Wednesday, 8 November 2017

One Man's Opinion: DRIVE by JAMES SALLIS



‘He looked back at the open door. Maybe that’s it, Driver thought. Maybe no one else is coming, maybe it’s over. Maybe, for now, three bodies are enough.’

We meet Driver in a mess of blood and bodies. What follows is the story of how he ended up in such a disaster in the first place and the journey he takes to try and stay out of trouble with the guys who are after him.

Arcing back and forwards between the past and present is a complicated business for most of us. Thankfully, Sallis lays it out in a way that feels simple and means the strands fit together as smoothly as most of the rides Driver takes the along the way.

We learn of Driver’s upbringing. The way he survived troubled waters to become a leading stunt driver and a getaway star for armed gangs.

Dabbling with the criminal underworld soon becomes so lucrative that his day job loses its appeal. It also leads him into a life-or-death predicament when he ends up holding a large amount of cash that he shouldn’t have and doesn’t particularly want.

The layers work really well with each other. They have an easy symbiosis that helps to deepen the interest and to make the protagonist more intriguing and sympathetic.

Driver, himself, is a fabulous character. He’s patient, talented, intelligent and loyal. He’s also ruthless and old-school and believes there should be honour among thieves.

Keeping him company is a super cast – mobsters, writers, family and the old doctor who is able to put Driver together when he needs it.  

Short chapters and tight prose keep the book cruising along. There’s conflict and tension in abundance. Backstory is a bonus rather than a millstone and the author has his usual poetic and profound moments as he creates phrases that can resonate and hit hard if you let them.

Thoroughly enjoyed Drive (US) and I recommend it whether you’ve seen the movie or not.  


Saturday, 4 November 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE KEEP by JENNIFER EGAN


Where to start? Normally the beginning. Where the hell is the beginning of this one? I’m still puzzling over the structure and the layers and they way the pieces fit together, but it’s a welcome challenge rather than a chore. It’s one of those novels that keeps you guessing and uneasily on your toes from start to finish and then beyond its grave, so to speak.

New Yorker, Danny, arrives at a European castle somewhere in the middle of nowhere. He’s travelling light in many ways, though his luggage includes a satellite dish so that he can keep in touch with what he considers to be the real world. The weight of his internal baggage is much heavier. He bears the scars of lost potential, broken relationships, of scrabbling through the social rules of the world and those created by his deep need to be loved. Though his new surroundings are like something from a fantasy, the bricks and history he is required to navigate are solid and concrete, more so than any text or blip on his social network radar.  

He’s been invited there by his cousin, Howie, for reasons that aren’t instantly clear.

Howie is rich and powerful. He intends to turn the castle into a pure space for people to exist, discover their inner selves and explore their imagination once they’re freed from the manipulation and bombardment of modern cultural stimulus. He has a wife and family and a team of supporting individuals working for me, including a menacing number two. Their biggest problem getting is the woman who lives in the keep, an old baroness from a long line of land-owning aristocrats. She has the ghost like properties of being able to change in the eyes of her beholder and she insists that she’ll never leave her home.

Danny begins to suspect that his role is to pacify the old lady and persuade her to leave. He also worries that Howie has darker intentions, given that he has every reason to want to mete out revenge for dark deeds of the past.

As this plot twists and turns, there’s a sudden shift. This story is contained within another. The story in which it is contained has an impact upon the lives of others. Just when you think you know where you are, the ground shifts and the view changes completely.

To elaborate would spoil the surprises, but each new angle carries its own tensions and thought-provoking material. What’s important is that each strand can both hold its own while being woven skilfully together as things development and that when they are brought together they increase in strength.

On a simple level, I enjoyed being drawn in to this. It’s thrilling and engaging and haunting. At times it is uncomfortable, at others perplexing.  

At the end of it all, I was left with lots of questions. The good kind. Those relating to identity, to the human condition, to the pitfalls of contemporary life. I wanted to understand why the transitions felt so seamless; how the depth of characters were so effectively mined; and what the hell I’d missed along the way. I don’t have answers, but I’d be more than happy to haggle over them in the comments section if you feel inclined.  

Most importantly of all, I’d recommend you read the book. The Keep (US) really is a keeper, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

One Man's Opinion: LET THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ERASE YOUR NAME by VENDELA VIDA



‘Being with you guys...’ he said. ‘I’ll never leave. You know that, don’t you?’
I nodded. I had taken the suitcases from his closet and hidden them under my bed.

Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name (US) is a gem of a book. It tells a complicated story in the simplest of ways.

Told in the present tense in a first person narrative, the novel explores the inner workings of Clarissa Iverton who has just discovered that her dead father had no biological connection to her. She tells of her unusual upbringing and of the significant details of her early life. It is often in the tiny incidents that the most profound impact has been made.

Clarissa sets off to find her real father, a journey that takes her to the extremes of northern Europe.

In Lapland she’s a complete outsider, but that’s nothing new to her – she’s been an outsider for her entire life.

What unfolds is a beautiful tale. The images constructed have the ability to take your breath away:

‘I lay on a bench inside the waiting area. I slept with my purse held close to me, like an infant. On a nearby bench, a woman slept with her baby held close to her, like a purse.’

And then there’s the poetic:

‘Above me, the moon was a comma in the sky, a conjunction between days.’

Given the nature of her travels, I found it difficult to understand how the author managed to make the situations so compelling. But she did. Chapter headings were enticing. Stories were left unresolved until later reflections. The resolution of each drama led to a new conflict or need in Clarissa. I wanted her to find everything she needed along the way and the drive of that, in itself, was crucial.

This one is spellbinding. I felt moved on many occasions and now I’m wondering if I should let my fourteen year old daughter into the secrets it holds (there is some adult material I’m not sure she’s ready for, but in all likelihood she probably is). I reckon if I can persuade her to go along, the power of the read will stick with her forever. If it goes to plan, I’ll hold it in reserve for my other kids when the time is right.  

One slight niggle for me is the final chapter. In some ways the ending didn’t seem to fit. In others, it was perfect and was everything I wanted it to be. Which is why this is perfect book group material – if you take it on, invite me along – I’d love to know how you found the climax.


Wonderful. 

Saturday, 23 September 2017

One Man's Opinion: CASTLE DANGER by ANTHONY NEIL SMITH


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.

Friday, 8 September 2017

And Then There Were Three...



BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX 

Two Edinburgh PhD students head to the Phoenix Festival to sell legal highs. When a friend discovers that their Horn-E pills are poison, he faces a race against the clock to make sure that nobody comes to any harm.

To complicate matters, the drugs were paid for with a loan from Edinburgh’s infamous Tony Fish. If they don’t have the cash to straighten their debt, there’ll be nowhere for them to hide.

Jesse Garon’s obsession with Elvis Presley may be as strong ever, but as his hormones kick in he’s finding he has more in common with Jake Bugg. Jesse’s hoping that a weekend at the Phoenix Festival to see his new hero might thaw his girlfriend’s mood and allow him to take their relationship to the next level. Failing that, the Horn-E pills they’re selling on the strip might be perfect for the job.

A tale of star-crossed love, tangled webs, gangsters, bloody men and a dog called Brandy.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE CON MAN by ED McBAIN


‘You want me to follow him?’ The cabbie watched Teddy nod, watched the door of Donaldson’s car slam shut, and then watched as the sedan pulled away from the kerb. The cabbie couldn’t resist the crack.
‘What happened, Lady?’ he asked. ‘That guy steal your voice?’

The Con Man (US) was my latest visit to the 87th. I felt at home, as I increasingly do in these books, and very much enjoyed the read.

Essentially, we get to watch some of the con men of the city go about their business. Some are in it for the short con. Some have far more sinister intentions, like the man responsible for the appearance of a floater in the river whose tattoo of a heart is about her only distinguishing feature.

Much as I liked the story, it’s far from being my favourite.

I was trying to work out why that might have been. The usual ingredients are here, after all.

My biggest issue with this one is the amount of authorial intrusion. For me it slipped from being part of the voice to getting in the way. I guess this is a difficult balance to find and others may take it as simply being McBain’s style. Whilst I understand that, it rubbed me up the wrong way on this occasion.

The cons were also disappointing. Knowing what was about to play out detracted from the stings and took away some of the romance I usually associate with the occupation.

A final niggle was Teddy Carella’s involvement in the case. I love the couple individually and as a pair, but having Teddy so directly in Steve’s work doesn't feel right. This may be more that she also became central to the Cop Hater case as it reached its climax than anything and it seems early for her to be right back in the thick of things.

Highlights for me centred around the tattoo parlour of Charlie Chen. It’s here and in her thoughts on getting some art work of her own that Teddy shines. There’s also some great description of the lab work and the murder cases are engaging as ever.


