“I hear the rattle of the tow truck’s rusted chain before I see it roll down the rutted track and into view. The last time I saw the Mulligan brothers they hung a guy known as Blood Bubble from the hook by the roof of his mouth and beat him with crowbars until his pale skin burst. They left him hanging there when they had finished, and none of us had the nerve to drag him down. I still remember the queasy crack his brainstem made when the deadweight got too much.”
From ‘Truckload of Trouble’ (The Good Book: Fairy Tales For Hard Men)
In recent years I’ve carved out a reputation for producing uncompromising, no-holds-barred crime fiction. Gore-streaked, expletive-ridden noir stories that trample taboo subjects into the threadbare carpet and leave hardened readers wondering what the fuck they have just experienced.
By comparison, my new wrestling-themed short story collection The Good Book: Fairy Tales For Hard Men – which was published by All Due Respect earlier this month – feels like my shot at the big time! This is the moment when the brutalised dark-match also-ran readjusts his spandex and gets thrust under the stadium lights for an improbable shot at an obscure title belt. Or not! Wrestling may be as insanely popular as ever, but this book is very far from mainstream and may well represent my bloodiest offering to date…
All of my other books focus on Joe Rey, a nihilistic private investigator who works the cases the cops don’t want in Paignton (the impoverished English seaside town I call home). Desperate times call for desperate measures and things have a tendency to spiral wildly – bloodily – out of control. Despite the brutal subject matter, there are some “cultural” limits: if there are firearms involved, they (generally) have to be plausible: airguns modified to fire live ammo, farmyard shotguns, battered hand-me-down handguns kept in shoeboxes under drug-dealer’s beds. The Good Book is set in Florida in the 1980s and ‘90s, which gives it a trigger-happy quality that is largely absent in my other crime fiction. The gunplay is undeniably fun to write, but even so, my favourite scenes are generally the bone-snapping, skull-cracking fight scenes.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, the word ‘kayfabe’ refers to the way staged events are portrayed as real within the wrestling industry. In The Good Book, I wanted to present all fight scenes as authentic – inside of the ring and out. These men – has-beens and never-weres – are all skilled fighters, and it doesn’t matter whether they are fighting in the squared circle, or in alleyways, parking lots, crack dens or abandoned factories – they are still going to use the wrestling techniques they learned at Shriek Watson’s ‘Ghoul School’ wrestling academy. If these motherfuckers hit someone, they stay hit, and I wanted this bruising quality to impact on the reading experience. The devil is in the detail, and I hope the queasiness I bring to the table gives the violence an extra edge.
Traditionally, boxing and crime have been familiar bedfellows, and the combination of high financial stakes and the poor decisions of punch-drunk prize-fighters always works really well in fiction and film. I think wrestling suits noir equally well, and wanted to explore this idea in The Good Book. Noir is the ultimate genre of bad decisions, and here we have a whole town full of embittered rivals – all attempting to gain a competitive edge however they can. In the wrestling world your name and your reputation are everything and when your physical skills diminish, you can still have a career – dropping down the ladder into the regional promotions, where the hardcore fans still remember your name. The Testament Wrestling Alliance is rock-bottom – the place where old wrestlers go to die. And let’s be honest: a hell of a lot of people die in this book…
Ultimately though, The Good Book is meant to entertain. Characters are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, tortured or maimed on most pages, but I hope the playful tone keeps things sufficiently light. Violence and crime fiction go hand in hand, and as much as sickening acts of violence horrify me in real life, violent movies and books have a queasy hold over me. I think a lot of hardboiled writers probably feel conflicted by some of the scenes that they include in their books, but it’s important to retain some perspective. I once visited a village in El Salvador where the oldest male was a teenage boy, who showed us a bullet-holed wreck-of-a-building in the forest – against which all of the local men had been executed 13 years earlier. I’ve also spent time at the Killing Fields in Cambodia, which was absolutely fucking chilling. Those sights haunted me – with good reason – and crime fiction feels like light relief by comparison.
Despite the substantial body-count, The Good Book isn’t an exploration of the cause and effect of violent crime. It’s more like the ‘Royal Rumble’ with guns! A succession of damaged wrestlers – Gringo Starr, ‘Voodoo’ Ray Blanchette, The Jazz Butcher and Killer McHann to name but a few – enter the fray, but who is left standing at the end? Grab a book and see for yourselves!
Tom Leins is the author of the Paignton Noir mysteries SKULL MEAT, SNUFF RACKET, SPINE FARM, SIN CLINIC, SLUG BAIT and BONEYARD DOGS. His other books include the short story collections MEAT BUBBLES & OTHER STORIES, REPETITION KILLS YOU and THE GOOD BOOK: FAIRY TALES FOR HARD MEN.