In Watermelon Sugar

Watermelon sugar can be many things. It can be refreshing; sickly sweet; indulgent; vapid; rancid; cool; nourishing; and it could probably kill you if abused. I guess that books can be a bit like that, too. So, I'm a reader, a writer and a reviewer. I blog at Sea Minor and my stories and novels live independently of me as if they were stray teenage children off at college and seeing what nuisance they can cause. Hopefully I'll send you in the direction in some great books that you might not otherwise have come across, especially in the noir and crime-writing world.

Making a Difference

 

In a time when global issues are going haywire and the world has begun to spin backwards, it can be difficult to make sense of anything. Influencing outcomes feels further out of grasping distance than maybe it should. In the UK and the US the driving forces defy the rational and appeal to the insecure. I have no idea how to move forward just now and am reflecting on ways in which I might make a difference when the time feels right.  

 

Maybe the best thing to do is to look to the local. There are many worthy things happening in my neighbourhood that respect both people and environment and I manage to do my bit without actually ever making a huge effort. I’m very grateful to those with big hearts who are out there influencing the world on my and our behalf.

My hope that all can be well has been given a boost of late by a campaign to help a girl who lives in my home town. Her name is Macy and she requires major spinal surgery to correct a massive curvature. In order to get the best of treatment £150000 is required and that’s a lot of dosh. Not that the organisers of her fundraising group have been daunted by the size of the mountain they have to climb. The Facebook page is here if you’d like to take a closer look.

 

I’ve loved watching the community come together to help them on their way. There have been or soon will be mammoth walks, swims, outdoor events, ceilidhs, gigs, school dress-downs and talent shows to help out. This morning I went in to the pop up shop on Dunbar High Street in the Be Green shop and bought a few things I don’t really need – if you’re in the area today or tomorrow it’s fab and well worth making a visit for.

 

In the light of such togetherness, I’ve offered to help out in the only way I really know or understand, and that’s by raising money through the sale of books.

 

For the next three months, any money I make from sales of The Shallows (US) will be going to Macy’s fund. I’ve chosen The Shallows because it’s been very well received and is possibly the most accessible of my crime stories. It’s practically mainstream fiction and there’s even a police procedural thread weaving through the fabric. The money will come whether the sale is a paperback or an ebook and if you feel like enjoying a read and helping out a great cause, then I’d be grateful of the support.

 

I know that there are lots of worthy people and groups out there who deserve your attention and that you may have your own favourite charities or organisations , but I still would like to flag this up to you in case you feel like joining this particular cause. Maybe it’s by coming together in circumstances like this that those seemingly untouchable bigger issues might be addressed.

 

If you like the idea of supporting Macy, but don’t really want to buy into the author angle you can always make a direct donation at www.gofundme.com/fund-spine-surgery-for-macy Every little bit will be gratefully received.

 

Thanks for listening and good luck Macy. Here’s hoping.

That Was Then This Is Now

 

 

“The Socs were trying to look poor. They wore old jeans and shirts with the shirttails out, just like the greasers always had because they couldn’t afford anything else. I’ll tell you one thing, though: what with fringed leather vests and Levis with classy-store labels in them, those kids were spending as much money to look poor as they used to to look rich.”

 

I’d been saving That Was Then, This Is Now to read on a rainy day. Not a day when it rained on the outside, but when I needed a lift. I finally opened the cover last weekend on a train journey down to see my dad. Returning to the place where I did my own growing up made it an appropriate choice and it was definitely the right one. Truth be told, I reckon any day’s a good day for reading a book by SE Hinton.

 

Bryon and Mark have lived together since Mark’s parents killed each other. They’ve become like brothers. They get a buzz from girls, pool hustling, joyriding and fighting. The world is ripe with possibility and yet limited by their social status and environment. We get to know them at a time when things are changing. Nothing is quite the way it was. Everything seems more serious and many of the activities that were fun for them once have become dull. At the same time as life becomes rich and thrilling, the cracks appear everywhere.

 

Tough things happen. Their part of town is brutal. Without going into huge detail, the book managed to capture hard and mean moments in a very satisfying way. Each episode grabs the senses and forces you to pay attention.

 

I can’t put my finger on why exactly I found this read to be so moving and absorbing, especially when it’s aimed at young-adults and when the prose is so straightforward.

