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.

Review: The Magpies by Mark Edwards

When Jamie and Kirsty buy a dream flat together everything seems like it is going to be happy ever after, but when unwanted parcels, junk mail, and fast food they didn’t order start arriving they slowly come to realise that everything isn’t quite right. For a start their downstairs neighbours, the Newtons, seem like an odd couple, but despite this they try to form a friendly bond with them. However, after a very suspicious accident leaves Jamie’s best friend in a coma they realise that the Newtons aren’t just odd they are bad and dangerous with it. As their relationship with the neighbours from hell goes from bad to worse, and their own relationship starts to fall apart, Jamie and Kirsty come to understand that their dream flat is actually a nightmare.

As part of a writing partnership with Louise Voss, Mark Edwards has had considerable success: their novels Catch Your Death and Killing Cupid were both big bestsellers. The Magpies Edwards’ first novel without Voss, is already a huge hit, and seems certain to stay in the Amazon Kindle UK bestseller chart for some time (at time of writing it is No. 1). But is it any good, I hear you ask? Well, yes, I certainly enjoyed it.

A creepy prologue sets the reader on edge and pays off later in the tale. Edwards’ prose is smooth and reads well, and the characters of Jamie and Kirsty are well-rounded. Edwards’ handling of the narrative is equally as smooth and the escalations in the story are done nicely. I wasn’t all that happy with the transformation of Jamie’s friend, Paul, following the accident; he changes from a likeable character to an arsehole very quickly. Of course, some people do have complete personality changes after major accidents, but the way it was handled felt like a minor stumble. The ending also felt slightly rushed, to me at least, which is a shame because it seemed like the set-up was in place for something a bit more grand. Still, these are minor quibbles, because overall The Magpies is a good tale, well told.

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: Driven by James Sallis

For anybody who doesn’t already know it by now, Driven is the sequel to the utterly brilliant Drive by author James Sallis. Unlike a lot of Sallis’ previous work it was released with quite a bit of fanfare. Firstly, because the announcement followed in the wake of Nicholas Winding Refn’s excellent adaptation of the original and, secondly, because Drive is considered by many critics to be one of the finest crime novels to be released in recent years (and my opinion of it can be found here).

It begins several years on from the original book, in mid-action. Two men attack Driver, who has now become a businessman called Paul West, and his wife. Driver kills the two men, but not before one of them manages to murder his wife. Driver doesn’t hang around. He immediately drops out of sight, with the help of his war veteran buddy, and starts to hunt those who would hunt him. The harder Driver looks the worse his problems seem to get. The more hit-men he kills the more questions their deaths seem to throw up. Soon he finds himself threatening a succession of lawyers, looking for the man who put the initial hit out, and he finds that it all has to do with the past, though not necessarily in the way that he thinks…

After the relative disappointment of Sallis’ The Killer is Dying , which I read earlier this year I was hoping for a return to the kind of form that made Drive, Death Will Have Your Eyes and the Lew Griffin books such treats. So, did I get what I wanted?

Well, it has as good a start as one could possibly hope for, and throws the reader straight into the action, as hitmen attack Driver and his wife. And from here the pace is relentless, as Driver goes on the run from those who want him dead. Sallis’ prose is as pitch-perfect as ever – pared back, razor-sharp descriptions that spring off the page – and the dialogue crackles, but somewhere along the way it loses this momentum and becomes humdrum.

Drive balanced its action set-pieces and moments of philosophical reflection perfectly, and the narrative drive was spot-on. Driven, however, doesn’t work anywhere near as well. Themes that Sallis touched upon in The Killer is Dying and, to a lesser extent, Drive, concerning mankind’s need for connection and the dehumanising nature of the modern world, reappear here, but sometimes seem to dominate the page rather than weave themselves into the fabric of the story. The number of times I felt jarred out of the narrative because of this was far too many, and after a while I started losing interest.

Then I realised that all these hitmen seem to find it awfully easy to locate Driver, despite the fact that he does his best to drop off the radar again, but not one of them manages to land a single blow on him. This serves to make Driver seem more superhero than noir protagonist. This means the threat and menace that shimmered off the pages of the original just isn’t here, and you feel somehow cheated.

The end of the novel has a nice play on the nature of Chinese whispers. Driver finds out that the initial attack wasn’t exactly what he thought it was, but realises that it no longer matters, because he’s marked for death regardless of what he does. But even though this idea is well implemented it still feels like a false note, because the threat of the hero failing just isn’t there.

I really wish I could recommend Driven, because I so wanted to like it, but I can’t. In all honesty, it didn’t work for me, didn’t take me there. Despite the fluency of the prose, despite the fact that it has been put together with care by a serious artist, I just didn’t feel the story connect with me.

A huge disappointment.

