Pretty much every contemporary crime and mystery novel balances on the rusty razor’s edge between conventionality and creativity. The fact that most of them end up on the conventional side is what makes reading them so comforting, addictive and utterly un-nourishing. It’s like popping amphetamines and rounding them off with tranquilizers.
When it comes to crime novels, the overly familiar tropes usually include hefty helpings of torture, cartoonishly conscienceless serial killers, and deeply distraught, guilt-riddled but invariably noble protagonists who are as tender with the women in their lives — the sweet little six-year-old girls whom they have sworn to protect/avenge, and the girlfriends, and the ex-girlfriends, and the ex-wives, and the female partners — as they are brutal with their adversaries (vicious, bone-cracking beatings are about as surprising as the sunrise) and their own bodies (alcohol and drug abuse, deep Nordic-style brooding and self-mutilation.)
The writing? Generally slack and dull and jam-packed with clichés, except in the “money shot” scenes – the ones that describe in languid, lubricious detail terrible torments and murders.
In short, crime fiction is in a bloody rut.
So Tom Piccirilli’s The Last Kind Words is something of a welcome departure from the norm. The story of a family of thieves and grifters, it’s told from the perspective of Terry Rand, whose older brother, Collie, committed a seemingly unmotivated murder spree and is now on Death Row.
So far, so familiar. What is it, then, that puts The Last Kind Words on the right side of the razor?
To begin with, the story isn’t really about the murders, but rather about Terry’s attempt to hold together his idiosyncratic family as each succumbs to the inevitable. In Collie’s case, he accepts his impending execution with equanimity, but insists that one of his purported victims was actually dispatched by a serial killer who’s still on the loose. Incidentally, in regards to the name “Collie”, all of the family members are named after dog breeds; Terry is short for, of course, “Terrier”, and whoever wrote the jacket copy actually had the nerve to say that he is “dogged by his own demons.”
But in fact, he is. Terry is the family’s prodigal son, having worked on a Colorado ranch for half a dozen years to escape his brother’s notoriety, and has been called back by Collie to find the real killer. He returns to the family home — full of caches, trap doors and false floors for secreting ill-gotten gains — to find the whole den of thieves at loose ends.
His father, who prefers being a cat burglar to working as a con man, is depressed because both of his sons are lost to him; his old-school uncles are in Dutch with some low-level mobbed-up wise guys after working a card-sharp grift; his grandfather is succumbing to Alzheimer’s, though still able to snatch a wallet or a switchblade out of sheer habit; and his younger sister, Dale (yes, “Airedale”) is dating a punk would-be jewel thief and headed for a lifetime of trouble like everyone else in her family.
Terry himself is riven by guilt and regret for having walked out on his wife-to-be, Kimmy (maybe he was afraid to break the news to her that she’d need to change her name to Corgi.) Not even the family dog, John F. Kennedy (!), is entirely at peace, having torn the windpipe out of a burglar named Bernie.
What makes this oddball and borderline-risible array of characters interesting and readable is that Terry is a decent person who wants his family, and especially Dale, to be happy. He’s a tough guy and a thief, but he’s a real human being and, in Piccirilli’s hands, a reasonably sympathetic and well-drawn character. You want the family (well, maybe with the exception of Collie) to struggle their way to happiness, and so does Terry. But he’s frustrated at every turn, especially as his search for the other killer comes to its anguishing end.
Piccirilli isn’t just going through the motions here, like some of his better-known brethren. Here is Terry’s description of his own torso, visible when he submits to a strip search while visiting Collie in prison:
“(The prison guard) stared at the dog tattoo that took up the left side of my chest, covering three bad scars. One was from when Collie had stabbed me with the bayonet of a tin Revolutionary War toy soldier when I was seven. I got a deep muscle infection that the doctor had to go digging after, leaving the area a rutted, puckered purple. Another was from when I was twelve and my father sent me up the drainpipe to a house that was supposedly empty. A seventy-five-year-old lady picked up a Tiffany-style lamp and swatted me three stories down into a hibiscus tree. A rib snapped and pierced the flesh. My old man got me into the car and pulled the bone shard through by hand as the sirens closed in and he drove up on sidewalks to escape. The scar was mottled red and thick as a finger.”
Here, in one skillful passage, are the ties that bind and cut, the painful and negligent and loving relationship between a thief and his son, and the legacy of scars that this family has left on each other’s flesh.
This being a mainstream crime novel, of course, it’s almost inevitable that one will come across passages of morose and sentimental squalor like this one, which could easily have been filched from a thousand other crime novels written in the past 30years:
“My head was full of the dead. I sat at the bar in the Elbow Room with the photocopied files and ordered a Jack and Coke. The place was a dive. It had gotten worse since the last time I’d had a drink here. The men looked the same except maybe a bit more desperate. The drinks were watered down, the felt on the pool tables that much more worn. The mirror behind the bar had a thick film of grime on it so you could barely see your own face. Maybe it was a blessing.”
Just for once, I’d like to see someone searching for a serial killer or mass murderer to review stolen case files in a bar that’s well-lit enough to actually read them.
And sometimes, it seems as if Piccirilli thinks that 15-year-old girls actually speak precisely what’s on their mind, as in this complaint by Dale to Terry:
”…You haven’t even asked how I am, how I’m doing. You never called, Terry. Not even on my birthday. Never. You could’ve called… Even if you didn’t want to see any of us, you could’ve picked up the phone. You could’ve written. You could’ve let me know you were alive. You could’ve shown some concern, for even one minute. You could’ve done any of a thousand things, Terry, and you didn’t. Now you want to talk?”
That’s an awfully well-organized and cogent complaint at an age when most adolescents are likely to just say, “leave me the hell alone.” It sounds like the author advocating for what a girl in Dale’s difficult situation ought to say, rather than imagining what she actually would say.
Nevertheless, Dale is an affecting character, perhaps because, at age 15, she’s still young enough to be redeemed; she could go in either direction, and Terry knows this, and also knows that his prolonged absence has allowed her to drift into the wrong lane. You’re pulling for her to get herself on the right track before she’s destroyed, like every other member of the family, and it’s this race against time, more than anything else, that makes this novel throb. Flaws and all, this heartfelt, intriguing and offbeat tale has its rewards, and its melancholy and hard-earned conclusion won’t easily be forgotten.