My Top 6 Reads of 2013

It’s that time of year, where I look back on the past twelve months and give my unwanted opinion about the books that I read (these weren’t necessarily books that were released in 2013 – just that I read them this year).

2013 was a good year, in my humble opinion. Some writers confirmed their talents, others built upon already lofty reputations, and a whole host of new writers (new to me, at least) surprised me from nowhere. I read very few duffers – those that I did pick up never got reviewed (in fact, I read rather a lot that didn’t get reviewed because I simply didn’t have the time) – and I tore through a lot of the good, the fine, and the merely not bad. It was going to be five, but James Sallis snuck in at the very last minute (literally as I started finishing the first draft of this piece).

Oh, and these are in no particular order, before you ask:

Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres

One of the first things I read this year was also one of the best. A heady brew of noir that mixed more than a dash of Cormac McCarthy with a harsh slug of Jim Thompson. Set in and around the fictional Mexican town of Politoburg, although it’s more hell-on-earth than town, Fierce Bitches concerns the lives, deaths and unpleasant fates of pimps, prostitutes and gringos who solely populate this place. Although only a novella in length, it packs more meat and linguistic denseness between its covers than most writers manage in entire careers.

The Cal Inness quartet by Ray Banks
The tale of ex-con and amateur sleuth Cal Inness could have been awash with cliches in the wrong hands, but Ray Banks probably wouldn’t know a cliche if it punched him in the face. It tells Inness’ story in four brilliantly written tales that leave the reader pummelled, moved, saddened, horrified and breathless, often within the space of a few pages. At least two of them could have made this list individually, but I decided to take the series as a whole. And what a series! One of the most stunning series of PI novels that I have read. If you haven’t already experienced it I envy you. You get to read it for the first time!

The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith
Last year Smith almost made my top five with the excellent All The Young Warriors but was squeezed out at the last by Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. This time there’s no squeeze, unless we’re talking about about the sheer fucking death grip of a narrative that Smith fashions for this non-stop, thrill ride through a prison hell-hole. Featuring Billy Lafitte, the corrupt police officer gone very, very bad, who also figures in Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, if this pulse-quickener doesn’t make you a Lafitte fan then you’re probably never going to be one.

Sacrifices by Roger Smith
Every year one of Roger’s books makes my list. In 2011 Dust Devils was my favourite read. Last year Capture made the top 5. And this year, Sacrifices his superb thriller about a toxic family unit and the damage that one miscarriage of justice has on a number of lives. It is gripping and Smith has pulled off the nifty trick of keeping you reading despite the fact that the cast has barely a sympathetic character among them.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew J McBride
McBride’s tale of a PI who decides to help himself to the loot from a bank robbery that has gone wrong is a delight. 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.

Others Of My Kind by James Sallis
Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know how disappointed I was with The Killer Is Dying (which was almost great, but ultimately the execution was off) and Driven (which I re-read recently – and is worse than I remembered), but I still think Sallis is one of the great talents of modern crime fiction. However, after two disappointments, I was somewhat worried that this would be a third misfire. But fortunately it didn’t remotely disappoint. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s Sallis’ best work. It isn’t really crime fiction, although it deals with the aftermath of a crime. What it deals with are people, and what James Sallis has given us, with Jenny, his protagonist, is one of the best female characters to come along in fiction for years. By turns mellow, forgiving, kind, damaged, rootless, and utterly human, Jenny lights up the pages and when the story is finally over you start to miss her completely. And if you miss out on this novel/novella (it’s a narrow volume) you will be doing yourself a disservice. It should be on a lot more top five/ten lists. Highly recommended.

Other notable writers who entertained me considerably this year with their books and only just missed out on the list were Paul D Brazill with Gumshoe, Frank Bill with Crimes in Southern Indiana and Keith Nixon with The Fix. If you read this list and fancy grabbing one of these books, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Have a great festive season folks and happy reading.

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My Favourite crime novels No. 25

Dirty Snow – Georges Simenon

Not done one of these in ages, probably because I’ve not had the time. But here’s a stone-cold classic to make up for it.

As many of my regular readers will know I love Georges Simenon. His novels are a lesson in how to tell a good tale as leanly and meanly as possible. He is most famous for the Maigret police detective books, which are much harder and darker than their reputation might lead you to believe, but his reputation as a writer has been made by his roman durs, which are noir in everything but name. They scour the gutter and focus on societies’ rejects or, on quite a few occasions, they focus on those who, for whatever reason, drop out and reject society. Redemption is rare, happy endings rarer still.

