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
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.