Review: The Colombian Mule by Massimo Carlotto

Massimo Carlotto’s The Colombian Mule is one of a series of novels featuring a recurring character called Marco ‘The Alligator’ Buratti, an unlicensed PI who was once imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, along with his accomplices Max The Memory and former Mafia heavy Beniamino Rossini. In this novel he is tasked with working for a man who has been fitted up in a sting involving a Colombian drug mule. His case isn’t helped by the fact that he is already a fairly unrepentent criminal (who got away with the murders of two policemen) and that his only possible chance of release is for the mule to admit that the whole operation was a frame-up. As Buratti and his allies delve deeper into the case they find that the whole thing goes deeper than just a Colombian connection. They are soon enmeshed in a case that involves the police, designer drugs production, double- and triple-crosses, and a system that is at best hopelessly inept and at worst hopelessly corrupt.

Having enjoyed some previous Europa Editions novels and spurred on by enthusiastic cover reviews – such as this one by the New Yorker: “Carlotto’s taut, broody Mediterranean noir is filled with blind corners and savage set pieces” – I decided to give it a try. Well, as much as I liked The Colombian Mule I had some real caveats, too. The New Yorker review, with its talk of “blind corners and savage set pieces” must be describing a different novel to the one I’ve just finished. The set pieces are anything but savage; in fact, they’re underwritten to the point where they are just basic descriptions of a thing that happened. There’s little tension, nothing is drawn out to create suspense or thrills, and there’s a distinct lack of ‘savagery’. If I compare this with Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard, the novel I’m currently reading, there’s a real difference in approach. One particular set-piece during the first third of Mr Majestyk stretches to about six pages in length. It’s exciting, tense, written concisely with an eye for just the right details – a beautiful piece of action writing. Carlotto deals with a murder towards the end of the novel in two or three short paragraphs with zero tension or emotional investment described in flat, declarative prose – a bland, dull piece of action writing.

My other caveat is that the ‘detection’ mostly involves Rossini threatening people, either through his reputation or via actual violence, or by intelligence work performed by Max The Memory. Buratti himself is a fairly benign character, offering little more than musings about women and legendary consumption of Calvados (a beverage I’m now obssessed with trying at least once). He lacks Rossini’s sociopathic indifference to using violence as a means to an end and he doesn’t possess Max’s analytical intelligence. He’s more of a conduit between the two more interesting characters.

Still, despite all these shortcomings, there was something likeable and offbeat about the relationship of the three protagonists, and the downer ending packs a decent wallop. Although I’ll be happy to read another novel in this series (along with some of Carlotto’s other work), I’ll be in no particular rush to do it. Decent but not essential.

Advertisements

Roger Smith talks about his brilliant new novel Nowhere

Nowhere_RogerSmith

Regular readers of this blog will know just how highly I rate Roger Smith’s excellent new novel Nowhere. It contains fantastic characters, a compelling plot, along with a detailed view of South African politics (old and new).

It’s available to pre-order at the moment but will be available to buy on 23rd February. I highly suggest you grab a copy. Otherwise you’re missing a treat.

Roger was kind enough to answer some questions about the new novel recently. He really gave me some very illuminating answers that should make folks want to read this superb novel

Nowhere is without a doubt the most political book of your career. And South Africa is such a prominent supporting character in the story. Was it your intention to bring more attention to the politics of your country with this novel?
The three books I wrote before Nowhere (Capture, Sacrifices and Man Down) were all pretty intense, almost claustrophobic, psychological thrillers. Since they were set in South Africa (although Man Down was also set partly in the US) the particular nature of South African society—which is a very politicized society—informed the books, of course. The decisions the characters made (and the crimes they were able to get away with) were a direct consequence of living in South Africa, but the unique political sensibility of the country was implicit in those quite contained stories rather than highlighted.

So, before I wrote Nowhere, before I had any idea what the book would be about, I felt the impulse to write something more expansive, something on a broader canvas, and something that would allow me to use all stuff crammed into my fifty-five-year-old South African head: memories, fears, anger, disillusionment—the fallout from growing up under apartheid, going through the giddy Mandela era and then witnessing the rise of the cynical, corrupt regime that is in power now.

I’d been obsessively reading Shelley’s Ozymandias, with its powerful image of a broken statue’s trunkless legs and head lying in the desert sand—a warning about the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build—and it struck me that all that remains of the Afrikaners’ forty-six year blight of apartheid (when they had felt so all-powerful) are some old statues of their forgotten leaders lying in sheds or standing in the dust in a couple of tragic little white homelands whose inhabitants still cling to the notion of Boer superiority, and it left me with the certainty that this new regime will come to dust, too, in time.

