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.

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Review: A Day in the Life of Jason Dean by Ian Ayris

Jason Dean is an a hard man, a very hard man, the kind of scary-looking bloke who gets sent to collect debts and, if needs be, kill people, which is exactly happens on this particular day, but the problem is that his heart isn’t really in it any more. He has a wife who hates him, and the only thing he truly loves is his daughter, Sophie, who occupies his thoughts a lot on this particular day.

So when local gangster, and all-round Wagner-loving psychopath, Mickey Archer, tells him to deal with some debts and then kill a skinhead car dealer who has sold Archer a dud vehicle he does so more out of fear of his boss than any desire to flex his muscles.

Jason’s debt collecting duties happen with mixed success. One of the men, an elderly soldier, commits suicide in front of him, and the other involves dealing with a nightmare family of the kind you’ll find on many deprived council estates. Jason ruminates on writers during many of these incidents, partly because although Jason isn’t a well educated man, due to parental negligence, among other issues, he is a well read and intelligent one.

Finally, he has to face up to the dealer and go through with Archer’s request, but even that is fraught with surprises…

A Day in the Life of Jason Dean is a very strong performance written in a stylised local vernacular that helps burrow into the mind of its protagonist. The character of Dean, who could so easily have been a cliché in the wrong hands, comes across as a sympathetic and even sensitive soul, albeit of the kind that you wouldn’t ever want to upset. The disagreement, although it’s more one-sided than that, between Archer and Dean about Wagner and Shostakovich is both funny and scary, and there’s a similar feeling of unease in another meeting between the two men later in the story – you always get the feeling that Dean is treading on eggshells around his boss. Similarly, Dean’s love for his wife and daughter is equally well evoked, and pays dividends towards the end of the story. Jason Dean is a very well written tale with a genuine compassion towards people on the lower rungs of British society and comes highly recommended.

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.

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: Sucker Punch by Ray Banks

Sucker Punch follows the story of Cal Innes about six months after the events in Saturday’s Child. Innes has given up the private investigator game and is instead working for his old friend Paulo at the boxing gym, doing any odd jobs that need sorting. One particular job involves babysitting a young up-and-coming boxer on a trip to LA to take part in a boxing tournament. Innes initially doesn’t want to go because he is addicted to Codeine – a by-product from his trip to Newcastle for Maurice Tiernan – and wonders how he will survive the trip without his fix. Plus, he isn’t all that keen on babysitting the young boxer, Liam, because his first impression of the lad isn’t an especially positive one. However, Paulo refuses to take no for an answer so Innes reluctantly takes his ‘holiday’. When he’s lands he meets a former boxer in a bar who tells him not to trust the fighter whose gym is being used to stage the competition. Innes asks the man to take a look at Liam and train him up for the competition. Liam is initially reluctant to meet the man, but when he does he’s impressed by the man’s knowledge and agrees to train with him. But  Innes realises that there are a few things about the man that don’t quite add up, and when the father of another fighter tries to bribe Innes to get Liam to take a dive the whole situation explodes into violence.

The sequel to Saturday’s Child is a different beast to its predecessor. For a start the novel is narrated solely by Innes, rather than alternating chapters between Innes and Mo, Maurice Tiernan’s son (who only appears in two violent cameos that bookend the story); Second, it moves at a more relaxed pace and has a less defined plot than the first novel; Third, Innes has changed from the man who appears in Saturday’s Child. He’s now a Codeine addict, and his alcoholism has changed from functional to barely functional. Plus, he’s angrier, much more bitter and less rational.

It’s this change in Cal Innes that makes Sucker Punch such a compelling read. It lacks the rocket-fuelled narrative and focus of the first book, so Innes himself has to take up the slack. He rails against authority, even when it’s trying to help him, has little respect for others and even less for himself. By the end of the novel, you can see the direction that Innes is heading and can only wince at the choices he’s made.

Although it isn’t as strong as the brilliant Saturday’s Child, Sucker Punch is still an excellent piece of gritty crime fiction. Ray Banks’ Cal Innes is a brilliant creation, with a superbly written narrative voice, a character who keeps the reader glued to the page. Highly recommended.