Would I recommend The Con Man? Course I would. It’s good stuff. Will I be pleased to move on the next novel in the series? I’m already looking forward to the read and have it cued up for a rainy day. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Dancing With Myself: AIDAN THORN Interviews AIDAN THORN




Dancing with myself: An interview with Aidan Thorn by Aidan Thorn

It’s a sunny afternoon in Southampton and Aidan Thorn has decided to turn up to this interview in his underpants - as chance would have it so have I. We’re sat in Aidan’s living room sharing a pint glass of water. The sun has just set on the August bank holiday weekend and Aidan’s far too old for what he got up to during the course of it, he’s a little tired and grouchy which matches my mood perfectly. Neither of us really wants to be here but it was the only free slot in the diary that we could both make work so here we are.

A month or so ago Aidan released a story collection called Tales from the Underbelly (US) and so I’m going to find out what that’s all about and maybe, if we’re both in the mood, I’ll ask him some other stuff about writing too.

For those few (cough) people that don’t know do you want to tell the readers a little bit about yourself and your writing background?

What do you want? I like football, tennis, music and films? That sort of thing?

No, tell us about you

There’s really not much to say. I’m a couple of months shy of my 38th birthday, born and raised in Southampton, England and I remain there to this day. In my younger days I had a few half hearted (and that’s probably over-egging the effort) attempts at putting bands together, I dropped out of University, got myself a real job and have been lucky enough to work for an organisation that put me back through Uni a couple of times and gave me a great career doing something I love.

That said, the creative part of me always felt like an itch that I needed to scratch and so in 2008 on my first holiday to the USA I started plotting out a book idea in my head. I’m a terrible traveller and when I’m in a different time zone I rarely sleep, I only had one book with me and it was shite. So, I got out of bed and started sketching out an idea for a novel on a hotel logo headed notepad. Elements of those scribblings did eventually see the light of day in the 2015 release of my first novella, When the Music’s Over – but only elements of it. Turns out writing a novel isn’t as easy as I thought it would be and I made a right old meal of it. I decided that by way of practice I’d write a few short stories and see how they went. Turns out it went OK, my first ever attempt was published by Byker Books in their Radgepacket series and then I had story after story published online and in collections and for a while I forgot about trying to write a novel. I was enjoying the near instant recognition and reaction to stories I was putting out through various channels. But eventually I did complete a novel, Last Request. It was a decent story, but the writing was clearly in need of a polish and I was unsuccessful in trying to get it published, so I kept plodding away with the short stories until I came across Number 13 Press who were publishing great novellas and so I dusted off Last Request, trimmed it to novella length, sorted out the clunky writing, changed the title and in Sept 2015 it was published as When the Music’s Over. It got a great reaction, I knew the story was decent and once it was polished up I knew it would do OK, and the reviews have proven that to be the case.

So you’ve never written a novel then?

Well I have, but I cut it back to make it a novella

That’s a no then

I suppose so

Short stories have become your thing really and that’s basically what Tales from the Underbelly is right, a short story collection?

Yes and no. It’s a collection of stories of varying length, from very short to novella length that are all linked by characters. The whole thing revolves around two rival gangland bosses, Tony Ricco and Jimmy O’Keefe, but it’s not so much about them as the people whose lives they touch. Some of these people interact with them willingly, some by horrible accent and some don’t even know that they’re involved with them but have to deal with the consequences of their presence in their lives.

So, it’s a short story collection then?

Depends on your perspective I suppose, would you call Pulp Fiction a short story collection?

Oh behave, you’re not seriously comparing your work to Pulp Fiction are you?

I’m not making any comment on the quality of the work here, more the format. In Pulp Fiction everything that happens does so around or because of the mysterious Kingpin figure of Marsellus Wallace, he’s not in all of the scenes, and not all of the characters or stories in that film are linked but the thread that holds it all together is Wallace. In Tales from the Underbelly it’s Ricco and O’Keefe’s enterprises that weave the thread between the scenes that unfold. For me Tales from the Underbelly is more like a collection of linked scenes and stories that tell a bigger story about a criminal underworld, than a simple short story collection. That said, each story stands alone, but if you read the whole thing you’ll hopefully find it more satisfying that a standard collection of tales lumped together to make a book.

You self-published this collection, seem a bit sure of yourself, who are you to say people will want to read what you put out?