What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?
I was worried that it was too South African. That it would be incomprehensible—or, worse, boring—to foreign readers. I wrestled with that while I was writing it and then I thought, fuck it, just write the thing the way it wants to be written. I’ve been very encouraged by the early feedback on the book (including yours) from readers in the UK, Europe and North America.

There is one particular moment when Steve Bungu recalls a specific piece of torture to a loved one. Was this based on research?
Over the years I’ve known people who were tortured by the SA security police and I’ve also spoken to security policemen and I’ve heard stories that are hard to stomach and difficult to comprehend, so, yes, the stuff in Nowhere is rooted in fact.

Speaking of Bungu: In my own humble opinion, you write the best villains in crime fiction – how do you manage to create such vile, and yet three-dimensional antagonists?
Thanks, Martin, I appreciate that. Well, villains are always the most interesting characters to write, aren’t they? And the challenge is to give them dimension, to make them complex, to force the reader to identify with them to some degree, even if that’s uncomfortable.

The genesis of Bungu was quite interesting. Around thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I lived in Johannesburg and was involved in making anti-apartheid documentaries. This was a bad time: states of emergency, draconian media gags, troops in the townships, arrests, political murders. Nobody had any inkling that it would all be over in a few years. Anyway, I was put in touch with a Zulu poet who was quite a prominent figure in the Black Consciousness movement who had been detained and tortured by the security police in Durban and had escaped and was hiding out in a brothel in Hillbrow, a very rundown, dangerous part of Jo’burg.

I met the guy (I won’t mention his name as he was a lovely man, not at all like the monstrous Bungu) and we struck up an unlikely friendship. Here was this Black Consciousness (by definition anti-white) poet befriending a young white guy. The police had beaten him badly and all but destroyed his left knee. He’d been unable to get proper medical attention for fear of being apprehended and lived on painkillers and booze. The hookers cooked for him and cleaned his room and probably provided other services, gratis, to soothe him. He had no interest in discussing politics with me, he just wanted to drink Scotch and talk about books. He was going through a Beckett phase, I guess the absurdity of those plays struck a chord and informed his poems. We had wonderful, wild conversations. He was a very funny man. After a month or so he disappeared back to Durban and I never saw him again, but I never forgot him.

When I sat down to write Nowhere I was fascinated by the idea of a young man, a student who loved Beckett, who had the ambition to be a playwright (as Bungu did) whose life became overwhelmed by his battle against apartheid. Who, after a devastating period of torture and detention, went from being an idealistic pacifist to a stone killer.


Many of your novels involve messed-up family units – what makes this such a compelling theme for you as a writer?
What did Philip Larkin say? “They fuck you up your mum and dad . . . but they were fucked up in their turn.” I suppose I’m fascinated by the whole sins of the fathers thing. The karmic wheel creaking. And the messed-up family is just a metaphor for the broader messed-up society, isn’t it?

You’ve now written three novels that involve Disaster Zondi: do you have any further plans for the character?
You know, as much as I liked Zondi when I wrote Mixed Blood, I had no intention of writing him again. I resisted the idea of creating a series character, which can pigeon-hole a writer. When I was working on Dust Devils a couple of years later Zondi would wake me up at night (I’m serious, he would appear in my dreams and wake me) and insist I put him in the book. I did, and it worked. But when I was done with Dust Devils I was sure I was done with Disaster Zondi, too.

But, for a while, my French publisher, the irrepressible Robert Pépin, has been at me to write another book featuring Zondi. For whatever reason Zondi has quite a following in France. And when I started work on Nowhere I realized Zondi would be a perfect addition to the ensemble cast: an older, jaded, disillusioned Zondi, in the twilight of his career.

Will I write him again? No plans, but it’s not impossible . . .

What does your writing process involve (for instance, initial plotting, research, and then the actual mechanics of writing and redrafting)?
I start off with an image, usually quite random, that often becomes the opening of the book. With Nowhere it was the image of the president of South Africa murdering his wife with a spear in the dining room of his official Cape Town residence. I had no idea where this came from or what to do with it, but I wrote the scene and then Steve Bungu, fully formed, dressed in his check shorts and golf shirt, walked through the door of the dining room and I was off and running.

I don’t like to structure things too tightly, I find this stifling. It tends to encourage formulaic plotting. I like to give my characters their heads, let them surprise me. And new characters just appear as I write, which is great. Like the bushman cop, Jan Assegaai. Zondi walked into a rural police station and there Assegaai was, standing by the window that looked out onto the desert. I had no idea that he’d be there but I loved writing him. (Now there’s a character I could bring back . . .)