And Dirty Snow is probably the apotheosis of this art. In that it is probably the darkest and nastiest of these books. Which is really saying something. It focuses on France during the occupation, and offers up an existence of hunger, poverty, and constant fear for normal folks trying to live their lives during WWII

However, the protagonist of Dirty Snow, Frank Friedmeyer, isn’t one of the normal folks. He’s one of the nastiest pieces of shit you will find in any kind of fiction. At nineteen, he’s already a pimp, a thug, and, as the novel begins, he’s just committed his first murder – of a fat officer from the occupying forces. He doesn’t commit it because of hatred, he doesn’t commit it because of fear, he does it for no other reason than because he wants to, and because he feels that now is as good a time as any to do it. He takes the officer’s gun, again because he wants to. And later, when he arranges to steal some watches for a General – for a lot of cash and a much sought after green card (which allows him to go anywhere) – he uses the gun to shoot an old woman who has the misfortune to recognise him during the robbery.

His one chance at redemption is Sissy, who for some reason sees something that nobody else can and falls in love with Frank, but even this he messes up when he sees the opportunity to use her love to his advantage with his ‘friend Kromer. (I use quotation marks because both men dislike each other, they just hang around together due to criminal connections).

Then Frank is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the occupying forces. The same elements that make him so wrong for the outside world (his lack of fear, of empathy, his coldness, and distrust of others), give him an edge inside. He doesn’t inform, he doesn’t compromise, and – by looking out of his window at a woman in a building across from the prison – he finds a spark of humanity.

Dirty Snow is one of those rare books that’s as dark and destructive as a black hole. It sucks away all light, all hope, and pushes the reader face first into the dark snow that builds up in the gutters.

It is also beautifully written in lean prose that strips away all the excess fat to find the meat and bone of the story beneath. Dirty Snow doesn’t waste words or paragraphs on things the story doesn’t need, it uses them to build a dark world that pulses with life.

Simenon tells the tale without sentimentality, and never resorts to cliché. In fact, it’s rare to find a book of his that does resort to clichés (for instance, Maigret isn’t a tortured soul with addictions and no home life, he’s a happily married man who does his job with distinction, even when he doesn’t like it). It presents the world to us and says this is how it is. If you don’t like it, look away, but this is how things are.

Even now, it stands up as a hostile, dark masterpiece.

My Favourite Crime Novels 24

Maigret And The Idle Burglar by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon’s critical reputation is based mostly on his Roman Durs (Dirty Snow, The Strangers in the House, The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By to name but a few), dark, bleak novels that aren’t afraid to leave the reader dazed and confused. Their endings are never happy and even the few faint glimmers of hope that briefly light up the lives of the main characters are extinguished at the end. Abandon all hope those who enter here seems to be the main theme of these dark, cold, beautiful masterpieces.

However, his success as a writer (hundreds of millions of books sold) is based on his Maigret novels. The detective walked the Paris streets for many years solving cases and drinking lots of beers and calvados. His method of solving cases was not by deductive reasoning or amazing genius but by observation and absorption. When he entered a room Maigret seemed to suck up the atmosphere and the relationships between the suspects like a sponge. He might not have had the brain power of Sherlock Holmes, but he was no slouch in the brain department and unlike Doyle’s creation he wasn’t an insufferable know-it-all (I know exactly who I’d rather sit with in a pub for a beer). Maigret was also happily married, not some loner with addictions and relationship problems (which is why he feels fresher than many of the cliched detectives who followed in his wake). However, the novels are not cosy, comfortable things. Whilst they may be a lot warmer than the Roman Durs they do share some of their darkness. None more so than Maigret and the Idle Burglar, which is up there with the Roman Durs in my opinion.

A burglar is found battered to death on a night in Paris. He was murdered, stripped of all ID and thrown from a car on to the icy street, yet his criminal background has Maigret’s superiors eager to dismiss it as an underworld thing and brush it away. They are more concerned with solving a high-profile case involving a gang of armed robbers. The thing is Maigret doesn’t quite buy the underworld vendetta angle and starts finding out a few things about the burglar and also the Parisian upper-classes, none of which are particularly to his liking.

