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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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COMPETITION: Win a Copy of Jonathan Freedland’s THE 3RD WOMAN

The 3rd Woman Jacket image THE THIRD WOMAN

Jonathan Freedland (www.jonathanfreedland.com)

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£12.99

To celebrate the release on July 2nd of Jonathan Freedland’s exciting new thriller, The 3rd Woman, which I will be reviewing here soon, those lovely folks at HarperCollins Publishers have given us three copies of the novel to give away. It couldn’t be simpler to be in with a chance to win: simply click here to send me an email with the answer to the question below as well as your name and postal address:

The 3rd Woman is Jonathan Freedland’s first novel published under his own name, but it’s not his first published novel. Jonathan has had a successful career publishing thrillers under a well-know pseudonym. What is it?

Entries must be received by midnight on Thursday 9th July, and the winners will be notified on Friday 10th July. This competition is open to UK residents only.

Don’t forget to follow the The Third Woman tour (see the banner for details), keep up to date with the buzz on Twitter and check back next week when I will be posting my own thoughts on the novel.

JFBLOGTOURBANNER

ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis

ALL INVOLVED - Ryan Gattis ALL INVOLVED

Ryan Gattis (ryangattis.com)

Picador (www.picador.com)

£12.99

At the end of April 1992 Los Angeles burned for six days as large sections of the population rioted, following the acquittal of LAPD officers who were on trial for the brutal beating of a black man named Rodney King. As law enforcement and other emergency services concentrated their efforts on attending to the riots, the Chicano gangs of Lynwood take advantage of the chaos to settle some old scores. The death of Ernesto Vera – a young man with no connection to the gangs except that his younger brother and sister are members of one of the largest – sparks off an intense period of fighting that goes largely unnoticed by the outside world, and is recounted from the point of view of seventeen of the people – gang members, drug dealers, graffiti artists, nurses, firemen and members of the US Armed Forces – caught up in the events.

60 deaths were attributed to rioting…It is possible, and even likely, that a number of victims not designated as riot related were actually the targets of a sinister combination of opportunity and circumstance. As it happened, 144 hours of lawlessness in a city of nearly 3.6 million people contained within a county of 9.15 million was a long time for scores to be settled.

From this seed, the possibility of gangland warfare carried out under cover of much wider disorder and disruption, comes the central premise of Ryan Gattis’ ambitious new novel. Set against the background of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Gattis tells of the horrific death of Ernesto Vera as he walks home from work on the first evening of the riots, and of the quickly-escalating war that ensues between the gang of which his brother and sister are a member, and their biggest rivals.

Gattis pulls no punches as he relates his story and this, coupled with the first-person narratives that he uses, serve to plunge the reader into the midst of the action. All Involved is structured in chronological order, one section of the book for each of the six days of rioting, and is related from seventeen first-person, present tense points of view, beginning with Ernesto Vera himself, who opens proceedings by describing the events leading to his own death. What makes All Involved unique is the fact that each character gets only one chance to speak before the next picks up and continues the story, allowing the reader access to a broad range of narrators. This brings with it a better understanding of the personalities in play, the relationships between the individuals and the gangs, how different people perceive what’s going on, and how they live with what they are doing. While it necessarily leaves some dangling threads, it is impressive how Gattis manages to tell a complete and coherent story without a single re-visit to any of the characters.

From the outset, Gattis gets deep into the minds of each of his narrators, and gives each a unique voice, and a unique outlook on life. This feels like a collection of individual testimonies, intersecting stories told in the participants’ own words, with no filter, and no omniscient narrator attempting to plug the gaps or soften the sometimes jarring transition from one voice to the next. These are people who live their lives on either side of the fine line between law and outlaw, and Gattis captures them perfectly, recording the nuances of their speech, the slang and the accents in a way that makes these characters come alive for the reader.

The riots themselves remain firmly in the novel’s background, the catalyst for this series of events, but by no means an important part of them. All Involved contains a timely reminder, though, that recent trouble in the likes of Ferguson and Baltimore are not new phenomena, nor is the spark that often ignites the flame – as one character tells us, in Los Angeles alone, there seems to be a thirty-year cycle of racially-motivated rioting. Interestingly, despite who the central characters of this extraordinary novel are, the authorities come off in the worst light, be it the seemingly corrupt policeman, or the Sheriff’s Department’s Vikings, who seem to dole out beatings with impunity, or the cold, callous and anonymous Special Forces soldiers who take their own advantage of the lawlessness to hand out brutal justice of their own. The gang members – or at least the core crew that form around Ernesto Vera’s little sister – come off in the best light, and it is these characters for whom we feel the most sympathy and for whom we find ourselves rooting the most fervently.

