Review: No More Heroes & Beast of Burden by Ray Banks

In No More Heroes, Cal Innes is working for Donald Innes, a slum landlord, handing out eviction notices to non-paying tenants. He’s still addicted to painkillers, and still drinking too much, and he’s given up on the PI business, despite the fact that his best friend Paulo wants him to start up again. When he notices a fire in a house he’s trying to serve an eviction on he runs inside and rescues a boy from the blaze, not realising that the grandmother is still inside. The press declares him a local hero, even though he doesn’t feel he’s anything of the sort. He decides to quit serving notices for Plummer after this incident but is surprised to find that his old boss wants to hire him to look into the cause of the fire, which he thinks is down to a white nationalist party. The case leads him to check up on the nationalists, but what he finds out threatens to bring about both his death and riots and destruction to the streets of Manchester.

In Beast of Burden, Cal is dealing with the aftermath of the what happened in No More Heroes, which has left him a physical and emotional wreck. He’s dealing with family troubles and other problems when Morris Tiernan gets in contact and asks him to find his son, Mo, who has mysteriously gone missing. Despite the fact that Cal and Mo had some serious words at the end of Sucker Punch, Cal takes the job and decides to use it to get even with the Tiernan family, who he blames for all the problems that have plagued him since the job in Newcastle. At the same time Detective Sergeant Iain ‘Donkey’ Donkin is looking to pin anything he can find on Innes, who he sees as a typical criminal and somebody who deserves to go back inside. But Donkin has his own troubles too, considering he has an estranged wife and daughter and a suspension from duty to deal with, so when Cal finds Mo and the case becomes a suspicious death, Donkin sees this as his opportunity to take down Innes and some of his foes on the force. Meanwhile, Innes works on a tricky plot to destroy the Tiernans, risking life and limb to do it.

Anybody who has read my reviews of Saturday’s Child and Sucker Punch, the first two novels in the Cal Innes tetralogy, will know how highly I rate these books. They’re dark, funny, and capture the nervous rhythms of modern British speech better than most novels I’ve encountered recently. And if you’ve read my reviews and not read them yet, then shame on you. You should read them. You really should. Parts three and four are much darker affairs, taking the Innes story to its natural but still shocking conclusion. Taken as novels in their own right, these tales are genuinely top-tier, but taken as a quartet Banks’ achievement is a huge one. Innes is easily one of the finest British PIs ever created and this series is easily one of the finest to emerge from these shores. Throughout the series, Cal Innes grows into a man who, for all his faults, is a genuine hero. He might not be happy about being forced into that position, but when there’s nobody else for the task he risks life and limb to ultimately do the right thing, even when it costs him.

Seriously, if you’re reading this and you haven’t considered buying any of this series then I pity you, because you’re denying yourself a genuinely powerful reading experience. Highly recommended.

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What’s going on at Casa Stanley

On the off chance that you’re interested in my work, and interested in how it’s coming along (if you aren’t, I won’t be offended, please click away now), here’s a rundown of what I have been doing with my days/evenings recently.

Since stopping all promotion of work that’s more than two month’s old, which is currently everything, I’ve found that I have more time for writing and reading and reviewing. I’ve finished a couple of shorts that are both based around the theme of revenge, with several others on the go, to be included in a short collection that will probably see the light of day sometime in 2014.

Standalone Stanton brothers novella Bone Breakers is out on submission, though I’m not holding out much hope for this, to be honest (It’s been over three weeks since I sent it, and I can already see sections I want to tweak); I’m making good progress on the sequel to The Hunters, The Glasgow Grin, (even though it has changed from its initial incarnation in the redraft process – first and third person narration, for a start – and has consequently got bigger); I’ve also got several Stanton shorts on the go, including one that works as a sort of prequel to Bone Breakers. There are also two other big Stanton projects that I have simmering.

Other projects include three novellas/novels that have either been started, outlined or are close to completion (Cry Tomorrow, When Word Came Down and We Bring The Darkness).

I’ve realised that I write best with multiple projects on the go. If I get bored or stalled with one project I can move on to another and so on until they are completed. I now have so many projects on the go I expect to be tied up until at least 2015 (assuming I finish them all). It’s not a method I recommend; partly because writers who tell other writers WHAT TO DO and HOW TO DO IT bore me bloody rigid, but mostly because you need to be able to thrive within a maelstrom of organised chaos.

And I like organised chaos, so there.

Since ceasing my dull existence of relentless book-plugging I’ve been much happier, much more creative, and I’ve realised there’s more to life than gnawing at my fingernails whilst I check my KDP figures for the umpteenth time that day. However, I did check my sales figures recently and it’s as I expected: during my pimping embargo (now about five weeks) I’ve sold exactly four books, all of which have been in the US. Not good, but I’m not sure the figures would have been that much better even if I did use my usual relentless pushing tactics.

However, I have a two-day sale of The Gamblers coming shortly (partly because I had two free days left before it reverts back to not being in the KDP free program), but you won’t see me plugging it on this blog. In fact, I’m not even going to bother telling you the date.

