Since 2011, Shotgun Honey has been honored to have a variety of talented writers helm what we fondly call the “Gauntlet.” A right of passage for every story that graces our site, where the story is reviewed individually by three submission editors and requires a majority vote.
It started with Kent Gowran, Sabrina Ogden and myself, and has shuffled with following generous and talented folks: Chad Rorbacher, Joe Myers, Erik Arneson, Chris Irvin, Jen Conley, Angel Luis Colón, Nick Kolakowski, Renee Pickup and Hector Acosta.
Nick Kolakowski stepped down at the start of the year, transitioning to a role as associate editor for Shotgun Honey Books, an imprint of Down & Out Books. Nick is the author of the Love & Bullets Hookup series, as well as the dystopian novel Maxine Unleashes Doomsday. We hope to see more work from him the future as I recommend all his works.
Renee Ascher Pickup also stepped down in 2019 to focus on the diverse publishing efforts of Bronzeville Books, which we here at Shotgun Honey greatly endorse. She brings a unique view and voice to every project she is associated with, and we’ll miss her contribution.
This lease the talented Hector Acosta to read all those submissions. Because we didn’t want to weight of the world upon Hector’s shoulders, and there was a bit of catch up to do, in December we closed submissions. And now our pantry is bare.
I am happy to announce that Flash Fiction submissions are open once again, and who is going to man the “Gauntlet?”
Joining us for 2020, I would like to welcome Nikki Dolson and Paul J. Garth. Nikki Dolson is the author of All Things Violent and Love and Other Criminal Behavior. And Paul J. Garth is a short story author who’s work can be found on Shotgun Honey, most recently with “Eulogy”, and in various collections and web magazines. Both present diverse POVs from various areas of the US, and Hector likes them. As the senior man, that’s important.
We’re looking for new stories, diverse voices, and interesting twists. Are you ready for the new “Gauntlet”?
Cal was a one-damn-thing-at-a-time
kind of guy, and at the moment the one thing was making sure no whiskey missed
his glass. That accomplished, he looked
at Lanny and said, “Do what, now?” Lanny
had brought the bottle, and they were sharing it on the back porch. The porch light would draw bugs, so Lanny was
shadowy on the other side of the table.
He was also a little blurry, something Cal attributed to drink.
Lanny repeated his question. About what would Cal do to somebody who did
“Too wide!” Cal complained after
pondering a moment. “Too many… uh…
varbles.” He took another sip. “I mean…
Stranger? Friend? Kin?
And what kind of dirt did he do me?
Mean to say, did he step on my toe, or shoot my dog?”
“Say he’s your best friend,” said
Lanny. “Say he did shoot your dog.”
“Then I’d kill the bastard!” Cal smacked the table for emphasis, and
everything jumped into the air. But the
lid was on the bottle, so it could have been worse. “Shoot my dog? Damn right I’d kill him, whoever he is. Where is my dog, anyway? Rooster!
Rooster!” He tried to whistle,
“Interesting you’d say so,” Lanny
said, leaning back in his chair, “because I got a situation with a fella.”
“Did he shoot your dog?”
“Ain’t got a dog.”
“Everybody ought to have a dog. I got a… Where is that little son of a bitch,
anyway?” He wheezed with laughter.
“What the hell is funny?” Lanny
“I called Rooster a son of a bitch,
and he is! I mean like, literally!” Cal nearly doubled over.
“You’re shitfaced,” said Lanny,
which, while possibly true, was uncalled-for, and Cal stopped laughing. “I ain’t the one who’s blurry,” he said
Lanny set his glass down even though
it wasn’t empty yet. “Fella I’m talking
about,” he said, “did something just as bad as shooting my dog.”
“You said you ain’t got a dog.”
Lanny sighed and scooted his chair
round to face Cal. “What he did,” he
said, slowly and deliberately, “is as bad as if I had a dog and he shot it.”
“Oh,” Cal said. “I get you.”
Cal saw that his own glass was
empty. Had it spilled when he banged the
table? Well anyway, a glass is no good
to anybody empty. He reached for the
bottle. Lanny grabbed it up. “Just listen a minute.”
“I can drink and listen at the same
time.” He reached again for the bottle,
but Lanny held it away.
“Don’t you want to know what the
“What fella?” Lanny was starting to get on Cal’s
nerves. It was technically Lanny’s
bottle, but you don’t just snatch up a bottle out of a man’s hand when he
reaches for it.
“The fella I’m talking about. The one who didn’t shoot my dog because I
ain’t got one.”
“What are you talking about? You gonna give me another drink or what?”
“But you know what I do have?
A wife. I got a wife.”
Cal obviously knew that. Lanny knew he knew that. What was he going on about? “Nobody shot Yolanda,” he mumbled. He still wasn’t following, but at the mention
of Yolanda a muffled fire bell somewhere way in the back of his mind started
Lanny began to laugh, but it wasn’t
a happy laugh. “No,” he said. “You didn’t shoot her, did you? You didn’t shoot your best friend’s wife.”
Deep in his gut Cal felt a
tightening, followed by a sudden rush of warmth in his throat that he swallowed
down with some difficulty. He noticed
that Lanny wasn’t blurry anymore. He
also noticed that Lanny was holding a pistol.
“What would you do?” Lanny asked, his face a shadow.
Cal knew he needed to think fast,
but despite the sharpening of his surroundings, he found he couldn’t think at
all. Then, suddenly and surprisingly, he
found that didn’t even want to. He
shrugged elaborately and slouched in his chair.
“Ain’t got a wife.”Well, he
thought as he watched the pistol rise, at
least he didn’t shoot my dog.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and while I agree with that sentiment, I do judge books by their covers. As the primary designer for all of Shotgun Honey’s releases, I’ve developed an admiration for cover design, and the various methods a designer will take to produce a truly inspirational cover. In this pursuit, I follow websites like The Casual Optimist, Spine Magazine and Paste. I’m always on the look out.
MAXINE UNLEASES DOOMSDAY (Down and Out Books)
Design by Zack McCain
One thing you want a book cover to do is pop, stand out, and create an immediate response. The visceral response I got when I saw this cover made me a bit jealous, because I really wish had the artistic chops to pull off a cover like this.
A good graphic can make or break a cover, combine that with a primary color, the cover will jump out to the consumer. It’s simple, but strong. I like also the use of hand-written typography that pairs well with the artwork of the swallow.
Simple is a term that can be taken negatively, but it is also an aesthetic that allows artist to not overburden or overwork the design, and most of all over think. In this re-print of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, the design is derived from the title, creating interest by breaking up and overlapping text to create texture and interest. I’m a bit envious because with the way our books are published, text can’t be full bleed, but the inclusion of the title and author in smaller block might be the solution to my conundrum.
I’m a digital designer, and so what I work with often requires manipulating stock materials. A cover like this could be replicated digitally, but it’s not. It follows a trend of covers being created from paper art. There’s an intrinsic value to that, because I could see the art being hung and displayed. An ability to view actively how light plays with the physical object. The flowing typography works, but it is the art that makes it shine.
I don’t know if it is the difference in aesthetics between the US and the UK, but I often am drawn to the UK version of covers. David Bowman’s paperback release of Big Bang is a nice paper collage, which could be digitally rendered, but is effectively put together in a deconstructive manner.
There are more I could choose, and in the coming year I may do something better to curate those outstanding covers of 2020.
Marie Mitchell, a black woman from New York City works for the FBI during the 1980s. Obviously, she stands out, and it’s her uniqueness along with her competence, that alerts the CIA to her so that they wind up recruiting her for a job in West Africa. American Spy is a character study, a political novel, a love story, and a story about memory and history. It deals with race and gender both in the United States and Africa, and it does all this while telling an espionage tale. What does it mean to be an American, a black American, a woman who is a black American, a woman who is a black American who takes a job to bring down an African leader devoted to building a black nation that can be free of western imperialist control? American Spy is a rich, layered book and a lovely, propulsive read.
Won’t somebody stand up to the scourge of gentrification striking our cities? One man does, in hipster central, otherwise known as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but he does happen to be a deranged killer. Well, everyone has their reasons, and perhaps those resistant to the way a neighborhood evolves and forces out people living there for decades aren’t entirely wrong. As a lifelong New Yorker, Richie Narvaez knows his terrain well, and he uses his knowledge to present a very varied and interesting cast of characters. To go with it all, he’s quite amusing. Hipster Death Rattle is a classic case of an author using the mystery form to tell a fast-paced entertaining story while delivering pungent social commentary.
The plotting of a terrible crime lies at the core of this novel, but it also has a whiff of horror. Besides that, it’s what you might call a Halloween YA novel, about a group of damaged kids who form their own family around a grown-up man who’s the most damaged of them all. From page to page, I found myself laughing, squirming with discomfort, or feeling the sadness in the characters. Through it all, we have the young teen narrator’s voice, a voice not quite like any other I’ve encountered in fiction. Will he win the fight with himself and retain his humanity, or will he give in to the influences who’d be happy to have him help wreak destruction on others? This is a book filled with mounting tension and comedy of the bleakest sort – a combination hard to resist.
Alison Gaylin is one of my favorite writers of psychological suspense. This latest book, about a podcaster researching a teenage serial killer couple from the 1970s, skillfully weaves together several storylines from multiple POVs. Gripping from beginning to end.
I read a lot of nonfiction in 2019 but this coming-of-age memoir is at the top of my list. I found myself recommending it countless times to those interested in true crime or memoir. It’s less about the actual crime than it is about an Upper East Side teenage girl’s obsession with her tennis coach who was later revealed to be a child predator. Disturbing, painfully honest, and beautifully written.