Research tends to happen as I write the first draft and it happens in response to what I’m writing.

I bang the first draft out as fast as I can, in around eight weeks. Then, when I understand what I’m writing about, I write draft after draft after draft, honing and refining, for another three to four months.

There has been talk of a film adaptation of Mixed Blood: any further news on that front?
Shit, it’s a slow process. It’s been going on for years, with different producers and screenwriters. Movies are tough. All that money, all that risk. If it happens it happens . . .

What novelists have most influenced your work?
In no particular order: Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Jim Harrison, Pete Dexter, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Graham Greene, Richard Ford, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Ross Thomas. Many, many more . . .

Are you currently working on any new writing projects?
I’ve just finished writing an international espionage novel under a pseudonym. I can’t really say more as publishing deals are still being inked, which is very exciting. But there’ll be more South African books, for sure

Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
Turning on the computer each morning and typing that first word.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? Hobbies, interests etc.
I have a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, so I spend a lot of time in kidland, which is a sweet antidote to my work. I live by the ocean, so swimming and walking on the beach is fun. I read a lot. I do ashtanga yoga every morning before I write.

What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching? Do they influence your writing at all?
I love movies and TV right now is astonishingly good, isn’t it? Series like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were an inspiration. Vince Gilligan, who was the Breaking Bad showrunner and is now doing Better Call Saul, is a real innovator: the structure of his scripts—the way he messes with time—is fascinating.

I worked in movies and TV for years and people have said that my writing has a “cinematic quality” so there’s been some cross-pollination, clearly.

Nowhere can be bought here now and will be available for download on 23rd February

Review: Nowhere by Roger Smith

After last year’s grand guignol excess (in terms of both violence and the vileness of the characters) in the mostly US set home invasion thriller Man Down Roger Smith has toned things down and returned to his home ground of South Africa for his brilliant new novel Nowhere. Anybody who reads this blog regularly (and I know there are a few of you) will know how highly I rate Smith’s work.

When South Africa’s venal, alcoholic president murders his wife in a rage, Steve Bungu (a brilliant creation) sets about fixing it. He starts by murdering the wife’s private bodyguard and then brings in retired detective Joe Louw, via a touch of emotional blackmail, to run a whitewash investigation. Bungu uses Louw’s messed-up, psychopathic son, Leon, as a means of keeping him in line. At the same time, Disaster Zondi, previously from Mixed Blood and Dust Devils, is sent to Nerens (in Afrikaan the Nowhere of the title) to arrest and bring to justice Apartheid relic, and white power ‘General’, Magnus Kruger, for the murder of a young black man.

This sets in motion a complicated tale of revenge and the abuse of power. As Joe Louw realises that Bungu’s motives for blackmail go back to his apartheid days as an activist, Zondi also comes to realise that Kruger might just be innocent of the murder he’s in the frame for, but responsible for something equally as dark and unpleasant. And as the two initially separate investigations begin to coalesce in odd ways, blood begins to flow.

In many ways Nowhere is the archetypal Roger Smith book, in that it draws on his familiar themes of messed-up family units (especially Sacrifices and Capture) and the messed-up politics of South Africa (in particular Dust Devils) and pulls them together in a way that he’s never quite managed before. It also creates in Steve Bungu the finest villain of Smith’s career (which is quite a feat, because I personally feel that Smith writes the best villains around). He is an awful, Machiavellian character, and utterly ruthless, but he also has his reasons. He wasn’t born that way, but moulded by the horrific sins of apartheid. The reader understands the reasons for what he does, even though they will undoubtedly, and with good reason, despise his methods. Smith also creates in Joe Louw and Disaster Zondi two sympathetic characters. Some of the terrible decisions that Louw makes following his blackmail (one of which leads to a massacre) come from promises he made to his dying wife. He does bad things, but he’s not a bad man. Zondi is a shell of the person he was in Dust Devils, but somewhere along the line he develops a newfound taste for his job and an increased sense of worth. Even a villain like Magnus Kruger is given some depth and shade for his crimes and venality.

Nowhere is brilliantly written with a narrative propulsion that kept me reading into the night. Smith has always been able to plot with the best of them, but Nowhere really marks a step up: the plotting is superbly measured and lends an epic feel to the proceedings. Smith also tones back the violence and sadism that, I felt, marred the otherwise excellent set-up of Man Down, and uses it as a part of the plot and as a means to explore character. Yes, it is brutal, but not excessively so and entirely in keeping with the storyline. The characters are also among the best that Smith has created. I can’t recommend Nowhere highly enough. If there’s any justice in the literary world then it should bucketloads of both Kindle and paperback copies. Nowhere should be Smith’s real breakout success.

