Exotic, gritty, and heartbreaking. Those are the three adjectives that best describe Court Merrigan's work in Moondog Over the Mekong, his newest release with Snubnose Press. Merrigan understands that buckets of blood and over-the-top violence are only two elements of crime fiction, so he digs deeper to produce stories that conjure up a dazzling array of feelings and take place in a range of settings that go from a Las Cruces-bound Greyhound bus to the dark waters of the Mekong river. Along the way, the author manages to expose the best and worst of human nature and to entertain readers with a collection of twelve tales in which there are no throwaways.
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"The Cloud Factory" gets things rolling with a narrative about a man who's driving his meth maker and dealer friend to the bus station. The friend is trying to get out of the business, but before he can make it, something goes wrong. The driver quickly finds himself holding a bag with enough money to start anew in a different place. While brutal and violent, this story also packs a bit of hope. It also successfully sets the tone for what follows and prepares the reader for Merrigan's unflinching style.
While all stories are good, describing each one would take up a lot of space and deprive readers from the pleasure of discovering some of these dark gems for themselves. That being said, here are a few more standouts:
- "Dogs At The Door," the shortest tale in the book, contains enough tension, fear and implied gore to rival a good horror story. It's also one of the stories that, via tying in with another story in the collection, helps give Moondog Over the Mekong a sense of cohesion and attests to its author's attention to detail.
- "Our Mutual Friend" tells the story Frank Johnson, whose real name is Axel Dacono. When Natty Elsinore comes looking for Dacono, she's just doing her job and trying to protect some missing children. Unbeknownst to her, the children are already being taken care of by Dacono and his partner, and the man is offering up the kind of pure love and dogged protection the kids could've only dreamed about in their previous situation. Since Elsinore knows too much about Dacono, he's forced to deal with her, but the woman is in for much more than she expected. The combination of emotional grittiness and down-and-out poetry that permeate this story make it an absolute must-read.
- "A Good Girl" once again smashes together violence and affection in a way that makes sacrifice seem like the only viable option. Full of whisky, tattoos, guns, and blood, this one reads like the condensed version of a very good Yakuza movie.
- Last but definitely not least, "Moondog Over The Mekong" is the perfect closer because, besides being a superb story full of cultural differences, survival, sex, and the quiet anger that comes from years of abuse, it also contains revenge, escape, and justified bloodshed. Ultimately, the narrative is also bittersweet enough to make the reader recall the fact that the collection started with a tale in which a sliver of optimism made a great difference.
When taken as a whole, Moondog Over The Mekong contains much more than it's relatively short length would lead you to think. There is plenty of brutality, but it's delivered with a nonchalance that communicates the fact that the author is not trying to use it as hook. There's also a lot of emotional writing, but the straightforward prose makes it all feel real and it never comes close to being sappy. While the elements just mentioned above make this a good read, what ultimately pushed it into must-read terrain is the almost cinematic graininess of Merrigan's prose. Equally honest, touching, and brutal, Moon Over the Mekong is short crime fiction for those that think crime writing should never be formulaic.