Tom Leins is the proprietor of Dirty Books and has written plenty of seriously dark fiction. His latest from All Due Respect is Repetition Kills You, a collection of loosely connected stories about Paignton thug/PI Joe Rey.
All Due Respect: What immediately struck me about your work was the unconventional approach. Each story barely has a plot or any structure–it has a strong voice and plenty of setting and atmosphere, but the events of each individual story don’t seem to matter that much. What do you attribute this to?
Tom Leins: Unconventional is a perfect description of the way I work!
As a reader, the combination of a strong narrative voice, a compelling setting and a menacing atmosphere have always trumped narrative trickery and pulse-pounding action scenes. As a writer I find this approach similarly satisfying.
The bulk of the stories in this collection were initially published by flash fiction websites, where word count restrictions were paramount. A lot of flash crime writers do the twist-in-the-tail ending really well. I definitely prefer creating a brutal mood piece with a satisfying pay-off, and – given the choice – I will always jettison the clever twist in favour of a memorable location or a vividly drawn supporting character. Unconventional, bordering on perverse, right?
Also, I have never really been a linear writer. I tend to make copious notes and I have always tended to assemble my stories from loose scenes, off-cuts, one-liners and snatches of dialogue. This applies to my longer work too, but the emphatic endings of my novelettes Snuff Racket and Slug Bait are definitely a reaction to the more subdued endings of some of my short stories.
ADR: Joe Rey is the central character of several of your books, including Repetition Kills You, as well as the novelettes Skull Meat, Snuff Racket and Slug Bait, and the collection Meat Bubbles & Other Stories.. He’s kind of a private investigator but really he just goes around beating people up to make a living. Every once in a while he has a sting of consciousness and does something good. How did Joe develop?
TL: The first ever story, ‘Paignton Noir’, which appeared more than ten years ago, envisioned Rey more as a slacker with a violent streak doing favours for friends – a dole queue Matt Scudder I suppose. The antagonists were deliberately low-rent, and the outcome was reliably violent. In that story, he trawled leisure centres, public toilets, pubs and bedsits looking for a girl he had never met, and the case ended in carnage. Describing that back to you now, the character really hasn’t deviated too far from that original template! I guess my technique and my storytelling style have smoothed down a few of the rough edges, and I have relocated the stories firmly in hardboiled territory, with bigger, nastier antagonists.
After that first appearance, Rey appeared in a few stories online at A Twist of Noir (don’t check them out, as the best bits were reworked as Skull Meat last year), but I think ‘You Will Miss Me When I Burn’ is the oldest Rey story in Repetition Kills You, and it has a couple of call-backs to that initial story. A hell of a lot of stories followed, but it was only really in 2017, when I started considering publishing options that I realised that I had to sort out a basic chronology for this guy, to try and explain how he goes from a punch-first-ask-questions-later tough guy to someone you would actually hire to look into a sensitive case, such as the disappearance of a child. I enjoy having Rey work out of the corner of a dodgy pub – with the only privacy coming from the cigarette machine – but I’ve got a couple of books on the way which iron out these inconsistencies. He even inherits a proper office space, which is a notable turning point, and paves the way for some proper cases.
His investigative technique may have more in common with minor criminality than it does with law enforcement, but he’s loyal, he’s stubborn and he hates queasy bullshit merchants. Heroes are boring. Dangerously flawed anti-heroes are so much more fun to write.
ADR: Violence figures prominently in all your work. It seems like someone’s getting their head bashed in on almost every page. How do you go about writing violence?
TL: Violence definitely underpins all of my work, and Rey really excels himself in Repetition Kills You. Whether he is perpetrating the violence, or taking a beating himself, violence is a way of life for him. Much of this is borne out of desperation – his or other people’s – but he is not afraid of getting his hands dirty. His weapons of choice tend to be items you can pick up in your local branch of Poundland: hammers, screwdrivers, etc, but he is nothing if not resourceful. This is Paignton, not London or Manchester, so guns aren’t a regular fixture on the pages of these books, although there are a few exotic exceptions in this book.
For me the violence has to be bleary-eyed and unpleasant, but never gratuitous. A few years ago, I was taking my son to the library, when I walked past a pub in town, and saw bloodied people crawling out of the door. I later found out that someone had run amok with a hatchet. The surreal image of a ravaged-looking man draped over one of the many mobility scooters parked outside, leaking blood, stayed with me. This wasn’t slick Hollywood violence. Whatever happened inside was clumsy and reckless, and I think it is important to convey that feeling.
