What is it about the American South that inspires so many ugly stories of sex and death? Is it reasonable to assume that there are nastier people committing more hideous crimes in Louisiana than, say, in Michigan? But if you're a writer who wants to cut loose, if you're looking to flood the world with purple prose and leave a garish string of murders, rapes, beheadings and castrations in your literary wake, all you've got to do is set your novel in the Mississippi Delta and plunk your characters down in the bayou.
You don't even need to be a Southerner to write Southern pulp fiction, as evidenced by Tim Willocks' new crime novel, "Bloodstained Kings." Willocks is an Englishman and something of a Wunderkind: "a doctor specializing in psychiatry and the treatment of addictions," according to his publicity, and the author of "Green River Rising," a novel in a similar vein about life in a Tennessee penitentiary. Willocks is also a screenwriter whose "Swept From the Sea," an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Amy Foster," opened recently to mixed reviews. Anyone who's seen the film will know that Willocks doesn't go in for subtlety or understatement, and anyone who loves a shocking, gore-drenched story of lust, betrayal and (inevitably) miscegenation can snuggle down comfortably with his latest work of fiction.
The plot of "Bloodstained Kings" is somewhat complicated, appropriate for a novel in which none of the characters, at any given moment, knows exactly what's going on. (Neither does the reader, but in the end it doesn't matter.) Cicero Grimes, a burned out New Orleans psychiatrist with a death wish all his own, is drawn against his will into a vast conspiracy and interstate manhunt involving crooked politicians, corrupt policemen and district attorneys, a changeling jazz singer, half-black, and the singer's vengeful, fabulously wealthy white mother, Lenna Parrillaud. At the opening of the story Lenna is keeping her husband, Filmore Eastman Faroe -- clever, that -- drugged up and imprisoned in a stone bunker on her property. Faroe is supposed to have died in a car crash 13 years before, but in fact he's been taunted and tortured by Lenna all this time.
"She stared at him now and couldn't think of anything to say," Willocks writes. "These meetings had changed for them both over the years. Faroe no longer foamed and ranted and shrieked in the eye-bulging, speed-stoked frenzies of rage and despair that had characterized the beginning; and Lenna no longer shrieked and laughed back, while lifting her dress to show him her pussy and torment him with pornographic inventions." Suffice to say when Faroe escapes all hell breaks loose: Lenna and the psychiatrist are drawn inexorably together; the black chanteuse joins them on the run; and common sense takes a back seat to wildness, profanity and dreck. "Bloodstained Kings" is neither good enough to rise to the top of its genre nor bad enough to qualify as a camp classic. It's a serviceable thriller with a more than usually nasty edge and characters you remember mainly for their role as psychic punching bags.