Scoundrels is an anthology of original short stories from award-winning crime writers, edited by Gary Phillips (available March 18, 2012).
Once I drafted a novel in which the main crime pages were devoted to petty financial crimes—check-kiting to be specific. No, no, said my editor. They’ve got to kill each other. I quickly learned that trouble might start with money, but blood was usually necessary. Many of the contributors to Scoundrels got that lesson. Blood doesn’t have to be scary. Murder doesn’t have to hurt. In fact the title of the collection is somewhat cheerful and so is the tone—in spite of the body count or maybe even because of it. Lots of people die, but most stories are a lark. They feature smart talk and the kind of witty alienation that marks characters in the tradition of Elmore Leonard.
The collection, fourteen stories altogether, is edited by Gary Phillips. The housing crisis and bust provide the fuel for a good many of them because the collection is supposed to be about financial crimes with a big C and in our recent memory are the many people who have been wiped out by big bankers. The first three housing/banking stories set the tone of the whole. “What The Creature Hath Built” uses a two-men-in a bar premise with the stranger who walks in and who has a secret (well, they all have secrets). The stranger is the narrating protagonist.
“We Shall Overthug” also runs with a first-person narrator, this one very sadistic, and he interrupts his narrative with so many footnotes along the way that there is as much subtext as there is text.
The first person narrator of “The Movement” by Travis Richardson is writing a memoir to demonize the person who corrupted him after they interned together at the World Trust Bank. All of these narrators are on one side or the other of vengeance for financial crimes. The tone (or almost assignment of the collection) overall is gleeful vengeance vs. smug confidence. Guess who usually loses?
Reed Farrel Coleman (“The Prophet”) takes a break from high finance and housing to tell a tall tale about grifters (or are they con men) who preach and hitch rides on railroad cars—a whole different population. They take on a boy who can perform miracles. He’s got a twisted mouth and his whole presence is unsettling.
The good fortune Barney had stumbling across the red heifer was nothing compared to the luck he’d had with the kid. The rest of it was nothing if the kid couldn’t pull off the play. And the kid Barney found was worth ten red heifers. He was born to the part. Near twelve years old but looking small and young for his years. Had the kind of blond hair that was closer to white than yellow and when the wind wasn’t blowing it this way or that, it fell in a long limp sheet to the nape of his neck. Had them cold blue eyes looked like they were made out of river ice. He was milk white complected. With his full face and soft jawline, the boy might’ve been an angel, but his gnarled mouth put the kibosh on that angel stuff. There were cottontails had prettier upper lips than this kid. Even with his mouth clamped up tight, you could see the hint of his teeth. Your child prophet always needed an affliction or deformity. That’s what sold the hustle. When Barney’d done his child prophesying for Cruelty, he’d done it with a stammer.
. . .and the peo-peo-people of the p-p-pri-prince who is to c-c-come wil de-de-de-destroy the city and the sanctuary. From Da- Da-Daniel, n-n-nine; twenty-sss-sss-six.
Worked, but it sure did get on folks’ nerves.
S.J.Rozan is right on the current front pages with the Occupy movement in “Occupy This!” Her guy was good at it all, great, before he got fired, and he’s only among the unwashed in the park because he’s hiding in their midst. In his backpack is over half a million dollars that he, being smart, knew how to rob—and this was with hands, a gun, not computers. So there he is and he really hates the way these people smell and the beans they eat and the acrid waste they fill the port-a-potties with.
But he still feels like a genius.
Coming to the park had been a stroke of genius. The whole fucking plan was genius, actually. Too bad no one would ever appreciate it. Not that they wouldn’t feel the effects. They were feeling them already, $560,265 worth of effects. Gavin had counted the money when he’d stopped in the alley to change his shirt, his shoes, ditch the wig and the dark glasses, and switch backpacks. All of which he’d taken with him, no evidence left in the alley.
Because who he was—he was top of the heap.
Risk-reward was Gavin’s specialty. Those pricks at FirstCentralBank had loved him, fallen down and worshipped him, in the years when his bets paid off and he made them huge profits. Huge motherfucking profits. He was their young wizard their Harry Fucking Potter of the complicated financial instrument. Kobe steak dinners, sweet company car, raises and bonuses. Good times.
Rosen gets her gleeful revenge on him to our delight.
Brendan Dubois sends his bad guy (and us) to an island. The retirement/escape is what almost everyone dreams of and it seems good, just right, but well, there are prices to pay.
Editor Gary Phillips’ “Eight Ballers” is set in the repo world of fancy cars and callous predatory loan sharks. It’s a shallow, unsettling world he pictures from every angle. How sympathetic can we be to someone who swaps out for a new Rolls every year? There’s not a lot of room in the story or the collection for the finer emotions. It’s not about that. It’s about how how money beckons, how tough it is to resist it, and how most of us don’t measure up to the big dogs who are eating other big dogs. The collection might just make us relieved to be poor.
Read all of Kathleen George’s posts for Criminal Element.