Earlier this year I wrote some of my favourite fight scenes to date. These were directly inspired by watching an early UFC DVD I found in a charity shop (thrift store). This was way before UFC became a slick spectacle, and this event basically consisted of brutish-looking men with moustaches fracturing each other’s skulls in a sweaty Puerto Rican auditorium, while horrified boxing commentators struggled to describe the action. The grubbiness of the whole event really captured my attention, and it took my fight scenes to the next level. (Also, Rey was fighting neo-Nazis in this particular book, so it made the violence even more satisfying!)
ADR: I first heard your name as you were reviewing books by crime fiction writers working with independent presses. Who were some of the first writers who got you interested in underground crime fiction?
TL: Outside of mainstream crime fiction, the first publisher that really captured by attention was No Exit Press in the UK. After discovering the early Daniel Woodrell and James Sallis books that they released, I was hooked, and would pick up anything with the No Exit logo on the spine – a lot of which was tremendous. (Funnily enough, a recent No Exit book, The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith, is among my favourite books of the year so far.) Admittedly, Sallis and Woodrell can hardly be classified as underground after the success of the movie versions of Winter’s Bone and Drive, but they both had a big impact on me! (Trivia: Skull Meat is named after the debut novel written by PI-turned-novelist Lew Griffin in the 90s James Sallis books!)
The book that helped me discover All Due Respect was definitely Selena by Greg Barth, which I thought was fantastic – a great example of a visceral pulp thriller. (Everyone should check it out!) The fact that ADR published new books in the series on a regular basis was an added bonus, as those stories always left you breathless to find out what fresh hell Selena was going to be plunged into next. The frequency of the Selena books definitely inspired me to make sure there are a regular supply of Joe Rey stories/ebooks/collections available, as I think it is crucial to pound out new material if you want readers to care about a series character – especially when you are operating at my lowly level!
As a character, Selena is nothing like Joe Rey, but there are definite similarities, and it was encouraging to see that there was a receptive audience for something that dark. I hope Selena comes out of retirement some day, as she is a character who can run and run!
ADR: The way you use Paignton in your work reminds of Springfield in The Simpsons. It can kind of fit the bill no matter what’s needed, but at the same time it also has many consistent features–it’s always grimy, filled with a revolving door of lowlifes, and the same little items pop up in multiple stories, like the local wank rag, Tailgunner. How did Paignton develop as a character in your work?
TL: I’m a huge fan of The Simpsons, so that observation is a massive compliment! Springfield is a great location, so rich in detail, but with a core set of locations that help to ground the show firmly in sitcom territory.
In a similar way that Homer can drop everything to follow a whim, I want Rey to be a character who can be parachuted into any kind of crime narrative. The cut-price private investigator status provides a common thread for the stories, but his no-questions-asked muscle-for-hire work is equally satisfying to write – whether he is cleaning up after a porno shoot (‘Actress on a Mattress’) or participating in heists (Slug Bait). To do this, the backdrop needs to be malleable enough to cope with the storylines I’m going to throw at it, and the environment needs to be fully fleshed out.
When I first started writing the Paignton Noir stories, I had recently discovered Iain Sinclair, the British psychogeography writer, who has been chronicling London for decades. His books really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to try and explore Paignton in a similar way, albeit with more of a crime slant. It’s also worth noting that, while some of the location names have been changed (to avoid legal action), the landscape and geography of Paignton have been preserved.
Another key influence was Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series. Pitt is an unaffiliated ‘vampyre’, living in New York, carrying out assignments for the city’s various ‘clans’ in exchange for blood and freedom. Because of the awkward logistics of travelling between the five boroughs, the clans tend to remain within the confines of their own stomping ground, while Pitt is free to drift between the different regions of the city. I found myself loosely applying this rule to the Paignton Noir-scape – partitioning up different parts of town along perceived criminal fault-lines.
Paignton is a small town, with a population of around 50,000, but it can still be divided up into very recognisable areas, and each one of these will get its own book. There will also be at least one Torquay Noir book further down the line, which will be a welcome change of pace. It’s only a few miles down the road, but these Torquay stories will be very different from the Paignton ones – well, as different as stories narrated by Rey can get anyway! Plymouth, which is the largest city in Devon, is a great noir city, and someone should really write that book, but it really isn’t my story to tell. (Although Plymouth does get a visit from Rey in ‘The Graveyard Shift’ in Repetition Kills You, which is one of my favourites in this book.)
Ideally, I would like a sprawling Game of Thrones-esque title sequence to map the town, but I’ll probably end up cobbling something together with marker pens and an old map to help people get their bearings!