I hope you will forgive this break from the usual straightforward literary(?) criticism for this personal note to explain the relative quiet at Reader Dad of late, and to apologise to authors, publishers, publicists and potential readers for the lack of reviews written and published on the site since mid-February.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will already be aware that 2013 thus far has been something of a challenging time for me. This past Saturday, May 4th, saw my family and that of my fiancée gathered in Prague for our wedding, an event that is stressful enough for those involved without one of the parties spending most of the preceding three months either admitted to, or frequently attending, hospital. Thanks, though, to the wonderful staff of Ward 1B at Lagan Valley Hospital (go on, give them a virtual round of applause) we made it, and the day went off without a hitch (well, apart from the obvious one).
A combined total of five weeks as a hospital in-patient, not to mention the fact that I’ve been off work since early February, has given me plenty of reading time (by this time last year, I was working my way through book number 23; I’m currently on 2013’s 30th book). Limited Internet access for the same period meant that reviews were few and far between: at the moment I’m sitting on a backlog of fourteen un-reviewed books.
It is a sad fact that if I don’t review a book almost immediately after reading it, it isn’t worth me reviewing it at all. I read so much that it’s difficult to remember what I felt while reading the book to such a degree that I could produce a solid and reliable review several months later. There will, of course, always be those stand-out books that remain with me for much longer, and I will attempt to review these more completely in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, there are those “lost” reads, and after much deliberation, I have decided on a bite-sized review of each so that people can see whether I enjoyed them or not, and what the highs and lows of 2013’s first quarter or so have been for me.
For the readers, I apologise that there aren’t more complete reviews of the following books. They have all been uniformly excellent, and I can recommend them unreservedly.
For the publicists, my sincere apologies that these books have not been given the same treatment as others, despite the fact that I have read and enjoyed them all. For September at Transworld, Jon at Gollancz, Angela at Orion, Nicci at MacLehose, Bethan at Chatto & Windus, Becci at Head of Zeus, Sophie at Titan and Alison at Atlantic, my particular apologies for the books listed below.
For everyone, while I have you here, I also wanted to mention an experiment I will be trying at Reader Dad over the next month or two. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, and the introduction of his iconic character, Parker, University of Chicago Press have finally obtained worldwide rights for the publication of the entire Parker series. In honour of this, I will be running a Parker@50 event here at Reader Dad, with in-depth reviews of the entire series appearing over the course of the coming months. I hope you’ll join me for this.
In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank you all for your continued support of Reader Dad, and I look forward to welcoming you back to a more regular schedule in the coming days and weeks. Enjoy the mini-reviews below.
Yours most sincerely,
Roger Hobbs (www.rogerhobbs.com)
£9.99The unnamed narrator of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel is a ghostman, the member of a heist team responsible for disguises and safe dispersal and disappearance of the team after the job. When an Atlantic City casino is robbed, he receives a call from a man he’d much rather forget. The ghostman has just forty-eight hours to retrieve the money, with the FBI and rival gangs on his case.
What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.
|DREAMS AND SHADOWS
C. Robert Cargill
£14.99As an infant, Ewan Thatcher is stolen from his parents by faeries and replaced with the changeling Nixie Knocks. Several years later, the young boy Colby Stephens meets Yashar, a djinn, who grants him a wish: to be able to see beyond the veil, to the world of faerie, of myths and legends. C. Robert Cargill’s first novel follows the first thirty years or so of the lives of these three boys, and charts their impact on the real world around them, and the magical world that lies just beyond the veil.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.
|RAGE AGAINST THE DYING
Becky Masterman (beckymasterman.com)
£12.99When we first meet Brigid Quinn, it is as Gerald Peasil is trying to abduct her, thinking her to be much more frail than she turns out to be. And therein lies the heart of this unusual story. Elderly lady detectives traditionally fit into the more “cosy” crime stories – Jessica Fletcher, for example, or the grandmother of them all, Jane Marple – so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Brigid is a retired FBI agent and that Becky Masterman’s debut, Rage Against the Dying, is anything but cosy.
As a much younger woman, Quinn hunted serial killers with the FBI. Small and blond, she was the perfect bait for a certain type of predator. As she grew older, it became time to pass the baton, and Quinn’s trainee was killed by the very killer they were trying to catch. Now in her retirement, Quinn finds herself pulled back into the case when young Jessica’s body is finally found, and they have a man in custody claiming to have killed her all those years ago.
Quinn is as far from those stereotypical old lady detectives as it is possible to be: a chequered past at the Bureau and an unusual reaction to Peasil’s attempted abduction leave the reader with the distinct impression that this is a dark and deeply flawed character. As the novel takes one dark turn after another, it quickly becomes clear that Quinn is more than capable of looking after herself, while keeping her loved ones as far removed from the trouble as possible. Surprisingly, I loved Rage Against the Dying, and look forward to seeing what’s next for Brigid Quinn. It helps, I think, that Ms Masterman isn’t afraid to make her character suffer for the reader’s enjoyment. And there’s not a knitting needle in sight.
OUTSIDERS: ITALIAN STORIES
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Outsiders is a collection of six stories and essays from leading Italian writers examining the concept, as the title might suggest, of not belonging. Uniformly excellent, the collection does have a couple of stand-out moments, which are worth the price of admission alone.
Roberto Saviano’s The Opposite of Death is the story of a young woman in rural Italy widowed before she is even married. Her fiancé has gone to war in Afghanistan, never to return. Written in the same style as Saviano’s reportage – it’s difficult to tell whether The Opposite of Death is fact or fiction, or some combination of the two – it’s a touching account of a young woman’s attempt to carry on with life in a town that she has lived since birth, but where she feels she no longer belongs. As we’ve come to expect from Saviano, it’s a story that brings a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, without ever resorting to anything other than straight, factual reporting.
Piero Colaprico’s Stairway C introduces carabinieri maresciallo Pietro Binda to the English-speaking world. A man is found murdered outside a social housing complex in Milan. Binda finds himself faced with an endless line-up of possible suspects, from the drug dealers who live on stairway C, to friends and possible lovers of the man. Binda is a breath of fresh air in a genre bursting at the seams with depressed, alcoholic, drug-taking detectives. Stairway C is but a taster of the Italian policeman’s exploits, and we can but hope that the wonderful MacLehose consider translating some of the novels into English in the near future.
|THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES
Chatto & Windus (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/chatto-windus)
£14.99Tristan Hart is a medical student, madman and deviant. He is obsessed with pain; in his more lucid times it is the nature of pain and how to prevent it. His ultimate desire is to find the perfect scream, and in this guise his obsession is causing maximum pain without inflicting permanent damage.
Despite the odd title, which might suggest a more supernatural, or fantastical storyline, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is a straightforward, old-fashioned melodrama. Beautiful writing – Wolf expends a lot of effort in ensuring language is used to its full effect – and stunning book design – including everything down to the font used, and old-fashioned capitalisation of nouns – combine to create a fully immersive experience for the reader. Thankfully, the story is worthy of the attention lavished upon it and the reader will come away unsure of whether to love, hate or feel sorry for Tristan Hart. Whichever, it’s a story that will remain with the reader for some time after the final page, and showcases Jack Wolf as a new author that we’ll be watching out for.
Graham Masterton (www.grahammasterton.co.uk)
Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)
£16.99One-time horror master Graham Masterton makes the jump to crime fiction with the first in a series of novels featuring Cork’s only female Garda detective, Katie Maguire. When work on a farm outside Cork turns up the bones of eleven women, Katie Maguire is assigned to the case. The bones have been in the ground for a long time, but it’s clear that they were skinned alive, and that there is something ritualistic about the killings. As Katie comes under pressure to consign the case to the history books, an American tourist disappears. Her bones, similarly stripped, are found laid out in an arcane pattern on the same farm.
White Bones is a wonderful introduction to Katie Maguire, a character with more than her fair share of crosses to bear – sexism in the workplace the most obvious, but longstanding tension at home over the death of a child doesn’t help. Despite (or possibly because of) that, she’s the perfect lead, and gives Masterton free rein to examine issues outside of the central plotline. The author lived in Cork for five years, and takes great delight in showing off his knowledge – from local geography and history, to grasp of the local dialect and inter-character banter. Despite the fact that much of the action takes place outside of the city, Masterton still manages to make Cork an important character in itself, and it helps to ground the novel and give the reader a sense of place.
A welcome addition to the genre, Masterton isn’t afraid to stick to his roots, and introduce a hint of the supernatural into the proceedings. Broken Angels, the second Katie Maguire book, is due from Head of Zeus in September this year. It’s on my “must read” list. I guarantee it will be on yours too once you read White Bones.
|WEB OF THE CITY
Harlan Ellison® (harlanellison.com)
Titan Books / Hard Case Crime (titanbooks.com / hardcasecrime.com)
£7.99Harlan Ellison® is best known these days for his science fiction work, and for his penchant for controversy. His first novel, originally published in 1958, was an examination of New York’s street gangs, inspired by Ellison’s experience going undercover in a Brooklyn gang. Rusty Santoro wants out. Given a glimpse of two possible futures by his teacher, he knows which one he wants and school, rather than the gangs, is the way to achieve it. But quitting the gangs is not quite as easy as it seems, and Rusty quickly discovers that his is not the only life in danger from his actions.
Web of the City is a short, violent piece of work that fits perfectly into the Hard Case Crime library. Ellison perfectly evokes New York of the late 1950s, and focuses on the young men who make up the gangs that effectively ran entire neighbourhoods during the period. Most striking for the modern reader, perhaps, is the age of these boys: barely old enough to hold a license to drive a car, they are armed to the teeth and elicit fear wherever they go. The story has aged well, and will appeal to a modern, jaded audience, who don’t mind a bit of blood with their cornflakes. It still has the power to shock – the knife-fight between Rusty and the new president of the Cougars is frightening in its intensity and violence – and it is this power that will set it apart even from much of today’s crime fiction.
The Hard Case Crime/Titan edition of the book includes three related short stories, which are all also worth the read, despite the fact that one of them is a rehash of a large section of the novel with a different ending, which lends a completely different tone to the piece. Grease meets Battle Royale, Web of the City is pure Hard Case, and should be essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of crime fiction.
Graham Rawle (www.grahamrawle.com)
Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)
£14.99Everyone knows a Riley Richardson. He’s the local anorak, carrier bag always in hand, always happy to talk the ear off anyone willing to listen about his chosen specialist subject, be it books (ahem!), or model trains, or whatever. In Riley Richardson’s case, that subject is bubble-gum cards, and Riley is on a life-long mission to find the elusive card 19 from the 1967 Mission: Impossible TV series. When a grey-haired man who looks remarkably like the leader of the Impossible Mission Force drops a playing card in a deserted alley, Riley picks it up, and finds himself on a quest to save the Princess of Wales, and to find that fabled card.
The story itself is wonderful, driven by the quirky character of Riley Richardson, a man with a quite different outlook on life than the rest of us. There’s a definite feel-good quality to the story, and Rawle has an uncanny ability to make the reader laugh out loud at the least appropriate moment. What sets The Card apart from everything else, though, has to be the design and construction quality of the overall package. Printed on a heavier, glossier stock than you tend to find in a paperback book, the author uses different fonts, emphasises different words, and includes little markings in the margins to produce a work of art that is much more than the story held within. The most beautiful part of the book is, without doubt, the fact that it contains full-colour representations of the various cards that Riley finds along the way, all designed and illustrated by the author himself. The Card is, quite simply, an absolute delight.
|THE KILLING POOL
Jonathan Cape (http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)
Detective Chief Inspector Billy McCartney is part of Merseyside Police’s Drug Squad, his focus currently on the Rozaki brothers who have a monopoly on Liverpool’s heroin trade. When McCartney’s informant, the youngest of the Rozaki brothers is found dead and dismembered in a park, McCartney knows he has limited time before full scale war breaks out in the city. Hiding the identity of the body, McCartney starts to look into the young man’s death and the disappearance of his girlfriend. As he digs, he finds connections to older crimes, other Drug Squad operations that have a direct and personal impact on him, and which are coming back to haunt him as his career, and his life, seem to be falling apart at the seams.
Kevin Sampson’s ninth novel, the first of a series of novels featuring DCI Billy McCartney, takes us to a dark and unsavoury side of Liverpool completely at odds with the city’s revamped look and one-time European Capital of Culture status. It’s a side of the city that we’re unlikely to see in any brochures: a melting pot of crime and drug trafficking that has changed little over the almost thirty year period that the novel covers. Against this background, Sampson introduces us to a cast of police and criminals where the dividing line between “good” and “evil” is much more subtle than whether the person carries a badge.
The story is told in first person, from the point of view of a handful of key characters. For the most part, we find ourselves in the head of McCartney, but other characters get the chance to stick their oar in from time to time, giving us a rounder, more complete view of what’s going on than we might have got from a more traditional first person narrative, while providing a deeper understanding of these characters than we might have received from a third-person narrative. For the most part, the characters are living, breathing people, each with a unique voice, and distinctive vocal tics. There are others, however, perhaps deliberately, who feel a little two-dimensional, caricatures of stereotypes; I’m thinking mainly of Alfie Manners here, a sexist, racist policeman whose attitudes and outlooks don’t change at all in the twenty-eight years between the time we first meet him and the main present-day setting of the story. He’s a dinosaur, but he is a known entity, a character we have seen before and from whom we know what to expect.
McCartney is the polar opposite, and is the perfect character to keep us coming back for more. A drug user himself, McCartney harbours a grudge against his superior officer for a perceived slight during an operation fifteen years earlier. Now, as things start to come to a head, McCartney finds himself butting heads with that same officer, Hubert Hodge, once more. What are the man’s motives? Can he be trusted? These are questions to which the reader has no answer, despite the fact that we have more insight into Hodge than McCartney ever could. The drug use and McCartney’s past leave the reader unsure where even his loyalties lie, but he has a certain quality that makes us want to trust him, makes us hope that he will turn out to be a good guy when everything is said and done.
What David Peace did for the West Yorkshire Constabulary of the late seventies and early eighties, and James Ellroy did for the Los Angeles Police Department of the forties and fifties, so Kevin Sampson does for the Merseyside Police of the early eighties through to the present day. At once a tale of crime and drugs, The Killing Pool is also an examination of the widespread police corruption that allows the evil to not only exist, but to thrive in one of the UK’s most important industrial and tourist centres. In Hubert Hodge, Sampson presents modern day England’s answer to Dudley Smith – a man of such moral ambiguity, with so much power, and the uncanny ability to cover his own tracks that it is impossible to know what he is capable of, and whether he should be trusted. While he plays a key role in the novel, he spends most of it lurking at the edges of the action, and of our consciousness. He is, for this reader at least, the crowning glory of a rock-solid example of what British crime fiction can and should be.
The Killing Pool gives us a look at the unexpectedly dark underside of Liverpool through the eyes of the police and criminals that populate it. A noirish tale (Mersey Noir?), it entices the reader in with wonderful, stylish prose and engaging characters and ultimately leaves them reeling from a series of ever-more-shocking revelations. Like the drug users it portrays, it leaves us pining for more, stringing us along with the promise that this is only the first in a series of novels featuring Billy McCartney. Comparable to the aforementioned Peace and Ellroy (though with a much less abrupt writing style than either), The Killing Pool should appeal to fans of both, and to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction dark, ambiguous and surprising. Kevin Sampson has, quite simply, nailed it, producing if not the best, then certainly the most original piece of crime fiction so far this year.
|THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER
Calum MacLean is twenty-nine years old and lives alone in Glasgow. He is a killer for hire, a hit-man who takes jobs to suit his own schedule and which allow him to minimise the risk to himself. When he accepts a job from Peter Jamieson, he is accepting a more permanent position within the Jamieson organisation. The move has perks, but with it comes a certain loss of freedom. The job is a straightforward one: kill Lewis Winter, a drug dealer so far down the food chain from the Jamieson organisation that he shouldn’t even be on their radar. But Winter is moving into Jamieson’s territory, and looks to have potential backing from a bigger player.
With this simple premise, Malcolm Mackay sets the events of his debut novel in motion. While Calum is ostensibly the story’s central character, he spends a good portion of the novel in the shadows, as perhaps befits his chosen career. Mackay spends time introducing us to the victim and his nearest and dearest, as well as various factions within Glasgow’s criminal underworld, and members of the Strathclyde Police. The lines of moral distinction between these characters are deliberately blurred: there are no good guys and bad guys in this story; Calum may be a cold-blooded killer, but he is also a man doing his job, while the handful of police officers seem to have agendas of their own in carrying out their investigations. The reader is left to form their own impressions and decide for themselves where their sympathy lies.
Mackay’s narrative style is beautiful. Using a conversational tone – a “just between us” approach to telling the story – coupled with the telegraphic style of James Ellroy’s finest works (though perhaps a bit more passive than Ellroy’s abrasive style), he places us directly in the middle of the action and, to a certain extent, makes us accomplices to what is going on. Frequent use of the word “you” – in the general sense, rather than the jarring second-person approach – makes this an easy and engaging read. We’re given details grudgingly, as if they don’t really matter to the story – they often don’t, but they paint a picture, make the characters seem more human, give us something to identify with in a group of people who are, for the most part, people we wouldn’t necessarily want to associate with.
Saturday afternoon, football on the radio in the background, sitting on the couch with a book. The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham, if you must know, and he’s fascinated by it. It has lured his attention away from the radio; he doesn’t know what the score is any more. The older he gets, the less important that seems.
We’re lured quickly into a world where no-one talks straight, and where every question, every answer, every gesture has an implicit meaning that only members of this secret club can decipher. There’s a thrill to this for the reader, a sense that we are being given a glimpse behind the curtain, a brief look at a world that exists outside the boundaries of our normal experiences.
