Thursday, December 31, 2015

Review of The Getaway by Jim Thompson (1958, Orion)

Doc McCoy is a career criminal.  After his wife, Carol, manages to bribe the chair of a patrol board and springs him from jail he sets about arranging his next heist with Rudy ‘Piehead’ Torrento.  The robbery of the Beacon City Bank goes according to plan, leaving the security guard and their accomplice dead.  However, McCoy and Torrento immediately fall out, with the latter shot and left for dead.  McCoy and Carol head west, aiming to get to California.  Their journey though is full of mishaps.  With the cops and a vengeful Torrento on their trail, the question is whether they can escape to Mexico with their loot?

The Getaway is considered a classic heist novel and has been adapted for the big screen a couple of times.  The premise is straightforward.  A gang of four criminals successfully heist a bank then immediately fall out and set upon each other.  One is left dead before they have even left the bank.  Doc McCoy, the gang mastermind, and Rudy fight and separate not far out of town.  McCoy and his wife, Carol, take flight, but her lack of experience and Rudy’s murderous pursuit soon derails their plans.  Moreover, despite their continued devotion, a seed of doubt and suspicion has been planted in the mind of each.  Thompson keeps the pace high, with plenty of action and twists, while also exploring the evolving relationship between Doc and Carol.  The result is an engaging and tense read that delivers both the spills and thrills of a heist and chase and the psychopathology of those involved.  The weak spot, however, is the ending which swivels ninety degrees into an entirely different register.  It might be literary and allegorical, but felt entirely out of place.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review of Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason (Harvill Secker, 2014)

A relatively new recruit to the Icelandic police force, Erlendur works nights as a traffic cop dealing with drunk drivers and accidents, domestic disputes and street fights, robberies and whatever else comes his way.  One evening he pulls a dead homeless person from a shallow pool.  The case is ruled suicide and soon forgotten by all but the stoic cop who isn’t convinced by the verdict and becomes obsessed with uncovering the man’s life and death.  Aware that a local woman disappeared on the same weekend, Erlendur becomes convinced that there might be a link between the two cases.  In his spare time he slowly pieces together the lives of the homeless man and missing woman.  However, rather than telling his bosses of his discoveries he keeps his investigation a secret, reluctant to lose control of his quest and to unnecessarily smear the memories of his two victims.

Reykjavik Nights is a prequel to the popular Inspector Erlendur stories, set not long after he starts to work for the police.  Already obsessed with missing persons or the lives of those that drop out of ordinary society, he is drawn to the cases of a homeless man found drown and a local woman who has vanished.  Despite having no mandate to investigate either case, Erlendur patiently seeks answers.  Given his lack of experience he is somewhat naïve and hesitant, feeling his way by instinct.  As with the other books in the series, Reykjavik Nights is as much about Erlendur and Icelandic society as it is the cases.  Indeed, the cases are quite mundane and straightforward but what makes them interesting is Erlendur’s attempt to tackle them.  Oddly, that in itself is quite mundane with few tension points, but Indridason somehow makes its engaging.  I think this is do with an evenly paced plot and the cadence of the prose – one is soon caught in a steady moving stream with pleasant scenery, with a few eddies but no rapids or waterfalls.  The result is an enjoyable police procedural with an inevitable but satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review of The Music Lovers by Jonathan Valin (1993, Dell)

An avid record collector, Leon Tubin is convinced that a member of the Cincinnati stereophile’s club has stolen thirty five of his most prized and valuable LPs.  He hires private investigator Harry Stoner to investigate.  It seems like a straightforward case, but Leon’s beautiful wife seems oddly out of place, there’s thirty thousand dollars hidden in their freezer, and his friends are an eccentric bunch and deny raiding his music collection.  Then Leon is badly beaten and his wife kidnapped and Stoner has his work cut-out to try and track her down and return her safely home. 

The Music Lovers is a private investigator tale in the classic American tradition.  Harry Stoner is hired to recover some valuable records by an odd couple – a rather weedy, unattractive college lecturer and his bombshell wife, a former band singer.  What seems like it might be a routine case quickly becomes something much more murky and dangerous.  Using his wiles and tough guy act, Stoner has to solve the puzzle and do battle with a bad guy.  It all feels a bit ‘colour by numbers’ but Valin plays the trope well providing a breezy and entertaining narrative and populating the tale with a mix of engaging characters.  The result is tale that is enjoyable but lacking substance and edge.    

