Written by Pearce Hansen — This is the second novel from the prolific writer of short stories, whose other work includes Speedy’s Big Moving Day, collected in Anthony Neil Smith’s Plots With Guns – A Noir Anthology.
Moving from Oakland to Stagger Bay in an attempt to escape his criminal past, Markus attempts to provide security for his wife Angela and son Sam in the straight life. This is shattered when he is arrested for the brutal murder of a local family, the Beardsleys. Convicted in the court of public opinion because of his outsider status and juvenile record, Markus becomes fatalistic about his chances and despite his innocence resigns himself to a sentence of life without parole. On the outside the straight life he worked so hard for unravels, his wife dying of an overdose, and his brother Karl shot whilst resisting arrest in a drugs bust.
After seven years Markus is unexpectedly released after lawyer Elaine, working with Karl until his death, produces evidence proving Markus’ innocence. But back in Stagger Bay his problems continue. Sam has grown up into a life of crime and is openly contemptuous of his father’s law-abiding lifestyle but at the same time angry about being abandoned while his father was in prison. Markus remains persona-non-grata to the majority of the Stagger Bay population who find his presence either an outrage or an embarrassment. The town Markus returns to is a lot different to the one he remembers; the death of industry, the influx of welfare recipients from the surrounding areas, and the increasing gentrification by greedy developers have marginalised and pushed out the middle classes and created ghettos such as the Gardens.
With little to keep Markus in Stagger Bay, he decides to take the Greyhound back to Oakland. Walking to the station Markus gets caught up in the aftermath of a bank robbery gone horribly wrong. Four young men, high on drugs and adrenaline, execute in cold blood a female police officer trapped in her car after it overturned while she was chasing them. They escape into a local school and take a class of children hostage. Horrified by the senseless violence, inspired by the moral centre of the great writers he read in prison, and realising the four men have no intention of sparing the children, Markus risks his own life to intervene, killing the four men and losing an eye in the process.
At this point in the review, having described the plot, I would normally go on to a critique of the writing style and the strengths and weaknesses of the novel. However I could only ever scratch the surface of this remarkable book. The story continues into areas such as police corruption, with a retired police chief heading up a hillbilly mafia. There’s a spree killer called The Driver on the loose, terrifying the local populace, and a media circus following Markus around after his release. The book also dissects social and racial politics and provides an examination of the father and son dynamic. Frankly, just like it sounds, this book is all over the place. At times overwrought, often unbelievable, Stagger Bay is never subtle. Yet these are criticims I feel this author would wear as a badge of pride.
Mr Hansen has put everything into this one, including the kitchen sink. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t drink on a school night then this book is not for you. However, if you prefer your films directed by Sam Peckinpah rather than Cameron Crowe, and your writing hardboiled, over the top and out of control, then read this book. You can read our interview with the author here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars