Friday, 21 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: A MAN'S HEAD by GEORGES SIMENON


I read three Maigret novels while I was in France at the beginning of the month, each of which provided me with lots of the mood and atmosphere I was after. None of them disappointed, but they did vary between good and great.

I’ll start at the good end of things with A Man’s Head (US).

In this one, Maigret stakes his career on his instincts and arranges the escape of a prisoner from death row. The idea is that by following the prisoner, the true facts of the murder case concerned will come to light. Things don’t go entirely to plan when the prisoner ends up falling asleep for most of his first day of freedom.

Maigret hangs around in a bar full of well-to-do travellers from around the world to get his head round the murder. In doing so, he encounters a young man who taunts and goads the chief inspector by hinting that there is more to the case than has been understood thus far and that Maigret is unlikely to put the pieces of the puzzle into place.

This had echoes of Crime and Punishment as the elements of guilt drive the culprit to their downfall, yet it lacks a crisp punch or any real sense of weight. The strong opening loses some momentum and the conclusion, though almost perfectly dark, misses a beat or two.

My favourite section here was the insight into the backrooms of the Palais De Justice and the detailed obsessive forensic work of Moers.

Well worth a read, as always, but not top of the form.


While I’m here, I’ll point out that readers can pick up a very different kind of mystery story for free today . Recluse (US) looks at a creative genius during the sixties and the high cost of that free love. 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: DIE OF SHAME by MARK BILLINGHAM



Here’s one that made it onto the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year long list. It may not have made the cut into the final 6, but it was certainly a worthy contender.

For personal reasons, it took me a while to get into the spirit of this one. I spent seven years visiting hospital on a weekly basis to attend group therapy sessions. They were hard years and being reminded them of some doors that I prefer to keep shut. It meant that to watch another group working through their issues with their own sets of boundaries and dynamics wasn’t easy.

During my own therapy years, it occurred to me from time to time that the closed group setting of the situation would be perfect for a crime novel. Mark Billingham’s novel proved me right on that point and he’s written a far better piece than I would have managed in the process.

Die of Shame (US) explores many facets of life and death, with addiction taking centre stage. Here we have a group meeting weekly in North London. The tensions and alliances between the clients and the therapist are slowly revealed and then constantly reset while we get to know them. The therapist has his hands full when it comes to keeping his charges straight. His hands are also when it comes to keeping his family, a distant wife and an out of control daughter, afloat while dealing with his own drug fuelled past and his addictive nature.

When one of the group members is murdered, the police get involved and put pressure on all the survivors in turn, hoping to get them to break the rules of confidentiality and the trust that they’ve built up over time. Nicola Tanner is the DI charged with solving this one and the addiction aspect of the case resonates with her own personal life. Her sidekick, Dipak Chall, is a wonderful creation and I’d be more than happy to spend time with this pair in the future.

There’s a whiff of Agatha Christie to this one which is even flagged by the author. The list of suspects is finite, the group setting closed and each has their own motivation for getting rid of the victim, whether that’s being too close, blackmail, hatred or simply the crossing of boundaries. Billingham keeps the pot simmering for each of them as the information is slowly and expertly revealed. As the climax is reached, the interplay and the conclusion are perfectly handled.


I really enjoyed spending time with another group and reckon you will enjoy doing the same if you give it a go, regardless of your own personal experience. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE CARTEL by DON WINSLOW


I chose Don Winslow’s The Cartel (US)to take as a holiday read with every confidence that it was up to the job. Its reputation is huge and, weighing in at 600 plus pages, it seemed big enough to keep me busy. We left on Saturday lunchtime and the book was finished before lunch on Wednesday. I think that says a lot about the book. It’s been a great companion and was responsible for some very late nights. I also got to work out by carrying my copy down to the Med and back, so it wasn’t just an emotional workout.

The scale of The Cartel is huge. It follows a feud between US agent Art Keller and the super-powerful drug king Adan Barrera as each tries to pin each other down. This battle forms the body of the plot, but there are many tentacles leading from there. Key characters are introduced and within pages of meeting them we have their complete history nailed and understand their connections and motivations. There are journalists, politicians, agents, beauty queens, lovers, fighters, killers, soldiers, doctors and prostitutes among them and each plays their part with distinction.

There’s something circular about the way the story travels. Eras are defined by political intrigue, and violence. Body counts are listed. Torture and murders are graphically described. Negotiations and double-dealings map out treachery and devious intention. Like the Cartels, the cycle is relentless and seems unbreakable. As a reader, I became immune to the brutality of it all and if this was a deliberate attempt by Winslow to demonstrate how easily people can become numbed into submission by utter barbarity then he was totally successful. This, in some ways, made the journey a little tricky. At certain points, the prospect of another repeated history was rather uninviting. Overcoming that sense of déjà vu was always worth it, however. None of the plotlines lead to cul-de-sacs (although there a plenty of dead ends, I can assure you) and the author is skilled at bringing things to an emotional boil just when that’s required.

