Loitering with intent!!

I was recently lucky enough to be asked to contribute to Eva Dolan’s excellent criminal classics season on her equally excellent Loitering with Intent blog. It covers literary classics that also double as really rather excellent crime novels too.

My contribution is here – it’s The Outsider by Albert Camus. And when you’ve finished reading mine I suggest you read the rest of them, because you’ll be missing out on some classics otherwise (a lot of far better writers than me can be found giving you the heads up on some brilliant and inspiring novels).

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Review – Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith

One of my real pleasures in life is finding a new author (new to me, that is) whose work I enjoy as much as the old masters. Discovering the novels of South African author Roger Smith was just one of those occasions. Dust Devils was the easily one of the finest books I read during 2011 (not an easy feat, considering I polished off quite a few novels that year), and it was definitely one of those that stayed with me long after I’d finished the final page.

So once I knew that his latest, Ishmael Toffee, was available on Kindle I decided to download it asap. Let’s just say it’s not a decision I regretted.

The story involves an ex-gang killer Ishmael Toffee who has murdered more men with a knife than he cares to remember, but has since lost the appetite for killing. Whilst in prison, he discovers that he is good at something else other than killing – gardening, which comes in handy when he is released. Once out of prison, he becomes a gardener for a rich white lawyer and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the man’s young daughter, who treats Ishmael as a human being rather than as a prisoner. When Ishmael discovers that the girl is being abused by her father, he decides to go on the run with her and get justice through the system. But when that fails, he realises that he has to go back to the knife…

Ishmael Toffee introduces and humanizes a character who in the wrong hands could have come off as a real piece of shit. He’s a villain who has realised that his previous existence is no longer what he wants and chooses the quiet life instead and turns himself into a regular human being. He becomes a hero the moment he chooses to help a girl who can’t help herself, and makes us root for him. And he becomes tragic when he sees that the South African system is weighted in the favour of rich white men and that the one thing he wanted to avoid is the only thing that can save the girl…

Ishmael Toffee is another superb piece of writing from an author who is fast establishing himself as one of the best around. It is beautifully paced, covers a dark topic with a certain amount of sensitivity and is populated with fully rounded human beings. It is a cracking read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And Falling, the free short story at the end, is a cracker, too. Another direct hit for Roger Smith!

Review – The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

The Killer is Dying by James Sallis: This is that rare beast – a piece of literary crime fiction. It’s not really a thriller. Hell, it’s not really even crime fiction. To be honest, I’m not really sure how you can classify it. It doesn’t contain a tightly honed plot – its structure is fairly loose; what little action there is occurs in the margins – almost outside the page; and there’s more ambiguity than resolution. Its ambitions extend beyond just entertaining the reader, particularly as a lot of its action (such as it is), themes and meanings seem to appear in the lines between the text.

An ageing killer with a terminal illness tries to find out who shot his target and why; a middle-aged cop with a dying wife investigates the shooting and deals with his own problems; a teenage boy, abandoned by his parents and left to fend for himself, is sharing the dying killer’s dreams.

Much as I like Sallis (which is a lot), I’m not sure how much I liked TKiD. As ever with Sallis it’s beautifully rendered in spare prose and the sections involving the killer and the cop are great. The problem is the almost magical realist section involving Jimmie, the boy. I didn’t buy the fact that he was having the killer’s dreams and dramatically I just didn’t get the point of having him in the story. I can understand and appreciate that community and how we relate to one another is one of the novel’s many themes, but in a sense I thought this theme was covered just as clearly in the sections involving Christian, the killer, and Sayles, the cop. In fact, I wonder what this novel would have been like as a two-hander (focussing on the killer and the cop) rather than a three-hander? Would it be better? Would it be worse? Who knows!

Don’t get me wrong, there’s much to recommend here. It’s beautifully written, thematically dense and multi-layered, and its characters are alive in a way that very few writers can achieve, but I just didn’t buy the chapters involving Jimmie, which seriously curtailed my enjoyment. However, I think maybe I need to go back to this again at a later date and re-read it. Maybe I missed something – as stated earlier a lot of stuff goes on between the lines – but I think I’d have to give it a slower, more considered read away from distractions.

Despite my serious reservations about some of it, The Killer is Dying is well worth a read, particularly for fans of Sallis.

This has been my find of the year, thus far…

Don’t you just love it when you find something really special?

Well, for me, finding the Munsey’s website is exactly that – something really fucking special. It’s kind of like finding a first edition paperback of GBH by Ted Lewis or a paperback you’ve been looking for for ages in a second hand bookstore.

My phone and tablet now have nicely formatted ebooks by Charles Willeford, Jonathan Latimer, Peter Rabe, Charles Williams, Fredric Brown and even David Goodis and John D MacDonald.

You have no idea how happy this makes me. Some of these I’ve been trying to get as paperbacks for a while and now I have them for absolutely nothing at all!

Potted Reviews – To The Devil, My Regards & Bullets and Fire

To The Devil, My Regards – Anthony Neil Smith & Victor Gischler

Z.Z. DelPresto is a detective with a problem. He’s been caught by the cops with his hand on the knife that killed his jailbait girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of the woman he’s been paid to snoop on. So begins a lot of trouble for this detective who’s more than a little crooked, trouble that means he’s going to have to work really hard to clear himself, particularly as the cops would be quite happy to see him take a fall…

Anthony Neil Smith and Victor Gischler’s thriller moves at a fast clip, which is a good thing considering it’s a novella. The prose is nice ‘n lean and DelPresto seems to be a bit of a conflicted bastard in the Billy Lafitte mode (another of Smith’s creations). It has plenty of incident, wraps itself up smartly and will keep you entertained. Recommended.

Bullets and Fire – Joe R. Lansdale

A short-story about a wannabe gang member who might not be all that he seems (won’t give away any more than that, don’t want to spoil things).

Fire and Bullets moves at astonishing pace in stripped back balls-to-the-wall prose. It’s awash with carnage, in fact the story begins with the protagonist breaking a young girl’s nose so that he can be initiated into a gang, and it barely pauses to stop for breath. Despite that, it still has a heart (even if it is somewhat bloodied). Don’t be surprised to find yourself missing your train or tube stop with this one, because it grabs you by the nuts and refuses to let go. Highly recommended.

My favourite Crime novels No. 22 – GBH

GBH – Ted Lewis: If any of you are in any doubt about how good a crime writer Ted Lewis was (and, along with Derek Raymond, I think he’s the greatest we Brits ever produced, that includes the modern breed of British writers – sorry guys, but these two are in a league of their own, never been bettered) then you need to read GBH.

His worst stuff was sloppy. But, hey, this bloke wrote Jack’s Return Home, Billy Rags, Plender and this total masterpiece.

It’s about a crime lord and pornographer who has fled Soho for a coastal retreat and is basically drinking his life away, thinking about the life and woman he left behind. In the present tense he’s a bloke who’s hiding from his past, leaving his business in the hands of his lawyer and trusted confidante. In the past he was a gangster battling  other criminals for control of the London underworld in addition to being a pornographer who likes to run a line in snuff for special clients. As the novel progresses the story of the past and the story of the present converge on each other in dark and unpleasant ways.

Lewis’ masterpiece is a novel about a man who is unable to deal with his past, a man surrounded by ghosts, a man who may or may not have lost his mind somewhere amidst the depravity of his previous life and the inebriation of his current one.

It’s beautifully written in both past and present tense, which isn’t a trick that many writers can pull off with the effortless skill that Lewis manages here. The pacing is awesome and the storytelling… Christ, if you want to learn how to tell a story and pace it just so, then this is where you come to learn. I’ve read it three times now, and every time for pure reading pleasure. Hell, what goes on within these pages might not be pleasant, and in places, folks, it gets downright horrible, in fact has the feel of nightmare about it, but the whole thing, when push comes to shove, shows just what is possible within this genre when a brilliant writer digs deep within himself and pulls truth out of the darkness (in the same way that Derek Raymond did with Dora Suarez).

It is a fucking crime that this novel is not currently available. So, right now, unless you scour a secondhand bookstore you can’t buy it. But if you do want it, and, believe me, you do, then you really need to get yourself on eBay or any secondhand store that deals with genre and pick it up. If you want it on Kindle, then you’re going to have to clamour and holler until some publisher with a combination of balls and brains picks this up and puts it out there.

GBH deserves better than this. It deserves an audience.

That is all.

Review – Gun by Ray Banks

Richie, a young criminal not long out of prison and odd-job man for Goose, a wheelchair-bound crook who claims he got his injury during the Falklands conflict, although everybody knows it was from mainlining a leg artery, is given the task of picking up a Magnum from Florida Al, a shifty hoodlum with a taste for loud shirts.

The pick-up of the gun goes relatively well, but as soon as Richie gets out on to the Leam estate he is attacked and beaten by some local kids, who take the gun from him whilst he’s unconscious.

He then goes in search of the gun with inevitably disastrous results.

Gun is a powerful novella with a nice eye for place and an excellent ear for Tyneside vernacular. It’s written in lean prose that gets on with telling the story rather than dressing the page in adverbs. The characters are believable and well-rounded, even the ones who only stray into the story for a paragraph or two, and Richie is a compelling and tragic protagonist. He’s not a bad-guy, as such, just a human being who’s judgement might be considered highly suspect.

The story unfolds at a cracking pace and, once things really start going badly, Banks expertly cranks up the tension to almost unbearable levels. If you’re a fan of gritty, urban crime fiction, you should stick this on your Kindle straightaway. It’s the kind of cracking read you can polish off on a long commute or a lazy weekend afternoon. Highly recommended.