The American south is a hot, sticky, vast place with a rich history, spanning all the way from Texas, through to Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and on into North Carolina. Also called the Deep South, this was often used to refer to the seven states that formed the Confederacy, when, in actuality, the term wasn’t coined until long after the Civil War had ended. The Deep South is well known for its reputation for intolerance and staunch social conservatism as well as being a deep pocket of religious fundamentalism. More than a few authors have been able to mine this hotbed of social unrest to create some of the most compelling, violent, and downright fascinating crime fiction in recent history. Some call it Southern Noir, Rural Noir, Country Noir or Southern Gothic and it’s also called, very appropriately, Grit Lit. Whatever you want to call it, crime fans eat it up, and with good reason.
What makes this genre so appealing? Well, for Americans, it’s because the stories take place so close to home and, perhaps shockingly to many northerners, often involve stark violence, crushing poverty and star characters who have nothing more ‘special’ about them than good instincts and quick wits. Let’s take a look at some early examples of the genre, and I’ll bring us right up to the present. Hopefully, you’ll have lots to add to your reading pile, as a result! Now, keep in mind, this is by no means a comprehensive list, but it will be a good starting reference point and certainly a good source of info for those just dipping their toes in the deep, brackish waters of this genre.
Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925. Her work is known for its focus on the ‘grotesque’ and certainly fits into the Southern Gothic category. In fact, she was quoted as saying “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” She had a very cynical sense of humour, but always tried to infuse her characters with a sense of grace. She only published two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, but wrote many short stories before her untimely death from lupus in 1964, and undoubtedly continues to be a huge influence on modern southern noir writers.
Harry Crews is another undeniable influence on the Southern Gothic genre as a whole. The author of 17 novels and numerous short stories, he published his first novel, The Gospel Singer, in 1968 and is known for his ‘grotesque’ (shades of Flannery O’Conner) characters and almost ‘preternatural’, jarring, violence. If you have any doubt about Harry Crews’ reputation for tough, gritty writing, the man had a skull tattoo on his arm with the words “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?”. Extra credit for anyone who knows where that line is from. Unfortunately, Harry Crews passed away in March of 2012. A great writer was lost, but will certainly never be forgotten.
Larry Brown was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1951 and released his first collection of short stories, Facing the Music, in 1988 and Big Bad Love, in 1990. He went on to write eight more novels and in his non-fiction work, On Fire, wrote about his 17 years spent as a firefighter. His writing was known for it’s ‘gritty’ realism and intense violence and is often compared to Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, and William Faulkner. Start with Father and Son (1996) and work your way through his wonderful catalog of work.
It would be neglectful not to mention some other very worthy contributors to the genre, like the great Elmore Leonard, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, and Horace McCoy, whose Depression era novels included, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Go check these boys out.
Now we’re heading into the 90s and the 2000’s, and I really can’t continue this piece without mentioning the wonderful (and Crime Fiction Lover favourite), James Lee Burke. Best known for his Dave Robicheaux series, he’s also written novels starring characters, Billy Bob Holland and Hackberry Holland. He won an Edgar Award for the third Robicheaux novel, Black Cherry Blues, and his Louisiana based crime novels are some of the most popular crime novels going right now, and for good reason. Oh, and his daughter is Alafair Burke; a successful crime novelist in her own right, so talent certainly runs in the family. Start with The Neon Rain and be prepared to snap up everything he’s ever written, if you haven’t already.
I would be bereft if I didn’t also spotlight the great Joe Lansdale. He’s one of the most prolific, and popular, crime writers out there today and he’s got his hand in everything from books, to comics, and even film and television. The man is a machine. He’s received not only the Edgar Award, but also eight Bram Stoker Awards, and is published in a variety of languages. He’s best known for his series featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, a very unlikely duo that have graced the pages of eight novels and two novellas to date, which are set in an East Texas beset with racial violence and everything in between, and full of sharp humour and crackling dialogue. His newest novel, the excellent Edge of Dark Water, came out in 2012, and is a trip down down the Sabine River that you won’t forget too soon!
Now it’s time to hit on the bumper crop of new writers in the genre that have popped up just in the last year, and there are some doozies! In 2012, Peter Farris released his wonderful, heartbreaking debut, Last Call for the Living, about an ex-con with nothing to lose. Matthew McBride gave us his first novel, Frank Sinatra in a Blender about hard drinking, hard drugging St. Louis PI Nick Valentine. Yep, there’s a dog on the cover, and his name is Frank Sinatra. Frank Wheeler Jr. gave us The Wowzer, about a moonlighting sheriff’s deputy in the Arkansas Ozarks. Want more like this? Check out authors such as Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone), Donald Ray Pollock ( The Devil All the Time), Rick Gavin (Beluga), Frank Bill (Crimes In Southern Indiana), Matthew F. Jones ( A Single Shot), Aussie author Honey Brown (Dark Horse)-taking the “southern” into Australia- and Scott Phillips (Cottonwood.) Now you’ve got plenty of books to add to your 2013 reading list. So scoot. Grab a cold brew, put down the shotgun, and get on with it, already!