Some of the blurbs for Heath Lowrance’s debut from the great New Pulp Press compare it to a Gold Medal novel. There are certainly some similarities, especially early on.
THE BASTARD HAND starts out with its protagonist and narrator, Charlie Wesley, being thrown out of a bar in Memphis. Charlie is on the run after escaping from a mental institution in the Pacific Northwest. He’s on his way to Florida to visit his brother’s grave, but he’s taking his time about getting there and is basically drifting. Charlie is maybe crazy, maybe not, but his dead brother talks to him and gives him advice.
Before Charlie can get out of Memphis, though, he has another mentor, because he encounters and befriends an eccentric and vaguely sinister preacher, Reverend Phinneas Childe. The reverend is on his way to become the pastor of the Baptist church in the small northern Mississippi town of Cuba Landing, and he asks Charlie to come with him. Being in no hurry to get anywhere, Charlie agrees.
If you’ve read very many books like this, you already know that’s probably not a good idea.
Of course it’s not, because when Charlie and the reverend get to Cuba Landing, they discover it’s one of those wonderful noir novel towns where nearly everybody has a secret, and most of them are pretty dark. The previous pastor of the church has disappeared under suspicious circumstances, there’s a beautiful blond femme fatale, the mayor and the chief of police may well be corrupt . . . you know the drill.
If a well-written Gold Medal pastiche was all THE BASTARD HAND was, it would still be a very good book. But about halfway through the book, in a subplot that involves some Memphis gangsters who are after Charlie, Lowrance throws a curve and introduces an utterly bizarre twist and turns this novel into something that may have been influenced by those Fifties Gold Medals but is a whole other creature all its own. As the book progresses, the small-town secrets get weirder, too, as Lowrance weaves together the various strands of the plot and ramps things up into a fascinating combination of throwback noir, gritty crime thriller, Southern Gothic, and pure fantasy.
There’s no way to say much more about the plot without ruining things. The characters are vividly drawn, the action scenes are well done, there’s just enough humor to offset a little of the grimness, and every time Lowrance takes such a risk that you think the book is about to crash and burn in silliness, he finds a way to pull it off in spectacular fashion. Yes, THE BASTARD HAND is a little over the top. I have no problem with that. In fact, this is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’m already looking forward to seeing what Heath Lowrance comes up with next. Needless to say, THE BASTARD HAND gets a high recommendation from me.