Brian Panowich’s Hard Cash Valley

Brian Panowich’s Hard Cash Valley presents a detailed look at a number of connected incidents involving the life of one middle-aged lawman and those around him as an underground activity intersects with his own areas of expertise and leads quickly down a road to disaster. This is a crime novel dealing in gambling, drugs and death, as well as a variety of specifically murderous individuals. It is also the story of one man disconnected from his life attempting to reconnect.

The narrative begins with a jerk of an addict named Arnold attempting to get away with a successful bit of gambling. It is not advisable to get too attached to the guy, and he isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He quickly panics after having been forced to check a bag with a very large amount of money, and getting into a small shoving match with a much bigger man in the process. He finally gets it, sweating and panicky, only to head quickly to pick up and assemble a gun he had someone mail to him. 

This is a silly idea, if only because it relies on a piece of mail showing itself at a specific time, never mind such a package potentially being tracked. Yet it is an old idea that helps to set the tone as a noir style crime story. Other details manage to generally hold with reality, types of crime that the authorities often overlook and the reasons for it, taking major attention only when a large number of bodies starts to pile up.

Our protagonist is a detective named Kirby Dane. A consultant with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, Dane has spent a good chunk of his life in law enforcement of one kind or another, with the farthest afield he has moved being fire chief. He is also a man who lost much to a rather gruesome set of events, and finds them still haunting him. He gets a call telling him that he is needed at a crime scene. While there he receives another such call, this one taking him significantly further out of his jurisdiction. Specifically, he is called to Florida to help the FBI on a case. This is done in quite a rush, and he doesn’t know why he has been called in until he is taken to a burned corpse.

There are many secrets surrounding Dane. None of them are completely unbelievable, some are hidden by the narrative structure, others revealed as various characters learn about them. This slow drip of information is something more often found in first person storytelling, but it does work in the third-person narrative Panowich has chosen. The details of Dane’s trauma are dripped particularly slowly, forming a part of the emotional backbone of the book.

Indeed the question of Dane’s current family, including girlfriend Misty and her nephew Jackson, and how he can connect with them while burdened with guilt. The chances seemed high that the reader would pick up on these connections quickly, the only moments that might be disorienting clearly delibaerate.

This book is a modern day take on a hard-boiled noir story. A protagonist who is damaged but shows relatively little in the way of levity, with a set of authorities and individuals who seem various shades of gray which darken steadily as time goes on.

Race and bigotry in general are dealt with throughout the book. The confusion a reader may feel at some of the elements is understandable in this context, as a thoroughly despicable character of Asian descent comes across less as a traditional “”yellow peril villain and much more like the sadistic hired gun archetype with far less negative baggage attached. A man spews anti-Hispanic slurs while criticizing a woman of such ethnicity under the assumption she has issues with black people. It is an amusing exchange in what overall should be a tense situation, but at the same time a fairly believable one. The question of outsider status, from Dane getting called to Florida all the way to a young man’s status as neuro-atypical, permeates the book. 

There is at least one character, arguably more, who are on the autism spectrum in this book. Specifically, one important figure is identified as having Asperger’s syndrome, and the use of such a specific diagnosis brings about great risk in relation to the many different elements of such a condition. Indeed here Panowich is clever, reminding the reader through a social worker that this is a condition that manifests in a number of different ways, and works to make clear the specific interests and behavioral tics of one individual in question, which become increasingly relevant as the story goes on. The chances seemed high that such a depiction could be offensive, yet here it is sensitive, and indeed far less broad than many of the other characters in the story.

A lesbian plays a major part in the story, and she is not stereotypical in any significant way. She has a moment where this fact is played for a mix of surprise and comedy, yet not in a way which might be seen as disapproving by the author. She is aware some disapprove, but overall she seems quite pleased with herself, showing annoyance at little things anyone might and having a clear life of her own.

This was overall a quite enjoyable volume, featuring memorable characters who are drawn realistically, sporting many of the same odd contradictions one can expect to find in the rural South. The characters are rough and not always likeable, yet they clearly feel appropriate to the tale being told and believable enough. A number of delicate issues are touched upon, and most are dealt with in a believable yet sensitive manner. Easy to recommend to fans of crime novels and novels of regional mystery.

(MINOTAUR 2020)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.