Controlled Burn by Scott Wolven from Best American Noir of the Century

November 18, 2010

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Jedidiah Ayres

In rural New Hampshire a roughneck going by the name of Bill Allen is trying to earn some money and keep a low profile. Not sure which is harder to do. He takes his cash payments for long days of physical labor and flinches every time the office phone rings, imagining it’s someone checking up on him, his background information, his story. He shot a convenience store clerk when his gun went off accidentally during a robbery several months earlier. He’s been Bill Allen since then and looking over his shoulder even more than usual.

The panic and guilt he lives with are a combustible mix bottled up inside waiting to be ignited by his survival instincts and he walks among us a living hand grenade. He wrestles with the notion of turning himself in or going on constructing life and identity on top of life and identity. Neither option is terribly attractive, but that’s the tension familiar to anyone who’s read Wolven’s work before. Controlled Burn is also the titular story from his collection and the metaphor is dead on. The fire, the potential consuming and destructive force trapped inside the men of his stories, is laughably labeled ‘under control,’ when it’s simply not something that could ever be. They know they can take certain precautions and stay away from people as much as possible, but the inevitable episodes of ‘controlled burn’ always create as many problems as they solve. The literal fire in the story, set to destroy illegal marijuana plants hidden on someone’s property hours ahead of a search warrant is executed, mirrors the psychic house cleaning ‘Bill Allen’ is preparing for. Time to move on, destroy this set of lies and pick up another.

Wolven’s power is in the straight-forward language his beneath the surface voice employs. There is more meaning packed into the details and dialogue contained in his short stories than most best-sellers put into a 400 page novel. The richness of character and place and the existential melancholy vibrating through every paragraph of this story make it a no-brainer for inclusion in a collection titled Best American Noir of the Century.


Jedidiah Ayres reviews and covers crime fiction at Hardboiled Wonderland and the Barnes & Noble mystery blog Ransom Notes. His fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Surreal South, Crimefactory, Out Of The Gutter, Needle Magazine and Beat to a Pulp: Round One. He is the screenwriter of Mosquito Kingdom.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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One Response to Controlled Burn by Scott Wolven from Best American Noir of the Century

  1. Nigel Bird on November 18, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    I’m a big fan of Mr Wolven. I reckon Jed has this one nailed (to a cross, probably)