Saturday, April 22, 2017

Improvisation and instinct

‘What’s taking so long?’

‘Nothing. Just be ready to get out of here.’

The van was parked in front of the bank.

‘I don’t like it. God knows what Lonny’s likely to do.’

‘He knows what he’s doing.’

‘Yeah, right. Lonny’s all improvisation and instinct.’

A large man tumbled through the bank’s doors, dragging a middle-aged woman.  From inside came the sound of gunfire. Two more men exited wearing balaclavas.

The side-door slid open. 

‘Who’s she and where’s the money?’

‘She is the money! Well, bank manager. We’re kidnapping her.’

‘That wasn’t the plan, Lonny.’

‘Well, it is now. Go!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (2009, Pocket Books)

Moscow, 1956. Leo Demidov, former MGB officer, now heads up a homicide division. The new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, has denounced the hard-line of Stalin in a secret speech that has been widely circulated and has promised reform.  Millions have been complicit in carrying out Stalin’s purges and millions were executed and sent to gulags.  Leo has personally arrested hundreds of people, many of them guilty of little more than trying to survive a brutal regime.  Khrushchev’s speech threatens to destabilise the Soviet system and someone seems intent on exacting revenge against those in power.  Leo, his wife Raisa, and their two adopted daughters are in the firing line. Leo wishes to atone for his part in wrecking lives, but not at the expense of his family. To save them he must undertake a hazardous mission, first to the gulags of Siberia, then to revolutionary Hungary.

The Secret Speech is the second book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.  After his exploits in Child 44, Demidov is now running a homicide division.  He can’t break free of his MGB days, however.  One of those he arrested and sent to the gulags is using the ‘Khrushchev thaw’, in which the new leader seeks reform and to the hard-line actions of the State, and their early release to target those responsible for their incarceration.  Leo and his new family is top of the list for reprisals.  Smith uses this revenge premise to construct a wider political thriller in which Leo, in order to save his family, becomes an unwilling participant in a larger plot.  There’s certainly a lot going on in the tale, including a potted history of Khrushchev’s failed reforms, the savagery of the gulags, the parallel criminal underworld in the Soviet Union, and the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian rising, with Leo trying to navigate each to stay alive and rescue his kidnapped daughter.  While there’s plenty of action and tension, the story becomes ever-more unbelievable as the tale progresses. Both the political thread and the Leo’s quest become ragged, staged and driven by plot devices.  Leo not only survives the first hundred pages or so, but somehow has ninety-nine lives despite the numerous life-threatening scrapes he finds himself in.  The result is a Hollywood blockbuster that hides a tenuous plot with violence, melodrama, political intrigue, and a series of mini-cliffhangers. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999, Sceptre)

Harry Starks is a fearsome and fearless London gangster in 1960s London who courts a legitimate front through his Soho club, The Stardust, and his friendship with minor celebrities and politicians.  Openly homosexual, he’s always a young man in tow from whom he expects loyalty and affection.  Running the seedier side of the Swinging Sixties – strip clubs, rent boys, porn shops, long firm scams – Harry does deals with bent coppers and terrorises his staff and victims while outwardly projecting charm and generosity.  Arnott reveals Harry’s complex nature through the stories of five people who spend significant time in his company – Terry, a rent boy; Teddy Thursby, a gay politician; Jack the Hat, a drug-addled gang member; Ruby, a failed film star turned strip-club manager; Lenny a sociology lecturer – charting the gangster’s rise and fall from the mid-60s to late 1970s.

