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.
Matt Phillips, the brilliant writer who brought us the classic Know Me from Smoke, Bad Luck City, and now Countdown, is here to talk Bury it Deep, the noir classic from 1993.
Hi Matt, what’s the book you want to talk about?
Bury it Deep by Sam Reaves. It’s an old book and you may not have read it…
I’ve not read the beast. Corrupt Chicago politics, Teamsters, and death by homicide – heady stuff. What’s the draw for you?
Sam’s prose is as good as anybody’s. But really I love the characters he creates. This book is one of a series that follows a cabbie in Chi-Town named Cooper MacLeish. Both Cooper and his reporter buddy are great noir characters but with nuanced intellect and sensibilities. There’s a bit of bohemian aimlessness to them, but they’re also peppered with enough PI guts to make the story amp up page-by-page. Take that and add in the Chicago corruption angle, working class politics, and some great relationship drama…This is a noir that should be counted among the classics.
What’s the set-up?
Without giving too much away: Cooper’s buddy, a local reporter, is slated to get some city hall intel from a mysterious source. Eventually, he asks Cooper to go with him to a meet and they get mixed up in a brutal murder. The book starts, though, with a haunting cat murder and a death threat. I loved the book from the outset—nothing like spitting in the eye of the ‘cozy’ genre to start a great noir novel.
Is there a 70s vibe to it in the sense that two Bohemian types living in a counter-culture are caught up in the world of high politics and skulduggery?
Yes—that’s it…to a degree. The story evokes the novels of George V. Higgins, but Sam Reaves has his own distinct style. Far less dialog-heavy, but Reaves has a similar ear for how people speak and a similar eye for how the world truly ‘works.’ The thing about this book is that it doesn’t matter what time period—the story is so well-done and detailed that, as a reader, you’re in that world. You believe what’s happening because the writing is that good…You’re there. And, like with so many good books, you can’t escape until you read the last damn page.
What’s the book’s political atmosphere? Is there tension between a political elite and working class ambitions? Is it working class politicians absorbed into a corrupt system? What do Cooper and the reporter want from the city’s politics?
The plot of this one is oddly familiar (in a real-world kind of way), at least to those of us living in the good ‘ol US of A. Local Teamsters are involved. There’s a mysterious recording that a lot of people are dead-set against releasing. And, of course, some pretty shady stuff related to a mayoral election. It’s really about how politics—I think—can’t help but corrupt even those who start out with good intentions. More than that, it’s about normal guys (a run-of-the-mill reporter and a cabbie) coming through for their city and going after the truth. Like with most noir, there are heightened tensions between the working class and the political elite. The result is murder (more than one)—and these guys, like a helluva lot of us, don’t want much from politicians: All they want is the DAMN truth.
Are the protagonists susceptible to corruption? Do they fight inner demons?
Funny, I’d say they’re incorruptible. But they’re also horribly imperfect—that, to me, is what makes them likeable as characters. It’s what makes them real. Like any great noir book, this one deals a lot with paradox. How can two outcast characters be so incorruptible as to pursue the truth about folks who maintain a facade of incorruptibility? Even when these two characters are full of flaws and mistakes and imperfections themselves? I think the answer lies in the fact that people who seem ‘put together’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘always on,’ are full of shit. Often times, their very impression/existence is a lie. Give me Cooper MacLeish, a smart cabbie with tons of failure in his life, over a ‘perfect’ cop or PI any day. Give me somebody real that I can get behind. I’ve got no time or inclination to read about perfect people who never fuck up. That’s not what novels are for…The noir story should get at the heart of what life really is: It’s complicated, hard, incomplete, unwieldy, exhilarating, disappointing—it’s amazing and horrifying all at once.
Is the antagonist front and centre, or a ghost-like background presence? What’s their worldview?
Like a lot of great mysteries, it’s not clear who or what the protagonist is at the start—that’s one of the great things about this book. The reader goes on a journey of discovery with the main characters and, little by little, the truth is revealed. It’s truly a knot that tangles and tangles and tangles until…it finally comes unraveled. Look, the book is very much about power and how it works. The antagonist(s) here don’t shy from corruption or violence. Are you seeing a thread here? All the great elements of noir and crime fiction, I think. That’s why this is one I wish like hell I’d written.
Cooper will have seen all the worst, and maybe some of the best of humanity in the back of his cabs. Is his cabbie experience layered into the story along with his life’s failures? Does it add to any cynicism he has?
