True noir is hard to find. By “true noir,” I mean the classic story of a person who is not necessarily bad, but can be nudged in that direction, either through opportunity, or forced by events. This person makes decisions that go sour, though the options at the time ranged from bad to worse; the die was cast with the first unfortunate choice. The stories are engrossing because readers can’t help but wonder what they would do in the same situation, and are relieved at the end because they didn’t have to do it.
Today we have plenty of neo-noir and “thrillers.” Too much neo-noir consists of bad people reveling in their own depravity. Bad things happen, and they’re often okay with it. The “protagonist” may, or may not, face consequences. Readers rarely empathize, because the reader would never be in circumstances remotely similar; too many unconscionable decisions were made in the backstory. The stories are often more schadenfreude than noir.
Modern thrillers often have protagonists with noir potential, but the opportunity is lost when the protagonist invariably chooses the option most likely to make the situation worse at every opportunity. Readers wonder what they would do for a while, until—if you’re like me—they start to root against the protagonist because he/she’s too dumb to be allowed to reproduce.
The Bitch is true noir.
Jake is a two-time loser. Another felony conviction will mark him a habitual criminal, which carries an automatic life sentence. (The “bitch” referred to in the title.) He learned to cut hair in prison and found he had a talent for it. He’s gone straight, married a woman who accepts his past and loves him for his present and future, and whose family has done the same. Jake and Paris have saved enough money to open their own shop in a few weeks; Paris is pregnant.
Enter Walker Joy, Jake’s old cellmate. Walker saved Jake’s life once in the joint, and he’s calling in the marker. Walker has not gone straight, lost some diamonds, and needs the help of master burglar Jake to make things right. Jake is torn, and doesn’t have as many options as he at first thinks.
What happens next put me in mind of the classic A Simple Plan. Decisions are forced on Jake that continue to escalate the situation. He chooses as best he can from limited options, all foul. Every decision is framed by the fact he can never cut his losses and turn himself in; The Bitch looms. Only his conscience acts as a governor on his behavior; the law’s position is set in stone, no matter what else he does.
Les Edgerton has written a story that is effective on multiple levels. Time and again the reader will see a new crisis and realize almost simultaneously with Jake what has to be done, cringing as it happens, not knowing what else could be done and still avoid The Bitch, which will cost him Paris and his child forever.
As if the engrossing personal situation isn’t enough, Edgerton weaves social commentary into the story without ever preaching about it. Habitual Offender laws have become commonplace, society’s way of dealing with people who just don’t seem to get the message. I had no problem with them—when properly applied—until I read The Bitch and realized a two-time loser has no reason not to go all the way once an act worthy of Strike Three has been committed. He’s already getting the maximum sentence; anything else he does to evade capture is without risk.
The Bitch is a fascinating story of how close any of us might be to the edge, where a single event could change our lives forever for the worse. True, few of us are twice-convicted felons, but it’s only the scale of Jake’s misfortune that differs. We’re all one phone call--chance meeting, lost job, medical emergency, car crash, random act of violence—away from a situation where every option is a bad one, and the most likely favorable outcome is to slow the rate at which your life circles the toilet while hoping for a miracle.
Read The Bitch. If it doesn’t affect you on multiple levels, read it again. You weren’t paying attention the first time.