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Stuff I Wish I’d Written

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Jim Shaffer on Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the 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.

Donald Ray Pollock

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.”

Knockemstiff, Ohio

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.

Extended audio sample:


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.

You can buy Jim’s work HERE.

Here are a few of Jim Shaffer’s classic short stories :

It’s Not the Pale Moon at The Flash Fiction Offensive

The Dressmaker’s Dummy at The Flash Fiction Offensive

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Matt Phillips on Sam Reaves’ Bury it Deep

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…

Sam Reaves

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.

You can buy Bury it Deep HERE.

You can buy Matt Phillips’ books HERE.

Matt Phillips’ blog is right HERE.

Here are some short stories by Matt Phillips, appetisers for the bigger beasts:

Thoman’s Word published at Shotgun Honey

Role Player published by Gut-Shots/Flash Fiction Offensive

Noir Fiction: Where the Nature of Evil Unravels published at Writer’s Thread

Tess Makovesky on Joel Lane’s From Blue to Black

Tess Makovesky is a fantastic British author whose sly, wicked sense of humour courses through her crime novels. Her Gravy Train is one of my favourite books of last year.

She’s here to talk about Joel Lane’s noir novel, From Blue to Black, which was published back in 2000.

Hi Tess, which book are we talking about?

I’ve just finished re-reading (for the first time in almost twenty years) the noir gem From Blue to Blackby Birmingham author Joel Lane (who sadly died a couple of years ago).

What’s the premise?

The book is set in Birmingham’s alternative music scene in the early 1990s and centres around bass-player David, who joins local indie band Triangle when one of their other members drops out. He falls in love with Triangle’s talented lead singer Karl, but as the band begins to take off, their relationship, and Karl’s mental health, suffer a corresponding tailspin into chaos. Or, as the book’s cover puts it (much more lyrically), “‘From Blue to Black’ is a story of passion, blood and alcohol, broken strings and broken lives – a piercing voyage through our recent musical and political past that cuts to the bone.”

It’s difficult to evoke music through the page without sounding like a Melody Maker journo. How does From Blue to Black manage it?

Hmm, good question. And in a way, I think Joel Lane does make it sound like a Melody Maker journalist – but I also think that was entirely deliberate. The descriptions of the music are less about the emotional response to it (from, say, a listener’s point of view), and more about the techniques of producing tracks and songs and even specific sounds. Which is entirely in keeping with the book’s narrator being a professional musician, and a very technically-minded one at that. So there’s quite a bit of prose that details gigs and recording sessions and drink-fuelled writing sessions in backstreet pubs, all of which comes across as utterly authentic and adds to the raw power of the book.

Joel Lane

Is Karl’s technical-mindedness a key characteristic? Is he in the music world for the fame and fortune, or is music something he just has to do?

Both David and Karl are what you might call musical purists, in it for the sound they want to create rather than any kind of fame. It’s their shared love of style and technique that brings the two of them together, but it also masks the cracks in their relationship and in the whole fabric of the band. Karl is a deeply flawed creative who loves to make music. But he also suffers from terrible stage fright and it’s the conflict between wanting to get his music ‘out there’ and being terrified of performing that helps fuel his eventual breakdown. He reminds me in many ways of Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte – or how Sebastian Flyte might turn out if he was transported to the rock-and-roll era.

Where does Karl’s stage fright come from? What kind of performer is he – is he Freddie Mercury, is he The Fall’s Mark E Smith?

I’ve never seen The Fall perform so I went and checked out a couple of video clips on YouTube and yes – Karl is very much at that end of the spectrum. Cold snarling rage rather than Mercury’s flamboyant, almost joyous performances. At least that’s the impression I get. As to his stage fright, I think it’s partly his own personality, his shyness versus his need to get his art ‘out there’ for everyone to see, which causes massive internal conflict (and is probably recognisable to a certain extent to many creative types). But this isn’t the only factor. Karl also suffers from flashbacks and general messed-up-ness thanks to a traumatic event in his teens. I can’t tell you what it is because it’s revealed towards the end of the book and forms an important part of the plot – as well as delivering a terrific, kick-in-the-pants kind of twist. But it’s enough to affect Karl for the rest of his life. And his coping mechanisms – including way too much alcohol, drugs, and withdrawal from everyday life, really don’t help either.

Karl has dominated the conversation so far, but isn’t it David who tells the story? Is David a strong character in his own right?

The whole book is told in first-person point of view from David’s standpoint and he’s the central element, the glue that holds all of the other pieces – and characters – together. He’s not a typical “hero” – he’s a bit weak at times and prefers to let people get on with their own lives rather than getting too involved or too close to anyone. Interestingly, I’m not sure we ever find out why that is, unlike Karl whose motives are much clearer by the end of the book. But David’s essentially a decent guy – drinks too much, sleeps around a bit, but never seems wholly comfortable with the whole sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll scene in the way Karl and some of the minor characters clearly are. And it’s that decency that could well be his downfall. He’s basically too nice to have the drive required both to succeed in the music business, and quite possibly to cope with the volatile Karl.

If I have a gripe with the book it’s that I don’t think there’s quite enough backstory for David. It would be brilliant to know just a little more about him – what makes him tick, why he acts the way he does. He’s quite a passive character and while that gives Karl all the space he needs to shine through the pages, it means David is more of an enigma than I’d like him to be. Then again, this really is the story of Karl as seen through David’s eyes.-

Joel Lane

Does Karl want to be helped, or does he embrace the ‘unhinged reality’ as a means of escape from his demons?

I don’t think he does want help. He certainly doesn’t ask for it, and at one point he literally runs away rather than accept that he might need it. Whether that’s because he doesn’t want people fussing over him, or whether it’s because he thinks he’s not worthy of helping, I’m not sure, even after reading the book twice. Maybe a bit of both. The bombshell Joel Lane drops near the end of the book would certainly make both possible. As to embracing the unhinged reality, Karl takes refuge in drink and – eventually – hard drugs to escape. But they bring demons of their own, so it isn’t the most successful means of getting away from his problems. But that’s typical of noir, isn’t it? That characters (people) find it hard to understand themselves, or to know what they need for the best. They make all those wrong choices, even when presented with the opportunity to make the right ones, and that’s the desperate, achingly enduring appeal of the genre. Because it’s exactly like real life…

You typically think of noir as guns, femme fatales, money. Is From Black to Blue marketed as noir?

It isn’t your typical pulp noir, certainly, but I believe it fits well into the noir genre overall. I looked up the definition of noir online and the Oxford English Dictionary mentions cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. And From Blue to Black majors on at least two of those – the characters aren’t villains but they really aren’t ‘good guys’ either, and there’s a definite air of fatalism as events slide further and further out of control. Although the book cover doesn’t mention the word ‘noir’ specifically, the blurb and various quotes involve words like ‘jet-black’, ‘disconcerting’, ‘desperation’ and ‘despair’. Without giving too much away, the ending isn’t a particularly happy one and any hope the characters might have had is soon washed away on a tide of broken dreams. And yet the book isn’t a total tragedy; there is still life at the end of it, even if it isn’t the life the characters hoped for. This is really well illustrated by the lyrics from one of Triangle’s songs (also written by Joel Lane), which gave the book its title: The train runs empty down the track Fades with the night From blue to black Wave goodbye to the future It’s never coming back. I do know that Joel Lane himself was passionate about noir, with an extensive, even encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre, and saw himself mainly as a noir writer. From Blue to Black is a great example of how the tenets of noir can be taken and stretched to fit other scenarios that they weren’t necessarily invented for.

Is the novel a variation of the Jekyll and Hyde story? Is Karl the protagonist and the antagonist at the same time?

I’d never really thought of it like that. I guess there are elements of Jekyll and Hyde, but only in the same way that we all have elements of good and bad in us. Mostly, we hide the bad but sometimes it takes over and that’s rather the same with Karl, David and the other characters in the book. However, it’s more subtle than a sudden raging transformation into Hyde or Hulk. Instead the book charts Karl’s gradual descent towards breakdown, with episodes of strangeness, depression, or self-isolation. And what Joel Lane does so well is to make Karl and the others less like characters in a book, and more like complex, richly-imagined and surprisingly real people. Like real-life people they do stupid things, lose their tempers, argue, make up again, love each other and generally rub along with life. And like real people they’re not there to move the plot along or be a cipher for a particular theme or aspect of humanity. They’re just, well, people.

Joel Lane’s The Blue Mask

The novel is set in Birmingham. I know you love Birmingham, but it sounds like the story’s setting mirrors the bleak mental state Karl is in. What’s your take?

I spent over twenty years living in Birmingham and know it pretty well – but I’m not blind to the fact that whilst some parts of the city are surprisingly leafy and prosperous, others are pretty bleak. From Blue to Black is set in various locations around the city including at least one of the greener suburbs (Moseley), and several others that are less salubrious (local clubs and bars, Spaghetti Junction, decaying industrial landscapes in the Black Country). Where Joel Lane excels is in finding the grit and surrealism in even the pleasantest places – and in using them, as you say, to mirror the bleak storyline. The descriptions are remarkably poetic. They grabbed me from the very first paragraph – this one, about Moseley: “A bloodshot moon hung over the tall houses in Salisbury Road, giving faint doubles to the shadows of trees. Across the road, the lights of a housing estate floated in empty air.” Of course, it helps that I was living in Moseley at the time and recognised many of the landmarks. But even when the book moves to places I’m less familiar with, the poetry remains. As does the extraordinary palette of colours, or rather, mostly, the lack of them. Much of the book uses settings that seem bleached of colour, or that reflect the blue and black of the title. Every now and again there’s a sudden flare of vivid colour, often in red or orange – that bloodshot moon, a sunset, a house on fire – to break the monotone. It’s a striking effect, and not one I’ve ever come across before.

Do such descriptions come out of the characters? Some editors think they should – does the descriptiveness take you out of the story even as you admire it?

For me, not really, for a number of reasons. One, the book is in first person point of view so you’re seeing the world through David’s eyes. Then the descriptions, although poetic, aren’t overly long – there’s no sense of the Dan Brown school of using every adjective you can think of, or of the descriptions going on for pages at a time. Two or three lines is about what Joel Lane gives us most of the time, but because it’s such powerful imagery he packs a lot of information into that short space. Where I did find things took me outside the story occasionally was in the track listings of the various gigs the band did. They got rather repetitive and didn’t always seem to add to the story. Once or twice is fine, to give a flavour of what Triangle were playing and how they adapted it to suit different venues/sound systems/audiences, but there were a few too many paragraphs in the vein of “Then we played at…” for my own taste. In the end, though, I think this is down to the reader’s individual preference. I love descriptions of locations, especially if they’re as pared down and evocative as this, but I’ve seen reviews of From Blue to Black that describe it as the most boring book ever. Then again, I’ve seen other reviews that say it “stayed with” the reader longer than anything else they’d read. I’m firmly in the latter camp, but I can see that it wouldn’t be popular with everyone.

Tess Makovesky

Can you imagine what the music sounds like? What’s banging about your head when the tunes kick in?

Oddly enough I don’t really hear the music while I’m reading. Partly I think that’s because I find it hard to mix music with reading or writing anyway. When I write I prefer total silence – or at least nothing that’s going to distract me, like music or voices. And when I read, I’m lost inside the book and very unaware of anything else around me. Plus I think I have a very visual way of responding to what I’m reading – I see the scenes very clearly, but am less aware of sounds, smells and touch. On top of that I’m not actually a big fan of indie/alternative music from the 1990s, so I’ve got very little to fall back on when I try to imagine what it might sound like. If I think of anything it’s probably Joy Division – one of the few bands I know anything about – or perhaps Nirvana, a band that Joel Lane himself mentions in the book a couple of times. None of that affects my enjoyment of the book, though. I’m happy to read the lyrics as a kind of urban poetry, with their own rhythm and “music”, without stopping to think what the guitars, drums and vocals would sound like if I was listening to them in real life.

The book sounds dark. Does a streak of bleak humour run through it?

Very much so. Dare I say, perhaps less than in my own writing, but it’s there. Every so often there’s a wry, dry little comment or line of dialogue, often throwaway, that you could miss if you blink. Often it’s a quiet dig at human foibles or at the more ridiculous side of the music business (‘their haircuts alone were enough to get them signed to Creation.’). There’s also an occasional Brummie in-joke, including someone referring to the band as “Troy Engle”. You kind of have to have lived there, or know what Brummies sound like, to get that one. None of it is laugh-out-loud but it helps to relieve the tension from time to time, and give the reader a quick, sideways smile of understanding. Overall, though, From Blue to Black isn’t a funny book. Most of the narrative is pure noir. And that’s why I envy it, and Joel Lane, for being able to write it, because I struggle to write such dark fiction without the humour creeping in.

Your book, Gravy Train, made me laugh throughout, but some of the stakes terrified me. Do you think humour can dilute a noir novel?

This is a tough one. My first reaction was ‘yes’ but then I paused and thought again. Humour certainly changes the tone of any novel and if there’s too much of it, it probably does dilute the darkness. But it can also be a great way of softening up your audience so that the eventual blow is unexpected and all the more powerful. Tolkien was a master of this technique – he understood that readers mostly can’t stay at the same level of tension throughout a long book. So he interspersed the scary bits with more pastoral or humorous scenes, which made the darker stuff all the more poignant and horrifying. Horror movies often do the same. You’re pottering along, enjoying some minor plot point about the family cat, and then blam!

In the case of From Blue to Black the humour is subtle and scattered through the pages so it’s never enough to water down the bleakness. And in my own writing I like to think my humour is dark enough to point up the hopelessness rather than detracting from it. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I…?

Who do you picture as Karl in a TV series/film?

I tend not to picture characters all that strongly when I’m reading, but if I was pushed I’d say someone who can do quiet intensity, even suffering, without necessarily having the flashy good looks of a big star. David Tennant would be a strong possibility but is perhaps a bit too well known. Others that spring to mind are John Simm or Stephen Graham, or perhaps a young Liverpool actor called Tom Hughes. I’ve seen in a couple of very different roles and he was excellent in both so he clearly has the necessary range – and he’d be closer to Karl’s age during the book, too.

You’ve just finished a new novel. Can you talk about it? If so, what is it, what’s the style?

Hmm, I think “finished” is a little optimistic! But yes, I have indeed written the first draft of a new book, Embers of Bridges, which is similar in many ways to my most recent novel Gravy Train. Both are set in Birmingham, both feature petty criminals, and both are what you might call ‘comédie noir’. In the new book the central theme is loyalty and honour among thieves – or lack of it. Brummie van driver Mickey has been mates with Gaz since primary school. Along with their pals Charlie and Pete, and Gaz’s younger sister Trudy, they formed the Live Hard Die Young gang and spend their spare time robbing newsagents, off-licences and jewellery stores. Until things start to unravel, with job after job going wrong and the gang members falling out with each other. Gaz drags Mickey into one last job on a warehouse in the famous Jewellery Quarter, and suggests a bizarre getaway on a canal boat. But when one of them makes a shocking discovery, it leads to a dark – and watery – conclusion for both of them! As with Gravy Train I had a lot of fun writing it, but it still needs hammering into shape and I’m working on that (with a very large hammer) as we speak.

I loved Gravy Train, so I’m looking forward to this one. Sounds like you’re a pantser?

Hey, thanks for the kind comments – it makes all the hard work worthwhile when people enjoy my books! And yes, guilty as charged on the ‘seat of the pants’ stuff. I tried planning a book out once, and used up so much of my creative energy on a complete list of every chapter and its contents that I had none left to actually write the thing! So now I tend to plunge straight in. I do need a few things to be in place first, though. Most important is the main character(s), plus a rough idea of what the main plot will be. In Gravy Train that idea was a bag of stolen money changing hands many times before it ended up in the local canal, while in Raise the Blade it was the concept of people finding the victims of a serial killer and using the knowledge for their own ends. I also need at least a vague feel for the ending I’m aiming for. And I find it hard to get going unless I have a title, or a working title at least. These days I try to use Pink Floyd lyrics for my titles (‘Raise the Blade’ is from Brain Damage; ‘Gravy Train’ from Have a Cigar, and the new book ‘Embers of Bridges’ is from High Hopes). So before I start any major work on a book you can usually find me poring over track listings on the internet, looking up something that will suit the tone of the book. So far, Messrs Gilmour, Wright and Waters haven’t let me down!

Tess, you’ve been great. Any final words?

Only to say thanks, Jason for such a fascinating, in-depth set of questions, which really got me scratching my head. Thanks too to the late Joel Lane for writing such a fantastic book – and to everyone on here for putting up with me rambling on for so long! And if by any chance you want to look for my own books, you can find all the details at my website at

You can get a feel for Tess’ style with a few of her short stories. Try these out:

The Floor’s the Limit (published by Flash Fiction Offensive).

Bang to Rights (published by Punk Noir Magazine).

Trick of the Trade (published by Spelk Fiction).

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Travis Richardson on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280

Travis Richardson writes hard-edged noir, as you can see from his work at places such as Shotgun Honey and Flash Fiction Offensive. He is a Derringer finalist and loves a bit of Jim Thompson. Welcome, Travis.

Which book are we talking about?

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

Dark, nihilistic noir. What’s the appeal for you?

I like that the story goes beyond noir. It has social commentary about small town values and a lot of twisted humor. You get the perspective of the sheriff of Pottsville who seems to be the stupidest man in the county, but slowly you start to see a darker, hidden intelligence.

What does the sheriff aim his intelligence at? What’s his world view?

It seems that Sheriff Nick Corey just wants to get re-elected, but he is a master of manipulating people who think they are smarter than him. His world view is that he is superior to everybody else.

For what purpose does he want the office?

He would tell you it’s the only job he knows to do – without the sheriff’s position he’d be homeless. But really the position gives him the power to see all that happens in the county, the authority to carry a gun, and the feeling of immunity when he uses it.

Travis Richardson

Does Corey epitomize Thompson’s view of the police? Of authority overall?

