Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Category

Noir

EPIPHANY JONES by Michael Grothaus

Epiphany Jones A/W.indd EPIPHANY JONES

Michael Grothaus (www.michaelgrothaus.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn.

Jerry Dresden is something of a loner. Obsessed with sex and celebrity – and, very often, both at the same time – he spends his days working at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his nights in front of the computer, hunting down the latest faked images of the world’s most famous women. When one of his colleagues is murdered and a Van Gogh on loan to the Institute is stolen, suspicion quickly falls on Jerry. But he’s fairly sure he’s innocent. And when he meets Epiphany, a young woman who says she needs his help, he knows for certain he’s in deep trouble: Epiphany is the killer and the thief, and she has framed Jerry to ensure his cooperation. It doesn’t help that Epiphany thinks she talks to God. Following Epiphany from Chicago to Mexico, and from there to Europe – because of the promise of evidence of his innocence that Epiphany has in her possession – Jerry finds himself at the centre of a sex-trafficking scandal organised by Hollywood’s most powerful people, and unlocks dark memories that he has buried for almost twenty years.

I’m going to be perfectly honest: when it comes to sex in fiction, I’m not a big fan, especially when it doesn’t really (seem to) add much to the story at hand. So, for the first third of Michael Grothaus’ debut novel, I found myself constantly on the verge of packing it in. The novel’s opening line, above, more or less sums up the story’s central character, Jerry, a man who has taken masturbation to a whole new level, and who revels in sharing the details with the reader. Don’t get me wrong, Jerry is a funny guy, and finds himself in the middle of an intriguing mystery with an intense young woman for whom the word “captivating” seems to have been invented. So I persevered, and I would urge anyone who finds themselves in the same position to do the same. There is a point, around about the one-third mark where it feels like a switch has been flicked: the narrative takes on a much darker hue, and Jerry’s obsession takes a back seat to a new obsession with staying alive.

Told in the first person from Jerry’s point of view, the story gives us time to get to know our guide before throwing him in at the deep end. After losing his younger sister to leukaemia as a young boy, and being involved in the car accident that ended his father’s life, Jerry has gone off the rails. He suffers from delusions, often seeing people who aren’t there, and has a reputation with the people at work for inventing girlfriends. It comes as a great surprise to Jerry, then, when he discovers that Epiphany is, in fact, real. Unfortunately for him, her interest in him is not what he might have hoped for, and before long she is leading him on a dangerous journey across the world, all because the voices in her head told her that he could help.

In Jerry’s mind – and thus in the reader’s – Epiphany becomes a sort of modern-day Joan of Arc, a young woman who believes she has a direct line to God, and is on a mission that he has sanctioned. In stark contrast to Jerry’s comedic persona, Epiphany is a tortured soul, a woman not afraid to use violence to achieve her goals. As the story develops, it becomes immediately clear what Epiphany’s background is, but even that doesn’t help to soften the blow of the bombshell that she drops on Jerry, and on us, when she reveals exactly how he can help her.

From its comic beginnings, Epiphany Jones grows steadily darker until it becomes a book that is incredibly difficult to read at times: Grothaus pulls no punches, dropping the reader into the middle of his child trafficking and sex slavery storyline right alongside Jerry. There are no artistic fades or camera-pans here, just a brutal realism – even filtered, as it is, through Jerry’s mind – that leaves the reader with no questions about where their sympathies lie. This marked contrast between the first and second halves of the novel brings with it a surreal sense that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a completely different story. We are, in a way, taken unawares, lulled into a false sense of security before being exposed to the true horror of the dark underbelly of the world.

Despite my qualms with the book’s beginning, Epiphany Jones is one of the strongest and certainly the most original debut I’ve read this year. It’s a beautifully-written piece, and the author knows how to strike the right balance between comedy and real-life horror to ensure that he doesn’t alienate any part of his audience. Underpinned by a strong plot, Epiphany Jones is, nonetheless, driven by its quirky characters and by the relationships between them. Michael Grothaus has produced a mature and engaging debut that is sure to divide readers right down the middle and that, for me, is the ultimate sign of a great storyteller. Not to be missed.

DUST AND DESIRE by Conrad Williams

DUST AND DESIRE - Conrad Williams DUST AND DESIRE (A Joel Sorrell Novel)

Conrad Williams (conradwilliams.wordpress.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

London-based private investigator Joel Sorrell has gotten himself entangled in a most bizarre missing person case. Hired to look into the disappearance of his client’s brother, Sorrell begins to believe that he may be on a wild goose chase, especially when his client vanishes into thin air. When the body-count starts to rise – most notably the man who cuts his own throat on the landing outside Sorrell’s apartment door – Joel discovers that there are ties here to his old stomping grounds in Liverpool. As he investigates, he begins to understand that someone from a past Joel would much rather forget is out for vengeance, and Joel is the target. But why him?

