Long Lost Dog of It (Broken River) by Michael Kazepis is a slow burn. It’s a short novel, focused on Athens in 2011, when the whole nation seemed prime to explode under the pressure of austerity and its own lengthy history. There are killers, and casual violence—a stray dog runs off with an ear freshly torn off the head of a racist, a sex show that seemingly ends with a disemboweling—and a fair amount of aimless wandering. But every scene, and every character, gets a long quiet moment too.
The plot is almost besides the point, and at any rate doesn’t become clear until the book is half over. If there’s an antecedent in noir literature, it’s David Goodis and his dreamy portrayals of losers and the low life, where the hardboiled stuff is punctuation, not purpose. It doesn’t matter how jaded anyone is, or how tough. Whether it’s a lesbian with a heart of stone, or a stone-cold murderer who learned to butcher from his father, and how to kill in Serbia, the world destroys everyone in the end. And in the end, Kazepis tells us, “Put your faith in your—”
It doesn’t get more noir than that. —NM
The Door That Faced West (Lazy Fascist) by Alan M. Clark is an unflinching fictional account of the Harpe Brothers’ murderous trek throughout the U.S. South and Midwest regions in the late 18th century. Renegades from the start, Micajah and Wiley Harpe were Tories that ran with Indians fighting against colonial upstarts. After the Revolutionary War, they kept their keep by river-pirating and highway-robbing. Anyone with loot was charmed into joining the brothers’ camp only to be gutted, stuffed with rocks, and sunk to the bottom of a nearby river.
This included women and children, with the exception of the Harpe’s own women: two sisters, Suesanna and Bett Wood, and Bett’s friend Sally “Sadie” Rice. The brothers shared the women, and during their year of being on the run, all became pregnant with a Harpe bairn. To wit, this existence was an unhappy one, and once the women were able to escape the Harpes and return to society, they settled into ordinary domestic lives.
The women pose a prominent question in the Harpes’ history: what circumstances made them choose an existence as harrowing and horrific as life with the Harpes? It is this last notion of circumstances and decision-making that inspired Clark to write The Door That Faced West through Sadie Rice’s eyes. He does so with all the grit and gore you would expect of a true crime western, while eschewing the sentimentalism often associated with female-centric historical romance. This makes for a brutal account, but then again, everyone has brutal beginning in this tale. Sadie comes from an abusive home—a preacher father who perhaps killed her mother—and all she seeks is escape from that life. Not much but refuge and safety motivates her to stay with the Harpes, even after she realizes what blood-thirsty psychopaths they are. To survive, Sadie must stay practical, and the practicalities of lower-class runaway women in the late-eighteenth century weren’t concerned with marrying rich, the latest frocks, or gaining a proper education and some sort of social equality with men. It was safety and support—survival. While at first getting to know Sadie and the unsavory world she comes from can be difficult, once you realize that the sparsity of the narrative is its veracity, it becomes a well-written, fast-paced, unique take on a darker side of American history. —SJC
Emily Collins is struggling with ennui and the transition from going from a twentysomething with a cool musician boyfriend to a thirtysomething with an awful musician boyfriend when she gets a letter informing her that she’s inherited a previously-unknown aunt’s house in Oklahoma. As Emily has just found out her awful musician boyfriend is cheating on her, she decides she needs a change. Emily leaves her job and friends and life, deciding to make a fresh start of it by moving into the house, though she knows nothing about the town, due to her deceased mother’s unwillingness to discuss her past. (Said mother has returned in dreams, partially prompting Emily’s decision.)
Once in Oklahoma, Emily learns her aunt didn’t just die. She was brutally murdered, and there has been a series of similarly inexplicable murders and disappearances rocking the community. With the help of a hot tarot card-reading boy from an “occult shop” a few miles outside of town, Emily decides to get to the bottom of these mysteries, which means getting to the bottom of the titular Echo Lake. The big question is if the townspeople want an outsider like Emily getting to the bottom of either…
Can the past ever truly be buried? Can some stains ever be completely scrubbed away? These are the questions that dominate the bulk of Echo Lake. While similar inquiries have been explored by many novelists before Trent, her command of pacing and plotting make familiar territory feel fresh in parts of Echo Lake. In particular, the middle section is tensely-paced, well-plotted, and fascinating. Unfortunately, too many digressions bog down the third act, making the conclusion less satisfying than it might have been. In spite of this, those who enjoy their crime fiction spiced with a dash of literary flair and a sprinkling of the supernatural will find much to enjoy. –MT