The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Tony Knighton

Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Philadelphia crime writer Tony Knighton to discuss his new novel, Three Hours Past Midnight (Crime Wave Press).

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Three Hours Past Midnight. The Richard Stark/Parker influence came through very clearly – where does he rank in terms of your favourite writers? Which other writers – crime or otherwise – have influenced your style?

Yes, I am a big Richard Stark fan.  He wrote consistently great stuff. Even Mister Westlake’s earliest published work seems every bit as good as anything else he wrote. The man was a master.

I would have to say that George V. Higgins made an early impression on me.  The Friends of Eddie Coyle is still one of my favorite books. Anyone who has read it raves about the great dialogue, and it is, but to me, Mister Higgins genius lay in trusting the reader. He gives no explanations or back-story. He knew we would get it.

I read a lot of straight fiction, too. I’m a big fan of the Johns – O’Hara, Cheever, Updike, and of course, poor John Kennedy Toole. I think Confederacy is the funniest book I’ve ever read. The way he was able to keep all those balls in the air was inspiring.

The Philadelphia backdrop and locations seem hand-picked to lend authenticity to the story. How important is location to you – as a reader – and as a writer?

Location means more to me as a writer than a reader. Specific places inspired scenes in Three Hours Past Midnight. There’s a protracted chase sequence that follows the route I walked and rode to work during the time I wrote the book.  I’m currently writing a scene that takes place along the Susquehanna River in Central Pennsylvania. It wouldn’t have occurred to me without seeing the location first.

Three Hours Past Midnight seems to flow effortlessly. Was it an easy book to write, and did you cut much out of the finished work?

Thanks, that’s a nice compliment. No, it wasn’t easy. It was a shit-ton of work.

I didn’t have to cut a lot. Early in the writing, I’d intended to make the story’s locale more far ranging, but I changed my mind before I ever got there. If I come to a point in the writing where I’m not sure what happens next, I’ll skip ahead to something I do know.

I tend to revise compulsively, so often, by the time I’ve completed a first draft, much of the manuscript isn’t too horrible.

It sometimes feels like we learn more about the supporting characters than we do about your nameless protagonist – was this a deliberate strategy?

That’s a great question. I know what you mean, but no, that wasn’t any sort of conscious decision. I think it’s more a function of the narrator’s personality. He’s telling the story, and what he considers significant. Other people are his business. For instance, he acknowledges and is wary of another character’s marksmanship, but makes no reference to his own abilities, even though he usually manages to hit what he shoots at. Sometimes while speaking with others, there are allusions to past events, but these are sketchy. Silhouettes.

Do you think contemporary crime fiction is too safe? Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

Absolutely, most mainstream stuff is too safe. Entertainment is big business.  Music, movies and publishing used to be controlled by businessmen who also enjoyed these businesses and their products. They were motivated by their own tastes, and were willing to take a chance on something different if they liked it. Now, the only motive is profit, and the people in charge are only interested in sure things. Most readers, as well as listeners and viewers, crave the familiar. This leads to stale output.

I think the interesting stuff nowadays is coming from independent presses. Most folks published by independent houses try to write the kinds of stories that they’d want to read. That keeps things fresh.

There are still some fine crime fiction writers published by the big five. Thomas Perry is an example. I love The Butcher’s Boy.

Your book has been published by Crime Wave Press – do you have any favourite Crime Wave authors or titles?

Benedict J. Jones. His Charlie Bars stories are great fun. I dig his short stuff, too. Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money is cool. Ezra Kyrill Erker’s Salaryman Unbound is deliciously creepy. These are some of my favorites, but you can’t go wrong with anything from Crime Wave Press – those guys know good fiction.

Which writers do you consider to be your peers?

There is a lively crime fiction scene, and I’ve made a lot of friends, both in person and through e-mail and social media, but I would hesitate to consider myself their peer. I feel more like a kid who is being allowed to hang out on the corner with the big guys – guys like Scott Adlerberg, Jedidiah Ayres, Greg Barth, Nick Korpon, Jon McGoran, Andrew Nette, the horror writer Norman Prentiss, Eryk Pruitt and Sam Starnes, to name just a few.

If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?

That’s hard. I’ve had the good fortune of spending most of my life working at a job that I enjoy. To be more successful would mostly mean a having a larger readership. I’m a pushover – whenever I’ve met someone who’s liked any of my stuff, I’ve immediately asked, “What was your favorite part?”

If I had to pick someone specific, I’d go with Donald Westlake. He seems to have been a happy, fun-loving guy.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

I’m not a good planner. I’ll just keep writing and sending stuff out, reading, and spreading the word about good stuff that I happen upon.

Thanks again, Tom.

Tony Knighton @ Crime Wave Press

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Book Review: Three Hours Past Midnight by Tony Knighton

THREE HOURS PAST MIDNIGHT

Author: Tony Knighton

Publisher: Crime Wave Press

Release Date: July 2017

At the outset of Three Hours Past Midnight, an unnamed professional thief and his veteran ex-cop partner pull off the flawless robbery of a safe from the home of a wealthy Philadelphia politician. Before he can claim his share of the spoils, however, the thief finds that his partner has been murdered – and the safe has gone missing. Already carrying around the baggage of his chequered past, our anti-hero seeks to salvage his sketchy reputation by tracking down the culprit – and retrieving the loot. Needless to say, the job quickly spirals out of control, and a deadly cat ‘n’ mouse game unfolds across Philadelphia.

