|THE FIRST STONE
Elliott Hall (elliott-hall.co.uk)
John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)
Elliott 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.
|THE DARKEST HEART
Dan Smith (www.dansmithsbooks.com)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
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.
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.
You can find the survey here. Please feel free to circulate links to this post, or directly to the survey. All feedback is welcome, and many thanks for taking part.
*** EDIT 25/07/2014 ***
It has come to my attention that the drag-and-drop nature of the survey doesn’t work on phones or tables. I should have known. While I try to find an alternative method, please feel free to email me your choices. Four sections for:
- Short Stories
List as many or as few choices as you like in each section with your most favourite at the top (while you can’t use the survey for the purpose intended, it can be used as a reference for which works fit in which section). Feel free to include any comments or justifications for your choices.
Thanks again for taking part.
Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)
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.
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:
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.)
|NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN
James Smythe (james-smythe.com)
The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)
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.
Sarah Lotz (sarahlotz.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
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.
Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
On a foggy April morning, in an anonymous, recession-hit Midwestern city, Brady Hartfield ploughs a stolen Mercedes Benz into a group of people queued for a job fair, killing nine and injuring many more. Six months later, Detective William Hodges retires from the City Police Force, the Mercedes killing one of the unsolved cases he hands over to his partner. Living alone and spending his retirement watching television begins to take its toll and Bill Hodges starts to contemplate suicide. When he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer – or Mr Mercedes, as Bill comes to call him – he finds a new reason to go on. Deciding to keep the letter secret from his old partner for now, Bill Hodges goes back to the one loose thread that never made any sense: the owner of the stolen car, and the means by which Mr Mercedes managed to gain access. As Hodges’ investigation progresses, so the madness that drives Brady Hartfield grows, his original plan to help the retired policeman on his way to suicide replaced by something bolder and more public, something that would make his trick with the Mercedes look positively innocent in comparison.
Stephen King’s latest novel is being marketed as a departure for the Master of Horror, though for Constant Reader, the distinction is less clear. All of the elements that make a Stephen King novel are here: strong story, strong characters and that inimitable voice that guides us through the book. Mr Mercedes is, as advertised, a straight crime novel (perhaps a better fit for the Hard Case Crime line than last year’s supernatural-tinted Joyland) but at its core, it’s a return to one of King’s favourite topics: good versus evil. The recent revelation by King that it is the first of a proposed trilogy – with the second book due to drop next year – is just the icing on the cake.
MR. MERCEDES is the first novel in a projected trilogy. Hodges, Jerome, and Holly will return in FINDERS KEEPERS next year.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) June 10, 2014
While there are elements of mystery for the reader (just how did Brady get access to the Mercedes, for example), we are aware from the outset of who the perpetrator of the crime is, how he has so much information on Bill Hodges and, to a certain extent at least, what his plans for the immediate future are. Mr Mercedes is not so much a whodunit as an examination of these two men, both at different ends of the spectrum. On the one side we have Brady Hartfield, a cold-blooded murderer who lives with his alcoholic mother and spends his life trying to put a civilised face on the monster that lives just beneath the surface. Brady is one of King’s more insane creations, and the glimpse we get inside his head shows the type of horror at which King has always been adept: the horror in the everyday; the real-life insanity that leads to, to borrow the old cliché, man’s inhumanity to man. Like Under the Dome‘s Jim Rennie, Brady Hartfield is a character that gets under the reader’s skin, and whose demise – hopefully a brutal and slow one – we hope for almost from the moment we meet him.
Retired Detective K (for Kermit) William Hodges is the opposite side of the coin. Like King himself (and there has been a definite trend in this direction of late), Bill is a man in his later years who, without the job to keep him going, and the empty space left by his ex-wife and grown-up daughter, finds himself in something of a rut. Brady, a man with incredibly accurate insight into the human condition, sees this as a weakness, not counting on Bill’s obsession with the case that he left unsolved, or on the old man’s relationship with Jerome Robinson, the local kid who does his lawn and helps when Bill has trouble with technology. Given a new lease of life by the letter from Mr Mercedes, Bill – with the help of Jerome and the sister of Olivia Trelawney, whose grey Mercedes was used to kill nine people over a year previously – decides that he is the city’s best shot at catching this elusive and obviously unbalanced individual.
As you would expect from a Stephen King novel, there’s something down-to-earth and unpretentious about Mr Mercedes. Maybe it’s that familiar voice that has guided us through countless other tales, or the pop culture and topical references scattered liberally throughout the book. Starting slow and taking time to introduce us to the characters, King throws a couple of curve balls – some in our favour, others not – before ramping up the pace in the final quarter or so of the book. The constant switching of action between the two main protagonists keeps the reader on their toes and ensures that for the last hundred pages or so, it is nigh on impossible to set Mr Mercedes down.
While there are plenty of familiar tricks here, despite the shift in genre from what we’re used to from King, there are also some potentially interesting deviations from the usual formula. Unlike the majority of King’s novels, the action here takes place not in the author’s native Maine, but in an unnamed (which is unusual in itself) city in the American Midwest (most likely Ohio, based on the clues dropped throughout). The self-references, too, are handled in a slightly different way, with both Christine and It getting a mention early in the story, but as the well-known pieces of fiction that they are, rather than the usual in-world ties that we’ve come to expect.
