Double Hooks: A stagnant ex-athlete is forced into a life of crime by his unwillingness to make decisions. An ill-tempered vampire questions too much and hides too little, threatening to change the world.
Long before glittering vampires and bad boy werewolves were saving chaste girls without an opinion as to who they wanted to lose their virginity to, dark and terrible bloodsuckers roamed the fictional streets of New York City, getting blown in bathrooms and eating people’s tongues out. A quintet of novels, one for each festering borough, showed the world of noir just what cross-genre really meant. Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt wasn’t a misunderstood creature of the night, nor was he a nosferatu, cringing at the harsh daylight from the safety of his warrens, scaring the locals in Coney Island. He was grit, he was noir, he was the best and worst elements of Huston’s other original, and slightly better adjusted protagonist, Hank Thompson. Both men inhabited worlds rife with conflict and simmering with danger and hate.
If I saw something once that I can't explain, that doesn't make them real. And if a trick of the dark gave me a chill, that doesn't make them real. And if a madman says what's at the core of us all is a senseless, flapping quiver of black shade, that's just one more reason not to believe.
The thing of it is, Pitt and Thompson aren’t Huston’s best heroes, though they may be his best known. As the two men grind through eight books of beatings and baseball bats, eye gouges and broken knees, perhaps Huston’s most impressive feat, aside from somehow making us believe his malnourished and fading vampire is part of a larger community of infected psychopaths or that his onetime big league hopeful athlete is resourceful enough to evade and overcome a city full of gangsters, is the remarkable sense of place imparted throughout all his works. Sure, Huston lived as a California transplant and bartender, the most intrinsic type of New York there can be, for over a decade. But his Manhattan breathes in the obscure Inwood Hill Park, up in Harlem and divorced from the staid literary trappings of midtown. His Brooklyn rots in the alleyways on Mermaid Ave and not in Park Slope or Bed Stuy. His characters rummage through a city readers know but can’t possibly understand to such a level of detail, not unless they grew up there and worked there, and even then, they’d probably be hard pressed to name all of the exotic locales his characters have their teeth beat in. It’s not so much a tour of the city as it is an invitation down the dark side streets people pretend to ignore as they hustle their way to someplace safer.
Think about a night like that often enough, you'll ask yourself a lot of questions. Most of them about yourself. The kind of person you are. What you'll do and why and when you'll do it. What you believe in. What you really believe in.
The brutality of Joe Pitt’s trials and Hank Thompson’s tribulations aside, there’s a tenderness that Huston curates within them, his wonderful ability to keep us caring about a pair of people who, ostensibly both turn into homicidal street enforcers. But much like Tom Pitt’s novel Hustle (which TDC reviewed here back in November), the urgency of Joe’s next drink of blood and Hank’s need to get away from the terror he’s unwittingly stepped into, is never more than a few moments, or pages away. This necessity, to fill these characters’ great chasms of emptiness, becomes all encompassing and inform bad decisions at a rate the heroes cannot possibly overcome. In the gritty little lines between Hank’s gruesome discoveries of his dead friends or Joe’s hunger for blood ravaging his guts, we see desperation, deep hollow sadness, and most of all, the horrors of addiction and complacency and how they can move a person.
One day, when I am a braver man, I will tell her these things, and then I will look her in the eye tell her I love her and ask her to be only mine. But until that day, we're just friends.
But so what. A lot of great writers have a wonderful sense of place in their works. Chandler had LA and Izzo had Marseille, so sure, give New York to Huston. And addiction and complacency? Been there plenty of times. What else does Huston have?
Theme. The man does more with theme in his first ten pages than most noir writers do in two hundred. Caught Stealing, his first novel and the first in the Hank Thompson Trilogy, layers on the thematic elements so thick it threatens to strangle the reader. Hank is an ex-baseball prospect whose budding career was done in by an ill-fated attempt at stealing third base and then further shattered by a terrible car accident. Now, alone and adrift in the big city, miles away from his California home, he’s tasked with watching a neighbor’s cat, and unwittingly the cash the neighbor’s stolen from local thugs. From there, an on-the-rails action adventure rolls from the station but this idea of having something taken, of the world asserting its violence to rob a person of their virtue, or their possessions, or their girl, or their parents, of having everything taken before its time, pervades the entire novel.
