Paul Burke introduces three excellent crime novels from PM Press

Article published on August 8, 2018.

These crime novels are very different; a scorching prison drama, a murder (?) in the midst of a war and a classic LA noir, with a modern twist. What they all have in common, what unites them, is that they all have a political aspect, these are novels with something to say about the state of things. Just in case that worries you, these are not polemics, the political elements of the tales do not interfere with the storytelling, they enhance it! None of these novels would be here if they weren’t praiseworthy thrillers. PM Press was founded in 2007, in California, to publish “radical and stimulating fiction”. I think you’ll see these novels all meet that criteria.

Low Bites by Sin Sirocco

Reading Low Bites is like taking a punch to the gut and getting sapped on the head at the same time. It’s as powerful a shot of pulp fiction as any I’ve read in a long time. You will want to laugh and cry with the women in this novel. It smacks of authenticity (the author spent time in jail), from the gallows humour to the hard edged action. Low Bites is a gritty representation of life behind bars in a California women’s prison.

The novel opens with Lily trying to make it over the perimeter fence. When shots are fired, she figures the fog will cover her but a near miss causes her to lose her balance and she breaks her ankle in the fall. As the guard stands over her pointing a gun in her face she screams in frustration, not at him but at life. A black inmate reflects that Lily would be dead if she weren’t a white girl. That aside, Lily isn’t the lucky sort, she still received regular postcards from the guy she tried to kill, taunting her: “Havin’ a wonderful time girl….”

New guard Johnson is escorting Morgan to the law library. Morgan can’t resist winding her up with under the breath threats: “I’ve got a knife,” she whispers, but when challenged she comes up with “Ai, What a night.” It’s one of those small victories prisoners get to enjoy on the inside. Johnson doesn’t like what the law library does for prisoners, [it] “Makes you think you got rights, as if you were somebody. you people aren’t special.”

Then there’s China, she wants to know who killed her husband, Raymond. Not that she didn’t want to do it herself (that’s how she got here on a conspiracy to murder charge). But it wasn’t her so who was it? Raymond had a $40,000 collection the night it happened. Morgan has no illusions about the women around her, she’s “Locked up with liars. Screamers, schemers. Deceivers.” Morgan doles out legal advice to the inmates and she’s helping China find Raymond’s killer. It won’t get China’s sentenced reduced but it ain’t right not knowing. Maybe Alexander, the teacher and qualified lawyer, can be persuaded/manipulated into help out?

“Survival is measured in commodities” is one of the many home truths in the novel. It’s a measure of how good the dialogue is in this taut little novel that there was a quotable line on nearly every page. Low Bites has a colourful array of characters, each with a measure of complexity, from the ditsy to the cunning and clever. They take on everything life has to throw at them: relationships, racism, violence, riots, drugs, sex as a weapon, boredom and societal indifference. Some are ordinary women who got dealt a bad hand others are hardened veteran criminals – we see their hopes, dreams and nightmares. It’s a compassionate and thought provoking read and a strong indictment of the California penal system.

Sirocco is interviewed at the end of the novel and I love her own description of Low Bites as “bad girl trash crime”, no pretensions there then. Still, it’s by no means the whole truth because although this is poetic pulp, it is also a political book. An in your face, angry book about the treatment of women in the prison system. Although Sirocco doesn’t want to play that up, she did want this book to have an impact. “What I wanted to do was bring people to jail and I wanted them to stay there long enough to read the Goddamned book.”

Low Bites was written in the 1989 and reprinted by PM Press in 2010. At the time of the original publication there weren’t many women in noir fiction, certainly no one else writing anything as ballsy as Low Bites. ****1/2.

