Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

GUEST POST: On Research by PHILIP KERR

philip kerr Name: Philip Kerr

Author of: FIELD GREY (2010)
                 PRAGUE FATALE (2011)
                 A MAN WITHOUT BREATH (2013)
                 PRAYER (2013)
                 RESEARCH (2014)

On the web: www.philipkerr.org

July saw the publication of Philip Kerr’s latest standalone novel, Research, a thriller that takes more than a passing poke at the British publishing industry (we’ll have a full review of the novel tomorrow). John Houston, the bestselling author at the centre of Research likes, as the title suggests, to do as much research on the subject of his latest novel as he possibly can. To celebrate the novel’s publication, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome Philip Kerr to Reader Dad to talk about the research that went into the novel’s creation.

I did a lot of research for the book as you might expect from the title. I had a very pleasant few weeks visiting Monaco and the South of France in general and driving around, much as the two characters in the book do. I also visited Switzerland. Oh, and I used to live in Putney and Cornwall as Don Irvine does in the book. So these are all places that are very familiar to me.

I have wanted to do an in statu quo novel about the book business for a while. I have been a full time writer for 25 years and felt I could comment on the publishing business in a way that was both amusing and critical. Much of what the two leading characters say in the book reflects my own opinions about the state of the novel. That was fun to do. It’s set up to be a little like Sleuth, the Anthony Shaffer play that was a great film with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. You never really know who is who or why. That seems to me to be the essence of a good mystery story.

The two characters come from the world of advertising and that is my own background. I worked in advertising for eight years, and at several large agencies including Masius, and Saatchi. I was not a diligent copywriter. I spent much of my time writing novels. Masius was very convenient for the London Library; and Saatchi was equally convenient for the British Library, which, in those days, was in the British Museum – a ten minute stroll from Charlotte Street. (I hate the new one). Both of the characters are versions of me – extreme versions of myself. I like to imagine grotesque versions of myself in certain situations. These are Jekyll and Hyde characters, of course. With the difference being that, like most people, each man is both Jekyll and Hyde, and the mystery is working out which one is the real Mr Hyde, if such a thing can be said to exist at all.

I spent most of my years as a copywriter wanting to be a novelist and trying to make it happen. A lot of copywriters had novels in their drawers, so I wasn’t unusual in that respect. I got lucky in the same way that John Houston got lucky, although with rather less success than he had. I don’t know what I would have done if Penguin hadn’t bought my first novel (which was actually the fourth one I’d written) back in 1988.

The book business has changed enormously since then. When I was first published in 1989, it was all about the writer, not the book. Publishers felt they were in it for the long term, to build an author. There’s less time for that now. It’s all about the book. Paradoxically, however, I think we’re moving to a place where the author becomes paramount again, but for all the wrong reasons. Increasingly we require authors to be celebrities; and if not celebrities, personalities who can masquerade as celebrities. It’s no longer enough to write a book, you have to be prepared to support it in person with appearances and talks and stand-up routines. I do an annual American book tour that lasts about three weeks. During that time I become a one-man show. Not every author can or wants to do that. But if you’re not prepared to do that kind of thing, the business will leave you behind.

John Houston has become a celebrity author. Which is a kind of hell, I think. When a writer becomes a famous face he loses something important which is the ability to observe, anonymously.

August 13, 2014 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Guest Post | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL - Kevin Sampson THE HOUSE ON THE HILL

Kevin Sampson

Jonathan Cape (www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)

£14.99

Still on extended leave following the Rozaki case, DCI Billy McCartney is surprised when a girl barely out of her teens turns up on his doorstep and claims to be the daughter of Moroccan drug magnate Hassan El Glaoui. The girl’s appearance, and cry for help, takes Mac back to the last time he had dealings with El Glaoui. Ibiza in 1990; a bad batch of Ecstasy tablets has already killed a handful of kids, and Mac’s job is to ensure that they’re taken off the market before the season kicks off. Along with colleague, DS Camilla "Millie" Baker, he sets up as a potential buyer and dealer, and insinuates himself into the company of John-John Hamilton, a Liverpool-based dealer who has the Ibiza market more or less sewn up. But things take a turn for the worse and it is only now, twenty-three years later, with the arrival of this girl at his house, that Billy McCartney has a chance to set things right.

