Book Review: Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich

Brian Panowich’s Hard Cash Valley is a violent crime narrative with an undeniable sense of place and a series of unlikely protagonists that somehow coalesces into a tense, fast-paced slice of Southern grit.

Dane Kirby has a decent job and a loving girlfriend, but he’s a broken man haunted by the ghosts of his dead wife and daughter and the equivalent of a death sentence in some medical results in his pocket. He has a gig with the FBI, but can’t escape his past as resident and ex-arson investigator for McFalls County. In fact, his past job is the reason he gets a call from higher up asking him to get on a helicopter and go consult on a murder in a cheap motel in Florida. Dane inspects the body and gets a new partner, Special Agent Roselita Velasquez. Together, they need to look into the murder, which has ties to Dane’s neck of the woods. A lot of money is missing, and the killers of the man that brought Dane to Florida are on the move, leaving a trail of corpses behind them. However, the money becomes secondary when Dane learns the charred man in the motel room has a younger brother, a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome who helped him make the money everyone’s looking for and has the skills to do so again and again. What follows is a race against the clock—and some very bad Filipinos—to save the kid before anyone else gets him.

Panowich is a talented storyteller with a knack for violence. His narratives are always packed with explosions of brutality that serve the story well and let readers know the kind of characters they are dealing with. Hard Cash Valley is no different. In Panowich’s works, just like in the real world, money and power are more important than the lives of many, and he is great at showing the various ways in which criminals can make this concept a bloody reality:

The wave of stink hit Dane so hard it nearly bowled him over. He immediately recognized the familiar scent of smoke, burnt meat, and singed hair, but the musty copper smell underneath, like an old forgotten jar of pennies, combined with urine and human feces, caused him to dry heave as soon as he entered the room. An unaffected Agent Velasquez stepped over the charred, lifeless body on the floor, careful to avoid the congealed and caking pools of blood and vomit as she yawned. She looked at her watch while she waited for Dane to acclimate.

While violence is at the core of this novel, there are several elements that give it an emotional angle that is simultaneously enjoyable and unexpected. Dane is facing a horrible health situation and constantly talks with the ghost of his wife while trying to make his new relationship work. Also, this new case is bringing people back into his life in strange ways, and that helps the past hook its hooks into him deeper than they already are.

Hard Cash Valley works because it inhabits the interstitial space between a vicious crime narrative and a novel about a man facing his own death, fighting his own past because it’s ruining his present, and learning to love again after having his heart obliterated by tragedy. Panowich writes about all of it with the same honesty, and that makes this novel a strange hybrid in which bullets fly but your heartstrings get played. As a bonus, Panowich added more diversity than most other Southern noir novels and gave his characters a voice…and then used one of them to offer a critique of the United States:

This country was the worst. Americans were soft. It was a nation of children, spoiled and fat, who blindly followed leaders whose intent was clearly to keep them that way.

Southern noir is incredibly strong right now because some of the best writers in the country, writers like David Joy and Michael Farris Smith, get pushed into the box. That said, Southern noir can be called that because of its sense of place, but also deserves to be called great literature without adding anything about place. Simply put, Hard Cash Valley is a great novel written by an author who started strong and seems to get better with each new release.

Read an excerpt from Hard Cash Valley!

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