That’s a great question. Thompson’s father had been a sheriff in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and moved his family out of town under the cover of night after he was accused of corruption. He did not see his father for a couple of years as he went into hiding in Mexico. Later in life when Thompson was in his twenties working alone on the top of an oil derrick, a deputy drove up and told him he could kill the soon-to-be-novelist and nobody would accuse the deputy. That incident chilled Thompson and became the genesis of The Killer Inside Me. Overall I think Thompson saw the law/authority as people having unchecked (or immense) power that could easily lead to corruption (and inflation of sociopathic egos).

That is frightening. You mentioned the novel’s social commentary. How do the 1280 people of Pottsville treat and react to Corey?

They see him as an imbecile, but are fine with the sheriff because he won’t get in their way if they do something outside of the law. The population of Pottsville operates like a mob. Unfounded rumors can lead to violence and quick mistrust, which Nick uses. The people are also racist, and while amoral, Nick interferes during the beating of black man by making an absurd argument about using city property for abuse while allowing the victim to escape. Nick knows the messed up values of the population. He doesn’t try to change them, but manipulates the people in the moment and doles out punishment later. In some ways the book comes across as an absurd farce, but all of this is happening today. (Social media outrage, people believing outright lies, etc.)

The book was published in 1964, the same year as the Civil Rights Act. Is the movement weaved into Pop. 1280?

Great question. It’s not. Pottsville is so isolated (Potts County is the smallest in Texas) and the people are set in their ways with strong prejudices, which they don’t mind voicing out loud. Even though Nick Corey uses the people’s sentiments to get to his ends, while being intelligent enough not to believe it, he is also a cold-blooded killer with a growing god complex. He will kill the people he saves if they become trouble for him later on. The book exploits the ugliness of small towns, but it is through the eyes of an even darker (and misleading) narrator.

Jim Thompson led an interesting life, including procuring high grade drugs and marijuana for guests at the Texas hotel where he worked as a bellboy. You could say he had an amoral view of life. Is Corey (and Lou Ford from The Killer Inside Me) an extreme extension of the author?

Hmm. I’m not sure. For one thing Thompson was an alcoholic and I could be wrong, but I don’t think either Luke Ford or Corey drink much, if at all. They are surrounded by booze and others drink it to their peril. It’s as if they want a sober mind to have the edge on everybody around them. Thompson never seemed to have that edge in life. He scrambled to keep his head above water, working any job he could find – and his books, while admired, were never bestsellers. He even got screwed over by Stanley Kubrick when he wrote the screenplays for The Killing and Paths of Glory. If anything, Corey and Ford, are antithetical to Thompson: they get what they want and have control. Thompson had neither. Perhaps he wanted those qualities, but felt you needed to be a sociopath to have them.

Jim Thompson

Corey’s clearly amoral in what seems an amoral town. Does he have any redeeming characteristics?

As a reader, it’s fun to see him expose all of the small town prejudices and for a while it seems like he has a moral code under his bumpkin veneer. But by the end he’s lost any morality as his ego inflates to the point he believes he’s above man’s laws. He’s like a trickster god/spirit in fables, but without supernatural abilities.

If Corey is the protagonist, who’s his antagonist? What’s their motive?

Corey has several antagonists including: Pimps who berate Corey because their payoffs entitle them. A condescending neighboring sheriff who believes he can teach the slow-witted Corey through humiliation – with a literal ass-kicking. A do-gooder running for sheriff to end corruption in Pottsville. A hateful wife who uses Corey’s position and “ignorance” to carry on an affair with her supposed half-witted brother. A wife-beating drunk who causes trouble in town and beats Corey’s mistress out of self-loathing. Two mistresses who don’t know about each other, but both have explosive personalities that could undo Corey if they find out.

There are several competing conflicts flying around that Corey has to juggle and with each victory he feels more powerful.

How does the do-gooder come off? The town and its sheriff sound so venal you’d think the principled man would be someone to root for. Or does he rub you up the wrong way?

Not well. He’s hardly seen as Corey tells the district attorney/store owner that he’ll defend his opponent’s honor against all the vicious rumors going. When pressed about what they are, Corey says he’ll not repeat them. The populace speculates, each rumor worse than the next, and soon the do-gooder is run out of town. Corey acts as if he’s defending him the entire time.

Erik Pruitt called your work “bleak, uncompromising and funny.” How deep has Thompson hooked his claws into your writing?

