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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Review: 13 Shots of Noir by Paul D Brazill

Paul D Brazill has carved quite the niche for himself. He is a prolific writer of shorts that seem to get published in all the major online outlets, plus he’s got himself published in Maxim Jakubowski’s print anthologies, too – all of which are a major deal in my opinion. I’d read several of his stories online (including the quite sublime The Tut), so decided to give 13 Shots of Noir a go.

And what a strong collection it is. The stories are tight and never outstay their welcome. Added to which, Brazill has a lovely way with words; take this gem from The Man Behind The Curtain:

Carole has barely been out of her teens when Doctor James Parker, as glimmering and sophisticated as a Brandy Alexander, swept through her humdrum life like a tornado, picked her up in an Oz that bore than a passing resemblance to Chiswick, West London.

As the years trundled on, however, James’ gambling and drinking habits ballooned to the size of the Hindenburg, his mood swings and behaviour grew more and more erratic and Oz turned out to be no place like home.

The Oz reference in particular is superb and clever. I like writers with a clever turn of phrase, and the ability and confidence to employ them correctly, particularly as a rather plain prose stylist I am rarely capable of them myself. And here’s another from the very nicely put together Mr Kiss and Tell:

As the years trundled on, Billy Kirby, alone in his two bedroom Housing Association flat, like so many lost souls, turned to Mecca. Come rain or shine, come hell or high water, every Monday and Friday afternoon Billy was in the Mecca Bingo.

13 Shots is a very strong collection of shorts, but my particular highlights include The Tut, Mr Kiss & Tell, Drunk On The Moon (which has spawned a successful series about werewolf P.I. Roman Dalton), The Final Cut and the beautifully twisted and brief M.

Highly recommended.

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!

Review: City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance

Anybody who has read this blog over the past year knows that I’m rather a big fan of Heath Lowrance. The Bastard Hand and Dig Ten Graves are up there with the best I have read this year, so I had high hopes for his latest crime thriller City of Heretics. I interviewed Heath in September about his new novel for this blog, which you can find here.

The story concerns Crowe; an ageing mob enforcer who is fresh out of prison with some scores to settle with some colleagues who got him sent up and tried to kill him. Before he can settle those scores Crowe attempts to find and take care of a serial killer. This leads Crowe to the front door of a strange and secretive Christian society with some very Old Testament notions about the word of God.

Heath Lowrance’s second novel is a different beast to The Bastard Hand. For a start, it’s a much tighter, shorter affair; the prose is leaner, the pace faster and the protagonist a whole lot meaner. Richard Stark’s Parker novels spring to mind when thinking about the feel of this book (the earlier novels, that is, not the later, weaker, ones). Lowrance paints some memorable images using very few words (particularly concerning the Ghost Cat – a dream figure that weaves its way through the novel). Also, his ear for dialogue remains as sharp as it did for TBH, though, again, the dialogue is shorter, more direct. What makes it really work is Crowe. He’s a hard-ass, a tough guy, a smart operator, ruthless and single-minded. He drives the tale forward, propelling it like rocket-fuel. Despite the beatings he takes, Crowe never gives up, never takes his eyes off the goal. He is a first-class character, a character most writers would love to have created. But, the thing is, they didn’t, Lowrance created him, along with a world that leaps off the page. It’s superbly written and confirms the abundant promise that The Bastard Hand announced to the world. Highly recommended.

Review: Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks

Farrell has problem. His girlfriend, Nora, has stolen his twenty grand stash. But, worse still, she’s also taken his Italian leather jacket – the one that makes him look like Franco Nero, at the right angle and the right light. She’s left him a note telling him that if he’s smart he won’t go looking for her.

He ignores it.

He ropes in his mate, Cobb (a flabby,  lightfingered Geordie whose as fast with his lip as he is with a battery-filled sock) and they go looking for her. The path leads them to a crippled drug-dealer, a stolen gun with dodgy bullets, a murdered girl, and a psychotic Irish ex-con with a nifty and nasty line in torture and disfigurement.

Wolf Tickets might not be very long but this novella is a prime slice of crime fiction. The writing is superb – slang driven, tightly knitted prose told from the POV of Farrell and Cobb (alternating a chapter each) – and the story screams along like a nitro-powered race car. Every character is fully fleshed-out (even the minor characters) in a few sentences or lines of dialogue, which, as always with Banks, is flat-out superb. When the book was over I felt sad because it’s a masterful ride while it lasts. If it hadn’t been for Roger Smith’s Capture this would have been my favourite read of the year. Still, it’s a seriously good piece of writing: exciting, frightening, funny and as brutal as Cobb’s battery cosh. Highly recommended.

Review: Killing Cupid by Mark Edwards & Louise Voss

Mark Edwards and Louise Voss are excellent examples of authors who have done very well out of the self-publishing boom. Their novel Catch Your Death was one of 2011’s best-selling Kindle novels and Killing Cupid also did very well in the charts.

In fact, they were offered a book deal due to their online success and this is how I came to be reading the print edition of Killing Cupid rather than the ebook. Apparently both this novel and Catch Your Death have been amended from the ebook editions, though I obviously couldn’t say how much this changes the finished article.

The novel begins with a woman’s death, by a fall from the stairwell of her building. Alex describes fleeing the scene of the crime whilst giving the reader an indication that he’s prepared to kill for the woman he loves. The object of his affection is the teacher of a creative writing class that he attends, Siobhan.

Alex falls in love with Siobhan at first sight and becomes obsessed with her. Stalking her first on Facebook and then in the real world. Hanging around where she lives and then finally getting into her home. He becomes jealous of his teacher’s friendship with one of the other students, a female and this is where death comes into the equation. Siobhan, who is dealing with a relationship break-up, doesn’t initially realise she’s being stalked, but once Alex steals her credit card details in order to send her gifts she finally cottons on.

She kicks him off her course and threatens him with the police if he doesn’t pay her back for every penny he stole. From here the story changes tack. Alex starts a relationship with a friend of his flatmate and Siobhan begins to become obsessed with Alex, initially through interest in writing a novel but eventually through rage, and starts to take revenge on Alex and his new girlfriend. Meanwhile Alex is having to deal with the fact that a friend of the girl who fell from her stairwell is probing into her death and doesn’t believe the police’s version of events that it was accidental. As things wind to a close, Alex gets a few surprises he didn’t expect…

Edwards and Voss do a good job of making Alex come across as sympathetic, even though you know he’s a seriously screwed-up individual. They also do a good job of making Siobhan seem sympathetic in the earlier part of the novel but make her transition to angry stalker later in the story unfold realistically. The technique of narration via the character’s journals gives the story some nice turns and delivers a satisfying twist or two at the end. Killing Cupid is a good solid novel with a few narrative surprises and will give readers a lot of enjoyment. Recommended.