The excellent Three Hours Past Midnight bursts into life in the style of a hard-boiled Richard Stark caper, and doesn’t let up. With a moral code that is gunmetal grey, and an unwavering commitment to following the criminal code, the unnamed protagonist busts heads and takes names as he seeks to make the pieces of his jigsaw fit. In doing so, he soaks up plenty of punishment, but his actions never lapse into indestructible incredulity.

Knighton delivers his story in cold, hard-edged prose, and imbues the book with a keenly-felt sense of location, topping things off with a memorable array of supporting characters. Suffice to say, if the idea of a smart-mouthed tough guy tearing through the underbelly of Philadelphia appeals to you, then this savvy little thriller will fit the bill.

Three Hours Past Midnight is a compelling slice on contemporary hard-boiled fiction, and one that cries out for a sequel – or sequels. Great stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Beau Johnson

This month in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Canadian crime writer Beau Johnson to discuss his brand new short story collection, A Better Kind of Hate (Down & Out Books).

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of A Better Kind of Hate. How hard was it to select the stories – and indeed the running order? Do they form part of a larger narrative?

Ah, Tom.  Thanks so much.  It’s been quite a ride!  It wasn’t too difficult to select the stories and running order at all.  All I did was pick the ones most relevant to body count.  I kid, of course.  It was a task, sure, but a fulfilling one.  As for a larger narrative… well I do have Bishop Rider in there before he goes rogue, and I do have him in there near the end of his life, so yes, I guess we could agree on that. His origin is spread throughout many stories though – as ever, it seems I am unable to info dump in clumps.

Do you have a favourite story in the collection? If so, why is it your favourite?

The more I think about it, I would have to say ‘Wonder Twin Powers Activate’.  I don’t know where that woman came from, nor have I heard from her since, but man was she a blast to write.

You are best known for your flash fiction. Do you have any ambitions to tackle a longer project, or does short fiction keep you satisfied?

Short fiction seems to be my bag, yup.  Get in, get out.  You know, never waste a word.  As for longer projects, I get this question a lot. All I will say is this: stay tuned!

I think it is fair to say you have something of a track record when it comes to wreaking all kinds of twisted vengeance against your antagonists. Where does this desire for fictional revenge stem from?

Probably from realizing people get away with more things than they should.  Each deserving what should always match their crime. Maybe a little more if I’m generous.  Sometimes a lot if I’m not.

Do you think crime fiction is too safe? Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

Independent is me.  The only mainstream stuff I seem to read is by King.

Your collection has been published by Down & Out Books – do you have any favourite D&O authors or titles?

Well let me spin the wheel!  Nah, there are too many.  If I have to choose though – Beetner, Sayles, Pitts, Jerkins, Colon, too many others… a plethora.

Which writers do you consider to be your peers?

Ah, man, loaded question.  Tom, I’m just happy to be here!

If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why? 

King.  Hands down.  That Dude is my Vader.

Do you crave mainstream success, or is developing cult status satisfying enough?

Ha!  Any status would be great, cult or otherwise.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

Just to keep on chuggin’.  Wherever my imagination takes me.  Speaking of that, I think I hear Rider calling.  Damn, is that a head in his hands or is he just happy to see me?

Beau Johnson @ Down & Out Books

 

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Alec Cizak

This month in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with US crime writer Alec Cizak to discuss his excellent new book Down on the Street (ABC Group Documentation) – the unlikely story of a down-on-his-luck taxi driver who becomes a pimp.

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Down on the Street. Where did the idea for the story come from?

Thanks. I’d been throwing around the idea of a “loser” trying to be a pimp for a long time. I know they did something similar in the old Ron Howard flick Night Shift, but I wanted to take the idea just a little bit more seriously. I had a wonderful midlife crisis experience that compelled me to start writing the book back in 2012. I worked on it a little at a time for about three years before deciding I was ready to let it be.

Was the entire narrative arc planned out in advance, or did you just set up the taxi driver-becomes-a-pimp idea and run with it?

I originally had a big shoot-em-up type of plotline that I eventually scrapped in favor of the darker road the book takes. Interestingly, in making the book less sensationalist, I decided to redeem the protagonist. Sort of. I have to credit the writer Mav Skye for helping steer me in the right direction. I let her read the first half of the novella and she gave me some ideas on how to finish the book. Her ideas, in fact, were much darker than what I eventually came up with, if you can believe it.

Lester Banks is no one’s idea of a hero, and some of his choices are spectacularly bad. Was it fun to write such a hapless protagonist?

It’s always fun to write about people “polite society” doesn’t give a shit about. If these people have jobs at all, they’re usually service jobs. The middle and upper class give them a nod and a courteous smile in exchange for a task they aren’t willing to do for themselves (or maybe can’t – I’m not going to sit here and bash the upper classes, I’m not really into the “make people feel guilty” routine that’s become so fashionable with social media one thinks it might be a mass addiction of some sort; I think shaming people for having more stuff than the rest of us is tired and not very useful in the long run). But let’s be honest – the ruling classes love to talk about what’s best for the impoverished, for the doomed, as Hunter Thompson might have referred to them, but it’s all just talk. The rich will write checks and send them to charities. A few angels will actually put in volunteer time, but ultimately, people like Lester Banks and Chelsea Farmer aren’t valued beyond the work they do and the profits other people make off of their labor. I sound like a commie, I know. I’m not. I’ve actually been to communist countries and they’re awful. But at the same time, having lived in poverty for all of my adult life, I would be derelict of duty as a writer if I didn’t try to force the upper classes to take note, to attempt to understand how rough life can get in this country.

Down on the Street features some pretty twisted scenes. In crime fiction terms, how far is too far?

