Matt Phillips’ You Must Have a Death Wish is a fun blast of noir which follows three men through their disastrous decision-making – Moonie Sykes who is branching out to become a hit-man and who finds it difficult to harden his heart for it; Gato, a man so pissed at an associate he wants Moonie to kill him and then maybe set him up for the murder, and Larry Aces, the dodgy property businessman who screwed Gato over.
If you’ve read any Matt Phillips you’ll expect violence, some offbeat conversations, and an explosive finale. I powered through this one, and though there’s some gruesome acts to make you wince, this felt more of a lighthearted romp from Phillips than the other two I’ve read – Know Me from Smoke and Countdown where the consequences really hurt.
The main man, Moonie, is a fantastic character, full of heart, always looking for a way up, but somehow lacking the immorality you need to get ahead in the crime world. Gato is a lizard – cold, calculating, and holds a grudge only the splash of blood can cool. Larry Aces is funny, wildly immoral, performs one act you can’t ever forgive him for, and spews rubbish out of his mouth every sentence. A proper scumbag.
The one character I didn’t buy is Zelda who hooks up with Larry Aces after he goes on the lam, drawn way too thin compared to the richness Phillips always gives his characters. I didn’t get what she wanted, she seemed to hate Aces and yet stayed with him it seems just for the size of his dick.
Beau Johnson has dropped in for a cup of tea laced with beer and hardcore violence to talk about his new book, All of Them to Burn, out on 24 February from Down & Out Books. I just need to know who the author is he speaks of.
Hi, Beau, what’s this new book you’ve written?
Right out of the gate then, is it? Okay. I see how this works. But first, Jason, I want to thank you for having me. You have always been so gracious with me, my answers notwithstanding. Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, the new book is the same as the previous books I suppose. New stories, of course. New adventures. But set up the same way the others have played out. Some one-offs. Some time-travel. But at its heart sits what always has: Bishop Rider and his continued struggle. More to the point: the end of it.
Bishop Rider rolls on, righting the world’s wrongs – but the world has a whole lot of wrong. How does Bishop cope with this knowledge, that his revenge can never be finished in his lifetime?
He knows. Has accepted the fact many times over. But it doesn’t deter the man. “It’s not the way killin’ is done.” He’d say, or something to that effect, and steamrolls on in an attempt to get as many as he can before he can no longer “go to work.”
And how about redemption. Bishop seeks it, but the things he does – even if it is to the scum of the Earth – must pile on the weight of his sins. Do you see him ever reaching a point of redemption?
Never. The man has too much hate. I even broach this very subject in ALL OF THEM TO BURN. In one story, a character tells Bishop he thought he’d feel different after Bishop lets this man kill the man who’d killed his child. “That’s the secret, Hoss,” Bishop says to this man. “You never do.”
How has Bishop developed since The Big Machine Eats, his second outing.
Well, funny you should ask. Seeing as I’ve always told Bishop’s story out of sequence for some reason, many things have occurred since the Big guy last ate. One, he continues to deal with the fallout of being down a limb. Not a whole limb, mind you, just the bottom part of what I call his kicking leg. Then there’s the whole Kincaid thing, which involves what Rider sees as his greatest mistake, and how it comes back to haunt him. There’s also the bit about his death, too, but maybe we save that for another day.
You’ve noted that people around you give you sideways glances after reading your work. Now I know it’s fiction, but what we write comes out of us. What percentage of you is Bishop Rider, and what do you tell friends who question your state of mind?
Ha! 90/10 split all the way! Rider being the furthest thing from his creator as you can possibly get. Which makes it all the more enjoyable when I do get those sideway glances (insert maniacal laughter here).
What’s your view on the state of the world?
I can’t, m’man. It kills me. Apologies.
You’re a massive advocate for other writers, which is top stuff. Who are you mad for right now?
I’m currently reading ORPHAN X by Gregg Hurwitz. Great stuff so far. And my last read was MY DARKEST PRAYER by Shawn Cosby. Top notch. Great voice. Great story. Great book. As I’ve been known to say: go on, get some. On the horizon I have GRETCHEN by Shannon Kirk and MAXINE UNLEASHES DOOMSDAY by Nick Kolakowski.