In a departure from his usual horror fare (Williams, in case you haven’t read him, is one of the most exciting British horror writers since, say, Ramsay Campbell or James Herbert), Conrad Williams finds himself in the guise of downtrodden London PI Joel Sorrell as he faces a case that will test him to the limits, and force him to examine his life so far. From the outset, it’s obvious that Sorrell is a man with a tough-guy reputation protecting a soft inner core, a damaged character with a history that haunts his every move and decision: his wife was murdered when he was still a trainee policeman, and his teenage daughter disappeared several months later, apparently unable to cope with her father’s approach to grief.

Sorrell is hired by Kara Geenan to find her brother who has disappeared, and Sorrell accepts the case despite his better judgement. In typical hard-boiled fashion, it isn’t long before he finds himself beaten and in trouble with the police in the form of a humourless man with whom he trained. The man he is trying to find seems not to exist, and when he attempts to get in touch with Kara, he discovers that she has disappeared. His investigation brings him into contact with a host of colourful characters, from the hulking doorman Errol, to the self-important Knocker, and a handful of ex-girlfriends, all the while attempting to maintain some semblance of normal life with his cat Mengele and the beautiful vet who is as lonely as he is.

The first-person narrative allows Joel’s personality to shine through in his strong voice. The writing is stylish, but not at the cost of substance, full of wit, yet tinged with the sadness that is a constant in Joel’s life. From the opening lines, there is a very definite hard-boiled feel to the narrative, something familiar, yet far from clichéd, a fresh take on an age-old voice. Often laugh-out-loud, there is a natural feel to the writing that leaves the audience feel less like a reader, and more like a listener.

I came out of the Beehive on Homer Street and trod on a piece of shit. Big surprise. I’m always doing it. It was the end of a pretty rough day, and the noble gods of misery obviously didn’t fancy me toddling off to bed without pissing in my pockets one last time. I looked down at my shoe. The piece of shit said: ‘Can you get off my face now?’ I lifted my foot and let him stand up.

While Dust and Desire (a reworking of Williams’ 2010 novel, Blonde on a Stick, released by Titan in anticipation of a second and third Joel Sorrell thriller next year) is a departure from the author’s horror roots, there is a darkness here that belies those roots and blurs the lines between the two genres. The occasional violence is shocking in its intensity and graphic in its execution. The frequent side-trips into the mind of the serial killer leave the reader feeling disturbed, somehow unclean, at once understanding his twisted logic and wishing that we didn’t. His status as a “leapling” gives him added dimension and makes him, somehow, even more disturbing – it’s not every day we come across a four-year-old serial killer.

Dust and Desire is Conrad Williams doing what he does best, regardless of genre: crafting a story that we want to read, and that draws us in from the first page. Beautifully-realised characters and an engaging plot combine to make this one of the must-read crime novels of the year. The prospect of more of the same in next year’s Sonata of the Dead and Hell is Empty fills this reader with joy and excitement. Conrad Williams brings a wealth of experience to the genre, yet gives us a fresh new voice that immediately places him at the front of the burgeoning Brit Noir scene.

GATOR BAIT by Adam Howe

gatorbait-large GATOR BAIT

Adam Howe

Comet Press (www.cometpress.us)

Currently Free on Kindle

I fled the city: Two fingers short and sworn off dames for life.

Hammond is on the run; after a serious beating by the latest in a long line of cuckolds, he is two fingers short, and with a man’s death on his almost non-existent conscience. Buying a bus ticket, he ends up in the bayous of Louisiana, where he takes a job playing the piano at Horace Croker’s ramshackle bar, The Grinnin’ Gator. When he falls for Croker’s beautiful, abused wife, the pair hatch a plan to escape, taking the man’s money with them. But there’s a complication, in the form of Big George, a massive alligator who Croker keeps in the swampy pool below his bar: a pair of missing fingers might be the least of Hammond’s worries before he gets out of this.

It’s an ageless story that we’ve read – or watched – many times before: the abused wife, the drifter, the husband with money hidden away. What makes Gator Bait worth reading is the style with which Howe tells the story, and the magnetism of the characters at the story’s core. With spare yet beautiful language, the author tells his story of lust and violence, grabbing the reader by the throat and leaving them breathless by the story’s chilling climax.

The Postman Always Rings Twice with teeth, Gator Bait follows a similar formula to James M. Cain’s classic novel. Hammond, who calls himself John Smith when he arrives at The Grinnin’ Gator, is not a particularly likeable man, but he’s morally questionable at best, in contrast to the pure evil of Croker, a man who likes to feed Big George with people who cross him, and who keeps a cartoon – from which the story takes its name – on the wall of his office that defines his very character:

…it depicted a jolly old fisherman, bearded and fat as a hillbilly Santa Claus, casting his line into the river. Baited on the hook was a Negro child, caricatured to resemble a monkey…The painting was titled ‘Gator Bait’. I shuddered to recall what Croker had said about “the right bait.”

