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DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY - Tom Bouman DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY

Tom Bouman (www.drybonesinthevalley.com)

Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)

£7.99

Henry Farrell is the law in the small northern Pennsylvania rural township of Wild Thyme. On a routine visit to Aub Dunigan, Henry finds a partially dismembered body on a remote part of the old man’s land. When the township’s bad boy, Danny Stiobhard (“Steward”), leads Henry to a second body, he becomes the prime suspect in both murders. But there is more going on here than meets the eye, and the residents of Wild Thyme seem to be shutting Henry out, keeping secrets to which outsiders should not be privy and, while Henry is the law, he is still very much an outsider.

The strength of Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley lies in the story’s central character and narrator, Henry Farrell. Henry is a veteran of the war in Somalia – having seen action in Mogadishu, or “the Mog”, as he refers to it – who has now settled in the small northern Pennsylvania township of Wild Thyme, as the township’s policeman. By his own admission a glorified patrolman, Henry is not equipped to deal with dead bodies or suspected murderers, so Bouman’s decision to place him in the novel’s central role is an interesting one. From the outset, he is a thoroughly down-to-earth narrator, a likeable guy to whom it is very easy to listen. What drives the story is Henry’s tenacity, his need to find out who this dead man is and how he died, as a way of bringing sanity and order back to his town.

The setting – a small township near the northern Pennsylvania border – is not your average small-town American setting. There’s something of a frontier feel to the place: these are people who want to be left to their own devices; they have no need of a police force, have no desire to pay taxes or accept the amenities that those taxes often pay for. They’re a half-step down from Survivalists, who maintain a healthy suspicion of the law, outsiders, and anyone else who isn’t part of the their small, closed community. This is offset somewhat by the dual encroachment of drug dealers in the nearby towns, and of fracking companies, who are buying leases across the township and beyond.

As Henry’s investigation progresses – a slow and difficult process, given how difficult it is to find people and get them to answer questions – he begins to see the town and its residents in a new light. He is also convinced that both suspects – Dunigan and Stiobhard – are innocent of the crimes, which is in direct conflict with the thoughts of the county sheriff, who is running the investigation. Henry’s history – his tour in Mogadishu, and a more recent run-in with a fracking company in the Midwest – play a major part in who he is, and how he conducts his investigation, and the unconventional manner in which he proceeds – often at odds with the sheriff or the state police – is what sets his story apart from the average small-town American crime novel.

It is difficult not to like Henry from the outset, and even more difficult to find someone else with whom to compare him. Despite the troubles of his past, he is a personable, friendly, chatty companion for the reader, often digressing or going off on tangents as the narrative progresses, talking about everything from how to hunt deer, to the best way to behead chickens, the subject sparked by something he has found while searching a house, or talking to a witness. He drinks a bit (though on both occasions where he pours himself a scotch, it gets poured back into the bottle almost untouched), hunts deer and plays the fiddle, a man who seems, at first glance, unusual police officer material, but whose sharp mind and ability to talk make him the ideal candidate for the job.

There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.

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.

GUEST POST: Writing About Drugs in the 60s by WILLIAM SHAW

William-Shaw-©-Ellen-Shaw-600x600-480x480 Name: WILLIAM SHAW

Author of: A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS (2013)
                 A HOUSE OF KNIVES (2014)

On the web: williamshaw.com

On Twitter: @william1shaw

Photograph © Ellen Shaw  

When you write a book about recent history, what’s important is the difference between then and now.

There are the blindingly obvious differences. Want to set a TV drama any time in the post-war period? Simple. Make the cast smoke loads and loads of fags.

Others deserve a little more thought, though. Like the drugs.

We imagine, for instance, the sixties were awash with pot and purple hearts. Everybody must get stoned, sang Bob Dylan, so all the hippies were stoned, right? That’s where it gets murkier. Maybe that’s because, as the old saw goes, that if you can remember the sixties you can’t have actually been there.

(With that in mind, I was once commissioned by Bloomsbury to write a book about Ibiza during the Summer of Love and had to give up because beyond saying, “Yeah, it was great,” nobody seemed to be able to put their finger on what had actually happened.)

But actually, the bigger problem with trying to figure out what the sixties were like is that you have to dig through a lot of that kind of myth first before you get to what it was really like.

There was a lot of drugs hysteria, certainly. In Scotland Yard the newly formed Drug Squad was embarking on a series of highly publicised headline-grabbing raids. A Song from Dead Lips features the notorious John Lennon and Yoko Ono bust of 1968. Staying in Ringo Starr’s flat in Montagu Square, John and Yoko were raided by the infamous bent copper Norman “Nobby” Pilcher. (In the early 70s, the Drug Squad would be exposed as notoriously corrupt, taking bribes from dealers and even supplying dealers with drugs, but that was still years away.)

In the second book, A House of Knives, there’s another well-known police raid lurking in the background. One of the main characters in the book is the great 1960s art dealer Robert Fraser; it was Robert Fraser who persuaded The Beatles first to commission Peter Blake to create the Sergeant Pepper sleeve and then Peter Saville to design the so-called White Album. He’s a tragic figure.

In 1967, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull and several others had decamped to Richards’ Sussex mansion, Redlands, to embark on a weekend experimenting with LSD, the mind-expanding new must-do drug that The Beatles had first taken in 1966 in California. These were innocent days. Drugs were more than just recreational. This was a kind of quest. The Californian drug guru Dr Timothy Leary had pointed out that an acid trip appeared very like the hallucinatory states of mind outlined in the Buddhist spiritual manual the Tibetan Book of the Dead; LSD was suddenly being touted as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment.

That weekend, when police raided Redlands, they found cannabis, amphetamines and a small amount of heroin belonging to Robert Fraser, who was already an addict and who was at the epidemiological centre of what became a life-sucking heroin dependency that would haunt the Rolling Stones and their hangers on for years. (Amazingly, the police missed opening a briefcase that was apparently stuffed with LSD, the main drug of choice for the Redlands visitors.)

The brouhaha around the case was immense. Times editor William Rees-Mogg, wrote his famous “Who Breaks A Butterfly on a Wheel” editorial, pleading for leniency for the defendants. But while the stars of the day, Keith Richard and Mick Jagger were famously acquitted, Robert Fraser was not so lucky and was sent to prison. As a character in A House of Knives, the brilliant, but heavily addicted Fraser is recovering from his spell in Wormwood Scrubs.

But the bigger truth is that though drugs were grabbing headlines in the 60s, they had still barely arrived. In 1964 there were only 328 known heroin addicts in the UK. But the idea of what drugs were for was changing fast.

In the first half of the 20th century, drug addicts were typically middle-aged and middle class and had become drug users during treatment for a medical condition. By the second half of the sixties, drugs had transformed into a cultural phenomenon, a source of entertainment and supposed enlightenment. As a result the numbers of users started to grow rapidly. But remarkably, despite all the headlines, the number of users was minute compared to today. Even by the end of the 60s that figure for the number of heroin addicts was still in the low thousands. Compare that with a quarter of a million or so users today.

The drugs hysteria of the 60s was primarily a cultural panic. The legacy of crime and ruined lives was yet to raise its uglier head. While researching A House of Knives, I talked to Caroline Coon, who’s best known as a music journalist, photographer and one-time manager of The Clash, but also an expert on drug culture. In the late sixties she founded an organisation called Release which counselled hippies arrested by the likes of “Nobby” Pilcher. She argues that the period of 1967-69 represents the period in which we stopped treating drug abuse as a medical problem and started treating it as an issue of criminality.

She’s got a point. In Breen and Tozer’s Britain, the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan was busy drawing up laws that would criminalise drug users culminating in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. In America Nixon was starting to call drugs “public enemy number one”. All you needed was a few strict laws and you could stamp this drugs menace out once and for all. Thirty years hindsight shows that approach was doomed form the start.

Far from being a decade awash with drugs, the truth is that in 1968-9, few people in Britain had actually taken any at all yet. Those that had took them in the hope that drugs could “set them free”. Which is exactly what Breen’s generation was so afraid of.

