Brian Evenson’s Last Days is simultaneously one of the greatest send-ups of the hardboiled detective novel and of the best celebrations of the brutal, violent, and mysterious nature of the genre. Furthermore, it’s a narrative that demonstrates how hilarity and snarky dialogue can be used effectively even when a story is pushing at the edges of its genre’s darkest, most emotionally gritty and grotesque boundaries. Ripe with brutality and the kind or religious undertones that can often be found in Evenson’s work, Last Days is a noir/horror/literary hybrid that deserves to be named among the author’s best, and that in itself is truly high praise.
Ex-detective Kline is still recovering from his last case when members of a dark sect that believes amputation brings you closer to God kidnap him. The group wants him to find out who murdered their leader. The job, which Klein is not entirely willing to take, seems easy enough, but everyone involved seems to have a secret agenda and the way they keep him in the dark makes it look like solving the crime is the opposite of what they want. What follows is a fast-paced, tense, and very gory narrative about the search for answers, bizarre cults, mutilation, and violence.
Last Days is one of those brilliant narratives that seem very simple and straightforward and then end up having more layers than a truck full of onions. The reader is dragged through all of it by the powerful, gripping prose, the speed at which the story propels forward, and a main character whose strange motivations and thirst for answers are both incredible and strangely understandable. These things, along with a list of cohesive elements that includes biblical violence, hilarious dialogue, and descriptive passages that will satisfy noir fans as well as fans of hardcore horror, come together to create the kind of narrative that slithers under the reader’s skin and fill his or her head with questions that can only be answered by continuing to read.
Evenson occupies a special place in contemporary fiction because he’s a giant of the literary realm who loves to produce genre fiction. In this regard, Last Days is a masterpiece: a narrative that could simultaneously be used to teach dialogue and plot in MFA programs and a text that all horror writers should refer to when trying to induce visceral reactions from their readers:
He lifted the cleaver and brought it down hard and fast, as had been done to him, to his hand. The blade was sharp; there was almost no resistance as it went through the joint, perhaps a slight snap as chopped through bone. The finger’s nail and the flesh and bone just below it sat on one side of the blade, the rest of the finger on the other. Borchert’s face, he saw, had gone pale.
The pervasive ruthlessness and mutilations are so well done, so ubiquitous throughout the story, that it’s easy to overlook the plethora of things the author does very well in this book. For example, Kline is an antihero stretched to the limits, a bleeding, angry, hypercurious cartoon of a classic noir PI. However, he’s also very human and his inquisitiveness, which grows with each painful experience he’s forced to endure or witness, is contagious. Also, the entire novel is the result of a deconstruction Evenson did of the mystery novel, one that resulted in him putting the whole thing back together without the extraneous parts and with improved and much stronger versions of the antihero, the mystery, and the search for answers at all costs.
Last Days is not an easy read. In fact, it is a surprisingly complex, frustratingly inscrutable, and uncompromisingly disturbing story full of gore, religious fanatics, and blood. However, it is also a novel that must be read by fans of mysteries, noir, and horror if they want to have an idea of what those genres can be. It’s also great for those who crave fiction with unforgettable passages:
In the bed, a mutilated head rode on the pillow, the rest of the body covered by a blanket. He knelt down beside it. The Allies had been dug out, the lids cut off as well. The ears had been shorn away to leave two whirls of slick pink flesh. The nose, too, was gone, leaving a dark gaping hole. The lips seem to have been gnawed mostly away, perhaps by the teeth that now loomed through their gap.
Brian Evenson is the kind of writer who should be rediscovered by every generation, and with these Coffee House Press rereleases, a new group of readers is getting a chance to do just that. Last Days should be at the top of their list.
by Brian Evenson
Coffee House Press; 200 p.