Review: Nowhere by Roger Smith

After last year’s grand guignol excess (in terms of both violence and the vileness of the characters) in the mostly US set home invasion thriller Man Down Roger Smith has toned things down and returned to his home ground of South Africa for his brilliant new novel Nowhere. Anybody who reads this blog regularly (and I know there are a few of you) will know how highly I rate Smith’s work.

When South Africa’s venal, alcoholic president murders his wife in a rage, Steve Bungu (a brilliant creation) sets about fixing it. He starts by murdering the wife’s private bodyguard and then brings in retired detective Joe Louw, via a touch of emotional blackmail, to run a whitewash investigation. Bungu uses Louw’s messed-up, psychopathic son, Leon, as a means of keeping him in line. At the same time, Disaster Zondi, previously from Mixed Blood and Dust Devils, is sent to Nerens (in Afrikaan the Nowhere of the title) to arrest and bring to justice Apartheid relic, and white power ‘General’, Magnus Kruger, for the murder of a young black man.

This sets in motion a complicated tale of revenge and the abuse of power. As Joe Louw realises that Bungu’s motives for blackmail go back to his apartheid days as an activist, Zondi also comes to realise that Kruger might just be innocent of the murder he’s in the frame for, but responsible for something equally as dark and unpleasant. And as the two initially separate investigations begin to coalesce in odd ways, blood begins to flow.

In many ways Nowhere is the archetypal Roger Smith book, in that it draws on his familiar themes of messed-up family units (especially Sacrifices and Capture) and the messed-up politics of South Africa (in particular Dust Devils) and pulls them together in a way that he’s never quite managed before. It also creates in Steve Bungu the finest villain of Smith’s career (which is quite a feat, because I personally feel that Smith writes the best villains around). He is an awful, Machiavellian character, and utterly ruthless, but he also has his reasons. He wasn’t born that way, but moulded by the horrific sins of apartheid. The reader understands the reasons for what he does, even though they will undoubtedly, and with good reason, despise his methods. Smith also creates in Joe Louw and Disaster Zondi two sympathetic characters. Some of the terrible decisions that Louw makes following his blackmail (one of which leads to a massacre) come from promises he made to his dying wife. He does bad things, but he’s not a bad man. Zondi is a shell of the person he was in Dust Devils, but somewhere along the line he develops a newfound taste for his job and an increased sense of worth. Even a villain like Magnus Kruger is given some depth and shade for his crimes and venality.

Nowhere is brilliantly written with a narrative propulsion that kept me reading into the night. Smith has always been able to plot with the best of them, but Nowhere really marks a step up: the plotting is superbly measured and lends an epic feel to the proceedings. Smith also tones back the violence and sadism that, I felt, marred the otherwise excellent set-up of Man Down, and uses it as a part of the plot and as a means to explore character. Yes, it is brutal, but not excessively so and entirely in keeping with the storyline. The characters are also among the best that Smith has created. I can’t recommend Nowhere highly enough. If there’s any justice in the literary world then it should bucketloads of both Kindle and paperback copies. Nowhere should be Smith’s real breakout success.

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Potted Reviews: The Rapist by Les Edgerton, Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden

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.

My Top Reads of 2015

2015 has been a good year in some respects, though less so in others. However, what it has marked has been a considerable improvement in both my book sales and my experience as a writer. It’s also the first year that I’m following up a novel that has had a fair degree of success (for me, at least), The Glasgow Grin, with sales in the thousands.

This means that I’ve got to up my game in 2016.

Most of this year has involved a redraft of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Billingham Forum (the next Stanton tale), to ensure that it is as good as possible. Sadly, this takes time. It’s been in gestation for over three years – an incredibly long time for a 75,000 word novel that reads like an Elmore Leonard tale being screamed from the gallows by a maniacally cackling psychopath.

Which is quite a long-winded way of saying that I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked this year. Writing got in the way. But the stuff I did read was mostly excellent, and choosing my final five was very difficult. The ones that made it on the list resonated with me more deeply for some reason (a piece of description, an ending, a plot twist or revelation, or just a lingering image or attitude). But everything on this list (including the notables) is well worth your time.