THE KILLING POOL by Kevin Sampson

THE KILLING POOL - Kevin Sampson THE KILLING POOL

Kevin Sampson

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

£12.99

Detective Chief Inspector Billy McCartney is part of Merseyside Police’s Drug Squad, his focus currently on the Rozaki brothers who have a monopoly on Liverpool’s heroin trade. When McCartney’s informant, the youngest of the Rozaki brothers is found dead and dismembered in a park, McCartney knows he has limited time before full scale war breaks out in the city. Hiding the identity of the body, McCartney starts to look into the young man’s death and the disappearance of his girlfriend. As he digs, he finds connections to older crimes, other Drug Squad operations that have a direct and personal impact on him, and which are coming back to haunt him as his career, and his life, seem to be falling apart at the seams.

Kevin Sampson’s ninth novel, the first of a series of novels featuring DCI Billy McCartney, takes us to a dark and unsavoury side of Liverpool completely at odds with the city’s revamped look and one-time European Capital of Culture status. It’s a side of the city that we’re unlikely to see in any brochures: a melting pot of crime and drug trafficking that has changed little over the almost thirty year period that the novel covers. Against this background, Sampson introduces us to a cast of police and criminals where the dividing line between “good” and “evil” is much more subtle than whether the person carries a badge.

The story is told in first person, from the point of view of a handful of key characters. For the most part, we find ourselves in the head of McCartney, but other characters get the chance to stick their oar in from time to time, giving us a rounder, more complete view of what’s going on than we might have got from a more traditional first person narrative, while providing a deeper understanding of these characters than we might have received from a third-person narrative. For the most part, the characters are living, breathing people, each with a unique voice, and distinctive vocal tics. There are others, however, perhaps deliberately, who feel a little two-dimensional, caricatures of stereotypes; I’m thinking mainly of Alfie Manners here, a sexist, racist policeman whose attitudes and outlooks don’t change at all in the twenty-eight years between the time we first meet him and the main present-day setting of the story. He’s a dinosaur, but he is a known entity, a character we have seen before and from whom we know what to expect.

McCartney is the polar opposite, and is the perfect character to keep us coming back for more. A drug user himself, McCartney harbours a grudge against his superior officer for a perceived slight during an operation fifteen years earlier. Now, as things start to come to a head, McCartney finds himself butting heads with that same officer, Hubert Hodge, once more. What are the man’s motives? Can he be trusted? These are questions to which the reader has no answer, despite the fact that we have more insight into Hodge than McCartney ever could. The drug use and McCartney’s past leave the reader unsure where even his loyalties lie, but he has a certain quality that makes us want to trust him, makes us hope that he will turn out to be a good guy when everything is said and done.

What David Peace did for the West Yorkshire Constabulary of the late seventies and early eighties, and James Ellroy did for the Los Angeles Police Department of the forties and fifties, so Kevin Sampson does for the Merseyside Police of the early eighties through to the present day. At once a tale of crime and drugs, The Killing Pool is also an examination of the widespread police corruption that allows the evil to not only exist, but to thrive in one of the UK’s most important industrial and tourist centres. In Hubert Hodge, Sampson presents modern day England’s answer to Dudley Smith – a man of such moral ambiguity, with so much power, and the uncanny ability to cover his own tracks that it is impossible to know what he is capable of, and whether he should be trusted. While he plays a key role in the novel, he spends most of it lurking at the edges of the action, and of our consciousness. He is, for this reader at least, the crowning glory of a rock-solid example of what British crime fiction can and should be.

The Killing Pool gives us a look at the unexpectedly dark underside of Liverpool through the eyes of the police and criminals that populate it. A noirish tale (Mersey Noir?), it entices the reader in with wonderful, stylish prose and engaging characters and ultimately leaves them reeling from a series of ever-more-shocking revelations. Like the drug users it portrays, it leaves us pining for more, stringing us along with the promise that this is only the first in a series of novels featuring Billy McCartney. Comparable to the aforementioned Peace and Ellroy (though with a much less abrupt writing style than either), The Killing Pool should appeal to fans of both, and to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction dark, ambiguous and surprising. Kevin Sampson has, quite simply, nailed it, producing if not the best, then certainly the most original piece of crime fiction so far this year.

EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus

EASY MONEY - Jens Lapidus EASY MONEY

Jens Lapidus

Translated by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

Released: 2nd February 2012

When Jens Lapidus’ debut novel, Easy Money, landed on my desk, it came bearing a quote that is almost inevitable these days on the English translations of Swedish novels – the quote that compares this writer to Stieg Larsson. What caught my eye about this quote, though, is the fact that it came from none other than the Demon dog of American crime fiction, and one of my personal favourites, James Ellroy.

Easy Money – originally published in Sweden in 2006 – takes an in-depth look at Stockholm’s underworld through the eyes of three men for whom that shady empire is home. Jorge is Chilean, and is doing time for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. When Jorge pulls off the impossible – hops over the twenty-three-foot wall that surrounds Österåker prison – he disappears into a world where his knowledge of the cocaine business can make him king. He just has to stay free, and stay alive, for long enough to put that knowledge to good use.

JW is a wannabe – a country boy living it large in the big city, hiding his background in order to fit in with the rich set who sleep all day and party all night in Stockholm’s most fashionable area. He drives a gypsy cab on the nights he isnt partying to afford the parties and soon graduates to dealing cocaine when his boss sees potential in him. JW has ulterior motives for being in the city – several years earlier, his older sister followed the same course and disappeared without a trace. JW hopes to achieve what the police could not, and find what happened to her.

Mrado is a member of the Yugo Mafia. He’s a big man who lives on a diet of protein bars and steroids. He’s a racketeer, running a large chunk of the city’s coat-check business. Mrado, a Serbian who fought at Srebrenica, fears no man, but he has a weak spot – a daughter that he sees one day every other week, and even that under protest by his ex-wife. As the lives of these three men converge, moving towards the largest cocaine shipment Stockholm has ever seen, violence erupts, and they find that they may have more in common with each other than it would seem at first glance.

Lapidus presents us with a realistic vision of what Stockholm’s underworld might look like – the various factions battling for a piece of this or that business in a city barely big enough to hold them all. He does this through alternating chapters told from the point of view of each of the three protagonists. It’s a complex world, and the interrelationships between these men – never fully revealed to them, but revealed piecemeal to the reader – is equally complex, and Lapidus uses small, exciting chunks to build a story that is, for the reader at least, much more than the sum of its parts. The comparisons with Larsson are undeniable and, in my opinion, well-founded: this is a side of Sweden that most Swedes probably don’t know exists, a side that the Swedish tourist authorities would much rather wasn’t advertised; it portrays Stockholm as a dark and violent city peopled by rich brats, and gangsters and wannabes. Like the journalist Larsson, Lapidus is well-placed to provide a realistic look at this world– he’s a criminal defence lawyer who, according to his bio, represents some of the most notorious criminals in Sweden.

The novel reads like a tribute to Ellroy. The subject bears a close resemblance to some of the myriad plots that drive his Underworld USA trilogy, but most striking is Lapidus’ telegraphic, rhythmic writing style. The short, sharp prose that defines most of Ellroy’s work is beautifully reproduced here, despite the translation from Swedish to English.

Jorge knew how it was: Friends on the inside are not like friends on the outside. Other rules apply. Power hierarchies are clearer. Time inside counts. Number of times inside counts. Smokes count; roaches count more. Favors grant relationships. Your crime counts: rapists and pedophiles worth zero. Junkies and alkies way down. Assault and theft higher. Armed robbery and drug kingpins on top. Most of all: Your membership counts. Rolando, a friend according to the rules on the outside. According to the principles of the slammer: Playa batted in the major leagues, Jorge in the minor.

It’s impressive to read, and respect to both author and translator for pulling it off. The fashion-obsessed JW, his chapters littered with brand names, and club names, comes across as a cut-price Patrick Bateman: all of the ego, and none of the psychopathic tendencies. It’s difficult to know, though, if this mimicry of Bret Easton Ellis’ most enduring creation is deliberate or not.

Lapidus infuses the novel with a deep sense of place, and the story is littered with street names and place names. There’s an implicit trust that the author won’t mess around too much with the city’s geography, but it serves to ground the action in real places that can be found on a map, and to make the reader feel like they know at least a small part of the city. If you’re like me, it also serves as a tourist guide and makes the reader long to (re)visit.

Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.

STOLEN SOULS by Stuart Neville

STOLEN SOULS - Stuart Neville STOLEN SOULS

Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)

£12.99

Released: 26 January 2012

Stuart Neville fairly burst onto the crime fiction scene in the middle of 2009 with his first novel, The Twelve (released later that year in the US under the title The Ghosts of Belfast). The novel, bearing high praise from James Ellroy, occupied a similar space to the novels of John Connolly – that fine line between crime and supernatural fiction – dealing with an ex-paramilitary haunted by the ghosts of the twelve people he had killed during his career. Collusion followed a year later, focusing on policeman Jack Lennon who, while not haunted in the traditional sense, had more than his fair share of demons. Lennon is once again centre-stage for the events of Neville’s third novel, the dark and oppressive Stolen Souls.

Galya Petrova is a nineteen-year-old Ukrainian lured to Ireland by the promise of well-paid work as a nanny and English teacher. After working on a mushroom farm, she is chosen and taken to Belfast where she is pressed into service as a prostitute. On her first night she cuts the throat of a man who turns out to be the brother of a Lithuanian mob boss. Before the night is out, three men are dead, Galya Petrova is in the hands of a man with less than honourable intentions, and Arturas Strazdas – a man who has built an empire on drugs and prostitution – is leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to get vengeance for his dead brother. Enter Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, a man who wants to spend a quiet Christmas with his daughter, and who finds himself in the middle of what looks like a gang war that is only just kicking off.

Neville takes us back to the familiar territory of his earlier novels, and into the bleak world of Jack Lennon as he navigates life in post-Troubles Belfast. Lennon doesn’t have much going for him – he’s a Catholic who joined the police force at a time when doing so was frowned upon at best; he formed a relationship with a young woman who turned out to be related to one of the leaders of a local Republican paramilitary organisation and ran when he got her pregnant. Now, eight years later, he is struggling to balance his career and his homelife, beset on all sides by enemies: his once-friend Dan Hewitt is working behind the scenes to make his work-life miserable, while his daughter’s aunt is constantly on the phone trying to talk him into handing custody of the child over to her mother’s family.

This is a bleak and violent novel, mirroring the situation in which Lennon finds himself. It takes place over the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the unexpected snow which blankets the city adding to the sense of oppression and entrapment. Belfast itself is an important character part of the novel, bringing a unique atmosphere to the story. There is the sense that it’s a city not well-liked by any of the characters, natives and foreigners alike:

Herkus had liked Belfast at first, but now it grated on him. The rain, the small-mindedness, the damned pompous self-importance of its people who thought their petty little war was more important than anyone else’s.

Beneath the surface of the city, a feeling that Neville captures and expresses perfectly, is the threat of a violence that could be ancient history but is more likely lying dormant, awaiting an opportunity to return:

‘Or maybe Sam and the foreigner killed Tomas, and someone else took exception to that and held them to account.’

‘Tit-for-tat?’

‘Just like the good old days,’ Lennon said.

There is a beauty to Neville’s writing that shines through the violent, everyday subject matter. In some ways, Galya and Lennon are very similar people, both fitting the title of the book. Galya has been forced into a life of prostitution with no way of ever repaying her debts and returning home to her family, trapped in the soul-destroying life that others have chosen for her. Lennon’s suffering is, for the most part, self-inflicted and it seems there can be no way out for him either. Instead he moves through the city righting wrongs in an attempt to salve his own conscience, or buy his own redemption. There is little relief in this novel, scarce humour to lighten the constant tension, the tone of the book summarised in Lennon’s own musings:

Jack Lennon knew a human soul could bear an almost infinite amount of shame as long as it remained inside, and stayed hidden from others. Many bad people survived that way. In the quietest minutes of the night, he wondered if he was one of them.

Despite the bleak tone, and the philosophising, Neville has produced another brilliantly-plotted and well-paced crime novel. Like Collusion, it fails to quite reach the heights of The Twelve, but let’s face it, “brilliant” rather than “exceptional” is still something to shout about. Unlike many other Northern Irish crime writers, Neville has not only acknowledged the region’s recent history, but embraced it and made it a central part of the wonderful trilogy of which Stolen Souls is the perfect closing chapter. While it works as a standalone piece of fiction – canned history is included which will give the first-time reader enough to avoid being completely lost – it works best when read in conjunction with the first two novels. Stolen Souls cements Stuart Neville’s reputation as one of Northern Ireland’s finest exports, and a crime writer to keep on your radar.

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