A punk rock heist novel set right before the 2008 economic collapse about a professional safecracker who rips off a cartel, but also a novel about grief, life, the things we do for family, and how trapped you are by where you come from. The best crime novel I read all year, who cares that it technically came out two years ago? Like the playlist that fronts the novel, this book is timeless, angry, and lean. An absolute stunner.
Mosley writes PIs better than anyone and Down the River Unto the Sea is his bang-on-the-table-goddamn-triumph. Corrupt cops (like, seriously, seriously bad), scheming politicos, racial tensions, all the tangles of family, and the single most chilling Tough Guy sidekick I’ve ever read (seriously, don’t ever mess with a dude named Melquarth Frost) – they all get spun up into a tight mystery that puts our hero in way over his head. If you’re burnt out on the PI genre, this one will singlehandedly restore your interest.
One of the most beautiful books I own, this collection of essays, each presented with several black and white photographs, explores the intersection between a changing pop culture and an insurgent spiritual reawakening, and the horrific consequences of their collision. Somehow fun and horrifying all at once (not to mention timely) this book is a beautiful and insightful reminder of how fear can be used for control.
Cosby debut is immediately engaging as Nathan Waymaker rides the line between good and bad as he attempt to uncover the truths behind the death of a local minister who had seedier past. Full of memorable characters, sex and violence overlapping a compelling mystery, My Darkest Prayer is nuanced and deft writing.
Since Davidson’s debut in 2011, I’ve enjoyed her ability to ability to write stories about characters and places, and the mysteries between. One Small Sacrifice is no different, as Det. Sheryn Sterling discovers she must solve a murder before understanding the disappearance of a local doctor, and how the man in the middle of both cases, Alex Traynor, connects the pieces.
This posthumous collection of short stories by the late working class writer Larry Brown not only collects his stories, but gives you an understanding of Brown’s personal growth as a writer. Not formally trained, Brown wrote story after story until he was finally published in the 1980s, his first story published in Easyrider. That story though not the best, shows the foundation for telling lean stories with a depth that outnumbers their word counts.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these recommendations over the last four weeks and find some new voices you may have overlooked. Have a great new year and read lots of books and stories.
light was already red, but Lacey gunned the engine and prayed. At least if I get hit, I might get some good
painkillers, she thought. Her Volkswagen lurched forward, shooting through
the intersection unharmed. She left a chorus of horn blasts and middle fingers
in her wake, ignored. She only had eyes on the black Audi two cars ahead. She’d
almost lost sight of it once, but she was determined to stay on its tail. She
Lacey glanced in the rear-view. Looked away. She couldn’t bear to look at her own face, the need and desperation were both too apparent.
In high school, she had been pretty: a blonde, vivacious cheerleader
who would never be prom queen, but was liked my most. Her first college
boyfriend introduced her to weed, then coke, then pharmaceuticals. He was long
gone, but he was followed by a series of guys just like him. A decade of using
wore down her good looks. The lines in her face, her narrow, shifty eyes, nails
bitten bloody–her addiction was all too apparent.
But her plan would fix her up nicely. Get the case, keep what
she wanted, and sell the rest. One of her friends, a medical assistant, told
Lacey about how the drug reps carried tons of samples. Follow one, watch for an
opportunity, and snatch the meds. Easy.
Lacey hooked a quick right into the parking garage. The Audi was
parked on the incline to the second floor. Its brake lights were on, the engine
still running. Lacey forced herself not to look as she rolled by. She pulled
into the handicapped space closest to the door to the stairwell.
like C.J. used to do it. Go in fast, scare the shit out of her, then get gone. Lacey had ridden along with her ex
numerous times. He escalated the violence quickly, keeping his marks
off-balance, easily manipulated. C.J. was a strongarm master.
she is. In her
rear-view mirror, Lacey watched the Audi’s driver exit the car, then retrieve a
case from the trunk. Still wearing her sunglasses, the drug rep extended the
satchel’s handle and began walking to the stairwell, pulling the rolling behind her. Lacey sprang from her car and
walked up behind the woman.
Lacey flicked her wrist, and the asp baton she carried snicked
out to its full length: sixteen inches of deadly flexible steel. The sound
broke the woman’s reverie. She turned her head just as Lacey swung the baton,
aiming at the woman’s right hand, the one holding the handle. Instead, the tip
of the baton connected with her wrist. Surprisingly, the woman didn’t scream,
despite the audible crack as her radial bone snapped. The woman cradled her
damaged arm against her chest, moaning.
“Back up!” yelled Lacey, poking the baton toward the woman like
a knife. The woman complied. She stepped back as Lacey fumbled with the case,
dropping the handle twice before grabbing it successfully.