‘Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’
Hodges shook his head. Later – only weeks before his retirement – he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the fact of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.
And in one throw-away line towards the end of the novel, King creates another link between his own worlds and those of son Joe Hill in a reference to the character at the centre of Hill’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box.
All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.
As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings, Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.
Jon Wallace (thingaboutchickens.blogspot.co.uk)
In the near future, humans create the Ficials, an engineered race of post-humans who are designed – optimised – for specific tasks, and who are virtually indestructible. Under the central command of Control, the Ficials rise against their human creators, and begin a country-wide cull. Following a nuclear strike, the Ficials retreat to the cities – barricades – while the humans, or Reals, take control of the countryside. Kenstibec, a Ficial, was optimised for construction. In this post-apocalyptic world, there is not much call for his skills, and so he drives a taxi, transporting fares between barricades through the dangerous Real-controlled countryside. His latest job is the transport of a celebrity, a reporter, from Edinburgh to London.
When we first meet Kenstibec, it is in the form of a flashback, as he hangs in a recovery shed, regenerating from a serious injury in pre-apocalyptic Britain. This flashback, along with a series of others scattered throughout the book serve to give us some of the history which leads to the current state of affairs, and shows a rapid decline from ideal world to complete annihilation in a very short space of time. These flashbacks also serve as brief respite from the full-on action that defines much of the post-apocalyptic section of the novel. In this section, Kenstibec is a much different creature, whose optimisation has been forgotten in favour of driving a taxi, a job that comes with a certain amount of violence, to which Kenstibec appears to have taken quite easily.
There are elements here that we have seen before, from a wide range of influences: the Ficials probably most closely resemble Blade Runner‘s replicants, or the Cylons from the recent run of Battlestar Galactica – to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from humans, except that, internally, their bodies and brains are wired slightly differently; there are elements here of 28 Days Later (the road-trip section of that film is almost certainly a forerunner for Kenstibec’s southbound dash) and of Robert McCammon’s Swan Song though, if anything, the aftereffects of nuclear and/or chemical warfare play an even more important part in Barricade than they do in that classic of the genre. But there is one vital twist to Barricade that makes it stand out, makes it something special: Kenstibec, through whose eyes we see this incredibly detailed world, is a Ficial, a man intent on the destruction – culling, as it is almost comically known to the Ficials – of the human race. It’s an unusual angle, like The Walking Dead from the point of view of the zombies, but despite the stiff and robot-like personality that lies at Kenstibec’s core, it’s an angle that works extremely well, and offers a fresh perspective on the genre.
Kenstibec has been compared to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs. It’s easy to see why the comparison is made, but it’s a little too easy – and a little too trite – to compare the two. Despite the programming that drives him, Kenstibec has a unique outlook on life, coupled with a dark sense of humour and an almost-human desire for violence. Jon Wallace has pulled off quite a feat in his debut novel: he has created a character that is at once interesting enough to carry the reader along on the story, and also "underdeveloped" (not as a character, but as a person) enough to come across as not quite human. The contrast between him and the other Ficials, and him and any Reals we encounter, is interesting to watch, and shows that Kenstibec may well be a bridge between the two races, a man not quite one nor the other.
In the midst of all this action and world-building, Wallace still manages to take time out to poke fun at our current way of life, and at the cult of celebrity. Kenstibec’s fare – Starvie – has an interesting past that Kenstibec discovers when he sees a picture of her half-naked on the cover of a mens’ magazine; and when we meet the self-styled King of Newcastle, we learn that his celebrity in his former life is one of the main reasons for his elevated position in this one. These observations, through the eyes of a man designed not to be interested in such things, holds a mirror up to modern Britain and shows a somewhat unflattering reflection. Also included is a "god moment", which becomes inevitable from the moment Wallace introduces Dr Leo Pander, the man behind the genesis of the Ficial race, but the outcome of this meeting is not at all what the reader might expect and serves only to cement the impression we already have of Kenstibec.
At less than three hundred pages in length, Barricade is a refreshingly short and sweet addition to the genre, though it does little more than whet the appetite for the world. Whether Kenstibec will – or, indeed, should – be part of any further visits to Wallace’s post-apocalyptic Britain remains to be seen, but the world itself – and the history of how humanity reached this point – deserves a lot more investigation. I, for one, would welcome more of these bite-size chunks.
Start-to-finish action in a thoughtfully-constructed and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic Britain, Barricade introduces a brilliant new voice in the genre. With characters that we are drawn to, despite the fact that they would typically be the "enemy" in any other novel of this type, and a wicked sense of humour, Jon Wallace gives us a glimpse into one possible version of hell-on-earth that, in this world of constant technological advancement, could be just around the corner. Blistering pace and attention to detail (welcome to a world trapped in the midst of nuclear winter) combine to keep the reader engrossed and entertained. If you’re a fan of the genre, Barricade needs to be on your list, and Jon Wallace needs to be on your radar.
|Name: JON WALLACE
Author of: BARRICADE (2014)
On the web: thingaboutchickens.blogspot.co.uk
On Twitter: @Jon__Wallace
Kenstibec is the main character in Barricade. He is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans optimised for soldiering, engineering and other vital roles. They fought a war against humanity and turned Britain into a wasteland. Now they live in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors.
