Jason Beech grew up in Sheffield, UK, but now lives in New Jersey, USA. He is the author of crime thrillers Moorlands, City of Forts and Never Go Back. His latest book, reviewed here, is a third volume of short stories, Bullets, Fists, and Teeth 3.
An interview with Jason Beech appears in a later blog post.
Since I started reading what I think of now as ‘boys’ books’ (think crime with lots of guns, knives, explosions – perhaps killing as an alternative to ejaculation) I’ve made a habit of doing a body count as I go along. Some of the books I read are pretty hard work, and tallying up the bodies is sometimes the only thing that keeps me going. I did think, as I finished the third story out of twenty in Beech’s Bullets, Teeth and Fists 3, (two thugs, one pleading father and a couple of lovers down) that perhaps it was working up to being one of those.
It wasn’t yet an impressive body count, but the theme, I felt, was settled. This was going to be a jolly collection about killing.
I was wrong. It turned out that it wasn’t that sort of book at all.
Bullets Teeth and Fists 3 is a curious, certainly dark, sometimes quite troubling, generally intriguing collection of stories. There’s a hell of a lot of zombies (re-)killed in one of the stories, and a bit of a massacre in another, but discounting those, the body count averages out at less than one per story, and in some of the most interesting stories no one dies at all.
In fact if there’s a recurring theme in the stories – looking past the form and the darkness and the clever twists – it might be parenthood. There’s a kidnapped pregnant woman whose partner only wants the child; a man pleading for the life of his delinquent son; two mothers trying to find friends for their difficult boys, a son trying to connect with a father he never knew, a store employee shoplifting to feed her sons. That’s only the first six stories – there are some exceptions, but I could go on. Even the zombie story that brings the book to its rip-roaring conclusion is driven by a quest for parenthood. And although there are a few daughters in the mix, you might have noticed that it’s mostly sons. There’s a lot about the relationship between parents and sons, and – the most haunting story in the book for me – a tour de force about a quasi-parental relationship between a retired boxer and his reluctant protégé. The bond between parent and child is always destined for struggle. There is always, necessarily, a lurking betrayal in it: the most powerful bond, vitiated by the imperative of breaking it. It has to be so. Beech captures that.
One of the things that Jason Beech has always done well – I sometimes wonder if he notices this – is problematise masculinity. The characters in his dark crime stories are never those boring James Bond heroes, let alone cheerful ‘Smitty-the-hitman’ types (don’t ask – I read some terrible books). Beech’s characters are never uncomplicated, never very heroic. They wear their masculinity with discomfort – a skin that they couldn’t live without, a skin that fits quite differently at different stages of their life, but which never fits completely. Sometimes it’s a skin that strangles them. Violence comes into it, certainly: but the violence is never unproblematic, either for the character or the reader. It’s always violence that comes from somewhere and cuts both ways. In several of these stories, exploring the lives of sons, one is taken to where it starts.
Beech is exceptionally good at writing children, particularly boys (in his recent novel Never Go Back there are a couple of boys who still send prickles up my spine, many months after closing the book). He neither sentimentalises them nor demonises them. His children are raw and vulnerable and feisty and frightened and sometimes wicked. His boys are on their way to becoming men, and several of the stories in this collection capture the burden of this challenge.
He also – and this is a little unusual in dark crime – has some interesting women. Some of them, being neither vamps nor victims, seem almost out of place in this genre: heck, they are almost like real women! He writes from their perspective sometimes: he even seems interested in them! (And yes, as a woman, I was interested in them too.)
For me, the above are all recommendations, but by now, the author, reading this review, is possibly livid. I’m making his book sound like something a social worker might read, or a psychologist on holiday.
I’m sorry, Jason Beech. Let me try to make amends.
This is a very dark book. The stories are violent, bitter, traced against a background of mean streets, tough lives, ruthless decisions. There is plenty of blood. Some cruelty. Some horror. Some mutilation. There are no happy endings, no easy answers, no romance, no pretty dresses, no erotica. None of the people in it, as I recall, are particularly nice and a lot of them are seriously unpleasant. I’m OK with all of this: I like dark fiction (though if anyone knows a crime writer who writes more engaging sex, feel free to send them my way…) So if dark crime is what you like reading, don’t worry, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. You won’t regret buying this book.
But if you also (even secretly, without ever wanting to be a social worker or a psychologist) like thinking about motivation, about what people really want, about how people end up doing terrible things, then you might like this book even more.
The Hard Hat Book Site