Wednesday, 17 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: HEART OF DARKNESS by JOSEPH CONRAD


‘One can’t live with one’s finger everlastingly on one’s pulse.’

Marlow recalls an adventure to his shipmates on the Thames. Like any recollection, the story is offered through the filters of memory and experiences and is prone to the exaggeration of detail and key elements. This allows for a richness of description of people and place as well as for the cranking up of tension throughout.

Marlow falls into a job of captaining a steamer on its journey along the Congo to meet up with a renegade ivory trader called Kurtz. Kurtz is the one-time darling of the company, but his success and obsession seems to have gone awry and the respect that he was once held in has festered into the fear and contempt of those he works for.

As the story progresses, a sense of impending horror builds. Each of Marlow’s encounters offers foreboding. The chances of surviving the heat and conditions seem slim. The pictures that are painted of Kurtz offer contradictions, but unify in the danger they emit. As the time comes for the steamer to arrive at Kurtz’s camp, I felt and genuine panic and curiosity about what was about to follow. For me, this engagement is brought about because of the device of the story-teller addressing the audience directly. It’s also heightened by superb detail where all is viewed through whatever the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles might be.

The bulk of Heart Of Darkness (US) is beautifully put together. The power of the unseen and threatened is immense. If there’s an issue for me, then it’s that the journey is so much more than the arrival. Kurtz, such a giant throughout, is something of a shadow of himself by the time we meet. That which is unseen shrinks as the curtain is pulled back. This is clearly intentional and it’s more than likely that I’m missing the point, but the sense of anti-climax I experienced has been difficult to shrug off. Maybe the issue was that I was expecting Brando to make an entrance and it felt more like they’d sent on an understudy who had never really acted before.

I thoroughly enjoyed much of this one. The unpeeling of humanity down to raw flesh is brutal. The levelling of civilisation to an animal common denominator is unsettling. The conflict between the futility of life and the need to fully suck out all of its juices battles to leave a sludge that’s as dark as the title suggests. The voice of the storyteller is perfect and the images conjured are vivid throughout. The destination may not have been the one I wanted to reach, but I’m delighted that I finally went along for the ride.     


Saturday, 13 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: A KILLING KINDNESS by REGINALD HILL

My first read of a Reginal Hill and therefore my debut Dlaziel and Pascoe. Having not seen any of the TV series, I arrived with no baggage and few expectations other than the hope I might find a little holiday escapism via a police procedural.


A Killing Kindness (US) was a pleasant surprise. It follows the investigation into an ongoing series of murders that have in common the final resting poses of the victims and follow-up quotes from Shakespeare that suggest there’s an element of compassion in the killings in a twisted kind of way.

Like another recent read of mine, Ed McBain’s Ghosts, there is a supernatural element. In this case it comes in the form of a medium of Romany heritage with the ability to see beyond the concrete. Just as with Ghosts I was surprised at how much this aspect enhanced my engagement and how this element was successfully used to add tantalising ingredients to the work of the detectives.

The plot of this one is nicely put together and all the pieces fight tightly. The whodunit issue drives the story forwards well, but it was the characterisation that I enjoyed most about the book. On the surface (and possibly beneath) Dalziel is a brute who derives pleasure from being obtuse, unpleasant and behind the times. Pascoe juggles the case with his domestic life and the imminent arrival of his first child. He provides an excellent filter through which we observe the case and one that allows us to see Dalziel’s warts as well as his hidden qualities. There’s also the extremely ugly Sergeant Weild, a gay officer who is hiding in his closet while doing some brilliant work as he fixates upon finding their killer. Weild’s plight is handled with sensitivity and shines a light on the work place as an environment that can be difficult for anyone who doesn’t quite fit.

The red herrings work well, the bit players are strong and distinctive, the desire to find justice is maintained, its pace is spot on and there are elements of surprise in the wrapping up of the piece that left me satisfied.


All in all, I found the holiday escapism I was after and quite a lot more.   

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: GHOSTS by ED McBAIN


I’m a big fan of Ed McBain’s  87th Precinct novels and the truth is that the more of them I read, the bigger the fan I become. The central characters are brilliant conceptions, the plots are strong, the tangents and the humour always a treat and the police teams always manage to overcome the chaos of their departments and of the city in which they serve.

Ghosts (US) has just become my favourite of the bunch I’ve tackled. That could be because of the growing warmth I feel for the detectives, but I think there’s more to it than that.

