciousness. In a word, it lets them breathe. So yes, language is important. James Ellroy? But which James Ellroy? The one who writes The Black Dahlia, or the one sponsored by Western Union? I’m for The Black Dahlia, but prose style takes you, I think, into the bigger questions of how you write your historical fiction. I had a story set in 1947. A (subverted) Chandleresque seemed obviously suited as a way to tell it – after all, it’s when Marlowe is at his best. Now, the fact is that by now you have to historicize those years for your readers, so it won’t happen, but still, I’d love to leave them wondering when exactly in the 1940s Shamus Dust was written! You’ll know what I mean. James Ellroy is interested in just the same period I am, but sees his historical fiction very differently; language, chainsaws and all.
Is planting an American PI in London the natural thing to do? Would an English PI, in this timeframe, have stilted your rich prose? Made the tone more arch than street-level cynical?
The American shamus is a device, obviously. But as for natural or not, Americans – in and out of uniform – were everywhere in western Europe at the beginning of the Cold War. And in numbers, too. In London, Newman wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd. Some of his compatriots – Carole Landis, Richard Widmark, Orson Welles and others – were arriving there to star in British films noirs. No-one found that strange. But let’s go back to The Third Man. Trevor Howard’s terrific Major Calloway in that movie is a man cast in much the same mould as Newman (even if he is in uniform). But the problem is, I just can’t hear Shamus Dust being narrated by an Englishman of the time. English rhythms work against that Chandleresque lazy and lyrical. English cadences and manners play in the wrong key. And besides, it’s a story told from the outside. From police to racketeers, shell-shocked veteran to femme fatale, almost every character the American encounters is English. I wanted a reaction from someone who would find the English as strange and exotic then as we do now, from this distance in time. The American shamus answered the need.
You’ve talked about noir masters and the city’s they evoke: Lehane and Boston, Block and New York – are you aiming for Roger of London?
I love Roger of London. It sounds like a really swish Bond Street dress
shop. Even so, I doubt it’s going to trouble Block or Lehane in the name
recognition stakes. What they do in creating so powerful an image of their
cities through fiction, is really remarkable; a PR agency couldn’t hope to promise
as much. But truly staggering is how Simenon and Chandler have mythologized
Paris and LA into a new century, for those who never heard of them just as much
as for their enduring fans. These last two are not even native sons. Or is that
their secret weapon? I think I might have a go with that dress shop idea.
I think of American noir as the protagonists and antagonists carrying guns, and English set noir as more knives and garrotes. Your world is as seedy as that across the pond, but how do the underworld figures threaten each other? How does the American view the English underworld?
You’re not alone in that, and it makes me wonder where the different images come from. Perhaps the English notion of gentleman-detectives leaves them thinking that in London a hit gets arranged over tea and muffins. Or perhaps Americans naturally think – since the cars are always bigger, the buildings are taller and the rich are richer – that their mob must be heavier and their cops tougher. As if a London heist is a more civilized affair, or the shakedown there is more refined. In 1947, London had an immense dockland and waterfront, a financial quarter, industry and commerce. In the early Cold War it also had severe shortages of everything (even more so than in wartime); an element of returning soldiery that didn’t fit back in; and a wave of sidearms liberated by the soldiery, who’d had six years’ familiarity with how to use them. In other words, every necessary ingredient for the rackets, as in New York, or in Los Angeles or in Chicago. When a gun is pulled in a British-made film noir of those years – many of them set in London – no-one blinks in astonishment. Likewise, many of the cops had military police experience (The Third Man’s Major Calloway is a Scotland Yard detective with a colonel’s rank in the original story). Newspapers of the day tell the same story of a dark, violent city. And after all, the mob on both sides of the Atlantic was going out to watch the same Jimmy Cagney movies. Perhaps the world’s been waiting for Shamus Dust to set the record straight.
Is Shamus Dust the beginning of a series, or a one-off? What’s next?
Not a series, but there is a sequel on
the stocks. The Gumshoe’s Freestyle is set in the City of London (of
course), in the summer of ’48. Those Cold War years made interesting times. Freestyle
ties up some loose ends and returns to some characters from the first story. There’s
even a lead-in planted near the close of Shamus Dust, though you do have
to know your Chandler to spot it. I liked the idea of some passing link between
events that Newman and Marlowe will never know they shared an interest in. That
said, Freestyle stands on its own and takes Newman to an entirely new
case. It’s been interesting deciding which characters to go back to, how
fleeting or important they need to be, and of course, how to introduce them to the
reader who doesn’t already know them from the earlier story.
Janet, you’ve been a great guest. Any final words?
Only to thank you for your very kind invitation, and some out-of-the-ordinary questions. I really enjoyed the back and forth.
The summer has been hot, it’s been busy, it’s been dramatic – and here is Joanne M. Reinbold to open the autumn season of interviews.
I met Joanne at a Noir at the Bar event at a cracking pub in Delaware, where she read a story to chill the heart.
Hi Joanne, what’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift about?
The Killings at Badgers Drift by Caroline Graham is about an elderly woman, Emily Simpson, who, while searching the beech woods near her village for a rare orchid, sees something she wasn’t meant to see. Shocked and outraged, she flees, but not before she’s seen and recognized. The next day, Miss Simpson is found dead in her home by her friend, Lucy Bellringer. The village doctor declares Miss Simpson died of natural causes. Miss Bellringer does not agree, and it is through her persistence that DCI Barnaby and DS Troy become involved. After a proper post mortem, it is discovered that Miss Simpson has been poisoned and her death is declared a murder. The two detectives embark on an investigation wherein they encounter [SPOILERS] deadly blackmail, fraud, suicide, incest, and more vicious murders before unmasking a ruthless killer.
Readers should not assume that because The Killings at Badger’s Drift takes place in a seemingly placid and pleasant village in the English countryside that it is in any way a cozy mystery. Badger’s Drift is a police procedural with a decidedly dark current running through it. It also boasts one of the most brilliantly written prologues I have ever read, as well as having boasting rights for two of the most creepy, eccentric, and sinister characters, the Rainbirds, ever to appear on the page. Another claim to fame is the name Badger’s Drift, quite possibly the most unique village name ever conceived.
The Killings at Badger’s Drift is the basis for the BBC’s Midsomer Murders series, though Caroline Graham wrote only six original stories. After winning the Macavity Award (1989) and receiving nominations for the same honour at the 1989 Anthony Awards and the 1988 Agatha Awards, Badger’s Drift went on to be named one of the “Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time” by the Crime Writers Association.
The set-up has a cozy ring to it. Do you like cozies? What drew you to the book in the first place?
In general, no, I don’t care for cozies. For one thing, I don’t care for the name. I mean, what has “cozy” to do with murder? I recently came across a post on a mystery/crime blog where the author of the blog was discussing The Killings at Badgers Drift, the television version from Midsomer Murders. He was going through the programme scene by scene advising cozy readers on where they’d want to fast-forward through a scene or skip a scene completely. “There’s a crime scene here, buckets of blood—you’ll want to fast forward past that. Skip this scene; nudity and sex warning! Swearing in this bit!” While I found this amusing, I admit, I don’t completely understand it. If the murder and the investigation of the murder is peripheral to all other aspects of the story, why have a murder at all?
That being said, there are things that have become associated with cozies that I do enjoy, such as villages, farms, animals, and old traditions, trades, and folklore. On the flip side of that, I’m also very much interested in true crime, detective fiction, current trends in forensics, policing, and criminal psychology, and for want of a better term, “weird” stuff.
As for what drew me to The Killings at Badgers Drift. It features many of the elements I like in a mystery story: crime in the countryside; tough, clever, resourceful detectives; current forensics, policing, psychology, and social issues (for the time in which it was written), and weird stuff. Another draw is that Badgers Drift is also quite a fine piece of writing with a challenging plot.
Who are the detectives? Are they city men? Do they understand the countryside?
