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: 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 – The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

The Killer is Dying by James Sallis: This is that rare beast – a piece of literary crime fiction. It’s not really a thriller. Hell, it’s not really even crime fiction. To be honest, I’m not really sure how you can classify it. It doesn’t contain a tightly honed plot – its structure is fairly loose; what little action there is occurs in the margins – almost outside the page; and there’s more ambiguity than resolution. Its ambitions extend beyond just entertaining the reader, particularly as a lot of its action (such as it is), themes and meanings seem to appear in the lines between the text.

An ageing killer with a terminal illness tries to find out who shot his target and why; a middle-aged cop with a dying wife investigates the shooting and deals with his own problems; a teenage boy, abandoned by his parents and left to fend for himself, is sharing the dying killer’s dreams.

Much as I like Sallis (which is a lot), I’m not sure how much I liked TKiD. As ever with Sallis it’s beautifully rendered in spare prose and the sections involving the killer and the cop are great. The problem is the almost magical realist section involving Jimmie, the boy. I didn’t buy the fact that he was having the killer’s dreams and dramatically I just didn’t get the point of having him in the story. I can understand and appreciate that community and how we relate to one another is one of the novel’s many themes, but in a sense I thought this theme was covered just as clearly in the sections involving Christian, the killer, and Sayles, the cop. In fact, I wonder what this novel would have been like as a two-hander (focussing on the killer and the cop) rather than a three-hander? Would it be better? Would it be worse? Who knows!

Don’t get me wrong, there’s much to recommend here. It’s beautifully written, thematically dense and multi-layered, and its characters are alive in a way that very few writers can achieve, but I just didn’t buy the chapters involving Jimmie, which seriously curtailed my enjoyment. However, I think maybe I need to go back to this again at a later date and re-read it. Maybe I missed something – as stated earlier a lot of stuff goes on between the lines – but I think I’d have to give it a slower, more considered read away from distractions.

Despite my serious reservations about some of it, The Killer is Dying is well worth a read, particularly for fans of Sallis.

My favourite crime novels – No. 21

Drive by James Sallis – Until recently, Sallis seemed to be one of those writers who was destined to be known within dedicated crime reader and writer circles and nowhere else. Incredibly well read and knowledgeable about crime fiction, highly intelligent and a fine writer. But that situation changed when Nicholas Winding Refn directed his highly stylised and ultra-cool film adaptation of Sallis’ Drive starring man-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling. It helped that it was an excellent film, but the job was made easy by the fact that they had a balls-to-the-wall classic to adapt in the first place.

The premise is simple: Driver (we never know his name) is a getaway driver who works freelance for the highest bidder (in addition to a sideline as a Hollywood stunt driver). He is very much a loner, but is forced out of his shell when his female next door neighbour makes friends with him. She is married with a child but the husband is in prison and she appears to like Driver. Their relationship is complicated when the husband is released from prison and forced by people to whom he owes money to perform a robbery. Driver helps out the husband because of his relationship with the wife and son, but when the job goes wrong he is suddenly forced to go on the run from low-level mobsters with an axe to grind. And slowly but surely he turns from the hunted into the hunter.

Describing the plot of Drive doesn’t really do justice to Sallis’ novel, because it’s simply a framework for a fantastic set of characters and a pared down style which simply demands that you read faster and faster. Also, crucially, it weaves Driver’s back-story into the proceedings, which the film doesn’t do. Despite being a short novel/novella, it packs a lot into its pages. It is a beautifully paced and written novel, and in Driver it has one of the most compelling anti-heroes to emerge in modern crime fiction.