Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Crime Fiction Unhinged: A Review of The Soul Standard

If you're like me—and you're more than happy to take your crime fiction weird, unapologetically genre-bending, and gritty as hell—you're going to love The Soul Standard.

There’s a lot to say about this one, but let’s start with the unique structure of the book.

We’ve got four authors—Nik Korpon, Caleb J. Ross, Axel Taiari, and Richard Thomas—and each has contributed a novella-length installment to The Soul Standard. Each installment is set in a different section of a fictional city (known simply as "the City") and takes place during a different season.

Brilliant concept.

I keep hearing that novellas are the wave of the future for literature. This book helps make that case in a big way. The stories are lean, but totally engrossing. You can sink your teeth into each segment deeper than you could with a short story, but the book—even considering there are four sections—feels much less cumbersome than a novel.   

The Soul Standard’s world—er, city—is one where raw brutality is matched only by tremendous heart. The stories are as emotionally complex as they are totally violent and unhinged. The writing, in general, is simultaneously over-the-top and artful. It's a tough line to walk, but Korpon, Ross, Taiari, and Thomas pull it off deftly.

Okay, the stories…

Caleb J. Ross's “Four Corners” is the book’s opener. It’s the story of a banker buckling under the weight of his rich boss's sleazy orders amid an economy split firmly between haves and have-nots. He’s ultimately plunged into the heart of the City’s macabre black-market economy (a recurring topic throughout the book's stories), something he thought he'd escaped in his younger years. Shock and mayhem ensue.

Then we've got “Punhos Sagrados” by Nik Korpon. Set in the City's Red Light District, “Punhos” follows the life of a skilled underground boxer as he struggles, financially and emotionally, to care for his mentally-ill wife. Shit meets fan for him when he begins to fall for a beautiful singer who performs at a bar where he bounces. This story is by far the most traditional crime story of the lot, but its razor-edged twists and turns will have you fighting to stay on your feet. And the feels—this one's got a fuckload of 'em. Keep your guard up. Also, while the story is not actually set in Baltimore, Korpon does a bit of fun winking and nodding to readers who know the city and its famous red light area, The Block. (Having lived in Baltimore, I ate that shit right up.)

Next is “Golden Geese” by Richard Thomas, which revolves, in part, around the Outskirts of the City (the ailing protagonist’s farm, to be exact). Strap in for this one—things are gonna get weird. Trevor, the story’s narrator owns a cornfield riddled with fallen meteorites that possess some, uh, unique qaulities. Trevor uses the cosmic debris to his advantage as he fights to reconnect with his estranged daughter. He’s ultimately forced to go head-to-head with some of the seedier elements of the City’s depraved criminal underbelly. Why yes, I'll take my crime fiction with a heaping dose of sci-fi weirdness, thank you very much, Richard Thomas. Seriously, this story is amazing. But be warned: it’s also very heartrending.   

The last novella is Axel Taiari’s “Jamais Vu,” set in the City’s Ghost Town. A man searches for his daughter, years after she’s been abducted from her school. Problem is: he suffers from a medical condition leaves him unable to recognize people by their faces. Yeah. Without giving too much away here, I will say that the story feels like a perfect closer to this collection.

The Soul Standard is simply a great book.

You like hardnosed crime fiction? Go pick it up. You a fan of the weird? Go pick it up. You like emotive storytelling that leaves a lasting impact? Yeah, definitely go pick it up.

What’s more, Korpon, Ross, Taiari, and Thomas have given us a fascinating experiment here. They took some major risks with the book’s unconventional structure and blurring of genre lines. I think their gambles paid off in a big way. In fact, I hope this book sets some precedent—I hope we see more of this kind of thing, especially from the authors of The Soul Standard.

What do you say, guys? Maybe a sequel? A graphic novel adaptation? Huh? Huh?

I’ll be waiting.

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