Monday, 26 December 2016

One Man's Opinion: SO DEADLY FAIR by GERTRUDE WALKER


Walter Johnson alights from his boxcar in Middletown Minnesota. Hungry and worn down, he sets off to seek sustenance. His walk into town is interrupted when he looks up and sees a woman waving at him from her window and gesturing for him to come into her home. In spite of his instincts, he goes up and meets Elizabeth Frazer, a lady who is hot on the outside and ice cold within. She entices him with the promise of food and maybe a little something extra for afters, then nails him by shouting to her neighbours that there’s been a murder. Said neighbours show up and it seems that Johnson has been caught red handed, until he reveals that his red hand is actually wooden and wouldn’t be capable of committing the crime in question.

The sensible thing for him to do at this point would be either to run or to wait for the authorities to prove his innocence. Instead, he waits for things to settle and is pulled into the orbit of Elizabeth whose magnetism and allure prove to be irresistible. They drive west, avoid the attention of the police and settle down into a life of the humdrum. Things should go fine, only Elizabeth isn’t happy with surviving or being average. Her discontentment grows until she pulls out another trick from her bag. This time, she’s feigned her own death and once again pins Johnson down as the perpetrator. This time, however, Johnson isn’t so lucky. He’s sent down and spends the next ten years in prison.

While away he meets a forward thinking warden who suspects Johnson is innocent. The pair spend time discussing the world and putting things right until it’s time for Johnson to leave, an improved and contented citizen with a free spirit. The warden has provided him with the tools for survival and the connections to make sure civilisation won’t chew him up and spit him out.

Everything should be fine. The world should unfold at Johnson’s feet and provide him with more than enough to satisfy his needs. The problem is he has a passion for revenge that won’t leave him alone. The shadowy compulsion to track down Elizabeth grows until it is his reason for being. All his wonderful wisdom and philosophical leanings are trampled underfoot by his desire and as he journeys in pursuit of his prey, his life slowly unravels.

So Deadly Fair is a delight. That said, it took a while for it to grow on me. The first person narrative seemed a little clunky at first. I reckoned a tidy edit might make all the difference and create a smooth passage through the opening pages. I was also a little uncomfortable by being addressed directly by the protagonist every so often. These jabs interrupted my flow and caught me off guard when they came.

As the story unfolded, many of my early issues disappeared. I came to appreciate the voice and the conversational style, not least because it allowed a deep understanding of the character’s reasoning. Johnson’s back story is slowly exposed and adds layers and depth. His views of the world and his love of travelling and getting by are so pragmatic that they verge upon the romantic. His drive and lack of control in the face of his desires is well explained and adds solid foundation to his decision making, even when his choices seem to be utterly insane.

The story itself is handled really well and any contrivance is justified as the plot moves on and comes to its unexpected climax.

This one is a slice of authentic American noir. It carries a familiarity that is comforting and yet has a freshness that needs to be savoured and appreciated. The pictures come in black and white and the shadows are everywhere. If it was never made into a B-movie then it should have been.


Hats off to you, Gertrude Walker. Thanks for the journey.  

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

One Man's Opinion: COP HATER by ED McBAIN


Over the last few years, I’ve become rather fond of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. The more I read them, the more I come to love the whole setup.

Curiously, though, it never occurred to me that I should make any attempt to read them in order. That could be because I buy a lot of my books in second-hand stores and charity shops. There’s something about the pot-luck nature of that kind of browsing that I really enjoy and the prices aren’t too shabby either. I know that by shopping this way I’m doing authors out of royalties, but the whole process fits in with my love of novels and my views on recycling and reusing that mean my conscience remains clear.

That’s only relevant because I recently decided to read Cop Hater (US), the book where the 87th all began. What I was a little surprised by was the excellent quality here. I tend to feel that writers mature as they go on and that a series is improved as the depth and the layers are added over time. In this case, I reckon this opener is as fully-baked, well put together and as compelling as any of the other later works that I’ve read.

In this one, there’s a heat-wave that swelters on the page and brings with it the smouldering lust that permeates the book. There’s a cop killer on the loose and Detective Carella is losing his friends and colleagues on a regular basis. As he investigates, the case literally arrives at his doorstep and there’s an uncomfortable and exciting sequence to bring the whole thing to a close.

