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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

GUEST POST: World Building in the RELICS Universe by Tim Lebbon

TimLebbon Name: TIM LEBBON

Author of: COLDBROOK (2012)
                      THE HUNT (2015)
                      RELICS (2017)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

I love world building. A few years ago I wrote a series of fantasy novels for Bantam in the USA, and also a couple for Orbit in the UK. Four of these––the Noreela novels––all took place in the same alternate world, and so the world I created grew and expanded with each novel, histories filling out, landscapes becoming more real, religions and politics more complex. When I then wrote two standalone fantasy novels (Echo City and The Heretic Land) I was faced once again with creating whole new worlds with magical systems, politics, backgrounds … and it got a bit exhausting.

Deals came and went, my interests shifted, and most of my recent work has been set in our world. But that doesn’t mean that the world building is any less important. Easier? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Relics is set in contemporary London. Instantly the reader knows the setting, might very well have been there, and so the solid foundation of my world is set. Unlike my alternate world fantasy novels I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up (and down).

But in reality every fantastical novel or story––Earthbound or not––is set in an alternate world.

Check out The Walking Dead. It’s set in a world where zombies don’t exist … in folklore or fiction. No one in that show uses the word ‘zombie’, so it’s based in a world a few stops around the multiverse wheel from our own.

Relics-Blog-Tour-BannerSo the London of Relics isn’t quite the London we all know, and building that world was a lot of fun. The human part of the Relics London is pretty much as we know it. It’s the world of the Kin––those mythological creatures that used to exist many years ago during The Time––that I have to introduce, carefully constructing a system that allows them to exist within and beneath the human world of London that most readers will recognise.

They needed somewhere to exist. Let’s face it, if you see a satyr on the 14:22 from Paddington, you’d probably remember. Or would you? London’s a wild, wacky place, and as in any big city like this, eyes rarely meet, conversation with strangers is rarely entered into. By their very nature the Kin are covert, so their homes are either underground or hidden away in plain sight. They have a system of communications and warnings in case they’re spotted.

More than the here and now, the Kin needed a history and a wider mythology. For me this is the most effective part of world building––not the obvious, overt facets of a new world, but the hidden things only hinted at. The wider world, one that we don’t perhaps touch or use that much, but whose existence gives our story a much more rounded, realistic feel.

One of my favourite recent movies for world building is John Wick (and its brilliant sequel). It’s ultra-real, a contemporary story with a clever, whole new world interwoven into and through our own. What makes it so effective is the hints at a wider, deeper history, some of which we see a little of, most of which is implied or mentioned in a line or two. The sense of wide and deep history in those movies is exquisite, and that’s the effect I was aiming for with Relics.

This is our world. But it’s one in which a fallen angel can live in the tower block next door.

RELICS by Tim Lebbon

Relics RELICS

Tim  Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Angela Gough’s life is happy and normal until the day her boyfriend, Vince, leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Mysterious notes through the door, which may be in his handwriting tell her to stay away, not to look for him, but Angela isn’t about to let him disappear out of her life without so much as an explanation. As she digs, she finds that her boyfriend is not the man she thought he was. He works for one of London’s biggest crime bosses and seems to have a secret life outside the one he shares with Angela. As she finds herself digging into the dangerous black market for ancient relics, pieces of creatures that should never have existed outside the pages of myth and legend, she soon discovers that there is more to London than the domain of humankind.

Relics is the start of a new urban fantasy series from genre legend Tim Lebbon. It’s a familiar plot – partners keeping secrets from each other, until one discovers that the other works for a criminal overlord, or is a Russian sleeper agent, or whatever the twist happens to be. In this instance it’s the gangster, but Lebbon twists slightly further, adding a dash of the supernatural to what might otherwise be described as gritty Britcrime. All of the ingredients are here: the man with a deep secret; the mob boss that he works for, and the rival mob boss who wants his special skills. It all sounds like your run of the mill London noir, until you factor in what exactly Vince does for Fat Frederick Meloy: he’s a relic hunter, a man with a special talent for finding old, rare artefacts, things which should not exist, and for which rich people will pay a fortune in order to add it to their collection.

