Book Review: Lockdown: Stories of Crime, Terror, and Hope During a Pandemic

Proceeds from Lockdown will go to support BINC, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, as it seeks to help booksellers recover from the devastating COVID-19 crisis.

“COVID-19 promises to alter us all in strange ways. It’s a paradigm-shifting event that divides lives and cultures into a before and after. We will emerge changed, though how those changes will manifest is far from certain. The sensory details of this outbreak—the masks, the faces of doctors and nurses creased with worry and fatigue, the closure signs, the antiseptic smells, the empty streets, the stacks of coffins—will weave their way into our minds and bodies, triggering us back to this moment years in the future.”

—Elizabeth Outka, “How Pandemics Seep into Literature”, The Paris Review

 

The current world situation feels like a turning point. I know that in the fiction I’ve been reading, timelines have taken on a pre-COVID/post-COVID structure. Historically, art has reacted to pandemics through evolution and adaptation. In this charged atmosphere, a group of crime-fiction writers came together. This assemblage decided to create a charity project, and Lockdown was born.

Lockdown is a crime-fiction anthology to be published by Polis Books on June 16, 2020. The volume’s sales proceeds go to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation (bincfoundation.org—check them out, they’re great).

The collection features numerous established voices as well as up-and-comers that should be on every Criminal Element fan’s radar. The authors include Gabino Iglesias, Rob Hart, Renee Asher Pickup, Scott Adlerberg, Angel Luis Colón, Steve Weddle, Gemma Amor, Ann Dávila Cardinal, Richie Narvaez, Terri Lynn Coop, Nick Kolakowski, S.A. Cosby, Jen Conley, Johnny Shaw, Hector Acosta, Eryk Pruitt, Michelle Garza & Melissa Lason, V. Castro, Alex DiFrancesco, and Cynthia Pelayo.

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My first exposure to this anthology came from the Virtual Noir at the Bar: Out of Town Edition 2. The event’s initial presenter was Scott Adlerberg. He read “The Rescue”, his Lockdown piece. “The Rescue” was a fun and airy story, surprising given the anthology’s theme. Adlerberg has a great delivery and a pleasant voice. If he wasn’t a writer, he could make a living as an audiobook narrator.

“The Rescue” focuses on a bureaucratic drone during a pandemic telework period in New York City. This drone is out to save his prized office plant, a Guiana chestnut, for too long without water and the plant would die. Our hero encounters multiple layers of officialdom in his quest. I got an absurdist Kafka vibe from the whole thing. It was, for a pandemic story with Kafka undertones, light and amusing. Furthermore, Adlerberg’s reading was outstanding. The surrealist nature comes into play the moment our hero decides to save the plant:

That’s when the idea came, brilliant in its simplicity.

 

I reached into my coat and plucked out my mask as if about to put it on, but before I lowered it over my head, I reared back as if losing control. The cough I unleashed had droplets in it, drawn from my mouth and throat, and I’d stepped forward when in the act to close the gap between me and the guards.

 

“I need to go,” I said. “Not feeling well. I wouldn’t have come out at all if not for my plant.”

 

They were yelling as I departed, swearing at me as they wiped at their faces, and I was still laughing pretty hard when the cab I hailed from the curb pulled over so I could get in.

When Adlerberg finished, Noir at the Bar’s host (Dennis Tafoya) laughed and said the story was, “A little too close to home.” I agree.

The event’s second reader was Jen Conley. Conley read “Fish Food”, another Lockdown story. Her delivery felt well-practiced. During the event, Conley referenced her time as a teacher and her public speaking experience shone through. Her story was darker than Adlerberg’s. She said it is her most dystopian work.

Here is a passage that demonstrates the nature of the “Fish Food”:

Mandy shivers.

 

“The Guard will get the bodies,” I say. “Eventually.”

 

“I know,” she says.

 

The bodies will be left for days until the suicide is called in.

