Potted Reviews 1 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and The Switched by Ryan Bracha

It’s been a while since I’ve written any reviews so I might be a touch ring rusty. But I’ve got a backlog to get through, so here goes.

First up is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, which won last year’s Booker Prize. History takes an assassination attempt on Bob Marley as it’s starting point and weaves a massive tale of corruption, politics, power, murder, and Jamaica. It encompasses a huge array of characters, some of whom change identities at certain points in the story. When this book is at its best it is superb but, at its worst, it’s a slog. However, the good massively outweighs the bad. Some have compared this to Ellroy (which is why I picked it up in the first place), but it’s nothing of the sort. Character is secondary to plot in Ellroy’s work, whereas James’ novel is all character – the plot is loose, and certain parts of it don’t gel well at all. James’ characters all have clear and defined voices, whereas Post LA Quartet Ellroy has one voice: the Demon Dog. What the two writers do share is an ambitious historical narrative vision that fuses real life events with detailed fiction, along with a tendency to take their characters on a seamy, seedy journey. In this case, James weaves a fictional history of modern day Jamaica out of the attempted murder of Bob Marley. It’s ambitious, superbly written, and often addictive. But, in places, it’s also a baggy, slow slog of a read that is in drastic need of an edit. For all its faults this is still a superb piece of work.

Regular readers will know how highly I rate Ryan Bracha. I loved Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, and Paul Carter is a Dead Man, and Ben Turner is a Dead Man. He has style, inventiveness, and wit to burn. Well, The Switched takes the wit and invention contained in those tales and ramps it up. In this novel, five unrelated people get switched into different bodies in a weird one-off event. Gradually, violent circumstances and strong personalities bring them together for a brutal final act. The Switched is great fun (as long as you’ve got a strong stomach). It’s as different from the Dead Man trilogy as it is from the universe of Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, but the novel shares the sharp, cutting satirical edge and the tendency towards experimental prose and structure. The reasons for the switch are never made clear (it’s possible that Bracha will reveal the reason in later books), so the focus is on the personalities. Bracha’s characters are pretty much all unlikeable with the exception of Charlie/Jake, but good writing ensures that they go through exciting transformations (and I’m not just referring to the switch itself but dealing with gender and gender fluidity), and the story is compelling enough to keep you reading to the end.

Ryan Bracha is fast building up an interesting, diverse, and impressive body of work. He seems to push himself from book to book – unwilling to settle for one genre or style of writing – and his back catalog is all the better for it. The Switched is another strong addition to this collection and comes highly recommended.

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Potted reviews: Russian Roulette: The Konstantin Files by Keith Nixon, High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard

Keith Nixon’s The Fix impressed me a couple of year’s back (and the sequel of sorts I’m Dead Again is just as good). Both featured a six-feet-five Russian tramp called Konstantin whose skillset is considerably more advanced than that of the average homeless citizen. In The Fix and even in I’m Dead Again he’s more of a supporting character. However, in the cracking collection of novellas called Russian Roulette he takes center stage. Along the way Konstantin encounters bumbling criminals, wannabe hardmen, drugs, dominatrixes, prostitution, fake psychics, and other misfortunes, most of which he deals with using a combination of smarts and fast fists. This anthology is packed with top notch entertainment from start to finish, written in short punchy sentences that capture the right mix of description, action and character. These are fast-paced, action-packed, foul-mouthed stories with a fair dose of heart. Highly recommended.

I recently read J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. It came across as well written but somewhat vague and episodic. It was too drawn out and the characters were too opaque for it to be truly compelling. It didn’t fill me with any compulsion to read any other of the Ballard novels on my shelf in the near future. But then the film of High Rise came out and I decided that I should read the novel before watching the film. And I’m glad I did. The book is, in a word, brilliant. Unlike The Drought this one is all just crazy momentum. It starts with a truly wonderful opening line and gets better from there. Whether viewed as an allegory about status and class, a statement on modern society’s inability to function without its technological trappings, or just as a satire about alienation, this is blistering fiction. I loved every second of it.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I try to get through at least one or two of his novels every year, just as a palate cleanser. His work always feels like a homecoming of sorts (Leonard was the first crime novelist I read) and Mr Majestyk was no different. It’s basically just a western dressed up in contemporary clothing, but Leonard’s spare writing makes it seem contemporary and fresh. Melon farmer, and former soldier, Vincent Majestyk wants nothing more than to be left in peace to bring in his melon crop, but various people get in the way of this including a mafia hitman. He gets zero help from the ineffectual local police, who actually want to use Majestyk as bait to lure the hitman, so decides to take the law into his own hands and hunt down the bad guys. Like I stated, just like in a western, a small guy gets pushed around by big interests and pushes back with bloody results, but the pleasure comes from the way the tale is modernised and told. Elmore Leonard couldn’t tell a dull story if he tried: his dialogue is always a pleasure to read, his descriptions hit just the right notes of concise, snappy detail, and the action and momentum is just right. If the romance between Majestyk and Nancy Chavez is a bit pat and easy that’s probably because this was Leonard’s second contemporary crime novel (after the relatively low-key The Big Bounce) and he didn’t really hit his stride until the next novel Fifty-two Pickup. But that’s a minor caveat because this is a cracking read otherwise.

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.

Review: Nowhere by Roger Smith

After last year’s grand guignol excess (in terms of both violence and the vileness of the characters) in the mostly US set home invasion thriller Man Down Roger Smith has toned things down and returned to his home ground of South Africa for his brilliant new novel Nowhere. Anybody who reads this blog regularly (and I know there are a few of you) will know how highly I rate Smith’s work.

When South Africa’s venal, alcoholic president murders his wife in a rage, Steve Bungu (a brilliant creation) sets about fixing it. He starts by murdering the wife’s private bodyguard and then brings in retired detective Joe Louw, via a touch of emotional blackmail, to run a whitewash investigation. Bungu uses Louw’s messed-up, psychopathic son, Leon, as a means of keeping him in line. At the same time, Disaster Zondi, previously from Mixed Blood and Dust Devils, is sent to Nerens (in Afrikaan the Nowhere of the title) to arrest and bring to justice Apartheid relic, and white power ‘General’, Magnus Kruger, for the murder of a young black man.

This sets in motion a complicated tale of revenge and the abuse of power. As Joe Louw realises that Bungu’s motives for blackmail go back to his apartheid days as an activist, Zondi also comes to realise that Kruger might just be innocent of the murder he’s in the frame for, but responsible for something equally as dark and unpleasant. And as the two initially separate investigations begin to coalesce in odd ways, blood begins to flow.

In many ways Nowhere is the archetypal Roger Smith book, in that it draws on his familiar themes of messed-up family units (especially Sacrifices and Capture) and the messed-up politics of South Africa (in particular Dust Devils) and pulls them together in a way that he’s never quite managed before. It also creates in Steve Bungu the finest villain of Smith’s career (which is quite a feat, because I personally feel that Smith writes the best villains around). He is an awful, Machiavellian character, and utterly ruthless, but he also has his reasons. He wasn’t born that way, but moulded by the horrific sins of apartheid. The reader understands the reasons for what he does, even though they will undoubtedly, and with good reason, despise his methods. Smith also creates in Joe Louw and Disaster Zondi two sympathetic characters. Some of the terrible decisions that Louw makes following his blackmail (one of which leads to a massacre) come from promises he made to his dying wife. He does bad things, but he’s not a bad man. Zondi is a shell of the person he was in Dust Devils, but somewhere along the line he develops a newfound taste for his job and an increased sense of worth. Even a villain like Magnus Kruger is given some depth and shade for his crimes and venality.

Nowhere is brilliantly written with a narrative propulsion that kept me reading into the night. Smith has always been able to plot with the best of them, but Nowhere really marks a step up: the plotting is superbly measured and lends an epic feel to the proceedings. Smith also tones back the violence and sadism that, I felt, marred the otherwise excellent set-up of Man Down, and uses it as a part of the plot and as a means to explore character. Yes, it is brutal, but not excessively so and entirely in keeping with the storyline. The characters are also among the best that Smith has created. I can’t recommend Nowhere highly enough. If there’s any justice in the literary world then it should bucketloads of both Kindle and paperback copies. Nowhere should be Smith’s real breakout success.

Potted Reviews: The Rapist by Les Edgerton, Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden

It’s been a while since I posted any reviews. I’m still avoiding most social media, but I thought that my recent reading has included some strong books that deserve exposure to a much wider audience (although Philip Kerr doesn’t need help on that front). And I’m also trying to get back into reviewing again. 2015 was patchy on the reviews front – some of my year end list didn’t have full blog reviews.