At the centre of the story is Angela, a Bostonian living and studying in London. She shares a compact flat with her boyfriend Vince, and life is good, at least until Vince disappears and her world begins to fall apart. What makes Angela’s persistence and temerity believable is the fact that her study is focused on gangs and gang warfare. It also gives Lebbon the chance to give us some background on the darker figures – Meloy and Mary Rock – in a natural fashion, without the need for pages of backstory and exposition. While Angela is the central character, the story is told from the points of view of several other characters as well – Vince himself takes centre stage for much of the book; and Lilou, a nymph whose life Vince saved, gives us some insight into the state of mind of London’s lesser-known inhabitants, a group of so-called mythical creatures who call themselves collectively, the Kin.

Surprisingly, one of the book’s most engaging characters is gangster Fat Frederick Meloy, a man whose nickname no longer fits the bill. When we first encounter Meloy in the narrative, he comes across as a stereotypical London gangster. Lebbon, however, builds him into a larger-than-life character who, for many of the scenes where he is present, steals the show. A collector of the ancient relics himself, we see many sides of this complex man, despite the reputation that has grown up around him: at once the childlike glee whilst in the presence of his collection and the barely-contained violence that simmers beneath the surface. Meloy’s opposite number, Mary Rock, is a much more sinister character and we soon discover that she is not content to deal in ancient relics; she has discovered that the Kin still exist, and has developed a thirst – and a client-base – for something a little more fresh, something harvested from the fresh corpse of an angel, or a nymph, or a satyr.

Despite the supernatural elements, Relics does still feel like something of a contemporary crime novel. The London of Relics is, for the most part, the London of our own world, though Lebbon does explore a lesser-known face of the city, presenting a side of it that might fit well with the location of Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Mieville’s King Rat. Yes, there are creatures here that shouldn’t exist, but the story feels grounded in the real world through the evocation of London, and the realistic, empathetic characters that populate it.

Tim Lebbon is the quintessential genre author (which genre? All of them!) and Relics is the latest in a long line of unmissable books. Darkly thrilling, with more than a dash of black humour, it’s a novel that could easily be devoured in a single sitting, and is probably best enjoyed in this way. An excellent start to a promising new series, this is Lebbon at the top of his game.

GUEST POST–PARALLEL LINES: On Heroes by ADAM SHAW

Parallel Lines_high res Name: STEVEN SAVILE

Author of: PARALLEL LINES (2017)

On the web: www.stevensavile.com

On Twitter: @StevenSavile

Steven Savile’s latest novel, PARALLEL LINES, is published in the UK on 14th March by Titan Books. To celebrate the launch, Reader Dad is very pleased to welcome the book’s protagonist, Adam Shaw, to talk about heroes.

I find heroes strange beasts. I’ve always had trouble with the square-jawed Dan Dare, Roy Race type. They’re inherently dull. The heroine might shout Flash, I love you but we only have twenty-four hours to save the earth, but no matter the stakes, Flash is always going to win. The same way that the Lone Ranger is always going to ride into town just in time to save widow at the homestead. I always preferred my heroes broken, probably because I’m broken, too. I think most of us are in one way or another. Me, I grew up thinking ‘everybody leaves me’ and that coloured most of my interactions with women probably until deep into my thirties. Letting someone through those self-erected walls ain’t easy when you’ve been building them for the best part of your life.

I guess for that reason Trainspotting’s Mark Renton was always more fascinating when he asked me to Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and all of those other things right up to the notion of choosing to rot away at the end of it all resonated so strongly. Broken people can’t be counted on to do the right thing when the shit hits the fan. And even if they try, there’s so much personal baggage to overcome there’s no guarantee it’ll work out for the best, or even how they intended.

That said, there’s as much room for Don Quixote and his windmill tilting in the world of heroes as there is for the more mysterious Joseph K marching relentlessly towards his own death.

31865-Parallel-lines-blog-tour#3On a personal level, fresh out of university in the 90s I found myself living the rootless life of Generation X’s Andy Palmer, shuffling from meaningless McJob to meaningless McJob and like him trying to make sense of the world I was stumbling into while everything around me was changing fast. And boy, those jobs… burglar alarm salesman, double glazing salesman, fish packer, mortgage rate advisor, classified ad salesman, the one thing they all had in common, I lasted less than a full day at any of them. I had a glorious habit of saying screw this for a game of soldiers and walking away because I wanted to do something else. Be someone else. I wanted to be the hero of my own life, not a bit part player in someone else’s.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never really been that interested in the hero rides into town stories, come to save the day, screw the dame and move on to the next town. I want flaws. I want a hero who’s afraid of heights walking a tightrope between tower blocks. I want Adam Shaw, a guy with a disease that plays havoc with his muscular control, holding a gun in a high stress situation that just exacerbates his condition. I love the tragic inevitability of it. That gun, once it’s been pulled, is always going to go off. Him being a square-jawed hero, that’s not interesting. Him being broken man, battered by life, realising that hope is a bastard but unable to stop hoping, that’s interesting. Plus it’s much more fun torturing damaged heroes…