That’s a fair question, but strictly speaking I didn’t self publish this. The stories in Tales from the Underbelly have all been published before in various collections and ezines. I just put them together into something that makes the whole thing link up. That said, a lot of people are self publishing these days and whilst there is some absolute shite out there some of the best work I’ve read in recent years has been self published. Sadly I haven’t had a lot of time to read this year but two of the best books I’ve read were self published, one by Robert Cowan (The Search for Ethan) and the other by Ryan Bracha (After Work Call). When I first got into writing I thought self publishing was bullshit but guys like Bracha and Cowan and many more have proven me wrong, it’s just a way of getting work that probably wouldn’t be picked up by mainstream publishers out for an audience that’s looking for something different from the run of the mill stuff you’ll see on the shelves and for me that can only be a good thing – as long as the quality is good.

Tales from the Underbelly is done now so what are you working on right now?

Right now, nothing. I haven’t really written an original word in 2017. It’s been a very strange year, I’ve been very busy in the real world and so writing has taken a back seat. I hope to get back to it again one day, but at the moment it’s just not happening for one reason and another. That said I do have another novella, Rival Sons that I finished on the last day of 2016 that I’m hoping to find a home for soon. I spent what spare time I had in the first half of 2017 tidying that up with edits and writing a synopsis getting it ready to send out to publishers – I’ve had a couple of nibbles on what I’ve sent out so far, so I have my fingers crossed that something might come of it, but I’m not holding my breath – never a good idea in this game.


Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Aidan now go and put some clothes on


Oh, you’re one to talk

Sunday, 27 August 2017

One Man's Opinion: COLD LONDON BLUES by PAUL D BRAZILL






'If the viewing public have any taste at all, 'Roman Dalton - Werewolf PI' will be a smash hit.'

It's a bank holiday. You're looking for something to read. You probably want something that's a little different. A book that will entertain as much as it thrills. If it's a bargain, so much the better. 

Well here's one that will tick your boxes and tickle your fancy.

Cold London Blues has an elongated title - Ealing Comedy meets Pulp Fiction and has a love child. I honestly think that says it better than I could by filling the page. 

The humour is everywhere, from the scenes and situations to the crazy pun-filled dialogue. Laugh-a-minute is what it is. It's also a good yarn. 

The grit is also there aplenty. It's a crime novel and a rather brutal one at that. What's unusual is the way the violence is often so matter-of-fact. It comes at you when you least expect it and is handled with deadpan weight.

And the characters? You'll not see the likes of these very often, not unless you pick up another Paul D Brazill. You'll encounter one of the most unusual coppers in fiction as you read. 

If you need your copy right now while you lie on a beach with the sun warming your skin, the kindle (US) version's for you. If you can wait a little longer, then the paperback's where the deal is - £2.84 ($1.89) brand new, which is just ridiculous. 

Now pick up a copy and enjoy the rest of your weekend. 

Monday, 31 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: FATBOY by PAUL HEATLEY



Joey’s wife has gone. She’s taken his son with her to live with her parents at the nice end of town. Joey’s drink problem and a short fuse mean it’s unlikely that she’s coming back and so Joey sinks back into the bottle and to his dull job tending bar in an establishment where there’s more on the menu than just booze. His only friend is prostitute, Lynne, and her time is often taken by the fat boy of the title, an arrogant racist who has money to burn.

Joey does his best to patch things up with his ex, but her resolve is strong and there isn’t a clear way for him to win her back. The problem for Joey is that his heart and his hope won’t give up. The only motivation he has in the world is to get back together to be with his son and the only way he can think of that might make that possible is for him to get hold of a large amount of cash.

Given that it’s unlikely he’s going to get a big pay rise anytime soon and that the tips will never take him to where he needs to be, he constructs a plan with Lynne to extract money from Fatboy and his family. Because the plan is driven by desperation, you can see that it’s unlikely that it will come off, but you can’t help rooting for the guy even so.  

The action plays out well and the tension is ratcheted up in just the right way. I won’t go into detail, but will point out that there’s a terrific mode of departure from the world for one of those involved. The finale is a beauty and brings a sobering reality to proceedings – you might want tissues here.

Fatboy (US) is a solid novella with a really satisfying pace and rhythm. The dialogue crackles along and the settings are brutally bleak. The characters are fleshed out and Joey himself walks the tightrope between being hateful and sympathetic with an uneasy balance. There’s also a great cameo in the form of bar owner Patrick O’Donoghue, a tough guy of the granite variety with a philosophical outlook, whom I would have liked to see more of.


