By Anthony Neil Smith
The stark cover art of Anthony Neil Smith's latest crime fiction offering—a road almost obscured by blowing snow—is the perfect visual for this novel about a far-from-ethical Minnesota police officer whose laundry list of criminal misdeeds leads him down an existential road to nowhere.
Deputy Sheriff Billy Lafitte is no stranger to hardship. Before relocating to Yellow Medicine County in southwest Minnesota, Lafitte, his wife and two children lived in Gulfport, Miss., and experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And if losing his home and most of his belongings wasn't enough, after Lafitte gets busted for callously charging victims of the hurricane for supplies, he loses his job as a police officer, as well as his family when his wife divorces him.
Lafitte, an archetypal noir anti-hero if ever there was one, hasn't learned from his mistakes, however, and after landing the deputy job in rural Minnesota with the help of his benevolent ex-wife, he continues with his Machiavellian lifestyle. But when an unlikely love interest, a young Goth girl named Drew, asks for his help in a personal matter, Lafitte becomes entangled in a criminal quagmire that includes backwoods meth dealers, oversexed college coeds, a rogue Department of Homeland Security agent and a cell of Islamic jihadists from Southeast Asia who have infiltrated America's heartland. As the body count escalates, Lafitte's "little adventure with terrorism" turns into a karmic cautionary tale of colossal proportions.
It's difficult to create a character who evokes sympathy or some sense of partiality from readers and also commits heinous crimes without any semblance of guilt—like forcing a teenager to have sex with him in order to get her boyfriend out of a drunk-driving charge on prom night—but Smith does so with a brooding writing style that is straightforward and unsentimental. For crime-fiction fans who enjoy their literary escapism dark and bloody, "Yellow Medicine" is just what the doctor ordered.
By Shannon Burke
Soft Skull, $14.95 paper
Reminiscent of Joe Connelly's 1998 debut novel, "Bringing Out the Dead," about a burnt-out paramedic working in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, Shannon Burke's second novel, "Black Flies," is a visceral, nihilistic, dark gem of a story that will alter readers' perceptions of paramedics and the service they perform day in and day out.
The narrator is Ollie Cross, a recent college graduate who has decided to take a year off and work as a paramedic in New York's Harlem before going to medical school. But the altruistic and idealistic Cross soon finds himself overwhelmed by the barrage of nightmarish scenarios he faces: a diabetic woman whose blackened toes have fallen off in her sock, an HIV-positive drug addict who has just given birth prematurely and is trying to cut her umbilical cord with a broken crack pipe, and more.
Cross, whose partner is a cynical Vietnam veteran and longtime medic who may be going insane, sees firsthand what years of psychological stress and thanklessness from the community will do to even the most dedicated paramedic. When he sees some of his fellow paramedics going out of their way to harm patients—and finds himself agreeing with their criminal conduct—he realizes he has reached a spiritual crossroads.
Burke does an excellent job of re-creating the social and political atmosphere of early 1990s Harlem, and his main characters are meticulously and realistically developed, but it's the insights associated with being a paramedic that make this such a powerful read:
"[W]hen you can't sleep and your life feels completely empty and you see death so much that it's commonplace and you're filled with secret guilt of being alive among the dead, then you can become the sort of individual who is blunted and immune to the normal sensations of the everyday world. . . . That's protection—being numb—but it carries with it a risk particular to the job. When everything is meaningless, including the life or death of the people around you, then the door is left open to be evil, really . . . evil."
Virgins and Martyrs
By E.L. Merkel
Five Star, $25.95
The third mystery/thriller from Chicagoan Earl Merkel explores a powder keg of divisive topics—abortion, domestic terrorism, religious fanaticism—but the crux of the novel revolves around the power of faith: faith in God, faith in oneself, faith in the institutions that bind society.