Review: Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings

At the beginning of Beautiful, Naked and Dead Moses McGuire is one seriously damaged man. He’s in debt, works as a bouncer in a lapdancing bar, can’t afford alimony payments to his bitch of an ex and would rather eat a bullet than go on with this life. His suicide attempt is interrupted by his friend Kelly, a waitress at the club where he works, who leaves a message asking him for help. When he eventually catches up with her it is too late, she has been raped and murdered by persons unknown. He puts aside thoughts of suicide and replaces them with ones of revenge. Initially, McGuire thinks it may have been Russians but eventually the clues link her death to the Italian mob. The path leads him to Kelly’s sister, Cass, pornography, and some unpleasant gangsters who want to turn McGuire and the girl into target practice. But McGuire is tough to kill and an even tougher opponent to cross wits with and decides to hunt them instead. Leading to several bloody showdowns…

Man, Josh Stallings can write. Creating a good first-person voice is difficult to do (particularly if you misjudge the tone). Stallings gets McGuire’s voice spot-on from the get-go: a combination of Chandleresque asides and observations, spare but vivid scene-setting and a keen eye for nailing his characters dead-on (even the minor ones). Also, he’s no slouch at the action stuff, which comes in handy because there’s plenty of it, particularly later in the tale. On top of this compelling voice he builds a strong narrative that drives forward at ever increasing speed; not once does it flag. I raced through it in a couple of days, which seems to be a rarity for me nowadays (as my time is at a premium). If you fancy a top-notch read with zero flab then get yourself Beautiful, Naked and Dead today. You won’t regret it. It comes highly recommended.

Review: Killing Cupid by Mark Edwards & Louise Voss

Mark Edwards and Louise Voss are excellent examples of authors who have done very well out of the self-publishing boom. Their novel Catch Your Death was one of 2011’s best-selling Kindle novels and Killing Cupid also did very well in the charts.

In fact, they were offered a book deal due to their online success and this is how I came to be reading the print edition of Killing Cupid rather than the ebook. Apparently both this novel and Catch Your Death have been amended from the ebook editions, though I obviously couldn’t say how much this changes the finished article.

The novel begins with a woman’s death, by a fall from the stairwell of her building. Alex describes fleeing the scene of the crime whilst giving the reader an indication that he’s prepared to kill for the woman he loves. The object of his affection is the teacher of a creative writing class that he attends, Siobhan.

Alex falls in love with Siobhan at first sight and becomes obsessed with her. Stalking her first on Facebook and then in the real world. Hanging around where she lives and then finally getting into her home. He becomes jealous of his teacher’s friendship with one of the other students, a female and this is where death comes into the equation. Siobhan, who is dealing with a relationship break-up, doesn’t initially realise she’s being stalked, but once Alex steals her credit card details in order to send her gifts she finally cottons on.

She kicks him off her course and threatens him with the police if he doesn’t pay her back for every penny he stole. From here the story changes tack. Alex starts a relationship with a friend of his flatmate and Siobhan begins to become obsessed with Alex, initially through interest in writing a novel but eventually through rage, and starts to take revenge on Alex and his new girlfriend. Meanwhile Alex is having to deal with the fact that a friend of the girl who fell from her stairwell is probing into her death and doesn’t believe the police’s version of events that it was accidental. As things wind to a close, Alex gets a few surprises he didn’t expect…

Edwards and Voss do a good job of making Alex come across as sympathetic, even though you know he’s a seriously screwed-up individual. They also do a good job of making Siobhan seem sympathetic in the earlier part of the novel but make her transition to angry stalker later in the story unfold realistically. The technique of narration via the character’s journals gives the story some nice turns and delivers a satisfying twist or two at the end. Killing Cupid is a good solid novel with a few narrative surprises and will give readers a lot of enjoyment. Recommended.

Review – The Engagement by Georges Simenon

Regular readers of this site will know that I love the work of Georges Simenon. I love the Maigret novels, which are harder and darker than their reputation might suggest, but I also love the Roman Durs, of which this novel is one. These novels are equally as dark and cold and mean as their American noir cousins.

The Engagement isn’t a Simenon that I had encountered before, but it’s definitely a high quality addition to his superb back catalogue; one that should appeal to both fans of his previous work and make a perfect introduction for new readers.

The Engagement is about Mr Hire, an overweight and slightly creepy man, who runs a legal, but hardly ethical, postal scam. Hire is a furtive and shy individual who keeps himself to himself, ensuring the suspicion of those who live and work in the block of flats where he resides. So when a prostitute is brutally murdered in the area all eyes are focussed on him. There are reasons for Hire’s odd behaviour but, because the police are brought in and nobody thinks enough of him to ask the reason why, they automatically assume that he is guilty. As the story progresses and the tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels the reader is genuinely unsure what Hire’s fate will be.

For a writer who has been lauded for the ‘psychology’ in his novels, there is surprisingly little in The Engagement. Most of what goes on is rendered in clean, camera-eye prose that gives little insight into the psychology of the characters. And yet, Simenon’s brilliant word choices and descriptions give us all the information we need to know about the shy and reserved Hire, the conceited and unpleasant concierge and the other characters, mostly unpleasant, who populate this tale. Also, his effortless handling of the tension is a lesson to any writer who wants to know how to create a page-turner with minimal fuss, and without drawing attention to his writing. The Engagement is a superb read and comes  highly recommended to those who like their stories dark and diamond hard.