The clues are all there if you care to look for them. Perhaps you don’t care to; most people don’t. A casual conversation: two people who know each other on a first-name basis, without being too close. Friends who see each other on a weekly rather than daily basis. Friends who don’t care. Phone calls like that are made so often, so why care? It’s a job offer. A very definite offer of something long-term and lucrative.
The novel takes us through preparation, attempt and subsequent investigation, showing us the story from a number of different angles in the process. There is no mystery here for the reader as we, like the narrator, can see everything that is going on. But mystery was never the point; this is about the people, their relationships with each other, their interactions, their lies and half-truths. It is also the setup for a much larger story, the first part of Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy which is set to continue later this summer. If Mackay can maintain this momentum with the second and third parts of the trilogy, it stands to challenge Derek Raymond’s Factory series and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet as the benchmark for British noir fiction.
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.
Photograph © Dan Stack
|Name: DANIEL POLANSKY
On the web: www.danielpolansky.com
On Twitter: @danielpolansky
Daniel Polansky’s first novel, The Straight Razor Cure was published in 2011, its mix of fantasy and Chandleresque hardboiled private detective appealing to a broad range of readers. His second novel is published this year by Hodder, and returns us to the world of Low Town and the adventures of Warden.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Daniel.
The most striking thing, for me, was what I called the obliteration of genre lines in my review of The Straight Razor Cure. This is most definitely a fantasy world, but it’s a very standard private eye setup, with a very hardboiled or noir feel to it. It’s probably a "chicken or egg" question, but which came first: did you set out to write a detective novel, fantasy novel, both or neither?
Both, really. I’m a big fan of classic noir, in terms of the style of prose and the traditionally grim world outlook. I thought it would be fun to try and transpose some of that into a fantasy setting, see how they meshed together.
Your main character, Warden, comes with massive back story, of which we glimpse bits and pieces as the story progresses. Tomorrow, The Killing gives us more insight. His past is part of what makes him one of the most engaging characters in modern fantasy. How do you approach writing from his point of view, and how much of the back story do you know?
For whatever reason, I was always very comfortable with Warden’s voice, even when I had just begun working on Straight Razor Cure. At this point it’s really a pretty well worn groove, sometimes I find myself thinking like him without even meaning to. As far as his back story goes, I would say that I’ve got a pretty clear idea of the most critical points, though sometimes he still surprises me in the details.
Likewise Low Town itself. The city is divided neatly into different areas; it’s something of a melting pot for different religions and races. There is a lot of history here. How do you go about creating a city on this scale – did you use a real-world reference, and is it mapped out anywhere other than in your head?
The city is really an amalgam of a lot of different places I’ve been. If you look very closely you can see a few echoes of Baltimore, where I grew up, but its nothing that substantial. The truth is Rigus is kind of whatever I need it to be at any given moment in the story. I sort of deliberately left a lot of it undefined so as to give me more room to maneuver.
It’s great to be back in the city for Tomorrow, The Killing. How far into the future have you projected? Is this a finite arc with a definite endpoint, or a more sprawling collection of vaguely interrelated tales? Are we likely to see the city through the eyes of any other characters, or is the Low Town series really also the Warden series?
To me the Low Town series is intrinsically about the Warden, I’m not really sure how I would write a book in this world without him. I’ve got a pretty clear end in mind for the characters, though you never know—sometimes things develop differently than you originally intend.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
So many, really. I could just fill a page. But as far as Low Town, my main influences were guys like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. Classic hard-boiled detective stuff.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
That’s a hard question to answer—there are a ton of books that I love, that I think are tremendous and wish I had written in the sense that I wish I had the talent and experience of the person who had written it. But on the other hand, the book you write is obviously about who you are as a person, so in a sense to wish you had written another person’s book is to wish you were that person. And that road leads pretty straight to madness. So I’m going to say no, I think I’ll stand pat, thanks.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Daniel Polansky look like?
I spend most of my time traveling, so that ends up really dictating where and how I get to write. I don’t really have a routine per se, I just try and get a thousand words in every day, whether it’s in a cafe or on a train or just waiting around a bus station.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Read. Read a ton, read all the time, read the most difficult and dense things you can make yourself read, even if you plan on writing lighter genre stuff. Don’t get boxed into only consuming the fiction that you find yourself comfortable with, or you’ll never acquire a palette broad enough to do anything of valuable. And obviously, write because you enjoy writing, and not because you hope to have any concrete success in it. The process has to be the most important part, or you’re wasting your time.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
At this exact moment I’m trying to finish Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. At one point I think it was for pleasure, but after 9,000 pages I couldn’t exactly say that I’m loving every moment of it.
Would you like to see the Low Town novels make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
Ooooh—I’ll say David Lynch, just to be provocative. Though on the other hand, his foray into genre stuff (Dune) was pretty terrible. On the other other hand, it was interestingly terrible, so I’ll stick with David Lynch. .
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Jorge Louis Borges, drinking franziskaner hefeweizen, discussing past lives. Probably a red wine would be more appropriate, but seeing as how it’s not going to happen one way or the other, we might as well be drinking my favorite beer.
|TOMORROW, THE KILLING (LOW TOWN 2)
Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Earlier this year, I read, reviewed and fairly raved about Daniel Polansky’s debut novel, The Straight Razor Cure. Picking up three years after the events of that first book, Polansky’s second novel – and the second volume of the Low Town series – takes us back to Low Town, this time around in the grip of an unbearable heat wave. (The) Warden finds himself for the first time in over a decade in the home of General Edwin Montgomery. The general’s daughter, the headstrong Rhaine, has abandoned the family home and moved to Low Town in an attempt to find out what happened to her brother, the infamous Roland, whose death, she is convinced, was not the suicide that it appeared to be. Warden has a history with Roland, having served under him during the Dren War; it’s a history of respect and friendship, but there is also a darker side to the relationship, forged when their paths – and political ideologies – diverged following the end of the war. Driven by a sense of debt to the family, Warden locates the girl, and soon finds himself playing with a political time bomb that could explode at any moment.
All of the elements that made The Straight Razor Cure are once more in evidence here: the political, religious, racial hotpot that is Low Town and the gritty feel that makes it feel more real that many fantasy settings; the genre-bending plotline that makes this neither fantasy nor mystery, but some clever combination of the two; and Warden himself, in whose voice we hear the story. There are, of course, plenty of new characters around which Polansky has constructed his story; what’s unexpected, though, is the evolution of the city and the world – there are new areas in Low Town that we’ve never visited before, new organisations and gangs that we have never met. In choosing to introduce us to the place in bite-sized chunks, Polansky makes the place feel fluid, and ensures that the setting is unlikely to feel stale or uninteresting at any point in the near future.
Unlike The Straight Razor Cure, which takes a mostly linear approach to storytelling, Tomorrow, The Killing takes a slightly different approach. The narrative jumps around, sometimes recounting the events of here and now, sometimes events that occurred during the Dren War, and sometimes events that took place between the end of the war and the death of Roland Montgomery. The flashbacks serve to show us a new side of Warden while, at the same time, filling in some of the blanks in the history of this fascinating place. The trench war against the Dren has a First World War feeling to it, while the setup of the Veterans’ Association shows that the Crown and Black House are not as all-powerful as they might have appeared; there is a powerful political opposition force in place, and this provides the basis for the thrust of the story.
With an element of the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing (itself a remake of Akiro Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), we find Warden in the centre of a potential gang war and uprising. Pitting one side against the other, and using minor gangs to sow the seeds of distrust, awakening old enmities, Warden’s aim is no less than the downfall of one side or the other, all in the pursuit of the truth behind the death of Roland Montgomery. Warden has a credible “in” with both sides (Montgomery’s friend and a veteran himself, his approach to the Veterans’ Association is seen as a natural step, while his conversations with Black House are inevitable considering his history there) which gives the entire story a firm foundation and keeps things well inside the realms of possibility (all things considered). Polansky takes his time getting all the pieces into place, which makes the payoff all the more worthwhile.
There are a couple of niggles in continuity (like the fact that Warden is now often referred to as “The Warden”), but nothing major, and most explained away by the shifting nature of the world that Polansky is effectively constructing “on the fly”, adding places or historical events as and when they are needed. There is nothing here to detract from the story. Tomorrow, The Killing is, to a certain degree, a standalone novel – the Low Town novels are not part of a traditional fantasy series, but rather a series of stories held together by location and character. While chronological reading would be advised, there’s no reason Tomorrow, The Killing isn’t a good place to jump in for new readers. Polansky set the bar extremely high with his first novel, so it’s difficult to pick this one up with anything other than lowered expectations. This book is a slightly different beast and, while it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor, it does bring enough to the table to make it a worthy successor and, most importantly, a worthwhile read.
With the same mix of fantasy and noir, and the added ingredient of playing one powerful side off against another, Tomorrow, The Killing succeeds in presenting a complete and engaging story while keeping the Low Town series on track as one of the best fantasy and/or crime series currently on the market. I, personally, am pleased to see the fantasy-lite cover gone, replaced by something a bit darker that will fit well in any section of a bookshop. Far from sophomore slump, Polansky builds on the success of his first novel, continuing the world-building as he goes: new areas of town, new characters, new political forces and histories, all of which combine to keep the reader interested in what’s going on, and wishing for more once it’s all over. Tomorrow, The Killing reads well as a standalone fantasy-crime-thriller, but readers who start with The Straight Razor Cure will, inevitably, come through with a much more rounded experience. Overall, it’s one not to be missed, regardless of your genre preferences.
|THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS
James M. Cain
Hard Case Crime (hardcasecrime.com)
Back in September 2004, Hard Case Crime – then an imprint of American publisher Dorchester – launched with Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game. The idea behind the line, as evidenced by the lurid, pulpy (yet beautiful) covers, was to reproduce the feel of those early hard-boiled novels of the ‘40s and ‘50s, by publishing works both newly-written and long out of print. The imprint moved from Dorchester to the UK-based Titan Books, re-launching on the line’s seventh anniversary, ethos intact despite the change of format, and loss of uniformity. Their latest book, number HCC-109 in the series, is the lost final novel of James M. Cain, a man credited as one of the founders of the hard-boiled genre.
Joan Medford is twenty-one years old and recently-widowed. So recently, in fact, that when we first meet her, she is standing at her husband’s graveside attending his funeral. Drunk and abusive, he ploughed his car into a culvert at seventy miles per hour when Joan kicked him out of the house. Now Joan is penniless – her utilities have been cut off, and it is only a matter of time before she loses her house – and under suspicion of murdering her husband. To top it all off, the woman who suspects her most – her husband’s sister – is caring for Joan’s three-year-old son, and has designs to make the arrangement more permanent. When a policeman suggests she speak to the owner of a local restaurant, Joan finds herself working as a scantily-clad cocktail waitress, and it is in this role that she meets the wealthy Earl K. White III. In an attempt to ensure her own security, and the future of her child, Joan ingratiates herself with the older man, but soon finds matters complicated by the arrival on the scene of a much younger man with designs of his own.
At first glance, it’s a classic noirish setup, a love triangle with wealth at one corner, jealousy at another and that staple of hard-boiled fiction – the femme fatale – at the third. But here Cain introduces a clever twist that casts a new light on an old trope: the story is told in the form of a recording made by Joan Medford designed to prove her innocence in the death of her husband, and in the events that unfold during the course of the novel. With this untrustworthy narrator as our guide, it is left to the reader to decide for themselves what to believe, and how innocent Mrs Medford actually is.
In The Cocktail Waitress, Cain has produced a finely-crafted story where everything is important, and not a single word is wasted. Obviously a disciple of Chekhov’s gun, Cain plays the long game, introducing important facts early in the story that will be of consequence later: the medical condition, the drug and the bail-skipper subplot that, while seemingly unrelated to the main story, ultimately leads to life-threatening complications for Joan Medford.