It might be that it does such an excellent job of capturing a moment of change, a watershed between one life and another. To me, it doesn’t just speak of the movement from teenager to young adulthood, but holds a mirror up to all the times in life when skins are shed. It carries the weight of nostalgia, a hint of resignation and an unsteady optimism for things to come.

 

It could also be that the strength of the characters and their relationships are a key to this novel’s power. The first person narration brings and intensity of feeling that works superbly. What Hinton does for me is to reach inside. She allows me to feel something more than empathy. It’s almost as though she’s creating a new identity for me as I read. A new history. That depth is not even pinned down to one person, but to all the central figures in the story.

 

The tone and structure also work with ease. The voice is reflective and yet in the moment. All the life and times that are building up come with a warning early on that they won’t last forever. Something’s going to shake their world to the core and that tension slowly burns from beginning to end while we await the final nail in the coffin to be smacked home.

 

Hinton writes in a very simple way. The sentences are never complex and the language is often plain. That said, she creates distilled phrases that deliver an emotional punch incredibly well (‘Nothing can wear you out like caring about people.’). These moments are the jewels in the crown for me, the points at which she tells it all with a slight action or subtle reference.

 

All in all, this was just the treat I’d been hoping for. It’s the kind of book that I hope rubs

off somewhere in my own writing style and if I ever get to put out a novel that’s half as good as this, I’ll be a very happy man.  

 

Ace.

Wings Of Desire

 

‘A soldier between wars was like a chimney in the summer.’

 

Ever wondered what might have happened if the plane in Lord Of The Flies had crashed on an estate in Gateshead in the middle of the 1980s? I reckon Ray Banks has. But that's possibly another story.

 

At the start of Angels Of The North, Joe’s coming home from the army. He takes a cab. The driver is Gav. They happen to live on the same street and get talking, or at least Gav does. Has Joe heard the one about Brian who was done over when he stood up to the drug pedlars in the end house? Wasn’t he brave and isn’t it a shame that nobody helped the guy out? What on earth is the county coming to?

 

Life on their estate is a mess. The neighbours live under the enormous clouds of poverty, hopelessness and a constant racket from the junky house. It’s a symptom of the collapse of a once thriving industrial district, where community and joint effort have been replaced by inertia and a sense of failure. Further afield, the broader context is of individuals trying to make good while being prepared to step on anybody to get along and economic success is seen as the only success.

 

Gav and Joe decide to do something about their hell. They set about taking on the scum at the end of the road and it’s not long before their underground movement turn to violence. As with any movement, however, there are political differences and conflicts that cause breakdown and reformation as some rise and some fall.

 

There are many conflicts in this book. There is the community against drug culture; there are the machinations at the local taxi firm; there are families where blood ties aren’t enough to provide the glue they need; there are the internal battles of individuals who struggle to find equilibrium; there are fights in the business world; and there are the tussles with the world as people just to try and stay afloat.

 

The scope of this novel, though centred upon the three main players, is enormous. The protagonists are like particles in the Hadron Collider who bang into each other with such velocity and power that they create black holes and big bangs all over the place. They suck those around them into unstable orbits that put them at risk in a variety of ways. Among the things I loved about them was the way my levels of sympathy for each never stayed the same. They all have some redeeming features if you loosen the usual parameters a little, they’re all doing their best in extreme conditions and they’re all totally ruthless and misguided in different ways. My loyalties shifted regularly until the author finally played a few trump cards and allowed me to nail my colours to the mast.

 

This is a brutal book that speaks about a dark and troubled time that will be ever present as long as there are people on the planet. It doesn’t hold back in any way and, in that sense, if feels totally honest. Ray Banks hasn’t compromised at any point. He’s not ducked out of any of the big issues by diluting his work to suit a conservative audience. He’s not avoided peeling back the layers of humanity to leave a warts-and-all package. There are no contrived plot-twists and the developments feel organic and natural. This honesty serves to make the story all the stronger.

 

If that weren’t enough, Angels Of The North is written with a terrific style and voice. Best of all for this reader is the quality of the simile and of the amazing descriptive powers on show, for this is another area where I reckon Ray Banks truly excels.

 

Add to all of that a subtle humour and a great rhythm to the dialogue and you have yourself something rather special.

 

Buy this one. Tuck it away on your shelf or your e-reader until you’re ready for a serious read. Get it out whenever you feel you’ve fallen into a rut with your habits or you find you’ve tired of the flimsy, the formulaic or the easy ride. 