He has to a degree. Definitely the twisted humor, overall darkness, and social commentary – without preaching (i.e., show people’s ugly prejudices without stating it is wrong.) I identify with him being an Okie and working several manual jobs before writing. The one thing I can’t do well is write sociopaths and psychopaths like he can. I usually write people with consciences, who make bad or detrimental choices. Often they are screw-ups, tripping over themselves, or misguided in a moment of emotion. Thompson wrote several characters who are, or believe, they are in control (perhaps projecting his desire for a quality he didn’t have?) I feel Thompson’s overall character psychology is stronger than mine and it is something to aspire towards. Also, some of his books build up to a strong finale, but the concluding sentences are more philosophical than a punctuated climax. I don’t have the nerve to try to pull that off.

How important is humour when reading and writing noir? Can you give an example from Pop. 1280?

It’s a fun thing to add, but not necessary. It’s also tricky to do right because it can derail the tone of a story. Humor can also add or alleviate tension in a scene. One way to is have a straight character, stressed out of his mind in an absurd situation, each choice more frustrating for the character, but funny for the reader. Another is to have a character with funny lines or perspectives that are out there. Corey’s first person narration is long-winded, but funny in his euphemisms and sideways approaches to issues. An example might be the district attorney/storekeeper asking Corey why he doesn’t act honest and courageous if he wants to win an election.

I shook my head, and said I couldn’t “I just plain can’t, Robert Lee, and that’s a fact.”

“No?” He leaned back in his chair. “And just why can’t you, pray tell?”

“For a couple of reasons,” I said. “For one thing, I ain’t real brave and hard-workin [I hit return instead of apostrophe.] “For one thing, I ain’t real brave and hard-workin’ and honest. For another, the voters don’t want me to be.”

And just how do you figure that?”

“They elected me, didn’t they? They keep electing me.”

Later in the same scene with Robert Lee, Corey talks about what a great man his opponent Sam Gaddis is.

“I know Sam’s as good a man as they come. That’s why I can’t understand how all these stories about him got started.”

“Well, that’s fine. I–what?” He stared at me startled. “What stories?”

“You mean you ain’t heard?” I said.

“Of course, I haven’t! Now just what are these stories?”

I made as if I was about to tell him, and then I stopped and shook my head. “If you ain’t heard ’em, you sure ain’t gonna hear ’em from me. No, siree!”

He took a quick look around and leaned forward, voice lowered. “Tell me, Nick. I swear I won’t repeat a word you say.”

Nick continues to refuse to say anything and Robert Lee starts asking around, setting off the rumors. It’s absurd and silly and yet it works with violence in between.

Does the proposed film adaptation of the book excite or scare you?

Mostly excited. Yorgos Lanthimos wrote and directed one of the weirdest and disturbing domestic dramas with Dogtooth. It is about parents keeping their adult children isolated in a permanent state of arrested development. They have no concept of the outside world. The movie was bizarre, with dark humor throughout. He created that environment in a matter of minutes. I feel he’d be able to get the social commentary of Pop. 1280 along with the multiple plot points that Corey has to deal with. There is a lot that Thompson wrote about in Pottsville that is appropriate in today’s political climate.

There are some books like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that I wouldn’t want to see on film, the savagery is too much. The theme is evil consuming everything until only the worst survives. I didn’t care for the movie, The Killer Inside Of Me as it dwelled on the violence of Luke Ford and not the person he’d been – helping out neighbors, patient arrests, etc. – before the psychopath emerges. But don’t think anybody needs to remake TKIM either. Let stay it as a book.

Yorgos Lanthimos

What do you think Thompson would make of the world as it is now?

He’d shake his head and wonder how Texan sensibilities made it to the national stage – pomp over substance, grand statements without evidence, using emotion and prejudice to sway a nation. He might even say I warned you about this evil.

Your short story collection, Bloodshot and Bruised, has had high praise from top Crime writers Jordan Harper, Hilary Davidson and Eryk Pruitt. Do you have plans to write longer works?

I hope so. I have 5-6 manuscripts that are in various stages and outlines for more. Hoping I can have something finished and in good shape by the end of the year.

That’s a ton. How do you keep each straight when you’re writing? Do they bleed into each other?

I try to make the stories distinct and different from each other. Often with unique characters that can’t be interchanged, tones specific to that book, and locations that are different. I have quartet of noir novellas set in the West Texas town of Tarwater. While the town may be a grade above Pottsville, it’s not by much. Three are finished, but the finale is killing me. The opening is strong and I know the end, but the middle is a mess. I wrote the sequel to my first novella LOST IN CLOVER – set in Kansas with a man getting over survivor’s guilt – called POLICING CLOVER, but hesitated sending it out as there was a lot of police work which I’m afraid of getting wrong. I started to change the location to Oklahoma, based on my home town, and start fresh. I began a Western last year where a marshal tries to bring justice for a transvestite murdered by a celebrated murderer. (This has Pop. 1280 themes.)

