My Top Reads of 2015

2015 has been a good year in some respects, though less so in others. However, what it has marked has been a considerable improvement in both my book sales and my experience as a writer. It’s also the first year that I’m following up a novel that has had a fair degree of success (for me, at least), The Glasgow Grin, with sales in the thousands.

This means that I’ve got to up my game in 2016.

Most of this year has involved a redraft of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Billingham Forum (the next Stanton tale), to ensure that it is as good as possible. Sadly, this takes time. It’s been in gestation for over three years – an incredibly long time for a 75,000 word novel that reads like an Elmore Leonard tale being screamed from the gallows by a maniacally cackling psychopath.

Which is quite a long-winded way of saying that I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked this year. Writing got in the way. But the stuff I did read was mostly excellent, and choosing my final five was very difficult. The ones that made it on the list resonated with me more deeply for some reason (a piece of description, an ending, a plot twist or revelation, or just a lingering image or attitude). But everything on this list (including the notables) is well worth your time.

This list isn’t in any particular order:

1) Angels of the North by Ray Banks
This is stone cold brilliance from Brit Grit’s premier exponent. It reads with the propulsive force of a kitchen-sink James Ellroy, yet handles its relationships with far more sensitivity than the great American author can manage. It targets both Thatcher’s legacy and by implication the social experiment currently being conducted on Britain’s poor by David Cameron – yet not in a way that shout its politics overtly. When the dust settles, this is a novel about people, outsiders in one way or another, who don’t quite fit the system no matter how hard they try. Glorious stuff. And I can’t wait to read what Banks comes up with next.

2) The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Like Angels this has a tinge of Ellroy about it; but whereas Banks’ masterwork borrows the three character structure and the sense of historical significance from Ellroy, Winslow’s novel has the epic scope and dense structure of American Tabloid and the terse, laconic sentences that punctuate Ellroy’s best work. Yet it is entirely its own beast. Powerful, superbly plotted, characterised by a huge cast all with their own foibles and failings, and a story that has  the gravitational pull of a black hole. Despite the length, no matter how squalid things get, you find yourself coming back for more of this tale set during the defining years of America’s war on drugs. Brilliant.

3) After Hours by Edwin Torres
This brilliant novel was the basis for the Brian De Palma/Al Pacino classic Carlito’s Way. The novel is a bit more complex and better plotted than the film, which cuts out much of Dave Kleinfeld’s story in favour of focusing on Pacino. The first-person narrative voice of Carlito Brigante is superbly realised and, you can almost imagine Pacino speaking the lines, which makes things even better, it meshes well with the third-person sections that feature the Kleinfelds and other major characters. Although it follows a similar arc to the film, there are enough changes to keep the novel from feeling stale when compared with the movie (and vice-versa). If you can get hold of it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

4) Black Gum by J. David Osborne
Black Gum is one of those novels (like Angels, and Power) that has stayed with me long after finishing it. With pared-back Carver-esque clarity, it gets on with telling a story that never postures or strikes a false pose. The moments of weirdness that punctuated Osborne’s Low Down Death Right Easy are weaved into the text more coherently here (Shane’s body modification, Juggalo parties, the narrator’s strange trip at the end). And it feels all the better for it. Also, the few moments of criminal action or violence contained in the story have the blink-and-you’ll miss them qualities of real life – its all about the aftermath. Danny Ames (one of the main characters in Low Down) gets a fleeting cameo here. And what I liked about Ames’ moment was that his actions are all about implied violence (his threat is known, and understood, and the main characters react accordingly). This is quality, character-based fiction with criminality and a vein of glittering weirdness weaved through it. Highly recommended.

5) Zulu by Caryl Férey
This book was one of those moments when I decided to take a risk and get something by an author I’d never heard based on nothing but the back cover blurb that pitched the narrative as somewhere between ultra-violent noir and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. It concerns murder, designer drugs, white power/apartheid conspiracies, and the general corruption of a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. It’s a very violent, fast-moving tale with more twists than fusilli, is superbly plotted, and is gripping from first page to last. Highly recommended.