Well, to me, this is a freedom of expression issue. If we value freedom of expression, there is no such thing as “too far.” Now, more than ever, it’s important to fight for this. We live in a hyper-Orwellian era in which freedom of speech isn’t fully appreciated. That said, the artist must have a damn good reason for stepping over certain lines. I don’t believe in being outrageous just for the sake of shocking people. Basically, if it’s necessary, go for it.

Do you think crime fiction is too safe? Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

I mostly read independent books and older crime fiction. It’s sad to say, but the older stuff, as far as books published by “mainstream” publishers, is a hell of a lot better than what they’re publishing these days. The “mainstream” publishers are no different than the music industry or Hollywood—they don’t want to take risks because there’s no more money for that sort of thing. Business people have taken over and they don’t understand the concept of risk in art; to them, not making a profit isn’t an option.

If you could recommend one crime novel that people are unlikely to have heard of, what would it be?

I guess I’d recommend Black Wings Has My Angel, by Elliot Chaze. Jed Ayres alerted me to that book a couple of years ago and I really enjoyed it.

Which writers do you consider to be your peers?

I don’t know if these guys would enjoy being called my peers, but the writers I really respect at the moment are Eryk Pruitt, Grant Jerkins, and Garnett Elliott. If I can ever produce work that entertains others the way their work entertains me, I will feel good about my writing.

If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?

I think my favorite writers are Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. If I could get some late-in-life success to make old age a bit more tolerable, that would be just fantastic (I’m not holding my breath, though; the masses are so concerned with phony politeness these days, the kind of cynical realism I prefer to write just isn’t marketable, just isn’t vanilla enough for the Oprah book club!).

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

Well, I’m working on a novella about what happens to Chelsea Farmer after Down on the Street. I’m going to write a book about Lester Banks after that in which he’s hiding out in an apartment above a massage parlor in Florida (I keep trying to get away from that sort of subject matter, but I don’t see society improving any in the way it uses and abuses sexuality for profit). In the meantime, I’m revising a full-fledged novel I wrote last November. It’s somewhere between horror and what the academic folks call magical realism. I’d still like to achieve the dream I had when I was twelve years old, which was to make a living writing horror novels.

Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indianapolis. His fiction has appeared in several journals and anthologies. He is also the editor of the fiction journal Pulp Modern. Find out more at No Moral Center.

Book Review: Down on the Street by Alec Cizak

DOWN ON THE STREET

Author: Alec Cizak

Publisher: ABC Group Documentation

Release Date: June 2017

Times are tough in modern-day Indianapolis, and sad-sack cab driver Lester Banks is struggling to make ends meet: paying his rent and maintaining his hooker habit is becoming increasingly difficult… Enter Chelsea, his sexy young, nymphomaniac neighbour – a woman whose life is also about to hit rock bottom. Captivated by his new acquaintance, and spurred on by advice from a colleague with a chequered past, Lester proposes a sordid business arrangement to Chelsea: why not have sex and earn money at the same time? With him as her unlikely pimp! Unfortunately for our desperate duo, their new side-line quickly attracts the attention of a posse of crooked cops, a wealthy degenerate, and a rival pimp, and Lester comes to realise that pimpin’ ain’t easy…

Anyone who has read Crooked Roads, Cizak’s masterful short story collection, will be well aware of his knack for dark, emotive stories – in which hapless protagonists are drawn hopelessly out of their depth in their pursuit of a slightly better life. Down on the Street treads a similar path, and the author offers up an eye-opening series of set-pieces as the book unfolds. The subject matter is understandably dark – but undercut with a bone-dry sense of humour – and the lead characters, and indeed supporting players, are all convincingly depicted.

Unlike reluctant anti-hero Lester, Down on the Street is neither cheap nor exploitative. This is riveting stuff, and well worth checking out.

Reviewed by Tom Leins

Under The Influence – Richard Stark – by Greg Barth

“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

That first line from Firebreak was my introduction to Richard Stark. And wow, what an introduction!

I’d heard of Richard Stark, knew that Stark was a pen-name used by the bestselling author Donald E. Westlake, and I’d seen the movie Payback starring Mel Gibson that was based on Stark’s novel, The Hunter. I think I first became aware of Richard Stark through Stephen King mentioning that his novel, The Dark Half, was inspired by Stark and Westlake. One of the characters in The Dark Half was even named George Stark. But I’d never read anything by Stark. Much of his work was long out of print and mostly owned by collectors.

Westlake stopped publishing as Stark in 1974. For twenty-three years Richard Stark was inactive. But, in 1997, something wonderful occurred. After two decades of silence, Comeback by Richard Stark was published. There was no explanation for the hiatus. Stark was back, and his character, Parker, was once again found in the middle of a heist going wrong.

When I picked up Firebreak at the local library in Asheville, North Carolina and read that opening line, I was immediately hooked. It was the literary equivalent of crack cocaine. Talk about being under the influence. I read everything by Stark I could get my hands on.

Stark’s character, Parker, was my first introduction to a fictional character who was truly amoral. I was reading about the bad guy here, and I don’t mean a misunderstood anti-hero or a Robin Hood rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor bad guy. No. Parker was just bad. He robbed from the rich to fund his own life of lavish leisure. He was tough. He could hurt people. Kill people. He was like a shark in the pool amongst civilized people, taking a bite where he could find it. His moral compass didn’t point in the same direction that yours and mine might.

The impact of Parker on my fiction writing is immeasurable. Parker coupled with Tony Soprano or Walter White led me to write the kind of fiction I do today. I write about the bad guys.