Yep, that’s exactly right. Add to that a love interest who doesn’t want him to drive anymore because he keeps running into violence. I imagine being a cabbie is a lot like being a bartender in a tough bar, but worse. You see everybody, from all strata of society. Of course, nowadays I suppose Cooper would have to be an Uber driver (or is Chicago one of those who has regulated Uber?). But I still think it’s a similar thing. You pick somebody up downtown and you can’t really know what they’re up to. Could be a coed out for a Martini or a drug mule carrying money for a cartel … I mean, really, that’s true. Part of the thing for Cooper, though, is that he could really do anything with his intellect and ability. I’m not sure being a cabbie makes him cynical—rather, he chooses that profession because of who he is. For some reason, it suits him…
The love interest in your own classic, Know Me From Smoke, is integral to your novel. What’s the love interest in Bury it Deep like? Is she as crucial to the plot?
Yes! In Bury it Deep, Cooper has this lady named Diana who is essentially the good angel on his shoulder. She wants him to go back to school, to quit driving a cab because he’ll eventually get shot. That relationship tugs at the heart of who Copper is—to me, Diana serves as a barometer for him. He’s constantly wheeling back and forth between what he should be and what he is. A lot like what happens with Royal and Stella in my book. Sam Reaves does us all one better though. His reporter protagonist falls for a femme fatale type. Not only does Reaves toy with that trope, but he also builds a nuanced romantic relationship for each of his main characters. It’s top stuff, believe me. Now that I think about it, reminds me a lot of Newton Thornburg’s books. In any case, Sam Reaves is one of the masters of the genre.
Mel, the journalist, is after his big story. What does the book say about the profession and the media as a whole?
I think the book says that journalists—no matter where they work or their beat—have to be dedicated to finding the truth. There are a number of times when this guy can give it up. He can walk away and be done with it, but the truth is what really matters to him. Sure, he’s a ‘regular’ reporter trying for that big, big story every journalist wants…But this guy knows there’s something hidden, that he has to keep scrapping. Somewhere, on the other end, there’s a whole web of corruption he needs to expose. And here’s the thing: If he walks away, nobody will be the wiser. Nobody is going to know. Being a journalist, according to my reading of Bury it Deep, is about doing what’s right—and it’s about doing what’s right even when nobody will know. You have to be gutsy, but you have to be ethical. Again, yet another example of Reaves’ ability to craft a nuanced character…
Does the character’s past, his failures, push him further on his chase for the story?
I’m not sure it’s his past that pushes him so much as his general intellectual curiosity, his sense of ethics and what’s right, and a more general attraction—quite frankly—to adventure and violence. Some people are simply drawn to and through interesting stories…Copper is one such character. This, for me, goes back to crafting a nuanced character—Reaves creates such a character in Cooper and, as a reader, I’m carried through the story largely by that. It’s not about what’s happening, but who it’s happening to/with…All great books, I think, are really about character. The events/plot are simply a testing ground for character. As novelists/writers, we should always be asking one question: Who are we?
When did you first read Bury it Deep? Is it the book which triggered you to write?
I came across Bury it Deep by pure chance. My first time at Bouchercon, last year, I was sitting in the lounge and sipping coffee. Wondering what the hell to do, to be honest. A guy sits down next to me and introduces himself—turns out, it’s Sam Reaves. He was absolutely gracious, kind, and passionate about crime fiction. Later that weekend, I was in the book room and Bury it Deep caught my eye…I started reading it on the plane ride home—and I finished it over the next couple days. I guess I came across the book the same way I’ve come across a lot of the books I love—pure luck.
So what did trigger you to write?
That’s an interesting question—and the truth is, I just know that I always thought about telling stories. And I was always talking to myself as a kid, making things up, creating characters. I do remember some distinct moments that made me ‘feel’ like a writer. In tenth grade, a girl I knew said she had to write a poem for English class. I asked if I could try—I wrote something vaguely smacking of Metallica, but it was rhythmic and used lots of word play. She said that she wished she could write the way I did. She used the poem for her assignment, so I suppose that also started my life of crime. I should say, I also remember two teachers encouraging me in the Language Arts. One, in eighth grade, said I was a talented reader and writer. Another, in my freshman year of high school, gave me a compliment after I did a reading from Shakespeare for the class. It was his way of saying—I know this now—that I maybe understood the character and play in a way that my classmates didn’t…And when I was a senior in high school, my dad read a heist story I wrote. He pointed at the pages and said, “This, you should do this…And you’ll be alright.” Here I am, working my ass off at a day job and trying to write novels at night. And to little fanfare and acclaim! But what the hell, right? Thanks, dad!
Your dad sounds alright. Do you believe a protagonist has to be likeable?