Hammond’s first-person narrative is perfectly-judged, the kind of voice we expect to find in this type of noir tale, while the tale itself is a wonderful mix of old-fashioned noir fiction and horror of the most banal kind – by which I mean there’s nothing supernatural here, but Croker’s actions, and Howe’s descriptive talents provide enough chills to keep the most jaded horror fiction fan happy for the story’s duration. While Grace – Croker’s wife – seems decidedly one-dimensional, it suits Howe’s purpose, keeping our attention focused on the building tension between Hammond and Croker, and on the ever-present threat of Big George.

diedog-compAdam Howe is slowly building his reputation as an author of fine dark fiction. His trilogy of weird tales, Black Cat Mojo, has already garnered rave reviews and Gator Bait will form one-third of his second collection, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, which is released on 3rd November from Comet Press. Heavy on style without sacrificing the substance, Gator Bait is the perfect teaser for what Howe is capable of and leaves the reader wanting more. While the novella form seems to suit his storytelling style – and the types of tale he wishes to tell – here’s one reader who would love to see him tackle a novel, a form that is more likely to see his work hitting the mainstream – where it certainly deserves to be – than the shorter works.

A blackly-comic noir tale that is infused with a sense of growing horror, Gator Bait is the perfect way to spend a dark evening reading. Chilling and unsettling, it is clear that Adam Howe knows exactly what buttons to press to manipulate his audience. I’ve already mentioned Cain’s Postman: Gator Bait is perfect for fans of that classic and shows that Howe has the chops to compete with some of the biggest names in the industry. Don’t be put off by his small-press origins: this is a talent that can only stay hidden for so long and an author that we’re likely to be talking about much more in the very near future. Get on at the ground floor; I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

An Interview with KARIM MISKÉ

karim-miske Name: KARIM MISKÉ

Author of: ARAB JAZZ (2015)

On the web: karimmiske.com

On Twitter: @KarimMiske

Karim Miské is a documentary-maker, restaurateur and television script-writer who lives and works in Paris. Arab Jazz is his first novel.

Thank you, Karim, for taking the time to chat with us.

The title of your novel is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz. Are you a fan of Ellroy’s work and, if so, to what extent has he influenced the direction of your own writing?

In my opinion, James Ellroy is one of the best writers of our time, in terms of stories, style, rhythm, characters. If you want to understand something of contemporary American history, the L.A. Quartet and Underworld U.S.A. are must-reads. Ellroy’s work has inspired me because, one way or another, it’s always about race and war. That’s what I wanted to talk about too. For a long time, I didn’t really know why I was so keen to name my book Arab Jazz. Then one day I thought: “Well, Ellroy is an White American who wrote a brilliant novel named White Jazz. I’m a French Arab who wrote a hopefully brilliant novel named Arab Jazz.” And the idea made me laugh.

The English publication of Arab Jazz is very timely, following the tragic events that overtook Paris early in January. In the novel, you examine the religious tensions and present a background, of sorts, as to what could have led to those events. When you were writing the novel, was there ever a feeling that you might be hitting a little bit close to home or was there a sense of inevitability that the melting pot might produce something?

Actually the melting pot had already produced many things when I was writing Arab Jazz. In terms of terrorism, we had Khaled Kelkal in the nineties, an Algerian-born kid raised in France, who had conducted several terrorist attacks before being killed. And after him, there was the group of the Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19th arrondissement, the very territory of Arab Jazz. Some youngsters attracted by a self-proclaimed Imam were sent to Iraq. Most of them died there in suicide attacks or in the battle of Fallujah. I had been reading about the trial of the survivors of this jihadi group in 2008, while writing Arab Jazz, and the self-proclaimed imam of that group inspired one of the characters of the book. It was this imam who recruited one of the Kouachi brothers. When the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, I was, like everybody, horrified by the murders but also really disturbed by the way reality had re-entered my novel.

The pair of detectives at the centre of the novel – Rachel Kupferstein, an Ashkenazi Jew, and Jean Hamelot, a Breton from a communist family – are, to say the least, somewhat unconventional. Can you talk a bit about the origins of the characters, of the partnership, and of the challenges you faced when writing these two very different (from each other and from any of their contemporaries) individuals?

Rachel and Jean really popped up in front of my surprised eyes a few moments after Ahmed did, at the very beginning at the writing process. Suddenly they were there, teasing each other in front of a dead body, like typical cops. But the dialogue was not that classical. Jean was quoting Goebbels’ famous sentence: “The bigger the lie, the more it’ll be believed, and Rachel answered him in a way that implied she was Jewish, but a Jew who did not care that much about identity. At that moment, I knew them, I knew they were unconventional cops. I knew that Jean was attracted to his colleague but that nothing more than a kiss could happen between them. The challenge was to listen carefully to their voice, and follow them.

And can we expect to see more of Kupferstein and Hamelot in the future?

Arab Jazz is going to be a trilogy, so, yes, we’ll see more of them. And of Ahmed too. Some of the bad guys will also be there, so that we can have a really nice murder party with lots of Godzwill.

One of the central “characters” in the novel is the unique and captivating nineteenth arrondissement of Paris itself. How did you go about setting the scene and capturing the atmosphere to give the reader the sense of place required to understand the complex relationships between the different communities who share this small piece of the city?

I was living in the 19th when I began writing Arab Jazz. In a way, I just had to walk the streets, look at the people and let my imagination do the rest. One day, I was having a hair cut at a Moroccan Jewish hairdresser close to my place. While waiting for my turn, I heard him speak Arabic with the Moroccan Muslim mother of the kid whose hair he was cutting. The image and the words remained there, in my head. A few days later, I created the character of Sam, the dangerous hairdresser. Without knowing it, the real hairdresser had given birth to his literary double. He was an observant Jew, at the same time culturally Arab and politically anti-Arab. He embodied the contradictions of the nineteenth where Arabs and Jews are caught in a love-hate relationship. Upon these contradictions, I built my story.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Balzac, Brett Easton-Ellis, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Yourcenar, Hanif Kureishi, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes and Horace McCoy, Jean-Patrick Manchette (the guy who re-invented French noir in the seventies). George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Frantz Fanon, Marguerite Duras. So many others…

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon), 1984 (Orwell), A Harlot High and Low (Balzac), The Abyss (Yourcenar)

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Karim Miské look like?

When I’m in Paris, I cannot come to understand what happens during the day: I spend hours in front of my computer without managing to write a single word. Then, late at night, when everybody sleeps, sometimes, I finally end up writing a few paragraphs. After a few weeks like this, I freak out and decide to bury myself somewhere in the countryside. There, I write.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

I don’t really see fiction-writing as a career because most writers can’t make a living out of it. Hence my first advice: don’t leave your job if you have one. Then, read a lot, write a lot. When you think you’ve got something worth showing, find a good reader, someone you trust i.e. not your mother or your lover. Ask your reader to give you deadlines and stick to it until you have written a first version. Then re-write it from the beginning, then look for an agent and/or a publisher.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I am reading lots of crime and scifi novels, looking for new ideas for a TV channel. The last book I read for pleasure is Savages by Don Winslow and I really enjoyed it!

If Arab Jazz should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

As I am primarily a film maker, I’d love to direct it myself, but if a director I admire wants to do it, I can reconsider my position. In terms of casts, I actually have no idea for the moment, but once it’s getting serious, I’ll be watching tons of films to find the perfect actors.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Let’s begin with the beverage. Sorry for the noir cliché, but it’s going to be a bottle of Jack Daniels, because it’s nice, from time to time, to empty one with friends, talking about live, death, love and stuff. I’d like to share it with James Baldwin. We’d talk about literature, race and gender until the bottle is emptied and the dawn is rising.

Thank you once again, Karim, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Karim will be in the UK to celebrate the launch of Arab Jazz. If you’re close to any of the events below, I’d recommend trying to catch him.

7pm, 9 February 2015 Karim Miské will be talking to Tariq Ali at Blackwell’s Oxford – tickets £3 from Blackwell’s, Broad Street, Oxford or 01865 333623/http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/stores/oxford-bookshop/2015/01/15/tariq-ali-launches-karim-miskes-debut-novel-arab-jazz/

7pm, 10 February 2015 ‘Spectrum of Radicalism – Fact and Fiction’ Karim Miské, Suzanne Moore, Kenan Malik and Ben Faccini will be discussing multiculturalism and fundamentalism at the French Institute on 10 February at 7pm. Tickets £8 http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/events-calendar/whats-on/talks/writing-the-story-of-urban-multiculturalism-arab-jazz-by-karim-miske/

7pm, 11 February 2015 Elif Shafak in conversation with Karim  Miské and Sarah Lotz, at Waterstones Piccadilly talking about ‘Colliding Faiths – religious fundamentalism in global fiction’. Tickets free, but email piccadilly@waterstones.com

ARAB JAZZ by Karim Miské

untitled ARAB JAZZ

Karim Miské (karimmiske.com)

Translated by Sam Gordon (www.sglanguages.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£16.99

And so it is in the Valetta of Paris, 75019, that he feels the first drop on his upturned face, his half-closed eyes gazing up at the sky. The second comes crashing down onto the gleaming sleeve of his djellaba, a present from his cousin Mohamed. Ahmed looks down and watches the scarlet stain spread across the white cotton. It’s not rain. A third tear strikes him on the end of his nose. He tastes it. It’s blood. His eyes slowly move upwards, as if they know the sight that awaits them. A motionless foot is handing two metres above him.