Cain’s foundation here is the characters that inhabit his story; a bunch of misfits and rogues, dirty old men and beautiful young women willing to take advantage. What makes them realistic, keeps the reader engaged, is Cain’s ear for language. Sharp and full of wit, the dialogue drives the story as much as, if not more than, the narrative. The relationship between these characters is the crux of the story, and detailing their verbal interactions – how they speak to each other, what they say – is the most effective way of showing how these relationships evolve over the course of the novel.
As you might expect from the title, and the glorious Michael Koelsch cover painting, The Cocktail Waitress can be somewhat risqué. Fairly tame by modern standards, Cain’s contemporary audience would likely have viewed it in a much different light. Sex plays a pivotal role in the plot, but Cain never dwells, never offers more detail than the brief sketch that is required to drive the story forward, and ensure the reader is in no doubt when they reach the book’s conclusion. And what a conclusion! The untrustworthy narrator leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination: how much involvement did she have in the death of her husband? How much involvement did she have in the events that followed? Is she as innocent as she claims, or is there some medium ground between the angel she portrays and the devil we might imagine? One thing is never in doubt though: that final paragraph is a gut-wrenching, shocking twist of the knife that leaves its victim – the narrator herself – completely in the dark.
I’m relatively new to Cain’s work, having previously only read The Postman Always Rings Twice, so I’ll leave comparisons between this novel and his previous novels to people more qualified than I. With that in mind, I can’t recommend The Cocktail Waitress highly enough. It’s an old-fashioned noir tale told from a fresh perspective that challenges both the author and the long-time reader of the genre. Cain’s final novel deserves an audience, and all credit to series editor Charles Ardai who worked so hard to ensure that it saw the light of day in its current coherent incarnation (the book contains an excellent essay by Ardai on the process that brought the novel from discovery to publication). It’s a novel worthy of the Hard Case Crime yellow ribbon, and a beautiful example of a wonderful, though oft-maligned, genre.
|THE STRAIGHT RAZOR CURE (LOW TOWN 1)
Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)
Warden is a drug dealer and hard man on the streets of Low Town. Ex-soldier, ex-lawman, it is only his past that keeps him above suspicion when he stumbles upon the body of a young girl. When a second body is found, Warden receives an offer he can’t refuse from his old boss: solve the crime in seven days, or die a slow and painful death at the hands of the Questioners. As the body count rises and time moves inexorably forward, Warden finds himself in the middle of something best left alone: inhuman creatures, last glimpsed over a decade ago on the battlefield, are roaming the streets of Low Town, and the long-banished plague looks set to return. But the truth of the matter is this: Warden is the only man in Low Town who can find the perpetrator and stop the wave of destruction.
You might be excused for thinking The Straight Razor Cure is just another fantasy clone, or an Assassin’s Creed-style video game adaptation. The fantasy-lite cover does nothing to dispel this notion, and while the blurb is slightly more helpful, it’s still not perfect. It took me awhile to pick this one up off the shelf, but within a handful of pages, I was more than well aware that this was something new and fresh – quite possibly the newest, freshest fantasy novel since Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It is, in short, the bastard son of George R. R. Martin and Raymond Chandler, an unusual combination of hard-boiled crime novel in a fantasy world setting.
Daniel Polansky’s first novel – and the first novel in a series set in Low Town – takes no time getting down to business. World-building happens as the plot moves forward, and we find our way through this strange city – and learn of its history – as we follow Warden on his rounds. This is a world where magic has the upper hand in the battle with science, but Low Town comes with a better “finish” than some traditional fantasy settings. There’s a gritty urban feel here, with office blocks standing shoulder-to-shoulder with taverns and restaurants; a rich part of town where the gentry maintain mansions, and the seedier parts where anything goes. Change the names and the technology, and this could be Chandler’s 1940s Los Angeles.
With the city comes a complex society, divisions by race, religion, wealth. Order is maintained by the city guard, while the Agents of the Crown rule with an iron fist from Black House. Warden moves through the city with ease, equally confident with rich and poor, with sorcerer or guardsman. His past, though, leaves him with a healthy fear of Black House and his relationship with the Crown is one of the many intrigues that make us want to follow this character in order to get to know him better. In Warden, Polansky has created the perfect antihero – a man with enough good qualities to make it okay for us to like him, and enough bad qualities to make him interesting.
The blend of fantasy and hard-boiled detective is an interesting choice and it works surprisingly well. Polansky is obviously well-versed in both genres and uses the different styles to their best advantage: the basic building blocks of this world drawn from the domain of Tolkien or Martin, while the characterisation, the crimes themselves, the snappy dialogue and the noirish feel are drawn from an entirely different time and place: the works of Chandler and Hammett, Jim Thompson and possibly even James Ellroy have a heavy influence here. Throw in a soupçon of the supernatural, and you’re left with a novel that does not so much straddle the genre lines as obliterate them completely, producing something wonderfully original that takes the reader completely by surprise.
‘Let’s see now – there was Tara, and the Kiren you paid to kidnap her. And Carastiona, and Avraham. We’ve already mentioned my old partner. And upstairs the Master took the straight razor cure rather than face what you’ve become – though I’m not sure suicide adds to your tally.’
Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure is an excellent start to what is sure to be a dark, gritty, but most of all exciting, series. Daniel Polansky has created something fresh and intriguing that should appeal to fans of fantasy and crime fiction alike. It’s an assured and accomplished debut that bears strong promise of more to come. For me, the only problem with this book is the sales pitch: it needs a strong cover, something less “generic fantasy”, and more emphasis on the crime angle. That aside, this is a surprising little gem from a talented author who, hopefully, has plenty more to offer.
|IN HER BLOOD
Annie Hauxwell (www.anniehauxwell.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)
Catherine Berlin is an investigator for the Financial Services Authority, working as part of a task force whose remit is to clamp down on London’s illegal loan shark businesses. Working with an informant she knows only as ‘Juliet Bravo’, Berlin continues an investigation into East End shark Archie Doyle despite the fact that her superiors have closed the case and warned her off. Berlin’s life is complicated by the fact that, aged 55, she’s a registered drug addict, and receives daily doses of pharmaceutical heroin from one of the few doctors left in Britain with a license to prescribe it. When both her informant and her doctor are brutally murdered, Berlin finds herself in the middle of two investigations in which police consider her as a major player. With seven days before her stash of heroin runs out – and any clarity of mind that the drug brings with it – Berlin is up against the clock not only to find her next fix, but also to find the killer and clear her own name.