A cracking noir. 

Friday, 28 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE FRIEND OF MADAME MAIGRET by GEORGES SIMENON



Following an anonymous tip-off, human teeth are found in the incinerator of a bookbinder in Paris. It’s puzzling given that the bookbinder and his wife spend all of their time together and that the victim remains unidentified.

To complicate matters further, and to add sprinkles to the icing on the cake, Madame Maigret becomes directly involved. While waiting for a dental appointment, a woman she has befriended on the square disappears to leave Maigret’s wife in charge of a child. Following on from this event, Mme Maigret plays detective for a while and her close observational skills are crucial in finally cracking the case.

A further layer of complication is added by an ambitious young defence lawyer who is publicly taunting Maigret about his investigation and another still in the way Jules handles a wet-behind-the-ears detective with almost paternal kid gloves.

Put all of this together and you have a recipe that’s entirely successful.


The Friend Of Madame Maigret (US) is a very stylish episode that shines a bright light on Maigret’s personal life. The piece is finished with a cherry of a twist in the form of the final sentence of the book.   

Sunday, 23 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: MAIGRET IN COURT by GEORGES SIMENON




Before my thoughts on another Simenon marvel, I want to let you know that my novel, The Shallows (US), is free for kindle just now. It’s not up to the master’s standards, but I believe it’s worthy of your attention.

Maigret returns from holidaying in Meung-Sur-Loire having bought a retirement home with his wife. The thought of coming to the end of his career and leaving Paris makes him uncomfortable, as does the case he arrives in court to report on. The courtroom situation is thoroughly engrossing. Maigret goes into detail about the events from months earlier when an old lady and four-year-old girl were murdered with the woman’s life-savings being stolen.

In the dock sits Gaston Meurant. He’s a fine man who is doing the best to make a go of life and is easily contented by his simple life. The charge of murder came about after another of Simenon’s anonymous tip-offs entered the ring and another blue suit with bloodstains became crucial to the case.  After Meurat explains that he wasn’t the killer, his life is turned upside down when evidence relating to his wife confirms that she has been having a number of affairs over the years.

There are sneaky goings-on with slippery lawyers behind the scenes and the verdict allows for a new situation to be played out.

Maigret deploys his men to follow and probe Meurat wherever he goes. They end up in Toulouse where a thrilling climax is set up and played out.

There’s a question, in the end, about Maigret’s participation in the case and of his interpretation of justice. One senses that if he has any blood on his hands, it’s washed off easily before he takes another lunch with his wife.

This carries power because of the feelings whipped up for poor old Meurat and because the knowledge is there from the start that the conclusion is likely to be messy no matter how the cards fall upon the table.

First class.


Maigret In Court is available here.

Friday, 21 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: A MAN'S HEAD by GEORGES SIMENON


I read three Maigret novels while I was in France at the beginning of the month, each of which provided me with lots of the mood and atmosphere I was after. None of them disappointed, but they did vary between good and great.

I’ll start at the good end of things with A Man’s Head (US).

In this one, Maigret stakes his career on his instincts and arranges the escape of a prisoner from death row. The idea is that by following the prisoner, the true facts of the murder case concerned will come to light. Things don’t go entirely to plan when the prisoner ends up falling asleep for most of his first day of freedom.

Maigret hangs around in a bar full of well-to-do travellers from around the world to get his head round the murder. In doing so, he encounters a young man who taunts and goads the chief inspector by hinting that there is more to the case than has been understood thus far and that Maigret is unlikely to put the pieces of the puzzle into place.

This had echoes of Crime and Punishment as the elements of guilt drive the culprit to their downfall, yet it lacks a crisp punch or any real sense of weight. The strong opening loses some momentum and the conclusion, though almost perfectly dark, misses a beat or two.

My favourite section here was the insight into the backrooms of the Palais De Justice and the detailed obsessive forensic work of Moers.

Well worth a read, as always, but not top of the form.


While I’m here, I’ll point out that readers can pick up a very different kind of mystery story for free today . Recluse (US) looks at a creative genius during the sixties and the high cost of that free love. 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: DIE OF SHAME by MARK BILLINGHAM



Here’s one that made it onto the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year long list. It may not have made the cut into the final 6, but it was certainly a worthy contender.

For personal reasons, it took me a while to get into the spirit of this one. I spent seven years visiting hospital on a weekly basis to attend group therapy sessions. They were hard years and being reminded them of some doors that I prefer to keep shut. It meant that to watch another group working through their issues with their own sets of boundaries and dynamics wasn’t easy.