Why? Well, I figure most regulars here have either read it or have it on their Kindle (to be either read at a later date or not at all), and I hate preaching to the converted. Instead, I’ve paid an organisation about £30 to punt details of the freebie to all the major free book list websites, saving me many hours of work and getting word out to some websites that I didn’t realise existed. I’ll let you know how this experiment goes later in the month.

Review: Mr Suit by Nigel Bird

Liza is a gangster’s wife who has tired of taking care of her husband Archie, who has been suffering from Locked-In- Syndrome due to a kidnapping that went badly wrong (for him at least). She asks Mr Suit, the crime boss who accidentally shot Archie, to put him out of his misery. He does as he’s told, but various complications, such as Archie suddenly remembering where he’s hidden the proceeds of the kidnapping, result in the world’s slowest getaway, in a canal boat along Regent’s Canal, but events soon catch up with Liza and she’s forced into a showdown with Mr Suit and his henchmen.

Mr Suit is a bit of a departure for Nigel Bird, whose short collection Dirty Old Town rather impressed me last year. It’s a blackly comic noir tale with barely a likeable character in sight (they’re all trying to get one over on each other) and its tongue firmly in its cheek. This novella is short and snappy and good fun while it lasts. It isn’t as deep or layered as many of Bird’s shorts, but it races along brightly and will definitely keep you glued to your Kindle for its short duration. Highly recommended.

Short story: The Accident

John sneered up from beneath the car and said: “Christ, Rog, did you do this intentionally?”

“What makes you say that?” Roger asked.

John shook his head and ducked back under. “Because this is the kind of fucked you can only get by going over a speed bump slowly or mounting a surface that’s too high,” he replied, his voice slightly muffled by the vehicle that covered him. “You’re a good driver, mate. So when I see this kind of damage I hafta ask.”

Roger sighed softly and shrugged. “A bit stupid of me.”

“Can say that again.”

Roger did a circuit of the jacked-up car, looking at the flat tires and the scratched-up bumpers. It didn’t look good from this angle. “Prognosis?”

John cleared his throat. “Back bumper’s hanging by metal threads. You’ve put a hole in the exhaust and that’s barely hanging, and you’ve somehow fucked three of the tires so they’re flat. And then you drove home on the things, so the rims are fucked along with the tires.”

“Can you fix it?”

John scoffed. “This is a garage job – I don’t have the tools or the time to fix it. Frankly I feel under-qualified just looking at it. And I’m only doing it as a favour to you.”

“Fair enough,” Roger said and did a second circuit of the car. He huffed constantly as he assayed the damage. “Went over one of those low roundabouts. Not low enough, I guess.”

“Don’t sound like you.”

“Thinking about other stuff.”

“Such as.”

“Trouble at home.”

John paused momentarily. “What?”

“It’s got worse.”

John poked his head out from under the car again. “Worse?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit,” John said, looking uncomfortable. “Owt I can do?”

“No more than you’ve done already.”

“Huh?”

“Can you fix marriages and cars?”

John went back beneath the car. “Marriages? Pfffff, can’t even fix my own.”

Roger paused. “Angela’s having an affair.”

“Really?”

He crouched and looked at the top of John’s head. “That’s why I pranged the car.”

John tilted his head so he could see Roger. “Shit, mate. Sorry,” he said and paused. “I guess something like that would make anybody lose control.”

“I didn’t lose control.”

“But, you said…”

“I said it was a bit stupid of me.”

John looked at something directly above him and tinkered with it. “Expensive way of venting steam,” he said, his voice stiff.

“I wasn’t venting steam.”

John angled his head back at Roger. “So you’ve inflicted all this damage for no reason?”

“No. I had a reason.”

John pulled at a piece of metal and threw it to one side. “Which was?”

Roger took a mobile phone from his pocket and prodded the screen. “I wanted you to look at the car.”

John paused. “I don’t understand.”

Roger got on his knees and crept towards the car. “This should explain it.”

John reached out from beneath the vehicle and Roger put the phone in his outstretched hand. He stood up and brushed the knees of his jeans.

John looked at the text, tried to speak but stuttered.

Roger looked at the jack. “Actually I wanted you beneath it.”

John screeched a rapid stream of words, reached out and hooked both hands around the foot of the car, trying to pull himself out. Roger kicked the jack away. The car seemed to hang in the air forever, and Roger worried for a split-second second it wasn’t going to fall at all. Then it dropped with violent finality. John squealed as the vehicle struck; bones cracked loudly, followed by a wheeze as the air rushed from his lungs. Two unmoving hands poked out from beneath the car body. The mobile lay on its back next to Roger’s right hand. The message on the screen read: I wanna see you, babe. Meet me tonight. The wife’s away. Make an excuse for Roger. John. Xxx

Roger squatted on his haunches for a view of the corpse. He saw a strip of bloodied hair in the light, but the rest was in shadow. It was good enough.

He smiled, stood and left the garage, closing the door on the way out.

Review: Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

Over the last year or so I’ve heard a lot about Frank Bill. This collection of hard, violent shorts has been getting glowing reviews by critics whose word really means something – pretty much anybody with any kind of gravitas and reputation in the crime fiction world has been lining up to give it the severed thumbs up.

