Sunday, July 6, 2008

Piccirilli's THE FEVER KILL

After reading The Cold Spot I broke down and bought a snazzy-looking copy of The Fever Kill, another book in the noir vein from Tom Piccirilli. The introduction to the book by Ken Bruen informed me that Piccirilli had been writing westerns and horror novels up until now and this book is a mean hybrid of western and noir, a personal favorite type of hybrid for me.

Elmore Leonard wrote westerns before he took to crime books which are essentially contemporary urban westerns in his hands. George Pelecanos often writes books that play out like great westerns set in the gritty streets of D.C. (my favorite series of his books, the Karras and Clay trilogy of King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, and Shame the Devil were VERY much in line with classic westerns). No Country for Old Men was western, noir and neither all at the same time. In other words, I was pumped to see a writer I'm less familiar with take a swing at a meshing of two favorites.

Like the previous novel I'd read, this one opens with a prologue that kicks you right in the balls. I brought it along fishing with my dad over the weekend and he picked it up and gave the first page a look and couldn't stop reading until he'd read the whole chapter. To take a phrase out of Karl's word-a-day calendar, I "concur." We start out with a disgraced cop being carried home drunk on the back of his put-upon son Crease. The cop had fucked up a ransom hand-off years previous that resulted in the shooting of the kidnapped little girl. The image of the son dragging his dad while the local deputy slowly follows him in his patrol car through town is burned in my brain. The whole sequence is just so perfectly mean and quietly sadistic that it brought a nasty little smile to my face.

Crease is run out of Hangtree following his father's death only to return a decade later to settle old scores along with some new ones. He's been working undercover trying to bring down the brutal druglord Tucco (nod to Eli Wallach, perhaps?) while finding some time to bone the big man's wife on the side. He has a son who hates him, a wife who doesn't understand him, and another kind coming soon by way of Tucco's girl. Before coming up to Hangtree to finally figure out what happened all those years ago in regards to botched kidnapping that ruined his father, he tells Tucco the truth about his identity. Tucco tracks him down to Hangtree and taunts Crease via disposable thugs and minor confrontations, allowing Crease the luxury of putting his father's old case to rest before the final showdown goes down (that's either an awesome way to end the sentence or super lame).

So you have the classic Chandler-style mystery thing going on where Crease interviews all the players with varied success to finally find out what happened while the classic ticking clock High Noon situation with Tucco looms overhead to keep things tight and the danger close. There is much discussion of how quick Tucco is "on the draw" with his butterfly knife instead of a gun, as well. Apparently Tucco's favorite way to kill people is to pop them in the temple in one quick flash with the blade. Cold. There are also many minor stand-offs throughout the book, usually involving Crease's favorite tough guy phrase "Do you want me to ____." (Naturally, this makes more sense if you read the book.)

As with The Cold Spot, my favorite aspect of the book was in the little details. Piccirilli has a knack for little criminal scams and insights that he peppers throughout, bringing a certain authenticity and originality to the prose seldom seen in many noirs. My favorite details involved Crease's knowledge of human nature, how he seems to be able to read what everyone is thinking around him, from his shify ex-girlfriend Reb to the old jock who used to throw bottles at him when they were kids. These small insights are what make the story hum, make it come alive.

Again, as with The Cold Spot, I felt there were a few too many cute moments in the story. The relationship between mute gravedigger and his bright son became tiresome as did certain attempts to humanize Crease like his relationship with his sister-in-law, a woman whose kids are legally adopted as Crease's so they can get health coverage. Since, compared to many noirs, Crease is a pretty "good" guy I felt that the story didn't need these cuter moments to help me root for him. But then I want even the assholes that populate your average Jason Starr novel to succeed.

But through it all Piccirilli keeps it tight and moving forward. The mystery aspect of the novel is kept to a minimum (a plus in my book, whodunnits aren't my bag) and pays off believably, no crazy-stupid twists here. The western stuff is nicely translated to the present and the small-town noir details make it feel like something Jim Thompson might have written. With The Fever Kill and The Cold Spot Piccirilli is fast becoming one of the noir writers to watch.

1 comment:

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