Ink Heist chats with Hank Early:
On a Journey to Heaven’s Crooked Fingers
If you flick back to a recent post we have a double review of Hank Early’s truly terrific mystery thrillers Heaven’s Crooked Finger and sequel In the Valley of the Devil. If you’re looking for an outstanding page-turner, which is quite simply impossible to put down, then we strongly suggest you take an atmospheric trip with Hank to the mountain regions of Georgia where both novels are set. Today we are delighted to welcome Hank Early to Ink Heist for a chat about these terrific books which we cannot recommend highly enough…
Ink Heist: How would you categorise your works… Appalachian Noir, Southern Gothic, Rural Noir, Hillbilly Noir, or just plain thriller? This type of ‘noir’ seems to be on a real literary high at the moment?
Hank: First, thanks! Some of my favorite writers – William Gay, James Lee Burke, Holly Goddard Jones, Ron Rash, Jesmyn Ward, to name just a few – tend to broadly fall into these same categories, so I’ll take that as praise. My work often edges into horror a bit, so I’ve always thought of it as Southern Gothic, but I’d be pleased with any of these descriptors. And yes, there are more and more books with a rural/crime feel coming out these days. Unfortunately, I can’t keep up with them all. I typically run two to three years behind on my reading. In other words, I’ll probably get to 2018 books around 2021 or so.
Ink Heist: Like all great detectives and literary underdogs Earl Marcus is a pretty damaged guy. Are there any other literary detectives or characters who helped you shape Earl?
Hank: I’d say the biggest influence on this series were the Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke. Dave is the ultimate damaged character in crime fiction, I think. Earl Marcus also emerged out of some obscure family history. As a kid, my north Georgia grandmother often compared me to a certain Uncle Earl (whom I’d never met) when I was being lazy or unmotivated. I can still here the disdain in her voice as she’d say, “You’re just like your Uncle Earl.” After being called this enough times, I decided that Uncle Earl must not be such a bad guy. I think in writing Earl Marcus, I tried to imagine a kind of Uncle Earl who wasn’t perfect, but was still an admirable man, and in doing so, I maybe even felt a little redemption for myself. Of course, Earl is far from “redeemed.” I’d say he’s on the journey toward redemption, which will continue in book three.
Ink Heist: The closest I’ve been to Georgia is North Carolina, but your descriptions of the mountainous ‘Five Fingers’ is so vivid I feel like I’ve been there. How close is it to reality? Your childhood memories? Small town life?
Hank: The Fingers is a fictionalized area based on the memories I have of my grandparents. Both sets of my grandparents lived in the north Georgia area, and I spent quite a bit of time there myself. The religious craziness (especially in Heaven’s Crooked Finger) was inspired, at least in part, by my own fear of my maternal grandmother’s church. They didn’t handle snakes, but I do blame that church for exposing me to existential drama that was far too heavy for any child to process. Heaven and hell were not abstract concepts there. They were more real than anything you could touch, taste, or see. I think this series, particularly the first book, has been a way for me to work through some of the lingering effects of these early experiences. So many of the situations and characters are fictional extrapolations of real conflicts that have played out in my own life.
Ink Heist: The characters who lurks in the background of the sequel ‘Old Nathaniel’ was a terrific creation whose based upon some local myth. Is this based a real legend, camp-fire tale or ghost story?
Hank: I get this question a lot, and I feel as if my answer is extremely unsatisfying. The truth is, I just made him up. I did add in some elements of a real folktale about “the hide behind man,” but really there wasn’t a whole lot of the real legend that made it into the book. He’s mostly just a creation of my imagination.
Ink Heist: Although neither novels are strictly horror stories there is vague sense of the supernatural seeped into the stories, if only through dreams, lurking in the background, but it never dominates because of the superb plot and well-drawn characters. Was this your intention to have a whiff of the unexplained in both novels?
Hank: Yes! I love the unexplained in my fiction and in real life. Before I wrote crime, I wrote horror. I’m a big fan of stories that blur the line between the two.
Ink Heist: Both novels are supported by exceptional strong support characters, many of which appear in both novels, who is your favourite? Ronnie Thrash was hard to beat, but then again, the amazing blind dude…
Hank: Thanks for the kind words. I love Ronnie. Rufus is great too, but Ronnie just sort of emerged in book two and took on a life of his own. Book three will see more of both characters, as well as delving into Rufus’s backstory a good bit.
Ink Heist: The ending of book two provides an enticing nugget for the direction a third book might take, especially for Earl. Do you have one planned?
Hank: Yes! Working on it now. It will be out in November of 2019, and I have several possible titles in mind, but I’m not sharing any of those yet. What I will share is that it explores a new chapter in Earl’s life while also opening up Rufus’s past. A lot of people have asked me how Rufus lost his vision. Book three should definitely explain that.
Ink Heist: Recommend our readers some crime/novels (or horror!) we might like to look up you’ve enjoyed?
Hank: So many good ones… Anything by James Lee Burke. I love Megan Abbott’s stuff. To me, she’s probably the best crime writer out there at the moment. I’m currently reading William Gay’s The Lost Country, and savouring every damned word. He’s one of the few writers who is so good, I just stop being jealous and completely lose myself in the story. Ron Rash is another writer like that for me. Neither Gay nor Rash is strictly a crime writer, but I think readers who enjoy gritty, well-written stories will dig both of them. Another writer who is doing some interesting things with crime/noir and other genres is Jason Riddler. I really enjoyed his first Brimstone Files Mystery, Hex-Rated. The second one just came out, and I’m looking forward to picking it up.
Ink Heist: Thanks also for tipping us the wink with so many authors to check out, totally agree about Megan Abbott, I recently enjoyed her new novel Give Me Your Hand. Thanks so much for joining us on the site, and I really look forward to reacquainting myself with the Earl Marcus story next year. Or maybe even visit Georgia one of these years!