Hauxwell’s first novel takes no time in getting to the point. As the book opens, we find Berlin standing at the edge of the Limehouse Basin, watching her informant floating in the water below. We quickly get a feel for the character, and the people she is dealing with – the talkative Dempster, the quiet Thompson and the almost farcically stupid Flint. Berlin is a character that is difficult to like, but as the ever-luckless antihero, we find ourselves rooting for her nonetheless, as she moves from one bad day to the next. She’s a woman on the edge, impending withdrawal driving her as hard as the need to know, to find out the truth. And behind it all a black sense of humour that usually serves to rub people the wrong way, but which makes her more human in the eye of the reader.
The plot is complex and involved, but not so much that it will turn the casual reader off. Characters are interconnected in myriad unexpected ways, and a web of relationships, and of cause and effect, forms as the novel progresses. Despite the complexity, and multiple strands, the author manages to maintain complete control – no obvious plot holes or dangling story arcs here; Hauxwell weaves the threads into such an accomplished and coherent whole that it’s easy forget that this is the work of a first-time novelist.
Characterisation is the only area where the book doesn’t quite reach its full potential. While Berlin comes to us fully formed, some of the other characters can be a bit lacking in original personality, cardboard cut-outs from a thousand gritty dramas set in and around the East End of London: the wheeler-dealing gangster; the bent cop; a handful of others. What’s interesting, and what makes the novel stand out from many of those others, is the ambiguity built in to all of these people. There is no black and white here, but varying shades of grey that serve Hauxwell’s purpose well: these are all ordinary people acting under extraordinary circumstances; no-one, least of all the reader, can anticipate how these people will react in these situations, and as a result they sometimes do so in unexpected ways, with surprising consequences.
Dark and gritty, Hauxwell’s debut combines wonderful sense of place (and cold), interesting (if somewhat stereotypical) characters, and a complex and moreish plot into the perfect example of what was once called (and may still be, though it’s not a phrase I’ve seen in a few years) “Brit noir”. There’s enough humour to keep it from being dreary and depressing, and enough action to keep it moving at a good pace. Catherine Berlin, demons included, makes for a surprising and bold choice of central character, but ultimately has the charisma to carry it off and leave the reader hoping for her return in future instalments. Hauxwell is an author who evidently takes great delight in putting her characters through the mill and, on several occasions throughout the book, we find ourselves wondering “what can she possibly throw at this poor woman next?”. In Her Blood is a fine crime novel, and a wonderful debut from a writer who looks set to give the cream of British crime fiction a run for their money.
Nick Harkaway (www.nickharkaway.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/imprint/william-heinemann)
Every so often, I run across a book that catches me completely by surprise; a book that I picked up on a whim, having never heard of it before, that strikes a chord and immediately becomes a firm favourite. Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, was just such a novel, from its eye-catching hardback cover (the “Signed by the Author” sticker was a sweetener, I’ll happily admit) when I saw it on the shelf at my local Waterstone’s (or is it Waterstones?), to the interesting and intriguing blurb that I found inside, to the sheer delight I encountered when I started to read. Needless to say, I have been waiting with great anticipation for Harkaway’s second novel and I’m happy to say that it has been a worthwhile almost-four-year wait.
Angelmaker tells the story of Joshua Joseph (“Joe”) Spork, a quiet, unassuming man who makes a living repairing clockwork and enjoying the quiet life. Joe has a past that makes this more difficult than it seems, for he is the son of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, at one time London’s most notorious gangster, and the leader of the legendary Night Market. When Joe’s friend, Billy Friend, turns up on his doorstep with a piece of erotic automata, and a mysterious book and assorted oddments, Joe is intrigued, and contrives to meet the client from whom Billy has obtained the items.
The book, the key to a doomsday device built shortly after the Second World War, invites trouble to Joe’s doorstep, from the Legacy Board – in the guise of Messrs Titwhistle and Cummerbund – to the mysterious, and sinister, Ruskinite monks. Joe soon finds himself the most wanted man in Britain and, with a somewhat motley crew – including a woman slipping towards the end of her eighties who might just be the only person alive who knows exactly what’s going on – he confronts the forces of the mighty Shem Shem Tsien, International Bastard of Mystery, in an attempt to save the world.
With his second novel, Harkaway moves away from the science fiction setting, while retaining all of the wit and verve that made The Gone-Away World such a success. Angelmaker is more in the mold of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville or Christopher Fowler: the novel is set firmly in a modern day London, but there’s also a city beneath; the literal underworld, where the city’s shady characters and forgotten souls spend most of their time. This is the world of the Tosher’s Beat and the Night Market, and represents a world that Joe is trying to forget, although his eventual return seems inevitable from the outset. Angelmaker is an adventure story, a spy thriller, old-fashioned gangster noir and black comedy rolled into one with a hint of satire for good measure.
The characters are beautifully drawn, real people in a world that’s slightly off-kilter: the old woman who was, once upon a time, one of England’s deadliest agents; the fast-talking lawyer with a gift for the dramatic; his sister, with her outrageously sexy toes and her slightly skewed views on equal rights; the evil and cracked Shem Shem Tsien, who wants to become God, but who feels the need to surround himself with bug-zapping lights because of a piece of fiction he once read; the oddly-mismatched Titwhistle and Cummerbund, Angelmaker’s answer to Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar (“hilarious though they are to look upon they are less funny than Typhoid Mary and more serious than the whole of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs”). And holding everything together the easy-going Joe, a man starting to feel old:
Even now – particularly now, when thirty years of age is visible in his rear view mirror and forty glowers at him from down the road ahead, now that his skin heals a little more slowly than it used to from solder burns and nicks and pinks, and his stomach is less a washboard and more a comfy if solid bench – Joe avoids looking at it.