The story delivered tension and overbearing stress, a sharp contrast to Adlerberg’s. These two pieces function well together. I am thankful I was able to hear the authors’ renditions.

The first story I read was Gabino Iglesias’s “Everything is Going to Be Okay”, the perfect follow up to “Fish Food”. Iglesias is famous amongst the writing community for being a kind, hardworking, and uplifting presence. He has personally motivated me on more than one occasion.

This story was engaging. It opens on a woman named Joanna. She is dealing with the virus exclusively through prayer. Pablo, her husband, wants to help, but their tough socioeconomic situation makes it impossible. He works as a fisherman in Galveston, Texas. Pablo encounters Steve, a new fisherman. Steve brags about stealing thousands of dollars from his father. Pablo makes a plan to take the money in order to save his dying wife. Things get dark. The author used the present tense and that choice created a strong forward momentum, as shown here:

The coughing subsides. Joanna stays like that for a few seconds, gasping for air. Pablo hasn’t left the bed and he already feels tired. He has to do something. He needs to get Joanna some help. Medicine. One of those ventilator things everyone keeps talking about on the news.

 

He stands up and walks over to the chair whose sole purpose is holding his clothes. He steps into a pair of dirty jeans and fishes out a bent cigarette from a pack that will be empty before noon. He refuses to get on a boat without enough smokes, so buying a few packs goes on his mental to-do list, half of which he knows he’ll forget until the boat is far from shore. The bent cigarette looks like a yellowish worm in the dimness of the room. Pablo wants to light it and suck some warm smoke into his body. That might scare away some of the aches, maybe smooth his anger a bit. But he can’t light up. Joanna’s cough can be triggered by smoke. She doesn’t need that, so he steps out, crosses the hallway and living room in the dark, and opens the door to the front porch. Behind him, Joanna coughs again.

Throughout the story, Iglesias used music and visual cues to set the scene. It was exceptional.

My next read was “No Honor Amongst Thieves” by Rob Hart. Hart is a long time crime writer with his Ash McKenna series. Outside of McKenna, Hart recently wrote The Warehouse, which is on everyone’s Best Novel list. Hart’s story opens with his main character, Roger, waking to a hangover. As the story progresses we meet Keith and Mauricio. These two are hired to rob Roger of a file. Things go poorly and people die. The story has a very noir feel.

Renee Asher Pickup wrote “Desert Shit”. The story focuses on the criminal benefits of the current mask and stay-at-home situation. It had a bit of a Breaking Bad atmosphere with a southwestern locale and meth references. I enjoyed the overall vibe immensely.

Angel Luis Colón went all out and wrote “Your List” using the second-person point of view. His skill shined through. The story worked well and created a strong sense of dread. The second person is so hard to pull off: this story is a rare treat. Colón knocked it out of the park.

“At the End of the Neighborhood” was editor Steve Weddle’s contribution. The story features an upper-middle-class-suburban family, the type that shops with reusable New Yorker magazine totes. There is a heavy dose of the current contact tracing phenomenon, and the insular nature of suburban communities. I finished the (great) story with a Walking Dead taste in my mouth.

Gemma Amor wrote “The Diamond”. This is a fun short about desire and the value we place in objects. The stressful nature of close-quarters living is also examined. The author worked in some great visual cues.

“Misery Loves Company” is Ann Dávila Cardinal’s ghost-themed contribution. I do not read a lot of supernatural fiction, so this was an uncommon experience for me. I enjoyed the piece. The integration of old news clippings with new technology was entertaining. The ending gave me goose-bumps.

Richie Narvaez’s “Apocalypse Bronx was a fun read. It also referenced fish, which seems to be an underlying, if unexpected, theme in the anthology. I love Narvaez’s dialogue. The passages flow off the page, as shown here:

Martin slid on his N95+ and opened the door. Beau motioned him outside, away from the door, to the side of the house.

 

Martin stepped out, closed the door behind him. “It’s almost curfew.”

 

Beau ignored this. “Our boy woke up.”

 

“Shit.”

 

“Yeah. Came out of it couple hours ago.”

 

“Still at Flushing?”

 

“No, family had to come get him, what with all the covids needing beds. They took him home. To the Bronx.”

 

“Fuck. Of all places.”

 

“Yeah. Back home for you.”

Terri Lynn Coop submitted “Personal Protection”. A story set at least a year after the world’s supply chain ground to a halt. It is about medical worker and cop’s relationship in the post-pandemic environment. Coop does a great job engaging all senses. The close focus on two people made the story pop. It was a sad piece and it got to me.

“A Kinder World Stands Before Us” was editor Nick Kolakowski’s contribution. It features a cook in Long Island. There are themes of class strife; the story is bleak, engaging, and well written. There is also a seafood reference.

S.A. Cosby wrote “The Loyalty of Hungry Dogs”. Cosby has some of the best descriptive language in the game. There is a reason he is becoming so well known. Take this passage:

There were six of them. Four men and two women. She could tell two of them were women by the sway of their hips and their braless breasts that swung like overripe fruit on a dying vine. The men had machine guns, and each had a bandolier across his chest. Some had pistols. The women carried shotguns with extra shells clipped to the stock.

The fruit visual stuck with me. Cosby also had a fishing passage.

Johnny Shaw (whose contribution featured tuna) wrote “The Seagull & the Hog”. The story opens on an auditory treat. Shaw knows how to engage the reader. The piece is vulgar in the best kind of way. This is the closing passage:

After a moment, Hot Pockets asked, “So, you want to wait for a spot?”

 

“Sure,” Renato said, standing up. “I’ll be in the dildo closet.”

Hector “The Edgar Nominated Delight” Acosta wrote: “Por Si Acaso”. It features video games, comics, and nachos. This one is outstanding. Anyone that can pull off the following opening deserves acclaim.

Larry died over a plate of Nachos Bell Grande.

 

“They weren’t even Nachos Supreme,” Dwayne mutters from his spot by the television.

Acosta’s story was perfectly placed in the anthology. It was a welcome change from the more horrifying submissions, a sign of quality editing.

Eryk Pruitt wrote “Herd Immunity”. Another second-person point of view submission, this one focused on a cult. The story has an outstanding sense of pace and rhythm. The piece was hypnotic and more of a love story than the other entries, it was poetic. I enjoyed it.

Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason’s joint story, “Unscathed”, discussed a fish suffocating on dry land. It was violent and straddled the border between horror and crime. It was very memorable.

“Asylum” was V. Castro’s entry. The piece opens with:

The corpses are a bloated, stinking reminder of my station in life.

That outstanding visual sets the tone for the story. “Asylum” plays with the current border debate, turning it on its head. The story is great.

Alex DiFrancesco wrote “Outpost”. This story was more science fiction than the rest of the anthology. The main character, a shapeshifter, is searching for happiness. DiFrancesco’s prose has a classic feel. The piece is exceedingly well written.

“Come Away, Come Away” was written by Cynthia Pelayo. This is an impeccable finish to Lockdown. I don’t want to ruin it for a reader, but it plays with a classic tale in the perfect way (and mentions the ocean).

Overall, this anthology was extraordinary. The editors, Nick Kolakowski and Steve Weddle, put together a quality volume in record time. I have no idea how they pulled this off so fast. These two put in a tremendous amount of work for charity and deserve praise.

What I enjoyed most was the different takes on the pandemic. I appreciate authors dealing with pain through the lens of storytelling. There is something for every reader, south-western meth, semi-comedic NYC jailbreaks, dystopian horror, and even a bit of hope. The variety is remarkable.

This is a fun read for a noble cause. A stellar group of authors came together, did a great thing, and put out a solid (if fishy) volume. You should buy a copy. You will enjoy it.

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