The book opens with local Doctor, Lamar Hale, called out to help identify remains found on the outskirts of the small town of Willnot. No one knows who they belong to or how they got there, and the scene’s already been contaminated by someone moving dirt around. “Dirt costs money,” notes Sherriff Hobbes. “Out here, nobody’s sure who owns the land. Some get to thinking that means it’s free for the taking.”
This discussion sets the tone for the book – the bodies, and even the reappearance of a local man whose military records have been expunged and who seems to be pursued by the FBI, are merely the catalyst for an evocation of locale and the dissection of a close knit community in an area of America many of us rarely even think about. Sallis’s tight, evocative prose conjures up a dream like atmosphere, and when a shocking incident occurs that directly affects Hale, we feel the wrenching after effects on a strange and personal level, having been lulled, like the Doctor, into a false sense of security that we might never get the answers we want.
Willnot is a fantastic example of “literary crime” at its most powerful. Sallis knows the genre and how to twist it in order to create something unusual and unexpected. He’s not an author to everyone’s taste – and those looking for a dynamic, twisting plot might, and a clear, all-threads-wrapped-up denouement, may find themselves a little underwhelmed – but if you buy into Sallis’s beautiful, brilliant voice, and his ability to bring to life an entire community of secrets with the bare minimum of words, then you will be rewarded by this haunting, thought provoking novel from one of the most interesting genre novelists of the moment.
From a veteran noir author to a genre-bending debut, in the form of Beth Lewis’s THE WOLF ROAD (The Borough Press, 12.99). A bizarre cross between Charles Portis’s True Grit, and a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this impressively imaginative debut imagines a near future where something bad – only mildly hinted at in the text – has happened, and society has reverted to a kind of frontier mentality, with settlers and small townships struggling to get by in a harsh landscape. Lewis’s world is so influenced by the traditional vision of the American pioneer lifestyle, that it is only when characters mention odd anachronisms like bombs and cities that you remember the book is set in the future.
The book focuses on the story of Elka, a young girl who was rescued by a man named Trapper. They live a solitary existence in the woods, where Elka comes to think of the tough survivalist as a father figure. The only thing that’s missing is a mother. But when she thinks she’s found one, she discovers that Trapper may not be who she believes he is. He’s wanted for murder, and soon enough, Elka is on the run from both the man she called Trapper and the local law enforcement.
The book functions both as a coming of age story for Elka, as she discovers truths that exist outside her and Trapper’s limited frames of reference, and a journey through a landscape where humanity has been forced back to more hardscrabble times. Elka’s well-pitched narrative voice is engaging and warm, and while the plot occasionally spins its wheels, Lewis generally has control over the action that unfolds.
The Wolf Road is a fascinating debut from a strong, confident new voice. The blending of crime, western and near future genres gives it a freshly dynamic energy that drags the reader along, fascinated to see what lies on the other side of the woods through which Elka must escape the man she once believed to be her father.
Finally, we come to another debut, EPIPHANY JONES (Orenda, £8.99) from journalist Michael Grothaus, who spent years researching sex trafficking before using what he found as the basis for his debut novel.
But while the book doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of people smuggling, forced sex and worse, the darkness is leavened by a dark vein of humour and the insanely unreliable narration of our protagonist Jerry, a man who sees people who aren’t there, and whose addiction to online pornography has consumed his life. When Jerry meets Epiphany Jones, his eyes are opened to a dark and secret world that will connect with his own in ways he couldn’t possible imagine. Epiphany needs Jerry to help her, and maybe that reason has something to do with the fact that she talks to God.
As Jerry and Epiphany’s story unfolds – taking us from LA to Portugal, and finally to Cannes – Grothaus balances the darkness inherent in his work with a brutally funny satire on Hollywood and celebrity culture. The result is a unique, often bizarre and always compelling novel that is, you should probably be warned, not for the faint hearted reader.
Russel D McLean for Crimescenescotland, 16/07/16