Written by 10:38 pm Book Reviews

Always the Dead: Stephen J. Golds’ Semi-Historical, Dark, Noir Novella

By J.B. Stevens /

Many novels are crafted hoping to capture a huge audience. These books are written with promotion in mind, a clear attempt at tapping into the zeitgeist, or whatever “New York” thinks is trendy. I believe this is a losing proposition. Books sell because they are good, or because of marketing, trends be damned. Chasing popularity is a loser’s game.

Stephen J. Golds’ latest release, Always the Dead, forthcoming from Close to The Bone Publishing (January 29, 2021/170 pages), does not chase trends and does not have a huge marketing budget. However, it is good, and that is enough.

Always the Dead is a semi-historical, dark, noir novella. It is violent, gritty, and often unpleasant. This is the kind of book an author writes for himself.

It is the story of Scott Kelly, a former Captain in the United States Marine Corps. The book is set in the late 1940s. Kelly has returned to Los Angeles from the War in the Pacific. He is deeply disturbed. Kelly drinks hoping to repress memories, but the inner violence often bursts forth. His wife and daughter leave him.

Kelly is upset by their absence, but realizes it is for the best. He opens a bar and hires one of his former Marines to assist. Kelly comes down with tuberculosis. Simultaneously, he develops a relationship with Jean Spangler, a Holly Golightly-esque wannabe Hollywood starlet. While he is in the hospital recovering, Jean goes missing.

Kelly, unwell and weak, sets out to find her. He fights through the west-coast’s criminal underbelly. There are twists and turns, but it is not over done. The story is grounded, violent, and bleak.

I enjoyed this passage:

It was L-Day, and we were kids. Fear, anticipation, dread, and expectation were heavy and wet in the air, mixed with the stench of the ocean. It was palpable. Breathable. We could feel it there moving in our lungs, in our guts, a watery bayonet. We thought Okinawa would be something like a rerun of the D-Day landings, something akin to Iwo Jima or Saipan, but the beaches were as empty as the Marines’ faces that looked upon them. Desolate. Stark. Vacant.

We drifted slowly then. The waves crashed into the bows of the Amphibs. We watched and waited, fingering our rifles and Thompson M1 machine guns in an eternal state of waiting. The beaches motionless and very still.”

I adore Golds’ mix of dialogue and description. Here is a sample:

“I held his eyes in the rear-view mirror for a long time and then said, ‘no, Rudy, it sounds like the most intelligent damn thing I’ve heard in a very long time.’

I stared out of the window at the dusty landscape, bit into my bottom lip hard.

‘Boss, would you mind if we stopped off somewhere to eat? I’m just about starved and maybe it’ll do you good to eat somethin’ too. It looks as though it’s been a while since you last ate a proper meal. What do you say?’

‘I could eat,’ I said.

We stopped at about the halfway point before Palm Springs at the first roadside diner we came to.”

Golds’ prose is lyrical. He is one of the best craftsmen out there. I expect big things from him soon.

My dislikes are slight. A few of the more graphic scenes were tough for me to get through, but that may be my personal history bubbling up. There were some firearm specific technical mistakes that are easily glossed over, but could pull a few readers away from the story. With that said, they are truly a non-issue. Only “gun-nerds” will notice or care.

This novel called to mind The Long Goodbye in many ways. As I referenced earlier, the main female reminded me of Holly Golightly. The writing style feels (a bit) like Nick Kolakowski.

If you enjoy stories that are tight, dark, and violent—you will love this one. It is beautifully written and a real treat. I highly recommend it. This book is outstanding.

J.B. Stevens lives in the Southeastern United States. His poetry chapbook All the Violent Memories is being released in March 2021, his short story collection A Therapeutic Death is being released in October 2021–both from Close to The Bone Publishing.

He can be found online at twitter.com/IamJBStevens and jb-stevens.com.

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