Kenstibec earns his keep as an armoured taxi driver, driving fellow Ficials from city to city. It’s not an easy job: getting a fare to a destination is not guaranteed when you have mined roads, corrosive rain and ambushing tribes to contend with.
A number of competing taxi franchises have sprung up in this challenging transport environment, offering very different vehicles. Here Kenstibec describes the main competitors, and his taxi own firm.
1. Aircraft: Ardeb Airways:
Ardeb is a frustrated Medical Model. Took up flying to take his mind off the cull, which rather conflicts with his Hippocratic optimisation. Flies nap-of-the-earth most of the way, a real skilled flyer by all accounts – but he only visits York and Leeds barricades as the others don’t have landing strips.
Unarmed “King Air”. Maximum speed: 315 MPH. Constantly requires treatment as weather chews through hydraulics for fun, even at the altitudes he flies. Flying that low means you generally pass any SAM-toting lunatic before he sees you – but you will get a strong taste of small arms fire. Be prepared to pick bullets out your rear for days after landing.
Also, your chances of completing the trip halve with every trip – that plane is going down one day. Ardeb treats the surfaces with anti-corrosive strips, but they’re usually fried by the middle of the return journey. After a crash, the last thing you want is to search a ten-mile debris field for your luggage.
Sure, he gets you where you’re going quick, but it’s one shaky ride and it’s damn expensive. The days of stylish air travel are dead. There’s not even an in flight meal.
2. Boat: Lennos:
Lennos is a former Rig Mechanic Model optimised for the ocean wave. Lives on his own on Lincolnshire Island. Only pops up when in need of supplies, so service is haphazard at best. Offers short jaunts to Liverpool or Portsmouth and even to Brixton along the dangerous Thames route.
Ex UK Border Force 42m cutter, with heavy adaptations – he named it Pander. Maximum Speed: 77 MPH. Armed with two automated GPMG positions to shred any tribal skiff that ventures too close. Powerful Ficial-designed Project 1208B-VV engines give the craft serious pace and manoeuvrability.
Sounds good right? Don’t sign up just yet. The craft is poorly suited to new littoral environment. Gronts hull is poorly fixed and takes on water. Several passengers had to literally hold the ship together under fire, while Lennos made repairs. In addition corrosive fogs chew up automated gun systems, causing them to misfire at awkward moments – alerting nearby tribes and shredding fares.
Seriously, not a good option. Lennos has a reputation for being unreliable and constantly late. Worse, his navigation skills are not what they ought to be. If you fancy taking three weeks to creep around The Great Humber Floodplain, beaching on submerged housing, sign up. If you just want to get where you’re going, find another way.
3. Tank: Optant Travel:
Optant is a Solider Model. After bomb dropped he drove tank all the way from Salisbury plain. One of a number of armoured fighting vehicle offerings at the beginning of Barricade days, but now one of the last tankists in business.
Vickers Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank. Maximum speed: 25-30 MPH. Armed with L30A1 rifled gun, 7.62 Cuploa machine gun, Gronts armour. There’s not much the Reals have that can challenge it, apart from maybe another tank, but I don’t believe they have the expertise to keep complex machinery like that in order. Optant’s adaptations have also made it well resistant to IEDs and the like, which took out many of his fellow tankists. Still, I would never drive a tank. You can’t see out, and progress is way too leisurely.
OK, I can see why you might think this a better option than what we offer: all that armour and weaponry can look attractive. But let me tell something about tanks: they’re slow, and they break down. They’re also hard to repair. There’s a reason Optant is the last tankist standing. Think about that when he gives you his sales pitch.
4. Landy: Shersult Taxis:
Shersult, another ex-soldier model, manages a varied fleet of augmented cars, driven by various models including me. We pride ourselves on reliability, customer service and lethality.
My own choice is a heavily adapted Land Rover Defender, produced by Rick’s Garage, Edinburgh. Complete on-board small arms provision. Limited Gronts armor plating. Top Speed: 165MPH. Other drivers favour other set-ups, but I believe in light, nippy, all-terrain transport.
Also, I occasionally use human guides. They are very useful if you want to pick your way quietly across the countryside. I pride myself on delivering luggage intact and unharmed, unlike some other drivers who think shooting their way along a straight line is the only option. I don’t underestimate people. I only kill them.
The sheer number of our drivers should indicate the extent to which our business model is successful. Choose Shersult taxis every time for reliable, speedy, safe travel. Also, tips are included in the final fare.
Barricade by Jon Wallace is published on the 19th June by Gollancz. You can download your e-book copy of Barricade for £1.99 until the 26th June 2014!