So it is that Ahmed Taroudant discovers that his upstairs neighbour has been murdered. As the only person with a spare key to Laura’s apartment – she was an air stewardess, and he watered her orchids when she was away from home – Ahmed is the obvious suspect. But this is the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a veritable melting pot where political and religious tensions run high, and Detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot believe him to be innocent. As their investigation progresses, they discover that there is more to this violent crime than initially meets the eye, and that one or more religious factions might be involved in both the murder, and the appearance of a new drug on the streets of Paris.

Documentary-maker Karim Miské’s debut novel is part crime fiction, part sociological examination of the consequences of people of various races and faiths living in such close proximity. The murder of a young air stewardess allows Miské to construct a complex – and extremely clever – narrative that shows the divisions within this small neighbourhood, as well as on a global scale. These divisions are reflected, too, in the novel’s protagonists: Rachel Kupferstein, Ashkenazi Jew, and Jean Hamelot, Breton Communist who likes to quote Goebbels. Running his own investigation is Ahmed Taroudant, the dead girl’s downstairs neighbour, and a man for whom she had strong – if not necessarily reciprocated – feelings.

This trio of characters are a fascinating bunch, each in their own unique way, and Miské takes time to examine the relationships between the three, complex and often unexpected. Surprisingly, Ahmed plays a central role in the investigation, drawing on his many years of reading “stacks of English-language pulp thrillers: Connelly, Cornwell, Coben”, paperbacks of which line his apartment so that the usable space narrows with each passing month. The book’s title is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz, one of the early novels of Ahmed and Rachel’s favourite author. Ahmed’s position – his residency in the area , and the fact that many of the area’s other residents consider him to be quite slow – provides him with a unique opportunity to ask questions where the police may not necessarily have much luck.

The list of suspects encompasses a who’s who of religious denominations: the members of the edgy rap group who no longer associate with each other: Salafists on one side, a Hasidic Jew on the other; the Jewish barber who plays both sides of the fence, as comfortable with the Islamists as he is with his own people; the local Imam who is hiding something; and the Jehovah’s Witnesses recently arrived from America hoping to open a route for their new drug, Godzwill. The mix leads to a lot of tension, and Miské captures it wonderfully on the page, imbuing in the reader a sense of dread as to how easily this tinderbox might ignite.

As well as the individuals, the author captures the essence of the 19th arrondissement, and of this small neighbourhood. A timely read, following the tragic events in Paris early in the year, the reader comes away with some understanding of just how finely balanced the different factions are, as they share this small area of Paris. All this with a distinctly noirish feel, a voice that puts Arab Jazz firmly in the crime fiction genre: the wheelings and dealings of the various characters, like the barber who feels like he has just stepped out of a Middle Eastern version ofThe Godfather or The Sopranos, and, most importantly, the violent death of the young woman that sets the scene as the novel opens. The mystery unfolds slowly as the novel progresses, told from multiple viewpoints, so that the reader must piece the different components together to get an understanding of what is going on. The “action” (and I use the word loosely) moves from Paris to New York and back, and the dead girl becomes the thread that ties everything together. As we start to understand the nature of what is going on, it becomes apparent that Karim Miské is a masterful plotter, and a firm believer in the concept of Chekhov’s gun. There are twists and turns here that ensure that no character is left untouched, no innocents in the 19th arrondissement, with the possible exception of Laura and Ahmed.

Arab Jazz, I have on good authority, is the first novel in a proposed trilogy. Based on the strength of this stunning debut novel, consider me signed up for the rest of the journey. Beautifully written – and translated, for that matter, by Sam Gordon – this is a wonderfully-plotted novel by a man who obviously has deep respect – if not love – for the genre, and for the authors and filmmakers who have practiced it before him. An exceptional debut from an exceptional talent, watch out for Karim Miské: his is a name you will be hearing a lot in the future.

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING - Lavie Tidhar A MAN LIES DREAMING

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

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

£18.99

In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.

National Socialism is routed at the 1933 elections by Communism, and its leadership exiled from Germany. Sentenced to a concentration camp, Adolf Hitler escapes and makes his way to London where, under his old nickname, Wolf, he sets up as a private detective. When a beautiful Jewish woman steps into his office in early November 1939 to hire him to find her missing sister, Wolf has no idea where the case will take him, except that he should have listened to his first instinct and thrown her out on the street. As his investigation progresses, Wolf finds himself on the wrong side of all the wrong people: the Metropolitan Police; all of the men and women who once formed the upper echelons of the Nazi Party; Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; and a mysterious man who is killing the prostitutes who congregate outside Wolf’s office, and framing the detective for their murders.