Adam Shaw is a family man at heart. Yesterday his world consisted of two things, his disabled son Jake and statistical probabilities. Today his body is his worst enemy. His diagnosis? ALS. Now tomorrow holds no surprises. That’s why he walked into the bank with a gun and a plan. To safeguard Jake’s future.

INFLUENCES: Finding My Own Voice by MATT WESOLOWSKI

image001 Name: MATT WESOLOWSKI

Author of: SIX STORIES (2017)

On Twitter: ConcreteKraken

It’s taken me years to find my own voice.

I’ve spent the majority of my writing life mimicking; from a bargain-bin Enid Blyton when I was a kid, a teenage cut-price James Herbert to a snide Stephen King or else 50% off all Lovecraft, eldritch savings that will loose the trappings of your puny earthly ideals of sanity!

It’s only been in the last 5 or 6 years that I’ve felt my own writing voice has really emerged. I imagine this must be fairly common; as writers, we’d love to think we’re true mavericks but in reality we have no choice but to climb the shoulders of the literary giants that have strode the land before us. I am not ashamed of this mimicry and even now, I’ll turn a phrase that sounds Lovecraftian, or King-ish and that’s ok.

I do feel like I am still learning my craft, that my voice is still evolving, changing, synchronising a little with every good book I read. It is as the great man himself says

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King.

Without reading, and reading widely, I feel like I just cannot write with any degree of integrity; it feels like a day without a cup of tea (tantamount to criminality in my opinion.). When a book hits me where it hurts, its language sinking and dissolving inside your brain like linguistic effervescence, it raises the bar, galvanises me to strive to that level of quality.

When I started writing my first tentative short stories as a just-teenager, James Herbert and Clive Barker’s mastery descriptions of the grotesque were revelatory. Back then I read little else but horror, forever trying to slide the fear in between the words like these masters, their stories underpinned by longing, love, things I was not mature enough to fathom…most girls didn’t like long-haired oddballs who wore black nail varnish and wrote stories back then…

Then in my late teens I discovered the work of Jon King – ‘The Football Factory’, the subject perhaps not befitting of a teenage goth, yet the sheer command of language astounded me and showed me a new way of writing, stream-of-consciousness brutality that enveloped me utterly. I longed for more like this and found the work of Kevin Sampson – ‘Awaydays’ was both savage and beautiful and Niall Griffiths whose ‘Grits’ and ‘Kelly and Victor’ still haunt me today.

Through my 20s, I read all of Stephen King’s back catalogue, everything by Lovecraft (I was a latecomer to Cthulhu) and now as I read more (and much more expansively), every book that does something to me emotionally, helps weave another thread into the voice that has emerged from inside. Lauren Beukes and Yrsa Sigurðadottir were more of those revelatory writers that pushed at genre conventions; straddling the places between crime and the supernatural and gave me a galvanic push to try the same.

Karen Sullivan, the phenomenon behind Orenda Books guided me to more of the Nordic noir, namely Kati Hiekkapelto and Antti Tuomainen whose work had a profound influence on my own. Like their Scandinavian neighbours, the Finns have a way with words that I cannot put my finger on; something to do with telling it simply, yet with profound poetry hanging from every phrase.

I feel like my own voice, my influences are in a constant state of flux; I just recently read ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline and ‘Girls on Fire’ by Robin Wasserman…writing is often a difficult pursuit, there are times when you feel a little hollow and word-weary yet reading the above titles were like bellows to the flames.

I guess influences don’t stop, as much as learning doesn’t stop. I can’t wait to see what inspires me next!

SIX STORIES BLOG TOUR POSTER

RAGDOLL by Daniel Cole

Ragdoll - Daniel Cole RAGDOLL

Daniel Cole

Trapeze (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

One body, six victims, body parts sewn together and strung from the ceiling of a London flat like a puppet. Immediately christened the Ragdoll Killer by the press, it is up to Detective Sergeant William Fawkes and his team at New Scotland Yard to identify the constituent parts. When Fawkes’ journalist ex-wife receives a list of six more people who are going to die – a list that includes Fawkes himself – the connection to the Cremation Killer, the case that made Fawkes a household name, is immediately obvious. But as Fawkes’ appointment with death approaches, the team must look to his past for answers and what they find there might not be what they expected.

Daniel Cole’s debut novel opens with a brief glimpse at the case that made William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, famous, and which also shaped the man he has become four years later. As a result, the reader goes into the main storyline with their eyes wide open, Wolf’s questionable approach to policing promising an intriguing investigation. Intriguing it most certainly is, and from the point that that opening courtroom scene fades to black, Ragdoll is the type of book that is almost impossible to put down.

There are many points that set Ragdoll apart from your average serial killer thriller, the dark central character and the rich vein of comedy being two of the most obvious. A cross between Boris Starling’s Messiah and Sky’s “A Touch of Cloth”, Cole manages to combine the best parts of both into something completely new and fresh. From the outset, it’s clear that the comedy won’t get in the way of an intense story, as it so often can. Ragdoll is gruesome and frightening, a real sense of menace plaguing the reader through its pages. The murders are startlingly original, usually completely unexpected and constructed in such a way that even the comic moments don’t relieve the tension.

The central cast of characters are memorable and go a long way towards making the reader feel comfortable in this world, drawing us completely into the story and, in many ways, giving us a stake in the outcome. From Wolf, damaged and downtrodden to smart-mouthed Baxter, a confident woman making a man’s world her own, and Edmunds, young and new to the squad, smart and keen to learn, despite the constant haranguing from more senior colleagues. Around this core are a set of lesser characters, no less well-developed: Finlay Shaw, a couple of years from retirement, with no desire to make any big splashes; Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea Hall, a bloodthirsty journalist who will do anything to be first with the story, regardless of what danger it places people in; and Elijah Reid, her Piers Morgan-like editor-in-chief, a man with no moral compass for whom nothing is too sensationalist.

This is an old-fashioned serial killer story where the reader is kept as much in the dark as the detectives. Nothing is told from the killer’s point of view, so Cole plays the motives close to the chest until the novel hits the three-quarters mark, at which point everything kicks into high gear. In many ways its adherence to the tried and trusted formula makes it feel fresh and new again, the power of the novel in the story itself, not in the ways in which it attempts to subvert the genre. While the comedy sometimes feels forced (although my own personal preference is to avoid outright humour, because what works for one person is likely to fall flat on its face for many others), it is never overplayed to the point that it feels annoying. For the most part, it’s a natural comic feeling, stemming from the characters themselves, much of it the sort of gallows humour we’ve come to expect from crime fiction.

Ragdoll started life as a pitch for a television show, and its origins are plain to see. There is a very cinematic feel to the story which, coupled with a sense that something is always happening somewhere in earshot, gives Cole a very distinctive voice. One of the most interesting aspects of his debut is the sense that we have walked into the middle of someone else’s life: there are no introductions, little in the way of backstory on any but the central characters, leaving us with a sense that these people have known each other for a long time, and that we’ve stepped into their lives for a very brief moment to watch one specific episode. So well is this managed that for one brief moment, I had to check that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series. It’s disconcerting, but it is a mark of the author’s confidence that he doesn’t feel the need to slow the story down to introduce us to the players.

Dark, funny, gripping. There is no easy way to sum up Ragdoll, except to say that it is an excellent debut, an accomplished and satisfying story that immediately boosts Daniel Cole into the ranks of “must-read”. With compelling characters and a story that grips from the outset, Ragdoll is guaranteed to be one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year, and Daniel Cole a name we’ll hopefully be hearing a lot more of in the near future.

RAGDOLL Blog Tour Poster

GUEST POST: Writing Short Stories by Orlando Ortega-Medina

image003 Name: ORLANDA ORTEGA-MEDINA

Author of: JERUSALEM ABLAZE (2017)

On the web: orlandoortegamedina.co.uk

On Twitter: OOrtegaMedina

To celebrate the launch of his excellent debut short story collection, Jerusalem Ablaze, I’m very pleased to welcome Orlando Ortega-Medina to Reader Dad to talk about writing short stories.

I don’t have one specific method of writing the first draft of a short story. For example, I was inspired to write “Torture By Roses” after reading Yukio Mishima’s short story “Swaddling Clothes” in his collection Death in Midsummer. In that particular case, my aim was to write my own imagined backstory for Mishima’s story, and I composed it in my head before I wrote down a single word. In the case of “Jerusalem Ablaze”, I woke up from a nightmare, grabbed the steno pad that sits on my nightstand, and started writing, half-asleep. Two hours later I had my first draft of the story.

Jacket ImageMy Quebec stories “The Shovelist” and “Tiger at Beaufort Point” were inspired by real-life events, so there was some pre-planning at the starting point to ensure the events were properly fictionalised. This involved drafting character sketches and plot outlines, which I used, in effect, to re-invent reality. And my Israel stories are excerpts from an early novel I was composing, so they didn’t start life as short stories at all.

“After The Storm” is the story I pre-planned the most, in that I fully sketched it out in outline from start to finish before attacking the prose. Interestingly, it’s also the story I revised the most, almost interminably. Each time I re-read it I found something to improve, all the way until the day I was meant to turn it over to the publisher. But it was worth it, and I’m very pleased with the way turned out.

Regardless of how my short stories start their lives, my process for completing them is the same for all of them: I set them aside for a few days, then come back and revise them until they are as perfect as they’re going to be. To achieve this I have to be brutal in my revision process and not be afraid to cut out anything that doesn’t work. That being said, one has to know when to stop revising!

As for having a word-count, I aim to write no less than 1000 words a day, 5 days a week, with a goal of producing 10,000 publishable words per month. One can’t very well call oneself a writer unless one actually writes. So: Write – Everyday – No excuses.

Jerusalem Ablaze – Stories of Love and Other Obsessions is out now from Cloud Lodge Books, priced £12.99.

 

Blog Tour Jerusalem Ablaze

SPOOK STREET by Mick Herron

SPOOK STREET - Mick Herron SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron (www.mickherron.com)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£14.99

When the Berlin Wall fell, David Cartwright was one step away from First Desk, the pinnacle of the British Intelligence Services. Now suffering the onset of dementia, the “Old Bastard”, as he is affectionately known by his grandson, River, may be in danger of revealing secrets that he has kept for over twenty years. When a young man turns up dead on his bathroom floor and David’s grandson disappears, River’s boss is called in to identify the body. It’s obvious that Cartwright has survived a botched hit, but with no idea if it was sanctioned by the Service, Jackson Lamb must play his cards very close to his chest, at least until he can find out exactly what is going on. And with only the “slow horses” to call on, who knows how long that might take?

Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth visit to the realms of Jackson Lamb and the assorted misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House, out of harm’s way. It’s my first encounter with Herron’s work in general, and the Jackson Lamb series in particular, which is all the answer you need to the eternal question: do I need to have read the first three books? Spook Street presents Herron’s regular cast of characters with a brand new, standalone case, and anything else you need to know to enjoy this smartly-constructed thriller you’ll pick up within the first couple of chapters.

Slough House is a ramshackle building as geographically remote from the Service’s Regent’s Park headquarters as its inhabitants are operationally remote. This is the domain of Jackson Lamb, a drunken, slovenly excuse for a secret agent with questionable hygiene who would be an embarrassment to the Service, assuming he was at liberty to disclose the fact that he worked for them. Over the years, Lamb has amassed a small team, people whose operational readiness ranges from “not anywhere close” to “psychotically keen”, a group of people known to the wider community as the “slow horses”, a play on the name of the building they call home. One of these people is River Cartwright, and it is his connection with the legendary David Cartwright that gives Lamb all the reason he needs to get involved in this latest case.

From the opening pages, Spook Street comes as a pleasant surprise. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the narrative takes a less-than-serious approach to telling the story. The tone is only one of the many features that leads to inevitable comparisons with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, Slough House doing for Britain’s spies what Mornington Crescent has long done for the Metropolitan Police. Readers expecting the next LeCarré or Morgan Jones will likely be disappointed, though as a fan of both, I would urge those readers to stick with it, as they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result: there is a dark heart to Spook Street, a hard-core mystery that belies the light tone, the frequent bouts of comedy. There is a sense of real danger from the beginning that leaves the reader in no doubt that none of these characters – many of whom have shared page space for three books so far – are safe, that no-one is guaranteed to survive until the end, and that a happy ending is far from likely.

