Review: Zulu by Caryl Feréy

I grabbed this recently while on a book expedition in London. I’d never heard of either the author or the book before, but the blurb appealed to me. It pitched the narrative as somewhere between ultra-violent noir and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener.

The story basically concerns the murder of a young, affluent white student in Cape Town. The violent killing has a suspected sexual motive, and seems to have been done in a senseless frenzy. Ali Neumann, an emotionally repressed detective, and his team (Dan, intelligent but weak, and Brian, angry and self-destructive) soon discover a second killing that then leads them down a path into political machinations, a new meth-based drug that sends users into a violent frenzy, and conspiracies pitting black against white (and vice-versa). As the bodies pile up (and boy, do they pile high in this), and the tale develops more twists than fusilli, this really does develop into a gripping novel.

Roger Smith’s crime fiction has made South Africa seem like a very scary place (somehow even scarier than the very violent reality), but Feréy’s novel makes Smith’s work read like fucking Cider With Rosie in comparison (with the exception of the astonishingly black Man Down). The moment a major character is killed off in the first quarter was the point I realised that all bets were off in this story. Anybody could die at any time. And they do – lots of them – in very violent and gruesome ways. It is brutal stuff. It is also beautifully paced: starting slow, but building momentum as the tale progresses, until the pages seem to be practically turning themselves at the end. Superbly plotted, with a keen eye for a post-Apartheid political scene where neither black lives or white lives matter so long as the folks at the top make a profit and maintain power, and well told, Zulu does somehow meld Le Carré with neo-noir to create something fresh and new – and in the process becomes a dreadful advertisement for South African tourism. Highly recommended.

Why has noir made a comeback?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently. What is it about noir and hardboiled fiction that makes it so popular for modern day readers? After all, a happy noir ending is as rare as hen’s teeth and, although leavened with moments of humour, noir leaves its characters floundering in a Godawful mess that gets deeper and darker the harder they try to dig themselves out. Why would people actively seek out stuff like this when the world around them is so bloody dark, anyway?

We live in a world where banks are given a government licence to steal our money, safe in the knowledge that nothing will ever actually be done about it, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay for these transgressions aided by a crony political elite. We live in a world where governments spy without any constraints or accountability on our emails, phone calls, text messages and internet usage in the name of democracy and safety, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. We live in a world where the top one per cent will get richer to the detriment of the rest of society, and yet somehow manage make it seem like it’s the poor that are bleeding us all dry. We live in a world that allows corporations to control ever more of our daily lives (through political lobbying, weak and greedy politicians, and financial influence, among other things), allowing them to plunder resources, destroy the natural world and, in some cases, murder people, in their quest for ever more wealth. We live in the kind of world that celebrates fame over talent, youth over experience, beauty over almost everything. In short, we live in a world whose value system is irretrievably damaged, a world that is fucked.

I partly think it is because the world is so bad that noir has made a return to the mass-market. There’s something of the car crash about noir fiction; the way it shoves our faces into the piss and shit and viscera of this world. And if you drive a car for long enough you’ll know that there’s nothing we humans like more than rubbernecking at car accidents. Because as bad as things seem for us in the real world its nice to take a trip to places that are so much worse than ours, visiting characters whose lives are much more messed up than ours will hopefully ever be. What’s better than taking a trip to small towns where characters live out their lives of quiet desperation right up to the moment when they kick against the system and get really destroyed? I’ll tell you what’s better – that moment when you put the book down, breathless, thanking your lucky stars it’s them and not you.

Noir always seems to rear its head when times are bad. During the depression and post-depression years, during the cold war years and McCarthy’s witch hunts, during other recent periods of financial hardship. Look at Brit noir, for instance, which really started to come into its own when the swinging sixties turned ugly and faded into the early seventies, and the country was crippled by the unions, the three day week, and systemic corruption spread like cancer. Writers like Ted Lewis peeled back the skin of this ugly Britain and showed readers the rot that lay beneath. There was something appealing about somebody like Lewis saying: “Yes, your life is shit, but d’you wanna see something really ugly? Then read this.” Jack’s Return Home, Billy Rags and the peerless GBH pressed the noses of British readers into the filth and showed them lives that were far worse than their own, lives lived in squalid bedsits and B&Bs, lives lived in pornography, the sex industry, and other criminal endeavours, lives lived in prison cells or on the run, and lives lived so close to the edge that sometimes the balance is lost and they tip over the edge.

Of course, the ugliness of everyday life isn’t the only reasons for noir’s cyclical resurgence. Technology plays a big part, too. Affordable mass-market paperbacks and magazines propelled the earlier days of noir, back in the days when these things were truly affordable. And today’s noir and hardboiled fiction is propelled by the internet (e-zines etc.), relatively affordable e-readers, cheap or free ebooks, and improvements in printing technology that have enabled high-quality print-on-demand paperbacks. Today’s technological advances have allowed new small-press publishers to set up high-quality outfits with smaller outlays and overheads than Big Publishing can manage, which means they’re more inclined to take risks with material that might upset readers due to being too dark, or violent, or full of rage, or any number of other transgressions that can trouble those who might prefer ‘cosier’ stories: Blasted Heath, New Pulp Press, Snubnose Press, and Caffeine Nights are just some of the pioneers of this new trend. These folks are pushing real boundaries, taking real risks, and are putting out some cracking fiction that would never have been seen if Big Publishing was still controlling things.