This list isn’t in any particular order:

1) Angels of the North by Ray Banks
This is stone cold brilliance from Brit Grit’s premier exponent. It reads with the propulsive force of a kitchen-sink James Ellroy, yet handles its relationships with far more sensitivity than the great American author can manage. It targets both Thatcher’s legacy and by implication the social experiment currently being conducted on Britain’s poor by David Cameron – yet not in a way that shout its politics overtly. When the dust settles, this is a novel about people, outsiders in one way or another, who don’t quite fit the system no matter how hard they try. Glorious stuff. And I can’t wait to read what Banks comes up with next.

2) The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Like Angels this has a tinge of Ellroy about it; but whereas Banks’ masterwork borrows the three character structure and the sense of historical significance from Ellroy, Winslow’s novel has the epic scope and dense structure of American Tabloid and the terse, laconic sentences that punctuate Ellroy’s best work. Yet it is entirely its own beast. Powerful, superbly plotted, characterised by a huge cast all with their own foibles and failings, and a story that has  the gravitational pull of a black hole. Despite the length, no matter how squalid things get, you find yourself coming back for more of this tale set during the defining years of America’s war on drugs. Brilliant.

3) After Hours by Edwin Torres
This brilliant novel was the basis for the Brian De Palma/Al Pacino classic Carlito’s Way. The novel is a bit more complex and better plotted than the film, which cuts out much of Dave Kleinfeld’s story in favour of focusing on Pacino. The first-person narrative voice of Carlito Brigante is superbly realised and, you can almost imagine Pacino speaking the lines, which makes things even better, it meshes well with the third-person sections that feature the Kleinfelds and other major characters. Although it follows a similar arc to the film, there are enough changes to keep the novel from feeling stale when compared with the movie (and vice-versa). If you can get hold of it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

4) Black Gum by J. David Osborne
Black Gum is one of those novels (like Angels, and Power) that has stayed with me long after finishing it. With pared-back Carver-esque clarity, it gets on with telling a story that never postures or strikes a false pose. The moments of weirdness that punctuated Osborne’s Low Down Death Right Easy are weaved into the text more coherently here (Shane’s body modification, Juggalo parties, the narrator’s strange trip at the end). And it feels all the better for it. Also, the few moments of criminal action or violence contained in the story have the blink-and-you’ll miss them qualities of real life – its all about the aftermath. Danny Ames (one of the main characters in Low Down) gets a fleeting cameo here. And what I liked about Ames’ moment was that his actions are all about implied violence (his threat is known, and understood, and the main characters react accordingly). This is quality, character-based fiction with criminality and a vein of glittering weirdness weaved through it. Highly recommended.

5) Zulu by Caryl Férey
This book was one of those moments when I decided to take a risk and get something by an author I’d never heard based on nothing but the back cover blurb that pitched the narrative as somewhere between ultra-violent noir and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. It concerns murder, designer drugs, white power/apartheid conspiracies, and the general corruption of a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. It’s a very violent, fast-moving tale with more twists than fusilli, is superbly plotted, and is gripping from first page to last. Highly recommended.

Other highly notable reads:
The Guns of Brixton by Paul Brazill, The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow, Ben Turner is a Dead Man by Ryan Bracha, Amsterdam Rampant by Neil Cocker and Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal. All of these are top-notch reads that are well worth your time.

Disappointment of the year:
Perfidia by James Ellroy
I could go into minute detail about what doesn’t work in this book (the first quarter is an interminable slog, Dudley Smith should always be a supporting character, Kay Lake’s diary reads exactly like it was written by James Ellroy), but I won’t. I’ll simply add that I had expectations for it that weren’t met (which is my problem, not the author’s), but also many of Ellroy’s flaws seemed to be magnified by the expansive scale of the novel. It isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a good one, either.

Review: Amsterdam Rampant by Neil Cocker

Fin McPhail is having a difficult time out in Amsterdam. He’s getting over the break-up of his marriage (and a resulting case of sexual dysfunction) by throwing himself into his job as a marketing specialist for Cloudburn Whisky. The problem is, after a bright start, his ideas about local folklore aren’t really selling any more, his US boss is looking to fire him. He’s given the weekend to come up with ideas to save his job. Things get even worse when a particularly brutal treatment for his impotence by a ‘sex therapist’ results in him accidentally knocking a prostitute on conscious and running away in fear. The problem is compounded by the fact he accidentally leaves his phone in the brothel, and is soon contacted by a ‘psycho pimp’, which makes the weekend of his soon-to-be brother-in-law’s stag do that much more difficult. Things inevitably go awry, and Fin has to try and save his job, rescue the groom, and deal with his problems in any way he can.

