Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but it’s still expected to provide some satisfaction – otherwise, what’s the point? That’s one of the questions I found myself pondering as I read the last chilling words of Tom Piccirilli’s idea of a Christmas story, You’d Better Watch Out.
Written in engaging first-person style, Watch Out takes us along the tortured ride of a narrator whose life is following two distinct and usually incompatible paths. On one hand he’s a cold, calculating killer, a “torpedo” (hit man) for a mid-level mobster. On the other hand he’s a family man, husband to his childhood sweetheart and father to twins. The paths were chosen for him on a Christmas morning when his father, a corrupt cop with a hellacious temper, killed his mother in gruesome fashion for having an affair. Our “hero” meets his love in foster care, and grows up to work alongside the man his mother was having an affair with.
While everyone around him waits for the ticking time bomb to explode, the young man fools them all by going about his work in solemn, efficient fashion. It’s a smart move, enabling him to build a semblance of a normal life for his growing family while keeping him close to one of the men he wants to kill. The other man, his father, is enjoying a king’s life in his prison cell, but the narrator knows that his time there is limited, and that sooner or later they’ll have a chance to reunite.
Piccirilli uses a cheerless, matter-of-fact voice for the narrator, underscoring just how much of his humanity was scooped away on the morning he saw his father kill his mother. He’s kind and tender toward his wife, his wife’s family and, eventually, their children, but inside he’s hollow, going through the motions in convincing but empty fashion. It’s haunting character work, and it makes you think about the empty-eyed people we pass on the street sometimes, those who seem to be carrying on with their normal lives but may just be waiting for the right cue to rampage.
As Piccirilli continues to evolve from gothic horror writer to crime writer, I’m amazed at how his voice keeps changing while still remaining distinct. Some of the lush poetry of works like A Choir of Ill Children may be gone, but it’s been replaced with a bare knuckle style that sings in its own way, and is absolutely note perfect for the subject matter at hand. You’d Better Watch Out has echoes of some of the great crime fiction being written today, and yet it’s still recognizably his own.
I chose this novella to christen the new Kindle I got for Christmas, feeling sure it wouldn’t disappoint. I was right. And it’s exciting to note that Piccirilli has really embraced digital publishing over the last year or so, and there’s a lot of good material of his just waiting in the wings.