|GUN: A NOVELLA
Ray Banks (www.thesaturdayboy.com)
Here’s this week’s shameful secret: while I’ve been aware of Ray Banks for a number of years (a signed copy of his The Big Blind has been sitting on my shelves for close to five years), he’s not an author I’m at all familiar with. Gun, a short, sharp tale with a sting is my first exposure to his work.
It is the story of Richie, a young man on parole after serving eighteen months at a young offenders’ institution who, in an effort to get some money quickly and easily, breaks a promise to his pregnant girlfriend, and approaches Goose – the man for whom he has just served time – looking for a job. The job is a simple one: go and see a man named Florida Al and purchase a gun. But when Richie is mugged by a group of young thugs when he steps out of Florida Al’s house, his day takes a turn for the worse, and the job becomes a lot more complicated than it should have been.
Gun is old-school noir fiction at its best. From the opening pages, we’re made aware of the futility of Richie’s situation: he has just spent time in prison when naming the man for whom he was working would most likely have gained him his freedom. On returning to the same man now looking for work, he discovers that Goose has no recollection of who he is. This is a vicious circle that is unlikely to end well for the teen. And he is well aware that this is the case. But collecting a gun, while risky, is an easy job, and might just set him up with enough money to find a decent job with which he can support his family.
A detailed description of the storyline would sound outlandish and comical, moving as it does from one encounter to the next; it is anything but. It remains plausible throughout and while there is a vein of dark humour running throughout, it’s a dark and violent piece of fiction showing a day in the life of a teenage hoodlum in modern-day Newcastle. We’re introduced to a cast of realistic characters, none of whom – Richie included – have any redeeming features, and taken through a series of encounters that grow increasingly violent until the final bitter twist. You may discover at that point that you’ve been holding your breath for some time.
In Gun, Banks asks very little of the reader. Half an hour will see you through the story, and there are no mysteries to solve or convoluted plot points to decipher along the way. So for the payoff to be this satisfying, this worthwhile, is a nice surprise. It makes this novella an absolute must-read for lovers of noir in particular and – to be honest – good crime in general.
Casey Hill (www.caseyhillbooks.com)
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
“First in a new series featuring forensic investigator Reilly Steel,” the review copy informs me and I’m immediately on my guard. In my experience, this means one of two things: the author has already planned out the first twenty-seven books in the series and none of them are particularly good, or my bank account is about to take another long-term hit as I try to keep up with the annual release schedule of another must-read series.
Reilly Steel is an American crime scene investigator, trained at Quantico, and now living and working in Dublin trying to whip the new Garda Forensics Unit into some sort of shape. When a young couple is found dead in an apartment in an upscale part of the city, Reilly finds herself working with Detectives Chris Delaney and Pete Kennedy, and all three find themselves drawn into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer who is completely in control and, seemingly, one step ahead of the police. Reilly’s unorthodox working methods give the Gardai an edge they would otherwise have been missing, and it soon becomes evident, as the body count rises, that the killer is toying with Reilly directly..
Simon & Schuster seem to have cornered the market this year in thrillers written by people who normally write in other genres (see my ALTAR OF BONES review). Casey Hill is the pseudonym of husband and wife team Kevin and Melissa Hill. Melissa Hill, for anyone unaware, is one of Ireland’s major players in the so-called “chick lit” market. TABOO, as well as being the first book in the Reilly Steel series, is also the couple’s first thriller.
The plot picks up quickly, and we’re introduced to the characters as we find ourselves standing in the middle of the various crime scenes. Early on, the book suffers from a touch of what I like to call Pattersonitis: discoveries and deductions are made early in the chapter then referred to in veiled and, sometimes, convoluted terms so that it can be dropped on the reader as a massive revelation in the chapter’s final sentence. Fortunately, it’s not a full-blown case, and it’s a lot subtler than the look you, this is important! style that Patterson tends to use. But towards the middle of the book, it’s as if the Hills find their stride – and their voice – and the read becomes a lot more natural and a lot less frustrating.
The identity of the killer will become apparent to the reader a lot sooner than it does to Reilly and the detectives, but there’s still enough uncertainty – a mistrust of certain central characters threaded through the narrative – that it’s impossible to get cocky about it, and until the final reveal, you can’t quite be sure if you’re right. It’s something of a formulaic serial killer novel, but it’s a formula that works, and Hill’s style is fresh and interesting. This one is going to appeal to fans of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and probably even Boris Starling. It’s a fast-paced novel which will keep you on your toes and drop a new murder in your lap before you’ve finished trying to get your head around the first one. And while there’s no pervasive sense of place – TABOO could take place anywhere – it’s not overly important to the novel.
Steel is an interesting character – smart, sexy, damaged beyond belief – and has enough charm to carry a series. She’s also a lot more accessible than Kay Scarpetta or Temperance Brennan, mainly because Hill has kept the science to a minimum and concentrated on the excitement. It’s an assured debut with a number of issues, but if the evolution of writing style evident over the course of these four hundred odd pages is anything to go by, this is a writing team that has just hit its stride. I’m expecting great things from Reilly Steel #2. The Reilly Steel series will be hitting my bank account for the next few years at least.
|BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO
Roberto Saviano (www.robertosaviano.it)
Translated by Oonagh Stransky
MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)
If, like me, you’ve gone all this time not knowing who Roberto Saviano is, here’s the nutshell version: in 2006 Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist living and working in Naples, Italy, published Gomorrah. Part journalism, part literary novel, it details the workings and business dealings of the Camorra criminal organisation. Since shortly after publication, Saviano has had a price on his head, and has been living under protection in various undisclosed locations.