Review: How’s The Pain by Pascal Garnier

Simon is an ageing hitman with a terminal illness undertaking one last job before retirement. He befriends the young and simple-minded Bernard and employs him as his driver (telling him that he’s a vermin exterminator). Bernard jumps at the chance of seeing the coast and making some money. But what happens is a road trip that the young man will never forget.

Garnier’s How’s The Pain is not a bad read, but it isn’t stunning either (particularly as Garnier has been highly lauded by many mainstream critics). Based on the evidence of this novel, Garnier isn’t up there at the summit of French crime fiction with Manchette and Simenon, but he’s still a more than decent writer. His overuse of comic simile and metaphor grates at times. Simile is a difficult thing to get right and when it is overdone or overused it distracts from the story – something that happens several times during the course of this tale. However, when he keeps it simple, Garnier is very effective. Character seems to be where his real strength lies: Simon, Bernard, Anais and Rose are all great characters with very human flaws and foibles. And their interplay and dialogue is what keeps the interest high. Also, Garnier writes a couple of brief but effective action set pieces. Nothing spectacular, but a solid novel for those looking for something character based.

Review: Man Down by Roger Smith

In Roger Smith’s Man Down (his first set in the US), South African ex-pat couple from hell, John and Tanya Turner (who are like George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, if George and Martha were psychopaths), are the subject of a terrifying home invasion by three masked men. Initially straightforward, the plot twists and turns as fragile alliances are broken and formed between the captors and their captives, and the story flits between past and present, right up until a genuinely horrific climax.

Man Down is the first Smith I’ve read that I can’t quite give an unconditional rave, but only for reasons that I will explain at the end. Smith has always dealt in shades of grey (tending mostly towards the darker end of the gradient), but here he deals only in black. John Turner is an awful specimen of humanity, redeemed only by the fact that his wife and their kidnappers are so much worse and that he has something that might approximate love towards his daughter and girlfriend.

The story begins in dark fashion, smartly set-up in Smith’s classy, clipped prose, then gets darker and darker as the story progresses, until it collapses in on itself to form a grand guignol black hole of horror from which no light can escape. The tale is very well written, the timelines are beautifully handled, and Smith can elicit suspense like few other thriller writers, but the ending is going to be very divisive. It’s the goriest thing that Smith has ever put in a crime thriller, which is saying something, as Smith does nasty violence very well, but this is more of a horror climax. It is genuinely gut-wrenching in the truest sense of that word. Also, the fate of one of the characters (one of the few to elicit any sympathy, barring the Turner’s young daughter and a kidnapped girl) might jar readers’ sensibilities: Smith sets it up that getting close to a man like Turner, in the manner that they do, is only going to end badly. It makes sense, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

Man Down is a very good tale, but it’s so harsh and dark, without even a glint of the gallows humour sprinkled through Smith’s other tales, that you come away feeling like you should take a shower after finishing the final sentence. Smith’s brilliance keeps you reading, even when the story becomes unbearably dark and gruesome; it’s a tough tale that’s highly recommended for readers with very strong stomachs, but for those with delicate sensibilities you might want to look elsewhere.

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: Piggyback by Tom Pitts

When mid-level criminal enforcer Jimmy is contacted by dealer Paul about a lost load of marijuana with a piggybacked load of coke, despite his reservations about getting involved, he sees an opportunity to make a nice financial gain. Turns out that the girls Paul used as mules have ripped him off. The real problem is that the load belonged to a bad-assed gangster called Jose who will kill Paul and probably Jimmy if the load isn’t returned sharpish. So Jimmy and Paul go for a ride to get the drugs back, which leads to betrayal and a whole load of carnage.

This is the first thing I’ve read by Tom Pitts but it certainly won’t be the last. It’s a fast-paced, exciting ride into the darkness. Tightly written, lean as hell, moves like a bullet train, perfect for a plane or train journey or a lazy afternoon. The characters are an assorted collection of scumbags who are pretty much an unsympathetic bunch, so when they suffer their mostly unpleasant fates you don’t feel much for them, but sometimes when you are dealing with noir that’s pretty much what you are going to get. It doesn’t stop it from being a wild couple of hours worth of reading though. Highly recommended.

Pitts is a definite talent, and one I’ll be watching out for in future.