There are currently a lot of Neo-Noir titans pushing boundaries that would make even the likes of Jim Thompson blush. Writers like Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Ray Banks, Roger Smith, Anthony Neil Smith, Paul D Brazill, Tom Piccirilli, Heath Lowrance, Les Edgerton, Jedidiah Ayres, Megan Abbott, Nigel Bird, Josh Stallings, Ian Ayris, to name but a few, produce wild rides, break taboos, take real risks, and tell cracking tales with aplomb. If you haven’t read them yet, you should, they’ll really shake you up.

I hope that this new popularity for noir fiction doesn’t go the way of previous boom times. In the past, its popularity has been cyclical, and ended when times have got better…

Buuuut, the modern world’s a shithole, and things are probably only going to get worse from here on in (economically, socially, ecologically), so long may these noir writers and others like them reign.

Let a little darkness into your life.

Review: Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres

Anybody who read my recent review of Ayres’ collection A F*ckload of Shorts will know I thought highly of it. And rumblings on the crime fiction grapevine suggested that his latest, Fierce Bitches, was a cracker. Reviews were exceptional right across the board. So I made sure to grab a paperback copy the moment it became available.

Fierce Bitches involves a small town, or more a collection of buildings really, called Politoburg, in the middle of nowhere in Mexico that belongs to Harlan Polito, a crime boss. The population of this town consists of Mexican whores (the Marias), gringos who work for Polito (sent out-of-the-way, to be called on when the boss needs them), and Ramon who runs the place by keeping gringos in line – making sure they don’t hurt the girls, keeping them supplied with booze, drugs etc, and breaking heads when needs be. Everything runs smoothly, or as smoothly as a town that consists of criminals can, until a robbery of a delivery occurs, leaving people dead and Ramon severely injured. In the aftermath of the robbery one of the Marias escapes with a nameless gringo and suddenly everything goes to hell…

It’s hard to know how to classify Fierce Bitches. It’s not strictly crime fiction, although crimes obviously occur during it (lots of them, in fact), I suppose you could call it noir, it’s certainly bleak enough, but even that doesn’t seem quite appropriate. It has many elements in the mix, but the best way to describe it would be as a cross between the hellish El Rey finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway and the biblical fury of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. One thing is for certain, it has an ambition that most modern noir novels will probably never come close to emulating. For a start, the use of language is certainly superior to many writers currently working in this field. Second-person narration is notoriously difficult to get right but Ayres absolutely nails it here. Also, the fractured timeline mode of storytelling is another skill that’s not easy to nail, but again Ayres manages it with aplomb. It’s an exceptional bit of writing that, despite only being novella length, feels much weightier than its page count and has certainly marked Ayres as someone who will probably rise to the top of the current crop of crime/noir writers sooner rather than later. I can see this being in my top ten or top five or whatever the fuck it ends up being at the end of the year.

My Favourite crime novels no 23.

Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer
Anybody ever remember those stupid book clubs in the 80s and 90s? You got a selection of books for about 50p each but then you had no choice but to buy 6 full price hardback-sized softcovers over a twelve month period or rue the day.

With one exception the books I ended up getting via this stupid method were either dull or just plain shit (because I don’t remember a single title I bought). And that exception? Well, in my opinion it was worth all five of the other books, because that’s how I got hold of Baer’s masterpiece.

Kiss Me, Judas is probably the druggiest piece of crime fiction since Hedayat’s stone-cold classic The Blind Owl (even though it’s not really crime fiction). And like that work of genius it features, in Phineas Poe, one of literatures most unreliable narrators (a man who might be capable of truth if he was sober enough to know what it was).

The novel begins with ex-cop Poe, just out of a mental institution, hooking up with a woman he suspects to be a prostitute. She takes him to his hotel room for a night of passion. When he wakes up, he’s in a bathtub filled with ice, minus one kidney, with a note tells him to phone 911 if he wants to live.

Poe checks himself out of hospital perilously early in order to find the woman, called Jude, and take revenge on her. The problem is that when he finds catches up with her he falls in love instead. This leads to a cross-country trip with the haggard, still very sick, Poe riding with a woman he loves but can’t really trust. Along the way they meet various people who might not be who they initially appear to be.

Kiss Me Judas is a head-trip in the best sense. It veers from crime fiction to drug induced dreamscape to gothic horror with an ease that few writers in the genre could ever master. It takes the reader on a wild ride that has the twisted quality of the best or worst nightmares (depending on your point-of-view). Poe is a fantastic character who you simultaneously want to hug and slap – he does so many things that are wrong and yet he’s still very likeable. But the thing that really makes Judas work is the prose. It’s beautiful. Baer’s writing has a sensuous, sinuous quality that somehow renders the horrors within Judas’ pages palatable. There really aren’t many crime writers around who can come close to Baer in terms of prose. Hell, not many literary writers can touch this prose when it’s at the top of its game:

…I can see the boat. Adrift, barely moving. A woman’s arm dangling over one side. Her fingertips gliding at the surface of the water like the legs of a spider, leaving no trace.

There are stunners like this liberally peppered throughout the novel:

I pull off my clothes and stand before the mirror. Every bone in my body pushes at the surface of my white skin. I can see veins and tendons and unprotected muscle. My face is a grinning mask.

Baer’s prose and narrative trickery get us inside the head of his main character and push the boundaries of crime fiction in a way that very few writers do. At its best it’s a truly stunning performance. Baer followed Judas with Penny Dreadful and Hell’s Half Acre, which further Poe’s story. They’re both good, but neither has the power or precision of this classic.

Do yourself a favour. If you haven’t read this before, then buy it today. And if you’ve only read it once, then do yourself a favour and read it again!