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Dead Mower Dreams and the Weeds of Boo Radley

When someone asks me why I think there’s been a resurgence in dark crime, hard-boiled, and noir fiction, I tell them the story about the house across the street.
Razer

It’s a two-floor split-foyer that nowadays sort of looks like Boo Radley’s place. It’s become one of those legendary homes where kids are dared to run up to the porch on Halloween. Obviously, no one lives there anymore. The weeds are chest high. Part of the fencing has toppled. A leaf-strewn trampoline lies collapsed in the backyard, and sun-faded flyers and newspapers litter the stoop.

Eighteen months ago it looked like every other place on the block: well-tended, colorful, lively, active. There was always plenty of noise over there, but not the kind that gets on your nerves. Teenagers shot hoops in the driveway while younger kids played volleyball in the yard or drew chalk pictures and hopscotch boards on the sidewalk. There was a lot of laughter.

This was before my neighbor defaulted on his third mortgage and fled in the night with his family in a box truck, without saying a word to anyone on the street.

Two weeks ago I got so tired of looking at the shabby lawn that I dragged my mower over there and spent an hour doing my best to trim back the jungle. I struggled, sweated, and failed. A third of the way through, the mower started coughing smoke and spitting sparks. Then it let out a shriek like a well-stacked scream queen and died. I haven’t been able to get it started since.

That’s the story I tell them to explain the resurgence in noir fiction.

Sometimes they don’t get it. They’re too well off. Or too young. Or in excellent health. Or they’ve retired and have a fat pension. Or they live with their mamas.

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So I try another tack. I tell them all about rushing headlong screaming into my midlife crisis. I discuss my wasted college degree in English, my missed opportunities, my obvious mistakes, my troublesome health. I go the gross route and talk about finding gray hairs in my ears.

If they’re younger than me, they don’t understand any of it and won’t until it happens to them. If they’re older than me, they don’t want to hear me bitching.

I’m more connected to my grandfather than to my father or uncles. The old boy survived the Depression. Every few months he packed up his kids at midnight and moved two blocks farther down the West Side of Manhattan to a new tenement while carrying an icebox on his back.

I’ve been a writer twenty years. I’ve spent decades facing down financial instability, the lack in health benefits, the worries of late royalties and no royalties at all. The loss of contracts, the poor sales, the anxiety of not having a weekly paycheck.

Six months or so ago a story broke in our town. A local couple tried to rob a bank at gunpoint. They had no idea what they were doing. A silent alarm was tripped, and the cops showed up. The police were ready and waiting in the parking lot when the couple emerged with less than a thousand dollars in stolen cash. Shots were exchanged. Man and wife were killed.

They’d never been in trouble with the law before. Drugs weren’t involved. So far as the police were able to determine, they had each recently lost their jobs and, in an effort to pay the bills, decided to rob a bank.

Let me tell you, I think about it a lot too. Four hours ago I was at my bank taking a twenty out of my pitiful checking account. As I was leaving, the armored-car guards were stepping inside, right through the front door. One bumped into me. He smiled and said he was sorry. In his arms he carried a locked metal box containing more cash than I’ll make throughout the rest of my life.

Oh yeah, I think about it.

I don’t write mysteries or cozies or locked-room puzzles. If you can do it, you’re better off than me, brothers and sisters. I write crime. I dream the dreams of my grandfather at midnight. I just want to survive through the rest of the day.

So that’s why I chase down writers like Charlie Huston, Ken Bruen, Daniel Woodrell, Stuart Neville, Don Winslow, Ray Banks, Allan Guthrie, and Dave Zeltserman. They speak to me. They know my dark heart, my human heart, my fearful heart. They prove to me again and again that fiction isn’t only a series of lies — that sometimes our fiction is more real than anything that’s ever happened. That my knee-jerk mad fantasies are shared by others.

I want to read about men pushed to the edge, corrupted by the world, destroyed by their own vices, who face down the worst part of themselves every hour. Sometimes they win against their own baseness and frustrations. Sometimes they are consumed. Hope springs eternal. So does terror.

I used to write dark fantasy before I switched over to crime. Horror fiction, I tell them, is mostly a young person’s game. Where you get to dream up the monsters that are waiting ahead of you, around the next corner. Crime, on the other hand, is an older soul’s game. It’s about the demon that’s coming up behind you. It’s about all your regrets and mistakes that have brought you to the place where you are right now. It’s noir. It’s black. It’s bleak. It’s standing in your own overgrown yard with weeds up to your nuts, staring across the street at Boo Radley’s place, dreaming dark dreams, and waiting for Halloween. Maybe I’ll still be here by the end of October, or maybe kids will be daring each other to run up to an empty house where, in my worst nightmares, my shadow still walks, alone and in silence.

Tom Piccirilli is the author of twenty novels including Shadow Season, The Cold Spot, The Coldest Mile, and A Choir of Ill Children. He’s won the International Thriller Writers Award and four Bram Stoker Awards, as well as having been nominated for the Edgar, the World Fantasy Award, the Macavity, and Le Grand Prix de L’imagination. Learn more at www.thecoldspot.blogspot.com.