PRODIGAL SONS (Leaving Las Vegas?)

 

‘If you’re gonna strike out, go down swinging.’

 

Mike Miner has pulled off something really special with his novel Prodigal Sons. He’s put together a story that beautifully explores addiction and its consequences, not only for those who are afflicted but for those who are hurt and damaged by their actions.

 

The sons in question are the Flanagan boys, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Though each of them has very different lives, it’s clear that they’ve all been hewn from the same block of wood.

 

Matthew’s our alcoholic. His addiction is causing him to spin out of control and his marriage is the first casualty. His wife moves from LA, where they’ve been living the dream, to Connecticut and the Flanagans senior. Brought into play are the brothers Luke and Mark who are to go on a mission to find Matthew wherever he may have strayed.

As it happens, Matthew is on the road and heading for a binge in Vegas with his new friend and survivor of many a foster home, Tomiko Jones.

 

Each of the brothers’ lives is beautifully explored and outlined with a really broad range of brush strokes. We get to know what makes them tick and, as importantly, what doesn’t.

To go into too much detail wouldn’t do the book any justice at all. I’m hoping that you’ll read this and go out to discover the power and energy of the story for yourself. What I’ll offer is that the journey is captivating, that the pace is perfect, that each time the wrong turn is taken it hurts because there’s so much to like about Matthew and his kin and that the outcome is absolutely perfectly handled. The author creates a huge amount of feeling and empathy for all the main entourage and makes them all seem painfully real.

 

I’d cite the finale as a mark of the author’s quality. So many of the possible endings that I’d predicted would have been a poor fit and I was worried that Miner had painted himself into a corner by creating such a wonderful story in the build up. I should have had more confidence. What happens at the close is sublime and unexpected. The consequences are more profound than I’d imagined and I was moved to the point of tears by its gentle power.

 

This is a seriously good story that should have an appeal that reaches to a wider audience; the book certainly deserves to find one.

 

I adored it.

Voluntary Madness up at the Hemingway House

“Too bad my mother didn’t have a gun. I might have gotten to know her better.”

 

This one opens like a hurricane. Juliette’s a smoking a joint, idly playing with herself as she waits for a suitable victim to flash. Within a tiny space, the chaos of her early life and the darkness of her future are revealed. She’s hooked up with the love of her life, a diabetic alcoholic writer called Punch with whom she has a suicide pact. While they’re waiting for the date of their deaths, they’re supposed to be living life to the full, collecting stories for Punch’s novel. If she thinks it, she has to do it – that’s the rule. It’s like she’s a dice lady without the numbers.

 

In truth, the first chapter knocked me back onto my heels. I just wasn’t really ready to walk in on the situation. That disorientation was a feeling I really enjoyed and what I wanted was more.

 

As the early pages went by, I became a little worried that I might just be wandering through a series of interesting, well-written scenes that weren’t heading anywhere in particular. That sense soon disappeared as my emotional involvement grew quite sharply.

 

On one of their early adventures, the couple break into the Hemingway house at Key West and set to enjoying Hem’s space in every way they can. When a guard shows up and there’s an explosion of reflexive violence, Punch and Juliette worry that their crime will be uncovered.

 

Into her life walks a lesbian white witch called Isis. Isis brings a different kind of love to Juliette and adds a new dimension to the story. It allows Juliette’s vulnerability to come to the fore. In sharp contrast to Punch’s mean spells, Isis is full of warmth and concern. Crucial for me, it meant I no longer wanted the suicide pact to go ahead and shared Isis’s hope that there would be a way to get Juliette out of her way of thinking.

 

The criminal acts of Punch and Juliette become more intense. They’re exciting, tense and unsettling. As they work through their Bonnie and Clyde routine, the date of their death rushes at them (and rushed at me) at a startling pace. The end comes into view and even as the crash is about to happen, I had no idea how it was going to play out.

 

 

From that amazing opening, through those early uncertain chapters and into the meat of Punch and Juliette’s journey together, I was delighted and totally engaged with their world. I really enjoyed the writing style and the whole range of tensions, including the warmly erotic moments. Juliette’s highs and lows seem very real and those emotions seeped from the pages into my pores. I guess that’s what I want from a book – complete involvement and total immersion. A really great read.

 

Voluntary Madness (US) was re-released last month by New Pulp Press.