The second DCI Billy McCartney novel, The House on the Hill, features two stories in one, both inextricably linked to form a single narrative spanning twenty-three years. Opening in London in 1990, we meet a much younger Mac than in The Killing Pool, as he prepares to embark on an undercover mission to Ibiza to try to infiltrate the island’s drug trade. This Mac, perhaps because of the age difference, or because those of us who have read the first book have a better understanding of who he is, comes across as a lot less ambiguous, more idealistic, someone who is, undeniably, on the side of what is good and right. Alongside UDYCO chief, "Jus" Roig, whose motives are questionable at best, and Ibiza’s Chief Molina, who is outright corrupt, McCartney is almost a saint, albeit one who is a little bit too sure of his own abilities. It’s this cockiness that leads to disaster, and shapes the man McCartney will become.

The second half of the novel takes place in present day, and sees McCartney once again taking on the role of drug user and dealer to infiltrate El Galoui’s Red Fort in the mountains of Morocco, following the arrival of the young Yasmina at his door.  This time around, we find ourselves in the company of a much more circumspect Mac, a man who is well aware that he has been given a rare second chance to put things right, and who is determined not to mess things up.

The House on the Hill is a much different beast from McCartney’s first outing. Told in the third person, rather than from multiple first-person viewpoints, the action seems much less intense (probably due to the longer timescales), even if the consequences are just as dire. Sampson – very successfully – avoids any mention of the bombshell that closes The Killing Pool, though Mac does have some telling mannerisms that will be obvious to those who have read the first novel. This fact, coupled with the earlier setting, means that The House on the Hill works as a standalone novel, but one that provides extra rewards for the returning audience.

Aside from McCartney himself, very few of the supporting characters appear in this latest instalment. The Rozaki brothers, whose operation is at the centre of The Killing Pool, put in brief appearances, as young men just starting out in the business, employees of John-John Hamilton. The biggest difference, perhaps, is the shift of location from Sampson’s native Liverpool to the tourist-infested Ibiza, and the arid mountains of Morocco. Happily, Sampson manages to transport the reader to both places, his sense of place no less powerful for the change of scenery, evoking especially the sleaze and heavy bass beat that drew hordes of (mainly) British tourists to the White Island in the early nineties. It’s a risky move, taking the character from his established milieu so early in the series, but it works well, and fleshes out some of McCartney’s background, as well as giving us a more in-depth look at what drives this man than the frantic pace of the first book allowed.

Unusually for a noirish piece of this ilk, Sampson spends some time examining social issues through the eyes of his characters. As with the first novel, sexism plays a large part in the first half of the novel – especially where the Spanish policemen are concerned – while the latter half of the novel allows Sampson to examine the Arab Spring, and the question of sexual orientation and gender in Islamist regions.

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve read The Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

August 12, 2014 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Fanboy Gushings, Noir | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GUEST POST: INFLUENCES–5 Books by KEVIN SAMPSON

Kevin-Sampson-web Name: KEVIN SAMPSON

Author of: THE KILLING POOL (2013)
                 THE HOUSE ON THE HILL (2014)

On Twitter: @ksampsonwriter

Kevin Sampson ­ blog tourTo celebrate the launch of Kevin Sampson’s latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE HILL, the second book in the DCI Billy McCartney series (which will be reviewed here tomorrow), I asked him to talk about the books that have influenced his own crime writing. His – rather eclectic – list follows.

I would like to thank Kevin for taking the time to put this list together, and would urge you to check out the other stops on the THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Tour.

1. Greenmantle by John Buchan

Buchan is of course best known for his first Richard Hannay adventure, The 39 Steps. But it was Hannay’s second escapade, Greenmantle that captivated me as a young reader. Hannay is a true Brit, true grit, Edwardian maverick espionage action hero, taking on complex cases and nefarious villains who threaten world peace. Greenmantle was the first novel that transported me to exotic destinations – Lisbon, Budapest, Belgrade, Constantinople – via the old-fashioned medium of the ripping yarn. Greenmantle gave me an avid wanderlust, but its 5-D characters and sheer exuberant storytelling made me want to write about these places, too. Perhaps some of this has filtered down into the McCartney books. In Mac’s latest, The House On The Hill, he undertakes fearsome challenges in Ibiza and Morocco – and many of the characters he encounters – like “Jus” Roig and Honest Ahmed could have come straight from the pages of Buchan.

2. Papillon by Henri Charriere

I read Papillon as a 13 year-old and it blew me away. It was the first book of its kind – a novelised True Crime memoir – to plug the reader into a gritty, dark, living, breathing underworld. The opening pages, set in the criminal community around 70s Montmartre in Paris, still live with me today – portraits of petty crooks, pimps, drunks and gamblers, low-life chancers who are “good with a knife.” An ex-con himself, Charriere does not ennoble or romanticise his world. Characters are presented for what they are – grifters trying to get by in an unforgiving city.

It’s as real a depiction of a big-city underworld as you’ll encounter in print, but the way the book opens out after Papillon’s conviction, into an adrenaline-charged escape thriller set against a Caribbean/Venezulan backdrop is a page-turning bonus. Concealing money in the sphincter, confronting leprosy, bartering for a boat, springing a leak, being chased by the coast guard, eating your first meal in days…everything is vividly rendered, like a badlands travelogue. Yet, for all the vivid descriptions of life among a remote native community and the sheer thrill of the many chases, it was those early descriptions of the Big City underbelly that made their mark, and still live on in my imagination.

3. A Sense Of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle

A few years after discovering Papillon, A Sense Of Freedom had a similar impact. I was 15, enduring a rainy fortnight on a caravan site in North Wales, browsing the paperback carousel in the campsite’s shop. Based on a promising blurb about thug life in 60s Glasgow, I started leafing through A Sense Of Freedom. Jimmy Boyle’s autobiographical account of growing up in the late 50s/early 60s Gorbals at the height of its gang culture had me gripped from the start. I’d read most of the New English Library titles like Skinhead, Suedehead etc but this was the real thing. In a similar way to Papillon, Boyle’s story went way, way beyond the clichéd hard-man tales of the time. Yes, it’s a chilling, unflinching account of how a kid can be socialised into a life of crime and violence, but A Sense Of Freedom opens out into a rigorous polemic about the penal system, and a moving philosophical tract about the nature and the essence of freedom. First published in 1977, it is thoroughly deserving of a 40th Anniversary re-issue, and re-evaluation.

4. LA Confidential by James Ellroy

A Noir masterpiece, plain and simple. I have read LA Confidential 10 or 12 times, and with each new reading still uncover nuances I’d previously missed. For me, this is a definitive and uniquely brilliant crime book – one that extolls complexity as a virtue. The third in Ellroy’s Los Angeles quartet, LA Confidential is comfortably (or uncomfortably) my favourite. Weaving its many narrative threads using multiple points of view alongside a clever National Enquirer-style front-page splash device, LA Confidential transports us to the corrupt and decadent heart of America’s most fabled city. Embracing – or exposing – themes of child abuse, drug addiction, racism, prostitution, hypocrisy, corruption, bribery, underhand building contracts, blackmail, racketeering, murder, vote-rigging and police brutality in its first 30 pages or so, LA Confidential uses the City of Angels as both pungent backdrop and potent symbol of the quintessential struggle between Good and Evil. As with any classic noir, the reader is left to decipher which is which.

5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Returning to the question of Inspiration – that vitamin-blast to your creative muse that turns the kernel of an idea into something that you act upon and realise – the Stieg Larsson phenomenon was the final motivating factor that transformed the notion of a mordant, Liverpool-based drug crime specialist into the fictional reality of DCI Billy McCartney. Each of the other books I’ve mentioned here had an influence; each of them left its mark. So, too, did TV dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, Spiral, The Killing…but it was Larsson wot made me do it, guv.

I thought Liverpool was as evocative a setting for a crime series as any major port city and the skeleton of Billy Mac began to form. Initially, I fastened upon this idea of simultaneously publishing the four distinct “chapters” of The Killing Pool or Gangsterland as it was, back then. But, in spite of my own reverence for complex plot and storytelling, I was nervous that McCartney’s first instalment might be tough-going all in one, dark hit.

Then I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and marvelled at its scale, its ambition and its sheer darkness. Like Ellory, Stieg Larsson takes on the bleakest and blackest worlds. In the wake of chilling revelations about institutional abuse and cover-up in children’s homes, TGWTDT is horribly prescient – yet it is never sensationalist or overtly graphic, partly as a result of Larsson’s creating a cast of magnificent characters to guide his readers through his darkest alleyways.

I’ve never read a novel and come away, thinking – I can do that. But there are definitely principles you imbibe via osmosis from reading great books. With all the books I’ve highlighted here, there’s a common thread: if you can devise an ingenious and engaging story, set in an intriguing place peopled with flawed but memorable characters who the reader relates to, or sides with, or strenuously takes against then your fictional world stands a chance of coming to life. That such a physically huge book as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo succeeds in engaging you from Page 1 and transports you on a trans-Nordic express right to the last page is a testament to Larsson’s absolute command of his oeuvre. A bestseller by right, and a factor in the shaping of McCartney.

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Guest Post, Influences | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE FIRST STONE by Elliott Hall

the-first-stone-elliott-hall THE FIRST STONE

Elliott Hall (elliott-hall.co.uk)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£7.99

hrpv2Elliott Hall’s 2009 debut novel, and the first in his Felix Strange trilogy, The First Stone, is the subject of the latest Hodderscape Review Project. Don’t forget to check out the thoughts of my fellow reviewers, to which you’ll find links on the Hodderscape website.

Brother Isaiah is America’s best-loved preacher. When his body is found in his hotel room shortly after he arrives in New York at the head of his Crusade of Love, foul play is the most obvious explanation. Felix Strange, veteran of the holy war in Iran, is now a private investigator who specialises in the seedier jobs for which men in his profession are best known. So when he is hired to look into Brother Isaiah’s death – and keep it quiet while he does so – he finds himself wondering what made him the ideal candidate. Something is rotten at the core of America’s religious government and Brother Isaiah’s death is only the tip of the iceberg. Felix Strange would rather not be involved but, for now at least, he has little choice in the matter.

The First Stone, as well as being Elliott Hall’s debut novel, is also the first in a trilogy featuring private eye Felix Strange. In many ways a Philip Marlowe clone, there is little to set Strange apart from others in the same genre until you take a look at the world in which he operates: Hall has created a frightening – but extremely realistic – vision of an all-too-possible future America that elevates Strange above his fictional contemporaries and uses his story to present a stark warning to the book’s readers.

This is America of a very near future: Houston is gone, the only American casualty in a short-lived nuclear war with Iran (whose capital city Tehran was the only other casualty). In the wake of these atrocities, America has turned to God for help, electing a president on a deeply religious mandate. Now run by a group of twelve Elders, the country is slowly slipping back into the dark ages, the gender divide widening instead of shrinking, and even punishment for most venial sins backed up by the force of law. Around this background, Hall has constructed a number of groups which all, on the surface, are working towards the same aim but which each has its own hidden agenda. Groups such as the Crusade of Love, and Ezekiel White’s Committee for Child Protection, a sort of police force tasked with the safety of the nation’s souls.

Throw into this mix Felix Strange, atheist private eye who is considered Jewish by virtue of the fact that his mother was a Jew, and the scene is set for fireworks from the outset. Strange is a veteran of the holy war waged by America on Iran, and was in-country when Tehran turned into "Ghost Town". Like many of his fellow soldiers, he has returned to the United States with an unwanted souvenir, an inexplicable and incurable unnamed disease that leaves him crippled with pain and prone to fits if he doesn’t take his regular medications. And in a right-wing, God-fearing America where socialised healthcare has never existed, affording these medications is often nigh on impossible, which is why he is happy to accept this commission without asking too many questions.

Strange is, as I’ve mentioned, a clone of Chandler’s Marlowe, as many great private detectives created since the 1950s have been before him, down to the very clothes he wears, and the wise-cracking attitude that tends to get him into trouble. Like Chandler, Hall isn’t afraid to put his creation through the mill, and the reader can expect Strange to spend large portions of the novel in severe pain and/or serious trouble. Throw in a beautiful woman, a member of the Crusade of Love whose job is to entrap sinners – adulterers, usurers – and The First Stone is the perfect recipe for a top-rate PI mystery, which will see Felix Strange mixing with government, police, gangsters and even the FBI in the quest not only to find the answers he’s been paid to find, but also to keep his own head on his shoulders and remain one step ahead of the myriad groups out for his blood.

In part driven by the characters – Strange himself has a certain charm that makes him the ideal voice for the story, but the other characters such as the enigmatic Iris, the rich Thorpe, the power-hungry White, are equally as engaging – and in part by the strange new world that Hall has created out of the ashes of this world that we know so well, The First Stone is part classic private eye novel, part dystopian noir. Regardless of which part appeals to the individual, it’s a well-rounded novel that not only comes to a satisfying conclusion, but also gets a hook into the reader guaranteeing that we’ll be back for the rest of the trilogy (fortunately for us, since The First Stone was first published in 2009, the complete trilogy is already available and has just recently been released in a lovely omnibus edition by Hodder).

As well as the rollicking mystery tale, The First Stone contains much food for thought. This warped vision of the future is all the more frightening because of how realistic it seems, how close to our own reality this alternate world is. Part parody, part warning, it is a novel that could only have been written from the outsider’s perspective (Hall is a Canadian who lives in England) without devolving into pure satire or political rhetoric.

A darkly comic creation built around a tightly-plotted mystery and set in a New York that is but a single election away from the one we know, Elliott Hall’s The First Stone is the perfect introduction to an excellent reimagining of a comfortable old character trope. Felix Strange is exactly what we want in a fictional private eye and Hall’s debut novel is the perfect introduction to the man’s weird and wonderful world. I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the trilogy, and will be waiting with bated breath for Hall’s next outing.

July 27, 2014 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Hodderscape Review Project, Noir, Private Investigator | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE DARKEST HEART by Dan Smith

the-darkest-heart-final-cover THE DARKEST HEART

Dan Smith (www.dansmithsbooks.com)

Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

Having fled the slums of Rio de Janeiro as a much younger man, Zico now lives in a small town on the banks of Brazil’s Araguaia River. Here, Zico finds friendship and love and decides that Piratinga is the perfect place to settle down. Zico is a killer for hire, and his employer has one final job for him before he can retire to the life he so desires, one more kill. But this is a kill that weighs on Zico’s conscience, and makes him question his own nature. As we follow Zico down the river, through the heart of Brazil, we come to learn just who this young man is and who he has been. Facing dangers both natural and man-made, Zico’s last job may also result in his own death, and those of the people he loves the most.

There were times I felt I would always be death’s passenger.

From the moment we meet Zico, who narrates this dark and atmospheric story, it is clear that he is a man with troubles. A shadow follows him, the result of years as a killer, and it is one that he finds difficult to shake off. The promise of unheard-of sums of money for this one last job – money that will allow him to retire and forget about this dark present, and the even darker past – are enough to convince him to accompany his friend on his boat along the Rio das Mortes – the aptly-named River of Deaths – to the mines at Mina dos Santos.

The addition of two unexpected passengers – Zico’s girlfriend Daniella and the mysterious Leonardo, who is funding the trip to the mines – adds extra layers of complexity to this simple-seeming story, and allows for the vast majority of the story’s action to take place on board the Deus e o Diabo as they travel through the Brazilian forests. Zico and Leonardo clash immediately, two strong egos battling for control of this small piece of the world that they are forced to share for several days. There are many similarities between the two men, but Zico finds himself determined to prove that they are completely different, and this clash between the two men, in part, drives Zico’s quest for salvation, of which the trip becomes more and more a symbol as the story progresses.

One of the most important aspects of The Darkest Heart is the atmosphere that Dan Smith conjures through Zico’s voice. This is a story that could only take place in this remote and deadly location. The heat is palpable, the encroaching forest and the unknowns that lurk within as threatening to the reader as they are to the characters on the boat. Smith’s use of language is a wonder to behold: there are similarities to the simplicity and beauty of the writing of Gabriel García Márquez, and more obviously to the similar trip described in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But Smith builds upon these solid foundations to create something that is undeniably original, a story that grips the reader from the first word to the last, and takes us through a rollercoaster of emotions as it carries us along the river.

The nature of the story means that, for the most part, the story revolves around the four central characters – Zico, Daniella, Leonardo and Raul, the old man who owns the boat. There are, of course, others who play much smaller roles, including the foreign nun that Zico has been hired to kill. Each of the characters comes to the story fully-formed and with more than the physical baggage that they carry onto the boat at the start of the journey. Despite the fact that we only get to see them through Zico’s eyes, he is an honest enough narrator that we are allowed to form our own opinions of who they are.

There are moments of pure adrenalin, unexpected interludes that will have the reader on the edge of their seat, breaking a sweat: an escape from piranha-infested water is one such moment, while the discovery of a dead body on the river bank, and the deserted village from which she escaped – however briefly – is perfectly-judged to leave the reader feeling cold and unsafe, even in the midst of the stifling heat that is a constant companion on the trip.

Beautiful and lyrical with a dark undercurrent of violence and terror, Dan Smith’s latest novel, The Darkest Heart, is a journey through the heart of Brazil in the company of a man of who is a self-professed killer. Perfectly paced and designed in a way that will leave the reader unsure, until the very last moment, as to the outcome of Zico’s trip, its strength lies in the characterisations and the evocation of this tropical and largely unknown part of the world. The Darkest Heart is my first experience with Dan Smith’s work; I’m confident that it won’t be my last, and would recommend the book without reservation.

July 24, 2014 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Thriller | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

#CarrieAt40: The Stephen King Chart

Just when you thought all the #CarrieAt40 madness was over, it’s time to reveal the next phase. To celebrate Stephen King’s 40 years as a published author, we’ve created a survey to try and determine – according to his fans – which are his most important, enduring, or just plain entertaining works.

The survey is split into four sections, for Novels, Short Stories, Novellas and Non-Fiction, and you can choose as many or as few titles in each category as you like. I’ll reveal the top entries in each category later this year.

Thanks to everyone who has responded to the survey so far, and for all of the feedback. I have finally found what I believe to be the easiest way to present the information to make life easier for you, the voter. The latest incarnation of the survey can be found at

THE BIG #CARRIEAT40 STEPHEN KING VOTE

Please, if you haven’t done so already, cast your vote, and spread the word.

Many thanks!

July 21, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40 | , , , , | 2 Comments

THE PROFESSIONALS by Owen Laukkanen

THE PROFESSIONALS - Owen Laukkanen THE PROFESSIONALS

Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£7.99

In the beginning, the whole thing had been Marie’s idea. It had started as a joke, some throwaway line spouted off one rainy night in Seattle, the gang holed up at Sawyer’s place bitching about the job market over cheap beer and pizza, scholarships almost gone and graduation upon them, nobody but Mouse with a future to speak of.

Arthur Pender and his friends have finished college, graduating with degrees that are practically useless in a dead job market. When one of them suggests, as a joke, that they turn to robbing banks or kidnapping, Pender sees a plan that could work: kidnap someone rich, ask for a paltry ransom, say $60,000 – almost guaranteeing that he won’t go to the police on his release – and move to another city immediately after the job. It’s a plan that has worked well for almost two years, until they pick the wrong man. Now, with the FBI and the Mafia on their tail, Pender and his friends need to find a way out of the country without getting themselves caught or killed.

From the first page, where we watch Pender’s crew perform a well-oiled kidnap routine, Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, The Professionals, has the reader by the throat. The plan that Pender has put in place is surprising because of its originality, a concept that shines throughout this beautiful little thriller. What is, perhaps, most surprising of all, is the fact that we identify so readily with Pender and his group of friends. There’s something about them that puts us firmly in their camp, that makes us want them to succeed, despite the multiple crimes they have committed over the course of two years; The Professionals is, in some ways, a modern day reworking of Robin Hood, without the "give to the poor" part, and the Robin Hood character (in this case, Pender) is the man around whom the whole story revolves.

Laukkanen’s debut is, ostensibly, the first in the Stevens and Windermere series (the second book due later this year, and the third and fourth instalments currently works in progress) but, because of the focus on the "bad guys’, it feels more like a standalone thriller that has the occasional appearance from a pair of quirky cops. Kirk Stevens is a member of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and is the first person to put together a string of separate incidents and identify them as the work of a serial kidnapper. When he realises that the crimes cross state lines, he is only too happy to hand the case off to the FBI, in the form of young agent Carla Windermere, who, in turn, is only too happy to keep Stevens involved. The pair work well together, and are a joy to watch in action, despite the slightly heavy-handed attempt at sexual tension which, thankfully, doesn’t get too much airtime.

Pender and gang have more to worry about than the FBI, in the blocky form of D’Antonio, a man who, at first glance, appears to be a stereotypical piece of Mafia beef, but who turns out to be a man of some intelligence and heart. His backstory – that of a long-serving Mafia enforcer – isn’t touched on, but it’s a story we’re all familiar with from watching the Godfather films, or The Sopranos, and Laukkanen does an excellent job of endowing him with a sense of barely-restrained violence that makes him at least as interesting as the other characters in the book.

I have no idea why, but there are portions of the book that remind me of Steven Spielberg’s early directorial effort, The Sugarland Express, though there are barely any points of similarity between the two. There’s something very laid-back about this novel, despite the frantic pace at which the action moves, and it serves to set The Professionals apart from other novels in the genre, raising it above the category of just another buddy-cop story or chase novel, to that rare category of "something you’ve never seen before". Make no mistake, regardless of how this book is marketed, or how the series progresses, this is the story of Arthur Pender and his friends; they are the people we’re rooting for, the antiheroes of this piece. Which is not to say that Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere don’t have what it takes to carry a series, but to me it feels more like a spin-off (think Sam & Twitch) than something that was planned that way.

With a plot that moves at a breakneck speed, and characters – good, bad and elsewhere along the spectrum of grey – that are engaging, likeable and, best of all, human, Owen Laukkanen has burst onto the scene with one of the finest thrillers you’re likely to encounter this year. I do have a couple of minor niggles with some of the directions the plot takes, but I’m putting it down to the pressure under which the characters are operating, and dismissing them as not overly important to the overall direction in which the story goes. It’s a smart and violent story that grabs the reader from the first page to the last, and it makes this reader, at the very least, excited for what is still to come. For now, I can only recommend that you get in on the ground floor, and enjoy.

July 17, 2014 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Thriller | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

COMPETITION: Win a Copy of RED WINTER by Dan Smith #DanSmithBlogTour

Dan Smith Blog Tour (2)

It’s the final stop of the Dan Smith Blog Tour (and what a tour it’s been!) and to celebrate last week’s hardback publication of The Darkest Heart and paperback publication of Red Winter, those lovely people over at Orion have given us 10 copies of Red Winter to give away. You can enter in one of two simple ways:

  • Comment on this post – simple enough…if your comment looks like it originated from a human you’ll be entered into the draw.
  • Tweet a link to this post (click the Share button at the bottom of the post and select Twitter), or retweet a link that’s already out there. If your Tweet contains my username (@MattGCraig), the hashtag from the title of this post (#DanSmithBlogTour) and a link back to the post, you’ll be entered into the draw.

You only need to enter once, as multiple entries won’t improve your chance of winning. And you have until midnight (BST) on Sunday 20th July to enter. The winners will be drawn on Monday 21st and notified by email or Twitter and will hopefully have their nice shiny new book by the end of that week. This competition is open to UK residents only.

So, what are you waiting for?

(Keep an eye on the blog next week when I’ll be reviewing Dan Smith’s The Darkest Heart.)

July 9, 2014 Posted by | Competition | , , , , , | 43 Comments

NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN by James Smythe

no-harm-can-come-to-a-good-man-by-james-smythe NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN

James Smythe (james-smythe.com)

The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)

£16.99

Laurence Walker is a good man whose dream of running for President of the United States looks set to come true. Laurence has some skeletons in his closet – the death of his son and a period of torture in captivity whilst serving his country in the Middle East – but the party elders like Laurence, and they are convinced he is the man to take the party forward into a bright new future as the next leader of the country. When Amit Suri, the man in charge of Laurence’s campaign, and the man who will become his chief of staff, asks ClearVista – a revolutionary technology that can "predict" the future through a complex algorithm and an infinite number of variable values gleaned from the Internet – to calculate Laurence’s chances of success, the answer he receives is completely unexpected. It is the final straw for Laurence, pushing him over the edge, and as his carefully-managed life begins to fall apart around him, it begins to look like Laurence Walker’s career and life might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Like last year’s excellent The Machine, James Smythe’s latest novel – with the somewhat unwieldy title No Harm Can Come to a Good Man – takes us to a very near-future setting where humankind’s increasing dependence on technology has been taken to one very believable extreme. ClearVista, the technology at the centre of No Harm…, is everywhere, and we use it to help us with every single decision we need to make: Which hotel is best for me? Is this plane I’m about to board likely to reach its destination? And if so, what type of car should I hire when I arrive? In the case of Laurence Walker, and his presidential campaign, ClearVista is used to determine an answer to the much more complex question of whether Laurence will ever reach his goal.

Laurence Walker is strangely likable for a politician. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he is just beginning his campaign to gain the party nomination for the next election. He’s a family man living in small-town America, trying to find the right balance between what’s right for his career and what’s right for his family. When Laurence’s son drowns outside their home, Laurence appears to fall apart, but is back on the campaign trail before his wife believes he is ready. The ClearVista results, when they arrive, have an immediate and devastating effect on Laurence. His friend and campaign manager, Amit, is convinced that someone has tampered with the results, and spends his time trying to track down someone to speak to. When news of the results leak, as well as ClearVista’s vision of the ultimate outcome – an outcome that puts Laurence Walker’s family in grave danger – the Walkers find themselves prisoners in their own homes, reporters and news crews camped at the front of their house, waiting for the inevitable.

In Laurence Walker’s downfall, Smythe presents us with the very public disintegration of a well-liked person. Laurence Walker’s life becomes a sort of slow-motion car crash, and it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the page once the downward trend begins. But there are warnings aplenty here, too. Laurence’s problems begin in earnest when the press begins labelling him as a criminal, despite the fact that he has done nothing wrong, and they are basing their claims on the leaked ClearVista results. Good man or not, it is how we are painted that defines who we are, and suddenly Laurence finds himself facing questions about his son’s death, something that the reader knows is an accident, since we were there to watch it happen. Most horrific is the distance that begins to grow between Laurence and his wife and daughters, a distance caused by his wife’s sudden distrust, her belief – like that of everyone else – that ClearVista’s predictions must have some basis in fact. It is at this point that the reader realises, even if the characters themselves don’t, that Laurence is lost and alone.

While this very public breakdown is happening, Amit is trying to come to terms with how quickly his own career has crumbled around him, and his need to understand why ClearVista predicted the things it did add an element of investigation into the mix. With enough information to allow the reader to make guesses of their own, Amit’s journey takes him to California and the technology company’s almost-empty headquarters. The explanation, when it comes, is simple, believable and extremely satisfying (especially for this software engineer, who can relate completely), and shines a whole new light on Laurence Walker’s breakdown.

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

July 7, 2014 Posted by | Fanboy Gushings, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE THREE by Sarah Lotz

Three-final (1) THE THREE

Sarah Lotz (sarahlotz.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£14.99

They’re here…The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many…They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon…Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to-

It was the day that would become known as Black Thursday, the day when four large passenger jets crashed – at almost the exact same time – on four different continents across the planet, killing hundreds and leaving three children alive. Pamela May Donald, on a trip to visit her daughter in Japan, is one of the last to die, and she leaves a cryptic message on her mobile phone, addressed to Pastor Len. Len, not a man to let a sign from God pass by, decides that the three surviving children are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and proposes that there must be a survivor from the fourth plane, if only he or she could be found. The children seem to be changed after their ordeal, above and beyond what might be expected from youngsters who have suffered such terrible trauma and Pastor Len’s theory begins to gain a large following. Religious fervour, conspiracy theories and good old-fashioned paranoia combine to drastically change the face of the world as we know it in an entirely believable and utterly frightening apocalyptic scenario.

With the exception of the short opening and closing sections, Sarah Lotz’s latest novel, The Three, takes the form of a non-fiction examination – Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy by Elspeth Martins – of the events of that fateful day. Filled with first-person testimonies (ostensibly gathered from Skype conversations with the interviewees), book excerpts, chat-room transcripts and news articles, the story of what happened during Black Thursday unfolds from the multiple viewpoints of the people closest to the tragedy: first responders to the various crash scenes, the family members closest to the three survivors – The Three of the book’s title – and the small community that Pamela May Donald and Pastor Len Vorhees called home.

Lotz captures the mood perfectly: the natural thoughts that might go through peoples’ heads should four passenger planes crash almost instantaneously; the religious fervour that ensues when one charismatic man is given a platform and spins a compelling yarn; the various other theories that spring up and die after short-lived circulation: conspiracy theories without number; alien invasion; government cover-ups; you name it, chances are it’s in here somewhere. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel by far is the incredible uniqueness of each of the voices that tell us the story: each has their own little tics and identifying features, and Lotz manages to find the perfect voice – accent, style of delivery, the lot – for each of these racially diverse and geographically remote speakers.

The book – the non-fiction work contained within this incredible piece of fiction – is designed to be read by a public who are aware of the outcome, who probably followed developments on the news as they occurred, so we have a very good idea of where the Three are headed from early in the novel. Despite this, the structure of the narrative allows Lotz to play with us a little, to string us along and drip-feed the information. In essence, The Three sets out to show how the world changes for the individuals involved – from Paul Craddock’s slow descent into seeming insanity to the radical changes that come over young Bobby Small’s grandfather – but also takes the time to reflect wider changes with a global scope: the rise of the religious right in the US, and the drastic effects on the political situation between the West and the Far East.

What makes The Three so frightening, so engaging, is its realism, and the believability of the eventual outcome. Yes, these children are creepy in the same way that the children of Midwich are creepy and yes, reading The Three will give you pause before you step on another plane, but it’s Len Vorhees’ story, and the implications that it brings, that stands out. This is a scene we have encountered many times before in the news headlines: Waco is mentioned explicitly, but consider also the likes of Ruby Ridge or Jonestown. Lotz’s understated approach to dealing with this storyline fills the reader with a sense of dread, made worse by the political connections that creep in as the novel progresses. In many ways, for me, this is the novel that The Testimony promised to be, but never quite delivered.

As the book draws to a close, we get a glimpse of what the world is like post-Black Thursday and it is far from a pretty picture. Lotz takes the scenario to one logical conclusion from which there is no comeback, and these final fifty pages contain more scares and spine-tingling moments than the rest of the novel, perhaps because they aren’t filtered, like the rest of the story, through the distorted lens of a factual, journalistic text. That said, for me, the non-fiction text is the perfect vehicle for telling these disparate stories without fracturing the narrative beyond readability.

In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.

Don’t forget, you can still read Sarah Lotz’s contribution to #CarrieAt40 here.

July 3, 2014 Posted by | Horror, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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