You’re itching to write. Life gets in the way and you end the day with your plans still in your head. Out of ten, how mad are you and how do you deal with it?
Since my wife and kids got me this handy dandy cell phone four years ago not so mad. I mean, I’ve now written one and half books on a phone for crying out loud! Weird times, my friend. Weird times.
You’ve said you’re an acquired taste. What kind of reader loves you all over their taste buds?
More than I ever thought would, to tell you the truth. I feel I’ve gotten better at writing, or maybe stronger is a fairer word, but I’ll acknowledge I took a hit early in my career, just before A BETTER KIND OF HATE came out. A bigger name than I will ever be, a writer I loved, let’s just say I wasn’t their acquired taste. And I know I’ll never be to everyone’s liking, I do, and you’d have to be some kind of moron to think along such lines, but it doesn’t mean it hurts any less to understand that someone you admired sees you as such.
What’s your next book? Is it written, planned, or still brewing and stewing in your mind?
Too soon to tell, but I will say this: a funny thing happened on the way to editing ALL OF THEM TO BURN…
Any last words, Beau?
Not only is Jason Beech a gentlemen and fellow wordsmith of the dark, you should check out his books too! I hear the latest one is a corker. All told, during my next purchase round, I might just have to get it myself.
You can buy All of Them to Burn direct from publisher, Down & Out Books, or from AmazonsUS, UK, And more.
Since Beau and I talked he’s announced that he will release another book featuring Bishop Rider, Brand New Dark. When the time comes I’ll take the poolball out of his mouth and allow him to talk about it.
In the meantime, get involved in some Bishop Rider stories –
Shamus Dust is a postwar London-set whodunit noir thriller that is so rich you have to take your time over it. It starts with a murder, which rolls into a body-count high enough to keep the American PI Newman on his toes, involving the secrets of the city’s rich, their affairs, the corruption of London City policemen, and Roman ruins exciting enough to stall redevelopment riches to certain developers.
Roger has the atmosphere of a ruined, snowy London down so much you can feel the cold and hear the crunch under your slippered feet. The conversations drip with classic black and white noir, and some of the colour she puts into the descriptions read like poetry. Sometimes, it’s a bit too much – I liked the words so much sometimes that I lost the thread of the plot with all the situational detail. But when these characters talk you’ll put on your fedora and hang onto the characters’ coattails to see where they’ll take you.
Anthony Neil Smith is one prolific writer. You blink and he’s poured another novel for your pleasure. He doesn’t churn his novels out, he puts in the blood and other bodily fluids into his work. The Chicago Tribune noted that “Smith writes with force and clarity.”
But I’m going to dock him some points for sticking the middle finger to one of my rules. Bastard.
A friend of mine doesn’t read fiction, paraphrasing Frank Skinner about it all being made-up and he has no time for any of that. What words do you have for such a philistine?
There’s a lot more bullshit in nonfiction than fiction. The “all made-up” part is what allows us to tell the truth. It’s a really funny thing, that need to know “it really happened” for someone to care about a story – one of the reasons people cited reality TV as such a huge genre, but seriously, how real is it? Editing? Playing to the camera? I bet you get more reality out of scripted drama, even in sci-fi and horror, than in reality TV.
What must a protagonist have to make you read on?
Well, they can’t be boring. Sometimes, even “extreme” can be boring. So what’s not boring? A point of view I can immediately relate to. They need to be messy (psychically, I mean), not too cut-and-dry good or bad. You know how some people in life make you care about them and others, you could give a cold shit? Same with protagonists.
Do you need a likeable protagonist?
Nope. Just need to be able to see the purpose at the center of that character, though. Empathy. Charisma. I always loved Vic Mackey from The Shield, except for when they tried to shoehorn in some cliché family guy qualities – he was doing it all for his kids! Meh. Maybe he was, but it never seemed the right fit to me. But then again, mayhem for the sake of mayhem is boring, too. So somewhere in-between, something…meaningful rather than likeable. I have very much wanted to write a book based on a story I read about a K-9 cop who got drunk and was caught on a cell phone video beating the shit out of his dog. The dog survived, the cop, I think, lost his job, and of course lost the dog. And yet…I always wanted to do a first-person novel where that guy is trying to redeem himself. He knows he fucked up. He misses that dog badly. (I am a very devoted pet dad, so believe me, I feel the anger that everyone else feels about this dickhead times a thousand). And every time I bring it up, it’s immediately shot down. Guy beats a dog, no one would ever ever ever want to read about any sort of redemption for him. And to me, that’s the challenge of it. I wish I could write that book in a way people would stick with him all the way through, even if they despise him. At least there would be something there to make his story compelling. But also, what a fucking asshole.
