Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Crime: Damon Runyon, Douglas Lindsay, and Tom Piccirilli

If you're at all like me, when a holiday season rolls around, you like to gear your genre-fiction reading toward material with that theme. Where horror dominates Halloween, the Christmas season seems to focus on crime.

I first came across this seemingly ironic pairing in an anthology entitled Murder for Christmas, which still graces my bookshelf, waiting patiently through the other eleven months for me to pay it due attention each December. This book also has the special honor of having introduced me to Damon Runyon via "Dancing Dan's Christmas," which is not only an excellent example of Runyon's style and sense of humor but also holds up to annual rereading.

"Dancing Dan's Christmas" is a yarn (and Runyon's stories often feel like yarns) of getting one up on the coppers. It's a nice little holiday tale filled with Runyon's wonderful humor, sly references to crimes "not" committed by the narrator, and quite a good deal of the Christmas spirit. When a story contains a drunk in a Santa suit and still has an O. Henry–style happy ending, you know you're in the hands of a skilled writer. Murder for Christmas is out of print, but "Dancing Dan's Christmas" is currently available in the Penguin Classics edition of Guys and Dolls and Other Writings.

From upstart publisher Blasted Heath comes Douglas Lindsay's latest in his series of Barney Thomson, the "renegage barbershop legend," The End of Days, a novella set during December 2009. Carnage seems to follow Thomson wherever he goes, though Thomson directly causes none of it.

In The End of Days, at the same time Britain's Prime Minister hires Barney to do his hair ("He did Blair's hair at the last election. And he did the First Minister in Scotland a while back. He has form. Get him down here") — despite a warning that "death, murder, slaughter, blood, horror, mutilation and genocidal abomination are sure to follow" — someone starts killing off members of Parliament at an alarming rate.

As the PM is more concerned with how his hair looks at each speech he gives — "I want a haircut that transcends hair. That's what Gandhi had. He had a haircut that didn't even need hair. I want something like that, but a haircut that doesn't need hair but has hair anyway" — Thomson becomes his advisor during one of the worst times in Britain's history, culminating in a planned invasion of the United States! This combination of serial killer and political satire makes for great reading.

Where The End of Days ends on Christmas Day, author Tom Piccirilli's "noirella" You'd Better Watch Out begins there, as the narrator watches his father brutally murder his mother on that holiday. (Piccirilli's time working in the horror genre comes in handy here.)

Soon, he begins working for mobster Johnny Booze, who trains the kid to be a torpedo (hitman) of the highest order, while the kid readies himself for the day his father is released. The tension Piccirilli weaves throughout the story is sometimes nearly unbearable, showing how he's one of today's top noir-fiction writers.

Piccirilli uses the Christmas theme well, as nearly every important event occurs on or around that day as the years pass. You'd Better Watch Out is certainly not a feel-good read — though there is a genuine soft spot at its center — and it is perfect for those not looking for some relief from the usual tidings of comfort and joy.

(And after you've read all three of these stories, be sure to add The Thin Man to your annual slate of holiday viewing, even if only for the scene where Nick Charles tests out his new air rifle — on the Christmas tree ornaments.)

Happy holidays!

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails