My Favourite crime novels no 23.

Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer
Anybody ever remember those stupid book clubs in the 80s and 90s? You got a selection of books for about 50p each but then you had no choice but to buy 6 full price hardback-sized softcovers over a twelve month period or rue the day.

With one exception the books I ended up getting via this stupid method were either dull or just plain shit (because I don’t remember a single title I bought). And that exception? Well, in my opinion it was worth all five of the other books, because that’s how I got hold of Baer’s masterpiece.

Kiss Me, Judas is probably the druggiest piece of crime fiction since Hedayat’s stone-cold classic The Blind Owl (even though it’s not really crime fiction). And like that work of genius it features, in Phineas Poe, one of literatures most unreliable narrators (a man who might be capable of truth if he was sober enough to know what it was).

The novel begins with ex-cop Poe, just out of a mental institution, hooking up with a woman he suspects to be a prostitute. She takes him to his hotel room for a night of passion. When he wakes up, he’s in a bathtub filled with ice, minus one kidney, with a note tells him to phone 911 if he wants to live.

Poe checks himself out of hospital perilously early in order to find the woman, called Jude, and take revenge on her. The problem is that when he finds catches up with her he falls in love instead. This leads to a cross-country trip with the haggard, still very sick, Poe riding with a woman he loves but can’t really trust. Along the way they meet various people who might not be who they initially appear to be.

Kiss Me Judas is a head-trip in the best sense. It veers from crime fiction to drug induced dreamscape to gothic horror with an ease that few writers in the genre could ever master. It takes the reader on a wild ride that has the twisted quality of the best or worst nightmares (depending on your point-of-view). Poe is a fantastic character who you simultaneously want to hug and slap – he does so many things that are wrong and yet he’s still very likeable. But the thing that really makes Judas work is the prose. It’s beautiful. Baer’s writing has a sensuous, sinuous quality that somehow renders the horrors within Judas’ pages palatable. There really aren’t many crime writers around who can come close to Baer in terms of prose. Hell, not many literary writers can touch this prose when it’s at the top of its game:

…I can see the boat. Adrift, barely moving. A woman’s arm dangling over one side. Her fingertips gliding at the surface of the water like the legs of a spider, leaving no trace.

There are stunners like this liberally peppered throughout the novel:

I pull off my clothes and stand before the mirror. Every bone in my body pushes at the surface of my white skin. I can see veins and tendons and unprotected muscle. My face is a grinning mask.

Baer’s prose and narrative trickery get us inside the head of his main character and push the boundaries of crime fiction in a way that very few writers do. At its best it’s a truly stunning performance. Baer followed Judas with Penny Dreadful and Hell’s Half Acre, which further Poe’s story. They’re both good, but neither has the power or precision of this classic.

Do yourself a favour. If you haven’t read this before, then buy it today. And if you’ve only read it once, then do yourself a favour and read it again!

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Review: Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird

One of the things about the e-book era is that it has re-energised the British crime and dark fiction scene. Novelists and short fiction writers who might have been overlooked by the big publishers – for being too dark, too grim, too violent, too different – have been given the option to self-publish or work with small, independent publishers to produce books that have, in many cases, had some of the big boys on the run. These writers are knowledgeable about their trade, know their history, know how to hook readers from the first sentence, and more importantly know how to use social media and modern technology in a way that many of the more established pros seem incapable of doing. There are a lot of these folks out there: Paul D Brazill, Ian Ayris, McDroll, Luca Veste, along with more established folks like Allan Guthrie, Ray Banks, Nick Quantrill. Also, included with this rather gilded lot is Nigel Bird.

Until recently, Bird had wrote mostly short fiction, although a novella length work, Smoke, was published not so long ago. And until very recently (despite being interested in his work) I hadn’t downloaded any of his collections, due to a very large to-be-read pile and work commitments. But I put this behind me recently by reading Dirty Old Town – a short but strong collection of short fiction.

For such a short collection, there’s a lot of good stuff in here. One Hundred and Ten Per Cent, which goes through the life of a runner as he moves from prison to the race track. It’s compelling, hard and has some lovely little moments of description:

“Everyone has a talent,” Tweed said.

As it happened, he was pretty damned good at taking the faces of cunts like the man on the other side of the table and turning them into modern art.

Nice and pithy. Appeals to a fan of clever, sweary quips like myself. But elsewhere, as in Dirty Old Town, the title story, a subtler but equally clever use of language comes into play:

I didn’t see the stars, but felt them speed through my nervous system, tingling down to my fingers and toes.

Again, nice and pithy. And the rest of the story is just as good. Harsh, unforgiving, and with a nice sense of loss.

A lot of these stories deal with loss: Dirty Old Town, Drinking Wine (Spo-dee-oh-dee), Sea Minor, Taking A Line For A Walk; all these deal with a sense of loss (love, life, future, family, you name it).

Bird has a lot of empathy and sympathy for his characters, even the bad ones, and it shines through on the page. In this sense, his work shares similarities with Donald Ray Pollock whose work I reviewed here.

There are a number of memorable stories in this collection. Bird has genuine talent and is definitely one to keep an eye on for the future. And I think I’ll be reading more of his work sooner rather than later.

Review: What it Was by George Pelecanos

I’m a big fan of the work of George Pelecanos. The DC Quartet is up there with James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet in my very humble opinion. He writes action as well as just about anybody in the business and his sense of plot is also top-tier. So when I had the chance to grab What It Was I didn’t hesitate.

Derek Strange, a regular Pelecanos player, recounts the story of Red Jones to another of his major players, Nick Stefanos. Jones is a bad-ass hard man who decides to light up the DC streets one hot summer in 1972 when he goes on a crime spree. The carnage begins when he shoots a wretched heroin-tester by the name of Bobby Odum and takes what little money he has along with a fancy-looking ring and some Roberta Flack tickets, both of which he gives to his girlfriend, a stunning, Amazonian madam called Coco Watkins.

Strange is dragged into it when he is hired by a maths tutor, with a serious set of curves and a story that doesn’t quite add up, to find the missing ring. At the same time a Detective Frank Vaughan, a former police partner of Strange, is investigating the murder of Odum. Both men end up chasing Jones and his equally ferocious partner, Alfonzo, as they cut a swathe through DC’s criminal element.

One thing I’ve always loved about Pelecanos is his attention to period detail – the clothes, the cars, the hair, and especially the music – without ever sacrificing the pace of the story. Which is why What It Was is something of a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad novel, in fact, I’m not sure Pelecanos is capable of writing a bad novel, but it’s not in the class of The Big Blowdown or King Suckerman, either. The problem here is that the period detail, once such a great servant of Pelecanos’ peerless plots, in places overwhelms the story. At one point, towards the end of the story, two major opposing characters end up at the Roberta Flack concert. This should have been the source of some serious tension, but Pelecanos instead drowns the setpiece in unnecessary detail about Robert Flack’s gig, and music, and loses momentum. In fact, it knocked me out of the story for several pages.

Another hefty paragraph earlier in the novel has Strange pondering the fact that he’s in the middle of a ‘cultural revolution that was happening’. Is anybody that self-aware about the time they’re living in? Possibly they are, but whilst the character is rather loaded with beers? That I’m not so sure about. It almost felt like the addition of detail for detail’s sake.

There are some other moments when the details feel too over-worked; like a master painter, and Pelecanos is a master, have no doubt, who obsesses over the details to the detriment of the overall canvas.

If this sounds like I’m slating the novel, I’m not; but Pelecanos is a writer who’s set such sky-high standards over the years that anything that doesn’t scale these heights will seem like a come-down. And, for me at least, What It Was is a real comedown from the heights of the DC Quartet or Drama City.

If you’re a new reader of Pelecanos then no doubt you’ll enjoy it, but if, like me, you’ve read some of his masterworks then you might feel, as I do, that this isn’t a great writer at the top of his form.