Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Yellow Medicine

There is some substantial overlap between what we think of as horror fiction and crime fiction. I’m not talking about the genteel parlor mysteries like Murder, She Wrote, but about the grim, dark dramas of James Ellroy, Ray Banks, Ken Bruen and the like. There are many authors today who write or have written in both fields, and done it well. The sometimes bleak themes used suit both genres well.

This is, of course, my justification for why you are going to read about the occasional crime novel/film here. You guys pay a lot for this site, I want to make sure you’re happy.

The standard conception of the protagonist of a detective or crime novel, perhaps slightly sullied by the milieu in which he is forced to live, but with a moral code that is unshakeable, and a passion to see justice done no matter what the cost. The protagonist of Anthony Neil Smith’s novel Yellow Medicine is definitely not that person.

Billy Lafitte is a cop, the kind that doesn’t mind shaking down a criminal for a little cash, offering protection to drug dealers for a cut of the profits, or pressuring young girls into sex in exchange for overlooking some indiscretion, and getting off on using the power he has over citizens. These activities have cost him. His excesses in the wake of Katrina cost him his job with the New Orleans police force (although only a small part of his corruption was uncovered), his home and his family. Fortunately for him, his wife reached out to her brother, the sheriff of Yellow County, Minnesota, and got Billy a new job, one he settles into comfortably, cultivating a string of meth labs for extra cash. The only change for him is he hates Minnesota, and is borderline suicidal.

He has also fallen in love with a young woman named Drew, who plays in a local psychobilly band. Drew doesn’t love him, but she needs him for favors, and when her dealer boyfriend gets into a jam, she comes to Billy for help. This is where it all begins to unravel for Billy. It seems an outside organization is moving in on the rural Minnesota meth network, one that is powerful and scary. Billy is the main obstacle in their path, and soon he is finding heads severed with his knife, and everyone around him is in danger.

Billy is over his head and he knows it. Trouble is, he’s been so dirty for so long it is difficult for him to get help from the law enforcement agencies he needs. There is an FBI agent who may or may not be on his side, and his straight-arrow ex-brother-in-law, but if Billy is going to get out of this, he will have to figure it out for himself.

This is not the kind of mystery read by your grandmother. It is grim and bleak, and there is no easy resolution. The book is told from the first person point of view of Lafitte himself, which means you are along for the ride with a cop you probably won’t like that well. However, for those that can handle it, this is a remarkably engrossing book. Smith, the editor of the well-respected Plots With Guns, has crafted an assured crime classic, and told a story you can’t put down, and won’t find easy to forget.

My one complaint would be with the opening chapter. Much of the book is actually a flashback, and the beginning gives away a lot of information about the ultimate, mostly tragic, fates of many of the characters. This is a recognized literary device, and it doesn’t really detract from the book, but I wouldn’t have revealed so much up front. Which is why, of course, I’m a pitiful blogger and Mr. Smith looks to be well on his way to becoming one of the great crime authors.


Kent said...

Damn good book. Neil gives Billy Lafitte a unique voice in YELLOW MEDICINE, not just a run-of-the-mill first person crime novel.

He really steps up his game with HOGDOGGIN', too.

KentAllard said...

There's nothing like a book that hooks you and makes you remember why you like to read in the first place.