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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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noir

GUEST POST: On Locations by CONRAD WILLIAMS

Hell is Empty Name: CONRAD WILLIAMS

Author of: DUST AND DESIRE (2015)
                      SONATA OF THE DEAD (2016)
                      HELL IS EMPTY (2016)

On the web: conradwilliams.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @salavaria

When I teach creative writing at university (I’ve had a few gigs over the years at Manchester Metropolitan, Edge Hill and, in the new year, I’ll be at St John’s, York) I invariably include a class dealing with sense of place. In the strongest fiction, a location can possess as much impact as a character; can in fact almost become another character, real or especially imagined. Look at China Miéville’s Bas Lag novels, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Cormac McCarthy’s destroyed America in The Road, Iain Banks’ Scottish island in The Wasp Factory, William Golding’s island in Lord of the Flies. These are all fictional landscapes that provide a colourful, fertile background to their characters’ travails. These places are the novels, arguably. They are so exquisitely rendered that you feel you know them, that you could inhabit them.

In the crime novels I’ve written for Titan Books I very much wanted to make Joel Sorrell’s London a hyper-real city filled with shadows and light, texture and danger. Threat has to come from the antagonists, but it can also come from the urban surroundings. The city can feel alien even to those who spend their lives within it and Joel, as a loner, an outsider, is acutely aware of this. This loose sequence of novels is a missing girl trilogy, but also a trilogy of dereliction. Of duty, certainly, but more so where architecture is concerned. Each of the books end in crippled buildings because I wanted to have that sense of ruin and menace, as well as something positive rising from the dust: a worthy life, a father, a daughter, hope, love.

What is now the Renaissance Hotel, a beautiful reimagining of the old Midland, serving St Pancras station, was for a long time a shattered shell used as railway offices after its closure in 1935. Tours were made of the building in the mid 2000s and I signed up for one, having decided the hotel – surrounded by piledrivers and cranes and diggers – would make a great scene for the climax of my novel. Inside it was dusty, rotting, thick with shadow and old forgotten rooms, some of which had been sub-divided and were windowless places of filing cabinets and filth. The stealthy pursuit of the Four Year Old in Dust and Desire that draws Joel to a window leading out on to the roof of the train station was all mapped out as our group was taken along peeling corridors and that magisterial double staircase that, at the time, looked like some forgotten corner of Dracula’s castle.

Thinking about it, many of the set pieces that occur in this dereliction trilogy are found in and around buildings on the cusp of transformation or are ghosts of glory days long gone: the broken Liverpool docks and the sleeping giant of a hotel in Dust and Desire, a tired old tower block earmarked for refurbishment and a once bustling factory gone to seed in Sonata of the Dead, a squalid prison destroyed by fire in Hell is Empty. I guess they suggest the fragile, transitory nature of relationships. Everything gets demolished in the end. Everything is subject to decay.

31621_Hell-is-empty-Blog-tour

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.

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.

THE POINT by Gerard Brennan

THE POINT by Gerard Brennan THE POINT

Gerard Brennan (www.gerardbrennan.co.uk)

Pulp Press (www.pulppress.co.uk)

£7.99

Coming, as I do, from the wilds of West Belfast, I have an aversion to the Norn Irish accent on film and television; for me, there’s something distinctly cringe-worthy about it, a fact that is probably best exemplified every time Liam Neeson opens his mouth (who would have thought Oskar Schindler was, actually, originally from Ballymena? Or that Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn might hail from the planet of Countyantrim?). Strangely, though, the same aversion doesn’t apply to the written word, so I find myself putting on my broadest Belfaaawst and enjoying the likes of Jason Johnson’s beautiful Woundlicker or Stuart Neville’s dark and wonderful The Twelve. So it was in that frame of mind that I picked up Gerard Brennan’s The Point and, as the locals might have it, got stuck in.

Paul Morgan is a small-time crook who has a habit of getting brother Brian involved in his schemes. When Paul is caught trying to steal from local hoodlum Mad Mickey, he is given a week to get out of Belfast. Choosing seaside town Warrenpoint – The Point of the title – Paul and Brian embark on one last series of jobs, breaking into student digs in an attempt to raise some cash. Upon arriving in The Point, Brian promptly meets, and falls in love with, Rachel, a girl with some psychotic tendencies. He gets a steady job, and gets ready to settle down, while Paul finds the local underworld and gets involved with the local big man who immediately gives him a job stealing cars to order. As Paul’s inability to stay out of trouble once again comes to the fore, things spiral out of control and the brothers find themselves in their tightest spot yet with no clear means of escape.

Brennan does an excellent job showing us the decaying relationship between these two brothers – the one who needs to be constantly in the thick of things, always on the run from somebody; the other who wants no involvement, but is unable to help himself when his brother is in trouble. It’s the classic noir tale of how the introduction of a woman can drastically alter the landscape of a close male relationship – be it best friends or brothers – relocated to modern day Northern Ireland and peopled by a cast of believable – if not always likeable – characters. There’s a dark humour running throughout the book, and it is easy to forget that this is, after all, noir. The parting shot is all the more shocking in light of the humour that has gone before and is handled with a confidence that marks Brennan, a relative newcomer to the scene, as one to watch in the future.

The packaging of this story is nothing less than perfect. Pulp Press have produced a small paperback of a size and style with the old 50s pulp paperbacks. The £7.99 price point might seem a little high for such a short piece, but the story is definitely worth every penny. Northern Irish slang abounds, but shouldn’t cause too much difficulty, but keep Google handy just in case. Short, sharp and shocking, The Point is Northern Irish noir at its best – dark, funny, gritty and, most of all, believable – and a fitting homage to the works of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and the swathes of others who defined the genre in the early-to-mid-20th century.

GUN: A NOVELLA by Ray Banks

GUN - Ray Banks GUN: A NOVELLA

Ray Banks (www.thesaturdayboy.com)

eBook

£0.86

Here’s this week’s shameful secret: while I’ve been aware of Ray Banks for a number of years (a signed copy of his The Big Blind has been sitting on my shelves for close to five years), he’s not an author I’m at all familiar with. Gun, a short, sharp tale with a sting is my first exposure to his work.

It is the story of Richie, a young man on parole after serving eighteen months at a young offenders’ institution who, in an effort to get some money quickly and easily, breaks a promise to his pregnant girlfriend, and approaches Goose – the man for whom he has just served time – looking for a job. The job is a simple one: go and see a man named Florida Al and purchase a gun. But when Richie is mugged by a group of young thugs when he steps out of Florida Al’s house, his day takes a turn for the worse, and the job becomes a lot more complicated than it should have been.

Gun is old-school noir fiction at its best. From the opening pages, we’re made aware of the futility of Richie’s situation: he has just spent time in prison when naming the man for whom he was working would most likely have gained him his freedom. On returning to the same man now looking for work, he discovers that Goose has no recollection of who he is. This is a vicious circle that is unlikely to end well for the teen. And he is well aware that this is the case. But collecting a gun, while risky, is an easy job, and might just set him up with enough money to find a decent job with which he can support his family.

A detailed description of the storyline would sound outlandish and comical, moving as it does from one encounter to the next; it is anything but. It remains plausible throughout and while there is a vein of dark humour running throughout, it’s a dark and violent piece of fiction showing a day in the life of a teenage hoodlum in modern-day Newcastle. We’re introduced to a cast of realistic characters, none of whom – Richie included – have any redeeming features, and taken through a series of encounters that grow increasingly violent until the final bitter twist. You may discover at that point that you’ve been holding your breath for some time.

In Gun, Banks asks very little of the reader. Half an hour will see you through the story, and there are no mysteries to solve or convoluted plot points to decipher along the way. So for the payoff to be this satisfying, this worthwhile, is a nice surprise. It makes this novella an absolute must-read for lovers of noir in particular and – to be honest – good crime in general.

THE FACILITY by Simon Lelic

The Facility

Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)

Mantle (mantle.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simon Lelic’s first novel, the quietly horrific RUPTURE, made him an instant “must-read”. THE FACILITY, his second novel, bleaker and tougher than the first, but no less enjoyable, has cemented that impression, leaving this reader pining, already, for whatever comes next.

THE FACILITY is the story of three very different men, connected by the mysterious prison facility of the title, set in an all-too-real modern-day Britain where civil liberties have been eroded almost to the point of non-existence. Henry Graves is the prison warden tasked with building and running the facility that strikes the reader almost immediately – and is confirmed by the fictional News of the World headline – as a sort of Guatanamo UK. Graves is a troubled man, cut off from his family, bound to a secret job that does not quite gel with his moral sensibilities.

Arthur Priestly, a dentist, is one of the facility’s inmates, falsely imprisoned on the word of a man he has never met. Tom Clarke, a journalist with strong views in opposition to the laws that allow the government to arrest people at the vaguest suspicion of terrorist activity, is hired by Arthur’s wife to help find where her husband has gone, and why he has been arrested.

The story is told alternately from the point of view of each of the three main characters, each with his own perspective and tone: Graves is sedate and troubled, a man losing his sense of self and his sense of self-respect; Arthur is confused, frightened and ultimately defiant; Tom at first seems like comic relief, the tone of his chapters light and airy, but it is Tom who, perhaps, provides the most drama as the climax approaches.

THE FACILITY grabs from the first page, where two unnamed men interview Arthur in an encounter that grows more violent with each paragraph – leaving the reader in no doubt that there is something slightly off about the version of reality in which this novel is based – and holds the attention throughout. It’s a tough read, like all good noir fiction, and like all fiction in that genre, there is no happily-ever-after, no – if you’ll pardon the pun – get-out-of-jail-free card.

This is modern noir at its absolute peak, and Lelic seems set for superstardom, assuming he can continue to meet the expectations he has set with his first two novels. He remains, for this reader at least, an absolute must-read.

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