“Lacey?!” the woman gasped. “What the fuck, Lacey!” With her
uninjured hand, she pulled off her sunglasses.
Squinting at the woman’s face, Lacey struggled to remember her. Senior year, cheer tryouts. Skinny bitch
Amber with the fake tits. Fucking bitch. She knows me. She knows my parents.
“Why would you–you don’t understand…” Amber never finished her
sentence. Lacey swung as hard as she could, hitting her in the temple. Her
designer sunglasses went flying. The woman crumpled to the floor: it was like a
switch flipped and she dropped, inert.
Lacey grabbed the case and threw it in her car. The contents
spilled out over the seats and onto the floorboard. Lacey swept foil packets
and boxes of medication out of the way as she scrambled behind the wheel. A
stack of pamphlets caught her eye: Anticholinergics–Tame
That Overactive Bladder! Her mouth went dry as she looked at the
medication samples. Hydrin. Avodart. Vesicare. Nothing worth stealing, just
urological meds. She glanced over at Amber. Her eyes were open and glazed, a
surprised expression on her face. She had pissed herself, Lacey noticed.
Blinking back hot, sudden tears, Lacey backed out and drove away.
With just two weeks left in the year, we bring together a third group of writers and friends to recommend their favorite reads of 2019. It’s been a great bunch of titles that have added to my already towering TBR collection. So many potential gift selections for the book lover who celebrate the holiday seasons. And if they don’t, we might as well just make a book holiday and gift them anyway.
I want to thank those who have contributor so far, and welcome new contributors Nikki Dolson, Dharma Kelleher, S. W. Lauden, and Alex Segura.
I fell out of love with the private detective in fiction until I met Roxane Weary. Three books in to this excellent series and I am hooked again. Lepionka can write a goddamn story and I am here for every tale of Roxane Weary. The Stories You Tell is a great damn ride.
Space nuns! Humankind out on the edges of known space. I could tell you so much more but if nuns in space doesn’t get you interested then this isn’t the book for you. (THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU. TRUST ME.)
This choice won’t surprise anybody who’s heard me raving about Blake Crouch on the Writer Types podcast. Crouch’s last two thrillers (“Recursion” and “Dark Matter”) are right in line with my current tastes in crime fiction—the characters are complex, the mind-bending plots are dense, and the writing is excellent.
Speaking of the Writer Types podcast…I may have retired from the show in October, but I left an even bigger fan of Eric Beetner’s writing than I was going in. Beetner is a prolific purveyor of top notch pulp who consistently gets more bang per sentence than most crime writers publishing today. This tightly-plotted thriller is no exception with it’s engaging characters and breakneck pace.
I’m a sucker for rock & roll reads (this is one of about 20 I devoured this year), but Debbie Harry’s story is truly fascinating. There was so much I didn’t know about her early days in Manhattan, including run-ins with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and the New York Dolls—way before she got famous with Blondie. The casual tone makes it feel like she’s confiding a few great stories over drinks. Definitely a book to check out if you love punk rock, power pop or new wave.
A new Lisa Lutz book is always an event – and her latest standalone, The Swallows, is a provocative and timely look at the gender dynamics at a New England Prep school – dark, alluring, haunting and frightening in the way only teenage drama can, Lutz shows that she’s one of the sharpest and most versatile crime writers working today.
Burke is the modern master of domestic suspense, and she’s at the top of her game with The Sister – a twist-laden and tightly-plotted tale that demands to be read in one sitting. A compelling beach read that’s loaded with timely, sharp social commentary, The Better Sister was impossible to ignore and even harder to put down.
Rarely do we see a debut this polished, confident, and layered. Kim’s Miracle Creek is a jaw-dropping first novel that touches on family, hope, and desperation that’s also part murder mystery. Suspenseful, relevant, and complex, I was blown away by this book and had to read it twice.
Hope you found a book or two to add to your reading list or for holiday gifts. Be sure to check back next week to see more recommendations from our favorite authors.
Chris McGinley’s new collection of short stories, Coal Black, is more than just a great collection of brutal crime stories; it’s a deep exploration of the social ties and crises confronting people in eastern Kentucky. From petty thieves to poachers to cops, he imbues his characters with nuanced life… even when they face grisly deaths. McGinley sat down with Nick Kolakowski to talk about the book, his inspirations, and what he’s reading.
Q. Where do you draw the inspiration for your stories? Are the characters and situations based on real-life people you know?
Hey Nick, thanks for having me. My inspiration comes mostly from other writers, other stories, and from the dynamics of rural regions generally. That is to say, it derives from the collective stories of people in Appalachia, and from people in rural regions, though I don’t live in one myself.
With the proliferation of news outlets and other electronic media, the stories of these people, these regions, are more accessible than they have been in the past—and of course there are books about these areas, too. Even colorless reports like those of the Appalachian Regional Commission provide me with ideas.
