May 242014
 

The Axeman of Storyville proves that you can take the man out of the west, but you can’t take the west out of the man.

Gideon Miles was one of the first black US Marshals, and around the turn of the century he doled out justice with his partner, Cash Laramie. Now it is 1921, Miles has holstered his guns, turned in his badge, gotten married, and started a jazz club in New Orleans. But when a serial killer begins hacking up prostitutes in the notorious Storyville district and the police refuse to help out, Miles comes out of retirement. A New Orleans gialloThe Axeman of Storyville is a blend of noir, western, and horror, set to a brassy jazz soundtrack.

The location may have changed, but the social injustices that were at the heart of Edmund A. Grainger’s original Cash and Miles are still very much a part of Heath Lowrance’s The Axeman of Storyville. Going back on the job requires Miles to come face to face with a prejudicial caste system that can’t be overcome by a fast draw or a hard fist. While inside his club he’s a man of high position and authority, on the outside he has to contend with a racist world that doesn’t respect him as a businessman or as a lawman. And more than just victims of sexual violence, Miles finds the women victims of a larger institutionalized misogyny that prevents them from leaving sex work and denies them police protection and medical attention.

The failed promises of the west—freedom, equality, justice—have followed Miles east, and they weigh down on his spirit far more than old age. His is a moral fatigue, of worn-out hurt and hope betrayed. He’s sick of the culture of ignorance and violence that he grew up in, that he couldn’t escape even in the farthest reaches of the desert, and that continues to fester wherever he may roam.

“The death of the west” is a long-popular theme, but Lowrance approaches it from an unusual and provocative angle—a man who has both outlived the west, and who has left the land and gone east. Seen in this light, The Axeman of Storyville could be called a post-western. More than just a shifting of geography, the whole narrative seems informed by the parent genre, and in its absence is a ghostly presence that haunts Miles down every alley.

Lowrance is a writer with a distinctive voice and a one-of-a-kind vision, and his fusion of noir and western continues to take both genres into new and exciting directions. I can’t wait to see what Lowrance has in store for us next.

***

May 232014
 

“From the darkness, something stabbed my face.” And that something is life.

So begins Jake Hinkson’s The Posthumous Man, in which a man who killed himself is brought back to life in the emergency room. Elliot Stilling is given the rarest of opportunities in the noir universe—a second chance, which he screws up almost as soon as he is brought back to life. First mistake: falling under the rapturous spell of his nurse, Felicia Vogan. Second mistake: escaping from the hospital. Third mistake: accepting a ride in Felicia’s car—a ride that leads Elliot into a circle of thieves aiming to rob a truck carrying two millions dollars worth of Oxycodone. And now that he knows about the plan, it’s too late to back out now. 

As economical as it is electrifying, The Posthumous Man is a lean, mean, noir machine that evokes the stripped down Gold Medal paperback thrillers of the 1950s. In particular, Hinkson seems to be channeling the spirit of David Goodis and his brooding blend of melancholy and action, two qualities that would normally be at odds with one another, but in the world of noir they go hand in hand. But Hinkson is no copycat, and instead of Goodis’ gutter blues Hinkson sings of a spiritual crisis.

Elliot is a former preacher, and even though he claims to have given up on his old beliefs, the separation between old and new self isn’t so simple. “It had been almost two years since I had been brutally relieved of the impression that God was listening to me. But like a grown man crying for his mother, some part of me cried out for Jesus to help me.”

In Stan, the mastermind behind the drug heist, Elliot finds his counterpart, someone who is also trying to reconcile divine aspirations with human failure. But while Stan has embraced a life of crime—“Apostle Paul earned his glorious salvation by being the chief sinner. I figure to outdo him.”—Elliot hasn’t lost all faith. He may have resigned himself from ever finding redemption, but he does believe in the goodness of others, chiefly Felicia. For Elliot, the stakes of the robbery are higher than two mil: he’s putting his existential philosophy to the test, looking for some reason—and someone—to live for.

Hinkson’s meticulously sparse prose is tinged with moments of noir poetry, such when Stan tells Elliot, “you’re pouring yourself a long tall drink of misery,” or this Emily Dickinson-esque exchange when Stan and Elliot first meet:

“Elliot Stilling. That name sounds familiar. You somebody I heard of?”
“I’m nobody.”
“Nobody’s nobody.”
“Most people are nobody.”

A stunning novelist (Hell on Church Street) and astute critic (Noir City and Criminal Element), Jake Hinkson is a dangerous man—a dangerous man we can take great pleasure watching out for.

***

Apr 272014
 

David Cranmer’s series characters Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, two US Marshals doling out justice the old west, have taken on a life of their own. Socially conscious and historically revisionist, the Laramie/Miles stories merge a sensitivity to human rights issues with the time honored tradition of pulp western action. In addition to Cranmer, several writers have taken Laramie and/or Miles out for a spin, one of them being a long-time favorite here at Pulp Serenade, Heath Lowrance (who I interviewed here). Lowrance has a new Gideon Miles novella, The Axeman of Storyville, which I’m very excited to read. In honor of its release, I decided to revisit his first Gideon Miles story, Miles to Little Ridge.

Gideon Miles, a black US Marshal, finds himself in a sleepy Montana town on assignment to bring back a man for trial. The man, it turns out, is a respected widower looking after his daughter. The sheriff, who doesn’t try to hide his racist leanings, refuses to help Miles. Meanwhile, an outlaw Miles crossed paths with years before recognizes him and is bloodthirsty for revenge. With three parties against him, Miles has his hands full as he tries to complete his mission.

A nasty sheriff whose racism takes precedence over even the law, a fugitive with a pitchfork and a family protect, and an axe-wielding Swede whose partner-in-crime has his own secrets he’s afraid to let out—Lowrance populates his book with realistic characters of both thought and action. Their motivations propel the story forward, giving it both momentum, impact, and conviction. Even within the space of a short novelette, it is evident that Lowrance is a dynamic storyteller with great feelings for both people and action. He's a damn fine Western writer.

Overall, it’s a top-notch story from a writer who continues to impress. If you haven’t already, check out his debut novel, The Bastard Hand, a dark dose of psychotic crime fiction. 

Thanks to Beat to a Pulp press for keeping the Western alive!
Mar 062012
 

BLUFF CITY BRAWLER, my go at the so-far terrific series FIGHT CARD, will be out and available pretty soon. Created by Paul Bishop and Mel Odom, FIGHT CARD is a tribute to the great boxing pulps, and under the house name Jack Tunney they've so far released stuff from Eric Beetner, Wayne Dundee, Bishop and Odom themselves, and several others. Amazingly enough, the quality has been consistently top notch with every release.

I'm in the final stages of hammering out my contribution, so it shouldn't be long before you see it. It's a fast-paced boxing/noir tale set in 1950's Detroit and Memphis.

After that, it's more Hawthorne. Beat to a Pulp has picked up the rights to re-release "That Damned Coyote Hill", in tandem with the second Hawthorne tale, "The Long Black Train".


Then back to the novel I started writing way back in November. 2012 is shaping up to be another productive year.