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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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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.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne

Boy-in-Striped-Pyjamas-Cover THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (www.oliverjeffers.com)

Doubleday (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£14.99

Bruno is nine years old when his father’s job forces the family to pack up their beautiful Berlin home and move to the desolate Polish countryside. This is Out-With, a cold and unpleasant place where neither Bruno nor his sister want to stay, both missing their friends and the hustle and bustle of central Berlin. There is a window in Bruno’s bedroom, and it overlooks the tall barbed-wire fence that stretches for miles in either direction at the end of their garden. From the window, Bruno can see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are living on the other side of the barbed wire fence, all of them dressed in the same striped pyjamas and cloth caps. It strikes Bruno as unfair, so many people over on the other side of the fence while he is on this side, alone but for his sister (a Hopeless Case), until the day he decides to go for a walk, and makes a friend in Shmuel, a boy from the other side.

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an instant classic when it was first published in 2006. Ten years on, and it is still as powerful and touching as it ever was. In it, we meet Bruno, and watch events unfold through his young, naïve eyes. Bruno is the son of the Commandant of the Auschwitz (Out-With) concentration camp, and finds himself uprooted from his happy life in Berlin (where he spends his days with his three best friends for life) and transplanted to a “horrible” new home in the middle of nowhere.

While it is obvious to the reader, with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight, what is going on, Bruno’s innocence, and the immediacy of what he finds himself in the middle of, give us a fresh perspective on a well-known story. Terrible things are happening here, but Bruno’s young and idealistic mind refuses to let him consider this, seeing the barbed-wire fence not as an enclosure, but simply as a wall preventing him from making friends with the hundreds of children who obviously live on the other side of it. And in the way of all small boys, Bruno cannot comprehend a scenario in which his father is evil, even if he is more than a little distant. To the reader, of course, his father’s attitude – not to mention his acceptance of the position – show his true colours.

‘No, not them,’ said Bruno. ‘The people I see from my window. In the huts, in the distance. They’re all dressed the same.’

‘Ah, those people,’ said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. ‘Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.’

When Bruno meets Shmuel, a young boy on the other side of the fence, his opinion of Out-With begins to change, but not as we might expect. Shmuel shares Bruno’s birthday, and is the son of a Polish watchmaker. Nothing but circumstance – the vagaries of their parents’ religions – separates the fates of these two boys, putting one outside the fence – well-fed and cared for – and the other inside – starving, overworked and, though neither of the boys can possibly understanding, facing almost-certain death. Bruno begins to enjoy his time here, and his long talks with Shmuel, seeming to wilfully ignore the horror of Shmuel’s circumstances – rebuffing tales of horror inside the camp with tales of his own misfortune, like the fact that they have left a five-storey house in the middle of Berlin to live in a three-storey house in a far-away place.

While Bruno and Shmuel form the heart of the story, Boyne populates the narrative with all manner of interesting characters, many of whom seem strange to the young boy who acts as our guide. From aloof Father and unhappy Mother, to Kurt, the young soldier with an evil temper, a questionable background and a soft spot for Bruno’s sister and mother, and Pavel, the vegetable-cutter and waiter who claims to have been a doctor in a former life, all of these characters are instantly recognisable stereotypes who nevertheless pop off the page, fully-formed and full of life. Even the (aptly-misheard) Fury and his beautiful blonde companion seem like interesting people in the eyes of Bruno.

For the book’s tenth anniversary, Doubleday have produced a beautifully-packaged “Deluxe Illustrated Edition”, with art by the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. As a fan of Jeffers’ work (one of the many joyful discoveries I have made in fatherhood), he seemed like a strange choice to illustrate such a dark and ultimately horrific novel. But having re-read the book and admired Jeffers’ artwork, I’m now convinced that he was the right – perhaps the only – choice. His simplistic drawings, filled with childlike beauty, match the childlike narrative perfectly, though often showing us proceedings from a more adult, and sometimes very shocking, perspective.

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

IT by Stephen King

IT - Stephen King IT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£10.99

(he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts)

In May 1985 six people receive a phone call from a friend they have long forgotten reminding them of an oath they swore when they were just eleven years old. The phone call kick-starts the process of remembering the evil they fought in the small town of Derry, Maine, in the summer of 1958. For one, the sudden memories are too much, but for the rest of the Losers Club, the call must be answered – the evil has returned, and they swore, a long time ago, that they would return to Derry to face It again if It ever came back. Now, with the evil being that lives beneath Derry trying to thwart them at every turn, they must remember the events of August 1958, and try to reconnect with the magic that helped them survive that first encounter.

One of King’s bigger tomes, It is also one of the most controversial, dividing the ranks of even Constant Reader into those who love and those who loathe. In the opening scene, King presents us with one of the most enduring images from the book (and, indeed, the small-screen adaptation), as we follow Georgie Denbrough’s paper boat down flooded Witcham Street.

There was a clown in the stormdrain. The clown held a bunch of balloons, all colors, like gorgeous ripe fruit in one hand.

And so, instilling coulrophobia in an entire generation of readers with that single, wonderful image, King launches us into a horror that won’t end for twenty-eight years.

