This year, for the first time in many years, I read what I wanted to. When the Spinetingler Awards were still active I focused on current mystery/crime fiction releases (with an eye towards the smaller label stuff) at the exclusion of other books I enjoy. As I decide the future of the awards (have a couple of ideas in mind) I’m going to shift the focus of Spinetingler’s away from “best of” and towards “read and appreciated”. This makes sense on a personal level, but also in a larger sense. Increasingly the word “best” is being used to represent a personal filter (hell, I’m guilty of this too) and a limited focus instead of the comprehensive view that using the word implies. If I’m being honest I also feel like I’m becoming a little disconnected with crime fiction. I’m not connecting with books that I might have only a couple of years ago. It is likely an issue of saturation. Changing as a reader isn’t a bad thing, and I welcome this change too. I didn’t fully break free of the partially colonized mindset I had been in, but made great strides against it and will continue forward.
My 2015 reading year included extended and long festering whims, distractions, and welcomed impulse reads. It included interesting crime fiction from smaller presses, some strange short stories, a lot of westerns, and more Nazis than I would have thought. I’m still reading books like The Whites, The Cartel, Bull Mountain, and Eileen and it’s likely that had I finished them in time they would have made an appearance based on what I’ve read so far.
Many internet years ago one of my favorite websites was Fantastic Metropolis. They used to run annual “Read & Appreciated” pieces with guest contributors. I’m going to shamelessly plunder the idea as it is a far better way to deal with a reading year.
For all of my throwing old rules to the wind I still did read some current crime fiction releases from smaller presses (and I always will, let’s be honest). Broken River Books continues to impress. Gabino Iglesias’ eagerly awaited crime novel, Zero Saints, utilized a new Spanglish noir language to kick the crime novel into the new century. Four Days by Iain Ryan is filled with all that raw, young Ellroy energy that’s been missing from your life.
Civil Coping Mechanisms continues to surprise me, especially their crime fiction fare. They aren’t a crime fiction publisher but some of their novels would appeal to crime fiction readers, *if* those readers are aware of them (Noir by Eddie Rathke and Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer by Gabriel Blackwell come immediately to mind). Winterswim by Ryan Bradley is a lean, mean Christ haunted Alaskan noir.
I hate doing comparative compliments but, listen to me, if you read and loved Pike by Benjamin Whitmer you will love Hold the Dark by William Giraldi. This is a brutal book in the best way possible. There is one scene, a standoff between a heavily armed individual with strong opinions on the individual’s right to own weapons and the defense of private property, and the police that is swift, violent, surprising, and I’m still thinking about it months later. Like Winterswim, Hold the Dark takes place in Alaska. I hope this Alaskan noir trend continues. Alaska is the biggest state in the U.S., its population is under 800k, and it is physically far removed from the rest of the country. People joke around about Texas being like another country, and it is, but they sleep on Alaska. Alaska really is different, it’s like the wild west up there and we need more Alaskan noir stories.
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a creepy, exhilarating, modern, and completely original take on the haunted house novel. What’s real, what isn’t, what really happened in that house, a potentially unreliable narrator and a reality show filter are behind these questions. It’s likely that this may be the only book on this list that is actually in stock at your local store. Leave now and go get it, you won’t be disappointed.
In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera uses sparse language to write of a mythic journey North, from Mexico to the US that is in turns, heroic, epic, intimate, frightening, and beautiful.
I read Winter Family by Clifford Jackman and my initial reaction, if I’m being honest, was that the first half was stronger than the second. There was a moment, later in the book, where another story path opened up, and I wanted Jackman to take the story in that direction. This is my failing, not the books. The story that is actually there on the page is presented like a collection of long-lost murder ballads. There is a trend, in my opinion, with modern westerns viewing the West through a soft focus. Life was tough and the people were hard. Winter Family doesn’t fall into that trap and presents these hard men in an unvarnished way.
Over the summer I made the decision to dedicate time to reading more Westerns. It has long been a hole in my reading and some course correction was needed. What I discovered was a body of work that has fallen out of favor and that doesn’t deserve that fate. The number of great books that are unknown, under known, or long out of print that shouldn’t be is staggering. There is a great body of American fiction in the western genre that deserves a place at the table, and deserves to be remembered, that I will now be a strong advocate for.
The Searchers by Alan Lemay is one of those books that is hard to talk about without mentioning the movie. If you put the race issue aside for a moment, I’ve always thought the movie had its problems on a more story level. Part of that is that Ethan (Amos in the book) dominates the movie so much. The book is told in a tight 3rd person pov from Martin’s perspective, so the Mart character in the book is a far better character, with a lot of nice character growth, and worth the price admission alone. There is a scene where Amos and Mart are trapped in a gulch by a blizzard for 60 hours that is one of the most gripping and harrowing passages I read all year. Just a fantastic scene. Is Ethan/Amos racist? and Is The Searchers racist? are two questions that have surrounded the movie for years. Is The Searchers book racist? I’m punting for now.
Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer – Schaefer’s debut novel Shane always gets the praise. And deservedly so, it was an instant classic made into a classic western film. Shane is told from a young child’s pov and was marketed and sold as boy’s fiction (even going so far as to edit out some minor, harsh language from the first edition), and I think that this colored the perception of the rest of his work. What’s lost is that Schaefer is a writer of great range who used different styles and modes to create a body of work that is as interesting and varied as you are likely to find in 20th century American fiction. Shane gets all the praise but Monte Walsh is the far better book. Schaefer wrote some short stories about Monte Walsh that were then collected together and tied up together as the novel Monte Walsh, which has a very episodic feel. Monte Walsh is an intimate epic, where one man’s life represents the entire old west. Not only is the book a rousing story and very moving at times but again, Schaefer can actually write, so Monte Walsh utilizes a number of different literary techniques and modes by which to tell the story. Monte Walsh is an unheralded great American novel. Out of print but shouldn’t be.
The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout – Swarthout should have had a mini-renaissance with the recent success of The Homesman, but that didn’t seem to happen. Shame really as he’s a hell of a writer who tried to take on a different perspective of the west . The Shootist was made into a western film, notable because it was John Wayne’s last role before he died. This is the story of a renowned killer who finds out he has cancer and a short time to live. When news gets out he’s got a lot to contended with as the dark side of the town emerges and everyone wants a piece of him and his legacy, quite literally. This is a psychologically dark novel that delves deep into a dying gunfighter’s mind and last days.
Wild Times by Brian Garfield – Garfield is probably best known for writing Death Wish but he also wrote a number of westerns. His earlier westerns were entertaining stories that were, sometimes, westerns in name only. With Wild Times he takes everything he learned about westerns and that time period and puts them into one story. Packed into this book are tales of frontiersmen, sheriffing, shootist competitions, old west shows, Indian wars, and many others. It’s like a western cocktail. Why tell a western story when you can tell all the western stories.
The Hell Bent Kid by Charles O Locke – I really liked this one. It has a tragic story whose ending is locked in place pretty early on but never feels redundant or, interestingly given the year it was written, gives fully into it’s potential noir impulses. This novel also serves its characters well by isolating them, and bringing them into a stark clarity. Highly Recommended.
The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider – The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones is the fictional re-telling of the life of Billy the Kid reset in California. It’s told in sparse impressionistic language that emphasizes the mythic while also trying, at times, to balance the reality. When people talk of modern revisionist westerns they often forget that revisionist westerns aren’t anything new and that they didn’t start with Blood Meridian. This is an original take on the genre and a book that does not deserve to be out of print. Is there such a thing as method writing? Apparently Neider wore a gun on his hip for months because he wanted to get a feel for wearing it all the time, it’s weight, what it felt like to pull it. Side note: This is the earliest usage that I have found, by far, of the word “fuck” in a western.
The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton – This book features high on many lists of the greatest westerns of all time. Which is interesting for a book set in 1950’s Texas. This is the story of a drought, and the effects this has on a rancher who refuses government help and has steadfast faith that the drought will end. The hardships that it has on the rancher continue to cut deeper, not stopping at the bone. Read in 2015 this was a fascinating novel about, in part, old school, small “c” conservatism, and rugged individualism that is very far removed from the political landscape of today. Charlie Flagg is a fascinating character, portrayed warts and all, that reminded me of my grandfather — both flawed and admirable at the same time.
Old Jules by Mari Sandoz – Sandow was, at one time, a well known writer who seems to have fallen out of favor. At age 12 Mari Sandoz had a story published in the Omaha Daily News. When her father, Jules, found out he locked her in the basement. When she was 30 and had earned an honorable mention in the 1926 Harper’s Intercollegiate Short Story contest Jules sent her a one line note that read, “You know I consider writers and artists the maggots of society”. Despite this encouragement a couple of years later, before he died, he asked his daughter to write his story. She agreed, spending three years researching and two years writing it. It was published in 1936 as Old Jules and is a real kick in the teeth book that deserves your attention if you haven’t read it. So who is Old Jules and why was his story worth telling? Jules was an immigrant and a frontier settler who helped settle the Niobrara country in Nebraska. The book is a well researched, highly readable, informative telling of life at that time. This, is what life was like then, as the country was growing west. Yes, the broad strokes of history are true, but the fine brush strokes are where the interesting stories lie. Reading Old Jules reminded me, broadly, of Jim Tully. Both of these authors wrote of a time that doesn’t exist any longer, were popular in their time, were written in a style that holds up well. And like some of Tully’d best work, Old Jules is another forgotten American masterpiece.
