My Top 6 Reads of 2013

It’s that time of year, where I look back on the past twelve months and give my unwanted opinion about the books that I read (these weren’t necessarily books that were released in 2013 – just that I read them this year).

2013 was a good year, in my humble opinion. Some writers confirmed their talents, others built upon already lofty reputations, and a whole host of new writers (new to me, at least) surprised me from nowhere. I read very few duffers – those that I did pick up never got reviewed (in fact, I read rather a lot that didn’t get reviewed because I simply didn’t have the time) – and I tore through a lot of the good, the fine, and the merely not bad. It was going to be five, but James Sallis snuck in at the very last minute (literally as I started finishing the first draft of this piece).

Oh, and these are in no particular order, before you ask:

Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres

One of the first things I read this year was also one of the best. A heady brew of noir that mixed more than a dash of Cormac McCarthy with a harsh slug of Jim Thompson. Set in and around the fictional Mexican town of Politoburg, although it’s more hell-on-earth than town, Fierce Bitches concerns the lives, deaths and unpleasant fates of pimps, prostitutes and gringos who solely populate this place. Although only a novella in length, it packs more meat and linguistic denseness between its covers than most writers manage in entire careers.

The Cal Inness quartet by Ray Banks
The tale of ex-con and amateur sleuth Cal Inness could have been awash with cliches in the wrong hands, but Ray Banks probably wouldn’t know a cliche if it punched him in the face. It tells Inness’ story in four brilliantly written tales that leave the reader pummelled, moved, saddened, horrified and breathless, often within the space of a few pages. At least two of them could have made this list individually, but I decided to take the series as a whole. And what a series! One of the most stunning series of PI novels that I have read. If you haven’t already experienced it I envy you. You get to read it for the first time!

The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith
Last year Smith almost made my top five with the excellent All The Young Warriors but was squeezed out at the last by Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. This time there’s no squeeze, unless we’re talking about about the sheer fucking death grip of a narrative that Smith fashions for this non-stop, thrill ride through a prison hell-hole. Featuring Billy Lafitte, the corrupt police officer gone very, very bad, who also figures in Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, if this pulse-quickener doesn’t make you a Lafitte fan then you’re probably never going to be one.

Sacrifices by Roger Smith
Every year one of Roger’s books makes my list. In 2011 Dust Devils was my favourite read. Last year Capture made the top 5. And this year, Sacrifices his superb thriller about a toxic family unit and the damage that one miscarriage of justice has on a number of lives. It is gripping and Smith has pulled off the nifty trick of keeping you reading despite the fact that the cast has barely a sympathetic character among them.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew J McBride
McBride’s tale of a PI who decides to help himself to the loot from a bank robbery that has gone wrong is a delight. Along with a couple of low-life cohorts, he decides to find the money himself, which sees him and his co-conspirators run afoul of a couple of particularly nasty criminals. A lot of blood gets spilled along the way and Frank Sinatra does indeed end up in a blender! FSIAB (as it shall be known henceforth) is a superbly written comic crime novel with a great protagonist and a pace that just doesn’t quit. In fact, all the characters are sharply etched, there are laughs-a-plenty to be found, and Valentine’s relationship with Frank Sinatra is a delight. I loved every second of it, and am eagerly looking forward to McBride’s next novel. Highly recommended.

Others Of My Kind by James Sallis
Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know how disappointed I was with The Killer Is Dying (which was almost great, but ultimately the execution was off) and Driven (which I re-read recently – and is worse than I remembered), but I still think Sallis is one of the great talents of modern crime fiction. However, after two disappointments, I was somewhat worried that this would be a third misfire. But fortunately it didn’t remotely disappoint. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s Sallis’ best work. It isn’t really crime fiction, although it deals with the aftermath of a crime. What it deals with are people, and what James Sallis has given us, with Jenny, his protagonist, is one of the best female characters to come along in fiction for years. By turns mellow, forgiving, kind, damaged, rootless, and utterly human, Jenny lights up the pages and when the story is finally over you start to miss her completely. And if you miss out on this novel/novella (it’s a narrow volume) you will be doing yourself a disservice. It should be on a lot more top five/ten lists. Highly recommended.

Other notable writers who entertained me considerably this year with their books and only just missed out on the list were Paul D Brazill with Gumshoe, Frank Bill with Crimes in Southern Indiana and Keith Nixon with The Fix. If you read this list and fancy grabbing one of these books, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Have a great festive season folks and happy reading.