I’ve written a few comic stories. One is set in the near future after a big earthquake hits LA and a C-list actor wakes up from a coma to become a messiah. I started a second person account of a sidekick to an 80s super-slick cop, making fun of action tropes.

I also started to reconfigure a my first detective novel from third to first-person. I wanted to avoid this, but it might need to be this way to work right.

Finally, I made a 15 page outline to extend a short story into a Don Winslow-esque thriller. The problem is that the story might need to be told in 2 parts. In between, I write short stories. My wife is pushing me to focus on one novel this year. Hopefully I can.

Much to look forward to, then. Here’s to your wife keeping you on the straight and narrow.

Travis, you’ve been a great guest. Any last words on Pop. 1280?

These were great, insightful questions. I’d say, that Thompson isn’t for everyone, but between the brutal scenes, uncomfortable dialogue, and overall chaos, is an exploration of truth. And it isn’t pretty.

Thank you, Jason. These were very thoughtful questions. I enjoyed digging deep for the answers.

Read on:

The Jim Thompson revival.

5 Questions with Travis Richardson5 Questions with Travis Richardson

Here are some Travis Richardson short stories to bite into:

Here’s to Bad Decisions: Red’s Longneck Hooch at Shotgun Honey

A Misunderstanding at Flash Fiction Offensive

You can buy Travis Richardson’s work at Amazons US and UK.

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Bill Baber on The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

Bill Baber is Messy Business’ guest today, talking about James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Crumley has been compared to Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler, his hardboiled noir having a post-Vietnam edge of cynicism to distinguish it from predecessors.

Bill Baber is a fantastic writer you’ll find all across the internet on fiction sites such The Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Spelk Fiction and a horde of others.

Hi Bill, which book are we talking about?

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

What’s it about?

C.W. Sughrue is a Vietnam vet who works as a bouncer at a Montana topless bar and doubles as a private investigator. Hired to track down an alcoholic author, the pair end up searching for a girl who disappeared in the Haight- Ashbury a decade earlier. The hunt takes them through the underbelly of the American West and into some of the darkest places people are capable of going.

A story about a private dick. There’s been so many, what stands out about The Last Good Kiss?

Well, there are always some cliches with P.I. novels and Sughrue is certainly a hard-drinking example of that. But the writing makes this book stand out.The opening line is as good as any ever written – in any genre. And Sughrue is as unique a character as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. He is sometimes more a saddle tramp than anything else, and Crumley’s stories become modern westerns in a sense.

And the thing about Sughrue is that – even though his aspirations can be somewhat noble – between drugs, weapons and his actions, he is a one man crime wave. But I keep going back to the writing. It was like nothing I had ever read before.I read it for the first time in the late 70’s. Poetic sentences are laced throughout. It was the first literary crime fiction I had ever read and it wasn’t until I discovered Lehane and James Lee Burke that anything else came close.

James Crumley

Is the book written in the first person? Do the poetic sentences come out of the character?

Yes and yes. It is written in first person. Sughrue narrates the story. Here is the iconic first line:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

This is my favorite passage from the book. Doesn’t get much more noir than this and it’s pretty damn poetic:

“Sadness softened her nasal twang, that ubiquitous accent that had drifted out of the Appalachian hills and hollows, across the southern plains, across the southwestern deserts, insinuating itself all the way to the golden hills of California. But somewhere along the way, Rosie had picked up a gentler accent too, a fragrant voice more suited to whisper throaty, romantic words like Wisteria, or humid phrases like honeysuckle vine, her voice for gentleman callers. “Just fine,” she repeated. Even little displaced Okie girls grow up longing to be gone with some far better wind than that hot, cutting, dusty bite that’s blowing their daddy’s crops to hell and gone. I went to get her a beer, wishing it could be something finer.”

That is poetic. Does the violence come out fast and brutal, like Ellroy, or does he describe it like above?

Unlike some of his other works, where the bodies can quickly pile up, there is not much actual violence in The Last Good Kiss. His descriptions of what leads to the violence is damn good prose as is the implied violence and how that effects the story.

Do you prefer the implied violence? Your short stories contain it, but they’re short, sharp and to the point.

Yeah, sometimes I do. I think it’s harder for a writer to write a crime story without lots of violence. But really good writers can do it. The threat is always there and you feel that constant tension.

What does Crumley have to say about the American West?