In The Killings at Badger’s Drift the detectives are Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy. They work out of Causton CID (Criminal Investigative Department) in Causton a town in the county of Midsomer in Southwest England. Caroline Graham based her county of Midsomer on the actual rural county of Somerset also in the Southwest of England. Badger’s Drift was published in 1987 with the story taking place at that time. Today, one might compare the fictional town of Causton with that of the county town of Taunton in Somerset, and Causton CID with the Taunton Police Station, a sub-unit of the Avon and Somerset Police. DCI Barnaby and DS Troy call themselves “country coppers” given that the majority of their investigations take place in the rural areas and villages surrounding Causton. Ms. Graham employs a familiar trope of detective fiction in that Barnaby and Troy exhibit opposite personality traits with Barnaby being the more patient of the two and Troy being more impulsive. Still, they manage to get on well enough to work effectively as a team. Of the two, Barnaby is more conversant in country ways, but neither of them were born or raised in a rural setting.
How does the rural population treat them? Do they see them as a protective duo, or are they seen suspiciously as outsiders?
At the time Badger’s Drift was written many villages still had local police constables who were around, if not every day, then on a regular basis. The people knew them and for the most part they were seen has helpful and protective. CID detectives only appeared when a murder or other major crime had been committed. They most probably had no prior experience or history with the people in the villages and farms and therefore were looked upon with some suspicion, especially since they were the ones probing into people’s personal lives and activities as a means of gathering information and identifying suspects. This is the case in Badger’s Drift. The people who put their hopes in the detectives solving the crime and delivering justice look on them favorably (if they believe the detectives are doing their jobs properly), while others who are or become the focus of their investigations certainly do not, don’t want them around, and are happy to be rid of them as the detectives typically turn up all manner of secrets, scandal, prior bad acts, or simply things folks would rather not be public knowledge.
The doctor concludes Emily Simpson died of natural causes. Does Lucy Bellringer know what Emily saw before she died or is she suspicious of her neighbours?
Miss Bellringer does not know what Emily saw before she died. Her firm belief that something isn’t right in the matter of Emily’s death is based on two things: Emily did a number of things on the day she died that were completely out of character for her, and two, because of Emily’s age, eighty, a death certificate was automatically issued by her doctor without a post-mortem based on his observation of a large bruise on her leg which obviously indicated a fall, the shock of which had been too much for her heart and led to her demise.
Miss Bellringer points out that if Emily had been half that age, questions would have been asked and a post-mortem carried out. When DCI Barnaby suggests that perhaps Emily had taken ill while she was out on her bicycle, Miss Bellringer protests that if that had been the case, Emily surely would have stopped at Miss Bellringer’s cottage on her way home as she would have to pass her gate on the way. And she would have stopped, Miss Bellringer insists because “we’ve been best friends since childhood. She would have stopped, and I would have looked after her.”
She also finds that Emily discovered a rare ghost orchid in the beech woods and marked its location. By doing so Emily won a competition that the two friends have engaged in for many years. The fact that Emily then fails to tell Miss Bellringer that she’d found the ghost orchid first is so out of character as to be unheard of. Shortly, thereafter, Miss Bellringer finds a scrap of paper by Emily’s phone with a name and phone number on it that she recognizes as belonging to the Samaritans. The Samaritans operate a confidential help line for people who need to unburden themselves of worries. Miss Bellringer tells DCI Barnaby that whatever it is that Emily saw—and couldn’t tell her oldest and best friend about—must have been a terrible and unspeakable thing, because nothing else can explain her ringing total strangers.
DCI Barnaby’s response is insightful and sensible: “It was his belief, forged by thirty years of looking and listening, that no one ever acted out of character What most people thought of as character (the accumulation, or lack of, certain social, educational, and material assets) was shallow stuff. Real character was revealed when these accretions were stripped away. Anyone was capable of anything. However, Miss Simpson had done several things on the last day of her life that someone who had known her closely since childhood had never known her to do before. And that was odd. Odd and interesting.”
And so, DCI Barnaby tells Miss Bellringer after she mentions her concern that the police might not take her appeal for an investigation seriously: “…all complaints and inquiries are investigated. Our opinion of their veracity is quite irrelevant.”
Do all the villagers’ accretions of social norms strip at the investigation, even though not all of them are guilty of murder? How is their sense of community affected?
Soon after the detectives begin interviewing residents of the village, two more particularly brutal murders occur. The victims are Iris Rainbird and her son, Dennis, the village undertaker. They are found hacked to death in their cottage. Notebooks are found that reveal the Rainbirds had quite a lucrative sideline in blackmail. From these notebooks the police discover which villagers are being blackmailed and why.
