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He said, "Is that...is that Crowe?" Crowe nodded and Rad said "No shit. Well I'll be damned. Crowe is back."
And then, "That can't be good."
Heath Lowrance is the closest thing we have to a hardboiled/noir historian. His knowledge of the craft, the history and even its socioeconomic evolution is ridiculously detailed. Also, Heath Lowrance writes books. The adventures of his boy Hawthorne, retribution specialist in the Old West, is one of the best arguments for the return of serial fiction as a mainstream source of entertainment. CITY OF HERETICS is his second full-length novel. I wasn't too sure what to think about it when I picked it up. Call it a lack of curiosity. It lasted for about six pages before I got pulled in. Noir has changed a lot since the eighties and became somewhat a sister genre to psychological horror, but in CITY OF HERETICS, the classic tropes live strong. Don't mistake it for pastiche though, for it carries its own weight, its own themes and shows some historical perspective on the genre. Plus, it's full of terrible people. CITY OF HERETICS had everything to seduce me and it did.
Crowe just spent the last seven years in prison before being spat back on the streets of Memphis.Trouble is never far for people like him. His old colleague Marco Vitower is now running the show (Vitower put a hit on Crowe in prison) and needs him for a very dangerous mission. Kill Peter Murke, who murdered Vitower's wife Jezzie in the most sordid fashion. Murke is about to be transferred to a psychiatric facility for trial evaluation, so the opportunity is there. But the transfer wagon gets hijacked before Crowe and Vitower's men can do anything about it. A small crew of murderous freaks extract Murke and make him disappear, leaving a trail of dead people behind. The boss is angry, Crowe is angry and he goes after Murke to get square with the boss and with the people who thought they could muscle him away from a target. It's about the worst thing you can do to someone like Crowe. Things get hairy.
Readers who have a decent background in noir will notice the elephant in the room: Jim Thompson. It's kind of like a Thompson novel, but not really. I'd say it's Jim Thompson meets Albert Camus. I suspect this is why such a good novel didn't get any love from major publishers. There is an obvious influence from Thompson, especially in the atmosphere. Everybody is crooked and have hidden agendas in CITY OF HERETICS. Everybody is a con, including the cops. My favorite character (except for remarkably badass Crowe) was the Internal Affairs policeman Radnovian, who also happened to be a functioning heroin addict. That places CITY OF HERETICS in some sort of segregated underbelly that will make you wonder where the normal people vanished. The only writer that did it better than Lowrance is Thompson himself. So yeah, there is influence, but it's not passive aping. Lowrance understands what made Jim Thompson's novels so good and transferred elements to CITY OF HERETICS.
"It's not a secret society," she said. "For God's sake, you make it sound like some sort of conspiracy or something."
"It is a conspiracy, you stupid bitch."
Another retro goodie in this novel is the protagonist Crowe. He is an old fashioned man and a tiny bit of a psychopath. I kept picturing him as Lee Marvin while reading, so that suggests an accurate character definition *. There is an existentialist edge to both the character and the novel and this is where CITY OF HERETICS gets really interesting, intellectually speaking. Unlike for most conventional/classic noir, there is nothing material at gain. Crowe is merely fighting for his soul against a bunch of religious nuts that fell off the deep end. Sounds a little tacky said like that, but the dialogues between the pragmatic and austere Crowe and the "enlightened" are the single best thing in CITY OF HERETICS. They trigger an evolution within Crowe where he is forced to examine the way he's been living and to word precise answers. In that regards, Lowrance's novel is a tremendous existentialist character study.
I often say badass characters always have a cause to defend, even if that cause may be the most self-centered motive in the world. Crowe might be the exception that confirms the rule and that's another reason why he's great. Motivations are being stripped from him as you turn the pages, so you get the feeling that he's trying to close this issue just because he wants to be right. That makes him slightly maladjusted. Just enough to remain entertaining. CITY OF HERETICS is retro, sure, but it's also violent, action-packed noir loaded with unforgettable dialogues. I'm happy Snubnose Press decided to publish this little gem, because it adds to their already impressive catalog and places it in better position to get the recognition it deserves. I'm not sure when is going to be the next Golden Age of Pulp Fiction in literature, but when it'll happen, CITY OF HERETICS will be referred to as a tough-guy classic.
FOUR STARS **
* By the way, Lowrance contributed to a Lee Marvin Anthology published by Crime Factory. Didn't read it yet, but am sure it's great. I've never seen the Factory shit the bed so far.
** I flirted with the idea of giving it FIVE STARS, but only flirted.