In the gritty region of Southern Illinois coal country known as Little Egypt, the Knight Hawk mine is the last game in town, but it’s the best job Slim can hope for—until a reporter turns up dead with a notebook stuffed in his mouth and a tape recorder tied around his neck. Thanks to his reputation as a “bloodhound,” Slim is summoned by the mine’s owner to get some answers without involving the media or the police. What follows in Jason Miller’s crime novel, Down Don’t Bother Me, is a clever variation on Raymond Chandler-style noir with the blue-collar soul of Chris Offutt and the wry black humor of Tom Waits.
“The Knight Hawk paid okay, I guess, but the work bit the big one and I hated it like poison,” says Slim, the narrator of Down Don’t Bother Me, the first of a series featuring Slim as an erstwhile detective navigating the underbelly of Little Egypt. The unions have been driven out of The Knight Hawk, allowing the mine to revert to conditions reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: “Hands were lopped off wrists, bodies fried by electrical currents,” Slim reports. “Heads were crushed like melons under falling rock. A couple years back, I had the misfortune of seeing a miner killed by his own trench digger. The rig’s cable got hung up in a trolley-wire gap, and this guy—we called him Putzy—climbed down to move his nip across the gap and restart the digger. And restart it he did, but he was standing in front of it now, and the machine lurched forward suddenly and ran him over and cut off his leg. That’s coal mine work these days.”
The hideous working conditions and backbreaking labor at the Knight Hawk so inure the miners to horror that the appearance of a dead body in the mine doesn’t disrupt things too much: “When they discovered that Dwayne Mays had a mini-recorder wrapped round his neck and a notepad stuffed in his mouth, someone said, ‘Well, they got one.’ And then the cops came.”
That would likely be the end of Slim’s interest in the matter but for the fact that Matthew Luster, the mine’s imperious owner, has learned of Slim’s penchant for finding people who don’t want to be found. “They say you’ve got a bloodhound’s nose, and you’re either too brave or too stupid to be afraid,” Luster says. He goes on to reveal that the slain reporter’s photo-journalist partner, Guy Beckett, is also missing; Luster believes only Slim has the moxie and the local connections to find him without further involving the police. In exchange, Luster promises Slim an above-ground job and a guaranteed pension.
A single father without many options, Slim reluctantly takes on the task and quickly finds himself enmeshed in a world of intra-familial rivalries and betrayals, big-money mining intrigues, meth-dealing gangs, and general lowdown nastiness that threatens to get him—along with his daughter and girlfriend—killed.
Down Don’t Bother Me is the debut novel by Nashville writer Jason Miller, who has honed his narrative craft most notably as one half of the Miller Brothers Comics partnership, best known for Redball 6, a darkly humorous comic police-procedural series. Miller has also built a substantial Twitter following thanks to his sharp wit and his gift for hilarious one-liners. It’s this comic voice that makes his fiction stand apart from typical examples of the mystery genre.
In many regards, Down Don’t Bother Me is almost reverently boilerplate. There are clear borrowings here from Chandler and Hammett, among others, but Miller’s gifts with language make this tale a charming and engrossing example of the genre. Slim can be hilariously crude, as when he describes his twelve-year-old daughter’s stare as “a look that would have frozen the balls off a bronze statue of Charles Manson,” but he can also drop striking metaphors, such as when he compares the first stars at nightfall over Little Egypt as “broken silver teeth.” Miller’s sharp, lively prose fills even a description of the technical process that creates acid mine drainage with verve and intelligence.
Miller also finds in Little Egypt a compelling backdrop against which to cast his tale of murder, treachery, and betrayal:
Like a lot of rural places, southern Illinois is basically a bunch of small towns knit together, a Babel’s Tower mix of rednecks, rubes, freaks, tweakers, gun nuts, and aging hippies—real hippies, not the newfangled crunchy kids they’re turning out these days—who’d fled into the dark-licked hills sometime during the bloodiest days of a war that wouldn’t stop shaping their lives and had never come out. The land they occupy is low farmland, or river basin, or rock-clotted hill country, evidence of the Illinois glacial advance of some two hundred thousand years ago.
While the story itself follows the traditional parameters of noir detective fiction, Slim’s sharp voice and the very real comedies and tragedies surrounding the people of Little Egypt give Down Don’t Bother Me a sociological context that is both intriguing and troubling. Jason Miller has delivered a crime novel with all the satisfactions of the genre, coupled with a serious, resonant subtext and the promise of more adventures to come for his offbeat protagonist.
Ed Tarkington holds a B.A. from Furman University, an M.A. from the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. from the creative-writing program at Florida State University. His debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, will appear from Algonquin Books in fall 2015. He lives in Nashville.