SOUTHSIDERS

Reblogged from In Watermelon Sugar:

 

 

Southsiders published by Blasted Heath:

 

 

Ray Spalding's had enough of his wife, Paula. He's left his home in Edinburgh's Southside and headed for Belfast. It's safer there.

 

Unknown to Ray, Paula's also had enough of him. She's not going back home. Not now, not ever.

 

Jesse Spalding wakes up one morning to find both his parents gone. And he can't tell anyone or he'll be taken into care.

As time passes and bills need paying, all Jesse can rely on are his wits, his friend Archie and his dad's 1950s record collection.

 

Southsiders is a powerful short novel that follows the spiralling fortunes of Ray and Jesse, pushing father and son to their limits while they struggle against the odds in the darker shadows of two of Britain's capital cities.

 

So far the welcome has been favourable. Here are a few snippets from reviews along with links where appropriate:

 

'Southsiders is defintiely a book that is going to travel by word of mouth however, and it deserves to.  I say this because it isn't a crime thriller, and calling it a family drama does it no justice whatsoever.  At one moment, the pages turn as if it were a taut, issue-driven novel, but when it ventures into the mind of its twelve year old lead, it behaves like a Roddy Doyle-style response to the issues at the heart of childhood.'

Scottish Books

 

'Southsiders plays to all of Bird’s many strengths—the lyrical writing, the working-class characters, the talent for word play (each chapter is the title of a classic rock and roll song). This is a perfect introduction to Bird’s work for the uninitiated—and those who already know him will love it too.' Chris Rhatigan (All Due Respect Magazine Issue 5)

 

'The result is a powerful and in the end happy tale.' Crime Fiction Lover

 

'This was a short but very engaging novel about a young man who finally found that coping by himself was preferable to living with constant fights in a filthy and unkempt home. I enjoyed it very much. If I had to pick a fault it was that I could happily have read a great deal more!' Kath Middleton, author

 

 

 

 

"The prose is tightrope taut and the plotting first class … a tense and thrilling novella" – Crimesquad.com on Mr Suit

 

"Grim, but really good" – Ian Rankin on Smoke

 

Just now it's available for the release price of 99c. 

 

SOUTHSIDERS is available for $1.72 via Amazon just now, as well as from Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Waterstones, Easons and Overdrive libraries.

Sleeps With The Fishes
Sleeps With The Fishes

Here's a Soundcloud audio file for the story Sleeps With The Fishes. It's a rather dystopian tale based around astrology and was kindly produced by Bird On A Wire. You'll find the audio here.

WORM by ANTHONY NEIL SMITH

‘It was like the Wild West all over again, but with smart phones and better guns.’

 

 

Worm opens with an intriguing, rather cinematic set-piece where a number of the main characters are introduced. Three men drive up to an oil-drilling station and the boss, Pancrazio, steps out to meet them. The bikers, members of the Sons Of Silence MC ask for a word with one of the workers, Gene Handy. Handy goes out to straighten things out while his friend Ferret watches from a safe distance. Pancrazio and Handy are very tough people and a visit from a biker gang isn’t going to phase them. Ferret, on the other hand, is a family man who is working for the benefit of his wife and child. Without revealing the outcome of the meeting, I can say that it provides a powerful opening that sets the tone extremely well and which made me want to press on quickly with the rest of the book. As opening chapters go, this is a great example to aspiring writers on how to go about things.

Neither Handy nor Pancrazio are exactly who they seem. Before long, it becomes clear that they have bigger intentions and plan to supply the oil field workers with the drugs they want to help them unwind after a hard day’s toil.

As soon as Ferret gets a sniff of this, he wants in. It’s not that he’s an experienced criminal. He just wants to earn as much cash as he can for that wife and daughter of his. Unfortunately, his naivety means he has no real concept of what’s involved in joining such an operation and getting out isn’t ever going to be as simple as handing in notice to quit.

There are twists aplenty as the trio reveal their true colours and the plot is thickened by the crooked police chief Slow Bear and Pancrazio’s wing men, Good Russell and Bad Russell.

All of this takes place in a Wild West setting. The town is out of control. The workers are after booze and women and there’s a sense of anarchy about the whole thing. The law is weak and corrupt, the oilmen are stir-crazy and powerful and the women here are out to take advantage of their situation in any way they can.

