Rural crime fiction is big at the moment.
US authors like Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone and The Outlaw Album) have been writing “country noir” for years. Arguably people like Jim Thompson did it for a long time before him.
And the sub-genre has caught on big time in Australia. Think about the popularity of books like Chris Womersley’s Bereft and Honey Brown’s The Good Daughter.
Now Woodrell and others have got some stiff competition from the latest country noir sensation, Frank Bill, whose book Crimes in Southern Indiana is getting rave reviews in the States and is now even available in selected book shops in Australia.
Make no mistake, the 17 stories in Bill’s book are gritty, nasty and raw.
The collection kicks off with ‘Hill Clan Cross’, about the consequences of a drug deal gone wrong. ‘Them Old Bones’, one of bleakest and, for my money, best pieces, depicts a man who whores his daughter to pay for the cancer treatments of his wife.
‘Beautiful Even in Death’ starts off with a man killing his mistress in cold blood when she threatens to reveal their relationship. It’s a spur of the moment act that unbeknownst to him has been witnessed by his son.
You get the picture.
Bill writes about people who have been abandoned by conventional society, are barely managing to make a living. It’s an almost post-apocalyptic landscape, where industry and union jobs have been replaced by meth addiction, domestic violence and the lingering post-traumatic shock of America’s various imperial wars, a place populated by veterans, dopers, bare-knuckle fighters, abused women and children and avenging parents.
The author lives in Southern Indiana, works in a factory, and has been contributing stories for years to the large and well-read network of crime fiction web magazines in the US. His writing is razor sharp.
Take this description:
“The sound the axe made going in was god-awful, but when she pulled it out to finish him, the sound made was damning. Like a dog chasing and biting at a passenger car’s tires only to have its bark replaced by the crunch of its skull between rubber and pavement.”
Or this, about the slow death of a marriage:
“Thirty-five years of matrimony and his words carved into bone, panging worse than her cancer. With age, the man had been moulded into a sickness she’d ignored far too long, didn’t know how to deal with.”
Crimes in Southern Indiana signals the arrival of major new talent.
It was probably a mistake to dive straight from Bill’s work into Honey Brown’s Miles Franklin nominated The Good Daughter.
The Good Daughter’s main character is Rebecca, a smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks in a small town in the Blue Mountains. Her mother has died of cancer, her step father works as a long haul truck driver, a job that often takes him thousands of miles away.
She’s attracted to Zach, a young man awkward beyond belief and with major problems of his own, including a stepbrother no one talks about and a mother who has just gone missing.
When Rebecca agrees to drive Zach’s mother into town, she unwittingly becomes the last person to see her alive, dragging her into a dangerous adult world she is ill equipped to deal with.
Although it was marketed as a crime mystery, I found The Good Daughter had more in common with many of the coming of age in rural Australia books on which so much of Australia’s popular literary canon is based.
The subject matter is dark, mainly involving sexual infidelity and hypocrisy, the type of behaviour that wouldn’t get a second glance from the hardened subjects in Bill’s stories.
Brown’s book is for the most part engaging and full of beautifully written scenes and characters. Like this:
“Zach’s father is not a big man. He is lean like many farmers – tall and brown-haired. He reminds Zach of that generic settler – those men leaning against horse-drawn carts in old photos. Any one of those faces in sepia-tinted shots taken in the main streets of towns when they were wide and dirty – long bodies and folded arms, men with an adolescent way about them but with hard gazes fixed down the camera lens. Some days that sepia tint seems to have coloured his father’s hair, coloured his clothes – he can be standing in the yards, dust rising around him, a rust coloured sun setting behind him, a sheep dog at his feet, and you’d swear you’d stepped back in time.”
There seems to be a bit of a trend on in Australia at the moment towards beautifully written books, like The Good Daughter, that are marketed as crime but only seem to have a marginal engagement with the genre.
Some people will no doubt think that’s an unfair observation. Others will claim books like The Good Daughter represent an attempt to expand the definition of crime writing in Australia. Whatever the case, they sell well. Nothing wrong with that.
I’m aware my comments put the acid on me to define more clearly what I think is and isn’t a crime novel, something I haven’t fully worked out yet and which will have to be the subject of a future post.