By Louise Ure
Finding Tom Epperson’s work was a lesson in humility for me.
It was a Saturday morning in early February. The Fault Tree had been on the shelves for a total of three weeks and I was knee-deep in a book tour and signing events. I’d arrived at Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks, California a bit early for the event. With Southern California traffic, you can never tell whether you’ll be an hour early or an hour late for an event so you build in a little cushion.
The ladies at Mysteries to Die For were, as usual, warm and gracious, setting up chairs and a speaker’s area as I strolled the bookstore. One of them – Heidi? Deanna? – approached me at the front table which held all the new arrivals.
“I enjoyed Forcing Amaryllis,” she said, referencing my first novel, “But this one is a really extraordinary debut.”
I swallowed that lump of misplaced pride and took the book she offered me: Tom Epperson’s The Kind One.
In recognition that this lady usually knows exactly what she’s talking about, I bought the book and tucked it into my shoulder bag. At the end of the tour it got unpacked, along with all the other purchased books, the remaining bookmarks, the hotel receipts, and index card notes from the trip and wound up smack dab in the middle of three dusty shelves that call themselves my “to be read” pile.
And there it stayed. From February through early September.
It didn’t exactly call attention to itself. I’d never heard of Epperson. The title – The Kind One – is not one of those that tells you to rip it off the shelf right now. Even the cover design, a sepia-toned photo of a Joshua tree and a 1930’s car – a Packard? — had all the timidity of a recessive gene.
So it took me this long to read it.
What was I thinking? How could I have let this masterpiece languish there on the shelf among so many lesser gods?
You say you’ve never heard of Tom Epperson or this book? That’s going to change.
While this is Epperson’s debut novel, he is the skilled and successful screenwriter of One False Move, The Gift, A Family Thing and A Gun, A Car, A Blonde. More importantly, perhaps, he is the longtime neighbor, roommate and partner of Billy Bob Thornton and brings to his work that same raw danger and Malvern, Arkansas-sensibility that Thornton shows on the screen.
You want to see some truth-telling? Check out the author bio he’s written at his website:
And then there’s the book.
The Kind One is the story of Danny Landon, an underling in Bud Seitz’s 1930’s Los Angeles mob. “Two Gun Danny,” they call him, but he has to take their word for it. As the result of some kind of unremembered violence, his memories only stretch back one year.
This is L.A. noir with all the grit, bigotry and misogyny of The Thirties laid bare. Spat-upon Blacks. The butchery of backroom abortion. Unprotected children. Mob boss rule.
And in the middle of it –Candide-like — is Danny Landon, a blank page of a man who doesn’t feel like a killer but doesn’t know why. (By the way, he’s not The Kind One of the title. That’s the mob boss, Seitz.)
The writing is spare and unflinching. The characters, unforgettable.
Robert Crais writes that The Kind One is “a perfect noir novel that is pure and original, with a heavy heart the beats through each page.”
I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t walk away with every debut novel award this year. Maybe even Best Novel.
And now I see that it’s going to be Ridley Scott/Warner Brothers film starring Casey Affleck. I can’t wait. I get to discover it all over again.
So tell me, Rati’, what book was it that stunned you when you finally took it off the shelf? Who would you like to apologize to for not having read it earlier?
Thank you for recommending this book, Louise. I’ll certainly track it down when we’re over for Bouchercon next month.
As for books I wished I’d read earlier – any and all of Ken Bruen’s work. I only really heard about Ken at my first B’con in Toronto. His work was being lauded and, if I’m honest, all that hype put me off a little.
Then I read one of his books – THE GUARDS, I think it was – and was blown away by that unique prose poetry style, the bleakness and the rage. Since then, I’ve read just about everything he’s written, and that takes some keeping up with.
He sucks you into the story in a few swift strokes. You tell yourself you’ll just have a little look at the opening few pages and, the next thing you know, you’re halfway through and it’s dark outside.
There are no half measures with Ken. I always recommend his work, and people either love it or hate it, with nothing in between.
Back in the early ’90s, my parents moved to Florida (they’re back in New Haven now after realizing they were still too young for Port St. Lucie). Anyway, my mother gave me a book for my birthday right after they moved, exclaiming “It’s set in Florida!” (they were still excited about living there then) The book was TURTLE MOON by Alice Hoffman. I stuck it on my shelf, and promptly forgot about it. About three years later, I moved. When I packed my books, I found it and decided to give it a go.
I’m embarrassed that it took so long to read. Because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Beautiful prose, fascinating characters, a murder, a little woo-woo. It’s one of my all time favorites now, and I highly recommend it.
Louise, right at the moment I can’t recall any examples of books I’ve forgotten and then wished I’d read sooner. I’m notorious for hoarding books I fancy will blow me away, which is sometimes hard to explain to writer friends waiting for me to tell them what I think of their books. All I can say in my own defense is that it is the best feeling when needing that really good read to know I have a stash of them waiting. 🙂
I went to Tom Epperson’s website and if the bio is any indication, I suspect The Kind One will sit on my shelf, in hoard mode, until I break down and decide it’s time to read it. I got so caught up in the bio I didn’t want THAT to end!
Thanks for the heads-up on this one.
When I was a kid, I was really into sci-fi. I mean REALLY into it. So when my uncle got me a book for Christmas, and tried to entice my overactive imagination with, “it’s got a boy about your age named Jake in it,” I promptly said thank you and forgot about it. I mean, it had some cowboy on the cover. No spaceship, no alien, just a cowboy and a bird and some big dark tower in the background.
Yep. THE GUNSLINGER, by Stephen King. I would apologize, but I think he did pretty well for himself even without my reading it those first two months. Still, when I picked it up, I read it in one sitting and was hooked. The only sci-fi’s I’ve read since that day many years ago have been Ender’s Game and Fahrenheit 451, both re-reads because they live forever.
TIME WILL DARKEN IT by William Maxwell. I picked up three of his books at used book sale years ago and finally read this one somewhat later. It blew me away.One of my all-time favorites and I read his others after this. All good, but this was the best.
Zoë, you’re so right about the Bruen’s work. And then to discover that his own goodself is just as remarkable!
Karen, don’t you just love the way we’re recommended these books? ‘And it’s set in Florida!” As if that were the only allure of the Alice Hoffman book. Than’s okay. At least we know your mother has good taste.
Billie, I can understand that saving/hoarding notion. Just knowing that you have that special something set aside for when you need it is remarkably powerful. Must be some carryover from The Great Depression there. And I’m so glad you reacted to the writing in his bio the way I did. I’m not sure I could be that honest one a worldwide web site.
King’s The Gunslinger would have been a wonderful discovery, Jake. (Someday somebody is going to have to explain the allure of science fiction to me, but that’s beside the point.)
Patti, I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read Time Will Darken It. But if it’s one of those “how could I have lived without reading it!” books, I’m ordering it today.
Completely agree about Ken Bruen. Fell hard for Jack Taylor instantly. Unmissable, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t started reading him long ago.
I am ashamed to say I have hung out with Jason Starr at conferences long into the nights (some unfortunately now immortalized on YouTube) for almost two years now and only recently got to THE FOLLOWER. Perfectly chilling and a uniquely insidious writing style. Definitely owe him a few drinks for being slow on the uptake on that one, but call me a repentant new fan.
And I can’t say I was slow on discovering Sarah Langan, because I read her brilliant THE KEEPER in galleys, but what a stunning debut. Very reminiscent of the best of Stephen King, from a particularly female POV. She’s got it in spades.
I’ve got to go hunt down those YouTube videos now, Alex. I agree about Jason’s writing, and now that you’ve said such great things about Sarah Langan, I’ve got to try her as well.
What a bio! And I totally can relate to that “lump of misplaced pride.” (Just swallow!) Thanks for introducing us to Epperson.
Naomi, a little humble pie is a good thing, no? Writers are funny folks; we’re either totally over the top about our own work or totally despairing.
I came late to Bruen as well, only finding out about THE GUARDS when a site I was doing some reviews for (booksnbytes.com) sent it to me. It blew me away, and I damn near cried when I found out I was supposed to send it along to the next reviewer.
My secret shame: I didn’t discover how great Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books were until I picked up one of those 3 novels in one volume dealies two years ago at a library book sale. Then it sat on my shelf for nearly a year before I read it. Oh, I knew they were supposed to be classics, just never got around to them. It blew me away just how good they were.
Louise,Bruen, yeah. Hoffman, yeah.
Too many books languish on my shelves for years and when I finally read them, I wonder how I could have possibly waited so very long.
J.D., here’s one of my favorite Ed McBain lines:
“This was a city in decline. The cabby knew it because he drove all over this city and saw every part of it. Saw the strewn garbage and the torn mattresses and the plastic debris littering the grassy slopes of every highway, saw the bomb-crater potholes on distant streets, saw the black eyeless windows in the abandoned tenements, saw public phone booths without phones, saw public parks without benches, their slats torn up and carried away to burn, heard the homeless ranting or pleading or crying for mercy, heard the ambulance sirens and the police sirens day and night but never when you needed one, heard it all, and saw it all, and knew it all, and just rode on by.”
And Pari, treat yourself to one of those old books this week.
It took me forever to work up the energy to read “The Power of the Dog” by Don Winslow. It was just so big. I’ve since described it as a 500 page book that read like a 250 page book. I loved it, and wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it.
I had that “jeez, why did I wait so long” moment for a book I just finished, Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon. I met Jennifer – briefly – twice in the past year, and now I can’t wait to tell her how much I enjoyed her debut. Remarkable that it was her first.
Rae, I know what you mean. And sometimes it’s the (well-deserved) hype that keeps us from cracking those books!
Rosemary, I had somebody else recommend Promise Not To Tell and I loved it. In some ways, not really a mystery, but it touched sometimg deep inside me.
Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock.
Harsh, hard, raw: but with an understated eloquence. This collection of intertwined shorts brims with power. Pollock isn’t a sensationalist, he’s not pandering, trying to titillate; merely telling it like it is when viewed from society’s underbelly.
Knockemstiff has given me the will to keep on birthing my characters EXACTLY as they come to me, in spite of this comment to my agent, from an editor who recently passed on my latest novel:
” I’ve never shied away from edgy characters, but unfortunately the ones in this manuscript were just a bit rough for me.”
Oh yeah, Bruen’s work is in a class by itself. I sorely miss his moving, poetic, Tuesday contributions. That said: Louise, your stuff always satisfies, and your “Splinters from New Mexico” piece is what originally hooked me on Murderati. Best to you.
Louise,I’ll accept your apologies for not reading The Kind One sooner if you’ll accept my thanks for writing such a delightful essay about it.