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Wiley Cash

WHEN GHOSTS COME HOME . . . Between the covers

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Wiley Cash lives in North Carolina, and I reviewed his first two novels, A Land More Kind Than Home (2013) and This Dark Road To Mercy (2014). Both had an intense, brooding quality. The first was more of a literary novel but the second – while still thoughtful and haunting – sat more comfortably in the crime genre. You can read my interview with Wiley Cash here.

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His latest novel is set, once again, in the writer’s home state. It is 1984 and Winston Barnes is the Sheriff of Oak Island, a  town on the state’s southern-facing coastline. It’s separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway. Barnes is sixty, he is up for re-election and faces a wealthy and brash challenger who has money to burn on his election campaign. In the small hours of an autumn morning Barnes and his wife – who is suffering from cancer – are woken by the sound of an aircraft apparently heading for the island’s tiny airstrip. Barnes knows that something is wrong, as no legitimate aircraft would be flying in the dead of night. When he reaches the airstrip his flashlight reveals two things: a ditched aircraft, much larger than those the facility can safely handle, and a man, recently shot dead. The aircraft is devoid of clues as to its origin, and any fingerprints have been wiped. The corpse is, however, less mysterious. It is the twenty-something son of a  local black teacher, and civil-rights activist.

What starts as merely a bad day for Barnes turns into a nightmare. His daughter Colleen, who lives in Dallas with her lawyer husband, and who is mourning a still-born child, turns up unannounced, an emotional wreck. The ditched aircraft case is summarily handed over to the FBI, and the local rednecks (including Barnes’s rival in the upcoming election) assume that the aircraft was carrying a drug shipment from South America, and that Rodney Bellamy – the murdered man – was part of the deal. Consequently, they turn up in the dead of night at Bellamy’s home, in their pick-up trucks, flaunting Confederate flags and shooting guns into the air.

Barnes knows that he unless he can cool hot heads, he is going to have a race war on his hands. No-one sitting here in Britain reading this can have the remotest idea of the intensity of the emotions stirred up in the southern states of America by the matter of race. There’s a vivid depiction of the issue in the Penn Cage novels by Greg Iles, and you read more about them by clicking this link. I have family in North Carolina and know – from a relatively recent visit – that public institutions are at great pains to distance themselves from the past. The whole business of statue-toppling and contemporary apologies for what some see as past offences is a contentious one. But this novel is set in 1984, almost four decades ago, and Wiley Cash paints a haunting picture of a community where the past still collides violently with the present.

Winston Barnes still has a murder to solve, and against the background of his wife’s illness and the mental fragility of his daughter, he has to summon up all his resolve to keep things on an even keel. The FBI sends a qualified pilot and engineer, Tom Groom, up from Florida to repair the aircraft’s damaged landing gear and fly it out so the the Oak Island airstrip can resume business. Barnes is asked to put Groom up for a few nights as the local hotels are all closed for the winter. Colleen, after meeting Groom, has a sixth sense that something is not quite right.

Screen Shot 2021-10-31 at 19.19.37Wiley Cash is at his best when describing the complex social history of his home state, and the ways in which it affects families and relationships, and he is on good form here. Where the book didn’t work so well,  for me at least, was in the ending. In literally two and a half pages, everything we thought we knew about what was happening on Oak Island is turned violently on its head. Abrupt? Yes. Enigmatic? Certainly. There’s no rule that says every plot has to end neatly tied up like a parcel with every question answered, and many readers may enjoy the ambiguity at the end of this book. You could say that Cash (right) gives us the dots and leaves it up to us how we join them up. When Ghosts Come Home is published by Faber and Faber, and is available now in Kindle and paperback. The hardback is due in February 2022.

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (2): Tropes, Tribes and Trauma

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An opening word or three about the taxonomy of some of the crime fiction genres I am investigating in these features. Noir has an urban and cinematic origin – shadows, stark contrasts, neon lights blinking above shadowy streets and, in people terms, the darker reaches of the human psyche. Authors and film makers have always believed that grim thoughts, words and deeds can also lurk beneath quaint thatched roofs, so we then have Rural Noir, but this must exclude the kind of cruelty carried out by a couple of bad apples amid a generally benign village atmosphere. So, no Cosy Crime, even if it is set in the Southern states, such as Peaches and Scream, one of the Georgia Peach mysteries by Susan Furlong, or any of the Lowcountry novels of Susan M Boyer. Gothic – or the slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothick – will take us into the realms of the fantastical, the grotesque, and give us people, places and events which are just short of parody. So we can have Southern Noir and Southern Gothic, but while they may overlap in places, there are important differences.

I believe there are just two main tropes in Southern Noir and they are closely related psychologically as they both spring from the same historical source, the war between the states 1861 – 1865, and the seemingly endless fallout from those bitter four years. Despite having a common parent the two tropes are, literally, of different colours. The first is set very firmly in the white community, where the novelists find deprivation, a deeply tribal conservativism, and a malicious insularity which has given rise to a whole redneck sub-genre in music, books and film, with its implications of inbreeding, stupidity and a propensity for violence.

Real-life rural poverty in the South was by no means confined to former slaves and their descendants. In historical fact, poor white farmers in the Carolinas, for example, were often caught up in a vicious spiral of borrowing from traders and banks against the outcome of their crop; when time came for payback, they were often simply back to zero, or ALMKTHthrown off the land due to debt. The rich seam of dirt poor and embittered whites who turn to crime in their anger and resentment has been very successfully mined by novelists. Add a touch of fundamentalist Christianity into the pot and we have a truly toxic stew, such as in Wiley Cash’s brilliant A Land More Kind Than Home (2013).

No-one did sadistic and malevolent ‘white trash’ better than Jim Thompson. His embittered, cunning and depraved small town Texas lawman Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (1952) is one of the scariest characters in crime fiction, although it must be said that Thompson’s bad men – and women – were not geographically confined to the South.

Although not classed as a crime writer, Flannery O’Connor write scorching stories about the kind of moral vacuum into which she felt Southern people were sucked. She said, well aware of the kind of lurid voyeurism with which her home state of Georgia was viewed by some:

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 20.13.46Her best known novel, Wiseblood (1952) contains enough bizarre, horrifying and eccentric elements to qualify as Gothick. Take a religiously obsessed war veteran, a profane eighteen-year-old zookeeper, prostitutes, a man in a gorilla costume stabbed to death with an umbrella, and a corpse being lovingly looked after by his former landlady, you have what has been described as a work of “low comedy and high seriousness”

There are a couple of rather individual oddities on the Fully Booked website, both slanted towards True Crime, but drenched through with Southern sweat, violence and the peculiar horrors of the US prison system. The apparently autobiographical stories by Roy Harper were apparently smuggled out of the notorious Parchman Farm and into the hands of an eager publisher. Make of that what you will, but the books are compellingly lurid. Merle Temple’s trilogy featuring the rise and fall of Michael Parker, a Georgia law enforcement officer, comprises A Ghostly Shade of Pale, A Rented World and The Redeemed. I only found out after reading and reviewing the books that they too are personal accounts.

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The second – and more complex (and controversial) trope in Southern Noir is the tortuous relationship between white people both good and bad, and people of colour. My examination of this will follow soon.

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