There’s nothing safe about Stagger Bay, the new novel from Pearce Hansen. Dude likes his violence levels set at “ultra” and keeps his tone around “operatic” throughout, and if that shit doesn’t appeal to your ass, dear reader…well, it’s a big world out there – I’m sure you’ll be able to find something else to read. But if you’re up for a little something from the “fucked up shit” section of a basement noir junkie’s bookshelf, Stagger Bay ought to hold your decidedly disturbing interest for a good goddamn while.
The novel starts out with Markus, a blue collar homeowner, husband and father, being put in prison for murdering an entire family. Seven years later he’s released due to DNA evidence. He returns to his old stomping ground of Stagger Bay in northern California to find that his son is now seventeen and homeless, his wife has OD’d, and the town is still wary of him despite his exoneration.
The town changes its tune when an act of heroism (make that “a fucking awesomely brutal act of heroism”) turns him into an overnight celebrity. While he’s recovering from the violence, Markus learns of a psychotic killer known as the Driver who has been abducting and murdering the residents of the Gardens, the local ghetto, for years without anyone doing jack-shit about it.
Now Markus must choose between being the poster boy for the deeply corrupt local establishment that protects the Driver or becoming a hometown hero to the residents of the Gardens by finding and killing the shit outta the Driver. As the Driver is most likely the guy who killed the family he was put away for having supposedly murdered and the establishment most likely responsible for his framing for said crime, you can probably guess which option Markus chooses.
Stagger Bay is essentially an old school classic western, the story of a violent loner sticking up for the disenfranchised against the corrupt sheriff in the pocket of the wealthy ranchers, if you’ll allow the Nerd to stretch the analogy something lame. It also has some mystery elements to it as, obviously, Markus has to do some digging to figure out who the Driver is and which of the rich folks and cops are protecting him. But it’s all handled in such a melodramatic, bug-fuck way that the novel doesn’t feel old-hat in the slightest. I mean, this is a book where the Driver rides around in a flashy Cougar and just plucks kids off the street in broad daylight like it’s no big deal – “heightened reality” is a fucking mild way to describe this world.
But for all of Stagger Bay‘s excitingly excessive over-the-topitude, you’re still given a very grounded character in Markus. Though the folks from the Gardens may think he’s a superhero after his act of heroism (the Nerd doesn’t wanna spoil it because the scene is so insanely intense and well-depicted), he’s really just a guy who is capable of great violence, not evil but far from good too. He managed to escape a troubled upbringing only to be thrown in prison years later through no fault of his own, and now, after gaining local fame for a violent act, he has the chance to get even more of the “right” kind of respect for perpetrating yet more violence. (I think the Nerd might have said “violence” enough times in this review to give you enough of an idea of whether or not this is your kind of book, dear reader…)
So if you want a gonzo modern western full of (say it with me) violence, child endangerment, psychos, and corrupt cops, Pearce Hansen has your ass well-fucking-covered with Stagger Bay. If Tony Scott’s looking to do some more Man On Fire type shit, I think I’ve found something for him to adapt…