Two of the blackmail victims are Dr. Lassiter and his wife, Barbara. They are being blackmailed because she is a former prostitute who married him for money and privilege. The detectives also learn that the Rainbirds discovered a local woman, Phyllis Cladell, murdered her sister in a supposed hunting accident two years previous. When confronted by the police, Phyllis confesses, is arrested, and later commits suicide in prison. And though there is no reference in the notebook DCI Barnaby and DS Troy reckon the Rainbirds knew who killed Emily Simpson and had a go at blackmailing them with disastrous results.
In the course of the investigation a scheme is uncovered in which Katherine Lacey who is set to marry her benefactor, Henry Trace, a wealthy older man and local landowner, whom she and her brother, Michael, then intend to murder, claim his estate, and leave the country, is discovered.
When the Lacey’s are alerted by a childhood nanny, who DCI Barnaby had contacted, that their incestuous relationship has been discovered, the brother and sister commit double suicide by shotgun.
It’s later found that it was Katherine Lacey and not Phyllis Cladell who murdered Bella Trace, the wife of Katherine’s and Michael’s benefactor. Phyllis really believed she had shot Bella. Due to the commotion and many people moving about and shooting during the hunting party, Phyllis did not realize that someone concealed (Katherine Lacey) in the trees behind her had fired the fatal shot.
By the end of the story, the villagers’ sense of community is shattered. Six deaths and much sordidness uncovered has left the village traumatized, as well as lives ruined, and reputations undone. Perhaps the only positive is that the villagers no longer must fear the tyranny of the blackmailing Rainbirds.
What’s the writing style: noirish or does it reflect (and disguise the evildoings) the rhythms of an English country village?
I would say that Caroline Graham’s writing style in Badger’s Drift is slightly formal, somewhat bucolic, with a touch of humor. While it does reflect the rhythms of the countryside and village life, she does not disguise the evildoings that go on, in fact, her descriptions of murder and mayhem are often quite graphic.
You like English country crime fiction beyond Badger’s Drift – How does the characterization differ from urban noir?
Yes. There’s quite a bit of Britcrime that takes place in the countryside or takes the detectives or other protagonists into the countryside. That’s the case in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) an unforgettable crime classic by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes and Watson must travel from London to Devonshire to discover who is behind the warnings and/or threats against Sir Henry Baskerville. Much of the story takes place on the ominous Grimpen Moor where one misstep means death in a pool of quicksand and the baleful howl of the hound echoes in the night. Great stuff.
Another of my favorites is the thriller Road Rage (1997) by Ruth Rendell. The main themes of this story—which is based on an actual event—are the environment and environmental activism. A by-pass is planned in the village of Kingsmarkham that will destroy a forest and the habitats of many wild animals. The villagers protest the bypass and disrupt the work on the new run. Soon protestors begin to disappear and another alleged environmental group, Sacred Globe, claims responsibility and threatens to kill the hostages unless plans for the bypass are completely cancelled. Chief Inspector Wexford, whose wife Dora is among the hostages, must discover who Sacred Globe is, then find a way to free the hostages.
Then there’s the classic Hallowe’en Party (1969) by Agatha Christie in which the private detective, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a child who has been drowned in an apple-bobbing tub. I want to say right now that I completely disagree with the notion that Agatha Christie wrote cozies. Her stories are some of the darkest mysteries ever conceived, and her characters rival one another in maliciousness, spitefulness, sociopathy, and evil intentions. In Hallowe’en Party Poirot, at the request of his friend, crime writer Ariadne Oliver, travels from London to the village of Woodleigh Common to investigate the child’s murder. The story action centers around the fabulous Quarry Garden created by the horticultural genius, Michael Garfield.
And finally, there’s A Place of Execution (1999) by Val McDermid. The story takes place in 1963 in the village of Scardale in Derbyshire where thirteen-year-old Alison Carter vanishes. Alison’s disappearance is the first case of newly promoted Inspector George Bennett who leads the searches among the limestone dales and caves of the White Peak without success, until decades later when a shocking truth comes to light and he learns the fate of the girl he could not find.
