Friday, August 28, 2015

A Few Kind Words

The world is less since the passing of Tom Piccirilli. I've not written any kind of memorial out of deference for the folks who knew him personally, but I've been emotionally affected by news of his death more than usual. I'm sure that a large part of that is due to his singular gift as a writer to convey an indelible impression of having known him through his work and the bravery as an artist to lay himself bare and be so vulnerable.

I had limited electronic contact with him and he instigated the relationship. I was kind of blown away and intimidated when he reached out to me via email asking if I would interview him on this blog as publicity for his novel Shadow Season. At the time I'd only read one of his books (The Cold Spot) and his body of work was impressive in volume and quality and I felt (accurately) that I was outmatched by the prospect of doing him justice in an interview. But he was warm and encouraging and professional enough for the both of us. Each book of his that I read retroactively intimidates me again as well as deepens my appreciation of his generosity to me.

And I know I'm not alone.

I've got a mountain of his books yet to work through, but fare like Every Shallow Cut and The Last Kind Words drive home an ideal to me for the balance of delivering genre-goods in hugely emotionally resonant work that also challenged conventions of form and commercial viability. I'm republishing the review I wrote for The Last Kind Words for another web site. If you've not read Tom or this specific book, let me encourage you to.

Terry Rand, the hero of Tom Piccirilli's embarrassingly good The Last Kind Words, is in for a rough couple of weeks. He’s come back home to see the family, roots and legacy that he’s been running away from and avoiding for five years, on the occasion of his brother’s looming execution. The Rands are thieves by vocation; safe crackers, second-story men and card cheats, respected by their community - gangsters and police alike – for their consummate professionalism. At least they were until Collie Rand went on a senseless killing spree one night.

With the execution date approaching Collie has reached out to his brother Terry to set his affairs in order (or possibly, as Terry suspects, amuse himself by messing with Terry’s mind and having him jump through a few hoops before he dies). Collie is no longer claiming one of his victims – a young girl killed that same night that he murdered the others – and Collie is convinced that the real killer is still out there and continuing to slay young women. And he wants Terry to look into it.

The Last Kind Words is a family saga, disguised as a mystery, concerned with the reparation or at least resolution of the myriad of fragmented relationships that orbit Terry like so many diving satellites. His grandfather, the family patriarch who began the tradition of naming all the male progeny after dog-types (Terrier, Collie, Grey, Shepherd etc. - reminds me of the late father in Jeff Nichols' amazing Shotgun Stories who named one set of his children Son, Boy and Kid - the sway over the direction of a child's life demonstrated in the act of naming isn't wasted on those characters or Piccirilli), is reduced now to an infantile mentality, while Terry’s father is just beginning the slow slip into senility, and the baby sister he’s never really known is getting sucked into a dead-end lifestyle. The former love that he abandoned, (but is still hung up on) has started her own family and even his condemned brother has clandestinely married an enigmatic woman during his wait on death-row – tacking her on, like an unwieldy branch, to the Rand family tree.

Terry’s angst, anger, deep sadness, general, all-purpose lost-ness and ache are on vivid display in the exposed-wiring first person narrative that drives the story. There’s a slightly uncomfortable, though undeniably quickening, sensation of being a voyeur, of treading on very private ground, that you may experience when reading certain of Piccirilli’s books. As if you’ve been asked over to the author’s home for dinner only to find yourself left alone in the house and surrounded by opened doors and yawning drawers beckoning you to poke around – or invited to observe a therapy session from behind a two-way mirror. If you’ve read last year’s most excellent and tasty noirgget - Every Shallow Cut – you’ll know what I mean, and if you pick up The Last Kind Words you’ll get a long look behind the curtain at the great and powerful Oz’s inner workings – stripped down to cranks, gears and inflatable bits.

The reader’s thrill in glimpsing the raw and unmixed psychic ingredients behind someone’s projected image and public identity is also a large part of the second-story-man’s reason to pursue his chosen career. Just ask the Rands. Only – Don’t. Because they - like a skilled author - are accomplished con-men who’ll use generous chunks of un-edited truth to sell you the big lie. The mind games involved in the most basic of familial interactions here are Olympian. Is Collie concerned with redemption? Terry thinks not. Is Terry concerned with it? Maybe. Is Terry going to let Collie play mind games because he knows Collie knows Terry knows Terry needs some answers, needs redeeming. Or is that backward?

But don’t get me wrong – this is no maudlin piece of umbilicus cartography – The Last Kind Words is a forward propulsion mystery of uncommonly immediate and relatable consequence and unbearably heightened stakes. Terry’s decision to investigate the now un-claimed victim’s murder is just as thrilling and dreadful as the investigation itself due to the masterful rendering of the characters and environment, and that is far more than we have come to expect from the writing we seek to entertain us.

The title refers to the last kind words spoken by Christ during crucifixion – they were uttered to a thief and therefore, the Rand’s reason - there is a place in paradise reserved for thieves. The Last Kind Words deserves to be considered alongside anything else, concocted for awards and groomed for adulation coming down the pike this year, for a prominent spot on your reading list. It ought to earn Piccirilli a large and main-stream audience (he’s already beloved in crime and horror circles) and a place for genre writers in literary Avalon.

.......... end reprint .........

The Last Kind Words has a sequel, The Last Whisper In the Dark and I'm very much looking forward to diving in, but have been putting it off. He was doing some of his best work at the end of his career - one of those guys like Joe R. Lansdale or Elmore Leonard who pound the keyboard for decades and keep getting sharper.

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