Frank Bill has been compared with Donald Ray Pollock, whose Knockemstiff was one one of my favourite reads of last year. Personally, I think the only thing they share is a working class/blue collar/rural backdrop to the stories – their writing styles and their temperaments seem very much different. On the basis of my reading of this collection, Pollock is by far the warmer, more empathetic writer, Bill’s world view seems colder, more detached (though not every story has this kind of distance). That’s not to say that this is a bad thing, because it isn’t. Bill is a fine writer and this is a very fine collection, but there’s a detachment to his prose that isn’t there in Pollock – at least, in my humble opinion.

I’ve just thought of another trait that they share. Both writers have characters that appear in more than one story, either in cameo or as main players, although Pollock never takes it as far as Bill. A fine example of this happens in CiSI’s first three stories: Hill Clan Cross, These Old Bones and All The Awful. These stories could have been released as a novelette in their own right. Each is a separate story, but together they form a three act structure. In the first story we get introduced to two very nasty local criminals who stop their sons from selling drugs to their rivals. In the second the father of the rivals, sells his granddaughter to the criminals to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment. In the third the granddaughter escapes from the criminals’ farm and sets up a final showdown. In their own right each is a fine story, but taken together they work brilliantly. There are others in here that work just as well.

In a sense, the stories are served well by a bit of detachment. Bill’s world is a scary reflection of a small portion of Indiana – a world of methed-up killers, dog fighters, crazed war veterans, rapists, gang henchmen. Not a very nice mix. And there’s so much horrible shit going on in these pages that distancing the reader from it makes perfect sense. If you plunge the reader’s face in the shit for too long they are likely to become alienated by it, but a bit of detachment and distance acts as a buffer against the horrors. This distance is served well by Bill’s prose, which is a mixture of clipped sentences balanced with nicely nuanced metaphors and similes. And I don’t know of many writers who can do action the way Bill does action. It moves quickly, wastes no words, and is awash with bone shards and blood spray.

For those of you with the stomach for a relentless, but excellent, collection of grim tales then this comes highly recommended. Bill is definitely a talent to watch.

Dream Weavers – or peddling the self-publishing myth

Not sure if you folks have read Hugh Howey’s article about self-publishing on Salon yet? It’s interesting in many ways, and well written, but it again trades on the much-peddled myth that if you’re good enough, that if you market yourself well enough, you will succeed at this self-publishing malarkey and make a living wage. He does qualify some of his points, but the overall tone does give the impression that just about anybody can make it big. And while this is of course true, anybody can make it big, it doesn’t take into account the much bigger picture.

There are plenty of authors (excellent authors – I might add), particularly in the noir and hardboiled backwater, whose work doesn’t earn thousands of pounds in royalties a year, whose work doesn’t regularly earn $100 – $500 a month, whose work doesn’t earn enough to pay the odd monthly bill. And these guys and gals are the majority of the self-published, I should add for emphasis. Personally, I think it’s dangerous to think you can enter into the career of a writer in the belief that you’ll be able to turn it into a full-time profession.

My last royalty payment was enough to pay for a large Costa mocha (without cream) and a muffin. Make of that what you will (it was a very tasty muffin, mind you).

I was very happy that my royalties were able to stretch to that kind of extravagance, especially as this month’s royalties look like they’ll be just about enough to buy me a tasty slice of fresh air (air is still free, right?).

What I’m trying to say is this: please do self-publish your magnum opus if that is how you wish to proceed, but don’t expect people to buy it and, more importantly, don’t get all bent out of shape when they don’t. Considering that there will be tens of thousands of self-published titles published in 2013 to add to the hundreds of thousands that already exist, the odds are vastly higher that you won’t be discovered, you won’t be the next big thing. But, in all honesty, if you’re writing solely for money or recognition then you’re probably fucked anyway.

If you’re going to write then do it for love: do it because you want to write something you want to read; do it because you’ve had a brilliant idea, one that keeps you writing even when your prose reads like shit (because you can always refine and edit that later); do it because you want to see how it all turns out for the characters you’ve created; do it because you want to do it, fucking need to do it, because you’ll probably go insane otherwise.

And if your first book doesn’t sell, don’t give up, write a second, better, book and see how that fares. And if that doesn’t sell, write a third and a fourth and so on, until you’re a master of your craft.

And be aware that you might be writing the kind of stuff that has a limited audience (too violent, too gory, too sweary, too much sex, too controversial, too literary/experimental). I noticed that many of the authors listed in Howey’s article were from very popular genres: fantasy, vampires, YA, rom-coms etc.. If your work doesn’t fit neatly within genres it might take you a long time to be discovered, or Amazon might change their recommendation algorithms to favour Big Publishing and you might never be discovered at all. Who knows what the future holds?

Trust me, if you have realistic goals (a handful of sales a month, to start with) you’ll end up being a lot happier. Since I’ve stopped trying to peddle my work incessantly, since I’ve accepted my very tiny readership, since I’ve stopped checking my sales figures, I’ve been a lot happier. If I sell books, then great. If I don’t sell books, it doesn’t matter.

And despite my lack of sales I’m still writing. You know why?

Love, my friends. Love.