There were a couple of stand out reissues this year. The first was the legendary GBH by Ted Lewis. This book has been touted for years as the greatest Brit Grit novel ever written, one of the darkest crime novels ever written, and a book that would make even the noir masters of the past take notice. Long out of print with used prices quite high and never before published in the US this was a book that a lot of people heard about, wanted to read, and didn’t have the means to do so. So when it came out this year crime fiction readers were excited. With decades of baggage around it neck we all wondered if it possibly could live up to its reputation. Holy hell does it ever. This is one of the greatest crime novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. A dark, brutal masterpiece.
The second reissue you should absolutely be aware of was Pretty Boy by William Cunningham. A forgotten novel by a forgotten writer, that deserves, at the very least, a place in the crime fiction canon. In 1937 Edward Anderson published Thieves Like Us, these days a kind of cult classic near forgotten novel that too deserves better recognition among modern crime fiction readers. Woody Haut called Thieves Like Us “a classic hardboiled proletariat novel” and James Murray argues in the introduction that Pretty Boy is the better book. As good as Thieves Like Us is, and it is a great book, Cunningham’s Pretty Boy got there first. Really though this isn’t a competition, go read both if you haven’t, and if you’ve read Thieves Like Us you owe it to yourself to read Pretty Boy. One thing that Pretty Boy does so well is nailing the Oklahoma details of the time. Pretty Boy was an Oklahoma boy, and Cunningham was an Oklahoma writer of the time, so he effortlessly gets the details right. Side note: Cunningham was the head of the Oklahoma WPA Writers Project, a post Jim Thompson would hold next.
I read two alternate history, Nazi as a PI novels in 2015 of the year (now there’s a sub-sub-category) and both were great. The Ultimate Solution by Eric Norden is about as noirboiled a novel as I’ve read in a long time. First things first, this novel has been out of print for decades with used copies going for $65+. You can read it online with a simple Google search. I don’t normally advocate this method of acquiring and reading a book but in this case it is warranted. In The Ultimate Solution the Nazis won and the Jewish people people have been completely eliminated, but the story isn’t about that. What separates this book from other alternate history books of a similar nature is that it isn’t concerned with highlighting the differences between our world and theirs. It is a police detective story set in an already established world. The protag doesn’t question the way things are, there is no commentary about this world because for him, it is the way of his daily existence. As a part of his daily grind of a job he gets called from the powers that be to work a special case with the help of the Feds (which in this world is The Gestapo), track down rumors of a Jewish man that is still alive and if they are true eliminate him. Given the length of the book the amount of world building on display is practically a Master class. Track this book down and read it. Publishers, track down Norden and get this book back in print.
The second Nazi PI novel was A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. In the words of Keith Rawson why the fuck aren’t you reading Lavie Tidhar? In A Man Lies Dreaming pulp fiction writer Shomer is in a concentration camp and dreams every night of a world where the Nazis lost and Hitler is a low rent PI in England. Tidhar is a master at fusing truly despicable human beings from our world with pulp fiction stories. As much as I love his earlier books in The Bookman Histories (which aren’t even that old) his Osama, The Violent Century, and A Man Lies Dreaming are a one, two, three punch that are some of the boldest imaginative fiction being written right now.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize. Flat out this is a book that, at it’s best, out Ellroy’s Ellroy. I didn’t read many graphic novels in 2015 but The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple was a highly imaginative, dense story open to multiple interpretations. My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir by Brian Turner really surprised me with it’s sensitive portrayal of men and war. I also have read enough of What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford to highly recommend it.
As usual I didn’t read as much short fiction as I would have liked but three stories really stood out. “(.dis)” by Genevieve Valentine from the Hanzai Japan anthology possessed a quiet and haunting power. I’ve thought about this story, and even re-read it, much since first reading it. “The Oyster and Alice O.” by Anna Tambour from the collection The Finest Ass in the Universe is the quirkiest and coolest story about a lascivious clam that you’ll ever read. Just imaginative as hell. Over at Shotgun Honey Allison Glasgow’s “And in the End” shows the power that can be generated in a flash fiction sized story. It even manages to hint at other possibilities than what is suggested on the surface story. Great stuff.
So that is my year in reading. How about you, what books did you read and appreciate in 2015? You still want to hear me ramble even if I don’t read as much crime fiction?