Review: Saturday’s Child by Ray Banks

Drunken ex-con Cal Innes is making his living as a private investigator of sorts. He has somehow built a reputation for finding people who’ve gone missing and now seems to have turned that into a business. Although Innes does deal in divorce cases, he wants nothing to do with a pub landlady who wants to murder her landlord husband. He tells her he isn’t interested in that kind of work, tells her to give it more thought when she’s sobered up and leaves immediately. Then he’s contacted by the man responsible for putting him in prison – crime lord Morris Tiernan – and asked/told to find a croupier who has stolen ten grand from his casino. The trail takes him to Newcastle looking for a gambler with a taste for cash and a barely legal girl who just happens to be Tiernan’s daughter. Innes’ task is made harder by Tiernan’s psychopathic son Mo’ who has his own reasons for wanting the girl back, and by a brutal police officer named ‘Donkey’ Donkin, who wants to question Innes about the stabbing of the landlord. As Innes gets closer to the croupier and the girl things start to go really wrong. And after he’s beaten and left for dead, the detective is forced to take drastic action, including some eye-watering torture with a cricket bat, working his way towards an exciting and bitter climax.

Ray Banks is one of those writers who seems to be unable to write a bad book. His sense of pacing is immaculate and he uses language the way Mo’ Tiernan uses a Stanley knife – cutting through to the meat and bone of the tale, trimming away the excess flab. He uses a technique that I first noticed in the brilliant Wolf Tickets – having two different narrators give their voice to different parts of the tale – and much as it does in that novel it works beautifully. Innes provides a bitter, tragic commentary on his part of the journey (showing a true alcoholic’s eye for self-delusion, along with a lot of submerged fury). Mo’ Tiernan provides a funny, frightening and foul-mouthed counter-point. Both voices are superbly written and utterly unique. The story moves along at an incredible pace, never once dragging, and as first parts of a series go Saturday’s Child is one of the finest. Another absolute cracker from somebody who has become one of my favourite writers over the past year or so. Can’t wait to get started on Sucker Punch.

My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!

Review: Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks

Farrell has problem. His girlfriend, Nora, has stolen his twenty grand stash. But, worse still, she’s also taken his Italian leather jacket – the one that makes him look like Franco Nero, at the right angle and the right light. She’s left him a note telling him that if he’s smart he won’t go looking for her.

He ignores it.

He ropes in his mate, Cobb (a flabby,  lightfingered Geordie whose as fast with his lip as he is with a battery-filled sock) and they go looking for her. The path leads them to a crippled drug-dealer, a stolen gun with dodgy bullets, a murdered girl, and a psychotic Irish ex-con with a nifty and nasty line in torture and disfigurement.

Wolf Tickets might not be very long but this novella is a prime slice of crime fiction. The writing is superb – slang driven, tightly knitted prose told from the POV of Farrell and Cobb (alternating a chapter each) – and the story screams along like a nitro-powered race car. Every character is fully fleshed-out (even the minor characters) in a few sentences or lines of dialogue, which, as always with Banks, is flat-out superb. When the book was over I felt sad because it’s a masterful ride while it lasts. If it hadn’t been for Roger Smith’s Capture this would have been my favourite read of the year. Still, it’s a seriously good piece of writing: exciting, frightening, funny and as brutal as Cobb’s battery cosh. Highly recommended.

Review – Gun by Ray Banks

Richie, a young criminal not long out of prison and odd-job man for Goose, a wheelchair-bound crook who claims he got his injury during the Falklands conflict, although everybody knows it was from mainlining a leg artery, is given the task of picking up a Magnum from Florida Al, a shifty hoodlum with a taste for loud shirts.

The pick-up of the gun goes relatively well, but as soon as Richie gets out on to the Leam estate he is attacked and beaten by some local kids, who take the gun from him whilst he’s unconscious.

He then goes in search of the gun with inevitably disastrous results.

Gun is a powerful novella with a nice eye for place and an excellent ear for Tyneside vernacular. It’s written in lean prose that gets on with telling the story rather than dressing the page in adverbs. The characters are believable and well-rounded, even the ones who only stray into the story for a paragraph or two, and Richie is a compelling and tragic protagonist. He’s not a bad-guy, as such, just a human being who’s judgement might be considered highly suspect.

The story unfolds at a cracking pace and, once things really start going badly, Banks expertly cranks up the tension to almost unbearable levels. If you’re a fan of gritty, urban crime fiction, you should stick this on your Kindle straightaway. It’s the kind of cracking read you can polish off on a long commute or a lazy weekend afternoon. Highly recommended.