It took a while for Crimes in Southern Indiana to make it to the top of the to-be-read pile, partly because I’d read a fair bit of Frank Bill’s stuff before – his forthcoming novel, Donnybrook, some of these stories, so it seemed a little like a half-eaten meal. I loved the taste, but there was other stuff, fresh stuff, I wanted to try.
My mistake. Reading the collection in its totality, taking in its narrative arc from front to back, magnified everything I loved about Bill’s work to begin with. The desperate brutality, but not the contrived or clichéd memes of most crime fiction, instead, each of these stories springs from its own unique and poisoned well of human experience. The sense of place, the palpable feel and smell of a briar patch of loss, of misplaced passions, of lives marginalized by their own nation. Communities turned to backwaters by a country that has dammed them off from opportunity, from help, from hope. The sense that, a half-day’s drive from my own suburban comfort there is another America, a cancer of despair, twisted into the nation’s own guts like a rusted wad of concertina wire ragged with the flesh of generations trapped in its diseased embrace.
Stretched over all of that is the skin of Bill’s unique language – the gift that elevates this collection above even the best of the other noir work I’ve read. I’ve read others whose stories are as unique, as human. I’ve read others who have made me breathe the air of places I’ve never known. But Bill’s gift for phrasing, for images that manage at once to be true to the rust and damage of the world he has created while also transcending that world with a savage lyrical grace, for pacing that whipsaws between the languid slug of Indiana’s catfish rivers to the vicious slash of a sucker punch – it is that obvious talent for language and the care with which it has been honed that pushes these stories through your eyes and into your blood. You’ll carry a piece of Bill’s work with you forever.