In 1958, we meet the members of the Losers Club as they are brought together by something much bigger than themselves. There are seven, a magic number in anybody’s book, and they take the misnamed Barrens for their own once school lets out for summer. The leader of this small band of misfits is Bill Denbrough, Stuttering Bill, the older brother of the young boy whose death started this current cycle of violence. Constantly on the lookout for Henry Bowers and his band of bullies, the group find themselves facing a much greater danger in the shape of the clown Pennywise, which seems to be the favourite face of the thing that lives beneath the streets of Derry.

In 1985, Mike Hanlon has stayed behind, acting as watchdog, and gathering what information he can on the town’s storied history. When Adrian Mellon meets his gruesome end at the hands of a man – according to witnesses – wearing a clown suit, it’s time to remind the others of their promise, and we meet these same characters in their adult form. They are now only six – the reawakening of memories about that fateful summer of 1958 proves too much for one of the gang – and they have forgotten most of their early lives in Derry – the friends that they are now meeting once again for the first time in over twenty-five years; the town of Derry itself; and, most strikingly, the events that led to their banishment of It.

King intertwines these two strands in a way that allows the reader to “remember” the events of the past at the same time as the members of the reconvened Losers Club. As events tend towards their climax, King evokes in us a sense of “doubling”, as children and adults approach the lair of It in lockstep, the narrative jumping back and forth in time without breaking the flow of action, little more than subtle clues to remind the reader that this is 1958 and that is 1985.

Running parallel to both these strands are a series of Interludes, sections taken from Mike Hanlon’s personal history of Derry, Maine, where we see the pattern begin to emerge, the twenty-seven- or -eight-year silence followed by eighteen months of violence before the cycle starts again. It is through these histories that we get a sense of the town itself, and the people who live there, and we begin to understand the nature of It – not Its origins, which we will learn later through Its own eyes, but how it has attained a king of symbiosis with the town and its inhabitants, so that strange goings-on (Henry Bowers attempting to carve his name in the stomach of Ben Hanscom, for example, or Beverly Marsh’s frantic flight along Lower Main Street, her crazed father in pursuit) go largely unremarked or completely ignored.

I have read It several times before, but this is my first visit as a man in middle age (and if that’s not a phrase to send you screaming to Juniper Hill, then nothing is), a man much closer in age to the 1985 protagonists than to their 1958 counterparts, and this elevated position provides the reader with a much different outlook on the proceedings. We can identify with the problems these people have in their lives; we can even, to a certain extent, identify with the total blank where their memory of their childhood in Derry should be. King’s examination of “magic”, of “faith”, of all the things that we lose as we grow older, and that provided these children with unimaginable power during their first encounter with It, starts to make much more sense, and we find ourselves more deeply invested in the fates of these characters. It’s a whole different experience to the coming-of-age tale that I remember It being on previous reads.

King has always been accused of being overly-verbose and a quick glance at It (the latest UK paperback edition clocks in at a hefty 1,376 pages) might give the prospective reader the idea that these accusations might be right. Trust me: you could not be farther from the truth. Every word in every scene combines to create a world that the reader can inhabit as easily as the characters on the page and a sense of terror that weighs on the reader from that very first glimpse of Pennywise in the drain.

I, Georgie, am Mr Bob Gray, also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Examinations of bullying, abuse, racism and the cruelty of children to those who are different (the fat one, the one who stutters, the one with asthma) give the story and the town a deep sense of realism and allows each reader to identify with something personal to themselves. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, perfect. There are a couple of missteps as the story progresses (and, no, I’m not one of those people who feel that that pivotal moment in the tunnels under Derry is one of them), the most glaring the short-lived return of Henry Bowers to the town of his childhood after escaping from the Juniper Hill asylum. Like the proverbial deus ex machina, he appears, wreaks havoc, and vanishes in the blink of an eye when he might actually have been a more useful plot device later in the narrative. But let’s not be picky.

It is thirty years old this year, putting us now as far from 1985 as that fabled year was from 1958. This latest re-read proves to me that it’s a novel that continues to stand the test of time: there is little in the 1985 timeline to date the story, so it holds up well. The 1958 timeline is a different matter entirely, but the process of growing up, making friends and having fun in the seemingly endless days of summer is something that never changes, so the pop culture references make little difference. Our own childhoods are as strange to us as Stuttering Bill’s was to him, and that’s all that matters when it comes to the story.

As we, Constant Reader, have come to expect, the story is littered with self-references and sly winks designed to check that we’re paying attention. Take Henry’s magical ride as prime example.

…it was the car he recognised first – it was the one his father always swore he would own someday, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It was red and white and Henry knew that the engine rumbling under the hood was V-8 327.

It is one of King’s early masterpieces, taking over four years to complete. Suffused with horror, it’s something of a slow-burner that will hold you until the final page, and will play on your mind for a long time afterwards. A haunted house tale on an epic scale, it’s a prime example of King at the height of his early powers, and a book that will ensure you never look at Ronald McDonald in quite the same way ever again.

pennywise

‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King

'SALEM'S LOT - Stephen King ‘SALEM’S LOT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£9.99

This review/essay originally appeared as part of the King For A Year project, and appears here in its original form, by permission.

…the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.