During my own therapy years, it occurred to me from time to time that the closed group setting of the situation would be perfect for a crime novel. Mark Billingham’s novel proved me right on that point and he’s written a far better piece than I would have managed in the process.

Die of Shame (US) explores many facets of life and death, with addiction taking centre stage. Here we have a group meeting weekly in North London. The tensions and alliances between the clients and the therapist are slowly revealed and then constantly reset while we get to know them. The therapist has his hands full when it comes to keeping his charges straight. His hands are also when it comes to keeping his family, a distant wife and an out of control daughter, afloat while dealing with his own drug fuelled past and his addictive nature.

When one of the group members is murdered, the police get involved and put pressure on all the survivors in turn, hoping to get them to break the rules of confidentiality and the trust that they’ve built up over time. Nicola Tanner is the DI charged with solving this one and the addiction aspect of the case resonates with her own personal life. Her sidekick, Dipak Chall, is a wonderful creation and I’d be more than happy to spend time with this pair in the future.

There’s a whiff of Agatha Christie to this one which is even flagged by the author. The list of suspects is finite, the group setting closed and each has their own motivation for getting rid of the victim, whether that’s being too close, blackmail, hatred or simply the crossing of boundaries. Billingham keeps the pot simmering for each of them as the information is slowly and expertly revealed. As the climax is reached, the interplay and the conclusion are perfectly handled.


I really enjoyed spending time with another group and reckon you will enjoy doing the same if you give it a go, regardless of your own personal experience. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE CARTEL by DON WINSLOW


I chose Don Winslow’s The Cartel (US)to take as a holiday read with every confidence that it was up to the job. Its reputation is huge and, weighing in at 600 plus pages, it seemed big enough to keep me busy. We left on Saturday lunchtime and the book was finished before lunch on Wednesday. I think that says a lot about the book. It’s been a great companion and was responsible for some very late nights. I also got to work out by carrying my copy down to the Med and back, so it wasn’t just an emotional workout.

The scale of The Cartel is huge. It follows a feud between US agent Art Keller and the super-powerful drug king Adan Barrera as each tries to pin each other down. This battle forms the body of the plot, but there are many tentacles leading from there. Key characters are introduced and within pages of meeting them we have their complete history nailed and understand their connections and motivations. There are journalists, politicians, agents, beauty queens, lovers, fighters, killers, soldiers, doctors and prostitutes among them and each plays their part with distinction.

There’s something circular about the way the story travels. Eras are defined by political intrigue, and violence. Body counts are listed. Torture and murders are graphically described. Negotiations and double-dealings map out treachery and devious intention. Like the Cartels, the cycle is relentless and seems unbreakable. As a reader, I became immune to the brutality of it all and if this was a deliberate attempt by Winslow to demonstrate how easily people can become numbed into submission by utter barbarity then he was totally successful. This, in some ways, made the journey a little tricky. At certain points, the prospect of another repeated history was rather uninviting. Overcoming that sense of déjà vu was always worth it, however. None of the plotlines lead to cul-de-sacs (although there a plenty of dead ends, I can assure you) and the author is skilled at bringing things to an emotional boil just when that’s required.

The plot here is huge. The characters are enormous – you could probably write a PhD on each, though you don’t necessarily always feel the warmth of their blood or the rate of their pulse. The sense of history brings added weight. Some of the detail feels unnecessary, but I believe that others will relish these elements of over-description. The world with the pages is total chaos – Hell, perhaps. The worst part of the whole piece is that it’s all so bloody real. The book is dedicated to journalists murdered or disappeared in Mexico during the decades covered by the novel and the list goes on forever. That speaks volumes about the world Winslow has fictionalised with such power.

And is it purely coincidence that a writer named Don has written a piece with the fingerprints of The Godfather all over the keyboard? Methinks not.  


Thanks Mr Winslow for the experience and the education.    

Sunday, 25 June 2017

One Man's Opinion: RACE TO THE BOTTOM by CHRIS RHATIGAN


‘The scene looped in his head. He resisted at first, then let go until it became the background to his insomnia. He thought that maybe through constant remembrance he could remove himself from the situation, like it would be a clip from an old movie.
No such luck.’

Roy wakes up with a hangover. It’s not just any hangover either. It’s probably the best described one I’ve come across.

