Review: Zulu by Caryl Feréy

I grabbed this recently while on a book expedition in London. I’d never heard of either the author or the book before, but the blurb appealed to me. It pitched the narrative as somewhere between ultra-violent noir and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener.

The story basically concerns the murder of a young, affluent white student in Cape Town. The violent killing has a suspected sexual motive, and seems to have been done in a senseless frenzy. Ali Neumann, an emotionally repressed detective, and his team (Dan, intelligent but weak, and Brian, angry and self-destructive) soon discover a second killing that then leads them down a path into political machinations, a new meth-based drug that sends users into a violent frenzy, and conspiracies pitting black against white (and vice-versa). As the bodies pile up (and boy, do they pile high in this), and the tale develops more twists than fusilli, this really does develop into a gripping novel.

Roger Smith’s crime fiction has made South Africa seem like a very scary place (somehow even scarier than the very violent reality), but Feréy’s novel makes Smith’s work read like fucking Cider With Rosie in comparison (with the exception of the astonishingly black Man Down). The moment a major character is killed off in the first quarter was the point I realised that all bets were off in this story. Anybody could die at any time. And they do – lots of them – in very violent and gruesome ways. It is brutal stuff. It is also beautifully paced: starting slow, but building momentum as the tale progresses, until the pages seem to be practically turning themselves at the end. Superbly plotted, with a keen eye for a post-Apartheid political scene where neither black lives or white lives matter so long as the folks at the top make a profit and maintain power, and well told, Zulu does somehow meld Le Carré with neo-noir to create something fresh and new – and in the process becomes a dreadful advertisement for South African tourism. Highly recommended.

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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.

Potted Reviews: Rust and Bone – Craig Davidson, American Death Songs – Jordan Harper, 18 Days – Allen Miles, The City and The City – China Miéville

A couple of heavily altered stories from Craig Davidson’s collection of shorts Rust and Bone were the basis of a recent film of the same name by French director Jacques Audiard. It was a good film, a strong film, but it lacked the humanity that makes the title story such a wonderful short tale. For a start, the protagonist in the film is a selfish prick with few redeeming features (he improves as the film progresses, though not that much), but in the story he’s a truly decent man who fights out of a sense of duty and honour (to say more would be to spoil things). It also contains some of the finest prose you’ll find in short fiction – beautifully written, perfectly modulated, and wonderfully paced. The other tales in the collection aren’t quite as perfect, but they’re still superbly written with three-dimensional protagonists who burn brightly long after the final word has been finished. Excellent stuff. Highly recommended.

Had it not been for Rust and Bone, Jordan Harper’s American Death Songs would have been the best short story collection that I’d read this year. As things stand it runs Craig Davidson’s collection a very close second. The prose is less flashy, and the tales are less angst ridden, but, damn, Harper tells a mean story. There are some really superb shorts in this book, with some recurring characters and nice line in amorality. Also excellent, and also highly recommended.

In 18 Days, the protagonist Davy Sheridan has everything to live for: a beautiful wife, a steady job and his first child on the way. But when Davy’s wife dies in childbirth, he falls to pieces and goes on a long, self-destructive bender – the 18 days in question – that threatens his sanity, his relationships and even his life. Miles’ novella isn’t exactly what you would call a pleasure read, but if you have the constitution for it it is a good read. Miles’ prose is, for the most part, strong and direct and at its best when it keeps things simple. Sheridan’s innate selfishness makes him difficult to warm to, but Miles’ control of the story keeps you reading to the end. Recommended.

The City and The City by China Mieville works on the premise that two cities at the far end of eastern Europe share the same physical space yet have their own separate identities. They are separated by crosshatching and the residents’ skill in the art of unseeing each other. But they are also separated by the fear of Breach – the concept of a person from one city suddenly seeing or interacting those in the other city. Once Breach has occurred a shadowy organisation takes over and deals with it once and for all. It’ll take most readers a bit of time to get their heads around the concept. But once it sinks in I have no doubts that most of these readers will be hooked on a murder mystery that takes in the concept of identity, has faint digs at the society we live in (we often unsee the homeless or areas of vast deprivation when the need arises), and makes less veiled attacks at corporate interest (not that surprising considering Mieville’s well-documented socialist leanings), but is also a damn fine tale in its own right. It’s the kind of idea that Philip K Dick would have had a field day with in his 60s heyday, though Mieville is a far better prose stylist than Dick. Highly recommended

Review: The Long Lost Dog Of It by Michael Kazepis

Hello there, dear readers. Sorry I’ve been away for so long. It feels like it’s been ages.

I’ve been quiet for a while, partly because I’ve been writing frantically to get a decent first draft of The Glasgow Grin together, but here I am – back again and ready to plough through my backlog of reviews.

The Long Lost Dog of It is the debut novel by Michael Kazepis, a writer who I hadn’t heard of previously. It’s published by Broken River Books, who are fast becoming one of my favourite indie publishing houses, and is available as both an ebook and a paperback.