Not knowing Neil Cocker, other than through his blog, or his previous short works, I started Amsterdam Rampant armed only with a few reviews (some of them by other Brit Grit authors). I expected it to be Irvine Welsh-lite (several Amazon reviews pegged it as such), but it really isn’t. The dialogue has some Scottish phonetics, but they are  scaled back from the kind of verbal pyrotechnics Welsh is renowned for (maybe that’s why some readers made the comparison). Certainly, the shenanigans the stags get up to are relatively tame in comparison with what Welsh writes, and Cocker seems more concerned with relationships than his compatriot (Welsh, for all his strengths, is a much more adroit writer of set-pieces than he is at documenting human frailties and partnership difficulties). Fin McPhail (Mcfailure to some of his friends) is a fine character and narrator, and there’s compassion and yearning in his voice. He also has a good eye for Amsterdam’s details and nice descriptive skills in his scene-setting, plus a solid sense of how to pace his narrative. It does all get wrapped up a little too neatly at the end, almost with a big bow on it, but that’s a minor caveat (and probably just a case of me being finicky), because this is an entertaining and very well written novel. Highly recommended.

Review: Angels of the North by Ray Banks

Set in the Derwent Hall estate in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher’s social experiment with selling off public utilities to the highest bidder, selling council houses to willing tenants, and turning Britain into a service based economy was at its height, Angels of The North deals with three men who turn vigilante when their estate is threatened by a squat filled with drug dealers and junkies. When Joe, a former soldier and heroin user, is informed by Gavin, a local cabbie, about the violent assault of estate resident Brian at the hands of the dealers, he decides that he can kill two birds with one stone: he can drive the dealers off the estate and also get his hands on a free supply of H. He does this by roping in the initially reluctant Gav – who has delusions of grandeur and wants to run the cab firm he works for – and the even more reluctant Brian – an intelligent but unemployed man cursed with a deceitful ex-wife and unpleasant teenage daughter – and gets them to help him raid the squat; although he doesn’t divulge the fact that he’s doing it to steal heroin. Everything goes as wrong as can be expected, but it instils Gav with more determination to do something about the drug dealers.

With the help of aggressive driver Phil, Gav organises the drivers to burn down the squat. Then things change: Gav forces his unwell boss to hand over the cab firm, and turns the cab firm into a sort of Guardian Angels of Tyneside (though Phil is taking this further than agreed by beating dealers and taking their money); Joe, meanwhile, is now a full-blown heroin addict who despises his wife, his child, his live-at-home father, and himself most of all; and Brian is an alcoholic cleaner at the Metrocenter indoor shopping estate.

From here the fortunes of the men see-saw from highs to lows and back again, as their ambitions and foibles ultimately lead to a tragic and violent final third.

Regular readers of this blog will know how highly I rate Ray Banks. His storytelling abilities are first-rate, his prose is clean and fat-free and his ear for the patterns of regional British dialogue is probably the best around. The Cal Innes novels and Wolf Tickets are superb reads, but Angels of the North is something else entirely. It feels like Banks is channeling his inner James Ellroy. From the well implemented historical setting, to the distinctive three protagonist structure that the ‘Demon Dog’ made his own, right through to Puma Cabs, which seems to be a play on American Tabloid’s Tiger Kabs, Angels gives the impression of a writer wanting to expand his horizons into territory that Ellroy knows well. And like the best of Ellroy, Angels is really quite brilliant.

Three flawed, not particularly likeable, but very well-drawn protagonists propel the reader through a character driven tale. Unlike James Ellroy, Banks isn’t interested in Byzantine plotting (although the way he weaves a corrupt police officer through the story suggests that he could have gone in that direction if he so wished), he tells the story through the decisions (wise and unwise) that his characters make. Through a combination of hubris and poorly made decisions the three characters reach fates that seem entirely natural (no matter how tragic).