Other highly notable reads:
The Guns of Brixton by Paul Brazill, The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow, Ben Turner is a Dead Man by Ryan Bracha, Amsterdam Rampant by Neil Cocker and Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal. All of these are top-notch reads that are well worth your time.

Disappointment of the year:
Perfidia by James Ellroy
I could go into minute detail about what doesn’t work in this book (the first quarter is an interminable slog, Dudley Smith should always be a supporting character, Kay Lake’s diary reads exactly like it was written by James Ellroy), but I won’t. I’ll simply add that I had expectations for it that weren’t met (which is my problem, not the author’s), but also many of Ellroy’s flaws seemed to be magnified by the expansive scale of the novel. It isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a good one, either.

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Review: Angels of the North by Ray Banks

Set in the Derwent Hall estate in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher’s social experiment with selling off public utilities to the highest bidder, selling council houses to willing tenants, and turning Britain into a service based economy was at its height, Angels of The North deals with three men who turn vigilante when their estate is threatened by a squat filled with drug dealers and junkies. When Joe, a former soldier and heroin user, is informed by Gavin, a local cabbie, about the violent assault of estate resident Brian at the hands of the dealers, he decides that he can kill two birds with one stone: he can drive the dealers off the estate and also get his hands on a free supply of H. He does this by roping in the initially reluctant Gav – who has delusions of grandeur and wants to run the cab firm he works for – and the even more reluctant Brian – an intelligent but unemployed man cursed with a deceitful ex-wife and unpleasant teenage daughter – and gets them to help him raid the squat; although he doesn’t divulge the fact that he’s doing it to steal heroin. Everything goes as wrong as can be expected, but it instils Gav with more determination to do something about the drug dealers.

With the help of aggressive driver Phil, Gav organises the drivers to burn down the squat. Then things change: Gav forces his unwell boss to hand over the cab firm, and turns the cab firm into a sort of Guardian Angels of Tyneside (though Phil is taking this further than agreed by beating dealers and taking their money); Joe, meanwhile, is now a full-blown heroin addict who despises his wife, his child, his live-at-home father, and himself most of all; and Brian is an alcoholic cleaner at the Metrocenter indoor shopping estate.

From here the fortunes of the men see-saw from highs to lows and back again, as their ambitions and foibles ultimately lead to a tragic and violent final third.

Regular readers of this blog will know how highly I rate Ray Banks. His storytelling abilities are first-rate, his prose is clean and fat-free and his ear for the patterns of regional British dialogue is probably the best around. The Cal Innes novels and Wolf Tickets are superb reads, but Angels of the North is something else entirely. It feels like Banks is channeling his inner James Ellroy. From the well implemented historical setting, to the distinctive three protagonist structure that the ‘Demon Dog’ made his own, right through to Puma Cabs, which seems to be a play on American Tabloid’s Tiger Kabs, Angels gives the impression of a writer wanting to expand his horizons into territory that Ellroy knows well. And like the best of Ellroy, Angels is really quite brilliant.

Three flawed, not particularly likeable, but very well-drawn protagonists propel the reader through a character driven tale. Unlike James Ellroy, Banks isn’t interested in Byzantine plotting (although the way he weaves a corrupt police officer through the story suggests that he could have gone in that direction if he so wished), he tells the story through the decisions (wise and unwise) that his characters make. Through a combination of hubris and poorly made decisions the three characters reach fates that seem entirely natural (no matter how tragic).

The writing is scalpel sharp and cuts through the characters’ lives with regularity. The dialogue resonates with authenticity and a few choice Eighties expressions that I’d almost forgotten. Angels works as an outright character drama piece and also as an exposé of what Thatcher’s policies did to the north. This novel establishes Banks as Brit Grit’s premier exponent. I might read a better novel this year, but it’s going to have to be a once in a blue moon work of brilliance to top this beauty. Highly recommended. If you don’t download this on Kindle you’re denying yourself something very special.