Most importantly, for the reader at least, is the fact that none of this is real; it is all the lucid fabrication of Shomer, a man who once wrote shund – Yiddish pulp fiction – for a living, and who now uses it as a form of escape from his current location: hell on Earth. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In what is perhaps the most original take on the Holocaust novel to date, Lavie Tidhar presents the events as a hard-boiled detective novel which at first glance appears to be set in an alternate timeline. As the novel progresses we discover that it is actually a fiction, a story within the story, the dreams and daydreams of an Auschwitz inmate named Shomer. The central story follows Wolf as he accepts a job from Isabella Rubinstein, a Jew, who wants him to use his connections to find her sister who went missing while trying to escape from Germany. From the outset, it is clear that the aim of the story is to belittle and humiliate Wolf, the reasons becoming more obvious as we learn of the story’s origins. During his investigation, Wolf encounters old colleagues – Hess, Goebbels, Klaus Barbie – and discovers that they all appear to have adapted to this brave new world better than he has himself. Coupled with the success – and imminent election as Prime Minister – of Oswald Mosley, a wannabe in Wolf’s eyes

To see Mosley, that clown, with such power! Even the man’s words were second-hand.

, it becomes obvious just how far Wolf has fallen since the heights of the Nuremberg rallies.

Interspersed with this central narrative, we catch brief glimpses of Shomer, the eponymous dreamer, as he dreams his way through his time in Auschwitz, talking to the ghost of his dead friend Yenkl when he is not reinventing the man at the root of his suffering as the hero of a pulpy detective story. We get brief flashes of his arrival on the train, the separation from his family, hard labour digging graves and a brief stay in the camp’s infirmary, where he crosses paths with fellow authors Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik. It is, as you might expect given the subject matter, a harrowing look at life in Auschwitz made no less powerful by the brevity of our visits. Shomer, like those around him, is little more than the blue-tattooed number on his arm, and the stories he invents are the only relief he finds from the daily horrors. The novel’s final line is heartbreakingly beautiful, an excellent summation of what is an extraordinary novel.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a brave novel for a man whose life has been shaped by the very events he is describing

The majority of my family, on both sides, died in [Auschwitz]

Tidhar explains in his historical note at the end). A far cry from the outright satire of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, A Man Lies Dreaming examines the dictator in a completely different way. The first-person excerpts from Wolf’s diary give us some insight into the character of the man, while filtering much of the narrative through the Chandler-esque voice. Despite the odd moment where Wolf comes across as a kind of Basil Fawlty impersonator (

He bashed the receiver against the phone box, over and over, splintering the casing, wantonly destroying the property of His Majesty’s General Post Office.

), he elicits a surprising feeling of empathy from the reader, despite what we know. Like Chandler’s well-loved Marlowe, Wolf does not come out of this case well, one beating following quickly on the heels of the one before, ritual humiliation, an impromptu circumcision, so that it’s a wonder that the man makes it to the end of the story in one piece.

This sort of alternative history is not new ground for Lavie Tidhar, who won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for his alternate take on Osama. Brilliantly capturing the mood of a pre-war (war still looms very much on the horizon, though delayed by Hitler’s Fall) Britain while mixing it with the modern-day xenophobia that seems to be sweeping the country, spurred on by the likes of UKIP (some of whose slogans Tidhar uses to provide voice to Mosley’s supporters). The author’s deft touch sees Wolf, whose anti-semitic views survive his exile, become the object of racial hatred, rather than its purveyor, a state of affairs that is likely to have brought Shomer no small measure of happiness.

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough

DeathHouse THE DEATH HOUSE

Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Released on 26th February 2015

Toby is a Defective. When the results of a blood test announce his death sentence he finds himself taken forcibly from his family and transported to an old manor house on a remote island in the far north. Toby is not alone: the Death House, as its residents come to know it, houses a group of children aged between 10 and 18 who are all as doomed as Toby. Watched over by Matron and her nurses, the children await the first symptoms of illness which will signal their transfer to the sanatorium on the top floor of the house. No-one ever comes back from the sanatorium.

Toby and the other boys spend their days waiting for the end, each with their own little tricks to help pass the time. Toby refuses to take the sleeping pills that are handed out before bed, and so spends every night wandering the big house alone; this is his time, his secret. When a new batch of Defectives arrive, they bring with them Clara, who quickly invades Toby’s night time domain. As animosity turns to friendship and love begins to blossom, the pair realise that there are better things to do than sit around waiting to die.

First things first: Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel, The Death House, made me cry. Now that that’s out in the open, let’s talk about what you can expect from this beautiful little book.

It’s tough to pin Pinborough down: she is, perhaps, best known for the horror fiction that began her career, through dark crime novels and adult (by all accounts) re-workings of classic fairy tales. Then she throws us a curveball: last year’s wonderful The Language of Dying and, now, The Death House. Set on a remote island in an undefined future time (it has been 100 years since snow fell in England, is the best landmark we have), Pinborough introduces us to a group of boys and girls who have been hidden away from society because they have been classed as Defective.