The plot here is huge. The characters are enormous – you could probably write a PhD on each, though you don’t necessarily always feel the warmth of their blood or the rate of their pulse. The sense of history brings added weight. Some of the detail feels unnecessary, but I believe that others will relish these elements of over-description. The world with the pages is total chaos – Hell, perhaps. The worst part of the whole piece is that it’s all so bloody real. The book is dedicated to journalists murdered or disappeared in Mexico during the decades covered by the novel and the list goes on forever. That speaks volumes about the world Winslow has fictionalised with such power.

And is it purely coincidence that a writer named Don has written a piece with the fingerprints of The Godfather all over the keyboard? Methinks not.  


Thanks Mr Winslow for the experience and the education.    

Sunday, 25 June 2017

One Man's Opinion: RACE TO THE BOTTOM by CHRIS RHATIGAN


‘The scene looped in his head. He resisted at first, then let go until it became the background to his insomnia. He thought that maybe through constant remembrance he could remove himself from the situation, like it would be a clip from an old movie.
No such luck.’

Roy wakes up with a hangover. It’s not just any hangover either. It’s probably the best described one I’ve come across.

All he wants is to lie still and let the pain wash over him until it becomes reduced to the constant hum of discomfort, only his girlfriend isn’t going to let him do that. Instead she’s going to kick him out onto the streets. We can’t be sure why she’s doing this, but can be pretty confident he deserves it. We can also be pretty certain that this is about as good as it’s going to get for Roy, for it’s unlikely good fortune is ever going to shine upon him.  

The only person he has left to turn to is Banksy. Banksy’s another waster. A dope sucking, computer game addicted drug pedlar who’s too lazy to do any deals. He’s so low, he’s even going to charge his only buddy rent to let him sleep on the couch.

Off they go to a nightclub. It’s thirsty work and Roy hits the drink in the same hard way he has to every day to keep functioning. And bad things happen.

This is a wonderful story, told with skill and the confidence to be uncompromising at every turn.
Roy’s no angel. In fact, Rhatigan throws so much of the man’s crap at you that he should be utterly despised. Thing is, I kind of like him. It’s difficult not to be sympathetic to a guy who just wants to get through life with a drink in his hand and with a few smokes without hurting anyone along the way. His daily battle with the mundane routines of his job at the Bullseye store is brilliantly told and I doubt there’s anyone out there who had done a crappy job or one they’re stuck with who won’t recognise his pain and won’t blame him from wanting to escape in any way he can.

The twists and turns of Roy’s life as it circles the plughole are hypnotising. There’s no way he can avoid that gravitational force pulling him downwards, but it’s great watching him try.

A cop named Walsh adds a good deal to this story. He’s a fantastic creation and if there was a new detective I wanted to read more about, this guy would be the one. He wouldn’t play things by the book and there wouldn’t be a cliché in sight.


Race To The Bottom (US) is another Chris Rhatigan book to treasure. It’s scary how good the guy’s writing is and how it improves by notches with each new work. It’s also difficult to imagine the kind of aces he’ll be pulling from his sleeve in years to come. How wonderful it is to have such fiction to look forward to.  More please. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE PUSHER by ED McBAIN



The Pusher (US) is another cracking read in the 87th Precinct series.

Steve Carella is back from honeymoon. A junkie meets an untimely end and the manner of his departure is suspicious enough to suggest something other than suicide. There’s a syringe next to the corpse, but the body is also hanging by the neck and the two things don’t fit easily together.

Enter Lieutenant Byrnes, the head of the force. As he delves into the murky world of drug dealing, he is informed by anonymous source that his son is not only a junkie, but that his fingerprints will be found on the syringe left next to the corpse found at the opening.

These two strands mingle throughout, offering the usual balance between police work and personal lives that makes McBain’s stories so well-rounded and engaging.

This one has a massive incident. It came at me as a total surprise and had me reeling. It also has a beautiful chapter about Carella’s main informant, Danny Gimp, so bitter-sweet that if it were a marmalade it would be my favourite.

There’s the usual quick and easy ending to the investigation that’s satisfying even though it shouldn’t be and a personal ending that would grace the finest novel.

If there’s a flaw, it’s the more-exaggerated-than-usual issue with point of view, but it’s part of the style and almost an element of the charm.

Throw in an afterward by the author that leaves you wondering what might have been and The Pusher’s a total winner.     


Awesome.

Friday, 9 June 2017

One Man's Opinion: DARK HAZARD by W R BURNETT



FAST MONEY!
FAST DOGS!
FAST WOMEN!