Like many people of my generation – I was born about two months after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot – my first exposure to Stephen King’s vampire story was through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 mini-series adaptation, a series that still, almost forty years later, gives me the willies when I happen upon it while channel-surfing. I first read the book in my early teens, and have read it maybe half a dozen times since, and I am happy to report that it is still as fresh – and as bone-chillingly frightening – as it was that first time.

Late summer 1975: Benjaman Mears, a successful author recently widowed in a terrible accident, has returned to the Southern Maine town where he grew up to write a new novel. ‘Salem’s Lot, a town of some 1300 souls, hasn’t changed much in the almost thirty years of his absence, but that won’t be the case for long. Ben meets Susan in the town’s park – she is reading his book – and love blossoms quickly. But the disappearance of a young boy – Ralphie Glick – and the sudden death of his older brother, Danny, plunge the town into a unique kind of hell, and as the body count grows, Ben and Susan find themselves aligned with a small group of like-minded people – high-school teacher Matt Burke, Doctor Jimmy Cody, Father Donald Callaghan and young Mark Petrie – who are convinced that the town has fallen victim to a vampire, one of the new residents of the storied Marsten House which looms over the town from its high perch.

Like many of King’s earlier novels, ‘Salem’s Lot seems to have entered the global consciousness as a kind of byword for vampire infestation. Even those of us who haven’t read the book have probably seen David Soul’s turn as Ben Mears and James Mason’s masterful Straker, and have some idea of the direction the story takes. The book is a slow-moving, atmospheric behemoth, very different from King’s previous – first – novel, the slimline and spare Carrie.

The story unfolds over the course of September and early October 1975, beginning with the arrival of Ben and the mysterious new residents of the old Marsten House. Told from multiple viewpoints, this is King doing what he has always done best: the dynamics of small-town America, the relationships and petty intrigues that define every small town not just in America, but across the developed world. The town has a long and sometimes unsavoury history, and King spends time building the bigger picture – the great fire of 1951; the tragedy that surrounded Hubie Marsten and his family – the deviation from the main storyline to touch on this history, and to do a “flyover” of the town, are devices designed to put the reader in the centre of the action, in ‘Salem’s Lot itself.

When the horror begins, it comes as a shock, and the early targets of Messrs Barlow and Straker are designed to hit the reader hardest: Irwin Purinton’s dog hung from the town cemetery’s gates; the disappearance of young Ralphie Glick closely followed by the death of his older brother Danny. King’s strength here is in the power of suggestion: very little of the horror happens within the pages of the novel, and is often left to the imagination of the reader; subtle noises from the next room, or the slow pan of the metaphorical camera away from the action at the critical moment are used to astounding effect, forcing the reader to create the scene in their own head, and come to their own conclusions.

There are scenes that stick with the reader (and, to be honest, many of them play over in my own head as the corresponding scenes from the television series): the delivery of the large crate (presumably containing Barlow in his coffin) to the Marsten House by Hank Peters and Royal Snow, a beautifully-constructed piece of suspense that sums up much of the book in its cold-sweat inducing narrative, and the closing exchange between the two protagonists.

“What was down there?” Royal asked. “What did you see?”

“Nothin’,” Hank Peters said, and the word came out in sections divided by his clicking teeth. “I didn’t see nothin’ and I never want to see it again.”

The other image is that of young Danny Glick knocking on Mark Petrie’s bedroom window, a scene made all the more frightening by the seeming innocence of the source of evil. Given the choice between Barlow and Danny Glick, this reader would run screaming to the ancient creature that started it all.

King uses the story to examine the question of faith, and the symbols that we use to show our religious affiliations. Without straying from the accepted lore – sunlight, crucifix, garlic, holy water – the author uses Matt Burke and Jimmy Cody to provide logical explanations for these weapons against the vampire and, famously, Donald Callaghan to examine the difference between the religious symbol and the power that it possesses. What makes ‘Salem’s Lot special, makes it one of the defining works of modern vampire fiction, is its grounding in reality, the characters’ understanding that what is happening is ridiculous, unreal, something that should not happen to normal people in the normal world.

“…If you’re locked up, that will serve his purpose well. And if you haven’t considered it, you might do well to consider it now: There is every possibility that some of us or all of us may live and triumph only to stand trial for murder.”

It’s easy to say now that ‘Salem’s Lot is a classic of the genre, one of perhaps three books that epitomise the modern vampire novel (to my mind George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst come a close second and third), but take a moment to consider: ‘Salem’s Lot is the sophomore effort of a young writer who was, as yet, unproven beyond that slim first novel. Already there are signs of the writer King will become, many of the recurring themes in his work beginning in this blood-curdling masterpiece. And if it didn’t exist in the shadow of the great Dark Tower when it was first published in 1975, King made sure to bring it into the fold by re-introducing Donald Callaghan into his world over 25 years after the book’s publication.

In large part, I feel I’m preaching to the choir, but there are many who will have absorbed the basic points of ‘Salem’s Lot through some strange form of osmosis, and “know” it in much the same way that they “know” Dracula or Frankenstein without ever having read the original work. There is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than that creepy kid at the bedroom window, or the shuffling noises coming from the back of the truck; there is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than an ancient vampire and the havoc he wreaks on a small New England town. This is one of the finest works in King’s forty-year career, a book to be savoured again and again, safe in the knowledge that you will take something new away on each reading. And, in case you’re wondering: nothing sparkles here; this is horror fiction as it should be: dark, atmospheric and, best of all, frightening.

