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INFLUENCES: My Writing Influences by CHRIS WHITAKER

Whitaker, Chris Name: CHRIS WHITAKER

Author of: TALL OAKS (2016)

On Twitter: @whittyauthor

Tall OaksTo celebrate the launch of Chris Whitaker’s excellent debut novel, Tall Oaks, I’m very pleased to invite him to Reader Dad to talk about his writing influences. Be sure to check the other stops on the blog tour for more great insights into author and novel, and check back here soon for my own thoughts on the book.

When I was a child my favourite books were the Topsy and Tim series by Jean and Gareth Adamson. I had (and still have) about fifteen of them and I remember reading them so often that I’d memorised each and every story. I read them to my children now and it’s funny to see how dated they are. In Topsy and Tim Move House the removal men smoke pipes whilst lifting the sofas! I used to write my own Topsy and Tim books. I wish I still had them but my mum threw them away (sentimental old cow).

Tall Oaks Blog BannerFrom Topsy and Tim I moved on to The Famous Five by Enid Blyton. I hated The Famous Five, though my all-knowing parents decided I should love them as much as they did. My brother passed down the entire set to me. Apparently there were only due to be six originally published, but due to their success, and Blyton’s love of money, I had to suffer through twenty one of the things before I was suitably drowned in the wonders of cottages, islands, and the English and Welsh countryside. Looking back now I think I took such a dislike to them because they felt old fashioned even back then, boys don’t want to read about the joys of ‘picnicking’ even as a prelude to a treasure hunt. I yearned for escapism, and still do with the books I like to read now. That’s partly why I invented the town of Tall Oaks and set it 5,000 miles away from home.

I discovered the Point Horror books after getting caught, and banned from, reading Carrie by Stephen King when I was twelve. I think they were aimed at teenage girls (also an interest of mine at that time). I loved the Point Horror books, Trick or Treat by Richie Tankersly Cusick  was my favourite. It was so well written and creepy, definitely an inspiration for the opening chapter of Tall Oaks where Jess sees a clown in her son’s bedroom.

So on to my influences as an adult reader. There really are too many to list but I’ll have a go. Dennis Lehane is one of my all time favourite writers. From Mystic River to Live By Night, I love the detail in the setting for each of his novels. In Mystic River the streets of The Flats, and the neighbourhoods of East Buckingham and The Point almost become their own characters, which was definitely something I aimed for in Tall Oaks. I’m also a huge fan of Kazuo Ishigaro. Never Let Me Go is one of my favourites and I really love the sense of unease he creates throughout the book, and the characterisation is second to none. Cormac McCarthy, John Grisham, Graham Greene, Harper Lee, all masters of their craft and all have influenced me in the biggest way possible, by inspiring me to want to write.

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker is published by Twenty7 and is now available in ebook, priced £4.99. A paperback release is scheduled for September.

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL - Malcolm Mackay EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

Nate Colgan is a name feared throughout the Glasgow underworld. Now, as “security consultant” for the Jamieson organisation, he has the heft to back up the reputation. Nate’s new job coincides with the murder of one of the members of the Jamieson lower echelon; a new group has moved into Glasgow, from south of the border, according to rumours, and they look to be making a move on an organisation they see as weak. With Peter Jamieson and John Young still serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure in HMP Barlinnie, it’s up to Jamieson’s lieutenants – and the very capable hands of his new security consultant – to deal with the threat before the new boys move in, or the organisation fractures under the strain.

In a very short time, Malcolm Mackay has become a name to watch very closely in crime fiction circles. Every Night I Dream of Hell is his fifth outing since he burst onto the scene in 2013 with The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter and takes us back to the now-comfortable haunt of Glasgow’s criminal underbelly, and the gangs that run it. In a departure from earlier books, Mackay opts for a first-person narrative, presenting a much different voice from the chatty one we have grown used to. He also takes one of the characters who has been part of this world since the very beginning – Nate Colgan’s name appears as far back as Lewis Winter – and drags him into the spotlight, not only introducing us to this man we’ve heard so much about but not yet met, but putting us right inside his head.

As with his previous novels, Mackay hooks the reader very early in the story and quickly notches up the tension until it’s almost impossible to put the book down. This is a world with which regular readers are already intimately familiar, so there is little time wasted on backstory or set-up, the author correctly deciding that if the reader hasn’t been here before, it won’t take long to find their way around the convoluted structure of the Jamieson organisation and the city’s other criminal enterprises. Here are characters we’ve met before like Marty Jones and Kevin Currie, and there is as much interest for the reader in how much these characters have changed – how much they have capitalised on the organisation’s current state – since the last time we encountered them.

Nate Colgan himself is a revelation, the perfect example of how the man and the reputation aren’t necessarily the same thing. From the outset it’s clear that Colgan is extremely intelligent, despite his reputation as a hard man, and all that the phrase suggests. This is a man feared throughout Glasgow, yet when we meet him he is much more human than we might have believed. His new position within the organisation seems long overdue, but it’s obvious to the reader – if not the man himself – that he has been hired as much for his wit and intelligence as his muscle. Colgan is a man with few straightforward relationships: he has tried to keep his young daughter as far away from his reputation as possible and the sudden reappearance of the girl’s mother – readers of Lewis Winter will recognise Zara Cope, even with her clothes on – serves only to disrupt his delicate balancing act. Like Mackay’s other great protagonist, Calum MacLean, Colgan attempts to avoid any complex relationships with women for fear of how they might end, or how they might be used as leverage in the wrong hands.

While the voice is necessarily different, the tone of Every Night I Dream of Hell remains very much unchanged from earlier books in the series. This is dark crime at its very best, shot through with brief glimpses of light and humour. While Colgan may not necessarily be a good man caught in a bad situation, the reader can still feel some sympathy for him; this man who may have made stupid decisions earlier in life and who is now trapped because of them. Mackay has said the decision to use first person was a difficult one to make, but it suits this story and has been used to its advantage: in contrast to earlier books, there is an element of mystery surrounding the events of Every Night I Dream of Hell, an element that allows both Colgan and the reader to put on their deerstalkers, suck at their meerschaum pipes and wonder “whodunit?”. Mackay’s previous, all-encompassing style of storytelling may have made it more difficult to hide the clues than by keeping the novel’s protagonist in the dark.

One of the key strengths of Mackay’s storytelling is his ability to avoid absolutes: there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” here, just varying shades of “questionable”, regardless of what side of the law they’re on. DI Michael Fisher, who put Jamieson away, returns and even his motives aren’t entirely clear. This is the dark underworld of Glasgow, and Mackay knows that there is no saviour, there’s just the status quo and the bad things that sometimes must happen to ensure that it isn’t interrupted. For this reason, if for no other, Colgan is the perfect man to stand at the centre of Every Night I Dream of Hell: his thought processes and very character mirror on a smaller scale what is happening around him.

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.

GOODHOUSE by Peyton Marshall

GOODHOUSE - Peyton Marshall GOODHOUSE

Peyton Marshall (www.peytonmarshall.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£14.99

In a near-future America, the genetic markers for violence and criminal behaviour have been identified, and the male relatives of anyone who has ever been charged with committing a crime are tested shortly after birth. Those found to possess the same genetic makeup as their criminal forebears are removed to the Goodhouse system, a series of school-cum-prisons across the country whose sole purpose is to nurture these boys away from any criminal predisposition so that they can safely join civilisation when they turn 18. James is one such boy, a resident of the Goodhouse system since he was three years old, he is a relative newcomer to the California Goodhouse; previously based at La Pine, Oregon, James was one of the few survivors of a Zero attack on the Goodhouse. Now, as the system prepares to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and James approaches his own eighteenth birthday, he discovers that there are people who have a more sinister purpose for the Goodhouse system and that only he has the power, and the information, to expose their schemes to the world, and save the boys with whom he is incarcerated.

Peyton Marshall’s debut novel is the latest in a long and prestigious line of dystopias which take as their central conceit the idea of preventing crime before it happens, rather than dealing with the aftermath. While Goodhouse does have a number of plot holes (why is the Goodhouse system populated only by boys? And how, exactly, can security be so lax that these institutions can so easily be infiltrated by the Zeros who, presumably, share the same genetic markers as the boys on the inside?) it’s an interesting premise and one that Marshall examines in some depth as the story progresses, though never, it must be pointed out, at the cost of the story’s forward momentum.

We see this world through the eyes of James, a young man who has been in Goodhouse since he was three years old. James has no idea who his parents are – family records are destroyed and the boys are renamed, to prevent any future contact – and is facing the prospect of being released into the world once he turns eighteen. The recent attack on his original Goodhouse home, in rural Oregon, has seen him moved to California where things are done differently enough to make the transition jarring for James. Marshall has spent some time creating both the outside world, and the world inhabited by these boys in Goodhouse: they have developed means of communication that circumvent the almost-total ban on talking, and their assignment to different status levels are determined by past behaviour and have some impact on how they behave in the future (Level 1 brings with it perks and benefits that no boy wants to lose, if at all possible).

Into this strictly ordered world, Marshall introduces Bethany, a girl slightly younger than James who takes an unhealthy interest in him. Also taking an unhealthy interest is Bethany’s father, a doctor who lives and works on campus and who James recognises from his previous life at La Pine. Dr Cleveland pulls strings to ensure that he has almost-unlimited access to James, and from here things start to go south for the young man. Escape and re-incarceration ensue as we’re taken on a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat journey to an outside world where there are mixed emotions about the Goodhouse system and the boys who are under its care. James and Bethany discover that some of the medical research is less than legal, and that the company that funds much of the research is set to make billions of dollars at the cost of these boys’ lives.

Using first-person narrative, and telling the story from the point of view of James, who knows little of the outside world, it is no surprise that Goodhouse leaves a lot of questions unanswered or, at best, only briefly explained: who, for example, are the Zeros, and what is their problem with the Goodhouse system? These are concerns for the reader once the book is done; whilst reading, we find ourselves in the moment, following in James’ footsteps as he navigates this strange new world in which he finds himself. The story is constructed in a way that pulls the reader along, giving us – as it does James – very little time to stop and think as the tension mounts and the action explodes off the page.

Well-constructed, and nicely told, with a strong cast of diverse characters (despite the institutional setting) Goodhouse is an excellent debut, and a fine addition to the dystopian genre. While not perfect, it still has plenty to make it a worthwhile – and wholly enjoyable – read, and flags Peyton Marshall as a name to watch in the future. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you like your action fast and violent, and enjoy interesting takes on our possible future, then Goodhouse should definitely be on your list.

HORNS by Joe Hill

horns HORNS

Joe Hill (joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£8.99

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache…when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.

Ig Perrish may not remember what he did the previous night, but he does remember the previous year, the year since the woman he had loved since they were fourteen had been brutally raped and murdered, a hideous crime for which Ig was the prime suspect. But these new additions, these horns growing from his temples, are game changers: when people see them they feel compelled to tell Ig their deepest darkest secrets, and it isn’t long before he discovers the true identity of Merrin’s killer. After that, it’s a matter of letting human nature take its course, unleashing the demon that so desperately wants to get out and sending Merrin’s killer to the hell in which he belongs.

I first read Joe Hill’s sophomore novel when it was published back in 2010; the imminent cinematic release of Alexandre Aja’s film adaptation in British cinemas was good enough reason to revisit Horns, and I’m happy to discover that it holds up well to that second read. At the centre of this dark and often blackly comic novel is Ig Perrish, a young man whose whole life has been pulled out from under him following the murder of his long-term girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Unable to provide a satisfactory alibi, Ig has been the only suspect since the murder took place a year earlier, and the lack of substantial evidence is the only thing keeping him out of prison. His new appendages, and the strange power they have over the people Ig meets, mean that he will quickly get to the bottom of the mystery.

Hill tells the story in a very non-linear form, jumping from one time period to the next, giving us brief glimpses of the relationships between the central characters – Ig, Merrin and Lee Tourneau – at various points between their initial meeting in their early teens, through young adulthood, to the present day. The identity of Merrin’s killer is revealed early in the novel, and is as shocking, at that point, for the reader as it is for Ig himself. As we get further glimpses into the lives of these people, the shock begins to wear off and we begin to see that nothing is quite as it seems or, to be more precise, quite as Ig Perrish believes it to be.

As time passes, Ig grows more and more to resemble the archetypal demon: the horns grow larger; the skin turns a deep red following an incident in a burning car; and Ig takes to carrying a pitchfork to protect himself. But there’s an interesting juxtaposition here: the more demonic Ig becomes, the more it becomes clear that he is the least demonic character in the novel. The revelations forced out of the people he meets by the horns on his head show a dark and unlikeable side to many of the people Ig loves:

“I can’t see any of my friends. I can’t go to church. Everyone stares at me. They all know what you did. It makes me want to die. And then you show up here to take me for walks. I hate when you take me for walks and people see us together. You don’t know how hard it is to pretend I don’t hate you. I always thought there was something wrong with you. The screamy way you’d be breathing after you ran anywhere. You were always breathing through your mouth like a dog, especially around pretty girls.”

This from Ig’s grandmother, Vera, who gets her comeuppance shortly afterwards in one of the novel’s many laugh-out-loud moments. The evil here is of a more human nature than the demonic one the reader might expect; there is a mundane explanation for the rape and murder of Merrin, an all-too-familiar, plucked-from-the-headlines quality that is more frightening than the man with horns around whom the story is constructed.

Hill uses the story to examine the question of faith (Ig and Merrin meet in church and for most of his short life, Ig is the very definition of humanitarian), and the difference between “good” and “evil” as concepts. Bad things happen to good people, he tells us, and sometimes good people need a little help to get their own back. Do the horns and the pitchfork make Ig Perrish a demon, or just a man with a demonic outer shell? Hill leaves it to the reader to decide.

Lacking the bone-chilling scares that he gives us in both Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, Joe Hill’s Horns is no less frightening for its close examination of the evil things of which mankind is possible. This is a wonderfully dark tale with a very definite sense of humour that often leads the reader to laugh out loud.

Dale sat breathing strenuously in the muck. He looked up the shaft of the pitchfork and squinted into Ig’s face. He shaded his eyes with one hand. “You got rid of your hair.” Paused, then added, almost as an afterthought, “And grew horns. Jesus. What are you?”

“What’s it look like?” Ig asked. “Devil in a blue dress.”

An instant classic, Horns commands the reader’s attention from the first page to the last and serves as an excellent starting point for Joe Hill virgins. I, for one, can’t wait to see the film adaptation, despite the fact that the Ig in my head bears no resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe. This is a must-read, if you haven’t already, and well worth a revisit if you have.

EAST OF INNOCENCE by David Thorne

East-of-Innocence - David Thorne EAST OF INNOCENCE

David Thorne

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

It’s an old joke, well-worn. What’s the difference between God and a lawyer? The man sitting across the desk from me, eyes fixed on my face, doesn’t look like he’d appreciate the punch line.

Daniel Connell, son of an Essex hard-man, is a big-time lawyer fallen on hard times. Following a disagreement with one of the partners at the high-powered law firm where he worked, the hulking Connell finds himself back in the town where he grew up, practicing a variety of law that is very different to the cases he was used to in the City. Terry Campion, policeman and client, turns up at Daniel’s office, beaten and bruised, and hands him a collection of discs. Terry has been beaten by a group of fellow policemen, and the discs contain video evidence of the assault. Unknown to Terry, they also contain something a lot more valuable to his attackers, and to the family of young Rosie O’Shaughnessy, missing presumed dead. Daniel’s other case, Billy Morrison’s injury in a hit and run accident, turns out to be less accidental than Billy might like to believe, and brings Connell in contact with local crime boss, Vincent Halliday who, with an offhand remark, begins Connell’s search for his mother, a woman he believes walked out on him and his father when he was only a few days old. Making no friends, and facing violence at every turn, Connell sets out to find his missing mother, and to seek the downfall of Baldwin, the psychotic policeman whose assault on Terry Campion is the least of his crimes, and of Vincent Halliday, whose decision thirty-seven years earlier sealed the course of Daniel’s life of abuse and terror at the hands of his father.

Connell’s career choice is, interestingly, what sets David Thorne’s debut novel aside from many others in a similar genre. He isn’t a policeman, not a private detective. And yet, his role as lawyer, and the community in which he practices, combine to make him a sort of everyman who has the habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (for him; for us readers, it’s perfect, a mystery thriller with a hint of a difference). Connell is a big man, and as we learn about his background, it becomes clear that the choice of law probably surprised many of the people who knew him. Even now, at thirty-seven years old, Connell is introduced (and, on more than one occasion, introduces himself) not as "Daniel Connell", but as "Frankie’s boy", which tells both the person to whom he is being introduced, and the reader, all we need to know about Daniel and his father, and the kinds of circles in which they move.

Connell is instantly likeable (quite a feat for a lawyer, if you follow the joke that opens the novel to its logical conclusion), a decent, honest and surprisingly gentle man in the body of a giant thug.  His search for his mother, at times irritating, as it takes away from the action/thriller-based subplots, becomes key to the novel as we realise just how well this man has turned out under the circumstances, and how much better things might have been for him under the care of a much more caring parent. Connell’s father is a nasty and abusive alcoholic, a man who revels in handing out punishment, even to the giant that his son has become.

The people who surround Connell are as well-drawn as the central character, and Thorne spends considerable time evoking the small Essex town where these people live and do business. Connell’s best friend is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, a man considerably changed since his return from war less one leg; Vincent Halliday comes across as the typical East End gangster, an unpleasant man – getting on in years – who relies on hired muscle to do his dirty work; and Baldwin, a police officer who has taken the power and authority of the office to the extreme, a man who sees himself as above the law, and who will stop at nothing when he feels that his position is in danger.

Baldwin smiled reasonably. ‘If you don’t tell me,’ he said, ‘I’m going to cut your finger off.’  He raised his eyebrows, as if a thought had just struck him. ‘On that bandsaw.’

In Baldwin, Thorne has created one of the most morally reprehensible figures in British crime fiction, a man the reader loves to hate, but one so charismatic, so utterly evil, that he still manages to steal every single scene of which he is a part.

Connell tells the story in a well-developed voice, in a present tense which lends some immediacy to the proceedings. There are moments of sheer horror with darkly humorous interludes, and even some genuinely touching moments as we follow Daniel on his quest to locate his lost childhood. He’s a quick-witted and sharp-tongued protagonist who makes an instant impression on anyone he meets, including the reader.

‘Look,’ I say. ‘This is my office. I have client confidentialities to respect, other cases to take care of. No offence, but it’s going to be hard to do that with some hired goon standing in the corner.’ Eddie frowns. ‘By hired good, Eddie, I mean you.’

East of Innocence is the first novel from a talented writer who cut his teeth on TV and radio comedy. His origins definitely shine through in the novel, despite its dark tone and subject matter – Daniel Connell is a witty and intelligent man, and we like him almost instantly upon meeting him. By turns gruesome, touching, violent, funny, East of Innocence is never less than engaging and always unpredictable. It’s a wonderfully written example of gritty British crime drama that we’re as likely as not to see on our TV screens in the near future, peopled with strong and engaging characters, most notably the story’s central character who is more than capable of carrying a series of books, if Thorne can find a way to keep each entry fresh and interesting. His debut is definitely a winner.

COMPETITION: Win a Copy of THE SILENT WIFE by A.S.A. Harrison

The Silent Wife - ASA Harrison  

Thanks to those lovely people at Headline, we are celebrating the recent release of A.S.A. Harrison’s debut novel, The Silent Wife, by giving away a copy to one lucky Reader Dad visitor. This competition is open to UK visitors only.

To be in with a chance of winning a copy of this brilliant novel, all you have to do is prove you’re human: post a comment below before midnight (GMT) on Sunday 14th July. One winner will be drawn at random on Monday 15th July, and will be contacted shortly thereafter to arrange delivery.

Thanks, as always, for visiting. Best of luck!

THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay

LEWIS WINTER - Malcolm Mackay THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£14.99

Calum MacLean is twenty-nine years old and lives alone in Glasgow. He is a killer for hire, a hit-man who takes jobs to suit his own schedule and which allow him to minimise the risk to himself. When he accepts a job from Peter Jamieson, he is accepting a more permanent position within the Jamieson organisation. The move has perks, but with it comes a certain loss of freedom. The job is a straightforward one: kill Lewis Winter, a drug dealer so far down the food chain from the Jamieson organisation that he shouldn’t even be on their radar. But Winter is moving into Jamieson’s territory, and looks to have potential backing from a bigger player.

With this simple premise, Malcolm Mackay sets the events of his debut novel in motion. While Calum is ostensibly the story’s central character, he spends a good portion of the novel in the shadows, as perhaps befits his chosen career. Mackay spends time introducing us to the victim and his nearest and dearest, as well as various factions within Glasgow’s criminal underworld, and members of the Strathclyde Police. The lines of moral distinction between these characters are deliberately blurred: there are no good guys and bad guys in this story; Calum may be a cold-blooded killer, but he is also a man doing his job, while the handful of police officers seem to have agendas of their own in carrying out their investigations. The reader is left to form their own impressions and decide for themselves where their sympathy lies.

Mackay’s narrative style is beautiful. Using a conversational tone – a “just between us” approach to telling the story – coupled with the telegraphic style of James Ellroy’s finest works (though perhaps a bit more passive than Ellroy’s abrasive style), he places us directly in the middle of the action and, to a certain extent, makes us accomplices to what is going on. Frequent use of the word “you” – in the general sense, rather than the jarring second-person approach – makes this an easy and engaging read. We’re given details grudgingly, as if they don’t really matter to the story – they often don’t, but they paint a picture, make the characters seem more human, give us something to identify with in a group of people who are, for the most part, people we wouldn’t necessarily want to associate with.

Saturday afternoon, football on the radio in the background, sitting on the couch with a book. The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham, if you must know, and he’s fascinated by it. It has lured his attention away from the radio; he doesn’t know what the score is any more. The older he gets, the less important that seems.

We’re lured quickly into a world where no-one talks straight, and where every question, every answer, every gesture has an implicit meaning that only members of this secret club can decipher. There’s a thrill to this for the reader, a sense that we are being given a glimpse behind the curtain, a brief look at a world that exists outside the boundaries of our normal experiences.

The clues are all there if you care to look for them. Perhaps you don’t care to; most people don’t. A casual conversation: two people who know each other on a first-name basis, without being too close. Friends who see each other on a weekly rather than daily basis. Friends who don’t care. Phone calls like that are made so often, so why care? It’s a job offer. A very definite offer of something long-term and lucrative.

The novel takes us through preparation, attempt and subsequent investigation, showing us the story from a number of different angles in the process. There is no mystery here for the reader as we, like the narrator, can see everything that is going on. But mystery was never the point; this is about the people, their relationships with each other, their interactions, their lies and half-truths. It is also the setup for a much larger story, the first part of Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy which is set to continue later this summer. If Mackay can maintain this momentum with the second and third parts of the trilogy, it stands to challenge Derek Raymond’s Factory series and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet as the benchmark for British noir fiction.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.

LOW TOWN: TOMORROW, THE KILLING by Daniel Polansky

Polansky-TomorrowTheKilling TOMORROW, THE KILLING (LOW TOWN 2)

Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)

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

£18.99

Earlier this year, I read, reviewed and fairly raved about Daniel Polansky’s debut novel, The Straight Razor Cure. Picking up three years after the events of that first book, Polansky’s second novel – and the second volume of the Low Town series – takes us back to Low Town, this time around in the grip of an unbearable heat wave. (The) Warden finds himself for the first time in over a decade in the home of General Edwin Montgomery. The general’s daughter, the headstrong Rhaine, has abandoned the family home and moved to Low Town in an attempt to find out what happened to her brother, the infamous Roland, whose death, she is convinced, was not the suicide that it appeared to be. Warden has a history with Roland, having served under him during the Dren War; it’s a history of respect and friendship, but there is also a darker side to the relationship, forged when their paths – and political ideologies – diverged following the end of the war. Driven by a sense of debt to the family, Warden locates the girl, and soon finds himself playing with a political time bomb that could explode at any moment.

All of the elements that made The Straight Razor Cure are once more in evidence here: the political, religious, racial hotpot that is Low Town and the gritty feel that makes it feel more real that many fantasy settings; the genre-bending plotline that makes this neither fantasy nor mystery, but some clever combination of the two; and Warden himself, in whose voice we hear the story. There are, of course, plenty of new characters around which Polansky has constructed his story; what’s unexpected, though, is the evolution of the city and the world – there are new areas in Low Town that we’ve never visited before, new organisations and gangs that we have never met. In choosing to introduce us to the place in bite-sized chunks, Polansky makes the place feel fluid, and ensures that the setting is unlikely to feel stale or uninteresting at any point in the near future.

Unlike The Straight Razor Cure, which takes a mostly linear approach to storytelling, Tomorrow, The Killing takes a slightly different approach. The narrative jumps around, sometimes recounting the events of here and now, sometimes events that occurred during the Dren War, and sometimes events that took place between the end of the war and the death of Roland Montgomery. The flashbacks serve to show us a new side of Warden while, at the same time, filling in some of the blanks in the history of this fascinating place. The trench war against the Dren has a First World War feeling to it, while the setup of the Veterans’ Association shows that the Crown and Black House are not as all-powerful as they might have appeared; there is a powerful political opposition force in place, and this provides the basis for the thrust of the story.

With an element of the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing (itself a remake of Akiro Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), we find Warden in the centre of a potential gang war and uprising. Pitting one side against the other, and using minor gangs to sow the seeds of distrust, awakening old enmities, Warden’s aim is no less than the downfall of one side or the other, all in the pursuit of the truth behind the death of Roland Montgomery. Warden has a credible “in” with both sides (Montgomery’s friend and a veteran himself, his approach to the Veterans’ Association is seen as a natural step, while his conversations with Black House are inevitable considering his history there) which gives the entire story a firm foundation and keeps things well inside the realms of possibility (all things considered). Polansky takes his time getting all the pieces into place, which makes the payoff all the more worthwhile.

There are a couple of niggles in continuity (like the fact that Warden is now often referred to as “The Warden”), but nothing major, and most explained away by the shifting nature of the world that Polansky is effectively constructing “on the fly”, adding places or historical events as and when they are needed. There is nothing here to detract from the story. Tomorrow, The Killing is, to a certain degree, a standalone novel – the Low Town novels are not part of a traditional fantasy series, but rather a series of stories held together by location and character. While chronological reading would be advised, there’s no reason Tomorrow, The Killing isn’t a good place to jump in for new readers. Polansky set the bar extremely high with his first novel, so it’s difficult to pick this one up with anything other than lowered expectations. This book is a slightly different beast and, while it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor, it does bring enough to the table to make it a worthy successor and, most importantly, a worthwhile read.

With the same mix of fantasy and noir, and the added ingredient of playing one powerful side off against another, Tomorrow, The Killing succeeds in presenting a complete and engaging story while keeping the Low Town series on track as one of the best fantasy and/or crime series currently on the market. I, personally, am pleased to see the fantasy-lite cover gone, replaced by something a bit darker that will fit well in any section of a bookshop. Far from sophomore slump, Polansky builds on the success of his first novel, continuing the world-building as he goes: new areas of town, new characters, new political forces and histories, all of which combine to keep the reader interested in what’s going on, and wishing for more once it’s all over. Tomorrow, The Killing reads well as a standalone fantasy-crime-thriller, but readers who start with The Straight Razor Cure will, inevitably, come through with a much more rounded experience. Overall, it’s one not to be missed, regardless of your genre preferences.