It’s Christmas and Chanukah all wrapped up in one. Carella and Meyer Meyer take on the case of a couple of murders in a swanky apartment in a wealthy part of town. One of the victims is the writer of a successful ghost book. He’s survived by his wife Hillary who claims to be a medium, has a twin sister and happens to be the spitting image of Carella’s wife Teddy. As the case continues, there are more murders to contend with. There’s also a heavy snow that’s making life difficult for everyone and which is creating openings for Carella as he is forced to spend time apart from his family. The net of the investigation tightens and is complicated by the contributions of Hillary who is determined to use her powers to get to the bottom of what is going on. The weaving together of these two strands leads to a superb and rather unusual ending.


In Ghosts, the process of tracking down the criminals is as strong as ever. What I very much enjoyed about this one was its sexy edges and undercurrents. The book also flirts with the supernatural and rather than detract from the tensions of the tale it really does enhance the drama and the flavour of the piece.

Monday, 8 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: CANARY by DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI


‘Suburban dope has been stepped on so many times, all you smell is sneaker.’

I thoroughly enjoyed Canary (US) by Duane Swierczynski. Not only is it tense and gripping, it’s an awful lot of fun.

Straight-laced Sarie is learning to thaw out a little and succumbs to the charms of a male friend (D) at a party. She drives him to a dealer’s house which is under surveillance by determined cop, Ben Wildey. As the night moves on, Sarie is caught with her friend’s drugs and decides to take the fall. The only way out of the situation is for her to term informant for WIldey and she sets about investigating local happenings to see if she can earn her freedom without landing D in trouble.

The story follows her efforts as she becomes more and more involved in the shadows of the underworld to solve her own problem. Part of the pleasure here is watching her learn from her mistakes. She’s no inhabitant of the drugs scene, but she applies herself in the way she knows best to find solutions.

As she gets deeper and deeper into difficulty, the world around her tightens its grip. Her little brother knows something’s up and is tracking her movements. Her father manages to shrug off his love of the drink to work out why things are going so obviously wrong. D is trying to help and yet his good looks and free spirit are confusing matters. Wildey is forever tightening the screw in order that he can fulfil his lifetime mission of cleaning up the city. The dealers are all watching their backs (some more effectively than others) and, if that weren’t bad enough, there’s a leak in the police department that’s leading to the deaths of confidential informants and Sarie is quickly rising to the top of the murderer’s list.

The plot in itself is cleverly handled. What makes it work with such strength is the quality of the characters involved. Strong emotional bonds are created with them and the overlapping of the multiple points of view is seamless.

Sarie’s angle comes from diary entries to her dead mother and these allow for us to get in close and personal to her hopes and fears. This helps us to understand the changes she undergoes as life as she knows it disintegrates.

Wildey is also a fabulous cop creation. He has angels and devils in his family tree and has decided to side with his police heritage. His desire to succeed in his missions is equalled only by Sarie’s commitment to everything she does. He wants to bust Chuckie Morphine so badly that he is ruthless, yet he also has a tender and protective side that complicates his relationships with his informants and helps to make him very sympathetic.  

The energy in this book is strong. It reaches into dark and complicated places. Bad things happen and it’s clear that nobody is safe and no amount of caring is going to offer them protection. To balance the heavier issues, a sensitive touch and a deft use of humour mean there’s an uplifting quality to the work.  

A read that gave me lots of pleasure that I reckon you’ll love. 

Friday, 5 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: THE GUNS OF RETRIBUTION by ICY SEDGWICK


'He hated all the women and he hated God. He's been trying to get back at both ever since.'

Grey O’Donnell is a bounty hunter. With his young partner and mute Apache brother, he boards a train to catch his latest target red-handed. Unfortunately, the sheriff from Grey’s home tome of Retribution is also on board. The sheriff and Grey have history and it’s not of the good kind. The sheriff twists the situation to his advantage, arrests Grey and makes plans for his demise.

Thankfully, Grey’s friends help him out of a tight spot and they land up in the new town of Sandwater where they meet an array of interesting characters who enjoy the peaceful nature of their home.  

The old vendetta between Grey and the Sheriff is soon reopened, though, and sparks and flames soon follow.