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The Man Who Killed Durruti by Pedro de Paz

The Spanish Civil War is in full swing, the battle for Madrid is being fought out in the streets, it’s bloody and brutal. Against this background Major Fernández Durán, a policeman before the war, is conducting an investigation into the death of Commandante Durruti, a prominent anarchist, three months earlier. The first witness is Durruti’s driver, Julio Graves, present at the moment the bullet struck the commandante. In his account he states that Durruti had an argument with another officer, then altered the day’s schedule, so they hastily set out in the car for University City. Graves says that Durruti stopped the car amidst the general gunfire to berate some soldiers, Milicanos, men he took for deserters. After shouting at the men and sending them back to the front Durruti opened the car door. This is when a loud shot rang out and Durruti fell wounded. Graves with sergeant Manzana rushed the injured man to the hospital, but under the care of Dr. Santamaría, he died later that night. Graves is sure the bullet came from a rifle in the fascist lines. Durán’s deputy, lieutenant Alcázar, El sabueso (the bloodhound), has arranged for all the witnesses to appear before Durán. The second witness is officer Antonio Bonilla of the Durruti Column. The man Graves said rowed with Durruti before they left barracks. He says that the commandante’s anger was aimed at the Del Rosal Column, and that he set out to see their commander and that is why plans changed. Bonilla and two others, now missing or dead, were in an escort vehicle in front of Durruti’s car on the fateful journey. They waited down the road when Durruti stopped but we’re surprised when his car suddenly reversed and vanished, not aware of what happened they returned to barracks.

I mention the two accounts in detail because there are significant discrepancies. One says they were going fast, that there was gunfire in the area (but he heard the killing shot perfectly), the other that they were going slow and there was no gun fire. This is where Durán’s detective skills kick in. As he interviews Dr. Santamaria and the commander of the milicanos, further discrepancies emerge. The official report published at the time of the incident says there were no witnesses to the fascist outrage. Durán needs to know why the National Committee of the CNT have asked him to re-investigate the matter when he is sure nobody wants to have the initial findings over turned.

“…if there was a premeditated crime here, every crime is carried out because it brings someone benefit. In this case, there are lots of people who, for one reason or another, might profit from this lamentable incident. I’m not accusing anyone, much less suggesting conspiracy….”

Durán has to consider whether this was an act of war, a murder, an accident, or a conspiracy. He has to consider who benefits from the death of the popular leader. Do the discrepancies matter or is it just natural that people see things differently, particularly recounting events after three months? To complicate matters, the Minister warns Durán that this case could be good for his career handled properly. Then there is the mysterious Perez, who represents certain interested parties, following Durán. The conclusion that Durán comes to shows all the instinct of a clever policeman. But will the authorities want to hear what he has to report?

Although heavy on the dialogue this is a beautifully crafted tale, elegantly told, with a genuine authenticity (sense of time and place). The Man Who Killed Durruti exposes the political divisions within the left during the Spanish Civil War and looks at themes of loyalty, betrayal and memory.

Durruti was a hero of the left in Spain, in his brilliant postscript to the novel, Stuart Christie describes him as the most outstanding anarchist in the movement’s history. Christie puts some context to the event of 19th November, 1936. The complex internecine war between the communists and the anarchists. The measure of Durruti is clear in this statement:

“there are times in life when it’s impossible to carry out an order, no matter how highly placed the person who gave the order. It is through disobedience that a man becomes civilised. In your case then civilize yourself by making common cause with the people….”

Was Durruti murdered? There is no definitive account, although Christie does describe details that lean a certain way. This speculative fiction illustrates that we all see the world differently, in large or small ways. I have always found it strange that people talk about discrepancies in evidence as if that meant something was wrong. If the witnesses all agree and the evidence is uncontested that’s a sure fire conspiracy. On the other hand, maybe this is about more than a different understanding of the same event, maybe there is a hidden truth is in the evidence Durán hears. Intriguing and gripping. The presence of a remarkable man, Durruti, overhangs the novel.

The Man Who Killed Durruti won the 2003 José Saramago International Short Novel Award. Not only is it superbly translated but there are striking illustrations and photoplates too. *****

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The Underbelly by Gary Phillips

This thriller grips from the opening scene (a knife fight) all the way to the denouement, which is not what you might think from the early action. It’s about the collision of two worlds, the marginalised and rich, the gentrification of Los Angeles that squeezes the existing community out – progress? The Underbelly is a tight noir, action packed and full of black humour.