Characterization in these stories differs from urban noir in several ways. Foremost, I would say, the protagonist, whether police, PI, or other, is not an outsider or an outcast. They may have their differences with others, but they remain connected to family, friends, and colleagues, continue to work as a team, have people and institutions they care about and that care for them. There isn’t that pervasive sense of alienation you often find in urban noir protagonists.
Also, urban noir is the realm of the non-hero or anti-hero and no amount of effort on his/her part will change their fate, because they are bound by a fatalistic or nihilistic view of life. They have no hope and suffer no one who does. While the protagonist (heroes/heroines) of other stories are motivated by a need for justice, order, or love, and pursue those ends within the constraints of the law or the boundaries of society, the noir protagonist is more likely to be driven by revenge, greed, or lust and will cross a moral line to get what they want.
And finally, a noir protagonist must have a capacity for violence, as well as often being the victim of violence. Rather than calming things down, they stir things up, and, as a result, noir protagonists rarely achieve a “happy ending” or even a fair one. They often end up with worse than they started with.
Noir protagonists, when written well, are complex and intriguing and their stories can be quite addictive.
What differences do you see between UK and American rural crime novels.
That’s an excellent question, and a difficult one for me to answer. Recently, while reading a book on British cooking, I came across a statement that gave me some insight. The author is making an analogy about food preparation, of course, when he says: “In Britain, we don’t have climate, we have weather.” A rather clever way of saying there is diversity on a small scale, but not so much on a large scale, because the United Kingdom doesn’t cover a large geographic area such as the United States or say, Africa.
So, in the UK you’re not going to have rural crime novels that take place in a desert, such as Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels that take place in New Mexico in the American Southwest, or in over-heated Lousiana swamplands of the American Deep South where James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series is set. Also, there’s Sue Henry’s Alaska mysteries that take place in an arctic terrain, and Sharyn McCrumb’s Elizabeth MacPherson mystery series that takes place throughout the massive range of the Appalachian Mountains.
In the UK rural crime novels that I’ve read the characters move around the countryside, in and out of villages and small towns, but there isn’t the kind of long distance travel that often occurs in American rural crime fiction, for example Sue Henry’s Murder on the Iditarod Trail where the story takes place during Alaska’s world-famous Iditarod: a grueling eleven-hundred-mile dogsled race across hazardous Arctic terrain.
I think the “weather and climate” statement also applies to people/characters. In UK rural crime fiction, you’ll find diversity in regional cultures, but again probably not to the degree you’ll find it in American rural crime fiction where there are very distinct cultural differences in communities of Native Americans, Cajuns, Tex Mex, as well as Amish, Shaker, Mormon, and number of other religious sects, to give a few examples.
My choices in American rural crime fiction are often Southern Gothic or Grotesque and include the works of writers such as Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, James Dickey, and even Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
The rural crime novels of these authors and those mentioned previously differ from what CrimeReads defines as “rural noir” in that they don’t necessarily deal with “the harsh lives of people in remote places and their conflicts with kin or rival clans that go back generations.” Though, I have to say that Wise Blood, a Southern Grotesque, by Flannery O’Connor will give any noir novel of any persuasion a run for its money!
How would you describe your next writing project?
I’m working on the second book in my DCI Rylan Crowe Mysteries series. The first book in the series, Missing, is a novelette, or a “book shot” as they’re called now. The second book is a full length novel, as will be subsequent books in the series, though I may do more “book shots” in between. The second book, like the first, takes place in a village in the English countryside where a brutal murder has been committed and the detectives have a devil of a job getting to the bottom of it. During the course of their investigation, they have to deal with scams targeting the elderly, cybercrime, a rural crime ring, and immigration issues, all of which make sorting out the murder that much more difficult.
Joanne, you’ve been a top guest. Any final words?
Thanks so much for inviting me, Jason. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. Some final words … I would tell readers to not shy away from trying something new when selecting books. There are so many fine writers that aren’t on best seller lists. Ferreting out new voices and stories is an adventure I’ve always enjoyed and I would encourage folks to give it a try. That, in fact, is how I was introduced to your stories. When I heard you read at a Noir at the Bar in Wilmington, DE. I liked your story and your reading, so I went looking for more of your work. That was a bit of good fortune for me!
Thank you, Joanne.
Joanne expects her new novel to come out in 2020. In the meantime you can buy her novelette, Missing, from Amazon now.
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.