It was great to meet Steve and Teddy in the early years of their relationship, but in many ways I feel like I already know about those days because of the references in the later stories. It was also something of a surprise to realise just how rounded and substantial Corella is as a character from the off. The nature of the crimes had me hooked from the beginning and the cops are all sympathetic characters even when they’re unlikeable.

Something I particularly like about McBain’s style is the way the tangents work. The red-herrings never feel contrived. Instead, they feel like real avenues of exploration and they all bring something to the books in their own right. It might be that we learn a little more of the character or there may just be a light interlude from the more substantial threads. They become tales in their own right, small vignettes and side shows that add flavour to the main event. I never get the feeling that I’ve been lead down the garden path or that I’m being manipulated by an author who is artificially creating hooks and tension just to keep me interested.

Cop Hater is definitely a good place to start if you’ve never picked up a McBain. Then again, if you’re like me and have already been working your way randomly through the series, this will be a terrific addition to your collection and will be another great read for you to appreciate.

Loved it.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

Dancing With Myself: RYAN BRACHA interviews RYAN BRACHA


The man sitting across from me chewing eagerly on his thumb, looks like he can’t wait to get out of here. His sweaty eyes darting around, looking everywhere except at me. In the corner of the room sits the lady who has the formidable task of stemming the flow of crap that will inevitably spill out of his fat mouth. She has the resigned look on her face of a person who knows she’s fighting a losing battle. Hope in her eyes that he’ll finally say the something controversial enough to finally free her of her station in life. Maybe after that, she can go and represent a good-as-gold soap actor, or clean cut pop star. Not this failing author of nine books that are as attractive to the mass market as Jesus-in-a-slice-of-toast is to a staunch atheist.

Eventually his eyes land on mine. He smiles a wide smile. I note that while he has the front set of his teeth intact, behind them, he is missing several important back teeth. Those that do remain are rotten. I wonder if his teeth represent a horrific metaphor for his mind. He asks what I want to know. Looks at his watch. Folds his arms and rests them on the gut he developed through a love of sweet cider and lethargy. His breathing grows heavier from such simple exercise. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were dead in ten years. I clear my throat and our interview begins.

Me: So, Ryan.

Him: Mr Bracha.

Me: Sorry, Mr Bracha. Ehm, Phoebe Jeebies and The Man Who Annoyed Everybody (US). What is it about?

Him: Read the blurb. It’s all there. Come on. You can do better than that.

Me: Where… did the idea come from?

Him: I was going to write a story about a compulsive liar. That’s what it started out as. That’s what it was until about four chapters in and the characters surprised me. They took it somewhere else.

Me: To a man who annoyed everybody?

Him: To a man who annoyed everybody.

Me: What about PhoebeJeebies? Where does she come in to all this?

Him: She’s been on my mind for a while. I wrote her into a story a couple of years ago, but it didn’t go anywhere. I lost the buzz for it and binned it. Phoebe was put on the shelf for a suitable vehicle. This was it.

Me: Tell me about Phoebe. Why did she stand out enough to remain?

Him: Because she’s brilliant. She's everything that's good about the women I care about in my life. She's a love letter.

Me: Okay… Fair enough… I guess. You say you binned the other story? Did you not plot it? Plan it? Surely that would have been a huge waste of your time?

Him: No. I don’t plot or plan. I don’t edit a huge amount either. I can’t do it. I get lost in what I want to do with the story. I find it much easier to just write and let the characters take it where it needs to go, maybe with a couple of plot points that come to my mind as I write. If it goes too far down a path I don’t see mileage in, I’ll delete, or put it to one side to steal from later, and give them a chance to start again until I’m happy with the direction they’ve taken it.

Me: That seems like an odd way of working.

Him: Your face has an odd way of working.

Me: You're quite prolific-

Him: Thanks.

Me: Ehm, yes. You've written and published eight novels in the same time it took you to write your first. What changed?

Him: The way I write. My first novel is a mess of a hundred different devices and narrative techniques, but it helped me to make the mistakes I needed to make, to help me figure out the kinds of stories I wanted to tell and way I wanted to tell them. The first draft of my debut novel was littered with grammatical errors, continuity issues, plot holes, and a dog whose name was either Freckles or Oscar whichever chapter you read. The first draft of Phoebe Jeebies had six typos. Practice makes perfect.

