Vern Smith: Crime-Fiction Intelligentsia
Photo courtesy of Vern Smith
Canadian crime fiction author/editor Vern Smith does not write easy breezy digestible thrillers written for mass consumption. They're not "page turners"—in fact, you might even have to re-read a passage a couple times before you get what's going on; some may even need to re-train the way they read in order to keep up. A Vern Smith book is best read with absolute commitment and zero distractions in marathon sittings to immerse yourself in the rhythm and jive of his idiosyncratic style that crams more detail, action, and character into a paragraph than most authors can fit into a whole chapter.
On the heels of editing the Jacked anthology last year, his new novel, Scratching The Flint (out this month on Run Amok Crime), is a testament to noir's suffocating intimacy, requiring a certain stamina to be trapped in these characters heads so the reader, in turn, feels complicit. Smith writes some of the most penetrating and riddled rat-a-tat dialogue around, the intensity of Elmore Leonard with the teetering comedy of Tarantino. And you'll never look at a guy wearing a "pink" suit or a plus-sized rockabilly girl the same again.
What are the stereotypes or misconceptions of crime in Canada? Many would believe there might be little crime there, considering the stringent gun laws and relaxed drug policy compared to America. But the one time I was in Vancouver, I witnessed the results of the latter—around the clinics that actually administer street-copped heroin to users, there was a sea of used needles all up and down East Hastings where every other car had been broken into. What I didn't see, for miles, was any police presence in what appeared to be a very high crime area. While these clinics are more focused on disease control, what's worse: a generation slowly killing themselves, or living in fear with a cop on every block?
Statistically, there’s obviously less crime in Canada. And yes, even though black market U.S. firearms are smuggled in as a matter of course, gun control certainly helps, which is why the primary weapon in Scratching the Flint is a Zippo. In other words, when Canadians absolutely, positively have to neutralize someone, they often need to find creative solutions.
Canada addresses some socio-economic issues that lead to crime through social safety nets and healthcare, which, yes again, includes safe-injection sites. But it would be inaccurate to say there’s little crime, just less, as evidenced by examples of police raiding safe-injection sites then skimming seizures to sell back to dealers, something that’s referenced in my book. We have prolific histories of thrill-kill behavior on all sides of the law—another aspect of institutional failure that makes it difficult to strike a proper balance between a generation killing themselves and living in fear with cops everywhere. While I’m not a defund-the-police guy, some aspects of police work, I believe, such as addiction issues, should largely be farmed out. I want to highlight that we’ve always had honorable officers doing their best, still do. Try as they might, however, the blue wall is the blue wall, and the main problem in both countries remains: You’re not going to strike a proper balance on any of this until you change the ways our political bureaucracies operate around policing and related matters, particularly in terms of money, power, race, and—this is the kicker—influence over policy, procedure, and institutional culture. Until you do, Scratching the Flint is the story you get, and that’s a lack of justice, social or otherwise.
Scratching the Flint features a car theft ring weaving throughout. While I was reading the book, I also learned my neighbors up the street—the nicest people you’d ever meet—once had their own car theft hustle in Canada. Is this a coincidence or a common underbelly career path?
Probably a little of both. I’ve had a car stolen out of my driveway in Canada, and pretty much every other adult I know has had one taken at some point, often stripped, so it is a common caper. Plus, if you’re caught doing so in Canada, you’re probably not going to jail over that alone, so long as your theft isn’t fraud and doesn’t resemble a carjacking. It does seem like a growth industry as per high-end vehicles in big cities. Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner learned this last spring when his Land Rover, avec keys, was taken at gunpoint. Not sure how all that works with advanced locator tech, but today’s hustlers are finding a way around that, too. Fortunately, Scratching the Flint is set in 2001, when we had cruder location devices, and that gives cops and criminals alike more space in which to drive the story.
My only complaint with Scratching the Flint, is that I feel it drastically undersells itself as “examining the lowest common denominators of policing.” I felt the novel is far wider in scope than that, delivered in an often-experimental Pynchon-esque hyper-jive that might separate a new crime fiction intelligentsia from the more common old-guard thrill seeker. Do you see this being a difficult book to market in that respect?
The story is set in Toronto months before 9/11. Scratching the Flint is the novel that time and place deserves. It marks not an end of innocence, just an end of perceived innocence. So, in addition to being a police story and a journalism story, it’s a story about people responding to something they can’t put their fingers on, even though they know it’s coming. The ensuing hyper-jive paves the way for an examination of human animals co-existing with this stimuli in crowded spaces. I’m looking at how they manage relationships, both personal and professional, something the characters frenetically discuss, and what happens when things get away from them.