Does a protagonist need to be likeable? Yes—I think that’s the case, but that doesn’t mean they have to be good or moral or ethical. A great protagonist can be a crook with a sense of humor or a con-man with a charming personality. Or a woman out to snag somebody in some vicious trap. Hell, it doesn’t matter if your protagonist is kind or heroic—all that matters is if a reader can identify with that character or if a reader can invest themselves in what happens to that character. As people, we love to slip into the skin of other people…Even if they’re crooks.
I loved Know Me From Smoke. I’m looking forward to Countdown (thanks for the paperback). What’s next?
Well, I’m proud to say I have another pulp crime novel that’s just been accepted for publication. Can’t offer any hard details, but it’s a brutal one that follows a character I introduce in Countdown. I’m not sure if my books are getting more pulpy over the years, but I do feel I’m getting better as a writer with each book. It’s a real pleasure to be creating a body of work. Other than that, I’ve got another noir novel I’m halfway through on a first draft and an existential noir novella I’m half done with…Just grinding away on the page.
Matt, I can’t wait to tuck in. You’ve been a top guest. Any final words about Bury it Deep, Sam Reaves, and life in general?
Thanks for having me, Jason. Been a helluva pleasure. Famous last words? Why not? I guess I’ll say that I love discovering new writers. It was by pure chance that I discovered Sam Reaves and Bury it Deep. Sometimes, great books find us, you know? I’m about to dig into Pablo D’Stair’s Man Standing Behind. Also got Paul Heatley’s new one, Bad Bastards, headed my way through the mail. If there’s one thing I know, it’s this: There are so many great writers out there. I want to encourage people to branch out, try somebody new—give another writer the chance to surprise you. I don’t care if it’s an older book or a recent release…Give a few of us a shot—you won’t be disappointed.
Today I have the pleasure of showcasing my interview with author Jason Beech, who uses his passion for great crime fiction and thrillers came some truly awesome examples of the genre that he created himself. He talks me through his work and his inspiration.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?
I read a lot of Ellroy, Rankin, Hiaasen, Banks and a lot more when I was young. Out of that pulped mass crawled my writing style. I loved the first book I wrote but I should never have published it – a mess of adverbs, typos, passive voice, and too many flashbacks that went on forever. I still tinker with it because it has a good core and a great cover, but it might never see the light of day again, or will take forever to chisel it into…
“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
There are big themes in this book – which resonated with you the most?
Religion? Or fate? I guess religion, but that’s not what resonated with me most. It was the humor.
The novel starts with Owen Meany hitting a foul ball and killing the narrator’s mother. That does make me laugh (I haven’t read the book) – does that scene represent the book’s style of humour?
Yeah, the absurd kick-start is typical of John Irving. But the thing that struck me most is the way he had the diminutive Meany’s lines all in caps. It was a simple gag, but never failed to give the character’s voice a unique and hilarious tone.
Owen Meany is barely five feet tall, so what is Irving doing with those capitals when he talks? Does he have a big booming voice to contrast with his physical appearance?
Exactly, and I believe he’s even tinier than that. But it’s more than that, The Voice gives him an innocent, childlike quality that forms his pure view of the world. He’s unsullied. The other portion of the book, the narrator’s present tense, deals with the narrator’s struggle with religion. That’s why I think, in a way, Owen is treated as a tiny little Messiah.
Is that because of how he killed the narrator’s mother – I can see the baseball as some kind of lightning strike?
It’s pretty complex, the plot of balls, and it has a lot to do with free will, destiny, the big questions. But that’s not why I truly love the novel. I love it because I read it in a time of my life when I absolutely required escape. It was part of my own experience with serendipity and destination.
Where were you in life when you read it?
I was squatting in an abandoned jewelry store on Mission Street during the night, and wandering the streets during the day. I was down and out as I have ever been. I literally found the book in the gutter. I was able to escape out of my world and into John Irving’s. I loved it so much I didn’t want to leave – I read it twice in a row. I read it by candlelight in the squat at night.
It feels too pat to suggest the book pulled you out of that phase by itself. Did it give you a roadmap?
It was certainly instrumental in easing my pain. It was part of the series of strange and seemingly unrelated events that led me to finally get off junk and get off the street. But I absolutely remember eating the donuts that I’d taken from the AA meeting that day while I read that book by candlelight at night, the wax dripping over everything in the pitch-black darkness of that awful cement squat. Owen Meany’s world in the 60s was so warm, so interesting, so polar-opposite from my life at that moment, I was completely enveloped in it while I had my nose in that book.
I’m imagining you laughing in that dark cement squat while reading. When you put the book down and came back to the moment of your circumstances it must have been tough. Did you read until sleep took you, or stare at the darkness to imagine living in Owen Meany’s world?