Me: Quite. It's been said that you're not right in the head. That you're disturbed. What would you say to that?

Him: Hmm?

Me: It's been-

Him: I heard you.

Me: So…?

Him: It's also been said that originality and creativity are my speciality. If that's a byproduct of being fucked in the nut, I'll take it. If you want paint by numbers fiction then you're in the wrong place. If you want a horrific situation boiled down to a thick jam of dark abstract humour then come on in, the water is just lovely.

Me: But this is an interview to promote your romantic comedy.

Him: Romance can be horrific at times.

Me: This isn't going quite where I thought it would.

Him: Such is life, my friend. Such is life.

He leans forward and grabs my cheeks. Pushes them toward my nose and then slaps them hard. Calls me Chopsy Chops and leaves the room. His assistant rolls her eyes. Apologises. Follows him. Thirty seconds later he returns. He throws a copy of his book at me and tells me I'll enjoy it. He says it's basically an instruction manual for pissing people off while at the same time being a messed up love story. He says if I have any kind of sense of humour or disdain toward general society then I'll spit beer out of my nose with laughing. I open it at the first page. On it, there is a crudely drawn cartoon penis. The bulb has a smiling face on it. The globs of cartoon sperm each hold a letter. C.U.N.T. He's most certainly fucked in the nut, as he so eloquently put it, but I suppose that's what appeals to his readers.

Ryan Bracha is the author of nine novels and a collection. He once won an episode of Fifteen to One, and he's got a weird aversion to stickers and days old bus tickets. They make his fingers itch. He lives in Barnsley with his wife and two year old daughter.

Phoebe Jeebies and The Man Who Annoyed Everybody (US) is available now for 99p/99c.








Sunday, 20 November 2016

One Man's Opinion: NO SAFE HOUSE by LINWOOD BARCLAY


The weaving process is right at the heart of what an author does. We create the raw materials, spin yarns and throw our protagonists into complicated situations to see how they’ll cope. The trick, of course, is to make sure that the reader isn’t able to see the hand of the creator at work.

In No Safe House (US), Linwood Barclay didn’t quite manage to hide the stitching together of the plot. He’s an author who I’ve enjoyed in the past and have admired for the way he turns normal lives upside down in entirely believable and gripping ways.

What’s different about this one is that the succession of coincidences and unlikely events eventually wore too thin for me to suspend disbelief. This made the process of getting to the end somewhat mechanical. There was plenty I wanted to find out about and I was interested enough to persevere, it’s just that the magic spell was broken and so the impact was reduced.


No Safe House didn’t hit the mark for me. If you’re thinking about it, why not pick another Barclay from the shelf instead - play the safer bet and see how it shakes down.    

Friday, 11 November 2016

One Man's Opinion: THE LONG-LEGGED FLY by JAMES SALLIS


“Jesus, Lew. Sounds like you reached for your hat and got the chamberpot instead.”

The Long-Legged Fly (US) tells a series of stories about Lew Griffin. It spans four periods between the 1964 and 1990 and traces Lew’s life as he sinks into alcoholism and bounces between drunkenness and sobriety over the years.

It’s an interesting book in lots of ways. It opens as a private detective novel, but as it progresses the investigations take a back-seat as his reflections on life and his attempts to get his personal issues together come to the fore.

We meet him in New Orleans where he is hired by some political activists to find an important figurehead for their black-power movement. Corene Davis has disappeared on her way to an engagement. She boarded a plane for the city but didn’t appear when it landed. This story takes Lew into the bowels of the world where his size and reputation allow him to remain safe and to apply pressure when necessary.

Echoes of his first investigation appear in the further episodes in his life. His tough side is ever-present, but is counter-balanced by his warm heart and sense of justice that are shown in unlikely circumstances.

Though a book in four quarters, it’s also a story of two halves. My preference is for the opening half where his detective work is at the fore. The interplay between his life and work is very successful and there’s a dramatic edge to the cases concerned. The hard-boiled influence gave me a lot of pleasure and is a fine example of the genre. In the second part, the cases take a back seat as Lew shifts his world away from what he knows and attempts to forge a steady relationship and begin a life as a writer. Part two is much more focussed upon the philosophical thoughts of an ageing male as his mind moves upon silence. The musings are often poetic, thought-provoking and powerful and offer a huge amount that is worthy of appreciation, there’s just a very different energy to the plots as the cases are diluted.