All Involved is, in short, an incredible piece of fiction set against one of the darker periods in America’s recent history. Intricately plotted, finely detailed, this is a beautifully-written novel that gives the reader some insight into the mind-set of the people involved in what can only be described as a fictional representation of something that could very well have happened while all eyes were looking elsewhere. Ryan Gattis has proven himself to be a writer of considerable talent, with an ear for language and inflection that allows him to create living, breathing characters who seem to jump off the page. Expect to have trouble putting this one down once you’ve started reading but under no circumstances should you miss this opportunity to watch a true master at work.

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 BLACK-EYED BLONDE by Benjamin Black

THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE - Benjamin Black THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE

Benjamin Black (www.benjaminblackbooks.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

It seems like a straightforward case: Nico Peterson, the boyfriend of Philip Marlowe’s married client, has disappeared. It’s a scenario Marlowe has investigated often and it usually means the boyfriend has wanted to end the affair and decided disappearing might be an easier option than going through the process of ending it. So Marlowe takes the case, mainly because he can’t bear the thought of Clare Cavendish walking out of his office and never seeing her again. But as he investigates, things don’t quite add up. For one thing, Nico Peterson is dead and buried. For another, something isn’t quite right about Clare Cavendish’s story. Throw in a pair of Mexican heavies, one of L.A.’s top gangsters and a country club that seems to be a front for something less than legal, and Marlowe is up to his hat-brim in trouble. And he hasn’t even been paid for the job.

Once upon a long time ago, at the tender age of about fifteen, I discovered the novels of Raymond Chandler. Immediately entranced, I immersed myself in the L.A. of the mid-twentieth century in the company of one of the most iconic and entertaining characters in crime fiction. I loved every word, but have never gone back to the books since: Poodle Springs, of which Chandler wrote the first few chapters and which was finished by another crime fiction stalwart, Robert B. Parker, left a bad taste in my mouth. When I heard that Marlowe was once again being resurrected, I was less than thrilled by the idea and will freely admit that I stepped into Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde fully expecting to hate it from page one.

In the time-honoured tradition of Chandler’s novels, and the thousands of copycat private eyes that came after, we find ourselves in the head of the wise-cracking Philip Marlowe as he meets his client. Black – the open pseudonym of Irish Booker winner John Banville – has done his homework, and has obviously spent many hours in the company of Chandler’s prose and his most famous creation. Marlowe’s voice is spot on, the atmosphere perfect, the language almost indistinguishable from that used in the original series of novels. Marlowe has a way with words that, while not always eloquent, gets his point across perfectly to the reader, as when describing his client early in the novel.

That smile: it was like something she had set a match to a long time ago and then left to smolder on by itself. She had a lovely upper lip, prominent, like a baby’s, soft-looking and a little swollen, as if she had done a lot of kissing recently, and not kissing babies, either.

The Black-Eyed Blonde follows on from Chandler’s sixth Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye and references some of the events and characters from that novel. Cavendish, it turns out, has been recommended to Marlowe by Linda Loring, a woman that Chandler met during the events of The Long Goodbye and who he would later (heaven forfend) marry. That said, it’s not necessary to have read that earlier novel (or, for that matter, any of Chandler’s oeuvre) to enjoy Black’s addition to the series but, as with all these things, prior knowledge brings increased enjoyment.

Like many of Marlowe’s cases, this one soon becomes convoluted and our private eye hero finds himself on the end of more than one beating and more often the suspect in police investigations than the criminals with whom he consorts. Black has populated the story with a mix of old friends and enemies, and new characters alike. There’s even an Irish connection, in the guise of Ma Langrishe, Clare Cavendish’s mother, a woman sharp of both wit and tongue. But the star is, as you’d fully expect, Marlowe himself. It’s been a long time since he has had an outing, but Black manages to make him as fresh and interesting as ever, part detective, part philosopher, the fount of wit and wisdom that long-term fans have come to know and love. And for readers like me, who haven’t visited in a while, there are reminders of the little tics and tricks that Marlowe employs when dealing with people.

I nodded – sagely, I hoped – then took up my pipe and did some business with it, tamping the dottle, and so on. A tobacco pipe is a very handy prop, when you want to seem thoughtful and wise.

In all, it’s a satisfying addition to the Marlowe canon and Banville/Black has proved he is a more-than-capable successor to Chandler. There is one unfortunate passage close to the end of the novel in which he all-but-telegraphs the mystery’s outcome, but it’s a forgivable sin given what he has accomplished. I’m a convert; I’ve gone from wanting to hate this novel to wanting everyone to read it, and I would love to see Marlowe return yet again under the control of Mr Black.

With the classic mix of wit and violence that we’ve come to expect from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, Benjamin Black takes us back to 1950s Los Angeles to catch up with a man being hailed as "the world’s greatest private investigator" and, for many, an old friend. More than just a pastiche, The Black-Eyed Blonde reintroduces Marlowe to a modern audience with a degree of success that I don’t think anyone could have predicted. Where Black succeeds admirably is in making me want to go back and re-read those novels I first discovered almost twenty-five years ago. I suspect people new to Marlowe will feel the same. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that we now live in a world where Poodle Springs never happened or, at the very least, hasn’t happened yet. That can’t be a bad thing. Whether a long term fan or a relative newcomer, The Black-Eyed Blonde is the perfect place to get (re)acquainted with Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.

BLACK LIGHT by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan & Stephen Romano

BLACK LIGHT by Patrick Melton et al BLACK LIGHT

Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan & Stephen Romano

Mulholland Books (www.mulhollandbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

Released: 13th October

When we first meet Buck Carlsbad, at the opening of Black Light, he is hard at work, taking down a mark – a ghost that has latched onto a living person. Buck has a gift, which he calls “The Pull” that allows him to suck these marks into himself and eventually regurgitate them into a silver urn, which he then buries in his back yard, effectively sealing them away forever. These marks, when inside Buck, enhance his ability to see the Blacklight, the world in which the dead live, a sort of layering onto the real world of all past versions of that world. Buck has no idea where his gift came from – orphaned at 7, he suspects that his parents were similarly gifted, but he has been unable to find out where they disappeared to, or why the left him to fend for himself.

When Buck is hired by a billionaire businessman to protect the first journey of a high-speed train between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that runs through an area of desert that Buck calls the Blacklight Triangle – due to the high instance of ghost activity in the area – he jumps at the chance. Buck has history in the Triangle, and suspects that this train journey may be the best bet he has of finding out what happened to his parents. Assembling a team, Buck boards the train along with an assortment of film and music stars, a camera crew, and the man slated to be the next President of the USA – and his Secret Service detail – and finds himself on a high-speed journey into hell with no-one to trust but himself.

“By writers from the SAW franchise”, the book cover tells us, something which excited me until I realised that Messrs Melton and Dunstan were behind four of the later entries to a series that – in my opinion – lost the plot about ten minutes into the third instalment. So, I started Black Light with a certain amount of trepidation. We’re thrown into the middle of the action, and we discover Buck’s Gift as we watch him use it to ensnare the ghost of a child killer who is haunting his wife. Buck is a character of some depth: he’s an orphan with this strange gift, and the only conclusion he can draw is that one or other of his parents has passed it on to him. He has a strange relationship with a young woman who is head-over-heels in love with him, and an even stranger relationship with his local priest, a man who provides him with the silver urns he requires to “store” his marks. He has a long and troubled history with the Blacklight, a history that cost one man his life, and almost cost Buck his own, but for Buck it’s the only way he is ever likely to discover who he is, and where he came from.

The story starts slowly, introducing the characters, and their various abilities, and the concept of the high-speed train that runs between the Lost Angels Plaza in Los Angeles and the Dreamworld resort in Las Vegas. As we see these things spring into life around us, I couldn’t help but be struck by similarities to the third volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower epic, The Waste Lands: the Lost Angels Plaza as the Cradle of Lud; the Jaeger Laser as Blaine the Mono; the Blacklight Triangle as the waste lands themselves. Like Roland’s story, there’s an overarching sense of doom as the main players move into position, and the train readies for departure.

From that point on, around about the middle of the book, the narrative grabs the reader by the throat, throttles up a few notches, and drags us along for a ride that moves as fast as the train itself. There is no let-up in the action, and I would certainly recommend trying to read this portion of the book in a single sitting for maximum effect. The authors have a fine grasp of how to move a story along at breakneck pace, and how to keep the reader interested. The story is extremely visual, cinematic in its approach and scope. The book cover adds to this illusion, a movie poster that is eye-catching and intriguing. There are times when it seems we’re reading a film script – or a Matthew Reilly novel – but thankfully they’re few and far between. There is no mistaking that these are very talented writers who have done an excellent job of translating their skills of writing for the screen to writing an engaging and extremely entertaining novel.

Dark, gory and brilliantly-plotted, Black Light combines the elements of a good horror novel, with the stylistic tics of a mystery story, and the pace and tone of the best thrillers on the market. Melton, Dunstan and Romano have created, in Buck Carlsbad, a likeable, if somewhat damaged, character that the reader can identify with and root for. They’ve also created a mythology and backstory that is solid and original. The combination make this one to watch, and a dead cert for a series of novels and films charting Buck’s journey. If you’re a fan of Felix Castor or John Constantine, or are looking for a horror story that’s a bit different from the norm, then Black Light is the book for you.

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