The beauty of the novel, aside from Simenon’s awesome, tight, spare prose, is in how Simenon uses the novel to attack both the upper-classes, who disguise their feral, grasping nature behind money and pretensions, and an increasingly bureaucratic police force obsessed with solving big crimes and treating crime as figures. The other great beauty of this novel lies in the fact that Maigret solves both cases, though only one is ever solved to his satisfaction. The dark ending leaves Maigret knowing who the murderer of the burglar is but with no way of ever proving it. Of all the Maigret novels this one is my favourite – superb.

My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!

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!

My favourite Crime novels No. 22 – GBH

GBH – Ted Lewis: If any of you are in any doubt about how good a crime writer Ted Lewis was (and, along with Derek Raymond, I think he’s the greatest we Brits ever produced, that includes the modern breed of British writers – sorry guys, but these two are in a league of their own, never been bettered) then you need to read GBH.

His worst stuff was sloppy. But, hey, this bloke wrote Jack’s Return Home, Billy Rags, Plender and this total masterpiece.

It’s about a crime lord and pornographer who has fled Soho for a coastal retreat and is basically drinking his life away, thinking about the life and woman he left behind. In the present tense he’s a bloke who’s hiding from his past, leaving his business in the hands of his lawyer and trusted confidante. In the past he was a gangster battling  other criminals for control of the London underworld in addition to being a pornographer who likes to run a line in snuff for special clients. As the novel progresses the story of the past and the story of the present converge on each other in dark and unpleasant ways.

Lewis’ masterpiece is a novel about a man who is unable to deal with his past, a man surrounded by ghosts, a man who may or may not have lost his mind somewhere amidst the depravity of his previous life and the inebriation of his current one.

It’s beautifully written in both past and present tense, which isn’t a trick that many writers can pull off with the effortless skill that Lewis manages here. The pacing is awesome and the storytelling… Christ, if you want to learn how to tell a story and pace it just so, then this is where you come to learn. I’ve read it three times now, and every time for pure reading pleasure. Hell, what goes on within these pages might not be pleasant, and in places, folks, it gets downright horrible, in fact has the feel of nightmare about it, but the whole thing, when push comes to shove, shows just what is possible within this genre when a brilliant writer digs deep within himself and pulls truth out of the darkness (in the same way that Derek Raymond did with Dora Suarez).

It is a fucking crime that this novel is not currently available. So, right now, unless you scour a secondhand bookstore you can’t buy it. But if you do want it, and, believe me, you do, then you really need to get yourself on eBay or any secondhand store that deals with genre and pick it up. If you want it on Kindle, then you’re going to have to clamour and holler until some publisher with a combination of balls and brains picks this up and puts it out there.

GBH deserves better than this. It deserves an audience.

That is all.

My favourite crime novels – No. 21

Drive by James Sallis – Until recently, Sallis seemed to be one of those writers who was destined to be known within dedicated crime reader and writer circles and nowhere else. Incredibly well read and knowledgeable about crime fiction, highly intelligent and a fine writer. But that situation changed when Nicholas Winding Refn directed his highly stylised and ultra-cool film adaptation of Sallis’ Drive starring man-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling. It helped that it was an excellent film, but the job was made easy by the fact that they had a balls-to-the-wall classic to adapt in the first place.

The premise is simple: Driver (we never know his name) is a getaway driver who works freelance for the highest bidder (in addition to a sideline as a Hollywood stunt driver). He is very much a loner, but is forced out of his shell when his female next door neighbour makes friends with him. She is married with a child but the husband is in prison and she appears to like Driver. Their relationship is complicated when the husband is released from prison and forced by people to whom he owes money to perform a robbery. Driver helps out the husband because of his relationship with the wife and son, but when the job goes wrong he is suddenly forced to go on the run from low-level mobsters with an axe to grind. And slowly but surely he turns from the hunted into the hunter.

Describing the plot of Drive doesn’t really do justice to Sallis’ novel, because it’s simply a framework for a fantastic set of characters and a pared down style which simply demands that you read faster and faster. Also, crucially, it weaves Driver’s back-story into the proceedings, which the film doesn’t do. Despite being a short novel/novella, it packs a lot into its pages. It is a beautifully paced and written novel, and in Driver it has one of the most compelling anti-heroes to emerge in modern crime fiction.