Name a great novel or movie, and what they do for you.
I usually talk about how White Jazz really freaked me out and made me seriously want to become a crime writer for certain after reading just a few pages. But then again, Black Betty by Walter Mosley made me a fan of his for life. It was the first Easy Rawlins I read, and that thing just burned. It made me go reach back for Chester Himes, who wrote even crazier things. That one-two-three punch of Mosley, Himes, and Ellroy around that particular time of my life (mid-90’s) set the stage for taking my already rabid interest in crime fiction (since The Hardy Boys) to the next level, which I guess is full-on addiction.
What makes you throw a book out the window?
When Jack Reacher discovered his dead brother in Killing Floor. (I kid, Lee Child. Kudos to all his success. Cheers!) Lack of pace, lack of voice, getting bogged down in the “prettiness” of the writing rather than telling the story as it should be told. The author either underestimating the readers, or overestimating his or her own intelligence and needing to show it on the page. “I’m a smart writer!” No, the best writers make me forget about everything outside the story, which is harder and harder to do the more you learn about writing. It’s a grand illusion. That’s more impressive than “Look at my awesome words!”
Do you grit your teeth all the way to the end of a dodgy novel?
I give up on a lot of novels. Sometimes I go back to them and find they were better than I thought. But many times, I just give up for good. I was reading a recent big-time thriller that everyone was raving about, and I hung through until nearly the end, but I was bored silly. I don’t know, I just didn’t care about the protagonist, and it seemed so…quiet. I didn’t feel many thrills for a thriller. But hey, it made all the money, so what do I know? I quit about 50 pages from the end. I just stopped caring.
What gets you writing? A great novel, maybe? Something you saw on the street, or on TV? Something else?
It usually starts with a scene, like someone doing something awful. Why? Who’s the victim? Or just something that makes me wonder: I passed through a small town in Minnesota on my way somewhere and immediately thought of Billy Lafitte, riding back into Minnesota through this town on a badass motorcycle. That was all I needed to start the sequel to Yellow Medicine, Hogdoggin’. And even then, I got the word ‘hogdogging’ from a Mississippi news report about people letting their dogs loose on hogs, ripping them apart, and I thought it described the novel pretty well. So, I think visually. Like film, the iconic image. Then I play the “what if” game that carries me to the idea.
What did you learn about writing from the last book you wrote?
I don’t know yet. I heard a story about a gang shooting in North Minneapolis where something like forty-eight shots were recovered, and a grandmother died in the crossfire. That started the wheels spinning. I wanted something in that world, but I’m not a part of that world. I also wanted the protagonist to be a high school teacher. So I’m nearly done with the book’s first draft, after which I’ll need to clean it up and make changes. The majority of the characters are African-American, and I’m a white guy, so all I can hope is that I did the best I could to tell the story that came to me. I’m hoping I’ll have some writer friends let me know before I show any publishers. But as I was thinking of the protagonist, I just knew he had to be Somali-American for it to work. Minneapolis is a huge center for Somali culture in America.
What’s your next book, in 30 words or less?
I hope it’s the one I just described, which I like to say is “The Untouchables X Dangerous Minds” in North Minneapolis. The next one to actually be published is a novella from Fahrenheit Press called Slow Bear. This is another one where I went after a story about someone unlike myself – a Native American ex-rez cop (he was introduced in my book, Worm) who has made a huge mess of his life. Look for it in early 2020. And fuck your 30 words. I didn’t count.
Where can readers connect with you?
I’ve got a simple website, anthonyneilsmith.com, which I’ll update when the next book comes out. But mostly, find me on twitter (@anthonynsmith) or Facebook.
Thanks, Anthony, despite you abusing the 30 word rule, you damn beast.
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.