I just re-read Bitter Water Blues, written by Patrick Shawn Bagley and republished by 280 Steps. I am pleased to say it held up nicely to a second reading. Bitter Water Blues is proof that Bagley has a wonderful career ahead of him as a noir writer and is sure to pen noir tales that will be deemed as “must reads” by lovers of noir, and dare I say, all lovers of great books.
Bagley has created a great cast of characters within this book. They come to life as the story evolves and he really fleshes them out and allows the reader to become attached to them. Their motivations are well explained and that lets the reader understand them and become connect the story.
Joey Kotex is a former mob enforcer who has decided to forgo the life of criminal enterprise and instead open a blues bar in Chicago and live out his life playing harmonica and listening to blues classics. But when the leader of the mob family he walked out on needs one more job completed, Joey finds his best friend kidnapped and his choice of a quiet life pulled out from under him.
Joey finds himself in the small town of Wesserunsett, on the lookout for a mob turncoat who holds a sex tape of the mob leader's niece. Joey must find the tape, and kill the turncoat, or his friend will not live to see another day.
As the story evolves, Bagley introduces a wonderful set of secondary characters that are fun to read about and help propel the story forward.
Wanda is a police officer within the small town. She is happily stuck in the rut of her job, but has a pull deep within herself that tells her it may be time to move onto bigger and better things. But being torn between her desire for a fresh start and keeping watch over her parents leads her to spin her wheels and never really make a true effort to move forward. She has a nose for crime and upon meeting Joey, senses something strange is happening. Her curiosity may hamper Joey’s ability to perform his job and make a quick getaway, which sets up a great showdown between a cop with a sense of honor and duty, and a former crook that just wants to get back to the peaceful life he has created.
This small, quiet town has its own set of undesirables. Hag is the local thug, fresh from jail on a drug charge and looking to set up his own empire through contract killings. He's come to realize he needs to take what he wants and damn the consequences. He shows no mercy for anyone who gets in his way, even his best friend, Earl. Earl wants nothing more than to spend his life on a couch watching television and eating snacks that will add to his 300 pound plus frame. He has no desire to lead a life of crime, but his sense of loyalty to Hag makes it impossible for him to pull away from him.
The plot of the book begins to ratchet up as the chapters fly by. The inevitable conflict between the cast of characters feels like a slow burn throughout the book and that serves the reader well. Bagley lights a slow burning fuse in the opening chapter and the reader is on pins and needles waiting for the big explosion they know is coming. Bagley has a great knack for letting you feel the flame and anticipate the burn you know is forthcoming.
I loved the simplicity of the book. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and the conflict seems straightforward in that regard. But the complexities of Joey Kotex, a man torn between the violence that simmers below the surface and the dream of living a simple life, allows this book to have a depth that lifts the book above the average noir offering. Bagley has penned a great book and if this book is any indication, seems destined for big things in the future. A lover of noir would be served well to jump on this train right out of the station and enjoy the ride Bagley is sure to take them on in the upcoming years. This is a strong offering right out of the station.
Reviewed by Derrick Horodyski.