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950, Penguin)

Guy Haines is an architect travelling to Texas to seek a divorce from his young, wayward wife.  Charles Anthony Bruno is a rich man of leisure journeying on the same train to meet-up with his mother.  Charles is consumed by the idea of committing the perfect murder and spends part of the trip trying to persuade his compartment companion to trade slayings – Guy’s wife for Charles’ father.  Guy isn’t interested; he wants a divorce not a death.  However, Charles becomes obsessed with the idea and when Guy’s wife tries to delay the divorce and Guy gives up an important commission he takes matters into his own hands.  His action drags Guy into an unwanted obligation and despite his best attempts to move on, Charles haunts his life.

Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel.  At its heart is a simple but effective premise – if two strangers swap murders they can potentially commit the perfect crime.  To give the tale a twist, she makes one of the strangers very keen to ensure the Faustian bargain is struck and the other a very reluctant participant.  And while one has something to gain, the other has a lot to lose.  Highsmith neatly manoeuvres the pieces into place, binding the two strangers together, and then ratchets up the psychological tension first with respect to the murders, then the fear of being discovered and the fear of each other as their lives become ever more entwined.  It’s a nicely put together tale, though some of the plot devices are quite weak, such as Guy giving up an important commission.  My main issue, however, was the characterization.  Charles is somewhat one-dimensional and Guy just seems to act as a foil for Charles and the plot.  Nonetheless it has an interesting hook, is an engaging story, and it’s obvious why it appealed to Hitchcock for a movie adaptation.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I hope you had an enjoyable Christmas.  In between playing with the dogs in the lashing rain and sleet, eating, reading and watching TV, I spent a chunk of the week making revisions to the current work-in-progress.  It's slowly taking on a new and better shape. 

My posts this week

Review of Rough Riders by Charlie Stella
Review of Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney
This is from Santa?

Saturday, December 26, 2015

This is from Santa?

Frankie tore the wrapping paper and stared at the doll.  ‘This is from Santa?’

‘Where the hell did you get the presents, Tom?’ Jane asked.

‘The elves must have made a mistake,’ Tom said to his son.  ‘I bet there’s a girl a block over opening a transformer.’

‘More like opening nothing at all,’ Jane muttered.  ‘Jesus, you stole a kid’s Christmas present.’

‘How was I to know it was friggin’ doll?’

‘You’re missing the point.  You left some poor kid without presents.’

‘I guess you don’t want yours, huh?’

‘I want you to take them back, you callous bastard.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review of Rough Riders by Charlie Stella (Stark House, 2012)

James Singleton, living as Washington Stewart, has spent ten years in the FBI witness protection program in North Dakota.  He’s still involved in crime, though now he has the Feds to protect his back.  Wanting a new life free of his shackles he’s finally found a payday big enough to skip the country – a haul of heroin smuggled into the country through a local air force base.  In exchange for murdering the cheating wife of a crooked colonel and selling the heroin he’ll get a free air ride and half the profits.  Before he departs, however, he wants to tie up a few lose ends, including arranging the death of Eddie Senta, the man responsible for his disfigured face.  The hit goes wrong and another of Singleton’s old enemies, former NYPD Detective Alex Pavlik, is soon on his trail.  The police are also becoming concerned at the spike in the local murder rate.  Singleton remains unphased, knowing that the Feds will keep protecting him and delighting in dishing out his own version of rough justice.

One of the back cover blurbs describes Stella’s writing as a mix of Elmore Leonard and George V Higgins.  It’s a high compliment, and though not unwarranted, I think does Stella a bit of a disservice for he has a style all of his own: multiple intersecting narratives, a couple of dozen lead characters, tightly written prose and crisp, punchy dialogue, plenty of action, and a plot that rattles along like a runaway train.  It’s fair to say that there is a heck of a lot going on in the 250 pages of Rough Riders.  It’s a testimony to Stella’s writing that despite the somewhat convoluted plot that the whole thing hangs together well and that I never got lost across the various narratives and characters.  Indeed, where the story excels is with respect to the characters and their interchanges.  Stella populates the story with a whole variety of low-level criminals, cops, and civilians, each one vividly portrayed.  My only critique really is that it was a little too condensed; kind of like a six part series crammed into a movie format.  And while I sometimes conclude reviews by saying the book would make a good film, this one would make a terrific TV serial.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review of Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney (1991, Canongate)

After the death of his younger brother, Scott, Laidlaw decides to take a week’s break from the Glasgow police force to do a little private investigating.  Scott’s death seems like a straightforward misadventure, stepping drunkenly in front of an unsuspecting motorist.  However, Laidlaw is puzzled as to why his brother would have been so careless.  He therefore sets about trying to piece together a life that he barely knows despite being kin, though nobody else shares his desire to rake over the past.  Moreover, his new obsession is threatening his present relationship.  Nonetheless, Laidlaw has set off on a path of discovery and he’s determined to uncover the truth regardless of consequence.