Beauty and the Inferno is a collection of essays and articles which, with a number of exceptions, have been written since the publication of Gomorrah. The book is split into five sections of roughly-related essays. The first and third sections (SOUTH and BUSINESS) deal directly with the Mafia, and it is these sections that showcase Saviano at his passionate best. His writing is urgent and angry – at the criminal organisations that rule his small corner of the world with an iron fist, and also at the people of Italy for their apathy which, he believes, is one of the key reasons the country is in its current state.
The second section of the book (MEN) is a series of profiles – and, in some cases, obituaries – of men (and one woman) who have affected Saviano in some way, and who he holds in high esteem. Here are stories of men who have defied all odds to live a full and rewarding life, men like the footballer Lionel Messi and the pianist Michel Petrucciani. Here also the tale of Saviano’s meeting with the man Johnny Depp made famous in the movie Donnie Brasco.
The fourth section (WAR) looks at the depiction of war in literature and the big screen. Saviano provides us with in-depth views on the novel that provided the source material for both Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as well as a brilliant piece on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, and the subsequent film of the same name. The final section (NORTH) is perhaps the weakest of the book. Three of the six essays in this section were written earlier in Saviano’s career and the difference is immediately obvious. Prolix and unwieldy, they are saved only by the section’s bookends: it begins with an essay about Saviano’s address to the Swedish Academy – the home of the Nobel Prize for literature – coupled with the speech that he gave; and ends with a piece about Anna Politkovskaya, a woman – Saviano’s Russian counterpart in many ways – killed because of her writings about the conflict in Chechnya. This section is ostensibly about writing, and the power of literature, and gives some insight into why Saviano continues to produce essays like these.
Saviano has a distinctive style, never more apparent than when he is talking about the Mafia. Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been. Most of the essays feel like very good thriller writing, in that they leave the reader breathless and wishing for more. Saviano is old beyond his years; reading Beauty and the Inferno it is sometimes easy to forget that this is a man barely into his thirties. And he has an important message, one aimed directly at the people of Italy, but one which applies indirectly to many other countries.
There are some parallels with the articles of Chris Rose, whose 2006 collection, One Dead in Attic – a compilation of his Times-Picayune columns – is a chronicle of life in New Orleans following the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rose shows the same anger for the corrupt government in his adopted city, and the apathy of the people of New Orleans and America. Both men have the same underlying message: “don’t let me be the voice in the wilderness. We can change this, but we all need to pull our weight.”
Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction. There is an abundance of zombie fiction on the go these days, and it’s one of the sub-genres of horror where people aren’t afraid to experiment and play with the tropes, which keeps it somewhat fresher than you might expect. So we find ourselves dealing with the rotting recent-dead of Romero’s Dead movies, as well as the virus-infected zombies of the 28 <Arbitrary Time Period> Later films, and those affected by unidentified radio waves, as in Stephen King’s Cell. To my mind, though, there has always been a bit of a gap in the post-apocalypse sub-genre, particularly when zombies are involved, and it always occurs to me in the form of a question when I’m reading such a book: the author focuses on a set of survivors who have lived through whatever disaster forms the setup for the story, and how they cope in the post-apocalyptic world, but what about those people physically removed from civilisation at that point in time? I’m usually thinking along the lines of the handful of men and women who are currently sitting on the International Space Station, but you get the idea.
Adam Baker’s first novel, Outpost, finally fills this gap. As the novel opens we find ourselves in the Arctic oil fields, bedded down on Kasker Rampart, an oil refinery manned by a skeleton crew of fifteen, awaiting their imminent return to society before the refinery is shut down, or relocated. Weeks before the ship is due to arrive to evacuate them back to Britain, they begin to see worrying news reports on the 24-hour news stations – people are turning violent, killing those around them; a trend that seems to be spreading around the globe. As, one by one, the channels begin to go off-air, leaving the crew with the uneasy suspicion that there might be no home to return to, they begin to make plans, driven by the fast approaching winter (and the months of endless night that come with it) and a rapidly dwindling store of supplies.
The bulk of the story is told from the point of view of Jane Blanc, a priest assigned to run Rampart’s chapel, a thankless job that sees her mainly ostracised from the rest of the crew and on the verge of suicide before things start to go wrong in the outside world. Jane’s development from these humble beginnings to the leader of the ragged crew is well-documented and very believable. We follow her as factions form within the crew, and alliances are made, broken, remade. For the first half, this is a zombie novel at one remove: there are no zombies here, but they are out there somewhere, of no danger to our characters. It’s a story of survival against all odds and the characters – and their development over the course of an unknown time period – are brilliantly realised.
Halfway through, the game changes, and infection intervenes, bringing with it a whole host of new challenges for the crew of Rampart. Yes, this is a virus-induced zombification, and it is never made clear how the infection started or where, exactly, it came from. Sure, there are hints, but it’s secondary to the main story here, and the direction Baker takes us means that we never need – nor want – to find out, because we’re too busy following what’s going on. Suffice it to say that the latter half of the novel is closer to the traditional zombie formula, but by no means a rehash of anything that has gone before.
The novel is told in clipped, matter-of-fact tones and short, snappy sentences of the type you’d expect to find in hard-boiled detective fiction. Along with numerous jump-cuts, this serves the plot well: it builds tension, and it helps to remove a sense of time – we have no idea if what’s happening is happening over the course of hours, days, weeks or months. We can guess at various points, but it’s next to impossible to pin anything down for sure. Baker has no such qualms with sense of place: you’re fully aware for the duration of exactly where you are. This is the desolate wastes of the Arctic and it’s cold! That’s not a fact you’ll forget easily as you read.
In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.