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FreightWritten by Ed Kurtz — Freight is the latest in the Single Shot line of noir novellas from Australia’s Crime Factory. Previous entries by Jedidiah Ayres (Fierce Bitches) and Jake Hinkson (Saint Homicide) have earned widespread praise, including from ourselves. Kurtz was already on my radar thanks to his Grindhouse novel, The Forty-Two, published by New Pulp Press this summer, and his upcoming novel Angel of the Abyss which again has a movie theme running through it.

The year is 1973, and Freight’s protagonist is a young man called Enoch Ford who is trying to hold on to his job with the railway as a brakeman in Blackwood, Texas. He moves freight around the yard at the junction before it goes on to its next destination. Jobs aren’t plentiful in the area, and as an ex-con Ford knows he is lucky to even have one. He allowed himself to be persuaded to take part in a robbery, and it was only the fact he carried his shotgun unloaded into the store which kept him from a longer sentence.

Ford is set against repeating that kind of mistake but another brakeman, Doc, recognises his prison tattoo and tries to get Ford to join him pilfering copper wire which sometimes come through as cargo. The way Kurtz portrays the steady erosion of Ford’s conviction by Doc’s repeated insistence that no violence will be needed, that the wire won’t be missed, that there’s no chance of being caught, is just one of the delights of this deftly-written novella.

Of course if all that were true the story would end quickly, but inevitably things don’t go to plan. The second half of the story begins with Ford and Doc searching one of the containers that they believe should contain copper wire for the telephone company, only to find three foreign children. The girl offers sex to Ford to escape punishment. The children can barely speak English, and it’s pretty clear whoever these kids are, they are not stowaways but victims of trafficking. If Ford allows them to reach the end of their journey, what awaits them there will be too horrible to contemplate. However, if he takes responsibility for them, then he can be sure they will be missed, and whoever comes looking for them will be dangerous indeed.

Freight isn’t a long read – 90 minutes tops. The narrative is not convoluted and Kurtz leaves plenty of time to bring his characters and their setting to life, and this is something which he does consummately. Little snatches of slang here and there help to create an authentic dustbowl atmosphere, but what really marks this story out as something special is a little harder to define. I find too often in modern noir writing that there are too few characters to root for, and that writers almost seem engaged in a bizarre version of one-up-manship as to who can create the most twisted or grotesque anti-hero. It’s too hard to care about any of them. Not here, though. Ford’s thoughts and feelings are laid bare, and we see it all – the regrets, the violence, but also the hopes. Ford has heart, and Freight has it in spades. This book is really worth getting hold of and devouring, and if all this doesn’t persuade you then let me tell you there is also the most unexpected movie reference in all of noir history.

Crime Factory

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

You can order Freight here.

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