Hank’s problems don’t get any better after he leaves New York, and in book two, Six Bad Things, and book three, A Very Dangerous Man, the story and thematic elements shift, but he never relinquishes his fundamental essence of where this unique character comes from, whether it’s calling his parents or escorting a young baseball phenom around casinos, Hank’s a hard wired good fellow, despite the car chases and murdering, the best of which is a brutal fight in a scalding hot shower with a tweaker in a mobile home.
I fall back to the floor and he kicks me a few times in the back and the legs, then he gets down on his knees straddling my body, and pummels my arms and torso as I try to cover my face. And then he’s done.
A deepening conspiracy in a clan driven vampyre [sic] society defines the outside-looking-in loss of control Joe Pitt struggles against in the five novels comprising Huston’s Joe Pitt Case Books. Each clan comprises different types of vampyres, each with their own philosophy on life, death, and the ascendency of their race. Huston does an elegant job of sliding the pieces around the board but still giving his character agency within the plot machinations. Whatever horror tropes threatening to pull these novels down, secret societies, unknown super naturals just below the surface of real life, a plan to subjugate the human race, they are all beaten into obscurity by Pitt’s daily, and at times hourly, struggle to survive a political game so much bigger than him all he can do is gnaw at his superiors ankles to see what happens. Reservations about the fantasy content of these novels go unrealized, they are noir and Huston never lets us forget it.
With a squeeze and a twist and a pull I could mash her radius and ulna and tear her hand from her arm and drop it I her lap and walk out with her screams as a soundtrack.
I chose these two series to review not because I think they are the best examples of Huston’s work (The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of the Dead is probably tops there), but because I hate vampire stories. I mean, really hate them. Hate them so much I almost reconsider submitting my writing to sources that actually accept vampire stories. And as far as Hank Thompson is concerned, outside of the PI, I’m not sure there’s a more played out noir plot than wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet in both instances, Charlie Huston is able to bend expectations and challenge genre boundaries. That is what’s most impressive about Huston. A lack of innovation can threaten any industry, any pursuit, adapt or die and all of that. With Huston in its corner, crime fiction has an ally for life against complacency.
TDC Buckshot Reviews,
Written by JJ Sinisi
In the novel Chourmo, the middle installment of author Jean-Claude Izzo’s Mediterranean noir series, The Marseilles Trilogy, Jean-Claude Izzo’s reluctant and often depressed protagonist, detective Fabio Montale, laments having missed a good meal before getting into the car chase he currently finds himself.
A nice plate of spaghetti matriciana wouldn’t have gone amiss. A little red wine with it. Maybe a red Tempier. From Bandol.
He thinks absently, as the plot of this wonderful novel ramps up, before it occurs to him:
What are you talking about, bozo? After death, there’s nothing.
That’s right, after death, there’s nothing anymore. Just darkness. And you don’t even know it’s dark. Because you’re dead.
Refining Izzo down to his most basic elements is actually quite easy, because ultimately, there’s little his works haven’t done to help push European and all crime fiction into newer and starkly bleaker territory. The dichotomy of sustenance and risk, of life and death, is not only present at all times in Izzo’s books, but like fine French cuisine, it simmers just below the surface too, a bitter smell that permeates even Fabio’s most triumphant moments. The same holds true for every one of Izzo’s forlorn heroes and villains.
The horror of the Charlie Hebdo attack highlights a problem that Izzo too grew up in the sixties as the immigrant son of France; Spanish, Italian, and Arab blood coursing through his veins. Lack of assimilation, despite the concerted efforts of some of the community and its organizations, has polarized the slums of Paris and Marseilles and Lyon and all the rest. While England stumbled through the nineties bearing the brunt of European flak for their aggressive anti-immigration policies, France endured damage on the other front, porously letting people in and then doing little to nothing to help them adopt the French culture and community.
It's at that moment of misfortune that we remember we're all exiles.
Socio-political commentary aside though, Izzo loved his homeland, passionately creating a Marseilles that, throughout his works, breathes and yells and eats and fishes and cries and loves and dies and above all lives, a city so alive in words that after completing any of his novels only one of two emotions can be felt, either an unyielding sense of wanderlust to step foot in this diverse multicultural town, or such satisfaction with his prose there’s no longer any desire to visit because no place on earth can be so interesting.
Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared. It's a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you're in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.
A worldly man, Izzo’s experiences pepper his works, but with such a heavy dab of cynicism, it becomes difficult to sort the fiction from the fact, and that’s exactly how he wanted it. Like his lead detective, Izzo volunteered to do his military service in Djibouti before going to live some time in Ethiopia.* A newspaperman and at times a communist, he did not publish his first novel until he turned 50 (Total Kheops, 1995) and passed away at 54. A travel and political writer mostly, he also published poetry but did not initially want to write novels. Luckily for the genre, in this short window he produced a wonderful trilogy and two other dark works.
I remember being asked why things always happen so fast. Love stories. We would like to have happen at another time, when we are in top form, when we feel ready for the other. Another. Another. I was told that basically in life you do not control anything.
The brevity of his writing is not for everyone. In fact, his harsh stoppages and jarring introspections can at times be antithetical to the idea of the modern and sleek crime novel. But Izzo is his most vibrant in these moments, and aside from the realities of city life he so delicately creates, his blunted sentences and sensibility are what stays with the reader for years after their initial ingestion. There’s a sadness there, a celebration, a love of experience and a rebuke of death, the tumultuousness of a life lived somewhere between depression and warm sunlight that all of Izzo’s works encapsulate.
Days are only beautiful early in the morning. I should have remembered that. Dawn is merely an illusion that the world is beautiful. When the world opens its eyes, reality reasserts itself, and you're back with the same old shit.
As a writer, and particularly as a writer within the same genre, Izzo’s bleakness is an aspiration, if that even makes sense. A dangerous peril facing all noir writers is weight. The weight of all of that killing and crime and sadness threatens to strangle their prose. It can be so heavy that it breaks the basic support structures of good storytelling: the characters, the plots, the action and the resolution. After all, how compelling can a story possibly be if the reader is constantly reminded we all die in the end anyway? Why, ultimately, then does it matter how we get out of the current danger if a bullet or an angry spouse or cancer winds up signing our name on the dotted line?
Izzo embraced the weight, letting it crush everything to dust and then he danced amid the rubble and everyone is still left trying to understand how he did it every time. Love was one way. Food was another. The basic particles that make up the atoms of a happy life. Izzo’s alchemy at combining and rearranging these to his specific purposes are many and wondrous.
Slowly Melina made him forget the fear and taught him love again. She was a strong woman, down- to-earth, realistic. Volitional. And she was also a wonderful lover. She loved him. You can love only once in life, she said, all the rest are anecdotes
Reviewing a particular book for some authors does nothing to illuminate the breadth of their accomplishments. This is one of those occasions where recommending a specific work would do little more than stunt the discovery of so much richness. It doesn’t matter where a reader starts, Izzo’s small catalog can and should be devoured in days, not months. The drudgery and the cruelty of his Marseilles demands no less. Don’t flinch at the killings, at beloved characters falling off the dark ends of the world. Try and stay above the waterline. Don’t drown in all that sorrow. There’s life on the shores of the Mediterranean too. Joyous life, and in Izzo’s short time, he led us through all of it.
So much violence. If God existed, I'd have strangled him on the spot. Without batting an eyelid. And with all the fury of the damned.
TDC Author Profiles,
Written by JJ Sinisi
P.S. All quotes within this article were pieced together from various Jean-Claude Izzo novels. The origin for each has been purposefully removed to encourage the reader to discover the sources on their own.
*Sourcing for some of this article was taken from The Guardian’s obituary for the author upon his death HERE
J. J. Sinisi is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Dark Corners, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Heater, and he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Short Story contest.