As a crime writer, I read very little crime. I read a huge amount of non-fiction, primarily for research purposes, but when it comes to my own literary taste, I tend to read literary writers. I love language – its plasticine nature, its flexibility, the fact that rules of grammar and syntax seem to be there solely for the purpose of flagrant and elegant violation. As W. Somerset Maugham said, ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’ Every once in a while I do collide with a crime novel that challenges and excites me. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, of which I have written before, was one. And then along came Frank Bill’s short story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana. I am a short story lover, no doubt about it. Well done, they are among my favoured reads. Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Tim O’Brien and his breathtaking T‘; the list goes on. The short story writer possesses a skill that the novelist rarely employs: brevity. The narrative arc in fifteen pages. Beginning, middle and end. Writing less is so much harder than writing more. As Pascal said, ‘I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.’ Short stories are all about scalpel-sharp prose, succinct phrasing, evocative images and bold emotions encapsulated in as few words as possible, and with Southern Crimes, Bill delivers a scorchingly powerful series of blunt and brutal vignettes. Here we find the broken lives of tinmen, tweakers, gunrunners, moonshiners, bareknuckle fighters and killers. Bill’s language is thunderously good. His images charge from the page. His characters are mean, violent, abusive, abused, almost hideous caricatures of precisely the people we expect to find in such an unforgiving landscape, and yet they are as real as anyone we know. Bill is a gifted short story craftsman, but more than that, he is an unpretentious stylist that perhaps never considered ‘style’. He just writes. That’s how it feels. He just writes, and the stories both insinuate and invade, leaving bloody fingerprints and footprints everywhere. Very highly recommended, and possibly as addictive as the meth about which he writes!
R. J. Ellory is the author of thirteen bestselling thrillers, the latest of which is Mockingbird Songs, published by Orion. His debut novel, Candlemoth, won the CWA Steel Dagger for Best Thriller. To find out more, visit R. J. Ellory’s website or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.