And as I said, authors and other storytellers give me inspiration, the writers of the so-called Romantic tradition in American literature—Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Irving—are all hugely influential for me. Like a good many crime writers, however, I don’t really know any criminal types. These characters are inventions in large part.
Q. The book has a real feel for the current issues gripping eastern Kentucky, from drugs to mining. How does your own background factor into what you write?
Coming from a middle-class family, I’ve been blessed with access to formal education and to employment opportunities that don’t involve corporate exploitation and the cycles of poverty that plague large segments of Appalachia. Frankly, I’ve never had to deal with those problems, and in the end I could never truly understand them. But the stories interest me, the sadness of so much of it, and the fact that it continues to go on, and that people endure.
Q. “Kin to Me” is one of my favorite stories in the book—it features complicated characters, an intriguingly weird premise, and probably the most interesting MacGuffin I’ve seen recently in crime fiction. What was your inspiration for it? As I read it, I kept thinking of Otzi, the famous Ice Man of the Alps…
Funny you should mention Otzi, Nick. I always cover Otzi in seventh grade social studies. (I’m a middle school teacher.) It’s the first true murder mystery, right? But the idea is that the main character in that story is somehow a part of the legacy of the violence of the region’s past, even prehistoric violence. The Man, as I call the bog body from this story, is a symbol of all this—the exploitation, the violence, the Past with an upper case “p,” if you will. I wanted to trace a history of sadness, of violence and exploitation, that suggests an even earlier origin than that which we commonly think of when we think of Appalachia, or other rural regions. And I wanted to render a character who felt it all and decided to stand up in the only way he could. As for Otzi, and the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, those guys are always on my mind!
Q. What stories in this collection are closest to your heart, and why?
The story that means most to me is “The Quilt.” I’ve never quilted and I’m not a woman, but the idea of some shared craft among women, who often bear more of the burden in impoverished regions, is something incredibly tender and resonant in a different kind of way than other shared things. There’s a sense of one generation passing down something to others, something that’s been lost because of external conditions, but not entirely. I think the end is hopeful. I think the main character experiences something like apotheosis . . . wait . . . that’s the right word, isn’t it?
Q. Who’s your inspiration in terms of crime fiction? Who are you reading right now?
As far as crime fiction goes, I’ve recently finished some stuff that probably qualifies as “literary crime fiction.” Anyway, I guess that’s what they call it.
Ian Pears’ THE INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST is an excellent “crime” novel, as is THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane, which is an historical novel as much as a crime novel. Then there’s Ron Rash’s THE RISEN and SERENA, both of which I read recently. These are most assuredly crime novels, but they wouldn’t be found in the mystery section of the bookstore.
I just finished a towering novel, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, by Davis Grubbs. But my favorite crime novels of recent years are all three Donna Tartt novels, and if we can go back as far as the 80s, Patrick Suskind’s odd work, PERFUME. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ONCE UPON A RIVER is a great new novel.
I was chasing an escaped, psychotic, naked midget with
a thick black beard across the car park. Sprinting, breath burning in my lungs.
He was always a foot in front and I just couldn’t quite reach him.
Me, in my light blue NHS issue tunic and navy pants.
Black boots. Him, in his birthday suit, head down, arms swinging like an
This is psychiatry. Forget your Freud, your analysis,
your pills and your potions. This is psychiatry.
I was gaining on him and just as I could feel my
fingertips getting nearer I wondered just what I was doing for a living. Thinking,
if I trip him he’s going to get skinned on the concrete. If he resists, I’m
going to end up in some kind of Greco-roman wrestling match I haven’t been
trained for. This is psychiatry on the front line.
It was 13:20 and the late staff were pulling up in the
car park for their shift starting at half past. I was whispering silent prayers
to the psychiatric Gods as I spied the back up.
They soon turned to curses as I clocked the laughter
and the horns blowing from the cars. The wolf whistles and the swit swoos. I
laughed despite myself. Fucking cunts.
I debated what to do and by the time I decided to do a
rugby tackle onto the small patch of grass it was too late and he’d escaped off
the grounds and my jurisdiction ended.
“Nevermind, there’s plenty more fish in the sea,” the
uniforms shouted as the wolf whistles reached a crescendo.
I was panting away trying to get my breath back, lit a
smoke, and gave the fuckers the finger, laughing again.
This is psychiatry. I smoked and wondered what I was
doing with my life, chasing naked, psychotic midgets with thick black beards,
getting cat calls, alarm bells, control and restraint, slashings, hangings,
rooftop negotiations, and I debated whether or not just to jack in, give my
notice and get back into the real world, the cosy world, the safe world, the
world of hidden aberrations to the stale norm.
I concluded fuck that, I’d carry on. Why? Because I was institutionalized and I might as well embrace it.
• • •
It was only a couple of hours before the police
brought the midget back. I was in his dormitory making up the beds with sweat
dripping down my face as he scurried in.
