Monday, July 21, 2008

Minnesota Boy Makes Good with YELLOW MEDICINE

Okay, so Anthony Neil Smith is not exactly a Minnesota Boy. He actually come from "Deepsouth," as Borat would say, but he is currently living out west (sorry to hear it) and his latest novel, Yellow Medicine, is set in that particular wasteland of my great home state.

There have been a few other crime novelists of note from Minnesota, but not that many that I'm a fan of. Pete Hautman wrote some great novels in the Carl Hiaasen/late-period-Elmore-Leonard vein back in the nineties but now (with the exception of the wonderful Arizona set crime novel The Prop) he sticks mainly to writing for teens. William Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor books are very good, but not really my kind of crime books, more along the lines of Connelly and the like but with more compelling characters. Though I have yet to read anything else by Smith yet, he has my vote for best Minnesota Crime Novelist.

Smith apparently pals around with Victor Gischler and Sean Doolittle, the three like to tour together and pimp each other's shit as much as possible, but none of their books are really alike. Victor Gischler writes crazy, funny, plot-focused novels where blood and guts drench every page. Sean Doolittle is possibly the most "organic" crime novelist of the current generation, his books driven naturally by their great characters. Like I said, I've only read one Anthony Neil Smith book to date, but with Yellow Medicine it appears that he is somewhat of a half-way point between the two.

Yellow Medicine centers around disgraced Yellow Medicine county cop Billy Lafitte, a southern transplant who left the gulf after some shady business took place around Katrina. Lafitte bums around town fucking coeds and taking bribes from meth dealers, occasionally taking in a show by his favorite band, Elvis Antichrist. After a gig the singer asks if he'll look after her boyfriend, a dumbass mixed up in the meth trade who is in hot water from some "foreign" fellows looking to horn in on the local illegal trade. Lafitte takes the gig not only because he loves the girl, but because this is his town, and if anything's going down, Lafitte better be getting his cut.

From there we follow Lafitte as he gets entangled in all sorts of crazy shit, eventually leading to a low-rent Muslim terrorist cell and the involvement of Homeland Security. A novel that starts with meth dealing hicks and ends with terrorists sounds like it should be a crazy, nutso good time (shades of Gischler) but in Smith's hands it is all fairly plausible. Lafitte is a bit of an asshole, but he is not a dick. He is a very flawed man but not a bad man. His very nature tends to make a mess of things quite often, and as often as his motivations are guided by his love of his friends and family they are also guided by his need to save his own ass. He is complex and interesting and believable, all of which makes him very Doolittle-ian (it will be a term in your 400 level English courses soon enough, trust me).

By marrying these two styles (okay, enough with the comparisons to the man's friends, this is getting insulting) he has made something totally his own. I hope to see more novels set in this universe and hope, for my own selfish reasons, that he at least continues to write about Minnesota. The Yellow Medicine County he portrays is a dark, unforgiving place with the occasional ray of light only coming from a handful of the people around Lafitte - people armed with "hot dishes" and ice-less "pop," no less. It is definitely a place I wish to spend more time in. Here's hoping Smith takes us there again.

If anything, maybe he could take us on a journey through the dark heart of my turf, the good old Twin Cities.

But no matter what he does next, I'll buy a copy. But before then, I'll be sure to read Psychomatic and The Drummer.


Neil said...

The iceless (or not much ice) pop is tough to get used to, but the hotdish? Sorry, can't truck with that.

Thanks. Humbled by the kind words.

CrimeNerd said...

I honestly can't imagine digging into a hotdish if you hadn't grown up with the stuff. It's so bland and looks so unappealing that it would make a non-native blanch. That being said, there are times when I just crave the shit (can of tuna, egg noodles, peas and a can of cream of chicken being the favorite). I blame my grandma.