Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Indie Crime Fiction: The Re-Animators

By Garrett Kenyon on Tuesday, September 6, 2011 07:19 am

Here are three indie publishers that perform the valuable public service of resurrecting remarkable out-of-print American fiction for a new generation of readers.

Overlook Press

Overlook was launched in 1971 to serve “as a home for distinguished books that had been ‘overlooked’ by larger houses.” The 100-or-so titles Overlook releases each year cover a broad range of styles and disciplines. This year, the publisher revived a trio of darkly brilliant neo-noir novellas by Jim Nisbet, a tragically overlooked master of dark American fiction. Nisbet, whose challenging work anticipated the literary crime revival of the 2000s, has long enjoyed cult-status in Europe. Now, thanks to Overlook, Americans have another chance to get hip to his distinctive blend of lyrical acrobatics and blacker-than-black plots, rendered with a Kafkaesque sense of the absurd. Overlook reprints include The Damned Don’t Die, Lethal Injection and Dark Companion, but they’ve also published the latest of Nisbet’s novels, Windward Passage, a remarkably dense sci-fi/crime epic.

Recommended Read: Lethal Injection by Jim Nisbet

This top-shelf noir classic tells the unnerving story of Royce, an alcoholic doctor who assists with executions on Texas’ notoriously mistake-prone Death Row. After assisting the state sanctioned snuff of a man he believes innocent, Royce thrusts himself into the convict’s life, hoping to uncover the truth about his crim. Thus begins a furious descent into darkness that will chill the heart of even the most jaded reader. Despite the brooding atmosphere and relentlessly sinister tone, Nisbet manages to inject humor into the proceedings, as in the opening scene, where a prison chaplain who has "a cold in his nose and an uncertainty as to his sexual identity” performs a bumbling last-rite for the soon-to-be-executed convict:

“The priest was frail and pale and puffy, with thin sandy hair. His Adam’s Apple bobbed up and down his throat like a nervous commodities broker trading in mucous and obsequies.”

Kent State University Press: Black Squirrel Books

Begun in 1965 as an outlet for literary criticism, the KSU Press has broadened its repertoire to include history, literature, regional studies and more. This year, its Black Squirrel Books imprint singlehandedly resuscitated the legacy of one of the early 20th Century’s most influential American writers: Jim Tully. In the 20’s and 30’s, Tully was a commercially successful writer whose most substantial contribution to American letters was his pioneering of the hardboiled style of writing later employed by writers like Dashiell Hammet, Carol John Daily and James Cain to create a uniquely American style of crime fiction. Tully spent his formative years as a hobo, circus roustabout, boxer and, later, a Hollywood scandal writer. He wrote about those experiences in a series of memoirs and thinly-veiled works of autobiographical fiction. Tully is a true American original, and it’s great to see his work back in circulation. In addition to a new biography of Tully, Black Squirrel Books has reprinted The Bruiser, Circus Parade, Shanty Irish and, my personal favorite, Beggars of Life.

Recommended Read: Beggars of Life by Jim Tully

Beggars is one of the finest hobo memoirs ever written. Tully’s plain-spoken narrative drives the story forward with the steady pace of a locomotive. Important scenes are rounded out with memorable setting descriptions and rumination on the hobo’s place in society. In one of the highlights, a young Tully lands in Chicago and stays with a friend at the Newsboy Lodging House. While there, he crashes a Democrat ball attended by some of the day’s political and underground luminaries Mike “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin. Unlike some hobo memoirs, Tully doesn’t moralize. He simply explains the reasons why some choose a mobile life with nothing but the clothes on their back through memories of his adventures with other drifters and yeggs. For anyone interested in hobo lit or early 20th Century history, Beggars of Life is an invaluable resource.

Stark House Press

For over a decade, Stark House Press has focused on reprinting “some of the best mysteries and supernatural fiction of the past 100 years.” Resurrecting the work of luminaries like Algernon Blackwood and pulp all-stars Gil Brewer, Wade Miller, Harry Whittington and more, Stark House has built an impressive catalog. Recently, Stark House published its first original novel, Johnny Porno by top-shelf modern crime scribe, Charlie Stella. Johnny Porno is a fast-paced thriller about a low-level mob associate who takes a job counting heads at illegal showings of Debbie Does Dallas and finds himself the target of a half-ass wiseguy with a grudge, undercover cops and a sociopathic con man. While Porno is a must-read for crime enthusiasts, Stark House’s biggest coup was its 2010 reprinting of Jada Davis’ legendary noir classic.

Recommended Read: One for Hell by Jada M. Davis

One for Hell has long held the reputation of a forgotten classic of noir. It’s the nightmarish story of a roaming sociopath named Willa Reed who jumps off a train in the dead of night and winds up in a seedy Texas oil town run by a cabal of corrupt officials. When one faction of the city fathers attempts to use Willa’s propensity for violence to increase its percentage of the monthly take, they unleash a force for evil they can’t easily contain. Despite Davis’ low output (he only wrote two novels), One for Hell is surprisingly well-written. In one example of his techniques, Davis introduces his large cast of characters by pinpointing exactly where they are and what they’re doing when Willa’s train blasts through town. Thanks to Stark House, One for Hell has been restored to its rightful place as an influential example of 50’s noir.

5 Responses to "Indie Crime Fiction: The Re-Animators"

"Beggars of Life" sound like it belongs on the shelf next to "You Can't Win". I will definitely check it out.

Dear sir, may I suggest you check out a little Anthony Neil Smith? His whole backlog is 99 cents on Kindle. CHOKE ON YOUR LIES is particularly good.

by Lynn Kostoff on

Charlie Stella is one of the best crime writers currently working today, and for those who haven't read him, JOHNNY PORNO is a good intro to his work. His earlier novels are also out as e-books. Jimmy Bench Press and Cheapskates are two of my favorites.

by Garrett on

Michael - "You Can't Win" is still my all-time favorite hobo autobiography, but "Beggars" comes in a strong second. Benoit - Anthony Neil Smith is incredible. In an article I wrote last year for LitKicks (http://www.litkicks.com/Crimestars), I listed him as one of the best new writers in the genre.

by DN ice on

Hi guys. just wanted to tell you that I picked up "Lethal Injection" after reading this article last week and it was incredible. For sure the darkest book I ever read, and surprisingly well written. In some ways, Nesbit reminds me of Nabokov in the way he just has a complete command of the language. Really good valuable reading. I heard of literary crime novels, but didn't expect them to be that far advanced. Thanks for the recommendation, Litkicks!

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