THE SEARCHER by Chris Morgan Jones

The Searcher THE SEARCHER

Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Isaac Hammer’s world seems to be falling down around him. The offices of his intelligence agency, Ikertu, have been raided by the police, and Ike himself has been arrested. The charge? Obtaining information by illegal means: hacking and phone tapping. But this isn’t Ike’s style, and until the police stormed his offices, he believed it wasn’t the style of ex-employee Ben Webster, whose case the police are investigating. The problem now is that Webster has disappeared while travelling to Georgia for the funeral of a journalist friend. Ike must find him, not only because he is the only person who can save Ike’s skin, and his business, but because Webster’s wife has asked Ike for help. And so Isaac Hammer, the great detective, finds himself in the middle of a country on the verge of civil war, with no idea who is friend, and who is foe.

In his first two novels, An Agent of Deceit and The Jackal’s Share, Chris Morgan Jones introduced us to Ben Webster, a modern-day spy with a knack for getting himself in trouble. For his latest novel, The Searcher, Jones shifts the focus from Webster – who has disappeared even before the novel has begun – to Webster’s boss, Isaac ‘Ike’ Hammer. The novel opens with a series of alternating chapters which interleave Hammer’s dealings with the British police and his ultimate arrest with his arrival in Georgia a number of days later, intent on finding Ben Webster and dragging him back to London if necessary.

It becomes clear very early on that the relationship between Webster and Hammer, which has always been a friendly one, even if Hammer has never really approved of some of Webster’s activities, has been dissolved. Webster has left Ikertu, leaving Hammer hurt and confused in the process, and has set out on his own. When he drops out of sight in Georgia, the obvious assumption is that he has taken a job that has taken him to one of the country’s less-populous areas. It’s understandable, then, that Hammer should bear some anger towards him for forcing him to come and fetch him back to London. It doesn’t take long once he’s in the country for Hammer to realise that Webster’s disappearance might not have been voluntary and, with his driver Koba for company, he picks up his friend’s trail and follows him into the wilderness that marks the border between Georgia and Russia.

In shifting the focus from Webster to Hammer, Jones has also shifted the narrative tone of his writing. No more are we reading the new Le Carré or Deighton, though elements of this earlier tone do still crop up in the story, but rather the new Chandler or, similarity in the lead characters’ names notwithstanding, Spillane. It’s an interesting trick: while these two characters started life in the same place, they’re both very different, and the approach to writing them as central characters shows this difference to best effect: when Webster is in the forefront, we know we can expect an old-fashioned spy story; when Hammer leads, think of the P.I. novels that were prevalent in the middle of the Twentieth Century, and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect.

Hammer is an unlikely hero, a small dapper man of fifty, though his mind is like a steel trap. He thinks of himself as “the great detective”, and from what we can see as The Searcher progresses, there’s no hyperbole. While the on-going investigation back in London plays on Hammer’s mind throughout the story, it has little bearing on the central plot: the missing Webster, a dead journalist, a terrorist bombing. Jones takes us from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where daily protests quickly become riots, and where the American Hammer is made to feel less than welcome, to the mountainous and sparsely populated northern region of the country where he finds that, despite the pressures, life moves at a much slower pace.

Unfortunately for Hammer, Jones borrows another trick from the Marlowe novels, which sees his detective beaten almost to a pulp on several occasions. Like Chandler before him, the author seems to take great delight in inflicting pain on the detective, but it’s a tactic that not only serves to show the man’s strength of character, but also to increase the reader’s empathy with him so that we become fully invested in his adventure, and in the life-threatening danger that awaits him at every turn.

Jones’ characterisations are wonderful, and serve to bring the world around Hammer alive, from the loud and opinionated Koba, to the shady government agent Vekua; from the threatening presence of Otar Iosava, to the inexplicably vindictive Detective Inspector Sander. They give context to Hammer himself, his motives and thought processes and show him to be a man of sound moral judgement: perhaps the only thing that separates him from his literary forebears, for whom the word “shady” is often a gross understatement.

With The Searcher Jones shows incredible versatility, looking at his series books through the eyes of a different character, and through the medium of a different, if not entirely unrelated, genre. It will come as no surprise to anyone that has read his earlier books that he succeeds admirably. Well-written, excellent plotting and pace combine to take the unlikeliest of heroes and make him a character that we can believe in and root for. In many ways, Ike Hammer is a more interesting character than Ben Webster, and this reader has high hopes that we’ll see him take the lead again in future. The Searcher should definitely be on your “must read” list, even if you haven’t read Chris Morgan Jones before: it’s an excellent starting place, and opens this talented young author’s work to a whole new world of readers.

