For genre fiction with style to spare, interesting characters, and something to say, Charlie Huston is one of my go-to writers. Starting in 2004, he’s published 12 novels now, and there’s not a clinker in the bunch. While elements of the fantastic sometimes sneak into his work, Huston is primarily a crime writer, and if you like good pulp noir, the only real crime is if you haven’t tried him.
Most recently, I turned back to his first novel Caught Stealing. It’s the first in a three-part saga featuring Hank Thompson, but it’s entirely satisfactory to read on its own. Caught Stealing captures perfectly how a normal person can slip down the moral ladder, how a nice guy can become a murderer. Hank Thompson was a golden boy California baseball player until a third baseman came down on his ankle as he slid into the base and took away the speed that made him a star. As the book opens, we find Hank in New York, tending bar and drinking too much of the product himself. He’s a nice guy who calls his mother every week, cares for his friends, but just can’t quite find his place in the world. After misjudging a couple of hoods in the bar and failing to get to a hospital in time, he’s also now recovering from surgery to remove a burst kidney. Believe it or not, this is just the start of Hank’s long slide.
In a story featuring crooked cops, homicidal bank robbing brothers, Russian mafia, and a really great cat, readers discover how far down bad luck and bad decisions can go. This isn’t for the squeamish. It’s modern noir with more than a touch of violence and dark humor. But if your book group can handle such material, they’ll enjoy discussing just where Hank’s mistakes lie, what he could have done differently to avoid the events that take away life as he knew it.
This is acknowledged as a series, so I’m not revealing any major secret to say that Hank does manage to run the gauntlet, ultimately finding his way out of the frying pan, watching his beloved San Francisco Giants try to get into the postseason. Now I’m ready for Six Bad Things, where I’m sure he’ll find his way into the fire again. If you’ve read this series, try Huston’s next, the Joe Pitt series starting with Already Dead, which blends vampire fiction and noir to powerful effect. His latest book, Skinner, about a violent operative pushed out of the CIA, is receiving great word of mouth and will arrive on July 9th.