This isn’t a novel that shines a torch on the wonders of humanity. Rather it looks down into the chaos of life and the extremities of existence and refuses to shirk away from the darker crevices. Smith pushes the characters hard and their flaws are ruthlessly exposed. What the depths of this world also does it to bring forward unlikely heroes who emerge from the mire when it becomes deep enough.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and also admired the quality of the writing. Smith does a number of things extremely well. His work on setting is superb and there are at least four dimensions to this world. He deals with a huge scope and a complex plot and yet always keeps control. The dialogue is well delivered and the book is densely populated by brilliant phrases that speak volumes in few words. Add to that the constant surge of the characters and the story-line (even the back story moves forwards) and there’s one page-turning novel that will satisfy the appetite of many a crime reader.

Brilliant Crime Fiction: Uncle Dust

“After enough beers, a leather jacket makes a fine blanket.”

 

This book grabbed my attention immediately. The cover’s fantastic. The title is superb. The publisher is All Due Respect. What more could I ask for?

I guess the answer to that is a story to match.

To my delight, the book did more than live up to my expectation.

I loved Uncle Dust. It’s a noir story of real depth.

Uncle Dustin tells the tale himself. He’s a small-time bank robber, a debt collector, an ex-con and a drinker. He’s the kind of character that you might find in a lot of novels, but author Rob Pierce does a wonderful job of exploring the whole of him rather than making his work the central line of the plot. Sure, there are some great and very engaging set-pieces as Dust shakes down a bank or deals with a failed gambler who can’t pay the bills. There are even some of the wonderful side-shows, like the doctor who’ll patch up a wounded criminal on the sly. I’d have been happy enough with all of that.

What really shines out for me is the way Dust’s relationships are explored.

He’s a fabulous creation, brought up in tough times that have moulded the way he sees the world and caused him damage that puts him beyond repair.

Dust is in a family situation when we meet him. Theresa presses most of his buttons in the way he’d like and her son Jeremy is in need of some direction.

The father-son relationship is particularly well explored. Jeremy is a victim. The only things he seems to be interested in are fantasy card games. Dust is happy to guide him in the direction of becoming tougher, but Dust is unable to keep to any boundaries. When he finds that Jeremy is still in contact with one of Theresa’s ex-partners, Davis, the emotions smoulder and burn. Things become much more complicated when Dust finds out that Davis controls some of the more sinister fantasy games in town and that his intentions for Jeremy may not be entirely pure.

The world is always going to go wrong for Dust. His life is always going to create wrecks along the way. As Pierce drives us forward, what isn’t clear is who is going to get hurt when the next smash happens or just how bad their injuries will be. What makes the book so engaging for me is that it’s impossible not to root for him, which makes his erring judgement really hard to handle.

Uncle Dust is told with a really strong voice. The dialogue is about perfect. The snappy lines and images are a real treat. Dust’s capacity to intimidate is alarming. The story has a number of facets that work really well together. All in all, it’s a really great book. You should try it.

December Reads

December 2014

 

I’ve already posted a review of Steve Finbow’s Down Among The Dead and would urge you to take a look at it. The immediacy of the story and the way a simple life is gnawed away at by an unforgiving past makes this intense and powerful. The book’s as long as it has to be to tell the story and I loved it.

 

Next came Hugh C Rae’s The Shooting Gallery. This one’s published by 280 Steps, a resurrection from days gone by. The book came as something of a revelation and I’ve clearly been missing something in my choice of reading material in the past. It opens with the body of a young man being dumped at a bleakly set hospital in a small Scottish town. Superintendent McCaig and a team of police officers set about identifying the curious issues surrounding the case, one that is complicated by the victim’s connections to society and to local heroin suppliers. We get to see the story unfold from many angles as Rae uses his characters to enlighten. Each perspective is outlined in broad detail and also exposes the personal landscapes of those involved. This novel is a slow burn. Rae describes moods and scenes in great detail and chooses similes and imagery like a natural (He blobbed out the paint until the air bubbles told him it was all gone, then tossed the gnarled tube over his shoulder like a peasant appeasing the devil with a pinch of salt). One the one hand, this is a page-turner of sorts, on the other it’s a book to be savoured. The only downside to this one relates to the errors – some odd words appear from time-to-time and an issue with the occasional lack of opening speech marks was slightly disconcerting. I’ve already stocked up on a couple of other books by Mr Rae and look forward to taking them on later this year.  

