Gritty is a word often used in reviewing crime fiction. I used it to describe Neliza Drew’s All Bridges Burning as I wrote that it “is a gritty Southern Noir filled with drugs, death, and destruction.” But Tom Leins’ self-published Skull Meat is the epitome of gritty crime fiction, reading his noir novella is like chewing on a mouthful of sand mixed with shards of sea shells. With lines like this “I double-check the Polaroid in my pocket and sigh. Creepshow is not just fat, he’s swollen. Fuck. I’ve seen less bloated corpses dragged out of Paignton harbour,” you can feel the fragments of glass cutting into your fingers as you turn the pages.
Set in southwestern England, Paignton along with Torquay and Brixham make up an area that is collectively known as the English Riviera, but Leins’ version of Paignton is a decrepit and more dangerous version of Poisonville in Hammett’s Red Harvest. Joe Rey is a private investigator but many of the Paignton criminals see him more as hired muscle, though Rey likes to think of himself as more a fixer. When Rey meets up with someone he is fixing, words are not usually exchanged, instead uses his fists, feet, and anything else that can be picked up and smashed on the skull of someone Rey that needs a readjustment.
I don’t recognise her face, but I recognise her shoes. Expensive-looking erotic footwear. Not the kind of shoes you can easily buy on Torbay Road. She performed the floorshow at the Dirty Lemon on Thirsty Thursday last week. At one point she lowered herself onto an empty hooch bottle, and the crowd went fucking schizoid.
Her cracked lips frame a broken smile. At least someone has something to smile about around here.
As I walk towards her, the door clicks shut behind me. I turn to see Luther Smart drifting into the middle of the room, clutching a choke-rope.
Luther is Roland’s guttersnipe half-brother. He’s a pockmarked coke-fiend with a rictus grin. Crooked as a deformed snake and twice as ugly. He’s also really fucking stupid.
I glance around for something to distract him with, and see a fat stack of cash sitting on Roland’s desk. I nudge the desk with my hip, and the stack of banknotes topples onto the carpet.
The only thing that Luther likes more than cocaine is money. He eyes me warily and crouches to retrieve the cash. As he stoops down I kick him in his bastard throat. He crawls towards me, so I stamp down on the top of his skull, hard enough to hear it crack like a box of eggs.
Leins has created a world where Tarantino’s characters would not live past their first five minutes in town — brutal does not cover the violence that lives in the pages of Skull Meat. If you like your crime fiction filled with dive bars, whore houses, and vicious beatings then Leins’ Skull Meat will be the best 99¢ you will have ever spent.