Potted Reviews: The Rapist by Les Edgerton, Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden

It’s been a while since I posted any reviews. I’m still avoiding most social media, but I thought that my recent reading has included some strong books that deserve exposure to a much wider audience (although Philip Kerr doesn’t need help on that front). And I’m also trying to get back into reviewing again. 2015 was patchy on the reviews front – some of my year end list didn’t have full blog reviews.

So without further ado…

The Rapist by Les Edgerton
The story of Truman Pinter, and how he came to be in prison, is told in his own flowery words on the last night of his life. He is on death row for the rape and murder of a barmaid. Well, he happily admits to the rape, but he denies the murder charge, because she was an intellectually inferior specimen in his eyes and made the mistake of annoying him. Pinter is clearly intelligent, but he’s also insane. He is self-aggrandizing, intolerant of others, and highly unsympathetic and unreliable as a narrator. His unreliability is as much of a surprise to him as it is to the reader. He suppresses and compresses information not because he wants to but because he has internalised so much rage. He reads like a more flowery version of the already locquacious Humbert Humbert.

Les Edgerton’s superb The Bitch was one of my favourite reads of 2014 but The Rapist is as far from that tale as it is possible to get. Whereas The Bitch was tight and mean and made short work of its complex noir narrative, this tale’s prose style is flowery (intentionally so) and nasty. It’s different and difficult. The subject matter alone is going to divide readers, but Edgerton’s execution is what elevates something that could have been voyeuristic or downright dull in the wrong hands. It’s not crime fiction or noir, it’s more like The Belly of the Beast as recounted by Nietzsche. The ending is likely to be as divisive as the subject matter and open to all manner of interpretations. It’s a very strong piece of work. Original and brave. And recommended for those with a strong stomach and an open mind.

Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels cannily apply the Raymond Chandler model to Germany just before, during and just after the second world war. Gunther, like Philip Marlowe, is a shop-soiled Sir Galahad – displaying decency in the face of corruption and evil. And like the great LA detective he’s just as quick with a one-liner.

The research and detail of these novels is terrific, weaving Gunther seamlessly into historical events and into the orbits of several major Nazi operators. The stories drip with period detail and atmosphere and they are well plotted and the characters are superb. Kerr knows how to push a narrative along and keep the reader interested. And most of the time the writing strikes an excellent balance between storytelling verve and descriptive excellence. However, occasionally Kerr likes to lavish the page with unnecessary metaphors and similes. Sometimes they are right on the money, but other times they jarred me out of the story. Also, the quality of some of the metaphors were wanting in comparison with Chandler. Otherwise this is a superb, highly recommended collection of crime fiction.

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
Scorch Atlas is an interesting though not always successful collection of apocalyptic tales and vignettes. Butler’s writing often ascends to some wonderful heights, though sometimes it reads like little more than a shopping list of pestilence and destruction. The best stories (Television Milk and The Ruined Child come to mind) knit superb prose and a distinctive vision of hell on earth. They also display a fear of family and people in general. The problem with the apocalypse is that it gets a little repetitive after a while. The stories often segue into each other – drowned worlds, horrific diseases and deformities, nature rebelling against man and beast – and the lack of memorable characters doesn’t help with differentiating things. If Butler had paid as much attention to character as he did to the rhythm of his prose this collection would be an ouright winner. But he didn’t and it isn’t – decent, though with moments of brilliance

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden
I wanted to read this before I made a start on the Netflix series Narcos. Basically, I wanted to know the truth (or as close as anybody can get without being there) of the story before watching a more dramatised version of it.

To be honest, it’s a tale that doesn’t need to be exaggerated or sexed up. The story of Pablo Escobar, and the men (both Colombian and American) who lined up to stop him, is so utterly wild that if an author tried to present it as fiction nobody would believe it. Escobar earned billions (back in the days when this was still a relatively difficult thing to achieve), pretty much owned and modernised the city of Medellin, and organised a reign of terror across Colombia. He tried to run for public office in the early days of his empire. He was responsible for the deaths of police, armed forces, government officials, presidential candidates. He was even considered the mastermind behind an airplane bombing and bombs in public places. Like I said, life is often stranger and wilder than fiction.

