Potted book reviews – part 2

Whilst in Thailand recently I did quite a lot of reading. Here are a few reviews of books that I hadn’t read previously. Continued from part 1 of last week.

Dust Devils by Roger Smith
Dust Devils is the first work I have read by Roger Smith, but I guarantee you that it won’t be the last. Set in South Africa; it involves a journalist being framed for a murder he didn’t commit; a truly vicious killer who actually commits the murder (in addition to many others); the father of the journalist, a former soldier-for-hire, and a fairly vicious killer himself, who wants to repent for his past sins; in addition to several other character storylines. I don’t really want to give too much away, because if I do it will spoil the pleasure of reading what I think is one of the finest novels I’ve read in any genre this year. The characters are all beautifully honed by Smith’s pared down but incisive prose; and in Inja Mazibuko he has created one of the finest villains that I have come across in recent memory. Things you might expect to happen between characters (especially if we were working with Hollywood cliches) don’t happen, partly because Smith gives his character’s real motivations rather than the kind that are used simply to propel plot. Dust Devils crackles along quickly and, despite a fairly complicated set of storylines and plot strands, never once loses its footing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell
When a black businessman and political hotshot is murdered in his home, Detective Rene Shade is ordered to investigate it as a burglary/homicide, rather than stir up racial unrest in the fictional city of St Bruno, Louisiana. But Shade isn’t one to do as he’s told, so sets out to solve the case. The killing of a porn theater leads Shade to believe that the two incidents might be linked. Shade’s investigation is helped and hindered by various characters including his boss, who kowtows to politicians who don’t want the case to be solved,  a cynical and overweight partner, and his two brothers, one a lawyer concerned with his own political career, and the other the owner of a local bar, which also happens to be a stamping ground for criminal types – several of whom are involved in the case in one way or another. As things progress and bodies start to pile up, the chase leads Shade to a final showdown in the Bayou. UTBL is the first of the Rene Shade trilogy of novels that kicked off Woodrell’s career. It is superbly written and tightly plotted, though lacks the poetic language of his later work A Winter’s Bone. The relationships between the characters seem real and, despite being fictional, St Bruno seems like a character in itself. It is a work of real quality and comes highly recommended.

Potted book reviews – part 1

Whilst in Thailand recently I did quite a lot of reading. Here are a few reviews of books that I hadn’t read previously.

Bordersnakes – James Crumley
Crumley’s novel brings together his two great private eyes, Milo Milodragovitch and CW Sughrue, in a complicated plot that marries two separate stories that see the detectives working together (Milodragovitch is pursuing a banker who has stolen his inheritance and Sughrue is trying to find out who shot him and why). However, most of their work seems to involve drinking heroic quantities of alcohol followed by chasers of almost industrial quantities of cocaine with a bit of sleuthing intermixed with the driving. The plot is almost secondary to the interplay of the characters and the beautifully textured layers of the writing. Crumley’s ability to evoke a sense of place is on a par with Chandler and Ross MacDonald and his dialogue is profane and razor-sharp. The plot is a bit scruffy, but when you can write as well as Crumley can and can sketch characters as finely wrought as Milodragovitch and Sughrue then that’s a minor concern. If you can hunt this one down (I think it’s out-of-print in the UK) then I heartily recommend it.

The Black Angel – Cornell Woolrich
Cornell Woolrich is an author who is considered one of the major exponents of the noir genre. Experts of the genre certainly consider him as important as Jim Thompson and David Goodis. Unlike these two authors, Woolrich seems to have fallen out of favour with the reading public. Much of his work is now out-of-print, so if you want one of his novels you’ll need to scour secondhand bookstores or an online bookstore. The Black Angel is one of those you’ll need to pick up secondhand. The plot involves a spurned wife discovering the corpse of her husband’s lover, whom she had planned to confront. She leaves the scene of the crime without telling the police and awaits the return of her husband. When her husband is charged with the woman’s murder she vows to find the murderer and clear his name, assisted by a list of names and a scrap of a matchbook she finds at the scene of the crime. She plunges into the seedier side of New York, amongst drunks, drug dealers and other criminal types, and leaves destruction in her wake. Woolrich is considered the master of suspense by his acolytes, but I honestly didn’t get him. He uses thirty words when only a few would suffice and some of his sentences are purple beyond belief. His plot has some logic holes that I could drive an 18-wheel truck through. Woolrich’s ability to get into the narrator’s head is well done and it’s certainly not without moments of incredible tension but, on the whole, I have to say that The Black Angel was not for me. I certainly won’t discount reading more Woolrich, but I have put his other books at the bottom of my current To Read pile.

A review on a forum for The Gamblers

I’ve just seen this review on a Kindle forum for my novel The Gamblers. It’s an interesting perspective from a reader, and writer, who isn’t a regular reader of noir fiction. It’s a combination of good and bad. But I think it’s a well written review and I’m quite happy to share it:

The Gamblers” by Martin Stanley

Martin Stanley has titled his book “The Gamblers” and that is a most fitting title for it. Stanley presents us with various and assorted people whose lives consist of gambling – with money, with position, with their very lives. He displays for us a dark underside of both humanity and human nature, filled with violence, cruelty, betrayal and lust.

Stanley writes very well, with an eye for detail, and tells an intricate story with a complicated plot. He drew me into his world with the introduction of Mike Kandinsky, a candidate for Gambler’s Anonymous, if ever there was one. Kandinsky has not only gambled away all his money but owes some £3,000 to a loan shark, who is just a tad peeved at not getting his money back on time. Kandinsky is given two weeks (and a beating in lieu of interest) to sell his BMW and pay off the loan shark – or else. Kandinsky doesn’t want to give up his auto and, when presented with an alternative, begins an adventure that threatens to take him into a downward spiral that he may not recover from.

Stanley writes of the addictions that drive men (and women) and how they can make gamblers of the best of us (though his examples are of those who are far from the best of us). The choices Stanley’s characters make left me wincing, though I could see the twisted logic of them. He bars no holds and the violence and degradation of the various characters would likely have caused me to put the book down, were it not for his story-telling ability and writing prowess.

However, Stanley makes what I consider to be a grievous error: He has no sympathetic characters at all. There is not one character in the book for whom I can root. Between the lot of them (and there are a lot of them) one can barely find a single redeeming trait. I can recollect but two instances of what might be considered ‘kindnesses’ (there may have been more, but, if so, the darkness blotted them from my memory) and they are but momentary. For me, this is not enough; I don’t like my stories this bleak. Stanley replies that his book is ‘noir’ and that this feature pervades the species. I’m obviously not in his target audience, so bear that in mind as you contemplate my review.

So, if you don’t mind violence, at time gratuitous, and you enjoy dark stories and the noir genre, The Gamblers may be one for you.