Potted reviews: Street 8 by Douglas Fairbairn and City Primeval by Elmore Leonard

Douglas Fairbairn wrote, in the form of Shoot, one of my all-time favourite crime novels (although it is ultimately much more than just a crime novel), so I had high hopes for Street 8, a noir set on the sun-bathed streets of Miami.

Bobby Mead, who runs an ailing used-car lot on Eighth Street, or as the latinos call it Calle Ocho, is given an offer he can’t refuse by Cuban gangsters/terrorists. They will give him a sum of money every month for the use of his garage, no questions asked, or they will kill him and his sixteen-year-old delinquent daughter. Mead takes the offer but realises that dealing with the devil comes with a price.

I wish I could say I enjoyed Street 8 but I didn’t. It has massive gaping flaws of logic. During the novel Mead has zero ambition or a particular will to live (something noted by several characters during the course of the novel) and mopes around for much of the narrative, only for him to quickly transmorph into a gringo Che Guevara by the end of the novel. Mead also has sex with his under-age daughter, which, whilst consensual, hardly endears him as a protagonist, and his proclamation of love for her towards the end of the book leaves a sour taste. I’m not a prude, and can deal with stuff like this in a narrative, but it’s hard to find enthusiasm for a protagonist who has sex with his own daughter, even if he does feel remorse. Also, Fairbairn’s prose, so concise and clear in Shoot, comes off here like a poor Hemingway pastiche. It’s a short novel, but its badly balanced pacing means that nothing happens for long stretches only for it to sputter into life occasionally. Disappointing.

In Elmore Leonard’s City Primeval, an unpleasant and unorthodox Detroit judge is killed by a remorseless killer and thief, Clement Mansell, over a driving incident. Taciturn detective, Raymond Cruz, quickly works out that it may be Mansell’s finger on the trigger but proving it is somewhat more difficult – more so, considering that Mansell walked on a murder charge a couple of years before because of a technicality. Killer and cop circle each other constantly, trying to outwit each other until the noirish climax.

Leonard is always a pleasure to read, probably because he does all the little things well. He’s never been spectacular, in the way that James Ellroy or James Lee Burke sometimes can be, but his 70s/80s work rarely misses its mark. He knows how to pace a narrative, knows how to write killer dialogue, knows how to write detail without it overshadowing the story, and knows how to write characters who, though dark, though unpleasant, don’t tip over into caricature or leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Recommended.

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There’s no reason for you to read my books

The title above is neither a bitter statement nor a request for you to stay away, more a suggestion of a problem that I think affects ninety-nine per cent of writers out there using KDP or some other self-publishing system.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole self-publishing experience recently. I’ve learned a few things during my two-plus years on this merry-go-round; enough to know that my books will never be anything more than a sideline for me, much as I’d like them to be something more, because maybe I’m missing some kind of X-factor, because year-on-year my sales haven’t improved but declined. When fanciful dreams get a bucketful of cold, wet reality thrown in their face they often harden into ice. And although my heart isn’t icy-cold yet, there is a certain cooling of interest in the whole self-publishing rigmarole (from a business perspective, at least). I’m not sure if other writers are feeling it yet, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but I’ve come to realise that the reason Big Publishing has survived as long as it has is because it knows a few things about its audience – a damn sight more than many of us do.

They know that there’s no reason for anybody to buy their books (you see, there was a reason for that title), but they make an audience want to read the damn things anyway and they do it time and time again. In all honesty, how many self-publishers (or even small presses) can say they’ve done anything even remotely similar. Building a brand takes time, money, good contacts, good luck, and most importantly (although not necessarily the case) good material. Big Publishing generally has the best covers, the best marketing brains, the best contacts, can sometimes make their own damn luck and, most importantly, they have that big fucking cachet – most of the best writers want to be published by them. If you are published by Big Publishing you automatically have something that no self-publisher has – reputation. Before you start harrumphing and disagreeing, think about it.

I’m not saying that going through the whole gate-keeping process of agent selection, editing, publisher, more editing routine necessarily means that the books are better but, let’s face it, in the mind of the book buying public at large this is nearly always the case. Instant reputation. What writer wouldn’t want that for their work?

Self-publishers have to deal with an inbuilt prejudice amongst the reading public – their work is automatically inferior because they aren’t well edited, have shite covers, can’t spell, don’t have, like, good grammar, and stuff, like what those proper authors have – in short, we have no reputation. And it remains this way until we can prove otherwise – meaning it is already harder for us.

If you are really persistent, write the kind of novels the public loves well, and have a certain amount of luck, too, you might be able to succeed at this self-publishing lark (Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Joe Konrath, Stephen Leather, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, Saffina Desforges’ Sugar and Spice, and Bella Andre spring immediately to mind), but, for most of us, this kind of click with the public in order to create some kind of zeitgeist probably won’t happen.

If, like me, you write stuff that might be considered marginal (too violent, too downbeat, too much swearing, too many unpleasant characters etc.) then you’re screwed from the get-go – and unscrewing yourself is a major job in itself. It’s at this point that you’ll realise that the reason that Big Publishing doesn’t want to know is because your stuff just doesn’t have audience appeal. It comes back to the title – there’s no reason for you to read my books. I have to make you want to read them.

I’ve changed covers, thrown money at advertising, tried guerilla advertising techniques (flyers dropped in public places etc.), put up posters, joined forums (communicated with fellow readers and writers), joined social media outlets, given my books away, asked for reviews, slashed prices, and still every tiny sale feels like it has to be hewn out of a large rock of indifference. I’m doing more for less. And it is getting worse all the time.

Does it mean I’m giving up? No. I love writing, I love creating the kind of stuff that I want to read. But what it does mean is that I can’t be bothered trying to force or coerce people to buy my stuff any more. I loathe advertising all the time. I’m not a salesman, have no real feeling for it, and always feel somewhat embarrassed when sending out please buy my book requests. The only way I’m going to sell more than a handful of sales in a year is through the kind of effort I just can’t afford to do, literally. I’m a freelancer. My time is money. If I don’t work I don’t get paid. Every hour I spend trying to get one sale is an hour I spend not getting paid for my profession – and I get paid a helluva lot more for my profession than I do for my writing. So, from this moment on, I am giving up any kind of concerted marketing effort for my books.

When I eventually get round to releasing something in 2013 I will give it an initial push on Facebook, Twitter, my blog (two to three weeks, at most – because that’s when most sales and interest come in, anyway) but after that I’m going to let my books rise or fall on their own merits (or lack of them). There will be no more Kindle freebies, nor any please buy my book tweets several months after release, and I won’t be doing blog tours or anything of that nature. From now on, I’ll be solely about getting on with the business of writing (books, short stories, reviews, the occasional other blog post), but the sales pitches are a thing of the past.

I have found out that there’s no reason for the public to read my books, and I simply don’t have the time or the money at the moment to change that fact. And, do you know something, I’m actually cool with it.

Review: Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew J McBride

Aside

When a lot of money is stolen in a bank robbery that goes wrong (at least for the two-man crew who perpetrate it) P.I. Nick Valentine sees a chance to get his on the loot and become a wealthy man. So, along with a couple of low-life cohorts, he decides to find the money himself, which sees him and his co-conspirators run afoul of a couple of particularly nasty criminals. A lot of blood gets spilled along the way and Frank Sinatra does indeed end up in a blender!

FSIAB (as it shall be known henceforth) is a superbly written comic crime novel with a great protagonist and a pace that just doesn’t quit. In fact, all the characters are sharply etched, there are laughs-a-plenty to be found, and Valentine’s relationship with Frank Sinatra is a delight. I loved every second of it, and am eagerly looking forward to McBride’s next novel. Highly recommended.

Review: Sucker Punch by Ray Banks

Sucker Punch follows the story of Cal Innes about six months after the events in Saturday’s Child. Innes has given up the private investigator game and is instead working for his old friend Paulo at the boxing gym, doing any odd jobs that need sorting. One particular job involves babysitting a young up-and-coming boxer on a trip to LA to take part in a boxing tournament. Innes initially doesn’t want to go because he is addicted to Codeine – a by-product from his trip to Newcastle for Maurice Tiernan – and wonders how he will survive the trip without his fix. Plus, he isn’t all that keen on babysitting the young boxer, Liam, because his first impression of the lad isn’t an especially positive one. However, Paulo refuses to take no for an answer so Innes reluctantly takes his ‘holiday’. When he’s lands he meets a former boxer in a bar who tells him not to trust the fighter whose gym is being used to stage the competition. Innes asks the man to take a look at Liam and train him up for the competition. Liam is initially reluctant to meet the man, but when he does he’s impressed by the man’s knowledge and agrees to train with him. But  Innes realises that there are a few things about the man that don’t quite add up, and when the father of another fighter tries to bribe Innes to get Liam to take a dive the whole situation explodes into violence.

The sequel to Saturday’s Child is a different beast to its predecessor. For a start the novel is narrated solely by Innes, rather than alternating chapters between Innes and Mo, Maurice Tiernan’s son (who only appears in two violent cameos that bookend the story); Second, it moves at a more relaxed pace and has a less defined plot than the first novel; Third, Innes has changed from the man who appears in Saturday’s Child. He’s now a Codeine addict, and his alcoholism has changed from functional to barely functional. Plus, he’s angrier, much more bitter and less rational.

It’s this change in Cal Innes that makes Sucker Punch such a compelling read. It lacks the rocket-fuelled narrative and focus of the first book, so Innes himself has to take up the slack. He rails against authority, even when it’s trying to help him, has little respect for others and even less for himself. By the end of the novel, you can see the direction that Innes is heading and can only wince at the choices he’s made.

Although it isn’t as strong as the brilliant Saturday’s Child, Sucker Punch is still an excellent piece of gritty crime fiction. Ray Banks’ Cal Innes is a brilliant creation, with a superbly written narrative voice, a character who keeps the reader glued to the page. Highly recommended.