I’ll start by putting this into context. Thirty years or more ago, my brother and I got into gambling. We tried lots of different approaches. Among them was a foolproof system of betting on the dogs. I’d drop Geoff down at the track, he’d spend a night watching Bugsy spinning around the arena and we’d count our winnings. Except they were rarely winnings now I come to think of it, which I guess made us the fools. In later years, I got into visiting Walthamstow, a stadium that was beautiful in itself and had pictures up in the bar of a visit by George Raft from way back. I can also remember being down at a bookie’s in Kentish Town feeling flush after a fair win one night after work. When the cash was gone, I went to my savings account and took out the last five pounds I had in the world (pretty low times now I can reflect on them). I put the fiver on the likely one-two-three and what do you know? They only came in and netted me a fair stash. Several hundred pounds as I recall. Needless to say it was all gone by the end of the week and I had to move out of my flat. I’m leaving my tale of woe right there. It’s no wonder that when I see all the gambling adverts on the TV or plastered over the waistcoats of snooker players and the like that I feel despair. In case you’ve ever wondered where the companies get their huge advertising budgets, I’ll point you in the direction of the punters.

I mention that to explain why Dark Hazard had so much appeal to me. On the front cover ‘The raw, brutal novel of a man’s fight for a slice of the billion dollar greyhound racing sport.’ Of course I was going to be interested.

Being interested in a subject is never enough to make a good story, however. We all know that there’s so much more to fiction than that.

So here are some of the reasons I absolutely loved this one.

Every chapter is full of drive and energy. The protagonist is always on the edge and the next pitfall lies just around the corner. None of the holes feels like a contrived piece of digging, it’s just the way Jim Turner is made. We know he can’t resist a detour from his dreary existence, not matter how hard he tries to keep life straight.

Jim has everything to lose and he’s such a great creation that the idea of him putting his world into jeopardy leaves a reader in a state of almost constant anxiety.

The murky world of the dog track and all its characters is a delight to hang around in.

The alternative Jim has to a life of excitement and flowing juices is one of the steady and the mundane. Settling into a place where respectability is the main goal and religion provides the fuel for existence is a suffocating prospect.  

The writing is tight as hell. Dialogue uses just the words it requires. The sentences are mainly spare, yet there is still room for insightful observation and detailed description. Each environment comes to life in all its dimensions, yet this is never presented as clutter. There's no more or no less than is needed.

And Dark Hazard. He’s the star of the show. A sleek black dog who goes about life with no fuss or frills. He’s talented, beautiful and fragile. It’s no wonder Jim falls head over heals for him and no surprise that in his obsessive way he’ll do practically anything to get to own him.

Loved this one. The time and place are perfect for such stories to be told and the quality of the story telling is about as good as it gets.


Champion. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE WHITES by RICHARD PRICE


Pavlicek was nearly big enough to have his own zip code.

Billy Graves once belonged to a tight-knit group of police officers who ruled the roost in their neighbourhood and used a range of methods to burn through the criminal community. The bonds that were formed in the foundry of their youth are all but unbreakable and still tie them together years after many of them have moved on from the force.

During their time fighting crime with a ruthless zest for justice and control, there were the ones that got away – The Whites (US) of the title – and we meet one of them at Penn Station, stabbed in an early morning attack with no witnesses to tell the tale.

Billy and the gang seem to be on a roll as lots of their whites are meeting their ends, a coincidence that Billy can’t help but look at and try to fathom.

As he tries to put the pieces together, someone out there is threatening the fabric of his world. Threats against his children and incidents with Billy’s father add heat to the situation and Billy knows that whatever is happening, there’s likely to be a messy end arriving any time soon.

The perpetrator of the threats is known to the reader from the off. Milton Ramos has his own crosses to carry. He bears the weight of pain from the murder of his brother and the loss of his wife as he struggles to control his world and hold down his own job as a police officer.

In this novel, Price’s arc is huge. There are thousands of stories here, from tiny vignettes to enormous brush strokes.

As Billy struggles to keep his family safe and tries to understand what is happening to his bunch of blood brothers and sister, he works through regular police work on the night shift. The aftermath of each crime is handled beautifully and each victim or set of survivors is given enough room to nail their life-story to the mast.   

The main loops of plot are engaging enough in themselves, but for me the thrill of the book is the way the relationships are built and studied. The interconnections are pillars that hold the plot up rather than it being the other way round.  Price dissects marriages, friendships and families with subtlety and skill that not many can match.

My own favourite strand in all of the complicated interplay is the relationship between Billy and his father. The dad was a much-respected cop in his day, as well as being a lover of poetry. Nowadays, he’s slowly drifting ever deeper into the world of dementia, but in his lucid moments he illuminates the world with his insights, love and wisdom. These sections alone are well worth the price of entry.

Here’s a brief sketch where Billy looks to seek advice about dealing with colleagues who coloured in outside the lines:

‘Johnson’s partner didn’t say anything?’
‘I can’t say what it’s like now, but back then? You looked the other way. Always.’
‘How about the partner, what happened to him?’
The old man was so long in answering that Billy almost repeated the question.
‘Looking back all those years?’ his father finally said. ‘He could’ve been a better father to his kids, maybe a better husband to his wife, but other than that?’ Looking Billy in the eye now. ‘He sleeps like a rock.’


The Whites is terrific. The emotional draw is powerful and there are times when the prose just sings. It’s dark and dreadful and has strong noir elements. It’s one to knock your socks off if you can spare the time.