Even the attempts to bring him down were the stuff of fiction. Endemic corruption in Colombian society meant that Pablo’s snitches were embedded deeply within government, the military, and the police. He was able to evade capture for years (and later escape from ‘prison’) thanks to high levels of corruption. The few people who couldn’t be corrupted were either targeted by Pablo’s sicarios or slated by a press and public that didn’t know what to believe. Even the American operation was mired with infighting by the small, tightly operated, and brilliant Centra Spike intelligence unit and the bloated and highly expensive CIA operation. Centra Spike won the battle to chase Escobar, but it cost them in the long run.

It’s a story that benefits from Bowden’s impartial and considered approach. He doesn’t sensationalise or sex things up, probably because he knows that the facts speak for themselves, and his storytelling skills are strong. He keeps the prose in the background and never shows off, which throws the astonishing events into sharp relief. This is an excellent bit of non-fiction that reads as compellingly and quickly as some of the finest crime fiction. Highly recommended.

My Top Ten Reads of 2014

Damn! Has the year really gone that quickly?

It only seems like yesterday that I was making plans for how I wanted my year to go, and here I am at the end of it. The Glasgow Grin still hasn’t made an appearance – never have I put so much work into a writing project – as it expanded from a relatively short 50,000 word novel into a pretty complex 105,000+ monster that is still being edited as I write this. But it’s a much better tale because of the changes – at least, in my humble opinion. Such was the nature of the project that I didn’t read and review as many novels as I had initially wanted to in 2014.

Occasionally, weeks went by without me reading a single word of prose – mostly because I wasn’t able to spare brain capacity from redrafting and editing The Glasgow Grin project. Alas, I just don’t have that big a brain!

Still, when I did get the chance to read, I devoured stuff. And this year has been marked by its sheer quality. There have been very few duffers (I only stopped reading two books this year, which is a first), and even though I didn’t read as much as I would have liked I’ve read some great work.

Right, enough waffle. On with the list, which is in no particular order.

1) Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Last year, Ayres’ superb novella Fierce Bitches made my list. It was a beautifully written tale with a density and ambition that promised great things to come. Peckerwood, published by the superb Broken River Books, is the first fulfilment of that promise. Written in a more straightforward pared-back style than Bitches, this Jim Thompson-esque tale of corruption in a small town came with some wonderful characters, great dialogue, and fine set-pieces. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you grab a copy straight away.

2) Corrosion by Jon Bassoff
Bassoff’s twisted and deliciously evil slice of psycho-noir revelled in its squalid small town atmosphere, numerous unreliable and unstable narrators. Well written, with a keen eye for the right piece of detail to make a description come alive or a piece of dialogue sing. A truly impressive piece of work.

3) The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson
This dark, kinky and violent piece of noir about a zen bank robber chasing his wife and partner in crime was a real surprise. I read a couple of reviews before picking it up, but they didn’t really prepare me for such a gut-punch of a thriller that packs more into its 100+ pages than many thrillers of three times the length. If you have the stomach for some of the brutality, you probably won’t find many more exciting thrillers around.

4) The Bitch by Les Edgerton
This tale of blackmail and a robbery that goes very, very wrong was easily one of the best I read in 2014. It piles incident on top of incident, almost to the point where a lesser writer might tip it over into parody, but Les Edgerton never lets this happen. Through a combination of excellent writing and controlled plotting, Edgerton turns this into a quite excellent noir thrill-machine of a novel. Excellent stuff.

5) Rust and Bone by Craig Davidson
It’s the title story, about an ageing bare-knuckle fighter, that’s the real killer in this collection (a fine tale, written in some of the most beautifully rendered prose I’ve read in a short story), but it’s a strong collection filled with several superb short stories.

6) Mixed Blood by Roger Smith
Ah, what would one of these lists be without one of Roger Smith’s black-hearted, fast-paced tales on it? Not the same, that’s for sure! This ultra-violent thriller has several story strands that interleave beautifully. And, as ever with Smith, it has a brilliant and vile villain. Why Roger Smith isn’t a more successful writer is one of the big mysteries? He writes superbly, can plot with the best of them, and paints a picture of South Africa that grows scarier with each novel. When dog-shit writers like James Patterson sell millions for ghost-written tales, you have to wonder why Smith, a far superior writer with real story-telling chops, doesn’t sell anywhere near those kinds of numbers.

