Somewhere in this newspaper this week, you'll find reviews of concerts and recordings by "indie" rock bands. Critics, fans, and musicians seem comfortable with the designation, the belief implicit that indie bands and record labels offer something better than, or at least different from, what bigger labels do. The same is true of independent, "little" movies.
But what about crime fiction? Why do too many readers not know that some of the world's best crime writing is published by Stark House Press, Serpent's Tail, Seventh Street Books, Counterpoint, Hard Case Crime, ECW Press, Liberties Press, Hersilia Press, and other smaller houses in the United States and abroad?
Here are eight crime writers who publish their work with smaller houses, electronically, themselves, or in other nontraditional ways that don't get the publicity indie music and moviemaking do. I hope you'll read and enjoy their work, and I hope you'll ask how you could have missed Authors X, Y, and Z. That's one way to make these writers part of the crime-fiction conversation.
Charlie Stella. Much of a crime novel's texture comes from the bits between the main action, and no one writes those bits better than New Jersey's Charlie Stella. If you like Elmore Leonard, you'll love this guy and his funny, unsparing yet sympathetic looks at mid-, high-, and low-level mobsters, hangers-on, and cops. Titles to look for: Rough Riders, Johnny Porno, Shakedown, Charlie Opera.
Giorgio Scerbanenco. This writer died in 1969, but he makes the list for A Private Venus, first published in 1966, first translated into English in 2012, and my pick for the event of the year in translated crime writing. Need more convincing? Italy's most prestigious crime-fiction prize is the Premio Scerbanenco. Published by Hersilia Press, a new publisher of Italian crime fiction in English translation.
Adrian McKinty. McKinty may be the best author out of world crime fiction's most happening scene: Northern Ireland. The Cold Cold Ground and the forthcoming I Hear the Sirens in the Street are funny, highly intelligent, harrowing stories with moments of beauty in them. The books are incidentally police procedurals, but at heart they're moving portraits of life during the Troubles, circa the early 1980s. You need not be a crime fan to love these books, which say far more about Northern Ireland than Stieg Larsson said about Sweden. The author is also a provocative and engaging blogger. More McKinty titles to look for: Fifty Grand, Falling Glass, Dead I Well May Be.
Declan Burke. There's some fine crime writing from the Irish Republic, too. Burke's novels are by turns funny, funny and serious, funny and full of wild metaphysical leaps, and funny, melancholy, and angry at the state of Ireland. Titles to look for: Slaughter's Hound, Absolute Zero Cool, The Big O.
John McFetridge. The Canadian writer tells stories with particular settings (Toronto, Montreal, the U.S. cities that wink at them across the border) but universal appeal. A blurb for his novel Tumblin' Dice invokes This Is Spinal Tap and Elmore Leonard, and I'd add Return of the Secaucus 7 to the list. Tumblin' Dice is even more about growing into middle age and facing change than it is about fast talking, violence, mobsters, casinos, biker gangs, and life on the road, though it's about all those things, too. Look also for Let It Ride, Dirty Sweet, and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
Vicki Hendricks. This is a writer who likes to jump out of airplanes. Her writing induces a similar mix of fear, exhilaration, and a sense of being taken somewhere you haven't been before. Her brand of noir is hot, steamy, sexy, and doomed, what the movie Body Heat wishes it could have been on its best day. Everyone's headed downhill, but on their way, Hendricks gives them some laugh-out-loud funny lines. Title to look for: Cruel Poetry.
Allan Guthrie. This Scottish author's novels are slyly funny, violent, noir as all get-out, apt to bring a tear of pity to your eyes, and prone to bang-up endings. Guthrie's novellas are also worth reading, and he's a mother lode of crime-fiction history. Titles to look for: Savage Night, Two Way Split, Hard Man, Kiss Her Goodbye.
Scott Phillips. Phillips is probably known best for the 2005 movie adaptation of his novel The Ice Harvest, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. The novel is at least as good, and no one looks at the heartland of America with as sardonic an eye as Phillips. Titles to look for: The Ice Harvest, The Walkaway, The Adjustment.