Hands up, straight out of the box, let me admit I have more than a soft spot for Piccirilli’s work. In 2006, I first read Headstone City which was not only a perfectly formed chiller, but also an excellent story about organised crime. I went back to read A Choir of Ill Children, which is one of the most insane horror novels – and its real horror, horrors of the mind rather than simple ghoulish grotesquery (although there is plenty of grotesquery, albeit much of it oddly beautiful and touching compared to the terrors of the everyday; something that only Southern gothic seems to able to achieve).
The Fever Kill is probably the first “straight” crime novel from Piccirilli, a tale of an undercover cop who’s finally snapped. A man who must face up not only to the mistakes he’s made on the job, but the mistakes he’s made his whole life. And the mistakes his own father may have made.
It’s a doom laden tale, with a galloping sense of the inevitable; from the moment we meet Crease, we know that his tale can’t end well. He’s a man who’s seen and done things that would have killed anyone else long ago. And maybe that would have been a mercy.
In the best noir tradition, The Fever Kill has a nightmare intensity. Emotions are ramped, and guilt seeps through the soul of every character we encounter. Of course, it is Crease’s guilt that pervades the novel most, and is finally personified in the undeniably creepy form of Teddy. This is a theme that runs through Piccirilli’s work – the idea of the man haunted by something from his past that is personified either on some higher plane or in his own mind. In many of his other books we are uncertain whether these hauntings are real or not; in The Fever Kill, we can be fairly certain that is a purely sign of Crease’s gradual unravelling. This guilt is, of course, natural to noir, as is the eventual confrontation with both its root cause and its effects. It is in these confrontations – often bloody and terrifying – that The Fever Kill truly grabs the reader by the throat.
But what the novel covers most effectively – and perhaps unexpectedly – is the relationship between father and son; what we hope to pass on to our offspring versus what we really give them.
Crease’s own father seems a natural jumping on point for Piccirilli’s exploration of this relationship. After all this was a seemingly good man who was eventually implicated not only in corruption but in the death of a young girl. Did he kill her? Did he take the money intended for her ransom? Is it the guilt over this that eventually leads to his blood and vomit soaked death on a street of the town of Hangtree?
But it is not the father who carries this guilt throughout the years so much as it is Crease himself who does so on the old man’s behalf. This guilt for his father’s actions explains Crease’s need to leave his old town and try to establish another kind of identity far away; the kind of identity that brings him back full circle to face the truth about his father, and about himself.
Crease’s relationship with his own son – a bullying eight year old with a bubbling anger he could only have inherited from his father - mirrors something of this. Crease wants to pass only the best of humanity on to his son, but with his own guilt and the very nature of the life he leads (that of an undercover agent in an organised crime family) as well as the raging fever that burns inside him, it seems he’s doomed to failure. In this relationship – one conducted long distance, awkwardly and painfully – we truly understand the messed up nature of Crease’s existence.
In his introduction, Ken Bruen claims that Piccirilli can jump genres on the spin of a dime, writing like he’s been doing this kind of thing all his life. And he has, in one sense or another, been working towards this kind of tale. A pulp paperback for the modern world. A noir novel with bite, imbued with the raging fever of the title. It’s not just a simple tale of revenge, although you can read it that way if you want. Piccirilli is an author with style and smarts to spare, and he’s jumped easily from being one of this reviewer’s favourite horror writers to one of his favourite noir writers.
The Fever Kill is one hell of punch to the gut. A smart, literate and terrifying noir nightmare, it confirms Piccirilli as among one of the best modern genre writers; an author who takes chances with his theme, character and style to deliver intriguingly complex and thrilling novels that can be read on multiple levels.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland.com, 17/12/2007
Buy The Fever Kill from Amazon.com
Buy The Fever Kill from Amazon.co.uk