7) The City And The City by China Mieville
My first experience of this British science fiction author was a highly positive one. It’s a detective thriller set in two eastern European cities that share the same geographical space. The inhabitants of the city have differing languages, customs and architectural styles, and deal with each other’s existence through a combination of architectural cross-hatching and ‘unseeing’. It sounds like more of a ‘mindfuck’ than it actually is, and is a well-written thriller that seamlessly combines philosophical elements and satirical digs at big business and national identity. Superb stuff.

8) Paul Carter is a Dead Man by Ryan Bracha
Bracha’s alternative version of modern-day Britain makes for an ugly place, but also for a damn fine satirical thriller that skewers the kind of UKIP-style politics that currently blights our nation, along with nice digs at social network justice and its own brand of replacement swearing.

9) The Long Lost Dog Of It by Michael Kazepis
This original take on the the ensemble novel has its flaws, but it has stayed with me in a way that no other book has this year. It has some fine moments, plus far and away the best action setpiece I read this year (between two hitmen that starts in an apartment block and eventually expands out into a wider conflict with the police). It also has some wonderful prose.

10) American Death Songs by Jordan Harper
A fine collection of hard-edged short stories that really put its steel toe-capped boots into its characters’ guts. Harper is a damn fine writer of short tales. Great collection.

I read a lot of good stuff this year and there were many other notable and highly enjoyable works by writers such Paul D. Brazill, J. David Osborne, Keith Nixon, and Josh Stallings among many others.

Here’s hoping 2015 throws up as many gems.

Merry Christmas, folks, and a Happy New Year.

Review: The Bitch by Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton’s crime novels and short stories have a rich vein of truth and knowledge running through them that most crime writers, even the most talented, simply can’t emulate. Which is hardly surprising considering that he once spent a couple of years in prison for burglary at the Pendleton Reformatory in Indiana. Even the most stringent research is a mediocre substitute for real life experience. And it’s this kind of experience that filters down through the bedrock of Edgerton’s novel, The Bitch, and permeates the actions of its two main characters, Jake Bishop and Walker Joy.

The Bitch in this case is not a woman, but the nickname that cons and ex-cons alike give to the three strikes and you’re out sentencing structure of the American legal system – the point at which prisoners become ha-bitch-ual offenders and go inside for the rest of their lives.

At the start of The Bitch, after a second stint in jail, Jake Bishop is a reformed character working as a hairdresser and dreaming of opening up his own salon with his pregnant wife, Paris. The trouble starts when he takes a phone call from Walker Joy, his one-time cellmate, to whom he owes a very big favour, begging for help: by getting him out of a jam with a dodgy jeweller that he owes money to. His thinking clouded by fears of The Bitch, Jake declines. He is then warned by the jeweller that he has knowledge that will put Jake inside for a third strike and also intends to frame Jake’s younger brother for a recent burglary of his premises. Jake is left with no choice but to take the job on.

The job is to steal a few very special stones from a jewellery designer who is away for the weekend, but there will be a lot of other jewels in there too. If they can pull it off, the take will be massive.

The only problem is that, in true noir style, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. Jake is left wondering just who he can trust, and just how far he can go to avoid the ever-present third strike life sentence. Well, he goes pretty far, believe me, but to say more would spoil things…

I enjoyed The Bitch immensely. It is written with skill and care by a writer who knows his stuff personally, and that comes through in the fear and increasing desperation of Jake’s narrative voice. Thoughts of that dreaded third strike are always on his mind, colouring his decisions, clouding his judgement, making him irrational – it’s an impressive piece of first-person narration. But it’s the plotting and organising of key events in the narrative that impressed me most. There are times in many noir stories where events tumble into the protagonist’s path with such frequency that there’s always the danger of the narrative tipping over into parody. Les Edgerton sidesteps these potential problems adroitly through a combination of fine writing and slowing the narrative down to allow the characters and readers time to draw breath. He drops a few twists along the way to a really satisfying ending, in which he gives Jake a truly great line of closing dialogue (so good, in fact, that I wished I’d written the damn line myself). If you are a noir fan, a heist fan, or a straight up thriller fan, there’s plenty in The Bitch that will satisfy you. Highly recommended.

