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The Late Review: Righteous Blood

25th Jan, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Tonight is Burns Night, so a shout out to any Scottish readers, and in the absence of anything to review from the pen of the great man himself I've decided to take a gander at a brace of novellas by Canadian writer Cliff Burns.

Righteous Blood originally appeared in a limited edition from the estimable PS Publishing back in 2002. The book I got sent to review was a 2016 paperback from Black Dog Press, containing the two novellas plus an Introduction and Story Notes by the author.

The first novella is the story of homeless man Phil, a former teacher whose life collapsed after a tragedy for which he blamed himself. Phil is "Living With the Foleys", a local family whose seldom used garage he has made his own, venturing into the house for food and personal hygiene as the need takes him, and able to do this thanks to a certain ability he has. But Phil is concerned by the way in which the family is conducting its affairs and take steps to protect them, both from outside threats and each other. Concurrent with this plot line we have insights into the life of the local homeless community, the camaraderie that exists between its members.

All of this is interesting, but I couldn't really believe in it. Phil has what is in effect a super power, albeit very limited, but all he does with it is act as a glorified busybody, sticking his nose into other people's affairs. He's well-intentioned, but that's beside the point. His past experiences hint that he could do such much more. And as for the homeless community, in his afterword Burns claims that he wanted to use 'authenticity' in his depiction of street people and avoid sentimentality. Perhaps the homeless have an easier time of it in Canada, but to my mind none of it felt authentic and bore little resemblance to other depictions of the homeless and their lives I've experienced. With perhaps one exception, the homeless people all seemed a little bit too together and articulate, as with Phil delivering lectures for their entertainment on a weekly basis. The coffee shop where they gather put me in mind of nothing so much as Central Perk in the series Friends. To my mind it lacked the grit to convince. For me the most interesting part of the book was Phil's back story, the tragedy that brought him to his new situation and I wish this had been the focus of the story instead of all the other shenanigans.

Second novella "Kept" had a lot more going for it. Maxine is the caretaker at an apartment complex, but the Strathcona is no ordinary building; its residents are all special, gifted people, who have to be protected from the outside world, and perhaps in some cases it needs to be protected from them. Maxine has a hobby that gets out of hand, resulting in a serial killer running amok in the building and slaughtering its residents, a mistake she has to put right.

This is a fast paced story, one where the action doesn't let up for a minute, with plenty of intrigue, conflict and gore, While much about her behaviour might seem highly questionable (that 'hobby' I mentioned), you can't help but like superwoman Maxine, the way in which she moves effortlessly from murder and mayhem to fixing the plumbing, her defining characteristics equal parts humour and exasperation with her charges. And the interplay between Maxine and horny sidekick Kyle is a delight. Add to that the ambience of the Strathcona, with its mysterious owners, whose intentions are never made clear and all the better for it, while the building's residents seem to hold them in awe. Those residents make a wonderful supporting cast of larger than life and equally unusual characters, such as the TV people and enigmatic Dark Lady who can affect time and space, to name just two by way of showing the tip of the iceberg. And yet for all that these people seem like harmless eccentrics, more a threat to themselves than others, Maxine's hobby is a reminder that nobody is quite what they at first blush appear to be, and for some Burns' decision to make such a person his protagonist could give rise to concern; to the author's credit the bloodthirsty aspect of her nature is never addressed, just put out there for the reader to digest and deal with in their own terms. Overall "Kept" is a fun piece, one that is rich in invention and often tips its hat in the direction of horror tropes, along the way giving us an exciting story with twists and turns of fortune, and an amoral protagonist we end up caring about, whether we want to or not. I loved it.





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