Print Reviews

High Life

by Matthew Stokoe



It’s hard to talk of a story about murder and mystery among Los Angeles lowlife (and high life) without bringing in the name of Raymond Chandler, so let’s get that bit over with. Frankly, while Chandler’s stories of hard-boiled California crime and justice served to inspire whole literary cinematic genres, with a generous amount of bleed-over into other forms of art, his groundbreaking work seems to have been reduced to just another plaque along the way, and seems downright tame in light of ear-slicing and spin-fighting modern baddies. So, while I heartily recommend his books, I have to admit that they seem like goddamn fairy-tales compared to the slice-o-life in High Life.

The book starts with Jack, our not-so-likable main character (let’s not call him a hero…), happening upon the cops packing up his hooker wife’s ritually mutilated body in a bit of remote parkland. We’re given the thinnest gloss of good dreams gone sour before we’re left staring at the stark reality of a man hustling his ass to make ends meet. Before you know it, we’re attending a live snuff show, where a hapless girl – probably not too different in circumstance from Jack, or his now-dead wife – meets a very unpleasant (very graphically unpleasant, I may add) demise.

Here’s where the first really interesting observation comes in. Since the book’s splendid beginning, it has been tracking a pretty steady descent into perversion and depravity. Prostitution, sado-masochism, watersports, straight, bi, gay, a bit of harmless necrophilia. By the time the snuff scene comes around, it’s shocking but not surprising. Here’s the kicker, though: it’s on page 100. Less than a third of the way through the book. What depths of unknown twisted human compulsion can this book dredge to keep up the pace?

Man, does it deliver. There are things in here which I’d never even think of thinking of. I couldn’t even come up with a fancy Latin-based term for them, and I would spoil either your appetite or anticipation by describing them. To Stokoe’s credit, his matter-of-fact delivery allows the proper amount of clinical text on detail, making sure you know exactly what’s going on and leaving the rest to imagination. The action, gruesome as it may be, is part of the plot, and perhaps part of a deeper message, and rarely seems concocted for the express purpose of generating shock.

Finally, let’s not forget that it is a detective novel of sorts. Jack is compelled – for reasons unclear to even himself – to resolve or perhaps avenge his estranged wife’s death. He’s got a partner of sorts in a renegade cop named Ryan, who has ulterior motives of his own and is every bit as unpleasant as the other characters here. The ending is not quite as shocking as learning that Stokoe was born and currently lives in England, but all loose ends are pieced together and our anti-heroes get to ride off into oblivion, if not the sunset, in a satisfactory manner.

If you’ve got a stomach for a bit of the old ultra-violence, and all manner of unnatural sexual custom, you will be as fascinated by High Life’s depiction of Angeleno lowlife and highlife as I was.

Akashic Books:

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