Review: Dead Money by Ray Banks

Alan Slater is a double-glazing salesman whose best-friend, Beale, a man he doesn’t even like very much, is an addicted gambler with a booze problem and a very fast temper. When that fast temper gets him into more trouble than even he can handle he calls on Slater to help him move a body. So far so bad. But when the reason for the body is a large debt that he has racked up with an Asian businessman/gangster things go from bad to worse. And when Slater is told that if Beale can’t make his payments the debt becomes his the whole course of his life goes from worse to truly fucked.

As regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Ray Banks’ work – Wolf Ticket’s was in my Top 5 of 2012, and I loved Saturday’s Child – so I had high hopes for this. But, I have to admit, this one left me cold. It’s well-written, and once the story kicks in wraps itself up nicely, but it has one element that left me utterly cold, and that’s the protagonist himself. Slater has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (not to my eyes, anyway), the man is an utter prick. He’s a coward, cheats on his wife (who he seems to despise without any real reason), has nothing but contempt for everyone and everything around him (including, towards the end, his mistress); he doesn’t even help his mate out of any noble intention, or sense of duty, he just does it because he thinks that’s what friends are supposed to do. The problem with a character like this is if the plot doesn’t kick in before you realise how repulsive they are you have a recipe for disaster (or at least putting the book down unfinished). It’s a testament to Banks’ immense skill as a writer that I made it to the end without putting the book down. The storytelling generated enough grip, along with my own morbid curiosity, to make me want to see how far Slater is going to fall; the problem was that when the end came I didn’t feel in any way emotionally tied to his plight. Banks’ best work is the kind I will happily read again (Wolf Tickets, especially), but – despite its obvious technical qualities (tight prose, fine dialogue, tidy plotting) – my dislike of the main character was such that I can’t say the same for Dead Money. Despite this, I would still recommend it because it is very well written and you might not have the same issues with the main character that I have.

Review: Saturday’s Child by Ray Banks

Drunken ex-con Cal Innes is making his living as a private investigator of sorts. He has somehow built a reputation for finding people who’ve gone missing and now seems to have turned that into a business. Although Innes does deal in divorce cases, he wants nothing to do with a pub landlady who wants to murder her landlord husband. He tells her he isn’t interested in that kind of work, tells her to give it more thought when she’s sobered up and leaves immediately. Then he’s contacted by the man responsible for putting him in prison – crime lord Morris Tiernan – and asked/told to find a croupier who has stolen ten grand from his casino. The trail takes him to Newcastle looking for a gambler with a taste for cash and a barely legal girl who just happens to be Tiernan’s daughter. Innes’ task is made harder by Tiernan’s psychopathic son Mo’ who has his own reasons for wanting the girl back, and by a brutal police officer named ‘Donkey’ Donkin, who wants to question Innes about the stabbing of the landlord. As Innes gets closer to the croupier and the girl things start to go really wrong. And after he’s beaten and left for dead, the detective is forced to take drastic action, including some eye-watering torture with a cricket bat, working his way towards an exciting and bitter climax.

Ray Banks is one of those writers who seems to be unable to write a bad book. His sense of pacing is immaculate and he uses language the way Mo’ Tiernan uses a Stanley knife – cutting through to the meat and bone of the tale, trimming away the excess flab. He uses a technique that I first noticed in the brilliant Wolf Tickets – having two different narrators give their voice to different parts of the tale – and much as it does in that novel it works beautifully. Innes provides a bitter, tragic commentary on his part of the journey (showing a true alcoholic’s eye for self-delusion, along with a lot of submerged fury). Mo’ Tiernan provides a funny, frightening and foul-mouthed counter-point. Both voices are superbly written and utterly unique. The story moves along at an incredible pace, never once dragging, and as first parts of a series go Saturday’s Child is one of the finest. Another absolute cracker from somebody who has become one of my favourite writers over the past year or so. Can’t wait to get started on Sucker Punch.