At the end of last year, I finished reading Matt Phillips’s back catalog with “Redbone” and “Bad Luck City”. The reason being was that I had read “Three Kinds of Fools” in 2016 and I knew Phillips had a book coming out in December 2017 called “Accidental Outlaws” which I needed to get to. This should tell you that I’m either a glutton for punishment or I enjoy Phillips’s books. It’s the latter. So I was excited when I found out Phillips had a book come out in August 2018, “Know Me From Smoke” (Fahrenheit 13).
It took me a bit to get into this book as it did the alternating chapters between the two main characters thing, but the book didn’t dwell in that repetition for long. The two main characters of “Know Me From Smoke” are Stella Radney, a lounge singer with a bullet in her hip from a robbery gone bad that killed her husband some 20 years ago, and Royal Atkins, an ex-con just released from prison back home to San Diego.
But the further I read into Phillips’s “Know Me From Smoke” and saw how good it was, the more I realized that the two books I had recently finished had put me in a reading funk. I blame George Pelecanos’s “The Man Who Came Uptown” for that. What I needed was a palate cleanser before I picked up “Know Me From Smoke”, but Phillips is a good enough writer that he pulled me through my reading distress to the malaise the gripped Stella and Royal. I love malaise in my reading.
Phillips sets us in modern-day San Diego, but it could have easily been unearthed from a 1940s manuscript, not because it’s littered with noirish metaphors and similes, rather Phillips creates a mood that drips with the shadows of meaningless and crime.
I don’t want to go deep into the story but one of the themes of the story is that of being caught in the cages of society. Royal comes early to this line of thinking.
Royal sat there on the bed, his feet tired from walking and his eyes adjust to the soft glow of evening light through the windows, the way it stacked up in some places and left shadows in others. Here I am, Royal thought, I went from one prison to another. One looks better than the other, but it’s still like I have chains around my ankles. And those steel bracelets around my wrists.
He reclined into the bed and closed his eyes.
Stella, however, is in a cage of her own making. Though as tragic as it is that her husband was murdered, she let’s this one moment define her entire existence. The sorrow and pain feed her soul like alcohol and food replenish her body. And then there’s Phoenix, an ex-con living in the half-way house with Royal, who is creating his own cage of crimes to encircle Royal.
Matt Phillips’s “Know Me From Smoke” is Noir AF. I thought Phillips’s “Accidental Outlaws” was something, but “Know Me From Smoke” is something else. If you are looking for modern day noir, look no further than this book with its atmosphere of loneliness and constant struggle. I can’t guarantee that you’ll feel good after reading “Know Me From Smoke”, but I know you’ll feel good that you read it.