There was old Walter, deaf and blind, sat in a chair
by the window.
The midget laughed in my face.
He saw my expression switch as my eyes changed and he
watched, feet stuck to the floor, as I walked over to old Walter and walloped
the old man’s chin with a right hook, skewing his jaw and sending dribble
splattering onto the window.
I said, “Why, you no good little cunt. What in the
hell possessed you to do that to such a vulnerable human being?”
The midget shook his head and his mouth had dropped
open. He stammered out, “You, you, what did you do?”
“No. What did you do, dickhead. Who are they
going to believe?” I gave him a grin and hit the alarm. Then I ran over and put
the fucker in a headlock as the rest of the staff came charging in. Said, “He
attacked old Walter. I walked in on him. Get his arms.”
They put him in full restraint and practically carried
him to the seclusion room as he was screaming my name.
He wanted to play games, then hell fire, I could play
with the best of them. A record of assaulting staff and patients would keep him
in the system longer than he could ever have imagined. He’d be sent to a
forensic place and out of my hair.
Coal Black is unfiltered mountain crime. Set in the hills of eastern Kentucky, these tales lay bare the dark realities of the region. Sometimes the backdrop is the opiod epidemic and all the human detritus that comes with it. Other times it’s poachers or petty thieves who take center stage, people whose wild desperation invite danger everywhere they go. High in the hills the action takes place, alongside the rarely seen animals who hunt up there, and sometimes alongside the “haints” and spirits of popular folklore.
“And They Shall Take Up Serpents,” features two high school kids who set up a score on a strip mining site where they plan to make off with some tools and copper wiring. What they don’t take into account is what’s in the church van they borrow to haul off the goods, or what’s waiting deep in the forest on top of the hill. “A Queen’s Burial” pits a pair of brutal, drug dealing brothers against a simple mountain man who’s buried something they want, though they don’t know what it is. When they finally decide they don’t want, it may be too late. A weary, middle-aged female sheriff searches for a lost girl in the hills that rise up behind the abandoned coal tipple where kids party and drop oxy contin in “Coal Black Haint.” But the search brings back memories of her own daughter who disappeared years ago. What happens next involves more than just some lost girls angry at their mothers. The search leads back to the story of a violated young nun who took to the hills decades ago and was never found.
These stories are full of action, twists and turns, and characters on both sides of the law who navigate the treacherous, often violent terrain that spares so few. Coal Black is a collection of gritty crime stories—cleverly drawn tales with sometimes savage surprise endings.
“Chris McGinley’s aptly named COAL BLACK grabs the reader by the shirt collar and doesn’t turn loose. These stories are as dark as the coal that is no longer in the mountains McGinley writes about, channeling the haints of Donald Ray Pollock and Frank Bill while speaking in a hard edged voice that is undoubtedly the author’s own. These are tough tales about tough people and I can’t imagine someone picking up this book and not being impressed. I know I was.”
—Charles Dodd White, author of In the House of Wilderness
“Mesmerizing and intense, the stories in COAL BLACK are a treat to read, every honed sentence reminding us that we’re in excellent hands as we travel into the darkness of haunting crime and equally haunted countryside. This collection rocks.”
—Rusty Barnes, author of The Ridgerunner and The Last Danger
“These stories offer some of the best rural noir you’ll ever read. They are a pitch-black journey into the heart of America.”
—Nick Kolakowski, author of Maxine Unleashes Doomsday
Oftentimes the rich get richer this time of year, when the
same (deserving) books are recommended and lauded again and again. I tried to
pick a few “off the beaten path” that I read and enjoyed 2019, that might have
flown beneath the radar.
This book treads into Michael Crichton territory, but it’s a taut mystery wrapped around compulsive, atmospheric writing. Actually, all of Moore’s books are great; high-concept noir thrillers of the “why didn’t I write that” variety that are imminently readable.
Eric’s written a ton of books and short stories, and honestly, I could have picked just about any of them. This one happens to feature a crooked cop, and I like books about crooked cops (or cops who at least bend). ALL THE WAY DOWN has great pacing, a cool set-up, and a dash of black humor. It’s all the way good.
A period mystery set in 18th century Stockholm, this has been compared to TRUE DETECTIVE (Season 1) and THE ALIENEST. I found it fascinating, dark, and also (paradoxically) illuminating about a place and time I knew next to nothing about. There is a lot going on in this book, but it’s worth the work.
These are fantastic horror stories (one of which was recently made into a film) that are nearly impossible to pigeonhole. I struggle writing short stories, but there is so much imagination and craft exhibited in these, that I’ve spent time examining them just so I can learn how it’s done from a master of the style.
It’s refreshing to find a crime novel that is as much about the comic absurdity of life as it is the grit of the underworld. Most memorably, though, Boyle writes female characters who are strong, full of agency and wise cracks, and fallible. In short- they’re both real and entertaining. This read was a pure joy ride.
