South Village by Rob Hart is the 3rd book in the Ash McKenna series, where Ash finds himself wasting away on a Georgia commune before being pulled into an investigation of a seemingly peaceful community turned murderous (Available October 11, 2016).
There’s this cliché—out there in the world beyond the borders of the crime fiction community—that the genre consists primarily of hardened police detectives and “girls” who are predominantly dead, and that anything remotely “noir” is about a guy who drinks too much, solves problems with violence, and roams the big city looking for dames with scores to settle. At first glance, Rob Hart’s latest Ash McKenna novel starts out firmly in this noir stereotype.
I killed a guy.
The woman behind the glass partition is glaring at me like something scraped off a boot left to rot in the sun. This makes me afraid I actually did confess to killing someone, out loud. I pause for a moment as if the words are hanging in the air. I wonder if anyone around me is staring.
“You need a hand? Need me to call a cab for you or something?”
I shake my head at him, push away. I stumble outside, pass the elevator bank and crash through the door to the staircase, nearly fall down three flights. When I get outside, I fall to my knees and vomit. I’m not sure what I vomit up since I haven’t eaten today. It’s mostly liquid.
My system sufficiently cleared out, I fall back against the brick wall. The morning heat drapes over me like a down blanket. It feels nice, and will, and will for another minute or two, the way it does when you leave a building with robust air conditioning.
I open up my messenger bag and pull out the water bottle wrapped in duct tape. Unscrew the top, wash my mouth out with a little whiskey and spit, take a big gulp. I get a quarter of the bottle down. It’s sharp and a little metallic.
Except, it doesn’t stay there. Like any good book, things aren’t what they seem on the surface. Ash isn’t in a big city anymore. He’s staying with a bunch of “hippies” in rural Georgia, at a buddy’s commune out in the swampy forest. And he’s not looking for trouble or dames or scores. He’s really just looking for his days to pass in a fog until his passport shows up so he can skip town and get away from all his problems—or at least the long arm of a law he’s certain is just hours from finding him out.
Granted, it’s pretty clear to see his biggest problems are the ones he’s carrying around with him—in his head, his heart, and his messenger bag. And if this were an old pulp novel, they’d stay there.
But it’s not. And they don’t.
The hippies out at the commune are good at two things, which are strangely at odds with each other: forming a community and keeping out of each other’s secrets—at least on the surface. Turns out that for everyone seemingly living their life and doing their own thing, there’s three or four more forming interesting alliances and keeping covert watch over others. Much as the leader, and technically owner, of South village wants it to be a community, it turns out it’s hard to form a community if no one trusts anybody—and trust gets tested pretty shortly after Ash gets back to South Village.
A resident known only as Crusty Pete falls to his death and, despite his insistence that he’s not an investigator, Ash finds his nose stuck all up in the matter.
Thing is, this could very much be a formulaic book. It could pull out all its pulp stocks and probably do quite well. Instead, Ash evolves. Ash, changed by his past, finds himself opening to the people around him. He relearns trust. Maybe even friendship. He ends the book a different man. His journey is as much the story as the plot about corruption and secrets and mysterious deaths.
“I know you think you’re a bad person,” Aesop says. “But you’re not. You could have done anything when you got here. You could have taken permanent machete duty and been by yourself all day. But you chose to cook. You chose to feed people. Even at your darkest, you picked a task that would mean giving comfort and nourishment to other people.”
Just last month, there was another one of those questionable studies about how reading genre fiction doesn’t increase empathy the way “literature” does. Better writers than me (Val McDermid) poked a mess of holes in that theory, and there are a ton of books out there that illustrate why that’s silly.
South Village is one of them. What could easily be predictable turns into a complex story where the line between the good guys and the bad guys is blurry, where the tough people are full of compassion and the seemingly innocent are willing to threaten or worse to get what they want. And the results reflect that reality.
…I know what we did was for the greater good of the community. I’ve done a lot of illegal things in my life. This is pretty much way up at the top.
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Neliza Drew lives in South Florida with her husband and too many cats. When not writing, she teaches kids how to punch each other. Her debut novel, All the Bridges Burning, has been called “a triumph.” She can be found online at nelizadrew.com and on Twitter and Instagram as @nelizadrew.