Before I kick off sharing my thoughts about the main event, I’d like to point out that books 1, 2 and 3 of the Southsiders series are all free this weekend. The first couple were published by Blasted Heath before their sad demise and the third was edited and ready to go when the plug was pulled. If you’re short of reading once you’ve finished up with Castle Danger, you might be glad you picked these up when you could get them for nothing. You might also regret it. That’s a chance you’ll have to take.
Now, Anthony Neil Smith is a fine writer. I’m a fan, as you’ll know from previous reviews. The thing that I’ve come to expect from him is the unexpected. He doesn’t do things by halves and he likes to take you on wild journeys with great plots and mightily written characters. Castle Danger, a novel with gender on the agenda, is his latest and I found myself in even more unpredictable territory than ever as the chapters flew by.
The plot twists and turns more than most. Those changes are crucial to the drive of the story and I don’t want to spoil that by hinting at what’s going on. Suffice to say that nothing is what it seems and no one is quite who they appear to be when you first meet them.
To help me explain, here’s what the blurb says:
‘When a dead woman is fished out of Lake Superior, Manny Jahnke is there to discover the baffling truth: The "woman" in the ice is biologically a man. Before he can learn more, the corpse sinks back into the water, pulling Manny's partner along with it. Both disappear under the ice, never to be seen again. Now Manny has a missing victim, a new partner he likes even less than the old one, and a case no one wants solved. Or so it seems. Manny grows obsessed with the "woman on ice" whose secrets prove to be as vast as the Great Lake itself - and whose enemies turn out to be powerful enough to keep those secrets hidden. Only one thing is certain: if Manny survives, he'll never be the same man again.’
Manny’s living in a kind of hell. He lost his girlfriend after an accident and he’s picked up some bad habits. He’s also questioning who he is and what he wants to be in the future.
He gets partnered with Joel, an ex Marine and a new cop with no experience of police work whatsoever. They’re an odd couple. They share little in common and don’t particularly like each other. The only thing in their favour is that they’re both desperate and that they have each other’s backs. It’s a good job, too, because just about the whole world is against them.
They set about investigating the woman on ice case and land themselves in a total mess where their colleagues block their way, there are political restraints and they end up feeling like the villains of the piece.
It’s a multi-tracked roller coaster. Explosive. Elusive. Funny. Frightening. And twisted.
I’ve seen mention that this book is less bloody and extreme than some of Smith’s others. That may be the case, but there’s still plenty of violence for those who seek it out and the exploration of Manny and Joel plumbs depths that are dark and uncomfortable and are pretty darned challenging if you ask me.
What I enjoyed most about the story were the technique and the voice of Manny. The story is smashed into pieces and restructured in an order that allows tension and curiosity to build. Manny’s slick telling of events bridges the switches between time and place. It’s playful and direct and points out the tricks of the narrative just as the lights go on in a reader’s head (or at least in mine). I enjoyed the fact that I was being toyed with and was happy to go with the flow.
If that doesn’t tempt you, then there’s a final bonus at the end of the book. ANS gives an interview that reflects on aspects of the work.
In short, this one’s different. Different for Smith and probably different to most everybody else.