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: 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 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: The Disassembled Man by Nate Flexer (Jon Bassoff)

Having been impressed earlier this year by Jon Bassoff’s psycho-noir stylings with the cracking Corrosion, I decided to find and download some more of his work, which led me to The Disassembled Man under the pseudonym of Nate Flexer.

This novel shares some traits with Corrosion (grimy first-person setting with an unreliable and insane protagonist, a keen eye for blue collar American life, and a rich cast of repulsive low-lives) but also diverges in some respects, bringing in a sense of the supernatural with one of the cameo characters (although this seems open for interpretation, at least in my reading of the text (the protagonist is insane, after all)).

The protagonist, Frankie Avicious is man at the end of his tether. He’s a heavy-drinking slaughterhouse worker who is in love (more obsessed) with a stripper. His obese wife, whom he hates, wants to leave him for another man because she believes he married her for her father’s money, which happens to be true. But his father-in-law, who owns the factory where he works, has such little respect for Frankie that he’s placed him in a dead-end post on the slaughterhouse killing floor rather than in a more palatable post in the office. Frankie decides to murder his father-in-law and then his wife in an attempt to get his hands on the inheritance money and run away with his stripper, with a little guidance from a mysterious and creepy watch salesman. Like all noir plans it inevitably goes wrong in the worst possible way, but it takes a few wild twists and turns before the gruesome and nightmarish finale.

The Disassembled Man is another very fine piece of noir from Jon Bassoff. It’s very well written with a neat line in glib metaphors and hardboiled one-liners. It isn’t as strong as Corrosion, partly because some of the supporting characters feel a little underdeveloped, like they’re just there as Frankie’s cannon-fodder, but the prose conjures up some wonderful images, especially during the hellish finale, and there are some great set-pieces and intense moments of suspense. If you have a strong stomach for violence, this novel comes highly recommended.

Review: Corrosion by Jon Bassoff

Occasionally a writer comes along and gives a performance that makes me sit back and really think about what I’ve just read. Jon Bassoff is one such writer, and Corrosion is one such performance. It’s as black and dense as freshly distilled tar and just about as bleak as noir gets. Redemption, and hope, is in short supply.

Before reading Corrosion, my previous awareness of Bassoff was strictly through his work as the founder of the crime fiction publisher New Pulp Press. However, the fact that it has modern masters like Heath Lowrance, Matthew McBride and Roger Smith on its roster acted as a recommendation for Bassoff’s work. But after finishing Corrosion, I immediately downloaded The Disassembled Man, which Bassoff wrote under the pseudonym Nate Flexer. I hope it’s as good and dark as this one.

The story begins with Joseph Downs, a loner and Iraq war veteran who has been horribly burnt by an IED, getting stuck in a small Colorado town when his car breaks down. While in a bar he intervenes in an argument between a woman and her husband, an incident that leads to violence, and soon enough finds himself ensnared by the woman, who finally asks him to take care of her brutal husband once and for all. He tries to get her to go an alternate route, by going with him to a little shack he knows in the mountains. Things do not go as planned…

Then the narrative skips back in time, into the head of Benton Faulk, a 16 year old boy whose mother is dying. His insane father tries to save her by concocting a cure in his makeshift lab, despite knowing very little about science or medicine. Being in such an environment leaves Faulk somewhat disturbed, which means his obsession with a local waitress, and a shack in the mountains, leads to a suitably tragic finale before he skips town and runs into Downs…

The final character, who appears as a kind of epilogue to the tales of Downs and Faulk, is the masked Reverend Wells, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who has little time for sins and sinners.

Corrosion is dark fare, filled with sudden acts of violence, desperation, insanity (of all kinds), loneliness, and empty of redemption. Nobody is ever what they seem in Bassoff’s world, and unreliable narrators abound. Corrosion takes the Jim Thompson-esque narrator concept, stretches it to breaking point and then gleefully stomps the broken pieces into the small-town dirt. It’s a well-written, tense tale, that performs the neat trick of making you empathise with and understand some awful characters – the kind of people you would cross the road to avoid in real-life. It’s not an easy trick to do, which makes what Bassoff has achieved all the more impressive. Corrosion won’t leave you feeling good about yourself after you’ve read it, but it will grip you tightly, and it will stay in the memory for a long time after you’ve finished the last line. Highly recommended.

Review: The Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones

William Colton Hughes is one of those successful serial killers – you know, the ones you never hear about. He has been set up in an apartment block by a crime boss to deal with problem individuals that cross the boss’ path. The victims are duped into Hughes’ apartment and it is left up to the killer to deal with the rest. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. So when the victims stop arriving all of a sudden, Hughes begins to fret and worry that he’s been abandoned by his benefactor. Taken by itself, this is bad enough, but when a woman starts messing with his mind – sending messages, messing with neighbouring apartments, teasing him with potential victims – he starts to reminisce and revisit the events that brought him to his current status. Then he starts working on ways to get the woman into his apartment, where he can really go to work on her.

The Least Of My Scars is one of the launch publications from J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books (along with Jedidiah Ayres’ Peckerwood and XXX Shamus, among others) and as such has a sense of mission statement about it: Crime fiction in the loosest sense only, discarding the hoariest cliches, twisting the ones that remain. At least, that’s the sense I get from TLoMS and based on the first few chapters of Peckerwood, which I am currently reading.

I generally don’t go for serial killer fiction, mostly because I find it boring (although there are exceptions to this rule). The same old tropes: hyper-intelligent killer taunts cops with his method, cop/s with issues (substance abuse, divorce etc.) find some sort of salvation/redemption in the hunt for killer, and blah, blah, blah. So when a writer comes up with a novel way to present serial killers in fiction, twisting the old narrative tropes on their head, it always ends up being a pleasure to read.

And so it is with Scars.

The novel takes us deep in Hughes’ deranged head – the obsessive compulsive routines, the detailed kill and disposal method, the way he has turned the neighbouring apartments (all owned by his benefactor) into one larger lair – and gives the reader a compelling view of a deeply unpleasant individual. The prose is spare and skeletal, giving enough for the reader to go on in terms of descriptive detail but leaving the rest for the reader to fill in themselves (good old imagination – Jones gives us far less blood and guts than you might think), which considering the nature of Hughes’ crimes is a good thing. What detail Jones does bring mostly concerns Hughes’ phobias and compulsions, his hankering after new victims, and the slow-release of information in the time-honoured tradition of the unreliable narrator. He also builds the tension nicely, which made me turn the pages (or swipe my finger across my Kindle) faster and faster until the chaotic and violent climax.

Scars is a fine, nightmarish novel that – if you have the disposition for it – is a genuine page-turner, as well as being an inventive addition to a genre that has been in dire need of invention for a very long time. Highly recommended.

Review: Sacrifices by Roger Smith

Anybody who has read my ramblings, moans and reviews for long enough knows that I’ve got a major literary jones for Roger Smith. Dust Devils was one of my favourite reads of 2011 and Capture was in my list for 2012 (and Ishmael Toffee wasn’t far off being on that list, either). He has the storytelling chops of 70s-era Elmore Leonard but with a more violent, despairing view of the world, and with less humour (although, it isn’t that Smith can’t do humour, it’s just that when it does appear it has the shadow of the gallows over it).

Within a few pages of the beginning of Sacrifices, wealthy South African couple Michael and Beverley Lane witness their steroid-addicted Rugby-playing son murdering a young woman with a dumbbell. Beverley conspires to cover up the crime by blaming it on their housekeeper’s Meth-addict son, Lynnie. Although Michael is horrified by both the murder and the cover-up he is too weak and cowardly to do anything about it. The authorities arrest the housekeeper’s son and throw him in Pollsmoor prison (which truly sounds like one of the worst hell-holes on Earth). Lynnie contacts his sister, Louise, and tells her that he’s innocent. But he is murdered before she gets the opportunity to really look into it, which also leads to their mother dying from a heart attack. It is at this point that Louise vows revenge on Lane and his family.

Gradually, Michael pulls away from his venal wife and sociopathic son and enters into a relationship with a young assistant at a bookshop he owns, and for a while he is happy, but this is changed when another murder throws his world into disarray and allows Louise back into his life. Eventually, she uses Michael’s own weak nature against him to bring about a bloody and powerful showdown.

Sacrifices is a novel that veers away from the big villains (Inja Mazibuko and Vernon Saul) that dominated Dust Devils and Capture. Here the villains are the strangers who are tied to us by blood and marriage. The villains are the lies that people tell to save those closest to them.

It’s a novel populated by the weak, the venal, the sociopathic, the angry, and the depraved. The few decent characters in the novel are destroyed one way or another and there are few acts of kindness to penetrate the darkness that shrouds the story. In some senses, a novel this dark should almost be too much for a reader to bear, it just shouldn’t work, but there’s a lightness of touch, a subtlety to Smith’s writing, that makes it compulsive reading. Smith plots his tale with a master’s hand, ensnaring the reader, drawing them in, despite the darkness, and enhances his growing reputation as one of the best thriller writers around. I loved every second of it. And it joins Fierce Bitches and The Baddest Ass on my list of faves this year.

In fact, from now on, I’ve decided to have a spot in my yearly top ten reads that I’m going to donate to Roger Smith. It’s up to him whether he wants to fill it or not.