Keep in mind books you "loved" in college on August 20th.
Michael Malone is from Ayrshire, Scotland. He is a published poet and
working towards being a published novelist. Meanwhile he blogs over on May
Contain Nuts (http://mickmal1.blogspot.com/) on everything from books to
family. He is also a regular reviewer over at www.crimesquad.com
The Ballad of Lee Cotton by Christopher Wilson
If you had been anywhere near me in the summer of 2005 I would have worn your ears off talking about this book. I had an enthusiasm bordering on the obsessive and I would have tugged at your shirtsleeve until you picked the book up and bought it for yourself.
Lee Cotton, in his own words “gets himself born in November 18, 1950” in Eureka, Mississippi at the same time as his mother’s neighbour, Jimmy Cooder’s Charolais bull finds itself dangling from a tree. This event causes a media storm “because bulls never show no natural enthusiasm or aptitude for tree-climbing”. And from the off you are aware that you are in the hands of
a fascinating narrator.
Lee is a white child born to a black mother and in his early life learns to deal with the problems this presents. His Icelandic father, from whom Lee has inherited his “straw-blonde hair, buttermilk skin and blue eyes” doesn’t hang around to offer explanation to the local populace for this misplaced child. Instead, Lee has to work out for himself how he should observe the
customs of the day. Should he sit in the back of the bus with the blacks? What if someone comes on who doesn’t know he’s “a black soul in a white wrapper”, should he then sit in front?
Lee's troubles continue when he's a teenager and falls for the wrong, local (white) girl, Angelina, who is unfortunately the daughter of one of the most violent racists in town. Once Daddy discovers his daughter is seeing a black boy (even if he is a white black boy) he organises a violent assault on the kid, leaving him for dead and far from home -- which allows Lee to start
over with a new identity. All-white this time.
Lee is drafted, but gets to avoid Vietnam because the beating left him with some special (psychic) abilities that the Army is willing to explore. He gets posted in the middle of nowhere, with a load of other mind-freaks. He doesn't mean to escape from the army, but accidents do happen – on this occasion involving a high-speed car crash and a dangerously placed whisky
bottle. He’s rescued by a doped up plastic surgeon and forced to adopt another guise...as a woman.
If all of this appears to be far-fetched it most assuredly is, but such is the writer’s skill that you allow the measured, thinking part of your brain some respite and just hitch along for the ride. And what a ride it is. Wilson has littered this novel with ideas and surprises that are touching,
dramatic and hilarious in turn. He takes great risks as he does so but in his winning narrator, the bold Lee himself, he has created a device that allows him to pull off everything he attempts. Lee Cotton is flighty, quirky, naive and fun and he and his actions are described in an energetic,
inventive prose that never lets up for the duration of the “ballad”.
This is a rambunctious, romp of a tale told in faultless American idiom (from an Englishman) that never takes itself too seriously but one which offers much in the way of insight and entertainment.Quite simply, get yourself a copy, turn off your weird-o-meter and dive in.
Alec Cizak is a writer from Indianapolis. His crime fiction has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, A Twist of Noir, and Thuglit. More disturbing works of his can be found in the anthologies Ruthless and D.O.A. He attempts to maintain a blog as well:
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
So this is shaping up, in some ways, to be the year Jim Thompson again breaks to the surface of American popular culture just long enough to pick up a handful of new fans. The Killer Inside Me, considered his most famous book, has been made into a movie that has the Polite Police screaming bloody murder because Jessica Alba gets slapped around. As usual, things are being taken out of context, but so what? That’s the new spectator sport in America, isn’t it? What is being missed, however, is the fact that Thompson did, essentially, a rewrite of Killer about ten years later. It’s called Pop. 1280 and is, in my opinion, a much, much better book.
The narrator of Pop. 1280 isn’t confused about his psychotic condition. He’s so aware of it that he plays stupid to everyone else in effort to hide his sociopathic tendencies. As he bumbles around other people, he drops little bits of cynicism that reveal Thompson’s working class sympathies. The book is also one of the most honest reflections of racism in the history of American literature. In the middle of the novel, Nick, the sheriff, is forced to shoot Uncle John, a black man who has the misfortune of knowing Nick has committed at least one murder (at that point, I believe, he’s actually killed three people.) Uncle John pleads with Nick, who gives him a speech in which he essentially states that their roles in society have already been determined and there’s nothing either can do about it. It’s cynical and, nearly forty years after it was written, still difficult to disagree with.
Nick is a realist and, at the core, a man who is comfortable having no moral center. As he prepares to shoot Uncle John, he says, “What I loved was myself, and I was willing to do anything I god-danged had to to go on lying and cheating and drinking whiskey and screwing women and going to church on Sunday with all the other respectable people.” In one sentence, he lays out the hypocrisy of polite society, suggesting everyone else has a comparable amount of dirty laundry they use religion to apologize for. Pop. 1280 is real honesty, the kind that scares the crap out of hypocritical finger-wagging Polite Police who know damn well we all have smudges on the inside. I like The Killer Inside Me. I love Pop. 1280 and I think anyone who appreciates genuine crime fiction will feel the same.
Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE, SLEEPING DOGS and many other fine novels. You can find him here.
SOMEONE IS BLEEDING, Richard Matheson
While Richard Matheson would go on to become a major figure in the fields of fantasy and science fiction with such distinguished works as I Am Legend and his The Shrinking Man, his first novel was solidly criminous — a book whose influences ran heavily to James M. Cain and Hemingway.
Someone Is Bleeding is the devious tale of writer David Newton who meets a lovely but deeply disturbed young woman named Peggy Lister and falls into tormented love with her.
Peggy is surrounded by men whose overwhelming desire in life is to possess her. As we learn, Peggy's psychological problems are enough to scare off all but the most dedicated lovers. She has an understandable but pathological distrust of men because she'd been raped by her father.
For its era, Bleeding was a surprisingly complex psychosexual tale. Peggy, a dark goddess who literally rules the lives of her men, is all the more chilling for the sympathetic way in which David sees her for most of the book. She is the helpless, beautiful woman-child that many men fantasize about and long to protect as proof of their own masculinity.
As the novel rushes to its truly terrifying climax (it is an ending that must rank, for pure horror, with the best of Fredric Brown and Cornell Woolrich), we see how much Peggy comes to represent the pawn in a quest. Her men are willing to scheme, lie, and die to have her.
Matheson also gives us an exceptionally good look at the Fifties and its snake-pit moral code, its demeaning view of women, its defeated view of men. He packs an icy poetry, a bittersweet love song, and moments of real terror into this debut.
Someone Is Bleeding is a satisfyingly complex, evocative study of loneliness, romance, sexuality and pathology.
Steve Lewis/David L. Vineyard