Twelve Mad Men – Ryan Bracha interviewed

When the outrageously talented self-published author Ryan Bracha (Paul Carter Is A Dead Man, Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet) contacted me about being part of a wild anthology idea that he had regarding twelve mad men in an institution I jumped at the idea. It was an exciting project involving a lot of seriously talented writers (Paul Brazill, Keith Nixon, Gerrard Brennan, Les Edgerton, just a few of those participating) – how could I not get involved? The concept involved 12 tales featuring fictionalised versions of each author around which Bracha would construct a bridging tale before tying the strands together at the very end. Kind of like one of those anthology horror movies from the 70s, but much better. I’d be bloody mad if I shirked this opportunity (especially as I’d never submitted a story to a collection before).

And now Twelve Mad Men is finally finished and out there – adding some serious craaaaazy to Amazon’s website. I interviewed Ryan about the project and what brought it about etc. Have a gander at how it went.

How did you come up with the concept for Twelve Mad Men?
It came to me one night when I was a bit tipsy and spouting off at fellow writer and friend Mark Wilson about how, as indie writers, we’ve got a better opportunity than ever before to experiment with our work. It was all about how there are so many writers out there trying to rip off what’s worked on a massive scale in the past (Harry Potter, Fifty Shades, Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett etc.) and trying to grab a quick buck rather than use the creativity and imagination they were gifted with to do something awesome. Mark tends to feel the brunt of the ideas factory that is my brain. I come up with several ideas every week to try to do something original, most will be completely ridiculous and fall by the wayside, but some of them grow legs and I can run with them. This one was one of the latter. I wanted to put a bunch of wildly different, but equally talented writers in one place, and see what they did when given the exact same brief. I wanted to challenge myself to think on my feet, so the improvisation aspect jumped into the picture. The narrative theme just gave each writer the scope to be as ridiculous, violent, intense or comedic as they wanted to be.

How do you feel about the finished product?
I’m extremely happy with it. All eleven of the men I invited to contribute surpassed my wildest expectations, and gave me some phenomenal material to work with. The finished product is a seriously good signifier of the talent currently writing and publishing today.
Did the fact that you were improvising the tale that linked the stories cause any problems?
Not as many as I thought it might. Getting the stories submitted in the staggered manner that I did gave me the opportunity to really think about how I was going to introduce a character, and how I might leave that character be, taking what I needed to push the main plot on. Sometimes I did get carried away and went off on a tangent, but rather than delete and rewrite, I’d just go further back and drop some clues in about what was to come. I enjoyed the process immensely, truth be told. The challenge excited me.
Do you prefer anthologies with an overall unifying theme?
Yes and no. If it’s an individual writer’s collection then I like it to be a broad spectrum of what they can do with words, a whole range of themes, characters and styles. If it’s a multi-author piece of work, then yes. I like to see different takes on the same theme. I always loved those projects at school where everybody got one word, and had to write a piece of fiction with that word as the title. It shows how diverse we are as thinkers.
Do you hope to start a trend with this collection?
Definitely. I devised and implemented the idea according to a set of rules that I’ve termed The Rule of Twelve Manifesto 2014. It’s a series of guidelines for getting it written and published. I stole the general basis of rules from the Lars Von Trier spearheaded cinematic movement, Dogme 95, where the story would be the driving force, with no effects, or music to drive emotion. I wanted the writers involved to come up with something reasonably quick and without retrospective editing to get the essence of them as creative types. I would hope that somebody else might take the ball and run with it, and come up with their own Twelve project but if they don’t then that’s fine. The process isn’t for everyone. I’ll just continue to do them myself.
What are your future writing plans?
Before the writing I intend to kick off my new imprint Abrachadabra Books which will embody my approach to the writing game, and submissions will open once I get the first book out. I’m in talks with one of the Mad Men about putting his new one out. That’s a secret, though!
As far as my own work I have the second novel in The Dead Man Trilogy (The first of which is Paul Carter is a Dead Man) to finish hopefully for a January release, then I’m going to do another Twelve project, which will have some of the same names involved as this one, with some fresh blood in there too. On top of that I’m going to work on some shorts to go into a new collection. But the best laid plans and all that. Ask me next week and I might be planning a novel written entirely on cash that’s currently in circulation. Until Wilson talks me out of it!

Twelve Mad Men is out now. All proceeds go to Teenage Cancer Trust, so there’s really no excuse for you not to buy it here.