"Hell on Church Street" by Jake Hinkson (New Pulp Press, 2011)

Is this noir enough for you? "The story of my life is I lived, I fucked up, and I'm going to die. I'll probably go to hell." Hell on Church Street is the debut novel from Jake Hinkson, who first made his mark as a scholar in the pages of Eddie Muller's Noir City Sentinel and with short stories in ezines like Beat to a Pulp. Hinkson's first book is like some unholy union of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, and Charles Willeford's The Black Mass of Brother Springer. Hell on Church Street tells the story of Geoffrey Webb, a rotund con artist with a clerical collar and a delusional superiority complex. After taking a job as a youth minister for the Higher Living Baptist Church in Little Rock, Webb begins a doomed affair with the preacher's teenage daughter. Once the local sheriff gets wind of this, he attempts to blackmail Webb into stealing a valuable document from the preacher, which sets off a chain reaction of violence in the Baptist community.

Hell on Church Street is one of the rare novels that actually deserves the over-used comparison to Jim Thompson, not just because Webb follows in the footsteps of such crazed protagonists as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey (Pop. 1280), but because Hinkson takes a risk and deviates from Thompson's iconic moulds. As Webb's world spins further out of his control, he develops a self-awareness lacking in Ford and Corey: "And then it hit me. Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I wasn't as hidden and smart as I thought I was. Maybe the problem had been me all along." Despite his perverse sociopathy, Webb suffers a genuine fall from grace, and we sympathize with him in ways that we never can with Thompson's protagonists.

Who do we hold responsible—or thank—for unleashing such a savagely psychotic, yet strangely compassionate novel as Hell on Church Street? That would be New Pulp Press, a small outfit under the editorial leadership of Jon Bassoff. Over the past three years, they have cultivated an arsenal of bold, experimental crime fiction titles - many of them from debut authors such as Hinkson—that carry on in the grand noir tradition without pandering to pastiche. Leonard Fritz's In Nine Kinds of Pain is a love letter to the seediest aspects of Detroit, with literary echoes of Burroughs and Bulgakov; Heath Lowrance's The Bastard Hand is a crack-addled ride through the backwoods of Mississippi; and if you ever wondered what a collaboration between Bukowski and Ian Fleming might have looked like, check out Jonathan Woods' collection Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem. And with Woods' debut novel, A Death in Mexico, already on deck for 2012, New Pulp Press is a small publisher to watch.

(This review was originally published January 23, 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

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