My Top 6 Reads of 2013

It’s that time of year, where I look back on the past twelve months and give my unwanted opinion about the books that I read (these weren’t necessarily books that were released in 2013 – just that I read them this year).

2013 was a good year, in my humble opinion. Some writers confirmed their talents, others built upon already lofty reputations, and a whole host of new writers (new to me, at least) surprised me from nowhere. I read very few duffers – those that I did pick up never got reviewed (in fact, I read rather a lot that didn’t get reviewed because I simply didn’t have the time) – and I tore through a lot of the good, the fine, and the merely not bad. It was going to be five, but James Sallis snuck in at the very last minute (literally as I started finishing the first draft of this piece).

Oh, and these are in no particular order, before you ask:

Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres

One of the first things I read this year was also one of the best. A heady brew of noir that mixed more than a dash of Cormac McCarthy with a harsh slug of Jim Thompson. Set in and around the fictional Mexican town of Politoburg, although it’s more hell-on-earth than town, Fierce Bitches concerns the lives, deaths and unpleasant fates of pimps, prostitutes and gringos who solely populate this place. Although only a novella in length, it packs more meat and linguistic denseness between its covers than most writers manage in entire careers.

The Cal Inness quartet by Ray Banks
The tale of ex-con and amateur sleuth Cal Inness could have been awash with cliches in the wrong hands, but Ray Banks probably wouldn’t know a cliche if it punched him in the face. It tells Inness’ story in four brilliantly written tales that leave the reader pummelled, moved, saddened, horrified and breathless, often within the space of a few pages. At least two of them could have made this list individually, but I decided to take the series as a whole. And what a series! One of the most stunning series of PI novels that I have read. If you haven’t already experienced it I envy you. You get to read it for the first time!

The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith
Last year Smith almost made my top five with the excellent All The Young Warriors but was squeezed out at the last by Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. This time there’s no squeeze, unless we’re talking about about the sheer fucking death grip of a narrative that Smith fashions for this non-stop, thrill ride through a prison hell-hole. Featuring Billy Lafitte, the corrupt police officer gone very, very bad, who also figures in Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, if this pulse-quickener doesn’t make you a Lafitte fan then you’re probably never going to be one.

Sacrifices by Roger Smith
Every year one of Roger’s books makes my list. In 2011 Dust Devils was my favourite read. Last year Capture made the top 5. And this year, Sacrifices his superb thriller about a toxic family unit and the damage that one miscarriage of justice has on a number of lives. It is gripping and Smith has pulled off the nifty trick of keeping you reading despite the fact that the cast has barely a sympathetic character among them.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew J McBride
McBride’s tale of a PI who decides to help himself to the loot from a bank robbery that has gone wrong is a delight. Along with a couple of low-life cohorts, he decides to find the money himself, which sees him and his co-conspirators run afoul of a couple of particularly nasty criminals. A lot of blood gets spilled along the way and Frank Sinatra does indeed end up in a blender! FSIAB (as it shall be known henceforth) is a superbly written comic crime novel with a great protagonist and a pace that just doesn’t quit. In fact, all the characters are sharply etched, there are laughs-a-plenty to be found, and Valentine’s relationship with Frank Sinatra is a delight. I loved every second of it, and am eagerly looking forward to McBride’s next novel. Highly recommended.

Others Of My Kind by James Sallis
Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know how disappointed I was with The Killer Is Dying (which was almost great, but ultimately the execution was off) and Driven (which I re-read recently – and is worse than I remembered), but I still think Sallis is one of the great talents of modern crime fiction. However, after two disappointments, I was somewhat worried that this would be a third misfire. But fortunately it didn’t remotely disappoint. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s Sallis’ best work. It isn’t really crime fiction, although it deals with the aftermath of a crime. What it deals with are people, and what James Sallis has given us, with Jenny, his protagonist, is one of the best female characters to come along in fiction for years. By turns mellow, forgiving, kind, damaged, rootless, and utterly human, Jenny lights up the pages and when the story is finally over you start to miss her completely. And if you miss out on this novel/novella (it’s a narrow volume) you will be doing yourself a disservice. It should be on a lot more top five/ten lists. Highly recommended.

Other notable writers who entertained me considerably this year with their books and only just missed out on the list were Paul D Brazill with Gumshoe, Frank Bill with Crimes in Southern Indiana and Keith Nixon with The Fix. If you read this list and fancy grabbing one of these books, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Have a great festive season folks and happy reading.

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: No More Heroes & Beast of Burden by Ray Banks

In No More Heroes, Cal Innes is working for Donald Innes, a slum landlord, handing out eviction notices to non-paying tenants. He’s still addicted to painkillers, and still drinking too much, and he’s given up on the PI business, despite the fact that his best friend Paulo wants him to start up again. When he notices a fire in a house he’s trying to serve an eviction on he runs inside and rescues a boy from the blaze, not realising that the grandmother is still inside. The press declares him a local hero, even though he doesn’t feel he’s anything of the sort. He decides to quit serving notices for Plummer after this incident but is surprised to find that his old boss wants to hire him to look into the cause of the fire, which he thinks is down to a white nationalist party. The case leads him to check up on the nationalists, but what he finds out threatens to bring about both his death and riots and destruction to the streets of Manchester.

In Beast of Burden, Cal is dealing with the aftermath of the what happened in No More Heroes, which has left him a physical and emotional wreck. He’s dealing with family troubles and other problems when Morris Tiernan gets in contact and asks him to find his son, Mo, who has mysteriously gone missing. Despite the fact that Cal and Mo had some serious words at the end of Sucker Punch, Cal takes the job and decides to use it to get even with the Tiernan family, who he blames for all the problems that have plagued him since the job in Newcastle. At the same time Detective Sergeant Iain ‘Donkey’ Donkin is looking to pin anything he can find on Innes, who he sees as a typical criminal and somebody who deserves to go back inside. But Donkin has his own troubles too, considering he has an estranged wife and daughter and a suspension from duty to deal with, so when Cal finds Mo and the case becomes a suspicious death, Donkin sees this as his opportunity to take down Innes and some of his foes on the force. Meanwhile, Innes works on a tricky plot to destroy the Tiernans, risking life and limb to do it.

Anybody who has read my reviews of Saturday’s Child and Sucker Punch, the first two novels in the Cal Innes tetralogy, will know how highly I rate these books. They’re dark, funny, and capture the nervous rhythms of modern British speech better than most novels I’ve encountered recently. And if you’ve read my reviews and not read them yet, then shame on you. You should read them. You really should. Parts three and four are much darker affairs, taking the Innes story to its natural but still shocking conclusion. Taken as novels in their own right, these tales are genuinely top-tier, but taken as a quartet Banks’ achievement is a huge one. Innes is easily one of the finest British PIs ever created and this series is easily one of the finest to emerge from these shores. Throughout the series, Cal Innes grows into a man who, for all his faults, is a genuine hero. He might not be happy about being forced into that position, but when there’s nobody else for the task he risks life and limb to ultimately do the right thing, even when it costs him.

Seriously, if you’re reading this and you haven’t considered buying any of this series then I pity you, because you’re denying yourself a genuinely powerful reading experience. Highly recommended.