The Guns Of Retribution (US) is full of contrasts - the two towns, Grey’s comrades, a pair of sisters central to the plot,  the cowardly and the brave and the good and the not so. The action scenes are nicely handled, the tension is built at a satisfying pace and there are whip-cracking lines peppered throughout. Predictable events are avoided and the spanners and hammers that are thrown into the works are most welcome. Entertaining stuff and a solid deal at 99p/99c.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

One Man's Opinion: GBH by TED LEWIS


GBH (US) is an assault on the senses.

The protagonist’s life is split into two alternating sections, The Smoke and The Sea.

In The Smoke, we’re in the past. George Fowler is leading a successful and violent criminal gang that makes most of its money peddling porn movies. For Fowler, his cold ruthless wife and close associates, the world is controlled through fear and the perpetration of enough acts of terror to keep that fear alive. Problems arise when it becomes clear that someone in the organisation is no longer playing by the rules. This heightens tensions between Fowler and the other major players in London’s underbelly and their friends of the law enforcement variety. Fowler sets about smoking out the rats from the nest and in doing so risks setting the entire operation ablaze. The story in the city is taught and strained like a muscle pushed to its limits.

The Sea is told in the present tense and has Fowler in hiding in a down-on-its-knees seaside resort. This allows for reflection on what’s been and along with this comes detailed description of the world he inhabits. Having lived through extreme horrors and lost much of what he held dear, he is drinking heavily to find another kind of escape. Though he should find it easy to lie low, he can’t relax. Paranoia engulfs him and he can’t break old habits of trying to fathom exactly what is going on in the world around him. Those he encounters become potential threats and as he tries to work out their motives he slowly tears himself apart.

The tension and pace mean it’s difficult to break away from.

Lewis does an amazing job of creating an environment of menace and perversity without ever really shining a torch directly upon it. The most sinister aspects are told through suggestion, intimidating settings and sharp similes:

‘I strike a match and light the fire. The newsprint crackles like the sound of small bones breaking.’

The finale is held tantalisingly in the near-distance all the time and the way this is done means the appetite for more is always kept alive.

Key to the psychological elements is the empathy engendered for Fowler. Not only is it easy to relate to his plight, it’s also impossible not to root for him in spite of all his dark deals and reign of terror.

This book is a beautiful thing. It’s for writers to learn from and readers to enjoy.


GBH? Great Book Here. 

Friday, 22 July 2016

One Man's Opinion: WINTER'S BONE by DANIEL WOODRELL


"Whatever are we to do with you, baby girl? Huh?"
"Kill me, I guess."
"That idea has been said already. Got'ny other ones?"
"Help me. Ain't nobody said that idea yet, have they?"

It might seem odd that when living in surroundings as beautiful as the Ozark hills that Ree Dolly feels the need to escape into visualisations using The Sounds Of Tranquil Shores/Tranquil Streams/Tropical Dawn/Alpine Dusk. It seems odder still given Woodrell’s immense skill at describing her environment and highlights the power and the wonder of the nature around her.

It doesn’t take long, however, to realise that she has every reason to want to switch off her mind to the burdens and the monotony of every-day survival.

The weather is unforgiving. Her dad has gone missing and has skipped bail. Worse still, he has put up the family house and land as security. When it becomes clear that he isn’t going to be showing up in court, Ree’s family face eviction and homelessness. If that weren’t enough, her mother has lost her mind and her two young brothers still have a lot to learn.

Ree sets off to find her father and delves into family business that no one wants to be looked at. The Dolly and Milton clans do their best to discourage her from looking and will stop at nothing to block her way. Unfortunately for Ree, the cocktail of desperation and determination mean that she pushes through each barrier until her own life is in peril.

Winter’s Bone (US) is a wonderful read. The brutality of life is told with no filters with the flair and craft of a real artist. There’s tenderness and affection underpinning the creation of this insane and hostile world. The cultures of the families involved is explored in a way that brings into play the contrasts and contradictions of their world – tradition, love, loyalty and pride sitting alongside violence, drugs and abuse.  

The characters are solid, like monuments of Ozark stone. Their interactions and choices are a delight to follow and their slang and dialogue offer plenty of flavour throughout. They also happen to include one Uncle Teardrop among their ranks, and this guy’s as well-created a villain as you’ll come across, as well as Ree who is so fragile, strong and unstoppable that she makes a perfectly rounded protagonist.

Among the things I love about this one is the way the rhythms and tones flow and drift like a distant song or poem. The plot is always gripping and the cadence locks it down tight. There’s enough here to set it up as a future classic. This is a book that won’t be dying any time soon.

Tremendous.