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Why has noir made a comeback?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently. What is it about noir and hardboiled fiction that makes it so popular for modern day readers? After all, a happy noir ending is as rare as hen’s teeth and, although leavened with moments of humour, noir leaves its characters floundering in a Godawful mess that gets deeper and darker the harder they try to dig themselves out. Why would people actively seek out stuff like this when the world around them is so bloody dark, anyway?

We live in a world where banks are given a government licence to steal our money, safe in the knowledge that nothing will ever actually be done about it, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay for these transgressions aided by a crony political elite. We live in a world where governments spy without any constraints or accountability on our emails, phone calls, text messages and internet usage in the name of democracy and safety, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. We live in a world where the top one per cent will get richer to the detriment of the rest of society, and yet somehow manage make it seem like it’s the poor that are bleeding us all dry. We live in a world that allows corporations to control ever more of our daily lives (through political lobbying, weak and greedy politicians, and financial influence, among other things), allowing them to plunder resources, destroy the natural world and, in some cases, murder people, in their quest for ever more wealth. We live in the kind of world that celebrates fame over talent, youth over experience, beauty over almost everything. In short, we live in a world whose value system is irretrievably damaged, a world that is fucked.

I partly think it is because the world is so bad that noir has made a return to the mass-market. There’s something of the car crash about noir fiction; the way it shoves our faces into the piss and shit and viscera of this world. And if you drive a car for long enough you’ll know that there’s nothing we humans like more than rubbernecking at car accidents. Because as bad as things seem for us in the real world its nice to take a trip to places that are so much worse than ours, visiting characters whose lives are much more messed up than ours will hopefully ever be. What’s better than taking a trip to small towns where characters live out their lives of quiet desperation right up to the moment when they kick against the system and get really destroyed? I’ll tell you what’s better – that moment when you put the book down, breathless, thanking your lucky stars it’s them and not you.

Noir always seems to rear its head when times are bad. During the depression and post-depression years, during the cold war years and McCarthy’s witch hunts, during other recent periods of financial hardship. Look at Brit noir, for instance, which really started to come into its own when the swinging sixties turned ugly and faded into the early seventies, and the country was crippled by the unions, the three day week, and systemic corruption spread like cancer. Writers like Ted Lewis peeled back the skin of this ugly Britain and showed readers the rot that lay beneath. There was something appealing about somebody like Lewis saying: “Yes, your life is shit, but d’you wanna see something really ugly? Then read this.” Jack’s Return Home, Billy Rags and the peerless GBH pressed the noses of British readers into the filth and showed them lives that were far worse than their own, lives lived in squalid bedsits and B&Bs, lives lived in pornography, the sex industry, and other criminal endeavours, lives lived in prison cells or on the run, and lives lived so close to the edge that sometimes the balance is lost and they tip over the edge.

Of course, the ugliness of everyday life isn’t the only reasons for noir’s cyclical resurgence. Technology plays a big part, too. Affordable mass-market paperbacks and magazines propelled the earlier days of noir, back in the days when these things were truly affordable. And today’s noir and hardboiled fiction is propelled by the internet (e-zines etc.), relatively affordable e-readers, cheap or free ebooks, and improvements in printing technology that have enabled high-quality print-on-demand paperbacks. Today’s technological advances have allowed new small-press publishers to set up high-quality outfits with smaller outlays and overheads than Big Publishing can manage, which means they’re more inclined to take risks with material that might upset readers due to being too dark, or violent, or full of rage, or any number of other transgressions that can trouble those who might prefer ‘cosier’ stories: Blasted Heath, New Pulp Press, Snubnose Press, and Caffeine Nights are just some of the pioneers of this new trend. These folks are pushing real boundaries, taking real risks, and are putting out some cracking fiction that would never have been seen if Big Publishing was still controlling things.

There are currently a lot of Neo-Noir titans pushing boundaries that would make even the likes of Jim Thompson blush. Writers like Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Ray Banks, Roger Smith, Anthony Neil Smith, Paul D Brazill, Tom Piccirilli, Heath Lowrance, Les Edgerton, Jedidiah Ayres, Megan Abbott, Nigel Bird, Josh Stallings, Ian Ayris, to name but a few, produce wild rides, break taboos, take real risks, and tell cracking tales with aplomb. If you haven’t read them yet, you should, they’ll really shake you up.

I hope that this new popularity for noir fiction doesn’t go the way of previous boom times. In the past, its popularity has been cyclical, and ended when times have got better…

Buuuut, the modern world’s a shithole, and things are probably only going to get worse from here on in (economically, socially, ecologically), so long may these noir writers and others like them reign.

Let a little darkness into your life.

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.

My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!

