Gary Phillips established his reputation in crime fiction with several excellent urban-based novels. Lately, however, and due to his varied recent activities (which include editing noted original anthologies like ORANGE COUNTY NOIR, and POLITICS NOIR, contributing political and cultural commentary to several blogs, and scripting the occasional graphic novel), his fiction output has been short stories, published in numerous collections and the few fiction magazines still alive.
TREACHEROUS: GRIFTERS, RUFFIANS AND KILLERS, the author’s first collection of stories since 2004’s MONKOLOGY (rounding up stories featuring Ivan Monk, the protagonist of his early novel series), contains his short works from over the past 10 years and aptly demonstrates Phillips’ considerable skills as a contemporary crime storyteller.
The 20 stories are presented in four main categories. “The Grifters” section leads off with “The Performer,” about a piano player in a bar located in a less-glitzy section of Southern California’s Orange County who is seduced by a young woman into becoming part of her robbery scheme. But we discover that the piano man has a few smooth moves of his own. This is followed by “The Kim Novak Effect,” where a con artist recalls how his elaborate and once lucrative scam went bad and the price he paid.
The “Bad Ju-Ju” section includes “Sportin’ Man,” the story of young man coming of age while working in a brothel and his unexpected right of passage following a poker game.
The section called “Both Shadow and Substance” shows Phillips combining horror and the supernatural with crime, resulting in some wonderful examples of dark urban fantasy. These are highlighted by “Can’t Be Satisfied,” a tale that mixes a truck driver and his close encounter with a café waitress, and then spices things up with an old black magic curse. “Disco Zombies” is riotous romp that recalls the 1970s heydays of disco and cocaine — with some zombies thrown in for good measure.
The last section, “Hell Bent,” features “Chatter,” where a real estate development scam is conveyed through various first-person monologues on the phone and finally via news media copy. Like the other stories in this section, the characters are driven by equal parts greed and desperation.
Phillips obviously loves his anti-heroes, as the stories’ major characters are all, as the subtitle promises, grifters, ruffians and killers. You may not be on their side, but you can’t help but be fascinated by their escapades. All 20 tales feature Phillips unfaltering ear for contemporary urban dialogue and patois, relentless pacing that grabs you from the opening sentence — oh, and plenty of sex and violence, too.
Like much of his recent work entirely under his name, this collection is published by Perfect Crime Books, a small, little-known house and, therefore, likely to go out-of-print after this initial run. So do whatever it takes to secure a copy, because contemporary crime short fiction doesn’t get much better than TREACHEROUS. It’s the perfect introduction to an author who long has deserved the acclaim of a wider audience. —Alan Cranis