The strength of Spook Street – and doubtless, the entire series – lies in Herron’s characters, and their interrelationships. For the book’s first half, Lamb appears as little more than a shape in the background, but there is little doubt that he is the heart and soul of the story. Instantly unlikeable, Lamb wears his odiousness as a badge of honour, but there is no doubt as to where his loyalties lie: this is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect his people, a close-knit group that often feels like the world’s most dysfunctional family. Newcomer J. K. Coe gives the new reader a character to connect to, someone with whom to learn the ropes of this strange new working environment. Herron also widens the scope to examine the wider Intelligence community, introducing a new First Desk and a new head of the Service’s enforcement team, policewoman-turned-spook Emma Flyte, both of whom find their worldview challenged by the existence of Lamb’s team at Slough House.

I very nearly dismissed Mick Herron’s Spook Street as just another spy novel that I could do without. Luckily for me, I ignored my first impressions and find myself richer for the experience. Herron’s irreverent look at the world of spies breathes new life into the genre and his stories deserve recognition alongside the greats of spy fiction. Already preparing to read the first book in the series, Slow Horses, I can recommend Spook Street unreservedly and assure new readers that it’s the perfect jumping-on point for anyone wishing to become familiar with Jackson Lamb & Co. It’s also the perfect alternative for fans of more serious spy fiction and crime thrillers.

Extract: A HARVEST OF THORNS by Corban Addison

9781784295233 A HARVEST OF THORNS

Corban Addison (corbanaddison.com)

Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£13.99

Millennium Fashions Factory, Dhaka, Bangladesh

November 4 2013, 8:53 p.m.

The sparks danced like fireflies in the semidarkness of the storeroom. They emerged from the wall outlet in a shower of white-gold radiance, casting a flickering glow across the concrete slab beneath them. The sounds they made, the snapping and crackling of suddenly electrified air, were drowned out by the rattling of three generators across the room, whose whirling magnetic coils were straining to satisfy the demand of hundreds of lightbulbs and ceiling fans and sewing machines on the floors above.

The cause was elementary, as the investigators from Dhaka would later discover – an aging circuit, copper wire exposed through melted sheathing, a worn-out breaker box, a peak load the factory’s designers had never anticipated, and the gentle, inexorable persuasion of time. A short, the investigators would say. A common fault in a building so poorly maintained.

But what happened next was far from commonplace. The fire that started to burn in sacks of cotton jute – the leftover cuttings of T-shirts, sweatpants, and children’s apparel destined for Chittagong piers and American closets – would sweep farther and faster than any fire before it.

This fire would ignite the world.

…………………………………………..

Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC,

February 11 2015, 9:12 p.m.

Even at nine o’clock on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was bustling. Waiters scurrying. Glasses clinking. Bartenders pouring. Gaiety erupting. And conversations – the central currency of this supremely political town – drawing heads down and faces together, translating ideas into speech, aspirations into asks, in an endless quest for an angle, a vote, a promotion, or that most liquid of Washington assets – a favor. Josh loved it, the multidimensional poker game of personality and power. For fifteen years, he had been a regular at the table, here at Old Ebbitt, a century-old, mahogany-and-brass eatery steps away from the White House, and at places like it in Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and London. He had mastered its nuances, cultivated quid pro quos, and built an enviable reputation as an international journalist, netting him two Pulitzer Prizes and a book that hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list. But all of that was gone now. A single error in judgment had laid waste a lifetime of achievement. His colleagues at the Washington Post were colleagues no longer.

‘Joshua Griswold,’ said Tony Sharif, slipping into the green velvet booth across from Josh and draping his arm across the top. ‘It’s been too long.’

Josh shook his head. ‘I know it. Half the people in here are strangers.’

Tony’s face – a mélange of his Indian father and Anglo-American mother – remained impassive, but his eyes were alive with humor. ‘You’re getting old. I see gray in your beard.’

Josh gave a sarcastic laugh. ‘That’s purgatory for you. I feel like the Old Man of the Mountain. One day you’re a fixture. Everybody wants a picture. Then the earth moves, you disappear, and no one remembers what you looked like.’

Tony grinned ironically. ‘Could be worse. Nobody ever wanted a picture with me.’

‘You should ditch the news and try Bollywood,’ Josh jested. ‘With a mug like that, you could be the next Shah Rukh Khan.’

Tony put out his hand, and Josh clasped it. ‘It’s good to see you again, my friend.’

‘That makes two of you,’ Josh said.

Tony raised an eyebrow. ‘Who’s the competition?’

‘Reggie, the homeless guy at my old apartment building.’

Tony shook his head, and his eyes grew thoughtful. ‘It’s a shame what they did to you. The stories you wrote are some of the best in American journalism. The thing with Maria, it could have been any of us. She deceived a lot of people. It doesn’t change your reporting.’

She didn’t mean to deceive anyone, Josh thought. She did what she had to do. But he couldn’t say that. Not even to Tony Sharif, the man who had been at his side when shrapnel from an exploding IED sliced through their Humvee in Sadr City and buried itself in Josh’s thigh. Tony was the closest thing he had to a brother. But Tony would never understand Maria. She was a riddle in the flesh. Even Josh didn’t understand her, and he had spent years trying.

‘Don’t sweat it,’ Josh said. ‘Shit happens. It’s what makes our world go round.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ Tony replied, raising his bottle of Sam Adams. ‘To shit. May it survive long enough for me to earn a pension and for you to get back on your feet.’

‘Cheers,’ Josh said, taking a sip of Heineken, his beer of choice not so much for its flavor as for its ubiquity across the globe.

‘So you’re in town again,’ Tony said. ‘That means you’re working. What’s the story?’

‘Corporate malfeasance,’ Josh replied. ‘Apparel supply chains. A body count. The underside of American business.’

Tony’s face lit up. ‘Sexy. Who’s the target?’

Josh lowered his voice. ‘Presto.’

Tony leaned back against the booth, clearly intrigued. ‘The Millennium fire. We reported on that, you know. A lot of people did. That photo was like Napalm Girl in Vietnam. But this time the girl in the picture disappeared. We couldn’t track her down.’

Josh nodded but didn’t reply, allowing Tony to interpret his silence.

‘Wait a minute,’ Tony said. ‘You have a source.’ He let out a grunt, then began to grumble. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You found someone willing to talk.’

It was the response Josh had expected. For five years, Tony had been the Post’s bureau chief in India. Last year he had taken a senior editorial position in Washington, but his network in South Asia remained as far-reaching as the Ganges. Josh was intruding upon his territory.

‘I’ve got to hand it to you,’ Tony went on, struggling to be generous. ‘My guys would have given anything to keep that story alive.’ For a moment, he looked like he was going to probe, but then he didn’t. ‘So what can I do for you? You obviously got further than we did.’

The corners of Josh’s mouth turned upward. He still found it hard to believe. The e-mail had arrived in his in-box two days ago, its provenance untraceable. I have information about the Millennium fire, it read. It relates to Presto Omnishops Corporation. Hours later, when the rest of DC was asleep, Josh had met a man at the Lincoln Memorial who gave him the names of workers and factories in three countries, including the name of the girl in the photograph. The man had divulged nothing of his motives, but his seniority inside Presto was beyond question, as was his charge: he wanted Josh to make Presto pay.

‘This thing dropped into my lap,’ Josh said. ‘That’s all I can say. But I need your help. I need to find a fixer in Dhaka with high-level contacts in the apparel industry.’

Tony spoke without hesitation. ‘Rana Jalil. Except he’s in Los Angeles these days.’

Josh gave him a confused look, and Tony clarified, ‘Rana’s a mutt like me. His father owns one of the oldest garment companies in Bangladesh. His mother is Bangladeshi, but she was born in California. He has a law degree from UCLA. Dhaka’s his backyard. He helped us cover the Rana Plaza disaster. He’s an ace, and 100 percent trustworthy.’

Josh took another swig of beer. ‘What’s he doing in LA?’

Tony chuckled. ‘Shining a light into the dark hole of American fast fashion.’

Josh made no attempt to disguise his ignorance. ‘Explain.’

‘You know those teenybopper stores in the mall, the ones that dress their mannequins like hookers and make you want to keep Lily under lock and key?’

Josh nodded. Lily was his eight-year-old daughter and the light of his life. He was an absentee father, but not completely derelict.

‘A lot of the clothes they peddle are made in sweatshops in LA. The fashion companies know about it, but they don’t give a rat’s ass. So long as they keep feeding American teens a fad a week, they see it as the cost of doing business. Rana freelances with a public interest group called La Alternativa Legal, or “LA Legal.” They represent the workers in court. California has a labor law that gives them firepower against the brands. I don’t really understand it. But I know he’s nailing them to the wall.’

‘I’ll take him,’ Josh said. ‘Can you make the introduction?’

Tony whipped a smartphone out of his jeans and started typing.

‘He’ll be tickled. The great Joshua Griswold. He might even give you a discount since you’re out of work at the moment.’ After he transmitted the message, he got the waiter’s attention and ordered another round of drinks. Then he stared at his watch intently. ‘I’ll give him one minute, then I call.’

‘What?’ Josh didn’t know anyone that quick on the draw.

‘Wait. Ha! There he is.’ Tony held out his wrist and showed Josh his smartwatch. On the screen was a text from Rana. ‘He’s thrilled, as promised.’

Josh shook his head, marveling at the speed of new media. ‘I owe you one.’

Tony’s eyes sparkled, his lips askew in a beer-tinged smile. ‘You owe me nothing. I want this as much as you do. You break this story, I mean really break it, and I’ll see what I can do about getting your job back.’

Blog Tour Poster (1)

SNATCH by Gregory McDonald

Snatch - Gregory McDonald SNATCH

Gregory McDonald (www.gregorymcdonald.com)

Hard Case Crime (www.hardcasecrime.com)

£7.99

Two eight-year-old boys from very different backgrounds. Two sets of less-than-competent kidnappers. In the hands of Gregory McDonald, almost anything could happen.

Like many people of my generation, my first exposure to the work of Gregory McDonald was the wonderful 1985 film Fletch, in which Chevy Chase took on the role of one of McDonald’s most famous creations. The film, as they tend to do, led me to the books, and I discovered in McDonald one of crime fiction’s finest stylists. The latest addition to Hard Case Crime’s excellent line-up reproduces two of McDonald’s standalone short novels in their usual OTT livery.

Snatched, the first of the two novels, is arguably the best of the pair, and showcases McDonald doing what he does best: using his ear for dialogue to bring his characters to life. Teddy Rinaldi is ambassador to the United Nations for a small country in the Persian Gulf. While preparing to present a new resolution to the UN, Teddy’s 8-year-old son Toby disappears: he gets on a plane in New York, and fails to get off it again in San Francisco. Toby is to be used as leverage to ensure Rinaldi’s new resolution does not pass. There is one small problem: the men behind the kidnapping have no idea where the child is, or who has him.

What makes Snatched special is the humour that underpins much of the action, and the relationship between Toby and his clueless captor, a man paid to do a job who has subsequently lost contact with his employer. This is a battle of wits that develops into something akin to a partnership, the reader never sure which of the pair is in charge. Like the best of McDonald’s Fletch novels, Snatched is presented with a minimum of narrative and a maximum of dialogue, each character unique in the way that they speak, the tics that they have, the language they use. The scenes shared by Toby and kidnapper Spike ensure that we feel more empathy for the tough-talking criminal than we do for Toby’s parents (and I’m speaking as a parent), or for the odious Colonel Turnbull, the so-called good guy of the piece.

The second novel, Safekeeping, takes a different tack, and introduces us to Robby Burnes, the son of a minor English nobleman killed in the Second World War. Shipped off to New York, Robby finds himself in the lackadaisical care of journalist Thadeus Lowry and subsequently kidnapped by a woman who recognises him from the paper and thinks there might be money to be made in ransoming him back to Lowry. This second novel takes itself much less seriously than the first, and while McDonald’s gift with dialogue helps to carry it, it is a much more narrative-driven piece, written in a flowery, over-the-top language that makes the whole thing feel like little more than a farce. It’s an interesting find for McDonald completists (this its first publication since 1985), but beside Snatched it presents as little more than filler, a similarly-themed piece to fill out the page-count.

Don’t let that put you off: the tale of Toby Rinaldi’s kidnapping is worth the price of admission alone, a fine showcase for Gregory McDonald’s talents and a fine addition to the ever-excellent Hard Case Crime line. Snatch, as the collection is named, is an excellent jumping-on point for anyone yet to experience the creative genius of Gregory McDonald. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that it has been a while since we last visited with Fletch.

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