END OF WATCH by Stephen King

END OF WATCH - Stephen King END OF WATCH

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

It has been almost seven years since the City Center Massacre, that fateful April morning when Brady Hartfield drove a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting to attend a job fair in the heartland of recession-struck America. When a worrying trend develops for survivors of that terrible tragedy to commit suicide, Pete Huntley – a police detective on the verge of retirement, and saddled with a partner harbouring grand ambitions – calls his old partner, Bill Hodges, and asks him to take a look. Hodges has long been convinced that he wasn’t finished with Brady Hartfield and is immediately convinced that Mr Mercedes is behind this latest series of deaths. The only problem is that Brady Hartsfield has been residing in Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic for six years, unresponsive and unlikely to recover.

It is a little under two years since the publication of Stephen King’s first Bill Hodges novel, Mr Mercedes, but this third visit to the retired detective and his friends feels like we are returning to visit an old and well-loved friend, perhaps for the final time. Bill, now approaching seventy and suffering from aches and pains that his younger self might have shrugged off – when the book opens, we meet Bill in the waiting room of his doctor’s surgery – is still running investigation firm Finders Keepers along with Holly Gibney, whom he met as a direct result of the events of that long-ago April morning. While his regular visits to Brady Hartfield’s hospital room stopped over six months before, his conviction that the man has been in some way faking is still as strong as ever, so that when his old partner calls his first thought is that Brady has somehow been responsible for the deaths of these people, people who survived his first attempt to kill them outside the City Center Job Fair.

King laid much of the groundwork for this final instalment in the trilogy’s middle chapter, Finders Keepers, when he introduced the reader to the possibility of Brady having telekinetic powers. This is developed further as End of Watch proceeds, and we learn that the ability to move objects with his mind might be the least of the abilities that Brady has gained since his encounter with Hodges’ “Happy Slapper”, in a move that takes us out of the realms of straight crime and back into the world of the unknown that we, as Stephen King readers, have come to know so well over the years. The presence of the Zappit, an out-dated gaming tablet with a decidedly hypnotic demo screen, in the possession of each of the suicides is the final connection that convinces Hodges that he is right in his suspicions, and leaves him with the question of how to prove such an outlandish theory.

End of Watch brings the story of Bill Hodges and Brady Hartfield full circle, pitting them against each other once again in an old-fashioned battle of good against evil. The intervening years have been less than kind to both men, so that the outcome is uncertain even as the novel approaches its final climactic scenes. It continues the theme of obsession that has run through the entire series, as each man seems out to get the other at the exclusion of all else. What sets them apart, what makes one good and one evil, seems to come down to how they interact with other people: Bill loves his two friends, Holly and Jerome, and is loved dearly by them in return; Brady, meanwhile, uses the people around him to get what he needs and discards them like ragdolls when he is finished. As always, the strength of King’s novels lies in his unparalleled ability to create characters with whom we can identify, and who become living, breathing entities as the story progresses; End of Watch, and the entire Bill Hodges Trilogy, is no exception.

King places strong emphasis on suicide throughout the novel, and even highlights its presence in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Suicide has played a part in Brady Hartfield’s adventures before: his original plan was to convince Hodges to end his own life shortly after the detective retired. End of Watch takes a look at his strange ability to be able to read people and to get under their skin, to prod them gently in the direction of their own demise by their own hand. Given his current vegetative state, it’s an interesting solution to the problem of how Brady can take his revenge and continue his killing spree. In a world where suicide rates are high as a result of bullying and its more modern cousin, cyber bullying, it is at once instantly believable and frightening in the very real sense of the word.

With End of Watch King also examines old age, and the betrayal it brings with it. We never knew Bill Hodges as a young man, though the many ways in which his body have begun letting him down as he approaches seventy drive home for us the fact that he is well advanced in years and that, despite fighting on the side of good for at least as long as we’ve known him, he is facing an inevitability that will come to us all should we live that long. There is a feeling that King is writing from a position of experience, and the reader can’t help but wonder if it’s a means for the author to examine – and to begin to come to terms with – his own mortality.

Perhaps the strongest book of the trilogy, End of Watch is a welcome return to the unnamed city that is the home of Bill Hodges and the assortment of characters with whom he consorts. As with all of King’s work, the characters are key, though the reader can’t help but be impressed by the groundwork the author has already laid in earlier volumes to support the grand finale that he presents here. Despite his age, King shows that he is still as relevant, still as in-touch with the world we live in, as younger generations of writers, and proves, once again, that when it comes to transporting the reader into his fictional worlds, he remains without equal.

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES - Aliya Whiteley THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES

Aliya Whiteley (aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com)

Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)

£9.99

The Great War is a not-too-distant memory, and England is still in the process of recovering from the horror and loss that it wreaked. Teenager Shirley Fearn lives in the small village of Westerbridge, where she attends the local school taught by Mr Tiller and harbours the desire to become a teacher herself. As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, Shirley discovers Mr Tiller’s terrible secret, and learns of the missives he receives from a mysterious source. Mr Tiller has made it his life’s work to change the future of mankind, and enlists Shirley’s help. But where Mr Tiller sees something that must be avoided at all costs, Shirley sees only opportunity and a new form of repression that isn’t much different from that which rules her everyday life.

When we first meet Shirley Fearn, she appears to be much like any stereotypical young lady from the early twentieth century: she is madly in love with her teacher, the mysterious Mr Tiller, and spends her days planning their future together. But Shirley has a spark of individuality, an ambition to become a teacher that sets her at odds with her family and friends. The Shirley who takes over the story as May Day arrives is a much different person to the young girl who has accompanied us thus far: she is more determined, surer of her own value to humanity.

Mr Tiller has recently returned from the front lines, a limp the only outward sign of the terrible injuries that he has received. The women in the village see him as less than a real man while Shirley, blinded by her childish crush on him, sees his differences as a good thing.

No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

As the story progresses we learn the true nature of Mr Tiller’s injury, and the mental torture that comes along with it. Like Shirley, we are drawn into his confidence and become complicit in his plans to obey the plea that his mysterious missives carry, and of the possible future that awaits humankind.

The Arrival of Missives, for all its brevity, is a story of two distinct halves. From the start, it’s a wonderfully-written examination of life in rural post-War England, and of the mind-set and mores of the people who populate it. In Shirley Fearn we have the perfect protagonist to guide us through this strange old world – a teenage girl who has hopes and dreams of her own, but whose life has already been mapped out in this male-dominated world by her parents to a certain extent, but mainly by the town and the town’s expectations. She feels herself inexorably drawn towards Daniel Redmore, a young man not much older than she is, but finds herself resisting partly because of Mr Tiller, and partly because it is assumed by everyone that they will end up setting up home together.

The latter part of the story is an allegorical feminist manifesto of sorts, though by no means the hectoring, anti-male rhetoric that those two words suggest to many. When Shirley hears Mr Tiller’s missives first hand, something inside her breaks, and forces her to question her very nature. Mr Tiller’s future disaster seems much less troubling to Shirley, especially when she works out why. The reader is drawn into this argument and forced to decide for themselves: in much the same way that history differs depending on the teller, surely, too, the future must look different depending upon through whose eyes it is viewed.

‘It shows humanity,’ he says.

‘One part of it. One part, one group, with a message that has truth only to those who choose to believe it.’

What is interesting is how directly the book speaks to the speculative fiction community, and the frequently lambasted male-dominated science fiction community in particular.

My only clue lies in the fact that they have one thing in common. They are all pale old men…how can there be no people of China, or the East Indies? No youths? No women, no women at all? How is that possible?…I will not be a foot soldier for pale old men, no matter where they live or what pretty patterns they weave.

It is, undoubtedly, an important message, but one that is interwoven so closely with Shirley Fearn’s tale that it comes as a natural consequence, rather than as the aforementioned feminist manifesto around which a story has been constructed.

Aliya Whiteley’s follow-up to her first novella, The Beauty, is as deeply affecting and beautifully written as its predecessor. A very different beast, The Arrival of Missives weaves history and speculative fiction together and presents us the link in the form of the characters at the centre of the tale. While the novella seems to be Whiteley’s medium of choice – and it is one that certainly works well for her – this reader yearns to see her turn her hand to the much longer form in the near future. An incredible talent, Aliya Whiteley continues to astound and delight, and The Arrival of Missives confirms what anyone who read The Beauty already knew: these books, and this writer, are not to be missed, under any circumstances.

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill

THE FIREMAN - Joe Hill THE FIREMAN

Joe Hill (www.joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£20.00

Harper Grayson is working as a school nurse when the world ends. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, better known as Dragonscale, is a spore that infects that vast majority of people with whom it comes into contact – the symptoms are a beautiful tattoo-like patterning of the skin and an almost-certain chance of spontaneous combustion. Within six months Harper is carrying both the virus and a baby, and is running for her life from her husband who, in a misguided attempt to save her from the horrible end guaranteed by the ‘scale, is trying to kill her. Harper is rescued by an unlikely couple – a teenage girl in a Captain America mask and an Englishman in a fireman’s outfit – and taken to Camp Wyndham, a nearby summer resort now serving as home for infected people like her, under the watchful eye of “Father” Tom Storey.

Intrigued by the fireman, who has an uncanny ability to control the Dragonscale fire, Harper joins the camp as their resident medical expert, and quickly becomes engrossed in their search for the almost-mythical island of 80’s television star, Martha Quinn, which promises to be paradise for those with the ‘scale. But things are far from as perfect at Camp Wyndham as they appear on the surface, and as tensions rise, Harper finds that she is more prisoner than resident, and that the eye of suspicion is rarely far away when “Mother” Carol and ex-policeman Ben Patchett put their heads together.

From the book’s size alone, it’s easy to tell that Joe Hill’s latest foray into the weird, wide world is massive in both scope and ambition. A glimpse at the apocalypse, and the world it leaves behind, The Fireman is, without doubt, his most ambitious novel yet, and is anchored in reality, to a large degree, by the large of cast of characters that bring the story to life. It’s sure to be compared favourably with The Stand (more on this later), and it is, without doubt, a comparison that is well-deserved. Mining from a rich vein of popular culture – everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead and all points in between – Hill has produced a novel that will appeal to a broad range of readers, the breakout novel that is sure to expose his name – and his work – to more than the relatively small pool of genre readers who, up until now, have been his core audience.

Told from the point of view of Harper Grayson (who later reverts to her maiden name Willowes), the novel takes us through the end of the world as we would fully expect to witness it ourselves: on television, the facts distorted by whichever political lens is used by the channel in question to view the world.

FOX said the dragon had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s. MSNBC said sources indicated the ‘scale might’ve been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by cult Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation. CNN reported both sides.

For the duration of the novel, Harper becomes the centre of our world, and her struggle to see her child safely born is one in which we become completely invested. Her mannerisms are informed, in many ways, by the characters played by Julie Andrews in the likes of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and, in fact, the fireman’s English character provides the perfect Bert-like foil to Harper’s Mary Poppins as their relationship develops. Harper’s contraction of the virus is the first sign that there is more to Dragonscale than we might have been led to believe; rather than the certain death that, say, a zombie bite might bring, Hill introduces the burning hope – hope because Harper has become such an important part of our lives – that the virus is survivable.

This is reinforced by the residents of Camp Wyndham, who have discovered the secret of living in harmony with the ‘scale, and, in particular, John Rookwood – the eponymous Fireman – and the Storey children, Allie and Nick.

Despite the novel’s title, Rookwood plays a relatively small part in most of what goes on: he lives on a small island off the shore of Camp Wyndham and rarely mixes with the residents of the camp, although it is clear that he has certain abilities when it comes to the ‘scale: not only can he control the fire, but he can shape it, give it consciousness and direction, and send it out to do his bidding. It is, perhaps, for this reason that he feels the need for isolation, and why he is feared by many of the Wyndham people.

wyndhamA place of comfort and friendship, the camp quickly gives Harper a sense of belonging, a strange though welcome feeling of family with teenage Allie and her young deaf-mute brother Nick, the grandchildren of the camp’s leader. There are everyday tensions – small factions within the camp who can’t live by the simple rules, or who believe that Father Storey’s approach to leadership is ineffective. But these minor tensions pale in comparison to the threat that constantly hangs over these people: the threat of discovery by a Cremation Crew on patrol, a death sentence from which there is no escape. These people – uninfected and striving to rid the world of those who have the ‘scale – are personified in radio personality, The Marlboro Man, with whom Harper’s ex-husband Jacob has aligned himself.

The Fireman takes an unusual approach to the post-apocalypse, turning our expectations on their heads, and asking us to root for the people who would normally be considered the bad guys. Imagine The Walking Dead where the zombies are the central characters, or The Stand where we’re asked to sympathise with a group of people who have been infected by Captain Tripps. Hill presents us with a group of infected characters – characters who should be dead, but who have found a way to live – and invites us to live their story. Evil comes in the form of the uninfected, who are trying to stamp out the infection and save as much of what’s left of the world as they possibly can. In normal circumstances we would be right there with them, hunting down the infected and hammering wooden stakes through their hearts, but here it is difficult to identify with them and we find ourselves hoping for a world where Dragonscale might become a normal part of human life. It’s a powerful image, and Hill does a fantastic job ensuring that we can still feel empathy for these people who, aside from the beautiful scrollwork on their skin, are people that we can easily relate to and empathise with, despite the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

Hill makes excellent use of imagery, and repeating motifs, to make the story more real for us, to bring it to life more fully in our minds. The characters and locations are well-drawn and seem to leap off the page as we read, but it’s things like the phoenix or the Freightliner that will stick with us long after we have finished reading the book. The fiery phoenix is a thing of beauty and 80s children will be hard-pressed not to think of Battle of the Planets when they first encounter it. A force for good, it is the diametric opposite of the Freightliner, the town truck that Jacob Grayson drives, and which haunts the residents of Camp Wyndham from the moment they first see it. In many ways an homage to Richard Matheson’s (and, indeed, Steven Spielberg’s) Duel, this truck takes on a life of its own, and constantly looms in the background of the story, a symbol of everything Harper has come to hate and fear about her ex-husband.

The homages and references come thick and fast, most frequently in the form of some of the greats of post-apocalyptic fiction lending their names to places or things. Camp Wyndham is the most obvious example, while The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has a boat named after her. J.K. Rowling even gets a mention, as we learn of her demise at the mercy of the ‘scale. But perhaps the biggest homage, and the greatest source of inspiration for The Fireman, is the aforementioned King classic, The Stand.

As a massive fan of Stephen King, I tend to nerd out over the cross-references and in-jokes that he plants in his novels. More recently King and son Hill have been referencing each other’s books: Hill’s references to the world of The Dark Tower in his 2013 novel, NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 for the world outside the UK); and King’s references to the central character from Hill’s debut, Heart-Shaped Box, in 2014’s Mr Mercedes. Here, Hill seems to take the referencing to a whole new level, and the number of parallels between The Fireman and The Stand are, frankly, staggering: world-changing virus: check; pregnant protagonist: check; a deaf-mute called Nick: check; an obnoxious teen called Harold: check; a leader who is referred to as “Mother” (or, indeed, “Father”): check. And that’s just the ones I made a note of. Despite these parallels, the stories are very different, The Fireman at once Hill’s own Stand and wonderful homage to four decades of his father’s work (including Hill’s own version of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody). Dark Tower enthusiasts will spot some references here as well to that well-worn world: Nozz-a-la Cola, and this disconnected thought as consciousness drains from Harper partway through the book:

They had forgotten who they were. They had forgotten their own names, the voices of their mothers, the faces of their fathers.