BED OF NAILS by Antonin Varenne

untitled BED OF NAILS

Antonin Varenne

Translated by Siân Reynolds

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

When his friend kills himself on stage in a seedy nightclub in Paris, John Nichols leaves the isolation of his camp in southern France’s Lot and heads to the country’s capital to identify the body. But something doesn’t quite feel right, and John finds himself investigating his friend’s final days in an attempt to find the truth. Inspector Richard Guérin, exiled to Suicides following a scandal two years previously, has found a thread linking together a dozen suicides over a period of two years. John’s friend may well be the latest in a long line of assisted suicides, and together these two men aim to prove it.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that Bed of Nails, Antonin Varenne’s third novel, is not your average piece of crime fiction. As the novel opens, two men are dead, though neither of them seem to have been murdered. The first has stripped naked and run, smiling, along one of the busiest roads in Paris until a head-on collision with a truck ends the frolic and the man’s life. The second, an American fakir, has bled to death on stage after suspending himself from a pair of hooks through his chest. There is nothing to suggest these deaths are suspicious, except in the minds of the story’s two protagonists.

The characters are the key to this story, and Varenne has injected each with enough life to leave the reader wanting more from them long beyond the end of their participation in this odd little tale. Caricatures and stereotypes abound, but the characters – and the story, for that matter – never seem stale. Guérin is the inward-looking obsessive policeman, his yellow mac as much a symbol of who he is as the badge he carries. His assistant, Lambert, is the stereotypical French policeman of a hundred films – tracksuits and indolence. The American, John Nichols, is an over-exaggerated Davy Crockett, while even the old men that patrol the streets of the village where he lives might have been plucked from a Stella Artois advertisement. Throw in a beautiful German artist who strips naked, covers herself in paint and throws herself at canvasses, and an old ex-convict who bears a striking resemblance to the late Edward Bunker, and you begin to get some sense of just what to expect.

This is part gritty police procedural, part tragicomic examination of modern life and the inventive ways – and associated motives – in which some people leave it behind. In Guérin, Varenne gives us the shell of a once-great man. A scandal two years earlier – the details of which we don’t learn until later in the book, in a revelation as grotesquely funny as it is shocking – has led to his removal to the wilds of Suicides. But his mind – the mind of one of the force’s greatest detectives – continues to work, and he quickly becomes obsessed with these suicides that he believes have had some outside assistance, to the point that the obsession has an adverse affect on his emotional stability and physical wellbeing. It is his driving desire to find the truth that carries the story along, and ultimately leads him to John Nichols and the death of the fakir. Here we find a more concrete story, involving Gulf War veterans and CIA cover-ups. The fakir’s suicide provides the perfect pivot around which these two seemingly unrelated cases revolve.

Bed of Nails is a beautifully-written novel and, even in translation, Varenne’s flourishes and narrative tricks shine through. There is the hint of a hard-boiled novelist here in some of the phrasing, and the staccato dialogue. Here, too, you will find a Paris that you are unlikely to find in the tourist guides – no Eiffel Tower, no Champs Elysées; this is a Paris where tourists rarely stray. The City of Light and Love has a dark and seedy side, and it is here that we find Varenne’s assortment of freaks and misfits, and spend time in their company.

It’s an unconventional crime novel that nevertheless has the power to shock and entertain. A strong cast of characters and a dark sense of humour are the story’s strong points, and help to carry the reader through some of the more surreal aspects of the plot. Varenne has no trouble getting inside the heads of his protagonists, and has a talent for bringing his readers along for the ride. Bed of Nails is another winner from the consistently excellent MacLehose Press and, while Antonin Varenne may be something of an acquired taste, he’s definitely worth a try. If your tastes are remotely similar to mine, you’ll be counting down the months until his next novel.

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