Review: The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith

Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero from Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, is now in prison after the massacre at the end of the second novel. Considered as a traitor and a dirty cop by other inmates and guards alike, he is public enemy number one – the one prisoner that the others want to kill. Trouble for them is, he’s gone from being a villain with a conscience to a stone cold bad ass and every assassination attempt has ended badly. But Billy’s nemesis, Agent Rome, and his new assistant, Coleen, have arranged what they think is a sure-fire assassination attempt with a seriously corrupt prison guard and his underlings in cooperation with a vicious prisoner, Ri’Chess, who rules the roost in one of the wings. But the problem is that the day of the hit is the day that Billy’s ex-mother in law brings his son to the prison to see his father. Inevitably the hit goes wrong and double- and triple-crosses abound, the guards come to realise that Ri’Chess is using the hit for his own ends, and Colleen and Billy end up fighting to get the man’s family out of the prison alive.

Last year Anthony Neil Smith’s excellent thriller All The Young Warriors just missed out on my top five of the year (by the narrowest of margins), but there was part of me that suspected that Smith’s next book was going to be the big one. And guess what? This is the one, the wildest ride that Smith has done. As dark and cold as its prison setting when the power goes down, it contains moments of extreme nastiness and some extremely vicious and self-serving characters. It heaps misery on top of misery (rape, torture, many murders in various forms) and turns the prison into a charnel house. Smith makes some very bold choices in terms of the plot development and offers little in the way of redemption. It’s easily the finest prison riot novel I have read since Tim Willock’s brilliant Green River Rising, and is without doubt the finest book that Smith has written and, along with Jedidiah Ayre’s Fierce Bitches, is installed as my finest read of 2013 (though not quite sure which one I prefer at the moment). Highly recommended.

Review: Slammer by Allan Guthrie

Nick Glass, or Crystal as he’s known to the other screws and cons, is a rookie guard in an Edinburgh prison, having moved there after his wife had an affair. He’s not respected by either the cons or his fellow guards and his family life is hardly idyllic – his wife is a drinker and he’s having to support her and their daughter because she is pretty much unemployable. So far so bad. But when one of the cons decides that Nick is the perfect mule for importing drugs into prison things go from bad to worse. Initially Nick wants nothing to do with it but when the con uses an outsider to threaten his family, Nick has no choice but to comply. But as things get worse and Nick begins to siphon off and use the drugs he’s smuggling his tenuous grasp on reality begins to fracture completely leading to a murderous finale…

Slammer is dark psycho-noir at its finest. As the story progresses, the world begins to fold in on itself. The tale is told entirely from Nick’s point-of-view and initially gives us clues as to when his mind wanders off at a tangent. However, as things progress and the tension ratchets up several notches the barrier between what is real and what’s imagined collapses, leaving the reader struggling for the truth as desperately as the story’s protagonist. Guthrie’s prose is lean and tight and dense, often packing lots of information and clues into as small a space as possible. He drops hints into the story constantly, but due to his skill and suppleness as a writer the reader is often so caught up in the moment that the bigger picture remains a mystery. If you like your crime fiction pitch-black and nasty you’ll do a lot worse than giving this belter a read.