Review: Hogdoggin’ by Anthony Neil Smith

The sequel to Yellow Medicine finds Billy Lafitte, former police officer, suspected traitor, and full-time bad guy, riding with a biker gang led by the brutal and savvy giant Steel God. Lafitte has worked his way up to second in command and has God’s respect. But when a call comes in about his ex-wife, Lafitte decides to turn his back on the gang and go and find out exactly why he’s been called back.

Meanwhile, his nemesis, Agent Rome, an FBI agent with a serious grudge against Lafitte, is still trying to pursue his man despite being warned off the case by his employers and his wife. But Rome doesn’t listen and decides to use Lafitte’s emotionally fragile ex-wife as bait to lure him in.

After an ill-fated trip back to Yellow Medicine, Lafitte decides to get back to his family by any means possible, but things go increasingly wrong. Leading to his capture and torture by some idiotic rednecks.

When he decides to call on Steel God for help everything gets really bloody, leading to a showdown, and serious carnage, at a hotel surrounded by the police, with Agent Rome in tow.

Smith’s sequel improves on Yellow Medicine in a number of ways. Firstly, in dispensing with Lafitte’s first person narration it broadens the scope of the story. Rome is no longer the one dimensional FBI guy he appeared to be in the first novel – his run-in with Lafitte at the end of the YM has affected him both professionally and personally and his reasons for pursuing the man seem more believable this time around. Other characters get the opportunity to breathe and Smith does a good job of bringing them to life. Also, the use of multiple character perspectives propels the tale at a faster clip than the first novel managed, especially during the final chapters, which are superbly paced, and Smith’s muscular, clipped prose helps bring it all together in fine style. Fans of noir and hardboiled fiction will find plenty to enjoy here, but it’s written in such a way that fans of more ‘mainstream’ thrillers will get a kick out of it, too. Recommended.

Review: All The Young Warriors – Anthony Neil Smith

All The Young Warriors is a change for author Anthony Neil Smith. His previous novels and novellas have been very much in the noir and hardboiled genre. This one is more the international intrigue thriller, though with a faster pace than most.

The story kicks off in Minnesota where two cops are killed by a gangbanger named Jibriil after pulling him and his friend Adem over. Adem has nothing to do with the murder, other than as a very unwilling witness. The two boys, of Somalian descent, flee to Somalia to fight for the country and the Muslim faith. Once there, Jibriil takes to the life like a duck to water, whilst Adem finds the culture shock too much.

One of the cops Jibriil killed was the girlfriend of detective Ray Bleeker and was carrying his child. Like anybody in that situation he carries a real urge for revenge. He ends up linking up with Mustafa, Adem’s father, who’s convinced of his son’s innocence, and they pursue the boys to Somalia and find that the things are going to get very difficult and very bloody before everything is done.

ATYW is definitely the finest novel that I’ve read by Smith. It marks a clear progression from Yellow Medicine and its sequel Hogdoggin’ (both strong works). It’s definitely the work of a more mature writer – almost as if moving to a bigger canvas, one that involves research, helped sharpen his focus as a storyteller and hone his ability to write clearly defined characters. It also has more heart and soul than his two Billy Lafitte novels, so when bad things happen to the main characters they carry a real emotional punch. It’s a very good thriller with an excellent narrative pace, and recently won Smith an award at the Spintinglers. ATYW comes highly recommended.

Potted Reviews – To The Devil, My Regards & Bullets and Fire

To The Devil, My Regards – Anthony Neil Smith & Victor Gischler

Z.Z. DelPresto is a detective with a problem. He’s been caught by the cops with his hand on the knife that killed his jailbait girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of the woman he’s been paid to snoop on. So begins a lot of trouble for this detective who’s more than a little crooked, trouble that means he’s going to have to work really hard to clear himself, particularly as the cops would be quite happy to see him take a fall…

Anthony Neil Smith and Victor Gischler’s thriller moves at a fast clip, which is a good thing considering it’s a novella. The prose is nice ‘n lean and DelPresto seems to be a bit of a conflicted bastard in the Billy Lafitte mode (another of Smith’s creations). It has plenty of incident, wraps itself up smartly and will keep you entertained. Recommended.

Bullets and Fire – Joe R. Lansdale

A short-story about a wannabe gang member who might not be all that he seems (won’t give away any more than that, don’t want to spoil things).

Fire and Bullets moves at astonishing pace in stripped back balls-to-the-wall prose. It’s awash with carnage, in fact the story begins with the protagonist breaking a young girl’s nose so that he can be initiated into a gang, and it barely pauses to stop for breath. Despite that, it still has a heart (even if it is somewhat bloodied). Don’t be surprised to find yourself missing your train or tube stop with this one, because it grabs you by the nuts and refuses to let go. Highly recommended.