Strange Loyalties is the third book in the excellent Laidlaw trilogy (you can find my reviews of the first two books here and here).  Whereas the first two are written in the third person, for this more personal outing McIlvanney swaps to a first person perspective, providing a richer perspective on the complexities and inner reflections of Laidlaw, a man driven by the need to find the truth and deliver justice, but burdened with an in-built self-destructive streak.  What separates McIlvanney’s crime fiction from most is, I think, its literary sensibilities.  While the stories are very much of the crime genre and are dark and gritty tales, they are crafted with prose and are rich in philosophical reflection.  Indeed, the central question at the heart of the tales is ‘what does this all mean?’ rather than simply ‘who did this?’  And so it is with Strange Loyalties, with Laidlaw trying to come to terms with the untimely death of his brother, picking away at questions that no-one wants answered except him.  While the telling is a little stilted at first, it soon finds its groove.  And while it is not the most cheery of tales it is compelling and haunting with Laidlaw seeking a truth that he knows he does not want to know.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I've finally got round to reading a Patricia Highsmith tale: Strangers on a Train.  I haven't seen the movie either, so it will be interesting to compare at some point how Hitchcock interprets it.

My posts this week:

It’s not just you that moves on
How vulnerable are smart cities to cyberattack?
Review of A Song from Dead Lips by William Shaw
Review of The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood
Review of Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
Always running

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Always running

‘They’re getting near, I can feel it,’ Hart said, peeping through the blinds.

‘It’s been nine years.  They’ve moved on.  You need to as well.’

‘The Mob never moves on.  They want me dead.’

‘We’re not moving you again.’

‘I’m being watched.  Two women and a man.’

‘Maybe their swingers.  Or a figment of your imagination.’

‘And maybe they’re ...’ 

Hart dashed to the bathroom.

The blast of the shotgun punched a hole in the door.  The second shot shredded the federal agent.

Hart scrambled through the window and ran for the tree line.

He knew he’d always be running.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review of A Song from Dead Lips by William Shaw (Quercus, 2013)

London, 1968, and a young woman is found dead, hidden under rubbish in an alleyway near to the studio used by the Beatles.  The locals are quick to finger a new arrival in the area, a black surgeon involved in Biafra nationalism.  Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen is assigned to the case and has little time for racist prejudices.  Breen is under a cloud having abandoned a colleague at a robbery who was subsequently stabbed.  While most of his colleagues are reluctant to invest much effort into the investigation, new recruit to WPC Helen Tozer is keen to make her mark.  As the first woman to join the CID team she’s fighting an uphill battle to gain acceptance.  Working together Breen and Tozer slowly make headway, establishing that the girl was a keen Beatles fan.  When two more people end up dead, the case steps up a gear, with Breen and Tozer racing to catch the killer before anyone else dies.

Set in London at the tail-end of the swinging sixties, A Song from Dead Lips captures not only the changes taking place at the time, but also the rump of old conservatism and everyday racism and sexism, the influence of class, and the pervasiveness of corruption within institutions.  Along with context, the key ingredients of the book are its two lead characters and their somewhat awkward relationship.  Detective Sergeant Breen is a principled outsider, the son of an Irish immigrant builder, who is marginalised within CID.  WPC Helen Tozer is an ambitious but rather naïve detective determined to break the glass ceiling.  Shaw surrounds them with a number of other well penned coppers and suspects.  The plot is a relatively straightforward police procedural, with Breen and Tozer fighting their colleagues as they struggle to solve the mystery.  The result is an engaging tale full of social and political commentary.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review of The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood (MIRA, 2015)

When supermodel Polly Carter plummets from the cliffs beside her home on the island of Saint Marie, DI Richard Poole is called in to investigate.  Initially the prognosis is murder, but Poole soon establishes it was murder.  The problem is that the four visitors to the house and her two staff all seemingly have alibis.  Poole and his team set about investigating the death, searching for clues that will reveal the murderer.  Providing a distraction is Poole’s mother who has abandoned her husband in England to join her son in the Caribbean.

