Written by Charles Kriel — Last month Fahrenheit Press had a little fun with this ebook, releasing it for sale on Amazon without actually revealing the cover or what the book is even about. We unveiled the book exclusively here on Crime Fiction Lover. And what a read it is, packed with action, interesting characters, corruption, brutality and even a touch of social critique.
Charlie Koontz is the Lobster Boy. His hands are deformed and look more like the claws of a crayfish, and his feet suffer the same disfigurement such that he walks on his knees. But his disability hasn’t held him back. He’s not just a freak show attraction in a travelling circus, he actually runs the entire show. Of course, every two-bit mayor and sheriff in the South will kick up a stink and run the circus out of town if they don’t get their pay-offs and when the show arrives outside Cuthbert, Georgia, a meeting is arranged between Charlie and some local dignitaries called The Committee in the Mermaid Parade tent.
But when he gets there, he’s knocked out and when he wakes up there’s blood everywhere, his dog is feasting on a dead fella’s liver, and the sheriff is twisting Charlie’s claws back trying to cuff him. So, Charlie calls Mel.
Mel Barry is the fat lady’s daughter, and Charlie’s adopted daughter. Her mother was a circus attraction back in the day but Mel ran away from the circus to become a military policewoman. When we meet her, she’s AWOL and travelling with fake ID, about to be raped by three men in a truck stop shower. Kriel gives us a taste of what’s to come as Mel, without a stitch on her body, uses her acrobatic and martial arts skills to smash them up and escape. The author thrives on writing action and, a little like Lisbeth Salander, Mel is at the centre of it, dishing out vengeance on any man who’d try to subdue her.
When Mel gets to Cuthbert she has to re-integrate with the carny lifestyle and find out what happened in the tent that fateful evening, then spring Charlie from jail. What she uncovers is a feud between members of The Committee – all good old boys who run the Cuthbert business scene – and Dylan Hide, a violent, racist pimp who runs a strip club. The sheriff is in on the deal and, worryingly, is holding Charlie without charge.
Kriel gives Mel a varied cast of supporting characters. Ekphrasis ‘EK’ Woodruff is Charlie’s long-haired, bohemian lawyer whose parents were killed by the Klan and who might be gay. The black acrobat Monk speaks perfect Mandarin and might just become Mel’s love interest. Jalinda is a mermaid in Charlie’s show with blonde dreadlocks. And Bubba is a Jewish comms expert and hacker keeping tabs on the US military and law enforcement using the internet. Connected by intricate backstories, together they form a crime-fighting circus within the circus as the story takes us all over Georgia and down to Florida.
To say that the story is interesting would be an understatement. As its title suggests, the book is leftfield pulp and Kriel revels in the carny lingo and reveals a great deal about life under the big top. He was, after all, born in a circus trailer. But he never lays it on too thick, and the carny flavour really helps drive the story. The author finds just the right measure again in his treatment of the corrupt sheriff and the town’s business leaders. It never gets too detailed or didactic as he brings in human trafficking and, yes, elements of modern day slavery.
There are plenty of things in The Lobster Boy and the Fat Lady’s Daughter that stretch credulity, but what that feels overdone is Mel’s paranoia about getting caught by the military. She’s constantly telling herself off for tiny things that could give her away, but at one point she buys a Harley Davidson using cash. In my experience flash motorbikes usually attract attention so that she needs several secret identities is contrived and unnecessary to the story.
The book concludes with a long sequence of action involving vehicles, bombs, fires, hand-to-hand and plenty of guns too. The set-piece is something else Charles Kriel writes particularly well. It is certainly a pulpy read, and the has been likened to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. It also reminded me of George Pelecanos’ Spero Lucas books, and of Ed Lynskey‘s style of rural noir, but with a crazy carny tentpole holding it up. That’s good company for Charles Kriel to be in and hopefully Mel Barry will be back one day soon.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars