Fin McPhail is having a difficult time out in Amsterdam. He’s getting over the break-up of his marriage (and a resulting case of sexual dysfunction) by throwing himself into his job as a marketing specialist for Cloudburn Whisky. The problem is, after a bright start, his ideas about local folklore aren’t really selling any more, his US boss is looking to fire him. He’s given the weekend to come up with ideas to save his job. Things get even worse when a particularly brutal treatment for his impotence by a ‘sex therapist’ results in him accidentally knocking a prostitute on conscious and running away in fear. The problem is compounded by the fact he accidentally leaves his phone in the brothel, and is soon contacted by a ‘psycho pimp’, which makes the weekend of his soon-to-be brother-in-law’s stag do that much more difficult. Things inevitably go awry, and Fin has to try and save his job, rescue the groom, and deal with his problems in any way he can.
Not knowing Neil Cocker, other than through his blog, or his previous short works, I started Amsterdam Rampant armed only with a few reviews (some of them by other Brit Grit authors). I expected it to be Irvine Welsh-lite (several Amazon reviews pegged it as such), but it really isn’t. The dialogue has some Scottish phonetics, but they are scaled back from the kind of verbal pyrotechnics Welsh is renowned for (maybe that’s why some readers made the comparison). Certainly, the shenanigans the stags get up to are relatively tame in comparison with what Welsh writes, and Cocker seems more concerned with relationships than his compatriot (Welsh, for all his strengths, is a much more adroit writer of set-pieces than he is at documenting human frailties and partnership difficulties). Fin McPhail (Mcfailure to some of his friends) is a fine character and narrator, and there’s compassion and yearning in his voice. He also has a good eye for Amsterdam’s details and nice descriptive skills in his scene-setting, plus a solid sense of how to pace his narrative. It does all get wrapped up a little too neatly at the end, almost with a big bow on it, but that’s a minor caveat (and probably just a case of me being finicky), because this is an entertaining and very well written novel. Highly recommended.
According to the blurbs, Tony Black is apparently Irvine Welsh’s favourite crime writer. This is no small thing to have on your resume, that one of the most influential writers of the last thirty years thinks you’re the mutt’s nuts when it comes to writing crime fiction.
Black has made his name writing the Gus Drury series of books, all of which come with lots of critical acclaim, so he has a pedigree with this stuff. This Blasted Heath release isn’t one of those, this one is about Doug Michie, a former RUC officer with a past, who has returned to his old home town of Ayr. He’s barely back in town five minutes when he meets an old friend, and once more than that, Lyn, whose son has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. She doesn’t believe he did it. Doug takes it on trust and starts investigating. What he finds out leads him to old enemies, smuggling and council corruption. On top of which he has to deal with an alcoholic mother and ex-colleagues who aren’t exactly happy to have him back.
The Storm Without is a brisk read with plenty of style and a compelling narrator in Doug Michie. Tony Black’s excellent prose brings the rainswept streets of Ayr alive with nice little nuggets of description and he keeps the narrative moving along nicely. So far so good. But there is one flaw, one that takes a 5-star performance and turns it into a 4-star scrape. That flaw is the ending. Without giving away spoilers there is a rescue for a certain character, but the thing is we never find out how this happens or by whom or how the character gets found. Aside from a paragraph of a newspaper article explaining that it has happened there’s no further description to explain how it happened. Okay, I know they say show don’t tell, but if you can’t show something at least tell me how something occurred – I’d rather be told something than just be forced to accept that something has happened – without an explanation it becomes a deus ex machina and feels a bit rushed. This is a pity, really, because Black can really turn a sentence and he knows his way around a narrative and in Michie he has created a genuinely complex and likeable character. Despite the flawed ending, in my humble opinion, at least, this is still a fine read, but it could have been more than that. Still, Michie is a great character and I look forward to reading more from him and Tony Black.