Lately there have been a handful of crime novels and short story collections that dip their toes (sometimes up to their neck) into literary fiction. Out of those, Christopher Irvin’s Safe Inside the Violence is the first collection to surprise me with its approach to the genre it’s supposed to be rooted in. Irvin is a crime writer published by a great indie crime press and the book’s cover features the word violence along with a bat-wielding figure wearing a hoodie. However, the narratives offered inside are more about atmosphere and feelings than guns and blood. Furthermore, the most brilliant element of the collection is how the author manages to make you feel like you’re constantly in the presence of brutality and danger while simultaneously writing around it and giving you the parts of the story that an author focusing on viciousness would usually miss.
The short narratives in Safe Inside the Violence are about normal people and the majority of them feel more like stories a neighbor would tell you than impossible tales that test suspension of disbelief. The collection opens with “Union Man,” which follows Lem, a regular man who works in a Pennsylvania steel mill town that’s currently in the middle of a strike against management. Lem wants to do his part, but his mind and heart are with his sick son. What follows is a study in peer pressure, paternal concern, and tension that prepares the reader for the rest of the collection and lets readers know that Irvin comfortably works from a dark, uncomfortable place where everyday realities and violence meet.
While there are no throwaways among the 13 tales that make up this collection, there are a handful that are worth the price of admission by themselves, and “Digging Deep” is at the top of that list. A deceptively simple story about a man contemplating his life while his newborn cries and the snow and cold seem to take over the city, this one quickly morphs into something much deeper. Fear, insecurity, frustration, and vulnerability mix together to create a superb narrative that’s at once unique and universal. The promise of booze-fueled violence is there, but the story is really about the bizarre side effects of imperfect domesticity:
When I joined Amanda in the bed she wrinkles her nose and tells me I stink. A hot shower would help loosen my back. Like everything else in the neighborhood, the house is old, and there’s no ventilation for the shower. The real estate agent said that a century ago, people took lukewarm baths. Now, if you close the door, the walls sweat fat drops and the air thickens until it’s difficult to breath. Part of me is so tired I fear the heat might knock me out, and she’ll find me bleeding out having struck my head on the faucet. I think about this, but I don’t mention a word. I want to shovel first.
The beauty of Safe Inside the Violence is that it’s a perfect example of how easily a talented author can bridge the gap between literary fiction and blood-soaked noir. What Irvin does is write about that which surrounds the violence, the things that happens before and after it. A great example of this is “Lupe’s Lemon Elixir,” which follows the title character as she tries to do her job cleaning up the aftermath of some deadly Mexican drug cartel violence. Once at the murder scene, the tension builds very quickly and the finale is one of the best in the collection.
Safe Inside the Violence is packed with narratives in which everything goes wrong. Those going into it expecting guns and darkness will find it, but the most important things they’ll find are the way crime affects those involved in it, the ease with which everyday circumstances can become pregnant with menace and danger, and how uncomfortably close the world of crime and that of regular people really are (here’s a hint: it’s the same one). Christopher Irvin is a talented storyteller who understands that a few shattered teeth are forgettable, but that destroyed dreams, hurt loved ones, and the empty space left by the disappearance of hope are all much harder to shake. Anyone looking for crime stories told with elegance and flair should definitely give this one a try.