Unlike Westlake, Stark wrote with a lean (and yes, stark) style. He kept descriptions simple. You don’t get deep POV from Parker. He doesn’t say much. There’s no interior monologue. You don’t know what the guy is thinking. You have to watch what he does. The books all get to the point immediately. I liken them to the James Bond movies. Those movies always started out with Bond in the middle of doing something interesting. The Parker stories begin the same way. Parker is always in action with the first line of the book. And, as a reader, you are always hooked by that first line. That moment, standing in the library, when I read, “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man,” you better believe I read the second line. And The third, and so on. Stopping was out of the question.

When I sat down to write the novel Selena, I deliberately tried to draw upon everything I’d learned from reading Stark while also doing my own thing. And what a blast it was to write that first novel about her. The rest were just as much fun. And now, on July 1st, All Due Respect books will be releasing the fifth and final volume in the Selena series, titled Everglade. It’s been a fun, violent romp that I’ve had with Selena over the last couple of years, and I very much look forward to the final volume seeing the light of day soon. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Personally, I will miss Selena. As a fictional character, I heard her voice loud and clear in my head, which made writing about her an easy task. I always knew exactly what she was going to do, which – more often than not – was the wrong thing.

Everything by Richard Stark is now back in print. Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, you don’t have to be a collector of rare books to enjoy them. So, if you’ve never read anything by Stark, you should go to it immediately. Enjoy. And, while you’re at it, you might also check out that Greg Barth guy. I hear his stuff is okay too.

Bio: Greg Barth is the author of Bona Fide JobsWhere Moth and Rust Corrupt, as well as Selena and three other follow-ups Diesel TherapySuicide Lounge, and Road Carnage. He lives and writes in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Book Review: Everglade by Greg Barth

EVERGLADE

Author: Greg Barth

Publisher: All Due Respect

Release Date: July 2017

After 18 months lying low – albeit under the thumb of a local drug cartel – wanted felon Selena is ready for a change. Her self-destructive lifestyle has put an enormous strain on both her personal relationships and her increasingly fragile health. But getting out is easier said than done. Selena’s operation is too lucrative to let go, and this is a business environment where retirement is inflicted on you with a bullet or a blade. When Selena’s posturing turns into a pissing contest (yeah, quite literally!), she is forced to escalate the situation at hand into an all-out-war.

If crime fiction has taught us anything, it is that no one ever gets away clean. Can Selena – always at her most dangerous when she is cornered – wriggle out of another horrendous predicament, or has her luck finally run out? At the outset of the original Selena book, few readers would have guessed that the eponymous heroine would still be on the warpath five books in. Selena is a live-fast, die-young character who has managed to stay alive despite going toe-to-toe with some of the most dangerous fictional characters in recent memory.

Interestingly, compared to the previous books in the series, Everglade has a surprising, elegiac quality, as Selena contemplates her own toxic legacy and her grim drug-addled future. Not that the downbeat mood impacts on the action – there will be blood! When the penny drops regarding the significance of the title mid-way through the book, it is a vicious kidney-punch of a move, and unsettles you because you wonder exactly how low Greg Barth is willing to let Selena’s enemies go…

While Everglade seems like a logical end-point for the series, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I would pay good money to read a new Selena book every year for the foreseeable future. I hope Barth’s signature character re-emerges further down the line, as this series has been pure pulp dynamite, and offers an abrasive, come-stained, coke-snorting, booze-sloshing, bullet-strewn alternative to the mainstream. Great book – great series.

Review by Tom Leins

Under The Influence – Jim Thompson – by Paul Heatley

Before I stared writing noir, I read it. Ellroy, Simenon, Himes.

Thompson.

The first Jim Thompson book I read was The Killer Inside Me. I remember picking it up from the Borders at Silverlink in the north east of England, and a friend I was with looked at it, the title, curled her lip and shook her head. Perhaps she thought it was a biography.

Before I reached his work, Thompson’s was a name that kept creeping up in regard to the work of other writers I’d read and admired. I was drawn as much by his life story as the reviews of his books (in much the same way I initially found myself drawn by the biographies of the likes of James Ellroy and Harry Crews). Those reviews, though – nightmarish noir populated by unlikeable characters taking the scenic route to Hell? I was there. I was front and centre. I couldn’t get at them fast enough.

The Killer Inside Me did not disappoint. Nor did The Getaway, or the pseudo-Greek tragedy of The Grifters. Then came my favourite – Savage Night. This took all of his themes, of bad people doing bad things and having bad things done to them, of being trapped within hellish dimensions of their own design, and amped them up to a surreal degree. The ending (I understand there’s a very experimentally laid-out version, but the one I read was straightforward) is quite probably the best, and certainly most memorable, he ever wrote. The image of the axe-wielding, infant-footed Ruthie practising walking on her abnormal limb is one that stays in the mind, as is the last line – ‘And he smelled good.’

Jim Thompson just didn’t give a shit. I mean, maybe he did, I wouldn’t assume to know the man – but if any shits were given they don’t show. His writing is off the wall, it’s running screaming into the abyss. As Stephen King said, ‘Thompson let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it.’

Thompson was part of the school of writers that ploughed through their work as if driven by demons, and it shows. There’s a frantic urgency, an intensity, to his plotting and his characters that sweeps you up and carries you along scrambling for purchase, charging head-on into a collision that you can see coming but can’t do anything to avoid.

This is noir. It doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it has to do something inside you. It has to stir feelings you’d rather remained unstirred. It has to show you how the world really is – that there isn’t always a happy ending, and things just don’t work out the way you want them to.

