Iain Banks (www.iain-banks.net)
Little Brown (www.littlebrown.co.uk)
I didn’t have to read too far into Iain Banks’ latest novel, Stonemouth, to realise that I’ve been more than a little unfair to him over the course of the past few years. As a younger man, I read The Crow Road, having enjoyed the BBC television adaptation. I remember very little about either TV series or novel – vague memories of a game played while driving at night that involved identifying cars in the distance by the shape of their taillights – except that I enjoyed both immensely, which should speak more to my atrocious long-term memory than to the skill of the author. Since then, I have avoided Banks’ work, a little voice in the back of my head repeating the mantra that here was an author with nothing to offer me, a man who exists too far along the literary spectrum to appeal to my baser sensibilities.
As Stonemouth opens we find ourselves standing on a bridge with Stewart Gilmour. Stewart is back in his home town – the north-eastern Scottish town of the book’s title – after a five year exile, punishment for an unnamed sin committed against the Murstons, the town’s premier criminal family. He has returned for a funeral, the funeral of Donald Murston’s father, at the old man’s request, and it is immediately clear that he is back under sufferance, and with the understanding that he is gone again as soon as the funeral is over. As Stewart settles in, and gets reacquainted with old friends, we begin to get glimpses into his past, growing up in Stonemouth, and his budding relationship with the girl who would turn out to be the love of his life, Ellie Murston. And, as the weekend progresses, it becomes apparent that not everyone is aware of Stewart and Donald’s agreement, leaving the young man wondering if he’s likely to make it through his stay in one piece.
Stonemouth is part coming-of-age story, part (lost) love story, part small-town gangster story. It’s a frequently laugh-out-loud portrait of life in a small town as seen through the eyes of someone who has been away for some time and has returned to find something at once familiar and completely alien. Banks has tapped into a younger generation, and his portrayal of these people – people in their mid-twenties, straddling that fine line between the last lingering remnants of youth and true adulthood – is spot on. Everyone we meet over the course of this weekend is introduced to the reader in terms of their school relationship to Stewart – he was in the year above, she was two years below, he was in the same year – as if everything in this town revolves around, and is defined by, school. There are also more obvious traits, which quickly begin to get under the reader’s skin, but which do define people of a certain age in this country, such as the ubiquitous question mark, turning random statements into meaningless questions:
Jolie played with her empty G&T glass, revolving it on the white tablecloth. ‘Oh, just because they take over your life. They become your life. I sort of had plans? But, well.’
The novel simmers with barely-repressed violence throughout, and when we learn exactly what Stewart has done – in a reveal about halfway through that is, quite simply, a work of genius – it’s clear why the Murstons are out for his blood. Aside from Ellie’s brothers – certifiably nuts, each and every one – there’s the imposing figure of Powell Imrie, and every wannabe on the streets of Stonemouth out to make a name for himself by bringing the head of Stewart Gilmour to Donald Murston. Banks knows how to ratchet up the tension and there are a handful of scenes that leave you forgetting to breathe. When violence does finally erupt, it comes from an unexpected direction, catching the reader completely unawares, and is all the more effective for it.
Stonemouth shows a writer comfortable and confident in his chosen field. Perfectly plotted and beautifully written, it presents a cast of characters that fairly leap off the page from the outset. It is a funny novel – there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments – but its power lies in characters with whom we can identify – the banter between Stewart and best friend Ferg, for example, spotlights two very believable people that we may have, at some stage in the dim and distant past, known or even, in some cases, been – and a story in which we can invest to the point where the outcome is as important to the reader as it is to Stewart Gilmour. Banks is a writer not to be missed (and certainly not to be consigned to the “too literary for my liking” shelf) and, on the strength of Stonemouth, is arguably one of the most entertaining and exciting talents working in Britain today. He is a writer worth your attention, and Stonemouth should be on everyone’s “must-read” list this year.
Gerard Brennan (www.gerardbrennan.co.uk)
Pulp Press (www.pulppress.co.uk)
Coming, as I do, from the wilds of West Belfast, I have an aversion to the Norn Irish accent on film and television; for me, there’s something distinctly cringe-worthy about it, a fact that is probably best exemplified every time Liam Neeson opens his mouth (who would have thought Oskar Schindler was, actually, originally from Ballymena? Or that Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn might hail from the planet of Countyantrim?). Strangely, though, the same aversion doesn’t apply to the written word, so I find myself putting on my broadest Belfaaawst and enjoying the likes of Jason Johnson’s beautiful Woundlicker or Stuart Neville’s dark and wonderful The Twelve. So it was in that frame of mind that I picked up Gerard Brennan’s The Point and, as the locals might have it, got stuck in.
Paul Morgan is a small-time crook who has a habit of getting brother Brian involved in his schemes. When Paul is caught trying to steal from local hoodlum Mad Mickey, he is given a week to get out of Belfast. Choosing seaside town Warrenpoint – The Point of the title – Paul and Brian embark on one last series of jobs, breaking into student digs in an attempt to raise some cash. Upon arriving in The Point, Brian promptly meets, and falls in love with, Rachel, a girl with some psychotic tendencies. He gets a steady job, and gets ready to settle down, while Paul finds the local underworld and gets involved with the local big man who immediately gives him a job stealing cars to order. As Paul’s inability to stay out of trouble once again comes to the fore, things spiral out of control and the brothers find themselves in their tightest spot yet with no clear means of escape.
Brennan does an excellent job showing us the decaying relationship between these two brothers – the one who needs to be constantly in the thick of things, always on the run from somebody; the other who wants no involvement, but is unable to help himself when his brother is in trouble. It’s the classic noir tale of how the introduction of a woman can drastically alter the landscape of a close male relationship – be it best friends or brothers – relocated to modern day Northern Ireland and peopled by a cast of believable – if not always likeable – characters. There’s a dark humour running throughout the book, and it is easy to forget that this is, after all, noir. The parting shot is all the more shocking in light of the humour that has gone before and is handled with a confidence that marks Brennan, a relative newcomer to the scene, as one to watch in the future.
The packaging of this story is nothing less than perfect. Pulp Press have produced a small paperback of a size and style with the old 50s pulp paperbacks. The £7.99 price point might seem a little high for such a short piece, but the story is definitely worth every penny. Northern Irish slang abounds, but shouldn’t cause too much difficulty, but keep Google handy just in case. Short, sharp and shocking, The Point is Northern Irish noir at its best – dark, funny, gritty and, most of all, believable – and a fitting homage to the works of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and the swathes of others who defined the genre in the early-to-mid-20th century.
|KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT
Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)
“Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat.”
As Colin Cotterill’s latest novel – the first in a series featuring crime reporter Jimm Juree – opens, we find ourselves in rural southern Thailand as Old Mel and his able-bodied (if not -minded) assistant attempt to dig a well to irrigate the twenty palms that grow along the back fence of his property. In an attempt to shift a piece of metal that is blocking their way, the younger man finds himself falling into space and landing on what turns out to be the bed in a Volkswagen Kombi. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he discovers that the camper’s original inhabitants are still strapped into the front seats.
Enter Jimm Juree, once a top crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Mail, now living in a small resort hotel on the Gulf of Siam, against her wishes and better judgement. The move had been instigated by her mother, slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, who, without consulting the family, sold their property in the city and bought the aforementioned resort hotel in the somewhat backwards Maprao. Jimm latches onto the story, two decades-old dead bodies being better than no dead bodies, which is what she has seen in the eight months since her move. Befriending a number of the local constabulary, Jimm soon learns that a third murder has been committed, this one much more recent: an abbot at a local temple has been brutally stabbed to death, and Jimm takes it upon herself to help the local police investigate the crime.
If you’re a regular reader of the blog (or even if you have a brief scan through some of the titles I’ve reviewed), you’ll know that I like my crime fiction dark. So it was with some trepidation that I started in on latest offering from the man behind the Laos-set Dr Siri series. The book, like the region is which it is set, is somewhat slow and laid-back. Cotterill describes the area as having a “southern temperament”, and his description fits the story perfectly. It’s an intriguing set of mysteries, each with an unexpected resolution that will nonetheless leave the reader satisfied. To a certain extent, plot is secondary, and the beauty and strength of Killed at the Whim of a Hat lies in the offbeat characters that populate its pages, and the relationships that form between them as they become embroiled in the mysteries that surround them.
The chapters are headed by snippets of speeches given by George W. Bush, each containing one of the man’s trademark “Bushisms”. The quote at the top of this review is, as may be obvious, the source for the novel’s title. The reason for the quotes becomes obvious partway through the book, but they fit nicely with the sense of “oddness” that runs through the novel – there is something slightly skewed about this small chunk of land on the Gulf of Siam, not in any sinister way. Maybe it’s just that southern temperament again.
The book is frequently funny, and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Take this exchange between Old Mel and his helper:
“There’s skeletons down here.”
“They animal bones boy?” he asked, just to humour the lad.
“No, Old Mel. They’re people all right.”
“How can you tell?”
“One’s wearing a hat.”
Or this quote from the police, as contained in Jimm’s report:
“I can tell you that this was either an accident, murder or an act of nature.” The captain was not, however, prepared to rule out suicide.
While it won’t appeal to everyone, Killed at the Whim of a Hat is an engaging and entertaining novel. The humour, like the characters who are its source, is natural and unforced. There is enough of a plot to give the characters motivation, but when it comes down to the bit, this is a story about Jimm Juree, her family, and the friends she has made in her new home. In that sense, it’s a no-brainer for people who like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, to which it’s likely to be favourably compared. For me, though, it has proved that the old saw about books and covers is still very true: it may not be as dark as I like, but there’s enough of an undercurrent, along with all of the book’s other strengths to make it a worthwhile read, and to make me want to come back for the second book, if only to see how quickly Cotterill can turn the Lang Suan region into the murder capital of the world.