On the Works of Tom Piccirilli

Feeling a bit nostalgic for the end of summer, I find myself full of strangely clear memories tonight. Call it the end of summer, the only end of summer 2017 there will ever be. My kids are of a certain age, coming up on the end of childhood and the beginning of teen years (well for the older one, at least). I tend to be precise in my measurements of time. I call the last day of summer August 31st for those in the northeast and I call the last day of childhood the day before you turn thirteen. So I find myself reflecting on how it’s been the best of the times, worst of times, the year my collection was published, and the year I am realizing how much things have changed in the last decade (cue Led Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone”). One of the items welling up in the waning of summer is reflection on the passing of one of my favorite novelists, a writer who I consider one of the finest novelists America has ever produced—Tom Piccirilli. Though he passed away in the summer of 2015, his works endure. I had hoped that he would reach a popularity level similar to George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling someday so that I might see some of his works become movies or a television series. I was particularly fond of works where he combined horror and crime-noir (though he eventually appeared to focus more on straight-ahead crime noir in his later works), and can’t say enough what an inspiration his writing has been to me. I once wrote a review of his work which he kindly responded to. The review is pasted below. I never expect an author to respond to a book review. In truth, book reviewing is an obscure art. It makes my day when a reader says they found a review I wrote helpful. This happens fairly often. It’s just an amazing feeling when an author responds. I don’t think this is something that really should be expected or happen often. Authors are few and readers are many and I am, in fact, fond of some traditional structures when it comes to art. I guess I’d compare it to getting a buy-back at a bar—fantastic when you’re poured a free beer, but you never ask. I did not know Tom Piccirilli personally, but from folks I’ve met at conventions who knew him, I’ve gathered he was a generous personality. His note was not long, but he had good things to say about the below review. And so, let’s remember this amazing author and his work tonight. I hope my words from way back in 2009 concerning his writing and his books below will be enjoyed and maybe offer some insight into why I continue to consider him to be one of our finest.

I first came across Tom Piccirilli’s work a few years ago when I attended a Worldcon conference in Boston. I’d never been to anything like it before, and went to learn more about the writing world. Terry Pratchett was the guest of honor, urban fantasy was amping up in popularity and Harry Potter was still going strong. I felt a mix of awe and disappointment—I attended a lot of interesting panels, coffee klatches and the like. The parties were great, too. But along with this I felt a little disappointment in what I felt was an overbearing amount of kitsch. My concerns weren’t about skill or artistry in this regard; not about saying one thing was `good’ and another ‘bad’. No, I was thinking more about aesthetics. I had grown up on early Stephen King, plenty of 19th Century British novels and Dostoevsky. I liked movies like HEAT, SCARFACE and THE RING. I was someone comfortable with the truly grim and tragic and unabashedly seeking out books and stories that were edgy and disturbing. Yet I also wanted something with a very strong sense of character and thirst for insight.

The last day of the conference I swooped in on book stalls hoping for some last minute deals. I wasn’t finding much.

Then this girl walked up and handed me a free copy of A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. I read the first page and split to finish the rest.

And so: it may sound strong, and it’s meant to: the one-two punch of its prose style and storyline reinvigorated my interest in contemporary fiction. A southern gothic piece of ambiguous supernatural dread, CHOIR was able to sneak up and knock me out with its wistful concern for a deranged, cursed family simply trying to survive into the next generation. And there were plenty of layers of complexity seeping up from underneath—the figurative language, brutal violence, ghost imagery and ravaged landscapes. It had a serious tone overall, and yet, the contrasts generated by characters in grim situations still being able to act casual in a believable way managed to be funnier than a lot of the kitschy, slapstick stuff I had been bombarded with.

So, I picked up NOVEMBER MOURNS next, then HEADSTONE CITY, then THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, reveling in reading someone who had obviously gone from student of the craft, to professional, and to, in my opinion, one of the best in the business. One saw that these borderline horror novels were drifting step by step to full-on crime noir. They were going from supernatural horror with a thriller feel to crime noir with a touch of the surreal.

And yet, unlike my relationship with Stephen King’s writing, I didn’t find myself losing interest with the ‘genre change’. Instead, I felt like the author was saying to the horror fans, ‘Hey, you like that? Let me show you this…” The clothing changed, but the quick pulse remained.

Which brings us to the COLD series. Chase the car thief plies his trade under the watchful eye of his crime-hardened grandfather. As Chase quits the crew and comes of age, he begins watching back, reviewing all the man has done for him and against him. With Chase, we see a completely new angle on the crime trope of ‘cops and criminals are so similar’. It revolves around family being the source and final consequence of all virtues and vices. As Chase bounces between thieving and teaching high school, going from rogue to married man and back again, we see how much both lifestyles depend on who your allies and enemies are. Being awake or asleep, being in or out of a relationship, it all takes on a dreamlike quality where deciding what’s real becomes as difficult as deciding what’s valuable.

Piccirilli packs plenty of action into this process. By the time we reach the second book, we’ve seen Chase on the road and in the city, getting tangled up with police, pickpockets, rednecks and violent thieves. We witness him work it out with some wonderfully brutal fist and knife fights with both men and women. All around him are characters finding fates worthy of George R.R. Martin on an unforgiving day. These characters are drawn with dexterous depth that is a tribute to the author’s style. Some make it, some don’t. I won’t spoil it with who’s who (at least, not any more than the blurbs on the backs of the books do). I’ll just say that it matters that we can actually worry about death and damage resulting from the violence, including realistic results dished out to the protagonist himself.

Beneath it all, we see Chase struggling not so much with recognizing the disloyalty of family and accepting or rejecting it. Instead we see him figuring out how the customs of loyalty/disloyalty in his family fit into the landscape of all families with traditions of their own. We see him figuring out his relationship with loyalty itself. It becomes very interesting to watch where Chase decides to be loyal and where to be disloyal, when to lie and when to be honest. His integrity ends up manifesting itself in some very original ways. In THE COLDEST MILE, Chase’s meandering, morally ambidextrous nature contributes an extra surprise and extra wallop to the final showdown. Experiencing this alone is worth reading the book for.

Don’t think my compliments come easy; there are a few places where my bubble was proverbially burst—like when the car thief expresses his love for Broadway—I didn’t know whether to throw my book across the Greyhound or burst out in song. Well, I was humbled when I kept reading and found out his taste in plays. Also, there were a few places where I was tempted to try and nit-pick about crime realism. And yet, 99.9% of the crimes and scams described are so well put together, one has to hope it comes just from thorough research…

I could go on—cars as ghosts, Detroit as collective ghost, dreams that go beyond heaven and hell… But I’ll leave it at this: if you haven’t gotten in on this series and this author’s books, do so, particularly if you’re a junkie for the true dark, and especially if you’re a junkie for the juice.

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, published by Seventh Star Press.

2 responses to “On the Works of Tom Piccirilli

  1. It was beautiful reading your review of Tom’s work then and now. He was a friend, mentor and all around gift in my life. Reading his work always made me want to write. I miss talking and laughing with him but I’m happy we have his work to continue to learn from and inspire.

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