Handling Snakes in Crime Fiction

A Land More Kind Than HomeThe practitioners of snake handling have always fascinated me.

Not in an “I’d like to try that” kind of way, but in a “why would they do that” kind of way.

When a star of the reality television show “Snake Salvation” (which I’ve never seen) — a man described by NPR as “a 42-year-old Pentecostal preacher and third-generation snake handler from Middlesboro, Kentucky” — died this weekend from a snake bite, it caused me to wonder again.

If you’re at all interested in the strange world of snake handling, I highly recommend two novels which incorporate the practice as a plot point.

Last Call for the LivingIt’s a key element in Wiley Cash’s wonderful A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME and plays a smaller — but still quite important — part in Peter Farris’s excellent LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING. (Here’s an interview with Farris about his book.)

Both novels are tremendous and well worth reading whether or not you have any interest in learning more about snake handlers.

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Four Questions With… Peter Farris

Last Call for the Living

I first ran across Peter Farris’s fiction at Shotgun Honey, a website dedicated to crime-themed flash fiction. (Be sure to check out “Disney Noir”.) His first novel, Last Call for the Living, was published last year (the mass market paperback comes out on March 26) and has been described as a “gritty and fascinating Southern noir gem” and “a debut that demands attention.”

I agree with both descriptions. Last Call for the Living probably shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. Many of the characters are despicable, the situations they find themselves in astoundingly brutal. But the skill of Farris’s writing keeps you turning the page.

Farris is from Cobb County, Georgia. The sense of place injected into Last Call for the Living is another reason the book succeeds. Imagining yourself in the rural Southern landscape he paints is effortless.

If it’s not already clear, I highly recommend Farris’s first novel and I can’t wait to read his next. Here are Four Questions With… Peter Farris.

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NoirCon2012 Recap

NoirCon 2012NoirCon 2012, a small convention dedicated to the art of noir, has come to an end. I also attended NoirCon 2010 (it takes place every other year, so the next one is in 2014). Both were excellent events, packed with interesting panel discussions, one-on-one interviews and speakers. Organizer Lou Boxer does a tremendous job.

There were many, many highlights. Here are just a few:

A panel called “The Movie was Better” featured Lawrence Block, Anthony Bruno and Duane Swierczynski with moderator Ed Pettit. Some great tidbits: Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardy books (Fun & Games, Hell & Gone, Point & Shoot) have been optioned for a television series… Bruno novelized the screenplay for Seven, but the producers wouldn’t give him any video or stills as the movie was being made so he had no idea it was raining 90 percent of the time… Block was not influenced to change his burglar character Bernie Rhodenbarr in any way whatsoever after the 1987 film Burglar starring Whoopi Goldberg in the title role. (The movie also starred Bobcat Goldthwait, so what are you waiting for?)

On that panel, Block also discussed the importance of on-site research for modern writers who want to get the setting of a scene just right: “Between Google and Wikipedia, there’s no reason to ever leave your house.”

The keynote speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, spoke about cinematic technique as it applies to novels. He used examples from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (the latter, being published in 1861, obviously didn’t draw from film for inspiration, but nonetheless used the novel’s equivalent of establishing shots, slow motion, etc.). It was a great talk.

Butler’s latest novel, The Hot Country, is available from Mysterious Press and features an early 20th century war correspondent, Christopher Marlowe Cobb, who travels to Mexico during that country’s civil war and witnesses a priest being shot.

Megan Abbott may be the best panel moderator in the history of panel moderators. She’s funny, smart and keeps things moving. The True Crime panel with her, Alison Gaylin, Wallace Stroby and Dennis Tafoya was a clear standout. David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac was singled out several times for being an excellent true crime movie, a sentiment I completely agree with.

In the one-one-one interviews, Jeremiah Healy did a great job interviewing Otto Penzler (of Mysterious Bookshop and Mysterious Press fame), while Swierczynski did an incredibly entertaining interview with Block. The Swierczynski-Block interview was, hands down, the funniest hour of the show.

When Swierczynski pointed out that Block’s career started with Gold Medal paperbacks, which many people didn’t consider to be “real books,” and is now in the era of e-books, which many people don’t consider to be “real books,” Block responded with: “Right. I’ve been writing not-real books for over 50 years.”

The interview touched on Block’s use of pseudonyms, the speed with which he writes, the number of countries he’s visited (about 160, though “now, we’re finding that staying at home is a perfect way to prevent jet lag”), and much more.

Block’s dry sense of humor was evident throughout. Discussing one particular editor, he said, “I never met him, and I’ve always been grateful for that.” And when people ask him how he wrote a book, his answer is, “I took those particular words and put them in that particular order.”

Block said the books he’s probably most proud of are When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes (1986, featuring private investigator Matt Scudder) and Small Town (2003, a stand-alone novel).

I could go on and on, since nearly every panel, interview and speaker could qualify as a “highlight.” (I really should mention the final panel, Crime in Primetime, which featured extended discussions of the television series Breaking Bad, The Shield and Hill Street Blues. Terrific stuff.)

But for me, the best part of NoirCon was meeting so many great people, including the incredibly down-to-earth Mr. Penzler, David Corbett (I took his class at LitReactor earlier this year and he’s a wonderful teacher), fellow Temple alum Jon McGoran (whose tremendously cool-sounding book Drift will come out in July), Dustin Kurtz (marketing manager at Melville House, who was kind enough to help me find a great book for my wife: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov), Peter Farris (author of Last Call for the Living), Shannon Clute (of NoirCast.net), Liam José (of CrimeFactory) and William Lashner (who is hilarious and made the Jewish Noir panel a riot).

UPDATED: For more about NoirCon, check out:

Gallagher has also posted some clips to YouTube. Here’s a 27-minute clip from the keynote address by Robert Olen Butler:

Here’s a 30-minute clip from the Swierczynski-Block interview:

And here’s a four-minute clip of Block from the awards ceremony, in which he discusses David Goodis: