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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Heinemann

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.

COLD HANDS by John J. Niven

COLD HANDS - John J Niven COLD HANDS

John J. Niven

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

£12.99

Released: 2nd August 2012

Donnie Miller has it all: beautiful wife and son, perfect home in the wilds of Saskatchewan and the sort of comfort that comes from having a rich father-in-law who is generous to a fault with his daughter and grandson. It’s a far cry from his poor upbringing in Glasgow and Donnie lives with the constant fear that none of it is real, that it will be taken away from him in the blink of an eye, that it’s much more than he deserves. Donnie Miller has a long-buried secret, a life that he has worked hard to put behind him. As winter settles in, the family dog disappears. When it turns up horribly mutilated, the cracks in Donnie’s life start to appear. When the heavy snows start to fall, cutting him and his family off from the nearest town, Donnie discovers that he’s about to lose more than just the dog.

Cold Hands is something of a slow-burner, to start. Told from the first-person point of view of Miller, we meet the man and his family, and quickly come to understand the dynamics that drive this small family unit. The mutilated dog turns up early on, and seems shockingly out of place in this snow-covered idyll, giving us a glimpse of things to come. The narrative is frequently interrupted by flashbacks – descriptions of Donnie’s childhood, and his friendship with Banny, the school bully – and we quickly learn that there’s a secret, something bad enough to warrant a new identity and a new start outside of Scotland. There is something jarring about these flashbacks – the shift in accent and language, the violence – but it is a feeling that serves the story well, and never reaches the point of distraction or irritation for the reader.

Towards the middle of the book, Niven begins increasing the tension, and the final third is an intense, breath-taking read, that always keeps the story’s main themes in sight, and is never anything less than completely realistic. As many writers have done before him, Niven uses snow as the catalyst for the action in the novel, and the combination of snowstorm and isolation as the enabler for Miller’s persecution (The Shining, anyone? 30 Days of Night?). It’s an old trick, but with fantastic results: a tense thriller designed to keep the reader turning the pages long after bedtime; at its core, a character who does not necessarily deserve our sympathies, but who receives them nonetheless.

At its heart, Cold Hands is a story about parenthood, and an examination of the inherent insanity that comes with it. To what lengths would a parent go in order to protect their child? Or to avenge them? It’s an added dimension that speaks directly to parents, leaving behind an uneasy feeling and a desire to keep the children home, wrapped in cotton wool at all times. Don’t worry, though, there’s plenty here for everyone, and Cold Hands should appeal to anyone who prefers their action heroes more in the vein of John McClane than of Rambo.

Cold Hands is John Niven’s first foray into crime/thriller territory (hence the addition of the middle initial), and shows a writer who is more than up to the task. There were points (particularly during the flashback scenes) where I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading an Iain Banks novel, but Niven’s own voice is readily apparent for the bulk of the narrative. The settings are beautiful, and Niven does an excellent job of putting the reader in the middle of that cold, snowy Canadian wilderness, and into the heart of the action. It’s also worth noting that he does not pull his punches, and that this is not a book – despite appearances in early chapters – for the faint of heart or stomach.

From its slow beginnings to its violent and blood-spattered conclusion, Cold Hands is a good old-fashioned thriller. With a handful of twists designed to keep the reader on their toes, Niven’s first thriller is an intense and gripping examination of one man’s determination to protect his family from a past he has long forgotten. This is thriller writing at its best, and John J. Niven is definitely one to watch in a genre that can, at times, suffer from saturation of offerings.

IN HER BLOOD by Annie Hauxwell

IN HER BLOOD IN HER BLOOD

Annie Hauxwell (www.anniehauxwell.com)

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

£12.99

Catherine Berlin is an investigator for the Financial Services Authority, working as part of a task force whose remit is to clamp down on London’s illegal loan shark businesses. Working with an informant she knows only as ‘Juliet Bravo’, Berlin continues an investigation into East End shark Archie Doyle despite the fact that her superiors have closed the case and warned her off. Berlin’s life is complicated by the fact that, aged 55, she’s a registered drug addict, and receives daily doses of pharmaceutical heroin from one of the few doctors left in Britain with a license to prescribe it. When both her informant and her doctor are brutally murdered, Berlin finds herself in the middle of two investigations in which police consider her as a major player. With seven days before her stash of heroin runs out – and any clarity of mind that the drug brings with it – Berlin is up against the clock not only to find her next fix, but also to find the killer and clear her own name.