The Long Firm was the first instalment in Jake Arnott’s London gangster trilogy that spans forty years.  The story charts the exploits of Harry Starks, a charismatic and violent gang boss who runs a series of rackets fronted by legitimate business interests.  Rather than tell the story from Starks perspective, Arnott provides five snapshots through the eyes of five people who become part of Harry’s world for a time, each manipulated by him for his own ends: a rent boy turned boyfriend; a politician turned company director; a gangster who’s fallen out of favour with the Krays; a failed film star turned strip-club manager; a sociologist turned advocate.  While breaking the tale into five separate accounts that occasionally intersect disrupts the overarching story arc, it’s an effective strategy for revealing Harry’s complex nature.  Each account is well told with a distinct voice and crafted prose, though they vary a little with regards to how compelling each is with the latter three having a stronger hook and thread in my view.  Nonetheless, the attention to detail throughout is excellent, with a keen eye for social and fashion trends, made more realistic through the use of real life characters of the time such as the Kray twins, Tom Driberg and Judy Garland.  The final instalment, with its discussion of sociological theories prevalent in the late 1960s and 1970s, is particularly well done.  Overall, an interesting literary, character-driven crime novel, that excels in capturing in the essence of a ruthless, cunning gang boss and the dark underbelly of Swinging London.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

This weekend I have been mostly sleeping and reading.  After a week's trip to Boston, followed by a short hop to Glasgow, it seems the batteries are pretty flat.  Between naps I've been working my way through Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech and working out what books I want to order to replenish the TBR pile.

My posts this week
Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker
Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper

Saturday, April 15, 2017


A siren wailed, approaching at speed. 

Karl tumbled from the bed, scrabbling for shoes.

The curtains lit up blue.

Jackie must have blabbed. 

He bolted for the rear of the house as the car drew to a halt. 

The back door was locked, the old kitchen window was boarded shut. 

Something heavy hit the front door. 

‘Karl!’ Sheriff Jenkins yelled.  ‘Open-up!’

‘Shit!’ Karl tugged at the window board.

‘Karl, we made a deal!’

‘And you double-crossed me!’

‘And you triple-crossed.  You’re a dead man.’

The door splintered at the same time the board tore free.

Karl leapt into the darkness.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker (1975, Dell)

Boston PI Spenser has been hired by the Red Sox to investigate whether their star pitcher, Marty Rabb, has been throwing the occasional game.  Posing as a sports writer, Spenser starts to poke his nose into the affairs of the franchise.  He soon starts to suspect that all is not well in the Rabb household. In particular, there’s something a little out-of-kilter with Marty’s wife Linda.  With a little digging it Spenser discovers that Linda has a shady past; enough to attract the attention of a careful blackmailer.  And that blackmailer is not happy to have Spenser nosing around.

Mortal Stakes is the third book in the Spenser series (that ran to 39).  In this outing, Spenser is investigating the possibility that Red Sox baseball games are being fixed.  He quickly hones in on the potential vulnerable point in the life of salt-of-the-Earth, star pitcher, Marty Rabb.  It seems that a manager’s suspicions are correct, but rather than confirm the rumour and close the case Spenser prefers to help Rabb and his wife fix their problem and give them a second-chance.  That brings him into conflict with a ruthless blackmailer.  Parker tells the tale in a no-nonsense fashion.  There are no major twists or misdirection, and limited use of plot devices.  Rather the tale is just a well-told straightforward, linear PI investigation - Spenser spots a clue and then tracks down an answer.  The story moves along at a fair clip, with a series of tension points, and there’s a nice sense of time and place (Boston in the mid-1970s).  Overall, an enjoyable, uncomplicated PI tale.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper (1920, Hodder)

Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond is finding it difficult to adjust to civilian life after the First World War.  Seeking adventure he places an advertisement in a newspaper offering to tackle tasks that would provide excitement.  Among the many responses he receives is one from a young woman who suspects that her father is being blackmailed by a dangerous criminal.  Drummond quickly determines that the woman might be right, but the case is far more complicated involving an international conspiracy.  He also decides that the woman is right for him.  While conducting a world-wind romance, Drummond takes on a motley gang of criminals intent on wrecking Britain politically and economically, masterminded by the enigmatic and ruthless Carl Peterson.

Published in 1920, Bulldog Drummond was the first book in a series of ten books featuring the adventures of Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond and his on-going semi-gentlemanly tussle with criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.  It’s ‘boys adventure’ fare, with Bulldog acting as the chivalrous white knight saving and falling in love with a young woman, rescuing a tortured American millionaire, while tackling a ruthless criminal and his gang.  It is very much a story of its time in two ways.  First, in terms of its telling, with very stilted dialogue and staged scenes.  Second, it is full of the social protocols and class relations of the age.  The story is kind of ridiculous, especially the duelling relationship between Bulldog and Peterson, who rather than simply killing one another when one gets the chance sets a trial and the chance of escape.  It all got a tedious pretty quickly despite the endless japes.  Except for being stuck on a plane with no other book it’s unlikely I’d have completed it otherwise.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a long week in Boston.  I've had full days of meetings and conference sessions since getting here. Friday in particular was busy as I was in five concurrent sessions from eight in the morning to seven at night, followed by a work meal.  This is my favourite photo from the event, from a panel late yesterday afternoon.  The 'disinterested Winston Churchill' look is one I might try and cultivate.

My posts this week
Long Black
Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Long Black

‘I’m worried about that bag.’

‘Which bag?’

‘That bag over by the milk.’  Keith snaked out a long arm.

A suitcase was standing by the counter, the nearest person a few feet away.

‘It’s been there ten minutes.’

Keith headed towards the other patrons and started to quiz them.  Nobody claimed ownership.  Most shrugged, unconcerned.  A couple left.

A man appeared and grabbed the handle.

‘Where the fuck were you?’

‘The toilet.’

‘Literally taking the piss, you idiot!’

‘It’s a coffee shop.’

‘In central London.  D’ya really think the only Long Black you’re likely to get here is a coffee?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2017)

Belfast 1988.  A recent returnee to Northern Ireland, a local drug-dealer, is found dead.  He’s been shot with a bolt from a crossbow in front of the house he shared with his Bulgarian wife.  Detective Sean Duffy returns from a holiday in Donegal to investigate. A few days earlier another man survived a similar attack. It seems as if local paramilitaries are actively policing drug-dealing in their area. Duffy keeps scratching at the case despite being directed to ‘yellow file’ it. Eventually his persistence starts to pay dividends, but it also brings a visit from Internal Affairs and attracts the attention of the IRA. If IA doesn’t push him out of the force, then the IRA might push him out of existence. To add spice to a difficult case, his partner has decided to seek a temporary break in their relationship, taking their young daughter with her. Duffy is not easily phased, but the stakes at work and home have got him worried.

There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly is the sixth book in Adrian McKinty’s excellent Sean Duffy series set in Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. In this outing, Duffy has settled down with his partner and has mellowed a little after the birth of their daughter. His work life is just as difficult as ever. Being a Catholic cop and head of Carrickfergus CID at the height of the Troubles is challenging; more so when you have a streak of intransigence and bloody-mindedness and want to solve every crime and have the wits to do so. In this case, Duffy seeks the killer of a local drug-dealer which brings him into the orbit of paramilitaries who ‘police’ local areas. As usual he manages to rub his own colleagues and powerful people up the wrong way, with potentially deadly consequences.  As with the other books, the characterisation, sense of place and time, intertextuality, and prose are excellent.  Duffy and his colleagues are three-dimensional characters and the dialogue throughout the story sparkles.  In addition, the pacing and plotting is very nicely done, with tale working its way to a tense denouement without the need for obvious plot devices.  The result is a wonderful addition to the series.

Monday, April 3, 2017

March reads

Quite a mixed month of reading with two standout books, Redemption Road by John Hart and The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell.  The latter was my read of the month.  An interesting plot, with a telling that made me laugh out loud several times.

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell *****
The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner ****
Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea ***
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet ***
The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax ****
Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith ***.5

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I gave talk on Wednesday from a replica of the ballroom stairs on the Titanic in Belfast.  Given that while I was talking Teresa May was announcing the triggering of Article 50 it felt quite apt.

My posts this week

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
Fulbright award for Aoife Delaney
So starts a perfect day 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

So starts a perfect day

‘I’m tired, Joe.’

‘Another a minute.’

‘You’ve been saying that for the past half-an-hour.’

‘Here we go.  It’s coming.  Open your eyes, Daisy.’

‘I need to sleep.’

‘You’re missing it.’

Daisy rolled over onto her side.  ‘Big deal.’

‘It’s starting.  Oh, wow.’

‘This better be worth it.’  Daisy pushed herself up.

Peaking above the horizon was a slither of sun.  Its golden light danced across the lake; the leaves on the trees tinged with honey.

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘Worth staying awake for.’

‘Come-on,’ Daisy said, standing, starting to pull off clothes.

‘What are you doing?’


‘So starts a perfect day.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of Dead Skip by Joe Gores (Mysterious Press, 1972)

Former boxer, Bart Heslip, is working a repo-man for Dan Kearny Associates, a private investigation firm in San Francisco.  After dropping off a car late at night Heslip is attacked from behind, put in a car, and rolled over the side of a hill, leaving him in a coma.  While the police conclude that he was drink driving and lost control, his colleagues disagree.  Heslip’s close friend, Ballard, sets himself the task of running down the attacker within 72 hours.  He suspects it must be related to one of the many cases that Heslip was working on, but working out which one and then locating them is not going to be straightforward.

Dead Skip, first published in 1972, was the first book in the Dan Kearny Associates series that charted the work of a private investigation company in San Francisco.  Gores worked as a PI for twelve years and his knowledge of how to track down people and property is evident in the story.  In this case an employee of DKA is attacked and left in coma, the crime crudely faked as a road traffic accident.  A young investigator, Ballard, hunts for the killer, aided by Kearny himself.  The strength of the book is in the procedural elements and the pacing.  Gores keeps the prose tight and focused on the action.  The result is a story that moves along at a fair clip, but somewhat at the expense of characterisation, which is mainly inferred from behaviour and dialogue.  Moreover, there is little in the way of backstory – in many ways, the storytelling is like a television script.  The plotting is nicely done, with Ballard unearthing new clues and chasing an elusive killer, though I wasn’t quite convinced by the denouement.  That said, it was an enjoyable, quick read.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of Redemption Road by John Hart (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

Elizabeth Black is a tough cop living with a dark secret that draws her to over-protect vulnerable children.  When rescuing a young girl who has been abducted and raped by two black suspects she pumps 18 bullets into the pair, include joints and genitals.  Now she’s being pursued for excessive violence and torture of suspects.  Ex-cop Adrian Wall has been suffering torture at the hands of a prison warden and guards while serving 13 years for the death of a local woman.  He’s always pleaded innocence, but only a handful of people believe him, including Elizabeth.  On the day he’s released, Gideon – another of Elizabeth’s young charges and son of the murdered woman – seeks out Adrian with the intention of shooting him dead. Instead Gideon ends up in hospital. The following day another woman is found dead in the same place and laid out in the same way as the victim Adrian was convicted for.  Attention is quickly focused on the newly released convict, despite Elizabeth’s best efforts to intervene.  And not only does Adrian looked doomed, but it looks likely that she’ll also be heading for prison. 

There’s a heck of a lot going on in Redemption Road.  John Hart has interwoven two main storylines and their various subplots together to create a multi-layered tale.  The pacing is at a quick tempo, with barely a pause for breath, and there are multiple mini-cliffhanger moments that keep the pages turning. Indeed, the story is full of tension and to a certain degree is relentlessly grim – there are very few light moments in the book, in fact it is to a large extent a litany of people being fairly horrid to one another.  At a few points I had to put the book down and go and get some fresh air before inevitably being drawn back to wanting to find out what was going to happen next.  Amazingly, given how much plot is crammed into the 400 odd pages, the story does not feel forced or overly reliant on plot devices.  They’re there, of course, but storytelling is no nicely done that they don’t feel contrived or over-egged.  Perhaps inevitably given how many crime fiction books I’ve read I’d pegged the murderer fairly early in the tale and it was reasonably well telegraphed as to how the story would resolve.  The characterisation is very nicely done, with good interactions between the characters.  And the prose is expressive.  The result is a kind of literary redemption, serial killer tale with a hell of a lot more going on than the average literary tale. Grim but good.