The writing is scalpel sharp and cuts through the characters’ lives with regularity. The dialogue resonates with authenticity and a few choice Eighties expressions that I’d almost forgotten. Angels works as an outright character drama piece and also as an exposé of what Thatcher’s policies did to the north. This novel establishes Banks as Brit Grit’s premier exponent. I might read a better novel this year, but it’s going to have to be a once in a blue moon work of brilliance to top this beauty. Highly recommended. If you don’t download this on Kindle you’re denying yourself something very special.

Review of Ben Turner Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Some months on from the events of Paul Carter Is A Dead Man, things have changed drastically in New Britain. The slow-burning rebellion that Carter started culminates in a short, bloody war with the Scottish separatists and makes life difficult for Robert Lodge and his repressive regime. For a start, a group of lawyers, led by the beautiful but unhinged Nat Sweeney, are killing crews for both revenge and fun – stating that they’re working for Paul Carter, when they are in fact flying solo; then Ben Turner is also doing the same thing. Turner is despatched by Carter and the leader of the Scots, Davie Craig, to stop Sweeney and her group by killing them. Turner, being the somewhat rebellious individual that he is, ignores his orders and instead forms an uneasy alliance with Sweeney in order to kick off a bigger revolution. But in doing so he is messing with the well-laid plans of Garner, Robert Lodge’s former right-hand man, leading to folks being sent from Scotland (including Carter) to stop Turner from messing things up for Craig, leading to a chaotic and bloody finale.

Ryan Bracha’s Paul Carter was one of my favourite books of last year. It had invention and wit in spades, as well as a propulsive storyline and great characters. Now that the element of surprise that Paul Carter created has gone, it all comes down to storytelling for the sequel. And it doesn’t disappoint, because Bracha takes that foundation and builds on it, with a plot that involves a lot flashbacks and double- and triple-crosses. The narrative steams ahead in a way that even the first book couldn’t quite manage. Ben Turner is a very good read with plenty of wit, a lively cast of characters, good writing, and a keen eye for subverting audience expectations. Highly recommended, but if you haven’t read Paul Carter yet then it is best to start with that because it is also damn fine read.

Review: Man Down by Roger Smith

In Roger Smith’s Man Down (his first set in the US), South African ex-pat couple from hell, John and Tanya Turner (who are like George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, if George and Martha were psychopaths), are the subject of a terrifying home invasion by three masked men. Initially straightforward, the plot twists and turns as fragile alliances are broken and formed between the captors and their captives, and the story flits between past and present, right up until a genuinely horrific climax.

Man Down is the first Smith I’ve read that I can’t quite give an unconditional rave, but only for reasons that I will explain at the end. Smith has always dealt in shades of grey (tending mostly towards the darker end of the gradient), but here he deals only in black. John Turner is an awful specimen of humanity, redeemed only by the fact that his wife and their kidnappers are so much worse and that he has something that might approximate love towards his daughter and girlfriend.

The story begins in dark fashion, smartly set-up in Smith’s classy, clipped prose, then gets darker and darker as the story progresses, until it collapses in on itself to form a grand guignol black hole of horror from which no light can escape. The tale is very well written, the timelines are beautifully handled, and Smith can elicit suspense like few other thriller writers, but the ending is going to be very divisive. It’s the goriest thing that Smith has ever put in a crime thriller, which is saying something, as Smith does nasty violence very well, but this is more of a horror climax. It is genuinely gut-wrenching in the truest sense of that word. Also, the fate of one of the characters (one of the few to elicit any sympathy, barring the Turner’s young daughter and a kidnapped girl) might jar readers’ sensibilities: Smith sets it up that getting close to a man like Turner, in the manner that they do, is only going to end badly. It makes sense, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

Man Down is a very good tale, but it’s so harsh and dark, without even a glint of the gallows humour sprinkled through Smith’s other tales, that you come away feeling like you should take a shower after finishing the final sentence. Smith’s brilliance keeps you reading, even when the story becomes unbearably dark and gruesome; it’s a tough tale that’s highly recommended for readers with very strong stomachs, but for those with delicate sensibilities you might want to look elsewhere.