Review: The Colombian Mule by Massimo Carlotto

Massimo Carlotto’s The Colombian Mule is one of a series of novels featuring a recurring character called Marco ‘The Alligator’ Buratti, an unlicensed PI who was once imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, along with his accomplices Max The Memory and former Mafia heavy Beniamino Rossini. In this novel he is tasked with working for a man who has been fitted up in a sting involving a Colombian drug mule. His case isn’t helped by the fact that he is already a fairly unrepentent criminal (who got away with the murders of two policemen) and that his only possible chance of release is for the mule to admit that the whole operation was a frame-up. As Buratti and his allies delve deeper into the case they find that the whole thing goes deeper than just a Colombian connection. They are soon enmeshed in a case that involves the police, designer drugs production, double- and triple-crosses, and a system that is at best hopelessly inept and at worst hopelessly corrupt.

Having enjoyed some previous Europa Editions novels and spurred on by enthusiastic cover reviews – such as this one by the New Yorker: “Carlotto’s taut, broody Mediterranean noir is filled with blind corners and savage set pieces” – I decided to give it a try. Well, as much as I liked The Colombian Mule I had some real caveats, too. The New Yorker review, with its talk of “blind corners and savage set pieces” must be describing a different novel to the one I’ve just finished. The set pieces are anything but savage; in fact, they’re underwritten to the point where they are just basic descriptions of a thing that happened. There’s little tension, nothing is drawn out to create suspense or thrills, and there’s a distinct lack of ‘savagery’. If I compare this with Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard, the novel I’m currently reading, there’s a real difference in approach. One particular set-piece during the first third of Mr Majestyk stretches to about six pages in length. It’s exciting, tense, written concisely with an eye for just the right details – a beautiful piece of action writing. Carlotto deals with a murder towards the end of the novel in two or three short paragraphs with zero tension or emotional investment described in flat, declarative prose – a bland, dull piece of action writing.

My other caveat is that the ‘detection’ mostly involves Rossini threatening people, either through his reputation or via actual violence, or by intelligence work performed by Max The Memory. Buratti himself is a fairly benign character, offering little more than musings about women and legendary consumption of Calvados (a beverage I’m now obssessed with trying at least once). He lacks Rossini’s sociopathic indifference to using violence as a means to an end and he doesn’t possess Max’s analytical intelligence. He’s more of a conduit between the two more interesting characters.

Still, despite all these shortcomings, there was something likeable and offbeat about the relationship of the three protagonists, and the downer ending packs a decent wallop. Although I’ll be happy to read another novel in this series (along with some of Carlotto’s other work), I’ll be in no particular rush to do it. Decent but not essential.

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Review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

I loved James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. They are about as perfect a series of crime novels as it is possible to get, and in White Jazz he produced one of the best novels ever written (in any genre). It works as a character study, a beautifully plotted mystery, a linguistic extravaganza, and the perfect way to bookend a brilliant series. It’s also got fucking Eyeball Man. Any book that has Eyeball Man in it is improved by exactly one hundred per cent. The Underworld USA trilogy of books (the superb American Tabloid, the excellent but difficult The Cold Six Thousand, and the fine but flawed Blood’s A Rover) were also massive achievements. However, some of his other recent works have been patchy to say the least: Shakedown was poor and the autobiographical The Hilliker Curse is very mediocre in comparison with the brilliance of My Dark Places. Also, he’s not a very good writer of short stories.

A few years ago, when he did a Q&A in London to promote Blood’s A Rover, Ellroy told the audience that he planned to do an earlier LA Quartet, running from Pearl Harbour right through to the period just prior to The Black Dahlia. Being a bit of a renowned practical joker (in fact, much of Ellroy’s shtick is an act), the audience laughed and chuckled and went oh, right, Jimmy, pull the other one. Nobody believed him.

So when the press release went out that Ellroy was indeed working on another earlier LA Quartet, everybody in that audience must have felt very foolish. I have a feeling that those people might have experienced some trepidation too. After all, a writer revisiting a previous success after years away can sometimes be a recipe for disaster.

So, is Perfidia a disaster?

No, it’s not a disaster, but it isn’t great, either.

The huge story concerns the ritual murder of a naturalised Japanese family and its proximity with the attack on Pearl Harbour. It also involves land grabs from interned Japanese Americans, eugenics, pornography, and Communist conspiracies. As with all Ellroy novels with plotting is superb with nary a foot put wrong, but to get to the point where you realise that this is a decent read you have to wade through the first quarter. From goosestepping Japanese snitches, to Dudley howling every time somebody cracks a joke, to over-abundant alliteration (more so than usual), there are a lot of the worst Ellroy excesses in this. And it’s frankly fucking tiresome. So much so that I nearly shelved it.