 

Following on was a collection of crime novella’s called Russian Roulette: The Konstantin Files by Keith Nixon. This one’s a collection of novellas that work around two main characters, the cool, collected and lethal Russian Konstantin and a sympathetic dominatrix, Fidelity Brown. Konstantin washes up in Margate to lie low and has nothing to lose. He encounters a local gang and deals with them in a quick and brutal fashion. They didn’t stand a chance. Konstantin becomes involved with the lowlife of the local drug-scene and wipes it up with the ease with which a cleaner might mop a floor. Konstantin’s life becomes complicated by the arrival of Fidelity Brown into her life. She needs help in dealing with some financial problems with the local colour. Fortunately for her, and in spite of a sense of caring about nothing, Konstantin takes a shine to her that will see her protected and delving into some of the more complicated issues of her younger days. It’s a hard-hitting collection that will offer plenty to fans of urban crime, dark humour and huge KGB agents who are practically indestructible. My favourites, by some way, were the openers and these alone are well worth the price of entry. Publisher Caffeine Nights promise ‘fiction aimed at the heart and the head...’ and with Russian Roulette they come close to hitting the bull’s eye.

 

Short Story Corner

Chris Rhatigan’s Wake Up Time To Die was published recently by Beat To A Pulp. It’s a collection of stories that have been seen before in many fine places and it makes a lot of sense to bring them together. I read this over the Christmas period and found it to be a real antidote to the sense of over-consumption and indulgence. The opener had me doing double-takes just to make sure I was getting it right. It’s about a man who covets his neighbour’s everything and finds himself taking it all over only to find that protecting his new found success will drive him insane. Story two sees our protagonist walk out on a good thing and decide upon a life of crime that ends with unexpected consequences. Next we’re in the company of Bill Gates (the Bill Gates) as he sets off to rob a local store to get his kicks and encounters a very unusual policeman. Next I was reminded of Gregor Samsa when Rhatigan’s character woke to find a gunman at the end of his bed, the gunman intending to follow his victim around all day. And so on. I found each tale to be unsettling, political, refreshingly honest in terms of the writers’ motivations, superbly written and perfectly rounded off. I reckon you should read it.

Tussinland by Mike Monson

‘I’m a crazy Bosnian rape orphan and I’m out of control.’ – Logan

 

Tussinland is Paul’s favourite place. It’s a world that’s created when he’s downed a bottle of his favourite expectorant, a rosy world of good feelings and happiness, or at least a break from the normal humdrum of his existence.

 

He’s not got a good deal going for him, but that doesn’t make him a bad man. This is extremely important to the book because, as the central character in a world where he’s surrounded by the devious and the broken, he’s someone it becomes impossible not to root for.

Paul’s problems are many. He has to live at home with his promiscuous mother for a start. He’s lost his family and his teaching job. He’s overweight, is addicted to sugary cereal (which he eats by the packet) and has more friends on the TV than anywhere else. These are only minor issues when compared to the main one, namely that he’s the chief suspect in the investigation into the murder of his ex-wife and her new partner.

 

The thing is, the reader knows that he’s innocent from the off. We see it happen at the beginning, Paul’s niece, Miranda, and her boyfriend, Logan, film the killing and then run away with an enormous stash of heroin.

 

Paul is then painted into a corner. As well as the police, the man who needs to get his hands on the drugs is after him as are his Christian fundamentalist relatives who need the cash.

This isn’t just any old story about troubled people who live difficult lives, it’s a very well-written and thrilling adventure where the twists and turns make for a very emotional and ejoyable ride.

 

What I liked most about this novel is the way the characters were developed along the way. They grow into fully drawn people and while it happened my sympathies had to adjust. It’s something that’s hard to pull off and also gives the novel a hugely satisfying depth.

 

There are a lot of great reviews out there for this book and it’s been extremely well-received. I was a little worried that it would let me down.

 

I needn’t have worried. It certainly lives up to its growing reputation and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes to be entertained while they read their crime fiction.

 

A small word of warning, this one’s very specific and graphic at points. If you’re easily offended, this may not be for you.

 

 

Great stuff

Ice by Ed McBain

“Carella had learned early on in the game that if you wanted to survive as a cop, you either took nothing at all or you took everything that wasn’t nailed down. Accept a cup of coffee on the arm from the guy who ran the local diner? Fine. Then also take a bribe from the neighbourhood fence who was running a tag sale on stolen goods every Sunday morning. A slightly dishonest cop was the same thing as a slightly pregnant woman.”