So without further ado…

The Rapist by Les Edgerton
The story of Truman Pinter, and how he came to be in prison, is told in his own flowery words on the last night of his life. He is on death row for the rape and murder of a barmaid. Well, he happily admits to the rape, but he denies the murder charge, because she was an intellectually inferior specimen in his eyes and made the mistake of annoying him. Pinter is clearly intelligent, but he’s also insane. He is self-aggrandizing, intolerant of others, and highly unsympathetic and unreliable as a narrator. His unreliability is as much of a surprise to him as it is to the reader. He suppresses and compresses information not because he wants to but because he has internalised so much rage. He reads like a more flowery version of the already locquacious Humbert Humbert.

Les Edgerton’s superb The Bitch was one of my favourite reads of 2014 but The Rapist is as far from that tale as it is possible to get. Whereas The Bitch was tight and mean and made short work of its complex noir narrative, this tale’s prose style is flowery (intentionally so) and nasty. It’s different and difficult. The subject matter alone is going to divide readers, but Edgerton’s execution is what elevates something that could have been voyeuristic or downright dull in the wrong hands. It’s not crime fiction or noir, it’s more like The Belly of the Beast as recounted by Nietzsche. The ending is likely to be as divisive as the subject matter and open to all manner of interpretations. It’s a very strong piece of work. Original and brave. And recommended for those with a strong stomach and an open mind.

Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels cannily apply the Raymond Chandler model to Germany just before, during and just after the second world war. Gunther, like Philip Marlowe, is a shop-soiled Sir Galahad – displaying decency in the face of corruption and evil. And like the great LA detective he’s just as quick with a one-liner.

The research and detail of these novels is terrific, weaving Gunther seamlessly into historical events and into the orbits of several major Nazi operators. The stories drip with period detail and atmosphere and they are well plotted and the characters are superb. Kerr knows how to push a narrative along and keep the reader interested. And most of the time the writing strikes an excellent balance between storytelling verve and descriptive excellence. However, occasionally Kerr likes to lavish the page with unnecessary metaphors and similes. Sometimes they are right on the money, but other times they jarred me out of the story. Also, the quality of some of the metaphors were wanting in comparison with Chandler. Otherwise this is a superb, highly recommended collection of crime fiction.

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
Scorch Atlas is an interesting though not always successful collection of apocalyptic tales and vignettes. Butler’s writing often ascends to some wonderful heights, though sometimes it reads like little more than a shopping list of pestilence and destruction. The best stories (Television Milk and The Ruined Child come to mind) knit superb prose and a distinctive vision of hell on earth. They also display a fear of family and people in general. The problem with the apocalypse is that it gets a little repetitive after a while. The stories often segue into each other – drowned worlds, horrific diseases and deformities, nature rebelling against man and beast – and the lack of memorable characters doesn’t help with differentiating things. If Butler had paid as much attention to character as he did to the rhythm of his prose this collection would be an ouright winner. But he didn’t and it isn’t – decent, though with moments of brilliance

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden
I wanted to read this before I made a start on the Netflix series Narcos. Basically, I wanted to know the truth (or as close as anybody can get without being there) of the story before watching a more dramatised version of it.

To be honest, it’s a tale that doesn’t need to be exaggerated or sexed up. The story of Pablo Escobar, and the men (both Colombian and American) who lined up to stop him, is so utterly wild that if an author tried to present it as fiction nobody would believe it. Escobar earned billions (back in the days when this was still a relatively difficult thing to achieve), pretty much owned and modernised the city of Medellin, and organised a reign of terror across Colombia. He tried to run for public office in the early days of his empire. He was responsible for the deaths of police, armed forces, government officials, presidential candidates. He was even considered the mastermind behind an airplane bombing and bombs in public places. Like I said, life is often stranger and wilder than fiction.

Even the attempts to bring him down were the stuff of fiction. Endemic corruption in Colombian society meant that Pablo’s snitches were embedded deeply within government, the military, and the police. He was able to evade capture for years (and later escape from ‘prison’) thanks to high levels of corruption. The few people who couldn’t be corrupted were either targeted by Pablo’s sicarios or slated by a press and public that didn’t know what to believe. Even the American operation was mired with infighting by the small, tightly operated, and brilliant Centra Spike intelligence unit and the bloated and highly expensive CIA operation. Centra Spike won the battle to chase Escobar, but it cost them in the long run.

It’s a story that benefits from Bowden’s impartial and considered approach. He doesn’t sensationalise or sex things up, probably because he knows that the facts speak for themselves, and his storytelling skills are strong. He keeps the prose in the background and never shows off, which throws the astonishing events into sharp relief. This is an excellent bit of non-fiction that reads as compellingly and quickly as some of the finest crime fiction. Highly recommended.

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.

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.