And then something clicked, though I’m not sure what caused that click, and I began to enjoy the novel. It has some massive flaws. Kay Lake’s diary for starters, which reads exactly like James Ellroy, with no modulation in the writing style. In the original LA Quartet, Dudley Smith was served up in small portions, and there’s a reason for this – a little Dudley goes a long way. In large portions he becomes dull – particularly his ridiculous speech about communing with a wolf in Ireland (especially ludicrous if you know that there haven’t been wolves in Ireland since the 18th century), and his doomed and somewhat pointless affair with Bette Davis. Also get this, Dudley is Elizabeth Short’s father – that’s right, folks, the Black Dahlia herself – which really isn’t necessary because it adds nothing to the story. However, the bits involving Hideo Ashida and Bill Parker do work well, particularly when they interact with Dudley, and the plot mechanics are well assembled and mesh beautifully. The language (aside from the over-use of alliteration in places) is as sharp as ever. The style is less telegrammatic than that used in the Underworld USA trilogy and is all the better for it (though he really should have altered his approach for Kay Lake’s diary). And the man’s storytelling chops remain impressive, even if there is too much padding and the first quarter is a chore. I can recommend it to seasoned Ellroy readers (you folks are going to read it anyway), but those new to Ellroy would be better served by reading the first LA Quartet, The Underworld USA trilogy or the Lloyd Hopkins novels first.

Review: Mixed Blood by Roger Smith

Regular readers will know how much I love the work of Roger Smith. In my opinion, he’s the best writer of noir thrillers around. His work is a mixture of razor sharp, clipped prose, incisive and clever plotting, brutal violence, well etched characters, and a fatalist’s eye for the dark ending.

Mixed Blood is one of his earlier works, and the only one that I hadn’t read. It had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, partly because once I finished it I knew I’d have to wait some time for the next Smith novel to come around. Hence delaying the inevitable.

Like all of Smith’s best work, Mixed Blood begins with a tragic incident from which the protagonist tries to escape, usually with disastrous results. In this case, a couple of Cape Town hoods try to rob the house of Jack Burn and his family. The problem for them is that Burn is an ex-military man who’s on the run because of an armed robbery gone very wrong. He kills them in the struggle and disposes of their corpses. This brings all manner of problems for Burn. Firstly, his already strained relationship with his pregnant wife is brought to breaking point. Secondly, corrupt, murderous and grotesquely obese cop Rudi Barnard is looking for one of the hoods that Burn killed. Barnard finds the car belonging to the hoods parked near Burn’s home and interviews the American. He suspects that something isn’t quite right with the man’s story and delves into his background. Barnard soon finds out Burn’s identity and realises that this might be his way to an early and lucrative retirement. Thus ensues murder, kidnapping and some seriously bone-crunching action and violence.

Mixed Blood is another fine addition to Roger Smith’s brilliant back catalogue. It’s tight, controlled, well plotted, with a varied and strong cast of characters, superbly paced, and as ever with Smith has a wonderfully repulsive villain in Barnard, who is happy to murder anybody that crosses his path. Honestly, Smith writes the best villains in crime fiction – as repugnant as they may be they’re never less than human, and their motivations always make sense, even when what they are doing doesn’t. Smith also writes well about troubled family units, displaying their foibles and peccadilloes with an eye and an ear that would shame many of the literary writers for whom troubled families are a stock in trade. If you have yet to read Smith, I urge you to do so immediately. If you’re into balls-to-the-wall crime and noir thrillers, there isn’t a better practitioner around. Excellent, and highly recommended.

Review: The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson

When Phil Gaines’ new wife, a kinky young barmaid called Paige, and his business partner, a psychopathic pervert and genius getaway man called Jeff, run off together it’s a case of so far, so bad. But when he realises that they’ve also made off with his life’s savings, accumulated from years of bank robberies executed with zen-like calmness and precision, it’s a matter of life and death. Until this point, Gaines has managed to live a quiet and controlled life of meditation in his modest apartment in Modesto, California apartment and successful robberies out of the state.

But now his life is anything but quiet and controlled. He wants his money back and his wife and partner dead.

However, his ex-cohorts have plans of their own, which include framing and killing Gaines in a big robbery that will make them a lot of money if they can pull it off. But when the plan goes awry and Gaines escapes it leaves the main players chasing each other across the state to the home of an ageing pornstar, where their blood-soaked destinies await.

Mike Monson is a fairly new author to me. I’d read a couple of pieces of his flash fiction over at Shotgun Honey (Tough Love being an especially memorable tale), but The Scent of New Death is I believe his first longer-length work. Although the title page calls it a novella the story manages to cram more incident and character into its pages than many works that are twice the length. And I honestly loved every second of it. The characters of Phil, Paige and Jeff are fully realised and are starkly contrasting. Phil is controlled and calm most of the time, thanks to his zen meditation, but he also has a sociopathic disregard for human life, which means he’ll kill anybody who gets in his way. Paige is wild and initially fun-loving, though her idea of fun differs markedly from that of most regular people. Jeff is as vile as they come – a sexually deviant psychopath with absolutely no regard for human life and enjoys murdering for the sheer thrill. Even the minor characters have a feeling of interior lives, rather than as pieces to be moved around an elaborate literary chessboard. The prose is clear and precise and doesn’t get in the way of the action and incident, of which there’s plenty, and the dialogue is sharp and snappy without being showy. It is a superb crime thriller with some very, very violent and kinky moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it I can’t recommend The Scent of New Death highly enough. Superb.

The Curious Case of The Missing Moolah

CuriousCaseCoverFor those of you who have been missing the Stanton brothers (and there are a handful of you out there), the next instalment of their thrilling adventures is now available on Kindle.

This one goes back in time a bit. Chronologically speaking, this is the first of their tales – where it all kicks off for the brothers, and they decide to do what they do so well (hurt criminals and take their cash).

Here’s the Amazon blurb for those of you who are into that sort of thing:

Eric Stanton has a big problem. Three armed robbers have stolen ten grand of his boss’ money from him. So far, so bad.

However, his boss isn’t the kind of man who will take that kind of loss lying down. If Eric can’t get the money back, then it becomes his debt. And his boss isn’t the kind of man he wants to owe money to, especially when he can’t afford to pay. So Stanton has one option: get the money back before anybody notices it’s gone!

But when he realises that he’s been set up, and that this is part of a bigger picture, he does the one thing he can think of to even up the score – he brings in his brother, Derek. Now, Derek might not be the smartest man on the planet, or the most reliable, but he’s six-feet four, strong as an ox and handy with his fists.

So the brothers decide to play detective, and take a trip around the seamier parts of Teesside in search of the money – upsetting the locals, breaking bones and trading quips, right up until the brutal finale.

Foul-mouthed, fast-moving and bone-crunchingly violent – this is one Case that’s bound to make you Curious!

You can buy it on Kindle for £1.99/£2.99 here

Review: The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith

Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero from Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, is now in prison after the massacre at the end of the second novel. Considered as a traitor and a dirty cop by other inmates and guards alike, he is public enemy number one – the one prisoner that the others want to kill. Trouble for them is, he’s gone from being a villain with a conscience to a stone cold bad ass and every assassination attempt has ended badly. But Billy’s nemesis, Agent Rome, and his new assistant, Coleen, have arranged what they think is a sure-fire assassination attempt with a seriously corrupt prison guard and his underlings in cooperation with a vicious prisoner, Ri’Chess, who rules the roost in one of the wings. But the problem is that the day of the hit is the day that Billy’s ex-mother in law brings his son to the prison to see his father. Inevitably the hit goes wrong and double- and triple-crosses abound, the guards come to realise that Ri’Chess is using the hit for his own ends, and Colleen and Billy end up fighting to get the man’s family out of the prison alive.

Last year Anthony Neil Smith’s excellent thriller All The Young Warriors just missed out on my top five of the year (by the narrowest of margins), but there was part of me that suspected that Smith’s next book was going to be the big one. And guess what? This is the one, the wildest ride that Smith has done. As dark and cold as its prison setting when the power goes down, it contains moments of extreme nastiness and some extremely vicious and self-serving characters. It heaps misery on top of misery (rape, torture, many murders in various forms) and turns the prison into a charnel house. Smith makes some very bold choices in terms of the plot development and offers little in the way of redemption. It’s easily the finest prison riot novel I have read since Tim Willock’s brilliant Green River Rising, and is without doubt the finest book that Smith has written and, along with Jedidiah Ayre’s Fierce Bitches, is installed as my finest read of 2013 (though not quite sure which one I prefer at the moment). Highly recommended.

Bone Breakers arrives on July 1st

My latest effort, another Stanton brothers’ thriller, Bone Breakers, will be on sale as a Kindle ebook on July 1st and later as a paperback. Set before the events of The Hunters, it’s a blisteringly fast-paced 32,000 word novella, packed with action, suspense, and an assortment of colourful and vicious villains. It will be priced at £1.99 for the eBook and £4.99 for the paperback. See the book blurb for a glimpse of what you’ll be getting…

When the Stanton brothers decide to rob Teesside construction magnate, drug dealer, and all-round scumbag, Terry Albright, they think it’s going to be easy. Get in, get out, break a few bones, and make a tidy profit. But when the money isn’t where it’s supposed to be, they find themselves holed-up in a high-rise flat trying to break into the bedroom of a fat, Eminem wannabe, while surrounded by a family of psychotic scrap dealers and bone breakers who want the money for themselves. But as the night wears on, and the Stantons realise that time isn’t on their side, they decide to take matters into their own hands, leading to a hammer wielding, classic car smashing, bone-breaking finale.

Bone Breakers is a crime thriller with the emphasis on thrills. It screams along at a furious pace, mixing fast action, ultra-violence, black comedy, snappy dialogue, and the Stanton brothers at their bickering, foul-mouthed best. 

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