I came across a copy of Ice by Ed McBain on the table of books being sold off by my library. The name’s familiar and the cover interesting, so I figured it was a chance worth taking. I didn’t pay much and the book was worth that at least.

I’m in two minds about it. There are some wonderful aspects to the novel and there are some unappealing ones, too.

It opens strongly with the murder of a young dancer as she returns home in the snow. The key to the killing in terms of the investigation is that the weapon was also used in the shooting of a small-time drugs dealer named Paco Lopez.

There’s a leap from here into a police station, the 87th Precinct. There’s a heavily pregnant prostitute, a cell full of vocal drunks and a cast of police officers as long as the law’s arm. I thought immediately of Hill Street Blues in terms of the feel of the station. What is much more difficult to settle into on the page as opposed to on the screen is the chopping and changing from one place to another. McBain flicks between one point-of-view to another without warning. I found that to be disconcerting and it had me re-reading at several points to catch the change.

This shifting from one head to another carries on throughout the book. I did get used to it, but never really was entirely convinced by the style. It’s not a matter of weaving together separate strands of a story, but it’s more of a scattergun approach.

There are also big changes of pace to cope with. The case of the murders itself is totally engaging, the back-stories and tangents often less so.

In contrast to that, there are some big pluses. The characters of the main detectives are well drawn, particularly that of Carella.

There are also some great crooks. Brother Anthony and the razor slashing Emma are rather special and might well be right up there in the all-time-baddies Hall Of Fame.

Throw in some great lines and a pretty engaging investigation and, in the end, I’m glad I passed that library table.

I enjoyed my visit to the 87th Precinct and I’m sure I’ll go there again, only not in any great hurry.

Southsiders over at Crime Fiction Lover

I did an interview over at the impressive Crime Fiction Lover for my new release Southsiders. It talks about what it's like to be edited by a legend, influences and a variety of writing themes. It's over here.

 

Let me know what you think if you form an opinion.

 

With thanks.

SOUTHSIDERS

 

 

Here's some information about Southsiders, my new novel that has just been published by Blasted Heath:

 

Ray Spalding's had enough of his wife, Paula. He's left his home in Edinburgh's Southside and headed for Belfast. It's safer there.

Unknown to Ray, Paula's also had enough of him. She's not going back home. Not now, not ever.

Jesse Spalding wakes up one morning to find both his parents gone. And he can't tell anyone or he'll be taken into care.

As time passes and bills need paying, all Jesse can rely on are his wits, his friend Archie and his dad's 1950s record collection.

Southsiders is a powerful short novel that follows the spiralling fortunes of Ray and Jesse, pushing father and son to their limits while they struggle against the odds in the darker shadows of two of Britain's capital cities.

 

"The prose is tightrope taut and the plotting first class … a tense and thrilling novella" – Crimesquad.com on Mr Suit

"Grim, but really good" – Ian Rankin on Smoke

 

Just now it's available for the release price of 99c. 

 

SOUTHSIDERS

Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt

Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt

 

“It’s no wonder her husband had a heart attack. If I was married to her, I’d eat nothing but butter and pray the good Lord made it nice and quick.”

 

Tom London owns the biggest restaurant in Lake Castor. He’s married to an influential woman and dotes on his son (in his own particular way). The only fly in his ointment is an ex-wife who wants to get her child back. She’s a problem who needs dealing with.

 

Enter Calvin Cantrell.

 

Jack hires Calvin to kill his ex. He hands over a wad of cash (slightly short, of course) and Calvin sets of on to take the first steps of a journey he’s always wanted to take.

 

His secret desire is to become a serial killer. He’s studied the methods and histories of all of the big names in the field and wants to join them. It will give him a role in life and will bring him the notoriety he’s been craving all these years.

 

To help him along, Calvin decides to take on a sidekick, Phillip Krandall. Krandall’s big regret in life is that he didn’t carry out a killing spree at his high school on the day he took his bag full of weapons into class. The only reason he didn’t do it was that Calvin intervened. When Calvin calls at Krandall’s trailer, there’s only ever going to be one outcome and the pair set off to Texas to do eliminate Jack London’s ex.