We’re never quite sure what it means to be Defective: each child’s symptoms are different; it only strikes children under the age of eighteen; it’s a rare occurrence now, but was once a widespread plague. What we do know, as we watch events unfold through the eyes of Toby, one of the older boys in the house, is that these children are frightened and, despite the other children around them, very much alone. Assigned to different dormitories, battle lines are drawn, one dorm against the other, a tacit competition to see which group will last the longest before one of their members succumbs to illness.

What is fascinating here is how well-developed Toby is as a character. Pinborough manages to get inside this teenage boy’s head to show us how he thinks and reacts. Through flashbacks, we see a typical teenager with a one-track mind; as his relationship with Clara develops, and love blossoms, we see how quickly he matures, how his language and mannerisms change, and how it affects his relationships with the others in the house.

It’s easy to see, as we read, some of the novels that influenced The Death House. The most obvious, probably because Pinborough references it directly in the story, is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Rather than the desert island scenario, we find ourselves in a large, remote house, in the midst of a group of largely autonomous children who have formed into a number of factions. The formation of Ashley’s church causes these factions to fragment, and re-form, in much the same way that the boys’ allegiances change through the course of Golding’s classic novel. The other – and, for me, stronger – influence that we find is that of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the strangely emotionless and, ultimately, quite cruel Matron playing the role of Nurse Ratched.

At the centre of the novel, despite the science fiction or horror elements that set the scene, is the developing relationship between Toby and Clara. Full of innocence, it develops into the intense and emotional story of a pair of doomed lovers making the best of the very short time they have left to them. Omnia vincit amor, Virgil tells us: Love conquers all. It’s a message that forms the solid foundation of The Death House, but don’t be fooled; there is horror to come, scenes that will rock the reader to the core and drive us to question the author’s parentage. Pinborough has us in the palm of her hand from that opening line (“’They say it makes your eyes bleed. Almost pop out of your head and then bleed.’”) and there is no escape. Haunting and beautiful, The Death House will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page.

Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.

PERFIDIA by James Ellroy

Perfidia-by-James-Ellroy PERFIDIA

James Ellroy (jamesellroy.net)

William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)

£18.99

December 6th, 1941: four members of a Japanese family living in Los Angeles are found dead in their home in what, at first glance, appears to be a ritual Japanese suicide. Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese employee of the Los Angeles Police Department, finds evidence that suggests that all is not as it seems, and affects the direction that Sergeant Dudley Smith’s investigation takes. A day later, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the Second World War. As the internment of Los Angeles’ Japanese population begins, pressure mounts to prove that this was an intraracial crime, while all involved are focussed on the best way to turn a profit from the war and the ensuing chaos.

After a brief (fifteen-year) hiatus during which he brought his unique brand of historical storytelling to the wider American canvas (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s A Rover), James Ellroy returns, in Perfidia, to the city that he loves, and which forms the backdrop of the vast majority of his work: Los Angeles. Set in the dying days of 1941, Ellroy returns to locations and characters that we know well, to tell the story of how the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent entry of America into the War, affected the people and the country.

As usual, Ellroy is unashamed in his portrayal of the times, and does nothing to soften the blow for his modern audience. It’s a very refreshing approach to storytelling in these days of political correctness gone wild and Ellroy makes no attempt to retrofit history to appease our seemingly delicate sensibilities. This is apparent from the outset: while section headings like The Japs and The Chinks don’t pack the visceral punch of Blood’s A Rover’s opening Clusterfuck, they’re still a very powerful indication of exactly what to expect within the pages of this seven-hundred-and-some-page novel.

Bringing together characters from his earlier L.A. Quartet (here’s Buzz Meeks and Bucky Bleichert, for example; Lee Blanchard and Kay Lake) and the Underworld USA trilogy (meet a much younger Ward J. Littell, J. Edgar Hoover and Ruth Mildred Cressmeyer, to name but a few), Ellroy weaves the individual strands together to tell the story of the murder of the Watanabe family and almost-too-coincidental bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. It’s a story of corruption and greed, but also of love and patriotism. And it would not be complete without Ellroy’s masterful creation, Sergeant Dudley Liam Smith.

When it comes to truly evil, despicable characters, Smith is hard to beat. His Irish charm coupled with his ever-calculating brain make him one of the most memorable characters of modern crime fiction, all the more frightening by virtue of the fact that he carries a badge and is, ostensibly, one of the good guys. In Perfidia, we meet a much younger Smith, but readers of Ellroy’s earlier L.A. Quartet will be pleased to see that little has changed about the character in the intervening years. Ellroy drops something of a bombshell early in the novel which shines a completely different light on that earlier quartet and, in particular, the account of the Black Dahlia murder. It’s a testament to his power as a writer that this bombshell feels almost throwaway, a brief mention, then moving swiftly along to the business at hand. Long-time fans will most likely end up in a similar state to me, slack-jawed in amazement, stuck on the fact that this single line of text changes everything.

Perfidia marks the start of James Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet and bears all the hallmarks that set those books apart from the majority of crime fiction. He seamlessly merges fact and fiction to produce a gripping and often disturbing story: here we find casual racism (often at the expense of poor Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese left on the police force’s payroll), sexism and homophobia on almost every page; there, Ellroy’s fictional creations rubbing shoulders (and, often, more intimate body parts) with the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And all told in the staccato, telegrammatic style that Ellroy has made his own, and which seems, after the first few pages, like the only way to tell the story that the author wants to tell.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Ellroy creates a conspiracy theory that makes his version of the Kennedy assassinations look like child’s play, and does so in such a way that leaves the reader wondering if it has any basis in fact. Around this, he constructs an excellent murder mystery and, at the same time, examines the possibility of Fifth Column activity, and the constant threat of Japanese submarines off the west coast of the US, pulling all the threads together in a neat package that is next to impossible to put down once you’ve made a start. Chronologically, Perfidia is an excellent place to start, but those coming from the seven novels to which it forms a prequel will be coming on board with a greater understanding of the world Ellroy’s characters inhabit, giving a much richer experience all round.

James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL - Kevin Sampson THE HOUSE ON THE HILL

Kevin Sampson

Jonathan Cape (www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)

£14.99

Still on extended leave following the Rozaki case, DCI Billy McCartney is surprised when a girl barely out of her teens turns up on his doorstep and claims to be the daughter of Moroccan drug magnate Hassan El Glaoui. The girl’s appearance, and cry for help, takes Mac back to the last time he had dealings with El Glaoui. Ibiza in 1990; a bad batch of Ecstasy tablets has already killed a handful of kids, and Mac’s job is to ensure that they’re taken off the market before the season kicks off. Along with colleague, DS Camilla "Millie" Baker, he sets up as a potential buyer and dealer, and insinuates himself into the company of John-John Hamilton, a Liverpool-based dealer who has the Ibiza market more or less sewn up. But things take a turn for the worse and it is only now, twenty-three years later, with the arrival of this girl at his house, that Billy McCartney has a chance to set things right.

The second DCI Billy McCartney novel, The House on the Hill, features two stories in one, both inextricably linked to form a single narrative spanning twenty-three years. Opening in London in 1990, we meet a much younger Mac than in The Killing Pool, as he prepares to embark on an undercover mission to Ibiza to try to infiltrate the island’s drug trade. This Mac, perhaps because of the age difference, or because those of us who have read the first book have a better understanding of who he is, comes across as a lot less ambiguous, more idealistic, someone who is, undeniably, on the side of what is good and right. Alongside UDYCO chief, "Jus" Roig, whose motives are questionable at best, and Ibiza’s Chief Molina, who is outright corrupt, McCartney is almost a saint, albeit one who is a little bit too sure of his own abilities. It’s this cockiness that leads to disaster, and shapes the man McCartney will become.

The second half of the novel takes place in present day, and sees McCartney once again taking on the role of drug user and dealer to infiltrate El Galoui’s Red Fort in the mountains of Morocco, following the arrival of the young Yasmina at his door.  This time around, we find ourselves in the company of a much more circumspect Mac, a man who is well aware that he has been given a rare second chance to put things right, and who is determined not to mess things up.

The House on the Hill is a much different beast from McCartney’s first outing. Told in the third person, rather than from multiple first-person viewpoints, the action seems much less intense (probably due to the longer timescales), even if the consequences are just as dire. Sampson – very successfully – avoids any mention of the bombshell that closes The Killing Pool, though Mac does have some telling mannerisms that will be obvious to those who have read the first novel. This fact, coupled with the earlier setting, means that The House on the Hill works as a standalone novel, but one that provides extra rewards for the returning audience.

Aside from McCartney himself, very few of the supporting characters appear in this latest instalment. The Rozaki brothers, whose operation is at the centre of The Killing Pool, put in brief appearances, as young men just starting out in the business, employees of John-John Hamilton. The biggest difference, perhaps, is the shift of location from Sampson’s native Liverpool to the tourist-infested Ibiza, and the arid mountains of Morocco. Happily, Sampson manages to transport the reader to both places, his sense of place no less powerful for the change of scenery, evoking especially the sleaze and heavy bass beat that drew hordes of (mainly) British tourists to the White Island in the early nineties. It’s a risky move, taking the character from his established milieu so early in the series, but it works well, and fleshes out some of McCartney’s background, as well as giving us a more in-depth look at what drives this man than the frantic pace of the first book allowed.

Unusually for a noirish piece of this ilk, Sampson spends some time examining social issues through the eyes of his characters. As with the first novel, sexism plays a large part in the first half of the novel – especially where the Spanish policemen are concerned – while the latter half of the novel allows Sampson to examine the Arab Spring, and the question of sexual orientation and gender in Islamist regions.

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve read The Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