Review: How’s The Pain by Pascal Garnier

Simon is an ageing hitman with a terminal illness undertaking one last job before retirement. He befriends the young and simple-minded Bernard and employs him as his driver (telling him that he’s a vermin exterminator). Bernard jumps at the chance of seeing the coast and making some money. But what happens is a road trip that the young man will never forget.

Garnier’s How’s The Pain is not a bad read, but it isn’t stunning either (particularly as Garnier has been highly lauded by many mainstream critics). Based on the evidence of this novel, Garnier isn’t up there at the summit of French crime fiction with Manchette and Simenon, but he’s still a more than decent writer. His overuse of comic simile and metaphor grates at times. Simile is a difficult thing to get right and when it is overdone or overused it distracts from the story – something that happens several times during the course of this tale. However, when he keeps it simple, Garnier is very effective. Character seems to be where his real strength lies: Simon, Bernard, Anais and Rose are all great characters with very human flaws and foibles. And their interplay and dialogue is what keeps the interest high. Also, Garnier writes a couple of brief but effective action set pieces. Nothing spectacular, but a solid novel for those looking for something character based.

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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.

Review: The Bitch by Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton’s crime novels and short stories have a rich vein of truth and knowledge running through them that most crime writers, even the most talented, simply can’t emulate. Which is hardly surprising considering that he once spent a couple of years in prison for burglary at the Pendleton Reformatory in Indiana. Even the most stringent research is a mediocre substitute for real life experience. And it’s this kind of experience that filters down through the bedrock of Edgerton’s novel, The Bitch, and permeates the actions of its two main characters, Jake Bishop and Walker Joy.

The Bitch in this case is not a woman, but the nickname that cons and ex-cons alike give to the three strikes and you’re out sentencing structure of the American legal system – the point at which prisoners become ha-bitch-ual offenders and go inside for the rest of their lives.

At the start of The Bitch, after a second stint in jail, Jake Bishop is a reformed character working as a hairdresser and dreaming of opening up his own salon with his pregnant wife, Paris. The trouble starts when he takes a phone call from Walker Joy, his one-time cellmate, to whom he owes a very big favour, begging for help: by getting him out of a jam with a dodgy jeweller that he owes money to. His thinking clouded by fears of The Bitch, Jake declines. He is then warned by the jeweller that he has knowledge that will put Jake inside for a third strike and also intends to frame Jake’s younger brother for a recent burglary of his premises. Jake is left with no choice but to take the job on.

The job is to steal a few very special stones from a jewellery designer who is away for the weekend, but there will be a lot of other jewels in there too. If they can pull it off, the take will be massive.

The only problem is that, in true noir style, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. Jake is left wondering just who he can trust, and just how far he can go to avoid the ever-present third strike life sentence. Well, he goes pretty far, believe me, but to say more would spoil things…

I enjoyed The Bitch immensely. It is written with skill and care by a writer who knows his stuff personally, and that comes through in the fear and increasing desperation of Jake’s narrative voice. Thoughts of that dreaded third strike are always on his mind, colouring his decisions, clouding his judgement, making him irrational – it’s an impressive piece of first-person narration. But it’s the plotting and organising of key events in the narrative that impressed me most. There are times in many noir stories where events tumble into the protagonist’s path with such frequency that there’s always the danger of the narrative tipping over into parody. Les Edgerton sidesteps these potential problems adroitly through a combination of fine writing and slowing the narrative down to allow the characters and readers time to draw breath. He drops a few twists along the way to a really satisfying ending, in which he gives Jake a truly great line of closing dialogue (so good, in fact, that I wished I’d written the damn line myself). If you are a noir fan, a heist fan, or a straight up thriller fan, there’s plenty in The Bitch that will satisfy you. Highly recommended.

Review: Out There Bad by Josh Stallings

Regular readers of this blog might remember my review of Josh Stalling’s superb crime thriller Beautiful, Naked and Dead, which featured the compelling voice of his anti-hero Moses McGuire, a former soldier working as a bouncer in a strip club, who ends up investigating the murder of a woman he’d taken under his wing. It was superbly written and tough – just the kind of thing I like.

Now McGuire is back in the follow-up, which starts some period after the first book. He is alone again, filling his time with self-loathing and booze. He ends up crossing paths with the Russian mafia, and promises a dancer that he’ll help her find her missing underage sister. At the same time an assassin is taking out Russian mobsters and Mexican pimps south of the border. Eventually, McGuire pushes the mobsters hard enough that he’s forced to travel to Mexico with a tough-talking journalist, whose might be more trouble than he’s worth, to find the little sister. This brings him into contact with the assassin and a whole heap of trouble…

Out There Bad is a very strong follow-up to BN&D and Stallings makes McGuire’s voice as compelling and readable as ever. The dialogue crackles and the pace is well handled. There’s a high bodycount for those that like action and plenty of sleazy atmosphere for those who like to see the dark corners of the world from the comfort of their Kindle readers. It’s another cracking tale from Stallings, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one. Highly recommended.

Review: Low Down Death Right Easy by J David Osborne

J David Osborne’s Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit was a fine collection of strange stories from a young writer with obvious talent, both in his ideas and prose, and automatically sent his second novel (Low Down Death Right Easy) to the top end of my To-Read list.