All he wants is to lie still and let the pain wash over him until it becomes reduced to the constant hum of discomfort, only his girlfriend isn’t going to let him do that. Instead she’s going to kick him out onto the streets. We can’t be sure why she’s doing this, but can be pretty confident he deserves it. We can also be pretty certain that this is about as good as it’s going to get for Roy, for it’s unlikely good fortune is ever going to shine upon him.  

The only person he has left to turn to is Banksy. Banksy’s another waster. A dope sucking, computer game addicted drug pedlar who’s too lazy to do any deals. He’s so low, he’s even going to charge his only buddy rent to let him sleep on the couch.

Off they go to a nightclub. It’s thirsty work and Roy hits the drink in the same hard way he has to every day to keep functioning. And bad things happen.

This is a wonderful story, told with skill and the confidence to be uncompromising at every turn.
Roy’s no angel. In fact, Rhatigan throws so much of the man’s crap at you that he should be utterly despised. Thing is, I kind of like him. It’s difficult not to be sympathetic to a guy who just wants to get through life with a drink in his hand and with a few smokes without hurting anyone along the way. His daily battle with the mundane routines of his job at the Bullseye store is brilliantly told and I doubt there’s anyone out there who had done a crappy job or one they’re stuck with who won’t recognise his pain and won’t blame him from wanting to escape in any way he can.

The twists and turns of Roy’s life as it circles the plughole are hypnotising. There’s no way he can avoid that gravitational force pulling him downwards, but it’s great watching him try.

A cop named Walsh adds a good deal to this story. He’s a fantastic creation and if there was a new detective I wanted to read more about, this guy would be the one. He wouldn’t play things by the book and there wouldn’t be a cliché in sight.


Race To The Bottom (US) is another Chris Rhatigan book to treasure. It’s scary how good the guy’s writing is and how it improves by notches with each new work. It’s also difficult to imagine the kind of aces he’ll be pulling from his sleeve in years to come. How wonderful it is to have such fiction to look forward to.  More please. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE PUSHER by ED McBAIN



The Pusher (US) is another cracking read in the 87th Precinct series.

Steve Carella is back from honeymoon. A junkie meets an untimely end and the manner of his departure is suspicious enough to suggest something other than suicide. There’s a syringe next to the corpse, but the body is also hanging by the neck and the two things don’t fit easily together.

Enter Lieutenant Byrnes, the head of the force. As he delves into the murky world of drug dealing, he is informed by anonymous source that his son is not only a junkie, but that his fingerprints will be found on the syringe left next to the corpse found at the opening.

These two strands mingle throughout, offering the usual balance between police work and personal lives that makes McBain’s stories so well-rounded and engaging.

This one has a massive incident. It came at me as a total surprise and had me reeling. It also has a beautiful chapter about Carella’s main informant, Danny Gimp, so bitter-sweet that if it were a marmalade it would be my favourite.

There’s the usual quick and easy ending to the investigation that’s satisfying even though it shouldn’t be and a personal ending that would grace the finest novel.

If there’s a flaw, it’s the more-exaggerated-than-usual issue with point of view, but it’s part of the style and almost an element of the charm.

Throw in an afterward by the author that leaves you wondering what might have been and The Pusher’s a total winner.     


Awesome.

Friday, 9 June 2017

One Man's Opinion: DARK HAZARD by W R BURNETT



FAST MONEY!
FAST DOGS!
FAST WOMEN!

I’ll start by putting this into context. Thirty years or more ago, my brother and I got into gambling. We tried lots of different approaches. Among them was a foolproof system of betting on the dogs. I’d drop Geoff down at the track, he’d spend a night watching Bugsy spinning around the arena and we’d count our winnings. Except they were rarely winnings now I come to think of it, which I guess made us the fools. In later years, I got into visiting Walthamstow, a stadium that was beautiful in itself and had pictures up in the bar of a visit by George Raft from way back. I can also remember being down at a bookie’s in Kentish Town feeling flush after a fair win one night after work. When the cash was gone, I went to my savings account and took out the last five pounds I had in the world (pretty low times now I can reflect on them). I put the fiver on the likely one-two-three and what do you know? They only came in and netted me a fair stash. Several hundred pounds as I recall. Needless to say it was all gone by the end of the week and I had to move out of my flat. I’m leaving my tale of woe right there. It’s no wonder that when I see all the gambling adverts on the TV or plastered over the waistcoats of snooker players and the like that I feel despair. In case you’ve ever wondered where the companies get their huge advertising budgets, I’ll point you in the direction of the punters.