The Killing of Polly Carter is the second novel in the Death in Paradise series, a spin-off from the television series of the same name and written by its creator.  It’s very much a modern day take on the classic country house mystery in which a quirky but brilliant detective solves a murder that’s taken place amongst a small group staying in a mansion that’s seen better days.  While the plot has most of the ingredients, it also seems a little uncooked at times.  Part of the issue, I think, is that I never really got vested in the solution or the characters.  While Richard Poole is interesting enough, there’s little backstory provided - for example, we are not told why he’s based on Saint Marie, or why he is living in a beach shack, we just know he's a blow-in from the UK.  Moreover, there’s little character development, with all but Poole being somewhat thin and insubstantial.  It’s almost as if the book is written as an instalment in the series; it’s an episode rather than a movie, with an assumption that the reader is somewhat familiar with the television series and the back plot and characters.  What we’re left with then is the plot, which is a kind of open air version of a locked room mystery in the Agatha Christie mould, with a subplot concerning Poole’s parents.  That was, for the most part, nicely done with all the characters kept in the frame up to the last few pages, though I didn’t really buy the denouement.  Overall, an enjoyable enough police procedural.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review of Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich (2015, Head of Zeus)

The Burroughs clan own and run Bull Mountain in North Georgia as if it’s their own private state, untouched by the rule of law except their own.  From there they run a major shine, pot and meth operation and are fiercely defensive of their territory.  Clayton Burroughs is the black sheep of the family, having become sheriff for the county.  He tries to keep the peace, but when a federal agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms turns up threatening to close down the mountain activities for good he once again has to choose between family and law.  Clayton hopes to broker a truce with his elder brother before hundreds of officers raid the mountain, though he knows it’s an almost impossible task to shift a deeply rooted sensibility and animosity and his actions will further isolate him from his kith and kin.

In Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich tells the story of the Burroughs clan over a seventy year period, charting their various internal rivalries and rise to become a major criminal enterprise.  While most of the story focuses on the present and choice facing the black sheep of the family, Clayton Burroughs, the local sheriff, Panowich provides a multi-threaded narrative that details key events in the family’s past, thus illuminating the present.  The result is an atmospheric, somewhat dark read, told in an engaging voice.  The Burroughs clan is well drawn and there is a very strong sense of place and social relations.  In particular, Clayton is nicely penned.  I thought the first three quarters was excellent: a well-structured, evocative plot and tight prose.  However, the story seemed to derail a little towards the end and the denouement didn’t ring true to me.  Nonetheless, Bull Mountain is a great piece of country noir and I think ready made for a movie adaption.

Monday, December 14, 2015

It’s not just you that moves on

I'd been saving 'Strange Loyalties' by William McIlvanney for Christmas week as a treat to myself.  However, with his recent passing I decided to bring my reading forward a little.  What separated his writing, I think, from other crime writers was an interest in the philosophical.  He would ask 'what does this all mean' kinds of questions rather than simply 'who did this?'  Here's an example that resonates with me as a geographer.

It’s not just you that moves on.  Places move too.  You go back and you find that they are not where they were.  The streets and buildings may remain, with modifications, but they aren’t any longer the places you knew.  The looker makes the looked at and what I was seeing perhaps was a kind of absence, a self no longer there.  I had come into what I took for manhood among these parts of Ayrshire and they had meant much to me, not just as a geography but as a landscape of the heart, a quintessential Scotland where good people were my landmarks and the common currency was a mutual caring.  Why did it feel so different to me today, a little seedy and withdrawn?  Had I dreamed a place? 

Here are my reviews of Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch.  Both excellent reads.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

Another week of rain and flooding.  If it doesn't stop soon we'll need to build an ark.  For anyone who still doesn't believe in climate change, the worsening weather is the big empirical clue that something is going on!  On Thursday I presented my 48th and last talk of the year.  I reckon that's at least 30 too many.  I'm going to enjoy talking mostly to myself until mid-January. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

My posts this week
No longer lost in the crowd? How people’s location and movement is being tracked
Dublin as a smart city?
Review of Lennox by Craig Russell
Review of Future Crimes by Marc Goodman
Was different time

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Was different time

‘When I was seven the summer seemed to last half a lifetime.’  George placed his pint on the counter.  ‘And there was sun.  Now they just seem to zip by in endless showers.’

‘It was a different time.  Was different time.  A year when you were seven was a seventh of your life, the first four of which you barely remembered.  A year now is a seventieth.  Of course, a few months seemed like forever.’

‘You’re saying that time is relative?’

‘I could be, aye.’

A bell rang.  ‘Time please, Gentleman!  And ladies.’

‘It soon will be.  Time, that is.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review of Lennox by Craig Russell (2009, Quercus)

Rather than heading back to Canada after being demobbed, Lennox settles in Glasgow, creating a role for himself within the underworld as a private investigator.  In the spring of 1953 one of the McGahern twins, a pair of vicious gangsters, is murdered.  The second twin wants Lennox to find his brother’s killer, but shortly after he’s also found dead.  The three kings, the crime bosses who run the city’s three main gangs, want the killers found.  The police think Lennox is a likely suspect.  A little probing reveals that there is far more to the  deaths of the twins than first meets the eye.  It seems that a fourth criminal gang is operating in the city and they’re well organized.  Moreover, they’re leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, erasing possible leads before Lennox gets a chance to talk to them.  With the police turning the heat up against the three kings and Lennox, he tries to keep one step ahead of the law and to run down the McGahern’s killers.

Lennox is a gritty PI tale set in Glasgow not long after the end of the Second World War.  Naturally cynical, hardened by the war and tenacious, Lennox is well able to look after himself on the tough streets of the Scottish city, offering services to shady characters, including the three kings, the rival leaders of the main three gangs.  Russell tells the tale of Lennox’s attempt to solve the murders of the McGahern twins in a first person voice that is genuinely engaging and brings 1950s Glasgow to life.  Moreover, the plot rattles along a jaunty pace, with plenty of action, tension, and twists and turns.  The story is all a little far-fetched, especially the denouement, but it little matters as it’s a rip-roaring read.  Overall, an entertaining tale that introduces a tough-guy, wise-cracking PI who has some depth and substance.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Review of Future Crimes by Marc Goodman (2015, Bantam Press)

In Future Crimes Marc Goodman details the dark side of the Internet and networked technologies and the various ways in which they are open to cyberattack and illicit activity.  Drawing on his experience working with LAPD, FBI, Interpol and others, he documents a whole series of real world cases of systems being hacked, data stolen, and software infected with viruses and malware, and all kinds of scams and illegal trading.  The whole book is something of an uncomfortable read given all the vulnerabilities exposed.  While fascinating, the narrative would have been greatly aided by a really good edit: there is a fair amount of repetition, points are over-laboured, the structure seems a little haphazard, and the discussion is often overly descriptive rather than explanatory.  Overall, a somewhat scary read that’ll make you rethink your own online security and behaviour.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

After a slow month of reading in November, I'm gradually getting in the groove again now that a report I was writing has been submitted.  I finished 'Lennox' by Craig Russell on Friday - a gritty PI tale set in 1950s Glasgow - and I'm most of the way through Brian Panowich's excellent country noir, 'Bull Mountain'.  Reviews soon.

My posts this week

November reads
Review of The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald
Swept out to sea

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Swept out to sea

The front door bashed open.  ‘Dad!’

‘Where the hell have you been?’ Nathan asked, stepping into the hallway.

‘It’s Ryan,’ Katie said, soaked from head to toe.  ‘A wave took him.’

‘A wave?  What …’

‘We were taking photos of the storm.  He was trying to get closer to the sea.  One second he was there, then …’


‘By the old lifeboat station.’

‘Ring the police. Then stay here.’  Nathan bolted into the rain and wind.

The sea was a boiling mass of white froth.

‘Ryan!’ Nathan clung onto the railings as an enormous wave crashed over the promenade.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Review of The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald (Wm Collins, 1968)

The Sebastian’s have hired P.I. Lew Archer to find their missing teenage daughter, Sandy.  Archer quickly establishes that Sandy has run away with her imbalanced and wayward boyfriend, Davy.  He tracks them down to Davy's apartment, but Sandy refuses to return home.  Shortly after the apartment manager is dead and the two runaways have kidnapped a wealthy businessman at gunpoint.  Archer sets off in pursuit, discovering a rival hunter in the form of a retired cop.  The case seems to be linked to the death of a hobo under the wheels of a freight train, but every time Archer seems to get a handle on what is happening, a new twist emerges.  Moreover, few people seem willing to help him in his quest to track down his quarry.

The Instant Enemy has a little bit of everything going on in it – blackmail, murder, exploitation, deception, kidnap – yet it’s told in a measured, realistic way without descending into a breathlessly thriller.  Indeed, Macdonald’s functional, sparse and clean but engaging prose adds heft to the storytelling – there’s barely a sentence that doesn’t move the story forward.  The real delights of the story though are the pragmatic, no-nonsense and tenacious Lew Archer, an L.A. based P.I., and the convoluted storyline that has more twists than a slinky.  The result is that sometimes it's a little tricky to follow the plot and re-align mentally how the characters and actions inter-relate as each twist occurs.  Nonetheless, it's a superior P.I. tale that gets better and better as it progresses.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

November reads

November proved to be a slow month of reading.  In fact, I think I posted the fewest number of reviews in a single month since starting the blog in 2009.  Even if I'd read a dozen books I suspect that 'The Long-Legged Fly' by James Sallis would have been my read of the month.

Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott ****
T-Force by Sean Longden ***.5
Winter War by William Trotter ****.5
The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis *****