Benjamin Whitmer’s “Pike” is published by PM Press’ “Switchblade” imprint, but it’s not a switchblade. “Pike” is a homemade knife, made from an old file, sharpened with an angle grinder in some shack in the Ozarks, with duct tape wrapped around the grip. Calling this novel “noir”, while technically correct, doesn’t come close to accurately classifying it. It’s like calling Alaska “pretty cold in winter.”
Another reviewer compared the feel of “Pike” to “Winter’s Bone”, and that’s a fairly apt comparison. Like “Winter’s Bone”, “Pike” is full of down-and-out characters leading hardscrabble lives, with no prospect at betterment or redemption–and for the most part, no desire for either. The protagonist, Douglas Pike, is a dangerous man who has lived a dangerous life–running drugs, smuggling illegals, killing people. When his estranged daughter overdoses, he is stuck with a 12-year-old granddaughter he doesn’t know. Feeling guilt over being part of the messed-up chain of events that led his granddaughter to his doorstep, he sets out with his friend Rory to discover how his daughter died. In the course of this, Pike collides head-on with Derrick Krieger, a crooked Cincinnati cop who is every bit as hard as Pike, and possibly even less redeemable.
This is not a Spenser novel, with occasional bursts of one-sided violence sandwiched between witty banter and gourmet cooking with smart and interesting friends (and I say that as a big Robert B. Parker fan.) The violence in this novel is harsh, sudden, and shockingly intense, exactly the way it is in the real world. Whitmer’s style is terse, clipped, and honed to a razor edge, almost reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy at times. Yet among all the bleakness, there are bits and pieces of…well, not exactly hope and redemption, but little hints of hope and maybe a future for some of the characters that doesn’t involve only abject hard-scrabble misery.
“Pike” is a literary punch to the gut, razor-sharp prose telling a tale with barbs and rusty edges, and it’s honest and dark and compelling. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year.
(The publisher has enabled lending for the Kindle version of this book. I can loan out my copy once, for 14 days. If you want to borrow “Pike”, ask me in a comment and I’ll loan you my copy. This requires a Kindle or any of the Kindle readers for the various platforms. First one to ask gets the loan.)