With The Fireman, Joe Hill has taken a strange – if not entirely unwelcome, for those of us who like Stephen King, at least – turn in his career as a novelist. For a man determined to make his way in the publishing world by his own talent rather than who he was – like many in the relatively small horror community of the time, I read and loved Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghosts, before knowing his true identity – it seems odd that he should now attempt – very successfully, mind – to follow so closely in his father’s footsteps. The references are the least of it: there is a wonderful similarity in the writing styles of the pair and the reader comes away with the distinct impression that both subject matter and voice make this a distinctly “King” piece of work. The book is dedicated to, amongst a host of others, “my father, from whom I stole all the rest”, and The Fireman proves that, in this case at least, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Who better to be the “new Stephen King” than the man’s own son? This reader hopes that it’s not a miscalculation on Hill’s part, that it’s little more than an experiment in writing (though I, for one, would love to see Hill take on the fabled Gunslinger and crew). Because while The Fireman is a spectacular piece of work, Hill deserves much more than to be the shadow of his father.

In all, The Fireman is an excellent showcase for the talents of Joe Hill. I mentioned earlier that I think it’s likely to be his breakout novel, the story that spreads his name outside the genre. Yes, this is a grim look at post-apocalyptic America, but it’s a very different take than anything we’ve seen before. And more than that, it’s a story about people, about humanity’s acts of kindness and of evil. It’s a story about love, community, family. A story about hope, and how we cope when hope seems lost. Intense, beautiful and completely engrossing, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s finest novel to date, the work of a confident and mature writer for whom words are the building blocks of pure magic. It’s amongst the best novels I – or you – will read this year, and one I will be revisiting with the same frequency that I do its forebear. Essential reading for everyone, this is not to be missed.

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne

THE  BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN - John Boyne THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Émilie always maintained it was the war that killed him.

It is 1936 and seven-year-old Pierrot Fischer lives in Paris with his French mother, his German father having drunk himself into an early grave several years before. His best friend is Anshel Bronstein, a deaf Jewish child who lives on the ground floor of his apartment building. When Pierrot’s mother dies, his father’s sister takes him in, and brings him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is a housekeeper, and the house where she works is perched atop a mountain on the German-Austrian border, close to the small town of Berchtesgaden; this is the Berghof, and the master of the house is none other than the man who will soon become Führer of the Third Reich. Taken under Hitler’s wing, Pierrot soon rediscovers his German heritage, but finds that his newfound power comes at terrible cost.

Almost ten years after the phenomenal The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne returns to the subject of World War II as seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy. While both the title and cover of this latest story are both very reminiscent of that earlier volume, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a very different beast, though one that, ultimately, examines the same core question – “nature or nurture?” – through a very different lens.

We see the world through the young and innocent eyes of Pierrot, though the third-person narrative allows the narrator to impart secrets to the reader that might otherwise be beyond the youngster’s comprehension. Precocious and likeable, we feel a blow at the death of his mother, and are glad when he finds a place at a small family-run orphanage where we get the sense that he will be well looked after. When his aunt brings him to live with her, we watch and understand Pierrot’s apprehension while at the same time feeling joy that he still has family who want to do their best by him. It is a joy that is short-lived, when we discover exactly where he is going.

For the most part, Boyne paints a very human picture of Hitler, a man with much on his mind for whom this young boy is excellent company. There are moments when the evil peeks out from under the mask, and even the most jaded reader will feel a chill as we see the monster within. As Pierrot – now Pieter – grows closer to Hitler, his relationship with his aunt, and with the house’s other servants grows ever more distant. We watch as Pierrot changes – first forgetting his Parisian roots and his friendship with Anshel, then alienating himself from what few friends he has been able to make at the school in Berchtesgaden, and from the people with whom he shares the house, even when the master is not in residence – and the change becomes most marked when Hitler presents him with a gift almost a year after he first arrives: his own Hitler Youth uniform, which bestows upon him a sense of belonging, and of power, that has long been missing from his life. There comes a point in the novel, a moment of shocking betrayal, where we witness the boy’s transformation into early manhood:

It was Pierrot who climbed out of bed that morning, but it was Pieter who returned to it now before falling soundly asleep.

As we have come to expect from the works of John Boyne, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is beautifully-written and well-researched. His evocation of the Berghof is enough to transport the reader to the Obersalzburg, and his characters are as full of life as any he has created. While it lacks the emotional kick in the gut that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas provides, it is no less intense an experience. (Regular readers will be pleased with the brief crossover between the two books, as Pierrot and Bruno come face-to-face at Mannheim train station.) It’s an engaging – and all-too-short – look at Pierrot’s journey to the very brink of evil, but it is also, at least indirectly, a very frightening examination of Hitler’s fabled charisma, and goes some way towards trying to explain how so many people might have been talked into doing so many bad things in the name of furthering the Reich, not least the once – and potential future – King of England who turns up with Mrs Wallis Simpson on his arm for a weekend retreat with the Führer. What is perhaps most frightening about the experience is how Boyne plays on our own feelings about this man, presenting him in a different light that contradicts everything we think we know.

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

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