Review: The Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones

William Colton Hughes is one of those successful serial killers – you know, the ones you never hear about. He has been set up in an apartment block by a crime boss to deal with problem individuals that cross the boss’ path. The victims are duped into Hughes’ apartment and it is left up to the killer to deal with the rest. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. So when the victims stop arriving all of a sudden, Hughes begins to fret and worry that he’s been abandoned by his benefactor. Taken by itself, this is bad enough, but when a woman starts messing with his mind – sending messages, messing with neighbouring apartments, teasing him with potential victims – he starts to reminisce and revisit the events that brought him to his current status. Then he starts working on ways to get the woman into his apartment, where he can really go to work on her.

The Least Of My Scars is one of the launch publications from J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books (along with Jedidiah Ayres’ Peckerwood and XXX Shamus, among others) and as such has a sense of mission statement about it: Crime fiction in the loosest sense only, discarding the hoariest cliches, twisting the ones that remain. At least, that’s the sense I get from TLoMS and based on the first few chapters of Peckerwood, which I am currently reading.

I generally don’t go for serial killer fiction, mostly because I find it boring (although there are exceptions to this rule). The same old tropes: hyper-intelligent killer taunts cops with his method, cop/s with issues (substance abuse, divorce etc.) find some sort of salvation/redemption in the hunt for killer, and blah, blah, blah. So when a writer comes up with a novel way to present serial killers in fiction, twisting the old narrative tropes on their head, it always ends up being a pleasure to read.

And so it is with Scars.

The novel takes us deep in Hughes’ deranged head – the obsessive compulsive routines, the detailed kill and disposal method, the way he has turned the neighbouring apartments (all owned by his benefactor) into one larger lair – and gives the reader a compelling view of a deeply unpleasant individual. The prose is spare and skeletal, giving enough for the reader to go on in terms of descriptive detail but leaving the rest for the reader to fill in themselves (good old imagination – Jones gives us far less blood and guts than you might think), which considering the nature of Hughes’ crimes is a good thing. What detail Jones does bring mostly concerns Hughes’ phobias and compulsions, his hankering after new victims, and the slow-release of information in the time-honoured tradition of the unreliable narrator. He also builds the tension nicely, which made me turn the pages (or swipe my finger across my Kindle) faster and faster until the chaotic and violent climax.

Scars is a fine, nightmarish novel that – if you have the disposition for it – is a genuine page-turner, as well as being an inventive addition to a genre that has been in dire need of invention for a very long time. Highly recommended.

Dead Man Upright – review

Until a year or so ago I didn’t realise that Derek Raymond had written a fifth novel in his superb ‘Factory’ series of novels set in London. I had always thought that the series ended with I Was Dora Suarez, which would obviously seem a natural place for the series to end – the nameless hero seems damned literally and metaphorically.

However, I kept hearing about a fifth novel, so after a bit of looking around I picked it up on Amazon and started reading.

The action picks up about a year after the events in Suarez. Nameless is still working in the A14 department of the Met, still insubordinate and still just about hanging on to his job. He gets a call from Firth, an ex-colleague who was kicked out of the Met because of alcoholism, about his neighbour – a man Firth suspects of some kind of wrongdoing, but he doesn’t know quite what. Middle-aged women turn up at the neighbour’s flat for a few months at a time only to seemingly disappear very suddenly.

Nameless is initially dubious but after further consideration he decides to look into Firth’s suspicions and finds that something is wrong. The neighbour appears to be living rent free at the expense of a property rental company that appears to have no owner, or at least not one who can be easily traced. Also, the neighbour appears to have more than one name. And he also has designs on another woman, one who Nameless tries to save in spite of herself. As he progresses his investigation, using methods that could him in prison, with opposition from nearly all of his colleagues, he comes to realise just how bad a man Firth’s neighbour is…

Dead Man Upright is a strange novel. It is often superbly written and some sections practically rise off the page they are so well realised, and Nameless is such a compelling narrator, but the ending is odd. It continues a theme from the earlier novels that killers, especially those of the serial type, are dull facsimiles of the rest of humanity, far from the Hannibal Lecter ideal envisaged by Thomas Harris and other similar crime writers. Derek Raymond’s killers are much closer to the shabby reality.

The problem with the novel is the ending, which climaxes with a letter and an interview with a killer. By this point the story is done and we are left with a boring, self-regarding man recounting his theories and his methods. It simply doesn’t work, or at least not very well; mostly because there’s nothing particularly interesting about the man being interviewed. Dramatically it is inert and in terms of character progression it really adds nothing that hasn’t been described better by Nameless earlier in the novel.

For four-fifths of the novel it is a decent if unspectacular addition (albeit with a few superb moments) to the Factory series, but the final fifth really takes the lustre off the work.

The received wisdom is that most series-based novels usually have one or two books too many and Dead Man Upright falls into that category. It’s not a total failure – as Raymond is too good a storyteller and stylist to write a failure – but it’s not the novel I so wanted it to be either. It’s worth a read, but if you’re expecting another Dora Suarez or How The Dead Live then prepare for disappointment.