I mention that to explain why Dark Hazard had so much appeal to me. On the front cover ‘The raw, brutal novel of a man’s fight for a slice of the billion dollar greyhound racing sport.’ Of course I was going to be interested.

Being interested in a subject is never enough to make a good story, however. We all know that there’s so much more to fiction than that.

So here are some of the reasons I absolutely loved this one.

Every chapter is full of drive and energy. The protagonist is always on the edge and the next pitfall lies just around the corner. None of the holes feels like a contrived piece of digging, it’s just the way Jim Turner is made. We know he can’t resist a detour from his dreary existence, not matter how hard he tries to keep life straight.

Jim has everything to lose and he’s such a great creation that the idea of him putting his world into jeopardy leaves a reader in a state of almost constant anxiety.

The murky world of the dog track and all its characters is a delight to hang around in.

The alternative Jim has to a life of excitement and flowing juices is one of the steady and the mundane. Settling into a place where respectability is the main goal and religion provides the fuel for existence is a suffocating prospect.  

The writing is tight as hell. Dialogue uses just the words it requires. The sentences are mainly spare, yet there is still room for insightful observation and detailed description. Each environment comes to life in all its dimensions, yet this is never presented as clutter. There's no more or no less than is needed.

And Dark Hazard. He’s the star of the show. A sleek black dog who goes about life with no fuss or frills. He’s talented, beautiful and fragile. It’s no wonder Jim falls head over heals for him and no surprise that in his obsessive way he’ll do practically anything to get to own him.

Loved this one. The time and place are perfect for such stories to be told and the quality of the story telling is about as good as it gets.


Champion. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE WHITES by RICHARD PRICE


Pavlicek was nearly big enough to have his own zip code.

Billy Graves once belonged to a tight-knit group of police officers who ruled the roost in their neighbourhood and used a range of methods to burn through the criminal community. The bonds that were formed in the foundry of their youth are all but unbreakable and still tie them together years after many of them have moved on from the force.

During their time fighting crime with a ruthless zest for justice and control, there were the ones that got away – The Whites (US) of the title – and we meet one of them at Penn Station, stabbed in an early morning attack with no witnesses to tell the tale.

Billy and the gang seem to be on a roll as lots of their whites are meeting their ends, a coincidence that Billy can’t help but look at and try to fathom.

As he tries to put the pieces together, someone out there is threatening the fabric of his world. Threats against his children and incidents with Billy’s father add heat to the situation and Billy knows that whatever is happening, there’s likely to be a messy end arriving any time soon.

The perpetrator of the threats is known to the reader from the off. Milton Ramos has his own crosses to carry. He bears the weight of pain from the murder of his brother and the loss of his wife as he struggles to control his world and hold down his own job as a police officer.

In this novel, Price’s arc is huge. There are thousands of stories here, from tiny vignettes to enormous brush strokes.

As Billy struggles to keep his family safe and tries to understand what is happening to his bunch of blood brothers and sister, he works through regular police work on the night shift. The aftermath of each crime is handled beautifully and each victim or set of survivors is given enough room to nail their life-story to the mast.   

The main loops of plot are engaging enough in themselves, but for me the thrill of the book is the way the relationships are built and studied. The interconnections are pillars that hold the plot up rather than it being the other way round.  Price dissects marriages, friendships and families with subtlety and skill that not many can match.

My own favourite strand in all of the complicated interplay is the relationship between Billy and his father. The dad was a much-respected cop in his day, as well as being a lover of poetry. Nowadays, he’s slowly drifting ever deeper into the world of dementia, but in his lucid moments he illuminates the world with his insights, love and wisdom. These sections alone are well worth the price of entry.

Here’s a brief sketch where Billy looks to seek advice about dealing with colleagues who coloured in outside the lines:

‘Johnson’s partner didn’t say anything?’
‘I can’t say what it’s like now, but back then? You looked the other way. Always.’
‘How about the partner, what happened to him?’
The old man was so long in answering that Billy almost repeated the question.
‘Looking back all those years?’ his father finally said. ‘He could’ve been a better father to his kids, maybe a better husband to his wife, but other than that?’ Looking Billy in the eye now. ‘He sleeps like a rock.’


The Whites is terrific. The emotional draw is powerful and there are times when the prose just sings. It’s dark and dreadful and has strong noir elements. It’s one to knock your socks off if you can spare the time.