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.

Review: No More Heroes & Beast of Burden by Ray Banks

In No More Heroes, Cal Innes is working for Donald Innes, a slum landlord, handing out eviction notices to non-paying tenants. He’s still addicted to painkillers, and still drinking too much, and he’s given up on the PI business, despite the fact that his best friend Paulo wants him to start up again. When he notices a fire in a house he’s trying to serve an eviction on he runs inside and rescues a boy from the blaze, not realising that the grandmother is still inside. The press declares him a local hero, even though he doesn’t feel he’s anything of the sort. He decides to quit serving notices for Plummer after this incident but is surprised to find that his old boss wants to hire him to look into the cause of the fire, which he thinks is down to a white nationalist party. The case leads him to check up on the nationalists, but what he finds out threatens to bring about both his death and riots and destruction to the streets of Manchester.

In Beast of Burden, Cal is dealing with the aftermath of the what happened in No More Heroes, which has left him a physical and emotional wreck. He’s dealing with family troubles and other problems when Morris Tiernan gets in contact and asks him to find his son, Mo, who has mysteriously gone missing. Despite the fact that Cal and Mo had some serious words at the end of Sucker Punch, Cal takes the job and decides to use it to get even with the Tiernan family, who he blames for all the problems that have plagued him since the job in Newcastle. At the same time Detective Sergeant Iain ‘Donkey’ Donkin is looking to pin anything he can find on Innes, who he sees as a typical criminal and somebody who deserves to go back inside. But Donkin has his own troubles too, considering he has an estranged wife and daughter and a suspension from duty to deal with, so when Cal finds Mo and the case becomes a suspicious death, Donkin sees this as his opportunity to take down Innes and some of his foes on the force. Meanwhile, Innes works on a tricky plot to destroy the Tiernans, risking life and limb to do it.

Anybody who has read my reviews of Saturday’s Child and Sucker Punch, the first two novels in the Cal Innes tetralogy, will know how highly I rate these books. They’re dark, funny, and capture the nervous rhythms of modern British speech better than most novels I’ve encountered recently. And if you’ve read my reviews and not read them yet, then shame on you. You should read them. You really should. Parts three and four are much darker affairs, taking the Innes story to its natural but still shocking conclusion. Taken as novels in their own right, these tales are genuinely top-tier, but taken as a quartet Banks’ achievement is a huge one. Innes is easily one of the finest British PIs ever created and this series is easily one of the finest to emerge from these shores. Throughout the series, Cal Innes grows into a man who, for all his faults, is a genuine hero. He might not be happy about being forced into that position, but when there’s nobody else for the task he risks life and limb to ultimately do the right thing, even when it costs him.

Seriously, if you’re reading this and you haven’t considered buying any of this series then I pity you, because you’re denying yourself a genuinely powerful reading experience. Highly recommended.

Review: Sucker Punch by Ray Banks

Sucker Punch follows the story of Cal Innes about six months after the events in Saturday’s Child. Innes has given up the private investigator game and is instead working for his old friend Paulo at the boxing gym, doing any odd jobs that need sorting. One particular job involves babysitting a young up-and-coming boxer on a trip to LA to take part in a boxing tournament. Innes initially doesn’t want to go because he is addicted to Codeine – a by-product from his trip to Newcastle for Maurice Tiernan – and wonders how he will survive the trip without his fix. Plus, he isn’t all that keen on babysitting the young boxer, Liam, because his first impression of the lad isn’t an especially positive one. However, Paulo refuses to take no for an answer so Innes reluctantly takes his ‘holiday’. When he’s lands he meets a former boxer in a bar who tells him not to trust the fighter whose gym is being used to stage the competition. Innes asks the man to take a look at Liam and train him up for the competition. Liam is initially reluctant to meet the man, but when he does he’s impressed by the man’s knowledge and agrees to train with him. But  Innes realises that there are a few things about the man that don’t quite add up, and when the father of another fighter tries to bribe Innes to get Liam to take a dive the whole situation explodes into violence.

The sequel to Saturday’s Child is a different beast to its predecessor. For a start the novel is narrated solely by Innes, rather than alternating chapters between Innes and Mo, Maurice Tiernan’s son (who only appears in two violent cameos that bookend the story); Second, it moves at a more relaxed pace and has a less defined plot than the first novel; Third, Innes has changed from the man who appears in Saturday’s Child. He’s now a Codeine addict, and his alcoholism has changed from functional to barely functional. Plus, he’s angrier, much more bitter and less rational.

It’s this change in Cal Innes that makes Sucker Punch such a compelling read. It lacks the rocket-fuelled narrative and focus of the first book, so Innes himself has to take up the slack. He rails against authority, even when it’s trying to help him, has little respect for others and even less for himself. By the end of the novel, you can see the direction that Innes is heading and can only wince at the choices he’s made.

Although it isn’t as strong as the brilliant Saturday’s Child, Sucker Punch is still an excellent piece of gritty crime fiction. Ray Banks’ Cal Innes is a brilliant creation, with a superbly written narrative voice, a character who keeps the reader glued to the page. Highly recommended.

Review: Saturday’s Child by Ray Banks

Drunken ex-con Cal Innes is making his living as a private investigator of sorts. He has somehow built a reputation for finding people who’ve gone missing and now seems to have turned that into a business. Although Innes does deal in divorce cases, he wants nothing to do with a pub landlady who wants to murder her landlord husband. He tells her he isn’t interested in that kind of work, tells her to give it more thought when she’s sobered up and leaves immediately. Then he’s contacted by the man responsible for putting him in prison – crime lord Morris Tiernan – and asked/told to find a croupier who has stolen ten grand from his casino. The trail takes him to Newcastle looking for a gambler with a taste for cash and a barely legal girl who just happens to be Tiernan’s daughter. Innes’ task is made harder by Tiernan’s psychopathic son Mo’ who has his own reasons for wanting the girl back, and by a brutal police officer named ‘Donkey’ Donkin, who wants to question Innes about the stabbing of the landlord. As Innes gets closer to the croupier and the girl things start to go really wrong. And after he’s beaten and left for dead, the detective is forced to take drastic action, including some eye-watering torture with a cricket bat, working his way towards an exciting and bitter climax.

Ray Banks is one of those writers who seems to be unable to write a bad book. His sense of pacing is immaculate and he uses language the way Mo’ Tiernan uses a Stanley knife – cutting through to the meat and bone of the tale, trimming away the excess flab. He uses a technique that I first noticed in the brilliant Wolf Tickets – having two different narrators give their voice to different parts of the tale – and much as it does in that novel it works beautifully. Innes provides a bitter, tragic commentary on his part of the journey (showing a true alcoholic’s eye for self-delusion, along with a lot of submerged fury). Mo’ Tiernan provides a funny, frightening and foul-mouthed counter-point. Both voices are superbly written and utterly unique. The story moves along at an incredible pace, never once dragging, and as first parts of a series go Saturday’s Child is one of the finest. Another absolute cracker from somebody who has become one of my favourite writers over the past year or so. Can’t wait to get started on Sucker Punch.