Monday, March 2, 2020

Kent Gowran on The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips

Whatever movie I had gone to see was a disappointment, but stepping into the bookstore around the corner, I got the feeling the afternoon could still be redeemed. I made my way to the second floor of the store where all the flavors of fiction were kept. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I’ll tell you, there used to be a lot more style and variety in what you saw on the shelves twenty years ago. That afternoon, one particular cover caught my eye. I picked up the book and took a closer look. The Ice Harvest. Scott Phillips. I didn’t know the name, but something the cover and title had me interested. I flipped the book over in my hand and, hey, a blurb from Jim Crumley. Now we’re talking. I opened the book, skipping the jacket copy, saw I was heading for Wichita, Kansas circa ’79 and read…

At four-fifteen on a cold, dry Christmas Eve a nervous middle-aged man in an expensive overcoat walked bare-headed into the Midtown Tap Room and stood near the end of the bar with his membership car in hand, waiting for the afternoon barmaid to get off the phone.

I stood there in the bookstore and read the first three chapters, then made my way down to the counter and bought the book. Then it was out the door and back to my apartment. I still had a few hours left to myself before it would be time to really think about which of the usual spots I’d be spending Saturday night. There was Delilah’s, Danny’s, Rainbo and Club Foot. Lounge Ax had closed back at the beginning of the year, but there was probably a good show at the Empty Bottle. None of that was too captivating with a new book in my hand.

There I am, reading The Ice Harvest, and I realize the pages are turning fast because it has been awhile since I read a book where I couldn’t guess where the story was going from page to page. Charlie Arglist, the nervous middle-aged guy taking a Christmas Eve trek around Wichita, for the first half of the book, he never pays for a drink. It becomes clear what he’s doing is saying goodbye because he’s leaving a place he’s never really left before, and he knows he won’t be coming back, and… I don’t think it’s spoiling anything for those who haven’t read the book yet to say the generosity and availability of liquid refreshment become scarce in the second half of the book.

Jump ahead to 2012, and The Ice Harvest has become the book I read almost every year right around the holidays. It’s late and my daughter is up later than the designated hour, but hey, it’s the holidays. She asks what I’m reading, and I tell her it’s a Christmas story. About people Santa probably wouldn’t want to visit. Being a kid who enjoys a good story, she asked if I would read it to her. Now, if you’ve read the book… Bedtime be damned, we sat there together and I told her the
story of The Ice Harvest tailoring it for her eight-year-old sensibilities.

At the end, which I didn’t soften for audience approval, she sat quiet a moment and then said, “Well, that’s the best story ever.

Now, as I’m writing this, excited for the release of Scott’s new novel, That Left Turn at Albuquerque, it’s been a couple months since my most recent reading of his first novel. No doubt Scott is a massive talent, and his body of work is impressive, but in The Ice Harvest, he concocted the perfect blend of the dark, the wicked, and the funny. And maybe the real hook, for me both now and all those years ago, is there’s this taste of sadness in the cold, nighttime world of Charlie Arglist. Maybe it’s a funny thing to say about a noir novel, or any novel, but it sings to me. And I love it. Every damn time.

Grab a copy at your favorite local bookstore through Indie Bound or from

Subterranean Books (they'll have signed editions)

Barnes & Noble


Kent Gowran stories can be found in Plots With Guns, Beat to a Pulp, Shotgun Honey, Needle magazine and all the hardest corners of the crime fiction web. He's the founder and former publisher of Shotgun Honey and has not mellowed with age. Less fat, more bastard. Probably wearing a black t-shirt and drinking darker coffee. I get a lot of good recs from the dude. You would too if you followed him on Twitter @KentGowran.

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