Jean-Luc Godard said to make a movie all you need is a gun and a girl. Thompson personified this motif in written form, then shows how far you can take these minimal props, and to what crazed, extreme lengths you can go. Sometimes he doesn’t even bother with the gun.

No other author, with the possible exception of Stephen King, has influenced my writing the way Jim Thompson has. I’ve never wanted to be the kind of writer that puts out a book once every five years or so. I want to be prolific. I want to take all these ideas in my head and get them down on paper. In many cases I want to write the kind of thing you can take in at a sitting, then hopefully sit back and think, Fuck.

My last novella, An Eye For An Eye, was shaped by the caper novels of Chester Himes. Fatboy, however, is all Thompson. It’s my ode to the uncrowned king of noir. It’s got the girl, and it’s got the gun. It’s got bad people doing bad things. It’s brief, and it’s to the point.

And the ending?

Well, I guess that all depends on your definition of the term ‘happy’.

Bio: Paul Heatley lives in the north east of England. His short stories have appeared online and in print for publications such as Thuglit, Horror Sleaze Trash, Spelk, Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey, the Pink Factory, and the Flash Fiction Offensive, among others. His fiction is dark and bleak, populated with misfits and losers on a hellbound descent, often eschewing genre and geography to create a nightmarish vision of a harsh and uncaring world. His blog can be found here

 

Book Review: FatBoy by Paul Heatley

FATBOY

Author: Paul Heatley

Publisher: All Due Respect

Release Date: May 2017

After his girlfriend, Billie, leaves and takes their young son with her, hot-tempered barman Joey Hidalgo is left alone in the trailer that they formerly called home, with nothing to do but get drunk and try to figure out where it all went wrong. Convinced that the only thing he needs to win Billie over is money, Joey hatches a simple plan to get his life back on track, and get revenge against his tormentor (the eponymous FatBoy) – a morbidly obese regular customer with a penchant for racist abuse. Enlisting the help of Lynne, a skeletal hooker who hangs out at the dive bar he works at, Joey is about to find out exactly how far he is willing to go to get his family back…

Paul Heatley’s grim, gripping An Eye For An Eye (Near To The Knuckle) was one of my favourite books of last year. It blended raw violence and visceral thrills to terrific effect, and is well worth seeking out. Heatley’s hot streak continues with FatBoy, a US-set noir that matches its predecessor blow for bloody blow. The plot may sound deceptively simple, but – in tried and trusted noir style – Joey’s scam spirals dangerously out of control and plunges him into a grisly, hellish nightmare.

Boasting great characterisation and pitch-perfect prose, FatBoy is a well-judged excursion into classic noir territory. Another excellent crime novella from the All Due Respect production line.

Reviewed by Tom Leins

Cage Fight! Adam Howe and Tom Leins go hair-to-hair…

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it is time for the feature that you have all been waiting for: Cage Fight!

To celebrate the release of Adam Howe’s excellent new novel Tijuana Donkey Showdown – which features an eye-popping cameo from Nicolas Cage – I invited Adam back to my blog to go head-to-head (well, hair-to-hair, really) in a no holds barred Cage-off.

We each selected five Nicolas Cage hairstyles – plus one audacious bonus hairstyle – to do battle.

The guest referee charged with prising the ragged hairpieces apart was Jordan Brown, a man who served alongside me in the DVD Monthly trenches, back when working in print media and being Nicolas Cage were both legitimate career options.

Grab a bowl of popcorn, sit back in your favourite easy chair, and enjoy some of the strangest hairstyles ever committed to film. Let battle commence.

(Adam disclaimer: For the purposes of Cage Fight, I chose to concentrate on ‘Wig-era’ Nicolas Cage. Tom opted to fight dirty. And greasy.)

ROUND 1.

ADAM HOWE:

NAME: Stanley Goodspeed

MOVIE: THE ROCK

BEST LINE: “You broke out, let me see if I can get this straight, down the incinerator chute, on the mine car, through the tunnels to the power plant, under the steam engine – that was really cool by the way – and into the cistern through the intake pipe. But how, in the name of Zeus’ BUTTHOLE! … did you get out of your cell?”

As FBI chemical weapons specialist, and self-proclaimed Beatlemaniac, Stanley Goodspeed (“But of courshe you are”), Cage’s ROCK hairpiece is, by Cage’s standards, relatively restrained; a sweaty forelock during action scenes is about as Cage-esque as it gets.  At the time of THE ROCK, Cage was an untested action hero.  Despite winning the Best Actor Oscar for LEAVING LAS VEGAS, he still lacked the star power to make outrageous hairpiece demands.  But I remain convinced that, left to his own devices, Cage would have chosen a Beatle mop-top for the character:

 

Of course, it’s quite possible that Cage’s ROCK co-star, fellow wig wearer Sir Sean Connery, who sports (count ‘em) TWO toupees in the picture – “grunge” and “regulation British military” – fearing he would be upstaged, had it written into his contract that Cage be adorned with a modest hairpiece… Nicolash, with the greatesht reshpect, ash one Oschar winner to another, I musht inshist that Shtanley Goodshpeed wearsh a conshervative hairpieshe.

Connery’s influence on Cage’s future hairpieces cannot be understated.  I like to imagine the two actors kicking back on the set, mocking Michael Bay and swapping toupee tips between scenes.  Rumor has it the gruff Scot even gave Cage the number of his personal stylist, ‘Wig Maker to the Stars’ Arturo Sasso.  After working with Connery, Cage’s hairpieces would become increasingly flamboyant.