It concerns two main stories that are only ever really linked by small things – paths briefly crossed, unpleasant finds, decisions made. Danny Ames is a thug who when he’s not getting money out of people who cross his path with his fierce partner Beck works as a bouncer at a nightclub. Then there’s Sepp and Arlo Clancy. Arlo is a straight arrow married, with hints of a wilder past, facing the daily horrors of serving the general public (and their stupid demands), while his younger brother Sepp is an ex-con on parole trying to make ends meet. Arlo and Sepp’s already fractious relationship is tested even further when the two men are fishing for catfish in a local river they find a severed head. Meanwhile, Ames is on the lookout for his brother, who wanted to be a teacher but has gone off-the-rails and can no longer be found anywhere. Add a dash of noir to this brew, and let’s just say things don’t really end well for everyone.

Osborne’s novel takes the standard tropes of noir – missing brothers, shady criminals, run-down bars, criminal heists – and makes something new and strange out of them. The prose has a ultra-lean, neutral feel to it, with naturalistic dialogue, which gives more weight to the moments of oddness that pepper the narrative (Danny’s habit of spitting teeth after indulging in moments of violence, Arlo’s nightmares about the severed head, the strange albino who frequents Arlo’s local bar). It’s a real work of quality, although I did have one caveat that occasionally jarred me out of the story. The lean nature of the prose leaves readers to fill in the gaps, but sometimes it goes too lean – at least, in my humble opinion. During odd moments, I felt forced to re-read lines because Osborne had seemingly written around the action, leaving only the aftermath. This might have been the writer’s intention, but it jarred for me – though others might not have any issue with this at all. However, this was my only caveat with an otherwise impressive and compelling novel. I’m already looking forward to his next one – Black Gum Godless Heathen – as this one comes highly recommended.

Review: Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet by Ryan Bracha

I like ambition in a novel. It suggests that the writer gives a damn about their work and, more importantly, suggests that the writer wants to create something that will one day match their ambition. Most of us writers write within ourselves. We work to structures that have been in place for a long time, deal with character tropes that are audience-friendly, narrative experiments are verboten, narrative and plotting are easy to decipher, and language is as reader friendly as possible. Very few of us make our audience work for it. In truth, even though many of us writers say we write to please ourselves and not our audience, the opposite is often true. We want the audience to love us.

So congratulations must go to Ryan Bracha for attempting something ambitious with his first novel Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet (now referred to for brevity’s sake as SAJFYHKY). It’s a multi-multi-character novel that weaves first person, third person, and other forms of narrative into a story that I’ll do my best not to give away too much of.

The story involves people putting themselves forward to potentially receive ten grand for doing something that is initially a mystery to them. When these people start turning up murdered with their throats cut and their clothes removed, it is immediately obvious that something beyond plain old murder is afoot. But, not being in possession of the full facts, the newspapers, the media, and the bloggers tag the murders as the work of the Sheffield Ripper. But as things progress, and the full game is revealed, the killings start to mount up and things start to get really crazy and the story encompasses strange gambling syndicates, millions of pounds worth of money, shady media manipulators, insanity, and a couple of people drawn into all this madness by a French sex addict who follows his dick just once too often.

SAJFYHKY tells its story through numerous narrative devices in numerous narrative voices. As the story progresses, voices chime in for a chapter or so and disappear as death or relevance to the story takes them out of the narrative. Of course, this makes it difficult at times to remember who is who occasionally, especially if you are quite a slow reader, but the whole thing is well written and tries to impale a considerable portion of modern society with its satire. It doesn’t always succeed in its ambition; some chapters feel like they could be shortened, some characters don’t always work; but when it does succeed, and everything is firing, it is incredibly funny and bitter and in places sad. Bracha is a genuinely talented writer. I hope he doesn’t curtail his ambition and continues to stretch himself with broad narratives and experiments with character and voice.

If you are a reader who is prepared to work for it, and can stomach strong violence, language and some sexual content (and if you can’t, why the bloody hell are you reading my blog?), SAJFYHKY will give you some real moments of pleasure and it comes recommended by this particular reviewer.

Review: The Fix by Keith Nixon

Set in 2007, a year before the financial crash, The Fix is about investment banker and everyman Josh Dedman. He’s having a pretty bad time of things. He’s framed and fired after £20 million goes missing from the bank where he works. His miserable and unpleasant girlfriend pretty much hates his guts, when she isn’t cheating on him. He’s unwillingly befriended by an irritating bloke on a train and even more unwillingly befriended by a foul-smelling Russian tramp who claims to be ex-KGB

When the man who framed Josh (and just happens to be his boss) is murdered he finds that he’s the chief suspect. And that’s when things really start to get unpleasant…

I knew that I was going to like The Fix on page one when it started with I am fucked. Anybody who can start a story like that is always going to get my attention. Nixon throws the reader straight into the action and keeps them there for the duration of the story. He takes a fairly complicated plot and spins it out nice and smooth, so the reader doesn’t lose their way. He alternates the sad-sack first person narration of Dedman with third person viewpoints of several other characters, all written in terse, funny, effective prose. The pace is fast with little fat to chew through to get to the meat of the story. The main thing though is the characters. And Nixon does good characters.

Dedman makes a convincing everyman, but the supporting cast are just as clearly defined: whether it’s Josh’s nasty, spiteful girlfriend Claire, his vile American boss, Hershey, or his friend Jack, whose bravado masks a few secrets. And of course Konstantin Boryakov and Mr Lamb, who definitely qualify as my favourite characters and light up the tale whenever they appear.

The Fix is a very good tale, well told. It gets the right balance of laughs and thrills and comes highly recommended from this particular reviewer.