Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Carsten Stroud, THE HOMECOMING: Niceville II, Crime + Horror

One of the epigraphs to Carsten Stroud's crime horror novel Niceville is from "Tartuffe": "Malicious men may die, but malice ... never." After that moment of high culture, the book sweeps into nonstop small-town action and suspense, told from multiple viewpoints -- most of them, through the eyes of clever and emotionally frozen criminals who seize opportunities and don't care who gets hurt along the way. Some of these sociopaths are trim and elegant, like Coker, the police sniper, a "Clint Eastwood" figure with silvery hair and compelling gaze; others, like Byron Deitz, look nearly as ugly and creepy on the outside as on the inside.

And then there are Nick Kavanaugh and his wife Kate Walker, a family-practice attorney. Maybe their exteriors aren't as clearly painted. But they are the smart, kind people here -- along with Native American (Maiami tribe) Lemon Featherlight, whom all the women warm up to. Of course, Nick has a crimp in his military past that's preventing him from going back to active duty, and Lemon has a rap sheet that's turned him into being a CI, a confidential informant. And Kate? You could say she gives her love and loyalty so passionately that she complicates life.

Or, like Nick, you could admit she's simply standing for honor, something he holds just as dear as she does.

So, where does that leave Rainey Teague, whose probably distant relatives keep turning up in the threatening situations that surround Kate and her allies -- but who is (at least on paper) just a half-grown kid fresh from a year of a coma, welcomed by Kate into her home and heart -- what side is Rainey on, anyway? Kate's? Or, umm, the dark shadowy threat that keeps interfering in his life but seems to be attached to him?

This week is the release of book II in the Niceville trilogy: THE HOMECOMING. Reading it was the bravest thing I've done this year. It's so darned good ... the action is so swift, the twists so unexpected yet fitting, and the determination that Kate and Nick show is so irresistible. But -- and this is a big but -- I knew as I devoured it (407 pages!) that nothing big would resolve or clarify by the end, because (groan) there's still another 400+ pages to go, in 2014, in The Reckoning. OMG!!!!

Maybe you've already had the good fortune of staggering through Tanya French's or Stuart Neville's Irish crime fiction, where the weight of a violent past -- of a person, a family, a country -- cripples and haunts the living women and men who grapple with crime (on both sides). Stroud crafts the U.S. version, and evil's presence in THE HOMECOMING is vicious, hungry, and dark. A Florida resident, he's set the scene in a Southern town called Niceville, which dates from 1764 but takes its undercurrents from events during the Civil War (a.k.a. the War of Northern Aggression) and the decades afterward, including World War I. Something about the interactions of Niceville's four founding families is so saturated with shame and rage that there's a dark force stalking the town's prominent citizens even now.

Stroud's writing is rich and colorful, and took me instantly to the Deep South (Niceville is within a night's driving distance of Metairie, Louisiana). That restless growth and fertility, the bitter enduring heritage of slavery's brutality, abuses of power by class, gender, and race -- they all surround Kate and Nick. Even with the tribal knowledge that Lemon Featherlight adds to their grasp of the forces around them, chances look pretty slim that they'll escape unharmed. Each one even wonders whether their marriage will hold up as they struggle with Rainey Teague's terrible heritage.

So here's the deal: You can pick up a copy of Niceville (the first book) in hardcover now, or wait until mid August when it comes out in softcover. But I suggest getting THE HOMECOMING right away. Stroud is a deft and powerful writer -- he gives enough detail in this second book to cover for the first one, without spoiling anything major in it, so it will work fine (in this rare case) to read the books in reverse order if that's how you access them.

And then you can join me in the agonizing wait for June 2014 and the third book in the Niceville series. (Here is Stroud's website to reassure you.) Misery loves company, they say. I wonder whether malice would say the same?

Shiver. I'm shaken by Stroud's very personal version of evil and malice. But I trust Kate and Nick, and most of all, Lemon. I want to read the third book.

If only I were enough of a Stroudian sociopath to go steal the manuscript from whatever publishing safe it's waiting in. Oh wait -- is the dark presence in Niceville affecting me now?

PS -- I see I've left out the details of how amazingly funny the situations can be that Stroud's villains create around themselves. I only want to add, though, that the black humor never spoils the tension. Not even when the Chinese get involved. The Chinese in the American South? Think fancy Lear jet. Really.

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