Hauxwell’s first novel takes no time in getting to the point. As the book opens, we find Berlin standing at the edge of the Limehouse Basin, watching her informant floating in the water below. We quickly get a feel for the character, and the people she is dealing with – the talkative Dempster, the quiet Thompson and the almost farcically stupid Flint. Berlin is a character that is difficult to like, but as the ever-luckless antihero, we find ourselves rooting for her nonetheless, as she moves from one bad day to the next. She’s a woman on the edge, impending withdrawal driving her as hard as the need to know, to find out the truth. And behind it all a black sense of humour that usually serves to rub people the wrong way, but which makes her more human in the eye of the reader.

The plot is complex and involved, but not so much that it will turn the casual reader off. Characters are interconnected in myriad unexpected ways, and a web of relationships, and of cause and effect, forms as the novel progresses. Despite the complexity, and multiple strands, the author manages to maintain complete control – no obvious plot holes or dangling story arcs here; Hauxwell weaves the threads into such an accomplished and coherent whole that it’s easy forget that this is the work of a first-time novelist.

Characterisation is the only area where the book doesn’t quite reach its full potential. While Berlin comes to us fully formed, some of the other characters can be a bit lacking in original personality, cardboard cut-outs from a thousand gritty dramas set in and around the East End of London: the wheeler-dealing gangster; the bent cop; a handful of others. What’s interesting, and what makes the novel stand out from many of those others, is the ambiguity built in to all of these people. There is no black and white here, but varying shades of grey that serve Hauxwell’s purpose well: these are all ordinary people acting under extraordinary circumstances; no-one, least of all the reader, can anticipate how these people will react in these situations, and as a result they sometimes do so in unexpected ways, with surprising consequences.

Dark and gritty, Hauxwell’s debut combines wonderful sense of place (and cold), interesting (if somewhat stereotypical) characters, and a complex and moreish plot into the perfect example of what was once called (and may still be, though it’s not a phrase I’ve seen in a few years) “Brit noir”. There’s enough humour to keep it from being dreary and depressing, and enough action to keep it moving at a good pace. Catherine Berlin, demons included, makes for a surprising and bold choice of central character, but ultimately has the charisma to carry it off and leave the reader hoping for her return in future instalments. Hauxwell is an author who evidently takes great delight in putting her characters through the mill and, on several occasions throughout the book, we find ourselves wondering “what can she possibly throw at this poor woman next?”. In Her Blood is a fine crime novel, and a wonderful debut from a writer who looks set to give the cream of British crime fiction a run for their money.

ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway

ANGELMAKER - Nick Harkaway ANGELMAKER

Nick Harkaway (www.nickharkaway.com)

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

£12.99

Every so often, I run across a book that catches me completely by surprise; a book that I picked up on a whim, having never heard of it before, that strikes a chord and immediately becomes a firm favourite. Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, was just such a novel, from its eye-catching hardback cover (the “Signed by the Author” sticker was a sweetener, I’ll happily admit) when I saw it on the shelf at my local Waterstone’s (or is it Waterstones?), to the interesting and intriguing blurb that I found inside, to the sheer delight I encountered when I started to read. Needless to say, I have been waiting with great anticipation for Harkaway’s second novel and I’m happy to say that it has been a worthwhile almost-four-year wait.

Angelmaker tells the story of Joshua Joseph (“Joe”) Spork, a quiet, unassuming man who makes a living repairing clockwork and enjoying the quiet life. Joe has a past that makes this more difficult than it seems, for he is the son of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, at one time London’s most notorious gangster, and the leader of the legendary Night Market. When Joe’s friend, Billy Friend, turns up on his doorstep with a piece of erotic automata, and a mysterious book and assorted oddments, Joe is intrigued, and contrives to meet the client from whom Billy has obtained the items.

The book, the key to a doomsday device built shortly after the Second World War, invites trouble to Joe’s doorstep, from the Legacy Board – in the guise of Messrs Titwhistle and Cummerbund – to the mysterious, and sinister, Ruskinite monks. Joe soon finds himself the most wanted man in Britain and, with a somewhat motley crew – including a woman slipping towards the end of her eighties who might just be the only person alive who knows exactly what’s going on – he confronts the forces of the mighty Shem Shem Tsien, International Bastard of Mystery, in an attempt to save the world.

With his second novel, Harkaway moves away from the science fiction setting, while retaining all of the wit and verve that made The Gone-Away World such a success. Angelmaker is more in the mold of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville or Christopher Fowler: the novel is set firmly in a modern day London, but there’s also a city beneath; the literal underworld, where the city’s shady characters and forgotten souls spend most of their time. This is the world of the Tosher’s Beat and the Night Market, and represents a world that Joe is trying to forget, although his eventual return seems inevitable from the outset. Angelmaker is an adventure story, a spy thriller, old-fashioned gangster noir and black comedy rolled into one with a hint of satire for good measure.

The characters are beautifully drawn, real people in a world that’s slightly off-kilter: the old woman who was, once upon a time, one of England’s deadliest agents; the fast-talking lawyer with a gift for the dramatic; his sister, with her outrageously sexy toes and her slightly skewed views on equal rights; the evil and cracked Shem Shem Tsien, who wants to become God, but who feels the need to surround himself with bug-zapping lights because of a piece of fiction he once read; the oddly-mismatched Titwhistle and Cummerbund, Angelmaker’s answer to Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar (“hilarious though they are to look upon they are less funny than Typhoid Mary and more serious than the whole of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs”). And holding everything together the easy-going Joe, a man starting to feel old:

Even now – particularly now, when thirty years of age is visible in his rear view mirror and forty glowers at him from down the road ahead, now that his skin heals a little more slowly than it used to from solder burns and nicks and pinks, and his stomach is less a washboard and more a comfy if solid bench – Joe avoids looking at it.

Joe is quite typical for the hero of this type of novel: slightly disconnected from the world, more interested in the clockwork with which he spends his days than the people around him and, as a result, less attuned to subtext, even when it’s thrust in his face (quite literally):

Joe gives her his hand, and she places his hand, palm down, on her chest and leans firmly towards him…With the heel of his hand Joe can feel the curve of one breast. He has absolutely no idea whether this is deliberate. It’s lovely. He tries to be polite and not notice.

As you might expect from a man as opinionated as Harkaway (go on, check his Twitter feed, you’ll see what I mean), his jokes are timely and extremely cutting. One example of many: as the bees, harbingers of the end of the world, spread across the globe, governments act, moving quickly into the realms of the ridiculous overreaction:

Bee-keepers are told they must register, must submit their hives for inspection. No, of course, these are no ordinary bees, but it pays to be safe. It helps to rule people out. Any bee-keeper, after all, might be a sympathiser, a fifth columnist.

What Angelmaker most resembles, to my mind, is a vast and sprawling Neal Stephenson novel, the perfect companion piece for his Cryptonomicon. It takes a similar form: the two time streams, one present day (or as near as damn it), the other Edie’s story of her time as a much younger woman working for Science 2. Where Stephenson spends chunks of the book describing the technology and the cryptographic techniques, Harkaway finds himself with a much less solid proposition, cleverly avoiding any in-depth detail as to how the book, the bees, the attendant clockwork actually work. But for everything else, he is a fiend for detail and it is refreshing to find an author unafraid to follow the tangent, even if it is at the temporary cost of dramatic tension. And go back to what I said about Joe and typical heroes in this type of novel; tell me Randy Waterhouse doesn’t fit this exact mold.

Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.

At this early stage, I’m more than happy to call Angelmaker one of the best books you’re likely to read this year. We can live in hope that the wait for the next one won’t be quite as long.

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