It’s been a while since I posted any reviews. I’m still avoiding most social media, but I thought that my recent reading has included some strong books that deserve exposure to a much wider audience (although Philip Kerr doesn’t need help on that front). And I’m also trying to get back into reviewing again. 2015 was patchy on the reviews front – some of my year end list didn’t have full blog reviews.
So without further ado…
The Rapist by Les Edgerton
The story of Truman Pinter, and how he came to be in prison, is told in his own flowery words on the last night of his life. He is on death row for the rape and murder of a barmaid. Well, he happily admits to the rape, but he denies the murder charge, because she was an intellectually inferior specimen in his eyes and made the mistake of annoying him. Pinter is clearly intelligent, but he’s also insane. He is self-aggrandizing, intolerant of others, and highly unsympathetic and unreliable as a narrator. His unreliability is as much of a surprise to him as it is to the reader. He suppresses and compresses information not because he wants to but because he has internalised so much rage. He reads like a more flowery version of the already locquacious Humbert Humbert.
Les Edgerton’s superb The Bitch was one of my favourite reads of 2014 but The Rapist is as far from that tale as it is possible to get. Whereas The Bitch was tight and mean and made short work of its complex noir narrative, this tale’s prose style is flowery (intentionally so) and nasty. It’s different and difficult. The subject matter alone is going to divide readers, but Edgerton’s execution is what elevates something that could have been voyeuristic or downright dull in the wrong hands. It’s not crime fiction or noir, it’s more like The Belly of the Beast as recounted by Nietzsche. The ending is likely to be as divisive as the subject matter and open to all manner of interpretations. It’s a very strong piece of work. Original and brave. And recommended for those with a strong stomach and an open mind.
Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels cannily apply the Raymond Chandler model to Germany just before, during and just after the second world war. Gunther, like Philip Marlowe, is a shop-soiled Sir Galahad – displaying decency in the face of corruption and evil. And like the great LA detective he’s just as quick with a one-liner.
The research and detail of these novels is terrific, weaving Gunther seamlessly into historical events and into the orbits of several major Nazi operators. The stories drip with period detail and atmosphere and they are well plotted and the characters are superb. Kerr knows how to push a narrative along and keep the reader interested. And most of the time the writing strikes an excellent balance between storytelling verve and descriptive excellence. However, occasionally Kerr likes to lavish the page with unnecessary metaphors and similes. Sometimes they are right on the money, but other times they jarred me out of the story. Also, the quality of some of the metaphors were wanting in comparison with Chandler. Otherwise this is a superb, highly recommended collection of crime fiction.
Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
Scorch Atlas is an interesting though not always successful collection of apocalyptic tales and vignettes. Butler’s writing often ascends to some wonderful heights, though sometimes it reads like little more than a shopping list of pestilence and destruction. The best stories (Television Milk and The Ruined Child come to mind) knit superb prose and a distinctive vision of hell on earth. They also display a fear of family and people in general. The problem with the apocalypse is that it gets a little repetitive after a while. The stories often segue into each other – drowned worlds, horrific diseases and deformities, nature rebelling against man and beast – and the lack of memorable characters doesn’t help with differentiating things. If Butler had paid as much attention to character as he did to the rhythm of his prose this collection would be an ouright winner. But he didn’t and it isn’t – decent, though with moments of brilliance
Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden
I wanted to read this before I made a start on the Netflix series Narcos. Basically, I wanted to know the truth (or as close as anybody can get without being there) of the story before watching a more dramatised version of it.
To be honest, it’s a tale that doesn’t need to be exaggerated or sexed up. The story of Pablo Escobar, and the men (both Colombian and American) who lined up to stop him, is so utterly wild that if an author tried to present it as fiction nobody would believe it. Escobar earned billions (back in the days when this was still a relatively difficult thing to achieve), pretty much owned and modernised the city of Medellin, and organised a reign of terror across Colombia. He tried to run for public office in the early days of his empire. He was responsible for the deaths of police, armed forces, government officials, presidential candidates. He was even considered the mastermind behind an airplane bombing and bombs in public places. Like I said, life is often stranger and wilder than fiction.
Even the attempts to bring him down were the stuff of fiction. Endemic corruption in Colombian society meant that Pablo’s snitches were embedded deeply within government, the military, and the police. He was able to evade capture for years (and later escape from ‘prison’) thanks to high levels of corruption. The few people who couldn’t be corrupted were either targeted by Pablo’s sicarios or slated by a press and public that didn’t know what to believe. Even the American operation was mired with infighting by the small, tightly operated, and brilliant Centra Spike intelligence unit and the bloated and highly expensive CIA operation. Centra Spike won the battle to chase Escobar, but it cost them in the long run.
It’s a story that benefits from Bowden’s impartial and considered approach. He doesn’t sensationalise or sex things up, probably because he knows that the facts speak for themselves, and his storytelling skills are strong. He keeps the prose in the background and never shows off, which throws the astonishing events into sharp relief. This is an excellent bit of non-fiction that reads as compellingly and quickly as some of the finest crime fiction. Highly recommended.