Wall Street, Los Angeles, post crash America.

“Unlike the street’s more notorious incarnation in Manhattan, the West Coast version didn’t boast of edifices and testament to giddy capitalism. The bailout around here was of the cheap whiskey and crack rock variety, the meltdown a daily occurrence.”

Savoirfaire, is young and cocky, Magrady is a Vietnam Vet, long in the tooth and wily. It didn’t occur to the young man that Magrady wouldn’t be standing his ground if he couldn’t back up what he’s saying. Magrady tells Savoirfaire to take Floyd Chambers off his loan list, no more leans on the man’s social security cheques. Savoirfaire thinks Magrady is muscling in on his loan sharking business. He fetches a knife from his Cadillac Escalade and comes at Magrady. The older man puts up an arm, protected with padding, and the knife gets stuck. Magrady delivers a kick to the knee and slams the car door on the young man, he drops the knife. Magrady sticks it in one the Escalade’s tyres and again warns Savoirfaire off.

Janis Bonilla is the lead community advisor for Urban Advocacy, she’s with Floyd Chambers when Magrady returns. She is planning a demonstration for City Hall over the Emerald Shoals redevelopment plan and she’s been trying to get Magrady to become a UA organiser. Like a lot of vets, Magrady is homeless, living in Red Spencer’s garage. A couple of days later a black and white pulls him over. LAPD Captain Loren Stover has him down as a person of interest in the murder of Jeff Currey aka Savoirfaire. Someone smashed his skull in with a heavy duty pry bar in Ladera Heights. Stover and Magrady have history dating back to the war in Vietnam, Stover holds a grudge, he sends Magrady to lock up. When Magrady gets out Bonilla tells him Chambers has gone missing, coincidence? It’s unlikely a man in a wheel chair did for Savoirfaire but Magrady starts looking for him. He finds a swipe card in Chambers things belonging to SubbaKhan, the company that did the environmental impact report on the Emerald Shoals Scheme (one of the developers). Why did he have it? Magrady is also looking into Savoirfaire’s murder. He comes across a couple of thugs who warn him off. Out of malice Stover has leaned on his landlord so he’s homeless again, and the police are busting community demonstrations looking for illegals. Fireworks follow.

The Underbelly deals with the plight of the vets, and the community being edged out by the developers with the connivance of the police. The novel seethes with a quiet anger at the way people are treated. It’s not a book that feels sorry for it’s characters. There is a great deal of humour here too, the scene where Magrady tucks up in a ball and gets the sympathy of the crowd when he is attacked by a thug will make you laugh. It’s entertaining but hard edged – no bullshit here!

There are some illustrative woodcuts and photos to accompany the text and an extensive interview with the author, which is a nice bonus too. Phillips says:

“If I want a polemic I’ll read non-fiction….if you’re going to tell a story, it should have characters that resonate with the reader and have a plot and structure that is not just an excuse to go on forever.”

This story has characters that resonate. Mulgrew Magrady is a wickedly good hero, a vet who stands up for what he thinks is right, a black man screwed by the system who still has his dignity and smarts. He won’t go down without a fight.

“‘But sometimes the bad guy wins. What kind of morality is that?’ [interviewer]
‘Maybe that’s the hard truth, the real truth that life teaches us. When there are ambiguous endings or the bad guy wins.’”

The Underbelly was originally published as a serialised mystery on This is book no. 3 in the Outspoken Authors series, partly because there is an extensive interview with Phillips at the end of the book but more so because this an attack rampant capitalism. Ticks all the boxes. *****

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First and foremost, these three novels are superb crime novels, short sharp reads, but whichever one you pick, and I recommend all three, you won’t forget the experience.

Paul Burke
August 2018

The good folks at PM Press have arranged a special offer for Nudge readers: the discount code “Nudge30” will give you 30% off purchases from the website!


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