Speaking of well-written female characters, Miles nails it yet again with May Cosby and the continuation of her story after the events of 2018’s novel, May. After the Storm is dark, visceral and uncompromising- a deep dive into the underbelly of contemporary noir.
I’ve been a fan of Jacobs for years and I was thrilled to see the visual vignettes she shared online develop into a full-fledged graphic memoir full of heart, humor and startling moments of poignancy as Jacobs explores her identity within the context of America and tries to convey such an exploration to her son and other family members.
Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake is like stepping into a time machine back to the 1960s and into the social structures that shackle women from making drastic changes in their lives. Lippman’s Maddie proves to be a more than serviceable sleuth in the face of an apathetic police department. Can she solve the murder of Cleo Sherwood – and worse, will anyone care if she does?
Jake Hinkson is a criminally underread author. His books capture the seedy nature of small town life and how secrets can fester and ultimately destroy those who choose to keep them. Dry County is another stellar story from a master of noir.
Recursion is easily my favorite book of 2019. I finished this one in two sittings because I just could not get enough. We’ve all seen the movies and read books where the danger of messing with timelines has been thoroughly established. But I’ve never truly felt the frustration on the part of those trying more than the characters in Crouch’s new novel. There’s something about hopeless determination that kept me reading for hours.
When it comes to heroes, perfect is boring and complicated is real. Darren Matthews wears his flaws on his sleeve while keeping an unflinching eye trained on justice, even if he has to break the rules to achieve it, while navigating the complexities of being a Black Texas Marshall. Attica Locke’s follow up to Bluebird, Bluebird had me turning the pages so quickly, I almost tore them.
It’s been called everything from horror to spec to literary—I just call it excellent. Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut was everywhere this year and rightfully so. Shadow offers a terrifying and all-too real glimpse into the struggles mixed-race people feel on a daily basis through the lens of a father obsessed with the color of his son’s skin. I continue to think about this book on the daily.
Damn, that Erica Wright can write. Another flawed character for me to root for, though she does a terrific job of keeping those flaws from us—at first. Her poetry roots are obvious in her first standalone. The sentences flow into one another with ease as she takes us into the grimier side of Tinseltown.
Technically a 2018 book, but my TBR pile is ridiculous. Reminiscent of McCarthy’s Lester Ballard in Child of God, Darl Moody is one scary son of a bitch, even more so because he’s calculated and motivated. The final scenes sent my heart rate soaring. Joy writes brutality with poetic prose. I can’t wait to read more of it in When These Mountains Burn in August.
Hope you found a book or two to add to your reading list or for holiday gifts. Be sure to check back next week to see more recommendations from our favorite authors.
Cons walk slower than citizens. In
the prison yard, the chow line, you name it. Slow.
The reason is
simple: there’s no reason to hurry when there’s no place to go.
I was one of those
cons. Still am. For however much time I have left after I shiv Paco Perez.
• • •
My brother Ethan was the baby of
the family, literally. Born ten years after the next-youngest Madigan boy,
Ethan was blessed with more brains than the rest of us idiots combined.
From the day the kid started school it was obvious he would become Somebody
Important. An influential politician, a business tycoon or maybe an activist. He
was born to change the world.
While the rest of
us were smoking dope and ripping purses out of old ladies’ hands, and then
graduating to knocking over liquor stores and stealing cars, Ethan kept his
nose clean and worked hard in school. He got grades that made the rest of us
Not that that was
a particularly high bar to clear.
Even as he got
older, somehow he stayed out of trouble. With negative role models as far as
the eye could see, the teenaged Ethan was even more of a straight arrow than
he’d been when he was little, if that was possible.
Me and his other
brothers harassed him for it mercilessly, but we made sure nobody else in the
neighborhood so much as looked at the kid cross-eyed. We were so fucking proud.
Against all odds, one of the Madigan boys was going to make good.
And then Ethan
We all knew
something was wrong; of course we did. And with any regular kid we would
immediately have suspected drugs.
But Ethan Madigan
was no regular kid. Not one of us even considered the possibility he’d begun
sticking needles filled with poison into his arm. The notion was ludicrous.
For the longest
time, none of us suspected it could be that.
• • •
I was serving a five-to-ten stretch
for armed robbery when Ethan died. He was found on a streetcorner in Lawrence
with enough fentanyl in his system to take down a small elephant, and even in a
family of reprobates and small-time criminals, no one saw that kind of end
To say we were
blind to Ethan’s addiction would be an understatement.
I wasn’t allowed
to attend my little brother’s funeral.
• • •
Paco got send up not long
afterward, busted for running a gang specializing in opioids and prostitution.
The Devil Dogs, they called themselves.