Both. It’s hard to describe my life then. It was so dark inside that squat that you could not see your hand in front of your face in the middle of the day. You walk around flicking the spark on a Bic lighter because you didn’t want to use up the butane. It was basically me, a bloody sleeping bag, a pile of dirty needles, and a bunch of wax candles I’d stolen from Walgreens. And the book. I read it in the night and when I brought it out into the day it was covered in wax drippings. Sad times, but they were very vivid. Being instantly able to step into Owen’s world was magical. It’s funny too, the other book I remember having found was a paperback version of the Catholic catechism, a strange parallel to the narrator’s religious crisis in the novel.
Did you believe in God before this period in your life? Did you believe during, after, and now?
Yes to all three, but my concept is certainly not a normal one. Never been a religious guy, although I still perform weddings in California! I mean, I certainly believe in a power greater than myself. And I certainly believe in science. I don’t just believe that God and science can coexist, I think they are actually the same thing. Talk about unpopular opinions.
You perform weddings? As a priest?
As a minister, yeah. The Church of Universal Life. Remember, they used to advertise in the back of Rolling Stone magazine? It’s where Johnny Carson was ordained.
That’s brilliant. I didn’t grow up in the States, so I had no idea such institutions advertised anywhere. In Britain what we understood of American religious life came from movies or the occasional scandal from televangelists. In what ways does the narrator’s religious crisis chime with your experience?
Universal life, you could join for a dallar. I don’t think you pay anything now, just go online.
As for the parallel, it was just the appearance of religious type items. It was an odd thing to stumble upon. You start grabbing at straws. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I was spending my days eating pastries in an old church. That’s where the soup kitchen was. The universe conspired to allow me just enough time to tread water so I could get clean.
What’s the book’s funniest passage?
Hell, I don’t know. It’s been years since I’ve read it. Almost any of the passages where Owen is speaking certainly bring a smile to my face. But what it comes down to, the reason this whole subject came up in the first place, is do I wish I’d written it. Yes, and I think I know why. Irving created this funny, warm, wonderful place, and he did it without the kind of bloodshed that comes out so naturally in my own work. To create a novel so engaging without relying on violence in action – it’s somewhat of an enigma to me.
What draws you to write violence?
Honestly, I don’t know. It seems like everytime I start a new novel, I want to write something more character-driven, less brutal. But when I start writing, it just steers itself back to a crime tale. The story just kind of takes over.
You ran The Flash Fiction Offensive with Joe Clifford, so you read a ton of crime-related fiction. Do you still read a lot of the genre, or do you wander into different, maybe even other John Irving-like reading directions?
Not often enough. Every time I read outside my genre, I’m reminded what a pleasure it can be. This year I’ve covered some historical stuff, some Hollywood trash, and that’s about it. It’s true, reading all those submissions grew a little weary after a while, but I still read a fair amount of crime fiction. Right now I’m reading November Road by Lou Berney.
Have you seen Simon Birch, the 1998 film based on A Prayer for Owen Meany? Does it do it justice?
You know what? I’ve never seen it. I figure it’s just the universe stepping in the way to save me. I hear it’s terrible. In a related case of serendipity, I never saw No Country for Old Men, or The Road till I had actually read the novels. Not intentional, just divine intervention.
Your books are gaining great reviews. What’s next, and are you feeling pressure to maintain such a highly regarded streak?
In a word, yes. My next one is actually solid and I’m confident about it, it’s part of the same quartet as the first three novels. But the one I’m writing now? Of course I’m tortured with self-doubt, that’s an occupational hazard, right? But after all my talk about simplicity, chose a path so convoluted and complex, I may not be able to bring it to fruition. In fact, if I come up with a simpler more straightforward idea, I’ll probably abandon my work-in-progress and just run with that.
The best of luck with that, Tom. You’ve been a great guest. Any final words?
Thank you for having me. This is been one of my favorite interviews ever. And if any of your readers rush out to read A Prayer for Owen Meany, don’t blame me if you don’t like it. It may have been one of those time-and-place situations. I can’t go back and read Kerouac or Bukowski or a lot of those authors who I loved in my youth. I tried a couple other novels of John Irving’s–I loved Cider House Rules–but for the most part they seemed a little canned and pretentious. But they’ll always be a warm spot in my heart for Owen Meany.
Tom Pitts is the highly rated author of Piggyback, American Static, 101, and others. He used to publish a host of short fiction at The Flash Fiction Offensive along with Joe Clifford.
Check Tom out at his website HERE where you can also buy his books.
“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason 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, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.
“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”