It’s set in Athens during one of the anti-austerity protests that brought the city to a halt in 2011. The narrative focuses on the lives of a vagrant who used to be a police officer, a young lesbian couple who are having serious relationship difficulties, and a hitman who has returned home for his father’s funeral. They have nothing in common with the exception of a violent incident that occurs in the latter half of the tale – an incident that impacts on their lives in ways both major and minor.

TLLDOI is quite an original spin on the ensemble cast novel. Usually, these kind of ensemble cast novels are linked by an event that happens at the beginning or first half of the tale, and the characters’ tales develop out of this event. TLLDOI turns this on its head and deals with what happens to these people before the main event. It unfolds at an unhurried pace, taking its time, revelling in the details – the sights, sounds and smells of Athens – and lets the characters breathe a bit before finally tightening its grip on the story.

TLLDOI is superbly written. Kazepis has a poet’s eye for a descriptive turn of phrase. He doesn’t ladle on the metaphors, nor does he waste words in getting to the point. He builds his characters well and brings them to life with some choice dialogue and dramatic moments. Of course, some characters are stronger than others. Maniotis, the hitman, is incredibly strong, as is Varia, the vagrant, and some of the supporting characters like Karras and Mesrine are just as fully realised. The tale of Junesong and Pallas, the lesbian couple, although strong, didn’t hold my attention as well as the other stories, partly because the main focus of the narrative, involving Maniotis, would have worked just as well if they weren’t in it. Still, that’s a minor caveat.

And it also has one of the best action sequences I’ve read in several years. A gunfight between two of the characters that escalates into a wider conflict with the police and ties most of the characters together in one way or another. I doubt very much that I’ll read a more stunning setpiece this year.

TLLDOI is a very confident debut by a writer with real promise. It’s another hit for J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books, and it comes 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: Paul Carter Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Regular readers will know that I was pretty taken with Ryan Bracha’s Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet last year. It was enjoyable, ambitious, well-written and tried to do things a little bit differently.

Well, now he’s back with his latest Paul Carter Is A Dead Man. It’s a singular take on the dystopian nightmare tale – think more Big Brother in the Endemol definition rather than the Orwellian one. It’s set in the present day but in a reimagined Britain, which has closed off its borders to the rest of the world after an explosion in 2009 that kills more than 400 of its citizens (including three generations of heirs to the throne). Law enforcement as it was no longer exists. Power (of a sort) is now in the hands of the British people, and criminals are placed in online public courts for twenty four hours, to be judged. The sentence for most crimes, and in most cases, is death, although if not enough votes are gathered the defendant is released unharmed.

As the story starts, Paul Carter is on the run for murdering an internet troll who was ruining his reputation. By the end of the evening he has killed another man (one of the crews – hired thugs recruited as police under the new regime), and his status as Public Enemy No 1. is secured. The one person he can turn to in his hour of need, his cousin Danny, refuses to give him shelter so he goes on the run again, which brings him into contact with Katie, a pretty girl with terrible breath, who has been made homeless by the changes in British society (although homelessness is somewhat different in the new Britain). She takes him back to where she is living with her friend Shane, also homeless. When Carter’s cousin is unfairly arrested, the man decides to do something about it – setting in motion events that will send shockwaves through the hopelessly corrupt system. It will also prove a test of the kind of man Carter is – failing will cost him and those he holds dear their lives…

Paul Carter is a Dead Man is a well written alternative future dystopia. It is also an effective satire of modern day Britain – a place where people are often judged by the kangaroo court of public opinion on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other smaller social media networks, where rumours, innuendo and ignorance are often paraded as facts and then shared like viruses from wall-to-wall and retweeted by tens of thousands, where more members of the public vote for singers in public talent competitions than they do for their political leaders. Bracha sets up the base story of Carter, and his transition from wanted murderer to freedom fighter, nicely and then branches out into vignettes that deal with modern day Britain. Although they are well written, I felt that on occasion these vignettes detracted my attention away from Carter’s story. Bracha had expertly built and sustained tension that is then slackened when the tale slows down to take a detour. Part of me wondered if Bracha might have been better served by dovetailing these elements into the story somehow (but, then again, these may pay off later, as Paul Carter is the first of a trilogy). However, this is a minor caveat because the main story and the main characters are so damn compelling and the vignettes are never very long.

Paul Carter is a major step-up from Strangers (which was no slouch, I might add) in terms of the leanness and meanness of the writing. It has more focus, is snappier and punchier, and assembles the main story quickly and neatly. Also, the use of wordplay to remove the swearing from the tale is a brilliant move – more sensitive readers really have no reason to complain about bad language. Bracha also performs the neat trick of making a murderer sympathetic, likeable and a compelling enough a personality to bring the reader and other characters under his spell. This is not easy to accomplish, so kudos has to go to the writer for doing it so damn well. The other thing he does superbly is the final third of the tale, where Carter has to make choices, deal with them, and plan his way out of a very tricky situation. Should Bracha ever turn his attention to writing something a little less ambitious, like a straight-up crime thriller, it would probably be a storming tale. Although, I think the ambition of his writing is partly what makes him the author he is (a damn good one).

I heartily recommend Paul Carter is a Dead Man to readers everywhere. It’s an entertaining story that also works as an alternative future dystopia and as a satire of  modern day Britain.

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.