As the story begins, Clay, a New York detective, is pretty close to the end. His family have been murdered and he has been gut shot and left for dead by a junkie hitman hired by a mob boss who Clay was investigating. The problem for the junkie and the mob boss is that they didn’t finish the job. Despite the fact that his entire digestive system seems to be coming out through the holes in his abdomen, Clay packs the corpses of his wife and son in the family car and sets off on a journey of no return to get revenge on the men who’ve crossed him.
That synopsis pretty much sums up the entirety of Piccirilli’s tight, lean and gruelling revenge novella, which discards most of the set-up that would usually be put in place in the usual run-of-the-mill revenge tale and turns it into back story. As a consequence, what it lacks in characterisation it more than makes up for in velocity and ferocity, speeding along like an out-of-control express train. It’s a visceral tale, for sure – Piccirilli paints a grim picture of what is happening to the protagonist’s innards – but so cleanly and clearly executed that even the most squeamish readers will be riveted to their seats. It is superbly written and comes highly recommended.
Alan Slater is a double-glazing salesman whose best-friend, Beale, a man he doesn’t even like very much, is an addicted gambler with a booze problem and a very fast temper. When that fast temper gets him into more trouble than even he can handle he calls on Slater to help him move a body. So far so bad. But when the reason for the body is a large debt that he has racked up with an Asian businessman/gangster things go from bad to worse. And when Slater is told that if Beale can’t make his payments the debt becomes his the whole course of his life goes from worse to truly fucked.
As regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Ray Banks’ work – Wolf Ticket’s was in my Top 5 of 2012, and I loved Saturday’s Child – so I had high hopes for this. But, I have to admit, this one left me cold. It’s well-written, and once the story kicks in wraps itself up nicely, but it has one element that left me utterly cold, and that’s the protagonist himself. Slater has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (not to my eyes, anyway), the man is an utter prick. He’s a coward, cheats on his wife (who he seems to despise without any real reason), has nothing but contempt for everyone and everything around him (including, towards the end, his mistress); he doesn’t even help his mate out of any noble intention, or sense of duty, he just does it because he thinks that’s what friends are supposed to do. The problem with a character like this is if the plot doesn’t kick in before you realise how repulsive they are you have a recipe for disaster (or at least putting the book down unfinished). It’s a testament to Banks’ immense skill as a writer that I made it to the end without putting the book down. The storytelling generated enough grip, along with my own morbid curiosity, to make me want to see how far Slater is going to fall; the problem was that when the end came I didn’t feel in any way emotionally tied to his plight. Banks’ best work is the kind I will happily read again (Wolf Tickets, especially), but – despite its obvious technical qualities (tight prose, fine dialogue, tidy plotting) – my dislike of the main character was such that I can’t say the same for Dead Money. Despite this, I would still recommend it because it is very well written and you might not have the same issues with the main character that I have.
Anybody who read my recent review of Ayres’ collection A F*ckload of Shorts will know I thought highly of it. And rumblings on the crime fiction grapevine suggested that his latest, Fierce Bitches, was a cracker. Reviews were exceptional right across the board. So I made sure to grab a paperback copy the moment it became available.
Fierce Bitches involves a small town, or more a collection of buildings really, called Politoburg, in the middle of nowhere in Mexico that belongs to Harlan Polito, a crime boss. The population of this town consists of Mexican whores (the Marias), gringos who work for Polito (sent out-of-the-way, to be called on when the boss needs them), and Ramon who runs the place by keeping gringos in line – making sure they don’t hurt the girls, keeping them supplied with booze, drugs etc, and breaking heads when needs be. Everything runs smoothly, or as smoothly as a town that consists of criminals can, until a robbery of a delivery occurs, leaving people dead and Ramon severely injured. In the aftermath of the robbery one of the Marias escapes with a nameless gringo and suddenly everything goes to hell…
It’s hard to know how to classify Fierce Bitches. It’s not strictly crime fiction, although crimes obviously occur during it (lots of them, in fact), I suppose you could call it noir, it’s certainly bleak enough, but even that doesn’t seem quite appropriate. It has many elements in the mix, but the best way to describe it would be as a cross between the hellish El Rey finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway and the biblical fury of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. One thing is for certain, it has an ambition that most modern noir novels will probably never come close to emulating. For a start, the use of language is certainly superior to many writers currently working in this field. Second-person narration is notoriously difficult to get right but Ayres absolutely nails it here. Also, the fractured timeline mode of storytelling is another skill that’s not easy to nail, but again Ayres manages it with aplomb. It’s an exceptional bit of writing that, despite only being novella length, feels much weightier than its page count and has certainly marked Ayres as someone who will probably rise to the top of the current crop of crime/noir writers sooner rather than later. I can see this being in my top ten or top five or whatever the fuck it ends up being at the end of the year.
According to the blurbs, Tony Black is apparently Irvine Welsh’s favourite crime writer. This is no small thing to have on your resume, that one of the most influential writers of the last thirty years thinks you’re the mutt’s nuts when it comes to writing crime fiction.
Black has made his name writing the Gus Drury series of books, all of which come with lots of critical acclaim, so he has a pedigree with this stuff. This Blasted Heath release isn’t one of those, this one is about Doug Michie, a former RUC officer with a past, who has returned to his old home town of Ayr. He’s barely back in town five minutes when he meets an old friend, and once more than that, Lyn, whose son has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. She doesn’t believe he did it. Doug takes it on trust and starts investigating. What he finds out leads him to old enemies, smuggling and council corruption. On top of which he has to deal with an alcoholic mother and ex-colleagues who aren’t exactly happy to have him back.
The Storm Without is a brisk read with plenty of style and a compelling narrator in Doug Michie. Tony Black’s excellent prose brings the rainswept streets of Ayr alive with nice little nuggets of description and he keeps the narrative moving along nicely. So far so good. But there is one flaw, one that takes a 5-star performance and turns it into a 4-star scrape. That flaw is the ending. Without giving away spoilers there is a rescue for a certain character, but the thing is we never find out how this happens or by whom or how the character gets found. Aside from a paragraph of a newspaper article explaining that it has happened there’s no further description to explain how it happened. Okay, I know they say show don’t tell, but if you can’t show something at least tell me how something occurred – I’d rather be told something than just be forced to accept that something has happened – without an explanation it becomes a deus ex machina and feels a bit rushed. This is a pity, really, because Black can really turn a sentence and he knows his way around a narrative and in Michie he has created a genuinely complex and likeable character. Despite the flawed ending, in my humble opinion, at least, this is still a fine read, but it could have been more than that. Still, Michie is a great character and I look forward to reading more from him and Tony Black.