Back when I was starting to make crime fiction the main source of my reading, I was strongly influenced by John Williams’ 1991 book, Into the Badlands, about a journey through America talking to crime writers. He met people like Elmore Leonard, James Crumley, James Ellroy, Sara Paretsky, Tony Hillerman, George V Higgins, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, James Lee Burke, Gar Haywood, Joe Gores, Eugene Izzi, Joseph Koenig, Nick Tosches, and Andrew Vachss, with cross-references to many more. What was compelling about the book was the way that Williams wove in the locations which are so much part of the writers’ achievements – Elmore Leonard’s Miami and Detroit, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago, George V Higgins’ Boston, James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, James Lee Burke’s Louisiana. Anyway, these and many others now fill my shelves and have given much pleasure. And its not just the combinations of character, place and plot, it’s also the styles and language – Burke’s compelling use of words to describe places and moments and people, and the wonderful ways that both Leonard and Higgins use dialogue to tell the story and fill in the character.
So it was with some interest that I approached Back To The Badlands, in which John Williams recounts his 2005 revisiting of crime writing in the US. Some of it is a rehash of his earlier trip but much of it is new. Williams goes to Washington DC and talks to George Pelecanos, which is interesting because I lived there in the 1980s when a lot of his writing is set. Then its back to Miami, to meet Vicki Hendricks (you see, there is point to this), who he describes as “one of the very few women writing contemporary noir fiction. That’s noir as opposed to hard-boiled or simply crime fiction”. Turns out that Williams is Hendricks’ editor, but what he wrote about her made me put her on the list of people to read. Next was South California and Kem Nunn; Texas for Jesse Sublett and Kinky Friedman (during his campaigning for Governor); Missouri for Dan Woodrell, who Williams describes as “one of the very best writers, in or out of crime fiction, in America”; and finally in Hollywood with Terrill Lankford. Well, Kinky I’ve read, and now Kem Nunn and Dan Woodrell (who is very good), so when I found Vicki Hendricks’ Cruel Poetry in Dymocks I was well pleased. Cruel Poetry is full of sex and death, but it never seems to be sleazy or obsessively violent. Perhaps this is because the prose is clean and clear and the blood and pain is a natural and inevitable consequence of the action and of the characters’ interactions with each other.
This is a story about Renata, truly a femme fatale, for whom sex is as natural as breathing. There are, among others, two main men in her life, Francisco her professional partner, and Richard, a poetry professor who is obsessed with her. Then there is Julie, the repressed wannabe writer, who is also obsessed by the red-headed Renata, and who, like Richard, wants to take her away from all of this. Julie precipitates a death which has consequences for them all, and which, with the background of a hurricane driving to a dramatic climax, leads to decisions about where relationships will go and what really matters. There are mistakes of perception and understanding that fuel the tragedies and perhaps make the deaths meaningless. But then, this is noir.
The story flicks between the perspectives of the three main characters – Renata, Richard and Julie (Jules). The action is centred around the beach-side apartment building where Renata and Jules are neighbours. We learn a little bit about them and what drives them, but not much, since the action derives mainly from the reactions of Richard and Jule to Renata – they want desperately to be with her while she is equally desperate not to be drawn into dependency, preferring her python, Pepe. Jules is trying to be a writer, but is not having much success until she starts writing about the events that are the events of this book. Richard has not written any real poetry for years until the unravelling of his life leads him to crisis and he starts to feel really alive again. Renata is the primal force that supplies their creativity, and it through sex and her enjoyment (creativity) in sharing it that does the job. And Hendricks describes it all in loving detail.
I’m still not sure about some of the metaphors one can read from parts of the story – for example, the slave-box that features towards the end, is perhaps an illustration of the perversion entering the relationship as things start to go horribly wrong, and as a physical manifestation of the shrinking of Richard’s world, and be prepared for a lot of descriptions of sex. I wouldn’t include Vicki Hendricks among my must reads, but I will look out for her earlier books – Voluntary Madness, Iguana Love, and Sky Blues.
Details: Paperback: 312 pages Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (May 2007) ISBN-10: 1852429275 ISBN-13: 978-1852429270