TOM LEINS:

NAME: Cris Johnson

MOVIE: NEXT

BEST LINE: “I’ve seen every possible ending. None of them are good for you.”

Nicolas Cage’s idea of cool is never queasier than in NEXT, the 2007 thriller very loosely based on ‘The Golden Man’ by Philip K. Dick. Cage stars as Cris Johnson, a Las Vegas magician with clairvoyant powers who performs under the name ‘Frank Cadillac’. Next was released a year after the enjoyably mind-bending Dick adaptation A SCANNER DARKLY.

Suffice to say, the most mind-bending thing about this film is Cage’s hair. Receding but voluminous, short yet long, restrained yet unpredictable. It feels like Cage’s hairstylist got disillusioned halfway through working on him and left the job weirdly unfinished.

The hypnotic hairstyle arguably upstages Cage himself – it certainly upstages the lukewarm sci-fi thriller. Paired with Cage’s omnipresent tan leather jacket, it highlights Hollywood’s favourite oddball at the peak of his stylistic powers.

JORDAN’S JUDGEMENT:

THE ROCK flirted with absurdity at the best of times. Between Goodspeed’s frankly cavalier handling of the arse-clenchingly deadly chemical from the halfway mark and the aforementioned dialogue, things were clearly reined in on the hairpiece front. Allowing himself to be outdone by his co-star, Cage’s pedestrian do is as much of a surprise as Michael Bay knocking out this superb actioner.

NEXT, on the other hand, is not a superb actioner. As somehow Nic’s baffling bouffant is arguably the most interesting element in this loose Philip K. Dick adaptation, it frankly trounces its humdrum opposition. Sporting a thick, long bob that starts halfway over his head, this unashamedly daring look adequately reflects the Cagemeister’s approach to his career choices around the time. Cage does whatever the hell Cage wants – both on screen and scalp.

Adam 0 – Tom 1

 ROUND 2.

ADAM HOWE:

NAME: Cameron Poe

MOVIE: CON AIR

BEST LINE: “Why couldn’t you put the bunny back in the box?”

Cage’s CON AIR ‘do, and the actor himself, appear in TIJUANA DONKEY SHOWDOWN, so it’s only fitting to include Cameron Poe’s gnarly mullet in my list.

During Cage’s mid-90s run of action pictures (The Holy Trinity: THE ROCK, CON AIR, and FACE/OFF), such was Cage’s star power that he was permitted to sport arguably the greatest hairpiece ever committed to celluloid.  And you just know that this rug was Cage’s idea.  I suspect the actor was overcompensating after being denied his Beatlemaniac mop-top in THE ROCK.

To be a fly on the wall of the CON AIR production office!  When Cage arrived bedecked as Cameron Poe, tossed the tails of his mullet upon his shoulders and proclaimed to a stunned Jerry Bruckheimer that the wig was “true to his character.”

And talk about throwing down the gauntlet to the other actors.  After seeing Cage’s hairpiece, you think Malkovich, Rhames, Buscemi, et al, didn’t bring their A-game?  Damn right they did.  What a power play by Cage!

‘The Poe,’ as the style has become commonly known, remains a perennial favorite in barbershops across the US South.  It is especially popular with strip club bouncers.

TOM LEINS:

NAME: Johnny Collins

MOVIE: ZANDALEE

BEST LINE: “I wanna shake you naked and eat you alive…”

ZANDALEE is unusual insofar as it is one of the few Cage films that can legitimately be described as an erotic thriller. The early 90s yielded dozens of eye-catching erotic thrillers of various shapes and sizes – this is the one you have never heard off. Title character Zandalee – not Cage unfortunately, although his Southern-fried gigolo aesthetic makes you wish it was his name – ditches her dull boyfriend Thierry (Judge Reinhold, coasting on a post-BEVERLY HILLS COP II high) and enters a tempestuous world of softcore super-sex after hooking up with her charismatic old friend Johnny (Cage). Set against a smouldering New Orleans backdrop, Cage’s greasy locks ooze sex appeal – or something altogether less pleasant – throughout. While Cage’s wet-look vibe arguably represents a low in most situations, it represents a delirious high in this one.

Zandalee is mysteriously unavailable on DVD in the UK, but a cursory glance at Amazon revealed that you can get a cut-price Dutch import ‘Dubbelpack’ which pairs the movie with TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. Presumably someone was drunk the day that pairing got signed off. Either that, or Dutch people find grease-soaked Nicolas Cage sex scenes weird and unsettling? Who truly knows…

(Note: Personally, I prefer to classify every Nicolas Cage movie as an erotic thriller, except maybe 8MM. That would just be weird.)

JORDAN’S JUDGEMENT:

Sure, there’s an argument to be made for Cage’s greasy Guy Fawkes look. However, in an attempt to add to ZANDALEE’S sex appeal, they went and applied this do to the one thing in the film that was already maxxed out in that regard – Cage’s folicles. The effort is impressive but is utterly dwarfed by the stylistic behemoth that is ‘The Poe’. No discussion really required on this one. Just a glimpse at Cage basking in the blistering Lerner Airfield sun with his locks blowing in the wind and it is game over for this round.

 Adam 1 – Tom 1

ROUND 3.

ADAM HOWE:

NAME: Fu Manchu

MOVIE: WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S.

BEST LINE: “Ah-haHAhaHAha, ah-haHAahAHAha, ah-haHAhaHAha!!”

Such is the gusto Cage brings to his cameo in this faux movie trailer (for the ill-fated Tarantino/Rodriguez double-bill GRINDHOUSE) that it would be almost tempting to see a feature film version.

Except: Rob Zombie.

So let’s just enjoy what we have, and imagine how many movies could be improved with these simple words: “And Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu.”

TOM LEINS:

NAME: Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough

MOVIE: RAISING ARIZONA

BEST LINE: “He explained to us that Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”

As legend has it, Nic Cage offered constant suggestions to the Coen Brothers on the set of RAISING ARIZONA, all of which they ignored. The on-set tension prompted the leading man to grumble: “Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision and I’ve learned how difficult it is to accept another artist’s vision.” He may have been given short shrift in the creative department, but Cage is his own man in the hair stakes, and RAISING ARIZONA boasts one of my favourite Cage haircuts of the pre-hairpiece era.

It’s a wacky, freewheeling film, and HI’s hair is up to the task, sprouting crazily in several directions at once. The wilder the baby-stealing caper gets, the wilder Cage’s hair appears. Frankly, it is a joy to behold. Little did Cage know, he was living on borrowed time, and his luscious locks would soon be retreating forlornly, leaving him staring into the Hollywood hairpiece abyss.  Cage’s hair remains unpredictable, but for entirely different reasons.

JORDAN’S JUDGEMENT:

Awarding the victory to Cage’s Fu Manchu would seem an obvious choice were his appearance not delivered for comic effect. Quite simply, though hypnotic to look at, Cage’s Fu Manchu tries too hard. It might have squeaked a victory against say Castor Troy or Memphis Raines, but up against Hi McDunnough, it’s up against a do with almost as much acting chops as the head upon which it’s perched.

Adam 1 – Tom 2

ROUND 4:

ADAM HOWE:

NAME: Cage-san (is my best guess [Tom note: Gallain, according to IMDB!)

MOVIE: OUTCAST

BEST LINE: “Hhhiiiiiyyyaaaaa!”

OUTCAST failed to receive a wide UK release – quite inexplicably – so this is one that, to my shame, I’ve yet to see.   I don’t now if it’s “white man gone native” revisionist history along the lines of THE LAST SAMURAI, DANCES WITH WOLVES, and, uh, AVATAR, or if Cage is playing an actual, honest-to-god Samurai.  I sincerely hope it’s the latter.  Clad in flowing black robes, with a Toshiro Mifune man-bun, and apparently channeling John Belushi in Samurai Delicatessen, Cage makes a persuasive argument for “cultural appropriation.”

TOM LEINS:

Name: Eddie King

MOVIE: ARSENAL (aka SOUTHERN FURY)

BEST LINE: “Oh, you think we’re even, you and I? I know of way we can both earn what we deserve.” (I think – Cage’s drawl makes it difficult to tell.)

It stands to reason – the cheaper a film’s budget, the cheaper its hairpiece budget. Cage’s gusto is generally undimmed by the lowered expectations of his late-period material – something that deserves our respect. In ARSENAL (aka SOUTHERN FURY) he finds a ludicrous, larger-than-life hairpiece to match his knack for B-movie quirkiness.

Cage’s hairpieces usually veer on the side of wispy plausibility, but this one is defiantly unrealistic. How sweaty must his head have been under that synthetic monstrosity? Chuck in a hideous fake moustache – which literally looks like it has been scraped out of a barrel – and you have a genuinely distracting Cage appearance.

Weirdly, it has been suggested that Cage’s Eddie King character is actually the same character who appeared in 1993’s critically mauled DEADFALL. The idea that Cage is actively pursuing follow-up projects to some of his worst movies – based solely on hairpiece potential – fills me with a queasy, uneasy kind of joy. What a man. What a career.

JORDAN’S JUDGEMENT:

ARSENAL’S audacious ‘tache-hairpiece combo renders Cage as the lovechild of Ned Flanders and Anton Chigurh. Looking like it was fished out of a mannequin factory’s wheelie bin, this polyester audacity is enough to leave even the most ardent Cage aficionado scraping their jaw off the floor. Even in still images, this monstrosity looks utterly independent of Nicolas’ bonce.

Top-knots are rarely acceptable. In fact, pretty much the only instance in which they are allowed is when wielded by a samurai or shogun. Cage’s piece in OUTCAST is therefore permissible as it so strictly adheres to historical accuracy (as I’m sure the rest of the film does). Not only that, this one’s got a bit of ‘The Poe’ about it, which is always going to garner some kudos. Overall it’s hardly a classic design but, up against a toupe that looks like it was made by Vileda, it snags the victory.

Adam 2 – Tom 2

ROUND 5.

ADAM HOWE:

NAME: David Spritz (ugh!)

MOVIE: THE WEATHERMAN

BEST LINE: “It’s my real hair.”

Another one I haven’t seen… But can you blame me?  Look at that thing!  About his hairpieces, Cage has been quoted as saying: “Sometimes people think I’m wearing a wig when I’m not wearing a wig, and then sometimes they think I’m not wearing a wig when I am wearing a wig.”  Well, this monstrosity isn’t fooling anyone.  Chestnut brown, with an age-inappropriate boyish floppy fringe; it’s a style that says Just-Plain-Nic.  If this guy was your weatherman, you’d kick a hole in your TV.  For my money, this is even more outrageous than Cage’s CON AIR ‘do, and it is no coincidence that Cage’s star began to wane after THE WEATHERMAN.

TOM LEINS:

Name: Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman.

MOVIE: Adaptation

BEST LINE: “Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier, my hair wouldn’t be falling out. Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I’m a walking cliché.”

ADAPTATION offers a glorious two-for-one, with Nicolas Cage playing celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – and his fictitious twin brother Donald. Granted, both hairstyles are exactly the same, but when Cage is rocking a receding afro – twice – you know you have hit fake-hair pay-dirt. Nothing says self-loathing, sexually frustrated writer like a receding afro, and Cage wears the hairpiece with gusto. Frankly, the Kaufman wig is so strange that it appears hypnotic.

Reassuringly, Cage is also said to be wearing a fat-suit under his sweater-and-slacks combo. This isn’t an obese Eddie Murphy-style fat-suit, this is a plausible, slim-line fat-suit. People often joke that Cage has hit rock bottom, but I would beg to differ. As soon as he starts reaching for the proper BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE-style fat suits, that will be rock bottom. Who knows, if the lure of the straight-to-DVD thriller starts to wear thin, maybe one day we might be compiling tongue-in-cheek features comparing Cage’s finest fat suits…

 JORDAN’S JUDGEMENT:

Adam’s right on the money here. Each shot of this film looks like he’s thinking “Are they buying it?” No, Nic. Nobody’s cashing that cheque. Utter. Wispy. Rubbish.

While Cage proudly sported follicular mayhem in Next, here he’s looking deeply uncomfortable trying to conform to societal standards of hair dos. Gore Verbinski should be ashamed of himself for trying to ram a square peg in a round hole. Like Mark Wahlberg’s character in THE OTHER GUYS, Cage is a hairpiece peacock – you’ve gotta let him fly. It genuinely saddens me to see this great man looking like a melancholy terrier chained outside in the rain.

Obviously then, the anarchy atop his noggin in ADAPTATION bulldozes over the competition. Smacking of Thurman Merman’s superbly curly locks in BAD SANTA, this receding, balding ‘fro is where Cage is in his element and, as Tom says, we get it twice thanks to him playing both Charlie Kaufmann and his made-up sibling. This bold look allowed Cage to chew through scenery as two characters. He looks comfortable, animated and…well…Cage-esque. It’s an easy win.

Adam 2 – Tom 3

BONUS ROUND.

ADAM HOWE:

NAME: Stanley Hill

MOVIE: I AM WRATH

BEST LINE: “All I wanted in the world was to be a Catholic priest…”

Cage was once attached to star in revenge-thriller I AM WRATH, later to be replaced by syrup-sporting Scientologist, and Cage’s FACE/OFF co-star, John Travolta.  I admit to a ghoulish fascination in watching fallen A-list stars flounder in Direct-to-Video dog-shit like I AM WRATH.  In fact, it’s become something of an endurance sport.  Usually I last no more than 15 minutes before changing the channel.  But Travolta’s WRATH rug held me rapt throughout.  I can only assume that this was the hairpiece assigned to Cage, and Travolta simply took the toupee along with the role; how else to explain the poor fit?  I was pleasantly reminded of the character Joe Pesci played in Oliver Stone’s JFK, Kennedy conspirator and alopecia sufferer, David Ferrie.  For the hairpiece alone, I heartily endorse I AM WRATH to bad movie enthusiasts.

TOM LEINS:

NAME: Superman

MOVIE: SUPERMAN LIVES

BEST LINE: N/A

In a nutshell: Superman-as-rock-star!

SUPERMAN LIVES, Tim Burton’s intended reboot of the Superman film series was cancelled only three weeks before filming was set to begin in April 1998, with Nic Cage in the lead role. In many ways it is easy to guess how a Tim Burton Superman movie would have panned out:  Helena Bonham-Carter as Lois Lane, Johnny Depp as Lex Luthor, kookiness dialed up to 11. Cage – and his high-impact post-CON-AIR flowing locks would have given the film an edge of genuine unpredictability.

I would have especially loved to have seen long-haired Superman in Clark Kent mode. Cage’s Superman is not a man who would gladly hold down a low-paying media job in order to blend in with society. Cage makes headlines – he doesn’t write them. Sadly, Cage never got to slip into the Man of Steel’s trunks, and the men who did – Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill – probably couldn’t pick one another out of a line-up. If we can have a world-weary Batman, I’m sure we can have a world-weary Superman – preferably one with tax problems and long, synthetic hair.

JORDAN’S JUDGEMENT:

I’m a massive fan of Superman and here, I’d love to heartily award the spoils of victory to Superman Lives. However, Cage’s Kal-El is a whole new flavor of wrong. While Tim Burton’s styleset was ideally suited to the Caped Crusader, Superman remains too iconic to mess with like this. Where Batman benefitted (well, mostly benefitted) from many different interpretations, Superman has barely changed since he first graced the cover of Action Comics. While it would be impossible to look away from a Cagey portrayal of Krypton’s last son, Supes needs to be Supes – and the requirements are too restrictive for a man of his acting calibre. Cage is at his best when unhinged – which is why everybody loves the Ghost Rider movies so much.

While it would have been interesting to see SUPERMAN LIVES, the hair just isn’t on. While Clark Kent has sported his fair share of styles in the comics, on screen it needs to be a side parting and, if you’re sticking to the Reeve series, a forehead curl. Maybe the style could have worked alone, but paired with Cage, it’s just too much.

As a result, I can’t award it heartily, I have to do so grudgingly as it wins simply by virtue of not being a hand-me-down for John Travolta. Adam’s entry into the bonus round is disqualified due to instilling a longing for that very hair to be on the head of Nicolas Cage.

 FINAL SCORECARD:

 Adam 2 – Tom 4