He laments the changes. He bemoans over-development, real estate speculators , timber interests, anything that has changed the face of the west. Sughrue and his other PI character, Milo Milodragovitch were born a hundred years too late. They both live by the code of the old west. Essentially, they are modern day saddle tramps who just want to be left alone. I think this passage sums it up well: “I parked beside Trahearne’s Caddy, got out to stretch the miles out of my legs, then walked out of the spring sunshine into the dusty shade of the joint, my boot heels rocking gently on the warped floorboards, my sigh relieved in the darkened air. This was the place, the place I would have come on my own wandering binge, come here and lodged like a marble in a crack, this place, a haven for California Okies and exiled Texans, a home for country folk lately dispossessed, their eyes so empty of hope that they reflect hot , windy plains, spare, almost Biblical sweeps of horizon broken only by the spines of an orphaned rocking chair, and beyond this, clouded with rage, the reflections of orange groves and ax handles. This could have just as easily been my place, a home where a man could drink in boredom and repent in violence and be forgiven for the price of a beer…”

Bill Baber

Does Vietnam sit in the novel’s background? If so, in what ways?

First, here is one more great quote about the “modern” west: “…I put Rosie’s eighty-seven dollars in a dollar slot machine and hit a five-hundred dollar jackpot. Then I fled to the most depressing place in the West, the Salt Lake City bus terminal, where I drank Four Roses from a pint bottle wrapped in a paper bag. I couldn’t even get arrested, so I headed up to Pocatello to guzzle Coors like a pig at a trough with a gang of jack Mormons, thinking I could pick a fight, but I didn’t have the heart for it. Eventually, none the worse for wear, I drifted North toward Meriwether like a saddle tramp looking for a spring roundup.”

The Vietnam war is never far away. It’s not mentioned often in the book but even if it weren’t mentioned at all you would know the setting was the underbelly of America just after it ended. Sughrue is a vet who earned a dishonorable discharge and spent time in a military prison for an assault that went too far. As a result, he is recruited to spy on left wing groups for the government. Between the war and espionage, he hones his PI skills – becoming a warrior without a war.

If Sughrue hankers for the ways of the old west, how does he see his role as an agent for the new America, the one which intervenes across the world and allows big business to transform his ideals of old America?

Hard question, easy answer. Have you been to Montana? That’s his main stomping ground. Hang out in bars there and the rest of the world goes away. Anytime he deals with that kind of bullshit he heads home, says fuck it and goes on a bender. Strip all the macho layers away and he’s a simple man. Good whiskey, good smoke, a pan fried elk steak and the occasional dalliance with a damsel, who is usually in distress, is all he needs to be happy.

James Crumley

Never been to Montana. So who’s the girl and why is she missing? Murder or a need for anonymity?

Betty Sue Flowers. She has a falling out with her mother, who runs the beer joint where Sughrue finds Trahearne. Out of kindness – and for eighty-seven dollars – Sughrue agrees to look for her.

Is Trahearne the alcoholic author Sughrue is initially looking for?


Why does Trahearne get involved in the search?

Sughrue finds him not far from San Francisco and is supposed to take him back to his wife in Montana. But Betty Sue may be or may have been in the Haight-Ashbury, so the two, who have kind of hit it off, take a detour to look for her.

Your bio says you’re a writer of trashy crime stories. How do you categorize The Last Good Kiss?

Crumley’s books are definitely boiled harder than most but I call them literary crime fiction. I put Lehane and James Lee Burke in that same category. There is more going on than just crime.

As I said before, you call your own stuff as trashy crime stories, but you have turns of phrase that could be considered literary. Do you aim for the literary?

Thanks, I do but I have a long ways to go to get where I would like to be. Initially you asked how I would classify my work and I gave that a great deal of thought. I write as a hobby so I suppose that allows me to write in different styles and different settings. For instance, after visiting New Orleans once I have since set a few stories there. I’ve never been to New York but I have written stories set there. Never been anywhere else in the south but have written stories about it. I suppose if I were aiming for fame and fortune I would need to both hone and define my style better. My hope is to someday write a literary crime novel.

What do you like about a trashy crime story? Which movie would fit the bill?

I like the way a trashy crime story just jumps off the page. I hope he won’t take offense because to me, trashy is a great thing in crime fiction and Tom Leins’ Paigton Noir stories are a delight! As far as movies go, Pulp Fiction is the first thing I think of that fits that description.

Tom Leins is a cracking storyteller.
Bill, you’ve been great. Any final words?

Couple of things. It’s too bad Crumley only left us seven crime novels. And earlier I talked about the poetic nature of his writing. The title The Last Good Kiss was taken from a poem by Crumley’s good friend, Richard Hugo.

Thanks for having me, Jason, it’s been fun.

You can buy James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss at Amazons UK and US.

Here’s a taste of Bill Baber’s work. They’ll draw you in and make you push him hard for that novel he’s working on.

Jason Beech’s Books

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