After reading Jake Hinkson’s Hell on Church Street and his follow-up The Posthumous Man, I just knew I had to get Jake on here to field a few questions. Mr. Hinkson stopped by to chat religion, the Ozarks and all things noir.
What kick started your love affair with all things noir?
I think you fall in love with noir because you have a noir disposition. I can tell you that I bought the 1950 Edmond O’Brien film noir DOA out of a Walmart bargain bin when I was still in junior high school, but I can’t tell you why. The plot—a man discovers that he’s been fatally poisoned and then sets out in a desperate race against time to find his own murderer—appealed to some pre-existing sense of pulp fatalism that was already in me.
In Hell on Church Street, Geoffrey Webb thinks he has a handle on things until he meets Angela, the pastor’s daughter. What is it about women in noir that just cause men to throw everything aside?
The men in noir are drawn to women who will ultimately be the cause of their ruin because they’re drawn to the ruin, not the woman. You see this a lot in classic noir. The happily married man is pulled toward a woman he knows will be his undoing. When done poorly, this attraction is actually blamed on the woman herself—which is a bullshit misogynist copout. It’s really the death instinct—a deep, weird impulse toward our own oblivion. It’s important to note that the doomed noir relationship goes both ways. In James M. Cain books, the so-called femme fatale is drawn to the flame as much as the man is. And a movie like Andre De Toth’s brilliant 1948 Pitfall is the story of a woman caught between two l’homme fatales—one a bored suburban husband, and the other a psychotic private detective. The important thing in these doomed noir relationships is to see the way human beings use romantic transgression to follow some self-annihilating urge. That’s certainly true in Hell On Church Street.
Your way of writing violence is both intense and raw – it almost feels like you’re writing very much in the moment. Does a lot of planning go into your stories?
Well, the trick is to make it feel that way. I try to hone a moment so that it feels immediate and, in a terrible way, intimate. Robert Frost once said that if there were no tears in the writer there would be no tears in the reader. I think the same thing is true of moments of horror. I have to upset myself before I could ever hope to upset a reader. I like hardboiled action-violence of the Mickey Spillane or Robert B. Parker variety, but that’s not what I’m writing in Hell On Church Street or The Posthumous Man. There I’m writing noir-violence and it should be terrible rather than exciting. That’s my thinking, anyway.
Within Hell on Church Street, you’ve got two dueling narratives. While Geoffrey’s takes up the bulk of the book, was it difficult switching back to Paul after spending so much time in Webb’s head?
Great question. You know, I don’t get asked enough about Paul. Everyone wants to talk about Webb because we spend the most time with him and because he’s such a talker, but in some ways the real moral thrust of the story is there at the end with the self-described “bad man” who realizes he’s not as bad as he thought once he meets a true monster.
Both Hell on Church Street and The Posthumous Man have their roots firmly planted in religion. Did you grow up in a religious family or community? Where did your fascination the church begin?
I was raised for a while on a religious campground in the Ozark mountains. I ate religion for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—while sneaking snacks of Spillane and Parker. I still have many family members who are in the ministry. (I hasten to add that none of them, to the best of my knowledge, are teenager-stalking nihilists.) It’s fair to say that my twin obsession are religion and noir. Thus, Hell On Church Street or The Posthumous Man.
The Posthumous Man has one hell of an ending. Did you have a hard time keeping the reader guessing right up until the very ending?
Thanks. I’m glad you liked the ending. I think your question is interesting because, actually, I didn’t go out of my way to make the reader guess at all. I didn’t tease, didn’t hint, didn’t throw up any red herrings. I just left the question open: why did Elliot try to kill himself? He doesn’t want to talk about it or think about it, so he doesn’t. Only at the end, when he’s force to confront his past, does he think about it.
New Pulp Press is putting out some of the most thrilling crime fiction today. How did you come to find yourself working with them?
I wish there was a cool story to tell, but it all happened very easily. I sent New Pulp Press the book and waited. The editor, Jon Bassoff, got back to me a few days later and said he liked it. We worked out some kinks (all his suggestions were excellent) and that was that. Jon was a sheer pleasure to work with—plus, hell, he published my first book. If he ever called me up crying in the middle of the night because he just woke up next to a dead body, I’d grab my shovel and car keys before I even hung up the phone. I sleep with a shovel close at hand for this very reason.
When it comes to crime, is there ever such a thing as a perfect plan?
When it comes to life, there’s no such thing as a perfect plan.
Outside of your two books, what do you consider the best crime novel set in Arkansas?
Well, I wouldn’t pigeonhole it as a “crime novel” but Donald Harington’s The Choiring Of The Trees is a great book about crime by a great author. Harington was the Faulkner of the Ozarks—only funny and quirky in a way that is distinctly Arkansan. And, although you didn’t ask about movies, I’d suggest that the four movies on the West Memphis Three—Paradise Lost 1, 2, 3, and West Of Memphis—form a fascinating picture of Arkansas through the lens of one gruesome murder case.
Who are some of your influences?
Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams. I’ve written under the influence of them all.
Also: Flannery O’Connor, David Goodis, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, Orson Welles, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Ida Lupino. Just to name a few.
Best book you’ve read in the past 6 months?
A Stranger In My Grave by Margaret Millar. Sentence for sentence, I’m not sure there was ever a better stylist in crime fiction than Margaret Millar.
What’s next for Jake Hinkson?
Next up I’m going to publish a little novella called Saint Homicide with Crime Factory. It’ll round out the preacher trilogy I started with Hell On Church Street and The Posthumous Man. Not sure on the date yet, but I’ll let you know.
Want more from Jake? You can catch up with him on his blog over at The Night Editor.
Want More Stuff Like Hell on Church Street & The Posthumous Man? Check out New Pulp Press.