Joe is quite typical for the hero of this type of novel: slightly disconnected from the world, more interested in the clockwork with which he spends his days than the people around him and, as a result, less attuned to subtext, even when it’s thrust in his face (quite literally):
Joe gives her his hand, and she places his hand, palm down, on her chest and leans firmly towards him…With the heel of his hand Joe can feel the curve of one breast. He has absolutely no idea whether this is deliberate. It’s lovely. He tries to be polite and not notice.
As you might expect from a man as opinionated as Harkaway (go on, check his Twitter feed, you’ll see what I mean), his jokes are timely and extremely cutting. One example of many: as the bees, harbingers of the end of the world, spread across the globe, governments act, moving quickly into the realms of the ridiculous overreaction:
Bee-keepers are told they must register, must submit their hives for inspection. No, of course, these are no ordinary bees, but it pays to be safe. It helps to rule people out. Any bee-keeper, after all, might be a sympathiser, a fifth columnist.
What Angelmaker most resembles, to my mind, is a vast and sprawling Neal Stephenson novel, the perfect companion piece for his Cryptonomicon. It takes a similar form: the two time streams, one present day (or as near as damn it), the other Edie’s story of her time as a much younger woman working for Science 2. Where Stephenson spends chunks of the book describing the technology and the cryptographic techniques, Harkaway finds himself with a much less solid proposition, cleverly avoiding any in-depth detail as to how the book, the bees, the attendant clockwork actually work. But for everything else, he is a fiend for detail and it is refreshing to find an author unafraid to follow the tangent, even if it is at the temporary cost of dramatic tension. And go back to what I said about Joe and typical heroes in this type of novel; tell me Randy Waterhouse doesn’t fit this exact mold.
Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.
At this early stage, I’m more than happy to call Angelmaker one of the best books you’re likely to read this year. We can live in hope that the wait for the next one won’t be quite as long.
Translated by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Released: 2nd February 2012
When Jens Lapidus’ debut novel, Easy Money, landed on my desk, it came bearing a quote that is almost inevitable these days on the English translations of Swedish novels – the quote that compares this writer to Stieg Larsson. What caught my eye about this quote, though, is the fact that it came from none other than the Demon dog of American crime fiction, and one of my personal favourites, James Ellroy.
Easy Money – originally published in Sweden in 2006 – takes an in-depth look at Stockholm’s underworld through the eyes of three men for whom that shady empire is home. Jorge is Chilean, and is doing time for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. When Jorge pulls off the impossible – hops over the twenty-three-foot wall that surrounds Österåker prison – he disappears into a world where his knowledge of the cocaine business can make him king. He just has to stay free, and stay alive, for long enough to put that knowledge to good use.
JW is a wannabe – a country boy living it large in the big city, hiding his background in order to fit in with the rich set who sleep all day and party all night in Stockholm’s most fashionable area. He drives a gypsy cab on the nights he isnt partying to afford the parties and soon graduates to dealing cocaine when his boss sees potential in him. JW has ulterior motives for being in the city – several years earlier, his older sister followed the same course and disappeared without a trace. JW hopes to achieve what the police could not, and find what happened to her.
Mrado is a member of the Yugo Mafia. He’s a big man who lives on a diet of protein bars and steroids. He’s a racketeer, running a large chunk of the city’s coat-check business. Mrado, a Serbian who fought at Srebrenica, fears no man, but he has a weak spot – a daughter that he sees one day every other week, and even that under protest by his ex-wife. As the lives of these three men converge, moving towards the largest cocaine shipment Stockholm has ever seen, violence erupts, and they find that they may have more in common with each other than it would seem at first glance.
Lapidus presents us with a realistic vision of what Stockholm’s underworld might look like – the various factions battling for a piece of this or that business in a city barely big enough to hold them all. He does this through alternating chapters told from the point of view of each of the three protagonists. It’s a complex world, and the interrelationships between these men – never fully revealed to them, but revealed piecemeal to the reader – is equally complex, and Lapidus uses small, exciting chunks to build a story that is, for the reader at least, much more than the sum of its parts. The comparisons with Larsson are undeniable and, in my opinion, well-founded: this is a side of Sweden that most Swedes probably don’t know exists, a side that the Swedish tourist authorities would much rather wasn’t advertised; it portrays Stockholm as a dark and violent city peopled by rich brats, and gangsters and wannabes. Like the journalist Larsson, Lapidus is well-placed to provide a realistic look at this world– he’s a criminal defence lawyer who, according to his bio, represents some of the most notorious criminals in Sweden.
The novel reads like a tribute to Ellroy. The subject bears a close resemblance to some of the myriad plots that drive his Underworld USA trilogy, but most striking is Lapidus’ telegraphic, rhythmic writing style. The short, sharp prose that defines most of Ellroy’s work is beautifully reproduced here, despite the translation from Swedish to English.
Jorge knew how it was: Friends on the inside are not like friends on the outside. Other rules apply. Power hierarchies are clearer. Time inside counts. Number of times inside counts. Smokes count; roaches count more. Favors grant relationships. Your crime counts: rapists and pedophiles worth zero. Junkies and alkies way down. Assault and theft higher. Armed robbery and drug kingpins on top. Most of all: Your membership counts. Rolando, a friend according to the rules on the outside. According to the principles of the slammer: Playa batted in the major leagues, Jorge in the minor.
It’s impressive to read, and respect to both author and translator for pulling it off. The fashion-obsessed JW, his chapters littered with brand names, and club names, comes across as a cut-price Patrick Bateman: all of the ego, and none of the psychopathic tendencies. It’s difficult to know, though, if this mimicry of Bret Easton Ellis’ most enduring creation is deliberate or not.
Lapidus infuses the novel with a deep sense of place, and the story is littered with street names and place names. There’s an implicit trust that the author won’t mess around too much with the city’s geography, but it serves to ground the action in real places that can be found on a map, and to make the reader feel like they know at least a small part of the city. If you’re like me, it also serves as a tourist guide and makes the reader long to (re)visit.
Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.