I learned within days
of Ethan’s death that it was a Devil Dog who’d sold my brother the fentanyl
that killed him. It wasn’t Paco, of course. Paco was much too important to be
involved in something as minor as a street deal.
But Paco was the
man behind the curtain.
The brains of the Devil
And he was being
sent to Cedar Junction.
• • •
I know my brother suffered from a
chemical imbalance in his brain.
I know Paco Perez was
not responsible for that imbalance. He didn’t orchestrate it, didn’t force
Ethan to inject synthetic poison into his veins. I’m sure Paco wouldn’t have
known Ethan Madigan from a hole in the wall.
But Paco Perez is
still going to die.
• • •
It cost much more than I ever
thought myself capable of paying to acquire the blade.
that was the price. But I didn’t care. It was a business transaction, nothing
more. And now I have the weapon I need.
Tomorrow is the
In the yard.
Paco will never see
There’s no need to
get fancy or worry about witnesses. Once I take Paco down my life will be over anyway.
The Dogs will be able to get to me anytime they want.
But I don’t care. At
least this way my life will have meant something. If I were to get out it would
only be a matter of time before I ended up right back here, anyway.
2019 is almost gone, and it’s that time of the year we reflect back on the books we’ve read. I know the books I’ve read and those that still tower in my TBR pile all cattywampus next on and around my nightstand is sizable. I’m always willing to make that pile larger, so I’ve asked friends and writers to give me a short list books that were their favorites over the course of the year. Specifically, I asked for at least two books in our favorite genre, crime, and one book outside of the crime genre. It’s always a good thing to explore and expand your reading.
This isn’t a “Best of” list, reading is subjective after all. From the lists I’ve gotten so far, I can say I do highly recommend the books as well as the folks who have made the recommendations.
This is a weekly series throughout the month of December, so be sure to come back next Wednesday.
This is a frustratingly good book, like, as a writer I felt ashamed as I read this because it was so damn good. As a reader? What a goddamn treat. Beautiful and heart-wrenching, Steph Cha writes the kind of crime fiction we need to see more of.
With a strong voice and prose reminiscent of some of the best noir has offered before, Cosby’s debut, MY DARKEST PRAYER, will satisfy those with that itch only hard-boiled fiction can provide. This is the proper kind of graduation for such a gifted short story writer and I cannot wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.
I’m an unabashed Davidson fanboy. Her mix of tight storytelling and wicked black humor scratches all the itches I have as a reader. The first of her Shadows of New York books is a twisty and suspenseful thriller that I think fans of the genre and those tired of its conventions can equally enjoy.
That about does it in the crime world, what about outside of the genre?
A wonderful account of the career and astounding legacy of Milicent Patrick, best known as the artist responsible for the monster design of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (as well as her contributions at Disney). LADY is a fantastic piece about erasure in the past that remains relevant here and now.
Jamie Mason has this neat trick where she writes concise, careful, pretty prose without sacrificing the tension or suspense of the plot. Read the outstanding opening chapter of The Hidden Things to see what I mean, and then read the rest of the book for a tightly-written story about a stolen painting and the desperate people looking for it…and the people desperately trying to keep their truths from emerging.
The ¡Pa’Que Tu Lo Sepas!anthology is so many things – a powerful study of contemporary latinx voices; a wonderfully-curated collection of beautiful short fiction; a cry that should be resonating across our country. The market for anthologies is crowded nowadays, but this entry stands out in that field and deserves a wide audience (and all of the proceeds go to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico).
At this point, you’ve likely heard about Miracle Creek, even if it doesn’t fall neatly into a specific genre. Kim’s debut novel is absorbing and poignant on so many levels – as a story about immigrants adjusting to life in America, the complications of raising a child with special needs, the brutal effect of secrecy. By all measures, one of the best books of 2019, and one readers will long remember.
The best crime stories take a salacious plot and wrap it in real characters. Gailey does this as well as anyone. A variation on my favorite little sub genre of noir – finding a bag of money – this book is elevated by truly compelling characters. To be this invested in the people is the mark of great fiction, period.
Again, character is key -this time with families. When an author can make me relate to a family situation that is miles from my own, I know I’m in the hands of a great writer, and McHugh has done this in each of her three novels. Unpredictable as it spools out a mysterious past, I never feel manipulated by the author’s hand in a Laura McHugh book. I’m just swept away for the ride in the best possibly way.
I was around since the inception of this book because of my friendship with Steve Lauden and I know it was a passion project for him. As a punk rock kid I’ve seen a lot of the music of my younger days fall by the wayside of my own evolving tastes, but power pop remains. It’s the catchy, driving beat of the best rock roll has to offer and these essays explore why it endures and gives real life examples of how music effects our lives. It’s not a history, it’s an appreciation and a series of unique insights into the power of music in our lives.
Hope you found a book or two to add to your reading list or for holiday gifts. Be sure to check back next week to see more recommendations from our favorite authors.