Review: Out There Bad by Josh Stallings

Regular readers of this blog might remember my review of Josh Stalling’s superb crime thriller Beautiful, Naked and Dead, which featured the compelling voice of his anti-hero Moses McGuire, a former soldier working as a bouncer in a strip club, who ends up investigating the murder of a woman he’d taken under his wing. It was superbly written and tough – just the kind of thing I like.

Now McGuire is back in the follow-up, which starts some period after the first book. He is alone again, filling his time with self-loathing and booze. He ends up crossing paths with the Russian mafia, and promises a dancer that he’ll help her find her missing underage sister. At the same time an assassin is taking out Russian mobsters and Mexican pimps south of the border. Eventually, McGuire pushes the mobsters hard enough that he’s forced to travel to Mexico with a tough-talking journalist, whose might be more trouble than he’s worth, to find the little sister. This brings him into contact with the assassin and a whole heap of trouble…

Out There Bad is a very strong follow-up to BN&D and Stallings makes McGuire’s voice as compelling and readable as ever. The dialogue crackles and the pace is well handled. There’s a high bodycount for those that like action and plenty of sleazy atmosphere for those who like to see the dark corners of the world from the comfort of their Kindle readers. It’s another cracking tale from Stallings, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one. 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: 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.