As for the Mr. Pynchon thing, I get that a fair bit. No disrespect whatsoever, I just haven’t read a word of his. But I will. And I see what you’re saying, mostly. Part of it has to do with perspective. I’m a 1980s-1990s Canadian social democrat on a break from what’s traditionally been my party back home. Here, I’d gladly support anyone with a credible national healthcare plan. So, you know, while being politically homeless can get awkward at Illinois parties, it ensures my work is not ideologically driven. I’m a writer before I’m anything, and I’m making fun of my own sensibilities first. That gives me gears hardcore partisans can’t have in terms of allowing my characters to fully dissect matters, because opportunities for obsessions, corruptions, jokes, and the sounds of people thinking aloud are to be found at all ends of the spectrum. And well, if you can’t criticize or lampoon whatever passes for “your side,” readers will sniff that dookie out and the whole deal will fail to suspend their senses of disbelief.
I came up in writing circles that stressed range in all its glory, whereas a fair number of crime writers—right and left, here and back home—have historically presented as strident, yet convenient, moralists (which is why, for instance, you see little support for prison writers in crime-writing circles). I feel like they’ve been sort of guilted into a mindset because much of the work did and does depend on saviors and heroes, as did and does the marketing. I understand why that is, the pressures. And look, there are certainly great savior and hero books out there. But for me, saviors and heroes make the prospect of blurring the lines between good and bad unlikely. That’s why there are no saviors and heroes in Scratching the Flint. I want those lines blurred. So, yes, from a marketing perspective, I guess you sort of worry about confusing people who rooted for Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. But that’s a good thing, too, because it will eventually require them to look in the mirror. Less specifically, everything, with the possible exception of legal inebriants, is difficult to market in 2023, so head office will be all kinds of happy with the new-crime-fiction-intelligentsia thing.
What prompted you to help start a crime imprint for Run Amok? What do you see as a void Run Amok Crime will fill considering the massive array of crime fiction publishers out there recycling the same themes and styles?
The wheels were already in motion by the time I was pulled into a Run Amok meeting in 2021. Our fabulous editor Krysta Winsheimer was in on it, as was author Aaron Jacobs. Both Aaron and I had previously published with Run Amok and, at that time, we had new crime books in the cue. The ME, Gary Anderson, who was running a fair bit of crime fiction on Run Amok Books, had decided to launch Run Amok Crime. I suggested the new imprint first publish an anthology beach-heading what Run Amok Crime would be about, then wallah, we put out Jacked. Most everyone, other than the usual suspects, seemed delighted with the 21 first-run stories we found from a pool of some 400, and Krysta’s fingerprints are all over that. About that time, Gary offered me the Editor at Large position, which essentially made me a glorified manuscript scout. Run Amok Books is still there, and the first manuscript I brought in is decidedly not crime and will be published on the original imprint. As for voids, the short answer is, wait and see. We have about seven titles in the cue and more on the way. The long answer is, I think one needs to consider that the mentality behind censoring the old James Bond novels is not new. It has increasingly permeated publishing for a while now, including the way contemporary books are defended or not, and that can get the least bit puritanical. It has also affected how new books are treated during the editorial process. That’s bad for authors, booksellers, and readers. The only silver lining is that it creates a wider lane in terms of publishing unsanitized fiction, so I see Run Amok Crime taking advantage of some abandoned real estate.
Otherwise, I’ve always said the story is where everyone else is not, so we’re looking in places most publishers are not, just as we did during the Jacked process. And no, I don’t want to be more specific. What I can tell you, after editing Jacked, is that there are a staggering number of authors—like, a lot—out there writing singular crime fiction, which is what attracted me to curation. There are things I can accomplish as an editor that I can’t as a writer, and so I look forward to spending the next little while exclusively on the dark side. We proved with Jacked that we have an eye for outstanding crime fiction beyond genre. I mean, good is good, right? That’s always the first order of business. What’s the best book we can get? That’s the one we’ll take.
Scratching the Flint is also incredibly funny, which I knew you had a knack for after reading your heist novel, Under The Table, yet I wasn't exactly prepared for it in this harder-boiled crime book. Do you believe comedy has the ability to disarm the reader to inject more topical content, like a spoonful of sugar with the medicine, or does satire simply come naturally to you?
I think what it comes down to is that my hyper-realism is your satire, and I’m good to go with that. I’ve never fancied myself a satirist, but it comes up. I usually roll with it and sort of demure. I’m just happy someone likes the book. And well, the written word means different things to different people. That’s its beauty. To split the difference, let me say that I do find institutional failure and its causes undeniably absurd—honorable incompetents could have done better—so I guess, in this case, that’s where the humor originates and builds from. I don’t think any of my books are comedies per se, but there are moments of comic relief, I think. All the way back to Mitchell Hosowich in The Green Ghetto, I’ve had a habit of staying up late with my characters, drinking with them and listening to their music. Now, their music, due respect, is not always my music, or each other’s, so it becomes a frequent foil that leads to other foils. We get to having our imaginary conversations and arguments, making sarcastic comments, whatever, and dialogue flows onto notes I can usually read in the morning. I like to have a good time with my characters, so if you’re reading one of my books, I want you to have a good time, too. Just please understand that I’m usually shining a harsh light on something. Sometimes it’s me and sometimes it’s you. And yes, I think that’s easier to take if you can laugh at your own private hypocrisies.
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