The Long-Legged Fly is a book I enjoyed. Fans of the detective novel will find this a treat, as will those who are at home among the more literary pages of this world.  

Sunday, 6 November 2016

One Man's Opinion: BEASTINGS by BENJAMIN MYERS


When I snuff you out I will cover the heavens and all the stars will darken said the priest. And that’ll learn you.

Beastings (US) is a mighty read. Even on a Kindle you can feel the weight of it in your hand. It tells the story of a chase across the Lake District as a priest and his poacher guide attempt to track down a young mute girl and the baby she has taken from its home.

The girl in question is escaping a history of pain and misery in the hands of her pursuer. Her life was destroyed by the priest and she was sent to work as a nanny to a family in a home packed with bitterness, disease and hate. When the baby’s well-being became threatened, the girl decided to take her away to safety. In doing so, she discovers a new meaning to the world and a finds a hope that is as bright and as fleeting as the sunrise. With no resources, she learns to live from the land and to accept the kindness of strangers.

Meanwhile, the priest enlists the help of a poacher and sets of in pursuit. The motives for the chase are entirely self-centred as the priest needs to keep his abuses in the home for girls quiet. He’s even scared to sleep in the presence of others as he talks in his sleep and can’t afford to let any clues about his life slip from his mouth.  He’s dark to the core and ranks up there with the most unpleasant characters I’ve ever met on the page. The fact that he is a man driven by his religious zest and who can articulate his philosophies to his own end make him even more frightening than even his actions suggest. His steady decline as he indulges in his addiction for the marching powder that fuels his zeal only adds further to his menace. His conversations with the poacher are intoxicating. The poacher is at one with the landscape and sees the world through practical eyes. He’s a great contrast to the priest and the pair’s arguments are extremely entertaining. They also highlight the bleak and sparse writing style of the book, one that echoes the rugged and stony terrain in which they travel. The humour is pointed as flint, the priest’s lack of emotion as cold as exposed Cumbrian rock.   

The material of the book makes it difficult at times and it certainly isn’t for the faint hearted. To me, the harrowing nature of many aspects of the story simply made it more enticing. The chase itself is gripping, but there’s so much more to hold your attention than that. The dialect is superb. The dialogue is a treat to experience. The description of the area and of the way humans interact with it is beautiful. The battle between the nascent hope and the poisonous power of the inevitable is compelling. The climax was a total surprise to me and tattooed itself on the inside of my brain when I reached the end.  

Beastings is a gem. It’s a book that deserves to be read and appreciated. There are many flavours to the writing and I suspect there are a host of literary and poetic influences which Myers collects  and shakes to create a cocktail that is all of his own.

Highly recommended.   
  


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

One Man's Opinion: I KNOW YOUR SECRET by GRAHAM SMITH


I Know Your Secret (US). I guess that we’d all be frightened to hear those words. It happens to be worse in this case as the blackmailer knows exactly what secret is been hidden and can offer up enough information to prove it.

In this novel, the Major Crimes Team are overwhelmed by work. There’s the brutal and peculiar murder of a priest, nailed to the ground in the way the man he worshipped was attached to the cross; a wealthy landowner who is well-connected wants to catch his employee who has ripped him off; and there’s a rape investigation linked to a model and a porn film to sort out.

There’s a lot of tension in the squad as they go about their work. Former boss DI Harry Evans is on the verge of retirement and is also following a court case relating to the death of his wife. When he’s not pursuing his personal quest, he’s buzzing around the investigations and trying to help out the new kid on the block, DI Campbell, with half an eye on manipulating some position as consultant to the police in the future. Campbell is busy trying to impress his new team and also to work under the pressure of an unsympathetic boss and a wife with a new baby who is in need of support and isn’t happy about the lack of it.


As each strand of the story is dealt with, the major thread of the priest’s murder picks up pace. As new points of view are introduced, the rich tapestry of it all is revealed in a teasing manner and it becomes compulsive reading as the end draws near. The basic premise of the story and the motive of the killer are really well conceived, providing both a strong spine to the work and a conclusion that is entirely satisfying.


The police and villains alike are all well-formed characters, with the main protagonists being particularly well-penned. The setting and influence of the region add a strong flavour to the investigations and the undulating emotions and doses of humour keep things interesting throughout.