Apocalyptic Poe, P.I.
Author Will Christopher Baer may have only three published novels under his belt, but they pack the wallop of an entire literary cannon. Following an apocalyptic anti-hero through a shadowy underworld of death, drugs, and urban legends, the Phineas Poe trilogy is a crime series for a world on the brink of destruction.
Kiss Me, Judas (1999)
Phineas Poe used to be a lot of things: he’s a former policeman, a former suspect in the death of his wife, a former mental patient, and a former possessor of two fully-functioning kidneys. Of course, that was before he met the beautiful Jude in a bar and found himself picked up, drugged up, sexed up, and passed out. When he awoke, it was in a bathtub full of ice and feeling a little lighter on the inside, a semi-vital part of him now making the rounds on the black market. Phineas, still slightly unhinged and none too happy at being so violated, formulates a simple plan: find the bitch that did this to him, screw her senseless, kill her, reclaim his kidney, and have it reinstalled like a stolen car part. Simple as pie, right? But nothing is ever simple, not under such bizarre noir circumstances. Jude may have hidden some high-octane heroin in his kidney hole for safe keeping; Jude’s burly boyfriend Pooh is violently upset that she actually slept with Phineas before the operation; also mucking up the works is the Blister, the nameless member of a nameless police organization who paid for the kidney; and Detective Moon, a would-be friend who believes Phineas knows more than he’s letting on. The icing on the cake? Phineas may have fallen in love with Jude, who stole his heart at the same time that she stole his kidney.
There’s a moment here where Phineas basically theorizes that all of the criminal activity that has unfolded around him since waking up in that bathtub is actually his doing, and not somebody else’s. This gives us pause, as we realize that he is not just an unreliable narrator, but an actual crazy person. Narrators don’t get more unreliable than that.
Jude is an unlikely love interest for our hero, but again, he’s an unlikely man with an unlikely moniker, and he’s certainly an unlikely hero, so maybe it all makes sense. Jude is a modernized, urbanized, femme fatale with the inherent S&M qualities kicked up a notch or two for today’s audience. This is a crime story and a revenge story, but truly it’s a love story—a sad and unusual love story that is destined to be more about that which is lost than that which is found.
Penny Dreadful (2000)
Phineas Poe’s second recorded adventure has him returning home to Denver after a year or so on the run with Jude, and although she doesn’t physically appear within these pages, she haunts the empty spaces between every word. It opens in a subset of our world that is so alien, it scarcely makes any sense until Phineas stumbles into it, and suddenly the mental patient is our link to sanity. Eve, a survivor of the events in Kiss Me, Judas who was nevertheless severely punished for being acquainted with Phineas, inadvertently introduces him to the Game of Tongues. Not quite virtual reality, the Game is more of an alternative reality, a fiction that is real only to those involved. It’s a secret pocket of our world that exists in deep shadows, with different classes and castes, missions and a point system, where the goal is to collect (you guessed it) tongues.
The Game of Tongues is just that, though. A game. But someone is trying to make it real by taking lives instead. Multiple cops have gone missing, are probably dead, and Moon sends Phineas out (or in) to learn where they have gone—primarily Moon’s pal Jimmy Sky.
Too much time dawdling in delusion, coupled with the hellacious effects of a hallucinogenic beverage known as the Pale has these tongue-hunters confused about where the game ends and reality begins. Hell, maybe there’s not much of a difference after a certain point, two separate strings so knotted together that they in essence become one. Everything melds together or fades away, and identity is so malleable that everybody may as well be two or more other people. Penny Dreadful is like a steampunk Paul Auster experiment in Gonzo LARPing, and if that comparison doesn’t strike your fancy, then the Phineas Poe trilogy is likely not for you.
Hell’s Half Acre (2004)
Phineas Poe has been tracking his beloved Jude for quite some time, and has finally found her. Their reunion is an odd one, filled with drugs and alcohol and ugly sexual encounters, punctuated with plans of vengeance. While Phineas has been tracking her, she has been tracking some others—a group of men who attacked them and raped Jude during their lost year in Mexico: a couple of goons, a slick psychopath, and a one-handed senator with an amputation fetish. Yeah, one of those.
Phineas has a way of finding himself in deeper than anyone could have imagined, way over his rattled little head, and so this search for vengeance is not an open and shut case. He and Jude find themselves partaking in a kidnapping and signing on to star in a snuff film, where somebody—anybody—could die at anytime.
Each novel in the series grows progressively darker and more interested in the grotesque, but Hell’s Half Acre takes it to the extreme, wallowing in its own depravity so effectively that you’ll feel unclean after reading certain scenes. Being a book about making a movie about real life (fictional) deaths, meta elements abound, giving this entry something of a postmodern quality—though Phineas himself is quick to point out that the term postmodern doesn’t really mean anything, some people just like the way it sounds.
The conclusion to the Phineas Poe trilogy is a startling glimpse into aspects of humanity that we can only hope don’t really exist—or at the very least, we can pretend that we don’t know they do. To quote from the text, “Anything you can imagine is probably true. And the worst you can imagine is probably worth money.”