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.

Advertisements

Review: Dreamland by Keith Nixon

Keith Nixon’s novel The Fix was one of the best I read last year (only just missing out on my annual ‘Best Of’ list). This tale of crooked financiers, betrayal, and murder featured some great characters, but my favourite was without doubt the homeless Russian man Konstantin Boryakov. Despite his appearance, he had a very specific skillset, and was as hard and sharp as a box of titanium nails. Well, Dreamland is the story of how he became that hobo. He’s ex-KGB, just out of prison, and freshly touched down in Margate, enjoying (not) the delights of the Dreamland amusement arcade, where he makes the mistake of crossing dealer Dave The Rave – or, more to the point, The Rave makes the mistake of crossing and trying to steal from him. Konstantin puts his training to good use and defends himself. He also takes Dave’s money and gets rid of the drug wraps to Dave is carrying for somebody a lot higher up the criminal food chain. And from there it only gets worse for all of them…

Dreamland is a highly enjoyable tale in its own right but also works as a kind of a taster for Nixon’s longer work. The same short snappy sentences, the same foul-mouthed, funny dialogue, and the same tight plotting that made his debut such a pleasure to read are here too in miniature. Konstantin is also great character to spend time with: brutal, hard as nails, curt, weary and also at times capable of tenderness and affection, he lights up the narrative like a beacon. Dreamland comes highly recommended by me. Grab it today and then bite your nails and wait for the arrival of the next Konstantin novellas from Caffeine Nights – they’re just as good as this.