Crime Fiction Empathy and E.A. Aymar’s THE UNREPENTANT

In E.A. Aymar’s The Unrepentant, thrill-seeking readers get all they ask for. Violence. Twists and turns. Page-turning action. But what sets Aymar apart is the light he uses to create his shadows. The noir of The Unrepentant is packed with as much empathy as it is blood. Aymar goes beyond making a reader care about his characters. He makes his readers care about the people behind the characters. Too many hard-boiled fiction writers stumble when it comes to understanding the relevance of the violence between their pages. But Aymar breathes it. He fills every sentence with a beating heart and uses the thrills to bring us all closer to understanding our own humanity. The Unrepentant is about much more than one woman’s escape from human trafficking. It’s about the need to feel human.

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The woman at the center of The Unrepentant is really no more than a girl. Charlotte Reyes is an 18-year-old runaway who fell prey to human traffickers. And when the gang who used her decided to discard her, Charlotte finds herself getting tuned up for a little trunk music. But when a recently divorced Army vet stumbles into thwarting her death scene, Charlotte gets a second chance. It’s a second chance Mace Peterson can’t really give himself.

When Mace finds Charlotte, he’s about two drinks away from offing himself, like others in his family have done. But together, they both begin to realize that their only hope is to fight. Charlotte has to fight for her life. And Mace has to fight to live. As similar as the two may sound, they are worlds apart. The action plays out against the backdrop of the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) like it’s a third protagonist. Or maybe an antagonist. An omniscient observer. And Aymar keeps us turning pages unsure of what we’re about to find next.

And make no mistake, what’s coming next is bloody and gritty. Aymar has a flare for crime fiction. My friend and fellow reviewer, Gabino Iglesias writes about the Psychogeography of crime fiction. And E.A. Aymar could be a case study in just that. The influence of the D.C. area is palpable, and Aymar captures it with a fervor worthy of all the Pelecanos comparisons. But there is an added element that makes The Unrepentant unique. And that’s humor.

We aren’t talking about the typical wise guy private dick humor of noir. Aymar brings a very unique brand of self-deprecating humor to his characters, particularly Mace Peterson. Mace is out of shape and carries a level of antisocial behavior that could be mistaken for cowardice. He lives in near squalor. His microwave doesn’t even work, for god’s sake. To put it mildly, he’s a mess. And Aymar pulls zero punches in making jokes at Mace’s expense. From Mace’s own thoughts. There is a true sense of modernized humor (the humor of Always Sunny or Curb Your Enthusiasm) sprinkled into a classic pot boiler.

The culmination of in-depth psychogeography, bleeding empathy, and unique humor makes for one hell of a book. While Aymar sets up scenes with a historian’s knowledge of his setting, he brings them home with dialogue. The dialogue of The Unrepentant is where we as readers get lost within the eyes of these characters. We know them. In this early exchange between Charlotte and Mace, we can feel the generation gap, but also that budding empathy Aymar takes so much care in creating.

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The Unrepentant works to make us examine its title. Are we all living as unrepentant? Do we care about this sometimes horrible world we’ve created? Can we continue to just look the other way? Or, as Mace Peterson discovers, is the key to caring about ourselves really reaching out to help others? Aymar has pulled off a pretty impressive trick. He makes us cringe, laugh, and, ultimately, care. Although Aymar has proven his talents for noir in previous short forms like The Night of the Flood and also in his Dead Trilogy, never before has he put it all together quite like this. The uniqueness of his humor and the spirit of his understanding of his settings, both psychological and geographical, set him apart in a crowd of hard-boiled fiction writers.

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