Review: Sucker Punch by Ray Banks

Sucker Punch follows the story of Cal Innes about six months after the events in Saturday’s Child. Innes has given up the private investigator game and is instead working for his old friend Paulo at the boxing gym, doing any odd jobs that need sorting. One particular job involves babysitting a young up-and-coming boxer on a trip to LA to take part in a boxing tournament. Innes initially doesn’t want to go because he is addicted to Codeine – a by-product from his trip to Newcastle for Maurice Tiernan – and wonders how he will survive the trip without his fix. Plus, he isn’t all that keen on babysitting the young boxer, Liam, because his first impression of the lad isn’t an especially positive one. However, Paulo refuses to take no for an answer so Innes reluctantly takes his ‘holiday’. When he’s lands he meets a former boxer in a bar who tells him not to trust the fighter whose gym is being used to stage the competition. Innes asks the man to take a look at Liam and train him up for the competition. Liam is initially reluctant to meet the man, but when he does he’s impressed by the man’s knowledge and agrees to train with him. But  Innes realises that there are a few things about the man that don’t quite add up, and when the father of another fighter tries to bribe Innes to get Liam to take a dive the whole situation explodes into violence.

The sequel to Saturday’s Child is a different beast to its predecessor. For a start the novel is narrated solely by Innes, rather than alternating chapters between Innes and Mo, Maurice Tiernan’s son (who only appears in two violent cameos that bookend the story); Second, it moves at a more relaxed pace and has a less defined plot than the first novel; Third, Innes has changed from the man who appears in Saturday’s Child. He’s now a Codeine addict, and his alcoholism has changed from functional to barely functional. Plus, he’s angrier, much more bitter and less rational.

It’s this change in Cal Innes that makes Sucker Punch such a compelling read. It lacks the rocket-fuelled narrative and focus of the first book, so Innes himself has to take up the slack. He rails against authority, even when it’s trying to help him, has little respect for others and even less for himself. By the end of the novel, you can see the direction that Innes is heading and can only wince at the choices he’s made.

Although it isn’t as strong as the brilliant Saturday’s Child, Sucker Punch is still an excellent piece of gritty crime fiction. Ray Banks’ Cal Innes is a brilliant creation, with a superbly written narrative voice, a character who keeps the reader glued to the page. Highly recommended.

Review: Dead Money by Ray Banks

Alan Slater is a double-glazing salesman whose best-friend, Beale, a man he doesn’t even like very much, is an addicted gambler with a booze problem and a very fast temper. When that fast temper gets him into more trouble than even he can handle he calls on Slater to help him move a body. So far so bad. But when the reason for the body is a large debt that he has racked up with an Asian businessman/gangster things go from bad to worse. And when Slater is told that if Beale can’t make his payments the debt becomes his the whole course of his life goes from worse to truly fucked.

As regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Ray Banks’ work – Wolf Ticket’s was in my Top 5 of 2012, and I loved Saturday’s Child – so I had high hopes for this. But, I have to admit, this one left me cold. It’s well-written, and once the story kicks in wraps itself up nicely, but it has one element that left me utterly cold, and that’s the protagonist himself. Slater has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (not to my eyes, anyway), the man is an utter prick. He’s a coward, cheats on his wife (who he seems to despise without any real reason), has nothing but contempt for everyone and everything around him (including, towards the end, his mistress); he doesn’t even help his mate out of any noble intention, or sense of duty, he just does it because he thinks that’s what friends are supposed to do. The problem with a character like this is if the plot doesn’t kick in before you realise how repulsive they are you have a recipe for disaster (or at least putting the book down unfinished). It’s a testament to Banks’ immense skill as a writer that I made it to the end without putting the book down. The storytelling generated enough grip, along with my own morbid curiosity, to make me want to see how far Slater is going to fall; the problem was that when the end came I didn’t feel in any way emotionally tied to his plight. Banks’ best work is the kind I will happily read again (Wolf Tickets, especially), but – despite its obvious technical qualities (tight prose, fine dialogue, tidy plotting) – my dislike of the main character was such that I can’t say the same for Dead Money. Despite this, I would still recommend it because it is very well written and you might not have the same issues with the main character that I have.