Mean Business on North Ganson Street is the story of a black police detective exiled from the sunny southwest to a decaying, crime-ridden town in the rust belt, which also has a cop killer on the loose (available September 30, 2014).
From the cinematic first sentence of the first paragraph of the first page of this book, S. Craig Zahler serves notice that the term “mean streets” is not exclusively reserved for big cities on either coast.
The North Ganson Street of the title is located in a small rustbelt town in Missouri called Victory, a place where African-American detective Jules Bettinger is living in unwilling exile from Arizona after a spectacularly disastrous incident involving a missing person’s complaint.
Zahler draws us in with a wealth of visceral, visual detail until the reader’s experience is multidimensional, as if experiencing a fully realized movie coming off the page:
Wearing a blue parka, brown corduroy pants, and gloves, Bettinger backed a yellow hatchback out of a two-car garage in Stonesburg, Missouri. His green sedan had died after six days of cold weather (which seemed like a prophecy), and since most of the family money was tied up in bonds and the Arizona house, the detective had been forced to buy himself a cheap replacement…
Affixed to a pole on the right side of the road was a wooden plank that read WELCOME TO VICTORY. Human excrement had been smeared across the greeting.
A glance at the bent sign on the opposite corner told him that he had come to a street named “Fuck Y’all”—a road that he did not at all recall from his map. The light turned green, and he accelerated, continuing down the decline. Scores of dilapidated charcoal-hued tenements drifted past, as did several nameless streets.
It’s not just the mise en scène of Mean Business that seems cinematic, though, it’s also the dialogue. Throughout the book, Zahler gives his characters “lines” drenched in dark humor and laced with politically incorrect profanity, using it in a way that has real impact and doesn’t just get lost in a general air of self-congratulatory white-boy hipness that says more about the story-teller than the story.
“Liar,” said the big black fellow.
The derelict tasted dirt and feathers as a beak scraped across his hard palate.
Ineffectually, he slapped his assailant’s huge hands.
The big black fellow soon withdrew the pigeon.
Blood filled Doggie’s mouth and stole down his chin in a thin crimson line that resembled a serpent’s tongue. Frightened and sick, he eyed his persecutor.
“Next time it goes in deeper.”
“You should believe him,” remarked the redhead.
The pockmarked Asian and the fourth man watched the event with what appeared to be a passing interest.
Doggie spat blood. “He ain’t here.”
“Where’d he go?”
The derelict could not risk alienating Sebastian, even if it meant sucking on the head of a dead bird. “Fuck you, nigger.”
“He’s back on that again,” remarked the redhead.
A shrug curved the shoulders of the pockmarked Asian.
Frowning, the big black fellow slammed a knee into Doggie’s sternum and leaned his weight forward. The derelict yelled, and was again silenced by pigeon.
A salty bead that was the bird’s left eyeball slid across his tongue, and as the pressure on his chest increased, a rib that had been broken by a bunch of cackling black teenagers snapped for the third time in as many years. He tried to shriek, but could only gargle feathers. . .
. . . “Not on my shoes,” said the big black fellow, withdrawing the bird.
Doggie turned his head and heaved a bilious load of candy popcorn onto the asphalt.
The redhead glanced at his Asian peer. “Always wondered who ate that stuff.”
“Next time the bird goes all the way.”
Victory is a small town where people eat fried pig’s snoot with barbecue sauce. It’s not a small town that Frank Capra would have recognized, but it’s a place anyone who has driven the “blue highways” of America has seen for mile after mile. It’s not the kind of place that suggests you want to pull off the road and stop at the diner for a piece of coconut cream pie. It’s the kind of place that suggests you want to keep driving until you can no longer see the town in your rear-view mirror.
The hatchback passed by Lonnie’s Pawnshop, Checks Cashed, a grocery store named Big Shop, a somber place that looked like a funeral parlor, Baptist Bingo, and Claude’s Hash House. Standing at the end of the block on the north side was a tall concrete building with an American flag and an etched sign that read POLICE PRECINCT OF GREATER VICTORY. This edifice was bright and clean.
Bettinger thought that it resembled a pillbox from World War II.
Dialing the wheel, he entered the parking lot and slotted the small car into a big space. A glance at the dashboard clock told him that he was twenty minutes early, a fact that did not surprise him since he had given himself plenty of extra time to reach his destination.
The detective killed the ignition, clipped the holster to his belt, and tucked the gun in its home. Bracing himself, the man from the southwest exited the hatchback. The cold cut through his clothes and attacked his skin.
Cursing the feeble sun, Bettinger shut the door, turned the lock, and walked toward the precinct entrance, which was made of mirrored glass like the kind that was used to cover the eyes of motorcycle cops.
Once all the backstory is established, and Bettinger is actually working on the case, we are sucked into a darkness that is, as one character says in another context, “like outer space, only without stars.” And of course “noir” as in “film noir” is another word for dark. Mean Business on North Ganson Street offers up a “heartland noir” that will appeal to readers for whom mystery novels are like crack, but it will also entertain those who usually prefer to experience their crime fiction on shows like The Killing, and The Fall, and True Detective.
Read this book.
It will make you want to see the movie, now reportedly being adapted by the author “for Warner Brothers; Jaime Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio are both attached to the project.” And it will also make you want to hunt down Zahler’s other books so you can repeat the addictive high.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She lives in Los Angeles and sees way too many movies.