 

What follows is for you to find out.

 

I can tell you that Jack’s ex-wife isn’t the failure she’s been described as and that things don’t go as the would-be killers intend. You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out how it plays out and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the way you expect.

 

The book’s divided into three sections. The first focuses on Calvin, the second on Jack and the third on Calvin’s wife, Rhonda. This allows the story to develop in different ways.

There are back-stories to enjoy, there are the foundations to the plot and there is the narrative thread of our new serial-killer. All the way through, the settings are well-described and there’s a strong desire to discover how things will eventually play out. It’s dark and sleazy, but it’s also very entertaining. There’s a subtle humour about the situation and the characters and a decent comic edge to the dialogue.

 

To my mind, it’s the opening section that works the best. Getting to know Cantrell and the surrounding cast of characters is a real treat and it’s here where I felt the dramatic tension worked best. Pruitt does a great job of nailing things down, all the time avoiding the obvious. Just when I thought I knew where I was going, the plot would twist or turn in a new direction and give me something else to ponder. The other aspect of the opening which I think worked well was the way it was possible to find room to root for some of those involved, even though they’re a dismal collection of specimens – for me, that became less easy as the story played out.

 

It’s surprising that this is a debut novel given the quality of the work. Pruitt is definitely one to watch and I’ll be keeping a look out for his work in the future, not that I’d ever like to turn my back on the guy (just in case).  

The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford

“This is what I learned about a story at Mammoth Studios: A likeable and sympathetic hero, one who affords a good measure of viewer-identification, and around whom the story revolves, is faced with the necessity of solving a serious and urgent problem which affects his vital interests. The hero makes an effort to solve his problem, but this only succeeds in making matters worse. (This is me all right). The hero’s efforts all lead to a series of increasingly harder complications. Each new complication is related to the original problem. (This isn’t me, or is it?) Anyway, there is an integrated series of complications which build up in intensity until a definite point or crisis is reached. It is here that the reader cannot possibly understand how the hero can possibly succeed. But now the hero makes one last and heroic attempt to resolve his difficulties, and in every case it must be his own individual efforts that solve the dilemma (s). Under no circumstances can he accept any form of outside aid to make things easier for him.”

 

It’s a long quote, I know, but a great dissection of a type of story-writing. This comes from the narrator of our story, a successful car salesman called Richard Hudson.

 

The opening has Hudson watching a used Los Angeles car lot that he intends to buy. He analyses the pros and cons of the place with ruthless application and proceeds with his purchase for the business. It’s a classy, beautifully written beginning that really sucked me in completely. Like the quote above says, we have our sympathetic hero with whom we can identify.

 

From there, we’re transported into an analysis of the art of story-telling in the film world. It’s a little unsettling, but it’s not long before the thread of the narrative is resumed.

Essentially we have a tale being told in flashback. It’s a great way of grabbing attention and sows the seeds of tension because we know we’re heading for some kind of fall.

 

Hudson moves back in with his eccentric mother and family. He spends a lot of time with his step-father, a genius of cinema who has lost his way. As they hang around together, Hudson realises that he needs something to fill the emptiness of his life and the creation of a film seems to be the obvious thing for him to do. He has an amazing knowledge of cinema and his step-father allows him an insight that many script-writers might die for.

 

The creation of the film and the obsession of the writer are gripping. There are many occasions when I wanted to leap in and offer advice - after all, I know already that things aren’t set to end well.

A huge amount of the book is absolutely brilliant.

 

What lets it down a little is Hudson’s determination to do things his own way. He wants to do something that is out of the ordinary and he can’t bear the interference of the man at the top who wants control of the piece. His obsession turns into a kind of madness and in this madness lies his downfall. The problem for me here is that the book also works to its own calamity of an ending and for me Hudson had become so despicable that I didn’t care a hoot for him anymore. He was no longer my slightly flawed hero, but had turned himself into the villain of the piece. While I’m sure that was deliberate, there was something about it that felt a little disappointing. Maybe if I’d realised earlier what a toe-rag the man was (and there were plenty of serious clues, believe me), I might have read in a different way.

 

Willeford certainly tells an incredible story with great flair and skill. The voice and the whole situation are brilliantly done. Because of that, I’m slightly disappointed in myself for not loving the entirety of the book to pieces. This one’s definitely worth a read and I’m sure will ignite a whole batch of questions for you as a reader.